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.