Wednesday, December 31, 2008

MLA Day Three: fuck it

I intended to write at least one more MLA post, but you know what? I didn't have the time when I was there and I don't have the time now--and, like Sisyphus, I found the whole experience rather un-MLA-ful, what with the beautiful weather and the being in the heart of the tourist district and the fact that I was neither presenting nor interviewing. It was basically a $600 vacation during which I saw a few papers, reconnected profitably with a mentor, and hung out with a ton of friends who just happen to be academics. So apologies, but I expect the snark (by which I mean: my detailed and trenchant insights) will return in the year ahead.

Monday, December 29, 2008

MLA Day Two: listen like you mean it

I've been attending fewer panels than usual--at the moment, I'm on track to see five or six over the conference's three days--but as usual some have been good, some bad, and others might have been good had their papers been better delivered or I not undercaffeinated, overfatigued, or wedged into a hot, crowded room with a whirring exhaust system.

Given the effort required to focus on anything for 75 minutes, I often blank out for a minute or two during even the best papers--and during the not-best I may give up the attempt to follow along at all. Because I've been civilized (or trained in the arts of dissimulation, which amounts to the same thing) I usually manage not to show my lack of engagement, instead keeping my eyes fixed on the speaker with a look of intensity or encouragement, laughing when the rest of the room does and smiling now and again as a recognizable phrase or fact penetrates my brain.

I always feel a bit bad about this--even when I'm secretly and simultaneously envisioning a panelist's head exploding and cutting short her talk--but it wasn't until today, as I sat there letting a speaker's words pass unimpeded through my brain, that it occurred to me that I was probably feeling what my students sometimes feel listening to me: that even while I was certain that what I was saying was hilarious, or vital, or even just reasonably interesting, they were wishing I'd be done already. . . and registering only vaguely that I seemed to be joking, or hammering home a point, all while mysteriously delighted with my own charm and brilliance.

I skipped the next session. Self-knowledge is overrated.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

MLA Day One: pride goeth before a you-know-what

I've been at MLA for 24 hours now, a sojourn made more pleasant by the fact that my luggage returned from Barcelona full of shoes and other good things--and then I went to DSW and bought a pair of these at 80% off.

So all has been well on the sartorial front, and if you don't consider that a crucial element of the conference experience, you're no friend of mine; I consider the dressing up and playacting part of conference-going one of its distinct pleasures. A good paper is that much better when it's heard in new shoes, while a lovely suit (whether one's own or someone else's) is a welcome diversion during a bad one.

Being well-shod, however, is no defense against native stupidity--nor will pretty clothes distract anyone when you wipe out in the lobby of the main conference hotel. Late to meet someone for dinner last night, I burst out of the elevator the moment the doors opened, taking the marble floors at a gallop. . . and thus treated everyone behind me to the spectacle of my catapulting forward for three long, slow-motion yards before hitting the floor.

Guess I can't wear that outfit again.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Good News/Bad News: Christmas Edition

Good News: I got back to the family homestead with spectacular ease on Monday night--both my flights were more or less on time and more or less uneventful.

Bad News: my luggage wasn't so lucky. It got routed not to Northwest City, but to Barcelona. It's unclear where it is now or when it will reach me.

Good News: I packed a sizable carry-on, in which were most of my toiletries, my clothes for MLA, and my jewelry.

Bad News: my checked luggage contained all my shoes, the power cord for my laptop, and my Christmas presents.

Good News: looks like now I have to make a trip to DSW!

Bad News: I left Cha-Cha City with temperatures in the teens and two feet of snow. . . and found the same conditions when I arrived here.

Good News: in Northwest City, it's gorgeous; even in the 'burbs we're hemmed in by hills and towering evergreens. And I can't remember the last time we had a white Christmas.

Bad News: did I mention the hills? And the fact that Northwest City is ideologically opposed to salt and to snowplows with metal blades (you know: the ones that actually work)? We haven't gotten mail, UPS, or newspaper delivery in days.

But we're all here, and able to get off our particular hill as necessary (albeit with a struggle). There are agreeable smells emanating from the kitchen. And this year we have power! So it's a merry Christmas indeed.

Wishing the same to you and yours~~

Friday, December 19, 2008

Trivia question

This one's for my Renaissance peeps:

What seventeenth-century book does the INRU rare books library have more than 20 different editions of--all of them in English and all published within the same year or year and a half?

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Going home, again

I'm back in the bosom of my alma mater, on a fellowship at the rare books libary. Being here has been weird, but pleasant. But also weird.

Aside from the city where I grew up, I've lived nowhere as long as I lived here--and although I can't imagine a set of circumstances that would return me again for any length of time, you never know: the woman I'm subletting from turns out to have been in my undergraduate class; like me, she came back for graduate school, and now teaches at a university 40 minutes away. Her landlord? Also from my graduating class. As is another of the building's tenants. Today I'm having lunch with a college friend who recently moved back as well.

I guess people are always doing that--moving back to places they've lived in before, or just not leaving in the first place--but continually returning and continually leaving is an especially estranging experience. When I returned here for graduate school, after a couple of years away, I occasionally had moments of feeling unstuck in time: walking across the main quadrangle, I'd suddenly forget where I was going, or what year it was: I was going to meet HK for dinner in her dining hall, right? No, wait: she'd graduated three years ago and now lived in D.C.

It was strange being back in a place that I'd once known so well, and where every corner had associations with my younger self. For a couple of years, I described the experience to people as what I imagined living in the same city or small town all one's life would be like: having layer upon layer of different memories attached to the same places.

But I now think that's wrong. If you live all your life in the same place, you have a sense of progress and continuity; the town changes as you do. I have all kinds of relationships with this institution and with this city, but they're not continuous: I've come and gone, as an undergraduate, an alumna, a graduate student, a city resident, a commuter, and effectively an adjunct.

Now I'm a fellow, and a temporary resident of a neighborhood I didn't previously know. But as I walk to campus I walk past the apartment I sublet for a summer when I was 20 and working a 9-5 job. I stop in at the coffee shop I discovered as a freshman, returned to in grad school, and where union representatives still tirelessly organize. I pass the health plan and remember what a long schlep it was from the train station when I was commuting. And as I approach the rare books library, I can see, in my mind's eye, the photo of me and my roommate standing there at our college graduation. I have another photo, shot in the same location, where I'm in my doctoral robes.

I like myself plenty, but running into all these previous selves is getting exhausting.

Friday, December 12, 2008


Earlier this month I broke up with the man I'd been dating since February. I've mentioned or alluded to him on-blog several times, but never properly introduced him--and maybe nothing is greater evidence of my shittiness than the fact that I'm only doing it now, after we've broken up, in an effort to assuage my conscience or whatever it is that I'm doing.

This is the first time I've broken up with anyone. Back in my early 20s I did pull a few fades with guys I'd gone out with a handful of times and just wasn't into--but it felt inconceivable that I could tell them as much. And several of my friends have argued that, in a sense, it was I who broke up with my long-term partner--since I was the one with persistent dissatisfactions, who had suggested that the relationship would end if certain changes weren't made. I'm fond of this interpretation, but the fact remains that I wasn't the one who actually ended things.

Each of the times I've been broken up with has been awful, but I wasn't prepared for how awful it would be to initiate a breakup, too. I knew I'd feel bad and probably rather sad. I didn't know I'd cry for three days.

I suppose it's always hard to cause another person pain, but when that person is someone you truly think is fantastic, who has been a perfect boyfriend, and is even--in all the usual and some unusual senses--a great "catch," it's hard, too, not to believe that you're crazy or at least ungrateful and possibly constitutively dissatisfied.

But I spent months telling myself that I was crazy, and that as long as being with him made me happy, I shouldn't worry about that vague sense that something was missing or my feeling--which I could never explain--that this wouldn't work long-term. Surely I was just resisting commitment, or wasn't completely over my previous relationship, or whatever. He was amazing. My friends loved him. Surely I'd settle into it.

And of course, it's not impossible that I could still settle into it, given yet more time, but I don't think so. I've never understood what people mean when they say "trust your gut" or "follow your heart": I don't feel things when I make decisions; I tend to know, with great clarity, exactly what it is that I should do. I didn't break up with him until I knew it was the right decision. Or rather, since knowledge implies the ability to explain--to point to specific problems or incompatibilities--maybe it actually is more accurate to say that I felt it to be right.

But what I feel, primarily, is awful.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Happy 400th, Big Johnny

You ask what I am thinking of? So help me God, an eternity of fame. What am I doing? Growing my wings and practising flight.

-- John Milton, Letter to Charles Diodati (1637)

In the second semester of my sophomore year of college I signed up for a Milton course. I had no idea who Milton was, but taking that course (along with one on the Romantics) was the only way I could get out of the second half of the Brit Lit survey. I'd disliked the instructor I'd had for the first half of the survey and I'd heard that the Milton prof was great. . . so, yeah, whatever: sign me up.

It's still hard for me to know to what degree my becoming a Miltonist is due to Milton and to what degree it's due to that particular instructor. All I know is that from the second week I was in love with either Milton or the version of him my professor delivered.

I mean--Milton dreamed vaguely of greatness, but feared he was already too late to achieve it? Hey! I dreamed vaguely of greatness! Milton went back and lived in his father's house for seven years after graduating from college? Hey! I was majoring in English! I'd probably wind up back in dad's basement myself!

As I'm suggesting, my initial feelings of affinity for Milton weren't profound or even deeply-rooted in the works themselves. Still, I think the young Milton is a more sympathetic and recognizable figure to college students than most instructors assume--and for me, anyway, the same held true for the older Milton: I probably only half understood the content of his prose, but I knew I loved its language and the fierceness of that mind.

So while Donne wins most people's votes, it's Milton who's always been my secret boyfriend. (Come to think of it, that might explain some of my actual boyfriends.)

This is something that teachers of Milton have to acknowledge: that the personality of Milton is so central to his works that liking him--that personality--is almost a necessity for liking his works. If you don't respond to whatever you perceive his personality to be, you won't respond to his works. With other authors I try to limit or even eliminate the amount of biographical background I give, but with Milton there's no help for it; the man appears on every page.

So for those who love the guy, it's good news that the week of his birth also marks the birth of a new Renaissance blog--and only the second by a Miltonist.

Fuck the dramatists. This is the year of my boy JM.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

A query

Why is it that stray assignments--those turned in late, done as make-ups, or somehow separated from the rest of their batch--take three times as long to grade?

Friday, November 28, 2008

The archival imperative

For my freshman and sophomore years of college, my work-study job was in the university's rare books library. The actual tasks I was assigned weren't challenging--I paged materials, reshelved them, and worked on photoduplication orders--but it was entertainment enough for a nosey and bookish 19-year-old. I'd wander among the stacks and pull out illuminated books of hours or slivers of papyri just to gape at them, and I'd do my photocopying very slowly indeed, reading as much as I could of Ezra Pound or Edith Wharton's letters and trying not to drop the boxes in shock when I came across another American writer's hokey but very nude photographs of teenaged boys.

In the long run, this job turned out to be a useful introduction to archives and archival work. In the short run, it made me an object of mirth among my friends as I started adopting some of the library's organizational systems for my dorm room.

Take my correspondence files. I was once a serious letter writer, and up through my late 20s I still routinely wrote and received longhand missives. (These days it's dwindled mostly to cards--albeit sometimes with substantial notes inside--and at best a few letters a year.) Inspired by the manuscript collections I worked with, I started filing my correspondence the way they did in the archive, and I continue to do so today: I slit the envelopes along three sides, unfold the pages or splay open the cards so that they lie flat, and use the envelope as a loose jacket or clip around the relevant pages. Then I order them chronologically within file folders labeled by correspondent and alphabetized by last name.

I suppose it's a little eccentric to treat these letters--some of them going back to when my correspondents and I were 16--as if they deserved the care accorded to Pound's or Eliot's. However, not only is this the maximally efficient way for me to organize and refer to my correspondence, but it also encourages as healthy and non-sentimental an attitude as it is possible for the kind of person who hangs onto all her letters to have. Sure, it's lovely to take out the missives of an old friend and see her handwriting and familiar stationery. But keeping her letters in a file cabinet implies that they are, ultimately, historical and biographical records rather than objects to fetishize.

When it became clear that my ex and I weren't getting back together, I printed out all the emails I'd saved for one reason or another over the years, deleted the electronic copies, and interleaved the printed versions chronologically with the cards and notes I'd already filed. Then I wrote a terminal date (2001-2007) next to his name on the folder tab, slipped it back among the 30 or 40 other folders in the drawer, and rolled it shut. It felt like an agreeable bit of housekeeping: I wouldn't be stumbling upon shoeboxes of letters under the bed or stay email messages when I wasn't expecting them, but neither would I live to regret shredding or burning or deleting those items in a misguided attempt at "closure." If I needed them, they'd be there--along with hundreds and hundreds of letters from the more important and more enduring people in my life.

I'm pretty certain that none of my correspondence will be sought after by scholars of the future, but I have a mania for organizing and historicizing my own life: hence that box of old journals I lug with me every time I move, those files and files of letters--and, I suppose, this blog. Perhaps it's a disease peculiar to academics.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

GEMCS: Day Three

I've compared conferences to sleep-away camp before, but this one felt more like being back in college: some of the papers were great; others I survived by doodling and passing notes with friends. All our meals were noisy, joyous affairs--full of argument and gossip and drink. And every night Ally and I stayed up late, talking into the dark from the warmth of our beds.

As in college, though, this had its downside. One morning we had to get up early for a friend's panel, and when Ally's alarm went off we'd had only a few hours of sleep and were still half drunk.

"Oh, God," I moaned, realizing that I had my own panel that day.

"Why did I set my alarm for 7.35?" she asked. "Seven-thirty-FIVE? What the hell?"

We lay there for a few minutes, thinking.

"Do I owe you money?" I asked. "I must. Goddamn hotel bars."

"You gave me loads of money." Then she laughed. "[That thing] was pretty funny."

I looked at her blankly. "What?"

She repeated herself.

"That did not happen. You're making that up."

"We need coffee."

"Shit. Shitshitshitshitshit."

"Starbucks. Across the street."

"Is my brain broken?"

* * * * * * * * * * *

It was not, in fact, broken, and the day turned out to be lovely--because, just as if we were still 22, we rallied with astonishing speed, attended every session, and went out again that night.

I'm grateful that I'm not 22 and this isn't habitual. Still, I have renewed respect for my students.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Thursday, November 20, 2008

GEMCS: Day One

I've just arrived in Philly for the sometimes-annual, always-chaotic conference of the Group for Early Modern Cultural Studies--an organization that Augie's former department chair refers to as "the Unitarians of the conference world." Although I've been holed up in my room for the past two hours, responding to student emails, I'm settling into the conference experience nicely.

A few bulletins from the front:

    On the train into the city, I accurately IDed all of my fellow conference goers. The dudes with beards and glasses were easy, the younger folk a bit harder. Still: carrying a garment bag and reading Harpers? A bit too self-conscious in one's hipster-dom (as if determined to recreate Williamsburg in Omaha)? Them's academics.


    As I was rolling self and suitcase into the hotel, an older dude somewhere behind me cried out in annoyance. I looked over my shoulder, and it appeared that he had stumbled, but it wasn't clear how. Whatever had happened seemed minor, so I kept walking--down a hall and around a couple of corners to the reception desk. Suddenly the man (bearded and bespectacled, natch) was at my side and shouting, "YOU COULD HAVE APOLOGIZED!" "Excuse me?" I said. "I tripped on your suitcase! You could have apologized!" "Well," I said. "I'm sorry that you didn't see my suitcase."


    Being simultaneously lazy and mesmerized by repetitive, time-sucking tasks, I scorn the iron and the ironing board provided in hotel rooms. Instead, I hang my suits up on the shower curtain rod and flick water all over them, smoothing out the wrinkles as I go. Would turning on a hot shower, closing the door, and letting the garments steam out be equally effective? Yes. Do I do this? No.


    I was shattered to learn that the promised panel on "gin culture" didn't materialize. I'll have to assemble an ad hoc committee to investigate.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

My finely-tuned annoyingness radar

I get irritated more easily than most people--and "irritation" is exactly the word for what I feel: an itchy inability to bear whatever it is for another moment.

Anyone who is at all intimate with me knows this--and knows, equally well, to ignore me when I leap up, flapping my arms in agitation and crying, "I hate it! I hate it!"

"Yes, Flavia," my friends say. "I know you do."

Victoria calls this my "finely-tuned annoyingness radar," which may be a more charitable description than it deserves. I don't react strongly to obvious tics or nervous habits--perhaps on the understanding that those aren't fully under a person's control--but other, seemingly more innocuous behaviors send me into fits. "WHY," I ask, "does so-and-so DO THAT? It's awful. It's annoying. It's counterproductive and socially hostile."

(Rarely are these things that bother other people. When I begin a sentence with, "don't you hate it when. . . ?", the answer, usually, is "no.")

I've recently rediscovered that one of the things that sets off my radar is a certain kind of academic writing. I'm not talking about the kind of academic writing that we all hate and all make fun of; I mean writing that is self-consciously not that kind of writing: writing that is almost quite good, but that cherishes its goodness a little too much, massaging an extended metaphor here and an exotic phrasing there--and altogether filling my nostrils with the sickly-sweet smell of self-love.

I hate that shit. And me being me, I have to respond. "Yuck," I write in the margins of one page, and "Are you fucking kidding me??" at the top of another. I corner my colleagues in the office, shaking an open book at them. "Will you LISTEN to this?" I say. "It's so awful. I have to read it to you!"

The itch must be scratched. But I fear I'm already a terrible, terrible crank.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


Those long uneven lines
Standing as patiently
As if they were stretched outside
The Oval or Villa Park,
The crowns of hats, the sun
On moustached archaic faces
Grinning as if it were all
An August Bank Holiday lark;

And the shut shops, the bleached
Established names on the sunblinds,
The farthings and sovereigns,
And dark-clothed children at play
Called after kings and queens,
The tin advertisements
For cocoa and twist, and the pubs
Wide open all day--

And the countryside not caring:
The place names all hazed over
With flowering grasses, and fields
Shadowing Domesday lines
Under wheat's restless silence;
The differently-dressed servants
With tiny rooms in huge houses,
The dust behind limousines;

Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word--the men
Leaving the gardens tidy,
The thousands of marriages,
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again.

--Philip Larkin

Friday, November 07, 2008

Morning, again

What a week! 95 Theses Day, soon followed by Guy Fawkes Day--and, oh yeah: there was an election in there, too.

I'd been thinking about the 2000 and 2004 elections a lot as this particular cycle wound down. The former happened in my second year of graduate school, and one of my classmates held a big party where we all huddled around her t.v., drinking bourbon and laughing and waiting for our home states to pop up on the map. Needless to say, it turned into a long night (and an even longer four years).

In 2004 I was back in the big city--though still in grad school--and I didn't have a t.v. The election hadn't been definitively called by the time I went to bed, but by the time I got up early the next morning to fly to a conference it was clear that Bush had been reelected. I sat in the airport talking to my then-partner on the phone. He was a libertarian Republican who'd cast his first Democratic vote for any person, for any office, for Kerry. I was arguing that maybe it would be okay--that at least Bush would get stuck with the fucking war he started--but he was almost in tears. "You don't know these people," he said. "I grew up with these people! They're gay-baiting creationists and there's nothing to stop them now."

We hung up, and soon one of my grad school friends arrived at the airport: we were rooming together at the conference. We stared at each other, unable to muster up much conversation. Our conference was at a college in a deeply red state, and I don't remember very much of it--just that everyone looked as if their father had just died.

I've been thinking about those elections, and about those people. The woman who held the election night party in 2000 finished her Ph.D., but is no longer in the profession. One of my classmates, who kept declaring that he was going to D.C. to protest Bush's inauguration (which he did) by throwing feces at his motorcade (which he did not) has disappeared. He fell into a dissertation worm-hole, and I've heard nothing about him for years. The friend I shared a room with at that conference in November 2004 is the same friend I'm sharing a room with at a conference in November 2008.

Just before Election Day I spent some time with another person I was friends with in grad school, but who (for various reasons or for no reason) I've barely seen or been in touch with for the part five years. We spent some hours catching up one-on-one, and after we parted I felt strangely transformed: it was as if I'd both recovered access to my grad school life--but in a new and better way--and realized, definitively, that that era was behind me.

I started grad school nine years ago last August. Eight years ago Bush was elected. Next month, my Ph.D. will be three years old. And the month after that, President Obama will take office.

Here's to fresh starts.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Happy (belated) 95 Theses Day!

It was Friday. But really: isn't every day 95 Theses Day?

I've watched this at least a dozen times. It just keeps getting better. (Via IvyGate.)

Friday, October 31, 2008

Office casual

There's nothing better than an office with a door that shuts (and locks).

I suppose most people consider their office workspace an outpost of their home, but for me this means that my office must allow me to get really, really comfortable. Yesterday, for example, I came back from three manic hours of teaching, spent another 20 minutes consoling and encouraging a good but very stressed out student, and then (with two hours until my night class) closed the door, took off all my jewelry, my boots, and my lipstick, loosened my skirt, and lay down flat on the floor to read.

I didn't have office hours and I did have to finish that night's text (and write a quiz and a lesson plan!), so the closed door made sense. But I tend to collapse after periods of being "on" for too long, and when I'm overwhelmed, I need to shut down as many systems as possible; I also have this vaguely OCD thing where, when I'm fixated on or frustrated by a task, certain physical sensations drive me TOTALLY NUTS. Normally, it takes me more than an hour of sitting semi-blankly at my desk to recover from my first two classes and start thinking about my night one, but yesterday I didn't have that time. Lying down helped hasten the process.

It usually doesn't come quite to that, but even on an ordinary day I'm likely to wander around barefoot, sit with my legs flung entirely across my desk, inhale my lunch like a savage, and do stretching exercises on my floor. I mean, it's my office, right? And stuff's gotta get done.

My office-casual habits may be native, or they may be partly learned: when I was a paralegal, everyone in the firm kept ridiculous hours. Two young attorneys I worked for routinely napped under their desks--their secretary being instructed to hold their calls--and my own officemates and I played our small stereo all day long, shot rubber bands at one another, smuggled in the occasional bottle of wine, and now and again barricaded ourselves under our desks (hidden behind file boxes) to sleep, avoid one of our attorneys, or just calm the fuck down. Our next-door neighbors had a pet fish, two pillows, and an entire magazine-stand's worth of reading material. Almost all of us had extra clothes stashed in drawers.

I don't spend nearly the amount of time at the office now that I did then--I'm usually only on campus three days a week, for maybe 25 hours--but the small drugstore and kitchen that I keep in my desk drawer and my readiness to sprawl on the floor show I've learned certain lessons well.

What do you do in the privacy of your office?

Monday, October 20, 2008

Scholarship and/as autobiography

Last week my reading group discussed Janet Adelman's Blood Relations: Christian and Jew in The Merchant of Venice. This is the most recent of several books we've read that includes either explicit or implicit autobiography. Adelman's book is not a memoir-by-way-of-literature, like Reading Lolita in Tehran (or, perhaps more relevantly, Leonard Barkan's Satyr Square); it's a work of scholarship that opens with a several-page meditation on the author's Jewishness; the ambivalent reception that she and other Jewish scholars of the Renaissance once received; and her discomfort with Merchant itself.

I didn't feel that these autobiographical musings affected the rest of the book negatively, but neither, to my mind, did they affect it positively. For one thing, taken as autobiography, her opening anecdotes aren't especially interesting or evocative. It might have required too much text to make them better--Adelman's book is not, after all, a memoir--but as it is, these autobiographical moments work neither as autobiography nor as an entrée into the rest of her book.

By contrast, a book we read last spring, Jeff Dolven's Scenes of Instruction in Renaissance Romance, had what seemed to me both powerful and productive autobiographical resonances. Dolven's book, which deals with humanist education and the successes, failures, and revolts that it bred among Renaissance writers, felt personal without being in the least confessional. I got the impression from Dolven's discussion of some of the problems with imparting and assessing knowledge that he's a thoughtful, engaged teacher whose scholarly interests affect and inform his pedagogy. I don't know Dolven any more than I know Adelman, but that vague sense of the personality behind the text increased my interest in and enjoyment of his work.

So with those two books standing in for the others I've read that do similar things, I'm curious, first, as to whether my readers (especially those in other disciplines or subfields) perceive there to be a rise in autobiographically-infused scholarship; and second, whether or when you think such an infusion is productive.

If this is indeed a trend, I suspect it may be an extension of our belief that everyone has an agenda (and what seems to be a related rise in opinion- and personality-based journalism and punditry); perhaps some of us, especially those who work on potentially controversial or identity-based topics, feel that it's useful to foreground our own backgrounds, assumptions and prejudices. I understand that impulse, though I'm not sure I agree with it.

As the existence of this blog should make clear, I'm a fan of autobiography. Indeed, it wasn't until I began blogging that I realized I've always been attentive to authorial voice and persona; almost nothing, in fact, is more fascinating to me than the various ways we present ourselves to the world--and the degree to which those self-presentations are or are not in our control. But one of the reasons that I blog is to create a space for the autobiographical. The voice that I use in my scholarship is, I think, both personal and recognizably my own--but it is not explicitly autobiographical nor would I wish it to be.

Part of the problem is that autobiography has the potential to make our scholarship seem too personal and too partial. Yes, it's true that Adelman's Jewish last name might, all on its own, cause some readers to speculate about her reasons for writing on Merchant of Venice--just as my ethnic-Catholic last name or my friend's East Asian one might raise assumptions or expectations about "where we're coming from" when we work or don't work on certain topics; it's also true that all of us, whatever our backgrounds, have idiosyncratic and personal takes on the things we study. But to foreground the autobiographical in our scholarship isn't just to acknowledge the personal (which I support), but to imply that it's the most important part of our research.

Myself, I am interested in learning why people study the things they study and what started them on a particular project (or how that project intersects with and informs other areas of their lives). But I'm usually interested in that when I'm interested in the person, as part of a developing relationship; it's the sort of thing one chats about over a couple of drinks, or in the comments section to someone's blog. If I don't know you, it's your work I'm judging you by, not how affecting and interesting your personal narrative is--and indeed, I suspect that the better an autobiographical narrative is, as autobiography, the more inappropriate its presence in your book or article becomes.

But there's an easy solution here: get a blog!

Friday, October 17, 2008

For richer, for poorer

In talking to someone today, I mentioned a minor event that happened during the weekend of my Ph.D. graduation. Instead of referring to the festivities as "commencement" or "graduation," however, I said that such-and-so happened "at my wedding."

My subconscious is even more fucked up than I thought.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Random bullets of Fall Break

  • We've now reached the midpoint of the semester, which means I can clean my apartment, catch up on magazines, email a few friends--all for the first and possibly last time this term.
  • Saturday night a group of friends and I wrapped up the evening with the first drag show I've attended in Cha-Cha City. I've missed me some drag queens.
  • The earlier part of the evening was less agreeable, involving as it did two Oktoberfest wagons clip-clopping their way through the nightlife district and disgorging screaming 23-year-olds at every block.
  • After a rather gloomy September, October is proving gorgeous. So I'm mulling some cider, admiring the foliage--and choosing not to think about how long and bleak winter will be once it arrives.
  • In two weeks I'll be back in NYC for the first time in months. There's a professional component, but I'm mostly regarding it as a holiday.
  • I've been informed that my student loan payments are going up by more than $100/month (a 28% increase). And yet I'm still projected to be in repayment until 2027.
  • I've been wondering lately whether restlessness and vague dissatisfaction are constituitive conditions with me. I'm not unhappy and by most measures my life is as good as it's ever been, but I feel as though I'm waiting for. . . something. I just hope I know it when I see it.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Notetakers Anonymous

I spent part of the weekend filling in and cleaning up the footnotes to a project that I've been working on by fits and starts for more than two years. It's gone through some significant changes and revisions, and my footnotes reflect that process: some are extensive, with complete citations, commentary, and elaboration where necessary. Most, however, look like this:
"Smith, pp.??"

"Jones, pp.??; also maybe Brown?"

"Fine and O'Brien disagree, but [EXPLAIN]."

In some cases, filling the gaps is a cinch, but in others it takes significant effort not only to track down the relevant works and page numbers, but also to recollect whatever I intended for that footnote to do.

Part of the problem is that I don't have a standardized notetaking system. Perhaps half of my notes are on my computer, organized into files under general subject headings. I always print out hard copies, though, and it's these hard copies that I usually refer to when I'm working--I like to go back and underline or bracket important things or write additional notes in the margin.

A second group of notes exists only in hardcopy, since I often read in bed, in coffee shops, and other places where it's troublesome to lug my laptop around; I also focus better when I write in longhand. These notes fill legal pad pages organized by author, but with big blocky headings to remind me of the main topic on any given page.

A third group of notes consists of marginal annotations, either in books I own or in the many photocopied articles or chapters I acquire over the life of a project. I like this method the best, though it's probably the least efficient from the standpoint of information retrieval--since I often wind up leafing back through every single page of a given book.

I think there are benefits to my continually rereading my notes and reencountering my sources; for one thing, I don't retain information particularly well, especially when that information isn't immediately useful and only becomes so as a project develops. Still, I have the sense that most people use methods that are less ad hoc and more efficient than mine--methods that also don't threaten eventually to bury their authors alive in paper.

So tell me: how do you take, organize, and refer back to your notes?

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

How do you teach when the world is ending?

There would seem to be two possibilities. The first is that you don't teach, and the second is that you teach exactly the same way you always have. My preference, I guess, is for the latter--on the principle that the motherfucking sonnet must go on--but I don't really find either solution satisfactory. The first strikes me as an abdication of responsibility: a statement both that normal life is no longer possible and that whatever one teaches is not, in the final analysis, particularly important. But to go on teaching, as if the world weren't ending--well, that seems insufficient.

Obviously, the world has not ended or even threatened to end during my teaching career; neither have I taught in the wake of a natural disaster or period of civil unrest (though some of my readers surely have). But while I realize how offensive it is to imply that feeling like the world is ending is comparable to living through even the shortest and most localized of crises. . . I do feel like the world is ending.

I can't really say why; I felt this way for months or a year after September 11th, and then the feeling went away. Some awful things have happened since then, and I've known people who have fallen into despair at various points along the way--so I guess now is my moment. I'm sure it will pass. But I'm not sure what to do in the meanwhile.

I teach Renaissance literature. And while I resist the idea that my subject is irrelevant to or divorced from contemporary reality (whether that sentiment is meant as a criticism or as a compliment), I'm equally reluctant to suggest that we can learn--from the past, from art--anything that has a straightforward bearing on the present. In my classroom we may discuss the different leadership styles of Hal, Hotspur, and Falstaff. We may analyze the ways history and language are manipulated for certain ends in The Faerie Queene. And I hope that those things allow my students to make similar analyses in other contexts. But I would never encourage them to find contemporary parallels to the things we read--and when they suggest such parallels themselves, I usually shut them down as quickly and politely as possible.

That's responsible pedagogical behavior for a lot of reasons. And yet on my own time I'm always seeing parallels and even actively seeking them out. "Omigod!" I'll tell a friend. "Listen to this passage from King James! Is he or is he not George W. Bush?"

It's one of the great joys of reading and of knowing other periods as well as most of us do--the ability to find and make those connections. They may be reductive or tendentious, but they feed our basic desire to make meaning out of our world. This isn't something I can teach my students, though I hope they experience it.

Myself, I started high school in the fall of 1989, just before the Berlin Wall came down. Then there was the first Gulf War. But after that, through the rest of my teens and my mid-20s, nothing much seemed to happen. I felt that I was living outside of history, and I hated it. For a while I was obsessed with Watergate, and then for a much longer while with World War II. I started collecting popular music from the 1940s--mostly unremarkable stuff, musically, but I loved it. I listened to it over and over again, trying to imagine what it would be like to live in a time where things mattered, where even minor decisions played out against a backdrop that gave them weight and meaning.

I was wrong, I guess, about what living inside of history would be like; for the past seven years I've been pretty sure that that's where we are, but the experience hasn't brought the clarity I expected: I don't know what anything means any better now than I did before, and I'm no better able to categorize life into Things That Matter and Things That Don't; everything seems either terribly unimportant or so very important that I don't have the energy or the resources to deal with it.

So maybe it doesn't help to prepare us, knowing history and knowing literature. But when we keep on teaching the sonnet as the world is ending, maybe what we're teaching is both that it isn't actually ending--and that it's done so plenty of times before.

Friday, September 26, 2008

It's the oldest trick in the book, but it never fails

"So okay!" I say to my students. "Where does Britomart wind up next?"

"Uh--that castle. Castle Joyous?"

"Yes," I say. "Why is it called that? What's it like? What do the people do there?"

"There are--there are lots of beds there," says one student.

"And those lustful guys with the Italian names. And the Lady of Delight," says another.

"Good. What's delightful about her? What makes this castle so joyous?"

"Uhh. . . she's beautiful? And she seems to sleep with the visiting knights?"

"Yes!" I say. "Basically? This place is Castle Sex."

Amazing how much more diligent they become in their close-reading after that.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Classroom redecoration

Virtually all the classrooms at RU consist of tablet desks arranged into front-facing rows. I've never loved this layout, but it's worked okay; my classes are still relaxed, smallish, and discussion-based. More to the point, it hadn't occurred to me to tinker with what God and the institution gave me.

I came to discover, though, that most of my colleagues do rearrange their classrooms, usually into a circle. At first this struck me as a tremendous hassle and waste of time--and circles are also a little too kumbayah or AA-meeting for my taste--but I couldn't deny that I'd rather teach to a room where most of my students could see each other.

So this semester I decided to experiment: I had my students move their desks into two concentric semi-circles, leaving me, as before, perched atop the instructor's desk. Since I have more desks than students--and since I'm fussy and anal-retentive--I do have to arrive five minutes early and sling some desks around myself to produce an arrangement I'm happy with, but in the cozy little room where I teach two classes back-to-back it's not a big deal, and the improved discussion dynamic is worth it.

My night class, however, is a problem: I have 28 students in a narrow, deep room with some 60 desks, and it's almost impossible to fit them into an orderly shape without leaving extra desks marooned in the middle of the room. The first few weeks I kept pushing desks around, trying to solve this geometrical puzzle, and making brisk fun of myself in the process. "God!" I'd say to my students. "I hate this! These extra desks totally stress me out!"

They'd laugh and try to help--but the room just didn't seem to permit the arrangement I wanted.

Then this past week I arrived early to find eight or ten students already seated in a small, tidy horseshoe with an abbreviated semi-circle just behind it. "Oh!" I exclaimed. "That's beautiful!"

Then I noticed that fifteen or twenty extra desks had been stacked up along the back wall, out of the way. "Wait," I said. "Did you guys do all this?"

They nodded, with smiles I couldn't interpret--but I have a hunch they decided that it's easier, all around, just to humor the crazy lady.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Hating Jil

Like most everyone in this corner of the profession, I took a gander at the job list after it went live Thursday night. I wasn't looking with intent, and I didn't spend long on the site--just skimmed the listings and remarked that there were only three or four jobs I'd be interested in if I were on the market (not counting those at places like Berkeley and Harvard, which aren't actual jobs but a conspiracy between the MLA, FedEx-Kinkos and the U. S. Postal Service). Then I shut down my computer and went to bed.

The next 36 hours passed pleasantly: I puttered around the apartment, spent quality time on a couple of writing projects, and thought some more about a talk I'm giving next month. Then on Saturday, while refilling my coffee cup, I suddenly blurted out to the empty room, "I should apply for Job X."

Now, Job X is at a school that, over the years, I've occasionally pointed to as the kind of place I'd like to work. It's not an institution that most people would regard as a dream job, and I don't have any real investment in it myself--it just has a number of features that I consider desirable. Still, though I'm friendly with a couple of people in the department, I've never so much as set foot on campus, and when I saw the job listing on Thursday all I did was say, "School X! Good job!"--and then immediately clicked on the next page of listings.

But apparently some part of my brain kept thinking about that posting, unbeknownest to my conscious mind, until all in a rush I felt that I had to apply for that job. And--I could, couldn't I? It was just one job, and so really shouldn't take too much effort. I could even comfortably tell my chair about it, because hey: it was only one job! which I had totally reasonable reasons for applying for!

But, ugh. It would be work. And though I'd be a strong candidate, there are lots of strong candidates out there. And if I didn't actually want to leave my current position--and was in fact quite happy there--what was the point, really? Job X might be a better job over the long haul. . . but did I know that? And would it be better for right now?

I couldn't get back to work. I paced around my apartment for several hours and wrote long, insane emails to a couple of professional friends: what should I do? What should I DOOOO?

And then, just as suddenly, I decided that of course I wasn't going to apply for one stupid job; I wasn't going to apply for any jobs. I'd never intended to, and I wasn't going to. The End.

I'm sure I'm not the only one who falls into this mania every September. When it happened last year, though, I thought it was situationally specific: I was feeling unmoored in the wake of my breakup and uncertain what that meant for my professional gameplan. I didn't even get close to applying, but I spent the better part of a week freaking out about one listing in particular--and then wondering whether I shouldn't apply to a few other similar schools.

But here it's gone and happened again, nearly a year after I thought I'd figured out a rough five-year plan--one that does not involve my going on the market any time soon. So is it me, or is it Jil?

Jil, I've decided, is my professional alter-ego (not to be confused with Flavia--I've got more than one, folks; try to keep up). Or perhaps it's better to say that she--more than the real-life person who previously held that title--is my nemesis, made up of all my own worst and least-lovely characteristics: anxiety, vanity, doubt, and the haunting sense that my life could be even better if I only knew what I needed to do to make it so. Each year, Jil comes back into town and nags at me, tempting and frightening me with visions of alternate futures. Jil makes me wonder if I'm defining happiness and success properly, or if I'm capable of recognizing those things when I see them. Jil makes me restless and dissatisfied.

Jil. She's got such a nice, all-American name, and she comes smiling toward you with promises to listen, to help you out. But don't turn your back: Jil'll cut you soon as look at you.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

M.A. = gateway drug?

This past weekend I heard from a former student who graduated just over a year ago. She went enthusiastically off to law school, but found it a bad fit--and is now starting an M.A. program in the humanities.

My first reaction to this news was one of pleasure: she's smart, and seems to have the kind of serious, obsessional interests that would serve her well in graduate school. But as I continued to reflect on her and on several other students who have gone on to good master's programs, I realized that my satisfaction was twofold:
a) these are intellectually curious people pursuing further study in fields they enjoy


b) they are not in Ph.D. programs.

My reasons for being glad they're not in Ph.D. programs should be obvious: blah blah job market, blah blah debt, blah blah self-indulgent desire of the professoriate to see its choices validated in those of a younger generation. I think I'm supportive of those students who hope to do doctoral work, but they and their years of potential exploitation do weight on me.

M.A. programs, on the other hand, I've always regarded as benign. Sure, they're institutional money-makers and result in degrees that may or may not advantage their holders professionally, but their expenses are usually obvious and up-front. In exchange, the student gets a focused course of study that allows him or her to do advanced work in a specific field. Call it a luxury good or a pricey self-improvement project, but I assume most students recognize the trade-offs.

In practice, though, I've known very few people who have gotten an M.A., enjoyed the process, and not wanted to go on to get a Ph.D.--unless their M.A. was intended as a means to an end or life circumstances intervened.

So I'm wondering: am I allowed to feel good about my students going on to M.A. programs, even in the absence of an obvious career objective? Or am I just encouraging them to believe that the life of the mind exists only within the academy and/or with an advanced degree--and discouraging them from the discovery that engaged, intellectually rewarding lives are possible in the context of any number of other (more stable, more remunerative) careers?

Am I, in other words, part of the problem?

Thursday, September 04, 2008

In loco parentis

Dear Student:

You're a freshman. And every new environment takes some getting used to. But really: exposed nipples have no place in the classroom.

I don't care that you're male. And I don't care how badass slashing up your lacrosse t-shirt makes you. And while I might in other circumstances celebrate the comfort with your body suggested by those bits of fabric flopping across your flesh, in Composition I prefer not to.

And don't pick at those blemishes. It only makes them worse.


Sunday, August 31, 2008

How The University Works

My review of Marc Bousquet's How the University Works is long overdue--I received a copy of the book in January and read it in June--but I've been thinking about it all summer and following Bousquet's related blog off and on for most of 2008.

As longtime readers know, I was an organizer for INRU's graduate student union. This was rarely something I enjoyed; in fact, I spent a lot of time resenting the way that the logic of my belief in unionization seemed to commit me to doing more than just signing a card and going on strike once in a while. I hated phone banking and I hated foisting myself on people who had no desire to talk to me, and I made fun of the earnestness and encounter-group-speak of the coordinating committee. Still, I kept doing it. (Come the revolution, Flavia will complain for a week straight--but she'll probably show up anyway, with a checklist and an extra pair of mittens.)

As reluctant an organizer as I may have been, I learned a lot about the history of academic labor and the creeping corporatization of the academy; much of what Bousquet says, then, shouldn't be news--but months after reading his book, I still can't get certain things out of my head.

First among these is Bousquet's treatment of what he calls "job market theory." I thought that casualization (and the complicity of grad programs in this process) was something I fully understood, but by reframing the issue, Bousquet has made me think about it in a new way.

According to Bousquet, the term "job market" was once simply a description of the bazaar-like atmosphere at the annual conventions of the MLA and other professional organizations, where buyers and sellers (or departments and job candidates) came together to check each other out; at some point, though, the term began to be used as if it described an actual labor market, resulting in the widespread belief that "the system of graduate education produces more degree holders than necessary, and that this 'overproduction' can be controlled 'from the demand side' by encouraging early retirements and 'from the supply side' by shrinking graduate programs" (20).

As Bousquet notes, however, the idea of a market "operates rhetorically and not descriptively" (21), and on some level we all know this: the demand for college instruction is no less today than it was a decade or three ago, and it is unlikely that the "oversupply" of PhDs, relative to this demand, is actually very large; what has declined is the number of tenure-track jobs. Despite this knowledge, most faculty and even graduate students regard this decline as a temporary or local phenomenon: the result of hard economic times and belt-tightening at the institutional or state level.

Bousquet argues that this is not only not temporary, but also not a sign of a "'system out of control,' a machine with a thrown rod or a blown gasket. Quite the contrary: it's a smoothly functioning new system with its own easily apprehensible logic, premised entirely on the continuous replacement of degree holders with nondegreed labor (or persons with degrees willing to work on unfavorable terms)" (24).

The use of market language permits faculty inaction (except around the edges, when it comes to reducing the number of admitted students, "professionalizing" those already there, or pulling such strings as may be available for their own advisees) and makes the relationship between faculty and graduate students

paternal, administrative, and managerial. . . . Whatever actions faculty might take to secure their own working conditions, job-market theory defines their responsibility toward graduate students and former graduate students not as a relationship of solidarity with coworkers but, instead, as a managerial responsibility. In multiple roles. . . the tenured [see] their responsibility to graduate employees through the lens of participating in the administration of the "market." (20)

In sum, job market theory frees those who have tenure (or jobs that are tenure-track) to believe that they can do nothing much more than shake their heads and thank their stars, even while labor conditions worsen for them as much as for members of the academic underclass.

The sharp analysis that Bousquet brings to the idea of the job market is present throughout the book. In his treatment of the "informationalization" of the academy (an awful term, but never mind), he points out that the paranoia online education inspires in some faculty is largely misplaced--not because online education doesn't have the potential to eliminate tenure-track faculty (and gut the educational experience in any number of other ways), and not because individual institutions might not be trying to do just that, but because the place that such cynical, cost-cutting moves are really happening, and have been happening for decades, is in the old fashioned, bricks-and-mortar classroom, where courses are already more likely to be taught by adjuncts and grad students; by contrast, the expenses of getting online education up and running often outweigh the potential savings.

As grim as the picture Bousquet paints is, reading his book was oddly inspiring; if the market reflects tough economic times and an oversupply of PhDs, all we can do is hope for the best for ourselves and our students. But recognizing that the system has its own efficient but appalling logic--a logic that serves neither faculty nor student interests--means that waiting it out isn't possible, though action might be.

Time to make some goddamn phone calls.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Under the influence

It's true what conservatives say: we college professors exert a dangerous influence over our students.

Walking into class today, I was hailed by a student who had taken Shakespeare with me last semester, but whom I'd known only slightly. After a moment or two of how-was-your-summer chit-chat, she held up her inside right wrist to show me the tattoo emblazoned there: MEMENTO MORI.

"That day you brought in the skull?" She said. "And wrote this on the board? That really stuck with me."

So there you have it: I inspire students to deface their bodies and meditate on death. And I couldn't be more proud.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

For those keeping track:

Cost of academic regalia ÷ number of wearings thus far = $160.00 per use.

As a return on value, that's not so bad--in just two or three more years the cost will be the same as if I'd shelled out for rentals each time.

By contrast, consider this equation:

[(money earned over three years of full-time employment + money earned over six years in graduate school) - (educational debt + consumer debt related to the profession)] ÷ nine years = an average annual salary too grim for me to contemplate.

Conclusion: as extravagances go, pretty clothes ain't got nothing on graduate school.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Summer reading

As serene as I may be in the knowledge that four whole weeks of summer stretch out before me, my first day of classes nevertheless arrives on Tuesday.

It would be hard for a summer to be worse than last summer, but even given its modest competition, this summer still feels like the most pleasurable one I've had in years. I haven't taken any big vacations, and though I've gotten a fair amount of work done, no huge hurdles have been lept or grand visions acquired. Really, the most notable thing I've done is read.

Now, I read all the time, but usually I'm reading in catch-up mode: gotta get this book read for class on Thursday, or that one before my reading group meets tomorrow--or this other one in order to finish off my article revisions. Such obligatory reading can still be quite pleasurable, and I've spent long lovely hours in bed with a cup of tea and The Faerie Queene or in a coffee shop with a notepad and some volume or other from Cambridge University Press. Still. . . it's obligatory.

But this summer, for all my to-do and to-read lists (and my tiresomely Protestant tendency to see all projects as self-improving ones and thus Not To Be Shirked), I felt that I actually had time to explore. My fellowship allowed me to look at all kinds of random Early Modern shit; prepping for my new fall class sent me through dozens of articles and perhaps a half-dozen books; and spending a month in a city where I knew no one gave me an excuse to work through several scholarly books only tangentially relevant to my own research.

I'd characterize all of the above as relatively fun reading--on the grounds that anything not immediately necessary must be fun--but this summer I also did more leisure reading than I have in years.

A couple of months ago Prof. de Breeze had a great post on how little leisure reading he himself does these days. It was a post I related to, as I'd been worrying about the declining number of novels (&c.) I've been reading over the past few years; a couple over winter break and a couple over the summer, usually, tending to fall into two categories: either Classics I Should Have Read Long Ago or temporarily engrossing but ultimately forgettable contemporary fiction. I was starting to wonder whether maybe I just wasn't a leisure reader any more--or whether there was something about my life that made contemporary fiction feel less relevant.

As someone who has always read and whose livelihood depends on students who themselves identify as readers, that possibility was disturbing but not unplausible; I'd long since stopped reading the short fiction in The New Yorker, at least in part because it felt the least urgent: given the finite amount of my reading time, I concluded that the nonfictional stuff was what was interesting, topical--and much more likely to come up in dinner-party conversation.

So I'm pleased to report that, this summer, I got my leisure-reading groove back. This is what I read:
August Wilson, The Piano Lesson
Richard Russo, Straight Man
Joshua Ferris, Then We Came to the End
David Mamet, American Buffalo
Michael Chabon, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
Ian McEwan, On Chesil Beach
Tom Perrotta, Joe College

(Plus eight to ten Hernandez Brothers comics and the opening chapters of The Yiddish Policeman's Union.)
Some of the books I read were merely good--a fun way to pass the time and a means of shoring up, ever so slightly, my claims to familiarity with the current literary scene. Others, though, reminded me of what made me a reader and a writer in the first place.

And if that isn't a justification for 14 weeks away from the classroom, I don't know what is.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Where's my syllabus?

I'm out west at the family homestead, seeing the relations, enjoying the weather, sleeping nine hours a night--and, oh yeah: slaving over my syllabi.

Now, my syllabi aren't those eight-page jobbies bursting with university bylaws, detailing every assignment, and showing off their author's facility with graphic-design software--but neither are they a single double-sided sheet consisting of contact information and a rough schedule of readings.

Syllabi are, of course, the first introduction that students get to me and my class, so I want an attractive and readable layout, an engaging descriptive paragraph or two, and a sufficiently detailed course outline. Syllabi are also a kind of contract: a document that can be referred to whenever there's a question about grading standards or the precise penalties for everything from absenteeism to plagiarism. But the real reason I take syllabus design so seriously--and why it feels so effortful--is my awareness that my syllabus is often the only thing standing between me and pedagogical disaster.

I don't know about the rest of you, but I have an awful lot of exchanges like this:
Student: "Hey, when are our second papers due?"

Me (feigning preoccupation): "In a couple of weeks. It's on the syllabus."

Student: "Okay, great. . . but I've got training around then, so I need to plan ahead--is it before or after the eighteenth?"

Me: "It's on the syllabus. Check it when you get home."
Or this:
Student 1: "Which play are we starting next week? I don't have my syllabus with me."

Me: "Macbeth."

Student 2: "Did we change that? It says here that we're reading Othello. . ."

Me: "Oh! Well, if the syllabus says we're reading Othello, then we're reading Othello."
In other words, I often have no idea what we're doing more than a class or two in advance. Once the semester starts, I rely on my syllabus to order my readings logically and to ensure that certain topics (not to mention assignments) appear at just the right moment. This isn't to say that I never make changes mid-semester, but usually they're minor responses to immediate exigencies. A well-considered syllabus keeps me on track--as well as performing the even more useful function of allowing me to appear to be on track.

But as I've been working on these three syllabi, I've been thinking what a pity it is that I don't have one for my life, or at least the next three to five years of it. I wouldn't expect it to be more than a rough document, but I'd happily put in whatever effort were required if I could sketch out with some assurance when (and if) certain events might occur: home ownership? a book contract? marriage? tenure?

I mean, sure: I have a sense of the appropriate order of things when it comes to my professional life, but I don't have the slightest idea what the personal side will look like or even what I want it to look like--much less how the two sides will intersect.

What I need is a much more experienced, much more long-range syllabus builder to rough that stuff out for me, lay down the standards, expectations, and penalties, and tell me what it's all about. Then I'd know whether it's a class I can commit to.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Flavian calendar reform

At about this time every year, I start operating according to my own Very Special Calendar.

My summer begins around May 15 or May 20th, after I've submitted my grades and my annual faculty activity report, and it ends a week before Labor Day. This means that I have 13 or 14 weeks of summer--absolute oceans of time in which to write. But as August winds down and I look with increasing apprehension at the to-do lists that I came up with in May, I start reassuring myself that summer doesn't really end until September 21st.

Now, if the past few years are any indication, I'm actually quite productive during August and the first few weeks of September--deadlines and the fear of public shame will do that to a girl--and refusing to admit that summer is OVER also keeps me from spending too much time worrying (or really even thinking) about my new classes.

But what this means is that my "summer" somehow becomes 18 weeks long, during which I get at best nine weeks' worth of work done--and by "nine weeks" I mean not nine 40-hour weeks, but whatever the writing/research equivalent is: twenty hours? thirty?

The Flavian Calendar, you see, also involves some Very Special Math.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

High anxiety

I awakened this morning from a succession of dreams that went something like this:
I was four months pregnant. This was not a planned or desired state of affairs, but apparently one I had accepted--until somehow, over the course of a doctor's visit, I started to suspect that maybe I wasn't! I mean, I hadn't gained any weight. And there were other physical signs to the contrary. My doctor, however, had no time for my objections; she lectured me on vitamins and disappeared. I sat there for a while, trying to piece together the evidence, when suddenly it occurred to me that hey: even if I was pregnant? I didn't have to keep it! I could give it up for adoption! But how to figure things out or make a decision if no one would listen to me?

Then I was walking down the street, minding my own business, when a dude I'd dated for about a week in January--with spectacularly negative results--suddenly appeared and wanted to know why I'd never called. He was with two women whom I apparently knew professionally, so I couldn't tell him off but had to make nice for blocks and blocks and blocks.

After I succeeded in shaking them, I had some urgent reason to call my mom--but I had a new cell phone in which my contacts weren't arranged alphabetically or even searchable by name. I kept randomly hitting buttons, trying to find her number, and instead getting those of people I barely knew and thought I'd long since deleted.

And finally? It was possible that I was going blind. But there was no way to be sure, so I'd just have to wait and see.
I hate my subconscious.

Friday, August 01, 2008

The perils of being female in public

Now that it's finally hit me that I have two substantial projects and one tiny one due in the next four to six weeks--while classes at RU begin in three and a half--I've been hunkering down and trying to get some work done.

Since I seem incapable of doing anything other than reading or course prep at home, for the past week or so I've been writing in a nearby café. The place has good coffee, lots of tables, and huge windows that let in tons of light. The music is loud, but it's a big space with high ceilings, so somehow the music seems backgroundy even while it successfully covers up the conversations going on around me.

It's a nearly perfect workspace. I love the staff. And when I need a break the people-watching is awesome. The only problem is that, among the flotsam and jetsam of the place's patrons--couples on blind dates, political activists plotting their next rally--often enough there's some guy who decides that, of all the lone individuals bent over their work, I'm the one he needs to talk to.

These tend to be men rather older than I, odd-bally but not especially creepy, and, as far as I can tell, they're not hitting on me. They just think I want to hear whatever they have to say.

So there I am, revising a chapter draft in longhand. I have a printout I'm carefully interlineating, a legal pad for longer additions, and several stacks of notes spread out around me. I do not think that I look interruptable. But suddenly there's a 50-something dude hovering over me.

"Grading papers?" He asks.

I look up and smile briefly. "Nope. Not during the summer!"

"Oh. So you're a--you must be a student? At [Local R1]?"

"No, I'm a professor at [RU]."

I return to my work. He keeps hovering.

"So--do you know anything about early Christianity?"

This is startling enough that I look up again. "Um, I guess. Some."

This, of course, is just the in he's looking for. He starts nattering about this ancient manuscript that has overturned scholars' assumptions about the early church. I don't catch the name of the manuscript, and I don't totally understand what's revolutionary about it, but since this isn't the least interesting thing I've heard all day, and since I'm trying to be minimally polite, I ask one or two questions--it's a Gnostic text, is it?--No no no no no! he says impatiently. I'm thinking of the Dead Sea Scrolls! Those were discovered much later!

After five minutes I've had enough. "Well, that's interesting!" I say with finality. "Thanks for telling me about it!" He hovers for a few more moments, but when I don't look up again, he drifts away.

Of course, he doesn't actually leave, and comes back at least twice to ask me how I take notes--do I use index cards? he never figured out how to use those, himself--then to tell me that I should really go to XYZ Pub, on Wednesday nights--well, some Wednesdays, he doesn't know which ones--because some professors have a philosophy reading group there. He's seen them. And he's sure it would be right up my alley.

In the grand scheme of things, this isn't a big deal. Guys like this aren't actively offensive or inappropriate, and when I'm really not in the mood, I can shut anyone down. But somehow it's easier when they are obnoxious, or interrupting me and my friends at a bar, or whatever. When they're just harmless pests, I feel like a bitch when I don't at least paste a pro forma smile on my face and give them a tolerant few minutes. As Dr. Virago wrote a couple of years back, it's exactly this assumption--that because you're female and in public you're required to be nice--that permits behavior that is, at bottom, aggressive and inappropriate. (Would this guy have pestered another man, however young? I doubt it.)

After all, he's just being friendly! Geez, lady: what's your problem?

Monday, July 28, 2008

Don't be so sensitive

When I saw Advisor a couple of weeks ago, we had an amusing exchange that has provoked two very different reactions among those I've told the story to.

Guy is typical of one response. "Oh, man," he said after I'd narrated the episode to him. "I'm sorry."*

"Huh?" I said.

"I'm really sorry. That sounds awful."

"Oh!" I said. "No no no no no. It was good! I mean, those were totally left-handed compliments she was giving me, but it was--I don't know--playful? Not, like, mean."

I know Advisor pretty well, but as I found myself trying to explain to Guy and several others why I didn't read the interaction negatively, it struck me that another reason for my interpretation may be that I myself give a lot of left-handed compliments.

Now, I give a lot of genuine compliments, and I believe that, on the whole, I'm good at letting people know when I admire their work, appreciate their efforts, or totally love their outfit. But every now and again it's brought to my attention that people consider me--oh, how to say this?--excessively judgmental.

(This shocks you, I know.)

The first time I was aware of this perception came in my senior year of high school. I was chatting with my friend Andy, and during the course of the conversation I commented that, hey, I liked his shirt. He broke off whatever he was saying, gave me a nasty look, and said, "Oh, thanks a lot! You know, Flavia, you could just not have said anything." It took me a full five seconds to register that he thought I was being sarcastic. I reassured him that actually I just thought it was a pretty cool shirt--and chose not to let myself contemplate what it meant that even my friends assumed no compliment I might give could be sincere.

Yes, I was a teenager, and probably one who laid on the sarcasm more heavily than most; I have neither the tone nor the attitude now that I had then. But I do give an awful lot of mock faint praise and left-handed compliments. (An easy example might be my saying to someone I've recently started dating something like, "Hey. You know? I think I like you! Or at least, more than I dislike you.")

I don't consider the meaning behind such remarks to be ambiguous. It should be obvious to my friends and intimates that I like them--I wouldn't waste time on them if I didn't. Giving them a hard time is just a way of playing around.

Indeed, until I started thinking about that interaction with my advisor, it never occurred to me that any reasonable person might interpret my teasing as otherwise than affectionate, but I guess there is something aggressive there: not unplayful or unaffectionate, to be sure, but implicitly about asserting oneself while keeping the other person firmly in his place.

All of which is to say? Maybe we get the advisors we deserve and/or resemble.


*The other interpretation was basically my own: that Advisor was communicating her pleasure at seeing me and with my progress.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Penny-wise, pound foolish

Today marks what I hope will be a turnaround in my financial fortunes. Today, I opened a savings account.

Yes, it's true that I'm 33, with no dependents, and an annual income greater than that of the average household in the United States. And yet I have no savings, no equity, no real assets, and a massive amount of credit card debt.

Some of it I can blame on grad school and related professional hazards. Consider, for example, that in the summer of 2006 I received my last paycheque from Big Urban in May and didn't receive my first from RU until October--during which time I had to move hundreds of miles, set up house, buy a car, and occasionally eat.

But although grad school is responsible for most of my student loans, some of my consumer debt, and my virtual inability to build equity for six or seven years, I can't blame it for habits I clearly developed on my own. As soon as I graduated from college I moved to the big city, decided I needed my own place (in a pricey neighborhood), and then had to furnish that place. I made enough money that this wasn't unreasonable, but not enough that I could have the apartment and the lifestyle I wanted without continually courting overdraft fees. And what did I do after getting into thousands of dollars of consumer debt? I took out loans to go to graduate school!

After a financially disastrous first year, I actually managed to pull it together for a while. For my first four years in grad school, I lived in a tiny, cheap apartment, I didn't have a car, and I had few nearby friends; in addition to my stipend I got a job working at the university press for 12 hours a week. I paid down a fairly impressive amount of debt and even saved up a couple of thousand dollars. . . but all with the goal of moving back to the city and being able to afford movers and a rental deposit. Need I say that the rent on this new apartment--though a great deal!--was more than twice what I'd paid in Grad School City?

You see the problem. The decisions I make are never independently unreasonable, and I'm a master of small economies: I reuse tinfoil, pack a lunch every day, and know which drugstore has the best prices; I've been known to buy a single gallon of gas at a time and when I have to I can survive 10 days on $20. But when I get my paycheque I'll immediately drop $90 at Amazon (for books important to my research!) and $60 at Banana Republic (but for $180 worth of clothes--and they're wardrobe staples!). If I'm sharing hotel rooms, carpooling, and using frequent flyer miles to stretch my departmental travel budget, I congratulate myself for being "able" to attend four conferences in twelve months rather than remarking that I'm still out of pocket $800.

In short, the expression "penny-wise, pound foolish" was invented for your Flavia.

I thought things would magically turn around when I got this job. But, well, there were those four months without an income to make up for. And then I was doing a lot of conference work--and getting reimbursed months later, if at all. And then I didn't get my scheduled cost-of-living raise last September, because our faculty contracts were still being negotiated.

That raise finally arrived today, in a lump sum. In six weeks, next year's will kick in. And it has at last occurred to me that I need to take active steps to improve my financial situation rather than thinking that at some point it will take care of itself--with the next raise, or when my car is paid off, or whatever.

So I put $500 in my new savings account and will be making modest regular deposits from every paycheque. I don't intend this as a major-emergency fund--just a cushion of $1,500-2,000 for when I need to buy a plane ticket or a new set of tires. I've figured out a significant but reasonable amount I should be able to put toward my credit cards every month. (And yes, yes: they both have very low APRs and I already make substantive contributions to my retirement plan.) Hopefully, since I have no dependents and do make a decent salary, I'll be able to turn things around largely by making smarter choices and being more mindful about where my money goes.

I write none of this as a defense of my improvident ways, but I'm not sure it's an apology, either--I've loved everything I've bought and owned and done over the years. I just need to ensure a future that's equally enjoyable, and more secure.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Wanted: new myths

I'm back on the right (which is to say, the left) side of the Atlantic, though I think I need at least another week to recover from the one I spent in England. My conference was great, despite running pretty much 9-5 for five days--and despite my going out nearly every night with conference buddies and squeezing in visits with unaffiliated friends around the edges.

I always return from conferences exhausted and overstimulated, but this time I'm also grappling with what feels like the overturning of some deeply-held beliefs, or what Evey would call foundational myths. She's used this term, at least in my hearing, mainly as a way of explaining relationships that look peculiar from the outside; an example would be a relationship that began when one party was the most popular and sought-after kid in school and that has maintained those dynamics even as years have passed and circumstances have changed. The formerly popular kid may no longer be particularly attractive or successful--and everyone who now knows the couple may feel it's actually his or her partner who's the charming one--but that's not how the parties involved see it.

Now, if you asked me what I consider the foundational myths of my academic career, I'd probably give you a fairly positive narrative having to do with my not having arrived at grad school particularly well-prepared, or talented, or receiving a lot of support--but nevertheless having persevered and even prospered. What I tend to omit, even from my own conscious thoughts, is the amount of insecurity, anger, and resentment that shadow this narrative and that continue to inform much of my professional self-conception.

At this conference, though, I started to feel the inutility (and maybe the inaccuracy) of these old and only dimly acknowledged beliefs. First, I had a number of interactions with my advisor, which, while in some ways entirely typical, felt different--and largely positive. I also ran into the person I've previously described as my nemesis. My pulse started racing the moment I glimpsed the back of Nemesis's head (which was recognizable to me, even from behind and at a distance, in the same way that the back of an ex's head would be recognizable--which is to say, totally unrecognizable except to the one person who daily dreads and expects to see it). Our actual interactions, though, were free of nemenosity. Nemesis was genuinely friendlier than in our past few encounters, but, as with Advisor, it's more that I decided that behaviors I'd previously taken personally probably weren't meant that way.

I also hung out with some exceptionally cool people--some previously known to me, some not--including my my go-to conference buddy, Fritz. Fritz's strengths as a conference buddy include being a) funny as all fuck, and b) as ready to stay out until last call as I am--but he's also very smart, and I was both startled and touched almost to the point of tears when he took up the subject of my paper, insisted on my taking it further than I'd been inclined to, and defended part of it against Advisor's rather off-hand dismissal.

And--well, other good things happened, too, but the list gets boring at this point. What it boils down to is that I'm realizing that my old insecurities and resentments may once have been useful, and even comforting. . . but perhaps it's time to let them go.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Please don't make me hate you

I'm still here--in the City that Never Stops Taking Your Money--but my conference has finally careened to the end of its week-long run. It was, on balance, a very good conference. But before I get to the good stuff, some advice on how you can increase the likelihood that Flavia will attend your session at some conference to come. (First of all, it would have to be on a topic in which she has some interest. But that's only the first hurdle!)

Four things that will make me avoid your panel, clamber over an entire row of people to get out of your panel--or wish to God that it were socially acceptable to do the latter:

  1. Papers on Early Modern topics that involve extended parallels to contemporary political events. A brief aside about, say, the Bush Administration may not be amiss, especially if it's genuinely clever. But the key word is brief. If I wanted to hear your rambling and ill-informed remarks about John Yoo, I would not be attending a session on All's Well That Ends Well.
  2. Speakers, especially women, whose voices are so wispy they're barely picked up by a microphone. This is only partly about audibility. It's about the entire lack of confidence and enthusiasm that your voice communicates.
  3. Papers that use twentieth-century writers or thinkers to illuminate those from much earlier eras. Again, a brief anecdote or quotation may be useful and illuminating. But I have NO INTEREST in how you think Norman Mailer will help me to read Thomas Wyatt.
  4. Speakers whose self-presentation suggests they consider themselves the reincarnation of Mark Van Doren. That vaguely British but clearly spurious accent? your ridiculously brilliantined hair? the Latin tags sprinkled in once per page? Make me want to kill you. (On the other hand: awesome suit and glasses, dude.)

Seriously. It is not my job to care about your paper. It is your job to make me care--or at least to feel that the 20 minutes I spent listening to the sound of your voice were not wholly unpleasant.

My next conference isn't for months. Commit the above lessons to memory, and you may just see me there.

Saturday, July 05, 2008


I'm off to the airport, in moments, for a conference in the Most Expensive City on Earth. (The Early Modernists can perhaps guess which conference, and perhaps some of them will even be there--if you are, feel free to say hi. I look exactly like my avatar: always in profile, wearing a feather.)

Blogging is unlikely to occur until I return. Be good, kids.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Playing the right script

When I excavated my mailbox the other day, I also found my evaluations from the spring semester. I don't usually blog about evaluations, in part because evaluations don't inspire that much anxiety in me (which may be because RU doesn't place the kind of weight on them that some institutions do). My scores are always pretty good, though with a predictable range: some students gush that I'm the best teacher EVER while others gripe that I'm way harsh and my courses are, like, graduate level.

But this semester I received insanely good scores in all three of my very different classes--upper and lower division, some required and some not, some with mostly traditional college students and some with a fair number of older/returning students.

Now, I try not to believe that this means very much; fall semester I received my weakest batch of scores and this semester my strongest, and I can tell you that my teaching wasn't a bit different; with 20 or 25 students in a class, evaluation scores often are about the luck of the draw.

But in addition to having strong numerical scores, this semester I also received much more in the way of narrative commentary from all three of my classes. RU's evaluations, you see, are Scantron forms with a couple dozen questions to which students bubble in scores--as well as the option to write something on the back, though there aren't actual prompts for such commentary. I always encourage my students to write something, but in the past maybe a third of them would, and often just a single line or two of praise or outrage. This semester, however, approximately 2/3 of my students provided narrative feedback, and they wrote a lot.

So, I've got some theories about this. I'm sure that part of what's happening is that I've developed a reputation for being tough, and that probably means I get fewer weak or lazy students. (One student in my Shakespeare class wrote on the back of her evaluation that she'd been dreading my class all winter break because she'd heard how hard I was--but mine had wound up being her favorite class even though it was also her most difficult.)

But even if that accounts for some of it, it isn't as if my classes are filled entirely with serious, diligent students--I give Ds and occasionally Fs, and there are always a number of recent transfer students who haven't yet gotten the scoop on their professors, as well as students whose schedules are limited by outside factors and who wind up in my class only because it's at a convenient time.

So the one thing I can point to that I did do differently this term is the way I presented the evaluations before administering them. Usually, I just do a brief spiel about how I appreciate my students' feedback, and how no, I won't see these until after I submit final grades. This time, however, I said something like this:
"Students sometimes want to know what these evaluations mean, or how they're used. So lemme me tell ya: nothing you can say on these forms will get me fired. On the other hand, nothing you can say will get me a raise.

"They are made available in my file for other people to look at if they want to, and they make up one part of the assessment of my job performance. But honestly, they're not a huge part, and they don't get read carefully by anyone else but me.

"I value them, though, and they're important to me as I think about how I've taught the course in the past and how I might want to teach it in the future. So think of this as your opportunity to give feedback to me. You can certainly write on them that I suck--but probably the only person who will actually read that comment is me. And yeah, reading that might make me feel bad for about sixty seconds. . . but it's not particularly constructive.

"So. Use your powers for good, not evil."

This was an entirely calculated strategy, inspired in part by one particularly vindictive student whom I was determined to strip of a feeling of power--but lots of otherwise thoughtful students fall into a consumerist mentality when faced with evaluations. I hoped that the above spiel would simultaneously make them feel valued, while also neutralizing their impression that they were grading me or reporting on me to whomever it was they perceived to be my boss.

And although I can't think that that tack was responsible for my numerical scores, I suspect that that it was responsible for the lengthy, reflective comments I received. No one made a criticism without also saying something generally good about the class, and there were detailed accounts of the different ways I mixed up class activities (or didn't), used my "body language to make students feel comfortable" (!), and maintained my level of enthusiasm and encouragement even when students were struggling. Some students went on and on about the works they liked best, and how certain themes carried over throughout the semester in helpful ways, and others positively burbled over about how great our discussions were. I also got admiring comments about my shoes and wardrobe.

In the end, though, who knows? I believe myself to be a good teacher, and I think I'm particularly good at teaching earlier literature to students who have little familiarity with that literature or its time period--and who in many cases come into my courses reluctantly. I also enjoy teaching the kinds of students I get at RU. But I'm no pedagogical trailblazer, and my teaching persona doesn't do it for everyone--some students think I'm charming and charismatic, while others consider me cold and arrogant (both assessments, of course, are correct).

I'm also cynical enough to know that students like to be able to construct a narrative in which they were intimidated by or uninterested in the material--and then were transformed! by a great teacher! who made them do better work than they'd ever done before!

Yes, I want to believe that I'm that teacher, and I'm more than a little thrilled when my students believe that that's what happened. But there's something in that story that serves their own interests, too: if they left my class either doing better or having more fun than they expected, well then, it must be because I was a great teacher who inspired them to work extra hard.

Maybe the best interpretation of these evals is this: I happened to fit, this semester, into a script that the majority of my students bought into.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Breaking in the teaching text

I'm back home for less than a week before heading off for a conference abroad, so today I made a fly-by trip to the department to excavate my mailbox. Crammed up to the top of the cubbyhole were packages and packages of books. Some of them made me squeal with delight, while others (duplicate copies, style manuals) got promptly tossed on a lower shelf. And then there was the edition of Donne's poems I'd ordered for my new fall class.

Shit, I thought when I unpacked it. What the hell was I thinking?

Actually, I know what I was thinking: I was thinking that we'd be doing enough Donne to need a complete edition, but not enough that it was worth ordering the best possible text, or one with scholarly essays, or anything like that. The best possible texts, of course, tend to be more expensive, and in the interests of student budgets--and making the least amount of money purchase the greatest number of books--I chose a $10 edition with decent footnotes from a reliable publisher.

It's a perfectly good edition. The problem is that it's not an edition I've ever taught from before, and it's definitely not the ($15) edition I ordered for my upper-division class this past spring and conscientiously read through and marked up for pedagogical purposes.

Because here's the thing: like most people, I have certain texts that I teach regularly, and parts of my classroom shtick are pretty consistent from semester to semester. Sure, I may spend more or less time on a particular scene or issue, depending on the course, but some passages I talk about or have my class work through nine times out of ten--and it's useful to have my underlinings, bracketings, and brief marginal notes from all those previous classes to guide me or give me additional inspiration. (Why are those six words underlined? Oh! there's an interesting pattern of imagery there. Maybe I'll bring that up if discussion goes in the right direction. What are these little arrows for? Right! they indicate mood shifts. Etc.)

I'll also admit that I don't re-read every text every time I teach it; there's just not enough time, especially those weeks when I have two sets of essays to grade or an article deadline. I don't feel bad about this, but I don't feel bad, in part, because I'm able to rely on teaching texts that serve as their own lesson plans, mapping out my various interests and obsessions and my prior pedagogical strategies.

But even when I don't just forget the importance of sticking with the same edition, as I did in ordering the Donne volume, I seem unable to teach from the same text as reliably as I'd like: sometimes I get dissatisfied with a particular edition; sometimes it's that a revised edition is put out and I'm forced to upgrade; but just as often it's that different classes demand different editions.

For instance: I teach Paradise Lost all the damn time--I've taught the poem, either in its entirety or its majority, for the past six consecutive semesters in a total of nine different classes. And how many different texts have I taught the poem from, in those six semesters? Five. In Brit Lit I, I teach from the Norton Anthology of English Literature--first in its seventh and now its eighth edition. In my Milton seminar at Big Urban, I used the Hughes Complete Poems and Major Prose. Not totally satisfied with that, for my Milton seminar at RU I switched to the Riverside Milton. And then for my upper-division class this past spring, I needed, for the first time ever, a single-volume edition of Paradise Lost, so I ordered the Norton.

It was a busy spring. And I'd just re-read PL the previous semester (and taught it in considerably greater detail). So more days than not, I found myself at my desk, in the 30 minutes before class, just copying my markings--squiggly line for squiggly line, boxed bit for boxed bit, marginal comment for marginal comment--from one of the various other editions spread out before me.

I ain't proud. But I sure wish I had a scriptorium to do it for me.