Thursday, July 31, 2008

My Teaching Year (Part III)

Third in my (very occasional!) series of posts about the year I spent teaching at Detroit Mercy law school:

Like most new profs (I assume), I was quite nervous about teaching for the simple fact that I had never done it before, and unlike many other academic disciplines, there's not much in the way of teaching assistantships in school to prepare. I did gain some confidence from all of the lectures on civil liberties I had given to high school & college students while working at CCLA, but going into the first class at law school was still a scary experience. Fortunately, my first class went great as the students seemed interested and willing to participate, I covered the topics I wanted to, and didn't do anything to embarass myself.

The best advice I ever got about being nervous about teaching came from an unlikely source: random small-talk from some stranger at a cocktail party, who told me "If you're worried about being a good teacher, you're probably going to be a good teacher--it's the people who don't care about it at all who can be the terrible ones." I definitely think that's true--some of the hallmarks of being a good teacher (listening to students, doing the necessary prep work for each class, grading assignments on time and as fairly as possible) don't require some sort of "innate talent" as much as they simply require time and dedication--stuff that anyone can bring to the profession if they care enough about it.

As the weeks progressed, I fell into a rhythm: spend a few hours before each class prepping for the lecture, nap in the afternoons (shush!), and then grading in the evenings and Sundays. I was fortunate to have to teach only a couple of times a week, and no one expected me to do much in the way of scholarship in my first year and as a legal writing prof. I took the administration's advice and did informal evaluations in class after about a month of classes. That, combined with the end-of-semester formal evaluations, was very encouraging--I felt for the first time that I had some "objective proof" that I was good at this whole "teaching thing." I did learn what may be one of those eternal truths about teaching: there's always going to be one or two students who think you are the messiah, the best teacher they have ever encountered, and, simultaneously, one or two who think you are the worst teacher in the history of the world and have no idea what you're talking about. But, hopefully, the majority of students think you're pretty good . . .

While the teaching went quite well, I did feel a curious vacuum with the other aspects of what I expected being a professor meant. There was very little interactions with colleagues apart from faculty meetings and hardly any talk about scholarship or intellectual ideas. Part of this was certainly my fault--I'm a shy guy and don't make friends quickly, my area of scholarship is often obscure, and it's hard to want to spend a lot of time on campus when you live across the border and have to take an hour bus trip to get back and forth. Still, it was an early sign that maybe Detroit Mercy wasn't the best place for me.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Résumé with Monsters

Résumé with Monsters is an interesting and unusual book: a humorous parody of Lovecraft's Cthulu mythos. The main character, Philip Kenan, is a typesetter for various printing companies and believes that various denizens of outer space and other dimensions are personally intervening to destroy his life and career. It's not laugh-out-loud funny in most places, but it is smile-inducing and has great atmosphere.

Friday, July 25, 2008

McCain Gains Ground

Today's CNN "Poll of Polls" shows Obama with only a 3 point national lead over McCain, down from 6 points last week and 8 points a couple of weeks ago. Given that McCain is gaining ground even in the face of some high-profile gaffes (his campaign co-chair calling the U.S. a "nation of whiners", his inability to answer a question about health insurance paying for birth control, etc.), this may shape up to be a closer race than many Obamanauts thought. Of course, U.S. elections aren't determined by a national popular vote, but even on CNN's electoral college analysis, McCain is narrowing Obama's lead in several battleground states. The one piece of good news for Obama is that the aforementioned polls are conducted as if it were a two-man race; when Libertarian Bob Barr and independent Ralph Nader are factored in, Obama opens up a sizable lead over McCain (since the two third-party candidates siphon far more support from McCain than Obama).

Monday, July 14, 2008

Comic Book Killer

Another book I bought when I was 13 and have been lugging around ever since is Richard Lupoff's The Comic Book Killer, a mystery novel I must have bought solely because of its title. The book is the first mystery novel by a long-time fantasy author, and in places it's a bit clunky (way too much description of what the protagonist has for lunch, for example). The novel's about an insurance adjuster named Hobart Lindsey who gets put on the case of $ 250,000 in stolen comics. The author clearly has a real love & knowledge of Golden Age comic books, but the story itself is a bit dry. After reading the book, I was curious to see whether this was a one-shot deal or the beginning of a mystery series and it turns out there are several books starring Lindsey (and/or his girlfriend, a black L.A. cop unlikely named Marvia Plum). This book didn't jazz me enough to want to rush out and buy more in the series, but my collection obsession means that if I saw # 2 in a used book store I would likely pick it up anyway . . .

Friday, July 11, 2008

Democracy's Discontent

Michael Sandel's Democracy's Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy is one of those books at the outermost periphery of my field, famous & cited enough that I feel obligated to read it, but not anywhere close enough to the actual subject of my work (law and religion or civil liberties) that it has been a priority. Anyway, the thesis of the book is that political debate in modern America has become almost exclusively centered around the liberal axes of fairness & liberty, while omitting the core value that animated American political life since the Founding: civic virtue, the idea that laws and debates should turn on the question of what will make us better citizens, better able to participate in a democracy and weigh the common good. Sandel's historical analysis of how the notion of civic virtue was the preeminent American political philosophy for well over a century is quite persuasive. The book is lacking, however, in putting forth a substantive analysis of how things would be different if civic virtue came back into vogue. (it's also a bit boring, but that's a failing common to many academic writers).

KFC's "Vegetarian Sandwich"

Who says nothing good ever comes out of litigation? A couple of months ago, KFC settled a lawsuit with PETA, one of the terms of which was that the restaurant chain would introduce a vegetarian entree. I'm happy to report that the result, the faux-chicken patty "Vegetarian Sandwich" is damned good and it's nice to have an additional fast-food option (though I still wish McDonald's would bring back the McVeggie, but such is life . . .).

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Solo Avengers

In my on-going quest to re-read my Marvel comics from A to Z (complete series only), I recently finished Avengers Spotlight, formerly known as Solo Avengers. The series only lasted 40 issues in the late 1980s and was probably the first series I collected from issue # 1 until it was cancelled--I therefore hold a great deal of nostalgia for the comic. It was one of Marvel's attempts to revive the "split-book" format popular in the 1960s, and starred Hawkeye ("The World's Greatest Marksman") for half of each issue and another Avenger for the other half. The Hawkeye stories tended to be very light-hearted super hero stories, putting the expert archer up against goofy super villians like The Bullet Biker (yes, a guy who rode around on a bike with machine guns), The Orb (a guy's who helmet was a giant eye, which I think shot laser beams), and The Pernicious Plantman (the name says it all!). I still find the stories fun and refreshingly different than the grim and gritty trend that struck super hero comics for quite a while in the late 80s and early 90s (eventually, however, even Hawkeye was struck by the bug near the end of the series, as he gets gunned down by a drug gang and, after his recovery, dons bullet proof armor and makes it his mission to stop the L.A. "gang menace").

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Blasphemy in the Toronto Star

An op-ed on blasphemous libel appeared in today's Toronto Star:

I hear the author is really cool and should be sent money.

The Dungeon

My plan upon turning thirty is to spend the year re-reading books I've already read--some of which I've carried around with me from place to place since I was 11 or 12 and have only the vaguest recollection that I liked them.

First on my list were Philip Jose Farmer's The Dungeon series of fantasy novels, which appeared in the late 1980s. The series consists of a single story told through six volumes, with each book written by a different individual author: The Black Tower by Richard Lupoff, The Dark Abyss by Bruce Coville, The Valley of Thunder by Charles de Lint, The Lake of Fire by Robin Bailey, The Hidden City also by de Lint, and The Final Battle also by Lupoff.

The idea behind the series is that the writer of volume 1 would start things off, the writer of volume 2 would continue that story without having any input into the earlier book, and so forth until the story was finished with the sixth and final book. This idea probably created some fun juggling as each author had to both pick up where the last book left off and set things up in an interesting way for the next book.

The first book works wonderfully. Set in the mid 1800s, it begins as a pulp adventure story as English soldier Clive Leighton travels throughout the Orient and Africa to find his missing brother. Deep in the heart of Africa, he ventures through a strange opening in a boulder and finds himself on the first level of The Dungeon, a place strange and exotic. In it and succeeding books, we follow Clive's voyage through the Dungeon (almost always a step behind his brother, who leaves him mysterious and tantalizing clues) and meet several companions along the way: the cyborg Chang Guafe, the giant arachnid Shriek, Clive's great-great-great-something grand-daughter Annabelle, and more.

The Dungeon, however, isn't simply a series of caverns--each of the nine levels is anything from an alien city to another world. My description is no doubt doing the series an injustice as it probably sounds incredibly cheesy--and to a degree, it is almost like every possible fantasy and science-fiction idea was thrown into a blender and mixed up: the series contains everything from time-travel to cloning to aliens to ray guns to telepathy to demons and more.

It's a wild ride but one that doesn't lose focus on Clive and his companions, each of whom is given an interesting personality. In many ways, the books remind me of Lost, where you sometimes feel the writers are making things up episode-by-episode and sometimes things seem to have been set-up years prior. The downside (much like I unfortunately predict is inevitable with Lost) is that not everything is completely explained--there are characters, clues, plot threads, and more that are left hanging in earlier books and not wrapped up in the final book. Indeed, the last book was somewhat disappointing as the focus is solely on Clive and most of his companions are relegated to occasional cameos.

I don't think I can give the books an unqualified recommendation, but at least the first one is worth reading . . . so I'll probably carry them around with me for another couple of decades.