What I’m reading: November 2021

Some bite-sized thoughts and reflections on the items I’ve been reading, listening to, or watching this month. 
 
Also: Did you read, watch, listen to, play something this month that you particularly enjoyed? Feel free to share in the comments! I’m always looking for recommendations.
 
Note: The following post contains spoilers for the following: Eternals, Midnight Mass on Netflix, and Station 19 on ABC/Hulu.
 

What I’m reading for work

 
Consider This by Chuck Palahniuk: This is the first book I’ve ever read by Chuck Palahniuk, who is probably most famous for writing Fight Club (the book on which the movie was based). Because of what I know about Fight Club (other than that you should never talk about Fight Club) and some of his other work, I’d always had the impression that Palahniuk was an aggressively male writer who sort of sneers at readers who might clutch their pearls at raunchy or violent stories. That’s probably the main reason why I avoided his stuff even though I enjoy works by similar writers like Irvine Welsh (who wrote Trainspotting…and the sequel, Porno…and the sequel to the Trainspotting movie, T2, which is not based on Porno). Anyway. All this to say that these impressions, coupled with my recent feelings of burnout when it comes to books about writing, did not make me optimistic about how I would feel about this book. But actually I liked it a lot. I’m not sure why. It’s not that much different from a lot of the other writing books I’ve read lately. Some of the advice Palahniuk gives is in direct contradiction to the advice in some of these other books (including his ideas about using gestures as spacer between dialogue, which he is in favor of) but he still visits a lot of the same stations of the cross that other writing book authors do (…The Great Gatsby, Hemingway, blah blah blah) and there’s nothing here that’s radically different from what you’d read anywhere else. But I do like how Palahniuk frames a lot of his advice as stuff he learned from his own writing mentor and then used successfully in his own work and notices in the works of others. The tone is someone passing on wisdom rather than, like in a lot of writing books, handing down dictates of what is Good (aka literary) and what is Bad (aka commercial). Palahniuk’s views are especially interesting because I think his work (which, again, I haven’t read) tends to straddle the line between literary and commercial so he doesn’t seem to be quite as married to the idea that literary fiction is the One True Fiction as other writing book authors are. Also, there’s an anecdote about Stephen King in here that I am not going to forget any time soon. 
 

What I’m watching for fun

Eternals: As a longtime MCU fan who also runs an MCU Rewatch Discussion Group online (come join us!), Eternals is a movie that I’ve been especially excited about ever since hearing some of the early casting announcements a couple of years ago. I knew absolutely nothing about the comic book characters the movie would be based on or any of their associated relationships or storylines. All I cared about was that: a) I might finally have proof that Sebastian Stan and Richard Madden are not the same person(1) and b) Robb Stark and Jon Snow would finally be reunited. Alas, I ended up only getting about half of one of those things.(2) But weirdly enough, I still enjoyed the movie–much more than I thought I would after reading so many tepid and occasionally hostile reviews of it in the weeks leading up to its release. Is it the most exciting Marvel movie ever? No. Does it somehow manage to make actors as magnetic as Salma Hayek and Angelina Jolie fade into the background? Yes. Does everyone in the movie look kind of dumb in their superhero costumes? Yeah, kinda. But what you have to understand about me is this: I love it when characters talk about their feelings and relationships. Seriously. If the third Captain America movie had been nothing but Steve and Bucky hanging out at Avengers Tower, talking about their feelings for three hours, I would have liked it soooo much better than Civil War. So. Much. Better. I especially like when characters talk about their feelings within a “found family” type of context. It’s always interesting to me to see what they’re willing to say about what’s going on in their heads and who they’re willing to say it to. So though not all of the characters felt as distinct as they could have, I did enjoy watching them navigate their various relationships with one another. I also liked that there were some genuinely unexpected revelations and reversals and that the movie makes it clear pretty early on that plot armor is not going to be a thing for these characters. There was a moment near the end where I genuinely started to think that I was watching the MCU equivalent of that Star Wars movie where everyone dies at the end. It was kind of exciting! I get why the critics are basically over MCU movies in general though I think their apparent disappointment that Chloe Zhao didn’t somehow manage to make the first truly “Oscar worthy” MCU movie is a bit much. First, because it’s Black Panther erasure. Second, because who really wants the MCU version of an Oscar movie? Probably no one. Eternals isn’t the best MCU movie ever, but I think it manages to be relatively distinct and I’m looking forward to seeing future installments featuring these characters. Even if those installments include Harry Styles, a former boy band star who I am young enough to know was in a boy band but too old to find particularly interesting.

Midnight Mass on Netflix: After not really liking either The Haunting of Bly Manor or The Haunting of Hill House, I had pretty much no intention of watching Midnight Mass, which is a new series by the same creator and starring some of the same cast (as different characters). Then I heard Hamish Linklater, who I’d recently become aware of via old episodes of The New Adventures of Old Christine on HBO Max, was playing one of the main characters. And also Zach Gilford, of my beloved Friday Night Lights was going to be there. And Rahul Kohli, my beloved Ravi from iZombie (who also played the cook in Bly Manor). Then I started watching it and Michael Trucco from Battlestar Galactica was there too! In bad old age makeup! That was actually my first clue that helped me figure out where this story was going by the end of the first episode: I noticed that all of the “old” characters were being played by middle-aged (or younger) actors who had conspicuously been made up to look older than they were. I even figured out Father Paul’s “true” identity long before it was revealed. That’s not a ding against the show–as I’ve explained elsewhere, I like the suspense that comes from knowing more about what’s going on than the characters do. I still didn’t particularly like the series, though. I’d read ahead of time about long scenes that were nothing but characters giving long speeches about Religion and Death and Existence, so I was fully expecting that but my God. The speeches themselves weren’t bad but they reminded me a lot of some of Elliot’s internal monologue in Mr. Robot. In that show, Elliot has a habit of going on and on to the viewer about topics that he seems to think make him sound really deep or smart. Because speeches like these tend to be delivered “straight” so often on television, it takes some time as a viewer to realize that you know more about Elliot than he knows about himself and one of the things he doesn’t know (though he eventually figures some of it out) is that though he’s a genius with computer stuff, there are a lot of things he’s full of crap about. Midnight Mass has a lot of interesting things to say about religion and spirituality but I think it makes the mistake of thinking it’s smarter than it actually is or that it’s saying anything new. Mostly it’s a lot of depressing conversations about existential dread punctuated with the occasional jump scare. It was fine, I guess. And if Mike Flanagan keeps putting people I like in his stuff, I’ll probably keep watching.(3)
 
Station 19 on Hulu: What a silly show this is. Grey’s Anatomy is a series I’ve watched off and on over the years but I had to finally stop around the start of the pandemic because it was giving me too much anxiety. I knew, vaguely, about the show’s first responder-focused spinoff but didn’t feel compelled to tune in until it showed up on a list of “recommended shows” one day when I was doing the streaming equivalent of channel-surfing. I decided to give it a try and pretty soon I couldn’t stop watching. Which is weird considering how much I hate most of the characters. And how much I hate storylines where the healthy-seeming relative of the patient in distress is the one who ends up dead at the end of the episode instead of the person who actually needed to be rescued from some terrifying situation in the first place, which happens here (and on Grey’s Anatomy) A LOT. I think what keeps me going is that every once in a while, in between characters being needlessly killed off (followed by a mandatory three-episode grieving period), you get an episode like the one that finally (after four effing seasons) tells the back story of how Travis’s husband died in a way that both manages to make a new character suddenly way more interesting and call out what a judgmental bitch Travis can be sometimes. (I can say that because until Ruiz showed up, Travis was my favorite despite how judgey he can be.) Basically, this show, like Grey’s, is best enjoyed as a soap opera about some fantasy fire house where everyone who works there is relatively young and impossibly hot and has more medical knowledge than most surgeons.(4)  It’s ridiculous and sometimes fun when it’s not unbearably depressing. Another one of those shows I can’t stop watching for reasons I can’t explain to myself.
 
 

 

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1)  They look alike. Don’t they? I’m not actually sure because I’ve never seen them together (and didn’t really expect to here–but I thought maybe the Eternals would have reason to encounter Bucky, at least in passing, in some future movie). But the first time I saw the trailer for Cinderella, I mistook a clean-shaven Richard Madden (who plays Prince Charming in the movie) for a clean-shaven Sebastian Stan and my mind has insisted on mixing them up with each other ever since.
 
2) If I hadn’t heard something about them being friends in real life, I would think that Richard Madden and Kit Harington must have something in their contracts that stipulates that they can only share limited screen time together in any project they are both in. Though both are known for Game of Thrones, they only share scenes in the first episode of the series except for a dream Bran has in the third season, which I’m pretty sure was achieved through a combination of stand-ins and CGI. Here, they both appear in one scene at the very beginning of the movie and then never meet again.
 
3) Hamish Linklater really is great in this. Watching him, though, I have to think he must be a vampire in real life too–he doesn’t appear to have aged a day in the years since his Old Christine days. Everyone else on the series does good work as well, though Rahul Kohli’s American accent is such that he joins the long list of Non-American Actors Who Are Less Hot When They Play Americans. He shouldn’t feel bad, though. As far as I can tell, this list includes every male British actor there is except Hugh Dancy and Andrew Garfield. Even Henry Cavill, one of the most objectively hot actors working in Hollywood today, is much, much less hot when he’s playing an American.
 
4) My grandfather was a volunteer firefighter most of my life and though I don’t know that much about the nature of his work, I can tell you that the cast of Chicago Fire, at least in its early seasons, was probably a bit more realistic when it comes to the type of people you would find working in a fire station. I couldn’t say for sure, but I think it was also more realistic about what paramedics do and what their role is in a crisis. That said, the ridiculousness of the fire-related and medical crises the characters often find themselves in on that show is probably about equal with Station 19. That said, Chicago Fire may have the edge for me simply because it had Charlie Barnett in its cast for three seasons and even though it didn’t give him a lot to do, I am never mad when Charlie Barnett shows up in something I’m watching.
 
 
 
 
 

A wrinkle in teaching students about research context

This semester was my third time teaching my 8-week credit-bearing course through the “contextual nature of research” lens. As anyone who’s spent any time teaching knows, every group of students is different, not just in personality and levels of engagement, but also in the sticking points they encounter in their learning. There are always new wrinkles and the group of students I worked with this time encountered one that I hadn’t seen before. I thought it might be worth spending some time thinking through it.

First, let me say that I’m still really enjoying teaching information literacy through a contextual lens. My students this semester were overall maybe a bit less engaged than in the last two classes I taught but even still they seemed to have a lot of interest and enthusiasm for learning about the importance of context to the research process. Finding out that their searches for information on topics like the Marvel Cinematic Universe and starting their own business counted as research as much as the papers they were writing for their classes seemed to really inspire them.  Or at least make them feel less bored than they would have otherwise, as one student admitted to me in some feedback I asked for as part of a course quiz/survey.

Some of the confusion students experienced about research contexts was similar to what I’ve seen before in at least one of my classes: once they knew that there were different research contexts (academic, creative, personal, professional, scholarly, and scientific), they wanted to know what the specific rules were for each one. They were particularly frustrated that sometimes the different contexts can overlap. I did add some information to the course readings and activities that were aimed at helping students get more comfortable with the idea that there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to research—only conventions. But I think students have been too well-trained by an educational system that teaches them to believe in “right answers” to be satisfied with this idea. It’s going to take time for them to develop in their thinking enough to understand that not every situation comes with rules or a right answer. And frankly, my course doesn’t have enough time to get them over that particular threshold of understanding, though I wish it did.

So students’ confusion over and frustration with the lack of set rules wasn’t surprising because I’ve seen that before. But what did surprise me was a particular misunderstanding that I saw from several students in the course where when I asked them to name the context of their research, they seemed to believe that the context was determined by the topic they were researching or the types of sources they were using rather than the purpose of the research.

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Is researching for inspiration research?

In my investigation into the role of research in creative writing, I’m stumbled across an interesting wrinkle. Writers don’t talk about the research they might do as part of their work as much as you might think (at least in the sources I’ve read), but when they do, they often talk more about research as a way to cultivate curiosity and inspiration rather than research that is used to fill a gap in their knowledge. When it comes to conducting research for inspiration, their advice is usually to read widely and/or deeply and seek out experience that may be useful for a story or poem idea later.

I think cultivating curiosity is a necessary part of any creative endeavor but I’m having trouble deciding if this type of research counts as research.

Normally, I try not to be a snob about what counts as research and what doesn’t. There may have been a time when “real” research involved the use of the library and the citation of sources, but that time has passed. Now everyone with access to an internet connection conducts research in one form or another on a daily, if not hourly basis.

Not everyone will agree that the average Google search counts as research. Some might prefer to call it “information-seeking” which, among scholars, tends to be the preferred term for any type of research that happens to not be academic, scholarly, or scientific in nature. Personally, I think having two different terms for what’s essentially the same thing is kind of elitist. I prefer to think of research as any formal or informal process that’s undertaken to fill a gap in knowledge, build on existing knowledge, or create new knowledge.

That’s why I’m a bit stuck when it comes to whether cultivating curiosity/searching for inspiration counts as research.

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What I’m reading: October 2021

Some bite-sized thoughts and reflections on the items I’ve been reading, listening to, or watching this month. 
 
Also: Did you read, watch, listen to, play something this month that you particularly enjoyed? Feel free to share in the comments! I’m always looking for recommendations.
 
Please note: The following contains spoilers for Squid Game, 3%, The Circle, Ordinary Joe, Clickbait, and some movies Adrian Grenier was in back in the late 1990s/early 2000s. 
 
 

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Who I was as a student researcher

The last few semesters, I’ve been using a new version the traditional annotated bibliography in my course where students complete the annotated bibliography in the first few weeks and then, after learning more about information literacy, write a reflection on the work they did at the beginning. I ask them to think about the formats of information they used and why, how they evaluated the information they found, and the choices they made about giving credit to their sources. As a project, it seems to work pretty well and the conclusions students come to about the quality of their work are often close to the same ones I would have in my own evaluation. Except, I think, those conclusions are more meaningful to students when they have the opportunity to come to them themselves rather than have me shaking a finger at them about poor citation, questionable sources, and an obvious emphasis on convenience over quality.

The first on the list of questions I ask students to reflect on, though, is this: How does this annotated bibliography reflect who you were as a researcher at the time you completed it?

Honestly, students have a lot of trouble with this question, possibly due to the way I’ve phrased it. What I’m looking for is for them to comment on the level of research experience they had when they completed the assignment and how the choices they made in completing it were informed by their experience up to that point. Mostly they just talk about their reaction to the assignment when they first saw it, especially the fact that I was allowing them complete freedom over their choice of topic and sources. Not a bad answer, but not hugely relevant.

Anyway. I started thinking about the research assignments I completed as both an undergraduate and a graduate student and how that reflected who I was as a researcher at the time.

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Hannibal and Criminal Minds are secretly the same show

Note: The following contains spoilers for all three seasons of Hannibal and the first six-ish seasons of Criminal Minds. 

A few years ago, I was lucky enough to see Stan Lee speak at an ALA Conference in Las Vegas. He was there as a featured speaker and after a short, lively talk about his career in comics, someone had the idea to sit Lee down and do a Q&A style interview with him. This might have been fine except that as a man in his nineties, Lee didn’t have the best hearing, which made answering the interviewer’s questions a bit difficult, especially on such a large stage.

Despite these difficulties, Lee kept up his good humor. At one point, when the interviewer asked him a question (I don’t remember now about what), Lee responded by saying something like,

“I didn’t hear what you just said, but let me tell you why Superman sucks.”

He then launched into a rundown of why the superheroes he had helped create were objectively better than Superman. The crowd loved it.

I bring this up because I’ve been a little dry on blog post ideas related to my research and professional stuff lately so this post is a bit of a non sequitur, not really related to anything I usually write about.

So let me tell you why Criminal Minds sucks.

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On 10(ish) years of info lit instruction

At my institution, there’s a one-credit information literacy course taught through the library called UNL 205. Most everyone in my department has taught this course at one time or another but as the information literacy requirement here on campus moved into the majors, there has been less and less demand for it. I’m wrapping up a section of the course now, the only one being offered this semester, and this will likely be the last time I’ll be teaching UNL 205.

That’s not to say that I won’t be teaching a credit-bearing IL course at all or that UNL 205 won’t be taught anymore. Due to some shuffling of department responsibilities, I’ll be teaching a different information literacy course geared toward students in the humanities and particularly philosophy majors. UNL 205 may still get taught every now when then, but most likely it won’t be by me.

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Making the Cut and creative research

On a recent weekend, I was feeling relatively slothful and ended up binge-watching the first season of Making the Cut on Amazon Prime. My understanding is that Making the Cut is basically a show where Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn decided to take their toys and go home (or at least to another platform) after leaving Project Runway. I haven’t seen Project Runway since college, so my memories of that show are vague but I think the main differences here is that this show has more of an international focus because it’s seeking fashion designers/entrepreneurs who will become the Next Big Global Brand. Or something.

And obviously, it also has a lot of Amazon-related tie-ins. Product placement in a show is always a bit sketchy but here I’m really not sure if it does the designers any favors to have the more accessible looks they create made available on Amazon. Buying clothes on Amazon is a notoriously huge gamble. Some people I know have been able to find nice stuff on there. Meanwhile, every piece of clothing I’ve ever bought on that site has been crap. I’m sure the intended effect of having these designers’ clothes available on Amazon (other than to give the designers more exposure) is to elevate Amazon’s reputation as a seller of clothing. Instead, I feel like the designers kind of suffer by the association, at least in my mind.

Anyway, that’s not why we’re here. We’re here because I want to talk about Making the Cut as an example of creative research.

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On scholarly vs narrative voice in LIS literature

Once upon a time, I wrote a book chapter about a lesson that I teach students in my first-year seminar about being wrong. The lesson involves having them listen to the song “If I Had a Million Dollars” by The Barenaked Ladies and then telling them a vaguely embarrassing story about a time that I claimed, very confidently, that an emu and a llama were the same thing. If you know the song, you’ll understand. Or maybe not since emus and llamas are very much not the same thing.

In the chapter I originally submitted, I described this lesson and the story it involves in a relatively casual tone, similar to the one I use for this blog. This was different from the more scholarly voice I’d used in my previous professional writings. The reason I chose this more casual, narrative voice was twofold. First, the story was meant to be at least a little funny and it’s hard to tell a funny story in a scholarly voice. Second, I figured that rules about tone and voice are less strict for book chapters than they are for scholarly articles. The opportunity to throw off the constraints of scholarly writing and talk about my work in a voice and tone I personally prefer to use was one of the main attractions of getting to write a book chapter for me in the first place.

What I didn’t account for was the book editors’ preferences or expectations around the level of scholarliness they wanted for their book. Their feedback on that original submission was one of…polite alarm. The kind you might express when someone you know and like has made a particularly embarrassing faux pas. Like if I’d worn a bunny costume to a black tie party.

And I was embarrassed, not least because these editors were people I knew well and whose work I greatly respected. Because I had worked with them on previous projects, I should have known and understood the value they place on scholarliness and written my chapter accordingly. As it was, I ended up frantically rewriting the whole thing and adding a ton more research to my literature review. I don’t know if anyone was super happy with what I ended up with, but it did get published, so I guess it turned out okay in the end, more or less.

Still. I can’t help but wish I’d been able to keep the original narrative tone.

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