The Department of Evil Studies

Dr. $hiraz sent me a story in honor of Halloween. In case you were wondering how universities really operated…


Epic is the lie that tells the truth.  Satire is its snarky younger sibling.

Any resemblance to people living or undead is incredibly coincidental.

The department hires a new assistant professor

Turnbull rubbed his eyes and thought longingly of the bottle of single malt hidden in the hollow sculpture of Pazuzu he kept on his desk. He returned the denied requests for anomaly pay raises to their file folder, carefully placed the sexual harrassment complaints in the trash and began reviewing the T.A. assignments. Who would have thought evil required this much paperwork?

A picture of scotch and a demon

Finally, when he could procrastinate no longer, he turned to the stack of job applications. The position was an assistant professorship in the history and theory of the non-traditional dead. Such a fashionable topic. The applicant pool was probably full of activists for zombie rights. Back in the day, the field of Evil Studies had all been focused on the seven deadly sins, genocide and the absence of God. Now it was all werewolves and literary theory. He sighed and began sifting through the wretched applications. There were at least three hundred of them clamoring for his attention – newly minted Ph.D.s from a range of disciplines: anthropology, theology, psychology, philosophy, film studies, history, literature and, he mentally shuddered, sociology. Well, at least he could count them out.

He sorted the letters into piles based on discipline, degree of idiocy and how much he hated the applicant’s advisor and then took a few moments crafting an obviously generic rejection letter. This he was good at.

Despite the Post-it note stuck to the printer saying “letterhead, top first, right side up,” it took him several attempts to print out a letter correctly. He read over it, smirking at the clear falsity of the sentiments and the utter lack of reassurance the banal commonplaces would provide. Once he would have composed individual rejection letters, gleefully enumerating the shortcomings of each applicant’s intelligence, character, writing style and entire intellectual heritage, but he no longer had the energy. Anyway, he had learned, it was far worse to pour your hopes and dreams into an application and receive a reply that suggested that it had not even been read. “Dear Applicant…” began the rejection letter. Omitting the addressee’s name was a nice touch. With age, he mused, he had gained an appreciation for the subtler arts of misery.

The letterhead, though, snuffed out any pleasure he could take in the letter. The university’s seal, mocked him with its tiny phallic acorn. Beneath it, his department’s newly coined title: Department of Alternative Moral Discourses. Acronym aside, it was so innocuous. He had only fended off the even worse name proposed by the dean, “Ethically Challenged Studies,” because an anthropology professor at the meeting had spouted some garbage about moral relativism. Somewhere an Elder God was rolling over in his watery grave.

Ever since the merger with Classics, everything had been going to Hell. And not in a good way. Snarling, he scrunched the letter into a ball and flung it across the room.

At that moment, Poundstone, his Associate Chair, burst into the office. He was about to criticize her manners, which he enjoyed doing, but she gave him no opportunity. “There’s been an accident in the lab, you need to come with me now.” She was out of breath and several strands of hair had escaped her librarian’s bun to hang over her face. There was a film of perspiration on her brow. He had never seen the professor of enhanced interrogation so discomposed. She actually looked worried, maybe even scared. He was beginning to enjoy this.

book cover

“Did you run up here?”

“We need to go now!” she barked, ignoring his question. He felt a fluttering in his gut, a pleasurable hint of nervousness as he followed the staccato of her footsteps down the hall and into the unmarked stairwell.

scary stairs

Down four flights of stairs was the sub-basement of Hincmar Hall. It had been constructed as a fallout shelter in the 1950s, and its walls were made of concrete reinforced with steel. It was not on any of the campus maps, nor was it on any of the tours taken by freshmen and their parents. Now it housed the department’s laboratories. This was, in Turnbull’s mind, his empire. None of the labs was funded by the university, and the administration maintained a cheerful ignorance about their activities. One of his great achievements as department chair, he congratulated himself, had been securing corporate sponsorship for research.

In the labyrinthine sub-basement, the room numbers in no way corresponded to their location. Some of the markings on the doors were not numbers at all, but alchemical symbols. Those were no doubt Cornelius’ rooms. Pretentious little shit.

doors and runes

Ominous rumblings reverberated through the floor. Turnbull shivered even though he knew that the rumor of the minotaur living in the winding corridors was false. (It was actually only a research assistant who had got lost and wandered around for several years subsisting on discarded Taco Bell.) It was easy enough even for Turnbull to become disoriented here. Much to his annoyance, Poundstone navigated unerringly. They hurried on. Graduate students were sitting around the Apathy Research Center, where the equipment still sat in boxes. In another room, a researcher was observing 20 freshmen playing Farmville.

Turnbull had a pain in his side by the time Poundstone finally halted in front of one of his own rooms. Necromancy lab 3a.  He swiped his keycard and slowly pushed open the heavy door.

The stench of wet goat was overwhelming. The room was almost dark. Sputtering candlelight licked feebly at the shadows. In the corner, a pale young woman in a lab coat was curled up, her arms wrapped around her knees, her unblinking eyes fixed on the center of the room. He vaguely registered that she was one of his grad students – an ambitious, reasonably intelligent girl whose name he could have recalled in a minute or two, had he wished. He could hear her fast and shallow breaths, the soft murmur of his own pulse, and beneath that the low wheezing of a much larger creature. The rasping of steel wool on a tin roof.

As he pushed on the door, more of the room came into view. The expanse of floor that he could see was covered in a complex tracery of sigils. Some he recognized, others were smudged. The chalk circle, supposed to contain the entity that the researcher summoned, was broken. Whatever the girl had invoked was unbound, and it was his job to secure it.

Turnbull’s skin tingled. He was a little afraid, necessarily, but mostly he felt alive. This was his element, his area of expertise. He felt like a medievalist reaching out to touch the ancient parchment of a book that no one had read in a thousand years. And nobody, he reminded himself, was better at this, not even that arrogant prick Randall, who was always on the History Channel. Whatever was in the room, he could handle it. He was the Rumsfield Chair of Applied Demonology, for God’s sake. He swallowed his trepidation and stepped inside.

A hoof in a circle


The first thing he noticed was the entity’s sheer size. It was at least 10 feet tall. Its form was essentially human, but two curved horns jutted from its massive forehead and its rather scrawny hairy legs terminated in hooves. Leathery wings were folded over its back. It wore only a filthy loincloth. Its glassy black and yellow eyes were focused on the professor. It was both impressive and slightly cliched. Identifying the beast, Turnbull scoured his mind for the correct language. His Aramaic was a little rusty.

“Lord Azazael, welcome,” he bowed his head.

“Pitiful mortal, why do you bring me here?” it demanded in an imperious bleating. Demonic conversations, like application letters, all tended to be the same. Turnbull quashed the thought. He needed to focus.

“My people have need of your greatness.” It wasn’t that Turnbull liked flattering demons any more than he liked sucking up to the administration, but sometimes it was necessary. Ends justified means was his department’s motto.

“What can you offer me?” Well, at least it was straight to the point.

Turnbull searched his memory for useful information on this particular demon and, when that failed, drew upon the deep reserves of bullshit he usually reserved for teaching when he was unprepared for class after a particularly rigorous night of drinking. “The opportunity to corrupt the hearts and minds of the youth, to lead them away from the beliefs of their ancestors and the values of their parents.”

The improbable smile that sliced across the demon’s face was barbed with a hundred sharp irregular teeth. “You want me to teach?”

demon smiling
This is the most enthusiasm anyone has ever shown for teaching Western civ.

Maybe the creature wasn’t quite as stupid as it looked, thought Turnbull. There would be a contract, of course, a binding contract. It was not the first time that he had considered that universities functioned almost exactly like a necromancer’s circle, containing the forces of chaos safely within and keeping them from unleashing their full hideousness on the world. If he had been a more contemplative man, he would have felt a twinge of melancholy at the wasted potential.

As it was, however, he was supremely practical. His mind was already working, wondering what kind of office the demon would need and how to broach the subject of appropriate classroom attire. At least now he thought, with an uncharacteristic burst of good cheer, he wouldn’t have to read the rest of the job applications.

Professor Azazael's plaque

More Effective Humor: Keep Wall Street Occupied Video

I have a horrible confession to make: I don’t like protests. Shouting and large crowds are two of my least favorite things and I’m also not sure it’s, y’know, working? Yes, yes, I get the idea of being a visible presence, but this assumes people with influence will a) notice and b) care. On the contrary, it’s been amply demonstrated that those in power (whether it be bank overlords or elected officials) really don’t care what you, as an average citizen, want.

But, since effective humor has been on my mind anyway, I was delighted to wake up to this funny video suggesting a low-effort way to mess with banks:

The understated humor is perfect for people way too tired to get into really loud rhetoric. And even non-political people can be tempted with the promise of prankster-ish mischief. If you read the comments, you’ll see several people saying they’ll do it because it “looks like fun.” That is, in fact, why I felt compelled to attend the Rally to Restore Sanity just about a year ago.

I guess what I’m saying is, if you want to be all-inclusive with your message, you should really consider hiring this dude. I think he’d be really big in the Midwest.

Finish This Joke: Non-Educators Running Education Policy….

Jokes are my favorite form of communication because they get across complex ideas in seconds flat. There’s a particularly effective joke structure that Freud called “the novel association of two elements.” My favorite example: Eddie Izzard’s declaration that “oranges are Stalinist fuckers.” You probably haven’t heard those two ideas connected before. But there’s also some logic to the statement — as Izzard explains, oranges are a very difficult fruit to eat. They stonewall you.

That’s the second required element of the joke structure, what Mary Douglas  “replacing obvious logic with not-so-obvious logic.” The novel association of ideas isn’t enough, that’s just absurdism; for the joke to hit home, there has to be a logical connection that you haven’t thought of before. So it’s basically a form of simile or metaphor, but funnier.

The Daily Show does this one a lot, and well:

John McCain says being a POW was a character-building experience.  So Guantanamo Bay isn’t a prison—it’s a leadership academy.

Michele Bachmann forms her immigration policy the way Gillette comes up with their razors. The first wall stretches the immigrant out. The second wall cuts them off at the root.

Or this one, from Will Durst on Twitter: Pat Robertson says the Republican candidates are too extreme. Wow. That’s like having your drug intervention hosted by Lindsay Lohan.

The reason this has been on my mind?  I’m trying sublimate my rage at for-profit non-educators who think they know how to run classrooms, and a good joke should be able to do that, too. The best I’ve come up with so far:

Educational consultants telling teachers what to do is like a Wonderbread executive telling Mario Batali how to make a sandwich.

It’s not there yet. And there’s a reason writers’ rooms have 10-20 people pitching jokes.

So, peanut gallery, whaddya got? Remember more specific comparisons are generally funnier than vague ones, and brevity is indeed the soul of wit. Use different words, I don’t care, just get the message accross.

Crimson Newsflash: Facebooking Students Entirely Your Fault!

F everyone’s I, students Facebooking in class is educators’ own fault. Oh, don’t worry, there’s “science” behind this, if by science you mean an article in the Harvard Crimson claiming that student Facebooking is inversely proportional to how awesome a teacher is.

(In Dr. Evil voice) Riiiiiiiight.

Been there, done that. Torn gazes from Facebook again and again. Seem a million classes and rocked them all. Didn’t like it one bit.

Look, if you’re going to define “teaching” as “successfully distracting you from your other distractions” let’s stop pretending this is education — you know, that thing that used to happen when learning wasnt defined merely by dopamine receptors firing? No? You don’t remember that? Of course you don’t, you’re online too much to have any long-term memory.

Yeah, I know, you think you’re “multitasking” and I do it too, Facebooking while emailing while watching TV – but I’d never claim I was accomplishing anything more than the most trivial of tasks, inefficiently. Also, assuming that Facebooking in class is a) inevitable and b) okay tells me you think a student’s mere physical presence in class makes a teacher’s job worthwhile. HAHAHAHAHA. If warm bodies are all that’s needed, bring on the pile of kittens.

I’m sympathetic to some of the article’s criticisms — professors are boring, they repeat what’s in the textbook or act as incorrigible gatekeepers of information when they’re not all that. This happens, true ’nuff. Of course the students fail to self-report how irritated they are when you don’t give them pre-packaged textbook info, or at least an easily digestible guide to “what’s going to be on the test.” And obviously I agree that web/information literacy needs to be front and center in education — but that doesn’t mean kids should always have their laptops open in class. In fact, were I to ever go back to teaching, I think I’d delineate online and non-online time periods in class, to make sure that being online had a specific intent rather than being treated as essential bodily function like respiration.

I kn0w it seems cool to  “disrupt” education if you’ve never had to stand up there and teach. But if you have, I think you can appreciate the irony of computer use being “disruptive” not in the newfangled positive sense of the word but in the old-fashioned sense, as in, not enabling good teaching to happen at all.

Anyway, current educators can have fun with all that. I’m returning to my latest web development project; maybe my next one will be a way to disrupt Facebooking students. ‘Cause according to the new rules, disruption is always good. Right?

Yup, We’re Tired

On the Facebook page I recently posted the Gizmodo article, “Generation X is Tired of Your Bullshit.” Every Gen-Xer I know fell madly in love with its combination of sly Reality Bites references and cranky cynicism.

Illustration from Gizmodo article on Gen X being tired of your bullshit
This is what my people say. That, and "whatever."

But more than anything, we collectively nodded in recognition: we’re tired. And the thing about Gen Y is that it doesn’t know from tired yet. I read these articles by Gen-Y authors claiming they have work/life balance and I see my Gen Y friends geeking out about tending their high-maintenance organic Zen gardens/making elaborate Asian fusion pastries/attending fifteen music-slash-food-slash-culture events in one day/stitching DIY hemp-based home furnishings, and I laugh my ass off. I used to do that, too, I think. With curmudgeonly glee, I snicker to myself. Wait’ll you have 100 million grownup responsibilities and a full-time job and a family. Wait till you have to CHOOSE.

When I told an under-thirty friend this, she got very worried. “Is it really like that?” she asked apprehensively. I felt bad, so I told her that maybe it was just me. I also told her I thought it was a gift to be forced to choose your priorities, because there is no way in hell you can do everything. When teaching I saw what over-commitment did to the kids, and it wasn’t good. So, whether you just realize you’ve slowed down or you have Fight-Club-like epiphany in oncoming traffic or you find out suddenly find out that you’re going to die, the choice-making will be foisted on you. Yes, even you, numerous and belligerent Gen Y, eventually, and you’ll find out it’s not as easy as you think.

We’re tired, but still hustling; Austin is a haven for Gen-Xers figuring out what they really care about, which I guess is why I ended up here. Everybody has a side hustle, and that’s the beauty of this town, but the real question is how long you can keep up five different side hustles while dealing with hours and hours of real life obligations. Something’s gotta give, eventually. Until it does, we’ll keep on keepin’ on. But we’ll be singing a new anthem, which will probably be “I’m So Tired.”