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December 6, 2007

Tom Scopus Revealed, Reviled, and Reveiled

I am very interested in your responses to "Keep Your Eyes on Your Own Paper," as Kirsten summarized them for me yesterday. When I conceived and wrote this piece, my first aim was to be provocative. That it provoked any reactions from you at all is deeply gratifying. That they were so smart and insightful is really overwhelming. Here in this blog post I just want to engage some of your questions and comments. I am very aware that this is yet another virtual encounter with the mysterious lanky man who sporadically sits in the Nicholson 10 side of C4W (the first being my pre-recorded presentation at our previous staff meeting). And thus I perceive this weird way in which our knowing of each other is heavily mediated. Perhaps that is just perfect for a discussion of Tom Scopus and his infected—or effective?—ways.

. . . Traces of Me
It sounds like of you wondered whether or not there was autobiographical truth in what I wrote. Most good fiction writers bristle at such a question and usually refuse to indulge a response. Fortunately, I'm not a good fiction writer, so I'll gladly reveal where Tom's life crosses my own.

I'm a bus rider—not presently because I'm trying to make a go of biking through a Minnesota winter, but I love the bus. And I will admit that it was probably on the city bus that I noticed my proclivity for "surreptitious reading." It compels me (but not to the extremes of Tom's pathology) for some of the ways that the narrative outlines. But I also see it as a way of trying to break the abnormal silence of bus culture. Short of knowing what people are thinking, I'm curious to know what they're reading—what words are passing through their mind. As someone stuck in academic literary studies, I'm interested in what the everyman is reading, and how fast, and with what level of attention as expressed by some noticeable reaction (I've perceived very little reaction on people's faces or in their bodies to what they are reading. Stoics, all of them). I try hard not to do it, but if a book or newspaper is open, I'm drawn to it like moth to flame. And I try to imagine that I am so stealthy and skillful that no one notices. I think that is laughable. I'm probably known to the regulars on my bus as "that creepy guy who stares." When I was thinking about and writing this piece, I started to indulge more frequently, justifying it as "research."

But I wonder if this voyeuristic impulse doesn't linger in most of us. To what extent are you intensely curious about what others are reading? I presume you have an interest in language and stories similar to my own. Aren't you fascinated by the tattered pulp novel in the weathered hands of your neighboring passenger? Don't you want to know something about the relationship between him and the book? Of course, I could always strike up a conversation and ask him what he thought of his book, but that would be rude. Instead, I go Scopus on him instead.

And I'll admit that I am a reluctant reader. When I read, I become deeply immersed in what I'm reading. Reading is such an intense activity for me, that I often become withdrawn and sullen when I am still in process of reading something. I don't snap out of it until I am done with whatever novel, article, or memoir has drawn me in. That withdrawal is often socially inconvenient, so I find that I sometimes resist reading deeply so that my "normal life" (that outside of academia) isn't disturbed. Surreptitious reading is one way to stay safely on the surface of the water filled chasm of reading.

Having worked for several years as a writing consultant, I have reflected many times—as I think we all should—on my relationship to the papers that I read. I recognize that we are entrusted with very sacred texts, and when we are working face-to-face, a personal text is compounded with the personal intimacy of sitting and talking about it with a relative stranger. Having never patronized the writing center as an undergraduate student, I feel a profound respect for the writers that seek us—and a strong sense of obligation to do right by them. Since sharing your writing is always such an exposure of our vulnerability, I have wondered about the potential exploitation of that trust. So I created Tom as a vehicle to explore just how it would happen. I didn't realize until after I wrote it that I was also trying to justify or contextualize its happening. That is, how a seemingly ordinary and well adjusted person (like me?) could end up in ethically ambiguous—or blatantly egregious—situations.

This conception of this piece was also coincident to our move to the new Nicholson space. Surely you recognized the descriptions of our current digs, though you might not have an image of our old space. Tom could never have pulled off his tricks in Lind Hall, simply because the space was utterly closed and controlled. Another impetus for this piece was to explore the dynamics of our writing center spaces and the unforeseen consequences of the open and inviting design principles we espouse.

You also recognize the role of technology in Tom's addiction. That, too, was inspired by the march of technology in education, easily witnessed on our campus and in our center. It struck me that our flexible and permeable space was akin to the access to and accessibility of digital spaces and cyberspaces that colocate with our physical ones. And it struck me that the two might work together, despite our best security measures. Maybe this is the hacker that lurks inside of me. This post provides my first opportunity to publicly recognize Huy Hoang for his contributions to this piece. He talked through the practicalities of monitoring computer activity in the lab, and using VNC was his suggestion. Of course, we can trust that, being so aware of potential breaches, we are well protected under Huy's careful watch. Right? I can certainly assure you that I'm technically incapable of doing what Tom does, although it is practically possible.

Other semi-autobiographical facts:

Capella does have a mobile writing center, and I learned of it through one of C4W's former consultants, Jack Stack, who does stints with Capella's traveling writing center. The bloodmobile is my own invention (and a little jab at the for-profit world of higher education, which can be read as manifestation of my own insecurity and envy). Actually Capella's consultants travel to a location and set up shop in some arranged or leased space. It is a site that otherwise disembodied student writers become embodied and come into contact with other embodied instructors. Arguably, despite my insecurity, it is a good model for an online institution like Capella and its competitors. But I liked the bloodmobile for its symmetry with the city bus as well as its evocation of bloodletting, vampires, and invasive medical paradigms.

Tom's bus route is modeled after the #3 along Como Avenue towards campus. I drew upon my many bus rides throughout the MTC system for those details.

My fifth grade "girlfriend" was Megan Bailey. I haven't seen her for over 20 years, but, although she was a bit bookish and uptight, she didn't look homely to me back then. She was, in the parlance of grade school crushes, "cute."

. . . Creepy and Tingley
It sounds as if Tom's twinge and the tingle were fodder for conversation/concern as well. I think of it as something somewhat playful to help animate the story and something that gives a just a hint of psychological depth to Tom. But I also would like it to be another entry point for introspection. What sort of pleasure do we derive from our work? What "pleasure centers" does it trigger? In light of reading Russell's essay, Tom's twinge might appear rather sinister and sexual. I hope there is a range of human needs and impulses that might be signaled by the ambiguous twinge. I can't claim that this short piece provides a thorough (or even thoughtful) exploration of pathology, but that's where it tries to gesture. I wonder what pathologies we, the non-pathological, carry around with us each day. Things that we manage, suppress, or control sufficient to stay safe from scrutiny or exposure. And that's Tom's talent, isn't it? He's charismatic—not at all greasy or phony—and able to abide social conventions despite his fetish/obsession/perversion.

Once in a while, it is good to indulge the "I'm a phony" anxiety that dwells deep within us. It's good to reexamine our motives and assumptions. One of the disturbing features of the narration is its relative flatness and the absence of Tom's awareness, concern, or consideration of his condition. Although he may be exposed, he is not examined. And he's certainly not self-examined. With that flatness, we are only left to read Tom as exceptionally steely and mercenary in his obsession. That's the hyperbole. What about for each of us? Short of Tom's extremes, where is our motivation for this work driven by our own pleasure? Our own needs? And can we reconcile that fulfillment with the ethics of the work? In nearly every case, I think we can, but Tom reminds us that we shouldn't stop checking ourselves. Maybe we're really creepy, and we just haven't realized it yet.

. . . An Alternate Ending?
You might not be satisfied that Tom seems to get away with it. That was certainly essential to my purpose; I wanted to be sure that Tom wasn't relegated to the category of a miscreant, pervert, or deviant with all of the attending stigmas of social dysfunction and interpersonal failure. He needed to be able to get away with it, to pull it off, in order to give us pause to wonder about our practice, our colleagues, and our field. We might watch one another with greater suspicion now, or register certain comments from a particular consultant in a different way, but paranoia isn't the objective. I most hope to provoke a little critique of how we think about our craft and, importantly, the dynamic contexts of it, including physical space and technology, but institutional culture and educational fashion as well.

If Tom is discovered and dealt with, or worse (for the sake of the desired critique) if he rehabilitates himself, we lose some of the edge that makes us proceed with caution. We need to adopt technology in our teaching and learning and create spaces where we can effectively work, but we must attend to matters of pedagogy and privacy as we do so. We need to enjoy the intimacy of our work, but we must be aware of personal vulnerabilities and psychological nuances that are attendant to writing and writing consultancy.

And now you can see that I'm becoming preachy, which is one of the primary reasons that I wrote this piece—originally read at a conference where a conventional essay would have been typical—in a nondirective genre. So I'll end with a pedagogical move: if you were assigned to make one substantive revision to this short short story, what would you change? How would you change it? And why?

Thanks for reading the piece and discussing it so earnestly in class. That kind of attention to one's writing is rare and precious.

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