Sunday, January 31, 2010

Academic ambitions

Last week was my first of the new semester. We did the usual getting-to-know-each-other exercises, which in my undergraduate classes involves having my students get into pairs, "interview" each other according to a few questions I've typed up, and then introduce their partner to the rest of the class.

One of the questions asks what the interviewee would like to be doing ten years from now. There are always a range of answers, including the jokey, the fanciful, and the bizarrely self-effacing, but I was struck, as I so often am, by the number of students who identify "college professor" or "teaching college" as their goal.

I wonder what to ascribe this ambition to. It's almost never a realistic one: the people in question are often among my more participatory and cheerful students, but they're rarely my smartest or even my most diligent. Much of it, I'm sure, is that my students simply don't have any idea what college professors do outside of the classroom, or what the training for such a career involves; they probably realize that it takes a lot of time and schooling to get a Ph.D., but without any sense that the work is meaningfully different in kind from the work they're doing now.

And I wonder, too, whether this is a function of (lack of) cultural capital. At the big urban institution at which I was a lecturer, I also had quite a lot of students expressing a desire to teach college. I didn't teach enough students at Instant Name Recognition U to notice or remember whether the same was true there--but my hunch is that it would not be.

Partly, I think students at INRU imagine a wider number of possible careers than my students here do. They may not be any more realistic about their abilities, but they're probably less likely to see "teacher" (of any description) as the default path for an English major. I also suspect that more students at a school like INRU have some sense of what academia involves, and that might make them less likely to blithely announce it as a career path. And even those who don't have a clue about academia--well, I was one of those students, but I was so awed by so much of my college experience that being a professor seemed like an entirely different order of existence.

It isn't, of course, and academia would be the better if more talented graduates from schools like RU were in it. But sometimes the disjunction between my students' apparent conception of my job, and the reality, is startling.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

We're all public intellectuals

Horace has a great post taking issue with Louis Menand (et al.)'s call for academia to produce more "public intellectuals" rather than narrow, navel-gazing specialists--and especially with the notion that "public intellectual" is a job that more Ph.D.s could and should aspire to.

It's a long, thoughtful post, and you should read the whole thing, but the argument I find most compelling is the case Horace makes that as teachers we are public intellectuals, and ones serving a more important and diverse audience than those rare people who get published in The New Yorker.

As Horace notes, part of the problem with the argument that academics are overspecialized is that in our daily work lives, we rarely are: we teach survey classes, we teach texts outside our field, and we do, in fact, make big connections and address the concerns and interests of nonspecialists--our students--all the time. And most of us, Horace and myself included, aren't teaching the elites that Menand both teaches and writes for: we're teaching at state institutions, to first-generation college students or adults holding down full-time jobs and raising a family at the same time. Sure, we write on esoteric topics, but having an active research life means we're on top of the developments in our fields and can translate some of the most important ones for a lay audience (again: our students).

I agree with Horace that being a public intellectual in the classroom has political implications, the most important being helping to mold smart, thoughtful citizens. Horace writes,
While Menand wants a public intellectual who functions in the public marketplace, I want (and want to become) a different kind of public intellectual: the sort who engages the public sphere of our commonly owned government and governance. And for me that starts in the classroom, and in fact demands that I be the political provocateur that I sometimes become. I will tie Wordsworth's laments in "Tintern Abbey" to arguments over mountaintop removal. I will make clear that the imperial tactics in Heart of Darkness are primarily economic, and therefore still entirely in operation today in the under-developed world. I will note the particular nature of the construction of masculinity in Tennyson, and the ways that those constructions are still rooted to our sense of nation and empire as well as leadership and achievement. These are reading tactics that help my students translate the ideas of literature into the very practical world of their own.

Now, this is something that I do not do--make explicit political connections in the classroom, for reasons that I discussed in this post and its comments--but in a more general way I think that what goes on in my classroom can have both personal and political effects (though they need to happen in my students' own heads and lives, and on their own time): I hope that taking my class on sex and gender in the Renaissance enriches the ways my students think about those topics in the present day, simply by giving them a different cultural context and allowing them to think outside the terms and ideas that we take for granted.

But more generally, and maybe more importantly, by being public intellectuals in the classroom, we're modeling for our students what it means to be engaged by literature or history or art, and why those subjects might continue to matter and have relevance for them even once they're out of school. I think often about a comment a reader left on my blog, a couple of years ago, after I'd written about three former students who had collectively asked me out to lunch. I was trying to figure out whether they were looking for me to be a friend, or were thinking about grad school, or what--and my reader remarked that many smart young people are just looking for ways to be in the world, and that we often model that for them in ways we're not aware of.

That's not the job I'm paid to do, but it's one I'm pleased to perform, at least occasionally, whether I know it or not.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Freaky academic book covers

Those of us who have written books, have thought of writing books, or even just know people who have written books think with some regularity about book covers: the ones we admire, the ones we imagine someday having, and the ones that do no one no favors.

There's not a lot of money for cover art in academic book publishing--you're a total rockstar if your cover gets a four- rather than two-color palette--and the designs tend to range from the uninspired to the reasonably attractive. Still, if there's money for a cover image at all, it usually bears some relationship to the work between the boards.

But not always. My copy of Leviathan, for example, has a close-up of the prow of a massive, early 20th-century ocean liner. (Um, I get what you were going for, Mr. Design Dude? But I don't know why you were going for it.)

However, nothing--nothing!--holds a candle to the original cover art for Stanley Fish's Self-Consuming Artifacts: The Experience of Seventeenth-Century Literature (1972):

Just to be clear: this is a book with chapters on the works of Francis Bacon, John Milton, George Herbert, John Bunyan, Thomas Browne, and Robert Burton. It is not a book about. . . well, about whatever's going on in that cover image.

(Click on the image. You have to see it in its full, terrifying glory.)

Seriously, I don't even know what to do with that cover. It's hideous and compelling at the same time, and I'm sure the Fishman loved it. I bet he chose the image himself.*

Can anyone beat that cover for freakishness, bizarritude, or barely-minimal relevance to the book it contains?

*This, by contrast, is the depressing cover of the edition that's currently in print.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Same shtick, different day

I got my course evaluations last week, and they're good--not my best ever, but close to it. This is starting to feel like a pattern: over the three and a half years that I've been at RU, my scores have been trending upward (even as the range of grades I've given has remained relatively constant).

So yay, right? Except that I really was not bringing it to my classes this past semester. I was relying much too much on old lesson plans, doing my reading at the very last minute, and feeling continually on the verge of having my ill-preparation and inattention come crashing down on my head.

Now okay: I understand that students don't always see this lack of preparation, and I actively enjoyed two of my three classes--but, mysteriously, it's the third class, a class that pissed me off on a near-daily basis, that gave me my best scores. It was an upper-division Renaissance class that I'd designed from scratch to teach in the fall of 2008--and that incarnation of the class was amazing. But I decided to re-teach the class this past fall, and this time around it was. . . not so good. Really not so good. The students weren't participatory or seemingly engaged by the material; their written work was mediocre; and I struggled continually not to lose my temper with them. And yet my scores were phenomenal: fully as good and in some categories better than those for the (in every way superior) class that I taught last year.

So what accounts for these increasingly positive scores? I don't have a good explanation, but here are a few theories:
1. I've been at RU long enough that I now have a reputation for toughness--which means students are less surprised by the grades they receive (and/or, since I don't think I really am that tough, they're excessively gratified when they do well).

2. I've genuinely become a better teacher--which includes getting better at addressing (and anticipating the interests and possible problems of) RU's student population.

3. I've figured out a shtick that goes over well.

I suspect it's a combination of all three, and maybe some other factors I'm not aware of. But I worry that it's too much #3.

Some of my classes--certainly not the majority, but some of them--turn into crazy high-energy love-fests. Often, this is my Shakespeare class (and I gotta say: I teach a fucking great Shakespeare class). Everyone who's taught has had classes like this, where the students are in love with you and you with them, and everyone's riffing off everyone else, but doing serious work at the same time--and where almost nothing you do seems to flop, because the room is so decisively on your side.

As I say, this isn't the norm for me, but a milder or occasional version of it probably is: even with classes that gel less well together, or that have some obviously weak links, or that frustrate me routinely, I've learned to coax and cajole and turn up various dials on my teaching persona to get my students to haul themselves through a decent passage or character analysis or map out bigger patterns or whatever.

And it's not that I'm not proud of that. I do think that personality goes a long way, and that manifesting the kind of enthusiasm and nerdy, intense engagement with the material that students can connect with is its own kind of pedagogical skill (and for me at least partly a learned skill). But I worry about coasting along on whatever marginal classroom charisma I've constructed for myself, and becoming little more than a shtick--or not being able to adapt, creatively, to a different classroom dynamic or a different student population.

I guess the only solution is to get my ass in gear and DO SOME REAL CLASS PREP this semester--but I thought I'd check in with you-all first. What's been your experience with classroom theatre or charisma--or with the relationship between them and your level of preparation, or your evals?

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Department of "oh hell, yeah"

Dr. Crazy nails it:
[Facebook] for me is like a dream where you show up at a bar and all of the ghosts of your past are milling around and either blabbing about their children (mainly high school and elementary school people) or leaving random comments to you about your current life (guys from your misspent youth), while at the same time all of your current friends are there and look confused by who all these other weirdos are, and also your family is there shouting (in all capital letters) over the din.

Friday, January 08, 2010

But surely I can fail again!

Since returning home from MLA and my holiday travels, I've been working fitfully on my manuscript. I'm revising the fourth of my five chapters, which needs a fair amount of cosmetic and organizational work, but very little in the way of substantive changes--in terms of research and argument, it's probably my strongest chapter.

But the other night, slogging through a round of changes, I found myself seized by the heart-clutching, tear-welling sense of hopelessness, panic, and despair that I hadn't felt in a long time. It's a un- or pre-rational feeling, pure emotion and physicality, like I'm going to expire on the spot. And though I hadn't felt it in a while, I remembered, more or less, how I used to pull myself out of it: by probing patiently, like a shrink or a father confessor, until I got to the heart of the crisis.
What is it? I asked myself. Is it this chapter?

No. The chapter is going slower than I'd like, and it's frustrating, but it'll be fine.

Is it the next chapter?

No. That chapter's a mess, but it's my last one, and even if I only make cosmetic changes now, with a good intro I can still send the manuscript out for review.

So is it the intro?

I don't think so. That will be hard. But I got a good start on reframing the project this fall, and it'll get written.

Are you worried about finding a publisher?

Not really. It may take longer than I'm hoping--but it will get published. And I can get tenure on the strength of my other publications.

Is it about all the stuff that has to be got done between now and April?

Hmm. Maybe a little? But every semester is like this, and I always get through it.

Is it--


Wait, your second book? You've got to finish this one. And then you have a whole damn edition, whose 2014 deadline you'll be lucky if you can meet.


Hold up there. You're seriously freaking out about a second book?

And yes, it appears that I was, at least on some level--and when I realized it, I started to laugh. It seems that even after the real hurdles are past or are within comfortable reach (finishing the dissertation; getting a job; finishing the book; getting tenure), the need to freak out, to panic and despair, is still a live one. Surely there must be something for me to fail at! Or to send me into a hysterical paralysis of self-doubt!

The next time someone asks what I got out of grad school, that's what I'll tell 'em: the belief that there are always more things to fail at.

Friday, January 01, 2010

New Year's Meme

(Those from 2008 and 2009 are here and here.)

1. What did you do in 2009 that you'd never done before?
*Joined a gym
*Got a book contract (for a scholarly edition, but still)
*Attended a funeral

2. Did you keep your 2009 resolutions, and will you make more this year?
I completely forgot that I made resolutions last year, although I think I did. Since I fail to remember them, it's a good bet that I also failed to keep them.

3. Did anyone close to you give birth?
I'm a 34-year-old woman. In any given year, probably 20% of my friends are either pregnant or just gave birth (but in 2009, none of my closest friends actually did).

4. Did anyone close to you die?
Yes: my maternal grandmother and last surviving grandparent.

5. What countries did you visit?
None--not even Canada or Mexico.

6. What would you like to have in 2010 that you lacked in 2009?
I feel quite confident that this year I will have a completed book manuscript. So let's shoot for a contract?

7. What was your biggest achievement of the year?
Professionally: reconceiving my book project and making some real headway on its revision. Personally: repairing or resuming friendships with a number of people I care about: exes, grad school colleagues, and others.

8. What was your biggest failure?
I feel that I was a pretty crap teacher this past semester. I doubt that my evaluations will reflect this--two of my three classes were a ton of fun, and I loved my students--but I felt that I was half-assing everything even more than usual.

9. Did you suffer illness or injury?
Despite my crazy hypochondria, just bad allergies in the spring and a lingering cold in the fall.

10. What was the best thing you bought?
My gym membership. I'm using and enjoying it more than I'd ever have imagined.

11. Whose behavior merited celebration?
My mom's, who was my grandmother's primary caregiver for her last nine months.

12. Whose behavior made you appalled and depressed?
I'm easily, and always vocally, appalled. But I'm working on not reading the behaviors that make me appalled as MORAL FAILINGS on the part of others.

13. Where did most of your money go?
Food, booze, cat-care, and conference travel. But I did pay off a couple-few thousand in credit card debt.

14. Compared to this time last year, are you: a) happier or sadder? b) thinner or fatter? c) richer or poorer?
Happier and slightly richer (which is only to say: slightly less in debt). I weigh almost exactly the same.

15. What do you wish you'd done more of?
The same damn things: saved more money/gotten out of debt. Finished my book.

16. What do you wish you'd done less of?
Sat around on my ass/left things to the last minute.

17. Did you fall in love in 2009?

18. What was the best new book you read?
Marisha Pessl, Special Topics in Calamity Physics

19. What was your favorite film of the year?
Probably Duplicity.

20. What kept you sane?
All the people in my life.

21. Tell us a valuable life lesson you learned in 2009.
It's really not that hard, none of it: work, love, life. Just get off your ass, take a chance, and try to follow through.

Happy 2010 to you and yours~~