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Posts Tagged ‘universities’

Teaching Twin Peaks at Sweet Briar

April 8, 2015 | by

Remembering a momentous semester as Twin Peaks turns twenty-five and Sweet Briar closes its doors.


The Sweet Briar House.

In 2012, I taught a freshman comp class called Myths About Women. The primary texts were Antigone and Twin Peaks. This was at Sweet Briar College, and as it happens, the students from that class will be among the last to graduate from the 114-year-old women’s college this May. Last month, the school’s board of directors voted to close it at the end of this academic year because of “insurmountable financial challenges.”

I’d been trying for a few semesters to arrive at a reading list that would help the students think critically about gender—this was a women’s college, after all. But Sweet Briar, in Virginia, is not like its northern counterparts Bryn Mawr and Mount Holyoke. Sweet Briar’s official mascot is the vixen; its official colors are pink and green, a color scheme long synonymous with preppy fashion. And everywhere there are the trappings of wealthy, white Southern culture: among the student body, pearls are imbued with an almost totemic power. The campus bookstore sells Lilly Pulitzer handbags. Read More »

Most Novelists Are Bitter Failures, and Other News

April 8, 2015 | by


George Gissing, ca. 1890s.

  • When Richard Dawkins conceived of memes, he imagined them as units of culture, transmitted like viruses to contribute to our social evolution. But Internet memes have distorted the meaning of the term, arguably to uselessness. “Trawling the Internet, I found a strange paradox: While memes were everywhere, serious meme theory was almost nowhere. Richard Dawkins … seemed bent on disowning the Internet variety, calling it a ‘hijacking’ of the original term.”
  • George Gissing’s New Grub Street (1891) is good for a whole host of reasons, but it’s “a particularly potent corrective to the current cottage industry centering on ‘the writing life’—in which literary production is seen as glamorous, in which photos of writers’ desks appear on Pinterest and readers obsess over the perfect pen with which to write their buried masterpiece. The lesson of Gissing is that most novelists are bitter failures—always were, and always will be.”
  • Curmudgeonly grandparents around the world would have you believe that textspeak is a travesty, a crime against language. But it has, in so many ways, expanded and streamlined our methods of communicating: our tonal varietyyyyy, our semiotics (!!!), our ability to corretc (*correct) ourselves …
  • The postal service’s new Maya Angelou stamp contains many perfectly nice words—“A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song”—but they weren’t written by Maya Angelou. “A Postal Service spokesman told the newspaper that the line, which has been widely attributed to Angelou by people including President Obama, was approved for use on the stamp by Angelou’s family.”
  • The insidious logic of the trailer has made its way from movies to music and books—now there are trailers for college courses, too. “A branding tactic once reserved for the marketplace has entered the marketplace of ideas.”

Conservative Radicals

March 26, 2015 | by

frost meet the press

Frost on Meet the Press in 1955.

First, a general note: At what point do we stop celebrating the birthdays of the deceased? Yes, Robert Frost was born on this day in 1874, and yes, that would make him 141 today—had not death intervened in 1963, when, at eighty-eight, Frost had already been around for a good while. At a certain point, can’t we just say that today is “the anniversary of his birth”? The word birthday no longer seems to apply—in the normal range of things, it starts to feel a bit macabre. One begins to imagine cakes and party hats on gravestones. Read More »

Glitch Art Goes for Broke, and Other News

March 23, 2015 | by


Max Headroom, which marked glitch art’s entry into the mainstream. Image via Daily Dot

  • The word glitch “may derive from Yiddish words conveying slippage”—and glitch art explores the grating moments of slippage in our technology. It is, depending on whom you ask, new, old, incisive, crass, “beatified violence, “ “the product of an elitist discourse and dogma widely pursued by the naïve victims of a persistent upgrade culture,” or just kind of neat to look at.
  • If the art world is consumed by the effects of the Internet on our synapses, literary fiction is just the opposite: much of it seems unwilling—or unable—to engage with the texture of networked life. Novelists prefer to set their stories in technological vacuums, and it disadvantages them: “I don’t see these elements of contemporary life as destructive of narrative possibilities, but as sources for new. I’ve become something of a collector of fictional moments in which networked life matters. Not the simple inclusion of emails and other ‘found texts’ in a novel, nor casual mentions of characters owning phones and computers, but scenes in which these technologies allow writers to show something distinctly now.
  • Does a “safe space” have any chance of functioning as a truly intellectual space? “While keeping college-level discussions ‘safe’ may feel good to the hypersensitive, it’s bad for them and for everyone else. People ought to go to college to sharpen their wits and broaden their field of vision. Shield them from unfamiliar ideas, and they’ll never learn the discipline of seeing the world as other people see it.”
  • Readers (or book buyers) in the UK have expressed a seemingly inexhaustible desire for nature writing—it sells well, it gets good reviews, it questions “the values of our current society.” “I know of nature books that are being released this year on the last Thursday in July, when [Helen Macdonald’s H Is for Hawk] was released. It’s now seen as the new magical date in publishing.”
  • Mario Vargas Llosa on the state of literature: “The function of the critic was very important in establishing categories and hierarchies of information, but now critics don’t exist at all. That was one of the important contributions of the novel, once, too. But now the novels that are read are purely entertainment—well done, very polished, with a very effective technique—but not literature, just entertainment.”

Thawing Out

July 3, 2014 | by

Why are there so few courses in Soviet literature at American universities?


A Soviet poster from Albert Rhys Williams’s Through the Russian Revolution, 1920.

When I was completing a master's in comp lit at Oxford, I kept coming across a curious lapse—while most of my British peers had read at least some of the great writers of the Soviet canon, often as early as secondary school, my equally well-educated American friends had never even heard of them. The more I perused the courses of American universities, the more I found that Soviet literature—by which I mean the proverbial classics penned between the revolution and death of Stalin and published largely during Khruschev’s thaw—was noticeably absent. There were, of course, exceptions at institutions such as Stanford, Princeton, Yale, the University of Washington, and a few others, which are renowned for their Russian literature departments. But the majority of colleges, particularly liberal arts schools, focused on the nineteenth-century Russian novel and then skipped straight to Nabokov, or even to post-perestroika literature.

This absence struck me as odd, especially given the literary tastes of the Russian reading public. The Russian literati ostensibly admire and cherish the greats—your Tolstoys and Chekhovs, your Dostoevskys—but ask them to name their favorite writers and most will cite someone from this isolated literary isle. They might mention Mayakovsky, the macho darling of the Futurist movement, whose thundering poetry shook his listeners into an acute state of consciousness; or Akhmatova, an Acmeist poet who explored suffering, humanity’s great equalizer, with minimal words and explicit emotion. They could invoke Pasternak, whose Doctor Zhivago many Americans assume to be a tragic love story between a man and a woman, when really it’s a tragic love story between a man and a revolution, although in Russia Pasternak is celebrated even more for his poetry, especially his wildly experimental collection My Sister, Life. Then there’s the lyrical sentiment of Platonov, or the satire of Solzhenitsyn. There’s Bunin, Mandelshtam, Tsvetaeva, Zoschenko, Babel, Bergholz, Zamyatin, Bely, Bulgakov, and a litany of other luminaries whose surnames have all but disappeared from university syllabi.

Is this a lingering effect of the Cold War, a symptom of our culture’s tendency to seal off what we fear or don’t understand? I’m reminded of the horrific looks I got from people the summer I was nineteen, when I decided to read Mein Kampf. They worried that it would negatively influence my nubile and malleable young mind—a concern I found irritating, since I’ve long believed it’s our moral obligation to dissect the most heinous events in history, to use literature as a scalpel of sorts. Was the fear and scorn of Soviet oppression, I thought, part of the reason its literature was kept behind closed doors, even all these years later? Read More »


The Savage

March 14, 2014 | by

The last of five vignettes.


Postcard of Zola, 1899.

I was teaching a class which I believe was called “Dramatic Theory” but which, more accurately, if more dauntingly, might have been called “On the Nature of Group Perception,” the study in which the dramatist is actually engaged.

The university had engaged me to show up two days each year for four years. In the second year of our compact I made a pre-appearance request of the English or dramatic department or whomever I was to traipse in under the auspices of.

I suggested they, if they wished, were free to judge the applicants for the limited space in the class according to grades, entrance quizzes, or any other criteria, if they, on determining the lucky winners, would then disqualify them, and assign the spaces at random to anyone else at all.

“Or just give me the ne’er-do-wells,” I asked.

I was saddened, but not surprised, to find, on my arrival, that the university had taken my request as a witticism, and chose for admittance only those students with high grade averages and correct demeanors. Read More »