Sunday, December 30, 2007

MLA Day Three: paneldemonium

Okay, so I'm back home now and trying to remember--through the haze of too little sleep and too many meals consisting of $2.00 Nutrigrain bars purchased in a rush in the hotel lobby--exactly what else I wanted to blog about. The panels? Oh yes: maybe the panels.

I went to an agreeable number of these, never more than three in a day, managing to learn some new things and never once feeling tempted to stab myself in the eye with my pen; the academic portion of the conference would therefore seem to have been a success.

There were, however, an unusual number of panel casualties: three of the panels I attended had chairs who wound up reading one of their panelists' papers, due to sickness, snowbound flights, and the like, and I heard about (but regrettably did not see) another panelist who passed out while actually delivering her paper. Most amusing was the chair who, as a result of one such casualty, straight-facedly had to read a paper in which she herself was quoted at length and lavished with praise.

I also tried, and failed, to master the art of reading my fellow audience members' attitudes toward papers based on their body language. During one paper that I thought rather thin, but that for various reasons I couldn't follow fully, I reassured myself about its weakness by noting the behavior of the well-known scholar seated next to me: he was sighing, shifting loudly in his seat, tossing his head, and staring out the window. But at the end he leaned over and announced, with what sounded like pride, his professional relationship with the panelist. (Hmm. Maybe I'm the only person convinced she's as much on stage when seated in the audience as when stationed up front?)

And speaking of being on stage: my own paper went well. I don't fear presenting papers--I'm a very good presenter, though I sez it myself--but I do fear the Q&A, especially when I'm presenting fairly new material (see "Conference Terrorism," infra, and "Social Anxiety," passim, all the damn place). Luckily, although my paper got numerous questions, all of them were pleasantly conversational and allowed me to be funny and expansive before my small audience.

And when I wasn't at panels? Well! I was socializing. I had some fine food and drink and saw some fine people--not as many as I wished to, or as often, for which I issue a blanket apology--and I gossiped up a storm and had an oppressive 20-hour headache and made some nice scores at the book exhibit (especially at noon today, when everything was discounted) and burst unexpectedly into tears while chatting with one grad school friend and scarcely even saw the city surrounding me.

You know: it was your basic MLA.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

MLA Day Two: no professional interest in literature

I don't know about my fellow MLA-goers, but I've found the "security" (by which I mean the people checking name badges to make sure that those entering panels are actually registered attendees) to be tighter here than at any of the three previous conventions I've attended. I haven't been wearing my own badge because I forgot to pack one of the nicer badge-holders that I've collected over the years--one with a pin or a clip or at least a longer neckstrap--and I hate the cheap stringy elastic holders they give out here. I half suspect them to be part of a conspiracy against women: the elastic neckstrap makes the name badge hit at the maximally awkward and unflattering height for those in possession of breasts.

So yesterday, after making it past another security guard by flashing the badge from my pocket, I soon found myself sitting through the tedious middle paper of an otherwise excellent panel. I started flipping through my enormous conference program, as one does, and found this item amid the blather at the front about policies, procedures, and so on:
"A convention speaker may obtain a pass for a family member or friend who has no professional interest in language or literature to hear a paper given by that speaker."
And I have to wonder: does the friend or family member have to prove that he has no professional interest in literature? Is there a test?

I was amused by this passage for a while, envisioning the many ordinary Chicagoans trying to sneak into this exciting convention happening in their midst*, until I wound up going out to dinner with two nonspecialists--and hoo-boy: I kinda wish that they had been banned not just from the conference panels, but from the entire city of Chicago.

I was joining a professional friend, who had a number of associates in tow. They included the following:
1. one of his colleagues: a nice, smart, generally interesting person whom I spent most of the dinner talking with;

2. a non-academic friend of his from grad school (she's in the arts): one of the loudest, least clever, and most annoying people I've met in a(n admittedly rather short) lifetime of encountering annoying people;

3. his new girlfriend: she's 24 (he's somewhat older than I), perfectly sweet, but entirely uninteresting, at least in the slice I got to see.
I'm not one to exaggerate the charm or appeal of academics, but these nonacademics made me, for more than a few moments out of the evening, feel all kinds of snotty impatience. I'm sure that it's hard being a non-academic, or even a non-literary scholar at MLA. And I like nonacademics (some of my best friends are nonacademics!). But I also like interesting people. And these were not interesting people.

Sometimes it's really best to stick with one's own kind.


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*At the INRU reception I spent a fair amount of time talking with a friend who's still a grad student. I'd asked him if this was his first MLA and he said that it was actually his third: he'd gone once at the beginning of grad school, when the convention had been held in his hometown, and once as a senior in high school, when the convention had also been held in his hometown and he and some friends had snuck in. Because, you know: they'd heard what a kick-ass time it was.

Friday, December 28, 2007

MLA Day One

(A few quick items before I head out for lunch)

1. Conference terrorism:

I believe I coined this term last year to describe those aggressively bad papers that hold an entire room hostage while they're being delivered. But last night I saw a slightly different form of terrorism during the one panel I attended: during the Q&A a kindly-looking grey-haired man in the audience attacked every single member of the panel (two of whom were graduate students, one a second-year assistant professor) with very long, very hostile criticisms that weren't really questions. The panelists did an impressive job of parrying, but it was a deeply uncomfortable-making experience. (In part because I kept thinking: "please, please, please, Sir, do not come to my panel.")

2. The weirdly club-y lighting of the Hyatt reception desk/bar/atrium:

The main lobby gets very dark here at night, with groovy (?) lighting, and I keep thinking I see people I know. On the one hand, the dark lighting makes it possible to avoid those I really don't want to see. On the other hand, it makes it hard for me to be certain whether the people I don't want to see are, in fact, the people I've seen--and thus whether I have to continue to be on guard.

3. Blogger meet-up:

I'm not going to attempt to enumerate the nearly 20 bloggers I met or re-met last night, but it was an excellent gathering and an amazing time--and one that just went on and on and ON, until the last of us were kicked out when the bar closed. I'm afraid to look at the receipts in my wallet and discover exactly how much I spent.

But! No bad dreams and no back problems so far. Stay tuned~~

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Merry MLA!

Yes, yes: Christmas came and went and it was lovely, as it always is. Almost everyone who has ever met my family has remarked on how fun they are. . . and though things are never quite as simple from the inside, I kind of have to agree: my relatives are a strikingly good-natured and appealing set of people.

The downside of that? Well! It means that I miss out, year after year, on the True Meaning of Christmas, with all its hysteria and dysfunctionality, and to compensate I'm running off tomorrow for MLA. I've admitted before how much I love MLA, and with each day nearer it draws, each additional email I send and receive, and the more numbers I punch into my cell phone, the more excited I get. My conference program is now a mass of sticky notes and scrawled reminders of whom I'm meeting when and where for coffee or lunch or dinner or drinks. If I lose that thing, I'm in serious trouble.

I'm looking forward to seeing grad school, blogging, and professional friends. I'm eager for the book exhibit. And I'm genuinely interested in a number of panels. But despite all that, I also appear to be anxious about something: I've been having a series of disquieting dreams, many of them involving email (ever since this summer I've had a lot of dreams that feature the receipt of weird-ass email messages). Just this morning I awoke from a dream in which I'd received a five-page email message from a minor professional acquaintance. In addition to its absurd length and the fact that I don't really know this person, the message featured a reference to a one-legged pygmy. (In the complicated context of my dream this detail wasn't hilarious, but fairly upsetting.)

I've also been having back trouble. I have what is sometimes characterized as a "bad back," although it's been fine for years: my back went out a month before I started grad school, and then about a month after I started grad school (the worst but by no means the only psychosomatic ailment of those first two years). The recovery was slow, but for the past seven or eight years the worst I've experienced are warning twinges when it's been too many weeks since I've remembered to do my stretches. Several days after arriving in Northwest City, though, my back was doing more than twinging. Worried, I took a ton of ibuprofen, stretched every few hours, and now it seems back to normal.

But I have to ask: what am I anxious about? I'm not conscious of any unusual stress. Yes, I'm giving a paper. And yes, I have a certain amount of social anxiety, always, despite the amount of socializing that I do and the great enjoyment I derive from it. And yes, there are people I'll likely see at MLA whom I'd prefer not to. But. . . those things are true of all conferences, and much less so of this one.

So I've decided to ignore the messages that I'm receiving from my subconsciousness--if it wants to talk to me, it can damn well send clearer messages--and just have a really fucking good time.

Watch this space for updates.

Monday, December 24, 2007

"Okay, Flavia"

Over the years I've received many emails from my advisor consisting entirely of those two words--and most often in response to a message that would seem to require a more lengthy reply. Just a couple of months ago, in fact, I emailed her with a request, followed by an explanation, and then a series of related questions: do you want me to do A-B-C? I can also do D-E-F. Or you might need G-H-I. Please let me know.

Her reply? "Okay, Flavia."

This kind of reply used to drive me nuts, but everything seems more fraught when you're a graduate student ("okay, what?" I'd ask my friends. "She didn't answer my question! Is that deliberate? Is she angry at me? I can't ask her to clarify! What if she's angry?"). Now I just shrug and email her back: "Thanks so much! I'm assuming from your message that there's no reason for me to do A-B-C, D-E-F, or G-H-I, so I'm going to go ahead and do J. If I've misunderstood, just let me know."

More importantly, I now recognize just how beautiful and versatile the "Okay, Flavia" email truly is.

A student emails me with a three-paragraph account of the mishaps that led to her missing class, a vague expression of concern about her grade, and a promise that she'll really really try to do better? "Okay, Suzy," I write back.

Another student emails to tell me he's taking an extension on this paper and then demands how I could possibly have given him a C on the previous one when he's been working so hard and going to the writing center and everything? "Okay, Bobby," I type, and hit send.

It's not that I'm deliberately trying to be obscure--and I don't think Advisor is, either--it's just that so many of the emails I get are so exhausting or unnecessary or involve the wrong questions. (That second student? We've met many times to discuss his writing and I've been encouraging and supportive. . . but he never reads my comments and can't understand why doing X doesn't lead immediately and inevitably to grade Y.)

The "Okay, Flavia" email is a way of acknowledging receipt while also saying, "enough already!" Sometimes the additional subtext is, "stop being so anxious! you're fine!" and other times it's "stop irritating me and get your act together!" In the end, though, I'm not sure it matters.

The fuller translation of the "Okay, Flavia" email, I think, goes something like this: "Thanks for keeping me in the loop, and I acknowledge that you have said some words in my direction. But you need to stop making this about me. You're a sensible person and can probably get your shit together on your own (and if you don't, that's not really my problem). Now stop fretting and go do something useful!"

And really: that's not such a bad message either to send or receive, now is it?

Friday, December 21, 2007

Sometimes I think I'm stupid

I've been back at the family homestead since Monday, doing nothing but grading and raiding the magical Pantry of Plenty [note to self: why can't my larder restock itself like that? and food appear on the table while I'm off correcting comma-splice errors? must investigate further], until all in a rush today I computed and submitted final grades, threw my essays and exams in a box to be mailed back east. . . and then turned around, grabbed another sheaf of papers, and sat back down at the kitchen table to review an already overdue article manuscript.

But still: what pleasure to be reading something other than student writing! And to learn new things about a very familiar work!

Except that, after reading the thing twice, I'm still not sure what I think of it. It seems publishable, were it not for the fact that I'm unable to articulate exactly what its overarching argument is, or whether it's interesting.

Now it's true that I'm only slightly familiar with the critical literature that the essay is locating itself within, but I don't think that's the problem: the author quotes from that literature liberally, writes very clearly, and his local points are both understandable and modestly engaging. The essay is well organized, with ample signposting and clear transitions. . . and yet somehow the larger argument remains, winkingly, just over the horizon.

At times like this, I really think I'm stupid.

I'd like to have faith that if I don't understand something it's because there's a genuine problem, but I'm never entirely sure that's the case; I've long suspected that my brain just works more slowly than those of most people in this profession: it's difficult for me to keep multiple ideas in my head at the same time, and I've never been someone who can synthesize and assimilate information on the spot or revise a theory on the fly--I need to go off and think about it for a while.

This isn't entirely a liability, of course; one of the reasons that my scholarly writing is so good (and as writing I do think it's good, although in saying so I imply nothing about the quality of the ideas therein expressed) is precisely because, in order to understand anything myself, I have to work through it so slowly and lay its parts out with such care.

But I hate feeling dumb. I wish I could explain to the author exactly why the parts of his essay don't cohere--that is, I wish I were quick enough to grasp their probable or possible relationship (or to state emphatically that they're not related), and make suggestions for revision. As it is, I'm left with the nagging feeling that I'm missing something.

And that, in turn, makes me feel like a spectacular intellectual fraud.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Space aliens among us

HK and I have been friends for nearly 13 years, though we haven't lived in the same city since college and we cycle in and out of being in extremely frequent or only occasional phone contact.

For the past six or eight months we've been averaging a phone call a week, and at some point over the summer, after recounting the moronic behavior of a couple of family members, a mutual acquaintance, and the guy she was then dating, HK concluded, "GOD. I think they're all space aliens. There's just no way they're from this planet."

I don't know whether space-alienhood is an idea that HK has cherished for a long time and that I'd simply never heard before, but it immediately became our first and best explanation for all the idiocies and iniquities perpetrated in our vicinity.

A large number of our phone conversations now involve some version of this dialogue:
". . . so I don't know what the fuck her deal is. Who does that? No one does that. It's not normal."

"What a loser."

"It's just weird. I mean. . . it is weird, right? Like, really weird?"

"It's only weird if you're a human. She might be a space alien."

"Another one! God, they're everywhere."

"It's a problem."

"They're taking over."

"The government's gotta get on that shit."
So, from me to you, and just in time for the holidays: an interpretive key to the baffling behavior of your colleagues, friends, and relatives. There are more space aliens out there than you'd think.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Ooh, fame!

In the past week I've received copies of two different journals in which my work is referenced or cited.

In one case, it's scholarship I've written under my own name.

In the other, it's this-here pseudonymous blog.*

I'll let you guess which of the two journals has the (almost infinitely) larger readership.

Whatever, dudes. I'm pretty pleased by both.


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*Special shout-out to the reader who alerted me to this reference--I just got my copy in the mail today.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

If there's no fear, it's not fun

This morning I had an 8 a.m. exam to deliver.

Relevant background:
1. For me 8 a.m. is early. I prefer not even to be awake at that hour.

2. On a good day, my drive to campus is 25 minutes (parking spot to parking spot). 30 is more typical.
I got up with plenty of time to spare, but somehow didn't make it out the door until 7.25, and it was 7.27 by the time I got in my car. That was less time than I really felt comfortable with, but. . . no sweat. I'd already promised my students up to 30 extra minutes, so in the unlikely event that I was slightly late, they'd still be in good shape.`

Of course. . . I wasn't entirely sure about the parking situation at the building I was heading to. But it was exam week. It'd be totally fine!

As I started backing my car out, I thought: coffee. I knew there was no concession in Exam Building. And I definitely needed coffee.

So I took another look at the clock on my dash, thought about it for 5 seconds, and then abruptly turned and drove two miles in the wrong direction to the nearest Dunkin Donuts. It was still early, right? And I could just go through the drive-through. And it was right next to the freeway.

Of course, I got stuck in a hideous line (two cars came in immediately behind me, so I couldn't back out) and lost five or six minutes.

Shit. I thought. I could really and totally be ten minutes late to deliver my own exam. And what if there was an accident? Or if I got stuck behind a slow construction truck?

I drove like all hell, stressed out, but also half enjoying myself. What a mess! What a challenge! What fun!

I made it to Exam Building at 7.59 (32 minutes, dudes, including the extra five miles and the time spent waiting for coffee), found a spot immediately in front of the building, and walked into my classroom at exactly 8.00.

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Later in the day I started to tell this story to one of my colleagues, half shamefaced, half triumphant--but he interrupted almost before I'd begun.

"Wait," he said. "You left your house at 7.27 for an 8 a.m. exam? I think that tells me something about you."

"What?" I said.

"That you like living dangerously."

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The funny thing is that this is the kind of thing I never used to do--I used to be obsessively early for everything, and I still get incredibly anxious when I'm running late or when I feel unprepared--but (as I wrote a couple of months ago) I think I must actually thrive on such pressure, or else I wouldn't court catastrophe so continually.

Because really: anyone who's made it through grad school must have decided, at least on a subconscious level, that living in the constant fear of failure is pretty damn fun.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Talking shop

There's often nothing more pleasurable than talking shop with one's coolest colleagues or professional friends. And believe you me: I can yammer on and on about scholarly and pedagogical issues with the right people and in the right setting--especially if there's food or alcohol involved.

But there's this thing called "knowing one's audience." Do my non-academic friends want to hear me talk about the above issues in quite as much detail (or any detail)? No. And do my friends in other fields want an earful about, say, the appalling things the Marlowe scholars are up to these days? No, they do not.

So for the love of humanity: if we're not in the same field, please do not assume that I want to know the extreme minutiae of whatever it is that you do--whether that be corporate finance or analytic philosophy. I like people and I like knowing about their lives, so I will certainly ask you questions. And when I ask you questions, it is either because I genuinely want to know the answers, am enjoying our conversation, or both.

But. . . when I stop asking questions, you could maybe notice that fact. You could be alert enough to recognize when you've been dominating conversation for some time. It could occur to you to wonder why I'm spinning my wineglass in my hands and staring vaguely across the room.

Here's a hint: it is NOT BECAUSE I WANT TO HEAR YOU SAY ANYTHING MORE ABOUT THE NATURE OF TRUTH.

It might be a sign that I need more wine. More likely, I'm willing the restaurant kitchen to catch fire and force an immediate evacuation.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Not a popularity contest

On the last day of term one of my students dropped by my office. She's someone I've mentioned before--a smart, funny woman who's taken three consecutive classes with me. She graduates later this month and is in the process of applying to grad schools.

I've always been fond of her, but we're friendly in a purely professional context: she'd drop by to talk about a paper or to ask for advice about grad school, and although I was likely to joke around a bit or share a relevant personal story or two, that was the extent of our intimacy. In some ways I've wanted to know her better, but she clearly has a strong sense of the faculty/student divide--and that's a feeling I share.* In theory? Hanging out at the bar with one's prize students (as a certain recent ex of mine did) sounds kinda cool. In practice? It strikes me as totally weird and uncomfortable-making for everyone. . . and suggests, moreover, if not the desire for then at least the complacent acceptance of a cult of personality.**

But. On this visit she told me that--if it wasn't too weird, or inappropriate, or whatever--she and two of her friends (also my former students) were hoping that I might be interested in going out for lunch with them sometime after break.

There are still things, apparently, that can warm the cockles of my cold, cold heart.


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*A number of my freshmen have friended me on Facebook. I find this weird.

**This is not to say that I reject utterly the idea of having a cult of personality. But to me that cult is best maintained from a distance: the front of the classroom, say. Or the text of one's blog.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Seven things meme: special gender edition!

Adjunct Whore tapped me for this meme, which seems essentially indistinguishable from the "eight things" meme that was going around this summer--so for kicks I've decided to limit my seven bits of personal trivia to matters of gender (if anyone wishes to declare this a new meme, and run with it, be my guest).

1. When I was a child, I believed that all cats were female and all dogs were male. I consider this a revealing autobiographical detail.

2. I spent most of high school and college strongly disliking/being uncomfortable with being female. I wasn't a tomboy, and the majority of my friends have always been women, but I didn't feel that I really knew how to "do" female (and to the extent that I did, I resented it). All my artistic and intellectual heroes were men.

3. My freshman year I shared a suite with five other women, and I think it was then that I consciously began to socialize myself as female. I paid a lot of attention to the way my suitemates spoke and acted and moved through the world--everything from how they dressed and talked about their bodies to how they teased, comforted, and traded confidences with their friends.

4. I was a successful student of such matters. But although I now read as pretty femme--heels and makeup and all that--I consider this an elaborate and rather hilarious ruse. At the same time, the fact that other people don't get the joke makes me wonder who was mastering (or being mastered by) what.

5. Whenever I'm trying to remember where I heard something or whom I told a particular story to (you know: who was it I was talking to about. . . ?) the one detail I'm instantly sure of is my conversation partner's gender. I may have no idea how recently a conversation took place, or where, or any other details, but I always know whether the person I was talking with was male or female.

6. In college I had this bit that I did whenever someone told me a story about his or her romantic trials. "Oh, man," I'd say. "That's totally going in my book. You know, the book I'm writing? Women Are Mean, Men Are Stupid? Yeah. You'll be Chapter Six."

7. I relate to my freshman women who dislike the term "feminist"; who refuse to believe that their opportunities aren't absolutely equal to those of their male peers; who think that suggesting there are structural inequities--or even just problems importantly unique to women--amounts to playing victim or asking for special favors (if they're struggling, it must be because they aren't smart enough or tough enough or good enough). I felt that way for a long time. Sometimes I wish I still did.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Random bullets of "reply hazy, try again"

I've just returned from a lovely four-day weekend in New York. Highlights:

  • After a long day of teaching I went straight to the airport, arriving at HK's around 11--just as she herself was getting home from work. Rather than going to bed like sensible people, we lounged around her apartment until nearly 3 a.m., drinking beer, eating Mallomars, and asking an endless series of questions of her Magic 8 Ball.
  • Apparently, my life is as opaque to the Magic 8 Ball as it is to me--all weekend long I received a statistically improbable number of "Cannot predict nows" and "Reply hazy, try agains."
  • Every time we headed off to the nearest subway stop, I started singing, "If you think you can, well come on, man!/I was a Green Beret in Viet-Nam!" When I was feeling particularly inspired, I'd run through the entire song two or three times. This amused me enormously. HK's amusement was less in evidence.
  • Necessarily, there was shopping. I always buy lingerie and tights when I'm in town; less frequently do I buy a hat (in this case, a pretty, mulberry-colored cloche). Never before have I bought a replica human skull--but it's exactly what my office needs.
  • Friday night HK and I went to see Cymbeline at Lincoln Center. We had excellent seats; the costumes were gorgeous; and there were some masterful moments of performance and staging. But they were moments. Still, I figure I can write off my ticket as a professional expense. . . and how often is Cymbeline staged, anyway?
  • The next night Bert and I went to see Tom Stoppard's new play, Rock 'n' Roll, which was significantly better but still a bit disappointing; the better parts seemed derivative of his other, more interesting plays, and the less-good parts were--well--less good.
  • I meant to see the Kara Walker show at the Whitney, but didn't have time. I did, however, get up to see the Klimts at the Neue Galerie and they were so worth it.
  • There's nothing I love more than a diner, especially on a cold, grey day, with the windows all steamed up inside. And HK lives three blocks from the diner that Miss D and I used to go to all the time, as our last stop in a long night out.
  • To my surprise, every single one of my friends in NYC agreed with Evey that it would be ridiculous, and possibly result in an undesirable misunderstanding, for me to Be the Bigger Person in the aforealluded-to situation. (Which, just as a reminder: has nothing to do with anyone who reads this blog.) So you know what? Fuck being the bigger person.

And now~~just two more days of teaching!


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Secret message to the colleague who appears to have found my blog: welcome! I'd suspected that one of my occasional readers was from the department, but now I'm sure of it. You must know who I am, and I figure that you're probably one of two people. . . so why don't you come by and say hi? You can meet my skull.