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Academic Minute: Hands-Free Phones and Driving Errors

In today’s Academic Minute, Yagesh Bhambhani of the University of Alberta reveals why hands-free cell phone use makes driving dangerous. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.

 

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Review of Salinger book and trailer (essay)

I’ve just finished Salinger, by David Shields and Shane Salerno, and all I can think of is the eulogy that Owl Eyes offers for Gatsby: “The poor son-of-a bitch.”

Robert Boynton: “And then there’s this crazed paparazzi, investigative-reporter approach” (qtd. in Chapter 14 of Salinger, “A Terrible, Terrible Fall”)

This “official book of the acclaimed documentary film,” presents enough contradictions to keep us busy until the publication of those new Salinger works promised in the final chapter. The title of that last chapter is “Secrets,” which sums up the tawdry tabloid-like endeavor of book and film combined. If Shields and Salerno had stopped with two-thirds of the material on World War II, they might have produced a slim book of value. Meanwhile, this quasi-oral-biography — it’s closer to a pastiche — just goes on and on; it’s a fine example of what Joyce Carol Oates, who is quoted here, along with other critics, actors, nursemaids, and lovers, would call pathography.

J. D. Salinger: “I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. In the first place, that stuff bores me . . .”

But not, apparently, Salerno, whose writing credits include "Armageddon," "Alien vs. Predator," and "Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem," or Shields, who is probably best-known for his 2010 book, Reality Hunger, a collage “built from scraps” about what people really want from literature.

Michael Clarkson: “I started thinking. . . . He’s never given [his fans], really, two cents.”

Who, you may ask, is Michael Clarkson? The introduction promises 12 “conversations with Salinger,” — “revealing encounters” that will “place the reader on increasingly intimate terms with an author who had been adamantly inaccessible for more than half a century.” The first conversation features Michael Clarkson, who wrote a 4,000 word-essay about his hounding of Salinger and whose previous 15 minutes of fame involved a People magazine story about his “encounters with Salinger.” The second and last encounter started with the uninvited Clarkson staring in through the glass doors of Salinger’s home and inventorying the contents.

As he told Salinger, “Jerry, I wouldn’t have bothered you — I wouldn’t have barged in like this — if you’d answered my letters.” Clarkson feels perfectly justified: “He’s never given [his fans], really, two cents.” Really? What about those four books?

This book is riddled by these sorts of unquestioned contradictions. First there is the form and nature of the book itself, a companion to a film that was based largely on another book (Paul Alexander’s Salinger: A Biography; Alexander’s voice is just one in the chorus here). So we have a mystery wrapped in an enigma wrapped in scraps.

Salerno and Shields point out that Salinger would have hated this book; they assert, repeatedly, that Salinger’s absorption in Vedanta Hinduism destroyed his writing (also variously referred to as “work” or “art”) and then they — or at least Salerno — list a series of forthcoming manuscripts. (Salerno’s absurdly wordy “Acknowledgments” section ends with “I look forward with great anticipation to reading the work Salinger diligently produced from 1965 until his death in 2010"; Shields isn’t as excited — the work may be “genius” or it may be “inchoate” (Chapter 20, “A Million Miles Away in His Tower”). In this book, Salinger can’t get a break.  First he’s slammed for “writing for the slicks” and for wanting to publish in The New Yorker; then he’s slammed for not publishing. (And Shields calls Salinger “completely contradictory” and “hypocritical”! See Chapter 19, “A Private Citizen.”)

Billy Collins: “He actually made you feel that you weren’t alone. . . I think he had the best influence on my sensibility. And I think it helped me kind of pursue that sense of being different, being an individual.”

Wait, that’s Collins talking about Jean Shepherd on the back cover of Eugene B. Bergman’s Excelsior, You Fathead! The Art and Enigma of Jean Shepherd. It’s Edward Norton and John Cusack who say similar praiseworthy things about Salinger and Holden Caulfield. Playwright John Guare, however, thinks that there is cause to be “very, very troubled” by the fact that “three people used [Catcher] “as the justification for killing somebody” (see his entries in the print companion and his featured scene in the sensationalistic trailer). That’s three readers of a book “that has sold more than 65 million copies worldwide,” according to Salerno in an earlier chapter. Salerno continues: “And if 65 million people have bought the book, that means that hundreds of millions are likely to have read it” (Chapter 10, “Is the Kid in this Book Crazy?”). You can, however, read all about those three people here in a lengthy chapter called “Assassins,” and in which you’ll learn that Mark David Chapman also liked "The Wizard of Oz" and the Bible.

Holden Caulfield; “I hate the movies like poison.... The movies can ruin you.”

Shields and Salerno note several times that Holden Caulfield (named for two movie stars -- just one of a number of connections they miss) says he hates the movies but is in fact drawn to them. The movies, of course, aren’t real. Have you seen the trailer for Salinger? It looks like the sequel to "Armageddon."

Shields and Salerno: “What he wanted was privacy” (Introduction, Salinger, “The Official Book, etc.)

But really, according to Shields and Salerno, echoing Paul Alexander, Salinger wasn’t a “true recluse”; it was just a ploy to get attention. And so on the book goes, rehashing not only news stories and faux news stories but the stories of Joyce Maynard, Margaret Salinger, and Ian Hamilton, along with accounts of legal proceedings, speculations about Salinger’s first wife, and detailed accounts of snacks (popcorn), meals (“Birds Eye frozen Tiny Tender Peas, not cooked, but with warm water poured over them,” for breakfast and the $12 roast beef plate at dinners at the First Congregational Church), and beverages (hot chocolate and urine). The tone of the book veers from gleefulness to somber proselytizing; it exhorts and chastises; it often seems angry.

Buddy Glass: “A poet, for God’s sake. And I mean a poet”

In contrast to Salinger’s style, the writing here is over the top: The “main impulse” of “Hapworth 16, 1924,” “is to protect [Salinger’s] death-dealing soul” (Introduction to Chapter 14: “A Terrible, Terrible Fall”). Other examples of overwriting include describing Catcher as “an assassination manual”(Introduction to Chapter  18) and Salinger’s life as “a slow-motion suicide mission” (Shields and Salerno, Chapter 21, “Jerome David Salinger: A Conclusion”). We’re told that  “Salinger walked into a concentration camp and never walked out” (Salerno’s line: one he likes so much that he repeated it on "The Colbert Report"), and that “The cure never took, because he was the disease” (Chapter 21).  And then there is Shield’s exegesis of Nine Stories, “Follow the Bullet” (Chapter 12), which is just too depressing to revisit.

Holden Caulfield: “You mean to go a psychoanalyst and all?... What would he do to me?”

Much of the limited information is repeated several times, culminating in the penultimate chapter, Chapter 21, “Jerome David Salinger: A Conclusion,” which offers a précis of the preceding 590 pages, a sort of guide to the guide. Taking a quote from one of Salinger’s letters, “I’m a condition, not a man,” Salerno and Shields list “10 conditions”, beginning with “Anatomy” and “Oona” and ending with “Detachment” (“War” comes in at third place, “Girls” at eighth).  One condition that seems overlooked is generational: men and women of Salinger’s generation just didn’t talk about “it.”

Shane Salerno: “There is no question that the manuscripts exist. The question is, What are they?”

An informal survey of the breakfast crowd at the Seaview Restaurant in Wickford, R.I., where I finished reading Salinger: The Book, revealed some interesting alternate predictions for the contents of the vault:

Thousands of blank pages beneath a single cover sheet that reads: “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” “Silence.”

Copies of hundreds of pulp fiction stories and crime-noir novels published between 1965 and 2008 under pseudonyms that include Elmore Leonard and Stephen King.

Thousands of pages filled with the prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.”

Thousands of pages filled with “Praises to the Buddha, or something like that.”

30 pristine typed copies of The Catcher in the Rye.

“Just [a] cigar, in a small nice box. Possibly with a blank sheet of paper enclosed, by way of explanation.”

Shane Salerno: “Finally, I want to thank Jerome David Salinger for living such an extraordinary life and one that I devoted nearly a decade to telling honestly” (“Acknowledgments”).

Holden Caulfield: “I felt like I was disappearing.”

The title alone of D. T. Max’s new book on David Foster Wallace -- a phrase that Wallace liked so much he used it several times -- seems more insightful about Salinger than do the 500-plus pages between the covers of Salinger: “Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story.”

I mean, Jesus H. Christ, enough already.

Carolyn Foster Segal is a professor emeritus of English at Cedar Crest College. She currently teaches at Muhlenberg College.

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Essay on how colleges can engage in 'cluster hiring'

There are many advantages to the practice, writes Laura Severin, but it requires strategy and practices that go beyond hiring many professors at once.

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Academic Minute: Heat and Tidally Locked Planets

In today’s Academic Minute, Nicolas Cowan of Northwestern University explains how cloud cover moderates the temperature of tidally-locked exoplanets orbiting red dwarf starts. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.

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Short-term courses for maximizing learning -- and revenue (essay)

The administration at U of All People is nothing if not financially expeditious (some faculty have put it another way, not printable in this periodical). Jacking up students’ expenses is unpopular, for instance, but extracting extra tuition money can be accomplished in subtle ways. Starting a few decades ago, U of All People set the minimum credit hours for graduation two courses over a full course load every semester. That way, students had to take extra classes, often during the summer. This concept was shamelessly copied by other schools.

In fact, the short-term courses were a hit, since the workload was lighter, and the school could get the same amount of money in less time. Then one day, the Dean of Others’ Affairs had a bright idea: if students were willing to sign up for an eight-week or even a four-week course, why not offer a three-week course? Thus was born Wintersession and Maymester, a concept that other schools shamelessly copied.

Now that earnings are flat in this economic climate, the innovative folks in Long Hall have come up with a new plan, Pack-It-In Pedagogy, a term invented yesterday by our newly appointed Time Management Expert. To expedite the plan, each department has been tasked to come up with at least one course offering. Eventually, we expect other schools to shamelessly copy the concept. Meanwhile, below are just a few classes to maximize student learning while also boosting revenues.

WinterInterSplinterSession: Three Days That Can Change Your Life

English 1.25: Shakespeare: The Play. Students read Hamlet one day, see the film the next day, and take the final exam on the third day. “The key is to be representative,” says Professor Bowdler. “To expose these students to a great work — isn’t that enough?”

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What Are You Doing This Weekend?: Special Two-Day Courses

Chem Lab 9.5, in which students carry out one experiment. “It’ll be a reaction that gets to the heart of what chemistry is all about,” says Professor Boom. “Bunsen burners, Erlenmeyer flasks, yellow and red powder — the works!”

History 10.5: Daily Life in Ancient Rome. Students eat bread one day and attend a circus the next. Instructor: TBA.

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Give Us a Day, and We’ll Give You a Grade: One-Day Workshops

Geology 1.1, where students split open and examine one basalt rock. “The universe in a grain of sand,” is how Professor Geode puts it. “It’s fascinating, what one can glean from a single work of nature.”

Psychology 2.3 (online): the students each read a different chapter of the textbook on Blackboard and give their opinions of it in a discussion group. Together, by the end, they’ve gone through the entire book. No instructor; peer review.

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60 Minutes: Hour-Long Intensives

Math 24.1. Students tackle one difficult equation. As Professor Quad, this year’s winner of the Pretty Good Teacher Award, notes: “Why clog the syllabus with problem sets that just repeat? Less is more.”

Spanish 0.2: Students learn three verbs and two nouns, then use them in conversation. Access to language lab included. Independent study. Monitor: TBA.

Astronomy 0.6, in which students creep outside to look at the stars. In case of clouds, students will draw zodiac pictures for a portfolio. “The sky’s the limit!” — Professor Centauri

Phys. Ed. 1.23: Really tough Zumba class; warm-up not included. Staff.

Art History 8.3 (hybrid): Students receive a PowerPoint lecture on various paintings and then compare them to other paintings online. “Put some art in your life!” says Professor Sfumato.

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MOOCs in a Minute

Videotaped lectures are run at eight times the normal speed. In advanced classes, the speed jumps to 16x.

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The U of All People administration is delighted with our proposals and is moving ahead with all possible dispatch. All we need now is a slogan for advertising these new courses.

“Got time for a quickie?” is the current favorite, but without the suggestive accompanying graphic.

David Galef directs the creative writing program at Montclair State University. His latest book is the short story collection My Date With Neanderthal Woman (Dzanc Books).

 

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Anger Over Lecturer Who Won't Teach Female Authors

Academics at the University of Toronto and elsewhere are rushing to condemn a visiting lecturer there who said in an interview that most female authors are not worth including on his syllabus. The controversy concerns comments David Gilmour gave to the website Hazlitt. He said: "I'm not interested in teaching books by women. Virginia Woolf is the only writer that interests me as a woman writer, so I do teach one of her short stories. But once again, when I was given this job I said I would only teach the people that I truly, truly love. Unfortunately, none of those happen to be Chinese, or women. Except for Virginia Woolf. And when I tried to teach Virginia Woolf, she’s too sophisticated, even for a third-year class. Usually at the beginning of the semester a hand shoots up and someone asks why there aren’t any women writers in the course. I say I don’t love women writers enough to teach them, if you want women writers go down the hall. What I teach is guys. Serious heterosexual guys. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Chekhov, Tolstoy. Real guy-guys. Henry Miller. Philip Roth."

As outrage over those comments spread, Gilmour told The Globe and Mail that his comments had been “totally, totally misinterpreted,” and that he believes Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro are “top-flight international writers.It’s just that I don’t connect with the material as profoundly as I do with, say, Phillip Roth’s The Dying Animal." The latest comment has not stopped a round of criticism. Paul Stevens, acting chair of Toronto's English department and a professor of early modern literature, said Gilmour’s comments "constitute a travesty of all we stand for," and noted that "David Gilmour is not a member of the Department of English at the University of Toronto."

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Harvard Press Defends Publishing Controversial Book

University presses -- like other publishers -- know that not all reviews will be favorable, and generally don't respond to most critiques of their books. But the debate over a new book published by Harvard University Press has led its director to issue a defense of the decision to publish. The book in question is The Collaboration: Hollywood's Pact With Hitler, by Ben Urwand, a fellow at Harvard. The book has been praised by some for revealing the extent to which Hollywood avoided offending the Nazis, but has been harshly criticized by others for oversimplifying the history. The New Yorker has been particularly critical, with David Denby first publishing a negative review and then following up with a piece called "How Could Harvard Have Published Ben Urwand's The Collaboration?" In that piece Denby outlines what he considers to be numerous "omissions and blunders."

A statement from Harvard University Press says in part: "We stand by the integrity of our refereeing and editorial procedures. A thorough review process is standard at Harvard, where we take very seriously the imprimatur of the university’s name. Though not all reviewers agree with Urwand’s interpretation of the actions he describes, nearly 60 pages of notes and documentation enable readers to judge for themselves the strength and validity of his presentation. Via his agent Urwand has responded to Denby and the New Yorker, but as yet we have no indication that his response has been published."

 

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Essay on how 'Big Bang Theory' shapes the way the public views higher education

The most famous of us all are not real. True, scholars such as Albert Einstein and J. Robert Oppenheimer were once recognized by almost any sector of the American public.  In fact, they were so well-recognized that Einstein’s hair and Oppenheimer’s pork pie hat were alone representative of their celebrity.

A theoretical physicist, an astrophysicist, an applied physicist, and an engineer are now arguably as well recognized as the Einsteins and Oppenheimers of days past.  The problem is that these men, Sheldon Cooper, Rajesh Koothrappali, Leonard Hofstadter, and Howard Walowitz, are not real. They are, in fact, the stars of CBS’s "The Big Bang Theory. "

Just how popular are the show and its stars? "The Big Bang Theory" begins its seventh season tonight and frequently rode atop Nielsen’s weekly ratings for sitcoms in past years. Beyond sheer volume of viewers, "The Big Bang Theory" has also garnered a wide variety of awards. This year alone, for example, the show was nominated for eight Emmys and took home top honors for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series (Jim Parsons, a.k.a. Sheldon Cooper) and Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series (Bob Newhart, a.k.a. Arthur Jeffries/Professor Proton).

Like a number of current sitcoms, the male protagonists are portrayed as being afflicted by variant strands of perpetual adolescence. If they are not working, they are playing online role games, hanging out at a comic book store, or ingesting successive waves of takeout. Of course, a sitcom must include a subplot of ongoing sexual frustration, and "The Big Bang Theory" does not disappoint. The lone exception is the theoretical physicist who views "coitus" – as he calls it – as a mere distraction from his work.  

Given the show’s appeal, what, if anything, does it tell us about the American public’s views of the academic vocation? Speaking on behalf of what the American public thinks is risky, but I fear we all may already know the answer — they find the show humorous because it, in part, correlates to opinions they already hold.  

For example, in one of the final episodes from last season, entitled "Tenure Turbulence," a tenured slot comes open in the physics department when a colleague dies. When discussing the possibility, the theoretical physicist with coitus avoidus, Sheldon, claims "a guaranteed job for life only encourages the faculty to become complacent." The astrophysicist, Rajesh, argues "people do their best work when they feel safe and secure." Regardless, they all initially agree whoever among them receives tenure should do so because of his ability to do the work, not because of faculty politics.      

Events then spin out of control as each one of them seeks to one-up the other in an arms race of university politics. The target for their outlandish behavior is Mrs. Davies, a member of the human resources office serving on the tenure committee. Leonard risks being placed on a stalker watchlist by making his way into the previously unexplored territory of the wellness center simply to “schmooze” Mrs. Davies while she exercises. Raj sends her a self-made video touting his academic abilities dating back to his early childhood. Not to be outdone, Sheldon provides Mrs. Davies, an African-American, with the DVD box set of "Roots."

Just when you think you have seen it all, the most outlandish behavior comes just prior to the deceased colleague’s funeral. Standing in the hallway, each one of them becomes aware of the depraved lengths the others will go in this political game. Sheldon asks his girlfriend, Amy, to remind him that an appropriate emotional response to a funeral is sadness. Perennially incapable of speaking to women, Raj is left to rely on alcohol to help him be more assertive.    

Despite their antics, Mrs. Davies recommends all three candidates for further review as a result of their considerable credentials. In a mere half-hour, however, a number of possible cultural stereotypes of the life of university faculty members are brought to light. One possible stereotype held by the larger public has to do with skepticism over the possibility of someone having access to a job for life. The second has to do with how such a job is earned.

Unfortunately, the best available data confirms the existence of both forms of skepticism. Although somewhat dated but arguably still the most authoritative of its kind, Neil Gross and Solon Simmons conducted a survey of "Americans’ Views of Political Bias in the Academy and Academic Freedom" back in 2006 for the AAUP.  A more recent iteration of this line of work is now found in Neil Gross’s Why Are Professors Liberal and Why Do Conservatives Care? (Harvard University Press, 2013).

In general, Gross and Simmons found "Americans are generally supportive of the tenure system.... At the same time, about 80.7 percent think that tenure sometimes protects incompetent faculty, while 57.9 percent believe that giving professors tenure takes away their incentive to work hard." As a result, "only about 17.9 percent of respondents say the tenure system should remain as it is.”

In six-going-on-seven seasons, tenure is but one of the important issues portrayed in episodes of "The Big Bang Theory."  Part of the reason why we laugh, though, is the way it mirrors views held by the American public and possibly by even some of us. Tenure and other practices like it are too critical to the work we do to be unquestioningly portrayed in such a manner.

The challenge facing us, those of us who are real, is how our efforts persistently challenge such perceptions. Perhaps one day a sitcom will climb the Nielsen ratings portraying tenure as a practice so revered that it inspires nothing but the highest devotion to teaching, research, and service.              

 

Todd C. Ream is professor of higher education at Taylor University and a research fellow with the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University.  He (along with Drew Moser) is currently working on a cultural biography of Ernest L. Boyer.

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Providence College reverses ban on speaker who favors same-sex marriage, but questions remain

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Facing faculty and student outrage, college says it will permit an academic speaker in favor of same-sex marriage, under certain conditions.

Pitt Professor Charged With Using University Funds to Buy Drugs

Billy Day, a tenured pharmacy professor at the University of Pittsburgh, has been charged with using federal grant funds and university funds to buy drugs that he used for himself, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported. He has been released on bond but has declined comment. The pharmacy chair contacted university police after he approached Day to ask about drugs he was buying. The police complaint says that Day said he was using the drugs for himself, and needed to go into a rehabilitation clinic.

 

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