Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Problem of Re-reading

I am not, by nature, a re-reader. Willow is, and many of my friends are. They are the sort of people who, when they have some free time, will pick up an old comfy favorite, and dig right in, sometimes cover-to-cover, sometimes just the good bits.

This is not the way I read. Partially because I read slowly, and partially because reading for pleasure for me can be so engrossing that I kind of shirk my other reading responsibilities, and partially because I'd rather just read something on my already towering to-be-read pile.

Unfortunately, this predilection away from re-reading is not particularly good for teaching, where not re-reading tends to leave you looking like a bit of a fool in front of the classroom, when you don't remember an incidental, but useful detail. For me, now in year five of my TT position, this really is starting to be an issue, because I'm re-teaching enough texts that I am having to go back for fourth and fifth readings--I know them well enough for this to be a little bit of drudgery, but not well enough to go without doing it.

I know, no one really enjoys re-reading for class: it's work, and it has a tendency to turn the thing we love into labor. But I think my particular problem with it also goes back to why I'm not a re-reader (two of those reasons, at least).

This week, I got a desk copy of Pale Fire in my box. I'm teaching it in a summer narrative theory course. I haven't read it yet, though I knew enough about it to know that it was going to be a good fit. And I've learned that if I want to keep up anything like a diet of new texts, I have to add them to my syllabi. Rarely do I teach a class in which I'm not reading something along with my students. So I've got Pale Fire on my pile.

That, and I took the kids to the bookstore today, to kill a little time on a frigid day where snowplay was impossible. They browsed the kids section, while I went off to look for something particular. I didn't find that text, but while poking around the fiction section, I ran across Orhan Pamuk's My Name is Red, something I've been salivating over for some time. Since I read Rushdie's The Enchantress of Florence this past winter break, I thought that since the Pamuk book covered some of the same historical and geographical territory, that now was a good time to grab it. (also...It was a lovely book that I already wanted and my will power was eroded by begging for Littlest Pet Shop sticker books). So I picked it up, and brought it home.

I walked in, and laid it on the table by the door, on top of Pale Fire and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, which I'm teaching this week (Also, Spanish Tragedy and Hamlet--in a different class--and Shelley and Keats). In terms of urgency, then, My Name is Red automatically goes to the bottom of the pile. This makes me actually resent R&G, which would seem preposterous, except that I've already read it twice and seen it once in the last 15 months, and should look over it again tonight, instead of tucking into bed with a new marvelous beautiful novel that I really just want to read. For the first time.

Friday, January 29, 2010

On Calvino

I mentioned in an earlier post that I'm teaching Italo Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveler to my undergraduate class on postmodern literature. I'm teaching it following a week of Borges stories, so it is at once a natural follow-up, and at the same time, overkill, especially for young (mostly female, in this section) readers raised on the funnel-cake-and-cotton-candy diet of Rowling, Meyers, and Sparks.

I didn't read it until I was an MA student, right after taking a narrative theory course that I loved. So the pump was primed, so to speak. And for someone who loves formal play, Calvino's novel is pure joy. The second person narration begins with a near-perfect mapping of narrated Reader and the flesh-and-blood reader, and slowly but inexorably spins into pure fictional world, ending up in the literary police state of Ataguitania. And then there is the series of ten novel beginnings the reader encounters, each one a pastiche of a literary style or even a particular author (I can pick out at least Kawabata and Marquez). Add to this winking references to perversions of the 1001 nights, ingeniously contructed mise-en-abymes (an author in the book imagines writing a book that looks exactly like the book we're reading), and some striking metaphors for reading-for-pleasure.

In fact, this last idea is the central argument for the novel: that pleasure is the one pure-and-true motive for picking up a novel. In fact, he ties reading to not only physical pleasure, but sexual pleasure throughout: sex becomes an ongoing metaphor for reading, and when it happens, reading becomes a metaphor for sex (a trope Jeannette Winterson improves upon in Written on the Body). This, of course, was the way in to the most successful lesson with this class so far. Since the Other Reader of the novel is also an ideal (and idealized reader) the frame story of the novel is something of a love plot between the Reader (you) and the Other Reader (Ludmilla), even as it is a quest narrative to find the end of one of the frame stories.

So the idea of reading for pleasure and sex for pleasure are conflated into the same plot, and of course, the novel ends (a full narrative after all) with "you" and Ludmilla married. yay, and all.

The thing is, this idealized plot is peppered all the way along with bad readers: Irnerio, the sexually ambiguous non-reader who only sees books for their value as beautiful objects; Professor Uzzi-Tuzii, the shriveled, dusty professor of a dead language who is caught up in grammar, syntax, and punctuation; the general of Ataguitania, who uses his control of access to books as a means to power; Cavedagna, the hurried little publisher who has lost the pleasure of books to the bustle of putting books together; and most disturbingly, Lotaria (a purposeful re-gendering of the Lothario, who is in it not for the love of it, but for the chase). Lotaria is Ludmilla's sister, and is as passionate about books as her sibling. But Lotaria is a ball-breaking, militant feminist, who reduces characters, settings and situations to "general concepts" (and a litany of academic jargon is inserted here). Later in the novel, she reduces writing down further, processing it electronically to garner word frequency, thereby deducing the major themes.

Now it's hardly coincidental that Calvino's book, which doesn't hold up too well to feminist scrutiny, chooses a feminist for his radical academic target. But add to this the fact that each of these bad readers is, in some ways made either sexually undesireable or sexually suspect, and the critique gets a little more vicious. The insinuation (and I might, under such a reading, be compelled to take this personally, as a somewhat sexually ambiguous, feminist, professor of literature) is that folks who read in these bad ways, are both undesireable as readers, and therefore ineligible for the pleasures of reading.

Well, harrumph.

The thing is, those students in my class, the ones who both identify as "pleasure readers"--they were the students who inevitably complained about the novel's frustrated beginnings: a string of coitus interruptus if you will. They complained that they were so frustrated with the stops and starts that had it not been for class, they'd have never finished the novel. Conversely, the students who enjoyed the novel found themselves mocked via the figures of Lotaria and Professor Uzzi-Tuzii.

I wonder whether, in much of today's reading climate, Calvino hasn't created a novel that can only (or mostly only) be loved by those it mocks, while it shuts out those readers it adulates. That is, I first read this novel for pleasure. and every time I've read it since, I derive a kind of pleasure in it. But I've also always seen my own reading practices mocked somehow.

But perhaps I am the audience. Perhaps Calvino is invoking the Lotarias and Uzzi-Tuzii's of the world, and reminding us that there is still pleasure to be had in books, not just politics, or even a livelihood. I'm not ready to renounce my politicized interpretive strategies or even my pickiness about grammar, but I do need to remind myself now and again that not every book needs to be the subject of my teaching and writing. Unfortunately, I've got enough of a backlog on that, that the pleasure reading will wait.

A Class is its Students

At the beginning of every semester, I tweak the syllabus, look at the roster, check the room out beforehand, and think about which lessons will still work and which need to be revisited, or created from scratch.

And despite all of that work, how well a class goes often depends not on that immaculate preparation but the ten or twenty-five, or forty people in the room. Take for example my later British Lit survey. In the past five years, I've taught roughly 11 sections of the class. I've had some really solid ones and one or two stinkers (and even those had bright spots). But I'll admit: even after switching up some themes and texts last fall, I'm still kinda bored with the class. Evals have been very good, but have sort of plateaued off, and the occasional negative or even constructive comments I get are of the damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don't variety (seriously, the two lowest aggregate scoring ones said, on one hand, "more open class discussion," and the other said, "more lecture"!). The point is, I feel like I've kind of maxed out my own personal reward from the class.

Until this semester. I expected the same-old-thing, but the 27 people in the room are totally rocking it out. I didn't need to do the whole "Crazy Ol' Blake" routine, and when I started up my riff on Wordsworth's sorta self-serving and kinda arrogant criteria for the poet (Really, you think your soul is more comprehensive than mine?), the students totally stepped up and defended the entire project--using evidence from the preface to the Lyrical Ballads. I mean, that's the ideal scenario, but it's never gotten even close to happen. These folks have ideas about texts, and the backbones to express and defend them. I'm totally in love with them.

Meanwhile, my course of postmodern lit (a gen-ed) is only in its second iteration. The first one started off fairly roughly, but ended up being a lot of fun. So I made some fairly substantial modifications to the beginning of the course, and was really excited to get back into it this semester. But after the very full first day of class, and I discover that most of my students think postmodern lit is written by Stephanie Meyers, Jodi Picoult, and Nicholas Sparks. I've been pulling all of my best tricks out of the bag in the first three weeks, and I'm dying here. I got a moderately good discussion out of the conflation of reading and sex in Italo Calvino's If on a winter's night..., but I had to resort to some pretty cheap tricks to do that.

So I thought I'd have one great class, and one just-ok class this semester, and so far that's turned out to be true. But with the actual classes flipped around.

This reminds me that students themselves have a responsibility for how classes proceed. My sense is that we often enforce this with participation grades and such, and there are a variety of lesson-planning strategies built around hedging against this fact (several usefully noted in a recent post at ProfHacker). But I also want us to think about how we can convey that responsibility to our students.

One way that I do it is that when I do midterm evals, I ask students to make a column for things I can control, but also things that they can control, and then suggest that some of those suggestions will become specific criteria for class participation. But this is still a bit more whip than carrot. If you're reading, and have other ideas, I'd love to hear them. Once we've exhausted our own tactics for livening up a classroom, how do we convey to student their responsibility for doing so?

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Grad Course: Metatheatre and Metadrama

In designing the graduate course I'm teaching this semester, I looked to the common themes of my favorite and most teachable plays, and the common theme is, almost invariably, texts that play formally and thematically with the boundaries between performance and reality. This is a theme that connects in an unexpected way with my research, on staged life-writing, and as a result, it's become a course in which the critical conversation is a fairly new topic of concerted study.

The curious thing is that this central idea is a fairly old one, with foundational books on the topic dating back to the 60s, but it's never been a particularly faddish scholarly line, which is to say that the history of metatheatrical criticism doesn't really feature a spike or a lull. The bad news about that is that the most ambitious students are not likely to find it professionally sexy on the front end, but since it's an MA level course (as opposed to a seminar), there are lots of ways in, in terms of the texts and the critical schools of thought that approach them.

The primary texts in the course could read like a (spotty) survey of (non-realistic drama, with a particular emphasis on the 20th c.:
  • Beckett, Krapp's Last Tape
  • Anonymous, Mankynde
  • Medwall, Fulgens and Lucres
  • Marlowe, Dr. Faustus
  • Thomas Kyd, The Spanish Tragedy
  • Shakespeare, The Tempest, Midsummer, Hamlet
  • Beaumont and Fletcher, The Knight of the Burning Pestle
  • Sheridan, The Critic
  • Villiers, The Rehearsal
  • Pirandello, Six Characters and the remainder of the theatre trilogy
  • Brecht, The Caucasian Chalk Circle
  • Genet, The Balcony
  • Weiss, Marat/Sade
  • Gambaro, Information for Foreigners
  • Handke, Offending the Audience
  • The Performance Group, Dionysus in 69
  • Stoppard, R&G, Travesties
  • Soyinka, Death and the King's Horseman
  • Walcott, Pantomime
  • Suzan-Lori Parks, Venus
  • Wertenbaker, Our Country's Good, Love of the Nightingale
  • Valdez, Zoot Suit
  • Churchill, Cloud 9
  • Schenkar, The Universal Wolf
Ultimately, my hope is to use the framework of metadrama to introduce these students to a wider range of drama than they've perhaps been exposed to, and to raise a number of other theoretical concerns through this basically formal lens. And finally, this frame is designed to get students to think about these plays as both literature and performance, a double lens with which scholars on both side of the disciplinary aisle struggle.

So far, the class has been pretty game, willing to read and think historically, theoretically, and in one case already, physically. We'll see how the rest of the semester progresses, and whether my five weeks before the 20th century material is a success.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Stretched Thin

It's been a rough week. Junebug's virus has turned out to be RSV which has turned into bronchiolitis, and may have even developed into a mild case of pneumonia. There's an ear infection in there, too. So since Friday, we've been to the doctor's office four times, and again tomorrow, all of which is the alternative to admitting him into the hospital. Through it all, he's been a total champ, and as he begins to feel better (despite the somewhat labored breathing, and hideous cough) he's been super smiley, which is all the sadder with his face slightly puffy from the inflamed sinuses and coated entirely in snot and tears.

So in between the temp-taking and the oral medicine administering (we're on our second anti-biotic now) and the diffuser with albuterol vapor and blah blah blah, Willow and I are both trying to keep our semesters from falling apart. Willow, teaching comp this semester, has been in conferences this week for first papers, while I've been trying to pull together materials for texts as diverse as--seriously--Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey," Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveler, and finally, the pairing of Marlowe's Dr. Faustus and Shakespeare's The Tempest.

I've been lucky so far with forgiving classes: while the postmodernism class has needed some pulling along (half of that class cites Stephanie Meyer, Jodi Picoult or Nicholas Sparks as a favorite author), the survey class has been totally rocking my world--today students asked questions like whether Wordworth's ideal poet's "more comprehensive soul" was innate or a learned quality, and whether the democratic impulses of his poetry actually translated into a readership that included the "common man" he so valorized. But still, I've got two Renaissance plays to prep for grad students on Thursday, and the insane Jan Svankmajer film version of Faust that I may want to screen some clips of to watch in class, and a set of quizzes to grade and a another set of worksheets on Borges to collate into one usable document and...

I'm on childcare duty tomorrow, with a Doctor's appointment at 11am.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

RBOC: Discombobulated edition

Too many things going on, and I used up all of my coherence in the last few posts, so...

  • Junebug's got a wicked virus: 103+ fever, snot coming out of his nose and eyes, coughing, ear infection, raspy little voice. The smiles (when they appear) are heartbreaking.
  • A death in the family (an uncle with whom I was once quite close, but who had withdrawn after a long series of illnesses) meant that all five of us had to pile into the car on Thursday for the services in Nearest City (about 90 minutes away). I canceled my two undergrad classes for the day, but couldn't in good conscience cancel the grad class that evening. Which meant that after a long drive with kids, a somewhat difficult funeral, and the long drive back with the kids, I arrived on campus (without ever having set foot inside the house) with about 45 minutes until class. I was underprepared, but a save from a colleague meant that the class went fairly well, despite the very very long day.
  • I'm not sure if it's a good thing, but Very Good Journal asked me to do a review (right up my alley) and then asked if there was anything else I'd like to review in the future, which gave me the opportunity to chalk up another text I've been itching to do. So two book reviews in the next year? Good exposure, I guess, and book's I'd read anyway, but still.
  • My favorite cashmere sweater (the one Willow bought for me to wear to on-campus interviews five+ years ago) has a little moth-hole in in, right on the chest. I'm not sure if I'm happy or sad that my my nicest dress-up sweater has become my comfiest around-the-house sweater.
  • The twins got Kindergarten report cards on Friday. They both did great. But nobody told me that kids report cards had such an effect on their parents. Pride to be sure on this batch, but methinks I'll need to check myself in the future that I don't bring my own demands, hopes, and aspirations to my responses to future report cards...
  • Whither writing? Nowhere lately, but I do know I've got a lot of it to do, esp. if I want to meet the deadline that I set for myself when I sent UPress my proposal last week. I I want to ever get to one of those public intellectual projects, I'll need to finish one of those straight-up intellectual projects first...
  • I realized this morning that while I like smoked salmon a lot, I always wish it were prosciutto.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

On the move

(And now for something completely different)

This is Junebug. You've seen him before, but maybe it's been awhile since you've seen just how cute he is. I know I'm biased. I think he's the cutest baby ever, but even when I look from as objective a perspective as I can muster, you've still gotta admit that he's, like, what? Top Ten cutest, at least.

He's crawling around now, which is terrifying, but also adds to his cuteness. His is not an up-on-all-fours crawl, but something a little more makeshift: left forearm forward for locomotion, right arm out for stability, right leg pushing off for more locomotion, left leg kicking up and down kind of pointlessly for added adorability, and nice little rhythm you can dance to.

Since I began this post, he's done two laps around our home library, stopping here at the desk to smile at me beatifically at least twice (he might not have completed the second lap otherwise, but those smiles are distracting.)

Anyway, since I can't be actually working on Chapter 3 while he's awake, or, for that matter, prepping my grad course (tomorrow night's topic: metatheatricality in late medieval drama (Mankynde and Fulgens and Lucres), I might as well issue this paean to his cuteness. Or play with him. Which reminds me...

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Your "Public Intellectual" Project

So my last post has had me thinking about what kind of book I'd write if I were going to try to stake a claim as a "public intellectual" of the sort that Louis Menand is and his reviewers adore. A few possibilities:

  • Teeming: The Aesthetics and Ethics of the Arts of the Messy, Unruly, and Overabundant...This book would make a case for an aesthetic line that runs from Aristophanes through Salman Rushdie, Knight of the Burning Pestle through the films of Baz Luhrman, and from the art of Hieronymus Bosch to the joy of teaching. It would be a direct and pointed response to James Wood's wrongheaded but oft-cited essay, published in his most recent book as "Hysterical Realism" and indeed, his entire ouevre.
  • The Weight Room Mirror: What men are looking at in the gym...My most popular posts, likely because of the the phrase "naked men in locker rooms" are the series of posts that tried to look at my own weight loss and a gender studies approach to what I found in that process, both about my own body attitudes and the body attitudes I saw manifesting around me.
  • Token Male: Life among Feminists...I often joke about being the only straight (white) guy in the room at most of the conference panels I'm's overstatement, to be sure, and frankly, the history of feminism doesn't need my memoir, although I do think a good book needs to be written on why men should be feminists--which is not the same as why feminism is good for men (although that could be a chapter).
So what would your "Public Intellectual" project be? What might you title it?

Monday, January 18, 2010

Liberal Arts and the Public Intellectual

The usual roar of angst about the relevance of the liberal arts has not gotten louder lately, but it does seem to be taking on a particular tenor and timbre. In part based on Louis Menand's book about the professionalization of the humanities as an obstacle to creating public intellectuals, and in part based on a study done in sociology that both documents and explains a clear tendency toward liberal political affinities among humanities and social sciences scholars (h/t to Claire Potter at Tenured Radical), people doing the same job that I am doing are apparently not doing it to the satisfaction of someone else.

All of this hand-wringing in the general populace about the relevance of the liberal humanist academic to the, umm, real world is all sorts of things at once: troubling, democratic, anti-elitist, anti-intellectual, politically conservative, misinformed.

I do indeed understand the anxiety that the political middle and right have about the bias in the classroom--and of course its there, no matter how much we may hedge against our own politics. I do wonder though whether bankers, financial advisers, Army generals, CEOs of major corporations, even MBA faculty in the same institutions are as anxious about the political biases of their fields. Do we really think that those are politically balanced professions? As Gross and Fosse argue, these professions (English prof and army general and many others, too) self-select as much as anything, and I really do wonder whether the professoriate in the humanities really does have any out-sized influence: It's not like millions of conservatives didn't go through the same humanities coursework that is required in gen-ed curricula the nation over.

So whatever about political bias: I'm over it, and my tactic in the classroom is not to hide it, but rather to be crystal clear about my politics, and then invite debate. I want conservative students to speak up, and I don't try to "make examples out of them." Articulate conservative students are frequently quite persuasive in these (still infrequent) politically charged classroom moments.

But the review of Menand's book (which I hope to obtain and read soon) suggests that Menand's argument is essentially, ... Fine, the humanities are self-selecting. But the narrow band of folks who self-select academia tells us that the professionalization of the humanities has made it too insular to be healthy...

I agree and disagree. In the introduction to the co-edited collection on anti-disciplinarity (wow! in the top million in book sales! Who knew?), my co-editor and I argue that we do need to cut across the narrow disciplinary lines created by both the professionalization of and the state regulation of the academy. But we do not do so on the argument that this creates a more competitive marketplace of ideas (I so dislike the capitalist logic of that notion), but rather that doing so can better create conditions for a more politically engaged classroom space. Not the marketplace of ideas, but the town square of ideas, the speaker's corner of ideas. It's the academy as preparation for the democracy, not the market. I'm self-consciously training citizens, not consumers. And other disciplines do self-consciously train consumers, and even more pointedly, laborers. So the late-market capitalist bias functious right alongside my leftist one (though really, is teaching for democracy actually leftist?).

When we are told that English needs to better communicate its value to the job market, to the career preparation of its students, and in short, to produce better human capital, I get it. It's both a survival tactic for English, but also a cultural shift in the place of the academy, an argument made in turns cranky, troubling, and illuminating by William Chace recently in The American Scholar. But we also must assert our value in training citizens, something without a specific exchange value, but is, as the MasterCard commercials say, priceless.

While Menand [eta: rather Gideon Lewis-Kraus, the Slate reviewer of Menand's book] wants a public intellectual who functions in the public marketplace, I want (and want to become) a different kind of public intellectual: the sort who engages the public sphere of our commonly owned government and governance. And for me that starts in the classroom, and in fact demands that I be the political provocateur that I sometimes become. I will tie Wordsworth's laments in "Tintern Abbey" to arguments over mountaintop removal. I will make clear that the imperial tactics in Heart of Darkness are primarily economic, and therefore still entirely in operation today in the under-developed world. I will note the particular nature of the construction of masculinity in Tennyson, and the ways that those constructions are still rooted to our sense of nation and empire as well as leadership and achievement. These are reading tactics that help my students translate the ideas of literature into the very practical world of their own, where their votes might well hinge on their beliefs about mountaintop removal, their sense of international economic policy, or their biases against a female candidate for the highest office in the land.

Now, Menand's argument (and Chace's and to a degree Stanley Fish's in Save the World on Your own Time and in the most recent issue of Profession) rests upon decrying (depending upon the specific argument) increased specialization, disciplinary fragmentation , cultural studies inflections, politicization, and professionalization of our research and writing. I think there's a legitimate claim in here that our published work does often reach only a very tiny coterie audience, needlessly speaking a specialized language. But I think there's a lot of factors here, including the very limited demand (again, marketplace, dammit) for the work of even the most accessible of public intellectuals. The Slate review of Menand's book holds him to the highest standards, but he doesn't sell nearly as many books than the intellectually mendacious Glenn Beck, or Dan Brown, or Nicholas Sparks, or Stephanie Meyer or ... or ... or (although admittedly his Amazon rank on all of his books are higher than for my co-edited So how many public intellectuals can we really sustain, after all?

But to become a kind of public intellectual in the classroom, we do need ways to converse and distinguish ourselves, and sometimes this means writing to each other, to our coterie audiences. The texts I write about appear seldom on my syllabi, especially at the undergraduate level. Sure they make cameos. but I'd never dream of writing about Shakespeare in any concerted fashion, and yet I teach his work constantly in the genre classes on drama. This is its own marketplace of ideas (or idea-havers), and runs (devastatingly for most on the job market or in contingent positions) with its own cruel logic. If we add the consuming public to the machinery of that particular market, we make our demands for scholarship nigh on impossible.

But, perhaps there is something usable here, something about opening up the standards of the discipline, rather than building them up by accretion of demands. Perhaps we do need to be thinking more broadly about "what counts" not just toward tenure, but as labor. Does the demand for public intellectual production extend to activism on the local, state, or national level? Does it include op-eds or even the occasional letter to the editor? Does blogging belong in this discussion?

Or, is all of this sturm and drang another pissy set of cliches that is aimed at deflating academic egos? Does the critique amount to little more than bitching about somebody else getting paid to do something that too many people believe that a) they could do and b) isn't really work. Or alternatively (and sometimes simultaneously) that c) they were never able to do (often as students themselves) and d) weren't willing to put in the work to accomplish. There are old and mean biases against intellectual labor here, and they abound, and when cast in ideological turns, they get vicious.

But really let's be clear about some of they monetary stakes here, because money does get mentioned often. I could be making more writing cheap ad copy for computer resellers (which I got more for per hour as a part-timer during grad school than I get now per hour on a 9.5 month 40 hour work-week basis). I'm not bilking America, or my students, or the state, or parents, or anyone. I'm doing my job, which is to think, write, and teach about literature, and I do it damn well. Most of my colleagues do, too.

All of this is to say that I think that, sure, academic reform is useful in places and ways. But rarely in these zeitgeist ways that make it onto bestseller lists or into the pages of the NYT or the WSJ. I'd love to become the kind of public intellectual who writes smart books that lots of other people want to read. But even were the figure of the public intellectual to emerge more prominently at the broader cultural level, the public appetite for public intellectualism in the humanities will still staff only a handful of actual English departments. In the meantime, everywhere else there are (often underprivileged) students to teach, and a democracy that keeps on demanding a citizenry that should, after all, know how to participate.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Me and My University Bookstore

Usually, I've had a perfectly functional relationship with my university bookstore. I porder my textbooks, usually on time, or very close, occasionally make a tweak or two to the booklist, and generally, the stuff is there when the semester begins.

This semester has been one message after another from the textbook coordinator, and while some of them have not been her fault, I have nonetheless am now moved to ire everytime I see her name in my inbox.

First: a major book for my grad class (admittedly over 20 years old from a smallish press) is out of print. Somehow, my department was able to get me a desk copy which I can now put on reserve, but the bookstore couldn't get it, or do anything for me. OK, fine. Monographs go out of print all the time. I can deal.

Then: A single edition play is on backorder. nevermind that it's the New Mermaids edition of The Spanish Tragedy, a text taught often enough that these contingencies should be accounted for. But. Both Amazon and another major online outlet that bears the name of the smae corporate entity that owns our campus store listed the text ass in stock and able to ship within days. And yet the textbook department couldn't lay their hands on 9 copies. Grrr.

And today: the anthology I'm using for my survey course has just gone into a new edition. Longman does this fairly often, enough to irk me, since everytime they change something, I lose things I wanted to teach without getting new ones about which I'm equally enthusiastic. I lost Caryl Churchill's Cloud 9 four years ago, and have nothing of its functional equivalent in either the previous or the brand-new edition. So I ordered the old edition, thinking that surely there'd be enough copies floating around on the used market to supply my class. No dice. The bookstore has informed me that they can only procure 8 copies for my class of 40, and I've pretty much got to go to the new edition if I want the texts available by day 1. Of course, Longman has "conveniently" moved several texts to an online resource which is a pain-in-the-ass to access for me, let alone my students and has again gotten rid of a few things that I had been planning to teach. This is particularly irksome since I taught the same course last fall, and was really hoping to use the same syllabus two semesters in a row (heaven forfend!).

So now, classes start next week, public schools have been out of session 2 1/2 out of the last 4 days, and are likely out again tomorrow, and goddamn it, I've got to scramble to reconfigure my survey syllabus. Longman reps, if you're out there, I will not be adopting your anthology anymore. You revise it too damn often and cause me too much inconvenience.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

New Years and Midpoints

We just celebrated New Year's Day, for the calendar year, at least. We made resolutions (weight loss, finances, coffee consumption), we're making plans to fill them out, we're looking forward to 2010.

I've always loved the new year. I like to think of myself as a fairly reflective person (or narcissistic, depending on how you look at it), but the exercise of marking the passage of time is typically a way that we measure change, and ideally, something like progress (always moving forward, we are). This year I accomplished more, made more, had more fun, whatever. And if change is the unit of annual currency, we here at Chez Horace had plenty: new house, new family member, one less fuzzy family member, new school for the twins, now in kindergarten. New New New New.

But Auld Lang Syne and all, and I don't want to forget what remains true. We remain quite healthy, if a bit more sedentary from Junebug's demands. Our family situations are stable enough, and while they could be better, they could also be worse. Willow and I remain in love, we love our children, and our children (despite the occasional protestation) love us. We've got lots of friends, and we even saw some of them this year. These things were by and large true last year, and I am grateful that they remain so.

I'm sure there's a rhetoric to these annual reflections, complete with tropes: the accomplishments, the travels, the big changes, the silver linings, the resolutions. For a while I resolved not to make any resolutions (it's like my Lenten practice of giving up sacrifices). But we are these creatures, we make narratives out of events, we wrest 365 days worth of happenings into a coherent year: was it a good one? a bad one? Did we bid 2009 good riddance (facebook status updates do suggest so), do we welcome the unknown with open arms?

But instead of marking beginnings and endings, I also want to attend for a moment to middles and in-betweens. For this present moment, poised at the cusp of the old year and the new is its own thing, and while the marked time and date turn us backwards into the past even as it washes us forward to an indeterminate future, we are remiss to miss the now.

Right now, my syllabi are in process (themselves documents awash in promise of a new period of time). I like writing syllabi for the same reason I like new years: all that possibility.

Right now, the children are all falling asleep: one listening to Anne of Green Gables on cd, another thinking about his Magic Treehouse book we've been reading, the third nursing back to a quiet rest.

Right now, I am posting to this blog, an activity that I missed doing more of, and at the same time feel somewhat silly (or self-indulgent, or whatever) doing even now.

Right now, the Christmas tree remains lit in the living room, where for whatever reason, its light is a hedge against these grey, snowy days.

I risk turning into a bad Van Halen video, but my point has become (though it wasn't where I imagined going), that I have to remind myself, no matter how much I enjoy patting myself on the back for last year, or benignly deluding myself about the next one, that this space seemingly in between years (or more accurately at least, in between semesters) is at least as important as the big measurable, markable histories I might write about 2009, a year that was, well, fine.