Something to Sit Up For

gazing-catsI know a few people who write both poetry and nonfiction (more or less concurrently), and while they involve different kinds of imagination, they still have a good deal in common. In both, you are looking and listening not only for the right words, but the right combination of sounds, the right allusions, the right departures from the known and expected.

Recently I have been writing much more nonfiction than poetry, but the poems still come now and then, and some of them hold up over time. This one (an unrhymed sonnet from 2009 or so) is one of my favorites. It appears on the dedication page of Republic of Noise; Stella Schindler quotes it in full at the beginning of her review in Humanum. Reading it now, I still hear something like the offbeat clanging of a bell (in the preposition “for,” which occurs at the end of three consecutive phrases with two enjambments). But of course my ear is slanted. (So is the picture I took yesterday morning of the cats and sunrise.)

The Speech

From far away I heard you speak today,
the way we hear bells in a slant of sun,
knowing they ring at five—the calendar
itself makes words, the very rays make chords.

A teacher must have rushed there after school,
arrived breathless, flopped in a seat, arranged
her coat and hair, leaned into heed, and found
a rampart in the very listening.

Something to sit up for, something to hold
one’s head up for, a time to put aside
one’s foibles for, even a distant time,
this came my way today, a reckoning.
I grasped that there was loneliness in gold
and gold in air, and debt in everything.

The Terror of Subscription

columbia-record-co-a-serious-manIn the Coen brothers’ movie A Serious Man, the physics professor Larry Gopnik enters his office to find three messages and an anxious student waiting. One message is from the Columbia Record Club; unbeknownst to Larry himself, he has subscribed and fallen behind on his payments. (See that magnifying glass in the still; I didn’t even notice it when watching the movie. Maybe it suggests that Larry is looking so closely at certain things that he completely misses others.) I see this “surprise subscription” as one kind of deep nightmare.

What is so scary about subscriptions? Some of it is innocuous and even good; people proudly maintain their subscriptions to newspapers and journals, for instance. But in other cases, the subscription technology (crude or advanced) tricks you; you agree to a “trial” or some such thing and then find out that you’ve signed up for a whole year. Or else you sign up for a year and then forget  to cancel at the end. Subscriptions sneak up on you and claim a debt. Suddenly, out of nowhere, you owe someone money.

But that’s only one side of it. To “subscribe” to something is also to become it. Sometimes, when I get a surprise renewal notice, I ask not only “Can I afford this?” but “What do I have to do with this? Is it really part of my life?” Once upon a time I subscribed to the Franklin Library. The books were beautifully bound, and some titles I was delighted to have–but after a while, they started looking and feeling like a fake collection. I couldn’t keep up with the reading, and when my shelves started filling with books I had barely opened, I knew something was wrong. The subscription had go. I would buy books when I actually wanted to read and reread them. (So I did, and my shelves still overflow.)

So that leads to yet another of subscriptions’ scullduggeries. They can con you into overgetting. You end up amassing “stuff” that  you don’t really want, merely because you continue to pay for it. Somewhere in there, presumably, is something you want, so you accept the full pile, knowing full well that you will use only a handful of it. (I am not referring here to journal subscriptions. There, in my experience, the situation is different; if it’s a good journal, there will be all kinds of surprises in it, things I wouldn’t otherwise have known to read.)

And then, when you do want to quit, you won’t be let off easily. You’ll get reminders, phone calls, letters… won’t you please, please rejoin us? Even if your answer is an emphatic “no,” you are continually reminded that you once did sign on for a whole year.

Today the problem has heightened, since there are so many more things than before that require subscription: antivirus software, word processing and photo finishing software, genealogical research databases, even your own domain name. To do your basic daily work on the computer, you probably need to subscribe to at least three services. And then there are all the subscriptions to “ad-free” versions of blogs and other things; if you don’t want to have ads dancing before you all day long, you must subscribe to peace and quiet.

All of these things combine into the terror of subscription. It’s a mild anxiety; for the most part, I barely think about it. But I often catch myself wishing that I could just have something or not, instead of signing on to this costly, nagging, partial purchase, the effect of a hesitant click one dubious day.

All of this reminded me of Bill Knott’s sonnet “The Unsubscriber” (which isn’t “about” subscriptions in this sense but plays with the topic in an interesting way.) You can see it quoted in full in an article by Edward Hirsch (though the formatting is bad; I recommend the book of the same title). It ends,

No one loves that vain solipsistic sect
You’d never join, whose dues you’ve always paid.

To understand and misunderstand what this means, one needs to read and reread the full poem, to subscribe and unsubscribe, many times.

Image: A still from the first  “Clive scene” in A Serious Man.

 

A Statistical Study of Literature

e-h-_shepard_illustration_of_mr_toadRecently Drake Baer reported on a study of the emotional arcs of stories. Working from ideas that Kurt Vonnegut puts forth in his master’s thesis and 1985 lecture, a research group, led by University of Vermont Ph.D. candidate Andrew J. Reagan, analyzed the progression of happiness levels in a selection of 1,327 stories. They did this by measuring the “happiness levels” of the words themselves and mapping the movement in happiness over the course of the story.

They found six basic shapes. In Baer’s words, “A full 85 percent of the books analyzed fell under one of six shapes. They are: ‘rags to riches,’ in which sentiment goes up; ‘riches to rags,’ where it goes down; ‘man in a hole,’ in which there’s a fall, then a rise; ‘Icarus’, where it’s a rise then a fall; ‘Cinderella,’ or rise-fall-rise; and ‘Oedipus,’ or fall-rise-fall.” It isn’t the plot that matters here, Baer explains, but “the way sentiment [is] conveyed by the words themselves, and whether they rise or fall, signaling happy or sad endings to chapters and sections and books as a whole.”

The initial problem is that the arcs don’t really match the stories themselves. Here’s the arc that supposedly matches the emotional arc of The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame (one of my favorite books from childhood):
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A Lesson from the Power Pose Debacle

Amy Cuddy’s TED talk on power posing has thirty-seven million views. Its main idea is simple: if you adopt an expansive, authoritative pose, your actual power will increase. For evidence, Cuddy refers to a study she conducted in 2010 with Dana Carney and Andy Yap. Holes and flaws in the study have since been revealed, but Cuddy continues to defend it. Doubt fuels scientific inquiry, but in an era TED-style glamor and two-minute “life hacks” (Cuddy’s own term for the power pose), we find a shortage of such doubt on stage. It is time to tap the reserves.

Recently TED and Cuddy appended a note to the summary of the talk: “Some of the findings presented in this talk have been referenced in an ongoing debate among social scientists about robustness and reproducibility.” In other (and clearer) words: The power pose study has not held up under scrutiny. At least two replications failed; Andrew Gelman, Uri Simonsohn, and others have critiqued it robustly; and Carney, the lead researcher, detailed the study’s flaws—and disavowed all belief in the effect of power poses—in a statement posted on her website. Jesse Singal (New York Magazine) and Tom Bartlett (The Chronicle of Higher Education) have weighed in with analyses of the controversy.

Very well, one might shrug aloud, but what should we, irregular members of the regular public, do? Should we distrust every TED talk? Or should we wait until the experts weigh in? Neither approach is satisfactory. When faced with fantastic scientific claims, one can wield good skepticism and follow one’s doubts and questions.

Before learning of any of this uproar, I found Cuddy’s talk unstable. Instead of making a coherent argument, it bounces between informal observations, personal experiences, and scientific references. In addition, it seems to make an error early on. Two minutes into her talk, Cuddy states that “Nalini Ambady, a researcher at Tufts University, shows that when people watch 30-second soundless clips of real physician-patient interactions, their judgments of the physician’s niceness predict whether or not that physician will be sued.” Which study is this? I have perused the Ambady Lab website, conducted searches, and consulted bibliographies—and I see no sign that the study exists. (If I find that the study does exist, I will post a correction here. Ambady died in 2013, so I cannot ask her directly. I have written to the lab but do not know whether anyone is checking the email.)

In separate studies, Ambady studied surgeons’ tone of voice (by analyzing subjects’ ratings of sound clips where the actual words were muffled) and teachers’ body language (by analyzing subjects’ ratings of soundless video clips). As far as I know, she did not conduct a study with soundless videos of physician-patient interactions. Even her overview articles do not mention such research. Nor did her study of surgeons’ tone of voice make inferences about the likelihood of future lawsuits. It only related tone of voice to existing lawsuit histories.

Anyone can make a mistake. On the TED stage, delivering your talk from memory before an enormous audience, you have a million opportunities to be fallible. This is understandable and forgivable. It is possible that Cuddy conflated the study of physicians’ tone of voice with the study of teachers’ body language. Why make a fuss over this? Well, if a newspaper article were to make such an error, and were anyone to point it out, the editors would subsequently issue a correction. No correction appears on the TED website. Moreover, many people have quoted Cuddy’s own mention of that study without looking into it. It has been taken as fact.

Why did I sense that something was off? First, I doubted that subjects’ responses to a surgeon’s body language predicted whether the doctor would be sued in the future. A lawsuit takes money, time, and energy; I would not sue even the gruffest surgeon unless I had good reason. In other words, the doctor’s personality would only have a secondary or tertiary influence on my decision to sue. On the other hand, it is plausible that doctors with existing lawsuit histories might appear less personable than others—if only because it’s stressful to be sued. Insofar as existing lawsuit histories predict future lawsuits, there might be a weak relation between a physician’s body language and his or her likelihood of being sued in the future. I suspect, though, that the data would be noisy (in a soundless kind of way).

Second, I doubted that there was any study involving videos of physician-patient interactions. Logistical and legal difficulties would stand in the way. With sound recordings—especially where the words are muffled—you can preserve anonymity and privacy; with videos you cannot. As it turns out, I was flat-out wrong; video recording of the doctor’s office has become commonplace, not only for research but for doctors’ own self-assessment.

It matters whether or not this study exists—not only because it has been taken as fact, but because it influences public gullibility. If you believe that a doctor’s body language actually predicts future lawsuits, then you might also believe that power poses are real. You might believe that “the vast majority of teachers reports believing that the ideal student is an extrovert as opposed to an introvert” (Susan Cain) or that “the whole purpose of public education throughout the world is to produce university professors” (Ken Robinson). The whole point of a TED talk is to put forth a big idea; alas, an idea’s size has little to do with its quality.

What to do? Questioning Cuddy’s statement, and statements like it, takes no special expertise, only willingness to follow a doubt. If TED were to open itself to doubt, uncertainty, and error—posting corrections, acknowledging errors, and inviting discussion—it could become a genuine intellectual forum. To help bring this about, people must do more than assume a doubting stance. Poses are just poses. Insight requires motion—from questions to investigations to hypotheses to more questions.  This is what makes science interesting and strong.  Science, with all its branches and disciplines, offers not a two-minute “life hack,” but rather the hike of a lifetime. With a mind full of doubt, one can make it.

 

Note: I originally had the phrase “two-minute life hack” in quotes, but Cuddy’s actual phrase is “free no-tech life hack.” She goes on to say that it takes requires changing your posture for two minutes. So I removed “two-minute” from the quotes.

Chekhov’s “Home”

doma3Anton Chekhov’s “Home” is just ten pages long, but it will take me a few blog posts to do it a sliver of justice. This post consists of three parts. You can read along in English here and in Russian here.

In Russian the title is “Дома” (“Doma”), which can be translated as “home,” “at home,” or even “in the family.” All of those senses come into play here.

A Reading of “Home”: Part 1

The father, who works as prosecutor for the circuit court, has just come home from work; the story begins with the governess’s voice, as she rattles off various news. People came by for a book, the postman delivered the mail, and now for serious matters (which she introduces with “kstati,” or “by the way”: For the third day now, Seryozha has been found smoking. Not only that, but when the governess tried to speak to him, he simply plugged his ears and started singing.

Amused by the picture, the father gathers some facts, as is his habit. How old is Seryozha? he asks. (What a question! we may think. But a judgment here would be too hasty.) Where did he get the tobacco? Having learned that he got it from his (the father’s) study, he asks to have Seryozha sent in.

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At Home

domabookstandFor the next few blog posts, I’m going to do something a little different from the usual. I plan to walk through Chekhov’s story “Home” (“Дома“), pointing out some details and favorite parts as I go along. In this story, a father (a prosecutor by profession) learns from the governess that his seven-year-old son, Seryozha, has been smoking in his study. He now has to take up the matter with the little boy, but how? For the first post, I will discuss the story from the beginning to the boy’s entrance (“Good evening, papa!”). Subsequent posts will progress through the story. I will announce the passages in advance.

cardinal-book-propThroughout this reading, I will use a book prop manufactured by my great-granduncle’s company, the Chas. Fischer Spring Co., once located on Kent Street in Brooklyn. They were best known for the AN-6530 goggles, which the U.S. Army and Navy flight crews used in World War II. But Charles Fischer (1876-1946) invented and patented a host of other things, including a timer (Pat. No. 2,417,641), a handle for pipe cleaners (Pat. No. 1,782,871), a boudoir lamp (Pat. No. 1,639,493), a rack for boots and shoes (Pat. No. 1,603,382), a take-up spring (Pat. No. 1,578,817), a telephone receiver (Pat. No. 1,526,666), a magnetic speedometer (Pat. No. 1,467,031), a display stand (Pat. No. 1,437,837), and a telephone stand (Pat. No. 1,371,747). (The links take you to the drawings.)

The book prop has some marvelous features; it rests on the leg and clasps onto the knee, so that you can do other things with your hands; it has an indentation for the book’s spine, and it clasps the pages from below or from the sides. I don’t see a Charles Fischer patent for this device, but his company definitely produced it, and it resembles his display stand in some ways.

Charles came to New York City around age 14, with his parents and seven siblings, from Györke, Hungary (now Ďurkov, Slovakia). My great-grandfather Max was one of his younger brothers. They were Jewish, and they spoke Hungarian at home. In 1900 they lived at 346 East 3rd Street, and Charles worked as a toolmaker. A few years later, they moved to Brooklyn; from there they dispersed to the various boroughs. In 1906 Charles founded his company (where some family members, including Max, would be employed for many years to come). In 1933 he was one of the charter members of the Spring Manufacturers Association.) In 1944 the Knights of Columbus named him among “public-spirited citizens who are always in the fore in striving to make our community a finer and a better place in which to live.” He died in 1946.

It seems fitting to use the book prop for Chekhov’s story. I hope you enjoy reading along.

Update: I took the two pictures at the top;  the picture of the box is courtesy of The Monkey’s Paw, “Toronto’s most idiosyncratic secondhand bookshop.” Also see Joe Simpson’s comment (below), as well as my later post “The Springs of Creativity.”

Gradus ad Parnassum

gradusadparnassumI took this picture yesterday in Fort Tryon Park; it is one of my favorites. It made me think of a book I loved in childhood: The Study of Counterpoint, from Johann Joseph Fux’s Gradus ad Parnassum. The book teaches you counterpoint through a dialogue between teacher and student. Step by step (with some leaps and longer views), you learn the principles and practices.

I am not especially systematic when it comes to learning new things or advancing my knowledge. I like to plunge in at a much-too-difficult level and figure things out. But even that requires a sequence; I find myself going as far back as necessary to basic concepts and then working toward the problem at hand. I enjoy finding out again and again that it can be done—with languages, music, mathematics, and even human conundrums.

Here is the beginning of the dialogue in The Study of Counterpoint:

       Josephus.— I come to you, venerable master, in order to be introduced to the rules and principles of music.
       Aloysius.— You want, then, to learn the art of composition?
       Joseph.— Yes.
       Aloys.— But are you not aware that this study is like an immense ocean, not to be exhausted even in the lifetime of a Nestor? You are indeed taking on yourself a heavy task, a burden greater than Aetna. If it is in any case most difficult to choose a life work—since upon the choice, whether it be right or wrong, will depend the good or bad fortune of the rest of one’s life—how much care and foresight must he who would enter upon this art employ before he dares to decide. For musicians and poets are born such. You must try to remember whether even in childhood you felt a strong natural inclination to this art and whether you were deeply moved by the beauty of concords.

Once Josephus convinces Aloysius, the instruction begins.

Today the idea of inborn talent is unpopular—but Aloysius’s point is not that talent rules over all, but rather that the hard work of music requires great and strong desire. It can’t be a passing whim or a light interest.

On the other hand, once you have committed to the ascent, all you have to do is ascend, step by step, over many years. It doesn’t matter if sometimes you rush ahead and then backtrack, or pause for a long time at a given level; even then, you lead your life on the stairs.

Literature Conference in DC!

cuaOnce upon a time, I would not have ended such a heading with an exclamation point. I was weary and wary of literature conferences that focused on newfangled theories and sidestepped the literature. Even at the best conferences, this happened a lot, or so it seemed to me.

I remember listening to someone apply Mikhail Bakhtin’s “chronotope” to Anton Chekhov’s work. There didn’t seem to be much Chekhov there, or even much Bakhtin.  The speaker’s voice would rise in pitch on the last syllable of “khronotop” (Russian). After a while,  all I could hear was “khronoTOP, khronoTOP, khronoTOP.” I held myself together, but as soon as the session was over, I rushed out of the hall and burst out laughing. (I admire Bakhtin but am sometimes giggly about dogmatic Bakhtinians. I have a Bakhtinian parody published on Pindeldyboz.)

Anyway, this conference is about literature. It’s the Twentieth Annual Conference of the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers (ALSCW), to be held from October 27-30 at the Catholic University of America. Panel and seminar topics include Milton, Dante and Augustine, humor, poetry translation, Irish poetry, American literature across borders, and David Bromwich’s much-anticipated keynote address, “The Literature of Knowledge and the Literature of Power.” There will be a poetry reading by Rosanna Warren and Brad Leithauser, a musical performance, and much more.

I will be presenting two papers, reading a poem or two, and leading a seminar (in which I will present a third paper). One paper is on Nikolai Gogol’s “The Nose,” another on my translation of Tomas Venclova’s poem “Pestel Street,” and a third on Julio Cortázar’s story “End of the Game.” The seminar, “‘You Must Change Your Life’: The Gesture of Opening in Literature,” features papers by E. Thomas Finan (on Woolf), Ann Marie Klein (on the Iliad), William Waters (on Rilke), and myself.

This should be a great four days. Registration is still open; for details, see the ALSCW website.

A New Blog Name

greydayOn this beautiful grey-green morning (some of my favorite weather), as I was out walking, it occurred to me that I could rename the blog. The previous title  (Diana Senechal: On Education and Other Things) no longer fit. Then it came to me: Take Away the Takeaway, the title of my forthcoming book. This suits the spirit of the blog and allows flexibility.

The book is taking shape, by the way; I have written drafts of seven of the eleven chapters. I am moving along swiftly so that I can revise slowly later.

I am also taking a course in advanced cantillation; I love the subject, the practice, and the course. This is my second major commitment this year.

I have some additional time-bound projects: at the end of October, I will present two papers at the ALSCW Conference (one on Gogol’s “The Nose,” one on my translation of Tomas Venclova’s “Pestel Street“) and will lead a seminar as well. Also, I am writing many college recommendations for my former students.

So here it is: Take Away the Takeaway.

TEDx Video Coming Soon

The video of my talk at TEDx Upper West Side is now complete and will be uploaded soon. The title, “Take Away the Takeaway,” is the working title of my forthcoming book.

senechal_tedx

Update (November 16): The upload is taking a long time for reasons out of my control. I will post an update if and when it is up.