Wednesday, December 31, 2008

2009 Here I Come - Resolutions

Now, I know a lot of people are anti-resolution. They believe that the whole "resolution" thing ultimately dooms one to failure, that only idiots make them, etc. Now, I, in contrast, have come to love New Year's Resolutions, mainly because I suppose I think of them like "goals" as opposed to "wild and outrageous things that I likely won't achieve." Good resolutions over the past few years have gone a long way toward making me a happier person. This may be because I pick things that are totally achievable, sort of like how when I make a to-do list I'll put "run the dishwasher" on it so that I get to cross something off. In any case, I think that taking some time at the beginning of a year (or at the beginning of a semester, or on one's birthday, whatever) to think about what one wants to achieve can be a really good thing.

And so. Last year, my resolutions were "F-words" - Fitness, Finances, and Fun. Finances and Fun went very, very well, but Fitness? Not so much. Well, I suppose it didn't go totally horribly. I didn't actually end up in worse shape in 2008 than I was in 2007, which given the events of the year I feel like is a victory. However, I didn't really make progress. I lost my way about 3 months into the year, and then even though I tried to recover starting in October, deaths, bad news, stress, and craziness got in my way.

I don't say this to make excuses, though it probably sounds that way. No, I say it by way of self-reflection. I've known this about myself for a while: when Things happen, the first thing to suffer is me. Working out, or eating well, or taking time to relax, or getting enough sleep, or whatever, well, that has been the first thing I've dropped throughout the history of me. Not because I'm a "people pleaser" or some other dumb thing like that - because when I drop me, in my head it's a present to myself and not to take care of anybody else. Me-related things are the easiest things to let slide. Article deadline vs. laundry? Clearly the article deadline wins. A mountain of overdue grading vs. cooking dinner? Grading wins, because there will be obvious negative consequences if it doesn't and because something has to give, right? I have to do the grading whatever the case, and so don't I "deserve" not to go to the gym, which I do not enjoy? The problem with the whole "self-care" thing is that I've never perceived there as being a whole lot of concrete rewards for it, nor are very many concrete negative consequences if I fall off the wagon. It's easy to let myself go. I like it. Partly because the ways in which I typically let myself go are quite enjoyable. I mean, who doesn't like to eat food that's bad for one, to be lazy instead of vaccuuming, etc.? I think I've typically characterized "self-care" things as the antithesis of things that will make me happy or that will make any material difference in my life. They're like these "extras" that I'm "supposed" to do (and dude, I'm really crappy with "supposed-to-do" things) and so I feel this sense of autonomy by fucking them up. Except, then, the fact that I fuck them up leaves me drained and demoralized and guilty.

So here's the thing: as I'm thinking about the resolutions for this year, I think that I totally need to shift my perception of what it means to take care of myself. I think that I need to think about it less as a chore and more as a reward. I've accomplished so much in the past 10 years. I've gotten a Ph.D. I've gotten a tenure-track job. I've published things, not the least of which is a book. I've gotten out of a crappy relationship, and I've reinvigorated friendships that had fallen by the wayside. I've made tons of new friends. Heck, I've managed to make this blog a go, and even though I don't typically think of it that way, that's an accomplishment, too. I've gotten a positive recommendation for tenure. I'm well on my way to being credit-card-debt-free. I am the proud caretaker of two very lovable kitties. I've won a teaching award, and I've inspired students to do academic work for fun in their free time at a school where students typically think that education and thinking is totally not the point of going to college - they typically think they're just doing time and paying for a degree. I've accomplished a lot of shit. And so why not think of focusing on me - not the "me" of my job or the "me" as an academic generally or the "me" who is this "person" who does x, y, and z - as the reward? Why exactly is it that I've convinced myself that cooking dinner isn't something that's "important" compared to other tasks on the to-do list? Why exactly is it lame to read books that suck, when they make me so happy? Why, indeed.

And so. My resolutions for this year have nothing to do with work. I don't give a shit if I publish anything (though I'd be surprised if I don't), and I don't give a shit about my teaching evaluations (though I know I'll continue to care about teaching), and I don't give a shit if I'm perceived as "not being visible" or "not being a team player" or whatever (though I know I'll do my current weight in service even if I don't care about those things). What I need to focus on is all of the parts of me that have nothing to do with "success." Indeed, success will mean, this year, that I've stopped being a hamster running on the wheel of academic achievement.

And so the biggest of all things is physical well being. I need to eat well, and I need to work out. I need to take care of myself - both in body and mind - first. Period. Like as a non-negotiable thing. And I need to view those things not as "extras" that can be let go, or as chores that need to be done, but as just normal, everyday things that make me happy and that are just part of my life. So this is as much a mental resolution as it is a physical one.

And sure, I've got specific things that I'm planning on in those areas, but the specifics aren't really important for this particular blog post. What's more important is the general approach.

Other than that? Well, I'll keep with the financial resolutions of last year, as well as the resolution to have fun. Because, dude, those both make me so happy!

So Happy New Year, one and all. Let's hope for a great 2009.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Teaching, Research, Shame, Magic, and Women

Whew! What a list! I'm forcing myself to stay away from work for just a wee bit longer (although I'm starting to actually want to do it, if I'm honest). What this means is that I'm going to write one heck of a rambling and long blog post. Consider yourselves forewarned.

So I was first alerted to this Inside Higher Ed article by this post over at Historiann's. The short of it is that female and male faculty in English and Foreign Languages (according to a survey of associate/full profs - and it's notable that we're talking about tenured people here, so this isn't about pre-tenure or underemployed disgruntlement - conducted by the MLA that has yet to be released but which was described at an MLA panel) experience disparate levels of job satisfaction (with men having more satisfaction, natch), and job satisfaction correlates to the emphasis given to research (more satisfied) and teaching (less satisfied). Historiann, in her response to the IHE article, while she's sympathetic to the gender politics of the study, pretty much disagrees with the following premises: 1) that female faculty feel more control over their teaching than their research and this is why they invest the time in it as an "escape" or "refuge" from research, 2) that teaching should not be valued equally (or more) than research, since if one wanted that one should have taught high school or at a CC, but rather that women faculty should spend less time on teaching, just like their male colleagues (appear from the survey to) do. (I'm paraphrasing Historiann here, and it's sounding a little bitchy. I don't mean it that way at all - I'm just trying to be succinct because I've got a lot to blather on about. So head on over there if you want the non-succinct version.)

I wanted to post about this over here to flesh out the comment that I made over at Historiann's, the gist of which is "institutional context is all." (God, that's totally my dead horse that I beat on this blog. But seriously: my kind of institution - not research universities or elite slacs - is where most people end up in this profession, and it's a kind of institution that I heard almost nothing about as a grad student. And thus, though the horse is dead, I shall continue to beat it.)

Because here's the thing, addressing her second criticism first: I agree that if one is at a research university that whether one is a man or a woman that research is where one should spend the bulk of her energy and time. Dude, that's the point of a research university. And I also agree that if one is called to teaching first and foremost that a CC or a high school is probably a good fit for that emphasis. (Aside: my best friend from high school is a high school English teacher. She always liked English ok, and she reads a lot and stuff, but she always knew, like deep down in her soul, that she wanted to teach. To mold young minds and all that. In contrast, I had no clue whether I'd like teaching or whatever when I decided to go to grad school. If I got into this for the teaching, I'd have been a high school English teacher. Less opportunity cost and anguish than 7 years of grad school. The thing is, I love the field first and the teaching second. I think that's true for a lot of professors, which doesn't mean that they don't care about teaching, but that teaching wasn't what made them invest the time in getting the research degree that is the PhD.)

But when we enter the realm of middling slacs and 4-year state schools that cater to a regional population - where again, most of the people who go to grad school end up - I think that the survey results that the article describes make a lot more sense. The "point" of institutions like that, historically, was teaching undergrads. Once upon a time, that was the biggest factor in tenure and promotion decisions and raises, and there are most definitely people at my institution who made it to full professor with very little research (most of them men). In the promotional materials for prospective students and their parents, teaching remains the point of my institution. But on the ground, while teaching undergrads is still important (as evidenced by 4/4 and 4/3 and multiprep 3/3 loads), research has increased in significance. This comes into play with increased requirements for tenure, but it becomes even more central when we think about the move from associate to full.

At my institution, the general rule for making it to full prof is one or more books. Sure, those books might be textbooks or teaching-oriented books or more creative endeavors, and you could probably squeeze through with 6-8 articles in top-tier journals instead, but ultimately, at a place where teaching is supposed to be number one, teaching will not get you to the top of the ladder. No, indeed, it will not.

So with all of this taken into account, where does that leave women profs working at institutions in the middle? Not at CCs (or 2-year branches of state systems) or at R1s? And why does it seem that women profs are less satisfied in all areas than their peers who are men? Is it that women value teaching more than research? Do women see teaching as a space where they have more control, and so they invest more energy there? Do women spend more time on grading because teaching is more rewarding to them? Do men spend more time on research because they're more suited to it or more inclined in that direction? Is this a question of support? Acculturation? Economics? What?

These are big questions. And of those on the panel who were discussing the survey, not a one was from what is actually the middle of the higher education pool. The panel included an associate professor at Princeton, a professor at a 2-year branch campus, and a named professor at a non-flagship university (and yet, one with a PhD program, so not exactly a "comprehensive" that doesn't have doctoral students or a regional slac in the middle of nowhere). This is pretty typical of MLA panels on teaching and on the profession. This typical tendency makes me want to poke the MLA with something very pointy. Dude, it's not either 2-year institutions or places with doctoral programs. There's a whole hell of a lot that falls in between. So, although I don't know more about these survey results than what IHE reported, and although I'm nobody, I'm going to speak for my kind of institution, and explain why I think that the results of the survey came out as they did. Or at least I'll offer some possibilities for why they did.

Why are men in English and Foreign Languages more satisfied than women on every measure of job satisfaction?

Ok, now this, I think has to do with the broader culture as much as it has to do with MLA fields. I have nothing in the way of "facts" to back this up, but I'd say that men generally are more satisfied with their jobs than women are because, in general, they're not the primary caretakers at home (whether just of home stuff or of kids) and because culturally we expect men to devote most of their energy to their jobs. It's easier to like your job and to be satisfied with it when it's the primary index of your value as a person. It's harder to like your job and to be satisfied with it, no matter what you achieve, when people say to you at Christmas, after they've seen your recently published book, "I hope you get a man." (This actually wasn't so horrifying as it sounds, but still, it was said, and it does indicate a certain cultural perspective on where my value lies.)

Why are women most satisfied (though still less than their male counterparts) with their autonomy in the classroom?

I'll offer two answers to this one. The first, is, again, about the broader culture. If it's true that women are socialized to be more interactive, more responsive, more "nurturing" than men, no shit that they find their life in the classroom most satisfying. Dude, they've been trained to find those sorts of interactions more satisfying. It's not rocket science.

But my second answer to the question is more complicated. In my institutional context, I am often more satisfied with teaching than research because teaching is much more immediate and I don't feel like I have to squeeze it in or to be "selfish" by taking time for it. When you teach a 4/4 load, teaching is going to take up most of your time. If you care about research, you've either got to take away from your personal life for that (and see my answer to the first question about women's broader value in culture and the roles they are expected to play vs. men's), or you have to take away from your teaching (ostensibly your raison d'etre and what you've been socialized to do) in order to do it.

Also, and this is probably not entirely gender-specific, when you do research at my kind of institution, I think there is often the fear overshadowing anything you submit that people will judge you on institutional affiliation. Or at least there is for me. It's hard to see my research outside of that sort of insecurity. That does make me feel like I have a lot less agency in the process of getting my research out there than I do in the classroom. So while I care about research, and while I am excited by the activities that go into putting things into written form, once I send something off, I feel incredibly ambivalent about the research side of things. Sure, it's exciting when something is finally accepted, but then once it is I feel like I have to downplay it in order to be seen as a "good teacher" at my institution. And there is the insecurity upon submission that anything I do is seen as "less than" because I'm not at a research institution. Or that if what I do is regarded favorably, that people only do regard it that way because it's amazing that I could have an idea in my head with my teaching load, which annoys the crap out of me. Dude, just because I teach a lot it doesn't mean I'm brain-dead. It shouldn't be a surprise that I'm interesting or have good ideas. So teaching is often more satisfying because it doesn't come with so much baggage. It's either good or it's not. My students either learn or they don't. It's simple. And not nearly so fraught. And as much as this might be any person's response at my sort of institution, I do think that gender exaggerates my feelings in this area. I don't feel like I've got authority in certain ways that I would if I were a dude. Period.

But then I think there's a problem with the way that this result is framed. It makes it seem like it's either one is satisfied with teaching or with research, as if the two are completely disconnected. Maybe teaching and research are entirely divorced at a CC, and maybe they are at an R1. In my context, though, one is part of the other. So sometimes why I'm satisfied with my teaching is precisely because it gives me ideas for research, or energizes the research I'm currently doing. This is pretty much how it has to work at my kind of institution (and also why I can tend to feel great autonomy over what I teach - moreso than a person at an R1 or a CC - because they need my warm body teaching a wide range of classes, I get to go where my fancy takes me and to design my courses accordingly, and as long as they fit into a certain ratio of gen ed to upper-level, I'm golden). This is not necessarily a "male model" for thinking about research, nor is it how most people are taught to think about research in graduate school, nor is it how research can work at research and 2-year institutions for the most part. Was there a question about this on the survey? I do not know. The results aren't out, and as they only surveyed associate and full professors, I wasn't part of the survey. I do get the sense, however, from the IHE article - in which one of the speakers was quoted as talking about women professors at teaching-intensive institutions lacking "intellectual food," as if our students can't provide us with intellectual stimulation - that there was no such question.

Why do women spend 1.5 hours more than their male counterparts on grading?

Well, I can tell you why I comment more than my male colleagues, though I can't tell you whether I'm spending more time in total than they do (for I've never asked how much time they actually spend). It's because I have to justify every grade I give much more than they do. Period. They put a couple of question marks in the margin and write a final comment, and that C grade is just fine. If I don't write a novel, I get grade challenges. Because clearly I'm "unfair" or "a bitch." I'm being "subjective." So yep, I write a hell of a lot on my students' papers, and I probably assign more papers than do my male colleagues in order to take some of the sting out of my rigor. (More papers = more time for them to get used to writing well for me, and it also means they generally do better as the semester goes on, for which I can reward them. It's not grade inflation if they have to bust their asses to earn the grade. It is, however, more work for me.) And yes, all of this equals more time spent grading.

Another answer to this question: I don't spend more time on grading because of the "magic" of teaching. And I don't do it because I don't care about my research. I do it because it made my student evaluations better. And because it makes me appear more "nurturing," which the students dig. But I'm not some selfless martyr doing this. I'm doing it because it stops me from having to deal with bullshit, which I'd suggest would take up at least 1.5 hours a week if I didn't spend that time on the grading. Did they ask about the bullshit that comes with grading for less time if you're a woman? This is another question to which I'm interested in knowing the answer.

Why do men work for 2 hours more per week than do their female counterparts on research?

See my answer to the first question. I don't think it's that women faculty are martyrs to teaching or that they don't care about research. I think cultural expectations about what women are supposed to spend their time doing is at the root of this. I don't think it has shit to do with the fact that women "value" teaching more. Or at least I, a woman, don't value teaching more. Also, I think "hours per week" questions make no sense to me at my kind of institution, because I typically do research in bursts (see how much grading I do above), so if I were a respondent on that survey I would have had a hard time coming up with "real hours" for amount of time spent on research hours per week, where I could do a much better job with grading or teaching prep time. Also, does it count as research time if I read the article for class? Or to help a student out? I'd say no, until it made its way into an article, which might not happen for years. So maybe I'm "doing research" when I don't know I'm doing it? And counting it as teaching?

Why does it take women longer than men to earn the promotion from associate to full professor?

This is the most important part of this survey, as far as I'm concerned. And this directly relates to the way that the teaching/research distribution plays out at middle-of-the-road institutions, as well as to the fact that the biological clock and the tenure clock intersect in really awful ways. So let's talk about my institution, because that's what I know best. To get tenure, it takes a book or more. To write a book takes uninterrupted time. Thinking time. Writing time. Etc. Now, I'll have tenure at 34-35 years of age. I don't have a kid. I'd like to have a kid. Let's imagine I have a kid in the next 5 years or so. How likely is it that I write and bring to publication a book (or equivalent) any time between now and, say, 2015? Not bloody likely, right? I mean, sure, it could happen, but probably this would be very difficult, given the fact that come hell or high water it's in my contract to teach 4 courses a semester, and given the fact that babies are time-consuming and make it hard to do things like think deep thoughts.

Now, let's imagine instead that I'm a dude of the same age. First, there's no rush to have a baby in the next five years. I could easily put it off until I got full, and all would be well. No worries about the menopause or about being "high risk" a few years down the road. Or even let's say I did have a baby, and I were a dude, in that 5 year span. Ostensibly, I'd have somebody else being the primary caregiver of my kid. (Obviously, I'm generalizing, but I think the generalization is not an unfair one.) On top of that, I wouldn't have the cultural baggage about being a bad mother weighing me down if I went into the office to work, and I would frequently be congratulated for any involvement I had with my children ("Aw! He's such a great dad! He helps his wife so much!") by students, colleagues, and administrators.

If promotion to full is linked to research, particularly at an institution with a heavy teaching load, and where women faculty often are called upon to teach outside the discipline in which they are housed, in disciplines like women's studies to which women are politically committed but that the university doesn't value terribly much, then women will not get promoted to full as quickly as men do. Period. And even if one doesn't have a super-heavy teaching load, or if one is only teaching in one's research area, if one is the primary care-giver of children, it's going to take longer to make it to full. Not because one is giving more to teaching (although it will look that way, because teaching is the most visible part of what we do), but because more is expected of one on the home front. Once one gets tenure, if one doesn't already have children, one doesn't have the luxury of time. And even if one already has children, one may want to spend more time with them because one is no longer in danger of being fired for not producing. Again, this isn't rocket science.

So why is this the most important part of the survey for me? Because at my institution, power has much to do with rank. Those female colleagues of mine who've been at associate forever have less demonstrable power (and lower salaries) than men who came into the institution right alongside them. They are "less than" their male counterparts who've made it to full, in terms of university governance, in terms of administrative opportunities, in terms of voice. That has to do with how resources are allocated, and it has to do with the direction of the university. And yet, there are all of these women at associate, doing heavy lifting, directing crap programs with little funding, advising students, etc. But when it comes to real power, they've got less than those men who had the resources and support - material, intitutional, and cultural - to fit into a model that values research more than teaching when it comes to getting to the highest level of promotion at the university. So it's not that I think that teaching should be valued equally to research, necessarily, but I do think that attention must be paid at institutions like mine to the way that making research the gold standard for achieving full professor institutionalizes an underclass of women professors, even in feminized fields like English, especially if those women have or hope to have children, but even if they do not.

Why do women and men report about the same level of service obligations, even though anecdotally and in previous reports there has been a belief that men do less service?

I really need to see the survey questions to answer this reasonably, but I'll take a shot at it anyway. I think I probably believe that men and women at a given institution do about the same amount of service in terms of lines on a cv, and maybe even in terms of hours spent. I wonder, however, how types of service are allocated. If men are all running the show on faculty senate, other university-wide committees, task forces, etc., and if women are spending their service time on advising and organizing events for students, then service burdens are not equal.

Now, I will say that I have avoided many of the feminized service traps, but that is not because people didn't try to track me into them. Indeed, lots of people have tried to track me into those things, and sometimes they've even succeeded. And I'll tell you what: it is not equal service if one faculty member is organizing bake sales and another is redesigning the curriculum of the major. It's just not. One kind of service, which is a good amount of work, sticks you in the ghetto, makes you invisible, and gets pretty much no recognition; the other kind, while it's a lot of work, at least gets you noticed, gives you more opportunities, and helps you to make a name for yourself. Which kind of service do you want to do? Assuming both take identical amounts of time? Did the survey take this stuff into account? I wonder.


So, what to make of all of this? Well, the first thing that I'd say is that the issues that the survey brings to light reach far beyond MLA fields. I'd also say that the way that the MLA typically ignores the vast middle swath of institutions of higher education in this country is a real problem, and I think it keeps us in a binary where research is "male" and teaching is "female" and never the twain shall meet. (Everybody gets to hate service, but there is no differentiation between types of service in that, and so women still often get screwed even in that more equalized area.) In some respects, I think that teaching at my kind of institution shouldn't be valued "more" than it is but that it should be valued in real ways. It shouldn't just be about evaluation numbers. Work in the classroom should be seen as important work that is not disconnected from research. One shouldn't be ashamed of the work that one does in the classroom, but one also shouldn't be made to feel like research isn't part of that work. My mentor in my department - a man, a man who has published widely and more than anyone else in my department - has encouraged me to think in this way and has modeled for me how to conceive of this job in those terms. If I've been able to achieve in both areas, it's partly because I've had support from him in learning how to do that. I do not have a single female mentor - though I have many great female colleagues - who has modeled this for me. They're all stuck at the associate level, demoralized, barely able to carve out time for research with all of the family and less visible institutional demands placed on them. They're working just as hard, and doing important work that must be done, and yet they won't make it to full professor any time soon, if at all. There is not a single full professor who is a woman in my department. In our department of foreign languages, there are but two full professors who are women. I can't believe that those numbers are about "merit" or "achievement" of my female colleagues. I can't believe that women really are just crappier professors. Nor can I believe that it's the "magic of the classroom" that distracts us nurturing ladies from other things that we might be doing.

Teaching enriches my intellectual life. Research makes me a better teacher. Maybe it's time to come up with a new model for thinking about how the two might work together, rather than accepting the model that we've inherited, one that reinforces gender hierarchies? But what do I know? I'm at a nothing university with a 4/4 load. What I think about this crap clearly has nothing to do with the state of the profession as a whole, even if it's this kind of institution that educates so many students who end up with college degrees. It's just my bad luck (and the bad luck of thousands of PhDs) that we've ended up at this sort of institution, right? Nobody could possibly learn anything from us.

Monday, December 29, 2008

The New Year's Meme 2008 Edition

For the past two years, I've done this meme, so, in the spirit of winding down 2008, let's revisit it.

1. What did you do in 2008 that you’d never done before?

  • Went to Lebanon (which also included: swimming in the Mediterranean Sea, seeing lots of awesome ruins and other sites, etc.)
  • Saw my book in print.
  • Applied for tenure and promotion and was recommended to receive it.
  • Baked kolatchkies.
2. Did you keep your new year’s resolutions, and will you make more for next year?

This year was to be the year of the F - Fitness, Finances, and Fun. Fitness? Not so great. Finances? I've paid off about 10K in credit card debt and by summer's end I'll have finished with that project. Who knew being a responsible adult could make a person feel so good? Fun? You know, I totally did have more fun in 2008. It's not like I did much special to make that happen, but because I was expecting fun, I feel like it kind of happened naturally. Note to self: must always expect fun and then it will materialize. And yes, I will be making more resolutions for this year. Nearly all will be fitness-related.

3. Did anyone close to you give birth?

No one especially close, though some babies have indeed been born.

4. Did anyone close to you die?

Two people in my department died suddenly, and my father and my uncle are terminally ill. 2008 is like the Year of Death. I'm hoping for a Year of Life in the '09.

5. What countries did you visit?

Lebanon, baby!

6. What would you like to have in 2009 that you lacked in 2008?

I think what I want most is for things to be less... up-and-down. I'm not saying that I'm seeking "balance" or something, because I think I've come to the point where I just don't believe such a thing is achievable. I think that we do the best we can, and that "balance" is not really possible if one is doing lots of things - something will have to give. BUT. I do think that not being over the moon and then dramatically in the depths of despair would be positive.

7. What dates from 2008 will remain etched upon your memory, and why?

I totally suck with dates. This will be my stock answer in all coming years if I continue to do this meme on the blog. Because dude, I'm not a "memorable date" person.

8. What was your biggest achievement of the year?

Everything tenure-related. Also the paying down of debt.

9. What was your biggest failure?

I think that my biggest failure probably has to do with the fitness stuff. The first thing to go for me when things get overwhelming is any sort of self-care, and that is a definite failure. And this is the biggest thing on which I plan to focus in the coming year.

10. Did you suffer illness or injury?

Not really.

11. What was the best thing you bought?

My Knives of Tenure! Oh, and also my new little car this June (although does that count since I've got a car pay't?)

12. Whose behavior merited celebration?

FB more than anybody. Sure, like anybody, he has his moments where he's less than fabulous, but he has been so patient with my crazy moods and so lovely both when things have been awful for me and when things have been great. He is absolutely stupendous and merits celebrations of all kinds.

13. Whose behavior made you appalled and depressed?

In the political world: Sarah Palin.
In my personal world: This sounds shitty, but my biological dad. I just wish that things were different between us, and they aren't, and likely never will be.

14. Where did most of your money go?

To evil credit card companies.

15. What did you get really, really, really excited about?

Seeing FB, Lebanon, the tenure letter, seeing the book in print.

16. What song will always remind you of 2008?

"Womanizer" by Britney Spears; "Skinny Love" by Bon Iver. (How's that for range?)

17. Compared to this time last year, are you:a) happier or sadder? b) thinner or fatter? c) richer or poorer?

a) happier b) the same c) richer.

18. What do you wish you’d done more of?

Taken better care of myself, in terms of the fitness crap.

19. What do you wish you’d done less of?

Cried. I hate crying. It's been one emotional fucking year.

20. How will you be spending Christmas?

I spent Christmas with mom and G., saw my sweet little 90-something Aunt Sis, visited with the Lebanese relatives, and had a quality night of wine-drinking with A. and J. All in all, a totally great Christmas.

21. Did you fall in love in 2008?

Did I fall in love? Well, no. But I've got lots of love, both coming in and going out. The falling in love question is a tough one, ultimately, if one isn't loving 'em and leaving 'em with relative frequency. Oh, but no! I did kind of fall in love! With Sweet Mr. Stripey!

22. How many one-night stands?


23. What was your favorite TV program?

Mad Men. Even though at first I thought it was diabolical and deeply misogynistic. I've got many thoughts about the show, some of which will be featured in a piece of Ridiculously Fluffy Scholarship that I plan to present at a conference this spring.

24. Do you hate anyone now that you didn’t hate this time last year?

Nope. I'm not much of a hater, really.

25. What was the best book you read?

Hmmm. Let me see.... I read a lot of crappy (though enjoyable) books. Including the Twilight series. In the "best book" category, I'd probably put one of the following: Miss Webster and Cherif, The Map of Love: A Novel, and Martha Quest.

26. What was your greatest musical discovery?

Kings of Leon. Bon Iver

27. What did you want and get?

So many things. Visits with FB, going to Lebanon, my Knives of Tenure, the food mill and mandoline from my mom, lots of great conversations with friends, nice meals both cooked by me and out, great students, just lots of things. This was a year where I felt very lucky for lots of things in my life, even though there's also been a lot of crappy shit.

28. What did you want and not get?

Money for copyright permissions. Grrrr.

29. What was your favorite film of this year?

I don't know. I feel like this wasn't much of a movie year for me this year.

30. What did you do on your birthday, and how old were you?

I turned 34, and I don't think I really did much of anything, though I was happy just to chill since my summer was so jam-packed with things. I'm officially an old person :)

31. What one thing would have made your year immeasurably more satisfying?

You know, my year was satisfying. Obviously there are always things that one might think of to add, but on the whole, this was not a year in which dissatisfaction reigned. The only thing that would have made it more satisfying I think would have been if the fitness stuff had gone better.

32. How would you describe your personal fashion concept in 2008?

Meh. And long sweaters.

33. What kept you sane?

FB. Kitties.

34. Which celebrity/public figure did you fancy the most?

Thomas Jefferson in the John Adams mini-series. And no, BFF, he is not your boyfriend. I don't care what you say. (Actually, nobody really stands out, though I did have quite the crush on that TJ for the weeks of the mini-series. I'm kind of over him now, though.)

35. What political issue stirred you the most?

The election. Duh.

36. Who did you miss?

BFF! Though actually, not very much because we talk as much now as we did when she lived here.

37. Who was the best new person you met?

All of the Lebanese relatives in Lebanon.

38. Tell us a valuable life lesson you learned in 2008.

Good friends make both the bad and the good better. It's not that I didn't appreciate my friends before this year, but this year really showed me how lucky I am to have the ones I've got. My friends are the absolute best.

39. Quote a song lyric that sums up your year.

"I don't complain I got much to gain so they keep testing me
And I keep feeding their face
But they could go off and hit the road and what would I care
Hell I ain't going nowhere
I got the reigns and courage I was made of
And they've got fake love
So I know I must show it's my show
I must go with my soul"

- "McFearless" by Kings of Leon

Sunday, December 28, 2008

In Which I Am Thoroughly Enjoying Not Being at MLA, While Yet I Feel Left Out

It was an UTTERLY wise decision for me not to go this year. My last year off was 2003, which means that I've attended 5 of the past 6 MLA conventions. And I'm committed to attend the next three. Indeed, I needed a year off. Totally.

You know what winter break is like with no MLA for me? I will tell you.

The good:
  • No stress of airline travel.
  • No stress of trying to pack my Academic Business Person costumes while also trying to finish up grading and to pack for the holidays with my family over the span of two days.
  • No stress of trying to plan meeting up with people and planning a party schedule and planning panels to attend and planning planning planning so as not to feel like a loser who isn't part of the profession, which is how I felt at my first MLA in 2002.
  • No stress of interviewing (on one side of the table or the other) or of not being asked for interviews.
  • No stress of having to blow a grand on a trip right at holiday time.
  • Time. I've got LOADS of time. For, like, relaxing. Even though I've got work to do, I've still got time to be watching The Sound of Music and marathons of It's Me or the Dog or No Reservations or Top Chef. This is revolutionary.
The bad:
  • I actually really enjoy myself at MLA. I want to be meeting up with you all there! I want to be running from hotel room to hotel room having drinks and crappy cheese and crackers!
All in all, I'd say that while I do miss the social aspects of MLA, not going is quite fantastic. Quite.

But I miss everybody!

So you all had better be drinking cocktails and having great conversations and flitting and fluttering from one engagement to the next and spending hours trolling the book exhibit. Because that's surely what I'd be doing were I not lounging in yoga pants and watching The Sound of Music.

Happy Tenure Decision to Me!

I know. This is the season of giving to others, and not to ourselves, but I am selfish and kind of a bad person.

And also I felt like I was getting a really good deal, one that I might not find again soon, and I also felt like I wouldn't actually buy myself a tenure present if I didn't do it now, when the happiness over the letter from the provost is still fresh.

And so, behold: Dr. Crazy's Knives of Tenure.

(Combine these with the food mill and mandoline that my mom so awesomely bought me for Christmas, and I promise to be rocking it out gourmet style in the '09.)

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Random Bullets of Christmas

  • Am home again with my sweet, lovable kitties. Yay!
  • Did not get to see my father (annoying) for no good reason, really. I called him before I left and gave him my cell number, I called him three times and texted him once, and yet, strangely, he didn't just call back the number that I dialed from but instead called my home phone, which, of course, meant I didn't know he called until I was no longer in any kind of proximity to him. Irritating. So now I have to call him back, and it's this huge hassle, and I'm totally not dealing with it right now.
  • Christmas itself was relaxing and awesome, and I spent lots of qual. time with mom and G. and it was grand.
  • Wow, I'm feeling sleepy.
  • I liked Kate Atkinson's Case Histories a lot, but the follow-up didn't really set my world on fire.
  • I feel like I want to eat something, but I hate all of the options that I've got.
  • I suppose that's all for now. I hope all of you who celebrated over the past week had an excellent time!

Monday, December 22, 2008

3/4 Classes Graded, Drinking a Glass of Wine, Swooning over FB

One class left. The deadline for grades is tomorrow at 9 AM. So I've just eaten a cookie, and I'm drinking a glass of wine. And listening to the Shins, a CD bought as part of the Christmas Present Loveliness that was courtesy of FB. That and some books, two which were work-like though not work-necessary, and one which was totally for fun.

I have so many things that I want to say about FB, but so many things I fear to say about him in that he really doesn't typically like it when I write about him in this space, and I've been trying not to do so for that reason. He often feels I make him appear douche-y. The thing, though, is this: he is so not douche-y. He is so... SOOO... my favorite person really in the whole world. This is not to say he's not an ass at regular intervals, but he's my favorite whether those things are true or not, and this is why I think he's silly for being irritable about my writing about him on this blog. Because he is SO GREAT and I know that and so if he suspects he appears douche-y, I thnk that's so immaterial. Though I get that I'm wrong about this. Even if I don't really accept it. I often wish he could just get my perspective on this issue, but he doesn't seem to appear to be able to get that he is my favorite person ever. Indeed, when I told him this last night he indicated that my feeling about this has to do with my taste and not his worthiness of the "favorite person" designator. It may have to do a great deal with my taste, but he truly is my favorite. Truly.

But so he is in his parental home, and I'll be in mine tomorrow. But the point is, and I think this is even fair to say at this premature date, he was the best part of my Christmas. Ah, FB. He is my favorite person of all.

So, have a happy holiday all. I shall return once I'm back from the bosom of my family.

RBOC: Monday

  • Still only 2/4 classes graded. Woops.
  • FB is here, after a horrifying travel experience in which his flight was delayed for hours and his gate-checked bag was lost. For real. No wonder he hates traveling, with this sort of travel luck.
  • I feel like my M-K has warmed to FB, but that FB does not trust him because of the whole "sneak attack" business of years gone by. That said, of course my sweet kitty is sad when he can't come to sleep with me. And of course he expresses that with meowing. He's not trying to be a jerk.
  • Did I mention how great that FB is? He really is. Tra la.
  • You know what's not great? The grading I haven't done. And the fact that it's but 8 degrees outside. That is a problem.
  • Am considering going back to bed. But coffee and cookies are nice. (Baked cookies while not grading Saturday night. I made kolatchkies and these, in case you were wondering. YUMMMYYYYY.)

Friday, December 19, 2008

2/4 Classes Graded

I've decided just to change my last whiny post rather than to post a new post above it. I feel like not being whiny. So now I just have two classes left to go, which I will finish up tomorrow. I think that's completely reasonable as timelines go.

In other news, it's so weird, the whole tenure thing. I sort of can't believe it. Nothing's actually changed really, but it's like this huge weight has been lifted. I've got to say, it's very nice indeed. And as much as I've resisted the discourse of luckiness about having a t-t gig in this profession, I'm actually feeling lucky to have made it this far and to be in the position I'm in. That's not to discount the work that was involved, but at the same time, I'm certainly feeling like counting my blessings, and this is one. I have so much shit to do it's ridiculous, but I think I'm going to procrastinate a bit. Why? Because I'm an idiot.

Anyway, I think my students will be happy with their grades. There's nothing like a recently tenured professor to surprise you with grades that are to your liking. Not that they didn't bust their asses to earn them, but still. I am infected with the spirit of Christmas and Tenure, and I know I'm being more generous than is typically my way. As I am lucky, so too are my students.

And so now I will putter around and shower and go meet with my students and then I will come home and clean like a maniac. Indeed, this is the plan for the rest of the day.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

I Cannot Make Myself Grade. Oh No, I Cannot.

And thus, looking ahead as if grading doesn't need to happen:

Tonight: Write birthday card to Biological Dad (from this point forward BD), address Christmas cards, post grades for one class. (Notice how I'll be posting grades for a class that I am not, actually, doing the grading for. Now that I have been approved for tenure I am magical.)

Friday: Clean apartment, mail Christmas cards and BD's birthday card, go to lunch with students for the Organizational Meeting of the reading group that they're putting together (by invitation from them, which was so sweet of them that they want me there!), sort laundry, meet with pet-sitter, drink oodles of wine with Naomi.

Saturday: Graduation (I don't want to go except I do because one of my First Students Ever here is graduating), when go to campus for graduation drop keys off at school, straighten apartment (for I'm sure I'll still need to straighten things), grade and report grades for remaining two classes, beautification.

Sunday: Grocery store for a few small things, wait with rapt breath, FB ARRIVES, give FB his HILARIOUS Christmas presents, etc., have FB take me out to fabulous dinner to celebrate tenure, go shopping with FB so that he can buy me oodles of gifts (for in spite of my list-making, the universe has conspired against him to prohibit him buying me things and getting them to me, which, as he noted, is ultimately good for me because it will mean I get more presents, although really me getting presents wasn't totally the point - it was more that I wanted to give him presents - though presents are awfully nice), quality time with FB. Yay!

Monday: More quality time with FB! Yay! And then FB and I shall journey to our respective parents' homes. Quality time with parents! Yay!

Tuesday: Quality time of Mother-Daughter bonding with Mom of Crazy, who has taken the day off of work.

Wednesday and Thursday: Christmas Eve and Christmas Day Family Time.

Friday: See BD. It has to be done. It will be good. Later that night, drink copious amounts of wine with J. and A. And there will be Christmas cookies!

Saturday or Sunday: Return home to my Man-Kitty and Mr. Stripey, to see what havoc they have wrought.

So that's my week and a bit ahead. And I still haven't done my grading. Though I have ordered some pizza and a cookie. Because apparently tenure means pizza.

OOH! Merry Christmas to Crazy! Really, Not Ironically or Anything!

From the Office of the Provost:

"I am recommending that you be promoted to the rank of Associate Professor and that you be granted tenure."

Subject to approval by the Board of Regents, blah blah blah. So all is not totally done, etc., but I do think that at this point it would not be premature to stop crossing my fingers, to stop knocking on wood, to stop trying not to tempt fate, and instead to celebrate! Hooray! Huzzah! Yay!

(I really hadn't anticipated how happy I'd feel about this. I mean, it's not like I was worried I'd be denied, really. Is that weird? Either that I didn't think I'd feel so happy or that I actually do? And relieved, in a strange way? Too. Many. Emotions. Must go give a final and grade like a maniac, for one cannot rest on her laurels.)

Merry Freaking Christmas, People in Language and Literature

Well, the news about just how bad it is this year in terms of the job market is in. I suppose I'll need to update my real life webpage section of Doom and Gloom about pursuing graduate school with this latest report.

The thing that sucks is that I've got a handful of students - strong students - who are intent on pursuing grad school/academia right now. In spite of my Doom and Gloom and Stern Advice Against. In spite of the copious amounts of material that I give them to read.

I hate this. I hate that I can't just be enthusiastic about their hopes and dreams and whatnot. Yes, they're adults, and yes, they will make their own decisions. And I will do everything (though how effective my "everything" is I'm not so sure) I know how to do to help them to achieve their goals. I'll write recommendation letters, and I'll help them to do what it takes to come out on the other side relatively unscathed. But I would so love to be able to look at their bright and shiny faces and reflect their optimism back at them. I would love it if I didn't know so many people who've been chewed up and spit out by this field. I would love it if I were clueless about the state of the profession and so didn't feel like I need to protect them from themselves, which of course is impossible, just as it was for people to protect me from myself when I got the crazy idea that I should be a freaking English professor.


Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Last Hurrah For the Best Class Ever

So, it is over. The Best Class Ever will never meet again. We have had our final, and many of them will be graduating if not this weekend than in Spring. Sigh.

However our last class meeting, our "final" technically, was really, really great. I started experimenting last semester with the idea of doing non-traditional final in advanced classes in which really the research paper should be the culminating major assignment in the course. (Pesky university rules about "every course must have a final except for in 'writing' courses" have inspired this.) So I started thinking about what I actually expect finals to do. And, really, what I expect my students to do in any setting - traditional or non - is to show me what they've learned over the course of the semester and to synthesize the different pieces of what they've learned. Now, is there a reason why this needs to take place in a 2 hour written exam? Indeed, NO!

So what we did in The Best Class Ever was their final was an oral presentation, in which they had to do two things: 1) They had to talk about their paper, its topic, how the topic helped them to understand the ideas of the course more deeply, how they entered into the scholarly conversation in the general area of the course through their paper; 2) They had to define the Major Term around which the course was built, based on what they had read throughout the semester.

It was ridiculously interesting, and it was so nice for students to hear about what other of their classmates were working on for the past month or so, and also, it was gratifying because I heard better explanations for Major Term from them than most professors ever would hope for (or than most professors in my discipline though not in my sub-field could probably themselves give).

And there was even time left over for me to give a warm and fuzzy speech about how wonderful they all were and how impressed with them all I am, which isn't my typical way, but dude, they had earned every bit of praise I heaped on them.

I'm so excited about how much they all learned this semester, about how invested they all were in the material and in meeting my outrageous demands that they push themselves beyond their comfort zones, about the work that I was able to help them to do.

Dude, I blew some minds this semester. And no, I can't take credit for what my students achieved, but that was something that I achieved. And yes, that does make this job "worth it" to me in ways that are immeasurable.

[You know, periodically in response to posts about the burden that falls on tenured/t-t faculty related to budgets (here and elsewhere) people will pipe up that if it's so awful that one should just get another job, that adjuncts are great teachers, and that nobody would lose anything if people in my situation just pulled up stakes and moved on to greener pastures. Now, I'm not a martyr, and I don't think that it's my "vocation" to do this job in some sort of "as a professor I am a monk dedicated to self-sacrifice" sort of a way, nor would I rule out leaving this job (or career even) for another if that were the right move for me. I also don't think that I in some way "deserve" a better work situation than other people (in academe or out of it) because I happen to be a tenure-track college professor. BUT, and I don't think that this is being self-congratulatory, I do think that something would be lost if students didn't have professors (me, but not necessarily me) who were able to invest in them in the way that I am able to invest because I'm not working course by course, piecemeal, with little time to design my courses, with little time to work out the kinks in the classroom, without adequate office space to get to know my students, etc. The conditions of my labor have allowed me to invest in my teaching and to invest in my students, and this is where my privilege benefits my students perhaps even more than it benefits me personally. I could not do the job that I do as a teacher if I didn't have the privileges I have based on my tenure-track employment.

And as conversations continue about how faculty will have to "do more," the more that is often asked often falls into categories that take away from my students in both direct and indirect ways, which is the real reason why I'm so resistant. And the bottom line (for that seems to be what taxpayers and my administration cares about most) is that you want students - whether its you, your kids, your siblings, whatever - to have teachers that have the freedom, time, and resources to devote to them - you want teachers like the one that I have been able to become. Not because I have something special about me that my part-time colleagues don't, but because I have had the material conditions in place that I can devote more and give more to my students. My primary job has been to be to set their worlds on fire. If I were struggling to put together enough courses to make 20K a year? Without health care? Yeah, my top priority would be making ends meet - not blowing people's minds.

And so that's where I feel like my opinions about compensation of faculty fall into line with my opinions about education generally. It's not that I expect to work less than I do, but rather that I want the work that I do to actually be about educating students and about contributing to my field. I want support to do that work, and I want that work to be valued because it has value. I think that the majority of people who teach in higher ed should have that support and be compensated adequately for that work, that work that is central to what universities are supposed to be. You want people who have the resources to be more than warm bodies and grading machines teaching students. Seriously. Just ask my students.]

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Excellence Without Money, or, My Money is Your Money: Part II


So I wrote this post about my university's budget crunch a couple of weeks ago, and I haven't been the only person writing about such budgetary woes. Tenured Radical wrote a post about this, too, from a much more generous and less angry perspective than me, and then Historiann wrote about both of our posts together. And then Historiann continues to think about budgets - and even gets the ball rolling with a slogan (via Roxie) and a seal (see above) - and then Dean Dad posted today, also linking my and TR's initial posts in his analysis of faculty perspectives on budget cuts.

Whew! That's a lot of linkage! However, I think that should have us all caught up.

But I do feel like it's worth posting about these issues again, in a more substantive way than I did in my initial post. See, I knew that I should write a Big, Important Post about this stuff!

There is a reason why both Historiann and Dean Dad talked about my post alongside Tenured Radical's, and it's not because we were directly talking to one another. It's because, to some extent, our posts represent divergent ends of the spectrum of what it means to be "faculty." Now, on the one hand, I have a certain kind of privilege just by virtue of the fact that I'm on the tenure-track and (crossing fingers) soon to be tenured. I do not in any way mean to dismiss that privilege in what I'm about to write here. I make a decent living, and I'm doing it in a profession and field where many people with educations and accomplishments that look just like mine don't get to do that. So I'm not in any way suggesting that I'm exploited labor or something in a general sense. I'm not.

That caveat in place, however, there are very real structural inequities within academia across even the tenured and tenure-track professoriate, and these inequities come to the fore in times of economic downturn. The divisions aren't so simple as "tenured or tenure-track" vs. "adjunct or contract." We're used to talking about inequities in the profession in those black-and-white terms, and I'd argue that this is far too simplistic. There is a big difference between teaching at a regional state university and teaching at an elite slac. There is a big difference between being long-tenured and not-yet-tenured, and there is a big difference between one's circumstances depending on discipline/field. Those differences are real, and they involve the material conditions of one's life and labor.

And thus, it's easy to conceive of oneself as a privileged faculty member when one is a "privileged" faculty member.

Yes, compared with our administrative assistants, or the janitorial staff, I hold a position of privilege. Compared with adjuncts and full-timers not on the tenure track, I hold a position of privilege. But if we compare me to my peers across institutions or even across disciplines within my own institution, I would not characterize my position as one of privilege. I am in a field that bears the brunt of some of the most labor-intensive portions of the general education curriculum; I am in field that has historically been one of the lowest paid; I am in a field where job mobility is about zero once one hits the associate level, and where it's not much better even at the assistant level for all but lateral moves; I am at the lowest funded university in my state, a state with notorious budget problems, and that disparity will likely not be rectified in my lifetime; at the same time, my university's enrollment is rapidly growing and there is an expectation that it will continue to grow by leaps and bounds even without adequate state support for that growth.... I could go on, but I think the gist of what I'm saying here is clear. My job, although I really do enjoy it most days and while I am pleased to be working in the field in which I trained, is not a plum gig.

Now, for me, I believe in the work that I do here. I like teaching the students at this place, in large part because they are not a "privileged" student population (although, I suppose, if we were to extend the argument about tenured/t-t faculty at this institution to the students we could say that they are "privileged" just because they are going to college). I do think that the work that I do at this institution really matters. In other words, I don't list off all of the ways in which I'm not privileged out of disgruntlement with my job or dissatisfaction with my lot in life. Rather, I list these things off because I do think that the conditions of my labor, and probably of my own class background as well, affect my response to "everybody has to do their part" rhetoric. I think that such rhetoric makes a good deal of sense if one sees one's position as privileged and if one ultimately doesn't have very much to lose by taking one for the team. In contrast, if one feels as if one doesn't have anything left over at the end of the day to give to the team, that kind of rhetoric inspires (at least for me) a certain amount of anger. At a certain point, one wonders why faculty who are already "doing their part" are supposed to fix problems that are far beyond the scope of what they can fix.

So, in short, institutional differences cannot be discounted when it comes to any sort of analysis of "faculty perspective" about budget cuts. But that's not the only factor in play.

We've also got to think about career trajectory and where one falls based on one's point on the academic path.

I think that one of the major differences between my perspective on these issues and, say, my department mentor's perspective (he's been employed here since before I was born - literally) is that he is at a point where sacrifices like contributing to department accounts to keep them solvent really aren't major sacrifices. He is not paying off student loan debt (I went to graduate school fully funded, but living on 9K a year in Boston in the late 90's really wasn't possible, and my family couldn't give me an allowance, as some of my friends' parents did for them, so yes, I've got some loan debt), credit card debt (see previous), attempting to save for a house (again, no family help available). We can also include things like relocation costs and furnishing a home with real furniture for the first time, etc. And the thing is, I'm actually in a good position compared to others in my age/pay range who have young children, who have ailing parents for whom they have to care, who bought homes at the height of the housing bubble, or even who live very far from family and so have to spend exorbitant amounts on travel to visit them. I'm in really good shape compared with those people. But so this list of things is pretty typical for recently minted faculty.

In contrast, my mentor is at the top of the pay scale because he's been here since Nixon was president. Chipping in a hundred or 500 or whatever just isn't that big of a deal. Forgoing a raise or taking a pay cut when you are totally financially solvent and comfortable and set in your life isn't that big of a deal. Paying for the copyright permissions for your book out of your own pocket (snarl) isn't that big of a deal. But the point is, what would seem like a small sacrifice to a person in one place in terms of their life and position in the profession is a really big freaking deal to people who aren't there yet. Just because we're all faculty together doesn't mean we all have the same resources on which to draw, or that we all have the same voice in discussions about how money is allocated or how money should be raised.

There are also psychic differences in how one perceives faculty calls to arms.

And this gets to the "excellence without money" thing. For people who are at about my point in this career trajectory - recently tenured, about to be tenured, on the tenure-track, or job-seeking - we've witnessed first hand the ramped up expectations without support for years. We've been expected to prove that we are stellar teachers with evidence of teaching excellence and statements of teaching philosophy coming out of graduate school, where we've received little to no training about how to be good teachers. We've been expected to present at conferences with little to no funding for travel and registration (see credit card debt that lingers above). We've been expected to publish just to get a job, and we've been expected to publish more if we're lucky enough to get a job than we were advised to do when we were hired because the requirements have steadily increased. In short, we've come of age in a profession that has demanded "excellence without money" from us for quite some time. So now, as this budget crisis hits, I suspect that people of this generation of scholars and teachers respond to demands for "more with less" quite differently from those who came before us. I'd imagine that belt-tightening can almost make one feel virtuous if one has not been experiencing the belt tightening notch by notch for about the past 10 years without let-up. The thing is, "more with less" seems like the rule rather than the exception to me, and I wonder at what point we'll hit the breaking point where "more" just isn't possible. I can tell you that right now I don't see how "more" is possible for me. And I feel disenfranchised, and I feel completely hostile to the idea of doing any more than I already do. This makes me a bad department citizen and a bad member of the university community, obviously. And yet, I wonder, how can I expected to be "good" - let alone excellent - under these conditions?

Solutions? Answers?
Nah, I haven't got any of those. I feel like to some extent I'm going to need to play the hand that's dealt me. So the things that I've been thinking about involve how I intend to play. Let's put it this way: I think that there will be a lot of bluffing involved :) What matters to me most centrally is that I continue to push my students and to offer them the best education that I know how to offer them. Doing that involves continuing to invest a lot in my teaching, but it also, for me, involves investing a good amount in research, because I don't really know how to be an effective teacher if I'm not engaged in research myself. And so. How does one accomplish those things with a 4/4 load, with maxed out classes, a horrifyingly huge service burden, etc.? And little or no support for any of the above or for research? Well, I think that it's going to require some invention on my part. The bluffing will come in when it comes to those "on top of everything else" demands that don't contribute to my students or to my research. Because you know what? If something has to give, it's not going to be the things that for me really are the only point of this job. And so I'll appear to be a team-player, but to some extent, I'm going to have to stop actually being one. And in addition to that, I will do everything in my power to advocate for my students and for the quality of the education that I can bring them. And, as soon as that tenure decision is in, I think I'll be a whole lot less diplomatic in how I do so. One benefit of the whole "excellence without money" thing is that one doesn't have a whole hell of a lot to lose.

Monday, December 15, 2008

The Rewards of Grading

I just read what is surely the absolute most interesting, most well executed, most good paper that has ever been submitted to me.

And no, it was not submitted by one of my usual suspects.

And no, there is no way that it was plagiarized, nor did I even suspect plagiarism - this student has been working toward this kind of work since the beginning of the semester, and the topic was so original that there was never a question about it being the student's work.

Note: this student's first assignment for me was a Bland B.

While I can't take credit for this student's originality and talent, I think I can take credit for helping this student to get from Bland B to Totally Freaking Out of This World Better Than Anyone Could Hope For A.

Three Cheers for Awesome Students!

(The other papers weren't too shabby either, I've got to say. And some were quite great, and under normal circumstances would have had me over the moon all on their own. But this other paper? Blew them out of the water. Totally.)

Must. Grade.


Cannot procrastinate any longer.

Have already procrastinated by....

(Over the weekend): telephone calls, watching a Fa La La La Lifetime movie called Will You Merry Me, cleaning up around the homestead.

(Today): chatting with students, going to grocery store, making overnight french toast recipe for last class celebration with students that I've bled dry with work this semester.

Must. Grade. Now.


Sunday, December 14, 2008

Compliments That Catch One off Guard and the Value of Blogging

This week, in two separate conversations, I had colleagues compliment me on what I can only describe as the fact that I'm "savvy" about departmental/university politics. In both cases, I was sort of caught off guard, as I'd never consciously characterize myself as being particularly special in this regard, and also because it's weird to have your colleagues note it in a complimentary way to you. Usually, when people talk about the office politics of academe, they talk about them in ways that make it seem like if you "play the game" that you're a tool of the administration, or that you're some kind of intellectual fraud, or that you're conniving, or whatever. But in both of the conversations that I had, my colleagues expressed admiration for the fact that I can synthesize the political interests of certain happenings on campus quickly and that I have found a way to negotiate the political terrain here to my advantage without making enemies.

[Aside: this is a reason why probably I would be well suited to administration. I think it's probably fair to say that I am good at these things, not because I've tried to be but just because I'm naturally inclined in that way (which is actually a good quality that I've inherited from my biological father and not from my mother or G, who are hotheads and who have no ability to scan the political terrain and to navigate it), and so this would incline me toward administrative sorts of things if I wanted to go in that direction. The problem, though, is that I often feel resistant to doing this sort of thing because I have to do it, and so this is why I am ambivalent about the administrative track, among other reasons. But I digress.]

But as I've been processing these conversations, it occurs to me that part of my skills in these areas have been developed through my participation in this community of bloggers. Unlike people who don't blog, I think that I just think about this stuff in more concrete ways more frequently, which helps one to navigate the political crap more easily in my actual professional life. I've often thought to myself that one of the biggest things I get out of blogging is that it lets me think about the institution of academe in structural ways and to have conversations about that, which I'm not sure I could do in another context, or at the very least that I couldn't do as easily as a junior faculty member. While it's true that everybody talks about this crap in a local way with colleagues, or in a bitching way with friends, blogging forces me to see the big picture, and I think that helps me to translate what I think about here into my "real life" professional life in ways that are positive.

But then I wonder what comes first, the blogging or the egg? Or the chicken or the political savvyness? I'm not sure if it's possible to answer that question. But what's interesting to me as I continue to think about all of this is how much "academic blogging" can contribute to demystifying this stuff, which is often mundane and which is often downplayed or disregarded in the service of More Important Things, like Academic Freedom or Adjunctification or Intellectual Inquiry or Teaching Excellence. The thing is, most political things that I've encountered in my career as a professor and even in graduate school are much less sexy but are also much more intrinsic to whether it's possible to do one's job effectively and without undue drama. No, when one's classes are scheduled isn't the most important thing in the world in contrast to the typical Capital Letter sorts of conversations. Or how much control one has over which classes one teaches, or which classes that one teaches "count" for what in the curriculum. Or whether one is asked to serve on X committee or Y committee. But at the end of the day, I often think these little things - which require one to exercise political acumen in order to make sure that one has the most advantageous professional situation possible for oneself - are intrinsic to one's experience of the academy. I think if one tries to ignore the politics that circumscribe these "little things" that one often is left out of the conversation altogether, and one is left feeling totally disenfranchised.

I've often thought that there's no virtue in keeping one's head down in the service of not making enemies or of just surviving in this professional world. It has often seemed to me that the people who find a way to speak up (not necessarily in ways that are controversial, esp. for grad students or for junior faculty or adjuncts) are more likely to get what they need to thrive. And as I said to one of my colleagues, I think part of the reason why I had to learn to be politically savvy is because I'm not good at shutting up, and so I'd better know how to speak up without shooting myself in the foot.

What occurs to me the more that I've been thinking about these conversations, though, is that I think I got complimented in that particular way because I'm a woman who does these things. I think that's what makes this quality in me noteworthy, in part because women are socialized in exactly the opposite direction both in our culture generally and in this profession specifically. While it's true that the standard advice to all young academics is to keep one's head down, it strikes me that women academics are much more frequently the ones who actually do this - to their detriment. Being a good colleague doesn't mean being a shadow in the room. It just means not making enemies. And that requires a certain level of engagement with the politics and a certain confidence in one's own worth. And I think that I came to this profession with those things intact, and that's been good for me, but that's accidental. What I think is so valuable about academic blogs is that maybe they can show people who don't come to the profession with those natural inclinations what's at stake in not engaging or in not having that confidence. And it can model ways in which people further along on the path navigate the political terrain of academe in ways that we don't often see clearly as students when we look at our advisers or professors.

And I'll go further: I think that's precisely the value of academic blogs by people who choose to go by pseudonyms, and who choose not to characterize their blogs as "professional" documents. Because the fact of the matter is, how can you talk about this nit-picky shit under your Name without looking like a tool? We're all supposed to be leading a life of the mind, right? Except this is a job - not a vocation - and as much as we do get to think about cool shit, there are political interests that determine when, how, and where we think about these things. And that's not wrong to acknowledge that, and in fact it's probably a really good thing, but it doesn't quite go with the whole pipe-smoking, elbow-patched jacket image of who we are.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Ooh! Inventive Cooking Pays Off!

So I've really been craving lasagna. Problematically, a) I am one person, b) I am one person who is trying to eat sensibly and to lose weight, and c) I'm making progress on b and I really don't want to screw it up.

One of the things that I realized this fall was that I really need to find ways to satisfy cravings without giving myself a "cheat day" or something. There's no cheating in Crazy's World of Fitness. Cheating leads to my ass expanding, because first it only happens at one meal, and then one day, and then the next thing you know you've eaten fast food three days in a row.

But I digress. Let me give you the following AWESOME recipe, that is easy (though somewhat time-consuming) and totally satisfies the lasagna craving.

Dr. Crazy's No-Noodle Lasagna

  • 15 oz. lowfat ricotta
  • 2 eggs
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 2 cups shredded cheese (the bag of "Italian Cheese" works fine, or you can use some combination of mozzarella, provalone, etc. - whatever you prefer)
  • 2 medium eggplants
  • 2 large-ish yellow squash (not like the size of your head or something, but big enough that you can slice them reasonably. Try to make sure the eggplants are about the same size as each other, and the same for the squash. You can substitute zucchini or use it in addition, too. Whatever.)
  • 1 jar spaghetti sauce. Whatever kind you prefer.
  • 1 lb. Italian sausage, removed from casings (optional, though I really would never make this without it because it adds so much flavor-wise, but I'd never make regular lasagna without sausage either).
  1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
  2. Spray a casserole dish with cooking spray. If you are using sausage, cook it until you can crumble it easily. Drain fat on paper towels.
  3. Slice eggplant into fairly thin strips, lengthwise, so that the eggplant resembles a lasagna noodle in width and breadth. These shouldn't be paper thin, but they should be thin enough that it makes sense to layer them. What matters more than getting them super-duper thinly sliced is to make sure that the slices are uniform so that they cook consistently.
  4. Repeat step 3, only with the squash.
  5. Once you've sliced the veggies, mix ricotta, eggs, and salt/pepper with a wire whisk until the consistency is creamy and easy to spread. This is what binds the layers together and makes lasagna taste like lasagna.
  6. Now it's time to assemble. Spread a thin layer of sauce on the bottom of the casserole. Now, layer eggplant strips just as you would layer lasagna noodles. Spread a layer of ricotta on top of that, then sauce, then sausage, then mixed cheeses. Repeat until you've used up your ingredients, alternating eggplant with squash.
  7. Stick it in the oven for 45 minutes, then increase the temperature to 425 degrees for 15 minutes. This is a good time to throw some garlic bread in the oven if you're going to have that.
  8. Remove from the oven, and, using a turkey baster, remove excess liquid. (Vegetables get a little liquidy, but as long as they don't sit in a pool of their juices the "lasagna" won't get soggy.) I removed about 1 cup or so. Put individual servings on plates with slotted spatula. You will notice it actually holds together better when you remove the first slice than normal lasagna does, even if you don't wait for it to "set." Congratulate yourself for being ridiculously virtuous and yet inventive enough to satisfy your craving for lasagna-tasting goodness.
Serves 8-10.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Sometimes What I Say Surprises Even Me

"There's nothing worse than postmodern cock, I have to say."


Let's Talk about Something Else, Shall We? Like Student Writing and Commenting on Student Writing

But before we do, thank you all SO SO much for all of your support and kind words and commiseration and everything. You don't know how much that has meant to me over the past couple of days. The next while promises to be hard, and I'm still really emotional about lots of parts of it, but I woke up this morning feeling more myself (probably in no small part due to talking to my mom, who while jerky, really always makes me feel better at the end of the day, in her own special jerky way), and the sun is shining and the kitties are frolicking and well, things are as right in my world as they can be. I am thinking that I'm going to get myself into therapy when I'm done with finals and the holiday travel, which I've never done before but which I think would be a solid move in these circumstances.

But so anyway, what shall we talk about? I know. My fabulous students.

So yesterday in my Best Class Ever, I had my students workshop their drafts of their papers. This was in part an effort to get them going with the papers (which they were way behind on getting a start with) before the deadline, but it ended up being a way to end the semester that made me pretty happy. I know their writing well enough now that I was able to pair people up who would really gain something from working with one another (my favorite pairing was with a student who tends to write in a terribly expansive way with a student who writes in a way that is so spare that ideas don't tend to get as fully developed as necessary). But I also paired two students who will be in my theory class next semester (who I really did think would gain from knowing one another better), BES with a potential new BES, etc. So anyway, it was a relaxed and relaxing way to end the regular semester, and they all worked earnestly on responding to one another's writing. It was a treat to watch them, really.

Also funny was the fact that they started kvetching about my commenting style, for apparently I'm the only person who has ever written on their papers that a sentence is "lame." I think I've written here about my commenting style before, but if not, the short version is that I do tend to be direct and somewhat blunt. Now, this is not to say that I'm not helpful. After I say something like "this is a lame sentence with which to open the paper" I give suggestions about what would have made it better, but still, submitting writing to me is not for the faint of heart. Indeed, apparently I'm the toughest commenter on papers that they've ever seen. (This may say more about the other professors they've had than about me, or it may mean that I'm a bitch on wheels. It is hard to say.)

Now, when I first started teaching, I will say that I tried to be more... I don't know. Diplomatic? Warm and fuzzy? I still was direct, but I fought my natural impulses, always translating what I really thought into something more innocuous. This made grading take way longer, as I was trying to comment in a voice that wasn't natural to me - that didn't feel like me talking to them. I also think that it wasn't terribly effective. As I've taught many, many classes, graded thousands of papers of all stripes, and as I've taught longer, I've done away with trying to comment as if I'm a different person from the one that I am. On the one hand, this means that some students are put off by my style. On the other, the students who are looking to be pushed beyond the typical things that they do really tend to respond well. They never have to wonder what I think about their writing. Students who really want substantive feedback respond well to that.

One thing I realized though was that commenting in this way really depends on developing a rapport with my students by assigning a lot of writing throughout the semester. You can't just blind-side them with this sort of commenting on one major paper. You need to prepare them for it with smaller assignments and really let them get to know you so that they don't feel attacked. And you know, this is one of the reasons that I am so happy to have gotten comp off of my schedule and one of the reasons that I don't feel guilty about having done so. I realized (kind of without realizing it) a couple of years ago that I needed to give students in lit classes writing instruction, and I felt spread so thin by switching back and forth between comp and lit classes that I did justice to neither in terms of writing instruction.

This is where I find the whole "more tenure-track English professors need to be teaching writing" thing kind of weird, not because I agree that we should rely primarily on adjunct labor for lower-division classes like comp, but because the reality is that I'm a better writing instructor within my discipline - literary studies - than I am in the discipline of composition and rhetoric, and I teach writing consistently within my discipline across all levels - to incoming students through graduating seniors. Not teaching comp does not, in my situation, imply that I don't teach lower-level students or that I don't teach writing. Reports like the MLA one on the adjunctification of English set up a binary that implies that people who aren't teaching composition aren't teaching writing at all (which does a disservice not only to English faculty but to faculty in disciplines outside of English who care about facilitating good writing in their classes), and that they are, rather, living high on the hog and just Thinking Great Thoughts and chatting about the content of their courses while adjunct labor allows them that luxury, as if a freshman comp sequence does the job in terms of writing instruction. This is just so far from my experience that once again I find myself wondering how one actually ends up having a voice in the MLA, because as far as I can tell, the perspectives represented tend to be those of people at colleges and universities that resemble mine not at all, which seems weird since there are a lot more of my kind of institutions in higher ed than elite research institutions or elite slacs.

The problem with composition and writing across the curriculum programs as I see it is that they assume anybody with an advanced degree in English has the skills to "teach writing" in a general, amorphous way at a high level of excellence. Now, I think that I'm a strong writer, and I think that I'm a good teacher of writing. But I also think that I'm a more effective teacher of writing in the field in which I myself write, and I know that I'm not an effective teacher of writing for disciplines whose methods and approaches differ widely from my own (say, the sciences). Further, most people who teach composition are not specialists in composition and rhetoric. So in order for the MLA's recommendations to really make sense, we'd need to be hiring like 30-40 composition and rhetoric specialists at minimum into tenure-track positions for each university, in order to support the needs of general studies composition requirements that apply to all students in a university. That's just not going to happen, folks. And I wonder why we think that one or two classes are supposed to be the last word on writing instruction, because again, my students seem to need that consistently throughout their college careers.

But so anyway, I assign a lot of writing, and I have to grade a lot of writing. Even though I don't technically at the moment "teach writing." Funny how that works, isn't it?

Thursday, December 11, 2008

P.S. I Love You...

Is quite possibly the world's worst movie.

And yes, I'm for some reason watching it.

Schlock always cheers me up.

In Which My Mom Sees Reason

Sure, she's jerky, but at least if you tell her she's being a jerk she ultimately gets it and feels sorry about it and stops being a jerk as much as is possible. Just had an hour-long talk with her, and it was good.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Bad News

I really do want to post fun things, and I will in the coming days.

But today my father, my biological one, the one with whom I've been basically estranged and whom I've not actually spoken with in years, called me. He called in the middle of the day on a Wednesday, I think thinking that I wouldn't answer and that he'd just leave a message. During this 15-minute conversation, it was revealed that he is dying. He is 54 years old. He will be 55 in a couple of weeks.

And so I found this out, and within the hour I had to go to campus for meetings and class prep and etc. Which was kind of good as it was a way of not thinking about things in a concentrated way.

And then I had to come home and call my mother and tell her, hoping that she would be able to leave bullshit behind and just ask me how I was and care about me, although that hope was not to be realized. I ended up having to hang up on her. My mother's default mode is bullshit and blame. And I know that comes out of upset, but I honestly don't give a shit right now. This is not about her. It's about the fact that I'm going to lose my father. She needs to grow the fuck up.

But G., who is honestly the best of all of my parents, called about 15 minutes later and was perfect. He loves me most of all. More than bullshit, more than betrayals and fuck-ups that are more than 22 years old, and more than the fact that these things aren't even anything to do with him and that he's always been in second place because they're not. Without him, well, I wouldn't be who I am. Thank god for him.

And thank god for my friends. K. and BFF and A. and FB, maybe especially, FB who was the first person whom I talked to after hearing this news who said everything right and who gets it all even though he can't. He's entirely on my side, and he entirely cares. You know, it's funny, G. and FB both probably should get it least of all, for various reasons, and yet both of them.... Well, they both suck with travel and they both challenge me in ways that I find annoying, but both of them.... I depend on them. And neither lets me down when I need them. Ever.

But so my dad, from whom I've been estranged, is dying. And he's not old, and he has two kids who are just barely teen-aged. And I don't quite know how to say goodbye to a father who doesn't even know me, and who's last communication to me before this phone call was to send an email in which he said, "Hey Crazy, How's your career? Love, Dad," and whose communication before that was a forwarded joke email last thanksgiving. I haven't seen him or actually spoken with him since 2004.

I'll admit, I feel better (although I feel guilty for feeling better about this) about the whole "how's your career" business precisely because I feel like it was the only thing he knew how to say instead of saying, "I have pancreatic cancer and we have a fucked up relationship and so since I'm likely to die I need to talk to you."

The doctor said he has 6-18 mos. to live, and the sense that I get was that he was diagnosed at least 3 mos. ago, though I don't know, because it was so hard just to get him to tell me what was going on that I didn't ask for details beyond what he offered.

And I feel guilty because I know that this has to be hard on my mom, but I can't take care of her and be on her side, because my father's fuck-ups aren't really the central thing right now. It's not that he's not an asshole - he surely is - but he's my father, and I need to make him understand that I love him and I've made my peace with him. And what I need right now from her, and from the people who do know me, is comfort and support, because I can't expect that from my father or from his family. All I can do is to make him know that I love him and that things are ok, whatever things have been between us. And I can't expect my stepmother, or my half-brothers (who are fucking children - I mean, Jesus, they're 14 and 12), or my father's siblings or mother (who I'm not even sure know about his illness) to care about how I feel because seriously, those people don't know shit about me. They don't know me. And that is the fault of both my mother and my father, whose inability to hang meant that it was always a competition, a competition that they expected me to pick a winner out of. And it was also the fault of my stepmother, too, who thought I was a threat when I was fucking 12 years old. The only person who's not to blame there is G., who never asked me or expected me to choose. With him, it was only about me and him. And that is why he's the best of all my shit-ass parents.

So I don't even know how I feel, other than that I feel awful. And I don't know how I will handle this, other than that I will, because it's the only thing to do. And so I can't write a fun and frivolous post right now, although I will do in the coming days because I'll be trying to pretend that this isn't happening. 2008 has been a shitty fucking year. I'm done. I need good things, and I need not to have anybody else die or to be terminally ill or whatever.

But on a brighter note, when my dad finally got out the business about what's going on with him, he noted that in addition to the chemo, that the doctor also put him on oxycotin. Let me recount the conversation:

Crazy: Well, that is a silver lining on an otherwise dark cloud, right? At least you're getting good drugs!

Crazy's Dad: (chuckle) He also has me on percoset. That's some pretty good stuff!

Crazy: Well, see, at least you get good drugs!

Crazy's Dad: Totally!

So yes, he's like a 19-year-old prescription drug addict, but the point is, this is my dad. And he sucks, and it's been shitty being his ignored daughter, but I love him. And he's only in his mid-50s, and he's likely going to die very soon. And it's hard and it's awful and my mother sucks. But at least somebody is getting good drugs. I just wish that person were me.