Friday, May 21, 2010

Cultic studies

I've compared conferences to sleep-away camp before, but this weekend I'm heading out for a conference that might better be described as a retreat: it's a small, intensive, week-long seminar dedicated to Advanced Flavia Studies. We've been assigned an enormous stack of reading materials, will be in session for seven hours a day, and all the participants are being housed in adjoining B&Bs and are taking almost all our meals together.

Okay: it might actually be a cult. But I think it'll be awesome. I hope it will be awesome. If not, I may need to find a new area of study.

No blogging until I return. Be good, peeps.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Going long

My first semester of graduate school, I took a course taught by the woman who would eventually become my dissertation director. In our first class meeting, we signed up to do 10-minute presentations on certain contextual materials, one or two per week. My friend Ted volunteered to go first, at our very next meeting.

In what I would soon learn was characteristic fashion, Ted spent the intervening week reading his assigned text and an ad hoc collection of background materials, and he showed up for class with an armful of notes and photocopied images. He launched into a chatty but meandering presentation, pausing to share colorful anecdotes about the author's life, theories about the circumstances of the work's composition, and other more or less interesting digressions.

After several minutes, our professor interrupted him: "Ted, you've wasted five minutes. You have five more. Let's get to the text itself."

"Of course, of course," he said, agreeably--and he may have attempted to focus or speed himself up, but it wasn't apparent.

Our professor gave him another warning, at the two-minute mark, but when his ten minutes had expired without his having done more than allude to the work he was supposed to be presenting on, she cut him off mid-sentence.

"Well," she said, as she reclaimed the room. "I hope this will be a lesson to all of you. When you have ten minutes, you have ten minutes. You should prepare accordingly."

It was a fairly awful thing to do to a student in his second week of a Ph.D. program, in front of his entire cohort, but it had its intended effect: we learned that time and page limits were to be taken seriously--and that being smart and having lots to say didn't make us special or exempt us from the rules.

Whether it was my professor's doing or my own already-fierce ethic of responsibility, I now consider going long to be a pretty serious crime, at least when there's a captive audience of listeners or readers. My belief is that an extra 10% (which amounts to one extra page or two extra minutes on a conference paper) might be okay, depending on the circumstances, but anything more is a sign of astonishing disorganization, self-importance, and/or lack of regard for one's audience.

Recently, however, I was in a scholarly situation where more than half of the participants (all of them faculty) exceeded their time/page limits by an absolutely egregious amount--I'm talking about an extra 30%, 50% or in one shocking case a full 100%.

It's not that their work wasn't good; in some cases, it was very good. But when I (and you) sign up for the X-length version of your work, I don't want the Y-length version.

Some day, I'll have the balls to walk out, interrupt, or stop reading when time expires.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Career girls

I'm not a lawyer (although I was admitted to law school!), so I'm not qualified to weigh in on the specifics of Elena Kagan's legal talents. But as someone who has done a certain amount of thinking about the structural problems that confront professional women, I find Doctor Cleveland's post on Kagan's alleged careerism--and the "unnaturalness" of her having sacrificed aspects of her personal life in the service of that careerism--to be dead on.

Noting that "one 50-year-old nominee [John Roberts] was presented as brilliant, poised, and prudent while an essentially identical 50-year-old nominee is presented as a repressed, wonkish automaton," Dr. Cleveland concludes that charges of careerism
[are] meant to summon up familiar anti-feminist stereotypes about career women, and about the horrors of sacrificing one's "natural" maternal destiny in order to pursue a professional career. The point of those stereotypes is not to deal with the genuine difficulties facing women who want both motherhood and careers, but to intensify those difficulties, and to make the option of forestalling or foregoing motherhood appear illegitimate. The argument is that women who aren't mothers, and most especially women who aren't mothers because they have been pursuing careers, aren't real women at all. And of course, since they're not real women, they don't know what they really want.

[. . . .] Elena Kagan isn't any more of a careerist or a nerd than John Roberts was. Who could be? And no one imagines Roberts as less authentic or less human, let alone less manly, because he delayed marriage until after he was forty. No one faults a man who postpones starting family life while building his career.
He adds, "To treat the fact that Kagan is single as some inexplicable oddity, which must be hiding a deep personal secret, is to indulge in the luxury of not having to notice certain basic facts."

Word up. Go read the whole thing, and then the follow-up post.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Plus ça change

I've just returned from the longest solo road trip I've ever made (which, given that I didn't own a car and effectively didn't drive from ages 18 to 31 perhaps isn't saying very much). I was tooling through the state of Virginia, visiting two of my closest friends: Victoria, whom I've known since high school, and Evey, who was my first, best friend in Cha-Cha City until she moved away.

I've known Victoria for nineteen years, while I only met Evey in 2006. Victoria knows my family, has visited me in every place I've ever lived, has met virtually all of my boyfriends, and has heard me talk through most my crises and decisions. Evey, necessarily, has not met most of those people or seen most of those things.

And yet both friendships--or rather, the strategies and methods of both friendships--are strikingly similar. Though Victoria and I met when I was 16 and she was 14, we didn't become close friends until after high school, and since that time we've only lived in the same state for two years: we went to different colleges and different grad schools, and for a while we lived on different coasts. So both friendships have been, always, about narratives and backstory: that roommate, that guy, that class with that professsor, that coworker, that job. It's astonishing how much we know about people we've never met, and how actively we try to remember and reconstruct and keep straight their stories.

One of us will say, Omigod! So-and-so? I've told you about him?

And the other will say, "that's the guy. . . you had a class with in grad school? who was in the Peace Corps, and dated your friend, and then married an undergrad? And he had a like totally tragic mother, or maybe sister?"

And we'll reply that actually it was Teach for America, and it was a stepbrother who'd memorized all of Sylvia Plath--but basically, yes--and then continue on with his latest escapades or iniquities.

We care intensely about the people and about the details, about the life the other has led and is leading, even if we don't actively share most of that life. Maybe it comes from being novel-readers and literary scholars: we're used to keeping track of characters and plot, looking for patterns, and analyzing collaboratively.

So when I learned that my first boyfriend--last seen as a smart, hilarious Jew with interests in politics, foreign affairs, and baseball, a guy who was fluent in Mandarin by age 21 and spent most of his college years living abroad--is now an insurance agent in Omaha, a Creationist, and an actual Jew for Jesus, they both shared my horror. Victoria knew Bob when I did, but Evey knows enough about him and about my subsequent dating history to see why I'd be so distressed. (Also, through the magic of Facebook, I could show her his photos.)

There's a real comfort in knowing other people's narratives, and having them know yours--it feels like a hedge against dissolution and chaos: I know you and you know me, we share this knowledge, and we each have a coherent, continuous self. This feels all the more urgent when one keeps moving, as academics who make friends with other academics (who are married to still other academics) seem continually to do.

But there's almost as much comfort in having a car, frequent-flier miles, and friends with guest rooms.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Monday, May 10, 2010

Amazon meme

It's hard for me to remember a time when I didn't place an order with Amazon every month (and that's just for books and media: I'm not someone who orders her toilet paper and her cat food from Amazon, or at least not yet). But the meme that's been going around ye internets has forced me to recall that there must once have been a day when Young Flavia and Amazon first met.

Unaided, I'd have had no idea when that day was, or what I purchased (by contrast, I could regale you for hours with stories of my early scores on eBay). But according to Amazon's records, it was November 27, 1999, and I bought Jayne E. Marek's Women Editing Modernism: "Little" Magazines and Literary History. My second purchase, in January of 2000, was Sacvan Bercovitch's The Office of the Scarlet Letter.

In case you can't tell? It was my first year of graduate school.

Apart from those two initial purchases, I bought virtually no books for myself from Amazon in the years 1999-2006. I spent those years first in a college town and then in a big city--both of which had an ample supply of new bookstores--and my used and out-of-print needs were well-served by ABE. Instead, I appear to have used Amazon for two purposes: 1) birthday gifts for family and friends, 2) additions to my music and video library.

From 2000-2002 I bought myself the following:
The Exciting Sounds of Martin Denny: Exotica 1 and Exotica 2
A Tribe Called Quest, The Low End Theory
A bossa nova compilation, Nova Bossa
Louis Armstrong, Complete Hot Fives and Hot Sevens
Paris Combo, Living Room
Chris Isaak, Forever Blue
An "electro-jazz" compilation, Saint-Germain Café
Sex and the City, Season One
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Make of all that what you will, but I'm sure you wouldn't be wrong.

Thursday, May 06, 2010


Well, kids: it looks as though everyone's favorite accidental governor will be furloughing yours truly--along with some 100,000 other state workers--for one day a week, effective almost immediately, until the state budget is passed.

In case you can't do the math, that's a 20% salary reduction.

Nevermind the fact that this is almost certainly illegal (and nevermind the fact that Flavia may be forced to drink rail gin for the next little while); this is the stupidest cost-saving measure I've ever heard of.

Allegedly, it will save the state millions of dollars. But the implementation costs (or so I've been told by those whose states or employers have already instituted furloughs) will cut that savings significantly. The state will also lose tax revenue. And since the unions are already taking action, the state will be on the hook for legal expenses--and if the measure is eventually found to be illegal, as it has been in other states, it will prove to be a huge net loss once all that money is refunded.

I understand that the governor is trying to play hardball with the state legislature and with the unions, and I have some professional respect for a good brinksman. But this isn't brinksmanship. This is just stupidity.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Desperate products call for desperate measures

Them what knows Flavia knows she don't drink vodka--and that she is, in fact, a bit of a snob about it. She drinks gin, boys. And whiskey.

Okay, she might drink vodka on the rocks if there's nothing else in the house--but she's of the opinion that most vodka drinkers, even or especially those who are so emphatic about only drinking Grey Goose, or Belvedere, or whatever, are fond of vodka primarily because it doesn't taste like alcohol once they mix it in with a bunch of sweet, fruity, girly shit.

So this feature, at Jezebel, delighted her extravagantly (click on each of the thumbnails for the full image and the hilarious commentary). It confirms all her prejudices, and she likes it when that happens.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Teaching prep

Classes end this week at RU, and thus ends my semester of only two preps: since my other Renaissance colleague has been on leave, I've been teaching both Shakespeare classes. And though I don't find my usual three preps especially burdensome--and though I'm still teaching almost 75 students--I gotta tell ya: this schedule has been awesome.

I've always understood the number of preps one has--or, more precisely, the number of courses one teaches--to be correlated to the amount of weight one's institution places on research: if you have a 2/2 load, you're at a "research" institution, and scholarship is valued more highly than teaching; if you have a 3/3 load, teaching and research are supposed to be valued about equally; if you have a 4/4 or higher, teaching is really your institution's primary focus.

Now obviously this doesn't mean that there aren't people at teaching institutions who produce great scholarship, or that there aren't total slackers (or great teachers) at research schools; we all know both to be true. Still, I've understood the 2/2 load as being primarily about freeing up time for research.

But what do I find myself doing, with the modest amount of additional time I have this semester? Mostly, I've used it to re-read all 10 plays before teaching them, and to read a bit of Shakespeare scholarship: the better part of two books and perhaps a half-dozen articles. In other words, that extra time is allowing me to be a better teacher.

I rarely do much course prep during the semester, having taken to heart the lesson that it will eat up all one's time if one lets it. When I design a new class, I spend a lot of time over the previous summer or winter constructing the syllabus and assignments, and I often do a fair amount of background reading to get my own knowledge and preparation up to snuff. But during the actual semester, there's no time for that. Even with new classes I usually complete my readings and lesson plans at the last minute, and with repeat classes I reuse lesson plans (or scrap and alter them on the fly), and I reread perhaps 40% of the texts. This is how I make sure I have time for my research, but not only for my research: for grading, for student advising, for departmental service, and all the rest.

But this semester, with what probably amounts to just an extra two or three hours a week, I'm doing intellectual labor that benefits only my teaching: I'm not a Shakespearian or a drama scholar, and the extra reading I'm doing isn't toward a new project (or if it is, it's a project so far in the future that I don't know it exists). I'm thinking harder about the plays, and trying to fill in some gaps in my knowledge of their scholarship, just because. And the only recipients of that additional learning have been my students.

I'm not saying we should all teach a 2/2 load, or that I or anyone else would always use the additional time for virtuous, teaching-related activities. But it sure has been nice to have the space--and really, such a little, little space--for reading and thinking that serves no immediate end, but whose benefits are still material.