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.


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.