Commentaries - March 2011

Lament for My Late Page

Filreis old web page
A screenshot of my old web page front-end

I loved my old home page and I was sorry to have to give it up a few years ago for something spare and linky/listy. I concede that the sparer style works better but I miss the narrative clutter, a non-design enthralled by hyperlinking right there in the flow of words. That little "latest news" link in the top left blinked for about a year when that was the newest thing. Fortunately I knew that blinking links were bad news pretty quickly and reverted to plain old plain old as soon as the excitement faded. The old page dates back to 1994 and it looked more or less as you see above from 1994 until 2007 or '08! I maintain a link to it and I imagine that most of the links still work. Prior to the site on top of which this old page sat I had a wonderful gopher. This was of course before the graphical browser (Mosaic was the first, I think--before Netscape) and it was stiff and hierarchical but effective in conveying information and giving users a tour, in effect, of the material you wanted to present. I loved the chaos of hyperlinking once it was possible through this thing called "the world wide web" and, let me repeat, I felt that the hyperlinky text was the way to go. Eventually another kind of design became the standard. Now--what with drupal and blogs and blog-style user-enabled sites--we're back to a more cluttered surface, but still nothing like this single-look languagy flat surface.

Modernism & Domestic Help

Bob Perelman and Kristen Gallagher Discuss

Bob Perelman and Kristen Gallagher on domestic help and modernism (audio): mp3 (3:34).

The Killing of the Filreis Family

At Treblinka

From the Yad Vashem archives in Israel, here are names of some of the Filreis family who were killed by the Germans during World War II. Most of them were exterminated at Treblinka:

Filreiss, Benek
Koldra, Lea,  born 1881
Szejnfuks, Manja, born 1907
Akerman, Haya**
Filreis, Genia, born 1915
Filries, Szimon, born 1915
Filries, Max, born 1900
Filries Tauba, born 1895
Filries, Khaia

All were from Warsaw, Poland. I'm guessing that "Filreiss" is a real alternative spelling and that "Filries" is a mistake in transcription at some point (these are just guesses). The names were submitted by Mrs. Idia Kcefner (I don't know who she is) in 1957, by Mr. Moshe' Koldra (ditto) in 1956, and by Zalman Akerman** in 1999. For more about Zalman Akerman's story of survival, go here.

** Haya Filreis, married into the Akerman family, was Zalman's mother. Zalman and his mother lived for a time in the Warsaw Ghetto after the mass deportations from the ghetto had begun. Zalman is alive and well and living in Israel, and is the provider of this information, by way of Steve Filreis (my father's cousin Mel's son) and Ayelet Regev (one of Zalman's grandchildren). Ayelet (currently studying law in the U.S.) is my father's father's cousin's son's granddaugther, a closer relation that that phrasing makes it seem.

Wallace Stevens and his Gay Cuban Correspondent

"Empty of All Possibilities of Adventure"

excerpt from a letter to Wallace Stevens by Jose Rodriguez Feo, from "Secretaries of the Moon," eds. Filreis and Coyle (Duke University Press)

Here's part of a letter Jose Rodriguez-Feo wrote to Wallace Stevens. The two had not met yet at this point. Their relationship, entirely epistolary except for two brief meetings some years after this, was both extraordinarily intimate and formal--both at once. Stevens loved letters from his young exotic friend "Pepe." Rodriguez-Feo was thrilled to be able to get to know this forbidding-seeming poet, the famously icy Stevens. The talk of Hemingway in this letter might have been a signal that the Cuban was interested in Stevens's views of male sexuality, wondering if indeed that was part of Stevens' attraction to corresponding with "a real blood and bone Latino." But Stevens would never, ever nibble on this bait. Now a self-promotion alert: my book, edited by Beverly Coyle, tells this whole story and presents all the letters between the two. Get a copy here. Or ask me for one. I have a few extras at home. If the title of this post is clickable, click on it for a larger view of the letter excerpt above.

Social Media Puts College Teachers in the Hotseat

The site called Mashable / Social Media ran a story a while back with the news of "hotseat," which is being adopted at universities such as Purdue. I quote:

lecture with tweetsStudents at Purdue University are experimenting with a new application developed at the school called Hotseat that integrates Facebook, Twitter, and text messaging to help students “backchannel” during class. People who have attended technology conferences in the past several years are already familiar with this phenomenon, where social media is leveraged to allow the participants in a session or panel to comment and exchange questions and ideas in real-time. At Purdue, Hotseat is used to allow students to comment on the class as it proceeds, with everyone in the class including the professor able to see the messaging as it happens. The Hotseat software allows students to use either Facebook, Twitter, Myspace (MySpace), or SMS to post messages during classes, or they can simply log in to the web site to post to and view the ongoing backchannel. Right now it’s only being pilot tested in two courses, but has already become a fast favorite for both teachers and students. Professor Sugato Chakravarty, whose personal finance course is one of the pilot tests, said, “I’m seeing students interact more with the course and ask relevant questions.” And although it’s been optional for students to participate, so far 73% of the 600 or so in the pilot classes have used the software. We’ve seen Twitter become mandatory for journalism students at Australia (Australia)’s Griffith University to some negative reaction, but this is a less structured implementation which may perhaps account for its more favorable reception. As Chakravarty goes on to note, though, the application is called “Hotseat” for a reason — and professors will have to be resilient enough to take any potential criticism or even corrections from students in real-time. Nevertheless, he cites it as a “valuable tool for enhancing learning. The students are engaged in the discussions and, for the most part, they are asking relevant questions.”

My first response was extremely negative: just another use of so-called social media to enable universities to continue rostering huge courses (which is obviously a money-saver). I certainly won't celebrate yet another reason why class size will continue to grow and the distance between faculty and student will increase. But then I realize that the distance I'm thinking of is physical. Programs like Hotseat will tend to make the lecture impossible to maintain, if (for instance) students are not understanding the material, if they have questions they feel the need to pose but can't otherwise break into Filreis sample tweetthe competent super-confident flow of a lecture. So this might shake up some lecturers a bit, might cause them to revise their yellowed lecture notes, and to look up at the tweetflow on the monitor behind them. Well, then, back to skepticism. Do we really need students' tweets projected in the front of the classroom? Can't we all learn, even in large classes, to ask questions, encourage students to speak, lead a real discussion? If a Hotseat-enabled tweet from the otherwise reticent student in row 26 then makes possible an interaction "outside" the social media--if this system becomes a prompt--then I'm fine with it. If it's just another excuse for pedagogical impersonality (not to mention I know/you don't antagonism between teacher and learners), then I'll sit this one out. I'll just repeat what I've written in this blog any number of times. My pedagogy is saturated with uses of digital media and IT (I'm downright gaga about it all), but my classroom itself--the space for our meetings--is for the most part pre-tech: the students and I in the space. Not always, but often, my classroom is the only tech-free experience my students and I will have all day.