Good Colleagues Doing an Impossible Task

I volunteered to lead our annual departmental writing assessment session this year, in which a group of faculty sit together in a room and read sample student essays selected by some magic algorithm known only to the dean in charge of university-wide assessment — or perhaps only to his chief elf. It can be a pretty mind-numbing task as the hours roll by, but I have to say that today’s session was the most pleasant I’ve attended. Perhaps because there is a modest stipend for the job, mostly junior faculty volunteer and we have a particularly fine group of assistant professors in the department at the moment; and perhaps it was because I was nominally in charge of the operation; but the real difference from earlier sessions was the absence of several control-freak senior colleagues whose certainty about the nature of college writing they felt compelled to impose on others. Endless argument over meaningless details. Today, we were so efficient we even developed a set of notes for improving the process in the future.

Assessment, of course, is all the rage in education policy circles these days. The result is mostly a dreary proliferation of standardized tests at the K through 12 level and an equally dreary emphasis on “outcomes assessment” in higher education, in which the outcomes must be quantifiable. The problem is that lots of meaningless things can be quantified and stuck in spread sheets and made to look significant when the truth is that the numbers say little or nothing about the experiences students are actually having with texts and ideas. I think it is perfectly reasonable for students and their families, and even state and federal government agencies who fund education, to ask colleges to assess the relative success or lack of success they are having in educating students; but my notions about what constitute success are probably not what they are thinking of in the dean’s office or in the high councils of the education bureaucracy. Continue reading


I’m about 90% certain I shared a house with this guy in Seattle in 1971. The guy I knew was calling himself Blake (not Dwight) Armstrong & was a good guitar player. He introduced me to some of the old Seattle Wobblies & seemed to know a lot about the Weather Underground, too. (I remember him talking briefly, once, about “self-criticism sessions.” Clearly, he was too much an anarchist to go in for that sort of Maoist groupthink. Liked red wine & marijuana, but then we all did. The photo looks a lot like the person I knew, but I could be wrong. The juice cart / deli detail in the story also makes a connection — my roommate was into health foods long before they became a counter-culture staple. We got along pretty well: played some tennis at the park near the house, hung out a bit, but it was pretty clear he considered me hopelessly bourgeois — loaned me a copy of Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man, still an important book in my view. And I wonder what ever happened to Bruce Altman, a mad musician who also shared that house and later, after I was married, slept on my couch for three weeks before I helped him commit himself to an inpatient psychiatric facility. He’d been picking up secret messages from the radio late at night informing him about the impending revolution. Madness picks up the spirit of the times, I guess. My own madnesses were aesthetic & sexual; in other words, I was hopelessly bourgeois. They were friends of my youth & I miss them.

Imperial by William Vollmann (1)

I think I need to keep a journal of my reading of this book. It is that big a world. I’ve reached page 108, near the end of a chapter Vollmann calls “Subdelineations: Lovescapes (2001),” the first of several chapter titles that begin with the word subdelineations that appear to be more personal in nature than the other chapters that, so far, have functioned, sometimes literally, as delineations of Imperial (the book) & of Imperial County, an arid place in California. The book is both an attempt at knowledge and even understanding of this particular place as well as an admission of the impossibility of anything like the complete knowledge of a place, which would have to be, Vollmann notes, the sum total of all the people who have looked at it or lived in it however long or briefly. This first subdelineation is about the breakup of a love affair: Vollmann tells the reader that his lover of many years has left him. “I just can’t take this anymore,” she says, but we never know what this consists of. The author, wisely, I think, doesn’t say. Vollmann probably doesn’t know either; or he both knows and doesn’t know. What he does know is how it makes him feel and that is what this chapter is about. In order to understand Imperial (To italicize or not? County in California or book?), the reader must understand the author’s life in the place and his life in the book. It takes courage to write this way. This particular chapter is rawly emotional, but that’s only part of what I mean; it take aesthetic courage to believe so throughly in the inclusive principle of literary composition that you include what happened to you as you wrote the book. It’s impossible of course because it leads to an endless recursion, which is one definition of madness. Vollmann courts madness, but is one of the lucky few who are saved by the demands and strictures of his art. I like Vollmann. I admire his impulse toward the exhaustive. Reminds me a little of Norman Mailer, but without Mailer’s brittle machismo.

The Salton Sea

I mentioned the Salton Sea in my previous post about Marisa Silver’s novel and I’ve just run across a documentary about the sea, Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea, produced and directed by Chris Metzler and Jeff Springer and narrated by John Waters. It is not a particularly innovative piece of documentary film making, but it presents a portrait of the place and its people that may be of interest even to people who haven’t been there. There is a political undertone having to do with the allocation of water from the Colorado River, but the film doesn’t do much more than mention it. I’ve also begun reading William Vollmann’s massive study, Imperial, which undertakes an exhaustive description of its eponymous California county, in which the Salton Sea figures prominently. Vollman’s 1000 page book was published with a companion volume of the author’s photographs, which I have also now got on hand. Going back to my roots, you might say — however parched and salt-encrusted they may be. Some people find Vollmann’s meandering prose irritating, but so far I am charmed by it. Give me another six or seven hundered pages & we’ll see!

The God of War by Marisa Silver

I bought this novel because it is set very near to places I grew up in Southern California. Specifically, the novel is set in Bombay Beach, next to the Salton Sea in Imperial County, California. The book catches the desolation of the place and of the people who live there in language of Sopheclean directness. My grandfather lived in the Imperial Valley from around 1900 until his death at 94 about thirty years ago & I spent many school vacations baking in the 100 degree heat. No landscape moves me as much as that of western Imperial County, with its bare mountains of tumbled rock descending to the sandy floor of the valley. It is surely among the poorest counties in the state, same as the one I live in now, in Northern New York — both are far from the center, affording people greater freedom (of a certain kind) as well as greater risks than wealthier, more settled places nearer the capitals. The greatest risk, perhaps, is loneliness.

Silver’s novel demonstrates what can be accomplished with the basic materials of realist narrative and style. The story is recounted by Ares, now an adult but recalling events that occurred when he was twelve. The plot is rigorously chronological and the prose limpid and without a hint of authorial narcissism. Ares and his younger half-brother Malcolm, who is severely autistic, live with their single mother in a trailer in Bombay Beach, on the Salton Sea. Laurel, the boys’ mother, has fled the pieties and restraints of a Midwestern childhood and come to rest in the desolation of Imperial County. The novel’s plot is too delicate a machine to summarize, but from the opening pages it is apparent that some terrible event will divide the characters’ lives into a stark before and an after. If the heroes of the Greek theater were doomed by the capricious but implacable decrees of the Gods, the ordinary people in this story are propelled toward their fates by the implacability of mere chance. But Ares, the god of war, discovers comes to rest in the strength bestowed by integrity — his mother’s, his brother’s, and his own.