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What’s in YOUR brain-attic?

When it comes to what you put into your skull, what kind of Sherlockian are you?

In A Study in Scarlet, the first of Arthur Conan Doyle’s tales about the detective and his loyal sidekick, Dr. Watson is trying to figure out just what kind of roommate he has picked up while recuperating from his recent military service overseas. (“You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive,” Holmes famously remarks upon being introduced, in an exchange that is gently parodied in the 1986 Disney movie The Great Mouse Detective.) While studying Holmes’s eclectic intellectual pursuits in hopes of enlightenment, Watson is stunned when his acquaintance not only claims ignorance about the fact that the Earth orbits the sun but then actually expresses his intention of forgetting his new knowledge:

“ ‘You see,’ he explained, ‘I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skilled workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones. . . . [Y]ou say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.’ ” (The Annotated Sherlock Holmes, Vol. 1, 154)

(In defense of the supposedly astronomically ignorant Holmes, editor William S. Baring-Gould argues that the detective is actually pulling Watson’s leg with his remarks about the solar system.)

The curious thing is that toward the end of his career, Holmes implicitly contradicts his utilitarian position. In “The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane,” he solves the mysterious death of a science instructor by recalling an odd phrase used by a nature writer in describing a jellyfish. “I am an omnivorous reader with a strangely retentive memory for trifles,” Holmes remarks (789). Apparently by this point in his life, the detective has found that extracurricular reading has its rewards.

Academia encourages, and sometimes actually demands, the approach of the younger Holmes. Reading and other mental activities are the servants of scholarship, and if something doesn’t “make a pennyworth of difference” to one’s work as a teacher or academic writer, to the wayside it goes. Detective fiction? Who has time for that when there’s a journal article waiting?

But I’ve always had an instinctive sympathy for the older Holmes – the one who, instead of reading yet another treatise on cigar ashes or the latest lurid testimony from the assizes, decides to kick back with some nature writing that later enables him to deduce that a fatality should be laid at the feet (or rather tentacles) of Cyanea capillata rather than a jealous romantic rival.

Part of this harks back to my longtime vocation as a copy editor, a job in which possessing knowledge that is a mile wide and an inch deep is quite advantageous. (You never know when the difference between the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Oriental Orthodox Church might be important.) But it’s also a personality thing that reaches back into my youth. When news broke recently that Encyclopaedia Britannica would no longer be publishing a printed edition, I was struck by the number of Facebook acquaintances who confessed that they (like me) had spent their childhood leisure hours leafing through the family encyclopedia, omnivorously snapping up whatever trifles of knowledge they might find there.

Clearly, the sort of single-minded, narrowly focused dedication that Holmes advocates in A Study in Scarlet is necessary to scholarly success. (Commenting on the detective’s familiarity with what we would call true-crime literature, Watson bemusedly notes, “He appears to know every detail of every horror perpetrated in the century” [156]). But I would argue that the broad approach has its rewards as well. (In fact, some of these thoughts, along with the Sherlock Holmes references, formed part of one of my first graduate school papers in the summer of 2009.) One of our most important abilities is that of making connections between ideas, and the wider the intellectual net has been cast – inside and outside one’s specific academic focus – the more connections can be made, to the benefit of students as well as fellow scholars.

Perhaps I am preaching to the academic choir; perhaps we all know the importance of occasionally purchasing the oddball intellectual tool on the off chance that it may prove handy someday. But if not, consider the possible value of having one corner of that rigorously ordered mental attic dedicated to a little creative chaos. The younger Sherlock Holmes might raise an acerbic eyebrow, but the older one might look up from his retirement beekeeping and give you an approving nod.

Published in:Alan Cochrum |on March 26th, 2012 |1 Comment »

Paint cans, tattoos, and Internet napalm

On the first day of class, my freshman English students generally encounter one of two things: the paint can or the Bugs Bunny cartoon.

In the paint can scenario, I ask a brave volunteer to open an old container of latex that I have brought into class. When (s)he figures out that a tool is needed, I offer a pocketknife, only to berate the Brave Volunteer about safety before the attempt gets too far under way. Yes, I tell the class, the knife can open the container—but at the risk of breaking the blade or (not incidentally) slicing through one’s tendons.

In the cartoon scenario, I show a clip from the 1951 Chuck Jones feature Rabbit Fire in which Bugs fends off Elmer Fudd by declaring that it’s actually duck-hunting season. This leads to an exchange between Bugs and Daffy consisting of shouts of “Wabbit season!” “Duck season!” until a bamboozled Daffy declares: “I say it’s duck season, and I say, ‘Fire!’ ” We all know what happens after that, of course.

True, I say, Bugs wins the argument—but the discussion consists largely of shouting and rhetorical deception. I tell my students that I want to enable them to argue in ways that go beyond yelling and verbal sleight-of-hand. Likewise, as with those who open paint cans with pocketknives, neophyte writers can usually “get the job done”—right up until the day when something goes wrong and they are left metaphorically bloody-handed.

All of this is an effort to impress upon my students that despite the apathy or even antipathy with which many of them approach English classes, the subject matter really does have real-life implications and applications—something that was underlined by a recent episode in New York state.

In late January, an assistant news editor at The Spectrum, an unofficial student publication that serves SUNY Buffalo, participated in a pro-con opinion feature on tattoos. In a column headlined “Why Put a Bumper Sticker on a Ferrari?” , the 19-year-old editor (who shall hereafter be referred to as Youthful Writer) urged her fellow female students to consider the attractiveness question. “We [women] hold some serious power in our hands, because—as corny as this sounds—we hold the world’s beauty,” she wrote. Tattoos? They’re indelible, unnecessary, unclassy, and unproductive in terms of self-improvement:

“Invest your time, money, and effort into a gym membership, or yoga classes, or new clothes, or experimenting with different hairstyles if you’re craving something new with your body, not a tattoo,” Youthful Writer advised.

“I promise, it will be a much more rewarding experience, and you won’t find yourself in a rut when your future grandkids ask you what’s up with the angel wings on your upper back as you’re in the middle of giving them a life lesson on the importance of values and morals.”

Then the sky fell in.

“I woke up today and had 938 hate mails, 646 nasty Facebook comments, and dozens of mean-spirited tweets,” the writer stated in a Feb. 2 follow-up column. One person sent a comment consisting of two words: “stupid cow.” Twenty-one people referred to her as what euphemistically might be termed the C-word.

Some of the less thoughtful comments posted with the original essay, which featured the author’s picture:

■ “This woman needs a kick in her ugly ass face. She probably wrote this while getting a pedicure on her hobbit feet.”

■ “I would like to apologise for whoever brought you up (I imagine it was a shallow, vapid excuse for a human being who you call your mother) . . .”

■ “This article was written by a self-righteous, solely self-interested little twit . . .”

■ “[Y]ou are NOT a Ferrari. You are, at best, a 2003 Dodge Caravan. . . . Get over yourself, and get to work with that gym membership you suggested other people get. You look like you could use some exercise.”

■ “You are a prime example of the narrow minded idiots that try to enforce their own personal rules onto another human being. Please take your own ‘values and morals’ and shove them up your retentive ass.”

So was this a prime example of a knife-and-a-paint-can episode? Ironically, I’m not sure. I might like to think that a semester or two of my freshman-comp pedagogy, or some wisdom from my years as a copy editor on the Fort Worth Star-Telegram’s opinion pages, would have helped Youthful Writer avoid some of the verbal napalm. But perhaps not.

Frankly, had this piece been submitted for my publication approval during my journalistic days, I would hardly have blinked. The rules and expectations for a newspaper opinion column are different from those for a classroom researched position paper—less space to work with, less emphasis on things like naysayers and the careful positioning of oneself in an intellectual conversation, more leeway for personal expression. In fact, what struck me when I read “Why Put a Bumper Sticker on a Ferrari?” was its rather restrained tone, compared to many of the reactions to it. (In fact, I see more incendiary speech on an almost daily basis on my Facebook feed.)

Perhaps the real lesson of this episode for our students is the importance of understanding the audience—the intended one and the unintended ones. In her follow-up column, Youthful Writer said she did not anticipate the effect of her words in the viral Internet world: “All this hate has shaken me. I never meant to be vindictive toward an entire subculture. That’s why its response was so unexpected to me.”

And for those of us who try to help students understand and master the intricacies and power of language, this is a first-class example—drawn from the experience of one ordinary collegian—of the rubber-meets-the-road applicability of those seemingly ivory-tower lessons on argumentation.

Published in:Alan Cochrum |on February 13th, 2012 |5 Comments »