Tuesday, March 31, 2009

And You Think No One Listens To You At Work

Sherman Oaks, California

An academic monograph might sell 600 copies. The typical academic book sells in the low to middle hundreds of units. A scholarly journal might have 500 subscribers.

Clearly, the market for academic scholarship is tiny. Yet there is more scholarly work being published than ever before.

In the field of English literature, the quantities are eye-popping: Between 1980 and 2006, scholars wrote 3,584 books, articles, dissertations and the like about William Faulkner. Emily Dickinson was the subject of 1,776 texts, while poet Christopher Smart -- who? -- was the subject of 192. Big Bill Shakespeare mopped up the floor with 21,674 texts.

Emory University English professor Mark Bauerlein thinks these aberrant numbers -- abundant supply coupled with negligible demand -- reflect the fact that many professors publish irrelevant work simply to keep their jobs. Worse, they do so at the expense of undergraduate education.

In his recent paper titled "Professors On The Production Line, Students On Their Own," Bauerlein noted that production of scholarly books rose at three times the rate of increase in the number of instructors, but most people in the profession don't care about what's being written.

"In vibrant fields, researchers follow everyone's work because if they don't they fall behind and can't participate," Bauerlein wrote. "In literary studies, though, scholars now pick and choose, keeping current through piecemeal browsing of tables of contents and press catalogs. If they overlook much of it, they don't suffer."

"This indicates an economy focused not on the commodity or the consumer, but on the producer alone," he continued. Graduate students believe they have a better shot at a teaching position if they have published, and tenure committees evaluating an assistant professor want to see a book and three or four articles. So aspiring academics churn out thousands of unread words.

One of Bauerlein's recommendations is to limit tenure committees to a review of 100 pages, forcing an emphasis on quality. He would also like to see more universities hire faculty based on teaching ability, but that's a pipe dream that's been around almost as long as the academy.

The reality is that assistant professors are held to a standard of mere acceptability in the classroom, while quantity of publication is the pre-requisite for consideration for appointment and tenure.

Until the world changes, scholars will keep trying to say something new about John Milton (3,969 texts).

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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Another Airport Ranking

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Note To Self: An Article Receives Better Placement If It Uses The Term "Sex Slaves"

Sherman Oaks, California

I currently have the lead article at the Liberty magazine website, a review of The Reluctant Communist by Charles Robert Jenkins, a U.S. Army deserter who lived in North Korea for about 40 years. With sex slaves.

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Monday, March 02, 2009

Review of Shenzhen by Guy Delisle


Shenzhen: A Travelogue From China by Guy Delisle (Drawn & Quarterly Books 2003).

When I was 19, I thought Boston was the greatest city in the world. It had everything a bookish young man could want: dozens of colleges, hundreds of years of history and thousands of things to do in my spare time. I thought I would never leave.

Over time, I realized that Boston was a rough place with only a patina of sophistication. It was more Southie than Sackler, and I came to loathe its dirt, its corruption, its winters.

Today, you’d have to pay me a lot of money to live along its hard, dangerous streets, but I’m certain that, at this moment, there’s a 19-year-old riding the T who thinks that Boston is the most electric place on earth. I wish him well.

The same city can shift meanings. One person falls out of love, while another becomes besotted. And two people can have diametric reactions to the same physical space.

All of which is prologue to the fact that I don’t agree with Guy Delisle’s portrait of Shenzhen, but I respect it. In his graphic novel of the same name, Delisle portrays the southern Chinese port city as an alien, off-putting place. That wasn’t my experience at all.

Delisle was dispatched to Shenzhen for three months to supervise a team of Chinese animators, and he found it a lonely, confusing assignment. Communication was difficult, even with the translators. Private apartments had bars on the doors. The public toilets were disgusting, and the local doctors were terrifying. Delisle draws Shenzhen in a grey palette using uncolored pencils, underscoring what was to him a drab, commercial city.

My Shenzhen was a different place. It was a thoroughly contemporary city, where I could eat at Pizza Hut, buy Nikes, jog past the stock exchange and read English-language posters advertising Mandarin lessons. Chinese office workers would carry books about computer programming, and every modern convenience could be had. Shenzhen was a Chinese city, to be sure – which meant kilometers of identical apartment towers and sidewalk vendors hawking pirate DVDs -- but it was a dues-paying member of the modern world.

My Shenzhen was not drab. Many new buildings were covered in pink or yellow tile. The streets were lively and packed, especially the older neighborhoods with their blind, narrow alleys. Mainlanders streamed into the city, which was as close as the average Chinese person could get to the wonders of Hong Kong. And Shenzhen was famous for its Wild West approach to business, as epitomized by the provincial Chinese proverb, “The hills are high, and the Emperor is far away.” Frontier border towns are many things, but they are not dull.

What explains the difference between Delisle’s Shenzhen and mine? Several years, for one, since Delisle’s visit was in the late 1990s and mine was in 2007. But that’s not a satisfactory explanation.

It was probably a matter of mindset. Delisle was in Shenzhen working, frustrated with his poorly trained animators. I was taking a year off to explore Asia, without a worry. Every experience is filtered through the traveler’s personal lens, so Delisle and I reacted differently to the same stimuli. He was alienated. I was entranced.

We agree on one point: By an accident of birth, some people can travel, and others cannot, and that is a great sadness.

Near the middle of the graphic novel, Delisle and his Chinese translator visit a cheesy Shenzhen theme park named “Windows of the World” which features smaller-scale replicas of global landmarks such as the Great Pyramids and the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

“It does leave you with an urge to travel. I wouldn’t mind seeing the Taj Mahal one of these days,” Delisle thinks while riding the bus back into town. “When I think that all I’ve got to do is buy a ticket. I can go where I like.”

He looks at his Chinese translator, who may never be able to afford a trip to Beijing, much less India.

“We hardly ever stop to notice how amazingly free we really are,” Delisle thinks.

No, we don’t.

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