Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Midterms? Midterms? We don't need no stinking midterms.

Last week I wrote that I wanted to share the challenges of writing fantasy fiction.

This week I'm finding the biggest challenge to be my work here at school. I guess that shouldn't be a surprise.

I'm administering two midterms this week. I'm normally not a huge fan of the in-class exam (nor are my students), but I do like devising tricky questions. And that's what's keeping me from the creative writing work.

I think I have to start keeping one of those crazy creative-person schedules where I get up extra early for my labor of love, and then spend the rest of the day here at school. I do enjoy the teaching, but if you've ever corrected 56 midterms, then you know why I hesitate to call it a labor of love.

Anyway, my question for people reading this today is as follows: How do you maintain a balance between 'the work you have to do in order to keep money in the bank' and 'the work you have to do to stay sane?'

Oh, and Brad, you are incorrect about BSG. Start over and try harder this time.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

My Inspiration to Teach

I first heard this skit/song by The Frantics when I was very young (11?). And hearing it again today, I can't help but think that this recording is what inspired me to one day become a teacher.

There are just way too many parallels between this and my experience in the classroom.


dr. demento - boot to the head -

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Vampires versus Radicals

My good friend Dan sent me an article by Ron Charles from the March 8th issue of the Washington Post. The article is about the kinds of books being read on college campuses today. According to Charles and his sources, lighter pop fiction has usurped the more radical literature we typically associate with campus reading.

I remember when I was in the English Department at UC Davis, there was a debate that riled both my peers and teachers: Should Harry Potter have been considered in the same category as Seamus Heaney's "Beowulf" for the Whitbread Book of the Year Prize. Smart people came down on both sides of the issue.

I like Harry Potter, and I think it's great YA lit, but I don't take the books too seriously outside of that category. Don't get me wrong, YA is a serious category with a lot of talented writers who are performing an essential and difficult task. They are writing for young readers, helping those readers sort out the issues important in a young person's life. It's hard to do that.

But if these are the books you read when you move into adulthood, then you're not engaging with literature as an adult.

I was toting around Tom Robbins and Kurt Vonnegut when I was an undergrad. Not because I was trying live up to an image of campus radical, but because those were great books for me to read while I was cobbling together my adult identity. I want my 20-something novels to illustrate how sex and drugs are more complicated than rock and roll. That's what I was dealing with, and my books helped me do so.

But according to Charles's article, that not the case for many college kids today. Now it's the Twilight books that have moved in to take Harry's place. More YA books in the hands of non-YAs.

This addresses both of the topics I want to write about here.

In the classroom, I encourage my students to read in English. They all speak English very well, and they can keep up with university lectures in English. However, the best thing for developing one's writing skills is reading. So I tell them to read. Read anything, as long as it's in English. They like spy novels, thrillers, newspapers, and sports magazines. And I tell them, "Great. Just keep reading." And when they tell me they are working on the last Harry Potter book, I am pleased, because it's a long book and the writing is good.

However, if I picked the books my college-aged students should read, Harry would be left out in the cold. The Sun Also Rises. Still Life with Woodpecker. Lolita. Crime and Punishment. How to Talk Dirty and Influence People. Tropic of Cancer. Catch-22. And the list goes on.

I like the trouble makers in books and in the classroom. It's the students who give me a hard time that really engage me. As long as there's mutual respect, the students who challenge me, who challenge the institution I represent - they get the best I have to offer in the classroom. Consequently, I want my students to read books that raise hell, and I want them to bring that attitude into the classroom.

(Note to my students, you have to actually read the books.)

So, in my writing, does this undermine my decision to write a fantasy genre novel for adult readers? I don't think so. I think there's enough genre work that either challenges the status quo or comments on the issues of the day. 1984, Brave New World, TLotR, Hitchhiker's Guide, Stranger in a Strange Land, and everything by Phillip k. Dick...

Yeah, I'll be okay

What about you all? What do you think of the trend that's had adults reading YA literature for the last 10 years or so?

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Seeking Motivation to Move Forward

Eight years ago I thought I had an idea for a story - maybe even a novel. The idea I had back then never made it to the page. But I did start writing. I had been reading Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, and all those pretty sentences got me fired up. Suddenly I didn't care where the story was going, I just wanted to write. In the process my idea took on a life of its own. Eventually the pages came together and turned into the manuscript for Miffland. An earlier draft, titled Mifflin, served as my Master's thesis. Since completing that draft, I've revised several times, a painfully joyfull process. I'm happier with the product each time I go through that; the story still feels like a living thing to me, but I've wanted to move on for some time.

I figured getting excited about a new story is what it would take. I've tried to start a project based on my time here in Budapest. I also wanted to write something based on working in New York from 1999-2002. I have started and re-started those projects several times, but each time I failed to get any forward momentum going. I think those ideas will eventually take on a life of their own, but I need that spark before I can really get behind something. I need to feel like the story will take me somewhere, rather than feeling like I'm taking the story somewhere.

The good news is recently I started writing about a fantasy world that has been rattling around my head for a few years now, and I think I've found that spark once again. This project is very different from Miffland, but I'm having the same kind of fun while I write. I grew up reading sci-fi/fantasy. The first fiction I wrote was a post-apocalypse mutant superhero story. While I love literary fiction, I do miss spice worms and swordplay.

Interestingly, the urge to push past the outlining stage and get ink on the page came as I was reading more Chabon. I finished Gentlemen of The Road last month, and once again those sentences of his got me back to the keyboard. It also didn't hurt to read a well respected author who can dip into genre without the critical commuinty biting his head off. That and The Road have confirmed my suspicions that serious readers can see past the label of genre.

So, I'm back at it, and hoping to share the challenges of writing fantasy fiction here. But my question to readers is this:
What are some examples of fantasy/sci-fi that rise above the stereotypes of genre fiction?

Monday, March 23, 2009

Questions about Teaching Business Students

The NYT article and the Pestiside.hu article that promoted (that last word should be 'prompted' - thanks to the ever-vigilant autonomous commenter for finding my typos and bringing them to light - I hope you get out of the house today, sir) me to write today both indirectly address an issue that most teachers grapple with: the relationship between what a teacher wants to do, what a student wants, and what a university should do.

Last week, my little Undergraduate Writing Center here at the CEU Business School hosted a brown bag lunch discussion session. The focus of the session was Niall Ferguson's description of the banking meltdown in "Wall Street Lays Another Egg." Before arriving for the discussion session, students were asked to read the article. One student showed up. Just one. We talked for 15 minutes. Then the student politely suggested that I might re-think the set up for such voluntary discussion sessions if I want to foster student discussion.

You see, going in I assumed that undergraduates at a business school would jump at the opportunity to get their heads out of the textbooks - to look into some recent reporting and talk about the current events in the business world.

I think thoughts like this because I like education; I enjoy all aspects of the learning process. I read Friedman's op-ed from a couple of weeks ago and thought to myself, "I am teaching the people who will step into a job market after (or during) a new industrial revolution." With thoughts like that in mind, I want to offer these students a chance to be critical, to put their textbooks into context, to start painting a picture of the world they're going to participate in. In short, I am far too idealistic about what my students actually want out of their education.

The NYT article from last week is about major business schools doing some self-reflection: Did the growing focus on finance within MBA programs contribute to the current economic mess? Maybe it did, but does that mean instructors and institutions could've/should've shifted their emphasis towards corporate social responsibility or business ethics?

I think that's kind of like asking undergrads to read a long-form article on the banking crisis. It sounds like a good idea, but it's not what our students are here for.

It highlights an interesting challenge: My students want something from the program. I have teaching objectives I want to deliver. The two goals often do not align. But in the right environment, we should be able to walk our way through a dynamic learning experience that informs not only teacher and student, but may also affect the institutions and professions we each inhabit.

Yeah, I'm cursed with an all-to-potent strain of idealism.

A shift in focus

I'm going to take this blog in a new direction. I want to focus more on the day to day concerns in two areas of my life: my teaching & my writing.

My Teaching
I teach composition and communication at CEU Business School here in Budapest. In the past six months I have invested myself more and more into my work as a teacher. I launched a writing center. I'm trying to keep up with the journals. I'm beginning a big research project on how a multi-national classroom affects collaborative writing projects. In sum, I'm more excited about my work than ever, and I'm aiming at a level of professionalism that I wasn't previously interested in.

The obstacles and objectives on this path include the the following:
I teach students in a relatively new undergraduate program that is still working to determine its own 'hows and whys.'
I do need to return to school for my PhD if I plan to take this career path any further, and in the current atmosphere, I need to get that PhD from a top-notch university.

My Writing
I recently put away the latest manuscript of a novel that I've written and re-written countless times in the past several years. Since then, I've begun working on a writing project that feels like fun (for now), a fantasy saga.

For the next several months, I'd like to use Hogs In Budapest to focus on these two areas of my life. I plan to compose significantly shorter posts, but I also plan to post much more often.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

How We Learn Today

I don't write about my work very often here, largely because so often my work is what keeps me from writing. But it is worth saying that I enjoy my job a great deal. Teaching composition and communication to undergraduate students who have come from all over the world is challenging and exciting work that keeps me very much on my toes.
And I like to be kept on my toes.

Recently I engaged in a rousing debate about fiscal policy with some of my more conservative family members. Each participant kept pulling out historical and theoretical evidence to back their case. It was exciting, and it certainly kept me on my toes. But now, when I look back on those exchanges, I'm surprised at how much I understand about the concepts and context behind the issue, behind the financial crisis. I never studied anything that would help me understand this stuff. My degree from UW may help me to sift and winnow through the news and analysis. My degree from UC Davis might help me parse the meaning of a skilled rhetorician. But why do I understand the banking crisis or the stimulus plan well enough to debate these issues with confidence?

I'm going to lean on my work experience to help me explore this question.

The undergraduate students arrive here at CEU each with a very different educational background. At 18 or 19 years old, however, most of them to have one thing in common - most are just beginning to assemble a worldview they can call their own - a world view that is getting closer everyday to coherence. But it's not there yet.

From some of my stronger students, I've read drafts of essays that contain issues like this one: One paragraph asserts point A) 'Companies must make the pursuit of profit the number one priority.' And in the same essay, sometimes in the next paragraph, I'll read point B) 'The well-being of the environment and the global community must dictate a company's policy.' When I point out the potential conflict between points A & B, the reaction I'll get depends largely on the student's background.

To oversimplify:
Students coming from east of Budapest will pull their research sources out of a backpack. They will point out that each of the points came from books or journals - experts, they'll tell me, have written these things down. Why am I making a fuss?
Students from west of here do something different. They'll attempt to argue that the points do not conflict. They'll stand at my desk and describe how, "you know, with some companies, like the ones who want to protect themselves from stuff, but they also want to make money, and---"
And that's where I stop them. I stop them and say, if you are able explain how these two points can co-exist, then you need to do so in the essay, in writing. (They haven't managed to do so yet.)

The exciting part of my work stems from the challenge of digging into the diversity and helping this group firm up their understanding of complex ideas.

When I think back to my email debate with my uncle and my cousin, I see how that challenge goes well beyond the walls of this business school in Budapest. In the past few months, world affairs have forced me to evaluate the way I learn about and subsequently digest current events.
It started when I got back for the fall semester. I have a lot of Georgian students. Their turbulent country was interesting to me well before the conflict with the Russians this past summer, but my understanding of Georgia lacked the context to put the wine embargo, the rose revolution, or oil pipelines in their places. Then I heard America Abroad's program "Pipeline Politics and Caspian Conflict." It pulled the history, the politics, and the economics of that region into a well documented summary. Now I know I won't be able to debate Georgian politics with a Georgian after such a 60 minute survey, but the show informed all of my subsequent reading and discussions on the topic. I am far from an expert, but I am informed. And to feel informed on a subject as complicated as Russian-Georgian relations is no small thing.

I liked having that feeling, and I fostered it with AP updates, blog posts, and media coverage.
Then the housing bubble burst. I've posted on the issue here from time to time, and as the situation has developed, I'm more and more surprised at how much I'm learning. Especially since the stuff I am learning should not be interesting to me in any way.

I like literary fiction, modern rock, sci-fi, wine, Indian food, and movies that rely on insane special effects. I should not have developed an understanding of the complex debate behind Timothy Geithner's reluctance to say the word "Nationalization."

But I have.

And I think that learning process speaks to the new way adults learn. We lean hard on the information infrastructure to help us contextualize every decision, and quickly. So the ability to educate oneself has become a crucial element of operating in the modern world. Traditional education is essential, more essential than ever, because it offers the tools needed to educate oneself. But beyond the basics, someday soon - if not already - a person will not be able to participate in modern democracy or the global economy without the ability to absorb information quickly, critique it, and integrate that information into the way he/she sees the world.

But when I look back at the America Abroad program, I realize that the information it provided was different from what mainstream media is putting out there. It provided something I needed that I wasn't getting anywhere else. The program did not address current events; it provided context that helped me understand those events.

That lesson helped me educate myself about the financial meltdown and its aftermath. I've been collecting sources that help me fit the economic crisis into the way I see the world.

This American Life has been an unexpected help. The show steered away from its typical content for two shows, each with the specific intent to teach listeners about the obscenely complex basic principles that led to our current economic situation.

Then I read the article in December's Vanity Fair by Niall Ferguson. I wouldn't have gotten through this one without the radio shows, but it cleared up a lot of the more complicated stuff. Vanity Fair is clearly trying hard to educate its readers. They've put all of the articles that deal with the meltdown into a mini-archive on their homepage.

Last week I tackled something in The Atlantic by Richard Florida, and while it was looking more to the future, he laid out his ideas so clearly that it was another piece that put things into perspective.

The traditional outlets like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal have done more than any TV outlet to help me keep up on a day to day basis, while the up-and-comers at Planet Money the blog/podcast keep helping me break the more complicated stuff down into digestible pieces.

And while I'm happy to have found all this, I think most people have to dig to find information that puts today's issues into context. I think the new media infrastructure is beginning to recognize the need, but it's taking a lot of time to change from the old formats that allowed for long-form analysis.

So, how do you cope? What outlets in the information infrastructure help you. How do you put the news of today in its place and avoid the contradictions and cognitive dissidence?