Anti-Colonial Troll Studies At Harvard
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  • WigWag

    It’s hard to believe Professors actually get paid for teaching this junk; but they do. To top it off they tend to be serial complainers who do nothing but kvetch about how hard they work, how underpaid they are and how mistreated they are by the university administrators. College faculty, particularly at elite schools like Harvard have way too much influence. It’s like putting the lunatics in charge of the asylum.

  • R McDonnell

    Isn’t there some sort of informal “peer review” process for these courses and the profs that teach/coordinate them?

    Something along the lines of “Ah yes, that’s Johnson…he’s currently doing lectures on topic of loitering at 3:30 on Wednesdays. It’s an embarrassment to this institution. Let’s sit at another lunch table and not talk to him.”

    Or does it cut the other way? Eg: “Ah, that’s Johnson. He’s doing a fine job syphoning dollars from our students and alumni by teaching a course on loitering. The joke’s on the fools paying for it. Keep up the good work, Johnson!”

  • Tom Holsinger

    Surfing is not really an element of American culture, but it absolutely is an element of California’s regional culture, and an expression of our unique blend of engineering and art. Apple Computer’s I-Pod, I-Phone and I-Pad are the most recent examples of that.

    California’s real surfing boom was made possible, and greatly fostered by, the southern California aerospace industry via the latter’s development of resins and polyurethane foam. We made the happy discovery that those were easy for anyone to fabricate into surfboards from foam blanks, i.e., the financial barriers to surfboard development, as well as the costs and sheer physical burden of surfing, collapsed.

    This is well described in the chapter by my cousin Bolton Colburn in _Surf Culture: The Art History of Surfing_. He was the director of the Laguna Art Museum and is now the director of the Surfing Heritage Foundation. Bolton’s father Samuel L. Colburn (my “uncle Sam”) was an artist of the Carmel school, and a friend of both John Steinbeck and Ansel Adams.

    Bolton is absolutely correct about the importance of the California aerospace industry in adding surf culture as a significant element of California’s regional culture. Engineering as public art has long been important in California, as shown by the Golden Gate Bridge and architecture by Julia Morgan (San Simeon, etc.).

    What Bolton missed, though, was that the young developers of many of the engineering marvels among surfboards in the late 1950’s, 1960’s and early 1970’s got engineering and hydrodynamic advice from their engineering and systems analyst fathers in the California aerospace industry. I personally hung around with some of them while attending UC Santa Cruz. That paternal advice was critical in the success of surfboard designers, and expansion of the hobby and lifestyle, in 1950’s – 1970’s California.

    The artistic and emotionally satisfying nature of Apple Computer products is merely the most widely known current example of a long, long blend of engineering and art in California, of which surfing is an earlier example.

  • Kris

    I find your lack of faith disturbing. Puppetry is exactly what tomorrow’s leaders need more of.

  • R McDonnell

    Teaching questionable courses is très outré, courageous, transgressive, and how bourgeois of you to think otherwise.

  • Well, I have some sympathy for studying Scandinavian culture and mythology. Studying trolls in particular from the perspective of anti-colonialism, however, seems a bit much. On the other hand, the course on standing around doing nothing has no redeeming qualities.

  • I am offended by your locationist bigotry!

  • Eurydice

    I was all ready to join the chorus of smirks and sneers until I decided to take a look for myself at the course catalog, the reading lists and the syllabus. The whimsically named folklore course is given as part of the Scandinavian language program and is consistent with the way other languages are taught at Harvard. Literature and culture are taught along with the language, and folklore and myths are the heart of any culture. Now maybe you think that languages should be taught differently, maybe with a nice dusty set of State Department tapes and not in a university at all, but I’d say that if you aspire to do academic work (or any work, really) in another language, you’d better learn something more than just “How much is this?” and “Where is the bathroom?”

    And you know, the same is true of the stupid-souding Loitering course. Within the context of the Visual and Environmental Studies program (what used to be called “Art”), it makes sense. Twelve students are going to create some kind of art in reaction to their environment. That’s not a ridiculous thing to do if you’re in an art program. Again, the questions seem to be larger – is this how art should be taught, should one pay a pantload of money to study art at Harvard, should people study art at all?

  • Kristo Miettinen

    Actually, as a Finn, I find the Scandinavian course almost reasonable, except for one substantial error: the Scandis have historically been the colonizers, not the colonized. Teach the same course with respect to the Kalevala and it actually makes sense. The Kalevala was central to Finnish nation-building, and Finnish national identity was very deliberately built by Finnish intellectuals. Granted, the colonial power against whom they used these traditions was Russia at the time (they would have willingly submitted to Scandi suzerainty, they longed for it in fact). The slogan of the times went “Swedes we are not, Russians we don’t want to become, so let us be Finns”.

  • scooter

    I remember them well……student assistants and grad students did the work, they reaped the rewards and complained about it…..just like communism.

  • Walter Grumpius

    It’s easy to get incensed about things that sound silly at first, but I see nothing that is necessarily unserious about studying the “fantastic” elements of a national folk-culture and what they say and do subconsciously in a nation’s politics. For example, “Peer Gynt” comes to mind as a serious examination of these things. Here in America, Poe and Lovecraft are taken seriously on that score.

    In my view, the Scandinavians have much need of harnessing their folk-culture, trolls and all, in the service of anti-colonialism, seeing as how they are being colonized even as we speak, by hostile alien immigrants.

  • Jocko

    Jeez Tom, did you major in “Boring” in college?

  • Cheryl

    @Tom Holsinger – Do you have a job that pays you to write about the history of the relationship between engeineering and surfboards? I am really trying to fathom any career that these courses could contribute any value to.

  • Cheryl

    that should be engineering…sorry

  • JasonM

    Let’s take a step back here. It’s clear that the “troll” course is really a survey of Scandinavian folklore, and that the troll is merely a leitmotif that the professor uses to give the course a bold, snappy title, as one might with “Brother Jonathan” or “Uncle Sam” in a survey of American folklore. [Where did the “anti-colonial” headline come from??]

    Now, if you want to argue that the US economy needs more engineers and fewer folklore majors, fine, although let’s not forget that a Harvard degree, which functions as a proxy high-IQ certificate, is great for everyone who has one, even the folklore majors.

    But if you grant that folklore should be a component of the liberal arts, then why pick on the Scandinavian case? I’m sure you can find equally silly-sounding quasi-humanoid species in Japanese or Persian folklore too.

    As for loitering and its teacher, more here:

    Isn’t art-making like this generative of the kind of creative, “outside-the-box” thinking that Steve Jobs et al. are always extolling as the source of great ideas? Isn’t our competitive advantage supposed to be ultimately not number-crunching but creative, synthetic boundary-breaking?

  • GSo

    Long live the trolls!
    It is interesting that some of the best analysts recruited by the MI6 during WWII had studied classic greek or some other completly useless subject. And it is interesting that in behavioural economics they have the “story” as one of their most important factors for explaining our behaviour. Being a Norwegian I can tell you that the way the old stories about trolls were used to build a national identity almost from scratch is very fascinating. Throw in a viking saga written by Snorre, a few painters and some arctic explorers, and you had all the ingredients needed for producing a brand new national identity in the course of small century.

  • Gee, I’m $200K in debt in student loans and cannot find a job consistent with my education. Oh wait, yes I can. I’ll use my loitering experience and hang out down in Zuccotti Park — in the vicinity of culture– and “make things”.

  • Antinous

    This is symptomatic of a deeper problem in academia – its utter inability to meaningfully distinguish between treasure and trash and its perverse pleasure in confounding the two.

    This folly results in efforts to elevate trash to treasure — dissertations on Madonna, the singer; the elevation of third and fourth rate “oppressed” authors; and the classes in this post — and to debase treasure to trash — learned studies of masturbation in Jane Austin or Irish underwear in Ulysses.

    Silly classes like those in this post are not the saddest part of the story. The saddest part is that their content differs little from what you would find in a more traditional course. Thus Proust is read as a cryto-proto-gay-rights activist; as if this world needed one more partisan voice that sounds just like those in newspaper, or could afford to lose one more distinctively different and challenging voice who does not.

    The upshot is that those students hungering for something different than the echo chamber of emphemeria that is popular culture not only cannot find it, but are taught that there really isn’t anything else. There is no world elsewhere than the present.

    All great passions or ambitions are either pathological folly (see, psychology department and the therapeutic-speak of academia) or channelled, properly chastened and diminished, into the cause of the day (see, Hope and Change).

  • Walter Grumpius

    You have to bear in mind that these are just single-term individual courses, very probably elective ones, and no one is actually majoring (or concentrating, as they say at Harvard) in the history of surfboards. It’s a bit of oddball analysis that makes intellectual life more flavorful and maybe playful, and if in the future knowing about trolls and surfboards helps make these students a better conversationist, or a cooler father, or someone who’s fascinating in a sales meeting or something, then why the heck not.

    “equally silly-sounding quasi-humanoid species in Japanese or Persian folklore too”

    Yep, in Japan they’re called kappa. And yep, I learned about ’em in a college seminar on the ghost tale and fantastic fiction as practiced in East Asia (what they find scary is very different from what we find scary.) And nope, I didn’t grow up to be a useless bum. I think.

  • Tom Holsinger


    You wish.


    I’m an attorney of the litigation sort, i.e., engineers are witnesses and consultants for me. My cousin is a museum director, and in his youth had been US national amateur champion surfer one year. He’s made a career off this.

    As for practical value, I suggest you move to California to study art and culture. We had Dwight MacDonald teach a course on film as a guest professor at UC Santa Cruz while I was there. This surreal experience was immortalized in a wonderfully funny article in _Playboy_ titled _Shut Up and Show the Movies_.

    The problem was that at least a third of his UCSC students were Hollywood kids who had grown up on their parents’ sets, and learned camera angles with their mothers’ milk. The father of one of my friends had made a fortune writing the screenplay for _The Longest Day_ and supported his whole family off that.

    The Hollywood kids in the class wanted to talk about the craft of making movies, while MacDonald lectured on film criticism based on what he thought the directors of a given film had been trying to do. This created conflicts, particularly when one of his students’ parents had worked on a movie that MacDonald was lecturing on. Over and over there were instances such as MacDonald saying that the director of a given film had been trying to depict “x” in a given shot, only a student would pop up and state that the director had been drunk that day, that the lead cameraman had taken the shot, and that the result was based on only a given type of film was suitable given the lighting. And the student knew this because his father was lead grip at the time or something.

    The course turned into a gigantic culture clash between an Eastern film snob whose opinions were based on theory and the Hollywood kids whose parents had made most of the movies MacDonald was lecturing on. Eventually the course broke into two classes united only by them all watching the same movie. Half the students would then depart to discuss outside how that movie had been made, and MacDonald lectured the other half on what he thought the film had meant.

    Art in California’s regional culture is based to a significant degree on personal participation.

  • John Raimo
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