Sunday, December 31, 2006

Approval-seeking, still and always

For the past couple of weeks--or ever since I received a very good piece of news about a proposed essay of mine, one that would represent entirely new work--I've been walking around composing in my head the email message that I plan to send to my dissertation director. You know what I'm talking about, or perhaps some of you do: the "hey, I'm just checking in to tell you how fabulously I've been doing, and about all the amazing projects I have going on, so please don't forget that I exist, because I'll probably need another recommendation letter from you before too long. Okay, bye-ee!"

(Or maybe you have a different kind of relationship with your own dissertation director--the kind that George Washington Boyfriend has with his. GWB emails him every month or two, about all kinds of things, large or small, and gets an immediate, thoughtful, and helpful reply. Nice if you've got it.)

There's pragmatism, obviously, in my desire to keep my advisor in the loop, since none of us is ever really not on the market--if not the job market, then the market for a book contract, a speaking engagement, or just for new contacts, collaborators, or professional friends. And really, given the dual career thing that GWB and I have going on, I could go back on the job market at any time (although I really hope that that time isn't next fall). So it's good to touch base now and again. But the thing here is that my advisor is not and never has been the kind of person that I could go to with problems or just to bounce ideas off. She is, I know, proud of me when I succeed. And every once in a while she has said something astonishingly complimentary about my work. But she likes to be associated with success, and I feel that aside from the occasional query--"help! I really want to participate in this collection, but am I going to be overpublishing material from my dissertation if I do?"--I can't admit to uncertainties. To interest her at all, I have to be presenting ever-new and at least modestly impressive accomplishments.

But this is all okay. In the end, having a more distant advisor worked just fine for me, and despite some of the psychic trauma that she casually inflicted along the way, having a slavish need to please her probably was (and continues to be) an effective motivator for me.

Nevertheless, I couldn't help but feel some of my old middle-child resentment when I ran into Younger Sister at MLA. Younger Sister is on the market this year, and while we engaged in the usual eye-rolling about Advisor's behavior, Younger Sis is obviously her pet: Advisor has been emailing her almost daily to give fresh advice or to get updates about Younger Sis's interviews. She did almost the same thing with Elder Sister. By contrast, she was extremely uninvolved in my own two years of job searching, never emailing me to check in and never even replying to my messages unless they involved a campus visit.

But I'm going to try to put all this out of my mind when I email Advisor. Whether she likes her other advisees or former advisees better than me doesn't matter. Whether they are, in fact, doing better than I am doesn't matter. I just need to concentrate on--and do--my own stuff.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Mind-melting exhaustion (MLA Day 3)

. . . and that was even before I'd left my hotel room this morning. Through some horrible cosmic convergence I wound up with an 8.30 a.m. panel that I needed or really wanted to attend every single day of the conference. Bearing in mind that this was the week that also included Christmas and two very early, very long days of travel (and a three-hour time change), and further bearing in mind that my natural bedtime is between 1 and 2 a.m. and that I really need eight and a half or nine hours of sleep to be fully functional, you can perhaps imagine what a haggard, brittle shell of a person I've been for the past couple of days

But it was worth it. Like Mel and Hieronimo, I have to confess that I really do like MLA. I liked it even my first time around, when I was a rather nervous first-time job candidate, and I liked it still better on this my third visit. Among the pleasures of not being a candidate was being able to eat whenever and whatever I wanted without fretting that it might make me sick (I think that all I ate last year were crackers and granola bars, and even those I had to force down).

So today I dragged my sorry ass to the morning blogger panel (which had relocated to a larger room but was still standing-room-only by the time the thing started), and then to the truly fantastic panel on Milton in the 1670s. I have to admit that I know shamefully little about the last years of Milton's life, so I took what was probably an excessive number of notes (mispelling every fifth word, I was so punchy). Then I went to a third panel, during the last paper of which I think I was having actual dreams each time my eyes fluttered shut.

Since GWB and I are in very different fields, we didn't attend any of the same panels; this means that we were able to collect twice the gossip and experience twice the fun or twice the weirdness that the conference had to offer. I wish I could claim that the fag-hag paper I heard was the worst thing that we saw between us, but GWB attended a panel where not one, but two of the four panelists incorporated dance routines into their papers: the one panelist had two interpretive dancers performing during the first five minutes of her paper, and the other--who had brought her own rolled-up dance floor with her on the plane--did a tap routine.

But damn. I do love these people, even the crazy ones.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Socializing! (MLA Day 2)

Oddly, although I went to three panels yesterday and will be attending three tomorrow, there was only ONE panel today that I wanted to attend (okay, let's be honest: I didn't even want to attend that one, but I had to). Happily, though, that made today my social day: a lunch meet-up with Medieval Woman, coffee with George Washington Boyfriend and another grad school friend, drinks with DHawhee, the always-rocking INRU reception, loafing around in a hotel suite with a couple of other grad school friends, and then dinner with a ridiculous number of bloggers, including Mel, Horace, Nels, Dr. Crazy, Bitch Ph.D., Scott Eric Kaufman, and Michael Bérubé. (Why they let me come along, I don't know.)

Needless to say, too many drinks were drunk, but the whole thing was fabulous.


And while I'm on the subject of drinking: when I arrived in town late on Wednesday GWB was already in our room, hanging out with a friend from his other discipline, who'd never been to MLA before. I dropped my bags on the floor and immediately whipped out the bottle of Scotch that I'd been lugging all that way. She declined a drink, and then observed how unlike her usual conferences the MLA was. . . and how telling she found it that all the informational materials highlighted the "Friends of Bill W" meetings scheduled throughout.

I have no idea what she was trying to say, either.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

The Other Renaissance (MLA Day 1)

I went to three panels today--two on Milton and one entitled (rather unpromisingly, I thought) "Did the English Renaissance Have Sex?"

At the two Milton panels I recognized lots of faces--probably 1/3 of the attendees at the one panel and 2/3 of the people at the other. At Renaissance Sex, however, there were a good 50-60 attendees but among them I recognized NO ONE. It was as if they'd been imported from an entirely different subfield: so young! So female! And so not MLA. There was the woman with major tatoos on both arms. A woman in a sari. Another woman with flaming red hair. And two women sitting right in front of me who were done up in what I can only identify as queer rockabilly: the one had blue-black hair in an Elvis coif, a red and white gingham halter top, and rhinestone earrings. The other had a similar but more spiky 'do in snowy platinum.

I'm pleased to know that the field is broader than my own little corner of it might suggest (and I'm definitely pleased that its members are more varied), but it's really strange to think that we inhabit such entirely different worlds even within the same subfield.

(However, I don't think it's our different world-inhabiting that caused me to stare in pain at the ceiling throughout one entire paper, praying that God would kill me immediately, or at least levitate me out of the room. It was about fag hags in Shakespeare's Coriolanus. And yes, you're right that there ARE no fag hags--whether called by that name or any other--in Coriolanus, and the author freely admitted as much. And yet, somehow, s/he still made a paper out of the topic. [On the other hand, the paper on intercrural sex was really good.])

GWB and I also crashed two open-bar receptions this evening, and I got a last-minute freebie invite to a really fun Society dinner as well. And tomorrow? One panel and oh-so-many blogger meet-ups. Fortune cookies never lie!

MLA fortune cookie wisdom

By the time I finally got into Philly this evening the only restaurant open near our hotel was a Chinese place. The food was decent. But the fortune cookies? Scary, dudes.

GWB's fortune: "You have at your command the wisdom of the ages."

Mine: "You will soon be involved in many gatherings and parties."

And that right there tells you everything you need to know about GWB, me, and our respective places in this profession. Or at least, it's a damn good predictor of our next three days here.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Merry Christmas!

Wishing a happy holiday to all y'all who celebrate it, and safe travels to everyone who'll be on the road in the next few days.

Watch this space for reports from the MLA.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Ah, the comforts of home

Well, I finally arrived at the family homestead at 3 a.m. on Saturday, Pacific Standard Time (which was, of course, 6 a.m. my time), after a journey that I will not trouble to recount. But the real fun was just about to begin: after a massive windstorm tore through the region the previous day, my folks (and some 1 million other residents) were without power.

And indeed, some 72 hours later they (we) are still without power. And it's below freezing at night. Luckily, we have a fireplace upstairs and a woodburning stove downstairs, which has the added advantage of allowing us to boil water and warm food up on it.

But oh, it's cold. And we have no more hot water. And it gets dark damn early here.

And in case y'all were wondering? Plucking one's eyebrows by candlelight? Really, really hard.

I have a newfound respect for the pioneers.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Planes, trains, and buses!

Tomorrow I leave on the first leg of my holiday travels. This is the schedule:

Dec. 15: Take the crappy city bus to the airport, lugging my suitcase through a transfer. Fly to Northwest City. Spend 10 days with the fam.

Dec. 26: Fly from Northwest City back to This City. Spend 12-15 hours frantically unpacking, repacking, and just possibly sleeping.

Dec. 27: Take Amtrak from This City to Philadelphia for the MLA. (And no, I don't live a reasonable train ride from Philadelphia. It's going to involve transfers and it's going to be hellacious. But training was half the price of flying, and at least there'll be an outlet for my laptop.) Spend 3.5 days in Philly, schmoozing and meeting some real life and some bloggy friends.

Dec. 30: Take the slow-ass commuter rail from Philly to NYC. Have nightmarish flashbacks the entire time. Spend two weeks in Manhattan housesitting for Victoria, skulking around the NYPL, and catching up with friends.

Jan. 10: Here's where my plans get hazy. I'll be leaving NYC around this date--but am I taking the train (or Greyhound) to Quaint Smallish City for several days? Am I flying home and having George Washington Boyfriend come visit me? At any rate, I'll be back in This City no later than Jan 16th. Classes start again on the 23nd.

Here's to living out of a suitcase~~

I weep for the future

I've just finished grading all my final exams and final essays, which means that I'm about an hour away from being totally and entirely done with my grading for the semester. (I still have to enter those grades into my online gradebook, but since said gradebook is, as aforesaid, online, I don't actually have to calculate course grades--it does it all for me!)

But since 'tis the season and all that, I thought I'd share the most tragic of the many missteps that I encountered in these two batches of finals. This is one of the IDs from my Brit Lit exam:

“Nay, nay,” quod he, “thanne have I Cristes curs!
Lat be,” quod he, “it shal nat be, so theech!*                         may I prosper
Thou woldest make me kisse thyn olde breech
And swere it were a relik of a saint,
Thought it were with thy fundament* depeint.*”                  anus; stained

So, pretty easy, right? We'd even discussed the ending of the Pardoner's Tale in class in some detail, but since it was two and a half months ago, I felt that giving the marginal glosses was appropriate--and I even snickered a little to myself about how you can tell a truly awesome exam by the fact that it has the word "anus" in it somewhere.

Most of my students did indeed recognize the passage. A few misidentified it as coming from the Miller's Tale, which I suppose I understand--it's still Chaucer, after all, and it's true that the MT also involve both anuses and kissing. But I had not one, but TWO students who misidentified this passage as coming from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. You know: when Gawain and his host's beautiful wife trade kisses.

Okay, so--what part of that "you'd make me kiss your old, shit-stained underwear and swear it was the relic of a saint" reminds you of our chivalrous friend Gawain, exactly?

I was also told by another student that a passage from "Corinna's Going A-Maying" (which the student correctly identified by title and author and said otherwise smart or at least accurate things about) provided an example of that popular theme in Cavalier poetry, "ceasing the day."

Yeah. I'm about ready to cease the day myself.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Perils of reviewing

I've just finished reading that manuscript--you remember: the one that apparently follows a Flavian methodology, whatever that might be--for Big Journal in My Field. And hoo-boy, is it bad. I suspect that the editor may have sent it to me not so much because its topic and method overlap with my own, but because it was such an obviously bad piece of work that he didn't want to trouble a more established scholar with the thing. This is fine by me (especially if I can convince the editor, by my promptness, thoroughness, etc., to send me stuff to review in the future!), but it does raise some questions.
First: who sends an essay to a journal without page numbers? Seriously. Thirty-odd pages, no numbers.

Second: who does such a bad job of proofreading that there are typos on nearly every page? And I'm not talking just about errors that one's eye might keep skipping over, like typing "is" for "if," but errors where the sentence was obviously partly rewritten but not double-checked, so that several words are missing or different version of the same verb are left sitting side by side. Or where the author has left blank spaces for the page numbers for a couple of citations. . . but never come back to fill them in.
I mean, okay. I have an editorial background and I'm anal anyway, but in this case these sloppy errors are indicative of the quality of the whole, which isn't even grad-student-y so much as it is undergrad-y: the essay is completely unbalanced, doing shit like providing 10 pages of not-at-all-relevant background information before giving (I'm not kidding) 3 pages of analysis of the supposedly important text that that background info was setting up. The author also has a penchant for just dropping in quotations from famous scholars--quotations that are appropriate enough, but that the author doesn't comment on or adapt or modify, but leaves to speak for themselves (even when those quotations were originally about something, uh, different than whatever he's using them to prove).

There is, however, the germ of an interesting idea here. I'm not sure that that idea is true, or provable, or maybe even ultimately all that interesting, but some part of it is, I think, original to the author. So I'm trying to write a review that both says NO WAY NO HOW to the journal editor, but that doesn't totally crush the author. If the essay were completely reoriented to focus on its best 10%, and to actually make its one rather interesting argument, it could be publishable (somewhere, though probably not in this particular journal).

It's a tough line to walk. I feel real compassion for the author, but I'm also just astonished at how bad some of this material is. I believe that it's important for the author to get feedback on the specific flaws in his approach so that he can correct them, but as I'm detailing those flaws I'm aware that I'm taking a kind of pleasure in doing so--and I don't want it to be about me and my enjoyment of whatever minor power I have now that I'm on the other side.

The other thing that's making this difficult is that I know who the author is. When the editor emailed me, he identified the author by name, even though in the editor's actual cover letter and on the essay itself none of that information is provided. This seems to me a breach of the usual blind author/blind reviewer process, which itself makes me uncomfortable--but not so uncomfortable that I didn't immediately Google the author. I discovered that he's a year or two ahead of me on the tenure track, at an institution where I also applied for a job--indeed, I'm pretty sure that he's in the very position that I applied for. This isn't something that makes me envious (the school is more or less equivalent to my own institution), but having that kind of information makes my task as a reviewer both easier and harder.

On the one hand, I know that the author is young, but not a grad student, has presented at some important conferences, but appears not yet to have published anything, and those facts make it easier for me to pitch my comments appropriately. On the other hand, there's also that background *buzz buzz* in my head of, "How the hell did he get that job? How did he even get his dissertation approved?" and all that is not conducive to kindly comments.

In the end, the easiest approach for me has been to pretend that he's a smart undergraduate who has just brought me his first draft of his senior thesis--in other words, that he's someone whose intelligence I believe in, who has the time and the skills to improve, but who also needs some very stern guidance just now.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Got a million to spare?

My 10th-year college reunion is this coming June. As if that event alone weren't reason enough for me to start reflecting on all my inadequacies, today I received a letter from my class reunion chair soliciting donations for our class gift.

Now, I never had any intention of contributing to this gift (I may have written in the past about when and why I stopped making my annual $25-50 donation to Instant Name Recognition U, and the explanatory letters that I wrote to my class secretary, the dean of the college, and the dean of the graduate school, and to which I received no reply), but I opened the letter and read it anyway.

Apparently, INRU is in the midst of a new capital campaign. I wasn't, actually, aware that the old one had ended--I suspect that they never really do end, just change their names--but our reunion chair was all burbly with excitement about the opportunities that this offered those of us desperate to give our money away:
In line with the University's priority to renovate campus facilities, two challenges are underway: an initiative that will match dollar-for-dollar outright gifts and pledges from $25,000 to $1,000,000 for [Important Building X]'s recent renovation, and a [Important Building Y] Challenge that will also match all new gifts or pledges of $10,000 to $500,000 for its restoration, which has recently begun. Both initiatives offer Class reunion fundraising credit and individual recognition opportunities for twice the amount of any qualifying gift. Recognition opportunities are limited, and on a first come, first served basis.
Okay, I'm going to try not to throw myself out of my second-story window at the thought that there might be someone in my graduating class either interested in or able to donate $10,000+ to my alma mater, because what I find most interesting are those last two sentences. The implication seems to be that a large number of us might well have tens of thousands of dollars lying around, but we're too chintzy to donate it if we think we'd only get recognized for it once--and that we would, moreover, jump at the chance to donate a mere $50,000 (say), if we could publicly claim to have donated $100,000. In fact, there are so many of us with pots of money lying around, and so greedy to be seen as even fatter cats than we are, that we'd better act fast--recognition opportunities are limited!

And then there's the final paragraph:
I hope you are as eager as I am to give back to [INRU]--an institution that has given us so much. [INRU] and your fellow classmates appreciate your commitment to our alma mater and to the Class of 1997.
Now, you know what? INRU probably gave me more than it gave the punk who wrote this letter: it gave me three degrees, my closest friends, and what I will admit was both an amazing education and a great set of personal and professional connections. I am the person I am today because of that school.

But that B.A. and M.A. were fully paid for (well, except for those pesky, outstanding loans, but nevermind them). It's probably untrue that my labor as a TA and as an instructor fully covered the expenses of my Ph.D., but I'm smart enough to know that alumni giving has no meaningful relation to grad student stipends--or to the wages that the university pays its clerical/technical/maintenance workers--anyway. I also know that there's no way to earmark any donations specifically for those purposes.

And that, ultimately, is what I find so frustrating about these solicitations: I wish that I did have that kind of money to give, if only so that the university would care enough to listen to my reasons for not giving it.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Do you perorate?

Today was the last day for two of my classes (the third ended on Tuesday), and as burnt-out as I've been feeling for the last two weeks and as uninterested as I've been in planning classes for at least as long*, last night I found myself getting suddenly energized as I tried to figure out how to wrap things up today. And by "wrap things up," I don't mean "plan a final 1.5-hour-long class meeting"; no, I mean "come up with a sufficiently conclusory three-minute speech"--one that would tie together everything we'd done and send my students out into the future feeling they'd accomplished something (and possibly with some interest in taking additional courses in my period).

Sometimes I take the quick and dirty route, as I did with my Comp class--in 60 seconds I reminded them of the many things they'd done this semester and the specific skills I'd seen them develop; told them that this was only the beginning of their writing careers; encouraged them to take more English courses; and thanked them for being a great class.

But with others I try much harder. In the three semesters that I've been teaching Brit Lit I, I've gone to great lengths to create a meaningful conclusion that--as with the best written conclusions--isn't so much a recap as a graceful suggestion of why what we've done might matter, and where it might lead us. (I had a great bit that I did at Big Urban, where the class ended with Paradise Lost, but at RU the survey goes just a bit further, so I had to come up with something new.)

I know that these perorations are a little cheesy, and that they're more about theatre than about content. I remember the first class that I TAed for as a grad student, and how the students clapped for the professor at end of the final lecture. As they were clapping, I turned to one of my fellow (but older and more experienced) TAs to observe that there didn't seem to be a meaningful pattern to which classes got applause, and which didn't--I'd seen classes fail to applaud a wildly popular professor at the end of a wildly popular course, and I'd seen them applaud at the end of a fairly humdrum one. My friend half-smiled, shrugged and said, "if you end right, you can always make them clap."

I was puzzled by that when he said it, but I've since come to see that it's usually true: you slow down your speech and emphasize just the right words, widen your eyes and put on the sincere face, and if you hit that last sentence just right, and then pause--well, unless it's a small class, or unless applauding isn't part of the campus culture, the response can be almost Pavlovian.**

So I do feel slightly fraudulant when I swing (with all apparent naturalness, as if this were just totally off the cuff) into such wrap-ups, but at the same time I think that students both like them and benefit from them. No, it's not as if my students would have learned any less over the course of the semester if I didn't take the time to remind them of what they'd learned, and it's not as if sending them off with an idea to chew over or a nice frame to put around the material we've covered means they've learned any more, but I think students do feel that they've learned more, and learned something more meaningful, when there's some kind of take-away. As a result, I believe they're more likely to take challenging or unfamiliar classes in the future and to believe in their own intellectual abilities.

And anyway: if I'm a fraudulent cheeseball, at least I'm in love with my own cheesiness and fakery. They may be artificial, these perorations, but as I deliver them I convince myself of their truth all over again.


*Best solution ever? Student research presentations for the last three class meetings! Worst solution ever? Teaching a work I'd never taught before--and had only read once, long ago--over the last two class meetings. And yes, I did both of these things this semester.

**For the record: no, none of my classes this semester clapped. But there were lots of thoughtful nods, reflective looks, and smiles throughout.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Minor practical and ethical dilemma

So I'm going to MLA again this year, mainly because George Washington Boyfriend is on the market, but also because it's not in a totally inconvenient location relative to the rest of my winter break plans, and because I do enjoy many of the panels, catching up with friends and professional acquaintances, &c.

But I haven't registered yet. What with that whole four-months-without-a-salary, moving-to-a-new-location-and-setting-up-house thing, I'm in pretty tight financial straits, and I just couldn't afford to pay the $125 early registration fee last month; I figured it would be easier to pay the full $150 fee later this month. But now, looking ahead to my projected expenses, I'm not even so sure about that.

I'm thinking about not registering at all.

Practically, I don't think that this would pose too much of a problem. GWB and I already have a hotel room, and in my past experience I don't recall nametages being regularly checked by MLA staff; I think they're really only strict at the book exhibit and at the big, "future-of-the-humanities"-type panels. The panels I'm interested in will likely draw between 5-40 people, and I'm pretty sure that security at the INRU reception isn't too tight, since I know people from other programs who have crashed it in past years (full, open bar, folks--'swhat I'm talking about!).

But perhaps I'm misremembering how strict nametag enforcement is, and there are a couple of panels that I'd be really disappointed if I got shut out of. And if part of the reason for going is to schmooze, maybe it's better to have the damn tag already. And there is, of course, the ethical question: could I be a good professional citizen and still be a conference freeloader?


Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Students never change. Except when they do.

Like many of my readers, I took a big, fat stack of essays with me on my Thanksgiving travels, and while I got through as many as I needed to, in order to face my students this week, I certainly didn't get through all of them.

I find myself grading more slowly these days, oppressed by encountering the same mistakes and writing the same comments over and over again. I try to remind myself that this student hasn't yet had me make that correction on a paper, and that I need to explain myself as clearly as if his were the first paper I'd ever seen with that particular citation error, or a heap of sentence fragments, or a paragraph that ended up being about something completely different than whatever its first sentence promised.

It's a struggle, and I understand why crotchety older faculty sometimes insist that college students are getting stupider: when you see the exact same problems, semester after semester, it's easy to foget that most individual students do improve, sometimes quite dramatically.

I keep telling myself this, and I think it's been changing the kinds of comments that I make on my students' papers. Here's an example: I read an essay that did a fairly nice comparative reading of two of Shakespeare's sonnets; it was a solid, respectable B (which for an essay in my class is pretty good), but the last page veered completely off track into an explanation of how relevant these poems are to us today, and how true to life, and how many examples of this situation we can see around us in the world today.

In the past, I would simply have slashed out those two or three paragraphs with my pen, written "inappropriate" in the margin, and moved on.

This time, reminding myself that many of my students don't have a stable sense of what is and isn't appropriate in a literature essay--and reminding myself, further, that this particular student was a sophomore and had chosen a rather challenging topic--I wrote something like, "This is all true, and I'm glad that you're so personally invested in this subject. However, this isn't appropriate in a formal essay. You'd have done better to use this last page to expand upon how the poetic devices that you so nicely identify on page 4 actually work within the poem."

(Yeah. You can see why it's taking me longer to grade these days.)

I'm not an especially patient person, and neither am I, by nature, a validator. My knee-jerk reflex isn't to say, charitably, "well, I can tell that you're really passionate about this topic, Suzy!" but rather to think, "Jesus Christ. What kind of stupid person would say that?" But I've been forcing myself to be more patient, in part because I've inadvertently learned a little more about the academic histories of some of my most impressive students.

Let's start with Liz, a senior, who is unquestionably my smartest and most thoughtful student this semester; it didn't surprise me to learn that she was applying to grad schools in English and that faculty members were practically fighting to write her recommendation letters. What did surprise me was when I met with her to talk about her applications, and I learned that she'd started her college career in the honors program at a nearby university, flunked out within a year, spent a couple of semesters at a community college, begged her way into Regional U. . . and has gotten nothing but straight As ever since.

Another one of my standout students did indifferently well in high school, fucked around for several years afterwards--but since starting at RU has gotten nearly perfect grades in his two majors while also holding down a full-time job. He rocked the LSAT and has gotten into several top-10 law schools.

Those are two students who have volunteered information about their academic histories. But as I look at the transcripts for my other top students, I see a similar pattern more times than not: this one got all Cs her first year. That one failed or withdrew from as many classes as she passed until her junior year, when suddenly her grades become all As and Bs.

I don't know what happened with those students--family or personal crises? Not ready for college? Stuck in the wrong major? I have no idea. But the fact that so many of my best students have chequered careers is reminding me that this year's C student might, next year, be the student who drops by my office just to boast about how she'd talked her way into the rare books room at the local R1 because she wanted to hold their 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass in her hands.

And even if she won't be, I need to treat her as if she could.

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Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Giving thanks

I'm currently in Quaint Smallish City, where I'll be spending Thanksgiving with George Washington Boyfriend--just the two of us, one turkey, and all the holiday fixings.

Thanksgiving is probably my favorite holiday, and part of what I love about it is how different it always is from one year to the next: since I've lived some 3,000 miles from my family for the past 14 years, I haven't had a traditional family Thanksgiving since I was 17. Now, I like everyone in my immediate and extended family, and I do love a big holiday meal at home--but I get that every year at Christmas. For Thanksgiving, then, it's nice to mix it up.

Here are some of the things I've done on Thanksgivings Past:

In college
Spent the holiday in Massachusetts with the family of Jonesy (whom I'd met on an exchange program to Japan in high school & hadn't seen since).

Took an epic bus journey with Babe to her mom's place in Maine. On the long ride back we got so hungry that we started digging into the leftovers with our hands--tearing the turkey into shreds and getting stuffing under our nails.
Went out carousing with Miss Zelaznog the night before Thanksgiving, got up extraordinarily late the next day (because I had, uhh. . . met someone during that carousing), and then rejoined her and Lulu and a couple other West Coast orphans for dinner at a fancy Korean restaurant. Afterwards, we wandered around in the rain for blocks trying to find slices of pumpkin and pecan pie.

Met up with Bert, his then-boyfriend, and an assortment of other gay men in a wacky Tudor building for more food than three times our number could possibly have consumed.

Went to Paris and spent Thanksgiving with The Expat, eating mussels and drinking Beaujolais.

Started what became a mini-tradition with HK, where we got together in one location or another to prepare our own feast--including our first-ever self-prepared turkey, potatoes mashed under primitive conditions, and going out dancing in a dodgy D.C. neighborhood with a social scientist and a cop.

Went to Bert's parents' place in Jersey for a homemade, multi-course Chinese dinner.

Joined Lulu and Mr. Lulu for dinner in a diner, shortly before the two of them jetted off on a red-eye to some Caribbean island (and I returned to my dissertation).
Because really, the best thing about the holidays is family--and one of the best things about family is that it's not limited to those you're actually related to.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Yet another way to derail a class:

Make the observation, in the midst of a great discussion of Act 2, Scene 4 of Measure for Measure (where Angelo propositions Isabella), that, if the scene is staged right, it's shocking and gross, yes. . . but also pretty hot.

If you do this, your students will gasp, look at you with wide, astonished eyes, and immediately stop talking.

But hey: I'm a big believer in creating my own gossip--and I can't claim that the comment was unpremeditated.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

How awesome is this?

I just got an email out of the blue from the editor at Big Journal in My Field, which published, about a year ago, my most significant article to date. The editor was inquiring as to my interest in reviewing a submission they'd just received, which would have been cool enough on its own--but according to his email this submission "cites your own work on the topic, your essay in [Journal], as the point of departure and framework for [the author's] methodology."

As George Washington Boyfriend pointed out, what this probably means is that the author is violently attacking my article and its argument. But so what? Right now, I'm just excited to learn that someone actually read the thing and had some kind of reaction to it--not to mention that I apparently have a methodology! Who knew?

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Don't get a Miltonist angry!

Or maybe that should be, don't get a Miltonist drunk and make her stand around in the extreme cold at a football game that her side is losing. No, really: don't do that. Or if you do, make sure that you're not sitting anywhere near her.

In honor of The Big Football Game this weekend, for which George Washington Boyfriend and I will be disappearing for the next several days, I'd like to share with the internets what happend at BFG two years ago, the last time the event was held in this particular location.

First, it should be explained that my alma mater, being an Eastern college of a certain vintage, has its share of terribly patrician alumni, and the same is true of our chief rival. This rapidly-aging species is especially in evidence at BFG, where they seem to cluster together--the fine-featured gents in their camel-hair coats and the wives with their careful hairdos and Ferragamo scarves draped about their shoulders like shawls. Walking past their tailgate parties I've seen table linens and dented silver cocktail shakers.

Our group of friends always puts together a tailgate, too, and although it's nothing like that, it does feature a goodly amount of alcohol. Two years ago Flavia imbibed rather a lot of that alcohol, in rather a short period of time, and was then hustled off to the horrors of this particular football stadium and this particularly hideous losing game. Now, over the years, we've wound up getting seats further and further away from the undergraduates and deeper and deeper into the alumni section--and this year we happened to be sitting in the midst of a big block of Rival School alumni, many of whom were of just the WASPy sort detailed above.

Flavia was not, perhaps, fully aware of whom she was seated among. Flavia was, perhaps, under the misapprehension that she was back in college, among the sort of students who competed to come up with the wittiest and most offensive cheers and insults in the course of the football game. But at any rate, as Alma Mater was losing, she went into that bit that she did all through grad school. That bit wherein she berated Alma Mater, asking why the school couldn't just win a goddamn fucking football game one fucking time when she gave this school her slave labor and and taught its ungrateful students--and, really, she didn't ask for much, but, goddammit! Couldn't the morons complete a motherfucking pass already?

(Normally this bit would have been enacted with little if any profanity--but, well, see "alcohol, consumption of," above. See also, "losing, again.")

The WASPy sexegenarians behind her were appalled. Somewhat amused, but mostly appalled. They murmured among themselves. And then said one archly to the other, in what I think of as the putting-in-the-monocle voice, "What do you suppose she teaches them with that mouth? Do you suppose she teaches them. . . Shakespeare? Or perhaps it's Dante?"

Clearly, said his tone, this dreadful woman wouldn't know the first thing about such subjects; she must be some horrid little scientist or perhaps someone who works on feminist studies or something. And oh, it just goes to show that INRU lets anyone in these days!

George Washington Boyfriend, overhearing this, couldn't resist turning around and saying, with a grin, "Actually, sir, you may not believe this--but she's a Miltonist."

WASPy gent looked horrified. "Oh dear. Thank you so much for telling me--if she heard me, she'd kill me!"

Now, this fella may simply have been abashed at being caught mid-condescension. But I've always prefered to think that there was something about the wrath of a Miltonist that struck particular fear into his heart.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006


I was observed teaching one of my classes today. I have no idea what my observer thought (we haven't had our debriefing), but every time I looked up she was flipping over yet another page of her legal pad in order to keep writing, or she was studying me with what I automatically interpreted to be a look of utter, what-the-hell-is-she-doing-up-there? bewilderment. By the end of the period I felt like an incomprehensible spaz who had no business teaching college students.

And yet, had I not had an observer in the room, I'd have considered it to be an above-average class: crammed full of material and a little manic, yes, but fun and productive all the same.

Which means one of two things: either the class was just fine. . . or I have vastly misjudged my own competency as a teacher.

[UPDATED TO ADD: although I still haven't had a chance to sit down and talk with my observer, I've received her typed report, and it's entirely positive. I know that the genre more or less mandates a positive spin (the observation report seems to be like the recommendation letter in that respect), and I do want to get her feedback on a few specific issues--but it's still nice to know that I don't entirely suck as a teacher.]

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Bare ruined choirs

There’s nothing better than settling in to work on the sofa in the early afternoon on a grey day with a big cup of coffee, a generous slice of pumpkin bread, and the stereo spinning some happy (but still sufficiently background-y) dance tunes. Add in a burning stick of incense and a view of the wide, winding museum drive across the way, and you’ve got a recipe for several good hours of writing.

As I’ve been working in front of this window for the last few weeks and noticing how progressively much more of the museum drive I’ve been able to see as the trees shed their leaves—we’re down now to just a few hold-outs with their raggedy fringes of gold—I’ve often found myself muttering the first several lines from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73:
That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou seest the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west;
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self that seals up all in rest.
In me thou seest the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the deathbed whereon it must expire,
Consumed with that which it was nourished by.
    This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
    To love that well, which thou must leave ere long.
I love fall, but damn if it isn’t also such a sad time of year. No wonder we commemorate the dead in November, with All Souls, All Saints, and Veterans/Remembrance Day.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Advice: academic reading groups

In the English Department at Regional U., I'm one of two ladder faculty who work on the Renaissance and one of four who work on a non-modern period (we also have an Anglo-Saxonist and an Ancient World specialist). All things considered, this is awfully good for a department of 20 full-time faculty, and I'm especially lucky in that all four of us are very active scholars AND almost exactly the same age--not only are they good people to bounce ideas off of, they're also just plain fun to hang out with.

However, this isn't the same as having a group of peers with whom I can really discuss the minutiae of my work, turn to for suggestions about sources, or just chat about the latest scholarship. Many of my colleagues in other subfields make up for this by participating in regional reading groups made up of faculty from various local institutions--depending on the group, they may meet once or twice a month; may present works in progress, discuss recent books in their field, or trade manuscripts; or they may just chat and keep in touch largely through an email discussion list.

To my knowledge, though, there is no such group in my region for Early Modernists. (There IS an Early Modern colloquium at the university in The Next City Over. . . but it's 65 miles away and it appears to be designed solely to bring in speakers; I'm sure that I'd be welcome to attend talks there, but I'm not sure that it would present quite the kind of community that I'm looking for. Also, 65 miles isn't exactly close.)

So you see where this is going. I've talked to my department chair about how her own reading group functions, and she was very enthusiastic about the possibility of my starting one up in my own field. However, I have no--zero!--experience with this kind of thing. I've done my homework, and I think that there are probably enough Early Modernists in the English departments at nearby institutions to support such a group (and if we included faculty from the history and art history departments, so much the better); I can also handle all the little managerial issues of setting up a mailing list and/or webpage, arranging for meeting space, and all that good stuff. Not for nothing was I the manager of the INRU marching band, and at least no one in a Renaissance reading group is likely to be setting Sousaphones on fire.

But, see, I'm a good manager; I'm not sure I'm a good leader. What if people express interest, but never attend meetings? How does one decide which books the group is interested in reading, or whether indeed to orient the organization toward reading recent scholarship--or reading each others' own works in progress--or doing something else entirely? And will this whole thing just turn out to be a huge pain in my ass?

On the one hand, I'm really excited about the opportunity to meet and make connections with people at other institutions (including grad students!), and if I intend to stay at Regional U. for any length of time, I'm probably only going to be happy if I have that kind of professional circle. This would also be a good thing for my department (and institution)'s reputation, and as such would be a good thing for my C.V. and my reappointment and promotion bids. But on the other--well, it's a little daunting. Who am I, with my 11-month-old Ph.D., to be managing such a thing?

So. . . anyone out there ever organized a reading group or colloquium (whether regional or institutional)? Any thoughts or advice you'd care to throw my way?

Thursday, November 09, 2006

H.K. explains it all

That is, why the two most joyous events in recent memory happened at the same time.

Wheels within wheels, my friends. Wheels within wheels.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Election day jitters

In 1994, I was a sophomore in college. I voted in the elections that year, of course, but I didn't follow politics very closely and I didn't have much sense of the importance of midterm elections (after all, if you got the right senators and congresspeople in office in your state, what did it matter what happened elsewhere?).

The morning after the elections I ran into Fred, an editor for the student publication for which I was then half-heartedly writing. Fred was very into politics. I had no idea yet who'd won back home, and if I'd heard on the radio about the "Republican Revolution," it didn't mean much to me--I mean, there was still a Democrat in the White House, right? As I got closer, I could see that Fred was wearing a dark suit and tie and some kind of thing on his arm.

"Hey, Fred." I said. "Nice--uh, nice suit."

"I'm in mourning," he announced, tossing his abnormally large head. Then he waited. When it became clear that I wasn't going to complete his sentence or start commiserating, he continued, ". . . at the Democrats' losing Congress. That's why I have my black armband on."

"Oh, yeah." I said. "Well, uh, too bad about that, huh?" And I kept walking, thinking, okay, dude.

Now, you can see right here why Fred went on to become (in no particular order) a Rhodes Scholar, a city councilman, a civil rights lawyer, and a clerk for the Supreme Court--while I'm a no-account blogger with lots of debt and no connections in an economically depressed corner of the country.

But people, I've learned! It's 12 years on, and I now care very much about the midterm elections--so much so that I'm obsessed with races in states I've never even visited, and I've hardly been able to plan my classes, what with clicking back and forth between websites these past 48 hours. I've got all kinds of fingers and toes crossed, and a bottle of Scotch at the ready for good news or bad.

(That being said? I still think that Fred is a tool.)

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Happy Guy Fawkes Day!

Contrary to appearences on this blog, I actually have considerably less personal and scholarly investment in the Gunpowder Plot and its subsequent commemorations than does George Washington Boyfriend (in early New England, the anniversary was marked by "Pope Day" celebrations). Nevertheless, when I discovered that the town of Lewes, in East Sussex, still celebrates a full-on Bonfire Night (complete with the burning of effigies of Guy Fawkes and Pope Paul V, a procession of seventeen burning crosses to commemorate the town's seventeen Marian martyrs, and [fake] heads on pikes to represent current "enemies of bonfire"), I almost squealed, I was so excited. One of these days, GWB and I are totally, totally going.

Until that happy day occurs, however, I leave you with two treats in honor of the Most Fortuitious Discovery of the Powder Treason:

1) The etymology of the word "guy": Our everyday use of the word to mean, generally, a person, appears to come directly from Guy Fawkes--or rather, from the effigies of Guy Fawkes that it was once common for every community to dress up and parade around (and then burn) every November 5th. That's the first definition for "guy" given in the OED (1806), which appears to have led to the second definition, "a person of grotesque appearance, esp. with reference to dress" (1836), which seems, gradually, to have led to the OED's fourth definition: "a man, fellow" (1847).

2) The full lyrics to the "remember remember" rhyme:*

Remember, remember the fifth of November,
Gunpowder Treason and Plot,
I see no reason why gunpowder treason
should ever be forgot.

Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes,'twas his intent
to blow up the King and the Parliament.
Three score barrels of powder below,
Poor old England to overthrow:
By God's providence he was catch'd
With a dark lantern and burning match.

Holloa boys, holloa boys, make the bells ring.
Holloa boys, holloa boys, God save the King!
Hip hip hoorah!

A penny loaf to feed the Pope.
A farthing o' cheese to choke him.
A pint of beer to rinse it down.
A faggot of sticks to burn him.
Burn him in a tub of tar.
Burn him like a blazing star.
Burn his body from his head.
Then we'll say ol' Pope is dead.

Hip hip hoorah!
Hip hip hoorah!


*Well, at least according to Wikipedia. I've been meaning to get hold of James Sharpe's recent book, Remember, Remember, which I suspect might be a bit more reliable than the random sources I've cobbled together here--but hey. I've been busy.

Friday, November 03, 2006

My Dad is a riot

He just sent me these pictures of this year's jack-o'-lantern, on my parents' front porch:

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Fair or unfair? (Or is that not the question?)

As I mentioned earlier, my department is currently running a couple of job searches. Although I'm not on either committee, I still hear chatter about the applicant pool--and I have one colleague who keeps popping into my office, application files in hand, and saying, "Firstname Lastname. Know 'em?"

Since they're always INRU PhDs, of course I always know them. However, since neither of our searches is in my field, and since most of the applicants are a couple of years behind me, I generally don't know their work; when asked about them, then, I've admitted the limits of my knowledge while still being genially enthusiastic: "Oh, s/he's great, just great. Very smart, hard-working, a lovely human being." But today a name came up belonging to someone who has a, shall we say, problematic personality--problematic to a degree that would be apparent even in a 30-minute interview, or possibly even over the phone. So I said, all faux-judiciously, "Well, you're the one reviewing the files, and of course I don't know his/her work . . . but if the question is just about collegiality, Person Y wouldn't be my first choice. All other things being equal, I'd definitely go with Person X."

And then a few hours later my colleague returned with a question about a Person Z, whom I actually know quite well--Z is from my entering class and is someone with whom I had numerous courses, whom I TAed alongside, and whom I get a tremendous kick out of even though we were never very close--and, well, Z is obviously the person I recommended MOST highly, for the simple reason that Z is the person I know best.

On the one hand, this is all perfectly normal and natural and the way that things work in the real world, whether that world be academia or law or Wall Street; connections are what make the world go 'round. When I was on the market, I knew that I was likely to get MLA interviews with schools where the search chair or a committee member had a degree from INRU--and whaddaya know? I almost always did.

Moreover, I trust my colleagues to make thoughtful decisions, and I'm happy to have some little knowledge that might be useful to them. All the same, when you've already received more than 200 applications for a position, you probably do what you can to weed through the pile as quickly as possible--which means that I can't help but feel a few twinges about what my casual remarks could potentially do to someone's candidacy. I also can't help but have noticed that my department, like so many others, has a lot of "duplicates": faculty members with degrees from the same institution. In fact, two of this year's new hires have doctorates from the same institutions as faculty who were hired just the previous year. (I'm the only INRU PhD in the department, but I'm one of three faculty who hold INRU BAs.)

Now, if a grad program is good, the likelihood of hiring multiple people from that program is obviously going to be higher--but I don't happen to think that the laws of the job market follow the laws of probability all that closely.

I've ranted about this elsewhere, but when I started my PhD program, our entering classes were absurdly un-diverse. 10 students came in every year, and always from essentially the same 10-15 schools. Year after year, with just one or two wildcards--someone from a midwestern liberal arts college, say, or from a flagship state school that wasn't a top doctoral institution. [I should note that this doesn't hold true any longer, or at least not to this degree; I've been pleasantly surprised by the range and variety of entering students in the last few years.]

And the thing is, I really don't think that it was snobbery, or at least not conscious snobbery; I think that it was laziness. If you're a harried committee member, and you get an application from someone who's got an undergrad degree from a place you consider a peer institution--where your friends teach, or taught, or got their degrees from--you feel like you know what it's about: you have a sense of who the faculty are, what kinds of students attend, and what the courses in the major looks like. It's just easier than wondering whether Northeastern Montana State U has a rigorous course of study, or who this person writing a rec letter is--and it's certainly easier than (*gasp!*) actually trying to evaluate each candidate on his or her own merits.

It's not that my fellow grad students weren't very, very smart. They were; some of them were even brilliant. But it still felt unfair to me, and I continue to wonder whether I'd have gotten into my program myself, had I not attended one of the approved institutions.

So, I worry, just a little bit about perpetuating that kind of unfair advantage at my new institution, even while I'm genuinely convinced of the awesomeness of most of my grad school colleagues. I want them to do well, and I'm certainly personally invested in seeing that we hire new people as fantastic as those we already have. And yet. . . !

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

It's free book season!

I just received my third package of the day containing free books, and I have to say that this is definitely the best perk of my job (it's better, even, than walking into this town's best coffeeshop and being hailed enthusiastically by the student-barista as "Dr. Fescue!").

I'm designing two new courses for the spring, so many of the books I received today are for those classes (which is to say, they remind me of all the work I have to do, and so aren't an entirely unqualified joy), but I also just received my shipment of seven--count 'em, SEVEN--free books as my publisher's reviewer's honorarium. I don't need any of those books urgently, and I may in fact never need two of them at all. . . but isn't that what makes them fun? Whatever isn't required reading, after all, must be pleasure reading. Or if they're not that, at least they'll look good on my bookshelves.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

The blogworld and its generosity

This weekend I had a wonderful blogger meet-up with Tiruncula in the hilly town of Very Important U. We had coffee, had lunch, went browsing through antique and used-book stores, and hung out with her sweet sweet doggies.

I've loved all the bloggers I've met in person, and I've found them to be, simultaneously, just like and quite a bit more than their blog personae would suggest. Although I now have more standing invitations to get together with various bloggers than I've had actual, in-person meetings, in the last few months I've been carrying on a surprising number of off-blog conversations with people I've met through my blog (some of whom have their own blogs, some of whom don't), almost always under my own name. I've talked to people about the job market, about conference-going, about lesson plans, and about my scholarship. I've chatted with grad students in my field, as well as with fairly advanced scholars. I've encouraged some people to apply for the two jobs at my institution, and I've had a few readers encourage me to apply for jobs at theirs. In short, I've come to see how permeable the boundary is between the (officially pseudonymous) blogosphere and our regular, professional lives.

And I have to say that this isn't entirely what I expected from the blogsphere--and it's certainly not what the Ivan Tribbles of the world imagine it's like down here. When I first started blogging, I was attracted to individual academic bloggers as well as to the community that I could see they composed. But even though I was immediately interested in that community and wanted to join it, I nevertheless thought of my own blogging as relatively unidirectional: something would happen, and I'd write about it, or I'd have a long, thoughtful take on some issue, and I'd write about that. Ideally, some people out there would like what I wrote, just as I liked a lot of what I read, but I imagined that the roles of writer and reader were fundamentally distinct--even if the same person might well perform both roles at different times.

But in fact it's rarely unidirectional. Blog posts aren't pseudonymous rants or raves or cries of despair thrown out into space for other anonymous people to comment on or take heart from or whatever. They are, at least for me, a collective discussion and working through of issues common to many of us. They're water-cooler kvetching, intellectual brainstorming, and professional networking, all at once.

As I was telling a fellow blogger recently, the blogosphere has given me far more professional support and guidance than I got in grad school or than I have, so far, received in my first two full-time jobs. This isn't to knock on either of those experiences--I liked my grad school colleagues, and I think my program did a good job of shepherding us through and preparing us for professional life. But there were questions I didn't know to ask, problems I didn't know were common to other people, and issues that it never even occurred to me to think about. And even now, when I'm surrounded by great colleagues and mentors, I'm still in a very specific department, at a very specific institution; it's hard to get a sense of the range of the profession from sitting in such a small corner of it, and especially as a very junior member.

I wonder whether now is the time to mention that both of the on-campus interviews that I got last year had bloggers on their hiring committees. In one case, the other blogger knew who I was, and in the other, the blogger didn't (I'm now at the job with the blogger who--I assume!--still doesn't know who I am). I mention this because, although I'm probably one of the few people who has had this experience, it doesn't actually strike me as particularly noteworthy. How many of us, after all, have had interviews with hiring committees where we already knew one of the members? Lots of us, I'm betting. We know these people through professional societies, or because we went to college with them, or because our dissertation director was their dissertation director 10 years earlier. I had one interview where I knew the damn dean, because we'd already been on two conference panels together. Knowing someone because we both blog? Not much different, except that we're likely to know each other rather better.

So in some ways, blogging is just another way of developing academic friendships and professional relationships. It's a small world we live in, and I'd bet that very few of us are more than two degrees removed from each other anyway. I'd submit, however, that blogging is actually a much better way of developing those friendships: we're not in the same departments or at the same institutions, and sometimes we're not even in the same fields; we're not (usually) competing for the same jobs. We're better able to let our guard down and to admit to not knowing something, and we're more likely to get a wider and more interesting range of perspectives. I also think that one of the defining characteristics of the academic blogosphere is its generosity. I'm not sure why this is, although I suspect that our (at least notional) pseudonymity has something to do with it, as I suspect the sense of intimacy that can be conveyed through blogging also does.

All I can say is that my readers and fellow bloggers have never had any reason to help me out--I'm not their colleague, they usually don't know me, and I'm not exactly the person you'd want to turn to for help in getting on an important conference panel or published in a big journal. But they have, time and again, and I feel oddly impelled to help them out, too, when I can. It's the best face of academia that I know.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Fall photoblogging

The view out my front window, from where I sit reading on my sofa:

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Campaign ads

I'm having my freshman check out this site run by the American Museum of the Moving Image, which brings together every presidential campaign t.v. commercial since 1955. I'd heard about the site on NPR back in 2004, and I used it to great success in the previous incarnation of this class--but I'd forgotten how awesome the site is. The ads are, of course, the real attraction, but the site is also beautifully set up and very navigable.

It's a total procrastination device, but such fun. (Maybe I'm a sicko, but I can watch Johnson's "Daisy" commercial all day long.)

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

You have to do more than that to scare me!

I just received this email from a student:
Dear Dr. Fescue,

I was wondering if I can make an appointment with you sometime on Thursday regarding [the homework assignment] I wrote for class. You put a comment on my paper that you were afraid. Seeing this comment, I feel that I need some help. I did have an extremely hard time with it and would like you to help make this clear for me. Hopefully I will have more sense of it if I speak to you about it.

Anxious Student
As I recall, I wrote a comment on her assignment along the lines of, "This is a good effort, but I'm afraid that it isn't quite successful at [specific task]." I wrote her back assuring her that I wasn't frightened by her assignment, but that I simply regretted to say that it didn't meet the requirements.

Because really: if I were easily frightened by undergraduate writing, would I be in this profession?

Friday, October 20, 2006

". . . forthcoming"

In the course of putting together materials for an internal grant application today, I did a quick update of my vita. And it struck me that I have a damn lot of items in my publications section that are labeled, "forthcoming." Now, this is awesome and all, and I'm glad to have several new(ish) things wending their way through the pipeline--but I'm wondering whether it looks bad (gauche, overeager, whatever) to list all of these things.

Perhaps I should list just my in-print articles and maybe the one or two most important forthcoming items? Some of the stuff waiting in the wings is relatively small-potatoes, anyway (a review, a revised conference paper, a primarily descriptive essay for a library journal)--and although I've been taking comfort in seeing that list grow, maybe some judicious pruning would be useful in directing attention to the three or four Important Pieces and not smothering them up with Everything Else.

But--is less more, or is more, more?

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Reading for Pleasure Wednesday: V for Vendetta

In response to my post last month on the Gunpowder Plot and September 11th, Kfluff asked whether I'd seen V for Vendetta. I hadn't. George Washington Boyfriend and I had thought about seeing it when it was in theatres last year, but it had gotten relatively unenthusiastic reviews, and what with one thing and another we didn't get around to it. But Kfluff put it back on my radar, so on one of my recent trips to Quaint Smallish City we rented the movie, not sure whether it would actually be any good.

In fact, it was awesome. Maybe it's just that we've both been in the mood for some dystopian fiction lately--in the last two months we've also gone to see Terry Gilliam's Brazil and rented Blade Runner--but I loved that movie from start to finish and I'm totally showing it to my majors next semester.

So naturally, I had to get my hands on the graphic novel by Alan Moore and David Lloyd, which the movie was based on. Like the movie, the novel is set in a totalitarian Britain at some point in the near future, after a third world war and a nuclear holocaust have produced serious climate change, flooding, famine, and the destruction of large parts of the earth and its peoples. The government that emerged in the midst of this chaos quickly imposed order, and that order and that sense of security were so welcome that the people are now content to live in a state of constant surveillance, rationing, and low-level fear.

As the Leader muses to himself, early in the book:
I am the Leader. Leader of the lost, ruler of the ruins. I am a man, like any other man. I lead the country that I love out of the wilderness of the twentieth century. I believe in survival. In the destiny of the Nordic race. I believe in fascism.

Oh yes, I am a fascist. What of it? Fascism. . . a word. A word whose meaning has been lost in the bleatings of the weak and the treacherous. The Romans invented fascism. A bundle of bound twigs was its symbol. One twig could be broken. A bundle would prevail. Fascism. . . strength in unity.

I believe in strength. I believe in unity. And if that strength, that unity of purpose, demands a uniformity of thought, word, and deed, so be it. I will not hear talk of freedom. I will not hear talk of individual liberty. They are luxuries. I do not believe in luxuries.

The war put paid to luxury. The war put paid to freedom.
While the movie vaguely suggests that this government is racist, it's very clear in the book (where one of the most popular t.v. shows is "Storm Saxon," whose eponymous hero saves imperilled white women and children from leering Africans). The non-white races, the gays and lesbians, and political dissidents of all sorts have been rounded up, interrogated, tortured, starved, and killed.

In the midst of this state of affairs, a terrorist appears one November 5th, dressed as the original English terrorist, Guy Fawkes. His first move is to take care of Fawkes's unfinished business and blow up the houses of Parliament, and he thereafter pursues a seemingly random plan of destruction in an effort to shake up the English people and get them to take their country into their own hands. One man's terrorist, after all, is another man's freedom fighter.

I have next to no experience with comic books, so reading the novel was sometimes confusing, since I'm not entirely familiar with the conventions of the genre; I also kept forgetting which of the various worried-looking Englishmen in suits was which. But the novel is ultimately more intellectually interesting than the movie: it has a variety of subplots that paint a much richer and more disturbing picture of life in this totalitarian state, and the figure of V. is likewise more complicated than he is in the movie--he's still largely a sympathetic character, but he's also much more clearly a kind of psychopath. The story is surprisingly funny, very literate, and also very much of our time

As V says: people should not be afraid of their government. Governments should be afraid of their people.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Microfilm, paper, or CD?

Some of you may remember that long ago, on my other blog, I had a question about microfilming manuscripts. I still haven't resolved the issue with the longer and more important manuscript, which is in a somewhat obscure location (and which I'll be going back to visit again in person this summer, anyway), but I'm finally getting my act together in re: the manuscript at the British Library.

But now I have another question: a reproduction is apparently available in microfilm, paper, or CD copy. I'm assuming that the paper copy would actually be a copy from the microfilm, not directly from the manuscript itself, since the manuscript is bound--and I worked in a rare books library for two years, and we didn't, no way no how, photocopy anything that was rare and bound and would have to be smashed down on a glass paten. (But maybe they do things differently at the BL.)

So, any thoughts? I'm going to be transcribing this baby in its entirety, so clarity of reproduction is important. I kind of hate microfilm (although I've only dealt with it for print sources before), but if the quality is better than a paper copy, I should probably go with that. I also like the idea of having the document on a CD, but that would make transcription on a computer more difficult; I guess I'd have to bring my laptop into the office and transcribe off my desktop monitor.

(And if this makes any difference: the MS is in a mixed hand with some Secretary forms; the letter forms themselves are mostly consistent throughout, but the author has an atrocious, messy, slashing hand.)

Thanks in advance. . .

Saturday, October 14, 2006

On loving one's students

I'm on a much-needed fall break out here (only two days off, but my teaching schedule makes it a sweet six-day weekend), catching up on some reading, some grading, and some essential relaxation. But as I'm doing all those things I've also been mulling over an experience I've been having these past few weeks with an erratic intensity.

Because despite the various problem students I've been highlighting on this blog, and despite the fact that I am (I admit) a relatively impatient person prone to fits of vexation over the littlest things, what I've been noticing is the irrational love that I feel for my students at odd moments--and not only the smartest, most talented, or most personable among them. I'll be administering a quiz, taking those 10 minutes to figure out what the hell I should do for the rest of the period, and I'll look out across their bowed and earnest (or frustrated and confused) heads, and I'll be overcome by an irrational wave of love for them both individually and collectively--even, briefly, for the whiners and the fuck-ups.

I felt this way about my first class of INRU freshmen, but that was more explicable. It was the first class I'd ever designed and taught entirely by myself, and I was in love, partly, with my own creation. I also had a truly awesome collection of students--and those students were, after all, first-semester INRU freshmen. I'd been an INRU freshman myself only 11 years earlier, and much of my overwhelming feeling of love for them was bound up in my recognition of myself in them and my complicated, tortured, but still-enduring love for my alma mater. I felt excited for them and protective of them, and I felt that I got them, and I know that they enjoyed the fact that I could relate to them as a (relatively) recent alumna, advise them, and make the occasional institutionally-chauvinistic joke.

But my students at Regional U are not very much like me. They're from a part of the country that's culturally different from most places I've lived, and although most of them are "traditional" students--in the sense that they're in their early 20s and live on campus--there's a sizable minority of commuters, or transfer students, or significantly older students. I would guess that the majority of our students are first-generation college students and I know that most grew up in communities no more than a couple of hours away. They'll probably stay in this state, and possibly even this part of this state, for most of their lives. They may have high ambitions, but they are not, in any self-conscious way, "elite."

And I don't know exactly what it is that I love about them. I love that they're from farms, or that they're single mothers, or in ROTC. I love that they have brothers and sisters and cousins nearby. I love that they're in college. I love that they came to RU because of the creative writing program or the dance program. I love that they're so hard-working and that they'll be better thinkers and writers when they come out. I love their promise and their hopefulness.

That kid who swung by my office hours just to tell me how crazy it is that the Wife of Bath is just like his girlfriend (and they even have the same astrological sign)? Love him. The student who shyly told me that she liked Henry V so much that she was going to write a paper for her Poli Sci class on the play? Love her. The fact that my freshmen, when told to come up with their own topics for an op-ed style paper, wrote essays investigating local industrial pollution, Indian land claims, and campus sexual harrassment policies? Love that.

I love the fact that they're so different from the people I knew in college, and yet so much the same. I love that they allow me to see more of what it is to be a college student in America, and what it is to be a professor.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006


This situation has ended happily for all concerned. Student left a wealth of additional materials (none of them bombs) in my mailbox, with sticky notes explaining each one. One of the top notes contained the sentence, "I apologize for getting so upset." When I emailed her to tell her that everything checked out and I was signing off on her requirement, she sent me a very gracious message back.

(But I told her I'd hold onto her notebook for her, so she'll have to come by my office to pick it up. I want to see what this girl looks like!)

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

In the Zone

I don't know what's up with me, people, but these last few days I have been In The Zone. Consider my activities this weekend:

  • Typed up and then sent off a review of a book proposal that I've been evaluating for a publisher
  • Dusted off that chapter I haven't touched in a month, reminded myself what the hell it was about, and then wrote five new pages
  • Graded 10 comp papers
  • Graded remaining 11 comp papers and entered grades into the system
  • Graded 30 short responses for Brit Lit
  • Went and hung out with a bunch of my new colleagues for several hours
  • Went to mass
  • Ran errands
  • Graded 9 Brit Lit papers
  • Went to see a movie with My New Friend
  • Graded 9 Brit Lit papers
  • Read and commented on 21 comp topic proposals
  • Did the reading for two classes (the third has a midterm tomorrow--hooray!)
  • Planned those two classes
  • Did a load of laundry, another of dishes, took out the trash, etc.
  • Went to my belly dance class
Why, it looks as though I've been a marvel of productivity, while still finding time to get out and socialize! Who is this crazy woman who's taken over my body--and why can't she be here always?

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Is that a good thing?

The other day I wound up walking out to the parking lot with another young faculty member, and in the course of chatting about this and that, he said, "So, it sounds like your Brit Lit I class is going really well!"

"Uh. . . yeah." I said. "I love teaching that survey. But, uh. . . where did you hear that it was going so well?"

"Oh, we must have a lot of the same students," he said, "because I always hear them talking about your class. One of them said that your Chaucer gives her goosebumps."

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Unfortunate typographic decisions, SF edition

From my brother's blog, because I'm still laughing about this a day later:
Attention electricity-loving Prius owner on 101 northbound near San Mateo...
We're all very happy that you like your hybrid, and can understand that you cannot fit in "watts" with two T's in the confines of the 7-character license plate you chose...

However, it shouldn't take Nikola Tesla to tell you that your "G♥TWATS" license plate just might be misunderstood.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

For the poetophobes or poeto-poseurs

David Orr has an excellent review in today's Times of Stephen Fry's The Ode Less Travelled, a book apparently intended to demystify poetry for the layperson by introducing him to some of the basics of meter and form.

At some point I'll have to check out Fry's book to see if it might be appropriate for use in my sophomore-level "introduction to the English major" class, but I'm photocopying the first half of Orr's review, immediately, to give to my Brit Lit students as we start working on lyric verse next week.

Here's an excerpt:

The difficulty of teaching poetry to a lay audience can be summarized by a single, diabolical name: Robin Williams. Williams, as you may recall, played the free-thinking English teacher John Keating in the 1989 movie "Dead Poets Society," a film that established once and for all the connection between learning about poems and killing yourself while wearing a silly hat. In the movie’s first depiction of poetical pedagogy, Williams as Keating instructs his students to open their textbook--a dry, dully diagrammatic primer by "Dr. J. Evans-Pritchard"--and then, with the insouciant panache of Lord Byron (or possibly Patch Adams) tells them to rip out the introduction! Yes! Riiiip! "Armies of academics going forward, measuring poetry," cries the righteous Keating, "No, we will not have that here!" Instead, the class is told to embrace a philosophy of carpe diem, and sic transit J. Evans-Pritchard. Significantly, however, while Keating subsequently teaches his students how to stand on their desks, how to kick a soccer ball with gusto and how to free-associate lamely about Walt Whitman, he’s never shown actually teaching them anything about the basics of form--basics they’d need in order to appreciate half the writers he’s recommending.

[. . . .]

While it’s true that some aspects of poetry transcend the nuts and bolts of technique, it’s equally true that many more do not. Consequently, only rarely do lay readers experience poems as a cross between an orgasm and a heart attack; usually, the response is closer to "What?" or "Eh" or at best "Hm." This doesn’t mean that other reactions aren’t possible; but such reactions generally come from learning what exactly is going on. And you don’t learn what’s going on by kicking a soccer ball and shouting a quote from Shelley. You learn what’s going on by reading carefully, questioning your own assumptions and sticking with things even when you’re confused or nervous. Then you can kick the soccer ball.

Damn straight.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Perils of car ownership

(Or, really, I suppose this is about the perils of being a moron, and the additionally idiotic things that can happen to said moron when she owns a car.)

I have to admit that I'm loving--really loving--having a car. With the exception of the road trip that Babe and I took last weekend to Magnificent Landmark, I haven't driven any further than 30 miles from home, and I'll often go three or four days without driving at all . . . but when I do drive, it sure is fun to have a zippy car in which I can turn my tunes way up and shout along without worrying about the neighbors. I also love my three-day-a-week commute: it's open countryside most of the way, with lots of sky, fields of wildflowers, and the odd body of water now and again. Having a car has also been helpful in hauling stuff to my office and bringing home the occasional antique, and I confess to being girlishly gratified when the undergrads on campus have given me the "ohhh, NICE!" response when they see my ride.

But, there are inconveniences. Since I refuse to arrive on campus at 8.30 a.m., I've given up trying to get a spot in one of the lots closest to my building; instead, I now head immediately to a lot that's a brisk seven minute walk away. This is a pain on the days that I teach until 9.30 p.m. (I usually move my car on those days, since the lot is on the periphery of campus and the walk there isn't very well lit), but otherwise it's no big deal.

Until yesterday.

It was a rainy, miserable day, and I parked in my usual lot, hustled to my office, threw back a cup of mediocre departmental coffee, and went to my first class. Twenty minutes into the period, there was a knock on the door. I looked over, and through the tiny window I could see the purple hair of the English department's bursary student.

A bit miffed at being interrupted, I went over and opened the door. She motioned me outside until the door closed behind me. "Parking Services called," she said. "You're parked illegally in a reserved spot. They're going to tow you if you don't move immediately."

I had no idea what she was talking about--a reserved spot? I'd never seen a reserved spot in that lot! And it was the middle of the class period! But that whole "towing immediately" part got my attention, so I quickly made up an assignment for my students to occupy the next 15 minutes, told them it was "an emergency," grabbed my bag, and ran out of the building and into the rain at top speed.

And sure enough: there are 65-70 spots in that lot. Exactly one of them is reserved. And I'd parked in it.*

*In my defense: from the road approaching the lot, and then from the lot entrance, the angle is such that the spot itself is visible but not the reserved sign in front of it. I have no explanation for how I missed seeing the sign through my windshield once I was actually in the spot, however.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

So maybe I'm vain, but. . .

I was delighted to find that I already have one review on in my new institutional incarnation, and not only did my reviewer give me extremely high numerical scores (except for easiness, and one doesn't want high marks for easiness), but I got a chili pepper, too!

I'm sure I'll have plenty of bitchy comments and low scores soon enough (in my Big Urban incarnation I still managed to wind up with good averages, but there were some really nasty evaluations mixed in there and the comments leaned toward the critical)--but it feels good to start off well.

Now, if only I could say that my students were doing the same with their papers. . .

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Does my advice matter?

Sometimes I'm not sure whether the actual advice that I give to students matters so much as the fact that I'm giving them some advice--or, more to the point, that I'm taking the time to take them seriously, listen to them, and encourage them in whatever vague way I can.

Or at least I hope that's the case, since I was confronted this week by a student I'm not sure I can help in any immediate way.

She's a transfer student from a community college, entering as a junior English major, and she's in both my Brit Lit and my Shax classes. And, not to put too fine a point on it, she's been doing abysmally. As in, getting scores of 1 or 2 out of 10 on my (largely fact- and plot-based) quizzes, often producing answers so odd that I wasn't sure whether she was actually doing the reading, even though she seemed extremely conscientious. I always have a handful of students who bomb my classes, of course, but they tend to be 40-year-old single mothers who work full time and miss class rather often, or kids who just clearly aren't doing the work and couldn't care less about the material (and, honestly, even those students usually average quiz scores in the 40-50% range).

So I asked her to come talk to me so that we could work on getting those scores up.

She came to my office and told me that she didn't know what she was doing, didn't understand a word of Shakespeare, and just couldn't figure out why--she'd gotten all "A"s in her English classes at the community college.

I assumed that she just wasn't reading very closely, and I was prepared with my usual advice about going slow, taking notes, working through a single scene at a time--but then she described her study methods, and she's doing all that. Moreover, after she reads the original, she goes to SparkNotes, and then after THAT she rereads the original. . . but even after having read a plot summary in the interim, she claims that she still has no idea what's happening in the play.

She seemed so sweet and so overwhelmed, and I was myself so stumped, that I had nothing really to offer her. I gave her the contact information for the university's "learning center," which provides drop-in tutoring and study skills services, and I recommended that she try renting the movie versions of as many of the plays that we're reading as possible, since seeing the plays would likely help her to get the gist better. But what else could I say, really? Most of my students in that class are performing at a reasonably high level--and given that, and given that we're reading a play a week, it's just not feasible to reorient the class to make sure every single student understands what's happening in every single scene.

I sent her off with some vaguely encouraging words to the effect that it would get easier over time, and thanking her for coming to see me--but I kept thinking about her, so two days later I sent her a follow-up email with more information about the learning center and some encouragement to go there (it's her tuition dollars, after all!); offering to meet with her weekly if she wanted to practice working through just a page or two of text one-on-one; but more importantly, I hope, assuring her that this was difficult material and that I knew she was feeling discouraged, but also promising her that it just took practice and diligence and that it would get easier if she stuck with it.

I hope I'm right about that. But more importantly, I hope that, even if she winds up failing one or both of my classes (both of which are requirements), she's not permanently discouraged. As a transfer student and a commuter, with no friends or established connections at the university, her likelihood of being sucked down by the undertow seems rather high--and if I've made her believe that someone here is interested in her success, maybe she'll be willing to stick it out just a little while longer.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Friday poetry blogging: that dirty Catullus

I recently purchased a nice bilingual edition of Catullus's poems from my favorite used bookstore here in New City and I've been cracking up reading them. So much sex, so many pederasts and whoremongers, and I'm loving the translator's very 1966 slang and innuendos. (Oddly, while it's all pricks and cocks and buggery, all the time, the female genitalia are continually rendered formally, as pudendum.)

So here are two poems, translated by Peter Whigham--one an old favorite and the other one that was entirely new to me:


Curious to learn
how many kiss-
es of your lips
might satisfy
my lust for you,
Lesbia, know
as many as
are grains of sand
between the oracle
of sweltering Jove
at Ammon &
the tomb of old
Battiades the First,
in Libya
where the silphium grows;
as many as
the sky has stars
at night shining
in quiet upon
the furtive loves
of mortal men,
as many kiss-
es of your lips
as these might slake
your own obsessed
Catullus, dear,
so many that
no prying eye
can keep the count
nor spiteful tongue fix
their total in
a fatal formula.


Do not wonder when the wench declines
your thigh her thigh to place beneath.
You cannot buy them with the costliest clothes
or with extravagance of clearest stones.
There's an ugly rumour abroad,
             b.o. under the armpits--
and nobody likes that!
             So do not wonder if
a nice girl declines the goat-pit.
Either reach for the deoderant,
or cease to wonder that she so declines.

(Hasn't that last one been used in an Axe commercial, already?)

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

In which I play fashion cop

It was a glorious weekend yielding up a bumper crop of goodness: a haircut, a pedicure, a new winter hat, a pair of super-skinny Theory jeans, and all kinds of quality time with friends.

The wedding itself was gorgeous and the bride and groom the most relaxed bridal couple I've ever seen. Both were cheerily drunk throughout the reception, making charming and extravagant toasts over the speaker system, leading the guests in unusual group dances of their own creation, and looking thoroughly delighted and thoroughly in love at every moment.

However, the wedding gave me the opportunity to make the following observation:

Both academics and writers tend to dress badly. However, while the unstylishness of academics seems born of inattention, a lack of know-how, or a simple lack of caring, many of the young poets, novelists, critics, etc., in attendence were aggressively bad dressers.

What do I mean by this? Let me give you two examples (bear in mind that this was an evening wedding at a beautiful and breathtakingly expensive venue):
A woman in a strapless pink silk cocktail dress. Which she'd paired with casual, clunky, black suede boots that came up to her knees.

A man in a black suit, white shirt, and red tie. Which he'd paired with the grungiest, most beat up, disgustingly greyed sneakers you've ever seen--laces flapping all over the place.
People, that's not hip and it's not ironic. It's also not appropriate for the occasion. It looks as though your only thought was, "hey, I'm going to show that I don't buy into this whole oppressive 'dressing up' thing--I'm gonna do something REALLY different!"

No. Take a page from the groom: he was wearing a skinny vintage suit in brown velvet with an orange tie. Different? Yes. But that suit was beautifully tailored, and it and the shirt and tie all complemented each other and flattered the wearer. If you're going to dress to stand out, you must take more care--and know even more what you're doing--than if you're dressing to fit in.

(Interestingly, the one Truly Famous Novelist in attendance broke my rule by dressing more like an academic than like a writer: he paired a very nice suit and very nice shoes with a shirt in an unfortunate muddy green and a tie in an even more unfortunate abstract floral pattern, the like of which hasn't been seen since someone's 6th grade math teacher sent it to Goodwill in 1988. But then, TFN does teach, so. . . perhaps that explains it.)

Still, I wish I had thought to take pictures: Go Fug Yourself, Intelligentsia Edition. It's like shooting fish in a barrel, but even more fun.

Friday, September 15, 2006

No sleep till Brooklyn

I'm now comfortably ensconced in Bert's West Village apartment after a hellacious afternoon and evening of travel yesterday--wherein I had first one flight and then another cancelled out from under me and a third flight delayed, and wherein I got very good at saying, "I'm sorry, but a flight tomorrow morning is NOT ACCEPTABLE"--in preparation for a fabulous wedding tomorrow in Brooklyn.

Here's what I've been promised: academics, novelists, journalists, famous feminist scholars, Chilean émigrés, midwestern Irish Catholics, and a few Marine Corps and Navy officers, to boot. Yes, that's right: it's Dr. Fun's wedding, and whether it rains or whether it doesn't, I can't imagine a more combustible or more enjoyable combination of guests.

George Washington Boyfriend arrives in a few hours and tonight we'll transfer our lodgings to Lulu and Mr. Lulu's enormous financial district spread. But in the meanwhile, I have a haircut, some shopping, and some serious catching up to do. Back in a few days.