Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Merry merry


Another year, another California Christmas. I'm not saying that I packed sunglasses and a bikini for this trip, that we're a mile from the beach, or that there's a hot-tub in the back yard. Neither will I suggest that we might have had tamales and margaritas on Christmas eve. Because that might make you jealous.

Instead, I'll hope your Christmas has been equally good, whether spent in sun or snow. (And if you don't celebrate the holiday, I hope it's been a truly awesome Tuesday.)

Catch ya on the flip side.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Getting It Published: Part 9

The other day I got the outside reader's report for the press I'm now working with. And it's really good. Glowing, even. There are certainly suggestions for improvement, but they're smart, reasonable, and helpfully detailed--moreover, it's the kind of work I could easily accomplish in a couple of months, even during term-time, without pulling my hair out.

So I'm meeting with the editor at MLA to talk about bringing the project to the publications board. It's not necessarily a lock for a contract, given the mixed reviews from the press I was previously working with, but I feel pretty hopeful. (On the blogosphere's advice, I disclosed my experience with that press when this one indicated its interest--and I shared all four of the previous two reviewers' reports, and my responses to those reports. I was apprehensive about doing so, but it turns out to have been the right move.)

I'm not gonna lie: it's been a tough six and half months, and the past few weeks I've felt sick to my stomach every time I opened my work email. But if this works out, it'll amount to maybe a seven-month delay, with the end result of having a smaller, better, more attentive press see the project through.

So. Fingers crossed.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Collegial cruelty

Like many of my readers, I spent the weekend consumed by grief and rage. The mass murder in Newtown was the main reason, but not the only one--and since I have nothing unique or useful to say about Newtown, I'll talk about the one that better falls within the purview of this blog: the pointless and mean-spirited hazing that so many institutions and individuals seem to think is a necessary part of the tenure review process.

Once upon a time, I assumed that most tenure denials happened either at top-tier schools like my alma mater, which almost never tenure their junior faculty (why have an associate professor when you can hire two new assistant professors or poach a senior luminary?) or when a faculty member really did fall short of whatever her institution's tenure standards might be.

And some of the tenure denials I know about do fall into those two categories, though even those events are grimmer than I used to assume. It's not clear to me, for example, that some of the junior faculty my graduate department has tenured in recent years have been stronger scholars than those they haven't, and some of those denied tenure probably have reason to feel wronged or misled. Similarly, it had never occurred to me how traumatizing or divisive it could be for an entire department to have to vote down a beloved colleague who--for one reason or another--just didn't clear the bar.

But to my surprise and sorrow, a lot of the cases I've encountered in the past seven years don't fall into those more-or-less expected categories. I now know many people who have been treated abominably by their institutions, either getting denied tenure for dubious or obviously unjust reasons--or, if they have been awarded tenure, getting it only after being subjected to unwarranted and emotionally brutalizing treatment leading up to an eventual, hair's-breadth approval of their case.

None of the cases occurred at RU and none of the stories are really mine to tell, so I'll speak mostly in generalities--but I just don't get what an individual or a department or an institution gains by either losing good people or by hazing them to such a degree that they fear and hate their colleagues.

Often, it seems like just one or two people are behind it: sometimes it's a dean, but often it's some random asshole on a key department or college-wide committee who unilaterally decides that, for example, one of the candidate's publications isn't in a good enough journal--so he'd better have at least two more articles under contract by January! Or they'll declare that a book based on the dissertation doesn't count as new work. Or that two positive outside reviews and the editor's promise to bring the project to the board next month doesn't count: there has to be a formal, counter-signed contract. Or that one semester of bad student evaluations counts more than 10 strong ones.

Sometimes this hazing leaves a candidate with nothing to do but panic for months on end, fretting about the outcome. At other times, it involves seemingly impossible last-minute demands (get another article accepted for publication by next month! Make sure your evals this semester are the best they've ever been!). Either way, it's destructive.

I don't understand what motivates people to be such assholes to their colleagues, especially on the very point of tenuring them: do you really want to alienate those you're about to guarantee life employment? Is your only sense of power derived from passing judgment on other people and declaring them unworthy? Or are you so very unhappy that you need to frighten and humiliate your colleagues when they're most vulnerable?

Seriously, readers: if you've heard the kinds of stories I've heard, what's your explanation? Because the things some of my friends have gone and are going through just make me sick.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Not improving

There are some students you're sure would have done better in your class if only they'd come to your office hours, or submitted a rough draft of an essay, or even just bothered to ask for a single point of clarification. And then there are other students you can't keep out of your office: the ones who pepper you with emails, outlines, paper drafts, and endless questions about the minutiae of format and source citation.

I've got one of those right now: a student who runs everything by me. But every suggestion I make and every correction I offer seems only to make her more anxious, and more convinced that if she just starts the next project sooner, and gets feedback from me on every detail, then she'll do better.

And the thing is? She won't.

Most high-strung students you can tell to chill the fuck out. Sometimes they're excellent students who just need more sleep. Often they're reasonably good students who can't believe they're suddenly getting Bs (rather than the straight As they got in high school or at their previous college)--but who will settle down in a month or two through a combination of working harder and adjusting their expectations. But the student I have right now isn't getting better. And it's been clear to me for a while that she's not going to get better this semester, or maybe even next semester.

It isn't that she's dumb. She's hard-working and curious and I'm perfectly willing to believe that she'll have an intellectual growth spurt over the next few years; I've seen it happen before. But in the short term, no amount of effort on my part or hers is going to push her over the hump. She's just not ready.

And that's one of the dirty secrets of teaching: it's not about what we do, or it's only very contingently about what we do. Something we say in class or explain during our office hours may plant a seed, but intellectual growth happens over time, inside a student's head, in ways that are fundamentally mysterious. It happens while our students are out babysitting or buying gas or fighting with their friends. One day, they didn't get it. The next day, they do--or at least, they're primed to get it, this time, when we give them exactly the same advice we've been giving for months.

But you know, I can't tell my student that. I can't say, "you're not going to improve much this semester--but you might next semester!--so chill out."

So I keep meeting with her and responding to her emails, and her work gets only very marginally better. I'm trying to communicate my faith in her, but I wonder whether I'm doing the opposite: she's working so hard, and I'm being so patient--and her grades stay the same. In her place (and I have, after a fashion, been in her place), I might conclude that the problem was me and I was just intractably stupid.

Read a lot, think a lot, live life, be patient. Sound enough advice, but easier said than done.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Read Moby-Dick with sciencefolk! Now!

For those who haven't heard the news via Historiann: Comradde PhysioProffe is reading and posting all of Moby-Dick, one chapter every other day, for the foreseeable future. (Hurry! Chapter One is already up!)

If you, like me, could stand a break from your grading or otherwise from all the crap you have to do over the holidays and new year, why not read or re-read it along with him?

(Downside: probably less profanity and less eccentric spelling than the usual CPP fare.)

Friday, December 07, 2012

Things to remember for next time

(Notes to myself)
Stop assigning real work (especially an entirely new text!) on the last day of class. Really. Stop doing that.

If you must assign real work in one class, then for the love of God don't do it in multiple classes.

Student research presentations are actually, legitimately awesome.

You'll be embarrassed to be so surprised at how confident, funny, and sincere your students can be when they're running the show--and how generously they engage with each other's work.

Don't sit with your head so close to the wall during student presentations. When one of them starts doing a funny bit and cracks everyone up, you will throw your head back and bang it into the wall. The extremely hard classroom wall.

Giving yourself a mild concussion is no way to end the semester.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

On hating grading less

I realize this post is going to make all my fellow-academics hate me, or at least all those still buried under piles of student essays. But I've discovered that, under the right circumstances, I kinda enjoy grading papers.

I know! Grading is supposed to be the worst part of teaching. And mostly it is. But I seem to have finally figured out what I loathe most about grading; what I don't mind about grading; and what I find moderately pleasurable about grading. That's allowed me to structure my grading to maximize the satisfactions and minimize the agony.

So here's the deal: though the studentliness of student writing can be a drag--the fact that any given group will always display more or less the same collection of weaknesses, and that I have to make the same comments over and over again--I'm not really bothered by that when I don't get bogged down in it. It's the bogged-downness that I hate: I hate having a stack of essays sitting around for ages. I hate feeling behind in my grading and returning shit late. And I REALLY hate it when grading papers takes over my life for an entire weekend--or an entire week, or 10 days, or whatever. I hate it when it takes me three hours to grade three papers and I get lost in irritation at myself and at students just for doing the things that students do.

This semester, because I've been so busy, I haven't been able to grade in the spread-out manner that I usually attempt: four or six or eight papers a day. Instead, I've been grading sixteen or eighteen papers in one day (and if the class is bigger than that, I do the excess the night before or the morning after). I block out an entire day, with no other prep to do, and I sit down with the kitchen timer and crank 'em out in 20 minutes apiece. I may have music playing, but I don't listen to the radio, I don't have my laptop open, and I don't have my phone within reach. Every six papers or so, I take a break.

And with that combination of pressure and leisure (the papers must be returned tomorrow! but there's nothing else I have to do), I get good, focused work done. I don't get too exasperated with any one paper, because there's not time. I can clearly see what a given class needs more instruction on, and my grades are probably more consistent. The "done" pile grows steadily as I make a second pot of coffee and adjust the cat asleep with its head on my lap.

And then I'm done. I dance around the house and feel ridiculously pleased with myself. The next day I return the lot of 'em, and I'm blissfully free of papers for a week or maybe two.

*

Partly, I've just aligned my habits to my natural work preferences: I've always had a tendency toward immersion and completion, and I prefer doing things in sequence rather than in parallel, as the engineers say. But I suspect that the pleasure I take in immersive tasks has increased as my daily life has gained in distractions: focusing on just one thing, for hours at a time, has come to feel like a real luxury. The piddling bits and bobs of work that fill most my days--a meeting here, a lesson plan there; a student conference, some administrative paperwork--leave me feeling drained and exhausted and as if I've gotten nothing material done. It's nice to devote a day to highly concentrated intellectual labor, even if it's not my own work. And swooping in and getting shit done feels like a victory over chaos and disorder.

Readers: have you made peace with grading? And if so, how?

Friday, November 30, 2012

Flailing all over the page

My Milton students are freaking out about their final essay. Part of this is about the essay's length and part of it's about the period and the subject matter--but a huge amount of their anxiety boils down to the problem of choosing and developing a suitable topic. Because to their great consternation, I didn't supply them with any prompts.

Now, obviously, I didn't just send them off to write 15-20 pages on whateverthehell; I gave detailed guidelines and instructions--a sense of what makes a topic both broad enough and focused enough, of how many sources to use, of how to go about contextualizing historically and generically--and over the past few weeks they've submitted prospecti, annotated bibliographies, draft thesis statements, and that kind of thing. By now their ideas are shaping up. But yeah: their original proposals were pretty rough.

I expected that. It's part of the process. What I didn't expect was to identify as strongly as I have with their perplexity and frustration.

Because right now I'm in the same position. A few months ago I signed up for an SAA seminar that seemed more or less up my alley, but I had no back-burner projects that were suitable and hence no idea what I'd write about. All semester long, I've been trying to generate ideas based on the plays I've been reading with my Shakespeare class. At last, I came up with two different. . . things. Not ideas. Not even topics. Just a vague conviction that there are patterns there that might mean something. You know?

Well, no: you wouldn't know. Because neither is anything I can articulate in coherent sentences. All I can do is point and say, "There! in All's Well that Ends Well! And in Twelfth Night! And in Measure for Measure! All three of these moments are, like, uh, [RANDOM STRING OF NOUNS]. Isn't that interesting??"

Which is okay--after thirteen years in the profession, I know that, like most of my students, my ideas always begin in stupid fumbling incoherence. The problem is that, for me, the blind fumbling lasts for a really long time.

And the bigger problem is that I have to submit an abstract of my paper topic. Tomorrow.

All this past week, I was seriously considering withdrawing rather than having to submit something idiotic and incoherent. Also, what if it's totally obvious and someone's already written about it? Or what if I wind up changing my topic entirely between now and February? What's the point of writing something now, when I don't know anything about anything?

And then I realized that I'd heard exactly these same objections from my students, and that I told them that's the point of the prospectus, or the abstract, or the draft thesis: you flail around a bunch until eventually you flail less.

And by God, if my students can flail, so can I.

Heads-up to my seminar leader: expect [RANDOM STRING OF NOUNS] in your in-box any time now.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Lee, Blanford, Ludlow, Charlton & Natick

I've driven virtually the entire length of the Mass Pike four times in the past eight days--and given that this year's MLA is in Boston, I'll be driving it TWICE MORE over the next five weeks.

Pro: next time, this damn semester will be over.

Con: next time, there will not be eight pies awaiting me (or a freezer full of leftovers returning with me).

Pro: I'll be staying in a swanky hotel, right in downtown Boston.

Con: I'll be spending almost two full days in a hotel room, conducting interviews.

Pro: So many friends will be there--bloggy, grad schooly, and otherwise. And I really do love MLA.

Con: I hate the new MLA dates almost as much as I love MLA.

Pro: Unlike most conferences I attend, this one is fully paid for.

Con: Boston in January. Who thought that was a good idea?

Eh. I'm sure I'll be in a better mood come January. Or at least after I've had more pie.

Friday, November 16, 2012

College recruitment

It's college-application season, which means it's also college-application-interview season. This is the fourth year I've served as an alumna interviewer for my alma mater, and I continue to have somewhat conflicted feelings about it. I do, after all, teach at a local college, and part of me feels weirdly disloyal to my institution and to my students--even though there's only a very small overlap between the students who apply to Regional U and the students who apply to INRU.* Another part of me feels pre-emptively defensive: I remember what it was like to be a high school senior snobbishly passing judgment on the local colleges and universities. And a third part of me wonders why, of all the things I could volunteer to do, I'm doing this: feeding the hungry and clothing the naked it ain't.

But I enjoy doing the interviews and I enjoy learning more about the community to which I belong. It's interesting to learn where bookish teenagers go for fun, what kinds of educational extras middle-class parents are (and are not) willing to pay for, and how the local high schools compare. By now I know which school has an IB program, which has a state-championship sailing team, and which holds its classes in three-hour blocks.

Also, I'm good at it. Unlike some of the alumni interviewers in the region (dudes who got an MBA or MD thirty years ago, never knew anything about their institution's undergraduate program, and have no idea how to evaluate a high school student's "promise"), I know INRU well: I spent ten years there, the last three of them teaching undergraduates. I can craft an effective prose profile. And much of my day-to-day life involves working with, trying to draw out, and get a feel for the potential of late-adolescents and young adults. Relative to the average, my admission success rate is high.

So I suppose that I'm serving my community by advocating for kids who, however talented and sometimes economically comfortable they may be, aren't connected to the centers of elite power. Many live in semi-rural communities, most attend public schools, and few have traveled widely. A good number of the students who leave will never come back, but they help to diversify INRU and whatever centers of power they may wind up in--and I guess that still counts as raising the region's profile.

And there are other rewards. A while back I interviewed a kid who just didn't want to talk about himself. He was affable and laid-back, and I quickly got a sense of his wide-ranging talents, but he refused to spin the autobiographical soundbites that lots of college applicants specialize in. He didn't want to boast, he didn't want to say much about the unusual personal hardship he'd overcome, and for the first 30 minutes I felt like I had no sense of his actual personality. Finally I asked him if he had any questions for me, and the entire dynamic of the conversation shifted. He asked me at least three times as many questions as any kid I've interviewed before or since--and they were deeply thoughtful, sometimes rather personal questions: about my own experiences at INRU and my impressions of its students and its social and intellectual dynamics. He listened intently, he asked follow-up questions, and I suddenly understood why this unassuming kid was captain of virtually every sports team, why he'd been elected student-body president, and why he insisted that pretty much everyone at his high school got along: the nerds and the jocks and the goths and so on. It was pure, natural leadership--not showy, not demanding, not domineering--of a sort I'd never seen before.

Interviewing for INRU also helps remind me that students are students: the kids I interview aren't much different from the kids I teach. And most are worth getting to know.


-------------------
*For those joining us late, Instant-Name-Recognition University is the stupid pseudonym I invented for my alma mater seven years ago--i.e., too late to change it now.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Duking it in dark corners

I'm teaching the comedies and romances half of the Shakespeare sequence this semester, and one of the issues that this particular batch of students has found most fascinating is the number of rulers who assert control ineffectively or unrealistically, attempting to set limits to human emotions or behaviors that simply can't be legislated. Maybe it's the fact that it's a election year, but my students seem endlessly interested in characters like the King of Navarre in Love's Labour's Lost (who pledges himself and his friends to three years of fasting, study, and isolation from women); the King of France in All's Well that Ends Well (a well-meaning but simultaneously autocratic and impotent ruler who imagines himself as a maker and enforcer of marriages); and Duke Vincentio in Measure for Measure (who, among other things, manipulates characters into excesses of grief, repentance, and forgiveness).

This pattern interests me, too, though I'm less compelled by the spectacle of bad leadership than by the way that Shakespeare dramatizes the failures of self-knowledge and the mania for control that often accompanies those failures. Frankly, it's an impulse that I recognize in myself. I'm not a "controlling" personality in the usual sense of that term, but I do have a hard time letting things lie. I want to fix everything, immediately, and that includes interpersonal relationships.

Indeed, I'd say that my greatest weakness is a belief in my own rectitude and rationality--the conviction that I understand my motives perfectly, that they're entirely justified by circumstances, and that any other interpretation of my actions is wrongheaded, misinformed, or rooted in some mysterious and inexplicable personal hostility. (This admission will, I realize, come as a total surprise to readers of this blog.) As I've gotten older, I've gotten better at recognizing and curbing this tendency, and I'll readily acknowledge that my narrative of a given set of events is only partial and subjective. Still, it remains difficult for me to accept that other people might have their own, very different interpretations of events that involve me--and that their interpretations, and whatever emotions result from those interpretations, aren't wrong.

Oddly enough, teaching has been helpful in training me away from my impulse to correct other people's experiences of the world. You might think that being in a position of structural power over my students would be a license for the worst forms of this behavior--forcing my views, ideas, and methods upon others--but in fact the structure of that relationship means it's easier to recognize my students as entirely other. They're my juniors; they're at an earlier stage in their processes of intellectual and self-discovery; and I've been teaching for long enough now that I know it's impossible to predict who they'll become and what changes they'll undergo. It can be mind-blowing how different a student can be in her senior year compared with her sophomore year.

So when a student doesn't understand or agree with something I'm saying, I listen. I take his ideas seriously, and explain my own. I lay out my best case... and then I let it lie. And when a student is angry with or seems to dislike me, I don't take it personally. I get that I may be misreading her, that she may be dealing with shit unrelated to me, and that, in any case, it's not my job to get her to like me. My students' emotional responses, like their intellectual responses, are their own.

It's harder to let things lie with the other people in my life--my friends, my family, my colleagues. But until I'm appointed Duke of Vienna and find an usually fetching friar's robe, I'm working on being more laid-back. And possibly cultivating more self-knowledge.

Monday, November 05, 2012

The application season of broken dreams

Like Bardiac, I spent part of the weekend reading job applications, and like Bardiac, I also came across some eccentric ones: applicants who weren't remotely qualified for the position, or who submitted highly peculiar job letters, or both.

But although the weirdo applications are the more amusing to talk about, the for-real ones inspire stronger emotions. First, of course, is enthusiasm: it's invigorating to learn about so many interesting projects and to be introduced to so many interesting applicants. Second, however, come the sobering reminders of what awaits so many of these promising applicants.

Hints of their fates--or if not their specific fates, then the fates of many like them--are readily apparent in their cover letters and vitae. A surprising number of candidates are U.S. citizens now teaching overseas. In some cases, I imagine, the gig is a largely or entirely positive experience: a one-year immersion in a foreign culture, a chance to teach a wide range of classes to an unusual group of students, and a welcome adventure after the long slog of graduate school. But in other cases the applicants have spent many years abroad, often moving from country to country, and in positions that don't permit them to teach within their area of specialization.

Then there are the applicants who are still here in the States, but stringing together several adjunct positions two or three or five years after getting their degrees. There are a few who have actually stopped adjuncting, and hence teaching, bowing to the need for a more reliable job--but who are still hoping they might be viable candidates on the academic job market.

And finally there are the superficially more secure candidates: those comfortably ensconced in cushy visiting positions, cranking out multiple publications a year, possessed of sterling letters of reference from some of the biggest names in the discipline. . . but who can't seem to land a tenure-line job. Usually, they're not a good fit for our position, and not really a good fit for any position according to the conventional job-market categories. I'm not talking about someone whose work spans, say, the Victorian and Modernist divide (although those people can struggle, too); I'm talking about someone who's written a book with one chapter on Marlowe, one on Blake, one on Oscar Wilde, and one on Lady Gaga.

Let me be clear: none of the above scenarios is necessarily a dealbreaker or a kiss of doom; we all know people who took three or five or ten years to get a tenure-line job, but eventually wound up with a great one. But I look at these applicants and I think: Gawd. This fucking profession.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Trick or treat

Trick: I'd been planning on spending all day today catching up on the grading for my Milton class. Yesterday I realized that this is majors' advisement week, so I have a full day of meetings with my advisees.

Treat: One of my advisees, whom I first taught as a first-semester freshman--when I convinced her to add an English minor to the ludicrous-sounding field she was determined to major in (you haven't heard of it; let's just say it's pre-professional and totally non-academic)--announced that she wanted to upgrade to a double major. I've been gently encouraging her to do this for years, as she's a strong writer and raises the level of discussion several notches in every class she's taken with me, but I was determined not to push. I'm so happy it's something she decided she wants to do.

So I guess it evens out. And at least I'll have leftover candy to fuel a long night's grading.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Finding mentors

In the comments to my last post, a grad student, Canuck Down South, asked how I managed to make friends and find mentors among senior scholars. It's a good question, and something I think is important for grad students and junior faculty to start working on as early as possible.

This is partly because it takes time and it's nothing you can force. I'm not a model of success, but it's definitely something I've been thinking about from the moment I got this job: I either already knew or vaguely intuited that, with the exception of my advisor, my recommenders going forward should absolutely not be faculty from my graduate institution. At the same time, there was no one at RU who would be appropriate, since I didn't have in-field senior colleagues. So, if you can't or shouldn't lean on your grad school profs or your colleagues at your first job, where do you turn?

Unless you're already publishing work that gets you unsolicited fan mail, I think the only answer for a junior scholar is conferences, professional societies, or anywhere else you meet people in person (for example, if there's a regional colloquium or working group that draws scholars from institutions other than your own). And your best bets at an early stage are the smaller venues: special one-off conferences, where you might actually get to talk at some length with people who are vastly your seniors; small societies dedicated to a specialized aspect of your research; or conferences that involve workshops or seminars rather than formal paper presentations.

And then. . . you present good work and you seize any opportunity that presents itself. If you see people whose work you admire, introduce yourself and tell them so. Sometimes--not always, not even most the time--they'll ask you about yours. And for goodness sakes, if someone comes up to you after a paper and wants to talk to you about it, keep talking. If you chat with someone for more than a few minutes, and especially if they offer you something in the way of real advice (even if it's not actually immediately useful or relevant), drop them an email after the conference saying how nice it was to meet them and how much you appreciate their suggestions. Most of these people, too, will not turn out to be actual mentors, but as I wrote a number of years back, the point of networking is that you never know.

Gradually, you'll start to know people. And sooner or later, someone will explicitly tell you that they'd love to read your work, or keep in touch about the results of your research. You'll be flattered, but you may not believe them. Believe them. Take them up on it.

Because here's the secret: most established scholars really want to know what younger people are working on, and where their corner of the discipline is headed. Many fear, at least a tiny bit, losing their finger on the pulse of what's happening. This is especially true for scholars who aren't teaching at doctoral institutions, or who teach at second- or third-tier ones. We all need mentors. But many people also want mentees: they're an additional way to stay engaged, an opportunity to give back to the profession--and, yes, a means of extending their own scholarly influence.

When it comes right down to asking for a letter of reference--or seeing whether someone would read an article draft or whatever--there's still usually a point where you just have to ask. And for me, anyway, the cold ask has never gotten easier: even when I'm asking for a letter from someone who's written letters for me in the past, it still takes days or weeks of avoidance before I'll actually send that email. But if you've laid the right groundwork, and the other person is someone who's been sincerely supportive of and enthusiastic about your work, they won't mind. After all: it's their profession, too.

*

Wise and worldy readers, what additional advice would you give?

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Letting the advisor go

I'm applying for approximately 87 different things this fall, most of which require lining up the ol' recommendation letters. But for the first time in more than 10 years, I didn't ask my dissertation director for one.

Advisor remains the biggest name I could rally to my cause, and a small part of me wonders whether that isn't reason enough to ask: the patronage-model-cum-magical-thinking that sustains grad students hasn't entirely left me. But a larger part of me is relieved not to have to go there, by which I mean to go back there, to that anxious, cringing, supplicatory phase of my life.

It's not about Advisor herself. I could ask, and she'd probably write for me. She's been good to me over the years. Nor do I think it's inappropriate to have one's advisor write on one's behalf many years after the fact: some people remain close to their advisors, in a relationship that evolves into friendship and even collaboration. But that's not true of our relationship: I see her from time to time and send her cards at Christmas and that sort of thing, but she doesn't know my recent work hardly at all--certainly not as well as the mentors I've acquired since graduate school.

More important, though, is my reluctance to revisit that particular phase of my scholarly life. Longtime readers will recall that my experience of grad school was Not Good. It's increasingly clear that the problem was with me, or with grad school as a phenomenological state, rather than with my program or my advisor; I've reflected before that grad school made me incapable of the friendships that I needed and wanted from my classmates, and I was probably similarly incapable of the advisor/advisee relationship that I wanted.

For the first few years after I got my degree, I worked very hard to develop a new, adult relationship with Advisor. And it worked well enough. But there are reasons both personal and professional--matters of temperament as well as specific events in our respective lives--that mean we're never going to have what Cosimo and his advisor have, or what some of my other friends have with theirs.

Once that would have made me sad or frantic: not having my advisor's love, in the way I wanted it, felt like a personal failing, a sign that I wasn't deserving of it. But some relationships are never quite the right fit, and some we outgrow, and most of us manage to find others who do love us in the way we want to be loved.

I'd been planning to ask Advisor for a letter. I'm sure she'd have written a strong one. But when it occurred to me in September that I didn't have to--that I had professional friends who were senior scholars who liked my work, that I didn't have to reenter that particular tortured headspace--I felt so relieved that I almost burst into tears.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Small kindnesses

I spent a few hours last night in the emergency room at the local hospital. It turned out to be nothing--I'd had discomfort in my chest and neck and running down my left arm that I thought might be cardiac--but once I was there I had to stay there, for a long and boring while, getting tended to maybe once every twenty minutes. I had a book and I had PBS's pre-debate coverage on the t.v., but what I found most engaging was watching and listening to the hospital staff bustling back and forth.

Ever since I started this job, I've found myself enormously interested in the worklives of others whose jobs don't occur in a typical office environment--and especially those whose jobs involve continual, short-term interactions with the public: hairdressers, for example, see a different client every 30 or 60 minutes all day long, while clergymen and -women spend a certain amount of time "on stage"--but also have an endless series of individual meetings, many of them urgent, with couples getting married, families planning funerals, individuals in crisis. A clergyperson's worklife is probably most analogous to a professor's, in the sense that it involves roughly the same component parts (there's an administrative and office component, a performative component, a caring-profession component, and also a solitary and studious component), but I think of my hairdresser every time I schedule a day of student conferences and have to gather my energy up to make friendly chit-chat with each of fifteen successive students who walk through my door with a first draft of a paper.

I also try to remember, when I visit my hairdresser or meet with my priest--or buy stuff at the grocery store or take my car in for servicing--that although the other person's job may involve serving me, it's a dynamic relationship: I have a right to good service, but I'm the one entering their workplace; what I do there can make their workday more pleasurable or more exasperating.

So in that same spirit, I was interested in the ways the hospital staff interacted with each other and with me: the in-take nurse was brusque and impatient, putting me on the defensive and making me feel very small and stupid (why hadn't I called my doctor first? why would I think these symptoms could be cardiac?), but everyone else was warm and friendly and kind. I was handled by at least eight different people, not counting the front desk staff--three nurses, one physician's assistant, an EKG tech, two X-ray techs, two transport personnel (who wheeled me to and from the X-ray room)--and every single one introduced him or herself by name and job title, explained what they were doing, and made pleasant chit-chat in interstitial moments or as time allowed.

I came away very impressed with the hospital staff, not just their professionalism and training, but also all the intangibles that amount to bedside manner and putting a patient at ease. The X-ray techs were solicitous about my bare feet (which weren't cold, but they insisted on finding me socks) and had an amusing routine involving the questions they were required to ask me (said one, deadpan, in a G-man voice "we need to know. . . what you know"), and the transport personnel were cheerful and funny, joking with me about whether a hospital, in the name of public health, should even allow patients to watch the presidential debates.

Coming as this visit did just at the middle of the semester, when I'm emailing students about exam and paper grades and setting up appointments to calm anxieties and suggest strategies for improvement, it reminded me that small interactions matter a lot. The brusque nurse wasn't intending to be mean--maybe she'd had a bad day, and I'm sure she sees lots of hypochondriacs who panic and go to the ER for every little thing. But if she'd been typical of the hospital staff, I'd have left ashamed and reluctant ever to return, lest I be scolded for crying wolf. The other personnel were efficient and obviously very busy, but they listened when I talked, they smiled, and they treated me and my symptoms seriously. I left feeling reassured--and very pleased with my local healthcare community.

I need to remember this when a student drops by my office unannounced when I'm frantically prepping for class, or goes on and on about some irrelevant thing long after I've answered their questions and I have three other students lined up outside the door. Being brisk needn't mean being unkind. And we could all stand to work on our bedside manner.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Better than I thought/worse than I thought

As my previous post suggests, I'm knee-deep in academic dishonesty paperwork. But in the course of chasing down one apparent case of plagiarism, I made a new and possibly more horrible discovery.

Without going into the specifics, let me present a roughly analogous fictitious example. Let's pretend that I'm teaching a 20th-century American novel, and I get a pretty good essay with one entirely gratuitous paragraph claiming that some event in Chapter Five is an allusion to the French and Indian War.

This strikes me as mildly odd: it's not impossible that there's an allusion to the French and Indian War--I can see what the student is talking about--but there's no reason why there should be; it doesn't add any layer of meaning to the scene or to the novel as a whole. Moreover, it's a little weird that a student should make this particular observation (I mean, the French and Indian War? The average undergrad doesn't know squat about that).

So I run a few checks, and bang! There that claim is, in SparkNotes--a whole stupid argument about this stupid supposed allusion (which I'm now even less convinced by). The student hasn't taken anything verbatim, and nothing else about the essay seems suspicious--but come on: The French and Indian War! A twentieth-century novel! It can't be a coincidence.

I haul the kid in, and he's surprised and terrified. The student stammers out that he loves this novel, and read it in high school, at the same time that he was taking a class in Early American history. He remembers this allusion, because he thought it was so neat, the first time he read the book, to know what his English teacher meant when she referenced the French and Indian War--because he'd just studied that in history class.

Oh.

Got it.

His high school teacher was cribbing from SparkNotes.

Imagonna bang my head against a wall for a while now.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Real life

Over the weekend, a freshman at RU was beaten to death, in her dorm room, by her boyfriend from back home.

I didn't know her, and most of what I know about the situation comes from published news reports, which themselves don't have much to say: just names, ages, photos. (I won't link. If you must know, you can find the story on Google in one three-hundredth of a second.) If there was a motive, no one knows it. But who the fuck knows why a man kills his intimate partner? Even when there's a reason, there isn't a reason.

We mystify and romanticize and infantilize college students, even those of us who teach them--imagining their lives as uniquely free, uniquely sheltered, and even over-sheltered (for all the talk about helicopter parents, I've never actually met one). But our students live in the real world as fully as we do. Sometimes it's realer than we can imagine.

Rest in peace.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Life's hard all over

I'm eligible for a sabbatical next year, which at RU means either a semester at full pay or a year at half. At some point over the summer, it became clear that this was a no-brainer: of course I'd be applying for the full year.

This is an option that--at least in my particular financial circumstances--is only possible because I have a partner with a full-time job who makes an equivalent salary. Even then it'll be a stretch, budget-wise. On the other hand, it's also the only way that I can both keep my job and live with my partner (albeit temporarily).

And I've gotta say, I'm not thrilled by the mildly resentful reactions I've gotten from a handful of male academics (not all at RU, but generally all with kids and/or spouses who don't work full time) when I've mentioned that I'm applying for the full year. "Must be nice!" They say. Or, "Boy, wish I could do that--but someone's gotta pay the bills!"

Look. I want to say. I'm lucky to be part of a couple with two solidly middle-class incomes, in an affordable part of the country, and no dependents. But you get to live with your spouse year-round, every year; you only have to pay for one household; and you get to choose whether to have kids. I don't live with my spouse full-time. We have two households, in two different cities, plus significant commuting expenses. And you have no idea whether we want kids, because they aren't an option as our lives are currently structured.

Are there perks to this arrangement, financial and otherwise? Sure. And you'd better believe I'm going to take advantage of them. But there are downsides, too, and it makes me wild when people make casually thoughtless remarks about how hard their own lives are without considering who they're talking to (like the older man telling his reluctantly single and childless female colleague, "Oh, I can't make it to that talk tonight--I'd like to actually see my family for a change").

But this post isn't about the thoughtlessness or unexamined privilege of men who benefit from traditional domestic structures, or at least I'd like for it not to be just about that. I'm sure I don't fully recognize the stressors that afflict such men--or indeed the stressors of any of my colleagues whose personal and domestic lives are notably unlike my own. I don't know what it's like to bear the burden of being the sole breadwinner, or of trying to juggle parenthood and a career. I can imagine, but have only the briefest of experiences, being unwillingly single in a place with a limited dating pool. I don't know what it's like to be a racial or sexual minority trying to find a partner in a culturally homogeneous area. I don't know how embittering it is to live or teach somewhere that I despise, or where I feel personally thwarted.

Not all hardships are equivalent, of course: some are ultimately unsustainable, and others come with compensatory advantages (having someone to lean on emotionally is tremendous, but having someone to split household chores with is also pretty tremendous). But most domestic and personal arrangements have some upsides along with their downsides.

So I'll tell you what: I'll try harder to imagine and sympathize with your hardships if you try harder to imagine mine.

Friday, September 14, 2012

How to have ideas (a remedial course)

This semester I'm doing something I haven't done in a long time: I'm keeping a notebook. Sure, I've always taken notes--I buy legal pads in bulk for my reading and research and endless to-do lists--but not since the days when I thought I was a creative writer have I carried around a notebook for jotting down disconnected observations and ideas.

I just never saw the point. For 10 years, I was working on one big project: my dissertation-turned-first-book. I published a few unrelated articles in that time, but each one was a well-defined project, often in response to a commission or CFP, and each one, like my book chapters, had both physical and digital files into which I could dump any ideas I had on the spur of the moment and refer back to at a later date. And as a matter of temperament, I dislike having too many things going on at once. I want to bore down into one project at a time, and I like to finish one thing (or one part of a thing) before starting another.

But as my first book began to approach its final form, I started to feel at loose ends. I didn't have much on the back-burner--stuff that I was eager to write conference papers on or work up into an article. Even after the parameters of my second book project started to take shape and I wrote the better part of the first chapter, I had the nagging feeling that that wasn't enough: Book Two might take me five years or it might take me ten, but however long it took, I'd need to be publishing more than just the one or two articles I could profitably extract from it.

I needed, in short, to be having ideas.

"But I'm not an idea person," I told some friends. "I'm basically not creative. I don't have a fertile mind. I mean, I'm insightful and whatever, and dogged as hell. Once an idea comes along, I can do more with it than most people. But they don't come around all that often. I can't make something out of nothing, ya know."

It was suggested to me that I was protesting too much, and that what I really needed was to pay attention to ideas as they arose.

Thus, the notebook. And thus my extremely ambitious research plan for the semester: read everything I've assigned my students. And have thoughts about it. And write some of those thoughts down.

It's so crazy, it just might work.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Never forgetting

Eleven years on, it takes me a few seconds to remember, when scheduling things for September 11th, exactly why that date registers so strongly in some emotional quadrant of my brain.

And you know, to hell with "never forget." I wrote last year about exasperation as an appropriate response to terrorism, but this year I'd go further: forgetting is also an appropriate response, if by that we mean not holding the day (and ourselves) hostage forever to pious sentimentality.

Because there's forgetting and then there's forgetting. It's not "forgetting" what happened to let the actual date pass unremarked; in fact, that should be our goal. Regular life--holding normal classes and going to bullshit meetings and getting irritated by traffic jams and broken photocopiers--is actually the profoundest kind of victory over terrorism.

Regular, boring, ordinary life. We're lucky to have it. And it's the luxury of the quotidian that I'll be celebrating this September 11th--and hopefully for many more.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Reversion to the mean

After today's insanely early department meeting, I decided I owed myself a trip to DSW. I spent a long time looking for THE PERFECT pair of black pumps to replace my worn-out almost-perfect pair (and the two other not-at-all-close-to-perfect pairs I've been making do with). I bought these, which are exactly what I was looking for: sturdy, stylish, tall.

And then I spent even longer considering a pair of low-heel pumps, or maybe flats. . . but somehow, instead, wound up with what can only be described as "dress clogs" (Clarks brand, no photo available). Now, I'm not a clog-hater; there are plenty of groovy women in the academy--and in my native land, the Great Pacific Northwest--who can rock 'em. But it's fair to say that I never imagined a world in which I myself would own clogs.

But 37 appears to be the age at which I'm no longer able to hike all over town in heels, and I've recently started inserting cushions in the fore part of many shoes I wore comfortably for years. And suddenly, I understand the walking clog: tall enough to wear with long, boot-cut jeans, dressier than sneakers, and just the thing for a day of urban tourism.

Or maybe it's that academic womanhood has finally fully interpellated me: first cats, now clogs. What--I hesitate to ask--could be next?

Sunday, September 02, 2012

If you must be a grasping machiavel, be better at it

Something I knew long before my most recent publishing disappointment:

You should not list, on a C.V. that you post publicly and that you point everyone toward (via your Facebook page, your faculty profile page, etc.), the specific press with which your book is currently under review.

You should especially not do this if you're a famously ambitious young scholar who regularly burns bridges and dicks people over in outrageous, gossip-producing ways.

Because there are people out there who will check up on your career from time to time. Some of them may wish you well, but others will fear or envy or flat-out despise you.

And all of those people will notice when Fancy Press A and Fancy Press B are no longer the places where your book is "under full review," but are replaced in that vita line by a third wishful-hopeful prospective publisher.

It's not that I don't appreciate the opportunity to indulge in a little schadenfreude at the expense of someone who shat on a friend of mine. But I'm pretty sure you don't actually wish for every person you've ever met to have access to the details of your professional setbacks.

This has been a public service announcement.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Our previous teaching selves

It's the end of the first week of classes at RU, and I'm teaching what may be the perfect schedule, relative to my scholarly interests: Shakespeare (comedies and romances), Bible as Literature, and a senior capstone on Milton. But scholarly interests aren't the same as scholarly expertise, and the Bible class--which I'm "borrowing," on a one-time basis, from a colleague who's actually trained in Classics and New Testament studies--is humbling me considerably.

To all appearances, the class is going perfectly well: discussion never lags and the students may be the most lively and engaged of my three classes. I'm enjoying the course and I'm fully prepared and indeed overprepared for every session (I gave them an assignment in advance of the first day, so we've already had two real class meetings). But teaching an entirely new class, on new material, dealing with genres, time periods, and cultures in which I've received no formal training--well, it makes me aware of how much I take for granted in my other classes, where I have, by now, significant confidence in my own expertise and authority.

To be sure, questions come up in every class that challenge me or that I don't know the answer to, and I probably screw up important dates or mischaracterize historical events from time to time even in classes that are solidly within my area of expertise. But I don't worry that such things will happen, or that at any moment a student might ask a question that I can't answer, thereby stripping off the veneer of my authority and revealing How Little I Truly Know.

But that's how I feel in this class, and I'm reminded that it's how I used to feel in all my classes, not so long ago. I was excited, but seriously freaked out, to teach my first Shakespeare class six and a half years ago: I knew the plays, sure, and it was my time period--but I didn't know the criticism at all! And I wasn't a drama specialist! And I didn't know anything about theatrical conventions, or play-going in England, or any of that stuff. GAAAAAH!

Until this week, though, I'd forgotten that I once felt that way about Shakespeare. Over the past seven years, I've taught seventeen Shakespeare classes. I attend the Shakespeare Association conference almost every year, I've read dozens of books on Shakespeare and Early Modern drama with my reading group, and I've even started doing some of my own work on Big Willie. I know the contemporary scholarship as well as many recent PhDs in Shakespeare, and I teach better. Sure, I'd have to really step up my game if I got asked to teach a senior capstone or M.A. seminar on Shakespeare, and I'll never get hired at a research institution as a Shakespearian, but at the 300-level, in a large-discussion format, with this particular student population? Dudes, I ain't bragging when I say I'm a fucking fantastic teacher of Shakespeare.

I'll never be as good of a teacher of biblical literature as I am of Shakespeare, and that's fine. It's not my field, I'm not going back for another degree, and RU hires specialists, not generalists; I'm lucky to have this opportunity to stretch in ways that benefit my research. But as nervous-making as it is to take on something totally new, it's also oddly nice to revisit my earlier and less confident teaching selves. It's nice, first and foremost, to have new stuff to learn and fresh pedagogical challenges to tackle--but it's also nice to be reminded of all the things I've already mastered.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Ethnic pride group requests greater ghettoization

Today's New York Times has an article about an Italian-American group suing Columbia for what the group claims is misuse of a donation made in the 1920s. The legal merits of the case seem awfully thin--the suit is brought by descendents of the original donors and there appears to be no money left to misspend--but I'm interested in what the case says about the extremely limited, even ghettoized understanding of "Italian culture" advanced by the aggrieved descendents.

The case concerns a large, beautiful building (now landmarked) built in the 1920s by a group of Italian-Americans and Italian immigrants and donated to Columbia to support the study of Italian culture. According to the Times, "For decades, the house served as a hub for Italian scholarship and community at Columbia. The university's Italian department resided in the building. A donated collection of some 20,000 volumes of Italian literature lined the shelves." Now, however, the Italian department is housed elsewhere, there's no longer an Italian cultural student group, and the 20,000 books are housed in the main library.

But the building is still used to support Italian scholarship--in fact, it's now owned by the Italian government: by the 1990s the building needed millions of dollars' worth of renovations, so Italy purchased the building, paid for the renovations, and then gave Columbia a 500-year lease on the place. It now houses the Italian Academy for Advanced Studies in America, "[h]alf of [whose] board of guarantors are appointed by the university and half by the Italian government."

And yes, you guessed it: even though the building is jointly run by Columbia and by actual Italians, and it exists to support and promote the work of Italian scholars and scholars of Italy, that isn't Italian enough for the donor descendents: in their suit, they claim that Columbia "owe[s] a fiduciary duty of obedience to the donor families to ensure that La Casa is used to diffuse Italian history, culture, art and literature to promote the educational and spiritual uplift of Italians in America." Instead, they charge, the building has become an "enclave for Columbia staffers and traveling European academics, including many in disciplines wholly unrelated to Italian history and culture."

To the extent that the complaint is about a reorientation away from undergraduates, the donor descendents have a partial point: the Italian Academy's activities aren't aimed primarily at undergraduates, though their schedule of events from the past few years does include regular public lectures on topics in Italian culture, readings of Italian poems in translation, and concerts of Italian music (and the Italian Department's undergraduate homepage publicizes those events).

But although the donor descendents might reasonably think that this isn't what their ancestors had in mind in the 1920s and 1930s, it's equally reasonable to think that their ancestors would have been thrilled that, eighty years on, Italy and Italian Americans don't need a separate building, library, or advocacy group to celebrate their cultural achievements. In the early twentieth century, Italian Americans were still a ghettoized and despised ethnic group. It makes sense that an immigrant organization would wish to instill pride in its sons and daughters by promoting the glorious achievements of the Old Country in ages past. But in the early twenty-first century--seriously, is there any non-English-speaking country that Ivy League students want to visit more than Italy? Majoring in Italian--like majoring in French or art history--is understood as signalling someone's membership in the elite.

Surely an immigrant group has arrived once that's the case--and once the study of Italy and Italian culture isn't limited to ancient Rome and Renaissance Florence. Isn't the opportunity to learn about (and from) twenty-first-century Italian neuroscientists, sociologists, and industrial designers a real recognition of the creativity and innovation of the Italian people?

Well, you'd think.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Getting It Published: Part 8

Start placing your bets now, kids: just how many installments will this series run?

As you'll recall, my last update on the status of my book project did not contain good news. But after a week of moping, I knocked out a revised book proposal and sent it and a sample chapter to a handful of presses.

Then I did a whole lot of waiting. Like, weeks of waiting. Almost two months of waiting. I received a couple of noncommittal signs of possible interest, but nothing too spirit-raising--until, quite suddenly, two equally-good presses decided at virtually the same moment that they were both Very Interested. And both wanted to send the manuscript out for review. Immediately.

All of which reminds me of nothing so much as my dating life in days of yore: long self-pitying periods where no one seemed to look my way, followed by brief and confusing periods where two or three suitors showed up at once. (Followed, of course, by more sad and lonely stretches of self-pity.)

But this isn't a bad problem to have. Moreover, the press I've decided to go with is better in several ways than the place I was working with for two years and that eventually rejected me. (The astute observer might comment that here, again, there are parallels with my romantic life.) Press #2 has an equivalently high reputation, but it gives more individualized attention to its books: they're handsome, well designed, and priced so that normal people can afford to buy them.

So that's where things stand for now. I'm happy, I guess, if "happy" means oscillating between fits of wild optimism--this could actually work out! Maybe even rather soon!--and dour fatalism: I could fail here, too, and be even further from seeing the damn book in print. It's hard not to worry that maybe I just write an awesome proposal, but the book itself doesn't live up to its billing.

But the only way to know is to sit on my hands and wait some more.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Religion that serves you

There are a lot of twenty- and thirtysomethings at the church I attend, which isn't particularly surprising: my parish is a lively and active one, located smack in the middle of an artsy neighborhood popular with college students and recent grads.

Some of the young people are energetically involved in the life of the parish, while a larger number are more or less just passing through: they're living in the area for a few years, they're in the habit of going to mass, and this is the most convenient church. Others really just seem to be passing through: probably once a month we wind up seated near a young couple who seem ill at ease and uncertain about even the basic responses or the order of the mass. My standard assumption is that such couples are church- or faith-shopping, or contemplating marriage: one or both might have been raised Catholic and been away for a while, and they're trying us on to see if we fit.

I've got no problem with that, or with passers-through of any variety; I've tried on churches myself. During one period of my life I was so unable to decide between one extremely conservative and one extremely progressive parish that I just floated back and forth between them for four years. (What attracted me to the one repelled me in the other, and vice versa.)

What I do have a problem with is those people who act as though whatever it is that they want or expect from a church requires nothing--no effort, no participation, not even a little friendliness and good humor--in return. They want to walk in and feel immediately comfortable, immediately special. Having some tenuous identity as Catholics means they should have RIGHTS! Rights to rites, in fact, for nowhere is this attitude on greater display than in nonpracticing Catholics who want to get married or have their kids baptized in the church.

Today was a baptism. We have a lot of baptisms at my church, sometimes as many as three or four a month, and I generally find them delightful. Babies tend to be cute; their families tend to be happy; and the two priests who serve our parish are warm and genial and extremely well-practiced (rarely does a baptism add five minutes to the usual length of the service). But today was not one of the delightful ones.

I was serving as lector, so I'd heard the parish administrator talking to the presider before mass about the baptismal family. She mentioned that they seemed confused and unfamiliar with the service, so would need more guidance from the priest than usual. Whatever, I thought. New parents are allowed to be flakey and confused, or the baptism might have been the grandparents' idea; who knows.

But I spent all mass staring at this family (they were seated in the first two rows and I was seated up in the sanctuary) and I couldn't figure out whose idea the baptism could possibly have been. They all looked like they'd been dragged there against their will. The parents, the godparents, all four grandparents, and several adult siblings were present, and no one seemed to have any idea what was going on. One set of grandparents made an effort--they sang the songs from the hymnal and used the pew cards to follow the new responses--but no one else did. No one else attempted a response, recited even the Lord's Prayer, or so much as picked up a pew card or opened a hymnal (though they all received communion). The baby's parents nudged each other and whispered during the homily. Throughout, the looks on the faces of the family members ranged from stoic endurance to sour displeasure.

And you know, I'm all for being welcoming. I'm fine with meeting people where they're at, and I understand that lots of cultural Catholics have a sentimental attachment to ritual and fetishize various signifiers of the religion without actually wanting to be a part of a community of faith. I don't love that attitude, but insofar as cultural Catholicism indicates a genuine attachment to the religion of a person's childhood, my position is that it's a net good for those of us who are practicing. Such people often send their kids to Catholic schools. They show up en masse for the baptisms and first communions of their nieces and nephews. They have relatives who go to church regularly--they may even have an aunt or uncle who's a nun or a priest--and many of them think occasionally that they really should start going to church again themselves. They belong to a community, in other words, that supports the community of actual believers.

As I say, I get this. What I do not get is people who think religion--or whatever symbolism or meaning or social benefits they think accrue to religion--comes entirely without participation. Belief may be personal, but religion is relational. It's about community. It depends on community. And being a part of a community means that you have to give at least a little something in return. Like, say, your engaged and interested presence, however infrequently you may show up.

But for some people, even that seems a terribly high bar.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Populism, yeah, yeah

It's probably not a coincidence that, just as the Presidential campaign starts to heat up, the soundtrack to "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson" has gone into heavy rotation chez nous. The musical is, for my money, one of the best pieces of theatre of the past decade--and a smart, nasty take on the dysfunctions of American popular democracy. We were lucky to catch a performance a couple of years ago.

A decent assemblage of show clips:



And one of my favorite songs in its entirety:



Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Divas vs. team players

Around the time that I started this job, someone on the internet had this advice for new faculty: if you act like a diva, you'll get treated like a diva.

In its original context, this advice was meant in a strictly limited way: the author was encouraging new faculty not to feel obligated always to be "team players" if that meant never saying no, never having time for their own research, and taking on burdensome service assignments while their other colleagues always seemed too busy to do their fair share. Those who act like divas by prioritizing their own needs and insisting on the value of their own work, argued the advice-giver, are usually accorded more respect--and their needs, time, and scholarship assumed to be more consequential.

I think of this advice often; in fact, I thought of it today when I had to send someone a cold, bluff-calling email: no, you're the one who dropped the ball; I will not make this ridiculous sacrifice because you didn't have your shit together--and in fact, if you can't come up with a better solution, I'll just withdraw from this thing that benefits me not at all but that you're depending on me to do.

(Ahem.)

But as good as this advice is in some contexts, it cuts another way, too. If you act like a diva--that is, like an unstable, impossible-to-please, crazy person--people will treat you like one: they'll say whatever they have to say to make you stop throwing things, and then vow never to work with you again. And unless your value to them or the institution is so high as to make you irreplaceable, they pretty much won't.

We're all familiar with the professor who swears he'll quit his job! if some minor thing happens or doesn't happen--or who tells you he'll never forgive you! if you vote a certain way in a department meeting, or teach a class he considers his exclusive property, or whatever. And in my experience, those people are not taken seriously. They're ridiculous, because their demands are out of all proportion to what they're bringing to the negotiating table. (You'll quit? Yes, please! You'll never speak to me again? Wait--is that a promise?)

The key to being a successful diva, I think, is actually to be a good team player. If it's clear that you value the mission of the place as a whole, and want it to succeed, and if you're pulling your weight on a departmental or institutional level, you can throw the occasional fit or make the occasional big demand when (and this is key!) you're genuinely being disrespected or not having your essential needs met.

And, of course, when you can live with the consequences. A diva doesn't say she's going to walk if she's not prepared to walk.

Monday, July 30, 2012

The kind of person who

It's recently struck me that I'm no longer trying to be "the kind of person who" does this or does that: the kind of person who lives in a house full of books; the kind of person who entertains on vintage china; the kind of person who knows Latin; the kind of person who always wears lipstick; the kind of person who lives in Manhattan; the kind of person who gets invited to give talks; the kind of person who makes complicated cocktails; the kind of person who knows stuff about stuff.

Now I either do or am or have those things--or I don't. But the things themselves don't signify in the way they used to: I still like mostly the same things and still have mostly the same tastes and the same interests as I did in my mid-twenties. But when I was in my twenties, it seemed to matter terribly much that I be the kind of person who owned demitasse spoons, and wrote letters on distinctive stationery; the kind of person who kept up on live theatre and museum exhibits; the kind of person who threw good parties. A friend once told me, affectionately, that my life was "governed by imperatives"--by which she meant not that I was driven or ambitious or had a life plan all mapped out (I didn't then and I don't now), but rather that I had a decisive sense of how I should live in the world.

Maybe lots of people are like that in their twenties, and maybe it's normal to become less zealous about identity-construction when one already has one: a core self that can't be materially altered by the presence or absence of a few external signs or behaviors. But it still feels like a remarkable change.

Last summer I went out for drinks with a woman I'd become friends with years ago, when we were both recent college grads in a fiction-writing class run through the NYU extension program. We were close for a number of years, then only loosely in touch, but we reconnected because her parents now live in the same city where Cosimo teaches. I was in the midst of moving households at the time, and I happened to mention how thrilled I was to have been able to weed out 50 whole books from my collection for donation or resale--and added that I'd been aiming for 100, but oh well.

My friend said, emphatically, "I could never get rid of my books!"

Well, I said, it was hard, but I've got so many books, you know? And I want my library to be functional. These were titles I knew I'd never read, so better to get rid of them so there's space for the good stuff, right?

She shook her head, insisting that she would never do it, because her books were so important, so beloved, and so central to her self-identity.

And I thought, huh. I used to feel that way, but I don't any more. I went through a phase right after college where I not only read voraciously, but bought every book I read. And if it was available, I always bought the hardcover. I wanted a goddamn wall of books in my living room, and a handsome wall at that.

These days I'd still much rather own a book than check it out from the library, and my collection grows with every passing year; it gives me pleasure even beyond its practical value. But I don't need to hold on to every book I've ever bought, or display them all publicly, to prove the diversity of my taste, or my literary-intellectual bona fides, or whatever. I assume people know I read a lot.

Similarly, I still derive enormous satisfaction from all the pretty objets in my life and I like nothing better than dressing up--but I can damn well spend an afternoon running errands in track pants with unwashed hair and no makeup.

Frankly, I experience this as a great relief. It's nice not to feel that every external thing matters so very much, or that the person I'm trying to be will collapse without vigilant attention.

So it seems odd to me to meet people my own age who lead with the identity-construction, who are obsessed with their membership in and embodiment of a particular group (those who trot out all the evidence of their liberal bohemianism, or their New Yorkiness, or who talk endlessly and not-really-self-deprecatingly about how "stereotypically gay" or "obnoxiously Ivy League" they are). Isn't it tiresome to work that hard and care that much? I think.

But I guess I shouldn't talk. I'm the one with the silver ice-bucket and the 1937 Bell telephone.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Diversifying the portfolio

Because sometimes, poems and plays just don't pay the rent:






(Three guesses whence I've just returned--and, as my dad would say, the first two don't count.)

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Very special, very unique

I probably wouldn't read the New York Times wedding announcements if I expected to find nothing in them to mock, but I don't read them solely to make fun of them. In fact, they've provided me with much useful information over the years.

But of all the ridiculous things that people do with or reveal in their wedding announcements, nothing entertains me more than the earnest attempts some couples make to "create new traditions" or cobble together meaning out of traditions that are not their own.

Today's winners: a coupla white folk getting married in a "traditional Inca ceremony" presided over by a shaman.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Different classes, same classroom

A couple of weeks ago New York magazine had a cover story, "Does Money Make You Mean?" about the effects of wealth on personality. It's a suggestive and interesting piece, though the research is still preliminary. But while I'm reserving judgement about how money affects individual personality, the article's discussion of the different values emphasized by working-class vs. more elite families seems pretty sound--and potentially important for those of us who teach students from a range of economic backgrounds:
"Parents in working-class contexts are relatively more likely to stress to their children that 'it's not just about you' and to emphasize that although it is important to stand up for oneself, it is also essential to be aware of the needs of others and to adhere to socially accepted rules of behavior," wrote a team led by Nichole Stephens. . . . Parents with higher incomes "more often tell their children that 'It's your world' and emphasize the value of promoting oneself and developing one's own interests."

[. . . .]

[Studies] have found, broadly speaking, that the affluent value individuality--uniqueness, differentiation, achievement--whereas people lower down on the ladder tend to stress homogeneity, harmonious interpersonal relationships, and group affiliation. . . . Lower-class people wanted to be the same as their peers, whereas better-off subjects showed. . . "a preference for uniqueness."
Reading this, I had a sudden insight: this is why my students at Big Urban University and Regional University have been generally cheerful, even actively enthusiastic, when I assign them to work together in groups--and the students at my Ivy alma mater tended to hate it. I'd never been able to figure this out. I hated working in groups when I was in college, and as a grad student teacher I saw that my own students disliked it, too, and I assumed that this was just a natural response to a crappy pedagogical strategy--until I started teaching at non-elite institutions and was astonished to get feedback to the effect that I should put them in groups more often.

Now, there are other variables here, to be sure: introverts may feel differently about group work than extroverts; the specific make-up of the group matters, and so does the make-up of the class as a whole. The classes I taught at BUU, for example, were two or three times as large as anything I taught at Instant-Name-Recognition University, so group work gave more students a chance to really get into a conversation about the material. This generally isn't true at RU, though, where most of my classes have 25 or fewer students and where even students in a 12-person seminar usually seem happy to work in pairs or quartets.

But beyond explaining a previously mystifying phenomenon, the article made me think about how a classroom can address both tendencies and not privilege just one. This goes beyond group work--though I do need to think more about that. Most of us have probably noticed that while some students have no hesitation asking for extensions or extra help or other special treatment (sometimes justified, sometimes not) others are diffident and won't advocate for themselves even when they have a compelling reason. If they've missed a class or missed a deadline, no matter the reason, they just seem to figure that they're out of luck: the professor doesn't care, doesn't want to hear their sob story, and would never adjust his or her policies just for them. And in my experience, the second group consists disproportionately of first-generation college students, especially when they're also economically disadvantaged.

When members of both groups are in the same classroom--the strong self-advocators who identify with and want to please Teacher and the reticent, blank-faced ones who never explain why they missed class or speak up when they're confused--it can be hard to be sure you're being fair, or really giving everyone the same opportunities and the same treatment. I've learned over the years to seem like a hard-ass in my syllabus policies, but to include a "crisis policy"--which I also read aloud, at the beginning of the semester in every class--telling students that hey, life is hard and they all have lots of outside commitments and pressures, but when an emergency arises they should TELL ME, because I'm willing to be flexible when I can.

That seems to help with that particular problem. But the New York article has made me think about the other ways in which the cultural differences between working-class and more affluent students might cause problems in the classroom, or simply not be fully legible to me as a teacher.

What do you think? Is this a problem? Where have you seen it in action, and how have you dealt with it?

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

New office, new you

Apologies for the bloggy silence: I returned Stateside a week ago, immediately came down with a cold, discovered the back yard had become a jungle in our absence, had to assuage the needs of two cats, and decided that jetlag + headcold = awesome time to move offices. Because yes: upon earning tenure I also got a new office, one with a huge window that looks into the arms of a giant tree.

Getting tenure and scoring this particular office aren't directly related; one person is leaving, one person is coming in, and our old department chair is stepping down as our new one steps up, so there are several offices in play. Still, I enjoy both the symbolism and the ritual change inherent in the move: the office itself is only a bit better than my old one (which had a ridiculously tiny window but was otherwise spacious and agreeable), but thinking about how to organize and decorate a new space and going through, God help me, six years of lesson plans and course evaluations and administrative memos and plagiarism paperwork--and throwing out 2/3 of it and reorganizing the rest--has felt like an agreeable bit of housekeeping, an agreeable new start.

Whatever else tenure brings, occupying a new position within the department (literally!) and getting a new perspective on the world outside it (also literally!) seems like a nice way to begin.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

More on privilege

My previous post got far more comments than I expected, and evolved into a really interesting conversation about the ways in which privilege (or what Phoebe and commenter i. would prefer to call "advantages") works in the academy; thanks to all who participated. I didn't realize it would be so controversial to suggest that, even within the community of scholars, some people get at least mildly preferential treatment based on such things as the name on their Ph.D., the influence and connections of their dissertation director, the institution at which they work, and/or the nature of their employment (adjunct or lecturer/VAP, tenure-track or tenured).

To me, this is all self-evident, though it's important not to overstate the case or to conflate all forms of privilege as equivalent. It is certainly not true, at least in the academy as it currently exists, that all one needs is a degree from the right school or the right advisor to be put on the fast-track (or indeed any track) to success, and it's ridiculous to imply that someone with tenure at no-name public college has the same kind of power and influence as a scholar with tenure at an Ivy. But both of the latter have more power and influence than an adjunct or a grad student.

But whatever you choose to call these forms of professional privilege, I feel strongly that those of us who have them need to be cognizant of the fact. Most of us, I think, realize that our professional standing (whatever it may be) is partly the product of luck and not purely the result of our own intelligence and hard work; we may have worked damn hard, but we know that there are far more deserving candidates than get admitted to strong graduate programs or than get jobs--and it takes nothing away from our own achievements to acknowledge at least a little luck along the way.

However, we need to recognize that there are structural forms of privilege at work as well. Someone whose dissertation topic suddenly becomes hot just as she's going on the market is lucky, as is someone whose unrelated secondary specialization just happens to be something a particular department needs in addition to the primary specialization identified in their job ad. But those with a fancy Ph.D., or a well-connected advisor, or a tenure-track job, or tenure, are positioned to reap (which does not mean that they will reap!) advantages beyond what their work alone might get them. Saying that isn't saying their work has no merits, or that they haven't worked hard. It's just that they can get a hearing, or be taken more seriously, than those with less standing even when the latter may be equally smart and have done equally strong work.

I think that those of us with tenure are also privileged members of the profession, wherever we teach, and even though getting tenure should be even more obviously the result of hard work than getting into a fancy grad program or getting a tenure-track job in the first place. But even apart from the inequities in some tenure processes (those who get unjustly denied tenure or those who squeak through for dubious reasons), the term "privileged" applies here, because those who have it have the job security, and the professional standing, credibility, etc., to say and do things that people without tenure might think twice about. Tenure may be earned. But the advantages and protections it confers often go beyond what's earned, in the sense that not everyone who earns it gets it--and not everyone even gets the opportunity to earn it.

In acknowledging my own privileges I'm not apologizing for them, just as I don't apologize for my good luck. I'm proud of my hard work and I'm convinced that my work is also, generally, good work. But I wish to avoid the dual temptations both of thinking that everything I've gotten is purely the result of merit and of seeing as "privileged" only those who have the things I wish I did. I don't have every advantage, but I have many, and my successes have surely come just a little bit easier because of them.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Professional privilege

There's been something going around the academic blogosphere these past few months, with many long-time bloggers of roughly my generation wondering aloud about the purpose of their blogs now that their professional status is more secure. I've had those questions, too. A lot of us started blogging when we were grad students or were just starting our first full-time academic jobs, when we were growing into our professional identities but still felt pretty marginal. The period of becoming--the story of how one builds a life and fashions a self--is, after all, a traditional subject for narrative.

But now that we're done struggling upward, or have at least hit a significant narrative plateau (and now that we have enough buy-in that we're not going to be writing with complete candor about a specific obnoxious colleague, a gossipy scandal, or a potentially disastrous institutional initiative), then what's the point for those of us whose blogs are mostly life chronicles? Who wants to read about the relatively low-stakes struggles of the tenured?

I don't know the answer to the last question, but I suppose my answer to the first one is that, first of all, the story isn't actually over--and secondly, we were never fully candid and never really that marginal to begin with. Graduate school and the job market may have traumatized us, and we may even have spent a year or two as contingent faculty, but let's face it: those of us who went to fancy Ph.D. programs weren't ever in the belly of the academic beast (though we may have spent some time caught unpleasantly in his esophagus). So if we're more privileged now than we were then, it's only a matter of degree.

My point isn't that only the most marginal deserve our sympathy or have stories worth telling, but the opposite: academia can be brutalizing even for the relatively privileged, and as long as we're not conflating our lot with that of those further down the privilege chain--and as long as we're listening to them, too--writing honestly about our professional lives is a service no matter where we are or how much good fortune seems to outweigh the bad. (That guy we all know who didn't get tenure at Harvard or Yale or Chicago a decade ago, and who retells the story every year at the the conference hotel bar? Yeah, he's annoying as hell. But his story about the profession is a real one too.)

In the comments to my last post, I mentioned that I was striving to write both honestly and ethically: I want to tell the truth, including the emotional truth, of my professional life without being merely emotional and reactive, in a way that maintains the privacy of those who haven't signed up to be blogged about, and also in a way that at least implicitly recognizes my own privilege.

We'll see how it goes. But I'm hopeful that my life post-tenure is still worth writing about, and worth reading.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Getting It Published: Part 7

I was hoping that this post would be the final one in this series--to be followed, perhaps, by a few posts on the process of publication itself (from contract to bound copies), but alas: the news from my once-prospective press is not good.

As you may recall, I'd been working with this press for two years. They first sent the manuscript to one outside reviewer, who had stern but encouraging words, so I revised according to her suggestions. They sent it to her again, and she was very happy with my revisions and recommended publication. Then they sent it to a second reviewer, who read the entire MS in three weeks and was highly critical--but he also seemed confused about the basic parameters of my project; he made lots of suggestions, but most of them were, at best, tangential to my topic. I was asked to address "at least some of" his concerns, and I did so to the extent that I felt I could while maintaining the integrity of the project. I also told the press very clearly what I had done, what I had not done, and why.

So after winter break they sent it back to him. . . and after more than four months he submitted a one-paragraph review, most of it cut-and-pasted from his previous review, saying that I hadn't engaged sufficiently with his criticisms.

And that means that's it for that press. The editor was quite apologetic, but explained that such a negative review tied the press's hands and would make it hard for the editor to make a case to the publication board--even if the editor were to find a warmly receptive third reader.

And though I know that this is just one obtuse reader and that this is just one press, I haven't felt this crappy about my scholarly identity since grad school. I've been working on this project, in one incarnation or another, for ten years. At this point, I'm pretty much done. I want it to live somewhere other than my own head. Readers can like it or dislike it, but I want it to be other people's to grapple with, not mine.

I know that it will get published elsewhere, and maybe even at an equally good press. I'm not doubting the project's intrinsic worth, but right now I am feeling pretty demoralized about how goddamn long it will now be before it sees the light of day. And although I knew that this was a risk I was taking by sticking with one press for so long, I'm still surprised by this outcome and I still feel like I've failed. Moreover, being in Italy means I can't do what I'd normally do, which is send out another half-dozen proposals immediately. But I don't have a printer here and I don't have RU letterhead, so all I can do for the next three weeks is stew.

*

Well, that's not quite true. The silver lining, I guess, is that now I have to get on with the rest of my scholarly life. For the past four months, waiting for this review, I've felt paralyzed, unable to work on the article I'm half done with, unable to start strategizing about the next book (even though I'm excited about both), and unable to do more than desultory work on my scholarly edition. It just hasn't felt worth it, when I knew that I might hear back any day about this book and need to turn quickly to any final revisions.

And to be honest, I've been worried, over those past four months, about whether I was losing steam and losing drive, and maybe becoming complacent (about getting tenure, about the idea of having my book come out with this particular fancy press, and, generally, about all the things I've done rather than being energized by what lies ahead). If my book isn't coming out imminently, well, that feels shameful. But a sense of falling behind or of having something to prove has always been useful to my productivity. Having the book in limbo means I absolutely have to get that article out the door this summer. And I need to start applying for some external fellowships, maybe even a few big ones, in order to write the first couple of chapters of my second book and in the hopes of taking a year-long rather than a semester-long sabbatical in 2013-14.

I suppose it will all work out in the end; the race is not always to the swift, etc. But this sure wasn't what I'd hoped to hear.