Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Integrated Studies: Topics Courses

I'm wondering, this morning, as I walk the dog soon after sunrise, looking north across Utah Valley, if it is even possible to do work so focused that it doesn't involve some kind of interdisciplinarity. Scientists talk disparagingly about people they call "one mugs," teachers/researchers who are able to do only a single, tightly focused thing. But we don't see many of those kind in successful positions in academics or business or the professions. These days, even a proctologist works with an interdisciplinary team. And even a white-haired professor of Integrated Studies has to learn how to take photos with a digital camera and to post the images to a blog.

The assumption that most topics or real-life problems have to be addressed with a set of diverse tools is the basis for the Integrated Studies Program, where we teach methods of interdisciplinary research in our topics classes and where each student produces an interdisciplinary thesis.

For instance, here's a list of our courses for this year:

Fall 2007:
  • Death and Dying
  • American Modernism
  • Evolutionary Ecology
  • Language, most dangerous of possessions
  • India: Hindu Philosophy and Art
Spring 2008:
  • The American West
  • Death and Dying
  • Behavioral Economics
  • East Asian Buddhist Literature
Our purpose is not to make sure every student has studied Hindu Art or Behavioral Economics, but rather to model topical research that reaches across disciplines for the tools it needs. The language class, for instance, is looking at poetry, linguistics, religion, history, politics, semiotics, philosophy, film, at the language of photography as opposed to and as similar to the language of painting, and at who knows what else to think about the ability to create and think in images that so wonderfully and horrifically separates us from other species. .

The Spring class on the American West will similarly draw on various disciplines to think about a region that is as mythical as physical: literature, geology, history, cultural studies, and art (see the Maynard Dixon painting above -- Dixon was married to the photographer Dorothea Lang, had a house in southern Utah, and obviously witnessed skies like the one I saw this morning).

Our majors take two of these courses as a required part of the major; but the topics are so engaging that we draw a lot of students who are not majors as well. For instance, the ongoing course on Death and Dying, taught by certified Thanatologist Nancy Rushforth and Professor Reba Keele, appeals to a wide range of human beings, all of whom must respond to these issues.

So, take a look at the Spring offerings and join us for one of our cross-border trips.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Melancholia's Dog

Last year, a friend from graduate school, Alice Kuzniar, published a book she called Melancholia's Dog: Reflections on Our Animal Kinship .

The University of Chicago Press, Kuzniar's publisher, notes that "Dog love can be a precious but melancholy thing. . . . In addition to philosophy and psychoanalysis, Alice A. Kuzniar turns to the insights and images offered by the literary and visual arts—the short stories of Ivan Turgenev and Franz Kafka, the novels of J. M. Coetzee and Rebecca Brown, the photography of Sally Mann and William Wegman, and the artwork of David Hockney and Sue Coe."

In short, this is an interdisciplinary book, its author driven by topical necessity to draw on what the U of C Press lists as its fields:
  • ART: Art--General Studies
  • BIOLOGICAL SCIENCES: Natural History
  • LITERATURE AND LITERARY CRITICISM: General Criticism and Critical Theory
  • PHILOSOPHY: General Philosophy
In the context of Albrecht Durer's etching "Melancholia," Alice probes connections between human depression and the dogs that accompany and cause and ameliorate depression.

The book is (also) autobiographical, as any of Alice's whippets could tell you. Take a look.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Alex and me and the M that marks The Mothers

So we come out of class, Integrated Studies 3500, Humanities 320 R, Communications 350R, "Language, most dangerous of possessions." Alex has just lectured on/performed Mallarme, the poem "A Throw of the Dice," about the kinds of meaning we create with our sounds/words, meanings that are constellations painted on the non-narrative starry sky.

We walk to my office and can't quit talking about meaning and constellations. I pull the German/Czech poet Rilke's "Duino Elegies" off my shelf, a translation done by Alex's and my old friend and Welsh poet Leslie Norris:

Who can show us a child as he really is? Who
can send him among the constellations and let him stretch
his hand among the wide distances? . . .

As for us, we are spectators, always and everywhere,
turned to the universe, with no access!
It overwhelms us. We organize it. It falls apart.
We order it again, and fall apart ourselves. . . .

And above that, the stars. New stars, of the land of Sorrow.
Solemnly she names them: --There,
look: The Horseman, The Staff, and that full constellation
we call: The Wreath of Fruit . . .
And in the southern sky, unblemished as in the palm
of a saintly hand, the clear, luminous 'M'
that marks The Mothers. . . .

I point at the 'M.'
Alex points at the 'M.'
Don LaVange snaps his shutter.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Language and Reality: The Case of Nevada

Fall Break. Road Trip. Lyn, Blue and I in the Subaru.

For purely historical reasons (she's a Ph.D. Historian, for god's sake), Lyn has always wanted to drive Nevada's ET Highway. For the sake of Nevada's system of breathtaking ranges and basins (I'm a completely rational literary critic), I went along. For food and companionship, Blue (who is a yellow dog), came too.

At the east end of the Highway, we encountered a sign offering a grammatically curious product. Do they mean fresh alien? Fresh like an alien?

Is it cannibalism to eat alien jerky? Felt like it to me, and suddenly the honey and pickles didn't seem like such good ideas either.

Headed west, after sorting out the woman/man signals for "might we please stop here for a photo" and "of course, sweetie," which served us better than "I can't read your @#$%&* mind" and "you stupid patriarch," we played with thoughts of aliens and felt the secret presence of of Area 51 to the south while noting that it was not at all present on our Nevada State Map.

U2's "How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb" on the CD player, followed by Bill Frisell's "The Willies."

Once conspiratorial vibes get going, it doesn't take much to look through the spiny arms of a Joshua tree to the dirt road down in the basin leading from the ET Highway southwest to a "Wild Mustang Management Area" butted up against what you know is the super-secret government installation (even the word "installation" raises hair on the back of my neck) and to think you had better hide your camera after taking the photo because the Bushies probably had Cannon Camera Company put a GPS device in the camera and don't need a FISA warrant to commence waterboarding.

But as a purely rational literary critic (emphasis on German literature from Goethe to Handke), I'm not about to give in to conspiracies. I swear to enjoy the desert. I chuckle at the popular culture of aliens grown up in the cold-war Fifties. Lyn and her colleague Kat Brown have been teaching their History of the Cold War class this semester, and I've been subjected to a lot of bad movies featuring giant ants and spiders mutated by atomic testing and/or the Reds. It's all so predictable.

And in fact, the tarantula that stilted across the highway was no bigger than my hand, perfectly natural.

People have a good time with all this, and Lyn has read up on the phenomenon (for purely historical reasons, of course). So when we pass "the" mailbox, I have to turn around and get a photo of Blue in front of the alien's PO Box.

The road winds through a range, twists back and forth to accommodate the geology on display, requiring a sign that warns drivers to slow to 55 MPH. Beneath the warning, a sign pasted on the sign tells passersby to


Winding road through the ranges. Straight road across the basins. Counter-cultural drivers weaving on the straights and cutting across the curves. I'd love to see this from the air.

And then we arrive at Rachel: ground zero for the alien jerky crowd, home for the Area 51
theorists, sales outlet for alien paraphenalia. I walk Blue across the desert floor while Lyn piles mugs and bumper stickers and green inflatable aliens and posters and buttons and who know what else next to the cash register (gathering data for the cultural study she's engaged in -- no question about it).

Feeling more than a little disturbed by the swarm of yellowing bumper stickers pasted to the bar inside (Blue had pooped twice and more than deserved the porkdoggysausage I left him with in the car), every one of them devoted either to gun rights a la "triggers don't kill people, fingers do" or to an utter and evidently universal distaste for Bill Clinton -- the most tasteful of which were "I miss Ronnie and Nancy. Hell, I even miss Jimmy and Rosalynn" and "Impeach Clinton, and her husband too," we fled Rachel for the open road.

Look at the hawk, Lyn said, pointing up through the windshield.

I located a large bird hanging in the sky. But it was more compact than a bird, probably a much larger object at more of a distance. And it just hung there, not moving. My heart beat faster. I stared intently at the object, gathering all the sensory data I had access to. It made no sense, hanging there, not moving, black and compact. It's an alien craft! I told Lyn, just as it swerved sharply to the left.

Quickly joined by another jet fighter, the plane swept low over the desert floor, quickly disappearing behind the next range of mountains.

And I, the rational literary critic, was left with a heart that gradually slowed.

Do the stories we tell affect what we see? Even the inflatable green stories?

Who are the real aliens here? Lyn asked.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Caldiero, Carrier, and Bowden: An Unholy Trinity

"Scott has reported from the Far East," Bowden said, "and Alex has reported from Outer Space. Now I'll report from the Mexican/American border."

I've been wondering just what Charles Bowden might have meant when he began his reading after having heard Alex Caldiero and Scott Carrier last Friday at UVSC.

There's a way that all three readers/performers reported from outer space. They dislocated us. They displaced our minds. They surprised and shocked and delighted and concerned and generally worked over our accepted ideas till we were less sure of ourselves and more sure of what needed to be done in Burma and Juarez and the USA.

Carrier and Bowden had that effect through what they taught us about their respective catastrophes (and by means of their very different but equally remarkable voices). Caldiero disconcerted and regaled our minds and emotions by working on the border of the articulate and the inarticulate, that place where sounds become words and words slip back into sound. Sicilian, Spanish, and English alternated with the vibrations of a Jewsharp, with the grunts and raspings, chants and sibilant whispers that only Alex can conjure.

Incantations, Ken Sanders claimed, after Vegor pointed out that Alex's bag of tricks were straight out of Aleister Crowley's book of magick.

For 90 minutes, Utah Valley State College was the center of the universe.

More thoughts on photos and meaning

Over the weekend I've been thinking more about photos, those historical/artistic records we figure will outlast us but that, in the most important sense, are as brief as our faces (John Berger).

The examples I gave of knowledge I had of the people in the 1966 photo of young men and airplanes at Lake Powell, knowledge that supposedly would disappear when I do, weren't as good as they might have been. I listed names and professions and what became of some of us after the photo was taken.

Better examples might have been taken from the thinking I've been doing while trying to read the photo for some writing I'm doing.

I was in Boise, for instance, following traces left by my brother John before he died of AIDS in 1992, when I stepped right into Larry Echohawk's campaign for Governor. The contrast between his extremely public and successful life and John's death in a cheap apartment across the street from the State Capitol was painful. Those thoughts and memories create an aura (see Walter Benjamin) that no one besides me can experience.

The future Mayor of Farmington is interesting to me because of his role in the 1974 demonstrations by Navajos in Farmington after three Navajo men were tortured and killed by Farmington High School students. The Mayor, a kind and gentle and generous man, excoriated the Federal Civil Rights Commission's "Farmington Report" as the product of a socialist government and claimed there was no racism to speak of in our red-neck, oil-boom town.

I look into the faces of the five generous men who have brought us here in their airplanes, I look at our faces, and I try to trace present and future beliefs and affiliations. I scan the photo most intensely for explanations of the racism that raises its ugly head at the most awkward times in my own psyche indelibly formed by this and other events tied to my home town.

"And our faces, my heart, brief as photos."