Thursday, August 30, 2007

Queer Politics

(Note: flurry of posts potentially coming--it's school time, and I'm procrastinating!)

Tenured Radical has a pithy little post about the Craig scandal, which has generated a thus far short but provocative set of comments that raises some important questions about the very classification of Craig as "gay" and about what he was really being arrested for: public lewdness may be a legitimate crime, but as I commented over at TR's, stings for public sex in same-sex bathrooms strikes me as being an institutionalized homophobia playing out in technically non-discriminatory way.

In a completely different "politicians and gay men and women" moment, I was watching the Daily Show last night, a re-run of the episode in which they covered the Logo network's Democratic debate, a low moment for virtually every candidate but the irrepressibly goofy, but dammit politically right-on Kucinich. During that debate, Bill Richardson was asked by a chatty Melissa Etheridge whether he thought homosexuality was a choice or genetic. The candidate answered quickly and unequivocally, "a choice," after which the singer/moderator asked again, basically, "I'm not sure you heard me correctly--Do you think in 7th grade I just up and said, 'I think I'll be gay'?" Richardson backtracked some, and apparently issued a statement that he initially didn't understand the question because he was so fatigued from jet lag or some such nonsense.

Here's the thing--and I'll confess that as a straight man, maybe I shouldn't be shooting my mouth off, but--the question was stupid. Listen, I know all of the rhetorical impact of this issue: that if sexuality is not a choice but rather genetic, then somehow claims of its immorality are unjustified. But a) I'm not convinced sexuality is genetic, or solely genetic. I'm perfectly willing to be convinced on the science, but I like my free will in choosing sexual partners very much, thank you. Most straight people would never say that they chose a spouse or a partner because of pheromones, but because of carefully considered decisions (sure, "chemistry" was a factorm but not the first one). When it comes down to it whether we're quibbling about the identity of my partner as this particular woman, or a white woman, or even a woman at all, we're talking about my choice of partner, and for me it has always been a choice. And it has always been a choice I've been free to make.

And so I am sad (but not angry, necessarily) when I hear individual gay men and women rallying around the idea that "it's genetic" because I fear that in lobbying for that finding, they have implicitly surrendered a rhetorical claim on their right to choose a lover, rather than having a lover chosen for them by genetics. My point is, if I were Bill Richardson (and I would never be for so many reasons), my answer to the question "Is sexuality a choice or a biologically determined trait?" would be this:

I don't know. There's evidence for a genetic connection on the one hand, but desire and choice and free will are just too complicated to say for sure. What I do know is that it doesn't matter. Homosexuality isn't immoral, and gay men and women should have the freedom to choose a partner, a spouse, whatever without some notion of biological determinism to justify it. Just like straight people.

But I'd never get elected. Then again, neither is Bill Richardson.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

On Academic Masculinity

Because of the time I spent in the gym this summer, I’ve been thinking about masculinity, male performances, and male bodies lately. But as the semester has gotten rolling, I’ve been experiencing a strange culture clash between this new domain, and my more comfortable space in the English Department, and been thinking in particularly about performances of masculinity within academic contexts, and how differently they manifest (although I think they may be structurally very similar).

This jarring disconnect came to me as a result of a common but rarely comfortable moment that happened in the gym last week: I ran into a student at the gym. We didn’t even acknowledge each other, but it reminded me pretty viscerally about the ways we do and don’t want our students to acknowledge our bodies, the ways that students similarly want to avoid acknowledging the teacher’s body, and the ways that body-focused spaces like the gym really violate that contract.

It is perhaps an oversimplification (an imprecision, but not, perhaps and inaccuracy) to say that academia reifies a mind/body binary by privileging the academic mind and ignoring almost completely the academic body. Indeed, even when the body is a subject of academic discourse, and even when the writer’s body makes its way into academic writing, I have encountered few or even no situations when the present body of the academic, as a material body, not as a translated node of discourse, is part of the equation.

Of course there are many ways we can talk about the academic body, even when we narrow it down to the male academic body, though it seems to me that the construction of that body revolves around to audiences for the performance of masculinity: the student and the colleague.

I’ve got plenty to say about students, teachers and bodies, but even though that was the interaction that prompted this line of though, I think I’ll save that for another post. What I’ve been thinking about today instead is the circulation of masculinity among academics, which is nothing if not curious.

A former colleague of mine, Eric Drown of George Washington University, once gave a talk on the way that physical labor and intellectual labor got depicted in pulp science fiction novels of the early 20th century, and he noted how frequently intellectuals (humans or other species) were depicted as disproportionately large-headed, thin bodied wimps (correct me if I’m misremembering this, Eric). Indeed the notion of the egghead as somehow un-masculine, and disconnected from his male body (both as a sexual agent and as a source of physical strength and potentially violence), is one that dominates stereotypes of the nerd that continue today.

And I am happy to say that in my admittedly limited experience, academic life is not punctuated by sexual competition (the occasional creepy conference-goer aside) or the specter of collegial violence.

And yet, some shockingly retrograde metaphors of masculinity rear their ugly heads from time to time, and reveal the degree to which power is still deployed in primarily male terms. At a former institution (I won’t even mention whether I was a teacher or student) I heard tell of a meeting where two male colleagues fought over a policy issue, a minor one, but one that in part indicated something about the department pecking order. Indeed, the very persistence of departmental pecking order seems somehow vestigial to animalistic notions of desirable mates. And the report I heard described their debate as follows: “They whipped them out to see whose was bigger.” Uggh.

I’ve heard this colorful metaphor deployed often since, most often in academic settings, and always as a way of noting a power struggle. The equation here of power (which in academic terms is usually connected to intellectual production—not intellectual capacity) gets metaphorically embodied in interesting ways, but ways which are only ever metaphorical, which have little to do with actual bodies.

Similarly, I recall a conference experience in which my comment was rigorously refuted by an established scholar. In the immediate aftermath, I described the incident having been “eviscerated” and that he “ripped me a new one,” graphic terms of physical violence. I also remember thinking, maybe even commenting that the scholar had “small man’s syndrome.” My invocation of the Napoleonic complex probably said as much (more?) about my own masculine anxiety in the exchange than his.

In open talk, though, the actual male bodies of academics are persistently de-emphasized—male academics seem to have pioneered the art of the casually ugly wardrobe (something I’ve long deplored) that masks the body; there is little acknowledgement of the physical toll that intellectual labor takes on any body, and male academics seem far more likely to underplay the one arena in which their body is on display—teaching.

I think this connects the idea of male intellectual labor as disembodied to the more common gendering of teaching—certainly an act of intellectual labor—and relegation of teaching to second order importance, because it is decidedly embodied. While female academics (for good and ill) have templates for bodied performances even in intellectual spheres, women seem more likely (I know, a terrible generalization) to be invested in their classroom work as intellectually rewarding, while male academics seem more likely to complain about that labor.

Yes, there are other elements involved, and the whole argument rests on a generalization that can nonetheless be connected to stereotypes that still work—the traditional image of the male academic is one whose teaching is far subordinate to their writing, whose physicality is often hidden behind a podium, whose musculature is often either sorely deficient or hidden by fat or draped in thick tweeds. We might also consider (I’m not sure how exactly) the different ways that male professors are described in contrast to female professors when that nagging chili pepper comes into play…

Anyway, power, then, is disconnected from the potential for physical violence, but metaphors of ripping into someone at a conference remain. Collegial interaction is similarly disconnected from sexual activity (despite the naughty rumors), yet “whipping it out” seems to be a oft deployed code for power struggle. This leaves female academics still competing for power in masculine metaphors, even though the actual labor is in no way connected to the gendered body.

Is intellectual labor, then, a stand-in for other embodied signifiers? Odd, when the body seems so consciously diminished in male academics’ stereotypical (and all-too-common) self-presentation. And yet that the discourse remains coded in masculine terms suggests the ways that sexism remains rampant in a field where women’s bodies and male bodies are ostensibly equally equipped (or equally irrelevant) to the labor at hand.

To bring this around to my own experience this semester, I’ve found it curiously difficult to talk about “working out” with other academics—not impossible, but there’s an unspoken awkwardness even shame to working out, particularly weight-lifting, that feels un-academic, as if working on physical strength is irrelevant to the actual power that circulates in the profession (even if my physical activity leaves me less stressed, more alert, and gives me some uncluttered thinking time). There’s a sense that physical strength is inadmissible, and maybe even (if I extrapolate a bit more) threatening to academic performances which seem designed to admit the physical male body only metaphorically, even as it clings to masculinist metaphors of sexual prowess and physical violence.

I’ve gone on too long here, but if anything, this rumination has me thinking about ways to minimize the gendered metaphors I use surrounding academic life.

Monday, August 27, 2007

First Week: A Recap

The first week of classes came and went, and while I cannot say I dove in head first the way I have in other semesters, I can say (to continue the aquatic metaphor) that I am happy that teaching will help keep me afloat for the coming weeks.

I am teaching a mere two courses this fall: Drama, an introductory course that is precisely in my specialty, but which I haven't taught in five years, and Commonwealth Lit, an upper-level course that is only tangentially related to my area of expertise.

Because of the discrepancy, I've been spending much of the summer prepping the latter course, and hoping the former course would take care of itself. And after the first week of class, that strategy seems to be paying off. I'll talk more about these two ideas--the still-energetic auto-pilot class, and the total challenge class, over the coming weeks, but right now, they're both looking to have their invigorating aspects. Because of the newness of the subject matter in the upper level class, discussions are crackling, theoretically sophisticated, and really just fun to be a part of. Part of this is the fact that as a comparative novice to the subject matter, I'm not afraids of going too far over the students' heads, and am therefore (I think) actually grappling with this challenging stuff with them--in some ways as peers who are with me in this learning experience.

For example, I am having them submit discussion questions the day they are due to have finished a major text, which i sort through, and then reassign in slightly edited and narrowed down form, for them to use as response paper prompts. I assumed that the first batch of discussion questions would need real shaping and guidance, but lo and behold, I had a glut of excellent questions, and indeed had to exclude some that were better quality than I expected of any of them. I had three or four back-ups in case theirs weren't up to par, and not only did two of mine get replaced with more compelling versions of the same idea, I ended up only using one of the ones I wanted, only because it used a reading that is assigned for Wednesday, and I wanted a way for them to get that reading into their responses if they wanted them to. Admittedly, I think they'll be a pretty talented bunch in the grand scheme, but I expected that to a degree, and even those expectations are already being exceeded.

In the other class, I am finding (in part because of the introductory nature of the topic) that the average performance level will be lower, but it is a bunch totally willing to participate. Which is good for a drama class. Discussions aren't yet reaching a high level (it's early), but virtually everyone in the class has spoken multiple times within the first several classes. In particular, a brainstorming session on how drama and theatre have different modes of communicating information that prose fiction, the students came up with a really great list that got right at the heart of some core generic issues that will guide the semester--and reading Susan Glaspell's "Trifles" along with the short-story version of the same narrative "A Jury of Her Peers,"--the students not only got straight to the heart of that comparatively simple story, but more importantly, got at the heart of how the two different generic media provided different rhetorical opportunities. While I am not expected incredibly high level work in this class, (the course isn't really required of anyone, and does comparatively little curricular work), I am looking forward to a stimulating, fun semester. Even if we are reading some gruesome work later on in the semester.

Anyway, the short version of all of this is that the first week of teaching is leaving me optimistic about what the remaining 14 weeks will hold in the classroom.

(Note: while I won't say too much about familial health care issues, suffice it to say, there's not much good news to report right now, so I'll just avoid that topic for the moment).

Sunday, August 19, 2007

New Beginnings

Tomorrow is the first day of classes, a day that I often think of as my own personal new year. A time for resolutions, for big plans, for new beginnings--courses, committees, a writing plan.

That's all starting tomorrow, but it's not at all what I've been thinking about most since my last post.

I've been thinking instead about my mother. My mother has, for all of my adult memory, and some of my adolescent memory, suffered what was presumably a chronic, and perhaps terminal illness, maybe two, of unknown designation. The rheumatoid symptoms presented in earnest in the early 90s, and the GI symptoms in the mid 90s. Things had gotten serious enough that she had ceased work, and regularly goes through week-long "flare-ups," which sometimes leave her completely homebound, and now happen with increasing frequency. The worst of them have her in excruciating pain, not holding down any food or water for days, before she finally was checks into the hospital for IV fluids and a course of steroids. Diagnoses (none ever confirmed) have included fibromyalgia, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, undifferentiated connective tissue disease, maybe scleroderma, IBS...Those are the things that haven't been postulated and then ruled out--celiac desease, crohn's, porphyria, lyme, the list goes on and on. At 55 years old, she's gone almost twenty years with debilitating symptoms and no firm diagnosis; she's down to 90 pounds, and that weight is hard to maintain, and she's been ill most of the summer.

I've gotten to the point where I'm almost blase when I hear she's been admitted to the hospital. "Keep me posted," I say to my dad, and I return to my business, vaguely apathetic, and vaguely resigned to my total powerlessness in her ongoing health saga.

Well, "Keep me posted" is exactly what I said about 10 days ago, but the hospital stay that started that day seemed not to be righting things, which prompted a visit to her specialist at the Very Famous Hospital not too far from her home (2 hours, give or take traffic). Suddenly, a new symptom was mentioned, a lightbulb went off, and her doctor admitted her immediately. Optimism flew across phone lines like the very best gossip. But alas, the initial test run on Friday proved his bright theory to be be another wrong guess. Yet, YET! it found something. Something maybe big. Something that the Rheumatologists and the GI specialists at Very Famous Hospital together think is a very likely diagnosis.

Very Famous Hospital is four hours from BRU, and so I spent much of the last two days with her, as she waits until tomorrow, when a crucial test will be run that could very well confirm a diagnosis, something she has never had, which will, in turn, confirm a course of treatment, which would wipe away years of scattershot, rube-goldberged prescription reginmens that may well be creating as many symptoms as they treat.

Today, I was taking her on a walk through the hospital, and at the elevator she said, "Last night, I went to sleep thinking something I haven't thought in ten years...That I might get better." At the moment, I was thrilled to see her so optimistic. As I thought about those words on the drive home tonight, they broke my heart, over and over again.

Tomorrow, I'll greet freshman embarking on a new beginning, the big adventure of college, and sophomores and juniors and seniors embarking on the beginning of another exciting semester, all of which I can control, facilitate, make possible. And 200 miles away, my mom's doctors will--whatever deity might will this sort of thing into existence--try to facilitate the new beginning mom's been praying for for decades. That she will get better, instead of worse. That she will get her life back.

If you're the praying type, do that. If you're the sending-good-wishes-into-the-universe type, do that too. If you're the type that thinks that such things are unscientific, and probably not actually helpful (as, admittedly, I tend to be), well, pray or send good thoughts into the universe, or whatever, anyway.

Tomorrow, I'll do my song-and-dance, complete with handouts, and I'll throw myself into teaching the way I always do. But damn if half of my thoughts won't be hoping for a great fall semester that has nothing to do with Drama or Commonwealth literature.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

On Not Blogging

After blowing my reserves on the Grad Compendium in June, I have noticed that I have been decidedly less enthusiastic about blogging the last few months. Part of the reason may be the fact that in the summer time, I've got longer chunks of time to devote to bigger projects, and I've been plugging away at a bunch of them. Certainly part of it is that I'm spending a great deal more time exercising, which comes with its own rewards, endorphins and weight loss and all. And part of it is that after four years of blogging, without much fanfare or huge reader numbers, I'm watching more and more folks pop onto the academic blogosphere and wax lyrical or amazed or creative or whatever about something that I've read about twelve times since I joined this community.

Oh, I'm not going anywhere, at least not right now, and I think academic blogging still has a great deal of use value, especially for grad students and new faculty who have so much information sharing and demystifying to do. And I actually feel like leaving the blog behind would be to leave behind friends for no real reason.

But right now, I feel like the blog needs a sense of purpose, and since I'm hardly the wittiest writer out there, and I'm not on anyone's brilliant blogger lists, and I'm not so politically plugged in to be using this space to activate citizens, that I've remained for this much time, another young professor adding to the wealth of narratives in cyberspace.

Anyway, the semester starts next week, and I'm busily copying syllabi and handouts, setting up WebCT spaces, reading ahead, and doing my annual report, so maybe Labor Day will roll around and this space will be popping with extra good stuff. But for now, I'm going to content myself with going back and checking out some of my better posts (and maybe resurrect some goodies from the old blog space) to remind myself why I like this activity, and lurking around other folks' spaces.

This psot is rambling on like a self-pitying wreck, so I'll just close up shop for tonight, and say that hopefully, I'll be back on board soon. See you around.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Now, 10% off!

The lingering effects of the cold are wearing away slowly, and I returned to the gym for the first time in almost two weeks. There I confirmed what I learned late last week: That I'd reached my weight loss goal for the summer: 10% of my body weight, or, at that point, 19.2 pounds.

Over the weekend, we did a little traveling (and had a wonderful visit with friends), and along the way hit an outlet mall with a playground for the kids to run around a bit. I ducked into the J. Crew outlet, which was having a sale, to try on some jeans, since 19 pounds of weight loss does not a good jeans fit make.

So I pulled a few pairs in a few cuts and a few sizes off the shelf, and discovered, gleefully, that I've dropped from a 35 waist to a 32 waist. This makes me happy in part for the obvious reasons, but also because I am a clothes horse, and the opportunity to purge clothes from my closet and replace with newer trimmer ones is really powerful.

This is precisely what we did last night. Now, I didn't get rid of every single piece of clothing, and nothing that was simply too big in the waist--those got folded up nicely and stored away for the someday that I may need a larger pair of pants. And while I was at it, I got rid of some old dress shirts that were the worse for wear, and some sweaters that looked like sack dresses these days.

Of course, what this means is that back-to-school shopping will need to commence in the coming weeks, and I've got a nice juicy list to pursue when I go. All of my cultural-studies misgivings aside, the impulse to shop for clothes that won't make me depressed about my body is really, really potent, and I'm itching to indulge that impulse.

Friday, August 03, 2007

On Teaching Explicit Material

This fall, I am teaching an Intro to Drama course that I haven't taught in five years, which means I'm reinventing large chunks of the course. One of the big changes is that I'm using a completely different anthology, one that has two texts that I'm thrilled to teach. One is Caryl Churchill's Cloud 9, a very funny late-70s play that takes on sexual politics with a comparatively light touch, but which violates any number of sexual taboos in the process. I've taught it before in my Brit II class with a fair amount of success, and it remains perhaps my favorite play (if I had to name one).

The second one is a riskier proposition: Sarah Kane's Blasted was famously reviewed by British drama critic Jack Tinker as a "disgusting feast of filth," (many reviewers have since recanted their initial negative reviews after Kane's death, after the positive enduring reception of her work, and after the revival of her small body of work) and is not only sexually brutal but also graphically violent.

I do have a point, and a major one, to make with these two plays, since the whole theme of the course is to think about the social function of the genre of drama, particularly as it contrasts with fiction and film. The liveness of explicit material, treated humorously or gruesomely as the case may be, exemplifies the mindsets of two major thinkers of 20th century theatre, Brecht and Artaud, both of whom were deeply concerned with theatre's ability to change minds. And remember, the title of this space is "To Delight and To Instruct." That very tension will run through the course.

But. BRU's average student is hardly cosmopolitan (though it certainly has some sophisticated students). This is an undergrad course, with slightly fewer than half of the students as majors. This is not a population just waiting to read texts like this. I don't want to move the plays from the syllabus, but I want to give them fair warning.

After a conversation with a close friend who is a magnificent teacher, I polished up a statement I want to include on my syllabus:

For a few of the works later in the semester, notably Sarah Kane’s Blasted, and Caryl Churchill’s Cloud 9, you will encounter some images that you may find shocking or even disturbing. Both plays contain some taboo sexuality (although they treat it differently), and Blasted in particular contains some very graphic violence. As you approach these texts, I ask that you do your best to first try them out with an open mind. The point of including them on the syllabus is in part to explore how such material functions on the page vs. on the stage, and we’ll need to work toward having as open a conversation about these pieces as possible.

The goal here is to let people know that I'm not teaching these texts blithely, that I am not trying to trick them into reading something they object to terribly, but also that I do want to introduce them to new viewpoints, and Kane's, though brutal, is also important. I do not want to set up the "I'd like an alternate text to read" scenario, though, which strikes me as intellectually cowardly.

I know that there are those of you out there who teach explicit material to a variety of populations (cough), and I'd love to hear your thoughts on the matter.

Blogoversary, sort of

Although this blog is less than a year old, this is the fourth anniversary of my blogging life, the first 3+ years spent at another, now defunct space.

When I started blogging:
  1. I had not defended my dissertation.
  2. I was not a parent, though Willow and I were spending a lot of time thinking about doulas.
  3. I lived in the same apartment we'd been occupying for four years.
  4. I was 15 pounds heavier.
  5. I had one major publication.
  6. I barely knew what blogging was, let alone what the academic blogosphere looked like.
  7. I had never taught full-time before.
  8. I was still on Book 5 of HP.
  9. I had never visited Seattle.
  10. Most of my closest friends lived within 30 minutes drive.
  11. The best affordable local meal was not produced by a chain.
  12. There was hope for a one-term Bush presidency.
  13. My sister had just returned from very near Iraq.
  14. There was no such thing as Project Runway.
Oh, I could go on. Point is, a lot's changed in four years. I've blogged a lot of it. Thanks for reading.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Laid Out

That's what this summertime bug has done to us all...knocked us out cold.

I think I'm over the worst of it, since tonight, finally, I feel about 90%. Rambunctious still has a runny nose, although he hasn't complained of symptoms in days, and his appetite seems to be back, which is one of my lingering symptoms. Willow still is coughing up a storm, which means she can't really sleep, and she's also had trouble with appetite. We really want to be better for this weekend's trip to a baby shower in Grad School City.

In the last week, though, I've barely left the house, haven't worked out at all, haven't taken care of the rapidly growing lawn. I had to cancel theatre tickets with a departing grad student tonight because between my germs and Willow's I felt I needed to be home tonight. I missed a soccer game on Tuesday, and am desperately hoping not to miss one tomorrow.

The only upside is that some work has gotten done...Both of my syllabi are now substantially drafted for an August 20 start date, I've finished the revision on my article, and am deep into editing the selections for the collection.

The worst news is that even though we've been spending all this time laying around in bed, the sore throats have kept us from going beyond the first five chapters of Harry Potter, and we can't keep the spoilers at bay forever!

The best news (and it is very good news) is that Willow just found out that she won a state-wide new writer's competition, judged by a very famous scholar who is not, as far as I know, a fiction writer. Still, over 100 entries, and hers was first! More kudos to her, of whom I am very proud.