Behind “business,” the most popular major at my school is accounting. This is because it seems to lead to a medium-status profession directly following a degree. No student I know has a passion for accounting. It is simply a series of rules to memorize that will lead to the correct representation of a person or organization’s financial status. There is no connection between accounting and other fields of study. As a result, the students view everything else they have to study as baffling impediments to their degrees. They struggle with writing assignments that assume that they know about other areas of knowledge or share the background of the instructor.

We are turning out a generation of these students, student who do not know what they are missing or understand that there was once another way to be a student.

For about the past two years, I have done what I could to bring my students — learning-disabled, low-income, low English proficiency — back into contact with my decades-old way of doing things, the way that I “believed, taught, and confessed.” That seems to be coming to an end, with the de-funding of my institution’s “learning center.” It’s unclear what I will do next. I have been thinking about volunteering my hours there, to try to keep some of what I have done alive. I can ill afford it, but if it is a choice between being unemployed and helping students while unemployed, the logic is not so foreign.

All I can say is that without the alternative I and my colleagues had to offer, we will see a long line of unhappy, single-minded accounting majors stretching into the future like Banquo’s descendants. They will view being taught by computer as a relief.



More on MOOCs

Apparently, by the way (according to a colleague who works in the field), they’re pronounced “mooks.” Which seems like a mistake.

A good piece today in the IHE. First paragraph captures some of the difficulty I have with the concept as it is currently being put into practice, namely its reliance on the stupidity of a certain kind of administrator and its alignment with an anti-intellectual critique of higher education:

The rush toward the creation of massive open online courses (MOOCs) is catching on in higher education like wildfire. All it takes, it seems, is to wave a bit of money around, talk up the brave new world of technological innovation, bash the “failed” world of higher education as we know it, and the privatization troops have administrators in a fit of unexamined, swooning technophilia. These “courses,” however, in addition to offering false promises, also undermine shared governance, run roughshod over established curriculum development procedures and move colleges toward the era of “teacherless classrooms,” which destroy the academic integrity of our institutions and demean the value of the education our students receive.


Look, yes, there are things wrong with conferences

…but you don’t have to be a dick about it. (Though at times honestly it’s not clear whether the object of derision is the narrator or the people he describes; nonetheless, since it’s the Chronicle, which specializes in columns about academia by unhappy academics, often playing to the anti-intellectualism of some crowd of people who the editors of the Chronicle presumably wish had liked them more in high school (none of whom actually read the Chronicle, naturally), I am inclined toward a harsher judgment.)

I agree that the conference paper format in literary and cultural studies ought to be rethought (as at ACL(x), here). In fact I would pay for an outright ban on the following:

  1. Going over your time limit.
  2. Reading aloud from your Powerpoint slide (unless it’s a quotation that you’re addressing

I personally no longer read written remarks aloud, either for conference papers or for 45-minute talks. I have discovered that I am not a good reader of my own work. What happens is that I get bored while I’m reading, since I already know what I’ve written; then I start worrying that the audience is bored; then I start reading faster and faster because I’m afraid it’s terrible.

So instead I extemporize from handwritten notes or hand-drawn Powerpoint slides. The adrenaline rush I get from being close to running out of things to say keeps me fully engaged with the presentation, and the energy level is as a result much better. The result looks a lot like my teaching (and has the same strengths and weaknesses–more on this below!).

But I have heard excellent readers (Homi Bhabha and Jane Gallop both read very well, for very different reasons). And I have heard lots of perfectly fine readers. I don’t think that, in general, listening to three people read papers is the best way to spend an hour, but it’s hard to see what the alternatives would be in a world where not everyone has an iPad. (In a world with universal iPads, one solution: everyone who walks into the room gets a copy of the papers, and everyone reads silently for 30 minutes; at the end of 30 minutes, discussion begins… voila! You’ve flipped the balance from 90 percent listening, 10 percent dialogue, to 40 percent reading, 60 percent dialogue… This is one way to take advantage of the fact that everyone’s in the room.)

In fact that little bit in parentheses expresses pretty clearly the ideologies of my preference, namely that if you’re going to get people in a room, then you ought to take advantage of that fact. One way to do so involves giving a fully embodied presentation (something more “live” than reading aloud something written to be read silently), and another involves maximizing discussion. So we should be thinking about ways to do both of those things.


p.s. On strengths and weaknesses: I strongly recommend that anyone trying to extemporize a full talk really work hard on two things:

  1. the first few sentences and
  2. the last paragraph

There’s an absolute ton of rhetorical pressure on both moments. When my extemporaneous talks go poorly it’s almost always because I screw up the ending.

When you’re teaching this is easier because you have about a 7-minute window at the end of class and so if you are feeling your way towards a close you can manage the problem either by quitting early or by adding another two minutes’ worth of stuff and finishing a bit late (that is, you’re managing the feel and tone, and judging your own finish relative to the crowd’s mood; the point is to call it quits at the right moment or to realize you need to do more before you can call it quits).

With talks the time pressure and the window (especially on the back end, where you don’t want to go over; when you extemporize everyone expects you to, so it’s imperative not to do so) is much tighter. The answer is to make sure that you have something that you can read at the very end (or, better, have something that you’ve rehearsed, so that you avoid the awkward transition to reading) so that you handle the close well. Otherwise you just trail off into a weird kind of blather (“…and so that’s all I have to say about that”), or, slightly less awkwardly, you end up producing a finish that would work if you had realized, as you were saying it, that it was a finish, but since you didn’t you didn’t give it the right inflection and so you end up having to do another paragraph at a moment when you don’t have too much to say.

The open is less crucial; as a result, you can usually just swing it with the right kind of energy, but it does sometimes help to have it written out.


LARB discussion of Toby Miller’s “Blow Up the Humanities”

Well worth reading, here. Miller’s response here.

Here is the thing: I’ve always liked Toby Miller, ever since he gave a talk when I was in grad school and bet that no one in the room had seen Demolition Man, which of course Ted and I had (and had loved; if you haven’t seen it, you really must).

But you see in his response that trying to be Christopher Hitchens doesn’t work, I think, for most people, including Christopher Hitchens, because at some point the macho insouciance outweighs the cleverness and people begin to suspect that, rhetorically at least, you’re just kind of an asshole. (Cases in point: Walter Benn Michaels, about whom more soon, and Stanley Fish.)

That said I probably also disagree with the book, so take my reading with salt. Consider this post another placeholder for a future post on the future of the humanities, which along with my much-awaited humanities PhD and MOOC posts will finally set the world aright, when (and if, if) it arrives.


“The Russian Kurosawa” at the University of Chicago

A series of screenings and a roundtable discussion of four films by Akira Kurosawa based on Russian literary sources is scheduled to take place at the University of Chicago on May 10-12, 2013 at the brand-new Logan Center for the Arts. In anticipation of the event, the following excerpts are meant to alert readers and Kurosawa fans to the event and its purpose.


The films to be shown are: The Idiot (1951), Ikiru (1952), The Lower Depths (1957), and Dersu Uzala (1975).

For the full program and screening times visit: https://ceeres.uchicago.edu/kurosawa.


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Jameson’s similes

This is a list of most of the similes using “like” in Fredric Jameson’s Postmodernism.

The prestige of these great streamlined shapes can be measured by their metaphorical presence in Le Corbusier’s buildings, vast Utopian structures which ride like so many gigantic steamship liners upon the urban scenery of an older fallen earth. (36)

It strikes one then, in that spirit, that neofigurative painting today is very much that extraordinary space through which all the images and icons of the culture spill and float, haphazard, like a logjam of the visual, bearing off with them everything . (176; love the echo of the last line of Gatsby!)

Only an old-fashioned communism and an old-fashioned psychoanalysis stood out upon the agrarian landscape like immense and ugly foreign bodies, history itself (equally old- fashioned  in those days) being very effectively consigned to the dusty ash can of “scholarship.” (183-84)

I think we now have to talk about the relief of the postmodern generally, a thunderous unblocking of logjams and a release of new productivity that was somehow tensed up and frozen, locked like cramped muscles, at the latter end of the …(313)

Like the three wishes in the fairy tale, or the devil’s promises, this prognosis has been fully realized, with only the slightest of modifications that make it unrecognizable. (320)

…at one and the same time more abstract and more concrete, and a feature whose essential materialism can be measured by its scandalousness for the mind, which avoids it or hides it away like plumbing. (356; this one especially good because it’s such a surprise, and doesn’t explain itself)

inward conceptual defense mechanisms, and in particular the rationalizations of privilege and the well-nigh natural formations (like extraordinary crystalline structures or coral formations excreted over millennia) of narcissism and self-love…(358)

It would now seem that, far from becoming extinct, the older genres, released like viruses from their traditional ecosystem, have now spread out and colonized reality itself… (371)

We have all those things, indeed, but we jog afterward to refresh the constitution, while by the same token computers relieve us of the terrible obligation to distend the memory like a swollen bladder retaining all these encyclopedia references. (383)

And here is my favorite Jamesonian simile of all, from The Political Unconscious:

Only Marxism can give us an account of the essential mystery of the cultural past, which, like Tiresias drinking the blood, is momentarily returned to life and warmth and once more allowed to speak, and to deliver its long-forgotten message in surroundings utterly alien to it. (383)


Sitcoms of yesteryear

Among the more popular premises for a sitcom is the fish out of water. Under this general rubric you will find many of the long-running shows of the last fifty years, often organized around the classic social situations: race, class, gender, and sexuality.

Race: The Jeffersons, which was an offshoot of one of the original fish-out-of-water scenes, the loosely veiled but still basically racial All in the Family, whose theme song (“guys like us we had it made… those were the days. … do you remember way back when, girls were girls and men were men… those were the days”) made it clear that Archie Bunker’s biggest problem was that he was a fish out of time — but of course for white folks to be out of time is always to be out of “race” as well. (If you have six minutes watch this amazing clip where Archie, late in the show’s run, takes on the KKK and calls himself “black”.) (Also in this category: Family Matters.)

Class: Two Broke Girls, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air (not Roseanne; I’m talking about sitcoms where the basic premise is that someone is out of joint);  Sexuality/Gender: Three’s Company comes to mind (but not Will & Grace). Something like Modern Family seems to be trying to wrap all of these up in a single package (which is interesting, because it has to produce wholeness out of that incongruous mix, but of course, that’s the point.)

But none of these categories quite capture the strangeness of the science fictional sitcom, in which the fish is an alien and the new swimming pool is the planet Earth. It’s so strange I think it’s easy to forget that through the 70s 80s and 90s the alien-on-Earth was a basic premise for television comedy. Mork & Mindy for the 70s, ALF for the 80s; and Third Rock from the Sun for the 90s. (There was also Small Wonder (amazing!! theme song), but that was about a robot.)

I have almost nothing to say about this but to that the other night as I fell asleep I was overcome with the marvel of this kind of sitcom. Aliens yes, but aliens and comedy just doesn’t seem plausible. I mean, what a crazy thing, no? It seems totally unimaginable that such a show would be on television today. And so I found myself wondering what kind of culture we are that used to allow these shows, and now doesn’t. It could all just be random noise, of course, but the critical, close readerly demand for total necessity leaves me wanting more.


Republicans on Copyright

A few years ago at the instigation of Paul Saint-Amour Ted Wesp and I spent a few months thinking and writing about copyright (results in Paul’s edited book, here). Ever since I’ve been convinced not only of the importance of copyright for thinking about the history of aesthetic production, but also of its vital contemporary impact on the entire economic life-world, ranging from patent law (and its implications for technological or medical developments) to the field of culture.

Crooked Timber points me to the Republican Study Committee’s new thinkpiece on copyright, which argues against it from a radical capitalist/libertarian perspective. I am not going to read the entire RSC piece, and neither are you, so here instead is the quote CT pulls out:

Copyright violates nearly every tenet of laissez faire capitalism. Under the current system of copyright, producers of content are entitled to a guaranteed, government instituted, government subsidized content-monopoly … It is a system implemented and regulated by the government, and backed up by laws that allow for massive damages for violations. These massive damages are not conventional tort law damages, but damages that are vastly disproportionate from the actual damage to the copyright producer. … we do know that our copyright paradigm has … Retarded the creation of a robust DJ/Remix industry … Hampering scientific inquiry … Stifling the creation of a public library … Free 12-year copyright term for all new works – subject to registration, and all existing works are renewed as of the passage of the reform legislation. If passed today this would mean that new works have a copyright until 2024.

Ummm. Amen?


Administrators and Professors

This piece in Bloomberg is disappointingly short. Money quote:

At universities nationwide, employment of administrators jumped 60 percent from 1993 to 2009, 10 times the growth rate for tenured faculty. “Administrative bloat is clearly contributing to the overall cost of higher education,” says Jay Greene, an education professor at the University of Arkansas. In a 2010 study, Greene found that from 1993 to 2007, spending on administration rose almost twice as fast as funding for research and teaching at 198 leading U.S. universities.

Again, the piece overall is a bit short. Would be nice to see some serious thinking about the causes of this shift (other than the aortic one).


The Historian and the Etymologist: An Experimental Twitter Essay

In the spirit of experimenting with media, I’m going to write an academic essay on Twitter. Because why not? Let’s play a little with form.
I’m not going to write it ahead of time and just post it after-the-fact in 140ish-character chunks: that seems contrary to the spirit of the medium, which is about immediacy and simultaneity of writing/reading and nowness and against significant editing.
I’m not sure how long it will be, but I’ll indicate when it’s done. Ideally, this will be something that will be meaningful if read forwards (from the bottom of the Twitter screen up) and backwards (from the top down). We’ll see how it goes.
The hashtag for this is going to be #etym1
I’m on Twitter here: https://twitter.com/CarlaNappi


More on MOOCs

Siva Vaidhyanathan on MOOCs, just to keep the discussion going.

If we support the MOOC experiment it would be foolish to do so without confronting the serious incentive problems MOOCs present to teachers, students, and institutions of higher education. These are not reasons to quit MOOCs. They are reasons to take them seriously and strive to maximize the rewards of MOOCs while curbing the perverse incentives.

We should offer MOOCs that aim for many levels of expertise and in many languages. We should not reward universities or faculty based on initial, inflated enrollment. We should question the “O” as in “open” because a flood of trolls is about to show up in MOOC discussions, threatening to ruin everyone’s best efforts. We should ask why universities are not hosting and launching their own homegrown MOOCs when the software is simple and the talent is all in-house. Why engage with private companies that have completely different missions and demands than universities do?

The piece as a whole reminds me of how difficult it is to have a conversation about teaching (or education more generally) that doesn’t immediately suck in all sorts of related problems (technological fundamentalism, corporatization, the adjunct problem, administrative bloat) that make universities today so complicated.


Attention is a resource

This piece at Marginal Revolution draws our attention once again to the ways in which being rich benefits the rich twice–once in terms of a direct access to wealth, and once in terms of how it allows the wealthy to preserve cognitive resources that allow them to make decisions that benefit their long-term self-interest.

Thus, SMS [the researchers] show that poverty (over)-stimulates attention to urgent problems which results in less attention given to important problems–thus, reduce some day to day urgencies and people may become more open to devoting attention to important problems like deworming or hygiene or paying the rent which would in the not-so-long-run result in greater benefits.

Crucially, notice that SMS’s experiments are about the effect of poverty not about the poor. In other words, at least some of our discussion of the poor may suffer from the fundamental attribution error.

That bit about fundamental attribution error seems crucial. And this sort of research, which we have seen more and more of in the last decade, seems to me to offer–via rationality and science–the best non-ethical, non-moral arguments for things like affirmative action that I can imagine being put forward. No idea if they’ll change anyone’s mind but it’s good to know, as always, that social science will help “prove” things that I have known all along were “true.”


Clay Shirky on Higher Education and the MOOCs

Clay Shirky has a long and deeply thought-out post on Massive Open Online Classes (MOOCs) and the future of higher education over at his blog. As this is one of my issue-obsessions right now, it was a personal must-read and I thought I would drop a pointer to it here. His chief point is that the MOOCs, within the context of higher education, serve as the best analogue to the music industry’s MP3s, the newspapers’ Craigslist / Google, or the movie industry’s BitTorrent – the internet’s disruptive agent of choice for this particular industry.

The people in the music industry weren’t stupid, of course. They had access to the same internet the rest of us did. They just couldn’t imagine—and I mean this in the most ordinarily descriptive way possible—could not imagine that the old way of doing things might fail.

I agree with this fundamental point and, more than that, with most of his associated arguments and corollaries. In particular, I appreciated that he does not fall prey to the “same approach to teaching today as 1000 years ago in medieval Europe” trope, and takes the time to address the components of traditional higher education that are not likely to be obsoleted by the internet. All the same, he argues that – just as with MP3s, Craigslist, Wikipedia, and BitTorrent – the new internet substitute for higher education does not have to offer better quality to be highly disruptive. Indeed!

In Shirky’s vision, the chief near-term feature of the higher education landscape will be the breathtakingly rapid expansion and improvement of MOOC offerings from Udacity, Stanford, Harvard/MIT, and others, which will suck the oxygen out of the business model at the “low end” of the market first and proceed up-market from there. As an interesting aside (which I also appreciated), he points out that the true bottom-feeders of higher education are not the lowest-priced institutions but quite the reverse: they are the for-profit conglomerates, which offer much higher cost (debt) per value delivered than any public institution. Moreover, he points out, we are not talking about a product that threatens the business model of the Ivy League or, really, the top 100 schools in a fundamental way. (However, he does see deep trouble ahead for median institutions; as he puts it, “Bridgerland Applied Technology College? Maybe not fine. University of Arkansas at Little Rock? Maybe not fine.”)

At Penn State we are active participants in our own disintermediation these days, with a “World Campus” that happily offers online course credits for money – and good money at that. It has been hard to witness the expansion in these offerings, and the increasing contribution they make to the annual budgets of many Departments (including mine), without mixed feelings. On the one hand, this is a tremendous business success for the institution. On the other hand, we seem to be in the process of online-educating ourselves out of a job. And yet on the third hand – the point of Shirky’s piece, really – what choice do we have? We can either suffer disruption by others or disrupt ourselves.

In the academy, we lecture other people every day about learning from history. Now its our turn, and the risk is that we’ll be the last to know that the world has changed, because we can’t imagine—really cannot imagine—that story we tell ourselves about ourselves could start to fail. Even when it’s true. Especially when it’s true.

Finally, in a last twist of the rhetorical knife, I imagine I’ll be thinking a lot about these issues come January, when I begin teaching our Department’s World Campus version of “Life in the Universe” for the first time. We’ll see how it goes.



Oh, so that’s why

Stanley Kurtz explains Obama’s reelection:

Just before the election, Jay Nordlinger reported that the proportion of Princeton University faculty or staff donating to the presidential candidates was 155 to 2. Only a visiting engineering lecturer and a janitor gave to Romney. It’s an almost entertainingly extreme example of academic bias, but when you think about it, also a deadly-serious explanation for Obama’s victory. The college educated professionals at the heart of Obama’s coalition are products of an academic culture that not only leans far-left, but is dedicated to producing precisely the national political outcome that Obama represents. Obama himself was both a product and a member of the elite leftist university faculty.

In contrast to Reagan’s appointees Bill Bennett and Lynne Cheney, the Bush administration avoided public battles with the academy. Republicans nowadays tend to write off academia as silly and irrelevant. Meanwhile, our colleges and universities have been quietly churning out left-leaning voters for some time. Not all graduates go along, of course, but many do.

Higher education is also connected to the demographic roots of Obama’s victory. Prior to World War II, college was still the path less traveled. By the sixties, it had become common. Now years of post-graduate professional education for a large percentage of Americans have pushed back the age of marriage, increasing the numbers of single women so crucial to Obama’s coalition. The phenomenon of extended singlehood is at the root of the new social liberalism as well, not to mention the demographic bust driving our entitlement crisis.

Yes, it was all those liberal university elites at those places thought silly and irrelevant by current conservatives.


Preface to the Chinese Translation of The Hypothetical Mandarin

This summer I wrote a preface to the Chinese translation of The Hypothetical Mandarin. I figure it will never see the light in English unless I put it online, so I’m putting it here. One thing I noticed is that beginning with the second paragraph my sentences begin to reflect an awareness that my translator is going to have to get them into Chinese. I also am more candid than I usually am about what I was trying to do in the book. 

The translation of one’s work is an opportunity to think about the activity of one’s own writing practice, to face up to the particularities of one’s style and to acknowledge, or feel apologetic for, the difficulty of one’s prose. Somehow the task of translating work into another language—in which one confronts the fact that one’s work has created difficult labor for someone else—clarifies the value of the choices one makes.

At first therefore I am tempted to apologize, both to the reader, and to the translator, Yuan Jian, for the unusual and perhaps difficult style of this book. But, perhaps because I am an unusual and difficult person, I have decided that apologizing would be a mistake. After all, the book was intended to be unusual in English as well. I do not want to write like anyone else. Indeed, part of my goal as a writer is to write in a prose style that has an active force in the work, that makes readers aware not only of a personality behind the writing and argument, but makes them wonder if in fact the argument might also be happening at the level of style itself.

Literary scholars take the idea that the argument of a work might happen in its style as a perfectly normal aspect of their work. I cannot imagine anyone disagreeing that the prose style of Jorge Luis Borges or Lu Xun or whoever has something to do with the content of the fiction or the essays they write. The same is true for literary criticism: no one will argue that Derrida’s prose style has nothing to do with his ideas.

Why then do most critics write as if their style had nothing to do with their ideas? Perhaps they are not ambitious enough. Perhaps they do not think of themselves as artists. I am not sure I am an artist, but I know that it is important to me to try to act like one. This means taking myself seriously—not because I am sure that my work is, finally, serious, but because I am sure that the ethical practice of writing begins with believing that writing can matter, that writing is itself a form of thought.

That is why I am especially grateful to Yuan Jian for all his work. As far as I can tell (my reading ability in Chinese is not very good, but I had a friend read me some of the work aloud, too) he has done a remarkable job capturing the feel of my writing in Chinese. If it sounds foreign to you, dear reader, do not worry—it is supposed to sound foreign, sometimes, to native speakers of English. Things that never sound foreign run the risk of being too familiar. They will therefore fail to break the habits, the common sense, of the reader’s eye and ear. But scholarship, like the work of art, should have as its most basic goals to break the habits and defeat the common sense of its audience.

I wrote the book partly to undermine the habit that Europeans and Americans have of thinking that the origin of their most important philosophical concepts lies entirely inside the national and cultural boundaries of the West. I show here that in the case of the development of sympathy, such an idea is simply untrue. I also show how the idea of China helped Europe “think” through and understand a variety of important ideas about modern life, including concepts of world history, religious syncretism, the relation between state and personal cruelty, between science and primitivism, and between the body and the self. In each of these cases the history of a European or American concept can be shown to rely on a certain version of China that did important cultural and philosophical work. This book is a history of that labor.

A certain version of China, yes. But not a version in relation to some true or actual China to which we should return. There is no real China. There are only ideas of China. Chinese people also have those ideas, which we can easily see if we compare some of the common ways in which we describe the language Americans call “mandarin Chinese”: 普通话,汉语,国语,中文. The first of these relates universality to the nation ; the second describes an ethnic principle; the third a Taiwanese resistance, via ambiguity (which 国?), to the mainland; the fourth a tribute to the classical conception of Chinese centrality. None of these names the actual or real Chinese language; each of them expresses an idea of that language. Which one we choose depends on what we want to do. This use reflects competing notions of Chineseness, both in greater China and abroad. We need more work that would help us understand how the ideas of China work.

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Self-titled URLs for academics: obnoxious or ok?

I demand that the Printculture community weigh in on the matter. I have become dissatisfied with the structure/updatability of the Penn State pages, and am thinking about creating a set of professional pages using WordPress, which would allow me easily to update announcements about talks, books, and so on, while still also creating a structure for my syllabi, writing tips, and so on.

The free option is something like ehayot.wordpress.com, but unfortunately that keeps you from changing the design too much. The cheap option is to buy (for $12) erichayot.org, and host the site here on the Printculture servers (which any of the regulars could do if they wanted with their own names, btw).

But I’ve always been a little wary of the www.myname.org thing; it feels a bit self-aggrandizing. If it’s the only way to have an easily updatable and good-looking website, I may just do it anyway.



The Late Bookstore

A couple of people have let me know that my piece on the demise of the former UCI Bookstore has readers in the outside world, something I never would have guessed from the comments section here. Their reaction has been, “This is terrible! I never knew about this! How do we get our UCI Bookstore back? Do we protest, boycott, Occupy? You tell us to ‘despair.’ That can’t be right.”

The short answer is that it’s simply too late. There was a period of so-called “public comment” about a year ago which had a small number of takers. I think that the people who commented were, like me, ignored and put off, but that would have been the right time to raise a hue and cry.

At this point, the store has sold off practically all of its extant book inventory — tens of thousands of books. (I think there may still be a few hundred book SKUs (items) in the system that aren’t textbooks.) Some titles were sold to customers at reduced prices, some more recent titles were returned to the publisher at their original cost, and everything else went to a jobber who paid pennies on the dollar. The store has doubtless taken a big loss on those books, but consigning them has meant the store can free up shelf space for more profitable inventory, like plush anteaters.

Suppose, for the sake of argument, that a Save The Bookstore movement coalesced, and had at the top of its list of demands: “Bring back our books!” From a business perspective, this cannot be done. You cannot liquidate inventory at pennies on the dollar and then bring back the exact same inventory in at the regular wholesale price of 25-40% off list. If I were the Associate Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs, I would fire the Bookstore director who did such a thing. The only way out would be if a director could make a compelling case that the store could sell, say, at least three copies of each book every year. That is far in excess of the sales rate of the average trade book at the former Bookstore, which was .75 to 1 copy per year.

If the director were to commit to selling three copies of every title every year, the customers of the store would have to make a commitment to buy them. I could see a sort of Kickstarter-style campaign, where people would agree to reserve $25, $50, or $75 book gift certificates, good for one year and not redeemable for cash, in their names. If the inventory were funded up to or over a certain level, say, $75,000, the donors would be charged, the certificates issued, and the inventory purchased. Without such a setup… we know what that looks like already, where well-intentioned people loved the Bookstore so much, they bought all their books online. When I think about the Bookstore in this respect, I think of Abie Glassman, the Jewish peddler from John D. Fitzgerald’s Great Brain children’s books. Glassman came to stay and sell notions in Fitzgerald’s fictional Mormon community. He cared about his customers, and he was beloved. Nonetheless, he starved to death because nearly everyone went to the official Mormon ZCMI store; it was simply more expedient for them to do so.

The idea of a crowdsourcing campaign gets to the bottom of “how to get our store back.” The argument for the destruction of the Bookstore was economic; any counter-argument, at least in the current reality, will have to be economic as well. A university bookstore is a business. It brings money into the University. When that money dwindles, it means that there is less to support University programs, and, especially when State money keeps getting scarcer, administrators have to fill the gap, period. Anyone who wants to bring the UCI Bookstore back will have to come up with a realistic business plan of his or her own, one that fills that gap over the long term, or comes very close.

I said, “at least in the current reality.” In the world of principles, which is where many readers reside, things are — or, should be — different. Access to books, and the promotion of higher forms of literacy, should be parts of a university’s mission. Libraries, by their nature, go only so far with this mission; every book acquired must be argued for, and every book acquired must help develop a collection. A real university bookstore is not under these constraints; people are exposed to the streams of fiction and non-fiction in real time, and they can get what they want without contending with someone else’s loan period. What is that worth? Could a university bookstore be operated, not as a profit center, but as the part of the educational enterprise that encouraged reading? Those who play the zero-sum game would ask, “Which would you rather have: a real university bookstore or more students getting financial aid?” I invite you to think your way out of that question.


This is, perhaps, too harsh a place to end, so I will return to an earlier time. When I was a graduate student and entry-level worker at the Bookstore, there was a frequent customer from the English department named Professor Homer Obed Brown. He was known at the store both for his benevolence and amiability, and for his besottedness with books. When, in my capacity as a graduate student, I would go into his office, every horizontal surface would be piled four or five feet high with books, the library’s mingled with his own. When, in my capacity as a Bookstore worker, I would walk with him through the store, we would talk, and he would absentmindedly slip books into his basket, until at last he would present himself at the register with some twenty-odd books at a time. I would like to think that, if he were alive today and had known of the Bookstore’s problems, he would have solved them by buying up the literary criticism section outright.