Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Other avatars



Ok, so here's the avatar Joel made for himself. Very serious. But he has got the hair and the eyebrows exactly right. He hasn't done the face recognition test yet, but was looking over my shoulder at a distance the other night and saying things like "I know who that one is", with great confidence, and he is always recognising actors in the movies, etc. Lucky I didn't pass this problem on to him.

And really, it's hardly debilitating. Though I am a bit shocked to see how well other people have done on the test!

Update:
And here is Pavlov's Cat's glammo avatar of me, done from memory, no less, based on the photo on my home page. Charitably, she has portrayed an avatar of me of at least two decades ago, but she matched my favourite black top pretty well. Though I must say, I am often pretty good with remembering and recognising textiles myself: no clothes-blindness for me! For the record, I am also very good at remembering menus. In the old dinner-party days in the 80s, I could always remember what I had served, and what I had been served, for years afterwards. It's not really a memory problem, this prosopagnosia thing.

Two new Melbourne Bloggers

Welcome to the (Melbourne) blogosphere: a colleague blogging about street art and everyday images at Images to Live By, and an honours student blogging about her thesis on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and various other essays (gosh, it's a tough year, our honours year) at mony wylsum way.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Face-blindness

Pavlov's Cat directs us to a great page where you can make your own manga. This is mine.

I cheated, though, since I got Joel to make it for me. As PC remarks, it has options for making you look "too young", as Joel said, or completely shrivelled. He found by putting my reading glasses on he could get a better image, but he was disadvantaged as it allowed you to put only one spot on.... (He used to practise counting, when a small child, by counting the moles on my face.) I did try having a go at doing my own, but couldn't work out how to translate the image in my mirror into the graphic possibilities listed. As a Wii player, though, who at one point made Wii avatars of most of the cast of the West Wing, he was my resident expert.

I find the question of facial recognition very interesting. I am not very good at it at all, and am one of those people who can't always follow the plots of TV or films because I can't always tell the actors apart. There is a lovely name for the serious end of this spectrum: prosopagnosia, or face-blindness. It can be acquired (after trauma or degenerative illness), or developmental (it can take hold before your growing brain learns how to distinguish faces).

There is a terrific website about this condition, from the Prosopagnosia research centres at Harvard and University College, London, where you can take a couple of online tests. On the first one, where you are asked to memorise then recognise faces, I scored 49/72, which translates to 68%, where if you score less than 65% you probably have face-blindness. On the second test, where you are asked to recognise famous faces without their hair, etc. I scored 18/30, which was 60%, where an average score is 85%.

This is not a particularly big problem for me, though I do tend to use things like hair and voice and clothes and emotional affect to help me in the movies. On the other hand, I have had a couple of truly awful moments in my life when I have not recognised someone I really should have, or where I have confused a perfect stranger with someone I know. I have told these stories to a select few, and they are kind of funny; but it can be a little tricky — and in the extreme cases, where people can't recognise their nearest and dearest, it must be quite debilitating. For me, it's mostly just a case of being amazed when people I'm watching TV with can recognise actors from other shows. I've never had any trouble remembering my students' faces, for example, though I'd be absolutely hopeless if I ever had to sit down with the police and the Identikit.

Dame Eleanor has recently blogged about the fatigue of being at a conference and feeling a bit shy and catching herself looking past the person you're with for another familiar face. And I'm sure we've all been there. At the same conference, I found myself often over-compensating for my fear of not being able to recognise people I had already met (I hate the embarrassment when someone I think I've just met for the first time tells me when we last met), by greeting a number of folk rather more effusively than they had reason to expect. So if that was you, this was why. In addition to my being overcome by enthusiasm for your writerly and scholarly brilliance, of course.

Later.... Wanna take the test and post your results as a comment? Or send me your avatar in an email? We could put up a gallery. This seems to be the meme of the moment, judging from the (Australian) (women's) blogs I've dropped in on tonight...

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Rivalries: Cities, Nations, States and Genders

My favourite gag about Sydney-Melbourne rivalries goes like this: "If someone in Sydney has an idea, they throw a party; in Melbourne, they start a journal."

Further grist to this particular mill is provided with UNESCO's announcement that Melbourne is to be the new City of Literature, following up on Edinburgh's achievement in 2004.

Of course this is all falling into the background behind the Olympics, and especially behind Sally ("Oh my God, is this real? You've got to be kidding me, right? Did you see me? Did you see how pumped I was? I was more pumped than I've ever been in my life. Shit, I could see a girl passing me but kept running my own race. Amazing. I can't believe it.") McLellan's unexpected (she was supposed just to be getting some experience) silver medal in the hurdles, but how these things do chase each other around the world.

England and Australia have always had tremendous sporting rivalries, most notably in cricket, and our sports minister, Kate Ellis, was foolish enough to bet we would do better than the UK in Beijing, vowing she would wear the union jack colours to the next sporting event if the Brits did better than we did. They are creaming us! But of course, our coaches have been poached by China and the UK, paying them more than Australia can or will afford for their expertise. I gather, too, that the UK has been diverting lottery money away from the arts and into their sporting programmes. Yeah, but we've got a city of literature now!

Amid all the talk of international rivalries, and the new country of Phelpsville (which on the medal-per-head-of-population chart would look pretty incredible), a number of commentators here are talking about the brilliant success of Australian women, compared to our men. It's also the case that most of them come from Queensland. So I'm proposing a new state of Femenye (I'm teaching The Knight's Tale this morning). They don't even have to change the name: just enter women from the northern state in their own right. Problem solved!

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Literature, corruption, institutions, blogging

A few cool links from today's papers.

First up, a satirical contribution to the usual debate about literature, and its teachers, corrupting the minds of the young in an op-ed piece in The Age by a Year 12 teacher at the excellent high school just north of the university campus: yay for public education!

And second, a link to the blog of Macquarie University's Vice-Chancellor. Chaucerians will be pleased to know the motto of this university is And gladly teche. But this is what he says in the article about his blog in The Australian:
"To be frank, a great logo and a stirring motto mean little in these digital days when people can set up a blog or chat site and ask: "What is X university really like?"

You know that blogging has really hit the mainstream when the V-Cs are taking it up.

Is it a bit disturbing, though, that he admits he tracks when comments come from his own campus? Or is this just the reality of blogging? If we have time, it's possible to use a tracker to guess the identity of readers from their location (though it's also very easy to get this wrong!). I wonder if institutional blogs like that should really be using a tracker.

And there's the link back to Tony Thompson's article, since he also writes about 1984.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Australia, Slovakia, Mongolia

Just in case you were thinking it'd be interesting to compare national Olympic performances relative to population, go here. Oh look! Australia's on top.

This doesn't stop Australians at home being completely ungracious and ugly about our swimmers winning silver medals or not qualifying for the athletics finals. Gosh we can be mean sometimes. Disgraceful!

[Update: OK, we're not on top anymore. That's fine: it's still a really interesting list...]

Friday, August 15, 2008

Pain

About this time yesterday, I was at my desk at work, just packing up my stuff. I was about to ride home in the drizzling rain, meet Paul at home and go to our friend Kristin's opening, and then out to dinner at our favourite place (Joel was away for a week at ski camp and we were determined to go out together). I'd had some good classes this week and chapter six is coming along nicely. But I became conscious of a nasty pain in my stomach, and only started to feel a bit better when we sat down over our meal (Paul had the duck soup with dumplings and I started with six divine oysters, lined up in a row, each prepared differently), when I realised why my insides were knotted up in a fist-sized ball. It was stress.

What had brought this about? The situation at work is tricky at the moment. We are entering yet another round of curriculum reform and I have to devise a new subject in medieval literature that will attract goodly numbers of students (an enrolment under 40 is frowned upon and 100 is ideal!); but worse, the arts faculty is still in debt, and jobs will have to go. The first round of voluntary departures saw only a few (excellent) staff leaving; and the pressure on others is starting to be felt, with inevitable tensions. Well, have you published ten articles (or let's be really brutal and say "points") over the last five years? No? No sabbatical for you. And would you like to think about leaving, too?

Yesterday, then, I was copied into a bunch of emails, and had several conversations with colleagues who are doing their best to look after our staff, especially the less well established folk who are the ones mostly caught up in this, and to make sure these policies are implemented at least equitably, and not punitively. I'm not directly involved in any of this, and yet my stomach was knotted up in a way that kept me awake much of the night.

How much more ghastly, then, for those in the faculty whose jobs are threatened, who feel the weight of performance anxiety hanging over them every day?

I've not blogged about this much, but since this blog is about the intersections of the professional and the personal, even the bodily, I'm recording the way my body is registering the stress that runs through a faculty under pressure.

I think in my own case it affects me because, nearly two years ago now, when I first realised I might have breast cancer, I was in the thick of curriculum reforms and re-structuring debates I was finding difficult. So it seems like re-visiting that moment of mortal fear, too.

I don't want this post to sound too grim. I also want to go on record as saying I love my honours class this semester; the first-years I lectured to on Woolf and modernism this week were attentive and interested; my honours and graduate students are doing brilliant work at the moment, and I am bursting with ideas for the work and the writing I am doing and want to do. But when a much beloved institution gives you a pain in the pinny, the day can seem dark indeed.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Abstracted bodies

Was anyone else as annoyed as I was at the sight of those hundreds of Chinese girls in their white dresses and heeled boots as they hopped up and down and performed their little kicks to the side as the athletes marched in to the Beijing stadium? Could anything have been more calculated to bring us down from the beauty of the previous show? or to contrast more strongly with the hundreds of scholars in their swirling silk robes? Here were disciplined bodies abstracted to the nth degree, providing nothing more than guiding lines for marshalling the athletes. Ok, a great feat of endurance, patience and discipline, in keeping up all that jigging around for however long it took, but for me, it was just depressing to see such energy channelled to such a trivial end...

Friday, August 08, 2008

Supervalent Thought

Because she is coming to Melbourne next week, I've been directed to Lauren Berlant's blog, Supervalent Thought. It's on my blogroll, now, and I think I'll be checking it regularly. It's beautifully written, and both philosophical and personal in ways that do the kind of touching that is being discussed over at In the Middle's discussion of Carolyn Dinshaw's Getting Medieval. The most recent post, "On Potentiality, #1", writes wonderfully about "the sickening sense of knowing that you're what gets in your own way, and people who are ...

Smart, hilarious, winning, full of life and potentiality, energetic-depressed rather than just depressed, eloquent, almost smooth, and unsettled, unsettled so deeply that nothing, no project, could absorb them. There was rarely a career; just jobs, while the creative energy sought out just the right outlet. People defined by having potential. People whose observational intelligence takes your breath away: they’re Dorothy Parker, write the best letters to the editor, blog with perfectly formed opinions. Quipsters, they blaze hot and then enter a fallow time, until they forget somehow that they’re there and then say something revealing their brilliance, which restarts the arc of almost sustaining its energy into something like a life, but not quite.


There's more in this post I haven't digested yet, but potentiality is on my mind this evening, as I spent three hours today on our academic unsatisfactory progress committee. This is the last court of appeal after students have failed bunches of subjects, and gone through all the counselling and special considerations their faculties can offer them. All our committee is really empowered to do is make sure due process has been followed; that there has been no bias in the implementation of policy; and see if there is any further information.

Sadly, most of these students are international students; or Australian students with ethnic backgrounds that insist on discretion about family troubles, whether financial, medical or social. So they often haven't sought help or advice. But I had better not blog any more about them: discretion is appropriate here. The awful thing is realising how young these students are, and how difficult it is to learn what one is good at, and how hard it is, so early, to find the right path.

I do often feel lucky, in that I think I fell into the right path for me. Not because I chose the academic life over countless other possible paths; it was only that I could never really see anything else. Not that I couldn't see anything else I wanted to do: I just could never really see anything other than reading and writing. I'm sure my work is more mundane and humble that the brilliant arcs of potentiality Berlant describes, but on the other hand, it doesn't torment me, either.

P.S. The morning after... Actually, that's not quite true, that my work doesn't torment me: I'd say it's pretty much an equal mixture of pleasure and pain, especially the writing phase I am in at the moment. But it does at least, usually, eventually, lead to a finished product of one kind or another.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Keeping your slim finals hopes alive with a screamer

There's nothing like a sporting cliché, in my view. My AFL team, Essendon, has had a grim couple of years, and the start of this season was not much better. But now, as the home-and-away series draws to a close (only three or four weeks to go), we are starting to put together some wins, and if we win all our remaining games, and if the right teams above us on the ladder lose the right ones, we might just make it into the top eight for the September finals. For the last few weeks, each win has been described as "keeping their slim finals hopes alive".

And how do you do that? Like this.


This photograph was taken by Sebastian Costanza for The Age, and can be found here.

I didn't watch the game, but (and apologies to my footy-loving Australian readers) this is a "mark", taken by the captain, Matthew Lloyd. If you take a mark cleanly, you are given a free kick, immune from tackling by the other players. If you take it at the right angle, and not more than about 50 metres from goal (that is, the sticks), you have a good chance of kicking a goal that will put your team 6 points ahead. When you fly up like this, it's invariably called a "screaming mark", or just a "screamer". I love this! Check the face of the kid above player No. 37 and the general open-mouthed quality of the crowd for a sense of the greatness of this contender for MOTY (mark of the year). Check the relative position of Lloyd's knees to the shoulders of the opposition, and note that he, at 30 years of age, is a veteran of the game, to get a sense of the athleticism we are dealing with here. And check the beautiful reach of the player disappearing out of the left side of the picture — himself half a metre off the ground and reaching back over his own head — to see why Australian football is sometimes compared to ballet.

Friday, August 01, 2008

The Time of Medievalism

At the NCS congress in Swansea, it was clear that there was a renewed interest in medievalism. There were a couple of panels on the topic, echoing the series of panels organised by David Matthews at Leeds, the previous week, while Carolyn Dinshaw's paper on Michael Powell's 1944 film, A Canterbury Tale, as a meditation on time and spatiality in our connections with the medieval, really gave the field a new impetus, though David Wallace's Presidential Address at NCS in New York two years ago, had similarly made a strategic point of affirming the interest of medievalism to medieval studies.

Of course there is already a journal, Studies in Medievalism, devoted to the subject, and an annual conference, and all; but work in this field has tended to take place adjacent to, rather than in much dialogue with, medieval studies. It's interesting to see this new wave of interest.

On a more personal note, during one of the medievalism panels at Swansea, my co-author and I were both in the audience, dithering in different parts of the room as to whether we should stand up and draw attention to an essay we had recently published, that rehearsed some of the moves being presented in that panel. We maintained our scholarly modesty, and did not do so, though it is by no means an unheard-of thing to do. Just seemed a bit unseemly, is all.

But what the hell? A blog is different; and I'll self-promote here if I want to.

In the latest issue of New Medieval Literatures (volume 9, for 2007), Tom Prendergast and I have an essay, "What is Happening to the Middle Ages?" It derives a little from the talk I gave at NCS in July, 2006. We talk about the opposition between medieval studies and medievalism studies, and argue that medieval studies often abjects the latter as involving too much pleasure to be taken seriously. The real "work" belongs to medieval studies proper. "Contemporary medievalism is now tarred by the same brush that in conservative circles continues to dismiss cultural studies as mere chat about television, cinema and the Internet; that is the accusation that there is too much pleasure, too little work in its study." We also suggest that while the opposition between the medieval and the post-medieval is a crucial component in the formation of the modern subject "who thus emerges as capable of both forgetting and remembering the past," this dynamic also characterises the relationship medieval men and women had with their own past; that the medieval is just as often medievalising, as it is not. That is, that the opposition between medieval and post-medieval, medievalist or even, we might say, the non-medieval, is never as crystalline as the strictest medieval scholars might like to maintain. That in fact, the medieval is always being made, by medieval scholars, as well as by popularising medievalists.

And, what's more ... the essay is followed by a response from Carolyn Dinshaw, which in part takes up some of her paper given at the New York NCS, on Rip van Winkle, engaging with the pleasure of this text, and its "temporal heterogeneity", courting the dangerous threats to one's professional identity as a medieval scholar that might ensue from engaging with popular fiction. What's not to like about that?

I'm just saying...