Welcome to the New Whatever

So the phone rings, and I know before I look that it’s Lars Abraham calling from Seattle State University. I’m so glad I got the idea of setting “Kol Nidre” as Lars’s custom ringtone.

“How’s it going, Lars,” I answer.

“Not so good, Tim.”

“Listen, Lars,” I say, “can I call you back? I can call you back in … 2017. How does 2017 sound?”

“Hilarious as ever, Tim. No, you may not call back. I have serious structural problems to discuss.”

“Lower back acting up?”

“No, you noodnik. I am talking about structural problems in academic work. They have implications for work in many fields, as a matter of fact.”

“Shoot, Lars,” I say, putting him on speaker and opening Candy Crush.

“Tim, at Seattle State we record grades and communicate with students using something on a computer that is called Blackboard. You may have a similar system.”

“Uh-hunnnh,” I drone.

“This morning, I logged into Blackboard – I can do such things, you know, I have a few tricks left in me – and I see a smoky screen over the regular screen that says WELCOME TO THE NEW BLACKBOARD!! WOULD YOU LIKE TO TAKE A TOUR?? I would not like to take a tour. I would like to enter quiz grades. So I do what I always do with a computer. I hit some keys at random and eventually the smoky transparency goes away and I enter my grades.”

“Lars, my Give-a-Damn gauge is dropping below Empty.”

“It is not just Blackboard, Tim. Our other system for entering grades and communicating with students is called SelkieSelfie. Now, why we need two systems is a mystery. In fact there are more than two. We have SSUSShare and SharePuget and WaShareington. We have DS-Prod and Mentos. I must log into each of these at least once a week. I am not doing badly at this, Tim. I use the same account name for each of them. My name is ABRAHAM and my password is …”

“Don’t say it, Lars, someone will steal your identity!”

“Tim, I am 84 and my hemorrhoids are 46, the thieves are welcome to my identity. As I say, I am able to log into everything. But twice a year, we get a new version of each system. All the buttons change. Everything is in a different place.”

“LUDD-ite,” I intone.

“I am not a Luddite, Tim. I was building crystal radio sets back when you were a zygote. Tim, these systems are not highly intuitive to begin with. When you log into SelkieSelfie, it asks you what semester you want to access.”

“It’s Fall ‘14, Lars. As in Obama, not as in Woodrow Wilson.”

“I know, but it does not give me the option of Fall 2014. The default option is Spring 1964. I have to scroll down fifty years to get into my class rolls. And then when I click on a student record, the first thing SelkieSelfie shows me is what currency the student pays their tuition in. I have to click three more times if I want to e-mail them. Then the e-mail does not Send unless you hit Cancel.”

“Sounds like you’ve mastered things, though, Lars.”

“I have but then, you see, every six months the system changes. We get NewSelkieSelfie and SEEattle 2.0. Tim, the library catalog has changed four times in the last three years. I know there are MARC records for books buried somewhere beneath the interface. But I cannot find them. I entered “Timon of Athens” the other day and I got six sponsored ads for Lion King merchandise and three for Aegean cruise ships.”

“Those are the most popular results, Lars.”

“They are results for morons. Whatever happened to Title Search? On catalog cards you could do this.”

“Lars, as I said, this is the 21st century. We need new systems with new interfaces every few months so that we can take advantage of their dynamic power.”

“We need them like a hole in the head. Tim, do you know what the single most visited site on the Internet is?”

“I’m not sure I should name it on a family weblog.”

“Get your mind out of the gutter. No, Tim, it is Google. And when you go to Google, what do you see?”

“Some weird-ass cartoon that doesn’t look like the word Google?”

“Besides that, you see a white page with a place to enter your search term. The same white page you saw in 1998. What you do not see is WELCOME TO THE NEW GOOGLE. In addition, this Google thing works, yes? Our Mentos Professional Development system will only work in Chrome on a Macintosh if you type on a Cyrillic keyboard when the moon is full.”

“And after clearing your browser cache, Lars. Always clear the browser cache.”

“Tim, do you know what I call a website that only works after you clear your browser cache? I call it a Website That Does Not Work.”

“Yak yak yak, Lars, OK, you don’t like the modern world. I bet you’re talking into a phone on the wall while you hold the blower up to your ear.”

“I am talking on a Trimline pushbutton phone, for your information. The buttons are in the handset. But that is not important, Tim. There is something larger at stake. By constantly adopting new systems, institutions are decimating the productivity of their workers. If I must spend six hours a week learning new library systems – systems that are less efficient than card catalogues – that is six hours less I can spend on actual research.”

“There’s always some excuse not to write that book, isn’t there?”

“New is not always bad, Tim. I read Shakespeare on a Kindle now. But the Kindle works. And it works because it works like a book, and a book, I know how to read. I do not know how SelfieShare and SSkittles work. And by the time I do know how they work, I must deal with their most recent releases and learn all over again how to use them.”

“Sorry, Lars, gotta go, I got app updates coming in.”

Published in:Tim Morris |on September 10th, 2014 |No Comments »

So What Would You Suggest, Genius?

I have been sharply critical of the corporatizing of universities, and I realize that my attitude verges on gloom-and-doom handwringing that might reflect the utterer’s cynicism more than the objective situation. I stress that UTA is not as corporatized as some schools, that lots of good things happen here, and that the problems I cite in my imaginary dialogues are general national trends, not specific grievances.

Yet they are real enough. If you teach English, you face intractably deteriorating conditions. More students in your classes, fewer tenured positions to aspire to. More outcomes measures imposed from above, that relate little to what you value, or indeed with reality itself. Less autonomy in the classroom; more top-down dictation of what one learns and how one learns it. Less confidence in or deference to your hard-won professional ethos. More assessment via the quantity of throughput instead of the quality of the academic experience. More decisions made remotely by people who have no idea what you do. Above all, a steady dwindling of the “liberal” element in liberal arts. Instead of taking time out from making a living to read Montaigne or George Eliot or Kenneth Burke and share ideas about them, you seem doomed to grade routine assignments on rubrics dictated by corporate culture.

So what’s a liberal artist to do? How should one cope with this global and local nonsense? Oughtn’t I to suggest some positive solutions occasionally, instead of just slinging the snark? Forthwith!

  1. Pretend it isn’t happening. And I don’t mean that in the ostrich sense. If theory has taught me anything, it’s come from the works of writers like Michel de Certeau, who argue that resistance to oppression isn’t only, or always, or most effectively carried out by linking arms at the barricades and reappropriating the means of production. Instead, by taking local paths of desire, people redraw the maps of their habitats. Besieged by demands for measurable outcomes, facing more work and less time to do it in, baffled by institutional goals that seem to be changing every fifteen minutes, and contradicting themselves as they do? OK. That “signature assignment” must be rendered unto Caesar. But for the 50 minutes you’re in class, or the afternoon you spend reading, or the happy hour over refreshments with your colleagues, pretend it doesn’t exist. Actively. Pretend you are someone who is free from institutional constraints, who works for more important things. Start a side conversation. Investigate some issue you just learned about. Connect something you’ve encountered in this atomized classroom to something across campus. And speaking of the big guy,
  2. Render less unto Caesar. If given more work, fit it into the hours you have. Find shortcuts, jettison busywork, keep your eye on what’s valuable to you. Comply with “Compliance,” mind you: I’m not suggesting unprofessional slacking. But I am suggesting professionalized slacking, which is another definition for the Liberal Arts, and is at the core of the historical tradition of the university. Limit yourself austerely to a fixed amount of time for grading and data entry, and carve out some time for why you entered the business to begin with. Do not overprepare for class; leave some room for something unpredictable to happen. Can’t fit all your work at all the places you teach into 40 hours? Maybe that’s a sign that your employers can’t, in fact don’t, really expect that level of detail work. (Work you’ll notice they never reward, anyway.) Do the minimum, promise your students less but do it as promised: then read that extra essay or short story you’ve been wanting to, watch that movie or read that comic book, and draw some new connections in class tomorrow, instead of devoting ten minutes to how to master the latest library database or drill students on where the semi-colons go in MLA style: ’cause they’re gonna change MLA style and the library databases again in another year or two, too.
  3. Reclaim your intellectual life. As I always say, there are only 168 hours in every week. Work your 40 and then knock off, but actively. Listen to language around you and wonder how and why people use it. Critique the implicit ideologies of that video game you’re playing. Chart the plot arcs of that TV episode. Reflect on how sports announcers narratize the games they call. Yes, yes, I know, there’s a lot of work in an academic week, and you need downtime to post photos of your cat, use recreational substances, and stare languidly into space. But hello, this is the only intellectual life we have. You didn’t come to the university to be a mindless drone in a hive; you could have done that in the commercial world. Unfortunately, the commercial world outflanked you, and you are now a mindless drone in an academic hive. Pretend you aren’t. Shut your mind off while complying with routine work demands, and then re-open it when you hit the pavement at night – not the other way around. One burnout risk in our profession comes from believing that our time “in the office” is sacred, serious, and at the heart of our intellectual and spiritual being. But maybe it isn’t. Maybe it’s just another office job. Don’t let it get to the point where you gave your all on assignments nobody will read closely or collect after you’ve read them closely, and then have no energy left to think with after you reach the parking lot. Make being an intellectual your hobby. As long as nobody values your professional contributions, feel free to be a dilettante on your own time. And insist on more of your own time.
  4. Get out more. There are constantly outstanding lectures, shows, programs, screenings, presentations, and concerts, by and large free, at UTA, in downtown Arlington, at the Public Library and Museum of Art, let alone across the Metroplex. Academic conferences swing by locally pretty often. We’ve had great poetry and fiction readings this past year, and will again next year: didn’t you become an English major because you liked poetry and fiction? Go out and hear things you didn’t know you were interested in. Teachers rarely take advantage of these “extras,” because there’s always some pressing task, always the inertial exhaustion, always the excuse that the topic is not “in our field.” But the people who remake fields know that they need to explore beyond the boundaries of those fields.

    I attended an interdisciplinary colloquium earlier this summer in France. (Paid for by moi and the University of Limoges, I will add; didn’t use a dime of good Texas taxpayer money on such frivolity.) It was the usual thing, lots of people showing up for a few of the talks, some people solely for their own, which was all that was going to appear on their resumé anyway. Two people – the first speaker of the colloque and the last – stayed for absolutely every moment of every talk. They were also the two most senior distinguished scholars in attendance. They were precisely the two who didn’t have to listen to everybody else. But it occurred to me that listening to everybody else was how they got to be senior and distinguished.
  5. Ignore strategic development, institutional planning, and departmental politics. This is probably good advice whatever your profession, unless of course your job is “strategic developer,” “institutional planner,” or “politician.” The strategic direction will reverse itself three years from now. The institutional plan will be obsolete even sooner. Departmental politics are fantastically boring. “Who loses and who wins, who’s in, who’s out” may sound intriguing, but remember that that’s what King Lear proposed he and Cordelia should pay attention to in order to pass time while in prison. Don’t even plan your own career all that much; life will happen while you are making other plans, as it always does. Stop thinking in “meta” terms about the stuff you will do once you finally be where you want to be – teaching job, next graduate degree, tenure. Do that stuff now, while you are young and lucid. As a character in Henry James once put it, “Live.” Which I wouldn’t know except that when I was an adjunct, I spent a year reading Henry James when it was of no professional advantage to me whatsoever.

In short, the situation will not improve. Think of your intellectual being as a garden. “Il faut cultiver notre jardin,” as someone else in a book once said: “we must work our garden.” You can wait till you have more money or a bigger lot or till the plant sale; you can put it off till it rains, which it won’t. But if you don’t just dig in, soon you’ll have no garden at all.

Published in:Tim Morris |on August 11th, 2014 |4 Comments »

You’ve Tried the Rest

So the phone rings, and wouldn’t you know it, it’s Lars Abraham, Past Professor Plenipotentiary at Seattle State University.

“How now, Lars?” say I.

“Things are not so good, Tim,” says Lars.

“Raining in Seattle again?” I ask. “C’mon, Lars, the bluest skies I’ve ever seen are in Seattle.”

“What? No, it is not the rain. It is the new Chancellor of our University. He has announced a sweeping new strategic plan that involves rebranding and an upgrade to the DNA of Seattle State.”

“That’s great, Lars, you’ll all get new stationery and new lapel buttons and new gimme caps.”

“That is not all we will get. The Chancellor has also announced that we will get ten additional students in each freshman writing section.”

“I suppose they’ll pay you more and reduce the number of sections you teach, Lars.”

“You suppose wrong. No raises or courseload reductions. The Chancellor believes that writing sections cost too much, even though their instructors typically earn less than a tenth of the tuition dollars from them as it is.”

“That’s too bad, Lars. Quality will just go down then, but if you can’t afford good education in this budget climate, so be it.”

“Our Chancellor says that quality will go up, because it does not matter how large the student-to-faculty ratio is. According to him, the high quality of small classes is a myth.”

“It’s a myth that has made Stanford and Rice and Reed College very wealthy institutions.”

“But our Chancellor says that a large urban state college like Seattle cannot afford to compare itself to such top-tier private schools.”

“True dat.”

“Are you becoming aphasic, Tim? No, our Chancellor says that we must grow to twice our present enrollment.”

“No time for research, then. You’d better give up plans to finish that book you’ve had up on blocks for the past fifteen years.”

“On the contrary. The Chancellor has also announced that faculty will be expected to publish 33% more peer-reviewed research results every year.”

“That’ll be easy for you, Lars. 33 percent of nothing is nothing.”

“Always the comedian. No, our Chancellor says that by rebranding we will transcend all the selective private colleges and flagship public schools to become the best university in the Universe.”

“Might as well aim high.”

“And our new tagline is,” said Lars, “YOU’VE TRIED THE REST, NOW TRY THE BEST OF THE BEST.”

“Catchy. But, Lars …”

“Yes?”

“Is that strictly accurate? Have students actually tried the rest?”

“I do not understand, Tim.”

“Well, y’know, sometimes students transfer in. Or sometimes they stop out of some other school and enroll at yours a couple years later.”

“So?”

“Well, that means they might have tried one or two other colleges. Three tops. But it’s unlikely that any undergraduate would have tried all the rest of the possible colleges. I mean, there must be fifty universities in Washington State alone, right?”

“Tim, you dodo, it is a figure of speech.”

“Well, figurative or literal, it’s an awesome moment for you. Without spending any more money, you will vastly improve both teaching and research while serving twice as many students. I can’t find a downside here.”

“That is unsurprising, Tim, because you could not find your tochus with a GPS machine. Tim, have you ever heard of the Engineer’s Triangle?”

“Yeah, I had one of those in drafting class in highschool. It’s a little clear acrylic thing, you put it on your T-square and you can draw angles and stuff.”

“Tim, your ignorance is fathomless. The Engineer’s Triangle is another metaphor. It consists of Quality, Time, and Cost. The Triangle says that for any project, one can improve two of those elements, but only by expending the third. Make something faster and better, it will cost more. Make something cheaper and better, it will take longer. Make something cheaper and faster, it will be shoddy.”

“I don’t believe that, Lars. Continuous quality improvement is always possible in every human endeavor. Our limitations are limitless.”

“Tim, you perhaps also do not believe in the laws of Gravity and Thermodynamics. The Engineer’s Triangle is similarly immutable. And our Chancellor, he is an engineer, one would think he would have heard of this principle. It seems not.”

“Sounds like a can of worms, Lars. I’m so thankful we don’t face any of these problems at UTA. We are exempt from triangles and squares and pentagrams and we just get better every day in every way.”

“Alas, that is not so on Puget Sound, Tim.”

“But look at it this way, Lars. Legal weed is on its way.”

Published in:Tim Morris |on August 8th, 2014 |No Comments »

Doing the Math

A recent article by Rachel Riederer, “Teaching Class,”, has been making the rounds of social media, posted by many of my alert friends in the teaching profession. Riederer makes a point that is seeping slowly into general awareness: college teaching is a working-class occupation. As Riederer puts it:

A professor belongs to the professional class, a professor earns a salary and owns a home, probably with a leafy yard, and has good health insurance and a retirement account. In the American imagination, a professor is perhaps disheveled, but as a product of brainy eccentricity, not of penury. In the American university, this is not the case.

“At the City University of New York, an adjunct teaching full time—four courses per semester—receives a starting annual income of $24,644,” according to Riederer, who knows whereof: she is a writing-center tutor in the City University system. And that’s in New York, where Riederer notes it’s less than half the median household income.

In D/FW, adjuncts do a bit better, factoring in cost of living. A Lecturer in English at UTA, with a PhD and ten years’ teaching experience, makes $25,000 a year and gets free health insurance. Many, many, people live on less in Texas. It’s safe and physically unstrenuous work; some status and respect attach to it. People call you “Professor.” They call you other things too, but rarely to your face. And as Philip Larkin once remarked, “nobody actually starves.”

Of course, “nobody actually starves” is not exactly a great recruiting slogan for a profession. But as Riederer points out, the job market for English teachers is so bad that not starving is frequently held up to adjunct instructors as something they should feel blessed for after every microwave burrito. An administrator I know once memorably rebuked Senior Lecturers who observed that they earned less than entry-level kindergarten teachers. “Be grateful you have a job at all.” And so I am, believe me.

English and other humanities subjects, we’re often told, are simply drugs on the market, so teachers can’t be paid higher than lower-working class wages. (That $25,000 I mentioned above is about the median for the hundred or so instructors who teach for us every semester – most of them by the semester and by the course, without tenure or promotion possibilities.)

So I thought I’d do some math. UTA students pay in-state tuition of $4,439 per semester for 15 credit hours. That’s a flat rate – some take fewer hours, and some who take less than 12 hours pay more per credit hour. But at a conservative estimate, the typical UTA student pays about $888 for a three-credit course. Which is a heck of a lot less than they’d pay at Stanford or Rice.

Our typical $25,000 adjunct teaches five courses a semester, which can range between 20 and 40 students; let’s say 30 as a middle ground. Some teach more, some less; some make less money, few make more. 150 students a semester times $888 – I’m bad at calculation but own a calculator – that’s $133,200 in tuition generated by a typical Lecturer in a typical semester. The Lecturer receives $12,500 of it.

I honestly didn’t think it had gotten that bad. When I started work at UTA in 1988, I made $25K, and taught about 100 students per semester. Each of them paid about $100 per course, so I generated $10K in tuition per semester and was paid $12.5K. UTA didn’t go bankrupt because, then as now, it also received “formula funding” per credit hour from the state, a miserably small contribution but enough to top off my salary and pay for my “free” health insurance, and for overhead like power, IT, building maintenance, and supplies. And of course a university gets some other income from rentals and grants and donations and endowment income (though little of the latter, in Texas, goes toward personnel costs).

As my salary went up over the years, tuition went up too, but I continued to imagine that I was probably continuing to be a money sink overall, and that was true the last time I looked, an unvigilant ten years ago. But in the fall of 2014, I will teach sixty undergraduates who’ll pay around $888 a head. $53,280 in tuition alone, before formula funding: and I will see $38,000 of it. And I am one of the highest-paid, most senior professors in the College of Liberal Arts.

Where does all that profit go? I’d been so used to being told I was unprofitable that I didn’t realize there was any, but there is, and it’s especially drastic as one moves down the instructor ranks. Some goes toward the dreaded administrative bloat, of course: though I hasten to say that UTA is not as bloated as some campuses, and has actually consolidated some functions and eliminated some administrative positions of late; and our higher-ups are not paid very much by national standards.

As at any university, quite a bit of our non-profit “profit” is circulated back into financial aid, so that some students don’t pay that $888 (or the somewhat higher graduate-school tuition) in full. As many news items in the past couple of years have noted, though, that’s more than a bit of a bubble. If you’re offering a class for $888 and paying the instructor $83 of that, you might be able to save everybody some money by cutting tuition while raising teacher pay. But that would reduce the total amount of money in the system, and eliminate chances for it to stick on the fingers of outsourcees, vendors, lenders, cut-outs, and consultants as it makes its way through.

And of course universities have more expenses than they used to. Everybody knows that. Teaching is a smaller and smaller part of what we do at a large university, and despite what seems like a considerable ROI to me, it’s increasingly a “cost center” for the suits, as Riederer also notes. You can’t maintain a gym and a stadium and extensive programming and new dorms and apartments, and research promotion and development offices to secure more development funds, marketing ventures and branding and strategic planning and real-estate schemes, without some sort of revenue enhancement. You can apparently maintain it without chalk, because I’ve had to buy my own for years. I also bought my own computer and my own toner and my own textbooks, and I pay for research costs and travel and UTA parking – as do many of the people who make a third of what I make. IOW not much of that overhead goes back into faculty perks. But I’m not really complaining about perklessness.

I’m not really complaining, and I am open to correction. I am braced for an eloquent rejoinder from an administrator who will tell me I have no idea what it takes to keep a university functioning these days – in fact, how they’ve saved the institution from collapse because of their adroit financial brinksmanship, while I, the naïve Liberal Artist, dream on in my tenured cocoon. As they say, I’m just saying. I am just noticing that paying teachers a middle-class wage – paying them more than a tiny fraction of the tuition their students pay to be taught – is not among the things it takes to keep a university functioning.

Published in:Tim Morris |on July 29th, 2014 |No Comments »

Literary Obituary: Gabriel García Márquez

The death of Gabriel García Márquez yesterday at the age of 87 closes an era of literary history. There’s a fair chance that when somebody looks at your dates, a few centuries from now, they’ll place you as living in the age of García Márquez.

I resisted reading García Márquez for a long time, till I was about 30, even though he was a dominant figure of my lit-major undergraduate years. Though I had never read his books, he held a prominent place in my imaginary library as a mannered writer of florid, stylized tales of machismo, full of women as saints or whores, and despite his well-known leftwing politics, not much interested in using literature to advance progressive causes. As it happens, there’s considerable truth in those prejudices.

Two chance events got me to read García Márquez. I spent a few weeks in Maracaibo and traveled on the Guajira Peninsula in western Venezuela – not exactly the author’s famous Macondo, not even in Colombia for that matter, but close enough ecologically and culturally that I could picture his settings – and meet people who insisted I read his work. And then, in Texas, an old Bookstop on South Cooper offered a complete set of García Márquez’s books in a uniform edition published by Mondadori. I have given away thousands of books in the last 20 years, but not them.

Everyone reads Cien años de soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude), and it is indeed the most distinctive and influential of García Márquez’s books. In Cien años, García Márquez set the parameters for what a great 20th-century novel should look like: a generational saga; an enchanted setting; bold, overdrawn, overreaching characters; a headlong, unrestrained narrative line. García Márquez didn’t invent this kind of novel – in fact, one of the great things about Cien años is that it adapts a whole genre of fiction to its own needs, transforming it via the sheer strength of its storytelling in ways that would make Harold Bloom faint.

García Márquez drew obviously from William Faulkner (Macondo and Yoknapatawpha are two of the most completely invented places anywhere in literature). But the big florid saga was around long before Faulkner: it goes back to John Galsworthy, Anthony Trollope, George Eliot, Victor Hugo, Alessandro Manzoni. And any writer in Spanish must grapple with Don Quijote. García Márquez did so by doubling the great achievement of Cervantes back on itself. Macondo, unlike La Mancha, really is enchanted, though its characters sometimes wish they could wake up home in bed with the giants turned back into mere windmills. And unlike Don Quixote, who has to travel around in picaresque fashion seeking adventures, in Macondo you just have to survive, and all the adventures of the world will come to you.

At the same time, it seems odd to compare García Márquez to Trollope or Hugo, rattlingly workmanlike writers of yarns. If he got his narrative energy from such writers, he got his style from Faulkner – but also from Marcel Proust, who couldn’t be less like him in terms of themes and story arcs. Or James Joyce – one might think of García Márquez as adapting the endless sentences of the great modernists in a strongly narrative direction, less stream of consciousness than order of the universe. There’s the single eight-page sentence of “El último viaje del buque fantasma,” for instance, or the famously interminable sentences and paragraphs of El otoño del patriarca (The Autumn of the Patriarch), his most experimental (and frankly least approachable) novel.

It’s fair to say that few world writers in the past 40 years have embarked on a long novel without modeling their work on García Márquez, or alternatively finding some way to resist and repel his influence. One finds extremely close imitations in the fiction of Isabel Allende and Louise Erdrich – though both of them, while telling stories in the pure García Márquez manner, populate those stories with defiant women and feminist themes very unlike those of the master. Carlos Ruiz Zafón in Spain (La sombra del viento/The Shadow of the Wind), Edward P. Jones in the U.S. (The Known World), Carsten Jensen in Denmark (Vi, de druknede/We, the Drowned) created some of the more impressive avatars of Macondo. And in terms of style, the majestic endless sentences of Portugal’s José Saramago and Germany’s W.G. Sebald clearly owe a great deal to García Márquez.

Which is not to say that there’s nothing to critique in García Márquez’s work. In fact, as the examples of Allende and Erdrich show, one is continually tempted to rewrite the often monumentally heedless sexism that pervades his writing. In his depiction of idealized or degraded women and the testosterone-poisoned men who desire them, García Márquez perhaps most resembles Federico Fellini among his contemporaries – but without Fellini’s rueful sense of humor, and without a Giulietta Masina. Cien años de soledad manages to avoid the worst of these excesses, which are perhaps best (or worst) seen in “El avión de la bella durmiente,” a short story that consists entirely of a man gazing at a beautiful woman for the duration of a transatlantic flight. That’s a late story, and one senses that García Márquez got more immature about such themes as he grew older; his last novel was 2004’s Memoria de mis putas tristes (Memories of My Melancholy Whores), which pursues the dirty-old-man theme with great senescent energy.

These are minor works, but more troubling is the truly great novel El amor en los tiempos del colera (Love in the Time of Cholera), a fabulous love story with an emotional register located halfway between The Age of Innocence and Lolita. To be fair, the novel features García Márquez’s strongest heroine, the indomitable Fermina Daza. But she is courted throughout, and eventually won for all eternity, by the fairly loathsome Florentino Ariza, sex addict and near-pedophile. It’s a relentless exploration of desire, but it may turn you off desire once and for all.

But all that said, what should you read by García Márquez – or perhaps, what should you read next after the obligatory pilgrimage through Cien años de soledad? García Márquez had serious creds as a journalist, and I’d strongly recommend two of his nonfiction books: the early Relato de un naufrago (The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor), one of the great survival tales, and the late Noticia de un secuestro (News of a Kidnapping), written in his early 70s to prove that he still had the reporting skills that had made him a professional writer. He still had them.

Of his shorter fiction, I love García Márquez’s El coronel no tiene quien le escriba (No One Writes to the Colonel), a story of the obstinacies of age. (Every time I walk into the office mailroom and see my inevitably empty mailbox, I mutter “El coronel no tiene quien le escriba.”) Among García Márquez’s melancholy whores, the most amazing is the heroine of “La increíble y triste historia de la cándida Eréndira y de su abuela desalmada,” an utterly maddening and excessively perfect novella. One of my favorites among the short stories is “Un día después del sábado,” an atmospheric tale about a place where it’s just too hot to think.

And first and last, there’s Crónica de una muerte anunciada (Chronicle of a Death Foretold). I’ve written elsewhere about this pendant novella to the Macondo cycle, so I’ll direct readers there and just say briefly here that it’s the essence of García Márquez, for better and for worse: a story of inexpugnable love, horrific violence, and transparent secrets that will not resolve themselves. As I say behind that link, it contains one of the greatest paragraphs in Western fiction. Ángela Vicario, the rejected bride of Bayardo San Román, has written her nominal husband a letter a week “durante media vida,” for half a lifetime (94). He’s never answered; he’s never come to see her. One day, Bayardo shows up on her doorstep.

Llevaba la maleta de la ropa para quedarse, y otra maleta igual con casi dos mil cartas que ella le había escrito. Estaban ordenadas por sus fechas, en paquetes con cintas de colores, y todas sin abrir. (96)

[He was carrying a suitcase with his clothes, and another suitcase, the same size, with almost two thousand letters that she had written him. They were arranged by date, in packets tied with colored ribbon, and none of them had been opened.]

Writing does not get any better.

Published in:Tim Morris |on April 18th, 2014 |1 Comment »

Where Do I Commence

So my phone rings, and it’s my old mentor Lars Abraham, Professor Semi-Emeritus at Seattle State University.

“How’s it shaking, Lars?” say I.

“Not so good,” says Lars.

“I had a premonition you would say that.”

“Tim, morale at Seattle State is at a new low in the 53 years I have taught here.”

“And knowing you, that’s pretty low, Lars.”

“Tim, we have a new Chancellor. And his first order of business has been to order every faculty member to attend both Commencement ceremonies every year, fall and spring.”

“Wow, that’s a big imposition, Lars. You might have to get out of bed and show up for work like millions of regular people.”

“Spare me your sarcasm, Tim. Faculty have genuine grievances here. Many of them will have to spend this year’s miserable raise on buying caps and gowns.”

“Shouldn’t bother you, Lars, you own a gown, right?”

“I own a Harvard Crimson gown,” says Lars.

“I’ve seen that gown. Harvard Rust would be more like it.”

“But that is not the only imposition, Tim. There are also many faculty who have small children and need extra weekend childcare at additional expense.”

“Surely your great-granddaughters are already cared for, though.”

“Watch your mouth. There is also the problem, Tim, that this edict came down from the Chancellor without consultation with the faculty. And it is expressed as an order. We must arrive at the basketball stadium at a certain time, in full regalia, specified down to the tassel. A tassel, Tim. I lost my tassel in 1979. Our names will be on a clip board. We must show state-issued photo identification before our names will be checked off this list. And if we do not get a check mark, then awful things have been threatened. Our Chancellor said that he will punish the instructors who do not attend. He will do such things – what they are yet I know not, but they shall be the terrors of the earth.”

“That’s a bit florid for an interoffice memo, Lars.”

“That is Shakespeare, you nitwit.”

“Well, what’s wrong with that policy?” I ask. “You have to show photo ID everywhere nowadays. Vote, fly, go to a Taylor Swift concert. It’s for security reasons, Lars.”

“It is not for security reasons. It is so I do not pay some undergraduate fifty dollars to wear my robe and go to Commencement instead of me. Seriously, Tim, in the middle of the basketball stadium who is to know that it is Lars Abraham in the crimson robe or Clem Kadiddlehopper? But the Chancellor is taking names, so Lars Abraham it will be.”

“Lars, if you don’t mind my saying so, you’re whining more than usual this morning. What’s wrong with showing up in regalia and letting the students know you care? What’s wrong with showing that you’ve got that Seattle State Selkie Spirit?”

“There is nothing wrong with that, Tim. I have gone to more Commencements here than I can remember. I have shaken hands and read names and handed out diplomas. But the new Chancellor does not know that. He assumes that if I am asked to volunteer, I will weasel out. He assumes I must be ticked off a roll like a buck private before I will consent to do anything.”

“Like most faculty.”

“Tim, the central principle of life is that people will gladly volunteer to do things that they will resist doing if forced.”

“I guess you’re right, Lars. Commencement doesn’t work that way at UTA. I mean, we all go every semester, but that’s because we’ve all arrived freely at the independent decision that we should. We’re Mavericks, Lars. We push our limits where there are none. We’re at the corner of Fast and Rising.”

“What?”

“But Lars, doesn’t it amount to the same thing? It’s nice to go to Commencement, you usually go, and now you’ll be going. What exactly is your problem?”

“Well, with all of us going, the ceremonies are getting larger and longer. They are between two and three hours now, Tim. There is my bladder to consider. And it is one more day I do not get to work on my book …”

“… that you’ve been writing since the turn of the century. It’s always the same with you, Lars, you procrastinate till somebody wants you to actually do some work, and then it’s ‘Oh no, my precious writing time’.”

“Nevertheless, Tim, that time is real. Two extra days of work for five hundred extra faculty every year. A thousand days of research that could go toward achieving Tier One status. Instead it will be spent suffocating in a hot robe in an earsplitting stadium listening to somebody read to us from Oh The Places You’ll Go.”

“So you’re saying that Seattle State values the compulsion of empty attendance at meaningless meetings over actual work on its professional mission?”

“At last you show a glimmer of comprehension, Tim.”

“Well, Lars, at least they’re running your school like a corporation.”

Published in:Tim Morris |on March 7th, 2014 |No Comments »

Bon Voyage English Department!

Once again, the semester has flown by and is coming to an end. It has been a wonderful experience to contribute to this blog. I have been able to narrow down the endless list of jobs available to English majors, but have yet to find my calling. While next semester will be my last, I am indifferent of my feelings of leaving. Once I graduate, I will be left to fend for myself in the dog-eat-dog aspect of the real world by leaving the somewhat sheltered life of a college student. There is always the possibility of graduate school, an idea that will remain as a viable option. Despite my apprehension of leaving the safety net of college, I do believe my time here at UTA has given me the knowledge of navigating life outside of school. I can only hope for the best once I graduate.

Merry Christmas!

Meowy Christmas!!

Published in:Lauren McManus, Uncategorized |on December 12th, 2013 |No Comments »

Libraries, Reading and Day-Dreaming

Author Neil Gaiman gave a lecture on October 15th as part of The Reading Agency annual lectures about the importance of libraries, reading and day-dreaming.

In order to raise literacy in children, they need to know that reading is good. If a parent takes away a book because s/he considers it a ‘bad book’ then the child will believe that reading is frowned upon. In addition to having access to books, children need to read what they want to, not what you give them.  As Gaiman puts it, “A hackneyed, worn-out idea isn’t hackneyed and worn out to them…Do not discourage children from reading because you feel they are reading the wrong thing.”

“But libraries are about freedom. Freedom to read, freedom of ideas, freedom of communication.”

A library is the home of all information. From history to maps and fiction, libraries serve as a place where information is at your fingertips. With the rise of internet and computer use, libraries give the opportunity to use their computers and internet access for free. Some places around the world do not see the importance of libraries which results in closing them.  As a reader, I can only hope that libraries will not lose their place in the literate world.

Fiction has let the reader use their imagination when reading. Readers create the images, smells, etc. that the author has described. Without fiction, and books in general, our imaginations will not be fully developed or even existent. It seems as if the world’s imagination has lessened. While TV and movies provide some escape, it does not compare to the experience one gets while reading. Gaiman states that “Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you’ve never been. Once you’ve visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. Discontent is a good thing: discontented people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different.” Imagination is a great attribute a person can possess.

I highly recommend reading his brilliant lecture.

Published in:Lauren McManus |on November 22nd, 2013 |No Comments »

Oh, that is where the phrase came from!

The origins of expressions and phrases used every day are not given much thought. Haven’t you ever wondered how the English-speaking world came to use these phrases?

Here are the histories of just a few common phrases.

“Blood is thicker than water”

Although this phrase implies the importance of familial bonds, the original phrase was actually “The blood of the covenant is far stronger than the water of the womb.” It has been suggested that the nobility changed the phrase to emphasize the importance of bloodlines.

“Cat got your tongue”

When a witty comeback fails to enter your mind, your loss of words are compared to a cat getting your tongue. According to author, Albert Jack, “having your tongue cut out and fed to cats was the punishment for liars during medieval times. Because ancient Egyptian cats were considered gods, this act was seen as a human offering to the gods.”

“To bite the dust”

We’ve all heard Queen’s hit “Another One Bites the Dust,” but did Queen know where the phrase came from? Interestingly enough, this phrase dates back 850 years before the Bible. In Homer’s The Iliad, soldiers, fighting in the Trojan War, are described dying with their faces in the dirt as if they were ‘biting the dust’.

“Wear your heart on your sleeve”

It is commonly known that “to wear your heart on your sleeve” refers to someone who openly shows their emotions and affections. This phrase originated in the Middle Ages when knights, who battled for honor, were given tokens of a lady’s affection. The lady would present the knight with the token, such as a handkerchief, as a sign she “gave her heart” to him. The knight would then put the token on his sleeve for everyone to see.

If you would like to learn more about the origins of common phrases, Albert Jack has published many books that are an interesting read. You can visit his website to explore more.

Published in:Lauren McManus |on November 14th, 2013 |No Comments »

E-reader vs. Paperback

I recently read an article on Scientific American pertaining to how technology has changed the way we read. With the invention of e-readers such as Kindle, Nook and the iPad, people are forgoing the classic paperback novel and using e-readers. E-readers have many advantages, such as holding multiple books without the bulkiness that comes with paper.

Avid readers may enjoy using e-readers while others prefer paper. There are many who vow to never use an e-reader because it takes away the physical and emotional aspect of reading a paper book. The act of turning pages, annotating in the margins, folding a corner of your favorite part, the smell of fresh pages, etc. are the pleasures of paperbacks.

The evolution of technology has allowed e-books to make up “more than 20% of all books sold to the public.” This increase raises questions as to what will happen to the publication industry. More revenue will be gained by publishing e-books, but what will happen to physical books? When asked this question, some have said that there will still be paperbacks, but we really don’t know what will happen.

Technology has vastly changed the world in many ways. The internet can give you the entire synopsis of a book and you don’t have to pick up the book let alone read it. You can even take classes online. While some of the advantages of technology are great, some take away the physicality of actions. Using an e-reader to find and download a book does not give you the same experience as going into a bookstore or library and using the Dewey Decimal System or just perusing until you find the book you need. Coming across new books when looking for something else is an exciting experience.

It has also been shown that e-readers do not give the mind the same experience as paperbacks. “Despite all the increasingly user-friendly and popular technology, most studies published since the early 1990s confirm earlier conclusions: paper still has advantages over screens as a reading medium. Together laboratory experiments, polls and consumer reports indicate that digital devices prevent people from efficiently navigating long texts, which may subtly inhibit reading comprehension. Compared with paper, screens may also drain more of our mental resources while we are reading and make it a little harder to remember what we read when we are done. Whether they realize it or not, people often approach computers and tablets with a state of mind less conducive to learning than the one they bring to paper. And e-readers fail to re-create certain tactile experiences of reading on paper, the absence of which some find unsettling.” With this being said, many students use e-readers to carry their textbooks. If students were to be ‘old school’ and use the physical textbook, there could be a rise in academic performance. The lack of focus when using e-readers leads to just looking at the words on the page as opposed to reading and understanding the text.

As someone who has read on an e-reader, I still prefer paperbacks. There is nothing that an e-reader can have that will persuade me otherwise.

Are you team e-reader or team paperback?

Published in:Lauren McManus |on November 7th, 2013 |No Comments »