Thursday, January 27, 2011

A Song for Pepco

Why? Oh, we could come up with about 113,000 reasons, in our county alone, as of this moment.

Get your $hit together, you big dumb corporate doofus, and get the power where it belongs: to the people. Sing it, Johnny. Click on this vid, even if you're down to the last drop of juice in your cell phone. It'll warm your heart, no matter how cold your house is:

The moms have been without power since 8 PM last night and fled the house this afternoon when the thermostat in the great room hit 56 degrees. They are in their cozy offices on campus now, enjoying warmth and functioning WiFi. They are hoping they don't have to spend another evening playing Camp Fire Girls, but, well, if they do, they'll cope. They've got plenty of wood, plenty of liquor, and a gas stove in the basement that puts out a fierce amount of heat. (Be kind, darlings -- Don't ask how cold they had to get before they remembered that useful little fact.) Happily, they've also got 21st-century reading devices that come with their own light sources. The way things are going, Moose stands a decent chance of actually finishing Jonathan Franzen's Freedom before the weekend is over.

The cause of all this mayhem? Oh, you know, three or so inches of snow. Yeah, it was nasty last night, with thundersnow and strong winds and a whole lot of frozen messiness falling from the sky, but it all stopped by midnight and roads were passable pretty early this morning. It's hard to believe Pepco can't get everybody back on line within 24 hours, but this wouldn't be the first time the national capital area was left in the dark for an unreasonable period of time.

You can kill the lights, Pepco, but you can't kill our spirits. Power to the people, power to the people, right on! Stay warm, my pretties, stay safe, and, if you've got power, for dog's sake, use it wisely. Peace out.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Excellence Without Tenure

(Image Credit: Brian Taylor, via.)

Read this column, published recently in The Chronicle, by the pseudonymous Madeleine Li, who writes of being denied tenure in the same year that her father died -- and then being chosen to deliver the fall commencement address because she had won one of her university's top awards for teaching excellence.

Read it and then come back here and tell us if you agree that a) it's a fine piece of writing and b) its fineness has everything to do with the writer's remarkable lack of self-pity combined with a well-tuned sense of irony.

Li isn't whining about the injustice of her case or the devaluation of teaching relative to research. She gets that her scholarly output was thin for one on the tenure track and that she took a gamble in choosing to try to publish her research as a book rather than chopping up her manuscript and publishing several separate articles. The point of the piece -- and, in our judgment, the source of its considerable power -- is to tell the not often told story of going back to campus and carrying on with work while coping with the figurative death of tenure denial, a loss compounded in Li's case by the actual death of a parent. She writes -- without rancor -- of gobsmackingly insensitive colleagues who compliment her on her weight loss without seeming to consider that she has been too stressed and grief-stricken to eat. She writes of sitting next to the provost on the dais at commencement, knowing that her tenure file was probably in his office by then. She writes -- Oh, hell, kids, we told you to go read it. Do that, come back, and discuss. My typist has been summoned to help fix dinner, on account of both moms will climb back in the teaching saddle tomorrow and have a lot of work to do this evening. Peace out, my more better and always excellenter friends.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Gay Action Figures of the Week

Why? Because, dahlings, the moms have gone Hollywood (read all the way to the end of that link or you won't get the cryptic allusion), and so we care deeply about profoundly superficial things like the Golden Globe Awards and the silly, sardonic, or sentimental speeches actors make when they win them. And because Glee is the queerest thing on TV ever, the best excuse we've found yet -- and, trust me, we are always looking -- for spending Tuesday nights on the couch belting out big songs.

At the Globes this past Sunday evening, Colfer and Lynch ran the table in the Best Supporting category for their performances on the show as, respectively, Kurt Hummel, the brave, tender faggot with the gorgeous counter-tenor voice, and Sue Sylvester, the ambiguously gay cheerleading coach whose diabolical machinations are often as close as the show gets to having a plot.

Lynch, shown at left (via) at the awards show with the woman she wed last summer, Dr. Lara Embry, picks up a bonus Gay Action Figure of the Week for her acceptance speech, which was a funny send-up of the winner's obligatory performance of false modesty that ended with an utterly unselfconscious shout-out to "my wife Lara" and their two children. Oh, Jane, you are so suave, so splendid, so deft with the deadpan line and look. You make tall girls everywhere want to square their shoulders and stride gleefully across the stages of their lives. We would dream of gay-marrying you if you -- and, oh yeah, we -- weren't already taken.

Meanwhile, the luminous Colfer, at left (via), whose character's torment at the hands of a homophobic/gay-panicked bully has sparked tears and motherly/teacherly fantasies of rescue over the course of this season, was poised, eloquent, and fierce in accepting his award. He opened with a quip about having dropped his heart "somewhere between Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore" and ended with his own very special shout-out:
Most importantly, to all the amazing kids that watch our show and the kids that our show celebrates who are constantly told no by the people in their environments, by bullies at school that they can’t be who they are or have what they want because of who they are. Well [pause, wave trophy in air], screw that, kids! Thank you [exit smiling].
Yes, my pretties, we understand that visibility in pop culture is fairly low on the totem pole of queer political aspirations (or maybe it isn't -- guess that depends on the queer, doesn't it?). Still, we feel moved to celebrate these proud, public actions by Lynch and Colfer as modest yet significant contributions to the cause. There are still stunningly few openly gay actors in Hollywood, so Colfer in particular, at the ripe old age of 20, is to be commended for beginning his career by being unabashedly out and vocal on issues of importance to the community.

And Glee, for all its flaws (and we admit there are some), deserves its own bit of commendation for its commitment to queer plots and characters and for the extraordinarily good timing of its attention to bullying. (Oh, and that EW there on the left, with Colfer and the adorable Darren Chriss on the cover, should be on newsstands now.) We may be biased, but we think the show is at its best when it focuses on Kurt's proud yet uncertain efforts to grow up gay and strong. We are genuinely conflicted about who sings the best (Kurt? Rachel? Rachel? Kurt? Mercedes? Rachel?), but Kurt's stories win hands down for their emotional texture and their potent political force. Colfer's pitch-perfect performance makes the character's dignity and vulnerability so clear that the audience can't not root for him. We want a world in which Kurt can thrive. We want to hold his hand and try, together, to bring that world into being. Don't we? Yes, Kurt, we do. We want to hold your hand, too. Peace out.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

MLA 2011: The Great Untweeted

Does the world need another MLA post-game post? Heck, no, but if blogging were about need (as it pertains to anything but the narcissism of the blogger), there wouldn't be much blogging going on in the world, now would there, my pretties? In any case, my typist has been mulling over a few things while cruising everybody. else's. contextualizing. flattering. provocative. amen-producing post-convention posts, and it would appear that she still has something to say on the subject.

Take it away, Moose. MLA11 is, like, so last week, and this dead dog is dead tired. Knock yourself out.

* * *

If a tree fell in the forest and nobody tweeted it, would it make a noise? Apparently not, judging by the coverage of last week's MLA convention.

I should state up front that I am not a Twitter-hater. I am on Twitter -- or, you know, this blog is on Twitter (as roxieblog, natch -- Why aren't you following us?). I don't love it in the way that I love Facebook, but I use it for blog-whoring and buzz-tracking in a variety of professional and political networks. Further, I've got no cause to complain about the lively Twitter action going on at MLA11, seeing as how the session I organized and on which I participated was, according to something called Twapper Keeper, the most heavily tweeted session at the conference. (Scroll down to the "Top 10 tweeted hashtags." Our session hashtag, "newtools," is second only to the generic "mla11" hashtag that was used for the convention as a whole.) (But, srsly, people: Twapper Keeper? Who comes up with this stuff?)

The buzz about our session, "New Tools, Hard Times: Social Networking and the Academic Crisis," was mostly positive and, for me personally, kinda ego-boosting. (Thanks, Tweeps! Love you, too.)

There was a bit of contention, too, which might have fueled some of the interest in "New Tools," as MLA exec direc Rosemary Feal, who presented on the session about her use of Twitter on behalf of the organization, posted tweets during the session taking issue with how co-panelist Marc Bousquet characterized the MLA's long, complex history on labor and economic issues. (Curious? Why, honey, it even made the Chronicle. Read the comments thread on Frank Donoghue's [wildly off-base] blog post about the convention. Check out the #newtools Twitterstream here [H/T Sample Reality].)

That is all to say that I have no axes to grind with Twitter and, indeed, that I have a healthy appreciation for the role it played at this year's convention, particularly in allowing those who weren't able to attend to follow the action and even, in a few cases, to participate by posting comments and questions as sessions were going on. In returning to the question that opened these ruminations, however, I would like to focus on three related points that have been niggling at me ever since I left LA: 1. what did not make it into the Twitterstream; 2. how that absence shaped public perceptions of the convention; and 3. how I experienced sessions with lots of Twitter action going on around me versus those in which there was little to no such action taking place.

ProfHacker co-editor George Williams gets at some of what has troubled me in his introduction to the marvelous round-up post he did on the role of social media at the convention. In an academic world divided between the few who tweet and the many who do not, Williams recognizes that the public image of the convention, to the extent that it is drawn from the Twitterstream, will be distorted, "reflect[ing] only a thin slice of the entire experience." Mark Sample, in his comments in the round-up, even talks about a rising "Twitter Hegemony," as a way of describing the tendency of Twitter both to dominate any discussion of social media and to skew or narrow perspective. Sample impressively crunches numbers to demonstrate the outsize presence a handful of the convention's 8000 attendees had in the Twitterstream:  "The top ten twitterers produced almost 40 percent of the conference tweets. Ten people accounted for nearly 3,000 of the 7,600 #mla11 tweets." Sample himself is in that top ten, but he acknowledges some ambivalence about his status:
If Twitter is as transformative in creating transparency and collaboration as I like to think it is, then I can’t be anything but disappointed that only a few of us used Twitter. And I can’t help but wonder if the conference experience of those people who did not use Twitter was substantively different from mine. Perhaps it was, but I’ll never know. The silent majority remains inscrutable. The hegemony of Twitter will speak in their place, but it does not speak for them. We must remember that.
Well put. Unfortunately, however, some of the coverage of the convention seems lacking in Williams' and Sample's complex awareness of Twitter Hegemony, their recognition that the bits and pieces marked with the "mla11" hashtag are a far cry from, say, the court reporter's comprehensive record of a legal proceeding. I am reluctant to name names and call people out on their efforts to cover an event as large and multifaceted as an MLA convention, but we have a commitment here in Roxie's World to calling a spade a spade, and so I am compelled to say that The Chronicle of Higher Education fell down in this regard. Jennifer Howard's main story on the convention started off with a focus on the theme of "the Academy in Hard Times," but it quickly shifted to what she described as the "high times" going on in digital humanities, as evidenced by packed sessions, lively debates, and, yes, "dominance of the conference talk on Twitter." Howard included an observation from my friend and colleague Neil Fraistat about "how much more energy one could feel in the digital-humanities sessions than in many of those devoted to traditional subject areas, like his field, Romanticism." A few paragraphs later, Howard acknowledges hearing "a spirited debate" at a session called "The English Bible," but that session gets a scant two sentences before the story makes its way back to Twitter by talking about the free Wi-Fi the MLA arranged in meeting rooms for the first time this year.

I am supremely uninterested in determining whether I am or am not a "digital humanist." (I thought I was for awhile, but I think Steve Ramsay might have revoked my credentials with his declaration that "Digital Humanities is about building things" other than blogs.) I've been around long enough to see a number of emerging fields go through similar growth spurts and their attendant internecine squabbles over boundaries, methods, and definitions. You know what I mean: Sure, she's good, but I don't think she's a feminist. Or: Well, that's not really Theory, you know. And: You can't say "LGBT" anymore -- We're all queer now!

Call me what you will, I have a strong investment in digital humanities and new media studies and believe the field deserves the attention it is getting. It isn't just cool. It still holds, as Cathy Davidson passionately argues in her brilliant post-MLA post, the promise of transforming all the fields and professions not just in the modern languages but in the humanities generally. Nonetheless, I am troubled by the way the Twitter Hegemony operated in this instance because I know how much of my own experience of the MLA didn't make it into the stream and, coincidentally or consequently (who knows?), didn't make it into the stories of the convention that I have seen in The Chronicle, Inside Higher Ed, or on blogs, including my own, until now.

Queer studies isn't a "traditional subject area" in the way that Romanticism is, but it is by this point a well-established field that long ago went through the kind of growing pains noted above. It is by no means the new kid on the block anymore, and yet the queer studies sessions I attended at this year's MLA were some of the most exciting and inspiring I have seen in years. I went to the three linked sessions on the legacies of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and one of the sessions in memory of Barbara Johnson. (Both Sedgwick and Johnson died in 2009. Johnson's work in deconstruction influenced many queer theorists, including Sedgwick and Judith Butler.) In every case, the meeting rooms -- often big ballrooms -- were packed, the papers were stunning, and the audiences were spellbound. I won't even try to summarize the papers, because I'm not very good at that sort of thing and because I assume they will eventually be published.

What matters more for my purposes here is to say that the atmosphere in these sessions was electrifying, and the ethos was kind. There were no cat (or dog) fights, no preening divas, no hostile or self-promoting speechifying masquerading as a question, all of which I have seen at queer (and un-queer!) sessions in years past. I realize that the mode of these particular sessions -- which combined intellectual work with deeply felt tributes to departed friends who happened to be towering figures in their fields -- perhaps helped to keep people on their best behavior, but I was still struck by how warm and generous the vibe was, even as scholars reflected in profound ways on the past and future of a field that has had its own transformative effects on the humanities.

And did I mention that (almost) no one was tweeting in these sessions? The spellbound audiences were for the most part in an analog mode, taking notes on paper or just quietly taking in the eloquence of some of the field's heaviest hitters. (When was the last time Judith Butler gave not one but two papers at an MLA?) As an attendee, I have to say it was a relief not to be surrounded by people clattering away on their laptops, which was often the case in the DH sessions. I find that distracting, because I am not especially good at taking information in through my ears and need to be able to concentrate. The result of all that low-tech listening, however, is that these substantive, well-attended sessions caused barely a ripple in the Twitterstream and -- again, coincidentally or consequently? you decide -- received no coverage in the educational press. It's as if they never happened, as if the trees fell without a sound because no digital device was used to record it.

I exaggerate but only slightly. In the long run, these talks likely will be published and will no doubt have a significant impact on shaping post-Sedgwick, post-Johnson queer studies. Their short-term oblivion still makes them a powerful example of the dangers of using tools like Twitter to try to get a handle on large, complex events. The MLA Twitter archive is a fascinating but woefully incomplete record of one such event. It tells us something but not nearly enough about what went on over the course of four splendid days in Los Angeles.

Willa Cather wrote beautifully of "the inexplicable presence of the thing not named" and of how such unnamed yet felt presences imbue art with its power to haunt and compel. My experience of MLA11 reminds me to consider as well the significance of -- forgive me, Willa -- the thing not tweeted, of all the experience that isn't captured in the vast but always incomplete data stream in which we now swim. To see and hear such things and take their measure -- That, too, is the work of the humanities, in the analog or the digital mode. As always, friends, we've got our work cut out for us. Peace out.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

MLA 2011: New Tools, Hard Times

Greetings from La La Land, kids. Yes, it's warmer here than where you are and prettier, too. Moose took a swim yesterday in the lovely pool at the Millennium Biltmore, while Goose stumbled into the shooting of an episode of CSI. It's not all fun and fabulousness here in sunny SoCal, of course. Moose had her big session Thursday evening, "New Tools, Hard Times: Social Networking and the Academic Crisis," which was part of the convention's special focus on "The Academy in Hard Times." The session featured MLA exec direc Rosemary Feal and an impressive roster of speakers with a range of experiences with social media and higher ed, including Marc Bousquet, Brian Croxall, Chris Newfield, and Moose, speaking, for some strange reason, under her real name. Session moderator Meredith McGill posted a link-rich introduction to the panel and the speakers here. Newfield has posted a summary of the session and of his presentation on another related session here. The session even had its own Twitter hashtag, which you can check out even if you are not among the Twitterati. Just go here.

Thanks to everybody who attended and participated in the session. It was great to be a part of this vital series of conversations the MLA has launched on the grim state of affairs in higher education. We are big believers in the idea that you have to acknowledge the problem before you can begin to remedy it, and these sessions have given us hope that a bunch of smart, committed people have begun to acknowledge the problem. Yep -- Glasses are half full again in Roxie's World!

Anyway, as a special treat, we've decided to post the text of Moose's remarks at the session. Enjoy, darlings, and feel free to pass 'em along -- Just tell folks where you got 'em. Take it away, Moose!

* * *

These are brief remarks but I’ve given them a rather grand-sounding title that I hope you will understand is totally tongue in cheek. “Excellence Without Money” is a phrase I came up with a couple of years ago on my blog to describe the impossible bind of universities forced to pretend that even the most drastic budget cuts have no impact whatsoever on the quality of the educational product. The phrase got taken up by some fellow bloggers, including Historiann, who kindly came up with an attractive official-looking seal to help promote the cause. Someone else even translated it into Latin for me -- Excellentia sine pecunia. Anyway, most of my writing on higher education focuses on the hypocrisy and the political paralysis arising from the commitment to the delusion of Excellence Without Money.

My focus here is on what social media tools enable us to do that we can’t do otherwise, on how they can build support and community across professional and geographic boundaries, and how we can use them to cultivate new publics for our work and actually to do our work in different, more creative ways. I’m particularly interested in how humor, particularly parody and satire, can be used to communicate both internally – e.g., to academic audiences – and externally – e.g., to non-academic or general audiences.

First, though, since assessment is all the rage on campuses these days, let me toss out some questions aimed at gauging the effectiveness to date of these tools, particularly as a means of ameliorating higher education’s current hard times. So:

• Have academic users of social media turned back the tide of corporate neoliberalism on campus? Uh, no.

• Have we built a groundswell of renewed support for higher education or the humanities off campus? Well, since the voters of Maryland just overwhelmingly re-elected a governor who imposed four years of tuition freezes and three years of employee furloughs on the state’s university system, despite my blog’s relentless mocking of him as a fauxgressive Democrat I habitually referred to as Gov. Martin “You, Sir, Are No Jack Kennedy” O’Malley, regrettably, I have to give us a failing grade on this question as well.

• Does that mean that academic users of social media are deluded “slacktivists” or, worse, that we are confirming what Feisal G. Mohamed described in Dissent the other day as “the casual undergraduate presupposition. . . that digital fora for blather are now fundamental to meditations on our role in the universe[?]” Rather than “training thoughtful citizens,” are we instead, as Mohamed asserts, “training the next generation to become an ignorant herd easily led through a cultural landscape shaped by the corporate interests dropping shiny techno-apples in its path[?]” Lord, I hope not, though I can’t guarantee it.

• Will academic uses of social media ultimately prove to be as ineffective as all the other means of communicating our mission and value have been over the years? I think it’s too soon to tell. Blogs have been around for barely a decade. Facebook and YouTube aren’t yet 6 years old, and Twitter isn’t yet 5. The MLA, founded in 1883, is 128 years old. The old organization and its members are learning to use the new tools, but that use is in a very early stage. I think there are grounds for optimism on this question, as I will explain below, but any assessment at this point would be premature.

I don’t consider myself a digital evangelist, as Malcolm Gladwell, in a well-known New Yorker article, scornfully describes those whom he believes have oversold the world-transforming potential of online activism. Gladwell is not, in my judgment, entirely fair in his judgments, especially of Clay Shirky, but I agree that it’s important to avoid high-tech boosterism and to be realistic about what can be accomplished with a blog post, a tweet, a video, or a lolcats cartoon.

(Image Credit: mlaconvention)

At their best, social media are tools of outreach and education. Using them is not the same thing as organizing a movement in support of the humanities or higher education, but that doesn’t mean using them is unimportant. (For more on the distinction between outreach and organizing a social movement, see Mark Engler.) Used strategically, in concert with more traditional means of person-to-person organizing and in furtherance of, say, a specific plan for a saner, more egalitarian funding structure for higher education, these tools might be highly effective in eventually helping to make the times a little less hard.

Why do I say that? Because during the 2009-10 academic year, when we saw a significant resurgence of campus activism in response to budget cuts and increases in tuition and fees, what Shirky describes in Here Comes Everybody as “the power of organizing without organization” was much in evidence and helped to mobilize faculty, students, and staff across the country. YouTube proved to be an essential tool for documenting actions and events, from building occupations to teach-ins. Twitter helped enable mass, real-time communication about actions as they were unfolding, while Facebook facilitated the formation of networks and alliances across campuses. Blogs – such as Chris’s Remaking the University and Angus Johnston’s Student Activism -- helped to document and analyze a story that even educational media, including The Chronicle of Higher Education, were underplaying. Further, archiving and searchability gave these events and materials, so often ephemeral, an enduring afterlife. Wendy Brown’s speech at the teach-in at Berkeley in September 2009 has been viewed more than 13,500 times on YouTube. The ready access and the permanence of such materials greatly enhance their political value.

I want to shift gears and focus specifically on blogs, particularly on those like Historiann, Tenured Radical, and to a degree my own, Roxie’s World, that are academic and feminist or queer and that focus consistently on workplace issues. My reading and writing in the blogosphere over the past five years have persuaded me that such blogs are quite useful tools for mitigating some of the damaging effects of our hard times. They are very effective at facilitating lateral communication among academic knowledge workers. They are good at building intellectual and/or professional communities, at creating spaces for conversations about work conditions, at collectively sharing or formulating strategies for surviving or transforming those conditions, at exposing administrative failures and hypocrisies, at breaking silences, at talking back, at encouraging critique, resistance, and subversion of top-down policies that don't work and encroach on academic freedom. The institutional diversity of commenters on academic blogs sparks remarkable exchanges on a daily basis from colleagues who are geographically remote from one another and operating in radically different work environments. Click into Historiann on any given day, and you’ll see a lively mix of faculty, grad students, and adjuncts from R-1 schools, small liberal arts colleges, community colleges, and mid-size regional universities talking about the conditions of their work lives.

Finally, I’d like to say a word or two about humor. In my piece in the Journal of Women’s History roundtable on feminist blogging, I talk about the multiple, complex purposes served by humor in the academic feminist blogosphere. I discuss humor as a survival tool, a way of negotiating the challenges and sometimes the dullness of academic life. Those who use it demonstrate their resilience, even their perverse optimism. Humor may serve as a powerful means of disarming one’s opponents or bringing the high and mighty down a notch or two. It can be a way of acknowledging and reckoning with differences, of reclaiming and revaluing terms that have been used to demean women, queers, and other less privileged groups.

I don’t talk in that piece about the great potential humor has as a way to communicate and de-mystify the world of higher education to non-academic audiences, but I think that’s a point worth considering as we grapple with the perennial problem of how to advocate more effectively for the humanities and higher education. You might have stumbled across some of those Xtranormal text-to-film cartoons that were making the rounds on blogs and Facebook a couple of months ago. So many were produced by higher ed professionals that I predicted there would soon be a new category of awards added to the Oscars, “Animated Short Films by Disgruntled Academics.” I offered two modest contributions to the genre, “I Want to be Promoted,” in which an indignant associate professor sits down with an uptight department chair to discuss her chances for promotion to full (in part on the basis of her blog), and “Excellence Without Money: The Movie,” in which the director of a small program meets with her dean to discuss budget matters. I created a YouTube channel for the cartoons, and they’ve now been viewed more than 3300 times – Yeah, I know, not much compared to the 32.5 million views Willow Smith’s “Whip My Hair” video has gotten over the past two months, but still. I have no clear sense of who has seen them or what the reaction has been, but I was struck when I showed them to members of my own family (mostly Republicans, all middle-class, Midwestern, business types) not only that they were amused but that they also seemed to take in the serious issues I was trying to address about funding for higher education and issues of work and evaluation in the academy. I’ve been trying to explain such matters to my family for decades, but the cartoons seemed to convey the point in a clear, succinct, and, I hope, memorable way.

Humor is a good teacher. We all know this. We use it in our classrooms all the time. Why not use it more as a way of explaining what we do and why it matters to audiences beyond the classroom? For that kind of communications work, we have been talking in the modes of crisis or denial for thirty years. I say we might consider giving the comic mode a try for a while. What have we got to lose?

Monday, January 03, 2011

2010: Three Great Reads

Read any good books lately? is usually not the kind of question you want to ask an English prof. The answers will probably run a narrow gamut from obtuse ("Hells yeah, man, I just finished Zizek's The Parallax View! Thrilling!) to obscure ("Yes, I was up all night last night finishing Charles Stewart's A Treatise on the Law of Scotland Related to Rights of Fishing. Quite a page turner!).

As it happens, Moose did a fair amount of reading over the course of the year just (and mercifully) ended that was a little more current and a lot more cool than standard English prof fare, so we've decided to focus our out-with-the-old-year-in-with-the-new post on the Three Best Books Moose Read Last Year. Why? Because we are lazy and kinda busy. With the shift of the MLA convention from December to January Moose still has to write up her remarks for her hip and groovy roundtable (session #150) on how blogging and Twitter are going to save rather than destroy higher education. Also, you don't need us to tell you that the great Democratic shellacking was the biggest political news of the year, and you already know that as far as this blog is concerned the great moment in sport for the year was the final minute of the NCAA men's basketball final, as we watched little Butler miss a Hail Mary shot at the buzzer that would have beaten the Evil Empire of Duke. Oh, and you know we weren't wild about The Kids Are All Right, even if it might help Annette Bening snag the Oscar she has deserved for so long.

Anyway and ergo: books.

Tech guru Jaron Lanier's You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto is not a perfect book by any means. Its technique of argument by aphorism (e.g., "Spirituality is committing suicide. Consciousness is attempting to will itself out of existence.") can come across as both overwrought and not wholly convincing. Its critique of the culture of mashups and other second-order modes of expression can sound elitist and grouchy, even if we agree that a lot of pop culture feels pretty stale and somnolent right now. Damn those kids and their crappy, boring, loud music! His fears of "cybernetic totalism" and the hive mind don't quite make you want to reach for your tin-foil hat, but they might make you feel slightly sheepish about all the techno-toys that now clutter up your space and time. (Rest assured no anti-tech backlash has taken hold in Roxie's World, kids. Moose got her first Kindle for Christmas and has undertaken a bold new experiment in 21st-century reading in bed. The early results? Her envy of Goose's iPad has already disappeared. Beam me up, Scotty! I'm ready to join the hive!)

The previous paragraph might have you scratching your head wondering what You Are Not a Gadget is doing on our list of Best Books of 2010. Well, in our neck of the woods "best" can mean annoying yet provocative, important, worth thinking about and tussling with, and that's how we ended up feeling about Lanier's book. Moose taught it in her blogging class last semester and liked the kinds of conversations it opened up about our relationships to technology and the culture of Web 2.0. Lanier is excellent at helping non-geeks become more self-conscious about our tools and toys. He does so by pointing out the assumptions about humans and machines that are built into the designs of computer programs and the Web itself.

Lanier writes from within the world he criticizes. He has been around Silicon Valley since the early 1980s and is often described as the father of virtual reality technology. His stance now is that of a contrarian and a disappointed idealist. He's particularly critical of the open source movement and the devaluation of content in the environment built out of the assertion that "information wants to be free." We share some of Lanier's concerns and skepticism, but he is also overly invested in notions of originality and individuality that are probably less threatened by technology than by other broader, deeper transformations in Western culture. Indeed, one might wish that the book had a richer and more nuanced historical sense, but it could be someone else will have to write that particular analysis of the brave, less new than we seem to imagine world in which we now find ourselves. We'll still give You Are Not a Gadget a PAWS UP for asking questions we enjoyed thinking about and helping us to see that there is nothing natural or inevitable about the designs of the tools we now use in every moment of our working, thinking lives.

The other two books on Moose's Best of 2010 list are not manifestos but memoirs, Patti Smith's National Book Award-winning Just Kids and Gail Caldwell's Let's Take the Long Way Home. Both are poignant, beautifully written narratives of friendship and loss that manage to avoid sentimentality and the appalling cliches that tend to pop up in ready-for-Oprah tales of grief.

Just Kids has received a lot of much deserved attention and praise. (Go listen to a captivating 7-minute excerpt of Smith reading from the book here.) We don't have much new to say about her portrait of her relationship with the artist Robert Mapplethorpe, whom she met in the summer of 1967 and to whom she was closely connected -- first as lover and later as muse and friend -- until his death from AIDS in 1989. As a story of two young artists struggling to give shape to their ambitions, it is both inspiring and endearing. Smith subscribes to a mystical model of the artist she found in a copy of Rimbaud's Illuminations she tells us she pocketed in Philadelphia at the age of 16, but the wry tone and laconic style of her narrative keep it from sounding ridiculous or self-aggrandizing. She also does an admirable job of staking her claim to Mapplethorpe, whose controversial homoerotic photographs would make him a queer hero in the culture wars of the 1980s and 90s, without seeming to try to claim him for heterosexuality. The book is perhaps most fascinating as an eyewitness account of a particular moment in the complex cultural history of New York City, the pre-AIDS period of the late 1960s and 70s when queers and punks rubbed shoulders in places like the Chelsea Hotel, Max's Kansas City, and the Factory and built a counterculture that was subsequently blown away by death, gentrification, and the panic surrounding HIV-AIDS. Smith writes tenderly but not nostalgically of that time, as when she recalls an early exploration of St. Mark's Place:
I can't say I fit in, but I felt safe. No one noticed me. I could move freely. There was a roving community of young people, sleeping in the parks, in makeshift tents, the new immigrants invading the East Village. I wasn't kin to these people, but because of the free-floating atmosphere, I could roam within it. I had faith. I sensed no danger in the city, and I never encountered any.
The world of Caldwell's Let's Take the Long Way Home is remote from the Boho coolness of Smith's New York, but it, too, is a story of friendship rooted in shared passions and finely meshed sensibilities. Sadly, it, too, is a story of friendship cut short by early death. Caldwell and her friend Caroline Knapp were both writers. Caldwell was a book critic for the Boston Globe when she and Knapp became friends in the mid-1990s. Knapp was a columnist for the alternative Boston Phoenix whose account of her struggle with alcoholism, Drinking: A Love Story, was published in 1996. Caldwell won a Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 2001. Knapp was diagnosed with lung cancer in April 2002 and died from the disease in June at the age of 42.

Caldwell's book feels remarkable because, more than 80 years after Virginia Woolf marveled at the possibility that Chloe might like Olivia in A Room of One's Own, it is still unusual to encounter a story centrally focused on love and loyalty between women. Caldwell and Knapp shared more than the solitary discipline of the writer's life. Caldwell is also an alcoholic who struggled for years to keep working and keep drinking before making the commitment to getting sober. Both were also fiercely committed athletes who loved the water (Caldwelll was a swimmer, Knapp a rower). Both were also dog lovers who forged their friendship over the course of miles and miles of walking with their animal companions on the paths around a Cambridge reservoir. The book unfolds with the quiet serenity of a long, satisfying walk. Caldwell, too, is a laconic narrator who eschews melodrama and avoids self-pity in telling the story of having and losing a beloved friend, of having to figure out "how to live in a world where loss, some of it unbearable, is as common as dust or moonlight."

Exactly so. None of the profound pleasures of Let's Take the Long Way Home will be spoiled by letting you know that the book ends in the deeply affirming gesture of Caldwell bringing a new dog into her life. Read this book. Take a walk in the thin light of a winter afternoon. Remind yourself that unbearable loss eventually resolves into acceptance and finally opens the door to new attachments. That's not a bad thought to have in the beginning of a fresh new year -- and that's why Let's Take the Long Way Home is the best of the best books Moose read in the old year.

Peace out, darlings. Happy new year -- and happy reading.