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.