Monday, July 28, 2008

Don't be so sensitive

When I saw Advisor a couple of weeks ago, we had an amusing exchange that has provoked two very different reactions among those I've told the story to.

Guy is typical of one response. "Oh, man," he said after I'd narrated the episode to him. "I'm sorry."*

"Huh?" I said.

"I'm really sorry. That sounds awful."

"Oh!" I said. "No no no no no. It was good! I mean, those were totally left-handed compliments she was giving me, but it was--I don't know--playful? Not, like, mean."

I know Advisor pretty well, but as I found myself trying to explain to Guy and several others why I didn't read the interaction negatively, it struck me that another reason for my interpretation may be that I myself give a lot of left-handed compliments.

Now, I give a lot of genuine compliments, and I believe that, on the whole, I'm good at letting people know when I admire their work, appreciate their efforts, or totally love their outfit. But every now and again it's brought to my attention that people consider me--oh, how to say this?--excessively judgmental.

(This shocks you, I know.)

The first time I was aware of this perception came in my senior year of high school. I was chatting with my friend Andy, and during the course of the conversation I commented that, hey, I liked his shirt. He broke off whatever he was saying, gave me a nasty look, and said, "Oh, thanks a lot! You know, Flavia, you could just not have said anything." It took me a full five seconds to register that he thought I was being sarcastic. I reassured him that actually I just thought it was a pretty cool shirt--and chose not to let myself contemplate what it meant that even my friends assumed no compliment I might give could be sincere.

Yes, I was a teenager, and probably one who laid on the sarcasm more heavily than most; I have neither the tone nor the attitude now that I had then. But I do give an awful lot of mock faint praise and left-handed compliments. (An easy example might be my saying to someone I've recently started dating something like, "Hey. You know? I think I like you! Or at least, more than I dislike you.")

I don't consider the meaning behind such remarks to be ambiguous. It should be obvious to my friends and intimates that I like them--I wouldn't waste time on them if I didn't. Giving them a hard time is just a way of playing around.

Indeed, until I started thinking about that interaction with my advisor, it never occurred to me that any reasonable person might interpret my teasing as otherwise than affectionate, but I guess there is something aggressive there: not unplayful or unaffectionate, to be sure, but implicitly about asserting oneself while keeping the other person firmly in his place.

All of which is to say? Maybe we get the advisors we deserve and/or resemble.


*The other interpretation was basically my own: that Advisor was communicating her pleasure at seeing me and with my progress.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Penny-wise, pound foolish

Today marks what I hope will be a turnaround in my financial fortunes. Today, I opened a savings account.

Yes, it's true that I'm 33, with no dependents, and an annual income greater than that of the average household in the United States. And yet I have no savings, no equity, no real assets, and a massive amount of credit card debt.

Some of it I can blame on grad school and related professional hazards. Consider, for example, that in the summer of 2006 I received my last paycheque from Big Urban in May and didn't receive my first from RU until October--during which time I had to move hundreds of miles, set up house, buy a car, and occasionally eat.

But although grad school is responsible for most of my student loans, some of my consumer debt, and my virtual inability to build equity for six or seven years, I can't blame it for habits I clearly developed on my own. As soon as I graduated from college I moved to the big city, decided I needed my own place (in a pricey neighborhood), and then had to furnish that place. I made enough money that this wasn't unreasonable, but not enough that I could have the apartment and the lifestyle I wanted without continually courting overdraft fees. And what did I do after getting into thousands of dollars of consumer debt? I took out loans to go to graduate school!

After a financially disastrous first year, I actually managed to pull it together for a while. For my first four years in grad school, I lived in a tiny, cheap apartment, I didn't have a car, and I had few nearby friends; in addition to my stipend I got a job working at the university press for 12 hours a week. I paid down a fairly impressive amount of debt and even saved up a couple of thousand dollars. . . but all with the goal of moving back to the city and being able to afford movers and a rental deposit. Need I say that the rent on this new apartment--though a great deal!--was more than twice what I'd paid in Grad School City?

You see the problem. The decisions I make are never independently unreasonable, and I'm a master of small economies: I reuse tinfoil, pack a lunch every day, and know which drugstore has the best prices; I've been known to buy a single gallon of gas at a time and when I have to I can survive 10 days on $20. But when I get my paycheque I'll immediately drop $90 at Amazon (for books important to my research!) and $60 at Banana Republic (but for $180 worth of clothes--and they're wardrobe staples!). If I'm sharing hotel rooms, carpooling, and using frequent flyer miles to stretch my departmental travel budget, I congratulate myself for being "able" to attend four conferences in twelve months rather than remarking that I'm still out of pocket $800.

In short, the expression "penny-wise, pound foolish" was invented for your Flavia.

I thought things would magically turn around when I got this job. But, well, there were those four months without an income to make up for. And then I was doing a lot of conference work--and getting reimbursed months later, if at all. And then I didn't get my scheduled cost-of-living raise last September, because our faculty contracts were still being negotiated.

That raise finally arrived today, in a lump sum. In six weeks, next year's will kick in. And it has at last occurred to me that I need to take active steps to improve my financial situation rather than thinking that at some point it will take care of itself--with the next raise, or when my car is paid off, or whatever.

So I put $500 in my new savings account and will be making modest regular deposits from every paycheque. I don't intend this as a major-emergency fund--just a cushion of $1,500-2,000 for when I need to buy a plane ticket or a new set of tires. I've figured out a significant but reasonable amount I should be able to put toward my credit cards every month. (And yes, yes: they both have very low APRs and I already make substantive contributions to my retirement plan.) Hopefully, since I have no dependents and do make a decent salary, I'll be able to turn things around largely by making smarter choices and being more mindful about where my money goes.

I write none of this as a defense of my improvident ways, but I'm not sure it's an apology, either--I've loved everything I've bought and owned and done over the years. I just need to ensure a future that's equally enjoyable, and more secure.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Wanted: new myths

I'm back on the right (which is to say, the left) side of the Atlantic, though I think I need at least another week to recover from the one I spent in England. My conference was great, despite running pretty much 9-5 for five days--and despite my going out nearly every night with conference buddies and squeezing in visits with unaffiliated friends around the edges.

I always return from conferences exhausted and overstimulated, but this time I'm also grappling with what feels like the overturning of some deeply-held beliefs, or what Evey would call foundational myths. She's used this term, at least in my hearing, mainly as a way of explaining relationships that look peculiar from the outside; an example would be a relationship that began when one party was the most popular and sought-after kid in school and that has maintained those dynamics even as years have passed and circumstances have changed. The formerly popular kid may no longer be particularly attractive or successful--and everyone who now knows the couple may feel it's actually his or her partner who's the charming one--but that's not how the parties involved see it.

Now, if you asked me what I consider the foundational myths of my academic career, I'd probably give you a fairly positive narrative having to do with my not having arrived at grad school particularly well-prepared, or talented, or receiving a lot of support--but nevertheless having persevered and even prospered. What I tend to omit, even from my own conscious thoughts, is the amount of insecurity, anger, and resentment that shadow this narrative and that continue to inform much of my professional self-conception.

At this conference, though, I started to feel the inutility (and maybe the inaccuracy) of these old and only dimly acknowledged beliefs. First, I had a number of interactions with my advisor, which, while in some ways entirely typical, felt different--and largely positive. I also ran into the person I've previously described as my nemesis. My pulse started racing the moment I glimpsed the back of Nemesis's head (which was recognizable to me, even from behind and at a distance, in the same way that the back of an ex's head would be recognizable--which is to say, totally unrecognizable except to the one person who daily dreads and expects to see it). Our actual interactions, though, were free of nemenosity. Nemesis was genuinely friendlier than in our past few encounters, but, as with Advisor, it's more that I decided that behaviors I'd previously taken personally probably weren't meant that way.

I also hung out with some exceptionally cool people--some previously known to me, some not--including my my go-to conference buddy, Fritz. Fritz's strengths as a conference buddy include being a) funny as all fuck, and b) as ready to stay out until last call as I am--but he's also very smart, and I was both startled and touched almost to the point of tears when he took up the subject of my paper, insisted on my taking it further than I'd been inclined to, and defended part of it against Advisor's rather off-hand dismissal.

And--well, other good things happened, too, but the list gets boring at this point. What it boils down to is that I'm realizing that my old insecurities and resentments may once have been useful, and even comforting. . . but perhaps it's time to let them go.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Please don't make me hate you

I'm still here--in the City that Never Stops Taking Your Money--but my conference has finally careened to the end of its week-long run. It was, on balance, a very good conference. But before I get to the good stuff, some advice on how you can increase the likelihood that Flavia will attend your session at some conference to come. (First of all, it would have to be on a topic in which she has some interest. But that's only the first hurdle!)

Four things that will make me avoid your panel, clamber over an entire row of people to get out of your panel--or wish to God that it were socially acceptable to do the latter:

  1. Papers on Early Modern topics that involve extended parallels to contemporary political events. A brief aside about, say, the Bush Administration may not be amiss, especially if it's genuinely clever. But the key word is brief. If I wanted to hear your rambling and ill-informed remarks about John Yoo, I would not be attending a session on All's Well That Ends Well.
  2. Speakers, especially women, whose voices are so wispy they're barely picked up by a microphone. This is only partly about audibility. It's about the entire lack of confidence and enthusiasm that your voice communicates.
  3. Papers that use twentieth-century writers or thinkers to illuminate those from much earlier eras. Again, a brief anecdote or quotation may be useful and illuminating. But I have NO INTEREST in how you think Norman Mailer will help me to read Thomas Wyatt.
  4. Speakers whose self-presentation suggests they consider themselves the reincarnation of Mark Van Doren. That vaguely British but clearly spurious accent? your ridiculously brilliantined hair? the Latin tags sprinkled in once per page? Make me want to kill you. (On the other hand: awesome suit and glasses, dude.)

Seriously. It is not my job to care about your paper. It is your job to make me care--or at least to feel that the 20 minutes I spent listening to the sound of your voice were not wholly unpleasant.

My next conference isn't for months. Commit the above lessons to memory, and you may just see me there.

Saturday, July 05, 2008


I'm off to the airport, in moments, for a conference in the Most Expensive City on Earth. (The Early Modernists can perhaps guess which conference, and perhaps some of them will even be there--if you are, feel free to say hi. I look exactly like my avatar: always in profile, wearing a feather.)

Blogging is unlikely to occur until I return. Be good, kids.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Playing the right script

When I excavated my mailbox the other day, I also found my evaluations from the spring semester. I don't usually blog about evaluations, in part because evaluations don't inspire that much anxiety in me (which may be because RU doesn't place the kind of weight on them that some institutions do). My scores are always pretty good, though with a predictable range: some students gush that I'm the best teacher EVER while others gripe that I'm way harsh and my courses are, like, graduate level.

But this semester I received insanely good scores in all three of my very different classes--upper and lower division, some required and some not, some with mostly traditional college students and some with a fair number of older/returning students.

Now, I try not to believe that this means very much; fall semester I received my weakest batch of scores and this semester my strongest, and I can tell you that my teaching wasn't a bit different; with 20 or 25 students in a class, evaluation scores often are about the luck of the draw.

But in addition to having strong numerical scores, this semester I also received much more in the way of narrative commentary from all three of my classes. RU's evaluations, you see, are Scantron forms with a couple dozen questions to which students bubble in scores--as well as the option to write something on the back, though there aren't actual prompts for such commentary. I always encourage my students to write something, but in the past maybe a third of them would, and often just a single line or two of praise or outrage. This semester, however, approximately 2/3 of my students provided narrative feedback, and they wrote a lot.

So, I've got some theories about this. I'm sure that part of what's happening is that I've developed a reputation for being tough, and that probably means I get fewer weak or lazy students. (One student in my Shakespeare class wrote on the back of her evaluation that she'd been dreading my class all winter break because she'd heard how hard I was--but mine had wound up being her favorite class even though it was also her most difficult.)

But even if that accounts for some of it, it isn't as if my classes are filled entirely with serious, diligent students--I give Ds and occasionally Fs, and there are always a number of recent transfer students who haven't yet gotten the scoop on their professors, as well as students whose schedules are limited by outside factors and who wind up in my class only because it's at a convenient time.

So the one thing I can point to that I did do differently this term is the way I presented the evaluations before administering them. Usually, I just do a brief spiel about how I appreciate my students' feedback, and how no, I won't see these until after I submit final grades. This time, however, I said something like this:
"Students sometimes want to know what these evaluations mean, or how they're used. So lemme me tell ya: nothing you can say on these forms will get me fired. On the other hand, nothing you can say will get me a raise.

"They are made available in my file for other people to look at if they want to, and they make up one part of the assessment of my job performance. But honestly, they're not a huge part, and they don't get read carefully by anyone else but me.

"I value them, though, and they're important to me as I think about how I've taught the course in the past and how I might want to teach it in the future. So think of this as your opportunity to give feedback to me. You can certainly write on them that I suck--but probably the only person who will actually read that comment is me. And yeah, reading that might make me feel bad for about sixty seconds. . . but it's not particularly constructive.

"So. Use your powers for good, not evil."

This was an entirely calculated strategy, inspired in part by one particularly vindictive student whom I was determined to strip of a feeling of power--but lots of otherwise thoughtful students fall into a consumerist mentality when faced with evaluations. I hoped that the above spiel would simultaneously make them feel valued, while also neutralizing their impression that they were grading me or reporting on me to whomever it was they perceived to be my boss.

And although I can't think that that tack was responsible for my numerical scores, I suspect that that it was responsible for the lengthy, reflective comments I received. No one made a criticism without also saying something generally good about the class, and there were detailed accounts of the different ways I mixed up class activities (or didn't), used my "body language to make students feel comfortable" (!), and maintained my level of enthusiasm and encouragement even when students were struggling. Some students went on and on about the works they liked best, and how certain themes carried over throughout the semester in helpful ways, and others positively burbled over about how great our discussions were. I also got admiring comments about my shoes and wardrobe.

In the end, though, who knows? I believe myself to be a good teacher, and I think I'm particularly good at teaching earlier literature to students who have little familiarity with that literature or its time period--and who in many cases come into my courses reluctantly. I also enjoy teaching the kinds of students I get at RU. But I'm no pedagogical trailblazer, and my teaching persona doesn't do it for everyone--some students think I'm charming and charismatic, while others consider me cold and arrogant (both assessments, of course, are correct).

I'm also cynical enough to know that students like to be able to construct a narrative in which they were intimidated by or uninterested in the material--and then were transformed! by a great teacher! who made them do better work than they'd ever done before!

Yes, I want to believe that I'm that teacher, and I'm more than a little thrilled when my students believe that that's what happened. But there's something in that story that serves their own interests, too: if they left my class either doing better or having more fun than they expected, well then, it must be because I was a great teacher who inspired them to work extra hard.

Maybe the best interpretation of these evals is this: I happened to fit, this semester, into a script that the majority of my students bought into.