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Big Think Interview With Francine Prose
Francine Prose is the author of fifteen books of fiction, including A Changed Man and Blue Angel, which was a finalist for the National Book Award, and the nonfiction New York Times bestseller Reading Like a Writer. Her latest novel, Goldengrove, was published in September 2008. She is the president of PEN American Center. She lives in New York City.
Question: Why is Anne Frank’s diary of universal interest to readers?
Francine Prose: I wrote the book essentially because I was trying to figure that out. What is it about this book that made it explode that way in popularity and readership and the devotion of its readers? So the first thing I decided to do, or thought I was going to do, was to look at the book as a book and as a work of literature, really, because that was the thing that seemed to me really hadn’t exactly been done before. I mean it had been talked about in all different sorts of ways but not that way. So I thought having written Reading Like a Writer, which is all about close reading, I would do a kind of straight up close reading of the book; a kind of tribute to the book.
And look at the way Anne used dialogue, narration, passages of reflection, dramatized scenes, and so forth and really so many novelistic techniques work throughout the book. Also, it had occurred to me that in ten or 20 years all the survivors of that time will be gone. And here’s a book that will survive. Here are names of actual people that we’ll remember among all those millions who were killed and again it was written by a 13 to 15 year old girl. So I set out to figure out why that happened. So the first surprise, really for me, was how consciously crafted the book was.
I mean, I thought just what many people thought which was she wrote in this little checked diary and that was it. And then when she was arrested along with her family, the diary was left in the attic and it was essentially transcribed and published. Well what I discovered was that, in fact, she had gone back and rewritten the entire book. She had rewritten it from start to finish. So starting in the spring of 1944, so essentially the last few months in the attic, and very consciously set out to write something that would be published; that would be read. So it wasn’t quite the accident that most people think. I mean, she really thought of herself as a writer.
She thought of what she was writing as a work of literature. She thought, you know, her intention was to do a kind of novel; almost like a girl’s detective romance, in a way, based on her diary. So that’s what she thought she was doing.
Question: What kind of writer was Anne Frank?
Francine Prose: She was very conscious of what she was doing. I mean, for example, people think that the device of calling the diary Kitty and of framing the diary entries as letters to the unknown, unseen, imagined, imaginary friend Kitty was again some kind of spontaneous thing that she did. Well the early diary entries, for example, the first diary entry in which she decides to talk to Kitty, to call the diary Kitty, is dated June 20th, 1942 but again it was written in 1944. So that decision to call the diary Kitty, which sounds like the decision of a 13 year old, was actually the work of a 15 year old trying to imagine her way back into the persona and the mind of the 13 year old that she was. And even that, I mean that device of using Kitty, being able to write partly in the second person to a particular audience turns the reader into that audience. So it’s not as if she is writing into the ether really, she writing to a very particular person and when we read it, we become that person, that listener, that intimate friend of hers.
Question: Was Anne Frank a self-conscious writer?
Francine Prose: I mean, she sounds very innocent and open and it sounds completely unselfconscious but one of the things I thought about and discovered and thought about some more is how much craft it takes to sound unselfconscious. I mean, in fact, the unselfconscious way of writing sounds self-conscious. I mean, when most people start to write—sit down and start to write their journals and diaries, what you get is this kind of stilted, you know, and you can see it on peoples’ blogs all the time that kind of, you know, you’re looking in the mirror and writing at the same time in a certain way. So that naturalness and that kind of flowing quality of her narration was actually something worked on; something that she got right finally. I mean, of course, a lot of it came from her actual personality and her nature and she was very, very obviously really smart and aware and observant and nervy and resourceful but she worked on getting that voice on the page.
Question: What were Anne Frank’s influences?
Francine Prose: She was a huge reader and she read all the time they were in hiding. I mean, she had been reading before. And she started out really, I mean, the early diary entries, the real early diary entries on her 13th birthday, she got a lot of books along with the other presents. So she was, at the beginning, she was reading mythology. You know, the things kids read. Mythology, she was very fond of these girls. Novels, these kind of girl’s detective novels. Then when she was in hiding, she was reading Goode and Shiller and the Bible and the Old Testament and the New Testament and so forth. So she had a kind of literary sensibility already formed. So it wasn’t as if she were writing in a vacuum. She knew very well what literature was and what she was aiming at.
Question: How do you teach the diary as a work of literature?
Francine Prose: Well, you know what? I never taught it until I was working on the book. I mean, I never, it hadn’t occurred to me really to teach it. And it was – the last chapter of my book is about teaching the book at Bard College where I teach. And I assigned it to my students and one of the things that I found so amusing was that they were carrying the book around the campus and other kids were saying, I mean, they were acting really as if they were doing, you know, wearing their grade school t-shirts or something. As if it were some ironic gesture. And they were saying, well didn’t you read that in seventh grade, dude. You know, why are you reading it now? But my students got it, you know, how beautifully she wrote. Because by then, you know, I teach a closed reading class so by then I taught it late in the semester. So by then they’d been with me all semester, they knew how I wanted them to read and that’s how they read it. And they were impressed by it, technically. I mean, how much she’d accomplished. And also, one of the things that I found so moving and why I decided to end my book with a chapter about that class, was the power and the emotional connection and the intensity of the connectiveness that 20 year olds, 2007, sophisticated, hip kids still felt with this 15 year old girl in that attic in Amsterdam during the World War II. And whatever Anne had done, what her achievement was, was to make that kind of connection possible, that after all these years and such different circumstances, my students could read it and still feel as if she were talking to them.
Question: What was the most surprising thing you came across in your research?
Francine Prose: I mean, really the biggest thing for me was finding out that she had revised the diary. I mean, I really hadn’t known that. I thought what most people think which is she wrote the diary, it fell on the floor when she was arrested. They picked it up off the floor, transcribed it and published it. Not true. So that was a huge revelation. And then the ability to go back and look at her revision process and her as a writer and see what she changed and how she changed it was a real revelation. I mean, really it was – whenever you see a writer’s first drafts and second drafts and how things are crossed out and changed, it’s always incredibly interesting to see the process. So that was a huge revelation. Then, you know, all of the way through to find out that the book had been turned down by every publisher. No one wanted to publish it. So when her father – after the war, when her father came back, the only survivor of the people in the attic, and typed up the manuscript and was bringing it around to Dutch publishers, everyone was saying too boring, too domestic, too Jewish, who wants to read a girl’s diary and besides, everyone wants to forget the war.
They don’t want to be reminded of what happened. So only after an article about the book, an essay, was published in a newspaper that had formerly been the resistance newspaper by a Dutch intellectual who had been a resistance worker, leader really, there was Dutch interest in publishing the book. Then the book was almost wasn’t published in the United States until Judith Jones, the legendary editor, fished it out of the rejection pile in France where she was working at Doubleday. Then the book was published here by another odd and in this case, kind of sketchy accident, it was reviewed on the front page of the New York Times book review by Meyer Levin who was working as the book’s agent in a certain way. Trying to sell it’s the theatrical rights which is, you know, not a good idea to have a book review in the Times by its agent but in this case; it turned it into a best seller. So one thing after another. Then the play which was this unbelievably stormy, conflicted, nightmarish drama really, propelled the book’s popularity. I mean, you know, it came out in 1952 in this country. It was a best seller. Then it kind of and it never sold particularly well in Europe. Suddenly when the play started going around and then the film, it became – I mean, that’s what really made, turned it into the icon it eventually became.
Question: Was Anne Frank’s diary a diary at all?
Francine Prose: It started off as a diary and then it became a memoir in diary form. Because, you know, when we think of a diary, we think something happened and then that day or two days later, you write about the thing that happened. That is it’s more or less concurrent with what’s happening. But if you’re writing about what happened two years later and putting yourself back in the frame of mind of the person two years earlier, that’s a memoir. But the form of it, of course, is a diary. It’s written as a diary entries so that’s really what she was doing. A writer’s notebook is something quite different. A writer’s notebook, at least mine and most of the one’s I’ve seen, they’re just random jottings and observations and ideas maybe for something you might want to write or whatever but there’s no feeling that you have to have a consistent sustained narrative.
Recorded On: September 16, 2009
Question: Are you concerned about internalizing and reiterating the work of other writers?
Francine Prose: You know, I’ve often heard writers, actually not writers, people who want to be writers say, oh I can’t possibly read when I’m writing because I’m afraid that it will rub up off on me and I’ll start to write. And I always think, oh how terrifying, I might sound like Tolstoy or Chekhov or, oh no. No I don’t think that. Certainly, I think, when you start out writing, when anybody starts out writing, you start out imitatively. There’s writers you admire and you start out consciously or unconsciously imitating those writers but eventually you grow out of that and develop your own sensibility, really. So in terms of research for nonfiction books, fortunately or unfortunately, I don’t have that great of memory. Certainly not anymore so I’m never worried about remembering too much. That doesn’t happen.
Like every writer, I had a great high school English teacher. But I had a really bad junior high school English teacher, I mean, she wasn’t bad. She was probably great. I just didn’t like her. And she assigned us to copy over word for word a Chekhov, a short Chekhov story. It’s the one where the guy is talking to the horse. He tells his horse the whole story. And so we had to copy it over. And we were all just in a rage about it. What a waste of our time. Actually I think it was very useful. And in fact, when I was writing Reading Like a Writer, in which there’s huge blocks of quotes from other writers and because I have no technological ability whatsoever, I couldn’t figure out how to scan anything. So in some cases I had to type whole pages of other writers into the manuscript. So and I would notice my writing would get briefly better after I had copied, literally copied, I mean copying this 181 word sentence from Virginia Woolf, my writing sounded a little bit more like Virginia Woolf’s afterwards which is a good thing. So I think that can be very useful.
Question: How much do you read when you’re writing?
Francine Prose: You know, I wish, I wish I read more. I mean when I was a kid that’s all I did for years. And then when you’re in college, if you’re an English major as I was, you know, you’ll have a week where you have to read four Victorian novels by the end. You know, you’re reading these huge amounts. Now, unfortunately, my life is so overwhelmingly crammed with stuff that it’s very hard to find that time to just read for pleasure. Also, because I still review quite a bit. Often the books I’m reading are books that I’m reading for work really. But every so often I get a chance to read something just to read something. I mean, I was traveling a lot in the spring and I read Little Dorrit; Dickens’ Little Dorrit. And I just loved it. I just couldn’t believe it. A number of us were reading Little Dorrit actually. Friends of mine because I guess there was a PBS series. There was a dramatization and a couple of my friends said, oh I don’t really want to watch the TV show. Let’s read it. And you know, we don’t have a reading group or anything but just people I knew were reading it. And a friend of mine said, who would have thought that Dickens has been underrated all this time. It was so great and the joy of reading it was extraordinary. So you know every so often that happens. [00:21:37.24]
Question: How much should aspiring writers read?
Francine Prose: I’m always shocked and believe me it happens more than you can imagine, to meet young writers, graduate students, who don’t read. Or don’t read anything written before the last 50 years. Or don’t see why they should read the classics and I just can’t understand why they want to be writers. What would be the point really?
Question: Do you worry about the decline in reading?
Francine Prose: Yeah. How could I not? Although, you know, the novelist Richard Price has this great thing that he says or I heard him say which was people were talking about the death of the novel and he says the novel will be around at our funeral. And it’s true. You know, there’s still, you know, I was just this weekend I was at the Brooklyn Book Festival. It was jammed. There were hundreds of people there. You know, people with baby strollers and readers and writers and it was jammed. So clearly somebody is still reading. I mean I can’t figure out, you know, I guess there were a couple of musicians there. There were no movie stars that I noticed so somebody had to be there to see writers.
Question: Why do you write both fiction and non-fiction?
Francine Prose: Well, simply, I like writing both. But also I’m not – there’s some writers, well Philip Roth comes to mind for example, who can at this point finish a novel and, as far as I can tell, start another novel. And with no decline in quality really. He can just keep turning out these fabulous novels but I can’t do that. I need time after a novel, really, to write another novel; to even think about another novel. Nonfiction is great in that way in that you don’t need the same kind of inspiration really. You can just write. And I like to write. I mean, I have to say, I like the act of writing. I like writing. So I’m able to keep writing without depending on all the sorts of things that you can’t control. I mean, the imagination or all the things that go into a novel. You know, writing nonfiction you have a certain amount of information and you put that information together and tell a story as you would in a novel but it’s not – you can control it. I mean, you don’t – you can pretty much always finish a work of nonfiction. I mean, I’ve stopped novels in the middle because they are not going anywhere. This has never happened to me with nonfiction.
Question: Do you write every day?
Francine Prose: Well, unfortunately not. I mean, here I am. I’m not going to write today but when I can. For example, this summer I wrote everyday; pretty much every day. You know, the summers are great. I mean, I can work in the garden and so forth and write. So over the summer I wrote everyday and if I had my, if I could choose my life, I would be writing everyday but no one can really. Or very few people can so I actually have a life in addition to having a writing life. And there are various things that I have to do and want to do because of the life I’m living in addition to the writing life so no I don’t.
Question: Do you keep your own journal or notebook?
Francine Prose: I wish I did. You know, I used to be kind of snooty about them. I used to say things like, well I’m not that interested in myself. Now I wish I did because as I remember fewer and fewer things that happened to me, I wish I had the source that I could go to. Because often it happens that people say, remember we were having dinner at blah blah and someday said duh duh. And it’s as if it never happened. So I would like to have some reference to be able to go to but no I don’t. I keep notebooks.
Question: Do you read the notebooks of other writers?
Francine Prose: Oh sure. And they range from just fascinating to inspirational. I mean, Chekhov’s notebooks are great. Dostoevsky’s notebooks are interesting. You know, his struggle to write Crime and Punishment is all in there. And then the letters, I mean, the letters of Flannery O’Connor are particularly amazing and inspirational because, you know, she was so ill for so much of her life. And her determination. I mean, there’s this fantastic section where her mother persuades her to go to Lourdes to look for a cure really because she was so ill. She goes to Lourdes and I think prays for like her second novel to work out well. You know, so that kind of dedication and her humor, her courage, and her intelligence. Or Elizabeth Bishop’s letters. For one thing, you learn a great deal about the process of writing. And second, you just—it’s such an intimate connection with the writer.
Question: Who was the first author that made you want to write?
Francine Prose: You know, as I said, I was such a big reader when I was a kid. So it could have been—it could have started anywhere. You know, Louisa May Alcott, maybe. Hans Christian Anderson, possibly. I remember very clearly reading, Garcia Marquez One Hundred Years of Solitude when I was maybe a couple years out of college. And, you know, my work is nothing like Garcia Marquez, obviously. But the sense of the pleasure of storytelling and how fun it would be to have a story in which things come back and reappear on plot turns had a huge effect on me. I thought, oh that sounds like fun.
Question: Do you see yourself in sort of as part of a certain generation of writers?
Francine Prose: Yeah. Although, I mean, I have lots of friends who are writers who are around my age so I think of us as a generation of writers. Just because we are writers and we’re a generation but I’m not sure, you know, maybe in some other time, someone will say, oh yes, there’s this connection among us. But I don’t necessarily – what do I want to say? I mean, you are formed by the period during which you grew up so there is a certain sensibility, politically, even though this may not come out in the work, socially, again may not come out in the work, about how we view the world that I think is a connection but people’s work, it’s so different from, in a way that it’s supposed to be. We’re supposed to be completely unlike anyone else. That’s kind of the point, you know.
Question: When did you first think of yourself as a writer?
Francine Prose: I’ll let you know when it happens. You know, it doesn’t – I mean, you were asking before about is there a generation of writers and so forth? One of the reasons I feel so fortunate to have close friends who are writers is that we can, on some level, you know, the intensity of self doubt and uncertainty and, you know, a friend of mine says well you never known if anything’s good until the last sentence or the last paragraph or the last draft. I mean that, you know, and if you’re writing a novel, let’s say, you could be working for four years without anyone looking at what you’re doing. So, at some point, you know, at some point every so often I’ll look back at something I’ve done and say, oh yeah, I’m a writer. This is really good. But those moments are rare still. They’re rare.
Recorded On: September 16, 2009
Question: Should we teach a literary canon?
Francine Prose: I think, you know, there’s a reason why certain books have survived. One of the things I tell my students at the beginning is if they don’t like George Eliot or Tolstoy or Chekhov or Virginia Woolf, I don’t want to hear about it. I really don’t want to hear about it. I’m not interested because it’s their job to find out why those writers are still being read. Not to say, oh, you know, blah blah’s boring. So and there is a reason why those books are being read. In many cases because well for all sorts of reasons but one of the discoveries you can make, and it certainly is something that I made when reading Little Dorrit.
[00:35:20.22] I mean, Little Dorrit, Bernie Madoff is all over Little Dorrit. There’s this character right in the center of Little Dorrit who is Mr. Merdle who’s Bernie Madoff. And there is a Ruth Madoff who’s Mrs. Merdle. So, you know, that kind of currency in the way in which even though something was written so long ago, it’s still completely apt and current and topical. It’s always a kind of revelation. And also, you know, who we are and the way we think and the world we live in was at least partly formed by books. So, it’s not a bad idea for students to, if they’re thinking about this world and why we are the way we are, you know, to read Hobbs or Locke or those books that have changed political thought.
Question: Should kids be allowed to read whatever they want?
Francine Prose: You know, I wrote this article years ago, maybe 2000 in Harper’s, that became kind of infamous for awhile called “I Know Why the Caged Bird Can’t Read.” And it was about—you know, I went out and found 800 high school reading lists from across the country to look at what was being taught. And one of the things I discovered was that, you know, in the effort to have a, kind of, broadly inclusive curriculum which I couldn’t support more, there were many books that were actually not that great and that were sort of dull, being taught to kids. I mean my own children, my sons, they were assigned to read some of the same books over and over and over again and there were books I myself couldn’t have read for, really, a million dollars.
I mean, they would just read the same book in third grade, in fifth grade, in seventh grade and you know just these unbelievably dry, boring books. And it’s not the teachers’ fault because in many places they don’t have control over the curriculum. I mean, one of the things that became very clear to me. I mean after this article came out, one of the bad effects was that high school teachers felt as if they’d been attacked by what I was writing which wasn’t my intention. So for a few months I was on all these call in shows and you know so forth. And most of the people, who called in and were quite angry, were teachers. And I began saying to them, okay look, if you could pick a book to teach, what would it be? And I felt at the end of that process, I could have generated a really amazing reading list based on what the teachers suggested. I mean, if you have to teach – and it’s why I feel so glad to be able to teach the way I teach and what I teach, I’m never asked to teach a book I don’t like.
Or if I do teach a book I don’t like, there’s a reason why I don’t like it which I want my students to know and I teach it as a book I don’t like, not as a book I like. So if you have teachers teaching books for which they feel no affection and no enthusiasm, it’s very hard to make students like. I mean, it really has to come from—I mean, I always say when I’m teaching literature, I feel like a cheer leader for literature. Well you want that. And you want that especially in the early grades. And unfortunately, the way the educational system, especially since No Child Left Behind and all the horrific measures we’ve taken to improve our system, teachers are rarely given that latitude to inspire their students with love for reading.
Question: What books should be taken out of the canon?
Francine Prose: Well, you know it can, speaking of that article, you know, only after you’ve written something do you find out what you should have written or what you should have said. I was very critical of Maya Angelou and it got me into a lot of trouble. Now I think, look, if one student read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, if one student read that book and became a lifelong passionate reader as a result of that book then how great. Then by all means teach that book. I mean, I think, you know, the trouble is that a lot of books are taught because they’re easy to draw moral – improving moral lessons from the canon or another sort of other which is not, which doesn’t have that much to do with literature. I mean, the other thing I was looking at was the way classics are taught. So for example, you know, Huckleberry Finn is taught as a kind of morality, that is what should Tom and Huck have done instead of what they did. Well, you know, and very few people are saying, look, Mark Twain managed to get the voice of a teenage boy on the page in a way that it had never been done before. Isn’t that extraordinary? How did he do that?
Question: Should literature be taught in conjunction with history?
Francine Prose: Well, yeah. I mean, I think it would be hard to read Huckleberry Finn without knowing about the history of slavery in the United States. So those two things work together. But I think that if you read the literature, someone at some point should say to you, look, this novel makes you realize what it was like to live inside this in the way that your history book doesn’t. And that’s quite different.
Francine Prose: Also, The Great Gatsby is often taught in sort of bogus ways. I mean, you know, as an example of the unreliable narrator. Like who cares about that? Who cares about that? I mean, what’s amazing about the book, just for starters, is how beautiful it is. You know, so for everybody that’s taught about the unreliable narrator, if only somebody would say to them, listen to this, it’s gorgeous. You know, and I think, you know, your teacher who knew it by heart, that’s what you get from that.
Question: What’s your favorite book to teach?
Francine Prose: Well, there’s so many. You know, Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Sons, I’ve always thought, was made for teachers of undergraduates, you know. I mean, it’s just great to teach. I have whole of quite a long list that every year I take different things from it. So, you know, things Mavis Gallant is great to teach. Deborah Eisenberg is great to teach. Roberto Bolano. Leonard Michaels. John Cheever. There’s a great, there’s a huge long list. And also every semester I like to teach something that is actually kind of impossible to teach. And it always is impossible to teach but then that’s sort of interesting.
Question: What’s the most difficult book to teach?
Francine Prose: I tried to teach The Snow Queen last year or year before last, I think. It’s crazy. I mean, it’s just, you know, because on the surface it’s a story about this boy and girl and you know the boy is kidnapped by the snow queen and at the end, they’re like little children, the flowers are blooming, they’re singing these little songs. Well, in fact, it’s the most dark, twisted, erotic, tormented, crazy story so it’s possible to teach as a great example of the way in which the product can be much better than the intention but other than that, it’s pretty hard to talk about.
Question: What makes something hard to teach?
Francine Prose: Because you wind up just going, what? You just shake your head. I mean, because it’s so – there’s certain works of literature that are just hard to talk about, you know. Jane Bowles is very hard to teach even though she’s one of my favorite writers because it’s so—or Bolano who’s one of my new favorite writers. You know, it’s just outside the realm of normal human experience and literary experience. So you really have to invent a whole new language in which to talk about it.
Recorded On: September 16, 2009
Question: What keeps you up at night?
Francine Prose: You mean, besides mortality, which keeps everybody up at night? Or coffee? Or chocolate? Or? You know, I mean, I’ve become a bit of an insomniac. I mean, I’m up a lot around say between two and four and I fall asleep and I’m up. And there’s a huge range of things. I mean, a lot of it on the most mundane level, it’s, you know, the email I forgot to answer, the phone call I forgot to make, you know, the thing I have to remember tomorrow or something awful is going to happen. You know, those things and I think that that’s true for a lot of people. But then, you know, all the larger things do creep in there. I’m often just in a complete state of rage about politics and the world and our country and our society and sometimes for better or worse, it just decides to wake me up at two o’clock in the morning and there I am just gnashing my teeth in the middle of the night.
Question: So does writing help?
Francine Prose: It’s certainly a great distraction. I mean as long as I’m working, I’m not thinking about that other stuff so that’s, you know, thank you. But certainly when I was working closely with PEN, I felt like I was doing something. I mean, I was —you know, it is a human rights organization so we were keeping track of writers all over the world who were in prison and persecuted and so forth. But again, I mean, on a larger level, another friend says that literature is a weapon against propaganda. And I think that’s true. I think that everyone now is barraged with propaganda every moment of their waking lives. Every moment. Not just government propaganda but certainly that but also corporate propaganda, cultural propaganda, all sorts of propaganda. And anything you write, if it’s anything like the truth, even remotely like the truth, militates against that in a certain way, I mean, or anything you read. I mean, you can be told, for example, that, as we were for eight years, that certain countries were the axis of evil. But if you read work by writers who live in those countries, you find out, surprise, they’re human beings, just the way we are. You know, you can be told that undocumented workers are illegals but if you read work about or by people from the countries from which these people come, you realize, surprise, they’re human beings. So I think in that way, and I’m not saying literature has to do this, literature doesn’t have to do anything at all but literature can do this.
Recorded On: September 16, 2009
Higher education faces challenges that are unlike any other industry. What path will ASU, and universities like ASU, take in a post-COVID world?
- Everywhere you turn, the idea that coronavirus has brought on a "new normal" is present and true. But for higher education, COVID-19 exposes a long list of pernicious old problems more than it presents new problems.
- It was widely known, yet ignored, that digital instruction must be embraced. When combined with traditional, in-person teaching, it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale.
- COVID-19 has forced institutions to understand that far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted.
What conditions of the new normal were already appreciated widely?<p>First, we understand that higher education is unique among industries. Some industries are governed by markets. Others are run by governments. Most operate under the influence of both markets and governments. And then there's higher education. Higher education as an "industry" involves public, private, and for-profit universities operating at small, medium, large, and now massive scales. Some higher education industry actors are intense specialists; others are adept generalists. Some are fantastically wealthy; others are tragically poor. Some are embedded in large cities; others are carefully situated near farms and frontiers.</p> <p>These differences demonstrate just some of the complexities that shape higher education. Still, we understand that change in the industry is underway, and we must be active in directing it. Yet because of higher education's unique (and sometimes vexing) operational and structural conditions, many of the lessons from change management and the science of industrial transformation are only applicable in limited or highly modified ways. For evidence of this, one can look at various perspectives, including those that we have offered, on such topics as <a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/blogs/rethinking-higher-education/lessons-disruption" target="_blank">disruption</a>, <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/20/education/learning/education-technology.html" target="_blank">technology management</a>, and so-called "<a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/sites/default/server_files/media/Excerpt_IHESpecialReport_Growing-Role-of-Mergers-in-Higher-Ed.pdf" target="_blank">mergers and acquisitions</a>" in higher education. In each of these spaces, the "market forces" and "market rules" for higher education are different than they are in business, or even in government. This has always been the case and it is made more obvious by COVID-19.</p> <p>Second, with so much excitement about innovation in higher education, we sometimes lose sight of the fact that students are—and should remain—the core cause for innovation. Higher education's capacity to absorb new ideas is strong. But the ideas that endure are those designed to benefit students, and therefore society. This is important to remember because not all innovations are designed with students in mind. The recent history of innovation in higher education includes several cautionary tales of what can happen when institutional interests—or worse, <a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/02/09/apollos-new-owners-seek-fresh-start-beleaguered-company" target="_blank">shareholder</a> interests—are placed above student well-being.</p>
Photo: Getty Images<p>Third, it is abundantly apparent that universities must leverage technology to increase educational quality and access. The rapid shift to delivering an education that complies with social distancing guidelines speaks volumes about the adaptability of higher education institutions, but this transition has also posed unique difficulties for colleges and universities that had been slow to adopt digital education. The last decade has shown that online education, implemented effectively, can meet or even surpass the quality of in-person <a href="https://link-springer-com.ezproxy1.lib.asu.edu/article/10.1007/s10639-019-10027-z" target="_blank">instruction</a>.</p><p>Digital instruction, broadly defined, leverages online capabilities and integrates adaptive learning methodologies, predictive analytics, and innovations in instructional design to enable increased student engagement, personalized learning experiences, and improved learning outcomes. The ability of these technologies to transcend geographic barriers and to shrink the marginal cost of educating additional students makes them essential for delivering education at scale.</p><p>As a bonus, and it is no small thing given that they are the core cause for innovation, students embrace and enjoy digital instruction. It is their preference to learn in a format that leverages technology. This should not be a surprise; it is now how we live in all facets of life.</p><p>Still, we have only barely begun to conceive of the impact digital education will have. For example, emerging virtual and augmented reality technologies that facilitate interactive, hands-on learning will transform the way that learners acquire and apply new knowledge. Technology-enabled learning cannot replace the traditional college experience or ensure the survival of any specific college, but it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale. This has always been the case, and it is made more obvious by COVID-19.</p>
What conditions of the new normal were emerging suspicions?<p>Our collective thinking about the role of institutional or university-to-university collaboration and networking has benefitted from a new clarity in light of COVID-19. We now recognize more than ever that colleges and universities must work together to ensure that the American higher education system is resilient and sufficiently robust to meet the needs of students and their families.</p> <p>In recent weeks, various commentators have suggested that higher education will face a wave of institutional <a href="https://www.businessinsider.com/scott-galloway-predicts-colleges-will-close-due-to-pandemic-2020-5" target="_blank">closures</a> and consolidations and that large institutions with significant online instruction capacity will become dominant.</p> <p>While ASU is the largest public university in the United States by enrollment and among the most well-equipped in online education, we strongly oppose "let them fail" mindsets. The strength of American higher education relies on its institutional diversity, and on the ability of colleges and universities to meet the needs of their local communities and educate local students. The needs of learners are highly individualized, demanding a wide range of options to accommodate the aspirations and learning styles of every kind of student. Education will become less relevant and meaningful to students, and less responsive to local needs, if institutions of higher learning are allowed to fail. </p> <p>Preventing this outcome demands that colleges and universities work together to establish greater capacity for remote, distributed education. This will help institutions with fewer resources adapt to our new normal and continue to fulfill their mission of serving students, their families, and their communities. Many had suspected that collaboration and networking were preferable over letting vulnerable colleges fail. COVID-19's new normal seems to be confirming this.</p>
President Barack Obama delivers the commencement address during the Arizona State University graduation ceremony at Sun Devil Stadium May 13, 2009 in Tempe, Arizona. Over 65,000 people attended the graduation.
Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images<p>A second condition of the new normal that many had suspected to be true in recent years is the limited role that any one university or type of university can play as an exemplar to universities more broadly. For decades, the evolution of higher education has been shaped by the widespread imitation of a small number of elite universities. Most public research universities could benefit from replicating Berkeley or Michigan. Most small private colleges did well by replicating Williams or Swarthmore. And all universities paid close attention to Harvard, Princeton, MIT, Stanford, and Yale. It is not an exaggeration to say that the logic of replication has guided the evolution of higher education for centuries, both in the US and abroad.</p><p>Only recently have we been able to move beyond replication to new strategies of change, and COVID-19 has confirmed the legitimacy of doing so. For example, cases such as <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2020/03/10/harvard-moves-classes-online-advises-students-stay-home-after-spring-break-response-covid-19/" target="_blank">Harvard's</a> eviction of students over the course of less than one week or <a href="https://www.nhregister.com/news/coronavirus/article/Mayor-New-Haven-asks-for-coronavirus-help-Yale-15162606.php" target="_blank">Yale's apparent reluctance</a> to work with the city of New Haven, highlight that even higher education's legacy gold standards have limits and weaknesses. We are hopeful that the new normal will include a more active and earnest recognition that we need many types of universities. We think the new normal invites us to rethink the very nature of "gold standards" for higher education.</p>
A graduate student protests MIT's rejection of some evacuation exemption requests.
Photo: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images<p>Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we had started to suspect and now understand that America's colleges and universities are among the many institutions of democracy and civil society that are, by their very design, incapable of being sufficiently responsive to the full spectrum of modern challenges and opportunities they face. Far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted. And without new designs, we can expect postsecondary success for these same students to be as elusive in the new normal, as it was in the <a href="http://pellinstitute.org/indicators/reports_2019.shtml" target="_blank">old normal</a>. This is not just because some universities fail to sufficiently recognize and engage the promise of diversity, this is because few universities have been designed from the outset to effectively serve the unique needs of lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color.</p>
Where can the new normal take us?<p>As colleges and universities face the difficult realities of adapting to COVID-19, they also face an opportunity to rethink their operations and designs in order to respond to social needs with greater agility, adopt technology that enables education to be delivered at scale, and collaborate with each other in order to maintain the dynamism and resilience of the American higher education system.</p> <p>COVID-19 raises questions about the relevance, the quality, and the accessibility of higher education—and these are the same challenges higher education has been grappling with for years. </p> <p>ASU has been able to rapidly adapt to the present circumstances because we have spent nearly two decades not just anticipating but <em>driving</em> innovation in higher education. We have adopted a <a href="https://www.asu.edu/about/charter-mission-and-values" target="_blank">charter</a> that formalizes our definition of success in terms of "who we include and how they succeed" rather than "<a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/10/17/forget-varsity-blues-madness-lets-talk-about-students-who-cant-afford-college/" target="_blank">who we exclude</a>." We adopted an entrepreneurial <a href="https://president.asu.edu/read/higher-logic" target="_blank">operating model</a> that moves at the speed of technological and social change. We have launched initiatives such as <a href="https://www.instride.com/how-it-works/" target="_blank">InStride</a>, a platform for delivering continuing education to learners already in the workforce. We developed our own robust technological capabilities in ASU <a href="https://edplus.asu.edu/" target="_blank">EdPlus</a>, a hub for research and development in digital learning that, even before the current crisis, allowed us to serve more than 45,000 fully online students. We have also created partnerships with other forward-thinking institutions in order to mutually strengthen our capabilities for educational accessibility and quality; this includes our role in co-founding the <a href="https://theuia.org/" target="_blank">University Innovation Alliance</a>, a consortium of 11 public research universities that share data and resources to serve students at scale. </p> <p>For ASU, and universities like ASU, the "new normal" of a post-COVID world looks surprisingly like the world we already knew was necessary. Our record breaking summer 2020 <a href="https://asunow.asu.edu/20200519-sun-devil-life-summer-enrollment-sets-asu-record" target="_blank">enrollment</a> speaks to this. What COVID demonstrates is that we were already headed in the right direction and necessitates that we continue forward with new intensity and, we hope, with more partners. In fact, rather than "new normal" we might just say, it's "go time." </p>
Human brains evolved for creativity. We just have to learn how to access it.
- An all-star cast of Big Thinkers—actors Rainn Wilson and Ethan Hawke; composer Anthony Brandt; neuroscientists David Eagleman, Wendy Suzuki, and Beau Lotto; and psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman—share how they define creativity and explain how our brains uniquely evolved for the phenomenon.
- According to Eagleman, during evolution there was an increase in space between our brain's input and output that allows information more time to percolate. We also grew a larger prefrontal cortex which "allows us to simulate what ifs, to separate ourselves from our location in space and time and think about possibilities."
- Scott Barry Kaufman details 3 brain networks involved in creative thinking, and Wendy Suzuki busts the famous left-brain, right-brain myth.
Manly Bands wanted to improve on mens' wedding bands. Mission accomplished.
- Manly Bands was founded in 2016 to provide better options and customer service in men's wedding bands.
- Unique materials include antler, dinosaur bones, meteorite, tungsten, and whiskey barrels.
- The company donates a portion of profits to charity every month.
Iranian Tolkien scholar finds intriguing parallels between subcontinental geography and famous map of Middle-earth.
- J.R.R. Tolkien hinted that his stories are set in a really ancient version of Europe.
- But a fantasy realm can be inspired by a variety of places; and perhaps so is Tolkien's world.
- These intriguing similarities with Asian topography show that it may be time to 'decolonise' Middle-earth.
Mental decolonisation<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzQzMDM0OS9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MDU4Mjg3N30.pKS1PLxKYeJ6WDPAcleg7NCxzDn7Pddcg9rSJaul6no/img.png?width=980" id="56ee5" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="1d2ba98946accd12f7e0070c8d10154d" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="Menu page for Arda.ir, the website of the Persian Tolkien Society." />
Menu page for Arda.ir, the website of the Persian Tolkien Society.
Image: Arda.ir<p>Where on earth was Middle-earth? Based on a few hints by Tolkien himself, we've always sort-of assumed that his stories of "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings" were centered on Europe, but so long ago that the shape of the coasts and the land has changed. </p><p>But perhaps that's too easy and too Eurocentric an assumption; perhaps, like so many other things these days, Tolkien's fantasy realm too is in dire need of mental decolonisation.</p><p>And here's an excellent occasion: an Iranian Tolkienologist has found intriguing hints that the writer based some of Middle-earth's topography on mountains, rivers, and islands located in and near present-day Pakistan. </p><p>As mentioned in a previous article – recently reposted on the <a href="https://www.facebook.com/VeryStrangeMaps" target="_blank">Strange Maps Facebook page</a> on the occasion of the death of Ian Holm – Tolkien admitted that "The Shire is based on rural England, and not on any other country in the world," and that "the action of the story takes place in the North-West of 'Middle-earth', equivalent in latitude to the coastlands of Europe and the north shores of the Mediterranean."<br></p>
Non-European topography<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzQzMDM1MC9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1NTQ4MzcyMX0.891LPW42L78fdrwUhXdgOab7cbhs3YOqZK4ukIQx-Rw/img.png?width=980" id="6741c" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2b50c57cb3b8a3a1cc8a4696c89ad954" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="Map of Tian-shan, the Himalayas, and the Pamirs" />
If you look at it like that, yes: that does resemble Mordor...
Image: Mohammad Reza Kamali, reproduced with kind permission<p>Extrapolating from the location of the Shire in Middle-earth and from other clues dropped by Tolkien, geophysics and geology professor Peter Bird matched the geography of Middle-earth with that of Europe (more about that in the <a href="https://bigthink.com/strange-maps/121-where-on-earth-was-middle-earth?utm_medium=Social&utm_source=Facebook&fbclid=IwAR0ZFYK1EXrf4J3B3X5_U4hSAgidgBs24ZNTYV9QEFbz2qI34OA_DpZsn70#Echobox=1592583835" target="_blank">aforementioned article</a>).</p><p>However, seeing Middle-earth as a mere palimpsest for present-day Europe is to place an undue limit on the imagination of its creator. As Tolkien also said about the shape of his world: "[It] was devised 'dramatically' rather than geologically or paleontologically."</p><p>In other words, certain parts of Middle-earth may very well have been inspired by other places than European ones. It is telling that it took a non-European connoisseur of Tolkien's topography to find some examples. <br></p>
"Seen that map before"<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzQzMDM1MS9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTQ3Njc3NH0.azDO1_NWm9q9FwMpmqBOV2troOX0ajAXS4lP2bLstJI/img.png?width=980" id="1b193" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="21c3d38b14503ba8edac18c0ef1cceb0" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="Map of Indus river" />
The Indus river is a prominent geographical feature of Pakistan. Its course is similar to that of the Anduin, the Great River of Middle-earth.
Image: Mohammad Reza Kamali, reproduced with kind permission<p>In an article published on <a href="https://arda.ir/" target="_blank">Arda.ir</a>, the web page for the Persian Tolkien Society, Mohammad Reza Kamali writes that during several years of cartographic study, "I found that maybe there are real lands [that] could have inspired Professor Tolkien, and some of them are not in Europe."</p><p>Around 2012, Kamali's eye stopped when it came across a Google Map of Central Asia that showed the mountain chain of the Himalayas, the peaks of the Pamirs bunched together in an almost circular area, and the huge, flat oval of the Takla Makan desert, bounded to the north by the Tian-Shan mountains. </p><p>"I had seen that map before," he writes. "This is of course Mordor, the land of Sauron and the dark powers of Middle-earth, where Frodo and Sam destroy the One Ring." </p><p>In <a href="http://lotrproject.com/map" target="_blank">Tolkien's world</a>, the Himalayas transform into Ephel Duath, the Mountains of Shadow; and the Tian Shan into Ered Lithui, the Ash Mountains. And the circle-shaped Pamirs "are the same shape and in exactly the same corner as the Udûn of Mordor, where Frodo and Sam originally tried getting into Mordor, via the Black Gate."<br></p>
Similar shapes<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzQzMDM1Mi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxMDQyODMzNX0.KHrY7rDCNNaKKJQz-xn431APM2TqxGPCaMsqNvBe1xA/img.jpg?width=980" id="7a9fa" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="e87f1af97902201abc042640255606b2" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="Marine Corps helicopter flying over Tarbela Dam" />
A US Marine Corps helicopter flying over the Tarbela Dam on the Indus river in Pakistan. At its center: a former river island which may have been the inspiration for Cair Andros, a ship-shaped island in Middle-earth's Anduin river.
Image: Paul Duncan (USMC), public domain<p>Mulling over these similarities, Kamali became convinced that Tolkien's map work was heavily inspired by Asia. Looking further, he found more evidence. Consider Anduin, the Great River of Middle-earth, in whose waters the One Ring was lost for more than two thousand years. </p><p>On Tolkien's map, the Anduin bends toward the sea in a shape similar to that of another great river: the Indus, which runs the length of Pakistan. Like the Anduin, it flows to the west of a major mountain chain. A prominent feature of the Anduin is the river island of Cair Andros, just north of Osgiliath. Its name means 'Ship of Long Foam', a reference to its long and narrow shape, and the sharpness of its rocks, which split the waters of the Anduin like a prow. <br></p><p>Kamali is not entirely sure, but proposes that Tolkien may have been inspired by a similar-shaped island in the Indus. Now integrated into the Tarbela Dam, which was inaugurated in 1976, it would still have been a separate island in the 1930s and '40s, when Tolkien dreamed up his map.</p>
Kutch as Tolfalas Island<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzQzMDM1NC9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYwOTU5NjcyNn0.869W8iiowQb9_T3laFKOUe5o5UMXuMlSITb1VxRlC2g/img.png?width=980" id="9c49e" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="548bafc6042cc7515e07f77657aa161c" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="Map of Kutch" />
During the rainy season, the coastal region of Kutch, near the mouth of the Indus, turns into an island that resembles Tolfalas Island, near the mouth of the Anduin.
Image: Mohammad Reza Kamali, reproduced with kind permission<p>Turning our eyes to the mouth of the Anduin and Indus, we see another pair of islands, and Kamali is more certain about the real one having inspired the fictional one. The fictional one is Tolfalas Island, the largest island in Belfalas Bay. <br></p><p>At first glance, it doesn't seem to have a real-life counterpart near where the Indus joins the Arabian Sea. But take a look at the coastal part of the Indian state of Gujarat. It is known as <em>Kutch</em>, a name which apparently refers to its alternately wet and dry states. In the rainy season, the shallow wetlands flood and Kutch becomes an island – the biggest island in the Gulf of Kutch, and not too dissimilar to Tolfalas Island. </p>
General knowledge<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzQzMDM1NS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyMDIwODkyOH0.aInJedv3tiQo1LmW-M6D5LV699oeWNltxeYcVKWwtF0/img.jpg?width=980" id="9bc6e" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="01d97d3941f9ba732b4df35c3aedd977" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="British Indian Empire 1909 Imperial Gazetteer of India" />
1909 map showing British India in pink (direct British control) and yellow (princely states). Circled: Kutch, clearly recognisable as an island.
Image: Edinburgh Geographical Institute; J. G. Bartholomew and Sons, public domain<p>But are these similarities really more than coincidences? Why would Tolkien, who was based in Cambridge and steeped in English lore and Germanic mythology, turn to the Indian subcontinent for topographical inspiration? Perhaps because cartographic knowledge of that part of the world was far more general in Britain then than it is now. Until the late 1940s, the countries we know today as India and Pakistan were part of the British Empire. Detailed maps of the region would have been standard fare for British atlases. </p><p>Kamali is convinced that the topographical features on Tolkien's map of Middle-earth are not mere fantasy, but derive from actual places in our world, and were 'riddled' onto the map. In that case, we may look forward to more discoveries of Tolkien's real-world inspiration. <br></p>
From Frodingham to Frodo<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzQzMDM1Ni9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTU5NzgzMzE2OH0.uMd43VxS9WQSWr1Z0IQ-UxIhBYkERhxTU7hoPvNachk/img.jpg?width=980" id="05037" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ff9aace7fc7c111df3639a276cedf63c" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="Photograph of J. R. R. Tolkien in army uniform" />
J.R.R. Tolkien in 1916, when he was 24. Around that time, he was stationed near the village of Frodingham, which may have given him the inspiration for the name of the main protagonist in Lord of the Rings.
Image: public domain<p>Here's one example of Tolkienography—if that's what we can call the effect of actual geography on this particular writer's imagination—which I gleaned myself, some years ago in East Yorkshire. A local historian told me that Tolkien had been stationed in the area during the First World War, and had apparently stored away some local place names for later use. The name Frodo, he said, derived from a town where he had attended a few dances – Frodingham, a village across the Humber in northern Lincolnshire, not far from Scunthorpe (<em>Scunto</em>? We dodged a bullet there). </p><p>Whether that story is entirely true or not is beside the point. As fantasy fans know, any grail quest is ultimately about the quest, not the grail. In fact, to quote Mr Kamali, the treasure is important only because it's well hidden, "by a clever professor who enjoys riddles."</p><p><em>Unless otherwise indicated, illustrations are from Mr Kamali's <a href="https://arda.ir/the-tale-of-the-annotated-map-and-tolkien-hidden-riddles/?fbclid=IwAR3RmtU0ZdyzQGlK-iCsUjho4LA2W279fwO9dt8vv90FX2IeO3zrfMuMToU" target="_blank">article</a> on <a href="https://arda.ir/" target="_blank">Arda.ir</a>, reproduced with kind permission. </em><br></p><p><strong>Strange Maps #1036</strong></p><p><em>Got a strange map? Let me know at </em><a href="mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org">email@example.com</a><em>.</em></p>
The proposal calls for the American public to draft two candidates to lead the executive branch: one from the center-left, the other from the center-right.
- The #Unity2020 plan was recently outlined by Bret Weinstein, a former biology professor, on the Joe Rogan Experience.
- Weinstein suggested an independent ticket for the 2020 presidential election: Andrew Yang and former U.S. Navy Admiral William McRaven.
- Although details of the proposal are sparse, surveys suggest that many Americans are cynical and frustrated with the two-party system.