Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Very good news

Today, George Washington Boyfriend was awarded tenure at Atypical College.*

Time for champagne! (By which I mean, more champagne.)


*Now might be a good time to clear up what seems to be a rampant misconception among my readers: GWB does not, in fact, teach at George Washington University, but rather at an institution far more. . . atypical. He bears that pseudonym because he's an Early Americanist (think of George Washington Irving or George Washington Carver, and you'll see what I was going for).

Monday, February 26, 2007

Reflections from one of my recent conferences

* There are a lot of smart people out there working on really cool stuff.

* All hotel rooms that are equipped with double beds should also come with double bathrooms. I'd never encountered such rooms before, but I hope they catch on. Brilliant for room-shares.

* One can recover from dropping a full plate of hors d'oeuvres to the floor in front of one's friend's senior colleagues, but only if said colleagues are really gracious.

* It's nice to be the person who comes up with questions for the otherwise-ignored grad student(s) on a given panel. It feels like repaying a debt.

* Any time a conference dinner outing involves a) 12 people, 8 of whom one did not previously know; b) squeezing the aforesaid 12 people into a limousine with groovy colored lights in the ceiling (when no cabs were to be found); c) excellent food; and d) lots of booze. . . well, it's going to be a good time.

* Sometimes friends-of-friends are as cool as the friends themselves.

* One of those friends-of-friends described aggressively bad papers--the kind that make you want to impale the presenter with a roller-ball pen before leading the rest of the room's hostages to freedom--as "conference terrorism." I'm so stealing that term.

* Recent evidence suggests that I may have become That Girl (by which I do not mean Marlo Thomas). I'm not sure whether this is a positive development.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Because we all know that Milton = Satan

Did anyone else hear the story on NPR about the guy in the Midwest who has been sending (as yet unactivated) pipe bombs to financial services companies along with threatening messages? He's calling himself "The Bishop" and demanding that certain stock prices be increased to $6.66 (the trading price, apparently, of The Beast).

I was listening with only moderate interest until the correspondent mentioned that, in at least one letter, The Bishop had quoted John Milton's Paradise Lost.

Then the story ended--of course without supplying the quotation!--but in rooting around on the internet I discovered that it was, boringly (and slightly inaccurately), "IT IS BETTER TO REIGN IN HELL, THAN SERVE IN HEAVEN."

Too bad. For a brief moment, I was interested. How cool would it have been if the quotation had turned out to be, "[the] two-handed engine at the door/Stands ready to smite once, and smite no more"? Or maybe, "New Presbyter is but Old Priest writ Large." Or even, "Help us to save free conscience from the paw/Of hireling wolves, whose Gospel is their maw."*

Bummer. The best I can hope for, now, is that the dude turns out to be this Bishop.


*No, none of those are from PL, but at least they're (more or less) about bishops.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Judicious vulgarity

I'm realizing how much I enjoy the judicious use of vulgarity in the classroom. Yes, it's empowering (I'm the teacher, so I get to say these things!), and yes, I may be trying too hard to seem cool--but I think it's mostly about destablizing my students' expectations: of the texts we're reading (whoa! there was some dirty stuff going on back then!), but also of me as their instructor. Whatever expectations my students may have for their other instructors--and I have no idea what goes on in my colleagues' classrooms--I'm 100% certain that my students do not expect me to swear. Indeed, many people my own age--colleagues, casual friends--seem shocked, SHOCKED when I swear. I don't know what that's about, although the phrase, "but you always seem so proper!" has been thrown around in my presence.

I think it's useful, pedagogically, to keep students on their toes. But mixing registers is also so much of what I do in my daily life, whether in talking about current events or in discussing my scholarship with friends (you should hear me describing a day's work to George Washington Boyfriend--"So he's doing more of that crazy shit in this other poem, where he's all, 'check ME out. . .'"), and I think it's good for students to see that. I think it's good to model how to use the expletive as occasional intensifier, and to show the comedy that can result when you throw a casual vulgarity into a complicated sentence full of arch circumlocutions and technical terms.

I hope to model, I guess, how to be smart and yet "normal"--how my students could incorporate scholarship and criticism into their own lives. I want them to feel that there's not a huge yawning gulf between their experience and their abilities, on the one hand, and the texts we read. (There may in fact be such a gulf, but they need to be able to ignore it.)


So, although I have no expectation that I'll break the "fuck" barrier in any of my classes--not unless I'm reading aloud from a text--here are some of the things I've said in class in the last week or so (third-person pronouns always refer to a character, author, or narrator--not to anyone in the classroom):
He really is a little shit, isn't he?

She's got some balls.

So, is he just a total bastard, or what?

It's all about proving who's got the bigger dick

I think he wants to have his ass kicked.

Why is he acting like such an asshole?

UPDATED TO ADD: Check out Horace's post on a similar subject.

Monday, February 19, 2007


How soon hath Time, the subtle thief of youth
Stol’n on his wing my [two] and [thir]tieth year!
My hasting days fly on with full career,
But my late spring no bud or blossom show’th.
Perhaps my semblance might deceive the truth,
That I to [adult]hood am arrived so near,
And inward ripeness doth much less appear,
Than some more timely-happy spirits endu'th.
Yet be it less or more, or soon or slow,
It shall be still, in strictest measure ev'n
To that same lot, however mean or high,
Toward which Time leads me, and the will of Heav’n;
All is, if I have grace to use it so,
As ever in my great task-Master’s eye.

(Milton, Sonnet VII)

Flavia at age four.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Do mean people suck?

If my previous post was about being kind and respectful (or enacting those qualities), this post is about being (or being perceived to be) mean.

I've long noticed that I'm drawn to people whom many people don't like. By "drawn to," I don't mean "attracted to" (or at least not usually), and by "don't like," I don't mean "...because they're horrible and evil and have bad breath." I just mean difficult people: people with short tempers or frosty demeanors; people who don't empathize well; people who can seem arrogant or bitchy or high-handed.

Generally, these people are not friends; I'm not talking here about people whose difficult qualities you put up with because they're also fucking hilarious or because they can be tons of fun in the right setting. No, I'm talking about people who are usually situationally inappropriate as friends: bosses, supervisors, or co-workers/colleagues somewhat more advanced than oneself.

I used to think that it was just that I got along well with difficult people--that I was tolerant, knew what not to take personally, and could appreciate their positive managerial qualities (which in the cases I'm talking about always included extreme intelligence and extreme efficiency). But as I've gotten older, and have racked up more such relationships, I've realized that there's more to it: I really do seek out difficult people. Actually, I admire them.

I don't exactly know what this is about. The majority of the people I'm thinking of are women, so maybe part of it is about finding aggressive, intelligent women appealing as role models (although I'd like to make it clear that I don't think the women I'm talking about are particularly "misunderstood"--that, because they're women, they're read as bitchy while men with the same traits would simply be seen as commanding and efficient; most of these women actually are somewhat lacking in empathy, or self-knowledge, or interpersonal skills).

What's to admire? Well, toughness. Determination. Smarts. But most of the difficult people I'm thinking of are also, in their way, self-sacrificing.

The other day I was having lunch with some of my junior colleagues when The Devil Wears Prada came up. Someone spoke admiringly of Meryl Streep's performance.

"Yeah, she's pretty great," I said. "But really, the reason I love that movie is because Miranda Priestly is my dissertation director."

One of my colleagues, who has worked with Advisor, spat out his coffee.

"Am I exaggerating?"

"No." He shook his head. "In fact, that's a remarkably accurate comparison."*

And it is, but (as I went on to say) it's not so much the boss-from-hell caricature that I'm thinking of as it is the surprising sense of duty and obligation that Streep's Priestly is revealed to have: she really believes that she's the only person who can do what she does, and she sacrifices large parts of her life--not just her marriage, but arguably some of her humanity--to that sense of duty.

Is she right? I'm not sure that it matters. What matters is that she perceives herself to be under an obligation to her profession; she knows what she owes people, and she never shirks a responsibility.

To me, that's more admirable than not. I guess that I like nobly flawed people.

But I also like intimidating, somewhat scary people. Maybe that's because I don't perceive myself to be particularly intimidating, and I want to be associated with strength. Or maybe it's because I am intimidating, at least to some people--I admit that I have a tendency toward impatience and imperiousness; I'm demanding; and when I'm angry my voice gets soft and silky and completely freaks my students out.

Or maybe, and probably more to the point, I'm motivated by fear. What academic isn't? Whether it's the fear of objective failure (not finishing the dissertation, not getting a job, not getting tenure) or the fear of relative failure (not doing as well as a colleague, friend, or ex-friend), we're all trying not to prove ourselves frauds.

But in my case--and since so many of the scary-difficult people in my life have been people I've actively chosen to work with--I wonder whether I don't prefer to set up a situation that produces fear: one in which I know I'll be nervous and intimidated, never feeling that I've done enough or that I'm good enough. I complain about not being petted and loved and appreciated, but I suppose that those things aren't really very important to me.

Why: because I already have sufficiently high self-esteem (so I don't need the validation)? Because I have excessively low self-esteem (and so wouldn't believe compliments and flattery anyway)?

I don't know, actually.


*Seriously. 90% of the time, when I get asked whom I worked with, the response is some version of, "Oh. She doesn't seem very. . . nice."

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Course evaluations: gaming the system?

On the whole, my course evaluations from last semester were quite good. I got amazing ratings from my Shakespeare class, although I'm sure that's a fluke (my average scores, in all categories, fell between the top two grades of Very Good and Excellent); I got lucky, I think, in a) having a critical mass of exceptionally talented students, and b) seeing most of my less-prepared students drop or withdraw for unrelated reasons.

My other two classes--Composition and British Literature I--produced average scores between Good and Very Good. Those averages, too, are somewhat skewed, although in the other direction: in each class I had a few students who obviously hated me and who went straight down the form filling in "Very Poor" for every category. Still, I'm perfectly happy with those results, and even a little bit surprised by them: all the classes that I taught last term were required courses (meaning that many students didn't particularly want to be there), and I'm a tough grader; I gave out few As and a healthy number of C-minuses and Ds.

I'm not enough of a numbers person to want to compare these scores with the ones I received on my evaluations at Big Urban (and the forms are different enough that such a comparison could only be approximate)--but my impression is that my evaluations at Regional U are better than they were at Big Urban, even though I taught some of the exact same classes. But I'm not sure why.

The students, frankly, are not much different--although I think it's true that the better students at Big Urban thought of themselves as being better students, and were more invested in that identity, than my better students at Regional U (BUU is a vastly bigger school, with a higher profile, in a major metropolis--and thus it attracts more well-groomed, honor-roll kids; they're not necessarily any smarter than my RU students, but they're more used to being petted); it may also have been that, because I was a lecturer and not a "real" faculty member, my students at BUU were more skeptical of my ability to pass a meaningful judgment on their work.

But if it's hard to know precisely what accounts for my better evaluations this time around, I'd like to think that it has something to do with some very conscious decisions I've made in my teaching this year.

I have always, I think, been an energetic and enthusiastic teacher--I got a lot of comments on my BUU evaluations to the effect of, "the things we read are totally boring, but she makes them funny and fun"--but I suspect that, in some cases, my "fun" persona made it seem all the more unfair when I turned out to be a hard grader.

So this year I've been going out of my way to explain my policies and expectations at every turn: learning how to write a good paper takes time, and we only have two over the course of this semester--which is why quizzes, homework, and participation are collectively worth 30% of your grade. That 30% should be an easy A, or at least a B, if you're doing the work. If you ARE doing the work and aren't getting at least a 7 out of 10 on your quizzes, you're not studying properly: come see me and we'll talk about how to improve your scores.

This is why I do things this way. This is what I expect from you. I know it's hard, but you're all capable of it. The things we do here will make you better readers than your friends who are too scared to take this class.

In part, it's about transparency--or more accurately, the appearance of transparency: making students feel at every step of the way that I'm being straight with them and that there's a reason for everything we do. In part, it's about respect: you deserve to know why I do things the way I do them; you're smart enough for this class.

But the other part is about being (or, again, seeming to be) extremely supportive and available. I tell my students over and over again that they should come by my office or email me if they're having problems with the reading, or if they want to run a paper topic, sample thesis, or draft first paragraph by me; many do, most don't--but at least I make it clear that I'm available. I respond to every student email, usually immediately, even if it's only to say (to an apology for oversleeping and missing class, for example), "Thanks for letting me know. See you Tuesday."

I think that it's my responsibility to do these things, and to show my students the respect they show me (oversleeping is still an unexcused absence, but I appreciate that the student cares enough to apologize)--but it's also a performance of responsibility and respect. I had a student last week who emailed me to say that she would be missing class because her grandmother had died. I replied with my usual brevity, but added a line about being sorry for her loss and closed by wishing her and her family the best. I don't actually know this student (she virtually never speaks in class), but it's what you do, right? Well, maybe not: in our next class she came up to me and shyly thanked me for my sympathy--adding that I was the only one of her professors even to respond to her email.

So there's a two-fold motive here: first, I do believe, very strongly, that you never know what's going on with a given student or how much a small and basically perfunctory gesture might mean to him or her. Second, though, I'm perfectly aware that not everyone does make that gesture, and that I come off well by comparison. So, I grade hard, but I'm helpful. So, the readings are difficult/boring/whatever, but class is a lot of fun. So, the work is challenging, but I want students to succeed.

I hope both parts of those equations are true. . . but it's also a shtick, you know?

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life

I was excited when I heard a segment on Morning Edition earlier this week and learned that PBS is airing a documentary about Billy Strayhorn's life. Strayhorn was a pianist, composer and arranger, best known as a Duke Ellington collaborator; in fact, he composed some of Ellington's best-known works ("Satin Doll," "Take the 'A' Train")--and although I'm really more of a Count Basie girl myself, I've long been obsessed with Strayhorn's "Lush Life," the song that gives the documentary its title.*

I'm embarrassed to admit, though, that until hearing the Morning Edition piece, I didn't know much about Strayhorn himself--not his background (a working-class kid who got himself trained as a classical pianist); not the fact that he wrote "Lush Life" when he was only sixteen--and especially not the fact that he lived as an openly gay black man in 1940s America. The documentary hasn't aired yet in my area, but I'm looking forward to it. Check your local affiliate for listings.

Lush Life

I used to visit all the very gay places
Those come-what-may places
Where one relaxes on the axis of the wheel of life
To get the feel of life
From jazz and cocktails.

The girls I knew had sad and sullen gray faces
With distant gay traces
That used to be there you could see where they'd been washed away
By too many through the day
Twelve o'clock-tails.

Then you came along with your siren song
To tempt me to madness
I thought for a while that your poignant smile was tinged with the sadness
Of a great love for me.

Ah yes! I was wrong.
I was wrong.

Life is lonely again,
And only last year everything seemed so sure.
Now life is awful again,
A troughful of hearts could only be a bore.
A week in Paris will ease the bite of it,
All I care is to smile in spite of it.

I'll forget you, I will
While yet you are still burning inside my brain.
Romance is mush,
Stifling those who strive.
I'll live a lush life in some small dive
And there I'll be, while I rot
With the rest of those whose lives are lonely, too.


*I have a bad habit of requesting the song when I go to hear jazz vocalists, and they always demur. But still, I persist.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Whatever you need least, that's what you get

In my case, a car accident: I was rear-ended on the freeway coming home from work today, only about a mile and a half from my apartment.

Ironically, this part of the freeway was bone-dry--clear of the snow and shielded from the wind that had made most of the previous 18 miles pretty treacherous.

This is what happened: suddenly, on a sharp, dipping curve that forks into an exit, all the cars in front of me braked, hard. I braked, too, missing the car in front of me by perhaps six inches. The car behind me? Not so much with the braking. Must've hit me at 45 MPH.

No real injuries, although the other driver's car was totalled--both of her airbags deployed and she crumpled her entire front end and shattered her windshield in two places. My car's quite drivable, but she ain't pretty. And I can already tell that I'll be sore tomorrow.

Dammit to hell.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Sleep-away conference-camp

I haven't been going to conferences for long enough to say for sure, but the past three and a half years suggest that I take the yo-yo-diet approach to conferencing: periods of binging and periods of fasting. My first binge began in my fifth year of grad school, when--not having attended a single conference up until that point--I ran out and presented at five in twelve months. Then there was a period of contraction, where I presented at only a couple each year--and now here I am, binging again: I've got three conferences in the next two months and a likely fourth and fifth over the summer and early fall.

This pattern isn't exactly intentional, being driven largely by outside factors (being on the market or not being on the market; which years biennial or triennial conferences happen to fall on), but one factor that doesn't much affect my conference attendance is the state of my bank account. That doesn't make much sense--conferences are expensive, and I've never yet held a position that came close to adequately meeting my travel needs. Right now, I'm maxing out my departmental travel budget; I'm using frequent flyer miles; I'm applying for a small internal grant; I'm sharing a hotel room in one location--and, if all goes well, I'll only be out of pocket $700 for three conferences.

Written out like that, it's ridiculous. But I feel, very strongly, that I need to be doing this conference work right now. I need to be getting my work out there, and I need to be meeting people. Some of this is about motivating myself for future projects ("if I write an abstract and it gets accepted, then I'll have to write something--and then that's the germ of a new article or book chapter"); some of it's about refining material that I'm already working on; and some of it's about trying to position myself for the possibility of being back on the market in two or three years.

But need and want have never been entirely distinct concepts for me, as those who recall the message that I once taped to my credit cards ("wants are not needs") are well aware. The truth of the matter is that I want to go to these conferences. I love conferences, particularly the ones that I attend regularly and where I know the people--but at this point, there are always at least a few people I know at every conference, and emailing back and forth to set up lunch and dinner dates or to arrange a cab or rental car share is itself a pleasurable, anticipatory act.

I know that some academics regard conferences as the one or two times a year that they're fully able to reimmerse themselves in their field and reconnect with their scholarly community--and that's probably true, to some degree, for all of us, whether we're at research institutions that support colloquia and reading groups in our field or whether we're at teaching institutions with insanely heavy teaching loads and rarely publish.

But honestly? As useful as conference-going is, and as professionally necessary as it is, it's also just a damn lot of fun. So many people, so many meals and receptions, and that nice big hotel room at the end of the day. In grad school I attended one conference with a classmate of mine whom I didn't know particularly well, but finances inspired us to rent a car together and share a room--and we then did nothing but talk all weekend long, from the tedious car drive to the nights in the hotel room to the three hours we spent drinking in the airport bar after our flight was delayed. There's one conference I attend where it's common for attendees to stay up all night on the last night before flying out early the next morning. (That's the conference that also features singing and limericks. It is not, I hasten to add, typical of conferences in my field, although I wish it were.)

And, of course, there are the panels, but the panels--as good as they may or may not be--are only a part of what conferences are about; the real information, the real exchange of knowledge, often happens elsewhere, when you learn who has a new book out, who changed jobs, and who left his wife for their grad student cat-sitter. It's talking all day and all night long, and whether or not I'm sharing a room with someone, and whether or not I have a full schedule of meal-dates, the experience reminds me of slumber parties and summer camp, where you get to know so many people, in such a short period of time, and sometimes rather intimately--but who may wind up being your BFF, or who may never cross your path again.

(Now, if only those conference papers were actually written. . .)

Sunday, February 04, 2007

What's nostalgia without a little nausea?

Just back from a weekend spent with Babe, my college roommate--a visit that necessitated my driving farther than I've ever done before (but to put that in context: prior to this, the farthest I'd ever driven by myself was about 90 miles). Other than the distance and the fact that a snowstorm blew in on Friday just as darkness fell and I was still some 100 miles away, it was actually a very easy, undemanding drive, and seeing Babe was a treat. We gabbed at length, played with her freakishly intelligent dog, and spent Saturday in Alma Mater City visiting museums, shopping, and eating extraordinarily well. And with two glasses of sangria apiece over dinner and then two bottles of Cava back at her place--well, you'd be forgiven for thinking that we were, in fact, still in college.

It's funny how I'm consumed by two equally strong but entirely opposed sentiments every time I'm in AMC: first, a wave of love for the city itself, the campus, and all those happy golden bygone whatevers. But at the same time, I feel a claustrophobia verging on revulsion: I see the 20- and 30-somethings with their chic black glasses, beat up sneakers, and complicated hairstyles, and even though they're my people, I still hate them. It's hard to believe that I was so deeply unhappy in a place that I genuinely adore--and even my relief at no longer being there (and by "being there" I mean, "being a grad student") isn't enough to prevent me from hating every satchel-toting passerby.

Maybe in a few years that relationship will resolve itself. And if it never does, at least I still have Babe--whom I've known since my very first day in that city, and for whom my love is much less complicated.