Monday, August 29, 2011

More on rooming with others

Today's New York Times opinion page features an essay that makes nearly the opposite claim regarding randomly-assigned roommates as your humble blogger (and some of her commenters) made two weeks ago. According to Dalton Conley, the kids today are over-managing their lives! they need more serendipity! and if it doesn't come in the form of a randomly-assigned roommate, they'll never be able to play well with others or appreciate diversity!

Okay, I exaggerate. Slightly. But Conley's essay, in addition to not taking the problems inherent in randomly-assigned roommates very seriously, just isn't an accurate imagining of young people's lives or even the college experience (this, despite the fact that Conley is a professor at NYU). Rather, it's a nostalgic look back at the benefits that Conley himself received from rooming, in the 1980s, with someone very unlike himself--confusedly conflated with a larger and basically unrelated worry about the ways that The Modern World has eliminated serendipity. Conley speaks about how he knows people "who can't bear to eat in a restaurant they haven't researched on Yelp," and laments that "Google now tailors searches to exactly what it thinks you want to find," but from where I sit it sounds like he's mourning the diminished opportunities for serendipity in his own life, or the lives of those in his peer group (do 18-year-olds fetishize Yelp? I think not), rather than providing a realistic picture of life as a young person living among thousands of other young people.

As we age, we do indeed tend to associate more and more with people like us or at least already known to us. We have fixed groups of friends, we have families, we have partners, we have colleagues, and we tend to be fixed more stably in a community or at least in a personal and professional identity. But college freshmen meet people unlike themselves all the time: in the dorm, in the classroom, in extracurricular activities, in the dining hall. Many of them (though certainly not all of them) are actively looking for new interests, ideas, identities, and they turn to their peers (and, yes, to technology) to help them learn more about a particular band, movie-maker, political position, or religious belief.

Moreover, any roommate is different from oneself, just by definition. Even someone who shares all one's tastes is likely to have different habits, personality quirks, and simply to manifest his or her presence at inconvenient times. It's hard for me to believe that a randomly-assigned roommate is actually significantly better at teaching one how to live with other people than a roommate one has had some limited say in choosing. The number of people I know who lost friends over shared-housing drama indicates that "difference" isn't always recognizable from the outside.

Yes, as Conley cheerfully notes in his closing, most people who wind up with "the roommate from hell" do survive, and some may even wind up with "great stories to tell [their] future spouse." But that's hardly an argument in favor of random roommate assignment.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Coming soon to a theater near you

As I've mentioned before, I'm co-editing a scholarly edition. It's to be the first volume in a multi-volume "complete works" published by a major press, and the work we're editing is the author's best-known. It's well-beloved and frequently taught, but there's never been an edition that adequately addresses the work's multiple versions and composition history. If we do it right, ours will become the standard critical edition.

Fucking impressive, right? That's some hot shit right there!

Our contract confirms my self-regard: there are pages and pages itemizing our royalties for hardcover, paperback, e-book, online, and book club versions--modest percentages, but not when you expect to sell millions--concluding with a paragraph that details where the really big money comes from:
All Other Subsidiary Rights not mentioned above (including without limitation Anthology, Quotation, Mechanical Reproduction, Serialization, Broadcasting, Television, Dramatic, Film, Video, Microform, Digest, Strip Cartoon Picturization, and Merchandising Rights).
Book club sales? I say yes.

Film adaptation? Totally.

T-shirts, lunch boxes, and action figures? No doubt.

But the idea of a strip cartoon version is just silly.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Rooming with others

Students the land over are packing up their things and heading away to college. And seeing those heavy-laden station wagons on the interstate always makes me wonder: taking eighteen-year-olds, removing them from family and friends and forcing them to live with a complete stranger in a tiny room--who still thinks that's a good idea?

Most shared-room situations don't end in tragedy, as the pairing of Tyler Clementi and Dharun Ravi at Rutgers did last fall. Some people (and I'm one of them) make fast and lifelong friends with their randomly-assigned roommates. But even those people who don't have serious problems with their freshman-year roommates can still find the ordinary stressors attendant upon going away to college compounded by the stress of trying to figure out how to live with another person.

And I think it's bizarre how sanguine we adults are about this process, and indeed how little thought we give to it. We tend to talk about rooming with strangers as useful and character-building, a way of learning to negotiate adult responsibilities. And that's certainly true (and it's also true that most young people will live with roommates or housemates well into their twenties). But I have plenty of students whose first weeks of college are made infinitely more complicated, and sometimes acutely traumatic, as a result of living in close quarters with someone they don't like, or who doesn't like them, or simply someone who has a radically different schedule or set of habits. Just sharing a room with someone you don't know and don't connect with--when you're already homesick and uncertain and wondering if you'll ever make any friends--can feel profoundly isolating.

Most young people going away to college today have never shared a room with another person. And we can say that this is a sign of class privilege, or that it leads to kids who are spoiled or selfish or maladaptive or whatever, but it's not a sign of being spoiled not to be prepared to do something that you've never had to do before. Once upon a time, the young men who went away to college tended to have gone to boarding school--or they'd lived in barracks in the military or were expecting to live in them after they graduated. Once upon a time, it was common for siblings to sleep two or three to a bedroom. But that's rarely the reality these days.

Don't get me wrong: I think dormitory living is useful for all the reasons other people allege, as is being thrown in with people you haven't elected to live with (and whom you might never elect to live with again). But there are smarter and less smart ways to organize freshman dorms. I'd argue that no freshman should ever be placed in an isolated double. Quads or sextets--two or three doubles with a common living space or some combination of singles and doubles with a common living space--make the most sense to me. That way students aren't stuck, alone, in a room with just one other person.

I'd also like to see us be more attentive to the difficulties of adjusting to dormitory life. Most roommate complaints aren't serious, in the sense that they don't require any intervention, and most such problems will pass. But that doesn't mean that there aren't real emotional and sometimes academic costs.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

The rich and educationally advantaged reply

The subject of this post has replied. Comments to that post are now closed (I have comments sent to moderation for all posts that are more than a couple of weeks old, to cut down on spam), but I published Ms. K's because it's only fair that someone who discovers she's being discussed by a bunch of random people on the internet--in a discussion that will turn up whenever people Google her name--be permitted a public response.

However, further comments to that thread will get deleted. If Ms. K's NYT letter was already a bit of a fish, barrel situation, that barrel is now crammed full. I don't take much pleasure in unequal contests.

Late papers and guests will be penalized at instructor's discretion

Planning a wedding liturgy is an awful lot like designing a syllabus. There's a set form with a variety of constraints, but so many moving and movable parts. What readings? What prayers? What hymns? In what order, and done by whom? And once you settle on all those individually-appealing parts, you have to decide if they work well together and add up to a coherent whole. At least there are no assignments to devise, no stern policies to articulate, and no anticipatory weariness at the thought of all the grading that awaits.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Ladies who change their names: feminist traitors? (Now with data!)

As a long-time reader of the New York Times Sunday wedding page, I like to think that I have a strong, albeit impressionistic sense of the mating and marriage patterns of the ruling class. Since the mid-90s, for example, I've seen a steady decline in pairings between investment bankers and grade-school-teachers-with-art-history-degrees-from-Brown, and a corresponding rise in the number of couples who met in law school or on the job and who seem to be professional peers. I've also kept a general eye on such things as age at first marriage and the frequency with which a woman takes her husband's name--but those are harder to gain an accurate sense of without tracking the numbers.

So this weekend, my dears, I decided to do some valuable procrastination in the service of collecting cold hard marriage data. I skimmed the 500 most recent NYT wedding announcements, from May 1st until yesterday, and recorded how many women in heterosexual partnerships kept their last names, took their husbands', or did something in between. I also recorded their ages.

And I'll state up front that I came to this project with a strong prejudice in favor of women keeping their birth names. About half of my own friends have taken their husbands' names, and that's cool: it's their choice, I'd never tell anyone what to do, blah blah--but I'm not going to pretend that, internally, I've had an entirely neutral reaction to what the women of my acquaintance chose to do in this arena. Moreover, it's been hard not to notice that lots of the women who submit announcements to the NYT and do take their husbands' names are women in their 30s and even 40s, women who went to fancy schools and seem to be high-powered doctors and lawyers--not just, as I would have assumed (and as actual real studies have found), younger women or women with less fully developed professional identities.

So armed with a primitive spreadsheet, I decided to investigate. I can break the numbers down in detail in the comments if anyone cares, but the short version is this: of 450 heterosexual marriage announcements, 75% clearly indicated whether the bride was changing or keeping her name. Of that number, 30% kept their birth name outright, with an additional 10% "continu[ing] to use [their] name professionally"; hyphenating their last names with their husbands'; forming a new shared surname; or indicating that they would be using their maiden name as a middle name, à la Hillary Rodham Clinton. The remaining 60% took their husbands' names.

Moreover, from this sample, there is not a strong correlation between the age of the bride and her decision to keep or change her name. Women who got married at age 26 and younger showed almost exactly the same 40/60 split as the data set as a whole.


The number of women keeping their own names surprised me; it was higher than I'd expected. But more importantly, the process of skimming 500 announcements, including an increasing number celebrating same-sex unions, made me. . . kinda not care any more. There's nothing I can imagine that would make me want to change my own name--but then, I'm in a profession where name-changing after one has established some kind of professional identity is extremely uncommon. However, I'm coming around to the position that for most women this isn't a major feminist issue.

This is not to say that I think the choice is negligible, or that it doesn't relate to important feminist issues (see this post by Historiann for a marriage in which the wife's decision not to change her name revealed what an insecure douchebag her husband was). But perhaps we shouldn't insist on its symbolic importance in every instance.

Here are factors to consider:
  1. Women don't lose their maiden names or identities upon adopting a husband's name as completely as they once did. The internet has a lot to do with this. I've noticed that most of the women whom I went to high school with, virtually all of whom changed their names upon marriage, now identify themselves on Facebook according to the formula "Firstname Maidenname Lastname." This doesn't mean they've actually retained their maiden names legally, or that they use them professionally (my own mother, who has never to my knowledge used her maiden name in the 40-odd years since she got married at age 21, identifies herself thusly on Facebook). However, this informal retention of one's birth name is, I think, part of a larger, pragmatic trend: if adopting their spouse's name seems important to many women, so does retaining a clear link to their birth name.

  2. The rise in legally-recognized same-sex unions. Though the sample size here is even smaller, and it's hard to tell what trends will develop over time, right now it's pretty rare for same-sex couples to change their names upon marriage (and when they do, it's usually by linking both names with a hyphen). How gay and lesbian couples choose to communicate their commitment is bound to have an effect on the rest of us, if only by making a wider range of options seem normal.

  3. It's not all-or-nothing. Related to both of the above, I'm interested in the various compromises I've seen in the selection of wedding announcements I perused: women who continue to use their names professionally, women who merged their names somehow with their husbands', and a tiny minority of women who chose entirely new surnames for both themselves and their husbands. This strikes me as an age in which there's a lot of experimentation with naming conventions. So, you know: let a thousand flowers bloom.

  4. Retaining one's birth name upon marriage may remain a minority custom, but it's now a well-established one. Thus it's unlikely suddenly to die out, be thought of as irremediably bizarre, or cause serious, regular problems for women who don't change their names. (Note: I reserve the right to retract this claim if, in a few years, I encounter such problems.)

So in sum: if you're fighting the good fight at home or in the workplace and making generally gender-conscious decisions? I really don't care what you call yourself.

But as always, readers, I trust you to tell me how I'm wrong

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Team teaching bleg

This fall a colleague and I will be team-teaching a course of our own design, as well as running a related series of public lectures, readings, and other events. I expect it to be a breathtaking amount of work (during the same semester that I'm also getting married and going up for tenure!), but I'm really looking forward to it.

The course is keyed to the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, and it focuses on Early Modern readings, rewritings, and adaptations of the Bible. It's an exciting course largely because it's one that neither of us could confidently teach alone--he brings the Bible, I bring the Renaissance--but it's daunting for exactly the same reason that it's exciting. How do we mind-meld successfully enough to make this a coherent class? And how do we prevent this one course from taking over our entire lives?

This, dear readers, is where you come in. If you've team-taught before, what practical strategies did you use (before the semester began, during your weekly lesson planning, or in the actual classroom) that made your class work? Or what do you wish you had done that you didn't?