A welcome if temporary return to laziness

I’m not going to tax myself this weekend, as the week was profitable. The Lasallian camp is done (great kids, I’ll miss them), my CE revision is sent, and the English department website is all but finished. Next week I have to apply a final coat to the website, and tackle my back-burnered article on Gospel metaphor, but those are tasks to worry about on Monday.

There is a dearth of good PC games available at the moment. I’ve been playing Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter, but it only works on two levels – admiring the graphics (the draw distance is just gigantic), and watching my squadmates get lost. Concerning the latter, I thought the pathfinding in the first Baldur’s Gate back in ‘99 was bad. I’ve seen these supposedly crack infantrymen go the direct OPPOSITE direction I pointed them in so often that I have been sorely tempted to shoot them in the back of the head.

Ok, maybe not so much tempted as guilty. “Sir! I’m on your side! Agrrh!” Well, then act like it. I’ve had enough of your “Yes, sir! Moving! Moving to the destination!” while simultaneously pulling a Sir Robin and bravely turning tail. The funny thing is that they wouldn’t get shot in the back (by the enemy or moi) if they’d actually listen. I’m actively trying to get through the missions without any of them being killed. Half the time I just have them tag along a hundred yards back to mop up stragglers, as they’re too dense to do much else.

H, of course, just laughs. She hadn’t had this much fun watching me play since the merchants in Oblivion, whose establishments, just from the greeting sound files, all doubled as bordellos. “Would you like to take a look at my wares?” “I have the best prices in all of Tamriel!”

Perhaps I should go easier on Ghost Recon. The pace of the game is excellent. There is a good balance between realism (death is quick and sudden, ammo besides rifle magazines is quite limited, it’s tough to deal with suppressive fire) and fun (the squadmates really have to be nailed to be killed outright, the save points are not too far apart). And the squad is not completely hopeless. They use cover fairly well and the sniper can be really useful. I just wish there was a way to have the entire squad perform basic maneuvers, like “Everyone take cover!” or “Flush out that guy on the roof!” or “Leapfrog up the street.”

Great Expectations

On Sunday I read all of George Gopen’s Expectations: Teaching Writing From the Reader’s Perspective.

What a utterly fine piece of work – easily the best book on teaching composition I’ve read yet. I almost never mark up a book’s margins or take notes on damn near anything, but I was commenting away like a madman. It’s safe to say that several of my major assumptions about how to teach composition have changed – how to grade, how to manage a course, how to critique drafts, run conferences, direct peer-response, and particularly how to approach student material that feels unassailable by any means. And the two chapters on paragraphing are probably the best stuff I’ve seen on the subject. There’s even a lengthy aside on termination letters, my old pet project. This book is going to be worn to a nub before I graduate.

I knew the upcoming semester was going to be different, as I am throughly dissatisfied with the way I balanced my teaching load and my own classes last semester. But after this particular read, I know now it’s going to be a change for the better. I feel freshly armed.

Nothing in the book is particularly mind-shattering; its strength rests instead in how it allowed me to confront my various weaknesses as a teacher. I’ve been over-preparing, over-commenting, over-zealous, over-accomodating, and several other annoying words with the same prefix. I’ve been aware of these problems but I didn’t have an good way to fix them all.

First off, my original instincts before I started TAing two years ago were basically right. Good structure can be taught, but it requires an immense amount of one-on-one contact. I can no longer do the minimum and feel adequate. My office hours need expansion and I need to work as many student conferences into the semester as possible. The one asset I have as a teacher (among many faults) is improvisation and this always is strongest one-on-one.

Second, grading their first papers and possibly even their second (depending) is unfair. I’ve always hated doing it. The book has cemented my opinion of grading – I don’t like it. Marking papers does so bloody little, and it takes up a great deal of time that could be used profitably for face-to-face discussion of their work. Grading gets an overhaul.

Third, my previous experimentations with group work were all flawed in some way. I’m going to use the multiple submission method that Gopen recommends, and see what occurs in the peer responses.

Four, I should push as hard as I can how to summarize and how to write a thesis. I’ve developed a quirky way to teach summarization and I can smell a thesis a mile away, but I could do even better. The emphasis on the “stress position” as Gopen describes is probably the clearest way to go about it; I rather like how it allows grammar to creep into the class unnoticed, too. If they leave with only that skill and no others improved, I will have done good, and that is the name of the game.

I have a lot of work still to do today, but that’s not all I took from that book. That would take a entire review. No time for that. But in closing, I’d like to come up with a rejoinder for the devil’s advocate claim posited on p. 342: “This approach, like all others, is doomed to failure because writing cannot be taught.” It is answered fairly well on p.348 with “Knowing what most readers are likely to do most of the time gets us closer to probable communicative success,” and further clarified that it is desireable to limit interpetation to the writer’s fancy.

That answer is good. But I think composition can offer more than approximate success, or at least that it needs to offer more, even if it can’t quite deliver. Sometimes I think comp teachers are like those sophists that Socrates/Plato liked to complain about, promising skill in rhetoric when only rhetoric with a more probable degree of success could ever be at their command or the student’s command. Often I feel like a charlatan when I can’t give them more of my own questionable skills. Effect is an elusive beast to leash to communication. It’s no wonder prescription still plagues composition – it’s the quick and easy path, to quote Yoda and Obi-wan.

The answer is relatively clear now. I need to work harder.

Total War

In between work I have been replaying Rome: Total War. I like the Barbarian Invasion expansion pack quite a bit. It allows you to attempt to prevent the collapse of the western half of the Roman Empire in the 4th century. The original game was set pre-Caesar Rome, around 90 BC, when the empire was in short pants.

When I first played the expansion, I tried the Western half and successfully held off the Huns and other assorted hordes, but it wasn’t until I tried playing the Eastern half of the empire in this last week that I realized I could destroy pagan temples in cities I owned. I’d played the entire (very long) Western campaign with a crazy mix of pagan and Christian cities that were always revolting, when I could have converted it all to Christianity by the sword. Stupid temples! I’m going to have to go back and see how much faster and easier I can salvage the West.

The game also allows you to command any of the barbarian factions, or the Franks, etc, but I find the concept of saving a collapsing, overextended empire more compelling. The first 5-10 turns involve some pretty ruthless cost-cutting and tense moments; do the wrong thing and half your territories will secede just as the Huns charge through the Alps to Rome, with the Goths and Vandals on their heels.

I haven’t played the Alexander expansion yet, but I’m not sure I’d enjoy it as much, as it apparently (and accurately) is more of a dash from Greece to Persia than a long, resource-management campaign.

Privacy

I think the most interesting thing about posting online, blogs, etc, is the privacy aspect. What do you share? What do you withhold? Every blogger alive tries to present themselves as intelligent, well-adjusted, sane, knowledgeable, etc. If they indeed have weaknesses, vices, or foibles, such characteristics are only hinted at in a kind of universally understood mock-humility, i.e. “I am immensely clever but also human, therefore I am supposedly better and more trustworthy than someone who is just immensely clever and uber-human.”

Is there an honest way to toe the line between giving way too much personal info and complete, obvious santization or psuedo-glorification? I don’t know. There is a array of possible techniques, from the confessional blogger that relates their sex life in lurid detail to the airbrushed political candidate that neglects past sins. Everyone tiptoes through the minefield – or dashes forward – in their own unique way. The “second persona,” the author’s presentation of himself or herself, is pushed to the brink by the web. Identity dissipiates in a fashion a mere book or speech could only dream of.

I certainly withhold a lot. I don’t talk about my personal life much, save mild allusions. I don’t talk about my professional life beyond what I would reveal in a casual conversation with another educator. The dangers are myriad and need no elaboration. This removes a great deal of juicy material, of course, and creates what I like to call an “iceberg effect” where additional depth to any given utterance can be assumed. But the most interesting and most revealing things are still stripped away, much like a telephone signal is clipped at the top and the bottom, leaving only a bland middle. The rest is left to the imagination, or the careful assembly of a skilled close reader.

Eh. Another one of those classic rhetorical problems that has no solution, but bears awareness, discussion, and attention well.

I am eat all food, destroyer of worlds

Sometimes at the ESL summer camp that I’m working at this year, the kids can write unintentionally rich sentences. Their homework the other day was to write what they would do if they had all the food in the world. One eager lad immediately wrote down “I am eat all food,” which made me think of Oppenheimer and his Bhagavad Gita quote, “Now, I am become death, destroyer of worlds.”

Working there has reminded me that my Southern use of irregular verbs is probably going to have to stop or at least to be curtailed if I’m going to keep professing for a living. I try to be good, but it’s hard to break a lifetime of habit, especially when day-to-day it doesn’t matter much and everyone else ’round these parts is not much better. “I’ve eaten” escapes my lips as often as “I’ve ate,” “I would like” is not nearly as frequent as “I like to ‘of,” and my personal favorite, “I like to ‘ve would ‘of, but I ain’t gonna” appears at least biweekly, not to mention “I done that” and the misuse of drove and wrote. I also contantly mix up read and write to the point of Spoonerism.

I am an ardent supporter of y’all, however.

Dead Man’s Chest

The Guardian, an otherwise cheeky publication, should fire its film critic for the review of Dead Man’s Chest. I thought maintaining a blog was borderline masturbatory until I read that piece and all of the others that have poo-pahed the sequel in the last week – all in all, they’re just a gaggle of excessively cheap shots. Worthy of contempt, but not rebuttal. This series has a good, soild Indiana Jones-ish aura about it that is refreshingly self-deprecating – a hard-too-detect quality for the snooty.

I like fun movies, and especially fun movies that reference the old Monkey Island PC games. Davy Jones and Barbossa are LeChuck, the voodoo lady, the key in the captain’s cabin, the coffin, etc, etc. Then again, the game was based on the ride, and the movie references the game, creating what in academia would probably be called “rich thematic intertextuality” or something equally pretentious. I appreciated it nonetheless.

Deus Irae

I couldn’t quite get to sleep last night again, so I sampled my giant to-read pile of books and quickly finished off Phillip K. Dick and Roger Zelazny’s Deus Irae. I had tried reading it when I was 18 or so and I found it difficult; this time, at 31, it was a different story.

Now it’s no secret that Zelazny is my favorite writer, and I have a great fondness for Phillip Dick as well, as the first novel I can remember reading was his Eye in the Sky, a tight little mind-adventure. But did they work well together? Maybe.

It’s pretty easy to see where one stops and the other begins. When it rambles at length alternately between brilliance and inaneness with a stress on drug use and altered consciousness, it’s Dick; when it turns to rapid-fire dialogue and action-heavy scenes with generous doses of high-level theology and wit, it’s Zelazny. Apparently this book was intially a sketch that Dick could not finish, and thus he turned to RZ, who was fresh from the incredible, tone-perfect Lord of Light.

The result? It’s like watching paint dry with Michelangelo and Da Vinci after you got them both stinking, falling-down drunk and asked them both to paint God; a thoughtful and at times hilarious experience.

In a post-WWIII apocalypse, a mutated, limbless artist, Tibor, is commissioned to paint a mural of the God of Wrath (hence the title, Deus Irae), a fellow who is singlehandedly responsible for the war, the death of billions, and the bleak, fractured societies that remain. Worship of this God of Wrath has eclipsed Christianity and reduced it to a minor religion. To get a decent likeness, Tibor has to find the actual man, who has slipped into obscurity. A bizarre pilgrimage results, where various theological issues are examined in a reasonably thoughtful way without being simple retreads of Aquinas.

Superficially, it resembles A Canticle for Leibowitz, but that book, as I recall, was concerned more about the fate and nature of man rather than the nature of God and whether he should be worshipped – especially if his actions, or that of an adversary that is in nominal control, are destructive. This particular cat is let out of the bag a little too quick for my taste, as there is nearly a OT vs. NT seminar on p. 28, but that’s ok. RZ and PKD do what must be done with such questions – leave them unanswered but throughly exercised. I was actually quite pleased at the end. Yay.