Healthy Cavemen?

Some of our current obsessions really are just making us spin our wheels.

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A Response to The New Yorker About Writing and Literature at UNLV

The New Yorker just ran an excellent essay looking at some thorny educational issues: why do so many people go to college today?  Are they getting much out of it?  Should college be different?  The author sympathetically looks at different angles to these issues, and addresses recent ideas and research on them.  At one point, though, to illustrate a section where he debates the value of liberal arts training for vocational majors, for writes:

Still, students pursuing vocational degrees are almost always required to take some liberal-arts courses. Let’s say that you want a bachelor’s degree in Culinary Arts Management, with a Beverage Management major, from the University of Nevada Las Vegas. (Hmm. I might have taken a wrong turn in my education somewhere.) To get this degree, U.N.L.V. requires you to take two courses in English (Composition and World Literature), one course in philosophy, one course in either history or political science, courses in chemistry, mathematics, and economics, and two electives in the arts and humanities. If your professional goal is, let’s say, running the beverage service at the Bellagio, how much effort are you going to put into that class on World Literature?

Since I’ve actually taught World Literature to business majors at UNLV, please let me offer an answer. 

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Two Recent Articles On Effective Teachers

What makes an effective teacher?  What’s the meaning of life?  What do women want?  (Blame Freud for that last one, not me.)  These three questions have excited so much postulating and pontificating that many thinkers have given up on trying to answer them at all, instead resigning themselves to the apparent inevitability of resolving such baffling conundrums.  However, recently, two of America’s best major magazines have run thought-provoking features intended to address the first query above. 

 

            Malcolm Gladwell (author of the bestsellers Blink, Outliers, and The Tipping Point) reported in December 2008 on the burgeoning field of statistical quantification as it relates to the field of education in The New Yorker.  Gladwell summarizes the findings of one expert in the piece as showing that “the difference between good teachers and poor teachers turns out to be vast,” noting that teacher competence has a far greater impact on student achievement than class size or even (perceived) school quality.  Another expert—Jacob Kounin—emphasizes the importance of what he calls “withitness”—a preternatural awareness of a class’s immediate climate.

 

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The New New Yorker

This week at the gym, I’ve killed time on the treadmill and cycling machine by perusing the June 9-16 issue of The New Yorker.  It’s superb, even for their usual standard.  I know, I know, The New Yorker needs fresh praise about as much as Shakespeare or oxygen (my verdict: they’re good!), but I haven’t paid close attention for the past few months, so please let me reconnect with this leisure of love…

First, Adrian Tomine’s cover offers further proof that he is the preeminent visual storyteller of our time.  A man is unlocking his bookstore while, one door down, a woman is accepting a delivery from Amazon.com.  A good picture can capture the ol’ zeitgeist, can’t it?  Tomine’s genius is that the woman doesn’t look even remotely awkward or guilty.  If anything, she’s disdainful of the loser who works next door.  It’s just as well that we can’t see his face. 

The first thing I read was Haruki Murakami’s essay, “The Running Novelist.”  Ah, two of my favorite things, writing and exercise, combined!  Murakami inspires the reader to be a Rocky of both marathons and manuscripts.  It could have been an entry in The New York Times’ Writers on Writing column, were it not so good that it makes the most soaring of those essays look pedestrian.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: within the next three years, Haruki Murakami will win the Nobel Prize.  I confess that at this point, the only novel of his that I’ve read is After Dark, but I couldn’t put it down, finishing it in under 24 hours (a major feat for me, these days).  I desperately want to fit in Kafka On The Shore by the end of this summer.  The American author William Faulkner may have invented magic realism, Colombia’s Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez may have perfected it, but the greatest current practitioner of that art is Japan’s Haruki Murakami.  Even if you consider that the nominating committee tends to factor in politics and ethnicity into their decisions, Murakami still has good odds of scoring this ultimate literary triumph.

Next, I read Tobias Wolff’s poignant essay on Ingmar Bergman’s film Winter Light.  Wolff’s honest musing on faith and doubt was incisive.  I’ve long been a fan of Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (mocking it–e.g. Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey–is de rigeur, but sometimes an earnestly somber allegory can still be appreciated without irony; actually, the last time I saw it, I was surprised to notice just how much humor and warmth it has), and a few months ago I saw Wild Strawberries, a much more life affirming film, and one whose piquant flavor I hope to savor time and again throughout the sweet afternoons of life, like the fruit of the title.  My library district doesn’t carry Winter Light; I’ll have to request it.  Wolff’s story of spiritual pilgrims both on and off the screen touched me enough to want to go down that path for a couple hours myself.

And, of course, I love the cartoons.  You do enter the cartoon caption contest every week, don’t you?  And, like me, you never win, don’t you?  Well, don’t worry, our hour of reckoning will come.  Oh yes, the infidel cartoon editor will feel the wrath of our punchline’s steely blade.  Soon…

As for today, I’ll be straddling a stair climber and soaking up a “new” short story by wordsmith Vladimir Nabokov, translated into English for the first time…

“Required New Yorker Short Story Format”

I just got a rejection slip for this story in the mail today (the second rejection for this particular manuscript), but rather than send it out yet again, I’ll share it here.

I got the idea for this piece last Autumn when I read the quote used below to introduce it.  As I drafted the story, I intended it to be a rollicking, silly but of fun.  Looking back on it a bit later, it’s much more serious than I first thought…but still makes a good point.

 

“Required New Yorker Short Story Format”

 

“In too many cases, that audience happens to consist of other writers and would-be writers who are reading the various literary magazines (and The New Yorker, of course; the holy grail of the young fiction writer)…. These stories felt show-offy rather than entertaining, self-important rather than interesting, guarded and self-conscious rather than gloriously open…” –Stephen King, The Best American Short Stories 2007

 

“Dialogue that, without context, is intended to create an in media res effect, but only confuses the reader, though precocious readers are used to this and look forward to the background being fleshed out at some later point in the narrative, giving introductory sentence an appropriate air of contemplative gravitas.”

“Terse interrogative?”

Bombastic reply!”

Deceptively meandering description of the weather this time of year (and its implied resonant mood), and several nearby slice-of-life scenes, each more triumphantly obscure than the one before.

Allusions to John Stuart Mill, Too Much Coffee Man, and Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Superfluous obscenity.

Bleak interaction between protagonist and colorful minor character. Random childhood memory. Under-punctuated transitions between several paragraphs of sparse prose juxtaposing minute observations of contemporary urban life with a condensed panorama of life’s essential absurdity.

Abortive burst of action; interior monologue meditates on frustration of even simple attempts to connect meaningfully with one’s ostensible community. Casual mention of socially deviant behavior and a scene concerning exotic food.

[insert dramatic line break here]

 

Character foil accosts protagonist and proceeds to launch a verbal fusillade rife with multi-syllabic sesquipedalianisms unlikely to actually be employed by someone who has just been established, via a dismal wardrobe metaphor, to be a suburban zombie. Stale middle-class existence tangentially judged and ironically criticized.

“Breezy dismissal of foil’s argument by means of muttering colloquial slang, possibly ‘whatever’ or even ‘OMG’,” said protagonist, with whom readers are meant to increasingly identify their own neuroses.

Fragment approximates postmodern stream-of-consciousness glimpse into protagonist’s soul. A word whose prefix creates a double-“o” is punctuated with an umlaut.

Onewordparagraph.

A series of narrative sketches advances plot to philosophical extremes, noticeably including the words “surreal,” “remonstrate,” and “ebulliently recondite.”

Auspicious reference to childhood memory from paragraph six. Sudden conclusion sans closure leaves reader successfully denying an emerging sense of self-imposed psychic constipation, and satisfied with a comfortable emptiness. Reader shivers upon turning page, looking for cartoons.