Saturday, December 31, 2011

Bedtime Songs

These evenings just at the end of the year are long, and dark.

When Junebug is ready for bed, I take him up into his room, turn out the lights, and in the very dark, I sit with him in my lap on the rocking chair, and sing him songs.

We've been singing carols as bedtime songs for weeks now, and we begin with a rousing "Rudolph," and he bellows "Like Pinocchio!" at the proper time. But we slow down, moving from "Angels We Have Heard on High" to "Away in the Manger" and down to "Silent Night."

These are perfect lullabies, because I do still feel them profoundly, and the long round notes relax us both.

On "O Little Town of Bethlehem," Junebug nestles into the crook of my arm, and when we move to our regular lullabies, with lines like "rest your head / close to my heart / never to part," he lays his right ear on my chest, and with his left hand reaches up to stroke my beard.

The unsentimental part of me recognizes that the vibrations of my chest cavity and my open mouth register those baritone lyrics most perceptibly at these places, when the darkness is least familiar, and most unsettling.

But I also know that, vice versa, he is feeling my words and listening to my heart sing just for him.

Friday, December 30, 2011


It's been months since I posted, but the last post from September is a good one, 'cause guess what? That student sure showed me.

Several days ago, just before the holidays began in earnest, I got the statistical reports back from my two sections of the "foundations" course that I had been teaching. Two sections: same syllabus, same lesson plans, same assignments, similar grade distribution. The earlier section was somewhat less talkative, and had fewer pure standout students, and the later section seemed to be running preternaturally well, but by-and-large, these were the same class, held back to back.

So when I handed out course evals in each class, I figured that they would look quite similar, and that (since both courses felt like they'd gone in familiar ways) both sets would look like most of the other sets of evaluations I had done in the past.

So, last week, when I looked at the statistical reports, I was pleased, but not surprised, to see that the later section (the first set I read) gave me quite good scores--on a 1-5 scale, most of the average scores were 4.7 and above. Statistically, these evaluations were the best of any course I'd ever taught that didn't involve an actual trip to London.

I didn't expect the next section's scores to be quite as high, but for a moment, I believed that this first batch confirmed what I had believed: that this particularly rigorous version of the course that I had designed had been successful. In addition to the three graded papers that each required conferences, I had students complete 20 written exercises that sometimes took particularly ambitious students 3 pages to complete fully. I had asked them to work quite hard, but for all but one student (and not the one you may be thinking) that work had yielded sometimes transformative dividends in their thinking and writing.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I opened the pdf for the other section and discovered that these scores were flat out the worst of my entire teaching career. A couple of mean scores dipped below the 4.0 mark (which for me is pretty shockingly low, and were in some cases in the 10th and 15th percentile across all university courses)


Now, part of this stems from what seems to be one student who (I would argue, in bad faith) simply gave me straight 1's. And my guess is that the student who produced that document was the same student mentioned in the below post. But even accounting for that student, these were still statistically low evaluations. How do I account for this? Some possibilities.

1) A poisoned well: This student was so disenchanted with me and this course that hir bitching and moaning when I wasn't in the room colored the perceptions of everyone else in the room. This is something of a possibility, but this was a fairly quiet student, so it's hard to attribute the entire anomaly to this effect.

2) My optimism about the course and how well it had gone is somewhere in between the two, and the rosy view of the "better" section is no more a precise measure than the scathing ones were. I certainly want to believe that the great scores were the true ones, and the poor ones were a statistical anomaly, but perhaps to a certain degree they are both statistical anomalies.

3) The difference in student populations between the two courses had a bigger effect on student perception than I had imagined. This is possible, but this theory is contradicted by other courses in my experience. Of the 10+ sections of the survey course I've taught, my perception of student ability and enthusiasm is usually irrelevant to their perceptions of the course, and sometimes they actually seem inversely related. Now, I went for "rigor" more vociferously here, and if anything (outside of actual learning) seems likely to produce lower course evaluations, it is more writing and "stricter" grading policies. In this case, then, the section with the fewer high performing students seems to have fostered a classroom culture that less thoroughly bought into what I was aiming for in the course.

So some lessons to learn here:
1) As I think we all know, course evaluations are an imprecise, if not downright inaccurate way of measuring how well a given instructor is doing in a given class. Certainly trends over several sections can be telling, but the caprice that seems to have determined the wild divergence in these two sets disrupts many sureties we may have about these assessment tools.

2) Perception may matter more than actual learning in student evals. I think we all knew this too, but it underscores a dangerous trend, and one that many assessment initiatives are unable to account for. This is, given that my merit raise is keyed to my annual evaluation, and that evaluation may in fact suffer from the comparative dissatisfaction of, maximum, five students, I am monetarily incentivized to move away from the practices that I believe created the conditions for these poor evaluations. And in at least one case, I think that practice was simply this: intellectual honesty with a poor performing student who is ill-suited for this discipline. So, what? when I meet a student like this one in the future, I smile and nod and say, "Sure, the civil right movement was about rainbows and ponies. What original thinking!"? No, of course, not, but when that choice may in fact literally cost me hundreds, and even thousands of dollars over the course of my lifetime (Since merit raises are a percentage of base pay, so the effect compounds over time)? Whew, that's a hard one. I understand why some folks have decided to simply punt on rigorous courses.

3) This is the one more personal to me: I care waaaay too much about this. This has bothered me for over a week now, and has unsettled my thinking in a number of ways. While, sure, it's weird, I shouldn't still be talking about it, or at least bringing it up in casual conversation. But the fact is, Like many of my students, I derive a not-small chunk of my self-worth from external validation--it used to be grades, and then conference paper acceptances, and now articles and book contracts and yes, on a predictably regular interval, course evaluations. Five students should not have this kind of sway over me, but dammit they do. And like the student with whom I believe I was intellectually honest (or so I strongly suspect), I have taken this personally. And I shouldn't.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Why not to major in English

So this semester, I’m teaching two sections of intro to the major, a course that is often a “service” course, but since we’ve just recently introduced a foundations component into our major, I’m one of the folks who are really piloting it as a key component of the curriculum. So functionally, nearly half of the class of 2014 in the English major may have ended up taking this course from me.

I’ve designed the course around three papers and a series of 20 written exercises. Some of these exercises are analytical stepping stones for their papers, some are creative-writing responses to texts we’re reading, some are reflections on their favorite pieces of writing, etc.

The standard analytical prompts (e.g. “choose a concrete image in this poem and in a 5-8 sentence paragraph, make and support a claim about how that image contributes to a specific theme in the poem”) have posed few problems, but the less analytical ones have been a mixed bag. Now, I stand by these different types of prompts.

Not only do I want to introduce them to the different tracks within the major, but I want to introduce some metadiscourse about the field, one being the idea that literature is itself a way to think through issues—analogically, polysemantically, allusively, etc—a claim advanced by Marjorie Garber in her recent book The Use and Abuse of Literature which we’re also reading in this class.

This last creative response (in your own creative text, re-work a metaphor found in one of the poems for this week, using the metaphor in a new context for different, though perhaps complementary, effect) seem to bring out the drama, though. One student’s response is a straight up journal entry about depression and the help she’s been getting. OK. But how do I grade that? Uggh (answer: I didn’t. I responded with a long, supportive note, and a request that she try something a little less personal for the assignment itself. Extension granted.)…

The one that really got me was a poem that reworked a Harlem Renaissance text as a poem about the power of positive thinking. Deferring one’s dreams, it seems is only the result of a poor attitude. Not, you know, centuries of virulent racism.

But then, at the end of the student's explanatory note (I ask them to contextualize their choices), I get a long rant on how this student just isn’t a fan of poetry. After all, why bother with burying your point in flowery language? To quote: “I believe all of the metaphors are a silly guessing game. Interpreting these poems because the authors were too complicated to express their feelings in a straight forward [sic] manner frustrates me to no end.”


And so my question: Why are you an English major?

No really. I believe that the skills we teach are important, and that the critical thinking skills we teach here are crucial, but when you believe that nothing less than artfulness is the obstacle to your sense of the language, why would you choose to be in a major that revolves, frequently, around artfulness of language?

More to the point: one of the goals of the class is to provide a clearer entry point into our field, and thereby work as a bit of affirmation for our new majors. But what about this student? Would it not be in everyone’s best interest to say to this child, “I really don’t think this is right for you”?

The student wasn’t in class today, so it’s quite possible that that last outburst was a parting shot before she withdrew from the course. While I usually don’t like to have students drop my classes, in this case, it may just be the best thing possible.

Friday, September 02, 2011

Oh, yeah, how about that?

I neglected to mention: It's a bit of a new stage here at D&I. Since I'm now officially a Tenured Professor, and I've mailed that revised book ms. off to the press, where it is now officially somewhere In Production, I have now achieved My Goals (all obnoxious boldface intended).

I suspect there's a deep an vicious post-tenure malaise sitting out there somewhere (probably during my Spring semester sabbatical) and maybe some kind of other-shoe-dropping thing, but for now, glorious vistas of...something or other.

The other big deal is that Willow is now, for the first time since we've been here at BRU, fully employed. In the intervening 6 years, she was writing (quite successfully, but not yet profitably), completing and MFA and teaching with that, and then for the last year or so, underemployed while she substitute-taught, adjuncted, wrote, and other things. The employment issue was big deal though, because her options were limited here, and the kinds of positions she was sometimes in contention for were here in the department, where some of you, dear Readers, are also employed. The not-being-able-to-talk-about-that has really driven me away from blogging, since it was the single biggest stressor in our lives, and much of What I Had To Say revolved around things like partner hiring was inappropriate to be blogged here and then.

But the new statuses (tenured, employed) mean I'm in a new posting place. Whether I'll actually post or not remains to be seen.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Which Pond I'm In

So, after 6 years here, one degree program, and an unnecessarily humiliating turn trying to get a job in the public school system here, Willow has secured employment. Insofar as she is not teaching literature or creative writing, or, for that matter, anything, at the moment, it is not an ideal job, but it is a good position that pays well.

She is working as an executive assistant to a very highly-placed official on our large (30K students) campus, and so in her first week she has been very, very busy, and seems (if I may speak for her) both energized and exhausted by the work.

She has also met, very quickly, the most important people on campus in a very short time. And while her job is, as she put it, "to hold their sandals," the sense of access that she has serves to underscore just how little access to big decisions any of us has at any time. So on the one hand, I'm tenured faculty at a Carnegie High (very high? I can't remember. Borderline, either way) Research Activity University, with a comfy teaching load and humane publishing requirements and a rising, if not firmly established, reputation in my field.

And yet how small I felt just from hearing her rattle off the names of the people to whom she was introduced on her first day. It was such a curious feeling, and the vertigo of privilege and influence that it has initiated (admittedly, not all consuming, but definitely perceptible) has me questioning a number of things: how much I imagine I can accomplish in a career, how significant (or not) my idealistic and utopian visions of academia might be in enacting change.

There's an exchange in the film The American President between the Chief of Staff (Martin Sheen) and the President (Michael Douglas) in which Sheen tells Douglas that without him, Douglas would "be the most popular history professor at the University of Wisconsin." Ouch.

And as not-even-the-most-popular English Professor at an institution further downstream, having just secured most of my tangible career goals (tenure, book) I am wondering: where to from here? Do I aspire to work in the fancy building with the busy staff? I imagine I can get there, but would that be aspiring for the sake of aspiration? Would I be happier where I am? Would my sense of integrity (hardly unimpeachable, but trying) and idealism (ditto) be put to better use on some further path, or is it best placed here?

From the new perspective provided by Willow's new job, the pond I'm in suddenly seems smaller than before, a small departmental inlet off of a minor university pond. But I'm not yet clear on whether I'm better off in another pond, or cove, or whatever. At the moment, I'm feeling just slightly....adrift.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

And I think that's a wrap...

The book revisions have been a it of an elusive thing. I think I had this sense that since they were quite manageable, I'd plow through them in May and June, and be done ahead of schedule. And then when that didn't happen. I figured they'd end up waiting until the end of the summer, when I'd have to plow through them and squeak in under deadline...

But here it is, a few weeks before deadline--closer than I would've liked, to be sure--and I think I'm done. I did the substantive revisions in July mostly, and edited those last week, to little fanfare, and this week, I've been concentrating on converting the whole thing to Chicago Style (nothing like a full on manual style sheet cobnversion to force you to proofread your endnotes!). So that's all done, and, I think that's it. There's some manuscript prep to do (breaking it up into files, numbering pages, stuff like that), but besides that, I think this draft is complete.

And of course, there's still copyediting and page proofs and indexing, so there's work left to do, but intellectually, at least, I think I can lay this project to rest. After all, it's only been, what? 11 years?

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Something that probably just won't work

Things were different when I wrote up a really excellent abstract for what looks to be a really excellent conference. Conferences that are this close to the very center of my work--contemporary political theatre--are rare (as in, I've never been to one). And so I was excited to get my acceptance from them.

But some things have changed. First, I found out I'm teaching on a MWF schedule, which means classes suffer more from conferences (especially distant ones). Then I found out that I had a paper accepted at another conference (ASTR), one I adore going to and hope to attend as regularly as possible. Then fuel prices went up. And then I realized how difficult it was going to be to get to York, UK.


I would really like to get to this conference. But I'm not sure that it's worth the money, the jet lag, and the missed classes to do it.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Fun with Revision

Let it be known, I am not a great reviser of my own work. More accurately, while I am happy to really muck around with the text while I am drafting, once I think it's done, I have a great deal of trouble opening it back up and making significant changes. I tend to simply add things that are suggested, without changing much of the existing text--this sometimes results in ideas coming a bit out of order, things expressed redundantly, or the persistence of ideas that seem naive or obsolete even in light of other ideas expressed in the text.

It also usually means the word count goes up.

Since the contract specified that the word count could be no higher than 100k words, and the draft was already at 101K, this revision process has been a significant challenge. I plucked a couple thousand off with some of my revisions to the intro, but the final chapter's worth of revisions found me back in my old habits of adding without cutting. I'm going to try to go back over it one more time with an eye specifically to trimming, but I wanted to check my word count just to see where I was for the complete ms. with this last bit of chapter revisions.

The total count: 99,918 words.

Monday, July 11, 2011

You know what I like?

Colleagues. I don't know if many of you have noticed this, but without our colleagues, many of us would be really really screwed. Think about it. What would it be like going to dinner parties, having hallway chats, even waging contentious debates over email, if you knew that no one, not ever, shared the experience of academia with you. It's not that non-academics are not capable of scintillating conversations, or sustained, adult debate, or even (certainly) that all academics ARE capable of such. It's just that it's so nice to have a body of like-minded folks in close reach.

I know that if I were not a member of an academic department, I would either be regarded as very weird, or I would feel very alone, constantly rambling on about cultural constructions of this and performing that while my hosts rolled their eyes and returned to their discussions of taxes or city management or whatever else normal people talk about over dinner.

But really, before I follow that line of argument too far in any given direction, what I like most about colleagues is having really smart people with whom to talk about books, with whom to think about ideas, or whose writing about books and ideas we get to read.

Two instances: when I arrived at my office this morning, I found in my box an offprint of one colleague's really great article on authorship in comics, which I avidly read instead of the article relating to my own research. I enjoyed it thoroughly.

The second...a colleague who is, like me, teaching the gateway-to-the-major course had recently borrowed a play by Sarah Kane that I had not-entirely-seriously recommended to her for the class. She stopped by to see if I had received the returned copy, and then just lingered in the doorway while we talked about the books we were teaching, and why those books were really just pretty much awesome.

That's all. Just a casual 20 minute conversation on how great Angela Carter is, and why Stoppard's Arcadia is so good for teaching...with a colleague. The kind I'd be thrilled to find anywhere in the corporate world, but that I can count on existing in high numbers in a university English department. That's what I like.Link

Friday, July 08, 2011

Floating an idea: The Humanities Academy

So Tenured Radical has moved over to a new blog at the Chronicle, where she has a fascinating post up. The central question is how might we in academia employ a development model based on a liberal capitalism that privileges long term infrastructure growth and smart innovation (rather than a privatization model that rewards short-term growth often at the expense of long-term institutional health).

She makes two assertions in particular that I want to pick up on here:

1) "Recognize that some students will feel well-served by [the humanities] and others won’t. Ask the students who feel served by the humanities why, and invest in those students. Release the others from humanities requirements."

2) "Look around your institution, find something that doesn’t work as it should, and fix it. This requires dedicated faculty-administration partnership."

So BRU is a fairly large state flagship institution that is currently going crazy over STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) in a geographical region where the cultural values are generally pretty suspicious about liberal study anyway. The message that I as a humanities scholar lately has been that while my place at the university is basically important and sound, the amount of resources coming our way will be shrinking, and that we must continue to justify any new initiatives, faculty hires (including line replacements), and even some maintenance procedures in relation to the privatizing logic of money making; We have more than once been asked, then, to frame ourselves and our needs as subservient (not just below, but in service to) the more lucrative STEM fields that the university loves right now. As we lose literature faculty lines, for example, we gain technical writing lines.

At the same time, the students who are coming to my mid-level English classes are sharply divided: English majors looking to fill in electives sit on one side, while majors from engineering or journalism sit on the other. Classes are often initially at least split into affinity groups, and meeting the needs of each of these groups is a juggling act, and often only really successful in isolated moments.

There are a lot of other factors that contribute to the particular ways that humanities are being constrained from thriving most majors can only count 42 hours from a single discipline toward graduation, which means that we end up losing our most dedicated majors at the end of their junior year because they've maxed out their English credits and are off to fill out a second major.
So what I'm looking for is a way to shore up the humanities, not just for their own sake, but for the good of the undergraduate students in our program (who are often literally not permitted to get the kind of humanistic education they come to desire), and for the institution.

We are also an institution that is sufficiently isolated such that we cannot follow TR's suggestion to share faculty among institutions, which also means we're the only (reasonably competitive) game in town for at least an hour in any direction. There are, in fact, very few SLACs in our state, and frankly, none of any particular prestige.

So forgive me while I float an idea here, a pretty half-baked one, but still...

The Humanities Academy
The idea of a humanities academy somewhat follows the model of the Living/Learning communities that popped up in the 90s, the idea of the small college within the large university. But whereas those had students beginning their university careers within small academies, and then moving out into the larger university for their upper division work, this would have students doing some or even much of their general education work early on, and then entering a smaller, more concentrated SLAC-style program within the larger university. In short, I'm imaging starting a new SLAC that draws on the resources of its host flagship state u.

Let's say we admit students during their third semester, having completed (or enrolled in) at least 33 of the required 41 credits of general education (That leaves 2 or 3 of their gen-eds to fulfill over the course of the remaining 5 semesters). With the remaining 75-90 credits (depending on how expediently they move through the program, and how well they planned their pre-academy courses), they take 4 semesters of an additional language (already required by BRU's College of Arts and Sciences) and take a double major, one of which is a traditional major and the other of which is a multi-disciplinary humanities major.

Many students already follow this path, actually, but there would be add-ons here:
1) Every semester, students enroll in a 1-or 2-credit humanities discussion section where faculty from each of the participating disciplines run open-ended discussions on trans-disciplinary topics that are guided as much by what students are taking in their other classes.

2) Students would get guided advising that guides them specifically through their home-department's most rigorous options and through a thoughtfully planned selection of other participating disciplines.

3) Home departments would offer one or two sections per semester that were limited to Humanities Academy students, which would help create the kind of small-college community that is currently sorely lacking in this large university.

4) Although students are currently required here to take a capstone in their home department, the Humanities academy would offer interdisciplinary sections of the capstone course that would have students from different home-disciplines working together on somewhat more rigorous final projects than they might otherwise.

5) The initiative of the Humanities Academy might also allow our current (very small) multi-disciplinary studies program to hire one or two dedicated faculty to teach in areas that we currently don't have departments to fully support. I'm thinking particularly of Classics here (Latin is taught at BRU by a retired chemistry prof.), but other fields that might specifically supplement a humanities education that couldn't otherwise thrive in a STEM-crazy flagship might could also be useful.

If we were able to make such a program fly, we might be able to concentrate together our most talented humanities students, allowing them to reinforce each others' interests and habits of mind instead of having them always suffer silently in the corners of rooms stocked largely by gen-ed students who are frequently working hard but are just not at the same level. It would also provide a focal point for the university to highlight student accomplishments in the humanities, instead of finding them dispersed across academic departments where they are too isolated from one another to achieve much in the way of critical mass.

Such Academy-dedicated classes would also likely be invigorating places to teach as well, and could provide a bit of a cyclical boost for faculty (tenure-track and "teaching-track" alike) who spend many classroom hours in lower-level courses.

What would it require? A lot of work, first off. Buy-in from participating disciplines, and especially from individual faculty from each discipline, whose participation in the academy would help anchor a sense of real scholarly community. More time resources than fiscal ones, though in terms of faculty hours, those are interchangeable in some ways.

So that's the rough sketch for a big idea. Is it anything more than a nice idea? Problems of potentials I haven't seen yet?

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

On Being Edited

There is typically very little discussion on what constitutes good editing of academic prose. I've been through the editing process in a number of different formats, both through major and minor print journals, electronic journals, and books chapters. I've also been the editor once, and found that there were a good number more choices to be made as an editor of academics than I had suspected.

Typically, I have had few, if any, problems with edits that were suggested, since typically, they were edits made to conform to house style, or simple proof-reading. Although when I was an editor, I did have to be a bit more active and hands-on with my edits. In one case, the author specifically gave me license to edit his very theory-heavy prose for readability, and while I think I did a decent job at readability, I was also very clear that I wanted him to make sure that I hadn't changed the nuance of anything that he had written. In the other case, the author had gone overboard on the block quotes, and instead of making those edits myself, we went through two or three rounds of revisions where I asked him to make specific kinds of revisions. That was a bit of an arduous process, but I think he felt ownership over the essay at different points when some major edits were needed. In all the other essays I edited, it was my policy to not comment on matters of style if comprehensibility was not on the line. I did not edit out things that I prefer to avoid personally (passive voice, even strategic; overly clunky signposting, etc.), but sought instead to preserve the author's voice with the (admittedly flexible) bounds of standard grammatical structure, a subject on which I am no expert.

I have just gotten back edits on a book chapter however, where the editor (or more accurately, I think, the editor's assistant) has taken a very active hand in re-working the prose. Some of the edits are fine, I suppose, but others change the nuance of phrases, cut whole sentences, or simply re-phrase sentences on the basis of stylistic preferences rather than actual comprehensibility. In a few places, there are comments that say, "This sentence is unclear" on sentences that make perfect sense to me.

In isolation, few of these comments or edits would bother me, but they are so thorough, and so unnecessarily thorough, that it feels like the language was often edited for the sake of being edited.

But my experience is generally limited, and so I pose this query: when either editing or being edited, how much of an editors' fingerprints do you think should be on any given draft? Should an editor of academic prose in a collection of essays be editing for style? How much so? And how do you respond when you think an editor has overstepped what you believe to be a comfortable ownership of the prose?

Monday, May 23, 2011

Welcomes: Some thoughts on Academic Communities

It seems, for the time being at least, that the department bleeding is done. We've lost most of the people whom we were likely to lose, and those who remain (and let's be serious; it's a big department and a lot of us remain) are in the frankly enviable position of being able to look at all of the newly blank spaces on our departmental rolls, and think about possibilities, and potential.

The question I'm asking myself is, "At this moment and at this institution, what kind of department do I want to be a part of?"

Certainly I have many ambitions for this department, as a space for learning, primarily, but also as a space for living. And to me, both of those things are best convivially. Conviviality is a value we don't often speak of, but it's really high up there on my list. I love to eat and drink with friends, to have long talks about stuff over coffee, or sitting on a bench. A friend and colleague of mine and I took our kids on an outing yesterday, and the cumulative hours in the car talking over our relationship to cities, the difficulties of junior faculty at our institution, and how roles for women in academia were and weren't changing... these topics were as satisfying as the rest of the outing.

What does this have to do with the university? A lot, I think. At least to me. My understanding of the university is that it is a site for exchange, a place where ideas mingle because the idea-havers are mingling. Mingling itself is an important function, I think, and so a convivial atmosphere, in which we understand that working together is a kind of living together, for me fosters the best place for good teaching and great scholarship.

So this week, an incoming faculty member is arriving in town to look for houses, do some paperwork, etc. And I'm happy that we're hosting him and his spouse for a meal. I hope it's the first of many. Because the way to establish a convivial space, one in which we learn and think together begins with a simple but generous welcome. Any readers, then, on their way to new homes, new departments, let me wish you a department and an institution that welcomes you generously and convivially. I hope it becomes a good place to work, and through working, to live. As I hope this place will continue to be, even more so, for us here.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

A thought about blogging and literary studies

In her new book, The Uses and Abuses of Literature (Pantheon, 2011), which I'm reading to teach in my foundations course in the fall, Marjorie Garber writes:

"The best way for literary scholars to reinstate the study of literature, language, and culture as a key player among the academic humanities is to do what we do best, to engage in big questions of intellectual importance and to address them by using the tools of our trade, which include not only material culture but also theory, interpretation, linguistic analysis, and a close and passionate attention to the rich allusiveness, deep ambivalence, and powerful slipperiness that is language in action."

In some ways, this isn't either particularly groundbreaking, or really all that different from what most scholars I know are doing implicitly or explicitly. But there's something implied in here that I do think is something we've lost a sense of: what literature itself tells us about our own world. When I think about the academic blogs that I read , and write, for that matter, it occurs to me that few or even none of us regularly cites the literature we study when considering the big questions that we are often considering.

Why don't we do this, I wonder? Are we so steeped in the dogma of historical contingency that we cannot see the relevance of a Romantic, or Anglo-Saxon, or Modernist text to a contemporary issue? I know we want to avoid the Bartlett's Quotations approach to literature and the Big Questions, but certainly we can do better. This is how we renew our status as public intellectuals, and perhaps how we reinvigorate our apparently flagging discipline.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

What else is nice

I learned that although revisions on the book were requested, I have a standard contract, rather than a provisional one. Fewer hurdles to clear, and with an August 31 revision deadline, I'm really looking forward to finishing up this project with a little room to breathe.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011


The last few summers have been packed with stuff. Last summer fit in both a summer grad course and much of what turned out to be a large-scale re-write of the book. The summer before that we welcomed Junebug, and before that I was doing much of the work that brought the edited collection to press (while also, if I recall correctly, working out enough to lose 25 pounds).

The point is, I've made my summers count, with plenty of writing, and other sorts of work. This summer, with only a book review, and some manageable revisions to the book project. The kids will be around the house some, but largely we've got childcare for them lined up. So there will be time to work with, which is somethig I've rarely been able to say.

I found myself saying to someone the other day, in response to a query about my summer plans, that I though I just might read. That sounds like crazy talk, I know, from an English professor, but it just might work out. when it comes down to it, I'm trying to readjust my pace for this summer, see if I can slow down some. We'll see. We'll see.

Saturday, May 14, 2011


So Friday the 13th, in this case, turned out all right, at least as far as I can tell. It was the deadline for which final tenure decisions were mailed out, and since I've only heard positive decisions all the way up the line, I expect that the letter that will come in the mail will be good news. So in that way, Friday the 13th was lucky.

But it was also lucky in another way, because the editorial board for the press I've been working with has approved the offer of a contract for my book. This is gratifying for all the usual reasons, and a few extras. First off, since I was able to go up for tenure on the strength of articles and an edited collection, this book will actually count--some five years on--for full promotion. Secondly, this work doesn't just reflect the academic/ intellectual work of a decade, but also much of the theatre work I was lucky enough to be a part of for several years while I was in grad school. So one of many hat-tips to the fantastic women of The Theatre Conspiracy (now sadly defunct). I also feel lucky in another way, for as a man working in the field of feminist theatre and performance, I feel lucky to have been accepted to join perhaps the best published list on gender and performance, one that has produced nearly half of the texts most influential to my thinking. The acquisitions editor I've been working with brought dozens of fantastic feminist theatre scholars to press for the first time, and so to be even a blip in that now-long history feels very fortunate indeed.

I'm lucky in lots of other ways, too--I've got a wonderful and healthy family, a solid job, and a lot of advantages. So while my facebook wall has been blowing up with congratulations (relatively speaking, of course--it's not like I won a MacArthur or anything), I feel the need to deflect some of that to gratitude.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011


This is a word that I typically loathe. "Pretentious" is most often used to describe "something that seems intellectual and that I don't understand, and must therefore be bad." It's often used in conjunction with "elitist."

But the thing about the word "pretentious" is that is indicates pretense, or even pretending, that someone or something is pretending to be smarter, more intelligent, more sophisticated than they really are. If we take that specific sense of the word, then, pretentious is always at some level both completely true, and never true. If we limit our understanding of the word to works of art, in this case, a novel, ambitious texts are always aspiring to be something more than the author has already mastered, aspiring to achieve something with this text that the author has not achieved before. In this way, pretense is always built into art. But the other side of aspiring is not achieving such a goal--that the novel is trying to be intellectual, but never reaches those aspirations. And in this case, any text or artwork that visibly aspires to an ambitious goal is already accomplishing something more than the conventional. It may not accomplish it perfectly, but a text's very aspiration to accomplish more than convention asks its reader to reconsider the conventions themselves.

So a pretentious novel--typically one that is trying to be intellectual, or experimental, or artistically ambitious in some way, but failing--is to me a terrible label, because it both dishonors the ambition itself, even as it misrecognizes the way that an aesthetic of failure is itself sometimes an artistically valid process. That label also, typically, fails to acknowledge that the fault may be readerly.

And yet, I have just read a novel (I won't name names here) that nonetheless feels pretentious. In his infamous and oft misinterpreted essay "The Literature of Exhaustion," John Barth identifies to vectors for categorizing literature--something like artistic integrity and something like up-to-date technique. And for him, too much of what we've now come to call postmodern literature feels technically up-to-date, but artistically bankrupt. This novel feels something like that, but not entirely. There is, at its heart, an artistic project, one that seems to invoke Calvino and Barth and a kind of pure literary surrealism (anyone ever read Sedagh Hedayat's The Blind Owl?). But it is also precious in its deployment of about half of its tricks: character names feel intentionally contrived; instead of pages, paragraphs are numbered; a series of hand-drawings and one-inch black dots occasionally populate and punctuate the pages (the hand-drawings are at least functional--I cannot fathom the dots).

I recognize, to a point, that I may in fact not be getting it all--indeed, much of the novel has come into focus after letting it sink in for a day. But enough of it remains not only incomprehensible, but self-consciously and cleverly incomprehensible, that the novel itself seems to be pretending that it is more than it is, and in this case, it would be more, if there were less.

I am no minimalist--I take as first evidence of my hatred of James Wood's literary criticism that he derides Angela Carter and Salman Rushdie as the most "theatrical" of writers. But the excess here seems purposeless, and ultimately, pretentious.

I'm off to read some Appalachian fiction that I know is neither pretentious not pretense. I wonder how I'll feel about this last one after this next one.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Finishing up

OK, so last week's malaise has settled a bit, and I'm now looking to stretch out over the long weeks of the summer. Grades are in, and save a few essays that students who are still in town want comments on, I'm done for the spring semester.

Last summer I had a new grad course to prep and most of a book to write. This summer, I've got a book review due at the end of the month, and about 19 pages of revisions to write. If I'm diligent, I can get that done by June 1, and even if not, July 1 is plenty.

With what's left of the summer, we'll be doing a bit of traveling: I'm taking the twins to Ontario in late July, and the whole family is joining Willow's brother's family in DC for a week in mid-August (looking at you, Natalie!).

It's been a while since I've relaxed, even during breaks, and so perhaps one challenge I'll take on this summer is actually relaxing some, and recharging for the fall.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011


It's finals week in what has been an otherwise packed school year. Since last September I've completed my tenure file, a book project, and a sabbatical application, all of which, if not officially deemed successful, certainly look as if they're going to be. By next September, I'll be an Associate Professor with a book contract and a Spring sabbatical to look forward to. The future stretches out before me like a vast plain, arid and empty.

Eh, I overstate. But I am feeling a fair amount of ennui, of the "What's next?" variety, and part of it is that I just had one of those conversations. You know the sort. They begin with colleague of whom you are fond, ducking their head into the frame of your open door. "You have a minute?"

Early on in the conversation, you hear "I wanted to tell you this before anyone else did..." and already you know the direction this is taking: the congratulations, the we'll-miss-you's, the excited questions. And when your colleague-for-not-much-longer leaves the room, you feel, well, I felt left behind.

A couple of things are at work here. One, we have a bit of a departmental exodus in the past 2 years: between retirements, family emergencies, jobs in better locations, jobs at better schools, jobs closer to home, jobs that provide a better opportunity for spousal employment, we will have lost (if all of the present rumors persist) eight TT faculty in under two years. And who knows what other rumors I haven't heard. So part of my malaise about the departmental exodus is that very simply, a lot of my friends are leaving (indeed, some of my closest friends in the department have left or are going), and I am the sort of person who really depends on a large and warm community of friends and colleagues.

Two: While there's not a single reason for this exodus (in a department that had lost faculty only to retirement in the previous 4 years of my time here), it's not doing a very good job of making people want to stay. Certainly, each of these people has had reasons for going, and I'd be lying if I didn't say that I had plenty, too, some of which are quite pressing, actually. But in not one of those cases was the department/college/university sufficiently proactive to retain some of their best folks, or suffieciently willing to compete to keep those folks. We hired three TT folks this year, and already put in to hire three more next year, and who knows how many more after that? Those searches are expensive. Plus, the turnover in faculty creates any number of intangible but very real costs: to faculty morale, to the smooth transition of ongoing programs, to the sense that new things can be accomplished. An exodus like this is bound to have a chilling effect on the healthy life of a department. And I expect to remain living in this chilly department after the exodus is done.

Three: (paging Dr. Freud) I prefer to be the one who is leaving. Even more than most people, I thrive on novelty and change, and here, now, with the department rolls depleted, with those big professional hurdles cleared, I feel, perhaps overly morosely, like I'm looking on into a future of unremarkable sameness, a thinner kind of sameness. Of course that's not actually true, but being left behind certainly creates that sensation.

Lots of question marks for the future around here at BRU. Will new blood bring new life? Will the simmering issues that make retention an issue (including for me) be resolved or even addressed? Who can tell?

In other news, blogging's been sparse around here in part because I don't know if I'm really even a blogger any more. The blogosphere's changed, and I was never a loud voice here anyway. And maybe I've said my things to say.

Monday, March 28, 2011

How about that?

While in London, the Press emailed me with readers' reports, two very good readers' reports. I've got a couple of weeks worth of revisions, but fingers crossed, and onto the editorial board in May.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Off to London!

My usual bloggy silence will be interrupted with a different sort of bloggy silence: I'm heading off to London fro Spring Break to do the second iteration of the London Theatre Tour, which some readers (both of you), may recall I blogged about last time in 2007.

Some highlights:
  • This time I have a PhD student doing an independent study and coming along, which will add a bit of peer-camaraderie to the mix.
  • While I'm not as excited about the plays that I was able to secure for my students, our existing schedule leaves a few evenings open for additional theatre, and I'm hoping to catch both Caryl Churchill's Fen and Blank and Jensen's documentary play The Exonerated.
  • The weather forecast currently has every single day forecast for sunny and low 50s. I'm packing an umbrella anyway.
In the meantime, I staying in the Lancaster Gate/Notting Hill Gate area, just north of Hyde Park. Any dining recommendations in the area are very very welcome. In the meantime, I'm off!

Sunday, March 06, 2011

True Stories: a Reading List

I'm teaching a 200-level Contemporary Literature course next semester, which I've taught 3 or 4 times already, and I'm thinking I want to switch it up a bit. Instead of roughly following a "greatest hits of postmodernism" kind of thing, I'm going with the theme "True Stories" focusing on literature of the last 50 years that focus on purportedly true stories that, in their execution, raise issues about the instabilities and the uses of the true, either in terms of life-writing or of history (or, frequently, the intersection of all those things). I haven't quite set my list yet, but I'm looking for other suggestions to add to the list as well. Some possibilities include:

  • David Foster Wallace's essay "E Unibus Pluram"
  • Dave Eggers, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
  • Jeannette Winterson, Oranges are not the Only Fruit
  • Maxine Hong Kingston, The Woman Warrior
  • Doug Wright, I Am My Own Wife
  • Rita Dove, Museum
  • Suzan-Lori Parks, Venus
  • Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis
  • Tom Stoppard, Arcadia
  • Tim OBrien, The Things They Carried
  • Art Spiegelman, Maus
  • Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting
  • Robin Soans, Talking to Terrorists
This list is already too big, and I have some ideas of which texts to cut, and why, but I'm looking for a great text to act as an exclamation point on the semester, a "good read" that raises interesting questions at a point in the semester when many of those questions have already been raised, and when students are also overwhelmed with end-of-the semester work.

So, my friends, if you have any advice on good texts to add to the list (particularly the very contemporary), or experience teaching any of these texts to a broad swath of students, from gen. ed. students to senior English majors, I'm all ears.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

On dialogue in the Department

I promised a whole host of posts a few days ago, and I promise, some of them are coming, but I write today with a concern that is both pressing and philosophical: How does dialogue occur within an academic department. Ours is one that, while not undergoing any kind of full-scale transformation, is going through some changes that need to be hashed out, question involving teaching load, course caps, tenure requirements, and faculty hiring directions.

We're a comparatively large (about 40 TT faculty) department that is remarkably collegial, though this seems facilitated largely by neglect rather than loads of outright sociable warmth. What this tends to mean is that we are free of factions, generally, but when contentious issues do come up, we are out of practice in actually hammering them out, and so those issues either get decided for us, or we decide them somewhat blindly.

Certainly email listservs might be a component of good communication, but ours is largely unused for discussion (I think people are too afraid of flame wars). And our monthly faculty meetings are usually a hurried ninety minutes, in which everybody says their piece, nobody listens, and after we get a little itchy about sitting in that room. we all go back to our offices and vote however we were going to in the first place.

In my ideal world, we'd be better at discussing our own best interests, and actually deliberating over issues. The upshot of dialogue should be that nothing gets railroaded through, but neither does warring factionalism keep us at a stalemate, or worse.

I know that such utopian departments aren't possible, for as much as we like to think of ourselves as enlightened socratic bodies in a protype democracy, truth is, we're as petty and venal and contentious as any group of self-interested humans.

But still: dialogue as a goal. How do departments facilitate it well? how do individuals within departments (say, newly tenured faculty who have little to no administrative responsibility) facilitate it? Please: what works best in your department? what is a disaster?

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Trade Big Ben

Dear Mr. Rooney,

My first memories of watching football are with my grandfather, an inspector for Koppers up to his death in the mid 1980s. For him, the team wasn't just a great football team, or even a team from a great city, but a team that represented something great about America, something about hard work, and grit, forging something great out of something humble.

And in true family fashion, I rooted for the Steelers when Franco Harris got too old to hit the hole. I rooted for the Steelers when Mark Malone trotted off the field smiling after an interception. And when Kordell Stewart couldn't make a smart play if his life depended on it. I still have the black-and-gold striped scarf I wore to school during the long ignominious stretch of mediocrity, and the drive-for-five Christmas ornament that hung on my family's tree until just five years ago.

My kids, then three, watched the kickoff against the Seahawks with their grandmother, herself a die hard fan, and then we all watched again three years later against the Cardinals. I come from a long line of Steelers fans, and I have never ever had a single compunction about waving my terrible towel.

Until this year. Tonight, as the Steelers lost a good football game, I rooted for the team, but not its quarterback.

Last season, my son had a number 7 jersey that he loved. I couldn't let him wear it anymore. I had to explain to him that while Big Ben is a good quarterback, it turns out that he's not really a very good man. I cringed every time I saw another boy wearing one this season. I even asked one fellow parent whether he felt comfortable knowing his son was rooting for someone who likely assaulted women. He said he didn't. Let Ben go.

I know Ben Roethlisberger was never convicted of a crime, but two allegations of rape in such a short period of time doesn't look good. You let Plaxico Burress go for being trouble. You let Santonio Holmes go for being trouble. Who knows who else has been sent packing for being a distraction, for not living up to the team's standards. Let Ben go.

I could make an argument that you've already gotten the best out of Roethlisberger--that his value was always inflated by the great team around him (look at the 3-1 record at the start of this season with guys who couldn't start for anyone else). I could make an argument that you could actually get his value in a trade for, say, offensive linemen, or defensive backs, or draft picks, or really, a mediocre quarterback who doesn't assault women. Let Ben go.

Frankly, I wasn't sad when the Packers won tonight. They're a good team, built and run not unlike the team I've grown up loving. What I was sad about was that I normally would have watched that game in passionate agony--that a game like this should have brought out every impulse to pace and shout and grind my teeth and jump (just like in 2009). But my heart wasn't in it. I love this team, but I hate its quarterback. Let Ben go.

Mr. Rooney, my position on this is unwavering. Every year that Ben plays for the Steelers will be a year that you ask me to give up on an important part of my family's heritage. Because you will be asking me to root for a man who has done reprehensible things and gotten away scot-free. Because you are asking me to let my kids pull for his success. Because you are asking me to believe that the Steelers are willing to look the other way just this once. My plea to you, sir, is simple. Let Ben go. Trade Big Ben.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

RBOC: Newsy

So, yeah. There's a lot to report. I want to write about fifteen posts, but for the moment I have to bullet everything, because It would take about week of constant typing to get everything I want to say on the screen.

  • Over the weekend, I saw Anna Deavere Smith's new performance, Let me Down Easy at Arena Stage. It'll probably figure prominently in one of the chapters on the next book project, and in many ways it was affecting in the ways that Smith's performances often are, but it was also a bit of an unwieldy mess that didn't grapple with some of the representational problems she's taken on more successfully in the past (specifically: performing different kinds of bodily identities--but race signifies differently that disability and pain, which she has trouble with here). I hope to post more soon, but for now: I liked it, I would recommend it, and I have a lot to say about it.
  • Yesterday I got somewhat more official (although perhaps not final?) confirmation of my sabbatical for Spring 2012. Perhaps I will spend it writing about bullet point #1.
  • This morning, I got my tenure recommendation letter form the department. Which recommended me for tenure. It's not the last stop in the process, but it's the most important one, and the most substantive in terms of feedback. Particularly wonderful--and I mean really wonderful--was reading the digested reports from the external reviewers, some of whom said nicer things about my work than I actually believe, even at my least modest. I know that these are crafted rhetorically, but that these reviewers would choose to single out some of the things that I didn't think I did very well (i.e. prose--Thanks Willow!) has had me grinning all day long. I want to write about this much more, and in a more thoughtful way, not just in the "Yay! I rawk!" way I am now.
  • This afternoon, I got an email from the press telling me that reader's reports are due in three weeks. This in response to a query I made about a month ago, and which I since was able to follow up on at MLA. Point is, this particular update then seemed kind of random, and so I assume it means that one of them has already come in, but I don't know how to read those particular tea leaves.
  • The itinerary for London Theatre Tour came in today (quite belatedly). But at least I have confirmed the plays that I've already been teaching for the last three weeks.
Frankly, I've been waiting for a lot to happen these last few weeks. A few things have not come to fruition. And while all this stuff is happened, I have been reluctant to talk about others, namely Willow's long employment (now just underemployment, but still), which will likely hang over our heads for a while longer. I'm still ambivalent about how to blog about all of that, but there are number of issues there germane to the substance of this blog and to academia more broadly, which I am trying to parse out. Perhaps I will find more time to post about those things in ways consistent with my online persona here, perhaps not. In the meantime, there's plenty going on worth celebrating, so I'll start with, I think.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Good for what ails ya

So, hey. Thanks for all those great suggestions on that last post. They ALL went into a packet that is going to form the basis of this good old fashioned close reading unit.

In other news, I'm waiting on stuff, including final word about sabbatical and the department's decision about my tenure (also the fate of the book ms., but that's on a less predictable timetable). In fact, while I already got preliminary word on sabbatical, and my department's beautifully clear tenure requirements have left me with comparatively little to worry about, I still find myself anxious about these pending pieces of news.

And so, in the face of the self-doubt that such waiting inevitable occasions (for me, at least), I've done a little patting of the self on the back by autogoogling at Google Scholar. How nice it is to find oneself quoted in articles, syllabi, dissertations and in two cases, a book. Now, these are still just smatterings. I've not written anything so monumental that it is blowing up the search engine. But even so, what a lovely and affirming moment to see that an M.A. thesis devotes well over half of its pages to engaging an idea that I advanced in a recent article.

See? There really is a conversation. And I really am part of it! How nice!

And now, back to the inexplicable worrying.

ETA: Of course now I can add worrying about the burst pipe in the basement--explicable worrying on top of the inexplicable.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Pop Quiz, Hotshot

Quick: name, in your experience, the single best poem, pre-1900, to teach close reading to new English majors. Bonus points if it involves sex.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Readings on "Why Major in English"

A few years ago, either Profession or PMLA had a "Why Major in English?" forum. I want to use those readings, or perhaps others clustered around them, for the gateway course that we are implementing this year. So, does anyone remember where that forum appeared, and also, has anyone had particular success with other readings about the discipline?