Memo I will Not Send to Students, on Proving “Academic Presence”

Dear Students,

I am not sure how to say this without sounding like an idiot. However, Kent State university, under a federal mandate, is requiring us to play a game called “academic presence,” which is related to children’s game of charades. You can read all about it at the following web site:

If I cannot prove you have been “academically present” in the class, you will lose your financial aid eligibility. As we are in an all-online class, you cannot prove your “academic presence” by showing up in a physical classroom. However, you can prove that you have been “academically present” one of several ways: writing a discussion board post, sending the syllabus quiz, taking the reading quiz at end of three weeks, watching my class lectures or slide presentations, posting the blog at end of three weeks. If you skip everything in class for 3 1/2 weeks, I will not be able to show that you have been “academically present,” and you could lose your eligibility for financial aid. Just logging into the online class is NOT enough to prove academic presence. Just reading assigned texts in anthology is NOT enough. But as syllabus explains, I will contact you long before “academic presence” criteria kick in, because we are in an actual class, even if it is online.

This game of charades is serious in the following sense. If Kent State were a fake university and taking your financial aid, not offering classes, and later handing out a piece of paper with a credential printed on it, falsified data about “academic presence” would probably be a crime, and students at charade-playing universities would be ineligible for federal financial aid. I suspect all faculty at legitimate universities will be playing some version of this game of academic charades so that the feds (in theory) can go after fake educational institutions. Those fake educational institutions will simulate this game of “academic presence” charade with paperwork, because if they are willing to perform charade of holding classes, having assignments, receiving student work, etc., they are probably willing to perform charade of academic presence verification too.

But in a real sense, this game is an absolute waste of everyone’s time, because a sensible option would look more like this. The Education Department would hire 200 well-qualified professional investigators and systematically hunt down obviously fraudulent educational institutions and turn over names of executive officers for prosecution by the Justice Department. Unfortunately, that would upset members of Congress who get campaign contributions from fake educational institutions, and would also upset former congressional and executive department colleagues who serve on boards or lobbying firms and are paid handsomely by fake educational institutions, which defraud students and the government. So instead, we shall waste the time of 10s of 1000s of faculty members and several hundreds of administrative staff nationwide at legitimate colleges and universities. Doing things the sensible way, with enforcement actions against fraudulent educational institutions and their administrators, is simply too hard, so we shall do this nonsense of “academic presence” instead.

The reason I am not sending you this memo is that I am already furious that I must fill out an asinine database form after week 4 of classes. 45 minutes of my time will be wasted, but I will not waste 5 minutes of yours. But you are paying for this game of charades, indirectly, with your tuition dollars, so I thought you should know.

Wesley Raabe
Associate Professor
Department of English
Kent State University

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Why punctuation, which doesn’t matter, might matter

In the well-known Jewett edition, this is the sentence that describes Eliza in chapter 1, when she arrives in the room to retrieve her son Harry from Shelby and Haley, and the slave trader sizes her up as merchandise.

There was the same rich, full, dark eye, with its long lashes; the same ripples of silky black hair. The brown of her complexion gave way on the cheek to a perceptible flush, which deepened as she saw the gaze of the strange man fixed upon her in bold and undisguised admiration.

In the National Era, rather than two sentences, there is one:

There was the same rich, full, dark eye, with its long lashes, the same ripples of silky black hair; the brown of her complexion gave way on the cheek to a perceptible flush, which deepened as she saw the gaze of the strange man fixed upon her in bold and undisguised admiration.

The differences are the comma (Era) or semicolon (Jewett) after the word lashes and the semicolon (Era) or period (Jewett) after the word hair. The purpose of the description, in either  style of punctuation, shifts between Eliza’s appearance as echoing little Harry’s (same eye, lashes, hair) and Eliza’s value in Haley’s eye as a “fine female article,” as next sentence reiterates.

In my thinking, the Era version, is much more effective, as her appearance (formerly within context of being Harry’s mother) is re-contextualized entirely by Haley’s gaze into sexual chattel, because it is one sentence: eye, lashes, hair–her Harry’s-mother qualities–have their polarities reversed. In the Jewett edition, with two, the link between Eliza as mother and chattel is attenuated, as Eliza’s embarrassment rises to the fore to counter-act Haley’s gaze, to separate it from the description of her as Harry’s mother. There are two sentences, a “Harry’s mother” sentence and a “Haley’s gaze” sentence.

The key phrase is “brown of her complexion gave way on the cheek to a perceptible flush,” and the reader has two possibilities for why that is happening. When one sentence, in the Era, the reader may be lulled into assuming that she is still Harry’s mother, her embarrassment arising because of her child’s antics. When two sentences, her flush (embarrassment) is more likely to arise because she recognizes Haley’s gaze upon her.

Whether the flush on her face is visible to Haley’s gaze is highly significant in the nineteenth century because a conventional racist tropes is that black people lack embarrassment, because the flush of embarrassment is one of the marks of highly refined sensibility. The racist gaze denies the possibility that refined sensibility is visible on the black face. Eliza, of mixed race parentage, has skin light enough to pass as white, and her desirability (within this conventionally racist trope, having white-like features) raises her monetary value as a sex slave.

When the reader views Eliza’s flushed face from both directions–as one does more readily in the Era–her transition from mother to sexual chattel is even more devastating. That’s why punctuation, which doesn’t matter, might matter.

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Finding Uncle Tom in Lutz’s Programming Python

I am working my way through Mark Lutz’s Programming Python (4th ed., section “Step 1: Representing Records”). The example seeks to explain different types of records, by building a database of employees, both in form of lists and of dictionaries. And I think I found Uncle Tom, or at least a very curious Tom in the employee class.

In most examples, the two sample employees are named Bob and Sue, they work in technology, software and hardware, and Sue is paid better than Bob, always. Except, of a sudden, another “employee” appears. His name is ‘Tom’, and his data is used to illustrate the append and extend function for lists.

people.append(['Tom', 50, 0, None])

Compare to the original examples of people, Bob and Sue:

['Bob Smith', 42, 30000, 'software']
['Sue Jones', 45, 50000.0, 'hardware']

What these records mean is that one person named Bob Smith, age 42, earns $30,000, and has software as his job title; Sue Jones, age 45, earns $50,000, and has hardware as her job title. They are both people. (Note: Please excuse the salary numbers as both integers and floats, the choice of lists to represent data when other forms like dictionaries could do so better. That is kind of the point, and all of these matters are addressed soon.)

When another person is appended to the people set, his name is ‘Tom” (he has no last name), his age is 50, his salary is $0, and his job has no formal description, None. In one sense he’s appended to the set of “people” too, but he does no really fit (probably because the “None” category will come back later to haunt us).

Lutz has a footnote to software developer Bob, which says “the world is stranger than it seems,” because Lutz met a software developer when teaching a Python course, whose age and job description were described perfectly by the fictitious Bob. He can add another addendum to his note, that his fictitious Tom happens to match strangely the most famous fictitious slave in American culture, the stereotypical slave Uncle Tom, who is always about 50 years old in the American cultural imaginary, who gets paid “0,” and has the job title very close to “None,” a non-person, a nihil, a nothing.

Tom (no last name) rejoins Bob Smith and Sue Jones in the people crew for the example of the dictionary version of the same set of data:

db['tom'] = dict(name='Tom', age=50, job=None, pay=0)

Still no last name. Still no pay. Still aged 50. Still “None” as his job. Whereas in other two cases (Sue Jones and Bob Smith), there is more effort to simulate reasonable data, there’s no effort with throw-away Tom. He has no reason for being here in sense of being paid: he just is. I think it’s supposed to be a joke.

There’s another joke, but it’s far more insistent. Sue Jones, who is older and works in hardware, is paid better than the younger male Bob Smith, who works in software. That is, this joke is really insistent, repeated over and over, so you can’t miss the intimation that a woman getting paid more than a man is… kind of funny perhaps? Tom, by contrast, just floats in and floats out, being a nothing, a throw-away example.

Technology ideology occludes gender, age, race, and cultural history (outside of technology) as meaningless, a nihil, a nothing. This is one example of how it technology ideology borrows from a long history, and treats that history as invisible and meaningless, when it does it.

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Moral Precepts and False Spelling

This is from a mid-19th Century spelling textbook entitled Exercises in Orthography, by   John Epy Lovell. It was issued by New Haven publisher Durrie and Peck in 1847. The purpose of the book is made reasonably clear in lesson 1:

This littel book of lesons in falce speling, has
bin made to help boys and gurls to spell rite. It
is hoped that it will be usefull to menny. It con-
tanes sum pleesing facs and a stoar of good pre-
septs. Let the pupel try to ficks thees in his mind
wilst ho takes grate panes to korrect evry mispelt-

Or in facsimile if you prefer.

Screen Shot 2016-04-10 at 3.10.44 PM

It’s interesting to me that the student is expected nonetheless to “ficks” the “facs” and the “presepts” in mind despite the “grate panes” of correcting all the misspelled words. I suppose no one worried that the student would suffer from delusion that the great precepts and facts were gathered by a bunch of dunces. I cannot imagine the children were supposed to write in the book. Maybe copy it out in corrected form? Or, more likely, copy it out in incorrect form and then re-copy it corrected. That would keep the little urchins busy.

On a more advanced note, consider were one editing the book whether one could apply Walter W. Greg’s distinction between the accidentals (forms, such as spelling and punctuation) and the substantives (words themselves). In this case, making note of the accidental departure from a standard spelling is the point of the exercise, so that can’t be a difference, at least I don’t think so.  When typesetting the book, would any criterion render a word misspelled in the sense of a spelling error in the copy? Must the compositor follow copy, or can he (or she) misspell with impunity and fulfill the intention of the author? Would any change in a subsequent printing be considered a correction? On one hand, a difference in a later copy might well be considered a correction. But how would one know? Boggles the mind.

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On Nineteenth-Century Flower Language

This post is inspired by Nancy Strow Sheley’s “The Language of Flowers in Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Other Nineteenth-Century American Works,” Resources for American Literary Study 30 (2005): 77-103. She argues, essentially, that to read mentions of flowers in literary texts like Stowe’s novel and other writers like Louisa May Alcott, Sarah Orne Jewett, and Mary E. Wilkins Freeman (and even male writers like Nathaniel Hawthorne and Charles Waddell Chesnutt), you need to know what flowers mean. Go read the article, obviously, but RALS is not (to my knowledge) available electronically at present. Therefore, in lieu of that, below I link to several online flower dictionaries, arranged chronologically.

 There are many, many more. Flower lexicons were a standard part of 19C women’s culture, especially, Sheley notes, “among literate, social, white middle and upper classes” (77). Also, Sheley draws from following scholarly study of language of flowers:
Seaton, Beverly. The Language of Flowers: A History. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1995. Print. Victorian Literature and Culture Series.


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Rewriting Internet History: “Because it’s there.”

In George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Winston Smith remakes the past. I think that I helped re-make the internet past in the case of a famous quotation from George Leigh Mallory, but the imaginary past is now starting to undermine my authority as the originator of the corrected version.

When opening my 2006 dissertation, I sought to trace the origin of this phrase, “Because it’s there,” which was said to have been attributed to Mallory after he was asked, “Why do you want to climb Mount Everest?” I had thought to explain my choice to edit the National Era version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and “because it’s there” seemed like as good an explanation as any: the University of Virginia library was one of only a handful in the world with a copy.  I traced the quote back to an 18 March 1923 article in the New York Times, but I discovered that the question asked of Mallory was, “Why did you want to climb Mount Everest?” In other words, his reply was in past tense, to explain why he had tried the mountain several times.

When I performed a quoted Google search while preparing my dissertation, on 10 January 2006, the quoted phrase with “did” returned zero results. That later became a little hook to open chapter 1 of my dissertation, and I made a little joke about Internet folklore in my first footnote: “While it is possible that folklore records the question more accurately than the documentary evidence, some Internet folkore [sic] on the do version of the question refers to Mallory’s questioner as a Times reporter, so it seems more likely that Internet folklore is immune to documentary evidence.” (2;

Today, 4 March 2016, when I performed the quoted search on Google, “Why did you want to climb Mount Everest?” the omnipresent Wikipedia explainer, which appears on the first page, assures me that did is the correct form of the quote.

Screen Shot 2016-03-04 at 8.18.57 PM

Do I deserve the credit for fixing Internet folklore? Actually, I think I do. When I search quoted search with a date range, 1 January 2006 thru 1 January 2008, there is only one lonely Google search result returned, my dissertation.

Screen Shot 2016-03-04 at 8.25.04 PM

Which affirms what I claimed in my dissertation. The skeptical reader asks: Why date range 2006-2008? How would we know you’re the first? Maybe someone preceded you. OK, let’s do it again, with all instances before 2008.

Screen Shot 2016-03-04 at 8.33.06 PM

OK, so there are earlier results. But on Pinterest, back in 1999? and on Tumblr, back in 2001? Looks like Winston from Nineteen Eighty-Four has struck again. And what about the omitted results? OK, now we have it.

Screen Shot 2016-03-04 at 8.42.18 PM

The correct version of Mallory’s famous quote was first reported on Pinterest, back on December 23, 1972.

The moral of the story, except when you’re scooped by Pinterest, is that open-access dissertations make the world a slightly better place. So I’m going to take credit for correcting the famous Mallory quote on the Internet.

As the kids say, Booyah!

PS: I’ve decided not to remake the past by subtly altering a quotation from my dissertation, so the [sic] acknowledges the spelling error folkore in my footnote.

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Note on American Slavery: Cat-hauling

Take a deep breath and brace yourself, before you read further. Or stop reading now if you do not want to subject yourself to this: in this post I describes a particular torture from antebellum slavery that is unimaginably cruel, one which Americans have collectively chosen to forget and to sanitize.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “cat-haul” is U.S. English, and it is derived from a punishment that slavemasters inflicted on enslaved people, though I do not believe the usage cases in the dictionary acknowledge adequately its horrific cruelty.  The OED does not even give a formal definition and instead relies on the reader to infer the definition from a usage example. The quotation is from Arthur Singleton’s Letters from the South and West (1824):

The cat-haul; that is, to fasten a slave down flatwise..and then to take a huge fierce tom-cat by the tail backward, and haul him down along the..bare back, with his claws clinging into the quick all the way.

You could easily miss the phrase “into the quick,” which we use mostly today to refer to bleeding when clipping a pet’s nails. In this case, it might mean lodging so deeply into the flesh that the live part of the claw is embedded, though I think it means that claws are embedded into the person’s “quick,” into the flesh deeply enough to cause bleeding. That is the only sample usage for the noun form that the OED gives, and the lexicographer (this definition has not been revised since 1936) instead only offers a formal definition for the verb form: “to subject to this punishment; fig. to examine stringently.” Think about that for a second, that the figurative use has transformed claws puncturing and tearing through skin into a “stringent examination.” That’s how culture tells itself lies with language: there was no “examination” going on in the first place, just unmitigated cruelty.

To return to the OED, three usage examples follow, from 1840, 1851, and 1950. The noun form cat-hauling also receives a usage case, from Chambers’ Miscellany of Useful and Entertaining Tracts, 1844–7.

I saw a slave punished by cat-hauling. The cat was placed on the bare shoulders, and forcibly dragged by the tail down the back..of the prostrate slave.

Reread the title of source for quotation, note the phrase “useful and entertaining,” and go on. Read in dictionary context (with ellipsis dots to signal omissions), one might be excused for assuming cat-hauling meant a single pass, though “into the quick,” if it registered in the previous usage example, may have caused you to cringe. That notion of single pass, though, has become part of our contemporary definition. The  Merriam Webster Dictionary also defines cat-haul today in such a way that most readers would assume a single pass, a moderate punishment: “to punish by forcibly dragging a cat along the bare back <cat-haul a slave for a misdemeanor>.”  And look here, it’s a “misdemeanor,” which implies that the punishment was formal retribution for a criminal act instead of what it actually was, an act of ferocious cruelty by a monster, which happened to be legally sanctioned because the law offered protection to the enslaved persons only in cases that offended public sensibilities. In the early 19th century, public sensibilities about cruelty toward slaves were almost impossible to offend. Even when sensibilities were offended, punishment of the offender typically remained a higher offense to sensibility. For example, the testimony of black slaves, who were far more likely to witness cruelties, was banned in courts of law.

Theodore Dwight Weld’s American Slavery As It Is (1844) explains that cat-hauling was considered by many enslaved persons to be more cruel than lashing[1], and he gives two examples:

 “Mr. Brubecker, who had a number of slaves, among whom was one who would frequently avoid labor by hiding himself; for which he would get severe floggings without the desired effect, and that at last Mr. B. would tie large cats on his naked body and whip them to make them tear his back, in order to break him of his habit of hiding.”

Rev. HORACE MOULTON, a minister of the Methodist Episcopal Church in Marlborough, Massachusetts, says:

“Some, when other modes of punishment will not subdue them, cat-haul them; that is, take a cat by the nape of the neck and tail, or by its hind legs, and drag the claws across the back until satisfied; this kind of punishment, as I have understood, poisons the flesh much worse than the whip, and is more dreaded by the slave.”

To summarize, cat-hauling was considered by many to be a worse ordeal than “severe floggings.” The word cat-haul has affinities to the naval punishment of keel-hauling, only a bit shy of execution (though death was possible), tying a sailor with a rope and passing him under the keel of a ship, side to side for a large ship, bow to stern for small. As with keel-hauling, cat-hauling is unlikely to have meant one pass with the claws of an abused tom-cat. It meant several repetitions, “until satisfied.” Or, as Brubecker did, tying several cats to the naked back and whipping the cats. The probability that infection would follow is high: that is what is meant by “poisons the flesh.” If the risk of infection was higher, this form of torture may well have led to death.

There are are two points here: One: American slavery was unimaginably cruel.[2]  Two: One reason is that American slavery’s cruelty is unimaginable to us today is that our public history and culture have failed to reckon with or have too often sanitized its cruelty. Weld’s American Slavery As It Is is almost unbearable to  read, not only because the descriptions are so horrific but because its documentation is fierce. The word cat-haul, today forgotten, is just one witness, though its usage (and the practice) is testified in American Slavery As It Is once by an Ohio woman who formerly resided in Kentucky and a second time by a Methodist minister. The subtitle of Weld’s book is Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses, and the documentation is at standards that match present-day scholarly monographs.

I imagine a scholarly project in which we cross-reference all the names that appear in Weld and in Weld’s sources with links to genealogy records in and open-source newspaper and book databases like Chronicling America or HathiTrust. Creating history should not be a process of sanitizing the past: we should be relearning it.

[1] Lashing typically meant tying down by hands and feet to stakes or suspending in the air with feet restrained; applying 50 or 100 or 400 strokes with the lash, lacerating the flesh so severely that the cowhide whip would become clotted with blood; and often included rubbing the flesh with salt or dousing it with salt or hot pepper brine: such tortures could be fatal, if not from initial loss of blood and shock then from ensuing infection.

[2] Cat-hauling is described in a subsection called Tortures of Slaves. Even a sampling of the subheads (paddles, head frames, collars, teeth mutilated) is enough to incite revulsion.

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