Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Switching from Jane Austen to Charles Dickens for our Academic Writing in English II course

My colleague Peter Burleigh and I have used two Jane Austen novels for our Academic Writing in English II course at the University of Basel since Spring Semester 2014. At first, we varied things a bit between "Sense and Sensibility" (1811), "Pride and Prejudice" (1813), "Emma" (1816), and "Persuasion" (1818), but from 2017 to 2023, we always used the last two. Although we still keep discovering new things in the novels, for this coming semester we're switching to Charles Dickens's "Hard Times" (1854) and "Great Expectations" (1861). It's time for a change – and perhaps we'll return to our Austen novels again for a year or two before we retire (in 2029). (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 30 January 2024)

Monday, January 29, 2024

Struggling against emotions: Mr. Darcy in Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” (1813) and Pastor Maybold in Thomas Hardy’s “Under the Greenwood Tree” (1872)

In Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice" (1813), Mr. Darcy's first proposal to Elizabeth Bennett begins with his "struggles": "In vain I have struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you." She then rejects his proposal (but later accepts his second one). In Thomas Hardy's "Under the Greenwood Tree" (1872), Pastor Maybold's proposal to Fancy Day begins like Darcy's: "[...] I have struggled against my emotion continually, because I have thought that it was not well for me to love you!" Although already engaged to Dick Dewy, Fancy accepts him – but later retracts her acceptance. (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 29 January 2024)

Sunday, January 28, 2024

A chain of willful associations linking Taylor Swift, James Joyce, and The Grateful Dead

"And if I'm dead to you why are you at the wake?" (Taylor Swift, "my tears ricochet", from "folklore", 2020). When I noticed that line, I first chuckled at one of Swift's characteristic witty spins on a conventional phrase ("dead to you"). Then I added my own personal spin as if it were a reference to James Joyce's "Finnegans Wake" (1939). My pleasure at this willful connection was doubled when I then made the line refer to two of my favorite things by spinning "dead" as The Grateful Dead – whose 1973 album was "Wake of the Flood". Then I rediscovered this lovely phrase in Joyce: "a houseful of deadheads" (FW.406. 35-36). (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 28 January 2024) 

Saturday, January 27, 2024

A thirty-second German introduction to Taylor Swift’s “Cruel Summer"

My second thirty-second introduction to a Taylor Swift song for Radio Argovia hasn't been broadcast yet (as far as I know), but it's for "Cruel Summer": In "Götzendämmerung" schrieb der Basler Philosoph Friedrich Nietzsche 1889, "Was mich nicht umbringt, macht mich stärker." 140 Jahre später ersetzt Taylor Swift in "Cruel Summer" Nietzsches berühmte Wendung und seinen "Wille zur Macht" im Rausch eines Fiebertraums mit ihrem eigenen "Wille zur Begierde": "What doesn't kill me makes me want you more". My own "fever dream" taking me to Basel and now to this text began in 1983 when I started learning German so I could read Nietzsche and other German philosophers in the original. (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 27 January 2024)

Friday, January 26, 2024

A thirty-second German introduction to Taylor Swift’s “Anti-Hero"

After a live telephone interview didn't work out, I offered Radio Argovia two thirty-second introductions to Taylor Swift songs: "Anti-Hero" and "Cruel Summer". To time the texts, I recorded them with Garage Band, so I just sent them the recordings for their use. Yesterday afternoon, they broadcast a fragement of my "Anti-Hero" introduction. Here's the whole text: "Anti-Hero" möge ein Popsong sein, in dem Taylor Swift selber als "Antiheldin" scheinbar mit ihren Fans spricht. Aber die Reime und Bilder kreisen um psychische Probleme und die damit verbundenden Schuldgefühle ("I'm the problem"), Körperbilder ("monster on the hill"), Todeswünsche ("kills me for the money") und Rachefantasien ("She's laughing up at us from Hell"). (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 26 January 2024)


Thursday, January 25, 2024

Mandolinist Avi Avital and pianist Omer Klein at Basel’s Martinskirche, 24 January 2024

In Basel's Martinskirche last night, mandolinist Avi Avital and pianist Omer Klein performed wonderful mandolin-piano duos. But in the middle of their set, Avital played unaccompanied mandolin arrangements of four movements of Johann Sebastian Bach's Partita in D minor for solo violin (he left out the Chaconne because it was "too long" for the duo concert), and between those movements Klein improvised three solo piano pieces. Avital's Bach performance was riveting (coincidentally, I'd listened to violinist Ingrid Matthews's recording of that Partita earlier in the day). And Klein's third solo was singular: with only his right hand, he improvised a winding single-note melody with only a few chords near the end. (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 25 January 2024)

Wednesday, January 24, 2024

Analytical listening to Taylor Swift shattered by “New Year’s Day” from “Reputation” (2017)

In preparing my Taylor Swift seminar, I've been putting on earburds and listening to her albums in chronological order. My focus is on identifying themes from song to song and from album to album, such as Swift's ongoing concern with how one can know what others are thinking. But this analytical mode can be shattered by a song I haven't previously paid much attention to, such as I experienced the other day with "New Year's Day", the last song on "Reputation" (2017): "I want your midnights / But I'll be cleaning up bottles with you on New Year's Day." Here, Swift's lovers beautifully share not only intense "midnights" but quotidian domesticity. (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 24 January 2024)

Tuesday, January 23, 2024

“We’ve never been a racist country”: Nikki Haley, Ruby Bridges, and the living history of United States racism

"We're not a racist country [...]. We've never been a racist country," said United States presidential candidate Nikki Haley (b. 1972) on Tuesday, 16 January 2024. Last night on "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert", Ruby Bridges (b. 1954) discussed being the first African-American student at William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1960. Not only did white crowds demonstrate outside, Bridges was taught for a year in a one-on-one class with the only white teacher (Barbara Henry, b. 1932) willing to teach her. Both Bridges and Henry can attest that, along with many who demonstrated against Ruby's attendance at the school, United States racism is still alive today. (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 23 January 2024)


Monday, January 22, 2024

Criteria to determine “the best band ever"

Around 2003, I had a long discussion with students about the idea of "the best band ever". They all began with claims that would put an end to such discussions: "everybody has their own opinion", and "it's all a matter of taste". But I argued that "best band ever" could imply a set of criteria, which we worked out: popularity, endurance, influence, and breadth of repertoire. With those criteria, they all ended up agreeing it had to be The Beatles. And even though my favorite band is The Grateful Dead and the most influential band ever is actually Louis Armstrong's Hot Fives and Hot Sevens from the 1920s, I agreed with them. (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 22 January 2024)


[This is a revision of a 2018 Facebook post of mine that I had occasion to return to today. I revised it for the 111-word format because I decided I wanted to have a copy of it on my blog.] 

Sunday, January 21, 2024

Buying a plane ticket in Saarbrücken in the 1990s

Once, when I was living in Saarbrücken from 1993 to 1995, I went to a travel agency to buy a plane ticket for a trip to the United States (probably from Frankfurt to Detroit). The travel agent and I worked out the details of our business in German, of course. When it came time to give him my name and address, I said what I always say in Germany and Switzerland: "Shields mit S-H." The travel agent laughed and said, in English with a British accent: "I've been living here too long. Even though you spelled it, I'd already typed S-C-H." He was from Bristol. We finished our business in English. (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 21 January 2024)

Saturday, January 20, 2024

The absence of “woke” voices in Susan Neiman’s “Left Is Not Woke” (2023)

In "Left Is Not Woke" (2023), Susan Neiman argues that the "woke" left has abandoned their essential "commitments to universalism, a hard distinction between justice and power, and the possibility of progress" (142). But when she writes that "[b]y the Fall of [2020] few voices speaking in defense of Black Lives Matter were universalist" (30) or that  "[m]ost woke activists reject universalism" (108), she offers no examples of such voices. Instead, most of the book argues that this unidentified "woke" left takes up positions – perhaps unknowingly – from Carl Schmitt, Michel Foucault, and evolutionary psychology that Neiman sees as opposed to the universalistic Enlightenment principles she sees as necessary to progressive politics. (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 20 January 2024)

Thursday, January 18, 2024

Listening to jazz and improvised music as comedy rather than tragedy

When I got into jazz in the 1980s, I understood improvised music as tragedy and its effect as catharsis: I wanted dark truths I had to go through pity and fear to understand; I wanted to be overwhelmed by the sublimity of live music. But now I have a different approach to listening to improvised music: I hear the musicians' interaction with each other's ideas as a matter of comedy and timing. Drummers, especially, comment with wit and laughter on their bandmates' playing, and like comedians, they find just the right moments to do so. Instead of being taken out of time by sublimity, I find myself in time with joy. (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 18 January 2024) 

Tuesday, January 16, 2024

Opposition, the transfer of power, and the concept of democracy

On this morning after the Republican Party caucuses in Iowa, the first step toward the United States presidential election that will take place on Tuesday, 5 November 2024, when the leading candidate won over fifty percent of the vote even after having refused to accept the results of the 2020 presidential election, it is striking to read the conclusion of German sociologist Armin Nassehi in the "Democratie" chapter of his book "Gesellschaftliche Grundbegriffe: Ein Glossar der öffentlichen Rede" that it is not elections themselves that constitute democracy, but the potential transfer of power to the opposition in any given election: "The positive value of democracy is the opposition, not the government." (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 16 January 2024) 

Monday, January 15, 2024

Greg Brown’s 1990s visions of the future of technology in “Where Is Maria” and “Whatever It Was"

In "Where is Maria" from his 1996 album "Further In", Greg Brown sketched a dystopian future: "There'll be one corporation selling one little box. / It'll do what you want and tell you what you want and cost whatever you got." This was eleven years before Apple released the first iPhone in 2007, but perhaps it only began to "tell you what you want" when Siri was introduced in 2011. – One year later, in "Whatever It Was" from his album "Slant 6 Mind", Brown continued to prophesy about the technological future: "Gonna be a lotta roadkill on the Information Highway. / Someone stole the video of the everfresh and lovely dawn." (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 15 January 2024)

Sunday, January 14, 2024

Electric-guitar pioneer Adolph Rickenbacker was born in Basel in 1887

Here's a Basel connection I just learned about: Adolph Rickenbacker was born in poverty in Basel in 1887 as Adolph Riggenbacher and moved to the United States with relatives in 1891 after his parents died. In the 1930s, with George Beauchamp, he patented the first electric stringed instrument and founded the Rickenbacker company, whose instruments were later popularized by The Beatles, among others. Paul McCartney played a left-handed Rickenbacker bass, and George Harrison often played a twelve-string Rickenbacker electric guitar. Harrison's playing then inspired Roger McGuinn to use a Rickenbacker twelve-string with The Byrds, as in the distinctive sound of their version of Bob Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man". Basel, Beatles, Byrds! (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 14 January 2024)


Saturday, January 13, 2024

Three great vault songs on Taylor Swift’s 2023 release “Fearless (Taylor’s Version)"

Three vault songs on the "Taylor's Version" (2023) of Taylor Swift's "Fearless" (2008) are so strong it surprises me she didn't release them in 2008. "Today Was a Fairytale" plays with the form of the song as she repeats the refrain lines in unexpected ways. "You All Over Me" is more explicitly about sex than other songs she released back then: "But no amount of freedom gets you clean / I've still got you all over me." And the play with forms of "Mr. X" and "Miss Y" on "Mr. Perfectly Fine" seems to me to begin to develop the wit that graces "Mine" and other songs on 2010's "Speak Now." (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 13 January 2024) 

Friday, January 12, 2024

Taylor Swift’s ambition in “Tim McGraw"

In the story in Taylor Swift's "Tim McGraw" (the first song on her 2006 eponymous debut album), the speaker hopes that her ex will remember her when he later hears a song by the country singer Tim McGraw, one which was part of their relationship: "But when you think Tim McGraw / I hope you think my favorite song [...] / When you think Tim McGraw / I hope you think of me." The speaker may not be the singer, but the song also marks the teenage Swift's ambition: when her listeners think "Tim McGraw", they think of her and her song, rather than of McGraw and any of his songs. (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 12 January 2024) 

Thursday, January 11, 2024

Taylor Swift’s “Tim McGraw” and conventional rhetoric

"Tim McGraw", the opening song on Taylor Swift's eponymous debut album from 2006 (co-written with Liz Rose), begins with the flattery of a teenage boy for his date: "He said the way my blue eyes shined / Put those Georgia stars to shame that night." But the girl does not fall for this conventional comparison of her eyes and stars: "I said, 'That's a lie." Swift's first song thus begins with a rhetorical figure but immediately challenges the rhetorical. The discourse on love that runs through her work repeatedly takes this form: moments of conventional language keep coming up in contexts – both within songs and within albums – that question those conventions. (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 11 January 2024)

Wednesday, January 10, 2024

My forthcoming seminar on three novels by Kazuo Ishiguro

Along with my seminar on Taylor Swift this coming term (which I'm co-teaching with Rachael Moorthy), I'm also teaching a repeat of my Spring 2019 seminar on three novels by Kazuo Ishiguro: "An Artist of the Floating World" (1986), "The Remains of the Day" (1989), and "Never Let Me Go" (2005). We will also discuss the films of "The Remains of the Day" (dir. James Ivory, 1993) and "Never Let Me Go" (dir. Mark Romanek, 2010). After my post yesterday about the Swift seminar generated several objections to the idea of taking her work seriously, I wonder if anyone might also claim that it's a waste of time to discuss Ishiguro. (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 10 January 2024) 

Tuesday, January 09, 2024

Preparing for Taylor Swift’s Zurich concert in July by teaching a literature seminar on her lyrics

After we got tickets for Taylor Swift's concert in Zurich on Tuesday, July 9 (six months from today), I decided to go all into prepare for the show and teach a literature seminar with my student Rachael Moorthy on Swift's lyrics this spring semester (which starts at the end of February). Other university courses on her songs that I have read about seem to all focus on how they can be linked to other literary works, but while I'm happy to think about such issues when they come up  (as with the Romantic poets and in "The Lakes" from 2020's "Folklore"), I want to focus on close reading of the texts. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 9 January 2024)

Monday, January 08, 2024

John McWhorter’s misreading of the pressure that led to Harvard political scientist Claudine Gay’s resignation as president of Harvard University

John McWhorter, a linguistics professor at Columbia University and a "New York Times" opinion columnist, writes superbly about language, as in recent columns about "it is what is" or singular "they". But today, while arguing that African-American political scientist Claudine Gay "was not driven out" as president of Harvard University "because she is black", McWhorter refers to the role of "the right-wing anti-critical race theory crusader Christopher Rufo" without considering that Rufo is a notoriously proud racist. As novelist A. R. Moxon has argued, Rufo may claim his challenge to Gay is about plagiarism and academic anti-semitism, but such an acceptance of that framing disregards Rufo's "supremacist assumptions" and "eliminationist intentions". (Andrew Shields, #111words, 8 January 2024)



Sunday, January 07, 2024

Workplace harassment as comedy in “Brooklyn Nine-Nine"

Between Christmas Day and New Year's, after I caught covid, I turned to rewatching "Brooklyn Nine-Nine", in part in honor of my old college friend Andre Braugher (1962-2023). I haven't yet finished the first season, but I've already noticed something that I hadn't registered before: the show plays workplace harassment as comedy. This first stood out for me when the character nicknamed "The Vulture" (Dean Winters) both repeatedly slaps Jake Peralta (Andy Samberg) on his bottom and pesters Amy Santiago (Melissa Fumero) about how sexy he finds her. In the following episode, Peralta makes the first of his long-running "title of your sex tape" jokes in response to things Santiago says. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 7 January 2024)

Saturday, January 06, 2024

Impressions from Bob Dylan’s “Desire” (1976)

As I learned from Liam Carson, yesterday was the anniversary of Bob Dylan's 1976 album "Desire". I often used to play "One More Cup of Coffee", and I still play it occasionally with my brother-in-law Bruce, who loves the song. Catchy phrases from three others pop up regularly in my head: “Hurricane” (“This is the story of the hurricane”), “Mozambique” (“I’d like to spend some time in Mozambique”), and “Oh, Sister” (“Oh, sister when I come to lie in your arms”). And for me, “Sara” doubles with Fleetwood Mac’s “Sara” as a reference to my sister Sara and my daughter Sara. – I guess that album has made an impression on me! (Andrew Shields, #111words, 6 January 2024) 

Friday, January 05, 2024

The Alps as figure and as a real place in Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” (1851)

The Alps first appear in Herman Melville's "Moby Dick" (1851) in a simile about "the Nantucker", who "climbs [the waves] as chamois hunters climb the Alps." Then they appear in a simile about keeping watch on the masthead, exposed "like an ignorant pilgrim crossing the snowy Alps in winter." But later, the actual mountains are referred to in a list of places where whale fossils had recently been found: "[...] at the base of the Alps, in Lombardy, in France, in England, in Scotland, and in the States of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama." First a figure of a landscape to be crossed, the Alps finally become an geographical and paleontological site. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 5 January 2024)

Thursday, January 04, 2024

Following epidemiologists a few years ago

At some point in the first year of the coronavirus pandemic, I read a tweet that in a few years people might well wonder why they followed so many epidemiologists on Twitter. When I remembered that the other day, I thought I'd try to find it again, but I deleted my Twitter account last July, and I prefer to look at X as little as possible. Back in 2020 at the time of that tweet about epidemiologists, the idea that people would have left Twitter instead had not yet come up. Still, on Mastodon, I do follow a lot of people who do critical research on Large Language Models and "AI". (Andrew Shields, #111words, 4 January 2024)

Wednesday, January 03, 2024

“The voters should decide”, say Trump supporters. But in 2020 they decided and he tried to overthrow the results

One thing I've seen people say about Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump's possible removal from the ballot for Republican presidential primaries or for the United States general election in November 2024 is that "the voters should decide". But as I've also seen noted several times, the voters resoundingly decided against Trump in the 2020 presidential election. His response was not to transfer power but to refuse to accept the voters' decision and to do everything he could to overturn the results, including the illegal actions that led to his indictments. He shouldn't be given another chance to accept the results if he wins and attempt to overturn them if he loses. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 3 January 2024)

Tuesday, January 02, 2024

Steely Dan’s “Pretzel Logic” (1974) and Duke Ellington’s “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo” (1926)

The first Steely Dan album I ever owned was surely "Aja", which came out in September 1977 when I was 13. But at some point later, I must have picked up "Pretzel Logic" from 1974, as I remember I had the LP. Listening to it again today, I noticed as usual lately something I did not know back then: the piano riff that starts "Rikki Don't Lose That Number" is taken from Horace Silver's "Song for My Father" (1964). But I also noticed that I can add another moment to my early listening to jazz: the version of Duke Ellington's 1926 composition with trumpet player Bubber Miley, "East St. Louis Toodle-Oo." (Andrew Shields, #111words, 2 January 2024)

Monday, January 01, 2024

Reading Thomas Hardy’s “Desperate Remedies” (1871) after reading Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” (1851)

After I finished Herman Melville's "Moby Dick" (1851) on 7 December 2023, I turned to Thomas Hardy's novels for my next long-term reading project. At 144,580 words, Hardy's first novel, "Desperate Remedies" (1871), is only seventy percent as long as "Moby Dick" (at 209,117 words), but it is much more plot-driven, so it only took me two weeks to read it (instead of fifteen for Melville). "Desperate Remedies" is also much more of a page-turner than "Moby Dick", though that might also have to do with my previous knowledge of each book's plot: I knew many of the details of the Melville already and nothing about Hardy's much less famous novel. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 1 January 2024)