Wednesday, December 28, 2011

"Memory is the sense of loss, and loss pulls us after it."

While on vacation I re-read Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping, which I first read years ago and remembered loving but of which I'd had no clear memory. It's a wondrous book, possibly a perfect one, built more like a poem than a novel. Here's a taste:
Cain murdered Abel, and blood cried out from the earth; the house fell on Job's children, and a voice was induced or provoked into speaking from a whirlwind; and Rachel mourned for her children; and King David for Absalom. The force behind the movement of time is a mourning that will not be comforted. That is why the first event is known to have been an expulsion, and the last is hoped to be a reconciliation and return. So memory pulls us forward, so prophecy is only brilliant memory--there will be a garden where all of us as one child will sleep in our mother Eve, hooped in her ribs and staved by her spine. (192)
The book is also a better and more affecting meditation on loss than Didion's Year of Magical Thinking (which I read and liked) or any of the other recent memoirs of grief (most of which I've read only in long excerpts). This is Robinson describing what the rest of us might call, with clinical ugliness, "obsessional thinking"--the inability to let go of the past or the people in it:
[H]ere we find our great affinity with water, for like reflections on water our thoughts will suffer no changing shock, no permanent displacement. They mock us with their seeming slightness. If they were more substantial--if they had weight and took up space--they would sink or be carried away in the general flux. But they persist, outside the brisk and ruinous energies of the world. (163)
But in fact, it's not really grief Robinson is writing about so much as the human condition: transient and marked by loss and hopeful of an escape which is also a transcendence. That's what's wrong, I think, with so many memoirs: they assume that their particulars are, if not universal, at least of universal interest--while not actually being able to capture the truly universal or imagine anything beyond the author's own experience. Maybe that's only due modesty, when the subject is oneself. Maybe fiction is a better place for reflecting on how personal pasts intersect with national ones, or for making claims about the human condition.

Those who have been reading me long enough may have divined that my only real subject, my only real obsession, is how we make meaning out of the past and how we grapple with our sense of loss (past, present, or anticipated); it's probably why I blog, and it is, after a fashion, the subject of almost all my scholarship. So maybe I'm a peculiarly ideal reader for this novel. But if you haven't read it, do. And if you haven't read it recently, read it again.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

I'm dreaming of a white-sand Christmas

My parents now live in San Diego county, in a small beachfront town. I can't tell you how awesome it is to spend an afternoon in late December walking barefoot through the surf with the sand pipers and the pelicans while the surfers leap waves and the Marine Corps helicopters swoop overhead.

I see your white Christmas, and I raise you.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Being a Christian means vaguely feeling some things are wrong

This ad by Rick Perry has been getting a lot of outraged attention and a lot of ridicule:

(For a great round-up of parodies, see here.)

Perry's homophobia--and the fact that he's directing it, specifically, at the men and women who are protecting and sometimes dying for our country--is the obvious and appropriate target for most of the outrage. But I'm equally as offended by his vision of Christianity. Let's take a closer look at what he says: "[Y]ou don't need to be in the pew every Sunday to know there's something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military but our kids can't openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school."

In other words, you don't have to be making any effort to lead a Christian life (going to church, wrestling with what's in the Bible, performing works of mercy) to call yourself one. Proof of your Christianity comes from your vague belief in traditional, religious values--which, ideally, someone else should be responsible for teaching. After all, if the principal of your kids' school leads them in prayer and there's a big crèche in front of City Hall, then you don't have to do any religious instruction of your own, much less model a life of faith for your children; you can just rest secure in your own rightthink.

Also, if you're uncomfortable with gay people? That's okay, because it proves you're a Christian! In fact, if you're uncomfortable with anything, that's probably because it's wrong. And wrong in a cosmic, Bible-forbidden kind of way. (Which is why, as I've noted before, so many Christians don't actually read the Bible: they already know that everything they believe is in there.)

According to Rick Perry, being a Christian means being part of a very special and persecuted minority on whom no real demands are ever made.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Resisting the urge to stage mom

This semester I've been directing two independent projects: one M.A. thesis and one undergraduate honors thesis. It's my first time directing a thesis of any sort, and though I've been a second reader on at least half a dozen--and in some cases got pretty intimately involved in the project--being this up-close and personal with another person's thought process has been interesting.

On the most basic level, it's hard to guide usefully without guiding too much, and it's hard not to be disappointed when a smart student nevertheless doesn't quite get what you're saying or go as far as you think he or she could go. I spent a lot of time talking ideas through with both students, trying to help them to recognize certain connections that they seemed to intuit but couldn't quite express--and in both cases it was mildly frustrating to lead them right up to an idea and not have them able to make the final leap on their own.

That's fine, of course, and they both did some good work; when it comes right down to it, a thesis is more a skills-building exercise--a demonstration of growth and mastery--than something that needs to be lovely and perfect in itself. (God knows, this is how I came to see my own graduate seminar papers and to some extent my dissertation.)

So yes: it's satisfying to see students grow and improve and I certainly point out to mine the places where they've grown and improved and I tell them what I'm pleased with. But when you're interested in the project and you've got a restless, tinkering mind, it's hard to know what's good enough, or what's sufficient improvement, when it's somebody else's life and work.

Maybe this is what it feels like to be a parent.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Plagiarists are people too

I catch an average of one plagiarist a semester, or roughly one per sixty students. Once in a rare while I've have two, in different classes, and a few times I've had none, but the average has remained steady over my six years at RU. I hate catching plagiarists and I hate being always on the alert for plagiarists, but it's a part of my job and I've more or less made my peace with it; I may still leap from the sofa and shout "goddammit!" when I find one, but I no longer take plagiarism as a personal insult. Plagiarism happens when students are lazy or scared or under pressure; it's about them, not me.

But not taking it personally doesn't mean that it's not still emotionally exhausting, and this semester has been a doozy: in one single class I've had two clear-cut cases of plagiarism, with two or three additional papers that I believe were influenced by outside sources--but in a relatively minor way and to a degree that I wouldn't be able to prove anyway. Moreover, they were all on the same paper assignment.

For privacy reasons, I won't go into details, but we're not talking about a bunch of wet-behind-the-ears freshmen, or lazy-ass non-majors. This is a smallish class with good energy, and I genuinely like all the students in it.

And that's what's hard about catching and prosecuting academic dishonesty. When you take it personally, it's easier to nail the kid; you've got the righteous (or maybe self-righteous) sense of indignation to carry you through: "Ha-hah! Play me for a fool, will you? Here's your violation report, asshole." But when you like the kids and have taken some pride in their intellectual growth--and especially when you have some knowledge about the shit going on their personal lives--the anger is different. You're pissed off at them for being stupid and for fucking up, and you're pissed off that they've trapped both of you in a legal process where it's hard to say what you want to say and where what you want to say probably wouldn't be heard anyway.

I gave my class a lecture in the quiet, Angry-and-Disappointed-Mommy voice, and it freaked them all out and maybe it helped and maybe it didn't; part of the problem is that "plagiarist," like "racist," is a term that doesn't allow for gradation or nuance, and no one believes he can be that thing. But although the reality is that not all forms or instances of academic dishonesty are equal, any suggestion that some might be lesser or more deserving of leniency could only come back to bite me in the ass.

So this is what I'd like to tell my plagiarists, and what I wish they'd hear and believe:
"You did something unethical, and you knew it was unethical; 'giving you a break' would be unfair to your classmates and it would be unfair to you; it's my job to enforce academic standards and to see that you wrestle honestly with tough intellectual tasks. You're selling yourself short when you think that you can't come up with good ideas or write a good paper on your own. You will fail this class and the academic dishonesty charge will go on your record. But if you repeat the class, the 'F' will disappear, and if this is your first violation--and you never have another--you'll get to stay at RU and there will be no indication of this on your transcript.

"This doesn't make you a bad person. It makes you a person who fucked up, and there are consequences when you fuck up. But you can make things right over the long term, if you want to."

This shit breaks my heart.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

"And with your spirit"

Today, the first Sunday of Advent, also marks the roll-out of the new English translation of the liturgy--the first since the end of Vatican II.

This new translation has been the subject of controversy for years (so many years that I first wrote about it in 2006, in something like Week Five of this blog's existence), but it boils down to this: the first English translation of the mass was put together relatively hastily, in the wake of Vatican II; it's simple and idiomatic, but there are a number of places where it neglects or misrepresents the substance of the original; a more faithful version had always been intended to replace it, and by the late 1990s "a richer translation that . . . hew[ed] more closely to the Latin without sacrificing clarity" had been completed and approved by every council of English-speaking bishops in the world. However, this translation was rejected by the Vatican. According to Rome, not only the sense of the Latin must be conveyed, but "every Latin word must be accounted for, and vocabulary, syntax, punctuation, and capitalization patterns found in the Latin must be reproduced as much as possible" (quoted text comes from this timeline of the history of English translations of the mass).

So disagreeing as thoroughly as I do with the Vatican's translation theory, I was prepared to hate the new translation. I'd gotten a preview of parts of the new translation in various articles and handouts over the past six months, and though I didn't think it was as awful as some commentators, I was still wary.

But listening and responding at mass today, I decided that it's neither a net gain nor a net loss. I actually like some of the new translation's circumlocutions and five-dollar words: as a literature teacher, I believe there's sometimes both aesthetic and intellectual value in language that draws attention to itself, that doesn't come totally naturally, that requires work to figure out. So while there's surely no meaningful difference between describing the second person of the trinity as "one in being with the Father" and describing him as "consubstantial with the Father," the second rendering is one that draws attention to itself, and hence to the doctrine it's articulating. In general, I like the way the new translation foregrounds a number of theological issues, like the incarnation, and in places its Latinate, archaic syntax does achieve a strange, reverent beauty.

On the other hand, there are at least as many awkwardnesses (Cosimo spent the second half of the service mouthing "oblations," with a look of comic disgust, following a particularly ugly new bit of prose that included the offending word), and lots of things that simply don't seem to matter. I don't know why the liturgy of the Eucharist now has the priest referring to the "chalice" Jesus drank from instead of the "cup" ("chalice" may be more faithful to the Latin, but surely it isn't a more accurate description of the actual drinking vessel), or what essential is being conveyed by having the congregation respond to the priest's "the Lord be with you" with "and with your spirit" instead of "and also with you."

Will the new translation lose congregants? Possibly, though I think not right away; regular church-goers are going to make a game effort to adapt to the new translation, and if it causes some people to feel more alienated from the church and to drift away, that effect will be perceptible only over time. But you know, the liturgy is the least of the reasons that people feel alienated from the church--and much as I enjoy fulminating, any energy I have would probably be better spent addressing those other reasons.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011


Heading over river, through woods. While I'm cursing traffic on the interstates and by-roads of this great nation, I leave you with this article from yesterday's Times on the health benefits of conscious gratitude. So let's try it: I'm happy there aren't more morons on the road! And hey, it's pissing rain, but at least it's not snow!

Happy Thanksgiving, all.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Those interested in metonymy must explain why metonymy is required

Speaking of veterans, this just in:

The Department of Defense is now funding the study of metaphors. The full description is here (h/t G-Fav), but in brief, the DoD is interested in "exploit[ing] the use of metaphorical language to gain insights into underlying cultural beliefs"; i.e., to figure out what it means when a particular nation or political faction uses one kind of metaphor rather than another. Is life a journey, or a playscript?

The report includes this sweetly wonky explanation of what metaphors are:
Metaphors have been known since Aristotle (Poetics) as poetic or rhetorical devices that are unique, creative instances of language artistry (e.g., The world is a stage). Over the last 30 years, metaphors have been shown to be pervasive in everyday language and to reflect cultural beliefs.

Metaphors shape how people think about complex topics and can influence beliefs...Metaphors are associated with affect; affect influences behavior. This association has been confirmed through neuro-science experiments.
(There's also a great description of metonymy, and later the stern warning, "Metonymy will be in addition to metaphors. Those interested in metonymy must explain why metonymy is required.")

The project's goal is to "automat[e] the discovery, framing and categorization of linguistic metaphors in large amounts of textual data in multiple languages"--in other words, to push a whole lotta text through a whole lotta computers--but since I'm skeptical that figurative language conforms to any pattern that can be modeled, I see huge potential here for us: when the computerized model fails, the Defense Department will be forced to hire a platoon of humanities PhDs.


Monday, November 14, 2011

"After surviving firefights, sitting on a college campus with someone who doesn’t like me is the least of my worries"

Today's New York Times has a great article on Columbia's aggressive recruitment of military veterans for undergraduate study. Columbia now has more than 200 veterans enrolled, while its closest Ivy competitor, Cornell, has approximately 50. (We won't speak about the shamefully low figure enrolled at my own alma mater.)

I've thought a fair amount about veterans in the classroom over the years, for a number of reasons: I come from a military family; my former long-term partner teaches at one of the service academies (as he did for five of our six years together); and I've taught quite a few veterans myself at RU. But although there's a lot to say about this article, what most strikes me is the way it seems to align with the argument I made a while back about the limited kinds of diversity one can expect at elite colleges: it's not surprising to me that Columbia, which is located in a big city and already has a robust undergraduate program aimed at nontraditional students, and Cornell, which has the largest undergraduate population of the Ivies, are doing the best job recruiting students who are a bit older and have significant non-academic life experience.

As I wrote in that earlier post, elite colleges that are devoted to a residential model--and especially smaller elite colleges, located in smaller communities--seem to have a harder time imagining what it would mean to add older students (or married students or students with meaningfully different academic backgrounds) into the mix.

But there's no reason for this to be true. Although the student population at RU could certainly be more cohesive, quite a lot of our students, including transfer students or those who have taken several years off, elect to live on or right near campus, as a part of the academic community, and it's not uncommon for students to forge friendships with other students who are a number of years older. Surely elite colleges could preserve their academic standards, maintain a sense of communal identity, and diversify their student bodies in new and important ways--with veterans for starters, but perhaps also with other older or returning students--if they tried. Kudos to Columbia for showing them how.


In early January, I start checking the time of sunrise and sunset every day, taking pleasure in each additional minute of daylight (and usually declaring to multiple people, multiple times a week, "Tomorrow will be two minutes and eight seconds longer!" or "We've gained six more minutes of daylight since Monday!"). I'm also fond of telling my friends in Boston and New York that the sun sets in Cha-Cha City 20-30 minutes later, year round. It's a way of getting through.

But as soon as we pass the summer solstice, I stop checking. And when it's fully dark by 9 p.m. I start noting morosely that it's all downhill from there. Throughout the early fall I grumble, taking the shortening days--every single one of them--very personally. Winter's coming.

Now that we've set the clocks back, though, I'm okay with it. It's dark early and it's dark long, and it's going to get worse before it gets better. I'm grateful for the warm, sunny days we'll still get through the end of this month, and I'm grateful for weekend days spent outside, when the dark comes on more slowly. We drink cider and whiskey and red wine, eat stews and nuts and root vegetables, and we light fires in the fireplace and have people over. I'll see my college friends at the football game this weekend, family for Thanksgiving the week after that, and the end of the semester is in sight.

It'll be okay, for a while. But talk to me again in February.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Hope for the humanities? (part 2 of 2)

The big asterisk to my generally positive attitude about my institution's commitment to the humanities has to do with our foreign language department and requirements. Briefly, they're a joke. Like many institutions, mine is falling all over itself to proclaim its dedication to "global study," and to declare that it prepares its students for a "global workplace"--while doing nothing to increase the actual study of foreign languages or build its foreign language department. Spanish is the only remotely healthy program we seem to have, and I suspect that's a reflection not of any actual strategy on the part of the institution, but simply of the number of students who took the language in high school and who, of their own initiative, have decided to go further. Student demand has occasionally brought in an Arabic or Japanese instructor for a few semesters, which is nice, but there's no possibility of studying those languages past the beginner level. (Other than Spanish, the only language with tenure-line faculty, and hence some literature offerings, is French. But the most popular language courses on campus seem to be those for American Sign Language.)

I suspect there may be internal, departmental reasons that the foreign languages haven't been getting hires, but I also think it's the downside of student demand: for reasons that we in English and History aren't totally in control of, students want to major in our subjects, and that sets off a virtuous cycle in which more and better faculty get hired, which in turn attracts more and better majors. Students don't want to major in the foreign languages (and not enough make studying a foreign language a priority), so tenure-line faculty don't get hired, the programs languish, and the institution actually cuts the required number of semesters of foreign language study...thus decreasing the likelihood that students will get far enough to want to do more.

The lack of commitment to the foreign languages is an active concern in my department and in the history department, but as yet we haven't done much except complain among ourselves and urge individual students to take another year or two of a foreign language. But long term, I think we have to try to use our relative weight to put some pressure on the administration; we're neither going to attract the best students nor make our students into the best scholars they can be without a somewhat better foreign language department--and what's the point of being a robust department, anyway, if we can't help out other allied departments?


My smaller asterisk to my previous post involves my concern about what "raising our standards" does to the institution's mission. Our entering students are genuinely getting better every year, and the college is gradually transforming itself into a more traditional, more residential, liberal-arts-focused institution. The townhouses, the branding, the community ethos, etc., are all part of that effort. As a faculty member, it's hard not to be excited by a lot of this, especially since it hasn't been a case of "excellence without money": fundraising and alumni giving are way up, and faculty are pretty well-paid, with opportunities for merit raises in addition to cost-of-living raises every year. Who wouldn't want more smart students in the classroom? And who doesn't dare to hope that we might someday see course releases--or even a slight reduction in our teaching load--for faculty who are active scholars?

Well, no one doesn't want those things. And God knows, we'd all love to have our college recognized, statewide, for the strength of its humanities programs rather than having that be a pleasant surprise for the students (and faculty) who wind up here. But I worry a bit about the kind of smug self-satisfaction that I mentioned in my previous post in conjunction with the religious college up the road. One thing I love about RU students is how nice they are, how basically eager and hardworking and unpretentious; they're all here to get an education, and though the nature of that desire differs--some students just want a degree while others are intellectually ravenous--in no case is it about the cachet of the institution, or their own specialness for being here. (Our students seem happy to be affiliated with RU, and there's pleasure when one alumnus meets another alumnus, but it's not a self-congratulatory thing.)

And I wonder, sometimes, what the tipping point is: as we keep branding, and recruiting out-of-state students, and talking up our academics, will we lose some of what makes this institution so appealing? Will we lose the academically marginal students who are nevertheless full of eagerness and potential--only to wind up with a whole bunch of grade-grubbing, good-but-not-great students?

Maybe that's a foolish worry. But I think of all the spoiled, uncurious kids at middling colleges and universities, and it seems possible that for many institutions an increase in prestige--even specifically academic prestige--is accompanied by a decrease in intellectual vigor, especially in the undergraduate classroom.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Hope for the humanities (part 1 of 2)

Historiann has put out the call for bloggers to respond to Tony Grafton's review of and reflections on the shitload--I believe that's the technical, historiographic term--of recent books on the crisis in higher education. Grafton argues that although there's no one single or simple explanation for higher ed's problems, there is a problem, which is the gradual divorcing of the college experience from real intellectual development: students go to college for the professional credential and the social experience, and colleges are increasingly complicit in allowing or encouraging them to "look for entertainment and easy grades."

But because most studies of the crisis in higher ed lump very different kinds of schools together, and generalize to the point that no clear picture of any college student's experience can be gleaned, Grafton ends his essay expressing a desire for more precise and particular descriptions of the state of higher education at a variety of different institutions--and it's this desire that Historiann has been marshaling bloggers to answer.

Both Notorious Ph.D. and Dr. Crazy have already responded, giving the perspective from their rather different public institutions, so I'll now give mine from mine. And I gotta say that, despite the problems that my institution faces and the things I'm displeased with (which will be the topic of my second blog post on this subject), I'm pretty impressed with the intellectual climate and the support for the humanities at my institution--non-elite though it may be.

I teach a 3/3 load at a public, comprehensive college with an undergraduate population of about 7,000 and another 1,000-1,500 graduate students. And in some ways, our college could be said to be among those that are focusing increasing energy and resources on improving our students' social lives: we're building an enormous special complex somehow devoted to student life (it's not a student center, and it's not a gym, and indeed no one has adequately described to me what it is); we've built a whole bunch of student townhouses as an addition/alternative to our dormitory housing; and there's been an increasing, exasperating emphasis on "branding" our college in various ways: new slogans, logos, advertisements, alumni networks, fundraising initiatives; you name it.

But the thing is, when a college with a significant commuter population and a significant community-college transfer population works to increase its students' sense of collective identity and to improve their residential experience (a surprising number of our community college transfer students elect to live in the dorms), those things aren't necessarily working against a commitment to the intellectual life.

Because here's the other truth: of those 7,000 undergrads? English now has 600 majors, and history has about the same. We're the two biggest majors on campus, and still growing. The bad job market has been good for us in those two departments, and we've hired great faculty. Our chief academic officer--a scientist by training--has consistently touted our two departments as the strength of the college, and the first new academic building to be built on our campus in decades will be a showcase for the humanities.

For our students, then, creating a social life--encouraging them to live on campus, to participate in social and extra-curricular activities--goes along with fostering an atmosphere of shared intellectual engagement. (I wouldn't go so far as to say that binge drinking on the weekends is a part of this community-building! But more moderate forms of non-academic recreation arguably could be.)

Because I'll tell you what: those 1,200-odd English and history majors aren't majoring in our subjects because of a belief in the ennobling or civilizing virtues of the humanities, or even, in some cases, because they're voracious readers or innately curious or whatever else is alleged to bring students to the humanities. A large percentage of our majors have selected English or history because they want teaching jobs--which is partly to say, they want stable, unionized, middle-class jobs. (In my state, unlike many of its neighbors, students can't major in "education"; even students who want to teach kindergarten have to major in an actual academic subject.)

But however they wind up in our majors, the sheer number of them means we keep hiring. And that, in turns, means they're being challenged by an increasingly strong cadre of teachers and scholars--which attracts better majors and makes many of the weaker ones better, too. And while it can be challenging to teach to a range of different ability levels in the same classroom, I believe I've seen the ways that a shared ethos and identity, a sense that being an English major (or being an RU student) is a thing, and that those other people in the classroom are potentially your people, makes students more engaged and interested in rising to the level of their peers and to the level of their instructors' expectations.

So, okay: many things are pretty good at my institution. The question is, are the phenomena that are responsible for the general health of the humanities at my non-elite institution replicable elsewhere?

I think they are, with a few caveats.

First, the humanities will never attract majors--and this is increasingly true, I think, even at elite schools--by blather about how these subjects allow us to think the greatest thoughts, engage with the greatest ideas, etc. Students may be compelled by those arguments once they are humanities majors, but it's not the way to attract first-generation college students or convince their parents. The humanities really need to sell themselves as a smart professional move. In my state, the teachers unions, like all the civil service unions, are still very powerful, so that's a draw. But we need to make a much more powerful and explicit case for the utility of a humanities major for careers in business and other professional fields (and not just by talking vaguely about "critical thinking skills"; our students are concerned about the bottom line, and that's not a failing on their part, but one we have to be able to address directly).

Second, administrators need to have the vision to recognize that the humanities are, at most schools, well-established, time-tested, and cheap to operate. It doesn't cost much to hire really good faculty in these areas, and then boast about the fact. Regional and poorer schools need to stop chasing after the next new thing, building expensive bio-tech centers (or whatever) from scratch because those things seem sexy and forward-looking, and build on their existing strengths. No, not every English or history department is great. But you can buy a strong English department a lot faster and cheaper than you can buy a strong computer science department. Ideally, if they got on board, the administration would help to publicly promote the notion that a humanities education builds an educated workforce and citizenry.

Third, frankly? I think regional public institutions may be structurally positioned to support a healthier undergraduate intellectual life than some of their peers--which isn't to say that they are healthier, by and large, but I think they have often-overlooked advantages. Let's start with teaching: at my institution, anyway, graduate students do not teach, and although we have as many adjuncts as we have full-time faculty, they teach composition almost exclusively; a 3/3 load means that our 20 tenure-line faculty--plus a handful of full-time lecturers--actually can teach 600 majors a semester, in discussion-sized classes. This is not possible at R1 state schools with lighter teaching loads, a larger student body, and faculty who are often wooed with explicit promises of course releases, time off for research, and teaching obligations that are limited to grad students and advanced undergrads.

Then there's the money. Even when state schools are hurting for money (and I'll admit that my state system is relatively healthy and that my institution has been conservative in its cuts, so I'm probably blither about those things than most public-university faculty), regional private institutions are often in equally bad financial straits. Moreover, they have a harder time attracting smarter-but-poorer students; have to justify their high price-tag; and can be prone to unhealthy levels of self-satisfaction (a friend who teaches at a private religious college up the road reports that her students are under the belief that, since School X is the most expensive college in the area, it must therefore be really prestigious).

And finally, there's the lack of big-time athletics. Yes, we have jocks, and yes, some of them got recruited with lower scores than their peers. That can be a drag. But the athletes aren't expecting to go on to careers as professional athletes, which means they know they need a college degree, and the relationship between the coaching staff and the faculty is pretty respectful (I've been asked about a student-athlete's anticipated course grade, but merely because the coach needed to know who would be stating the next season and the kid would be benched if his GPA was too low; there was no pressure involved). And we avoid all the ancillary negatives of being part of a big athletic conference: no mayhem on game day, no raging fans, etc.


Obviously, I'm not saying that there aren't problems in higher ed; I'm not even saying that there aren't problems at my institution; I'll get to those, and to my concerns about the sustainability of what I've just outlined above, in a couple of days. But I do believe that there's a strong future for the humanities--even and maybe especially in non-elite colleges and universities--if we discard some of our outdated ideas about what motivates a humanities major and what he or she looks like.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Team teaching: mid-semester thoughts

So I took very seriously all the comments that suggested that team teaching works best when the co-teachers trade off discussion-leading responsibilities or otherwise ensure that it's always clear who's in charge at a given moment. My co-teacher, apparently, got much the same advice from the people he'd consulted with.

And for our first few weeks, we did that. We conferred by phone the day before, talked stuff through on the drive to campus, and roughly divided up teaching responsibilities: sometimes one of us would lead virtually an entire class, sometimes the period would be more evenly divided, but while one of us was leading discussion the other would respectfully remain silent or speak only after raising a hand and being called on. Those classes all went well.

But then. . . we decided we just didn't care, or that we didn't have the time to do extensive pre-class prepping, or that we had compatible enough interests and teaching styles to just play it by ear

And it's been even better this way: we take 5-10 minutes to discuss a few things we'd like to do, and a possible order, and then we get in the classroom and just go, switching on and off as we feel like it, redirecting conversation, helping each other out, and inserting tangential observations as they seem useful.

A friend with much more co-teaching experience puts it like this: having a co-teacher is like having a roommate: no matter how much you may like a person, until you live with them, you have no idea if you can live with them.

It's not perfect. We tend to have slightly longer and slightly more awkward transitions than in a normal class, since before moving on we'll usually pause to make sure the other person doesn't still have something left to say; it's also harder to scrap or invent stuff on the fly.

And though our students are lively and engaged, we don't totally have a handle on how they experience our blended class, or how they feel about the fact that we'll get into conversations with each other in the middle of discussion, or correct each other, or interrupt to exclaim, "oh! that's so cool! I've always wondered about that!"

But, eh. We're having a good time. And I hope that our students see us learning from each other, and enjoying learning from each other--and that that makes up for the class's occasional awkwardnesses.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Back soon

Off to NYC for a mini-honeymoon: three nights, three plays, two museums, one extravagant meal. Priorities!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Getting It Published, part one billion

(Previous installments here, here, here, here and here.)

So, that was fast: I got my second outside reader's report last week--just five weeks after the editor announced they were soliciting a second review. The editor also included the new report from my first reader, which the press had told me was positive, but had wanted to hold onto until both were in.

The good news is that the first review is really, really good. Warm and enthusiastic, complimentary about the revisions I'd made between the first and second version, and with very precise but incredibly useful suggestions for further tinkering (stuff like, "in paragraph three you say X, but you don't set up X until paragraph ten; put that information sooner").

The bad news is that the second review is not good. Pretty strongly not-good, but also pretty obviously written by someone who has different interests and quite possibly a different subfield of specialization than I do.

The less-bad news is that my editor has urged me to revise in order to address "at least some of" Reviewer Two's comments, which I suspect means the press recognizes the limited utility of the second review.

And I can do that. There's still useful stuff in the review, and even if all I'm doing is shoring up my defenses and showing I'm not ignorant of possible counterclaims, those are valuable additions.

Whether I can convince Reviewer Two with my revisions, though, is another story.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Life in a northern town

I don't think I ever had specific fantasies about what the life of a professor would look like. When I was in grad school, I wasn't sure enough that I was going to get a job--and although I hoped I would, I guess I figured that I couldn't afford to imagine its specifics, lest I be disappointed.

But spending a Sunday afternoon reading on the sofa, in front of a roaring fire, is probably someone's professorial fantasy. The reality isn't half bad either--though I suspect that, in the fantasy, the reading isn't mediocre student writing.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Excitement is exhausting

I think it's accurate to say that this has been the most intellectually exciting semester I've spent at RU, with "at RU" being the key descriptor: there have been other semesters in which I've had my mind blown at conferences or in which I've made great progress on my scholarship. But although I've always valued my colleagues and students, for the most part my work environment is merely pleasurable: I have nice conversations with my colleagues; I feel happy about new curricular initiatives; I have a few new thoughts about an old text sparked by a great classroom discussion.

And I'm not discounting the value of everyday pleasure. I'm lucky to be so content. But here's what I've got going on this semester that has raised me above that baseline:

    -I'm directing a senior Honors thesis on John Donne. (I've never directed an undergraduate thesis, since only the Honors students do them.) -I'm directing an M.A. thesis on Renaissance drama. (I've never directed an M.A. thesis, since until recently I hadn't taught M.A. classes.) -I'm in my third year as advisor to our Oxford study-abroad program, and it seems to be gaining real buzz among our majors. -I'm team-teaching a genuinely incredible class, with a great co-teacher, and I'm learning a ridiculous amount from him--and he seems to feel the same way about me. Next year, we're planning on swapping classes for a semester, with me teaching Bible as Literature and him teaching Shakespeare. -We have, so far, brought in three kick-ass speakers for our reading/lecture series, gathered together other local scholars to help fête them, and gotten a nice turn-out for their events. A fourth speaker is coming in a month, and a big headliner of a senior scholar has agreed to come in the spring.

To be honest, it's all been rather exhausting, especially the last two bullet points. In addition to the sheer amount of labor involved, my colleague and I have had to cobble together funding from a dozen different sources and do a bit of politicking to get some of the stuff we need. Nevertheless, in the end everyone has been generous and helpful, and I've met some amazing local people. (Wait, RU just hired a Classical archeologist? Wait, there's a guy at the local div school with a degree from RADA who does postmodern theology? What?)

These are nice experiences to have as I'm on the verge of tenure and considering what it would mean to be here for the long term, but they've also helped me to realize that creating a community of scholars is work, and would be work wherever I went: I think I kinda assumed that at big research schools stuff just happened, or was already in place and required no real maintenance: reading groups, scholarly colloquia, works-in-progress seminars. And it's true that bigger institutions have, in addition to more faculty, more readily-available bucks and administrative staff to handle the minutiae of buying plane tickets and booking hotel reservations. But someone's always doing the work to organize--and indeed it can feel like work simply trying to find the time to attend or participate regularly.

And a little effort can go a long way. Over the course of my four undergraduate years at Instant Name Recognition U, a billion famous people came to campus: writers, artists, politicians. There were multiple theatrical performances and concerts every weekend. But I'm sure I never averaged more than two readings, talks, or performances per semester (including a cappella "jams"), and I can't recall ever being encouraged to attend such events by my professors. Maybe they felt they didn't need to. But I almost always tried to do stuff that was tied to my classes--attending optional movie screenings, for example, or visiting the art gallery to check out the actual paintings after a professor had shown us slides--and I suspect I'd have made time for a lot more events if someone I respected had said to me, "hey, you should go to this thing! I think you'd really like it!"

So it's important to me to make sure that our students at RU know about the events that are happening on campus, and get a nudge to attend them. The BFD poet and scholar (and reader of this blog!) whom we had on campus yesterday didn't just give a reading for our series or for the benefit of our 400-level students. She hung out with the young English majors in my Introduction to Literary Studies class and talked passionately about poetry for 45 minutes--how she writes, why she writes, what poetry does, and why it's worth spending time with. My students were obviously, visibly in love with her from about minute two, and couldn't stop asking her questions. A third of the class showed up for her reading that night, many of whom I suspect have never been to a public reading before.

Still, organizing this kind of shit takes work, and though I'm a conscientious person I'm not a high-energy or efficient one. I whine and complain and wish I could get eight hours of sleep a night and also have time to fuck around on the internet and just default on all my stupid meetings and those emails awaiting reply. But if this is what it takes to make my students the kind of students I want to teach, my institution the kind of place I want to work, and--oh, yeah--myself the kind of scholar and teacher I want to be, I guess I have to suck it up.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The neurotypical and the less-so

A few weeks back Tenured Radical had an important post on the ways that colleges and their faculty are (and are not) prepared for students who are on the autism spectrum. Right now, this may be a phenomenon that those of us at public colleges have the most familiarity with; in any case, I've taught an average of one student a year whom I'd identify as being on the high-functioning end of the autism/Aspergers spectrum.

But as I mentioned in my comment at TR's, I haven't generally had any more trouble with these students than I might have with a neurotypical student who for one reason or another needed extra attention or had to be gently-but-firmly told how discussion worked in our classroom. The kids on the spectrum whom I've taught are often among my smartest and most participatory students, and though they sometimes sit in the front row and blurt out answers without raising their hands, or want to monopolize conversation, or get audibly upset when they feel reproved or ignored, I've mostly learned how to deal with those things. Because honestly? In every class I have at least a couple of students, neurotypical or otherwise, who are works-in-progress or diamonds-in-the-rough or whatever metaphor you prefer for students who have equally extreme strengths and weaknesses. Autism-spectrum students present a specific set of challenges, sure, but from a teacher's perspective I wouldn't say they're more serious challenges than those presented by students who are manic-depressive, or going through problems at home, or who are just reallyreallyreally high strung.

The PROBLEM with spectrum-y students--or at least the students I've had--is therefore not the students themselves. It's the other students in the class.

By and large, the other students do not like the students on the spectrum. They sigh, roll their eyes, grumble, and make faces indicating how annoying, weird, or troublesome they find them. Once, I had a (very bright and otherwise very nice) student grab me after class to ask whether there wasn't something I could "do about" the front-row blurter. "You're handling her very well," she said. "I know it's not your fault. But she's really distracting the rest of us."

These students seem not to understand that the person they perceive as annoying is genuinely wired differently; instead, they experience her as arrogant, nonresponsive, or deliberately rude. And since disabilities are a confidential matter, there's no way for me to fully communicate why they should cut their classmate some slack or even reach out and try to get to know her.

So I'm asking the rest of you: have you experienced this problem? And if so, what have you done about it?

Monday, October 10, 2011

53 and pregnant

Because of that whole wedding + tenure thing I'm behind in my reading, but I just got around to Lisa Miller's "Parents of a Certain Age" from New York magazine a couple of weeks back. It's a troubling article, and one I haven't seen discussed around my usual haunts on the internet.

Miller's article examines the apparently growing phenomenon of older parents: women (and men, too, but it's the women who come in for most of the scrutiny) who are starting families in their late 40s and even 50s. The article's major flaw is that it talks about all older-parents-with-young-children as if they're in the same category, and they're decidedly not; one couple she profiles adopted children from Guatemala and Vietnam when they were in their mid-fifties--after raising biological children of their own. But most of the parents she's looking at are first-time parents who seem determined to have children semi-naturally, i.e., with the woman going through labor, even if the eggs are not her own and even if she has had to be medically brought out of menopause in order to get pregnant in the first place.

Now, first-time parents whose ages hover around 40 are commonplace in academia, and if Cosimo and I have kids we'll surely join their number (given that he's already in his early 40s and I'll be 37 in February and the child-having discussion is definitively tabled until we're in the same place full-time). Contrary to the seven billion articles that get written about declining fertility and how if you wait too long, you'll be sorry!, I don't think that pushing parenthood back is a sad state of affairs, either for individual women or for Women As a Whole. People who put off pregnancy are, I assume, making a conscious decision and understand the trade-offs, and those who want kids can always have children in their lives even if they can't conceive: they can adopt, they can be foster parents, they can serve as doting aunts or uncles or second parents to kids in their neighborhood or whatever. There will always be children desperate for adult love and support.

But although I absolutely do not think that it is selfish or narcissistic to decide in one's 40s or even 50s that one wants to be a parent (or at any rate, it's no more likely to be a sign of narcissicism than wanting children in one's 20s or 30s is), I confess that I don't get the desire to have one's own biological children at all costs (I understand it as a strong preference, sure, but not as a need)--and I definitely do not understand the desire to go through pregnancy for its own sake. So I see a real difference between people in their late forties/fifties who either are lucky to get pregnant naturally, or who adopt, and those people who, because it makes them feel young and bogusly fertile and more like "real" mothers, go to great expense and incur quite extreme health risks in order to carry a child--a child not necessarily sharing any of their genetic material--to term.

Maybe I'm just lazy and risk averse? But if I were to decide, around age 45, that I had the energy to chase small children around for the next decade or two, you'd better believe I wouldn't be putting myself through an exhausting and dangerous nine months of pregnancy first.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Sitting at the grown-up table

It turns out that I don't have much to say about the process of going up for promotion and tenure. Partly this is because it got subsumed in the larger craziness that was my September of wedding-planning, house-furnishing, team-teaching, and lecture-series-organizing, and partly it's because RU does a five-year review, too, which means I already had the vast majority of my materials assembled, three-hole-punched, and organized into neatly tabbed and labeled binders.

But it's also that RU has a pretty transparent and humane promotion system. I don't know that I'll get tenure, and of course I'll have nagging doubts until I get the final letter from the president or the chancellor or whoever sits at the end of the long series of approvals my file has to go through. But I've more than met the standards for tenure, and in my time in the department seven or eight people have gone up, all of them successfully.

Moreover, the tenured Flavia just isn't going to be greatly different from the Flavia of today. I experienced joining the tenure track as a radical shift in my self-identity, and one that it took a while for me to come to terms with--as the early years of this blog indicate. But we have such a young department and such a mutually supportive one that I've never felt that being untenured made me a kid, waiting to be invited to the grown-up table; I was already chairing a major committee in my third year on the job.

But I'm looking forward to what it might mean to have a bigger, official stake in my institution and in my community. RU is a healthy institution, and one that is genuinely committed to the humanities (English and History are the college's two biggest majors, have the strongest faculty, and together we're getting the first new academic building to be built on campus in decades--how many institutions can say that?). Our students are an interesting mix, and it's my impression that the best students we get are better every year than they were the year before. Being tenured at RU would mean really committing to this city and this region, its students and its workforce--and as someone who just bought a goddamn house here, I've already started thinking in those terms.

I don't know that I'll be at RU forever. If Cosimo can't get a job in the area, we'll start looking for places that might want both of us. But I'm comfortable committing to RU and this region--if RU wants to commit to me!--for a goodly while to come.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Wedding snapshots

So the whole wedding thing happened: parental and sibling meet & greet, rehearsal, rehearsal dinner, ceremony, reception, Sunday brunch at our place. And it was awesome. Somehow, although I'd thought through every damn detail with an eye toward its being fun, running smoothly, etc., I never paused to imagine my own pleasure. That is, there were things I thought would suck, and things I thought would be cool, but I was always imagining the events from the perspective of a guest. Turns out? When you design exactly the wedding you'd like to attend, it's really fun for you to attend it!

Herewith a few observations:

-The idea that weddings require gifts is deep-seated. We got gifts from people we've never met (my brother's girlfriend's parents), people we know only slightly (the parents of friends), and a whole bunch of people we love but couldn't invite. Maybe this shouldn't have astonished me, but it did.

-On the other hand, we got some sweet gifts. And lots of bucks.

-Advocates for same-sex marriage are right in wanting in on this--not the gifts per se, but whatever it is that causes people to feel a unique stake in relationships that are publicly validated and celebrated. (But the gifts are awesome too. Waterford crystal, yo!)

-The wedding coordinator provided by the church was horrible: exactly the opposite of everyone else who works for the church--including the priest--in her reflexive wedding orthodoxy. She acted like our procession (best man/best lady, Cosimo's parents, my parents, us) was the weirdest and most confusing thing in the world; she didn't know how to handle seating arrangements when there wasn't a parade of attendants, and she couldn't imagine how the priest could possibly introduce us to the congregation without using the formula "Mr. and Mrs. Cosimo de Medici."

-Fortunately, that was nearly our only encounter with that kind of attitude.

-The downside of doing everything yourself: you have to do everything yourself. And you wind up owning 12 white tablecloths and 14 pots of chrysanthemums.

-Wedding cannoli are infinitely superior to wedding cake.

-Happiness is having friends who, when you make a 4-hour dance mix (just in case!), stay, dancing, until the goddamn last song.

-Also, friends who bust out their break dancing moves. And aren't afraid of the air guitar.

-In fact, let's just say that happiness = friends who feel like family and family who feel like friends. And a weekend spent expanding both circles is extra-special awesome.

-I promised I'd give the price tag, so here it is: $6,200, for literally everything involved in a church ceremony and a luncheon reception for 75 people--all the way down to ring-sizing and postage and printing costs.

-It was a great weekend and it was exactly the wedding we wanted, but it's over and that's fine. There's life after wedding planning, and thank goodness.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Promissory note

I have Things To Say--about teaching, about tenure-applying, about the fact that a "standard" bridal bouquet (which I am not getting) costs $85--but dudes. My wedding is a week from tomorrow. My tenure file is due three days later. Nothing longer than a tweet is getting written until all that's past.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Stupid and contagious

The recent spate of articles commemorating the 20th anniversary of Nirvana's Nevermind has reminded me that I was once, inadvertently and without really trying, extremely hip in my musical tastes. See, I went to high school just outside of Seattle in the early 1990s, and although I didn't go to concerts I listened to the local alternative radio station for hours every day. This meant that when I arrived at college I didn't know shit about the Beatles--but I could talk about Mudhoney and Candlebox, Jane's Addiction and The Sundays, and I owned every album by the Smiths. If you'd asked me, I've had said that Nirvana and Pearl Jam were okay, but they so saturated the airwaves that they didn't seem particularly cool. Knowing about them said nothing special about one's musical taste.

In the spring of 1992, my junior year of high school, I toured a liberal arts college in the northeast and stayed overnight in the dorms. The woman who was hosting me had an album playing on her stereo as we chatted. I hadn't really been listening to it, but it struck me as boring and rather square: some woman singing and playing the piano. Then I though I recognized the lyrics: was that--it couldn't be--"Smells Like Teen Spirit"? I exclaimed aloud, and said something like, "Oh! This is a cover. What a crazy version."

"You know this song?" said my host. "Yeah, I didn't know it was a cover until like last month. I hadn't heard the original. I just really like Tori Amos."

It was actually and literally impossible for me to believe that someone hadn't heard "Smells Like Teen Spirit" almost a year after the song had been released--or that some weirdo acoustic version (it would be a few more years before I discovered that Tori Amos was cool) might be someone's first point of contact with Nirvana.

But as I would learn, hipness is a moving target.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Tedium and terrorism

I narrated my 9/11 experiences on this blog five years ago, and I can't retell them any better now, nor do I wish to try.

But here's what else I remember: amidst all the fear and anxiety and what-the-fuck-do-we-do-now, I remember feeling exasperated. I was exasperated when I couldn't get through to my friends in New York because the phone lines were jammed. I was exasperated that I might not be able to visit the city the next weekend, as I'd planned. I was exasperated that my then-partner (a heavy, late sleeper) wouldn't wake up when I called him repeatedly that morning, and I was exasperated that my parents, whom I did wake up, didn't seem to understand what I was telling them.

I was exasperated because I didn't know what to do, and exasperated because I did know what to do, and that included reconciling with people I didn't want to reconcile with. Late at night on September 10th, I'd written an email to someone I hadn't spoken to in a while and who I felt at the time had wronged me. It was a cold, hard message, laced with sarcasm and self-righteousness. I rewrote it several times, but had second thoughts about sending it. I hit "save" and went to bed. When I rediscovered the message a day or two later, my first response was annoyance: the recipient had family in New York, and now I couldn't send even a mild version of my original message. I deleted it and wrote a short note asking after the recipient's family and friends and saying that we should be in touch.

Fucking terrorists, I thought, and hit "send."

But we were all exasperated. Exasperated that our loved ones lived far away, that we couldn't travel to see them, that we still had to study for our orals and teach classes when we didn't know whether any of that mattered any more--but also because we wanted badly for those things to be all that mattered: our everyday concerns and preoccupations. We wanted to be able to be self-absorbed, as always, and not vaguely and ineffectually focused on everyone else, on the country, and on whatever was going to happen next.

Exasperation might be a selfish response, but ten years out it strikes me as a better one than fear or rage, at least for those of us who weren't directly touched by loss. It's better, certainly, than the maudlin, luxurious catharsis we're invited to engage in every time September 11th is mentioned (and which I succumb to as much as anyone, but with as little right as most). To be exasperated is not to be paralyzed, and not to be rash. Exasperation measures the distance between how things are and how we wish they were, and if it's not the noblest of emotions it's far from the most venal.

Fucking terrorists.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Getting It Published, Part 5

When last we left our heroine, she had sent her book manuscript out to a publisher, gotten a somewhat ambivalent outside review, and was asked to revise and resubmit. She revised, she resubmitted, and they sent it back out for review. (Previous installments here, here, here, and here. At the rate things are going, this enthralling series will run to 27 parts. Cancel your subscription while you still can.)

Earlier this week I heard from the editor, who told me they'd sent the revised manuscript back to the original reviewer, who gave it a positive report--and they would now proceed to send it to a second reviewer.

So, yay! Or I think yay. On the one hand, I'm surprised and maybe a little embarrassed that it's been this easy: that one of my fantasy, top-choice publishers was interested enough to want to see the full manuscript, that they remained interested after it got a good-but-not-ready-for-prime-time review, and especially that the original reviewer wound up liking my revisions enough to recommend publication. (For various reasons, I did not think they were sending it back to that reviewer, and if I had known I would have spent the past three months with a deadly knot of anxiety in my innards.)

On the other hand, this process is looking to drag on a good while, and half of me wonders whether this isn't just a postponement of the inevitable: maybe the second reviewer will be lukewarm, and maybe then they'll send it to a third, and around the time of oh, say, my 40th birthday, the press will reject it definitively and I'll have to start over somewhere else.

So if there's a take-away lesson here for those who have yet to try to get a book published--which I think was why I originally began this series?--it's that academic publishing is super-duper slow, even when it's not actually that slow (the turnaround time for my reader was 4 months the first time and less than 3 months the second time), and even when all the news is basically good and even when you have a product you're confident about.

Because to recap: I first developed the germ of the idea for this book ten years ago (almost to the day: my orals were on September 7th, 2001, and we had to open our orals with a 60-second bullshitty account of what we might write a dissertation about). Five years ago I finished the dissertation. A year and a half ago I sent out book proposals to a few presses--and even if I get the best news in the world in December, it'll probably still be another two years before my book is in print.

I don't need an inked contract for tenure. But right now I feel like a parent whose moody late-adolescent kid is still living at home: I love the kid and all, but I'm ready for him to get the hell out of my basement.

Monday, September 05, 2011

The dignity of work

There are a lot of reasons that I'm (still) a practicing Catholic, and though I don't generally feel it necessary to enumerate, explain, or defend those reasons, here's one, in honor of the day:
Economic life is not meant solely to multiply goods produced and increase profit or power; it is ordered first of all to the service of persons, of the whole person, and of the entire human community. . . . In work, the person exercises and fulfills in part the potential inscribed in his nature.*

The economy must serve people, not the other way around. Work is more than a way to make a living; it is a form of continuing participation in God's creation. If the dignity of work is to be protected, then the basic rights of workers must be respected--the right to productive work, to decent and fair wages, to organize and join unions, to private property, and to economic initiative.**
Happy Labor Day, all.

*From the Catechism of the Catholic Church
**Statement by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

Sunday, September 04, 2011

One down, thirteen to go

Made it through the first week of classes, though not without some reentry problems.

My first day of classes, I not only forgot to pack a water bottle, but also food of any sort. Indeed, when I left my house at 11 a.m. I thought, "I ate a real breakfast--I don't need to bring a lunch!" This, although I knew I wouldn't be home until at least 7 p.m.

And then (without having eaten lunch or dinner) I drove 150 round-trip highway miles to pick up a pair of shoes being held at a mall in the next city over. Shoes that, in the end, do not work with my wedding dress and will have to be returned.

I also forgot to order one of the required texts for one of my courses. A text that my students need to start reading immediately.

And I forgot how insufferably, unbearably hot it is the first week or two of classes--or maybe the stuffy rooms are the result of RU's cost-saving electrical curtailment program. In any case, my Shakespeare class is crammed into a tiny room that's a million degrees even with the doors and windows open, and my team-taught class, though it got assigned to a gorgeous new experimental classroom, is also a million degrees.

And, oh yeah: there's that whole six-hours-of-teaching-on-Thursdays thing. (Two ninety-minute classes back-to-back, then a break, and then 195 minutes all at a go.) I used to teach this schedule all the time, but it's been a couple of years and I'd forgotten why I'd petitioned so passionately to be moved to a Tuesday-Wednesday-Thursday schedule.

Maybe next week will be easier. And if not, I've still got a bunch of gin and a bunch of tonic.

Monday, August 29, 2011

More on rooming with others

Today's New York Times opinion page features an essay that makes nearly the opposite claim regarding randomly-assigned roommates as your humble blogger (and some of her commenters) made two weeks ago. According to Dalton Conley, the kids today are over-managing their lives! they need more serendipity! and if it doesn't come in the form of a randomly-assigned roommate, they'll never be able to play well with others or appreciate diversity!

Okay, I exaggerate. Slightly. But Conley's essay, in addition to not taking the problems inherent in randomly-assigned roommates very seriously, just isn't an accurate imagining of young people's lives or even the college experience (this, despite the fact that Conley is a professor at NYU). Rather, it's a nostalgic look back at the benefits that Conley himself received from rooming, in the 1980s, with someone very unlike himself--confusedly conflated with a larger and basically unrelated worry about the ways that The Modern World has eliminated serendipity. Conley speaks about how he knows people "who can't bear to eat in a restaurant they haven't researched on Yelp," and laments that "Google now tailors searches to exactly what it thinks you want to find," but from where I sit it sounds like he's mourning the diminished opportunities for serendipity in his own life, or the lives of those in his peer group (do 18-year-olds fetishize Yelp? I think not), rather than providing a realistic picture of life as a young person living among thousands of other young people.

As we age, we do indeed tend to associate more and more with people like us or at least already known to us. We have fixed groups of friends, we have families, we have partners, we have colleagues, and we tend to be fixed more stably in a community or at least in a personal and professional identity. But college freshmen meet people unlike themselves all the time: in the dorm, in the classroom, in extracurricular activities, in the dining hall. Many of them (though certainly not all of them) are actively looking for new interests, ideas, identities, and they turn to their peers (and, yes, to technology) to help them learn more about a particular band, movie-maker, political position, or religious belief.

Moreover, any roommate is different from oneself, just by definition. Even someone who shares all one's tastes is likely to have different habits, personality quirks, and simply to manifest his or her presence at inconvenient times. It's hard for me to believe that a randomly-assigned roommate is actually significantly better at teaching one how to live with other people than a roommate one has had some limited say in choosing. The number of people I know who lost friends over shared-housing drama indicates that "difference" isn't always recognizable from the outside.

Yes, as Conley cheerfully notes in his closing, most people who wind up with "the roommate from hell" do survive, and some may even wind up with "great stories to tell [their] future spouse." But that's hardly an argument in favor of random roommate assignment.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Coming soon to a theater near you

As I've mentioned before, I'm co-editing a scholarly edition. It's to be the first volume in a multi-volume "complete works" published by a major press, and the work we're editing is the author's best-known. It's well-beloved and frequently taught, but there's never been an edition that adequately addresses the work's multiple versions and composition history. If we do it right, ours will become the standard critical edition.

Fucking impressive, right? That's some hot shit right there!

Our contract confirms my self-regard: there are pages and pages itemizing our royalties for hardcover, paperback, e-book, online, and book club versions--modest percentages, but not when you expect to sell millions--concluding with a paragraph that details where the really big money comes from:
All Other Subsidiary Rights not mentioned above (including without limitation Anthology, Quotation, Mechanical Reproduction, Serialization, Broadcasting, Television, Dramatic, Film, Video, Microform, Digest, Strip Cartoon Picturization, and Merchandising Rights).
Book club sales? I say yes.

Film adaptation? Totally.

T-shirts, lunch boxes, and action figures? No doubt.

But the idea of a strip cartoon version is just silly.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Rooming with others

Students the land over are packing up their things and heading away to college. And seeing those heavy-laden station wagons on the interstate always makes me wonder: taking eighteen-year-olds, removing them from family and friends and forcing them to live with a complete stranger in a tiny room--who still thinks that's a good idea?

Most shared-room situations don't end in tragedy, as the pairing of Tyler Clementi and Dharun Ravi at Rutgers did last fall. Some people (and I'm one of them) make fast and lifelong friends with their randomly-assigned roommates. But even those people who don't have serious problems with their freshman-year roommates can still find the ordinary stressors attendant upon going away to college compounded by the stress of trying to figure out how to live with another person.

And I think it's bizarre how sanguine we adults are about this process, and indeed how little thought we give to it. We tend to talk about rooming with strangers as useful and character-building, a way of learning to negotiate adult responsibilities. And that's certainly true (and it's also true that most young people will live with roommates or housemates well into their twenties). But I have plenty of students whose first weeks of college are made infinitely more complicated, and sometimes acutely traumatic, as a result of living in close quarters with someone they don't like, or who doesn't like them, or simply someone who has a radically different schedule or set of habits. Just sharing a room with someone you don't know and don't connect with--when you're already homesick and uncertain and wondering if you'll ever make any friends--can feel profoundly isolating.

Most young people going away to college today have never shared a room with another person. And we can say that this is a sign of class privilege, or that it leads to kids who are spoiled or selfish or maladaptive or whatever, but it's not a sign of being spoiled not to be prepared to do something that you've never had to do before. Once upon a time, the young men who went away to college tended to have gone to boarding school--or they'd lived in barracks in the military or were expecting to live in them after they graduated. Once upon a time, it was common for siblings to sleep two or three to a bedroom. But that's rarely the reality these days.

Don't get me wrong: I think dormitory living is useful for all the reasons other people allege, as is being thrown in with people you haven't elected to live with (and whom you might never elect to live with again). But there are smarter and less smart ways to organize freshman dorms. I'd argue that no freshman should ever be placed in an isolated double. Quads or sextets--two or three doubles with a common living space or some combination of singles and doubles with a common living space--make the most sense to me. That way students aren't stuck, alone, in a room with just one other person.

I'd also like to see us be more attentive to the difficulties of adjusting to dormitory life. Most roommate complaints aren't serious, in the sense that they don't require any intervention, and most such problems will pass. But that doesn't mean that there aren't real emotional and sometimes academic costs.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

The rich and educationally advantaged reply

The subject of this post has replied. Comments to that post are now closed (I have comments sent to moderation for all posts that are more than a couple of weeks old, to cut down on spam), but I published Ms. K's because it's only fair that someone who discovers she's being discussed by a bunch of random people on the internet--in a discussion that will turn up whenever people Google her name--be permitted a public response.

However, further comments to that thread will get deleted. If Ms. K's NYT letter was already a bit of a fish, barrel situation, that barrel is now crammed full. I don't take much pleasure in unequal contests.

Late papers and guests will be penalized at instructor's discretion

Planning a wedding liturgy is an awful lot like designing a syllabus. There's a set form with a variety of constraints, but so many moving and movable parts. What readings? What prayers? What hymns? In what order, and done by whom? And once you settle on all those individually-appealing parts, you have to decide if they work well together and add up to a coherent whole. At least there are no assignments to devise, no stern policies to articulate, and no anticipatory weariness at the thought of all the grading that awaits.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Ladies who change their names: feminist traitors? (Now with data!)

As a long-time reader of the New York Times Sunday wedding page, I like to think that I have a strong, albeit impressionistic sense of the mating and marriage patterns of the ruling class. Since the mid-90s, for example, I've seen a steady decline in pairings between investment bankers and grade-school-teachers-with-art-history-degrees-from-Brown, and a corresponding rise in the number of couples who met in law school or on the job and who seem to be professional peers. I've also kept a general eye on such things as age at first marriage and the frequency with which a woman takes her husband's name--but those are harder to gain an accurate sense of without tracking the numbers.

So this weekend, my dears, I decided to do some valuable procrastination in the service of collecting cold hard marriage data. I skimmed the 500 most recent NYT wedding announcements, from May 1st until yesterday, and recorded how many women in heterosexual partnerships kept their last names, took their husbands', or did something in between. I also recorded their ages.

And I'll state up front that I came to this project with a strong prejudice in favor of women keeping their birth names. About half of my own friends have taken their husbands' names, and that's cool: it's their choice, I'd never tell anyone what to do, blah blah--but I'm not going to pretend that, internally, I've had an entirely neutral reaction to what the women of my acquaintance chose to do in this arena. Moreover, it's been hard not to notice that lots of the women who submit announcements to the NYT and do take their husbands' names are women in their 30s and even 40s, women who went to fancy schools and seem to be high-powered doctors and lawyers--not just, as I would have assumed (and as actual real studies have found), younger women or women with less fully developed professional identities.

So armed with a primitive spreadsheet, I decided to investigate. I can break the numbers down in detail in the comments if anyone cares, but the short version is this: of 450 heterosexual marriage announcements, 75% clearly indicated whether the bride was changing or keeping her name. Of that number, 30% kept their birth name outright, with an additional 10% "continu[ing] to use [their] name professionally"; hyphenating their last names with their husbands'; forming a new shared surname; or indicating that they would be using their maiden name as a middle name, à la Hillary Rodham Clinton. The remaining 60% took their husbands' names.

Moreover, from this sample, there is not a strong correlation between the age of the bride and her decision to keep or change her name. Women who got married at age 26 and younger showed almost exactly the same 40/60 split as the data set as a whole.


The number of women keeping their own names surprised me; it was higher than I'd expected. But more importantly, the process of skimming 500 announcements, including an increasing number celebrating same-sex unions, made me. . . kinda not care any more. There's nothing I can imagine that would make me want to change my own name--but then, I'm in a profession where name-changing after one has established some kind of professional identity is extremely uncommon. However, I'm coming around to the position that for most women this isn't a major feminist issue.

This is not to say that I think the choice is negligible, or that it doesn't relate to important feminist issues (see this post by Historiann for a marriage in which the wife's decision not to change her name revealed what an insecure douchebag her husband was). But perhaps we shouldn't insist on its symbolic importance in every instance.

Here are factors to consider:
  1. Women don't lose their maiden names or identities upon adopting a husband's name as completely as they once did. The internet has a lot to do with this. I've noticed that most of the women whom I went to high school with, virtually all of whom changed their names upon marriage, now identify themselves on Facebook according to the formula "Firstname Maidenname Lastname." This doesn't mean they've actually retained their maiden names legally, or that they use them professionally (my own mother, who has never to my knowledge used her maiden name in the 40-odd years since she got married at age 21, identifies herself thusly on Facebook). However, this informal retention of one's birth name is, I think, part of a larger, pragmatic trend: if adopting their spouse's name seems important to many women, so does retaining a clear link to their birth name.

  2. The rise in legally-recognized same-sex unions. Though the sample size here is even smaller, and it's hard to tell what trends will develop over time, right now it's pretty rare for same-sex couples to change their names upon marriage (and when they do, it's usually by linking both names with a hyphen). How gay and lesbian couples choose to communicate their commitment is bound to have an effect on the rest of us, if only by making a wider range of options seem normal.

  3. It's not all-or-nothing. Related to both of the above, I'm interested in the various compromises I've seen in the selection of wedding announcements I perused: women who continue to use their names professionally, women who merged their names somehow with their husbands', and a tiny minority of women who chose entirely new surnames for both themselves and their husbands. This strikes me as an age in which there's a lot of experimentation with naming conventions. So, you know: let a thousand flowers bloom.

  4. Retaining one's birth name upon marriage may remain a minority custom, but it's now a well-established one. Thus it's unlikely suddenly to die out, be thought of as irremediably bizarre, or cause serious, regular problems for women who don't change their names. (Note: I reserve the right to retract this claim if, in a few years, I encounter such problems.)

So in sum: if you're fighting the good fight at home or in the workplace and making generally gender-conscious decisions? I really don't care what you call yourself.

But as always, readers, I trust you to tell me how I'm wrong

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Team teaching bleg

This fall a colleague and I will be team-teaching a course of our own design, as well as running a related series of public lectures, readings, and other events. I expect it to be a breathtaking amount of work (during the same semester that I'm also getting married and going up for tenure!), but I'm really looking forward to it.

The course is keyed to the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, and it focuses on Early Modern readings, rewritings, and adaptations of the Bible. It's an exciting course largely because it's one that neither of us could confidently teach alone--he brings the Bible, I bring the Renaissance--but it's daunting for exactly the same reason that it's exciting. How do we mind-meld successfully enough to make this a coherent class? And how do we prevent this one course from taking over our entire lives?

This, dear readers, is where you come in. If you've team-taught before, what practical strategies did you use (before the semester began, during your weekly lesson planning, or in the actual classroom) that made your class work? Or what do you wish you had done that you didn't?

Friday, July 29, 2011

Flavia's guide to foreign travel

(Note: I do not always follow my own advice.)
  1. Unless you're traveling for research purposes and/or have a place of your own (i.e., not a hotel room), the ideal trip is 12-15 days long.
  2. Never stay for fewer than three days in any one city.
  3. Never visit more than two different countries in a single trip. This is especially true if those countries involve different languages.
  4. Your first 12 hours in any new city will be annoying and cranky-making, even if you're not suffering from jet lag. Roll with it.
  5. Sight-seeing is exhausting. If you're walking all over tarnation every day, budget more than 8 hours of sleep per night.
  6. You must learn how to say at least "please," "thank you," "excuse me," and "the check" in the local language.
  7. Every country has its own marvelous wines, liqueurs, and/or beers. Get to know them intimately.
  8. Tourists are a(n extremely tedious) breed unto themselves. Happily, American tourists are generally no more annoying or offensive than anyone else.
  9. If you dress well, you will get treated better.
  10. Don't just see sights. Do stuff.
  11. If service industry personnel routinely address you in a language other than English, you're doing it right.
  12. If you're traveling in a tourist-rich environment, and especially in a (European) country with a minority language, your best bet when squeezing through crowds, etc., is to say, "Pardon!" in as French an accent as you can muster. Everyone understands it, and you can be as peremptory as you like.
  13. Don't worry about doing it all. Assume that any trip to a new place is merely your first visit.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Interruption in blog service/commencement of tweet service

Cosimo and I are in NYC for all of 36 hours--just long enough to catch Mark Rylance in Jerusalem, hit the McQueen show, take advantage of Restaurant Week, and grab drinks with a few friends--before flying to Prague tomorrow night. (I know! I'm glamorous like that. We tear up the Long Island City Howard Johnson.)

I'm unlikely to be blogging while abroad, but it's conceivable that I might be tweeting. I haven't been impressed with Twitter to date, but all the fuss about the boring Google+ made me wonder whether I might be missing something. So I signed up. If you long breathlessly to follow my every move (or, let's be honest: a few very occasional, selected examples of my moves), check out the sidebar or add me to your designated twitsters.

It may all be a terrible mistake. But you'll get to say you were there! Catch ya on the flipside.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

City living

When I started looking at houses, I noticed that a lot of the real estate listing for homes I was interested in included some variation on the phrase "nice city home": charming city home, perfect city home, etc. It didn't quite seem to be a euphemism, but more of a necessary descriptor: "a house, but in the city! If that's the kind of thing you want."

Most of the time, when people talk about living in "cities"--and especially about the difficulty of living in cities or the impossibility of raising kids there and so on--they seem to imagine that they're talking about living in apartment buildings. Not necessarily apartment towers, but places where you're schlepping up a lot of stairs or contending with an elevator, where it's an expensive pain in the ass to have a car.

But living in a city does not mean living in the urban core, which isn't where most of the housing in most American cities is anyway. A lot of city neighborhoods involve single-family homes on leafy streets. They may be sited pretty close to one another and they may not have private, covered parking--but they have porches and backyards, attics and basements, and more than enough space to raise a family. They've got the benefits of the suburbs, in other words, while also being walkable and neighborly, with shopping and dining nearby.

And if "city homes" in your particular city are anything like those in mine, they're half the price of homes just a mile away, in the technical suburbs. They're also, probably, handsomer and more architecturally interesting.

So in many ways, "city home" seems code for "a nice house as long as you don't care that the city schools suck." Except, at half the price? I've done the math. I could buy a city house, send two kids to the local (highly-rated) Catholic school for all four years of high school, and still be ahead financially relative to someone who bought in the suburbs. Actually, I could send two kids there for junior high and high school.

But it's not just about the schools. Ultimately, city living means "economic diversity": there are people who don't keep their houses up, or renters with innumerable family members coming and going. There are people on the street at midnight--heading home from a bar or restaurant or just from visiting their friends--who have loud conversations under your window. Your neighbors have friends who honk, repeatedly, rather than ringing the doorbell or using their cell phones. And let's face it: there are more potholes, crappier post offices, and generally poorer service.

And I guess most bourgeois don't have a high tolerance for economic diversity and a lack of sufficient buffering from the lives of others (I also think that many people who insist that there's so little space in the city do so somewhat disingenuously, as a cover for a resistance to city living that has more to do with class and race). But it's still hard for me to understand, because I can't imagine wanting to live anywhere else. I love that I'm out in public and yet in private when I'm having a drink with a friend on my front porch. I love that the neighbor kids play basketball in the street and in my driveway, and that when I'm outside or when the windows are open, I can hear snatches of conversations from several different houses. (I even kinda love the young woman across the way who has shouted cell-phone arguments while sitting in her car with the windows rolled down.) I love that this is a mixed-race neighborhood. I love that I can walk to a couple of bars, a barbeque joint, and a pizza shop--as well as a store specializing in exotic reptiles.

I moved scarcely more than a mile, from a neighborhood with more apartment buildings than single-family homes. But somehow, in acquiring a house and a porch and a yard, I moved more decisively into a city.

Monday, July 11, 2011

It's worse, somehow, than "URGENT! PROBLEM!!"

Maybe I should be pleased to open my inbox and see an email from a former student with the subject line "Platonism." But I'm not. I'm just not.

Friday, July 08, 2011

The life of the mind owes back taxes

I underreported my income on my 2009 tax return. It was money from an external research fellowship, and I both realized and didn't realize what I was doing.

When I'd had fellowship income in the past, I'd tried to report it but had nearly always had a difficult time doing so: I wouldn't receive tax forms from the granting institution in January, and when I'd call they'd persist in not sending me tax forms. Twice I was referred to an office with a phone line that was never attended and on which I couldn't leave a message. Upon digging through my award notifications, I would also find ambiguously-worded statements such as, "this may or may not count as income and may or may not need to be reported to the Internal Revenue Service."

Nevertheless, I dutifully but half-assedly reported the income. Since I hadn't received a 1099 form, I didn't have a tax I.D. number or a proper address, but I listed the dollar amount and some version of the institution's name. And every time, I owed a chunk of money for my pains.

Based on this lackadaisical institutional reporting, I more or less came to the conclusion that fellowship income must not really need to be reported. The institution that awarded me a fellowship in the winter of 2008-09 also did not send me a 1099 form, and this time I didn't bother to try to track one down. Their checks and check receipts had suggested that they were deliberately underreporting what they paid me, so I figured that if there was a tax loophole here, they were definitely taking it.

Also, it was a decent amount of additional income. I would have owed hundreds of dollars rather than getting back hundreds of dollars. So I didn't report it.


When I got the notice of underpayment from the IRS this past spring, I acknowledged its justice: I owed $1,000 in back taxes, plus $37.00 in interest. I wasn't happy about it, but I knew that I was the one at fault. I called the IRS immediately to see whether I could pay in installments over the 90-day window I was given. They told me that I could, and I wrote a check for $350.00 that night.

But it didn't turn out to be so easy. The Treasury Department has been cashing my checks and then, a week or two later, cutting me checks for the same amount (plus interest!): "OVERTAX REFUND," they tell me. I kept sending them checks, for increasingly large amounts, until last month I paid the full $1,037.00 in one lump sum. Last week I got a letter by certified mail telling me that I was delinquent in my repayment. I called, and was told that it was probably an error, since my account had been credited. Yesterday I got a refund check for $1,037.91.

Graduate school did nothing to prepare me for this.