Sunday, December 31, 2006

Approval-seeking, still and always

For the past couple of weeks--or ever since I received a very good piece of news about a proposed essay of mine, one that would represent entirely new work--I've been walking around composing in my head the email message that I plan to send to my dissertation director. You know what I'm talking about, or perhaps some of you do: the "hey, I'm just checking in to tell you how fabulously I've been doing, and about all the amazing projects I have going on, so please don't forget that I exist, because I'll probably need another recommendation letter from you before too long. Okay, bye-ee!"

(Or maybe you have a different kind of relationship with your own dissertation director--the kind that George Washington Boyfriend has with his. GWB emails him every month or two, about all kinds of things, large or small, and gets an immediate, thoughtful, and helpful reply. Nice if you've got it.)

There's pragmatism, obviously, in my desire to keep my advisor in the loop, since none of us is ever really not on the market--if not the job market, then the market for a book contract, a speaking engagement, or just for new contacts, collaborators, or professional friends. And really, given the dual career thing that GWB and I have going on, I could go back on the job market at any time (although I really hope that that time isn't next fall). So it's good to touch base now and again. But the thing here is that my advisor is not and never has been the kind of person that I could go to with problems or just to bounce ideas off. She is, I know, proud of me when I succeed. And every once in a while she has said something astonishingly complimentary about my work. But she likes to be associated with success, and I feel that aside from the occasional query--"help! I really want to participate in this collection, but am I going to be overpublishing material from my dissertation if I do?"--I can't admit to uncertainties. To interest her at all, I have to be presenting ever-new and at least modestly impressive accomplishments.

But this is all okay. In the end, having a more distant advisor worked just fine for me, and despite some of the psychic trauma that she casually inflicted along the way, having a slavish need to please her probably was (and continues to be) an effective motivator for me.

Nevertheless, I couldn't help but feel some of my old middle-child resentment when I ran into Younger Sister at MLA. Younger Sister is on the market this year, and while we engaged in the usual eye-rolling about Advisor's behavior, Younger Sis is obviously her pet: Advisor has been emailing her almost daily to give fresh advice or to get updates about Younger Sis's interviews. She did almost the same thing with Elder Sister. By contrast, she was extremely uninvolved in my own two years of job searching, never emailing me to check in and never even replying to my messages unless they involved a campus visit.

But I'm going to try to put all this out of my mind when I email Advisor. Whether she likes her other advisees or former advisees better than me doesn't matter. Whether they are, in fact, doing better than I am doesn't matter. I just need to concentrate on--and do--my own stuff.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Mind-melting exhaustion (MLA Day 3)

. . . and that was even before I'd left my hotel room this morning. Through some horrible cosmic convergence I wound up with an 8.30 a.m. panel that I needed or really wanted to attend every single day of the conference. Bearing in mind that this was the week that also included Christmas and two very early, very long days of travel (and a three-hour time change), and further bearing in mind that my natural bedtime is between 1 and 2 a.m. and that I really need eight and a half or nine hours of sleep to be fully functional, you can perhaps imagine what a haggard, brittle shell of a person I've been for the past couple of days

But it was worth it. Like Mel and Hieronimo, I have to confess that I really do like MLA. I liked it even my first time around, when I was a rather nervous first-time job candidate, and I liked it still better on this my third visit. Among the pleasures of not being a candidate was being able to eat whenever and whatever I wanted without fretting that it might make me sick (I think that all I ate last year were crackers and granola bars, and even those I had to force down).

So today I dragged my sorry ass to the morning blogger panel (which had relocated to a larger room but was still standing-room-only by the time the thing started), and then to the truly fantastic panel on Milton in the 1670s. I have to admit that I know shamefully little about the last years of Milton's life, so I took what was probably an excessive number of notes (mispelling every fifth word, I was so punchy). Then I went to a third panel, during the last paper of which I think I was having actual dreams each time my eyes fluttered shut.

Since GWB and I are in very different fields, we didn't attend any of the same panels; this means that we were able to collect twice the gossip and experience twice the fun or twice the weirdness that the conference had to offer. I wish I could claim that the fag-hag paper I heard was the worst thing that we saw between us, but GWB attended a panel where not one, but two of the four panelists incorporated dance routines into their papers: the one panelist had two interpretive dancers performing during the first five minutes of her paper, and the other--who had brought her own rolled-up dance floor with her on the plane--did a tap routine.

But damn. I do love these people, even the crazy ones.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Socializing! (MLA Day 2)

Oddly, although I went to three panels yesterday and will be attending three tomorrow, there was only ONE panel today that I wanted to attend (okay, let's be honest: I didn't even want to attend that one, but I had to). Happily, though, that made today my social day: a lunch meet-up with Medieval Woman, coffee with George Washington Boyfriend and another grad school friend, drinks with DHawhee, the always-rocking INRU reception, loafing around in a hotel suite with a couple of other grad school friends, and then dinner with a ridiculous number of bloggers, including Mel, Horace, Nels, Dr. Crazy, Bitch Ph.D., Scott Eric Kaufman, and Michael Bérubé. (Why they let me come along, I don't know.)

Needless to say, too many drinks were drunk, but the whole thing was fabulous.


And while I'm on the subject of drinking: when I arrived in town late on Wednesday GWB was already in our room, hanging out with a friend from his other discipline, who'd never been to MLA before. I dropped my bags on the floor and immediately whipped out the bottle of Scotch that I'd been lugging all that way. She declined a drink, and then observed how unlike her usual conferences the MLA was. . . and how telling she found it that all the informational materials highlighted the "Friends of Bill W" meetings scheduled throughout.

I have no idea what she was trying to say, either.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

The Other Renaissance (MLA Day 1)

I went to three panels today--two on Milton and one entitled (rather unpromisingly, I thought) "Did the English Renaissance Have Sex?"

At the two Milton panels I recognized lots of faces--probably 1/3 of the attendees at the one panel and 2/3 of the people at the other. At Renaissance Sex, however, there were a good 50-60 attendees but among them I recognized NO ONE. It was as if they'd been imported from an entirely different subfield: so young! So female! And so not MLA. There was the woman with major tatoos on both arms. A woman in a sari. Another woman with flaming red hair. And two women sitting right in front of me who were done up in what I can only identify as queer rockabilly: the one had blue-black hair in an Elvis coif, a red and white gingham halter top, and rhinestone earrings. The other had a similar but more spiky 'do in snowy platinum.

I'm pleased to know that the field is broader than my own little corner of it might suggest (and I'm definitely pleased that its members are more varied), but it's really strange to think that we inhabit such entirely different worlds even within the same subfield.

(However, I don't think it's our different world-inhabiting that caused me to stare in pain at the ceiling throughout one entire paper, praying that God would kill me immediately, or at least levitate me out of the room. It was about fag hags in Shakespeare's Coriolanus. And yes, you're right that there ARE no fag hags--whether called by that name or any other--in Coriolanus, and the author freely admitted as much. And yet, somehow, s/he still made a paper out of the topic. [On the other hand, the paper on intercrural sex was really good.])

GWB and I also crashed two open-bar receptions this evening, and I got a last-minute freebie invite to a really fun Society dinner as well. And tomorrow? One panel and oh-so-many blogger meet-ups. Fortune cookies never lie!

MLA fortune cookie wisdom

By the time I finally got into Philly this evening the only restaurant open near our hotel was a Chinese place. The food was decent. But the fortune cookies? Scary, dudes.

GWB's fortune: "You have at your command the wisdom of the ages."

Mine: "You will soon be involved in many gatherings and parties."

And that right there tells you everything you need to know about GWB, me, and our respective places in this profession. Or at least, it's a damn good predictor of our next three days here.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Merry Christmas!

Wishing a happy holiday to all y'all who celebrate it, and safe travels to everyone who'll be on the road in the next few days.

Watch this space for reports from the MLA.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Ah, the comforts of home

Well, I finally arrived at the family homestead at 3 a.m. on Saturday, Pacific Standard Time (which was, of course, 6 a.m. my time), after a journey that I will not trouble to recount. But the real fun was just about to begin: after a massive windstorm tore through the region the previous day, my folks (and some 1 million other residents) were without power.

And indeed, some 72 hours later they (we) are still without power. And it's below freezing at night. Luckily, we have a fireplace upstairs and a woodburning stove downstairs, which has the added advantage of allowing us to boil water and warm food up on it.

But oh, it's cold. And we have no more hot water. And it gets dark damn early here.

And in case y'all were wondering? Plucking one's eyebrows by candlelight? Really, really hard.

I have a newfound respect for the pioneers.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Planes, trains, and buses!

Tomorrow I leave on the first leg of my holiday travels. This is the schedule:

Dec. 15: Take the crappy city bus to the airport, lugging my suitcase through a transfer. Fly to Northwest City. Spend 10 days with the fam.

Dec. 26: Fly from Northwest City back to This City. Spend 12-15 hours frantically unpacking, repacking, and just possibly sleeping.

Dec. 27: Take Amtrak from This City to Philadelphia for the MLA. (And no, I don't live a reasonable train ride from Philadelphia. It's going to involve transfers and it's going to be hellacious. But training was half the price of flying, and at least there'll be an outlet for my laptop.) Spend 3.5 days in Philly, schmoozing and meeting some real life and some bloggy friends.

Dec. 30: Take the slow-ass commuter rail from Philly to NYC. Have nightmarish flashbacks the entire time. Spend two weeks in Manhattan housesitting for Victoria, skulking around the NYPL, and catching up with friends.

Jan. 10: Here's where my plans get hazy. I'll be leaving NYC around this date--but am I taking the train (or Greyhound) to Quaint Smallish City for several days? Am I flying home and having George Washington Boyfriend come visit me? At any rate, I'll be back in This City no later than Jan 16th. Classes start again on the 23nd.

Here's to living out of a suitcase~~

I weep for the future

I've just finished grading all my final exams and final essays, which means that I'm about an hour away from being totally and entirely done with my grading for the semester. (I still have to enter those grades into my online gradebook, but since said gradebook is, as aforesaid, online, I don't actually have to calculate course grades--it does it all for me!)

But since 'tis the season and all that, I thought I'd share the most tragic of the many missteps that I encountered in these two batches of finals. This is one of the IDs from my Brit Lit exam:

“Nay, nay,” quod he, “thanne have I Cristes curs!
Lat be,” quod he, “it shal nat be, so theech!*                         may I prosper
Thou woldest make me kisse thyn olde breech
And swere it were a relik of a saint,
Thought it were with thy fundament* depeint.*”                  anus; stained

So, pretty easy, right? We'd even discussed the ending of the Pardoner's Tale in class in some detail, but since it was two and a half months ago, I felt that giving the marginal glosses was appropriate--and I even snickered a little to myself about how you can tell a truly awesome exam by the fact that it has the word "anus" in it somewhere.

Most of my students did indeed recognize the passage. A few misidentified it as coming from the Miller's Tale, which I suppose I understand--it's still Chaucer, after all, and it's true that the MT also involve both anuses and kissing. But I had not one, but TWO students who misidentified this passage as coming from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. You know: when Gawain and his host's beautiful wife trade kisses.

Okay, so--what part of that "you'd make me kiss your old, shit-stained underwear and swear it was the relic of a saint" reminds you of our chivalrous friend Gawain, exactly?

I was also told by another student that a passage from "Corinna's Going A-Maying" (which the student correctly identified by title and author and said otherwise smart or at least accurate things about) provided an example of that popular theme in Cavalier poetry, "ceasing the day."

Yeah. I'm about ready to cease the day myself.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Perils of reviewing

I've just finished reading that manuscript--you remember: the one that apparently follows a Flavian methodology, whatever that might be--for Big Journal in My Field. And hoo-boy, is it bad. I suspect that the editor may have sent it to me not so much because its topic and method overlap with my own, but because it was such an obviously bad piece of work that he didn't want to trouble a more established scholar with the thing. This is fine by me (especially if I can convince the editor, by my promptness, thoroughness, etc., to send me stuff to review in the future!), but it does raise some questions.
First: who sends an essay to a journal without page numbers? Seriously. Thirty-odd pages, no numbers.

Second: who does such a bad job of proofreading that there are typos on nearly every page? And I'm not talking just about errors that one's eye might keep skipping over, like typing "is" for "if," but errors where the sentence was obviously partly rewritten but not double-checked, so that several words are missing or different version of the same verb are left sitting side by side. Or where the author has left blank spaces for the page numbers for a couple of citations. . . but never come back to fill them in.
I mean, okay. I have an editorial background and I'm anal anyway, but in this case these sloppy errors are indicative of the quality of the whole, which isn't even grad-student-y so much as it is undergrad-y: the essay is completely unbalanced, doing shit like providing 10 pages of not-at-all-relevant background information before giving (I'm not kidding) 3 pages of analysis of the supposedly important text that that background info was setting up. The author also has a penchant for just dropping in quotations from famous scholars--quotations that are appropriate enough, but that the author doesn't comment on or adapt or modify, but leaves to speak for themselves (even when those quotations were originally about something, uh, different than whatever he's using them to prove).

There is, however, the germ of an interesting idea here. I'm not sure that that idea is true, or provable, or maybe even ultimately all that interesting, but some part of it is, I think, original to the author. So I'm trying to write a review that both says NO WAY NO HOW to the journal editor, but that doesn't totally crush the author. If the essay were completely reoriented to focus on its best 10%, and to actually make its one rather interesting argument, it could be publishable (somewhere, though probably not in this particular journal).

It's a tough line to walk. I feel real compassion for the author, but I'm also just astonished at how bad some of this material is. I believe that it's important for the author to get feedback on the specific flaws in his approach so that he can correct them, but as I'm detailing those flaws I'm aware that I'm taking a kind of pleasure in doing so--and I don't want it to be about me and my enjoyment of whatever minor power I have now that I'm on the other side.

The other thing that's making this difficult is that I know who the author is. When the editor emailed me, he identified the author by name, even though in the editor's actual cover letter and on the essay itself none of that information is provided. This seems to me a breach of the usual blind author/blind reviewer process, which itself makes me uncomfortable--but not so uncomfortable that I didn't immediately Google the author. I discovered that he's a year or two ahead of me on the tenure track, at an institution where I also applied for a job--indeed, I'm pretty sure that he's in the very position that I applied for. This isn't something that makes me envious (the school is more or less equivalent to my own institution), but having that kind of information makes my task as a reviewer both easier and harder.

On the one hand, I know that the author is young, but not a grad student, has presented at some important conferences, but appears not yet to have published anything, and those facts make it easier for me to pitch my comments appropriately. On the other hand, there's also that background *buzz buzz* in my head of, "How the hell did he get that job? How did he even get his dissertation approved?" and all that is not conducive to kindly comments.

In the end, the easiest approach for me has been to pretend that he's a smart undergraduate who has just brought me his first draft of his senior thesis--in other words, that he's someone whose intelligence I believe in, who has the time and the skills to improve, but who also needs some very stern guidance just now.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Got a million to spare?

My 10th-year college reunion is this coming June. As if that event alone weren't reason enough for me to start reflecting on all my inadequacies, today I received a letter from my class reunion chair soliciting donations for our class gift.

Now, I never had any intention of contributing to this gift (I may have written in the past about when and why I stopped making my annual $25-50 donation to Instant Name Recognition U, and the explanatory letters that I wrote to my class secretary, the dean of the college, and the dean of the graduate school, and to which I received no reply), but I opened the letter and read it anyway.

Apparently, INRU is in the midst of a new capital campaign. I wasn't, actually, aware that the old one had ended--I suspect that they never really do end, just change their names--but our reunion chair was all burbly with excitement about the opportunities that this offered those of us desperate to give our money away:
In line with the University's priority to renovate campus facilities, two challenges are underway: an initiative that will match dollar-for-dollar outright gifts and pledges from $25,000 to $1,000,000 for [Important Building X]'s recent renovation, and a [Important Building Y] Challenge that will also match all new gifts or pledges of $10,000 to $500,000 for its restoration, which has recently begun. Both initiatives offer Class reunion fundraising credit and individual recognition opportunities for twice the amount of any qualifying gift. Recognition opportunities are limited, and on a first come, first served basis.
Okay, I'm going to try not to throw myself out of my second-story window at the thought that there might be someone in my graduating class either interested in or able to donate $10,000+ to my alma mater, because what I find most interesting are those last two sentences. The implication seems to be that a large number of us might well have tens of thousands of dollars lying around, but we're too chintzy to donate it if we think we'd only get recognized for it once--and that we would, moreover, jump at the chance to donate a mere $50,000 (say), if we could publicly claim to have donated $100,000. In fact, there are so many of us with pots of money lying around, and so greedy to be seen as even fatter cats than we are, that we'd better act fast--recognition opportunities are limited!

And then there's the final paragraph:
I hope you are as eager as I am to give back to [INRU]--an institution that has given us so much. [INRU] and your fellow classmates appreciate your commitment to our alma mater and to the Class of 1997.
Now, you know what? INRU probably gave me more than it gave the punk who wrote this letter: it gave me three degrees, my closest friends, and what I will admit was both an amazing education and a great set of personal and professional connections. I am the person I am today because of that school.

But that B.A. and M.A. were fully paid for (well, except for those pesky, outstanding loans, but nevermind them). It's probably untrue that my labor as a TA and as an instructor fully covered the expenses of my Ph.D., but I'm smart enough to know that alumni giving has no meaningful relation to grad student stipends--or to the wages that the university pays its clerical/technical/maintenance workers--anyway. I also know that there's no way to earmark any donations specifically for those purposes.

And that, ultimately, is what I find so frustrating about these solicitations: I wish that I did have that kind of money to give, if only so that the university would care enough to listen to my reasons for not giving it.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Do you perorate?

Today was the last day for two of my classes (the third ended on Tuesday), and as burnt-out as I've been feeling for the last two weeks and as uninterested as I've been in planning classes for at least as long*, last night I found myself getting suddenly energized as I tried to figure out how to wrap things up today. And by "wrap things up," I don't mean "plan a final 1.5-hour-long class meeting"; no, I mean "come up with a sufficiently conclusory three-minute speech"--one that would tie together everything we'd done and send my students out into the future feeling they'd accomplished something (and possibly with some interest in taking additional courses in my period).

Sometimes I take the quick and dirty route, as I did with my Comp class--in 60 seconds I reminded them of the many things they'd done this semester and the specific skills I'd seen them develop; told them that this was only the beginning of their writing careers; encouraged them to take more English courses; and thanked them for being a great class.

But with others I try much harder. In the three semesters that I've been teaching Brit Lit I, I've gone to great lengths to create a meaningful conclusion that--as with the best written conclusions--isn't so much a recap as a graceful suggestion of why what we've done might matter, and where it might lead us. (I had a great bit that I did at Big Urban, where the class ended with Paradise Lost, but at RU the survey goes just a bit further, so I had to come up with something new.)

I know that these perorations are a little cheesy, and that they're more about theatre than about content. I remember the first class that I TAed for as a grad student, and how the students clapped for the professor at end of the final lecture. As they were clapping, I turned to one of my fellow (but older and more experienced) TAs to observe that there didn't seem to be a meaningful pattern to which classes got applause, and which didn't--I'd seen classes fail to applaud a wildly popular professor at the end of a wildly popular course, and I'd seen them applaud at the end of a fairly humdrum one. My friend half-smiled, shrugged and said, "if you end right, you can always make them clap."

I was puzzled by that when he said it, but I've since come to see that it's usually true: you slow down your speech and emphasize just the right words, widen your eyes and put on the sincere face, and if you hit that last sentence just right, and then pause--well, unless it's a small class, or unless applauding isn't part of the campus culture, the response can be almost Pavlovian.**

So I do feel slightly fraudulant when I swing (with all apparent naturalness, as if this were just totally off the cuff) into such wrap-ups, but at the same time I think that students both like them and benefit from them. No, it's not as if my students would have learned any less over the course of the semester if I didn't take the time to remind them of what they'd learned, and it's not as if sending them off with an idea to chew over or a nice frame to put around the material we've covered means they've learned any more, but I think students do feel that they've learned more, and learned something more meaningful, when there's some kind of take-away. As a result, I believe they're more likely to take challenging or unfamiliar classes in the future and to believe in their own intellectual abilities.

And anyway: if I'm a fraudulent cheeseball, at least I'm in love with my own cheesiness and fakery. They may be artificial, these perorations, but as I deliver them I convince myself of their truth all over again.


*Best solution ever? Student research presentations for the last three class meetings! Worst solution ever? Teaching a work I'd never taught before--and had only read once, long ago--over the last two class meetings. And yes, I did both of these things this semester.

**For the record: no, none of my classes this semester clapped. But there were lots of thoughtful nods, reflective looks, and smiles throughout.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Minor practical and ethical dilemma

So I'm going to MLA again this year, mainly because George Washington Boyfriend is on the market, but also because it's not in a totally inconvenient location relative to the rest of my winter break plans, and because I do enjoy many of the panels, catching up with friends and professional acquaintances, &c.

But I haven't registered yet. What with that whole four-months-without-a-salary, moving-to-a-new-location-and-setting-up-house thing, I'm in pretty tight financial straits, and I just couldn't afford to pay the $125 early registration fee last month; I figured it would be easier to pay the full $150 fee later this month. But now, looking ahead to my projected expenses, I'm not even so sure about that.

I'm thinking about not registering at all.

Practically, I don't think that this would pose too much of a problem. GWB and I already have a hotel room, and in my past experience I don't recall nametages being regularly checked by MLA staff; I think they're really only strict at the book exhibit and at the big, "future-of-the-humanities"-type panels. The panels I'm interested in will likely draw between 5-40 people, and I'm pretty sure that security at the INRU reception isn't too tight, since I know people from other programs who have crashed it in past years (full, open bar, folks--'swhat I'm talking about!).

But perhaps I'm misremembering how strict nametag enforcement is, and there are a couple of panels that I'd be really disappointed if I got shut out of. And if part of the reason for going is to schmooze, maybe it's better to have the damn tag already. And there is, of course, the ethical question: could I be a good professional citizen and still be a conference freeloader?