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.