Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Bad news/good news: semester half gone edition

I spent my entire spring break grading. I did not write. I did not read the books I'm reviewing. I did not jet off to a tropical location or even see a bunch of movies or curl up with a good novel. I hung out with my gentleman friend and I graded midterms and essays and more midterms--and 11 days were over like that.

Today I returned to campus, feeling grumbly but more or less prepared. I walked into my Renaissance drama class, Revenger's Tragedy under my arm and skull in my hand--only to discover that a) I'd actually assigned The Roaring Girl, and b) my students are better at reading my syllabus than my mind.

We got through 90 minutes (during which the skull was not particularly useful), and I returned to my office to find a package from the U.K. containing a CD with digital images of this manuscript, which I've been trying to get first photographed and then sent to me for almost two years. I gasped when I put the disk in my computer: I've never worked with digital images of early texts, and these are gorgeous. I'm not sure they'll make checking my transcription any more fun, but seeing them made me excited all over again about that particular project (which has suddenly started moving forward and I hope hope hope will be under contract soon).

In sum: there are still seven goddamn weeks in the semester. But if I learn how to read a syllabus, I might just make it.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Dead metaphors

I often find myself explaining metaphors to my students that I don't even consciously recognize as metaphors until there's a failure of understanding. When I teach Brit Lit I, for example, I typically have one or two students for whom "lord" always and everywhere means "God"; they'll raise their hands and start talking earnestly about what a religious man a given servant or flunkey or knight must be--because the author keeps talking about his relationship with his lord. A related problem is "mistress," which not every student recognizes as the female equivalent of "master." In both cases, I have to explain that our usage of Lord to mean God or mistress to mean "extra-curricular lover" are actually metaphors derived from courtly culture.

Those particular misunderstandings don't surprise me any more, but there are always new ones. When I taught my Milton seminar a couple of semesters ago, I had a student ask me what I meant when I referred to the rabbinic tradition that the captive Samson was put out to stud.
"Oh!" I said. "You know: like a racehorse. There's a tradition that he was used to impregnate the Philistine women, so they'd produce warlike sons."

"Okay," she said. "But put out to stud. . .?"

"When we call a guy a stud, today, we mean he's sexually virile, right?"

My class nodded, uncertainly.

"Well," I said. "When we say that, we're comparing him to a stallion, or uncastrated horse--there's usually only one on a farm, right? The others are mares or geldings."

I paused. No one seemed to have any idea what I was talking about. "I mean, didn't any of you grow up in the country? Okay. Well. Take my word for it. Lesson over!"
The discourses of sex and romance probably do produce metaphors (and euphemisms and ultimately clichés) at a greater rate than others. Lately, the dead or nearly dead metaphors that I've been noticing are endearments. I've taught a couple of pre- or early modern texts this semester that have succeeded in reinvigorating "honey" for me--an endearment that I not only have never used, but have always regarded as particularly cheap and inane. But coming across endearments like "sweet honey-comb" and "sweet honey dear," I realized that, hey! honey is sweet! and good! And that's really a nice thing to call someone!

Such reinvigorations are pleasurable, but it may be just as well that most endearments are now largely divorced from their metaphorical significance. If you think about them too hard, many aren't just cutesy or tired, but actively icky. I'm profoundly glad that "mommy" and "daddy" are no longer common romantic endearments--though of course we still refer to sugar daddies and mommies in circumstances where we intend to foreground the relational inequity. Even the ubiquitous "baby," though, carries some of the same baggage.

This may be why endearments that are dated enough to seem strange have always been the most appealing to me: various of my female friends and I have gone through periods of addressing each other as "darling," "sweetheart," and "dearest one," and I briefly dated (and was completely charmed by) someone who had an easy, arch way with "buttercup," "honey lamb," and the like. Such usages are always semi-ironic, or at least conscious of their own absurdity--and that's probably what makes them appealing.

So in the absence of evocative metaphors, I suppose there are worse things than dead ones.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Yo, I know people

Some while ago, I agreed to chair a panel sponsored by one of my professional societies at a big annual conference. I didn't pick the panel's topic and had no real investment in it--but since I knew I'd be attending the conference anyway, I was happy to volunteer.

I wasn't expecting to need to do very much. Since the society sponsors multiple panels, someone else wrote the general CFP; someone else collected and sorted through all the abstracts; and it was the chairs' job, basically, just to approve or veto those that seemed suited for their particular panels.

In the event, however, we were short on viable abstracts--especially for my panel.

After 24 hours of trading emails with other people in the organization, sighing loudly, and feeling vaguely put-upon--it wasn't my panel!--it occurred to me that I knew some really smart people working in more or less relevant areas who might have something suitable. So I wrote a handful of emails, and in less than a week I'd assembled an awesome panel populated with smart, lively people, almost all of them personal and professional friends I've met in the three years since getting my degree.

I'm now genuinely excited about this panel, but I'm even more excited by the sense that, hey! I know people.

How'd that happen?

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Embracing the inevitable

I have now become That Academic Lady--the one with a framed picture of her cat on her desk.