Packing up my study

This is actually happening–my wife and I are essentially swapping spaces, so now I’m in the basement and she’s moved into my old space–but it has felt something like a metaphor, too.

The larger context for this metaphor is that my retirement is on the horizon. Once this semester ends, I’ll be working for another three years, and that’ll be that. I still want to research and write after I leave teaching, so it’s not as though I’ll be leaving academe entirely; for her part, my wife thinks I’ll still want to keep my hand in teaching by taking on a class or two as an adjunct, that I’ll miss being out of the classroom. She may be right about that But my son is turning four this month, and it already feels as though I have missed much of his infant and toddler years; and, truth be told, the work of teaching has kept me exhausted and, thus, unable to fully enjoy the time I’ve had with him. Moreover, my wife and I have always enjoyed traveling, but we’ve always had to schedule trips around an academic calendar. (It occurs to me that in another year or two, my son will have his own academic calendar . . . ) In a few years, we’ll have a bit more flexibility in that regard. It doesn’t seem like all that long ago that I was telling my wife that, so long as my health held up, I could see myself teaching well past my eligibility date for retirement. But then my son came along and, in these last twelve months, the pandemic. As a colleague of mine told me the other day, “I’m so tired, I’m re-tired.” (His last month with us is the first of June.)

So. The work of boxing up some things, of going through old files and deciding what to keep and what to recycle, of rearranging books and realizing I still need a couple of new bookcases to hold everything, has been something of a trip down memory lane . . . and a review of some purchasing decisions that, with time and distance, now seem less than wise. For one thing, I ran across a syllabus of mine from 21 yeas ago, when I was in my last semester at the University of Mobile. It was from an American Lit. survey class, and it was strange to read it again because its language (that of the various course policies, I mean) sounds to me a whole lot like I do now. Shouldn’t my bureaucrat-ese have evolved at least a little in all that time? Or am I, at a subconscious level, pretty much settled on how all that should sound? I feel more lenient nowadays than I did back then, but my tone doesn’t reflect that.

I have no idea what to make of all that.

Oh, yes–ill-advised purchasing decisions. Well, let’s just say that there were a bunch of bad books on Faulkner published back in the day, and I bought a few of them. Actually, calling some of them “bad” is unfair; it’s better to say that time has passed them by. Even accounting for the times in which they appeared, they no longer feel as though they have anything to teach their reader. Or this one, at any rate. So, off to Half-Price Books with them, along with hopes that someone wanting okay introductions to Faulkner might find them helpful.

There’s also been some looking-ahead, in addition to all this revisiting of the past. We have talked about moving in a few years, after I retire, so we’ll be doing all this again, in some form or fashion, before much time has passed. I will be older and casting about for things to keep me busy, seeing as I won’t have teaching to do that. And who knows how all of this will look to me then as I round up and load/unload these boxes yet again?

Greetings from OER-Land

Nephtalí de León La virgen de Guadaliberty

Neftali de Leon, La Virgen de Guadaliberty (1999)

Not that anyone, even anyone reading this post, has likely wondered why I haven’t posted here in a while, but: I have missed posting here, even if you have not missed them.  So, excuse some self-indulgence.  I also thought it would be worthwhile to say something here about the current project I and some colleagues have been collaborating on at my school–which, as it happens, is one of the main reasons I’ve not posted here.  Also, apropos of book-project news, I recently encountered this image you see here that contributes to and expands the visual and semiotic languages engendered by the Virgen de Guadalupe, a discussion that will be part of Domestic Issue.


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Franco Moretti on what digital humanities can and cannot do

Here’s a snippet from Franco Moretti’s 2016 interview in the Los Angeles Review of Books as part of its series “The Digital in the Humanities.”  My book project has no connection with digital humanities; but, just as Moretti observes that one can do things in/with digital humanities that one cannot do in traditional approaches to reading and writing about texts and vice versa, the same is also true of the various critical approaches to texts within traditional scholarship.

I would say that DH occupies about 50 percent of my work. You can’t possibly know this, but when my last two books were going to be published — Distant Reading and The Bourgeois — I convinced my publisher (and it took some convincing) to have them come out on the same day because they were for me two sides of the coin of the work I tried to do. And what I find potentially interesting is that the two sides don’t add up to a whole. I do things in the mode of Distant Reading that I could never do in the mode of The Bourgeois. But it also works the other way around. When I write a book with zero digital humanities content, or very little, like The Bourgeois, I find myself doing things that I cannot do with the other approach. Exactly what things are available in the one and in the other and are they mutually exclusive, I still haven’t figured out how to think about this. But for me, this is going to be the problem for the years to come because I don’t want to give up any of these two realities. They are equally dear to me.

For whatever it might be worth to you reading this, I’ve been thinking about this a bit regarding my own reading and writing.

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Fall Semester greetings, and an image to ponder

Happy new academic year to my students, and to whoever else might happen upon this post.  If you are a student of mine, I especially want to affirm you: the URL for this site may appear on your syllabus, but you’re otherwise not required to visit here.  If you’re here, then, it’s because you have some inclination toward going above and beyond what is asked of you.  That trait–something in you that no assessment test will ever be able to measure–will nevertheless stand you in good stead as few other traits or abilities will, and for years after your days of formal education are past.

Why we should train workers

My source for this image was via someone in my Twitter feed (which I unfortunately didn’t make note of).  Here is the article itself, from Brookings.

I am a couple of weeks late in getting this post up; the semester got up and running (it’s been good, so far), but the work of doing that and some family illnesses at home have cut into spare time for writing here.  As it happens, though, the work in class that I’m most proud of so far seems to me to run counter to the implications of the assertion in the image you see here.  We’ve done precious little thus far that overtly prepares you for work, much less prepares you as we would prepare intelligent machines for the work they do, and I’m quite proud of this fact: this past week, we’ve looked at some paintings and talked about some poems in our Comp I classes, and in Comp II we’ve talked about rhetorical appeals.  The rest of the semester, once we begin working on writing and research projects, will indeed have some value to you in your future careers and lives away from work; but, again, I won’t be training you as though you are machine-learning algorithms.  There are two pretty simple, obvious reasons for that: you already possess such an algorithm (though we still don’t quite understand how it works); and, for that matter, you’re already a far superior information processor, that even the fastest computers can only begin to approach in ability.  There’s also a third, more existential reason: You are, or should be, more than the work you will be hired to do.

It’s for these reasons that the assertion that accompanies the image is both deeply weird and more than a little lacking in awareness of what a good education should do for students.

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“Some old compass in the blood”: a rationale for Flint Hills Studies


The Chase County courthouse, Cottonwood Falls, Kansas, the oldest state building in continuous use in Kansas.

This is the version that the curriculum committee and/or the Board of Trustees won’t see, but it will be the truer version:

It has been so long ago now, I no longer remember whether it was my first or second commencement as a member of Butler Community College (then still known as Butler County Community College–something I will return to later).  It was long ago enough, though, that I still felt myself to be a recent arrival here.  Nor was it the moment when I had an epiphany about the value of offering a course or courses on various aspects of this distinct region of the nation; that would come much, much later.  Still, it has stuck with me all this time, and in thinking about it now, it clearly is, indirectly, one of the reasons I think such a program of study would be valuable to offer to our students.

Whoever the commencement speaker was, he began by noting something I’d known since at least junior high school: that we were only a couple of hours to the southwest of the geographic center of the 48 contiguous states.  I instantly began writing the rest of his address in my head–the version I wanted him to give, at least: I’d been at Butler long enough to know that many of my students thought of themselves as living in the middle of nowhere, and so I became hopeful that, by using his geographical nugget as a kind of metaphor, he’d turn their nihilism on its head: “You’re not in the middle of nowhere–you’re at the center of everything!”

Of course, that address, whatever its eventual theme was, wasn’t the one I’d hoped for.  As I think back on that day, however, I am more and more persuaded, for various reasons, that our students need to hear something like the address I had imagined, and for this reason: We equip our students pretty well for the task of making their chosen way in world; however, though it’s true most of our graduates stick around here, I’m not sure that what we do actually gives them a reason (apart from family or work) to stay.  (Much) more existentially, many of my students also lack a sense of place, by which I mean “a sense of at least being from somewhere, if not a sense of connectedness to where they happen to be living now.”  I think that coursework whose subject is the Flint Hills would give them a context and intellectual tools that would help them find what William Least Heat-Moon in PrairyErth describes as “some old compass in the blood”–and if not for the Flint Hills, then for whatever place in which they happen to find themselves.

I think that such courses would also provide my college with a version of that compass.

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Spring semester welcome: Education as oyster-shucking


Oyster shuckers, Bayou La Batre, Alabama, 1911.  Photograph by Lewis Hine.  Image found here.

To my students, both those I have had in class before and those who are new to me and/or new to college, welcome to the new year and a new semester!  I have not required any of you to visit this blog or this post, so your visit here reveals something about you to me: you are curious, inquisitive people who, yes, want to know as best you can what the the path straight ahead of you looks like, but who also aren’t above looking around the passing scenery as well.  Looking at the scenery–or reading this post–won’t get you any faster to where you are going; on the other hand, it just may be the case that the scenery might reveal to you something you hadn’t been aware of before, something that you might in fact find to be of even greater value to you than what you imagine awaits you at your destination.  (I won’t make the same claim about this post.)

Oh–the picture up there.  In a way, it is about you.

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A Post-election Anecdote

(Note to Facebook friends: below the fold is something I posted on FB yesterday that you may or may not have already seen.)

When I started this blog, I’d hoped to keep its content strictly academic and pedagogical in nature.  As everyone who teaches knows, however, events in the world outside often make themselves become the stuff of what goes on inside.  Our recent elections have become just such an event in my classes, and I’m certain in yours as well.  I thought I’d share with you something that happened between me and a student as we talked about her final paper for the semester, and how the usual spaces between class work and the world outside, between teacher and student, became blurred in a completely unanticipated way.  What I describe below is a version of precisely the set of ideas I want this blog’s title, Domestic Issue, to evoke in the reader.

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On Being More Interesting at Parties: Cockroaches and the Human(ities)

Two Fridays ago, Jim, the chair of our department, presented us with data from our college and some articles from national publications that made my colleagues and me uncomfortable to confront and discuss.  Their general subject: If one chooses to measure the value of a discipline in higher education (especially in community colleges) by the number of students enrolled in its offerings in that discipline and the number of declared majors it attracts, then the apparent value of our discipline of English–or, more precisely, the teaching of literature–is in clear decline.  In our own department’s case, we see the decline in enrollments in–and, thus, the number of sections offered in–our face-to-face literature classes.  Online sections seem to have healthy enrollments, but those sections seem not to attract potential majors to us: there’s an inverse correlation between the increasing numbers of those sections and the number of declared majors in English and the other humanities.

Part of my own discomfort in thinking about this subject is due, no doubt, to the fact that we (okay, okay: I) cannot help but regard the importance of English as so self-evident that any dolt can see that, and so why on earth is our/my discipline in trouble as measured by enrollments and majors?  But then again, we college-prof types, no matter our subject areas, tend to have already been persuaded as to our respective disciplines’ self-evident value, or else we wouldn’t have become college-prof types to begin with.  (Speaking for myself, while no one actively discouraged me from doing so, one and only one person is


The cover art for Melville House‘s edition of The Metamorphosis.

ultimately responsible for talking me into spending two years on earning a masters and four on a PhD, not to mention staying on at this work for 23 years.)  That particular kind of epistemic closure, though, puts us in the very position we find ourselves in: we’re just not accustomed to having to justify what we do even to our own colleges’ administrators, much less more indifferent or hostile audiences; and, by the way, it’s a very cold comfort to me that those scientists arguing about the very real dangers posed by the very real phenomenon of climate change happen to find themselves in a similar position as they seek funding for research from congressional committees on science who are openly hostile to that work.

At any rate, Jim challenged us to make pitches on behalf of our literature courses in our classes, and this past week I tried my best to do so.  As it happened, in my own Intro to Lit class back on Tuesday, right there on the syllabus, I had what I thought might serve as a pretty good entree into that pitch: Kafka’s The Metamorphosis.

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A Spring Semester welcome to students


Diego Velázquez, Las Meninas (1656)

A new year and a new semester are upon us, and I will be meeting students this week, some of them whom I’ve had in class before, and some for the first time.  I will be saying “Welcome to class” to all of them, of course; but if you–yes, you, the person now reading the very sentence I am now writing–have found your way here because you happened to see the URL address for this blog in your syllabus and became curious (I really am speaking to you in particular), then allow me to speak to you for a bit.

Later this semester, some of you will see the Velázquez painting you see here as part of an introduction to a writing assignment, but for the moment I’d like to put it to another use: to think of what you see here as something like a representation of the educational experience and, thus, to invite you to answer a perhaps not-so-simple question–“Where are you in this painting?”

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Greetings to students, and some things to think about

John and Scruffy

With his not-very-smart-but-friendly-and-faithful boon companion, Scruffy.

Hello to my students, both new and returning, this fall.  If you are reading this, I want to affirm your natural curiosity: A crucial part of being truly, fully successful at the College Thing is curiosity, and I encourage you to give free rein to that impulse in you–not just in your classes, either, but in Life more generally.  You can’t know whether something is going to be boring until you give it a chance to bore you, now can you?

As long as you’re here, I invite you to have a look around, and even leave comments if you’re so inclined.  Under the “About” tab you’ll find a brief bio and some basic assumptions I have about college.  The various tabs that have Domestic Issue in their title are concerned with my ongoing book project.  The “Teaching” tab is a round-up of examples of paper assignments for my classes; you’ll be seeing some of these as the semester progresses.  Finally, in addition to these posts, the “Home” page has links to various things that you may find of interest, if not actually helpful to you.

Now: if you’re really curious, below the “Continue reading” link you’ll find a long-ish discussion of what I think are some of the important questions that community colleges and their various audiences–students and their families, faculty and administration, businesses, and governments–are encountering and need to give some serious thought to.  All of those audiences will say that students are here “to get an education,” which is the right answer.  But if you ask them what that means to them, they may all list pretty much the same kinds of things, but I suspect that how they prioritize them will differ.

So.  If all of that sounds intriguing to you, by all means continue reading.  If not, that’s okay, too–as I said above, these ideas will still be showing up in various ways, mostly indirectly, as the semester progresses.

I wish you all the very best this semester.  It is my privilege to be teaching you.  I will try my best to do right by you.

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