Dispatches from the Age of Electracy: Obsolete before it ships

Rule 34
Rule 34

Charles Stross reflected on the relentless pace of culture and the difficulty of writing about the near future or the present in a post about his book Rule 34:

There is a certain pub in Edinburgh that I’ve used as a setting for some key scenes, because it’s quarried out of the side of a near-cliff and is notorious for having no mobile phone or wifi signal. Imagine my joy on discovering that it has acquired a strong 3G signal in the roughly two months since I checked the copy-edited manuscript. (link)

I’m watching this happen, a bit, in the context of my forthcoming book, Title Still to be Determined.  My book, which should come out sometime next Spring, is a monograph about the digital age and detective fiction.  At one point, I make an extended example of the anti-vaccine community as a group that flourishes through the Internet using gate-keeping and strong peer pressure to shape its conversations.  This is an example I wrote a couple years ago (this book has been slow in gestation) that’s now becoming too obvious.

On the one hand, I like that people are now waking up to the dangers of our reduced herd immunity, though I wish we’d not needed the Disneyland Measles Outbreak to get the conversation started.  On the other hand, I’d rather not see any examples or parts of my book become more common than they already are.  Can everyone stop writing about the Internet for the next fifteen months or so?  Thanks.

21st Century Dead: A Zombie Anthology

21st Century Dead21st Century Dead: A Zombie Anthology
Edited by Christopher Golden

Each year, I pick a different anthology of zombie stories to read with my Zombies in Popular Media class.  This year’s collection was pretty good.  A few highlights:

  • “Why Mothers Let Their Babies Watch Television: A Just-so Horror Story” by Chelsea Cain.  Written with the feel of a classic folk tale, this story captures some of the drudgery of parenting.
  • “How We Escaped Our Certain Fate” by Dan Chaon throbs with a dark melancholy of a ho-hum zombie world, where the undead can be dangerous, but they’re more a nuisance like racoons.
  • Kurt Sutter’s “Tic Boom: A Slice of Love” and John McIlveen’s “A Mother’s Love” play on similar themes with very different writing styles, but both are great twists on the zombie genre.
  • Amber Benson, of Buffy fame, includes a story only tangentially about zombies, but chock-full of interesting twists on the future-dystopian capitalist nightmare.  “Antiparallelogram” isn’t all that great as a zombie story, but as an SF tale, it has some chops.
  • “Tender as Teeth” by Stephanie Crawford and Duane Swierczynski is the best story in the collection, for my money.  It follows a former zombie who has been recovered through a technological intervention of some kind, but who is plagued by the public record of her deeds during her zombie days.

Check out my reviews of previous zombie class story anthologies: 2014- Zombies! Zombies! Zombies!; 2013 – The Best New Zombie Tales; 2012 – The New Dead2011 – The Living Dead 2; 2010 – The Undead: Zombie Anthology; 2009 – The Living Dead

Thoughts on next year’s zombie class

Dead Snow
Dead Snow would fit as Nazi, Fast, Humor, Meta, and Cabin in the Woods

I’m wondering how the course would work if I re-worked it next year as a series of Zombie subgenres (Hollywood, Vodou, Cyborg, Alien-slug, Fast/Virus, Philosophical, Nazi) and we approached the material from that perspective.  This would make the experience of the course way different from what it is now, and give me some variety in film selection and approaches.  Other kinds of zombie films to think about:

  • Cabins in the woods
  • Splatterhorror
  • Meta
  • Humor

I think I will probably re-organize the class under this new structure next year, to get a bit of variety into the experience for myself, and try out a different order of films, etc.  Plus, then we can include the Thing.

In which my course “doesn’t sound right no matter how seriously you phrase it”

The Times of India has joined the “look at all these stupid courses” game with their own collection of summaries, including a bizarre summary of my course (and PERHAPS a course about embalming as well?  It’s weird).  Here’s the relevant text:

Class on zombies
Official course title: Zombies In Popular Media What it means: Slacker heaven Possible career paths: Mortician? Nothing like the undead to liven up a boring year of college. The object of this course is to “foster thoughtful connections between student disciplines and the figure of the zombie” (that just doesn’t sound right no matter how seriously you phrase it). The syllabus includes movies, books and comics that focus on the undead along with lectures on individuality, xenophobia and capitalism (because, as we all know, zombies are the paradigm of capitalism). And the cynics out there can scoff now, but when the zombie apocalypse hits, you’ll wish you’d taken this course instead of algebra. (link)

This text is posted as it appears on the site.  I suspect the bit about the mortician is supposed to be in parenthesis or between dashes, or there should be a period after “heaven.”

One more week

La Horde

The busiest time of the year, for me, is early January.  It’s crunch time over at the PCA, where we’re solidifying our schedule, finishing registration, and getting ready for the conference.  We’re preparing for a new semester at Columbia College Chicago, so there are syllabi to finalize and other administrative work to do.  And I’m teaching my zombie class, which is five-six hours of class and screening each day.

So please forgive the pre-written posts.  I’ll get back to more timely stuff after next week.


Are You Ready for a Zombie Attack?

Today marks the end of the first week of my annual horror j-session class, Zombies in Popular Media.  A few thoughts:

  • This year brings another good mix of students with varying experience in zombie media.  As far as I can tell, though, I have no zombie fanatics.  Most years I’ve had at least one person who’s already seen nearly everything we’re going to watch — not this year.
  • The cold weather has kept things a little subdued — at least on Wednesday it did — a third of the class wasn’t able to lurch in that first day of the cold snap.
  • I’m using a new academic book that’s presenting some different takes on the genre, and a new collection (as always).  But right now, I’m holding to the screening list from last year.  After eight years, it’s been honed to a fine point, so any alterations need to really be better than the thing they’re replacing, and so far I’ve not found any. BOOM.
  • An an indicator of just how broad the genre has gotten, I had NO overlap in the requests for presentation choices this year — everybody had different things they wanted to present on.  Huzzah!
  • Once again, Carnival of Souls provides surprisingly rich fodder for class discussion.  Today is our discussion of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and screening of Dawn of the Dead.  So that will be awesome.

And we lurch into the weekend!

Dispatches from the Age of Electracy: End of the semester grading

Note: I’ll be taking a break from the Dispatches from the Age of Electracy series until after the new year.

An interesting conversation opened up on Facebook last week about grading.  The OP asked “Hypothetically, what should I say to a student who’s unhappy about getting 91/100?”

Grading Conversation Original Post
(click ‘read more’ below to see the full conversation)

The comments were varied and interesting, from snarky answers that few teachers would actually say aloud to serious answers about how to assuage or rebuff the student’s concerns.  But while the two tones seem strikingly different, I would suggest most instructors fall in the middle regarding their attitude about students, grading, and the nuances of it.

  • Frustration with minor grievances – it’s really frustrating when students fixate on small grade grievances.  Boy howdy, I know it is.  But where we see ‘just one assignment,’ some students put a lot of stock or interest or faith.  Plus, they only see one of the assignment, rather than the 20 (or 80) we have.
  • Grading is a weird piece of job performance because it’s very subjective (CAVEAT: I’m writing here about subjectively graded assignments, judgments of quality rather than accuracy.).  Teachers build an instinctual “I know it when I see it” meter that allows us to assess quality of projects quickly, but then we have to, you know, explain the grades.  It’s the gap between the assessment and the explanation that’s at discussion here.  And when the difference between two projects comes down to “good but not great,” that’s a hard line to explain or help a student understand how to improve.
  • That said, even adding in a helping of excuse for the caustic space of the Internet, I find the dismissive tone of some of these comments pretty harsh.  It’s easy, as a teacher, to lose empathy for the student and their efforts to understand grades and grading.  And as instructors, we sometimes forget the power this evaluative tool has for our students, and the weight with which the hammer comes down.

And, I think, many of these effects are amplified by Electracy.  The shifting nature of knowledge acquisition and learning means many of the values and relationships between teacher and student are changing, have changed, and will change; these changes manifest, in some ways, on the grading page.  A few thoughts about this:

  • The shift from “Sage on the Stage” to “Guide on the Side” models of teaching recognize that the modern teacher’s role is to facilitate exploration of the subject as an expert.  I’ve written before that what we’re selling in modern higher education is not knowledge, it’s time with someone who understands the field and is good at explaining it.  The grade itself becomes less important because we’re less important as arbiters of correctness or validity alone.  Instead, it’s our ability to explain why the student’s work earned a particular grade that makes us more valuable than Wikipedia.
  • The flattening of hierarchies urges us to be more approachable and urges students to see us that way.  This alteration of relationship (admittedly, this may be a very subjective point) makes it easier for students to discuss and question their grades than they might have before.  The open lines of communication between student and instructor also facilitate this kind of conversation.  I suspect the professor who decided she’d no longer accept emails was, in part, motivated by the idea that if the problem isn’t big enough to come in to discuss, it’s not important enough to discuss at all.  I’d interpret things a different way.
  • Electronic grading also opens up the system, making it visible to students in ways it just wasn’t when grades were kept entirely on paper.  In the past, students couldn’t really “keep track” of their grade.  The professor could do so, but wasn’t really accountable to students if they didn’t.  Now, with electronic grade books, students expect that grades will be updated and up-to-date, and professors have a reasonable obligation to maintain that visibility.  At the same time, students acquire an obligation to manage their own grade.  If something is a surprise, it’s not our fault.

In these contexts, we’ve come to see a more nuanced idea of grading.  It’s not an arbiter of quality alone, it’s an assessment of achievement.  We use rubrics to communicate our expectations and we evaluate using those guidelines.  There’s still plenty of fuzzy subjectivity in our grading, but the onus is on us to explain ourselves, and then on the students to take more responsibility for the process.


Continue reading Dispatches from the Age of Electracy: End of the semester grading

The Stair Method…

Classes are done.  Now it’s just grading.

and grading.

and did I mention grading?

The only time I dislike using all electronic project and paper submission is that it doesn’t give me this way out:

Stair Method of Grading
Photo cc-licensed by Sage Ross

See the Stair Method for more on this precise and detailed grading model.


Keeping my head above water…

Between writing obligations (revisions and editing), family obligations (three swim meets, trips to Minnesota and Florida), PCA obligations (the 2015 conference is rolling along busily), and CCC obligations (two classes to finish now, a program to coordinate, my zombie class, and an intense committee I was just elected to), the next three months look to be very intense around here.  So don’t be surprised if my posting slows down a bit.

Man running through flying paperwork
“Cutting through the paperwork” by Quinn Dombrowski (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Just saying.

Thoughts on the first week of class

We got new directory portraits taken last week.

photo by Jacob Boll courtesy of Columbia College Chicago

I have two classes this semester: The Rhetoric of Digital Media and Literary Genres: Detective Fiction.  Here are a few thoughts on the first week:

  • My opening spiel for the Digital Media class had to be tuned somewhat, since I used to start the class (formerly called “Writing for New Media”) by saying “This course would be better called “The Rhetoric of New Media.”  Instead, I just apologized in advance for any time I forget to use its new name.
  • Of the fifteen or sixteen people in the Digital Media class, only five had Twitter accounts (or would admit that they did).  So we probably won’t use Twitter much.
  • The Detective Fiction class had a great variety of students interested in Detective stories from many angles.  We spent a long time in the introductions phase of the first day, but I managed to organically introduce elements of the course orientation that would otherwise have been delivered as a lecture later.  Hoo-rah.
  • We also already got into a discussion of the genre vs literary fiction divide, as one of the students commented that the mass-market paperback I ordered looked like something he’d see in a grocery store at the checkout.  “It probably is, was my reply.”
  • In each class, I have at least one student whom I’ve had in previous classes.  This is always fun, as it suggests my classes are good enough to try taking another one. YAY.

Off to a good start.  The ride begins again!

The Best American Mystery Stories of the Century

Best American Mystery StoriesThe Best American Mystery Stories of the Century
Edited by Tony Hillerman and Otto Penzler

I don’t envy anyone tasked with assembling a book like this.  You’d want to be original, but you couldn’t skip the best things.  You’d need to hit many of the major figures while not ignoring minor gems.  You’d want to hit every flavor and node.

Hillerman and Penzler did a fine job, selecting many moving and startling stories for the collection.  Several made me laugh, some made me shiver, some stayed with me for days.  At the same time, some seem out of place for tone, others for content.  Rather than discuss every story (there are 46, after all), I’ll list my five favorite and the five most out of place.

Let’s start with the out-of-place ones:

  • “The Comforts of Home”  – Flannery O’Connor is a stark story, but isn’t strictly a mystery, nor is it pleasant
  • “Do with Me What You Will” by Joyce Carol Oates feels too ham-handed– a story about something instead of being a story that makes you think about something
  • “First Offense” by Evan Hunter has the same problem — it’s too “on the nose”
  • “An Error in Chemistry” by William Faulkner – tries to be a clever mystery but falls flat. It’s also written in a confusing way, revealing details in the wrong order.
  • “Paul’s Case” by Willa Cather feels like a rambling story that isn’t really a mystery at all.

The five best stories. I’d like to be clear — there are many great stories in this collection.  I’d have no trouble assembling a list of 10 instead of five.  But five will do:

  • “The Dark Snow” by Brendan DuBois seethes with the daily torments of modern life, and challenges the reader to rethink easy dichotomies of good and evil.
  • “The Terrapin” by Patricia Highsmith is perhaps the most horrifying story of the book, followed in a close second by Harlan Ellison’s “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs”
  • “The Catbird Seat” by James Thurber still holds as one of my favorite stories ever. A tale of petty bureaucracy and orderliness.
  • “A Jury of her Peers” by Susan Glaspell brings the early 20th century feminism into bright relief, and works wonderfully.
  • “The Moment of Decision” by Stanley Ellin prods our conscience, asking how we’d act if a harrowing moment presented itself.

Overall, a very good read.  The anthology takes a pretty broad view of what a “mystery” is, but it can be forgiving since this broad definition yielded so many gems.
Get your own copy from Amazon.

Six points for a blogging class

Friday Cat Blogging
Friday Cat Blogging, Hurry (by cobalt123)

I’m speaking in a class about blogging today, and feeling a bit out of my depth.  Sure, I’m a blogger. Sure, I’ve been keeping this blog for nearly a decade.  But I don’t make a living at it.  And if you’re a regular reader, you know that my ability to update regularly is spotty at best.  That said, here are my five bullet points to present to today:

1. Tie in your social media – use your blog as an archive (see below)

1.b. – Self promotion is okay, esp if you acknowledge the awkwardness of it

2. Remember the long tail – a well-crafted post can keep bringing back people

2.b. – consider ancillary visits

2.c – Targeted titles for specific purposes – a good title will bring in the nerds

3. Use regular features to spur your content making – for me: book reviews, movie doubles, comics/music roundups, book covers

4. Ebb and Flow – if this isn’t your primary thing, a natural ebb and flow in content will occur.  Don’t let an ebb become a death.

5. Good ethos via good IP practices – quote excerpts, use images you have permission to use, etc etc

Gave a talk, still overwhelmed!

A man on a car, beseiged by zombies (from La Horde)
You tasks shall not overwhelm me!

Greetings, dear readers.  In the past ten days I’ve accomplished five of the seven big things I needed to do:

  • Grade New Media projects
  • Give my talk on COLUMBO at MPCA
  • Write and give the MPCA Pub Quiz
  • Attend MPCA/ACA
  • Finish and give my talk at the Palatine Public Library


  • Finish gathering and send PCA Audit documents
  • Compose draft of PCA budget for 2013-14 FY

Those last two will be finished today or tomorrow.  Then I can take a breath and perhaps resume blogging.  In the meantime, I presented a talk at the Palatine Public Library Tuesday called “Zombies! Why You Should Care About the Walking Dead.” It was well received and enjoyable, so that was nice.

Zombies! in Palatine
Zombies! in Palatine


It’s official! PCA/ACA Executive Director of Operations

Many of you know that last October I was tapped by the PCA/ACA to serve as Interim Executive Director during the transition from one Executive Team to another.  Working with the officers and my team-mates (Joe Hancock, Lee Halper, and Alex Lamberti), I helped organize the 2013 PCA/ACA annual conference.  It looks like I will get to continue in that position.

I’m pleased to announce that as of September first, I have been appointed as the Executive Director of Operations for the Popular Culture Association / American Culture Association.  My counterpart, the Executive Director of Events, is Lee Halper.

Executive Team

If things go well, this should be a five-year position, and will be a great opportunity to continue serving in a key leadership role for a group I value immensely.  (NOTE: this is a part-time appointment, to be conducted in concert with my continuing work as an Associate Professor of English at Columbia College; I’m not leaving CCC!)

My thanks to the Officers for their hard work in the hiring process and the opportunity they’ve extended to me.  Also, my thanks to the outgoing Interim ED of Events (Joe Hancock, who will continue in an advisory/assistant role until the end of December), and to Alex Lamberti, our hard-working webmaster during the interim period.  John Bratzel deserves a special call out as well–he’s been, and continues to be, a generous resource about how to do this job. Last, I’d like to thank my college, Columbia College Chicago, for its continuing support of this endeavor.  My chair, Ken Daley, and my dean, Deborah Holdstein, have both been very encouraging during this whole process.

I know where I’ll be on October 15th…

At Palatine Public Library for:

Zombies!: Why You Should Care about the Walking Dead

Tuesday, Oct 15 2013, 7:00 pm – 8:00 pm
Main Library

Dr. Brendan Riley, Columbia College, charts the evolution and philosophy of the living dead from its Haitian roots, to the graphic novel and TV show The Walking Dead.

I won’t actually be drawing any charts, though.