Demon Professor

The truth is that all of my students are brilliant and I don’t particularly care if a few of them slack off toward the end of the semester, but I still sometimes fantasize about being a demon professor.

This comic is a direct homage to the game Little Nightmares II, in which a super creepy teacher is the boss monster of the “School” level. Little Nightmares II is dark and disturbing and awful, and I love it. If nothing else, the visual design is fantastic.

Whisper of the Heart


My husband is a fan of European football, and he spends a lot of time scrolling through football Twitter under a pseudonymous throwaway account. Most of the accounts he follows are British. He got annoyed with not being able to watch the region-locked videos people linked to, so a week or two ago he set up a VPN. (If you’re curious, he uses ExpressVPN, which is $8 a month and seems to be working nicely for him.) His computer now registers as being in the UK, and he employs this for the nefarious purpose of watching a few minutes of football videos a day and being amused by the British ads that Twitter shows him (mostly for snacks).

Even though he doesn’t use it much these days, my husband never stopped paying for his Netflix account, and it recently occurred to him that, with a UK address, he could watch British Netflix.

So the other day I was standing in the kitchen waiting for tea to brew, and my husband was sitting on the couch looking at Netflix UK. I asked him if he’s found anything to watch, and he started complaining that Netflix keeps trying to show him animated movies. He told he that they look Japanese.

I was like, “Okay, yes, go on.”

And he was like, “Have you ever heard of Studio Ghibli?”

That’s when I realized that my husband had never heard of Studio Ghibli.

. . . . .

My husband enjoys movies, but he’s in his forties and comes from a country where there hasn’t been a culture of anime fandom until relatively recently. He likes the Makoto Shinkai movies we’ve watched, which he calls “documentaries about Japan,” so I thought that Whisper of the Heart would be the best Studio Ghibli movie to show him. He loved it.

I loved it too. It’s been about ten years since I last saw Whisper of the Heart, and I was not expecting it to hit as hard as it did.

Whisper of the Heart is about a middle-school girl named Shizuku who loves reading. Shizuku checks out books from the local library, and she’s noticed that there’s another kid’s name on almost all of the library borrower cards inside the covers of the books she reads. She ends up meeting this boy, who is her age but wants to study the craft of violin making in Italy instead of matriculating to high school. Inspired by his determination to follow his dream, Shizuku decides to follow her own dream of writing a fantasy novel.

Shizuku gets really absorbed in her writing. She tells a friend that she has no appetite because she’s too preoccupied with her novel, and then she eats shortbread cookies so she can stay awake while she’s writing in the evening. She stops hanging out with her friends after school so that she can fantasize about her novel while walking home. She only puts in the bare minimum of work necessary to get by at school, and her grades drop. She gets explosively irritated when people interrupt her while she’s writing. When she’s done with the story, she gets super neurotic about feedback. She cries a lot.

I was just sitting there, like, “Oh my god. Oh my god. Oh my god.”

How dare Hayao Miyazaki come into my house and call me out like this.

. . . . .

The range of what my husband does and doesn’t know about internet culture is a mystery to me, so I was surprised when he asked me if the anime girl from the Lofi Hip Hop Radio channel on YouTube is modeled on the protagonist of Whisper of the Heart.

The answer is yes, of course she is. This reference is so obvious to me that I never thought about it as something other people might not get.

Because I teach upper-level seminar classes that don’t have any formal prerequisites, I spend a lot of time thinking about what my students do and don’t already know. I treat grad students like the educated adults they are, but it can sometimes be difficult to tell with undergrads. At George Mason, most of the students were either immigrants or the children of immigrants, but they had all gone through American public high school, so I could assume that they were vaguely aware of certain cultural touchstones. At UPenn, on the other hand, the students who went to public high school in America might actually be a tiny minority. Each new microgeneration of kids is going to create its own common knowledge base regardless of where they come from, so you have to be sensitive to that, but it’s just the nature of working with a large and heterogeneous group of people that there will be all sorts of things you don’t think about.

I went to college early, and then went to grad school right after college and got my PhD fairly quickly, so I was roughly in the same generation as my students for most of the time I was teaching. I’ve gotten older, though, as people tend to do. Now it surprises me when my undergrads are genuinely curious about Harry Potter because they’ve never read the books or seen the movies. Things I just absorbed by osmosis because I grew up with them are now units of knowledge that need to be explained, and that’s wild.

I can’t help but wonder if that’s what getting older is about – being able to pick up on more cultural references because I’ve had more years in common with the people who create media. And then I wonder when the cross-over point is going to be, like, when will I stop getting references because I’m so old that younger people no longer have any culture in common with me?

In any case, Whisper of the Heart is set in the 1990s but feels timeless. It’s still just as beautiful to me now as it was when I first watched it in college. The fact that the vast majority of anime fans under the age of thirty have probably never even heard of movie feels a little weird, but it’s also kind of nice. It’s wonderful that amazing stories were created in the past, but the genius and creativity of past work doesn’t need to be a burden, as there will always be cultural room to create stories in the future that build on the past but still feel fresh and new to each generation.

School’s Out

I’m like this at the end of every semester, but it hits especially hard this year.

It’s tough to get to know a group of interesting and talented people as you watch them learn and grow from week to week, only to then no longer see or talk to (most of) them ever again.

Japanese Science Fiction and Fantasy

This fall I’m teaching a class called “Japanese Science Fiction and Fantasy.”

This class isn’t about science fiction so much as it is about fantasy, horror, and speculative fiction.

I haven’t encountered a lot of writing in English about Japanese fantasy, unfortunately, and this is a shame. Meanwhile, there’s an overwhelming amount of writing in English on Japanese science fiction. In addition, there are so many translations of Japanese science fiction coming out each year that I don’t even bother to keep up with them anymore.

So why the disparity? I’m going to go out on a limb and say that it’s a gender thing. This isn’t to imply that women don’t read and write science fiction, but rather that subcultures surrounding science fiction were overwhelmingly dominated by men from the 1940s to the 1990s. When there were women in these cultures – and this is something Joanna Russ has argued much better than I can – their work tended to be downplayed and disregarded in various ways. They were “just fans,” they were writing “silly romance,” they were writing “for children,” they were writing “disposable comics,” they “weren’t serious writers,” and so on.

So science fiction became a legitimate subject of academic inquiry, while fantasy largely escaped critical consideration. After all, intelligent and important men read and write science fiction, while fantasy is self-indulgent frivolity for the ladies. Or, I should say, I’ve personally encountered that sort of attitude frequently enough to think that it’s deeper than the misguided opinion of any one individual.

My main goal for this semester is to use this class as an excuse to do as much research as I can in both English and Japanese to see what’s out there on Japanese fantasy. Hopefully I might eventually be able to make a few small contributions of my own to the literature.

I’m looking forward to getting started!

Live Your Best Life

I ended my post about theme park fandom with a question concerning how someone gets a job as a theme park journalist. I don’t have any serious interest in theme parks, so what I really want to know is how to get paid for doing what you love. It was mostly rhetorical… but also sort of an actual question.

Do you have to have your own YouTube channel? I am not telegenic and hate the sound of my own voice, but maybe it’s something to consider.

The talk I gave at Otakon last Saturday wasn’t great. I mean, it wasn’t bad. I’m going to say that it was a solid 6/10 performance.

This was mainly because of the platform. The way we had it set up, I couldn’t see the audience (which was virtual anyway), I couldn’t see the chat, I couldn’t see the producers, and I had no way to communicate with anyone. I didn’t even know if video was enabled while I was presenting. Basically, I was sitting at my desk and talking to a dead screen for half an hour, which was super awkward. Afterwards, I could barely hear the questions I was given, even with my laptop’s speakers set at maximum volume. There was no way to gauge reactions, which meant that any sort of humor (including even the most basic crowd work) was impossible. I was so nervous!

I’m definitely not blaming the producers, who did excellent work given the timeframe and limitations, and I’m doing my best not to blame myself. This was the first time I’ve ever given a virtual talk, after all. I spent a good two and a half hours editing the slideshow afterwards, and I also put together several pages of notes about what I can do differently in the future, including how to make humor work and how to be more engaging for an unseen virtual audience.

Still, I’ve been having these weird PTSD flashbacks to the talk during the past week. Like, I’ll randomly remember a word I stumbled over or a name I couldn’t remember off the top of my head or a typo in one of my slides, and I’ll experience an intense moment of physically palpable cringe. Then again, this sort of reaction is normal for a lot of people who give live performances of any kind. It’s difficult at first, but you gradually get used to it. I no longer have any problems with teaching or presenting in person, but this sort of virtual talk was an entirely new experience for me. Thankfully, now that I’ve done it once, it can only get better from here.

I’m wondering if I might be able to make short videos for my class this semester. A general rule of thumb is that, unless you’ve got a lot of text on each slide (which you really shouldn’t), you should spend about one minute on each slide of a presentation. If you’re reading aloud from an essay, one minute is about one double-spaced page. I can definitely make a five-slide presentation and write a five-page “script” to go with it every week. The problem would be recording, as I have exactly no equipment and zero experience in video editing. This would be the point pre-semester when it would be good to go to campus and ask a specialist for assistance and advice, but… you know.

So I guess I’d have to wing it, and maybe keep access to the videos limited to my students. If I’m going to do this, there’s no time like the present. Once I get the hang of it, maybe I can re-record everything and put it on YouTube…

Or not, actually. I mean, we’ll see, but I think it’s important to listen to what my anxiety is telling me. Right now, my anxiety is telling me that this isn’t a good time to teach myself to do something that I won’t enjoy and that won’t be rewarded with positive feedback or financial compensation.

What I actually enjoy is making slideshows, and I also enjoy making zines. Maybe, instead of trying to make videos that I will hate and (let’s be real) no one will watch, I could adapt my slideshows into zines. Printing isn’t that expensive, but it isn’t cheap either, so what I could do would be to make free PDF zines and then, once my finances are a bit more comfortable, print one or two that I think might attract interest. A zine based on my class session about urban legends might be good, for instance.

I don’t think making zines out of my lectures is going to win me fame and fortune, but you know what?

If your dream job doesn’t exist, perhaps you just have to make it yourself.

Twitch Studies

The Twitch streamers who spend years broadcasting to no one
https://www.theverge.com/2018/7/16/17569520/twitch-streamers-zero-viewers-motivation-community

The rise of popular (and profitable) influencers on platforms like YouTube and Twitch has also made the idea of being an online influencer aspirational. Some parents note that their children pretend to unbox toys to a nonexistent audience, and teachers report that their students often say they want to pursue YouTubing as a career. But when seemingly everyone wants to record footage or live stream, who ends up watching the content?

Starting a career on platforms like Twitch often means spending some time broadcasting to absolutely no one. Discoverability is an issue: when you log into Twitch, the most visible people are those who already have a large following. While there are tools to find lesser-known streamers, most people starting out without built-in audiences from other platforms or supportive friends and family end up staring at a big, fat zero on their viewership counter. This lonely live stream purgatory can last anywhere from a few days, weeks, months, sometimes even years, depending on your luck. According to people who have gone through it, lacking an audience is one of the most demoralizing things you can experience online.

I found this article by searching for the title, which I saw in a screencap photo in a Kotaku article about a professor who taught a session of his class about Twitch on Twitch.

Although I sometimes fantasize that I’m recording myself when I do 100% completion speedruns of Legend of Zelda games, I have to admit that I never got into Twitch. I understand the appeal, but like… Okay, how do I put this.

So much of being considered cool in high school and college is about sharing communal experiences. You can’t just watch a movie and talk about it, you have to watch it with your friends and share inside jokes that mainly take the form of repeating the lines from the movie that everyone in your friend group laughed at. I enjoy spending time with people, but I have trouble relaxing enough to passively consume content in the company of a group. Doing something like quietly watching a television show or sports game has always felt like having to sit through an awful and boring lecture.

What I’m trying to say is that Twitch isn’t for me. I’m not suggesting that Twitch isn’t worth reading about and writing about and teaching an entire college class about; but, to me, it’s really nothing more than how teenagers and people in their early twenties have always spent time with their peer groups.

The primary difference, I guess, is that people aspire to do this professionally. In fact, some of my own students are already well on their way to making a career out of streaming or Let’s Play videos.

Anyway, I was thinking about teaching a class through Twitch (or possibly Discord) myself, but I ultimately decided against it. I understand the drive to hold class sessions via videoconferencing, but I also don’t think it’s entirely fair to assume that everyone will have access both to a good internet connection and to a quiet space where they can be alone, especially not during an arbitrarily set time, and not while they’re back with their families. See also:

‘Zoombombing’: When Video Conferences Go Wrong

https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/20/style/zoombombing-zoom-trolling.html

Burn Your Textbook

I’m having a lot of trouble with the cultural politics of my “Introduction to Japanese Culture” class.

On Tuesday I tried to give a nice and pleasant lecture on Zen Buddhism in the Muromachi period and ended up channeling the unquiet ghost of Karl Marx during a discussion of how the cultural production of the elite is glorified as a means of social and political control.

It’s been really difficult for me not to do this. I feel the same way about Zen that I feel about eugenics, which is that we need to apply the same level of critical thinking to the concept of “restful meditation” that we do to the concept of “healthy babies,” especially given that the ideological systems connected to these concepts were used to justify and facilitate two of the worst genocides of the twentieth century.

I’m going to try to do better in today’s class, but I still feel weird about teaching the straightforward narrative laid out by the (admittedly excellent) textbook I chose for the class. The “great men doing great things” approach to history feels so slimy when it comes out of my mouth, like, Hello children, let me sell you lies.

How to Make Classes Work, Step Three

Figure out everyone’s name immediately.

This can be much more difficult and awkward than you’d think it would be.

For whatever reason, a lot of students are cagey about sharing their names, and a surprising number of them tell me something to the effect of, “You can call me whatever you want.” I couldn’t care less what name someone uses or what their pronouns are, but it’s embarrassing when a student won’t tell you what they prefer to be called and then doesn’t respond when you call them by the name that’s listed on the course roster.

It’s also embarrassing when a student won’t give you a straight answer about how to pronounce their name. This applies to every gender, race, and ethnicity, so don’t @ me.

It usually takes me about a month to learn everyone’s name – in other words, I learn people’s names once I’ve had the opportunity to read, comment on, and return a few weeks’ worth of assignments. Once I learn someone’s name, I make a point of using it as often as I can so that the other students pick up on it as well. This process is usually natural and painless, and the students usually get to know each other at some point, but sometimes this just doesn’t work.

What I’m therefore going to do during the spring semester is to devote at least five minutes of every class period during the first three weeks to self-introductions and name memorization games so that everyone learns everyone else’s name from the start whether they want to or not.

The students don’t have to be friends, but I need them to all be emotionally invested in the class and each other, and this has to start with me not being such a coward about misidentifying people and mispronouncing their names.

How to Make Classes Work, Step Two

Wear a suit to every class.

No exceptions.

Because of some weird harassment from [redacted], I had an intense panic attack at the beginning of the semester that left me so sick and weak that it was impossible to wear a suit for the first two weeks. Anxiety may be psychosomatic, but it’s still very much a physical illness.

You may be thinking that I must be some sort of crazy person, and you wouldn’t be entirely wrong, but I’m actually one of the most normal people I know. If you sat next to me on an airplane or met me at a wedding reception, you’d think I was normal too. I like to talk about normal adult things like pets and vacations and real estate and other people’s children. I’m even a little boring, but in a totally normal and average way.

So how does a normcore person like me with no history of health issues turn into a nervous wreck? Stewing in a toxic environment for a few years will do that to you, and at this point I’m having trouble imagining a more toxic environment than academia.

That’s by design – the university system is structured to consume so much of your life (see my essay about how tenure works) that you stop being able to imagine what the world outside looks like. This isn’t healthy, obviously. If I get tenure, one of the first things I’d like to do is to figure out a set of concrete actions that will help to enable the promotion of a culture of kindness, tolerance, and diversity. I genuinely believe that both professors and university administrators (myself included) would be much better at our jobs if we weren’t so stressed out all the time.

Anyway, I think the combination of my casual clothes at the beginning of the semester and the fact that I’m not a cisgender man may have led some of the students to arrive at the conclusion that I am fun.* I actually am fairly easygoing, but I’m always 115% serious in the classroom, and the suit helps convey that message with less room for misinterpretation concerning the level of effort and engagement I expect from my students.

 

* This conclusion is erroneous. I haven’t had fun since 2008.

How to Make Classes Work, Step One

The classroom should have windows.

Every class I’ve taught in a windowless classroom has been difficult.

This is by design.

A built-in feature of the postwar modernist architecture used for a lot of schools and other public buildings in the United States is that it facilitates certain types of social control. For example, if you put students in a room with a low ceiling, poor lighting, no windows, and acoustic features that mute sound, it has a soporific effect. This is meant to make students sluggish, thereby minimizing class disruptions like, you know, a student asking questions or formulating their own ideas.

If this sounds dystopian to you in theory, let me assure you that it’s even more dystopian in practice.

There’s not much I can do about this, to be honest. The last time I tried to request classrooms with windows, I was told that the only time slot available was Saturday morning at 8:00am. The shortage of classrooms at large universities is also by design, even at well-funded flagship state schools located in depopulated areas with declining enrollments. The purpose of this artificial scarcity of basic teaching resources is to keep both students and instructors in a subservient position, but that’s a much longer essay that I have no patience (or emotional energy) to write.

Still, I guess I can at least keep asking. There’s no harm in trying, right?