"Monsters University," more than being a comment on higher education, is a film about the limits of hard work and the value of diversity. It’s also “Revenge of the Nerds” with brighter colors and more limbs.
At U of All People, it pays to be creative. At least, that’s what we’re banking on. Google and Microsoft are looking for creative people. Any successful startup in the past decade has begun with a couple of creative millennials and a laptop. Not to mention that creative writing is one of the few non-STEM growth industries in academe these days.
With students desperate to find work beyond a gig at Starbucks, you’d think they’d be less inclined to take a workshop that teaches them how to write a ghazal -- but no. Five years ago, the creative writing program at U of All People swallowed the English department in a semi-hostile takeover and now offers courses in Shakespeare and Creativity, How to Read and Write Poetry Like Sylvia Plath, and Advanced Hemingway and Faulkner Workshops. Business is good.
Of course, in its perpetual quest to boost enrollments, our administration has finally caught on to what sells seats. As of fall 2017, every department and program must have at least one course with some form of the term “creative” in its title. To attract maximum numbers, some departments have even hired copywriters for their course descriptions. Herewith, a sampling of the coming offerings:
JNLSM 220: Journalism and the Creative Edge. Got a good story to tell? Though short-form journalism was taken over by fake reporting years ago, a slavish adherence to the facts still hobbles many major news stories. Find out how to harness the power of your imagination and report what might or ought to have happened instead.
MATH 123: Beat the Curve: How to Be Creative with Statistics. If one person in a group of 100 says she’ll vote one way, and then another person joins her, that’s a 100 percent increase. Don’t like the figures? Take a look at our bar charts!
CHEM 105: Creative Chemistry in Motion. Mix something white with something black and get something purple. Or find out just what nitric acid will eat through! Never mind balancing chemical equations -- be a creative chemist! We even have cool new synergistic test tubes.
SOC 226: Big-Time Funny: Sociology and the Creativity of Humor. What makes people laugh and why? In this hands-on not-quite-lab, we make up our own jokes and try them out on each other. Prizes for the best chuckle analysis.
HIST 201: Who Won What? Getting Creative with History. Why memorize dates and names when you can create video games based on famous battles? Who’ll win the battle of Gettysburg this time? Extra gore, please!
ANTHRO 116: Creative Anthropologists Do It in the Field. What makes different cultures creative? We don’t really know, but we get mighty creative in our guesswork. Maybe it’s something tribal -- or based on urban legends.
ECON 157: Buy! Sell! Supply and Demand for Creativity. Line up five economists and get six different opinions -- now that’s creative! The secret is in our models. No, it’s in the GNP! Check out our economic role-playing app at www.uap.edu/econ.
LING 145: On the Tip of My Tongue: Speech and Creativity. What’s another word for snow? And another? And another? Isn’t this fun? Does it mean anything that snow spells wons backwards?
SPAN 222: Forget the Verb Forms -- Just tell the Story in Creative Spanish. Most upper level language courses have you learn more about the culture that speaks the language, but in this course, you write flash fiction in Spanish. Create your own story -- en español!
PHIL 206: Nothingness, Logic, and Creativity. In this seminar, students learn to argue for propositions based on sheer nonsense. Nothing is more fun than that! Get it? Get it!
ENGL 333: Chaucer Studies. The Canterbury Tales, The Parliament of Fowls and Troilus and Criseyde. Midterm and research paper; class participation essential. [This course has been CANCELED for lack of creativity.]
David Galef directs the creative writing program at Montclair State University. His latest book, Brevity: A Flash Fiction Handbook, was recently published by Columbia University Press.
All year long, I eagerly await the year-end lists of superlatives. And, throughout December, I devote whole days to crafting my list of New Year’s resolutions.
Even more than the “naughty or nice” lists of Christmas, New Year’s Day, for me, wins the prize as Holiday with the Most Lists.
This year, I nominate the Harvard University soccer team’s “scouting report” for Most Tasteless List of 2016. As a gay poet, I viewed this particular list with an outsider’s rubbernecked inquisitiveness. I saw the report as part of a degenerate literary tradition of cataloging, indexing and registering.
Likewise, back in 2012, when Mitt Romney blundered by bragging about his “binders full of women,” I recalled that many poets had produced such binders.
Among them: the late-medieval French writer Christine de Pizan, author of The Book of the City of Ladies (an archive of stories about exemplary women like the Amazons, Sappho, Dido, the Virgin Mary, etc.). De Pizan’s proto-feminist project took a cue from the 14th-century Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio, whose On Famous Women had sought to recuperate the reputation of women. And Chaucer, with The Legend of Good Women, parodied the whole genre of medieval lady lists.
To this list of binders, I might add Charles Bukowski’s sex novel, Women. And I cross-reference Women with books that painstakingly index gambling debts, hangovers and menial jobs.
Those writers all felt the influence of one of the greatest list makers: Dante. I discern in the author of The Divine Comedy the spirit of someone possessed by a scholastic frenzy for compartmentalizing, codifying and classifying. Dante’s masterpiece is like a neatly arranged filing cabinet (three drawers, nine folders, with each folder listing afterlife denizens).
Dante offers a stunning rebuke to all those who slander bureaucracy as soulless. His poetry illustrates how the apparent tedium of list making can express the raging passions of heaven or hell, or someplace in between.
Each time I must deal with a bureaucratic snafu, I pray to Dante -- patron saint of bureaucratic beauty.
Sometimes collecting a list -- or recollecting one -- can reaffirm our humanity. Dante’s lists helped to sustain Primo Levi. In Survival in Auschwitz, when Levi and a fellow prisoner recite from the Inferno, the poem provides them with a rare moment of normalcy.
Dante, by leading readers through intricate lists and toward his beloved Beatrice, suggests that the practice of list making, in and of itself, bears upon the great philosophical questions (like death and sex and power).
List making is an anthropological universal, and the desire to make lists speaks to a fundamental human need. Lists, by embodying a rational order, appeal to our nature as embodied, rational creatures (creatures who are all too prone to misusing our highest faculties, like when we make distasteful lists).
Note that some lists are frivolous. In Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, T. S. Eliot calls the roll of various cutie-pie felines.
But other lists are foundational. Perhaps American poetry begins with Leaves of Grass, an all-consuming compendium.
Emily Dickinson, too, was “inebriate” of lists, as she would have put it. Narrating her famous postmortem carriage ride, Dickinson lists the earthly phenomena that she leaves behind her:
We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess -- in the Ring --
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain --
We passed the Setting Sun --
Some other examples to add to this list of important poetic lists:
Paradise Lost flips through Milton’s rolodex of demons, devils and demigods.
The Iliad recites a who’s who of heroic warriors.
The Hebrew Bible is a profound series of lists (e.g., of the days of creation; of various domestic dysfunctions; of plagues and sins; of wars and kings and songs and laws).
Supposedly, W. H. Auden held that all poetry begins from a love of making lists.
But something sinister lurks beneath the will to compile lists. As Hannah Arendt suggested in her discussion of totalitarianism, the list maker’s art -- though apparently banal -- can grease the wheels of bloody regimes.
A list of objectionable lists might include: slave galley manifests, Nixon’s enemies list, McCarthy’s alleged list of State Department Communists and the blacklist, as well as the works of the Marquis de Sade. De Sade critiqued the Enlightenment with long, detailed lists of sexual tortures. His lists exposed the wicked potential of reason’s will to define and enumerate. Indeed, perhaps such lists impugn the form of the list itself.
In the case of the “scouting report,” this list might attest to the barbarism latent in male bonding. Perhaps this list reflects an innate, masculine impulse to dominate. Boys, after all, often obsess about baseball card collections and merit badges. And men often obsess about tallies of conquests, stock reports and sports statistics.
Someone familiar with Michel Foucault might develop an argument about how -- by translating the oral discourse of “locker-room talk” into the textual discourse of a written list -- the report actually renders male sexual aggression more susceptible to modern regimes of discipline.
But I have no expertise in such matters, and I certainly have no moral credibility. After all, a list of my privileges would have to include my gender, and a list of my sins would have to count up -- along with my prurience -- many instances of pride, avarice, greed and lechery.
But list making is my favorite vice. I seize upon any opportunity to compose lists. I love to craft to-do lists, grocery lists and Christmas present lists. I enjoy composing lesson plans, syllabi and bibliographies. I once wrote an erotic memoir, in which successive chapters chronicle each of my African-American ex-boyfriends (to be released this February as an ebook for Black History Month). And my life’s work is an ongoing project called The Book-Title List Book, in which I record titles for books that I have titled but will decline to write.
Along with these lists, I’m enchanted by list-like practices (such as exercise routines, the Rosary and grading papers). Procrastinating, I spend afternoons reading Wikipedia’s “List of lists of lists.”
I identify, therefore, with my fellow list makers. Just last semester, Harvard University’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences informed me by email that they had not included my name on their short list of candidates for an open professorship. More than feeling slighted, I swooned with enthusiasm for the fact of the list itself.
And I wondered about the other lists that Harvard might have consulted while making the decision to suspend its soccer team (for example, alumni donor lists).
Even writing this now, I prefer list making to analysis and argument. Then again, list making actually implies analysis. To make a list is to impose hierarchy, organization, order.
I have fallen captive to the spell of the list. Therefore, as I compose my list of New Year’s resolutions, I vow that this year, 2017, will be the year that I fully embrace my love of the list.
A. W. Strouse is a poet who teaches medieval literature at the City University of New York.
So you’ve published a paper on monetary theory, snagged that fellowship for research in Rome or received an award for best teacher of the year. Or maybe you’ve just served on seven committees this past semester, from tenure review to curriculum reform, and colleagues ought to appreciate that.
But they don’t, at least not to your face. And the pathetic “Faculty News” page of your department website just doesn’t cut it. (Take a look at the listing for Professor Dale’s publication in Southwest Annandale Historical Society Notes: doubly out of date, since both the professor and the journal are extinct.)
You want to be known as the foremost expert on forensic linguistics or the one who got a National Endowment for the Humanities grant to study Rilke -- back in 2011, but still. What to do? Think of Berkeley’s famous proposition, applied to academics: “If a paper is published in a journal and no one knows about it, does it make a sound?” Is it OK to toot your own horn? In this era of Facebook, are you kidding?
Consider the humblebrag, a seemingly modest utterance that’s actually a boast. The British have excelled in this charming self-deprecation for centuries: “Oh, I don’t suppose many people were in the running this year,” for instance, to explain why you won the London marathon. Only this is higher education in 2016, with access to Twitter.
Think brassier, think of that academic review coming up in 2017, and think within a 140-character limit:
Gosh, if I don’t send in that manuscript to Oxford by this fall, they’re gonna kill me!
I don’t see how I’m going to get any work done during my fellowship in Belize.
Darned if I know why the Fulbright committee chose my proposal over so many deserving others.
You know, if it weren’t for all the grateful letters that I’ve gotten from students over the years, I’d’ve given up teaching a long time ago.
Never mind all my publications. The Smoot Teaching Award I got this year makes me realize what really matters in life.
I keep thinking there must be some mistake: Why would the Guggenheim committee even consider my work on medieval stairways?
You know, I never set out to write a best seller. Everyone knows what people in academe think of that.
Promotion to full professor isn’t much, I guess, but I try to see it as an affirmation of all I’ve done here.
I don’t anticipate the deanship will give me much power, but I do intend to take the responsibility seriously.
It’s not fashionable to talk about service, I know, which is why I don’t discuss all the behind-the-scenes work I do for the college.
All that work for such a simple title: provost.
I’m sure plenty of people could have delivered the keynote address at this conference, but I’m the one who got suckered into it.
They said I’m the youngest program director they’ve ever had -- must be their code word for inexperienced.
The students in my econ class all say that I’m their favorite teacher, but you know what that means.
As an adjunct, I could just phone in my performance, but I always have to put in 200 percent. Sigh. That’s just me.
That’s what I told Mike -- I mean, the chancellor. No idea why he listens to me. Hey, I’m just custodial staff.
David Galef directs the creative writing program at Montclair State University. His latest book, Brevity: A Flash Fiction Handbook, has just come out from Columbia University Press.
Professor Will Knott, English Defaultment, School of Obsolete Practices
Professor Neura Gîme, English Default Chair, U of All People
Date: Monday, Jan 4, 2016, at 10:00 AM
Subject: New Year’s Resolutions
Looking back on a tumultuous fall semester, I can see now that I may have made a few missteps. Some were acts of omission, such as such as neglecting to upload my grades from Spring 2015. Others were admittedly more commission, such as my metaphor emailed to the Faculty Senate, noting that, if brains were fuel, they wouldn’t have enough gas to drive an ant’s motorcycle around the inside of a Cheerio. Of course, I can’t take back what’s happened, especially since some of that has gone on the web. But New Year’s is a time for making resolutions, and here are mine:
1. I will try to be more aware of students’ sensitivities concerning classroom “hot” topics. Though I still think that the classroom is no place for figurative hand-holding, issuing a dozen trigger alerts per class, yes, probably does make a mockery of the system. And no one seems to like my attempts at satire.
2. As for open communication with the higher-ups, I suppose there’s really no need for me to air a scheduling grievance from a decade ago, especially with a dean who came to U of All People in 2014.
3. I should stop playing Spider Solitaire on my laptop at faculty meetings, especially since it wakes Arvy Winkle, sitting slumped next to me. I could take up Candy Crush, but it would be kinder to focus on the business at hand, even if it’s just another rigged clicker vote.
4. It’s time for me to show up for my virtual advising hours, though I’m still annoyed at the dozen students who crowdsourced a complaint, as well as that little creep who actually made an appointment and then stood me up when I did pose in front of the webcam. Maybe I also should switch from the current slot of Thursday 9:00-11:00 p.m.
5. I really must vary course material more. My Contemporary American Literature class, which I’ve taught for many years, still stops at Jack Kerouac. Who’s Jonathan Safran Foer? At least revise the Am Lit II survey final exam, which apparently has been posted on Facebook since 2011.
6. Do a little outreach, that stuff the provost keeps pushing to improve the school’s crappy PR. If Earl F. Oxford can teach Shakespeare at the library, I’m sure I could record a podcast on Kerouac to be made available at the local correctional facility.
7. Volunteer for more committee work. The Committee on Digital Media doesn’t really count, since we never received a budget. And the last time the Salary Committee met was in 2007.
8. Do more research and writing. I feel guilty about not getting back to my book about Kerouac’s typewriter, which I started in 2002. Maybe I should just turn it into a longish essay on Kerouac, or maybe just finish up that poem about a typewriter that my wife once said she liked. I could post it on my blog, Knott Kidding.
9. Forget old grudges. That implies saying hello to old Curt Mudgeon, who hasn’t spoken a word to me since our falling-out over some issue that, for the life of me, I can’t recall. Must I also be nice to the department office manager who ratted me out over the photocopy paper?
10. Remember to smile more, especially in class. “Prof Knot look like he take botox lol!” read a Snapchat post that someone forwarded me. Despite all my complaints, I do like my job, and at this stage in my life, I feel eminently suited to be a professor.
After all, who else besides academia would hire me?
David Galef directs the creative writing program at Montclair State University. His latest book is Kanji Poems.
At this September’s address to the minions at U of All People, the provost announced a new initiative: to become a Research I institution within the next 10 years (though the head of the Faculty Senate stage-whispered that this particular term is outdated). The next day came a correction: U of All People will become a doctoral/research-extensive or -intensive university -- or at least feature one doctoral program that’s not just in the planning stage, for chrissake (this from the Faculty Senate head, who has since been replaced by a marble bust of Sophocles).
But the idea is gaining currency here. Research schools get more money, enjoy more prestige and are eligible for reduced faculty teaching loads, so hey, why not?
First off, it’s obvious that we need a better library or information resource center or whatever they’re calling it nowadays. The Crabbe Memorial Library, built in 1955, looks its age. Never mind the decaying infrastructure or the mold problem, which a good dose of bleach could probably fix.
The collections are haphazard, depending on the discipline of the library liaison faculty member in any given year -- 67 volumes about trains, for example, from a history professor writing a book on 19th-century transportation -- and periodicals oddly slanted toward the psychology department. We have more microfilm readers than computer terminals, and you can count our databases on the fingers of one maimed hand. Though we have access to the Academics ’R’ Us search service, it barely yields results for anything beyond the last three years. Of course, we could subscribe to something like Lexis/Nexis/Protexis, but that costs. Maybe we can share expenses with the high school library in Francis, the next town over.
Second, we’d like a lower course load so that people can teach less and research more, “a chimerical idea” (comment by the provost) that the Faculty Senate has been pushing for 40 years. Our current 4/4 load doesn’t include the mandatory faculty tutoring for students at risk, implemented back in 2000, or the service requirement that involves a weekly fund-raising activity (last week, sitting in the Bean a Prof carnival booth for five bucks a shot).
More to the point: it’s difficult to pursue a research agenda when you have a stack of ungraded essays as high as an administrator’s desk. It’s been suggested that doctoral programs will allow us to recruit graduate students for slave labor teaching. It’s also been suggested, if we pursue that path, that we closely examine the Bolshevik Revolution for precedents.
Third, we need better funding for research. Ha-ha! Ah, ha-ha … cgha ghh [indecipherable coughing sound]. The Office of Research at U of All People consists of a converted janitorial closet that now houses a laptop and a guy named Dale, when he’s around. Grants are broadcast the month after their deadlines, and the last time this school saw an NEH proposal supported was back in 2006, when something accidentally got forwarded from the vice provost’s Outlook Express account.
The Summer Support Program at U of All People has been downgraded to Research Weekend. The annual grants proposal workshop, which once provided free coffee and pretzels, is now an online Q & A session with the biology department’s Professor Theodore Winkler, who once got a fellowship for something and is happy to share what little he knows.
Fourth, a Research I -- make that an expensive research institution -- should offer a full range of baccalaureate programs, at least according to the Carnegie Foundation, which should spend a day walking in our shoes. In fact, it might be nice to expand our range or update what we already offer, like the home economics program remastered as food services and management, or bring back the philosophy degree, abandoned after a survey showed that none of our three philosophy majors ever donated a dime to our coffers after graduation. We sort of envy U Too, the all-digital university that offers every online degree imaginable and some unimaginable.
Fifth, we need to award a lot of doctoral degrees, but that’s difficult when we don’t even have doctoral programs. Maybe offer a doctoral program in doctorology? All we have is a baby M.A. program in a few departments that shunt their students off to God knows where after they graduate. Perhaps other research institutions should be granting -- wonderful verb -- fewer Ph.D.s. That’s not our problem. We can’t award any degrees till we get the programs, we can’t feature the programs till we get support and we won’t get any support until we figure a way out of this catch-22.
But who knows? Maybe one day, U of All People will decide to give real research a shot and somehow buck the odds, up the standards and make the grade -- in which case, there’ll probably be some professors nostalgic for the old days, when all you had to do was sit in place in a carnival booth and get beaned by a host of resentful undergraduates.
David Galef directs the creative writing program at Montclair State University. His latest book is Kanji Poems.