THE WEEKLY BLAB
Volume 7, Issue 25 – March 21, 2013
Spring is Here…
I can’t believe the crazy weather we’ve been having lately in Marietta. Over the weekend, the weather was simply gorgeous. A few days later, an icy hailstorm. I lived in Syracuse, NY (the snow capital of America) and New England for 50 years, and I’ve never seen icy hail like that before. The next day, it was 70° again. Today, the first day of spring, it turned cold. We used to have an expression up in Syracuse—“If you don’t like the weather, wait a minute.” Maybe we should migrate that expression to Marietta.
The final decisions on promotion and tenure went out this week. While it’s a long and involved process (especially when you’re the one waiting to hear the results), one of the true pleasures of my job is seeing the various promotion and tenure applications from our faculty and reading about their various accomplishments. I know I’m speaking for President Rossbacher here too.
We do lots of things to help promote teaching excellence, professional development, and scholarship at SPSU (certainly more than anywhere else I’ve been before), but at the end of the day, it’s still the hard work and sustained effort of our faculty members that make all the difference. The promotion and tenure applications show it. Congratulations to everyone who got promoted and tenured, and I hope the wait wasn’t too hard.
Are You Otaku?
This past Tuesday, Dr. Lawrence Eng (online community manager for ServiceNow) spoke on “The Evolution of Otaku Culture, from Japan to America and Beyond”. Before this talk, I had no idea what Otaku Culture was. Imagine my surprise when I found out that not only was I otaku, but I was otaku several times over! Many thanks go to Sarah Holliday (Math), Mark Nunes (ETCMA), and Ron Lunk (Student Life), who organized the event. If you missed Eng’s presentation, you can find his BLOG here, though he hasn’t updated it since mid-2012. Slacker!
The usual meaning of “otaku” is super-fan—people who are obsessive in their love for a particular thing. It’s usually used in reference to animé (Japanese animation) or manga (Japanese comics), but it can really be about anything. People who are otaku are the ones who don’t just watch the movies or collect the manga, but do so at a really deep level—they will know all the intricacies of the plots and how one movie relates to another, or know in detail the artistic styles of the creators, or be able to recite endless trivia about the various manga stories. Think about the male characters on “The Big Bang Theory” regarding Star Trek—that’s otaku.
Eng talked about how the Otaku Culture developed in Japan, and how the people who first engaged in it often went on to become the next generation of producers of the movies and manga, thereby being able to find professional jobs doing what they loved. That sounded very familiar to me, since exactly the same thing had happened in one of the things I’m otaku about, namely the world of comic books. The original generation of comic fans from the 1940’s and 1950’s went on to become the comic book writers and artists of the 1970’s and 1980’s. You might think that this would be good, but it turns out that it isn’t—there’s a big problem that develops.
People who are otaku love their stuff so much that when they become the writers, they tend to put in tons of detail, to make lots of references to earlier stories and characters, and to try to fit everything together into a smooth overall continuity—a self-contained universe. In other words, they turn out stories that are great if the reader is similarly obsessed and knows everything about the subject, but incomprehensible if one isn’t. What’s more, they think this is a good thing—it keeps the “posers” out, leaving the field to the true believers. The field begins to feed on itself, since the stories are so complex and self-referential that almost no one new can join the field. Since people have at least some tendency to drop out as they get older, the numbers of people interested get smaller and smaller.
Comics in the 1940’s and 1950’s commonly sold well over 1 million copies per issue, and sales of less than about 750,000 would get the title cancelled. By the time I was reading comics in the 1960’s, sales had fallen to about 400,000, with only the top title or two approaching 1 million. Today, sales of 100,000 are considered huge for a comic book, with most selling down at the 25,000 level. As the sales fall, the number of venues where you can buy them drops and the price goes up. It’s hard to find any kid who reads them today.
I’m sure you can think of lots of other examples—people who obsess over wine, opera, medieval history, and so on. They form wine clubs, hate this or that particular musician as being a hack, dress up in armor and joust, or whatever.
Exactly the same thing happened with jazz, my other obsession. When jazz first began, it was fresh and innovative. By the 1930’s, it had fully taken hold, becoming the nation’s popular music. It reached a peak in the 1940’s, but when the original listeners began to become the musicians themselves, they began to produce music that they liked—more and more complex, more self-referential, and less accessible to the public. It was no longer “cool” to make music you could dance to—it became something that you had to sit and listen to and study. Younger music fans turned to other things and jazz began its long decline. Sure, there are still a few popular jazz artists and occasionally an album will do well, but it’s a pale shadow of its former popularity.
There aren’t a lot of popular obsessions that avoid this fate, a lesson to us all. We’re all otaku about one thing or another, and our very love for what we love can also carry the seeds of its doom.
Paris of the Southeast?
We sometimes joke that Marietta is the Paris of the Southeast (which makes the Big Chicken our Eiffel Tower). Tonight, I just got back from a presentation by folks from the real Paris, namely Mr. David Kibler (Cultural Attaché) and Dr. Nicolas Florsch (Scientific Attaché), both from the French Consulate in Atlanta, about student and research opportunities in France. This talk was part of the Cross-Cultural Conversations Series. We plan to offer talks from representatives of various countries two or three times a semester, with the previous one being the Consul General from South Korea, and the next being a representative from Brazil. Raj Sashti does a fine job organizing these events.
There are lots of opportunities for SPSU faculty and students to engage with their counterparts in France (Raj distributed a powerpoint presentation about some opportunities on Thursday), and I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to bring in some visiting faculty and exchange students as well.
It’s always interesting to hear how other places do the same things we do. In France, the university system and the research institutes are organized very differently than in the U.S. Things are much more centralized in general, and higher education is divided into the highly prestigious Grandes Écoles, which tend to be of moderate size (5,000 is the biggest) and specialize in only one thing (engineering, chemistry, physics, etc.), and the somewhat less prestigious public universities. There are some private universities too, but not too many.
A French teenager will attend collège (junior high school) for four years, followed by lycée (high school) for three years. They then take the baccalauréat, which is both an exam and a qualifying degree if they want to go on in their studies. If you successfully complete the baccalauréat you are automatically accepted into your local public university, but if you want to go to a Grande École you will likely have to do two more years of study called CPGE (classe préparatoire aux grandes écoles) before you will get accepted. What we call college then takes three more years.
I’ll leave out the part about how the various grandes écoles are often affiliated with regional universities and jointly sponsor graduate programs in networks with other European higher education systems as well as research institutes—it’s a complicated intertwined system. The requirements can be unusual too—at the Sorbonne, for example, when you get a doctorate, you not only have to defend your dissertation, but you have to cater a meal for your committee. I can’t think of anything more French then that!
Last Time’s Trivia Contest
Questions last time focused on the Women’s History Month. The winner was Carl Snook (SIS), with all five correct, and a correction to one of my questions! I hate when that happens! Here are the correct answers:
- Hell hath no fury like… [The line is actually an adaptation from the play “The Mourning Bride” by William Congreve in 1697]. A woman scorned.
- Comic book Amazon and member of the Justice League. Wonder Woman.
- 1947 movie starring Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. Woman of the Year—this should have said 1942 movie.
- Bob Marley song, also done by Hugh Masekela and lots of others. No Woman No Cry.
- John 4:4-26; a famous painting about this is called The Water of Life by Giacomo Franceschini. Jesus and the Samaritan Woman at the Well.
This Week’s Trivia Challenge
Once again to prove that the BLAB is always fair and balanced, since last week’s contest focused on Women, this week’s contest focuses on Men. Usual rules apply. No looking up the answers now! SEND ALL ENTRIES BY EMAIL TO firstname.lastname@example.org, since if you put them as a response on the BLOG, everyone will be able to see them!
- Will Smith is a member of this secret organization that keeps the world safe from hidden aliens.
- A room or garage especially outfitted with stuff men like.
- Expression for an unusual newspaper story.
- Sancho Panza.
- Portuguese jellyfish.