Category Archives: news

In Defense of English: or, the Day I Sherlocked the Internet

When you teach English, you learn a great deal about the colorful palette of poetic language people resort to when expressing their ideas. In the seven-and-a-half years since I began teaching, I’ve learned, for instance, that Martin Luther King Jr. preached passive-aggressive resistance, that he and Malcolm X were assignated, that nuns live in a covenant, and that our continual depletion of the Earth’s resources is part of a viscus cycle of human destruction.

I’ve written in the past about the fact that these errors result from human laziness due to the reliance on spell-checker, autocorrect, and predictive text. All of the above words (with the exception of assignated) are Standard English words, so a spell-checker won’t register their incorrect usage within the context of a sentence in which they clearly don’t belong. The Urban Dictionary, however, does define assignate as follows: “To take off someone’s $3000 designer glasses, wipe your butt with them, and put them back on their face.” Ya know, because you were wondering. You’re welcome.

Over at You Knew What I Meant, a fellow English teacher posits that students might also be mishearing certain words, an opinion that, if more willing to give students the benefit of the doubt, is nonetheless entirely plausible. (If you call yourself a grammar geek, and you aren’t following this blog, why aren’t you? But I digress.) I know I’ve certainly misheard expressions over the years, and had I not bothered to check the spelling and pronunciation, I might never have been any the wiser. In the popular Christmas carol, “Here we Come a’Wassailing,” for instance, I could have sworn as a child that the lyric actually went “Here we come a’Waffling.” Wassailing. Waffling. Perfectly understandable. Sort of mistake anyone might make.

I don’t offer the above examples of carelessness as anecdotal evidence of my own self-righteous adherence to perfect grammar. On the contrary, just this past week, a friend of mine was kind enough to point out several hilariously ridiculous errors in my own work that, because we both recognized how an incorrect homonym can completely change the meaning of a sentence, proved both a lesson in proofreading and an entertaining diversion in my day. We’ve affectionately termed our typo-spotting game “Sherlocking,” after a scene in the BBC television series “Sherlock,” when the great detective takes the time to correct a criminal’s grammar before sending him to the gallows.

You are all charity and benevolence, Mr. Holmes.

It should come as no surprise, then, that my Friday morning was off to a snickering start when I read the following Tweet from the BBC:

While the actual article headline assured readers that Lee wasn’t “pressured” into releasing her second novel, the damage had already been done. Merriam-Webster defines pressurize as “to press (something) tightly into a container.” No one can ever erase the images my mind conjured of Lee being forced into an enormous pressure cooker. In my score-keeping, this ties for first place with the time that Kristen Stewart told a reporter that she’d “literally implode” if she couldn’t act. OK, now, I know that Bella Swan tends toward the melodramatic, but I find it hard to believe that not having one’s dream job would result in collapsing inward in a very sudden and violent way.

Last Sunday, I dared to Sherlock the writers of “The Big Bang Theory” on a post written in honor of International Women’s Day, discussing what makes the main female characters such amazing role models. I tried to restrain myself. Truly. You must know this. I did everything I could to keep my hands otherwise occupied. I played fetch with my dog. I ate a cookie. I sat on my thumbs until they lost all sensation. Nothing helped. I just had to point out that, given the subject matter of the article, describing Bernadette as “the dependent character who has her life in line” doesn’t quite carry the intended meaning. Did they mean independent? Dependable? Either possibility would make far more sense in the context of the sentence. The writers of the show have since expressed their undying gratitude to me with a pair of tickets to the next taping. Bazinga! No one ever actually responded to my tweet. I don’t expect to be thanked for doing my duty as I see fit, but I ask you, in my position, what would Sheldon Cooper have done?


If you spot any errors in this post, I give you leave to shamelessly Sherlock me. It is your duty as a devoted reader.

“Kingsman: the Secret Service” Movie Review

Ever since the 20th Century Fox panel at the 2014 Comic Con in July featured Matthew Vaughn’s upcoming film, “Kingsman: the Secret Service,” starring Colin Firth, Taron Egerton, and Samuel L. Jackson, social media and the popular press has been abuzz with speculation, and the question at the tip of every tweeter’s tongue has been: since when is Colin Firth an action hero? After months of anticipation, debates over the film’s supposed hyper-violence, and teasing trailers featuring Firth displaying an impressive set of stunt skills with—of all things—a weaponized umbrella, all questions were finally put to rest this past weekend with the film’s release. Take a look:

The story, based on the 2012 comic book series by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons, tells of a secret, gentleman spy organization and how Harry Hart (Colin Firth) works to train a troubled-but-promising street boy, Eggsy (Taron Egerton) to work for the organization. As a debt of honor to Eggsy’s father, who had been a part of the organization and had lost his life to save Hart’s, Hart rescues the boy from a life of petty crime to mentor and train him. At the same time, the world is under threat from the villainous Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson), a comically-twisted tech genius hell-bent on destroying the planet.

With film-producing credits like “X-Men: First Class” (2011) and “Kick-Ass” (2010) to his name, Matthew Vaughn clearly knows his genre and his audience well. At once hilarious and hair-raising, the film both satirizes and pays homage to the spy films of the 1960s and 70s; indeed, several scenes in which Hart and Valentine casually and comically converse about the genre, referencing such touchstones as the iconic James Bond movies, might just as easily be Firth and Jackson nostalgically reminiscing about such films. For me, the scenes involving Hart and Valentine were some of the most rewarding to watch; there is something deeply satisfying about seeing two seasoned actors at the top of their game facing off against one another and clearly enjoying every minute of it. The action sequences, which have raised a few concerned debates about hyper-violence, are no more than one would expect from a film of this genre; the weaponized umbrellas, explosives inconspicuously imbedded in a gentleman’s ring, and heads exploding spectacularly to the tune of “Pomp and Circumstance” are all just tricks of the trade in the world of comic book heroes and gentleman spies.

Firth and Egerton have incredible screen chemistry, the mentor/mentee relationship between long-time actor Firth and newly-rising star Egerton lending a layer of realistically tender authenticity to the almost father-son bond that Hart and Eggsy form. Egerton shines brilliantly amidst the likes of Firth, Jackson, Mark Strong, and Michael Caine. Aside from the impressive action sequences, Firth’s role is not as much a departure from his usual work as speculation has led us to believe, for Hart’s character is deeply rooted in the trope of the English gentleman that often times seems as much Firth himself as the characters he portrays.

Vaughn has masterfully assessed his audience with this film, casting a wide enough net to ensure that there would be something for everyone to enjoy—especially on an intensely competitive box-office opening weekend, when the date-night entertainment tossup was a choice between “Kingsman” and “Fifty Shades of Grey.” While Vaughn’s latest film scored second in the President’s Weekend box-office total (with $42 million compared to “Fifty Shades’s” $94.4 million), it earned considerably more than “Kick-Ass,” which took in an estimated $19 million on opening weekend according to Entertainment Weekly’s latest report. Comic book and espionage film enthusiasts will appreciate both the action and satire of the genre, and Colin Firth fans will applaud his seamless transitioning between bespoke-suited gentleman and action hero. All in all, a well-rewarded wait for a much-anticipated movie.

“The Impossible Will Take a Little While”: a Reflection on #StopAbleism2015 and Social Media Activism

#Ferguson; #ICan’tBreathe; #BringBackOurGirls; #YesAllWomen; if you’ve frequented social media at all in recent weeks, and in particular within the past year, any or all of the above hashtags will likely have flitted across your Twitter, Facebook, or Tumblr timeline at least once. From the protests surrounding the shootings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, to the kidnapping of Nigerian schoolgirls by Boko Haram, to the world-wide grief and outrage over the Charlie Hebdo attack, Twitter hashtags have, like much of the Internet, created a virtual global space in which people can unite to spread news and information, to encourage, to grieve, and to show solidarity. Yet one hashtag has, not surprisingly given recent international events, received far less attention, though it likely wouldn’t have garnered much even on a slow news day.

Like most of the social media-addicted world, I spent a part of my New Year’s Day 2015 scrolling through the myriad of Internet activism-related hashtags interspersed with tweets about well-intentioned New Year’s resolutions. As I prepared to slam the lid of my laptop shut and abandon Twitter for the pre-Internet delight of reading a book, I paused over a hashtag that I had previously never seen: #StopAbleism2015. Like many of the hashtags that have received media attention within the past year, #StopAbleism2015 has a focused mission to spread awareness about disability discrimination and how to end such discrimination. Tweets sent under this hashtag range from statistics about mental illness to stories of cab drivers refusing to pick up a passenger traveling with a service animal.

In“The Case for Social Media and Hashtag Activism, Sabina Khan-Ibarra writes that “Individuals with certain disabilities, caretakers, and those with young children can be involved with activism and not be limited by their inability to physically mobilize. This gives opportunities to highlight that which was previously unheard and unseen—making the voices we hear more diverse and a more true reflection of reality.” In simplest terms, people tweeting under the hashtag #StopAbleism2015 have used their stories to put an abstract concept into clear, and often heart-wrenchingly concrete language. According to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, ableism refers to discrimination against people with disabilities, but how do we identify patterns of ableist behavior in others (or even in our own actions) if we don’t know what it looks like? While I have all too often been on the receiving end of malicious, intentional discrimination because of my disability, I have found that, more often than not, ableism is born less of hatred than of ignorance. The commuter sitting beside me on the bus who notices my guidedog at my feet and asks, “What’s wrong with you?” is expressing, albeit tactlessly, curiosity about my disability and what my service animal does for me. (Side note: many service animal handlers consider it invasively rude to ask what their service animals do, not because they don’t have the desire to educate the public, but because very often disability results from any number of physically and emotionally painful experiences ranging from car accidents to cancer. So before you get too curious, consider how you’d feel discussing with a stranger at the bus stop what it was like to lose your vision because of a brain tumor.)Assuming that my fellow commuter has never before encountered someone with a service animal, in her curiosity about my dog and her uncertainty about how to broach the subject, she unwittingly addresses me with ableist language. To ask what is “wrong” with me implies that I am in some way flawed or defective, which carries greater implications about my ability to be a productive citizen: to perform labor, to live independently, to maintain healthy, fulfilling relationships. Technically and medically speaking, the only thing “wrong” about me is the fact that my sense of sight is limited to the ability to detect light and shadows, but there is nothing inherently wrong about me as a human being.

Many people with disabilities, myself included, can recite a litany of amusing stories about questions they’ve received from curious people, like the person who asked one of my friends if her guidedog helps her cook. Then there are the stories that reveal the harmful and often irreversible damage that ableism inflicts. Here are just a few examples of the stories that #StopAbleism2015 has motivated people to share:

All too often, in conversations about discrimination, disability seems like the music being piped through the speakers at the local coffee shop: just-discernable background noise. #StopAbleism2015 seems an attempt to amplify the voices of people with disabilities. The criticism that the trend has received stems from the notion that, as several people have argued to me, the hashtag isn’t about activism; it’s about raising awareness for basic human rights. Yet raising awareness to call for social or political change is at the heart of any form of activism. The objection is, paradoxically, ableist in its own way; it suggests that we cannot categorize #StopAbleism2015 as the beginning of a movement, because, simply put, the participants aren’t mobilizing; they are simply affirming the prevalence of ableism through statements that express anger, sadness, and frustration about the treatment we receive at the hands of society. Unfortunately, if you peruse the collection of #StopAbleism2015 hashtags, this negativity becomes quite evident. . Helen Keller once famously declared, “Self-pity is our worst enemy, and if we yield to it, we can never do anything wise in this world.” Our collective righteous indignation at the prevalence of ableism in society can only carry us so far, and yet, we must begin somewhere. As Khan-Ibarra points out, hashtag activism allows those who cannot “mobilize” to use their voices as vehicles of change.

As much as I insist that my disability doesn’t entirely define me, it nevertheless makes up an integral part of my being; since I lost my sight due to a genetic condition, it is imprinted on my body, written in my DNA as surely as the color of my hair or the shape of my face. It is a part of the story I tell every day, impacting the ways that I can (and cannot) use my body. Some of the stories that people have taken to Twitter to share under the #StopAbleism2015 hashtag are humorous; some are sad; some make me want to hurl things at the wall in anger and frustration; all are deeply personal, a testament to the fact that we are human, with a basic human right to be treated equally. In a world where people with disabilities encounter various degrees of challenges navigating their environments, the Internet is (increasingly, if not absolutely) a space that we can navigate with relative ease, so it should come as little surprise that the disabled community has embraced Twitter as a medium for raising our voices in this demand for equality.

Set against the backdrop of the hashtag activism that has taken the Web by storm, #StopAbleism2015 seems hardly a movement of any great magnitude, but it takes tremendous courage to share some of the stories that have been told, and those who choose to lend their voices to the conversation should be commended. Will #StopAbleism2015 have the power to raise employment rates of people with disabilities, or erase the Undue Hardship clause from the Americans with Disabilities Act? Maybe; maybe not, but to quote Paul Rogat Loeb in The Impossible Will Take a Little While, “Just pushing the stone in the right direction is cause for celebration.”

Note: for a more comprehensive background of hashtag activism, check out this blog post from The Washington Post

Video Games and the Future of the Digital Humanities: Some Thoughts

Yesterday I readthis article in the New York Times about an MFA program in Video Game design that forms part of the Tisch School of the Arts. According to the article, the program exists alongside Theater, Film, and Television programs. In addition to studying the history of games like Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat and seeking to gain contemporary design ideas from consoles like the Atari, Students have also embarked on projects like the one in Professor Eric Zimmerman’s class that incorporated historical narrative into a first-person shooter game: “A game that began as a military shooter about the 1937 Battle of Shanghai was, over several months, transformed into an interactive exploration of the fog-of-war recollections of a fictional photojournalist.”
This program offers evidence of an increasing trend within the digital humanities to use gaming and game theory as tools to teach literature. I have seen this trend take hold particularly within my own field of nineteenth-century studies. Work like Michael Suc-Young Schwe’s Jane Austen: Game Theorist (2013) challenges us to think about how game theory and the gaming platform as narrative can deepen close reading and character analysis. Schwe posits that Austen employed the strategic thinking of game theory in her six novels as the basis for the choices her characters made in navigating the various levels of Regency England’s social hierarchy. In view of game design degree programs like the one at NYU, such scholarship can certainly work in tandem with the development of games based on literary texts. Among the most recent are the board game Marrying Mr. Darcy, based on Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and Sherlock: the Networkan iOS game based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series and its currently popular television adaptation, BBC’c “Sherlock.” Several game developers have also recently launched Storium—the online storytelling game. In response to the interest of educators, the creators are also at work on Storium for Schools—an encouraging development that can prove an exciting teaching tool for anyone interested in using the tools of the digital humanities to galvanize literary studies. Using these tools can allow students to participate in the narrative as active readers and think critically about the role that reader response can have on the outcome of the narrative. Such tools can also neatly dovetail the study of the serialized novel—in particular how the reader responses that impacted the work of novelists like Dickens and Gaskell demonstrate the importance of audience awareness in a similar manner to the online dialogues that occur between fan communities and writers on the internet today.
As somewhat of a DH newbie, I would love to hear from anyone who has used video or board games as teaching tools in literature courses and how students responded to the experiment, so please feel welcome to share any experiences in the comments.