Commonplace

“Gentlefolks in general have a very awkward rock ahead in life–the rock ahead of their own idleness. Their lives being, for the most part, passed in looking about them for something to do, it is curious to see–especially when their tastes are of what is called the intellectual sort–how often they drift blindfold into some nasty pursuit. Nine times out of ten they take to torturing something, or to spoiling something–and they firmly believe they are improving their minds, when the plain truth is, they are only making a mess in the house. I have seen them (ladies, I am sorry to say, as well as gentleman) go out, day after day, for example with empty pill-boxes, and catch newts, and beetles, and spiders, and frogs, and come home and stick pins through the miserable wretches, or cut them up, without a pang of remorse, into little pieces. You see my young master, or my young mistress, porting over one of their spiders’ insiders with a magnifying -glass; or you meet one of their frogs walking downstairs without his head–and when you wonder what this cruel nastiness means, you are told that it means a taste in my young master or my young mistress for natural history. Sometimes, again, you see them occupied for hours together in spoiling a pretty flower with pointed instruments, out of a stupid curiosity to know what the flower is made of. Is its colour any prettier, or its scent any sweeter, when you do know? But there! the poor souls must get through the time, your –they must get through the time.”

Gabriel Betteredge in Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone

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Thinking vs. work

Great post today on Prof Hacker today about the difference between thinking and working. Key paragraphs here:

This distinction between thinking and working informs Stallybrass’s undergraduate pedagogy, for example, the way he trains his students to work with archival materials and the English Short Title Catalog. In Stallybrass’s mind, students—and in fact, all scholars—need to do less thinking and more working. “When you’re thinking,” Stallybrass writes, “you’re usually staring at a blank sheet of paper or a blank screen, hoping that something will emerge from your head and magically fill that space. Even if something ‘comes to you,’ there’s no reason to believe that it is of interest, however painful the process has been” (1584). This is a key insight that students and scholars alike need to be reminded of: tortured and laborious thinking does not automatically translate into anything of importance.

Stallybrass goes on to say that “the cure for the disease called thinking is work” (1584). In Stallybrass’s field of Renaissance and Early Modern literature, much of that work has to do with textual studies, discovering variants, paying attention to the physical forms of books, digging into etymologies, paleography, and so on. Work is engagement with materials and objects. It is not staring off into space with a blank screen in front of you.

I like Stallybrass’s and Mark Sample’s distinction between thinking and work here. Too much thinking and we just end up staring at a blank page, hoping some perfect nugget gets formed. It rarely, if ever happens that way. Working, wrestling with materials, trying to write through an idea as you’re coming to it I think is more useful. I’m a heavy reviser by nature, so I am more likely to just put words on a page and worry about how they sound later. But I also know I have more fun if I worry less about how important what I’m saying is and focus more on the texts I’m wanting to work with.

Downton Abbey and Its Discontents

Perhaps because it isn’t based on a serial or long novel, and therefore fully enters the world of television serial narratives and can’t be truly counted as British heritage cinema, but the popularity of Downton Abbey in the US has stirred up quite the backlash. Simon Schama’s latest piece is representative of the diatribes both against the series and Americans watching it. Schama, I think–as I wade through the anti-snobbery that is in fact another kind of snobbery–, is suggesting that Americans are flocking to Downton Abbey as a kind of escape from the present economic situation. And apparently we’re desperate enough to watch anything that can distract us from economic woes, especially if that something involves the British upper-classes in full battle array. Or something along those lines.

No, Downton Abbey is not historically accurate, but it’s not meant to be. It’s a soap opera, and Schama seems to think Americans don’t realize this fact. Indeed, he isn’t the only commentator to seem to think American audiences don’t realize this fact. A friend sent me this link to an NYTimes article on the book market tie ins to Downton Abbey. As one commentator said, it means if nothing else more people might pick up Vera Brittain’s excellent Testament of Youth. Yet, some other comments implied that it was only popular in the US and not really in England.

Let’s be realistic about Downton Abbey‘s viewing audience in the US. It airs on PBS on Sunday nights. It’s first episode last Sunday drew 4.2 million viewers (not including DVR or later streaming viewings). While Nielsen has not put up the top rated shows for the week beginning Jan. 9 yet, the top rated show for the previous week was an NFL playoff game with 20.2 million viewers. I’d hazard a guess to say that whatever NFL game aired last Sunday drew in a similar number. So yes, while Downton Abbey is drawing a lot of critical commentary from TV critics and it just won a Golden Globe last night, I don’t think 20 million Americans watched last night. In fact, I bet more Americans watched the show win a Golden Globe than watch the show. Heck, I guarantee that the most popular shows on American broadcast TV outdrew Downton Abbey by close to double. It’s doing well in the US market, but when the Christmas episode aired on ITV in the UK last December it drew over 12 million viewers. It’s popular here, but not more popular than it was in the UK. Americans like good TV. We’re well versed in it. We will watch good TV, no matter where it comes from and we tend to be critical of bad remakes of good TV. The American version of Free Agents failed because it was bad not because the source material was bad. Perhaps I’m more than just a little sensitive to the claim that people who watch TV are some how not critical readers of TV. I know few engaged TV viewers who are uncritical in their viewing tastes or narrative habits.

I unabashedly adore Downton Abbey, but I’m aware I’m watching a well done serial drama. I’m happy that it makes more people want to research and read about the period. It’s precisely what good narrative is designed to do–make us go out and think and learn more.

Teaching and Technology

Interesting post today on teaching with the iPad from ProfHacker. I’m not surprised by the discussion about the drawbacks to using the iPad in class–difficult to type on without an external keyboard, it perhaps complicates research or takes more set up time than needed. In effect, it’s not designed to replace a laptop. I loved a friend of mine’s ability to use the iPad efficiently at a conference for note taking and for following and posting to Twitter while at the conference, but ultimately I knew I wouldn’t use it that way. Which is why I went with the Nook Color when I wanted something more than a basic e-reader. I can take notes in a meeting or in class, surf the web, check email, social networking, and now watch Netflix on it (a cool feature, but perhaps one only truly useful if stuck someplace). It’s a wonderful e-Reader and I can upload PDFs of essays, which is one of the features I adore. Yet, I don’t see myself ever giving up teaching from actual books. The downside is being stuck with B&N’s ebook store–suggestion, work out a relationship with Penguin ASAP–which doesn’t carry a lot of things I would like. This is perhaps good for my pocketbook, but frustrating when trying to figure out books for a course. I still look longingly at the iPad when I see it, but I don’t think it’ll revolutionize my work habits.

Song of the Day: The Head and the Heart, “Lost in My Mind”

I’m not sure what to call this new folk movement, primarily because I don’t like the term new folk. I also think it’s less folk and more something else, but I haven’t put my finger on what that something else is yet. The Decemberists are at the fore-front of this sound, and it does seem to have imbued the feel of forest spaces or cold spaces–Pacific Northwest/England. I’m not sure if that’s because these are spaces that traditionally have embraced a turn to nature (Wordsworth, Hemans) or if these are spaces that evoke a feel of movement through space–trains, hikes, guitars, warm sweaters. It’s an amalgamation of these elements to be sure, but there’s also this winding sense of community and communion in this music. A sense of not necessarily activist togetherness, but certainly of tenuous connections and the need to preserve them. It would be easy to dismiss this music as a hipster trend (and the youtube comments do just that), but I don’t think it is. I have a complex relationship with folk music. I like twangy, jangly guitars. I like hand clapping, foot stomping Irish bands. I like music that makes the whole room want to sing along. I’m choir trained, so in my head, all music does come back to a group of voices joined together. I don’t like a certain kind of twee though, and I don’t like maudlin for the sake of being maudlin (I’m looking at you Laura Marling). This song by the Head and the Heart fits for me. Simple, layering of voices, build of sound, and that line that sounds like a train in the distance.

Song of the Day: Nellie Mckay, “Manhattan Ave”

On a whim I put in Nellie Mckay’s first album Sunday night as background music for our New Year’s Day dinner. I’d forgotten how much I loved this song with it’s sense of whimsy, busy streets, and bluesy 1960s sex comedy appeal. I may just be in that frame of mind having just finished Sam Wasson’s Fifth Avenue, 5 a.m., a slim but perfectly balanced account of the making of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. There needs to be a biography of Babe Paley, and I need to watch Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Two for the Road again.