Sunday, December 30, 2007


I'm back from MLA, trying to figure out how to unwind a bit (although blogging is clearly part of the strategy, no?). Willow and the kids are still with her brother on the west coast, so I've got a day or so to myself. There is a good bit to process from MLA, which overall was a lovely conference:
  • I haven't really blogged about the blogger meetup, except for on the comments at a couple of other places, but suffice it to say, I had a great time. Not only were there about 20 bloggers, some of whom I'd never had the pleasure of reading before, so it was also a way to learn about some great new blogs. But it was also nice to reconnect with the few folks I'd met before in real life, particularly Dr. Crazy and Flavia, whom I met last year. Flavia, Sisyphus and I were the last stragglers, rolling on until the wee hours talking about lord knows what (I might remember were it not for the many manhattans). There are so many great tings about meetups like these, names to faces and all, but I like particularly to be reminded that we're not just these sort of mythical professional personae, but we're also people who can usually carry on great conversations in person, whether about the profession or whatever else.
  • Interviews were good, and I have to say I love hearing about so many new ideas and books and approaches to teaching, and all that stuff. I really wish there were a better way to do this process, one that was less stressful for everyone involved, but it's hard to even imagine such a thing. Still, when the pressure is off (from this side of the table), it's a lovely experience, and just wish that there a way for candidates to really experience that. I know I never did, because of what was at stake in the performance, but there is joy to be experienced there.
  • Panels are such a crap shoot. You never know about the quality, or where you're going to find something interesting or useful. I found one panel I went to to see a friend do a talk to be extraordinarily stimulating, though I knew little about the subject, but the panel on drama that I hit right after was a disappointment. A grad student in our department was on a panel where he was the only grad student, but his paper was also the only one that had any polish to it, and struck me as the most interesting of the lot. The weirdness, the broadness of the conference has often left me intellectually cold, and then every once in a while a great talk will light me up like a christmas tree. I've begun to find that it's often better to go support someone you know give a talk over taking a risk on a panel for its content, since so often the content comes up short.
  • I'm beginning to like the idea of writing at conferences. I brought my laptop again, and worked on the paper that I had that flurry of inspiration at the last conference I was at, and I did a lot of good revision/ filling in holes where I had only left notes, etc. I am optimistic about the direction of the paper, though it still feels like kind of a one-off. Still, better writing than I've had at home lately, a good 5 or 6 hours of writing.
  • Hotel fitness centers suck.
  • For whatever reason, I found for the first time, my opportunities to eat alone to be really nice. With so much to process this conference, the down-time was nice. I think I'll always prefer the conviviality of a dinner with friends or colleagues, but I didn't dread the alternative this trip the way I often do.
  • Part of the reason I ate alone a few times was that at least two of the connections I'd hoped to make were de-railed because I gave out my home number instead of my mobile number. I checked messages at home last night, and realized (red-facedly) why everyone had been standing me up!
  • What a great city Chicago is. From the fron of my hotel, I could basically see the shot of the Marine Center (is that the name) that appears on the cover of Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and around the corner was a chocolate shop/ cafe that took my daily mocha to amazing new heights. I was totally bummed when they were closed late on Saturday for me to pick up a box of truffles for Willow. But really, the combination of activity, big gorgeous architecture, but also wide avenues with plenty of air really made Chicago feel like a fantastic city. It was my first real visit to the downtown area, and I'm eager to find myself back there sometime soon.
OK, off to make myself a nice omelet for dinner, and then maybe an early bedtime.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

You know when you're on a flight to MLA when...

you pat yourself down almost frantically, and when the person across the aisle asks, politely, what you're looking for, you say, "I've misplaced my Foucault," instead of looking at you like you've grown a third eye, instead says, "It's in the seat pocket," cause he'd already been eyeing it up.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

On "Merry Christmas"

Last year, (or was it two years, now?) we heard way too much about the so-called "War on Christmas" where OReilly and Co. took on 'political correctness' in some sort of agenda to rid the world of Christmas cheer, or the real meaning of Christmas, or WWJD, or whatever it was.

This year, though, it feels like OReilly and friends had an impact. I'm hearing a lot more "Merry Christmas" than I used to.

Now, for me personally, there may be cause for this beyond some kind of national shift back toward Christmas, and away from Chrismakwanzukkah (how long ago was it now that that little neologism, or its OC-inspired precursor "Chrismukkah" was coined?). I've moved from a highly diverse metropolitan center to what I believe is one of the five least diverse states in the union. People here say "Merry Christmas" because there's a much more reasonable expectation that the recipient is actually celebrating that specific holiday.

The other factor is that we're celebrating more Christmas-specific traditions ourselves. As the children reach the age of serious Santa-belief, we've been taking on more of the rituals that we remember as children, including religious ones: the children's Christmas Eve pageant at the Episcopal church, carols make great lullabies, in fact, last night, we assembled an air-hockey table at 10, while munching on Santa's cookies (and Santa Mouse's bleu cheese).

But I was reminded that despite the overwhelming Christmassiness, the common courtesy that engendered "Happy Holidays" in the first place is still wildly appropriate. We took the kids out for brunch this morning and sat next to an Indian family (Asians make up about .5% of the state population, and in 2000, there were fewer than 3000 Asian Indians in the state). As the waiter fumbled over a "Merry Chri....," then realized that Christmas wasn't particularly relevant, nor was, to his knowledge, any specific holiday, he moved straight to "have a nice day."

Certainly his wish was as genuine as any Merry Christmas, or any Have a Nice Day, and it's hard to fault one utterance, but I was reminded, at the very least, how diverse environments matter: that an attention to difference, and one hopes an embrace of difference, keeps these well wishes from being awkward moments, and maybe reminds us to keep our wishes to one another genuine. It's an itsy little corner of how living in an increasingly global culture might change the ways we live, but today, it felt like a strangely important one.

So however you celebrate the winter solstice, if you're celebrating anything at all, I hope it's good. I hope your January 12 is good, and your March 7, and your June 7 is too. I hope the coming winter is warm and replete with sustenance, and I hope that the Seasonal Affective Disorder doesn't get you too bad (if it is, let's commisserate, which reminds me to get out my blue-light.).

Or Merry Christmas. Whatever you like, really.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Really. It Wasn't Funny (snicker)

Yesterday, Imperia woke up at 4, and so Willow got up with her, but when Rambunctious and I both awoke around 7:30, I decided to take the kids to the rec center to play. I like to take them to a racquetball court, pull out a bunch of tennis balls and racquetballs and few racquets and (since they're only four) just let everyone hit the ball around, and throw it, and slide around on the floor and have races. The room has a glass back wall to keep the room from feeling too closed in, and the kids have a blast.

So yesterday, after about 45 minutes of rambunctious joy (and Rambunctious joy), we had to make a group trek to the potty. As we returned, Imperia ran ahead, and down the hallway along the courts and, at full speed, took a right into our court. The one with the glass wall and door.

You know where this is going, right?

We had a good ten minutes of tears, and nice little bruise in the middle of her forehead for all the Christmas pictures. It wasn't funny. Really. At the time. Nowthough? as I remember it?

A little bit funny.

A Blogger Resurfaces

Perhaps it was the fact that the exploding head phenomenon of October extended right into November and through finals, and perhaps it was the fact that my writing deadlines are now looming so heavily that I have no choice but to actually write, or maybe it's the fact that my sister's graduation and commissioning ceremony (more on that later) had my family celebrating Christmas together on the 17th, but suffice it to say, blogging hasn't been in the cards lately. But maybe, just maybe, that will change. I'll try to start catching up on the 600+bloglines posts, and maybe commenting on blogs again, and maybe I'll meet some new bloggers at MLA whose blogs I'll check out more regularly. Anyway, here's to better blogging in the new year!

Friday, December 14, 2007

Perhaps I Spoke Too Soon

While final papers and exams for the two classes that left me, for various reasons, feeling disheartened, did not blow me out of the water, they did make me rethink my sense of the semester. My narrative for the Commonwealth class now sounds less like "buncha deadweight" and a lot more like, quiet, thoughtful class who did better writing than speaking.

And while that isn't characteristic of a class I teach (my students usually are saying things in more sophisticated ways than they can often write), it could be construed as a real success. Only one paper really fell short of expectations, and two of my lowest performing students took a real step with their final papers. Meanwhile, the best writing came from the usual suspects and other students. A typically low-B-writing student convinced me that even if we ascribe the attitudes to the character and not the author, there are real problems with racism in Disgrace. Another suggested that Arundhati Roy takes advantage of Western readers desire for a token postcolonial read in order to critique global capitalism more broadly, and another connected White Teeth's Dickensian feel to an actual critique of Dickens's displacement of class anxieties onto race. So in the end, the good work I just read outshines my sense of the class as underacheiving. Now I can only hope that the students perceived it that way in evaluations.

As for the drama class, some of them surprised me too, not by performing well, which they did, but in revealing to me some of the ways that my teaching in particular shows up in their work. For example, one thing that often ask them to do is to find what hope is left in deeply depressing plays: to concentrate on the persistence--to the final moments--of human choice in Endgame, or to imagine the possibility for kindness in a play as brutal as Blasted, or the moments of commonality across ethnic communities in Fires in the Mirror. I talk about these often in my classes, and students' understanding of the audience experience, even in the most harrowing tragedies, as one primarily comprised of hope, specifically a hope that is more honest when tested against merciless conditions, is something I was pleasantly surprised to recognize in these exams as a feature of my teaching.

In the end, as much as Beckett may scoff at me, I am an optimist: a hopeful sort. And as I try to wrap up this semester comprised largely of short term disappointments, the hope for these students emerges a harder, more crystalline thing, one tempered by the failures (theirs and mine).

All that said, I'd also like to brag about how much I got accomplished on Wednesday: not only did I collect and grade an entire (if small) batch of papers, but the long exam I gave from 3-5 pm was graded and entered and my gradebook was closed up by 11pm. That amount of work was driven largely by the good work of my students (and one nice glass of white wine).

Thursday, December 06, 2007

A Tale of Two Classes

So this semester has been a doozy, one that has really left me a little demoralized. Both classes (a 200-level drama class and a 300-level Commonwealth Lit. class) have suffered terrible attrition, so that initial enrollments of 23 and 25 respectively are now at about 14 and 15--that's a 60% retention rate which is absolutely awful. In the case of Commonwealth Lit, some of that is the sheer volume of work I asked of the students: 6 response papers, plus 2 majors papers seemed manageable enough, until the response papers started ballooning to 3-4 pages... Still, I came in with high expectations about a fun semester teaching texts I find invigorating and came out the other end feeling not only not particularly invigorated, but actually kind of hopeless about the good that my teaching can do (that's an overstatement, perhaps, but not a gross one).

For the Commonwealth class, I handled it mostly like a postcolonial lit class, but considered England-as-empire as a crucial component to theorizing the lit. The beginning of the semester was promising, with some very very bright students, some sophisticated discussion questions, and booklist full of texts I enjoyed.

Perhaps too full. Six novels, a play, a couple of poems and a few short stories, with all of that writing was simply too much for this student body. I do not think it would have been too much at other places I've taught, but here? too much. Plus, several of the brightest students left the class, one early on because he realized he needed a different class to graduate, three others to medical issues--all bright, all contributors. Then several who remained who were very strong writers did not participate.

I am typically good at eliciting discussion, but not this semester. Perhaps the high reading load meant that too few students were prepared, maybe they were all just quiet.

I do think that part of it was that the room was done in hideous shades of institutional green, had poor ventilation (hot and humid in the summer, hot and dry now), and sported old fluorescent lighting: nothing remotely energizing about the room. The whole class looked seasick.

By the end of the semester, getting a discussion going was like pulling teeth. In fact, even though a large plurality of students are writing their final paper on Zadie Smith's White Teeth, our last novel, a vibrant, funny text, I actually sent all of the students home early last Friday because I couldn't get them to say anything. it's been that kind of semester.

What gets me about it is that I worked my ass off for this class. The field is a bit outside my general expertise, and I used it to teach new books. In the end, 90% of the material was stuff I was prepping for the first time. I prepped all summer for this course, and prepped hours and hours during the semester for individual lesson plans: staged debates, fishbowl discussions, whip-arounds, free writing prompts, grading grading grading. And in the end, Even students who profess to loving me won't say a word. I had to resort to the threat of tap-dancing twice (a little comedy bit that almost always loosens up a tight class and starts a bit of chatter), with no effect. And it will show in the evals. I worked extraordinarily hard at the course and it fell flatter than any course I've ever taught (save one section of comp my second year as a TA).

The other class, an intro to drama class, I was less hopeful about, despite the fact that i'd taught that course before a couple of times with good success. Early on, the class level of discourse was pretty low, and the disparity between the students with the most preparation and those with the least was extraordinary. Writing samples were generally abysmal early on, and every one of the first three texts we read (Oedipus, 2nd Shepherds, and Faustus) was met initially with complete bafflement about how to even read them. Oddly, I went into autopilot with this class, putting them in groups to summarize important scenes, talking off the cuff, not re-reading texts to teach.

And yet with this class, something almost magical happened. They were having fun, and so I was having fun. Several (actually manymany) of the weaker students disappeared (as happens around here, usually right around paper due dates), and so the 14 that remained all wanted to be there. Discussions, while never super sophisticated, were energetic, engaged, sometimes intense (we had a discussion about representing rape in Sarah Kane's Blasted that ended with one student pulling out a rape crisis hotline number to share with her classmates that blew me away). Group projects reported almost utopian working processes, their last papers, while technically no better than any average group, were creative and fun. And I winged the whole semester virtually.

So when I look at it this way--I work hard for one class and the thing goes abysmally, I mail it in for the other and it turns out to be a dream class--I'm not reall thrilled about what this means about the ratio of effort to results. I know that it's never a simple exchange here, but it's hard not to see it that way. Even the "You just got a bum class, and the other one just happened to be good" makes me think that chance has a lot more to do with how a class goes than does my teaching.

Next semester, I'm teaching the grad class and the survey class I teach. In some ways, there's less risk on the table here for my sense of myself as a teacher. I'm hoping that I can find myself coming out of the spring semester feeling more hopeful, and more effective than I do at this moment, when I feel, well, mostly like a functionary of chance.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

No London Tour in 08

Sadly, last spring's very successful London Theatre class is not running this spring, since only 5 students signed up: too few to get the group travel rates to go and stay. It was an expensive trip this year, with a weak US Dollar and high airfares (or more accurately, high fuel surcharges compounded in top of moderately competitive airfares). And so I'll only be teaching 2 classes in the spring, and an extra class next fall.

The upside? A 2/2 course load this year, with this spring's two courses being the survey I've taught 7 times in three years and a grad course that directly overlaps with the book project. I'm distinctly looking forward to getting some serious momentum on the book project going into what will be a heavier load next year. I also get my Spring Break back, which should be useful.

The downside: those five students don't get to go, nor do I. And with two iterations of the trip canceled in the last three years, a concern about the long-term viability of the program. Oh, and the 3/3 I'll have to teach next year, as opposed to this year's de facto 2/2.

We'll be brainstorming options for next year, but in the meantime, I just had to send out a n email that will certainly disappoint the 5 students who were enrolled.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Never Mind

about the college football mania thing. It's nothing, really.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Extra! Extra! Recent light blogging gives way to future light blogging!

I'm too busy for even this post, but I want to blog about so many things:

  • The amazing class I had before thanksgiving break on Sarah Kane's brutal play, Blasted
  • The batch of papers in my drama class, which are fun, funky, and funny, not always intentionally
  • Some stuff about conferences and being depressed about career trajectories
  • A promised post about how different publication venues are valued differently
  • Some posts on being on a job search committee, including the timing problem and the problem of a humane rejection letter
  • How I'm working hard not to gain back weight, but not hard enough
  • College football mania
  • All I want for Christmas.
Perhaps you can write these posts for me, email me these posts, and I will post them as my own! Buwahahahaha!

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Conference Post-Mortem: (mostly just the high points)

As I mentioned a day or two ago, this was the first time I had attended this conference, and my anxiety about circulating around the outside of the conference were in part justified. I had a hard time finding my way into this conference. I spent a fair amount of time lurking on the edges of congregations, looking for a friendly face, and since most of the faces were of complete strangers, that was difficult. And because I’m not fantastic about simply introducing myself to people, that remained true for much of the weekend.

There were high points, though.

  • I ran into and shared one lovely friend from grad school who is doing very well for herself. She is, unlike me, astonishingly good at just getting in there and meeting people. I want to take her example more in the ways that I continue to position myself as an emerging scholar in this field, and that means A) coming back to this and perhaps one or two other conferences on a highly regular basis in order to become more of a known quantity, and B) being bolder about making connections at these things when I am here.
  • On Friday evening, Grad School Friend and I went to a reception for emerging scholars, where I was approached by a long-time reader of this blog (Hi Jenny!) who knew me from my older space where I used my real name. So she actually sought me out to say hello, which was so nice, and really made my day. We had a great conversation, in part about her fun and exciting work. I hope we’ll be able to meet back up when I visit her city for a conference in May.
  • Based largely on the model of my grad school friend, at the awards luncheon, I made what I think was a good decision: faced with the likelihood that I wouldn’t get to sit with anyone I knew, I located someone I wanted to know (fairly prominent in the field, and working on and teaching in one of my core areas), and she was great. She gave me her card and I’ve already followed up. I’m optimistic that this might be a productive connection for us both in the future.
  • While the actual seminar I participated in tended to go in a different direction than my smaller break-out group went, the discussion in the break out group was extraordinary. It completely helped me crystallize a major issue I had been having in this paper. And then the one question asked of me directly in the session helped me crystallize another.
  • In fact, these two moments, followed by a brief but very encouraging conversation with the seminar convener sent me back to the computer: I wrote until 1 am, producing 8 pages of new notes and prose toward an article length version of this paper. I am quite excited about it, and hope I’ll be able to finish off a draft over winter break (I'll give you a hint: it has to do with this shocking news).

So five high points over basically two conference days. While it was hardly the best conference experience ever, it was productive, and there were signs that it might be more productive with frequent returns.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Assessing the Humanities

With the increasing cost of running a university, and public funding streams increasingly drying up, the drive for efficiency and entrepeneurship is accelerating at rates that I find alarming. Universities are more and more getting into bed with corporations (though the myth of a university separate from the capitalist marketplace is only ever a myth), such that academic production is inextricably linked to the military-industrial complex, and is often explicitly part of that complex.

Whatever we may say about academia as a haven for liberals, systemically it is no less part of the systems of global capital than Chase Corp or Northrop Grumman. So let's be clear about the realities of academia: it’s hardly the ivory tower of pure intellectual discourse that we sometimes romanticize it to be.

So with all that Military Industrial Machine business swirling about our hallowed halls, it is no wonder that we daily observe, and as frequently lament the corporatization of the university, an institution that feels like it shouldn’t be corporatized.

All that said, my (and perhaps your) experience of a humanities education has given me the very tools I might use to locate such systems of discourse of capital, power, and hegemony. My humanities education sometimes seems like the last hope I have personally of feeling like nothing more than a cog in an economic machine (with a shout out to Sisyphus, who at least acknowledges her status as an Academic Cog).

And so, it seems like protecting the humanities is like protecting what is for me, the only available ground from which to build resistance, which sounds a lot more militaristic than I wish it did, and yet sometimes those seem to be the only metaphors available (thanks Lakoff!).

And so I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how the discourse of efficiency, of high performance, even technological performance, saturates the messier and (it seems to me) more humane discourses of the arts and the humanities, particularly in the space of the classroom.

And lately, this has shown up in administrative drives for assessment. Administrators, donors, corporate sponsors, government funding agencies, they all want data that says we’re doing a good job. The Bush Administration like to call it accountability, and we know where that has gotten us in primary and secondary education. But the drive to assess academic endeavors is essentially a drive to hold academic accountable.

Now, I’m not against being accountable in theory. I believe I do good work in the classroom and in my writing, and I want my colleagues across the university and across the profession to serve their students well, too. But the questions of assessment and accountability necessarily invoke the questions of what is being assessed, how it is being measured, to whom we are accountable, and to what ends that accountability serves.

I’m sure you, in your department, have been doing some assessment—and if not, you likely will soon. I’m now on my second committee at my second position where assessment has been part of a major discussion. And I’m in my second discussion about what purpose assessment serves.

In theory, I think assessment should be formative; that is, at its best, when we study ourselves closely, when we assess our work for ourselves, we should use it to improve what we do (a drive for better performance nonetheless; but that’s hard to argue against in practice). And so I always find myself wanting to do the kinds of assessment that are messy, that yield results that are complex and multifaceted, results that try to get at the complexities of the classroom and at the complexities of the kind of thinking we ask our students to do.

I often feel my colleagues (to greater and lesser extents) groan at this suggestion, for they know, as I do, that this is Not A Good Idea, and Will Not Fly With Administration. Because administration doesn’t really want us to tackle the complex vectors of teaching critical thinking or the nuanced space of the classroom.

They want numbers that make us look good. They want to report high performance, since in this regime, money follows high performance, and low performance (even with no actual transgression) is met with cuts to program funding, and eventually elimination of whole departments, disciplines, modes of thought: Just look at the state of Classics, once the core of a humanities education, now an endangered species.

And so our conversations inevitably turn to What We Can Assess, or rather, what measurements we can make of our activities that will look good enough to administrators that they will reward us with our new budget.

This is where it gets dangerous, because the kind of rhetorical summative assessment usually ends up assessing What Can Be Assessed: grades, concrete goals, objectives with observable results, things that can be quantified on a uniform scale.

Do you see the problems? Independent thinking, while sure, technically measurable, I guess, is not really a Thing That Can Be Assessed. Critical Analysis? Questioning Assumptions? Creativity? Contribution to a discourse community? Not so much the assessable. Hardly even measurable.

And so, because we can’t easily assess those goals, the things that for many of us, actually mark good thinking from our students. We may continue to push for them in the way we set up our lessons plans, in the way we reward students with higher grades, and the way we respond to their writing. But these are contingent responses, merely temporary and individual ways that we re-affirm our actual commitment to the humane work of the humanities. And the contingent, the humane, and the individual rarely if ever make into assessment rubrics.

What does make it into assessment rubrics? I am not an expert on the whole range of tactics that have been used in humanities assessment, but my sense is that even the most sensitive of them end up using quantitative scales that enshrine either actual grades on student work or on whole semesters, or else some numerical scale that looks at individual skills and makes judgments based on numerical evaluations.

The things that get assessed then are either so broad as to be meaningless (grade distributions on required classes), completely circular (the same: we assess ourselves based on our assessments), so local as to lose the big picture (One assessment activity I saw proposed actually wanted to measure students’ writing performance based on numbers of surface grammatical mistakes), or so uniform as to completely elide individuality.

But what, might you ask, is the harm in measuring, say, individual skills, or broad swaths of grade breakdowns? Especially if it’s being used solely for rhetorical purposes to distribute to donors and other purse-string holders?

Because it’s never used for just that: Because when we say we’re going to assess something, we often adjust our pedagogy to emphasize that element. Sometimes we write it into the goals and objectives statements for the course or for the entire department. (Really: we had an argument over whether we should say our objective for students was “apply a range of interpretive strategies to texts” vs. simply “apply interpretive strategies to texts” because no single assessment could track “range”). We revisit those assessments in department meetings, and via emails that report our assessment results. We end up, ultimately, dwelling more on the assessable and less on the humane (I’m using this word overly broadly, but I’ll let it remain a placeholder).

Let’s say that we as a department decide that we want to measure students’ knowledge of key literary terms. The knowledge of these terms is if not crucial, then at least beneficial to excellent literary study, we say, and we want our students to know them. OK. Fine.

How do we assess it? Well, let’s build in a unit in the gateway course. Fine. Let’s assess it by giving a uniform exam in all sections of the gateway. Great. Then we’ll know how much students have learned about key literary terms.

Already, the knowledge of literary terms has been taken out of the slow accretion of a student’s lexicon over semesters: she may learn “interstitial” in one class, “epistemology” in another, “Synecdoche” in a third. Now, though, she’s cramming them into three weeks of her freshman year, memorizing them on notecards, divorces from their application in actual texts. And then, some faculty whose students do less well on the vocabulary test start giving that unit four weeks, at the expense, of say, scansion, or and introduction to feminist theory, or critical race studies, or one-on-one paper conferences. In this system, not only are students getting short shrift out of what could have otherwise been weeks of more nuanced classroom experience, but they’re also likely to forget many of the terms that they probably never really learned how to use anyway.

OK, so let’s give the exam at the end of the course of study: we all know where this is going. Students have no incentive to prepare or privilege an assessment instrument that uses a range of key literary terms, and so they blow it off, don’t study for it, and give us results that neither tell us how well we’re doing nor tell the administration that we’re doing great, thanks!

So, what? we decide to make passing that exam mandatory? We make it an exit exam upon which the degree is contingent? Of course not: no self-respecting English department is going to rest the award of a degree on passing a vocabulary test.

Obviously, this example is over-determined, but the kinds of assessment instruments that get designed still boil our very complex subject matters down into digestible measurable bits, bits that when we decide to measure them stop being observable in their natural habitat (is that Schroedinger’s Cat? Or the Heisenberg Principle? I can never remember), bits that get distorted out of proportion and minimize in their shadows the unmeasurable work that we all say we want to foster in the humanities classroom.

And to design and implement an assessment instrument that would, somehow, take that into account would demand so much work from so many people, that the hours and energies that went into assessing on a grand scale that it will take away from our research, our writing, our preparing for new classes.

Listen, I assess my teaching every semester, and more often: on this blog, in annual reports, in post-mortem notes for future semesters. I can take into account things in these ways, and get feedback on them, that invigorate my teaching, that help me serve better my students in every class. But I’m not putting a vocabulary test in my syllabus. My students are much better off using those weeks reading something new, engaging their ideas, and maybe even having a big idea of their own.

(ETA: Jason Jones has a thought-provoking essay in IHE that gives me much to consider as I continue to think through these issues. So as you read and consider this, please read and consider what Jason has to say as well. If anything happens, I hope to revisit this post soon with some "what to do" ruminations.)

A New Conference

I arrived last night in Phoenix for the American Society for Theatre Research Conference, one I've often been told is a good one, both rigorous and collegial, but which I've never attended.

I generally like conferences, but I hate conferences where I know no one. I hate the lonely milling about while others cluster in twos and threes, reiginiting connections that go back to grad school or to conferences past. I hate the eating alone. I hate the gaps between sessions while others convivially share pastries and coffee. I hate the moment of nonrecognition after tag scanning happens (which reminds me, this conference is going the no-institutional-affiliation route, as a kind of egalitarian move, as if "New Haven, CT" doesn't speak volumes...Ugh).

I know, I've made conference buddies before, and I really enjoy that connection, but the milling about beforehand, that odd circling to look purposeful that reminds me of being dateless at middle school dances, that drives me nuts. We're in between sessions on lunch break right now. I'm going to grab a bagel and eat while reading a book.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Up Too Late

When the day started at 6, it looked like it was going to be a wash: Willow was heading out of town for a day and a half, and Imperia was clearly going to be home sick. The child, darling as she is, is not particularly good at giving her parents space, or entertaining herself, or napping. I figured it would be a nice, calm day playing with ponies, and not accomplishing much else.

But while the day did include some pony-playing, it also included a clean kitchen, five loads of laundry, a graded batch of quizzes, a full proposal for writing-intensive status for a course I teach, research into the London spring theatre season, and a complete re-formatting (MLA to Chicago) of the essay I just pulled.

Of course, I'm up past midnight, and the girl-child will probably be up and chipper at 6 (her 3-hour nap seems to have been the turning point for the little Virus she was harboring). So off to bed...

Friday, November 09, 2007

On Engaging Exciting Work and Running out of Time

I've just finished the first two chapters of Jon McKenzie's 2001 Perform or Else, a performance theory text that transcends the field and, in my mind, is perhaps the most exciting thing I've read since grad school.

The book argues essentially that in the late 20th and 21st centuries, performance has replaced the notion of discipline of the 18th and 19th centuries as the onto-historical knowledge regime that most drives western culture. I'd go into it more, but I have a feeling that I'd simply end up quoting most of the first 20 pages. So suffice it to say that if you're doing any work on postmodern culture, you must read this book.

What is frustrating about it is that right now, it only tangentially touches upon the work I'm doing, and while the gears were turning at full speed as I read, there was a warning sign going off the whole time: You don't have time for this! You don't have time for this!

Of course, that's part of the whole argument, that the shift to maximum performance (as opposed to minimum misbehavior) as a measure of social complicity and use value, has us measuring everything in terms of a technological efficiency, including knowledge production. I'm working on a longer post on university assessment initiatives in the humanities, and this strikes me as deeply inflecting that drive,. I am unsettled by the demands for efficiency and productivity placed on our scholarship, demands that seem to me to actually inhibit the kind of thoughtful critical reflection we require.

This manifests in the amount of scholarship we are asked to produce in the early part of our careers, the amount of reading and production we demand from graduate students in a short time (and the amount demanded of new PhDs to be competitive on the job market), or even the comparative difficulty of doing the work needed to even stay abreast of our fields, like, say, carefully reading difficult but exciting criticism, while still maintaining our teaching and our service.

I'm currently wading through applications for our search, one that garnered over 100 applications. We asked for writing samples up front, and I'm trying to read them all, to give them their due, which is turning out to be nigh on impossible. This is a problem on many fronts. One, each sample was sent in good faith, and should be read in good faith. Moreover, I want to read all of this writing, much of which is magnificent. I'm coming to believe that being on this search committee is giving me a better education in the field than a graduate course would've, but an education I have to complete quickly. This may be a selfish complaint in the face of the 100 applicants who want this position, but it's ALL symptomatic of the demands for efficiency and the sacrifice of critical thought and reflection.

I don't talk much about my blogging IRL...indeed, I'm often vaguely ashamed to admit that I read academic blogs. It's an inefficient enterprise at best, though no doubt a valuable one. I can't help but think that the regime of performance as a metric for social value, while often a site for transgression and resistance, is also one that stunts the very promise of academic life. This argument will certainly invite criticism from those who say "Well, that's how we do it in the real world, so suck it up." So therefore I'll amend to assert that the regime of performance also stunts the very promise of any life.

Anyway, read McKenzie's book. It's brilliant and important.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Testing my Publishing Kharma

The gods will surely hate me for this one...but things are not as bad as they look. I hope.

In my department, we have the remarkably humane minimum tenure requirement: absent a book, four major articles. Thus far, I have one in print, one in press, and now, with the edition under contract, a co-authored introduction and a major stand-alone essay there, too. So, I'm well on my way, given that my critical year is still three years off, and there's plenty of writing in process, including the book project.

There is, however, another essay. It's one of which I'm quite fond. It is an essay submitted for a collection that was accepted last fall. I was a little wary of it, until I found out that my advisor was also contributing something for the collection, even though it was from a new press.

Now, the new press is not one of those almost vanity presses (yet) and claims to have a serious external review process, but it was, until recently, an unknown quantity. But I figured that a publication is a publication (yeah right...I can hear you wincing now).

Since then, I found out that the advisor soon withdrew his contribution, partially because it was solicited for something significantly more visible, and partially because of the dubiousness of the press. But I figured that this wasn't pure damnation for the thing.

But this fall, as I've been reviewing candidate files, I've noticed a handful of freshly minted PhD's sporting advance contracts with this very press. And their samples are wretched. absolutely wretched. In one case it would not have earned an A in one of my graduate courses. The other was not significantly better, either. So the press is looking now like a stinker.

My chair says, after I consulted him on this, that such a pub wouldn't hurt me necessarily, but if this essay were a lynchpin for my file it might not hold up. And if I felt it was a strong essay, that I should be prepared that no one would read it. The essay would essentially be an invisible line on the cv.

On the other hand, the collection is nearing a late stage, and I feel bad pulling the essay at this late date. And even though I know that this publishing scenario is not an ideal one, it still feels unsettling to pull an essay from the "in" column to the "under submission" column.

I haven't made the final decision yet, but I'm 90% sure I'm pulling the essay and putting it back into circulation, and hoping that instant kharma is in fact a superstition.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

3-2-1 Contract

Just received word that the collection I'm editing has been offered a publishing contract. I am super excited about this news, since, among other things, it means that I'll definitely meet the minimum requirements for tenure, and that I can look toward longer-term projects.

It also means that I've got a lot of work to do in a short period of time, a period that also includes an office move and a search committee. Light blogging ahead? We'll see, but for now, I'll pop a cork for this one significant step.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

RBOC: November is here already edition

  • Attrition in my two classes is terrible, around 30% in each of them. Ugh. That said, the students that remain in each class have become nice core groups to teach. At least there's that.
  • The search committee I'm on now has over 90 applications, all with writing samples. It's gonna be a long month.
  • While my weight loss has evened out (I've been right around 170 for 2 months now), I'm still needing smaller clothes. Most of my dress clothes (including 3 cashmere blazers) look like they belong to someone else. But the new sweater I bought yesterday? a medium. I haven't worn a medium convincingly since my early 20s.
  • Also, while it's a bit too early to report anything official, I can insinuate that good news looks to be coming down the road on the edited collection. And I'll give you a hint. It rhymes with fontract.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Autumn's Pinnacle

Fall is my favorite season, and in it, October is my favorite month (academic obligations notwithstanding). You can imagine, then, that this week in October is my favorite week of my favorite month of my favorite season.

The leaves are in full bloom.
Harvest festivals and farm visits are in the offing.

Pumpkin carving is afoot.

Small children are in adorable costumes.

And two of those small children had their fourth birthday yesterday (we are already four! was the refrain of the day). We celebrated them this past weekend, with separate birthday activities: Imperia had a tea party with two friends, and Rambunctious had a pancake breakfast and went to a superhero party at the library with his friend Boisterous. (So gendered, I know, but while it's one thing to force them into gender roles, it's another prohibit them from playing in them). That afternoon, after the excitement was done, the kids had time to play with their new gifts. Imperia continued playing with her tea-party doll from her grandmother, while Rambunctious and I went outside with his grandfather to play with his new baseball tee, climb trees, and walk around the leaf-strewn back yard. There's certainly an element of instant nostalgia in these thoughts, but also something about finding a way to be absolutely present--a difficulty in these days of the frozen image. You can only imagine how much time was spent behind the camera, but really, you'll there are no pictures here of me catching the boy from the tree, of the three of us walking around the neighborhood tonight with bags in had, of me sipping tiny tiny cups of tea. It all takes on a sort of golden hue, swathed in sunlight and fresh air.

It's hard to think about papers to grade and committee work to do on days like that. So I've been working late these days.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Up for Air

For whatever reason (read: my stupid lack of foresight in syllabus planning), I had about five batches of papers and exams to grade over a three and a half week period in October. Exploding Head month and all. That and all kinds of other stuff was going on, including the writing of that there speech below, which oddly had me freaked out.

Anyway, the worst is past for a bit, as I only have three batches of stuff to grade in November, and two of them come in right before a long Thanksgiving break ("What I am I thankful for this year? [expansively] These Papers!").

Long and short: a little more blogging and commenting. Then again the search committee I'm on has its deadline next week. Guess I should start using that free time to read applications.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

English: It's Hot

The text from tonight's talk, slightly revised.

Last spring, at the end of my second year at [BRU], Sigma Tau Delta gave me the biggest honor of my young teaching career: your Outstanding Teacher Award. I can honestly tell you I was walking on air for days after the announcement. I was actually, briefly, speechless. And those of you who know me, know that rendering me speechless is no mean feat.

Around the same time as this announcement, I received another honor—one less suitable for the awards section of my cv, but one no less exciting in its own way. I got my first RateMyProfessors-dot-com chili pepper.

For those few of you not deeply embroiled in the steamy world of tweed, chalk dust, lectures on manuscripts, word etymologies and post-colonial theory, Rate My Professors is a popular website where students can anonymously rate faculty members on their difficulty, clarity, helpfulness, and interest level. And their hotness. It’s the last one that gets a chili pepper. And last semester, one student (and now a tiny handful of others) have publicly though anonymously called me “hot.”

Now I’m not letting this go to my head that four out of the several hundred students I’ve taught in my career have thought me “hot.”

In fact, a couple of years ago, The Chronicle of Higher Education, academia’s newspaper, ran a column on this phenomenon, and the columnist, expressed some concern that his own chili pepper was not a good sign—that it in fact undermined the good reports he was getting on his student teacher evaluations. He cited some research that suggested that students had a higher opinion of faculty members who were physically more attractive, with no necessary regard for the actual skill of their teaching...that he wasn’t really a good teacher, he just had (in his words) nice buns. So earning my first chili pepper at the same time as I earned the Sigma Tau Delta honor got me thinking…maybe I’m just a pretty face.

In fact, an inordinate number of faculty members in the English department have chili peppers next to their names on RateMyProfessors. And, at the same time, faculty in this department have been honored over and over again, at the college and university level, as outstanding teachers. Oooh, I know! Maybe we’re just a whole department of supermodels posing seductively behind our critical editions.

But let’s be serious…while I do think we are a comely bunch, I don’t have any illusions that the student body has suddenly gone ga-ga for a bunch of mildly obsessive- compulsive language addicts.

What’s more, soon after that Chronicle of Higher Ed column came out, I [had occasion to meet] that columnist, and while he was good-looking enough, I guess, he certainly wasn’t all that. He looked to me like virtually any late-thirty something, balding, dad of four. So something just wasn’t adding up. Where were these chili peppers coming from? What did they mean?

Another theory. In this summer’s issue of The American Scholar, the journal published by Phi Beta Kappa, William Deresiewicz takes up the oddly prevalent representation of professors, especially English professors, having affairs with their undergrads, despite the fact that they are represented as washed up, creatively and literally sterile, and feeding off of the vitality of their students. The stereotype is, in my experience wrong on so many levels, not only because these affairs happen so rarely.

He traces that representation back to a kind of cultural American panic about sexual exploitation, and the curious mixture of envy and fear produced in the average American consumer of pop culture. The idea is that our proximity as professors to you as beautiful young things at the peak of your attractiveness must inspire only one emotion: lust. Nothing inspiring, protective, irksome, angry, or merely friendly. Just pure animal lust.

Instead, Deresiewicz argues, there’s something different altogether going on, and while it’s not physical attraction (because really, how could we professors compete with you beautiful young things?), but it is eros. He goes back to the image of Socrates in Plato’s Symposium. He writes: “We are all ‘pregnant in soul,’ Socrates tells his companions, and we are drawn to beautiful souls because they make us teem with thoughts that beg to be brought into the world.”

The kind of sex that happens in the classroom, then, is brain sex, a meeting of the minds stimulated by the proximity not of bodies, but of ideas, and an enthusiasm, even a craving, for those ideas.

OK. I’ll buy that. But I don’t think that’s the whole picture.

Instead I have a different theory, one that’s rooted in the field of literature, one that probably explains why you are in this room, and why you plan to finish your university careers with an English degree. It’s not that English professors are hot. It’s that English is hot.

The English department had for several years a motto contest, and the slogan winner was emblazoned on the department’s home page. In the contest’s most recent incarnation one of the finalists was “English: That’s Hot”--attributed (perhaps erroneously) to the immortal Paris Hilton.

So maybe we’re not supermodels…maybe we’re just all celebutantes.

The motto that won came instead from Kafka: “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.” Slightly different ring than “English: That’s Hot” to which I say: Tomayto, Tomahto. You say blahblah axe blahblah frozen sea within us, I simplify and say: hot.

Seriously: why do bajillions of young teenage girls and more than a handful of teenage boys for that matter, get swept up in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice or Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. I’m guessing it’s not a yearning for the strict moral code of a bygone era. I’m guessing it’s not even the witty repartee between the heroines and their gruff paramours. Instead I’m guessing it’s the rolling boil of the thinly veiled chemistry between its lovers, the promise that just beyond the last pages of those books, the “Reader I married him” of Jane Eyre, there’s a jello-kneed insinuation of what happened very soon after she married him.

Or to get a little less prim, We could note that Oedipus Rex, Agamemnon, or Medea, those magisterial Greek tragedies, were written to be performed at the City Dionysia, a ritual festival honoring the god of wine, revelry and debauchery.

Or we can talk about the frozen sea inside the millions of readers of romance novels in this country, a genre that critics like Janice Radway have shown us is one that tells us tons about readership, women’s discourses and erotics.

And while I’m not teaching the literary stylings of Judith Krantz and Danielle Steele in my classes, I have been known to teach a book that will get a reader a little hot under the collar. Even Shakespeare, that bastion of respectability, has more than his share of references to pretty explicit sex. It’s Othello, for goodness sakes, that give us the lovely image of “The beast with two backs.”

From my own teaching, I can talk about that gorgeous moment in Virginia Woolf’s Orlando when the author has no other way to express the pure indescribable love that Lady Orlando and Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmerdine have for one another than to leave half a page blank “filled to repletion” with the inexpressible. Of perhaps you’ll take Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body, whose narrator is so smitten by her lover that she finds even medical textbook passages to be excruciatingly sexy. Or Jay Gatsby finally consummating his love with Daisy Buchanan, or Jake Barnes not consummating his love for Brett Ashley. Or. Or. Or. Or.

Or maybe you have your own moment, a book that you cracked open and realized with a tingle that this. book. was. sexy. Perhaps it was tinged with romance, perhaps it was thick with tension, perhaps it was taboo.

For me, it came my freshman year of college, in a drama class where I read Caryl Churchill’s Cloud 9, a play chock full of wild moments in barns, trains, and public parks, which some of you in the room who have read that play in my classes, will no doubt recall. And while actually, a lot of those moments are revealed to be hollow, unsatisfying thrills, the very idea that reading them meant to me breaking out of a mold, being something, experiencing something that I had never experienced, was exhilarating and frightening. That Something-I-Had-Never-Experienced wasn’t necessarily sex, per se, and even now I’m not sure I could put my finger on what it was, except for the idea of the vastly wide open horizon of possible experiences, pleasurable and painful alike.

And sure. Fine. It’s not all about sex, not by a mile. But even when it’s not about the things that go on behind closed doors, a great read and a great discussion about it can still set the pulse racing in ways that our reading bodies inevitably will interpret as love or love’s more biologically necessary cousin.

So back to my theory. While I have no empirical evidence to refute the correlation between perceived attractiveness and perceived good teaching, I’ll suggest that the causation works the other way around—that some people look attractive because the material they are teaching turns up the heat just a bit. And I think it’s more than just the brain sex that Deresiewicz describes in The American Scholar. I think it’s a lot more visceral than that.

So when you go back into the classroom tomorrow, clutching perhaps Lady Chatterly’s Lover, a book that was famously banned for its racy nature, or maybe even clutching Paradise Lost, which is racy in its own way, remind yourself that the gooey feeling you have has nothing to do with the professor. Rather, it’s this very book breaking up the frozen sea inside you. Or to put it another way: it’s hot.


Last Spring, Sigma Tau Delta, the English Honorary here at BRU, honored me with their outstanding teacher award. At the time, I was flummoxed by the gesture. Even, briefly, rendered speechless.

Well, tonight, that will change, since a speech is precisely what has been asked of me--apparently it is customary here for the recipient of this award to speak at the annual induction ceremony. I'll post the thing up here tomorrow or perhaps tonight after the ceremony.

But even though I walk into class every day and talk ad nauseum about whatever book we're reading that day, for some reason, I am quite nervous about this little thing. I already know lots of the inductees and current members, and I like many of them, and have had many of them in class, and many of them have seen my signature teaching move: the threat of tap-dancing for non-participation.

Despite this, the fact that I really have no true dignity left to lose tonight, I am worried. I've been working on the speech off and on for three weeks, and I've been obsessing over what to where (all I've got to show for it is a desire to debut the fantastic olive green velvet Ralph Lauren trousers by I found a couple of months ago, but nothing to wear with them).

That and I've got 6 papers to grade by tomorrow morning. Wish me luck!

Monday, October 22, 2007

33 1/3

I don't think I blogged my birthday this year (although I commented at Dr. Crazy's about our shared Jesus Year). But something potential more momentous, numerically speaking, passed last Wednesday, around 4:22pm...

33 1/3 years...a third of a century.

Not that much in the grand scheme, is it?

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Emptying, Filling

Two unrelated things are on my mind right now:

1) The 300 level class that started out so exciting and compelling has slowed considerably: we are experiencing something like semester-fatigue. A heavy reading and writing load seems to have burned out many students, and several including a couple of my best, are dropping like flies--four have withdrawn and three others have simply stopped coming. The rest are not doing the reading regularly. They had a paper due on Monday, but for today all that was due was a short story and a short essay by Salman Rushdie, and getting people to answer even the simplest questions was like pulling teeth. So how do you jump-start a flagging class like this? Carrot or stick?

2) Registration for Spring semester is starting, and enrollment numbers in undergraduate courses are almost-ridiculous-looking: 1/20, 3/40 etc. But the graduate course I'm teaching in the spring? 14/15! I'm almost full for January and its still October. No pressure or anything!

No, Really, I'm not on the Job Market

I didn't even think this was a question, until the other day, I got an email from my advisor, which said, basically, "If you're applying for Job X, let me know, because I have some contacts there." Now Job X is essentially a lateral move: in a medium-small city with a thriving theatre scene, as opposed to the overgrown small town with very little theatre that currently houses us, but also further away by six hours from my family.

But I was curious...had I missed something when skimming the ad? So I went back and looked at it. Yeah I would've been very good for the position when I was on the market, and yeah it would be nice to be in a more metropolitan area with some real live theatre. But I didn't think it was worth the hassle of uprooting again.

But what's this? this listing that came up just above Job X? The one I had missed? The perfect job description in a part of the country that I'd give my left ear to live in? The one near some family and friends we don't get to see enough of? The one on...oh...the west coast.

Willow and I had a long talk last night and we decided that while I would've salivated over this job a couple of years ago, now is just not the right time to go, and the west coast, while very. very. appealing, is just not an option. I am not going on the market for either of these jobs.

I am breathing a small sigh of relief, but the what-ifs remain.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

"Parsley" and autumn

One of my colleagues, a brilliant scholar and highly esteemed teacher, too, sent an email out early in the semester asking if a few people would be willing to pop into class at seemingly random times throughout the semester and read a poem of their choosing. The poem was designed to go with the reading in question, but not too well. The course was early American Lit, and the poem that I chose was Rita Dove's "Parsley" to go with William Wells Brown's The Escape.

The poem, if you don't know it, is about Dominican general Rafael Trujillo's rumored genocide of black Haitian cane workers in 1937, based on their (in)ability to pronounce the word "perejil" (or parsley) correctly. While her linguistics may be a little shaky, Dove suggests ways that the mispronunciation of the word, connected to class, race, and nation played out. (You can hear the poet read and speak about the poem here.)

Today, I went in and read the poem to the class, wearing a grass-green shirt to match the constant references to green and spring and growth that counter the persistent death images in the poem, a tension that a couple of students brought up. The exercise was fantastic, and it was really great to go in and spend 20 minutes with someone else's class to read and talk about a poem that I have loved since I discovered it as an undergrad (right when Dove was named Poet Laureate). There was a complete absence of pressure to get to a specific point with the discussion, and plenty of time to blend the reasons I love the poem, both critical (its formal precision, its historical rootedness, its dueling senses of the arbitrariness and consequentiality of language) and uncritical (my god, that green, than rhythm, the beauty of that poem about cruel, useless death).

The second part of the poem occurs in "fall, when thoughts turn / to love and death," while the general's green parrot sits in his cage "coy as a widow, practising / spring."

I'm thinking about our autumn here, and a beautiful, amazing thing that's been going on in our back yard. Of course it's been hot here, but the diminished sunshine means the leaves are starting to turn and fall just the same. A week or so ago, I planted a stand of new grass along our back patio, which had been currently rimmed with a two-feet border of lava rock. I dug up the rock, laid down some top soil, and raked in the handfuls of tiny grass seed, and have been watering the dark soil since.

Last Saturday, the grass shoots popped up. Where the dirt had seemed bare the night before, it was now teeming with tiny fragile shoots, green as a parrot, green as spring. The other thing that had happened overnight: a wind had blown through, scattering the backyard with drying and dying leaves.

Hope shoots up, frail and vulnerable, even while the world dies around it.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Linens in October

One advantage of being a clothes-horse:

On those days, in October, when it's supposed to be a crisp 65, but instead, it's 90, and your windowless office which hasn't had air-conditioning in 2 weeks, it's nice to be able to choose between the tweed jacket an wool scarf on the one hand, and a light linen shirt and linen pants. Because today, even jeans and a button-down would be oppressive.

(Soon, though. Soon. Actual fall weather: something to console me as I wade through huge unending piles of work...London Theatre Tour prep, grading out the wazzoo, prepping a new grad course for the fall, two major committees, a collection project to edit and an introduction to write, three novels that I haven't read closely recently to teach, a house to clean, recommendations to write, book orders to place, and miles to go before...oh, you know. Your head is probably exploding too.)

Thursday, October 04, 2007


Something happened to Willow tonight that would make almost anyone proud...

Henry Louis Gates Jr. (yes, that one) said to her, based on a story of hers that won a contest he recently judged: "You are going to be a star."

I want him to to tell me I'll be star!

Le sigh. But she probably will be. (grin)

In unrelated news...

Wednesday, October 03, 2007


It's frustrating when a student plagiarizes, by copying directly from the web.

Its more frustrating when some of it is the student's writing (13 words/55), some paraphrased very closely (12 words/55), and some of it is verbatim (30/55), leaving room for a little nagging doubt.

It's really frustrating when the assignment for which the student submitted a plagiarized response is merely a discussion question exercise.

It's really really frustrating when the student's explanation that the evidence is "merely coincidence," and then later that the coincidence could be explained by having studied the book in high school.

I meet with the student tomorrow to provide an opportunity to rethink the denial. I'll be ready. I wish I didn't have to be.

Sunday, September 30, 2007


That little conference paper is now done and off. Of course the fact that it grew wildly out of control--fifteen pages before I started trimming back to the max ten--means that I'll be working on it again in longer form, but this version is done.

Maybe tomorrow (in my spare time) I'll blog about the anxiety attached to this paper, but for now, I'll just go to be happy that it's done, and hope that unlike last night, my dreams won't harbor vicious materialist critiques of my bourgeois life.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Analogy quiz

Foucault: Foucauldian:: Althusser: Althusserian:: Adorno: ?

You Know What I Love?

When that abstract you wrote for a conference turns into an even more interesting paper than you even thought it would be...

You know what I hate? When that newly interesting argument has a ten-page limit that really constrains that piece. Fifteen to 18 pages is more like it. Well, at least I have an article to submit when it's all said and done.

Monday, September 17, 2007

"even while men's minds are wild"

So one of my very first posts has a quote from the last scene of Hamlet that contains the following line: "even while men's minds are wild," a line that I'm not even particularly interested in from the larger quote.

So does anyone have any idea why I've suddenly been getting scads of Google hits for searches on this line? They seem to mostly be coming from England.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Re: On Academic Masculinty

Earlier this evening, an anonymous commenter made the following point about a fairly recent post on male bodies in academia: S/he wrote:

Your post is interesting for posing questions about body relations in academia without coming to conclusions on them. Yet, in the post, and in what I just quoted in particular, you seem to conclude implicitly that it is somehow negative for academics to wear dowdy clothing and to ignore their bodies. Why is that? I do not understand why you deplore the "casually ugly wardrobe." I actually think that it is a liberating aspect of the profession. In most fields, there is a rather strict dress code and in the business world you have to dress to sell, especially if you are going out and meeting people, as a realtor or something. But since academia is about the mind, the body can be underrated, it is *permitted* to be sloppy, weak, and poorly dressed. I am not sure why you are so intent to judge academics who are less interested in clothing than you are. In doing that, you seem to imply that there is an ideal way for academics to be dressing and thinking about their bodies, which in turn implies that your way of weight-loss and exercising is the right way, or at least a better way compared to the sloppy academics you "deplore." I don't understand why the body has to figure into a field that is devoted to the mind. Why are you so discontent? Why would you even want to discuss "working out" with academics? I am sure that a number of academics believes that working out is a symptom of and a ritual for our image-obsessed age, a construction to encourage bodily insecurity and body hierarchies, and so since they view the gym not as a place to relax but as a stifling cultural apparatus, they would feel uncomfortable discussing it with your or anybody else.
The commenter raises some important points, and ones that I myself have been grappling with. I'm not sure if this reader is familiar with my whole process here, but I've only been exercising in earnest since May, and I've been trying to think through my responses as I've had them. I think if you look through some of my posts, you'll see that I'm not as consistently judgmental about bodies as I may appear in parts of that particular post.

That said, there are some blind spots that crop up, some of which I am not always vigilant about working through.

Here is what I will say: I do my academic work on bodies in performance, I've taught classes on the culture and politics of food, and I am deeply aware of the biases the commenter points out. While I do not want to reinforce these body hierarchies (which sometimes in these posts I do occasionally and inadvertently reinforce), I do resist the notion that academia is only "about the mind," for several reasons.

1) The mind is part of the body, and the way we construct our identity (which is both intentional and beyond the grasp of intention) operates in both discursive (mental/intellectual) and physical(embodied) ways. I think to say that this is a mind-only profession sometimes simply moves the hierarchies to different grounds.

2) My point here is to note the contradiction between the use of embodied (and masculinist) metaphors while actual bodies are being hidden, which sometimes seems a rhetorical strategy to sublimate masculinist discourse while maintaining its hegemony. So I think that reinforcing this "about the mind and not about the body" divide is actually disguising some real issues in the discourse of gender in academia.

3) Our bodies are part of our work, especially if we teach. The body is a signifier, and while I am interested in resisting normative notions of bodies, I do think that ignoring the body altogether is an ineffective and potentially counter-productive rhetorical strategy.

Also, I am, for reasons that I can only barely defend, annoyed by colleagues who don't consider their appearance in the classroom, and these are reasons that could likely be linked to bourgeois values and the like: I want to be taken seriously, and as a professional. When I see my colleagues presenting themselves in "casually ugly" ways, I read it as signifying a disrespect for the work of the classroom, a view I recognize as probably way out of date and maybe even classist. And yet, I cannot shake the idea that not bothering to present myself as a professional sends a message to my students that I don't respect them or the work we undertake together. I invite people to help me undo that reasoning, but right now, that's how it functions for me.

I will say, though, that the commenter seems to conflate my general (and again, perhaps only barely defensible) annoyance (ok, so "deplore" is an overstatement) for certain kinds of sartorial choices with a distaste for certain kinds of bodies and exercise regimes, something that I will say is uncategorically not the case, both about the way I feel, or the way I think this post is constructed. My only point about many (though not nearly all) colleagues being unwilling to talking about exercise is the way that this is merely a flipping of the binary at work in the rest of the culture-- while the dominant discourse seems intent on enforcing the exact kinds of hierarchies that the commenter wants to avoid, I think that looking sideways at anyone who even wants to address the issue suggests that for an academic, thinking about the body is as bad as how dominant discourse works to alienate those who don't subscribe to an ideal body image.

Now, on this last point I'll concede: it is difficult in this cultural climate to opt out of the body culture and, at the same time, not feel judged by anyone who wants to discuss bodies at all. Entirely understandable. I simply wish that we could talk about body culture in ways that don't necessarily alienate our own bodies from our discussions, no matter what the shape of the body in question may be. Utopian, perhaps.

The point is, just as the obsession with bodies (and the shape of that obsession) in the dominant discourse carries all sorts of demeaning and disciplining messages, our obsession with ignoring our bodies and the embodiedness of our profession can be similarly demeaning and disciplining, and can mask hierarchies and power structures that are no less in operation than those featured in Cosmo and in Muscle and Fitness.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Meme of 4

Sisyphus at Academic Cog just tagged me for a meme, which never happens to me (the tagging, that is), and while I'm not a huge meme-o-phile, I am easily flattered, so here goes:

4 first names of crushes:
It depends on when childhood puppy love transforms into a real crush, and since I'm a lover not a fighter, I've had crushes for as long as I can remember, including my first grade teacher Mrs. Phillips. But I'll start with early adolescence, when grown-up kissing became a real possibility (arbitrary, I know). These four span a roughly one-year period from early August before 8th grade to September of 9th grade I actually eventually kissed three of them:
1. Joy
2. Donna
3. Daphne
4. Tina

4 Pieces of Clothing I wish I still owned (and/or that still fit):
1. The Country Road Australia Suit I gave to Jason, which likely still doesn't fit despite my 23 pounds of weight loss.
2. The yellow, gray, peach and light blue argyle sweater featured in my 7th grade school photo.
3. All of my knit ties, also from the late 80s

4 names I've been called at one time or another:
1. Kyle (not my real name, even though my father in law used it multiple times)
2. Spaz (when I was waiting tables)
3. JabberJaws (by my parents)
4. Bubba (by my sister when she little, and by my parents well after it was ok to be called a nickname like this)

4 professions I secretly want to try:
1. Actor (not so secretly)
2. Director (what I'd really like to do is...)
3. Politician (if only people would vote for someone with no money to run a campaign and with values just slightly left of the late great Paul Wellstone)
4. Restaurateur

4 musicians I'd most want to go on a date with:
1. Michael Stipe
2. Neko Case
3. Tori Amos
4. Aretha Franklin (voice of God and all)

4 foods I'd rather throw than eat:
1. Cheese Whiz, Velveeta etc.
2. Casseroles made with cream of mushroom soup
3. Vienna Sausages
4. Raw tomatoes (I so dislike them, but they're also really fun to throw!)

4 things I like to sniff:
1. Wood smoke from a campfire
2. A really good red wine
3. Following Sisyphus, Pipe tobacco (including, sadly, the smoke)
4. Right now, some nasal decongestant

4 people I tag:
1. you
2. you
3. Not you, but the one behind you.
4. Mo Rocca

Kickoff at 2pm

Season kick-offs are in the air. The college football season kicked off just over two weeks ago, and the NFL Kickoff Special was last weekend. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't glued to the TV as much as a parent of twin almost-4-year-olds can be.

Other seasons, especially at the collegiate level are kicking off (although the term only translates directly to soccer) as well. That excitement, though less palpable on the campuses of bigger schools, is still part of the atmosphere that charges the first weeks of class.

And now, a sport of our own: the most optimistic day of the year for the English PhD, the day (like day one of the NFL season) when anyone can believe that this'll be the year they win the Big One. The day when possibility reigns supreme and pessimism has no evidence, only its legacy, to build on.

Job hunters take your marks (I'm now mixing sports metaphors), the JIL goes live at 2.

ETA: Coming around the first corner's moving very slowly. Incidentally, I'm not on the job market...I'm trying to see if my search committee's job ad is up and spiffy looking...