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Zen and the Art of the Course Description (19 February 2016)

Metathesis

Course descriptions bridge the gap between the university’s corporate model and the classroom’s pedagogical space, aiding in achieving satisfactory enrollment “numbers.” In this way, the description of a class has to do the work of both an advertisement and an infomercial, appealing to students as well as cuing them about the course’s content. Despite our idealistic desires about learning for learning’s sake that might suggest otherwise, it is important, then, that a course seem interesting or “fun” so that students will actually register for it. However, this can be a fine line to walk: if an instructor goes overboard with trying to make the course appealing, students who do take the course can end up with something like academic buyer’s remorse—feeling that the course they signed up for is not represented in the classroom they occupy. Typically, this means that the student expected to have a lot of fun and…

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TV Review: “The Shannara Chronicles”: “Utopia”

Events on The Shannara Chronicles continue to speed forward in “Utopia,” as Amberle and Wil set out to save Eretria from the clutches of the Elf-hunters and from a group of peace-seeking humans in a settlement called Utopia. Meanwhile, Ander must finally make the choice of whether to become the king that the Elves need, while Allanon braces for his final confrontation with the Dagda Mor.

While Wil and Amberle are supposedly the narrative and character center points of this series, this episode showed why both Eretria and Ander have always threatened to steal the show. Both are broken in their own way, she from the cruel and heartless treatment from her “father” Cephelo and he from the fact that he is the youngest, and most disappointing son of an illustrious dynasty. Now, they both have opportunities and risks to face. She ultimately has to decide whether she will throw her lot in with Wil and Amberle or stay with the (ultimately corrupt) denizens of Utopia. He must decide whether he will take up the mantle of kingship that was never meant to be his. In many ways, their drama seems to be much more compelling than that of Amberle and Wil, and while this may seem like a good thing, I’m not entirely sure it’s what the series intended.

In many ways, it’s hard to believe that we’ve almost reached the ending of this first (but hopefully not last) season of The Shannara Chronicles. We haven’t even attained the Bloodfire yet, and the Demons have yet to launch their all-out assault on Arborlon, and yet there are only two episodes left until the season is over. It seems like the series has opted to focus (understandably, given the way in which it conceptualizes its target demographic), on the personal rather than the epic scope. Unfortunately, this has the effect of sometimes emptying out the larger scale drama of its significance. This is not to say that the epic and the personal cannot be intertwined, only that the series has not been terribly effective at bringing them together.

While I liked the introduction of the sarcastically titled city of Utopia, this again felt like a plot twist too quickly resolved to have any lasting impact. We’re briefly introduced to yet another set of vaguely malicious and unscrupulous characters, only to have them consumed by Trolls at the end of the episode. While this sort of structure works to keep each episode moving along, it doesn’t really add up to anything, and the disappearance of the Demons from the narrative only exacerbates this narrative problem.

Speaking of Trolls…I’m still not entirely sure what to make of the series’ treatment of them. In the novels, the Trolls, while primitive in some respects, do have a solid social structure, and they don’t go about hunting and eating Elves. Given that, I’m not sure that the series will ever be able to do anything truly meaningful with them, but I could be wrong. Given the substantial role that Trolls play in several of Brooks’s later works, I sincerely hope that they give this particular Race more development in future seasons.

This was, all in all, a very satisfying episode, though I do worry that the last two episodes are going to feel rushed and therefore unsatisfying. Hopefully, should the series get a second season, the writers will develop a better sense of pacing and characterization, so that we don’t spend so much time in trite (and not very compelling) drama and move into the truly interesting bits at the heart of Brooks’s epic vision.

The Great Golden Girls Marathon: “The Triangle”

In today’s entry for the Great Golden Girls Marathon, we talk about the episode “The Triangle,” in which Dorothy meets a handsome and eligible doctor, only to have him make a pass at Blanche. This, of course, generates a rift between Dorothy and Blanche, one that is only healed when Rose, in a stroke of brilliance, unmasks the philanderer’s duplicity, after which the two women are emotionally reconciled.

This episode is a particularly important moment in the continuing development of the relationship among Blanche and Dorothy in particular. While there can be no denying the powerful affective bond between them (especially given the fact that they are eventually reconciled at the end), it’s clear that Dorothy always bears some measure of resentment toward Blanche. Blanche is everything that Dorothy both wants to be and also resents, and it is precisely because Blanche is so sexually voracious that Dorothy finds herself unable (or unwilling) to believe the truth about her lover’s behavior.

It is Rose, however, who deserves a great deal of credit in this episode. Say what you will about her, but Rose has two qualities that make her the binding glue of this group of women. She has a certain measure of wisdom (a product, paradoxically, of her naivete), and a faithfulness to her friends that for the most part is actually stronger and more consistent than that of the other two. It is only through her feigned seduction attempt that Dorothy learns the truth,

While I often write and reflect on the ways in which The Golden Girls spoke in a very subversive (and sometimes downright radical) mode about the pressing political and social issues of its day, writing these posts has also allowed me to see something else. The show spoke about the personal in a nuanced way that one does not often see in sitcoms (nor, when it comes to female friendship, in any genre). Most of us have been in a situation at least somewhat similar to that of these women, torn between loyalty to our friends and the one that we think we love.

There is something uniquely resonant about the fact that the heterosexual romance plots so frequently on offer in the show remain thwarted. In the end, most of the men the women encounter are not worthy of the affection that the women lavish on them, and they provide the means through which the four of them continue to build and reaffirm their bonds to one another. And how fitting that, in the end, it is Dorothy who at last finds her wish fulfilled.

Next up, we meet Blanche’s delinquent grandson David, a truly annoying character but one that reveals a great deal about the ways in which the women treat and think about the role of their children in their lives.

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A Ghost in the Machine: The Specter of Literature in EA’s Middle-Earth: The Shadow of Mordor (12 February 2016)

Metathesis

One of the most compelling aspects of studying literature is uncovering the ways society and popular media adapt, adopt, reboot, and reimagine classic literary texts and genres into “new” (and more marketable) media forms—for better or for worse. One of my favorite trans-media adaptations of the last few years has been Electronic Art’s 2014 videogame Middle-Earth: The Shadow of Mordor, an open-world adventure game that takes place in the rich, fantasy universe of J.R.R. Tolkien. This week I will be discussing how Tolkien’s literary texts literally “haunt” this videogame through the character Celebrimbor. Through this figure, I also consider what the ghostly presence of the book as an instance of “old media” can tell us about the future of fiction in an age of new media.

Media culture has its share of weak literary adaptations, some that distort or ignore the world of their origination, and some that are so…

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TV Review: “The Shannara Chronicles”: “Breakline”

Now that The Shannara Chronicles has finally discovered the meaning of momentum, things are happening at a pretty good clip. In this episode, the company is scattered (after their encounter with the Reaper). Amberle and Eretria discover a long-lost remnant of the Old World, while Wil gets assistance from Perk, a Roc-riding Elf. Meanwhile, Arion and Ander confront the Dagda Mor. Though Allanon arrives, fully healed, in time to save the younger prince, the elder son is killed by the Demon lord. Utterly bereft, Ander nevertheless manages to kill the Changeling. After a deadly encounter with the Elf-hunters, Amberle is saved by Wil, while Eretria falls into their hands.

The addition of Elf-hunters seemed a bit ham-handed, and the idea of them cutting off Elf ears in order to sell them to Gnomes verges on the silly. However, I’ve begun to notice that the series, understandably, has taken some of the larger threats portrayed in Brooks’s novel and channeled them into more human obstructions. While they don’t always pan out as well as the writers no doubt thought they would (the obvious sexual tension between Eretria and the Elf-hunter Zora seems designed to titillate more than add nunace to Eretria’s character), they are understandable responses to a limited budget.

Speaking of Eretria…she is slowly emerging as the most compelling and complexly drawn of the three young leads. She’s a broken person, and this quest seems to hold out the promise that she might somehow be able to put herself back together again. Those who have read the books know how her story ends up, but for those who don’t…well, I won’t give it away. I will say that the series does a great job of making us care about her, as well as inspiring in us a wish and a desire that she will somehow find happiness, whether or not that ends up being with Wil (who, by the way, didn’t seem to have much to do in this episode).

The revelation of the party hall was a nice touch, both appealing to the show’s target audience and also making clear the essentially ephemeral nature of both youth and human accomplishment more generally. It is one of the few genuinely reflective moments in the series so far, in which we as viewers are led to experience, at least for a moment, an almost terrifying sense of our own impending destruction. Could it actually be that we are trembling on the threshold of doom, all unknowing? It’s a frightening question, and I give the show a lot of credit for daring to ask it.

I was immensely pleased with Allanon’s healing scene, which allowed us a glimpse of his father and mentor Bremen. While not exactly as I imagined him, he is nevertheless a stern and imposing presence, and it is clear that he continues to exert a powerful (one might even say inexorable) force on Allanon’s life. While the younger Druid seems to feel overwhelmed by his burdens and by the refusal of those in the Four Lands to heed his warnings, Bremen reminds him that that is part of what it means to serve.

And I am also glad to see the Changeling storyline finally resolved and to finally get Arion out of the way. Ander is one of the series’ more fully-fleshed characters, and it will be interesting to see him change and develop into a king in his own right. After all, he now has the unenviable burden of overseeing the defense of the Elves and their homeland against the horde that is preparing to sweep down upon them.

All in all, I found this to be the most satisfying episode so far. There was a bit of everything on offer, and it did a great deal to not only move the plot forward, but also show us what the show can do when it really hits its stride. Let’s just hope they can keep that momentum going for the next three episodes.

Don’t Eat The Flatware: Balancing Instruction and Interpretation in the Classroom (5 February 2016)

Metathesis

For this month’s posts, I will focus on how engagement with social media, popular culture, film, and video games can inform the work we do in humanities classrooms. This week, I look at how criticism of humanities instruction on Reddit might help us understand why the practice of interpretation leaves some students with a negative impression of this field.

To do this, I want to examine one particular Reddit thread about the Oscars that quickly segued into a discussion about students’ expectations of interpretative arguments and pedagogical assessment in humanities classrooms. Initially, this forum comments on a controversy among Jada Pinkett Smith, Will Smith, Spike Lee, and Janet Hubert, Smith’s co-star on the ‘90s television series The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. This disagreement concerns celebrity reactions to the despairing lack of nominations of people of color for marquee positions at the last two Academy awards, which in turn has engendered…

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The Great Golden Girls Marathon: “Transplant”

In today’s entry, Blanche has to make the terrible choice about whether she should donate her kidney to her sister Virginia. Though it might seem like an easy choice for most people, the issue is complicated by the fact that Virginia and Blanche have long had an antagonistic relationship, exacerbated by the fact that Virginia ended up marrying the man that Blanche once loved.

It’s always amazed me how Blanche manages to be such a compelling and even likeable character, even though she is certainly one of the most self-centered characters to ever emerge in a sitcom. I mean, what kind of a woman has to think about whether she will donate her kidney in order to save her sister’s life? Yet before we condemn Blanche too vociferously, I think it’s worth dwelling on why Blanche would appear in such a way. I would make the case that she is an expression of our own collective desire to exhibit the kinds of behavior that she does. We all, whether we acknowledge it openly or not, secretly have a very selfish part to our personae, and Blanche allows us to vicariously indulge in precisely this sort of selfish behaviour from the safety of our living rooms.

Just as importantly, this storyline also showcases the ways in which the relationships between siblings (especially sisters) are often full of viciousness and snark, even as there may well be a kernel of genuine affection. Of course, the relationship between Virginia and Blanche will continue to be strained, and the breach will reopen when the latter returns home to mourn their father. Families are made up of messy individuals, and The Golden Girls is not afraid to show this fact in all of its ugliness.

What I find especially striking about this episode is the way in which Sophia acts as a sort of conscience. When Blanche expresses her uncertainty about whether she will in fact donate to Virginia, Sophia pithily remarks that she’s glad Blanche is not her sister, a stinging reminder of the selfishness of Blanche’s behavior, as well as a reminder of the different ways in which families work.

No review of this episode would be complete without praising Sheree North’s depiction of Virginia. She brings a certain measure of class, refinement, and even vulnerability to this role. Though many people probably would not recognize the name, North was quite an accomplished television actress and actually made appearances in a number of television series (including the great Gunsmoke). She certainly puts those abilities to good use in The Golden Girls.

Next up, the women face the greatest challenge yet to their friendship, in the person of a flirtatious suitor.

 

Coda: The Human in the Humanities (29 Jan. 2016)

Metathesis

My first semester of grad school was kind of a wreck: I was constantly sick, my nerves were bound tight with anxiety, and my back and wrists were in pain from the Soviet-era metal chair-desks in a basement classroom. None of this was helped by the ideological distress I found myself in. Two pieces of scholarly advice that found their way to me that semester still linger with me: one, there’s no such thing as the human condition; and two, your graduate program will tear you apart and remake you in its image.

A photo of a metal classroom chair with tiny desk attached at the armrest. The chairs were still the worst part, though.

In the classroom, I mentally conceded the probable truth of the first one. My undergrad philosophy classes taught me that we have no good definition of “human.” And the conditions people live in vary so radically that there can’t really be a universal one: the Elizabethans understood the…

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TV Review: “The Shannara Chronicles:” “Pykon”

Note:  Spoilers for the episode follow.

In the most recent episode of The Shannara Chronicles, the small company heading toward the Bloodfire confronts a pair of deranged recluses in a mountain fortress, Allanon struggles with both the seer and the increasing power of the Dagda Mor, and Ander finally sees for himself the enormous forces gathered to sweep across the Westland.

While I really, truly do like this show, I often find myself frustrated with the choices it makes in terms of narrative and dramatic construction. While I’m totally okay with changes being made to the show for the sake of clarity and increased drama, it doesn’t make any sense to me why they would introduce characters that do not appear in the books (in this case, the deranged recluse and his mentally scarred daughter), other than to act as mere titillation. After all, they are both dead by the end of the episode, so one is left wondering:  what, exactly, was the point of what just transpired? I can’t help thinking that the narrative space taken up by this rather superfluous storyline would have been better used to beef up some of the other plot threads that are, in the main, infinitely more interesting.

However, this episode did give us a little more information about Eritrea, who makes an attempt at seduction of Amberle. While I’m sure some will read this as mere pandering, I actually think it adds a layer of complexity to her. She is gradually emerging as a young woman scarred from the years under Cephelo’s cruel and uncaring hand, and as such she wants to find affection wherever she can. This scene also sets the stage for an emerging dynamic among the three leads. No matter what happens, it’s almost a certainty that at least one person is going to end up getting very hurt.

I am also increasingly impressed by the growing relationship between Ander and the Gnome Slanter. Although Slanter doesn’t actually enter the Brooks’ universe until the book The Wishsong of Shannara, it’s actually a little nice to see him here in this narrative. He actually seems to be a fairly complex and contradictory character. Of course, it remains to be seen in what ways his arc will continue to develop, though we can hope that he will take a leading role in the fight against the demons.

Of course, the biggest shock of the night was the seeming death of Allanon. The Changeling continues to sow chaos throughout the royal palace and beyond. I’m still not entirely sold on this particular storyline, as it seems to raise more questions and narrative challenges than it solves, but I suppose I just have to have hope that the writers have a larger game plan in mind. Though Allanon didn’t get a great deal of air time in this episode, I am absolutely confident that he will come to the fore again as the final confrontation with the Dagda Mor and his armies at last comes to pass.

So, was this a great episode? No. However, it did lay the groundwork for what is to come, and I sincerely hope that the writers finally figure out what they are doing and finally get to the meat of the story they want to tell.

The Great Golden Girls Marathon: “Rose the Prude”

In the third episode of the first season, the dynamic among the women has already started to settle. It never ceases to amaze me how serendipitous it was that this cast came together in just the right way, so that they complement rather than contradict one another. It’s not just that they are archetypes (though the case could be made that they are), but rather that they are four complex individuals who somehow manage to mesh with one another.

This is on evidence in this episode, as Rose has to struggle with finally moving on from her dead husband and find new romance. Ultimately, after a great deal of struggle (and no small amount of encouragement from her friends), she at last opens herself up to intimacy with another man.

However, the Rose that most people remember hasn’t yet emerged fully-fledged just yet. This Rose is naive, and she does tend to tell stories, but she hasn’t quite gained the consistency that she will in later episodes. I would actually characterize her as more slightly dim and innocent, not quite the good-hearted but incredibly foolish person she will become (I struggle to find a term to quite characterize her lack of intelligence, but haven’t yet found one that’s satisfactory).

At the same time, Rose has already emerged as the most vulnerable of the four women, and the one who has had the most difficulty moving on from her deceased husband. The title, to my mind, is something of a misnomer. It’s not so much that Rose is a prude; it’s that she hasn’t quite adapted to the newer standards of womanhood inhabited by the other characters. In that respect, this is a crucial episode for her development as a character, as she at last rediscovers the sexual side of her personality. She at last recognizes that just because she is a widow does not mean that she can’t enjoy the pleasures of her body.

Of course, this relationship will, like so many others in the series, remain transitory, a brief pit-stop that serves as fodder for the women to analyze and bond over. However, it is worth noting that this series remains exemplary in the way in which it shows older people (men, but especially women) still very much interested in having sex outside of marriage and with no shame. Given that this series emerged during the Backlash era, such an ethos is no small accomplishment.

On a slight side-note, it’s an interesting tidbit that Harold Gould (Arnie), would later appear in the series as Rose’s beloved Miles. As with Edelman and Arthur, there is an undeniable chemistry between Betty White and Gould, one that would only reach its fruition when he returned as Miles.

Next time we will talk about the tense relationship between self-centered Blanche and her nemesis, her sister Virginia.