Friday, January 25, 2013

Remixing in Teaching

As many of us settle back into another semester, I thought I would share some of my thoughts about one aspect of my own work this semester. I am especially excited to be back to teaching this semester--I've been working as an administrative assistant for the past three semesters--and am having a great time planning and teaching my class so far. Particularly interesting for me is that I'm teaching a class--a combination of emphases on literature and composition for first-year honors students--that is part of a collaborative effort between myself, another graduate student, and my advisor: we have crafted a collective, shared syllabus (content and scheduling), and each of us will teach our own independent class based on it, collaborating as we go.

The topic we chose is "The Bible and Some Medieval and Renaissance Adaptations." Here is the general course description that we wrote:
We will examine major biblical traditions set alongside adaptations in medieval and renaissance English literature. Adaptation will be a major lens with which to understand the Bible and its importance in Western culture. Pairings will include Judith with the Old English Judith, Genesis with Milton’s Paradise Lost and Beowulf, apocalypses with Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, and the Psalms with C├Ždmon’s Hymn and early modern religious poetry.
So we've decided to focus on the overall influence of the Bible, using the lens of adaptation to understand how this happens across a spectrum of early English literature, and even more generally across culture even up to the present.

For the first few classes, we want to establish the lens of adaptation, so we are reading the introduction and first two chapters of Julie Sanders's Adaptation and Appropriation (London: Routledge, 2006; repr. 2010), a great introduction to the subject. This is, of course, a topic that I'm very excited about and interested in, and I'm having a great time working with it so far.

In preparing for the next class, I am also planning to bring in some other ways of thinking about cultural adaptation. One of the greatest resources that I've been wanting to incorporate into my teaching for a while is Kirby Ferguson's Everything Is a Remix, a four-part online video documentary about the many ways that our own culture is filled with adaptations. Starting off next class, I plan to show the first two parts (about 20 minutes total run-time) to jump-start our conversation. From there, we will talk about the Bible as an adaptation in itself, the long history of adaptation in Western literature, and onward to the rest of the semester.

Needless to say, I am very much enjoying being back to teaching.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Letters to Past Selves

Yesterday, a former student of mine shared with me a short piece she wrote about her grandparents. Her grandfather has recently passed, and in the piece she reflects on loss and memory, all prompted by a photo. It got me thinking about how objects, physical and digital, hold memories. So, I wanted to share something I wrote about books and my grandfather.

I wrote this while a graduate student, and a few of the sentences and some of the academicese make me cringe, but I offer it below with minimal editing.


Letters to Past Selves

“Every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collector’s passion borders on the chaos of memories. More than that: the chance, the fate, that suffuse the past before my eyes are conspicuously present in the accustomed confusion of these books.”
–Walter Benjamin, “Unpacking My Library”

“the better part of our memories exists outside us”   
Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time
In my office, I am surrounded by books. Shelves and shelves of books. Each book sitting on my shelf carries the memory of former selves and of earlier times.  A set of books in my collection that is particularly loaded with memories for me includes those signed by another person, either the author or a previous owner.
The most recent book that has been signed is Snow by Orhan Pamuk.  I bought it right before departing on a cruise to the Caribbean with my wife’s family.  I must admit that my decision making process for selecting this did rest greatly on the juxtaposition of Pamuk’s snowy Kars with the sunny Caribbean.  And so now, whenever I consider this book, I experience a Wordsworth-like “spot of time”—a memory of long days unfolding upon the deck of a ship, in the open air, as I would occasionally glance away from my book to contemplate the blue-green clarity of the water.  But when this book found its way into the hands of its author, it gained a new temporality.  I had the great fortune of meeting Pamuk, and as one often does in such a situation, I asked him to sign his book.  Beneath his signature he placed the date, inscribing both himself and that moment upon my book.  His signature functions as a trace, and as such, gives voice to heterogeneous temporalities.  It is a mark of the past, recalling a particular moment in time.  And yet, it is present to me.  I can run my fingers over the ink.  Paul Ricoeur would call this the inscription of lived time upon calendar time. 
The twin to this book is my signed copy of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses.  Both books are by international authors, and both writers are concerned with the meeting of East and West.  But an important difference between them is that Rushdie signed my copy of his book in my absence.  While I sat in Graham Chapel at Washington University, listening to Rushdie talk about his work and his life, my grandfather was in the hospital gravely ill.  The time of the intellectual, marked by books and lectures, was interrupted by the time of loss, and ultimately, of mourning.  When Rushdie was signing my book at the behest of a friend the next day, I was on the road, traveling home to attend the funeral of my grandfather.  Having recently read Jacques Derrida’s writings on the deaths of friends, collected in a volume called The Work of Mourning, I wish that I had made a copy of my eulogy rather than delivering it from memory.  I cannot now recall much about it.
The memory of my grandfather, linked forever with the signing of Rushdie’s book, leads me to make a connection between one signed book and another, between The Satanic Verses and a book that my grandfather owned.  On the fourth of July in 1997—it was the summer before my Junior year of college—my grandfather loaned me a book by John B. Noss titled Man’s Religions.  I can only dimly remember the conversation that led to his loaning me the book.  In a moment of humor appropriate to my grandfather, he signed his name, date, and address (apparently to remind me where he lived), along with a note that it was being lent to me, on the inside cover.  His inscription was a teasing reminder that I had occasionally “forgotten” to return books to him.  I never did return it to him, and now, I consider it part of my collection.  Although it is a good book on comparative religions, I keep it mostly for the inscription left by my grandfather.  But the book may conceal further temporalities and stories.  Why did my grandfather buy the book?  Originally published in 1949, this particular copy is the third edition of 1957, when he would have been in his late twenties.  Years later, in the 1980’s, he privately had his bar mitzvah, which he should have had decades before.  There is a story there that is not available to me, and perhaps this book plays a part, but I cannot ask him now.

Memories of my grandfather conjure a third book, bringing me further back in time.  When I was very young, I went to visit him in the hospital—an option not open to me when he passed way.  He was recuperating from bypass surgery, and during that time my ever-garrulous grandfather had gotten to know a fellow patient.  As grandparents often do, he told her about me at great length.  And for some reason, she felt compelled to give me a gift during one of my visits, and this gift was the first novel that I remember owning.  It was The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien.  Here I experience a double loss.  Not only is this book missing, but also my memory of receiving it lies at the vanishing point of recollection.  Only with great effort can I recall anything more than the fact that this event happened.  With some sadness, I do remember that I did not read The Hobbit until many years later.  At that time, I was not much of a reader.  My career as a reader did, however, begin with the genre which Tolkien inspired—fantasy.  And though I rarely read fantasy fiction now, the memory of this book still looms as a curious happenstance because I am currently training to be a medievalist, Tolkien’s own academic field.   
My memories link back along the chain of the signature, and I think about another pair of signed books that I own, by two fantasy authors: Terry Brooks and Robert Jordan.  These books recall the larger series of books that the authors wrote many years ago.  Looking at them now, I am arrested by a certain set of memories. They are almost like Proust’s madeleine, overwhelming me with memories, sensations, smells.  They bring me to a period of my life when reading acted as a life preserver in the face of one of time’s truths: illness.  As an adolescent, I spent a significant amount of time in the hospital.  During my stays, I spent all of my free time reading, particularly the fantasy novels of Terry Brooks.  (I cannot think of one of his books now with out smelling the singular odor of the hospital—disinfectant.)  I am also reminded of Ricoeur’s reading of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway in volume 2 of Time and Narrative, where monumental time (manifested as official time, or clock time) intersected with the private times of the characters Clarissa and Septimus.  My stay in the hospital was marked by a similar dual apprehension of time.  Hospital time is regular, and largely impersonal.  Have your vitals checked at this time; receive your breathing treatment at this time; and take your medication at another.  The days would roll on, marked by the periodic and regular reminder of mortality and sickness.  The rest of the time, however, was one long unfolding of solitude.  During that private time, reading these fantasy books gave me a sense of “transport” in the way that Longinus defined it.  My love of books, which has ultimately led me to seek a doctorate, is anchored in that experience.      
While these books harbor memories of many people and places, my collection also testifies to a Proustian succession of different selves.  The person that bought and experienced them is, to varying degrees, a stranger to me now.  And even though I have only recently developed a vocabulary for discussing time, all of those previous selves have always been keenly aware of both its passing and the problems created in its wake.  But in trying to apprehend my books under the aegis of time I must echo a sentiment of Walter Benjamin’s in “Unpacking My Library,” and acknowledge that “[t]his or any other procedure is merely a dam against the spring tide of memories which surges toward any collector as he contemplates his possessions.”   

Monday, January 7, 2013

Review of Ted Striphas, The Late Age of Print

Over the break between semesters, I've been tackling some reading that doesn't concern my dissertation or research directly--and it's been a great break while still feeding my mind. I was especially happy to stumble across a free digital version of a book by Ted Striphas, The Late Age of Print: Everyday Book Culture from Consumerism to Control (New York: Columbia UP, 2009). The digital version may be found on Striphas's website, since he's offering it through a Creative Commons-licensed pdf through a "pay with a tweet" system (props to him for doing this).

So I want to offer my review of the book here (disclosure: I've also posted this review on Goodreads, and plan to post it on, too). Though it's not directly related to the medieval period, I do see a lot of implications here for how we think of book history; and I think that there is a lot here that intersects with how we think about scholarship.

In The Late Age of Print, Ted Striphas sets his main approach as a nuanced examination of American book culture in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. In doing so, he challenges crisis discourses and laments for the loss of books. Striphas presents a well written, accessible, anecdotal, and effective critique of ideologies behind consumption, control, and transformations in American book culture.

Much of this study relies on the cultural history that Striphas establishes from the outset, emphasizing "the history and conditions by which books have become ubiquitous and mundane social artifacts in and of our own time" (4). By charting book culture from the nineteenth century to the twenty-first,  Striphas lays out "a changed and changing mode of production; new technological products and processes; shifts in law and jurisprudence; the proliferation of culture and the rise of cultural politics; and a host of sociological transformations, among many other factors" (5). He does so by focusing on various aspects of American consumerism, the book industry, legal history, media relationships, all circulating around attitudes about the value of books in the everyday. With these topics as the mainstay themes of the book, Striphas takes up the topics of American bibliophilia, digital media, big-box bookstores (especially Barnes and Noble), online marketing (especially, Oprah's Book Club, and Harry Potter--all centerpieces of his cultural examinations.

Ultimately, he demonstrates, through several case studies, "how printed books and electronic media can complement one another" through a type of "synergy" in culture (188). Yet he does not insist on ignoring the transformations that have taken place and will continue to occur. He equally insists that consumers must be aware of the ways in which control--by the industry, marketers, publishers, as well as consumers and various aspects of popular culture--underpin the most important facets of book culture. Indeed, the polemical features of Striphas's book emphasize the need for continual reconsideration of these issues to best understand the various complexities of intermedial relationships. This is particularly the case for his approach to intellectual rights laws in a global economy and with emergent digital concerns. All of this is offered with well-balanced and salient critiques of the past, the present, and the future.

As an extension of my review, I also find my own access and approach to this book intriguing for its implications about the type of "synergy" that can arise from print and electronic media. The fact that I accessed the book through a Creative Commons-licensed pdf, which Striphas offers essentially free (no need to go through the Columbia UP publisher; nor any need to mediate my reading through some sort of book-seller, in a store or online), raises a whole host of questions related to his discussions of control and consumption--I'm sure much could be said about this. I downloaded the digital version that Striphas offered on his site three years after the book's initial print release (2009); I synced it in my DropBox folder; I read the whole of it on my iPad, digitally annotating as I read. I may even buy a print copy now--but I will certainly keep the digital copy with all of my first-reading notes.