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.