Thursday, November 30, 2006
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
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:
- Write a post linking to this one in which you explain the experiment. (All blogs count, be they TypePad, Blogger, MySpace, Facebook, &c.)
- 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.
- Ping Technorati.
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
(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
where no one who knows this play will see my paper because I give my talk
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.
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
- 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.
Friday, November 24, 2006
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
Monday, November 20, 2006
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
What are we serving? I'm glad you asked:
Green Salad with Fig Vinaigrette
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...
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
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
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
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
- 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.
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 flowers...it 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
- 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
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.
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
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.