Thursday, April 30, 2009

It could go either way, really

Is the fact that I have received an entire essay on Shakespeare's use of the end-stop in a single sonnet evidence that I am doing something horribly wrong. . . or horribly right?

Monday, April 27, 2009

Memento mori

Two weeks ago, I was worried that I might have a detached retina. Last week, I thought I was having a heart attack.

Neither fear was wholly unprovoked: I'm quite nearsighted and I have floaters in both eyes, which means I'm at a higher risk for detachment. The day after Easter I saw two quick flashes of light in one eye. Nothing else seemed wrong, so I forgot about it until a couple of days later when my peripheral vision seemed oddly blurry in that same eye. Granted, it was late and dark and at a bar, and the experience wasn't repeated. But those two events were enough to make me intermittently hysterical until I could get to my eye doctor a few days later.

Then last week I hopped into my car after a long day on campus. My left arm and shoulder felt uncomfortable, as if I had pulled a muscle, so I stretched around a bit at first one stoplight and then another as I headed for the highway. Then my chest started feeling tight, and then my other arm felt tight and a little tingly--and it seemed that first my right and then my left legs were becoming similarly tingly, as if they were falling asleep. I kept driving, trying to decide what to do, but by the time I got to the highway 10 minutes later I concluded that, eh: if I hadn't passed out yet, I probably wasn't going to.

I don't think I have a tendency toward hypochondria, but it's also true that I rarely have things to be a hypochondriac about: I've had maybe one cold in the past two years and nothing more serious. So maybe it's the unusualness of these two episodes that alarmed me.

Or maybe it's this: my grandmother has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. My father just turned 70. I'm dating someone new and thinking about how people always say that they want to find the person they'll grow old with--which is to say, the person we will watch die, as they will watch us.

That's not a terrible thing, necessarily. But it's still the best-case scenario.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

In case of emergency

In my campus office, I have the following emergency supplies stashed in my desk:
Mint gum
Over-the-counter nasal spray
Two lipsticks
Clear nail polish (for repairing runs in my stockings)
Opaque black tights
Safety pins
Hair mousse
Granola bars
A spoon and fork (hotel silver from the Waldorf-Astoria)
Hammer and nails
An unopened picture frame
If I were to die unexpectedly, and someone else had to clean out my desk--I wonder what they'd think.

What do you have in your emergency drawer?

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Inside the bubble

I was noodling around on the internet today when I came across a document I'd never seen before: an internal study of INRU's graduate program in English. Once I saw it, I remembered having completed a survey a few years back--but I'd already graduated and never received the final product.

It's a satisfyingly comprehensive report, describing the shape of the program and how it's changed over the past 10 or 15 years to address various problems or meet various goals (and recommending new changes going forward). Everything's covered, from funding, recruitment, and matriculation rates to requirements, retention, and job placement. Probably the most interesting parts are those last two, retention and placement, and there's a ton of data--not just numerical summaries (how many people got jobs in which years and at what kinds of institutions), but also detailed, gossipy information in spreadsheet format naming names and tracking professional progress from degree date to the present.

But among the report's many unobjectionable and often quite perceptive remarks is one that made me shriek aloud. The committee observes that, although the department isn't displeased with its placement rates, it would still like to increase the percentage of graduates who get jobs at research universities and decrease the percentage who leave the academy involuntarily. They continue,

Some faculty worry that mid-level graduate students at INRU are not engaged in research that is ambitious enough to win them places at major research universities--although we realize that not all students seek careers that place an emphasis on research. Some faculty are pleased at our success in placing our graduates in liberal arts colleges, and this surely does indicate one of our strengths: that we train our students in the broader field of literary studies rather than producing narrow specialists.*

There, in one paragraph, we have an implied causal link between not having research ambitions and not getting a job at "a major research university"--after all, if you were doing the right kind of research you'd get the right kind of job--followed by the suggestion that only some INRU faculty consider liberal arts colleges to be good jobs (and that although the committee finds this position mildly eccentric, they're dutifully reporting it).

Now, on the one hand, this doesn't surprise me: probably the vast majority of us encountered some version of this attitude at our graduate institutions, wherever we attended. But although I never doubted that many of my professors held such beliefs, my department nevertheless did an excellent job of professionalizing us. My first year I attended a job-market roundtable featuring some recent graduates who were teaching at a wide range of institutions. One of the speakers had only just landed a job after six or seven years on the market--and although he jokingly presented his talk as "everything you should NOT do in your job search," his underlying message was that the job market is a mess and unpredictable, and it might take years to find a job even if you are doing everything right. At the same event I remember one senior faculty member telling us not to rule out community colleges--that they not only had growing student populations, but were at the forefront of pedagogical innovation.

In other words, the fact that the job market is random and terrible (and that, market notwithstanding, people are happy and productive at all kinds of institutions) has finally filtered down to pretty much everyone. But although our advisors and mentors see these proofs and even speak these truths, what they still believe is that there's a single hierarchy, that everyone wishes to scale--and that it's a meritocracy.

*I've altered the wording slightly, but both the sense and tone remain.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

SAA: beaten with a stick

Conference partying is well and good, but its wages are, if not death, still pretty grim: I always wake up on the last day feeling like I've been beaten with a stick. My lower back aches from hours of standing around gabbing in heels. My shoulders are cricked from an equal number of hours hunched over a notepad. My skin is ghastly from too little sleep and too much drink and overly rich meals out on the town.

Maybe this is why so many of our departments provide so little travel funding: like taxes on cigarettes, it's intended for our own good.

Friday, April 10, 2009

SAA: ain't nothing but a party

On Tuesday I reminded my Shakespeare students that our Thursday class was cancelled, and I explained that I'd be out of town at a conference. I'd intended to make a light joke of it--saying something about how while they were all napping and playing video games I'd be partying with 800 Shakespeareans--but no sooner had I said the words "Shakespeare Association of America" than the entire room burst out laughing.

I paused, puzzled. This class does tend to find my jokes hilarious, but I hadn't gotten to the joke yet. Attempting a recovery, I arched an eyebrow and said something about what a crazy scene it was going to be, and how lucky they were to have me bringing them bulletins from the front.

They laughed harder, and I realized that I didn't need to make a joke: the mere fact that 800 Shakespeareans existed (and that we get together and talk about Shakespeare and shit) was sufficiently hilarious to them.

* * * * *

I have no interest in my students knowing just how fun conferences are--how full of gossip and drunkenness and bad behavior--and if they did, surely the idea would fill them with terror and pity as much as laughter. But it's my own feeling that parties have only gotten more fun as I've gotten older and the people have gotten more interesting, and the ability to mingle work and play (and to play with such smart people) is one of the wonderful things about this profession. It's our students, really, who have an impoverished notion of what partying is.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Conference shakes ass; capital quails

From early tomorrow through late Sunday I'll be among the other ass-shakers in Our Nation's Capital. I'm pleased by both the location and the company, but irritated, once again, that SAA is always scheduled over Easter and usually over Passover.

I mean, everyone knows that academics are a bunch of family-hating atheists--but is it really in our professional interests to be so obvious about it?

Friday, April 03, 2009

Belles lettres

I've mentioned before that I used to be a devoted letter-writer--not just in high school and college, but for many years afterwards. I didn't engage in paper correspondence with all my friends, but for a long while there were five or six people (not always the same people, and some cycled in and out) with whom I regularly exchanged letters.

There were many reasons for this. When I started college in 1993, email wasn't widely available outside of the universities, so not everyone we kept in touch with had access to it--and neither did most of us when we were away from campus. Growing up in a pre-internet age also meant that many of us had developed a letter-writing habit before we got to college, so it seemed natural to continue sending letters through the post, at least occasionally, even to people whom we also emailed.

Indeed, most of the letters I sent and received were probably written after email became more accessible, between the ages of about 20 and 27. That too makes sense: first there were college summers spent in our boring home towns or struggling in strange cities on minimally-paid internships; then there were new cities and new jobs or graduate or professional school. My friends and I moved a lot during those years, and our newer friends came and went and so did our romantic relationships. I remember my 20s as being a lot of fun, and they were--but in retrospect it strikes me that we spent a lot of time in our heads, trying to figure stuff out. Our letters reflect that.

Around age 28, my friends started getting married, and that ended or at least severely curtailed some of my correspondence. When my friend Dave got married, I was in grad school and, uninspired by anything I could afford on his registry, I decided to give him and his wife copies of all the letters and cards I'd received in the 10 years we'd been friends. It wound up being an insane project: I spent hours photocopying--sometimes in color, and on high-quality paper--all of Dave's letters and their envelopes and pasting them into an enormous album. I'm sure it cost more than I'd have spent on a gift, and it took ages and ages. But Dave had always written long, thoughtful letters in an elegant hand, choosing stamps and greeting cards with care, and it struck me that his wife might want to know his younger self more fully, and that Dave himself might enjoy revisting it.

Even those of us who haven't married are now in a more stable phase of life, at least emotionally and psychologically, and we have less need (or maybe it's just less time) to puzzle out our feelings in longhand. I suspect we've also finally gotten so accustomed to email that we miss having the ability to edit and rephrase and adjust our writing as we go.

And yet, after two or three years in which my correspondence was limited to Christmas cards and thank-you notes, in the past few months I've sent half a dozen actual letters. One was to an old friend with whom I've reconnected on Facebook; two were to my grandmother, who's been very ill; and the rest were to my new fella. In all cases, writing an actual letter was what I wanted to do, damn the inefficiency, crossed-out phrases, and all the rest. The letters sent to my gentleman friend were hardly love letters--I'm not sure I could write a love letter if I tried--but with him as with my long-lost friend and my grandmother, there was something I wanted to say or do not adequately served by email, IM, or the telephone.

I'm not sure what that something is. Maybe I just spend too much time, these days, in front of a computer, so emailing friends doesn't feel sufficiently distinct from emailing students and colleagues or typing up quizzes. But whatever I was missing and whatever I've found, I'm enjoying it.