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April 30, 2007 [feather]
School of Rock

The Right Brothers have recorded a song in support of Indoctrinate U called "Shut Up and Teach." Have a listen.

And then sign up to see the film.

Erin O'Connor, 8:02 AM | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

April 27, 2007 [feather]
Squeezing the three-decker

Orion Group is set to launch "Compact Editions" of some of the greatest--and longest--classics we have.

Tolstoy, Dickens and Thackeray would not have agreed with the view that 40 per cent of Anna Karenina, David Copperfield and Vanity Fair are mere "padding", but Orion Books believes that modern readers will welcome the shorter versions.

The first six Compact Editions, billed as great reads "in half the time, will go on sale next month, with plans for 50 to 100 more to follow.

Malcolm Edwards, publisher of Orion Group, said that the idea had developed from a game of "humiliation", in which office staff confessed to the most embarrassing gaps in their reading. He admitted that he had never read Middlemarch and had tried but failed to get through Moby Dick several times, while a colleague owned up to skipping Vanity Fair.

What was more, he said: "We realised that life is too short to read all the books you want to and we never were going to read these ones."

Research confirmed that "many regular readers think of the classics as long, slow and, to be frank, boring. You're not supposed to say this but I think that one of the reasons Jane Austen always does so well in reader polls is that her books aren't that long".

The first six titles in the Compact Editions series, all priced at L6.99, are Anna Karenina, Vanity Fair, David Copperfield, The Mill on the Floss, Moby Dick, and Wives and Daughters.

Bleak House, Middlemarch, Jane Eyre, The Count of Monte Cristo, North and South and The Portrait of a Lady will follow in September.

Each has been whittled down to about 400 pages by cutting 30 to 40 per cent of the text. Words, sentences, paragraphs and, in a few cases, chapters have been removed.

The Times article goes on to compare the new series to the Classics Illustrated comic books of old and to offer a few compact editions of its own.

Here is Anna Karenina: "The problem is, thought Anna--her aristocratic brow furrowing slightly under a fabulous new hat--men look so irresistible in uniform! Ditto boots, billowing shirts and moustaches! Hang marriage. Hang motherhood. Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got a train to catch."

And here is David Copperfield: "I am Born ... I am Sent Away from Home ... I Have a Memorable Birthday ... I Become Neglected and Am Provided For ... I Make Another Beginning ... Somebody Turns Up ... I Fall into Captivity ... Depression ... Enthusiasm ... Dora's Aunts ... Mischief ... Mr Dick Fulfils my Aunt's Predictions ... I am Involved in Mystery ... Tempest ... Absence ... Return ... Agnes!"

Publishers can do as they like with books that aren't under copyright. But they miss the point of these novels when they suggest that nothing is lost--and a lot gained--by bowdlerizing them with an eye to shortening the amount of time someone has to spend with them. Much of the point of the nineteenth-century novel was that it was LONG. Length compelled readers to live with characters, to spend time with them in ways we no longer associate with books all that much, but that we do associate with TV series.

Serial publication underscored this ideal--Dickens regularly took 18 months to publish a novel in monthly parts, and sometimes he took even longer. When you are reading David Copperfield at a settled, measured pace of about fifty pages a month, and when that experience is drawn out for well over a year, there is no sense of a long, heavy novel weighing you down at nights. There is, however, the sense of living characters who exist in time, and whose imagined existences become entwined with those of the readers who are returning regularly to them each month, as if to an old friend.

Authors shared this sense of their works as vital entities. When Dickens wrote the preface to the completed David Copperfield, he observed that "It would concern the reader little, perhaps, to know, how sorrowfully the pen is laid down at the close of a two-years' imaginative task; or how an Author feels as if he were dismissing some portion of himself into the shadowy world, when a crowd of the creatures of his brain are going from him for ever. Yet, I have nothing else to tell; unless, indeed, I were to confess (which might be of less moment still) that no one can ever believe this Narrative, in the reading, more than I have believed it in the writing." In the preface to the 1869 edition, Dickens expanded on that sentiment: "Of all my books, I like this the best. It will be easily believed that I am a fond parent to every child of my fancy, and that no one can ever love that family as dearly as I love them. But, like many fond parents, I have in my heart of hearts a favourite child. And his name is DAVID COPPERFIELD." Not all the works slated above were serialized (The Mill on the Floss for instance, was published in book form), but even those that weren't belonged to a culture that understood novels as forms that compelled readers to digest a story over time, and they were written with that in mind.

People are fond of saying that serial publication=padded writing. And certainly there are times, especially when reading the work of lesser Victorian novelists, or the early work of great Victorian novelists, when the prose seems to drag. But that's because the writer in question is learning to inhabit a form that requires considerable tautness and pace--not padding--if it is to work. You would be hard-pressed to trim Bleak House or Middlemarch (which Virginia Woolf called "one of the few English novels written for grown-up people") without ridiculous results. And you would be missing the point of these works, which revolve around plot but are also about much more than plot, if you read versions that had been reduced to simplified storylines.

I'm all for more people reading the long Victorian novels, which is really what this series seems to be about. But there are better ways to bring them to people. I'd love to see newspapers and magazines serializing the classics afresh, bringing Dickens and his followers (because all Victorian serializers were, like it or not, Dickens' followers) back to life, replete with the original illustrations. I think people would read this stuff if they got it in small, manageable chunks parsed out over time, they way Victorian readers themselves did. And I think they would develop a taste for longer fiction--and a patience for spending time with longer fiction--that they could carry over into their reading lives more generally.

Erin O'Connor, 6:59 AM | Permalink | Comments (13) | TrackBack (0)

April 25, 2007 [feather]
Porn is whatever you say it is

This is a good example of why obscenity laws, not to mention speech codes, just do not work:

BENTONVILLE -- A Bentonville man asked the city to pay his two sons $20,000 and to fire the library director for including what he called "pornography" in the Bentonville Public Library collection.

"The Whole Lesbian Sex Book" by Felice Newman was removed from the library shelf after Earl Adams of Bentonville complained it is "patently offensive and lacks any artistic, literary or scientific value," according to a letter he wrote and faxed Feb. 16 to Mayor Bob McCaslin.

Adams said his 14- and 16-year-old sons, Kyle and Ryan, looked at the book while the 14-year-old was browsing for material on military academies. He requested the city pay him $10,000 per child, the maximum allowed under the Arkansas obscenity law.

"My sons were greatly disturbed by viewing this material and this matter has caused many sleepless nights in our house," he said in another e-mail to McCaslin earlier in February.

Library Director Cindy Suter initially relocated the book to a less accessible location as Adams requested in his first e-mail complaint. Then Adams asked Feb. 16 for the book to be removed and sent McCaslin a letter threatening a lawsuit.

"God was speaking to my heart that day and helped me find the words that proved successful in removing this book from the shelf," Adams stated Thursday.

Advisory board members voted unanimously April 3 to remove the book from circulation and find a similar resource book, if possible. If not, the book will likely go back on the shelf, Suter said.

Library Advisory Board member George Spence said he found the book crude and agrees it ought to be replaced with a suitable book on the same topic.

"A more sensitive, more clinical approach to same material might be more appropriate for the library," Spence said.

Adams said in an e-mail Thursday he will fight the book's return.

"Any effort to reinstate the book will be met with legal action and protests from the Christian community," Adams stated in an e-mail.

Sometimes people are just so tiresome.

Erin O'Connor, 10:14 PM | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack (0)

April 23, 2007 [feather]
Can you spare a square?

There are times when you wish performing artists would just stick to performing. I like Sheryl Crow. I own Sheryl Crow albums. I know the words to a great many of her songs. But now, everytime I hear Sheryl Crow sing, I am going to have to think about this:

Singer Sheryl Crow has said a ban on using too much toilet paper should be introduced to help the environment.

Crow has suggested using "only one square per restroom visit, except, of course, on those pesky occasions where two to three could be required".

The 45-year-old, who made the comments on her website, has just toured the US on a biodiesel-powered bus to raise awareness about climate change.

She teamed up with environmental activist [and An Inconvenient Truth producer] Laurie David for the shows.

The pair targeted 11 university campuses to persuade students to help combat the world's environmental problems.

"I have spent the better part of this tour trying to come up with easy ways for us all to become a part of the solution to global warming," Crow wrote.

"Although my ideas are in the earliest stages of development, they are, in my mind, worth investigating.

"I propose a limitation be put on how many squares of toilet paper can be used in any one sitting."

I am reminded of a certain Seinfeld clip about how many squares of toilet paper are required for minimal hygienic success. The answer is not one.

Crow has also apparently designed a line of clothing featuring a detachable "dining sleeve" so that environmentalist types can wipe their mouths with something besides paper napkins. So far she does not seem to have proposed that the sleeves be used for multiple wiping purposes, thus eliminating the need for TP altogether.

Erin O'Connor, 7:15 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

April 20, 2007 [feather]
Red herring?

The tenure process is eminently abusable--and personal issues such as a candidate's popularity or politics can and do play a big role in the process, especially in the softer disciplines where subjective assessment is the norm. But academic administrators never admit to this--or, if they do, they admit to it only as a hypothetical that just never comes true on their watch.

A piece in the Daily Princetonian marks a jawdropping exception to this rule--so much so that I wonder if the quote was taken out of context, and I would not be surprised if the dean quoted denies saying what the paper reports him as saying. The article is devoted to the Norman Finkelstein tenure debacle at DePaul, wherein questions of ideology and professional quality have become hopelessly entangled. And it contains this remarkable passage:

Despite its heated rhetoric, the DePaul controversy is not unique in academia. At many schools, administrators and senior faculty have difficulty in deciding whether to draw a line between scholarship and political views when evaluating candidates for tenure.

Princeton does take into consideration professors' politics in making its tenure decisions, Dean of the Faculty David Dobkin said. "We do allow a candidate's political views to influence our opinions," he said in an email.

If that's true in the way the article suggests, then Princeton has got itself a very big problem -- not because it is behaving less ethically than other institutions, but because it is being honest about something that colleges and universities cannot afford to admit.

Erin O'Connor, 5:09 PM | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack (0)

The copycatting begins

Boston University acted fast on this one:

A part-time Boston University student was banned from campus yesterday after pleading not guilty to charges of threatening to commit a crime when he allegedly said he would recreate the Virginia Tech shootings to a woman he had dated at a nearby college.

Andrew Rosenblum, 20, was held on a $50,000 cash bail and ordered to remain under house arrest and wear a 24-hour GPS monitoring device if he posts bail. He would only be allowed to leave his home with an escort when visiting his doctor or attorney.

Rosenblum had sent online messages hours after Monday's deadly shootings to a woman at Wheelock College, threatening to kill her friends and himself, according to police.

Rosenblum pleaded not guilty to three counts of threatening to commit a crime at the Roxbury Division of the Boston Municipal Court Department yesterday. He will return to court for a pre-trial conference June 13, according to a press release from the Suffolk County District Attorney's Office.

Better safe than sorry.

Erin O'Connor, 10:53 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

April 19, 2007 [feather]
Politicized programming

Tonight, Bravo is supposed to be running reruns of its reality series Workout. But what ran instead -- unannounced, but clearly carefully chosen? Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine.

Maybe it's just me, but that struck me as the height of bad taste. The way to respond to the Virginia Tech murders is not to make opportunistic political statements.

Erin O'Connor, 9:41 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Quote for the day

"This is about evil, and about how our universities are able to deal with it as a literary subject but not as a fact of life."

From a New York Times op-ed by Oakland University engineering professor, Barbara Oakley.

Feel free to discuss.

Erin O'Connor, 9:15 AM | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack (0)

April 18, 2007 [feather]
Brilliant idea?

Debates about academic freedom rage in the academy--but they are marred profoundly by the broad assumption that this is even a category that applies to faculty across the board. But as more and more college teachers are not tenure-track faculty members and are at-will, temporary employees who typically see small pay and few if any benefits, the terms of debate have finally begun to shift. There is a building discussion about the impossible terms upon which academe's contingent labor force lives--and some interesting ideas are coming out of it.

Robert Zemsky of the University of Pennsylvania has proposed a truly interesting idea:

Rather than trying to turn back the clock, which is an unwinnable proposition, he suggested, "the slogan in the world we're talking about ought not to be a call to organize--it ought to be a call to incorporate."

Incorporate? Adjuncts? You could almost read those words in the quizzical looks on the faces of the audience members.

The contingent academic work force "has real skills and fulfills real needs," Zemsky explained, particularly in high-demand fields such as foreign languages, math, and science for non-scientists. Instead of organizing one employer at a time, he said, what would happen if groups of adjunct instructors formed a cooperative in which they marketed and sold their services to all institutions in a city or area (instructors of Chinese and Russian in Chicago, say, or math instructors in the Bay Area). "I'm amazed that there hasn't been this sort of market impulse to take advantage of the phenomenon that actually benefits those who provide the services," he argued.

Zemsky acknowledged that he didn't know exactly how such an arrangement would work, mechanically, or even if it would work; "I'm just a guy who makes the speeches," he said self-deprecatingly. But given that we now have the "worst of all worlds," where the number of adjuncts is growing and they feel "unloved" and "disposable," doesn’t it make sense to be "thinking of alternate ways of making this system work?" he asked the assembled.

What's great about this is that it's sensible. It sidesteps the usual ideological morasse that structures labor disputes in academe (think: graduate student unions at Yale, NYU, and Penn), and focusses instead on pragmatics. Colleges and universities need a service. Teacher corporations can be formed that will provide those services--on set terms that are advantageous and workable for both. Much of college teaching has already been outsourced, and as Zemsky notes, that genie isn't going back in the bottle anytime soon. Now what's needed is an enterprising recognition of this fact--with an emphasis on "enterprising."

Erin O'Connor, 7:37 AM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

April 13, 2007 [feather]
Double standards at Yale?

Say it ain't so.

Erin O'Connor, 5:40 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Have you ...

Signed up yet to see Indoctrinate U? If not, please go straight over to the film's website and do it now. It's easy, free, and it's what about 90,000 more people need to do if the film is going to have a shot at national distribution.

Erin O'Connor, 5:34 PM | Permalink

April 11, 2007 [feather]
Exploding a myth

Literary critics like to argue that Frankenstein was not written by Mary Shelley, but rather by her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley. That argument has been in place ever since the novel was first published in 1818. Books are still being devoted to the subject. Reviewing the latest book-length iteration of this argument, Germaine Greer tells it like it is:

The media are taking [John Lauritsen's] arguments seriously. His book, The Man Who Wrote Frankenstein, is not out in the US till next month, but already the chattering classes are chattering about it. The logic goes something like this: Frankenstein is a masterpiece; masterpieces are not written by self-educated girls and therefore Frankenstein cannot have been written by Mary Shelley. If Frankenstein is not a masterpiece, the thesis collapses. Though millions of people educated in the US have been made to study and write essays about Frankenstein, it is not a good, let alone a great novel and hardly merits the attention it has been given, notwithstanding the historic fact that its theme has inspired more than 50 (mostly bad) films.

Greer goes on to note that Lauritsen's attempts to locate Percy Shelley's poetic voice in the novel's prose suffers from an embarrassing illiteracy: "Literature courses in the US are oddly skewed towards novels because few undergraduates are required to read any poetry," Greer writes. "If Lauritsen had read a sufficient quantity of poetry, he would know better than to state that the monster's famous statement that he will 'glut the maw of death' by killing all those whom Frankenstein loves, is pure Shelley, because it is, of course, pure Milton (Paradise Lost, Book 10)."


Erin O'Connor, 7:50 AM | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack (0)

April 9, 2007 [feather]
Civility in cyberspace

Any blogger will tell you: It's great to write a blog; it's great to create a virtual communal hub for readers to discuss shared interests and ideas; it's not great to deal with the nastiness that comes along with it. Bloggers are targets. Trolls are common, and more and more bloggers have not only had to contend with trolls, but also with personal attacks and even threats. Some say that comes with the territory; others say it really shouldn't come with the territory. And in the wake of a particularly disturbing episode of blogospheric behavior, some are proposing something akin to a bloggers' speech code to try to clean up the internet and make it a more civil space. Such a code, the New York Times reports, might include default banning of anonymous comments and the freedom to delete "threatening or libelous comments without facing cries of censorship."

The criticism of such measures--as that last detail intimates--is that attempting to codify a sort of bloggers' etiquette manual would interfere with the free exchange of ideas that is so vital to the blogosphere's vitality and, more basically, so elemental to democracy.

I used to be very sympathetic to that criticism--so much so that when I first started writing this site, I allowed trolls to pretty much destroy the commenting community that grew up around it. I didn't feel I had much choice (this was back in 2003) but to open comments to all comers--even if what they did on my site was antagonize others, insult and harass me, and generally derail and corrupt the quality of discussion I was attempting to host. In part, I let that happen because blogs were still a fairly new medium then, software that enabled comments was also fairly new, options for moderating comments or requiring commenters to register were limited to say the least, and I just didn't have any models for what you were supposed to do when people used your site to spray hostility around.

I'm a bit older and a little bit wiser now, and I've been able to watch a lot of other bloggers deal with trolls since then. I've noticed that they don't have any trouble banning commenters who get out of line, and I've also noticed that banned trolls almost always squeal about how they are being censored. But the First Amendment argument should be recognized as the red herring it is.

Unless a blog is federally funded--and I can't think of too many that are--it's not exactly obligated to maintain the standards that, say, a public university is obligated to maintain. Most blogs are private--privately maintained and financed by private citizens or organizations. That means they get to set whatever standards for civility they want for commenters. The best bloggers have a broad standard, and will accept comments from a range of viewpoints. The worse bloggers either delete all dissenters (confusing disagreement with trolling) or appear to operate according to a vitriol-inducing "anything goes" policy that drastically drags down the quality of the site. But whatever standards they set, all bloggers with comments sections are already setting them--they can't avoid it. The trick is maintaining clarity and consistency, whatever their standards are.

I've banned a few commenters over the years -- a very, very few. I don't think I could even count them on one hand. In every case, the people I banned were not banned for disagreeing with me or for vigorously debating ideas. They were banned because their focus was personal--they were less interested in talking about issues than in attacking either other commenters or me, and as such they introduced a quality of nastiness that I just don't want on my site. I waited a long time before banning any of them. I resisted the temptation to "out" anonymous trolls whose identities I knew. And I probably let the problems go on too long, just because I didn't want to ban anyone unnecessarily. But in each case, the person really needed to be banned, and I was *so* glad once I did it. So, for that matter, were the site's other contributors. And that's a big part of this, too -- if you accommodate a troll, you lose the people whose words and ideas you do want on your site. They find someplace nicer to play, and with good reason.

Over time, I've come to regard personal blogs as virtual living rooms. Critical Mass is my virtual living room. Conversely, the blog I write at ACTA is not my living room, but, rather, part of ACTA's virtual office space. When you think of a blog that way, it becomes easier to decide what to do about the people who try to use your site to discredit, insult, or attack you and your commenters; it's easier still to decide what to do about people who threaten you or target you in some way. People who come to my actual living room do so at my pleasure--if they are rude, hostile, or threatening, they get shown the door and they don't get invited back. The same goes for commenters on this site--if you behave civilly and respectfully toward others, then you are welcome to post your thoughts and also welcome to disgree with me and with other commenters as much as you want. But if you cross the line--my line--you're gone.

Likewise, there are limits on how much you can pursue a person electronically before you fall afoul of the law. Harassing, stalking, issuing threats, and libeling people are just as illegal in cyberspace as they are in real space. No blogger should feel they must host comments that fall into these categories because they worry that if they delete them some misguided people out there will cry censorship. And every blogger who becomes the target of chronic harassment or personal threats should report that behavior to the police and to the harasser's service provider.

I understand the impulse behind the movement to create a blogospheric code of conduct, and perhaps a loose codification will help individual bloggers establish their own rules for commenters who come to their site as well as establish general standards of behavior that we can all regard as normative. There's nothing wrong with that, not least because guidelines are hardly laws. No blogger has to adopt them, but any blogger can. And, as I noted above, every blogger who maintains a comments section has already made a series of decisions about what gets posted to his or her site and what does not.

Erin O'Connor, 4:27 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

April 7, 2007 [feather]
We otter all hold hands

Watch and be warmed:

Erin O'Connor, 11:48 AM | Permalink | TrackBack (0)

April 6, 2007 [feather]
Parsing speech codes

FIRE's Samantha Harris delivers a brief master class in what a speech code is and why regulating student expression is a path college administrators should never go down. The occasion is Florida Gulf Coast University, which FIRE has honored with its Speech Code of the Month award:

FGCU is a public institution, bound by the First Amendment. FGCU's "Personal Abuse" policy prohibits "lewd, indecent, racist, prejudice [sic], obscene, or expressions deemed inappropriate." This policy is unconstitutional on so many levels that it is almost hard to know where to begin. Let's start with what is perhaps the most obvious problem: "expressions deemed inappropriate." Who gets to do the deeming? Is it university administrators? If so, that's an awful lot of discretion just waiting to be abused. Is it the listener, such that the university is willing to punish anything that a particularly sensitive listener deems inappropriate? You get the point. This policy is so vague and so broad that it cannot be enforced across the board, so it will necessarily be enforced arbitrarily. Moreover, even most speech that a reasonable person would deem "inappropriate" is nonetheless constitutionally protected, and cannot be prohibited by a public university like FGCU.

The ban on racist and prejudiced expression is equally problematic. First, these terms are not defined. What exactly constitutes racist expression at FGCU? Many people consider opposition to illegal immigration or affirmative action to be racist; could discussing those timely and important issues get you in trouble at FGCU? "Prejudiced" is vaguer still. A person can be prejudiced against anything and everything, since all that "prejudiced" means is "having a belief or attitude formed beforehand." I for one am prejudiced against child molesters--could I get in trouble for expressing this opinion at FGCU? Again, the problem with prohibiting extremely broad categories of expression is obvious: who knows exactly what is banned? Who gets to decide how these extremely vague terms are defined? And, as with most "inappropriate" expression, the fact is that most "racist" or "prejudiced" expression, unpleasant as it may be, is still protected by the Constitution.

In 2001, shortly after the September 11 attacks, FGCU's library director forbade staff to wear "I'm proud to be an American" stickers on the grounds that they might offend the 200 foreign students enrolled at FGCU. When asked to explain her reasons, she said, "We're doing everything we can to meet FGCU's standards of civility and tolerance."

Erin O'Connor, 9:20 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

April 3, 2007 [feather]

Critical Mass has just received its millionth unique visitor since it was founded in 2002.

In honor of this momentous day, I embed a YouTube segment that many bloggers will recognize as a metaphor for the chaotic but wonderful world of virtual communities.

Thank you!

Erin O'Connor, 9:59 AM | Permalink | Comments (2)

April 1, 2007 [feather]
Not an April Fool's joke

We all know that this business of bias on campus is made up -- 'cause that's what academics who don't want their comfy nests disturbed all tell us!

But that doesn't explain situations like this.

Erin O'Connor, 10:29 AM | Permalink | Comments (12)