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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

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Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

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john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

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Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

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Thursday, September 25, 2008

My “reading” list for the Fall Quarter

Posted by Scott Eric Kaufman on 09/25/08 at 06:58 AM

  1. Batman Begins
  2. Detective Comics #47
  3. "The Myth of Superman," Umberto Eco
  4. Superman Returns
  5. Action Comics #1
  6. Planetary #10
  7. Watchmen
  8. Stan Lee’s Watchmen
  9. "The World Ozymandias Made," Matthew Wolf-Meyer
  10. "The Zeppo"
  11. Supreme

Before you hoist pitchfork, carefully consider the following points:

  1. I’m teaching a composition course on rhetoric.  The point is not to have them read literature, but understand rhetoric.  Given the dominance of visual rhetoric today, my emphasis on visual literacy should be understandable. 
  2. This course is writing intensive.  Some teachers prefer to teach texts that model the sort of prose they want their students to produce.  But study after study has shown that having undergraduates read Emerson has no effect on the quality of their prose.  (Or the effect may be wholly deleterious, as when students who can’t nest clauses come to believe their teachers expect them to write like Emerson.)  By shifting the time-intensiveness of the course from the consumption of rhetorically-loaded works to the production and refinement of rhetorical analyses, I think I’ll have a better chance to improve the quality of their writing in the 10 weeks I have with them.
  3. Spandex.


Given this particular visual-rhetoric focus, maybe some sequences from Triumph of the Will?  Superhero comics aren’t fascist, but a lot of their visual rhetoric is.

Or at least have them listen to Triumph of the Swill, one of my favorite overdone rhetorical songs.

By on 09/25/08 at 10:48 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m persuaded by your point about spandex.

By LumpenProf on 09/25/08 at 10:53 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Sorry if this sounds like a pitchfork poke, but…

If I were one of your students I’d feel condescended to and cheated.  I would think: Why go to college for this? Why not stay home and read comics?

And OF COURSE Emerson is bad model for student prose in 2008.  But what about...I don;t know...Joan Didion? You offer a silly example.

But hey, you get to be the cool professor. That’s worth something, right? Very baby-boomer of you.


By on 09/25/08 at 06:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich, I wanted to keep the reading and the films tightly knit, so as to emphasize the different audiences to these origin (and quasi-origin) stories appeal to.  That said, we’re talking ‘38 and ‘40 here, so Triumph of the Will wouldn’t be entirely out of place.

Lumpenprof, damn compelling, ain’t it?

Tom, I’m not interested in being the cool professor, but the relevant one—i.e. who considers his job in a rhetoric class to teach rhetoric through the kinds of appeals being made to students.  With this class, I focus on how the process visual rhetoric in accordance with a theme of significance, if not importance.  It means something, after all, that we live in a time in which popular culture is dominated by spandex-clad heroes.  The students need to identify the rhetorical situation—to figure out who the audience for a particular work is and how and why its assortment of rhetorical features appeals to that work’s audience—so it never hurts to be topical.

I suppose I could’ve chosen to do contemporary political rhetoric, but in all honesty, Watchmen is better both as a fiction and a work of art than the dross that passes for American politics. 

As for why I’m not teaching Joan Didion, as everyone knows, it’s because I hate her.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 09/25/08 at 06:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Me too!

By Joseph Kugelmass on 09/25/08 at 06:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I have no problem with media studies.

But I don’t see why a composition class on visual rhetoric will help students write better than a composition class on Emerson (or on dolphins or ponies or whatever).

Research suggests that students write worse when they don’t understand the material about which they’re writing.  So a writing class on *Ulysses* is probably a dumb idea.  But the type of content is less important than the difficulty of simply understanding the content.

By on 09/25/08 at 07:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

No pitchforks here. Given the mind-numbingly boring essays in many freshman readers (I refuse to engage the “cloning” issue again), and given the purpose of the course, I see no problem with using such material. Tom, the point of the course isn’t to study canonical literature, it’s to study rhetorical analysis. Different beast. Even a standard composition class employs advertisements, editorials, photography, etc., and not canonical literature. At my college, we save that for second semester Freshman composition.

Scott, are you using any other texts on rhetoric, or are you supplying that information yourself?

By on 09/25/08 at 09:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Trent, I’m using UCI’s in-house Anteater Reader, which is tailored to the sort of rhetorical analysis we’re doing.  I’m also teaching excerpts from Reading Comics and Understanding Comics, since our in-house reader is long on visual rhetoric generally but short on comic-specific material.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 09/25/08 at 09:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

That said, the program I’m teaching in has moved away from the kind of disjointed advertisement here, photograph there, &c. model because teaching objects with explicit narratives helps students understand the implicit narratives driving seemingly unrelated phenomenon (be it an ad or political campaign).  By focusing on the narrative quality of rhetorical analysis, I think we’re forcing students to consider context in a way the very general “this ad belongs to a sexist patriarchal tradition"-type assignments can’t.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 09/25/08 at 09:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

” It means something, after all, that we live in a time in which popular culture is dominated by spandex-clad heroes.”

It means many things, Scott, starting with this: professors have to decide whether they wish to keep students in the pop-culture bubble, or make the case for alternatives. 

Your first goal in this course should be teaching rhetoric, sure, but that should not leave you indifferent to the other effects of your reading list: a big thumbs-up to the pop culture, for one. As someone who grew up in a semi-literate subculture, I can’t help but feel bad for any of your students from similar backgrounds.  You are denying them something you enjoy yourself.  Funny how the most progressive-minded academics often end up reinforcing this particular status quo: the kids get more spandex, while they hoard the sophisticated stuff for themselves. 

As for your desire to be “relevant,” beware. The most complacent people always wish to “relevant.”


By on 09/26/08 at 06:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I agree with you in the broad sense that if they’re expected to practice a certain kind of rhetorical analysis they need rich texts to practice with.  Still, what would you teach them if your were teaching them to make comics or graphic novels? Would you set aside graphic novels themselves, or only have them read Eisner and McCloud on making comics.

How you close the gap between understanding and making-- which in this case seems be understanding rhetorical analysis and actually composing pieces of writing allows students to demonstrate they understanding that method-- should be a central goal of the class.  I’m curious how you intend to do it.

By on 09/27/08 at 07:06 AM | Permanent link to this comment


Some of the stuff on Scott’s list is quite sophisticated. Let’s not assume that what is currently popular must be unsophisticated, or that what is studied as “literature” must be sophisticated.

In literature courses, some of the studied works are of a high order and some are not. In American Lit., students often read Bret Harte, whom few would consider a great artist, because of his importance as a regionalist. The study of literature is not always—nor should be—the study of Great Books. Cultural and historical factors also come into play. These factors, of course, are important in Scott’s selection of texts.

At any rate, Tom, rest assured, Scott’s school also covers the classics. But composition classes, especially first semester composition, usually are not treated as Great Book classes but rather as classes in argumentation and persuasion. Usually the studied texts are more or less contemporary examples of persuasion.

One can argue that freshman composition should be devoted to analyzing canonical literature, but that would change the nature of the course. I see the goals of freshman composition as 1) helping students write persuasively by having them rhetorically analyze texts and by using the standard tools of rhetorical analysis to generate material, to create trustworthy ethos, and to address audience; and 2) giving students the tools to understand and resist rhetorical appeals addressed to them. Those are the goals. In other classes, the goal is to study “literature” more directly.

By on 09/27/08 at 09:54 AM | Permanent link to this comment

It means many things, Scott, starting with this: professors have to decide whether they wish to keep students in the pop-culture bubble, or make the case for alternatives.

Hrmph.  I’m not sure how to continue this conversation, Tom.  As a former Joycean who loves little in life more than a literary-intellectual challenge, I’m in your corner . . . but as a teacher of composition—in which my goal is to teach kids to identify rhetorical ploys—I can’t help but think that demystification is a secondary issue.

In other words: much as I would love to teach the works I love, I’ve come to realize that they’re maximally ineffective with regard to my goals.  I know that in the abstract it might seem otherwise, but I’m not dealing with abstractions—I’ve got to teach real kids how to deal with what to them is commonplace rhetoric.

Given my background and intentions, if you think I’m hoarding literature so as not to have to share it with my students, well:

1.  You’re generalizing about who “progressive-minded academics” are.

2.  You’re gravely mistaken about what I hoard and what I don’t, as any of the kids I’ve taught John McPhee to will tell you

3.  You’re convinced that I’m teaching this material in order to affirm its worth, when, in fact, I’m teaching them because they’re significant in the present moment

Were you in my class, you’d realize that I’m pointing out the technical problems with these fantasies, and in doing so, undermining their signifiance as foundational narratives.  But if you’d rather have me do so by forcing my students read the literate hollowness of a Fitzgerald or Hemingway, I’m qualified to do that too.  It’s more work for me and them, and it detracts from the goals of the course, but if it satisfies critics—I’m not going down that road, though.  I’ve set up a course in which the students will do a complex rhetorical analysis involving no small amount of historical research about the audience to which various works appeal, and I’m satisfied that I’ve done the right thing for them

To claim that I’m withholding these works from them is to completely misunderstand then misrepresent what I do in a classroom.  Granted, I can’t expect every random internet person to perform a case study on me prior to commenting, but really—I’m not hoarding anything from anyone.  I’m teaching what I’m supposed to teach without regard to my own interests.  Sure, I could “stretch” them and teach bits of Histoire de la sexualité or Ulysses, but I’m more concerned with being an apprentice to their carpentry—I’d rather provide them the tools to criticize everything intelligently than teach them the niceties of late eighteenth-century decorum.

I could do that, but I choose not to because I’m more invested in my students learning than I am in impressing them with my exhaustive knowledge of pre-Darwinian evolutionary theory and the careers of Mark Twain, Edith Wharton and Silas Weir Mitchell.  Not that I don’t think three of the most important figures of the turn-of-the-last-century are important—but I’ve got a job to do.

In the abstract, then, of course we all agree with you.  It’s just we have other responsibilities to uphold too.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 09/27/08 at 02:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Shorter version: what Trent said.  (Which, for whatever reason, I didn’t receive an email notification for.  I should take it up with the editor—wait, that’s—never mind.)

I do want to emphasize one point: we could teach Bret Harte or Lafcadio Hearn, but then we’d have to read them ourselves.  (Both are interesting as historical artifacts, but as independent works of literature?  Not so much.)

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 09/27/08 at 02:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment


Two things about your last response struck me as odd.

1. The assumption that Planetary#10, say, is “significant in the present moment” whereas Fitzgerald, say, is not. I don’t understand what you mean. If you are impressed by numbers, I would hazard a guess that Fitzgerald has likely been read by more people in the present English-speaking world than planetary#10.  Do you mean instead that comics are more significant because more visual? On this scale of significance it seems pretty half-baked to bother with comics at all. Why not just assign TV? Hand them a clicker. Much more visual, and watched by more people, too.  And I would congratulate you on your newfound significance, you and that guy at Circuit City.

2. The notion that Ulysses (and similarly challenging writing) is the truly worthwhile literature which, while you would LOVE to teach it to undergrads, they are just not equipped to read. To which I say:

Of course they are not equipped to read Ulysses! Ulysses is a book written for readers who have consumed a lot of 19th and early 20th century novels (and Homer, Aquinas etc, etc) and want something else.  You lament that they can’t handle Ulysses, yet you feel no particular urgency about preparing them for that excellent book by introducing them to the somewhat less excellent books that prepared YOU to enjoy Ulysses. In short, you deprive of them of the literary heritage you have yourself acquired (by some means...I wonder how...a literate parent? a literate friend? a teacher possibly? a professor??).

Your remark that seems to equate teaching serious literature with “impressing them with my exhaustive knowledge” is boggling and depressing. If teaching the works you claim to love and admire means “showing off,” and nothing else, I don;t know what to say to you.  It’s enough to bring back the argument ad hominem. For what am I to conclude from a remark like that except that you are either too unimaginative, too trend-mesmerized or too ungrateful to teach?


--the bret harte is a side matter. Literature courses should not teach bad writers, however “important” they might have been to lit history. Much more important to show students, freshmen especially, good writing. Amazing that this needs to be said to someone teaching...writing

By on 10/01/08 at 05:10 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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