Friday, December 29, 2006

At MLA, briefly

Not that I am here briefly, I am posting briefly. At this MLA, I've met up with many old friends, presented my paper successfully to an audience of five people I already know on a first name basis, interviewed some really good candidates, been to a couple of nifty panels (including part II of the panel I was on), met some bloggers in real life (Dr. Crazy! Flavia! Dr. B! Mel! Nels! others famous and not so much!), maybe found an online publication for the paper I obsessed over for this panel, walked a lot of miles, didn't go to the Narrative Society party.

But now, it is time for bed...bed bed bed bed bed. Nighty night. More soon.

Friday, December 22, 2006

What's Going On

I posted last a week ago, and haven't posted since, because:
  • There are now seven adults and three toddlers in our house.
  • The bedroom for one of the adults was recently an empty room with very badly scuffed white paint on the walls.
  • The rest of the house is very big and needed to be cleaned for the impending arrival of all of these people.
  • Also groceries.
  • There was all of that grading to do that I bitched about in my last post.
  • There is the little matter of that search committee that had two phone interviews scheduled for today.
  • The two toddlers, Rambunctious and Imperia, were here the whole time, and take up some energy.
  • I'm prepping for that presentation at that conference.
  • I've got a book review done, which, while the book is read, and the outline is done, is outlined like this: para 1: Intro. para 2: book's intro. para 3: part one. para 4: part two. and so on.
  • And this is the one that's actually kind of serious: Willow was in a car accident today that did no permanent harm, but did break her arm in two places requiring surgery to put in titanium hardware, so while my day sucked because I was waiting in hospital rooms and talking on the phone to various people I had no desire to talk to, her day sucked a lot worse. And the accident wasn't even her fault. Did I mention the number of people in our house?
So I may not be posting much over the next few days or even weeks, because somehow, my break ended up busier than the very busy weeks at the end of the semester.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Random Bullets of Grading Hell

Because it's all about the grading this week.

  • PhD qualifying exams were scored this week, and all but one passed. Of the passing grades, though, only one really impressed me. One wonders what the qualifying exam will measure that coursework will not, though perhaps it's the speed with which it is measured...The student who failed gets to try again in the spring. Lucky student. Lucky me, too, who gets to read the next 25-page attempt.
  • I am at this moment wading through undergrad exams. I wish I knew of a way to really measure what I want to measure without wading through pages and pages of handwritten text. That said, some students are actually exercising their capacity for original thinking in this exam, not just regurgitating my own words. Although the regurgitation abounds.
  • I am in the middle of grading seminar papers, and here, I must say, I am stuck. What, at the 700-level, distinguishes a B+ paper from an A-? This to me, is an unanswerable, but absolutely crucial question. What about a paper that applies the obvious (but complex) theory to an already overdone text? It adds nothing to the current discussion, but it is sound, well-written and thoughtful. What about the structural and stylistic mess that is based on a fundamentally brilliant premise, but is two or three really good revisions (expand, unpack, rephraser) away from a life beyond this iteration? What about the clever, stylish, smart paper that needs beefing up with theoretical rigor? What about the metholodological experiment that is executed well, but seems to turn out to have been not worth the energy because it yielded results largely predictable without the methodological brouhaha? Fortunately, there are two flat-out brilliant papers in the batch. At least I know what an A looks like.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Kids at Christmas

As a kid, I loved Christmas, a lot, and for all of the reasons that middle-class white Christian kids often are, from the warm fuzzies to the consumerist frenzies. But of course, through the stresses of family, the hypercritical approach to culture of this profession, years of MLA mania, and plain-ol' jadedness, Christmas had lost a lot of its sheen. Oh I still love me a fresh-cut tree, and some Nat King Cole in late December, but I've become a New Year's type more than a Christmas type, whatever that is.

But man, these kids...they remind you. Now three, Rambunctious and Imperia are really experiencing Christmas for the first time in many ways. The cookie making, the tree trimming, the wrapping paper, the extra sparkle and glitter of life when you're three and it's Christmas.

A story: while I got to sleep in the other morning, Willow and the kids wrapped some presents for under the tree (we're waaaaay ahead on preparations). Imperia, wearing her pajamas, laid down in the middle of the paper, and declared, "I will be a present. Wrap me!"

Another: Rambunctious is looking forward to making a gingerbread train with his 6-year old friend and personal savior, Johnny. He is looking forward to it, because when he is done he will take "a liiiitttle bite. Just a liiiiittttle bite." We believe him.

The advent calendars are up. The tree is decorated. Stockings are hung by the staircase (what can you do?) for most of the twelve people who will be here for some long stay over the holidays (Now all I need is a really good eggnog recipe). Many, many gifts are wrapped (though some are not yet purchased). It's only early December, but somehow, I'm more excited about Christmas than I have been in years.

Kids. hunh.

GREs and Graduate Admissions

A colleague writes me to ask:
How is the GRE weighed with respect to the other application materials? [One of my students has] taken the GREs twice and isn't happy with her scores. She's concerned that she won't be accepted into any graduate school if she doesn't fall within the 60th percentile.
I was on the grad admissions committee last year, which is why she writes me, but it was only one year. My impulse, in a program that's not supremely selective, is that while we have a recommended cut-off, a strong application will supersede weak scores. That said, and this is probably not a popular thing to say, scores and the quality of the rest of the application were often (though not always) fairly congruent.

Those of you at different types of grad programs: How do test scores weigh into your admissions processes?

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Teaching Carnival 17

It came and went without much fanfare, and is a little trimmer than others (we've been busy), but the selections are meaty, and tasty. Thanks to David Silver of Silver in SF for the work.

Life Happens in Between

I am sitting at the red light, waiting to turn left. I've been listening to a song on our college radio station--the refrain: "Don't wake me. I plan on sleeping in." A few flurries glide down. The sun glances through a few heavy cumulus clouds. Four or five cars pass by, drivers on cell phones, drivers talking to passengers, drivers listening to the radio. I am, at that moment, only observing.

The "being" of life comes into focus in fleeting moments, in between the day's doings, its conversations, its thoughts, its plans, its expectations.

The light turns green and I start thinking about posting to the blog, about the meeting I'm coming into campus for, and life has moved onward from that still, quiet moment.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Grading Break

Last Friday, I went into class to collect a batch of papers from the survey class. I expected to get 26 papers (from an original enrollment of about 36). Most everyone was present, which was a good sign, even one student who contacted me to tell me he wasn't going to have his paper ready and wanted to know the standard penalty to know whether it was worth the extra time to get it up to snuff...

But while most of the students were there, a bunch of them didn't look so hot. Like they had been up all night. One student noted that he had spent Seven. Whole. Hours. writing this paper (He said this as if it were a really really long time to spend on one paper. Others didn't complain, but clearly didn't look like they were in great shape. I asked a few questions, and it seemed like several of them weren't really happy with the results. So I made a deal.

If they were happy with the paper and ready to turn it in today, they'd get it back by today with a full set of comments (anywhere from a half to a full page of typed, single spaced end-note, plus extensive margin comments). This is significantly faster than I usually turn around papers, but I figured I wouldn't be grading the whole set. If they wanted, though, they could have until Monday )today) to work on the paper, and the only thing they'd forfeit would be comments--no grade penalty. Lateness penalties began accruing today then.

So of the sixteen who turned it in on Friday, a few clamored for extra credit, and I told them that I couldn't give extra credit for doing the work expected of them--that I respect their ability to get the work done in a timely manner, and I would show that respect by treating their papers carefully and responding to them thoughtfully. They had the option everyone else had to take the extension if they wanted it. This seemed to appease them, but some still had a look about them as if they had just been robbed of something they didn't know they had. I don't know...maybe that was the case.

What I can say is that the average grade of the papers I collected Friday and returned today was a full letter grade higher than the class average for the last paper. Which should tell you
who was really prepared on Friday and who wasn't. Of the ten students who took the extension, six turned their papers in today, and two of those who hadn't still came to me today looking for direction on the paper, 'cause they were still stumped (uh, hello? what about the three weeks that you had the assignment?).

Anyway, I've glanced over the papers from today, and they actually seem like improved work from the students who had been performing, well, in a more lacklustre fashion earlier in the semester.

So did I give the slackers too much of a break? in the end, their work is better, and my reading load is easier. Did I short-change the student who were prepared? Was thoughtful and extensive commenting a sufficient "reward" for their being prepared? Am I gonna catch this on my evaluations this week?

Thursday, November 30, 2006

The Body is a Text / The Text is not a Body

I've been teaching Jeanette Winterson's Written on the Body in my undergrad class, and at the same time, many students have chosen to write their final papers on it in comparison to Virginia Woolf's Orlando. And still at the same time, I've been teaching the plays of playwright Sarah Kane in the grad class, particularly the plays Cleansed and 4.48 Psychosis.

Each of these texts plays with gender and genderlessness in interesting ways, and I've found myself rehashing the main tenets of Judith Butler a lot over the last several weeks. In particular, I've been thinking about the notion of gender as textuality a lot: that Orlando's transformation from male to female takes place in the midst of this highly textualized (even meta-textualized) milieu that pits the "biographer" against the mythologized figures of Modesty, Purity and Chastity, and the trumpet blasts of Truth. Kane stages characters in Cleansed with their bodies mutilated and their sexual organs transplanted on one another, but in 4.48 Psychosis gives us unattributed text that is often performed by multiple actors of two genders.

It's Written on the Body that has the most interesting material for me to chew on, because its narrator is, famously, ungendered. I've read readings that imagines the narrator as a collage of multiple possible sex/gender/sexuality permutations, a bricolage of gender pastiche, if you will. As a reader, I constantly find myself resisting the urge to impose a gender on the narrator at any given point, and my students also report this impulse (though they seem less interested in resisting it). The text, in this way, is not a body--the narrator isn't really male or really female--and I have been trying to use this to suggest that all notions of gender are textual...that none of us is really male, or really female.

What's curious is the way that discussions like these (and we've been having them all semester, since masculinity and nation have been throughlines in this course) implicate my body as the teacher. Now, I perform gender far less ambiguously than I have in the past. In undergrad, I wore skirts to class sometimes, used my theatre make-up offstage more than once, etc. I was slight (5'11" 130 lbs) and pretty, I shaved every three days whether I needed to or not (usually not) and since this was the early 90s, had long , lovely hair. And while still I am described as anywhere from flamboyant to expressive, and Willow tells me that if you tied my hands down, I'd be unable to speak, my gender performances are more obviously compulsory. These days, the weight gain of grad school, the facial hair I'm now wearing, the demands of professionalism, the diminished space for play, the diminished need to attract new and diverse partners, etc. means I have fewer avenues and reasons for ambiguity. I'm a married father who's a professor in a fairly conservative region, and I'm taking a lot fewer risks (and am interested in fewer risks) than when I was 20.

And yet because I indulge in the tropes of masculinity less insistently than most of my students, and because I have in the past played against them (and suffered some minor negative consequences, mostly involving hate speech), When we discuss these moments in the grad class, I feel trapped by a spotlight, frozen against the wall. I'm not sure if I'm feeling a certain pressure from students to practice what I preach, i.e. to reveal how merely textual gender is with my own body, or to conform more rigidly to the dominant paradigm. Butler talks about making gender a persistent site of play, but in the classroom, that's a big risk that doesn't fit with the life I have right now. But suddenly, in these moments, while (or perhaps since) Winterson's text is not a body, my body becomes legible as a text.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Meme for Acephalous

Via Blogenspiel:

Scott Eric Kaufman of Acephalous is presenting at that big big conference that I am agonizing over at the moment. Part of his presentation is on the speed at which memes go 'round the blogosphere.

Anyway, here's what you need to do to help Scott and his work:

  1. Write a post linking to this one in which you explain the experiment. (All blogs count, be they TypePad, Blogger, MySpace, Facebook, &c.)
  2. Ask your readers to do the same. Beg them. Relate sob stories about poor graduate students in desperate circumstances. Imply that the author is one of them. (Do whatever you have to. If that fails, try whatever it takes.
  3. Ping Technorati.

The Day After the Workshop

So after looking over that sad, anxious entry from yesterday, and after having slept on the whole messy process, I've set aside the day for re-working the paper. With a clearer path in mind, and a slightly reworded sense of the paper's focus, I'm revising like mad. It's the first time I've actually felt optimistic about this paper in months...

ETA: So after a full day of revising, I've got a draft, amuch more coherent one, I think...I'll revisit it in a couple of days, but, well, I'm in a much better place now.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Workshop

(with apologies to Wallace Stevens, Radiohead, T.S. Eliot, Dr. Crazy, and the eight people who just workshopped my MLA paper)

Workshopping is good. Having another set of
eyes, smart eyes,
can give you a new perspective. But the overwhelming perspective
that eight smart sets of eyes will give you
is how pathetic you must look through them.

No. Really. They gave me a lot
of good feedback, feedback
that I will use to make this a better paper,
to make this the kind of paper I will be proud to read
at MLA
where no one who knows this play will see my paper because I give my talk
at 8:15.

Knives still out from Thanksgiving feasts,
still sharp from meatier birds,
carved up this paper like so many leftovers.

I knew this was not my best work when
I submitted it. I said,
“I am very very unhappy with this draft.” So they know I
am not a stupid as this draft might make me out to look.

So what if the other paper workshopped today
was really smart.
So what if the guy is a first year hire and four years younger (I’m already young, you know). His success
doesn’t come at the expense of mine.

Oh man, I’m doing something wrong.
I wrote this too fast. I am not giving enough time to my research
I am paying too much attention to my students.
I have taken on too many projects at once.
I am spending too much time at the gym.
I am spending too much time planning elaborate meals.
I am not thinking and writing carefully.
I have got to change my writing habits or else I will be discovered sooner or later to be a hack.

OK. I know this feeling, and it is called
Impostor Syndrome. I knew it before it really set in, and I
know it now.
It’s not real. I am going to be ok.
I do good work. This is not the death of my career
(though I have been discovered by eight colleagues to be capable of really bad work).

It was just a draft and not everyone
Just the accumulated advice snowballed until it seemed like it
(Jesus, I've been reduced to mixing my metaphors).

I’ve got plenty of time to revise.
There are four days before this piece of crap paper
Must be rewritten from the ground up
And submitted to the panel organizer.

This is what I get for writing a sexy abstract before the paper was written.
This is what I get.
This is what I get.
This is what I get.
(Are the Kharma Police arresting this man?)

No one ever said writing was easy.
I’ve just got to step back and follow the advice—
The good advice—
I give to my students all the time.
Go back.
Start a new document.
Write from the beginning.
Copy and paste when I need to.
A new draft will arise like a phoenix from the ashes.

Red-faced, the young scholar learns
That fear’s tinny scent
Comes from inside his jacket.

Ironically, thirteen is my lucky number.
Though Eliot always struck as being coy with this line:
Shantih. Shantih. Shantih.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

After the Break

This has been, especially on specific days, a very busy semester. I had been looking forward to this past week for a good long time, if only because it meant that I'd get a bit a of a chance to catch up. Our week-long Thanksgiving break has been relaxing enough, though occasionally stressful, but now I find myself looking over what comes in the next three weeks. It ain't pretty.
  • Read the five 25-plus-page PhD Qualifying exams that are being submitted tomorrow.
  • Revise the MLA conference paper by Friday, based on great feedback from Dr. Crazy (thanks!) and the feedback forthcoming tomorrow from the writing group.
  • Read and comment on the 25-plus versions of 5-7 page student papers coming from my survey class on Monday.
  • Finish reading the job candidate applications for the search committee (I've got about ten left to read, with writing samples).
  • Read and comment on the eight 20-plus-page seminar papers due from my grad class on the 13th.
  • Grade the final exams from the undergraduate class.
  • Finish reading the book I'm reviewing, and write up the book review for it.
I know, I know, cry you a river...this is only a two-course load, and all you out there with four-course loads must think I'm a total whiner. OK, so I'm a total whiner. But whining is sooooo fun!

Friday, November 24, 2006

Freedom from Want

There's a lot of talk of Thanksgiving this week in America. Oso Raro at Slaves of Academe has been thinking about the cultural "meaning" of Thanksgiving, while Jo(e) has been thinking about gluttony and consumption with her students. It's that time of year, of course, and I am reminded by thoughts like these of that prototypical image of Thanksgiving, Norman Rockwell's famous "Freedom from Want" and what that image (and even the title) means in an age of abundance.

I also find myself thinking of the premise of Brookings Fellow Gregg Easterbrook's most recent book (which I admittedly haven't yet read), The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse. I've heard some skecpiticism about the book, but the basic idea seems to be that despite more widespread access to basic necessities, general wealth, and luxury items, today's "average American" (whoever this may be) is no happier than at any point in history. It's a premise that, in general terms, I buy, and whatever Easterbrook's argument may be, I tend to locate this disconnect from goods and happiness to a few things: the fact that much happiness derives from interpersonal connections, the fact that goods do little if anything (past subsistence) to impact overall contentment, and the persistence of American consumer culture in creating desire for consumption goods without locating any tangible grounds for actual satisfaction of that desire.

The Rockwell image offers us a smiling white middle-class family eating a traditional, white-middle-class meal, lavishly (though not ostentatiously) laid out at the family table. We read from this image the joys of family, the pleasures of abundance, the availability of "the American Dream." Our hopes for an idyllic holiday (Thanksgiving, Christmas, Sabbath, whatever) are raised, given form, made expressable, by this image.

I submit the following image as a point of comparison. You see a white middle-class family (I'm behind the camera), smiling, dining together on a lavishly appointed table filled to brimming with food, a table that was days earlier filled to brimming with another meal for another group of middle-class white Americans. Say what you will about the image. But what isn't here is the recent news of a devastating lung cancer diagnosis from a close relative, which is why we're eating here this year, not to mention numerous worries, serious and self-indulgent, about finances, health, career, relationships etc. They range from undiagnosed chronic illnesses to small bits of grading that needs to be done.

Many people have taken time to be thankful for all the good things this year, but I think it's particularly important to separate out gratitude from this mysterious notion of freedom from want. I'm not sure that freedom from want is int and of itself a good thing--the Easterbrook premise suggests that those who have everything are not actually that much happier (just better fed) than anyone else in particular. What that means is to me is that I am grateful for all of the things in this picture: the parents and children, the spouses, the laughter, the joy, the food, the lavishly appointed table, the house that shelters us, the health that we do have... all of this in addition to the illnesses we also have, the spectre of death, the anxieties, the anger, the pain, the annoyances, the fear.

To want is to live, and to need is to be alive. This year I am grateful for what I want and need, as well as all I have, which is plenty.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

De-Lurkey Day

Tomorrow is Turkey Day, but today--toDAY!--is delurkey day. So if you are a reader in this newish bloggy space, tell me. Also, tell me if you are not in my blogroll, because, y'know, I like to reciprocate.


Monday, November 20, 2006

Hammering Doubt

So I'm working on polishing up the draft of this paper I'm writing for MLA, and I have this sinking feeling that it's terrible. Perhaps this is impostor syndrome, but I don't usually suffer impostor syndrome while I'm writing. That usually waits until I'm done writing and someone is reading it.

Truth be told, I haven't suffered the hammering doubt of academic writing in a while...I had a whole slew of stuff get accepted this summer, and I've been in the process of working on stuff I feel pretty confident about, generally. And this paper covers ground I'm very familiar with: I've published a well-received article on the genre of play I'm discussing; I've got a performance review of the specific play under contract at a very good journal; and yet, for some reason, these seven pages feel like dreck.

Perhaps it is the prospect of rpesenting at MLA that's doing it. Perhaps it's the fact that little of this argument is new to me, so it doesn't feel like I'm doing anything particularly interesting. Perhaps it just sucks.

Anyway, I'll be working on it until 2:30 today, trying to get it ready to send to the working group. Maybe by then all of this will be a bit clearer...

Friday, November 17, 2006

Openin' a can of Martha Stewart

So tomorrow, we're having a dinner party--the largest dinner party we've ever had: 10 guests, plus ourselves, all junior faculty and their partners in the department. So 12 people at two tables, dining from two separate sets of china.

What are we serving? I'm glad you asked:

Hors D’Oeuvres

Cheese Plate:

Aged Gouda, Gormandise de Rambol with Kirsch, Ilchester “Five Counties”

Green Salad with Fig Vinaigrette

Grilled Asparagus

Truffled Sweet Potato Purée with Goat Cheese

Wild Mushroom Stuffing

Brie Risotto with Port-soaked Figs and Prosciutto

Honey-Glazed, Cedar-Plank-Roasted Salmon

Chicken Roulades with Apples and Bleu-Cheese

Moroccan Pork Tenderloin with Roasted Pears and Apricots

Chocolate “Christmas Pudding” Cake

White Chocolate Pumpkin Cheesecake

Now, let's see if we can actually make all that food...



After Wednesday's disastrous class, I offered students who wanted to discuss Beckett's Endgame the option to do so in my office, informally. Two students showed up (which was about what I expected, honestly), and they were ready to talk...Not to romanticize a model with plenty of its own problems, but wouldn't it be nice if the life of the university really were sitting around talking about ideas that interested us? None of the carrot and stick of grading, none of the motivators of grants to be earned and course enrollments to maintain, and blah blah blah.

Endgame is a play about the relentless stripping away of everything, love, humor, beauty, friendship, storytelling, until the only thing left in the play at the very end is Clov's choice. He stands at the doorway, suitcase in hand, with two options: Stalemate (stay, and continue to push Hamm in his chair around the room until existence ends) or checkmate (leave, perhaps to his own death, while leaving Hamm to his). When all else is stripped away, what is left is a choice, one to made freely. Beckett, generously, I think, leaves us with the possibility of this choice--it is what defines existence after all, this ability to choose.

Of course, this life is more complex than a choice between two miserable options. It is richer and fuller and more tantalizing than that. For our students, too. they are tantalized by so much outside the classroom. If only there were a way for the academy to afford students radical freedom of choice about the life of the mind--one that revels in the possibilities that every choice offers, without dreading the negative consequences of a quiz grade or an attendance policy. Of course, when given that choice, two students come to the discussion, not the twenty-eight left in the class. And they may be comming because it'll help them earn extra credit on the exam.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

What to do?

So today was one of those know the type...It's a grey day, the Thanksgiving break is coming up, my students in the survey just did a bang-up job with a long and complex novel, and today, when we're reading a one-act play (Beckett's Endgame, admittedly not a crowd-pleaser), six people have read...

I take a deep breath. I say I want to salvage the class a bit, but even those who have read are
generally not jumping out of their seats to participate (save one or two). I try to get a bit of stuff on the board that helps us work through plot (as it is). That's not working. I skip ahead and give a bit of background on Beckett and Existentialism, which is fine, but only takes me about 15 minutes, since I hadn't prepared a full on lecture about Beckett (in fact, the material was supposed to be delivered by a student who was making up for a missed group project--he
didn't show).

So there are twenty minutes in the class. Had I been thinking a bit more quickly, I would have done a fishbowl exercise, and had the student s who had read form a smaller circle, and
led a discussion of that group (which, incidentally, would have featured many of the class's strongest performers). But I thought of that too late.

I said, "I'm going to dismiss class, but first, I want everyone to read the play and prepare a discussion question, typed up, for Friday." I then proceeded to pass back some graded quizzes
(which the class had performed admirably on).

As I start passing them out, someone asks me a question about the play, and I start to tell them that we'd get to it on Friday, but I realized that the exercise I wanted to do with the discussion questions meant we wouldn't get to it on Friday at all, and that their stupid non-reading had derailed any progress on this play that we'd be able to make. And then I thought, "Hell, I'm having trouble dragging my butt through this week, myself."

So on the spot, I canceled Friday's class. It's the last Friday before our week-long Thanksgiving break, we'd be trying to handle a complex text in a fifty-minute class where numbers were
depleted anyway, they've been doing really well up until this point, and, well, I'm tired.

Some students, though, were sad. Some of them (admittedly, a very few) WANTED to talk about Endgame. And I wanted to respect the work they had done to prep for class. So I said that I'd hold an optional class discussion at the local coffee shop and there would be an extra-credit question on the exam on the play.

What a mess.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006


So for a number of reasons, the MLA paper I'm presenting in late December
needs to be drafted this week. It's not a difficult task--I've written
on the topic before, and the talk is only 15 minutes, not the more
substantial 20 I'd been expecting. So the task of writing 7 or 8 pages
of familiar material shouldn't be that daunting, and yet for some
reason, I've been avoiding it.

How badly have I been avoiding it? In the last couple of weeks (the period of time I had allotted
to working on this piece) I've used "writing time" to blog, to read
blogs (of course), to grade quizzes, to read some new plays that likely
will not appear in my written work any time soon, to do committee work
which is admittedly important, to read applications for the search
committee I'm on--in other words, I'm procrastinating so badly that I'm
using other things I'd normally procrastinate on to avoid writing this

I'm actually hoping that writing this post will help get
my fingers rolling before i have to go to campus in 3 hours for
conferences. Keep your fingers crossed.

ETA: I got about three pages written (including a bit of copying and reworking of old material. The remainder will primarily be close reading, and I can do a five-page close reading, no problem, right? Right?

Friday, November 10, 2006

Funniest Excuse Ever

Dear Professor Horace:
I apologize for not being in class right now. I left my shoes in my
neighbor's room in the dorm. He's not there right now, and I can't
come to class without shoes...

Cracks. Me. Up.


Open Ended

Today is the last day for Virginia Woolf's Orlando in the Brit II class, and I am feeling very positive about how it has all gone. We have discussed:
  • The novel's critique of biography as a mode of writing lives,
  • Tt's position as a feminist novel, and how the narrative seems to be trying unlink naturalized categories of sex, gender and sexuality,
  • The focus on the difficulty language has in conveying and narrating the desire and love, and the ramifications of the novel's suggestion that sometimes silence (even in a 320-page novel) can be "filled to repletion" with meaning, perhaps more so than language.
  • The narrative's very complex imagining of time, memory and history.
These are very sophisticated concerns for the 200-level, and yet these students have really ripped into this stuff over the past two weeks. And yet in some ways, we have only scratched the surface of this text and the richness of its ruminations. In today's class, after we wrap up discussion of the issue of divergent models of time (recorded time, experiential time, narrative time), I want to end on what may seem like an odd note: I asked them all to bring in discussion questions that we might use to continue our work on this text. I hope, in the last ten minutes of class, to do a whip-around where each student reads his or her question, and then not try to answer any of them.

Why? Because I have been hammering home all semester (as I do all the time), that the study of literature is not about getting "the right answer," but about asking the right questions. I have often thought of novels, plays, poems, as sounds corny, I know, but I have often thought of a text as a rose, one that opens petal by petal as we read more closely. Questions, not answers, open each petal to a fuller bloom, and we can only observe what our questions reveal.

Some years ago, Gerald Graff proposed "teaching the conflicts," where we introduce our students to the debates going on around any number of texts, and they engage with the text through the mdeium of debate. I see that this works, but really, I hate the debate model of literary study. Students often ask for debate in class--they see it as a way to get involved--and while I have had some successful classes built around this model (Is Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice anti-semitic, critiquing anti-semitism, or simply laying out the terms of the discussion? Go.), I find it reductive, working on the assumption that if we debate it well enough, we'll find the answer. Blech. Isn't literature best when it indulges heteroglossia? when it accomodates many voices? many readings? Instead of thinking of a text as a conflict that can be resolved, I prefer to think of it as a resource, a wellspring of ideas, of questions to ask about the world, and ways that we could think through those questions. Even rhetorically charged, political literature works best when it asks hard questions rather than merely pounding out loud answers.

So today, I'll underscore this whole philosophy by ending our time with the text by having them all ask their own questions...Not by closing the book with finality, but with opening up petal after petal after petal, leaf after leaf, page after page, idea after idea after idea.


Wednesday, November 08, 2006

RBOC--Post Election edition

  • Yay election day! I voted for the first time in this state, and I'm happy to see that my state is just a little bluer than it was, as is my most recent home state. Still holding my breath on the Virginia and Montana senate races, but the tallies look good, and the prospects for the remaining ballots also looks good. I'm cautiously optimistic about a Democratic Senate to go with the Democratic House. (As if most of you all didn't know everything in this bullet already).

  • I've been very busy lately with just lots of random stuff...Monday was one of those days where I had 4 million little things to do, and while I got a LOT done, I still have about 3 million little things to do. Not to mention a couple of big things looming on the horizon. If blogging decreases over the next few weeks, you'll know why.
  • Two weeks into teaching a novel I adore, and I'm still finding it rich and full of things to talk about. I suspect that by the last class on the text on Friday, we will have opened up more questions than provided answers. I probably have a post on this to write, but that'll have to be for a later date.
  • I'm proposing graduate courses for next fall, and while I already have two to propose, I'm also thinking about another one on the long shadow that Thatcher casts on British literature in the 80s and 90s...Suggestions welcome, and if I don't get many, I may make a separate cpost to call for ideas.
  • Made a batch of brownies with Willow last night...forgot to double the eggs in the recipe, so they're a little crumbly, but added a serious dash of cinnamon and cayenne to them (like 1 tbs. and 1/2 tsp. respectively). MMMMMMMmmmmmmm...yummy.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Assessing the Seminar

I'm teaching a graduate course for the first time this semester, and to call it merely a learning experience would be a gross understatement. I was working primarily from my own experience as a student in the graduate classroom, (experience that is now five or six years old at the back end), and some scattered advice from colleagues, my advisor, and from the blogosophere. That was all helpful to be sure, but I couldn't really apply it many concrete, or at least confident ways, until I actually set foot in the classroom.

I've learned some lessons:
  • The space matters: a bad classroom set-up can totally change the dynamic of the classroom, and after the first two spaces (there was an unofficial room change, and then an official one), I ended up in a room with a seminar table, and while it is by no means a perfect space, it is a familiar one for me.
  • Good discussion needs to be taught: I was really flummoxed early on by what I initially believed was a lack of ambition in the class. A few folks recommended structuring exercises--the occasional groupwork, a bit of lecture here and there, guided questions and discussion as opposed to the more free-form discussion I had hoped for--and those helped early on. This past week, I wanted tot test how well these structures had been teaching discussion, and not just serving as a crutch...for two texts that I have a fair amount of expertise on, I announced that I was going to sit back and listen as much as I could. I tried to interject to keep the discussion rolling with discussion questions, and stopped to give a bit of a primer on some relevant theoretical models (Sedgwick, Butler), but by and large, I left the actual work of criticism up to the class. And while I had to bite my tongue a lot (I REALLY like to talk about books and plays), things kept rolling at a good pace, most of the major ideas and issues were hit upon, and most were handled with a modicum of sophistication, and more people than usual spoke more than usual. It was good.
  • That midstream feedback from the class is as important in the grad class as it is in the undergraduate classroom: I did a midterm eval exercise around week five, and got some really excellent suggestions for tweaking the class, including providing more background context (I figured it was not as necessary for a class that focused on lit from the past sixty years, but it was, and I myself needed to brush up on some of it). It also gave the class a sense of ownership over what was going on there, and I think that this moment was important for spurring on their own incentive to step up their participation.
  • At first I thought that good syllabus design was no more than half of a good course. Now I think that good syllabus design is fully half of a good course. I took some advice to not overload the reading to heart, and I actually think I lowballed the amount of reading. Maybe not, but there are a lot of things that I'll make sure I'm doing on the syllabus design for future classes: Including more and denser theory that I sort half-expected that people would know; thinking a bit more closely about subject-matter coherence (as opposed to simply using a survey approach to a nonetheless focused period and genre); building in structures that will rely less on discussion early on, but build toward it, etc.
It's the comparative paucity of theory that I'm most worried about in terms of what students will leave the course missing (and that may come up on evals, too, which are taken very seriously around here). And as I begin to think about which course I'd like to teach in the future, figuring out which topics will allow for the most appropriate level of theory must be a factor.


Teaching Carnival 15 is here!

It's my first Teaching Carnival as Horace, and it's a grand one!

Check it out...

Update Those Blogrolls

Dear Readers,
I have officially retired my old space, and have set up permanent shop here. Please remove RC&D from your blogroll, and link to this space, if you don't mind. Because this space is more or less anonymous, there is no longer a link from that space to this one.

Welcome to my new home!

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

A New Idea

OK, so I've got these articles out, being read and edited and published.

And I've got this collection that has me working with authors, and thinking about the introduction, and considering the revisions I want to make to my own article.

And I've got this dissertation that is just dying to be revised into a book while the critical iron is still hot (three collections have come out since I defended that all touch on my area, but none of which makes any kind of coherent book-length argument, or treats my subject matter as a discrete topic, so I need to get to it while the gettin' is good).

And I've got this job, which has me teaching and grading and meeting and conferencing.

And I've got these two other book ideas just simmering, slowly on the back burner.

So why, today, on my busiest day of the week, when I'm scrambling to work on all of these tasks virtually simultaneously, do I get an idea for a new book? One that will require a whole new type of research than I'm used to doing, and which may not even quite be in my "discipline" and which I am at the moment extremely excited about...GAH! Not enough time!

But...I suppose it beats the alternative, not having any ideas.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Happy Hallowe'en

The kids went about the neighborhood this past weekend (our neightborhood celebrated Halloweekend, the bourgie offshoot of Halloween), their first time doing the ol' Trick or Treat. Rambunctious (on left) was a triceratops, which made him extraordinarily happy after having seen a real triceratops skeleton at the dino exhibit earlier this fall. At first, it was just "ceratops," but after a good bit of practice, he's got the whole latinate monstrosity in his lexicon.

Imperia was, as you may be able to tell from the picture, a lion...particularly appropriate for she who is empress of the universe. If we're going to dress as something lesser than ourselves, we might as well be queen of the jungle, mightn't we?

Anyway, Monday was also their third birthday, so Sunday we also had a birthday party, where the kids also, for a time, wore their costumes, which will make about twenty days in the last month in which they were worn. As you may guess, there's been a bit of roaring around our home of late.

As for me? Well, let's just offer up my vampire name, as seen at Ink and Incapability:
Your Vampire Name Is...

Hierophant of the Underworld


I spent almost the entire day today doing work for one of the more important committees in the department, the one that reviews and evaluates the annual review files for the entire faculty.

Earlier this summer, I produced my own first full file for this committee to didn't occur to me how much effort would be required to review all of these files...reading over the new published work, examining all of the syllabi for what evidence they may contain of excellent or subpar teaching, reading each student evaluation, and on and on.

Well, maybe this did occur to me, but what really was a surprise was how much work transferring this information into a report wopuld require, copying all of those titles, transcribing indicative student remarks, poring over the statistical reports of those evaluations.

I worked all day on this and only finished two files. My eyes hurt.

But at least this means that next week I can work on my own writing, completing what will go into my file for next year, which, of course, someone else will have to read...

Monday, October 30, 2006

It's not you, it's me...

Last night, I did something I'd never had to do before...

I sent out rejection letters.

As readers of the old blog know, I'm working on a book collection in a field obliquely related to primary research field, but quite germaine to my teaching and a progressive vision of the academy. After months of collecting just-enough abstracts and papers to come up with a full slate of contributions, my co-editor and I made some decisions yesterday on what was in, what was out, and what we wanted to see more of to make a final decision.

For those pieces that we decided against (to say "rejected" even now seems harsh, but accurate), I had the unenviable task of notifying the authors of our decision. Though those pieces ranged from the "not-right-for-us" to the "you-call-this-writing?" those notes took on too much familiar language: "thank you for offering us your work," and "good luck in finding a venue for the piece," and "we received much fine scholarship."

In one case, I sent back some reader's notes, but in a couple of cases, my (unwritten) response was less charitable, and so I indicated very little about my actual opinion in the note.

I know that bad news is difficult to deliver anyway, but in some ways, my most euphemistic responses almost seem dishonest...Is it right to avoid telling someone that their work has a loong way to go before it should find its way into print? Or should I let the vagaries of the publishing market send its own message, in the event that someone else with different interests and agendas finds the work compelling enough to publish?

At the very least, I know that I shall read those rejection slips that come my way with a slightly different eye.


Saturday, October 28, 2006

Blogger update and help

So by now, I'm settling into Blogger's slightly more user-friendly but less flexible format, and am getting close to a decision to stay here, but I have a few questions for those who have been on blogger for a while...
  • How bad is the spam problem once you're more established?
  • Do you do all of the visual layout modifications yourself, or has someone helped you renew the look of your blog...If the latter, any recommendations for someone who can help me revise the look of this fairly ugly template?
  • How frequently does blogger go down and leave you blogless?
Any feedback would be great.


Friday, October 27, 2006

Fall Day on the Farm

We didn't get to go to anything like this last year, but this year we enjoyed "Kids day at the farm" at a local place...the set up was pretty sweet...they had clearly been doing a good business with this for years, since they had a pretty elaborate haunted house set up on one side of the lane, and a kids' playground on the other--there was a little hay maze, this climbing pile, a trampoline, a small petting zoo, a little tractor ride, and larger hayride (oddly, without any hay) and a pumpkin patch for each child to take one home.

We went with a friend and her two boys-- 2 1/2 and almost 1--as well as my old friend and his new flame (who is just darling). The kids had fun there and at home decorating their pumpkins. At the end of the morning trip, we had hoped to snag a picnic table and lunch there, but the picnic tables were all reserved, and we had to eat out of the back of the minivan, which worked well enough...another advantage of the minivan, I guess.

What struck me most as I snapped some of these shots was how gorgeous, how perfect this day it was not just autumn, but thoroughly autumnal, and how while I was trying to capture this on digital film, the kids were just living in it. In the shot to the left, Rambunctious probably isn't thinking, "Ah! This is what fall is supposed to be like." He's probably thinking, "I up HIGH!" You sure are, buddy.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006


Early on last fall, as I was adjusting to the new culture of BRU, I was shocked by the number of student disappearances from my classroom--some formal drops, others just, well, less formal. A colleague informed me that attrition was part of the game here, and that a lenient withdraw policy and a town party culture meant that some students over registered and had planned to drop a course, while others just don't make it through here (our 6-year graduate rate is a bit wanting as well).

So I had begun to take as a given that between 20 and 25% of my initial enrollments in the survey was normal. Of course there were patterns...before the first paper, and after the return of that paper and the very subsequent midterm, more students would disappear than at more random times, but this was all logical within the framework that attrition happens here.

I found out yesterday from someone who knows, but who isn't interested in making anything of it, necessarily, that my survey course (which I've taught every semester since I've been here), has a higher drop rate than anyone else's. This has me understandably concerned, but the following factors are in play:
  • My evaluations are, not to be modest, very good. In the three sections of this course I taught, the average response to a rating of my teaching effectiveness was a 4.85 out of 5, and the rating of the course was a 4.74 out of 5, both exceeding the 80th percentile for the university (the former is around 90th percentile, but I'm bragging a bit here). Students, generally, don't hate me.
  • I am, however, not an "easy" professor. Just as much as I take pride in my high ratings on my evaluations, I also take pride in my low scores on the easiness scale on RMP, (2.3). This is, as I see it the goal of good be as difficult and challenging as possible without alienating the students.
  • I assign more work than most survey course require, specifically, the two papers, which are not simply close reading papers. I ask them to engage key terms and ideally advance a coherent argument, skills that are sorely lacking in many of the students who enter my class. The first paper comes early in the semester which is also an anomaly. While written page requirements are not in place for this level of course, I believe it's important for there to be formal writing in every English class at the university level (if not here, where?). I also believe that if I am going to push my students beyond their current abilities, I cannot simply give them one shot at it. Students often need the second paper to really produce better work than they're used to producing. But the challenge of the first paper is one of the key reasons so many drop in the first place.
  • I visibly take attendance and rigorous enforce the attendance policy. Granted, students may miss up to 3 full weeks of class without penalty (besides missed work), but some students seem to be intimidated by that, and after missing a week of classes for reasons good and bad, some students panic and disappear.
It is entirely possible that this is just what happens in a high enrollment course with a challenging professor and lots of options for other faculty (who are by all indications also facilitating excellent classroom experiences)...

Do I cut back on the work load (which is admittedly higher than the norm) at what I believe is the expense of student learning?

Do I write off the attrition (which isn't raising eyebrows yet, but may over time) as the inevitable effect of being unyielding in my commitment to a rigorous classroom?

Are there intermediate steps that I can take?


Monday, October 23, 2006


Reason #1 for the Pseudonym: Of course, as many of you know, Horace, or at least the popular gloss on Horace, provides the title for the blog--that the purpose of poetry is "to delight and to instruct" . . . or some such thing. I don't do the Latin so well...

Of course, Horace is not only talking about poetry, but more specifically about dramatic poetry. On the front page of my introduction to drama syllabus (which hasn't been dusted off in some years now, to my chagrin), I have several quotes detailing the purpose of the dramatic arts, and Horace's pithy doctrine has always struck me as both elegantly balanced and comprehensive.

Reason #2: In my second year of college, I lived on a honors floor in a dorm that featured all sorts of silly dorm events, where one floor hosted another for a theme party or what have you--the theme revolved around a mocktail, created and named by the floor. In this particular year, our theme was something vaguely mobster oriented, and since there was an inordinate number of Jewish students on the floor, we hooked onto the idea of a Jewish mob. We were the Goldstein crime family, and we each had our family name. I was in a "celebrate childhood" phase, all coloring books and Winnie-the-pooh and Disney movies, and so when Asked to pick a crime family henchman name, of course I gravitated to the henchmen of one of the best Disney villains available, Cruella De Vil. Her goons, Horace and Jasper became my source, and, confused about which was the skinny one (I was 5'11" and 127 lbs at the time, so I wanted the skinny one), I chose Horace. I am even sadderto find out that the live-action Jasper was played by the unparalleled Hugh Laurie of House, M.D. and formerly Blackadder fame. Nonetheless, my friend Sue, whom I met on that on that dorm hall way, still calls me Horace to this day.

Reason #3: Horace is of course the cognate of Horatio, the name of perhaps the most overlooked, and to me, fascinating character of that Danish play...In fact, I have a theory, or perhaps just a production idea for that play which features Horatio as the play's unreliable narrator. My version of play opens on the final scene, with Horatio surveying the carnage, just as Fortinbras and his army arrive. Fortinbras asks what the hell happened, to which Horatio replies:
Of that I shall have also cause to speak,
And from his mouth whose voice will draw on more;
But let this same be presently perform'd,
Even while men's minds are wild; lest more mischance
On plots and errors, happen.

It's the "presently perform'd" that I always latch onto, and which has me imagining Horatio removing the crowns and rapiers from the dead bodies, and casting the soldiers as his actors (with Fortinbras as Claudius, of course). The lights go down, and quickly come up again on 1.1, with Horatio essentially directing the action throughout...he would never leave the stage, then, becoming Hamlet's unreliable narrator. Someday I'll write up a little article on this, my pet theory.

So...Call me Horace. I'll see you around the internets, dear reader.

I'm Anonymous!

Sort of...

Those of you who knew me from RC&D almost certainly know plenty about me, and I'm not entirely interested in a secretive anonymity...I maintained the named blog for 3 years, and am fairly comfortable with readers knowing who I am.

That said, I'd prefer that the blog not be linked with my name so obviously that anyone searching my name or my academic affiliation could find this blog too easily. So I'm taking on the sort of pseudonymous identity that can be linked with any amount of searching to my real-world identity.

But for this space, I'll create a renamed dramatis personae:

Horace: Our narrator, an assistant professor of English at By-the-River University (BRU). I teach modern drama, British Lit, and gender studies. I am a teacher, writer, performer (mostly in the classroom), progressive, and feminist. This is my second year at BRU after thirteen years inside the beltway (you know, the one that thinks it's so important that it doesn't feel the need to identify itself in any other way). I'll explain the pseudonym (beyond the obvious) later.

Willow: My spouse is a writer--working on a novel and a short story collection--and a graduate student (after my hire) at BRU. She is smart and talented, and spent most of her life in and around the same beltway, where she also taught high school English for six years. We met while completing our MA degrees in English. We are parents to...

Imperia and Rambunctious: Our three-year-old twins. Imperia is talkative, obsessed with pinkpurpleandred (despite some perfunctory parental protests), and more than a little bossy. Her charm is complemented and her power is enhanced by the felicitous inheritance of her mother's smile. Rambunctious is also talkative, but less so. He likes books, firetrucks, Curious George, balls of all sorts, and "Copacabana." I may occasionally link to the twins' website, which has their real names and cute pictures.

The cast may grow, but we'll start there.