Friday, February 29, 2008

The wingable and the unwingable

I've been thinking, lately, about the things one can wing.

The list of Things Wingable probably varies by individual, but I suspect that everyone's list grows with age--as we develop more confidence and a greater store of knowledge (of our subject area, of our audience, of ourselves). Still, I feel comfortable asserting the following:

All performances may be winged (or, following Dr. Virago, wung). Thus a class, a meeting, or conceivably even a talk--though your Flavia is not remotely expert enough for that last one and suspects she never will be. Anything done live and leaving no permanent record can be carried off without a great deal of formal preparation if one has enough charm and bravado.

Written things cannot be winged. They're permanent. They should reflect, if not careful thinking, then at least careful writing. Those things take time, and although time alone doesn't guarantee that they'll be good, writing can't be faked in the same way that a one-off performance can be.

Grading also cannot be winged, and for the same reasons.

Administrative tasks, alas, also cannot be winged. They require paperwork, meetings, paperwork, email exchanges, paperwork, phone calls, and more paperwork. And while writing can be almost infinitely deferred, paperwork WILL NOT BE IGNORED.

So, when something has to give, you know what it is. I've been winging a lot of classes lately, and I hate it. I hate the fact that, because I have forms and applications and committee work with absolute deadlines, I come into the office, spend four hours on that stuff, read or skim the books I'm teaching the next day, and show up in the classroom without more than a few dogeared pages to guide me.

I've also been doing precious little writing, here or elsewhere. But I'll tell ya: getting paperwork in on time? Returning students' papers promptly? That's all you need to do to aquire a(n entirely undeserved) reputation for efficiency.

Friday, February 22, 2008

A dream deferred

In case you're wondering?

The description "whiskey-voiced" is entirely accurate.

If you have, let's say, gone out three nights in a row and had, let's say, three or four glasses of whiskey each of those nights, you will wind up with a huskier and more sultry voice than you began with.

And if you were already a low alto, this might just make you start contemplating a career as a blues singer.

Until you recall that, oh yeah: you can't carry a note in bucket, or even a totally cute handbag.

Professing literature it is.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008


Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles to-day
To-morrow will be dying.

The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,
The higher he's a-getting,
The sooner will his race be run,
And nearer he's to setting.

That age is best which is the first,
When youth and blood are warmer;
But being spent, the worse, and worst
Times still succeed the former.

Then be not coy, but use your time,
And while ye may, go merry:
For having lost but once your prime,
You may for ever tarry.

(Herrick, "To the Virgins, To Make Much of Time")

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Hello! Adult in the room!

I'm really not cut out to be an authority figure.

Before class the other day, several of my students began discussing one of my colleagues--initially by way of recommending him as a teacher, but sooner or later you know what happened: they started gossiping about him. They traded stories about which of their mutual friends were in love with him and which friends thought that idea was totally gross. Then they started dissecting his mannerisms and wardrobe.

I tried to pretend that I was NOT HEARING this, keeping my eyes down and feigning great seriousness as I scratched notes in the margin of my lesson plan, but it was hard to keep a straight face. Finally, after one particularly outrageous statement, I looked up, made eye contact with the student who had just spoken, smiled wickedly, and said, "You guys know that he and I are friends, right?"

This abashed them not at all. "Oh, you won't tell him this!" said one. "Is he married?" said another. "Any kids?"

They kept talking. And then, to my shame, I heard something that made my mouth twitch, and then I snorted, and then it was All Over.

But karma'll get you. Last night I was out with several friends at a largely empty wine bar, 20 miles from RU. We were being really loud--laughing and shouting and arguing with each other and writing limericks on the back of napkins.

And? In walked one of my students.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Questions epistemological and existential

Taped to the bottom of my laptop screen are two fortune-cookie fortunes.

The one on the right is the more recent; it's been there for about six months, and reads, "Be assertive when decisive action is needed."

The one on the left has been there for at least two years. It reads, "What's the fucking point in any case?"*

I often sit here, wondering how one knows: when is decisive action needed? What is the fucking point?

When I know, you'll know.


*At the Broadway revival of Glengarry Glen Ross one of the souveniers was a Chinese take-out box with fortune cookies containing lines from the play.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Course-design bleg

Next semester I'm teaching a new course on sex and gender in the Renaissance. It's a 300-level class, and one that will be cross-listed with Gender Studies. I've already submitted all the paperwork suggesting that I know what I'm doing--giving a rough course outline and bibliography and all that--but of course, I don't actually know what I'm doing.

That's where you come in. If you work on the Renaissance (or more generally on issues of sex and gender), what would you teach? I intend to structure the course topically, and I have a good sense of the primary texts I'll assign. . . but since it may be obvious even to those who don't know my secret identity that I don't work on anything remotely related to sex, sexuality, or gender (or indeed anything remotely sexy), there are probably plenty of works I'm not thinking of.

More important than primary texts, though, I'm looking for what y'all would consider essential works of scholarship (theory, literary criticism, historiography) that are either a) accessible to undergraduates in a non-capstone-level class, or b) totally, totally necessary for me to read over the summer so's I'm competent to teach this thing.

Assume I know nothing. Now help me fill that void!

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Why I teach literature

New Kid tapped me for this one, which began ages ago with Dr. Crazy and has been around the blogoverse and back (AWB's response being one of my favorites) while I've been off doing God-knows-what.

There are plenty of reasons why I teach literature, including the fact that I get paid to do it--to read and reread material I enjoy. But the reason that I wound up here in the first place, which is to say, the reason I went to grad school and stuck it out, is because I believe that reading literature critically gives us the tools to make sense out of our lives. And as a result, to live better.

I don't mean that in the usual "whoo! art is uplifting and we become more human and more humane through reading great literature" kind of way, and I don't mean that I want my students to seek out parallels between their own lives and the works we read. What I mean is that learning how to analyze and interpret texts teaches us to exist in the world in a more thoughtful, engaged, and critical way.

That's why I went to grad school, although that's also what many people would consider the worst or at least the most naive of reasons: I went, basically, because I felt I wasn't done studying literature, and I wanted to do more of it and to do it better. And even during my unhappiest days I felt that I was learning something valuable--not socially valuable, but personally valuable.

Early in my second year I went to see a movie with a friend, and during the ten or so minutes that it took for him to walk me home afterwards we chatted about what we'd seen. The conversation wouldn't now strike me as remarkable, but it did at the time: even as I was speaking, I realized that I had, somewhere in the previous year or so, learned to see differently. I had a vocabulary to talk about what was going on in the movie narratively--and even though I didn't really have a vocabulary for what was going on cinegraphically, I was still noticing things that I wouldn't have noticed before and fumbling toward articulating those things and their effects.

Recognizing how textual narratives are constructed allows us to understand the other narratives we're confronted with--whether told by our families and friends, our politicians, or ourselves. And although I just said that I found what I learned to be personally rather than socially valuable, I actually think it's both. I believe that understanding how narratives are shaped and manipulated allows us to reflect more fully on ourselves and the scripts we live by (and who's writing them). This in turn gives us greater confidence, competency, and agency in the world.

That, at any rate, is why I study literature. It's why I teach it, and it's one thing I hope my students gain from it.

Monday, February 04, 2008


My state holds its primary elections tomorrow. In my county, the polls are open from noon until 9.

I, however, will be on campus from 11 until 9.30.

I'm no conspiracy theorist, but the silencing of Renaissance scholars with 3/3 loads and 30-minute commutes is one seriously underreported electoral scandal.