e-mail me at billdeg@umich.edu


quite a line-up

Larry seems to have accomplished what Lorne Michaels couldn't. Also, I like that Michael Moore's the headliner.



I've written before of my appreciation for rock critic Chuck Klosterman's often deadpan, usually hilarious, voice. Here's a taste:
Led Zeppelin's fourth studio album--1971's unnamed Zoso (so called for the enigmatic symbols on its cover)--is the most famous hard-rock album ever recorded, not to mention a watershed moment for every grizzled old man who's ever carried a bundle of sticks.
Now I can't read that sentence without laughing. I'm putting together the syllabus for my Advanced Exposition class in the fall and one of the assignments is a Pop Culture Narrative paper that asks students to engage with a movie, music video, CD, or similar text that has provided them pleasure or perhaps even become an obsession. Klosterman's great at that particular rhetorical move, writing in a style that's all his about what floats his boat (Kiss, The Real World, the 1980s Celtics-Lakers rivalry, The Wonder Years) and why (his "why" usually involves elaborate theories about what it means for culture to be "overt" and "advanced" followed by admissions that he finds these things pleasurable). As examples of the kind of thinking/writing I want them to do, I'm asking students to read a few pieces by Klosterman, including his track-by-track take on the personal and public significance of Zoso. Also, Sarah Vowell's similarly stimulating piece on her obsession with The Godfather ("Take the Canoli") during her undergrad years. I plan to write alongside students and complete all the assignments. Maybe I'll tackle my obsession with 'Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip' or 'Freaks and Geeks' or the X-Ray Spex's only record.

I can't resist. Here's Klosterman riffing on the popularity of the Pirates of the Caribbean:
Super Bowl XXXVII [was] the first all-pirate championship of the modern era. As you may recall, the Buccaneers defeated the Raiders. This prompted a very thin, moderately intoxicated Londoner named Nona to ask me a question: "Does every American football team have a pirate-oriented nickname?"
Klosterman drops allusions like Dennis Miller, though Chuck skews hipster. Like Dave Barry, Klosterman's funniest moments are tossed-off asides only tangentially connected to his subject matter. And his closest kins, of course, are NPR-types like David Sedaris, the aforementioned Vowell, and Julia Sweeney. His rhetoric and his humor have little in common with most rock critics of the present and past, as Klosterman refuses to idolize the individual rockstar, instead idolizing his own personal relationship with that star's art.

writing project

For the fourth summer in a row, I'm co-teaching the four-week writing workshop that forms the core of the Ohio Writing Project. This is the second summer I've return from Detroit to southwestern Ohio and Miami University in order to continue my involvement with OWP. Why do it? Working with the writing project is like no other teaching experience. A room full of enthusiastic language arts and writing teachers, all teaching one another. Kindergarten, all the way up to 12th grade, all points in between. The entire day is interactive: teaching presentations and demos, visiting writers, extended writing periods, open mic lunches. I always walk away with ideas.

I always walk away feeling more like a writer then I have in months. Despite the intense contact time (five days a week, six-and-a-half hours a day), I always find lots of my own writing time, too. Last year, I drafted a short story, a whole article that found its way into Teaching English in the Two-Year College last month, a half dozen decent poems, and several writing assignments. This year, I'm working on an IRB proposal for the civic engagement research I'll be conducting this coming academic year and another short story--plus, reading a bunch of work (Jeff Grabill's book, Paula Matthieu's book, various Campus Compact documents, some great articles by Nedra Reynolds) that I'll draw on in the new research project.

Worth spending four weeks away from the motor city? You bet.


inspired by Wislawa Szymborska

Today at the Writing Project we read Szymborska's "Possibilities," a hopeful poem of preferences. Each line begins with the refrain "I prefer..." and the piece becomes a litany of the narrator's (imagined? idealized?) world. Quite nice. I wrote my own version:

I prefer punk rock music.
I prefer novels by Elmore Leonard, Roddy Doyle, and Joyce Carol Oates.
I prefer Canada and the Harvey's Burgers you can get there.
I prefer playing cards with Nicole when we both should be working.
I prefer good teaching days when students have energy and wow me with words at least once.
I prefer talkative students to those who stay passive and quiet, though I was quiet when I sat in their desks.
I prefer acceptance letters from academic journals instead of rejections that can ruin a day or week or more.
I prefer young bands from Detroit who play grimy music in grimy bars in the shadows of dead auto plants.
I prefer preachers who preach justice to preachers who preach rules.
I prefer peace to war.
I prefer brown bag lectures on campus and visiting writers.
I prefer Tues/Thurs teaching to a 9-to-5 lifestyle.
I prefer office hours to department meetings.
I prefer Arabic or Thai over a steakhouse.
I prefer memories of college over memories of high school.
I prefer a large coffee with two packets of Splenda.
I prefer Saturdays spent cooking.
I prefer walking in Western Woods when I'm in Oxford but not the allergies that follow.

Szymborska's poem reminds me of the 100-Things Meme that many post on their blogs as a kind of a revelatory, list-oriented, personal instroduction. Poetry and blogging are similar in so many ways: their (sometime) indulgence, their focus on "documentary" writing, their reporting of the familiar/the unfamiliar/the mundane/the extraordinary, their playfulness.


race, gender, and academe

My friend Ray Mazurek mentioned last week that during his ten-year tenure as an undergraduate and then graduate college student, he only had three female professors and four professors of color. This was in the 70s.

I also spent exactly ten years in college, from 1992 until 2002. So I decided to do a count of my own. Nearly half of my professors were women. Okay, interesting, especially given how different my numbers are compared to Ray's. Then, I broke it down by race. During my ten years as a full-time college student, I had TWO professors of color. And this was mostly in the 90s. And I did my undergraduate work in Detroit, and got my doctorate thirty miles north of the Mexican border. And both classes were in multiculturalism (an African-American woman taught my Af-Am Lit class and a Latino man taught my multi-cultural education seminar)--non-required electives that I sought out.


WCSA Conference, Day Three

Early morning session on "Class in the Classroom: Teaching Strategies." Tess Evans and Jacqueline Preston, in "Discourse Community as a Foundation for Teaching Research and Writing," gave an overview of the concept of a discourse community (a group that shares common goals or values and, by extension, a common vocabulary and set of language practices), geared--appopriately for a multi-disciplinary conference like this one--for an audience of folks from various disciplines. They also spoke about the imperative to challenge the vague "default audience" of academic writing and spoke of a writing pedagogy involving the development of rhetorical awareness, the exploration of various alternative rhetorics (that is, alternative to academic apporaches), and the completion of a writing project that uses the conventions of a discourse community of the student's choosing. Jan Schmittauer and Sue Lape spoke about the need to sequence writing assignments in their talk "Resisting Tradition, Inviting Experience." Again, familiar territory for compositionists but geared toward a broader audience of conference-goers. They used the literature courses at their community colleges as examples of venues in which to invite low-stakes, experience-based responses to a series of writing prompts, leading to tasks that get more and more challenging. By the end of an assignment sequence, they suggest, students have a "coherent whole." This is especially important, say Schmittauer and Lape, for first-generation college students and others trying to make sense of the expectations of literate, academic tasks. Lastly, Ray Mazurek gave his paper "Teaching the Problem of Whiteness," a report on how Ted Allen (The Invention of the White Race)'s work on race in the seventeenth century has influenced his approach to teaching the first-semester American Studies survey on his campus. The concept of "whiteness" grew up during that century, Mazurek suggests, to "create a buffer between the elite and the masses." Mazurek's talk made me want to look up Allen's work and learn more. He glossed Allen's argument so quickly that I didn't make out its nuances.

The mid-day plenary was dedicated to the memory of Tillie Olsen. Few dry eyes in the auditorium as conference-goers remembered the great writer who has been an icon among the working-class studies community since the conference started up in the mid-90s at Youngstown State. We screened the new documentary "A Heart in Action," which I hope sees wider release, as it captures Tillie visiting various classrooms and marching in various public actions--two activities that she loved. Julie Olsen Edwards (Tillie's daughter) shared stories, choking back tears. She said that, growing up without much money, her mom would always fill a paper bag with books from used bookstores, each one chosen carefully. She also reminisced about the MLA session where Tillie told a panelist speaking about education and privelege to be careful not to frame education as anything but a birthright. To bring some levity, she also talked about Tillie getting kicked out of the PTA because they thought she was a spy from the Kremlin. Barb Jensen and Cherie Rankin read excerpts from "I Stand Here Ironing" and Yonnondio respectively. Steve Zeltzer spoke about Tillie's eternal optimism, noting, "If you're going to be a revolutionary in this country, you've got to have patience." Sherry Linkon, past president of the Working-Class Studies Association, acknowledged that Tillie was one of the key inspirations for starting the new working-class studies movement and recalled her passing around the guitar at the Pub at YSU, suggesting that the image of someone so renowned hanging out with conference-goers captured the essence of what the field and the conference are all about. Janet Zandy ended the session by reading a short piece "Walking with Tillie" about her various encounters and conversations with the writer.

All that, plus a great banquet, more great poets in the evening, and the singing of many labor songs. You just don't get that at most academic conferences! Tomorrow, back to Detroit, so I should get some sleep.


Working-Class Studies Association Conference

A full day of conference activity, and I do mean FULL DAY. In the a.m. Paul Schadewald from Macalaster's Office of Civic Engagement led a tour of selected neighborhoods of Minneapolis and St. Paul, in part doing a show-and-tell of some of the key community agencies that "Mac" partners with in its service learning courses, in part taking us to some cool public art installations including a mural in one of the Latino areas depicting various icons (Rigoberta Menchu and Diego Rivera among others). A quick anecdote from the tour: Looking out over the Mississippi from the upper flats of St. Paul's westside, Schadewald pointed out several visible churches and made reference to an Irish-Catholic parish that had served some of the Latino community before the construction of a Latino parish. Racism at the Irish parish, he said, was among the factors that led some Latinos to start their own church. A middle-aged couple happened to be walking by and stopped to challenge Schadewald, the man--visibly bothered--saying his parents had attended the Irish church and had worked with various community groups to assist the new Latino community. His wife calmed the man down and then pressed a flustered Schadewald for some examples of racism at the church.

I don't point this out to criticize our tour guide, who was full of information about the twin cities, but rather to suggest that the exchange illustrates a difficulty and ethical dilemma inherent in articulating community critiques to actual community members. Here was a guy who grew up at this church, out for a walk with his wife, who happens to overhear someone who seems to be calling his home community racist. Our guide, full of knowledge and well-versed in identity politics, was at a loss for a way to talk to this particular community member. The CWCS Association is full of not only academics, but also community organizers, labor leaders, artists, and cultural workers of various ilk...so this wasn't a case of out-of-touch academics who can only communicate with other academics. This was something more complex about how we engage with physical spaces like cities and neighborhoods and communities.

The afternoon plenary session, "Working-Class Culture and Counter-Culture," attracted a large audience. Psychologist David Greene spoke about class as a "matrix of identity," a set of markers (little sense of entitlement, economic insecurity, minimization of the self, etc.) that inevitably fold in contradictory markers, some of which empower (male), and some of which disempower (gay). These paradoxes are disconcerting, Greene said, and lead many to fall into the dominant culture trap of "aspiring upward and denigrating downward."

The labor historian David Roediger served as a respondent of sorts to Greene's emphasis on class as culture. Roediger said the move toward humanistic approaches to class has caused the scholarly community to overlook a great deal of misery and called on the audience to foreground the question 'What is it that keeps workers from dreaming?' as we thought about class this week at the conference. One of the ways that Roediger answered that question was with the phrase "organized religion," and I thought back to the exchange in St. Paul earlier that day. Cool vocabulary word I learned during his talk: "homers," which refer to items that line workers steal and/or build for the express purpose of stealing. Notable example of this phenomenon from pop culture: the car parts that Johnny Cash's narrator swipes in "One Piece at a Time."

Batting clean-up at the plenary, Betsy Leondar-Wright, who gave a helpful review of Bernstein's elaborated vs. restricted code in order to talk about the possibilities of coalitions across class divides. In her work with various activist groups, Leondar-Wright said she's observed working-class organizations tending toward the indirect and the implicit while professional-managerial class organizations tend to spell things out explicitly. When faced with conflict, members of the w/c group might make a joke or go grab a drink, whereas the pm/c group is more likely to "get meta." This trend presents challenges to movements whose memberships are diverse in terms of class make-up, especially when pm/c leaders "impose inessential weirdness," or make moves that tend to turn off many w/c movement participants. She classified members of cross-class social movements as "traditionalists" and "rebels" and said that when groups consist of w/c traditionalists and pm/c traditionalists, things are usually cool. Likewise, when groups consist of w/c rebels and pm/c rebels, groups find commonalities. But when social movements consist of traditionalists (moderates, etc.) from one class and rebels (radicals, etc.) from another class, that's when significant conflict happens. The mixture of w/c traditionalists and pm/c rebels is particularly volatile.

Okay, enough play-by-play. I saw some screenings of works-in-progress including Jim Catano (who contributed to my book on working-class rhetorics)'s film about the attempt in Homestead, PA, to replace steel with heritage tourism as a community anchor. At the same session, Rosemary Feurer showed her new Mother Jones documentary. Very cool. In the evening, a night of poetry and fiction. Detroit's own Lolita Hernandez read from her Cadillac book. And a great poet from here in the twin cities, Bao Phi, read his work about Vietnamese-American identity, including an insanely good piece about Hurricane Katrina.

Hopefully, more updates tomorrow. I'm giving my paper tomorrow afternoon and need to go practice before hitting the sheets.


St. Paul

Today two uneventful flights from Detroit to Chicago and Chicago to the Twin Cities--uneventful except for maybe the testy United Airlines crews. "Sit down and get away from the gate until your row is called!" And moments later: "We're already late, stay close to the gate!" And a whole lot of "Don't block traffic in the aisles, stow your bag and sit down!" Maybe it was the heat bringing out the tempers.

I'm at Macalester College in St. Paul for the Working Class Studies Association Conference. Pretty campus, though I imagine the winter must not be too pleasant here. Today is all green lawns, kids studying on blankets, and the warm sun. And the neighborhood reminds me of Fourth Ave. in Tucson--tea houses, whole food stores, tie dye, etc. An odd place for the working-class studies conference, which now travels after a dozen or so years in the fixed locale of Youngstown. Not sure if the irony (of holding a working-class studies meeting at an expensive private college) will be much discussed this week or not. At any rate, I'll try to blog some of the sessions in the coming days, so stay tuned.

In the meantime, tonight a delicious dinner at Khyber Pass Cafe, an outstanding Afghani joint down the street from the dorm where I'm staying. The highlight of the meal was a walnut-cilantro chutney, served with whole wheat flatbread. As much a "pesto" as anything, the chutney had a dash of vinegar and more than a dash of hot chilis. Just the right amount of heat. The waiter, seeing that I loved the chutney, recommended the Vegetarian Shola, a puree of mung beans and brown rice, served with yogurt and a dollop of the chutney. The shola had many of the familiar spices that I associate with the dry masalas used in Indian cooking. Kind of nutty and, again, just enough heat. I hope to get back there in the next few days.


thank you m-care

Today I went to the dentist for the first time in three years. I'm horribly negligent when it comes to dental care, brushing once or twice a day, flossing every couple days. I've got no excuses. I've gotten lucky, though. In my life I've had one cavity. I have all my wisdom teeth and dentists always tell me that they grew in perfectly. With this lucky track record, I know that I'm tempting fate by failing to take better care of the teeth.

Thank goodness for M-Care. The U of M system takes damn good care of its members. No co-pay today, and I had a full cleaning, x-rays, a mouth cancer screening, and a fluoride treatment. Awesome.

I got the sense from the hygienest that the stains were a bit grody. At first she made a few jokes about how I'm obviously a coffee drinker. As the cleaning progressed, she began to accompany the good-natured cracks with a bit of teeth-grinding (doesn't she know that's bad for the teeth?!). Okay, I've got another resolution now: better tooth care.


110 degrees

110 Degrees is a new 'zine straight out of the place I used to call home: Tucson. Kids between 14 and 21 tell stories in a digital and print environment, focusing on a kind of "write the community" narrative, one that's very attractive to me. A non-profit called VOICES works with the University of Arizona--including folks in the writing program--to provide resources and mentoring to young people who want to engage with a wide array of community members and represent how these folks see Tucson.

We're beginning to build a civic engagement program here at UM-Dearborn, and I hope we'll soon be producing these kinds of products in collaboration with agencies and communities around metro Detroit. The pedagogy is one of place but also person-in-place, allowing for reflection on context and community, the place where stories originate.

Hats off to all involved at my alma mater in the Old Pueblo. I got pretty nostalgic reading some of the stories, wishing I could get Mexican food half as good as Tucson's best. Then again, I'm happy to stay in the single digits here in the midwest.


carver on friday

I've been reading the poet Tess Gallagher's memoir about her late husband Raymond Carver. Theirs is one of the all-time great literary love-stories. Tess gave Ray a reason to stay sober and a reason to keep writing--the two things that defined his last decade, what he calls his happy "gravy" years. And as the first man in her life who stayed sober, Ray gave Tess a belief in redemption, a motiff that showed up in both of their writings during the 80s and, for Tess, beyond. Tess reprints several of Ray's poems in the piece, including this one, the last thing he wrote before succumbing to cancer:


And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.