Sunday, June 29, 2008


That's right. The depressing news is in: summer break's halfway over.


Saturday, June 28, 2008

The other shoe

By most measures, this has been a productive summer thus far. Two articles have been accepted, one by a pretty big journal in my field; the collection is nearing completion, at least submission of the complete draft for readers; I've been writing at a pretty steady rate on these projects, and have been thinking about the next projects.

In the meantime, I'm not behind on my teaching prep for the fall, as I slowly pace through some news texts I'm teaching, and helping an independent study student take on a big new project. And the service work for next year isn't really an issue at the moment. The point is, things are going fine.

And yet, even on a Saturday, in the middle of the summer, when my work has been going fine, as the rest of the house naps, I am anxious about not working. Oh, I am good at procrastinating, just like everyone else, but I have to be procrastinating from something, as opposed to actually relaxing. This, for me, is the downside of having a career where we may not be at work all the time, but we are always working. We, or I, at least, can't stop working.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Unnerving Evaluation

The fact that I almost always post when evaluations come in probably says something. What it says is unclear to me, except that course evaluations mean a lot to me. A former therapist would tut about a continuing struggle to properly contextualize outside affirmation and critique, but others might suggest that my attention to student voices is part of what makes me (I hope) a good teacher.

So it is no surprise, then, that I am posting today. I got my graduate evaluations a while ago, but not the survey course evals. Or at least the hard copies. Statistical scores came in weeks ago, and were pretty much in keeping with what I'm used, which is to say, generally pretty strong. But on the hard copies, a few of the narrative comments are less rosy, in part because I believe they paint a pretty consistent picture of me as a teacher resting on his (scant) laurels. More specifically, they suggest that in overrelying on group work, and not doing enough during group to keep the momentum of the lesson going, by harping on a smaller and smaller set of concerns, and (damningly) by being satisfied (even in short quizzes) by answers that regurgitated my own words.

OK, so this still confirms my decision to reconceive the course next time I teach it (which isn't this coming year, at least), and it will force me to re-think some of the goals and texts in new ways, to break out of a pattern that tends to lead to narrower expectations from students.

But one evaluation stung. It's an outlier, certainly, and I can almost certainly chalk it up to having rubbed one student the wrong way, which is almost inevitable. The student's narrative comments suggested I played favorites (which could be almost predicted from a student who sat in the back of the class, and never spoke in an otherwise talkative class). But that the student suggested that I was both rude to some students and "had an arrogance about him that was not comforting," well, ouch. It's so easy to write off, based on the student hirself, and by the degree to which it is uncharacteristic of comments I've received. But it has unsettled me enough that I ahve been completely unable to concentrate this afternoon on my reading and writing. I'm leaving campus this afternoon having accomplished nothing at all.

Thursday, June 19, 2008


Imperia is at an age where picking flowers is among the most wonderful things possible. When the spring dandelions were coming up, she wanted whole handfuls of them. Of course, the wanted whole handfuls of the daffodils and tulips that were springing up, too, not to mention any other kind of beautiful little thing growing in anyone else's yard or public place.

We had to teach her about what you could and couldn't pick, with varying explanations. Willow tried to explain that the fairies needed the flower petals to make dresses for fairy balls, while I, somewhat less magically inclined, explained that if we pick the flowers, they die faster and other people can't enjoy them.

So while the rogue flower-picking has waned, Imperia learned that people didn't care nearly as much about whether she picked random berries, leaves, stones, twigs, and soon these fell into the larger, but still treasured category of "natures."

Now every day, she has small gifts to offer: a woodchip from the playground, a pebble from the ground, twelve lovely blades of grass. These we accumulate in a small treasure box--a clear plastic container once for dried fruit.

This is adorable, no doubt, certainly when, at the end of her visit to her grandparents last week, she picked up a stone from the driveway, ran back to my mom and said, "Mom-mom, this is my missing-you stone."

On the other hand, it also means that we often have piles of dried leaves, handfuls of dirt, pebbles and other "natures" that show up: in her cubby at school, in pockets, in the laundry. One feels almost awful leaving those piles back outside, but they are frequently forgotten as soon as they are offered. I can merely hope that they are only making room for other treasures to be discovered, offered up, and taken. Bits of nature believed beautiful and valuable, if only for moments at a time.

Friday, June 13, 2008

The Checklist

It occurred to me that I hadn't done a post on my summer writing/ research projects, something I tend to do every summer, if for no other reason than to remind myself when I'm being over-ambitious in my expectations. But since I sent off a complete draft of the collection intro to my co-editor today, and also got back and acceptance-with-revisions on another article (the one that discusses this play--Yay!), now seems like an opportune time to both make the list, and check off items that are done. Items in italics mean that I have at least gotten it off my desk for this round of collaborative work, so while there's more work to do, it's not an active action item.

A. The Collection
  1. Co-author the introduction (Completed full draft 6/13)
  2. Co-author chapter 1 (draft sent off 6/4)
  3. Finish revising my own essay (done pending copyedits)
  4. Edit essays for my contributors (2 done, 2 awaiting final drafts 6/30, 1 awaiting complete draft)
B. Stand-alone Articles

  1. Complete revisions for parody article.
  2. Complete revisions for Equus article
  3. Finish draft of March's plenary talk, revise and submit
  4. Work on, if not finish draft of paper idea from Narrative conference
C. The Long-Overdue Book Project (as if!)
  1. Organize material written since dissertation into new chapter framework
  2. Finish revising Introduction
  3. Clean up first two chapters (which need mostly updating and sharpening of the main argument)
  4. Draft Proposal
Here's the thing: Since A1 through B2 are all due by September 1, I think that's a realistic goal to set. I do think that B3 is attainable, and if I'm honest with myself, B4 should be tabled in favor of all of the C tasks. But wait! Let's not forget...

D. Teaching/ Service
  1. Finish commenting on Spring's grad projects
  2. File Spring's course records (easy procrastination job)
  3. Develop Syllabus for Honors intro drama class
  4. Develop Syllabus for Postmodern Lit class
  5. Develop Syllabus for Writing Intensive American Drama class
  6. Develop grad student independent study in conjunction with American Drama class
  7. Shepherd undergraduate mentee through beginning stages of his big project
  8. Read up on all those texts from 3, 4, 5 that I haven't read in ages
  9. Get a jump on Spring 09 London Tour materials
  10. Start organizing the committee that's doing the legwork on the revised undergrad major.
All of which I'm pushing back until we return from vacation on July 27. In fact, looking at this list now makes me feel like there is some substantive stuff that I'm doing and have done, but the diffuse nature of that damn collection has made it harder to grasp onto. Though now that I've gotten 2 articles accepted this summer, I think I'll cut myself a little break. And since Willow is making me a belated birthday dinner this evening (as we speak!) I think I'll start cutting myself that break tonight!

Saturday, June 07, 2008

RBOC: Whiney edition

  • Willow and Imperia are both out of town for several days and I miss them.
  • When I woke up this morning, the head cold, which had previously just been an allergy attack, had become a full-on chest cold.
  • Rambunctious and I had a full morning of fun stuff planned, but the farmer's market had virtually none of the great fruits and veggies they were advertising (strawberries, rhubarb, English peas), and the coffee shop we wanted to stop at for a mocha and a muffin (for me and for Rambunctious, respectively) had lost its A/C.
  • It was 97 degrees today.
  • Rambunctious didn't nap, even though I really needed to, and therefore needed him to.
  • When I checked my email this afternoon, I had a truckload of returned mail receipts for spam that I clearly hadn't sent, but the dept. IT administrator is off payroll until 7/1, so I'll have to wait until Monday morning to call it in.
  • I got a sitter for tonight for a soccer game, and ideally maybe drinks afterwards, but I couldn't for the life of me find anyone who wanted to hang out this evening.
  • Fifteen minutes into said soccer game, with nothing between me and the goalie but the ball, and I stepped in a divot and pulled my hamstring.
  • It's my birthday.
  • Blah.

OK. Had to get that out of my system.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Today's Reading: Noah

For the last couple weeks, I have been poking lazily through Julian Barnes's A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters. At one point, I thought I might teach it, and may someday still, but the decision against it for fall meant that it often fell by the wayside for days at a time while I worked away at other things. I finally finished it this morning.

If you don't know the book, it's less a novel than thematically linked pieces of short fiction, and the 1/2 chapter is really an essay by Barnes on the intertwining of history and love. The common thread is Noah's ark: the wordworms on it, various sea catastrophes, survival, taking to the seas, what we might or mightn't find on Mt. Ararat, etc. And through many of them is the decidedly Barnesian, po-mo-lite tension inherent in the idea of history: what really happened, vs. the stories we tell about it, the fact vs. the fable. Barnes tends toward the notion of history as a collection of stories--this borne out not only by the fact that his history of the world is a seemingly random, non-linear, disjointed series of pastiches, but also by the way that his characters' lives are continually driven less by material circumstance than by the stories they tell themselves. He goes so far as to say so:

The history of the world? Just voices echoing in the dark; images that burn for a few centuries and then fade; stories, old stories that sometimes seem to overlap; strange links, impertinent connections. (240)

One of these overlaps are the thread of characters who go on monumental journeys, fueled by the idea of a mission from god. Noah's own mission, and two others that take them on pilgrimages to Mt. Ararat all suggest to a large degree that such drives are often quixotic, and that the blind fervor that propels them are as arbitrary as the psychotic break that sends another character in another story off into a boat with two cats to avoid an imaginary war.

Funny then, that later on the morning I finish Barnes's novel, while sitting in the Episcopal church today (I do that sometimes, you know), that I notice, "Hunh. The Old Testament reading is on Noah." And the sermon, by a retired bishop who's pinch hitting while the parish looks for a full-time rector, ties the three readings for the day together through the theme of obedience.

Now, obedience is a notion that I find troubling. It was blind obedience to what seemed like an arbitrary set of moral prescriptions that drove me out of the church in my late teens, and is a notion that I now understand as a less-than-arbitrary form of social control. (It's hard to want to believe in Foucault and a deity at the same time. And right now, Foucault makes more sense to me). And yet I ask for a kind of obedience from my children, from my students, even in a way, from Willow or from any friend (only inasmuch as I hope to obey as much as is sensible their wishes as well). As much as I am suspicious of authority and of power, I don't assume that authority and power are de-facto malevolent, any more than is the amorphous deity I try to imagine each week, or, for that matter, the very suspect theological institutions that propagate a very specific version of that deity.

So I sit in church resisting the idea of obedience, disagreeing with most of the sermon despite its being served up like so much pablum (I swear to god he tried to summarize the whole Cosby routine).

So why was I there? Happy to hear the story of Noah, yet loathe to hear it tied to a set of dicta to which I must be blindly obedient?

Because, like Barnes, I'm here for the stories (and the songs too...I sing in the choir for the sheer joy of singing in a choir). We take the kids for the stories, too, and when their teacher tries to tell them that magic and miracles are very different, we suggest that it's all pretty magical, just as much of the world is.

But back to Barnes's delusionary travelers. While I resist the obedience narrative being imposed on my Noah story, I am also leery of what seems like Barnes's casual dismissal of these journeys set off by a conviction. Even as I say that, I know about other quests set off by similar convictions: The Crusades, cross-burnings, 9/11, Kristallnacht, the two intifadas, European missionary imperialism, the list goes on and on. And yet those stories, those ways we make meaning of not only our lives, but all of existence as we know it, well, the belief in their magic is powerful stuff indeed.

Barnes's final chapter is a riff on heaven, where the first-person narrator describes the series of fantasies fulfilled in heaven, only to realize that those fantasies are finite, and ultimately begin to ring hollow. When he asks about god, his heavenly handler asks, "God. Do you want God? Is that what you want?" (298). Faith in this scenario is merely a projection of a human fantasy for authority, or an ordering principle. It's faith that's always the rub, isn't it? I'm not sure what fantasy I seek while in my choir robes, and what it means that it is composed almost entirely of doubt. Yet those stories about people willing to cram themselves into boats with animals for a delusion of providence still strikes me as compelling, and as worthy (and as troubling) a narrative for contemplation as any other I'm able to muster.