Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Blog assignment - Soundtrack of your life

Last blog assignment, people. Also your last shot at having any fun at all in this course. I always try to include this at the end of the course for a few reasons: For one, it lets people have something personal and creative to include in the portfolio if they want to, because so much of the second half of the course is academically demanding. For another, you've had to listen to my music all semester, so this is your chance to show me (and each other) yours.

The assignment is simply this: If your life had a soundtrack, what would it be? In my head, my life already does. So pick a couple of songs – the precise number is up to you, but maybe 2 minimum, 10 maximum? – and give a short (or long!) explanation of why you would include them of a soundtrack to your life. The explanation can be very personal (“This is the song I play when I kiss my pillow and cry because Marilyn Monroe is dead”) to the fairly impersonal (“This is my favorite song to dance to because it’s got such a good beat”). Again, it’s up to you.. Here is my list that is WAY too big because doing this was more fun than doing my real work:

“The Great Historical Bum” - Chad Mitchell Trio (kinda, it’s a really old song, but their version is the one I know best). This is what my crazy illiterate great-uncle Leroy recites any time he’s asked how old he is, so I grew up with it memorized. You ask him how old he is, and he says, “I was born about ten thousand years ago / There ain’t nothing in this world that I don’t know / I saw Peter, Paul and Moses playing ring-around-the-roses / And I’ll whup the guy that says it isn’t so.” He really is totally illiterate – he suffered massive head trauma as a child and lost the ability to read or write as a result. He has a farm in a part of Minnesota that they still haven't gotten around to paving yet. He was pretty much the most awesome uncle ever when I was growing up, because he let me blow lots of my childhood on driving his fire engine and poking sheep with a stick. He also had a brain tumor that took away a lot of his fine motor skills (cleaning and plucking chickens for a dude with no motor skills is not very fun, incidentally), and was once trampled by his own sheep when he accidentally pissed off one of the rams. Wow, it turns out that my childhood was pretty damn awesome. I look a lot like him. Hjalmer Willard LeRoy Hawkins, bless you and your crazy. (I’m allowed to use “crazy” as a noun because I’m getting a PhD, see.)

"Thirsty Dog" - Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds. Oh, man, I love this one. It's fast and loud and my favorite song ever about making an apology. It sort of manages to sum up my feelings about almost every apology I've ever given - the speed of the song speaks to how I always want to blurt out the apology as fast as possible to get it over with, and the lyrics are the perfect mix of genuine shame, regret, embarrassment, self-pity, rage, and alcohol: "You keep nailing me back into my box / I'm sorry I keep popping up / With my crazy mouth / And jangling jester's cap. / I'm sorry I ever wrote that book / I'm sorry for the way I look / But there ain't a lot / That I can do about that."

"I'm Your Man" - Lizzie West. This is a cover version of a Leonard Cohen song. Cohen and his gravelly voice are pretty awesome, but also kind of creepy, so I think this version of it is the sexiest song ever recorded. Hands down. You could try to argue against me, but you would lose, because I am correct.

"Fuck and Run" - Liz Phair. Oh, hush, this isn't anywhere near as dirty, or as personal, as some of the stuff I could have put on here. This is from kind of an old album, but I only encountered it relatively recently. Phair does a lot of really creative and daring songs about sexuality and relationships, which is part of what I love about her. When I first heard this song, I started smiling, because I thought it sounded like it was going to be a fun song about one-night stands. ("I woke up alarmed / I didn't know where I was at first, / Just that I woke up in your arms.") And then . . . it wasn't. It was about the singer admitting that the way she was treating her life and her relationships was unsustainable, because there was something fundamentally broken about her. By the time I reached the end, I actually had a little lump in my throat at, "I can feel it in my bones / I'm going to spend my whole life alone." I think it really speaks to that little spot in everyone where you're convinced that you're the only one on the planet who hasn't figured love out.

"The Ocean" - Dar Williams. I sing this in the shower like every morning.

"Olga's Birthday" - Rose Polenzani. I used to sing this in the shower every morning.

“Home for a Rest” by Spirit of the West. This is a Scots-Canadian folk rock band. No soundtrack of my life is complete without this one. I first heard this song performed by an enthusiastic Canadian with an acoustic guitar on New Years' Eve, 2003, in Edinburgh, Scotland. It's a great, crazy, drinkin', partyin' song about going abroad to England: "You'll have to excuse me, I'm not at my best / I've been gone for a month / I've been drunk since I left. / These so-called vacations / Will soon be my death / I'm so sick from the drink / I need home for a rest." At the time, I'd been living in hostels in Britain for seven months, surrounded by insane Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, South Africans, and others, who were drunk all the time and occasionally stoned. (Except for the Quebecois, who were stoned all the time and occasionally drunk.) It was a great time: I was never bored even though I was working some horrible jobs, and I loved the people I lived with. Mostly. However, there was always this sense that we knew that the way we were living wasn't really healthy, and that some day we were going to have to go home. That night was just a perfect performance, with all these drunk and desperate expatriates shouting "TAKE ME HOME!" at the end of the chorus, and every time I hear the song, I go right back there in my memory.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Research practice - due 11/22/11

The reading for next Tuesday is "Does Race Exist," by Bamshad & Olson, in the course reader. However, the blog assignment is not to summarize it. What I'd like you to do instead:

Find at least two good sources that you think you could use in your research paper in some way. For each, quote a single line from it that seems like it might be useful, and provide a full APA citation for it. Then, explain in a short paragraph what the source is - what it contains, how solid a source it is - and how you think you might use it. Here is my example of this:

"Nearly all detective fiction develops through heroes and heroines as protagonists. Generally these heroes combat crime to protect society, to set society aright after the intrusion of a convulsion of law-breaking that has knocked it askew" (Browne, 1988, p. 21).

Browne, R. (1988). The spirit of Australia: the crime fiction of Arthur W. Upfield. Bowling Green: Bowling Green State University Popular Press.

This is for a conference paper I'd like to do in the spring on the mystery writer Arthur Upfield. There aren't a lot of books about his writing out there, and this is the only one the UW system had. It's honestly not that great - there's a weirdly high number of typos, and the whole thing reads more like a fan's work than an actual academic book. But because there are so few books on Upfield, I'm guessing that I should at least acknowledge in my paper that this one exists and that I know what it says about him. I think I can use this quote to talk about the nature of mystery novels and why it's interesting to look at the detective in Upfield's novels as someone who brings justice.

"Doubleday's perceived audience were not American servicemen and their families, or a public newly aware of a distant and previously unfamiliar country. They were dedicated crime fiction buffs always eager to meet new fictional sleuths from different backgrounds, whether cultural or geographic" (Hetherington, 2009, p. 4-5).

Hetherington, C. (2009). Bony at home and abroad: the Arthur Upfield phenomenon. Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature. Special issue. 1-12.

This article is mostly about how people in America have read Upfield's books. I'm happy with how recent it is, because that means it represents some pretty current literary research, though it's a little off-topic for my paper. I still think I can use this quote to talk about how the people publishing Upfield's books - in this case, Doubleday - thought that Upfield should be read. It's interesting that even though I'm saying the most interesting thing about Upfield's novels is that his detective is half-Aboriginal, the publishers just thought it was important that they were good crime novels.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Last Ronson Blog - due 11/17/11

We're finally finishing The Psychopath Test, with the final two chapters - Chapter 10, "The Avoidable Death of Rebecca Riley," and Chapter 11, "Good Luck." The final chapter is very much a wrapping-up of the book as a whole. It brings to a close (more or less) some of the narrative strands that Ronson began earlier in the text - specifically, the case of Tony locked up in Broadmoor and the strange book that the Swedish lunatic has been sending in the mail. As a result, it's pretty hard to summarize.

With that in mind, I'd like you to spend a paragraph doing a strong summary of Chapter 10 - remember, give it a strong first sentence summarizing the point of the whole thing, then a fuller explanation with the rest of the paragraph.

In the second paragraph, please do ask any questions you have about the reading. But I'd also like to invite you to take this blog to respond to or question the book as a whole. What I found particularly interesting about the last part of the book is the way it makes claims about the arbitrariness of mental health diagnoses. We've talked some about the dangers of Hare's checklist and the potential it has for dangerously, mistakenly labeling people - but with these last two chapters, Ronson seems to suggest that a lot, perhaps most, of psychiatry and psychology in general is guesswork. What do you think? You've been learning about health care systems in NURS 105 - how does the information here about the pharmaceutical companies interact with the stuff you've learned in that class?

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Sixth blog assignment - due November 3

Please do the same thing with Ronson's next two chapters that I've asked you to do before - read both, summarize one in a single paragraph. Then spend another paragraph simply responding to what you've read. The two chapters in question are 8, "The Madness of David Shayler," and 9, "Aiming a Bit High."

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Fifth blog assignment - due 11/1/11

Fairly standard blog. The reading is in the course reader - Malcolm Gladwell's "Something Borrowed." We're going to be talking about plagiarism, in a slightly more complicated way than you may be used to. In academia, we tend to treat it like it's a very simple issue, but, in a lot of cases, it's much more complex than it appears. So, the blog assignment:

First paragraph - same ol', same ol'. Try to give me a one-paragraph summary of the piece that starts with a main claim (thesis statement) that you then support. This is kind of tricky, because in a lot of ways, Gladwell asks more questions than he answers. If you get totally stuck, think about starting it with something like, "In 'Something Borrowed,' Gladwell asks whether . . ." so you can indicate that the final point is fairly open-ended.

Second paragraph - just react, again. Good, bad, weird, whatever. I think the piece shows a really interesting way to think about plagiarism. Did Gladwell's piece make you question your ideas at all? I hope you at least thought it was interesting. I think it's fairly well-written, but, in the past, I've had students become confused about the sequence of events in the essay because of how many people are involved in the thing (two original writers and one plagiarist who steals from both of them). So do, please, use this space to ask questions if you can't figure out just what the heck happened.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Fourth blog assignment - due 10/18/11

Ronson, Chapters 6 and 7

This is just like the last time I asked you to blog about the book; summarize one of the chapters in a paragraph, then spend another paragraph responding to both.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Third blog assignment - due 10/13/11

With Project One, you had an opportunity to begin thinking about how arguments and sources relate to each other. In two weeks, we'll be meeting at College Library to begin working with the University's resources and using them to find relevant and strong sources.

Because good research depends so much on good sources, generally, the best way to go about research is to begin with a research question. By starting with a question rather than a thesis, you help to make sure that you're not "cherry-picking" the evidence that goes into your argument. For example, if you start research by thinking, "I'm going to write a paper about how Wal-Mart is ruining America," you will likely only look for research that supports that conclusion, rather than also considering evidence which negates it. This is, frankly, both bad research and unethical. If, instead, you start with the question, "What has the impact been of Wal-Mart on small-town America?" you'll find yourself looking at sources that give you a variety of answers, and, probably, a more balanced final product.

This Thursday's blog assignment will have you start thinking about research questions. On any topic you like, write a question that you think you might be able to answer in about ten pages. (You can do a few, if you really can't pick just one.) Then, write a paragraph or two explaining a few things about it: Why you've chosen the question, how you think you might start looking for answers, what you think possible answers might look like, subquestions that might pop up, possible problems you might have answering, etc.


Has the death penalty been shown to be an effective deterrent to crime?

This seems like a pretty easy question to answer, because I know there's already a lot of data and research out there on the topic. It's also sort of an interesting question - there are a lot of different reasons for supporting or opposing the death penalty, and most of them are very emotional reasons, so they're hard to answer conclusively. This, though, would have a measurable answer. I would want to limit the scope of my question to just America, probably; I've only got ten pages. To start, I think I'd have to think about the kinds of crimes for which the death penalty is imposed, and then consider the rates of commission of those crimes in states that have the death penalty, vs. ones that don't. So, say, looking up the rates of murder convictions (maybe even attempted murder convictions, though that might be harder) in the different states. I'd have to think about how the rates have changed over time, too, since the legality of the death penalty in America has varied a lot over the course of the country's history.

I might not be able to answer the question conclusively - there are a lot of different factors affecting murder rates, not just the presence of capital punishment. But I think any kind of correlation I can find will be at least interesting.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Second blog assignment - due October 6

Jon Ronson, Chapter 4 ("The Psychopath Test") and Chapter 5 ("Toto")

For this assignment, I'd like you to essentially do the same thing as the last time - write a paragraph summarizing the reading, and then another paragraph responding to it. Though you have to read two chapters, I won't require that you summarize both of them. Instead, pick just one and summarize it in a strong top-down paragraph - begin with a sentence that explains the most important thing about the chapter, then back up that sentence with the rest of the paragraph. As we may have discussed in our face-to-face conference, you may or may not want to think about these as something to potentially edit for inclusion in your portfolio.

In your second paragraph - your response - you do not have to limit yourself to only the chapter you summarized. Reading them helps me, as the instructor, figure out how to structure class discussion, so that we can address major issues that you have as readers. So please do use that second paragraph as a place to respond to both chapters, in terms of any questions, comments, objections, etc. you might have.

Monday, September 19, 2011

First blog assignment - due 9/22/11

Jon Ronson, Chapter 3 - "Psychopaths Dream in Black and White"

What I'd like you to do for this assignment is essentially a version, in miniature, of what you did with Gawande for your second short assignment. It's going to be a little trickier than it was with Gawande, and that's on purpose. (Having you do hard things is good, sometimes.) It'll be harder because Gawande was, in fact, putting forth a particular argument about health care, whereas Ronson is presenting a narrative, a history, with a less focused main point.

What I want from you is two paragraphs. The first one should give a brief abstract (a summary) of the chapter. Start with a sentence that is the most important thing the piece does. ("In this chapter, Jon Ronson . . .") Then quickly explain the major points the chapter makes. Again, this should just be a short paragraph; don't let yourself get too bogged down in the details.

The second paragraph should be your reaction to it. This is one of the "rougher" chapters in the book, in terms of describing violence and other nasty things, so if you want to comment on that here, feel free. Other than that, what struck you about this chapter? Did anything seem particularly strange, or interesting, or confusing? What questions do you have about what he describes?

I'll give you an example of what I mean, using the Silko reading we did earlier as an example. Essentially, this is what I'm looking for (the first paragraph is even a little longer than is maybe necessary). Do this, but with Ronson.
In Leslie Marmon Silko's "Language and Literature from a Pueblo Indian Perspective," the author is interested in explaining how her particular cultural background affects the way she experiences storytelling. Silko explains that, for the Laguna Indians, all language is a kind of storytelling, because all words are connected with history and culture. She emphasizes that this is not just through traditional folk stories - though they are certainly important - but also through new stories that are created, which help to build community and family shared experiences. Silko's audience appears to include not just her original listeners - as the piece was originally intended to be spoken, not read - but, ultimately other readers in other places. This is apparent by the way she invites her audience to reach across multiple times, places, and cultures, and to think about the ways in which language, via storytelling, can unite us.

I find Silko's argument really interesting, though I think in a lot of ways I already relate to language in the way she talks about. I'm really interested in linguistic origins and how words and themes are interconnected. One of my old housemates, introducing me to someone, once said, "This is Otto. She doesn't actually have conversations, she just quotes random obscure stuff and then laughs at herself." I was pretty embarrassed that she was right; this is sort of a more generous way to think of it - that always having things remind you of other words or lines or stories is just a really integrated and communal way to experience language. I guess I'm still curious as to what degree other people experience this as well.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

All right, I know it's not snowing YET.

But it will be, and sooner than you think. Anyway, I have a proud tradition to uphold: using song lyrics from Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds to name the class blog.

There will be something more serious up here soon; this is mostly a placeholder/test post.