A Slight Discrepancy

When I left Bryn Mawr without graduating in 1994, I intended to complete my degree some day. The longer I waited, though, the more daunting the task seemed, so I was surprised to discover how very little work I actually had to do to get my diploma, and I was shocked by how much easier college seemed the second time around. One lab science and a few semesters of Spanish after returning to school, and I was done.

Finally completing my degree was so easy, in fact, that I couldn’t quite believe that I had actually done it, and I went back to Bryn Mawr for commencement half expecting to be told that there was a mistake, that I wouldn’t be graduating after all. I went to pick up my regalia with the fear that my name wouldn’t be on the rolls for the class of 2007. The fact that I was able to pick up a gown, a cap, and a hood with no trouble simply meant that I showed up for rehearsal imagining that someone would soon be telling me, “There seems to be a problem. You need to go talk to your dean.” When that didn’t happen, I relaxed—a little.

The afternoon of commencement, I got to Merion Green a little early, procured a program, and looked myself up. There I was: Jessica Lee Jernigan of Ohio. When the time came, I got in line for the procession. There was no red flag next to my name on the marshal’s list, and I marched with the rest of the class of 2007 when the bagpipers started piping. It was really happening: I was really graduating.

I waited for my name and I walked across the stage. I shook the College president’s hand and I took my diploma. When I got back to my seat, I untied the yellow ribbon and unfurled the parchment, eager to see my name—finally—on a Bryn Mawr diploma. What I saw instead was, I feel, the cosmic joke variant of the disaster I had been expecting:


May 24, 2007 | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

I Graduated


I received my Artium Baccalaureus from Bryn Mawr College on Sunday, May 20.

May 23, 2007 | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

A Theocracy of the Mind

I had to take an oral exam for my Spanish class recently. One of the questions—designed to test my knowledge of the superlative—was “¿Cuál es la mejor revista de los Estados Unidos?” My answer was, “El New Yorker.”

I really do think it’s the best magazine in America—better than The Atlantic, better even than Us Weekly. Margaret Talbot’s piece on Kitzmiller v. Dover in the December 5 issue was just the kind of writing I have learned to expect from this fine periodical. For one thing, it was gorgeously written. Talbot is a great storyteller with a good eye for compelling characters. More importantly, though, she makes it very clear that the movement to teach intelligent design alongside or instead of evolution in schools is about more than teaching “both sides of the issue.”

One thing Talbot points out in her article is that, regardless of what some proponents of intelligent design might actually believe—and regardless of what they want the rest of us to believe they believe—intelligent design and creationism were fundamentally interchangeable for leading members of the Dover school board. Their objections to Darwin were religious, rather than scientific, and they regarded intelligent design as a way to get God—their own particular Christian God—into public schools. Talbot describes the situation in Talbot, and the birth of intelligent design, in this Q&A.

This underscores the basic problem with teaching intelligent design in science classes: Intelligent design is not science. This is not my judgment; this is a simple fact. Science is a naturalistic system, one fueled by observation and experimentation and guided by empirical reasoning. Intelligent design isn’t science because there’s no way to test its hypotheses. As Talbot reports, the defenders of intelligent design admit as much.

To teach intelligent design in a biology classroom requires a paradigm shift; basically, it requires the substitution of a system of belief for a system of knowledge. Many of the supporters of intelligent design know this, and they approve. Talbot’s story includes an anecdote about a Dover civics teacher who wrote to the school board asking, facetiously, if they had any advice for someone preparing to teach students about the Supreme Court. The head of the school board replied that they were planning to update the social studies curriculum next.

Obviously, the fight for intelligent design is about more than evolution. It’s about more than biology or the sciences in general. The New York Times recently ran a couple of articles about Christian high schools and their struggles to get their courses recognized by state universities. Basically, the universities are arguing that Christ-centered pedagogy might be good catechism, but it’s seldom good American history or English lit. One of these articles includes excerpts from some disputed textbooks, and it’s not too hard to see that the universities have a point. Consider, for example, this excerpt from Elements of Literature for Christian Schools, published by Bob Jones University:

Dickinson's year at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary further shaped her "religious" views. During her stay at the school, she learned of Christ but wrote of her inability to make a decision for Him. She could not settle "the one thing needful." A thorough study of Dickinson's works indicates that she never did make that needful decision. Several of her poems show a presumptuous attitude concerning her eternal destiny and a veiled disrespect for authority in general. Throughout her life she viewed salvation as a gamble, not a certainty. Although she did view the Bible as a source of poetic inspiration, she never accepted it as an inerrant guide to life.

This critique of Emily Dickinson looks a lot like the critique of Mark Twain included in the same text, and they both resemble criticism of Teddy Roosevelt and the Progressives found in United States History for Christian Schools, also from Bob Jones University.

The educational worldview presented by these textbooks is one in which God is the right answer—the only right answer—to every possible question. There is nothing here to foster real critical thinking or problem-solving. There’s no room for creativity or indepent ideas. Faith, in the form of received wisdom, takes the place of actual thought. It’s chilling to imagine public schools in which this might be the educational norm, and it’s heartening to know that all the Dover school board members who voted for the anti-evolution speech were voted out of office in the last election.

December 8, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

School Days at Night: Three Subconscious Scenes


For the last few weeks, I’ve been working on an oral presentation for Spanish class. It’s been stressing me out a little, and, last night, I dreamt that I got to campus on the day of the presentation only to discover that I had forgotten to bring an important component of my presentation—the batch of Aztec cocoa I made to demonstrate the difference between contemporary chocolates and ancient Mesoamerican chocolate. I woke up nervous, but then I thought to myself, “Well, at least the shock of that dream will make me extra-vigilant when I’m getting my things together for the presentation.”

Today was the day of the presentation. I was a few feet away from my Spanish classroom when I realized that I had forgotten my bottle of Aztec cocoa.

I only live a few blocks from campus, but still, this was a pain in my ass. It would have been nice if—just once—a stress dream worked for me instead of against me.


I dream about school a lot. Bryn Mawr is the venue for my most interesting, evocative dreams, and, occasionally, my unconscious mind stages some primal scenes at Woodland Elementary. Stow High is, by far, the most popular setting for stress dreams. Thus, it is the most popular setting overall in the theater that is my brain at night.

Most of the time, in dreams, I am both illiterate and innumerate. Thus, forgetting my locker combination is a common trope. For the first time in a long time, I actually have a locker. It’s outside the studio where I’m taking a printmaking class, and I keep my tools and supplies in it. I don’t seem to be having any trouble with the combination, but, because my only locker-related experiences of the past several years have been in dreams, using my locker makes me existentially woozy—like I’m not sure whether or not I am, in fact, using my locker. At those moments, I’m not sure whether or not I am, in fact, existing.


Often, in my dreams of high school, I find that I have arrived at school naked. Or, at least, half-naked: Sometimes I have a shirt, but this has always seemed more naked than naked to me (as a child, I was always a little disturbed by Porky Pig), so it’s actually worse than just being naked.

Anyway, I’ve been back in school for a semester and a half now, and, so far, this hasn’t actually occurred.

So, I’ve got that going for me.

October 11, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Report Card


May 16, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

James Joyce and the Nature of Collage

BLOGGER’S NOTE I’ve taken my chem final and my Spanish exam. I think I did all right on both. I just handed in my James Joyce term paper—entitled “Stephen’s Vampire and the Ghost of Mrs Dedalus: Revenants in Ulysses”—and I am ready for a nap. While I am thus occupied, I leave you with on of the many Joycean meditations I composed this past semester.

How does collage work? I’m pondering this question because of Wolfgang Iser’s very helpful suggestion [in “Patterns of Communication in Joyce’s Ulysses”] that Joyce uses a kind of verbal cut-and-paste in Ulysses. It’s true that one generally thinks of collage as a visual technique, but the real Dubliners and snippets of newspaper stories Joyce inserts in his text are really no different from the advertising images appropriated by Hannah Höch or the comic strips détourned by the Situationist International.

Iser argues that, in most realist novels, verifiable details support the (implicit) stylistic claim of authenticity—they help create a world that the reader recognizes—but, in Ulysses, “realistic” details are decontextualized—they refer only to themselves, and they “revoke the normal assumption that a novel represents a given reality”.

L.H.O.O.Q.This idea—which I find inspired and inspiring—seems to negate the purpose of a lot of Joyce scholarship, the kind that is concerned with tracking down each and every butcher, milliner, and casual acquaintance mentioned in Joyce’s work. Myself, I haven’t found the encyclopedic references to the Dublin phonebook (or whatever the equivalent would have been) all that enlightening, just as my feelings about L.H.O.O.Q. would probably not be changed were someone to discover the newsstand where Marcel Duchamp bought his Mona Lisa postcard. Indeed, this approach seems a little obsessive-compulsive to me, and maybe a little desperatre—as if Ulysses can be fixed, as if its single, true, objective meaning will be revealed as soon as the precise location of Stephen Dedalus’s dentist’s office is identified. Iser argues that following such leads is a dead-end. I can understand how it might be fun and occasionally even interesting, but I’m inclined to agree with Iser.

So, collage. Nebeneinander. What happens when an image or a word is removed from a familiar context and placed in a strange, new one? Does it acquire new meaning or meaninglessness? If the former, does the new meaning contain vestiges of the old one? With some collage—and I would include Joyce’s use of real Dublin places and personages—the content of the appropriated material doesn’t matter so much as its form. Here he seems allied with other modernists—even postmodernists—in his willingness to use ostensibly worthless artifacts in the service of art, a move which offers an implicit critique of existing modes of art and art production. Joyce’s literary quotations and references seem like a different kind of collage, one in which old material retains its old meaning and acquires new ones, and this differs from a more straightforward kind of allusion, one in which existing literary material is cited without irony.

I think I’m wandering into the woods now, and it’s almost time for class, so I close with these words from Raoul Hausmann, which may or may not be relevant—I can’t tell anymore:

Seeing is a social process—we banalize things through visual allegory which takes from them their multiplicity of meaning… Our perception appears to be blind to the background, the space between things—and it is precisely this that the photomonteur lets us perceive and recognize. He creates his photomontage out of the insignificant inbetween-parts and uses the unperceived optics.

May 4, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

“Cosmetic Chemistry: A Brief Historical Survey”

BLOGGER’S NOTE It’s finals week at CMU, and I am busy studying for exams and working on my James Joyce term paper. While I am thus occupied, I leave you with excerpts from my education. Today’s offering is a passage from my Chem 101 project.

Elizabethan England

Elizabeth REgyptians were not unique in using lead as a cosmetic ingredient. Ancient Greek women used lead-based face paints, and similar products were used to create the lustrous white complexion seen in portraits from 16th-century England. It’s not altogether clear what the chemical compositions of these cosmetics were, but powdered cerussite (lead carbonate, PbCO3) is one suggestion—certainly there was a product called "ceruse" in use at this time—while a cream created when lead is reacted with vinegar (impure dilute acetic acid, C2H4O2) has also been proposed. Many Elizabethan pictures also show hair-loss characteristic of lead poisoning. In fact, court ladies were forced to shave their own foreheads to match the queen’s receding hairline, since the monarch set the fashion. This toxic compound also took a toll on the very face it was meant to beautify: ceruse ate pits into the queen’s complexion, and these blemishes inspired her to slather the mixture on even more thickly—which, of course, only made matters worse. The effects of lead poisoning continued to erode the queen’s beauty to the point that stylish ladies had to blacken their teeth as well as shave their foreheads. Ultimately, Elizabeth banned all mirrors from her palaces.

May 3, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

“Mi Diario”

BLOGGER’S NOTE It’s finals week at CMU, and I am busy studying for exams and working on my James Joyce term paper. While I am thus occupied, I leave you with excerpts from my education. Today’s offering is an excerpt from the “Mi Diario” exercise that accompanies Capítulo 4 of Puntos de Partida (7th edition). ¡Olé!

En Español
Son nueve cuartos en mi casa. La cocina es mi cuarto favorito porque me gusta mucho preparar la comida. La cocina es muy grande y muy bonita. Las paredes son amarillas y verdes. Mi oficina—un escritorio, una silla, dos estantes, y mi computadora—es en la cocina tambien.

Babel Fish Translation
They are nine quarters in my house. The kitchen is my room favorite because I like much to prepare the food. The kitchen is very great and very pretty. The walls are yellow and green. My office—a writing-desk, a chair, two shelves, and my computer—is in the kitchen also.

May 2, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Spring Break with James Joyce: Day 5

BLOGGER’S NOTE I’m on Spring Break this week, so I’m taking a vacation from schooling and blogging. Since most of my creative energy over the past several weeks has been academically oriented, I’m leaving you with a half-semester’s worth of my thoughts on James Joyce. Seriously: I really am. Have fun with it!

DublinersI tried to read Portrait once, several years ago. I was working in a used bookstore in North Carolina, and a lovely paperback edition from the ‘60s came in (wonderful cover; echoes of Soviet poster art). I bought it, and, as I said, I tried to read it, but I had to stop. I couldn’t get past the sermon on hell.

I’m a heathen, and the child of heathens. My grandma did take my dad to tent meetings and revivals, but only because they were free entertainment. And my great-great-grandfather did preach Jesus to trees and to animals (given his Pentecostal background and scanty education, it’s highly unlikely that Grandpa Jordan knew that St. Francis got to the animals first), which turned my great-grandmother into a weird-but-sincere kind of Baptist, but her faith just gave me the creeps—much like her maudlin alcoholism and fondness for organ meats. My point is that I was not raised to believe in any particular god—and hell has never had any power over me. It’s the priest’s repeated invocations of eternity that get me; and, once he has me staring into that abyss, I find myself strangely receptive to the idea of gnawing worms and unimaginable stench. Hell’s dark fire makes me particularly woozy, as it reminds me of Paracelsus’s light-in-darkness, an image that had a profoundly disorienting effect on me when I first encountered it, and which I still can’t contemplate for long without starting to sweat.

I don’t often “identify” with characters in novels, but I felt an intense pang of sympathy when poor little Baby Tuckoo’s noggin was troubled by thoughts of infinity, because my own infant mind was blown by similar contemplation. While I’m sure that analysis would show that my unconscious depths are roiling with all kinds of unresolved traumas, the first angst I remember is the problem of infinity and my place in it. I would go so far as to say that is my ur-angst, the one that lies at the root of all my other persistent worries.

I decided to take a class on James Joyce because, having tried to read Portrait, having tried to read Ulysses, I was pretty sure I was never going to actually grapple with Joyce if I didn’t have an expert guide and a grade attached. The sermon on hell still makes my hair stand on end, and I’m quite confident I would have tossed Portrait aside and picked up a nicely diverting historical novel or even retreated to the comfortable pleasures of an old favorite if I hadn’t felt externally compelled to get through the sermon and onto the rest of the story. All I can say is, it had better be worth it.

Day 1
Day 2
Day 3
Day 4

March 11, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Spring Break with James Joyce: Day 4

BLOGGER’S NOTE I’m on Spring Break this week, so I’m taking a vacation from schooling and blogging. Since most of my creative energy over the past several weeks has been academically oriented, I’m leaving you with a half-semester’s worth of my thoughts on James Joyce. Seriously: I really am. Have fun with it!

When I read an early draft of “The Sisters”, I was amazed: It’s so inflated and precious, and it bears so little resemblance to the published work. Comparing passages like the following

As I went home I wondered was that square of window lighted as before or did it reveal the ceremonious candles in the light of which the Christian must take his last sleep.
…and night after night I had found it lighted in the same way, faintly and evenly. If he was dead, I thought, I would see the reflection of candles in the darkened window for I knew that two candles must be set at the head of a corpse.

offers dramatic demonstration of James Joyce’s evolution as a writer. The first is a rather stuffed euphemism—it offends me like bad aftershave offends me. The second is elegantly direct—you really can’t beat the word “corpse” for provoking an direct confrontation with death—and it is a more faithful reproduction of thoughts a young boy might actually have.

DublinersMy reaction to his essay, “A Portrait of the Artist”, was like my reaction to the proto-“The Sisters”, but more violent. I wasn’t kidding when I said it was unreadable; indeed, it reads as if the author assumes I have no business reading it. The style—Romantic, sentimental, grossly overblown (like the self-important, self-indulgent ranting of practically every 20-year-old beta male I have ever known)—is not only off-putting: It seems antithetical to Joyce’s project as an instrument of modernity, of aesthetic honesty and social revolution.

The rejection of this essay was an altogether predictable miracle—predictable because it’s dreck; miraculous because it turned into A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

Day 1
Day 2
Day 3
Day 5

March 10, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack