Soft-Spoken in Academia

HallIs there a place for soft-spoken introverts in the competitive fast-paced aggressively limited-time-offer college-industrial complex? The short answer is no. The long answer is no, thank goodness.

I don’t speak often, and when I do, people usually tell me to speak up, and when I do, I try to hand the conversation to someone else. I don’t dislike contributing. What I dislike is overtly dominating conversations, steering them in one direction or another, or making an effort to gain control of the dialogue if I’ve somehow lost it. More than introversion, I prefer to be independently passive, rather than participate actively. I am neither competitive nor aggressive.

What I noticed in teaching an introductory rhetoric class last semester is that students primarily want to know how to win an argument. They want to know how to prove they are right, regardless of whether or not they are in the first place. My pedagogy class last semester reinforced the notion that rhetoric is a competition, and that arguing is an ideal way to participate in society. Academics I have interacted with in higher ed reflect this way of thinking, and it is reflected in the academic system as a whole. A recent conversation I had with scholars (in which I listened exclusively) about recent trends in academia emphasized the need for scholars to publish early and often, to make themselves known through websites and social media, and to compete aggressively for funding and jobs in an already over-saturated market and in fields (the sciences and humanities) that the President and Congress intend to attack in purely symbolic anti-intellectual gestures.

This institutional turn coincided with tuition hikes that have mostly funded increased college administration rather than faculty. The college-industrial complex imposes competition onto both students and faculty, but industrialization might be an overused metaphor, one that is accurate from an outsider’s perspective but does not reflect experiences on the ground level. Instead, it feels like an ecosystem, some stretch of the Great Plains where insects, birds, prairie dogs, and vegetation compete for survival. Academia feels Darwinian because those who do well are those who are aggressive, loud, eager, quick, and uncritical. The push to publish early and often requires faculty to sacrifice either quality or spare time, and students are pushed through an assembly line toward a diploma to simply qualify for numerous jobs, with no time for learning outside their designated specialty. Describing undergraduate requirements asĀ paths and timelines also reinforces the need for students to specialize rather than explore. It’s no wonder so many of my students last semester said they enrolled in an English class to add to their ability to compete, by winning arguments.

And here I am, a shy listener who wants to learn from others more than I believe I can teach them. I won’t thrive in the ecosystem because I value quality over quantity, patience over immediate feedback, and listening over contributing. I consume more ideas than I produce, and as such, I’m not making anything universities can exploit for advertisement or prestige.

I do not contribute to the system, because the system does not run on patience and scruples. It is fueled by the production of ideas, the teeming blue schools of links clicked on a given day, the riptides of steady marketable publications. There is not an overpopulation of ideas, and I do not mean to dismiss self-expression. But there is not a place in the current scheme of things for the soft-spoken, for people who are here to learn regardless of what degrees I may or may not get out of it. I don’t fit in. Maybe that’s a good thing.

-jk

Exciting Spring Break Plans for Grad Students

Spring BreakLet’s face it: Spring Break is an undergrad’s game. Most of them flock to some sunny island whose painful history of colonization you learned about last week in a story form PRI’s The World. Grad students just don’t have the time or money or energy for a ritzy vacation, but that doesn’t mean they can’t have a glamorous Spring Break from the comfort of their university. There are many fun activities grad students can enjoy.

  1. Grade! Spring Break is a great time to catch up on the forty papers your students turned in three weeks ago. Knowing that two thirds of your students will probably go to the obscure Caribbean island you mentioned in your lecture about neo-colonialism will make it easier to point out their spelling mistakes.
  2. Enjoy the library! There’s a fifty percent chance your university library will be torn down to make room for another Business Administration building, so enjoy it while it lasts! Remember, the triple-major out-of-state undergrad running both checkout desks at the library during Spring Break is probably as miserable as you are.
  3. Find places to publish your articles! It’s an exciting time be writing in academia, almost as exciting as a train wreck, but finding the right journal takes time. Whether it’s a case study proving that spiders have more successful dating lives than you do or a new argument about something Shakespeare once wrote, academic journals are eager to publish high quality caffeine/wine-fueled work.
  4. Enjoy public broadcasting! There’s a seventy-six percent chance that NPR and PBS will lose all their funding soon, so enjoy them while you can! Remember, the new administration probably won’t imprison you for supporting them, but if you stream PBS on your laptop or listen to NPR while microwaving your last hot dog, the government will know.
  5. Taxes! You still have time to file your taxes, and between grading forty papers and apologizing to your committee for the typos in your 400-page dissertation about John Carpenter’s The Thing and applying for the same teaching position that 250 more qualified graduates are also applying for, this is your chance! What could be better?
  6. Binge watching while binge drinking! Catch up on your favorite obscure foreign-language Caribbean documentaries you heard about on PRI’s The World or rewatch your favorite sitcom for the seventh time! Remember, one bottle of vodka per season.
  7. Find conferences you can’t afford! You have an idea for a paper to present at the Fall Interdisciplinary Shakespeare in the Caribbean Conference held in the ever-lovely Fargo, North Dakota, and even if you can’t afford to attend, you can still submit your proposal and fantasize about the bus ride to Fargo.

This is your time. You’re a grad student; you’re socially awkward and prefer the company of cynics and hipsters, and you prefer dedicating your time to research and analysis, because without it, you’d go crazy. What is there to do on a sunny beach with hours of boring free time, anyway?

-jk

1917: The Ides of March

Nicholas II and Alexei

Nicholas II and his son Alexei inspecting troops near Mogilev.

On March 15 in the Gregorian Calendar, Tsar Nicholas II abdicated the throne.

Nicholas was returning to Petrograd by train from the Eastern Front. However, the train’s operators “in contact with the Duma Committee” in Petrograd “deliberately exaggerated the threat [of rebels at the train station] in order to keep Nicholas away” from the capitol under the control of the Petrograd Soviet, where he had lost almost all favor with his subjects. (Steinberg & Khrustalev 58). A General and two political leaders met Nicholas at Pskov, where Nicholas ordered the imperial train to reroute to, and encouraged him to abandon the throne at the station. Ultimately, the dissent of generals and military leaders pushed Nicholas to accept that he had been politically defeated.

Nicholas abdicated that night, naming his brother Grand Duke Michael as the next Tsar instead of his son Alexei, whom he deemed too sick. However, Michael decided not to accept the position. In his own statement of abdication on March 16, the Grand Duke wrote,

“. . . I have firmly resolved to assume supreme power only if that should be the will of our great people who will be required by popular vote, through their representatives in the Constitutional Assembly, to create a form of government and new fundamental laws for the Russian State. Therefore, in appealing to God’s blessing, I ask all citizens of the Russian Empire to obey the Provisional Government” (105).

He officially waited for the Duma to pass a resolution favoring him as Tsar, but they never allowed for a vote. Nicholas was infuriated, but he had already abdicated, and there was nothing he could do.

It is only a poetic coincidence that Nicholas abdicated on the Ides of March, or March 15. In 44 BCE, numerous conspirators in Rome assassinated Julius Caesar on March 15 in the midst of Rome’s political crises of the era, through which Rome mutated from a republic to an empire. The Roman historian Plutarch noted that a seer warned Caesar that he would be killed by this date. William Shakespeare made famous the Ides in his own dramatization when a soothsayer shouts to Caesar, “Beware the Ides of March!” to which Caesar responds, “He is a dreamer; let us leave him” (Shakespeare 1.2.100-110). But there is another connection between Caesar and Nicholas.

The word Tsar comes from the word Caesar, which eventually came to mean Emperor. Ivan IV (the Terrible one) was the first Russian Tsar, claiming the title in 1547. An earlier Ivan (Ivan III and presumably not as terrible) had married the niece of the last Byzantine emperor, Constantine XI Palaiologos. The Tsar, then, was a political-religious emperor of Roman-style prestige, with the demise of that prestige already embedded in the title’s narrative as early as Plutarch and sealed in popularity by Shakespeare. By claiming the title Tsar, Ivan IV created a lineage connecting Rome, Byzantium, Orthodox Christianity, Muscovy (Moscow), and Imperial Russia, a lineage that Nicholas II inherited.

But Nicholas was not assassinated on March 15. He merely stepped down from the throne, for what might have been a peaceful transition of government from autocrat to soviet, from empire to republic.

Following abdication, the Romanovs planned to flee to England, but were instead arrested and eventually assassinated, in their entirety, by communists in July of 1918. When Lenin learned about the assassinations, he had been drafting healthcare plans for the new regime. According to historian Wendy Slater, “Lenin showed no obvious reaction to the news. . . The answer, of course, is that Lenin had not wanted Nicholas’s death to happen in this manner. If the Tsar had to die in order for the Revolution to assume legitimacy as Russia’s new government, then his death ought to have been a public execution, following a public trial” (Slater 152-153). For the Bolsheviks, it would have been better politically to let all Russians determine the Tsar’s fate.

For Russia in 1917, March was a volatile turning point, but not a stopping point. The Revolution spun forward, taking monarchs and peasants and dissenters with it. March 15 was significant for the Revolution because a monarch willingly conceded defeat. At the time, there was no conspiracy to depose him, and the assassins would come later. Power, then, was seized quite fluidly by the Provisional Government and the Petrograd Soviet, putting the burden of order entirely on the temporary leadership established by force in the capitol.


Shakespeare, William. Julius Caesar.

Slater, Wendy. The Many Deaths of Tsar Nicholas II. Routledge, 2007.

Steinberg, Mark, Vladimir M. Khrustalev. The Fall of the Romanovs. Yale University Press, 1995.

Regional Writers in a Globalized World

pen

“When I speak of writing from where you have put down roots, it may be said that what I urge is ‘regional’ writing. ‘Regional,’ I think, is a careless term, as well as a condescending one, because what it does is fail to differentiate between the localized raw material of life and its outcome as art. ‘Regional’ is an outsider’s term; it has no meaning for the insider who is writing about life.” -Eudora Welty, The Eye of the Story

When I write, I try to pay close attention to where I write and where I’m writing about. My nonfiction so far has focused on Arizona and the American West, where most of my life has occurred. But I had never thought of myself as a regional writer until a nonfiction instructor encouraged me to look into my university’s Place Studies program. I don’t think of myself as a regional writer, but I can understand how someone could read the hundreds of stories I’ve written about how great Flagstaff is and think I’m a regional writer.

I’m guilty of this too. From my vantage point, Ted Kooser, Mohsin Hamid, Eudora Welty, and Michelle Cliff are regional writers because they focus on places (Nebraska, Lahore, the American South, Jamaica) which I have few, if any, firsthand experiences with.

Eudora Welty offers a more useful observation when she writes, however briefly, about the perspective of the insider. She points out that the term “regional writing” is useful only for readers who are outside the writer’s perspective. Decades after she penned those words, the literary community has become wholly global, working in physical and online spaces. No one writer’s insider perspective is independent of outside influences.

Globalization’s consequences are rapidly becoming more visible for those who do not experience it directly. Climate change, free trade agreements, military investments, and world trade organizations force more and more people to emigrate. Similar forces are behind the reactionary anti-immigration ideologies that have proliferated or, more accurately, become more active again. Many writers are aware of this fact; many writers and even more readers are immigrants or the children of immigrants. One of the limits of defining writers regionally is that, more and more, literature is transnational.

Sometimes readers refuse to acknowledge this. Sometimes readers use their lack of experience with a given writer’s region as an excuse to exoticize and categorize. Doing so risks reinforcing a kind of literary colonial gaze, making a spectacle of subaltern writers for the colonial center to consume and monitor, shelving authors based on place of origin (nationality, immigration status, religion, race, ethnicity) rather than subject matter, genre, or form. Again, I have also been guilty of this shelving authors this way.

More than ever, literature is a transnational affair. Many writers have inherited a multitude of regions. Their lived experiences, their insider perspectives, often reflect the broad expanse of roots these writers claim.

Eudora Welty adds that “whatever our place, it has been visited by the stranger, it will never be new again. It is only the vision that can be new; but that is enough.” If this is true, then no truly regional writer exists. In a globalized world, no region is isolated enough for a writer to inhabit it independently.

This is not to suggest the literary community is a global village or that writers should act as free-floating clouds. I could not have written Fatimah Asghar’s wonderful poem “If They Should Come for Us” or Ted Kooser’s collection The Blizzard Voices or Reyna Grande’s memoir The Distance Between Us or Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist or any of the hundreds of short stories and essays published in 2017 so far by authors both rooted and rootless. I cannot write to inhabit another person’s space; to do so is to be a tourist because I can return to the safety of my own region the moment it becomes convenient. It is better, as Welty implies, to write from the murky inside I inhabit now, not for an outsider’s diet but for the global readership that any published work has the potential to reach.

-jk


Welty, Eudora. The Eye of the Story. Vintage International, 1990.

John Steinbeck’s Peach Upside-Down Cake

the-lone-survivorIn 1902 on February 27, John Steinbeck was born, kicking off a wonderful century of war and economic strife. To celebrate his birthday, you can either have a disgusting beer milkshake or delicious mush or even a glass of extremely fresh milk. Or you can be sensible about the whole thing and make peach upside-down cake.

First, lose your land to a bank and drive to California, where the good peaches are. You should lose one or two family members on the trip, which means more cake for you. Lucky you. Find work at a peach orchard and collect four to five un-bruised peaches that you can take back to rusted-out boiler you live in with your seven remaining children back in Monterey. Sell one of those children to buy 1/2 cup of butter, 2/3 cup of brown sugar, 1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon, and use whatever is left to buy as much bourbon as possible. Slice the peaches, melt the butter, add the brown sugar and cinnamon and a little bourbon if there’s any left after you’ve coped with the Great Depression that is living in California.

Work a few shifts at an apple orchard as a scab while a strike occurs and make enough to buy 2 cups of flour, one teaspoon of baking powder, 1/2 teaspoon salt, two sticks of butter, 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, 2 eggs, 3/4 cup of sugar, 3 teaspoons vanilla, and several more cases of bourbon because one of your children broke into your stash and is no longer with us, which means one more child who doesn’t have to live in California. Beat the butter and sugar together, the way the system has beaten you, until smooth and creamy, unlike you. Mix in eggs, vanilla,and cinnamon. Add flour and baking powder and mix together. Meanwhile, you have probably lost a few more kids in the police raid on the striking apple pickers.

Take the hubcap of a Model T Ford and place the peach slices at the bottom with the butter-sugar mix. Pour the cake batter over it and cook at 350 degrees Fahrenheit or over an open fire on the side of the road for 35 minutes or until the bosses catch you and have you sent to jail with your one remaining child.

Enjoy the cake barefoot at the side of a river while you contemplate modernism and the horrors of living in America and probably a turtle or some worthless birds or some other obvious metaphor. Also, you’re probably a metaphor for Jesus by now, so change your initial to JC.

Also, happy birthday, John Steinbeck.

-jk

1917: The First Soviets

petrograd-soviet-1917

Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies, 1917. Photograph by Viktor Bulla (1883-1938)

The Russian word Soviet means council or congress, a unified and organized body of persons, a congregation or polity. The first Soviet appeared in the Revolution of 1905 when urban workers organized. It diminished quickly soon after, and did not implement the socialist revolution that many early factions (Socialists, Marxists, Anarchists) had hoped for. It would take twelve years for Soviets to form again, in early 1917.

Lenin described the first Soviets as workers spontaneously developing class consciousness. In 1918, he called the Soviets the “direct organization of the working and exploited people themselves” (Lenin). He viewed them as self-organizing microstates, writing that “Soviets are the Russian form of the proletarian dictatorship [and should] be transformed into state organizations” rather than mere revolutionary organs (Lenin). From Lenin’s perspective, the Soviets could be utilized as more than workers’ organizations and instead be states.

But anything Lenin wrote about the 1917 Soviets should be taken with several pounds of salt. To begin with, Lenin and many other Bolshevik leaders were not involved in the Soviets’ formation because they were exiled from Russia at the time. Second, the Bolsheviks had a clear end in mind (a new state) whereas the early Soviets were motivated by economic relief rather than statehood.

World War One is an important context for the 1917 Soviets. In February, Tsar Nicholas II left for the Eastern Front, abandoning citizens to concentrate on a failing war that had already killed thousands of Russians. Additionally, as Mark Steinberg points out, the emergence of a “sphere of civic activities situated in a social space beyond private life and not completely under the control of the state, made enormous differences in the lives of many Russians. . . Voluntary associations proliferated. They included literacy and temperance societies, business and professional associations, workers’ mutual assistance funds, private schools, and varied cultural circles” as well as trade unions and new political parties (38). Turn-of-the-century organizations legitimized new political ideologies, including anarchism and socialism, which, coupled with increased literacy and private discourse beneath the radar of the regime, contributed to Russians’ range of organizational possibilities.

By March 8 (in the Gregorian calendar), on International Women’s Day, working-class women joined protestors and marched through Petrograd. A police officer named Ilia Mitrofanovich Gordienko recalls in a memoir that women chanted “‘Down with the war! Down with high prices! Down with hunger! Bread to the workers'” and that “Clashes with the police took place near the City Duma and in other places, but these were only minor skirmishes. . . The same thing happened the next day” (Daly & Trofimov 36). The Petrograd Police Chief, Aleskandr Pavlovich Balk, noted that on March 10, “the factories functioned less intensively than on the previous days. Workers walked off the job in groups, holding rallies as they went” and that soldiers from the Pavlovskii Guard Regiment not only protested but fired upon officers attempting to disperse them (41).

On March 12, desperate and with little left to lose, workers stormed Tauride Palace, occupying it while protests continued in the streets. Inside the Palace, striking workers and mutinous soldiers created the Provisional Executive Committee of the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies, a new Petrograd Soviet, as documented by the socialist witness Nikolai Nikolaevich Himmer:

“There was no order even in the meeting itself. There was no permanent chairman. Chkheidze, who later performed the chairman’s duties almost permanently, didn’t do much work in the Ex. Com. during its first days. He was constantly being summoned–either to the Duma Committee or the Soviet sessions or, above all, ‘to the people,’ the constantly-changing crowd standing in front of Tauride Palace. . . If anyone had the means to [restore order to the city] it was the Soviet, which was beginning to acquire control over the masses of the workers and soldiers” (46).

He later critiqued the Soviet as too disparate to function as a government, stating that it was capable only of “moral functions” (48). The act of occupying Tauride Palace was the moment of class consciousness Lenin and other orthodox Marxists obsessed over, but after that moment, the desire for restoring order became a difficult task, resulting in the negotiated creation of a Provisional Government meant to restore order in the absence of the Tsar, who would abdicate on March 15.

The spontaneous, illegal occupation of public space was the revolutionary moment of crisis that Lenin and the Bolsheviks missed. It was the moment workers and soldiers united for the primal task of surviving a system that was rapidly killing them. Like Egyptians taking Tahrir Square in 2011, the Women’s March on Versailles in 1789, and the successful slave rebellion of the Haitian Revolution, the impromptu formation of a Soviet in Tauride Palace was a purely revolutionary moment, one of Hakim Bey’s Temporary Autonomous Zones. It occurred before the state could monitor and contain it. It resulted in a new government that Bolshevik elites like Lenin would dissolve to implement a prescribed plan for utopia.

This is why Bey describes autonomous zones as temporary. Utopia, if achieved in a revolutionary context, is always temporary. Soviets coalesced spontaneously without a clear end, but most managed to redistribute food, water, and health to suffering workers and rebellious soldiers. Like the Reign of Terror in France, the gradual rule of elites in Haiti, and the authoritarianism of el-Sisi in Egypt, the eventual October Revolution (more of a Bolshevik coup) undid the revolutionary potential opened up by the Soviet in Tauride Palace and other Soviets that formed in factories and military units throughout Russia in the Spring of 1917.


Bey, Hakim. From TAZ: The Temporary Autonomous Zone, in Cultural Resistance Reader, ed. Stephen Duncombe, New York: Verso (2002), 113-118.

Daly, Jonathan, Leonid Trofimov. Russia in War and Revolution, 1914-1922. Hackett Publishing Group, 2009.

Lenin, Vladimir. The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky. 1918.

Steinberg, Mark. Voices of Revolution, 1917. Yale University Press, 2001.

The Life and Times of a Short Story

short-story-draftThe young short story begins with a bang as the author manages to write six thousand words in several non-continuous sittings over the course of two weeks, though the author will later describe it in workshop as a single moment of creative pure truth. The short story matures with each passing workshop, experiencing growing pains, expanding and then suddenly being cut by a thousand words repeatedly, and not just because Rick from workshop said it “felt a little novelish.”

Still young for a while, the short story has a weird look. The story has a lot of split endings and wears a tight title that leaves little to the reader’s imagination, which the author is unaware of for several weeks because the author is too busy trying to understand Rick’s workshop submission, which involves a duck and how great New York apparently is.

Eventually, the story graduates from college with a sense of completion: the story has a clear beginning and ending and a fitting title. The story is submitted to four small literary journals. Like many American short stories, this story waits confidently for six months while resting in the back of the author’s hard drive with several older, wiser short stories.

After the first four rejections, the short story wonders about getting a better title, or if there was something wrong with the cover letter. The author polishes the story a bit with a quick makeover and pedicure to work out the typos and plot holes, then sends the reinvigorated story out to five journals. The short story’s determination is palpable.

But palpable determination is not enough, because after five more rejections, the story spirals into a mid-life crisis and gets two new characters and a new ending and then loses five hundred words after going to the gym. The short story feels better and is sent off to seventeen journals, six of which have already rejected the story as politely as is possible in an email. Meanwhile, Rick from workshop has been coasting on his one probably accidental publication in The New Yorker.

Seventeen rejections later, the short story finally decides to retire out of frustration. The author sees the potential in the story, but understands the difficulty in publication and ultimately thinks that better stories are waiting to be written. The author could dwell on the story for ten more years, but several new ideas have emerged in the author’s imagination, so the short story quietly goes back into a file on the author’s computer, solemnly labeled “Short Stories,” and is never heard from again. But the story lives on quietly in the author’s memory, and the memory of Rick from workshop who said it was pretentious and overwritten, but his characters are all just watered down versions of himself, so he can go lick a brick.

-jk