10 Signs You May Be Ready for Grad School

from PhD Comics by Jorge Cham

10) You find yourself hanging out in your professor’s office for no other reason than the stimulating conversation.

9) You take certain classes because you’re “looking for a challenge” or found the other classes to be “far too easy.”

8) You can’t decide if you should be proud or insulted when your professor doesn’t notice that you B.S’d your way through that whole essay.

7) You spend more on books each month than some people do on food. (And the books may be reproducing on their own because you’re pretty sure you didn’t have stacks leading down the hallway last week).

6) You walk into Office Depot because you love to stare at all the pens and pencils and dry erase markers and notepads… and you keep buying them for no reason whatsoever – except perhaps that they smell good.

5) You have a bad habit of volunteering/applying for more things (jobs, clubs, committees, projects, etc) than a reasonably well-stocked militia could reasonably be expected to deal with.

4) You then proceed to scream and rant and cry about your insane schedule which has become so full you discover you’re actually signed up to do 2-3 things at once and haven’t scheduled yourself time to sleep or eat for at least the next 6 months. …And then you proceed to sign up for more.

3) You’ve decided that sleep is something you can worry about when you’re dead, and food is best enjoyed in sporadic bursts of first forgetting to eat for a couple days, and then eating an entire large pizza in one sitting. (Also tums and ibuprofen are you’re first and last meal every day).

2) You have a large persistent streak of masochism that refuses to be eradicated despite the friends who beg you to stop working yourself into the ground, the parents who remind you do occasionally have to eat, the accumulating therapy bills, and the enormous bar tab that should be a sign you may be a bit stressed…

And the top sign that you are ready for grad school…

1) The idea of joining the “real world” — with a 9-5 job, a 401k, buying a house, paying off your already-enormous students loans, and all that other “normal adult stuff” — is so terrifying or abhorrent to you that even 3-10 more years of collegiate torture (and even more student loans) (and possibly an ulcer or two) seems like heaven in comparison.

also from PhD Comics by Jorge Cham

Crowdsourcing a Compilation of Adjunct Working Conditions

For those who are unfamiliar with adjuncting conditions, here is some good (and depressing) information about what many of your college instructors live on. Folks, it ain’t pretty. There has been much discussion in various places (such as the MLA, various teachers organizations, and a few individual departments) about assuring that adjuncts can receive a livable wage and some basic benefits. But the chances of forcing universities and colleges to do this when they’ve been getting away with not doing it for so long are pretty slim unless enough people make enough noise about it.

You’re All Invited!

Free-For-All Friday: You’re All Invited!

Okay, I know I said I would do a review of the second Sherlock Holmes movie, and I will try to do that on Monday, but I wanted to spread the news about something I’m a part of.

Here at University of Houston, we, the graduate students of the Literature program, are trying to build a larger community for sharing our work and learning about the work of others.  To do this, several UH Literature students started a new student-run academic journal called Plaza: Dialogues in Language and Literature, and also decided to a host a conference: The University of Houston Graduate Student Literature Conference.

“Reviving and Revisioning Work: Examining Class in Literature and Language”

Second Annual Graduate Literature Conference

With Keynote Speaker Dr. Rosemary Hennessy

from Rice University’s Center for Women, Gender, and Sexuality

Saturday 31 March 2012
Open to the Public

“Class in society is determined by voice” — Marshall McLuhan

Between the recession, partisan rhetoric about class war, and the current Occupy movement, class has moved to the forefront of American political consciousness. Class is also something we can’t avoid in the academy–whether we’re talking about the relative place of men and women (Schell); WPAs, professors, and TAs (Bousquet, Scott); literature and composition (Miller); the university and the community (Mathieu); undergraduate students; or the literary canon and authors that we study. This is a kairotic moment to reexamine our assumptions about class and look more deeply at the class implications in our literature, our languages, our classrooms, and our communities.

We invite presenters to consider topics that include classroom experiences and literary research, but as this is Houston, we also invite you to consider and focus on issues of class in the Houston area. Our city is brimming with local writing– fiction, nonfiction, poetry, music — populating coffeehouses and bars alike. How is class represented in local literature as well as global and “canonized?”

As you may be able to tell, this is the second annual conference. Last year was the inaugural conference, and it went very well, if I do say so myself.  I presented a paper, and enjoyed listening to the work of my fellow UH graduate students, as well as several graduate students from other universities (including one who came all the way from New Mexico).  And then the first volume of Plaza was published, featuring the papers that were presented at the conference.  This year we are really hoping to spread the news, and gain a wider audience and a wider group of conference presenters.

To that end, I would like to extend this invitation to all of my blog followers.  Even though it’s called the “Graduate Student Literature Conference” (that’s only because we’re the ones running it), this conference is open to all undergraduate and graduate students in all disciplines.  We are looking for presentations that fit this year’s theme of class.  In other words, we are looking for student-written critical research and creative non-fiction works that examine the role of socio-economic class structures in such things as literature, rhetoric, composition studies, folklore and ethnography, language and cultural studies, linguistic studies, technical writing, and gender studies (among others).  However, there are always a couple panels open for non-theme-related presentations as well, so please submit an abstract proposal even if you don’t think it fits the theme.

Some Things To Know:

1)     Abstract Proposals should be approximately 250 words in length.

2)     Abstract Proposals are due by January 30th, 2012.

3)     You will be informed of acceptance by February 15th, 2012.

4)     Individual Presentations should be 15-18 minutes in length in order to allow time for questions.

5)     For more information, include contact information, presentation guidelines, and submission procedures please see the UH Graduate Student Conference Website.

So, that’s what I’ve got, folks.  I know at least some of you are undergraduate and graduate students.  And I know some of you don’t live all that far away either, so travelling to Houston for a weekend wouldn’t be that difficult.  I urge you all to dig through all those papers you’ve written in the semesters and see if you can find one that would fit the theme (or even one that doesn’t), that you could dust off, clean up, and present.  Or, perhaps there’s a half-started research project that you’ve been meaning to work on?  Here’s the opportune moment!

I and others would really love to see this conference become a big deal someday, and it all starts with getting some presenters from outside the UH school system to come and present and spread the word themselves.

I hope we hear from you!

Have a good weekend, and see you on Monday!

Please Sign This Petition for the Resignation of Chancellor Katehi and Show People That Student Rights Matter!

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I mentioned in my last post the incident at University of California, at Davis, in which non-violent student protestors were maliciously pepper-sprayed by UC Davis police, who were called into by Chancellor Linda Katehi to remove the students.  If you don’t know about the incident, I recommend these two articles as a starting point: First, from Reader Supported News, an overview with several videos: “UC Davis Police Violence Adds Fuel to Fire.”  And next, an “Open Letter to Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi” who is the Chancellor of UC Davis, written by a UC Davis faculty member.  Or just googling it should give you plenty of info to work with.

UC Davis Police Lt. John Pike uses pepper spray to move Occupy UC Davis protesters blocking a walkway in the quad on Friday, 11/18/11. (photo: Wayne Tilcock/Davis Enterprise)

On Change.org there is a now a petition calling for the resignation of Chancellor Linda Katehi.  I have signed it, adding the following comment:

I am deeply disturbed by what has happened at UC Davis, UC Berkeley and other college campuses around the country. I am a PhD student in the English Department of my university. I am also a Teaching Fellow and I teach Freshman writing classes, in which I try to support all voices and opinions while also encouraging civic duty and pride. I and some of my students have shown open support for the Occupy movements. I am horrified to think that this or something similar could happen to me or my students because we are demonstrating our basic rights to free speech and assembly. Perhaps you did not realize the police would be quite so cavalier and violent in their methods of dispersing the protestors at UC Davis (though I doubt that, as the police have demonstrated open willingness to use violent measures on nonviolent protestors), but that does not lessen your responsibility for calling the police to remove the students in the first place, and calling for a “task force” after the fact does nothing to change this. College administrations in this country need to be made aware that you (and they) CANNOT get away with this blatant disregard for student rights and safety, or things like this will continue to happen. You have proven that you do not have the students’ best interests at heart, and are therefore no longer qualified to be chancellor of any university. If you have any sense of what is right, you should issue a formal and heartfelt apology and resign.

I would ask that you sign it as well.  It takes only a moment.  You don’t even need to add a comment unless you want to.  I strongly believe that we need to show this chancellor, and all college administrators, that we will not stand for this.  Colleges are meant to be places for free thought and open discussion.  This kind of thing cannot be allowed to continue.

Once more, here is the link to the petition: “Police Pepper Spray Peaceful UC Davis Students: Ask Chancellor Katehi to Resign.”

Edit 1: I have just been sent another link on Twitter for another petition.  This one is a national call to “Condemn the use of tear gas and pepper spray (and other chemical weapons) on peaceful protesters in the United States” posted on whitehouse.gov.  This one only has a few signatures so far, so PLEASE sign!  I didn’t even know this platform existed, but I’ve checked and it does seem to be a legitimate page run by White House staff to allow the public to send petitions directly to the federal government.  This is a valuable piece of information to have, and I’m glad I’ve now learned of its existence.

Edit 2: Here is a fantastic explanation of the Authoritarian mentality in the U.S. that is at the root of the UC Davis incident by Glenn Greenwald of Salon.com: “The Roots of the UC-Davis Pepper-Spraying.”

Also, an absolutely WONDERFUL video showing the perfectly orchestrated, perfectly SILENT demonstration of protestors after Chancellor Katehi made an press conference.  At least 1000 students (perhaps more) surrounded the building and then cleared a path for Katehi to exit and walk to her car, the entire time surrounded on all sides by silent, shaming student protestors.

Thank you!  And please feel free to share your thoughts below!

Science Fiction Studies

Bookworm Wednesday: Science Fiction Studies

The SFS logo

Okay, so this isn’t actually a BOOK, it’s a scholarly/academic journal called Science Fiction Studies, published out of DePauw University in Indiana, but it’s ABOUT books (and film, and video games, and so on)…  And it’s a very enjoyable read for anyone interested in science fiction from a more academic, theoretical perspective (as well as from a more personal entertainment perspective).

I’ve read a few articles from this journal before, but I was required to do a history/review of a scholarly journal for my Doctoral Studies course we had to choose any scholarly journal that we thought we might be interested in submitting to in the future and it seemed like a good opportunity to do some more reading into this journal.  And I thought I’d share with you all a little of what I learned about this journal, and what it means for those who study science fiction (or would like to, if only English departments took it more seriously, *cough* UH! *cough*), and for those of us who write science fiction.

R.D. Mullen of Indiana State University and Darko Suvin of McGill University, Montreal founded the journal Science Fiction Studies in 1973.  At the time, there were already two other journals that took a scholarly/theoretical approach to science fiction Extrapolation, founded in 1959, and Foundation: the International Review of Science Fiction, founded in 1972.  There had also, since the 1960s, been a growing interest in science fiction in colleges, thanks in part to the founder of Extrapolation, Thomas Clareson (who also founded the Science Fiction Research Association in 1970), and to a handful of college teachers such as Sam Moskowitz, who taught the first non-credit science fiction course in 1953 (Moskowitz 413, Parrinder xv), and Mark Hillegas, who taught the first for-credit science fiction course in 1962 (Williamson 375).

Despite science fiction’s in-vogue status in the 60s and 70s, and the large class-sizes such courses were able to produce, however, there was a general lack of acceptance among most college administrations and faculty members.  Barbara Bengels explains that despite beginning her science fiction course in the 70s when such classes were popular, and despite stressing that her course “would be an historical approach beginning with the classics,” she still dealt regularly with “polite smiles from [her] colleagues and downright sneers from the more rigid traditionalists” (428).  She adds that even nearly twenty-five years later, in the 1990s, she still feels a need to “apologize for teaching a course that [she] love[s]” and explain “how many literary gems are included in [her] syllabus and how intellectually challenging the course is” (Bengels 428).  Furthermore, as Gary Westfahl explains in his introduction to Science Fiction, Canonization, Marginalization, and the Academy, “of all forms of once-neglected literature that now receive significant scholarly attention, science fiction has attracted and continues to attract the most academic resistance” (2).  Even today, many English and literature departments often refuse to allow science fiction courses to be taught, do not allow graduate students to pursue dissertations on science fiction, and sometimes even punish faculty members who publish works on science fiction.  (For instance, the University of Houston does not treat science fiction, or any kind of genre fiction, with much interest or respect.)

And so, in 1973, Mullen and Suvin set out to prove that science fiction studies could be a serious, rigorous, and even important area of literary scholarship.  As Mullen states in the “Notes in Retrospect” of the first volume of Science Fiction Studies, one of the main goals of the journal and its contributors was to “bring the apparatus of critical scholarship fully to bear upon representative works [of science fiction]” and to thus demonstrate that “‘modern science fiction’ can be profitably studied not only as a phenomenon of popular culture but also as literature.”  This remains the goal of Science Fiction Studies currently.

The first issue of Science Fiction Studies should give you an idea of how good this journal would be.  The first issue contained seven articles and book reviews by: David N. Samuelson, Patrick Parrinder, Stanislaw Lem, Mar Angenot, Robert M. Philmus, Ursula K. LeGuin, and Darko Suvin. Both Stanislaw Lem and Ursula K. LeGuin were already enormously well-known and celebrated science fiction novelists (I often wonder how Mullen and Suvin first approached them about contributing to the journal).  They have remained associated with the journal throughout its existence, contributing many articles over the years, and even on occasion appearing as Editorial Consultants.  On the list of Editorial Consultants of the first volume were a few familiar names: James Blish, a well-known fantasy and science fiction novelist who also wrote literary criticism under the pseudonym William Atheling, Jr; Mark R. Hillegas, already mentioned as the first to teach a for-credit science fiction course; and Northrop Frye, the influential literary theorist/critic.  By 1975, Blish had died, but Fredric Jameson, a very well-known Marxist literary theorist, had been added to the list and had also contributed several articles to the journal.

The journal has grown a reputation for being especially strong in the areas of genre, international science fiction, feminism and queer theory, and postmodernism (Zook).  This is evident in such recent articles as “The First Wave: Latin American Science Fiction Discovers Its Roots” by Rachel Haywood Ferreira, and “Becoming Medusa: Octavia Butler’s Lilith’s Brood and Sociobiology” by Adam J. Johns; as well as in Vol. 38:1 (Mar 2011), the special issue on Bruce Sterling’s 1989 essay “Slipstream,” a term coined by Sterling to discuss fiction that was not strictly science fiction but continued “anti-realistic” elements what is generally referred to now postmodernism (Sterling).  The journal has also become increasingly more open to other mediums, including film, comic books, television, art, video games, and even music.  Just as an example: in Vol. 29: 3, the special issue on “Japanese Science Fiction,” several articles discuss Japanese animation such as in “When the Machines Stop: Fantasy, Reality, and Terminal Identity in ‘Neon Genesis Evangelion’ and ‘Serial Experiments: Lain’.”  Also, in Vol. 37: 2 there was included an article called “‘Sounds Like a Human Performance’: The Electronic Music Synthesizer in Mid-Twentieth-Century SF,” which discusses the role of electronic music and instruments in mid-century science fiction.  These are just a few examples of the variety of mediums that have been added to the canon of science fiction by virtue of the journal’s willingness to treat them seriously.

I could go on about this journal for hours, if you let me, but this bit of history should give you some idea of the scope, seriousness, and prestige of this journal but more than that, it should be obvious how much these editors and the writers who submit essay to this journal love science fiction and everything connected to it.  While the journal is often very theoretical, I think just about anyone with a serious love and fascination for science fiction should be able to get something interesting and/or useful out of reading one or two issues of Science Fiction Studies.  And keep an eye out, because SOMEDAY I’m going to have articles published in it too.

Note: here are a few of the articles I reference in this, for those who are curious:

Bengels, Barbara. “The Pleasures and Perils of Teaching Science Fiction on the College Level.” Science Fiction Studies 23:3 (Nov 1996): 428-431.

Moskowitz, Sam. “The First College-Level Course in Science Fiction.” Science Fiction Studies 23:3 (Nov 1996): 411-422.

Mullen, R.D. “Notes in Retrospect.” Science Fiction Studies 1:1 (Fall 1973): 3.

Parrinder, Patrick. Science Fiction: Its Criticism and Teaching. London: Methuen, 1980. Print.

Westfahl, Gary. “Introduction: Masters of the Literary Universe.” Science Fiction, Canonization, Marginalization, and the Academy Eds. Gary Westfahl and George Slusser. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2002. 1-4. Print.

Williamson, Jack. “On Science Fiction in College.” Science Fiction Studies 23:3 (Nov 1996): 375-376.

Zook, Jim. “Daring Journal of ‘SF’ Theory.” The Chronicle of Higher Education Jun 1, 1994. Chronicle News Archives <http://chronicle.com/article/Daring-Journal-of-SF-Theory/91159&gt;

Gerald Graff’s Many Blind-Spots, or, Why Professing Literature Is Problematic

Free-For-All Friday: Or Saturday… Whatever.

I know.  I’m late.  I’m sorry.  In my defense working on your PhD is not easy.   I have been frantically churning out a paper for the last few days, and simply haven’t had the time to catch up on blogging.  But, I thought some of you might be interested in seeing the kind of writing I do in my academic field.  It is not, actually, all that different in tone from how I write my blog (though, of course, the “Academese” jargon is still present).

So, for lack of anything better to do, and because I really do enjoy this kind of writing in a weird, masochistic way, here are some passages from the paper I am currently working on.  It is a critical analysis of a book called Professing Literature: An Institutional History.  And I’m pretty much ripping the book apart (as will become quickly apparent).

The paper is titled: “Gerald Graff’s Many Blind-Spots, or, Why Professing Literature Is Problematic

As Graff claims in the first sentence of the first chapter, “Introduction: The Humanist Myth,” “Professing Literature is a history of the academic literary studies in the United States, roughly from the Yale Report of 1828, which assured the primacy of the classical over the vernacular languages in American colleges for another half-century, to the waning of the New Criticism in the 1960s and subsequent controversies over the literary theory” (1).  By the end of this introductory chapter, however, it becomes clear that while the book is organized in roughly chronological order, it is not exactly a book about historical events or even, really, the development of literary studies or the English/Literature department.  Graff explains as much at the end of the chapter when he states that the history he is discussing is rather about a “series of conflicts” (13) such as that of “classicists versus modern-language scholars; research-investigators versus generalists; historical scholars versus critics, New Humanists versus New Critics; academic critics versus literary journalists and culture critics; critics and scholars versus theorists” (14).

Furthermore, Graff argues that the universities institutionalized the “field-coverage model,” in which academia is split into departments, fields, and sub-fields, and each subject is considered “covered” when the department has enough faculty teach each sub-field (6).  This system made the institution highly flexible, but also led to “patterned isolation,” which made it easy for the conflicts and controversy within literary studies to be hidden from view and allowed instructors to avoid the “need to discuss the reasons they [are] doing what they [are] doing” (Graff 7).  This led to confusion and fragmentation where, Graff argues, coherence would have been more useful.  Rather than teaching a fragmented array of various periods, genres, themes, and theories, with the assumption that these will add up to a coherent vision of literature which Graff states is based in the humanist myth that “literature teaches itself” (9) literature teachers should be “teaching the conflicts” so that students can more clearly see how all the various field and sub-fields hang together, and why they are taught they way they are (viii-xiv).


Graff’s ability and willingness to employ such a wide variety of texts allows him to reveal some fascinating elements of and thoughts about the development of literary studies.  The use, especially, of personal accounts from students and teachers, paints of a deep, personal picture of the cultural situations.  However, Graff exemplifies two of the problems that many New Historicists seem to fall into.  First, he has a tendency to view each “era” in his history as unified by and indicative of a particular zeitgeist (Ellis 96-97) in his case, each era is defined by what Graff points to as that era’s conflict of choice: in 1828-1876 it was conflict between Humanist and philological; in 1875-1915 it was investigator versus generalists, et cetera. Second, he, like many New Historicists, works under the assumption that politics is the most important factor, and thus has a tendency to ignore sociological and economic concerns (Ellis 96).  Thus, Graff’s New Historicist theoretical stance and his focus on the “conflicts” leaves him blind to many important aspects of the history of literary studies.  In fact, certain issues are almost completely erased from Graff’s account.  Two of the most important and most conspicuously absent elements of such a history are issues of class/economics, and women.

It can hardly be denied that class and economics have played an enormous role in the development of literary studies in general and English departments, yet Graff largely ignores the issue, excepting a few quick references mentioned without reflection.  For instance, despite the enormous impact the G.I. Bill had on colleges in general, and English departments specifically, war veterans are mentioned only a handful of times, and the G.I. Bill only once.  When discussing the changing behaviors and attitudes of students in the 1940s, Graff states “the postward student body, swelled by numerous beneficiaries of the G.I. Bill, was a peculiarly serious one” (155), as if the only influence war veterans had on colleges was to make the overall student body a more somber group.  He also mentions that college enrollment rose to 40 percent from 1940 to 1964 (a seemingly clear indication of the number of veterans coming to college), but then quotes Laurence Veysey’s claim that “war veterans made up only one segment of this dramatic increase, which more broadly reflected an awareness within a greatly enlarged sector of the middle and skilled working classes that some version of college was necessary” (155).  This quote is significant for a number of reasons: first, it allows Graff to diminish the importance of war veterans on colleges without having to actually say it himself; and second, it does not ask question of where exactly Veysey (or Graff) thinks this new “greatly enlarged” middle and working class is coming from, if not from the war veterans and, soon, their children.


One issue, however, is even more thoroughly erased from Graff’s history than questions of class and economics, and that is the issue of women.  That is not to say, of course, that Graff does not have a single mention of women.  There are a few.  He discusses women’s college in exactly four places (pp 37-38, 84, 102, and 211), but these are very brief mentions that usual center on the male professors teaching at the Seven Sisters colleges such as Mount Holyoke, Radcliffe, and Wellesley.  On a few occasions, Graff even discusses the influence of a particular woman scholar, most particularly Vida Dutton Scudder of Wellesley, who preached “Christian socialism” (84).  Graff describes Vida Scudder as “one of the most remarkable of the forgotten figures of early American literary studies” and “virtually in a category by herself” (84).  However, even the impressive Vida Scudder is allotted only a single paragraph to herself, after which she is mentioned once or twice more when Graff mentions the generalist male scholars who happened to agree with her views as if being adopted by male scholars is what makes her views truly valid.

Beyond simply neglecting to discuss important women scholars, Graff also quotes and relates various attitudes and assumptions about women and effeminacy without any kind of reflection or analysis.  For instance, in the explaining why women’s colleges usually took on the same classical curricula as colleges like Yale and Princeton, Graff explains that “the decision to give women of these colleges [Vassar, Smith, etc] the standard fare for males ‘was dictated by the necessity to prove that women could undertake a serious course of study’” (37).  Here, Graff is once again quoting someone else so we may excuse his use of the word “necessity” rather than, say, the “perceived necessity.”  However, Graff makes no attempt to interrogate this assumption that women needed to prove themselves capable of the same coursework as men.  I do not mean, here, to imply that Graff actually believes this statement.  But he seems unwilling or unable to critically examine such statements, exposing only a vague understanding of why it is problematic.  He seems to understand that such attitudes about women are “wrong,” but he lacks the theoretical grounding to examine these attitudes, or to recognize when he is, in fact, replicating such attitudes within his text.


Finally, I would like to point to what I see as Graff’s underestimation (or perhaps misunderstanding) of how ideology works.  This is visible throughout the text, but I will point out just a few of Graff’s statements to make my point.  First, the only conception of ideology he discusses is that of deconstructionists, which while important and powerful, is not the only way to discuss ideology.  Second, even his representation of deconstruction is over-simplified, such as when he states: “I see nothing inherently self-undoing or illegitimate about all idealizations as the deconstructionists do, and I doubt that all institutional patterns can be explained as effects of ideology, power, ‘logocentrism,’ or subjugation” (Graff 11).  Graff’s understanding of deconstruction here empties out all the complexity of the method/theory, which Derrida developed as a way to examine all the complex, contradictory, but connected assumptions and meanings that lay at the base of a text.  The point of deconstruction is not to illegitimate all idealizations but to demonstrate how the many idealizations within a text contradict (and perhaps illegitimate) each other in ways that allow for multiple legitimate and meaningful interpretations of a single text.  Graff also accuses deconstruction of tending to “accept the same working model of institutional history as the traditionalists, merely ‘reinscribing’ it in an accusatory vocabulary” (11).  This is clear meant as an insult, even an attack on deconstruction, which is all well and good if he can support his claim with any kind of proof.  Yet Graff does not even take a moment to explain what precisely he means by this, and certain makes no effort to explain why he thinks so.

So there’s that!  If you were brave/crazy enough to read the whole thing, I applaud you!  Please tell me what you think.  I’d love to hear it!  Also, please come back on Monday for the Top 10 SciFi TV Shows, Pt 2.  I promise not to throw anymore theoretical jargon at you for awhile.

Thinker-Dreamer Ray Kurzweil

Science/Fantasy Monday: Thinker-Dreamer Ray Kurzweil

Few people outside the science/technology community have heard of him, but Ray Kurzweil is one of the kings of invention, and science fiction writers, at the very least, should become intimately familiar with his work.

He has been described as “the restless genius” by The Wall Street Journal, and “the ultimate thinking machine” by Forbes. Inc. magazine ranked him #8 among entrepreneurs in the United States, calling him the “rightful heir to Thomas Edison,” and PBS included Ray as one of 16 “revolutionaries who made America,” along with other inventors of the past two centuries.

Ray Kurzweil is, first and foremost, an inventor.  He was the principle inventor/developer of the first CCD flatbed scanner, the first omni-font optical text recognition, the first print-to-speech reading machine for the blind, the first music synthesizer capable of recreating the grand piano and other orchestral instruments, the first commercially marketed large-vocabulary speech recognition, the first computer programs capable of composing music and poetry based on synthesized materials, and the first virtual performing artists (Ramona) to perform in front of a live audience with a live band (just to name a few accomplishments).

He has written six books and a multitude of articles.  He has started several companies.  And he has made several movies/documentaries, including The Singularity Is Near: A True Story About the Future, based on his book of the same title, which is part fiction and part non-fiction; and Transcendent Man, a documentary about Kurzweil made while on his global speaking tour in 2008-2009 (which is curently available for streaming on Netflix).

Kurzweil is a very vocal advocate for futurism and transhumanism.  In his books he has made many forecasts for technological advancements, his arguments derived principally from Moore’s Law, which argues that the rate of innovation in computer technology is increasing not linearly but rather exponentially.  Kurzweil argues that because so much of science and technology depends on computing power, this exponential advancement in computer tech will likewise mean exponential advancement in non-computer sciences, like nanotech, biotech, and materials science.  He calls this concept the “Law of Accelerating Returns.”

Kurzweil is at heart the ultimate optimist.  His predictions include such amazing claims as:

  • Before 2050 medical advances will allow people to radically extend their lifespans while preserving quality of life through use of nanobots.
  • A computer will pass the Turing Test by 2029 (if you don’t know what the Turing Test is, well… then… I just don’t know what can be done for you… Kidding, kidding.  Go read this > Turing Test, and come right back.  I’ll wait.).
  • Sentient artificial intelligences will exhibit moral think and respect humans.
  • The line between human and machine will blur as machines attain human-level intelligence and humans start incorporating more tech into their bodies.

Admittedly, some of these predictions are a bit more far-fetched the others.  The thing is, many of the predictions made in his first book, The Age of Intelligent Machines (1990), came true.  As one example, he predicted that a computer would beat the World Chess Champion by 1998, and IBM’s Deep Blue computer did just that in May 1997.  On the other hand, many of his predictions don’t happen at all a fact continually pointed out by his critics (though I think it is unfair to expect him to always get everything right in order to be taken seriously, and if he was always right, I’d be worried about where the hell he actually came from).

Kurzweil’s predictions have given rise to a lot of criticism from within the scientific community and from the media.  Everyone from Douglas Hofstadter (author of Godel, Escher, Bach) to scifi author Bruce Sterling have taken exception to at least some of his ideas.  I myself do not agree with everything he says, or find every prediction all that plausible.  As others have pointed out, and I readily agree, as Kurzweil moves farther away from his focus on technology to biological sciences, his ideas become more far-fetched, more utopian, and a little harder to swallow.

Biologist P.Z. Myer’s blog article about Kurzweil is one example of some of the harsh, but potentially valid criticism that has been laid against Ray Kurzweil in recent years: “Ray Kurzweil Does Not Understand the Brain.”

Ray Kurzweil is one of my heroes.  I love his books, especially The Age of Spiritual Machines and Singularity Is Near, passionately.  But that doesn’t mean I’m blind to his limitations, and that doesn’t mean I have to agree with everything he says.  It is important that we think for ourselves and come to our own conclusions, especially where our heroes are concerned.

But agreeing with everything he says is not that point.  Especially not for science fiction writers.

The point is that this man thinks outside the box constantly and exuberantly, never dismissing any idea no matter how many people have already decided it’s impossible. In a world that is morbidly cynical about science and technology and the roles/consequences they will have in the future, Ray Kurzweil is unblinkingly, unapologetically optimistic.  And, at least some of the time, he is right.  His ideas, predictions, philosophies, and attitudes are positively ripe for the picking for future scientists and scifi writers alike.  While his relevancy within the science community may be fading, and his predictions are beginning to go off-mark, I believe he will remain and indispensable source of inspiration for science fiction writers.

Go read his books.  You’ll see what I mean.

Ray Kurzweil Links: