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This is the most difficult thing I’ve ever written

My father, Kenneth Fox, passed away on June 20 at the age of 77. This is the eulogy I delivered at his memorial service.

My dad was a Renaissance man. He was the smartest man I’ve ever known. You’re going to hear that a lot today, so get used to it. He collected degrees and awards like some people collect stamps or baseball cards. He earned a bachelor of science in physics and mathematics, with high distinction, at age 21, then his master’s at age 22 and his Ph.D. at 26. He was a tenure-track professor at the University of Tennessee at age 30, commuting there from Maryland after he moved to Bowie and started a family. In addition to teaching and research he served as a consultant for multiple nuclear research labs as well as NASA, and in the middle of all that, he earned a J.D. at the age of 46, and was admitted to the bar in not one, not two, but three states. The only thing he wasn’t good at was retirement. As soon as he left the University of Tennessee he started teaching right again at Anne Arundel Community College, and hosted two award-winning science shows on Bowie public television. He ran for the Prince George’s County School Board in his 60s, he was appointed to the county board of elections at age 71 and 75, and somewhere on his laptop is an unfinished journal article about some minutaeu of nuclear energy generation that he was preparing to publish.

My dad earned all of those awards and accomplishments, and he was proud of them. But it wasn’t the highest accolades he was most proud of, it was the ones he worked the hardest on. In his home office there are four awards displayed over the cedar chest that contains all of our important family files. There is his B.S. degree in physics, with high distinction, from Wayne State University. Dad got into M.I.T., but stayed home in Detroit because his family couldn’t afford it. Instead, he encouraged all of us to pursue our academic interests to the fullest, and never second-guessed Rachel or I when we decided to pursue advanced degrees.

There are two Certificates of Appreciation honoring the 2000 selection of his Bowie Community TV show Science, Science as that channel’s “Best New Series.” That was his first post-retirement project, and he learned all the aspects of the TV industry, from producing to directing to editing to hosting, to make it a success. For a few years it was all he would talk about, the recent guest speaker or the contemporary topic he was going to fit into the broacast.

The fourth award is a proclamation from Martin O’Malley, appointing my dad to the Prince George’s Board of Elections in 2007. Chances are, if you ever went to a civic event in Bowie, or even just went to the grocery store, at least once you saw my Dad outside registering people to vote. He was there at Bowiefest this year. He got one person to register to vote, and he probably saw that as a success.

One thing my dad didn’t believe in, at least at first, was the sport of ice hockey. He hated that Matt and I played hockey. Who would have thought a man who grew up in Detroit watching Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay and the Production Line in their prime could hate hockey? He wanted us to play anything instead. Hockey was too violent, and the broken bones and bruises Matt and I have accumulated over the years proved him right. For a few years he refused to take us to our hockey practices, and would sign us up for baseball, basketball, and soccer through the Bowie Boys and Girls Club, even after I begged him not to. He even convinced Matt to try his favorite sport, tennis, at least for a little while. However, once he saw how much hockey meant to us, the friendships we built and how we learned to work as a team, he started to come around, and even joined us in rooting for the hometown Washington Capitals.

In 1993, the Caps were playing the New York Islanders in the first round of the playoffs. Going into game six, Washington was down three games to two in the series. The Islanders were leading late in the third period when Pierre Turgeon scored an insurance goal to guarantee the end of the Capitals’ season. As Turgeon celebrated, Washington’s captain Dale Hunter slammed him into the boards and injured him.

Hunter was condemned for the illegal hit, and rightly so. It was a dirty play. However, for my parents, Hunter wasn’t just a professional athlete, he was a friend. I’d played on a team with his son, and he showed up to as many practices and games as possible. While everyone and their brother was bashing Hunter, my dad wrote a letter to the editor of the Bowie Blade-News, saying that Hunter’s actions were out of character and that the real Hunter was an upstanding citizen and family man. He publicly supported for this person, who deserved a lot criticism, because he couldn’t stand to see a good man’s entire life slandered over one snap decision. That tells you the type of man my father was. He always spoke up for what was right, and he was never afraid to fight uphill.

He was so, so proud of all of his children and what we accomplished. We never had to dream big, because he’d do it for us. When I wrote a column for my college newspaper, he tried to convince me to talk to a publisher about a book deal. Any time there was a story about art in the Washington Post, he’d call me to tell me to look for it, and ask if there were any angles in it that could help advance my career.

He thought it was fantastic that Matt worked for professional and major college sports organizations, and always tried to get the inside scoop about the Caps personnel movements. He believed in us when Matt, I, and a few of our friends formed a charity to run a hockey tournament, and was one of our strongest supporters. He thought my wife Sara and Matt’s girlfriend Kiki were the best things to ever happen to each of us. Rachel is a world-class synchronized figure skater and Dad loved to travel across the globe to watch her compete, and to tell his friends about her silver medal in the world championships. Apparently, once he got started telling someone about any of his kids’ accomplishments it was hard to get him to stop.

He was stubbornly persistent in most things he did. There are a lot of people out there who thought he was a hard-nosed jerk sometimes. I certainly did. He always liked to be right. You can ask Sara, he passed that trait on to me. Even through all that stubbornness and intensity, he was a man who cared deeply. He cared about science. He cared about the law. He cared about society, and this city. And he cared deeply about his family.

He loved his entire family, my mom most of all. He was incredibly invested in her happiness and her success. In recent years his tough facade began to drop and he let the world see how much he and my mom cared for each other, and how much he depended on her. When she came home from work he’d ask her how her day went, and if it was a tough day, he’d cry while listening to what had happened. We took so many trips together as a family, and when it wasn’t easy for him to travel anymore, he’d encourage my mom to go places anyway and bring back stories. They depended on each other.

The great irony in all this is that, after several years of declining health, my dad had finally begun to take responsibility for his health again. His heart condition slowed him down, his spinal stenosis made it hard for him to walk, and he could barely hear. He’d had a cancerous mole removed from his temple a few years ago, and there was another nasty one growing on his arm that he was determined to ignore. Dad hated needles, hated anesthesia, hated surgery. Eventually we got him to go to the dermatologist, who took one look and told him it was malignant and he needed to make an appointment at the hospital. It took an intervention this past Thanksgiving to convince him to make that appointment. The surgeon told him she’d need to dig deep, and he didn’t want to do it. He was content to play out the string, to take his chances. It took another intervention by Rachel in May to follow through and schedule the surgery. She’s a medical doctor now, you see, so he listened to her advice. That surgery was scheduled for four days ago.

I have one last story to tell you, about how I’ll always remember my father.

This wasn’t my dad’s first heart attack. When he was having heart issues about seven years ago, he went in for an exam, and his cardiologist told him that his test results showed that he’d suffered a minor one at some point in the past, without even knowing it. His heart wasn’t in good shape even then, and he needed double bypass surgery. We scheduled the surgery for a morning up at Johns Hopkins.

It was an emotional experience, sitting in the hospital room waiting for dad to get taken in to the operating room. Double bypasses have a very high survival rate, but it’s not 100%. He told all three of his children, in turn, that he loved us and was very proud of us. Then he told my mom he loved her as well, and gave her his account book, with a list of all the people she’d need to contact in case he didn’t make it out of the OR.

We waited a few more minutes for the cardiologist, nurses, and anaesthesiologist to come to take him back. As they wheeled him out of the room on the bed, the four of us followed him to the double doors that led into the operating wing. We each said our goodbyes again, and stepped back to let the doctors take over. I’ll never forget what he said next. Maybe he thought we were out of earshot. I know he was scared. It wasn’t his usual commanding voice. This was soft and fearful. As they rolled him through the doors, he looked up at the anaesthesiologist and asked him a question. He asked: “Will I dream?”

I don’t know if he did or not. I never asked him about that moment, never even told him I saw it happen. I just knew I was privileged to witness it.

Dad, I don’t know if you are dreaming now, but I hope you are at peace.

Creating and Recreating the Digital Self

The past few weeks have been active ones for my digital academic presence. While out of state – and for parts, out of country – to celebrate my sister’s graduation (Doctor of Physical Therapy, University of Miami), I had two pieces published online. The first was a multi-author journal article on civic engagement and service-learning perceptions at a large, research intensive university (I was one of four co-writers). The second was an essay on Thomas Gainsborough’s Mr. and Mrs. Andrews for Smarthistory, my first essay for that site.

Although of two entirely different natures, both works are part of the same attempt to explore a variety of interests and build a fuller academic and professional identity. Doctoral dissertation work doesn’t allow for much in the way of outside interests unless you make time for it. And it is important to make time for it, since all that interesting stuff is what sets a job candidate, teaching or otherwise, apart from the crowd.

Once I finish my dissertation, I’ll be a guy with a PhD. There are a lot of them out there, with more topical subfields of study and from more well-regarded institutions. Publications and service set job candidates apart, and the ones on my CV – publishing on postcards, comic books, and educational pedagogy, serving on boards, organizing conferences and symposia – reflect a personality that’s not as grounded in the lofty ivory tower as may appear at first blush.

More importantly, doing the things I do keeps me sane. Some art historians find pleasure whiling their time away in the archives and publishing in-depth works on the same subjects. I prefer to be a generalist. British art is fantastic, but I can’t see myself focusing on Benjamin West for the next four decades of my life the same way my advisor did on the artist he examined in his dissertation. Nor can I see myself wanting to study comics for that long, even though I’m interested in them right now.

Spreading my time also allows me to hone skills like areas like conference organization and academic administration that aren’t part of the standard humanities PhD curriculum. In recent years I’ve recognized the ways in which graduate school doesn’t prepare you for the realities of the job market and of actually having a job, and things that would fall under a CV’s “Service” category – or not even find a place there, like working as a docent for Context Travel – are the ones which will make me most attractive to a potential employer.

Sometimes I do fear that this additional work is having a negative effect on my dissertation. There’s no question it’s slowed it down, but in the grand scheme of things I’m on a fairly fast track toward completion. If I were instead to spend eight hours a day, seven days a week doing nothing but researching and writing on one topic, I’d pull my hair out. This work is also largely unpaid. Such is the life of a graduate student. I don’t enjoy it, but at this stage of my career these activities are ways to get that crucial experience that employers are looking for. Sure, I haven’t been paid to organize conferences, but I’ve got two roundtables and a symposium series under my belt plus an unconference in the works. That’s more than any of my classmates can say.

Doing things like taking a few days to write an 800-word essay on one painting keeps things lively and enjoyable. There’s not a career in just writing Smarthistory essays, but as long as it gets my name out there and keeps my own work enjoyable, I’ll take it.

The Color and the Shape: Procedural Rhetoric in Works by Daniel Clowes and David Mazzucchelli

This morning I delivered a conference presentation at the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association annual conference in my backyard of Washington, D.C. What follows is that talk, both the text and the PowerPoint presentation. Any and all comments, suggestions, and criticisms are welcome.

This presentation text is available under a Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND license. You may download this work and share it as long as you credit it, but cannot alter it in any way or use it commercially. Please note that the usage of images in this presentation falls under the fair use doctrine.

You may download a .pdf of the talk here: The Color and The Shape. The PowerPoint is available below.

Murder Your Darlings

In seeking paths around the all-too-frequent roadblocks that pop up during the writing process, I’ve continually sought out a variety of advice on writing and examples of strong writing in action. A personal favorite for advice is Paul Barolsky’s “Writing (and) the History of Art” (The Art Bulletin, vol. 78, no. 3, pp. 398-400) which still holds up well after almost twenty years. In terms of examples, each essay chapter of Ian Bogost’s How To Do Things With Videogames incites a pang of jealousy for its clear prose as well as thoughtful ideas.

The current piece of advice I’ve been batting around in my head is that of Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, to “Murder your darlings.” I’ll freely admit a fascination with particularly witty turns of phrase in my own writing, so it’s helpful and timely advice. The next major event in my academic life is a presentation at the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association National Conference next week. Unlike the recent art history conferences at which I’ve presented, which allowed for 20 minutes for presenting, my PCA/ACA session only allows for 15 minutes per speaker.

With a shorter time frame, crafting a talk has been a difficult process. By this point I’ve mostly internalized the notion that “conference talk = 20 minutes.” My general process is to write about ten pages and then cull that down to a 20-minute talk, which has become a longer process when the end result needs to be six or seven pages instead of eight or nine. Instead of cutting extraneous phrases and clarifying poor wording, I’ve had to cut multiple entire concepts to get the talk to a point where I’m comfortable.

Slicing and dicing my PCA/ACA presentation hasn’t necessarily resulted in a strong argument, but it has resulted in more precision and a clearer voice. Looking at the 15-minute presentation, I’m not sure one with an extra five minutes would improve anything. In cutting down my talk, for the first time I’ve put considerable effort into signposting questions for the audience to ask instead of simply excising any and all hints of the removed content.

One of the last lines I cut in order to get under the 15-minute mark was a reference to the content of a co-authored article, currently accepted for review in an edited collection. I’d love to have left the reference in, since any question about that in the Q&A session would have been a gimme, and I’m proud of the piece. However, I took Sir Quiller-Couch’s words to heart, and murdered that darling. If an appropriate situation arises during the Q&A to bring it up, I will, but it didn’t have a place in this particular talk. Now, when I eventually turn this presentation into a publication, all bets are off…

Dispatches from the Conference Front

Looking forward to sleeping in my own bed tonight, something I’ve only done once in the past nine nights thanks to an ambitious conference tour along the Eastern seaboard.

First thing’s first: On Friday I presented a paper at the 2013 CAA Annual Conference, and that paper and accompanying slideshow is available on this site at https://abramfox.com/caa-2013/. Feel free to read and share it, and comments and suggestions for new directions are greatly appreciated.

Side note: According to SlideShare, in the first five days after I uploaded that presentation, it was viewed 27 times. That’s already a little more than 50% of the audience who saw it live.

The conference adventure started on Sunday night when I headed up to New York City for THATCamp CAA, a two day unconference on technology in the humanities, specifically art history in this case – I’ve been to one previous THATCamp, as well as another generic unconference. At times it seems like the discipline is behind the times, and behind other disciplines in accepting and promoting digital work. There’s no question that digital humanities work and theory are far more visible and promoted at MLA and AHA than at CAA.

Workshop topics ranged from network mapping to digital repositories to the one I proposed, games in class. Some of the workshop participants were more looking for specific game examples rather than more broad concerns about games and gamification in the classroom, but the unpredictability and changing courses of discussion are what make the unconference format work. A basic list of resources covered in the session is available at http://goo.gl/876fa. Another project I worked on was the Art History Flash Book, an open-source textbook created in an hour. Hopefully it continues to receive contributions and becomes a real repository for classes worldwide. Throughout both days, workshops were interspersed with lightning talks from folks who are already digital success stories.

THATCamp CAA ran from Monday afternoon to Tuesday evening on the Upper West Side. The next day was the start of the proper CAA Annual Conference, which lasted Wednesday through Saturday…and I was there for all of it. My presentation on Friday was the primary reason for the trip, and as a CAA newcomer I wanted to make the most of the entire experience. Funding from the College of Arts and Humanities allowed me to make that a reality, as well as a grant from the Samuel H. Kress Foundation for the THATCamp.

The first night of the conference was the scheduled meet-and-greet for the Historians of British Art, at the tony apartment of the emeritus professor who literally wrote the book on Benjamin West, the subject of my dissertation. No pressure. The whole experience went about as well as could be expected, and proved to be a great networking event in general. Friday’s presentation was based on my doctoral dissertation research on West and his workshop based in London. You can see the research at the above link, and the presentation has already generated some great interest in outside organizations for pursuing my work further.

After a brief respite at home on Saturday night and Sunday morning, I was back on the conference path again at the Small Museum Association annual conference in Ocean City, MD. This one I came to through my volunteer work at the Laurel Historical Society as a board member and docent for the Laurel Museum. On the encouragement of the museum’s Executive Director I applied for, and won, a Lesley van der Lee Scholarship, which covered all room and board with the provision to help facilitate some of the sessions.

SMA and CAA were worlds apart, in terms of scope and atmosphere. CAA is a massive, international conference with thousands of participants and hundreds of sessions, while SMA is regional with a couple hundred participants and about two dozen sessions. Both were positive experiences, in their own way. SMA was more about practice than theory, and speaking with so many museum professionals – many my age, if not younger – about the actual experience of working in museums was very helpful in terms of thinking of my own career. I’m not sure about the appeal of working at a site where you can count the number of employees on one hand, but in general the museum world is an appealing destination.

No grand observation at the end here, other than the fact that three conferences in nine days is exhausting and I’m glad to be back operating under some semblance of normalcy at home and at work. No time to rest, though, as I have another paper to deliver at the end of March, and quite a bit more work to do on it before I’m satisfied.

Network of Mutuality: 50 Years Post-Birmingham

A provocative exhibition, Network of Mutuality: 50 Years Post-Birmingham, opened at The Art Gallery at the University of Maryland at the tail end of last month. The influence of a sequence of events located in and around the largest city in Alabama is still resonant in works largely drawn from the past decade and largely created by African American artists. Two rooms of works on display, as well as one interactive space, provide a perspective on the city and the civil rights movement from artists whose experience of Birmingham has been mediated by time and media.

African Klan Suit #2 (Hypnotic), Michael Paul Britto, 2010

African Klan Suit #2 (Hypnotic), Michael Paul Britto, 2010

Network of Mutuality is a multimedia exhibition, and the sounds of the civil rights movement confront the visitor before he or she can spy a single work. Audio from Bradley McCallum and Jacqueline Tarry’s “Within Our Gates” (2008), consisting of songs and chants accompanying three-channel video projected flat on the wall, filters throughout the space. Other audio works are accompanied by speakers, preventing any confusing noise pollution from detracting from the space.

Located in the center of the main room, tucked between a freestanding wall and pillar and facing away from the entrance, is Michael Paul Britto’s “Afrikan Klan Suit #2 (Hypnotic)” (2010), a Ku Klux Klan robe and hood crafted out of fabric resembling traditional kente cloth. From the angle I approached the suit and mannequin were hidden, and I didn’t encounter it until I was on my way out of the exhibit. Both the Klan suit and the cloth design are immediately recognizable, and the juxtaposition struck me as amusing more than anything else.

Between the two display rooms of the exhibit are a pair of interactive spaces, one a work appearing on the gallery’s checklist and the other not. Emily Wright’s “I’m no racist but…” (2013) invites visitors to apply an ink stamp to a sheet of paper clothespinned to the wall. Prejudiced visitors are asked to apply one stamp – a selection is available, with phrases such as “He’s an articulate black guy” and “We need to take back the country for real Americans” – while non-prejudiced visitors are asked to apply two. Do you apply one stamp, believing yourself an enlightened individual, or do you apply two because you recognize your own failings?

Erin Wright, "I'm not racist but...", 2013

Erin Wright, “I’m not racist but…”, 2013

Wright’s work begs introspection, as does the space opposite, a three-sided room covered in chalkboard paint. Chalk is available to write answers to a prompt posted on the wall, to imagine how your life would be different if you’d born to a different community or with a different identity. As fitting an exhibit on a college campus (or really, anywhere in the world), introspective answers are interspersed with predictable incidents of casual racism, themselves perhaps a reflection of the fact that we’re still nowhere near a post-racial society  in the United States.

"How would your life be different?", interactive space, Network of Mutuality

“How would your life be different?”, interactive space, Network of Mutuality

For the most part, the exhibit, curated by Audra Buck-Coleman and Ruth Lozner, achieves its goals, to “raise awareness and dialogue about the state of race and race relations today [and] leverage the distinct power of art and design as a means to provoke remembrance, reflection, reconsideration, and response.” The exhibition catalog also speaks to responsibility of the privileged, not just those in the minority, to speak out against injustice. It’s an idea that’s presented as forward-thinking, rather than common knowledge. An underlying subtext seems to be that the university itself and its members operate in a privileged position regardless of individual race/gender/class/etc. That’s a point that gets made with far less regularity, and it would be heartening to see that foregrounded more in the exhibit alongside powerful works of racism and racial identity in contemporary America.

Charting New Departmental Directions

At the moment, the Department of Art History and Archaeology at my home institution is undergoing ideological renewal and renovation. For the first time in a decade, and first time since I’ve been a graduate student, the department is selecting a new departmental chair.

One associate professor is running unopposed for the five-year term chair, so it’s not a particularly contested election.

(And for the record, I was hoping she would run and think she will be a fantastic chair.)

Prior to the current election, the departmental chair position was last voted on around 2002. After that chair’s five-year term, the position was held in short spurts by that full professor and another full professor for the next five, leading to the current situation. One result, especially over the past two to three years, has been a state of stagnancy born out of an “interim” mindset.

This isn’t to say that things were bad, only that the department has been slow to respond to some changing situations in education, particularly disciplinary pedagogy. A focus of the prospective chair’s presentation to the department was better preparing graduate students as future faculty and on improving the attractiveness of art history courses to the campus at large – building a larger footprint for a small discipline, which has about 100 majors and 40 minors at the moment. In the same breath, online education, MOOCs, and distance learning were summarily dismissed both by the nominee and the faculty members in attendance, not as fads but as somehow being an inappropriate or ineffective method of education.

Also slow to change has been the department’s view on the purpose of graduate studies. It’s an old-fashioned department, where the primary career output for PhD students is the academy and curating, and that’s it. Compared to some departments, mine (at a research-intensive university) is at least open in that they aren’t chagrined when a grad accepts a position at a SLAC, but the mindset is university teaching, curating, or bust.

All that said, there were a number of innovative ideas to come out of the presentation and ensuing Q&A which hinted at a strong future for the department. One was a classmate who asked how the department might improve its survey courses to enhance the “wow” factor and make them a transformative experience for students. Another was the prospective chair’s suggestion that the department reconsider its name. That’s a fair suggestion, particularly considering the full name is “Department of Art History and Archaeology” and there isn’t a single archaeology professor on the faculty, outside of maybe a Greek specialist whose interest covers architecture as well as art. I would be shocked if the faculty and grad students decided on something radical like “Department of Visual Culture,” but the mere idea – and apparent open reaction from the assembled crowd – was a good sign that the faculty may be on its way toward moving out of that stagnancy and finally accepting that we’re living in the 21st century, for better or for worse.

21st Century Digital Boy

This winter, I’ll be spending my Valentine’s Day in New York City, preparing for a conference presentation the next day at the College Art Association annual conference. The presentation is based on my ongoing dissertation research on Benjamin West and his students, and I’ll be delivering it to an open session of the Historians of Eighteenth Century Art and Architecture.

While the session is on a Friday, if all goes well I’ll be up in NYC all week for conference-related activities; namely, THATCamp CAA on Monday and Tuesday. What is a THATCamp? Well, per their site…

What is a THATCamp?
It is an informal, discussion based, collaborative unconference, on topics related to the humanities and technology. The participants propose sessions and create the program. All participants are expected to talk and work with fellow participants in every session.

Now I’ve never attended a CAA Annual Conference before, but I really see the THATCamp as just as, if not more, important toward my personal and professional development. Beyond the simple fact that technology continues to drive pedagogical innovation, this sort of meeting provides essential learning and networking opportunities for a young professional. It’ll also simply be good encouragement toward dissertation completion – it’s the sort of thing that makes one excited to be an art historian.

If I’m able to attend (registration closed a few days ago and they haven’t announced the invite list yet), it wouldn’t be my first unconference, or even THATCamp. Last January my home institution was host to THATCamp Games, which broadly covered, yes, games as pedagogical tools , for and as learning. As one of the more neophyte attendees – I’m well-versed in playing games, but haven’t really had the chance to utilize them in a classroom setting – I benefited most from the unconference as an introduction to thinking about the subject matter in an academic environment. To date the THATCamp Games experience has inspired the Close Playing roundtable series that I was awarded a fellowship from Honors Humanities to plan this semester, as well as inspiration for some improvements I have in mind for the 2013 installment of ARTH389E.

A month before THATCamp Games I attended my first true unconference, Bmore Historic, also inspired by the THATCamp concept. That was both more general and specific in subject: the theme was historic Baltimore, and the sessions ranged across the spectrum, covering academia, museums, historic preservation and so on.

I’ll be the first to admit that the more hours I put into my dissertation, the less time I devote to other aspects of my academic environment. While I see the importance in my work, I also understand that in order to reach real audiences (not just for my dissertation, but art history in general) will require engagement with 21st century learning pedagogies. Smarthistory has been on my radar for a while, as an inspired system for delivering short bits of academic content to interested parties. I’ve shared Smarthistory links with students while a TA, and it’s fantastic that they’re a sponsor of THATCamp CAA. Same with the Khan Academy and the Center for History and New Media (Zotero has been a lifesaver for collecting research).

There are fantastic things happening in pedagogy right now. If I want to get this dissertation done, I’ve got to keep shutting them out, to some extent. However, I hope I’ll get the chance to be part of THATCamp CAA, where the participants aren’t just learning about new pedagogical strategies (and research strategies too, can’t forget them, though I see my personal career heading down more of an educational path) but creating them as well. Should be a fantastic time.

When Opportunity Knocks

Later this month I’m going on a family vacation in Ocean City, MD. On a Sunday morning, when the rest of my family is having breakfast and preparing for another two days at the beach, I’m hopping in a car and making a 6 1/2 hour drive north to distinctly un-beach-like Farmington, CT, where I’ll spend the next five days staying in an eighteenth-century house and stare at prints, engravings, and paintings for six to eight hours a day. Willingly. Clearly I chose the right academic pursuit.

This won’t be my first trip to Connecticut to utilize some of Yale’s facilities, though certainly the most involved. How the trip came about could be called coincidence and luck, but really it’s the best example of networking I’ve experienced to date. The class is offered by the Lewis Walpole Library, which is owned by Yale and offers week-long master classes on a regular basis. Many of these classes are for Yale students only, or at least geared that way. As it happened, this particular class has two open spots. I found out about it from a fellow graduate (to whom I was introduced by a classmate who was in the same fellowship program two years ago) who heard about it from her advisor. Information made it down the line, and a few days later I’ve locked down accommodations and started to look into travel options.

In turn, this class will be an opportunity to build connections at the library as well as at the numerous other institutions we’ll visit, and the seven other graduate students I’ll be meeting for the first time at the opening session. Not bad for what almost amounts to a short vacation right before the start of the semester.

Steam Sale Shopping List

During the middle of July, Valve Corporation held it’s semiannual sale on its Steam digital distribution platform. The Steam Sales are big events, with most games on sale and many at discounts of 50%, 75%, or more. Buoyed by a positive experience with a one-week unit on videogames toward the end of my summer course on comics and digital art, I used the Steam sale opportunity to purchase a few games that have been praised for their art.

With an eye to the visual experience rather than the narrative, a few games stood out (and I look forward to the opportunity to test them out): The Binding of Isaac, LIMBO, Lone Survivor, and PixelJunk Eden. The first three also possess strong narrative, manifested in completely different ways. LIMBO, for example, provides no outward hints to its theme other than its title. When the game starts, the screen transitions from black to a greyscale with a small boy, seen in silhouette save for his bright white eyes, acting as your avatar in a side-scrolling atmosphere. Very little audio, no narration or on-screen text, not even instructions on how to operate in the game space. As you progress through the continuous level you piece together hints of game mechanics as well as antagonists and an expanded diegesis. It’s breathtaking, enjoyable, and incredibly dark for its simplistic graphic style.

PixelJunk Eden is a completely different beast. It has a stronger sense of narrative, more interaction between the game and the player, and is clear on directions and objectives. I can’t imagine anyone would play it for the narrative, though; the point is the bold, interactive visuals and relaxing soundtrack.

It’s difficult to balance the visual and narrative aspects of videogames for the classroom. Many of the most popular game hone in on a compelling storyline or the hook of fun and/or addictive gameplay elements. The visual is seen as a complementary element, unless it’s a game like PixelJunk Eden in which the visual is the only element of note, with a thin veneer of a story laid over it. That’s more of a 20th and 21st century mindset for art, which fits. Coming from the perspective of a scholar of 18th and 19th century art, where a strict hierarchy of academic art placed history painting at the top, it’s an enjoyable challenge to seek out a middle ground. I think LIMBO and Lone Survivor do a good job. They’re not classical, in any sense. If I had to compare them to something it would be the Baroque, Romanticism, or maybe Neoclassic Gothic. Once I actually finish them, I’ll report back.