Sunday, February 07, 2010

"All the fuss we made over these writers, as if what they said was a matter of life and death to us."

I have just finished reading one of the most remarkable books I've read in a very long time: Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran. It is a difficult book to describe; one might say it is a memoir, perhaps somewhat fictionalized, of an upper-class Iranian woman, partly raised in Britain and the United States and now living in the USA, which focuses on what it was like to teach English literature in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution and the war with Iraq. In particular, she talks about her interactions with some of her students during this period. Nafisi comes across as a secular person, and she sees the Islamic revolution as nothing but a disaster. For instance page 119, when she talks to one of her students, a Khomeini supporter, about the trial of a supposed counterrevolutionary:

I told him they had no proof that the gentleman in question was a CIA agent, in any case I doubt if the CIA would be foolish enough to employ someone like him. But even those whom he called the functionaries of the old regime, regardless of their guilt, shouldn't be treated this way. I cannot understand why the Islamic government had to gloat over these people's deaths, brandishing their photographs after they had been tortured and executed. Why did they show us these pictures? Why did our students every day shout slogans demanding new death sentences?

Mr. Bahri did not respond at first. He stood still, his head bent, his hands linked in front of him. Then he started to speak slowly and with tens precision. Well, they have to pay, he said they're on trial for their past deeds. The Iranian nation will not tolerate their crimes. And these new crimes? I asked as soon as he had uttered his last word. These new crimes? Should they be tolerated in silence? Everyone nowadays is an enemy of God -- former ministers and educators, prostitutes, leftist revolutionaries: they are murdered daily. What is his and his had these people done to deserve such treatment?

His face had become hard, and of the shadow of obstinacy has colored his eyes. He repeated that people had to pay for their past crimes. This is not a game, he said. It is a revolution. I asked him if I too was on trial for my past. But he was right in a sense: we all have to pay, but not for the crimes we were accused of. There were other scores to settle. I did not know then that I had already begun to pay, that what was happening was part of the payment. It was much later that these feelings would be clarified.

This book has been criticized for giving a very negative view of the Islamic Republic of Iran, of women and even more men in Iran and even of Islam itself. Notably, Jasmine and Stars: Reading more than Lolita in Tehran by Fatemeh Keshavarz (another Iranian academic based in United States and writing in English) accuses Nafisi of promoting a neo-Orientalist agenda and confirming all the old clichés of the backward, static and exotic East. I don't see it myself. There's nothing exotic about the presentation of life in Tehran in this book, and there's plenty of action and change. What is really wrong with the criticisms I've heard is that they assume that Nafisi had to write the book that the critics wanted to read, or have other people read. This is a very personal memoir, not the history of revolutionary Iran. It tells Nafisi's story of how the revolution affected her as a teacher and scholar, and how it seemed to affect some of her more memorable students -- and not just the ones he liked. I have yet to read a review that picks up on what I think is very important point: this memoir might easily be about the Cultural Revolution in China, or the Jacobin revolution in France, or any other number of similar upheavals.

The quotation at the head of this post tells the story as I read it. It is about reading, teaching, learning, speaking about intellectual subjects when it is really important and far from easy. Again, p. 338:

I said to him that I wanted to write a book [after she left Iran] in which I would thank the Islamic Republic for all the things it had taught me -- to love Austen and James and ice cream and freedom. I said, right now it is not enough to appreciate all this; I want to write about it. He said, you will not be able to write about Austen without writing about us, about this place where you rediscovered Austen. You will not be able to put us out of your head. Try, you'll see. The Austen you know is so irretrievably linked to this place, this land and these trees. You don't think that this is the same Austen you read with Dr. French -- it was Dr. French [probably at U. of Oklahoma], wasn't it? Do you? This is the Austen you read here, in the place where the film censor is nearly blind and where they hang people in the streets and put a curtain across the sea to segregate men and women. I said, When I write about all that perhaps I'll become more generous, less angry.

If you like that sample of Nafisi's writing, there is lots more where that came from.

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Wednesday, January 13, 2010

University lectures, yesterday, today, and tomorrow

University lectures began in the 12th century, when the first European universities evolved in certain centers of learning. "Lectures" involved professors (called "masters") reading and commenting on key books which were often in that pre-printing era unavailable to students.

Lectures in their original form have long been obsolete, and over the years there have been no shortage of people saying that live lectures should be replaced by something else -- TV lectures as were tried at my alma mater, Michigan State University 40-some years ago, online lectures, computerized interactive this and that, all in the name of greater efficiency and lower costs and the general trendiness of being on the cutting edge.

This has always rung false for me. Of course even the best lectures have their limitations, and being a "best lecturer" takes work and talent, but I've always believed that lecturing adds something to the learning experience that you might not get otherwise.

Today, over at the medieval group blog In the Middle Jeffrey Cohen expressed what I feel about this issue by describing his goals and the successful first day of one of his classes this term:

As I explained to my 90 undergraduates in "Myths of Britain" yesterday, being truly present is a commitment both teacher and students must make in order for a class to thrive. We've become accustomed to the solitude of checking email on an iPhone rather than being aware of the world moving around us, so to have 75 minutes as a community is a gift that ought not to be squandered. I spoke about my syllabus's Code of Courtesy at ITM recently. Its objective, I explained to my students as I introduced it, is to give us the moments of intense togetherness that we can't have if people are walking in and out of the room, texting, chatting with a neighbor. All I ask them to give to me and to each other is the commitment I give to them.

So far so good. I was nervous about my first class because I hadn't been in front of a room of students since last April. Keeping 90 restless adolescents interested is also a considerable challenge. But I walked out of the room happy, if exhausted: they have already proven themselves eager conversationalists. Something about my emphasizing their obligation to disagree with or at least question me skeptically seems to have resonated well.
I found it inspiring!

Image: medieval students hearing a "lecture." None of them are texting or surfing, but some seem to be sleeping or just talking.

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Wednesday, May 20, 2009

"Hands-on undergraduate education"

Always a good thing, where possible. A film short at the OU site is here. "OU" here is Ohio University in Athens, Ohio; Patrick Muhlberger is a relative.

I found it odd that one speaker referred to the USA as "here in the States." An undercover Canadian?

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Friday, March 27, 2009

Advice to potential grad students

Academics often wonder whether it is fair to encourage students to go on to grad school in pursuit of the PhD and academic employment. There are certainly easier ways to make money. The job market has been consistently poor since the early 1970s (after a few years when many many professors were hired in an unprecedented situation, the result of the baby boom), it takes years of preparation to gain the degree, and there's the whole issue of deferred income, which you may or may not ever make up. As I say, if you are smart and determined enough to get a PhD, there are easier ways to make money.

Over at Glossographia, a blog I have just started to follow, Stephen Chrisomalis has one of the best answers I have heard to this question. The entire post is worth reading, but here are a couple of key paragraphs:

I think that the sorts of people who should be considering graduate school are those for whom the actual process of going to grad school is enjoyable and rewarding for its own sake (despite its struggles). One thing I do tell my students is to ask themselves, “If I spend six years in grad school, even if I never get a job, will it still have been worth it?” If they can honestly answer yes, that the process of learning and intellectual exploration is worth it for its own sake, then they should do it; if not, then they shouldn’t. And again the money comes into play – if one has to go into massive debt to do it, then it’s certainly less likely to be worth it.

And even further, I worry that while Benton is right about the job market, and right about the need to inform students of the realities of the market, he’s asking more of academics than anyone would ask of other professionals. We don’t tell artists not to do art, and the chances of financial success as an artist are far, far dimmer than the prospects for an academic. We don’t tell baseball players not to try out for the minor leagues just because the chances of them ever playing major league ball are minuscule. (The baseball analogy is one that a friend of mine mentioned to me some years ago and that I have been using ever since to talk to non-academics about the model under which academic employment works.)

I couldn't have said it better myself. In fact, I didn't.

Image: Sandy Koufax.


Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The worst part about going to university

Saturday, March 14, 2009

HIST 3805 (Islamic Civilization) students

For my amusement and theirs, and so you can visualize an NU classroom.

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Tuesday, December 23, 2008

NU ski trails open

Toivo Koivukoski announces:

The campus ski trails are now in proper shape and ready for skiing. There are approximately 5km of groomed trails, accessible from Athletics, P8, Governors House, and the Pond. The trails are alternately groomed for skate and classic; classic tracks will be set on weekends and when it is cold (like now!), and skate set for weekdays otherwise.

Please kindly refrain from walking or snowshoeing on the groomed trails- there is lots of snow out there to share.

Skis are available for free loan from the Education Center gym.

Many thanks to the NECO Community Futures Development Corporation, the Vice-President Finance and Administration, Andrew Rees, Dave Rees, all those who came out for trail work, and the North Bay Nordic Ski Club for their generous support for this project.

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Saturday, October 04, 2008

The world turned inside out

I have enjoyed myself at Nipissing University from the start, which was 19 years ago, but today pretty much took the cake. My history colleague James Murton took his environmental history class on an expedition on the Mattawa River, and allowed some other university people, including me, to tag along.

The excuse for this expedition was to illustrate in a visceral way a classic theme in Canadian history, the connection between what we think of as wilderness and primeval activity in that wilderness, meaning the fur trade and the voyageur routes, and the whole world economy of the time. Every Canadian with the slightest interest in the history of his or her country has been exposed to this material in one way or another, but I will tell you it meant a great deal more to everyone who took part in today's canoe trip on the Mattawa.

Part of me says that every single course at Nipissing University that can justify a canoe trip as illustrating part of its subject matter should do so, and we could spend the entire month of September on the river. This is probably too extreme an idea, but how could it hurt? I certainly felt today that Jamie Murton had made the most of our location.

I live out in the country, and driving out to the river, and stopping at a couple of other sites (the La Vase portage and the local museum with a modern reproduction of the Montréal canoe), I found myself rather surprisingly feeling the world turning inside out. When you are living a life that involves driving between a modern home and a modern small city (with inadequate shopping but still) with a modern and quite new University, driving on modern roads and parking in modern parking lots, it is easy to get the feeling that all those trees and rocks and lakes are just in the way. If you don't like our area that feeling must be much stronger, but even I who do like it often regard the natural landscape as a barrier or empty space arranged in an inconvenient way. But even before we got to the museum or the canoes, knowing the area we were going to, I began to feel that the essential element of my world was not the road I was on, but the river I was about to tackle. I saw the landscape with whole new eyes and it was a thrill.

It reminded me of a previous time I was on the Mattawa, a summer day when I stood at the portage at Talon Dam, watching muscular young people wrestling with canoes as they carried them over a very difficult, rocky path. I realized that every summer's day since the Stone Age, this scene had been duplicated at this portage site. The wooded areas on either side of the river were of no particular interest, but this natural corridor was close to eternal. The same could be said of much of Canada. Vast areas are empty of people almost all the time, but there are corridors that are always in use. North Bay and indeed my village are on such a corridor, (North Bay on more than one), simply because if you want to get through there's not much in the way of alternatives. There are just too many rocks and trees and lakes.

From Flickr, some other people on Lake Talon in 2007. It was a lot grayer and colder today, but who cares.

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Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Three interesting posts from my hiatus

I only skimmed over my blog feeds after returning from my vacation, but I am glad I did so, and didn't just delete wholesale. There was some good reading, a bit of which I am going to share with you.

To start with a post that is mainly of interest to academics, here's Michael Drout ruminating on the administrative demands made on professors. But of course it's not just profs who suffer through meetings:

When I was Chair of Ed Pol I used to joke that we needed "Meeting Dosimeters" similar to those used for people who work with radioactive materials. When your dosimeter has gone above the safety level, you simply can't do any more work with radioactivity that month. It should be the same thing with meetings and other Chair stuff: decide how much you are going to do per week, and stick to that. To quote my friend Bryon Grigsby, who is now a Provost: "Nobody is going to die based on what happens in the English department."
There might be a big market for those "meeting dosimeters."

On a more historical note, here's another brilliant and thoughful post by Jonathan Jarret on medieval agricultural economics and various ways we can understand the relations between practice and records. It's vegetable barter time!

Finally, one news item I was sorry to miss, from the Telegraph: Knights Templar heirs in legal battle with the Pope.

Here's the gist:

The Association of the Sovereign Order of the Temple of Christ, whose members claim to be descended from the legendary crusaders, have filed a lawsuit against Benedict XVI calling for him to recognise the seizure of assets worth 100 billion euros (£79 billion).

They claim that when the order was dissolved by his predecessor Pope Clement V in 1307, more than 9,000 properties as well as countless pastures, mills and other commercial ventures belonging to the knights were appropriated by the church.

But their motive is not to reclaim damages only to restore the "good name" of the Knights Templar.

"We are not trying to cause the economic collapse of the Roman Catholic Church, but to illustrate to the court the magnitude of the plot against our Order," said a statement issued by the self-proclaimed modern day knights.

The fate and alleged guilt of the Templars is a legitimate subject. One does wonder, however, how this Association can claim "descent" from the 14th century members of the historic Order. Simple answer: The same way everyone else does, more or less by assertion.

For more, see Wikipedia, which I would guess has tons of material on the dubious descendents of the Templars.

Images: Templars being burned for heresy and apostasy.

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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

University professors have it easy!

All that time off in the summer!

I'm not complaining, I think I've got a great job, but I would like to point out that there's always plenty to do.

Note, for instance, what a newly tenured medieval literature professor in the United States is doing in the next five weeks, on top of attending an important conference in Britain (and here I directly quote):

* Re-write article due August 15th according to feedback from collection editors -- some of which feedback I got orally at Kalamazoo, and have been working on, but most of which I just got about a week ago.
* Finish academic book (on planes and trains while away) and write review for - gulp! - Speculum (my first ever for them).
* Read dissertation and prepare for as yet unscheduled August defense. Thank god I'm the outside reader. Note: my first dissertation committee position ever.
* Read MA thesis and prepare for early-August defense.
* Correct proofs of article (possibly with stolen time at Famous Author conference if editors won't give me a 5-day extenstion). I just got the PDF of the proofs 10 minutes ago and they're due July 25th. I'm leaving tomorrow and I'm still fine-tuning my paper, doing laundry, packing, etc.
* Prepare for and organize department orientation for non-TA students.
* Meet with colleague with whom I will be the dramaturge for a 2010 production of medieval drama (he needs to plan the season this far in advance and we have to settle on which plays and what form of text -- simply modernized or truly translated).

This kind of stuff is just as much a part of her job as teaching in a classroom. Sure, she could maybe now get away with doing less, but the only reason she has a permanent job and a tenured one at that, in a profession that has many more talented candidates than positions, is that she has always worked hard. And indeed she wants to work hard.

But there's not a lot of lying around in the summer drinking mojitos involved.


Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Job satisfaction

I am now in the home stretch of my grading of winter term final examinations. This is the part of academic life teaching professors hate the most, and it is grueling. It is very difficult to be consistent and fair when you're reading similar material time and again, and there is no mistake so gruesome or flabbergasting that somebody will not eventually make it on the paper you are grading.

But this year, grading exams that are made up of short or long essay questions, I am feeling a good deal of job satisfaction. Grading these essays has assured me that the courses I presented succeeded in inspiring some insight and even passion in some of my students. It's hard to say how much they got from me, or how much is original in their thinking, but actually I don't care what the balance is. Students who never had much reason to think about medieval English or ancient history, I guess, have presented me with evidence that they found things in the course material that they actually cared about.

I've done my job.

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Friday, April 18, 2008

A simple pleasure

One inobvious pleasure of being a professor is that I am introduced in every year and in every course to a list of student names. I have always loved the variety of names, their history, their idiosyncrasies. And some names are just pleasant.

Some of what I'm talking about is probably pretty obvious. I get to watch the name fads of 20 years ago march across my class lists, climb into prominence, peak, then fade out or perhaps make a comeback. Right now in Ontario the name Kaitlin ( various spellings) is coming on strong, while Jason seems to be less popular in my student cohort than it was a few years ago. I get to note such facts as the astonishing frequency of Francophone surnames among Ontarians people who probably don't think of themselves as Francophones -- at least their French is nonexistent. (And no, few of them are from Northern Ontario, where you might expect this.) Occasionally someone with a fictional or historical name of some fame shows up in my classes.

But the most fun of all is finding beautiful and unusual names in a class list. What I mean is, names that aren't obviously common in any language I know, that to me are just beautiful syllables, about which one can endlessly speculate. Are they in fact names that are common someplace unfamiliar to me, or are they made up by people with a lot of taste?

This year was a good one for the simply beautiful. Unfortunately, I can't share them with you, certainly not in this forum. That would be a terrible abuse of people's privacy. But there is nothing to stop you from looking around your wordy environment for this simple pleasure.

Image: names as inversions by Scott Kim, puzzlemaster.

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Friday, March 21, 2008

Dance your PhD

In celebration of a friend successfully defending a PhD thesis in a medically-related field, I refer you to an article in February's Science which describes and gives video links to the first Dance Your PhD Contest. Enjoy!

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Wednesday, September 12, 2007

That Beautiful Somewhere on DVD

About the time I came to Nipissing University, about 15 years ago, another prof here, Bill Plumstead, wrote a novel set in Northern Ontario, Loon. Somehow I put off reading it for about a decade, but when I finally got around to it, I loved the book. When I went to congratulate Bill on his accomplishment, I found him sitting in his office contemplating a movie version.

Well, the movie version, That Beautiful Somewhere, has been made and despite the fact that it is in some ways quite different than Loon, I liked the movie a great deal. It had me on the edge of my seat by the end.

Only a few of my readers got any chance at all to see it in the theater. But in this modern age, small but good movies have another way of worming their way into your hearts. Bill tells me that the DVD version will be released in Canada and the US as of September 25th. He goes on to say: For myself, I add: maybe you'd like the book, too, if you can find it..

Orders can be placed through in Canada (saving a few bucks) and in the USA. The Canadian version includes an interview with Roy Dupuis where he talks about his interests in films and his environmental work with the Rivers Foundation (saving Quebec Rivers from corporate harnessing and exploitation), which he is virtually the biggest financial contributor of. It's a wonderful interview.

I add: maybe you'd like the book, too, if you can find it.

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Thursday, August 30, 2007

Washington Post readers discuss the Virginia Tech report

Back in the spring a disturbed student at Virginia Tech shot and killed a number of fellow students and profs. This incident led to a large investigation of what happened, and what could have been done to prevent it. A report is just out and is front page news in the USA and even on Al-Jazeera.

Rather than link to the report, I instead will refer you to the Washington Post on-line discussion of the report, the tragedy, and such issues as the limits of privacy laws and who is responsible for young adult students when they get into trouble.

I find myself inclined to agree with several conflicting opinions expressed there.

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