Thursday, March 29, 2007

Parades: how to rain on

One of my very favorite students--a student I had last semester, who I have again this semester, and who is already signed up for my 400/500-level class next fall--just asked me to write a rec letter for her when she applies to grad schools next year.

Of course! I said. I'd love to.

"Well," she said, "I thought I'd ask because I'm applying to INRU." She laughed and added, "Of course, I'm also applying to [INRU's Big Rival], and I don't know how you'd feel about that. . ."

I smiled and said that I could probably bring myself to write a letter for both institutions--and, since she was running out the door, I simply added that she should definitely bring her writing sample and personal statement by me when the time came.

But when she left I closed the door and thought, Jesus Christ. I sure hope she's applying to a few other schools, too.

Because--and I probably don't have to spell this out here--even the best students at RU are unlikely to go straight to a top-10 Ph.D. program. It's not the world's rarest occurrence (I've heard of a few students who have, and I've even met one of them), but it's unlikely for reasons both of preparation and of institutional snobbery. My best juniors and seniors are strong students, but their work bears the marks of people who blossomed intellectually only rather recently. They write well, but their writing usually doesn't have the fluency and sophistication that you see, sometimes, even among freshmen and sophomores at a certain kind of college--those students who grew up devouring books and travelling abroad and who graduated in the top 5% of their well-funded suburban high schools.

I'd defend to the death the ability of many of my students, but their training is patchier and they've had less practice applying their skills. They've also, usually, not been pushed as hard--I know that this particular student wants to be pushed, but I also know that some of my colleagues give her papers As and tell her how great they are. Her papers? They're definitely good work, but they're not As, not yet. They're more like very promising B-pluses.

I would never tell my student not to apply to a couple of top Ph.D. programs, but what I strongly believe is that she should apply to terminal M.A. programs, go to the best one she can get into (and I suspect she could get into a very good one) and refine her skills there. Get her ass kicked. Read more widely and more deeply. With that experience and that degree, admission to a top Ph.D. program would be a very real possibility.

But she's not asking me for that advice. And I certainly can't tell her that her skills aren't there yet--there's no way, really, of saying that without her hearing "you're not smart enough," which I don't mean and don't believe. I also don't think that I can tell her that Ph.D. programs like INRU's are often snobbish and don't tend to admit students from regional comprehensive universities. I like RU, a lot, and I think my department is every bit as strong as many a department at, let's say, a lesser research school--so I resist giving the impression that I'm participating in that kind of snobbery.

The real problem here, I think, is one of a lack of perspective. This student is friends with nearly all of my smartest students, and they all hang out together; they're an awesome, funny-intense group of students. But they are, basically, The Smart Kids. There aren't many other students who have the quirky geeky intellectual interests that they have, and there aren't many students who do better than they do in classes. So on some level they think of themselves as the smart kids, just as my friends and I did in high school. There's nothing wrong with that, but they haven't yet been fully challenged or fully humbled by all the other kinds of smartness out there.

I guess that that's a beautiful thing in many ways. I spent most of college (and, oh yeah: graduate school, too) consumed by academic self-doubt and the belief that I wasn't remotely the intellectual equal of half of my peers. But I worry that my student's expectations are unrealistic, and that her disappointment could be the more extreme because of it. If she truly wants to get a Ph.D. in English--and you'll notice that I've completely sidestepped, for the moment, the question of whether I ought to be encouraging her to go to graduate school at all--I may be able to help her do it. But I think that one of my colleagues in particular is giving her some bad advice, and I'm uncertain how to counter it without making her feel that I don't believe in her abilities.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

"You make me feel sick, like I have the flu"

Like many a teacher of Brit Lit I, whenever I get to The Faerie Queene I give my students, instead of the usual reading response, the task of writing a single Spenserian stanza.

The reactions when I announce this assignment are mixed: some students just incandesce the moment I start explaining the task. These kids aren't necessarily creative writers and often their poems aren't any better than anyone else's, but something in the assignment sparks their interest--maybe just the prospect of a homework assignment that they consider creative for a change. (At BU I had one student go totally nuts and write a series of TEN Spenserians, all fantastical and allegorical--and although they were damn awkward syntactically, she had the form down cold.)

Others groan, loudly, and give me looks of such bitter hatred that you'd think I'd just told them to come back on Thursday having read all of the remaining five books of The Faerie Queene and written a 10-page paper.

But I keep giving them this assignment and I keep being surprised by what I get. There are always a couple of amazing poems; a couple that make me want to kill myself via a singularly lethal, self-inflicted paper cut--and a whole bunch that are merely dutiful. But in almost all cases this assignment brings out a completely different side of my students: some write deeply and disturbingly personal poems; some are unexpectedly cheeky; virtually all reveal what tin ears they actually have for poetry (their use of meter is, pretty uniformly, abysmal). And beyond the pedagogical utility of the task, I think that this may be why I keep assigning it: just to see what they'll give me.

Here's a summary of what they gave me this time:
One (but only one!) of the standard meta-poems about how much the student hates writing poetry, Spenser, and indeed majoring in English.

Several poems about True Love (found, lost, etc.)

Several poems about God (including one about the poet's having found her own knight of holiness, who revealed himself as "a part of God's omniscient plan")

One entire poem about Black Francis, of the Pixies

"You make me feel sick, like I have the flu"*

"They will go wild and get drunk on vermouth"**

And one totally nutty (but therefore, I think, truly Spenserian) stanza that involved a girl buying an elaborate gold purse; seeing her lover walk by drinking soda pop and leading a goat on a leash; and deciding then and there to escape from his "folds."

*No, this poem was not addressed to me.

**I assume "vermouth" was chosen in order to rhyme with "truth," two lines earlier, but I couldn't resist writing in the margin, "it would take a whole lot of vermouth to get drunk on!"

Saturday, March 24, 2007

On being a public figure

So apparently I'm still adapting to being a, like, authority figure--or whatever it is that I am--because I'm having a really hard time remembering that, when I'm two miles from campus and someone cuts me off at a light in a particularly jerky and dangerous fashion, I maybe shouldn't give him the finger. Especially when he has an RU hangtag on his rearview mirror, color-coded to indicate "student."

And when another student fails to brake at the crosswalk that I'm just entering? It would probably be advisable not to mutter, loudly, "thanks a lot, bitch." Because even if the driver has her windows rolled up and is well past me by the time I say it, there might be other pedestrians nearby. And it's probably a bad policy, as a faculty member, to become known as someone who goes around cursing out students.

Those things are obvious, I suppose, and maybe it's less about my adjusting to being An Adult than it is to living in a slightly less impatient and profane city than the ones where I most recently dwelt. But as Evey and I were discussing at the bar a couple of months ago--and this conversation is not to be mistaken for any one of the dozen of other conversations that we've had at some bar or other in the last few months (God bless her for existing, a certain blogger for introducing us, and New City for having watering holes that we still haven't visited)--being a professor is one of the more obscure jobs that one can have while yet feeling oneself to be uncomfortably in the public eye.

Our students Google us. They gossip and speculate and trade stories about us. One of my students--and of course I shouldn't know this, but I do--quotes me, twice, in her Facebook profile (I guess she thinks I'm funny). But it's not only them: as fellow academics, we all Google each other when we're assigned to panels with people we've never heard of, or after meeting people at conferences, or when we come across a novel or interesting or terrible essay in one of our journals.

For a long while, toiling away in obscurity on my dissertation, I longed to have a public presence in this profession. I used to Google myself regularly, waiting to exist in the world at least as a name in a conference program somewhere; some while later, I started checking the MLA database obsessively, waiting for my first couple of publications to show up and confirm that, yes, I was out there, doing something.

So now, for what it's worth, I exist. My Google and MLA database trail isn't vast, and neither is it entirely up to date, but it gives what you might call my academic vital statistics. But now that I have some kind of a public image, I'm nervous about it: whenever I think about posting something to a list-serv or a website or a wiki under my own name, I hesitate: would I want that to come up when someone searches for me?

And although I live a goodly distance from RU, I look over my shoulder when I'm out at a bar or a restaurant. I wonder whether what I'm wearing is too tight or low-cut, or whether I'm being too loud or drinking too much, in the event that I should run into a student.

Maybe I'm crazy-paranoid (and I probably am, as only the narcissistic can truly be paranoid), but the point I'm making here is surely true even for the less paranoid and narcissistic among us. Most of my non-academic friends--even the quite successful among them--don't think this way, and many of them barely exist in Google; moreover, they can be pretty confident that the only people searching for them are exes or long-lost friends or their most recent dates from They may be important in their various spheres, but they aren't public figures in the way--even the very, very minor way--that those of us who teach and lecture and publish and present are. We have public, performed selves to a different degree, and the fact that the primary audience for those performed selves isn't our peers, but our students, makes the always-present gulf between the public and the private that much more stark and that much more problematic.

Which is to say? Maybe only this: I kinda hate having to act like a respectable person.

Thursday, March 22, 2007


God Almighty, it was 65 DEGREES here today. This morning it was sunny and blustery--but with a warm, damp wind that no one, I'm sure, minded in the least. Since noon it's mostly been rainy and overcast--but again, what's to mind? By tomorrow the very last remnants of snow will be gone.

I wore a sleeveless top today that hasn't seen action since September. Some of my students were in shorts.

Surely, this is too good to be true.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

For good behavior, or time served, or something

So, spring break is over and I'm coping reasonably well given the havoc that the region's most recent snowstorm wreaked on my plans. (Short version: I was supposed to leave Quaint Smallish City Saturday morning, in plenty of time to make my colleague's famous St. Patrick's Day party; instead, I spent 6.5 hours at the airport trying to talk to an agent, and I had to keep returning in order to get home last night and not miss my classes today.)

But as a prize for, I don't know, not giving up and permanently going on spring break or something, I opened my email today to discover that the MLA abstract that I fully believed was a waste of my time even to write--given that I don't know the well-established panel organizer; that it's not sponsored by an organization that I'm involved in; and that I wasn't sure my proposal fit the topic--got picked up.

Whoo! Chicago in the dead of winter!

Okay, let's be honest: I'm already looking forward to it.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

How nice is too nice/how mean is too mean?

There's been a lot of talk in the blogosphere lately about writing book reviews--why they're appealing; why they can be such a pain; whether they're worth it--and I was thinking about all those things yesterday as I finished up that review that I've been putting off since Christmas (I'm happy to report that I did beat my deadline, although not by much).

For all my procrastination, it was actually a fairly easy review to write. However, it had one problem: the book just wasn't very good.

Now, it wasn't a terrible book, and I was able to make plenty of positive statements about it that were entirely sincere--as well as other less sincere statements that, while not lies, were what you might call the most charitable possible presentation of the facts. Nevertheless, I was also fairly frank about the book's weaknesses.

I've already sent the thing off, so there's no changing anything now. . . but I'm wondering, for future reference: just how negative can one actually be in a book review? Assuming that one is an untenured and unimportant scholar like myself? I know that I can't write anything scathing--and it's hard for me to imagine a book so bad that I would feel that a public dressing-down was called for, anyway; does the fate of nations hang on the latest monograph on George Herbert? Probably not.

Nevertheless, in this review I did devote a full paragraph of my six-paragraph review to the book's problems, and I referred to them again briefly in my concluding paragraph. I think that this is fair, and that my review still does a good job of selling the book to those who would be interested in its subject matter--but I admit that I feel a little uneasy about the possibility of making enemies through such frankness.

(And yes, that's enemies, plural: the book is an edited collection with a bazillion contributors, of whom I'm acquainted with or hope to be acquainted with quite a few. Now, I didn't single out any specific authors or essays for criticism--I just referred, in a general way, to the methodological problems that "some" essays had--but I also only singled out a few essays as particularly praiseworthy.)

At the same time, though, I'm impatient with myself for having these feelings of timidity, and with the fact that, as a genre, the academic book review so often is timid--the reviews of some knife-weilding Important Scholars excepted.

So I'm not sure that I'm any closer to knowing what is or isn't appropriate. Thoughts?

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Spring Break!

Sorry for the radio silence around these parts, but I’ve been busy getting my spring break on.

A brief look at what this has actually meant, in practice:

As of 4.30 p.m., I’m on spring break! Whoo!

As my first act as One Who Is on Break, I spend 40 minutes running around filing paperwork for the most egregious case of plagiarism I’ve yet seen. Then I jump in my car and drive 35 minutes to the second meeting of my early modern reading group (which I’m totally loving, by the way). Then I come home, pour myself a drink, and all but pass out from exhaustion.


In theory, this is the day that I run a ton of errands and clean my apartment from top to bottom. In reality? I do a single load of laundry, take my car in for an oil/filter change and a tire rotation, and then join my friend Evey and her long-distance husband for a bunch of drinks and a big fish fry.


Fight the spring break crowds at the usually empty regional airport for an early flight to Quaint Smallish City.

Grade all 16 papers from Class No. 1 (a personal record: I’m not a particularly efficient grader, so I usually top out at 10 or 11 per day).


Grade all 26 midterms from Class No. 2.


Grade 14 papers for Class No. 3. File mid-semester grades for first two classes just past the theoretical deadline. (RU requires us to file grades at both midterm and at the end of the semester, which I can see the utility of--but why the spring deadline is at the beginning of spring break rather than at the end is beyond me.)


Grade remaining 4 papers for Class No. 3 and file mid-semester grades for that class.
And now I’m DONE with all my teaching-related obligations for nearly six full days.

If I can just keep up this level of productivity, I can totally get that book review written; revise my new chapter so that it’s good enough to send to Advisor; fix up my article on Neglected Author; transcribe that (unrelated) manuscript by Neglected Author for a new article, and--and--!

Well, okay. So I probably can’t get all that stuff done. But I bet I can get 2.5 of those four things done, and even completing two--whilst catching up on my sleep and DVD watching and magazine reading--would make me a happy Flavia indeed.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Unseemly glee

I've been doing a lot of fishing, lately, for information about this year's crop of jobs and job candidates. I had heard through several branches of the grapevine that someone I know had been offered a job by World Famous University--information that suprised and somewhat disgruntled me. I like this person, at least officially. . . but not enough that I was prepared to be truly happy on his/her behalf.

Well. I just learned that my several sources have been wrong: it's not World Famous University's main campus, but a different and less prestigious one (it's not a satellite campus in the classic sense, but it's certainly not the institution that everyone had thought was under discussion).

Is it wrong for me to be vastly pleased by this news?

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

What part of "be more specific" don't you understand?

This semester I'm teaching a section of RU's "introduction to literary study" course, which is billed as the gateway to the English major--and I gotta say, I totally love it (this is my war-themed class, for those of you who are keeping track).

For one thing, it's my only new course this term (the others are, to be honest, getting a little stale), and I love all the texts we're reading; it's also, reliably, my best class, full of mouthy, smart, high-energy students with great classroom chemistry.

But I also think that I find this particular kind of teaching rewarding, especially given the student population(s) that I teach. It's just so nice, after teaching so many survey-style classes (whose defining characteristics are speed and volume--cramming as much as possible into 15 weeks), to be able to slow down and think about what it actually means to be a reader and a literary critic. My class size is small enough, and we're reading few enough texts, that it's possible to assign four essays, lots of short assignments, and to devote class time to activities that are all about moving from a single good idea or insightful observation to a paper that expands on that idea, does it justice, and (most importantly) communicates it clearly to a reader.

Maybe I'll find the process tedious after a while (I found composition to be similarly stimulating the first time I taught it, and that enthusiasm has noticeably waned), but right now it's proving an interesting and useful intellectual process for me.

I was talking about this over dinner last night with my grad school acquaintance Augustana, who just started a job at a local R1--and who I think I can now call a friend. Augie got through grad school in a hurry and had never designed or taught her own classes before this year, so when we've gotten together, we've tended to talk a lot about pedagogy. We both agreed that this part of teaching is like puzzle solving in reverse: trying to piece out exactly what it is that we do when we close read, or write a paper, and how to break that down and explain it to someone to whom the process is unfamiliar.

Augie was an undergrad at INRU's Big Rival (I know! AND she's the kind of person who gets up every morning at 6 a.m. to go running, AND she doesn't drink more than a glass of wine at a sitting. . . clearly, this is a doomed friendship), and we agreed that in college no one ever taught us how to write a literature paper, or even really taught us, in any explicit way, how to analyze or talk about literature: we were just supposed to intuit it, gradually divining general principles from what went on in the seminar room and from the minimal feedback our essays received, and applying those principles to our writing.

And we did intuit it, eventually, and most of our peers must have, too--but I clearly remember being a college student and feeling as though I had no control over my own essays: some of my essays were better than others, I knew, but I had absolutely no idea what made them better or worse essays, or even what it was that I was doing when I wrote one. With each grade I got I was looking for confirmation either that I was a total genius or a fucking fraud, and I don't think that it was until relatively late in grad school (once I started teaching, actually) that I fully understood that at least half of being a good writer is about mastering a set of very definite, and very learnable skills.

I was embarrassed once I realized the degree to which I had mystified my own writing process, and I think I now feel personally invested in demystifying the process for my students.


So that's the awesome, affirmative, don't-I-love-my-job part of this post. And it's true enough--but this weekend I had an email exchange with one student that nearly made me throw myself out a window (as the shouting capital letters that start to take over my email messages may testify). This student is a thoughtful, perceptive woman with a good intuitive ear for language, but no discipline whatsoever. She says smart things in class, but ultimately she's more attracted by a pretty phrase than by a precise one. She also, apparently, has no idea what "be more specific" means.

This is the draft thesis that she emailed me for the close-reading essay that was due this week:
Whitman's exquisite use of language in [poem] transports the reader to [situation]--not [A], but [long, flowery-worded B].
I wrote her back, in part:
You need to explain/specify what you mean by "exquisite use of language"--that's an example of a phrasing that doesn't describe so much as it obscures meaning. Once you specify what this exquisite language IS, you might also want to revise the last part of your thesis, too. I like the distinction that you make between the expected nature of [the scene] and the one that we actually get, but again, you may wish to be more specific about what that MEANS in this poem, specifically.
A few hours later she returned with this thesis:
Whitman's exquisite use of language in [poem] transports the reader to [scene]--not [A], but [long, flowery-worded B]. Throughout the poem, word usage is the means by which [situation] is transformed into [restatement of B].
Okay, I thought--she's sorta getting it, but not really. So I wrote back:
You still need to be more specific! What does "word usage" mean? Are you talking about imagery (in which case you'll want to say WHAT KIND OF imagery)? Are you talking about the aural effects of the words (in which case you'll want to say something closer to that)? Are you talking about *word choice,* or diction (in which case, again, you'll want to specify what *kind of* diction you're talking about)? Or is it some combination of the above (in which case you'll also want to say as much)?
Bless her heart, she came back with this:
Whitman's exquisite use of language in [poem] transports the reader to [scene]--not [A], but [long, flowery-worded B]. Throughout the poem, imagery through evocative word choice is the means by which [restatement of B].
I stared at my computer screen for a good long while, trying to figure out what could possibly be going on in her head. Then I replied:
I know I'm sounding like a broken record here, but what KIND of imagery? (i.e., of money, nature, darkness, light, whatever.) And what on earth does "evocative language" mean IN THIS PARTICULAR POEM? "Evocative" of WHAT? In what WAY?

Look up the word "evocative." All it means is that something evokes (or suggests or points to or reminds us of) something else. It's that "something else" that you are stubbornly NOT DEFINING.
She was very sweet about it the next day in class, thanking me and confiding that she'd known she needed to work on her thesis-writing--her high school English teacher had told her as much--but I don't know what her final thesis looks like; I haven't yet read the resulting paper.

Honestly? I'm kinda afraid to.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Letters to my students, all unsent

Dear Baby-Faced Male Student Who Is Actually Nearly 30,

I'm glad that you came to see me today to discuss your writing. I was interested to learn more about your background and happy to offer some career advice. However, I was less thrilled by the pungent cologne that your chose to wear to this meeting. I very much hope that this was not applied for my benefit--but since I've never noticed the offending scent when returning homework assignments or talking with you in class, I fear that it may have been. Please: throw that shit out ASAP.


Dear Totally Brilliant History Major,

I can't believe that you wrote your 82-page senior essay on a subject very similar to one of my own projects, and I can't wait to attend your presentation at RU's student scholarship fair. I'm sure you'll get into a great graduate program. But--maybe when you speak in class, you could do so at a slightly higher volume? You participate a lot, and you don't appear to be shy, but you need to PROJECT, my friend.

Thanks! Love you!

Dear Formerly Cheerful Student,

Yes, it's true that I busted you for text-messaging in class when you should have been working with your group, and I'm sure that was embarrassing--even though I did so privately and I doubt any of your classmates noticed.

HOWEVER, the appropriate response to being busted is not to mentally absent yourself from the class for the next hour and ten minutes by sitting four feet away from the rest of your group and not talking to them. Snap out of it!


Dear Student in All Three of My Classes,

I admit it: I was concerned when I discovered that a brand-new transfer student had registered--at the very last minute--for all three of my classes. I assumed that you were a clueless and poorly-advised community college transfer, and that you'd do badly and soon hate me.

I had no idea that you would turn out to be one of my very smartest students and a funny, delightful person. And the fact that you already have an undergraduate degree in music performance? Means you can scan and close-read the shit out of any poem you encounter.

I'm so happy you're in my classes. I'm even happier that you seen to have become friends with another of my favorite students.

Thanks for existing!