All posts by Amitava Kumar

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Heat of Life

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Matthew Desmond wrote that the people he was studying for his book Evicted taught him how to see. (Photo: Scott Brauer for The Chronicle)

If you are an academic, and your manuscript is accepted for publication by a university press, a questionnaire mailed to you will ask for a list of the courses in which your book can be taught. (A similar question is asked of those serving as reviewers of a manuscript for a university press: “Will the book have any crossover appeal?”) The idea is to assess…

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Nina in Siberia

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Elif Batuman and her new book

 

Elif Batuman’s novel The Idiot, published earlier this year, has as its protagonist young Selin who, at the book’s beginning, is starting her freshman year at Harvard. We are in the fall semester of 1995. Selin is more or less a stand-in for her creator: Not only does she want to be a writer, she also has some of the same experiences that Batuman has written about in earlier memoir-essays. The book is self-conscious about the uncertainties immanent in language:…

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Ars Poetica

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Jake Adam York reading one of his poems in 2007. York died of a stroke in 2012 at age 40.

I like listening to Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac with my daughter. She is in seventh grade. We catch the day’s broadcast on my phone while waiting in the morning at the bus stop. Keillor first offers a bit of literary history, listing the name of writers whose birthday falls that day, and he ends by reading a poem.

I wait for my daughter to say, on occasion, “I liked the poem.” The moment tha…

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Lessons From ‘Stoner’

John-Williams-StonerWhen the writer Jim Harrison died last month, I came across the following quote from one of his books:

“I wasn’t very long at Stony Brook,” he writes in Off to the Side, “when it occurred to me that the English department had all the charm of a streetfight where no one actually landed a punch.”

I promptly put this quote up on Facebook. Those words appealed to me. They revealed the tensions that make academic interactions so very fraught, and they also told me that all the warring that goes on is…

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An Exercise in Bad Writing

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The Cathedral of St. John the Divine from Morningside Park

An invitation came by email to contribute to a teaching volume. A brief piece, only a few hundred words long, was needed. Describe a favorite teaching exercise from your literature classes. The word “fun” was also used. I responded immediately. The previous semester I had asked my creative-writing students to do a simple exercise in class. They were required to produce bad writing.

Hemingway’s short story “Hills Like White Elephants…

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From Seneca to Self-Help

HowProustIn 1997, Alain de Botton published his book How Proust Can Change Your Life. I was charmed by it. I remember using it in a course on cultural criticism for a graduate class that had a mix of theorists and creative writers. I thought of de Botton’s book as a model we could adopt. Here was an original work of criticism that taught me something about Proust while it playfully adopted a popular or low-brow form of writing — that is, the self-help book.

Like every other self-respecting academic, I’…

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On @Tejucole and #Prompts

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Teju Cole
Photo credit: Retha Ferguson

The use of the word prompt to mean incitement or cue has probably been around for 500 years or so, but its use in a narrower sense, as an instruction or directions for a writing assignment in class, is new to me. I swear I hadn’t even heard it until maybe a couple of years ago. “Professor, what is the prompt for next week?”

“Did you check the syllabus? Take this poem by Muriel Rukeyser, “Waiting for Icarus,” and rewrite it as if you were a reporter filing a …

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‘Academic Interest’

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Sunaura Taylor and Judith Butler go for a walk.

In a video that is available online, you can watch Judith Butler, philosopher and winner of a bad writing award, speaking to a crowd at Occupy Wall Street. It is a short speech, pointed and incantatory, and Butler is brilliant.

A wonderful innovation of the Occupy Wall Street movement was the use of the human microphone — the name given to the body of the audience repeating, amplifying, each statement made by the speaker. This practice was probab…

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What Did You Say?

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Claudia Rankine’s poetry ushers the reader in to an intimacy that comes from acquiring consciousness. (Photograph from Pomona College)

If you are among the 128K followers on Twitter of @AcademicsSay, you have read tweets like the following:

“I have a statement followed by a two-part question.”

“Posit.”

“I often get emotional. But when I do, I call it affect.”

“Let’s unpack this a bit.”

etc.

I recognize myself — and us — in these tweets. Such self-mocking tweets can be amusing and also, if th…