Home Sweet Home

A Duck on the Richelieu

Some friends who live in the heart of downtown Montreal went away on vacation and asked the Beav and me to take care of their cats. So we spent the time in their condo having a vacation in Montreal.

It was a nice break and their condo couldn’t be nicer or better situated. We watched and listened to the festival shows from the front room. Museums, cinemas and restaurants were a short walk away. It was the best.

But after two weeks, it’s good to be home.

The Imitation Game

iuAnother movie about a man afflicted by an intelligence that is a disability. This sort of thing is the mirror image of superhero movie intelligence (cf. the Spiderman reboots). Both treat intelligence as magic, but in the one, it costs everything and in the other, nothing.

The root problem is an inability to imagine and to represent the work(ings) of thought.  (Arendt managed it, so it can be done.) Drama and intellect seem caught in a zero sum game in these films, but why must they be?

I think this movie wasn’t terrible. It was just terribly old-fashioned, and the old fashion wasn’t great.

For a variety of reasons, I wanted this particular story to be, well, great.

Teaching GamerGate

Rereading my “What’s Up?” post, I realized I’d never followed up about my decision to assign GamerGate as a topic in my research writing class this past Spring. As a kind of prelude to some other teaching related posts that I’ll be writing in the coming weeks, I’m going to give a brief description of what I saw happening.

What I Planned

The course I was teaching is a standard first exposure to college-level research writing for first-year students. I chose to use GamerGate as the topic for an early unit because it touched on an interest in video games I knew many–and perhaps most–of my students shared. There were also some other advantages. Because GamerGate was on-going at the time, there were no ready-made works students could crib to write their essays. More importantly, because all the sources they would need to use were online, the unit would give me an opportunity to teach them how to find, manage and document the kinds of real world sources they used on a daily basis.

The project was intended to be short, and I scheduled it to run for only three weeks of class time with another week reserved for revising essays before final submission. Feminist Frequency was our starting point: the videos and posts exposed everyone to the intersection of gender and gaming that were at issue. I also provided some articles from The New Yorker, The New York Times and Rolling Stone. From there, students would work to research responses to a variety of questions that came up in our daily discussions. As their final assignment, they were to write a thesis-driven argument about some aspect of GamerGate, a prompt open-ended enough I thought to allow for everyone to find an angle that suited them.

What Happened

It’s hard to think of a topic I’ve broached in a class that was as divisive as this one.

The first day went well. I showed two “Tropes vs Women in Video Games” videos. The women in the class lit up, contributed to discussion, were engaged. Many of the men were hesitant, but excitement about the fact that we were discussing gaming carried the day. A few I think were excited because the topic signalled the class was “easy,” most because games they played and liked appeared on-screen.

I have no way of knowing what happened between the end of that first class and the beginning of the next, but when we next met, the tenor of the class had changed profoundly.

The woman and a handful of the men stopped speaking: they watched and listened attentively, paid close attention to what went on in class, they wrote with real interest and insight–there was in other words, good will–but for the remainder of the project, regardless of the activities I planned, they chose by-and-large to keep quiet, reserving their comments for the page or for small group work.

Many of the remaining students were now sitting sideways in seats. They whispered quickly to each other in response to class activities but rarely to the group. When doing work in class, they suddenly demanded detailed instructions in order to do things as simple as web searching or navigating basic web pages. They resisted doing more than reporting factual answers to questions. Were they even listening? I couldn’t tell. In these and many other small ways, they seemed to be setting up obstacles to their participation and expressing what I took to be frustration.


When students react badly to material, you cope by improvising and experimenting. You try to find the areas of the topic they are willing or able to engage with so that you can stake out some common ground. You do the same thing with activities: if they will write more frankly than they will speak, get them writing; if they are silent except in small groups, translate discussion down to small group responses to prompts. Whatever the case, you use what they give you the next class to try to build some momentum.

For the GamerGate project though, there were so few students willing to comment publicly on the topic in class that there seemed to be no momentum to be had. So bit by bit, I broke the class project into a set of small group projects that allowed student to engage less publicly. I also created an option for the essay that downplayed the argumentative requirement, an aspect of the assignment that, given the circumstances, many appeared to have found intimidating, if not overwhelming. Most importantly, I moved things steadily forward and got us onto the next topic, where things cooled down and went back to normal.

Looking Back

Either GamerGate or the feminist critique it tried to shut down–I can’t be sure which–upset a group of students. I’m not going to judge that reaction here other than to say that the fact that many students were initially excited to be talking about video games seemed to make their subsequent frustration worse. The rest of the class seems to have picked up on their frustration immediately and reacted to lower the temperature the best (or the only?) way they knew how: silence. For my part, I was stuck trying to coax students beyond these basic reactions, adapting course materials on the fly, but doing so with very little input from the students themselves, which is difficult.

I don’t think it is ever easy to sort out why a particular project worked or not in a specific course, especially when dealing with new material. There is always the risk of projection, of accounting for student responses in terms that are not theirs and so missing the hints they give about why they actually reacted the way they did. So looking back now, I’m not convinced that I’ve understood what happened yet.

So I’m glad that I won’t be teaching this course in the Fall and that I don’t have to decide right away whether to raise this topic again. In theory, I would like to, but in good conscience, I can’t–and won’t–until I figure out a better framework for bringing it up.

Faulkner Hypertext

Last year was a busy one at school and I had to set the Faulkner hypertext I was working on aside in the Fall. Now with most of the moving boxes unpacked at our new home and summer well under way, I’ve had time to go back to that project.

I’m happy with what I’ve found and have started working again. I’m making good progress, my goals are more reasonable than they were and I have a schedule. I also think I’ve wrapped my head around basic export enough to be confident that I can get something simple but functional out of my project file. (Seeing how effective the very simply formatted Depression Quest was, helped me get over some export fears.)

So I’ve decided that the week of August 10th, whatever I have is going online. If I can stick to my writing schedule and things keep going well, it will be a legitimate first (and maybe last) version of everything. If I can’t, then whatever I do have will benefit from having others look and give feedback. Either way, that week, something’s going up.

A Streetcar Named Desire

UN TRAMWAY NOMMÉ DÉSIRL’Espace Go, an experimental theatre that takes risks, staged A Streetcar Named Desire this past winter (trailer here). Their production was defined by two choices: first, an actor playing Tennessee Williams sits in a corner and reads the stage directions aloud, and second, the sexual content of the play is performed without the censorship that the director believes has hobbled previous productions.

Concretely, uncensored sex means:

  • the male and female actors are repeatedly nude.
  • sex and masturbation are acted out overtly whenever they are hinted at in the text. These simulations are extended and, in a shower scene between Stanley and Stella, only a hair’s breadth from actuality.
  • Blanche’s rape at the end of the play is prefigured by an invented scene of gay sex between Stanley and Tennessee Williams.
  • audio recordings of the actors discussing the sexual content of the piece are played before the curtain rises and during the intermission.

I’m happy to have seen this production, and it got good reviews, but the only thing I really liked was the actor reading the stage directions (and toward the end, stealing a few characters’ lines). I don’t think this device was put to good use here, but it was interesting and has potential. The rest, however, created a spectacle that I think was at odds with the content of the play.

Desire, flirtation, seduction, Streetcar is full of these. What’s more the characters’ hopes and needs are expressed through these desires, especially those that are impossible to realize in the context of their lives. The obstacles they face makes their desire meaningful.

None of this comes through in Espace Go’s production. With sex made to be the only thing that matters and the various obstacles characters face reduced simply to convention or prudery, many relationships didn’t make sense at all, and those that did seemed a shadow of what they should have been. Blanche’s preoccupations with respectability and money didn’t read at all, and her dream life seemed something like a pose without substance.

By going all-in on the proposition that Streetcar is a play about transgressive sex full-stop, the director winds up demonstrating how little in the play can be accounted for by sex alone. That is something I hadn’t realized with quite so much clarity before.

On a separate note, I saw this production near the end of the run, and the actors just looked battered. I think the level of exposure they faced on that stage took a toll.

Goodbye HenriCat

HenriCat: A good friend

For nine years, HenriCat shared our home. When I arrived in the evening, he met me at the door. When I worked at my computer, he slept beside me on the desk. When I read, he was snuggled into my lap. When I graded, he left me alone until he decided I’d been at it too long, then he’d sit on the pile of unmarked essays as if to say “enough already.” Sometimes, he decided I was done before I’d even really begun.

At dinner, he’d sit patiently by my chair, as elegant and still as an Egyptian relic, waiting for me to put my plate on the floor so he could lick it clean. Sometimes, if we were eating fish and I was eating too slowly, he would stand up on his hind legs and put one paw on the edge of the table, asking “Fish please? Soon?” When he did, I called him Henri-Quêteur.

HenriCat was friendly, curious, and a patient playmate of our friends’ children. When I adopted Cornelius, a five-week old kitten abandoned at a vet’s office, HenriCat raised him and taught him how to be. Together he and Cornelius were mascots for this site.

The last six months were not easy for him. He fell ill in winter, nothing the vet tried helped, eventually it become clear he had tumours, and now he’s gone. So I’m writing this post, unlike many of the others on the site, without him curled up against my arm or on my lap.

He was a good cat and a friend. I’m going to miss him.

José & Pilar

José & PilarI didn’t know much about José Saramago as a writer other than that I’ve read without liking his novel Blindness. This documentary, which is one of the rare films about writing that works, introduced me to him, to his wife and to his region. I was charmed by all three.

I had no idea that Saramago only began writing novels late in life after a mediocre career as a journalist. I didn’t know that he began writing fiction only after meeting Pilar or that he’d dedicated each of his novels to her. Watching her in this film, I can see why. She’s clearly an extraordinary person, intelligent, strong willed and inspiring.

Les Aiguilles et l’opium

Les Aiguilles et l'opiumRobert Lepage’s Les Aiguilles et l’opium sets the story of Miles Davis, Jean Cocteau and a Quebecois voice actor spinning around each other on a spinning stage built from three intersecting planes balanced slightly off the floor on its point (trailer here). From moment to moment walls rotated and became floors and then rotated back to become walls again. As they did, gravity opened and closed trap doors to lower and then raise beds or tables. There were no level surfaces to walk on and the actors were frequently harnessed to ropes in order to “stand up” on steeply canted floors, to float above the centre point as lights turned the stage into outer space or even to walk along the outside edges of the stage as it turned.

For me, the physicality demanded of the actors by this staging was the focus of the piece rather than the interweaving stories.

The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies

The Hobbit- The Battle of Five ArmiesThe Hobbit movies all fail but this is the best of the three. (The first was awful, the second left me indifferent.)

Jackson’s early films were funny and were clearly works of enthusiasm and joy. The Lord of the Rings changed that register but their stretch matched the breadth of the material and the results were genuinely compelling cinema.

I may be imagining things, but in this last instalment of The Hobbit series, I felt like Jackson was fed up with the machine he’s built and even maybe wanting to laugh a bit despite the epic pretentiousness. It was subtle and maybe I was just projecting, but by the end, I found myself hoping that, finally free, he would go off and make something as brilliantly oddball and offensive as Meet the Feebles or Dead Alive.

Literary Tourism in Concord, MA

This past week, the Beav and I went down to Concord, Massachusetts to see Walden, Emerson’s house, the Old Manse and the rest of the sites. It was an interesting trip but it made a problem involved in teaching these writers concrete for me.

I’ve read the Transcendentalists, most of them quite carefully, and I teach more than a few of their works. So I was interested in seeing Emerson’s study and Hawthorne’s writing desk, but I was also, as unromantic as it sounds, collecting photographs I could show my students, most of whom find these works quite difficult. Pictures of relevant places should, I thought, help them visualize what they are reading.

Concord also has many Revolutionary War historical sites. These hadn’t figured as I’d imagined the trip, yet they were what was most evident once we arrived. We toured them as well, and as we did, I noticed that historical sites were easier for people to appreciate than the literary ones. Everyone seemed to have at least a bit of the necessary historical context while people touring the Emerson house, for example, knew nothing but the name. This got me thinking about the difficulty of providing context to students for reading.

At a historical site, a guide can say “The militia turned back the British at this bridge, a first victory in the War of Independence,” and that is informative even if the listener knows nothing except that the US declared its independence from Britain. It also cues all kinds of imaginative processes–fuelled by memories of movies and television–that recreate the place in the mind and sentiments as a site of a battle. It’s exciting, even if you know nothing.

But in the study at the Old Manse, which is located just across that same bridge, when the guide points to a tiny ratchet desk beside the fireplace and says “Hawthorne wrote Mosses from the Old Manse here,” those with minimal context can do little but imagine a man sitting silently, his forehead close to the wall and his back to the windows and the other chairs. Without some sense of what is in that book, without having read it, the room is the site where, by design, nothing happened silently.

Which brings me back the pictures I took. I’ll show them, but I don’t think they will do very much to push my students beyond their difficulties with their reading. Thoreau’s cabin doesn’t exist. There’re some stone markers. The reproduction cabin is empty except for a bed, a stove and a desk. Emerson’s house looks like an old house. There is a grape arbor. Thoreau built it, just like he planted the original vegetable garden at the Old Manse. You can’t tell that from looking at it though because it’s just a garden.

In other words, my pictures are horribly boring and I suspect my students will look at them with the same blankness I saw on the faces around me on the various tours. That sounds like pessimism, but it’s really just me wondering what seeing Walden–and by that, I mean a picture of any lake as long as I call it Walden when showing it–what does seeing that picture do for a student reading Thoreau for the first time? A kind of magic needs to happen to illuminate the words and to bring them to life. Does seeing the place the author walked help?

Thoreau on Why He Went to the Woods

Walden Pond

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and  Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.

–Henry David Thoreau