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1. Thanksgiving with Benjamin Franklin

“A Full Belly is the Mother of all Evil,” Benjamin Franklin counseled the readers of Poor Richard’s Almanack. For some mysterious reason this aphorism hasn’t had the sticking power of some of the inventor’s more famous sayings, like “he who lies down with dogs shall rise up with fleas.” Most of us are more inclined to see a full belly as one of life’s blessings. The offending epigram, however, can’t be described as an aberration. Franklin’s writings are filled with variations on this advice: “A full Belly makes a dull brain”; “The Muse starves in a Cook’s shop”; and “Three good meals a day makes bad living.” It’s no wonder that one canny writer has taken advantage of the unquenchable American appetite for both the founding fathers and diet books to publish The Benjamin Franklin Diet, a complete guide to slimming down, eighteenth-century style.

Franklin’s antipathy to a full belly reflected his Puritan upbringing, which stigmatized gustatory pleasures as low or impure. When he was growing up, he recalled in his Autobiography, “little or no Notice was ever taken of what related to the Victuals on the table, whether it was well or ill dressed, in or out of season, of good or bad flavour, preferable of inferior.” Franklin claimed to have thoroughly adopted this legacy of indifference to food, but there is good evidence to the contrary. He abandoned an early commitment to vegetarianism when, on board the ship that carried him away from bondage to his brother in Boston, he succumbed to the temptation to indulge in a catch of cod. As he confessed, “I had formerly been a great Lover of fish, & when this came hot out of the Frying Pan, it smeled admirably well.” Reasoning that fish ate other fish, and thus why shouldn’t he, the pragmatic Franklin “din’d upon Cod very heartily.” The famous portrait of Franklin by Joseph Siffred Duplessis, painted decades later in France, suggests that he gained no better control of his appetites as he matured. Not even a hero worshipper could call the man thin. A second chin falls heavy below his jaw line, his belly strains against the buttons of his sumptuous waistcoat, and his arms bear a resemblance to fattened sausages.

Rachel Hope Cleves - Ben Franklin

Not a total hypocrite, Franklin did include passages in his writing that treat the pleasures of the table more positively. Poor Richard’s advice that “Fools makes Feasts and Wise Men eat them” suggests that frugality, more than distaste, motivated Franklin’s advice be temperate. During his embassy in Paris, when Franklin sought to win France over to the American cause, he ate out six nights a week. And without a doubt he enjoyed many of the nice things he was served, such as îles flottantes and champagne.

A proud American, Franklin also sought to introduce his French friends to some of the glories of his native cuisine. He insisted that American corn flour could make a sweeter bread than wheat alone (several of the philosophes were engaged in pursuit of a more nutritious bread recipe to improve the condition of the peasantry, who derived the majority of their calories from the staff of life). Later, after his return to Philadelphia, Franklin sent his friends shipments of Pennsylvania hams – remarkable for the sweetness of their fat, which he attributed to the pigs’ subsisting on corn.

If you want to try Benjamin Franklin’s recipe for corn bread you can find it in the appendix to Gilbert Chinard’s wonderful 1958 essay “Benjamin Franklin on the Art of Eating.” This little pamphlet, printed by the American Philosophical Society, contains a number of recipes found among Franklin’s papers, few of which could be described as dietetic. Franklin’s recipe for roasted pig pays great attention to producing a delicious crackling. His oyster sauce is heavy on the cream. And his puff pastry, recommended for encasing his apple pudding, calls for a pound of butter. Frarnklin’s apple pudding makes a tempting proposition for a food historian on the eve of Thanksgiving, especially since, like many eighteenth-century recipes, Franklin’s terse instructions offer just enough detail to inspire certainty that the end result would be inedible by twentieth-century standards. What better reason could there be to break out the mixing bowl!

*   *   *   *   *

To make an apple pudding.

Make a good puff-paste, roll it out half an inch thick, pare your apples, and core them, enough to fill the crust, and close it up, tie it in a cloth and boil it. If a small pudding, two hours: if a large one three or four hours. When it is enough turn it into your dish, cut a piece of the crust out of the top, butter and sugar it to your palate; lay on the crust again, and send it to table hot.

*   *   *   *   *

The sense of the unfamiliar has always been what compels me about history, it gives me the feeling of discovery and assures me that I am not just finding my own reflection in the sources. I, for example, do not bring a love of boiling to my reading of dessert recipes. Baking I expect – hours of boiling, not so much. I boil few foods, and those only briefly. I boil pasta 7 to 12 minutes, always anxious to drain the pot while the noodles are still al dente. Sometimes I boil green beans, but just for a couple minutes and often I steam them instead. I boil eggs, but I like the yolks soft so I don’t leave them in for more than six minutes. I never boil dessert pastries. But Benjamin Franklin told me to, so for the sake of historical knowledge I threw all my cooking know-how to the wind and set out to slavishly follow his orders.

Difficulties confronted me long before I arrived at the boiling. To begin, Franklin directed that I make a puff pastry, mixing four pints, or a quarter of a peck, of flour with half a pound of butter. How much did eighteenth-century dry pints weigh? And did they weigh the same in the colonies as they did in England? Today the imperial wet pint is four ounces more than the American wet pint (20 oz vs. 16 oz). One thing is for certain, whatever the exact weight of an eighteenth-century dry pint might be, four of them is a whopping amount. I made the executive decision to weight a pint at 16 oz and cut the recipe in half so that I didn’t completely empty our flour bin. Halving the butter as well, I ended up with a very dry mix:

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The next direction was to add cold water until a stiff dough formed. Having spent the past twenty-five years of baking trying to add as little water to my pie dough as possible to prevent it turning tough, I needed to tamp down all my better instincts to pour in the cup and a half of cold water that my dry mix required to come together.

image#2

The brick of paste that resulted was so hard that it had to be beat into submission to follow the next directions, which called for the dough to be rolled out, buttered, rolled up, rolled out, and buttered again, nine to ten successive times until another half pound of butter had been added.

image#3(1)

After an hour of buttering and rolling, I was left with a lovely, pliable, yellow dough, which I rolled out “half a thumb’s thickness” and set on a cheese cloth.

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Franklin’s recipe calls next for chopped cored apples to be placed on the dough. No seasoning is done at this stage: no spices added to the apples, no sugar, no butter, no lemon. Just apples. How big? How many? Over how much of the dough? It doesn’t say.

image#5

Nor did the recipe explain how to seal the dough. I went for crimping and ended up with something that looked like a giant Cornish pasty.

image#6

At least until I wrapped it up in pastry and began the boiling, whence it commenced to look more like a brain. It was hard to commit willful destruction of this beautiful pasty, rather than pop the parcel into a hot oven where it might grow golden and crisp. What was the purpose of building up 10 layers of lamination only to melt out all the butter in a bubbling pot? Again, Franklin was mute.

image#7

image#8

The cooking instructions said to boil the pudding from two to four hours depending on its size. Unsure of the standard of measurement, I decided on three hours. There were no further cooking directions and perhaps I should have just let it be, but worried that the pudding wasn’t getting cooked on the top, which bounced above the bubbling water, I flipped the package each hour. Perhaps if I hadn’t, the pudding would have developed more of a crust.

For the final step, Franklin directs that the top of the pudding be removed, sugar and butter be mixed in with the apples, then the top replaced and the whole served immediately. When I cut away the muslin and lifted the soggy lid I found that the apples inside had reduced to a beautiful sauce within the boiled pastry casing. I added some chopped butter and brown sugar, then closed the pudding back up and let the flavors meld. I can’t say the result would win first prize in a pie contest, it wouldn’t even win honorable mention. But I can report that the mess tasted quite nice in a bland, comforting, soft, sort of way. Not a bad match for turkey at all.

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Featured image: “The First Thanksgiving,” Jean Leone Gerome Ferris (c. 1912). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

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2. Place of the Year 2014 nominee spotlight: Ukraine

With only one more week left until we announce Place of the Year 2014, we’d like to spotlight another one of the places on our shortlist: Ukraine. The country entered the news early in 2014 when a referendum held in Crimea resulted in the peninsula uniting with Russia. As the twenty-first edition of the Atlas of the World notes, Crimea currently remains under Russian control, though this union is not internationally recognized.

For a little more information about Ukraine, take a look below at the eight facts we compiled about the country’s history, places, and people.

1. According to OxfordDictionaries.com, the origin of the name “Ukraine” is “from Old Russian ukraina ‘border region,’ from u ‘at, beside’ + kraĭ ‘edge, border.’”

2. Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, has been an important settlement since the Middle Ages, when it was the capital of early Slavic civilization, Kievan Rus.

Kyiv_at_night
Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, at night. By Anton Molodtsov/Tony Wan Kenobi. CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

3. Out of all the countries in Europe, Ukraine is second only to Russia in geographic size, with an area of 233,089 square miles, or 603,700 square kilometers.

4. The most common religion in Ukraine is Ukrainian Orthodox.

Nova_Kakhovka_Orthodox_Cathedral
Orthodox cathedral in Nova Kakhovka. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

5. An overwhelming 78% of the country’s population is ethnically Ukrainian, with the next largest ethnic group in the country being Russian (17%).

6. Prypiat, Ukraine remains a ghost town to this day as a result of the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 that left the city uninhabitable.

Swimming Pool Hall 4 Pripyat by Timm Suess. CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Swimming Pool Hall 4 Pripyat by Timm Suess. CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

7. Although he is often grouped with Russian authors like Alexander Pushkin, Leo Tolstoy, and Anton Chekhov, Nikolai Gogol was born in Velyki Sorochyntsi, modern-day Ukraine, and is ethnically Ukrainian and Polish.

Ivanov_gogol
Nikolai Gogol by Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov, 1847. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

8. Ukraine has been independent since the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991. Currently, Ukraine’s government is a multiparty republic, and Petro Poroshenko is president.

Do you think Ukraine should be Place of the Year? Cast your vote!


The Place of the Year 2014 shortlist

Don’t forget to vote and follow along with #POTY2014 until our announcement on 1 December to see which location will join previous Place of the Year winners.

Image credit: Flag of Ukraine by UP9. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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3. Top 10 Turkey-Dumping Day breakup songs

The last Thursday of November freshmen are returning home to reunite with their high school sweethearts. Except not all are as sweet as they once were. Your old flame may show up with a new admirer or give you trouble because you didn’t spend enough time on Skype on Saturday nights while away at college. Be prepared: pack an arsenal of tunes that catch the sad and sometimes mixed feelings you may have after Turkey-Dumping Day. For your convenience, a list of the 10 great breakup songs for a post-Turkey recovery:

10. Pink’s “Blow me (One Last Kiss)”
One of the more lighthearted tracks to make the list, Pink’s lead single from her sixth studio album The Truth About Love (2012) nonetheless gets the message across: After too much fighting, tears, and sweaty palms, the time comes when turkey is not the only thing you have finally had enough of.

9. Passenger’s “Let Her Go”
Passenger’s second single from the album All the Little Lights (2012) made the list not only because of the soul-wrenching, melodic tune but also because of its spot-on content. Looking into the heart of a dumper, the lyrics forcefully delineate the paradox of love: you don’t really know whether or how much you love someone, until he or she is gone.

8. Christina Perri’s “Human”
The lead single from Perri’s second studio album Head or Heart (2014), this pop power ballad features almost no drumsticks (pun intended). Instead it showcases the American singer’s ethereal voice. And the lyrics hit the nail on the head: Being happier and hotter without your ex may be the best way to get even. But don’t worry if you fail spectacularly, ’cause you’re only a little human.

7. Hilary Duff’s “Stranger”
Tapping into the style and sound of Middle-eastern belly-dance music, Hilary Duff’s single, recorded for her fourth studio album Dignity (2007), is a bouncy yet husky song about suddenly seeing an unkind stranger in the torso of your beloved. After listening to this tune, put on the dumper’s apron before slicing the turkey.

6. Jaymes Young’s “Parachute”
Despite its blunt language, Seattle-born singer Jaymes Young’s fragile ballad made the list because of its lyrics about being lied to and instantly knowing that it’s time to take the “l” out of “lover.”

5. Taylor Swift’s “I knew you were trouble”
Taylor Swift’s bass-heavy dubstep drop, recorded for her fourth studio album Red (2012), is aptly warning us about the trouble-makers–those types that make you fall in love only to leave you behind.

4. Sam Smith’s “Stay with me”
Although it’s not quite a turkey-dumping song but rather a desperate-for-love ballad, this gospel-inspired hit from British songwriter Sam Smith’s debut studio album In the Lonely Hour (2014) still made the list. Critics deemed it overly sentimental, but “brutally honest” is evidently a better description.

3. David Guetta’s “Titanium”
French DJ and music producer David Guetta is hard to pass over when it comes to ferocious breakup songs. This 2012 hit from his album Nothing But the Beat gives you relationship hardship and a shot of resilience to help take the pain out of Turkey-Dumping Day.

2. Fefe Dobson’s “Stuttering”
“Dobson can sing,” say the critic. Yes, indeed. The tune and the debated music video leave you stuttering and wondering: Can the green-eyed monster make you that crazy? Yes, it can, not least when the cheater isn’t your man.

1. David Guetta’s “She Wolf”
Katy Perry’s “Part of Me” gets an honorary mention for its heartening lyrics but it’s David Guetta who takes the first place with another ballad, featuring vocals from Australian recording artist Sia. Reflecting on the most poignant of breakups, this impassioned chorus on the feeling of being replaced takes us inside the mind of someone who is “falling to pieces.”

Headline image credit: Broken Heart Grunge by Nicolas Raymond. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr 

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4. Joseph Smith and polygamous marriage

A number of historians of Mormon history have tried to explain the rationale and motivation behind Joseph Smith’s teachings about “plural marriage.” Although it’s not unreasonable to assume a sexual motivation, Smith’s primary motivation may have been his expansive theology–a theology, in this specific case, that his wife would not accept.

After establishing his new church in 1830 and while continuing to study the Bible, Smith’s far-reaching religious vision to restore “all things” from previous ages made him open to reinstating Old Testament polygamy, explains historian Richard Van Wagoner. Perhaps the timing was right: Americans had won the Revolutionary War and were open to “the surprising and unusual in religious life, according to historian Merina Smith, and in the early 1840s, a core group of Joseph Smith’s believers accepted his developing “exaltation narrative” that included “new family forms.” Joseph Smith biographer Richard Bushman explains that Joseph Smith began to imagine “ecclesiastical and family kingdoms that would persist into eternity.” University of Richmond professor Terryl Givens explains that Smith sought to establish a “timeless and borderless web of human relationships” among his followers, just as the great appeal of first-generation Christianity in the ancient world was “the feeling of entering into an extended family community.” For Joseph Smith, marriage “sealings” joined people, and he was even sealed to some married men and women.

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Image credit: “St. George Utah Temple, From South” by Michael Whiffen. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.

Although there’s evidence that Joseph Smith seemed most interested in creating an interconnected web of believers that could be exalted together, Bushman says Smith  “never wrote his personal feelings about plural marriage” and, according to historian John G. Turner, “whether [he] was motivated by religious obedience or pursued sexual dalliances clothed with divine sanction cannot be fully resolved through historical analysis.” We don’t know to what extent Joseph Smith pursued sexual relations with his wives, and according to Bushman, although “nothing indicates that sexual relations were left out of plural marriage, not until many years later did anyone claim Joseph Smith’s paternity, and evidence for the tiny handful of supposed children is tenuous.” But his wife Emma’s negative reaction to his additional marriages may indicate that she, at least, felt his ideas, if not his actions, went too far.

In the early 1840s as Smith secretly began marrying additional wives and encouraging his closest confidantes to do the same, of course he feared “wrecking his marriage,” as Bushman explains it. During this time, according to Emma Smith’s biographers Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippetts Avery, Smith repeatedly tried to explain “plural marriage” to his wife Emma, sometimes taking her alone on long buggy rides to talk to her about it. In May 1843 after much convincing, Emma finally gave her consent to a polygamous marriage and participated in her husband’s marriage to two sisters, giving her “free and full consent.”

joseph smith 3196204188_4cd0b83793_o
Image credit: “Joseph and Emma” by Edgar Zuniga Jr. CC BY-ND-2.0 via Flickr.

Not long afterwards, however, according to Bushman, “Emma began to talk as firmly and urgently to Joseph about abandoning plural marriage as he had formerly talked to her about accepting it.” In the spring of 1843, “the recovery of his domestic life” became “almost impossible.”  As Bushman explains, “They were in impossible positions: Joseph caught between his revelation and his wife, Emma between a practice she detested and belief in her husband.” Evidently fearing the legal and financial ramifications of many wives, Emma requested half ownership of a steam boat and “sixty city lots,” and Joseph evidently agreed “to add no more” wives. If he did, he told friend and secretary William Clayton, Emma “would divorce him.” Under these conditions, Joseph and Emma reconciled. Tragically, in 1844, he was murdered by an angry mob, and Emma deeply mourned his death.

Starting in 1852 in Utah, polygamous marriage was openly encouraged by Smith’s successor Brigham Young, and about 25 to 30% of Mormon men, women, and children lived in polygamous families. In 1876, Smith’s revelation on “celestial marriage”–marriage which endures after death and which could include “plural marriage”–was canonized in a Mormon book of revelations called Doctrine and Covenants. In 1890, Mormons officially gave up polygamy but not the larger belief in celestial marriage. Today Mormon marriages still encompass the essence of Smith’s original theology–celestial, or eternal, marriage–as monogamous couples continue the practice of sacred marriage “sealings” to each other and to their ancestors, fulfilling Smith’s desire to vertically, horizontally, and everlastingly connect Latter-day Saints.

Featured image: Image taken from page 277 of ‘Life in Utah‘ by British Library (1870). Public domain via Flickr.

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5. Who is your favourite fairy-tale character?

From wicked step-mothers to fairy god-mothers, from stock phrases such as “once upon a time” to “happily ever after”, fairy-tales permeate our culture. Disney blockbusters have recently added another chapter to the history of the fairy-tale, sitting alongside the 19th century, saccharine tales published by the Brothers Grimm and the 17th century stories written by Charles Perrault. Inspired by Marina Warner’s Once Upon a Time, we asked OUP staff members to channel their inner witches, trolls, and princesses, and reveal who their favourite fairy-tale character is and why. Do you agree with the choices below? Who would you choose?

*   *   *   *   *

“The outlook is not promising for my favourite fairy-tale character, Kai, towards the end of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen. With splinters from the troll’s mirror in his eye and his heart (that have turned him evil), Kai is a prisoner of the Snow Queen being forced to spell out the word ‘eternity’ using pieces of ice, in the manner of a Chinese puzzle. And he does it all for the childish promise of a pair of skates. Knowing the author’s penchant for unhappy, complicated endings, I was greatly relieved when the story ends with Kai’s childhood love Gerda coming to the rescue!”

Taylor Coe, Marketing Coordinator

*   *   *   *   *

“Though I have many favorite characters, the one that has been consistent throughout my life is Ariel/The Little Mermaid. I have always been fascinated by the ocean so her story stood out amongst the other fairy-tales when I was growing up. I admire her ability to recognize what she wants, and her courage to change her circumstances, no matter the consequences. She is curious and always seeks out new experiences, which I relate to. Ariel’s story reminds us to question our surroundings and create adventurous lives.”

Molly Hansen, Marketing Associate

Le petit chaperon rouge, by Gustav
Le petit chaperon rouge, by Gustave Doré. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

*   *   *   *   *

“Baba Yaga. She has long been my favorite mainly because of the sound, rhythm, and cadence with which my mother (who first told me the story from a children’s book of fairy-tales) said ‘Baba Yaga, the boney-legged’. All sorts of possibilities lay within those five words. (I later learned my mother was mispronouncing ‘Baba Yaga’.) I think what her story distinct is that Baga Yaga was an individual. Normally fairy-tale characters, especially villains, are nameless : a witch, a wicked stepmother, etc. (this was before I learned it simply means ‘old woman’). Baba Yaga had a home (with chicken legs!); she didn’t live in some random cottage that inept children could find. Baga Yaga belonged in the (fairy tale) universe just as much as the heroes. (I have no idea what the hero’s name was supposed to be.)”

Alice Northover, Social Media Marketing Manager

*   *   *   *   *

“Mine is La belle au bois dormant – or Sleeping Beauty. Just the thought of sleeping in peace for 100 years sounds like heaven to me. I’m not so fussed about being awoken by a kiss from a prince – I’d rather he came with a large cup of tea!”

Andrea Keegan, Senior Commissioning Editor

*   *   *   *   *

“My favourite fairy-tale character is one I can’t actually pronounce: Snegurochka. For those who don’t speak Russian – and I modestly include myself among that number – Snegurochka (or Snegurka) is known in English as The Snow Maiden. It’s about a girl made of snow, by a poor, childless couple, who unexpectedly comes to life. Most versions of the story end relatively tragically, but I love the mixture of fantasy and real life. It’s very poignant, and lends itself to many different retellings.”

Simon Thomas, Marketing Executive

*   *   *   *   *

“I have always been a fan of the Brothers Grimm fairy-tale Snow White and Rose Red. Since one sister shares a name with the other fairy tale princess, I think these young ladies often are overlooked. I love that they are brave enough to be generous and kind even to those who are different or intimidating. And someone who is ungrateful for their help gets eaten by a bear—a good lesson for us all.”

Patricia Hudson, Associate Director of Institutional Marketing

*   *   *   *   *

421px-Hansel-and-gretel-rackham
Hansel and Gretel, by Arthur Rackham. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

“My favourite fairy-tale character is Puss in Boots because he is such a cunning feline. Ever the loyal cat, he uses his tricks and deceptions to aid his master in pursuit of love and fortune. He is part of a long tradition of the ingenious sidekick, whose skills far outweigh those of their counterpart – in this case his master – who inevitably reap the benefits of the sidekick’s wily ways. It’s got everything really: brains, adventure, romance… and rather adorably, a cat who thinks he’s people.”

Jennifer Rogers, Team Leader (GAB Operations)

*   *   *   *   *

“Peter Pan because he is selfish and charming, earthly and ethereal, vulnerable and bold; he boasts “Oh, the cleverness of me!” and also fearlessly announces “To die would be an awfully big adventure”. He inhabits a dream-world and delights in enticing us to join him; to leave off adulthood and rekindle our childhood spirit & imagination.”

Suzie Eves, Marketing Assistant

*   *   *   *   *

“I’ve always loved the tales of Fionn mac Cumhaill, the Irish warrior. He’s a shape-shifter in mythology; sometimes a man, sometimes a descendant of magic people, sometimes a giant. As a giant, he built the Giant’s Causeway to give him a stepping stone to Scotland. During a feud with a Scottish giant he dug out a clump of earth to throw at his rival; the hole where the earth had been became Lough Neagh, the earth (which fell short of Scotland) became the Isle of Man. It is said that he never died, but lies asleep underground, and will wake to protect Ireland and the Irish people when they need him most. I love these tales, as they speak to me of the places of my childhood, and when I visit the Giant’s Causeway, I almost feel like I could round a corner to find Fionn stepping in his giant boots across the Irish Sea.”

Cathryn Steele, Assistant Commissioning Editor

*   *   *   *   *

“My favourite fairy-tale character is the old shoemaker, who worked very hard and was very honest, but who couldn’t earn enough to feed his family. He unknowingly receives the help of the nocturnal elves, who themselves have nothing, not even clothes on their backs, but who work all night to turn leather into beautifully crafted shoes. The eventually success of the old shoemaker did not change him and he repaid the elves kindness with Christmas presents of fancy shirts, bright pantaloons, and teeny tiny clogs, and the elves went away happy and dancing. A lovely lesson not to forget those who helped us get where we are. It also reminds me of what parents say when they’ve performed a thankless task, “the elves must have done it!”. Perhaps it’s really a hint that they deserve a nice present at Christmas!”

Alison Jones, Managing Editor (Open Access)

*   *   *   *   *

“My favourite fairy-tale character is the horse Dapplegrim. I always loved how he was the brains and also the brawn in his fairy tale, and how the story was really about him, instead of about the prince and the princess who usually feature so centrally in fairy-tales. With his help his master was able to complete the tasks he was set and marry the princess, but Dapplegrim never asked for his own reward. His story had everything – magic, shape-shifting, seemingly-impossible tasks, a beautiful princess/sorceress to win, and a battle. Dapplegrim always came out on top.”

Jenny Nugee, Administative Assistant

*   *   *   *   *

“As a child I remember being horrified and fascinated by the Grimm’s Fairy Tales. The more horrible the story, the more I loved it. Yet, it was not until I was a full-grown adult that I discovered my favorite book of fairy-tales. It was in the mid-90s when I was in my late 20s, living in Hoboken, NJ. My bedroom window looked out the back onto the backroom of a local pub, The Shannon Lounge. It was in the backroom of the Shannon Lounge that I witnessed a strange puppet show inspired by Heinrich Hoffmann’s Der Struwwelpeter. Here are wondrous tales of kids catching fire for playing with matches, and tall lanky men snipping off the thumbs of thumb sucking minors, or what would happen if you tipped in your chair at the dinner table, and many other cautionary tales for obstreperous brats that paid little heed to the wisdom of their parents and elders.”

Christian Purdy, Publicity Director, GAB Marketing

fairy-tale illustration, by Margaret Tarrant. CC-BY-NC-2.0 via Flickr.
Fairy-tale illustration, by Margaret Tarrant. CC-BY-NC-2.0 via Flickr.

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“I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for the lesser-known but very sweet Brave Little Tailor. He becomes king because of a series of calculated heroic actions, including clever wordplay (he kills “seven at one stroke,” he claims, referring not to men but to the seven flies he killed at breakfast) and defeating giants without even touching them (he turns them on each other, instead). He moves up the social ladder and marries the princess all due to his wit and cleverness—and maybe some white lies here and there…”

Georgia Brodsky, Marketing Coordinator

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“The best characters are almost always the evil ones! I love the Queen in Snow White, particularly in the Brothers Grimm telling of the story. Her impressively creative attempts to kill Snow White are fascinating, and I’m pretty sure that I can relate to her demise: dancing in red-hot shoes until she drops dead.”

Caroline James, Editor

*   *   *   *   *

“I’ve always had a soft spot for the Ugly Duckling. As a very sensitive kid, I agonized with the baby bird at every step of his journey and was elated when he found his true family. Then, as a typically insecure teenager, I dreamed of having a transfiguration of my own. Now, as I tell the story to my daughter, it reminds me how important it is to treat even the scruffiest of ducklings more like potential swans.”

Beth Craggs, Communications Executive

*   *   *   *   *

“One of my favourite fairy-tale characters is the dog with the eyes as big as saucers in The Tinderbox. I like him because even though the treasure he guarded was the least valuable, he is no less intimidating as a character. As a child I wished I had a dog, so the idea of having three big dogs you could summon at any time also had great appeal!”

Iona Argyle, Programme Administrator

*   *   *   *   *

“My favourite fairy-tale character has to be Roald Dahl’s feisty Little Red Riding Hood. Dahl’s ability to challenge traditional roles and inject any story with a wicked spark of fun made his books a mainstay of my childhood. As a feminist, and someone who has watched the obsession with ‘perfect princesses’ with increasing dismay, the killer lines in this poem feel like a perfect antidote:”

‘The small girl smiles. One eyelid flickers.
She whips a pistol from her knickers.
She aims it at the creature’s head
And bang bang bang, she shoots him dead’

Emma Duke, Group Communications Manager

*   *   *   *   *

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6. The importance of mentoring

Throughout my career, there have been many times when advice, support, and criticism were critical for my own professional development. Sometimes that assistance came from people who were formally tasked with providing advice; a good example is a Ph.D. advisor (in my case, John Aldrich of Duke University, who has been a fantastic advisor and mentor to a long list of very successful students). Sometimes that advice was less formal, coming from senior colleagues, other academics at conferences, and in many cases from peers. The lesson is professional advice and support — or to put it into a single term, mentoring — comes from many different sources and occurs in many different ways.

However, there is growing concern in political science that more mentoring is necessary, that there are scholars who are not getting the professional support and advice that they need to help them with career decisions, teaching, and the publication of their research. There are many good programs that have developed in recent years to help provide more mentoring in political methodology, for example the excellent “Visions in Methodology” program. And the Society for Political Methodology recently approved the foundation of a new professional award, to recognize excellent mentors. But more needs to be done to improve mentoring and mentoring opportunities in academia.

During the 2014 American Political Science Association conference, there was a very informative panel discussion, “How to Be a Good Mentee: Mentoring for Methodologists.” The discussion was chaired by Megan Shannon of the University of Colorado, and participants were Leslie A. Schwindt-Bayer (Rice University), Tiffany D. Barnes (University of Kentucky), and Brett Ashley Leeds (Rice University). I had an opportunity to listen to much of this panel discussion, and found it quite helpful.

After the conference I sent Leslie, Tiffany, and Ashley some questions about mentoring by email. Their responses are informative and helpful, and should be read by anyone who is interested in mentoring.

R. Michael Alvarez: How have you benefited from being involved in mentoring relationships?

Tiffany D. Barnes: I have benefited in a number of ways from being involved in a mentoring relationship. Mentors have provided me with feedback on research at multiple different stages of the research process. They have provided me with professional advice about a number of things including applying for fellowships and grants, marketing my book manuscript to university presses, and navigating the negotiation process at my university. My mentoring relationships have broadened my network of scholars with similar research interests and/or professional goals, which in turn have resulted in a number of different opportunities (e.g. coauthors, and invitations to participate in conference panels/round tables, mini-conferences, and edited volumes/special journal issues). Equally important, my mentoring relationships have resulted in a number of valuable friendships that make working in the profession more enjoyable.

Leslie A. Schwindt-Bayer: As a mentee, I really benefited from getting guidance, feedback, and research assistance from many different formal and informal mentors over the years. As a mentor, I get to give that back which is a great opportunity.

Brett Ashley Leeds: I believe fundamentally that no one figures everything out on his or her own. I know for sure that I did not, and I have had (and continue to have) a variety of mentors throughout my career. As a mentee, what I really value is knowing that I have people who respect me enough to tell me when I am wrong and to help me improve. As a mentor, I not only learn a lot from thinking intently about my mentees’ work and articulating my opinions for them, but I also get great personal satisfaction from the relationships that evolve and from helping others to succeed. It feels good to pay forward what has been done for me.

Woman looking away and smiling. © GlobalStock via iStock.
Woman looking away and smiling. © GlobalStock via iStock.

R. Michael Alvarez: Why has the issue of mentoring become an important topic of conversation in academia, and in particular, in political science?

Tiffany D. Barnes: Although it is well established that mentoring is an important aspect of professional development, it has recently become an important topic of conversation because academics have become aware that not all scholars have the same opportunities to develop mentorship relationships nor do they derive the same benefits from mentor relationships. In particular, women and minorities may face more challenges when it comes to identifying mentors in the field and they may not reap the same benefits (e.g. opportunities to collaborate, sponsorship) from mentorship relationships as men do. In the long run, this “mentor gap” may have negative repercussions for the retention and career advancement of some otherwise talented scholars.

If a scholar feels they would benefit by mentoring, how can they seek out a mentor? What should they look for in an appropriate mentor?

Leslie A. Schwindt-Bayer: Mentoring relationships can be both informal and formal. Informal relationships often emerge when scholars ask for advice and support from colleagues in their department, subfields, or various disciplinary organizations. Formal relationships sometimes emerge organically or at the initiative of a mentee or mentor, but they also can be entered into through a number of mentoring programs in the discipline. For women, the Visions in Methodology program offers a mentoring program through which mentees can ask to be paired with a mentor. They usually ask the mentee to suggest someone they would like to be paired with and then check with the suggested mentor about interest and availability. The Midwest Women’s Caucus has a mentoring program for women in any subfield. They ask individuals interested in mentoring and being mentored to volunteer to participate and then pair them by interest. Other organizations and groups probably offer similar programs.

In seeking a mentor, either formally or informally, you should think about exactly what you want out of the relationship. Are you looking for someone to provide you with general guidance about the profession or are you seeking someone who is willing to read your work from time to time and talk through research challenges when you come across them? Are you in your first year out, feeling lost, and needing help getting back on track or are you close to tenure and looking for guidance on how to navigate the process? Do you want a mentor whose style is to give “pep talks” or “straight talk?” Knowing what you want out of the relationship will help you identify the right person for the job.

Tiffany D. Barnes: Scholars who want to find a mentor can look for a mentor by signing up for a formal mentor match or by identifying someone in the profession who shares similar research interests or professional goals.

A formal mentor match is good option for identifying someone who is interested in serving in a capacity as a mentor. Typically the mentor program will ask you questions about what you are looking for in a mentor relationship, your research interests, your rank, and your professional interests. The program will try to match you with a mentor based on this information. If you are paired with someone through a program, you can be confident that your mentor wants to help you. These relationships can be very valuable, but, as with all mentor-mentee relationships, it requires initiative on the part of the mentee. It is the mentee’s responsibility to drive the mentor-mentee relationship. Mentees should identify why they want a mentor and reach out to the mentor and ask for help in areas where they can benefit the most. One criticism of formal matching programs is that they may not always result in the best “fit.” Even if you do not think the match is the best fit, there are still a number of benefits you can derive from the relationship. Your research interests do not have to perfectly overlap for you to benefit from the relationship. Indeed, most successful scholars have a wealth of information, advice, and perspective to offer junior colleagues. It is up to the mentee to identify areas where your needs or interests intersect with the mentor’s strengths, experiences, and interests — and to capitalize on these opportunities.

A second option is to develop a more informal mentor relationship. To do this, mentees should identify someone in the field who has similar research interests or professional goals. Mentees should identify different opportunities to get to know scholars with similar interests and try to develop these relationships from there. For example, you may have the opportunity to establish relationships with scholars when you present research on the same panel, when someone shows interest in your work by offering comments or questions about your research (or vice versa), or even when you have the opportunity to bring a guest speaker to your university. By following up with people after the initial meeting and/or taking them up on their offer to read and comment on your research, you can begin to establish relationships with them. These relationships may take time to develop and they may be difficult establish if you are new to the profession or do not know many scholars in your field. Finally, when attempting to establish more informal mentor relationships, it is important to be self-aware. Some people will show interest in you and be eager to get to know and help you, others will not, and no one is obligated to do so. Respect people’s rights to not be interested in you and try not to take it personal.

Brett Ashley Leeds: My view is that it is less important to find one person that can be identified as “a mentor” and instead to focus on finding mentoring, even if it comes from a variety of people. I encourage scholars to identify people who have skills, abilities, and/or information that they think would be useful to them– basically people they would like to emulate in particular areas of their work. Approach these folks politely in person or by email (for instance, asking to have coffee at a conference) and ask questions. Some will not be responsive, but many will be responsive and helpful. Follow up with those who are helpful. In some cases a relationship will develop.

R. Michael Alvarez: What are the most important “dos” and “don’ts” for a scholar who is in a mentoring relationship?

Brett Ashley Leeds: Since below I cover some tips for mentors, here are some tips for mentees: (1) Figure out what it is you want to know/learn. Think of both specific and general questions so you are prepared to ask when the opportunity arises. (2) Recognize the time and costs of what you ask and make things as easy as possible for your mentor by reminding him/her of past interactions and explaining the specific feedback you are looking for. (3) Understand that ultimately you are responsible for your own decisions. Ask your mentor to explain why he/she believes a particular action/approach is best, and for major decisions, seek advice from multiple people. (4) Let your mentors know about the outcomes. For example, if a mentor helps you with a paper, send a note when the paper is accepted for publication.

Leslie A. Schwindt-Bayer: For mentees, be assertive and discuss with your mentor when your relationship begins just what you each want from the relationship and are willing to commit to it. If you need something from your mentor, don’t wait for him/her to reach out to you. Email, call, or arrange to meet with your mentor at a conference. Since the mentee is the one who needs the mentoring relationship the most, the mentee needs to take the initiative to ask for help or guidance from the mentor.

Tiffany D. Barnes: Establish clear expectations and boundaries. Tell your mentor what you are hoping to get out of a mentoring relationship, and don’t be afraid to ask your mentor for help in areas where you could benefit the most. That said, it is important to acknowledge that your mentor may not always be willing or able to help you in the ways you want. Respect these boundaries and do not take them personal.

When establishing boundaries, it is important to respect your mentor’s time and to be cognizant and courteous with the time you ask of your mentor. For example, if your mentor agrees to meet with you for half an hour, pay attention to the time and wrap up your meeting in a timely manner. Your mentor will likely appreciate not having to cut you short, and, if they know you respect their time, it may make them more likely to make time for you in the future.

Don’t expect any single mentor to fulfill all of your mentoring needs. Different people, depending on their experience and expertise, have different things to offer. Try to identify the areas where your mentor is most likely to be of help to you and build on these strengths. Along these same lines, although your mentor likely gives great advice, you cannot expect them to have the answer to all of your questions. It is important to weight their point of view carefully and to seek out a number of different perspectives.

Seek to develop a number of mentoring relationships. It can be useful to have mentors within your own department, in your university (but outside your department), and in the discipline more broadly. Moreover, it is often just as useful to develop relationships with senior mentors, as it is to develop relationships with peer mentors.

Student With Teacher In Class.  © monkeybusinessimages via iStock.
Student With Teacher In Class. © monkeybusinessimages via iStock.

R. Michael Alvarez: What are the responsibilities of a mentor?

Brett Ashley Leeds (1) Create an environment in which you can provide effective constructive criticism. This tends to require first establishing an environment of mutual respect. (2) Know what you know and what you don’t, and know that your experience is not universal. (3) Always explain why you are giving the advice you are giving and be willing to consider alternatives. (4) Recognize that in the end, your mentee should make his/her own decisions and may not always take all of your advice. (5) Recognize how important your opinion may be to your mentee; wield this power responsibly.

Tiffany D. Barnes: A mentor should establish clear boundaries with their mentee. Be honest and upfront the role you are and are not willing to play as a mentor. Be clear about your time constraints and the amount of time you are willing to commit to your mentee.

Leslie A. Schwindt-Bayer: If it is a formal mentoring relationship, make sure you and your mentee establish ground rules at the beginning about what each of you wants from the relationship and are willing to give to it. Don’t commit to something you aren’t willing to follow through with and be sure to follow through with whatever you commit to do for your mentee. If you can only commit to an hour of time twice a semester, that is fine, but make sure your mentee knows that and agrees that it is sufficient for him/her. If you are willing to provide general guidance but don’t want to read/comment on your mentee’s work, that is fine. But, again, make sure your mentee knows that from the beginning. Keep in mind that your mentee may place very high value on your advice and guidance so give it carefully.

R. Michael Alvarez: What are the personal and professional benefits of being a mentor?

Leslie A. Schwindt-Bayer: Too numerous to list in a short response!

Brett Ashley Leeds: It has often been said that one only really knows something when she can teach it to others. Mentoring gives me an opportunity to clarify and articulate my views on professional issues and research in a way that I otherwise might not. I frequently learn in the act of mentoring. The main benefits, however, are personal, and come from the satisfaction of helping others to achieve their goals and the feeling of paying forward what has been done in the past for me.

R. Michael Alvarez: How can professional organizations (like the Society for Political Methodology) facilitate professional mentoring?

Brett Ashley Leeds: The most important thing that professional organizations can do is provide opportunities that encourage interaction among scholars who don’t already know one another, and particularly between junior and senior scholars. Small conferences, dinners, and receptions help a lot with this. Poster sessions in which junior scholars are matched with senior discussants also help.

Tiffany D. Barnes: In my experience professional organizations play both, an important formal and informal role in facilitating professional mentoring.

Professional organization can formally facilitate mentoring relationship by matching mentors with mentees. I have two different successful mentoring relationships that were products of mentoring matches. This is a great way to help young scholars identify someone in the profession who is willing to serve as a mentor.

Professional organizations can also facilitate mentoring by simply providing both professional and social opportunities for junior scholars to meet likeminded senior (and junior!) colleagues. By becoming involved in professional organizations that align with your professional interests you will establish relationships with colleagues in your field. Most of these relationships will emerge naturally and develop slowly over time. Although you may not formally call the individuals you meet here “mentors,” they will become an important part of your mentoring community.

Leslie A. Schwindt-Bayer: One of many ways is a formal mentoring program. The Visions in Methodology mentoring program is a fantastic example, but it is only for women. This is a very positive feature of the program because women in a field with a small representation of women face different and sometimes more challenging sets of obstacles than men. However, plenty of men in the field would also benefit immensely from mentoring and so offering a similar program for men or a program that is open to both women and men, if it does not already exist, would help to facilitate formal professional mentoring in the methods subfield.

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7. Leaving Orthodox Judaism: A Q&A with Lynn Davidman

Lynn Davidman, author of Becoming Un-Orthodox: Stories of Ex-Hasidic Jews, not only interviewed former Orthodox Jews for her book; she was a former Modern Orthodox herself. Davidman answered some questions for us about her experience leaving Orthodox Judaism and how it informed her research.

Aside from being the topic of your book, you also became un-Orthodox, and in fact were disowned from your family. How did your own experience becoming un-Orthodox inform your writing?

My own experiences of leaving Orthodoxy informed this book every step along the way. I had been reading and learning about self-reflexivity before I began this project, and I tried to be self-reflexive in every stage of the research, beginning with conceiving this study (which came out of my gut, reflecting my desire to learn about people’s similar—although also different—experiences in leaving). I analyzed my stance in relation to this book and wrote about it within the book. I felt strongly that readers needed to know “where I was coming from” to help them better assess the quality of my analysis. I also described some of my experiences throughout the book, I think a bit in each chapter; because I think it is a much more honest approach and because I think readers are interested in learning about the author and her life.

How did your own experience leaving Orthodox Judaism compare to those you write about?

My own experiences leaving Orthodox Judaism were in many ways easier (despite being disowned). Modern Orthodox Jews engage with the secular world; their philosophy is following Torah and being a person in the world. So, as a Modern Orthodox, I grew up knowing about the secular world of movies, television, plays, etc. I went to a university, which helped me leave, and when I left I knew I could manage well in the secular world.

Mod Squad", by
“Mod Squad”, by Gerald Rich (2012). CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.

In contrast, the Hasidic defectors did not know much about the secular world. They grew up speaking Yiddish, and newspapers, television, and other forms of secular media were banned from their homes. They grew up in a community in which they were encapsulated physically, socially, and ideologically. They were taught that non-Jews are threatening and that many of them were like animals. So they were terrified of leaving: they did not have the education needed to find jobs to support themselves in the secular world; they had no idea how to find an apartment, or how to finance it; the men spoke Yiddish and poor English. So they had a lot more cultural learning to do in order to leave than I had. Also they had to “disinscribe” the Haredi markers from their bodies—learn to dress differently (putting on pants was a big deal for the women) and comport themselves in a more open way.

Did any interviews surprise you? If so, what was it that surprised you?

One aspect of my interviews that surprised me is that none of the people I spoke to were fully cut off from their families as I had been. I expected I would find other defectors (than me) had been cut off from their families. Some remained quite distant or not in contact with their families for a few years, but usually became reconnected after the passage of time… or when a grandchild was born. Some, though, have very poor and painful relationships with their families, speaking of emotional distance and pain.

I was also surprised by the sheer amount of abuse—physical, sexual, and emotional—I heard in the stories. One woman knew from childhood that her mother simply did not like her and she still does not get along with her; she told me others (such as a doctor or a relative) could clearly tell her mother disliked her intensely. The stories of sexual abuse were so sad to talk about and many exclaimed about the irony of the abusers being part of a very religious community where they are supposed to be pious.

What do you hope readers will take away from the book?

For one, I want them to take away an understanding of the body as central to all social interaction and institutions. I would like them to see how embodiment is not one aspect of a person but the fundamental ground of everyone’s being. I have a fantasy they will come away understanding we need to reverse Descartes: I think therefore I am and instead have it as “I am therefore I think.”

I hope readers will understand both the uniqueness of Haredi life, and the similarities between defectors and others who change their identities through the medium of the body such as LGBTQ people.

I want to complicate the common sense assumption that all Orthodox Jews are alike.

A deeper understanding of how the perspective of the author shapes written work: both books and articles. I would like them to understand there is no “objectivity” in social science research and therefore the more the author reveals about her perspective, the better they are able to judge the quality of the work.

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8. Vampires and life decisions

Imagine that you have a one-time-only chance to become a vampire. With one swift, painless bite, you’ll be permanently transformed into an elegant and fabulous creature of the night. As a member of the Undead, your life will be completely different. You’ll experience a range of intense new sense experiences, you’ll gain immortal strength, speed and power, and you’ll look fantastic in everything you wear. You’ll also need to drink the blood of humanely farmed animals (but not human blood), avoid sunlight, and sleep in a coffin.

Now, suppose that all of your friends, people whose interests, views and lives were similar to yours, have already decided to become vampires. And all of them tell you that they love it. They encourage you to become a vampire too, saying things like: “I’d never go back, even if I could. Life has meaning and a sense of purpose now that it never had when I was human. It’s amazing! But I can’t really explain it to you, a mere human. You’ll have to become a vampire to know what it’s like.”

In this situation, how could you possibly make an informed choice about what to do? For, after all, you cannot know what it is like to become a vampire until you become one. The experience of becoming a vampire is transformative. What I mean by this is that it is an experience that is both radically epistemically new, such that you have to have it in order to know what it will be like for you, and moreover, will change your core personal preferences.

“You’ll have to become a vampire to know what it’s like”

So you can’t rationally choose to become a vampire, but nor can you rationally choose to not become one, if you want to choose based on what you think it would be like to live your life as a vampire. This is because you can’t possibly know what it would be like before you try it. And you can’t possibly know what you’d be missing if you didn’t.

We don’t normally have to consider the choice to become Undead, but the structure of this example generalizes, and this makes trouble for a widely assumed story about how we should make momentous, life-changing choices for ourselves. The story is based on the assumption that, in modern western society, the ideal rational agent is supposed to charge of her own destiny, mapping out the subjective future she hopes to realize by rationally evaluating her options from her authentic, personal point of view. In other words, when we approach major life decisions, we are supposed to introspect on our past experiences and our current desires about what we want our futures to be like in order to guide us in determining our future selves. But if a big life choice is transformative, you can’t know what your future will be like, at least, not in the deeply relevant way that you want to know about it, until you’ve actually undergone the life experience.

Transformative experience cases are special kinds of cases where important ordinary approaches that people try to use to make better decisions, such as making better generalizations based on past experiences, or educating themselves to better evaluate and recognize their true desires or preferences, simply don’t apply. So transformative experience cases are not just cases involving our uncertainty about certain sorts of future experiences. They are special kinds of cases that focus on a distinctive kind of ‘unknowability’—certain important and distinctive values of the lived experiences in our possible futures are fundamentally first-personally unknowable. The problems with knowing what it will be like to undergo life experiences that will transform you can challenge the very coherence of the ordinary way to approach major decisions.

18449204_5002549d02_b
‘Vampire Children,’ by. Shawn Allen. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr

Moreover, the problem with these kinds of choices isn’t just with the unknowability of your future. Transformative experience cases also raise a distinctive kind of decision-theoretic problem for these decisions made for our future selves. Recall the vampire case I started with. The problem here is that, before you change, you are supposed to perform a simulation of how you’d respond to the experience in order to decide whether to change. But the trouble is, who you are changes as you become a vampire.

Think about it: before you become a vampire, you should assess the decision as a human. But you can’t imaginatively put yourself in the shoes of the vampire you will become and imaginatively assess what that future lived experience will be. And, after you have become a vampire, you’ve changed, such that your assessment of your decision now is different from the assessment you made as a human. So the question is, which assessment is the better one? Which view should determine who you become? The view you have when you are human? Or the one you have when you are a vampire.

The questions I’ve been raising here focus on the fictional case of the choice to be come a vampire. But many real-life experiences and the decisions they involve have the very same structure, such as the choice to have one’s first child. In fact, in many ways, the choice to become a parent is just like the choice to become a vampire! (You won’t have to drink any blood, but you will undergo a major transition, and life will never be the same again.)

In many ways, large and small, as we live our lives, we find ourselves confronted with a brute fact about how little we can know about our futures, just when it is most important to us that we do know. If that’s right, then for many big life choices, we only learn what we need to know after we’ve done it, and we change ourselves in the process of doing it. In the end, it may be that the most rational response to this situation is to change the way we frame these big decisions: instead of choosing based on what we think our futures will be like, we should choose based on whether we want to discover who we’ll become.

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9. Intersections of documentary and avant-garde filmmaking

One of the more interesting recent developments in film studies is the recognition that what has seemed to be separate histories — documentary filmmaking and avant-garde filmmaking — are, once again, converging. I say “once again” because the interplay between documentary and avant-garde film has long been more significant than seems generally understood.

An intersection of an avant-garde artistic practice and a documentary impulse helped to instigate the dawn of cinema itself. When Eadweard Muybridge and Etienne-Jules Marey were discovering and exploring the possibilities of photographic motion study, they were the photographic avant-garde of that moment. And their subject was the documentation of the motion of animals, birds, and human beings, presumably so that we could know, more fully, the truth about this motion. And at the moment when W. K. L. Dickson perfected the Kinetograph and Kinetoscope and the Lumière Brothers perfected the Cinématographe and the projected motion picture, they in turn became the photographic avant-garde; and their primary fascination, too, was the documentation of motion, specifically human activity, first, in the world around them and soon, in the case of the Lumières, across the globe.

Flaherty’s Nanook (1922) was both a breakthrough documentary and an avant-garde experiment in collaborative filmmaking; and the City Symphonies that emerged in the 1920s (Berlin: Symphony of a Big City, 1926, e.g., and The Man with a Movie Camera, 1929) were documentary interpretations of reality and avant-garde experiments.

During the 1940s, the most important development for independent cinema in the United States was the emergence of a full-fledged film society movement. The leading contributor was Cinema 16, founded by Amos and Marcia Vogel in New York City in 1947. At its height, Cinema 16 had 7,000 members, and filled a 1,500-seat auditorium twice a night for monthly screenings. Cinema 16’s programming was an inventive mixture of documentary and avant-garde film.

The development of light-weight cameras and tape recorders, more flexible microphones, and faster film stocks during the late 1950s created additional options that in one sense, drove documentary filmmaking and avant-garde filmmaking apart, but in another sense, created a different kind of intersection between them. Sync-sound shooting expanded the options available to filmmakers committed to documentary, instigating forms of cinematic entertainment that functioned as critiques of Hollywood filmmaking and early television. Drew Associates, D. A. Pennebaker, Frederick Wiseman, and the Maysles Brothers fashioned engaging melodrama out of real life in Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment (1963), Don’t Look Back (1967), Hospital (1968), and Salesman (1968).

Cinema, by m4tik. CC-BY-NC-2.0 via Flickr.
Cinema, by m4tik. CC-BY-NC-2.0 via Flickr.

During the same decade, avant-garde filmmakers were producing very different forms of documentary, often by abjuring sound altogether. Stan Brakhage was committed to the idea of cinema as a visual art, and created remarkable—silent—confrontations of visual taboo such as Window Water Baby Moving (1959) and The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes (1972)—now recognized as canonical documentaries. These films could hardly have been more different from the cinema verite films, but we can now see that Brakhage shared the mission of the cinema verite documentarians: the cinematic confrontation of convention-bound commercial media.

In 1955, Francis Flaherty, Robert Flaherty’s widow, established a symposium to honor her husband’s filmmaking oeuvre and to promote his commitment to filmmaking “without preconceptions.” In recent decades “the Flaherty,” as the symposium has come to be called, has attracted dozens of filmmakers, programmers, teachers, students, and other cine-aficionados for week-long immersions in programs of screenings and discussions. Modern Flaherty seminars have often been driven by an implicit debate about what the correct balance between documentary and avant-garde film should be at the seminar.

Since the 1940s, avant-garde filmmakers have found ways of exploring the personal, first by psycho-dramatizing their inner disturbances (Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon and Kenneth Anger’s Fireworks are landmark instances), and later by filming the particulars of their personal lives. Brakhage documented dimensions of his personal life in many films, as did Carolee Schneemann, in Fuses (1967), and Jonas Mekas, in Walden (1969) and Lost Lost Lost (1976). And during the 1980s, avant-garde filmmakers Su Friedrich (in The Ties that Bind, 1984; and Sink or Swim, 1990) and Alan Berliner (in Intimate Stranger, 1991; and Nobody’s Business, 1996), used experimental techniques learned from other avant-garde filmmakers to directly engage their family histories.

What has come to be called “personal documentary” (basically, the use of sync-sound to explore personal issues) was instigated in the early 1970s by Ed Pincus’s Diaries (filmed from 1971-1976; completed in 1981), Miriam Weinstein’s Living with Peter (1973), Amalie Rothschild’s Nana, Mom and Me (1974), Alfred Guzzetti’s Family Portrait Sittings (1975). By the 1980s, several of Pincus’s students at MIT were contributing to this approach, among them Ross McElwee, whose films, including Sherman’s March (1986), Time Indefinite (1994), and Photographic Memory (2011) are an on-going personal saga.

Globalization and the standardization of so many dimensions of modern life, along with threats to the environment, have created a desire on the part of many filmmakers to pay a deeper attention to the particulars of Place. Since the early 1970s, contemplations of Place have been produced by avant-garde filmmakers Larry Gottheim (Fog Line, 1970; Horizons, 1973), Nathaniel Dorsky (Hours for Jerome, 1982), James Benning (13 Lakes, 2004), Peter Hutton (Landscape (for Manon), 1987; At Sea, 2007), Sharon Lockhart (Double Tide, 2009) and many others. A fascination with Place, or more precisely, people-in-place, also characterizes the documentaries coming out of Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab (SEL), including Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s Sweetgrass (2009), Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s Leviathan (2013), and Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez’s Manakamana (2014). Indeed, the films of Hutton, Benning, and Lockhart, in particular, have been shown regularly at the SEL.

The interviewees in Avant-Doc reveal a wide range of ways in which their own work and the work of colleagues function creatively within the liminal zone between documentary and avant-garde and the ways in which the intersections between these histories have played into their work.

Headline image credit: Camera. Public domain via Pixabay.

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10. Representations of purgatory and limbo in popular culture

In the Catholic tradition, purgatory is an afterlife destination reserved for souls who are ultimately bound for heaven. It is still a doctrine of the Catholic Church, despite confusion about its status. In 2007, the residing Pope Benedict XVI asked Church theologians to reconsider another Catholic afterlife destination: limbo. Limbo was traditionally thought to be on the “lip of hell” or the edge of heaven (hence the name limbo, which derives from the Latin limbus, for edge). Limbo was believed to be the final destination for the souls of unbaptized babies. The unsettling implications of belief in limbo, in part, was what motivated Pope Benedict and contemporary theologians to conclude that Catholics should hope for God’s mercy for deceased unbaptized babies—that no, they probably didn’t end up in limbo. The popular press interpreted this move as the abolition of limbo, which never was, ironically, a Catholic doctrine, although certainly lots of influential Catholics believed in it and wrote about it, like Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. With limbo off the table, public discussion focused on the status of purgatory.

Popular headlines reflected confusion: would purgatory be next? Unlike limbo, purgatory is a doctrine of the Church, yet its representations have undergone significant modifications. Historically, the diversity of conceptions of purgatory boggles the mind. An entrance to purgatory was once thought to reside in Ireland on a rocky island; it was also considered to be a punitive “neighborhood” to hell; in the 1860s a cleric in France wrote that purgatory was in the middle of the earth; and more commonly after the nineteenth century, it is conceived of as a purifying “state” or condition of a soul, and not as a place at all. The common thread running through each of these descriptions is that they all derive from Catholic culture, although each was advocated in different eras and within unique contexts.

Molloch and Henry in Purgatory. (c) Sleepy Hollow, Fox.
Molloch and Henry in Purgatory. (c) Sleepy Hollow, Fox.

Today, one is more likely to find representations of purgatory and limbo in virtual reality and popular culture than in the local Catholic Church. In particular, the creators of video games and online role playing environments incorporate stereotypical images that reinforce particularly punitive versions of these post-death destinations that are usually associated with the late medieval era. The somber, award-winning video game LIMBO features a narrative story line similar to the “edge of hell” version of limbo rather than its representation as the edge of heaven. Released in July 2010 by the Danish game developer Play Dead, the game follows a young boy in search of his sister. LIMBO’s environments are entirely black, white, and shades of gray, featuring fear factors like giant shadowy spiders, eerie, lonesome forests, and cold industrial landscapes. The game’s creators state that they intentionally kept the storyline minimal, with no inherent meaning so that gamers can speculate on their own as to what is the ultimate meaning.

Purgatory is the main theme of an anticipated 3D role-playing game called Graywalkers: Purgatory. The game environment is a post-apocalyptic world where the afterlife merges with human lives. Demons and angels war with each other over the fate of humanity. Thirty-six heroes called Graywalkers emerge to assist the angels. Creator Russell Tomas of Dreamlords Digital stated that Purgatory is a game of action and consequence, where player’s actions will directly impact the results of the game. Characters like Father Rueben wear traditional Catholic vestments with the additional innovation of weapons and religiously themed tattoos.

Purgatory also figures in the popular television show Sleepy Hollow, which premiered in 2013 on the Fox network. Protagonist Katrina Crane is relegated to purgatory, which is imagined as an eerie waiting area for souls who are destined for either heaven or hell. This is obviously an alternation from the doctrinal version of purgatory—imagined as a place where souls are destined for heaven—and it has spawned online conversations focused on whether or not the version of purgatory represented in the show is actually correct. It is not, of course, but in this respect it conforms to other, much older versions of purgatory that were ultimately considered to be erroneous, such as those that placed it in the middle of the earth, or on a rocky island in Ireland.

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11. Tiberius on Capri: in pursuit of vice or just avoiding mother?

In AD 14, two thousand years ago this summer, the emperor Augustus, having dominated Rome for over forty years, finally breathed his last. The new emperor was his step-son Tiberius. While Augustus’ achievement in ending civil war and discreetly transforming a republic into one-man rule provokes grudging admiration even from those who aren’t keen on autocracy, Tiberius has very few fans. Suetonius’ biography, the third in his twelve Lives of the Caesars, offers some intriguing insights into why this might be.

Tiberius Claudius Nero Caesar (42 BCE - 37 CE)
Tiberius Claudius Nero Caesar

Descended from one of Rome’s most noble families, Tiberius, in his mid-50s when he came to power, had led a series of enormously successful, if unshowy, military campaigns, securing Pannonia (roughly modern Hungary) in the east and doing much to stabilize the troublesome area around the Rhine in the north. He loved literature, philosophy, and art. He was just the kind of man who had dominated the senior echelons of the senate under the republic – a very traditional kind of Roman leader, it might seem.

But among ancient commentators only Velleius Paterculus, who wrote during his reign, has much good to say. Suetonius, in his biography, and Tacitus, in his Annals, offer a litany of damning criticisms. Tiberius, himself a great respecter of tradition, a stickler for proper procedure, seems to have found his position – as not quite fully acknowledged autocrat, expected to exercise personal dominance through what purported to be the old republican framework – deeply uncomfortable. Unlike Augustus, he had no desire whatsoever to develop a warm relationship with the common people of Rome. (Suetonius makes clear his total lack of interest in the games – a telling indicator.) No money was spent on public works. He veered between insisting the Senate behave independently and dropping cryptic hints as to how he wanted it to vote. Yet his chief crime, in the eyes of some ancient critics, was deserting Rome.

Tiberius' Villa in Capri, Italy. Photo by Tyler Bell. CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Tiberius’ Villa in Capri, Italy. Photo by Tyler Bell. CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

In 26 AD, twelve years into his reign, Tiberius withdrew to the island of Capri, never to return to the city. Was this meant to look like a return to senatorial government? For the next eleven years, imperial control was exercised remotely, for the most part through Sejanus, prefect of the praetorian guard. Among the many prominent Romans convicted of treason in those years were members of Tiberius’ own family, including the widow and two elder sons of his nephew Germanicus. Eventually Sejanus, too, ended up a corpse in the Tiber, taking with him as he fell many who had hoped to profit by associating with the emperor’s henchman. This bloodbath reflects Tiberius’ innate cruelty, as well as his insecurity – but Suetonius highlights other vices, too.

His biography begins with some family history – a mixed bag of earlier Claudians, male and female, some famous for their virtue, others notorious for their arrogance and depravity. Suetonius then charts Tiberius’ early life, his distinguished military career, his accession and the largely positive measures he undertook in the early years of his reign. But chapter 33 hints darkly at the character assassination, which is to follow: ‘He showed only gradually what kind of emperor he was’. This move prefigures the comments Suetonius makes in his Lives of Caligula (ch.22: ‘The story so far has been of Caligula the emperor, the rest must be of Caligula the monster’) and Nero (the end of ch.19 prepares the reader for ‘the shameful deeds and crimes with which I shall henceforth be concerned’). For Suetonius, character, though it may be temporarily masked, is not subject to change or development.

Suetonius does note that Tiberius’ withdrawal meant provincial government was neglected but stories of the emperor’s depravity get much more attention. Once on Capri, Tiberius ‘finally gave in to all the vices he had struggled so long to conceal’. His drinking was legendary, his sex life exceeded the worst imaginings. Surrounded by sexually explicit art-works, Tiberius was addicted to every kind of perversion, with boys, girls – even tiny children. The accusations relating to oral sex would have aroused particular loathing on the part of Roman readers. Tiberius’ appetites were hardly human; ‘people talked of the old goat’s den – making a play on the name of the island’. What did Tiberius really get up to? Stories of this kind were part of the common currency of Roman political discourse. Suetonius devotes similar space to the sexual transgressions of Caligula, Nero, and Domitian – such behaviour is to be expected of a tyrant. The remoteness of the emperor’s residence itself must have fuelled the most lurid imaginations back in Rome. Emblematic of Tiberius’ impossible position is his relationship with his mother Livia. Had she not been Augustus’ wife of many decades, Tiberius would never have succeeded to power. Suetonius repeatedly underlines Livia’s key role in promoting her son. She persuaded Augustus to adopt him, following the deaths of his two adult grandsons. She helped to ensure a rival candidate was eliminated. Even after Tiberius succeeded to Augustus, Livia remained a force to be reckoned with: ‘he was angered by his mother Livia on the grounds that she claimed an equal share in his power’. Yet we should perhaps be just as wary with regard to these stories as with those about Tiberius’ sexual tastes. What better way for Tiberius’ critics to undermine him than to allege this experienced military man in late middle age needed advice from his mother? Such claims would perhaps have been especially offensive to someone of Tiberius’ ultra-traditional outlook. The senators who proposed to honour him with the title ‘Son of Livia’ knew how to torment the emperor. Indeed Suetonius reports stories that the main reason Tiberius left Rome for Capri was to get away from his mother.

Image credits: (1) Siemiradzki Orgy on Capri by Henryk Siemiradzki, 1881. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons (2) Tiberius Claudius Nero Caesar (42 BCE – 37 CE). From: H.F. Helmolt (ed.): History of the World. New York, 1901. University of Texas Portrait Gallery. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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12. Windows on the past: how places get their names

Standing underneath the monstrous Soviet statue of “Motherland Calls” looking out over the mighty Volga River, I could understand why the city should have been renamed, rather unimaginatively, Volgograd “City on the Volga”. Between 1925 and 1961 it had been called Stalingrad, and was site of one of the most ferocious battles in the Second World War. By 1925, Josef Stalin was the Communist Party General Secretary, and the trend to rename cities and towns in his honor had begun. Since he had been chairman of the local military committee which had organized the defense of the city in 1919 against the White Russian armies, why not name this city after him? But in the years following his death in 1953, Stalin began to fall from grace and many places named after him were renamed. So what was Stalingrad called before 1925? Tsaritsyn. Something to do with the Tsar, probably, and given this name when it was founded as a fortress in 1589. This is a tempting assumption, but it is an assumption too far; toponymy is prone to such traps. Tsaritsyn is actually a Tatar name meaning “Town on the (River) Tsaritsa” from the Turkic sary su, “Yellow River.” It was given this name because of the golden sands of the Tsaritsa, at the point where it flows into the Volga.

So rivers have played a part in two of Volgograd’s names. Rivers attracted people because they provided fish to eat and water to drink, and facilitated movement and communication. People needed to differentiate between their settlements so they began to give them names: “river” (Rijeka in Croatia), “river mouth” (Dartmouth in England), “fast-flowing” (Bystrytsya in Ukraine and Bystrzyca in Poland), “white water” (Aksu in China, Kazakhstan, and Turkey), the “yellow river” (China).

In due course, something more creative was needed, and somebody trying to curry favor suggested naming their settlement after its leader. Leaders, at all levels, liked this idea and it spread rapidly. It helped to be royal (Victoria appears at least 31 times in 19 different countries), be a person of great power or influence (Washington), someone who had achieved some conspicuous feat (Gagarin, the Soviet cosmonaut), or explored new territory (Columbus). During the age of colonialism, some senior administrators and generals achieved comparative immortality by having places named or renamed after them, notably in the British Empire (Abbottābād).

A partial view of Aksu Stream nearby Waterfall Kuzalan in Dereli district of Giresun province, Turkey by Zeynel Cebeci. CC-BY-SA-4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
A partial view of Aksu Stream nearby Waterfall Kuzalan in Dereli district of Giresun province, Turkey by Zeynel Cebeci. CC-BY-SA-4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Russian and Soviet leaders were keen to project power or to intimidate. So in 1783, Count Paul Potemkin built a fortress at Vladikavkaz, which he called Vladet’ Kavkazom (“To have command of the Caucasus”). The name is now taken to mean “Ruler of the Caucasus”. In the same way, Vladivostok, also founded as a military post, has the name “Ruler of the East”. Founded in 1818 by the Russians to spread fear amongst the Chechens, Groznyy, capital of Chechnya, was given the name “Awesome” or “Menacing”. As recently as 2008 Vladimir Putin, the present Russian president, conferred the name “Peak of Russian Counter-Intelligence Agents” on a previously unnamed peak in the Caucasus Mountains.

There is no shortage of saints’ or religious leaders’ names throughout the world, particularly in California, Central and South America, and the Caribbean as a result of the earlier Spanish and Portuguese presence. Some may have been founded or sighted on a saint’s feast day (St. Helena), because they were the personal saint of the founder (St. Petersburg in Russia). or because the saint was thought to have been martyred there (St. Albans in England).

Possibly the three most important elements of toponymy are languages — living and dead — history, and geography. Numerous modern names in Europe are derived from their Latin names, since they were within the Roman Empire, and some of these Latin names had Celtic origins (Catterick and Toledo). Many names appear to have barely changed over the centuries (Lincoln and Civitavecchia) and thus their meaning can be deduced with little difficulty. Others, however, might appear to have an obvious meaning, but in tracing their history, it may be found that the origin or present meaning is not as anticipated (New York). It is sometimes the case that the original and modern forms are almost identical, but the meaning of a word has changed. The modern “field” is taken to mean an “enclosed piece of land” whereas the Old English feld meant “open land”. Place names are a window on the past. For example, Scandinavian names in England indicate where the Norwegian and Danish population was concentrated a millennium ago. Birkby, from Bretarby “Village of the Britons”, shows that this was a village inhabited by Britons rather than Anglo-Saxons.

The descriptive element of geography has a role: points of the compass (West Indies, East Anglia), the presence of ports, bridges, or fords (Oxford), the color or shape of a mountain (Rocky Mountains), even market day (Dushanbe “Monday” in Tajikistan).

Toponymy is a bit like astronomy — there is always something more to discover. There is probably no inhabited place on earth without a name. Yet the origin and meaning of some of the best known names are unknown. London is a case in point.

Some places like to draw attention to themselves by having unusual names: Halfway, Scratch Ankle, Truth or Consequences, Tombstone (all in the USA); or by having a name so long that virtually nobody can either remember it or pronounce it. Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch in Wales has 58 letters, and the Maori name of a hill on the North Island of New Zealand, Taumatawhakatangihangakōauauotamateauripūkakapikimaungahoronukupōkaiwhenuakitanatahu, has 84 letters, the world’s longest place name. Bangkok makes do with Bangkok, but a native of the city might give you its full name, all 60 words of it in English.

Have you voted for Place of the Year 2014? If not, vote now, and follow #POTY2014 to find out which place wins on 1 December.


The Place of the Year 2014 shortlist

Heading image: Monument in Volgograd – Motherland by alex1983. CC0 via Pixabay.

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13. The literature and history of Chaucer

To read Chaucer today is, in some measure, to read him historically. For instance, when the poet tells us in the ‘General Prologue’ to the Canterbury Tales that the Knight’s crusading experiences include service with the Teutonic Order in ‘Lettow’ (i.e. Lithuania), comprehension of the literal sense or denotation of the text requires some knowledge of fourteenth-century institutions, ideas and events. More generally, discussions of whether the Knight’s crusading activities are being held up for approval or disapproval in the ‘General Prologue’ (i.e., of the text’s connotations), are likely to cite the various, and sometimes conflicting, ways in which the morality of crusading, and in particular of campaigns mounted by the Teutonic Order against the Lithuanians, were regarded in Chaucer’s own day.

Certainly modern literary critics, influenced by Marxism, feminism, post-structuralism, new historicism, post-colonialism and cultural materialism, have adopted historical and sociological approaches to literary works from the past and have insisted on the need to read medieval literature in its historical context. Whereas the works of canonical authors such as Chaucer were once admired because they were seen to speak to ‘us’ across the centuries about some timeless ‘human condition’, their works are now likely to be seen as interventions in the social, political and ideological conflicts of their day. Medieval literary texts have thus come to be understood as instances of, in Helen Barr’s words, ‘social language practice’, being to some extent determined by contemporary social structures, institutions, conventions and behaviour but also, in turn, participating in them and even influencing them.

This historical approach to literature has been particularly evident in the field of Chaucer studies. As a result of the influence of scholars such as David Aers, Stephen Knight, Paul Strohm, Lee Patterson, Peggy Knapp, and David Wallace, Chaucer’s work has come to be read ‘socio-historically’, as an engagement with the social and political problems and ideological conflicts of the late fourteenth century. For those who proceed in this way, the context needed for understanding the Canterbury Tales is not only other literary texts of this period, such as Langland’s Piers Plowman or Gower’s Confessio Amantis, but also documentary sources of the day, such as Richard II’s 1387 proclamation against slander or the 1382 letters in which aldermen of the city of London were accused of treason at the time of the Peasants’ Revolt.

Portrait_of_Chaucer_-_Portrait_and_Life_of_Chaucer_(16th_C),_f.1_-_BL_Add_MS_5141
Image credit: Portrait of Chaucer, 16th century by the British Library. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Nonetheless, the popularity of historicist approaches to Chaucer’s work has by no means led to agreement about the poet’s social or moral outlook. On the contrary, as Helen Cooper said, there is ‘probably less of a critical consensus’ about Chaucer’s meaning and purpose ‘than for any other English writer’. Three main approaches to Chaucer’s social meaning can be identified, even though any one of them may be adopted by scholars writing from a wide range of theoretical perspectives and deploying many different critical vocabularies. Firstly, are those critics who regard Chaucer’s views as being essentially in accord with conventional medieval defences of social inequality. Here Chaucer’s crusading Knight would be seen as an ideal representative of the estate of ‘those who fight’ and, along with the Parson and Ploughman, as providing a yardstick by which to measure the other pilgrims and the extent to which they perform their proper social functions, put the common good before their own immediate pleasure or profit, and live in harmony with their fellows. Secondly, there are those who adopt the opposite view, discerning a more radical Chaucer, one who highlights the inadequacies of traditional social morality and who offers a challenge to ‘official’ conceptions of the prevailing order. Here Chaucer’s description of the Knight would be seen as challenging traditional chivalric ideals or as questioning the validity of the crusades. Thirdly, there are those who consider Chaucer’s work to be in some way open-ended and so as allowing the members of its audience to make up their own minds about the moral questions – for instance, about the Knight’s willingness to kill in the name of religion – which it raises.

Yet, despite this well-established ‘historical turn’ in literary studies, medieval historians have generally been loath to turn their hands to interpretation of works of imaginative literature from the Middle Ages. Perhaps it is now time for historians to respond to the interdisciplinary approaches which literary critics have pioneered? If we need an historical approach to make sense of Chaucer’s meaning, perhaps historians themselves have something to contribute to the debates about the social meaning of the Canterbury Tales which have so engaged literary critics? In the past, medieval historians have often taken a rather naive approach to works of imaginative literature, asking to what extent Chaucer’s pilgrims constitute accurate ‘reflections’ of the social reality of the time or seeking ‘real-life models’ for the pilgrims amongst the people with whom Chaucer was (or may have been) acquainted. If they are to contribute anything of value to current debates about Chaucer’s social meaning, they will need a need a sensitivity to the specifically literary nature of his texts, including his medieval conceptions of satire and irony and the ways in which his work adapted traditional literary stereotypes and generic conventions. Literary critics have offered us the possibility of a dialogue between the disciplines; it is now up to historians to respond to this invitation, to familiarise themselves with the scholarship in the field and to offer their own assessment of Chaucer’s engagement with the ideology of his time.

Headline image credit: The Canterbury Pilgrims Copper engraving printed on paper. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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14. Six questions with Amy DeRogatis

In her new book, Amy DeRogatis explores a relatively untouched topic: evangelicals and sexuality. While many may think that evangelicals are anti-sex, DeRogatis argues that this could not be further from the truth. We sat down with the author of Saving Sex: Sexuality and Salvation in American Evangelicalism to learn more about her research into the topic.

How did you become interested in this topic?

My interest in this topic began when I was asked a question by a student in my Religion and Gender class at Michigan State University (MSU). In the course we had been reading a book that discussed some ritual practices around marital sexuality in Orthodox Judaism. One student raised her hand and asked, “Where do Christians go to read about the proper ways to have sex?” Knowing the student, I understood that she didn’t mean all Christians; she was referring specifically to evangelicals. I made a quick reply about evangelicals publishing lots of material about how not to have sex and returned to the topic of discussion. The question stuck with me and after class I ran a few Internet searches for Christian sex manuals, and I found some Catholic writings. I then refined the search to evangelical sex manuals, and although I was unable to find any secondary material, such as a scholarly article that surveyed and analyzed the literature, I did eventually find lots of primary sources. I was astonished to discover that Special Collections in the Main Library at MSU had a large collection of these publications. Within a week of hearing the student’s question, I was in the library reading evangelical sex manuals, and I was hooked.

How do you define “evangelical” in this book?

That is a great question. There has been much debate among scholars about how to define evangelicalism and whether there is even a cohesive category under which we can talk about and study evangelicals. I adopt a very broad definition. I define evangelicals as Protestants who affirm the necessity of individual spiritual rebirth. Evangelicals emphasize personal conversion, the authority of Scripture, the imminent return of Christ, and the desire to spread the gospel. Evangelicals express their theological beliefs through daily practices such as prayer, Bible study, refraining from sinful behavior and furthering what is often called “their walk with Christ.”

Sexuality is a huge topic. Is there anything you planned to write about that you didn’t include in the book?

Yes, of course. The first question I usually am asked about is why I focus on heterosexuality in my book. Originally I had planned to write a chapter on prescriptive literature about same-sex desires and practices. There are a few recent books that do an excellent job of examining this issue (here I’ll just mention two: Tanya Erzen’s, Straight to Jesus and Lynne Gerber’s The Straight and Narrow) and I felt that I did not have much to add to or improve their excellent analyses. When I wrote the book proposal I was imagining a chapter on LGBTQ evangelicals and their writings about sexuality. But, as the project developed, I focused in on conservative evangelicals, and to me, what is one of the fascinating points that evangelical sex writers are deeply concerned with monitoring and regulating heterosexual sex.

What do you think is the biggest misconception about evangelicals and sexuality?

The biggest misconception is that evangelicals are anti-sex. They are not. Contrary to popular stereotypes that characterize conservative Christians as prudes, since the 1960s evangelicals have been engaged in an enterprise to claim and affirm the joys of sex for married born-again Christians. Rather than turning away from the sexual liberation movement, they have simply made it their own by publishing sex manuals, running sex workshops, and holding counseling sessions to aid married evangelicals achieve sexual satisfaction. The sex publications are distinct from secular sex manuals in their exclusive focus on heterosexuality, the assumption of virginity prior to marriage, the role of the Bible as a reliable guide for sexual pleasure, and the emphasis on understanding and maintaining traditional gender roles as a requirement for “true” sexual satisfaction. The authors go to great lengths to suggest techniques for sexual pleasure and argue that marital sexual pleasure is biblical and good marital sex is a sign of faithfulness and a testimony to others. It is true—evangelical publications do not promote all forms of human sexuality. It is also true that within heterosexual marriage, sexual pleasure, according to these manuals, is part of God’s plan for humanity. So, no, evangelicals are not anti-sex.

How do you think this work will influence your scholarly field?

First and foremost, I hope that my book will put the study of evangelical sexuality on the scholarly agenda. Before I began publishing my research on evangelicals and sexuality there were very few scholarly essays about evangelicals and sexuality. The most compelling writings were focused on evangelical responses to same-sex desires and practices, not on heterosexuality. There were some popular magazine articles and a couple of books written by scholars outside of the field of religious studies that primarily focused on gender or sexuality and discussed evangelical sexual writings and practices as part of a larger project. While there are numerous excellent monographs on American evangelicals and gender, I am not aware of anyone who has written a scholarly study of American evangelical popular prescriptive literature about heterosexual practices. The one exception would be a few monographs that examine adolescent sexuality and the purity movement. I hope that my book will influence future scholars to take up the topic and investigate areas that I do not consider in this book. I know that there are a few dissertations in the works that focus on social media, more controversial sexual practices, a specific figure (Mark Driscoll currently is a favorite), as well as a few sociological and anthropological studies that consider the effects of the prescriptive literature I examine on the lives of everyday believers. Beyond my topic, I hope my book will inspire other scholars who study religion to take seriously popular literature about embodied practices and the role of the senses in the construction and maintenance of religious identity.

What was the last book you read for pleasure that you would recommend to others?

Dear Committee Members: A Novel by Julie Schumacher.

Image credit: “Chastity Ring” by Rlmabie. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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15. A brief history of the e-cigarette

Electronic cigarettes are growing in popularity around the world. With the announcement of vape as our Word of the Year, we have put together a timeline of the history of e-cigarettes.

1963
Herbert A. Gilbert patents a non-tobacco cigarette that heats a nicotine solution and produced steam, but it is never manufactured.

1979
Dr. Norman Jacobson, one of the pioneers of the word “vaping,” develops the Favor cigarette, a way to inhale nicotine with no smoke.

2003
Chinese pharmacist Hon Lik first develops an electronic alternative to traditional cigarettes.

2004
The first e-cigarettes, a Chinese invention, comes from the Ruyan company.

2007
E-cigarettes enter the US market.

February 2012
Nicotine and Tobacco Research publishes a study, entitled “Electronic Cigarettes: Effective Nicotine Delivery After Acute Administration,” which explores nicotine intake with different electronic cigarette devices.

June 2013
The Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency will regulate e-cigarettes as medicines from 2016 when new European tobacco laws come into force.

December 2013
Nicotine and Tobacco Research publishes a study, entitled “Secondhand Exposure to Vapors From Electronic Cigarettes.” It reveals that “using an e-cigarette in indoor environments may involuntarily expose non-users to nicotine, but not to toxic tobacco-specific combustion products.”

Different types of electronic cigarettes by TBEC Review. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.
Different types of electronic cigarettes by TBEC Review. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

December 2013
World leading tobacco experts argue that a recently published World Health Organization (WHO)-commissioned review of evidence on e-cigarettes contains important errors, misinterpretations, and misrepresentations, putting policy-makers and the public in danger of foregoing the potential public health benefits of e-cigarettes.”

September 2013
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) urges the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to “issue a rule to regulate all tobacco products, including cigars, little cigars, e-cigarettes and others.”

15 January 2014
The Chicago City Council voted to regulate electronic cigarettes the same as traditional cigarettes,  which “prohibits the use of e-cigarettes in public places, requires stores selling them to keep them behind the counter, and prohibits their sale to minors.”

26 January 2014
The UK bans e-cigarettes for people under 18.

February 2014
The European Parliament approves regulations on e-cigarettes. “Beginning in mid-2016, advertising for e-cigarettes would be banned in the 28 nations of the European Union, as it already is for ordinary tobacco products. E-cigarettes would also be required to carry graphic health warnings and must be childproof. The amount of nicotine would be limited to 20 milligrams per milliliter, similar to ordinary cigarettes.”

March 2014
Journal of Psychiatric Research reports on e-cigarette use within different age groups and finds that “a notable proportion of adolescents and young adults who never smoked cigarettes had ever-used e-cigarettes. E-cigarette use was not consistently associated with attempting to quit tobacco among young adults. Adults most often reported e-cigarettes as a substitute for tobacco, although not always to quit. Reviewed studies showed a somewhat different pattern of e-cigarette use among young people (new e-cigarette users who had never used tobacco) versus adults (former or current tobacco users).”

14 April 2014
A US congressional report surveys the marketing tactics of e-cigarette companies, which directs sales towards youth, and calls on the FDA to set regulations for e-cigarette marketing.

24 April 2014
The FDA proposes regulations on e-cigarettes, which gives them authority over e-cigarettes and expands its’ authority over tobacco products. The AAP still urges the FDA to protect young people from the effects of e-cigarettes.

April 2014
A proposal from the FDA requires  e-cigarettes to “undergo an agency review,” which would ban e-cigarette sales to minors and require e-cigarettes to have warning labels.

April 2014
The AAP releases a statement on the dangers of e-cigarette poisoning in children.

4 May 2014
The AAP surveyed a random sample of adults, and according to the research presented, “the vast majority of young adults who have used the devices believe they are less harmful than regular cigarettes…”

12 May 2014
Tobacco Control BMJ releases a study on e-cigarette use and individuals with mental health conditions.

May 2014
A study for Nicotine and Tobacco Research finds that the vapors from e-cigarettes contain “toxic and carcinogenic carbonyl compounds,” and the amount of formaldehyde in the vapors is similar to the amount reported in tobacco smoke.

2 June 2014
A study titled “Exposure to Electronic Cigarette Television Advertisements Among Youth and Young Adults”, found that “exposure of young people ages 12 to 17 to e-cigarette ads on TV increased 256% from 2011 to 2013. Young adult (ages 18 to 24) exposure increased 321% over the same period.”

25 June 2014
The White House alters the wording of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) tobacco regulations, allowing the online sale of e-cigarettes.

26 June 2014
The British Medical Association (BMA) calls to ban e-cigarette use in public. Doctors and medical students decide that e-cigarettes may lead to nicotine addiction.

July 2014
The BBC bans the use of e-cigarettes in all its offices and studios.

August 2014
A study from Nicotine and Tobacco Research states that “there is a risk of thirdhand exposure to nicotine from e-cigarettes,” although the exposure levels differ depending on the brand of the devices used.

August 2014
A study from Nicotine and Tobacco Research states that “in 2013, over a quarter million never-smoking youth had used e-cigarettes. E-cigarette use was associated with increased intentions to smoke cigarettes.”

24 August 2014
The American Heart Association (AHA) calls on the FDA for more research on e-cigarettes, to apply the same regulations on e-cigarettes as tobacco and nicotine products, and to create new regulations to prevent access, sale, and marketing to youth.

26 August 2014
A World Health Organization (WHO) report states that e-cigarettes need regulation to “impede e-cigarette promotion to non-smokers and young people; minimize potential health risks to e-cigarette users and nonusers; prohibit unproven health claims about e-cigarettes; and protect existing tobacco control efforts from commercial and other vested interests of the tobacco industry.”

The WHO reports that “governments should ban the use of electronic cigarettes in public places and outlaw tactics to lure young users.”

4 September 2014
The New England Journal of Medicine’s findings state that “like conventional cigarettes, electronic cigarettes may function as a ‘gateway drug’ that can prime the brain to be more receptive to harder drugs.”

October 2014
A study for Nicotine and Tobacco Research states that “over 75% of US adults reported uncertainty or disapproval of the use of e-cigarettes in smoke-free areas. Current cigarette smokers, adults aware or have ever used e-cigarettes were more supportive to exempting e-cigarettes from smoking restrictions.”

Headline image credit: Vaping an electronic cigarette by Jon Williams. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

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16. Ivan Pavlov in 22 surprising facts

An iconic figure of 20th century science and culture, Ivan Pavlov is best known as a founding figure of behaviorism who trained dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell and offered a scientific approach to psychology that ignored the “subjective” world of the psyche itself.

While researching Ivan Pavlov: A Russian Life in Science, I discovered that these and other elements of the common images of Pavlov are incorrect. The following 22 facts and observations are a small window onto the life of a man whose work, life and values were much more complex and interesting than the iconic figure with whom we are so familiar.

  1. Pavlov didn’t use a bell, and for his real scientific purposes, couldn’t. English-speakers think he did because of a mistranslation of the Russian word for zvonok (buzzer) and because the behaviorists interpreted Pavlov in their own image for people in the U.S. and much of the West.
  2. He didn’t use the term and concept “conditioned reflex,” either – rather, “conditional,” and it makes a big difference. For him, the conditional reflex was not just a phenomenon, but a tool for exploring the animal and human psyche – “our consciousness and its torments.”
  3. Unlike the behaviorists, Pavlov believed that dogs (like people) had identifiable personalities, emotions, and thoughts that scientific psychology should address. “Essentially, only one thing in life is of real interest to us,” he declared: “our psychical experience.”
  4. As a youth, he identified worriedly with Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov – fearing that his devotion to rationality might strip him of human morality and feelings – but also believed that science (especially physiology) might teach humans to be more reasonable and humane.
    Daniel P. Todes - Pavlov 2
    Ivan Pavlov. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
  5. Although one would expect that this investigator of reflexive reactions would think otherwise, he believed in free will.
  6. Pavlov was from a religious family and trained for the priesthood, but left seminary for science studies at St. Petersburg University. He pondered the relationship of science, religion, morality, and the human quest for certainty throughout his life. Although an atheist, he appreciated religion’s cultural value, protested its repression under the Bolsheviks, and supported financially the local church near his lab at Koltushi. (His wife was deeply religious and their apartment was full of icons.)
  7. Pavlov’s beloved mentor in college was fired as a result of student demonstrations against him as a Jew, a political conservative, and (most importantly) a hard grader. This was a great blow to Pavlov and left him on his own as he attempted to make a career.
  8. He first got a “real job” at age 41 – as a professor of pharmacology.
  9. He didn’t win his Nobel Prize (1904) for research on conditional reflexes, but rather for his studies of digestive physiology.
  10. He more than doubled the budget for his labs by bottling the gastric juice he drew from lab dogs and selling it as a remedy for dyspepsia. (A big hit, not just in Russia, but in France and Germany as well.
  11. Like Darwin, Pavlov believed that dogs had full-fledged thoughts, emotions and personalities. His lab dogs were given names that captured their personalities and were routinely described in lab notebooks as heroic or cowardly, smart or obtuse, weak or strong, good or bad workers, etc. Pavlov constantly interpreted his own biography and personality in terms of his experiments on dogs (and interpreted dogs according to what he thought he knew about himself and other people).
  12. He was famous for his explosive temper –“spontaneous morbid paroxysms,” as he put it. Students and coworkers all had their favorite stories about these vintage explosions. Afterwards, he would make his apologies and get on with his work.
  13. Pavlov was an art collector – with a massive collection of Russian realist art in his apartment. His best friends before 1917 were artists.
  14. To maintain a “balanced” organism, Pavlov spent three months every year at a dacha (summer home) where he avoided science entirely. A devotee of physical exercise, he spent these months gardening, bicycling, and playing gorodki (a Russian sport in which the players throw heavy wooden bats at formations of other heavy bats, trying to knock them down in as few throws as possible; Pavlov was a champion player even in his old age).
  15. He seriously contemplated leaving Russia after the Bolshevik seizure of power in 1917, but finally decided to stay. His Western colleagues helped him financially during the hungry years of civil war (1918 – 1921), but did not offer to support him as a scientist in the West: they thought that, at age 68, he was washed up – but the research on conditional reflexes that would make him an international icon continued full blast for another two decades.
  16. He corresponded with Communist leaders Nikolai Bukharin and Vyacheslav Molotov and was one of very few public critics of the Bolsheviks’ political repression, persecution of religion, and terror in the 1930s. He also praised the state for its great support of science and highly respected some of his Communist coworkers, who succeeded in changing his opinion about some important scientific issues.
  17. Publically always very confident, privately he suffered constantly from what he called his “Beast of Doubt” – his fear that the psyche would never yield its secrets to his research.
  18. Pavlov’s closest scientific collaborator for the last 20+ years of his life, Maria Petrova, was also his lover.
  19. During a trip to the U. S. in 1923 he was mugged and robbed of all his money in Grand Central Station, and wanted to go home “where it is safe,” but was convinced to stay and had a great visit.
  20. When the Communist state sent a political militant to purge his lab of political undesirables, Pavlov literally kicked him down the stairs and out of the building.
  21. When he died, Pavlov was working on two surprising manuscripts that he never completed: one on the relationship of science, Christianity, Communism, and the human search for morality and certainty; the other making an important change in his doctrine of conditional reflexes.
  22. According to Pavlov, the most terrible, frightening thing in life was uncertainty, unforeseen accidents (sluchainosti), against which people could turn to religion or – his choice – science.

How many of the above facts did you already know about the life of Ivan Pavlov?

Featured image: Pavlov, center, operates on a dog to create an isolated stomach or implant a permanent fistula. After the dog recovered, experiments began on an intact and relatively normal animal, which was a central feature of Pavlov’s scientific style. Courtesy of Wellcome Institute Library, London. Used with permission.

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17. Understanding placebo effects: how rituals affect the brain and the body

In a typical prehistoric scene, say in 4000 BC, a wounded warrior is dragged to the shaman tent. The respected shaman takes a look at the wound and assures the warrior that he will be healed with the proper prayers and ritual dances. He then prepares a strong-smelling mixture of herbs and seeds, and as the whole tribe chants rhythmically around the campfire, he carefully applies it to the wound, all the while uttering incomprehensible sentences passed on to him by a venerable line of ancestral shamans.

Now let’s come to more recent times, say in 2010 AD. A wounded soldier is carried to the military hospital. The medical staff completes a physical examination. A CT scan to rule out internal lesions is carried out to the reassuring buzz of the most recent technology, and a respected clinician wearing a spotless white coat reassures the soldier that he will be healed with the proper drugs and physiotherapy.

Gillray_-_Treatment_with_tractors
A quack treating a patient with Perkins Patent Tractors by James Gillray, 1801. This remedy was used to illustrate the power of the placebo effect. James Gillray, 1801. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Across the divide of millennia, what do these two pictures have in common? The ritual of the medical and therapeutic act. Shamans of the past and clinicians of today share instinctual knowledge that the context surrounding a therapy is an important part of the therapy itself. Rituals have changed and adapted to the contemporary world, but they are still here. In spite of the huge time span across human history, contexts help both ancient and modern patients to develop trust and expectation that they will eventually regain their health.

Placebo effects work in this way too. Giving a placebo consists of essentially delivering a context without the substance. It is a wrapping devoid of content. Yet, the empty box itself acts subtly on the patient’s mind, just as an active drug would do, activating or silencing synapses, altering neurotransmitter content in specific brain areas, and modifying brain activity in ways that are today amenable to scientific inquiry. Placebos are not only the archetypal sugar pills but can be anything with the power to impact on the patient’s expectations. Placebos are made of words, symbols, rituals, meanings. What is important is not really the tool used, but the changes it triggers in neural activity, and how these changes ultimately affect psychological and bodily functions.

Within this framework, today we are witnessing an epochal transition in the medical paradigm, whereby general concepts, such as suggestibility and power of mind, can now be described in terms of a true biology of placebo effects and doctor-patient interaction. Thanks to modern scientific tools, important questions have been addressed and partially answered, such as psychological and emotional influences on symptoms, diseases, and responses to therapies.

The main concept that is emerging today is that placebos, words, therapeutic rituals and patients’ expectations modulate the same biochemical pathways that are affected by the drugs used in routine medical practice. As a matter of fact, this statement should be reversed. It would be more appropriate to say that drugs use the same biochemical pathways of rituals. In fact, rituals were born long before drugs.

Rituals heal but they can also kill. Nocebo effects are the evil twins of placebo effects, the negative consequence of negative rituals and contexts that induce distrust and hopelessness. These can be triggered by a variety of contexts in non-western societies, such as voodoo, and in western society, such as exaggerated health warnings in the media. A social contagion of negative expectations can spread across people very quickly, sometimes inducing worrisome mass phenomena.

Placebo effects are all of these things. The crucial point, and indeed the big revolution, is that today we can study these phenomena, once the domain of psychology, sociology and anthropology, with the tools of the modern biomedical paradigm. These biological tools involve cellular and molecular accuracy, with rituals and contexts interpreted in terms of specific brain regions and biochemical pathways, thus eliminating the old dichotomy between biology and psychology.

Heading image courtesy of Fabrizio Benedetti. Do not use without permission.

 

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18. Should we let them play?

Ched Evans was convicted at Caernarfon Crown Court in April 2012 of raping a 19 year old woman, and sentenced to five years in prison. He was released from prison in October 2014. Shortly after his release Evans protested his innocence and suggested that his worst offence had been cheating on his fiancée. He also looked to restart his career as a professional soccer player in the third tier of the English league with his former club Sheffield United. What has ensued is a huge debate about whether the club should offer Evans a new contract. One side argues that Evans has served his time and should be allowed to continue his career, whereas the other claims that his role as a professional sportsman marks him out as a role model for his local community and the youngsters that support his team. A rape conviction they say is not compatible with the standards that society demands from its sports stars.

The debate in England over Evans is nothing new. In the US the National Football League (NFL) has had a personal conduct policy in place since 1997. This allows the NFL to take action against any player convicted of a domestic abuse offence including suspensions and fines. Similarly in Australian Rules Football (AFL) the governing body introduced its Respect and Responsibility programme in 2005 to educate players about violence against women. The problem in all these cases, indeed a difficulty for most branches of the sporting world, is that the big box office draws are highly paid male athletes operating out of dressing rooms that are hyper masculine and underpinned by an atmosphere of sexual aggression. As the star players are vital to the industry and ensure that box office receipts and television income remain high, the governing authorities of many male team sports have been slow to act decisively in cases where players have been charged or convicted of rape or domestic abuse. Since the start of the new millennium 48 NFL players have been found guilty of domestic abuse. In 88% of the cases the NFL either banned the player for a single game or else took no action. Similarly the AFL has been slow to take action against players. In the last two years players at the St Kilda Saints and North Melbourne clubs were charged with rape, and in both cases the clubs and the AFL stated that the players would remain available for selection and on full salaries prior to their trials.

ched
Ched Evans representing Wales in 2009. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

It is clear that the male sporting world has not taken the issue of violence against women seriously. Clubs and managers that demand a strong dressing room, where loyalty to the team is paramount and aggression is part of the game has create a masculine environment where women cannot be respected. In a sporting world where those players are then highly paid, cosseted by their management and agents, women have little function beyond their sexual availability.

The debate in the US around the case of NFL player Ray Rice, who was caught on camera punching his partner unconscious, and that of Ched Evans in England, have piled pressure on clubs and governing bodies to take the issues of sexual and domestic violence by players seriously. In the Ched Evans case the Sheffield born gold medal winning athlete, Jessica Ennis-Hill, stated that if Evans was offered a contract by the club she would ask that her name be removed from the stand that was named after her when she won her Olympic title in 2012. Ennis-Hill stated that ‘those in positions of influence should respect the role’s they play in young people’s lives and set a good example’. And herein lies the whole contradiction around the issue of male sports stars and their attitudes towards sexual and domestic violence.

Modern sport had its roots in Victorian Britain, and would spread around the world in various forms. No matter what type of sport emerged in any given setting across the globe the Victorian obsession that sport had an ethical ethos of fair play and gentlemanly conduct was hard wired into the meaning that society gave sport. As a result contemporary sport is supposed to be played in the right way in accordance with the rules, and athletes are supposed to conduct themselves in a certain way. To be an elite athlete is to be a role model and society expects athletes to display positive attributes on and off the field of play. But why should society expect that athletes, often from the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum and with poor educational attainment, to behave like some form of idealised Victorian gentleman? However, as the sports star is expected to be the model citizen, because the ethics of sport are so deeply embedded in the collective consciousness, their conduct does matter. It matters to many followers of sport, is of interest to the media, and is increasingly becoming important to sponsors as they assess the value of any team or athlete in terms that stretch beyond their success on the field of play.

This is why sports teams and governing bodies will have to start taking firm action against those found guilty of sexual and domestic violence. Guilty players will have to be banned from the game and lose their chance of earning their fortune. Not only will this send a clear message to players that violence against women in unacceptable, it will also shape the thinking of the generation of young boys who see their sporting heroes as role models. If, in the future, they see players who respect women, then male attitudes will improve across society. Those who govern the world of male professional sport have to realise that they administer not simply their games, but they are also responsible for the meaningful creation of men with positive values who can act, in the best ways, as role models.

Featured image credit: “Blades”, by Kopii90 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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19. Luciano Floridi responds to NYROB review of The Fourth Revolution

In the October 9th edition of the New York Review of Books, philosopher John Searle criticized Luciano Floridi’s The Fourth Revolution, noting that Floridi “sees himself as the successor to Copernicus, Darwin, and Freud, each of whom announced a revolution that transformed our self-conception into something more modest.” In the response below, Floridi disputes this claim and many others made by Searle in his review of The Fourth Revolution.

John Searle’s review of The Fourth Revolution – How the Infosphere is Reshaping Human Reality (OUP, 2014) is astonishingly shallow and misguided. The silver lining is that, if its factual errors and conceptual confusions are removed, the opportunity for an informed and insightful reading can still be enjoyed.

The review erroneously ascribes to me a fourth revolution in our self-understanding, which I explicitly attribute to Alan Turing. We are not at the center of the universe (Copernicus), of the biological kingdom (Darwin), or of the realm of rationality (Freud). After Turing, we are no longer at the center of the world of information either. We share the infosphere with smart technologies. These are not some unrealistic AI, as the review would have me suggest, but ordinary artefacts that outperform us in ever more tasks, despite being no cleverer than a toaster. Their abilities are humbling and make us revaluate our unique intelligence. Their successes largely depend on the fact that the world has become an IT-friendly environment, where technologies can replace us without having any understanding or semantic skills. We increasingly live onlife (think of apps tracking your location). The pressing problem is not whether our digital systems can think or know, for they cannot, but what our environments are gradually enabling them to achieve. Like Kant, I do not know whether the world in itself is informational, a view that the review erroneously claims I support. What I do know is that our conceptualization of the world is. The distinction is trivial and yet crucial: from DNA as code to force fields as the foundation of matter, from the mind-brain dualism as a software-hardware distinction to computational neuroscience, from network-based societies to digital economies and cyber conflicts, today we understand and deal with the world informationally. To be is to be interactable: this is our new “ontology”.

The review denounces dualisms yet uncritically endorses a dichotomy between relative (or subjective) vs. absolute (or objective) phenomena. This is no longer adequate because today we know that many phenomena are relational. For example, whether some stuff qualifies as food depends on the nature both of the substance and of the organism that is going to absorb it. Yet relativism is mistaken, because not any stuff can count as food, sand never does. Likewise, semantic information (e.g. a train timetable) is a relational phenomenon: it depends on the right kind of message and receiver. Insisting on mapping information as either relative or absolute is as naïve as pretending that a border between two nations must be located in one of them.

The world is getting more complex. We have never been so much in need of good philosophy to understand it and take care for it. But we need to upgrade philosophy into a philosophy of information of our age for our age if we wish it to be relevant. This is what the book is really about.

Feature image credit: Macro computer citrcuit board, by Randy Pertiet. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.

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20. Ten facts about cumbia, Colombia’s principal musical style

In celebration of tonight’s Latin Grammy Awards, I delved into Grove Music Online to learn more about distinct musical styles and traditions of Latin American countries. Colombia’s principal musical style is the cumbia, with its related genres porro and vallenato. In the traditional cumbia proper, couples dance in a circle around seated musicians, with the woman shuffling steps while the man moves in a more zigzag pattern around her. The cumbia usually takes place at night while women hold bundles of candles in colored handkerchiefs in their right hands. Although traditional cumbia is now primarily performed by folklore troupes at Carnivals and other festivals, cumbia has contributed significantly to the development of related musical styles. Below are ten interesting facts about the cumbia.

  1. The cumbia is accompanied by one of two ensembles: the conjunto de cumbia (also known as cumbiamba) and the conjunto de gaitas. The former consists of five instruments, while the latter includes two duct flutes, a llamador and a maraca.
  2. The conjunto de cumbia includes one melody instrument called the caña de millo (‘cane of millet’), locally known as the pito, which is a clarinet made of a tube open at both ends with four finger holes near one end and a reed cut from the tube itself at the other end.
  3. Other instruments include the gaita hembra (‘female flute’) and the gaita macho (‘male flute’). While the gaita hembra is used for the melody, the gaita macho provides heterophony in conjunction with a maraca.
  4. The bullerengue and the danza de negro are two other musical genres of the region, which have African characteristics. The bullerengue is an exhibition dance, filled with hip movement, performed by a single couple. Meanwhile, the danza de negro is a special Carnival dance performed by men who paint themselves blue, strip to the waist, dance in a crouched position with wooden swords, and demand money or rum from passerby.
  5. In the early 20th century, town brass bands began adapting the cumbia to a more cosmopolitan style. Between 1905 and 1910, musicians in numerous towns began these adaptations, which were strongly developed in the town of San Pelayo. Thus, the terms pelayera or papayeraare commonly used in reference to this type of ensemble.
  6. Vallenato, a genre related to traditional cumbia, also originated in the Colombian Atlantic region. Performed by an ensemble consisting of accordion, vocals, caja (a small double-headed drum) and guacharaca (a notched gourd scraper), vallenato is similar to cumbia in accenting beats 2 and 4, but places a stronger emphasis on the crotchet-quaver rhythmic cell.
  7. Another style of music related to cumbia is Música tropical, which developed from the dance band arrangements of Afro-Colombian styles during the 1930s and 40s. Música tropical is similar to the ballroom rumba popular throughout the Americas and Europe, although with it maintains a simpler rhythmic base and more florid melodic style.
  8. Música tropical also offered a response to the international vogue for Cuban Music, which was both Caribbean and uniquely Colombian at the same time. By the late 1950s, música tropical had found its way into the leading social clubs and ballrooms of the country.
  9. Throughout the 1960s, música tropical remained the national Colombian style. Recordings by groups like La Sonora Dinamita, Los Corraleros de Majagual and Los Graduados enjoyed a brief national popularity, but had a greater impact outside the country, spreading a simplified form of cumbia to Mexico, Central America, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Chile, where the style became very important.
  10. During the 1940s and 50s the musical pioneers Lucho Bermúdez and Pacho Galán composed and arranged big-band adaptations of cumbias, among other genres, popularizing the sound which became the new national music of Colombia.

Finally, watch a well-known cumbia — La pollera colera:

Headline image credit: Monumento a la cumbia, 2006. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

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21. Anxiety in non-human primates

Anxiety disorders adversely affect millions of people and account for substantial morbidity in the United States. Anxiety disrupts an individual’s ability to effectively engage and interact in social and non-social situations. The onset of anxiety disorders may begin at an early age or occur in response to life events. Thus, the effects of anxiety are broad ranging, affecting both family and work dynamics, and may limit an individual’s quality of life.

While there has been a great deal of research focused on anxious behavior and anxiety disorders in the past few decades, there is still much we do not know. In order to better understand anxiety disorders, and to develop novel options for those who are nonresponsive to current treatments, scientists need to investigate the biobehavioral mechanisms that underlie the expression of anxiety related behavior. Research with humans subjects is one strategy used to gain insight on how to effectively treat anxiety disorders. However, there are inherent difficulties with such studies, including complex life histories and differences in access to resources (such as health care), as well as ethical issues. Common physiology between humans and other animals allow for the development of animal models that allow scientists to examine the neurobiological underpinnings of anxiety disorders. The non-human primate (NHP) has been used in the study of anxiety due to the physiological, behavioral and neural commonalities we share.

One type of anxiety assessment in non-human primates relies on direct behavioral observations, either in the animal’s ‘home environment’ or in a situation in which the animal is mildly challenged to induce an anxious state. In these procedures, observers typically look for the presence of behaviors indicative of anxiety, including fear and displacement behaviors (normal behaviors that may occur at seemingly inappropriate times). For example, in certain stressful situations, macaques may pick at their hair, a behavior similar to hair twirling in humans. Importantly anxiolytic drugs that reduce the occurrence of these behaviors in humans have been shown to reduce these behaviors in non-human primates, suggesting a common biological mechanism.

One commonly used procedure to assess anxiety in non-human primates is the “Human Intruder Test” (HIT). This procedure was designed to evaluate an animal’s response to the “uncertainty” of the presence of an unfamiliar human. The species appropriate response when presented with this mild challenge is to remain still and vigilant; however, there is a range of responses, with some animals showing little response and others excessive freezing behavior. Variations of this procedure have used similar stimuli, including unfamiliar conspecifics and predatory threats (e.g., stuffed predator) to measure anxiety-related responses. Animals that exhibit heightened anxiety responses in the Human Intruder Test also show alterations in the same neurobiological systems affected in humans with anxiety disorders.

Barbary macaque. CC0 via Pixabay.
Barbary macaque. CC0 via Pixabay.

Another class of anxiety tests in non-human primates relies on measuring physiological response following the presentation of an unexpected auditory or motor stimulus. For example, anxious people are more likely than others to react to a brief, unexpected sound with an exaggerated heart rate. Researchers have adopted similar methodology to assess startle response for nonhuman primates using a wide range of stimuli and physiological parameters.

Other research has focused on the cognitive processes involved in the regulation of anxiety responses. These tests of “cognitive bias” are based on the idea that an individual’s tendency to attend to potentially noxious stimuli tell us something about how the individual processes or weighs the experience. Therefore, an individual’s “anxious” state can be by assessed from his or her judgment about or attention to stimuli with different potentials to evoke anxiety. Cognitive bias procedures have been adapted and successfully employed in humans and other animals with similar response strategies across species, making these tests valuable comparative tools in our understanding of anxious behavior behavior.

Our review presents non-human primate models used by scientists in an effort to understand the biobehavioral mechanisms that mediate anxiety. The cross-species approach of modeling human psychopathology aims to discover targets for treatment toward the goal of reducing human suffering caused by anxiety disorders. Additionally, the knowledge gained from our investigation of anxiety-like behavior inform captive care of non-human primates. The studies reviewed have refined our understanding of factors that may result in anxiety-like behavior and provide information on how to manage them. Modeling psychopathology in non-human primates is necessary and critical to our understanding and treatment of these disorders in humans and nonhuman primates.

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22. World Philosophy Day reading list

World Philosophy Day was created by UNESCO in 2005 in order to “win recognition for and give strong impetus to philosophy and, in particular, to the teaching of philosophy in the world”. To celebrate World Philosophy Day, we have compiled a list of what we consider to be the most essential philosophy titles. We are also providing free access to several key journal articles and online products in philosophy so that you can explore this discipline in more depth. Happy reading!


Free: Why Science Hasn’t Disproved Free Will by Alfred R. Mele
9780199371624
Does free will exist? The question has fueled heated debates spanning from philosophy to psychology and religion. The answer has major implications, and the stakes are high. To put it in the simple terms that have come to dominate these debates, if we are free to make our own decisions, we are accountable for what we do, and if we aren’t free, we’re off the hook.

Philosophy Bites Again by David Edmonds and Nigel Warburton
This is really a conversation, and conversations are the best way to see philosophy in action. It offers engaging and thought-provoking conversations with leading philosophers on a selection of major philosophical issues that affect our lives. Their subjects include pleasure, pain, and humor; consciousness and the self; free will, responsibility, and punishment; the meaning of life and the afterlife.

Think: A Compelling Introduction to Philosophy by Simon Blackburn
Here at last is a coherent, unintimidating introduction to the challenging and fascinating landscape of Western philosophy. Written expressly for “anyone who believes there are big questions out there, but does not know how to approach them.”

What Does It All Mean? A Very Short Introduction to Philosophy by Thomas Nagel
In this cogent and accessible introduction to philosophy, the distinguished author of Mortal Questions and The View From Nowhere brings the central problems of philosophical inquiry to life, demonstrating why they have continued to fascinate and baffle thinkers across the centuries.

Riddles of Existence: A Guided Tour of Metaphysics by Earl Conee and Theodore Sider
Two leading philosophers explore the most fundamental questions there are, about what is, what is not, what must be, and what might be. It has an informal style that brings metaphysical questions to life and shows how stimulating it can be to think about them.
9780199603572

Killing in War by Jeff McMahan
This is a highly controversial challenge to the consensus about responsibility in war. Jeff McMahan argues compellingly that if the leaders are in the wrong, then the soldiers are in the wrong.

Reason in a Dark Time by Dale Jamieson
In this book, philosopher Dale Jamieson explains what climate change is, why we have failed to stop it, and why it still matters what we do. Centered in philosophy, the volume also treats the scientific, historical, economic, and political dimensions of climate change.

Poverty, Agency, and Human Rights edited by Diana Tietjens Meyers
Collects thirteen new essays that analyze how human agency relates to poverty and human rights respectively as well as how agency mediates issues concerning poverty and social and economic human rights. No other collection of philosophical papers focuses on the diverse ways poverty impacts the agency of the poor.
9780199338870
Aha! The Moments of Insight That Shape Our World by William B. Irvine
This book incorporates psychology, neurology, and evolutionary psychology to take apart what we can learn from a variety of significant “aha” moments that have had lasting effects. Unlike other books on intellectual breakthroughs that focus on specific areas such as the arts, Irvine’s addresses aha moments in a variety of areas including science and religion.

On What Matters: Volume One by Derek Parfit
Considered one of the most important works in the field since the 19th century, it is written in the uniquely lucid and compelling style for which Parfit is famous. This is an ambitious treatment of the main theories of ethics.

The Emergent Multiverse: Quantum Theory according to the Everett Interpretation by David Wallace
Quantum physics is the most successful scientific theory we have. But no one knows how to make sense of it. We need to bite the bullet – it’s common sense that must give way. The universe is much stranger than we can think.

The Best Things in Life: A Guide to What Really Matters by Thomas Hurka
An engaging, accessible survey of the different things that can make life worth living: pleasure, knowledge, achievement, virtue, love, and more. A book that considers what really matters in one’s life, and making decisions around those values.

9780192854216 What should I do?: Plato’s Crito’ in Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction by Edward Craig
Plato, born around 427 BC, is not the first important philosopher, with Vedas of India, the Buddha, and Confucius all pre-dating him. However, he is the first philosopher to have left us with a substantial body of complete works that are available to us today, which all take the form of dialogues. This chapter focuses on the dialogue called Crito in which Socrates asks ‘What should I do?’

A biography of John Locke in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
A philosopher regarded as one of the most influential of Enlightenment thinkers, John Locke was born on 29th August 1632 in Somerset, England. In the late 1650s he became interested in medicine, which led easily to natural philosophy after being introduced to these new ideas of mechanical philosophy by Robert Boyle. Discover what happened next in Locke’s life with this biography

‘Computing Machinery and Intelligence’ from Mind, published in 1950.14602113
In this seminal paper, celebrated mathematician and pioneer Alan Turing attempts to answer the question, ‘Can machines think?’, and thus introduces his theory of ‘the imitation game’(now known as the Turing test) to the world. Turing skilfully debunks theological and ethical arguments against computational intelligence: he acknowledges the limitations of a machine’s intellect, while boldly exposing those of man, ultimately laying the groundwork for the study of artificial intelligence – and the philosophy behind it.

‘Phenomenology as a Resource for Patients’ from The Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, published in 2012
Patient support tools have drawn on a variety of disciplines, including psychotherapy, social psychology, and social care. One discipline that has not so far been used to support patients is philosophy. This paper proposes that a particular philosophical approach, phenomenology, could prove useful for patients, giving them tools to reflect on and expand their understanding of their illness.

Do you have any philosophy books that you think should be added to this reading list? Let us know in the comments below.

Headline image credit: Rays at Burning Man by foxgrrl. CC-BY-NC-SA-2.0 via Flickr.

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23. Shakespeare’s ‘Dark Bae’ sonnets

In continuation of our Word of the Year celebrations and the selection of bae for Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year shortlist, I’m presenting my annual butchering of Shakespeare (previous victims include MacBeth and Hamlet). Of the many terms of endearment the Bard used — from lambkin to mouse — babe was not among them. In the 16th century, babe (which Shakespeare used a great deal) referred to a baby rather than a loved one. So instead, let us see how Shakespeare would address his mistress if he courted her like Pharrell Williams.

Sonnet 130

My bae’s eyes are nothing like the sun,
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks,
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound.
I grant I never saw a goddess go:
My bae when she walks treads on the ground.
    And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
    As any she belied with false compare.

Sonnet 138

When my bae swears that she is made of truth,
I do believe her though I know she lies,
That she might think me some untutored youth,
Unlearnèd in the world’s false subtleties.
Thus vainly thinking that she thinks me young,
Although she knows my days are past the best,
Simply I credit her false-speaking tongue.
On both sides thus is simple truth suppressed:
But wherefore says she not she is unjust?
And wherefore say not I that I am old?
O, love’s best habit is in seeming trust,
And age in love loves not to have years told.
    Therefore I lie with her, and she with me,
    And in our faults by lies we flattered be.

Sonnet 154

The little Love-god lying once asleep
Laid by his side his heart-inflaming brand,
Whilst many nymphs, that vowed chaste life to keep,
Came tripping by; but in her maiden hand
The fairest votary took up that fire,
Which many legions of true hearts had warmed,
And so the general of hot desire
Was, sleeping, by a virgin hand disarmed.
This brand she quenched in a cool well by,
Which from love’s fire took heat perpetual,
Growing a bath and healthful remedy
For men diseased; but I, my bae’s thrall,
    Came there for cure, and this by that I prove:
    Love’s fire heats water; water cools not love.

For the original sonnets, plus expert commentary and notes, visit Oxford Scholarly Editions Online: Sonnet 130, Sonnet 138, and Sonnet 154.

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24. Bae in hip hop lyrics

Oxford Dictionaries included bae on its Word of the Year 2014 shortlist, so we invited several experts to comment on the growth of this word in music and language.

Today we’re here to talk about the word bae and the ways in which it’s used in hip hop lyrics. Bae is another way of saying babe or baby (though some say it can also function as an acronym for the phrase “before anyone else”). Here are some examples:

Childish Gambino’s “The Palisades”

In this song, Donald Glover sings “Now why can’t every day be like this…Hang with bae at the beach like this.” Judging from the rest of the lyrics and recent pictures of him with a young woman on the beach, I’d say he’s talking about a girlfriend in this case.

Jay-Z’s “30 Something”

In the chorus of this song, Jay-Z repeats the line, “bae boy, now I’m all grown up”. The overall song reads like an updated version of 1 Corinthians 13:11 (“When I was a child, I talked like a child…When I became a man, I put away childish things”). Here bae seems to be standing in for the word baby, as in baby boy.

Pharrell Williams’ “Come Get It Bae”

The video pretty much makes it crystal clear what the use is here: babe, referring to all the dancing ladies presumably.

Lil Wayne’s “Marvin’s Room (Sorry 4 the Wait)”

Bae shows up right at the end of the track, in the line “She call me ‘baby’ and I call her ‘bae’”. Here it’s clear that Lil Wayne’s bae is an alternate version of her baby.

Fifth Harmony’s “Bo$$”

Ok, I know this is actually pop, but I wanted to include it because it’s so catchy. The overall tone of the lyrics is classic girl power, including the line “I ain’t thirsty for no bae cuz I already know watchu tryna say”. Given the content of the rest of the lyrics, it seems like bae is being substituted for the sense in which babe can refer to boyfriend.

It will be interesting to see what kind of cultural capital bae will accrue in the coming years. Will it thrive, or go the way of flitter-mouse? For more on the many and varied terms of endearment the English language has offered through the ages, check out these unusual terms of endearment in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Headline image credit: Post-Sopa Blackout Party for Wikimedia Foundation staff by Victor Grigas (Victorgrigas). CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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25. Violence, and diverse forms of oppression

The theme of the American Society of Criminology meeting this November is “Criminology at the Intersections of Oppression.” The burden of violence and victimization remains markedly unequal. The prevalence rates, risk factors, and consequences of violence are not equally distributed across society. Rather, there are many groups that carry an unequal burden, including groups disadvantaged due to race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, sexual identity, place of residence, and other factors. Even more problematically, there is an abundance of evidence that there are marked disparities in service access and service quality across sociocultural and socioeconomic groups. Unfortunately, even today this still extends to instances of outright bias and maltreatment, as evidenced by ongoing problems with disproportionate minority contact, harsher sentencing, and barriers to services.

However, there is promising news, because advances in both research and practice are readily attainable. Regarding research, there are a number of steps that can be taken to improve our existing state of knowledge. To give just a few examples, we need much more research on hate crimes and bias motivations for violence. Hate crimes remain one of the most understudied forms of violence. We also need many more efforts to adapt violence prevention and intervention programs for diverse groups. The field has still made surprisingly few efforts to assess whether prevention and intervention programs are equally efficacious for different socioeconomic and sociocultural groups. Even after more than 3 decades of program evaluation, only a handful of such efforts exist. Program developers should pay more systematic attention to ensuring that materials that use diverse images and settings. However, it is also important to note that cultural adaptation means more than just superficial changes in name use or images.

Clasped Hands. Photo by Rhoda Baer. Public Domain via Wikimedia.
Clasped Hands. Photo by Rhoda Baer. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Regarding practice, what is needed is more culturally appropriate approaches. In many cases, this means more flexible approaches and avoiding a “one size fits all” approach to services. Most providers, I believe, have good intentions and are trying to avoid biased interactions, but many of them lack the tools for more culturally appropriate services. One specific tool that can help is called the ‘VIGOR’, for Victim Inventory of Goals, Options, and Risks. It is a safety planning and risk management tool for victims of domestic violence. It is ideally suited for people from disadvantaged groups, because, unlike virtually all other existing safety plans, it has places for social and community issues, financial strain, institutional challenges, and other issues that affect people who experience multiple forms of disadvantage. The safety plan does not just focus on physical violence. The VIGOR has been tested with two highly diverse groups of low-income women, who rated it as better than all safety planning they had received.

The VIGOR also offers a model for how other interventions can be expanded and adapted to consider the intersections of oppression with victimization in an effort to be more responsive to all of the needs of those who have sustained violence. With greater attention to these issues, there is the potential to make a real impact and help reduce the burden of violence and victimization for all members of society.

Dr. Hamby attended an Author Meets Critics session at the ASC annual meeting yesterday morning. The session was chaired by Dr. Claire Renzetti, co-editor of the ‘Oxford Series of Interpersonal Violence’.

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