Thursday, July 21, 2005


Louis, if you're reading this from some place else, please forgive me for saying that you were the coolest professor of literature I ever had. Maybe it's just my dorky whiteness speaking. But it is mine, and it comes here to pay homage to you, to bear witness to what you meant to me.

I remember your quiet poise in the classroom, intense yet receptive, warm. I remember some of your white shirts and mellow, worn blue jeans. For years now, as I wandered the department stores each August looking for a new shirts and pants to start the new semester, I've always thought that maybe I'd find a white shirt like yours. With the right pair of jeans, and some brown shoes, maybe I could communicate the quiet peace that enveloped me when I was in your presence. I didn't look for the nice, thin ties and dark silk shirts of the other male professors I had; I thought of your strong arms coming through white sleeves, solid and confident, true like the bark of a tree. Although I only took one course with you, you really stayed with me. You came to symbolize the quiet strength I thought I might embody some day.

Around 2001, I began thinking about you in earnest, more consciously. I had made the "big time" as a professor at Famous U and was working on a project that would finally bring my scholarship into the stream of the Native American Studies you introduced me to. I wondered how you would react to having me reappear and ask you for advice. If all went well with our preliminary contact via email, I would come for a visit at the University of New Mexico to say hi and show you what I was doing. I wanted to show you how far I had come since you last saw me.

For these reasons, I could not believe you ended your own life. I could not fathom how such darkness could touch your life, much less control it and bring it to an end. Although I hardly knew you, and hardly had the right to stake a claim on the grief of your friends and family, I felt like you had let me down.

From time to time, I see that some students come to admire me. They construct me in their minds in ways I'll never really appreciate or understand. I feel the love and it's a great feeling that's a part of the ebb and flow of my year-to-year life as an academic. Yet, they misunderstand me as much I misunderstood you, Louis. They don't really know who I am, they only know the parts of me that shine through when I teach: the thrill of the intellectual chase, the humor, the energy. They know me as a leader, a role model, a symbol for something. And that thing may have nothing to do with me when I am at home alone, in the dark, thinking about my life and what it can do, what it wants and what it cannot do. They don't know my true dark and my true light.

In spite of this natural and universal disjunction, I wish you had found a way to channel all of the love and respect your students had for you into an affirmation of your own life-force. But through your obituaries and homages I've learned that your life was much fuller and more interesting than what I had imagined, even as I idolized you in my own frivolous way. If there was dark that I could not fathom, there were also reservoirs of light I had not imagined either.

Louis, as the anniversary of your death nears this week (How could I forget? Sadly, it's on my birthday), I want to say that I still remember you. I'm not thin enough for white shirts to look so good on me, and I haven't quite found the right shirt to be honest. But I've dumped most of the dockers for good in favor of jeans. I still believe in you and cherish the memory of your thoughtful, warm gaze. And I believe in words, like you did with so much passion, even if, for one terrible moment, you forgot to do so, and left us behind.

Rest in Peace Professor.

This post is in memory of Professor Louis Owens (1948-2002), who was one of the brightest lights in Native American Literature. Owens was also an accomplished novelist and essayist with numerous books to his name. Owens' last collection of essays is I Hear the Train: Reflections, Inventions, Refractions, and Jacquelyn Kilpatrick has just edited the book Louis Owens Literary Reflections on His Life and Work.

Thursday, July 14, 2005


In June, I did an independent study to help some of my department's graduate students meet the theory requirement in our Master's Program. Often, our students meet their theory requirement in a seminar that is taught in a different department, but in this case, because of a serious misunderstanding with the professor of the seminar, the students dropped out. To help them graduate on time, I stepped in to help them meet the requirement.

By the time they showed up to my office in June, these students were pretty discouraged by the theory requirement. They did not understand theory and they strongly disliked their former professor of theory. They hungered for a more telegraphed approach in which the professor would help them understand what was in the text, as opposed to implementing the amorphous format of having graduate students dominate the discussion with what they considered to be half-baked, biased or partial readings of the material. They wanted to understand theory and did not understand why this and other professors in the department seemed so reluctant to just lay it out. Some of this frustration might be attributed to the fact that these students are Master's students who do not plan on going on to a Ph.D. degree. I suppose that one could say that their investment, as working people seeking an M.A., is not the same as the investment I felt when I was a student in a Ph.D. program, and attribute their complaints to a lack of intellectual drive.

But wait a minute... I too had had this experience in my Cultural Studies Ph.D. program. And when I taught theory in my literature seminars at Famous U, with ambitious Ph.D. students with alot more academic experience, they complained of the same thing! For this reason, my detailed discussion of key passages and the outlines I prepared were warmly received. But I went a step further--I challenged theory while I taught it. When teaching queer studies, I included conservative critiques of identity politics. When discussing postmodernisms, I set marxist readings against poststructuralist ones, essentialist arguments against decentered ones. I used comics and t.v. shows and Blade Runner (of course) to make theory fun. Most importantly, I tried to communicate to my students that theory was not a generic, agreed upon secret club of forbidding codes, but a vital debate with real and distinct positions. I agree with Scott Kaufman and Jonathan Mayhew, among others, who are prodding theory in a similar way in their on-line writings.

I won't mislead you: I'm not very theoretical. My work has been praised by colleagues in the field (reader's reports) for clarity and a resistance to jargon. My work is very historical and I enjoy "painting with words" more than self-consciously engaging theory in my work. I tire of drawn out theoretical debates because I need things to be still so that I can grasp them or put them into focus. And I can't be passionate about theory. I don't believe in it. For me, theory at best guides scholarship to a different object, like scaffolding falling away from a structure when it begins to take shape and acquire stability. For these reasons, and most especially my difficulties in absorbing theory in graduate school, I have been able to "get into" theory when I've had to teach it. My students have forced me to discover and understand theory, so that I could help them be less afraid of it. Unburdened by the insecurities and weird dynamics of graduate school, and energized by the creative freedom my position afforded me, I was able to teach theory to myself and enjoy some of the results in the classroom. It also helped that I could appreciate, and mostly anticipate the difficulties students had with theory. A little empathy went a long way.

My days teaching traditional graduate students are over for the foreseable future, and so it is with a twinge of sadness that I see some of the opportunities for pedagogical and intellectual growth that I had at Famous U, like teaching theory, come to an end. Now, my M.A. students offer me a very different kind of professional and personal reward than the pleasure and affirmation of seeing a mentee finish a Ph.D. and go on to be a success as a university professor. (I never had that experience and may never have it.) So this independent study on theory brought some of the memories of that other life back, and reminded me of how necessary it is for professors to really guide their students through the labyrinth.

The problem with theory, in my opinion, is not theory itself, but the refusal to face it square on. The inert, unfocussed discussions of a few graduate students among themselves in a theory seminar, with minimal intervention by the professor, propagates apathy, resistance or tremendous insecurities in what may be the majority of students. Such pedagogy fosters the "impostor syndrome." And the continued dissemination of theory as a heavy, compact object (like those awful, expensive theory anthologies that are used in seminars) rather than as a cacophony of voices best understood in individual, separate and often contradictory strands, makes graduate programs in literature more difficult and painful than they have to be.

That's what I think, but I'm not much of a theory-head.

Monday, July 11, 2005


GOOGLE PRINT is an interesting search engine. I had heard about the Google plan to digitize libraries (Jared writes about it here; Rory Litwin critiques its implications here) but I was unaware of what searching Google Print could do for me until recently. I have used it to track some pretty obscure research items in the current scholarship by doing full text key word searches that scan thousands of recent books. Now, Google Print only allows you to see a few pages worth of hits, but even so, that and the "search within the book" feature in the engine, can be an invaluable way of identifying books that may be of use. In this regard, Google Print also promises to help authors of scholarly monographs reach their specialized audience, as Irish Studies publisher Mike Collins persuasively argues here (for this reason, I wish that my book were in Google Print, but apparently --of course, because it is me, after all-- my publisher is not contracted with them).

SEARCHABLE DATABASES LIKE JSTOR, ACADEMIC SEARCH PREMIERE, HISTORICAL ABSTRACTS have enabled me to compile full text PDFs of and bibliographical references for hundreds of articles that would have been much more slower in coming if I had to rely on my ILL service of my campus library. Not only has this made class preparation much easier (for example with regards to coursepackets), but it has sped up my research time.

SUBSCRIPTION AND FREE FULL TEXT DATABASES have enabled me to do archival research without spending thousands of dollars to travel out of the country. I don't get alot of research support at the U and I don't have the liquidity necessary to fund these trips on my own yet (gotta get outta debt and into a house by 2007!) Being able to download full-text PDFs of old newspaper articles and such has helped me to uncover some incredible information that has helped me publish recently. (The Evans Digital project is particularly exciting for Americanists, but unfortunately it won't take individual subscribers--if you're not at a select few institutions you can't get easy access.)

JUST FOR FOOLIN' AROUND Amazon's search within the book feature is a hoot. For example, take Homi Bhabha's The Location of Culture and do the concordance search. It will give you a list of the 100 most used words in the book. In this case:

act agency always ambivalence authority becomes between black book colonial come community cultural culture demand desire difference discourse discursive does double effect emerges english enunciation fanon form foucault historical history human ibid identification identity image india itself knowledge language location london man may meaning modern modernity moment must narrative nation national native new nor object once people place point political politics position postcolonial power pp presence present press problem process produces question relation repetition representation see sense sign simply social society space strategy structure subject suggest temporality terms theory time translation truth turns university western white without words world writing

Kinda like the Homi Bhaba poetry refrigerator magnet set! Other stats include (as explained in the Amazon webpage):

* The Fog Index was developed by Robert Gunning. It indicates the number of years of formal education required to read and understand a passage of text. A score between 7 and 8 is considered ideal, while a score above 12 is considered difficult to read. Bhaba scored 18! (He's not called Holy Babble by some for no reason at all!)

* The Flesch Index, developed in 1940 by Dr. Rudolph Flesch, is another indicator of reading ease. The score returned is based on a 100 point scale, with 100 being easiest to read. Scores between 90 and 100 are appropriate for 5th and 6th graders, while a college degree is considered necessary to understand text with a score between 0 and 30. Bhaba=25.

* The Flesch-Kincaid Index is a refinement to the Flesch Index that tries to relate the score to a U.S. grade level. For example, text with a Flesch-Kincaid score of 10.1 would be considered suitable for someone with a 10th grade or higher reading level. Bhaba=15.5 (wha? Grade 15? Second Semester of Junior Year in College?)

UPDATE: Check out Scott Eric Kaufman's discussion of Statistically Improbable Phrases in Faulkner here.

Ridiculous stuff? I don't know. I think the Concordance feature is cool (the 100 most used words feature). It does get to the essence of something real but difficult to quantify in a book.

PARTING THOUGHTS The problem with these tools, particularly Google Print and the Full Text Databases is that full text searching removes the frame of reference that actual handling of documents and ephemera allows, whether original or on microfilm. Those frames can be really important (for example, what appears on a different page of a newspaper, a page that did not give you a hit).

Now that I think about it, I'm amazed at how much of my scholarship is dependent on a new and growing bag of tech tricks.

Friday, July 01, 2005

AMERICAN LIT ROCKS! (19th Century Edition)

In continuation of my last post (Walt Whitman Set to Music) here are some questions to ponder from the Pop Culture Desk, re: iconic authors, titles and characters set to music.

1. Is there something in Emily Dickinson's poetry that makes her anathema to Rock and Popular music appropriations? Other than the operetta CD "Oh No Not Emily" by Totally Honest Productions, I can't find any music about her.

2. I'm not a professor of American Literature. Let me get that out of the way before I say that Huckleberry Finn is, in my opinion, a much better novel than Tom Sawyer. I was pretty sure the literary establishment agreed, but musicians seems to prefer Tom Sawyer over Huckleberry Finn. Once again, is there something in Huck that is resistant to popular consumption? The most famous song of the bunch is "Tom Sawyer" by Rush, which paints Tom like a mean mother with a mean stride. It includes lyrics like: "A modern-day warrior/Mean mean stride,/Today's Tom Sawyer/Mean mean pride." Wow! And this is a popular anthem; it has been re-recorded by Deadsy, Mindless Self Indulgence and Dominic Cifarelli. Other songs on Tom include Sam Swaim's instrumental "Sawyer's Dream," which can be heard here ; the bouncy banjo piece with a great Americana feel "Mississippi Sawyer," which Tom Adams has recorded; and "Tom Sawyer and the Man By His Side" by Jeremy Schonfeld, which is moody and melancholy in a piano kind of way.

Incidentally, Mark Twain seems to inspire a more profound and somber kind of stance from musicians. Michale Joy's "Mark Twain" is folksy and profound-like, while Rob Henke and the Washington Street Players make their "Mark Twain" classy and jazzy. "Mark Twain" by Dyllan Young rocks, but in a somber kind of way and "Mark Twain" by the Kingston Trio sounds like gazebo music from DisneyLand (it actually makes you want to buy a peach ice cream cone and prance around in white pants.) It is nice that Bryan Clark's Mark Twain song deals with its subject matter indirectly, like Deep Blue Something's "Breakfast at Tiffany's; Clark titles his song "Hotel Mark Twain" and the lyrics may be found on his homepage (in the music section).

Finally, did you know that there's a cool band called Mark Twain's Dog!

3. Is there something inherently edgy about Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter? Because Jag Panzer's "The Scarlet Letter" (lyrics)and "Scarlet Letter" by Leslie Nuss really ROCK in a head-banging kind of way. Other songs include "Scarlet Letters" by Kiss Offs and Jon Gorey's anthem-like "The Scarlet Letter" (lyrics, scroll down) is a great Boston Red Sox song that has little to do with Hester Prynne (which perhaps explains why it's pretty good). Maybe there's something softer and more New-Age out there, but I haven't found it yet. Hawthorne seems to rock. Why?

Interesting patterns.