Posts Tagged ‘Michael Stelzer Jocks’

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

As a student of history, I am usually pretty dubious about claims to novelty.  When someone says ‘There has never been a time/event/thought/argument like this before!!’, my first thought is usually ‘You sure about that?’ But, there are times when professions of originality are justified. No matter what the cliches claim, history doesn’t simply repeat itself ad infinitum.

This political season has had a number of ‘never-befores’.  Just because it is a ‘never before’ though, doesn’t mean that it will be a ‘never again’. The most revolutionary aspect of this election cycle, and the one that will be with us for the foreseeable future is the role social media is playing in our political culture.  This blog post will be the first in a number that will explore the sometimes exciting, sometimes troubling innovations in the quickly developing realm of social media politics.

To label social media politics as revolutionary is not hyperbole, nor is it surprising. Social media has revolutionized so many parts of our lives, why not mainstream electoral politics?  However, what is shocking is the transformative figure at the forefront twitter-social-network-icon-vector_652139of this revolution. It is not some youthful radical Congressional candidate from Berkeley or Brooklyn. No, this revolutionary figure is a 70 year-old angry dude who, prior to last year was best known for a reality television series and a combover.  Of course, I refer to Donald Trump.

Since he entered the race for the Republican nomination last June, Trump has continually been underestimated.  Over and over, political prognosticators have made two incorrect, though related projections.  One group of media fortune-tellers simply believed Trump would inevitably lose because of his ‘lack dailynewstrumpof a filter’.  According to this mainstream assumption, Trump would say too many offensive and/or ridiculous things, and the inherently moderate American voter would surely turn away in disgust.  That did not happen in the Republican primary, and these prognosticators were forced to reassess their beliefs….but only slightly. The Nostradamus crowd predicted that once Trump had to deal with the larger American general electorate, he would either veer to the center. The assumption was that Trump would batten down the hatches, go middle of the road, or inevitably face defeat. If the latest polls are any indication, these ‘expert’ opinions may be proven wrong as well.  What the nation’s political commentators never grasped was one of the  reasons Trumpists love Trump: The man never does what most rational observers would expect.

Nothing has displayed Trumpian ‘irrationality’ more than the candidate’s Twitter account. Like all social media, Twitter allows the user to instantaneously respond to external events, or share individual thoughts and personal desires. Trump tweets have allowed America to see the ‘realDonaldTrump’.  But Trump’s Twitter has become much more than simply a tool for his personal attacks, or a display of his psyche. Trump has  transformed the social media tool into a personal permanent propaganda platform. In this, he seems to eerily understand our media saturated environment better than any major political figure in recent memory. Here is how it all works:

  1. In 140 characters, Trump shoots off 3 or 4 controversial messages a week, knowing full well the media echo-chamber will spread his message to the masses.
  2. His twitter followers see his tweet, and adopt his political lexicon.
  3. However, many of these ‘followers’ are not Trumpians. Some are social media watchdogs who wait for the candidate to write something outrage.
  4. These people then retweet the original tweet with criticism attached, sending it to a whole new audience.
  5. Eventually, social media news platforms of both political stripes pick up the tweet, share it, and pass it on to an even more diverse audience.
  6. Lastly, once these platforms are all writing similar articles, the largest outlets get involved.  When Trump’s tweets get enough traction, it gets splayed in the MSM (Main Stream Media) of major Newspapers, TV and radio. And just like that….billions upon billions of humans can’t stop analyzing Trump’s latest statement.

This methodology of political propaganda is obviously cunning.  But, there is a very strange paradox wrapped into this method as well. Trump’s social media campaign speaks to his voters and, perhaps even more importantly, he speaks in the voice of his voters. Trump provides quick-hitters in black trump-twitterand white absolutes. After all, there can truly only be absolutes in the Twitter-verse; in 140 characters nuance is all but impossible. For a very large portion of humanity living in a confusing time of change, this absolutism is obviously reassuring. However, for many of the people Trump is speaking to and for, the original medium he is using for his message is one of the most troubling symbols of our rapidly changing world. For a great number of Americans who wish to ‘make America Great Again,’ social media is an enemy. It is understood by wide swathes of Americans as THE vehicle feeding our nation’s already intense narcissistic tendencies. Even more mysterious is that one of Trump’s most important demographics has no experience with using social media at all. Last year, when Trump was still fighting for the Republican nomination, almost 40% of his supporters were over 65 years old.  These same 65 year-olds are generally the ones who, at the very least, don’t have a strong connection to social media.  According to Pew Research, only 9% of Twitter users are over 60 years old. 91% of Twitter users are ‘kids these days.’

So, what is happening?  That is a much more difficult question to answer.

I think part of the answer can be found in the duel nature of social media in our political culture. It is both a source of enlightenment, and also a source of paranoia.  Perhaps investigating this duality in my next blog will shed light on this paradox.



By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

When Paul Gaszak and I started this blog 4 years ago, we did so with the goal of avoiding ‘controversial’ and ‘political’ topics. Of course, this has not always been possible.  Completely ignoring the aforementioned two topical realms pretty much closes off most blog possibilities.  Our blog’s discussions of race, education, food, history, science and pop culture can’t help but be political. These topics themselves are politicized in our culture.  Plus, would you really want to read this blog if those topics were never discussed? Our subjective viewpoints make this blog interesting; without them, our little venture would be pretty lifeless. All in all though, I think we have fulfilled our initial promises. We have kept out of many of the ugliest political controversies that seem to rock our world on an ever more common basis.

But, times change and so do politics. As anyone can see, this election year is unique.  I capitalhave been dying to write about it, but we have that whole ‘no controversy’ goal. What to do, what to do?

I’ve decided to start anew….kinda.  With this post, I am creating a new subsection of the Turtle titled ‘Politics 2016’.  ‘Politics 2016’ will be devoted to analyses of the coming November elections, and the state of American politics generally.  Of course, I will be voting and I have an interest in who wins the upcoming election. I fall on one side of the political divide, and I’m sure many readers fall on the other. Hopefully though, the posts that appear on our blog will not identify any Map_of_the_District_of_Columbia,_1835sort of partisan alliance. There will be no hyping of one candidate or the other. There will be no soap-box stances taken on any particular ‘contentious’ issues. This subsection will simply deal with the changing face of American politics, and our larger political culture.

This will be a challenge.  Can this challenge be faced without generating nasty political rancor?  I don’t know. But, I feel it is necessary to try, both for our few readers and for my own mental stability during this crazy election cycle.

So, join us, won’t you?  And, if you have something to add, please do!

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

There is a specter haunting the world of academia, and college professors are wailing with fear and frustration. Every few months, the opinion pages of such diverse publications as The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal and the Chronicle of Higher Education bemoan this specter.  50 year old college professors fill the pages of these prestigious productions with 6a6151155fbde50cec7b9616661c1448d3374fa7op-eds categorically stating that today’s ‘college students can’t write.’  If you don’t believe me, the weblink attached takes you to 78 million screeds lamenting the lost art of the sentence, the paragraph and the essay. Peruse your pick, and fear for the future.

Personally, I find such concerns to be generally overstated and misplaced. I read thousands of student journals and papers every year, and I have seen very little decline in the standard and quality of student work.(In fact, it has generally been the opposite) Some students are good writers, some are not so good writers. Some are good because they try hard at it, edit furiously and understand how to analyze ideas. For those who are not so good, I find it often comes down to simple laziness.  A proofreading here and there never hurt anyone, but there are some students who can’t take the time.  It doesn’t mean they aren’t good writers. It just means they have no problem turning in mediocre work. That is their prerogative.

Most concerns about the lost art of writing feel there is more to this issue than just laziness. However, these concerns are often based upon misguided notions. For one thing, there seems to be a belief that college students in the past wrote Dickensian prose and essays that would put Virginia Woolf to shame. This is ludicrous.  The conservative linguist John McWhorter illustrated this in his intriguing 2013 TED talk ‘Txting is Killing Language. JK!!’ About halfway through his 13 minute lecture, McWhorter illustrated that our concern about the lost art of writing is by no means novel.  In 6 quick examples, McWhorter quotes professors and educators from the past 2000 years that sound incredibly like the Cassandras of today. See the queued up clip below:

So it seems that  professors have  always complained about their younger charges’ writing skills. As McWhorter displays, this has much to do with the simple fact that language and linguistics change over time.  But, I think there is something more to it. It’s difficult for humans to believe that what they know now, they have not always known. Ask a professor or teacher about their undergrad writing skills. I guarantee most believe their writing ability at 19 compares favorably to their abilities today. After all, if you are a good writer at 40, you must have been a good writer at 19….right?

Just recently, I was reminded of the much messier reality. When I think back on my undergrad writings it is with rose-tinted glasses.  I mean, I got a bunch of A’s on my college papers after-all!  So, imagine how flummoxed I was the other day when I stumbled upon on old box of 20 year old papers I had written as a junior in college.  Woah!  Pretty ugly!  The work was not terrible by any means, but it was not quite as magical as I recalled. In fact, most of the writing looks pretty similar to what my own students produce today.  To be honest, many of the papers I grade are much better than what I did 20 years ago.  There is no shame in this.  As a 20 year old college student,  I was a different person than my present day self. In college I was just starting to develop many skills in life. Writing was just one of those skills.  The college students that I see today are in the same boat.  They’re 20 years old, and still learning.  It is ridiculously inane to profess an absolutist belief about their abilities at this point in their life.  To say they ‘can’t write’ is at best a misplaced prejudice. At worst it is a sign of outrageous egotism.  Unfortunately, those 78 million Google hits fall under both categories.

My suggestion to the writers and readers of that litany of op-eds?  Before getting too concerned about the end of writing as we know it, look back at your own work from college. You may be in for a surprise.

By Paul Gaszak, English Faculty

(This post is a response to “Superhero Movies are Rarely Super” by Michael Stelzer Jocks.)

Yesterday, my dear colleague Michael Stelzer Jocks wrote about how superhero movies are rarely super, and I feel compelled to respond. I am a lover of superhero films (the only thing I want for my birthday on May 5 is to see Captain America: Civil War that night), and I am familiar with the genre both as a fan and as a writer/teacher of Science Fiction (SF) & Fantasy. However, I am not an apologist for the genre. So, allow me to respond to some of the points made by MSJ.

“There seems to be no end in sight to our nation’s endless desire for…the spate of ‘superhero’ movies that just keep racking up box office records.” – MSJ

First, the desire for SF & Fantasy films (of which superhero films are a subgenre) is not restricted to the United States. Of the top ten films with the highest worldwide grosses of all-time, eight are SF/Fantasy films. The highest grossing superhero movie is Marvel’s The Avengers, which earned $1.5 billion dollars. Of that total, 41% was domestic, which means it grossed nearly $900 million outside of the United States.

Avengers Poster

Also, while we are in a golden age of superhero films, cinematic adaptations of comics are certainly not new. Just to name a few, there is the classic Adam West Batman TV series of the 60s, Richard Donner’s Superman film in the 70s, and Tim Burton’s Batman film in the 80s.

The success of superhero films, like all films, has been dictated by the quality of the film’s writing, direction, and acting. Countless comic book adaptations have been financial and/or critical disasters, such as last year’s Fantastic Four, Halle Berry’s Catwoman, Ben Affleck’s Daredevil, and the infamous Joel Schumacher Batman films of the 90s. So, you are correct: not all superhero movies are super.

However, what has driven this golden age of superhero films is not a blind interest in comic book stories, but rather studios finally treating these stories with care.

A great example is Deadpool, 2016’s surprise hit. The Deadpool character was, prior to the film, virtually unknown to the general population. Even to comic book fans, Deadpool would classify as a C or D-level character in the Marvel universe. For iconic characters that all people know, like Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man, audiences will flock just based on the name value of the character. Deadpool’s success was not due to a craving for comics; it has a sharp, hilarious script that is well-paced and well-acted. Positive word of mouth drove that film’s success, not opening weekend name value (like Batman v. Superman).


The same can be said of Marvel’s Iron Man. Now, in 2016, Iron Man is well-known to all moviegoers, but when the first Iron Man film was released in 2008, Iron Man was a character known largely only to comic fans. There was plenty of skepticism even among comic fans about how a “lesser” character could carry a film; yet, director Jon Favreau and star Robert Downey Jr. made a wonderful movie that caught fire and led to the current Marvel Cinematic Universe.

“Putting [Batman and Superman] in the same film would be like plopping Indiana Jones down in a James Bond movie. What is the point? It reminds me of when Scooby Doo would inexplicably team up with Sonny & Cher or the Harlem Globetrotters. Come on! Why are these people hanging out with meddling kids and helping solve mysteries? I say again, ‘ridiculously asinine’.” – MSJ

Superman and Batman sharing a film is not at all like Indiana Jones and James Bond appearing in the same film. The general movie-going audience has become accustomed to superheroes being segregated into their own films, but that is a product of film studios and business, not the source material.

Superheroes have always shared the same “universe” and regularly interact in all mediums (comics, cartoons, video games) except films, where dollar signs and film rights had kept characters separate until Marvel Studios started their cinematic universe in 2008 with Iron Man, which paved the path to The Avengers in 2012. The first time “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes” combined in the comics was 1963, nearly 50 years before it finally happened on screen.

Batman and Superman appeared together for the first time in a comic book in 1952, a whole 64 years before the Batman v. Superman film.

Sup and Bat

Indiana Jones and James Bond were written by different authors for different mediums and never had a connection. They were never meant to share a story or screen, unlike comic book characters.

A better analogy would be to take the process in the opposite direction. Imagine if George Lucas had written Star Wars initially as a book, but Warner Bros. purchased the film rights to Luke Skywalker and 20th Century Fox had purchased Han Solo. Then, for 50 years, the studios made films independent of one another in which Luke and Han could never share the screen, because it would result in endless legal battles. After 50 years, casual moviegoers who weren’t familiar with the source material would find it perfectly normal that Luke and Han aren’t sharing the screen; they’d be their own, independent SF/Fantasy space opera franchises. Meanwhile, fans of the source material would be left daydreaming about seeing Luke and Han together in the Millennium Falcon up on the big screen just as was always intended.

Han luke

“Why are Batman and Superman fighting?” -MSJ

Let me make something clear: Batman v. Superman is a terrible film. I saw it twice in the theater, and was not biased against it. I love the Batman character and wanted the film to work. However, the writing, direction, and editing are all terrible. The acting has some horrible failings, as well. In total, the film failed miserably to properly represent why Batman and Superman would ever come to blows.

However, let’s look to other superhero films that have tackled this concept successfully.

Whether in superhero films, other storytelling genres, or just real life, it is very possible for “good guys” to have ideological differences that put them in different camps, if not outright conflict. This has been well-depicted in a number of superhero films, particularly both Avengers films and Captain America: Winter Soldier. Throughout these films, the heroes all mean well, but they do not see eye-to-eye at all times about what is right. The growing tensions of what’s right and wrong are what precipitate the conflicts in the upcoming Captain America: Civil War.

Civil War

Thus, heroes being in conflict is not absurd – it’s good storytelling. It is actually a sign that the characters are well-rounded, that they have personalities and beliefs that make them much deeper than just their SF/Fantasy superpowers.

“But my real problem with most superhero movies…is the fact that they center around boring, lifeless characters. Action movies must be more than just action. Adventure movies must have interesting, complex protagonists that face and overcome challenges. In other words, human beings need to run the show. Superman? The Hulk? Thor? An all powerful alien, a freakish monster, and a god? There is no complexity here. There are no challenges these beings can’t easily overcome.” – MSJ

Oh, Michael. Your limited viewing of superhero films is really showing on this statement. One of the most important reasons that we are in a golden age of superhero films is because of precisely the opposite of what you claim here. As you stated, “Give me a ‘superhero’ movie in which the hero is more human than super!”

They’re all around you. You cited two wonderful examples in Netflix’s Daredevil and Nolan’s Batman series, but those just scratch the surface.

In any SF/Fantasy story, the key is to speak to the human element. As readers or moviegoers, we marvel at and enjoy the lightsabers and high-tech suits of armor, but those aren’t the elements of the story we, as humans, connect with. It’s the emotions, relationships, and themes we grab hold of. Likewise, in superhero movies, there is always the “supervillain” but the best superhero movies have much deeper, human conflicts. Here are some examples of the human emotions and conflicts:

  • Peter Parker is dealing with his love life and regrets over how he failed his family. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 is a love story about Peter struggling with how his life and responsibilities always seem to prevent him from being with the woman he loves.
  • Tony Stark is tormented by his consciousness after the death and destruction that resulted from his actions (which is somewhat Dostoyevskian, Michael, which you should appreciate). Tony even deals with PTSD in Iron Man 3. A famous story-arc in the comics, Demon in the Bottle, deals with Tony struggling with alcoholism.
  • Scott Lang in Ant-Man is an ex-con trying to regain the life he lost due to his troubled past, and all of his “heroic” actions are prompted by wanting to be a good father to his daughter, who lives with his ex-wife and stepfather.
  • Peter Quill in Guardians of the Galaxy struggles to hold onto the memory of his mother who died of cancer when he was a child.
  • Bruce Banner in The Hulk is struggling with his own isolation from others.
  • In the popular TV series The Walking Dead, which is also a comic book property, fans understand that the the real danger is not the zombies; the zombies are sort of peripheral, especially since they’re slow-moving and easily dispatched. The real danger is other humans, and how some people and societies can fall to pieces when pushed into a corner.
  • Captain America is a kind-hearted, scrawny guy who feels powerless to help others when that’s all he wants to do. Michael, as a History Professor, you should love a tale about a guy who wants nothing more than to serve his country in WW2 as he watches everyone, including his best friend, get shipped off to war.

I even like to use Captain America as an example of leadership in my classes. In The Avengers, there is genius Tony Stark, Norse god Thor, the monster Hulk; yet, it is Steve Rogers, the guy who was born scrawny but with a big heart, who is the leader. Even with his superpowers, Cap isn’t the smartest, fastest, or strongest of the group. He is sort of the Average Joe of the team, but he is the one who commands the respect of the group, because he does what any real person can: be a good person, have conviction, and fight for what you believe in.

Avengers Cap

Moviegoers will never have real superpowers, but we understand these human moments, and the better comic book films/TV shows are packed full of them. Superhero movies are no longer just mindless action set pieces with empty scripts and ample explosions…they’ll let Michael Bay corner that market.

“See, I like some superhero movies/shows; I just don’t care much for most superheroes” – MSJ

I am biased in favor of superhero movies only in that that I will often give films in the genre a chance before casting judgement, but then I judge them on their own merit. This year, Deadpool was outstanding; Batman v. Superman was terrible. I am thrilled for Captain America: Civial War; I am extremely skeptical about X-Men: Age of Apocalypse. The best superhero films are funny, heartfelt, emotional, resonant, and exciting. They are no longer just “good” genre films; they’re great films, period.

Give some of the better properties a chance, Michael. If you need a viewing list for homework, let me know.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

The other day our illustrious Editor-in-Chief of RMU’s student newspaper, Kevin Morales, asked me if I would like to write a quick word regarding why I don’t particularly enjoy superhero movies.  I thought, ‘sure, I’ll play the contrarian’. And evidently, not liking superhero movies is a pretty rare stance these days.  Marvel and DC Comics have taken over Hollywood, and there seems to be no end in sight to our nation’s endless desire for new tales taken from comic books.


So, what is my problem?

Before I get into why I generally ignore most of these movies, I feel I must make one thing clear.  I am not necessarily a movie snob. I like a good number of movies that have been critically panned. Every movie I see doesn’t need to be an art-house flick. Also, I am not one who despises or mocks ‘nerd culture’. Sure, I really can do without Lord of the Rings, but I like Harry Potter.  I don’t go for Star Trek, but I love Star Wars.  Avatar? Oh goodness no! The Matrix?  Oh, heck yeah!  So, you see, I don’t reject sci-fi and fantasy out of hand. I like some, I loathe some.

Which brings us back to the spate of ‘superhero’ movies that just keep racking up box office records.  I think Kevin assumes I hate all within the genre, but that is not true.  In fact, I love some superhero stories.  Hey, I saw Tim Burton’s Batman on opening night in 1989! I even bought and proudly wore a Batman t-shirt after seeing that seminal film. But, that love doesn’t automatically extend to all Batman stories. I most definitely do not have any desire to see this new Batman v. Superman flick.  I’m avoiding that one like the plague.  There are a couple reasons why.

First, it just looks like a ridiculously asinine concept.  Why are Batman and Superman bat superfighting?  Scratch that; I really don’t care. Any explication of the plot will be absurd. Putting these two characters in the same film would be like plopping Indiana Jones down in a James Bond movie.  What is the point?  It reminds me of when Scooby Doo would inexplicably team up with Sonny & Cher or the Harlem Globetrotters. Come on!  Why are these people hanging out with meddling kids and helping solve mysteries?  I say again, ‘ridiculously asinine’.

But my real problem with most superhero movies, and this includes Zack Snyder’s new Man of Steel vehicles, is the fact that they center around boring, lifeless characters.  Action movies must be more than just action. Adventure movies must have interesting, complex protagonists that face and overcome challenges. In other words, human beings need to run the show.  Superman? The Hulk? Thor?  An all powerful alien, a freakish monster, and a god?  There is no complexity here. There are no challenges these beings can’t easily overcome.  They are superhuman, and hence, you get a snowball effect of absurdity. Since humans would be squashed like a bug by these characters, you are forced to provide them with superhuman enemies.  Evil geniuses, other aliens, or, yes, fellow deities. One Norse god fighting another; one alien fighting another.  Why should I care again?

Give me a ‘superhero’ movie in which the hero is more human than super!  No films have Batman-the-jokeraccomplished this better than Christopher Nolan’s adaption of Frank Miller’s ‘Dark Knight’ series.  The Batman/Bruce Wayne in Nolan’s films is emotionally and mentally fragile. He is complex.  Sure, you know Batman will win in the end. But Nolan creates realistically troubling adversity for his hero. He wants you, the viewer, to ask questions. Are you sure Batman’s vigilantism is a positive thing?  Is he obsessed with justice so much that it will destroy him and all he loves? And, what about Batman’s relationship with his arch-nemesis, The Joker?  Perhaps Batman should have killed The Joker?  The Joker, like Batman, is mortal. He is not some demigod or alien.  These films then illustrate the struggle of man v. man, not monster v. monster.  For goodness sakes, by the third installment of the series, Bruce Wayne needs to get a knee brace if he wants to keep fighting villains! Can’t get much more human than that.

In this same vein, Netflix’s Daredevil series is similarly successful.  Of course, Daredevil has some ‘superpowers’; a never quite defined sixth sense that allows him to predict landscape_xlargemovements and foresee actions.  But, the show illustrates the challenges of these ‘powers’. The character must train himself to use this power, and prepare himself physically to fight the evil all around him. He does not have super-strength, super-speed or the ability to shoot lasers out of any orifices. Since he is just a man with some unlikely mental abilities, Daredevil doesn’t automatically win all his fights. Out on the streets of NYC, he usually gives worse than he takes, but he takes quite a bit.   He comes home with scratches, bruises, sprains and breaks. Daredevil could lose. The tension is real.

See, I like some superhero movies/shows; I just don’t care much for most superheroes.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

The other day I zoomed through Arthur Koestler’s classic prison memoir, Dialogue With Death.  Koestler was an important 1930s journalist/novelist/intellectual.  As with many of 9780226449616his generation, he was a leftist who flirted with Communism before becoming disenchanted by Stalin, Stalinism and the horrendous crimes perpetuated by the regime during that era.

But, Koestler was more than just a pie-in-the-sky intellectual with his head buried in dusty books.  He got his hands dirty experiencing the unstable political world of 1930s Europe. He witnessed first-hand many of the continent’s revolutions, putsches and civil wars.  Dialogue With Death is his 200 page account of Spanish Civil War battles, his coverage of Republican forces in that war, and his eventual capture by General Francisco Franco’s fascist troops.  After being captured, Koestler was thrown in jail, where he was kept in


Koestler on his way to the North Pole, 1931


solitary confinement for the weeks leading up to his expected execution. In the hands of Franco’s fascists, death was the common punishment for ‘Reds’.  However, after a couple weeks his solitary slowly became less solitary. He began to clandestinely speak to other prisoners outside his cell; eventually, he was even given the opportunity to pick a book out of the prison ‘library’.

His description of getting his hands on his first book in over a month is a wonderfully evocative ode to the joys of reading:

‘I sat down on the bed, lit the cigarette and began to read….I read devoutly and fervently – and very slowly….I learned to read anew, with a long since forgotten concentration on every sentence, every adjective; I felt like someone who has been bed-ridden and who in learning to walk anew is acutely conscious of the play of his muscles. I fancy the Romans must have read in this fashion when books were written by hand on long parchment rolls; devoutly, sentence by sentence, only a few inches of the roll a day, so as to keep the rest for the morrow. When writers were obliged to use parchment rolls they knew how carefully people read them, and had confidence in their readers. Nowadays readers may have confidence in the writer, but writers have no confidence in the reader.’

Koestler was a bibliophile.  But, Koestler’s statement illustrates more than simply his love of books. Koestler’s words illustrate his discovery of the lost art of ‘intensive reading’.  Before his nightmarish prison experience, Koestler was most likely a typical modern reader; he read ‘extensively’. He read whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted.  But in prison, the world he understood was destroyed.  Books became an impossible luxury. When he was finally able to settle into a book again, Koestler could not help but intensively read. By reading in this way, he made himself a pre-modern.   Literary scholar Geoffrey Turnovsky has pointed out that intensive reading was a skill practiced prior to the 15th-18th century printing boom. At that time, reading

‘was shaped by scarcity rather than abundance, and by the sway of powerful institutions – the Church, universities- that oriented reading in a conservative, stabilizing manner. To read intensively was to focus on a small set of works, rereading each one over and over, not….new information, or surprising amusements, but as part of a ritualistic re-affirmation of faith, understanding, or inclusion in a recognized community.

Though troubling in many ways (ie, not informational or original), intensive reading meant that the reader was supremely focused upon what he/she was studying.Friedrich_Herlin,_Reading_Saint_Peter_(1466)

In comparison, the modern world is marked by extensiveness.  We are more likely to be inundated under an avalanche of reading materials than to be facing a scarcity. Thus, reading as a skill is most valued by speed and efficiency. Just think of the millions spent by those who take speed-reading courses in hopes of plowing through a 500 page novel in 2 hours. In our education system, efficiency is as important as speed. When some of my fellow students in grad school complained about the reading load for one professor’s class, he informed us that we needed to learn what to read, and what to ignore in the books he assigned. A strange request, for a strange culture.

Of course, extensive reading and ubiquitous texts have led to a great many goods. The average human today has knowledge that the pre-printing intensive readers could only dream of.  I mean, who really wants to return to a world of medieval monks chanting and repeating memorized liturgies? Needless to say I am also not romanticizing solitary confinement in a right-wing secret prison with only a handful of books. Personally though, I sometimes think I don’t enjoy what I read enough; I find that I have the habit of thinking about my next book during the reading of my current book.  This is extensive reading absurdity.

In our world of extensive readings, Koestler’s rediscovery of books in a dark fascist prison cell is always good to keep in mind.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

About a month ago, ran a video/story that depicted today’s college students in a pretty negative light.  As explained in the short article beneath the video, a group of politically active students went around Texas Tech University asking their classmates simple questions about American history.  ‘Who won the Civil War’, ‘Who did downloadAmerica gain it’s independence from?’, ‘When did we gain our independence?’ and ‘Who is the Vice President of the US?’ were a couple of these softballs.  It wouldn’t be newsworthy if the students answered correctly, so you can guess how they responded. In the hyperbolic language of the Facebook scroll, Salon by-lined the video by warning it’s readers that it would be ‘the most terrifying thing you will see today’.

Now as a history teacher, I am appalled that any American over the age 12, much less college students, would not know these simple facts. But I try to keep an important point in mind: This video is edited to peddle the groups’ agenda.  As Stephen Colbert illustrated in his mocking of a similar series of videos done by Fox News, you really need to take these experiments with a grain of salt. People seem to love laughing at their fellow citizens’ ignorance, so, of course, you only see the most blatantly absurd respondents. But how many of the people asked these questions actually know the answers (what percentage is that?), and hence, don’t get on camera, compared to the ones who did not know the answers (the minority?).  We never will get the true numbers, and so we are left believing Americans are the most laughably ignorant of people.

And it is comedic. The students and Bill O’Reilly have political points to make, but as far as I know, Jay Leno’s ‘Tonight Show’ was the first to really practice these question/answer maxresdefaultsessions with unsuspecting strangers.  His cringe-worthy experiment of interviewing ignorant Americans has been taken up recently by Jimmy Kimmel’s late-night show. Interestingly though, the fact that these skits are so popular and funny illustrate an important paradox. The audience find humor in these videos because we understand how absurd it is to not know these facts; in other words, the majority of the audience know the right answer to these questions, and can laugh at those who do not. If the audience was similarly clueless as the interviewees, these videos wouldn’t be entertaining.

So, these videos are no big whoop, right?  Not so fast! As I ponder these interviews, I find something much more disturbing than the obliviousness of a couple poor rubes.  I ask myself: Why is it a sign of historical intelligence to simply restate facts? Why do millions of viewers believe knowing trivia makes you ‘smart’, or well-versed in history?  What is the end-game here?

These videos hint at a much more important issue; the ignorance of the interviewees are not nearly as troubling as the assumptions made by the questioners, and thus, their audience. Jimmy Kimmel and the sunglass-wearing college girl asking questions are only symptomatic of our education culture.  Their concern with rote memorization and trivial fact retention are central to our education system, where test results are all that matter.  These results have come at the expense of understanding larger processes. We ask, ‘what were your test scores’. We rarely ask, ‘do you actually understand the subject that you were tested upon?’

In the study of history, such quantification of ‘knowledge’ is inherently destructive. When history results are graphed by the number of facts you can remember, the meaning of the subject has lost MTE4MDAzNDEwNjEwMzI1MDA2it’s central importance. Think about it: If these kids knew who won the Civil War, would it be all that edifying in regards to their knowledge regarding the event?  If they could identify a picture of James Madison, would that tell us anything in regards to their ability to be good ‘citizens’?  This seems to be the notion behind such recorded questionnaires.  If you can recognize Madison, if you can say who won the Civil War, if you can identify what country America gained independence from, then you are one of the enlightened, and our education system is working. But, this is a ridiculous assumption.  Rote memorization or facial recognition does little to illustrate your understanding of a topic.

I have an anecdote I like to tell my students that illustrates my point.

I took American history in 11th grade.  My history teacher was fine. He was funny, and the-elusive-gettysbur-newh1jpg-bb1c896ba697396dlikable. But, his notions of what proved your knowledge of history was sometimes questionable. For instance, in his course, each student was required to memorize an important speech that shaped American History.  Like many others, I recited the Gettysburg Address.  One day, I sat at his desk and repeated verbatim the words of Lincoln’s revolutionary 2 minute masterpiece.  I did this with no hesitation, and knew every word, and hence, I received an A on the assignment.  Repetition was the only thing necessary for memorization. Memorization was the only thing necessary for an A.

Though I was able to repeat Lincoln’s political poetry back word for word, I actually gained no understanding as to why the words were so important!  My teacher never dealt with WHY Lincoln’s call for a ‘second birth of freedom’ was radical in comparison to the first ‘four score and seven years’ of the American Republic. For that A,  I recited each word robotically. I was asked to be an automaton, and automatons don’t make ‘good citizens’.  Not until college did I realize that history is not only about the who, what and when questions. The litany of facts mean little compared to understanding the larger concerns: HOW and WHY.  Like so many American school kids, I rarely got either.

This is why if I had a student who showed up on one of Jimmy Kimmel’s or Bill O’Reilly’s videos, I wouldn’t really care if they could not tell you when the Civil War ended. But, I would hope beyond hope that he would be able to explain to the interviewer why it was fought.  I am sure such critical explication wouldn’t make for the greatest news blurb for viewers to laughingly cringe at, but it would be much more telling of the interviewee’s knowledge.


By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

I’ve always been a nostalgic kind of guy. I enjoy romanticizing the previous iterations of my life.  There is irony in this.  I am a history professor that loves to preach to my students that ‘THERE WAS NEVER A GOOD OL’ DAYS’  It is not much different in my own personal history. Yet, I often romanticize time periods of my own past that I realize were not necessarily good times. Evidently I’m a paradox.

Let’s venture into this strange nostalgia.

  1. Though I was undoubtedly nostalgic at an earlier period in my life, I would say my 9390178-largeoddest nostalgia occurred when I was in college.  Inexplicably at 19, I began to view my high school days through rose-tinted glasses. This made absolutely no sense.  When I was living high school, I hated high school.  I deeply romanticized a time that should not have been nostalgic.
  2. After college was graduate school.  Surprise, surprise; at 23 I could not get enough of college memories. Now, this made more sense. College was a great time; much better than high school! Plus, in comparison to undergrad, graduate school was trying. My desire to succeed began to really take over my life. The pressures of grad school just made any blemishes on my college experience pale in comparison.
  3. I got my advanced degree in 2002. I went looking for a job. Then I found a job.  Oh boy.  My student loans needed to be paid back.  Hmmm… maybe grad school, with it’s bookishness, it’s intellectual stimulation, it’s trips to the library and wide-open schedule wasn’t all that bad after-all. At 27, as a working stiff, the thought of once-stressful grad school made me nostalgic.

From 1999 (grad school) to 2008 (career),  Chicago was my home. Though my university was by no means small, the big city was a bit of a culture shock. My initial nostalgia chicago-image-1for college probably  had as much to do with the location of my university as it did with parties, classes and social life.   The entity of Chicago just added to the stress of school and career life.  Chicago was bills. Chicago was truly being independent for the first time.  Chicago was living with my fiance, paying rent on time, dealing with bad landlords and constantly  taking in stray cats.  All the eras of my life seemed simple compared to Chicago.

Then, in 2008, my wife and I left Chicago. We moved to Oak Park, just to the west of the city.  We bought a  house one block over the Chicago city limits.  My two small daughters were born, and then they started day-care (that bill was like a second mortgage!) Oak Park hasn’t been utopia. Taxes, house repairs and play-dates keep us busy and sweating. Still, I would not want to live anywhere else.  I love our community, our neighbors and our friends. Oak Park is much more home than Chicago ever was.

But, just because a place isn’t home doesn’t mean I can’t be nostalgic for it.

A couple  months ago, I turned a Chicago nostalgia corner. I was given the opportunity to teach the ‘Chicago Urban Experience’ course at RMU, and began to really think about Chicago.  What is the identity of Chicago? How does Chicago shape you? I wanted my students to think about these questions. So it only made sense for me to ask the same questions of myself.

One day, I was on the train reading Neal Steinberg’s memoir about his life in Chicago. Then, GR-Ashland2-10it hit me: That feeling of nostalgia. The feeling put a silly smile on my face. All of a sudden, I find myself doing something unexpected: I am looking around and absorbing Chicago. I look at the faces on the train. I look out the window on the El at the neighborhoods going by.  I pay attention to the beautiful architecture of the loop. Heck, I even enjoyed a Chicago hot dog the other day. The people, the culture, the history of Chicago are wonderful!  This class reminded me that when I lived in Chicago, it wasn’t just stressful, it was also incredibly exciting!  The restaurants, the friends, the unknown. These things are now my romantic past, and the thought of them warms the cockles of my heart.

‘Sweet Home Chicago’. Yeah, I guess it really was that.


By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

It is difficult to decide what Star Wars’ fans like to do more: Watch Star Wars, or identify all the influences and cultural references within the Star Wars film universe? Countless books, articles and blog posts have attempted to decipher the shoulders that George Lucas stood upon in making his space opera. Most people by now have heard that Lucaskuro9 created a tale that fit Joseph Campbell’s meta-myth structure, or that he gave life to characters similar to those in the samurai films of Kurasawa, or that he sometimes blatantly copied old Flash Gordon television serials.

Star Wars’ fans devour this seemingly arcane information, and I am a Star Wars’ fan. As such, I have always been intrigued with the sometimes obvious, sometimes obscure cultural references contained within Lucas’ masterpiece. But, as a student, and now professor of European history, one reference/influence has always struck me above all others. George Lucas obviously created his evil Empire in the guise of the ‘fascist aesthetic’ most infamously formed by the German director Leni Riefenstahl, and her 1935 Nazi propaganda film ‘The Triumph of the Will.’
Leni Riefenstahl was a famous, talented, groundbreaking German filmmaker in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s. And like many of her German cohorts of the era, Riefenstahl became a follower of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi party. She used her immense talents for the party, directing a number of full length propaganda films. ‘The Triumph of the Will’ is her most influential and troubling work. ‘Triumph’ is a roughly two hour celebration of the 1934 Nazi party rally in the Medieval city of Nuremberg. 120 minutes of Nazis goose-stepping and cheering the ‘Führer’. If you have in your mind’s eye an image of fascist spectacle, it has probably been molded by Riefenstahl’s film.

Riefenstahl’s films were as artistically influential as they were politically abhorrent. Filmmakers could not ignore her innovative cinematography. Her techniques of wide Triumph-of-the-Will-2shots, crane shots and sweeping cameras were co-opted by many after her. When I first saw ‘Triumph’ as a sophomore in college, I realized Lucas was one such director. Riefenstahl made the 1934 Nazi rally look massively popular and powerful by setting a camera high above the whole parade grounds, recording thousands upon thousands of Nazi party members lined in rows. In such shots, the Nazi hordes are a man-made sea, being parted by the all- powerful leader, Adolf Hitler. In the same film, Riefenstahl records Hitler high above the masses, standing upon a giant concrete viewing station and watching stoically as his SA and SS march by on the parade ground. When viewing such scenes, it is impossible not to see Darth Vader 7dafa3515f1704408b38da906ceba044and the Emperor marching through masses of Imperial Stormtroopers. Lucas made such scenes even more powerful by using John Williams’ ‘Imperial March’. In this, he was no different than Riefenstahl, who used music in much the same way. Of course, the music she chose for her celebratory film made the Nazi Stormtroopers seem heroic, whereas Williams’ march makes Vader’s Stormtroopers dreadful. For Lucas, the Empire and its’ leaders become the personification of political evil by being the reincarnation of Riefenstahl’s Nazis. The empire is fascism revived.
With such thoughts in mind, I must say I was excited to see if J.J. Abrams would continue utilizing the ‘fascist aesthetic’ of Riefenstahl for ‘The Force Awakens’. I was not disappointed. With modern computer graphics, Abrams was able to do so even more effectively, and spectacularly than Lucas.

Abrams’ ‘First Order’ feels fascist. The military outfits, the giant image of the supreme STAR-WARS-THE-FORCE-AWAKENS-First-Order-Bilderleader and the symbology that surrounds the movement illustrates that Abrams continued the fascistic look of evil from Lucas’ galaxy. Like Lucas, Abrams used Riefenstahl as the ‘First Order’s’ reference point. Just look at the apocalyptic speech by General Hux, as he prepares his troops for the destruction of the Republic. Wearing military haute couture, Hux stands on a massive concrete platform with red ‘First Order’ banners hanging behind him. He speaks to thousands of ‘First Order’ troops lined in formation. When he is finished, the troops raise their left hands in salute. Hmm, that definitely looks familiar, doesn’t it?

Riefenstahl and fascism are living on in this new Star Wars galaxy. Happily, Rey, Fin, Chewy, Leia and Luke will be fighting it in Episodes VIII and IX. We must do the same in our own galaxy.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

On December 19th, I began to read the most famous novel of all time.  I hefted Leo Tolstoy’s epic masterwork War and Peace off my shelf for the first time in years. When I say years, I mean years. I had actually read War and Peace one time51qFi0rYw7L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ before when I was 21 years old. Back then, during the Spring Semester of my Junior undergrad year, I signed up for a course titled ‘Great Books’, or something like that.  We had to read Homer’s Iliad, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain and Tolstoy’s aforementioned monster.  That is A LOT of reading for a 15 week course.

It was a pretty interesting course. However, I really didn’t need it to graduate.  I signed up because I thought it would be fun. I enjoyed the class and I enjoyed the readings, but I did not want to produce any of the work.  I just wanted to learn about the books. So, I did something that I probably shouldn’t discuss: I dropped the course, but kept doing the readings and showing up to the class.

What can I say? I’m a bit of a nerd.

At 21, I enjoyed War and Peace.  I don’t think it was the first Tolstoy I had read, but it was undoubtedly the first of his great novels I tackled.  I must have read it when it was cold outside because, for some reason, whenever I would think about the book in the years following it would make me think of winter.  And so over the last few winters when it would get cold outside, I would think fondly of the big ol’ tome.

Which brings us back to December 19th. I finally cracked that monster open again. It had been 18 years since I had read it so I really didn’t remember a great deal. Would I still enjoy it?  It was questionable. Over the last 3 or 4 years, I have re-read some ‘great works’ that I loved in my early 20’s.  Maybe it was to be expected, but I found that my late 30’s self felt differently about said books.  Some books really spoke to me at an older age more then they did at a younger age.  One of these was Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.  I remember slowly slogging through that book when I was 20. When I read it at 35, I absolutely loved it! On the other hand, one of my favorite books when I was 21, Albert Camus’ The Plague really didn’t hit as hard the 30-something me.

So, what about Tolstoy’s epic? 39 years of age, or 21 years of age made no difference. It was, is and always will be amazing.  I realize many people get intimidated by the size of the book, the number of characters and the historical references therein, but I think that is war_and_peace_is_heavy_readingbased upon reputation and heresy more than reality.  Many will sit down and read all the Game of Thrones books, and each of those are only a bit shorter than Tolstoy’s work. Plus, there really aren’t that many main characters; ten or so protagonists make up roughly 80% of the book. Granted, the historical aspects of the book can confuse, but all you need are some end-notes to clear things up.

Tolstoy’s writing in War and Peace is simply awe-inspiring.  The psychological portraits of even the most secondary characters make you feel as though you have truly entered a complete world; a world that is not easy to extricate yourself from. After finishing the chartemainaltarbook, I felt spiritually charged. Only the greatest pieces of art have this ability. I believe a good analogy would be walking into Chartres Cathedral for the first time.  The size, the colors, the sounds, the epic nature of the environment must take one aback. Even if you don’t believe in what the church represents, the grandeur of the product still moves you. This is much like Tolstoy’s creation. At times, Tolstoy’s esoteric mystical Christianity shines through in certain characters’ beliefs, words and actions. While I in no way buy into Tolstoy’s religion, it is difficult not to be moved by his descriptions of the sacred.  War and Peace is Chartres, Rouen, Notre Dame in written form.  The nice thing is, you don’t need to travel thousands of miles across an ocean to experience Tolstoy.

So, what book is next?  I need some time to think about that one.