Wednesday, May 31, 2006

In praise of partnership

I woke up with a start last night in the midst of a weirdly hallucinatory dream (about rats--BIG rats--running around a deserted campus somewhere, among the shredded remains of academic robes and leftover commencement food),* to find that my window fan had unaccountably stopped working. It didn't seem broken, but I couldn't get it to turn back on. Disoriented and disturbed by all this, I couldn't fall back asleep for a while, and so, lying there in the overly-warm dark, I somehow started thinking about that word, "partner."

And I'm wondering: when, exactly, did "partner" become the standard generic term for one's significant other? And IS it standard outside of academia?

When I started grad school, I had certainly encountered "partner" as a term for a long-time homosexual companion, although all my actual gay friends preferred "boy/girlfriend" or "lover." But when a faculty member, whom we all knew to be married (his wife was then at another institution some 1,000 miles away), occasionally spoke of his "partner," my classmates and I were completely flummoxed. We discussed it among ourselves. We'd met his wife. He'd introduced her as his wife. So . . . this partner person: who was it?

We gradually came to the conclusion that he must be referring to his wife, although I'm pretty sure that at least one of my colleagues continued to harbor the secret suspicion that said faculty member actually had an acknowledged lover (male or female) in addition to his wife.

And I remember, at the time, thinking that it was a sensible term for a spouse, and that it was an even more sensible generic term for a significant other--equally applicable to gay or straight, married or unmarried--but his usage still seemed forced, and it didn't enter my own vocabulary.

A couple of years later, a young, aggressively hip assistant professor spoke (God bless him) in favor of grad student unionization on the grounds that grad students aren't children and should be able to make their own decisions about what's best for them and their families, rather than trusting in the benevolent paternalism of the university. "Grad students have spouses," he said, "they have partners, they have children."

It was around this time that I started using the word myself--awkwardly at first, and then more comfortably--to describe unmarried but committed couples of any sexual orientation. Not coincidentally, I and many of my friends were finding ourselves in just such relationships, and as we entered our 30s and some of them starting buying houses together it seemed increasingly silly, not to mention dismissive, to speak of their boyfriends or girlfriends as if he were on the football team and she were wearing his class ring on a chain around her neck. Gradually, too, I realized that it was a brilliant way of avoiding making assumptions about marital status OR sexuality: "Oh. . . he commutes from Boston! Does he have a partner there?"

The term also allows one to avoid the heteronormative associations of "husband" and "wife," which do carry a certain amount of baggage, instead emphasizing the ideas of equality, partnership and joint enterprise. (I've always liked the term "spouse" for this reason, too: in elementary school my best friend's parents were German immigrants, and they addressed each other this way in charmingly and affectionately accented English: "Oh, Spouse! Can you come here, sweetheart?")

But although I'm totally on board with the wide-ranging and generic usage of "partner," and my perception is that the entire academy is, too, I'm not sure how common the usage is otherwise. The only non-academic whom I've heard use the term is my old college friend, the militantly liberal labor activist (nothing wrong with militant liberalism--I'm just sayin'). I suspect that, in many places, people would have no idea what you meant if you referred to your partner: business partner? Fellow cowpoke? Huh?

Which is a pity. It's such a lovely word.


*Hmm. Now that's a tough dream to interpret!

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Check me out

The traditional markers of success in this profession are well known: a tenure-track job (preferrably at a research school); a long list of publications; tenure; well-paid speaking engagements; adoring fans and fawning book reviews.

But they are as nothing--nothing!--when compared with winning the woodcut caption contest at Blogging the Renaissance.

This one's going on my vita right quick.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Writing style and blogging voice

As I mentioned in my last post at La Lecturess, I've been thinking, in the course of this transition to a new space, about the voice and style of my blog. In particular, I've been thinking about my insistent use of the first person and my reluctance, usually, to build out to more general claims about the nature and state of academia; it's always the personal anecdote or observation around here. I love many blogs that are more journalistic in their ability to move from the personal to the general, and that make larger claims about Big Issues. But I can't write like that, or at least not here.

I also can't use, or am not interested in using, a more scholarly-objective voice to discuss works that I've read or things I've observed or phenomena that I've encountered. Clearly, my blog-self isn't entirely comfortable taking on the role of Authority About Stuff.

What's surprising to me about these facts is that I've tended to think that my scholarly writing voice and my blogging voice are very similar: they employ the same sentence patterns and rhythms, for example, and my scholarly writing is generally rather arch and (I think) fun--or at least more fun than most such writing. So I haven't really accepted that there's a difference in style between my "real" work and my blog work. But in fact, I'm a fairly aggressive personality in my scholarly writing and I have very strong opinions about the things I write on and the work I encounter by other critics. I enjoy shredding bogus claims and I like making a controversial argument and sticking to it.

So. . . why don't I do that in my blog-writing? Why don't I make big claims or tackle bigger subjects? Why am I often uncomfortable when I even think about doing so?

It might be that I perceive the blog to be a more informal and personal genre, and thus not well-suited for formal or even quasi-scholarly writing.

It might be that I'm young and female and very aware that I'm a newcomer to many of these conversations, and I'm nervous about setting myself up as an authority, particularly when much of my audience is older and wiser than I. (I never talked much in my graduate school seminars for much the same reason.)

But I don't think that either of those two explanations is quite right. I think that part of what my blog-writing represents is, in effect, an earlier stage in the writing process. In my scholarship, too, I work bottom-up rather than top-down: I have a very hard time giving a snap synthesis or articulating a working theory at the outset, and I can sound positively incoherent about my ideas when I'm embarking on a new project. Instead, I work with and worry over particular details and fragments for a VERY long time, writing those endless drafts as I try to figure out where the evidence is tending and what I'm really trying to say. Eventually, I do construct a big, aggressive argument that I feel completely comfortable defending. But it's only eventually.

It's also true that I like the personal and the particular, and I'm very attached to the way in which authorial identity is constructed and conveyed through the written word; I've also always been more interested in individuals than abstractions. Maybe I couldn't write any other way, and maybe that's why I never seriously considered a career in journalism: I'm too in love with the sound of my own voice.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

More afternoon drinking

Lest you think that this new blog is too serious to feature everyone's favorite Sunday afternoon activity, let me prove you wrong: SO much afternoon drinking today! So much that I couldn't be bothered to get around to blogging about some of the Very Important Subjects that I'd otherwise be blogging about--but we'll get to those tomorrow or the next day.

Today's drinking involved: brunch with HK and Lulu (one mimosa apiece), after which, en route to helping HK return some ludicrously overpriced clothes that her sisters-in-law had convinced her to purchase last weekend, we decided that, really, we could all use another drink. We looked up and noticed that we were within a block of the gorgeous but also rather scary art deco hotel at which, once upon a time, we'd indulged in the occasional drink or afternoon tea (for an idea of the kind of scary lovely looming building that I'm talking about, I refer you to Fritz Lang's Metropolis, or just the original Batman movie). Once we got ourselves seated, Lulu opined that what we really needed was a bottle of Champagne--so economical, when you think about it!--and somehow the extremely frugal HK and the poorer but less frugal Flavia were brought to see the logic of this position. (Full disclosure: I wasn't paying, and thus from my perspective the logic was entirely persuasive.)

Then we continued with our shopping, which consisted pretty much exclusively of returning HKs items and trying on but not purchasing anything additional. Then I ran off to mass. Then as I was on my way home HK rang up and reminded me that I had a bottle of wine with our joint name inscribed on it, and so she came over and we cracked that thing open, ate some very unhealthy food, and caught up on the last six months of our respective lives.

Why can't every Sunday be like this one?

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Meet the new blogger, same as the old blogger

As I wrote in my last post at (and as) La Lecturess, I'm moving over into this new space and this new identity for several reasons. Most importantly, I'm moving because, as of turning in my grades earlier this month, I'm no longer a lecturer. This disruption and potential identity confusion is vexing, but there's really no help for it; if I were actually going to be lecturing in my new job, I might have kept the pseudonym--and for the sake of continuity I did consider a variety of other titles involving the article "la," but none of them were really speaking to me.

However, I'm not entirely sorry to move locations, since there are a few things I'd like to do differently in this new space and under this new name. For the most part, you can expect the same old complaining and navel-gazing that made La Lecturess so darned much fun, but I'd also like to speak more specifically about my teaching and some of my scholarly interests than I felt comfortable doing in my previous space. Partly this is because I'm no longer on the job market; partly it's because I intend to be much more circumspect about my geographic location; but mostly it's because I don't care that much about maintaining my pseudonymity. Were it not for the ferocious powers of Google and my desire not to have my life on display to my students and casual acquaintances, I'd probably eventually start blogging under my own name. That's still not out of the question, but it's not in my immediate future.

So here's what you need to know: from here on out I'm Flavia, a recent English Ph.D. and former lecturer in the process of packing up my life and moving to a new city to start my first tenure-track job at what I'm calling Regional University (RU). I'm also an Early Modernist and primarily a Miltonist.

As for the name of this blog: the ferule and fescue were the two most important instruments of the schoolmaster of old--his rod or cane (ferule) and his pointer (fescue). I'd like to think that these items represent the twofold nature of my work as a teacher: I guide students toward knowledge, pointing them in the right general direction and letting them do the rest--but I also, sometimes, have to beat it into them. (Same goes for myself and my own scholarship.) However, the title comes, indirectly, from Areopagitica, where Milton uses the two terms to represent a hopelessly blinkered and pedantic approach to learning. . . so, imagine some irony in the name as well.

As you can see, I've kept my template for now and I'm keeping a link to my old blog under archives--so hopefully that eases the transition for y'all.

Questions? Comments? You know where to send 'em. Thanks for sticking around.