Tag Archives: Stephan Kanfer

Occupying the Time Machine

In 1895, H. G. Wells concocted an imaginary time machine
that hurled people into the future and back to the past.  Since then, that device
has been re-invented by sci-fi writers, film makers and scientists.  They
needn’t have bothered.  The time machine has already been in existence for more
than four hundred years. It’s called New York City.

Glimpses of the future can be seen in the blueprints of every
new skyscraper in every reconstructed neighborhood.  As for the latest instance
of ancient history, Exhibit A–the recent occupying of the onetime New School
for Social Research (now just the New School) located in Greenwich Village.

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What Fiction Do English Professors Assign?

The influential website Campusbooks displays a roster of “Popular Classics Textbooks” in fiction. The list offers an aperture into the minds of University English departments:

  1. Catch 22 by Joseph Heller
  2. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  3. Animal Farm by George Orwell
  4. The Rum Diary by Hunter S.Thompson
  5. Lord of the Flies by William Golding
  6. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  7. The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton
  8. Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
  9. A Separate Peace by John Knowles
  10.  Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut
  11.  Maus by Art Spiegelman
  12.  One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  13.  The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings by J. R.R.Tolkien
  14. The Stranger by Albert Camus

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Greatly Exaggerated Death of the Novel

Thomas C. Foster’s book is three years old, but it still holds the gold medal for Turnoff Title of the New Millennium: How to Read Novels Like a Professor. The author, who teaches English at the University of Michigan, attempts to sanitize his work with the subtitle, A Jaunty Exploration of the World’s Favorite Literary Form. But the damage is done. His title conjures up too many blackboard demands: “In Remembrance of Things Past is Marcel Proust saying farewell to high society, or suggesting that social milieus are a kaleidoscope of change? Discuss.”; “In Moby-Dick, the vessel that rescues Ishmael is called the Rachel. What is the significance of that Biblical name?” etc., etc., ad infinitum.

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Seeing Ghosts in Class

The Chronicle of Higher Education has just added a new nail to the coffin of American Academia. Lax admission policies, politically correct texts, underpaid assistants who do the teaching in place of the big name professors busy on their next books, incompetent management, to name just a few liabilities, are wrecking the once-proud reputation of many U.S. colleges and universities.
As if these were not enough, the Chronicle highlights another scandal in Academia. Using the nom de fraud Ed Dante, the author of “The Shadow Scholar” reveals himself as a man who “makes a good living” ghostwriting papers for a “custom essay company.” In plain English, this means coming up with papers on a variety of subjects, which are then peddled to lackluster students. Those students then attach their names to the essays, get good grades, and move on jobs in the private or public sectors.
Dante says he has “written toward a master’s degree in cognitive psychology and Ph.D. in sociology.” He has also contributed papers for courses in history, labor relations, pharmacology, theology, maritime security, marketing and ethics (!). In the midst of a deep recession, he burbles, “business is booming. At busy times, during midterms and finals, my company’s staff of roughly 50 people writers is not large enough to satisfy the thousands of students who will pay for our work and claim it as their own.”

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The Attack on Legacies

In every Marx Bros. movie, there occurs a moment when Harpo works himself up to a frenzy, hyperventilating, jumping up and down and crossing his eyes. These interludes never fail to beguile the viewer, even though they have nothing to do with the plot.
I was reminded of these Harpovian shenanigans when I came across Affirmative Action for the Rich: Legacy Preferences in College Admission (Richard D. Kahlenberg, Editor, Century Foundation , 304 pps). This a collection of essays expressing outrage at a practice, common to many first-, second- and third-tier colleges. These institutions have for decades (centuries in some cases) allowed underperforming high school students to be admitted to the freshman class because one of their parents was a graduate.
Manifestly this was unfair. Students with higher grades had been turned away because they didn’t have the advantage of a father or mother with an Ivy or Big Ten sheepskin. Yet the institutions of higher learning offered no apology for their autocratic ways; instead they presented a rationale. It was called Follow the Money. A prosperous parent was likely to make a generous donation to the place that allowed Junior to enter the hallowed halls, even though he failed geometry and had English SAT scores that placed him in the bottom third of his class. And since every school is always bemoaning its increasing debt, rising professorial salaries and benefits, and other fiscal responsibilities, what was wrong with welcoming a few “legacies” in order to pad the bottom line?

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