April 15, 2014

Judas Priest Sucks!

Filed under: writing — jrice @ 3:24 pm

 I can’t remember the name of the kid in 9th grade who I told on the bus one day: “Judas Priest sucks.” He wanted to kick my ass for that comment. He let me know everyday that he wanted to kick my ass. I told him to bring it on. We never fought, though. But if we had, we would have fought over whether or not Judas Priest sucked. And I didn’t even care if Judas Priest sucked when I made the remark. I just told him that the band sucked. I’m not sure why I said so.

I heard “Living After Midnight” on the drive home from work today. I have one major road – Broadway (which becomes Harrodsburg) to drive home. Most times I’m driving home, I’m thinking back on the class I taught, a lecture course on Facebook. I make mental notes of all the things I wish I had done better – from the beginning of the semester until now – and I make mental notes of all the things I believe the students have done wrong – from the beginning of the semester until now. When I form these narratives in my head, I, no doubt, believe that they are original stories of pedagogical frustration. This is my struggle with a class that did not go right. But I know that the stories I tell myself on the drive home are not unique to me. Whatever issues or problems I experienced in the first large, lecture course I’ve taught in almost 20 years of teaching, these issues or problems are not novel. Others have experienced the same issue for some time now.

Thinking Judas Priest sucks is not a unique thought to me now or to me in the 9th grade. I am not the first nor the last person to say Judas Priest sucks. Most critical commentary is posed as if it were a unique thought. Charles Simic calls the generation that I meet twice a week in a lecture course “the age of ignorance.”  He leads off this claim with the hyperbolic declaration that “Widespread ignorance bordering on idiocy is our new national goal.” Students – in a large, lecture course or elsewhere – are an easy target for such critiques. Simic’s observations, though, don’t ring false. People don’t know much. I was surprised that the class did not recognize the iconic Kent State national guard shooting photograph when I showed it in class. I was surprised that they had not seen the South Park episode on Facebook. Despite Vannevar Bush’s wet dream of a system of interconnected information basically realized today, people don’t know. But not just students. Academics, despite their claims to the contrary, don’t know either. Judith Butler doesn’t know. Bruce Robbins doesn’t know. The entire MLA body doesn’t know. They think they know (about politics, geopolitical conflict, ethnic tensions, economics), but only because they spend much time lecturing to students who don’t know and convincing themselves that superficial readings of headlines, romantic visions of David and Goliath, and epideictic performance (in text and elsewhere) offer up some “true” sense of the world where injustice is easily identified as what they already think injustice is. They repeat narratives as unique thought, often without any more research or knowledge than the typical Fox News target of The Daily Show. But, of course, they are academic stars. Not undergraduates. They, by their very title and place in the culture, are supposed to know. It would be much more difficult to call them the products of an age of ignorance than the students who have been told as such before. Tom Wolfe called youth the Me generation in the mid-70s and Time magazine did the same a few years back. Calling kids ignorant or superficial is not new. The unique thought is not that unique.

It was, of course, ignorant of me in the 9th grade to say for no reason: Judas Priest sucks. We are all ignorant of many things, but the narratives we circulate about our most intense concerns never seem to include any aspect or claim of ignorance. The narratives always assume the hermetic seal of knowing. The subject need not be political – though many humanities folks have positioned themselves as experts on the political for some reason (the famous gender expert now knows everything about the Middle East, for instance). When I watched the very well made short film Con Job: Stories of Adjunct and Contingent Labor, I was left with that feeling of a narrative that sees no cracks in the story it wants to tell. The narrative is all knowing. Con Job’s story is easily summed up as: universities hire people at unfair wages to teach writing/these people are often forced to go through extreme situations because of their exploitation.

Not that there isn’t any accuracy in the statement. There is. The narrative is true. And because the goal of the narrative is to convince a supposedly unaware, ignorant, or not yet sympathetic audience to believe in the adjunct situation, there is no reason to show the cracks in the story of contingent labor not shown in the film. Yet, not showing the cracks, for me, weakens the story overall. The story comes off as too pure, too right, too sure of its tale of injustice. Should the story also tell the story of literature graduate students dismissing advice regarding the future of tenure line employment (then regretting that rejection later)? Should the story tell the story of literature graduate students dismissive of writing instruction until its the only job that they can find, even if part time? Should the story tell the story of a national dependence on the idea of general education when general education is being used to just fill seats for budget fulfillment? Or what about the story of trying to secure full time employment with only a master’s degree (when the rest of us have PhDs, publications, service records, networking)? Can the story be told of the graduate student who is too busy grading papers to go see a guest speaker on campus (and thus learn how research is presented professionally, meet someone in the field, make a connection, be professional, etc) but who ends up jobless later in life?  Or what about the story regarding what would happen if no one took contingent jobs anymore? Can Con Job tell that story?

These stories, too, belong int he larger story. And yet they are absent. They don’t conform to the already known, already told, already circulated story that we feel makes us smarter, not ignorant. The adjunct fight is the fight that most people commit to in one oral/textual manner or another (support, empathy, dissent) but that they really don’t fight over. It’s not really even a fight. Some blog posts. A short film. Discontent. Chronicle of Higher Education first person narratives. Tweets. Some inaccurate coverage in Slate. None of this makes for a fight.These are disconnected and scattered declarations that something sucks. That’s all they are.

I never fought that kid in 9th grade. I can’t say I regret not fighting him. I have no idea if I would have won or lost that fight. He seemed pretty committed, though, to the idea of Judas Priest. He seemed committed, but he never went through with the fight over Judas Priest. That’s likely the real sign of an age of ignorance. The issue regarding ignorance ,as Simic and others claim, is not factual knowledge (though, in my own pedagogical struggles, I often come back to E.D. Hirsch with a fondness I never felt previously). The issue is likely the real fight. You fight when you think you know. But you have to fight to show that you think you know. A conference resolution. A short film. A blog post. Are these fights? Are these real fights?.  That kid should have fought me for saying Judas Priest sucks. But he didn’t. So, I don’t really believe his commitment to Judas Priest.  And most people, ignorant or not, don’t really fight either.

March 30, 2014

Writing Crisis

Filed under: as if,writing — jrice @ 8:05 am

At 44, I might have considered a mid-life crisis. My age suggests as such. My two young kids, though, suggest that I am hardly near that crisis.  My bank account suggests that I have nothing to splurge on (like the typical mid-life crisis narrative’s focus on a sports car or other extravagant item). At only 12 years removed from the PhD, and now a full, tenured professor, I seem too young for a professional crisis. My rank suggests long term veteran status, but my life span of full time professorship suggests otherwise. A crisis after 12 years suggests a hyperbolic narrative.

If there is such a thing as a mid-life professional crisis, it might occur when one completely changes direction and begins to pursue something outside of initial interests. In academia, that might mean a shift in disciplinary direction. Or it might mean a shift to administration and abandonment of one’s initial scholarly pursuits.

I still write about the same things I began writing about when I started to think like a professional.

Whatever it is I feel today about academia – and I have no shortage of thoughts – whatever it is I am experiencing today is not a mid life academic crisis. I am not in a crisis. But I recognize shifts. I’ll start that observation with a brief statement:

It’s been a long time since I cared about fiction.

This is hardly a novel sentence until placed within a specific context: My PhD is in English. I have been a faculty member of four English departments. To study English or to be associated with the study of English means liking to read fiction. I don’t.

I remember a class I took as an undergraduate at Indiana University, and Kathryn Flannery began by asking us: what is the purpose of fiction? I answered: to entertain.

I was in Half Price Books yesterday, shopping for marked down books for my kids: Junie B Jones, Jules Feiffer, Oliver Jeffers. I glanced down the fiction aisle. Glance. I’m bored by merely the suggestion that I might buy a half priced novel for casual reading. No matter how much I try to muster the desire (“look, I have a plane trip coming up, I need something to read on the flight”), I cannot imagine that the novel will entertain me.

When I enrolled in the University of Florida in the summer of 1987, I was asked two questions by my academic advisor: Was I going to take first year writing (I said, “no”) and what did I want to major in (I said “English”)?  I spent the next few years – after I dropped out of college in 1989 – wondering what the alternate narrative might have been. What if I had said Spanish? What if I had said Anthropology? What if I had said History? When I want back to school, I went back to English. After years away, when I went back for the PhD, I applied to an English department.

About a month ago, the Faculty Senate approved our new department and major in Writing, Rhetoric, and Digital Studies. This means that, beginning Fall 2015, I will no longer be an English professor. One might look at such an “important” moment and think: this is the stuff of what crisis narratives are made of. A pivotal moment. A change. A refocus.

The one photograph in Barthes’ Roland Barthes book that stands out for me is the one of the academic panel. Barthes’ comment is something about “being bored” on an academic panel (the photograph features him on the panel). When we finished our panel a week or so ago at our national conference, one attendee thanked us for “being performative.” A reoccurring crisis in our field (or maybe academia in general) is the lack of performance. That is, presentations are mere readings of papers. There is, of course, performance. Most of it is stuck in a few performative gestures: cultural critique (let me show you what is wrong with the world) or the value of fiction (stories make us better people). If Barthes was commenting on one aspect of the boredom associated with academic work, I like to imagine that he was commenting on these two features.

At some point not long into my academic career I made a scholarly crisis shift: I stopped admonishing the movement known as expressivism for being too focused on the personal story (among other things) and started writing more personal academic pieces. These pieces were always tied up with other issues (pedagogy, digital writing, food), but they were personal. The former editor of a major journal rejected one such piece (later published in Composition Studies), claiming that the journal never published writing that also included the personal (which was not true). This particular piece, as part of the point I wanted to make about digital writing and place, included photographs of my daughter eating at various places in St. Louis.

I’ve often wondered: why are we so bored by our own lives? That is, why do we, as academics, reject our lives as subject for writing? I’ve wanted to host a podcast where I interview fellow academics about anything that is not academic: What did you have for breakfast? Let’s talk about the weird things our kids do. Do you watch Adventure Time? I hate the Frozen soundtrack. What did you eat for dinner?

At 44, and 12 years since the PhD about to begin in a department outside of English, I might have considered for myself a writing crisis. By that, I mean a moment where one awakens to some imagined reality and realizes that everything prior to this moment has not been satisfying. In this reawakening narrative, one discovers a more true self or moment. I walked away from fiction. I am no longer an English professor.

But it’s not really a crisis moment for me. Whatever it isI claim for now has long been the moment for my trajectory. The moment is merely a long fictional account of value. When Fredric Jameson came to our seminar in grad school that focused on his work and spoke about all kinds of things, including, I think, about the superiority of the typewriter, I knew the crisis was already there, in that moment, in that academic apprenticeship called the PhD program, in criticism, in the text, in the profession. If everything is allegorical, as Jameson often contends about popular culture narratives, then I can treat this moment, too, as allegory: the allegory of the crisis of boredom. He bored me. But he did not just bore me as a star academic appearing in person in our seminar, he bored me at the allegorical level, the constant same old same old critique of life where all of our narratives cover or hide the real narratives of oppression, capitalism, racism, sexism, this ism and that ism, so that what we really are saying is: academics are people in never ending crisis.  Our lives are crisis. Our entertainment narratives are crisis narratives. Our professional narratives are crisis narratives. And in this never ending tale of crisis, the real fiction occurs, the pretend world of imaginary this ism and that ism where the scholar fights the good fight to enlighten the world. It is the hero narrative, one of the most popular of all entertainment fictions.

And I’m bored by that narrative.

There is a crisis occurring as I write this. My three year old is screaming that his potty was cleaned out too quickly. Crying. Screaming. Over nothing consequential beyond the three year old’s view of the world: I pee peed. You dumped the potty before I was done.

And yet, despite its frustration and oddness (someday we’ll look back on this, and it will all seem funny…..but it’s not funny right now), I am not bored with this story. I am, oddly enough, entertained.

February 26, 2014

Circular Writing Logic: Or, Here’s Why You Feel You Have No Time

Filed under: writing — jrice @ 8:46 am

Here is the scenario:

The university decides – by a committee – that all students must have a writing requirement. We call it GCCR, a requirement that must be completed for graduation.

Every department must offer one course that meets the requirement’s criteria: 15 pages of writing, feedback, etc. The concept behind the requirement is writing in the disciplines.

Some departments don’t feel completely comfortable with the requirement. We have no WAC/WID program here for faculty development, so many faculty wonder where they are going to learn how to teach writing in the disciplines.

Some of these departments turn to us because we are the writing people.

We’ll teach the specialized writing courses for them. This is good for us. Why? Because the university rewards each unit based on enrollments. Since we are young and still don’t have a major, it is difficult for us to fill undergraduate courses. With these specialized courses and set, almost guaranteed enrollments, we can maintain our so called revenue line. Our revenue is tied to enrollment even though the overall enrollment at the university is the same no matter how many students we teach.

Granted, whether the students take courses with us or with any other department, they will still take, more or less, the same number of credit hours over their four years at UK.  That means, of course, that whether the students take courses with us or with any other department, they still pay the university the same tuition. It doesn’t really matter where they take courses. 25,000 students is still 25,000 students.

Still, this is the system. We have to teach the specialized courses if we know what is good for us.And anyway, we don’t object. We enjoy teaching writing of all kinds.  But the thing is, we’re only 15 people total. There is no way we can suddenly all teach half a dozen or likely more specialized professional writing courses, particularly when only a few of us are even comfortable teaching a form of professional writing, and doubtful anyone wants to do two professional writing service courses a semester from now until whenever.

What’s the answer?

Adjuncts. And graduate students.

Right here is where the record comes to a full tilt scratch.

Or you say: What the what?

Isn’t this GCCR thing supposed to be really important? Shouldn’t it be handled in a way that allows students the opportunity to learn writing by those who are the most experienced? So we offer courses by the least experienced. Why, then, the requirement?

To project the image of general education.

To project the image of providing adequate instruction and a complete education.

To project an image.

But beyond this superficial image, think of all the work that has gone into this project until now. And the work is still ongoing. Committees. Meetings. Drafts. Reports. Circulated forms (and you should see the mess of a form the committee settled on), memorandum of understandings between departments, more meetings, approvals. All of this – who knows how many hours – so that we can settle on the one simple reality check when this is all said and done:

The majority-  if not all of the courses-  in question will be taught by non-professionals,  many of whom are teaching by grabbing whatever course is offered to them.

That’s inefficient. Not to go all Fredrick Taylor here, but what we talk about when we talk about “time” in the university is often this: circular logic that wastes our time.

The instruction will not be professional. And the money, in the end, is the same money because students take a set amount of credit hours no matter what.

Busy? Here’s one reason why.

January 27, 2014

Adjunct Narratives

Filed under: writing — jrice @ 3:51 pm

First person narratives about the adjunct experience in academia are being published – it seems – daily. Today, I came across a link from a Facebook friend about a Fairbanks, Alaska adjunct on food stamps.  A link to a story about motherhood and adjuncting was also shared with me today. The Chronicle of Higher Education has become the mouthpiece for such narratives, all of which are anti-tenure track faculty and all of which believe in the great injustice that has been done within higher education. I read this narratives almost every day. I’m interested in the rhetoric of narrative, so whatever I feel about the adjunct experience, I am interested in how adjuncts are telling their story.

Why now? Why the sudden proliferation of adjunct narratives, a frenzy of pieces that rival the popularity of online essays regarding MOOCs a year ago. During that period, one couldn’t avoid either a hyperbolic praising of MOOCs or a dismissal of MOOCs in any given business or education online outlet. That frenzy is now a trickle of updates. It has died down.

Why are news outlets giving so much room to the adjunct narrative all of a sudden? The adjunct problem has long been with us. Exploitation of teaching in the university is hardly new. Have publications merely woken up to this sleeping audience of readers, as Slate seems to have done with some hyperbolic and uniformed pieces? And what are these narratives trying to achieve as they tell their stories of failed expectation, financial struggle, food stamp dependence, and feelings of disenfranchisement?

  • Sympathy. A readership, it seems, will sympathize with the adjunct plight once the readership understands or learns about how awful things really are. I’m not really sure, though, that the strategy works. Within academia, adjunct exploitation is not a new problem. Within the general public, the issue doesn’t seem to raise much thought or action. Few people vote for their state representatives (who control university allocations) based on education issues.  Have any pieces swayed a popular uprising against how students are being taught? I’ve always felt, as well, that this strategy can backfire. If the general public sees (as if they don’t know ) that their children are being taught by underpaid instructors with – at times – minimal degree qualifications, will the public demand higher salaries and benefits for those instructors, or will the public demand that their tuition dollars go instead to having their children study with the tenured faculty, who the public, the narrative claims, think their students study with in the first place?
  • Discredit. When a narrative is published that says: I have an MFA in Creative Writing or an MA in Literature or a PhD in Literature and the only job I got was $2,000 a course with no benefits, doesn’t this merely confirm a belief that the graduate degree in question has no value? The more these narratives are promoted, aren’t they discrediting the various departments – often in the humanities – already under fire for a graduate degree often deemed unneeded? Again, it seems the strategy backfires. What this strategy seems to say is: The degree is worthless. If I ran an English department, for instance, I’d be very upset over this part of the narrative.
  • Attack. Administration bloat is often the focus of the attack; a well circulated narrative is something along the lines of “Between 1993 and 2007, the number of full-time administrators per 100 students at America’s leading universities grew by 39 percent, while the number of employees engaged in teaching, research or service only grew by 18 percent.” Or this statistic: “between 1985 and 2005 administrative spending increased by 85%, while administrative support staff increased by a dramatic 240%. Meanwhile spending on faculty increased by only around 50%.” All likely true. But what does all that administration do? Does any of it have value? What if it were all removed? What would be the result? I don’t know. But neither do the critics since they haven’t pushed the attack into a real argument yet by citing specific positions and their value/lack of value to a given university or college. Tenure line faculty are also the other side of the attack. This part of the narrative says that we are all subsidized by adjunct labor or that we purposely keep adjunct labor in its place. I’m not aware of any of this being true, and I doubt any of us object to adjuncts moving out of the exploitive realm. We don’t set salaries or lines, after all.
  • Everyone is equal. The basis of all the narratives seems to ride on this vital point. Person x without a tenure line position is equal to person Y who has one. There is no shortage of qualified people who could, in many universities/colleges, be hired on the tenure line. Why such people are not, though, is based on all kinds of variables, from the well circulated trope of “unfair” to the less understandable reality of “fit.” But the reality to this narrative is that all academics in a given field are not equal. The MFA in Literature or Creative Writing is not necessarily equal to whoever is on faculty in that given department. It’s difficult to know, of course, because that means fleshing out details, fleshing out how such details work in a given local situation, saying things about another’s career that may not be pleasant to say nor hear (i.e., you do indeed have a published book or some publications, but we don’t find that topic of interest to the work we do in this department). Even among tenure line faculty, however, we are not equal.
  • Money. The overall narrative is that there is plenty of money. There is money in many cases. Often, even in a financial crisis, money is found for all kinds of projects. The suggestion, it seems, is that provosts and deans have the money to pay everyone at a certain level, but for greedy reasons don’t. This suggestion confuses me greatly. What is in it for a dean or provost to not pay if he/she can? Where is all this money when every year state allocations are reduced? We just found out about a 2.5% cut to UK’s budget. That doesn’t mean more money. That means less. The issue may not be money as much as priority. As long as we structure General Education in a certain way or “core” courses such as first year writing as massive undertakings that could never be taught by only tenure line faculty, we are looking at a situation where there is not enough money to pay all instructors fairly. But if we cut something, we are destroying higher education. And if we did such cuts, most of the adjunct positions would vanish, and be replaced with nothing.

So what do these narratives accomplish? These are some tropes I pick out and respond to. I don’t respond because I’m against adjuncts or don’t understand the situation. I very much understand the situation. But that is not my purpose here. My interest is in how the story is framed, and why this way as opposed to some other strategy? Most of the stories, after all, are similar and repetitive. Repetition can be highly effective. Is it in this case? I don’t think so.

October 27, 2013

Human Oriented Career Ontology

Filed under: attitude,writing — jrice @ 7:58 am

Academics – or sort of academics – love to tell us when they are leaving social media. Douglas Rushkoff for instance, made a big public deal about leaving Facebook. Rebecca Schuman, as well, wants the public to know not only that she left academia, but that she is cheering on those who continue to leave (such as the former Missouri colleagues I never met). And she wants you to know that Ian Bogost, who rightly points out the self-righteousness of this kind of narrative, makes a “boatload of cash.”

If Ian Bogost made a “boatload of cash” as a professor, critical theorist, and game developer at Georgia Tech, I’d say: cool. Why should I or Rebecca Schuman or anyone else for that matter be upset if a prolific and successful member of the field makes a “boatload of cash”? I, too, would like to make a “boatload of cash.” I haven’t yet. But I’m still trying. I wish I could write for The Atlantic of be profiled in Wired magazine, like Ian. I also don’t have 2,100 Facebook friends like Ian. I’m not jealous. I’m not upset. Good for him.

And why should Rebecca Schuman be so upset that Ian Bogost has been promoted to full professor and given an endowed chair for being prolific and successful? I’ve never met Ian in person, but I’ve read his work, exchanged emails, and become Facebook friends with him (I’m one of the 2,100!). None of these activities has led me to believe that telling someone  ”tough titties” on Twitter (Schuman’s source of anger) for leaving academia is a “dick move.”

I don’t feel it’s a dick move because when I – also a full professor who graduated in 2002 and now holds an endowed chair – hears someone say “I’m leaving Facebook” or “I’m leaving academia” because of how unfair or awful or whatever both have been, I kind of feel like saying “tough titties” as well. You are leaving. Bye. People do leave professions. People change careers. Good luck in the new endeavor.

Schuman’s reasoning regarding why leaving academia is not a “tough titties” moment is as such:

Its rules had become the rules of my existence: personal worth is determined by the whims of your advisor and committee, of search committees, of peer reviewers, of your “friends” (who are actually just waiting for the right moment to stab you in the back). Its heroes had become my heroes. Its values–if you want to be taken seriously, sacrifice everything, including and especially family life and having children, in the service of the Life of the Mind; move anywhere for any reason, no matter how alone you have to be there–had become my values.

  1. My personal worth was never determined by studying for a PhD or being a professor. But I am also married and have two kids who give me more personal worth than anything in the world.
  2. My advisor was great. His influence on my work is obvious. He did give practical advice – even if he is a theorist (since the myth of theory is its divorce from practicality). We met as a dissertation group every month to share work in progress. He still supports my work by contributing to edited collections I’ve done (and he wrote the preface to my first book). And he usually clicks like on my Instagram photos of beer.
  3. I didn’t sacrifice anything. I go to work. I get my work done. The only sacrifice I can imagine experiencing is not having the time to drink every new beer on tap in this city. Oh and yes. I have children. And my wife is an academic, tenured, as well. I didn’t sacrifice family (and nor did she).
  4. I did move. To Detroit. To Columbia, Missouri. To Lexington, Kentucky. Hardly sacrifices to live in these cool places – even if not being able to sell my Detroit area home was a financial crisis and burden whose effects lasted until recently. But that wasn’t academia’s fault.

But this is anecdotal evidence from one person! So is Rebecca Schuman’s list as well. Neither makes the case for everyone. And that means that “tough titties” is hardly a problematic response as well. If you make public this repeated narrative of “leaving academia” and the reasons do not strike many of us as so out of ordinary or exceptional,  the hyperbole associated with that narrative can prompt the response: Tough titties.One good hyperbolic turn receives another.

You decided not to teach and write for a living. Ok. Good for you.  I wish you success at your new job.

Not only do I not care if Ian Bogost or anyone else makes a “boatload of cash,” I don’t care if someone leaves academia or joins it. Enjoy either way. Your public announcement – like the “I’m leaving Facebook” public announcement – is not for me or Ian Bogost or anyone else for that matter. It’s for you. You feel bad. You feel like you are losing out. You feel passed over. Sorry. I like what I do for a living, so I do feel sorry that you are unable to do this kind of work as well (if you really want to do it). But I seriously doubt the reasons are as basic or simple as “I was too unconventional” or “all the doors just shut in my face.”  The factors that go into and generate success or failure are more complex than that. The factors that have gone into my success including actors such as “I worked hard” but they also include other factors as well. One factor may be: “My work is important to me.” But it also may be: “studying rhetoric and network theory is not the most important thing to other people or the world” So with that, to paraphrase Schuman, I may or may not be the best “Rhetoric network person. Eh. Ver.” But so what?  I’m glad and grateful for those who do read my work. I like teaching even when students tell me that “this book is boring.” I like administrative work even when it is completely frustrating. I like being in the university even though some colleagues are jerks. I at least have perspective regarding the size of the pond us fish swim in and how big or small I need to be to live in that pond, feel good about my job and life, and do well.

Boatloads of cash? I’m still working on that.

October 12, 2013

Blog Memories

Filed under: writing — jrice @ 6:24 am

I once knew how to take apart an M-16, clean it, and put the rifle back together again. I say “once” because I have not done so for over 20 years. It is possible, I can guess, that I remember how to do this activity. Possible, but not guaranteed.

It is fashionable among academics or writers who are not academics to begin a memoir or personal recollection by noting the state of poverty or blue collar background that they came from. I can cite my background differently: I came from a suburb in Miami, Florida. My family was middle class. We had plenty to eat. My parents owned two cars. I had clothes to wear. There were shopping malls in various directions we could drive to and visit. My high school sent many students to college.

When I was in maybe seventh grade, I won a contest sponsored by The Miami Herald. Each week, the Herald published a comic strip without words, but with empty word balloons. Children readers were invited to fill in the balloons with something witty. The best completed strip won a cash prize and chance to appear on The Sunday Funnies, a Sunday morning show where the host and his sidekick named Toby the Robot read the Sunday comics with a panel of kids. One week, I won the contest. For some time, I have searched the YouTube archives in the desperate hope that this episode was saved and uploaded by someone else who lived in Miami in the early 1980s. I have had no luck finding the lost The Sunday Funnies episode. I imagine myself finding it one day, showing it to students or colleagues, posting it on Facebook, returning to my childhood 15 minutes of fame. After we taped the episode, my parents stopped off at Spec’s on Dixie Highway on the way home. I used my cash prize to buy a copy of The J.Geils Bands’ Love Stinks album. In sixth grade, I wanted to be a cartoonist for a living. I drew a comic strip whose title was my own name. I had two other friends who did the same with their own names. The main character’s sidekick was a manatee. This was an obvious rip off of Bloom County where the sidekick was a penguin who was in love with Diane Sawyer.

Sometimes we begin a freshmen class with an ice breaker: Tell a lie about yourself. Tell us something unique about yourself  no one would know. The idea is the start the class on a familiar note, and as students share the anecdotes, I quickly memorize their names. I can memorize the first names of an entire class in one day. Then I use this achievement as an ice breaker: “Am I good or what?” I will declare after I demonstrate my memory to them, going one by one, saying their names out loud. “Can any of your other professors do that?”  In the army, I was sent to an anti-terror training course for several weeks. After completing the course, I was sent back to my unit, told only that I did not pass security clearance. I wish I could dazzle colleagues and friends with my ability to stop terrorism by firing an M-16 out of a moving car. That one exercise is about all I remember from the course. I am sure none of my other colleagues can do that either.

When I read a memoir or personal recollection, I’m amazed at what writers recall from their childhood: details of where they lived, names of classmates in the second grade, daily occurrences.  They do so in great detail and with great importance. But with me, I struggle to remember anything in great detail. I struggle to remember how we moved from house A to house B in Miami. It’s as if: one moment we lived in house A. Suddenly, we were in house B. When did the trucks arrive to get our stuff? When did we unpack? When did my parents look for a new house? I have no clue.

My most vivid memory of taking apart an M-16 is not the actual process of removing pieces and cleaning them but the tiny pin we called “Shabbat pin.” If you lost Shabbat pin, you “got Shabbat.” Getting Shabbat meant staying on the base during the weekend when everyone else got to go home. Home for me was a run down kibbutz near Tiberias where, years earlier, half its membership had packed up its belongings and moved somewhere else over a fight. Some time ago, I joined a Facebook group focused on this kibbutz where group members shared memories of living there and photographs of their time there. Nobody from my time period posted a photograph. Of if they did, I don’t remember their names. In fact, I can’t remember anybody’s name from the kibbutz, including my adopted family.

Memoir means memory. Memories are recorded. That is a basic idea, as basic as growing up in a middle class suburb in Miami, Florida.  There is something self-satisfying about telling one’s story or series of memories, however little or however much we remember. Search through YouTube, and you find all kinds of media memories: KISS on the Tom Synder show, home movies, old Mike Douglas episodes, old TV newscasts, concert footage from years ago. There is something very Barthes-esque about such moments: That happened/that person is now dead. For some reason, someone decides that they want to share a forgotten moment that, for some reason, was preserved years ago. They locate that moment from an old videotape, and then they upload it. Do most people have boxes of old videotapes in their closet? My father brought such a box to us when we lived in Missouri. “I don’t have a VCR anymore,” I told him. He brought an old VCR as well. We threw the box of videotapes out one day on trash day.

I wonder where my copy of Love Stinks is now. Maybe in a box in my parents’  house? If so, how did it get there? Who packed it? How did it get from point A to point B? Has it been thrown out? It doesn’t matter. I don’t have a record player anymore either.

October 5, 2013

Heaven is a Kentucky Kind of Place

Filed under: writing — jrice @ 9:38 pm

(from my wife, Jenny Rice)


When my family and I moved to Lexington three years ago, we were amazed at how different this part of the country looks from other regions. In the past five years, we have lived in Michigan and Texas. Both states have suffered tremendous real estate crises because of foreclosures and overdevelopment. Houses sit empty and the same “For Sale” signs linger in the front yards of houses for years. But Lexington looks different. We are so proud to show off our rolling hills and green landscape to visiting friends and family. Next time you travel out of state, notice how different our green hills look from the anonymous landscapes that some regions have succumb to: strip malls, acres of concrete, treeless buildings.


We were understandably disappointed when we heard that our neighborhood in south Lexington was due to be re-zoned, thanks to Ball Homes. Initially, I was surprised. Ball Homes—a builder who seems to have its mark in every corner of Lexington—was already building a huge housing development only a few miles away on Man O’War. The development is full of tightly packed, brand new houses that have no residents. That same development also has hundreds of apartment units without tenants. And yet they want to develop still more apartments and houses in the property off Old Schoolhouse Lane? At what point will Lexington become more protective of its development? Can we learn from other regions that have suffered the blight (both economic and physical) of overdevelopment?


More troubling, though, is the impact on our Kentucky landscape. The plans that Ball Homes have submitted will have a terribly negative effect on traffic (ever travel down Harrodsburg Road in the morning, afternoon, or any other time?), housing prices (yet more empty houses to fill), and traffic flow on streets that are now residential but will be “connectors” for commuters. My neighbors and I are also worried about the 300-year old Bur Oak that is endangered by this development. Those apartments and houses will present a paralyzing stress upon its root system. Once this landscape is altered, those changes can never be undone.


I ask my fellow Kentuckians to fight mightily to protect our beautiful landscape. We are blessed. More than we might even realize. It is worth our time to pause breakneck development in order to preserve our natural resources. Once they’re gone, they are impossible to recover. Daniel Boone once said, “HeavenMust Be A Kentucky Kind Of Place.” I’m pretty sure he didn’t have a Ball Homes development in mind when he said it.


October 2, 2013

Professing Bikram

Filed under: Bikram,writing — jrice @ 2:29 pm

I’m almost 44. I drink too much beer, eat too much bread and cheese. My body gains weight at almost 44 in ways it did not at 15. And I’m short. That doesn’t help with weight distribution either. Like many people, I exercise. You wouldn’t know it by looking at me, but I have been working out since I was 15; my dad bought me a Sears bench and weight set and put it out on the back porch. The weights were plastic encased over cement. When they cracked, the cement broke out.  But I’m no longer 15. I’m a 44 year old man with beer issues. I’m also a terrible runner. No matter what my wife may believe, I cannot run.

I still go to the gym three days a week and I still do my three day routine. Day one: biceps and triceps; day two: back and chest; day three: cardio and shoulders. Sit ups everyday.  The weights in my gym are not made of plastic encased over cement. In addition to weight lifting and gym cardio, I also try to do Bikram yoga three days a week. The easiest thing to do here as I make this observation would be to draw out parallels with the practice of Bikram and being a university professor. But I’m not interested in that. Metaphors are useful for all kinds of reasons. Not every professional thing we do must be turned into a life metaphor. My favorite academic metaphor is “big fish in a little pond.” That metaphor, as much as it describes so many people I know in the university,  has nothing to do with Bikram, beer, or exercise in general.

I go to yoga three days a week. How is it, I ask, that mere stretching in a 105 degree room for 90 minutes is exhausting? By exhausting, I mean that people have to sit down; they get so tired from stretching. By exhausting, I mean breathing hard for air.  Not only that, but in a Bikram 90 minute session, one does the same stretching to the same script each time. Nothing changes. “Pulling is the object of stretching.” “Elbows each other.” “Like a Japanese ham sandwich.” It is not as if the challenge increases or decreases each time. When Esak Garcia (a major Bikram figure) taught a class at the Lexington studio I attend, bodies sat down on their mats more than they normally do. At one point, I may have seen ten people sitting or laying down (and not doing the postures). I said to Garcia afterward: “I don’t get it. You did the same thing every other instructor does. Why was it even more exhausting today?” He just gave me a weird look.

In Hell Bent, Benjamin Lorr’s narrative of training to be a Bikram instructor and eventually joining Garcia’s Jedi Fight Club, he describes the initial breathing posture that begins every class by noting, “I was already sweating, and class hadn’t begun.”

Many times before class begins, I’m already sweating. My yoga mat – a plastic mat which we cover with a towel (because of how much we will sweat) – smells incredibly bad. So do my clothes. I’m not sure if anybody in the studio notices how badly my mat and clothes smell. The carpet smells bad as well.  During the floor series of Bikram, there is plenty of opportunity to smell the carpet and one’s own mat; we are face down for several postures and savasana rests. In the year I have been doing Bikram yoga, I have gone through three paris of underwear and two shorts. I cannot get the smell out of the clothes. Eventually, I throw them out. No matter how often I wash my clothes – with or without vinegar – with or without the fancy enzyme thing my wife bought – the smell remains.

Saying, “I’m sweaty when I do Bikram,” does little to describe the sweating that occurs in 90 minutes in a 105 degree studio while you are stretching. When we are in postures, I can hear the patter of drops on mats, as if it is raining in the room. While lying face down in a 2o second savasana, I glance at my back in the mirror and see thousands of beads of sweat piled up along the edges of my skin. I take three towels with me to each class. One for the mat, one to dry off the sweat that never stops pouring into my eyes for 90 minutes, one to put on the car seat for the ride home. These towels can never be used again for washing. They are now yoga towels. They also smell bad.

Sometimes in a 90 minutes session, I look around (which you are not supposed to do), and I see bodies sitting down. Laying down. Going out the door. Stretching for 90 minutes in a 105 degree room exhausts people to the point of giving up. In the army, if I learned anything, it was: your mind gives up before you body wants to. I know which postures take the most air out of me: triangle, camel, standing bow, and bow.

All of this may sound as if I am a Bikram expert after one year or as if I am really flexible since I have been practicing Bikram for one year. The opposite is true. After one year, I cannot do one posture correctly. My best posture, toe stand, earns me a compliment here and there, but I struggle more with the right leg than the left. I cannot get my arms to cross during eagle. Full locust has me laying on my belly rather than lifting up in the air. In standing head to toe, my outstretched leg is not “L like Linda.” It is more like a bent coat hanger shaking madly. Sometimes, when stretching, my legs shake madly.

Lock your leg. Lock your leg. If your leg is not locked, posture has not started yet.

I pay $100 a month to sweat profusely three days a week while stretching in a 105 degree room. But my back no longer aches. I no longer wake up stiff and barely able to move. No more sharp pains reaching down my lower back and into my leg as if someone is jamming sewing needles into me.

My sister convinced my wife to try Bikram; my wife convinced me. Sometimes, it seems as if we are preaching the Bikram gospel when we tell people to try it. I sometimes say I belong to two cults whose ideology I do not believe in: Bikram and the Montessori school where both my children attend for a lot more than $100 a month. Today on Facebook, my wife posted that she wishes she “could start an essay without telling a story.” I’d rather tell a story without writing an essay. For a long time now, I’ve taught writing as storytelling, as finding a way to demonstrate the “so what” aspect of writing (whether argumentative, informational, persuasive, etc.). The reason to express one’s self is to get at that aspect of the “so what” so that an audience may care about the expression at all. But sometimes, I’d rather just tell parts of stories, and I’m not sure I care what the point of these parts may be. I go to Bikram three days a week. I sweat a lot. I’m a professor. That’s it. That’s my story.

For whatever reason, as I considered what to write for this post, I felt the need to express one simple fact: I go to Bikram three days a week. My back no longer aches. I sweat a lot. I’m a professor. This is a blog post. I’m due at an event in half an hour. The practice of everyday things. And so it goes. Writing as fragment. Writing as observation. Writing as a series of ideas and moments without grand narrative or larger picture or point to prove. Among colleagues who must argue every point and know everything about the world, the university, economics, countries at war, ideology, social relationships, new media, and so on, I wouldn’t mind reading more writing of the everyday and the banal. Maybe not my own. But someone’s.


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