Thursday, December 31, 2009

MLA: Day Three

My last day at MLA was its usual frantic semi-disaster: a sleep-deprived attempt to pack and check out and grab coffee and hit the book exhibit all before my first panel. And so I found myself running up and down escalators in heels, hauling my heavy, post-14-day-vacation luggage after me; going to the usurious hotel ATM to get money for the maid and then leaving her an entire $20 when I couldn't find somewhere to get change; yelling at the book reps who had gone and sold the copy of the display book I'd already put my name in (and paid CASH MONEY for) the previous day--and then, out of time, still not having gotten food or coffee, spending 75 in-panel minutes starving and yawning voluminously.

But! The panels I attended were good, and my own was very good (no credit to me, except insofar as I'm pleased to take credit for knowing smart people who give great paper), and I wrapped it all up with a nice lunch before resubjecting myself to the horrors of SEPTA, NJ Transit, et al.

It was a good MLA, though I confess that I've rarely had a bad one; I'm one of those people who likes the energy and the whole freaky show. It probably also helps that, as dire as the market is this year, I know only a very small number of people who are on it--and they've mostly had promising preliminary news. Fingers crossed for them, and for the rest of you.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

MLA: Day Two

So I finally got my ass to some panels today--one quite good and one less so--and met with my editor. And continued to spend a significant amount of time at the Marriott bar, god bless it and its beautiful, raised-level centrality: perfect for seeing and being seen and catching everyone I wanted to catch.

I also noticed, for the first time, the numerous Purell and hand-wipe dispensers ranged around the conference site. I suppose I'm as germ-phobic as the next person--but these, combined with the generally dire mood of the conference (fewer publishers hawking their wares and desperately fewer jobs on offer), contributed to the feeling of impending apocalypse.

My meeting with my editor was fine; I wasn't prepared to pitch the monograph in any serious way, but since I was meeting with her about my edition anyway, and since she represents a publisher I'd be delighted to have publish my monograph, it seemed to make sense to mock up a few documents and run the project by her. She took my materials and asked smart questions, but said, more or less, what I'd have expected: sounds great, but we'd like to see the full manuscript. Still, it was a pleasurable interview and moved me that much closer to thinking of the book as done.

I also had dinner with close friends from grad school, caught up with colleagues and former colleagues, and spent quality time with my two best conference buddies, one of whom was immediately identified by a third party as my "conference husband." And it's true: Fritz and I aren't in touch much between conferences, but we work on similar stuff and we're on completely the same wavelength when it comes to matters academic and para-academic and academically-social.

And really: as hard as it is that academia tears us apart from our nearest friends and most simpatico colleagues, there's something fantastic about the friendships and collegial relationships that it does foster. There are plenty of professional friends whom I adore, but whom I'm not sure I'd love quite as devotedly if they were in my department, or city, or regular life; the occasionality of our meetings means such friendships are both intense. . . and not called upon to be something they're not.

MLA: Day One

I eased slowly into the MLA experience yesterday. I got up at 11, after 9 hours of sleep (in my defense, I was still on west coast time, and had gotten up hideously early the previous day). Then I went to the hotel gym. Then I took a long shower and went to the book exhibits. There were no panels that I needed to attend, although some friends in different subfields were giving papers that I'd have liked to have attended, if only as a gesture of vague, intellectual support. . . but I didn't. I went back to my hotel room and tried to mock up a short book proposal, of my monograph, to give to the editor of my edition, when I meet with her today.

So apart from the hour that I spent at the book exhibit, I didn't go out in public until 5 p.m., to attend the reception hosted by my graduate department and then the reception and dinner hosted by the Milton Society. And then I repaired back to the new Marriott bar (again: good job on the bar, guys!) to meet up with friends.

The INRU reception was a depressing affair. Some years it gets housed in vaster and more poorly-lit spaces than others, but at least one can count on a full, open bar and an enormous spread of food. Not this year! We got tickets for just one free drink, and there were plates of nice-ish bread, three or four cheeses and a few vegetables. What good is my INRU Ph.D., if not to guarantee me a lavish almost-meal and free booze once a year? I guess this recession thing is for real! Not as many of my friends or cohort-mates attended as in years past, either, though I did get to see one good friend and some faculty I like, and found a nice colleague to hitch a ride over to the Milton dinner with.

Milton dinner highlight: meeting a young post-doc who, after five minutes of chit-chat, said, "So I'm familiar with your work on X, Flavia . . . but what are you working on these days?" (I replied with an only slightly more suave version of, "Hey! Someone I don't know reads what I write? Dude, I love you!") Lowlight: falling asleep continually during the 30-minute keynote address. No, wait: the real lowlight was when my cell phone rang between the keynote and the response, waking me up, and causing me to fumble moronically for the off switch. What idiot MLA buddy calls rather than texts? My idiot MLA buddy, apparently--but one with the good sense to skip that particular dinner. I'll take a page from his book next year.

And so to the bar, and so to bed.

Monday, December 28, 2009

MLA: arrival

Yesterday was a travel day, in which we journeyed across the entire U. S. of A. with frightening amounts of luggage and Christmas gifts--as if, like latter-day magi to lay them at the feet of our academic savior (whomever he or she might be). At the time that I made airline reservations it seemed to make sense to book a nonstop flight into Newark, and then train down to Philly. . . but actually? It totally didn't make sense, and riding Jersey Transit and SEPTA gave me gruesome flashbacks of the year I spent commuting between NYC and Philly. (But on a brighter note: the Trenton station isn't quite as horrible as it used to be. There's a Dunkin' Donuts! And brushed chrome fixtures! It now induces only half as much despair as before.)

And then we got to the hotel and conference center complex itself, which ought to be more familiar and more easily-navigated than it is, given that this is the third MLA Philly has hosted and I've attended in six years. I kept getting lost and going to the former locations of things that have now moved--most crucially, the bar and the book exhibit (which are, naturally, the two most central parts of Flavia's MLA experience). Props on the new bar, Marriott-folk, but no love for making me walk down the long, hushed, Last Year at Marienbad-ish hallway to the conference center . . . and then back, after discovering a cavernous, empty shell where the exhibits were formerly housed.

But I got my drink on, and to bed at a decent hour, so we'll see what today holds.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Merry merry, y'all

Here's the deal: I'm out west at the family homestead. I've submitted all my grades. My brother arrived today and in a few days Cosimo arrives--and I'm ostensibly working on my manuscript whilst shopping and eating and engaging in family togetherness.

So no blogging until MLA. In the meanwhile, take a lesson from young Flavia and don't trust that "Santa" guy for a second.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Academic freedom: Finkin and Post's For the Common Good

I recently read Matthew W. Finkin and Robert C. Post's For the Common Good: Principles of American Academic Freedom for a discussion sponsored by RU's Center for Teaching Awesomeness (h/t Lucky Jane). It was a great read, and one I recommend to anyone interested in the subject; it was a particularly nice counterpoint to Stanley Fish's Save the World on Your Own Time, which we read last winter.

At least for this non-specialist, Finkin and Post's book is a lucid and straightforward approach to the issues surrounding academic freedom. Chapters one and two provide historical background, with the first chapter describing how the concept of academic freedom emerged from conditions in first the medieval European university and then the nineteenth-century German research university. The second chapter details how those ideas got translated into the (significantly different) American context shortly after the turn of the twentieth-century, with the AAUP's 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure.

The remaining chapters outline the four different areas of academic freedom, as they've been codified over the years by the cases brought before the AAUP: freedom of research, freedom in the classroom, freedom of intramural speech and freedom of extramural speech.

Some of my co-discussants found the book anxiety-producing, I think because of its accounts of faculty members who were fired for shockingly minimal cause--and it's true that, even if the AAUP decided in those professors' favor and censured their universities, they were still out of a job, and it's beyond the scope of the book to investigate what happened to them. For me, though, the book felt liberating for the clarity it shed on a subject about which I realized I was tremendously ill-informed; public discussions about academic freedom (and indeed even debates within the professoriate) tend to throw the term around without much precision and without reference to case law; Finkin and Post, who are both legal scholars, attempt to rectify this.

Their central argument is suggested by their book's title: academic freedom is not the personal or individual right of faculty members to research (or teach or speak) as they see fit, but rather the collective right of the professoriate to self-governance: to produce knowledge and to regulate the production of that knowledge in a way that serves the public (42). Academic freedom is thus not the same as the First Amendment right to freedom of expression; it is both more restrictive and (in some ways) more extensive. As they write,

[E]xplicit within First Amendment doctrine [is the idea] that there is an 'equality of status in the field of ideas.' It is clear that this premise is inconsistent with the advancement of knowledge, which requires precisely that ideas be treated unequally, that they be assessed and weighed, accepted and rejected. The kind of individual freedom that underlies the structure of First Amendment rights is for this reason ill-suited to the production of knowledge. (43)

But if academic freedom is thus more limited than simple freedom of expression, at the same time it's an astonishing privilege: most people are not permitted the workplace rights that professors are--to pursue the projects they wish to pursue; to criticize the institutions that employ them; to express political or other sentiments that make those they work with uncomfortable.

Academic freedom, if it is to do the hard work of protecting faculty from the waves of repression that periodically sweep through the American polity, must explain why scholars ought to enjoy freedoms that other members of the public do not possess. . . . Academic freedom [as formulated by the AAUP] is the price the public must pay in return for the social good of advancing knowledge. (44)

But the only way that academics can make the case that this is what they're doing--providing a social good--is if they are indeed governing themselves, and following the norms and conventions of their discipline. In other words, scholars do not have to explain or justify the merits of their work in the terms set by elected officials or boards of governors or taxpayers or parents footing tuition bills (all of whom might be outraged by perceived challenges to their private morality or their personal political views, and who are not, after all, experts in the subject they propose to censure), but they do have to abide by the standards of their own discipline.

There's more, much more, and the restrictions on academic freedom when it comes to behavior in the classroom or when speaking out on institutional or political issues that don't bear immediately on the subject of a professor's research are rather tighter than those surrounding research. But you should read the book for yourselves.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Unacknowledged influences

Most of the influences on our scholarship, teaching, or even departmental citizen-hood are obvious and spring readily to mind: we all have crucial professors from college or grad school, seminal books in our field, and sometimes coaches or bosses or mothers whom we credit, effusively, with shaping aspects of our work ethic or our teaching persona.

But I suspect most of us also have unacknowledged influences: people and works and ideas that spoke to us at one point in time or during one stage of our lives, but that seem crazily or only counterintuitively related to who we are and what we do now.

For me, the most important of those mostly-forgotten influences is Camille Paglia.

I hadn't realized this myself until SEK's posts on Paglia several weeks ago, which made me think, for the first time in any real depth, about the effect she had on me when I was in high school and college.

I was 16 when "Rape and Modern Sex War" was published in the Sunday opinion section of my hometown newspaper, which must have been within weeks of its first publication in New York Newsday in early 1991. I found it electrifying. I loved the way she wrote, and the personality that I perceived to be behind it: smart, aggressive, take-no-prisoners. I couldn't remember ever reading a woman who wrote like that.

When Sex, Art, and American Culture was published the next year, I bought it and read it straight through--even though I didn't understand a great deal of what she was writing about (I had no idea what the culture wars were, or most of what was at stake in them). I went to see her when she came to speak on my college campus in 1994 or 1995, and then bought her second collection of essays, Vamps and Tramps, when it came out around the same time. Somewhere I picked up a cheap hardback of Sexual Personae, and looked forward to the day when I felt I'd be able to understand it (I did finally read it over winter break of my junior year).

But then, around age 22, I stopped reading her. Partly it was that Paglia's moment had passed and partly it was that her writing, as SEK notes, became lazy to the point of embarrassment and self-parody. But mostly I stopped reading or paying attention to her because I had other and more relevant sources for whatever she'd once given me--and since I wasn't reading or rereading her as an adult, it took me a long time to realize that we were largely not on the same side when it came to the culture wars, or feminism, or very much, really.

Still, from ages 16 to 22, I loved her. Partly it was the intoxication of her prose style (and dudes, think about it: I now work on Milton's polemical prose), but it was also that I had never encountered anyone like her: a female public intellectual who wrote and spoke as freely about pop culture as about high culture. I had had smart female teachers, and I must have seen female experts or academics on television, but I'd never seen a woman whom I perceived to be intellectually serious who was also fierce and mouthy and colloquial, or who came from a family background that was outside the usual centers of intellectual power.

I don't know that I needed Camille Paglia to become the academic and the woman and the writer that I am today; other models would have come along, and they did. But I'm grateful to her all the same.


What are your unacknowledged influences?

Friday, December 04, 2009

Curtain up

My least favorite part of every class is the several minutes before it actually begins.

I tend to show up a bit early, to ensure that the room is in order--the chalkboard erased, the portable podium removed, the desks arranged into a semi-circle--and to facilitate the returning of response papers or to get my own materials ready to go. The problem is, one either leaves not enough time or too much time, and when it's the latter I never have any idea what to do with myself.

My students are usually chattering among themselves, or at least clutches of them are, and since my classes are not seminar-style even when they're seminar-size, the room set-up isn't conducive to my making jokes or chit-chat with them even if I were inclined to do so. Instead, I busy myself with my materials, dog-earing pages of my text and writing unnecessary notes on my lesson plan. If I have quite a lot of time to kill, as I sometimes do when I teach back-to-back classes in the same room, with a 15-minute passing period between them, I sit behind my desk, quietly reading. Eventually I plunk myself atop the instructor desk, waiting for the last 30 or 60 seconds to pass, swinging my legs and smiling in what I hope is a genial rather than striken or maniacal way.

I always feel terribly unnatural and terribly self-conscious in those minutes, as if someone had raised the curtain before showtime and caught me out of character, lolling around or doing breathing exercises or reviewing my cues. Because that's the thing: as soon as class begins--as soon as the second hand hits 12--I'm all energy and good humor and animated intensity. I hate revealing that my teaching persona has an on/off switch; ideally, I'd like to stride into the room already in character and launching immediately into action.

But who knows? Maybe there's something useful about breaking that fiction and letting my students see me when I'm just on standby: in costume and stage makeup, but still waiting in the wings and fidgeting with my props.