Tag Archives: school

In Defense of Well-Read Internet Trolls*

10 May

I learned something yesterday: If you’re going to write a blog about as contentious and controversial a topic as the characterization of classic characters in American fiction (and do it with alliteration), you’ve really got to grow a thick skin.  Everyone has the right to disagree.  And that is something I will defend unto my last keystroke.  I, Isabela Morales, the Scattering’s sole author, do so swear.

See what I did there?  I used my name.  I did that because I personally believe that if I’m ashamed to put my John Hancock to something I publish, then it isn’t really worth publishing.  But hey, we can’t expect everyone to follow that rule.

Come now, does this look like the face of a “brutish faux intellectual” to you?

Anonymity is a valuable and important part of our online experience.  Why then do we, as a culture, tend to despise, denigrate, deride, and disdain people who post more-than-moderately critical comments without revealing their names?  I am here to say that I believe every would-be Internet troll has the right to write unnecessarily aggressive things about academic blog posts without inspiring offense on the part of the author.  Which is why I want to post this not-at-all-spiteful public letter of apology for forcing my objectionable prose on last night’s anonymous commenter.  You see–

In spring 2009 I was taking a course on American humor and satire at my now-alma mater the University of Alabama.  Every week, our professor assigned us brief writing assignments—analyzing either a chapter or character from the book we were reading as a class.  The essays from those classes that I’ve posted on the Scattering have consistently been some of my most popular for years now (maybe because they’re possibly the only useful things I’ve published here), and if anyone can explain why my paper on Mark Twain and religious satire has been translated into Spanish more than it’s been read in English, that would be kind of cool to know.

In any case—the last book we discussed that semester was Catch-22, the bleakly funny (anti-)war novel by Joseph Heller.  The short essay I posted from class was my comparison of leading man Yossarian and his glum number two, Dunbar.  I flatter myself that I provided a few good pieces of evidence to support my claim that Dunbar is Yossarian’s foil; and of course, like a good little college student, I used in-line parenthetical citations for all my quotes (this was before the history department converted me to CMOS).

This all seems like a very long time ago to me, but how easily we forget that the Internet is eternal: once on Google, always on Google.  And it would seem that someone found my little essay today and didn’t find it useful at all.  In fact, he/she seems kind of pissed off that it exists.  I hope, with this letter, written as a public post for completely non-self-indulgent reasons, I can assuage some of Anonymous’s worries.

Ahem.

Dear Anonymous,

I just wanted to let you know how very appreciative I am that you took the time to peruse my “ancient” blog posts until you found one worthy, or perhaps unworthy, as you would have it, of comment—and this especially because reading my character analysis of Dunbar in Catch-22 so clearly caused you great mental agitation and psychic pain.

As an avid reader myself, how acutely do I know the distress that comes when one is thrown into collision with unpalatable prose!  Please know that I extend to you my greatest admiration and, indeed, perhaps even awe, for setting yourself at the vanguard of the Internet’s blog writing style soldiery!  I don’t think that anyone who read the remarks you left on my post of 17 March 2009 could possibly imagine you as anything other but a white knight of wordpress—charging down the RSS feeds of book reviewers with the same courage and conviction that the chevaliers of old (dare I say, of olde?) charged down the jousting lists.

But because I fear that the weight of public opinion might come down against someone who hands down breathtaking accusations and criticism under the name “Anonymous,” I have decided to publish your comments more broadly—for the sake of showing every one of my readers just how much I care what they think about my writing style.

Despite this article being ancient, the following bothers me and so i’ll comment here. I hope you have relaxed your prose by now, but I’m not going to put myself out verifying.

“second only to Yossarian as a character introduced in the book” – this is annoying. Stop trying to sound pretentious when you simply mean “the second character introduced in the book.”

It doesn’t work and is appalling. Had several complaints leading up to this point, but after this sentence I stopped reading.

That being said, it’s your prerogative to write as you will. You simply come off brutish in your faux intellectualism.

Cheers

Me being pretentious in front of a picture of UA’s founding librarian, my role model in all things, including 19th-century prose.

Anonymous, I completely understand why you wouldn’t want to put yourself out verifying whether or not I have relaxed my prose by reading any more recent posts, considering how dreadfully my writing style irks you.  In fact, I must now regretfully inform you that my prose, if anything, has only grown more contrived, affected, and overblown in the last two years.  And now that I will be entering a doctoral program in history next fall, I can only sigh and resign myself to the fact that I will doubtless be swept away by the currents of stilted academic prose by the time I’m through.

Alas!  Alack!  I should probably leave it at that, to spare you any more agony, but there’s just one thing–

I wonder how you found this post to begin with?  Were you searching for essays about Catch-22 online?  Because if that’s the case, I would trouble you just one more time to ask whether the actual substance of the essay had any bearing on your research.  I hate to think that my grandiloquent diction is getting in the way of my ideas.

Oh, and if I can keep your attention for another moment (and I only make this extended reply because your browser history certainly does not include the search “cliffnotes catch 22”), I’d like to say something about that particular line that you quoted:

Educated people like you and me have probably come across the literary technique of “parallelism” before—you know, constructing your writing in such a way that the grammar of one phrase, say, echoes an earlier sentence.  That’s what I was going for what I started my sentence with “Second only to Yossarian in alleged insanity, Dunbar…” and ended it with “… is also second only to Yossarian as a character introduced in the book.”

Clearly, I failed in that.  Oh well, we all try these things when we’re young, don’t we?

And last of all—hopefully I haven’t taken up too much more of your time or left the taste of poor diction in your mouth, giving you that fuzzy feeling on your tongue that comes when you go to sleep without brushing—I’d like to say a few words about your word choice.

You are indeed a master wit!  I don’t think I’d ever be clever enough to call a complete stranger “pretentious” while myself using terms like brutish and faux intellectualism.  I can only surmise that you wanted to use satire to comment on an analysis of satire.

Which is why I love you, Anonymous.  And how I do love you for this.

Cheers! —IM

* If you can make it through my stilted prose and pretensions to some modicum of literacy, this, Dear Anonymous, is what we faux intellectuals like to call “satire.”  Or perhaps it’s just what my mom likes to call “passive aggressive.”  Why don’t you let me know.

Happy Graduation! (and good luck getting a job)

7 May

I am convinced that there is no ruder question than What are you going to do with that major?  In the case of a newly-minted B.A. in history and American Studies, I get that question a lot (the answer: grad school!).  But it’s nice to know that just about everyone’s in the same boat this time of year.

Here’s a self-esteem deflating comic from XKCD explaining, in verse, why “Every Major’s Terrible.”  Feel free to sing along!

 

Personally, I don’t see anything disparaging in the lines about history majors — tenure is the holy grail, and teaching for 40 years is a consummation devoutly to be wished.  But that virology verse is hilarious.

Ayn Rand wrote science fiction?

8 Jun

Let’s drive some traffic to the good ol’ University of Alabama campus newspaper.  Today, my first-ever print column was published in the Crimson White.  Soon, Tuscaloosa will be the science fiction consumption capital of the world, American Studies profs will be teaching classes on Atlas Shrugged, and everyone will be reading off of Kindles.

It’s nice to be a tastemaker.

Click for the full column: "Ayn Rand wrote science fiction?"

the Scattering at School

22 Aug

Posts will probably be fairly limited August and September, as the blogger is, after all, only a poor college student who really needs to start on her Portuguese work.  Updates will be less deficient on Narricide, the academic blog, and Junker George, where the academic doodles end up.

Thanks for your patience!  After I get settled in and set up a routine to deal with the workload, science fiction reviews will be forthcoming.

— Isabela Morales

Natural Skeptics: Kids and the Santa Myth

5 Dec

It’s the most wonderful time of the year.  And for a lot of people—when it comes to young children—“wonder” is the key word.  Nothing captures the magic of childhood Christmases like memories of waking up in the morning to find that, somehow, while you were sleeping, Santa Claus arrived, ate the cookies and milk you left for him (giving Rudolph the carrots, of course), and filled the room with presents.

(If I wanted to be flippant, I’d say that there’s nothing more wonderful than an overweight man breaking and entering into one’s house through as innocuous a feature as a chimney, but in the spirit of the holidays, I won’t mention such a thing.)

Those memories are tinged with nostalgia for the world-weary adults (and in this case, ‘adult’ can mean eight-year-olds) whose ideals are eventually shattered by the knowledge that Santa Claus is Mom or Dad tiptoeing around downstairs after sprinkling on the sleep with warm milk and soporific poems about sugarplums (what the heck are those?) and mice not stirring in the house (I’d hope so).

But the subsequent disillusionment doesn’t seem to prevent ultimately looking back on those memories with fondness—the carefree days watching cartoons on Saturday mornings and believing in something magical.

And there’s a lot of good in the Santa myth—it’s about joy, justice (being rewarded for meritorious behavior), and good will.  He’s jolly; he enjoys American commerce and gastronomy; and his mode of transportation hardly leaves a carbon footprint.  How could there possibly be a downside?

For one thing, it’s a lie.  Even in the service of magic and childhood wonder, it’s dishonest, and sets a precedent—the lies have to grow.

Kids are natural skeptics: they drive parents crazy with the constant “why?”  I distinctly remember the dreadful time before I learned to read—jealous of my older sister’s lexicographic skills, I would scribble in a notebook and pretend it was my diary, but when I looked back on the pages, I couldn’t remember what my “sentences” were supposed to mean.  And sitting in the backseat of the car, I’d point out every billboard and ask what it meant until both she and my mother stopped answering.  Horrible frustration—I wanted to know.

Most kids are curious—about why the ocean is blue, whether colors looks the same to everyone, what billboards say, or anything they don’t understand.  The world’s a mysterious place when you’re little (shoot, it is when you’re big), and let’s face it, Santa Claus is a mysterious guy.

Eventually, kids become skeptical about his mysterious abilities and begin to ask completely commonsense questions: how does he visit every house in 24 hours? why don’t all reindeer fly? how can a morbidly obese man fit down our chimney? (That one was particularly relevant in my house, which didn’t have a chimney.)

But parents think back to the “magic” of their early days and respond with vague claims about the supernatural.  The process of coming to a reasonable, logical conclusion is forestalled, supposedly for the good of the child in his or her fragile formative years.

That’s just it.  They are formative years.

Deflecting answers or making up far-fetched explanations to fend off questions discourages this completely healthy, completely natural, and almost universal skepticism in children.

And truth be told, attachment to the man in the red suit seems to tilt pretty heavily to the adult side.  Adults don’t want to deny their children the sense of wonder they remember; kids don’t want to be denied answers.  Cross-purposes, friends.  There’s nothing more frustrating than deflection, even now (thank goodness for Wikipedia).

Skepticism is an important thing to learn early—it’s critical thinking, reasoning through problems, learning about how the world works, the scientific method.  And in a media-saturated culture, with politicians and newscasters and advertisers and writers throwing information at us from every direction, it’s more important than even to have a mechanism to sift the wheat from the chaff.

Skeptical thinking isn’t cynicism or disillusionment; and it certainly doesn’t have to mean a Burgermeister-Meisterburger ban on Christmas (or maybe that was Oliver Cromwell…).

Once again, I have to point to Carl Sagan: The Demon-Haunted World is a manifesto for critical thinking, and I agree with every reviewer who commented that it needs to be read by every high school student who can get a copy (buy it, share it, steal it… well, maybe not the last).  He writes:

Every now and then, I’m lucky enough to teach a kindergarten or first-grade class.  Many of these children are natural-born scientists—although heavy on the wonder side and light on skepticism.  They’re curious, intellectually vigorous.  Provocative and insightful questions bubble out of them.  They exhibit enormous enthusiasm.  I’m asked follow-up questions.  They’ve never heard of the notion of a “dumb question.”

And then we get to high school.  We memorize dates and facts, read Albert Camus, flirt with nihilism.  Don’t tell me it’s childhood trauma from that Christmas day the magic died.  It’s because we never learned critical thinking at all.  Just the opposite, in fact—as children, every time we tried, we were discouraged.  Questions are brushed off or patronized (“because the ocean reflects the sky, dear”; “because the reindeer are magic!”).  Memories of Santa Claus bring a lump to our collective throat?  Maybe because we think he holds a monopoly on magic.

There’s just as much excitement in learning how to read, or in finding a solution to a problem all by yourself (don’t kids incessantly insist on doing things on their own?)—maybe more.  In any case, that’s the kind of wonder that lasts.