e-mail me at billdeg@umich.edu


making a list, checking it twice

All my favorite pop culture junky websites find themselves in a flurry this time of year, listing the bests and worsts, trying to be definitive and novel all at once. I haven't seen anywhere near enough 2009 films to offer my own exhaustive list, but I'll make an amateur observation: What a great year for genre films. Of course "Inglorious Basterds" exploded the war picture in all kinds of fun ways. And two kiddy pictures--"Up" and "The Fantastic Mr. Fox"--told more compelling stories with rounder characters than most adult dramas. (NB: I haven't seen "Where the Wild Things Are" yet.)

But let's here it for the horror movie. Sure, plenty of lousy, lazy remakes came out, but I found "Baghead," "Orphan," and "Drag Me to Hell" scary and inventive; I recommend them highly. (NB Part Deux: Haven't seen "Paranormal Activity" yet.) "Orphan" in particular was outstanding. Sure, the 'demon child' story is familiar, but "Orphan" took the subtelty and craft of the "Rosemary's Baby" formula and rewrote it for the video game generation. More gore, more shocks, more over-the-top fun. Plus, CCH Pounder as a nun. "Baghead" also played with a cliche, this time the indie, let's-recreate-"Blair Witch" trope. "Drag Me to Hell" was a third example of a great piece of work that didn't feel the need to reinvent the horror wheel. "Drag" was more or less what you'd expect from the great horror writer/director Sam Raimi and also just what you'd expect from a gypsy curse film. But somehow the film achieved more, as Raimi's best work always does.

How about music lists? I'm wondering why the Dead Weather record is getting little end-of-year love from Pitchfork, AV-Club, et al? I like the album more than post-"White Blood Cells" White Stripes releases myself. And the band kills live. My other favorites from 2009 include The Gossip's "Music for Men," Animal Collective's "Merriweather Post Pavillion," Wilco the Album, and the Hard Lessons' "Arms Forest."

Speaking of music lists, the decade best-ofs have tragically excluded two of my favorite bands from the past ten years: The Kills and The Gossip. Here are two bands that have much in common. Both started the decade marrying punk and blues and opening for bigger acts but migrated more toward dance music and headliner status. Both bands lack a bass player and hence draw White Stripes comparisons. Both bands are fronted by charismatic women who create stage personas that are key components of their respective live experiences. The Kills made three outstanding records. The Gossip released four, plus several EPs and live records.

Some of the best rock music of the decade, hands down, so why are they barely represented on the decade lists? I'm not sure the allegedly liberal indie community in the U.S. knows just what do with these two bands. Their frontwomen--the Gossip's Beth Ditto and The Kills' Alison Mosshart--reject the shy introversion of so many women of indie rock. They seem more influenced by sexually charged bluesers of the 40s and 50s like Big Mama Thorton than, say, Natalie Merchant. Ditto is known to remove articles of clothing on stage and is a very out lesbian. Mosshart climbs amps and leers at the audience. Their lyrics challenge decorum and femininity. I think it's noteworthy that the boys in the music press seem somewhat confused by the collective ethos of folks like Ditto and Mosshart.



I don't give final exams too often, preferring portfolios or other types of final projects that are cumulative and/or the culmination of a sequence of assignments. This morning I handed out to students a take-home exam. I rarely do this, but a take-home exam seemed like the best way to bring together the course's threads (their service learning projects, their entrances in the "public sphere," their analyses of political rhetoric in venues ranging from the op-ed page to youtube, their study of Don Lazere's Civic Literacy text, etc.). I'm anxious to read the responses next week. Here's the exam.

Composition 105
Take-Home Final Exam

1) What claims/assertions does Michael Kinsley make in “The Intellectual Free Lunch” (see Chapter 2)? What types of evidence does he provide? (1-2 academic paragraphs)

2) Write a short argument in favor of or in opposition to giving “critical thinking” curricula (see Chapter 3) a more prominent place in K-12 education in Michigan. Keep your argument “clean” and follow the Ground Rules for Polemicists, especially those guidelines which demand you consider and respond to other perspectives. (2-3 academic paragraphs)

3) Offer your own evaluation of Martha Nussbaum’s argument in “Can Patriotism Be Compasionate” (see Chapter 3). How effective do you find her use of techniques like allusion and analogy? (1-2 academic paragraphs)

4) During the semester we looked at several examples of invective and emotional appeal on youtube. In what ways are these kinds of expression in opposition to the Ground Rules for Polemicists (see Chapter 9)? What do these types of “rants” contribute to public discourse? Can you think of any ways that the Ground Rules are short-sighted? Do they fail to account for legitimate roles that invective and emotion play in the public sphere? (3-4 academic paragraphs)

5) Given what you know about the predictable patterns of political rhetoric (see Chapter 13), how might a “leftist” professor and a “rightist” professor each use service learning to push his or her own political agenda? We discussed how good models of service learning use real-world work to help students learn subject matter. Could you imagine professors with political biases pushing an agenda as opposed to focusing on student learning? Explain your response using careful reasoning. (3-4 academic paragraphs)


nso events

During the past year, I've deepened my relationship with Neighborhood Service Organization, a multi-purpose social service agency in Detroit. Last year, students in my upper-level writing in the public sphere class worked with NSO's walk-in center in the Cass Corridor. Students conducted research on the neighborhood and worked with the center's staff to create various reports and documents that engaged some of the crucial concerns of the center: its relationship with the Corridor's business community, the actions of the unsanctioned volunteers who work and prosyletize outside the center, and so on. This term, my first-year students partnered with the agency's headquarters to generate material for NSO's newsletter. Students have learned a great deal and I hope their written work has helped the organization.

A few months back, I joined with several Gesu colleagues to walk NSO's 5K fundraiser. Last summer, I took a group of students to their annual breakfast event. One of the things that's happening is I'm blurring the line between NSO as a professional (i.e., service learning) contact and a personal contact. I mean "blur" in the best possible sense. Like most people in this particular biz, I often feel the work is disjointed. Monday: grade papers. Tuesday: work on that theoretical article. Friday: three meetings that have little or nothing to do with either of the above. NSO's helped me feel a bit of coherence.

This weekend, I hope to hit the Russel Bazzar downtown, where NSO is hosting local artists and vendors selling locally crafted Christmas gifts. They'll be taking donations too. A cadre from Gesu (my church) and I are finishing our training tomorrow for a project supporting recently housed NSO clients. This is an exciting venture. We're working to provide support services for folks who after years of homelessness have made the transition to apartment life. The kick-off of these support services is a Christmas party for fifty people, featuring full holiday dinner (turkey, ham, etc.). If you know me, then you know that few things make me as happy than cooking for big groups. If you are reading this and have mad kitchen skills, then you might get a call from me regarding the aforementioned party.

Great to connect with people whose work is so essential. I can't overemphasize the satisfaction that comes along with a little bit of coherence, connecting one piece of my life to another. Building those connections between work life and personal life takes work. Sometimes people don't want that type of connectedness, preferring to shut off at 5:00. Not me.


get random

Yesterday I chaired my last Gesu Church Peace & Justice Committee meeting. With the close of 2009, I finish my two-year term as co-chair of the group. We've done various fundraisers for advocacy projects, organized education programs at our church, brought in speakers to give talks on justice-related topics, and tried to contribute to the spirit of Gesu. I continue to be thankful to have a group like P&J who makes me feel at home within the Catholic Church, which of course can too often persist in its hierarchical ways. Last major function as co-chair: host our annual Christmas party this coming weekend. I'll make tamale pie and hopefully Nicole and I will have made more of our cookies by then. So far, we're finished with the butterscotch chip and that's it. Way behind.

Also yesterday I enjoyed the documentary "One Fast Move Or I'm Gone," a vivid look at a period of Jack Kerouac's life wherein he escaped (from alcoholism, New York, sudden fame, all the trappings he allegedly hated) to Lawrence Ferlinghetti's cabin in Big Sur and had a nervous breakdown. The film celebrates the melancholy, using Kerouac's words liberally and assembling friends and fans of his to talk about the "novel" that grew out of Kerouac's experiences at the cabin. "One Fast Move" serves as a love letter to the great book _Big Sur_ but also a kind of catharsis for the odd and absurd assemblage of Kerouac devotees--writers, scholars, celebrities, that scruffy guy from Death Cab for Cutie--who know a great deal about this period in Kerouac's life. Essential viewing.

Today, I'm marking student papers, watching the snow fall, and heading to the gym for a much-needed (see: paragraph on cookies above) workout.


three things

Beyond the everyday tasks like walking the dogs, driving to campus, marking student papers, and teaching, three things this morning are noteworthy.

THE GOOD. I received a "revise and resubmit" for an article about affective dimensions of community service learning. For those outside the biz, an r&r means that peer reviewers like the article and recommend publication with revisions. First post-tenure article. Cool.

THE BAD. This fool. At the risk of drawing undue attention to a hate-monger, let's call him by name: Cardinal Javier Barragan, a semi-retired Catholic church leader who has suggested that gay people can't get into heaven. My students may read this and recognize my use ("fool," "twisted") of the ad hominem fallacy. Damn right. Sometimes the affective response is the best response. Maybe Barragan is sitting in his fancy house, googling himself, and reading this. (Fat chance, but I can humor myself.) If so, here is my message: With these statements you have added nothing to public discourse and you have added nothing to the spiritual life of anybody. You have said things counter to the spirit and the tenets of your own stated faith. You have hurt people. Why, according to both canonical and non-canonical accounts of Jesus's life, did he say not a word about gay people, all the while saying lots of things about loving and not judging our neighbors?

THE LIGHTER NOTE. A student in class today used the phrase "I shit you not" during discussion. What's the etymology of that phrase? Probably inappropriate, but at least the comment indicated a certain amount of community and comfort in the classroom. Cool, part deux. Barragan, you won't ruin my day.