Sunday, October 27, 2013

Genre v. "Literary"

My wife mentioned to me this morning that someone did a study somewhere that proved people who read literary fiction were more empathetic than readers of genre fiction.

This study proves a number of things.

1. Researchers have completely run out of pressing matters about which to research.

2. There are people out there who believe that empathy is a testable thing, and that empathy reveals itself in fixed ways. They believe that empathy is simple, and a quick test reveals universal truths about people.

3. There are people out there who believe that literary fiction is not a genre itself. They believe that if a story has an enigmatic ending with a character who may or may not have grown and is meant to reveal complex human truths it somehow resists the rules that define what genre is. As though this is not a rule in and of itself.

4. There are people who believe that all genre books are the same.

5. There are people who believe that if a book is written for a particular group and that group isn’t who they think are the important people, then that book is less good. They believe that a book written specifically for women is less good than one that is not. They believe that a book written for a thirteen year old boy is less good than one that is not.

6. There are people who think that romance novels, while escapist, are not capable of teaching empathy. They believe this of horror, scifi, and mystery too along with a large group of other genres.

7. There are people who think that escapism is a bad thing and that literary fiction does not include elements of that.

Don’t get me wrong. I write literary fiction too, and the main focus of my career has been poetry although I’m trying to jump to crime now. These kinds of proclamations annoy me to no end. What kind of thing are those researchers trying to prove? What could their goal possibly be?

Monday, October 14, 2013

I Hate Teacher Movies!

I met a couple of retired police officers who told me why they hated cop shows, couldn’t watch them. The cliches were just too unrealistic. No police officer would ever act in that way.

It got me thinking about my own profession, teaching. I’m a professor at a community college, and I never thought there was much mystery to what I did, but apparently there is. I cannot watch movies about teachers. They make me so very very angry for a number of reasons, but the cliches put forth in them make me think the general public has no idea what teachers go through. Here’s a list of the worst of them:

1. Teaching isn’t about the money.

Imagine the scene in any number of movies. Robin Williams goes home to his little hovel. All day long he’s been fighting with bureaucrats who flat out hate all students and teachers. They’ve been insulting and condescending for the worst possible reasons. The students have been fighting, doing the foolish things that they do, and now his reward is to come home to his mini one-bedroom apartment and stare out the window, wondering how he can get through to these kids. A single tear drop slowly works its way down his cheek, but he’s fighting the good fight even if he lives in a dump and has to even buy his books used.

“Teaching isn’t about the money” is something I hear not only in the movies, but in news reports, on the radio, and from people who don’t teach. Of course, it’s about the money, at least in part. Teaching is a really difficult job, and although I love it, and I never expect to get rich, I would like to be able to afford a two bedroom apartment and a decent meal just like everyone else.

People don’t make this claim about any other profession. Sure, there’s nobility in teaching, but there’s nobility in medicine and the law too, and no one’s asking doctors and lawyers to forgo a decent paycheck. You don’t ever get the scene of Sam Waterson going back to his tiny RV and sipping a thin cup of tea from a tea bag that’s been used and reused.

Up yours, Robin Williams!

2. Teacher and Administrators Are Natural Enemies

How many times have I seen a movie administrator with a cynical smirk on his face talking about how he has bigger concerns? I’ve worked with a lot of deans, vice presidents, presidents, board members, and others. Some of them have been terrible people. But no more so than anyone else in any field. Mostly they are kind, intelligent people trying to do the hard job of helping students to learn. Most of them are former teachers who thought they could make a bigger difference by guiding the school.

They make more money than teachers do. That’s because it’s not as fun as teaching, and they need to be recruited into that profession in some way.

They’re at odds with teachers during contract negotiations. Of course they are. That’s their job.

They’re not a group of evil yes men bent on conformity any more than the teachers who are supposed to be heroic are.

3. Good Teaching Requires a Great Deal of Loss for the Teacher

Michelle Pheiffer goes into the class full of kids who need her so desperately. The only way to get through to them is to first put herself on the line physically. She has to fight! Oh, she might take a beating, be permanently disabled, killed even, but if that’s what it takes, it’s a small price to pay. Somehow, she stands up to them and lives, but she doesn’t bother to get help from security. No, earning their respect was enough. Now it’s time for the second loss. Now, she must meet students and tutor late into the night. That’s fine. She doesn’t have kids. She doesn’t want free time. Dating, pfff! She’s a teacher damn it and that means sacrifice across the board.

I think Hollywood thinks that when people become teachers they have entered a kind of priesthood. They have accepted the idea that their life is over, and they will now devote themselves to the prospect of slow death so that others might learn.

Are they out of their minds? When people treat teaching in this way, they burn out fairly quickly just as anyone would burn out working these kinds of hours under these kinds of conditions. You can’t teach well if everything is always sacrifice.

Anyway, I know these cliches make for a more dramatic movie and that people love them. I understand why people love them. It’s just that I can’t watch teacher movies any longer.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Three More Habits of Highly Effective Readers

A few weeks ago, I wrote about three habits of highly effective readers -- habits that made readers look like good people, well adjusted people. I think that this view of readers is common, but the truth is that we have some pretty bad habits as well, habits we cultivate because of our obsession -- books.

1. Highly effective readers are slothful.

We don’t look like we’re slothful, do we? To the outside world, it looks like we’re always engaged in bettering ourselves, making sure that we’re getting smarter, furthering our education. And that’s all true, but it’s also true that we’re not reading for any of those reasons. We read because it’s fun for us.

I’m often faced with a friend or student who is overly impressed with how much I read. The person says something to the effect of, “Man I can’t believe how much time you put into that. I really admire that.”

Why disabuse those people of that idea. If you’re like me, you’ll just nod wisely and keep your mouth shut.

2. Highly effective readers are rude.

We read at the dinner table. We read during high school graduations. We read at social functions. We put on audiobooks in the car instead of what our friends want to hear. We read during coffee breaks at work instead of listening to the latest office gossip. Is Tom having an affair with Nancy in HR? Who cares? Scarlett is marrying Rhett down at the library.

On top of everything else, we’re thinking about Rhett and Scarlett as we’re doing dishes and laundry and going about our otherwise mundane lives. When you come up to us and talk to us and see that rather glazed look on our face, don’t be fooled. We’re not paying attention. We’d like to pay attention. That’d be nice. We just don’t have it in us.

3. Highly effective readers are gluttonous.

Maybe this is just me, but the only thing that goes better with a book than tea is tea and a sleeve of Fig Newtons. And the moment I’ve lost myself in a book, I tend to forget everything else including the fact that I’ve just eaten the first sleeve. And the package comes with two sleeves. Ah, well.

And let’s face it. When given the choice of finding out what happens to Rhett and Scarlett and going down to the gym where you can’t really focus well on the book you just started, the gym generally loses out.