books, gradschool, the academy

the very nature of an answer

During my grad school years, I took a seminar on Derrida to which Derrida himself paid a surprise visit, modestly answering our questions with none of the drama I had imagined reading his written words on the page. He seemed, amazingly, to be saying something, rather than just saying something about the impossibility of saying anything. In one cringe-inducing moment, a peer of mine asked a rambling, self-referential question that began by putting “under erasure” the very nature of an answer. I remember breaking into a broad smile when Derrida responded, after a long pause, “I am sorry, but I do not understand the question.” It seemed like the end of an era: Derrida himself was asking for more clarity.

– Stephen Johnson, “I Was An Under-Age Semiotician,” NYT

gradschool, the academy, workstyle, writing

“Are you getting somewhere…

or did you get lost in Amsterdam?”
– Guster

I have been mounting a lot of defenses of creative writing programs lately. It’s come up when talking to Harvard lawyers, to Hopkins grad students, even to complete strangers. May and June of 2010 seems to be defend-your-workshop season.

My favorite strategy, hitherto only used in my head, is the one where I quote song lyrics as if they mean something. “As Ray LaMontagne writes in ‘Hannah,’ ‘I lost all of my vanity when I peered into the pool,’ which I think we can use as a metaphor for the workshop process.’ ” Like that. I’ve started to view everything as a potential defense for creative writing programs, since every occasion becomes an occasion for defending them.

I’ve thought of putting one up here, or writing a kind of point-by-point rebuttal to all the questions I’ve gotten since doing a year at this program, as well as to the objections made in print. It seems like it might be of interest. What might be of more interest would be a bad satirical defense of creative writing programs, in the manner of the “Dr. Grant Swinger” character, invented by Daniel S. Greenberg*, from the mythical Institute for the Appropriation of Federal Funds. Perhaps both.

“SWINGER: …Actually, our people have an advantage. They aren’t torn between research and teaching. They’ve resolved that conflict.
SWINGER: By doing neither.”
– from a mock interview in the 2002 Science

Not right now, though. I’m going to go for a walk, as I have for the last five days running. First thing in the morning, before trying to get any work done. Blogging beforehand is cheating, a bit. But rules were made to be bent.

* Heard about Greenberg & Swinger from this NYT review of Greenberg’s new campus satire, “Tech Transfer,” in which Nicholas Wade writes:

“…“Tech Transfer” is the world of Dr. Swinger writ large, populated by scientific entrepreneurs who have learned how to absorb federal funds, suppress charges of malfeasance and live high off the hog. When Dr. Winner assumes the presidency of Kershaw University, he learns the folly of challenging the tenured faculty on any of their sacrosanct, non-negotiable issues:

“These included annual pay increases, lax to near-non-existent conflict-of-interest and conflict-of-commitment regulations, and ample pools of powerless grad students, postdocs and adjuncts to minimize professorial workloads. As a safety net, the faculty favored disciplinary procedures that virtually assured acquittal of members accused of abusing subordinates, seducing students, committing plagiarism, fabricating data, or violating the one-day-a-week limit on money-making outside dealings.”

the academy

an armchair in flames

A dynamic new school of thought is emerging that wants to kick down the walls of recent philosophy and place experimentation back at its centre. It has a name to delight an advertising executive: x-phi. It has blogs and books devoted to it, and boasts an expanding body of researchers in elite universities. It even has an icon: an armchair in flames. If philosophy ever can be, x-phi is trendy. But, increasingly, it is also attracting hostility.

– David Edmonds & Nigel Warburton in Prospect Magazine on “x-phi” (experimental philosophy). Via AJ.

israel, the academy


“Academic freedom is not to be sacrificed; it is in itself a mode of struggle against those who deny such freedom and against material conditions which limit such freedom. “

From David Hirsch via ENGAGE, re: the proposed and defeated UCU boycott of Israeli academics.