Thursday, July 30, 2009

Nice to see public liberal arts colleges get a little love, at InsideHigherEd.

Both the Beloved Alma Mater and Misnomer University arguably fall into this category -- or at least they did for many decades -- and I think this type of school fills a vitally important niche. I'm not quite as sanguine as Spellman about the future, because I've seen both institutions suffering under the pressure to become bigger! And more research-oriented! And more cost-efficient! And more vocational! And more standardized! And bigger! They have reacted to these pressures in opposite ways, the Beloved Alma Mater by "trying to become Princeton" as the Laid-Back Medievalist put it when I went back for my college reunion, and Misnomer U. by tipping closer and closer to becoming Yet Another Regional Comprehensive.

I'm also not as enthusiastic about vocational programs as Spellman is; I think they can work as part of a quality integrated liberal-arts program, but it takes a particular institutional culture and a lot of careful advising to make sure that they do. Students like the nursing major who took my upper-level Shakespeare class last semester, who wasn't the best writer in the class but was really talkative and enthusiastic and obviously very much into Shakespeare, even though the course probably made it harder for him to fulfill his program's requirements? Yeah, I want more students like that. But more often, I'm seeing a huge gulf in attitude and intellectual curiosity between the education, nursing, and business students and the ones drawn to more traditional arts and sciences majors, and the advisors in the vocational programs do not seem to be doing much to bridge that gap; if anything, they seem to encourage students to think of the liberal arts core requirements as a series of stupid boxes that need to be checked off. (And, to be fair, the whole structure of the core curriculum reinforces this world-view; I would like to see fewer tick-boxes and a chance for students to pursue work in a few complementary disciplines at a higher level, rather than taking a dozen unrelated intro-level courses.)

But this is turning into a nitpicking-and-grumbling post, and I don't mean it to be, because I do believe my institution is providing something valuable. I believe it is a place where it's easier for students to know their professors than not to know them, and I also believe that the features Spellman identifies as the hallmarks of a quality liberal arts education -- "small class size, close faculty-student interaction, an innovative and interdisciplinary common core in the arts and sciences, undergraduate research experiences, senior capstone projects, service learning and community engagement, and a rich and diverse co-curricular life" -- are the norm for all of our students and not just a hundred lucky souls in the Honors College. And I believe, most of all, that this type of institution needs to be an option within the state system, because for many of our students, going out of state or going to a private college simply isn't thinkable. (And yes, I know some private SLACs hand out financial aid like candy, but you have to apply first, and nobody has ever told them they can apply.)

Yeah. I think I believe in what I do. And that's a good way to feel at the beginning of a new year.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrog

Krak krak krak krak krak krak krak...

You know, I chose this apartment partly because of the pleasant natural setting. (Well, that and the fact that it had a swimming pool and didn't have cockroach corpses all over the floor, unlike the other three apartments I looked at. I am not much of a housekeeper, but I do have standards, occasionally.) I did not really think about how it was at the bottom of an embankment, and how water runs downhill, but I'm not sure that I would have made much of these facts if I had stopped to think about them.

When I discovered, on my second day of residence, that there were tiny little toads in the breezeway at night, I was rather charmed. I was even more charmed when I found the suction-cup frog climbing the windowpane. (I do not know what the scientific name of the suction-cup frog may be, but I am amazed at its feet.)

But, really? Is it too much to ask for an occasional night's sleep that isn't interrupted by the sounds of amorous amphibians? And do they have to sing all day as well, especially when it's raining, which is often? Are these, like, twenty-four-hour party frogs?

Krak krak krak krak krak krak krak...

I swear some of them are inside the walls. Is that even possible? Am I going to wake up one morning and find the toilet full of tadpoles?

Krak krak krak krak krak krak krak...

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Summer reading: Thomas of Reading, by Thomas Deloney

Actually, I have just read or re-read all of Deloney's prose fiction in the last week and a half, as that appears to be the sort of thing I do when I'm avoiding actual writing, but I shall restrain myself and tell you about only one of them. You want to hear about the one with the serial-killing innkeepers, right? I thought so.

Stuff That Happens: In the reign of Henry I, there are nine merry and industrious clothiers in England, all of whom become very rich. Much of the text consists of the loosely connected, jest-book-style adventures of the clothiers, their wives, and their servants, as well as other eccentric characters such as Old Bosom the landlord "who, being a foul sloven, went always with his nose in his bosom, and one hand in his pocket, the other on his staf, figuring forth a description of cold winter. For he always wore two coats, two caps, two or three pair of stockings, and a high pair of shoes, over the which he drew on a great pair of lined slippers; and yet he would oft complain of cold." (I am inclined to suspect Dickens of taking lessons from Deloney, although he presumably wouldn't share Deloney's view that sending six-year-olds to work in a cloth factory is absolutely fine and dandy and a great way for the poor to provide for their children.) The clothiers get along well with the king, who comes to see their industry as the backbone of the English nation; they feast him, he grants their petitions, and it's all very harmonious as long as you don't try to steal cloth in Halifax, in which case the king allows you to be executed without a trial.

There's also a subplot concerning Margaret, the earl of Shrewsbury's daughter, whose father has been driven into exile for supporting the king's rebellious brother, Duke Robert of Normandy. She hires herself out as a maidservant to Goodwife Gray of Gloucester, the wife of one of the clothiers. Duke Robert catches sight of her while she's haymaking, falls madly in love with her, and persuades her to elope with him.

And then, in the last twenty pages or so, things get Seriously Weird. Thomas Cole of Reading, one of the clothiers, makes the mistake of frequenting an inn run by murderers. They have a special death chamber built for the purpose, with a bed that flips down through a trapdoor and dumps its occupants into a boiling cauldron, and have done away with sixty of their guests already -- but they don't find it easy to do away with Thomas, whose death is repeatedly prevented by a series of Arden of Faversham-style mishaps. Death omens proliferate; Thomas has a vision of the host with his hands all bloody, and is prompted by Providence to write a will, in which he leaves two hundred pounds to his jolly and improvident colleague, Tom Dove. The host gets cold feet, but his wife prompts him, Lady-Macbeth-style, to go through with the murder. Exit Thomas. Luckily, his horse gets away and prompts Cole's servant to investigate and reveal the murder; the host and hostess of the inn are hanged.

Meanwhile, the king captures Duke Robert and blinds him. Margaret is heartbroken and joins a convent.

Tom Dove has gone broke and been deserted by his servants when Cole's widow arrives to pay his legacy; the other clothiers chip in, and he eventually prospers.

Thoughts: There is a LOT here about social contracts. King Henry, portrayed as an ideal ruler (apart from that little affair of blinding his brother!) argues that “The strength of a king is the love and friendship of his people, and he governs over his realm most surely that ruleth justice with mercy; for he ought to fear many whom many do fear. Therefore the governors of the commonwealth ought to observe two special precepts: the one is that they so maintain the profit of the commons that whatsoever in their calling they do, they refer it thereunto; the other, that they be always as well careful over the whole commonwealth as over any part thereof, lest while they uphold the one, the other be brought to utter decay." Henry is initially rather annoyed when a long line of wains bearing cloth delays his journey, but almost immediately comes to see the clothiers as his kingdom's greatest asset, as well as personal friends whose proximity he seeks: “Likewise, within the town [of Reading] he after built a fair and goodly castle, in the which he often kept his court, saying to the clothiers that, seeing he found them such faithful subjects, he would be their neighbor and dwell among them."

In the last five chapters, those social contracts start to break down; fault lines appear between master and servant, guest and host, brother and brother, and are only partly repaired. This is particularly evident in Tom Dove's story, as he appeals to his servants: “It is not unknown, though you do not consider it, that I took some of you up from the highway; other some from your needy parents; and brought the rest up from mere beggary to a house of bounty, where from paltry boys I brought you up to man’s estate and have, to my great cost, taught you a trade, whereby you may live like men. And in requital of all my courtesy, cost, and good will, will you now on a sudden forsake me?” The servants reject this in favor of a more pragmatic world-view that emphasizes the economic basis of the relationship: “Because you took us up poor, doth it therefore follow that we must be your slaves? ... If you taught us our trade, and brought us up from boys to men, you had our service for it, whereby you made no small benefit if you had as well used it as we got it. But if you be poor, you may thank yourself, being a just scourge for your prodigality; and it is my opinion plain that to stay with you is the best way to make us like you, neither able to help ourselves nor our friends. Therefore, in brief, come pay me my wages, for I will not stay.” They return to Dove when his wealth is restored, but the cracks in the relationship remain: "And albeit he seemed to forgive their trespasses done against him, yet he would often say he would never trust them for a straw." (Deloney represents Dove's actions as exemplary and the servants as "wicked"; personally, I'm inclined to think the servants have an excellent point.)

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Discontents in Deep South Town

More discontents I never had
Since I was born, than here;
Where I have been, and still am sad,
In this dull Devonshire;
Yet justly too I must confess,
I ne'er invented such
Ennobled numbers for the press
Than where I loathed so much.

-- Robert Herrick

Am back home for the rest of the summer. I am trying out Herrick's formula for literary productivity. I'm not sure it's working.

I don't actually loathe it here -- at least, not yet -- but it is hazy and hot and sleepy, and there are too many strip malls and check-cashing places, and the most happening place in town is the Super WalMart, and the thought of staying here for the next thirty-odd years fills me with a vague sense of dread. I had an idea that this would force me to start revising the dissertation out of sheer boredom, or failing that, to start revising the novel I began a while ago and haven't touched for the last six months. But right at the moment, I can't bring myself to open either file.

Would it be phenomenally stupid for me to retype my entire dissertation, making whatever changes I see fit along the way? On the plus side, this would force me to pay attention to every word, and I would end up with a brand-new M*cros*ft W*rd version, which seems to be what publishers want, rather than an ancient and quirky WordPerfect file which always ends up with screwed-up formatting when I try to convert it. On the other hand, this sounds like it could be a colossal waste of time, and would also require me to actually install W*rd on my home computer, where I don't particularly want it. (Typing it up at the office is not an option, as I cannot have beer at the office. One must observe the decencies.)

Herrick, I'm fairly sure, never faced such a dilemma; but then, Herrick waited until after he had lost his day job to start sending his ennobled numbers for the press, which is a luxury I can't afford.

I think I will go swimming, or maybe pick some blackberries.