Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The black cats are good. They sit on the bed. Also, they eat.

As my friends on Facebook and Twitter know only too well--because I won't shut up about it--Cosimo and I will be spending a little over a month in Rome this summer. There's no particular reason, or rather there are lots of reasons: we didn't take a proper honeymoon, both of us regret not doing study-abroad in college, we like cities, we're both half-Italian, and we both know the language a little. Five weeks isn't enough time really to count as "living abroad," but it's enough time to get to know a place and to develop some of the habits of locals. We found a lovely apartment with a huge terrace and a view of St. Peter's, in a modest middle-class neighborhood, and our plan is just to live there, as little like tourists as possible.

But this means we need to get our Italian in at least passable shape. I took an Italian-for-reading course in grad school and a basic conversational Italian class a few years ago, before my first trip to Italy; I also have years and years of French. Cosimo took one year of college-level Italian while doing his first grad degree, some fifteen years ago. In other words, we can read a newspaper and pronounce stuff, but our speaking, writing, and oral comprehension are pretty primitive.

Thus: a grammar book, homemade flashcards, audio software, and lots of Fellini films close-captioned in Italian. I've taken to going around the house pointing to things ("lo zucchero!" "le finestre!") and making pointless declarations ("i gatti guardano gli uccelli nel giardino").

My Italian will likely never be very good. But I'm reminded of how fun it was learning a foreign language in high school and college--all those games and skits and a general embracing of a more child-like relationship to language. I'm sure I'll feel differently once I'm actually in Rome and struggling to make myself understood, but there's also something freeing about being so limited in the things one can say. Not speaking a language well means you have a license, at least for a little while, to make shit up, cobbling together crazy circumlocutions and experiencing the kind of manic, creative freedom that otherwise only comes from speaking a language very well indeed.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

On being, and teaching, the above-average student

Following Tenured Radical's example, Dr. Crazy and others have written several interesting posts about their own formative experiences in college--basically, how they got to where they are now, often after having been academic fuck-ups or just academically indifferent. They're all great posts, with the underlying message that, as professors, we should never write off the disengaged, the sullen, or the screw-ups, because those kids, too, can get it together, sometimes quite suddenly, when something or a series of somethings sets them alight.

That's a message I agree with profoundly, having seen it happen among a number of my own students. However, that wasn't my experience in college. I wasn't an academic fuck-up any more than I was an academic star. I was thrilled to have gotten into a fancy college, and once there I was a good, dutiful student whom I suspect almost none of my professors or TAs remembered once the semester was over. I didn't talk much in class, and though my essays were better than average they continually failed to deliver on whatever promise they might have shown: I would often get warm, encouraging comments on the first essay in a class that had two or three, and very few on the later essays as it became clear that I wasn't interested in or able to push myself further. The problem is this: I had a beautiful prose style and a strong, engagingly eccentric voice, but my literary analysis was hit or miss and I really didn't understand what I was doing, what made an essay an A- instead of a B+, or what I could do differently. (I was frustrated that I was stuck in this B+/A- limbo, but I didn't seek out help and no one spontaneously gave it to me.)

The closest thing I had to the kind of formative experiences that TR and Dr. Crazy describe was the Milton lecture I took in the spring of my sophomore year. I adored the professor and either adored Milton or transferred some of the adoration I felt for my professor onto Milton himself. However, my TA gave me a B- on my first paper, far and away the lowest grade I'd ever received. It scared the shit out of me, and partly because I loved the material and partly because my TA was the first person to actually tell me that I didn't know what the hell I was doing, I killed myself for the rest of the semester. I rewrote the paper for a B+. I got 100% on the midterm, 97% on the final, and spent literally three weeks slaving over my eight-page final paper, on which I also got a very high A.

Then over the summer H.K. and I wrote a ridiculous, irreverent play, "The Fifteen-Minute Milton," and sent copies to our professor (with whom we'd never had any personal interaction) and our TA. Our prof sent us a very sweet note, our TA never replied, and that was that.

It wasn't actually a transformational moment, however, in the sense that it set me on the path to a Ph.D. or even to noticeable academic improvement. I did go on to take four other classes in Renaissance lit and three in Early Modern history, but I never did as well in a literature class again. I liked many of my classes, often quite a lot, but my essays continued to straddle the A-/B+ line and I wrote a truly horrible senior essay (also on Milton).

No one ever told me that I should go to grad school, or praised me for my critical acumen; when I asked the woman who became my senior essay advisor to work with me, she cheerfully agreed--and then added, "Did you know that David [one of the other students from our seminar] asked me to advise his essay, too? He's REALLY SMART."

That was not something anyone said about me in college, and neither did they say it about me in graduate school. My early graduate work was fine. I didn't give evidence of not belonging. But no one ever suggested that my work was exceptional or indicated that they expected great things from me; in fact, I had a complex for a long time about having been admitted just because I had the right "breeding": I feared I'd gotten into the M.A. program because I'd been an INRU undergraduate, and then into the Ph.D. program because I was already taking classes with doctoral students. (That may in fact be true--I have no way of knowing--but it's not something I worry about any longer: lots of us have unfair breaks of one sort or another, but if our work is good, then fuck it.)

But I plugged along, diligently or maybe desperately, not getting a lot of feedback or more than a basic level of support, and my work got better and I grew more confident. But honestly, I haven't ever felt, not since high school, that I was anyone's favorite or anyone's golden child (as long-time readers will recall, I got this job as a very late hire, not having originally been among even the semi-finalists). I've always been a small fish in a big pond--but it's a nice pond, and a pond of my choosing, and I'm happy I get to swim in it.

So if my experience as a student affects my teaching, it's that I wish both to build up my overlooked students and to rattle my more confident ones. I'm allergic to arrogance and complacency, even when it comes from students who are, arguably, smart enough to get away with it. Teaching at a state institution means there's often a wide range of abilities in any given classroom, and students who write pretty well and have pretty good insights tend not to get pushed and do tend to get complacent. They're big fish in a small pond, and as such they're petted and praised and often not encouraged to recognize how far they still have to go.

It's a tough thing to teach--real confidence alongside real humility--but I guess I see my job as not letting anyone think they're good enough, yet, but that they have the potential to be.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Kickin' it old school

My college reunion is in two months. You may recall that Cosimo's reunion was last summer, and that I have a long history of complicated feelings about college reunions (although I always go). But one thing I don't have complicated feelings about is the awesomeness of my class secretary, Wesley Morris, who over the past five years has made reading my class notes a pleasure rather than a masochistic hate-fest. Dude gets it:

That meteor we've graciously agreed to call "reunion" is still hurtling toward Earth. There is nothing we can do to stop it. All we can do--what we must do--is brace ourselves. For once it hits, we will never be the same. For one weekend, there will be jokes. There will be merriment. There will be Dee-Lite. There will be longing, under-the-tent glances at a life you could have had. There will be opposite such feelings of relief for the life you don't. . . .

That feeling, of course, is half the tension of the entire weekend: reconciling once having been 21 with no longer actually being 21; balancing wanting to do what you did in 1997 with how doing that now will make you feel the following morning. You won't want your children, your partner, your spouse, whoever you brought along, to know that you had a past life and that in that past life the only clothes you sometimes wore to retrieve your mail was an acoustic guitar. Maybe the tension will give way. You might be found passed out somewhere. Maybe you'll find something better than Black Light magic and wind up just sitting on a bench talking until the next day with the only person you came all this way to see.

Some of you are probably thinking about skipping the whole thing. You'll say, Meteor, please. It's all so stupid, so long, so gloaty, judgy, and drunk. You fear staring into the congregation and noticing suddenly you're in one of those jolly ING ads that plays during Wimbledon and most golf tournaments, the one in which people carry around big orange numbers that are supposed to represent how much they've saved for their retirement. You will look above your head and see that your number barely gets you to the airport. . . .

You will tell someone of your fear of being made to feel inadequate, like you've accomplished even less that you had five years before. You will tell someone this, and they will tell you that's precisely why you should go, and that you're acting like someone from books that will become Katherine Heigl movies. A reunion, they say, is where, after four beers or finding one real friend, your inadequacies won't matter. They'll say that the funny thing about these weekends is how much they can also be a ritualized vacation from who you are and a chance to revisit, however momentarily, who you were. They will say: somehow it will be fun. And they will be right.

And I'm trusting to that, because God knows even I can't drink enough to recoup the fucking fortune this event is going to cost (an amount that I swear goes up at least $100/person every time). It's like the organizers think we're some kind of fancy Ivy Leaguers, or something.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Bad writing ≠ bad writer

I've been thinking a lot about Dr. Crazy's two recent posts about student writing. They're mostly pushing back against the idea that "students today" (especially students at regional public institutions like hers and mine) just can't write, are graduating from high school with basic skills that are abysmally bad, and that there's nothing for a professor in a writing-intensive field to do but throw her hands up and grade generously since there's no hope for improvement now.

I've always been with Dr. C on the last part--one of the reasons I'm a tough grader is that I believe in my students' ability to improve (and if they don't, it's on them)--but I have to admit that I've always assumed that those students who write badly write badly because they're starting out with poor skills. I mean, it stands to reason, right? If a kid turns in a paper with ungrammatical, incomprehensible sentences, it must mean that his skills are pretty bad (or that he wrote the paper in 35 minutes or while drunk). But Dr. Crazy makes a persuasive case that this isn't necessarily so. She writes:
I teach upper-division English majors, and sometimes they still, unaccountably, submit writing that is wordy, awkward, ungrammatical, and BAD. Bad like there aren't coherent paragraphs. Bad like they don't appear to recognize the meaning of the "sentences," if you can call them that.

Part of this is laziness, but that's not the whole story. Most of the story is usually that you are expecting them to encounter ideas that they don't know how to handle, ideas that are new and scary and difficult. They might be great writers with things that they are comfortable with, but once you challenge them? The whole thing becomes a hot mess. This doesn't mean that they are bad writers--it means that they are out of their intellectual depth. If you teach them the ideas, then the writing can catch up. But the writing has to catch up to their thinking--the writing isn't a stand-alone thing.

This strikes me as exactly right, and it explains how it is that an obviously smart student--someone I've emailed and chatted with during office hours--can turn in a 5-page paper with a 2-page introduction, no thesis, and prose so convoluted that, if she hadn't already outlined her ideas to me, I'd have no idea what she was trying to say. Sometimes student writing regresses because the kinds of writing a particular student has mastered don't feel adequate to the more complex ideas, longer forms, or different authorial personae she's trying on. The fact that a student "can't express herself clearly" doesn't mean that she can't write a coherent sentence. It may mean only that she doesn't have a coherent way of articulating the particular issue she's wrestling with.

But it's not true only of English majors. Although I tend to assume that my majors are capable of improving, sometimes very quickly, when stylistic and grammatical problems are pointed out to them, I haven't always been as generous or as hopeful about my non-majors. But my freshman comp class this semester has been going surprisingly well, and Dr. Crazy's analysis has, I think, given me the patience to make it even better.

As I've mentioned, I'm teaching freshman composition this semester for the first time in three semesters, and it's my first "regular" (non-Honors) comp class in more than three years. Although I've always felt that the work I do in comp classes is important, and I've always derived certain satisfactions from teaching them, I'd be lying if I said that I loved doing it. Comp is the only course I teach where I've ever felt my students didn't have a basic respect for me and my expertise. Sure, I always had some good kids, and I never had a Class From Hell or anything, but in each there was always a big enough handful of students who were totally checked out to sour my entire experience: kids who showed up late, who didn't bother to turn in their papers, who disrupted class in minor but persistent ways, and who ultimately didn't care if they failed the course.

This semester is totally different. I might have gotten lucky, or the caliber of our incoming students might really have improved as much as our PR office claims, but whatever the reason, my students are all good, hard-working kids whose occasional complaints or protests are always playful and good-humored. They're also, on average, better writers than I've often had. . . but this isn't to say that they're all equivalently good, or that reading the first drafts for their first assignment wasn't a deeply painful experience. Because it was.

But I started noticing that all was not always as bad as it seemed: that kid whose introduction was such a fucking nightmare that I thought maybe he'd slipped between the cracks and really belonged in a remedial class? had actually written a lucid, well-organized, and even rather well-phrased second paragraph. The other kid whose essay was a mass of sentence fragments? Was able to fix 95% of them on her own, after the problem was pointed out to her. Reading their first drafts was awful. But their final drafts were pretty good--and I just read through the first drafts for their second assignment, and they're dramatically better, maybe because it's a very different kind of assignment.

None of this is to say I'm sorry it'll be a few semesters until I teach comp again. But I think I'll be a better teacher of composition, and of writing in all my classes, if I can just remember that students who write badly aren't necessarily bad writers.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Plenty of fish

As this hiring season draws to a close, I'm still thinking about what the courtship process looks like from the departmental rather than the candidate side. The dating metaphors that are so often used to describe the job market are apt, not least because each party is usually pretty much in the dark about the other's motives, intentions, and ultimately their true character.

In saying that I don't for a minute mean to imply that there's any functional equivalence between the positions of candidate and hiring department; close to 100% of the power lies with those doing the hiring, and although I guess a candidate can still break a department's heart, heartbreak is a lot easier to get over when you've got eligible ladies and gents throwing themselves at your feet. (And when you're in no danger of being evicted, having the lights turned off, or moving back in with the 'rents.) So don't flame me: I'm not suggesting that hiring departments are ever in need of pity, especially when compared with job candidates themselves.

But since I've thought about the job market almost exclusively from the perspective of the candidate (even as my own department has been hiring rather steadily), it's startling to notice how we on this end use much the same language as those on the other--language that is reminiscent of the alternately boastful and abasing language of single guys and gals looking for love: I deserve so much more! I'm not going to settle! But. . . do I really have anything that anyone whom I would want, would want? I should set my sights lower. Oh God, please love me!

Departments like my own, which are stronger in fact than they seem on paper--like the men and women who are better catches than the photos on their profiles would suggest--are probably especially prone to these kinds of mood swings. (Look at the CVs of our faculty! What, you think we're not good enough for you? But, we do have a 3/3 load. Whadda we expect? Maybe we should be content with a nice person who will be a solid citizen and never leave us.) Still, every hiring department gets emotionally over-invested in at least some of their candidates, going through periods of anxiety and self-doubt and the hope that the object of their desire feels the same way about them.

But although there may be more status anxiety lurking beneath the surface of our hiring process than we'd willingly cop to, one of the nice things about being in a strong but not immediately eye-catching department is that we tend not to overestimate our own judgment and we don't buy into the fiction that there's some absolute and objective way to rank our applicants--that Candidate A somehow is the best person on the market this year in his field, and that therefore we must get him at all costs. We have plenty of experience hiring our second (or third or fourth) choice and having her turn out to be amazing. So although we make a careful and a thoughtful assessment of everyone's merits, and we vote down some candidates as unacceptable, our collective attitude seems to be that it doesn't necessarily matter if we get our first choice or our third--or even if we have to go back to the general applicant pool and start over.

Because you never know. You don't know whether your list of MLA interviewees really comprises "the best" candidates from among the applicants, and you don't know that the people selected for fly-backs are truly the best of the semi-finalists. You don't know what you're missing if you've already missed it, and you don't know how someone will perform until they perform; some people deliver on early promise and some don't, while others have late growth spurts. Not always getting your first choice reminds you that assessing merit isn't as clear-cut as many pretend--as does finding out that someone you ranked sixth or tenth got offered a far better job than the one you had on offer.

And that kind of perspective is the real advantage that those doing the hiring have over those seeking jobs. It's often said that hiring committees in the era of the jobs crisis can afford to be picky, but the truth is that they can afford to be careless: they can wait and see, they can be modest about their own achievements, and they can keep an open mind--they can even change their mind--about what matters most. Because there are plenty of fish in the sea.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012


For reasons that are mysterious even to the all-knowing Ladies of Sephora, there's been a nationwide shortage of the foundation that I've used for the past year or two, that I adore, and that I'm the more fanatical about because it took me ages to find one that worked after my previous foundation (which had taken me even longer to find) stopped being manufactured.

Not available on-line. Not available in stores. In fact, when I was in NYC a few weeks ago, I went to four different Sephora locations--not with any real expectation that they'd have it in stock, but just to beg the staff for samples.

Finally, in desperation, I found someone selling the stuff on eBay at a 30% markup. So I bought a bottle. A week later finally got in a shipment. I bought another bottle, because you never know. Since I still have a few weeks' worth of samples left, I now have approximately five months' worth in readiness.

And they say that male shoppers are the ones who stockpile.