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Book Report and Play Report

Your Humble Blogger doesn’t blog books anymore, but I did want to mention having read and thoroughly enjoyed Alif the Unseen. It’s an Urban Fantasy novel that doesn’t irritate me the way urban fantasy novels generally do. It’s a political novel that doesn’t irritate me the way political novels sometimes do. It’s an adventure novel that does entertain me the way adventure novels do. So that’s all right.

I would say, for any Gentle Reader who may happen to pick the thing up—don’t sweat the prologue thing. Give it another chapter beyond that. And after that, it builds in intensity and excitement—really, it picks up when the vampire shows up. Not a vampire. Don’t worry.

The main character, the titular character, is one of those fellows who exists primarily on-line, a person whose handle is more important to his sense of self than his name. Or, at least, a person who thinks that he exists primarily on-line—the action is real-world action, which tends to trump on-line identity, after all.

I hadn’t thought about it, but that does resonate with another thing I read this week, the play Water by the Spoonful. It’s a strange and beautiful playscript. We get to know several of the characters through their on-line identities, seeing the way their real life and on-line life overlap. Much of the play involves attempts to make or to avoid making real-life overlap with the on-line world. And, now that I’m focused on it, death and absence in both spaces. Hm.

Digression: One of the main characters is an adjunct at Swarthmore, teaching some sort of advanced Jazz History course. My immediate reaction was that Swarthmore doesn’t hire adjuncts to teach that sort of class. Then I thought to myself, well, they didn’t do that twenty-five years ago. Who knows what they do now? And then I thought, you know, self, you don’t really have any idea whether there were adjuncts teaching you. You didn’t know or care, self, whether the profs were full-time, tenure-track, whatever, unless you had some sort of crush on them. And this is largely accurate and fair. On the other hand—would Swat really hire a jazz composer as an one-course adjunct? End Digression.

YHB has written about mobile phones onstage before, and it’s something I still find interesting. Spoonful does take into account the mobile phone thing, but is much more interested in the internet. Alif (which of course is a very different story-telling form) is interested in the internet as a connecting web, and takes away the smartphones from its characters early—and the dumb phones are pretty nearly useless, which as an old guy I find entertaining.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


I was actually somewhat aware of whether profs were adjuncts or regulars, although that may be mostly because I primarily took courses in just a few departments, and I knew who the regulars in the department were. (Also, possibly, because I picked my courses as much by professor as anything else, in the cases where I wasn't taking required courses in my core departments.)

Digressing further on the digression:

Life imitating art? Jazz History at Swarthmore is currently being taught by a "part-time visiting assistant professor," i.e., an adjunct.

Consulting my handy 1990 Swarthmore College Bulletin, I can say with some degree of certainty that Swarthmore didn't hire adjuncts to teach that sort of class back in my day, because the Music Department didn't offer that sort of class. There was no history of jazz nor any other sort of jazz in the Music curriculum at that time. There were, however, plenty of adjuncts in music: they were just doing things more closely aligned with Western Art music.

In general, music departments at liberal arts colleges employ more adjuncts than most departments because they offer lessons on a wide range of instruments and run a variety of performance ensembles. It goes beyond the time and expertise of the academic music faculty to teach in all of these contexts, so professional musicians in the area who are expert in a particular thing have a regular gig with the college, giving lessons and handling ensembles. At Swarthmore, they call them "Associates in Performance" (same title in 1990 and 2013). When one of these folks is the jazz guy, and you also want him to teach an academic class on Jazz History, he becomes a "part-time visiting Assistant Professor" instead of an "Associate in Performance."

There are actually fewer Associates in Performance now than there were in 1990, probably because there are twice as many tenure-stream faculty in music now than there were in 1990 (3 then, 6 now). The prominence of the arts at Swarthmore has grown a lot in 25 years! (as has the endowment per capita . . . ) Of course, 25 years ago, Peter Gram Swing had just retired, and he was probably the first tenured professor in music at the College, or something like that.

End Digression on Digression.

You say in Alif they take away the characters' smartphones and are focused on the internet. But without their smartphones, how do they get on-line?


Then the Jazz History class I took from John Alston in 1990-1991 must have been the first offered, at least for a while. And of course the magnificent and by now probably legendary John Alston was not an adjunct... I hadn't bothered to look, but I see that this year the Jazz History is in fact being taught by a Visiting Assistant Professor of Music (part-time), and that gentleman's profile is similar to the fictional adjunct's in Spoonful: composer, performer, teacher. And while it would be very Swarthmore for her to insist that she wasn't an adjunct but a VAP(p-t), that wouldn't really have helped the play at all.


Oh, and there are a variety of internet connections in the Alif-plot. Alif carries a netbook with him in a backpack for a while, he uses other people's machines, and there's a sort of Jinni Internet Cafe at one point.


I took courses at Swarthmore with at least four different adjuncts: Intro to Computer Science, Computer Languages, Psychology of Music, and Artificial Intelligence (or some similar CS course). I was quite aware at the time that three of them were adjuncts. I had also already discovered to my disappointment that a number of the courses listed in the course catalog (which I had studied carefully before applying) and been most interested in taking were only there because they had at one time been taught by adjuncts, and therefore were not actually regular courses which I might ever be able to take.

I suspect that my courses in chorus and early music ensemble were adjunct-led, though it turned out to be silly to think of them as courses.

The science fiction course was student-led, so it had no faculty member at all. Turns out there is something cheaper than an adjunct!

Was that IntroCompSci prof an adjunct? See, it never occurred to me.


I also took a law class one semester that I knew was a one-off adjunct-taught class. Two of the adjuncts I took courses with were in the top five teachers I had at Swarthmore.

I think Swarthmore used adjuncts as a reasonable and considered policy in some departments as a good way of offering new courses, providing fresh collaboration (or at least conversation) for regular faculty, and finding teaching expertise in areas where they didn't have enough work to justify a full-time hire. And in CS they had to use adjuncts because of internal college politics about how to reassign faculty lines to accommodate changing student demand.

re history of History of Jazz at Swarthmore: John Alston (who is still a member of the Music Department) was not a member of the department in 1989-90, so when you took a course with him in 1990-91, V., it must have been the first year for him and the first year for the course. (And a quick check of his profile confirms that he joined the faculty in 1990). Given that he has taught the course in the past, I wonder if the person who taught it most recently has been doing so as a leave replacement for John Alston.

This has nothing to do with jazz, adjuncts, or Swarthmore, but I can't resist mentioning it: the playwright for Water By The Spoonful (who you don't name, but who happens to be Quiara Alegria Hudes) was a student of mine when I was a graduate instructor* at Yale in the mid-1990s. Somewhere I have a cassette tape recording of me playing in a small chamber ensemble of a piece she wrote when she was a junior or senior.

*My formal title was Part-Time Acting Instructor, in case it's relevant to the conversation above.

Catherine—wow! Well, I believe Ms. Alegria Hudes' music-composition instruction was highly influential in her playwriting—her first Big Play called itself a fugue, and of course she wrote the book to In The Heights, not the music. She's a very interesting writer.


Catherine, I didn't realize you had taught acting!

Michael: :P

V: I did not know that about her first Big Play, so that's very interesting. If I'm recalling correctly, she was an outstanding student but clearly moving into far more diverse and creative realms than the correct resolution of the dominant six-four chord.

In addition to a Pulitzer-winner, I've also taught a Grammy-winner, one of the members of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Who was an opera singer when I taught her, so go figure.

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