e-mail me at billdeg@umich.edu


democracy is coming...

One of the easiest punchlines in pop culture during the past decade or two has been Axl Rose of Guns 'N Roses fame. Why? Because he's been working on a new G 'N R record since I was in high school. Well, "Chinese Democracy" is finally out. Many fans (those with much patience, I guess) have been looking forward to its release. Me, I've been looking forward to Chuck Klosterman's review of the record moreso than the record itself. First, because I think Klosterman is really funny. Second, because he's made his career cracking wise about Axl Rose's pretentions. Like pretty much Klosterman's whole body of work, his review of "Democracy" doesn't disappoint, in large part because the review is so self aware:
Reviewing Chinese Democracy is not like reviewing music. It's more like reviewing a unicorn. Should I primarily be blown away that it exists at all? Am I supposed to compare it to conventional horses? To a rhinoceros? Does its pre-existing mythology impact its actual value, or must it be examined inside a cultural vacuum, as if this creature is no more (or less) special than the remainder of the animal kingdom? I've been thinking about this record for 15 years; during that span, I've thought about this record more than I've thought about China, and maybe as much as I've thought about the principles of democracy. This is a little like when that grizzly bear finally ate Timothy Treadwell: Intellectually, he always knew it was coming. He had to. His very existence was built around that conclusion. But you still can't psychologically prepare for the bear who eats you alive, particularly if the bear wears cornrows.
The AV Club is the perfect venue for Klosterman's review. A venue for snark. Not quite as hipster-snooty as Pitchfork (which AV Club scoops with its review of Chinese Democracy!). A place wear Klosterman can stretch out and say what he wants to say about the record, himself, the whole Axl spectacle. The release of "Democracy" represents a real head-exploding, end-of-an-era, kind of pop culture moment. Nixon and Elvis shaking hands at the White House. A member of Public Enemy getting a reality tv show. But it's also inevitably disappointing. Kind of like if the Beatles would have accepted Lorne Michaels' invitation to reunite on Saturday Night Live in the 70s.

I don't have much interest in listening to "Chinese Democracy." But the review interests me very much. Klosterman's review also has a head-exploding kind of quality to it. It's like if David Sedaris' family released exhaustive, hidden camera footage of Sedaris' youth. Or if O.J. Simpson and the Goldman family all became buddies. All of a sudden, everything changes. I'm using hyperbole here. I mean, Klosterman has other obsessions--KISS comes to mind, not to mention his interest in why Billy Joel doesn't have more critical acclaim, etc. And I genuinely admire the way Klosterman reveres his subject matter and points to its absurdity all at once. He really is one of my favorite writers.


the big three killed my baby

Local news media here in Detroit have begun to rally with much enthusiasm around the auto industry. But is the job of the media to rally around anything?

Proponents and opponents of particular causes seem to think the press should offer its "support" or "opposition" for those causes. The result is that pundits make odd statements like "The media doesn't support the president." Huh?

I don't kid myself into believing that some idealized version of objectivity can be attained. The media always filters, emphasizes and de-emphasizes, foregrounds and backgrounds, includes and excludes. But that doesn't negate the basic responsibilty of the press: report and inform. Even in a time of war, the press needs to report on what's going on, thereby keeping us informed.

Back to the auto industry. In both op-ed pages and front-page news articles, the local press has not created spaces to question the current moment and consider the complexities and implications of whether the federal government should loan the auto industry $25 billion. It's simply taken for granted that Detroit ought to get these loans.

Those who oppose--or even question--the loans are showing "vitriol" for car companies. They "hate the industry" and "rely on half-truths and lies."

Look, for various reasons I hope that congress acts quickly and makes these loans. Otherwise, the state where I live will likely slip into a massive recession. Otherwise, taxpayers will likely have to pay even more to contend with the unemployment and crime which will result. Let me be clear: I'm in favor of the loans.

But I'm also in favor of reasoned debate. I want to hear multiple points-of-view. I don't think the debate benefits from dismissing opponents of the loan as hateful or uninformed. How do you know that opposition to the loans is necessarily an expression of vitriol? How do you know opposition necessarily results from being misinformed?

I actually think it's better for the auto industry and for workers to make room for multiple perspectives. Let's talk about the business practices that led to the current situation. Let's talk about the American auto industry's lack of committment to hybrids and opposition to environmental regulation. Too many in the local media think the current moment is a moment where we should shut up and "support" the industry. I'm pro-union and pro-Michigan. I'm also pro-information. Don't try to silence the various points-of-view that are floating around out there.


opulent to homeless?

So last night Nicole and I slept in a $300 per night hotel room.

A friend of ours had a convention at the MGM Grand, one of Detroit's gigantic new casinos. The organizers blocked too many rooms and they would have remained empty, so our pal put out an e-mail yesterday offering free rooms. Free night at a fancy place? We accepted.

Normally I tend to hate casinos. Not for any moral reason necessarily, they're just depressing. And the glassy-eyed patrons tend to be so focused on the reason they're there--as if it's a business venture--that they don't strike me as very friendly. But Nicole and I did decide to splurge and play $20 on a 'Deal or No Deal' slot machine. We quickly turned our $20 into $35 and quit.

The hotel room. Really something else. Flat-screen tv in the room, and one embedded in the mirror of the bathroom. Fancy sheets. A view of the Ambassador Bridge. The whole deal. Worth $300? I just find it hard to believe anybody in this state (or even visiting this state) has that much money. At any rate, we had a very nice time.

Ironically enough, this a.m. I'm off to the HAND (Homeless Action Network of Detroit) march downtown with a group of my service learning students. They've been hammering away at the research projects they've been doing in consultation with HAND and I'm excited for them to see another view of the organization. Too bad it's looking like freezing rain all day. Bundle up.



Ever-incorrigible Detroit-area journalist and critic Jack Lessenberry shared his post-election thoughts with UM-Dearborn. Among other points, he emphasized that the 2010 elections here in Michigan look to be huge in terms of their potential impact on the state. New governor and lieutenant governor, massive turnover in both the state house and state senate, the possibility of a new Michigan Constitution (apparently, every sixteen years, we have the option to re-write the thing!). As always, he offered his wry observations about the right wing. On Sarah Palin, he said, and I'm paraphrasing here: 'She was like steroids. She gave a quick boost. But in the end, she killed him.'


a thought

Is it just me, or has Sarah Palin given more interviews in the past four days than she did during the whole campaign?


high standards

For the first few weeks of my comp classes this term, I leaned heavily on political rhetoric. We looked at speeches, representations in the popular press, and pretty much anything and everything associated with the presidential campaign. I used Don Lazere's 'Ground Rules for Polemicists' and some other very useful materials from his Reading and Writing for Civic Literacy text. The 'Ground Rules' challenge students' perceptions of how arguments work and should work. Lazere sets a high bar for the ethics of political rhetoric, for instance, emphasizing the importance of fully and fairly representing opposition perspectives, avoiding ad hominem attacks, and so forth.

Have others out there used Lazere? Any thoughts on this? One challenge is how to reconcile his guidelines with the realities of political discourse. My students have essentially concluded that nobody really follows these ground rules. Not on cable news, certainly, but not on op-ed pages either. I can't say I disagree with their assessments, but one of the things I'm trying to do is to temper their critiques of the current climate with genre realities. For instance, an op-ed piece simply doesn't allow enough space to do all the things Lazere suggests. A couple hundred words, max. It's simply not possible to represent "fully" the mythic "other side."

We've had some good discussions that come down to the notion that something's gotta give. Following any set of ground rules for argumentats limits the possibilities, putting regulations of sorts on Aristotle's definition of rhetoric ("all" the available means of persuasion). If you follow Lazere's rules, you draw on all the ethical means. One downside to using Lazere: students often end up looking for this impossible an untenable "bias free" political rhetoric. Again, I need to do a better job teaching civic genres. I keep writing on student papers things like "but an op-ed is SUPPOSED to advance a particular p-o-v."


Monday Miscelaneous

--Interesting but too brief op-ed in today's Free Press about muslim community's support of Obama. This might be worth discussing in classes this week. Interesting demographic factoid: only two percent of American muslims (in a ten-state, 600-person poll) voted for McCain.

--Just picked up: The Clash, "Live at Shea Stadium." What a great piece of work. The setlist is a veritable greatest hits. The band's legendary energy, in full effect on "Shea Stadium," is remarkable, given that they're in front of tens of thousands of Who fans standing around in the rain. They transcend the "opening act" label and give every fan who thought she was paying to see The Who's "final" tour her money's worth, and then some.

--A lovely snow this a.m. I hit Coffee Beanery bright and early and got some good work done. Most productive morning in some time, in fact. Maybe the brisk air. Maybe the pretty white stuff covering Woodward.

--Facebook? Way addictive. Not sure whether or not I'm glad about succumbing.

whole texts

Students in my service learning sections of comp this term have been writing about Paul Loeb's book The Soul of a Citizen, a book that's critical of the limits of volunteerism but hopeful about the possibility of community. Largely the best work the students have done all term. My sense is that part of the reason why is that we devoted significant amounts of class time to discussing and doing some low-stakes writing about the book. They've been engaging with the text for weeks, and I think the writing reflects that longer-term engagement.

But what interests me as much as the quality of the work the students are producing is the fact that we're using a whole book. The whole text "movement"--if there is such a thing--probably relies too heavily on nostalgic and mythic arguments (e.g., students don't read). And yet I've felt called in recent years in this direction. Part of it is a general dislike for textbooks. Also, I'm just tired, after a decade or so of teaching writing, of "readers." Too many excerpts. Too much canonizing of "essays," a genre so disparate and big umbrella that it's lost meaning.

While I don't buy into the nostalgic elements of the pro-whole text arguments, I do buy into the value of engaging with book-length pieces of non-fiction. Books can create sustained discussions (I know, so can a series of excerpts on a common theme). Books resist the imperative to take small bites of texts and writers.

I'm inclined to keep experimenting with whole texts in just about all of the undergrad classes I teach. So far I've seen benefits in terms of creating a space that's intellectual and discussion-oriented. A piece of non-fiction like Loeb's book models lots of rhetorical devices and presents lots of writing opportunities.


what's the deal?

I'm very new to the facebook world, but I'm already wondering how they target particular advertisements to particular users. Apparently I'm in need of dissertation and weight-loss help.


i can tell that we are gonna be friends

Hey, I'm on facebook now. If you are too, then send me a message.


election night

After teaching on Tuesday, I headed for my local Obama office and did get-out-the-vote canvassing for seven hours. Holy macaroni, my feet were yelling by the time the sun set over Berkley. In 2004, I spent election day coordinating phone banks, so I was indoors. This year, two words: The. Pavement. In addition to trying to convince people to vote their way, campaigns spend months gathering more and better information about voters. Then, on election day, that data gets put to use. We had lists of "likely Obama supporters" and "definite Obama supporters" and did anything we could to get them to the polls. Free rides. Reminders. Incessant knocking on doors. Hey, and I got a free t-shirt out of the deal. Things started to get surreal around 6:00, after the sun went down, and while walking the neighborhoods, you could look in windows and see EVERY television tuned to the news. Sean Hannity. Katie Couric. Those airbrushed faces projected onto the cool Autumn streets.

Polls closed at 8:00. Headed home, took a quick shower, had a quick sandwich, and Nicole and I went to a County Democrat party. Expensive cash bar, kind of boring and stuffy, too loud to hear the televisions. So we headed to a results-watching party in Berkley organized by a judicial candidate who we'd supported actively. His whole crew was there, along with lots of members of our town's democrat club. Clearly the better party. Plus, cheap beer and burgers. Woo-hoo. Several recounts of absebtee ballots resulted in a lot of nail-biting, but in the end, Jamie Wittenberg (a classmate of Nicole's) is our new district judge. Less nail-biting over President-Elect Obama. How good does it feel to type those words? We were all kind of freaking out, in a pensive and cautious way, when they called Pennsylvania so quickly. Then Ohio. Then Florida. As soons as west-coast polls closed, McCain gave his very gracious and thoroughly classy (and already malaligned as wimpy by Limbaugh et al) concession speech.

What's that line that Garrison Keilor always uses about doing good work? That's what kept running through my head, as I thought about the prospects of an optimistic, progressive, ethical leader for our country. Now do good work. And the rest of us: Hold Obama accountable. Hold the democrat-controlled legislature accountable. Insist they keep promises. Insist they maintain the integrity, the optimism, the reform, and the legislative agenda they've preached. Health care. Lower taxes for working and middle classes. Troop withdrawal. Better support for education at all levels. Anybody going to inauguration? At midnight on Tuesday night, I text-messaged by nephew at Georgetown and threatened to crash on his dorm floor if need be!


this is pretty cool...

freaks and geeks

This term I'm teaching one of my favorite classes, English 327, an advanced writing course for education majors. The class presents a cool opportunity to talk about writing in a variety of contexts including the context of K-12 schools. And while I never teach the class as a methods class, I do try to make assignments flexible enough to encompass concerns and issues related to public education, child development, and the like.

For example, we just read a novel (more or less, a piece of "young-adult lit") called "Twisted," an angsty and interesting narrative about a suburban high school kid who finds himself in a culture of violence, first as a victim of bullying and later, as...well, I don't want to give it away. Read the book. Well worth your time. Students have designed some interesting writing projects connected to the text, some opting for more traditional kinds of textual analysis and others looking at the book critical and popular reception among various audiences.

They've been working pretty hard, so tomorrow we're going to spend half of class watching an episode of "Freaks and Geeks," the canceled-before-its-time show which presents some neat connections to the novel. The show follows two cliques in a circa-1980 suburban Detroit high school: stoners and nerds. Much of the action centers on Lindsay, who decides to leave the world of mathletes and try to become a "freak." I've never seen anything on tv as well-written. The premise sounds "after school special" but always transcends those cliches, opting instead for one relentlessly awkward representation of adolescence after another: the stoner serenading his girlfriend with Styx's "Lady," the peanut allergy that results in an ER visit, gym class scenes, and the geeks watching a stag film.

The show was clearly headed for cancellation and the last few episodes really expand the thin-line-between-stoner-and-nerd theme begun with Lindsay's clique switch. One of the freaks gets caught with dope and has to join A/V as punishment, subsequently realizing how awesome Dungeons and Dragons is. In the series finale, Lindsay blows off academic camp in Ann Arbor and runs away with deadheads for the summer. A perfectly surreal-yet-banal ending to the series. The school's hippy guidance counselor turns her onto the Grateful Dead, loaning her a copy of "American Beauty" he thinks will speak to her angst. It does. I don't even like the Dead very much, but when she puts on "Box of Rain" in her bedroom, it's a moment of transcendence:
Look out any window
any morning, any evening, any day.
Maybe the sun is shining
birds are winging
rain is falling from a heavy sky
what do you want me to do?
Anyway, great book and great show. And those 327 students have earned half a casual class.


go make history everybody

Nicole and I completed our election day ritual of getting to our polling place before opening time. Angell Elementary School in Berkley, Michigan, about 6:50 a.m. About fifty people lined up, one of whom had passed out. She was on a stretcher, being loaded onto an ambulance when we arrived. Delicious, warm cup of Abuelita ("little granny," a Mexican hot cocoa) in hand, I took my spot and waited about thirty minutes to vote, feeling for the first time since 1996 like I was voting *for* a person instead of just voting *against* another person. I bid farewell to Nicole, my wife/precinct captain, and headed to campus for an abbreviated teaching day. Soon it's off to campaign headquarters for an afternoon of labor (getting out the vote, kicking out the jams, etc.), then an evening of parties. Hopefully celebratory parties. Please, please, please go live history, everybody. You know what my man Howard Zinn said, 'You can't stand still on a moving train.'