Sunday, August 31, 2014

George Saunders as a Poet

George Saunders is a kind of poet of the post-modernist short-story. He employs the hyper-realism of Don Delillo and his cohorts, the multiple viewpoints of David Foster Wallace and the other post-modern maximalists, and the pastiche technique of Margaret Atwood. These various devices and styles come together seamlessly, filtered through Saunders’ unique sensibility to create stories that question the nature of being and the human condition. The primary subject of his stories is the powerful emotions experienced by his characters, and his language serves to create that emphasis. Saunders frequently disregards grammatical rules and forms his sentences using characters’ thought patterns. This practice, sometimes referred to as fragmentation, is most often a technique of poetry. The story “Victory Lap” demonstrates this tactic particularly in those sections told from Allison’s point of view, her mind jumping from the ballet steps she is practicing to her idealized thoughts about admiring boys to her school classes to the pleasures of her suburban neighborhood. Saunders’ writing can feel like poetry also when it becomes so impressionistic and disconnected from any clear meaning as to be nearly abstract. This happens, for example, in the section at the end of “Escape from Spiderhead” when Jeff is dying and sees life more clearly than he had when he was alive. The effectiveness of Saunders’ stories suggests that the distinction between prose and poetry is not completely clear and that it may not be especially important.

Abnesti has No Chill... or does he?

Abnesti, head of the science lab/ twisted prison, appears to be a pretty relaxed and nice guy. He talks with his subjects, especially with Jeff, instead of treating them like lab rats. Although one must ask the question, does he "have chill."

In case you were wondering, "no chill" is a recently used phrase for someone who is bogus or uncool. For example, Kyle's father has "no chill" in Victory Lap when he threatens to not let Kyle run cross-country.

Now back to Escape from Spiderhead. The conviviality of Abnesti's work space suggests that there is some sort of mutual respect between master and slave. Yet the way George Saunders, the Derek Jeter of short stories, describes Jeff's thoughts entering the "Spiderhead" as a place, "Which Abnesti always made a point of not keeping locked, to show how much he trusted and was unafraid of us," can be interpreted in two ways. In one way, he says that there is trust showing that Abnesti may have some chill, but bringing up that he "wasn't afraid" of them re-affirms the master/slave binary.

Abnesti also frequently brings up Jeff's murderous act, threatens him with taking away Skype with his mom, and alludes to personal actions in an "unprofessional way" also re-enforcing the fact that he has no chill.

The manner in which Saunders delivers Abnesti's attitude is as beautiful as a Chick-Fil-A meal on a Monday afternoon after a long Sunday wait. The way he is able to annoy the reader with a heart-less Abnesti focused only on work yet forgive him with a friendly, helpful Abnesti is very passive aggressive. Was Abnesti rushing to try and save Jeff's life for his personal studies or as a friend? Did Abnesti help pay for cream because Jeff is a buddy or as a means to use it against him? Would Abnesti drive across Harlem just so Jeff could get McDonalds when everyone is getting Mickey's?

As the Tootsie Pop owl says:

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Youthful Rebellion Against the Parent/Child Binary

George Saunders has a style of writing that is much different than that of his contemporaries. Considering the reader has to expend a greater amount of mental focus to decipher which character is speaking at that exact moment, the short stories can be confusing at times. However, despite the need to read with greater detail and attention, to read text that displays a constant stream of consciousness is interesting as a reader. In one of the short stories entitled "Victory Lap", a teenage boy named Kyle struggles internally with the thought of violating his parents rules, which are almost comical considering how severely strict his parents are. Kyle watches as his neighbor, a teen girl named Allison, is kidnapped by an older man. Contemplating the punishment that would most likely ensue if he disobeys his parent's rules, the reader is given the opportunity to go inside Kyle's head and follow his line of thinking. One of the most enchanting parts of the story is watching as Kyle breaks the power struggle that exists between he and his parents. Watching Allison struggle to break free from the man's dominating grip, Kyle rebels against his parents dominion of control and decides to act in regard to his own agency and moral obligation. It appears as if Kyle has been repressed for so long by his overbearing parents that when he does respond to the situation and assume power, he displays a lack of any self-control in his inability to stop.

This scene is an excellent source of binary expression. As a teenager, there is a given amount of rebellion expected as kids learn to lead independent lives free from the control of their parents. In kyle's situation, the binary between the parents (dominant) and the child (subordinate) is only made more extreme by his parent's excessive amount of regulation. Jessica Benjamin, a psychoanalyst and feminist voice, expresses an argument regarding binaries and the power struggle. She believes that, ideally, there should exist mutual recognition between individuals. Yet, she argues that in this transition from power struggle to mutual recognition, the repressed individual must be careful so as not to simply overturn the power struggle, initiating new roles of leader and subordinate. In Kyle's situation, his glimpse of personal power feels so empowering after years of repression that he is unable to control his new position of power. As he attacks the man freeing Allison from his control, he thinks of his dad with each blow to the man's head. It can be argued that this expression of power and rage is more of a rebellion against his own parents than reaction to Allison's kidnapping.

Friday, August 29, 2014

What Was That Binary?

I feel I need to clear up something I left fairly ambiguous in class today.

When discussing the binary that informs Alison Pope's life in George Saunders' "Victory Lap," I fumbled over how to articulate it. After thinking about it for awhile, I realize it is actually two binaries at work -- and their intersection, I believe, traps young women:

/                                          \
Attractive/Sexy Airhead Girl             Quirky/Smart Depressed Loner Girl

The fact that an ideal young woman must maintain a conventionally beautiful body image is nothing new in American culture, even as body image expectations have changed slightly. One of the paradoxically progressive and regressive by-products of a growing feminist consciousness in our culture, though, is that the to achieve perfection a young woman must also be quirky and smart -- or at least show themselves to be unconventional in some way.

Of course, no young woman can ever really achieve that perfect balance -- and that is what our culture wants. The perpetual dissatisfaction of women with their identity is one of the main drivers of our capitalist system.

Seeing Alison Pope struggle with gender expectations -- but also present herself as an interesting, sympathetic characters -- is one way Saunders questions the binaries. Ultimately, if nothing else, Alison asserts herself as a subject and longs to be recognized as one.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Should You Think Twice About Grabbing That Chromebook?

Thank you all for being so flexible and curious in our piloting of Chromebooks in the classroom this year.

I have noticed many of you -- probably the majority -- are using them for journaling and note-taking in the classroom. I am all for it, but I did want to put the link out there to the article I mentioned in class: "To Remember a Lecture Better, Take Notes by Hand."

The above article refers to a study, "The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking" from the Psychological Science journal. The conclusions, in my mind, do not rule out the possible advantages of using a laptop -- if you are aware of your own notetaking tendencies:
Prior studies have primarily focused on students’ capacity for multitasking and distraction when using laptops. The present research suggests that even when laptops are used solely to take notes, they may still be impairing learning because their use results in shallower processing. In three studies, we found that students who took notes on laptops performed worse on conceptual questions than students who took notes longhand. We show that whereas taking more notes can be beneficial, laptop note takers’ tendency to transcribe lectures verbatim rather than processing information and reframing it in their own words is detrimental to learning.
 With that in mind, keep checking in with each other and me about how the experiment is proceeding.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Blogging College English Since 2004!

Yep, it is the 10th Anniversary Blogging Year for College English.

This year, because of the school's adoption of all things Google, I converted the blog into Google's Blogger platform -- so it's all shiny and new. But if you are curious about what it's looked like in year's past ....

For the past five years we've had a continuous blog running: Word Choices.

To find the first five years -- and maybe some older siblings -- check out the Blog Archives.

Need another post to add labels!

Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.