administrators

Balancing act: providing grad student health insurance and complying with Affordable Care Act

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Universities grapple with providing subsidized health insurance to graduate students while complying with the Affordable Care Act. Seventeen U.S. senators urge the government to give institutions clarification.

Review of Robert L. Belknap's "Plots"

The story is told of how, during an interview at a film festival in the 1960s, someone asked the avant-garde director Jean-Luc Godard, “But you must at least admit that a film has to have a beginning, a middle and an end?” To which Godard replied, “Yes, but not necessarily in that order.”

Touché! Creative tampering with established patterns of storytelling (or with audience expectations, which is roughly the same thing) is among the basic prerogatives of artistic expression -- one to be exercised at whatever risk of ticket buyers demanding their money back. Most of the examples of such tampering that Robert L. Belknap considers in Plots (Columbia University Press) are drawn from literary works now at least a century old. That we still read them suggests their narrative innovations worked -- so well, in fact, that they may go unnoticed now, taken as given. And the measure of Belknap’s excellence as a critic is how rewarding his close attention to them proves.

The late author, a professor of Slavic languages at Columbia University, delivered the three lectures making up Plots in 2011. Belknap’s preface to the book indicates that he considered the manuscript ready for publication at the time of his death in 2014. Plots has an adamantine quality, as if decades of thought and teaching were being crystallized and enormously compressed. Yet it is difficult to read the final paragraphs as anything but the author’s promise to say a great deal more.

Whether the lectures were offered as the overture to Belknap’s magnum opus or in lieu of one, Plots shuttles between narrative theory (from Aristotle to the Russian formalists) and narrative practice (Shakespeare and Dostoevsky, primarily) at terrific speed and with a necessary minimum of jargon. Because the jargon contains an irreducible core of the argument, we might as well start (even though Belknap does not) with the Russian formalists’ contrast between fabula and siuzhet.

Each can be translated as “plot.” The more or less standard sense of fabula, at least as I learned it in ancient times, is the series of events or actions as they might be laid out on a timeline. The author tweaks this a little by defining fabula as “the relationship among the incidents in the world the characters inhabit,” especially cause-and-effect relationships. By contrast, siuzhet is how events unfold within the literary narrative or, as Belknap puts it, “the relationship among the same incidents in the world of the text.”

To frame the contrast another way, siuzhet is how the story is told, while fabula is what “really” happened. The scare quotes are necessary because the distinction applies to fiction and drama as well as, say, memoir and documentary film. “In small forms, like fairy tales,” Belknap notes, fabula and siuzhet “tend to track one another rather closely, but in larger forms, like epics or novels, they often diverge.” (Side note: A good deal of short fiction is also marked by that divergence. An example that comes to mind is “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe, where the siuzhet of the narrator’s account of what happened and why is decidedly different from the fabula to be worked out by the police appearing at the end of the story.)

Belknap returns to Aristotle for the original effort to understand the emotional impact of a certain kind of siuzhet: the ancient tragedies. An effective drama, by the philosopher’s lights, depicted the events of a single day, in a single place, through a sequence of actions so well integrated that no element could be omitted without the whole narrative coming apart. “This discipline in handling the causal relationship between incidents,” says Belknap, “produces the sense of inevitability that characterizes the strongest tragedies.” The taut siuzhet chronicling a straightforward fabula reconciled audiences to the workings of destiny.

Turning Aristotle’s analysis into a rule book, as happened in later centuries, was like forcing playwrights to wear too-small shoes. The fashion could not last. In the second lecture, Belknap turns to Shakespeare, who found another way to work:

“He sacrificed the causal tightness that had served classic drama so well in order to build thematic tightness around parallel plots. Usually the parallel plots involve different social levels -- masters and servants, kings and courtiers, supernatural beings and humans -- and usually the plots are not too parallel to intersect occasionally and interact causally at some level, though never enough to satisfy Aristotle’s criterion that if any incident be removed, the whole plot of the play should cease to make sense …. Similarity in plots can be represented as the overlap between two areas, and those areas may be broken down into individual points of similarity, dissimilarity, contrast, etc. Without knowing it, a Shakespearean audience is making such analyses all the time it watches a play, and the points of overlap and contrast enter their awareness.”

It’s not clear whether Belknap means to include the modern Shakespearean audience -- possibly not, since contemporary productions tend to trim down the secondary plots, if not eliminate them. But the Bard had other devices in hand for complicating fabula-siuzhet arrangements -- including what Belknap identifies as “a little-discussed peculiarity of Shakespearean plotting, the use of lies.” In both classical and Shakespearean drama, there are crucial scenes in which a character’s identity or situation is revealed to others whose confusion or deception has been important for the plot. But whereas mistakes and lies “are about equally prevalent” in the ancient plays, Shakespeare has a clear preference: “virtually every recognition scene is generated primarily out of a lie, not an error.”

In a striking elaboration of that point, Belknap treats the lie as a kind of theatrical performance -- “a little drama, with at least the rudiments of a plot” -- that often “express[es] facts about the liar, the person lied to or the person lied about.” The lie is a manipulative play within a play in miniature. And in Hamlet, at least, the (literal) play within a play is the prince’s means of trying to force his uncle to tell the truth.

Now, such intricate developments at the level of form also involve changes in how the writer and the audience understand the world (and, presumably, themselves). The Shakespearean cosmos gets messier than that of classical drama, but loosening the chains of cause and effect does not create absolute chaos. The motives and consequences of the characters’ actions make manifest their otherwise hidden inner lives. To put it another way, mutations in siuzhet (how the story is told) reflect changes in fabula (what really happens in the world) and vice versa. Belknap suggests -- tongue perhaps not entirely in cheek -- that Shakespeare was on the verge of inventing the modern psychological novel and might have, had he lived a few more years.

By the final lecture, on Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Belknap has come home to his area of deepest professional interest. (He wrote two well-regarded monographs on The Brothers Karamazov.) Moving beyond his analysis of parallel plots in Shakespeare, he goes deep into the webs of allusion and cross-referencing among Russian authors of the 19th century to make the case that Crime and Punishment contains a much more deliberate narrative architecture than it is credited with having. (Henry James’s characterization of Russian novels as “fluid puddings” undoubtedly applies.)

He even makes a bid for the novel epilogue as being aesthetically and thematically integral to the book as a whole. Other readers may find that argument plausible. I’ll just say that Plots reveals that with Belknap’s death, we lost a critic and literary historian of great power and considerable ingenuity.

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Pat Summitt, Ambassador for Women's Sports, Dies

Pat Summitt, the winningest coach in Division I college basketball history, died Tuesday following a five-year battle with Alzheimer’s disease. She was 64.

Summitt coached the University of Tennessee women’s basketball team for 38 years, winning eight national titles and becoming a renowned and revered ambassador for women’s sports. In 1984, she won an Olympic gold medal as head coach of the women’s basketball team. She was once approached by Tennessee officials about coaching the university’s men’s team, The New York Times reported. Summitt declined the offer, asking, “Why is that considered a step up?”

President Barack Obama, who awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012, said in a statement that “nobody walked off a college basketball court victorious more times” than Summitt.

“Her unparalleled success includes never recording a losing season in 38 years of coaching, but also, and more importantly, a 100 percent graduation rate among her players who completed their athletic eligibility,” Obama said. “Her legacy, however, is measured much more by the generations of young women and men who admired Pat’s intense competitiveness and character, and as a result found in themselves the confidence to practice hard, player harder and live with courage on and off the court.”

Players recalled that intense competitiveness and character Tuesday as they shared memories of the coach. Summitt sometimes slapped the court so hard during games, she flattened the rings on her fingers, requiring them to be rounded out again after the season ended. “She has changed the way I looked at life, and the way all her players have,” said Candace Parker, a former player of Summitt’s who now plays for the Los Angeles Sparks of the Women’s National Basketball Association.

A 1998 Sports Illustrated profile described how Summitt’s coaching often inspired her players to become mentors themselves. After graduating from Tennessee, a former player named Michelle Marciniak began mentoring a 15-year-old player named Amanda who lived near her hometown.

“The story doesn’t end with Michelle -- it goes through her, and on to people that Pat will never know, because Michelle is now the carrier of a spore,” Gary Smith wrote in the profile. “Michelle takes Amanda under her wing -- plays ball with her, lifts weights with her, talks about life with her and tells her all about Pat. She tells Amanda how much she misses that lady now, how much she misses that sense of mission all around her -- the urgency of 12 young women trying to be the best they can, every day, every moment. ‘Let’s run,’ she says to Amanda one day, but she doesn’t run alongside the girl. She just takes off, barely conscious that she has already joined the legions of Pat’s former players all over America who are spreading the urgency, breathing into thousands of teenage girls a new relationship with time.”

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Changed Aid Application System for Homeless Students

The U.S. Department of Education has simplified and clarified the process through which homeless students can apply for federal financial aid. John King, the U.S. Secretary of Education, described changes to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid and to the department's website in a letter to Senator Patty Murray, the Democrat from Washington State who had called for a more streamlined process. The U.S. Government Accountability Office recently found that homeless students face unnecessary and cumbersome barriers when seeking to apply for federal aid.

How senior administrators can best explore feminism with students (essay)

As an institutional leader who is trying to discern what women students need and to promote conversations about feminism on your campus, what should you do? Raymonda Burgman provides some guidance.

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U of Houston Sues Houston College of Law

The University of Houston System on Monday sued the Houston College of Law, which is the new name of the private law school that has been known as the South Texas College of Law. The suit charges that the name -- along with use of a red-and-white color scheme similar to the university's -- creates “confusion in the marketplace and damage” to the university and its brand. One division of the University of Houston is the University of Houston Law Center.

“We’ve earned our standing as a nationally ranked law center, and we won’t allow someone else to change their name and colors and market themselves on our success,” said a statement from Tilman Fertitta, chairman of the university's Board of Regents. The university's announcement of the suit noted its law school's numerous honors and high rankings, which it said stand in contrast with the other law school.

A spokeswoman for the Houston College of Law said that it was policy not to respond to questions about litigation.

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Underestimating Financial Aid Eligibility

Slightly less than one-quarter of parents and 37 percent of students believe they will qualify for financial aid, according to the results of a survey released this week by Royall & Company, a division of the Education Advisory Board (EAB). The findings, which are based on a survey of 5,133 college-bound high school students and their parents, stand in contrast to federal data showing that 85 percent of all college-going students receive aid in the form of grants or low-interest loans from the federal government.

Among the survey's parent respondents from households with annual incomes of $60,000 or less, 66 percent said they expect to quality for need-based financial aid. But an EAB analysis of federal data found that 84 percent of students in that income bracket receive Pell Grants.

New presidents or provosts: Centenary Dayton Foothill Grays Harbor Hawaii Lorain Marywood SDSU Wyoming

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  • Glenn Arbery, interim president at Wyoming Catholic College, has been promoted to the job on a permanent basis.
  • Marcia J. Ballinger, provost and vice president of academic and learner services at Lorain County Community College, in Ohio, has been promoted to president there.

Critics say Oregon Promise lacks adequate funding and has overly strict eligibility requirements

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Oregon's free community college program begins this fall, but several two-year-college leaders in the state say the grant program is underfunded and too exclusive.

Professor Will Sue Over Release of Harassment Findings

Timothy Slater has filed a notice of intent to sue the University of Arizona over the release of a report finding that he violated the university's sexual harassment policies by creating a sexually charged environment for students, The Arizona Daily Star reported. The report attracted widespread attention when a member of Congress read it aloud on the floor of the House of Representatives to draw attention to the way some professors, after being found guilty of harassment, find jobs at other universities. Slater currently teaches at the University of Wyoming. He has denied any wrongdoing and said that release of the report has hurt his career.

The university is declining the comment on the suit, but officials said in January that the report was released accidentally.

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