A humanities scholar's occasional ramblings on literature, science, popular culture, and the academy.

Monday, December 22, 2014

The Love Actually Drinking Game

More like Drunk Actually
Love Actually is a divisive film. But whatever you think of it, it can make for a great drinking game. You need is nine people and a variety of drinks. Place nine slips of paper in a hat, representing the movie's nine plot lines:
  1. Billy Mack and Joe
  2. David and Natalie
  3. Mark and Juliet
  4. Jamie and Aurelia
  5. Harry and Karen
  6. Daniel and Sam
  7. Sarah and Karl
  8. John and Judy
  9. Colin
Each person takes a plot line out of the hat and drinks at a different time:
  1. Drink every time Bill Nighy calls his manager fat.
  2. Drink every time Hugh Grant looks awkward or befuddled.
  3. Drink every time Rick from The Walking Dead looks longingly at Kiera Knightley.
  4. Take a drink for every joke in the Portuguese subtitles.
  5. Drink each time you get the sense that Alan Rickman will cheat on Emma Thompson.
  6. Drink every time Liam Neeson says something that seems mildly inappropriate to say to a nine-year-old mourning his mom.
  7. Drink every time Laura Linney's phone rings.
  8. Take a drink for each simulated sex scene between Bilbo and Joanna Page.
  9. Whoever is assigned Colin has to not drink all movie, then chug four Budweisers when Colin goes to Wisconsin. They have to finish all four by the time he has sex with the four American women.
Now the most important rule: When Rufus (Rowan Atkinson) makes his two appearances, everybody drinks.

Of course this essentially means drinking at least once each time your plot line comes up. I haven't counted it up to see who would get the drunkest in this game, but everyone's guaranteed to get good and sloshed. You could, if you wanted to, add another dimension by assigning each plot line a special drink--off the top of my head, I'm thinking Irish whiskey for Liam Neeson, London gin for Hugh Grant and so on. Rowan Atkinson's appearances might deserve champaign, or perhaps a drink involving a cinnamon stick.

In any case, this overcomes my main complaint with most drinking games, which is that everyone simply drinks when x, y, or z happens, which is a fun activity, but not much of a game. Giving everyone a role keeps things moving and adds a sense of interactivity. Anyway, enjoy responsibly!

Sunday, November 9, 2014

In Defense of The Simpsons' Later Seasons

In 1989, television blessed us with two gifts: Twin Peaks and The Simpsons. Both were eye-opening; for many members of my generation, these shows showed us what television could do, what pop art could do--indeed, what any art in any medium could do. Both shows boasted a knowingness about their medium and genre, combined with a desire to blow up the conventions of that medium and genre in ways that earned them the now somewhat trite descriptor "postmodern."

One of those shows is coming back; another never left. People have mixed feelings about the former: many are justifiably skeptical that, at this point in their careers, David Lynch and Mark Frost are capable of recapturing what made the show great 25 years ago. But most people--many of whom harbor lingering feelings of frustration about how network meddling led to a disappointing second season, premature cancellation, and inadequate closure in the form of Fire Walk With Me--seem genuinely excited about the show's return.

People also have mixed feelings about the latter, with many feeling that The Simpsons has overstayed its welcome. In fact, during a discussion of Twin Peaks, I was recently challenged to make an argument for the past 15 seasons of The Simpsons. Well, okay, here it goes.

First, some very general TV history: Some time around the late 90s (I'm not sure exactly when), the economics of network television necessitated the inclusion of an additional commercial break, meaning that half hour sitcoms went from about 24 minutes of content broken into three acts, down to 21 minutes of content broken into four acts. This change fundamentally altered the style and content of TV comedy. On older shows like Cheers and Seinfeld, the comedy tends to arise from the plot, and those shows took time to introduce guest characters, place the characters in a situation, explain that situation, and allow tension to build before a punchline. Network shows in the 2000's don't have that luxury, and successful shows of the new millennium, like 30 Rock or Parks & Recreation, have to be punchier in their humor, with jokes that rely on quick first impressions or on running gags that don't need to be set up. This change in story structure also explains the rise of the cutaway gag on shows like Scrubs and Family Guy, as well as the quick flashback on shows like How I Met Your Mother. It even plays a part in the ascendance of single-cam sitcoms over multi-cam sitcoms, since single cam allows for faster pacing, as does the lack of a laugh track.

Some may say that this change was creatively stifling, but really, it's a matter of taste. Personally, I'll take the higher joke density of 30 Rock over the thick plotting of Cheers any day. But it's undeniable that the transition hurt a lot of sitcoms. A lot of writers' rooms, including The Simpsons', were filled with people accustomed to the three act structure who couldn't figure out how to be funny in four acts. Right around the turn of the century, a lot of shows like Friends and The Simpsons saw a noticeable dip in quality. It didn't help that The Simpsons' showrunner at the time was Mike Scully, who simply wasn't that good of a writer. Scully was responsible for penning such decidedly mediocre episodes as "Beyond Blunderdome" (the Mel Gibson episode) and "The Parent Rap" (in which a judge orders Homer and Bart to be tied together by a tether). Scully's tenure as showrunner, from 1997 to 2001, was around the time that a lot of people from my generation stopped watching the show regularly.

When people wax nostalgic about The Simpsons, they often invoke episodes like "Homer at Bat," "Kamp Krusty," or "Marge vs. the Monorail"--episodes from what is considered the show's peak, the third and fourth seasons.

You know who was showrunner during those seasons? Al Jean.

You know who took over after Mike Scully in season 13, and has been showrunner ever since? Al Jean.

Now, I'm not saying that the show is as good now as it was in 1993. So much has changed--about the show, about television, about American culture, and about our generation--that that sort of evaluative claim strike me as an apples-and-oranges problem. What I am saying is that The Simpsons of the past ten years has significant merits that deserve appreciation on their own terms--that the show, as run by Al Jean and written by a staff that knows the four act structure--manages to maintain the spirit of the original while displaying a sensibility that is different, but no less valid.

I've been watching a lot of The Simpsons World, the new app featuring every episode ever, and as the random shuffle feature jumps from early season episodes like "Itchy & Scratchy: The Movie" to recent episodes like "Married to the Blob," something interesting happens. I find myself feeling the same nostalgia that everyone feels for the old episodes, but my familiarity dulls the experience of actually watching them, while the episodes of the past ten years--some of which I've seen once, some of which I've never seen--feel surprisingly fresh. The argument that The Simpsons has lost its satiric edge feels less convincing when rewatching episodes like "There’s Something about Marrying" or "Smoke on the Daughter," the latter of which features Homer smacking a cigarette out of Lisa's hand and shooting it four times with a handgun, exclaiming, "I can't believe how easy it's in this country to get cigarettes!" This quick gag playing on Homer's cognitive dissonance vis-a-vis guns and cigarettes isn't even the best satiric line in the episode; in another scene, Bart tells Homer,  "Dad, you never win in a fight against animals. Remember your war with the worms?" to which Homer replies, "That was not a defeat, that was a phased withdrawal."

The more you look, the more moments like this you find in episodes from the past ten years: Julian Assange inviting the Simpsons over for "movie night" consisting of an Afghan wedding being bombed ("At Long Last Leave"); Moe conspiring with Neil Gaiman to steal credit for a YA novel ("The Book Job"); an episode set in the 90's that concludes with this dialogue:
Homer: At least we know there'll never be a President worse than Bill Clinton. Imagine, lying in a deposition in a civil lawsuit. That's the worst sin a President can commit!
Marge: There will never be a worse President. Never.
Homer: Never. ("That 90's Show")
These moments don't serve as cultural touchstones, not because they aren't as witty or insightful as material from The Simpsons' earlier episodes, but because we as a culture have moved on from them. The higher brows have South Park, lower brows have Family Guy, and The Simpsons is an afterthought. But I sense that, from The Simpsons' perspective, that's just as well. The show's status as the old grey mare of the primetime animation landscape is freeing, affording them the space for experimentation in storytelling structure--as in "The Seemingly Never Ending Story," "Eternal Moonshine of the Simpsons Mind," and the "future" trilogy: "Future-Drama," "Holidays of Future Past," and "Days of Future Future." They've also experimented artistically, especially after their transition to HD. The show recently received praise for its Lego episode "Brick Like Me," but that episode's spirit of playing with artistic styles is on display in "Married to the Blob," with its tribute to Hayao Miyazaki; and "Yokel Chords," with its "Dark Stanley" segment; as well as in "MoneyBART," "Bart Stops to Smell the Roosevelts," "Diggs," and "Clown in the Dumps," with opening credits produced by guest animators Banksy, John Kricfalusi, Sylvain Chomet, and Don Hertzfeldt, respectively.

But of course, the heart of the show isn't its satiric content or its artistic content, but its humane treatment of its own characters. Everyone on The Simpsons is, in one way or another, a lovable loser, and at a time when Seth McFarlane and others often present deeply misanthropic views of their own characters, The Simpsons provides us with ways to empathize. In the past ten years, the show has given secondary characters like Moe and Comic Book Guy some genuinely sweet love stories, and has presented us with guest characters who we find ourselves genuinely caring about. Last year's episode, "Diggs," stands out in my memory. While in no way the classic that, say, "Stark Raving Dad" is, "Diggs" presents us with an view of mental illness that is as compassionate and perhaps even more real.

The most recent "Treehouse of Horror" is a brilliant example of The Simpsons at its best, featuring one segment in which Bart and Lisa attend school in Hell, and another parodying the films of Stanley Kubrick. The final segment sees the family haunted by the ghosts of their former selves. Lisa tells the ghosts, "Noble spirits, your time has passed"--likely a nod to all of those who feel that the show has overstayed its welcome. But Lisa isn't saying that the show's time has passed, only that the version of the show that existed in 1989 can't come back. Bart responds with a belch, and Lisa calls him out, saying, "That was unmotivated!"--a reminder that the early episodes are not uniformly the paragons of wit that many of us remember. Its flaws--unmotivated jokes, over-reliance on guest stars, a tendency towards schmaltz--were there in the show's first ten years just as they have been in the past ten.

Later in the segment, Homer is tempted to leave Marge for the ghost of past Marge, and present Marge convinces him to say, telling him, "I know everything you've done, and yet, I still want to be with you." The feeling of familiarity evoked here--of an old relationship wizened by time--is the appeal of later seasons of The Simpsons. The show's core characteristics--its wit, its artistic sensibilities, its characters--have undeniably changed, but they're still there. And I still want to be with it.

Addendum: My brother Curtis and I are of like minds, and he provided his argument "Why I Still Love The Simpsons," over on his blog a few months ago. It's worth a read.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Shanghai, Part Four: A Tale of Three Weekends

This post was written on June 7, 2014, but was not published until now.

Like I said last time, being a tourist is hard. And it's a lot harder if you are a tourist alone. Traveling alone not only means you don't have anyone with whom to share the experience, it also means you are substantially more likely to do something stupid. This is the story of three days visiting places on three separate weekends.

Day 1: The stupidest thing I've done so far

There are two UM professors here for the summer, both of whom are men in their 60's and both of whom are teaching one 13-week course instead of my two 8-week courses. Fred normally teaches at the Residential College at UM and is here teaching a course on the history of Western thought. He gives off an air of cosmopolitan intellectualism vaguely reminiscent of Truman Capote. This is his third summer teaching in China but he still takes a fork with him whenever he goes out. Bill is a biologist teaching a course on the biology of sex. It's his first time in China, and he's here with his wife Sara.

Bill and Sara have unofficially adopted me as their occasional travel companion. They remind me a lot of my own parents--a fairly easy-going academic family of that generation who enjoy good beer and dirty jokes and are frugal but willing to spend money on a good experience. They make good tourists. One weekend they invited me for a tour of Yuyuan Garden. I made it into town and phoned them, only to discover that Bill was feeling under the weather. So I resolved to explore the neighborhood on my own.

I couldn't find the gardens, but the surrounding area boasted a sprawling shopping center (most of Shanghai is basically an endless series of sprawling shopping centers punctuated by high-rise apartments). The entire area had been built in the last 25 years, but in a 19th century architectural style, like an Epcot Center version of old Shanghai.

While taking it all in, two young girls approached me and asked me to take their picture. They said they were students visiting town from Beijing and chatted with me about the U.S. for a while before inviting me to go to a "traditional Chinese tea service" with them. I agreed. This is the stupidest thing I've done here so far.

Having had Bill and Sara cancel on me, I took this as an opportunity to make what the movie Fight Club refers to as "single-serving friends." This had been a common enough experience when I backpacked through Europe. They took me to a hole-in-the-wall tea house down a side street of the shopping area that I couldn't find again in a million years--this should have been a sign that something was amiss, but it went well over my head. They showed a menu, and everything listed cost 66 or 68 yuan--about $11. Pricey for a cup of tea, but this was a "tea ceremony." A woman took us into a room and showed us a bunch of teas, giving the history of each as she poured tiny cups--about two sips' worth a piece. My two companions translated as we went, asking questions about America and acting vaguely flirty between sips of tea. I was growing increasingly anxious. Then the bill came--685 yuan. I was shocked. Apparently the menu I had been shown listed the price per tea, not the price for the ceremony. My two companions initially tried to convince me to pay for them because they were "students." I refused. I should have protested further. Of course, I really should have not come at all. But I paid and left. My companions left with me and asked me to come explore the city with them, but I quickly said goodbye and left them.

Yes, I had fallen victim to what I later discovered was the  infamous tea ceremony scam. The thing left me feeling cheated and objectified, but honestly, the young women were so convincing I didn't even realize it was a scam until well after the fact. Their performance plus my extreme naivete created a perfect storm. The experience still stings, but I choose to consider it an idiocy tax, one that many traveler's must pay in one form or another.

Day 2: European colonialism

A week later, Bill and Sara again invited me and Fred to join them at the Yuyuan Garden, and this time we actually made it. The garden is an elaborate, maze-like space built in the Ming Dynasty. It features stone paths that zig-zag through old wooden structures, the originals on which the architecture of the surrounding shopping center is based. Coy ponds and a wide variety of flora filled the garden, including ginkgo biloba trees dating back to when Europeans still assumed that ginkgo biloba was extinct (this fact courtesy of my biologist travel companion).

After touring the garden, we ate lunch at a restaurant previously visited by Queen Elizabeth II and Bill and Hilary Clinton. Then we took a subway to The Bund, an opulent waterfront neighborhood and famous vestige of European colonialism. The British (and others) did horrible things to this country, but I'll give them this: they built some pretty building and they made good alcohol.

China doesn't have a drinking culture the way Europe and North America do. Their beers are pretty weak and flavorless. So it was a treat when Bill, a beer connoisseur, brought us to The Bund Brewery, where we enjoyed a half-liter of a proper German-style craft beer. We then made our way to the Waldorf Astoria's famous Long Bar, where once only the wealthiest of the wealthiest could even set foot. Stepping into the hotel was like being transported back to the 1930's. This was the Shanghai of pulp fiction stories and old film serials--a land of mystery, adventure, and romance accessible only to a privileged few. It's hard to forget the racism and exploitation on which this place was built, but it's also hard to deny the beauty of the place in and of itself.

That Saturday was the day of Bill's official retirement from UM, so he sprang for the 100 yuan cocktails at the bar. They were both the best and the strongest cocktails I have ever had. On top of the beers, they made for quite a night.

It was a beautiful day, exploring the city with these friends, sharing our impressions of the city thus far. At one point, we walked past a tea house and Sara advised us to watch out, because she had read about scammers massively overcharging people for tea ceremonies.

And I thought to myself, "Well, shit."

Day 3: My favorite day

This weekend I decided to forgo tourism, which is really just another kind of work, and take a true day off. Once again I took the shuttle into the city. But instead of European colonialism, I decided to enjoy some American colonialism. Instead of a tea ceremony, I decided to partake of a coffee ritual. I went to Starbucks. I bought myself a 20 yuan cup of coffee, sat in a poofy chair--the most comfortable chair I've found in all of China so far, including at the Long Bar--and I spent the next several hours making it two thirds of the way through Larry Niven's Ringworld, a science fiction classic that I had until now managed to overlook.

I was interrupted only once for about ten minutes when a man in his 20's took a seat across from mine (the place was packed at this point) and engaged in some small talk. He worked at the Sheraton hotel but confessed his dream of becoming a sports journalist. We chatted about NBA basketball for a little while until his friend met him and he left, shaking my hand and telling me it was nice to meet me, thus restoring my faith in single-serving friends.

Then I returned to Ringworld. Wherever I am, there really are few things I enjoy so much as sitting in a coffee shop reading an old science fiction novel.

NOTE (August 4, 2014): I withheld publishing this entry with the intention of calling my credit card company when I got back to the U.S. I explained that I had been the victim of a scam, and they eventually credited me for $98.56 of the $109 that I had been charged in the tea scam. So, a happy ending.

NOTE (August 20, 2014): Nevermind. Turns out they had only "provisionally" refunded the money while conducting an "investigation," after which they denied my claim. To hell with Visa.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Shanghai, Part Nine: Things I Have Learned

This experience was a test. The experience of taking a test isn't generally a positive one. It's full of stress and work and anxiety. But if you're lucky, you come out at the end of it with a sense of accomplishment. And as any good educator knows, a test doesn't simply evaluate what you know; it is itself a part of the learning process. So what have I learned?


I’m too old for this shit. I’m thirty years old. Leaving everything behind and flying solo across the world at the drop of a hat for very little money sounds awesome when you’re in your twenties, but I never want to do something like this again. I am not a rolling stone. I have too much tying me to the U.S., and I’m too set in my ways. Having to adapt to a radically new environment (at least under these conditions) produces more stress than excitement, and it just isn't worth it.

Alternately, I’m too young for this shit. Hopefully, in 20 years I’ll have the money and security to travel to a place like this the way my compatriots Bill and Sara and Fred did, but as it is, I don’t have the resources to make a trip like this comfortably.


You can make the right decision every step of the way and still end up with a worse outcome. My situation being what it was in April, accepting the opportunity to come to China was absolutely the right decision, both for my professional advancement and as a unique experience. There was no way to anticipate otherwise. But from the vantage point of July, it is clear that I would have been better off not coming here. All told, this experience was not terrible, but it was not worth it in ways that could not have been foreseen.


Generally speaking, my professional identity occupies a smaller component of my sense of self than I thought it would, and professional opportunities often aren't worth the sacrifices in terms of stability, security, and leisure.


I am not a writing teacher. My first love is literature, and teaching writing is ultimately just another job. I would probably have had a lot more enthusiasm for the whole experience if I found the teaching more stimulating, but, while I think I have a talent for writing instruction, I don’t have a passion for it.

That said, I do find certain things about teaching writing, especially introductory-level writing, extremely rewarding. A 100-level writing class is an opportunity to introduce students to entirely new ways of thinking and communicating about their world, more so than most college classes, where the students' preexisting knowledge and expectations are more reified. I saw several wonderful moments of growth in my students that were, because of the cultural translation necessary, perhaps even more exciting than anything I've seen in the U.S. Those moments are tremendously gratifying.


Some universal truths: wherever you go, the old people seem to be grouchy and conservative, the young people seem to be optimistic and curious, and the university administrators seem not to know what they’re doing.


Political discourse shapes our thinking in ways I hadn't appreciated before. This is both a good and a bad thing.

The hardest thing to teach my students is that academic writing is, fundamentally, argumentation. This struck most of them as bizarre and counter-intuitive. They could write very clearly, but were used to writing fact-based reports. The kinds of nuanced, interpretive arguments that incorporate a multiplicity of perspectives is very difficult for them, especially the engineers. At the same time, while they are adept at reading for meaning, they are less likely to apply a critical gaze to texts. If it’s published, the assumption is that it is “right,” and it doesn't occur to them to adopt a relativistic perspective on the correctness of an interpretation

I have to believe that this is tied to the political climate. Imagine a culture where nobody debates politics. Nobody bothers debating politics because there’s nothing they can do about it, so they focus on their own ambitions instead. They can do basically anything they want except criticize the government, and in an ironic way, their minds are freed--freed to focus on making money, raising a family, and other forms of personal fulfillment. Ultimately, the society seems less efficient and less pluralistic as a result, but they also don’t seem to have stuff like this.


The world is an incredibly large place.

On my last Sunday in town, I visited the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center, which boasts a gorgeous scale model of the city, an impressive accomplishment that lends appreciation to the immensity of this one city on the mouth of the Yangtze.

I find it a real struggle describing what Shanghai is like, because there is simply no place in the world that conveys the same sublime sense of immensity. It's more than 24 million people sprawled out over more than 2,400 square miles. It's not just the density; it's the fact that the density goes on and on and on without end. The way that Bill described it, you can get out at any metro station and it looks like you're in downtown Dallas. Every station is its own Dallas. The fact that the city functions as well as it does, the fact that it's as clean as it is, is nothing short of an infrastructural miracle. The plumbing, the trash pickup, the air conditioning--when I think about the labor involved in keeping this city from becoming buried in its own kipple, it fills me with awe.


Still, the world is an incredibly small place.

After visiting the Urban Planning Center on Sunday, I found myself rushing home. I was running late and was worried that I would miss the last shuttle and would have to take the long, uncomfortable subway ride all the way back to Minhang. I got out of the metro at my station and ran to where the campus shuttle picks up, but found I had just missed it. I walked back to the street and paused for a minute, thinking, since I’m stuck taking the subway anyway, I might as well stop somewhere downtown for dinner. While I’m pausing to think where I should eat, who do I run into? Sara Blair. She was in town for a conference. I ran into a University of Michigan English professor on a street corner in the largest city in the world on the other side of the planet when both of us happened to be in town unbeknownst to one another for completely separate reasons, on my last week here on my second-to-last visit to downtown, all because I was running two minutes late. If I had gotten to the shuttle two minutes earlier, or if the shuttle had been running two minutes late, or if I stayed downtown for dinner originally, as I had been contemplating, we would have just missed one another and probably never known we were in the city at the same time. That's serendipity for you.


I might not have been a very good tourist, but what I was was an expat. Being a tourist requires levels of energy, organizational skills, and outgoingness that I can’t muster, at least not alone. Being a tourist involves immersing yourself in a culture (or, more often than not, the comfortable and commodified simulacra of that culture), typically for a few days or a few weeks at most. Being an expat, however, is about solidifying your sense of your own cultural identity. I have never felt more American than I have these two months, and while there’s much to criticize about America, I don’t mean that as a mark of embarrassment or as a limitation.

A couple of times, I went out for pizza or a hamburger, and they were possibly the best meals I ate here (except for Yang’s Dumplings) and not just because they were at pricey restaurants that cater to Western visitors. It’s because they felt like they were culturally “mine” in a way that local cuisine wasn't. Also--and this feels very strange to actually admit—I would often pass white or black or south Asian people on the street and have an Ezra Pound moment:
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
It was a very minor difference, but I know I found myself looking at non-Chinese faces a bit longer, sometimes hoping to overhear a bit of English or French or German. It came from a sense that our shared experience of foreignness created a kind of community, and it came from a curiosity as to their story. What brought people to this massive, crazy, overwhelming city? Are they tourists, or are they expats like me? It’s always an interesting question.


Peanut butter, Starbucks, and shitty TV shows on Netflix are all life savers.


I’m not nearly as anxious as I used to be.

I’m very much a product of the Millennial generation, and like so many of us my life has characterized by a low-level nervousness that can be impeding, if not crippling. Trying new things and meeting new people always feel harder than they seem like they should. I know that this is a product of a rather privileged and sheltered upbringing, and I had come to accept it.

But, coming here, a funny thing happened. This is probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and I spent the first week in a state of abject terror. I spent the second and third weeks experiencing high degrees of angst over a job interview. But, after the third week, I didn't really worry about anything. I had moments of depression and homesickness, but the nervousness was essentially gone. Coming here and simply surviving has allowed me to feel more “present” than mindfulness therapy or meditation ever did. I’m not so naive as to call this experience “transformative” or assume that it will really last when I get back to my worries in the U.S., but it does feel good.


The dumplings are as good as everyone says they are.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Shanghai, Part Eight: The Reset Button

"We have reviewed your application for the Marion L. Brittain Postdoctoral Fellowship at the Georgia Institute of Technology, and we would like to schedule a 25-minute Skype video interview on one of the dates listed below."

I got the email on May 13, four days after I had arrived in Shanghai. I had submitted my application for the Brittain Postdoc on February 1. I had long ago assumed that I would be due to receive a form rejection letter at some point, the same way I had for so many jobs and postdocs before this one. But with funding and enrollments often remaining uncertain, I get the sense that these decisions get made later and later every year.

As postdocs go, the Brittain is a good deal. It provides three years of support at a decent salary that increases each year and that includes full health benefits. Postdocs teach three courses a semester. They are writing courses, but their emphasis is on multimodal argumentation--instead of simply writing four papers, students might be assigned to write one paper, give one presentation, create a video essay, and design a website. The school isn’t known for the humanities, but it is a prestigious university with strong science and engineering programs, located in the beautiful city of Atlanta. I knew two UM grads who went on to be Brittain Fellows, one of whom went on to a tenure-track position at SUNY Stony Brook a year later.

All of this appealed greatly to me. The money was good, the three years of security meant I could take a year or even two off before going through the wringer that was the job market. It was exactly the kind of teaching opportunity that appealed to my interests in science studies and digital pedagogies. There was only one problem: I was in fucking China. And I would be here for another seven weeks, after which I already had plans--to move in to a new apartment with my fiancée Paula, to teach for UM for the Fall semester, and to get married in the Spring.

I tried to put those thoughts in the back of my head. I scheduled the interview for Monday, May 20, at 11pm, which would be 11am Atlanta time. Because the fates decided that my nerves were not amped up enough already, we got one question in to the interview before my spotty internet connection cut out. I’ve since come to realize that my apartment’s DSL connection works superbly during the day, but during the peak hours of 7pm to midnight, the connection slows to a trickle making Skype and streaming video impossible. Via email, we rescheduled the interview for midnight the following day (noon Atlanta time). I stayed in my office on campus that night with my laptop connected via ethernet to the University’s much more reliable internet.

The interview went tremendously smoothly. My friend the Stony Brook professor who had been a Brittain Fellow had coached me a few days earlier, and conversing with the roomful of interviewers (there were five, and each only had time for one question), it was clear that the program would be a good fit. I got the offer via email less than 24 hours later.

I immediately responded asking about the possibility of a deferral. I thought my chances were good--I was sure they would be able to fill their positions for this year and I would constitute one less position for them to fill next year. But they emailed me back the following Tuesday, May 28, saying that because the number of fellows was determined by courses that were already enrolled, they did not offer deferrals.

The entire previous week I had been Skyping with Paula and my parents, gaming out this very scenario and deciding what I would do. The offer letter stated that I would be required to attend orientation beginning on August 11. I was scheduled to return to the United States on July 5. Logistically, it was possible. I would be teaching a literature-based writing course and a non-literature based course (similar to English 124 and 125 at UM, only with the multimodal approach). I would need to write syllabi for two sections of one course and one section of another--not very different from what I needed to do as a lecturer at UM. I would need to get out of my existing lectureship commitment--a bit uncouth, but also not difficult; there are always people looking to take those jobs. And I would need to find an apartment in Atlanta--somewhat more difficult given that it was the last minute and I was in China, but if my only criteria were that it was close to work, not too expensive, and not a complete shithole, then I could certainly find something.

The real question was, did I want it? If I defined my life solely by my career ambitions, then of course I did. But that’s not how I defined my life. Paula has at least two more years in her program, at least one of which needs to be in Ann Arbor. I pictured myself cooking bachelor dinners alone in some studio apartment, teaching three courses a semester while flying back to Ann Arbor every other weekend. I thought about having to rush back into town during finals week in order to attend my own wedding in the spring. The prospect was miserable. (I couldn't face living like this for a year)

I declined the offer. After an incredibly draining year and all of the effort that went into my job applications, after rejection after rejection, it was an extremely difficult email to write. But it was also empowering to be the rejecter for once. They encouraged me to apply again next year, and I fully intend to--it is a great program. But ultimately, it is just a job, one that I would hold for a maximum of three years, and that isn’t worth delaying my life for one year.

Academia has a remarkable way of keeping people in a state of perpetual adolescence. The expectation that one can move across the country--or across the world--at the drop of a hat only appeals to a certain type of person: ascetic, individualistic, unrooted. It’s certainly possible to maintain relationships, have a family, and do all those traditionally “adult” things as an academic, but the academic hiring cycle punishes making those things a priority. Academia asks you to devote your entire self to it, and that has never been something I've been willing to do. A fulfilling career is part of how I define a good life; it is not the entirety of a good life. In fact, if money were no object, the career would be the easiest thing for me to sacrifice.

In some respect it might be unfair to personify academia as if it were a single, unified entity, but that is often how it feels. In my bitterest moments it seemed like academia was telling me, “You can advance in your career, but only if you spend two months alone and uprooted in Shanghai, followed by one month at home, followed by another eight months alone and uprooted in Atlanta. That is the sacrifice I demand.”

In my head, academia looks like a Balrog.
If I were not in China right now, or if I had gotten this offer before coming to China, I would have accepted it, and knowing that has soured this experience somewhat. Ideally, I would have gotten this offer six weeks earlier, would never have come to China, and would have spent the summer making arrangements so that I could live more comfortably in Atlanta and Paula and I could see each other more often (and perhaps she even could have joined me in the Spring term).

But that’s not the world we live in, and this experience has forced me to put my money where my mouth is and put reasonable limits on what makes an opportunity a “good” opportunity. Working in a profession that will pay for you to fly to the other end of the world to teach for two months--that’s a tremendous privilege, and I feel honored to work in that profession. But as immense an opportunity as this has been--as wonderful an opportunity as Georgia Tech would have been--they were not worth the sacrifices to my family life and my emotional well-being.


Like many people in my position, I've enjoyed the growing body of “Why I Left Academia” essays (or "Quit Lit," as they call it). But I also feel that most examples of the genre are a bit disingenuous, as the narrative form of the essay makes an ongoing process feel more linear and unified than it tends to be. I’m not leaving academia--I’ll be a lecturer in the Fall and I’ll be on the job market again. Hell, there’s a good chance that a year from now I will have accepted a Brittain Postdoc. But you can call this a “Why I put Academia in its Place” essay. Options that have long been abstract possibilities--stay-at-home parenthood, alt-ac, non-ac--now feel real. Knowing that they are real, knowing that they are parts of Plan A and not Plans B, C, and D, allows me to approach my job search from a much less anxious, much more empowered place. I think I found that reset button.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Shanghai, Part Seven: Yang's Dumpling

You walk down a busy side street perpendicular to a busy main street, a river of people heading down the sidewalk, and whichever direction you’re going it always feels like you’re swimming upstream.

If you didn't know where you were going you would easily pass it by: another anonymous-looking hole-in-the-wall eatery in a block full of similar establishments. A pink sign with white lettering states simply: “Yang’s Dumpling.”

You walk in and the place is packed--small tables with two or four seats, all full, and depending on your location, a line of customers going out the door.

The menu on the wall above the counter is simple, listing a handful of soups in English and Chinese, all priced around eight to twelve yuan, and cans of soda--Coke products--four yuan. But the stars of the show are listed with a picture on the menu’s left side--an order of four dumplings for six yuan, the best dollar you can spend in all of Shanghai.

When you make it to the front of the line you point at the menu to communicate your order to the woman behind the counter: Wonton soup, one order of dumplings, and a Coke. You hand her 20 yuan and she hands you your receipt, a can of Coke, and a large bendy straw.

The kitchen is visible through glass walls beside the cashier. A cook stands in front of a large pan filled with dumplings. You slip your receipt under the glass and he grabs from the stack of rectangular yellow plates next to the stack of to-go boxes beside his pan. He picks up his spatula and quickly scoops four dumplings on to the plate and passes it to you.

You take your plate and walk upstairs--there’s always more seating upstairs. Finding an empty chair, you sit, and a moment later a woman brings you your soup.

The soup would be enough to warrant the trip. The broth is hot and tastes of greasy pork and cilantro--salty and just a little tangy. The bowl is large and loaded with small, chewy wontons. They’re flatter than wontons you've seen in American Chinese restaurants--shaped sort of like a messy stack of papers. Each slurp fills your belly with warmth.

But then you turn to the plate of dumplings. Each one contains a ball of beef slightly larger than a golf ball, with dough wrapped around it, making it roughly the size of a tennis ball. The dumpling has been steamed, and then the bottom, where the dough has been cinched closed, has been pan fried in oil, making it chewy on top and crunchy on the bottom. Sesame seeds and green onions have been sprinkled on top.

This photo taken at a later date when I was ambitious/foolish enough to go for a double order of the dumplings.

On your table, you find soy sauce and vinegar, and you pour them into the small dish provided for dipping--one part soy sauce, two parts vinegar, as you have been instructed.

The size makes the dumplings somewhat difficult to pick up with chop sticks. Surveying the bustling scene around you, you note that even the locals look awkward when doing it. You look downright foolish. Nonetheless, after some effort, you grasp the dumpling, dip it in the sauce, and transfer it to your soup spoon, as you have observed others. You use the spoon to bring the dumpling to your lips and take a bite.

Hot beef juice spurts into your mouth in an explosion of flavor that leaves you wondering if you should cover your head with a napkin so as to hide your shame from God. How can one small ball contain so much juice? The oily mess drips down your lips and off the dumpling, filling the spoon and the plate holding the other three. The dough is chewy and you use your incisors to cut it away, exposing the hunk of beef inside. With the next bite, you take the beef into your mouth and hold it momentarily, absorbing the flavor. Are the others around you watching? Are they judging you, mocking you for the joy on your face? You swallow the meatball and crunch into the pan-fried base of the dumpling, somehow even more oily than the rest of it. You slurp up the juice on the spoon, but most of it has ended up on the plate, now a mess of liquid and beef fat.

With all of the grease, the second dumpling is somehow even harder to pick up than the first. You end up penetrating it with the chop sticks and holding it up like a skewer. More juice issues forth and the olfactory experience begins to overwhelm.

After finishing the soup you feel warm and satisfied and full and dirty all at once. You leave the messy remains of your bowl and your plate at the table, along with the empty Coke can with the bendy straw and a number of used napkins. A server has already begun cleaning up for the next patron while you’re putting on your backpack. You walk out, thinking about heading back to the subway station from whence you can, and on your way out you hear two other gringos talking over their plates of dumplings. One says to the other, "China's intense, man."

It is indeed.

NOTE: I swear, when I started writing this, the sexual double entendres were entirely accidental, but eventually I just leaned into it.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Shanghai, Part Six: Nine Temples in 27 Hours


I woke up early on Saturday and took the shuttle into town so I could go to Jing’an Temple, a Buddhist monastery in the heart of downtown. It was pouring rain and it took all of two minutes outside before my shoes, socks, and the cuffs of my pants were soaked, a condition in which they would stay all day, but I was undeterred; this marked my last two weeks in Shanghai, and I was determined to soak in more culture than my shoes soaked in rainwater.
The rain fell in sheets from the side of the sweeping gabled roofs as I weaved between chanting monks and praying tourists, taking in each shrine and feeling filled up with a sense of solemnity. From the lower level, the walls of the temple obscured the sight of downtown, but the upper level afforded a view of the nearby skyscrapers and illuminated billboards.


Around the corner from Jing’an Temple, I came across a house in which Mao Zedong lived, which had been converted to a two-room museum. He only lived there for a few months in 1920, during which he hobnobbed with several poets and wrote an important speech to the CPC. One wall of the museum featured calligraphy of Mao’s poetry; the other wall featured photos from that period in his life. Glass cases housed various artifacts: his tea set, his cigarette holder, the pencils with which he wrote the speech. Most significantly, one case held Mao’s copy of the first Chinese translation of the Communist Manifesto, published in August 1920. In a moment of perfect symbolism, a child about nine years old leaned against the case playing a game on his iPad.

Old China, meet new China.


Across the street from Mao’s house was a mall. This city must have the densest concentration of shopping malls in the world, sprawling in every direction and always packed. Directly across from Mao’s house you could see a DKNY, and next to that, several restaurants. I stopped by Element Fresh for lunch. Element Fresh is a chain found in many malls here that serves pastas, salads, and sandwiches. As the name suggests, it boasts the freshest ingredients you can find just about anywhere. As I’ve noted before, in most Chinese food, the quality of the ingredients is quite low, especially the vegetables.

Note: I didn't take this.
After a while, it leaves you feeling fairly vitamin- and mineral-deprived, so on a couple of occasions I’ve sprung for an overpriced salad for lunch.


After lunch I took the subway to meet Bill and Sara at the China Art Museum, a giant structure in the shape of an upside-down pyramid. I found the artwork inside less aesthetically pleasing than the building itself, but it did provide an insight into China’s cultural development throughout the twentieth century. The early decades of the century were marked by rather uninspiring imitations of French impressionists. Thosee exhibits focused heavily on the rather obscure French artists who came and taught at Chinese schools, as well as their local students. The middle portion of the century, unsurprisingly, was dominated by rather silly and obvious Maoist propaganda; art venerating revolution or a simplistic vision of the pastoral. My favorite piece was titled, “Workers Bring Chairman Mao Good News.” Well, you wouldn’t want to bring him bad news!

My favorite works came from the past 30 years or so: large murals featuring abstract images constructed out of bold brush strokes and dark colors. They were beautiful and haunting in a way that didn’t feel imitative.


Then beer aficionado Bill took us to the Boxing Cat Brewery, a brew pub he had discovered where we could get a hamburger and a proper pale ale--a difficult thing to find in this, the land of flavorless beers with 3% alcohol content. The place boasted large portions and a healthy mix of locals and expats.


From there, back to the Bund to view Pudong at night. Shanghai rests on the delta of the Yantze River, and the Bund sits on Huangpu River, its main tributary. Stand with your back towards the water and you’ll see the Bund, a series of beautiful buildings from the days of European colonialism, now pointedly adorned with Chinese flags. Turn around to look across the river and you’ll see Pudong, an area that, a few decades ago, boasted little more than farmland, but that now boasts a skyline to rival any city in the world. It’s a sight during the day, but it’s really something after dark, when every building twinkles with lights. Meanwhile, illuminated ferries carry passengers up and down the river. If Manhattan and the Las Vegas strip had a baby, it would be Pudong. We stood for a while under our umbrellas as it continued to pour down rain, and we took in the sight.


A cocktail aficionado as well as a beer aficionado, Bill had been frequenting the Waldorf Astoria’s Long Bar, and the bartender had recommended several of the best places around town to get a craft cocktail. Bill’s son being a bartender, he has a foothold in that world, so after taking in the sight of Pudong, we made our way to the Library Distillery. The Library is a speak easy style bar located at the back of Light and Salt, a restaurant which is itself tucked out of the way behind a hotel. It’s the kind of place that is too cool to advertise; you only find out about it if you know somebody and you can only get to it if you go to Light and Salt and ask.

The manager, Rick Starr, might be the most epic hipster alive. Wearing a wide-brimmed fedora and a nice tie tucked into a tuxedo vest over a black shirt with the sleeves rolled up, revealing elaborate forearm tattoos, he looks to be about 24 years old. He’s a thin, soft-faced white guy from Brooklyn who had apparently made a name for himself as a mixologist and was invited to Shanghai. He brought with him a fellow Brooklynite, a raven-haired woman in suspenders and a polka-dot shirt, and the two of them manned the bar alongside a Chinese man who never spoke but looked really intense while shaking drinks.

The small space was mostly empty except for the three bartenders, a lone man smoking in the corner while wearing a nice business suit, a young couple that left shortly after we arrived, and a young guy who managed another nearby bar, who had come to have some dinner with his 6-year-old daughter. It was possibly the coolest room I’d ever been in.

Bill, Sara and I sat at the bar, a square island in the middle of the room, and chatted with the bartenders while sipping cocktails. I would need to leave after one to make the last subway home, but Bill and Sara talked me into a second with the promise that I could crash on their pullout. It admittedly didn’t take much cajoling. For my second drink, I told Rick to surprise me, and he supplied me with a large, tropical-themed concoction of his own invention served in a coconut.


High rise apartments litter the sky like flotsam floating atop an ocean of shopping malls. Bill and Sara’s building looks much like all of the others. It’s certainly a nicer location than where I live, and boasts certain amenities, like maid service every two weeks, that my place does not. But, on the other hand, they pay a lot more for it and have a longer commute into work. While living in Xuhui would have made the early weeks here less disorienting, it might not ultimately have been worth it.

I pulled out the sofa bed and immediately crashed. Whatever was in that coconut, it knocked me right out.


In the morning I made my exit as quickly as politeness would allow and took the train back to my neighborhood. I spent the whole long train ride worrying about my fiancée worrying about me; I hadn’t gone a full 24 hours without checking in since I had gotten here. Sure enough, she had worried, but once I explained, she agreed that it was worth it. She knows Bill, so she enjoyed the tale of his cocktail exploits.

So we chatted about our days, sharing a space in my favorite place of worship, the internet.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Shanghai, Part Five: Teaching

The Campus

It's about a five minute walk through a street full of rather foul-smelling restaurants to get from the front door of my apartment to Shanghai Jiao Tong University's Main Gate, which some people refer to as "The Slipper" because, well, it looks vaguely like a slipper. Past the main gate there is a small parking lot, on the other side of which there is a small hill on which you can see SJTU's seal--an anvil with some books on top of it. To the left is the campus gift shop, where the shuttle to Xuhui picks up; to the right is a long row of bicycles and a small stand from which you can rent one. I have never seen as many bicycles as I have seen here. The campus is large and sprawling, with roads cutting through it every which way. In front of the seal is also where students and faculty can catch the free campus bus, which comes around about once every ten minutes on weekdays. Nonetheless, most days I walk.

It's a fifteen minute walk from the main gate to my office. Behind the seal is a small grassy field with a large statue of an eagle in the middle. Beyond that is a large pond with a small island that boasts a small pagoda. This is the most characteristically "Chinese" part of campus. Walking to my office in the morning, it is common to see old people doing Tai Chi in the grass by the pond. A tree-lined path takes you around the pond and to a road that passes numerous class buildings and dorms, two large cafeterias, and a pretty nice little cafe. The entire campus is impeccably landscaped; for how dense the city is, Shanghai in general has done a very good job of maintaining green space throughout the city. Every day you will see numerous landscapers, all wearing the familiar conical straw hat to keep the sun off their faces, sweeping up leaves, trimming branches, or cleaning up trash.

In many ways, the buildings are designed in the boxy, industrial aesthetic that characterizes mid-twentieth century architecture on so many campuses in the U.S.; it’s similar to brutalism, only the buildings here are made of red brick rather than concrete. More than anywhere else, the campus reminds me of Michigan State University. One positive difference, however: accommodating the warm weather, most buildings have outdoor hallways and stairways, with classrooms that feature large windows on both sides. It's a bright, sunny aesthetic befitting the climate.

Also, feral cats : SJTU :: squirrels : UM
Everything about the classrooms suggests that they were designed to enforce a top-down approach to teaching. Every classroom I've seen, even the small ones fitting only 30 students, has rows of desks that are bolted in place, forcing students to look forward at the instructor. The front of the classroom is raised on a small platform, on which there is a desk with a full A.V. setup. Each classroom has two CCTV cameras: one behind the instructor, looking out at the students, and one behind the students, facing the instructor. When I had my students read Foucault's "Panopticism" and asked them for examples of modern panopticons, they all laughingly pointed at the cameras without hesitation.

Class sessions run for 45 minutes, with ten minute breaks in between, though most classes run for double sessions--effectively, 100 minutes, though my lessons are budgeted for the UM standard of 80 minutes, and I find students are pretty fatigued after that, so I've had little qualms dismissing early most days. At the start and end of every 45 minute session, a loud bell will ring, a high schoolish condescension interrupting discussion at which students regularly roll their eyes.

The Joint Institute

Arrive at my building and you are greeted by the somewhat uncanny sight of The University of Michigan's familiar maize-and-blue M beside SJTU's seal. This is the Joint Institute. The Institute occupies three floors in what used to be the law school. The second and third floors house the administrative staff, tech support, copy machine, and full time faculty. The first floor boasts offices for graduate students and visiting faculty, including myself. Mine is an extremely large office with high ceilings and a large window with a view of the neighboring graduate school. I share it with Manuel, a Belgian computer scientist who actually teaches full time in Shanghai, but at a different university. Bill and Fred, the other two visiting faculty from UM, share the office next door.

Much like I would at UM, I spend much of the day in my office, writing lesson plans, answering emails, grading papers, feeling disappointed that students don't visit my office hours, checking Facebook, and watching crappy science fiction TV shows on Netflix.

The Joint Institute was established by an Engineering professor with appointments at both universities. Most of its full time faculty are Engineering professors, and its Engineering curriculum is both highly regarded and, I gather, in good sync with UM's. Only in the past couple of years have they begun to branch out and offer courses in Literature, Science, and the Arts. Most of those courses are 300-level electives that may fill a general distribution requirement, but that aren't prerequisite for anything else. Those are all taught by full professors who have taught the same course at UM before, and the grades consist primarily if not entirely of quizzes, a midterm, and a final. Consequently, professors enjoy a great deal of freedom in how they design the course, and the class can accept as many students as want to sign up without sacrificing much of anything. Bill teaches "The Biology of Sex," while Fred teaches a course on the history of Western thought. Both are primarily lecture-based courses, both were capped at 50 students, both filled at 50 students, and both have T.A.s to do the grading. This arrangement works well for the Institute because it requires no accommodations from them other than what they do in their Engineering courses.

Of course, humanities courses need to operate somewhat differently, especially introductory-level humanities courses, and especially writing courses. The Institute hasn't quite figured that out yet. I was hired to teach two courses--Vy125, which was intended to fill the requirement of English 125 at UM for students interested in study abroad, and which at UM would be capped at 18 students; and Vg501, a writing course for Master's students in the Engineering program who would be writing their thesis in the Fall, which I had intended to teach as a workshop similar to Vy125. Like Bill's and Fred's classes, both of my classes were capped at 50 students, and I was told I would receive a T.A. if over 25 students enrolled. On my first day of Vy125, 20 students showed up, but a surprising number of them had thought it was a technical writing course, and several others were intimidated by the reading and writing load, so by the end of the first week that class was down to 7 students. At the end of the second week, an eighth was a late addition. Vg501, meanwhile, had 33 students, which eventually went down to 30. The staff spent the first week of the semester trying to find me a T.A., but only one person applied for the position--a Chinese Engineering student who was enrolled in the course. I turned down the offer.


I would discover that the reason Vg501 was so large was because all second year Master's students were required to take it, and the course also fulfilled a technical writing requirement for Ph.D. students. Now, a total of 38 students across two classes is by no means unmanageable in terms of grading, etc., but 30 in one writing class drastically changes the classroom dynamic. It doesn't help that (a) the class meets on Wednesday and Friday night from 6:00 to 7:30, (b) the class is held in a lecture room with fixed desks, making both full class and group discussion extremely awkward, and (c) neither the students nor the instructor knew what the course was supposed to cover.

Now, another difference between a 300-level elective and an introductory-level required course is, professors will typically write their own course objectives for upper-level electives, while departments typically provide the learning goals for required courses, allowing for some standardization across sections (with a lot of wiggle room). I had not been provided with any course objectives and had never written any myself, but I had been given the impression by the instructor who taught here last year that Vg501 was a rather informal workshop of students' theses-in-progress. With that model in mind, I canceled class the first week in order to schedule individual conferences with all 33 students. At 15 minutes per conference, this took a substantial chunk of two days, and from the conferences I learned that most students had not begun writing, nor would they be prepared to begin writing until the Fall, as many were still running experiments. Their more immediate writing concern was not their theses, but their thesis proposals, which were due in July. When I asked them what was expected of them for their theses or their thesis proposals--how long they were, what sections they included, how they would be evaluated--not a single student could provide me with a straight answer. If the class size weren't enough to make my original, workshop-based approach impossible, this certainly was. Problems with language skills was one thing (and many have those in spades), but an utter inability to explain the genre in which they were writing was a complete surprise to me. And many of these were students who had presented at conferences or coauthored papers with their advisers.

It was only after the first week of the term that I realized these students did not need a class on "Writing a Thesis," the lofty title that this course had been given. What they needed was a general introduction to technical communication, built not on longer writing assignments and workshops but rather on shorter writing assignments, in-class activities, and quizzes. This was information that would have been useful two or three weeks before I arrived, not one week after I started teaching. It doesn't help that I have no experience teaching technical communication and that, even though I've identified their needs, I don't have the resources at my disposal here to meet them. So instead I've settled on a course structure that is built on (a) having them turn in short pieces of writing every week from whatever work they have in progress, be that their thesis, their proposal, or another paper, (b) lecturing on a technical writing concept for about half an hour--almost always a concept that I only just taught myself the day before (if not that same afternoon), and (c) having them workshop each other’s writing in small groups while I look over their shoulders and answer questions. Their final grades will be based on a portfolio of their writing and, as long as they show signs of effort and improvement, they will almost assuredly get an A. I sense the course is of little pedagogical value and that the students do not take it seriously in the least. But that’s okay because, from the way they organize things, neither does the Institute.


As poorly as Vg501 has gone, Vy125 is going superbly. A big part of this is the class size. An eight person writing class affords one the luxury of engaging with each student on a personal level--we workshop every student’s rough draft as a full class, and when their final drafts roll around, I have the time to provide detailed written feedback that feels like a genuine conversation. When I was a lecturer last fall, I felt like a grading machine who could manage little more than the standard three sentence end comment. Students’ learning, and my evals, suffered as a result.

Even more important than the class size, I think, is the students themselves. They are an impeccable bunch. They are all in the sciences, but they show a tremendous faculty for humanistic thinking and a surprising knowledge of the Western canon. One student is obsessed with Jack Keruak and Allen Ginsberg. Another can quote long passages from The Count of Monte Cristo. Several students have admitted to me their wish that they could have majored in literature or another more humanistic field, but test scores and/or pressure from parents pushed them into the sciences.

The gaps in their knowledge are perhaps just as interesting. They all have read The Great Gatsby, for instance, and know it as “the great American novel,” but they hadn't heard of Mark Twain, J.D. Salinger, or Edgar Alan Poe. They've all seen a fair number of American blockbusters, but none had seen any of this year’s big releases--not Godzilla, X-Men, or Captain America. They actually have more interest in American dramas. For instance, apparently several had taken a class last year that showed Twelve Years a Slave, and that is now an important touchstone for them in understanding American history.

They are also all men, which is strange, but not entirely unsurprising--while young women seem to have plenty of opportunities for education and advancement in China, it’s hard not to notice that they are underrepresented just about everywhere you look, and it's hard not to speculate how much of this is a result of sex-selected abortions.

The students have some difficulty with the English language, but far less than ESL students I have had in the U.S., and far less than my Vg501 students, who spend all of their time running engineering experiments. These Vy125 students are clearly practiced at spoken and written English. In the first week, they showed a bit more reticence than the average American student when it came to class discussion, but they quickly overcame that. Three have emerged as the real discussion leaders--I would be lucky to find three students who contribute this readily in a class of 18. Four others contribute regularly, and only one seems slightly more shy, I suspect due to confidence in his speaking skills, but even he chimes in at least once per class.

When we get past the nuts and bolts of writing and delve into more analytical concepts, they really start to shine. Last week I was assigning their “definition essay,” and I gave the example that I've given several times of a student who wrote her paper on the word “plastic.” This student only used a handful of examples--the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition, the movies The Graduate and Mean Girls, and several personal anecdotes, but she wove them into a paper that traced how the word had shifted from meaning “malleable” (in the sense of “plasticity”) to connoting futurity (as in The Graduate) to signifying artificiality and homogeneity. Her argument tied all of this to capitalist ideology and the shifting values of American consumerism. When I give this paper to American students, they either don’t get it or their minds are blown. But my students here were unimpressed. One said, “Well, the argument that everyday language is tied to ideology--that’s fairly obvious, isn't it?” Marx would be proud.

I teach Vy125 four days a week, and there is at least one moment like that every class. The students hold themselves to a tremendously high standard of insight and analytical rigor, both in writing and in discussion. It’s probably my favorite part of the whole experience.

Sketch from one of my students.

The Walk Home

On Wednesdays and Fridays, I get home after dark from Vg501. At night, the campus is transformed. Mostly it’s quiet, but much like you would at UM, you will occasionally find student groups practicing dance numbers in the alcoves of campus buildings. And students are always playing basketball on the university basketball courts. The most striking sight, however, is all of the public displays of affection. Walking down the street, standing in front of dorm buildings, sitting along the pond where old people do Tai Chi in the mornings--in the evenings, everywhere you look you will find couples holding each other, stroking each other’s hair, kissing affectionately. I get the sense that, for their parents’ generation, this would have been a far less common sight. But it’s cute to see these kids who are clearly so smart and so driven just being hormonal kids.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Shanghai, Part Three: On Not Being a Tourist

I spent my Junior year of college studying abroad at the University of Kent in Canterbury, England. In the summer after that year, having already seen much of Western Europe, I and two of my friends decided to backpack through Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, and Turkey. While in Istanbul we stayed at a hostel across the street from Hagia Sophia. Rows of bunk beds spanned a large terrace with a canvass roof where sordid travelers rested. Hagia Sophia was a literal stone’s throw away; the Blue Mosque was right around the corner, and the Grand Bazaar could be seen in the distance. One night, sitting up in bed, looking out at this sight, I found myself in a conversation with a French man who had set himself up in the bed across from mine. Many months earlier, he had flown to southern India with the plan of spending the next year slowly making his way back to France. Most recently, he had been in Iran, which is the sort of thing I suppose you can do when you have a French passport. This man went on and on about his desire to experience the real cultures of these countries, not the tourist traps—to eat where locals ate, to visit people’s homes, to be authentic. “You think any Turkish people actually shop at the Grand Bazaar?” He asked me.

I thought his philosophy was bullshit. People’s everyday lives were pretty much the same everywhere, I surmised, but there was only one Grand Bazaar. Visiting only the landmarks might not be “authentic,” by this man’s definition of the term, but it was an experience that was unique to the place. By contrast, fetishizing an authentic experience of the other seemed weirdly colonialist, a kind of poverty porn for a well-off dude from the developed world.


I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately, because, since my year abroad in England, this is the first time I’ve traveled to a new place not as a tourist. I’m being paid to work here—and I’m working hard. I teach two classes, one of which meets four times a week, the other of which meets twice a week in the evenings from 6:00 to 7:40. They are both writing classes; one has eight students; the other has 32. And one is a course I’ve never taught before.

One consequence of this work load is that, four days a week, I am on campus, either teaching, eating, or working in my office, for at least eight hours a day, and most days, closer to twelve. Another consequence is, when deciding where to live, I felt I needed to be close to campus, in Minhang District. I could have lived in Xuhui, near the university’s old downtown campus; there is a shuttle that runs between the two campuses, and it takes between half an hour and an hour, depending on the traffic. But the evening class meant that I would only narrowly be able to catch the last shuttle home two days a week, and I wasn’t inclined to risk it. Shanghai boasts an excellent modern subway system, but there are no stops anywhere near SJTU’s Minhang Campus, and while cabs are far cheaper than they are in the U.S., they still aren’t exactly cheap.

I knew that Minhang was far out from downtown and that there “wasn’t much to do” in this neighborhood, but the way it was explained to me by the people I talked to who had done this program before, I had taken that to mean there weren’t tourist attractions or bars or nightclubs, all things I could do without. That’s true, but what’s also true is, there are no grocery stores, there are no signs in English, there is inadequate street lighting at night. Living here has made me realize how full of crap Sophia Coppola is. Scarlett Johanson was staying in a luxurious hotel in a wealthy downtown part of a major cosmopolitan city—she may have felt alienated in her marriage, but she was not lost in translation. You want to get lost in translation? Travel 7,106 miles away from everyone you love and everything you find familiar, and move to the suburbs.

Me, my entire first week.

On my second weekend here, I finally took the shuttle in to Xuhui. Around the corner from the old campus I found a shopping district that looked like Times Square, complete with a Hershey’s store, a McDonald’s, a Starbuck’s a Pizza Hut, and a KFC (I would soon learn that, in just about every district of Shanghai but Minhang, you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a KFC). I found a massive shopping mall where virtually all of the stores were familiar European and American brands—H&M, Calvin Klein, Toys ‘R Us, hell, even Ed Hardy. And in the ground level of that mall, a grocery store. Not a Family Mart or a produce stand featuring strange and wilted vegetables, but an honest to goodness grocery store with bread and cereal and pasta and trustworthy-looking meat and produce, and best of all:

Globalization has never tasted so good.
I honestly teared up when I saw that peanut butter. I spent my entire first week operating on a very low point along Maslow’s Heirarchy of needs. Having this mall and this grocery store meant that I could feed myself and that, maybe two days a week, I could come to a place that felt familiar, where I could drink Starbuck’s, read a book, and feel not quite so isolated.


Of course, I knew that I should spend some of that time “being a tourist.”

There are two other Michigan faculty members here. Both are full professors in their sixties. They each are teaching only one course that meets twice a week, for which they each have a TA, meaning that they are doing a fraction of the work I am doing while making at least twice as much money. One lives in Xuhui while the other lives in Huangpu, another downtown district. They spend almost all of their time being tourists. It’s sometimes awkward discussing this experience with them, because while, to a certain degree, there’s a spirit of “we’re all in this together,” it’s also abundantly clear that they are getting a much different view of Shanghai than I am. They get to go to the fancy restaurants and the museums and the gardens and the temples. They have the luxury of money, and of geographic proximity, and most importantly, of time, that I simply don’t have.

Admittedly, I could try harder, and I’m trying to make a point of visiting at least one sight each weekend. But the work is exhausting enough that I sometimes, like today, don’t want to push myself to spend my free time as a tourist. Tourism is hard!

I’ve struggled with anxiety most of my adult life, and the first time it really became an issue was that year I spent in England. And a lot of that came down to the tension I experienced between the pressure to succeed academically and the pressure to “make the most of this experience.” The expectation to keep up with my reading, to write papers, to attend classes, while also finding new restaurants and taking day trips to different towns every weekend, was just too much for my introverted mind to handle.

I was chatting with my fiancee the other week and I said to her, “I know this is crazy, but I need you to tell me that it’s okay if I don’t make the most of this experience.” She obligingly said it was okay.

Ironically, I am having an authentic experience, and I feel validated in my suspicion that it’s pretty much the same. I’m living in Shanghai the way that most Chinese people do, near as I can figure—I go to work, I come home, I cook myself dinner, I spend my evenings reading or watching TV or chatting with friends and family (the main difference being I do the last two mostly on the internet), and once or twice a week I use my day off to visit downtown. I’d rather be a tourist, but once you get past the initial sensory overload that comes with the intimidating unfamiliarity of the suburban life, being an everyday resident of this place isn’t so bad.


Today was the Duanwu Festival, or “Dragon Boat Festival.” Apparently there are boat races throughout China today, but I didn’t know where to go and didn’t have the means to get there anyway, and was suffering from fairly severe sleep deprivation in any case. So I stayed home. From my apartment window I watched kids shooting off fireworks. And yesterday one of my students gave me a zongzi, a rice dumpling wrapped in bamboo leaves traditionally eaten during the Duanwu Festival. It was delicious, and it seemed pretty authentic to me.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Shanghai, Part Two: Five Senses


Sticky. Always sticky. It's actually not as hot as I had feared, but the humidity is constant. I would be taking two showers a day if my hot water worked more consistently in the evenings.


The sights that have stood out for me in this past week have been the sights of bureaucracy. In my first post I compared it to a Philip K. Dick story, but Terry Gilliam might actually be more accurate. Virtually every building features desks with stacks of paper, shelves with binders of paper--forms in triplicate, stamped and filed and gathering dust. When I went to register with the police, the DMV-esque police station featured a row of six desks behind a glass wall. Four of the six desks were marked "Occupant Registration." The other two were marked "Public Order," meaning the Chinese police devote twice as much space to keeping track of where everyone is living than they do to maintaining public order.

Obtaining a cell phone and a bank account were equally surreal experiences navigating a paperwork dystopia. At first blush, the cell phone store looked like an American electronics store, with designs for different models of phones and large cardboard advertisements. But the back of the store was the same mess of forms, and all of the employees were dressed in what looked like police or military uniforms. In fact, this quasi-governmental appearance of many professions that you would expect to be "private" is the strongest visual signal that you are in what is at least nominally a Communist country. But the bank was the absolute strangest. I had to fill out a form that asked for my first and last name, which I turned in to the teller along with my passport. This prompted a dramatic freak-out, including lots of pointing at the paper and grimacing, and a five minute exchange between the teller and my "student buddies," who were there as my translators. Apparently the fact that I had put my name down as "Brian Matzke" despite the fact that my passport said "Brian Severin Matzke" was the source of much consternation. Eventually I was allowed to simply write the "Severin" on the form, but I got the impression that my initial omission was still looked upon as a grave error. Neither of my student buddies had ever heard of "middle names" before, and when I tried to explain that while middle names appeared on government IDs, it was common not to use them on other documents, they were thoroughly perplexed.

I find these encounters with bureaucracy to be scary and hilarious in equal measure. Much about this place seems like chaos with a superficial veneer of centralized control. The traffic is insane, but at many intersections you will see a traffic cop standing and, as best as I can tell, doing absolutely nothing. I was walking with an American professor teaching through my same program here who pointed to one the other day and said, "I guess that's what full employment looks like."

Gestures towards organization inevitably coexist with the grime and messiness one would expect from a city of this size. People spit on the sidewalk constantly (I can't really blame them for that--the humidity does cause some crazy mucous buildup). And they don't just spit; little children still wear bottomless pants, so seeing kids relieve themselves outside is common, and once I saw a grown man pee on the sidewalk. Not on the bushes next to the sidewalk; on the sidewalk. I think he was doing landscape work for the apartment complex he was next to. He was wearing a uniform.


All of this public urination contributes to the second most overwhelming sensory experience I've had this past week: the smell. Everything smells very overwhelming, very different, and often very bad. It's a combination of air pollution, street garbage, unfamiliar flora, and pungent foods. Fortunately, I've mostly adjusted to it. During the first 72 hours though, it made me dread having to go outside. As my fiancee explained it to me, we are hypersensitive to unfamiliar smells, so over time it has come, not to smell better, but to smell less. And the campus is remarkably clean, smelling mostly of different, not-unpleasant trees.


It's time for my confession: I don't like Chinese Chinese food. I've tried and I've tried over this past week, and I've found some dishes that I tolerate, but not one that I like. If you asked me a week ago, I would have described myself as an adventurous eater with a diverse palate. This week has made me aware of how sheltered I have been, having only eaten in America and Europe.

I find the food unappetizing due to a complex combination of factors. It's not that the food looks strange or exotic--it's mostly pretty straightforward: stir fries, shellfish, noodles, etc. But the spice palate is radically different. Not hot, not sweet...honestly, it's unlike anything I've had in the U.S., and not in a pleasant way. The olfactory senses are connected, of course, so the ambient smells don't help any either. Nor does the fact that I once saw a man washing his woks with a hose on the sidewalk in front of his restaurant where the previous night I saw a child pee. But I suspect that the chief factor is the low quality of the ingredients. Whatever I order, the vegetables look wilted and sickly. They feel wrong in my mouth.

Of course, another contributing factor is the social dimension. When I'm in Michigan, I'm perfectly content to eat a meal alone in my apartment or at my desk. But even in the U.S. I would feel awkward eating alone at a restaurant or in a cafeteria. But here that's my only option. I have yet to be able to make it to a grocery store, so cooking for myself has been impossible for the past week. That has left me with three options: eating alone in a restaurant, eating alone in a cafeteria, or buying a ready-made meal from the "Family Mart" (basically Chinese 7/11) around the corner and eating alone in my apartment. None are enjoyable, though I prefer Family Mart because at least then I can eat while watching Netflix.


Hearing only Chinese when I go out often leaves me feeling pretty intensely vulnerable. I'm comfortable while on campus, but everywhere else makes me feel very anxious. The experience gives me a new respect for linguistic minorities. I may have been foolish and impulsive in coming here like this, but those who decide to move to a place where they don't speak the language--for work or family or whatever reason--are tremendously brave.

The ambient Chinese is easy to get used to, though. Here's what's harder: over the past several years I came to manage my anxieties--around the dissertation, the job search, what have you--by filling my life up with noise. I'd quiet the voices in my head by steaming video while home alone and by listening to podcasts through my iPhone on the commute into campus. Here, I can still do the former some of the time, but there are hours of the day when my connection is too poor to stream videos, and I left my iPhone back in the U.S. That leaves me with multiple times during the day when I'm forced to face the silence. That's the most overwhelming sensory experience I've had so far.