Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Reading as Productivity

Part of the reason, it occurs to me, why I've felt so unproductive lately is that a lot of my work has been reading, rather than writing; and not the whole-books sort of reading that we often ask our students to do to feel productive. It's been a bunch of other stuff.

Today, I read two chapters in a book I'm thinking about using for an article I'm revising, and skimmed another that I want to keep to read as the semester approaches, as I think it may come in handy as I design writing assignments. I re-read a play and the critical companion paper written by one of my grad students for his final project (though I've yet to write comments on it). I've read a few sections of another article, and then decided that while, yes, this article is phenomenally smart and maybe even a little revolutionary, that I don't want to rework a large section of an almost-completely-polished article just to accommodate it.

Of course, I've read some blogs, and I've read some news online, and I re-read a draft of something I'm radically revising, and I'm reading a student paper that needs to be sent off in its SASE before, you know, the student is actually back on campus... And at home I've got two novels going (Julian Barnes's History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters and Sadegh Hedayat's The Blind Owl) both of which have teaching implications.

But it really is hard to think about all of this reading as "being productive." Which is ridiculous, of course. This brings me to mind of the idea of our work being inserted more and more persistently into a capitalist logic wherein everything is measured in terms of its exchange value, where its quantifiability is most tangible and its value is clearest when it can be reproduced, or exchanged for capital.

Teaching generally has this problem--in fact, one of the chapters I read today from Elizabeth's Ellsworth's excellent Teaching Positions notes, "Pedagogy, when it 'works,' is unrepeatable and cannot be copied, sold or exchanged--it's 'worthless' to the economy of educational accountability." That may be the truest thing I've read about teaching in months, and it resonates so deeply with me that I struggle to make real sense of the reproducible artifacts of my work (writing) as even remotely approaching the value of that teaching, which, even at its best, is hard to quantify.

In fact, it's the worst part of teaching--grading--that is easiest to quantify, and which inserts student learning into that same quantifiable economy of learning and accountability--for what do students yearn most acutely? Would they exchange good grades for actual learning? Vice versa? Which one do they most often think of as the path to a paying job?

All that said, as much as I can bespeak the inherent worth and importance of the unquantifiable (even that which calls quantifiability and exchange value into question), I can say honestly that in the last 24 hours, I felt most professionally proud when looking at a list of things I had accomplished (produced in preparation for my annual report--my own accountability to the system that trades economic capital for this very labor). And much of my early summer malaise has to do with an absence of clear-cut product (be it written product or even as my weight-loss and gym activities have produced, bodily product).

I have heard the lament of many critics of the direction of higher ed about the disappearance of a certain kind of 'life of the mind," one that creates space and time for contemplation, for reading, for batting about ideas. We often tie it to the corporatization of higher ed, and I think this is among the most insidious connections: that reading is not, in and of itself, productive, or at the very least, it has no direct product. Reading, as a crucial component of this mind-life, doesn't have anything to show for itself at the end of the day. And forget about contemplation.

As for me personally, I need to think about how to imagine my reading as a thing in-and-of-itself, reading as its own value--it's why I got into this field, I'd like to think. perhaps I can preserve it. To begin, I have to find ways not to feel like reading days are ones in which I've accomplished nothing, and even more so, to imagine days in which no real reading has occurred (even if writing has) as lacking. Such a change in mindset may be dangerous, perhaps for my career, but the alternative may be just as dangerous in other ways.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Sliding into Summer

Final grades have been in for a couple of weeks, course evaluations are back, the weather's warming up, and it's impossible to deny: it's summer for the academic.

Over the previous few years, I have big projects to undertake over the summer. Last year it was the weight loss project, complete with thoughtful blogging, and some writing projects and such. The year before was a big push to get lots of writing and publishing stuff done. The year before that was the move to BRU. And so all told, I was able to spin those summers into very goal oriented, productive spans. Given that as much of my contractual obligation at BRU is publishing as well as teaching, the idea that I had my summers off was clearly a myth, and I was working hard to, well, work.

This summer, though I certainly have work to be done, I've had harder time organizing it into something. Oh, I've ticked items off the to-do list: editing pieces for the ticking time bomb of the edited collection, revisions to my own work, a renewed return to exercise and diet, some new reading, etc. But there was no clear marker that said, "now it is summer. Now it is time to begin X."

Instead, there's been a gradual slipping into summer, doing maintenance work on projects I was working on in the spring, vaguely stepping up efforts on personal goals that I work on year round, and gradually stopping the teaching work that defines the school year (I am still commenting on those few final papers that came in with SASEs).

The end of the school year, as Willow points out to me, typically comes with a brief bout of the doldrums, where my standard avenues of affirmation and energizing influence (the classroom, regular contact with colleagues, etc.) disappear, and I find myself unprepared for that with new ones. Soccer season will start up soon. The family vacation is months away (Canada again, as two years ago), and perhaps I'll find a rhythm on a summer project. But right now, the days kind of blend together, a neither-relaxing-nor-energizing melange of small work projects, trips to the gym, few social engagements, and the daily routine of family life.

In fact, this past week, I found myself doing something I've hardly done since we moved here: rearranging furniture. Friends from grad school may remember the comparative regularity with which the layout of our old living room changed, but here, the layout has typically been pretty constant (with the exception of the play room downstairs, which I have occasionally re-arranged to accommodate changing play-styles of the kids). but last week, I COMPLETELY re-arranged both the playroom and our upstairs office. It's as if by putting a room into a new order, I am somehow doing the same with my life. This often comes with a concomitant desire to make large purchases of avowedly, but dubiously practical nature--a new desk for Willow, an electric scooter to get to and from campus more efficiently, a car with better fuel efficiency, etc.

When it comes down to it, this all signals the degree to which I like changes, big ones, often, since the thrill of new circumstances to account for keeps me engaged in my own life. Now here I am, halfway to tenure, with my research agenda on auto-pilot for another year or so, and my teaching in a comfortable groove, and for the summer, at least, very little new to get me excited, to offer a kind of promise for an existence radically better, as if my existence weren't already pretty cushy.

After all, it is summer, and I'm an academic, and my malaise seems to stem from having too much time on my hands, time I desperately want at other points, and that other people often want just as badly. So buck up, I tell myself, and instead of slipping into summer, as I have thus far, it seems time to begin something. Or at least finish something with some resolve.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Hard Core

Rambunctious likes to dance. His favorite kind of dancing?

RrrrocknRollllll (Said just like that, preferably punctuated with some kind of superhero punch or kick).

So this morning, when he placed his request to do some rock-n-roll dancing in the living room (one deferred from the previous evening), we played a few tracks for him to choose from:

The Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction" (too boring)
Twisted Sister's "We're not Gonna Take it" (got an initial response, but then ultimately was nixed).
Night Ranger's "Sister Christian" (yawn)
Whitesnake's "Here I go Again" ("That's not Rock-n-Roll!" says Rambunctious. "That's Right!" says Daddy)

Finally, we found something that rocked sufficiently hard:

Judas Priest "You Got Another Thing Coming."

He danced all the way through. To be fair, he also later found "Paint it Black" to be sufficiently rockin', but damn! to reject the Stones is just downright blasphemy.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Salvaging a Crappy Day

So it's 60 and drizzly on this mid-May day. Imperia woke up at 3:30 and wouldn't go back to sleep until I laid down on the floor next to her bed, where I ended up staying until 6. about an hour after I rolled back into my own bed, Rambunctious appeared: "I don't feel well."

Willow graciously let me sleep a bit more while she got the kids up and settled, an appointment for Rambunctious at 10, Imperia staying home today, too. And she was even more gracious by encouraging me to keep my racquetball game while she had the kids at the doctor's office.

Then I lost three games in a row, only to go down to the locker room to discover that despite almost weeks of increased exercise, and 5 days of drastically reduced calorie and fat intake, I had gained a pound. Fun.

I got home at the same time as Willow and the kids, went down to help Rambunctious (now feeling really sick) out of the car, when he "sicked up" (the kids' coinage) all over the place.

Le sigh.

But for a little bit this afternoon, despite all of this bad day stuff,one thing has made my day:

This article was accepted with so few edits that I re-sent a final draft to the editor in 15 minutes. The journal (the second I sent it to since pulling it from the collection), is not a big one, but it's a good quality pub, so I'm happy that the essay has found a home, and that I'm that much closer to having the minimum research quota filled for tenure.

In the meantime, Willow is finishing bedtime with the kids, and I suspect that there's an early bedtime in store for the whole family. Now if it will only be warm and sunny tomorrow.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Sexism on the Trail (oh, and Racism, too)

Today in the Washington Post, this cogent opinion piece that pins down the persistence of sexism in the democratic nomination.

No matter whom you support in this primary season, the discourses of race and gender both have been downright disheartening. As Marie Cocco posits here, the kind of casual sexism used to characterize Hillary Clinton is not just a differentiation of male and female gender types, but active bile that strikes at the heart of the notion of a woman in power.

What this continues to underscore, I think, is the prevailing notion that to be female or feminine is to be weak, and that "strong women" are either not really strong, or not really women. This, I think remains part of the problem: that our terminology has (dis)empowerment deeply embedded. That to be masculine is to be strong, whereas to be feminine (not necessarily female) is to be submissive.

Interestingly, this is an argument that has been made about race in America as well. In her brilliant Scenes of Subjection, Saidiya Hartmann astutely locates the performative nature of race in the re-enactment of subjection and domination (Go read Hartman now, if you don't her work. That's ok. I'll wait). But while the raising-to-power of Obama (itself not a bad thing) has allowed too many of us to congratulate ourselves for this illusion of a post-racial society, the unwillingness to reverse those terms on gender is striking.

Now, illusion is a key word there, for Obama's now-almost inevitable nomination does not mean we live in anything like a post-racist society. But I think that this election cycle has told us that it's less ok to be obviously racist than before. The racism persists (see the villification of Rev. Wright and other African-American religious leaders...eta: and the link below), and in some cases has been displaced onto islamophobia. Nonetheless, we can't seem racist: hence the tut-tutting important outcry over the influence of race in WV's recent landslide victory for Clinton. Little such finger wagging about gender anywhere beyond editorials such as the one above, and much belittling pro-Hillary women as "voting emotionally."

I am not saying that Obama has had it easier, or that he's here because he's black. Far from it. His path here has been extraordinary, and I think he's among the most exciting presidential candidates in my voting lifetime.

All I am trying to say here is that this election has taught me that as a body we still think it's far more ok to be sexist than it is to be racist it's still ok to be sexist and racist--and it should not be ok to be either.

We can call Hillary a ball-breaker, but similar racist insinuations like the earlier gaffe by Biden are (justifiably) called out early and often. [eta: forget the comparison. wouldn't it be nice if we called out all of it more diligently? The only safe way to talk about race is to discuss this as an historic opportunity to mark the end of racism, an idea that is itself downright dangerous.

Let me reiterate here. I think both politicians are excellent potential presidents (as I thought about Edwards before he dropped out). I think both represent opportunities to change the tenor of identity politics. I also think that the "noooooo, that's not racism/sexism" of the campaign dangerously elides the very real and ongoing contours of a racialized and gendered America, and that if we think that electing a Black president marks an end to racism, or that electing a woman president marks an end to sexism, we're only kidding ourselves.

I'll end now, with the realization that I am in dangerous waters here, and that I have tried to tread carefully. Please feel free to weigh in.

ETA: Ugh. So apparently, as this excellent post points out, the racism's just as bad.

The Mess

What some have called the biggest academic scandal of the year is happening here in my backyard, and while I can't blog much about it, much of my post-semester activity has been involved in following and participating in the aftermath.

Those of you who know what I'm talking about, I do hope you'll spread the word about what's going on here in order to put more pressure on those who need pressure. Sorry to be vague, but if you'd like details, gmail me...

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Back into the Maelstrom

I'm back from the conference and trying to keep myself juggling the many tasks I've set myself:
  • Post-conference networking
  • Drafting the paper idea I had while at the conference (I wrote 9 pages on the idea before I left texas)
  • Grading final papers (grad and undergrad)
  • Getting a head start on the summer's time sensitive writing projects
  • Editing articles for the collection
  • Taking a few of those winter pounds back off
  • Cleaning up the yard
Many of those are going well (networking, which is a change), others (winter pounds anyone?) not so much. Ask me again in a week when those paper grades are done!

Friday, May 02, 2008

Off to Austin

I'm headed off to the Narrative Conference in Austin, TX. If you're in Austin (Jenny?) and have some free time this evening or tomorrow, gmail me at delightandinstruct . . .

Perhaps more blogging soon, depending on the wireless connection....