Archive for the 'Tim Morris' Category

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.”


“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 »

10 Things I Like about U(TA)

Pretty much on a daily basis, UTA faculty get a memo from the administration that makes life a little bit worse. I don’t mean to single out UTA, mind you. Pretty much every employee of every organization gets a daily “things will get harder” memo from the higher-ups. More compliance, more assessment, more hoops to jump through, more meetings, more meaningless attendance commanded, less support. Welcome to the world of Continuous Quality Improvement, where things continuously disimprove.

I don’t want to turn into a bitter old man. Readers of this blog may be of the opinion that that boat has left the landing. But there’s always time to head back. So I thought I would write a post without snark or backbiting, and talk about ten things that I truly and unreservedly like about my job, my workplace, and my fellow Mavericks. I know, I know, we’ll see how long I can keep that up. But cross my heart, I like working here, and I ought to take at least every dozenth blog post to list some reasons why.

  1. Lectures! I am a lecture junkie to begin with. But we truly have a rich culture at UTA of live speakers who address timely topics and give excellent readings. Over the past few years, I’ve heard terrific talks by Doris Kearns Goodwin, Jon Meacham, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Jeffrey Toobin … Even Ken Burns! I don’t understand why Ken Burns dyes his hair or keeps it cut like a 1970s pop star, but it was fun to hear what he had to say. Nearer to my own “field,” I’ve gotten to hear Ramón Saldívar, Tim Johnston, Allison Hunter, Dagoberto Gilb, Davy & Peter Rothbart, Darra Goldstein, and many others. But lectures aren’t really about one’s own field; they’re about getting out and finding new fields. And I’m grateful to many, many UTAers who have organized these talks and helped me expand mine.
  2. The Honors College. I can’t imagine people more committed to the ideals of both individual and community undergraduate learning. Our Honors College fosters the liberal arts for students of all majors, and supports the kind of intensive learning experience where faculty know students’ names – and vice versa. One of UTA’s “competitors” is running a World Series TV ad with the catchphrase “101 should be a course number, not a class size.” At our Honors College, they walk the walk. Cheers (as he always puts it) to Dean Karl Petruso and his team.
  3. The Office for Students with Disabilities. Consistently one of the best-run services anywhere. The OSD accommodates students fairly, holds them to high academic standards, and issues crystal-clear guidelines to faculty. I trade a lot of paper and e-mail with the OSD, and they are always happy, helpful, and encouraging. It is marvelous to work with people who demand something from you, and have the legal authority to do so, but who treat you positively at every turn without scolding or chiding, or the assumption that you will naturally resist their efforts. We really do live up to ideals in the matter of accommodations for disabled learners.
  4. The Star-Telegram. It’s free. It’s paper. It’s seven days a week (in term-time). You can get it at the UC, the Planetarium, the Fine Arts Building. It has coupons. It has sports. It has Dear Abby.
  5. The UTA Gallery. Director Benito Huerta and his team present an ever challenging and absorbing series of exhibitions, by top-line professionals and UTA students alike. To stay in touch with contemporary art, you could travel the major cities, or you could simply walk across Cooper Street. And they have vernissages with cheese and crackers. And wine.
  6. Getting Physical Books from InterLibrary Loan. I’m no Luddite. I’m writing a blog post, after all. But I felt like someone from the Stone Age when, earlier this year, my requests for InterLibrary Loans began to be filled with helpful notes from the UTA Library that they’d bought a given book for me … in e-book form! I could sort of read these “books” on my laptop, though not very well, and anyway my laptop weighs about seven pounds and you can’t use it in the bathtub. Not that I would ever read an InterLibrary Loan book in the bathtub. Not me. Where was I? Oh, you should have seen my despair: here were books I couldn’t afford to buy, and couldn’t get from our library, and couldn’t really read on line, and now I would never get them, because since we technically “own” them, they would never borrow them for me. I wept for a while and then sent a note of complaint to the UTA Library, complete with plaintive violin score, oh woe is me. And then they bought all the books I’d ordered in physical print form, and said no problem, we’ll buy or borrow anything you want in future in paper, just let us know. At last, that elusive memo where something got better.
  7. The campus architecture. Well, some of it. But I have resolved not to tell you about what I don’t like at UTA. And anyway, there’s a lot to like. It’s unadorned orange brick instead of ivy and marble, and it’s better that way. We have a style, and we have form meeting function, and it’s a gorgeous color against that blue Texas sky. They’re not old-style college buildings, but they’re livable and classy. My favorites: the UC, the Planetarium, the new(ish) “ERB,” the Spaniolo/Pecan developments (plus their eco-smart landscaping), Nedderman Hall, the tennis center and surrounding apartments, and Architecture itself, with its inviting recessed garden.
  8. And speaking of Architecture, its Branch Library. Now, nothing against our Central Library, which is functional and sturdy, or Science/Engineering, another of my hangouts. But the Art/Architecture Library features an incisive and growing collection, lots of audio and video, a vibrant New Books shelf that’s constantly updated, and an inviting setting for research. I’ve learned more from regular stops there in the past few years than from any other campus resource.
  9. The UTA Theater Program. Well, I’ll admit, over the years, sometimes I have sneaked out at halftime, or whatever they call it when they bring the house lights up and you are allowed to move around for a bit. But I have also seen shows at UTA that I would never have known about, from a wide range of genres, and in a wide range of styles. They’re a teaching department in the best sense of the term: no UTA Theater major graduates without knowing something about the eclectic history of the stage, and knowing it in practice. I’ll single out the marvelous productions in recent years from director Andrew Gaupp, who has shown how farce is the public face of the postmodern: Noises Off, The Mousetrap, and The Government Inspector.
  10. Student Organizations. I’ve advised several over the years, including Sigma Tau Delta (the English Honor Society) and Lyric Expression (a spoken-word and slam poetry club). This fall, I’ve started to advise two more: or rather, to sit back and watch students pour critical energy and joy into them: the Comic Book Club and Food Fight –the organization for healthy cooking and sustainable sourcing. (Or rather, Dr. Joanna Johnson advises Food Fight; I just teach knife skills).

That’s ten: and I didn’t have to think very hard. Some things do go right around here.

Published in:Tim Morris |on October 30th, 2013 |3 Comments »

Numbed by Numbers

I thought of making this post a satiric dialogue. But the topic is not very funny, and there’s the danger that satire will miss its mark. So, for once, an academic-life post in all seriousness.

UTA, perhaps like many other universities, has started to evaluate teachers largely on the basis of numbers: scores derived from surveys that students fill out at the end of each semester. Here’s how it works. Students go online and respond to statements about the course they’ve just taken, statements like “The instructor used teaching methods that helped me learn” and “The instructor was well prepared for each class meeting.” The allowed responses range from 1 for “strongly disagree” through 5 for “strongly agree.” We’ve all done surveys like that, though they’re usually about dish detergent or the newest Iron Man movie.

The scores that these surveys generate appear in reports to UTA administrators and state-level officials. One standard method of reporting survey data is a table where each course has a separate row, and the score for each question is listed in a separate column.

Here’s how I did, for instance, in one of my World Literature courses in Spring 2013:

4.3 4.3 4.4 4.7 4.6 4.2 4.8 3.6 4.1 4.2 3.9 4.2 3.9

Pretty good, huh? Or pretty bad. Or who knows? “Who knows” will be the theme of much of this blog post.

I’m about to complain about being evaluated by numbers. The great danger of an English professor complaining about numerical evaluations is that I’ll be perceived as some touchy-feely poet who can’t bear the cold light of hard data. I’ll just have to run that risk. I have no ethos here. Pathos will get me nowhere. The following critique will be logos all the way.

Why is the line of numbers I gave above a weak way of evaluating History of World Literature I? Where do I begin?

  • That’s not very many responses, and it’s not many people to begin with. Thirty students took World Literature. Ten of them filled out the survey. If only 10 answer the survey, each response drags the mean (the “average”) number for each response pretty far in one direction or another. A statistician might tell you that a response rate of one-third is an awfully good sample, but even if all 30 answered, just a few really low or really high “outlier” responses can drag the mean down or up in ways that make that mean – 3.5 or 4.5 or whatever it may be – less indicative of the whole (and even the whole 30 isn’t very meaningful). But it gets worse:
  • There’s no context. We don’t know if 3.5 or 4.5 was bad or good in these circumstances. Was ENGL 3361 World Literature hard, easy, required, elective, a “gateway” course, a course self-selected by specialists, a course for majors, minors, merchant chiefs? The line of numbers tells you nothing about this complicated factor, in part because
  • There’s no baseline. Look again at my scores: 4.3 4.3 4.4 4.7 4.6 4.2 4.8 3.6 4.1 4.2 3.9 4.2 3.9. You know that 1 is bad and 5 is good. But that’s all you know. You are given other things like the mode, and standard deviation of the ten responses to every given question, which are next to meaningless if you know the mean (and, in fact, you see all ten individual responses listed in a bar graph, so even the mean is pretty superfluous). But you don’t know what a typical score for UTA looks like. You don’t know what an average score for an average English course looks like. You don’t know what the usual score for a 3000-level course looks like. You don’t know what a typical score for ENGL 3361 History of World Literature I looks like, and in fact in the last of these cases, you can’t know, because I’m the only person who teaches ENGL 3361. There is no way of telling whether the survey is measuring me, or the subject I’m teaching, because those two variables always run together.
  • But you think you do. Come on, be honest. You’re already looking at my line of 4.3 4.3 4.4 4.7 4.6 4.2 4.8 3.6 4.1 4.2 3.9 4.2 3.9 and thinking “well, Dr. Morris is clearly great at whatever 4.7 and 4.8 represent, but he’s pretty lousy at those 3.9 areas, and he really needs an intervention on that 3.6 category.” Now, you may be right about that. But you don’t know, and how could you? Still, you are ready to make all kinds of judgments on how I well I teach a course you’ve never attended, in part because
  • Numbers like these convey a false precision. Look again. You’re pretty happy about my performance on that 4.2 near the end of the list, right? But less so on the 3.9s that surround it. Admit it, that’s what you’re thinking, and thinking it harder the more I argue against it. But remember: those scores are the means of ten responses. One student responded “1″ to each question: the eternal sorehead. One answered “4″ to each; four answered “5.” The rest were split between 3s, 4s, and 5s. Overall, the difference between the 4.2 answer and the 3.9s is a couple of students answering “4″ instead of “3,” on a question they spent about half a second thinking about. Now let’s say you’re comparing me as a teacher to someone else, and I get a 3.9 where they got a 4.2, or vice versa. You see the problem? It’s akin to the illusion that makes you think $29.95 is cheap and $30.15 is expensive. And it sometimes gets worse. I have seen means on these questions, derived from less than 20 student responses, expressed to the second decimal place: i.e. not just 4.2 or 3.9, but 4.27 or 3.96. I stress that that second decimal place cannot have a meaning in any possible mathematical world. Heck, the first decimal place doesn’t have much. And it’s not just a problem in the mathematics,
  • It’s a problem of telemetry. Instead of watching me teach, instead of listening to my thoughts about teaching, instead of asking my colleagues or immediate supervisors about me, instead of really asking my students anything meaningful, you’ve been content to judge me as a teacher (inevitably! you’re still doing it, over my protests!) on the basis of numbers generated by a few staticky sensors attached more or less far from my classroom. And you’re content to do so, because a row of numbers is a lot handier than trying to figure out what goes on in that classroom. And because the evaluation is based on telemetry, is falsely precise, and has no context
  • The reading of such evaluations becomes a WAG. I’ve heard eminent scholars look at a row of numbers like my World Lit scores and opine that someone’s teaching is good, bad, somewhere in between, higher than others they’ve seen, lower, or whatever, based entirely on impressions they’ve accumulated by looking at other rows of such telemetric numbers, similarly without context or baseline. And when I’ve raised objections like those above, they pause, nod, say “of course,” and come back with
  • But administrators (and Regents and Coordinating Boards) like numbers. Which is fine, but if they like arbitrary, meaningless numbers, it doesn’t give me much confidence in administrators or Regents or Coordinating Boards.

Now let’s assume these numbers were sterling numbers, and gave a perfect depiction of what students took away from World Literature I. Let’s even assume that quantifying the quality of a complex humanities subject is a good idea. Those assumptions are false in so very many ways, but let’s make them. Are our problems over?

Perhaps not, because

  • Every instructor does pretty well on the numbers. Or at least, every instructor does about the same on the numbers, whatever that may mean. Granted, that’s my own hazy impression, but I’ve looked at a few rows of these numbers in my time, and they all look very much like the ones I got for World Lit. Even given all the problems with the numbers themselves, do they distinguish usefully among faculty? They actually might, just on the “eyeball” test, if you suddenly saw a row of 1.0s sticking out of other faculty who were at 3.9 and 4.2. But on the whole, the monotonous rows of near-identical numbers hovering around 4.0 don’t tell you anything – yet rankings of faculty for all sorts of purposes are made on the basis of numbers that pretty much represent a collective “that was OK” from the student body. Or I guess, because
  • We don’t really know what the students are saying. They are answering a number of anodyne questions by clicking radio boxes on a web form, an activity we all associate with those on-line quizzes that tell you What Kind of Dinosaur You Really Are or what year you are fixing to die. And what kinds of statements are the students asked to assess?
  • We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives. No, seriously. Two of the statements on the survey are “I acquired knowledge that will be useful in my future” and “I acquired skills that will be useful in my future.” Now, think about that for a moment. Those are perhaps admirable course goals – future knowledge and future skills – but the problem is, how the heck does one know, from the perspective of the present, how to respond to those statements about the future? This is not only a silly demand, it’s logically unpossible. Which leads to a larger problem with these surveys:
  • Everybody pretty much does seem to think they’re nonsense. Because if you ask a 21-year-old whether they’ve just learned something that they’re going to find useful at 42, they’re smarter than that. They know they don’t know; or at best, they know they’re being asked for banana oil. So you lose their respect, and they take the whole exercise less seriously. Instructors take it less seriously, administrators take it less seriously, and all the way up and down the line, increasing amounts of time are being wasted by people going through the motions of attending to something that nobody takes seriously. So as a result,
  • There’s not much an instructor can do to do better. I know what I need to do to improve my research: publish more. I know what I need to do to improve my service: attend more meetings. But if my teaching is evaluated by a list of survey numbers, how do I change them? What steps can I possibly take to turn a 3.9 into a 4.2? We’ve seen how whimsical and haphazard these measures are: do I even want to improve on some of this stuff? Should I try to sell my students better on the idea that they will use these “skills” someday? (Is reading Boccaccio a skill?) And the “telemetry problem” means that to “improve,” I have to guess how my actions in the classroom will show up on some fuzzy and indirect indicators: not on how well my students did on an essay exam about Boccaccio, but on how they felt before the exam about whether they’d use their knowledge 20 years from now. It’s like being evaluated on your engineering research on the basis of whether a thermometer in a building across campus rose or fell by a degree or two. And beyond even that,
  • Is the last week of a course ends the best time to ask students what they’ve learned? It is probably a good time to ask them whether their instructor was chronically late, or drunk, or kept hitting on them; or more positively if the instructor dressed well, smiled, or deserved “chili peppers” for hotness that would not stop. But I am not sure it is the best time to ask what World Literature taught them about Homer and Dante and Montaigne. This problem obviously predates web surveys of student satisfaction; it was inherent in older “narrative” student evaluations, too. But it hasn’t been addressed. Oddly enough, the ubiquity of the Web and its attendant social media mean that one could now design longitudinal studies that tracked the influence of college courses across decades of a student’s life. But nah, that would require effort and patience. I snark; but I still hold that college teaching deserves consideration by means of more than an immediate reaction, more than a snap opinion about whether certain skills have been delivered.

    But over and over, faculty and administrators, and English faculty as much as anybody else, still look at those rows of numbers and believe, in their hearts, that they tell a terrible and objective truth. Numbers don’t lie, after all. And I doubt these numbers are lying. They’re just not saying anything at all.

    One should never just complain; one should suggest better alternatives. This post is now too long to do so, but I’ll try to compose a more positive and proactive one soon.

  • Published in:Tim Morris |on October 19th, 2013 |3 Comments »

    UTA English Obituary: Emory Estes

    When I moved into the Chair’s office in the far corner of 203 Carlisle Hall, in 2002, the first person to visit me in my new digs was Emory Estes. I was barricaded behind the Chair’s desk, staring blankly at the blank wall in front of me. “TIM!” said Emory. “I was sitting in that VERY spot when I had my HEART attack!” Thanks, Emory, I thought. Thanks for the vote of confidence.

    Many of my conversations with Emory in those years revolved around death, always his own. “I am about to depart,” Emory would tell me. “Soon I will be part of the force that through the green fuse that drives the flower. The noble and virtuous cancer has made an end of me.” (Everything with Emory was “noble and virtuous.”) This was back around the turn of the century, understand. Emory so routinely announced he was dying that I was, naturally, dead certain that he would outlive me. When I saw his death notice in the Star-Telegram, I was sure it was hyperbole.

    Emory Estes taught at UTA for fifty years or so – or would have, if it had been called UTA when he got here. It was a two-year school then, one of the jewels of the state junior-college system, and Emory was a young MA with an irrepressible presence and an absolute, lifelong love of teaching. His first office was shared with seven other junior faculty (well, so he said; allowing for Emory, let’s make that two or three). It was most notable for having been repurposed later on into a second-floor women’s restroom in Ransom Hall.

    I would be insincere if I extolled Emory as a distinguished “researcher.” He published little in his field of training (19th-century American Literature). He was always going to write the big book about Robert Burns, and we always knew he never would. But you know what? Times change, and we change in them. Emory went back to school, while teaching full-time here, to earn his PhD at TCU. In those days, earning a PhD in itself demonstrated that you had serious scholarly credentials. As it should! Nowadays, junior faculty come aboard with a PhD, six articles, a dissertation under consideration at a university press, and a “second book project” confidently announced. These young teachers aren’t any smarter or more learned than Emory Estes; they’re just living in a different century.

    When I became Graduate Advisor in the late 90s, I was struck by how many prospective grad students had become inspired to earn their MAs or PhDs by being students of Emory Estes. And during those years, many, many recommendation letters for successful graduate students came from Emory. I learned to trust his judgment – admittedly based more on his reading of a student’s character and dedication than their adherence to the most recent theoretical shibboleths – as one of the best indicators of prospective academic success.

    During my brief term as department Chair, Emory said to me: “Tim, you have to understand about being Chair: you CAN’T have any FRIENDS any more! You have to make decisions about these people’s careers. They can’t like you. You can’t like THEM!” It was good advice about supervisory management, but it was oddly ironic. Emory Estes always had myriad friends. Everybody continued to respect and like him, despite his peccadillos, despite the fact that he’d made tenure-or-nay decisions about so many of us.

    Emory had a sharply-defined sense of himself and his perquisites, but he was an extraordinarily generous senior colleague. One of my favorite stories about him can perhaps be left to its teller, but it concerns a research area that one of our faculty subsequently developed into a world-renowned speciality. One day, Emory (the story goes) said to one of our colleagues, “YOU can teach a course on {thus-and-so}, can’t you?” Matter of fact, Emory had the strongest of personal claims on the same course material. But he cheerfully, in fact insistently, consigned it to his junior colleage – and the rest is history.

    Emory persists for me in a haze of his inimitable cologne and his proclivity to clutch his male colleagues on the shoulderblades – and to hug and kiss his female ones. Those of us young enough to be his son have long since been trained out of such predilections. But he never meant the slightest harm by it. He was one of those tactile fellow-workers of whom, as the wife of one of my mentors once told me, and I know Dorothy Estes would concur: “I never worried. He never strayed, not in more than half a century.” Physical contact is good for us mammals. I sometimes wish that I could now be half as uninhibited as Emory.

    Emory was chair of the English Department at UTA for 12 years, longer than any of us except for the mythical Duncan Robinson. After his heart attack in the line of duty, Emory’s admin not-so-subtly switched out the departmental coffeemaker from caffeinated to non-. Everyone complied meekly, though the quality of our 8am lectures may have suffered for a while. For many years, Emory’s admin just as unsubtly shielded him from irritating decisions. When a faculty member (in those days of paper) submitted a suggestion that his admin didn’t want him to hear about, the admin would impale it on “The Spike,” one of those dangerous office items more typically reserved for obsolete restaurant checks. Emory didn’t know the half of what went on – except of course, he always knew more than one-and-a-half of what was brewing, and acquiesced in his own protection.

    Emory retired – well, at least announced his retirement – about ten years ago; he went on to teach on “phased” retirement for several more years, and when at last fully retired, he was literally the “dean” of the UTA faculty, the professor who’d been here before anybody else was.

    I never talked with Emory about spirituality; I don’t to this day know what his religion was, if he had any. I do know that for fifty years, he began every class with “Good Morning, Scholars!” and called every test he gave an “Opportunity.” 1960s liberal eyewash, I hear you cry, and perhaps you’re right. But what a wonderful way to accentuate the positive about academic evaluation. So I think of Emory’s death as he taught students to think about difficult passages in their intellectual careers. Wherever you are now, Emory, I am sure you are making the most of this Opportunity.

    Published in:Tim Morris |on March 17th, 2013 |4 Comments »

    Customer Service

    So the phone rings, and it’s my old friend and mentor Lars Abraham. You remember Lars. He teaches four courses in English per semester at Seattle State University, as a reward for his decades of service.

    “Lars, I can’t talk right now. I’m doing some reading for a big lecture at UTA this week. It lasts for three hours on Thursday morning. We’re hearing from Neal Raisman, an expert on how to provide great academic customer service!”

    “Customer service,” said Lars. “What, do they want fries with their blue books now?”

    “Lars, please go out and tell some kids to get off your lawn. I need to keep up with what it takes to be an effective 21st-century faculty member.”

    “So what pearls of wisdom does this Raisman intend to cast before your swinish self?”

    “Ha ha. Lars, stop channeling John Houseman in The Paper Chase long enough to read Dr. Raisman’s blog post on How to Cope and Overcome Irritated and Irritating Students. ”

    “You should read it to me. My eyes go strabismic trying to read these bog posts or what you may call them.”

    “Fine. Listen to this, Lars. Title:”

    How to Cope and Overcome Irritated and Irritating Students

    “Ah, it has been a long time since I have seen “cope” as a transitive verb. As Iago says to Othello, ‘He hath, and is again to cope your wife.’ Are you sure this Raisman knows what he’s saying, Tim?”

    “Stow the pedantry, Lars. Raisman has dynamic stuff to offer. Listen to this:

    Here are fopur ways guaranteed to help make irritating students less irritated and thus easier to help.

    “What, pray tell, does “fopur” mean?”

    “Maybe it’s a typo for ’super.’”

    “So how do I make the irritating of the world less irritating?”

    “Less irritated, Lars,” I said. “Rule Number One is Smiling but do not overdo it.

    “I parse such sentences at my peril. But presumably I should smile at my students? Tim, I have not smiled since 1962. If I start smiling now, my students will think I need to go into Assisted Living.”

    “You don’t need to go all Vanna White, Lars. A little smile will do the trick. Listen:”

    A smile is correct and called for but it needs to be an empathetic one. A simple, small smile that says “I see you’re upset and I WILL try to help.” The smile you would use with one of your children with a problem. Students are someone’s children and will respond to this smile.

    “I am going to send this Raisman a shipment of commas. In any case, Tim, I should smile at a grown adult as if he or she were a child.”

    “Everybody’s somebody’s baby, Lars.”

    “And if you were my father’s baby, you would have gotten a smile once a year, on Tisha B’Av. So here I am, smiling at my students as if they have just dropped their Popsicle. Then what?”

    “Here’s the second technique:”

    Give and Name- Get a Name This is a technique that asks you to do exactly what it says. You provide an irritated student your name and ask her his or hers. “Hi. I’m ________. And you are?” When you exchange names you create a small community of people who know one another.

    “I know how I will do this. Hello. I am University Distinguished Professor Lars Abraham, PhD. I assume your name is Jessica, everyone’s seems to be these days. That will create a small community of people who acknowledge that I deserve their respectful deference.”

    “If you take that attitude, Lars, you’ll have to go straight to Step Three:”

    Apologize This is a lesson that we learned from people like Captain Kangaroo on TV

    “Tim, Captain Kangaroo spent a significant portion of his time chatting up Mr. Green Jeans and hallucinating about dancing bears. He had a lot to apologize for.”

    “Apologize all the same, Lars. And then proceed to step four, Compliments:”

    If you need to give a fallacious compliment to keep you and the student healthier, do it. Here’s an example. “Hi, I’m _____ Just want to say that I like your tee shirt, blouse, hair, glasses, jeans, backpack…” whatever seems to strike your eye quickly. Say it casually too so it will sound less contrived. Then as the student’s anger is interrupted you can even follow it up with a normal secondary question such as “Where did you get the tee, blouse, glasses….”

    “Excuse me. What if the first thing that strikes my eye is Jessica’s …”

    “Don’t say it, Lars. English Matters is a family weblog.”

    “I was going to say ‘necklace.’ So here I am, an 82-year-old man with cigar breath. I frequently button my shirt unevenly, and eggstains are not unknown thereupon. I see 19-year-old Jessica, and I get close enough to say casually Hi, I’m University Distinguished Professor Lars Abraham, PhD. Just want to say that I like your necklace. Jessica looks around for a campus policeman. While she is distracted, I follow up with Where did you get that stunning necklace, Jessica? Tim, I am too old to deal with restraining orders.”

    “Lars, you’re full of beans today, but the plain fact is that college faculty need to become customer servants if we’re to deal with today’s savvy, entitled consumer. Universities need to be run like businesses, Lars, and that includes creating a satisfying, if fallacious, customer-service environment.”

    “Tim, for once in my life I will not bother to refute the claim that a university should be run like a business.”


    “Because it is horse manure. But let us accept the premise. Seattle State is a business. And I am the point person for customer relations.”

    “Now you’re seeing the light, Lars!”

    “Now, every year, my salary slips further and further behind inflation. Every year, I get more courses to teach, and the class sizes get larger. Every year, there is more committee work. I spend more and more time performing self-evaluation, and more and more time peer-evaluating colleagues who have already proven their worth over dozens of years in the profession.”

    “Nothing like that happens at UTA, Lars. We’re an emerging Tier One institution!”

    “I spend more and more time filling out compliance forms, and tracking my behavior on websites that ask me to give progress-report grades every four weeks, or simply to note that I have talked with my thesis students. Already this semester, I have wasted six hours in meaningless meetings, four trying to get into classrooms with the wrong electronic-lock PIN number, six listening to presentations by Deans, and another eight trying to encrypt my laptop computer.”

    “Should have thrown it out the window, Lars.”

    “What? Anyway, I am trying to say this, Tim. Many, many service businesses are making working conditions worse for their staff. They are cutting corners, imposing regulations, stifling initiative, dictating every aspect of performance from the corporate office. There are no incentives for good performance, and many threats for bad performance. Service gets worse and worse, and customers are irritated. And what is the most common response from Corporate?”

    “Cash in their stock options and move to the Caymans?”

    “The response from management is: SMILE HARDER. As things are getting worse, pretend they are getting better. Live the brand. Greet each customer as if you were Captain Kangaroo on a tea bender. If you do not, there are a hundred unemployed people in line ready to smile even harder. We call them adjunct faculty.”

    “Lars, you are such a peevish cynic. I don’t know why I called you.”

    “You did not, Tim; I called you.”

    “Yeah, why?”

    I could hear Lars smile. “This is Lars, Tim. I’m sorry if I upset you. You have such a nice telephone voice. Where did you get that beautiful telephone voice?”

    Published in:Tim Morris |on October 1st, 2012 |2 Comments »


    Recently we got a memo from the Provost’s Office insisting that we encrypt our laptop computers with military-grade security software. Since I went to graduate school for English and not computer science, I failed miserably at the task. So I had to call my friend Ken Kleinkram, who was just named Associate Pinch Provost for Informatic Assets at a salary several multiples of my own. Ken came over to my office with a set of tiny screwdrivers and a device that looked like a tricorder.

    “Let’s see if we can’t get you encrypted, Timbo,” said Ken. “First of all: are you connected to the Internet?”

    “Ha ha,” I said, “the old ‘Tim’s an idiot’ assumption. I am certainly connected to the Internet,” I said, “it’s this grey cord that comes out of this socket here.” Which I picked up and pulled out of the various desk spaghetti, to find that the other end was plugged into my printer.

    “That might explain your issues,” said Ken. He plugged something into something else, intoned a few incantations, pressed a few keys, and suddenly some element of my laptop began to rumble away like a reactor preparing for a meltdown.

    “That program will run in the background for 36 hours,” said Ken. “Just don’t turn your computer off in the meantime. And don’t try to log into MyMav or Blackboard while the encryption is running.”

    “That’s OK,” I said. “It’s the first week of the semester, so MyMav and Blackboard are down anyway. But tell me this: why do I need military-grade encryption on my laptop? It already has a password.”

    “But what if somebody stole your laptop, broke it open, and extracted the hard disk? Thieves have procured countless bytes of essential medical-research data from unencrypted university laptops across the nation.”

    “I don’t do medical research, Ken. I teach poetry.”

    Ken thought for a minute. “You’re going to go all snarky on me in a sec, aren’t you?” he said. “Can you shut up for ten minutes while I explain how vital this encryption can be to the University and the State of Texas?”

    I promised to restrain myself.

    “OK, then,” Ken said, clicking on my hard-disk icon. “Let me show you the kinds of problems you’re not anticipating. Look at all this data that would just lie around unencrypted if you didn’t comply. What’s this, for instance?” He clicked on a file, and a checkerboard-like grid came up.

    “That’s the Monday Prize Crossword Puzzle from the Financial Times.”

    “Did you solve it?”

    “I have one word left to get. If I mail in the first randomly drawn correct answer, I win a Collins Gem Dictionary!”

    “And what if somebody from Texas A&M steals the answer and wins the dictionary?”

    “Presumably it would improve spelling in College Station. But I’m starting to see what you mean. This is some serious intellectual property we’re talking about here.”

    “No snark, you promised. What’s this file?”

    “Oh, that’s a spreadsheet. I’m trying to find out how many major-league second basemen have played an entire season while hitting more than 20 doubles and grounding into fewer than 10 double plays. I need to find better data, though. Going through newspapers boxscore by boxscore is slow work.”

    “And what if that research gets pre-empted by our competitors? Suddenly peer-reviewed results will be racked up by other universities, based on your man-hours of research production. What are these?”

    Ken pointed to some dark icons.

    “They’re … um … pictures of Whisper Wilson.”

    “She isn’t some kind of exotic dancer, is she, Tim?”

    “No! Whisper Wilson is my cat.”

    Ken clicked on an icon and whistled.

    “Think about this, Tim. Suppose somebody posted a picture of Whisper on Facebook.” I stared at the ceiling. “This is by conservative estimate the most adorable cat that has ever been photographed. If someone were to disseminate this photo, innumerable working hours would be spent Liking it, causing the world economy to tailspin out of control.”

    I began to feel very glad about encryption.

    “There isn’t much else on this machine,” said Ken. “But I think you can see the dangers of leaving it unprotected. No, wait a second – here’s another 10MB of data I didn’t see before. The folder is called The Girl with the Phoenix Tattoo. What’s that, Tim?”

    “Oh,” I said, “that’s a draft of my novel. It’s a completely original idea. It’s about this English professor named Mitt Sorem, see? He’s 53 years old and irresistible to women. So he has this student who’s 19, she’s got a lot of piercings and wears leather and has a tattoo of a phoenix on her back. They have wild sex and drink lots of coffee. And it turns out she’s a hacker, and she breaks into this computer network where the drug cartel is funneling money through a Swedish furniture store and there are also spies. They beat the cartel with hacking and martial arts and Mitt Sorem gets locked in a serial killer’s basement and the girl frees him by hitting the serial killer with a badminton racket.”

    “A badminton racket?”

    “I may have to think more about that one. But it’s great stuff, it’ll sell mill…”

    And you’re writing this story on a UTA laptop, Tim, which means that it’s an invention and/or concept which belongs to the State of Texas. If it gets stolen by an unscrupulous literary agent, we would not only lose our investment in your intellectual labor, but you yourself would have to reimburse the university for foregone revenue.”

    I grabbed my laptop and threw it out the window.

    “I told you not to disconnect the machine!” screamed Ken.

    “That’s fine, I’ll do without a laptop,” I said. “You’ve convinced me, the risks are just too great.”

    “But you still have the idea for the novel in your head, right?” said Ken.

    “Of course.”

    “Come over here,” said Ken. He inserted a USB drive into my ear. “Hold still for the next 36 hours. We’re going to have to encrypt your brain.”

    Published in:Tim Morris |on September 13th, 2012 |4 Comments »

    Literary Bicentenary: Goncharov

    Ivan Alexandrovich Goncharov was born on 18 June 1812 (adjusting for the vagaries of the Russian calendar). Today is his 200th birthday.

    Goncharov wrote Oblomov, and Oblomov made Goncharov’s reputation forever. Very few writers in world literature have been so identified with a single iconic character. In fact, very few literary characters have become so iconic. Not being Russian, I can’t begin to understand the depths to which Oblomov (and his life-philosophy, Oblomovshchina or “Oblomovism”) have become entwined with Russian culture. But as a vicarious fan of Oblomov in translation, I have some sense of a few things that Oblomov means.

    Oblomov is a deeply inertial character. It takes him several chapters of his own novel to get out of bed, and once out, he is always in danger of slipping back in. One can interpret his inability to rouse himself from a number of perspectives. To read him through our own century, he’s simply depressed. Indeed, Oblomov is a wonderful character study in depression, in the way your mind works when you hesitate to take out the trash because there will just be more trash tomorrow, when there’s no point even in microwaving some miserable leftover or punctuating your sentences and you watch one reality show after another because the remote is too far from your couch. The psychological realism of Oblomov is sometimes so fresh and so contemporary that it seems to belie social constructionism. Despite our immense distance from Oblomov in socio-economic circumstances, culture, and language, we can read him as directly as if he were sprawled on the sofa next to us. And why not? His creator was born only 200 years ago – two long human lifetimes. Being depressed can’t be all that different now than it was two lifetimes ago.

    But of course, the intervening history of Russia is about nothing if it’s not about social constructionism. The Soviets believed that people took the forms that economic relations dictated to them. They read Oblomov as an indictment of an aristocracy made soft by its dependence on serfs. For that reason, Oblomov was one of the Russian classics that did best under the Soviet regime. In such a reading, Oblomov is not just somebody whose brain chemistry has let him down. He becomes allegorical for an ancien regime, brutal and lazy, that is heading for a fall.

    And there are other ways of reading Oblomov that are less partisan, if just as political. One can see him as emblematic of a deep, corrupt indolence in the Russian national spirit. He can also possibly stand for positive values of tradition and community. He’s not infinitely malleable, though. He cannot stand for energy, progress, Westernization, or anything-ization, really. He has no project and no aspirations. He does have a tender side, though, and readers instinctively like him (though Goncharov may not have intended them to). He is diffident, and so ends up losing the woman he loves, Olga Sergeyevna. As heartless as his indolent defection may seem, one gets a sense that he really does leave her because she won’t be happy with him. Olga wants to change Oblomov, to get him moving. Instead, he stays right where he is, and eventually marries his distinctly declassé landlady, Agafia Matveyevna. Much like the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz, Oblomov realizes that what matters is not how much he loves, but how much he is loved by others. Agafia loves him just the way he is.

    That Oblomov is harder to allegorize, and a richer character than the one of Soviet (or anti-Soviet) criticism. Perhaps in spite of himself, Goncharov created a character that we can’t help but enjoy and identify with, despite his fecklessness. Indeed, he’s the ancestor of a line of feckless literary heroes, as various as Nabokov’s Pnin and John Kennedy Toole’s Ignatius J. Reilly.

    Oblomov is by many orders of magnitude Goncharov’s most famous work. I tried to read his first novel The Same Old Story in the UTA Library’s copy recently, only to be told that the grim little Soviet volume did not circulate. But I was able to read his third, The Precipice, which deserves a wider audience – if only for its fallen women who emerge from the novel unaffected by arsenic or passing trains, determined to keep living their lives despite a fate, in the 19th-century novel, that is conventionally worse than death.

    I know little of Goncharov’s life. He was from the upper classes, though not a nobleman, and he became a bureaucrat (in the Tsarist literary/cultural establishment, at times in his life serving as a literary censor). He knew the world populated by many a character who would appear in his own novels, or those of Tolstoy and Turgenev. He seems always to have wanted to do something else, though, no matter what he was doing. He was no Oblomov, though he may have felt like one. He seems to have been more like the protagonist of The Precipice, Boris Raisky, who wanders from one profession and artistic calling to another. Like Oblomov, Boris doesn’t get the woman of his dreams. But worse, he doesn’t get any woman at all: he wanders off into perpetual dilettantism. Oblomov, with his widowed landlady bringing him breakfast in bed, may have chosen the better part.

    Published in:Tim Morris |on June 18th, 2012 |2 Comments »

    The Flow of Research

    The phone rings again, and for the second time this month, it’s my old mentor Lars Abraham, Professor of English Semi-Emeritus, calling from his office at Seattle State.

    “Lars!” I said. “Twice in a row! How are things at Seattle State?”

    “Not so good,” said Lars. Five seconds pass.

    “Do you want to elaborate?”

    “I am going to teach more next fall, Tim – more classes, same pay. But it is my choice.”

    “That’s awful, Lars. I can’t imagine teaching any more than you absolutely have to.”

    “Now you sound like a Dean,” said Lars. “But are you at all interested in my thought process?”

    “Let ‘er rip,” I said.

    “It happened like this. For years I have been teaching three courses in the Fall and two in the Spring. You know that I have a certain standing in my field.”

    Do I ever. Lars Abraham is author of A Pop’rin Pear: Fruit and Sexuality in Shakespeare (1969), Hot i’th’ Mouth: Symbolic Spiciness in Shakespeare (1978), and Vile Jelly: Shakespeare’s Tragic Desserts (1984).

    “Now Seattle State is moving to a differential-teaching-load policy,” said Lars. “They tell us that a 3/2 teaching load has actually been a ‘reduction’ all these years. We have to start proving that we deserve a reduction down to the 60-hour weeks we work now.”

    “Yes, we have that at UTA, too!” I said. “It’s the best way to ensure that research-active faculty can concentrate on production, while others pursue their first love, teaching.”

    “So I understand,” said Lars. “Clearly no one can do both. That is sarcasm, in case your detectors are off, Tim. In any case, to stay on my 3/2 teaching load, I must produce peer-reviewed research at the rate of one major project, two minor projects, or four mini-projects in each four-year span.”

    “That’s great,” I said. “Tier One Universities need a constant flow of research productivity from their core faculty.”

    “A constant flow of something, at any rate,” said Lars. “But I told them no: let me teach 4/3 and the research, forget about it.”

    “But I don’t understand, Lars,” I said. “You are still producing a steady flow. Work is streaming out of you like soft-serve fro-yo. Why, just next month, you’re fixing to present your new conference paper “‘The Wild Thyme Blows’: Inferior-Quality Herbs in Shakespeare’s Festive Comedies.”

    “Wait a minute, all this talk of flow makes me want to visit the little boys’ room.” Five minutes later, Lars picked up the phone again.

    “Tim, are you there?”

    “Hanging on the telephone, Lars.”

    “As I was saying, I am not going to take the ‘research reduction,’ though why they call it that since it is the same teaching load I have had for 16 years, I do not know. And hear me out, Tim. Why do people work in the humanities, do you suppose?”

    “It’s to generate citations! When we produce peer-reviewed results that get cited in our peers’ peer-reviewed results, we’re giving the university bang for its research buck!”

    “Your head, I should bang against a drawer, Tim. That is the phoniest nonsense I have heard lately, and I have been reading memos from the Provost’s office all week. Tim, the reason that people do research in the humanities – and not just ‘research,’ as if that were the only thing that matters, but bibliography, criticism, creative writing, book reviewing, even just plain reading and learning – is to establish their ethos as intellectuals. We cultivate our brains, Tim – those of us that have brains, which I am not sure of in your case – so that we can become better teachers and so that the traditions of learning that make life worth living can survive.”

    Oh, great, I thought. There’s nothing like an old liberal turned reactionary humanist. “So why not just do more research and get the lower teaching load?” I asked.

    “Because they will make me show my work. Every year I have to report on my plans and goals, and I have to maintain a rate of flow that … excuse me again … [flushing] … that justifies my research-active course reduction.”

    “And quite right, too, Lars! The state of Washington wants to know that it’s getting steady flow from its taps of research.”

    “If you mention flow one more time I will fly to Texas and pee on your shoes.”

    “Lars, is this one of these ‘Do you know who I am?’ snits that you senior tenured dilettantes like to engage in?”

    “Call it vanity if you will, Tim. I have nothing to prove to anybody. What I do not have to do is to submit my homework to the Assistant Dean for Research Quantification. I am a rather elderly man, as Melville would say.”


    “Shut up and listen, Tim. I am a very foolish fond old man, and I have worked hard all my life to prove that I know something about literature and language. I do not have to publish an article every four years to prove that I have brains. I have been publishing articles since before there was a Designated Hitter. I have edited a journal, I have read hundreds of manuscripts for journals and unversity presses, I have been on ten dozen thesis committees. Tim, I am peer review. So perhaps I want to learn Estonian next year. Perhaps I want to write my memoirs. Perhaps I want to re-read Henry James. Being pressured to publish some article in some journal is not going to make me a smarter person. And what if I bow to that pressure and my articles are rejected? Then I have experienced all kinds of tsuris and will still be put on a higher teaching load. It is not good for my ulcer.”

    “I don’t know, Lars. If Seattle State wants to reach Tier One, then they need to undam their research fl… I mean, they need to ramp up faculty productivity. And if you’re not producing peer-reviewed results, how do I know you’re current in your field?”

    “What, have I exhibited second childishness and mere oblivion in this conversation? Tim, I am older than soil, but I am still in my perfect mind. And English Literature is not computer science, nor is it this popular music you children listen to, with some new MTV thing every week. Hamlet is still Hamlet, Tim. And from Hamlet, I know.”

    “Well, have it your way, Lars.”

    “My way is about the only thing I have left.”

    Published in:Tim Morris |on June 11th, 2012 |No Comments »

    The University as Crunchyco

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

    “Lars!” I said, feeling bad for not having called him since the late 20th century. “How are you doing? How’s everything at Seattle State these days?”

    “Not so good,” said Lars. “Budget cuts . . . you know, state support for state universities is down everywhere.”

    [Lars didn't actually link to that story as he was talking to me. But I could hear it in his tone of voice.]

    “That’s no problem at UTA,” I said, “we’re Mavericks. We’re an emerging Tier One institution.”

    “We are trying for Tier One, also, but right now we are more like Tier Three-and-a-Half,” said Lars. “Really, ’state’ schools have just become private universities with better parking. We got an e-mail from our Provost saying that the English Department must find some private funding, or we will lose our graduate program and our major, and we will all be reduced to teaching five sections of grammar and composition to freshmen, in which briar patch I was born, so it affrights not me.”

    “Well, you’ve got to get your brand out there, Lars. Like UTA: our brand is UNBRANDED™. Get it? Our identity is that we can’t be pinned down to an identity. That way, everyone knows exactly what to expect from us: the unexpected.”

    “Such postmodernism makes my head spin.”

    “Lars, you see, you’ve got to re-invent English so that you tap into the market. Serve the new generation of tech-savvy visual and virtual learners! Majors will flock to the English department once they see how the communications skills we teach will make them desirable to corporations.”

    “Tim,” growled Lars, “businesses will keep hiring business majors even if English majors learn to stand on their heads and Twitter out of their tuchus.”

    “But, Lars –”

    “And for another thing, I am too old to re-invent English. Do we need more vowels? Am I supposed to add a fifteenth line to the sonnet? English is what it is, as you infants say.”

    “OK, keep teaching sonnets, Lars. But you have to admit, you need to sell sonnets to the discerning student consumer. Studying literature teaches you to learn how to learn, an essential skill for earning a living in today’s business world!”

    “Literature has nothing to do with earning a living. Literature is what makes living worth living. Though with my prostate, I sometimes have doubts.”

    “Well, maybe your administration can raise some money for the humanities.”

    “No, they are leaving it up to the departments to come up with marketing schemes. Universities are like junk-food companies anymore, Tim. Did I tell you about my nephew Sven, who used to work for Crunchyco? They would pit one division against another. Pretzels would fight popcorn for market share. They were told to ‘cannibalize’ the other units’ sales. The suits would go to Sven and say, ‘Sven, potato chips are a drug in the market. If you don’t turn your department around, we’re going to sell you to Frito-Lay.’ That is what liberal-arts departments are told now, Tim.”

    “I’m glad UTA isn’t like that. It does sound bad.”

    “It is worse than it sounds. At least Sven is an MBA, a smart man, my nephew. He knew how to sell potato chips. What our administration is doing is like going down to the floor of the potato-chip plant and saying to the line workers ‘Your chips stink on ice! Design a better chip or you’re all out of a job! And don’t slow down the line, either – in fact, work longer shifts while you’re coming up with these new products!’”

    “But Lars, education really is like marketing. You have to respond to student demand.”

    “Responding to demand is all well and good when we are talking about potato chips. Tim, think of this: if snack foods fight it out for shelf space, what happens to kale and broccoli and cauliflower?”

    “Nobody wants cauliflower, Lars. Bye, bye, cauliflower!”

    “And if departments at a university cannibalize one another for students, what happens to languages and anthropology and philosophy?”

    “Bye, bye – no, wait, I don’t like the way this argument is going.”

    “Tim, a university is not a buffet. At some point, someone has to take the lead and insist that students get good nutrition. And if that means subsidizing cauliflower with the profits from cookies, then so be it.”

    “So you’re saying that central administration needs to attract outside funding, take overhead from those grants and gifts, and apply it strategically to strengthen liberal-arts education.”

    “Outside funding, now that you mention it, they have attracted a lot. Private money is pouring in. And for what? They have built a basketball stadium with it.”

    “March Madness! Go, SSU! Nothing builds a brand like getting that 65th play-in spot. Bracketology!”

    “Tim, you are a nincompoop. Seattle State finished eighth in the Puget Sound Conference last year. They cannot give away tickets. Last winter the cheerleaders outnumbered the fans. Everybody who went to the games got a personal assistant coach to sit beside them and explain the Xs and Os. Which I am happy to say I never will understand. Too much running in basketball. Too much waving your hands in the other man’s face. Give me baseball any day.”

    I remembered that Lars loves baseball.

    “So, how are the Mariners doing?” I asked.

    “Not so good.”

    Published in:Tim Morris |on June 4th, 2012 |3 Comments »

    Babel No More

    I have never thought of myself as particularly good at languages. This despite my reputation in my workplace as someone who can read anything. Indeed, on lection, in the past eight years, I have reviewed books written in French, Spanish, Italian, German, and Portuguese, as well as English. My Latin and Greek were once good enough to read Vergil and Homer, I’ve studied Old and Middle English – and many years ago I learned enough Russian to read a Chekhov short story, though I doubt I could recognize half the characters in the Russian alphabet anymore.

    I still think of myself as monolingual, however, because my capacity for carrying on a conversation in any language except English is practically nil. In Spanish, for instance, my pronunciation is good (honed by years watching Noticiero Univision), my vocabulary is adequate, and I can often think of a single thing to say, if given about half an hour to prepare. But the thought of somebody saying something back to me makes me extremely reluctant to use Spanish in my everyday life. Or rather: it’s not so much that they might answer with something I didn’t understand – I could perhaps stumble forward from there, despite my shyness, and the fact that it would take me another half an hour to think of the second thing I wanted to say – but the probability that they would immediately switch to English. Everybody’s English is better than my everybody else’s language.

    However, since I can read six modern languages (with proficiency varying from high to struggling), and have a few “surge” languages in reserve that I might be able to swot up given a spare month or two, I verge in some ways on the category that Michael Erard calls “hyperpolyglot.” His fascinating book Babel No More tries to do many things: to define “hyperpolyglots” (which includes defining what it means to know or use a language); to locate living hyperpolyglots; to look at the history of hyperpolyglottery; to speculate on the neurological and social contexts for the speaking of many languages; and to travel the world while writing a voice-driven book about eccentric people.

    I am deeply in sympathy with all the aims except the last; as readers of lection know, voice-driven nonfiction is one of my pet peeves. Erard, however, keeps the ratio of exposition to chatter substantially high. Once in a while he lapses. Erard flies to Düsseldorf to get some background on neurolinguistics, and tells us that

    As any good expedition begins with a meal, Loraine and I considered hyperpolyglots over sushi. Tomorrow we’d be visiting the brain institute, and we had much to discuss. (166)

    That’s fine, but who cares.

    My peeves aside, though, Babel No More is relentlessly provocative. Erard is constantly caught between the desire that there should be linguistic prodigies in the world, and the rueful awareness that claims on behalf of such prodigies always need discounting by (at least) half. “If you read or hear that a certain person ‘can speak’ (or ’speaks’) a large number of languages (for instance twenty or more) you should always be a little skeptical,” said the late Swedish polyglot Erik Gunnermark (226). Gunnermark himself claimed to speak six languages well and seven others passably, but some who knew him in turn doubted Gunnermark’s claims: one colleague says, “I don’t think [he] could speak very many languages very well—but he could read them” (226). Gunnermark claimed to be able to read forty-seven languages (92).

    Two principles are at work in the example of Erik Gunnermark. One is that the definition of “knowing” a language is far more nuanced than common wisdom would have it. I “know” Italian well enough to read contemporary novels without a dictionary, and to have read the entire Divina Commedia in the original at one point in my life. But people will come into my office and ask me the most basic words in Italian, and I haven’t the nebbiosissimo. When I was in Rome nine years ago, I was reduced to pointing and gesticulating in order to demonstrate my most basic needs. (Fortunately espresso is one of them.)

    The other principle is that the languages known by any polyglot form a steeply descending curve of such competence, and can be arranged in graph form (as Erard does on 221-22). There are native bilingual and trilingual people who are completely at home in each of these languages, and they often learn a fourth or fifth language well enough to be able to converse unhesitatingly. A sixth, a seventh . . . these are within the range of accomplishment, but the conversations that a polyglot holds in those languages will be more basic. S/he might get by in rudimentary conversations in shops or airports in half a dozen other languages, and know the most phrasebook-like versions of a few others, and be able to read a few others without a dictionary, and a few others with. And then there are a bunch of languages where one knows how to say “hello,” “thank you,” and whatever-it-is you say when you bump into somebody in the market. (Συγγνώμη! Bocsánat! Undskyld!)

    Nobody can be near-native in more than four or five languages. (But I know people who are highly fluent in that many, mainly from crossroads-of-Europe places like the Benelux countries and the Baltic.) Partly the constraint is one of time. It takes time to learn them and time to keep them current. A few years ago, struck by the sense that I ought to practice reading the eight languages I could nominally read, I devised a plan of reading one Bible chapter in each of them, on an eight-day rotation. One chapter a day does not sound like much; the material was familiar and the translations (or in the case of Greek, the koine of the original New Testament) fairly basic. But let me tell you, reading the Bible in eight different languages at the rate of one language per day is a shortcut to madness. You can’t keep it up unless you have nothing else to do. (Two features of many of the hyperpolyglots Erard studies are extremely good time management and near-compulsive study skills.)

    “The enemy of the language-learner is forgetting,” says one of Erard’s informants. “You can only prevent this by regularly studying” (134). Sir Richard Burton (the world traveler, not the movie star) learned over two dozen languages, but never all at once; he spoke them “in blocks or spurts” (47), and time away from any of his languages had to be redeemed with time spent studying again before he could return to it. The example of such hard work, Erard says, is the basis for one theory of superlearners.

    One view says: what matters is a person’s sense of mission and dedication to language learning. You don’t need to describe high performers as biologically exceptional, because what they do is the product of practice. (163)

    But clearly there’s a sense in which at least some hyperpolyglots are just gifted with verbal ability.

    The other view says: Something neurological is going on. We may not know exactly what the mechanisms are, but we can’t explain exceptional outcomes fully through training or motivation. (164)

    Indeed, some language “accumulators” are of low intelligence, or hampered by social anxieties; they are savant-like in their ability to memorize gigantic vocabulary lists. They work hard, but they also do things that normal hard-working people can’t (and fail at things that the mentally normal handle easily). Great language learning can be a gift in the same way as great musical ability or great chess talent. There is probably more than one pathway there, and sometimes people take several at once (just as there is more than one kind of polyglottery).

    Erard lists several talents to cultivate if you want to use a lot of different languages: mimicry, openness to experience, metamemory (remembering what you know and what you don’t), and the less-definable Sprachegefühl [sic] (“feel for language,” 263). I think I understand Sprachgefühl, though I may not possess it to any great degree. It is partly what the poet Keats called “negative capability.” In any language, there are various ways to pronounce words, various idioms that don’t make logical sense, lots of synonyms, multiple registers, and above all tons of irregularities that don’t apply in every other (sometimes any other) languages. If you have a feel for language, you roll with it.

    You cannot learn languages, or in a real sense even learn much about your own language, if you are unable to yield to uncertainty. In this, language is utterly different from math or chemistry. If you ask someone who is competent in two languages, but lacks Sprachgefühl, to translate something, they will give you a rote dictionary equivalent. If you ask a multilingual with Sprachgefühl to translate something, they will tell you three ways to say it in writing, one way to say it to your grandkids and and one way to say it to a cop, plus an interesting way they say it in Kentucky. As Ron Washington says of baseball, that’s the way language go.

    Erard, Michael. Babel No More: The search for the world’s most extraordinary language learners. New York: Free Press [Simon & Schuster], 2012.

    Published in:Tim Morris |on May 28th, 2012 |2 Comments »