e-mail me at billdeg@umich.edu


Far From The Tree (you should read it!)

Andrew Solomon, Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity

With meandering chapters--part storytelling, part literature review--on dwarfism, deafness, down syndrome, autism, schizophrenia, musical prodigies, transgender, and more, Solomon's book is a long and AMBITIOUS (understatement) look at children who possess some profound difference. Solomon includes hundreds and hundreds of short, journalistic narratives about families and how they cope and love and thrive, or not. Solomon concludes that "difficult love is no less a thing than easy love" but also tells the truth about tragedies. What unites all these sometimes wildly different chapters is the experience of "horizontal identity"--markers that are often not shared between parents and children and thus create a family dynamic of difference. But this isn't just a book about families, it's about how the entire culture wrestles with difference, materially and psychologically and all points between.

x-listed from my goodreads page



This one goes out to Detroit's Archbishop Vigneron who doesn't think I should "present myself" for communion, the folks at the Thomas More Law Center, and other religious supporters (many named here) of Michigan's hateful and homophobic attorney general Bill Schuette.


Andrew Solomon has written two great books that taught me a great deal about the wounded world in which we live and the wounded bodies we inhabit too. The Noonday Demon is "an atlas of depression" and Far From the Tree an epic collection of narrative and lit review about children and parents with "horizontal identities" from one another (including chapters about transgender children, autistic children, etc, etc--each chapter focuses on some type of significant difference and the familial experiences that result). He's an amazing writer, to be sure.

Nicole shared this TED talk to me in which Solomon sums up some key ideas from Far From the Tree but with a more personal bent, drawing on his own stories of being a bullied, gay kid growing up. Trauma is part of our narratives, he says. His point, I think, is that we all need to get busy "assigning meaning to those experiences." He calls this process "forging meaning" and it's a process wherein we don't assimilate to the bullshit world but rather establish go out and transform--by sharing joy, by changing what needs to be changed, and by being visibly different when that is who we are and that's what the world needs to see.


West Wing

I steal lines from The West Wing all the time: "It's like a meeting of the 'there but for the grace of God go I' club." And: "Education's the silver bullet." The DVDs of all seven seasons are definite comfort food for me. It's always been, for me anyway, a fantasy about the most earnest, literate, liberal workaholics you'll never meet.

Since becoming a writing program director I find myself quoting the show more and more (usually to myself). On the need to have professional development sessions that are purely intellectual and free of discussion of campus politics: "No palace intrigue" (echoing President Martin Sheen's desire to silence a political debate with the fist lady until they first exchange pleasantries). A few months ago on facebook I observed, "Directing a writing program is like that episode of West Wing where Martin Sheen tells the chief of staff 'I wake up energized in the morning but I never go to bed that way' and then they argue about who is holding whom back from being radical and then they totally have a bromance moment with each other and then sweeping music plays."

Of course the show could also be pretty sanctimonious at times. By literally stranding school children in the White House during a lockdown and having the characters take turns lecturing them, the post-9/11 episode pretty much made explicit what the show thought of its own mission, audience, and righteousness. And Nicole and I always make fun of the "Look at these women" conversation from Season 1, where three white guys marvel at the women (mostly their secretaries) working in the white house despite growing up in "a world that tells women to sit down and shut up."

Despite leaning a bit to heavy on Season 2, this list from today's AVCLUB is great. Ten representative episodes that show what a great drama was The West Wing. These ten episodes will have you quoting Martin Sheen, no doubt. Of course the show often mocked the notion of fandom, especially internet fandom, which puts an ironic spin on a list like this. Once the characters mocked a White House temp worker wearing a "Star Trek" lapel pin; Josh Lyman (who on various occasions during the show's run is harassed by online fans who are invariably portrayed as fools) patiently schools her: "Tell me if any of this sounds familiar to you: Let's list our favorite episodes...That's not being a fan. That's having a fetish." The West Wing-ers would disdain the AVCLUB.


Mad Men

Mad Men can devastate viewers. For all its accolades, the show really is a wonderfully written soap opera: all sex and secrets and pathos and marriages falling apart, more or less focused on good-looking people at a cool workplace. Characters give babies up for adoption, keep their sexual orientations secret, cheat on their spouses, connive, commit suicide, reveal shadow identities, and drink too much. It's General Hospital written by MFAs. Next Sunday Roger Sterling may hatch a plan to freeze all of New York City. In the last episode Dick Whitman may wake in an army barracks in Korea, circa 1952, having dreamt the whole thing.

But back to the devastation. Throughout the show's run, some of the greatest, soapiest scenes have been those that left viewers with personal and existential sadness. Sally Draper's mom says something shitty and cruel to her. Sally sees something her young eyes shouldn't see. Sal Romano loses his job to a homophobic world even though he's about the only legitimately nice guy in the whole agency. Devastation. Sal and Sally are fan favorites, but what about protagonists like Peggy? This past week Peggy--who regularly embodies the receiving end of '60s sexism--experienced the usual workplace disempowerment. She's asked to let the guys in the office present the ideas she took the lead on creating (they'll have the authority, Peggy's told, and she can interject with the emotion). Visibly bothered, Peggy is comforted by the co-worker who fathered a baby with her years prior on his office couch: "She's as good as any woman in this business."

But this week, something more. Agency at the agency. While Sinatra's "My Way" plays on the office radio, Peggy's mentor Don encourages her to rewrite the Burger Chef pitch as she sees fit, even though the client already likes the safe pitch the agency's already floated. Peggy decided to take a risk and write the better ad campaign, the one that's inside her. Then they go eat burgers. And it's beautiful. And it doesn't look like something you ever saw on General Hospital.


This Week

Quiet Sunday night in my basement office: Tigers on the radio beating the Red Sox 3-1 in the fourth inning, catching up on a few emails, going over the work that needs to get done this week. Tomorrow's a placement essay day on campus--that will be the bulk of the day but will probably rough up a Winter '15 schedule too. Tuesday and Friday will be writing days at home, likely divided between the paper I'm writing for the WPA Conference about the "transcultural" basic writing curriculum we're piloting, and the intro I'm working on for the chapter our "Beirut-Dearborn research team" is writing. Wednesday and Thursday are office days on campus--focused on working on the writing program's annual report and the proposal for our revised curriculum. But tonight, go Tigers!



Lu & Horner

During grad school at Arizona, Lu & Horner's Representing the 'Other': Basic Writers & The Teaching of Basic Writing made an impression. I can recall the book being taught in multiple seminars. It was a text we talked about in the hallways (ditto Crowley's Composition in the University...the "abolition" debate!). I have an enormous binder of study notes I used while prepping for comprehensive exams around 2000 or so and, going back, reading the pages devoted to Lu & Horner, I notice that I say little about mulitlingualism, though it's a central concern of Representing the 'Other.' My notes mostly focus on what Lu & Horner say about the history of the field (the always "newness" of the CUNY story), Min-Zhan Lu's sharp critique of 90s multiculturalism which she folds into a 'teaching essay' about style, and how basic writing could become a "border country" for the most productive, radical work in the field.

But I only have the sparest notes about what the two have to say about language use. At the time I was gearing up to write a dissertation about the history of first-year comp at two-year colleges, so their insights about marginalized narratives were of most interest to me, so that's part of it. But even the blurb on the back of the book (1999) emphasizes the book's implications for discussions of "mainstreaming" basic writers and developing "contact zone" pedagogies in writing programs. Not multilingualism.

I went back and re-read Representing the 'Other' last week and the book is still tremendously useful and tremendously forceful. And also a reminder of the scholarship that's been produced in the years since--especially everything that Lu and Horner themselves have written SINCE 1999, most of which builds in so many ways on Representing the 'Other.' Their more recent work is invariably more multidisciplinary--Horner's "Relocating Basic Writing," their collaborative "Logic of Listening to Global Englishes," Lu's "Metaphors Matter," and lots more too. All these draw on second-language writing, applied linguistics, etc, etc. And of course they deal with multilingualism even more explicitly than the work in Representing the 'Other,' stressing code-meshing and like concepts as both theoretical and teaching constructs. It's likely a lot more difficult to neglect this aspect of their analysis, now that language difference is (happily) in the foreground of their work. And the field. And our institutions.

Our writing program is in the midst of revising our curriculum, including a hard (and I hope creative) reboot of how we "do" basic writing in light of growing multilingual populations on campus. We piloted a code-meshing curriculum this past term and we're piloting more sections next Fall (details will be presented at the WPA conference in two months--stay tuned!). We're tentatively proposing a Studio Model for 2015. Exciting stuff. And it feels like what I've wanted to do for twenty years (teaching "basic writing" during the second semester of my master's program made me fall in love with the field). And so in addition to all the new things I've been reading--especially about Studio, but also Canagarajah, Matsuda, and others for insights on language and code--I'm going back and re-reading basic writing's greatest hits from graduate school and revisiting those yellowing notes from my comprehensive exams. I regret not taking a second language acquisition theory class and second-language writing pedagogy class while at Arizona. They had a great program but I guess I made the mistake of seeing a sharp dividing line between fields. Things are changing.


On Record

Today I had a workshop in Ann Arbor. So, naturally, I wandered over to Encore Records, a fine place to browse through stacks & stacks of old vinyl. Here's what I added to my collection:

Malcolm McLaren, Duck Rock (1983).

English Beat, What Is Beat? (1983).

Tim Finn, Escapade (1983).

     Bessie Smith, Any Woman's Blues (compilation from 1976)



My hometown college named a beloved former football coach its new president and virtually the entire community is celebrating. I got a master's in literature at Youngstown State during the '90s and have much love for how the University anchored Youngstown during its decades-long slide. YSU employed lots of local residents, provided cultural opportunities, maintained an open-admissions policy, and educated loads of first-generation college students and persons of color. Coach Jim Tressel, before he went on to massive success--and eventually was forced to step down for ethics and rules violations--at Ohio State--coached football at YSU and won championships, giving people in a sometimes sad city something to be proud of.

Now barred from coaching until 2017 because of those violations, Tressel's been named YSU President. People love him and because of that he can likely raise lots and lots of money. He won near-universal--hyperbolic--support from local politicians, op-ed writers, unions, and, community leaders. But here's the thing: he's not an academic. He doesn't have any experience with academic fields of study. He doesn't know how knowledge is constructed. He's got, I imagine, a Reader's Digest version of academic culture, and I'm not sure that's enough when making tough decisions about, for example, balancing STEM and professional school needs with liberal and humanistic needs (as YSU is currently trying to do). Anybody who made this point was dismissed by the Youngstown press as being elitist and their arguments were reduced ("some stuffy types critique Tressel for not having a PhD..."). I hope I'm wrong and that this lack of perspective doesn't stop Tressel from being a great president, because YSU has clearly declined in the twenty years since I was a student: declining enrollments, massive decrease in support from the state, increased reliance on adjunct labor, and they need great leadership.

But there's something more than Tressel's inexperience and lack of academic qualifications. Youngstown has a reputation for corruption. We've (I say "we" as someone born and raised in Youngstown but, admittedly, as someone who hasn't lived there in decades) been a punchline since I was a little boy there. The crooked politicians, the mobsters running everything from city hall to vending machines, Jim Traficant. Organized, institutional wrongdoing--Youngstown tends to accept these things as local quirks, as things that are funny. "Ha, that's Youngstown for you." It's hard not to see the embrace of Tressel and the absence of conversation about his rules violations at Ohio State as another example of Youngstown's *affinity* for all things crooked. The same community that elected Jim Traficant over and over again and laughed off (and took gifts from and gave communion to) people they knew were murderous mafiosos has now embraced another individual known for institutional wrongdoing. And once again the justification seems to be the same: cult of personality, good fellow, and potential to turn a buck ("great fundraiser").

I wrote this blog this morning. In the afternoon, Youngstown's mayor was indicted, along with the county auditor and city attorney. One commenter under this story wrote, "Perhaps the valley 'movers and shakers' can get him appointed as VP at YSU."


what is news?

At least the folks at TMZ are honest about who they are.

In a desperate ploy for ratings, Anderson Cooper interviewed the racist owner (soon to be ex-owner) of the L.A. Clippers and got him to say outrageous, racist things. Rubberneckers tuned in and watched him say outrageous, racist things. We got to speculate on his weird sex life. We got to hear him call out Magic Johnson for having HIV. (At least according to reports. I didn't actually see the spectacle.)

Just because you can get wealthy 18-35 people to watch doesn't mean it's "newsworthy." Jeez, exercise some judgment. A crazy racist guy saying crazy stuff isn't news. I'm not completely sure why it's even entertaining.

Remember when the Sex Pistols infamously went on the British version of The Today Show and the host egged them on to say something outrageous until they swore? That was a noteworthy Warholian moment but it wasn't a how-to moment in the history of broadcast journalism.