Thursday, May 31, 2007

Late to my own blogiversary

As of last weekend, I've been blogging for two years--and for one in this particular space. I drafted a post on Saturday to commemorate the event, but then wound up deleting it; it felt too much like those essays that I sometimes get from my smarter and younger students--essays that aren't bad, exactly, but that just seem to be trying too hard, aiming for reflection and insight but winding up with lots of repetition and navel-gazing. (And if there's one thing worse than navel-gazing, it's repeated navel-gazing.)

I've written before about the professional benefits that blogging has brought me, but what I've been thinking about these past few days is how my blog writing relates to my "real" writing. Some academic bloggers say that their blogging serves as a warm-up for their scholarly work because it gets them writing: after dashing off a 15- or 30-minute post they're able to settle into their other writing for the day. I've never found this to be true for me, though. Some posts I do compose in a single sitting, but that single sitting is likely to span two hours. Afterwards, I feel as virtuous and as in need of a break as if I'd just punched out several pages on my manuscript.

At the same time, I don't consider blogging a distraction from my other writing, although I'm hard pressed to articulate the relationship between the two. Maybe it's that my writing process is always and everywhere the same: whether I'm writing a scholarly article, a blog entry, or even an email message, I make deliberate decisions about tone and voice, fret about whether a given phrasing is really what I mean to say, and rework certain sentences compulsively until I'm sure that their rhythm is sufficiently comic, or solemn, or whatever.

Despite the time and effort involved, I think that all my writing, in whatever genre, really does sound like me (those of you who actually know me may feel free to confirm or dispute this belief). As any fiction writer will tell you, though, it's hard to write dialogue that sounds like real dialogue, and we all know people who are compelling speakers who sound flat and somehow unlike themselves on the page. My goal, I guess, for all my writing, has always been to sound like myself--which necessarily involves figuring out who that self is. In making choices about voice and diction and sentence structure, I'm making statements (minor statements, maybe, but statements all the same) about myself and my relationship to my material.

So in that sense, the writing I do here is intimately related to my other writing because I'm making the same kinds of decisions and working equally hard at producing meaning and conveying the-truth-as-I-see-it. But blogging has also freed me to think more holistically about a given piece of writing: when I compose a blog post, I often write disconnected paragraphs or sentences and then move them around, trying out various combinations and seeing what works. I'll start one paragraph, get an idea for a later one, jump down to write that, jump back up to the earlier one, and so on; because blog posts are relatively short, I'm able to keep a sense of the overall structure of the thing in my head even while working on just a corner of it.

In my other writing, I typically haven't started moving things around or imposing structural order until relatively late in the process, after I've spilled onto the page everything I know in exactly the order that it comes to me--just one thing after another after another. Blogging seems to be changing this: I've written a couple of conference papers now where I've been able to say, upon sitting down at the computer, "okay, so this idea will come after this one, but before this other one, which will lead naturally into that other discussion"--and then I'll work on the separate parts as I do with a blog entry, jumping back to an earlier section when I get bored with a later one, but retaining a sense of the argumentative whole. I think that's a significant gain.

The kind of writing that I do on my blog has other rewards, too. I've mentioned before that I used to consider myself a creative writer, believing that I'd eventually and inevitably be publishing stories and novels and essays. But although I had the discipline and the linguistic facility, I started to realize that I just didn't have the imaginative drive. There was a woman in several of my fiction writing classes in college who did, and who bugged the shit out of me: she had more ideas, more plotlines, more amazing scenes and characters than anyone I've ever met, but she had no discipline whatsoever. So her stories, which were so close to being compelling, continually ran aground on awkward dialogue or descriptions or general not-quite-rightness. I liked to feel smug about her weaknesses and the superiority of my own skills in those areas. . . but even then I knew that she had what it took to be a novelist and I didn't.

So although blogging isn't exactly going to bring me fame, fortune, or bylines in fancy magazines, it's allowed me to recover an important part of my writing life. This past fall I got into a conversation with one of my new colleagues, a novelist, and in chatting about his fiction workshops I mentioned that I'd once done a certain amount of creative writing myself. He was pleased and interested, and eventually asked whether I still wrote. "Actually, yeah," I said, realizing with a start that I did. Almost as quickly, I realized that I couldn't tell him about it: "I mean, uh, I guess you'd call them essays. I write essays. Just, um. . . for my own amusement."

* * * * * *

Thanks then, to Blogger, for giving me the space to try this stuff out, and thanks to all the rest of you for reading. (And if you secretly think that I am frittering away valuable research time by blogging? Well, you can just keep that thought to yourself.)

Friday, May 25, 2007

That does it: I can stay here

I've lived in this city for almost exactly eleven months. And yet it wasn't until yesterday that I noticed that the checkout lanes at my local supermarket have illuminated signs that read "15 items or fewer."

Maybe this is the first time that I've actually used an express lane, or maybe I've just become so accustomed to signs that read "15 items or less" that I stopped expecting anything else.

But when I finally noticed that my local purveyer of selzer and salsa must have had, at some point in time, an employee who understood the difference between less and fewer, it was as if choirs of angels had burst into song.

Renews one's faith in humanity, is what I'm saying.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Pretty! Shiny!

Have I mentioned how much I like pretty things? And how happy shopping makes me? Well, let me say it again in the context of showing off my latest purchase:

(That's taffeta on the skirt, which is gorgeously iridescent in a way that doesn't show up here, and jersey on the bodice. Imagine it with pearls and stiletto heels.)

This is the first fancy dress I've bought in several years, and I'll be taking it out for a walk at Victoria's wedding in July and the formal dinner component of my college reunion in a couple of weeks. Even at half price on Bluefly I'm not sure that I should have spent the money. . . but what the hell. If I'm going to be flying solo, I might as well look good!

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Thank you for your comments, which I will now disregard

I'm confronting a dilemma that I know is a common one: how completely does one need to address the criticisms of a reader or editor? Especially if the work in question has already been accepted?

I have an essay that will be appearing in a collection that I'm beyond excited about, edited by scholars I deeply respect, and who are taking a significant editorial role in assembling the volume (something that I know from my experience in publishing isn't always the case). But although I'm grateful for that involvement and although their feedback on my essay has been both thoughtful and thorough, I strongly disagree with their major criticism.

I understand the basis for their criticism, and I'm prepared to address it by shoring up my case in certain places, moderating my language throughout, and making some claims more speculative or qualified. Ultimately, though, I stand by my argument. I know it's a contestable claim, and one that some people will dislike and/or dispute--but I really believe that it's both compelling and a very plausible reading of the evidence.

But I don't want to offend the editors, who have been wonderfully supportive of my work and whom I like personally. I also respect their judgment and their knowledge of the material in question.

So, what to do?

Sunday, May 20, 2007

In the fishbowl

Next month I take off on a research trip to the U.K. Because my purse was stolen the last time I was in London, I'll have to get new ID cards for the libraries I'll be using (supposedly the BL will replace theirs for free if I bring the police report), and thinking about that and the paperwork and supplies I'll need has got me thinking about how uncomfortably fishbowly so many rare books libraries are.

We all know that we're being studied and indeed video recorded, lest we whip out a pen instead of a pencil or use our book rests improperly or take an X-acto knife to a frontispiece. Those are sensible precautions, and I don't imagine most researchers have a problem being monitored to that degree. Surely, we think, the library staff are only keeping an eye out for policy violators or thieves; surely they don't wonder why I'm taking notes on a Hello Kitty legal pad, or notice that I've worn the same outfit for a week running, or have an opinion about my new hairstyle.

To which I'd say, don't be so sure.

Let me tell you about the summer I spent at a rare books library more fishbowly than most, with a long front desk facing an entirely glassed-in reading room. For the first week or so I was a little self-conscious whenever I'd slip my shoes off, say, or use the opposite chair as a footrest, but then I relaxed. No one seemed to mind or even notice.

Then one day I was out and about town when a grandfatherly fellow hailed me: "Ah, signorina Fescue! Como stai?" I had no idea who he was (or why he was addressing me in Italian), but I said hello and added, apologetically, "I'm sorry. . . but I've forgotten how I know you."

"Oh, we haven't met," he said, cheerfully. "I work in the back of [library]. I've seen your request slips come through."

* * * * *

So that was odd. But then, in the course of the same week or two, all of the following also happened:

I went to the front desk to return some books, and the security guard asked me what I'd been reading that had been so funny: "I saw you laughing--you looked like you were really having a good time in there!"

Another day, when I was outside eating lunch, some fifty-something dude from the photoduplication department (who also already knew my name) introduced himself and then invited me to go sailing with him sometime. After I gave an embarrassed and noncommittal answer, he later SHOWED UP IN THE READING ROOM (which was otherwise entirely silent) and tried to schedule a date.

And then there's the episode that I've really never gotten my mind around: one afternoon I was returning my materials before leaving for the day, when suddenly the security guard said, "Would you say that your hair is. . . auburn?"

"What?" I said, pretty sure that he wasn't talking to me.

"Your hair. Is that auburn? Like, reddish?"

"Um," I said. "I don't think so. I call it brown."

"But it's not blond?"

"No. . . "

He indicated the female library staffer who was taking my books from me. "She said it was blond." He made a face at her. "I told you it wasn't!"

* * * * *

Yeah. That's what happens. The people behind the desk are bored, and they watch you and they talk about you. So sit up straight. Keep your shoes on. And never, ever laugh.

Saturday, May 19, 2007


Given the current state of my personal life, I think I'm qualified to speak about effective ways of distracting oneself from the things that are bothering or upsetting one, but about which nothing can be done.

There are the tried-and-true methods, of course, like spending time with friends, and I've been doing a lot of that: dinners, drinks, lunches, trips to the park, trips to the mall, and so on. I'm glad that I do have friends here, and that others are reachable by phone or email.

I've also been keeping busy, even when by myself: cleaning my apartment, making unnecessary trips to campus, and taking long walks around my neighborhood. I've also rewatched some favorite movies and reread some favorite books.

But those coping methods are all just common sense, and things that you can learn from the movies, your parents, or any friend you've ever had. What I'm here to offer you today--what I'd like to think of as my unique contribution to the lore of Just Getting Through It--is this discovery: when you're totally on the verge of or indeed in the midst of a breakdown, start conjugating Latin verbs. Within seconds of putting pen to paper, you'll be focused and at peace--it's like instant self-hypnosis.

My eureka-in-the-bathtub moment came about thusly: I'd been planning to spend a couple of hours each day this summer reviewing my Latin (which is pretty badly atrophied) by working quickly through my old grammar. I'd been doing so for a few days, when this morning I discovered this significant side benefit.

So there you have it: from me to you, a special gift.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

I'm guessing there's a reason you're not a math major

So I emailed one of my classes to let my students know that I'd finished grading their finals, that I'd curved it slightly, and that their grades for both the exam and the class were up on our course management server. I told my students that if they were truly on the razor's edge between two grades, they could assume that I'd rounded up if the grade were, say, a 79.5 or above, but not if it were a 79.4.*

And what do I get, within an hour of sending out that message? This email from a student:
Dr. Fescue I got the email about final grades my grade is 69.96 so does that mean you rounded my grade up to a C- or am I not close enough? Let me know please, I dont know whether I should laugh or cry.
No, my child: I don't know whether I should laugh or cry.


*That's the beauty of curving the final--it allows me to say, "I've already given everyone's grade a nice boost, so I'm disinclined to do any more." (And in case you're wondering, yes, I do tinker with the numbers, behind the scenes, when something seems out of whack for an individual student.)

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Moving right along. . .

So! It is totally time to get that last post knocked off the top of my blog. Whaddaya want to hear about? RU's graduation? Driving myself to the emergency room? The (possible) end of a six-year relationship? All of which happened, consecutively, over the course of, like, five hours on the same day?

Well, you can forget about the last two, although I'll observe that they do have their similarities: it's been a few days, and neither is exactly resolved, but at least neither is causing me consistent pain. . . and in this world, maybe that's as good as it gets.

So let me talk about RU's graduation instead. Seeing as I have three degrees from the same institution and this is my first tenure-track job, this is only the third school whose graduation I've ever attended (the second being my brother's). I was surprised to learn that faculty at RU aren't really expected to attend graduation, and that many people consider it a chore: my chair, whom I adore, confided that she has to go because it's in her contract, and that she and a couple of senior lecturers are usually the only ones from the department who go--and they read books and grade papers surreptitiously and just try not to make total spectacles of themselves.

Even with that warning, I volunteered to join them. I figured that I should check the scene out, get a bit of my money's worth from my eight hundred dollars of regalia--and because really: compared to all the truly bullshit events that one is more or less expected to go to as a faculty member, graduation is something that actually means something to the bulk of its participants, and that represents what the institution is or should be all about.

And, well, it was a graduation more or less like the others I've been to, although I don't think it's unkind to say that it was a somewhat lower-rent version of what I've seen before: still lots of faculty in pretty robes, although fewer seemed to own their own than at INRU; still a couple of maces and a massive, blindingly gold-toned medallion for the university's president--but these items looked pretty cheap. (The medallion, in particular, looked like something you'd pick up as part of a drugstore Halloween costume.) The couple of recipients of honorary doctorates were reasonably impressive alumni or faculty. The main speakers were our state's senior Senator and an alumnus who's apparently a well-known investigative journalist; they were funny, self-deprecating, uplifting without being sappy--and they spoke for a flat 10 minutes each.

The whole thing was. . . nice. Efficiently run. And since I have a weird interest in the logistics and management of such events, I was continually diverted: oh! the graduates approach the stage from both directions, and two people read out names! And those are the kinds of people who get to sit on the stage! (This species of geekiness may be the vestiges of the years I spent managing the INRU marching band, or evidence of some latent administrative urges. Dunno. But I do really like to know How Things Work.)

Would I go again? Probably. It's not too long and it's not too early in the day, and it's after the close of the semester. And I DO have prettier robes than just about anybody else.

(But. . . you already knew that it was about the clothes, didn't you?)

Saturday, May 12, 2007


This post is really only for the people who know me in real life, so I don't have to send several dozen emails, etc., but. . .

George Washington Boyfriend and I just broke up.

I don't intend to blog about it.

So there's really no more to say.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Reason #114 why I love eBay

These shoes, which arrived today (and for which I paid less than $30.00, including shipping).

I'm totally wearing them tomorrow to administer my last exam. Because sometimes I get confused: is this Shakespeare? Or Studio 54?

(You know: the flashing lights, the drugs, Andy Warhol. . . yeah. It's been like that.)

Monday, May 07, 2007


Students! Once and for all: a PLAY is something that was written to be performed, and that consists only of dialogue and stage directions. A POEM is something that probably rhymes and probably has some kind of meter; it might be just a few lines long or it might be a big old book-length thing. A NOVEL is a work of narrative prose fiction. Please do not call The Tempest a novel. And do not call The Faerie Queene a play. And absolutely do not refer to anything we have read as "a piece"--as in, "In Chaucer's piece, The Canterbury Tales. . . "

When in doubt, work or text is almost always acceptable. Book is problematic, but at least it's not always inaccurate. I use the correct terms in the classroom, and in most cases I even discuss genre to some degree. Please pay attention.

And while we're on the subject of identifying persons and things appropriately, let me thank the 99% of you who address me as Professor or Doctor Fescue--or as "Prof F" or something of that nature. Those of you who still call me Mrs.? Even after I have explained that a) I am not married, and b) even if I WERE married, I would still not be "Mrs. Fescue" since Fescue is my birth surname, and c) the appropriate title for any instructor at RU is either Doctor or Professor? You'll find your tickets to the local reeducation facility in your mailboxes.

But at least none of you seems to be in doubt about my gender, unlike certain individuals who have never met me. So let me address them here, too: please don't assume that I'm male. It's true that my first name might be male, although only rarely is that the case; nevertheless, I've been receiving a rash of letters addressed to "Mr. Fescue" and I've even just come across a reference to myself in print that refers to me by the masculine pronoun. Dudes! You have the option of addressing me by both my first and last names (or by my professional title) in correspondence; in print, you may feel free to repeat my last name to avoid using a gender-specific pronoun.

It's really better not to suck, when you have a choice. So please, everyone: exercise that choice.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Has a new master

Freedom, high day! High day, freedom! Freedom, high day, freedom!

(Oh, wait. . . .)

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Guess you can't be a superhero without one

I think I've just appointed someone my nemesis.

This wasn't an entirely willed decision--I've tried to be friends with the person in question, and although our relationship has always been somewhat vexed, it's only recently that I've begun to feel that Nemesis doesn't actually much like or respect me. Still, I resisted fully believing this: maybe I was misreading; maybe I was being overly sensitive; maybe it was my own insecurity talking.

So after some months of muttering under my breath and making vaguely resentful remarks whenever s/he came up in conversation, I decided that I needed to just get over myself already: Nemesis and I have personal and professional reasons to get along, and s/he even seems like someone whose company I might enjoy, had I not constructed this narrative of mysterious and ungrounded dislike.

So when an opportunity presented itself, I made an overture. It was a friendly, professional gesture, one that demanded virtually nothing of Nemesis and that left open any number of ways to remain cheerfully noncommittal or to graciously opt out--any number of ways, in other words, to affirm that s/he assigned some minimal value to our relationship.

Needless to say, Nemesis did not take the gracious way out.

So, really: I'm done here. It's easier to write this person off and declare him/her my nemesis than it is to keep trying to develop our relationship or to worry about the whys and wherefores.

Maybe that's an immature response; I don't know. But I do know that it's a bad idea to go around randomly making enemies of people. I also know that this behavior is entirely typical of Nemesis. One can hope that what goes around comes around or that Nemesis will eventually explode into professional flames. . . but it's more likely that I'll have to deal with this person for the rest of my life.

Damn. Where are those awesome superpowers and/or accessories--invisible plane, magic lasso, whatever--when I really need them?