What I’m reading: October 2020

Now that I’m officially on sabbatical for the fall, I’ve been doing a lot more reading than usual. Rather than devote an entire post to reflections on each of these items, I thought I’d share some thoughts on them in smaller, bite-sized pieces.

What I’m reading for work/research

Books on creative writing pedagogy: The stated goal of my sabbatical project is to conduct an in-depth literature review about creative writing pedagogy in order to build a foundation of knowledge that will lead to further, more direct research. A little over a month in, I’ve read 6-8 books (including Released into Language by Wendy Bishop and The Elephants Teach by D.G. Myers) and a handful of articles, some of which are turning out to be more relevant than others. What I enjoy most about reading outside of my own field of knowledge is that it can lead to some creative connections, like the ones I found between identity negotiations, as discussed in Writing and Sense of Self, and information literacy teaching, which I’ll be posting about next week. Reading about creative writing pedagogy has also enhanced my understanding of the “academic” writing books I’ve been reading and writing about for a while, especially since the authors of these books tend to also be creative writing teachers. Suddenly I understand a lot better why these books that are supposedly about writing focus so much on literature, and in particular “Great Literature.” It’s a lot to absorb but so far it’s been a rewarding adventure.

What I’m reading for fun

Sunk Without a Sound by Brad Dimock: I recently joined a virtual podcast club through one of my local public libraries. The club functions like a book club but the discussions center on assigned podcasts rather than assigned reading, which suits me quite well not just because I enjoy podcasts but also because the amount of reading I’m doing for work means that the last thing I want to do in my leisure time is more reading. That said, one of the podcasts we listened to for the first meeting I attended was an old episode of Stuff You Should Know that explores the mysterious disappearance of Glen and Bessie Hyde, a newly married couple who attempted to boat their way through the Grand Canyon in the 1920s. In the episode, the hosts talk a lot about Sunk Without a Sound by Brad Dimock as an important piece of research on Glen and Bessie’s story. I was intrigued enough that I managed to get a hold of a copy of the book through my library. The in-depth information about boating didn’t appeal to me that much but the unsolved mystery aspect of the story did. (The story of Glen and Bessie actually appeared on an episode of the OG Unsolved Mysteries back in the day.) If that type of thing appeals to you, both the podcast and the book are well-worth checking out.

What I’m watching for fun

Cobra Kai on Netflix: So I’m a Karate Kid fan from way back. Along with The Breakfast Club, it was the first “grown up” movie I was allowed to watch with my older cousins. I was probably like five the first time I saw it and I still rewatch the original from time to time, including this past summer. A couple of years ago, I heard that Ralph Macchio and William Zabka were reviving their characters from that movie for a new series that follows Daniel and his nemesis Johnny as grown-ups. In the new series, Johnny would be the protagonist while Daniel would take more of an antagonist role. I thought it sounded fun but it was on YouTube Red and to this day I have no idea what that is, so I didn’t get a chance to watch it until it made the move to Netflix in September. Even though I’d read some good reviews, my hopes going into it were not high. I expected the new series to be a cynical cash grab that mocks viewers for liking the original thing as much as they do because that’s what so many reboots are these days. I was hugely surprised by what this show actually is. It’s hard to describe but let me just say: it’s beautiful. It’s clearly has a lot of affection for the original movie but it doesn’t just copy every beat in the name of fan service. Instead, it’s not afraid to complicate these familiar characters and the story we know about them in interesting ways that still make a lot of sense based on what’s already been established in our previous encounters with them. It’s funny as hell in places but also sweet without being saccharine and occasionally cynical in ways that feel earned. I also liked the new characters quite a bit and thought that the show did a good job of balancing its focus between the students and their “senseis.” I mean, it’s not a perfect show. It definitely leans on some of its references to the original a little too hard, at least one character’s transition from being a good guy to a bad guy in the first season was not adequately justified, the jokes about Daniel’s less-than-athletic son fall extremely flat, and (SPOILER ALERT) the, um, “karate battle” at the end of the second season really, really didn’t work for me (though I think the consequences will be interesting to explore in future episodes). That said, this show has definitely been a bright spot in my viewing schedule the last few weeks. Highly recommended.

The Vow on HBO Max: I finally broke down and got a subscription to HBO Max. One of the first things I stumbled on was this docuseries about the NXIVM cult led by a man named Keith Rainere. This is a story with a lot of local interest in my area since NXIVM had its headquarters here in Albany. If you’re not familiar, NXIVM was basically a sex cult that masqueraded as a regular cult that masqueraded as a multi-level marketing scheme centered on professional development and self-help. Some semi-famous people were involved, including Allison Mack (an actress from Smallville) who, according to what’s in the documentary, was not a founding member of the group but eventually ascended to being a ringleader in some of its more horrifying activities, which included branding women with her own and Keith Rainere’s initials. Overall, the series does a good job of centering the victims’ stories and not giving in too much to the more sensational aspects of the story. I do wish that it was clearer about the timeline that it covers and that it gave a little more context around how NXIVM got started in the first place. Also, the leaders of this group apparently loved to film themselves and be filmed as much as possible so while there are no “jailhouse interviews,”  there is a lot of footage of their particular brand of doublespeak that’s used probably more than it needs to be—it becomes maddening after a while. Still, seeing these perfectly smart and reasonable people try to work out how they got caught up in such a dangerous cult without realizing what was happening to them is a good reminder of how fragile our defenses against influence are, which I think has certain implications for information literacy as well.

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