Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Announcement about Office Hours 29 May 2013

Students, as I have been advised I must attend a meeting beginning at 1130a tomorrow, 29 May 2013, I will not be holding regularly scheduled office hours.  I do expect to be available for some time after the meeting, however, so if you need to meet with me, email ahead to let me know you are coming.  As usual, I can be reached at geoffrey.b.elliott@gmail.com.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Comments on What Might as Well Be a Paper

That a person who holds a doctorate in English does a lot of reading is unsurprising.  That said person, living in the twenty-first century in the United States, reads a number of websites is equally unsurprising.  Perhaps a bit of a surprise is that one of those websites is Cracked.com.  Perhaps more surprising is that an article on it, Gladstone's "4 Reasons Raiders of the Lost Ark Is Secretly about Drugs" suggests itself as an example of essay formulation such as is practiced in composition classes and of the deployment of close reading such as is practiced in literature classes.

Admittedly, there are some limits to the applicability of the piece as a model for classroom writing.  One of them derives from the medium of publication.  Transmission of text on internet sites intended for the general public (as opposed to specialized professional groups, sites for which are frequently protected by paywalls and which will, as most professional communication does, deploy jargon extensively) requires features of form--typically brevity--that are not entirely appropriate to the detailed investigations required of composition and literature students.  Additionally, internet writing typically relies more upon hyperlinks than formal citation,* which is not wrong but is, again, inappropriate for the academic writing to which collegiate coursework is an introduction.  Adjusting for medium is fairly easily done, however, so that, despite the limitations of orthographic and paratextual form, Gladstone's essay serves as a useful example for students in collegiate English studies.

In addition, the article is presented as a light piece, not to be regarded as "serious" or authoritative.  The host website, Cracked.com, describes itself as "America's Only Humor Site," a description not entirely accurate and one that, in explicitly offering the site as a venue for levity, encourages readers not to take it--or the articles hosted on it--seriously.  The first few paragraphs of the article itself actively ridicule the idea of essay writing, both in collegiate composition coursework and for online consumption.  The former emerges in the author's comments about his college English program having "placed absolutely no emphasis on researching historical context or referencing previously published literary analysis. You could just read and spin your wheels."  The description hardly speaks to academic rigor, but aligns instead with oft-heard comments that courses in the humanities and liberal arts are wastes of student time.  It does not mark the author as particularly expert in the study or practice of writing, and so appears to undermine the credibility of the article.  So does the description of writing for online audiences the author offers: "If you write an essay for the Internet, however, and you want people to read it, you number your points, keep the conclusion super short, and write an introduction no one reads."  The simplification of presentation and the futility of seemingly necessary parts of that presentation are made explicit, openly labeling the article as a base thing of no true importance.  The article, then, situates itself in a position of obvious abjection, one in which it ought not to be taken seriously.

The position facilitates the presentation of the article as a work of humor through the deployment of irony, however.  The juxtaposition of expectation with its opposite, irony is a frequently used comedic device, and the self-positioning of the article in abjection serves an ironic function, helping to make it funny.  It is not entirely expected, after all, that a piece of writing will label itself as unreliable, yet statements of incapacity are frequently deployed by those who seek to assert their own authority; major examples of the behavior appear in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal.  Gladstone's deployment of self-denigration, then, links his work to major threads in traditionally canonical English literature, ironically and tacitly asserting its authority in the very denial of it and thereby developing comedic effect at the same time.  Humor is often used as a means of social critique, permitting discussion of issues in a relatively non-threatening way, so that the position of the article on the site potentially enables it to carry out sustained explication of social phenomena--which is a privileged position.  Again, the act of denying authority serves to accentuate the authority of the piece, an ironic function that marks the article as one crafted well and therefore deserving of attention and consideration.

That attention quickly reveals that the article functions as an admirable example of the kind of work students are encouraged to do in composition and literature classes.  "4 Reasons Raiders of the Lost Ark Is Secretly about Drugs" exhibits a clear breakdown of introduction and discussion.  The introduction serves to provide context for the discussion to follow, laying out the circumstances of composition, the topic to be discussed, and the claim to be supported, much as standard compositional doctrine has long held should be the case.  In addition, the introduction engages the Aristotelian rhetorical triangle not only making an appeal to the audience's emotions through the aforementioned humor, but also in establishing the author's credibility.  It does so through invocation of the author having studied English at the collegiate level and written a number of essays thereby, as well as referencing his current profession as an essayist by noting his standing employment and reciting the features of form that work has shown him are necessary for his audience.  He demonstrates a decided rhetorical awareness in doing so, which further reinforces his credibility and aids his introduction in serving as a model for college writing in composition and literature courses.

The essay's thesis, noted in the introduction, also offers a useful model.  Gladstone's piece is relatively short, totaling less than two thousand words.  It does not seek to treat the entirety of film, or even the whole of one film franchise.  Instead, it focuses on the treatment of a single character in the film, and not even the ostensible protagonist.  The thesis is narrowly tailored to the constraints of the medium of publication and the individual project, as those of students are well advised to be.

The discussion also offers an example of work worth emulating.  It is conducted point by point in easily understood chronological order, opening with a brief note about action prior to the beginning of the movie and moving through the entire arc of the plot.  In addition, it appears to follow a blended rhetorical order, opening with a strong point then moving to a relatively weak point before progressively intensifying the strength of its points to arrive at the strongest available support.  The first of Gladstone's four points deploys just over five hundred words of discussion and four photos.  The second takes fewer than two hundred seventy-five words and five pictures, while the third deploys approximately three hundred seventy-five words and six photos.  Frequently, the more discussion that a given point of support will sustain, the stronger a point it can be taken to be.  The pattern of the first three points of discussion form therefore openly corresponds to a standard pattern of argument.

The fourth and final point of discussion may appear to violate the pattern; it offers only some three hundred eighty words and three photos, so that in terms of raw content it appears to be weaker than the initial point of discussion and only marginally stronger in text than the second and third points.  And there is an obvious weakness in an admission of the author's; Gladstone notes "no independent research beyond the confines of the source material will be done" in executing the project, introducing a possible error through failure to consider the relevant outside information (although even this offers a valuable lesson to collegiate composition and literature students: do not eschew relevant outside research).  But there is a peculiar strength in the final point in the discussion.  In the work discussed in the essay, Raiders of the Lost Ark, the existence of the Judeo-Christian Deity is taken as a given, and the artifacts associated therewith are necessarily accorded--and regarded as having--overwhelming power.  It is only the fourth point of discussion that treats the Deity and the associated artifact of the titular Ark.  It discusses the focal item of the film, an item of rare and extraordinary power, and it does so in a hauntingly penetrating way that lingers in the readerly mind.  Despite its relative lack of heft, then, it is a particularly strong point, positioned at the end as is appropriate to the model of composition taught in college writing and reading courses.  The essay ends up providing examples of two systematic presentations, helping the audience to follow along in a manner towards which composition students could usefully aspire and modeling the dominant pattern of argumentation that students are often explicitly encouraged to adopt for their own.

Each point of discussion in Gladstone's essay also follows a model advocated for use by students of collegiate composition and literature.  After introductory contextualizing materials that serve to move the essay into the new point, each section of discussion articulates a claim in support of the central thesis, then offers evidence to support that claim and explains how the evidence does so.  For example, the first point of discussion notes events prior to but referenced in the movie being discussed, offering context and transition.  It then makes a claim about the extent to which Marion--the character about whom the thesis is articulated--is chemically dependent: "Marion owns a bar and seems to have a serious drinking problem.  She appears to be at the worst level of alcoholism where the addict doesn't even feel the effects of alcohol."  Immediately thereafter, it moves into offering and explaining evidence to support the claim: Marion drinks an exceptionally high amount of alcohol to defeat an opponent in a drinking contest, then ejects people from her bar, indicating that she is so accustomed to the influence of the chemical that it exerts little effect on her even in extreme amounts.  The other points of discussion function similarly, and in so doing, they model the end-result of the kind of writing that students are often exhorted to do in their college writing and reading classes.

Some features of the essay specifically address concerns of college literature classes.  Gladstone notes that his own English program focused away from conducting outside research, and while that can be a weakness (as noted above), it does offer an example of a method of literary analysis called close reading.  The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory notes that close reading is a method involved in I.A. Richards's practical criticism (142), itself described as "Criticism based on close analysis of a text in isolation" (694).  Although it does not stand effectively on its own, as the restriction of text from its contexts imposes artificial limitations upon the text and therefore upon understanding of it, close reading is a necessary component of literary analysis.  Gladstone demonstrates carrying out such close reading throughout "4 Reasons Raiders of the Lost Ark Is Secretly about Drugs."  For example, his second point of discussion offers the idea that Marion's conduct in Cairo serves to indicate that her association with Indiana Jones imposes upon her a chemical abuse problem from which others unsuccessfully try to free her.  He explicates how narrow features of her attire (white clothing), behavior (drinking, an eerily haunted smile and seemingly unfocused eyes, hiding in a basket), and environment (the monkey) serve to indicate the resurgent drug-associated difficulties that surround her involvement with Jones.  The explained interaction of evidence from the film, described and displayed in stills from it, and larger symbolic contexts allows the underlying thesis to be borne out, exemplifying close reading.  In offering an easily accessible summary definition of the process--"You come up with a thesis. That's a theory. Then you point to specific examples within the context of the examined work to prove your point."--Gladstone introduces a fundamental component of literary analysis.  That he then works through a model thereof illustrates the results of the writing process he describes.  It is admittedly cursory, failing to note the cycles of prewriting, drafting, and revision that lead to the finished essay, but it is nonetheless useful as an illustrative example of a short critical essay treating a text, broadly defined.

Another feature of the essay particularly helpful for literature classes, and perhaps the most notable, is that it advocates a position divergent from common understanding.  Gladstone's thesis is that "Raiders of the Lost Ark is not an action-adventure movie about an archaeologist who plays by his own rules and saves the day. Instead, the film is an exploration of Marion Ravenwood's crippling drug addiction."  He argues that the story is not, in fact, about the character after whom the franchise is named, which is an extravagant claim to make; the eponymous character is supposed to be the one the work is about.  The author makes the claim unashamedly--the thesis appears in bold type on the website where it is hosted--and he works to support that argument in detail.  It is possible that his assertion is incorrect; Gladstone admits of limitations in his own argument, and there are others he does not explicitly address, as noted above.  That he makes the attempt to voice and support an opinion, despite going against conventional wisdom, is the important feature; students of literature and of culture more generally will do well to emulate the behavior.  This is not to say that the argument should be contrarian for the sake of being contrarian.  It is to say instead that the argument should not be avoided because it is contrarian; if there is sufficient evidence to sustain the discussion, then it is a discussion worth having.

Gladstone's essay offers a useful compositional model.  It serves as a reminder that good writing appears in many places and many forms.  It also demonstrates that the skills developed in college writing and literature classes, far from being isolated from the "real" world, are valuable outside of the classroom as well as within it.  Paying greater attention to improving those skills suggests itself therefore as well worth doing.

*Note that this essay, as it appears online, does make use of hyperlinks.  It is also a somewhat academic treatment, so it also deploys formal MLA-style citation, both in text and at the end of the text, as is obligatory.

Works Cited
~Cracked.com. Demand Media, 2013. Web. 24 May 2013.
~Cuddon, J.A. The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory. Rev. C.E. Preston. 4th ed. New York: Penguin, 1999. Print. 
~Gladstone. "4 Reasons Raiders of the Lost Ark Is Secretly about Drugs." Cracked.com. Demand Media, 24 May 2013. Web. 24-25 May 2013.
~Raiders of the Lost Ark. Dir. Steven Spielberg. Perf. Harrison Ford, Karen Allen, and Paul Freeman. Paramount, 2008. DVD.
~Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Trans. W.A. Neilson. Cambridge, Ontario, Canada: In Parentheses, 1999. PDF file.
~Swift, Jonathan. A Modest Proposal. Renascence Editions. U of Oregon, 1999. Web. 24 May 2013.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Announcements Regarding Summer 2013 and Fall 2013

Students, it would seem that I have been recalled to teaching at Technical Career Institutes for the Summer 2013 term, something that pleases me greatly.  I have been assigned six classes once again, although the distribution is somewhat different than had become normal for me:

ENG 102: Freshman Composition II
ENG 202: Technical Writing and Presentation
HUM 110: Speech
LIT 203: Introduction to American Literature

I am still in the process of compiling materials for the classes new to me; please check back here and on the course webpages for new details.

It would seem also that I have been awarded a sabbatical leave for the fall, so I will remain employed by the school although I will not be teaching.  Instead, I will be conducting additional literary research, primarily on the process through which Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur became the canonical text of English-language Arthurian legend, although I may well work on other projects concurrently.  The idea is that conducting the research will help me to learn more, thereby allowing me to teach from a deeper and more refined understanding, and so my teaching will be better.  Also, I have some hope that the resulting scholarship will attract favorable attention, making it better to have been under my tutelage.

I am grateful to have the opportunities both to return to teaching and to focus on research in the near future.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

During Intersession Unemployment

That I have not been offered classes at one institution does not mean that I am giving up on the teaching for which I have trained and which I enjoy doing as much as I do.  Currently, I have a number of job applications out, and while some of them are in the private sector, most are for jobs teaching at the college level.  I hope to be successful at finding other teaching work, and I look forward to having more students under my tutelage in the months and years to come.