Wednesday, March 27, 2013


For me, tenure has meant becoming more deeply invested in my institution: suddenly caring about everything, from wonky procedural matters to bigger-picture college-wide initiatives.

But caring leads to constant irritation. And my prior capacity for irritation was not small.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Lean In

It's been a quiet spring break around these parts, with the nasty weather conspiring to keep me mostly indoors watching Marx Brothers movies and plowing through three solid months' worth of magazines. (Side note: when did magazines become so impossible to keep up with? oh, right: around the time I started wasting my life on the internet). But in the midst of that feverish whirl of activity, I also found time to read Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In.

In brief, it's awesome. I actually and literally don't understand most of the criticism it's attracted, almost all of which seems to have been written by people who haven't read the book: she's blaming women for not getting ahead! She denies there's any need for structural reform! She's denigrating women who stay home or who just aren't that ambitious! She's another privileged white lady who doesn't realize that most women have other problems!

In fact, Sandberg addresses all of those objections pretty thoroughly. Now, I'm also a (relatively) privileged white lady, and I don't have kids, so maybe I just missed the part where Sandberg told women who've stepped out of the rat race that they totally suck and deserve what they get. But frankly, I think those invested in the "mommy wars" (I can't believe I actually typed that noxious phrase) just made assumptions about what Sandberg was probably saying or where her blind spots must necessarily be.

The core of her argument is that structural reform is urgently needed, but in order to achieve it we also need more women in positions of power. Moreover, when Sandberg was in college and grad school, she heard a lot about the external obstacles to women's advancement, but nothing about the internal ones: the ways that women unintentionally slow-track themselves. So that's what she's focusing on.

Sandberg isn't the least bit dismissive about the attractions of staying at home and raising kids; in fact, she spends a lot of time talking about the importance of having a satisfying domestic and personal life and is supportive of whatever choices a woman ultimately makes. But she wants women to have real choices, and while some of those choices are dependent on structural matters outside of their control (like whether their employer even offers a paid maternity leave--as mine, for example, does not), others aren't: whether you have a partner who is willing to fully pull his or her weight at home; whether you're willing to ask your partner to step up; whether you asked for what you needed to be happy at your job, or just assumed it wouldn't be available. I found especially compelling Sandberg's argument that people who are really excited about and challenged by their jobs are less likely to leave.

And maybe most importantly, all women, whatever their economic status or their work-life decisions, benefit when more women are in positions of power. So while no woman should feel obligated to keep working or to aspire to leadership just for the good of the sisterhood, we should all care about making sure those who want to rise can do so. And the more women there are in positions of power, the harder it is to dismiss any one as a "bitch," or "ball-breaker," or whatever: it's the rarity of women in power that attracts the vitriol and the who-does-she-think-she-is?

But to talk about Sanberg's "argument" in some ways misrepresents the book, which, although it's making a serious point, is also warm and generous and extremely funny, with lots of practical advice for negotiating around, neutralizing, and drawing attention to sexism in the workplace and the home. It's also chock full of fascinating research. It's an easy read but an inspiring one, a work of big-tent, unapologetic feminism.

Have any of my readers read it? What did you think?

Monday, March 18, 2013

Who you are is what you do--but what you do can change

My corner of the internet has been full of justified outrage at the sympathetic slant of much news coverage of the convictions in the Steubenville rape case. CNN, among others, chose to dwell on the emotional devastation of the two star football players--the rapists--and the dashing of their once-promising futures. I share the outrage. Whatever errors their victim may have made, they were errors merely in judgment; none of her errors involved treating another human being as an object, as a disposable toy for pleasure and amusement. Any coverage of the case that downplays the wrongs done to her while inviting our sympathies for the perpetrators is indefensible.

But this is not to say there's no place for sympathy for the perpetrators.

Let me be clear: they deserve their convictions, and whatever follows from those convictions--including never playing football again, not getting into the colleges of their choice, being registered sex offenders, and having this case turn up for the rest of their lives whenever someone Googles them. The perpetrators' apparent remorse and tearful apologies don't absolve them of their crime or entitle them to forgiveness--either the victim's or the public's.

However, although they did a monstrous thing, that doesn't mean they are, in some absolute or final way, monstrous people. At the same time, hand-wringing over the perpetrators' lost "potential" is not the way to support them or emphasize their humanity. Focusing on what good boys they are doesn't allow us to acknowledge, to really acknowledge, that someone can be a good person and still do something terrible. And it also doesn't provide a path toward repentance and growth.

As a culture, we're obsessed with the idea that we have some kind of core, essential nature--and usually that nature is good. And when we (or those we like) do something bad, we're unable to assimilate that information. I'm not really a bad person! Or, okay. I did that one bad thing. But I'm really sorry! And can't you tell that I'm actually a good person? (And if the answer is no, it's the other person who's victimizing us by denying our essentially good nature and virtuous intentions.)

We see this all the time in discussions of racism or sexism (and I've even talked about it in connection with plagiarism): a person knows, deep down, that he couldn't be racist. Therefore, it's impossible that he said or did something racist. And how dare you call him that offensive slur, racist? The perpetrators and their supporters can't imagine them as "rapists," and--as I written before--I understand why. The term suggests an unchanging state, a psychological disorder, a permanent condition.

If you rape someone, you are a rapist. But that need not be your primary identity.

So the adults in Steubenville who feel so sympathetic for the perpetrators are not helping them by telling them what good guys they are--much less how they've been wronged by the system, or how their only mistake was circulating the story and images via text message and social media. Anyone who sees the perpetrators as good guys with potential needs to help them deliver on that potential by telling them, frankly, that they did a terrible thing and deserve to pay a penalty, but that they can become better people, that their story isn't over, that they can learn and grow and still contribute good to the world.

I don't know these kids. I know nothing about their potential or their essential nature. But neither does anyone else. It's what they do that matters.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Popery and arbitrary government

I was in my campus office grading papers, prepping for my night class, and periodically scanning the internet in the hopes of finding something to do other than grade papers or prep for class when someone tweeted "habemus papam #fumatabianca"--and I gladly abandoned my grading for what I thought would be twenty minutes but turned into more like ninety.

And, whatever. The end of a papal election is a cool enough thing to see "live," and with much the same pleasure as watching the Oscars or a royal wedding: there's lots of pageantry; other people are watching and chatting about it; there's a small chance that actual history might be made. In other words, it's 4 parts diversion to 1 part news. While waiting for the Big Reveal, I hung out on Facebook and Twitter trading jokes with friends about what was taking so long, about the goofy marching band, and about how well the next pontiff might or might not accessorize.

As a Catholic, I care who the next pope is, but a new pope is unlikely to impact me that much (at least compared with a new pastor or bishop or even a new U.S. president). Moreover, I'm not a deeply-informed Vatican-watcher. I'd followed the coverage of Benedict's resignation closely and had read up on some of the papabili, but I didn't know anything about Bergoglio; if I'd heard his name mentioned as the runner-up in 2005, I'd forgotten it as soon as I'd learned it.

All of this is to say that I'm not setting myself up as a vaticanista, nor as someone who takes the papal election unduly seriously. But I still found myself exasperated by all the morons on the internet who took the occasion to leave drive-by comments (often on otherwise funny, smart, irreverent threads) like, "don't you know Bergoglio's VERY AGAINST gay marriage??" or "The fact that a woman can't be pope is OUTRAGEOUS!!! When is the Catholic Church going to get with the program?!"

Uh, yeah. Everyone on planet earth knew that no woman was going to be elected, nor anyone who had ever said anything that might even be misconstrued as supporting gay marriage. Thanks for that trenchant and original critique, Mr. New-Age Hippy, Ms. Ex-Catholic, or Dr. Atheist.

Partly it's the tone-deafness and the bad manners that bug me. When someone you know is enthusiastic about something (even something you think is dumb or evil) you don't barge in and say "OMG THAT'S SO STUUUPID." No. You bite your tongue, you roll your eyes. . . and you talk smack about that person behind her back. Partly, it's the combination of ignorance and arrogance. Not all of those fascinated with the papal election are themselves religious: I have secularist friends who are historians or just political junkies who were posting updates on the conclave several times a day. But those of us who do care, for whatever reason, are probably more informed than those who just want to talk about how bad the Catholic Church (or organized religion, or religion) is.

Few practicing Catholics are unaware that problems exist in the church, and none of us, liberal or conservative, are really that interested in ignorant opining, even when it comes from those with whom we might otherwise make common political cause. As a progressive Catholic, I can assure my liberal, non-Catholic friends that I know the church's problems much better, and have thought about them much more deeply, than you have. I'm completely not interested in your opinion--unless you are, let's say, a religious historian, or otherwise have access to some immediately relevant body of knowledge or area of expertise that you're going to draw upon.

If you're genuinely interested in knowing what (and how) I think, I'll happily have that conversation with you one-on-one. But I'm not going to engage with someone whose own insight is minimal and who isn't interested in listening.


As for Francis, I'm reserving judgement. I joked on Facebook that the options were basically "huh! coulda been worse!" and "OH NO"--and we seem to have gotten the former. I'm prepared to be surprised by him, but won't be surprised if I'm not. Popes are like Supreme Court justices: there's stuff we sorta know about them, but it's not always predicative--especially since they serve for life and aren't directly answerable to anyone.

Change will come, sooner or later, either from inside or outside--and when it comes it's going to be dramatic. Increasingly, I think I might be alive to see it. Whether that's a good thing only time will tell.

Sunday, March 10, 2013


I submitted my final manuscript to the press last week--more than two months before my contractual deadline! Howdja like me now?--and I'm here to tell you what happens as that burden slips from your shoulders and a new day dawns:
You get tendonitis. Jesus. I'm actually pecking at my keyboard with a couple of iPad styli so's not to exacerbate the pain;

Your triumphant email to your editor produces an automatic-reply message informing you that he'll be out of the office FOR THE NEXT EIGHT DAYS;

You get two rejections in the mail the very next day;

You have no sense of direction or purpose when you get home at night;
And yet:
You still have mountains of grading. Most of which was due a week ago.

In other words? Same old life. Except now with tendonitis!

Saturday, March 09, 2013

The one that got--or that you gave--away

Our hiring season has concluded: we've made an offer, had it accepted, and are already thinking ahead to our requests for next year. We got lucky: the three candidates we had to campus were almost equally strong and none of them took themselves out of the running. I don't know whether any of them had other offers, but each felt like someone we had every likelihood of being able to hire and someone with every likelihood of being a great colleague.

On the one hand, this is a fantastic feeling. It's great to feel that any one of the finalists could come, could hit the ground running, and really add something to our department. It's also nice--let's face it--to feel that all the candidates took their visit seriously and were sincerely interested in us. On the other hand, having a wealth of strong options means at least mild regrets about what might have been.

I've felt this before about candidates we've lost--there have been plenty of searches where, for one reason or another, I've gotten really invested in some candidate who ultimately took another offer, and sometimes I've even made grumbling comparisons between The One Who Got Away and whoever we eventually hired. (As soon as the hire actually joins us, however, I forget all that. I couldn't even tell you the names of the people whom I fleetingly regarded as Candidates Who Got Away. An actual colleague, working in our department week in and week out, building a research profile and contributing thoughtfully to our curriculum, is always better than some fantasy about someone I never got to see in action.)

But I've never had occasion to feel this about candidates whom we let go. This year, partly because we had such strong candidates, partly because their strengths were so varied, and partly because I was on the search committee, I felt differently. I'm simultaneously thrilled with the person we hired and rather sad about the people we didn't hire. I liked them. I invested a certain amount of energy in imagining them here.

My regret is, of course, nothing compared with the regret of any job candidates who might be reading this, who necessarily invest more energy in the departments that court them than vice-versa. It's hard not to feel let down or even misled when a department has wooed you hard only to choose someone else in the end. But when all the choices are good ones, the deciding factor is often about "fit." (Or it's about something almost entirely arbitrary: a slightly better teaching demo, a publication in a slightly better journal, a tangent in the job talk that really floated one particular faculty member's boat.)

I don't know if it helps to know that hiring departments get emotionally invested in their job candidates, including the ones they don't hire and may never meet again. But for what it's worth, many of us do.

Monday, March 04, 2013


Every semester I get one or two English majors who are eager, energetic, widely-read. . . but don't know what the hell they're doing. These are often students who are a few years older than their peers, or who have taken time off, or bounced around to a bunch of different schools--but whatever their background, they come across as semi-autodidacts: they've got a whole lot of knowledge in their heads without much framework or context (historical, theoretical, disciplinary). And they can't write to save their lives.

Managed right, they're usually a pleasure in the classroom: they sometimes pipe up from left field or don't take redirection well (they really want to show off their knowledge of Greek mythology, say), but in my experience they're just so excited to be in college or in graduate classes that they're as respectful as they are eager.

The challenge comes with their written work. The kind of student I'm talking about writes shockingly badly, especially relative to the breadth of their reading and the enthusiasm they have for learning. Sometimes they are literally the worst writers in their classes--worse than some sullen, lackadaisacal, checked-out kid who never speaks, never seems to do the reading, and doesn't show up half the time.

And so they require a lot of work: not just the time spent reading their revisions or drafts or meeting with them one-on-one, but also the intellectual and emotional labor that goes into giving advice that's simultaneously hard-hitting (impressing on the student how much work he still has to do) and encouraging (showing him how much I believe in his potential and want to help him succeed).

When they rise to the occasion, it's kind of amazing: I have students whom I beat up on, hard, one assignment after another, and they do every goddamn revision, come to every meeting, and keep showing up undaunted for class. I almost can't believe how indomitable some of them are. It's clear that they've got what it takes to succeed--if not in my class, then in some other class a semester or two down the line. I love those kids.

But some of my semi-autodidacts Do Not Take Correction Well. They refuse to revise, even when given plenty of time and support, and even when they know that the paper grade will cripple their course grade. Instead, they want to tell me (over and over) how successful they were at their previous college, or how they've "always been" A students. They just shut down, resisting the idea that they still have things to learn.

And you know, that's their choice. But I have to admit those kids get to me. For one thing, it sucks whenever a student goes from being smiley and participatory to being glum and resentful--and it especially sucks when I know it's because, on some level, I've made them feel bad about themselves. But at the same time, they make me angry: their thin skin, their stupidly fragile self-esteem, and their unwillingness to accept the help I feel I'm bending over backwards to give.

They're only a tiny minority of my students. But they seem to have such potential. I hate that they're not making more of it--and I hate feeling that I've snuffed out the spark of their fire for learning, or whateverthefuck.