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Luck

Thomas Jefferson once said “I often find that the harder I work the luckier I am.” Actually, probably not. He is attributed with having said or written something of the sort, but the accuracy of internet quotations is such that I didn’t bother looking up the exact phrasing.*** The sentiment is the same however, regardless of the original context.

This aphorism fits neatly into a motivation, can-do ethos that suggests anything is possible if you just work hard enough. It fits nicely on a poster, too, but so do a lot of statements.

The problem is that this ethos is also a recipe for burnout when taken to its logical extreme. Graduate school particularly suffers from this sort of progression, but a series of articles have recently look at burnout as a social problem crushing some combination of millennials, young people, and/or everyone suffering from precarity.

As a junior scholar trying to make my way in the world of academia, I came to hate the word “if” in 2018. “If” is dangerous. If I just do X, Y, or Z, ad infinitum.

Without perspective, “if” paves the road to burnout. The problem is that “if” brims with potential, with hope. Hard work and hope are both good, but sometimes they can come to naught. Sometimes the most important “if” is “if I get a lucky break.”

Not the luck of hard work, but pure, simple, ineffable luck of forces beyond your control breaking the right way.

I wrote this post in hotels and airports while returning to Columbia from a campus interview where I was a finalist for a tenure track job. As I sit in an airport in Dallas I just keep coming back to the question, “Do I feel lucky?”

I embargoed this post until the  job search ended. I found out this morning that the job went to someone else.

UPDATE: ***My father pointed out to me that the original quote is attributed to L. Anneaus Seneca. A cursory Google search says this attribution dates to at least 1912 in a collection of quotations, but is thought to be a corruption of De Beneficiis 7.1.4, on the best wrestler being not the one who prepares all the tricks, but the one who masters one or two and looks for the opportunity to use them.

Polishing Your Prose

“Writing is hard” is a truism, but these three words conceal a more complicated reality. Simple word generation, though looking for the right words is rarely simple, is comparatively simple. Taking words found on the first pass and polishing them until they shine––until they dance and sing when someone takes their time to read them––is hard. In short: writing is easy; editing is hard.

Fortunately, editing is a learned skill, and there is no shortage of guidebooks on the subject, each offering a series of rules, tips, and tricks. Polishing Your Prose, written by the brothers Stephen and Victor Cahn, belongs to this genre.

The first section of Polishing Your Prose, “strategies,” presents ten key concepts for clear and concise writing. They eschew the idea that these are “rules,” but go on to largely repeat commonly-held rules for writing such as eliminating empty constructions, redundancy, and jargon, minimizing adverbs and adjectives, and making sure that pronouns have clear antecedents. Other strategies are equally straightforward but more subtle, such varying sentence structure, using parallel structures for coordinating elements, using transitions to link ideas, and placing the most dramatic material at the end of the sentence thereby allowing sentences and paragraphs to build toward a crescendo.

The Cahns present each strategy simply, as though it is common sense, with the occasional gem of observational wisdom, such as “if you can’t find an appropriate transition, your ideas may not be as coherent as your presume.”

The second section puts these words into action with three paragraphs from an early draft of an essay on teaching math that eventually saw the light of publication. Word by word, sentence by sentence, and paragraph by paragraph, the Cahns work through these passages and talk about their thought process to polish the text. They suggest that the reader edit the paragraphs before reading on, but without an easy way to do this I skipped the step. Nevertheless, there is a lot to be gleaned from reading their thought-process, such as noting that paragraphs need to maintain unified themes and that careful use of a thesaurus is a writer’s friend. Most of all, as the conclusion reminds us, this section demonstrates that editing is not a straightforward process, but one that requires constant tinkering, reworking, and reconsideration choices, because editing, like writing, is a matter of choice.

Polishing Your Prose shares much of its advice with other books in this genre, in large part because there is no grand secret to writing well. What I appreciated about this one is its emphasis on process. The Cahns assume everyone has their own voice, and Polishing Your Prose is designed to draw attention to the choices an author in the hopes that that voice can sing.

Before wrapping this up, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the epilogue. I appreciated the rest of the book and can see using a variation of part two in a classroom, but the epilogue, which consisted of an autobiographical piece from each author, stole the show. The one detailed a class in graduate school where the professor demanded that the students resolve a philosophical problem by thinking for themselves rather than referring to a body of literature that as a first year student he knew nothing about––and in so doing this professor forced the students to learn. The other was a comic tale of youthful male hubris that I ate up. Both essays amounted to the authors flexing, mature authors offering ample evidence why one ought to pay attention to their advice.

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#PhDSkills is a collaborative project created by Naomi Rendina and Greg Wiker where graduate students and early-career academics volunteer to read and review on Twitter books on teaching and writing. Polishing Your Prose is my third contribution, the final one scheduled to date. I am happy to talk about the book further in the comments or on Twitter.

Form and Content: a note on writing

“Do I have to write in paragraphs?”

I used to receive variations of this question every semester, and I’m sure that I will hear it again from students, often first years, who are deeply concerned about the expectations of an academic essay.

“Yes,” I answer, not because I’m against creative presentation, but because giving the option of using a bullet-point list undermines the hard work of stitching a series of thoughts into a single argument.

Echoes of this frantic question have come back to me in recent weeks, first while reading John Warner’s Why They Can’t Write, and then again when I saw a lament on Twitter about the encroaching tyranny of the listicle as a medium of discourse.

Every format has strengths and weaknesses.

The essay, a medium for which I have a great deal of affection, lays out an argument or tells a story by leading the reader from one point to the next. In the hands of a master the essay is a lyrical medium, but it is not only hard, but also unsuited to all tasks.

A list, for instance, conveys information simply and concisely in the face of tumult and complexity. There is comfort in lists, but they belie fluidity. An example: I have kept one of my favorite novels for years, but between the fogginess of memory and whims of a given day the novel that belongs in the ninth spot of the list changes.

An outline gives the structure of an argument, even if the actual order, at least in my experience, is liable to change in the execution.

The listicle, by contrast, is a cross between the list and the essay. It takes the argument and points of an essay and meshes it with the order and structure of a list. Meatier than a list and more easily digested than an essay, it is perfect for consumption on a mobile device, matched for a fast-paced world.

Good writing is good writing, and the same holds here, but the very efficiency of the listicle also contributes to its forgettability. Where I can rattle off a dozen or more essays that I recommend to people, there is not a single listicle I can say the same about unless I thought to do so while reading it. But I’m also busy, and therefore generally happy to skim through a listicle on any number of topics where I might decide that reading and processing an essay is too much of a commitment.

In the classroom there are any number of ways to cut corners and grade more quickly, but my objective is not speed. Outlines are a nice tool, whether to help students organize their thoughts, prepare a long written piece, or (my preference) part of the revision process, but it is not the same thing as learning how to pull together a complete piece of writing.

Hewing to John Warner’s mantra that writing is thinking, the ability to lead your reader from one point to another is a learned skill that requires repetition, feedback, and revision. In this sense, the very trepidation that my students exhibit about writing is validation for having them write fully-formed essays.

The Poppy War

About a year ago I started to hear buzz about a new fantasy book in a world modeled on east Asia. I adore Ken Liu’s Dandelion Dynasty books and other diverse settings for my fantasy novels, so The Poppy War quickly rose on the list of books I wanted to read. The fact that the author, R.F. Kuang, was a young Chinese-American woman studying modern Chinese history both added to the intrigue, even if it also threw up a caution flag.

The Poppy War opens with the official examination that will determine the future for the test-takers––that is, which academy they can attend. For Rin, a poor war orphan abused by her drug-smuggling adopted parents in the poor, rural, isolated South of the Nikara Empire, it provides one chance: earn the top score and earn admission to Sinegard, the academy for the children of warlords, or resign herself to an unwanted marriage.

Of course, getting into the academy creates new problems. Rin finds her new classmates, and particularly Nezha, insufferably arrogant, while they find her unprepared and uncouth. Most of her teachers don’t have the same concerns, as she shows potential and an flair for rash and risky solutions to impossible situations. Their problems arise in that Rin doesn’t always consider the consequences of her strategies. Nevertheless Strategy master Irjah and the eccentric Lore master Jiang take a particular interest in this impetuous student who, in addition to scoring well relative to her peers, is drawn to reexamining the official story of the destruction of Speer, a tributary of the Nikara, at the end of the last war with Mugen.

Rin thrives, despite the obstacles, but her life is again thrown into disarray when the neighboring nation, the Mugen federation, invades Nikara, determined to finish what they started in the previous war––a war only ended after brutal destruction of Speer and the intervention from distant powers. The trainees are thrown into war before they are ready; Rin is assigned to the shadowy Cike, a secretive force of assassins and shamans, and faces a choice: tap into her latent shamanic powers and destroy the Mugen by striking a deal with the Phoenix god or remain human and allow their crimes to go unpunished, losing all of Nikara, and quite possibly her life, in the process.

The Poppy War is a propulsive grimdark fantasy based on events in Chinese history where bad things happen and there are few good options. For all of the brutality and self-harm that Rin commits, though, its basic plot points, particularly through the first half of the book, follow a traditional wish-fulfillment path. Orphan works hard and turns out to be brilliant, goes to a school where she makes an enemy of one student and one teacher, but is adopted by the school’s eccentric master, who teaches her that she has powers she didn’t know about. Its Chinese setting and female lead are just trappings on this basic structure.

And this is fine. The novel is eminently readable and there are plenty of these stories built around white men, so there is virtue in putting this sort of story in Asian and female clothes. But neither did it make The Poppy War stand out.

What had initially piqued my interest in this story was the promise of Chinese history written. And is it. Chinese history oozes from the pages, starting with the map that posits Nikara (very)roughly the shape of China and Mugen Japan, the attention to bias within the Nikara empire, the primary geopolitical conflict modeled on the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945) right down to the playing out of the Rape of Nanking, and a sage-strategist whose maxims are literally those of Sun Tzu. After the fact, I saw Kuang say she modeled Rin’s trajectory on that of Mao.

And here’s the thing: I didn’t love it.

The fact that stories were ripped straight from the headlines of history consequences. Kuang fictionalized the names and places, but kept the maxims, plots, and even broad geography, which, in some ways, diminished the world-building because it came across like her contribution was to add a spot of magic and then strip away the complexity and depth of the real world. There were a couple of points where this wasn’t true in ways that hinted her promise, but these were the exception. Either dropping this story as a fictionalized history (think: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell) or keeping the plots while doing more to fictionalize and develop the setting would have, in my opinion, mitigated all of these problems.

This is what I meant when I said that Kuang’s youth raised a red flag. Both of these features strike me as common to young authors. The fact that she wrote a propulsive, engaging, and fun novel while tackling an ambitious set of humanistic and moral questions, including radical inequality, is an enormous achievement. I enjoyed The Poppy War, even if I was simultaneously disappointed. While I am not going to hail it as the next great fantasy novel, my main takeaway is that I hope Kuang has a long career and am excited to see what she puts out next.

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I have been on a fantasy kick of late, in large part because I’m too tired to do the heavy lifting of some of the Literature I have on my shelf. I recently finished S.A. Chakraborty’s The City of Brass and just began George R.R. Martin’s Fire and Blood.

American Prometheus

“There is a dramatic moment and the history of the man, what made him act, what he did, and what sort of person he was. That is what you are really doing here. You are writing a man’s life.” –Isidor Rabi

Like many people my age and younger, I had only a vague sense of J. Robert Oppenheimer. I knew he directed the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, created the Atomic Bomb, and almost immediately regretted his creation. In the aftermath of the war, he quoted the Bhagavad Gita in declaring that he had become death, destroyer of worlds.

I knew he was a physicist associated with UC Berkeley but there my awareness stopped. I stumbled into Oppenheimer again in December at the New Mexico History Museum in Santa Fe where there was an exhibit on the nuclear program. Between reading a couple of pages and the arresting cover image (seen at the top of this post) with Oppie (as his students called him, an Americanization of the Dutch nickname Opje) staring straight ahead, cigarette hanging loosely from his lips, I picked up a copy of Bird and Sherwin’s biography American Prometheus at the gift shop.

I should say up front that Bird and Sherwin imbue American Prometheus with a deep subjectivity and latent moralism that frequently sits in the bones of the genre biography.

Oppenheimer is the subject, so other people come into the story as they intersect with him. For some personalities (e.g. Isidor Rabi, quoted above), this is fine. For others, including his wife Kitty, it ends up flattening and trivializing their experiences that were not easy, to say the least.

Then there is the moralizing. Oppenheimer, in this telling, is a tragic hero, a deeply flawed individual whose contributions went unappreciated. This feature of biography is further heightened in that the book reaches its climax when, in 1953 at the height of the Red Scare, Oppie faces a review of his security clearance against a board conspiring to prove that he passed nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union. This hearing nearly destroyed him, making it a natural climax, but as someone unfamiliar with the hearings much of the narrative felt designed to prove that Oppie was innocent to a reader who already knew how this story ended.

With those preliminaries out of the way, what to say about Oppenheimer? Born to a wealthy Jewish family in New York, this slim brilliant boy received an excellent humanistic education at the Ethical Culture School before matriculating to Harvard. A polymath with interests in history, literature, and languages, Oppenheimer wanted to study Theoretical Physics, a field that hardly existed in the US. He tried graduate school at Cambridge (a disaster; he tried to poison a tutor), and then Göttingen, before taking up a joint appointment at UC Berkeley and Cal Tech to establish theoretical physics programs in the US.

But Oppenheimer’s heart was in New Mexico. Visiting there as a frail, sickly teenage he transformed as if by magic into someone who could ride horses hundreds of miles at a stretch without giving it a second thought. Ironically it was the love of this landscape that in part let Oppenheimer to the Los Alamos lab.

Yet, the more profound transformation came in Oppenheimer’s humanism in the Great Depression-era California. Always driven by humanitarian impulses and capable of magnetic charisma, young Oppenheimer could just as easily alienate people he thought beneath him and had little time for anything but his work. Gradually this attitude changed through his work with unions and as he came to recognize the profound threat posed by Nazi Germany. Problems emerged in that the Communist Party of America organized most of the causes Oppie supported and more than one of his friends and students were party members. By the late 1940s, Oppie was a public intellectual and a celebrity weighing in on nuclear politics, but this history made him vulnerable to a cabal of personal, professional, and political enemies who did everything in their considerable power to destroy him. They failed in their ultimate goal, but succeeded in ruining the careers of many people around him, including that of his brother, and in undermining Oppenheimer’s influence.

As an academic, American Prometheus is a fascinating read. On the one hand, it provides a glimpse into higher education of yesteryear, where Oppenheimer nearly didn’t receive his PhD after completing the two year (!!) program because he had failed to register for classes. On the other, though, Oppie presents a mirror on the good and bad of intellectuals. He could be cold, distant, and even cruel if he deemed you beneath his merit, but he was also a warm and supportive mentor who frequently deferred credit for work to his students and junior collaborators. Bird and Sherwin conclude that much of Oppenheimer’s brilliance lay in his ability to see the consequences of other people’s work and push it to the next level rather than doing original work of his own, a trait that made him particularly suited to managing a lab like Los Alamos and later running the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. Moreover, his intellectual generosity and ability to synthesize the ideas of others had a magnetic effect drawing into his orbit some of the most remarkable scientists of the twentieth century.

American Prometheus is a long, dense book created from twenty five years of research. I’ll admit to some boredom at times when the material felt repetitive or there was yet another chapter dedicated weighing the evidence on whether Oppie joined the Communist party, chapters that make significantly more sense if you look at the book as funneling toward that climactic hearing. Similarly, my hackles went up at extensive analysis of the psychological states of Oppie and those around him, as well as on the quality of the psychological care he received. And yet, for all of that, Bird and Sherwin open a fascinating window onto a man whose experiences and concerns were equally commonplace and unique in the middle of the 20th century while airing out the story of a man, already suspected of anti-American sentiments, charged with delivering into the world the atomic bomb.

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I finished reading R.F. Kuang’s The Poppy War, a propulsive and largely delightful fantasy novel driven by the classic trope of wish-fulfillment, albeit this time from a female perspective. I had some issues with the book as a whole, but am very much interested in seeing what else Kuang produces. This morning I started S.A. Chakraborty’s <em>The City of Brass</em>, the first book in the Daevabad Trilogy, and am quite enjoying letting myself be taken away.

Never Any End to Paris

I shall never know why people write and how it is people don’t write.

When an old man fancies he looks like his idol Ernest Hemingway he must attend the Hemingway lookalike contest in Key West, Florida. When a young man idolizes Hemingway, he must go to Paris and learn to write. The narrator of Never Any End to Paris, a stand-in for Enrique Vila-Matas, does both.

Never Any End to Paris, which takes the form of a transcript of lectures delivered at a conference on irony, opens with the narrator’s ill-fated entry into the lookalike contest. The organizers disqualify him on the grounds that he doesn’t look anything like Hemingway. From there the novel unfolds in imitation of Hemingway’s retrospective of years spent in Paris, A Moveable Feast.

As a young man, the narrator moved away from his unhappy home life in Barcelona to be like his hero in Paris. He takes up a garret operated by Marguerite Duras in the hope of receiving words of literary wisdom that will launch his career. This works, but his experience was wildly divergent from Hemingway’s. Both lived in poverty and had a older female mentor amid the constellation of literary lights, but the narrator came to Paris after being a student, rather than having had some lived experience, and instead of working lived on a stipend from his father. Where Hemingway claimed to be poor and happy, the narrator is poor and unhappy. But he learns to write, completing an experimental novel called The Lettered Assassin that kills its reader when they finish the book.

The result is an engaging, ironic, and at times outright funny examination of the process of learning to write. As a piece of intertext, Never Any End to Paris is a brilliant inversion of and commentary on A Moveable Feast that simultaneously lavishes praise on and deconstructs Hemingway’s customary surety.

My sole qualm with Never Any End to Paris is that it is too erudite for me. I loved the intertext with Hemingway and the discussion of writing, but most of the literary references to the people the narrator meets in Paris were new to me. I came away with deep appreciation for for the first two threads of the novel, but the third, a literary portrait of Paris in the 1970s, went over my head.

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I also finished American Prometheus, a biography of Robert Oppenheimer, earlier this month, and last night started R.F. Kuang’s fantasy novel The Poppy War, which I’ve been looking forward to reading for about a year. Kuang is a very young author and is working on a graduate degree on modern Chinese history. Both facts clearly inform the book in the early going. I’ve only read the first chapter, which feels a little bit like heroic wish-fulfillment that is common in the fantasy genre, but the setting has me wanting to read on.

Why They Can’t Write

I just wrapped up my second read for the #PhDSkills project, John Warner’s Why They Can’t Write. Much like I did for The Writer’s Diet, I want to provide some summary thoughts here to supplement the lengthy Twitter thread.

In Why They Can’t Write, John Warner has written a two-pronged manifesto. On one level his target is a system starved of funds, weighed down by folklore, wracked by misguided fads, and ruined by rounds of reformers without experience. It is a bleak picture, and Warner does not shy away from it. Teachers are expected to work miracles, while being expected to take a vow of poverty and to work with inadequate resources. Meanwhile, student performance has remained roughly constant. There are no easy solutions outside a large-scale re-commitment to education, but Warner articulates how these failures undermine his ability to teach writing at the college level.

In other words, it isn’t their fault.

I found this argument compelling, but, as I tweeted at one point in the thread, I am the choir for Warner’s preaching.

In this post I want to reflect on the second prong, lessons from years in the classroom. At its heart, Warner’s advice consists of key ways to reconsider assignments and assessments to bring them closer in line with what we claim to be teaching.

  1. Avoid teaching writing through a list of rules of dos and donts. Rules only work if the students understand why the rules exist.Deprogram students from thinking about writing as mere word-generation designed to pass superficial examination, encouraging them to think about writings as thinking.
  2. Give students agency over what they write.
  3. Find ways to make writing meaningful. For instance, encourage students to write for an audience that is greater than the professor.
  4. Give students the agency to fail, to learn from failure, and to try again.
  5. Don’t require students to write about topics they do not know about.
  6. Approach assignments as activities and unpack the process students need to go through.
  7. Frame assessment in terms of improvement and the next opportunity, not simply justifying a grade.
  8. Remember: writing is hard and students need opportunities to develop expertise

This advice emerges from the comp classroom and some of the specific tips such as to teach “writing experiences” struck me as most useful in that context. Yet, these underlying lessons are broadly applicable across disciplines and Warner includes an oblique indictment of professors in other fields who lament their students’ inability to write, namely that they, too, bear some of the responsibility.

I teach history at a college level and since entering graduate school I have heard history professors bluntly declare that they don’t teach writing. They explain this position by falling back on the claim that history is too big (true) and that students learn those skills in English classes (stretching the truth, particularly since lit professors could similarly pass the baton). The silo approach to academic disciplines is backward on a number of levels; in this case it sets overworked composition teachers up to take the blame for failing an impossible task.

Since I want to put my words into action, I have my students write as much as I can feasibly give feedback on. The methods I use, however, have changed over time and will continue to change.

I particularly have an issue with the pedagogy of the “bluebook” in-class exam, which I see as a concession to scale. As a TA I probably graded a couple thousand of these exams, which usually consisted of an essay (sometimes with the prompt given in advance) and short answer questions from an ID bank. The students came to class stressed and sleep deprived (few people ever took my advice to get a full night’s sleep before an exam) and then dumped anything and everything they knew onto the page as quickly as possible.

On occasion students wrote brilliant essays in this format. These essays received all the validation of a dozen check marks, a high grade and a “Great job!.” More frequently these exams were objectively a mess as the students tried to prove that they had learned, at least for those fifty minutes, the content of the class.

The truth is that I am not interested in what a student can memorize and write down under those conditions. When I got my own classes I resolved that I would not give bluebook exams unless absolutely necessary and I have kept that resolution.

(I also have a few ideas how to modify bluebook exams when the logistics of a large class overwhelm my principles, but I will cross that bridge when I come to it.)

What I do instead is assign a variety of writing assignments. Some have not worked: a book review proved too challenging because students didn’t have adequate context and I am still tweaking how to best have students write source analyses.

Others have been smashing successes in my opinion. I assign take-home exams where my students write essays on big questions in the field. The assignment guide the students receive gives them several sets of prompts (it changes, but usually a set of two and a set of three prompts) and they are expected to use at least one primary and one secondary source to answer the question. I also add some additional advice: these are big questions of the sort that you could write a comprehensive exam answer in graduate school or a book; you ARE NOT expected to address the entirety of the topic, but need to narrow the focus and make an argument on the topic.

When I return the assignments covered in marks about a week later, I summarize the common problems. Students tried to do too much; there wasn’t a clear argument; that sort of thing. I tell them that the notes focus on how to improve on future assignments because the final is the same format. Then I say that if they are not satisfied with the grade, they have an opportunity to revise the assignment, on the condition that they meet with me.

About 20% of my students take me up on the chance to revise. When they come to my office, I usually skim their papers briefly, hand the exam back, and open with the question “how would you improve this essay?” What follows is a 15-20 minute conference where the students and I reflect on their essays and talk about how to improve the next draft.

Some students come back to conference more than once, but students write significantly improved essays after revision across the board. Even more encouraging is that these experiences carry through to the final so while most students improve from the midterm, the ones who revised their midterms improve more.

I also work in additional ways to help students think, write, and reflect throughout the semester, but this exam format is my favorite. Thinking about the points enumerated from Why They Can’t Write, this assignment fits in the genre of historical essay, but in a class where students are developing the necessary subject knowledge. Further, my emphasis is on writing as thinking, not word-generation. Students receive the opportunity to learn from their mistakes and reflect on their process, and my feedback is on how to improve on their writing for next time.

This is by no means a perfect assignment; I particularly want to find ways to give students more agency, other assignments could scaffold to this one better, and, ultimately, students are still only writing for me. But it is a start.

Why They Can’t Write has given me a lot to chew on as I design my syllabuses for the coming semester. I am particularly giving closer thought to unpacking the assignments as activities where “writing the paper” comes only at the end of the process.

And so this choirboy sings, teaching students to students to write is a project that professors across disciplines need to own (see also: the writing across the curriculum movement) and whether this sentiment appeals to you or you remain a skeptic, you should read Why They Can’t Write.

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#PhDSkills is a collaborative project created by Naomi Rendina and Greg Wiker where graduate students and early-career academics volunteer to read and review on Twitter books on teaching and writing. Why They Can’t Write is my second contribution and I am happy to talk about the book further here or on Twitter. I will be back with another review in early February when I tackle Steven and Victor Cahn’s Polishing Your Prose.

AIA-SCS San Diego: A Reflection

I spent the last weekend at the annual meeting for the Society for Classical Studies in San Diego, CA. I composed this post to reflect on my experience at the conference, almost entirely in two airplanes and the San Diego and Denver airports. The bulk of this post follows the jump, since I ran long and I doubt most people reading this are interested in the proceedings of an academic professional society.

For those who are interested: this is a birds-eye reflection rather than a blow-by-blow recap. See my Twitter feed for specific comments about papers.

Continue reading AIA-SCS San Diego: A Reflection

Sourdough or, Lois and Her Adventures in the Underground Market

“In every wheel of cheese, there’s revolution, alliance, betrayal…Can you feel it?”

I told him the truth: I could not.

“Nope. You’re honest, I appreciate that. Of course you can’t. I couldn’t, not at first. We’re blind to it. But this is their world, not ours, and their stories are greater.”

Her job working in robotics at a company called General Dexterity in the Bay Area crushes Lois. It pays well by most standards, though less so by San Fransisco standards, but the preternaturally motivated and motivating CEO pushes his employees to finish projects related to the development of robotic arms and the cheerily obsessive corporate culture encourages them to forgo everything but work. Many people sleep in the office. One group, including Lois, takes to the latest fad diet, a grey nutritional paste called Slurry. She nearly burns out.

Then she discovers a small restaurant that delivers her two rejuvenating foods: a spicy soup and sourdough bread to sop it up with. Only two men work at the restaurant where this food is produced, the brothers Beoreg and Chaiman. The brothers are Mazg, a hidden European ethnic group with a proud culinary history (part Jewish, part Roma in structure), and when they are forced to leave San Francisco they deliver a gift to their “Number one eater”: a portion of their sourdough starter, instructions for care, and a promise to write.

Lois earned her title for a reason, ordering the same food multiple times a week. She doesn’t cook, let alone bake, but feels an obligation to the Beoreg who she has spoken to on the phone so many times, so she makes a loaf of bread. It emerges from the oven warm and delicious and with a misshapen face on its crust. So she makes more, selling some and trying out for a spot at one of the area Farmer’s Market. Before long bread-baking takes over her life and Lois finds herself ready to quit General Dexterity and try to make a living making bread, with a trusty robotic arm to help stir the dough. But like Alice entering into wonderland, Lois’ adventures have just begun.

Sourdough is a comic novel that treats three serious issues bluntly but each with a light narrative touch. Two of these appear in recurring scenes.

In the one, Lois attends the “Lois Club”, founded by her grandmother, where every Lois has a distinguishing adjective. Lois is wounded to find out that she is “boring” Lois. Bread baking changes this, giving her a distinguishing characteristic, posing the question which is more fitting: “bread” Lois or “interesting” Lois.

In the other, Lois falls in love with her Beo, the chef who won her heart through her stomach.

The third topic is tension between tradition and innovation. This is the most well-developed theme, a function of its development through the main narrative arc, both in the San Fransisco food scene and the General Dexterity corporate goals.

Sloan talks about bread and food bacteria with loving care and more than one scene features characters waxing poetic about microbiology. Moreover, he makes it clear that while Lois has potential she still knows very little about baking, and the reader is introduced to the topic through her eager and inexperienced eyes.

Despite these virtues and legitimately funny episodes, though, his treatment of Lois’ sourdough starter left me cold. This is not an ordinary starter, but a magical one that requires almost no effort to produce the most wonderful bread provided only that the baker feeds and serenades it. The peculiar traits of this starter are fundamental to the plot, meaning that it transcends a simple sense of wonder at this thing that Lois wrought (and that she did not actually work for). Instead, it provokes envy in other bakers whose own starters do not measure up, ironically undermining the otherwise loving portrait of baking bread.

Overall, I appreciated the sentiment that baking bread makes a person inherently interesting as someone who bakes bread and I understand both the catharsis and the mania that comes with baking bread. Sourdough was not among my favorite reads of the year, but it is a light, clever novel that filled a different niche than my usual fare.

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I am currently making my way through American Prometheus, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer. I am riveted so far, though I somewhat mistrust its tendency to psychoanalyze Oppenheimer as a young man.

The Dark Forest

“For the majority of people, what they love exists only in the imagination. The object of their love is not the man or woman of reality, but what he or she is like in their imagination. The person in reality is just a template for their dream lover. Eventually, they find out the differences between their dream lover and the template. If they can get used to those differences, then they can be together. If not, they split up.”

Make time for civilization, for civilization won’t make time.

The sequel to the Hugo-winning novel The Three-Body Problem picks up where the first book left off, with the world in a crisis era. A fleet from Tri-Solaris, a technologically advanced civilization cultivating the earth for colonization, is on its way…and will arrive in a little over four hundred years. How will the human race respond to this crisis when the enemy is capable of reading and hearing everything, has put a cap on the advance of science, and no nation yet has so much as a single space ship?

The central plot of The Dark Forest is humanity’s preparation for the all-but inevitable doomsday battle.

Humanity gambles its fate on reckless plan. If the Tri-Solarians know everything said or written, then the only hope for survival is to appoint saviors empowered to come up with plans in the security of their minds. The UN appoints four men Wallfacers, named after the practice of meditation, and empowers them to appropriate resources to defend the human race––with bureaucratic oversight, of course.

Three Wallfacers are obvious choices: Frederick Tyler, a former US Defense Secretary, Manuel Rey Diaz, the president of Venezuela who defeated a US invasion, and Bill Hines, a renowned diplomat and pathbreaking neurosurgeon. For each of these the Earth-Trisolaris Organization appoints someone a “Wallbreaker,” designed to foil their efforts. But the fourth Wallspeakers is a curiosity, a failed Chinese professor named Luo Ji whose main contribution to the world outside a string of disastrously fleeting sexual liaisons is to have been an early adopter (and earlier abandoner) of “Cosmic Sociology” in a conversation with the astro-physicist Ye Wenjie.

Nobody quite understands why the UN appointed Luo Ji (least of all Luo Ji, who tries to reject the appointment), but the Tri-Solarans see him as a threat and determine to kill him before the plan he doesn’t know he is concocting foils their invasion.

Everyone else prepares, pioneering innovations to space travel and hibernation so that people can see their plans to fruition. In the years that pass, humanity survives “The Great Rift” that threatened to destroy humanity prematurely, and makes great strides in military technology, but overconfidence breeds complacency and the greatest threats are the ones they don’t know about.

The Dark Forest is not a character-driven novel in the traditional sense. As such, Cixin Liu’s characters in this series feel somewhat impersonal, though this may also stem from cultural differences. Here, at least the story engine is the tension between individual agency, the solipsistic desire for personal pleasure, and the bureaucratic structures that mitigate both––for good and for ill. The individual is the only hope for society, but the overriding impulse for most people is to take their own pleasure. Luo Ji is one protagonist, the unlikely hero and a vehicle for exploring the best and worst of human nature, his principal antagonist is humanity, which, in turn is also a protagonist faced by a combination of Tri-Solaris and itself.

Like its predecessor, The Dark Forest blends styles to explore broad philosophical questions. This installment, however, is best described as a blend of two science fiction types: the doomsday confrontation of an Orson Scott Card and the broad, galaxy-spanning scope of an Isaac Asimov or Olaf Stapledon. The combination resulted in long periods of philosophical meditation punctuated by moments of frenetic action.

I struggled a bit with remembering the characters who carried over from the first book, but that is a function of my being a native English speaker, but this was my only complication in a novel that I burned through.

Non-linear in chronology and epic in scope and fusing Chinese worldview with a philosophy that is simultaneously optimistic and pessimistic about human nature, I loved The Dark Forest and am looking forward to see how the series concludes.

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I recently also finished reading Sourdough, a comic novel about a young woman who discovers bread and love, and so abandons her lucrative, soul-sucking job in tech, and will be writing about it in the next couple of days. I just started American Prometheus, a Pulitizer prize-winning biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer that I picked up on a recent trip to New Mexico.