Monday, November 29, 2010

Time for details

(Or: an academic, blogospheric romance)

I haven't written much about Cosimo over the past couple of years, other than to note that he exists. Although this blog is more personal than it is academic (in the sense of focusing on a specific area of research or opining about Pressing Issues in Academe), it's my general policy to touch only rather lightly on the details of my personal life, especially those that don't have to do with my professional life.

As it happens, though, the two intersect here.

Cosimo and I first met several years ago, at a dinner stage-managed by a mutual friend at an academic conference. We wound up seated next to each other, and I took an instant dislike to him: he struck me as overbearing, loud, and just too much of a guy.

After the conference, I wrote a brief, eye-roll-y blog post about something he'd done that I'd found professionally objectionable. I couched it in general terms--I'd met this ridiculous person, who'd done this ridiculous thing--and my readers and I chattered back and forth in the comments for a few days about how very, very loserish that behavior was. Then I forgot about it.

Over the next year I ran into Cosimo a few more times at conferences, and eventually decided that he was okay: he was loud, yes, but also rather funny--without being one of those guys who has to be the funniest person in the room. And he seemed generous and supportive of his colleagues. We emailed a couple of times about professional matters and I assigned him to an outer circle among my work-friends.

Time passed. At some point I noticed that I had a new blog reader whose comments stood out in a variety of ways: thoughtful, funny, and rather more personal in tone than I'd have expected from someone I didn't know. From my site stats I traced him to an IP address at Cosimo's university.

I wondered if the new reader could be he, and I wondered if I should be uncomfortable if he were; I didn't know Cosimo well, and I'd been blogging about relatively personal topics recently. (And then, as now, I had no illusions that anyone who knew me in real life wouldn't immediately recognize me from my blog.) But I read back through my last dozen posts and figured, fuck it: I wasn't ashamed of anything.

That is, until I saw that he'd been going through my archives. And that he'd read that post. Three times.

Well, what's a girl to do?

This girl emailed him and apologized. And then took down the post.

We got into more frequent email contact after that, but still only in a friendly way: I'd been in a long-term relationship when I'd first met him, and by that point was dating someone else, and I still hadn't entirely shaken my negative first impression of Cosimo. Obviously, he was a decent (and, uh, gracious and forgiving) guy. . . but he was still kinda annoying, right? At least in person? I was pretty sure he must still be annoying.

Of course, I hadn't actually seen him in person for a long while. Then we went out for dinner one weekend when he was passing through town--and I had an astonishingly good time. And then there was a conference, and another conference. And by that point my latest relationship had ended.

We started talking on the phone, almost daily, sometimes for three or four hours at a stretch; I couldn't remember when I'd last been that excited to be getting to know someone, or that eager to do so. After a month I went to visit him.

And the rest, as they say, is unwritten blogospheric history.

Monday, November 15, 2010

No time for details

But nevertheless: Cosimo and I got engaged last weekend. In Union Square Park, in the benevolent shadows of Barnes & Noble and DSW.

I suppose I'm okay with the term fiancé/e (especially when pronounced with the comic upper-crusty accent on the "AN"). But I'm utterly opposed to "wife." Henceforth, I shall be lobbying for "spouse" as the all-purpose, gender- and sexual-orientation-neutral title of the future.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Hither and yon

Your faithful blogger will be out of town for each of the next three weekends: today begins a long weekend in NYC for some theatah, some friends, and many an overpriced cocktail; next weekend is the Big Football Game; and then, of course, it's Thanksgiving.

Hoping to squeeze in a post here and there--but if not, chalk it up to my fabulous, jet-set lifestyle.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

College admissions blues

The other day I interviewed a local high school student who's applying to Instant Name Recognition U. This is only my second year as an alumni interviewer and she was only my second interviewee, but each time I've scheduled a meeting I've had some anticipatory misgivings.

I'll be frank: teaching at Regional U makes me feel differently about my alma mater. Now, I don't accept the claim that the Ivy League is a bastion of snobbery and privilege; for one, there's plenty of school-related snobbery to go around (where I grew up, it was an article of faith that people who went to the University of Washington were much smarter than people who went to Washington State), and for another, the Ivies and similar schools are actually incredibly economically diverse--much more so than the pricey St. Whoevers or Private Basketball/Football Unis that criss-cross this great nation.

But when one believes, as I do, in the mission of a place like RU, it's hard not to feel conflicted. I love my alma mater. But I also love my students. I see the differences between the two institutions pretty clearly, and I doubt that RU is even a safety school for most of the INRU applicants from this region. That makes me feel defensive and protective of my students--as if, somehow, they were the ones being judged.

The kid I interviewed last year did nothing to dispel this feeling. He showed up in a suit and tie, with a copy of his mile-long resume, and spoke like a frequent attender of "junior leadership" conferences. He was smart and personable and socially-conscious, but he didn't seem much like my students.

He didn't seem much like an INRU student, either, and he didn't get in, but the experience made me feel that much more ambivalent about going to interview my second candidate last week.

She was totally different. Charming and gawky and confident and nervous, she too had a long resume, but she had more than a resume. She didn't have a prefabricated bit to give me, but as she talked it became clear how boundlessly curious she was, and what a passion she had for breaking things apart and creating new syntheses--how studying physics transformed the way she thought about everything from sailing to singing, and how the quantitative gave her a means to understand the qualitative. She reminded me of so many of the students I knew or taught at INRU.

Curiously enough, she also reminded me of the students I teach at RU, or at least some of them: all earnestness and potential, ready to be set afire by a new subject or idea. They may not all be starting out with the same cultural capital as she, but they're not, actually, so very different.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Special collections

I've decided to start my own rare books library. A very small rare books library, mind, or a very special special collection.

But let me back up. On Saturday I took my grad students to the rare books and special collections room at the nearby University of Research (UR). Arranging the visit had been a bit of a production--the room isn't open late enough on weeknights for us to go during our regular class period; some of my students live 20 miles away; I hadn't previously met the librarians; I was worried about parking on the day of a home sporting event--but in the end it worked out marvelously.

I'd originally asked the librarian to pull only printed books from the seventeenth century, but after assigning my students a few chapters from Andrew Pettegree's The Book in the Renaissance I'd regretted not poking around to see whether the library had any medieval manuscripts. When I mentioned this to the librarian, he nodded. . . and in fifteen minutes returned with a cart of books of hours, incunabula, a Torah scroll, and stones with Sumerian and Babylonian inscriptions.

And then he left us alone, saying only, "be gentle." So we hung out in the richly-appointed seminar room, passing everything around from hand to hand--my students exclaiming at the feel of vellum versus parchment versus paper, and squinting up close to try to determine whether the red letters in the incunabula were printed that way, or hand-rubricated.

It's probably the best time I've ever had in a rare books room, but it inspired two conflicting emotions in me. First, excitement: it's not a large collection and its pre-1700 holdings are pretty thin, but it's perfect for pedagogical purposes; I'm determined to use it for every upper-division or grad class I teach from here on out. Lots of students at much fancier and better-funded schools don't have access to this kind of material, and it's a way to make up for my institution's more limited resources.

But at the same time, going to the collection reminded me of those more limited resources. The UR collection is itself pretty small (they have no early Shakespeare or Milton, for example) and, because it's half an hour away, hard to use in a casual way; I can't schedule multiple class meetings there, for the purpose of looking at just a book or two each time, and I can't use it for my lower-division classes even if they're small.

Thus, my plan: I'm going to build up my own rare books library.

I already have one lovely seventeenth-century book, a small folio, and I've been thinking about purchasing another, a duodecimo. Both are either necessary for or relevant to my research, but they would also be great show-and-tell specimens. I've purchased several books in facsimile for teaching purposes, and I plan on buying more--but they're not the same as originals.

So what more can I buy, cheaply? Well, ABE is selling individual leaves from a King James Bible for $60, and I imagine I could find other interesting leaves for similar prices. There's also a surprising number of intact seventeenth century books available, some for as little as $75, if content isn't important. And if all I want to talk about is bibliographic stuff--title pages or gatherings or watermarks or whatever--maybe content isn't important.

Or, you know: I could just add a PayPal button to this blog and solicit y'all's donations. Copies of Dunne's 1633 Poems are going for as little as $33,000!

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Assignments for grad students

As my second semester teaching M.A. students starts to wind down, I've been thinking about the skills that I want M.A. students to have and the assignments that best develop or refine those skills--and I'm interested in hearing my readers' thoughts as well.

Personally, I'm not a believer in the 25-page term paper. I suppose a doctoral program could argue that 25-30pp. approximates the length of an article or a dissertation chapter, and thus it's important for students to master projects of that size. But a) RU is not a doctoral institution, and b) I was myself a doctoral student, and most of my own seminar papers were utter, flailing, blithering crap. Producing three 25-page papers, in less than a month, on subjects that I knew little about (in one semester: Keats, Spenser, and the respective attitudes toward culture of T. H. Huxley and Matthew Arnold) did NOTHING to prepare me for the much longer and more intensive process of researching and writing my first dissertation chapter.

So although there's virtue in learning how to write a paper of that length (and I definitely think M.A. students should write a couple of them during their time in the program), they have to be built up to. In each of the two M.A. classes I've taught, then, I've described our final paper as "15+ pages." More importantly, I've tried to devise shorter written assignments that prepare them for that final paper.

In my Milton class, my first assignment was a conventional close-reading essay; I wanted to get a look at my students' writing and interpretative skills, for one, but I also wanted to make sure that they were comfortable analyzing poetry and using the technical vocabulary of poetic analysis.

In my Dunne class this semester, I came up with what I think a much better version of a close-reading assignment--which was to have each student produce an "edition" of one of Dunne's poems based on the manuscript and early printed editions (a selection of which are available here). In making their editions, each student had to establish a copy text, provide a textual apparatus with variants, and then write a narrative explanation and analysis that justified, in literary terms, the choices she'd made.

It required a lot of preliminary work, but in the end produced better results. I think the interpretative work felt easier to my students (because the stuff they were focusing on was more obvious and more seemingly pragmatic: why prefer this word to that word? why leave the comma in or take it out? does spelling change the meaning in this case?), while actually demanding much more of them. We talked a lot about how manuscripts circulated in the Early Modern period and how they made it into print; whether and to whom authorial intention matters; and what editors do and where the texts in their Norton or Penguin editions come from.

The second paper I assigned in both classes was more straightforward, but no less practical: find an article or book chapter in a reputable scholarly source, and then write a short essay that engages with it--summarizing, critiquing, noting any theoretical biases or omissions or areas for further study.

My feeling is: if students can close read and if they can deal with secondary sources in a critical, responsible way, then they can write a longer work of scholarship--whether it's 15 pages or 25. But isolating and focusing on those skills matters.


From your experiences as teachers or students, what kinds of skills do you think are most important for grad students to work on--and what kinds of assignments have you found that do the trick?