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.