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.