Sunday, October 31, 2010

When I wrote the ninety-five, haters straight up assailed 'em

For the past few months my parish has had a deacon serving alongside our regular priest; he's just here on temporary assignment, learning the ropes as he awaits his ordination to the priesthood in the spring. He seems like a nice guy--smart, a good homilist, and with a gentle, approachable manner--but I couldn't help wondering what his deal was: he's in his late forties, and wears what appears to be a wedding ring. I'd speculated that maybe he was a widower, or possibly a married Episcopalian priest who was converting. However, in my experience, priest-converts from the C of E tend to be a little scary and fanatical (running toward Rome as an escape from teh gays and teh wimmins they believe are taking over the Anglican communion). He definitely didn't fit that profile.

So it was rather wonderful to learn today, on Ninety-Five Theses Day, that our deacon is actually a history professor at a local college and a former Methodist minister--whose conversion to Catholicism twelve years ago coincided with completing his dissertation on Reformation Christianity.

Gotta watch out when you study religious history. It does that shit.

(Yeah, I know: I posted this video two years ago. But I love it so.)

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Polyglot dreams

I spent last weekend in Toronto, crashing a conference that several friends were presenting at. It wasn't a huge conference, but it was an international one--and unlike most international conferences I've attended, it was multilingual: approximately one third of the panels were in French and the rest in English.

This fact barely registered on me when I first skimmed the program, and since the panels were segregated by language I didn't expect to have much interaction with the francophone attendees. Whatever, I thought. It's Canada. I guess that's what they do.

But in fact, all the conference-goers took coffee and cookies in the same entrance hall and we all attended the same plenary talks, and when people squeezed past or apologized for bumping into me they were as likely to say "merci!" or "pardon!" as "thanks" or "excuse me." The chair introducing one of the plenary speakers gave his opening remarks half in French and half in English (not translating: just switching languages midway through), and one speaker on a plenary panel did something similar, occasionally switching to French for a few sentences for emphasis.

It was a disorienting, strange, and rather wonderful experience, and one I'm pretty sure I've never had before. Whether at home or abroad, I'm used to being in a place where one language is the dominant one, and the other language or languages are used for private or domestic conversations: tourists talking to each other, immigrant parents murmuring to their children. But being somewhere that two languages were treated equally, and where no need for translation was assumed, was something new.

Now, I know that the politics of language are touchy in Canada, and that it's not a perfect bilingual paradise. Nevertheless, as foreign language departments are being eliminated in this country, it's hard not to look with longing toward a neighbor country that seems, at least from the outside, to be valuing language study in a way we do not.

And I should 'fess up: although I work in a period and on authors who are ferociously multilingual--and although my grad program required three foreign languages--French is the only foreign language I have any real claim to being able to speak or understand; I took it throughout high school and for a couple of years in college, but since I don't need it for my work, it's atrophied terribly. I have adequate reading knowledge of Italian, can work v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y through Latin (albeit with lots of errors), and a year's worth of ancient Greek in college left me with the ability to pronounce ANY WORD I SEE that's written in Greek characters (although I can no longer understand a line of it, if ever I could).

I have colleagues and friends with a serious command of multiple languages, and I wish I were among them. As it is, I sometimes think that I and many more academics than are willing to admit it are the PhD-holding equivalent of the kids who flounder through a year of college-level foreign language study, fulfill their requirement, and call it a day.

Friday, October 22, 2010

What can be coaxed out of the surfeit of language

My graduate class this semester is centered on the writer whose name I'll render here as John Dunne. Although we're not focused on him or on poetry exclusively, at least 75% of our primary texts are in verse, and non-narrative verse to boot. This has presented some pedagogical challenges.

Over the years (probably in part because my own undergraduate education in poetry was so patchy, not to say piss-poor) I've become somewhat of a poetry evangelist. I teach scansion and metrics in all my literature courses, and have developed lesson plans, handouts, and short assignments to give undergraduates a basic tool-kit for talking about and understanding formal verse. Still, I'd never before taught a course that was primarily non-narrative poetry, and I definitely hadn't taught such a course to graduate students. When I teach lyric poetry in an undergraduate class, I assign a bunch of poems but often spend most of each class period working through just one or two, modeling how we analyze and make meaning out of verse. But did I really want to spend a graduate seminar doing that kind of close reading? Every week?

The answer, kinda, is "yes."

I've assigned a lot of secondary readings, of course, many of them focused on larger issues to do with Early Modern reading practices, editorial theory, and history of the book, so we're not just close-reading poems. But it turns out, first, that my M.A. students don't necessarily have any more experience or innate comfort with poetry than my undergrads, and, second, that it's hard to talk about poetry in general terms without first getting down into the nitty gritty of the verse.

Last week, for example, in our three-hour class we spent at least two hours working through just two poems, an elegy and a satire. With long poems especially, I sometimes refer to this process as a "forced march": we take a few lines at a time, lingering to talk about this image, that rhyme, or untangle a particularly knotty bit of syntax. It's slow and deliberate, and with undergraduates I sometimes worry that I'm losing or boring them. But this particular class was lovely. I hadn't picked out the poems myself--I'd had my students choose them--so I didn't have a lesson plan, and it felt like a process of discovery for me as much as for them. I freely confessed when I didn't understand what a given part was doing, and then made them work it out, explaining how a particular metaphor or grammatical construction was really operating, or what the possibilities were and how each one changed the meaning of the whole.

Part of what I'm trying to do, of course, is convey why I love this material, and the ways in which real scholarship is at least as playful as it is earnest. So when I start to get punchy at 8.30 at night, or feel a tangent coming on, I don't always stop myself. At one point, upon realizing that a student was trying--overly-delicately--to suggest that a particular metaphor referred to sexual intercourse, I exclaimed, "Oh! You mean the word 'sheathe'? You think he means, like, penis-in-vagina sheathing? No, for once, it's just soul-in-body sheathing." [Looking around the room.] Hey! You guys all know that, right? That 'vagina' means 'sheath'?" Later, I somehow wound up suggesting that Ovid, Jonson and Dunne were good candidates for the game fuck-marry-kill (and then had to explain that game, when it turned out only one of my students knew what I was talking about and was laughing too hard to do it for me.)

Now, if talking about penises and vaginas and the fuckability of long-dead poets is what I'm remembered for, maybe they should take my Ph.D. away from me right now. But I like to think that I'm operating, in however impoverished a way, in the tradition of my betters. Among the many tributes to the late Frank Kermode in the London Review of Books, my favorite was that written by his former student, Jacqueline Rose. Here's the part that I've been thinking of as I teach Dunne:
What is it about a literary work that enables it to persist over time? Most obviously perhaps, the "classic" in [Kermode's] definition was a text whose plurality of meaning. . . kept it alive. It is because no reader can exhaust the meaning of such a text, because any one reading cannot but select and forget. . . that it will continuously be reinvented. A classic is a work that is "patient of reinterpretation". . . . [A] work. . . survive[s] by means of what [can] be coaxed out of the surfeit of its language.
If cracking bawdy jokes leads one of my students to coax something more out of a poem than she would have otherwise, then I defend the practice utterly.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Smart kids = boys

What I liked best about The Social Network (a/k/a "the Facebook movie") was its vivid portrait of smart kids creating and tackling an intellectual challenge: the energy, the enthusiasm, and the sheer geekiness of it all. In some ways, the movie felt like a response to my plea, last month, for more cinematic depictions of the life of the mind. I'm not a computer programmer or an entrepreneur, but I have been a college student, and the movie captured what it's like to be a nerdy obsessive surrounded by other obsessives. The scene near the beginning where Zuckerberg creates "Facemash" in a late-night blitz while his friends egg him on, as well as the later coding competition where a bunch of students at computers throw back shots of alcohol after every line of code written, both felt perfect to me. They reminded me of my own college experience (minus the coding and company-founding parts).

But the movie's authenticity only goes so far. As several commenters have noted, women, with the exception of the girlfriend who dumps Zuckerberg before the opening credits, exist in the movie only as groupies or psycho-sluts. I don't have a problem with the presence of a few two-dimensional floozies or even some gratuitous--and, I'm pretty sure, wildly inaccurate--scenes set at parties in Harvard's final clubs where the women strip to their underwear and make out with each other for the delectation of the male partiers. I mean, those scenes are lame, but whatever: women occasionally do that shit, and probably sometimes even at Harvard.

What I have a problem with is that there are no other women. Maybe it's too much to expect a Hollywood movie to show women who are as rumpled and nerdy as many of the men (although last time I checked, on actual college campuses unwashed hair and sweatpants know no gender). But surely there could be a cute smart girl or two? A pretty female coder? A Facebook employee who's not just a jailbait intern-groupie?

I didn't go to Harvard, so I could be totally wrong here, but in my years at Harvard-but-for-the-architecture, there were lots of smart women. Some of them were damn hot, too, and went to frat parties and may have worn spiky heels and low-cut blouses and tons of eyeliner. . . one night a week. But the rest of the time they were wearing jeans and glasses and setting the curve in their organic chemistry classes. Or staying up until two a.m. every night editing the school paper.

I'm mostly inured to the crappy depictions of women in movies; I say little hand-wavy things like, "well, the female characters are sappy and sucky--but it's still a great film." But perhaps because I've been thinking about depictions of the intellectual life in movies, or perhaps because I went to not-Harvard and felt that I recognized so much of the intellectual culture and nerd-energy of The Social Network, the portrayal of women in this movie (a movie that I mostly liked) really pissed me off.

Or maybe it's just that my college roommate got married last weekend, and in the days preceding my going to see Sorkin's movie I'd been thinking fond thoughts about her and the five other women I lived with freshman year. So since this is my goddamn blog, I'm going to tell you about those five women. None of them is a Mark Zuckerberg, but they all had obsessions, talents, and flashes of inspiration--not to mention feverish all-nighters or all-weekenders where they put together major projects--that are basically consonant with the way the movie depicts him and his exclusively male friends.

My roommates majored in Economics, Anthropology, French, Biology, and Physics & Philosophy (a double major). One went on to get an M.A. as a Fulbright Scholar and to work first in consulting, then for a famine relief organization, and is now the department head at a major British corporation. Another went to library science school and then became the director of a public library--where she's recently received some unsought national attention as a defender of the First Amendment. The third got both American and French law degrees and practiced law in France before becoming a jazz songwriter and vocalist, based in New York; she has a couple of albums out now. The fourth is a labor activist, and her work on behalf of illegal immigrant sweatshop workers was recently featured on PBS. The fifth got a Ph.D. in physics and is now on the tenure track at our alma mater. They were--and are--smart, fun, and hilarious.

And I can't help but ask: where are their undergraduate selves in movies about college life? Where are their adult selves, for that matter?

Saturday, October 16, 2010

As the gourd turns

Last weekend Cosimo and I dragged a couple of squash and a pumpkin home from Maine. So you know I ain't lying when I say,

"It's fall, fuckfaces. You're either ready to reap this freaky-assed harvest or you're not."

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Death by paper

Apologies for going AWOL; a perfect storm of out-of-town guests, an out-of-town trip of my own, and the collation of fifty bazillion documents for my reappointment file conspired to keep me away from all you lovelies.

Regional U has both a three-year and a five-year review, the latter preparatory to going up for tenure in year six. The idea is to be able to make any last-minute interventions if the candidate isn't quite on track for tenure--or just put together a crappy file. It's a procedure that I heartily support, though it's also a pain in the ass: one three-ring binder constitutes a teaching portfolio, with tables of evaluation scores and grade ranges, sample syllabi and assignments, class observation write-ups, a statement of teaching philosophy, and anything else notable. The other binder holds copies of all the candidate's publications, fellowship award letters, book contracts (and/or correspondence related to same), along with a C.V., the past four years' annual reports, and narrative statements about research and service.

Basically, the application is an extremely long, heavily annotated C.V., with exhibits.

But although I was cursing the process for most of the long weekend that I spent revising and re-revising my tables of contents, printing out endless PDFs, and running back and forth to Staples to buy exhibit tabs and document sleeves, it's nice to have a tangible reminder of all the things we do that seem to melt into air: classes taught, papers given, thoughts thunk.

I found this to be especially true for my teaching. I have a C.V., after all, to remind me of everything I've published, and offprints stashed here and there. But tabulating all my evaluation scores and grade ranges, and deciding which assignments and handouts to include as representative samples of how I teach--that mysterious thing that we're always doing and thinking about without fully understanding--made me realize, with a start, that I actually do have a teaching profile and philosophy. There are things that I've decided to value and emphasize, across all my classes, without really knowing or planning it.

Better still, I like the teacher who emerges from these documents. She seems kinda awesome. Awesomer, in fact, than I am. (But maybe she'd be my friend?)

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Job List open thread

So dudes: this year's JIL. What's going on in your fields?

I can tell you there are damn few Renaissance jobs, and though I don't have much personally at stake (I know almost no one who's going on the market, and none of them are first-timers), it's a field that hires pretty reliably at all levels.

On the other hand, CHECK OUT those eighteenth-century jobs! I thought there were a lot last year, at least relative to the total number, but this year is outta control. I wonder whether we're finally seeing a generational change, and how that might reshape the field.

But I'm curious how the view looks from where you sit.