Tuesday, September 29, 2009


I'm tired of talking about rape. I'm tired of thinking about rape. I'm tired of thinking about rape even when I'm not thinking about rape--as women always are, on some level, when deciding which street to take when they walk home alone after dark.

We talk about rape in my classes; it comes up when you teach early literature. Usually it's just in passing, when discussing, say, the prehistory of Theseus and Hippolyta when we're reading A Midsummer Night's Dream and someone vaguely remembers something about the war with the Amazons. I put the word raptus on the board and explain that this is where rape comes from: taken, plundered, stolen, a spoil of war. What happens in warfare in the ancient world? The conquered people are taken, enslaved. But it means something different for women.

I also talk about rape when I teach composition, which I design largely around contemporary issues. I run hard at those issues, trying to give serious airing to different positions--even positions with which I violently disagree--on topics such as abortion and gay marriage. Officially, we talk about our readings in terms of their rhetorical effectiveness; my students are not allowed to discuss their "feelings," although they can talk about what kinds of readers would and would not be persuaded by a particular argument, and why. But of course, the personal beliefs of some of my students inevitably become clear.

Today was the day that my comp class read a couple of essays on rape and sexual assault. They're a brilliant pair to teach together, as they're rhetorically strong and rhetorically flawed in entirely different ways. But it's exhausting to teach them to eighteen-year-olds. It's exhausting to have to keep one's cool when someone suggests that "girls just need to be more careful" or "one claim of rape, and a guy's life is ruined forever."

"Okay," I say, over and over, "that's a fair point. . . but what's a counterargument?"

I make them do the work, and push them to find the flaws in their assumptions, and sometimes surprising things happen. I had a student come into my office once with a topic proposal for a paper along the lines suggested above: that it wasn't fair that a girl could just call anything rape, when there was no proof, and guys had no defense.

I didn't really know the kid, who'd been a silent and seemingly sullen presence in the classroom. I knew that he was an athlete, and not unhandsome, and I wanted to punch him in the face. But I gathered all my energy together to work with him: what he was really saying was that rape is a terrible thing, right? And it's such a terrible thing that we have to be careful to use the term precisely, because otherwise it could lead to our taking rape less seriously. Right?

He didn't say much of anything, and after struggling for several more minutes I finally said, in my brightest tone, "You see? The problem is that if you're not careful, you're going to sound like an asshole."

I spent the next couple of weeks hating him. He turned in a first draft that infuriated me, although it wasn't as egregiously awful as I'd expected. I put him in a workshop group with three smart, outspoken women, and I gave him a lot of patient but pointed feedback about the things he was overlooking. And to my astonishment, his final draft was quite good. It still wasn't making an argument that I wholly accepted, but he'd clearly done his own thinking about the issues and arrived at a compromise position that showed imaginative empathy for women.

So it's worth it, I guess, but it's still exhausting--and it felt even more exhausting today, the day after I learned of Roman Polanski's arrest and the day after I received an email from campus police reporting the sexual assault of a student, just a block from my office, by three 18-22 year-old men; presumably fellow students.

Even when it's not dark alleys or famous film directors, shit happens to women. My friend Evey and I once came up with the term "ambiguously non-consensual" to describe the kinds of experiences that lots of us have had that don't count as rape (whether clinically or in our own heads), but that are somewhere on the spectrum. The proper term is probably "sexual assault," but that can feel wrong, too. What counts as ambiguously non-consensual? Lots of things. Let's say the man is someone you're dating, or want to date, or have a crush on; let's say it's someone you were prepared to sleep with (or maybe already had), but not that night. Let's say you were asleep at the time, or drunk. Let's say you said no, but didn't physically resist because you were so surprised or confused. Let's say he asked you out subsequently, and acted like nothing had happened, and you tried to make a relationship out of it.

Stuff like that. And when we don't call it sexual assault, it's not just because it's more comforting to believe that we have some control--maybe we messed up, but we can prevent it from happening in the future--but because we forget, often, that in scenarios like these the man actually did do something wrong.

Does he know that he did something wrong? That I'm not so sure about. I'd bet that most assailants of the type I've described above go on to become basically loving husbands and even concerned fathers of daughters. I'd bet they remember the act as mutually enjoyable. They may talk ruefully about their horndog youth, but not with any sense that they mistreated anyone. They wanted sex, and it seemed available. Active consent wasn't something they thought to look for.

Indeed, if there's one thing that the Polanski arrest proves, it's that society doesn't take a woman's consent especially seriously; as Kate Harding notes, the Polanski case is being treated as "merely" statutory, "merely" a matter of the girl being 13 (though she looked 18!). Forget about the fact that he drugged her, and that she still said no, repeatedly, while she was repeated raped and sodomized.

This week I'm reminded--though I never really forget--that we see women and especially young women as things for taking, rapere. And though I'm tired of talking about rape and I'm tired of thinking about rape, I'm even more tired of that.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Journal of the plague year

Is mine the only campus plastered with flyers--rephotocopied so many times that their graphics have disappeared and their smaller-font text is unreadable--urging us to COVER YOUR COUGH, WASH YOUR HANDS, and STAY HOME if we feel sick?

There are four different ones in the ladies' room nearest my classroom.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Advisors are people too

Over the weekend I sent my dissertation director what I think of as my semi-annual email message; since getting a tenure-track job, I've rarely gone more than nine months without dropping her a note. Sometimes it's because I need something; sometimes I want to thank her for something; sometimes I'm giving her a heads-up that I'll be coming through town. And when none of those conditions has applied, it's simply seemed politic to stay in touch: sooner or later I would need something from her.

The subtext of these messages used to be, "look how well I'm doing! how on the ball I am! please be proud of me, or at least remember I exist." It's not that I didn't think she cared about how I was doing, and it's not that I didn't wish to have a genuine relationship with her; the desire for such a relationship may in fact be the primary reason I kept writing. But telling myself that it was strategic to keep in touch made it easier to contact this woman I'd never had a personal relationship with, and who was bound up in so many ways with my generally brutalizing experience of graduate school.

Seeing her one-on-one this past winter and even two summers ago, however, made me feel that we were getting closer to an adult relationship. It's not that I got to know more about her, really, for if there's one thing graduate students make it their business to know, it's every last scrap of gossip about their professors' lives; I've been thinking about my advisor as a person and a personality for a very long time. But that day in January I felt a sudden, intense emotion for her--something more than just admiration and the desperate need for her approval. It's the difference, I guess, between knowing that someone is a complicated person and not caring that they're complicated; at a certain point you realize or decide that someone is in your life, and matters to you in ways that aren't just about you.

So the message I sent was a strange hybrid. The bulk of it still foregrounded the important things that have happened in my professional life (i.e., how amazingly I'm doing, and how deserving of head-patting), but I added a few lines about my personal life and people we know in common before concluding by asking after several specific matters in her life. The combination felt awkward. I'm not sure it's a message I'd want to receive, or would know quite what to do with if I did. But it seemed like a good start.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Speaking of the MLA

Am I a loooser for actually mailing them offprints of the two (two!) articles of mine that have yet to be indexed in the MLA Bibliography?

One of them is more than two years old. And if they ain't indexed in the database, ain't no one going to be able to find them.

Still. I can't help but feel that sending in one's own offprints is Not Quite On.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Textual intimacy

As my end-of-summer post suggested, I've been exchanging work in at least a limited way with a surprising number of friends. It's been pleasurable, but a little weird.

No matter how well you think you know a person--you may have gone to their parties or slept on their couch; gotten drunk or gone shopping together; attended their conference panels or read their published work--there's something different about reading their work-in-progress and having them read yours. It's like having sex with a long-time friend: you thought you couldn't know this person any better, and yet suddenly you have an entirely new kind of relationship, one that's only partly contiguous with your old one.

There's stuff, it turns out, that you didn't know about the other person, and you have to relearn how to interact: where the vulnerabilities are, and what you can say and how you can say it. If I tell a colleague that her chapter is great, but needs A, B, C, and D, will she understand that I actually do think it's great. . . or will she hear only the critique?

The process of getting to know our friends more intimately is richly rewarding, but like all processes it involves the passage of time--some of which time is spent feeling awkward or uncertain or unable to judge how things are going. (And patience, especially during periods of uncertainty, has never been Flavia's strong suit.)

I'm not sure whether it's easier or harder when the person one is getting to know textually/intellectually is the person one is dating. In either case, part of what I find discomfiting is having to acknowledge that I don't know this person fully, as he or she does not fully know me. When Cosimo and I started dating, his book was already under contract and he was making his final revisions; mine wasn't (and isn't) as far along, but at more than 200 pages and representing seven or eight years of my life, it's not a project with an easy point of access. Sure, it can be read. But everything bound up in it and everything behind it--the lived experience--isn't as readily assimilated.

Maybe it's just another version of the problem of aging: when you're 30 or 35 or 40, you've done a lot of things and you have a lot of past. It takes more in order to feel known. That doesn't mean it's not worth it, of course--knowing other people may be the only thing that is worth doing--but it takes a lot of talking and it takes a lot of reading and it takes a lot of time.

Sunday, September 06, 2009


I have a question that is probably unanswerable in its general form, but I'm going to ask it anyway: how do you decide how much background--historical, biographical, scholarly--is necessary or useful in contextualizing your own work?

Each chapter of my manuscript deals with a single author, and as much as I'd like to believe that all my future readers will pore over the eventual book from cover to well-worn cover, lingering over even its index in delight and edification, I'm assuming that most will actually come to it for just the one or two chapters most relevant to their own work.

That being the case, should I be writing for experts on each author, who don't need a lot of rehash? That has mostly been my strategy so far: I sketch out the bare outlines of the background issue in the text, footnote the shit out of it, and move along to apply or reinterpret the few bits that are important to the work I'm doing myself.

For instance,
"Lord Whasisface's two years away from London remain the greatest mystery of his biography. We know X and Y, but there has been disagreement about Z [insert huge footnote]. However, it seems safe to assume that some part of Z occurred, for its imprints are all over his subsequent work."
"Scholars have traditionally read this work as either A or B [insert huge footnote]. A more complicated picture emerges if we look at [whatever the fuck brilliant thing Flavia has discovered]."

Again, I know there's no hard and fast rule for this, but I'm curious as to how the rest of y'all weigh the pros and cons of lingering over background context that, while perhaps interesting in its own right, is widely and even tediously familiar to a portion of your audience--but only skechily known to another, probably smaller portion.