Kinokuniya Bookstore (NYC) Review

Sailor Moon Display

A short while ago I posted my review of Amazon’s Manhattan bookstore (they’ll be building a second one there soon, though), so I’m continuing my tour of the bookstores of New York City this week by featuring Kinokuniya, which is located near Bryant Park.

Kinokunya is known for its selection of Japanese books and magazines, including a large selection of manga (you can buy translated manga, as well).  I went because I read online that the store has a great selection of stationery, as well a collection of Miyazaki merchandise.

The store is divided into three floors, which are generally stationery, an “average” book selection (there’s probably a better word, but imagine the types of books you’d find walking into a Barnes and Noble), and the manga/anime.  The third floor also has a small cafe, where I purchased a delicious melonpan.

The stationery/art area in the basement is wonderful and included all the adorable, unique supplies I was hoping for.  I didn’t purchases anything because, well, NYC prices, but I was very tempted!  There were some items I could expect to buy somewhere else, such as some notecards I have seen in B&N, but a lot of the items were unusual and worth going to Kunokunya for.

 

The ground floor holds “standard” books and gift items, but there was a nice variety.  When I went, the children’s section has a Paddington display and a Doctor Who one.  There were also NYC-specific gift items and fun surprises, like Pusheen.  I didn’t spend too much time on this floor, however, because it wasn’t really what I went to see.

The second floor holds an enormous collection of anime and manga, as well as some “geeky” merchandise.  I found a small display of Sailor Moon items here, as well as the Miyazaki stuff I was looking for.  There wasn’t quite as much Miyazaki stuff as I was hoping for based on the word of random Yelp reviewers, but there were two stands of it.  I could probably find a similar variety at Barnes & Noble or Hot Topic.  However, the plush Calcifers were pretty adorable.

 

I didn’t speak to any employees besides in the cafe, but from what I saw of their interactions with other guests, they seemed very friendly and helpful.  There are also signs around the store stating you’re allowed to take photographs as long as you’re considerate to other customers, so apparently aggressive photo-takers can be an issue for them.  I can see why, with such an unique and charming selection of items!  I would definitely recommend stopping here if you are ever in Manhattan.

Briana

The Ethics of Blogging

Back in March I wrote a post on whether it is dangerous to relax our writing standards when blogging.  I argued that, even while blogging we still have an obligation to use skills we have learned in school to fact check ourselves and others on the Internet.  Many commenters responded by arguing that blogging is not academic writing–i.e. no one wants to read jargon-laden prose geared towards an expert audience on the blog and we should be allowed to write colloquially or with contractions.  These comments did not surprise me because they align with the understanding of writing that is propagated in American high schools (and perhaps other schools, though I am not qualified to speak on that).

Note the disparity in the argument and the response above.  I argued that we should do research, provide evidence, and fact check ourselves and others.  That is, I was speaking about the overall strength of the argument and the need to be able to discern true claims from false claims.  The responses spoke about grammar and word choice–stylistic features of the writing rather than the content of the writing.  The implication is that one can distinguish academic writing from other writing because it looks or sounds a certain way.  You could theoretically write about the totally made-up group of blue aliens living in Kansas, but if your grammar is correct, you’ve written a “good” essay.

Of course, when I put things that way, it sounds ridiculous and probably most people would argue that they are not in favor of writing about imaginary aliens and calling it nonfiction.  But this exactly what students in American high schools tend to learn writing is.   It’s called “writing for correctness” and it happens when teachers spend most of their time marking small stylistic features such as punctuation, word choice, and MLA citations instead of focusing on the content of the paper–the strength of the argument, the strength of the evidence, the structure and logic of the paper.  It’s much easier and less time-consuming to circle a misspelled word than it is to explain to someone why the structure of the paper is not a logical trajectory and how they can revise it.  So overworked teachers lean on these stylistic features in their rubrics and their grading and students learn that they can write whatever they want as long as the grammar is in keeping with Standard English.  The same attitude prevails on standardized tests, where the ability of a student to write in a five-paragraph essay is prioritized over what they actually say in that essay.

However, an essay can be written in nonstandard English and still be lively and intelligent, just as an essay can be written with excellent grammar but offer no new or complex thoughts.  And schools increasingly are reconsidering the attitude that good grammar equals good writing, especially as a result of the increased numbers of international students being accepted into American universities (and sometimes private high schools as well).  There are ethical questions being raised about attempts to change “accented” writing to fit a standardized mold.

But if I did not mean to say good writing is determined by stylistic features, what did I mean to say?  Quite simply, I was talking about the ethical stakes of blogging.  We may conceive of blogging as a hobby, but we have real audiences and can create real effects in the world. If we do not do our research, we may inadvertently spread misinformation or harm another person.  If we do not check the sources or evaluate the evidence of what we read, we may inadvertently believe false claims.

When we think about how we can use the tools and skills we have learned in school, we should be thinking about how we can use them in an ethical manner.  How can we ensure that we are advancing true claims, that we are doing our research, and that we are assessing the credibility of sources and the potential bias of evidence?  How can we ensure that we are helping others rather than harming them?  Words matter.  How we use words matters.  Our responsibility to the truth does not end when we leave school.

The One Thing I Want to See in Blogging Advice Posts

Discussion Post

Last July I wrote about why you might actually want to read posts about blogging advice.  Today I want to talk about what makes a blogging advice post compelling and useful to me.  There are characteristics that makes strong posts in general: clean prose, a strong structure, helpful diagrams and other visuals.  But the one thing I want to see in every blogging advice article?  Evidence that the blogger used the strategies in question and that they actually worked.

Very often, bloggers put together advice on some topic (say, “How to get more blog traffic using Pinterest” or “How to get more blog followers”) and then list some strategies…with no numbers and no explanation of how they used the advice themselves.  But these very general advice posts can give the impression that the author simply collected the advice from elsewhere on the Internet and has not necessarily used it or seen success from using it themselves.  In contrast, then, the most convincing blog advice articles include the step-by-step strategy that the author used and what results came from it.

For instance, did they log onto Pinterest once a day? Twice a day? Did they repin hundreds of pins each day, or just dozens?  Did they comment on pins, follow people, or ask people to follow them?  How often did they do any of these things?  And, after they did these things, how much did their traffic increase? By just a couple hits a day? Or hundreds?  What types of results can I expect if I follow the same course of action?

I’ve read a lot of blogging advice that simply  hasn’t worked for me.  For instance,  a lot of people suggest doing guest posts to get more visibility for your blog and find new readers…but that hasn’t worked for me and doesn’t seem to work for the book blogging community in general.  When I read blogging advice, I want to know that it actually worked for the person who’s suggesting it.

What do you like to see in blogging advice posts?

Briana

How Can Contemporary Readers Approach Dante’s Inferno?

Discussion Post Stars

To some, reading Dante’s Divine Comedy seems a hopeless task.  Written in the 1300s, it conjures up all the (incorrect) stereotypes readers have about the Middle Ages as a time of oppression where no one thought for themselves and everyone blindly accepted the teachings of the Catholic Church.  Of course, in reality lively debate thrived and plenty of non-religious material, including romances that might even celebrate adultery, circulated.  Like today, people were capable of independent thought and the members of a given audience were not likely all  to respond in the exact same way.  There’s no such thing as “people in the Middle Ages thought.”  They all thought different things!

However, other readers worry that the text is dry and dull, a religious tract that harps about sin and guilt and individual responsibility–stuff contemporary individuals aren’t supposed to worry about.  How on earth is someone who doesn’t believe lust is wrong or that gluttony or theft could potentially be worthy of damnation approach such an uncomfortable text?  The answer is the same as with any text–we have to begin by reading generously.

To read the Divine Comedy, we have to understand Dante’s internal logic.  This does not mean we have to agree with his logic or that we have to like everything it says.  It simply means we have to understand why he says what he says before we begin to criticize it.   Here are a few of the issues that trouble contemporary readers in the first part of the Comedy, the Inferno.

Why does Dante put people in hell? That’s mean!

From Dante’s perspective, he didn’t place these individuals in hell and neither did God.  The people had free will so they deliberately chose to separate themselves from God eternally.  To do this, they had to commit a mortal sin, which is distinct from a venial sin.  To commit a mortal sin, there must be grave matter (ex. murdering someone, not stealing an extra cookie from the cookie jar), the individual must understand the matter is grave (younger children or people with mental illnesses are less culpable), and the person must commit the act freely (not under coercion or because of a mental illness). So these aren’t just any people in hell.  They are people who knew they were doing something seriously wrong and separating themselves from God, but they did it anyway.  There are people who committed similar sins in purgatory and heaven, but these individuals repented and asked for forgiveness for hurting God and others.  In other words, by Dante’s logic, the sinners in hell are there because they wanted to be.

Why does Dante put the classical poets and other non-Christians in Limbo?  That’s mean!

First, we have to clarify that Limbo is not hell.  It’s a place distinct from hell and it was suggested as a way to deal with the problem of individuals who may not have committed personal sins or who lead upright lives, but who were not baptized.  The Catholic Church teaches that each soul inherits original sin from the fall of Adam and Eve, and this original sin needs to be removed through baptism for one to be able to enter heaven.   This original sin is different from personal sin, which an individual commits.   However, people were troubled that there might be an infant who died without baptism.  The infant would not have sinned personally, but would still have original sin on their soul.  Is it fair that the infant cannot enter heaven?  And what about individuals who lived before Christ and could not be baptized, through no fault of their own, but might have lead good lives regardless?  Enter the concept of Limbo.

Limbo has never been official Catholic Church teaching.  However, it seemed a clever way to deal with the dilemma of good, but unbaptized, individuals.  So Dante places classical figures he admires in Limbo because he does not want to place them in hell to suffer eternal punishment.  The souls in Dante’s Limbo do suffer because they know they will never be in God with heaven.  However, otherwise they are allowed to roam freely, to have intellectual conversations, etc.  Dante’s placing these souls in Limbo is, for him, a sign of respect and a sort of kindness.  He knows he can’t put them in heaven, but he’s not going to put them in hell, either.

Why does Dante condemn Paolo and Francesca for loving each other?  That’s mean!

Dante would not have understood Paolo and Francesca, the famous lovers from Canto V of the Inferno, as having loved each other.  Love works for the good of the other person, but what Paolo and Francesca did was not to seek the good of each other.  Rather, they fell prey to their passions.  Francesca, though married to Paolo’s brother, slept with Paolo–they committed adultery.  They are in hell, not for love, but for lust, meaning they used each other to satisfy their physical desires.

Francesca and Paolo come across to readers as very sympathetic because Francesca tells her own story.  She is a noble woman, courteous, well-spoken.  But she’s also a damned soul and her account of her sin isn’t supposed to be taken at face value by readers.  Dante-Pilgrim, the character in the poem, may feel sympathy for her, too, but he’s also just started his journey through hell and he’s been assigned to take this journey specifically because he’s in a bad spiritual state and not too great at recognizing the true nature of sin.  Dante-Poet, the man writing the Comedy, puts the lovers in hell because he’s already finished the journey and has come to understand the nature of sin.  Dante-Poet does not sympathize as much with Francesca and Paolo’s lust.

A closer look at the text can help us decipher Dante’s stance on this matter.  Take note who is speaking while you reading Canto V.  It is Francesca who keeps repeating the word “amor” or “love” in her account of her sin.  Dante, however, refers to the “disio” or “desire” that lead Francesca and Paolo into hell (Inf  V.113).  We have to make a distinction between what Francesca would like her auditors to believe and what Dante-Poet thinks of the matter.  The character does not necessarily speak for the author.

Conclusion

For Dante, it all comes back to free will.  Individuals are able to choose right or wrong, charity or a lack of charity, and then they must bear the consequences.  This does not mean Dante condemns anyone who commits a sin.  If you read on, you’ll see previously lustful souls purging themselves in purgatory or rejoicing in heaven.  You’ll see men who committed heinous crimes on their way to heaven, too.  While people are living, they always have the option to repent.  But Dante doesn’t want to sugar coat sin for his readers.  He wants them to come on his journey and recognize the nature of sin and its consequences, too, so they can reorient themselves towards God.

Readers don’t need to believe in God, to be Catholic, or to believe in sin to pick up the Divine Comedy or to engage with the questions it raises.  But we do need to know why Dante does what he does and to understand his logic before criticizing it.

Krysta 64

Maleficent Surprised Me with Its Thoughtful Look at a Character’s Fall and Redemption

Discussion Post

When I first heard of Maleficent, I determined not to watch it.  Sleeping Beauty is my favorite Disney princess film (though I suppose Moana will have to be a close contender now) and I felt no need to see a remake when I value the film so much for its artistic beauty.  Furthermore, I was troubled by what I read of the decision to make Maleficent a sympathetic character.   Maleficent’s character in the animated film represents pure evil.  She explicitly announces that she has aligned herself with the powers of hell.  And Prince Philip defeats her with the Sword of Truth and the Shield of Virtue.  It is an allegory about the way in which virtue triumphs over sin.  I felt that giving Maleficent a sympathetic backstory would ruin the simplistic beauty of this message.  However, the other day I found myself watching Maleficent anyway.  I was immediately interested in the story the film has to tell.

Before I go father, it is important to note that Maleficent is not an attempt to rewrite Sleeping Beauty or to get viewers to sympathize with the villain of the animated film.  It does not say that what Maleficent does in Sleeping Beauty is right,  justified, or understandable.  Maleficent is its own version of the story, with its own characters (though they share names with the characters of the animated version), and its own world.  It stands next to Sleeping Beauty just as any number of other retellings stand beside it without asking their audiences to change their understanding of what happens in Disney’s animated film.  So I judge it on its own merits without comparing it to Sleeping Beauty.

Maleficent is, as its title suggests, not a story about Sleeping Beauty at all.  Rather, it is the story of how Maleficent’s innocence is shattered through betrayal and suffering, how she seeks revenge, and how she finally learns to love again.  It is the story of a fall and then a story of redemption.  In a way, it is the story of Cinderella, if Cinderella were not perpetually industrious, cheerful, and good, but instead turned bitter and vengeful as a result of her pain.  Cinderella turns outward and chooses love; Maleficent turns inward and chooses hate.  That hate takes her on dark paths that she is not sure how to escape.  In the end, Maleficent’s story teaches her that sin has consequences that are far-reaching and sometimes difficult to mend, even if you are truly sorry for the actions you have performed.

Despite this thoughtful exploration of the power of love, I have seen and heard  many criticisms about the decision of the film to have Maleficent wake Aurora rather than Prince Philip.  However, I think it is important to remember that a story that celebrates types of love other than the romantic does not by nature say that romantic love is therefore meaningless or somehow the same as other types of loves.  Rather, Maleficent reminds viewers that not only erotic love has the power to heal, to unite, or to seek forgiveness.  Maleficent might be read as the story of a mother’s love  and a celebration of the ways in which mothers sacrifice for their children to try to keep them safe.  A mother’s love does not replace the love between a man and a woman.  It is different and separate.  But that does not mean it is not worth honoring.

Although I remain a little skeptical of Disney’s plans to remake seemingly all of their animated films, I have to admit that the remakes I have seen so far seem very thoughtful.  They are not the same stories but in live-action, but rather expansions of the old stories that ask viewers to consider other types of relationships.  Perhaps this will bother some viewers.  But we always have the animated films to enjoy, as well.

Amazon (Physical) Bookstore Review

Discussion Post

I recently had the opportunity to visit the Amazon Bookstore in Manhattan (there will be a second one in a couple months) and was surprised by how much I enjoyed it after reading some ambivalent reviews from mainstream sources.

The primary complaints seem to be:

  1. You have to pay list price for the books unless you are an Amazon Prime member (i.e. The physical stores are really an avenue to push Prime sign ups, though no employee would probably actually say this).
  2. The stores stock “only” about 3,000 titles (because covers–not spines–face out on the shelves).

Personally, I loved the set-up of the store.  I think there’s a benefit to being able to really see a curated selection of books, rather than getting stuck staring at the spines of 10,000 books I was never interested in buying anyway.  So, no, I wouldn’t go to a physical Amazon store to purchase something very specific or obscure.  Yet the experience of browsing is easy and a ton of fun.  The books are easy to see and recognize, they’re sorted into fun categories like “Books readers finished in under 3 days,” and you know everything in the store received 4 stars or higher than Amazon.  (Though an employee clarified the ratings are taken not from Amazon.com as a whole, but from users who live near the geographic area where the store is located.)  I would 100% consider coming here to purchase something mainstream or to just look around and purchase something that caught my eye.

The store does have some non-book merchandise (board games, tech gadgets, colored pencils, etc.), but, percentage-wise, the focus seems on books.  For instance, there was a small case containing maybe six different Funko Pop characters–as opposed to the hundreds you can find in a large Barnes & Noble.  Beyond these random items, there is, of course, a full corner of the store dedicated to Amazon’s own tech–Kindles, TVs, the Amazon Echo, etc.  All these are displayed so you can test them out, and there are employees dedicated to answering questions about just these.

I didn’t purchase anything from the store, but the ease of the process seems as though it can vary.  If you have the Amazon app on your phone and belong to Amazon Prime, you should be able to show that to the cashier and get the Amazon discounted price on the product.  If you’re not a Prime member and don’t want to sign up or get the free trial, you’re going to pay the list price of the books.  The store does not accept cash at all, and you’re supposed to have the credit card listed on your Prime account with you.  (So my friends and I watched another customer struggle while he explained that his wife belongs to Prime, but the credit card listed on the account is also hers, and he wasn’t carrying it.  I’m not sure what the outcome of this case was.)

You also can only sign up for Student Prime online, so my friend was unable to join in-store when she made her purchases.  However, Amazon really, really wants you to join Prime, so if you do pay list price in the store, you can always sign up for Prime later and then use a code on your receipt to get a refund for the difference between the price you paid and the Amazon.com discounted price.  (I suspect this is part of the reason the store does not accept cash.)

Yet, whatever hiccups there are with ease of paying, I suspect Amazon will soon iron them out.  Whatever your opinion of the company is, I think most people agree they’re efficient and good at getting what they want–which, in this case, is people using Prime to pay for items in a physical store.

I was half-expecting to dislike the store (because if you think of it as mainly a front to bribe people into getting Prime, it does seem mercenary).  However, the experience of walking around the store and browsing was really great, and I would have been interested in buying tons of the books if I weren’t trying to save up some money.  Selection wasn’t a problem and, come on, you can buy anything obscure you want from Amazon’s website anyway.  The employees were also incredibly helpful and seemed excited to be working there.  One compared the vibe of the store to that of an indie bookstore, and while it’s kind of laughable to put Amazon and indies into the same category, I kind of see what meant.  I would definitely be interested in going back.

Have you been to any of the Amazon bookstores?  Would you be interested in visiting one?

Briana

Do We Value the Work of Professors?

Discussion Post

Read any article about higher education and you will quickly see that the comments section is typically filled with the complaints of citizens irate that professors have such a cushy job with tenure and yet dare to be unionized or to ask for more recognition or appreciation for their work.  However, though working in a university certainly comes with its perks (perhaps a more flexible schedule, for instance, which can help with child care, or the existence of snow days so instructors don’t have to drive on icy roads), teaching in higher education comes with many costs that often go unrecognized, especially by students.  Much of these costs can be seen even in the hierarchy of universities, which are typically invisible to students, who have no real reason to see a difference  between a visiting professor, a lecturer, or an associate professor.  After all, each comes into the classroom and, as far as the students are aware, performs the same job.

The College Hierarchy No ONe Told You About

However, let’s take a look at what a typical hierarchy might look like for a university.  Hierarchies will vary from university to university, but a general scheme will look like this:

  • full professor
  • associate professor
  • assistant professor
  • lecturer/instructor
  • adjuncts/visiting professor
  • grad students/GAs/TAs.

Only associate and full professors have tenure, which, incidentally, is not a guarantee of employment for life, but rather the expectation that the professor cannot be fired without a good reason (professional misconduct, for instance).  It does not necessarily protect incompetent professors but rather is meant to guarantee them the space to speak freely and to prevent anyone from being fired from publishing certain ideas or holding certain political beliefs.  Assistant professors (and sometimes associate professors, as well) are tenure-track, meaning that they will be reviewed periodically to see if they will be awarded tenure.  They will be judged based on their service to the school, their publications, their contributions to their field, and their teaching evaluations.

Lecturers/instructors  and adjuncts and visiting professors are not tenure-track, but rather hired for by contract for certain amounts of time.  They typically receive low pay and no benefits.  They may not have office space or may be required to share office space or have undesirable office space.  They may also have limited access to other university resources and may not be given a voice in department meetings or policies.  Many teach lower-level courses tenured faculty do not want and often they may not even have control over what they teach or how they teach it.  The department might even order the textbook for them.

Graduate assistants are typically grad students who are going to school while also juggling a teaching load.  They usually receive a small stipend for teaching and waived tuition.  They may have little say in the department and are often seen as nothing more than cheap labor by the university.  Some schools have seen graduate students unionize in attempt to protect themselves from increasing workloads or pay changes.

How to Achieve Tenure

The dream for individuals working in higher education is, of course, to work their way up to a tenured position.  However, tenured positions are regularly being cut as a way to save the university money.  And tenure is not easy to achieve.  NEA reports that the review process to get tenure is three years at a community college and seven years at a four-year school.  If someone fails to achieve tenure, they typically have to leave the school and hope to find employment elsewhere (and thus begin the process all over again).  To achieve tenure, individuals usually have to research and publish, demonstrate that they have contributed to their field, serve the college by working on committees and attending meetings, and show teaching proficiency.  Karen Kelsky elaborates on the research expectations based on the type of institution an individual teaches at.  R1 and R2 schools typically want more publications than a liberal arts school or a community college.  Expectations may range from a few articles to a book or two.

So what does this all mean?  A good deal of what higher ed instructors do goes unnoticed by students.  The time they spend researching, writing, publishing, serving on committees, etc. is work students do not see and often may not value as what they need from instructors is a constant presence in office hours or over email, without regard to the other obligations their instructors may have.  At the same time, a good deal of what higher ed instructors do goes unrecognized by their institutions. Many institutions, especially R1 and R2 schools, value research over teaching.  Instructors may feel they have to sacrifice teaching or mentoring in order to achieve tenure.  NEA reports that instructors often work 52 hours a week (though this seems low to me, especially during busy times like finals week).  They are struggling to keep up with their many professional commitments even as many of them face increased teaching loads as a way for universities to handle budget cuts or otherwise cut costs.

The Real Costs of Higher Education

However, despite the high cost of college, most of that money is not going to instructors but rather to administrative costs such as athletics, counseling services, etc.  Individuals working in administration also often receive high salaries and large bonuses.  But the faculty that most people assume are receiving large pay from the tuition money seldom are.  In fact, adjuncts in particular receive a scandalously low amount of money for their work.  And yet, the American public continues to complain that higher ed instructors do very little work in return for astronomical benefits and to suggest that college tuition can be cut by taking away pay from these overrated and over-valued instructors.  Few voices have pointed out that, to lower tuition costs, American students might have to choose to give up many of the services and resources they have become used to, which were not offered by colleges in years past–if that’s even possible anymore.  Alternatively, the administration would have to cut their pay and bonuses.  But this is something few people call for.  When budget cuts roll around, it’s usually the faculty who are expected to do more for less.

Academics are not over-valued, but rather under-valued by the people they serve, and it’s a taking a toll.  Study after study in various countries reveals high levels of mental illness and stress in academia as a result of the high workload expected from those working in higher ed.  The Guardian argues that mental illness has become accepted in academia and the numbers suggest that this might be true.  A 2005 study showed that 10% of grad students at UC Berkeley had thought about suicide and a 2015 study showed that 47% of them are depressed.   A 2013 study from UCU in the U.K. reported that three quarters of the staff in higher ed said their job was stressful.  In 2014, Christie Wilcox for the New Scientist noted that a 2003 survey in Australia showed that academic staff experience mental illnesses at a rate that is three to four times higher than the general population and that the rate of mental illness among academics in the U.K. might be as high as 53%.  Wilcox noted that there are no similar studies available for mental health incidences among academics in the U.S.

Conclusion

Instructors in higher ed do not simply teach a course or two each year and then go home to enjoy free time, nor do they typically have summer or vacations off.  Rather, they are constantly researching, attending conferences, writing and publishing, doing peer review, teaching, grading, mentoring, serving on committees, attending meetings, and filling out paperwork.  Most of this work goes unacknowledged both by their institutions and by their students, even as institutions continue to increase the workloads and professional expectations of their employees.  As a result, higher education seems to be heading towards a crisis moment where institutions may have to reassess what an individual can realistically be expected to achieve and whether they will decide to pay more of their employees a living wage.  In the meantime–try to be kind to those who work in academia.  They are struggling more than they may feel able to admit.