Friday, November 30, 2012

Flailing all over the page

My Milton students are freaking out about their final essay. Part of this is about the essay's length and part of it's about the period and the subject matter--but a huge amount of their anxiety boils down to the problem of choosing and developing a suitable topic. Because to their great consternation, I didn't supply them with any prompts.

Now, obviously, I didn't just send them off to write 15-20 pages on whateverthehell; I gave detailed guidelines and instructions--a sense of what makes a topic both broad enough and focused enough, of how many sources to use, of how to go about contextualizing historically and generically--and over the past few weeks they've submitted prospecti, annotated bibliographies, draft thesis statements, and that kind of thing. By now their ideas are shaping up. But yeah: their original proposals were pretty rough.

I expected that. It's part of the process. What I didn't expect was to identify as strongly as I have with their perplexity and frustration.

Because right now I'm in the same position. A few months ago I signed up for an SAA seminar that seemed more or less up my alley, but I had no back-burner projects that were suitable and hence no idea what I'd write about. All semester long, I've been trying to generate ideas based on the plays I've been reading with my Shakespeare class. At last, I came up with two different. . . things. Not ideas. Not even topics. Just a vague conviction that there are patterns there that might mean something. You know?

Well, no: you wouldn't know. Because neither is anything I can articulate in coherent sentences. All I can do is point and say, "There! in All's Well that Ends Well! And in Twelfth Night! And in Measure for Measure! All three of these moments are, like, uh, [RANDOM STRING OF NOUNS]. Isn't that interesting??"

Which is okay--after thirteen years in the profession, I know that, like most of my students, my ideas always begin in stupid fumbling incoherence. The problem is that, for me, the blind fumbling lasts for a really long time.

And the bigger problem is that I have to submit an abstract of my paper topic. Tomorrow.

All this past week, I was seriously considering withdrawing rather than having to submit something idiotic and incoherent. Also, what if it's totally obvious and someone's already written about it? Or what if I wind up changing my topic entirely between now and February? What's the point of writing something now, when I don't know anything about anything?

And then I realized that I'd heard exactly these same objections from my students, and that I told them that's the point of the prospectus, or the abstract, or the draft thesis: you flail around a bunch until eventually you flail less.

And by God, if my students can flail, so can I.

Heads-up to my seminar leader: expect [RANDOM STRING OF NOUNS] in your in-box any time now.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Lee, Blanford, Ludlow, Charlton & Natick

I've driven virtually the entire length of the Mass Pike four times in the past eight days--and given that this year's MLA is in Boston, I'll be driving it TWICE MORE over the next five weeks.

Pro: next time, this damn semester will be over.

Con: next time, there will not be eight pies awaiting me (or a freezer full of leftovers returning with me).

Pro: I'll be staying in a swanky hotel, right in downtown Boston.

Con: I'll be spending almost two full days in a hotel room, conducting interviews.

Pro: So many friends will be there--bloggy, grad schooly, and otherwise. And I really do love MLA.

Con: I hate the new MLA dates almost as much as I love MLA.

Pro: Unlike most conferences I attend, this one is fully paid for.

Con: Boston in January. Who thought that was a good idea?

Eh. I'm sure I'll be in a better mood come January. Or at least after I've had more pie.

Friday, November 16, 2012

College recruitment

It's college-application season, which means it's also college-application-interview season. This is the fourth year I've served as an alumna interviewer for my alma mater, and I continue to have somewhat conflicted feelings about it. I do, after all, teach at a local college, and part of me feels weirdly disloyal to my institution and to my students--even though there's only a very small overlap between the students who apply to Regional U and the students who apply to INRU.* Another part of me feels pre-emptively defensive: I remember what it was like to be a high school senior snobbishly passing judgment on the local colleges and universities. And a third part of me wonders why, of all the things I could volunteer to do, I'm doing this: feeding the hungry and clothing the naked it ain't.

But I enjoy doing the interviews and I enjoy learning more about the community to which I belong. It's interesting to learn where bookish teenagers go for fun, what kinds of educational extras middle-class parents are (and are not) willing to pay for, and how the local high schools compare. By now I know which school has an IB program, which has a state-championship sailing team, and which holds its classes in three-hour blocks.

Also, I'm good at it. Unlike some of the alumni interviewers in the region (dudes who got an MBA or MD thirty years ago, never knew anything about their institution's undergraduate program, and have no idea how to evaluate a high school student's "promise"), I know INRU well: I spent ten years there, the last three of them teaching undergraduates. I can craft an effective prose profile. And much of my day-to-day life involves working with, trying to draw out, and get a feel for the potential of late-adolescents and young adults. Relative to the average, my admission success rate is high.

So I suppose that I'm serving my community by advocating for kids who, however talented and sometimes economically comfortable they may be, aren't connected to the centers of elite power. Many live in semi-rural communities, most attend public schools, and few have traveled widely. A good number of the students who leave will never come back, but they help to diversify INRU and whatever centers of power they may wind up in--and I guess that still counts as raising the region's profile.

And there are other rewards. A while back I interviewed a kid who just didn't want to talk about himself. He was affable and laid-back, and I quickly got a sense of his wide-ranging talents, but he refused to spin the autobiographical soundbites that lots of college applicants specialize in. He didn't want to boast, he didn't want to say much about the unusual personal hardship he'd overcome, and for the first 30 minutes I felt like I had no sense of his actual personality. Finally I asked him if he had any questions for me, and the entire dynamic of the conversation shifted. He asked me at least three times as many questions as any kid I've interviewed before or since--and they were deeply thoughtful, sometimes rather personal questions: about my own experiences at INRU and my impressions of its students and its social and intellectual dynamics. He listened intently, he asked follow-up questions, and I suddenly understood why this unassuming kid was captain of virtually every sports team, why he'd been elected student-body president, and why he insisted that pretty much everyone at his high school got along: the nerds and the jocks and the goths and so on. It was pure, natural leadership--not showy, not demanding, not domineering--of a sort I'd never seen before.

Interviewing for INRU also helps remind me that students are students: the kids I interview aren't much different from the kids I teach. And most are worth getting to know.

*For those joining us late, Instant-Name-Recognition University is the stupid pseudonym I invented for my alma mater seven years ago--i.e., too late to change it now.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Duking it in dark corners

I'm teaching the comedies and romances half of the Shakespeare sequence this semester, and one of the issues that this particular batch of students has found most fascinating is the number of rulers who assert control ineffectively or unrealistically, attempting to set limits to human emotions or behaviors that simply can't be legislated. Maybe it's the fact that it's a election year, but my students seem endlessly interested in characters like the King of Navarre in Love's Labour's Lost (who pledges himself and his friends to three years of fasting, study, and isolation from women); the King of France in All's Well that Ends Well (a well-meaning but simultaneously autocratic and impotent ruler who imagines himself as a maker and enforcer of marriages); and Duke Vincentio in Measure for Measure (who, among other things, manipulates characters into excesses of grief, repentance, and forgiveness).

This pattern interests me, too, though I'm less compelled by the spectacle of bad leadership than by the way that Shakespeare dramatizes the failures of self-knowledge and the mania for control that often accompanies those failures. Frankly, it's an impulse that I recognize in myself. I'm not a "controlling" personality in the usual sense of that term, but I do have a hard time letting things lie. I want to fix everything, immediately, and that includes interpersonal relationships.

Indeed, I'd say that my greatest weakness is a belief in my own rectitude and rationality--the conviction that I understand my motives perfectly, that they're entirely justified by circumstances, and that any other interpretation of my actions is wrongheaded, misinformed, or rooted in some mysterious and inexplicable personal hostility. (This admission will, I realize, come as a total surprise to readers of this blog.) As I've gotten older, I've gotten better at recognizing and curbing this tendency, and I'll readily acknowledge that my narrative of a given set of events is only partial and subjective. Still, it remains difficult for me to accept that other people might have their own, very different interpretations of events that involve me--and that their interpretations, and whatever emotions result from those interpretations, aren't wrong.

Oddly enough, teaching has been helpful in training me away from my impulse to correct other people's experiences of the world. You might think that being in a position of structural power over my students would be a license for the worst forms of this behavior--forcing my views, ideas, and methods upon others--but in fact the structure of that relationship means it's easier to recognize my students as entirely other. They're my juniors; they're at an earlier stage in their processes of intellectual and self-discovery; and I've been teaching for long enough now that I know it's impossible to predict who they'll become and what changes they'll undergo. It can be mind-blowing how different a student can be in her senior year compared with her sophomore year.

So when a student doesn't understand or agree with something I'm saying, I listen. I take his ideas seriously, and explain my own. I lay out my best case... and then I let it lie. And when a student is angry with or seems to dislike me, I don't take it personally. I get that I may be misreading her, that she may be dealing with shit unrelated to me, and that, in any case, it's not my job to get her to like me. My students' emotional responses, like their intellectual responses, are their own.

It's harder to let things lie with the other people in my life--my friends, my family, my colleagues. But until I'm appointed Duke of Vienna and find an usually fetching friar's robe, I'm working on being more laid-back. And possibly cultivating more self-knowledge.

Monday, November 05, 2012

The application season of broken dreams

Like Bardiac, I spent part of the weekend reading job applications, and like Bardiac, I also came across some eccentric ones: applicants who weren't remotely qualified for the position, or who submitted highly peculiar job letters, or both.

But although the weirdo applications are the more amusing to talk about, the for-real ones inspire stronger emotions. First, of course, is enthusiasm: it's invigorating to learn about so many interesting projects and to be introduced to so many interesting applicants. Second, however, come the sobering reminders of what awaits so many of these promising applicants.

Hints of their fates--or if not their specific fates, then the fates of many like them--are readily apparent in their cover letters and vitae. A surprising number of candidates are U.S. citizens now teaching overseas. In some cases, I imagine, the gig is a largely or entirely positive experience: a one-year immersion in a foreign culture, a chance to teach a wide range of classes to an unusual group of students, and a welcome adventure after the long slog of graduate school. But in other cases the applicants have spent many years abroad, often moving from country to country, and in positions that don't permit them to teach within their area of specialization.

Then there are the applicants who are still here in the States, but stringing together several adjunct positions two or three or five years after getting their degrees. There are a few who have actually stopped adjuncting, and hence teaching, bowing to the need for a more reliable job--but who are still hoping they might be viable candidates on the academic job market.

And finally there are the superficially more secure candidates: those comfortably ensconced in cushy visiting positions, cranking out multiple publications a year, possessed of sterling letters of reference from some of the biggest names in the discipline. . . but who can't seem to land a tenure-line job. Usually, they're not a good fit for our position, and not really a good fit for any position according to the conventional job-market categories. I'm not talking about someone whose work spans, say, the Victorian and Modernist divide (although those people can struggle, too); I'm talking about someone who's written a book with one chapter on Marlowe, one on Blake, one on Oscar Wilde, and one on Lady Gaga.

Let me be clear: none of the above scenarios is necessarily a dealbreaker or a kiss of doom; we all know people who took three or five or ten years to get a tenure-line job, but eventually wound up with a great one. But I look at these applicants and I think: Gawd. This fucking profession.