Sunday, December 30, 2007

MLA Day Three: paneldemonium

Okay, so I'm back home now and trying to remember--through the haze of too little sleep and too many meals consisting of $2.00 Nutrigrain bars purchased in a rush in the hotel lobby--exactly what else I wanted to blog about. The panels? Oh yes: maybe the panels.

I went to an agreeable number of these, never more than three in a day, managing to learn some new things and never once feeling tempted to stab myself in the eye with my pen; the academic portion of the conference would therefore seem to have been a success.

There were, however, an unusual number of panel casualties: three of the panels I attended had chairs who wound up reading one of their panelists' papers, due to sickness, snowbound flights, and the like, and I heard about (but regrettably did not see) another panelist who passed out while actually delivering her paper. Most amusing was the chair who, as a result of one such casualty, straight-facedly had to read a paper in which she herself was quoted at length and lavished with praise.

I also tried, and failed, to master the art of reading my fellow audience members' attitudes toward papers based on their body language. During one paper that I thought rather thin, but that for various reasons I couldn't follow fully, I reassured myself about its weakness by noting the behavior of the well-known scholar seated next to me: he was sighing, shifting loudly in his seat, tossing his head, and staring out the window. But at the end he leaned over and announced, with what sounded like pride, his professional relationship with the panelist. (Hmm. Maybe I'm the only person convinced she's as much on stage when seated in the audience as when stationed up front?)

And speaking of being on stage: my own paper went well. I don't fear presenting papers--I'm a very good presenter, though I sez it myself--but I do fear the Q&A, especially when I'm presenting fairly new material (see "Conference Terrorism," infra, and "Social Anxiety," passim, all the damn place). Luckily, although my paper got numerous questions, all of them were pleasantly conversational and allowed me to be funny and expansive before my small audience.

And when I wasn't at panels? Well! I was socializing. I had some fine food and drink and saw some fine people--not as many as I wished to, or as often, for which I issue a blanket apology--and I gossiped up a storm and had an oppressive 20-hour headache and made some nice scores at the book exhibit (especially at noon today, when everything was discounted) and burst unexpectedly into tears while chatting with one grad school friend and scarcely even saw the city surrounding me.

You know: it was your basic MLA.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

MLA Day Two: no professional interest in literature

I don't know about my fellow MLA-goers, but I've found the "security" (by which I mean the people checking name badges to make sure that those entering panels are actually registered attendees) to be tighter here than at any of the three previous conventions I've attended. I haven't been wearing my own badge because I forgot to pack one of the nicer badge-holders that I've collected over the years--one with a pin or a clip or at least a longer neckstrap--and I hate the cheap stringy elastic holders they give out here. I half suspect them to be part of a conspiracy against women: the elastic neckstrap makes the name badge hit at the maximally awkward and unflattering height for those in possession of breasts.

So yesterday, after making it past another security guard by flashing the badge from my pocket, I soon found myself sitting through the tedious middle paper of an otherwise excellent panel. I started flipping through my enormous conference program, as one does, and found this item amid the blather at the front about policies, procedures, and so on:
"A convention speaker may obtain a pass for a family member or friend who has no professional interest in language or literature to hear a paper given by that speaker."
And I have to wonder: does the friend or family member have to prove that he has no professional interest in literature? Is there a test?

I was amused by this passage for a while, envisioning the many ordinary Chicagoans trying to sneak into this exciting convention happening in their midst*, until I wound up going out to dinner with two nonspecialists--and hoo-boy: I kinda wish that they had been banned not just from the conference panels, but from the entire city of Chicago.

I was joining a professional friend, who had a number of associates in tow. They included the following:
1. one of his colleagues: a nice, smart, generally interesting person whom I spent most of the dinner talking with;

2. a non-academic friend of his from grad school (she's in the arts): one of the loudest, least clever, and most annoying people I've met in a lifetime of encountering annoying people;

3. his new girlfriend: she's 24 (he's older than I), perfectly sweet, but either very shy or very uninteresting.
I'm not one to exaggerate the charm or appeal of academics, but these nonacademics made me, for more than a few moments out of the evening, feel all kinds of snotty impatience. I'm sure that it's hard being a non-academic, or even a non-literary scholar at MLA. And I like nonacademics (some of my best friends are nonacademics!). But I also like interesting people. And these were not interesting people.

Sometimes it's really best to stick with one's own kind.


*At the INRU reception I spent a fair amount of time talking with a friend who's still a grad student. I'd asked him if this was his first MLA and he said that it was actually his third: he'd gone once at the beginning of grad school, when the convention had been held in his hometown, and once as a senior in high school, when the convention had also been held in his hometown and he and some friends had snuck in. Because, you know: they'd heard what a kick-ass time it was.

Friday, December 28, 2007

MLA Day One

(A few quick items before I head out for lunch)

1. Conference terrorism:

I believe I coined this term last year to describe those aggressively bad papers that hold an entire room hostage while they're being delivered. But last night I saw a slightly different form of terrorism during the one panel I attended: during the Q&A a kindly-looking grey-haired man in the audience attacked every single member of the panel (two of whom were graduate students, one a second-year assistant professor) with very long, very hostile criticisms that weren't really questions. The panelists did an impressive job of parrying, but it was a deeply uncomfortable-making experience. (In part because I kept thinking: "please, please, please, Sir, do not come to my panel.")

2. The weirdly club-y lighting of the Hyatt reception desk/bar/atrium:

The main lobby gets very dark here at night, with groovy (?) lighting, and I keep thinking I see people I know. On the one hand, the dark lighting makes it possible to avoid those I really don't want to see. On the other hand, it makes it hard for me to be certain whether the people I don't want to see are, in fact, the people I've seen--and thus whether I have to continue to be on guard.

3. Blogger meet-up:

I'm not going to attempt to enumerate the nearly 20 bloggers I met or re-met last night, but it was an excellent gathering and an amazing time--and one that just went on and on and ON, until the last of us were kicked out when the bar closed. I'm afraid to look at the receipts in my wallet and discover exactly how much I spent.

But! No bad dreams and no back problems so far. Stay tuned~~

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Merry MLA!

Yes, yes: Christmas came and went and it was lovely, as it always is. Almost everyone who has ever met my family has remarked on how fun they are. . . and though things are never quite as simple from the inside, I kind of have to agree: my relatives are a strikingly good-natured and appealing set of people.

The downside of that? Well! It means that I miss out, year after year, on the True Meaning of Christmas, with all its hysteria and dysfunctionality, and to compensate I'm running off tomorrow for MLA. I've admitted before how much I love MLA, and with each day nearer it draws, each additional email I send and receive, and the more numbers I punch into my cell phone, the more excited I get. My conference program is now a mass of sticky notes and scrawled reminders of whom I'm meeting when and where for coffee or lunch or dinner or drinks. If I lose that thing, I'm in serious trouble.

I'm looking forward to seeing grad school, blogging, and professional friends. I'm eager for the book exhibit. And I'm genuinely interested in a number of panels. But despite all that, I also appear to be anxious about something: I've been having a series of disquieting dreams, many of them involving email (ever since this summer I've had a lot of dreams that feature the receipt of weird-ass email messages). Just this morning I awoke from a dream in which I'd received a five-page email message from a minor professional acquaintance. In addition to its absurd length and the fact that I don't really know this person, the message featured a reference to a one-legged pygmy. (In the complicated context of my dream this detail wasn't hilarious, but fairly upsetting.)

I've also been having back trouble. I have what is sometimes characterized as a "bad back," although it's been fine for years: my back went out a month before I started grad school, and then about a month after I started grad school (the worst but by no means the only psychosomatic ailment of those first two years). The recovery was slow, but for the past seven or eight years the worst I've experienced are warning twinges when it's been too many weeks since I've remembered to do my stretches. Several days after arriving in Northwest City, though, my back was doing more than twinging. Worried, I took a ton of ibuprofen, stretched every few hours, and now it seems back to normal.

But I have to ask: what am I anxious about? I'm not conscious of any unusual stress. Yes, I'm giving a paper. And yes, I have a certain amount of social anxiety, always, despite the amount of socializing that I do and the great enjoyment I derive from it. And yes, there are people I'll likely see at MLA whom I'd prefer not to. But. . . those things are true of all conferences, and much less so of this one.

So I've decided to ignore the messages that I'm receiving from my subconsciousness--if it wants to talk to me, it can damn well send clearer messages--and just have a really fucking good time.

Watch this space for updates.

Monday, December 24, 2007

"Okay, Flavia"

Over the years I've received many emails from my advisor consisting entirely of those two words--and most often in response to a message that would seem to require a more lengthy reply. Just a couple of months ago, in fact, I emailed her with a request, followed by an explanation, and then a series of related questions: do you want me to do A-B-C? I can also do D-E-F. Or you might need G-H-I. Please let me know.

Her reply? "Okay, Flavia."

This kind of reply used to drive me nuts, but everything seems more fraught when you're a graduate student ("okay, what?" I'd ask my friends. "She didn't answer my question! Is that deliberate? Is she angry at me? I can't ask her to clarify! What if she's angry?"). Now I just shrug and email her back: "Thanks so much! I'm assuming from your message that there's no reason for me to do A-B-C, D-E-F, or G-H-I, so I'm going to go ahead and do J. If I've misunderstood, just let me know."

More importantly, I now recognize just how beautiful and versatile the "Okay, Flavia" email truly is.

A student emails me with a three-paragraph account of the mishaps that led to her missing class, a vague expression of concern about her grade, and a promise that she'll really really try to do better? "Okay, Suzy," I write back.

Another student emails to tell me he's taking an extension on this paper and then demands how I could possibly have given him a C on the previous one when he's been working so hard and going to the writing center and everything? "Okay, Bobby," I type, and hit send.

It's not that I'm deliberately trying to be obscure--and I don't think Advisor is, either--it's just that so many of the emails I get are so exhausting or unnecessary or involve the wrong questions. (That second student? We've met many times to discuss his writing and I've been encouraging and supportive. . . but he never reads my comments and can't understand why doing X doesn't lead immediately and inevitably to grade Y.)

The "Okay, Flavia" email is a way of acknowledging receipt while also saying, "enough already!" Sometimes the additional subtext is, "stop being so anxious! you're fine!" and other times it's "stop irritating me and get your act together!" In the end, though, I'm not sure it matters.

The fuller translation of the "Okay, Flavia" email, I think, goes something like this: "Thanks for keeping me in the loop, and I acknowledge that you have said some words in my direction. But you need to stop making this about me. You're a sensible person and can probably get your shit together on your own (and if you don't, that's not really my problem). Now stop fretting and go do something useful!"

And really: that's not such a bad message either to send or receive, now is it?

Friday, December 21, 2007

Sometimes I think I'm stupid

I've been back at the family homestead since Monday, doing nothing but grading and raiding the magical Pantry of Plenty [note to self: why can't my larder restock itself like that? and food appear on the table while I'm off correcting comma-splice errors? must investigate further], until all in a rush today I computed and submitted final grades, threw my essays and exams in a box to be mailed back east. . . and then turned around, grabbed another sheaf of papers, and sat back down at the kitchen table to review an already overdue article manuscript.

But still: what pleasure to be reading something other than student writing! And to learn new things about a very familiar work!

Except that, after reading the thing twice, I'm still not sure what I think of it. It seems publishable, were it not for the fact that I'm unable to articulate exactly what its overarching argument is, or whether it's interesting.

Now it's true that I'm only slightly familiar with the critical literature that the essay is locating itself within, but I don't think that's the problem: the author quotes from that literature liberally, writes very clearly, and his local points are both understandable and modestly engaging. The essay is well organized, with ample signposting and clear transitions. . . and yet somehow the larger argument remains, winkingly, just over the horizon.

At times like this, I really think I'm stupid.

I'd like to have faith that if I don't understand something it's because there's a genuine problem, but I'm never entirely sure that's the case; I've long suspected that my brain just works more slowly than those of most people in this profession: it's difficult for me to keep multiple ideas in my head at the same time, and I've never been someone who can synthesize and assimilate information on the spot or revise a theory on the fly--I need to go off and think about it for a while.

This isn't entirely a liability, of course; one of the reasons that my scholarly writing is so good (and as writing I do think it's good, although in saying so I imply nothing about the quality of the ideas therein expressed) is precisely because, in order to understand anything myself, I have to work through it so slowly and lay its parts out with such care.

But I hate feeling dumb. I wish I could explain to the author exactly why the parts of his essay don't cohere--that is, I wish I were quick enough to grasp their probable or possible relationship (or to state emphatically that they're not related), and make suggestions for revision. As it is, I'm left with the nagging feeling that I'm missing something.

And that, in turn, makes me feel like a spectacular intellectual fraud.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Space aliens among us

HK and I have been friends for nearly 13 years, though we haven't lived in the same city since college and we cycle in and out of being in extremely frequent or only occasional phone contact.

For the past six or eight months we've been averaging a phone call a week, and at some point over the summer, after recounting the moronic behavior of a couple of family members, a mutual acquaintance, and the guy she was then dating, HK concluded, "GOD. I think they're all space aliens. There's just no way they're from this planet."

I don't know whether space-alienhood is an idea that HK has cherished for a long time and that I'd simply never heard before, but it immediately became our first and best explanation for all the idiocies and iniquities perpetrated in our vicinity.

A large number of our phone conversations now involve some version of this dialogue:
". . . so I don't know what the fuck her deal is. Who does that? No one does that. It's not normal."

"What a loser."

"It's just weird. I mean. . . it is weird, right? Like, really weird?"

"It's only weird if you're a human. She might be a space alien."

"Another one! God, they're everywhere."

"It's a problem."

"They're taking over."

"The government's gotta get on that shit."
So, from me to you, and just in time for the holidays: an interpretive key to the baffling behavior of your colleagues, friends, and relatives. There are more space aliens out there than you'd think.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Ooh, fame!

In the past week I've received copies of two different journals in which my work is referenced or cited.

In one case, it's scholarship I've written under my own name.

In the other, it's this-here pseudonymous blog.*

I'll let you guess which of the two journals has the (almost infinitely) larger readership.

Whatever, dudes. I'm pretty pleased by both.


*Special shout-out to the reader who alerted me to this reference--I just got my copy in the mail today.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

If there's no fear, it's not fun

This morning I had an 8 a.m. exam to deliver.

Relevant background:
1. For me 8 a.m. is early. I prefer not even to be awake at that hour.

2. On a good day, my drive to campus is 25 minutes (parking spot to parking spot). 30 is more typical.
I got up with plenty of time to spare, but somehow didn't make it out the door until 7.25, and it was 7.27 by the time I got in my car. That was less time than I really felt comfortable with, but. . . no sweat. I'd already promised my students up to 30 extra minutes, so in the unlikely event that I was slightly late, they'd still be in good shape.`

Of course. . . I wasn't entirely sure about the parking situation at the building I was heading to. But it was exam week. It'd be totally fine!

As I started backing my car out, I thought: coffee. I knew there was no concession in Exam Building. And I definitely needed coffee.

So I took another look at the clock on my dash, thought about it for 5 seconds, and then abruptly turned and drove two miles in the wrong direction to the nearest Dunkin Donuts. It was still early, right? And I could just go through the drive-through. And it was right next to the freeway.

Of course, I got stuck in a hideous line (two cars came in immediately behind me, so I couldn't back out) and lost five or six minutes.

Shit. I thought. I could really and totally be ten minutes late to deliver my own exam. And what if there was an accident? Or if I got stuck behind a slow construction truck?

I drove like all hell, stressed out, but also half enjoying myself. What a mess! What a challenge! What fun!

I made it to Exam Building at 7.59 (32 minutes, dudes, including the extra five miles and the time spent waiting for coffee), found a spot immediately in front of the building, and walked into my classroom at exactly 8.00.


Later in the day I started to tell this story to one of my colleagues, half shamefaced, half triumphant--but he interrupted almost before I'd begun.

"Wait," he said. "You left your house at 7.27 for an 8 a.m. exam? I think that tells me something about you."

"What?" I said.

"That you like living dangerously."


The funny thing is that this is the kind of thing I never used to do--I used to be obsessively early for everything, and I still get incredibly anxious when I'm running late or when I feel unprepared--but (as I wrote a couple of months ago) I think I must actually thrive on such pressure, or else I wouldn't court catastrophe so continually.

Because really: anyone who's made it through grad school must have decided, at least on a subconscious level, that living in the constant fear of failure is pretty damn fun.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Talking shop

There's often nothing more pleasurable than talking shop with one's coolest colleagues or professional friends. And believe you me: I can yammer on and on about scholarly and pedagogical issues with the right people and in the right setting--especially if there's food or alcohol involved.

But there's this thing called "knowing one's audience." Do my non-academic friends want to hear me talk about the above issues in quite as much detail (or any detail)? No. And do my friends in other fields want an earful about, say, the appalling things the Marlowe scholars are up to these days? No, they do not.

So for the love of humanity: if we're not in the same field, please do not assume that I want to know the extreme minutiae of whatever it is that you do--whether that be corporate finance or analytic philosophy. I like people and I like knowing about their lives, so I will certainly ask you questions. And when I ask you questions, it is either because I genuinely want to know the answers, am enjoying our conversation, or both.

But. . . when I stop asking questions, you could maybe notice that fact. You could be alert enough to recognize when you've been dominating conversation for some time. It could occur to you to wonder why I'm spinning my wineglass in my hands and staring vaguely across the room.


It might be a sign that I need more wine. More likely, I'm willing the restaurant kitchen to catch fire and force an immediate evacuation.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Not a popularity contest

On the last day of term one of my students dropped by my office. She's someone I've mentioned before--a smart, funny woman who's taken three consecutive classes with me. She graduates later this month and is in the process of applying to grad schools.

I've always been fond of her, but we're friendly in a purely professional context: she'd drop by to talk about a paper or to ask for advice about grad school, and although I was likely to joke around a bit or share a relevant personal story or two, that was the extent of our intimacy. In some ways I've wanted to know her better, but she clearly has a strong sense of the faculty/student divide--and that's a feeling I share.* In theory? Hanging out at the bar with one's prize students (as a certain recent ex of mine did) sounds kinda cool. In practice? It strikes me as totally weird and uncomfortable-making for everyone. . . and suggests, moreover, if not the desire for then at least the complacent acceptance of a cult of personality.**

But. On this visit she told me that--if it wasn't too weird, or inappropriate, or whatever--she and two of her friends (also my former students) were hoping that I might be interested in going out for lunch with them sometime after break.

There are still things, apparently, that can warm the cockles of my cold, cold heart.


*A number of my freshmen have friended me on Facebook. I find this weird.

**This is not to say that I reject utterly the idea of having a cult of personality. But to me that cult is best maintained from a distance: the front of the classroom, say. Or the text of one's blog.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Seven things meme: special gender edition!

Adjunct Whore tapped me for this meme, which seems essentially indistinguishable from the "eight things" meme that was going around this summer--so for kicks I've decided to limit my seven bits of personal trivia to matters of gender (if anyone wishes to declare this a new meme, and run with it, be my guest).

1. When I was a child, I believed that all cats were female and all dogs were male. I consider this a revealing autobiographical detail.

2. I spent most of high school and college strongly disliking/being uncomfortable with being female. I wasn't a tomboy, and the majority of my friends have always been women, but I didn't feel that I really knew how to "do" female (and to the extent that I did, I resented it). All my artistic and intellectual heroes were men.

3. My freshman year I shared a suite with five other women, and I think it was then that I consciously began to socialize myself as female. I paid a lot of attention to the way my suitemates spoke and acted and moved through the world--everything from how they dressed and talked about their bodies to how they teased, comforted, and traded confidences with their friends.

4. I was a successful student of such matters. But although I now read as pretty femme--heels and makeup and all that--I consider this an elaborate and rather hilarious ruse. At the same time, the fact that other people don't get the joke makes me wonder who was mastering (or being mastered by) what.

5. Whenever I'm trying to remember where I heard something or whom I told a particular story to (you know: who was it I was talking to about. . . ?) the one detail I'm instantly sure of is my conversation partner's gender. I may have no idea how recently a conversation took place, or where, or any other details, but I always know whether the person I was talking with was male or female.

6. In college I had this bit that I did whenever someone told me a story about his or her romantic trials. "Oh, man," I'd say. "That's totally going in my book. You know, the book I'm writing? Women Are Mean, Men Are Stupid? Yeah. You'll be Chapter Six."

7. I relate to my freshman women who dislike the term "feminist"; who refuse to believe that their opportunities aren't absolutely equal to those of their male peers; who think that suggesting there are structural inequities--or even just problems importantly unique to women--amounts to playing victim or asking for special favors (if they're struggling, it must be because they aren't smart enough or tough enough or good enough). I felt that way for a long time. Sometimes I wish I still did.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Random bullets of "reply hazy, try again"

I've just returned from a lovely four-day weekend in New York. Highlights:

  • After a long day of teaching I went straight to the airport, arriving at HK's around 11--just as she herself was getting home from work. Rather than going to bed like sensible people, we lounged around her apartment until nearly 3 a.m., drinking beer, eating Mallomars, and asking an endless series of questions of her Magic 8 Ball.
  • Apparently, my life is as opaque to the Magic 8 Ball as it is to me--all weekend long I received a statistically improbable number of "Cannot predict nows" and "Reply hazy, try agains."
  • Every time we headed off to the nearest subway stop, I started singing, "If you think you can, well come on, man!/I was a Green Beret in Viet-Nam!" When I was feeling particularly inspired, I'd run through the entire song two or three times. This amused me enormously. HK's amusement was less in evidence.
  • Necessarily, there was shopping. I always buy lingerie and tights when I'm in town; less frequently do I buy a hat (in this case, a pretty, mulberry-colored cloche). Never before have I bought a replica human skull--but it's exactly what my office needs.
  • Friday night HK and I went to see Cymbeline at Lincoln Center. We had excellent seats; the costumes were gorgeous; and there were some masterful moments of performance and staging. But they were moments. Still, I figure I can write off my ticket as a professional expense. . . and how often is Cymbeline staged, anyway?
  • The next night Bert and I went to see Tom Stoppard's new play, Rock 'n' Roll, which was significantly better but still a bit disappointing; the better parts seemed derivative of his other, more interesting plays, and the less-good parts were--well--less good.
  • I meant to see the Kara Walker show at the Whitney, but didn't have time. I did, however, get up to see the Klimts at the Neue Galerie and they were so worth it.
  • There's nothing I love more than a diner, especially on a cold, grey day, with the windows all steamed up inside. And HK lives three blocks from the diner that Miss D and I used to go to all the time, as our last stop in a long night out.
  • To my surprise, every single one of my friends in NYC agreed with Evey that it would be ridiculous, and possibly result in an undesirable misunderstanding, for me to Be the Bigger Person in the aforealluded-to situation. (Which, just as a reminder: has nothing to do with anyone who reads this blog.) So you know what? Fuck being the bigger person.

And now~~just two more days of teaching!


Secret message to the colleague who appears to have found my blog: welcome! I'd suspected that one of my occasional readers was from the department, but now I'm sure of it. You must know who I am, and I figure that you're probably one of two people. . . so why don't you come by and say hi? You can meet my skull.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Hot for academia

A few years ago I was speaking with a male friend about a woman I dislike (not least because, as a prospective graduate student, she repaid her host--one of my oldest and dearest friends--by sleeping with that host's live-in boyfriend). I had to acknowledge that the woman was smart, but I couldn't resist the observation that her career probably wasn't hurt by the fact that she was hot, too.

"Um," said my friend. "That's not hot."

"Come on!" I said. "She's skinny; she's blonde; she turns out well. Hot."

My friend replied that she was bony and pallid and ferret-faced.

I stared at him for a minute. "You're really trying to tell me she's not hot."

"God no," he said. "Except. . . for academia? Probably that is hot."


And so, inspired by Wonkette's similar distinction ("famous for D.C." and "famous for famous"), a phrase was born. Hot for academia.

In normal usage, the phrase is intended to dismiss someone or damn with faint praise; after all, when it comes to academic hotness or the hotness of academics, the bar is pretty low. But I sometimes use the phrase at least semi-seriously, as a way of acknowledging that there might be things that count more towards hotness in our world than just what the culture at large identifies as attractive.

Think for a minute about some of the entirely unhot individuals with high chili pepper ratings on Now, I don't place a lot of faith in the tastes of undergraduate women--who have a tendency to be charmed by those who are funny, young, and in positions of authority (and who I think are disproportionately responsible for those otherwise mystifying peppers)--but there's a point there. The enthusiastic, the funny, the devastatingly smart can be hot. So can the stylish, the outrageous, and sometimes even the imperious and demanding.

And I don't know about you, but I like living in a world where that's true.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Noblesse oblige

You know what I hate? Doing The Right Thing. Being the Bigger Person.

I hate doing this, in part, because it always seems to be I who make the effort--even when I have no particularly good reason to reach out to the other person; even when I'm pretty clearly the wronged party; even when I don't entirely like the other person. I send the email or make the phone call or walk across the room at the party all pleasant and smiley as if nothing in the world had ever happened.

I hate it. I resist doing it with every fiber of my being. But I can't not do it.

I have, I guess, very definite ideas about what is and isn't socially appropriate and what we owe to the people in our lives. I also believe that, generally, the harder something is--and the more I want Just Not To Deal--the more essential it is for me to do it.

But I wish, sometimes, that I could just be angry, in a pure and righteous way, holding grudges and either not speaking to those who deserve my anger or telling them off in a furious and splendid fashion. But for me, expressing anger to other people is almost never worth it. It's harder to recover from a fiery confrontation, for one thing, but more important is the fact that I tend to regard anger as a self-indulgent emotion: it's usually more about covering up or compensating for one's own sense of woundedness than it is about voicing hard truths. (And even when it's the latter, how often is it the case that the person who's an asshole will come to realize, through one's telling him so, that he is an asshole?)

So instead I make nice. I give people options and put them at ease. And I refuse to give the impression that what I'm doing isn't as natural as breathing.

And it's true that, once I make an overture, I tend to feel better--even smugly powerful--for being calm and gracious in the face of someone else's discomfort and avoidancy; it's nice, I guess, both to put someone else at ease and to know that I can master my own dis-ease. I also believe that, in the long run, graciousness and magnanimity are, like the proverbial living well, the best revenge.

But God. I still hate it. And right now I'm facing a particularly unpleasant situation, where it's clear that one party needs to make an overture. . . but it's equally clear that if I don't, no one will.

So I guess I'll do it. But I really, really, don't want to.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

. . . or to go into the dark.

Augie and I just saw the new digital print of Dr. Strangelove, on the big screen, and I'm deliriously high. I may have to go watch Johnson's "Daisy" ad a few times to cool down.

(Y'all remember my Cold War fetish, right? Still going strong!)

Friday, November 23, 2007

Reading, devoutly and promiscuously

I think I've seen a pretty representative sampling of book catalogues in the few years I've been in this profession, but I just came across one that's blowing my mind.

It's a catalogue from Christian Book Distributors, and it accompanied the awesome 1560 Geneva Bible that I just received through the good offices of a colleague who's a biblical scholar and who ordered the book for me so I could take advantage of his CBD member discount.

And. . . it's the weirdest collection of items I've ever seen. There are many serious scholarly works, ranging from Greek and Hebrew interlinear Bibles, concordances and lexicons, classic works of theology and church history, and multi-volume sets of Calvin's complete commentaries and Luther's sermons. There are also more popular but seemingly substantive theological and devotional works. And then there are the Veggie Tales DVDs. The Bibleopoly board game. The CDs of Johnny Cash reading the Bible. And books with titles like, Bad Girls of the Bible. . . and What We Can Learn from Them; Passion and Purity; Every Man God's Man; 30 Days to Taming Your Tongue; and, of course, the Left Behind series. There's also a small section of "Holy Land Gifts" that includes shofars and prayer shawls (exactly what purpose those are supposed to serve for this Christian audience, I can't and don't want to imagine).

And okay, I think that most of these items are either ridiculous or objectionable (or both), and I could have written an easy post making fun of them. But on a second flip-through what most struck me was the fact that the scholarly works weren't confined to one section of the catalogue, but interspersed throughout, as if there were no meaningful difference among the wares being purveyed. I can't think of any other catalogue, or even any other organizing principle for a bookstore or catalogue, that ranges so promiscuously through the scholarly, the middlebrow, the juvenile, and the basically trashy.

My best guess is that the CBD's imagined consumer is an (obviously Protestant) minister or church administrator, someone who would be shopping for a variety of professional and personal reasons: looking for materials to aid in research, Bible study, and sermon-writing; books for his kids and wife; and resources for his church's library, youth group, and marriage counseling programs. But I'm sure that he's not the catalogue's only customer, and I kind of love the idea that there might be some layperson out there, shopping for sweetly uplifting devotional books as Christmas gifts for his relatives, who suddenly decides, "Hey! Maybe I should teach myself New Testament Greek!"

Because for better or worse, the religiously devout--not just Christians, of course, but Jews and Muslims, too--are probably the largest segment of the nonacademic population most likely to move from lowbrow fiction and self-help books to the pursuit of scholarly knowledge (in the form of the language(s) and history of their sacred scriptures and religious tradition). Now, I know perfectly well that most self-proclaimed Christians don't even know the Bible--by which I mean, the major stories in the Bible, much less anything about their context or interpretative histories--but it does seem to me that there's usually a respect for that kind of learning among people of faith, and frequently a desire to attain it.

In this respect, CBD's catalogue is also, after a fashion, Early Modern in its sensibility: isn't the variety of its offerings analogous to the variety of religious works for sale in seventeenth-century England--and actually present in the libraries of the godly? In grad school I took a history class for which my final project was an analysis of the reading habits of Adam Eyre, a Yorkshire yeoman and captain in the New Model Army, based on his 1647-49 diary. I haven't thought about Eyre in years, but I remember how wide-ranging his reading was, from Raleigh's History of the World and Erasmus's Praise of Folly; to Foxe's Acts and Monuments, analyses of various religious councils, and defenses of presbytry; to verse satires, radical sermons, millenarian tracts. . . and a whole bunch of works by the astrologer William Lilly.

So I guess what I'm saying is that while I don't exactly like the CBD catalogue or many of the specific things it has for sale, there's something about its vision of the intellectual or reading life that I find both familiar and oddly touching.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Feast days and celebrations

Last Thanksgiving I wrote a post in which I described some of the nontraditional ways I've celebrated the holiday in years past, and I concluded with the statement that one of the best things about the holidays is family--and one of the best things about family is that it's not limited to the people one is actually related to.

I still believe that, but this year I'd like to make a corollary statement: one of the best things about holidays is that they aren't limited to the days the calendar recognizes as such.

Because this Thanksgiving, my celebration will consist of some of this and some of that:


I'm staying home. I'll be grading, writing rec letters, finishing up my fellowship proposals, and watching a movie or two. I'm looking forward to it.

This plan, however, has not gone over well with most of the people to whom I've announced it, who have kindly but rather anxiously offered alternatives: I should join them and their extended families for dinner! I should call Colleague X, whose kids are all grown and who'd love to have me over! I should go to Y City and see some friends! It's been surprisingly hard to convince people that this is the way I'm choosing to spend the holiday, and that doing so does not indicate that I'm sad and friendless and lacking in options.

If anything, I have too many friends to keep up with. Even when I'm in town I'm usually out three or four nights a week for dinners or drinks, and this past month has been busier and more delightful--but also more frantic--than most, featuring a big blogger get-together over Indian food in Conference City; a long football-game weekend surrounded by college friends; and just last night an amazing Greek dinner over at a friend's house that went until nearly midnight. Next weekend I'll be in NYC, where I'll again be ensconced among friends and drinks and conversations that stretch well into the night.

In other words, I have feast days and celebrations all the time, whenever I get together with my friends and family. Thanksgiving--or at least this Thanksgiving--is just an opportunity to relax, recharge, and prepare for the next holiday.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Um, in the seventeenth century? There was like this war?

A sign that your course of psychotherapy might be well and truly OVER:

Your therapist suddenly interrupts you to ask about the subject of your research--which you raised only by mentioning, among a bunch of other activities, an upcoming conference paper--and then keeps asking chit-chatty follow-up questions for ten or fifteen minutes.

Not that the subject of your research isn't fascinating, and not that you don't have layperson-friendly soundbites and all, but if you'd already been feeling that your psychotherapeutic work was complete--and that shelling out even the few bucks your insurance requires as a co-payment was more and more an exercise in self-indulgence--this could be the thing to clinch it.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Apparently not everyone hails from Planet Halfassery

So! Among the many things I've done since returning from my conference 48 hours ago--read and commented on 25 comp papers; graded a sheaf of quizzes and worksheets; wrote and administered a makeup midterm; met with a failing student; presented self and research to new M.A. students; slept for not-quite four hours last night--one of the things I did not get around to doing was devising any sort of lesson plan for any of my three classes today.

In comp and my Milton seminar, I've at least taught the material before and have old notes and/or experience to go on. In Shakespeare, however, I'm teaching a play that I don't know well and have never taught.

Hurrying from the parking lot to my office this morning, I spied my Renaissance colleague--also a junior professor, but an actual Shakespearian--walking a few blocks ahead of me.

"Colleague!" I said, running to catch up with him. "Hey! All's Well That Ends Well. You taught it?"

"N-no," he said, looking at me funny. "That's one of those plays--I don't think I've even read it since college."

"Yeah," I said. "I know! But I'm teaching it today and I don't have a lesson plan."

He stopped walking and gave me a look of pure, startled surprise. Not disapproval--just wonder. "But you teach. . . now, right?"

"In 20 minutes." I said. "Well, gotta run! I need to grab some coffee and figure some stuff out. Group work? Maybe? It'll come to me. Catch you later!"


And in fact, it was totally fine: I'd loved rereading the play and was eager to talk about it--and my students, too, were lively and opinionated. We worked through a couple of scenes, broke down some themes and images, and thus filled our 90 minutes.

I'm still laughing, though, at how utterly perplexed my colleague seemed at the idea of someone (or perhaps me in particular?) showing up for class unprepared. On my planet, that's not so unheard of.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Not dead yet, but working on it

Apologies for this unannounced and unanticipated blog hiatus; I'm in the midst of what appear to be the two most frantic weeks of a semester that was already in overdrive--helped not at all by my having gone out of town THIS weekend for a conference and going out of town NEXT weekend for Big Football Game.

But! I met and re-met a number of lovely people at said conference--both bloggers and others--some of whom I'm already looking forward to seeing again at MLA.

Expect a return to blogging over Thanksgiving break, although possibly not before. In the meanwhile, feel free to use the comments section to promote less obscene cheers with which I can exhort INRU's team to victory, berate them for failure, or otherwise amuse or embarrass those around me.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

I think I was just insulted

I just received an email from the organizer of a conference I'm eager to attend, informing me that my paper has been accepted based on my 250-word abstract.

It's a brief, cheerful note from a man I've never met, and it includes a sentence to this effect: "one of the members of the submissions committee commended your great restraint in not including a reference to '[quotation from the work in question]'!"

Yes: "great restraint!" Exclamation mark!

Translation: "one of the committee members couldn't figure out why the hell you didn't refer to this passage, since it seems way more relevant to your proposed paper than the actual passage you're weirdly putting so much pressure on. Not that he's actually thought about this subject before, but this is the quotation that immediately sprang to his mind when he read your proposal--and he's pretty sure that if you were dealing with the topic seriously you would have worked it into your abstract. But we'll give you a chance anyway."

To which passive aggression I say: THANKS! Capital letters and exclamation mark!

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Absence makes the heart &c.

This may be the lamest post I will ever write. But today, after a long separation, I was reunited with my one, true love.

Regional U., you see, does not have an EEBO subscription. When the library people came calling last year, asking us new faculty folk how they could make our lives better, I made a huge noise about how this was the ONE database that I really and truly needed. Possibly as result of that noise-making, our library began exploring the possibility of a joint-subscription program, whereby several of my state's non-doctoral institutions would band together to split the cost. Hurrah! said I. And hurrah! said the library. Hurrah! too, said my department--and voted to put a portion of our library budget toward the subscription.

But naaaaahh, said the history department--which does not have any faculty who specialize in the period EEBO covers.

Last weekend I was bitching about this to Augie, who finally said, "You know, you could just use my login."

So today, blogfriends, I did. But not only that! Her login gives me access to ALL the databases that her R1 school subscribes to, and the number is vast; I haven't had access to so many wonderful things since my INRU account went kaput two years ago. So I started surfing around, reading articles in recent journals that RU doesn't subscribe to; downloading PDFs of reviews I've written but never received copies of; printing off random facsimile pages from EEBO for my classes--oh, it was fabulous.

And that, my dears, is a Saturday afternoon in the life of your Flavia.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Ah, youth. Except not.

If anyone out there is longing for those blissful, starry-eyed days when you were just thinking about applying to grad school, you must go read Mouse (of Notes of a Neophyte)'s interpretation of the grad school Statement of Purpose essay. Every time I re-read it, I weep helpless, delighted tears.

My favorite paragraph:

You know what else I really love, I mean besides mint-chocolate chip ice cream? I really really really love this Really Exciting Thing That’s Happening In The Field Right Now but That You Hate Because It Was Inaugurated By Your Evil Nemesis Whose Name I’m About to Drop as My Personal Hero. I’m using the work of Your Nemesis, whose work changed my life and rescued me from the brink of suicide, to do toootally awesometastic research, well not really research so much as vague thinking, in Area You Hate. How neat is that!

And that last part, about awesometastic research (a/k/a "not really research so much as vague thinking")? Sounds curiously like what I've been describing in my fellowship applications!

Plus ça change, yo.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Elizabeth: The Paranoid, Propagandistic Years

Augustana and I went to see Elizabeth: The Golden Years this weekend, partly out of a sense of professional obligation (Augie, as her pseudonym suggests, works on a later period but sometimes pinch-hits for the Renaissance) and partly out of a desire to see some really pretty clothes. We had, it must be said, extremely low expectations.

But given those low expectations, we had a damn good time--a better time, I imagine, than the fiftysomething couple in front of us who kept shifting or half turning around in their seats every time we burst out laughing at a solemn moment or had a whispered coversation about whether Mary, Queen of Scots could really have had a Scottish accent--because dude, wasn't she raised in France?

Other bloggers have already commented on the historical liberties the film takes, and while I don't mind some condensing and collapsing and shuffling around of events, I was initially irritated by the depiction of the period's religious politics. As Augie noted, Philip II of Spain, whom the film presents as a fanatical Catholic, is basically a caricature of a modern-day Islamic fundamentalist bent on holy war. In fact, the film suggests that all its Catholics are somehow in league with each other against Elizabeth, and that Spain sent its armada not because of English interference with Spain's New World holdings, and not because of English support for the United Provinces--but because Philip was really mad that Elizabeth had Mary executed.

But as the film went on, I started to enjoy its naive nationalism and the fever-swamp of its religious paranoia. It reminded me of actual Early Modern propaganda--and you'd better believe there's nothing Flavia loves more than propaganda. Then I began thinking about how awesome it would be to teach clips from the movie alongside, say, The Faerie Queene (for Book 3, the clip of Elizabeth in armor on horseback, surrounded by fluttering flags with the cross of St. George, would alone be worth the DVD purchase price).

It's disappointing that the filmmakers are promoting such a luridly nationalistic version of history--and that there seems, for instance, to be no irony in their portrayal of Elizabeth as an enlightened and religiously tolerant ruler in contrast with Philip--but that wouldn't make it any less effective as a teaching tool. Just as in The Faerie Queene: what's true of almost every villain? They're Catholic! And how do you know they're Catholic? Look out for the rosary beads! (Seriously, I think there are more rosaries in this movie than there are actors.)

And if all else fails, there's educational value--surely!--in oohing and ahhing over some pretty dresses.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

All me, all the time

I was brushing my teeth the other night, not thinking about anything in particular, when between spitting and rinsing I found myself muttering, "Thus does the whirlygig of time bring in his revenges."

For a second I had no idea where that line had come from. Uh. . . Shakespeare, right? And. . . Twelfth Night? Yes. Duh. I was teaching Twelfth Night that week. But what was that particular line doing rattling around in my subconsciousness?

I shrugged and went to bed, but the next morning I found myself thinking about that line some more, as well as some of the play's many other references to time ("Time, thou must unravel this, not I/It is too hard a knot for me t'untie"), and I realized how consonant they are with a lot of the thinking I've been doing lately. "Man," I said aloud at one point, "I should totally re-read Twelfth Night again!"

And then I laughed, embarrassed at myself.

Re-read it, why? For its fortune-cookie wisdom? Its secret messages to me alone? Isn't this exactly what I want my students not to do--to believe that a work of literature has value only insofar as it relates to their lives. . . and that as soon as it doesn't, it's pointless?

Of course, I don't believe that about Twelfth Night or anything else I read or teach, but sometimes I do think I have a tendency to relate too intensely and too personally to the things I work on. I worry that this is naive and unprofessional of me. But I also wonder how one can help it.

There are scholars, I'm sure, who do what they do for the sheer intellectual challenge of it all, and who derive immense satisfaction from that. But even though the "personal" element of my work isn't at all obvious--it has nothing, for example, to do with gender- or religious- or class-based identification, or with events in my personal or family history--I can't pretend that my scholarship is somehow perfectly objective or that it doesn't reflect, in a deep and fundamental way, my own personality and my understanding of human nature and institutions.

I guess there's value to this awareness, and I know that discovering aspects of oneself in the intellectual and cultural productions of another age isn't the same thing as imposing oneself or one's beliefs upon those works (in the former case, one is hopefully expanding and challenging oneself and one's preconceptions; in the latter, one is finding only what one is prepared to find).

Nevertheless, I still feel vaguely ashamed and Billy Phelpsian when I admit to such things.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Where are you going, where have you been?

I received my new passport in the mail the other day--just two weeks after sending in my application, thankyouverymuch, U.S. Department of State!--and after getting over the hideous graphics (eagles, flags, amber waves of grain) and quotations about liberty and so forth, I dug out my two earlier passports to compare their format and layout and to think a bit about where I've been and where I might be going.

One place I've been and don't want to go back to: long permed hair and feathered bangs, which is the look I'm sporting in the passport that I got at age 17 (the eighties, apparently, came late to the west coast, because this was in 1992). I'm also rocking a headband, weird dangly earrings, and frighteningly large eyebrows. I got that passport before going to Japan on a six-week exchange program between my junior and senior years of high school, and the second and final time I used it was four years later, between my junior and senior years of college, when I decided to spend a month travelling around the U.K. by myself, interrupted by a short jaunt to Belgium to see The Expat. (On that trip I got continual shit from the passport control people, who would scrunch up their faces before allowing that, maybe, I could be the girl in the photo.)

My second passport, though it's now ten years old, bears a photo that's still recognizable as me, albeit with longer hair and softer, more tentative features. My expression, too, looks tentative--I look young. I remember being delighted with that passport, for both its photo (at some abrupt moment in my life I went from being completely unphotogenic to looking better in photos than I do in person) and its sense of promise. I was planning a trip to Paris for a week over Thanksgiving--my first vacation from my new, grown-up job! and I was going to Paris!

But that passport--or maybe it was my life--didn't quite live up to its potential. Back in 1997 I was certain that I'd go somewhere new every year or two, but I became mired in debt and then mired in grad school and didn't go abroad again until 2004, when I spent two weeks in Korea visiting HK. A research trip to the U.K. a few months later and a conference in an unnamed European country in 2005 made me think I might make good on at least some of my early promise as an international glamor girl--but instead I wound up running down the clock on that passport with only another research trip to the U.K. this past summer to show for it.

But! Now I have this new passport, with its awful graphics and a not-terrible photo and a whole lot of blank pages. I'm planning a trip to Italy in the spring and hopefully I'll be back in London this summer for a conference--but what about the next nine years? Where will I have gone and where the hell (or who, or what) will I be then?

Other, I mean, than forty-fucking-two years old.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Fall break goodies

So Evey and I hit the mall yesterday--and not our local mall, neither, but one requiring a significant drive each way--and I returned home with the following:

1. Two M*A*C lipsticks, one in "Diva," a dark berry/plum color, and the other in "Ruby Woo," a traffic-stopping red with a seriously retro matte finish. (I think I may only be able to wear the latter at night, in dimly-lit establishments--it's pretty fabulous, but possibly more drag-queen fabulous than movie-star fabulous.)

2. A pair of pointy red shoes in shiny shiny calfskin--perfect with my navy pinstripe suit. (All y'all going to MLA, keep an eye out.)

And heck, because it's fall and a time for new beginnings and preparing for the long winter ahead, I also spent some time contemplating new moisturizing and skin care regimens (winter is a time of killing-spree-inducingly dry skin for your Flavia) and finally took a leap of faith and credit card on one. Then I dug out ye olde humidifier, vacuumed, did two loads of laundry, and (thanks to a new-agey store called, I kid you not, Archimago) "smudged" my apartment with white sage. Whether evil spirits were actually inspired to flee the premises I can't say, but it sure smells nice in here.

So yeah. Now I'm hanging out in my sweetly-scented apartment, grading papers in track pants and blindingly bright lipstick. When I get bored? I get up and put on a different lipstick.

Who says the academic life isn't a glamorous one?

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Governed by imperatives

Many years ago Victoria observed, mid-phone call, that my life seemed to be "governed by imperatives." (I believe this was approximately one sentence before or after she commented that I have a classically addictive personality.) And I suppose that's true--I have a long mental list of things I must know and must do and must have (some of them regularly, some of them soon, some just at some point before I die): travel and foreign languages and stationery and social skills and movies and housewares and beauty routines and cocktails and clothing. . . and on, and on, and on.

This weekend, however, at least half of my imperatives are of a much less self-improving, beautiful-life-living sort: it's RU's fall break (read: a six-day weekend), and I have 50 papers to grade and research proposals to write and a windshield to replace and--hey! did I mention those 50 papers?

So blogging may slip down that list of imperatives, somewhere beneath going to the mall (lipstick!) and catching up on several weeks' worth of magazines (cult-chah!) and joining friends for a drink or three or five.

But rest assured that y'all are among those imperatives. I'm just juggling some others, is all.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Theme and variation

Last week it occurred to me that virtually all of my friends are, RIGHT NOW, in the midst of major life changes: some have finally finished school and are starting new careers; others are going back to school after having worked for a decade; some have just had their first baby; others are getting married or divorced.

Initially, this just seemed like more of the same. Since graduating from college, many of us have made some kind of change on a near-yearly basis--switching apartments, cities, employers, or boyfriends in a blinding blur. (So many of my friends have moved so many times that I have to hunt to find anything in my address book--half the entries are scratched out and the rest are written in any old place, under any old letter.)

But these, I think, are truly big changes, and ones that will shape at least the next few years of our lives. But. . . shape them how, exactly?

I've been complaining a lot, to a lot of people, about not knowing what the narrative of my life is supposed to be, and in one of those conversations HK reminded me that I used to go around offering, from Kierkegaard, the observation "life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forward."

(And okay, that's a pretty shameful revelation--but if you think there's nothing more annoying than a 20-year-old who goes around saying, "as Kierkegaard says. . ." you'd be wrong: at one of HK's law firm interviews, when asked about the unusual series of jobs she'd held since college and what they added up to, she commented, vaguely, that one of her friends used to say [the above quotation]. Her interviewer replied, "Actually, that's Kierkegaard. I mean, your friend didn't just make that up.")

And what strikes me about that induced memory isn't the total profundity of that quotation, but the fact that. . . well. . . I guess I've always felt this way. Back when I kept a journal, I had this experience with some regularity. I'd flip through an older volume, start reading, and discover, hey! That thing in my current life and those deep self-realizations it was provoking? Uh, I'd already had them. Like, five years earlier.

As humbling as these moments are, especially when they involve having made the same fucking mistakes or operating under the same flawed assumptions, there's also something comforting about them. I have changed, in quite a lot of ways, so there's a pleasure--even if it's a rueful one--in signs of continuity.

And so now, thinking about the Big Changes that many of my friends are experiencing, I'm resisting the urge to say--whether in sorrow or in delight--"Things are totally different! Life will never be the same!" Because every single time I've ever thought that, I've been wrong. And maybe it simply is that we remain mostly the same people and tend to persist in the same behaviors, but it's hard not to feel that there are larger narrative patterns at work when doors that appeared closed suddenly open; people disappear only to reappear; and answers arrive to questions we weren't aware we had asked.

Still. One part of my past self that doesn't need to reappear? The quoting philosophers part. The pretentiousness there's probably no help for.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Perhaps you should talk to my friend, Sallie Mae

Faithful readers may recall how I regard INRU's periodic attempts to convince me that, without my "generous financial contribution," the institution will totter into immediate poverty and/or a lower slot in the U.S. News rankings. However, when I'm solicited as an alumna of INRU college, at least I understand why: many of my classmates are indeed making the big bucks, and we also tend, as a group, toward irrational nostalgia and institutional chauvinism.

Today, however, I received a solicitation from the dean of INRU's graduate school. It opened by conjuring up the inspirational sight of this year's crop of new graduate students at their matriculation ceremony, and. . . well, actually, that's where the dean lost me.

The matriculation ceremony? I'm supposed to feel a rush of nostalgia at that memory? (Or any memory from graduate school?)

I read an essay in the Chronicle a few years back where the author asserted that there was no one he knew who had gone to graduate school in the past 25 years who hadn't left feeling brutalized, and that pretty much matches my own experience. Were there good and even great things about my years in grad school? Well yes: there were a few. But were they things that I associate with the institution itself and its management of my education, teaching assignments, salary, et cetera? Fuck no.

More to the point, it's former graduate students--a group of people not known for its deep pockets--whom INRU is asking to send money. Sure, a few alumni may be biotech start-up millionaires or highly placed policy wonks, but that must be a small minority, and even those alumni are likely to feel more allegiance to their undergraduate alma maters than to the place where they received their MAs or PhDs.

Also: don't most of the graduate school's alumni probably work at institutions of higher education? And don't most of those institutions probably have--I'm just speculating here--vastly smaller endowments, operating budgets, and faculty salaries than INRU? So when I'm told that, without my contribution, INRU won't be able to continue offering competitive tuition and stipend packages to its incoming graduate students--well, I'm pretty much obliged to tell the dean to fuck right off.

Really, though, I wouldn't have given the letter a second glance had not something in the first paragraph jumped out at me: in the middle of describing that affecting scene at the matriculation ceremony, Dr. Dean writes that the sight renews feelings of inspiration "in returning students and faculty AND THE WONDER OF LEARNING."

Yes, that last phrase is all in caps--on his lovely, deanly letterhead (what did he think he was writing, a blog post?). And no, it doesn't make grammatical sense.

But you know, if this is who's running the institution these days. . . maybe I should write that cheque after all.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Recommenders: advice

So I'm applying for fellowships of various sorts for the first time since grad school--which means that, also for the first time, I'm confronted by the need to start finding recommenders from places other than grad school. Many of these fellowships only require two recommenders, and for those I'm set: Advisor is writing one and a good professional acquaintance (a well-known mid-career academic whose work I very much admire) has agreed to write the second.

However, at least one of these fellowships requires three recs, and I'm uncertain where to turn for that third one. My department chair would do it, and she's an excellent letter writer, but she's not in my field and I'm not sure that a letter from her would be remotely useful or appropriate. I could call upon another professor at INRU whom I've known since I was an undergrad and who's read pretty much everything I've ever written--but (a) s/he has gone above and beyond in writing me recommendations for everything imaginable for more than a decade now, and (b) I really want to get away from grad school recommenders, both because I think it will look better for my applications and because I'm genuinely interested in forging new relationships with mentor-type people.

Now, I have another possible third recommender, but I'm worried that we don't know each other well enough and that it might be presumptuous of me even to ask. We met less than a year ago, but we've had some fun interactions over meals at conferences; s/he read one of my articles and then engaged me in very complimentary conversation about it; s/he offered to read something else of mine--an offer that for various reasons I couldn't/didn't pursue. And oh yeah: this person is also kinda famous.

So I'm not sure. I guess it doesn't hurt to ask, but I have deep anxieties when it comes to making other people uncomfortable or putting them under any sense of obligation--and I worry that we might know each other well enough that Possible Recommender wouldn't feel able to say no. . . but would secretly resent the presumption.

Anyone have any pertinent advice, here?

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Stick a fork in it

THANK GOD: I'm finally done with that essay on Neglected Author. Yeah, the one that I've had all summer to revise. For various reasons, I've had a serious block on this project--more an emotional block than a mental one--and so even though there really wasn't much that I had to do to the thing, every time I thought about it I Just. Couldn't. Deal.

But with the deadline approaching, I dealt.

Most of it was relatively easy. But yesterday I spent FOUR hours and today THREE hours revising exactly two sentences. Over and over and over and over. Does the improvement in the sense of the paragaph equal the time spent working on it? I'm not at all sure.

But I do know there's little in life that's more satisfying than the moment the right wording finally comes to me: "That's it. That's fucking fantastic," I say--trying not to look in the nearest mirror and observe that the fucking fantastic originator of the sentence is still unshowered and in her pyjamas. "Goddamn, that's good."

So yeah. I'd be, like, celebrating if it weren't for the fact that my reappointment materials--all two binders' worth of them--are due tomorrow.

Statement of teaching philosophy, here I come.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

All or nothing

Sometimes I wonder whether I have, if not a death drive, then at least an impulse toward some of the milder forms of self-annihilation.

How else to explain the way I schedule my life?

In a typical week, I'm on campus Tuesday through Thursday and at home (or just, you know, elsewhere) Friday through Monday. It sounds like a sweet schedule and in many ways it is, especially since on Wednesdays I often don't go in until after noon. But what this means is that I am profoundly ON for several days--and those days are usually long and frantic--and then I'm OFF.

I work during the weekend, of course, but somehow most of my grading and course prep always gets left until Monday and I spend most of that day--and usually until 1 or 2 a.m.--finishing it. On Tuesday I rush to campus, where I spend nine hours (half of them jumping up and down in front of a classroom and the rest trying to be smiley and perky for my office hours or my colleagues), rush home, rush to my Italian class, inevitably have to stop by the grocery store, and finally return home at 10 p.m. looking like I've been beaten with the underside of a toboggan. Wednesday is another day of massive course prep and office hours and the occasional meeting. Thursday is a repeat of Tuesday, sans Italian.

And then? Ah, blessed freedom! Then it's all about sleeping in and puttering around the apartment and reading magazines and going out with friends. Sure, I get work done, but it gets done in the context of an essentially relaxed, unstructured day: a few hours here, a few hours there, and always with a spare half hour to check blogs or paint my toenails.

And honestly, I don't think I'd have it any other way. I love my leisurely days at home, and if the only way I can get them--or can feel I've earned them--is by bringing myself to the point of utter collapse on those other days, so be it.

Because it's not just about teaching or the exigencies of the academic schedule; I've always been like this. Many's the time I've been out all day running errands, and I'm starving and my feet hurt and I have to pee--and yet somehow I'll come up with five more things that I absolutely have to do before I go home. No, I can't get my drycleaning tomorrow--I'm out NOW! I have to get it NOW! And I need to get a ream of paper at Staples! And to swing by the drugstore! And finally I get home with a pounding headache and my hands shaking from hunger and in the foulest possible mood. . . but at least I've freed up the next day, or part of it, to do nothing.

Maybe it's that I feel the obligatory tasks must be got out of the way as soon as possible (as a kid I tended to eat my vegetables first for just this reason), or maybe it's that I have a strong reluctance to contaminate the more-fun with the less-fun.

Or maybe it's simply that inertia exerts a profound pull on me: a Flavia in motion tends to stay in motion, and a Flavia at rest tends to stay at rest.

(Speaking of which, dudes: I gotta cut this short. There's a bottle of whiskey and a DVD with my name on them.)

Monday, September 24, 2007

Still searching what we know not, by what we know

I just finished Areopagitica, which I'm teaching tomorrow.

I cry every time I read it.

God, I'm a dork.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Friday cat blogging

I know you've all been wondering how the pseudonymous Nero and I have been getting along for lo these many weeks now. Do these photos answer that question?

Probably not. But here they are anyway:

Although Nero's surprisingly good about not needing to be in my lap, on my keyboard, etc., when I'm working, he does insist on our being in near-constant physical proximity. (You can't tell from this image, but the rest of his body is curled all the way around my hip.)

Egad! A stowaway!

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Oddball appeal

What is it that prods students in the direction of odd projects and paper topics?

Sometimes, of course, it's a fundamental misunderstanding of the assignment. The student who decides to do a "close reading" of Comus for her first paper--even after being told, repeatedly, that a close reading needs to take either a single short poem or a passage of no more than 20 lines as its subject--simply doesn't know what she's doing.

Other times, it's less clear whether the student does or doesn't know what he's doing. That student who chooses to do a close reading of an obscure sonnet--one that wasn't assigned and that would require a considerable amount of historical background even to paraphrase? Well, who knows why he chose it. Maybe he misread the syllabus and thought that it was assigned. Maybe he knows enough about the context of the poem to have been intrigued. Maybe it struck him as baffling, and therefore compelling.

It's those last possibilities that interest me most. Is it intellectual curiosity that motivates someone to write on something about which he knows very little? Or is it a desire to do something new--and maybe in some senses easier--by avoiding the well-trod path?

I must admit to a personal interest in these questions, since I work on texts that are generally understudied--even those by well-known writers tend not to be counted among their "literary" productions. These days I don't think of what I do as particularly unusual (we all have our weird specialties), but as I puzzle over what could possibly be going on in my students' heads, it occurs to me that I was one of those students. And it also occurs to me that I don't have a clue what was going on in my own head then--or possibly even now.

* * * * * * * * * * *

As a sophomore I took a course on Milton, and I became fascinated by a minor work that we'd barely read or discussed. I had absolutely no familiarity with its genre or the issues behind it, and I don't think I could have told you, even then, exactly what attracted me to it; it was just weird! and different!

So naturally, when my senior year rolled around, I decided to write my thesis on it. And naturally, my thesis was a total fucking disaster.

Now, that disaster wasn't entirely my fault--my advisor was a straight-out-of-grad-school junior faculty member with no experience as an advisor, nothing but a cursory familiarity with the texts I was looking at, and (as I later found out) some significant drama going on in her personal life. But deciding to work on something so different from any text I'd ever encountered, and mainly because it was different. . . well, maybe that wasn't a smart decision on my part.

The experience was so traumatic that I became convinced I wasn't cut out for grad school.

Somehow I wound up there anyway.

While there, I proceeded to write a bunch more papers on weird texts and topics, some of which were equally disastrous and some of which started to be halfway decent as I learned how to ask the right kinds of questions. I designed a special topic for my oral exams (we had a bazillion topics that we were examined on at INRU, so this was just one of them) that might as well have been entitled, "weird stuff that interests Flavia mainly because she's never read or encountered it before." I spent a summer in a rare books library doing keyword searches ("WEIRD and STUFF") and indiscriminately paging everything that the catalogue turned up, whether ponderous 300-page tomes or broadside ballads.

Basically, I didn't have much more of a clue what I was doing than I had had in college. (I continued, and still do continue, to be unable to explain exactly why I'm interested in certain things--in the early stages of a project, I'm likely to say something like, "Well, I'm working on [totally random work]. Some of the stuff that [author] is doing seems weird. So yeah. I'm trying to figure out what's going on with that.")

Eventually, it became a dissertation. And now that it's done, and some of it's in print--and now that I have a job and some professional status--it doesn't seem odd at all.

* * * * * * * * *

But sometimes I still wonder why I always went for the neglected stuff--and not so much the cool neglected stuff, but the stuff that even many of my grad school colleagues let me know they found hugely boring.

Now, I'm absolutely in love with the material that I work on, but I wonder whether I wasn't also, however subconsciously, intimidated by the thought of working on more canonical works. I remember walking through the stacks at INRU at some point in grad school, looking for the four or five books that at least briefly discussed one of the works I was writing on, and passing the endless shelves of books on Shakespeare. "God!" I thought. "How does anyone write a dissertation on Shakespeare?"

I still wonder that. Somehow, writing on Shakespeare always struck me as more work than writing on the weird stuff I wound up devoted to. Maybe that's a sign that I took the easy way out--or maybe it's all a matter of perception. After all, I'm perfectly content to bumble about blindly as I try to come to grips with an entirely obscure text in a hybrid genre that deals with a historical event I know nothing about.

Or as I've been known to say in the classroom, "My God! I love this! I don't understand it AT ALL!"

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Friday, September 14, 2007

Unfaithful in one's heart

Contrary to their years-old practice (YEARS! like, at least three!), this year the MLA--showing no concern for the needs of certain bloggers, who may or may not have been checking the ADE website multiple times a day, all week long--actually didn't make the job list available until today's official release date.

Now, I don't want to go on the job market this year and I'm not planning on going on the job market this year; short of being actively dissatisfied with one's job or trying to get closer to a long-distance partner, the idea of going back on the market in one's first few years on the tenure-track has always struck me as a sacrifice of time that could be better spent on research, writing, and professional-identity-building--all the stuff that would make one a stronger candidate a year or two or five down the line. The logic of that calculation may not have equal force for everyone, but given that I'm perfectly content in this job and this city, I really have no reason to be as excited about the release of the job list as I am.

But that's the thing: it's not about dissatisfaction. It's not about wanting to or thinking that one can "do better." It's just about wondering what else might be out there. And in this respect, I wonder whether the impulse is really so different from whatever spurs otherwise happily married people to flirt or fantasize or outright cheat on their partners: so many opportunities in this big, wide world! So many roads not taken! And the familiar is just so. . . familiar. Ya know?

So yeah: I've looked. I've indulged in a fantasy or two. I'm cheating in my heart, RU, but that doesn't mean that I'll be cheating in practice.

But then again, it doesn't mean that I won't.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Naming and knowing

I learn names very quickly. I usually know the names of half of my students by the end of the first class session, and I'm typically at 100% by the third session. The flip side of this, though, is that as soon as the semester is over my brain purges itself of that information. I'll be walking across campus and run into a smart, participatory student whom I had in class just two months earlier. . . and I'll have no idea what her name is. I'll remember her, of course--which class she was in and where she sat, and even all kinds of extraneous information like the fact that she's on the student paper, or she lives with her sister, or she just moved here from South Dakota. But her name? It might take me ten minutes of hard thinking, and long after we've parted, to recollect.

This is, surely, an inevitable consequence of teaching more than a hundred students a year, year after year, and some of my students actually seem to expect to be forgotten--I've had "A" students email me the semester after taking a class with me and open their request for a recommendation by saying, "I don't know if you'll remember me. . ."

Still, it bothers me not to have better recall, in part because I tend to have a good memory for detail, and in part because I've always assumed that anyone I've had any kind of meaningful encounter with will remember me: I once emailed a former TA to ask for a recommendation letter, three and a half years after I'd taken his section, and it didn't even occur to me to remind him of who I was; I just launched right into a chatty message updating him on my life and explaining why I thought he'd be a good recommender. Now, it's true that I'd done very well in his class, and it's also true that, being an INRU grad student, he probably hadn't taught more than 80 or 100 students in his entire graduate career--but it's not as if I'd participated much in section, and we certainly hadn't had anything like a personal relationship.

Maybe that's a sign of how cluelessly self-important I am, or maybe it's an indication of the difference between my educational experience and that of many of my students: if you're a first-generation college student, or a transfer student, or someone who hasn't been continually petted and praised by your teachers in the past, you probably tend to regard the distance between yourself and your professors as that much greater. For that matter, if most of your classes average closer to 30 students than to 15, it might be reasonable to assume that your professors see you as no more than another line in their gradebooks.

Still--aren't we all disappointed when people forget our names? I take it very personally when someone fails to remember my name, especially after multiple introductions, and I can't help but see it as either a moral failing on that person's part--so uninterested in other people! So absent-minded!--or as evidence of my own inconsequence. It's that latter possibility, probably, that most upsets me, and I'm sure that my students feel similarly even if some of them are already half-prepared to be forgotten.

So I try to learn names quickly, to pronounce them correctly, and to use preferred nicknames when applicable. This doesn't mean that I know my students in any profound sense--or that I know most of them, really, at all--but I guess that I see it as a way of acknowledging and validating their identities in some fundamental way.

That's probably why I hate how quickly I forget their names, too: if I can't remember even that one, basic thing about my students, maybe they were just lines in my gradebook after all.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

The first week in review

Signs that the semester may be off to a good start:
Having your repeat students, when asked their reason for signing up for your class, say "because I really like [or in one case, totally love] the professor." (This was not said to me directly, but via some first-day, getting-to-know-each-other activities.) It's kinda awesome to have fan club. It's even more awesome when said fan club is made up almost entirely of very smart, very funny, and rather cheeky women.

Seeing this bumper-sticker on a student car on your first day of class: "The real Jesus forgives your Jesus for being a greedy Republican warmonger."

Finding out that the edition of the King James Bible that you'd ordered for your class on Big Johnny is actually a facsimile copy of the 1611 original. (All I'd wanted was an orginal-language edition, so I ordered the thing sight-unseen; I had no idea that it would turn out to be so fabulous or to have so many potential uses.)

Discovering that, although your freshman comp class this fall has weaker writing skills than the comp class you had last fall, it's 100% more lively and participatory--and you're thus unlikely to end every period in a murderous rage.

Signs that there's still room for improvement:
Deciding to wear, on the day that you intend to do a lot of chalkboard work, a black suit with a very flat weave.

Having a habit of making every author/character you paraphrase sound like a valley girl. ("So he's like, 'you're totally making a present for Baby Jesus, right?'")

Not bad, on the whole.

Monday, August 27, 2007

New Year's Eve

Like many academics, I consider the start of the school year to be the start of the year, period, and even during the time that I spent working at an office job I still had a hard time not thinking of "a year" as something that began in August or September. (I distinctly recall talking to a coworker one fall and referring to something that had happened "last year," when the event in question had actually occurred in February or March.)

For me, the new year begins tomorrow (since I continue to have that sweet, sweet Tuesday/Thursday schedule, whose long weekends and limited number of required days on campus more than make up for the fact that I teach three 90-minute classes, two of them back-to-back, on each of those days).

What have I done to prepare? Well, apart from putting together my syllabi and lesson plans and handouts, I've been doing a lot of things to put me in the appropriate psychological state for a fresh start--some of them practical, and some of them a little silly. I've cleaned my apartment from top to bottom. I've caught up (temporarily) on my email correspondence. I've taken a nice long bath, soaking and scrubbing and exfoliating, followed by giving myself a fresh pedicure. I went out and bought myself a new perfume--I'd been wearing the same two perfumes for something like 5 and 9 years each, and it was time for something new; I'm amazed, frankly, by how NEW this new scent really does make me feel. If I have time before I go to bed, I intend to fix myself a celebratory Negroni.

So I think I'm ready. The committee meetings and dinner parties that I've had with colleagues in the past two weeks have reminded me all over again of how much I like these people. And although I have several serious projects (an article revision and my reappointment package, to name two) due in the next five weeks, in addition to all the papers that will start flooding in about then. . . that's what I wanted, right? More structure? Lots of stuff to keep me busy? Well. Looks like I've got it!

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Self-indulgent summertime retrospective

I realize I've been a crap blogger these past few weeks, but there's been a lot of stuff going on, both in my life and in my head. Regrettably, most of it isn't worth blogging about--and although I'd be perfectly content not to be experiencing it, it seems a courtesy to save all y'all from hearing about it.

Every August I find myself torn between freaking out because the school year is about to begin, and I haven't gotten nearly enough done--and absolutely dying for the school year to begin, because I'm so sick of summer and all that unstructured time. That tension is still present this year, but all in all I think I've NEVER been as eager to return to the classroom as I am right now. It's not that I'm truly prepared for the academic year (although I'm genuinely excited about two of my three classes this semester), and it's not that I have a great sense of satisfaction about what I've accomplished over the summer (because, um, I don't). It's just that I think I'd jump off a fucking cliff if I had a single additional week of summer to try to fill.

Has it been a bad summer? Well, yes. But it could certainly have been worse. Has it been a good summer? That seems like a stupid question to ask, but many things about the summer have been good, even surprisingly good, and my ambition is to be able to look back on the past three and a half months as having been largely positive and productive, even if disagreeable on a near-daily basis.

For one thing, over the course of the summer I think I've learned more about myself than I have during any other comparable period of time; frankly, I'm inclined to think I've grown and changed as much in the not-quite-four-months since my breakup as I did in the entire six years I spent in that relationship--and that's in no way a dismissal of the value of the latter. It's nice to discover how much more one is capable of than one would have believed. . . and how much better, more dedicated, and more generous a person one is. (It would be even nicer if those attributes or behaviors were immediately recognized and rewarded, but I suppose such commodities hold their value.)

I've also been reminded of what amazing friends I have, and having the opportunity to reconnect with so many of them, so many times, and in such depth, has been a profoundly and consistently wonderful experience. After my conference last week I spent the weekend in the city that is now home to a ridiculous number of my college friends, and all I can say is, goddamn. What fabulous, insightful people they all are. My newer friends, too, are pretty awesome--in the past 24 hours I've unexpectedly started crying in front of two different people, first a young male colleague and then Evey, and both reacted in ways that were straightforward, sympathetic, and helpful, rather than awkward, anxious, or mortifying.

For years and years, through my teens and most of my twenties, I don't think I believed that I could be truly understood, or known, for whatever it was that I was--first known, I guess, and then loved. So if in some ways this summer has seemed to be a confirmation of that deep (and, let's be honest, totally narcissistic) fear, in other ways it's been exactly the opposite.

And hell. I did some fun travelling. I got at least a certain amount of work done. I read some books, made some new professional acquaintances, and heard some great gossip.

And of course, winter break is only 3.5 months away.