My tumblr: small city graffiti and street art

I’ve been meaning to mention here that I’ve started a blog on tumblr, Small City Bomb Report, dedicated to documenting graffiti and street art in smaller cities and towns. Most of the images are from Corvallis, but I’ve also reblogged some pictures from other tumblrs, notably snappingthewalls’ blog, and streets.

A few of the photos you can see with more information at Small City Bomb Report (all graffiti & street art from Corvallis, Oregon, photos by me):

Fall is coming

Well, it’s actually already kind of here for faculty in the OUS. Classes don’t begin until next week, hence the title, but this week faculty were called back to campus for rituals (e.g., state of the university and college addresses), welcoming and orientating new students, administrative functions (e.g., committee meetings), and, finally, class prep.

I’ve been in a tenure-track/tenured position at Western Oregon for just over ten years now, and it has taken this long to have a fall where I’ve felt as if I’ve been able construct my courses in an efficient and minimally stressful way (most of the stress this week has come from having to work course prep in between other responsibilities, not from my upcoming classes).

One reason why I often start Fall term behind the curve, or at least feeling that way, is that summers are usually the only time I have for sustained progress on research and scholarship. I imagine that this is true for most who work at undergraduate teaching focused institutions like mine. This summer, though, I was at the dissemination stage of my current project, and while I had a book chapter to write, that was, more or less, a digest of the same project. Dealing with getting work out into the world has been its own thing, of course, but nothing like being in the field or at the editing station.

When I write above about ‘constructing my courses’, I mean mainly drafting the syllabi. Summers are also time to read and look for resources. Typically, I will defer this kind of work to attend to non-course related scholarship, which leaves me having to those tasks while teaching my courses. This year I had the luxury not to have to do that and was able to get my deeper prep done a week or so before reporting back to campus.

I am an impossible tinkerer when it comes to my courses. This year I was overhauling two of the three I am scheduled to teach in the Fall (one, I’ve already written about). What saved me this summer was not making any major changes to my introductory cultural geography course. That is an offering that I have been perpetually dissatisfied with, but for which I have finally found an approach that works for me, and seems to work for students, too, at least in the ways I would like it to.

One image that non-teachers have of teachers, at whatever level, but maybe particularly of professors, is that of someone who essentially coasts, working off of the same set of notes decade after decade, freeing them from actually having to work in their courses.

I’ve never met that person.

There’s no question that my current colleagues work harder at making their courses approachable, interesting, and appropriately challenging for undergraduates than did most, if not all, of the professors in my graduate department, but I think that’s understandable. Faculty who work primarily with graduate students and undergraduate majors can, and should, see teaching differently than should faculty, like myself and most of my social science and humanities colleagues, who teach primarily undergraduates and a significant number of non-majors. However, that difference hardly becomes the equivalent of ‘dead wood’. On the contrary, while, pedagogically, a graduate seminar is a graduate seminar, readings are always in flux. I imagine that this is also true for the advanced undergraduate courses tied to professor interests.

At present, I’ve observed that some of my more senior colleagues seem to have certain courses, ones that they’ve been teaching consistently for more than a decade or two, ‘down’, but there are also irregular courses, or newly developed courses, that require substantial preparation to work.

In short, I don’t think I personally know any college or university faculty whose courses are entirely static, which is why I find some of the other functions of the opening week to Fall, many of the administrative functions, to be frustrating or stressful.

One primary administrative concern right now is “assessment” and getting faculty to do it, but I think that it is fair to say, given that no one’s courses stay exactly the same, that class prep necessarily entails assessment and the kind of assessment that everyone is supposed to want: the kind that leads to improvements in the classroom.

The problem I’m not sure that anyone has figured out entirely is how to articulate the kinds of assessment that lead to actual changes in the way courses are taught and that also satisfy administrative imperatives for data that can be used in accreditation, or in taking to boards and legislators.

The data that I use to change and improve my courses are rarely the kinds of things that are captured in institutional evaluations or templates for reporting on assessment. The data is scattered, sometimes impressionistic, often open-ended and come from my experience of being in the classroom with students. Administratively, faculty are expected to make discrete a process that is almost necessarily ongoing and messy, rarely mapping neatly onto formulaic statements of outcomes or ‘themes’ (‘core themes’ are a recent turn in jargon, at least for our accreditation).

Our college’s administrators seem to have finally settled on a set of procedures and forms, so maybe there is an opening to establish a departmental routine that suffices for everyone, instead of having, essentially, two separate processes, one for real work in the classroom and one for bookkeeping. I’ve been told that this is possible, but I have yet to see it in action (nothing makes me more skeptical about the push for assessment than being given models from other departments that entail, essentially, standardized testing, not only because it puts a lie to all of the assurances faculty are given regarding autonomy and what kinds of instruments or data are acceptable, but also because I have a hard time thinking that the results of such tests are at all effective in suggesting what might work better in the classroom. Identifying knowledge gaps is one thing; figuring out what to do about those gaps is another).

Blu-ray review: THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO

On Friday, my review of The Last Days of Disco (1998) on Criterion Blu-ray posted to PopMatters:

While Whit Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco, and his other ‘90s films, Metropolitan (1990) and Barcelona (1994), would seem on the surface to be yet another work about privileged people masquerading as universal drama, Stillman’s films are better seen as rare cases of works that actually explore the lives of white, middle class individuals in their particularities and not as universal avatars.

Read the full review.

“This is what a house looks like”: contesting the neighborhood

Last week these signs started showing up in our neighborhood, "This is What a House Looks Like"and specifically one block over from where our house is located, across from and adjacent to new housing being built on the site of a tear-down. Since then, the campaign has migrated to other blocks and streets.

Anne-Marie and I have talked on and off about the signs since noticing them last weekend. Lately we have mostly been making jokes about expanding the scope of the effort, putting up signs that say, “This is what a tree looks like”, “This is what a car looks like”, “This is what a dog looks like”; you get the idea.

Those jokes stem from the unease that I, and I think Anne-Marie, have about this campaign. There are a number of possible subtexts to the message on the sign that I am reluctant to support even as I am sympathetic to other purposes embedded in the idea.

As our playing around with alternatives implies, my main concern has to do with the implication that there is only one acceptable way for a house to look, and that look conforms to American white and middle class ideals around the family.

On Corvallis TidBits, an online “community newspaper”, you can view a statement of purpose about the sign campaign. There are two salient points.

One is that the new development contravenes public testimony in opposition to the units, which, according to the statement, takes advantage of a quirk in city law that allows for ‘single attached’ housing to be built across property lines, even where multi-unit housing would be disallowed if built on a single lot.

This is where I am in sympathy with the aims of the campaign. In a city with a reported vacancy rate of less than 1%, and high demand for student housing in particular, developers have substantial leverage to shape development in ways that are expedient for profit-making, but maybe not in the best long-term interests of neighbors, or for the quality of the city’s housing stock. American landscapes are rife with structures built without regard to context, and that can be alienating.

The houses in question appear to be a large in relation to those immediately adjacent, but, as Anne-Marie has observed, the real concern about many of the newest developments in the neighborhood, and nearby, is the layouts, which are maximized for individual living space while minimizing shared living area. The concern here, and as expressed in the TidBits article, is the new housing will only be attractive to students. From a market perspective, that’s where the easy to assess demand lies. Our neighborhood, which today is called “Avery Addition”, is just a few blocks from Oregon State University and a short walk to downtown (from our house we can get to the other side of either campus or downtown in about twenty minutes on foot). As the new 300-unit complex going in behind us suggests, market incentives in this area clearly break in favor of catering to students.

So, yes, the development under dispute does raise questions about democracy and sustainability, and the nature of ownership, or the intersection of private rights and public goods. It is hard for me to argue with the case for a more open and dialogic process where individual, community, city, and developer interests are all given comparable weights and room for articulation.

On the other hand, the statement of purpose for the “This is what a house looks like” signs also claims that Avery Addition is, “a traditional housing neighborhood”.

In one sense, I guess that is another way of making the point about design and layouts, but in another sense that statement encapsulates my uneasiness with the implication of the campaign that only single-family housing is acceptable. Taken in context, I’m not sure that the statement holds up to scrutiny, underscoring my sense that there is a kind of class privilege being exercised through the signs, and underneath the rhetoric and concern for democracy and sustainability.

The neighborhood we live in dates to the 1850s. There is a history here, but the area is not historic in the sense that term is usually used in battles over preservation, which is to signify that a neighborhood has an identifiable and consistent character. There have clearly been distinct periods of development and redevelopment continuing to the present. If you were to take a walk through Avery Addition you would see a variety of house styles – cottages, bungalows, ranches, split-levels – from a variety of eras – nineteenth to twenty-first centuries – and sizes – one, two, and three story. There’s no standard lot size. Some houses have been kept and maintained as single-family structures, while others have been divided into apartments or otherwise adapted for the rental market. Some have been carefully renovated, while others haven’t seen significant work in decades. Even before the new development, the neighborhood was ringed by apartment complexes dating to the 70s, 80s, and 90s (judging by appearances). I think, but have not confirmed, that there are one or two houses near us that are active communes of some kind. Avery Addition is one of the denser and more eclectic neighborhoods in Corvallis in terms of its housing and its residents.

“This is what a house looks like” seems to fly in the face of the area’s history and the neighborhood’s actually existing housing stock. Students are already here in significant numbers, and likely have been for decades. In this light, the sign campaign feels not just conservative but reactionary.

And yet it I also wish that developers would take, or could be compelled to take, a different approach to what is currently being built. The new complex behind us is, essentially, a dorm, even offering individual leases on shared apartments. There is little reason, beyond profiting from the current student-driven housing shortage, for the developments to be so narrowly tailored to one group of market participants.

I am not, however, in principle, opposed to multi-unit housing or density; we chose to move here in part because of the close-in location and the density that implies. I expect to be living next to students and other renters, to people sharing housing, as well as to single-family homeowners, not to mention urban farmers, other academics and white collar professionals, writers and artists, retirees – Avery Addition seems like it has a diversity of housing for people of different needs and backgrounds. I think that’s good and all too rare in the U.S. I don’t think this neighborhood actually does have one kind of house and it certainly has more than one kind of home.

Latest Worlds in Panels: reflecting on comics and Geek Girl Con 2012

My new column posted at PopMatters yesterday. I revisit my review of the first Geek Girl Con and (sort of) flip my thinking on attendance by Marvel and DC:

In my review of last year’s convention I made the case for Marvel and DC to be in attendance. After this year, I think a case could also be made for the major publishers to stay away, leaving fans and individual creators and small presses the freedom to define the comics agenda at Geek Girl.

Read the full column.