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An open letter to Gov. Scott Walker: stop perpetuating the myth of the lazy professor

5 Feb

The Contemplative Mammoth

Dear Gov. Walker,

Last week, you told professors at the University of Wisconsin that they needed to “work harder.” You were making a case that the Wisconsin state budget crisis could be ameliorated by increasing employee efficiency, and you suggested having faculty teach at least one more class. I’m not going to talk about whether or not the budget crisis is manufactured (some have argued it could be solved by accepting federal funds for the state’s Badger Care health program), or whether your real goal is really partisan politics, and not fiscal responsibility.

Ouch. Ouch. Photo by fellow UW Madison geographer Sigrid Peterson.

Instead, I want to talk about the myth of the lazy professor, a stereotype that you’ve reinforced with your comment. I spent 2005 to 2012 at the University of Wisconsin, where I obtained a PhD in the Department of Geography; I am now an assistant professor at the University of Maine.

When you…

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28 Feb

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AAR 2013 Baltimore Twitter Madness

24 Nov

I have been tweeting profusely at all of the sessions I’ve attended. I’m afraid I haven’t yet found the time to summarize the key points for the blog. I plan on doing this soon–perhaps even a bit today. As I said before, however, the action for now is on Twitter. Set up a search for #aarsbl and follow along with me at

Today I’ll be at panels on religion and video games, the Newberry Library’s work on entry-level religion courses, and Remembering Robert Bellah. 

AAR THATCamp Pre-Blog

22 Nov

I’ll write a full write up of my day at the American Academy of Religion’s first THATCamp (the humanities and technology camp). Right now I want to suggest everyone check out our busy day of tweeting by heading to our hashtag collection on #tagboard.

I think I was the biggest offender/promoter, but plenty of other fascinating and exciting voices out there. Twitter was represented very well, and I’ll post a full set of participants next week if I can get Chris Cantwell to share the list with me. 

Check back this weekend and next week for a ton of blog posts about this year’s AAR conference in Baltimore, MD.

The How of Warfare: Ender’s Game

5 Nov

I know many folks who have reservations about seeing or supporting Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game. Card’s personal beliefs are notorious, and I can understand why someone would want to avoid condoning or enabling his prejudices. That kind of boycott is not for me, though. So tonight I did go see the film. Warning! The following is full of spoilers. If you don’t know anything about the book or haven’t see the film, you may want to stop reading.

Ender’s Game tells the story of a young boy who is chosen as the commander of an army to strike back against an alien race that has attacked Earth. The boy, Ender, believes he is training for command and that the battles he fights are simulations. He is mistaken. He has  taken control of the real fleet virtually. When he destroys his enemy and learns the truth of his participation in the genocide of another sentient species, he is furious and devastated. (Other books in the series take up what happen next and, from a religious studies standpoint, are way more interesting.)

The film is a mixed bag. The writer and director, Gavin Hood, tried to save much of the internal mechanics of the source material with a quote from the main character:

In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him.

Unfortunately, the implementation of this idea is shoddy at best. Its many facets fall away in the bright lights of explosions and CGI effects.

In some moments the acting is excellent and the emotional weight of the action is impressive. The climax of the battle and Ender’s realization did make my heart skip a few beats. (It could’ve been even better with better direction, however. The pacing was all over the place and especially off at the end.) I’ve read all of the books in the series, however. I knew what was coming and where it would lead later. I think that gave the moment additional value for me that other viewers might not have had if they were unfamiliar with the series.

At other times–especially in the early growing pains of Ender and his teammates–the youthful actors feel out of their depths. On the whole Asa Butterfield, who plays Ender, does an impressive job. His fury and resolve at the end of the film is convincing. His compatriots are never as convincing.

For me, the movie provoked an interesting question: When are films not products of the moments when they were created? This is an instance where nearly every review and commentary on the film sounded off on the same issues. For Ender’s Game I think there is so much of the present moment that I found it hard to concentrate on the exotic plot. That is, the film saturates itself so thoroughly in the politics of surveillance and drone warfare, that it is difficult not to see the film as an argument against the impersonalization of warfare. Ender’s squadron fights at no risk to themselves, yet the consequences of their strategies are very real. Men and women die. A species is exterminated. (Even the drone pilots become faceless with dark helmet visors that make them little more than mannequins.)

The anonymity of many elements of modern warfare such as drones or long-range missiles, makes it easier than ever for the authors of war to be separated from war’s causalities. In Ender’s Game I think we see both sides of the issue. I don’t agree that the film makes a strong case either way. We don’t know whether or not the aliens were truly preparing for another attack against Earth. While Harrison Ford is powerful as the counterpoint to Ender, his arguments lack the weight of clear evidence.

In this age of drone strikes, Ender’s Game emerges as a meditation on the how of warfare. Ender was recruited by a leader who believes that war is the means to end future wars. After being the instrument of that method, Ender will decide to embark on a different path. Reviews of the film have extensively discussed whether the film is anti or pro war. Was total annihilation right? Was it justified? Ender argues at the end that how we defeat our enemies matters. Reviewers took up this inquiry. I think that’s a useful product of this film’s reception.

This film will be read in the future against its sequels. Speaker for the Dead will determine, in large part, whether or not we can successfully read Ender’s Game as pro- or anti-war. I’ll bide my time for that moment.

Other reviews make some of these points and many others. I would encourage you to read mixed reviews from WiredSlate, or NPR. There’s also a very interesting interview with Harrison Ford at The Daily Beast. For a radically negative view (and there are plenty), you could try Cinephiled’s 1 star take-down. That reviewer wasn’t the only one thinking war, genocide, or boy-to-man journeys have been done better before.

That level of disappointment isn’t for me. I’m a generous audience. I forgive easily, forget quickly, and I’m always looking for an angle that makes a film more interesting. For me, at least, Ender’s Game has plenty for me to sink my teeth into. It’s not very successful at tackling any of the big issues it references–genocide, surveillance, automated warfare, war, or misogyny. But I didn’t expect it to be. I knew it was going to be mediocre. Science Fiction adaptations nearly always are. Usually they’re even worse. ((There’s the cynic in me!) For this to have preserved so much of the core of the story (and the set up the more interesting sequels) was plenty for to be satisfied while I munched my popcorn.

Guillermo del Toro’s Paean to Horror

7 Oct

Io9 had a great link to Guillermo del Toro’s Simpsons “Treehouse of Horror XXIV” couch gag.

1. For those that are unfamiliar with The Simpsons couch gag, look here.

2. For those that are unfamiliar with Guillermo del Toro, head to Wikipedia.  Or you might just watch Cronos (1993), Mimic (1997), The Devil’s Backbone (2001), Blade II (2002), Hellboy (2004), Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008), or Pacific Rim (2013).

Del Toro is just about the greatest contemporary master of science fiction/fantasy horror. Sometimes folks call this “dark fantasy” but fantasy alone doesn’t account for the rich scientific worlds del Toro incorporates in his fairy tales. Regardless of what we call the genre, monsters are del Toro’s wheelhouse, and he’s doing them better than anyone right now.

[The only other contenders in SF/F Horror are David Cronenberg, John Carpenter, James Cameron, Ridley Scott, and Paul (W.S.) Anderson. Of those, Cronenberg, Cameron, and Scott all appear to have moved on to other genres. While Carpenter dwells more solidly in straight horror, and Anderson, alas, is just not up to the level of anyone else in this list. If you think I’m missing someone, let me know! I will admit if we’re talking monsters then we might include Peter Jackson,  David Twohy, Wes Craven, and Stephen Spielberg, too.]

3. Just watch it. Then watch it again. Or half a dozen times like I did while trying to spot all the references.

4. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. And it is glorious..

Reaper of Souls — Religion in Diablo 3’s Expansion

2 Oct

As I suggested in an earlier post on the rising religious elements of a-list video game releases, the Reaper of Souls expansion for Diablo 3 is likely to be thorougly saturated with religious content. Today I want to walk through two of ways that will happen: Narrative and Gameplay.

1. Narrative:

Diablo 3 has a rich backstory (supplemented by comics and novels). Humanity lives in a world called Sanctuary between the High Heavens and the Underworld. It was supposed to be a neutral place, but demons use Sanctuary as a staging ground to invade the High Heavens to defeat God’s angels. Diablo, the Lord of Terror, concocts scheme after scheme to rule the three realms. Inevitably, your task is to defeat him.

[Highlight for an interesting Spoiler about Diablo 3: In Diablo 3, Diablo is female.]

In the expansion, Diablo has been cast down from the High Heavens, but the vessel that enabled his rise to power, the black soulstone, has been stolen by Malthael, the former Archangel of Wisdom turned Angel of Death. Here’s the trailer to see that bit of plot in classic Blizzard animation:

I’ve written about Grim Reapers before, and I’m sure I’ll have a lot more to say when the game is released sometime in late winter or early spring of 2014.

2. Gameplay

One of the most discussed pieces of the Reaper of Souls expansion is the new character class that players will have access to: the Crusader. Fans of the series will recall that Diablo 2 had a Paladin class. Here’s the extensive background on that character from the Diablo 2 wiki:

During the mid-twelfth century, after the Church of Zakarum had gained prominence in the East, the Church decreed that the visions of Akarat would be spread throughout the known world in order to redeem the masses. Thus, the Church selected a group of its most charismatic and devoted priests and sent them on a mission to proselytize the people of the West.

Unfortunately, the Church had not prepared these men for the rigors of travel nor the hazards of the world. The priests who survived their missions recounted tales of harsh weather, inadequate supplies, attacks from bandits and even encounters with horrible monsters. To ensure the success of future missions, the Church set about training holy warriors, Paladins, to accompany and safeguard their missionaries. In practice, these “Protectors of the Word” proved to be more successful at converting the native peoples than the Priests that they were assigned to defend. Impressing the locals with daring deeds, powerful weapons, and martial prowess was far more convincing than the condemnations of a soft-spoken monk. However, once the Word had been spread to every major city of the West, the “Protectors of the Word” faded from public view.

Some decades later, Paladins were again called into service. During the height of the Time of Troubles, the Church commenced a second campaign of conversion. This time, however, the inconvincible were deemed evil. The Zakarum Inquisition spread through the lands like a tempest, laying waste to all suspected of demonic possession or corruption. Leading this crusade was a new generation of Paladins, known as the “Hand of Zakarum.” These cavaliers of righteousness swept through the lands, expunging the taint of demonic contamination wherever they found it.

In the midst of this bloody crusade, a rebellion arose within the ranks of the Paladins of Zakarum. The rebels condemned the methods of the Inquisition, proclaiming that the new Order of Paladins should protect the innocent, and that the evil corruption was rooted in their forebear’s failure. They resolved to fight the true source of corruption, the Three Prime Evils – Diablo, Baal and Mephisto. And so, these rebellious Paladins left their Zakarum brethren and ventured west.

Got it? Paladins are holy warriors devoted to fighting corruption on the lam from the corrupt inquisition. The crusader class in Diablo 3 looks like it will be cut from this exact mold. In the game your character will build up religious “conviction” to spend dispelling demons and the undead with holy damage. The current characters operate similarly, with Demon Hunters collecting Rage, Barbarians generating Fury, and Monks building Spirit. (The Wizard and Witch Doctor classes are both spellcasters and build up mana to fuel their spells.)

As an action role playing game (ARPG), Diablo 3‘s gameplay doesn’t radically change from class to class. A player’s style in combat might differ based on character, but all players equip the same number of skills, use roughly the same kind of armor, and defeat demons with similar weapons. For experienced gamers, there are very significant differences, but for casual observers, the gameplay across classes is pretty standardized. See monster, kill monster. (The game developers received a flood of complaints on this and related issues that boiled down to a lack of character customization.)

What will makes the gameplay different as a crusader will probably not be subtle to casual gamers who play the game for the first or second time with that class. Diablo 3 is a game where players complete the entire game on easy difficult levels before completing the game many more times on harder difficulty settings. For dedicated players, however, the cumulative effect of dozens or even hundreds of hours of gameplay will be significant. And yes, it is pretty easy to complete the story 30 times or more, especially if you create characters in each of the 5 classes.

Consider this: When you play solo in the game, you can get a computer-controlled follower to aid you. Most players choose the Templar because of a particular bonus he provides. Over the course of your journey, he talks to you. If you spend too long in town shopping, he will say he’s bored. If you spot a powerful monster, he’ll shout one of three catch phrases: “By all that is Holy! Do you see that enemy over there?”; “A mighty adversary is before us”; and “There! A worthy foe.” After you defeat the monster? He’ll say one of four catch phrases. The most notorious is “That was a worthy foe. Glorious.” After hours and hours of defeating elite monsters, most players are sick of these phrases, but they also know them by heart. The same repetition will cause the crusader’s religious bent to become normative for players.

If you’re itching to see what the crusader looks like, you can watch this gameplay trailer from Blizzcon: