Daily Archives: 21 July 2006

Ode to English Majors

The Chronicle recently carried a column entitled “Goodbye Mr. Keating [the teacher in Dead Poets’ Society]: To succeed as a Ph.D. in English, you have to give up all of the things that attracted you to the subject in the first place.” It appealed to me for two reasons. (1) I thoroughly enjoyed my graduate work in linguistics because it involved a lot of fieldwork and language-learning, two achievements that proved unfortunately of no great consequence in pursuing an academic career in linguistics, for which I believe I lacked the necessary temperament. (2) My daughter is scheduled to graduate with a B.A. in English next year and is pondering what to do after that. The pseudonymous author of the Chronicle article, an English professor at a midwestern university, waxes romantic about the qualities of undergraduate English majors, many of which ring true.

In a course I taught last spring, after three months of tracing the development of literary theory from humanism to structuralism to poststructuralism to the dilemmas of the present, I finally asked my students the question: “So, why do you want to study literature, knowing what you now know?” I wondered if studying a century of cynicism had altered their motives in the slightest.

They were all considering graduate school, but their answers had little to do with what I knew they would need to write in their application essays. Sitting in a circle in the grass, backed by purple hydrangeas, they offered the following motives:

  • Formative experiences with reading as a child: being read to by beloved parents and siblings, discovering the world of books and solitude at a young age.
  • Feelings of alienation from one’s peers in adolescence, turning to books as a form of escapism and as a search for a sympathetic connection to other people in other places and times.
  • A love for books themselves, and libraries, as sites of memory and comfort.
  • A “geeky” attraction to intricate alternate worlds such as those created by Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and George Lucas.
  • Contact with inspirational teachers who recognized and affirmed one’s special gifts in reading and writing, often combined with negative experiences in other subjects like math and chemistry.
  • A transference of spiritual longings — perhaps cultivated in a strict religious upbringing — toward more secular literary forms that inspired “transcendence.”
  • A fascination with history or science that is not grounded in a desire for rigorous data collection or strict interpretive methodologies.
  • A desire for freedom and independence from authority figures; a love for the free play of ideas. English includes everything, and all approaches are welcome, they believe.
  • A recognition of mortality combined with a desire to live fully, to have multiple lives through the mediation of literary works.
  • A desire to express oneself through language and, in so doing, to make a bid for immortality.
  • A love for the beauty of words and ideas, often expressed in a desire to read out loud and perform the text.
  • An attraction to the cultural aura of being a creative artist, sometimes linked to aristocratic and bohemian notions of the good life.
  • A desire for wisdom, an understanding of the big picture rather than the details that obsess specialists.

Those answers defied everything they had been taught in my theory seminar. Nevertheless, they were all, in different degrees, the answers I would have given as an undergraduate. They reflected the drive toward imaginative freedom expressed by Keating, but they also reflected a deep traditionalism that is equally crucial to English as a discipline. Both impulses, however, are intractably emotional, irrational, and romantic.

Not one student said, I am studying English “because I want to make a lot of money” or “because my parents made me.”

English is, almost always, a freely chosen major — and sometimes it is chosen in spite of parental and material resistance. English is a rebellious major, even as it draws on a tradition deeper than the contemporary American dream of success.

It surprised me that none of my students mentioned a commitment to social justice or to some specific political ideology as a motive. Nearly all of them would have skewed to the left on most of the usual subjects.

When I asked about that, one said, “If I wanted to be a politician, I’d major in political science. If I wanted to be a social worker, I’d major in sociology.” English is, among my undergraduates at least, one of the last refuges of the classical notion of a liberal-arts education.

via Arts & Letters Daily

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In Memory of Joe Stanka, Jr.

This blogpost illustrates the small world phenomenon. Japan-based blogger White Peril recently posted about Japan’s latest, long-running consumer safety scandal.

Manufacturer Paloma Industries has produced on-demand water heaters (the usual type in housing here in Japan) that have been linked to several carbon monoxide poisonings over the years. You know the script for these things by now, don’t you?

We had a similar water-heater installed in our drafty apartment in south China in 1987-88, but we put the heater in the toilet behind a separate wall rather than in the room with the bath, partly because I remembered that a former fellow high schooler in Japan had died from gas poisoning in Kobe in 1965-66 (though it may not have been a water heater). His name was Joe Stanka, the son of Nankai Hawks pitcher Joe Stanka, a major reason my brother and I were ardent Hawks fans at the time. (I’m no longer a Hawks fan. My current Pacific League favorite is Bobby Valentine’s Chiba Lotte Marines.)

Joe Jr. was in my brother’s class. Here’s a poignant follow-up from the spring 2004 issue of the alumni magazine, Canadian Academy Review (PDF).

Foad Katirai ‘68 [Columbia ‘72] felt that he was meant to join this field trip [to the former site of Canadian Academy on Nagamine-dai hillside in Nada-ku, Kobe, Japan] as he came across something of special significance to his class. Upon entering Matsushita Gymnasium, Foad saw a plaque in memory of his classmate, Joseph Stanka Jr., still hanging on the wall above a trophy case. Joe, who died in a gas poisoning accident during their sophomore year [1965-66], was the son of Joe Stanka Sr., a pitcher for the Nankai Hawks, formerly of the Chicago White Sox. While at CA, he followed in his father’s footsteps as a pitcher for the [CA] Falcons. When the Matsushita Gymnasium opened in 1966, the trophy case was dedicated to him. Unfortunately, during the move to the new campus [on Rokko Island], the plaque was left behind. Upon its discovery by Foad, the plaque was returned to Canadian Academy.

I didn’t really know that much about Joe Sr. at the time, but he is profiled in baseball-reference.com.

Stanka went to Nippon Pro Baseball in 1960; playing for the Nankai Hawks, he went 17-12 with a 2.48 ERA in 38 games, finishing sixth in ERA and making the Pacific League All-Star team. In 1961, he went 15-11 with a 3.30 ERA in 41 games. Joe fell to 8-10 with a 3.61 ERA in 1962. He rebounded in 1963, going 14-7 with a 2.55 ERA in 34 games. He was part of a three-way tie for the PL lead with four shutouts.

Stanka had his best year in 1964, as he posted a 26-7 record with a 2.40 ERA in 47 games. As a result Stanka became the first American pitcher of non-Japanese descent to win an MVP award in NPB. His six shutouts led the league, he was second to reliever Yoshiro Tsumajima (2.15) among the ERA leaders and was four wins behind PL leader Masaaki Koyama. Despite winning the MVP award, he lost the Sawamura Award to the only American to win it as of 2005, Gene Bacque of the Central League Hanshin Tigers. Stanka also was the MVP of the Japan Series that season. After shutting out Hanshin in the opener and beating Minoru Murayama by a 2-0 score, he dropped game three 5-4 to Midori Ishikawa. In game six, with the Hawks on the ropes and trailing three games to two, Joe came back to beat Bacque 4-0 with his second shutout. When Nankai skipper Kazuto Tsuruoka asked him if he would be willing to work game seven the next day, Stanka agreed. Despite his fatigue, he threw nothing but goose eggs again, with a 3-0 shutout win over Murayama. He had gone 3-1 with a 1.23 ERA and 0.65 WHIP in the Series.

During Stanka’s final year with Nankai, he went 14-12 with a 3.28 ERA in 34 games. Stanka joined the Taiyo Whales in 1966, where he slipped to 6-13 with a 4.16 ERA in 32 games. Stanka was the first American pitcher to win 100 games in the NPB. His record overall there was 100-72 with a 3.03 ERA.

You have to wonder how much his son’s untimely death during the 1965-66 school year ruined his concentration during the 1966 baseball season. Not a hint of family trauma appears in a retrospective SABR-Zine interview last year entitled Joe Stanka, First American All-Star in Japanese Baseball.

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