Thursday, April 28, 2011

Review: Barbara Hambly's Those Who Hunt the Night

Several of Barbara Hambly's novels have been released in eBook format recently; and I didn't hesitate to offer to review a couple in exchange for a free copy. I haven't read any of Hambly's novels, but I've been hearing about them for years, so I was excited to have a reason to put them onto my official to-do list.

Those Who Hunt the Night is the story of Oxford don James Asher, a one-time player in the Great Game (can you ever really leave?); and the circumstances that lead to his being coerced to investigate a series of murders among the vampire population of London in 1907. I say coerced because Asher is no paranormal enthusiast; he has to be convinced by Don Simon Ysidro, the vampire who is certain that only a human can help -- and who does not scruple to threaten Asher's wife Lydia, in order to provide motivation.

Certain aspects of this novel are exactly what you would expect: Don Simon is elegant and arrogant; Asher is thoughtful and poised as befits a member of Oxford's New College; his wife Lydia is courageous and intelligent and beautiful.

But Barbara Hambly is not a lazy writer, and so she doesn't stop with what you would expect. I especially appreciated how much thought had gone into the complexity of vampire society, mores, and existence -- and how important the worldbuilding was to the central mystery itself. I have problems with authors who characterize all vampires as arrogant and predatory; problems, too, with authors who are content to characterize all vampires as old and world-weary just to dazzle readers with the prospect of a 926-year-old being whose perspective we can barely imagine. I have never thought as much about vampires, and what questions might arise from their existence as I did while reading Those Who Hunt the Night, and last night I went to bed shuddering at the scenario that had been presented.

Truly, I can't remember the last time I actually contemplated vampires as frightening, rather than dark/tortured/sexy.

I found James Asher, the chief protagonist, a little dull in comparison. He's very appealing in that he's intelligent and capable without being an alpha male, and that his affection, respect, and admiration for his wife Lydia are an important part of his characterization, rather than just trimmings. He has a backstory that I'd like to know more about (maybe it will be explored in the other two James Asher books?), but which doesn't surprise me. Hambly is careful, I think, to write him so as to be appealing, but to not make him so progressive as to be terribly anachronistic.

Lydia Asher is more interesting -- though really, she and her husband are both secondary to the details of the vampires. I didn't mind that at all, given that the vampire plot was so interesting. What we learn about Lydia is integral to the main mystery plot, and I had enough of an introduction to her to want me read about her in more books. She is somewhat myopic, and I was delighted that the novel takes into account the stigma against wearing spectacles in the early 20th century; also that her choice to study medicine (and the controversy that such a choice entails for a woman) is treated frankly, and without being overdramatized as a narrative of Enlightenment For Teh Wimminz.

In short, Those Who Hunt the Night is that rare phenomenon: a cracking great mystery which you can enjoy without having to bite your tongue at thoughtless writing, or social hierarchies that make you wince in displeasure.

And this is an especially great time for it to be reborn as an e-book -- it's the perfect story to read if you're playing Echo Bazaar -- in fact, as I was reading it, I thought that it could well have been part of the inspiration for Fallen London, since the atmospheres in the game and novel are wonderfully congenial.

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Classification Essay: what happened

This is one instance that makes me wish I had a larger class, just to have a greater range of students. On the first day, when I gave the assignment out, one student stopped afterwards to say how excited he was, that he'd read some Aristotle in a previous class, and had all sorts of ideas about what he might do. Then he dropped, but my sense was that his excitement was genuine. When I posted the assignment on Facebook, it got an energetic response from academic colleagues, but more than that -- it seemed like wherever I went that week, other friends outside of the academy said that they'd been thinking about it. In church on Sunday, the homily referenced sorting things, and one of the other choir members turned around and said that she'd been thinking about it all week.

I think I explained in my previous post that this was an assignment that I gave with little accompanying prep, other than the detailed instructions and rubric. If I had paired it with readings, they'd have been from Weinberger's Everything is Miscellaneous, but I thought that if I gave the students a run-through of the various systems of classification, that it'd be enough to get them going. What I introduced were examples of binary classifications, materialist classifications, systems centered around a particular type of object (i.e., books -- so, Dewey Decimal and Library of Congress), and systems ranking a specific quality (biggest, best, scariest, etc.)

This assignment was intended to show me what they could do: I was not expecting perfect results. The students were aware of the fact that though I would fill out the rubric in determining what their formal grade might have been, that they would get full points for completing the homework. I wanted them to see how I approached grading.

I would call the results mixed. Rather than devise an original system of classification, the majority framed their essays around the question of what to take with them if their home was on fire. One student wrote about the system of organization dictated by a particular type of residence, and one classified only one particular set of objects -- the equivalent of baseball cards.
One thing I didn't ask them to address is functionality. If they were developing the system because the Singularity had occurred, or if constraints on space (because of flooding, population growth, etc.) had made it necessary for possessions to be uploaded to the web, could they devise a system that they could use to retrieve things? Would that have made the stakes of the classification system more clear? Maybe, but maybe not. No one in the class has much of a web presence, other than on Facebook, so sorting and tagging is pretty new to them.

Because I could respond with specific questions about the choices they'd made, and because there were motions and starts of useful insights and questions, I think the assignment was at least partially successful. One of my primary goals in assigning it was to learn something about the students' personalities and writing styles, and I also think it was effective in that regard.

However, I'm not sure that the assignment itself was especially useful as the students responded to the question. Classifying possessions according to the "what would you take out of a burning building?" question is the equivalent of coasting; and I specifically asked students to devise a system, rather than write about the one that they'd always used. The point (as I intended it) was for them to create a system, rather than simply describe a conventional question or sorting mechanism -- the idea being that arranging things differently would make them consider their property in a new light; and also think about organization and classification as activities that are part of everyday life -- not just part of academic essay writing.

Preliminary findings:
I think I gave out this assignment too soon, and fumbled it in wanting it both to be a personal essay, and an analytical one. Without doing at least a little more reading in the genre of political theory, the significance of classification -- and its relationship to politics -- doesn't come through. It's too foreign a question for students to answer in the way that I hoped they would. I should have started by asking students to write about what mine did write about: their stuff, and how they organize it (or don't) right now -- and then, I should have asked them to think about how to develop an original system of classification. I probably should also have streamlined the assignment sheet. In trying to make things clear, what I achieved was clutter.

That doesn't mean that the assignment can't work. At least, I don't think it does. I remain committed to the idea of an assignment that can be both personal and analytical. Two articles in Inside Higher Ed, by Dan Berrett and Barbara Fister only make me more certain that it's worth experimenting with this further. To summarize, (though both are worth reading in their entirety), Berrett describes the findings of the Citation Project: that students copy chunks of texts and use them in their papers without a solid understanding of the quotes' relation to their originary texts, or the underlying arguments and contexts. Fister looks at various findings discussed at the 4Cs conference, and the energy that she sees students bringing to writing outside of academic contexts -- in "everyday research" -- and argues that the way forward is to "abandon the traditional research paper," at least for students who are inexperienced with academic work.

What I'm doing next:
I think there's got to be a useful way of building on this assignment. It didn't work perfectly -- but despite that, my sense is that the students liked writing about their stuff, and what's important to them.

The question is, how do I turn the classification paper into an assignment that also helps my students engage with Locke, and Marx in detailed ways; and with the specific subject of political theory?

I'm not going to try to do this immediately, especially because I'm planning to hand out the second essay sequence on Thursday of this week, and I have a prompt question that, while fairly traditional, is a question that any student in political science, and especially in political theory, needs to consider.

I would like to make a revision and expansion of the classification essay my third essay sequence for the quarter, and in that sequence, I'd like to ask students to develop a system of classification for their possessions according to Locke's principles in the Second Treatise of Government or Marx & Engels' in the Communist Manifesto, and to explain their rationale for categories; and to describe how their classification alters the meaning of their property. I'd like to do this partly because both Locke and M&E are writing materialist arguments. This isn't just my view; it's also the way that the lecturer is presenting them. It makes sense to me to develop a way into them through property. It also makes sense to me to attempt to find a more personal, and more concrete, way of asking students to engage with Marx. I've taught the Manifesto before, so I know, that could backfire -- I think it might if I didn't emphasize personal and concrete.

I anticipate that completing this assignment will involve thinking about 1) what defines ownership, and different types of ownership, 2) objects that facilitate their participation in the political sphere, or public life, as opposed to private life, 3) objects for which the use is governed by law, or which is regulated or dependent upon higher powers (Comcast, Amazon, Apple), 4) objects that can be said to increase power, (depending on how power is defined), 5) objects which are both concrete, and abstract. These are what occur to me today, as I consider this.

I'm certainly thinking about the texts when I name those five areas of thought, but more than that, I'm thinking that this assignment would prompt students to determine what ideas and principles their chosen author prioritizes and why (in order to determine what their classification style should be); and how those priorities advance an argument (i.e., what are the results of organizing life according to these priorities). I'm also planning to encourage them to think about what sort of scheme of organization the authors themselves use; and what they're trying to represent by adapting that scheme. Most of all, I'm hoping to find ways to build bridges between the abstract and the concrete, and back again.

If you have questions or comments, or critiques regarding this assignment (both the original form, and what I'm planning to do next), I would not only welcome them, but would be grateful for them. So, most likely, will my students.

* But is this an artificiality that is a good part of academic work? Or is it pernicious navelgazing?

Thursday, April 7, 2011

In which I attempt to catch up, at least on blogging about teaching

I'm finally coming out of the most ghastly bronchitis bug that I've tangled with since my sophomore year of college. 16 days, and I'm still dealing with a lingering cough, altered voice, and an inability to function in polite company without Kleenex handy.

I've never been so ill at the start of a quarter, and so it's both a blessing and a curse that I've ended up teaching a writing course linked with a political theory course, and which has only 5 students in it. (The writing links were underenrolled, and my section was the earlier of the two offered, and the professor teaching the poli sci course emphasized how hard the writing load would be. I can't say I'm surprised that some students shied away from both his class and mine, since we both have separate essay assignments (even if they are oriented towards the same readings).

I planned a number of things for this quarter: perhaps most importantly, a course website, and the intention of having the students blog throughout the quarter. In the past, I've had them use Catalyst GoPost, and I'll say up front that I haven't been all that smart about how I used it -- both in terms of thinking about making it a mini-knowledge site; and in terms of creating useful and specific assignments for the students. Instead, I wanted them to respond to each lecture, and A) that's too much, and B) it's not effectively goal-oriented -- so it didn't succeed in creating a genuine conversation between my classroom and the lecture classroom.

This time, I used and added to several of the blog assignments linked to in this Profhacker post; and used a rubric. I've encouraged the students to use the blog in the way that helps them -- i.e., as a space to talk about the more formal writing assignments, and as a space to apply the political theory texts that they're reading to current events, or other situations as they see fit. The rubric still dictates that they have to display a high level of engagement with the text, but I'm hoping that the blog will give them the space to engage with Aristotle, Locke, etc., in multiple ways (which they are explicitly not encouraged to do in the formal essays for either the lecture course, or mine.

In my case (and I suspect in the POLS professor's, too, but I can't speak for him), it's not that those alternative methods of engaging with a text aren't valid, but just that the focus of the course is to have them practice a very specific style of essay writing that is widely demanded in academia, and in poli sci specifically. I explained that. Rather than have them write texts that were supposed to be about practicing academic writing, and which I would have to constantly nudge them back towards more focus and seriousness, I'd much rather say that the blog is a space where they have more freedom, and that their goal is to demonstrate a range of engagements with the course subject matter.

I'm doing everything I can to make the course website a good knowledge site as well -- posting answers to questions that I get asked each quarter; posting links to sites like Memidex and Natural Readers under a writing hacks tag. I only have two so far; I need more, but I think if I keep posting steadily, that part of the site will get better and better.

I've asked the students to tag their posts (in fact, I've made it a requirement for them to get credit). None of them had blogged before, so I wanted to avoid overloading them with new tech, but I did want the site to be a useful tool, in some way other than merely making it searchable. So far, it's working. The first week, only 3/5 students posted in time to get points, and I had to remind them all to tag their posts. This week, they all posted on time, and I didn't have to do any reminding about tagging.

But I don't like asking students to do random stuff, so I'm trying to make tagging and classification a major subtext of the class. That's where my personal property classification assignment comes in. To give credit where credit is due, it was inspired by a comment by Johanna Drucker, who said that she asks students to develop such a system in her classes -- but that was all she said, and I didn't get a chance to ask her more.

I wanted to develop it for use with political theory partly as an interesting personal essay (more interesting than the literary autobiography that I've used in the past with comp classes), and as an introduction to the idea that classification is an inherently political act (whether arbitrary, material, or any one of numerous binary organizations), and suggest that thinking about texts in terms of the authors' classification schemes is a useful way of making heavy content more clear, and breaking it into manageable chunks.

I also really wanted to have the students develop something that was their own thinking, but was not a traditional argument.

The essays have been turned in, and I'll look at them tomorrow, and report back in terms of what I've got. I think that classification is helpful in terms of reading texts, but it's a little hard to say. The Nicomachean Ethics are hard no matter what you do with them; and I think that it'll take a little while for classification as reading to catch on (and no doubt, I can learn to teach it more effectively) -- but I'm excited to keep working on that.

And today, Susan Brown, of the Orlando Project, visited and gave a wonderful, 2-hour demo of the textbase, and then, after less than an hour's break, another talk(!), and I probably don't need to tell you, but I will anyways, how exciting it was to read the scholarly introduction, and see the following statement, and feel like I'd made exactly the write choice in deciding to work on foregrounding classification in this course, and in future courses:

We observe simply that while the work of recovery made a broader literary history both newly possible and newly necessary, the unanswered criticisms of the genre contributed to the continued absence of integrating histories of women's writing, or of revised general histories that take women's writing into account.

But the Orlando Project, and why it's important to me, deserve a whole separate post, and I think I need to save it for later this weekend.