Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Soundtrack of your life - due 4/20/11

(By the end of the day, let's say, as I have not been as assiduous as I should in getting it posted.)

Last blog assignment, people. Also your last shot at having any fun at all in this course. I always try to include this at the end of the course for a few reasons: For one, it lets people have something personal and creative to include in the portfolio if they want to, because so much of the second half of the course is academically demanding. For another, you've had to listen to my music all semester, so this is your chance to show me (and each other) yours.

The assignment is simply this: If your life had a soundtrack, what would it be? In my head, my life already does. So pick a couple of songs – the precise number is up to you, but maybe 2 minimum, 10 maximum? – and give a short (or long!) explanation of why you would include them of a soundtrack to your life. The explanation can be very personal (“This is the song I play when I kiss my pillow and cry because Marilyn Monroe is dead”) to the fairly impersonal (“This is my favorite song to dance to because it’s got such a good beat”). Again, it’s up to you. Here is my list that is WAY too big because doing this was more fun than doing my real work:

“The Great Historical Bum” - Chad Mitchell Trio (kinda, it’s a really old song, but their version is the one I know best). This is what my crazy illiterate great-uncle Leroy recites any time he’s asked how old he is, so I grew up with it memorized. You ask him how old he is, and he says, “I was born about ten thousand years ago / There ain’t nothing in this world that I don’t know / I saw Peter, Paul and Moses playing ring-around-the-roses / And I’ll whup the guy that says it isn’t so.” He really is totally illiterate – he suffered massive head trauma as a child and lost the ability to read or write as a result. He has a farm in a part of Minnesota that they still haven't gotten around to paving yet. He was pretty much the most awesome uncle ever when I was growing up, because he let me blow lots of my childhood on driving his fire engine and poking sheep with a stick. He also had a brain tumor that took away a lot of his fine motor skills (cleaning and plucking chickens for a dude with no motor skills is not very fun, incidentally), and was once trampled by his own sheep when he accidentally pissed off one of the rams. Wow, it turns out that my childhood was pretty damn awesome. I look a lot like him. Hjalmer Willard LeRoy Hawkins, bless you and your crazy. (I’m allowed to use “crazy” as a noun because I’m getting a PhD, see.)

"Thirsty Dog" - Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds. Oh, man, I love this one. It's fast and loud and my favorite song ever about making an apology. It sort of manages to sum up my feelings about almost every apology I've ever given - the speed of the song speaks to how I always want to blurt out the apology as fast as possible to get it over with, and the lyrics are the perfect mix of genuine shame, regret, embarrassment, self-pity, rage, and alcohol: "You keep nailing me back into my box / I'm sorry I keep popping up / With my crazy mouth / And jangling jester's cap. / I'm sorry I ever wrote that book / I'm sorry for the way I look / But there ain't a lot / That I can do about that."

"I'm Your Man" - Lizzie West. This is a cover version of a Leonard Cohen song. Cohen and his gravelly voice are pretty awesome, but also kind of creepy, so I think this version of it is the sexiest song ever recorded. Hands down. You could try to argue against me, but you would lose, because I am correct. It's also the only song I couldn't find anywhere on Youtube (not her version that is).

"Fuck and Run" - Liz Phair. Oh, hush, this isn't anywhere near as dirty, or as personal, as some of the stuff I could have put on here. This is from kind of an old album, but I only encountered it relatively recently. Phair does a lot of really creative and daring songs about sexuality and relationships, which is part of what I love about her. When I first heard this song, I started smiling, because I thought it sounded like it was going to be a fun song about one-night stands. ("I woke up alarmed / I didn't know where I was at first, / Just that I woke up in your arms.") And then . . . it wasn't. It was about the singer admitting that the way she was treating her life and her relationships was unsustainable, because there was something fundamentally broken about her. By the time I reached the end, I actually had a little lump in my throat at, "I can feel it in my bones / I'm going to spend my whole life alone." I think it really speaks to that little spot in everyone where you're convinced that you're the only one on the planet who hasn't figured love out.

"The Ocean" - Dar Williams. I sing this in the shower like every morning.

"Olga's Birthday" - Rose Polenzani. I used to sing this in the shower every morning.

“Home for a Rest” by Spirit of the West. This is a Scots-Canadian folk rock band. No soundtrack of my life is complete without this one. I first heard this song performed by an enthusiastic Canadian with an acoustic guitar on New Years' Eve, 2003, in Edinburgh, Scotland. It's a great, crazy, drinkin', partyin' song about going abroad to England: "You'll have to excuse me, I'm not at my best / I've been gone for a month / I've been drunk since I left. / These so-called vacations / Will soon be my death / I'm so sick from the drink / I need home for a rest." At the time, I'd been living in hostels in Britain for seven months, surrounded by insane Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, South Africans, and others, who were drunk all the time and occasionally stoned. (Except for the Quebecois, who were stoned all the time and occasionally drunk.) It was a great time: I was never bored even though I was working some horrible jobs, and I loved the people I lived with. Mostly. However, there was always this sense that we knew that the way we were living wasn't really healthy, and that some day we were going to have to go home. That night was just a perfect performance, with all these drunk and desperate expatriates shouting "TAKE ME HOME!" at the end of the chorus, and every time I hear the song, I go right back there in my memory.

"Tupelo," also by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. This gets an honorable mention just because the title of this blog is pulled from the lyrics. Say what you like about how weird the guy is, but he really is one of the most amazing lyricists of the twentieth century.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Field trip time!

Don't worry, you aren't going far. By Wednesday, I want you to have gotten your body into a UW library and written about it. I want you to:

* Use the search engine at the library website (http://www.library.wisc.edu) to find a book related to your topic. It may be that you have to be a little creative - if, for example, you were writing something about the recent protests around the capitol, you obviously wouldn't be able to find a book written on them. But you could find a book on the history of political protest, or collective bargaining/unions, etc.
* In that book's record, figure out which library it's in.
* Now go to that library and find it. I don't care if you check it out, just find it on the shelf.
* Now blog about it. Your blog should have a short story of your search (both for a book to look up and the book itself), a description of where it was INCLUDING what was nearby it on the shelf, its Library of Congress call number, and a bibliographic entry for your book.

I'm doing this not because I hate you all and want you to suffer, but because I think this is genuinely a useful, interesting exercise. In my own research, I've found that, half the time, finding one relevant book and then just looking on the shelves around it is incredibly useful in terms of finding other texts and ideas. It's true that I work with literature, so I don't have to worry as much about making sure I'm reading super-recent stuff, like you do when you work in the sciences. Regardless, it's still a good thing to become oriented with the physical space of the library.

Here's mine:

This was actually kind of hard for me, because I already have most of what I need to do my writing already checked out. I decided that I should probably do some reading about what other people have said about one of the absolutely monstrous texts that I'll be writing on later in my dissertation: Leslie Marmon Silko's Almanac of the Dead. I did a search in Madcat for the title of the book, and came up with a couple of promising leads. One in particular seemed really interesting - a book of essays about American Indian writing. Only one of the essays in it is actually about Silko, but the book as a whole is about looking at how different countries react to indigenous writings and concerns, which is kind of what I'm working on.

Book was in Memorial Library, which I know pretty well, particularly this area of the stacks. I made it up to the correct floor (thankfully, almost everything I ever need is on either floor 2 or 2M, so I don't have far to go). I found the book on the shelf and snagged it, then looked around it. It was, naturally, in the middle of a big clump of books all about reading American indigenous literature. Some of the books were ones I actually already own - I bought them rather than checking them out so I could scribble notes all over them and not have to worry about having to return them. There was one nearby that I grabbed as well: Gerald Vizenor's Fugitive Poses: Native American Scenes of Absence and Presence. Vizenor's kind of a big deal in the field, and while looking at the index didn't show much that was related to specific books I'm working on, I still think looking at it as sort of a general background thing will be useful. I checked them both out.

The actual original book I went to find was:

Pulitano, Elvira. Transatlantic Voices: Interpretations of Native North American Literatures. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2007.

Its call number is: PS153 I52 T73 2007

Sunday, April 3, 2011

On Wednesday, we're going to talk a little bit about Fowles' article in the course reader: "Advertising's Fifteen Basic Appeals." This will give us a chance to talk about both mass media in a way we haven't done before, and visual rhetoric/aesthetics, if you're into that kind of thing. You'll have a blog assignment to help you sort of get your head wrapped around what Fowles is talking about. So, first, read the Fowles. Then, pick an advertisement. It can be in any format (print/radio/tv, etc.), from anywhere, any time, good, bad, indifferent - but it should probably be something you either have a very clear memory of, or access to. You can pick a few if you want to bring up in class, but you should only write about one. Your blog assignment should consist of:

a) A description of the advertisement - describe it to someone who's never seen/read/heard it. Explain where it appears/appeared, the context for it, anything else that's useful for understanding it.

b) A quick analysis of how it's supposed to function. What is the appeal of the piece supposed to be? How is it convincing you to buy (or "buy," if it's an advertisement for something that's not technically a product, like a charity?) what they're featuring? Can you categorize it under one of Fowles' appeals? How effective is it, actually? You can post it if it's available to you and you can figure out how, but it's not necessary. If you use an ad from any print source in your possession, I'd appreciate it if you could bring it in to class on Wednesday so we can look at it.

Example which I regret picking because it's actually sort of difficult to describe:

A few years ago, Brawny paper towels released a series of short advertisements that I believe were only available online. The Brawny paper towel man has been on their package for a long time, and this series of commercials were all conversations a version of him as a super-sensitive, rugged lumberjack in a cabin out in the woods. The one I'll describe was called "That Thing You're Going Through." Like all the other ads, this featured the Brawny man speaking to the camera directly as though it were a person - specifically, a woman, who never speaks herself. The POV (point-of-view) camera enters the rustic cabin, where the plaid-shirted Brawny man appears to be cleaning a Shetland pony with paper towels, in front of a crackling fireplace. As he spots us/the POV, he asks us to move to the couch, and sits down. He comforts the POV about "that thing you're going through" - he's very sympathetic about it, though it is never specified exactly what that "thing" is. He then informs the POV camera that sometimes when he feels bad, he saws wood, and invites us to saw wood with him. The commercial ends with the POV apparently comforted (it/she/we nods in response to his question about feeling better) by his compliments on how well we saw wood. There's a sort of romance-novel-cover feel to the visual aesthetics - the colors are warm and the man himself has the sort of light stubble and strong jaw that you'd see on one. Again, I believe this was only viewable online - certainly, when Brawny itself was still hosting the advertisements, there were some that were online-only, because they were interactive and could be assembled by the viewer, piece-by-piece.

There's so much that's interesting about this advertisement that I sort of want to write a whole paper on it, now. Like, he never actually says that the POV is a woman, and we don't have a voice, but we know we're supposed to be a woman by the way he's talking to us. But, relevant to the assignment, if I absolutely had to pick appeals from Fowles that it uses, I guess I'd have to say that it depends on the needs for sex and escape, neither of which seem to have very much to do with paper towels. I feel like it's a little problematic in fitting into those categories because the ad is so clearly over-the-top that what we're seeing are humorous parodies of what women are told their needs in those areas are supposed to be. Women are supposed to like men who look like romance novel covers, and they're supposed to like men who talk about their feelings, but this guy is so exaggerated in his intensity that he feels more like a serial killer. So it uses a fair dose of humor in getting its message across. The funny thing about it is that it worked for me. Seriously, whenever they're available, I still buy Brawny paper towels to this day - when my housemates and I first discovered them, we spent about a week laughing so hard we cried, and I still buy Brawny out of a sort of nostalgic gratitude for that.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Roberts/research - due 3/25/11

The Roberts piece ("How to Say Nothing in Five Hundred Words") is a little bit dated, and some of his vocabulary is obscure. Look up anything you don't know. I still love the essay to bits, though your mileage may vary. Instead of summarizing the article, I'd like you to take its advice and try to apply it to your own work.

I've asked you to start thinking about research questions already, and I'd like to continue with that. For your blog, please write one (or a few, if you're really torn) research question(s) that you think you might pursue for the paper. Write me the question, then explain why you've chosen it, and what you think you might end up doing with it. Think about Roberts as you do this. Example:

How do people use the figure of Adolf Hitler when they make political or moral arguments?

I think this fulfills one of Roberts' recommendations, in that it's an unusual topic. It's not something I already know a lot about, but one of my strengths is definitely looking at how people use language and construct arguments, so I think I might be able to handle this. The biggest problem is really that the question is too broad: I might have to narrow it down to something like "on Internet discussion forums" or "on protest signs." There's an unofficial idea called "Godwin's Law" that essentially says that if an argument on the Internet goes on long enough, it will almost always bring up Hitler or the Nazis, and on some forums, as soon as you bring up the topic, everyone will say you've just automatically lost the argument. (That you've "Godwinned the argument.") I'm really interested in the way that people on both sides of the political spectrum refer to Hitler in really strange ways when they're making their points. I've seriously seen, for example, arguments saying that it's evil to persecute homosexuals because the Nazis did it, and arguments saying that homosexuality is evil because most Nazis were secretly gay. I think I'd like to look at the way it's used in different kinds of circumstances.

It's a sort of difficult open-ended question, and I might end up having to tweak it a little, since there's not a single definite answer. What I mostly want to argue, I think, is that invoking Hitler/Nazism is almost never a logical or reasonable claim to support an argument, and recommend that people should just stop doing it in general. I think I can find sufficient evidence to support that, even though ultimately the paper's conclusion would largely be my subjective opinion.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Gladwell blog - due 3/21/11

Fairly standard blog. The reading is in the course reader - Malcolm Gladwell's "Something Borrowed." Our first class meeting after break is going to be talking about plagiarism, in a slightly more complicated way than you may be used to. We tend to treat it like it's a very simple issue, but, in a lot of cases, it's much more complicated than it appears. So, the blog assignment:

First paragraph - same ol', same ol'. Try to give me a one-paragraph summary of the piece that starts with a main claim (thesis statement) that you then support. This is kind of tricky, because in a lot of ways, Gladwell asks more questions than he answers. If you get totally stuck, think about starting it with something like, "Gladwell asks whether . . ." so you can indicate that the final point is fairly open-ended.

Second paragraph - just react, again. Good, bad, weird, whatever. I think this is a really interesting way to think about plagiarism. Did Gladwell's piece make you question your ideas at all? I hope you at least thought it was interesting. I think it's fairly well-written, but, in the past, I've had students become confused about the sequence of events in th eessay because of how many people are involved in the thing (two writers and one plagiarist). So do, please, use this space to ask questions if you can't figure out just what the heck happened.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Ayn Rand - due 2/23/11

Article's on the site; I have warned you that Rand is sort of . . . notoriously crazy. I think the best thing I can do with asking you to do this blog is a standard summary/response one, mostly because it'll give you another fairly well-structured piece that you can put in the portfolio, if you like.

So, first paragraph - give me Rand's message. Even though this is an analytical essay, not a narrative, it still might be a challenge to get to the root of her argument. I would suggest that you wait until you get to the end of the piece before you try to make a claim about what her point is, and think carefully about what she's saying on that last page. What does she want to happen? The legislation she's talking about, incidentally, is here:


It might help to have the context for it.

Second paragraph, you can once again respond in any way you see fit - approval, disapproval, questions about some of her references. But what I'd be most interested in seeing is whether you can pick up on any of the article's flaws. Are there any points Rand makes that seem strange, or poorly supported?

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

David Sedaris - due 2/18/2011

What I'd like you to do with Sedaris for Friday:

Don't summarize it, that would be kind of dumb. I want to use Sedaris as a jumping-off point to spend a little bit of time talking about humor. So, and this can be super short, instead tell me what the joke(s) is/are. If you found it funny, what was funny, and why? If you think it's dreadfully dull and not funny at all (which I'm guessing some of you will), tell me what parts are supposed to be funny. How can you tell? How does the humor in this piece work?

Secondly, tell a joke in your blog. Long or short as you like. Feel free to read each others'. I'll give you a variation on one:

I told my roommate I was thinking about asking you guys to do this, and he said, "I wouldn't want to do that. I'd get performance anxiety about thinking of a joke."

I said, "Well, I don't care, it can just be some dumb riddle from elementary school if they like. You know the sort of thing, like, 'Why was six afraid of seven?'"

"Oh," he says, "because seven is a pedophile."

That made me laugh way harder than I should have. That's all you have to write; explain Sedaris and give me one joke. I am genuinely interested in talking about why I found my roommate's response so funny.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Second prompt - for Ronson, due 2/11/11

This time around, we're doing a chapter from Jon Ronson's Them: Adventures with Extremists, titled, "The Klansman who Won't Say the N-Word." As with Kincaid, you're a little robbed here - because this is a chapter from a much longer piece, you're missing some of the context surrounding it. It's probably enough to tell you that Ronson is a Jewish, British journalist (all of which is relevant in this chapter) who got really interested in conspiracy theories and groups of different kinds. The book follows his journeys as he meets with these various groups, and in this chapter, he'll sometimes reference previous chapters that you don't have access to. The groups he talks about shouldn't be too hard to figure out, though - if you have any real trouble, look it up, or ask a question here and I'll address it.

First chapter, standard summary. I'm guessing you may find this slightly harder than Gross, because it's presented so heavily in narrative format. Try as much as you can to avoid describing what happens, in favor of presenting what you feel is an implicit or explicit point of the piece. Again, try to get this focused down to one point: what is Ronson trying to say? What impression does he want you to leave with? Is he just talking about the people he actually meets, or gesturing towards more general ideas? How do you know?

The second paragraph can, once again, pretty much be your reaction. What do you think about this new incarnation of the Klan? Are they a vast improvement on the old? Is using inoffensive language a step in the right direction? Any bits that were confusing or obscure? And, of course, did you like it or not? I think it's hilarious; your mileage may vary.

Monday, January 31, 2011

First Prompt - for Gross, due 2/4/11

Once again, the way this will work: Read the article. Read this blog entry/prompt. At some point before class, write your response on your OWN blog, the address of which, if you've forgotten it, can be found somewhere in the list of links to the right. I'll use your posts to figure out what people would like to address or what they still have questions about during class discussion. Everyone profits.

The article in question for this round is Beverly Gross' "Bitch," found on pages 76-84 of the course reader. By the time we meet for Monday's class, you should have read the article and given me two short paragraphs on it in your blog post: one short summary of her main point, and one short personal response. Think of this as a very, very scaled-down version of what you've already done with Jamaica Kincaid's piece. First paragraph should be objective, concise, etc. Second paragraph can be pretty off-the-cuff - respond to any part of the article you like. It can be just one sentence you were interested in, or the whole thing, if you like. If you hated it, that's fine, you can say that, but at least say why. "This was good" or "this was bad" don't cut it by themselves.

Issues you might think about for the first paragraph, beyond, "What's Gross' main point?": Does she have more than one point? Who is her intended audience? What kinds of evidence does she present to back up her position? What's the relationship between her different kinds of evidence - the dictionary definitions, for example, versus how "bitch" has been used in real life?

Issues you might think about for the second paragraph: Is this dated (it's almost as old as you are)? Is it convincing? Is she too obsessed with gender/sex? What's your relationship to profanity, inappropriate language, insults, or obscenity? How do we talk about it responsibly?

Note that all of these are merely things you might think about as you start writing; you don't have to answer any of them except for, "What's Gross' main point?" They're meant to be helpful prods along the way.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Oh, let's just put a post up here.

So I can see what the dang thing looks like.

Generic Article Summary

Whenever your course calendar indicates that you have a summary due - the first instance of this is the "Gross summary," on February 4 - you'll pretty much write the same thing:

* One short paragraph explaining the main point of the piece and/or briefly summarizing it if you have trouble coming up with a thesis about it.

* One short paragraph expressing a reaction to the piece.

We'll get a little bit of practice doing this in the Jamaica Kincaid assignment you're doing next. I'll always write a prompt for everything you're responding to, in case you have trouble getting started. For example, let's say I had asked you to do this for the very first piece we read, Silko's "Language and Literature from a Pueblo Indian Perspective." The prompt might have looked something like this:

In your first paragraph, please try to summarize for me Silko's main argument/idea. What kinds of evidence does she use to demonstrate her point? Who is her intended audience? In your second, give me your reaction. How effective do you think the piece is? Does it have any weaknesses? Are there parts you felt were confusing? How does this relate to the way you work with writing, if at all?

And an answer might have looked something like this:

In Leslie Marmon Silko's "Language and Literature from a Pueblo Indian Perspective," the author is interested in explaining how her particular cultural background affects the way she experiences storytelling. Silko explains that, for the Laguna Indians, all language is a kind of storytelling, because all words are connected with history and culture. She emphasizes that this is not just through traditional folk stories - though they are certainly important - but also through new stories that are created, which help to build community and family shared experiences. Silko's audience appears to include not just her original listeners - as the piece was originally intended to be spoken, not read - but, ultimately other readers in other places. This is apparent by the way she invites her audience to reach across multiple times, places, and cultures, and to think about the ways in which language, via storytelling, can unite us.
I find Silko's argument really interesting, though I think in a lot of ways I already relate to language in the way she talks about. I'm really interested in linguistic origins and how words and themes are interconnected. One of my old housemates, introducing me to someone, once said, "This is Otto. She doesn't actually have conversations, she just quotes random obscure stuff and then laughs at herself." I was pretty embarrassed that she was right; this is sort of a more generous way to think of it - that always having things remind you of other words or lines or stories is just a really integrated and communal way to experience language. I guess I'm still curious as to what degree other people experience this as well.

Now, all of this is pretty rough draft on my part (as your blogs should be), but notice that neither the summary nor the response have to be particularly lengthy. Concise and meaningful is fine. Note also that I didn't specifically answer most of the questions in the prompt, but they were there to be answered if I ran out of things to say. Always try to do these as "top-down" summaries - in the first one or two sentences, you should name the author, name the piece, and make a claim about what the piece's major point is. The rest of your summary should then explain what that major point looks like, how it works, etc.