Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Ah, youth. Except not.

If anyone out there is longing for those blissful, starry-eyed days when you were just thinking about applying to grad school, you must go read Mouse (of Notes of a Neophyte)'s interpretation of the grad school Statement of Purpose essay. Every time I re-read it, I weep helpless, delighted tears.

My favorite paragraph:

You know what else I really love, I mean besides mint-chocolate chip ice cream? I really really really love this Really Exciting Thing That’s Happening In The Field Right Now but That You Hate Because It Was Inaugurated By Your Evil Nemesis Whose Name I’m About to Drop as My Personal Hero. I’m using the work of Your Nemesis, whose work changed my life and rescued me from the brink of suicide, to do toootally awesometastic research, well not really research so much as vague thinking, in Area You Hate. How neat is that!

And that last part, about awesometastic research (a/k/a "not really research so much as vague thinking")? Sounds curiously like what I've been describing in my fellowship applications!

Plus ça change, yo.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Elizabeth: The Paranoid, Propagandistic Years

Augustana and I went to see Elizabeth: The Golden Years this weekend, partly out of a sense of professional obligation (Augie, as her pseudonym suggests, works on a later period but sometimes pinch-hits for the Renaissance) and partly out of a desire to see some really pretty clothes. We had, it must be said, extremely low expectations.

But given those low expectations, we had a damn good time--a better time, I imagine, than the fiftysomething couple in front of us who kept shifting or half turning around in their seats every time we burst out laughing at a solemn moment or had a whispered coversation about whether Mary, Queen of Scots could really have had a Scottish accent--because dude, wasn't she raised in France?

Other bloggers have already commented on the historical liberties the film takes, and while I don't mind some condensing and collapsing and shuffling around of events, I was initially irritated by the depiction of the period's religious politics. As Augie noted, Philip II of Spain, whom the film presents as a fanatical Catholic, is basically a caricature of a modern-day Islamic fundamentalist bent on holy war. In fact, the film suggests that all its Catholics are somehow in league with each other against Elizabeth, and that Spain sent its armada not because of English interference with Spain's New World holdings, and not because of English support for the United Provinces--but because Philip was really mad that Elizabeth had Mary executed.

But as the film went on, I started to enjoy its naive nationalism and the fever-swamp of its religious paranoia. It reminded me of actual Early Modern propaganda--and you'd better believe there's nothing Flavia loves more than propaganda. Then I began thinking about how awesome it would be to teach clips from the movie alongside, say, The Faerie Queene (for Book 3, the clip of Elizabeth in armor on horseback, surrounded by fluttering flags with the cross of St. George, would alone be worth the DVD purchase price).

It's disappointing that the filmmakers are promoting such a luridly nationalistic version of history--and that there seems, for instance, to be no irony in their portrayal of Elizabeth as an enlightened and religiously tolerant ruler in contrast with Philip--but that wouldn't make it any less effective as a teaching tool. Just as in The Faerie Queene: what's true of almost every villain? They're Catholic! And how do you know they're Catholic? Look out for the rosary beads! (Seriously, I think there are more rosaries in this movie than there are actors.)

And if all else fails, there's educational value--surely!--in oohing and ahhing over some pretty dresses.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

All me, all the time

I was brushing my teeth the other night, not thinking about anything in particular, when between spitting and rinsing I found myself muttering, "Thus does the whirlygig of time bring in his revenges."

For a second I had no idea where that line had come from. Uh. . . Shakespeare, right? And. . . Twelfth Night? Yes. Duh. I was teaching Twelfth Night that week. But what was that particular line doing rattling around in my subconsciousness?

I shrugged and went to bed, but the next morning I found myself thinking about that line some more, as well as some of the play's many other references to time ("Time, thou must unravel this, not I/It is too hard a knot for me t'untie"), and I realized how consonant they are with a lot of the thinking I've been doing lately. "Man," I said aloud at one point, "I should totally re-read Twelfth Night again!"

And then I laughed, embarrassed at myself.

Re-read it, why? For its fortune-cookie wisdom? Its secret messages to me alone? Isn't this exactly what I want my students not to do--to believe that a work of literature has value only insofar as it relates to their lives. . . and that as soon as it doesn't, it's pointless?

Of course, I don't believe that about Twelfth Night or anything else I read or teach, but sometimes I do think I have a tendency to relate too intensely and too personally to the things I work on. I worry that this is naive and unprofessional of me. But I also wonder how one can help it.

There are scholars, I'm sure, who do what they do for the sheer intellectual challenge of it all, and who derive immense satisfaction from that. But even though the "personal" element of my work isn't at all obvious--it has nothing, for example, to do with gender- or religious- or class-based identification, or with events in my personal or family history--I can't pretend that my scholarship is somehow perfectly objective or that it doesn't reflect, in a deep and fundamental way, my own personality and my understanding of human nature and institutions.

I guess there's value to this awareness, and I know that discovering aspects of oneself in the intellectual and cultural productions of another age isn't the same thing as imposing oneself or one's beliefs upon those works (in the former case, one is hopefully expanding and challenging oneself and one's preconceptions; in the latter, one is finding only what one is prepared to find).

Nevertheless, I still feel vaguely ashamed and Billy Phelpsian when I admit to such things.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Where are you going, where have you been?

I received my new passport in the mail the other day--just two weeks after sending in my application, thankyouverymuch, U.S. Department of State!--and after getting over the hideous graphics (eagles, flags, amber waves of grain) and quotations about liberty and so forth, I dug out my two earlier passports to compare their format and layout and to think a bit about where I've been and where I might be going.

One place I've been and don't want to go back to: long permed hair and feathered bangs, which is the look I'm sporting in the passport that I got at age 17 (the eighties, apparently, came late to the west coast, because this was in 1992). I'm also rocking a headband, weird dangly earrings, and frighteningly large eyebrows. I got that passport before going to Japan on a six-week exchange program between my junior and senior years of high school, and the second and final time I used it was four years later, between my junior and senior years of college, when I decided to spend a month travelling around the U.K. by myself, interrupted by a short jaunt to Belgium to see The Expat. (On that trip I got continual shit from the passport control people, who would scrunch up their faces before allowing that, maybe, I could be the girl in the photo.)

My second passport, though it's now ten years old, bears a photo that's still recognizable as me, albeit with longer hair and softer, more tentative features. My expression, too, looks tentative--I look young. I remember being delighted with that passport, for both its photo (at some abrupt moment in my life I went from being completely unphotogenic to looking better in photos than I do in person) and its sense of promise. I was planning a trip to Paris for a week over Thanksgiving--my first vacation from my new, grown-up job! and I was going to Paris!

But that passport--or maybe it was my life--didn't quite live up to its potential. Back in 1997 I was certain that I'd go somewhere new every year or two, but I became mired in debt and then mired in grad school and didn't go abroad again until 2004, when I spent two weeks in Korea visiting HK. A research trip to the U.K. a few months later and a conference in an unnamed European country in 2005 made me think I might make good on at least some of my early promise as an international glamor girl--but instead I wound up running down the clock on that passport with only another research trip to the U.K. this past summer to show for it.

But! Now I have this new passport, with its awful graphics and a not-terrible photo and a whole lot of blank pages. I'm planning a trip to Italy in the spring and hopefully I'll be back in London this summer for a conference--but what about the next nine years? Where will I have gone and where the hell (or who, or what) will I be then?

Other, I mean, than forty-fucking-two years old.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Fall break goodies

So Evey and I hit the mall yesterday--and not our local mall, neither, but one requiring a significant drive each way--and I returned home with the following:

1. Two M*A*C lipsticks, one in "Diva," a dark berry/plum color, and the other in "Ruby Woo," a traffic-stopping red with a seriously retro matte finish. (I think I may only be able to wear the latter at night, in dimly-lit establishments--it's pretty fabulous, but possibly more drag-queen fabulous than movie-star fabulous.)

2. A pair of pointy red shoes in shiny shiny calfskin--perfect with my navy pinstripe suit. (All y'all going to MLA, keep an eye out.)

And heck, because it's fall and a time for new beginnings and preparing for the long winter ahead, I also spent some time contemplating new moisturizing and skin care regimens (winter is a time of killing-spree-inducingly dry skin for your Flavia) and finally took a leap of faith and credit card on one. Then I dug out ye olde humidifier, vacuumed, did two loads of laundry, and (thanks to a new-agey store called, I kid you not, Archimago) "smudged" my apartment with white sage. Whether evil spirits were actually inspired to flee the premises I can't say, but it sure smells nice in here.

So yeah. Now I'm hanging out in my sweetly-scented apartment, grading papers in track pants and blindingly bright lipstick. When I get bored? I get up and put on a different lipstick.

Who says the academic life isn't a glamorous one?

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Governed by imperatives

Many years ago Victoria observed, mid-phone call, that my life seemed to be "governed by imperatives." (I believe this was approximately one sentence before or after she commented that I have a classically addictive personality.) And I suppose that's true--I have a long mental list of things I must know and must do and must have (some of them regularly, some of them soon, some just at some point before I die): travel and foreign languages and stationery and social skills and movies and housewares and beauty routines and cocktails and clothing. . . and on, and on, and on.

This weekend, however, at least half of my imperatives are of a much less self-improving, beautiful-life-living sort: it's RU's fall break (read: a six-day weekend), and I have 50 papers to grade and research proposals to write and a windshield to replace and--hey! did I mention those 50 papers?

So blogging may slip down that list of imperatives, somewhere beneath going to the mall (lipstick!) and catching up on several weeks' worth of magazines (cult-chah!) and joining friends for a drink or three or five.

But rest assured that y'all are among those imperatives. I'm just juggling some others, is all.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Theme and variation

Last week it occurred to me that virtually all of my friends are, RIGHT NOW, in the midst of major life changes: some have finally finished school and are starting new careers; others are going back to school after having worked for a decade; some have just had their first baby; others are getting married or divorced.

Initially, this just seemed like more of the same. Since graduating from college, many of us have made some kind of change on a near-yearly basis--switching apartments, cities, employers, or boyfriends in a blinding blur. (So many of my friends have moved so many times that I have to hunt to find anything in my address book--half the entries are scratched out and the rest are written in any old place, under any old letter.)

But these, I think, are truly big changes, and ones that will shape at least the next few years of our lives. But. . . shape them how, exactly?

I've been complaining a lot, to a lot of people, about not knowing what the narrative of my life is supposed to be, and in one of those conversations HK reminded me that I used to go around offering, from Kierkegaard, the observation "life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forward."

(And okay, that's a pretty shameful revelation--but if you think there's nothing more annoying than a 20-year-old who goes around saying, "as Kierkegaard says. . ." you'd be wrong: at one of HK's law firm interviews, when asked about the unusual series of jobs she'd held since college and what they added up to, she commented, vaguely, that one of her friends used to say [the above quotation]. Her interviewer replied, "Actually, that's Kierkegaard. I mean, your friend didn't just make that up.")

And what strikes me about that induced memory isn't the total profundity of that quotation, but the fact that. . . well. . . I guess I've always felt this way. Back when I kept a journal, I had this experience with some regularity. I'd flip through an older volume, start reading, and discover, hey! That thing in my current life and those deep self-realizations it was provoking? Uh, I'd already had them. Like, five years earlier.

As humbling as these moments are, especially when they involve having made the same fucking mistakes or operating under the same flawed assumptions, there's also something comforting about them. I have changed, in quite a lot of ways, so there's a pleasure--even if it's a rueful one--in signs of continuity.

And so now, thinking about the Big Changes that many of my friends are experiencing, I'm resisting the urge to say--whether in sorrow or in delight--"Things are totally different! Life will never be the same!" Because every single time I've ever thought that, I've been wrong. And maybe it simply is that we remain mostly the same people and tend to persist in the same behaviors, but it's hard not to feel that there are larger narrative patterns at work when doors that appeared closed suddenly open; people disappear only to reappear; and answers arrive to questions we weren't aware we had asked.

Still. One part of my past self that doesn't need to reappear? The quoting philosophers part. The pretentiousness there's probably no help for.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Perhaps you should talk to my friend, Sallie Mae

Faithful readers may recall how I regard INRU's periodic attempts to convince me that, without my "generous financial contribution," the institution will totter into immediate poverty and/or a lower slot in the U.S. News rankings. However, when I'm solicited as an alumna of INRU college, at least I understand why: many of my classmates are indeed making the big bucks, and we also tend, as a group, toward irrational nostalgia and institutional chauvinism.

Today, however, I received a solicitation from the dean of INRU's graduate school. It opened by conjuring up the inspirational sight of this year's crop of new graduate students at their matriculation ceremony, and. . . well, actually, that's where the dean lost me.

The matriculation ceremony? I'm supposed to feel a rush of nostalgia at that memory? (Or any memory from graduate school?)

I read an essay in the Chronicle a few years back where the author asserted that there was no one he knew who had gone to graduate school in the past 25 years who hadn't left feeling brutalized, and that pretty much matches my own experience. Were there good and even great things about my years in grad school? Well yes: there were a few. But were they things that I associate with the institution itself and its management of my education, teaching assignments, salary, et cetera? Fuck no.

More to the point, it's former graduate students--a group of people not known for its deep pockets--whom INRU is asking to send money. Sure, a few alumni may be biotech start-up millionaires or highly placed policy wonks, but that must be a small minority, and even those alumni are likely to feel more allegiance to their undergraduate alma maters than to the place where they received their MAs or PhDs.

Also: don't most of the graduate school's alumni probably work at institutions of higher education? And don't most of those institutions probably have--I'm just speculating here--vastly smaller endowments, operating budgets, and faculty salaries than INRU? So when I'm told that, without my contribution, INRU won't be able to continue offering competitive tuition and stipend packages to its incoming graduate students--well, I'm pretty much obliged to tell the dean to fuck right off.

Really, though, I wouldn't have given the letter a second glance had not something in the first paragraph jumped out at me: in the middle of describing that affecting scene at the matriculation ceremony, Dr. Dean writes that the sight renews feelings of inspiration "in returning students and faculty AND THE WONDER OF LEARNING."

Yes, that last phrase is all in caps--on his lovely, deanly letterhead (what did he think he was writing, a blog post?). And no, it doesn't make grammatical sense.

But you know, if this is who's running the institution these days. . . maybe I should write that cheque after all.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Recommenders: advice

So I'm applying for fellowships of various sorts for the first time since grad school--which means that, also for the first time, I'm confronted by the need to start finding recommenders from places other than grad school. Many of these fellowships only require two recommenders, and for those I'm set: Advisor is writing one and a good professional acquaintance (a well-known mid-career academic whose work I very much admire) has agreed to write the second.

However, at least one of these fellowships requires three recs, and I'm uncertain where to turn for that third one. My department chair would do it, and she's an excellent letter writer, but she's not in my field and I'm not sure that a letter from her would be remotely useful or appropriate. I could call upon another professor at INRU whom I've known since I was an undergrad and who's read pretty much everything I've ever written--but (a) s/he has gone above and beyond in writing me recommendations for everything imaginable for more than a decade now, and (b) I really want to get away from grad school recommenders, both because I think it will look better for my applications and because I'm genuinely interested in forging new relationships with mentor-type people.

Now, I have another possible third recommender, but I'm worried that we don't know each other well enough and that it might be presumptuous of me even to ask. We met less than a year ago, but we've had some fun interactions over meals at conferences; s/he read one of my articles and then engaged me in very complimentary conversation about it; s/he offered to read something else of mine--an offer that for various reasons I couldn't/didn't pursue. And oh yeah: this person is also kinda famous.

So I'm not sure. I guess it doesn't hurt to ask, but I have deep anxieties when it comes to making other people uncomfortable or putting them under any sense of obligation--and I worry that we might know each other well enough that Possible Recommender wouldn't feel able to say no. . . but would secretly resent the presumption.

Anyone have any pertinent advice, here?