Category Archives: Writing

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Let This Satirical Campus Newspaper Live

In 2007, a group of students at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln fought to establish the first satirical newspaper on the campus. Eight years and nearly 70 issues later, the paper still hits the newsstand every other week. Recently, however, a committee charged with allocating student fees proposed defunding it — saving students a mere 15 cents annually — for the one reason that scares and baffles me the most. “While it does create a number of opportunities for students,” the commit…

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Academe’s Willful Ignorance of African Literature

Every now and again, people declare that African literature has arrived, or is arriving, or will arrive soon. It’s not surprising that African literature is read as emerging: In the long emergency that seems to define Africa in the eyes of the rest of the world—in which “Africa” is a place of starving children, warring clans, and technological backwardness—the idea of African literature can seem positively utopian. It can be a delightful discovery when it seems to emerge. But that discov…

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A Literary Scramble for Africa

Hiring: an annual ritual at the MLA. This year the Yale English department advertised a position in the 20th and 21st centuries. What we were really looking for, though, was something much more specific: Anglophone world literature. Already we had hired a senior Africanist, so Africa was not a high priority for us; we were looking for (and were sure we would be inundated with) work on South Asia and the Caribbean—the admittedly great but hardly eyebrow-raising trinity of Salman Rushdie, Derek …

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‘Charlie Hebdo,’ Houellebecq, and France’s Pungent Satirical Tradition

Accompanying many of the appalling accounts of Wednesday’s massacre at the offices of Charlie Hebdo is a reproduction of the satirical weekly’s cover. It features a caricature of the writer Michel Houellebecq, garbed in a blue wizard’s outfit, face unshaven, jowls sagging and eyes bleary (no doubt from one glass de trop), smoke spiraling from a cigarette wedged between his fingers. No doubt in a slurred voice, France’s best-selling novelist, whose new book Soumission (Submission) went on sale th…

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Will and Grace

Thanksgiving week, news outlets worldwide trumpeted the discovery of a previously unknown copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio (the first collected edition of his works, published in 1623). Lacking its title page and other prefatory matter, the book had been incorrectly cataloged in the public library of a small French town near Calais. Once the book’s identity was confirmed, Rémy Cordonnier, the delighted librarian in Saint-Omer, was reported as saying: “It was very emotional to realize we …

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Prospective Literary Fitness Apps

“[Zombies, Run!] is an audio adventure that features missions in which the runner tries to escape from a horde of the undead while picking up survival gear along the way. The app … offers more than 200 missions, including one with the author Margaret Atwood, who is holed up in a tower and offering zombie intel.”
“Wearable Gear and Apps to Make Running Healthier, and a Lot More Fun,” The New York Times, November 5, 2014

Other literary fitness apps in development:

Run, Rabbit, Run! You are Rabbit…

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Reclaiming History for the Future

A specter is haunting our time: the specter of the short term. We live in a moment of accelerating crisis that is characterized by a shortage of long-term thinking. Rising sea levels and other threats to our environment; mounting inequality; rotting infrastructure. Our culture lacks a long-term perspective.

Where can we turn for deep knowledge?

To history—the discipline and its subject matter.

Putting long-termism into practice is hard. When we peer into the future, instead of facts, we routinel…

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History, Hashtags, and the Truth About Slavery

When we sat down last week to read The Economist’s dismaying—and subsequently retracted—review of Edward E. Baptist’s new history of American slavery, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, we experienced a strong sense of déjà vu.

The anonymous Economist reviewer objected to Baptist’s portrayal of slavery as a brutal system of “calibrated pain” that provided the foundation for the rise of American capitalism, concluding, “Mr. Baptist has not writte…

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Betray Our Students for Publisher’s Profit?

I recently received an email from a “consultant” inviting me to help a publisher create an automatic essay-grading technology product for humanities professors to use in introductory-level courses. The consultant claimed that once completed, the program would “accurately auto-grade brief writing assignments – 500 to 900 words.” The program, the email said, “uses specific writing prompts and rubrics to achieve computer grading accuracy.”

And how will these impressive results be achieved, you ask?…

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The Rise of the Helicopter Teacher

A week before the first paper was due, a young woman in my class raised her hand and asked where the rubric was.

Shamefaced and stuttering, I had to admit that I had no idea what a rubric was. She helpfully explained that this was a set of guidelines explaining what I expected them to write, how I expected them to write it, and how each aspect of the paper would be evaluated. A set of boxes that students could check off to guarantee that they had met my expectations. For all intents and purposes…