Archive for the ‘Teaching’ Category

It’s the end of finals week here.  This is first finals week in years where I wasn’t staring at a stack of student essays to grade.  Not having any grading to do was pretty amazing, to be honest, but I did sort of miss the puzzling, and sometimes entertaining, errors in usage/word choice/phrasing that students make.

So, since I didn’t get to snicker at hurried, end-of-term, student essays with somewhat understandable mistakes, I kept a list of annoying word usages that I came across in more official/professional writing. I found enough that this could be a weekly thing.  These are a few I think most worthy of comment and debate:

Luddite (context: nearly every article about Thomas Pynchon allowing his catalog to be digitized): 

I’ll concede that arguing this one is a lost cause, and I’m all for the evolution of language and words.  However, as someone who has read extensively on the history of technology and industrialism, I can’t just let it slide without getting a little pedantic.  While the modern usage means something like: “A person who eschews, or even fears, modern technology,” the source of the term implies something a bit different (and there’s this word “technophobe” one might use instead).  The original Luddites weren’t against technology . . . not in the broad sense.  Luddites were rebelling against specific technologies in the textile industry that supplanted them as workers and, basically, made them beggars.  For right or wrong, there was a political and ethical motivation to the Luddites’ position that went beyond mere technophobia . . . a motivation that was a precursor to other workers movements.  It is worth remembering that.

(You may want to read Thomas Pynchon’s essay “Is it OK to be a Luddite?”)



A friend recently proposed an interesting exercise in hypothetical course design where one must select a single American novel for each decade of the 20th century to create a teachable arc for the century (and justify said choices).  Given my own interest in genre, I figured I’d adopt/adapt it for utopian/dystopian fiction (dropping the “American” requirement) to see what kind of survey of the genre I might teach (and what works I’d be willing to drop per only having one choice per decade).  The difficult part about conceptualizing this as an actual course is there is no way I would be able to teach this without starting with More’s Utopia and some other relevant earlier texts (Campanella? Bellamy and Morris? Wells? etc.) or doing a bunch of work up front introducing literary utopias via describing those works that lead up to what is really the dystopian turn in the genre that takes place at the beginning of the 20th century.  Not that I couldn’t do the latter, but I’d much  rather have students at least read More to begin.

That problem aside, I’ve still tried to follow a structure that makes sense for how an actual course might play out: works build on previously read works to allow for connections to be made, I begin with shorter texts rather than hitting students with something big and hard to start, and finish with less time-intensive texts so that students in the midst of final papers and finals prep would hopefully still make time for them.


UKL on the problem of genre classification:

Writing about the death of J.G. Ballard for the New York Times (21 April 09), Bruce Weber spoke to Ballard’s American editor at Norton, Robert Weil. Mr Weil said of Ballard: “His fabulistic style led people to review his work as science fiction. But that’s like calling Brave New World science fiction, or 1984.”

Every time I read this sentence it suggests more parallels:

“But that’s like calling Don Quixote a novel.”

“But that’s like calling The Lord of the Rings a fantasy.”

“But that’s like calling Utopia a utopia… “ – Ursula K. Le Guin


I figured I’d drop this here as an addendum to my prior post on dystopia.  Like the definition there, this is one my students and I co-wrote based on my lecture comments on genre characteristics and reading an excerpt from More’s Utopia (Book 2, obviously).  I wanted us to come up with a definition because those online and in lit. terms books were not particularly good (to put it kindly).  However, it could still use some revision.  Also, one of the most useful discussions of the problems of defining utopia is found in the introduction to Lyman Tower Sargent’s British and American Utopian Literature: 1516-1975.


Utopia: While the common usage of “utopia” as a perfect place derives from literary utopias, it is a mistake to think that utopias are always the author’s vision of a perfect world.  Some are; many aren’t.  The genre begins with Thomas More’s Utopia (1516), and is originally a kind of fictional travel narrative.  Utopian fiction is probably best defined as works that present a realistic, alternate, and in many ways better society than our own through an account by an objective observer.  This observer describes the society’s political and social structures, usually after returning home from a visit to the utopia.  Because of this need for extensive description, utopian fiction is often more concerned with developing setting than with plot, sometimes leading to the characterization of it as boring or bland.  Because of the alleviation of some of our own societal ills in utopias, it is useful to think of them is as critiques of our own world’s shortcomings and, at times, even satire.


I don’t know, but I know it when I see it.  It looks like this:

from Wells’ adaptation of The Trial

Having spent too much time reading online material related to The Hunger Games, I’ve been both intrigued and disappointed at how how the media and the books’ fandom interpret and use the term “dystopia” (and its adjectivizations, of which “dystopic” makes me cringe).  As with the everyday use of “utopia,” the general understanding and usage of the term is often extremely vague and distanced from the actual genre of fiction it comes from.  This definition is a very literal one: dystopia=bad place, or the opposite of utopia (defined simply as “good place”).  Or, as one of the lousy online dictionaries defines it:


a society characterized by human misery, as squalor, oppression, disease, and overcrowding.
Compare utopia.


1865–70; dys-  + (u)topia

I’ll ignore the problematic question of origin/etymology in this definition for now.  The real issue here is illustrated by the fact that these definitions (the casual and the online dictionary) don’t fit classic dystopias that define and helped initiate the genre like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World or Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We.  Sure, one could argue those lives led by the populaces of the World State or OneState are miserable, and that they are “bad” places, but this is a relatively subjective and very dubious judgment.  Are they characterized by human misery?  No.  There’s more complexity to it than that.


Modern Primate just published my short piece “(dis-)Regarding the Twilightization of The Hunger Games,” and I wanted to just add a few thoughts on the stereotypical young men like the redditor I mentioned.   He wrote:

“I feel like a couple months ago I heard about girls picking up the book once they saw the previews. Which is fine, same thing happened with twilight. The whole OMG I TOTALLY HAVE TO READ THE BOOK BEFORE I WATCH THE MOVIE, was annoying, but only girls were doing it so I just ignored it. Same thing started happening with the hunger games. Fine, whatever I don’t care I can just ignore it.

Fast forward to last night, I go out to a bar with my friends and we are all just talking, and every single person, including the guys, were talking about the hunger games. Everyone is making sure they have read the first book before they go watch the movie tomorrow at midnight. WTF? I apologize if the hunger games is your ultimate favorite book, but how did this craze happen? Guys that I hang out with that honestly go out drinking and barely pick up their books to study, I’m a college student, are now making sure they read the hunger games before they go see the movie. Please tell me I’m not the only one who doesn’t understand what in the world is going on. I feel alone in a sea of hunger games.”