Off (of) the “Bleeding Edge”

I spent a fair amount of yesterday, the last day of 2013, finishing Pynchon’s latest novel. 477 pages that I picked up and put down, enjoyed and resented, renewed three times at my local library.

My Pynchon belt now has three notches: The Crying of Lot 49; Vineland (my favorite); Bleeding Edge. I’ve delved into V., Gravity’s Rainbow, and Mason and Dixon. I would say haven’t we all, but I don’t know, have we? do people really still read Pynchon? try to read Pynchon? Are my rube roots showing? (Real questions.)

New Year: time for a bit of reflection/nostalgia. I discovered Pynchon via my older sister’s (Kath’s) bookshelf–the one she maintained at home while she was in college. She finished a book for a class. She deposited a book at home. I was a junior in high school–pretty sure I wasn’t smart enough to go to college (most of my teachers would have agreed)–quite sure I wasn’t as smart as my sister, salutatorian of her 1969 Roswell High School class (long before the days of multiple valedictorians). I’d like to talk to her about this novel (though she was losing her sight and suffering from a bit of dementia before she died on New Year’s Day, 2012). Maxine, the protagonist of the novel made me think a lot about a young Kath who was into programming in the early 70s. She and her husband and I all lived in Albuquerque where Bill Gates and Paul Allen would found Microsoft in 1975. Over backgammon games, while we cooked and ate, The Grateful Dead and Bowie providing background music, talk of computers filled the air.

The 40 years that have passed between now and then play some role in the novel. And this is where I got bogged down while reading. I guess we’d call what Pynchon does “riffing” (a word I’ve used maybe five times in my life). In any case this riffing almost always takes me out of the novel. In speaking of a character who has gone to D.C., Pynchon says something like “D.C. now” as Martha and the Vandellas call it. After a pile-up of stuff like that, I stop reading, close the book, put it down. Just “Walk away, Renée” as  The Left Banke would say and now I’m pissed because I’m doing a Pynchon. Is this good? Am I just being manipulated? Why doesn’t someone edit the man? (real question)



I didn’t read any lengthy reviews of Bleeding Edge before deciding to read it. But last night I googled “reviews of Bleeding Edge,” and the two that popped up first are (of course) by Jonathan Lethem and Michael Chabon.

In his review, Pynchonopolis, Lethem does some riffing as he discusses Pynchon’s, uh, riffing, but also addresses the issue of whether or not we all, in fact, do know how to read Pynchon: “But wait. I’m acting as if we all know what it is to read Pynchon. In fact none of us do, for figuring out what it is like to read Pynchon is what it is like to read Pynchon. You’re never done with it. He’ll employ a string of citations to real and imaginary Bette Davis movies, say, or riffs on basketball, much as Pollock uses a color on a panoramic canvas or Coltrane a note in a solo: incessantly, arrestingly, yet seemingly without cumulative purpose. Instead, they’re threads for teasing at, or being teased by. Try Bette Davis, who often played good/bad twins or sisters: she resonates — uh, maybe? — with Pynchon’s Poe-like attraction to characters split into sinister mirrored doubles.”

Lethem represents the process of reading Pynchon as a kind of test. If I don’t know all this stuff, can I understand the novel? If I can’t understand the novel, should I read it anyway? If so, why? If not, why not?

The review is Lethem’s essay question response: yes, read it, but don’t be surprised if you’re not smart enough to figure it all out (to be fair, he does point out that the numerous threads of the “mystery” of the novel never really come together). He ends on a cutsie reference to Pynchon’s age and what the young author might riff up next. “In summary: Despite the lack of personal information supplied about the author, it’s plain, from the sweep and chortle of his sentences, from the irascible outbreaks of horniness, from the pinpoint rage at popular hypocrisy and cant, that young Pynchon is a writer of boundless promise, sure to give us a long shelf of entrancing and charismatic novels. I believe he has a masterpiece or three in him. I look forward to seeing what he’ll do next.”

In The Crying of September 11, Chabon suggests that “Bleeding Edge has been written, in part, as a response to the Pynchonization of consensus reality, a transformation that became irrefutable with the rise of the World Wide Web, with its name like that of a global crime syndicate out of some half-parodic James Coburn spy caper and its infinite interlinks a perfect metaphor for paranoia itself.”

I read these reviews the way a student might turn to SparkNotes. I wanted to know if I’d gotten it. I guess I did. I like essay reviews as much for what they reveal about the person writing them as for what they might tell me about a book. But I also like straight-up reviews: is the book good, bad, worth buying, worth reading, etc.

And for that reason, I like Talitha Stevenson’s review in the Guardian because she approaches the novel as an outsider, as a reader who is not American. While I think she has a rather narrow view of what it means to be American, I nonetheless appreciate the approach, largely because she refuses to take the test that Chabon and Lethem want to get the A+ on. She’s not trying to prove that she knows all the references; she’s writing as a reader.

“Though it’s hard to believe Pynchon has any interest in non-American readers, most of us have seen enough about America on film to know what he’s getting at when he refers to ‘The Yupper West Side’ of New York. (Even so, it’s worth noting that such provincial references if they were made in regard to London, or Berlin, would be found meaningless by an American audience and therefore unpublishable.) But there are times when the lexicon and signifiers have a mean-girl exclusivity. When Maxine comments on the lavishness of a Halloween party, her friend Vyrva scoffs: ‘This? Next to the Alley a couple years ago? The average startup party? This is a footnote, my dear. Commentary.'”

And she asks the question about Pynchon that nags at me:

“When March Kelleher, the leftwing, paranoid blogger in Bleeding Edge, invites the heroine, Maxine Tarnow, to recall ‘what Susan Sontag always sez’, Maxine responds: ‘I like the streak, I’m keeping it?’ But March – the novel’s voice of misguided sincerity – persists, correcting her: ‘If there’s a sensibility you really want to talk about, and not just exhibit it yourself, you need ‘a deep sympathy modified by contempt’.” Sontag’s idea strikes at the heart of what Thomas Pynchon has undertaken in Bleeding Edge. It prompts a question relevant to him and to all contemporary artists, from writers to directors to choreographers: if the present day is atomised, paranoid, infantile, obsessive, can a work of art capture this without taking on these attributes itself?”

While I had very mixed feelings about Bleeding Edge, I did finish it, and I am not the kind of reader who feels dutiful about finishing a book that I don’t like. I don’t think I could really recommend it, but I do feel like I want to give Gravity’s Rainbow another shot.

And that kind of pisses me off. Damn you, Pynchon! And happy new year!

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professional development is personal development

For College Writing Programs’ final faculty meeting of the 2012-2013 academic year, we are to prepare a 7-minute or so presentation on our recent professional development. As I was thinking about this, I realized that I could yack for much longer than seven minutes about the past year. Therefore, this blog.

Because for the past few years I’ve been very interested in digital pedagogy, having developed a hybrid composition course, while also being active in various forms of digital writing and publishing (as a member of, as someone who publishes in a number of online magazines, as a frequent user of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, and as a less frequent blogger), my professional activities of late have been intimately intertwined with my writing life, which I think of, I guess, as more personal than my teaching life (note to self: think more about that).

Beginning last year with the Computers and Writing Conference at North Carolina State University, things began to gel for me. It wasn’t so much that I was interested in technology (as in the term educational technology), which is the way many teachers and colleagues frame discussions of whether they take advantage or not of media available to them and to their students (how many times have you heard this: “I’m not a techie”). I have always been interested in language, communication, publishing and the organization of my life among others, which is not to say only my social life (as in social media) but how and where I fit into this increasingly mediated world. At the conference, I was surrounded by people, most of them much younger than me, whose lives–as related to media, anyway–were more fully integrated with their pedagogy and practice than mine.

Only a few months before this conference a student in the hybrid composition course had asked, while writing his digital literacy narrative, if he could call himself “literate” if he couldn’t code. “Of course,” I answered too quickly. Who would expect everyone to know how to code?

I’d give a fuller response now and plan to add this question to readings and discussions for the class in Fall 2013. Because over and over, at this conference, people talked about coding and how important it was for all of us to understand the language of the tools we use (or be used by them). I’m not sure I’ll learn to code (I did buy a book on Ruby on Rails and got my Mac to say “Hello” to me). I struggled to learn BASIC back in the 70s (part of the struggle was being a “girl” in what continues to be a sexist field) and eventually gave up programming. But in a few weeks, I’m attending Ada Camp, sponsored by The Ada Initiative, and who knows, maybe I’ll wrestle with Python!

So those are the bookends of the last professional year: Computers and Writing Conference, Ada Camp. But a lot has happened in between. I was on a panel called Justice Stories, Resistance Stories and Just Good Stories for American Cultures at UC Berkeley, gave a presentation on Reading and Teaching Electronic Texts at the Conference on College Composition and Communication (aka 4Cs) in Las Vegas in March and attended a seminar given by Edward Tufte, just a few weeks ago. I have some things I’d like to say about the link between the 4Cs and the Storytelling panel, but I’ll save it for a different post.

Beautiful Design: indeed

Beautiful Design: indeed

Tufte I want to say a few things about here. I’ve been a fan ever since PowerPoint is Evil and will confess to using Tufte as a reason to not learn PowerPoint. I do think it’s ugly and I’ve seldom attended a presentation dominated by PowerPoint that I enjoyed (note to self: ref this in blog on 4Cs). This is not to say that I’ve never learned anything from those presentations, just that PowerPoint is generally unengaging.

Tufte did not dwell on his hatred for PowerPoint–we must all know it by now, yes?– but he did contrast PowerPoint with the web-page presentation, which he says is the 21st century presentation format. A couple of things (among zillions) I found really interesting was his description of PowerPoint “stacking” information in a way that gives the presenter total control and that out of, say, 25 slides, we usually want what is only on a few. And we are likely to forget a lot because what we need might very well be on slides 2, 14 and 21 and it is difficult to organize that during the presentation.

The web page, as he demonstrated by using some web sites that he finds particularly effective (the National Weather Service, ESPN and Google News), lets us access all of the information at once, focusing on what we need, as we are guided by the presenter to sections of the page as he refers to that content (Tufte uses a laser pointer). We are fully capable of scanning the web page and focusing on what we need; whereas the directive PowerPoint inhibits that ability. This rings true to me. I am persuaded.

But about making that web page . . . Tufte said, rather casually, that any good IT department should be able to make people 4-5 templates. This may be true for corporations and business, but I’m trying to imagine asking the IT folks at UC Berkeley to give me some templates. I’m not sure that’s a service they think is theirs to provide. But I haven’t inquired about it. So I’ll keep you posted on that.

I have more to say about Tufte (I realize as I write), but will end here with two points that I found immediately useful and also inspiring. Content is everything. The best design can never rescue bad content. His presentation is perhaps the ultimate demonstration of this principle.

He closed with some basic “how-to,” and I found his final point quite moving. He said that during “office hours,” which he held during the lunch break, many people had come up to him, rolling their eyes, and saying things like, “I have to give a presentation to the bean counters,” or “my bosses,” or “a committee” with a dismissive tone.

It is important to carry a good spirit into any presentation, says Tufte, making the point that a lot of filtering goes into the process of getting us into a room filled with colleagues, who we are, he says, perhaps more like than any other group than our families. This is a good reminder as I think about what I want to say at the upcoming faculty meeting.

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find your story: tell it

In preparing to teach CW 110–an advanced nonfiction writing class I teach at UC Berkeley–I glanced over an old syllabus and decided I needed to change it in large part because since I last taught the class three years ago, I’ve begun to use a lot more digital media. And as much as I love Phillip Lopate’s The Art of the Personal Essay, I didn’t want to use that book again (I’ve used it every time I’ve taught the class since I created it in 1998!). I’d recently purchased Dinty W. Moore’s Flash Nonfiction but wasn’t sure I wanted to require it as a text for the course. I began poking around on Brevity, thinking that students would enjoy many of the wonderful, very short essays published there. I not only found the essays I wanted to begin the semester with and bookmarked them in the class group on Diigo, but I also found the first assignment: Essay Contest Mystery and Memory.

As much as they eventually enjoy it, students at Berkeley often resist the narrative assignment. Most of them haven’t written narrative since the early years of high school, unless you count the restrictive, formulaic (by design) personal statements they write when they apply to college and grad school. But they’ve read plenty of them and can talk about their favorites and what they’ve learned from reading them, how certain images have stayed with them, how the voices of some writers still resonate with them. We talk about why narratives are so often assigned for them to read but seldom elicited from them as pieces of writing, a topic I spoke about in a recent panel for the American Cultures program at Berkeley– Justice Stories, Resistance Stories and Just Good Stories: Narrative and storytelling as critical pedagogy where I argued for a place at the University for our students’ stories.

Accustomed to reading the stories of important people with important stories, students don’t readily see the significance of their own. Until they begin writing them and reading their classmates’ drafts. At the end of the second draft session, I asked each student to choose a very short passage–no more than two sentences or so–from their draft partner’s essay to read aloud, without comment, to not even say why they had chosen the passage. Just read the title, the author’s name, the passage. As students read aloud, they gasped. The language was stunning, the experiences poignant, moving, humorous. When they heard even these brief excerpts of their own writing in someone else’s voice, their story came alive for them in a new way. More than one student commented that she wanted to read everyone’s narrative.

So they are blogging their narratives along with a brief reflective essay on the experience of writing the narrative. Students who submitted their essays to the Brevity contest will post them later, once a winner has been announced. Though I’m turning mine in late (the deadline was the 14th), I have finally posted it: 1979 almost ’80.

When we were talking about the assignment on the first day or so of class–before they had begun to write–one student expressed his concern that writing his story, sharing it with others, might reduce its significance to him as a special, valued moment in his life. I asked him to reserve judgment on that until after he had written it. As we moved through the draft stages and talked about the process of writing narrative, students spoke frequently about how they understood their stories in a different light as they wrote and revised them, how in writing the narrative, they understood things they hadn’t even thought about before putting the experience into words. They learned something about themselves from the experience.

Several years ago a young man who had taken the advanced writing class–a student who had struggled with his narrative, come to many office hours to look at drafts, avoided the writing–dropped in to my office hours to talk. A medical student at UCSF, he wanted to tell me the story of applying to medical school. He had interviewed at every school he wanted to attend, and that year he was the only Berkeley student to be accepted by all. He knew many of the other Berkeley students had better grades, more impressive internships and research positions. But he knew that during the interviews they were uncomfortable, wanted to impress, didn’t know what to emphasize as they responded to questions. What was different about him? His theory: he had learned to tell his story.

Doe Library, UC Berkeley

Doe Library, UC Berkeley

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saying “yes” when students ask “can i . . .”

I teach a variety of writing classes at UC Berkeley–two that fulfill the University’s Reading and Composition Requirement, an intermediate and an advanced writing class. The intermediate class–CW 105: Finding Your Voice with Others–is one in which students read current articles–academic and journalism–as well as a little theory–Marshall McLuhan, Walter Ong, David Post, Lawrence Lessig, Sherry Turkle, Anne Wysocki, etc–about new media and technology. Multimodal forms of expression are required, and students write reflective journals with each project submitted, thinking about how the use of technology affects the language we use. And they also think about design related issues: color, shape, image, platform.

One purpose of the course is to help students who have fulfilled the R&C Requirement continue to develop academic reading and writing strategies as they learn to hear, appreciate and deploy their own voices. Voice is a slippery concept. Most writing books and manuals take a kind of Grammar Girl approach, which is fine. It’s useful as a starting place. But students enrolled in 105 have read something like this already. Probably more than once.

While 105 is not a creative writing class (what kind of writing is not, in some sense, creative? question for another day), I do try to approach the concept of voice in a way that is about something more than style (while it is also, of course, related to style–see the concept begin to slip and slide?!). I use material that you might more often find in a creative writing course to get the discussion rolling. For example, I might use some passages from Finding Your Writer’s Voice, by Thaisa Frank and Dorothy Wall (a book I love): “Your voice is actually a very ordinary thing. It is just who you are, projected artistically. It is often linked to your speaking voice, and your breath, and the rhythms and sense of pace that you draw on when you are too absorbed in what you are saying to listen to yourself from a distance. It is also linked to your body, the language or dialect you spoke in childhood, and whatever naturally interests you. Your voice is how you write when you don’t have time to be elegant” (5). And later from the same chapter: “A search for voice must always involve a willingness to experience what you already know in a new light” (7).

And in 105 that new light often shines from new media. Students are using tools they have, for the most part, never used. They are writing in public. They are taking risks. And so when a student says to me, can I try, can I use, can have an extension, can I use I (yes, dear god, please use I–use it wisely, don’t over use it, but do not let writing at the University rob you of I). I say yes. We might have a brief discussion (depending on the question), but usually I say yes, try it; yes, you can turn it in late; yes yes yes.

I’m not an easy teacher, but I try to be a generous one.

How is yes rewarded? (okay, I’ll confess, sometimes it’s not; sometimes I should have probably said no: live and learn)

One of the tools students use is Prezi. Here is the product of Ylan Ha’s great imagination, a lot of “can I” and a lot of “yes.” The Iron Dove #1

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what is the elephant who is the elephant elephants are amazing: when the teacher is the distraction

Yesterday in class we were discussing Jo Kyung Ran’s amazing short story “Looking for the Elephant” and students were puzzled in a kind of urgent way about the elephant: who is the elephant what is the elephant is the elephant real. And I kind of blurted out (in a way we often don’t appreciate when our students do it), “Elephants are amazing. Do you know this? Do you know how amazing they are?”

There was a brief moment of silence. Then they all looked at their laptops and quietly started tapping away. “Are you googling elephants?” I couldn’t help but laugh. They laughed and nodded yes.

So we took about 20 minutes for some research time. Then we got back to the story: what is the elephant who is the elephant elephants ARE amazing.

Looking for the Elephant is in an anthology put together by the wonderful Words Without Borders.

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prezi on reading to write about fiction


I can’t believe how long its been since I blogged! Once the essays begin coming in, time disappears. Now it’s midterm already. But I spent a couple of hours today making a Prezi to use with my class tomorrow. I’m not entirely sure how it will be different from just having a discussion or handing this information out on a piece of paper. But I am trying to use more media that students who are absent can easily access (I uploaded this on bSpace–UC Berkeley’s course management system) and I think it might be more inviting to review than staring at a piece of paper. We’ll see.

Reading to Write about fiction

I’m using a book of short stories, essays and poetry published by the wonderful Words Without Borders for the first time. We all read one story in common–the story in the Prezi–and then students chose one on their own to discuss in class tomorrow. My plan is to use the Prezi for the discussion of “Children of the Sky,” give them some time to make connections between their story and Space and Place by Yi-Fu Tuan, the book I’m using to support the Landscapes of the Imagination theme of the course.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

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digital pedagogy for the digital age

Ok so I was always the student who did the assignment in some kind of wonky way. I guess I still am. I haven’t written an essay yet. But I did spend several hours making this Prezi called, yep, digital pedagogy for the digital age. In thinking about reading and writing digital texts, I wonder why I would write that essay (other than the fact that I said I would). But for my audience of teachers, the Prezi is more effective. I don’t need to demonstrate to them that I can do a close reading, and I have no use for them in any aspect of my life: reader (I seldom read those kinds of academic journals, though I do read a lot of critical book reviews, a kissing cousin, perhaps, to the close read); writer (don’t write’em), teacher of writing (I tend to read pragmatic articles on teaching). As Katherine Hayles notes in her book how we think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technologies, the close reading is largely an artifact of English Departments. I teach it because I used to believe that it was a useful thing for students to be able to do. Now I’m not so sure. I require students to write them because my department has a final portfolio requirement that one essay demonstrate close attention to text, a term that is vague in some ways but is meant to give a nod to the English Dept. type of “close reading,” while also freeing people (students and teachers) from the strict form of that essay. If close reading is still important for all college students to learn (and I’m not sure that it is), it has to be equally important that they learn to critically read electronic texts–from electronic literature (see two volumes collected by Electronic Literature) to various kinds of web pages and works produced on apps.

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