Weekly Words: College Mania

The season of college admission insanity is upon us, and it is–like fights over Huck Finn in school, or more recently the White House Correspondents Dinner–a reliable, if not particularly illuminating conversational topic. The New York Times has a “did I go to the wrong college?” piece which has the advantage of being a candid riposte to the miles of copy, and hours of agonized conversation “getting in.” (Something I have contributed my bit to alas).

Some quotes on post-secondary ed (pro and con) to add a bit of perspective (including a few from Terry Pratchett’s spoof Unseen Academicals.)

“I don’t think it would have all got me quite so down if just once in a while—just once in a while—there was at least some polite little perfunctory implication that knowledge should lead to wisdom, and that if it doesn’t, it’s just a disgusting waste of time! But there never is! You never even hear any hints dropped on a campus that wisdom is supposed to be the goal of knowledge. You hardly ever even hear the word ‘wisdom’ mentioned!”
― J.D. Salinger, Franny and Zooey

“Usually when you ask somebody in college why they are there, they’ll tell you it’s to get an education. The truth of it is, they are there to get the degree so that they can get ahead in the rat race. Too many college radicals are two-timing punks. The only reason you should be in college is to destroy it.”
― Abbie Hoffman, Steal This Book

“Some people get an education without going to college. The rest get it after they get out.”
― Mark Twain

“A whale ship was my Yale College and my Harvard.”
― Herman Melville

You can’t learn to write in college. It’s a very bad place for writers because the teachers always think they know more than you do—and they don’t. They have prejudices. They may like Henry James, but what if you don’t want to write like Henry James? They may like John Irving, for instance, who’s the bore of all time. A lot of the people whose work they’ve taught in the schools for the last thirty years, I can’t understand why people read them and why they are taught. The library, on the other hand, has no biases. The information is all there for you to interpret. You don’t have someone telling you what to think. You discover it for yourself.”
― Ray Bradbury

“And yet not a dream, but a mighty reality- a glimpse of the higher life, the broader possibilities of humanity, which is granted to the man who, amid the rush and roar of living, pauses four short years to learn what living means”
― W.E.B. Du Bois

‘Smart is only a polished version of dumb. Try intelligence. It will surely see you through’. –Terry Pratchett

‘Well, for the proper working of the world, said Lady Margolotta, ‘it is essential that ring binders are important to at least one person.’ –Terry Pratchett

Finally, on the nerdy side, there is research about how college affects students, and although this does not specifically reflect on the role of college choice, it does suggest that the advice your grandmother might have given you, namely, “that it’s what you put in to once you are there that matters most, not where you go” is the right approach.  Within college differences make matter more than distinction sbetween institution. Selectivity, meh!

Some relevant bits excerpted (with my comments) from How College Affects Students,

“In our 1991 review, we found that, across all of the outcomes considered, where students attended college had less impact than either the net effect of attending versus not attending college or of differences among individuals’ experiences during college (within-college effects). The more recent evidence underlying the present synthesis reinforces this conclusion. Clearly, the 3,000-plus post-secondary institutions in the United States differ substantially in size, complexity, type of control, mission, financial and educational resources, research-teaching orientation of faculty, reputation and prestige, and characteristics of students enrolled. Yet, with some notable expectations (for instance, 2-year vs. 4-year mostly, with 2-year students showing more development) the weight of evidence from the 1990s casts considerable doubt on the premise that the substantial structural, resource, and qualitative differences among post-secondary institutions produce correspondingly large differences in net educational effects on students. Rather, the great majority of postsecondary institutions appear to have surprisingly similar net impacts on student growth, although the “start’ and “end’ points for students differ across different institutions. Consistent with our 1991 synthesis (as well as with Bowen’s 1977 review), the post-1990 research leads to the conclusion that similarities in between-college effects substantially outweigh the difference.”

(As for “college quality” )—“Aside from these small effects, however, little consistent evidence suggested that college selectivity, prestige, or educational resources had any important net impact in such areas as learning, cognitive and intellectual development, the majority of psychosocial changes, the development of principled moral reasoning, or shifts in attitudes and values.” “…we found that attending an academically selective institution has a negligible impact on knowledge acquisition or general cognitive development.”

“Similarly, we found little evidence of any appreciable effects of institutional selectivity on academic and social self-concept, self-esteem, or other psychosocial dimensions once adjustments were made of other sources of influence. When institutional quality appears to be a factor at all, its impact is small and occasionally negative. (Including less positive dispositions towards diversity which may increase mildly as institutions become more selective.)

The last word to Robert Frost, college dropout.

“What we do in college is to get over our little-mindedness. To get an education you have to hang around till you catch on.”

Funny Words: Philosophers Write Mysteries

Found this great column by philosopher Jonathan Wolff, who has the goods on academic writing.

“At least in my subject, we teach students to go sub-zero on the tension scale: to give the game away right from the start. A detective novel written by a good philosophy student would begin: “In this novel I shall show that the butler did it.” The rest will be just filling in the details.”

Worth reading the whole thing if you are in the academic game.

Tech Friday: An All Green Screen Macbeth

Greenscreen (or more formally compositing) is way of combing video images to create a scene that combines a background and live action.  Wikipedia has a good explanation, and the video production company I work for has done some work in this way.

But I learned this week there is a new film of Macbeth that was done in green screen, meaning that the actors worked in a studio room, and the entire physical environment was created after the fact in post-production.

The trailer is here:

And I will admit that this offers some support the view that Shakespeare remains resistant film. (Works for opera for some reason.)

Yet, looking at the fascinating “making of” videos, I do wonder whether this one could get to the heightened reality of Shakespeare more than a traditional filmmaking technique (there is an artificiality to this world, perhaps with something akin to video games, which embody a digital aesthetic).

It is a work of heightened language and intense dramatic impulse, and there is something so bracing about using technology to match that. Whether it ultimately works or not is an open question, hope to see it later this spring, but perhaps they are on to something.

Art Wednesday: The Leyendecker Tom of Finland Connection

Okay, so this is more like illustration Wednesday, not art, but found by accident a bunch of illustrations from J.C. Leyendecker, a commercial artist,  notable for hundreds of Saturday Evening Post covers and illustrations, among much other work. The Post, which still exists, dates from the golden age of American magazines, serving as an aspirational guide to WASP middle-class life, often delivered through illustrations (and stories) that idealized one (homogenized) strand of the American story.

Norman Rockwell is perhaps the most famous name associated with this publication (and this style of Americana), and it is at the Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA where I first encountered Leyendecker, in an exhibit on great magazine illustrators of the first half of the century. From an American Studies perspective (something my gain is always on high for) these images of an imaginary America are fascinating, being as they are an elegant representation of propaganda for the ‘good life’ at the time that muckrakers were uncovering anything but good lives for many working people, and modern artistic trends were bucking traditional narratives, representational techniques, and embracing photography and film.

But what also caught my eye in the show (now some 20 years ago) was  homoerotic ‘dog-whistles’ that basically shout from the images: wholesome American 20th century masculinity that was gay-gay-gay if you were paying the least bit of attention. (More on that and a biosketch here.)

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Who knows how the artist really conceived this (and even the evidence for his own gayness is circumstantial–letters and papers burned by his longtime companion, after his death), but there is something so evocative about an immigrant, & most likely gay artist, illuminating American manliness in the same way that Broadway musicals of the era (also creations of immigrant others, such as the Russian-born Jew Irving Berlin).

That Leyendecker was creating shadow gay identity in his broad shouldered oarsmen and dapper shirt models seems at least plausible (although he also did many other subjects including iconic Santa Claus images and the ‘baby new year’.)

There is nothing in the shadows about the homoeroticism of Tom of Finland, real name, Touko Valio Laaksonen, born 1920, when Leyendecker was in his 40s). His men aren’t contemplating a game of golf or reading Proust, they are getting their ashes hauled. Some PG rated images below–they get much more explicit fast

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

These images were the opposite of Leyendecker’s. For me at least, they felt like a secret and transgressive gay samizdat (particularly, if you were a young gay man growing up in a conservative southern town as I was).  It’s interesting that they are a fiction too; fantasizing a gay life–hypermasculine and um–endowed beyond belief– in the same way that Leyendecker imbues WASP manliness with a sort aloof nobility. Tom’s men are a little bit sly about their total carnality, and Leyendecker’s men are a little bit carnal about their elegant slyness. Somehow you can easily imagine Leyendecker’s Arrow Shirt man winking at Tom’s leather daddy.

Now, of course, Tom of Finland is practically mainstream, with a Finnish postage stamp commemorative among much else, and Leyendecker, remembered, if at all, for his stylish art, not the America in his mind’s eye. Both an interesting bit of evidence in the ongoing conversation about masculinity, and gay identity, particularly in the American imagination.


Amazon World Book Day: World Lit Giveaway

Although it’s almost over, thought I would give a shout out to the Kindle promotion at Amazon for World Book Day. Nine free downloads.

If you are e-reader user (or have the app of your laptop as I do), it’s worth a look (ends midnight eastern daylight saving time USA tonight). .

And more about the celebration here:



Quotable Words: Scott Korb on John McPhee

This McPhee quote caught my eye in this piece about teaching freshman English.

“Some lines from the great writer John McPhee have helped me consolidate these lessons over the years. Reflecting in The New Yorker in 2011, he wrote: “I once made a list of all the pieces I had written in maybe 20 or 30 years, and then put a check mark beside each one whose subject related to things I had been interested in before I went to college. I checked off more than 90 percent.”

That’s true of me too, but I’m honestly not sure it’s anything to be all that proud of.

In other communications news, Jeff Bezos’ letter to shareholders is out, among its other points, (also picked up by the NYTimes).
“Amazon doesn’t allow PowerPoint slides during meetings. “Instead, we write narratively structured six-page memos,” then silently read them before meetings begin, Mr. Bezos wrote.”


Can’t believe that I agree with him, but I do.

Poetic Words: Walter De La Mare

I have a special place in my heart for ‘minor figures,’ the characters some feet back from stardom in their chosen artistic enterprise.  (Perhaps that comes from my realized contentment in being a second violin in the orchestra of life.)

The British poet, children’s author and novelist Walter De La Mare is one such second violin. Al contemporary of T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden and Ezra Pound, he harkened back to a 19th century literary life, with well-crafted poems, and stories and novels that shaded to the twee.

I had a book of his stories, which I adored, in my earliest days. And of course he turned his hand to some ghost stories and books of rhymes (Victorian pleasures all).  James Campbell has a wonderful run down on him in The Guardian a few years back,

“The repeating elements of his work are the times of day and their domestic rituals, the seasons and their fruits, the symbolic death and rebirth inherent in sleeping and waking, autumn and spring. A dozen poems employ “Winter” in the title; half-a-dozen more, “Snow”. He likes the things that children like, as well as those that children like to fear: scarecrows and shepherds, ghosts and fairies, knights and huntsmen, “bumpity rides”, a lost shoe which is sought from “Spain, and Africa, / Hindustan, / Java, China, / And lamped Japan”; phrases like “Alas, alack”, “do diddle di do” and “riddle-cum-ree”; sailors – mariners, rather – either coasting “sweet o’er the rainbow foam” or fated to be “flotsam on the seas”. Numerous De la Mare poems are simple and delightful nonsense: “Three jolly farmers / Once bet a pound / Each dance the others would / Off the ground”, but many are tinged with subtle melancholy, the effect of a sensitivity attuned to high-pitched notes of grief even at times of contentment.”


Here is his best known poem,

The Listeners
By Walter De La Mare

‘Is there anybody there?’ said the Traveller,
   Knocking on the moonlit door;
And his horse in the silence champed the grasses
   Of the forest’s ferny floor:
And a bird flew up out of the turret,
   Above the Traveller’s head:
And he smote upon the door again a second time;
   ‘Is there anybody there?’ he said.
But no one descended to the Traveller;
   No head from the leaf-fringed sill
Leaned over and looked into his grey eyes,
   Where he stood perplexed and still.
But only a host of phantom listeners
   That dwelt in the lone house then
Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight
   To that voice from the world of men:
Stood thronging the faint moonbeams on the dark stair,
   That goes down to the empty hall,
Hearkening in an air stirred and shaken
   By the lonely Traveller’s call.
And he felt in his heart their strangeness,
   Their stillness answering his cry,
While his horse moved, cropping the dark turf,
   ’Neath the starred and leafy sky;
For he suddenly smote on the door, even
   Louder, and lifted his head:—
‘Tell them I came, and no one answered,
   That I kept my word,’ he said.
Never the least stir made the listeners,
   Though every word he spake
Fell echoing through the shadowiness of the still house
   From the one man left awake:
Ay, they heard his foot upon the stirrup,
   And the sound of iron on stone,
And how the silence surged softly backward,
   When the plunging hoofs were gone.

New Stars, Old Tech

Met Opera stars Piotr Beczala and Susanna Phillips teamed up with some audio historians to make recordings using wax cylinders, technology that is a century old, and helped make household names of Enrico Caruso and Nellie Melba.

Anthony Tommasini of the NYTimes has the story. And the Met has put up (an oddly amateurish) video of the experiment.

This isn’t the first time this has been tried. The great Wagnerian soprano Birgit Nilsson made a recording using acoustical technology rather than electronic microphones. She presented it anonymously to some music critics to see if they could identify her. They couldn’t, and one said, “I don’t know who it was, but it clearly wasn’t a major singer.”

There are all sorts of speculations I’ve harbored about the intersection between opera and recording technology over many years as a more or less faithful opera aficionado. One is raised by this current experiment–how did people hear these recordings? (With the same thrill we can get from a modern high def recording with fidelity to the nth degree?) Or as a faint souvenir of a great voice?

Also, how did recording change the artform–and was it for the better? Certainly it’s easy to speculate that the emphasis on voice above all (which is still the dominant view, if contested) is amplified by a century’s worth of audio, where of course what you have is the voice front and center–and presented in a way that rewards obsessive comparative opera fanaticism. (And pace, yes, I think the voice is important, but I don’t think opera is “about voices,” per se.  Rather, is a thrill because opera is more than the sum of its parts, including theatrical values, such as the physical production, the direction, and overall musical conception, the narrative and dramatic quality of the work, etc. These don’t necessarily show up on wax cylinders, or on CDs or downloads for that matter. (Of course opera on video does provide a sense of this this, and has become for me at least, a lot more rewarding than audio only.)

Finally there is a paradoxical thing–although I find these recordings hard to listen to at many levels, the surface is scratchy and the dynamic range so limited, and yet… they do offer a window into a world of singers and styles that is fascinating, and some singers I have come to treasure (and I hear you saying, because of the voice, and that’s true).

Amelita Galli-Curci is the prime example of this for me. Astonishing technique,  elegant style, and as a YouTube commenter points out, perhaps the most natural singer on the opera stage of her era, or any since.

Silly Words: SnowClones

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that a writer in possession of a good cliché will use it to death.

Tipped by the NYTimes I learned about SnowClones today, these (a formation from the adage about the many “Eskimo words for snow”). A snowclone is an adaptation of a saying to the point that it becomes a clichéd formula, with ever diminishing returns. “X is the new Y” seems to be the paradigmatic case. (“Orange is the New Black” “Matcha is the new Kombucha” “Facebook is the new Stasi“).

There is both a database and a wikipedia page for Snowclones.

Puts me in the mind of the New Yorker humorist Frank Sullivan, with his celebrated (couldn’t resist) cliche expert Mr. Arbuthnot.

%d bloggers like this: