the Harry Potter list

Sometimes there’s so much Harry Potter stuff going on, I have to make a list to keep it all straight.

  1. The illustrated edition of Chamber of Secrets was released very recently, but I just finally got around to reading the illustrated Sorcerer’s Stone.  Jim Kay’s illustrations are gorgeous, highly detailed (you can stare at the Hogwarts interiors for hours), sometimes surprising (Hagrid dresses like a biker–which makes sense since we first see him on a motorcycle, but I never thought of it!), and occasionally even startling (Snape’s creepy eyes!).  I’m looking forward to seeing how he approaches memorable book 2 characters like Gilderoy Lockhart and the basilisk, and I’m really curious as to whether the ratio of pictures to text will continue to be similar as the books get massive.
  2. Tomorrow is the first day of November, which is release month for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them!  I realize that Harry Potter is not going to be in this movie, nor any of our beloved characters (I hear Dumbledore is namedropped, but I think that’s about the extent of it), but I’m really excited about getting back into the Wizarding world.  This is the first movie for which J. K. Rowling has actually written the screenplay, which means, if nothing else, that it’s going to be lush with detail.  It also helps that Eddie Redmayne is beautiful.  But the element of this film I may be looking forward to the most is the fact that there’s a major character who’s non-magical.  What will it mean for HP fandom that people like us are now part of the story?  I will be blogging about this, no doubt.
  3. With all the publishing action happening this year, Harry Potter festivals seem to be back on the rise.  I attended one this past Saturday in Scottsville, a very small town in central Virginia that for three years running has transformed its (also very small) downtown business district into Hogsmeade.  Lines were long at places like Honeydukes (normally a bookstore and coffee shop) and Ollivander’s (normally a tattoo and massage parlor), but in other establishments, it was easy to duck inside, take in the fabulously creative displays (I loved the hand-lettered envelopes at the owl post location) and perhaps contribute to the local economy by making a purchase (I bought two beeswax taper candles at the owl post place, which in its Muggle life is a beekeeping supply shop).  Perhaps the most fun part of the festival (other than getting a signed photo of Gilderoy Lockhart at Flourish and Blotts–that guy was fabulous) was the people-watching.  I saw some fantastic costumes (Moaning Myrtle, the painting of Sirius Black’s mother, a trio of house-elves) and a lot of fairly obscure fan t-shirts–the kind you can’t just impulsively buy at Target.  I hope to return to this festival next year, and I also hope the weather will be more seasonally appropriate.  It was about 80 degrees on Saturday, and I was dressed as Professor Trelawney.  There was a lot of fabric draped over and around me.
  4. Today is Halloween.  That means that it’s the anniversary of Lily and James Potter’s tragic death (I saw their gravestone in Scottsville, too–there was a lovely old church with the Godric’s Hollow graveyard recreated outside), as well as of the baby Harry Potter’s amazing, unlikely defeat of Voldemort.  Halloween is also a good day to have a huge feast with live bats swooping overhead (that always seems unsanitary to me)…and a good day for…wait for it…a TROLL IN THE DUNGEON!  Thought you ought to know.

why I hate Negan

It’s generally considered annoying when people say “needless to say” and then go on to say it anyway.  But sometimes, I find that something I think should be needless to say is actually needful to say.  So, with that out of the way…Needless to say, there will be spoilers in this post about last night’s season premier of The Walking Dead.

A lot of people were angry about the allegedly contrived cliffhanger at the end of last season; I was indifferent.  Similarly, I think the big reveal in last night’s episode was handled as well as could be expected.  It may have been dragged out a bit longer than it needed to be, and the black-and-white flashbacks that Rick had (twice) of every single character may have been overkill, but they made up only a small part of an otherwise phenomenal episode.

The episode was phenomenal largely because of Andrew Lincoln’s acting.  His abject terror and humiliation were so convincing that I felt upset while watching the episode, as if a leader I had trusted in real life were really being emotionally and physically reduced to a crawling, cowering dog by a very evil man (back to this in a few minutes).  [While we’re on the subject, I was also upset (not offended, just shaken) by the violence in this episode–I had to cover my eyes a few times, which I don’t normally do while watching The Walking Dead.]  It was satisfying to watch Lincoln in a rare appearance on Talking Dead and see that he was actually okay!  This was, by the way, perhaps the most on-topic and substantial episode of Talking Dead ever–it’s worth the watch even if you normally skip the aftershow.

But there was one comment made during Talking Dead that was absolutely wrong, and I wish I could have been on the show to contradict it.  (They invited the wrong English teacher!)  Chris Hardwick, obviously trying to come up with an interesting and edgy topic, said something to the effect that Negan doesn’t see himself as a villain, and that our group has done some pretty bad stuff too–it’s all just perspectival.  That is crap.  I will admit that there have been villains on The Walking Dead before who were villains only (or primarily) because of their positioning on the show–because they came into conflict with the protagonists.  But Negan is not one of those villains.  I will also admit that the protagonists have done some very bad stuff–but again, this does not put them in the same category with Negan.  Neither Rick Grimes nor anybody in his group (nor the Governor, nor the people in Terminus) has ever taken obvious delight in bashing a living person’s head into a bloody pulp in an attempt to dehumanize both the victim and everyone watching.  And that’s why we’ve never seen Rick behave the way he did during that horrible, twisted Abraham-and-Isaac scene in which he was nearly forced to chop off Carl’s arm–sobbing, drooling, whimpering.  Rick has been afraid before; he has acted irrationally before, but now he’s having his humanity taken away from him, and this is what is so frightening to watch.  Negan reminds me of the sadistic Japanese POW camp commander I read about recently in Unbroken.  His goal is to reduce his victim to a will-less, soul-less, subservient machine.

I should clarify my post title: I don’t hate Negan as a character; I am grotesquely fascinated by every scene that he’s in, and Jeffrey Dean Morgan is the other phenomenal actor from last night’s episode.  I hate Negan as a human being; I hate him for what he’s trying to do to Rick (still just trying–the final scene of the episode indicates that he hasn’t quite succeeded), and therefore I don’t buy any attempt to get me to see him as a misunderstood “bad guy” who’s just doing what he thinks is best for his group.  He’s evil.

IWCA recap

I just got back from the International Writing Centers Association conference in Denver.  Besides a gorgeous view of the Rockies, some Mellow Mushroom pizza, and a lot of dedicated time for grading in a quiet, cushy hotel room, I got a whole slew practical strategies and provocative topics of consideration that I can apply to my own institutional context.  This post, in which I highlight a few of those strategies and provocations, is clearly pitched toward my writing center colleagues, but you might find something interesting even if if you’re not entirely sure what a writing center is.

  • I went to a session on dissertation boot camps, a type of event in which doctoral students try to knock out as much writing as they possibly can while in a supportive environment (support = writing consultants/coaches, coffee, and food).  I’ve been hearing and reading about dissertation boot camps for several years now, but this time was different, because I’m now on my way to joining the ranks of the cool kids who have actually hosted them.  This morning I tossed the idea to our very proactive on-staff Ed.D. dissertation consultant, and as of this afternoon we’ve taken the first steps toward scheduling a weekend dissertation-writing event (I’m not sure how I feel about the term “boot camp”) for next spring.
  • I went to several sessions about writing center space, and in one of them, we were all asked to draw a picture of our current space and one of our ideal space.  Although I half-jokingly told a fellow participant that the session had sent me back to feeling depressed about our space–which I had been starting to make peace with–the session actually forced me to think about what we can do with our space, other than whining about it.
  • The last two sessions I went to got me thinking about the “personality” of our writing center–the image it projects to people who walk through the door or encounter our people outside of the actual physical space.  In one session, a director presented the results of an “inclusivity audit” she had performed by asking faculty members from other departments to visit the center and comment on the ways in which it made them feel welcomed, excluded, etc.  One faculty member said that the center appeared too “English-y” (e.g., there were inside-jokey posters about literature and grammar; there were too many books as part of the decor).  My initial reaction was to roll my eyes and say, “Of course there are books in a writing center!,” but if we profess to serve writers from all disciplines, then we may be sending a conflicting message if we project an image of welcoming only one discipline.
  • In the next session I went to, there was a presentation about whether writing center tutors identify themselves as writers.  This is another case in which we might want to say “of course,” but six of the 15 surveyed tutors did not see themselves as writers, which raises a whole lot of questions about how we define “being a writer” and whether the students who visit the writing center feel out of place because they don’t see themselves as writers, either.  Another presentation during this session was about Myers-Briggs types, which is the whole reason I went to the session (I’m a sucker for a good MBTI discussion).  The presenter’s argument was that Idealist types–NFs–are overrepresented in writing center work, while they make up only a small percentage of the U.S. population at large.  I spent most of this session trying to decide whether I actually am an Idealist (this is a perennial identity crisis for me–I usually say I’m ISFJ, but sometimes I skew toward INFJ), but I also thought, again, about the image our center may be projecting.  Are we saying that only dreamy, abstract, creative types (obviously, I’m overgeneralizing) are welcome to come discuss writing with us?  I suggested at the end of the session that all the presenters (there was one more excellent presentation I haven’t even discussed here) should do a mega-study about the writing center’s personality, but really, I want to do my own study on this topic here at my own institution.

Also, I want to get a Mellow Mushroom in Central Virginia.  Can someone start working on that?

 

a gallery of picture books

I am teaching a college class about children’s literature, and today our topic was picture books.  Truly, we could spend a whole semester on these beautiful works that are not merely cute stories (I challenged my students not to use the word “cute” in any of their papers for the rest of the semester) or fond memories from childhood.  Picture books represent an astonishing variety of artistic styles and mediums; they tell stories that may incorporate irony and sensitive characterization, and–yes–they sometimes teach lessons ranging from basic counting to eating in moderation (both of which are found in The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle, a simple and delightful book that doesn’t feel like it’s teaching any lessons).

During the 75-minute class period, I had time to read seven entire picture books to the class, while pausing to point out important details in the text and illustrations.  Here are the books we read, along with a few observations about each.

  1. Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present, words by Charlotte Zolotow and pictures by Maurice Sendak.  This book draws from two very grown-up artistic traditions.  Magical realism, a literary tradition in which bizarre events happen to normal people and are treated as no big deal, is evident in the protagonist’s conversation with a rabbit who is taller than she is and from whom she has no problem taking advice.  Meanwhile, the pictures in the story, with their pastoral setting, pastel colors, and blurred brushstrokes, seem to fit into the school of impressionism.
  2. The Story of Ferdinand, words by Munro Leaf and pictures by Robert Lawson.  The text, about a bull who would rather smell flowers than fight, is laugh-out-loud funny (I say that because I actually laughed out loud while reading it), and the black-and-white line drawings are amazingly detailed and delightful.  We don’t expect to find irony in pictures books, but the whole impact of this story comes from an ironic reversal involving the key word “mad”: Everyone wants to make Ferdinand mad so he’ll fight, but he ends up making everyone else mad when he sits down to smell the flowers.
  3. Tuesday, words and pictures by David Weisner.  This almost-wordless book, in which frogs launch off on lily pads and begin to fly through an average neighborhood, is illustrated in a style that our textbook calls surrealism, and I have to agree.  I bet Salvador Dali wishes he thought of painting a picture of a guy eating a sandwich in his kitchen while frogs are flying past the window.  Another wonderful thing about this book is that the ending isn’t really an ending–there’s an indication that more magic is going to happen next Tuesday.
  4. The Very Hungry Caterpillar–I’ve already mentioned this one, and it’s so well-known that there’s not much more that I can say about it.  For a very short book, there’s an awful lot going on, and it’s brilliant.
  5. Come Away from the Water, Shirley, words and pictures by John Burningham.  This is a very funny book about a little girl having an adventure with pirates while her clueless mother keeps admonishing her not to get tar on her shoes or to pick up any smelly seaweed.  There is huge irony in the layout of the book; the parents’ boring day at the beach is illustrated in washed-out colors on the left-hand side of each page spread, while Shirley’s simultaneous adventure is depicted in bold colors on the right.  The deliberately naive drawing style reminds me of Charles Schultz’s Peanuts.  (Shirley’s head is perfectly round, like Charlie Brown’s.)
  6. Make Way for Ducklings, words and pictures by Robert McCloskey.  This one might be my favorite of the ones we read today.  The sepia pencil drawings aren’t necessarily eye-catching at first, but they grow on you as the story continues, taking you flying above real locations in Boston (this book has a strong sense of place).  I love how the police officer, Michael, is so serious about helping these ducks get through the city safely that he gets practically the entire Boston PD involved.  This books has it all: onomatopoeia, repetition, and even a quest narrative.
  7. Where the Wild Things Are, words and pictures by Maurice Sendak.  Speaking of books that have it all: this one is also a quest narrative, with a chiastic structure, internal rhyme, and a plot that make psychoanalytical theorists go crazy.  But it’s also a story about a boy who feels wild and out of place, learning that he belongs right where he is, where his mother loves him and keeps his dinner waiting for him, still hot.  Now that’s a good story.

Picture books aren’t just for children or people with children.  Read some this week!

Who am I?

I’m Jean Valjean.  Actually, this post is not about Les Miserables; I just thought I would create a fake segue from last week’s post to this one.  That line is one of the best moments in the musical, though.

This morning the topic of faculty convocation at my institution was “The Modern Identity Crisis.”  We do realize that this is now the postmodern era, but the title was a reference to a paradigm shift that occurred during the Enlightenment.  Broadly speaking, in ancient and medieval times, you were born into a certain family, class, and trade, and you didn’t worry about discovering who you were really meant to be.  (So that question in A Knight’s Tale, “Can a man change his stars?”–nobody was really asking it at that time period.  But they also weren’t listening to classic rock.  That movie is a fantasy, in case you weren’t sure.)  But in the modern period, the question of individual identity became paramount, and it’s only become more confusing as the world has become simultaneously more diverse and more homogenous.

In this post, I want to point out a few recent manifestations of the drive to self-define that may appear silly or harmless, but that are actually quite telling and potentially powerful.  One is the proliferation of assessment tools, ranging from research-based psychiatric tests to three-question quizzes on advertising webpages (“What’s your guest bathroom decorating style?”), designed to help us categorize ourselves and others.  Young adult literature fans very seriously discuss the implications of being in a particular Hogwarts (and now Ilvermorny) house or a certain faction in the dystopian world of Divergent, and each of these fandoms offers a variety of official and unofficial tests and quizzes for determining where one belongs.  Many people, including myself, never tire of talking about the Myers-Briggs Type Indicators and the rampant memes that lead us to identify ourselves with characters from various worlds (The Lord of the RingsThe Office, the Bible) based on MBTI. We give these assessment instruments so much power that they are almost like a postmodern version of divination.  Instead of looking to stars or tea leaves to tell us how are lives are going to turn out, or how to make decisions, we look at our personality types.

Our self-defining statements can also create limitations on who and what we are willing to be and do.  Some of these statements give us excuses for our perceived weaknesses (“English people don’t do math,” or vice versa); others allow us to feel superior to others (“Academics don’t watch football”).  And some of these statements, especially when made and believed by children and teenagers, can actually create deep-rooted habits that can shape the quality of a person’s life (“Nerds don’t do physical exercise”).

I’m not trying to be dire or dour.  I think it’s fun to discuss these things (as long-time readers of my blog know, I’m a Hufflepuff, and I’m also an ISFJ), but I’m afraid too many of us are limiting ourselves because we’re letting our categories determine our destinies.