e-mail me at billdeg@umich.edu



In less than eight hours, 2007 becomes 2008. The self-indulgent nature of blogging requires something in the way of round-ups and lists. Such round-ups acknowledge how pop culture constructs us and elevate the "best stuff" to their rightful (lofty) places. We make these lists and will our judgments to a kind of public relevance. Things that matter to me become things that matter, period. Anyway, a requirement's a requirement, so here goes. No numbers this year.

Films that mattered...

->"Sweeney Todd" and "Once." Two superb musicals. I took more pleasure from "Sweeney Todd" than I did from any other movie this year. Checking out Sweeney at the theater was a classic "communal" experience. So many wonderful geek communities converged: Sondheim fans, Tim Burton fans, kids with crushes on Johnny Depp, goths, and so on. Everything about Sweeney was cool, especially Depp's glam rock-esque delivery. "Once," a romance about friendship, bucked so many expectations. The two protagonists allow themselves to fall so deeply into a hodgepodge of empathy and passion and agape that they can only express in the music they create together. What a toughing representation of collaboration and creativity.

->"Superbad" and "Knocked Up." Believe the hype. Judd Apatow and his creative team deserve all of their accolades. I hope the success of these two raunchy comedies leads kids to DVDs of Apatow's series "Freaks and Geeks," the always hilarious tv show that argued that a VERY thin line separates rebels and nerds. Much of the brilliance comes from how damn funny actors like Seth Rogen, Paul Rudd, Jonah Hill, Michael Cera, and Leslie Mann are in their respective roles. But the writing is the real star of the show. Somehow, both scripts capture pathos alongside raunch.

->"I'm Not There." Another musical, this one less accessible and probably less rewarding. I can see why some dismiss "I'm Not There" as a clever stunt, but the film left me feeling warm for some reason. Warm, perhaps, for the great body of music that Bob Dylan has given the world. Warm, perhaps, for Bob Dylan the artist who--the film seems to suggest--by this point in time is more an "artist" than a "person" even. No film, whether documentary of fiction, can know a person, so this film concerns itself more with letting our blurry understanding of Dylan be blurry. I can't explain how something so blurry could leave me warm and I guess that's the achievement of "I'm Not There."

->"Grindhouse." Like essentially all of the films I've listed so far, "Grindhouse" devotes itself to a vision and sticks to it until the bitter end. I can't believe the DVD splits up the two features that comprise the theatrical version of Grindhouse. The beauty was that Grindhouse created an entire experience: a double feature, fake previews, fake commercials, fake missing reels, fake flaws and imperfections. But nothing's fake about how cool the car chase is in "Death Proof," Quentin Tarantino's half of the double feature. Awesome stuff. If you missed at the theater, you're out of luck.

Music that mattered...

->M.I.A. "Kala." Man, what is this? Is it hip hop? Is it leftist propaganda? Is it post-colonial theory? Is it grime? Is it techno? Is it punk rock? Is it bubblegum? Is it dance pop? A little bit of this, a little of that. My favorite record of the year. M.I.A. samples or recreates lyrical flourishes and riffs from The Clash, The Pixies, and The Modern Lovers on "Kala," moving between so many genres you can't keep up. There's absolutely no coherence here. A chaotic, "punk" musical experience. M.I.A. is a young Sri Lankan woman who mixes radical politics with a pop sensibility. You get the sense that people will be talking about "Kala" more in twenty years than they did in 2007. Super, super cool.

-> The "I'm Not There" soundtrack. Like "Kala," this moves all over the place. Unlike "Kala" (and the film with which this record is a tie-in), it's a remarkably coherent experience. Mostly, this soundtrack features contemporary indie artists covering Dylan songs, some classic, some obscure. This is a recipe for disaster. Dylan's catalog is very familiar, frequently covered, hard to approach, and superior to virtually all artists who try to capture it. "Covers albums" tend to suck. What a surprise, then, that the majority of the tracks on "I'm Not There" have something to offer. The rockers work especially well: Sonic Youth doing the title track, Yo La Tengo doing "I Wanna Be Your Lover," Karen O from Yeah Yeah Yeahs doing "Highway 61." I also really like the contributions from Stephen Malkmus of Pavement fame. Malkmus belts out a pretty faithful version of "Maggie' Farm" and does his slacker-Beefheartesque-drawl thing on "Can't Leave Her Behind" and "Ballad of a Thin Man." It's no Slanthed&Enchanted, but sweet nonetheless. Only a few missteps, like including a version of "All Along the Watchtower." Nobody needs another version of this song. I also don't get the appeal of Anthony and the Johnsons in general, so his rendition of "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" earns the skip button in my book. Finally, Sufjan Stevens (another artist who seems boring to me) allows his "Ring Them Bells" (a song I really like) to adopt an annoying sideshow-calliope effect at the end. Only three missteps on two busy discs of great songs made fresh.

->Jay-Z. "Roc Boys." The "American Gangster" album was good, though slightly uneven, so I'll give the nod to my favorite track from the record. The great soul sample--Jay Z calls it "black superhero music"--creates a 70s vibe. One of the happiest, catchiest hip hop tracks in a long while. Clevel lyrics allow Jay Z's famed "flow" ability to shine, but it's really all about the horns in that sample. Repetition. If you haven't heard this song, find it on youtube and enjoy!

->The Muldoons. Live Shows around Detroit. The most fun you'll have at a rock show in Detroit. Two pre-teen boys playing punk guitar while their dad drums (oh yeah, and he used to play in bands with Jack White and knows just about everybody in the Detroit scene). These kids are what live music is all about: sweating, doing Stooges covers, and trying out moves you've seen your favorite rockstars do. On the latter, the two young lads do windmills, slides...if their allowances were more generous, you get the sense they'd smash their axes at the ends of shows. I've said it before and I'll say it again: one of the great things about the Muldoons in concert is that you needn't feel like you have to front. Sure, there are young hipster types in the crowd, but the frontman's aunts and uncles are there too. So just go be yourself and enjoy great Detroit rock and roll.


year of the musical

Maybe we'll remember 2007 as a year when an unjust and belatedly unpopular war continued to rage. The year of the Virginia Tech killings. A year when few could deny the ravaging effects of de-industrialization in places like Detroit. A year when hawkish, pro-war Democrats bucked it out with each other to challenge one of the "meet the new boss..." white dudes from the GOP. Dark times. And dark times call for pop culture that might be escapist or might just be a big old shiny mirror reflecting the bleak landscape. Yes, the musical.

Was 2007 the year of the musical? Enjoyable and odd films like "Hairspray" (camp at the megaplex) and "Once" (try a little indie tenderness) saw success. I haven't seen "Dewey Cox" or "Across the Universe" yet, but they both appear to offer fresh takes on the painfully familiar: the biopic genre and the Beatles legacy, respectively. And of course the brilliant "I'm Not There," a relentlessly strange personal essay about various versions of Bob Dylan. The only remotely negative thing I can say about "I'm Not There" is that Cate Blanchett's complete embodiment of Dylan in '65 is so good that it ends up overshadowing the rest of the film.

The greatest Year of the Musical artifact of all is Tim Burton's film version of "Sweeney Todd." For those not in the know, Sweeney Todd tells the story of a wronged barber in Victorian London who kills his customers and sends the corpses downstairs where his landlady uses them to make meat pies for her cafe. I could write about the funny and dark brilliance of Sondheim's Sweeney songs. I could reminisce about my high school's production of Sweeney in which I was Beadle Bamford, played in the film by Timothy Spall, aka Peter Pettigrew from the Harry Potter films. I could say something about how Burton and Johnny Depp collaborate to create an entire universe every time they make a movie. Instead, let me say that Burton's version of Sweeney Todd looks at revenge and hate and blood and the dark corners of the soul.

Any adaptation of Sweeney must meditate on desperation, but Burton's version is decidedly light on the comic flourishes (not that Sacha Baron Cohen doesn't bring the funny as Perelli, not that a song like "A Little Priest"--about eating meat pies made of dead clergymen--has lost any of its humor) and heavy on gruesome murder. In a movie, you can get a much closer look at throats being slit than you can watching a play from a balcony. Burton includes a sequence in which we see one bloody killing after another. A musical montage like you've never seen--one in which each body falls to the basement with an unforgettable thud. The whole film is a dark, nihilistic vision. Absolutely beautiful. Johnny Depp famously used Keith Richards as a hallmark for his role in the Pirate movies. Here, he uses Johnny Rotten, looking around with a sneer and a set of bad teeth at a London whose poverty bores him. This is a musical for an era of pre-emptive war and senseless bloodshed and urban blight.



This looks fun and what with heading home to Youngstown tonight, not sure if I'll be blogging much this coming week.

Jan: Tillie Olsen possessed an enormous amount of conviction.
Feb: Detroit: shiny, sleek, and metallic.
March: It's snowing again.
April: In this advanced writing course we will study how activists, community organizers, politicians, religious leaders, and everyday citizens use language to fight for social change. (This elicited a comment from someone selling bongs)
May: Okay, sometimes I'm a bit slow.
June: I've been reading the poet Tess Gallagher's memoir about her late husband Raymond Carver.
July: Growing up, I don't recall doing many patriotic things.
Aug: Talk about a well-deserved award.
Sept: Why does it bug me that the popular press is using words like "fallout" to describe responses to Appalachian State beating the University of Michigan?
Oct: I've probably blogged this thought seven or eight times before, but I'll say it again.
Nov: Wow, haven't blogged in a whole week.
Dec: i work at a diner

will the real prof please stand up?

After turning in grades this morning, I realized how different the two courses I taught this term were. One class had a substantial community service component and philosophically was rooted in a Frerian, critical consciousness, materialist pedagogy. Students completed project-based work with the agency where we worked. The production of text (brochures, executive reports, legislative action plans, etc.) was key--rhetoric as a practice and a civic obligation.

The other course--also an upper-level writing course--took a less public view of language production. We read several whole texts including Alice Sebold's memoir Lucky as well as shorter non-fiction pieces (Sarah Vowell, student work from previous terms) and used writing as a way to engage generatively with those texts. We kept writer's notebooks. We devoted class time to various "pre-writing" tasks and to open-ended discussions of course texts.

Common bonds between the two classes include revision (duh), rejection of the notion that "the essay" rules, (we used multiple genres), and production over consumption (problem- or purpose-driven writing instead of analysis for its own sake). There are some core things that stay constant.

But despite these commonalities and constants, the classes seem to come from different theoretical worlds. I realize that various courses I teach on a term-to-term basis have differences that go beyond just "approach." Sometimes I use blogs. Sometimes "Detroit" serves as a course theme and learning laboratory. Sometimes we read a lot of books. Sometimes we use a pretty traditional "writing workshop" model.

After ten years of teaching (many of those as a grad student--I'm young damn it) I realize that I'm still trying on different versions of process, different versions of student-centeredness, different versions of the whole performance of teaching.


tv round-up

Okay, it's crunch time. Grading papers (almost done!), writing four letters of recommendation, meeting with our service learning partners for end-of-semester wrap-up conversations, hosting party tomorrow night for English Language Studies faculty (I'm making Indian food). What better time than now for a round-up of recent tv consumption?

Big Love. Nicole and I ran into a friend at a Christmas party two weeks ago who we hadn't seen since the same party last year. Good guy. We talked to him much of the night and he couldn't say enough good things about this series which centers on the domestic life of a polygamist and his three wives. We promptly netflix'd the first season and we've already seen five episodes. Like other acclaimed cable shows (Weeds, Sopranos), Big Love highlights the "criminal" and "eccentric" taking place in the most mundane of settings: suburbia. The drug dealing soccer mom. The mafioso who pulls out his hair raising teens, drives an SUV, and goes to therapy. Crime as quirk. Crime not as resistance to bourgeois life but rather as alternate route to success in that bourgois sphere. In Big Love, we gaze upon the upwardly mobile Bill Paxton as the same kind of every-suburbanite.

So the way Big Love tweaks suburban life (and the thin line between mainstream- and counter-culture) is nothing new. More interesting, though, is how the show presents the family's suburban life as a kind of pioneering. Viewers contrast the polygamist family at the heart of the narrative (their comfortable, consumerist lifestyle) with the cult-like encampment (their ascetic, "simple" lives) where the Paxton character and one of his wives grew up. Both lifestyles involve this pioneering ethos: masculine values, work ethic and bootstraps mythology, and westward expansion. The polygamist encampment literally cuts into the western landscape with cabins and tents. Likewise, images of the "Mountain West" loom behind the subdivision where Paxton lives. It's no coincidence that hunting has already figured into the show's plotline. Or that the show references Mormonism's history as a "pioneer" culture. Oh, and Big Love is outstanding, from the pitch-perfect setting to the outstanding performances, especially from Chloe Sevigny who shines as the manipulative, credit-card-loving "middle bride" with a pedigree. Highly recommended.

Biggest Loser. Love-hate relationship with this one. Very few reality shows appeal to me. I don't see them as a sign of the apocalypse or anything, they mostly just aren't my thermos of chai. But the whole weight-loss subgenre is interesting and I watched most of this season of Biggest Loser, wincing most of the way. Okay, I guess one reason I like the show is that I've been fat my whole life. So there's that. Cliche as the sentiment might be, it's good to see a show with men and women of size (and who aren't "funny fat"--see, for example, the usually-male protagonist of many a working-class sitcom). And in 2004, I lost 100 pounds, mainly because 1) I wanted to avoid the heart problems that run in my family, 2) Nicole and I had just gotten life insurance and I weighed enough to up the cost of our policy significantly, and 3) I saw/see the writing on the wall that medical coverage is becoming a privelege in this country and am convinced that there will be portions of my adult life during which I don't have access to medical care, thus a desire to avoid chronic health problems. So I've got an identification with the process of losing weight, too. (Full disclosure: I've gained about 20 pounds back in the last two years.)

And it's an enjoyable show: the human drama, the genuinely interesting contestants, the wacky trainers. Why the wincing? Mainly because "fatness" on the show is a tragedy. A colossal tragedy. It would be nice if just one contestant would say "I've got a rewarding professional life and have been fat my whole life." Or, God forbid, "I think I'm a physically attractive human being and need to lose weight for health reasons." No. Most contestants express little other than pain: I want to be good looking for the first time in my life, I'm embarrassed by my appearance, etc. I don't doubt the sincerity. I recognize that this trauma gives the show it's dramatic trajectory. I can even identify with the struggles (dealing with airplane seats and such). But why no balance? Why no ambivalence? Why no acknowledgment that fatness doesn't preclude professional and personal happiness?

The show wants to put itself on a pedestal when it comes to "good health" (and, by extension, good morals). Family values entertainment. The show that saves marriages and saves lives. How about the waterloading? A practice that involves a contestant who for a number of reasons is safe from getting voted off drinking a couple gallons of water before weigh-in to protect a vulnerable teammate from elimination. Some contestants found the practice to be a sneaky strategy. But nobody--including the trainers--mentioned the health risks such a practice poses. And on last night's finale, one of the "final four" contestants--a professional woman who frequently referred to her teaching career during the season--alluded to having moved to L.A. because she couldn't adjust to life "back home" after her experience on the show. Returning to real life (from the round-the-clock trainers and dieticians one lives with during the competition) seems to have led to a kind of withdrawal and/or depression. No mention of the students who greeted this woman at her welcome home party. No mention of how this abrupt move would impact her professional life.

The laboratory the show sets up isn't sustainable. In this contestant's case, the contrived setting seems to have led to unreasonable expectations (contestants routinely lose double digits of pounds each week). I keep saying "seems" because you never know how editing is constantly manipulating contestants' stories in order to create narratives of trauma, redeption, etc. And, of course, the weight loss itself is a competition, one that fails to account for different body types, compositions, and other factors. For instance, it's no coincidence that a woman has never won the show.

Okay, didn't intend to go on that long. A lot of critique from somebody who watched the show all season long. Like I said, the drama entertains, but, like other reality shows, Biggest Loser is a limited and limiting representation of a complex human situation that is too proud of its own good intentions to problematize itself. I'm reminded of that home make-over show (you know the one, it's got the spiky-haired dude serving as the hyperactive, almost manic host), which never contends with root causes of poverty or contextualizes, well, anything. Is there something wrong with a society in which a disabled Iraq war veteran can't afford to have a ramp put in front of his house? There's no time to ask such a question as the dude's crew turns home improvement into a Mountain Dew, extreme sports commercial. And if you ask such a question, you're not being part of the solution. Pick up a hammer and shut up. Biggest Loser serves a similar anti-activist, anti-critique function. Don't question the industries that profit from people hating their own bodies. Pick up a 100-calorie packet of crackers and shut up.


oh those lists

I'm almost done with revisions to the conclusion I'm writing for an edited collection on the rhetoric of social movements. I've blogged before about how unsatisfying the revision process feels. I love the energy I feel when I write first drafts. Composing rocks my world. Putting brand new ideas and words on the page...THAT is what I absolutely love about writing. Revision can feel slow and plodding and, well, necessary. Luckily, I've got questions from the editors and peer reviewers guiding the work, and I can see the clarity improving and, paradoxically, the ideas growing more complicated. But I miss the adrenaline rush of the first draft.

So I pause and do other things. Partly this clears the head. Partly this is procrastination, pure and simple. I pause the revision and make a list of things I need to do. Some of the things are things that will take fifteen minutes (uploading latest round of interviews with service learning students and e-mailing them to research assistant, registering for RSA). Some of the things will take up a healthy chunk of the break (prepare presentation for Campus Compact conference, assemble materials for tenure portfolio, write syllabi for winter term). The list has 29 items on it. Sheeeet!


Via here.


upcoming rock and roll shows

...that I don't want to miss:
December 15, The Muldoons at Donovan's
December 27, The Muldoons at St. Andrew's Hall
January 27, Supersuckers at the Magic Bag
February 16, The Dirtbombs at the Magic Stick

If I don't write them down here, I'll forget.



I've been conducting interviews with service learning students who spent the term working with a residential foster care facility in Detroit. One event that the students have been referencing over and over again in the interviews: a group of foster kids pretending to look for time capsules and buried treasure in the gardens behind the facility. On a Saturday morning, a group of the students and I were working with several of the foster kids prepping the gardens for the winter (the facility is a Greening of Detroit site and home to one of GofD's urban gardening programs). Just a moment in which kids used their imaginations, but also a moment of hope, a moment of play, a moment that my students are now reflecting on as life-affirming. Not a moment that erases the material realities of residents, but something that's still meaningful, especially for students for whom emotional discourse is a big part of how they talk about civic engagement.

(x-listed in rhetoric of civic engagement)


do puns make yacht rock more desirable?

Yacht Rock: "the highly polished brand of soft rock that emanated from Southern California during the late 1970s and early 1980s. In part, the term relates to the stereotype of the yuppie yacht owner, enjoying champagne and smooth music while out for a sail" (from Wikipedia).

From an e-mail sent to UM-Dearborn employees:

“I Heard It Through The Grape Vine” that Michael McDonald is “Takin’ It To The Streets” at Orchestra Hall in the Max M. Fisher Music Center on Tuesday December 11 at 8:00 pm

U OF M DEARBORN FACULTY AND STAFF and their families and friends may purchase discount tickets.

Michael McDonald of Steely Dan and Doobie Brothers fame will bring his Blue-eyed soul to the Orchestra Hall stage for your holiday enjoyment. McDonald and his ensemble will perform many of his hits plus holiday favorites.

Regular Tickets Prices for this concert are $45.00 to $65.00
Which begs the question: Michael Mcdonald has an emsemble? I'll probably pass. Or, rather, I'll enjoy the "Sweet Freedom" of doing something else on the 11th, even if it means I'm "On My Own" that night. For instance, if there's a movie playing that looks good, "Yah Mo Be There."

eight crazy nights in Jersey

A favorite topic of bad talk radio here in the motor city is "things you want to do before you die." Every few months those wacky morning drive-time jocks pull out this nugget and take calls from dudes who want to skydive or visit every Major League Baseball park in a single season or play eighteen holes with Tiger Woods.

Me, I'd like to experience, just once, Yo La Tengo's annual eight-night Hanukkah celebration at Maxwell's in Hoboken. That's right, all eight nights, live and in person. Of course on any two given consecutive nights, Yo La Tengo offers setlists so surprising, spontaneous, and varied that they make the Grateful Dead look like Hannah Montana. I've seen the band cover Devo and Fleetwood Mac, segue from twenty-minute psychedelic jams to ninety-second punk anthems, and take audience requests that span the group's deep catalogue of originals.

But by all accounts, the Hannukah concerts showcase the band's most sublime sides. They wear costumes. They cook up theme sets (the other night they put together an homage to great Jewish punk songwriters). They bring along guests (Sun Ra! Fred Armisen! Marc Arm of Mudhoney fame!).

Sorry Tiger Woods, I'll pass on the eighteen holes in favor of eight crazy nights with Yo La Tengo. Maybe someday when I'm living a life of leisure (read: if I ever have a fall sabbatical and hence am not knee-keep in student papers come Hannukah time) I'll make it happen.


a poem for Tuesday

From High Adventures in the Great Outdoors by Henry Rollins:

i work at a diner
i don't hate this job
i don't hate anything
i don't know my name
i'm faceless
i look at them
they look at me
i heard about myself in a
bruce springsteen song
i am no one
i am faceless
i don't know what to do
i come here and then i go home
i feel so blank today
am i here?
do i exist?
help me
i am turning to wood.


bloggy moves

Maybe inspired by Massumi's exhortations to let go and get stupid, in my last post I 1) wrote in a fake question-and-answer format, and 2) referred to myself in the third person. In a way these are both blog moves. Not quite blog conventions, but blog moves.

The question-and-answer acts as a close cousin to the 'Frequently Asked Questions,' the idea being that the text itself anticipates and imitates the role of the reader. You have questions. Let me give voice to those questions and then answer them. It's at once a writer-based (presumptuous to know the readers' concerns, to speak for them, and then actually to speak the concerns) and reader-based (let me think about what the reader needs) move.

Referring to oneself in third person. Maybe the most irritating rhetorical move ever! But it's kind of cool to think about who we are when we refer to ourselves in such a way. I'm me but I'm someone else too. I'm a fiction. Sounds a lot like a blog persona.

I don't know how often I do bloggy things--rhetorically speaking--on my blog. I mean I link to news stories and youtube and wikipedia, use subject lines like "Tuesday roundup" or "Friday miscelaneous," but overall I think I'm often guilty of just taking how I normally write in other settings and pasting that mode into a blog. Today I'll write as if I'm writing an entry in a journal. Tomorrow I'll write as if I'm e-mailing a friend about a film I just saw. The next day I'll write as if I'm writing a book review for Teaching English in the Two-Year College. Etc. After 3.5 years of blogging, I'm not sure blogging represents, for me, any kind of coherent, repeatable, or name-able process. Not sure it should.

Likewise, I've never gotten into a lot of the familiar typographical bloggy things:
--The use of strikethrough text to reveal one's snarkyness by pretending one has resisted the urge to snark it up. Rosie O'Donnell is a gasbag has differing opinions. Of course this technique mirrors the old-school practice of crossing something out. And this is a feature in most word processing programs, so obviously not new to blogs. Just used to death there. And used in more of a signifyin' way. I'm snarky; I'm not snarky.
--The use of the word "Um" to express disagreement or point out contradictions and hypocrisies. Rush Limbaugh accuses the Clinton camp of being soft on drugs. Um, hello pain pill incident. I see this on listservs quite a bit too. Um, if you read my message you'll see I never called you an imbecile...
--The excessive use of the word "seriously" a la characters on Grey's Anatomy. I guess you can never have too many ways to express incredulity. Referring to yourself in the third person. Seriously? You can substitute the word "really" if you wish to be less sarcastic. Corn flakes for dinner. Really?
--The use of the verb "fisk." I hate this word (which refers to refuting an argument, point-by-point), though the etymology is interesting (see link). I'm going to fisk that editorial, which is chock full of fallacies. Like Fred Willard in Best in Show says of shih tzus, "that name just rolls off the tongue."

this guy's funny

Q: How can you tell when Bill's working on/under a deadline for a book chapter, gathering last round of data from this term's service learning students, starting to plan his tenure portfolio, reading Big Stacks of Student Papers, trying to understand Brian Massumi, and trying to find time to start this year's Christmas baking?

A: When his blogging doesn't really generate new content so much as link to other things he thinks are amusing and interesting.

Q: How can you tell when his posts are chock full of aforementioned links?

A: When the subject lines all have "this" in the title: this is sad, chew on this, this guy's funny.

Q: Enough with the meta. Who, praytell, is funny?

A: Whoever is responsible for this self-explanatory blog: Since I Started Listening to Jazz.

Q: Do you realize what a long set-up that was to link to some snarky blog?

A: Hey, it's Bill's blog. Keep your critiques to yourself.


this is sad

I just saw the news that Kevin DuBrow of the glam-metal band Quiet Riot is dead at only 52. CNN reports that they were the first metal band to have an album chart at number one. (Really? That Kiss live record didn't top the charts in the 70s?)

Quiet Riot is a reminder that so-called 80s hair metal probably wouldn't be the critically-derided genre it quickly became in grunge's wake 1) had the first wave of such bands (Motley Crue, Quiet Riot) not inspired so many imitators, and 2) had the bands not looked quite so silly, and 3) had the sound not adopted so much studio sheen.

80s Hair metal (the ultimate whipping boy of critics) is basically 70s glam (the ultimate object of affection of critics). Does Quiet Riot's breakout record sound all that different from the first New York Dolls record? Okay, Quiet Riot lacked a guitar player as innovative and distinct as Johnny Thunders and a frontman as memorable as David Johansen. But my point is that one is a critical darling and the other is a critical joke. Bands like Quiet Riot took both aesthetic (guitar-driven garage rock) and ethos (sleaze) from the Dolls as well as T.Rex, AC/DC, Joan Jett, Mott the Hoople, Kiss, the Runaways, Alice Cooper, and Suzi Quatro.

Early hair metal had a sense of humor and a sense of fashion. Early hair metal appreciated that pop music relies on good melodies. Early hair metal took cues from solid antecedents like Brit Invasion groups and 60s girl groups and of course protopunk 70s glam bands. Early hair metal kept lyrical content pretty simple: parties, love, sex, rebellion, giving the finger to the man. Early hair metal was a world that Italian-Americans seemed to rule...so shout out to my fellow sons of Italy!

They just got too popular and became too ubiquitous (the fault of MTV?) to maintain after-the-fact credibility. Too bad, because some of it's just good-time rock music. I mean Bowie and Kiss were huge in the 70s, but there weren't dozens and dozens of Bowies and Kisses. That's the best way I can explain the huge credibility gap. Too many imitators in the MTV kitchen spoiled that soup, I guess.

But there's that studio sheen thing, too. Eventually, the 80s incarnation took itself too seriously. I mean in the 70s Alice Cooper and Bowie both got pretty high-concept and their lyrics went beyond the simple garage themes. But they maintained humor. In the 80s, not so much. In '83, you had Quiet Riot doing Slade covers and rocking out. Awesome. By the end of the decade, you had White Lion doing power ballads and taking themselves way too seriously. Yikes.

But you know what, my fellow readers of Pitchfork? Hair metal lives. My new brother-in-law (he married my wife's little sister the day after Thanksgiving...first wedding reception I ever attended where the dj played THREE (!) Bon Scott-era AC/DC songs) and his friends love it. The shows go on, though at smaller clubs, mostly in working-class white suburban areas.

Anyway, I'm sorry this genre doesn't get more respect. And I'm even sorrier that loved ones lost a young guy who should have had more life left in him.

chew on this...

"Take joy in your digressions. Because that is where the unexpected arises...If you know where you will end up when you begin, nothing has happened in the meantime. You have to be willing to surprise yourself writing things you didn't think you thought. Letting examples burgeon requires using inattention as a writing tool. You have to let yourself get so caught up in the flow of your writing that it ceases at moments to be recognizable to you as your own. This means you have to be prepared for failure, for with inattention comes risk: of silliness or even outbreaks of stupidity. But perhaps in order to write experimentally, you have to be writing to 'affirm' even your own stupidity. Embracing one's own stupidity is not the prevailing academic posture..." --Brian Massumi

Right now I'm in the middle of three different books: _Giving_ by Bill Clinton, _The Golden Compass_ by Phillip Pullman (highly recommended by my friend Steve Climer--not to mention anything the Catholic League condemns must have some merit!), and _Parables of the Virtual_ by Massumi. Today I spent a lot of the day reading the latter. I went to this book because all-of-a-sudden Massumi recommendations and references were flying (from a colleague at my institution, from the blogosphere, from Works Cited pages of stuff I was reading) and also because I'm working on a project in conjunction with my service-learning courses (trying to focus on the teacher-scholar model my school preaches) that seeks to theorize students' emotional investment in / attachment to the rhetoric of volunteerism. It's a text that's proven helpful already...and I'm just starting to understand its assumptions and its vocabulary.

The above quotation is itself a digression, but it also, well, "belongs" there, as a statement of methodology, as a defense of interdisciplinary "poaching," as an acknowledgment that such co-opting necessarily re-vises and "gets it wrong," and as an implicit claim that the aforementioned "wrong"-ness is what gives the humanities its ability to say something that matters. Err, by means of saying something stupid, silly, inattentive, rooted in non sequitor, derivative. I'd like to re-vise Massumi in the ways he advocates and get wrong his theory of the potential of unqualified, pre-discursive feelings, so as to say something (something stupid?) about how my students "feel" civic duty. Hope that I can.


love to eat turkey on thanksgiving

Why is Thanksgiving my favorite holiday? Probably because the day centers on eating. But also because COOKING is so important to Thanksgiving. Two activities that I love. Aside from watching the Lions, telling half-truths about the conquest of North America, and, you know, being thankful, this holiday is all about food. How cool is that? I'll be cooking for a crowd tomorrow--I especially like the dishes that, for us, are unique to this one day: pumpkin squares, frozen cranberry, and sweet potato souffle. Don't forget to make time to listen to Burroughs' Thanksgiving Prayer, introduced to me by Professor Culik like fifteen (!) years ago.


this i believe

Last Friday Bruce Ballenger spoke here in motown at a regional teaching of composition forum put on by a big textbook publisher. He had a lot of useful things to say about how we teach argumentation. In particular, I appreciated a questionnaire he shared that he uses with his students when he introduces research-based writing assignments. These ten questions get at how and why we do research. I'd like to use a version of this with my civic literacy class in the coming weeks.

For each question, the student answers on a 1-5 scale, 1 meaning "strongly agree" and 5 meaning "strongly disagree.

Ballenger had workshop attendees use the 1-5 scale, answering in one column for what we think, and in a separate column for what most of our students think. This activity led to a good discussion of our own perceived gulfs between students and ourselves. Here are the questions.

1. There’s a big difference between facts and opinions.
2. Most of what you read in books is true.
3. Stories that don’t have an ending or clear conclusions are very good stories.
4. Everybody is entitled to his or her own opinion and you can’t say that one opinion is better than another.
5. Most problems have one best solution no matter how difficult they are.
6. How much you get out of school depends on the quality of the teacher.
7. Most words have one clear meaning.
8. When I study I look for specific facts.
9. People who challenge authority are over-confident.
10. Scientists can ultimately get to the truth.



What could have been the best Saturday Night Live in ages won't air this weekend. Michael Cera of Superbad and Arrested Development fame hosts and Yo La Tengo serves as the musical guest. Ah well, shout out to the cast, MC, and YLT for supporting the striking writers.


wpa grants

Anybody out there have any luck with wpa (Council of Writing Program Administrators) grants in the past? I've never submitted a proposal for one and I'm wondering if anyone has any tips. Two UMD colleagues and I plan to write one this year to help fund some work we plan to do in the 'Civic Engagement' sections of first-year comp we're piloting next year.


lyrics clarified

Every music fan has those moments where you realize you've always misunderstood a particular lyric. I like to call those discoveries the "oh, THAT'S what they're saying" moments. I had one yesterday on the treadmill, listening to Dr. Dre's The Chronic. On the opening track, Dre and Snoop Dogg diss Dre's former bandmate, the diminutive, now-deceased Eazy-E, and Eazy-E's svengali manager Jerry Heller. I always heard the line as something like "f--- Mr. Wankertatoo, aka Jerry and Eazy." But now I think the line is "f--- Mr. Rourke and Tatoo, aka Jerry and Eazy," as in the two characters on Fantasy Island. Because Eazy was short. And I guess his manager must look like Ricardo Montalban, or own a mysterious island frequented by celebrities from the 70s. Maybe Dre's saying that the manager makes all his clients dreams come true? But then, that's not so much of a diss.

Incidentally the last such moment also involved a rap song: Jay Z's "Izzo," where Jay sings, "I beat them charges like Rocky." You know, because Rocky beats his opponents? I always thought he was saying "I beat them charges like Rodney." I'm not sure who I thought Rodney was, but there you have it.

How about you? Any lyrics that you misunderstood for a long time and then had a eureka moment of your own?


winter wheat

On Saturday, a group from our writing program made the trek down to Bowling Green for Winter Wheat, an annual festival of writing sponsored by Mid-American Review. Individual sessions seemed uneven in quality, but I attribute that in part to the fact that I'm on the outside of most festival-goers (a lot of recent MFAs). But, as I still write poetry regularly and short stories occasionally and teach creative writing nearly every term, I figured the event would be appealing. My literary tastes diverge greatly from "MFA fiction," work that has a deliberate, self-consciously "good" quality. I like some literary fiction (Jonathan Franzen, say, or Wendell Mayo, who did a reading at WW), but I also love pulpy stuff like Detroit's own Elmore Leonard and of course the adolescent lit genre. And the party line at Winter Wheat certainly supported the "literary" stuff.

One session that stood out in quality and usefulness: 'Writing and Researching Your Family.' A lot of my poetry tells familial stories and the piece I wrote on my great-grandfather taught me more (about class, about Burke, about my family, about how to write an article) than I've learned from a writing project in a long time, so I was very interested in this workshop.

One presenter used genograms to describe the ways that she made sense of various family traumas. The presenter was researching her mother, who spent a long time in prison, and most relatives were unwilling to talk about the subject. She borrowed the concept of genograms from pyschotherapy and, literally, mapped familial relationships using the symbolism of the genogram. Genograms lay out genealogies in ways that articulate emotional relationships between family members. Using different kinds of connecting lines and different colors, genograms account for harmony and love as well as various types of abuse, neglect, and hostility. They are a tool of therapy, but also can be a tool of invention. Has anyone in rhet/comp written about this?

I plan to use genograms in my advanced creative writing course next term. I've never taught the advanced course before and I hoped to find ways to go beyond the tired "character profile" assignment (useful in the intro course, but a bit, well, cheesy). As my students begin to work on fiction projects, the genogram might allow them to create round characters but, more importantly, to think through ways that those round characters interact with others. You can map out non-familial relationships, too, after all.

From Wikipedia,
A genogram can contain a wealth of information on the families represented. It will not only show you the names of people who belong to your family lineage, but how these relatives relate to each other. For example, a genogram will not only tell you that your uncle Paul and his wife Lily have three children, but that their eldest child was sent to boarding school, that their middle child is always in conflict with her mother, that their youngest has juvenile diabetes, that Uncle Paul suffered from depression, was an alcoholic, and a philosopher, while Aunt Lily has not spoken to her brother for years, has breast cancer and has a history of quitting her jobs.


cool list

Taking a break from the chapter I'm working on at Caribou today, I surfed this most intriguing list. The Top Ten Most Important Singles in Detroit History, assembled by Dirtbombs drummer and Metro Times music writer Ben Blackwell. Check it out, and listen to the great music assembled therein.



Who can't relate to this song--one of Sly Stone's best lyrics ever--sometimes? Here are the Dirtbombs performing the Family Stone classic.

Even if you're never right
They get uptight when you get too bright
Cause you might start thinking too much...
I know how it feels when you know you're real
But every other time
You get up and get a raw deal...
I know how it feels
For people to stop, turn around and stare
So go right, don't rate me
I don't mind
I'm the underdog


Brownstein on the Ramones

NPR's All Songs Considered now hosts what looks to be a funny and quirky blog, Monitor Mix, maintained by Carrie Brownstein, formerly of Sleater-Kinney. The defunct Sleater-Kinney played Pacific Northwest punk but, like the much more famous Pearl Jam did earlier and bands like My Morning Jacket did later, they simultaneously wore classic rock influences on their flannel sleeves. And like the early 90s riot grrrl bands that came before them and The Gossip who came after them, progressive, feminist, queer, and body-positive politics played a big role in their lyrical content, on-stage personas, and overall ethos. They proceeded The Gories and preceeded the White Stripes and, once again, The Gossip, in consciously eschewing a bass guitar.

Sleater-Kinney, if I may make a Klosterman-esque pronouncement, were the prototypical mid-period band. Take any definitive Sleater-Kinney characteristic and you can point to a band that shared that trait a few years earlier and a band that shared the same trait a few years later. That's not to say Sleater-Kinney were overly derivative or unoriginal. In my assessment, they referenced arena rock with more verve than Pearl Jam, for instance. They knew how to improve upon flourishes. Plus, they rocked.

Sleater-Kinney's great song was the self-explanatory "I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone," which you can see the band performing a decade ago at CBGB's by following the link. And now Brownstein has blogged about her affinity for the Ramones. So I guess all has come full circle. Brownstein describes losing touch with the simplicity of the band as she moved on to more sophisticated musical tastes:
How had I forgotten about The Ramones? I own nearly all of their albums, I might even consider them one of my favorite bands, but I rarely listen to them. Suddenly this oversight, this forgetfulness, felt disastrous. I think of The Ramones as a starter band, one you have to know, one you have to love, one you have to discover in order for them to lead you elsewhere. But then you go further away and sometimes you forget to ever go back. You find post-punk, you listen to Wire, Gang of Four, The Slits, you find reggae and dub. Then you embrace classic rock, first ironically, maybe at a karaoke bar, and then for real. F*ck this straight-forward punk sh*t, give me prog and wanky solos and post-rock, and soon nothing is valid that comes in under five minutes. When friends or prospective dates ask you your musical tastes, you can't just say, "The Stones" or "The Clash", you have to say the name of the last Ethiopiques CD you bought, or you mention Captain Beefheart, Syd Barrett era Pink Floyd, Candi Staton, Bert Jansch, Thirteenth Floor Elevators, a side project of Wilco but not actually Wilco, the list goes on and on. Really? Really these are our favorite bands? The ones that got us out of bed in the morning on a sunless day?
We all have gateway drugs, no? Not just musical gateways either. In junior high, I loved the paranoid novels of Robert Cormier, especially the horrifying I am the Cheese. And a few years later, classics of dystopic fiction floated my boat (how many times did I read Brave New World?) For me, the definitive musical gateways of my adolescence were R.E.M. and The Smiths. You read interviews and start to chase down stated influences (Pylon, New York Dolls, Gang of Four). And when you get older, as Brownstein suggests, you chase down more cache. And like Brownstein says regarding the Ramones, I own all the albums by the Smiths and R.E.M. Do I listen to them often? Not lately, no. If, say, a student asks me about bands I like, I usually talk about an older band that I discovered later on ("you gotta hear the X-Ray Spex, Kraftwerk, Roxy Music") or a newer band ("The Muldoons are the rocking-est band in Detroit right now"). Less frequently do I talk about, to borrow Brownstein's phrase, "the ones that got us out of bed in the morning on a sunless day."

What has provided the soundtrack for unpacking boxes at my new place? Madonna's "Immaculate Collection," The Kinks' "Village Green Preservation Society," and Chesterfield Kings' "Mindbending Sounds of the CKs." That Madonna record is perhaps the best Greatest Hits collection ever. Cool value? Cache? Prolly not. I really like the sad and nostalgic songs on the Kinks great concept album "Village Green" and "Picture Book" makes me laugh every time I hear the line about "your fat old uncle Charlie, out cruising with his friends." The Chesterfield Kings are an outstanding garage revivalist outfit that's been around for a few decades trying to sound like the pre-Jimmy Page Yardbirds. I saw them open for New York Dolls last year and genuinely thought their cat-like singer was going to fall to his death from the rafters he had climbed onto at St. Andrews Hall. Musical tastes that span the obscure as well as the mainstream, the iconic as well as the ironic, freshen the sometimes-stale world. But why do we forget the gateways? If it's in order to seek out cool obsessions we've just discovered, then great. If it's a cache grab, too bad. More unpacking to do tonight and I'm going to listen to Fables of the Reconstruction and Meat Is Murder.


normalcy, writing

Nice to be getting back to a fairly normal routine. Today I worked on email for about two hours, catching up on communication with students regarding their current assignments, and pouring through messages regarding several committees I'm on. Usually I pride myself on quick replies--this past week, not so much. But I'm back.

Then, a few hours of work on the conclusion I'm writing to an edited collection that a few friends of mine from grad school are putting together on the rhetoric of social movements. The book, which looks to be very useful, uses lenses (communication theories) a bit different than my usual perspectives (neo-Marxist, critical, social constructivist, etc.) to look at issues close to my heart: community/civic engagement initiatives, the class dynamics of group organizing, and much more. In fact, I spent a couple months over the summer re-reading Hauser on vernacular rhetorics and looking for the first time at lots of current research on social movements in communication studies. Nice to move beyond comfort zones.

...But I think the newness--to me--of some of the concepts showed in my writing, and now I find myself re-writing, re-thinking, and re-envisioning what I had hoped my conclusion would "do." I wanted to push at the individual chapters of the book and frame them as moments of class consciousness and intersectional identity construction. Though the editors were pleased, the book's peer reviewers, rightly I think, saw the chapter as focusing on issues of class in ways that shut down other possibilities. So I'm trying to do better and it's slow going. Me agonizing over global concerns and writerly choices is probably a good sign.

Looked over a ms. in progress for my colleague M. Started communication with a big name scholar (to be named later when and if things come to fruition) we hope to bring to our university next term for a few events. Judged a writing competition for the lit mag on our campus. The normal busy-ness, which feels good.

I hope to finish up in the next few hours and get out of here (i.e., Caribou) in time to whip up some chili. If I can get the tv and dvd hooked up in our new place, maybe a netflix selection tonight, too.


check in

Again with the sporadic blogging. I probably don't have a coherent point to make, but a check-in nonetheless. We had a great crew help us move. About a dozen family members and friends lifting heavy stuff for us. Thanks y'all. Matt brought the Chicken Shack (tm) truck which helped tremendously and the greasy mural on the side had my dad's mouth watering from the moment he pulled up. Matt and my brother-in-law Mike lifted the nine-thousand-pound entertainment center from hell, thank the stars. Some (like my friend Jim) worked fast to finish before Michigan-MSU kick-off, so we benefitted from that motivation too. My mom made an outstanding white chili to feed the troops and my sister contributed vegetarian burgers made of ground chickpeas, fava beans, Italian breadcrumbs, and who knows what else. Kind of a cross between boca burgers and falafel. Delish! Even post-op, Anna's got mad kitchen skills. (Even a story about moving becomes a story about food...I've got problems.)

And our new king-sized bed, our new-house splurge, was delivered on the same day. We only own a few pieces of "new" furniture--most of our stuff is a combination of hand-me-downs and auction finds: my grandma D's old bedroom set, the huge old oak library table from an Ohio flea market that I use as a desk in my home office, etc. But the joys of a king-sized bed are legion, especially for a big guy like me. Though maybe the sound nights of sleep have as much to do with the aforementioned heavy labor. I'll be glad if years pass before I pick up another paint brush. And I don't care if all the great institutions of higher ed come knocking on my door (fat chance)...I ain't moving for a good while. Most of all, though, it's good to be in Berkley, where Nicole grew up. N. is flexible as hell ("you want to go to grad school 2,000 miles away in Tucson? okay, let's do it! you want to take a job in rural and right-wing southwest Ohio where I'll need to sit for another bar exam? you betcha!") and has always wanted to return to her old stomping grounds.

Oh yeah, everybody wants to know about Hyatt the pug's transition also. He too has gotten some good shut-eye on the aforementioned king-size. He likes the greyhound next-door, who seems real gentle and easy-going (just like Hyatt). He doesn't miss Elvis and Diva, the cats who live next-door to our old place who somehow never took much of a shine to him (everybody takes a shine to H.) but he does miss the vigilant but friendly Guard Kitty down the block. With his eyes, he's going to need some time to get used to the sliding glass doors in our backroom, which he's thrice ran into thinking he had a clear path to the backyard...like a bird that flys into a window. We need to either put up a visible blockade or just let them get dirty. Knowing us, probably the latter.

One more thing. Stuff that's now in walking distance:
--a 7-11
--my in-laws' house
--Amici's Pizza
--a bowling alley
--a park with big recycling bins
--the home of the aforementioned Jim, my sophomore year roommate
--alas, no Caribou Coffee (can't win 'em all)



Wow, haven't blogged in a whole week. I'm still alive but dragging a bit after painting three bedrooms at the new house. Got a big coffee on the way to campus this morning. Once we're settled in I'm kicking caffeine again. Anyway, back to the house...the walls and the wood floors are both shiny and waiting for move-in day, which is Saturday. A generous crew of friends and family--including brother-in-law-to-be and his humongous Chicken Shack (tm) truck--have volunteered to help shlep (sp?) boxes and furniture. Now we need to get Old Place packed in the next 48 hours.

Last night we handed out candy on the front porch. Nicole dressed as a ghost and I dressed as a sloppy guy who had spent the whole day painting. Our pals K&P came over and brought their four-year-old who took the new neighborhood for all it was worth. We met some nice neighbors, including several other young couples. Today, back to the OTHER grind. I've got a handful of papers left to mark and some further prep work to do before class this afternoon. Then Civic Engagement is having its Community Action Summit where some of our service learning partners are giving presentations, followed by some of the students (including two from my Civic Literacies course) in our new cohort of sl courses speaking on their collaborative projects. Good stuff. Wonder if they'll have diet coke?, he thinks, nervously twitching.

So aside from some drowsiness and a budding caffeine problem that must be kicked come mid-month, things are good. Regular blogging, and pics of new house, to follow.


Thursday Miscelaneous

Tonight we do the walk-through of our new house, in anticipation of tomorrow's closing. What a long process. And the paperwork, ay caramba. The pessimist in me is waiting to learn of a new glitch or to hear that we forgot to sign something. But hopefully twenty-seven hours from now we'll have the key to our place. Hopefully.

Shout out to Anna, who is recuperating quickly. Be well! Luckily you ARE the only member of our family who can tolerate pain.

Having a great experience teaching Laurie Halse Anderson's Twisted in my advanced exposition class. Great discussion today. I'm ready for the great writing I know is going to follow. The civic engagement class is starting to show some fatigue (it's midterm time, so I'll try to understand why discussion was a bit sluggish this week), but the projects are exciting.

Much stuff going on. With any luck, this weekend will be all about cleaning and painting AND staying caught up with the schoolwork.


Van Halen Review

Last night's big (big as in over the top, big as in capital-A Arena rock, big as in the corny hats David Lee Roth cycled through during his costume changes) reunion show disappointed exactly nobody in attendance at the Palace of Auburn Hills. Van Halen included in the two-hour-plus set every big single they released during Roth's '77-'84 tenure with the band: "Pretty Woman," "Panama," "Dance the Night Away." The fiftysomething Van Halen brothers, Eddie and Alex, did big guitar and drum solos, respectively.

Pacing was one of the show's strong suits. Roth kept the banter to a minimum and mostly let one hit fade into the next. Essentially, the band has no ballads ("I'll Wait" is a possible exception) so the high energy sustained itself for over two sweaty, high-impact hours. The shirtless Eddie looked like he spends most of his waking hours with a personal trainer. Gone, it appears, are the VH riders calling for booze and the infamous M&Ms in their dressing rooms and tour buses.

Eddie's 16-year-old son Wolfgang played bass guitar. He sauntered on the stage's catwalks a few times, notably during the bassline intro to "Running with the Devil," and bought some funk-influenced style to his playing. You can tell he's grown up not only with the records his dad made in the decade before his birth but also with the rap-rock hybrids of the last decade. The youngest member of the band also assumed most of the backing vocals, flawlessly, and essentially turned "Pretty Woman" into a duet with David Lee Roth.

Low points? Few far and between. Roth missed a couple vocals on the verses of show opener "You Really Got Me," a song whose lyrics are known by most folks who have ever listened to classic rock radio in their lives. And his extended (err, rambling) introduction to "Ice Cream Man"--delivered while strumming on an acoustic guitar--was a bit surreal. In a Woddy-Guthrie-via-hair-metal flourish, Roth talked about the band's days as a garage band in suburbs where the streets are all named for trees that have been torn down.

Usually when it comes to concerts I'm a Yo La Tengo or Bloc party guy, but you can't beat a hard rock show for good times. The crowd's more concerned with rocking out than looking cool. I've never seen so many Def Leppard t-shirts in my life. Sorry Pink Floyd and Megadeath, Def Leppard is now the band that sells more shirts than records. I overheard *multiple* conversations about Def Leppard t-shirts ("is that the Pyromania tour, third leg, shirt?"..."did you get that at the Joe Louis show in '88?"). And while I applaud the Palace's vigilance, asking for I.D. at the beer stand was completely unnecessary. There was one teen-ager on stage and about two in the audience.


on wimping out

No easy way to say this. I punked out a few days ago in a big way. I took the wimpy, quiet route and regret it. Someone spouted the vilest, most cartoonish and extreme hatefulness I've heard in some time and, though I expressed displeasure, I stoppped short of saying "That is ignorant and I reject every premise, every piece of garbage and hate that just came from your mouth." That is what I should have said. That is what I am saying now, too late.

Calling out racist hate is an obligation. This time I failed.

What did the hate speech sound like? Unrepeatable (not in the least clever) terms that referenced Barack Obama. References to his support of gay rights that talked about his love of "perverts." Maybe the worst part was the praise of Ann Coulter, who has made a career out of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim racism. She offers NOTHING to political discourse except racism. She's not smart. She's not original. She has no redeeming qualities. I can think of no explanation for her celebrity aside from her racism: the (sublimely inaccurate) suggestion that "all terrorists are Muslims," the free and unrestricted use of terms like "raghead," etc.

These laudatory comments about Coulter were made in front of people who happen to be Arabic and Muslim, and should have been challenged more strenuously. Not cool. And maybe they were said in part to get a rise out of me. If so, then I regret that I in any way inspired such sentiment. I only see the person who said these horrible, horrible things once a year or so, but I see good people who are black, gay, Arab, or Muslim every day. Not cool.


Today I turn 34. How to spend a birthday? Well, for the past four hours I've scored placement essays for our writing program. Now I've got two hours to eat my Lean Cuisine and comment on mini-papers from my Civic Literacy class. Then across campus for a Civic Engagement Project steering committee meeting. Then, go home, eat a quick dinner, and head to Auburn Hills to see Van Halen's big reunion show at the Palace. Cheesier evening? Impossible.

Just a few years ago, I used to get a lot of "You seem too young to be a professor." I hear that less and less. For the first few years out of grad school, colleagues thought it was okay to ask my age (and it WAS okay...I didn't, and don't, mind). I get that question less and less.

I wonder what year 34 will bring. At 4, I learned to read and, at least once that I remember, walked to Catone's fruit market up the street to watch my brother and sister get off the bus; the nuns at my pre-school had Italian accents so thick that I used to pronounce the sign of the cross "In a-da-name-a-da Father..." At 14, I left home to enter seminary; a lot of the priests were Italian but by then the white-kid-from-Ohio accent was in FULL effect. At 24, I got engaged, spent part of the summer in the U.K., bought a truck, and moved 2,000 miles away to get my Ph.D.

Old. Or, at least, older. And the list of things I'm thankful for is longer than that decade-old drive from Youngstown to Tucson. Glad to be in love. Glad my dog Hyatt is so cool. Glad to work a job that pays me to write. Glad to work, period. Glad to be less lonely than I was at 4, 14, or 24. Glad to have pretty good health care. Glad to have friends that like to do stuff like play cards and go see Van Halen that have abso-friggin-lutely nothing to do with their jobs. Glad to go to Gesu Church. Glad to teach. Glad to have ears that can hear rock and roll music. Glad to be a home-owner in four short days. Glad that Alice Sebold has a new novel out. Glad that George W. Bush only has another year in office.

Yesterday, downtown at Crossroads Soup Kitchen, I ate lunch with a woman with no legs who lives on the streets in a rickety wheelchair, and who took more joy from her bologna sandwich and her electronic yahtzee game than I've seen people take from sushi and lives of the comfiest comfort. I wish I'd had extra batteries to give to her. I hope I remember her for the next year. I hope I remember all the things on my list for the next year. Disclosure: I also kinda hope I get the "you seem too young to be a prof" line sometime during the next year.


pumpkin pasta

For five or six years, this has been our definitive fall dinner. In the summer we plant sage in the yard expressly for use in pumpkin pasta. We only make it in October, not only because that's when pumpkins are available, but also because the dish becomes that much more special due to anticipation.

1. Peel and cut a small pumpkin (about 3#) into small cubes. Keep the seeds from the pumpkin, spread on a cookie sheet, and sprinkle with kosher salt; dry them in the oven: about 375 for five minutes, then shut off and leave them until dry.

2. Sautee in big dutch oven about 8-10 slices of diced bacon (I like the low-fat turkey version), a medium diced onion, and a good handful of fresh sage cut into ribbons; drain fat if using regular bacon. Add a can of chicken or vegetable stock and a dash of black pepper and a generous dash of allspice and bring to a boil; lower heat, add about 1/4 cup of heavy cream, and let simmer uncovered, on low-medium flame, for about 20 minutes. Here's the bacon, sage, onion, and pumpkin:

3. Boil water and cook a # of rigatoni or your favorite pasta al dente. Drain and add to pumpkin mixture. Add about a cut of good, shredded parmesan cheese. Add the dried pumpkin seeds. Stir well. Add more stock or cream if needed.

4. Enjoy:

a memory, and another, both with postscripts

Memory 1
Winter. 1990 or so. A diner in the middle of rural Wisconsin. I'm about 17. The temperature hovers right around zero degrees. I'm eating pancakes with about ten classmates, most of whom are first-generation Vietnamese-Americans, and one of the priests from our seminary, who is driving us back to school after Christmas break. Our waitress blows a bubble, re-fills Fr. Francis's coffee, scans the table, and says, "So, like are you guys a math team or something?"

(Quick-witted but vaguely creepy clergyperson) Postscript: I would tell this story to another priest at the seminary, who would then tell me that the same waitress once asked him if a group of a dozen students he was eating with were all brothers...winking at the waitress, this priest responded with something like "yes, they're all brothers, but they have different moms."

Memory 2
About a year later, another diner. Somewhere between Youngstown, Ohio, and Detroit, where I'll be catching up with the carpool back to Wisconsin. My older brother, a friend of his, me, and one of my classmates, who had spent the holiday at my family's house. Again, on our way back to seminary. My classmate is Mup, a nickname that means something like "Chubby" or "Fat" in Vietnamese. Mup is one tough guy, plays on the seminary's football team, more stocky than anything. Mup's been in maybe two or three "American" restaurants in his whole life. He scans the menu, reading its words without a firm grip on the syntax of diner lingo. When the waitress asks what he wants, he says, "Two eggs, any style." Waitress: "How do you want your eggs?" Mup: "Any style."

(End of Animal House-style) Postscript: Mup would drop out of the seminary a year after me, start composing music, get a degree in music composition, spend a few years tuning pianos in Detroit, and then get married and become a first-grade teacher.

(From the "awkward small talk" department) Postscript #2: During another vacation, Mup and his nephew Minh visit beautiful Youngstown, Ohio. A friend of my mom comes over for dinner and, meeting Mup and Minh, says, "So, yins are Vietnamese."



I can multitask. I can multitask. I can multitask.

That's the mantra for the next three weeks or so, the sanity-preserving mantra that is. We have bought a house--barring, that is, any eleventh-hour wierdness--and close on October 26th. Less than two weeks. Whole lot of packing to do between now and then.

This coming weekend would seem to be the obvious time to get much of the work done, right? Wrong. Friday night we leave for a quick trip to Ohio for the annual Apple Butter fiesta on Saturday (for readers not in the know: a yearly party at my parents' house that involves making a huge kettle of apple butter outside whilst food and beverages are consumed and hayrides are enjoyed). Can't leave until Friday night, as Nicole's in court in the morning and I've got three, count 'em three, meetings on campus that day anyway. Saturday night after the party, drive back to Detroit because our church runs a soup kitchen for the day on Sunday and Nicole and I ended up on the organizing committee. Still this week, donations to be fetched from various vendors around the city. Urgh.

Oh yeah, plus the normal work stuff: papers to grade (that's today's big task), revisions on a book chapter to finish (I think the deadline's mid-November, but I need to check), an NCTE committee to get organized for (I think that can wait until December, thank God), ongoing meetings of the Civic Engagement Project. And I think I'm cooking for my sister-in-law's rehearsal dinner next month, to be held in the aforementioned house that is 1) not yet in our posession, and 2) in need of paint (at least the room that's currently hot pink). I foresee drinking much beer at that wedding.

I know there's stuff going on in November that I'll probably miss. The Jesuit teach-in/protest at the SOA in Georgia. A nice Tegan & Sara and Northern State double-bill at Detroit's famed St. Andrews Hall.

Thank the stars (or the promotion and tenure committee) for this term's course release. Oh yeah, and for the cool house too. Pictures of said house will appear here around the turn of the month.


more on lists

As promised, my mom's top ten. One of the writers over at Stylus did this a few years back. Well, actually what she did was to have her mom actually make the list. And the Stylus list was cool for a lot of reasons, but mainly for highlighting how the thin the line between hipster and geek really is. The Stylus piece essentially said, here's my mom's definitive list of cool songs, and in doing so illustrated how completely awesome self-indulgent writing can be (a point Geoffrey Sirc makes in his article about Kurt Cobain's journals and the teaching of writing). Here's what I take to be my mom's top picks, with commentary:

--"Good Morning, Good Morning" by Judy Garland. Mom camps it up with a little Judy Garland. This has got to be first on the list, if for no other reason than the countless times she's probably sung it (only in the morning of course).
--"Walking After Midnight" by Patsy Cline. It's just a fine song.
--"We're Not Gonna Take It" by Twisted Sister. Again with the androgyny. I don't know why this song has always resonated with mom. Maybe the "Animal House"-riffing video? Maybe the timeless theme of the lyrics?
--"It's the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)" by REM. Wow. Four for four on the andorgynous singer trend so far. As Rory Cochrane says of Martha Washington in Dazed and Confused, "She's a hip, hip lady." Same can be said of mom.
--"Ain't Nobody Here But Us Chickens" by Louis Jordan. I've read Jordan was one controversial dude, what with some of his racier ditties and his wild stageshow. Mom's all about the controversial!
--"Beans and Cornbread" also by Louis Jordan. Gotta have one food-oriented song on the list, and she and my dad both dig this one.
--"Oh What a Beautiful Morning" from Oklahoma. Campy songs about the morning? She loves 'em.
--"King of the Road" by Roger Williams. Folky standard.
--"Guadalajara" by International Mariachi America. When I went to school in Arizona, my mom used to love to come visit and hit the local mariachi scene. Guadalajara's a good choice, but you could subtitute any of the other standards.
--"Ya Ya" by Buckwheat Zydeco. I can't explain her affinity for zydeco music, but she digs it. This is a good closer, too.



Usually I start my classes (creative writing, composition, anything) with a poem. Today I read Naomi Shihab Nye's "Kindness," which includes the following:

"Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth."

Here is a link to Nye's "Letter to Any Would-Be Terrorists."

and now for a serious post

Yesterday I'm working at Caribou Coffee: sipping a coffee, reading a stack of articles from JAC, taking notes. A balding, 60-ish African-American gentleman at the next table alternately makes business calls ("the Novi property has depreciated...I drafted the work order...pull up the spreadsheet") and punches data into a wireless device of some sort. Later, a younger guy--also dressed the part of a businessperson--joins him and they talk shop.

Finished with business, the older guy says the following: "You know what my next playlist is going to be? Songs that don't suck by bands that suck." Then he brainstorms titles for his mix, including Dokken's "Breakin' the Chains." I would have gone with "In My Dreams," but, hey, dowhatyalike. Plus, great conversation to overhear.

Not an easy list to make. I scan my memory for a Dave Matthews Band or Sheryl Crow song I like, but can't think of one. I try to avoid easy targets like the rap-rock hybrids of the late 90s. I come up with the following:

-"Talk" by Coldplay (Kraftwerk homage, 'nuff said. Plus, bonus points for smart lyrics about conversation as a technology.)
-"Somebody to Shove" by Soul Asylum (Another band that, to me, is boring and another entry that pays homage to an elder artist, this time Jefferson Airplane.)
-"Anyway You Want It" by Journey (I know, points deducted for shooting at an easy target. I would have gone for "Stone In Love" but this gets the nod due to Caddyshack).
-"Abacab" by post-Peter Gabriel Genesis (I have no explanation. I also have no clue what the lyrics mean. I have a vague memory of seeing this video on a snowday in like second grade.)
-"Photograph" by Def Leppard (Another blurry memory: a skating party in about third or fourth grade where a bunch of kids wore faux leather pants with bandanas tied around their legs in some kind of odd Punky Brewster-Joe Elliot mash-up.)
-"Taking the Long Way Home" by Dixie Chicks (Unlike about a billion people, I like their politics but their music, not so much. They seem really nice but they also seem like the result of record company focus groups. But this tune makes me like optimistic songs.)
-Other ideas? Use the comment section to add a title or refute one of mine.

Of course Stylus comes up with brilliant lists:
Songs Featurin' Present Participles or Gerunds with Dropped Gs.
People Who Should've Been Drafted into the Wu-Tang Clan.
Things I Hate About Top Ten Lists.
And, of course, My Mom's Top Ten Songs.

I'd like to tackle the latter topic and compile unlikely songs my mom used to always sing. And also, songs that made me really sad when I was little. Stay tuned for those.


interesting research project

I wonder what dates in the past ten years have seen the most individuals sign off of the wpa listserv. It would be interesting to get a list of those dates and then see what threads were active on those particular days.

Like many others, I tend to sign on and off periodically. I sign off as my interest in the discussions decreases, and then I sign back on (and lurk...I've probably only posted five or six times over the years) as I grow curious. I've talked to lots of others who do the same.

Back to this project...might be curious to see what threads seem to have caused people to lose interest. I pose this question as list activity once again gets busy. The discussion started as a conversation about the possibility of organizing child care services at 4Cs and has led to several sub-threads, including one about whether or not having kids is harmful or helpful to society at large. Kids are a) good, b) bad ... discuss.



In the service learning course this term, one of the first moments of direct contact at our work site consisted of the following comment: "Where did all the white girls come from?"

The students and I had car-pooled to the site for a tour and an orientation session. Naturally, the comment became part of our discussion during the subsequent class. The students and I observed that the comment struck a dischord for multiple reasons. The blunt articulation of identity markers just isn't part of "university talk." The marker "girls" potentially condescends and offends and has certain kinds of historical weight (male bosses calling adult women "girls").

How to approach such a comment? First, with an open discussion where we (not just, or even primarily, me) talk about the rhetorics (the multiple dimensions, the multiple contexts, the multiple uses--all of which are competing, contested, overlapping, and contradictory) of the comment. One of those rhetorics: our identities as outsiders who don't have the right to impose a certain kind of talk. Another: our human right to dignity. Another: the ways gender informs the comments' meaning. Another: the ways race informs the comments' meaning.

Were the young women in the class offended by the statement? If so, as women? As members of various racial and ethnic identities? Turns out, not at all. One Arab-American, muslim woman made the comment "Nobody's ever called me a white girl before," which brought levity to the discussion. The consensus was that these were adolescent guys responding to college women. The consensus was also that to pay too much attention to the comment would serve to reinforce racial stereotypes (young African-American males as threats) and a troubling hierarchy (outsiders/college-types coming into a setting and dictating the "rules" of how to talk).

Fair enough. As a learning moment, the discussion nicely highlighted the importance of contextualizing language and analyzing multi-valent meanings/contexts of discourse. And yet, I hope that we didn't gloss over the gender implications with a "boys will be boys"-esque trope.

(x-listed in the rhetoric of civic engagement)


I Heart First Drafts

I've probably blogged this thought seven or eight times before, but I'll say it again. Revision gives me little joy. I love composing and first draft writing, which almost always feel creative, new, fun, and energizing.

Revision, not so much. I love being done with revisions. But going back to a piece of writing and actually engaging in the work of revision seems, well, slower. Even when making big-time changes, I don't usually capture that feeling of newness.


quotations out of context?

One of my advanced writing classes this term is using Don Lazere's book, Reading and Writing for Civic Literacy, a very strong text for teaching argumentation, reading various media, and textual analysis in ways that aren't reductive. I especially appreciate Lazere's 'Ground Rules for Polemicists,' which includes this useful ditty:
Present...[a counter position] through its most reputable spokespeople and strongest formulations.
A challenging ground rule, to be sure, and one I was thinking about as I listened to reports about the Bill O'Reilly dust-up. After his (no doubt surreal) dinner with Al Sharpton (think of Nixon and Elvis talking drug policy, Eazy-E fundraising for the GOP), O'Reilly said that "even though it's run by blacks, primarily black patronship...there wasn't one person in Sylvia's who was screaming, 'M-F-er, I want more iced tea'." Now, even my quick quotation of O'Reilly is probably a violation of the aforementioned ground rule. I'm foregrounding--though, by no means, inventing--the outlandishness, instead of the "strongest formulation" of O'Reilly's statements.

Maybe reports of the dust-up are doing the same thing. Certainly, this story has the kind of flash that gets ratings. Mainstream news love this stuff. And, of course, O'Reilly does too. He puts his name in heavy circulation. Pundits who point out the statement's racism get themselves into circulation.

Who knows for sure anybody's true intentions here? Did O'Reilly cook this up for attention? Did his critics step forward quickly because they genuinely wish to critique racism, or to get a slice of the buzz, or both? Who knows? But now the circulation begins. The buzz, the hype, a conversation on race that says nothing new.

By nothing new, I mean to say that the discussion offers a whole lot of tired ideas. Starting with O'Reilly himself, who expresses--or, if you prefer, feigns--surprise over the civility at the restaurant. Really? That old nugget? Not that I expect much originality in racist discourse, but I can't think of a bigger cliche. Chris Rock has a very funny routine from the 90s when so many were pointing out Colin Powell is articulate. "What the f___ do you expect? He's an educated man." Rock could do a similar routine about O'Reilly, a routine that hopefully would pick up on not only the statement's racism but also on the absurdity of expecting restaurant owners and/or customers to mirror personas from pop music.

And since he's a skilled comic Rock would bring the funny. And since he's a smart comic he would also be at once drawing attention to O'Reilly's ignorance and the familiarity of the critiques. And most of the critical responses to O'Reilly sounded like a "routine." Because they are routine.


the teaching of reading

In the Advanced Exposition course I'm teaching this term, I give quick reading quizzes on most days. Like quick freewrites, quizzes can jump-start discussions, especially if one or more of the quiz questions provides an intriguing place to begin the conversation. Mostly, I want the quizzes to foster the habits of active reading that I always talk about in classes: commenting in the margins, summing up the gist right after reading, talking back to the text, re-reading tough passages, and even developing "talking points" when you know you're prepping for a class discussion.

Yesterday, a creative, intellectually curious student who I've had in other courses asked me for further tips on how to retain details. She's a language arts education major and wants not only to ace my quizzes but also to know more about close reading for herself and her students. We had a good discussion about our own practices/habits, but I realized afterward that I wish I had a more sophisticated understanding of the teaching of reading. Despite the literacy and education courses I took in graduate school and despite the years I spent teaching "developmental" writing courses (not to mention developmental writing being one of my exam areas back in grad school) which often involves extra attention to reading, I need to learn a lot more.


a time to serve

We also discussed yesterday Richard Stengel's Time Magazine cover story on the efficacy of a national service program. Stengel argues that we need a stronger, more-centralized plan for supporting civic engagement. Among other proposals, he suggests the formation of a national service academy (akin to military academies), a public institution of higher education that would train young people interested in careers in various sectors of public service. He also argues for Baby Bonds, federal investment of $5,000 in every baby born in the U.S. Once of age, an individual would have the option of giving one year of service in return for the matured bond (about $20,000). Stengel's report is provocative on many levels. He also points out that cynicism and mistrust of the government is at an all-time high and so is volunteerism. And he cites some interesting studies that suggest that civic engagement is highest in homogenous communities--the more diverse a community, the less civically engaged its members.

We had a great (though quite heated) discussion of the article in class. Several students took much offense of the notion of "paid" service and thought this would sully the intentions and motivations of servers as well as the service itself. Some rejected the analogy and connection between "military service" and "community service" (Stengel suggests that those interested in their baby bonds could opt for either) as another example of polluting the "purity" of service. For some in the class, "service" has this exalted, pure, and apolitical status. Nobody in the class who opposed the military service/community service conflation expressed general opposition to the military in general or current policy in particular...but they did see military work as a completely different domain, a domain involving politics. My sense (and I want to clarify this next week) is that many in the class see joining the military as a political statement and/or a statement of particular partisan leanings. But community service, in their eyes, exists outside the world of political partisanship.

Stengel, Richard. "A Time to Serve." Time Magazine (10 September 2007): 49-67.

x-listed in 'rhetoric of civic engagment'


In my Writing for Civic Literacy class, students formed workgroups for their collaborative projects. Glad we waited until we'd had several class discussions and done a whole-class site visit to the foster home...which I think gave everybody more context for thinking about the actual work. Looks like we've got four workgroups.

1. Success Stories. A series of reports on folks who have aged out of the system and found success with independent living. St. Peter's wants to use these reports in their grants and as web content, to demonstrate effectiveness.
2. Legislative advocacy plan. A comprehensive report on the state of foster care in Detroit to use in Lansing to justify public support for the home.
3. Vocational plan. A comprehensive report on the Detroit job market including recommendations on the feasability of on-site vocational programming.
4. Training manuals for tutors. Instructions for their new volunteers who'll be doing direct, one-on-one instruction with the residents.

Woo! This is going to be an interesting couple of months.

x-listed in 'the rhetoric of civic engagement'



You scored as Luna Lovegood, You are Luna Lovegood. You daydream and often seem to be drifting off into your own world. You have very strong opinions that many agree are not logical. You place a lot of faith in these beliefs. Possibly, you see more than what meets the eye. You are very accepting of others. You may have only a few close friends because you refuse to sacrifice your opinions and true self for social graces.

Luna Lovegood


Neville Longbottom


Hermione Granger


Bellatrix Lestrange


Draco Malfoy


Ron Weasley


Severus Snape


Harry Potter


Remus Lupin


Sirius Black


Oliver Wood


Percy Weasley


Albus Dumbledore


Lord Voldemort


Harry Potter Character Combatibility Test
created with QuizFarm.com


doesn't take long...

For the semester's busy-ness to kick in. Today I get a set of first drafts from the English 327 students. Then it's off to a site visit at St. Peter's Home for Boys, our community partner, with the English 364 gang. My research assistant Kathleen and I begin our qualitative interviews with the 364 students, too, and I think I've got the digital recorder we borrowed from the Civic Engagement Office figured out. Cool.

In the meantime, last night we wrote an offer on a house. Our real estate agent expects to hear something today. Cross fingers. Cross fingers. Cross fingers. The offer is notably lower than the asking price, which is notably lower than what the sellers paid three years ago. Such is the housing market in Detroit. The liberal guilt is in full effect, though, lessened slightly by the fact that 1) Nicole and I got hosed when we sold our place in Ohio a few years back, 2) the seller is probably happy to have an offer, period--given the motown economy right now--as opposed to shouldering an extra mortgage as they move out of state, and 3) the seller's new employer has hired a "transition company" to handle the transaction which means we're really buying the place from a corporation, not a person. Jeez, neither of the universities for whom I've worked ever offered to do that.

And finally, updates from my nephew, who's in his first month of school at Georgetown, enjoying dorm hijinxs and getting involved in Barack Obama's campaign, which probably excites exactly nobody in my family except for Nicole and I. We'd like to believe he chose his school because he thinks maybe his aunt and uncle are super cool because they studied with Jesuits, but it probably has more to do with how smart he is and a love of politics. Go Steve...go Hoyas.



What are blogs if they aren't a little (or a lot) self-indulgent?

Ch-ch-ch-check it out: Donahue and Moon's Local Histories: Reading the Archives of Composition is finally out. I love the premise of this book: developing counter-narratives to the familiar Harvard and Michigan stories that purport to reveal the origins of composition in the U.S. The counter-narratives take readers to historically black colleges and two-year colleges and other sites that historicize the discipline in new ways.

Thanks to editors Pat and Gretchen for including me in the volume. I contribute "William Rainey Harper and the Ideology of Service at Junior Colleges," and use the story of Harper ("father of the junior college movement") to analyze how open-admissions schools use the concept of "service" rhetorically.

As the man once said, "these things take time." First composed in 2001, this essay evolved from a chapter of my dissertation. Glad the book, at long last, has made contact with daylight. Congrats to Pat and Gretchen...I know the thinking, the labor, and the patience that go into such a volume.