Academics and Public Engagement

The Guardian Higher Education Network has an article asking, “Can Engaging with the Public Help Your Career in Academia?“ In other words, is the stuff done by the academics here in any way helpful to their careers? Their answer is that it depends on how you do it.

Although you probably can help your career by writing for something like Professor Awesome’s University, the truth is that the academic world mostly rewards things that are invisible to the public. So, when you see our contributors to Professor Awesome’s University, remember that they’re not getting rich or famous by bringing all this awesome stuff to you … they’re inviting you to geek out about the coolest parts of their academic disciplines with them.

Jake Rush: Politician, Defender of LARPers

Congressional hopeful Jake Rush of Florida (3rd Congressional District) is catching a lot of flack for being a  Vampire LARPer.

The SaintPetersBlog refers to this as part of his “bizarre double life.” The unintentionally-hilarious article refers to the Mind’s Eye Society like it is some kind of cult. You can almost hear dramatic background music with such paragraphs as

MES, extremely trademarked and organized, is by no means a trivial enterprise. It is a highly regimented association of like-minded people, complete with its own rituals and performances.

Rituals! Performances! And it is EXTREMELY trademarked! (That’s like regular trademarking, but EXTREME!

The Miami New Times reads less like a parody, and attempts to explain what this LARPing is:

Apparently, Rush has been active in an intricate vampire-themed role-playing game called Mind’s Eye Theater. There’s really no way to explain this game in non-geeky terms, but we’ll try our best. The game is based on Vampire: The Masquerade, a traditional table-top role-playing game created by White Wolf Studios. Mind’s Eye participants have taken this one step further by dressing as their characters and playing a live-action version of the game. They also have a version of the game they play online. Basically, they adopt fantasy characters and pretend to go on quests and whatnot together, and their interactions are governed by a loose set of rules. The website also says they do stuff for charity. So geek stuff for a good cause?

They then go on to represent (pretty fairly, I think) some very politically-incorrect postings that Rush made in-character … things that it’s fair to ask a candidate to distinguish between what are his attitudes vs. the attitudes of his characters (and he clearly played some of the badder baddies in Vampire). I do wonder, though, if Arnold Swarzenegger was ever asked to explain what he thinks is best in life:

For national news outlets, the “crazy local candidate” story isn’t enough, so we go on a journey to find a broader hook. Slate ends their article with the laughable implication that somehow the Tea Party is a cabal of secret rape-fantasy fetishists infiltrating the Republican party to … well, do something dark. And somehow this ties into opposing Obamacare because … people who are cosplayers and LARPers are evil right-wing rapist cokeheads? Or something else Jack Chick might have dreamed up?

Vanity Fair got in on the fun, playfully referring to the “soulless lifestyle” of Rush and members of Congress, but their article clearly refers to LARPs as “games” and the image they include is far less provocative, an image of Rush cosplaying Flash.

To be fair to SaintPetersBlog, they did run Rush’s unedited press release on the matter. No matter one’s politics (and anecdotally, I suspect most LARPers are left-of-center), you’ve got to admire the way that even while he treats it as a distraction from the issues, Rush offers a defense of LARPing and other similar hobbies:

[Y]es, I play and have played video games, role playing games, board games, Yahtzee, Clue, and I have acted in dozens of theatre productions [….] I have never hid nor shied away from disclosing my hobby activities [….] I am deeply offended that the opposing campaign and their supporters would take a gaming and theatre hobby and mischaracterize it [….] Bottom line – There is nothing wrong with being a gamer. It’s kinda nerdy, but North Central Florida deserves a legitimate debate on the issues.

So, if you agree with Rush’s politics, vote for him. And if you don’t, invite this guy to play with your LARPing guild. Jake Rush, you have a standing invitation to my tabletop RPG night … but don’t forget to bring your own dice. I’m sure you have them.

Wil Wheaton’s Changing Definition of “Nerd”

This video of Wil Wheaton responding to a little girl asking about how to deal with being called a “nerd” at the Denver Comic Con has gone viral, but one part of the response is a little strange.

The gist of Wheaton’s response is that when people try to make you feel bad, it’s generally because they feel bad about themselves. All that is pretty standard stuff.

But the weird part is when he speaks as if nerdiness is somehow an innate trait:

It’s never OK when a person makes fun of you for something that you didn’t choose. You know, we don’t choose to be nerds. We can’t help it that we like these things, and we shouldn’t apologize for liking these things.

Wheaton has two different ideas going here. The first is one that Wheaton has expressed before — that being a nerd (and he uses the words “nerd” and “geek” interchangeably) is about what you like, your preferences. The second idea, that this is somehow an innate trait, appears to be a departure from earlier statements. Take, for example, this response, aimed at a newborn, last year:

Not surprisingly, addressing a newborn, Wheaton doesn’t really push this idea that being a nerd is something you don’t choose, because if being a nerd is innate (and presumably not something readily apparent in infants), then there is no reason to assume that the child will be a nerd. Instead, he presents being a nerd as a choice:

It’s not about what you love; it’s about how you love it. So there’s going to be a thing in your life that you love, and I don’t know what it’s going to be. It might be sports, it might be science […] it doesn’t matter what it is. The way you love that, and the way you find other people who love that the way that you do is what makes being a nerd awesome.

Last year’s response is really different than this year’s response. In 2013, Wheaton presents nerdiness as being about a choice to unashamedly embrace the things one loves, and fellowship with others who love those same things. In 2014, however, Wheaton presents it as an innate love of particular things that are generally defined as nerdy. This is

Of course, in both of these responses, Wheaton is addressing children, and is simplifying an issue he has no doubt thought about a great deal. You can hear in his gentle tone and slow cadence his attempt to connect with the children, so it would be wrong to declare this some sort of geek manifesto as some have done. Wheaton is ultimately trying give these children (and the present audience) the freedom to be nerds … and given the response of the interwebs, he seems to have been pretty successful.

But the apparent inconsistencies is not, I think about addressing children, nor is it because Wheaton hasn’t thought clearly about these issues. Instead, I suspect it’s because the role of geeks and nerds is rapidly changing in our culture, to the degree that it’s becoming more difficult to distinguish between nerd culture and popular culture.

Wheaton and I are about the same age, and when we were children, to be interested in things like computers was definitely a nerdy interest.  You could play the occasional game of Pac Man or Donkey Kong, but excessive interest in video games created a social stigma. Reading pre-Harry Potter was bad; when adults used the word “bookish” to describe you, it wasn’t a compliment.

Today, bullying is more likely to come from NOT reading the coolest books, from NOT playing the latest video games. My own teenage son (who, very unlike his father, has twice been the top phys. ed. student at his school) spends most of his free time shouting into a headset to his friends about the various tactics they are using in their MMORPGs. When other kids are physically present at our house, he either recruits them to play basketball or Munchkin. He doesn’t get beat up because he has a cane with a d20 handle — his friends think it’s cool.

It’s harder to tell geek culture from other parts of the culture, so if I had to choose one of Wheaton’s approaches when talking to children, I’d choose his earlier position. We do choose to be nerdy, to cultivate our interests, and to associate with similar nerds, whether we’re baseball stat geeks or steampunk cosplayers.  Gleefully celebrating those choices is a more sustainable position as nerd culture becomes more and more mainstream.

Runes in Adventure Time

I noticed this in a gif someone made from Adventure Time. The cup has runes on it, which (sort-of) say in modern English “Cup of many ale.” They’ve made an error in “cup,” however, and that last rune is either a thorn or a wynn (I can’t really tell), so technically what it says is either “cuth of many ale” or “cuw of many ale” — but I’m just happy to see it there at all! If you want to know more about runes, check this out.



Why Tolkien’s Beowulf Matters

When the news broke that J.R.R. Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf would finally be published this May, fans of Tolkien’s fantasy joined scholars of medieval literature in rejoicing. There had been rumors for years that it might soon be published since its rediscovery in 2003, but as the years passed, rumor threatened to become myth. Nearly 90 years had passed since Tolkien translated it, and given his estate’s tight grip on his documents, it seemed that the translation might never be published — and now, over four decades after his death, Tolkien fans will have a new piece of his work to enjoy.

It might be easy to categorize this along with other posthumous finds — such as the recent discovery of lost poems by Douglas Adams or lost recordings by the Beatles. The joy is like finding money you had forgotten about in a jacket pocket; it feels like a gift of something you’ve always had, and is in some way all the sweeter for it.

Unlike those other finds, though, this one is IMPORTANT. I do not wish to diminish the joy in finding a new Adams poem, but realistically very little will change about the way we understand Adams, the Beatles, or any other art by these finds. In fact, I would argue that is true for most of the other posthumous texts of Tolkien himself, such as The Children of Húrin or The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún. These were wonderful to have, but in the grand scheme of things they aren’t particularly important.

Beowulf is different. Although this might be hard to believe in 2014, a century ago the poem was not generally well-regarded. When scholars looked at the poem, they found it to be a poor imitation of the great classical epics, and mostly interesting for study as a cultural artifact that told us something about Germanic culture, but not really as great literature. Beowulf as a hero was not as interesting as Achilles or Aeneas, he just goes around killing monsters, and at the best it might be a kind of muddled Christian allegory. In other words, the consensus was mostly that it sucked.

Then in 1936, J.R.R. Tolkien came and tore off the arm of the academic world with the publication of his address, “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.” (You can read it for free here). In a lecture that has Tolkien’s recognizable wit and humor interlaced with deep scholarship, Tolkien argued that the critics were all focusing on the wrong things. Of course Beowulf isn’t a great classical epic; it’s not an epic at all. Instead, it is more akin to the Viking sagas and elegies, so it’s rather like complaining that your watermelon doesn’t have a strong enough banana flavor. And those monsters aren’t some kind of distraction from an examination of the character of the hero Beowulf; they are the point. In many ways, the book is about the monsters more than the hero.

Basically what happened at this point was the entire academic establishment collectively smacked itself on the forehead and said, “Well, duh. Why didn’t I think of that?!” Beowulf went from being this awkward poem that was too long to ignore even though it might deserve it, to being at the center of Old English literature, even eclipsing Caedmon’s Hymn. Many people have argued that Tolkien’s “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” is the most influential thing ever written about Beowulf, but I would go further; I think Tolkien essentially saved Beowulf. If not for him, the poem might have languished for another century or two. And now, we have a translation of Beowulf that Tolkien did a decade before saving it. In that translation, we will likely be able to see how he grappled with it early on.

Yeah, OK, but how is that important for everyone who isn’t a medieval language nerd? Tolkien’s Beowulf is likely to become the standard translation that students read in high schools and universities, and I suspect that change will happen fast. For many years poet Burton Raffel’s translation ruled, but about a dozen years ago it was replaced by Seamus Heaney’s translation. And truthfully, Seamus Heaney’s version became the standard more because of his celebrity than because of the quality of the translation — even versions intended for students (like Edward Risden’s great translation) can’t quite demand the kind of attention of a Nobel Prize winner, regardless of accuracy.

Why is Tolkien’s Beowulf a contender right out of the gate? First, publisher HarperCollins has the juice to make that happen, not just with big marketing bucks, but also by putting Tolkien’s version in every relevant anthology they make. Second, Tolkien has got the scholarly chops that make it hard to question his translation choices. There will probably be words, phrases, or entire lines that others will quibble over, but it will be the kind of quibbles where people will say, “Hmmm, I would have done that differently,” not “Hey, that’s just wrong!” Tolkien knew his stuff about language in general, and understood Beowulf like nobody else. This translation starts off backed by a scholarly reputation that even the super-respected Burton Raffel can’t match.

But perhaps the biggest reason is that no one else can match Tolkien’s celebrity. Seriously, can you imagine anything more helpful to a high school teacher than being able to say a text was translated by Tolkien? We will go from this …

Teacher: In this class, we’ll be reading the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf.
Student: *Yawn*
Teacher: Hey, this was translated by Seamus Heaney. You know, the Nobel Prize winning poet who wrote “Digging.”
Student: *pulls out a cell phone and starts texting*

… to this.

Teacher: In this class, we’ll be reading the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf.
Student: *Yawn*
Teacher: Hey, this was translated by JRR Tolkien. You know, the guy who wrote The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings.
Student: *Looks up from their cell phone suspiciously* Really? Well, what’s it about? It’s not going to be like A Separate Peace, is it?
Teacher: Oh, it’s about a guy who goes around fighting sea monsters, trolls, and dragons.
Student: Yeah, but maybe it’s like Crime and Punishment, which start out with an axe murder, but then just turns into a bunch of talking.

Teacher: Nope. He’s pretty much killing stuff the whole time. And when they aren’t killing stuff, they’re partying and talking about great battles.
Student: My entire life until this point has been a sham. I now know my true destiny … to read Beowulf.

My prediction: In the future, young people will mistakenly believe Tolkien wrote Beowulf as his own work of fiction. And I for one look forward to the day when I am regularly correcting that point on my students’ papers.

Adventure Time and Geek Culture

The darkest, most complex and nuanced science fiction universe on television today isn’t Doctor Who, Walking Dead, or Helix – it’s an unassuming children’s cartoon about a boy and his dog (or perhaps a dog and his boy), Adventure Time. Set in our post-apocalyptic future, the world of Adventure Time is a childlike mix of Dungeons & Dragons with Candy Land. Just looking at still images for the show, you might think it is intended for very young children, but Adventure Time has attracted an obsessive adult fan following. Although it uses many of the common strategies cartoons use for appealing to adult viewers (such as sly adult humor references and large doses of nostalgia), Adventure Time’s main appeal is that it lovingly depicts contemporary geek culture in a complicated, meta-narrative way, without sacrificing the childlike innocence of the show.

Nostolgia about the gender roles of geek culture is an important part of the mix. To call Adventure Time non-gendered or post-gendered would be wrong – in fact, gender roles are very firmly delineated in the way that they are for middle school age children. Instead, it gleefully plays with those roles. Finn and Jake, the main adventurers, are both adolescent males, while almost every primary female character is a princess of some sort. When not approaching adventure like it is play, Finn and Jake spend much of their time playing video games with their anthropomorphized computer BMO, who looks more like a Mac Classic than a more recent computer. When they watch videos, they use VCRs rather than DVD players. The various princesses spend much of their time building their empires, but generally leave the adventuring to the boys. They are damsels, but they are rarely damsels-in-distress — they are damsels-in-charge. With the exception of the much more adult relationship of Jake and Lady Rainicorn, the drama of their romantic relationships is of the puppy love variety. Life in Adventure Time is a nostalgic view of the proto-geek world that anyone over 30 recognizes from their own childhood.

But Adventure Time doesn’t just dwell in the past; it also embraces contemporary geek culture. The series opened with a zombie-apocalypse episode, and it has had episodes focused on everything from a Magic: The Gathering style card game, to differing views of time travel, to debates about science vs. magic (read: religion). Indeed, there seems to be no type of geekiness that Adventure Time won’t happily celebrate: Music geeks, film geeks, car geeks, food geeks, Shakespeare geeks … each depiction seems to be undergirded by one underlying ethic: It doesn’t matter what kind of geek you are, as long as you unabashedly geek out. Fan fiction geekery creates a meta-narrative, as the Ice King writes gender-swapped Mary Sue fan fiction within Adventure Time, about Adventure Time. Rather than disparaging and mocking fan fic, it creates an alternate storyline that adds richness and complexity to the main story.

And that richness and nuance may be the biggest draw of all, because the show rewards fans who dig with geeky obsession. Alternate storylines, alternate universes, past lives, and complexly interwoven plots mean that everything yields to deeper examination. Indeed, I’ve literally spent hours discussing tiny details from screen captures, allusions to contemporary politics, and the sequences of subplots in relation to one another. The closing episodes of Season 5 were particularly complex, with interwoven time-travel episodes, an episode shot as if the audience were trapped inside a magical orb, and an exploration of Randian Objectivism (seriously). All that tied to gags about “Billy’s legendary crack.”

Adventure Time isn’t simply about geek culture, it is for geek culture. Indeed, Adventure Time fans will probably read this article and argue that I’ve misrepresented some things: “If it’s not post-gendered, what about the gender-swapping episodes? Or BMO sometimes being presented as male, sometimes as female? Or Finn’s past life as a girl?” And they won’t be wrong to raise those objections, because the show invites us to critique it, to dissect it, and to produce our own fan art and fan fiction. In the end, Adventure Time is more than an object of geek culture – it is an active participant in it.