Saturday, January 30, 2010

Crazy's Dream High School English Curriculum

First things first. I have no business writing this post. Very little that I teach would ever be taught in a high school classroom, and the little that would be would not be taught in the way that I teach it. I am no authority on these things, and I really have no business pontificating about them. However, I'm inspired.

Frau Tech commented the following to my previous post, and asked the following, and I want to respond:

"What would be your criteria to determine whether a book should be part of the repertoire? For instance, my school never read Jane Austen. Later when I read some, no literature from that era (no Bronte sister, no George Elliot) seems pretty lacking, as was my exposure to female authors. But how do you determine what makes the cut? If something is not as well written as other stuff, but adds a particular historical perspective or cultural perspective that the students aren't exposed to normally, does it make it worth it?"

So, what would be my criteria? What is worthy of making it to a syllabus?

Before I get to my actual choices of texts, I want to talk a little bit about what goes into making a syllabus for a literature course, just in general. (I know a lot of people in English read over here, but many of the people who read this blog do not teach English, and so I feel like this is useful.) The things that I consider when I put a syllabus together for, say, my Intro to Lit course (which is closest in kind to high school English classes) are the following:

  1. I think about what students "should" read, if this is the only literature course they'll ever take. What that means is that I try to offer them historical breadth, a coverage of genres (poetry, fiction, drama - and film, for it is the 21st century after all), terms for discussing the literature that we cover, and techniques for analyzing literature across genres and historical periods, with the hope being that they will use these techniques if they ever again decide to read some literature. The thing is, reading literature is hard work and one does actually need instruction in order to do it well and to get all of the nuances in a book that one picks up. The point of a literature course is to teach students those skills so that they can use them in their lives after the class is over. It's not just to have a book club, contrary to what a lot of people (not you guys, just in general) seem to think.
  2. I think about how the texts that I choose will fit together. While I don't choose things that neatly fit (sequels, adaptations, rewritings), I do try to choose things that explore similar themes and that have something to say to one another. For example, take Shakespeare's play Hamlet. One of the major issues in the play is the ability, or the inability, to act. This play would work well with a story like "Bartleby, the Scrivener," a poem like Yeats's "September 1913," and a film like Fight Club. Further, if I were going to teach a course using the above texts, I might trace things like the representation of masculinity, how form contributes to our understanding of main themes, etc. The point is, you don't just choose disparate things that don't fit. You try to create a narrative for the course with the texts that you choose, even if it's not stated explicitly.
  3. I think about what I can reasonably expect that my students will actually read and how to make sure that they read everything that I assign. If I assign a 300 page novel in an intro-level class for only two class periods that will meet over the course of a week, I can be pretty sure that most of them won't actually read it. If I assign a difficult poem on the same day that a paper is due, it is almost certain that students won't look at the poem at all before they sit down in their desks for class that day. So, designing a syllabus is both about what I believe they should read and about what I want them to read as well as being about how to get them to read those things, because it's really important that they read the literature for themselves. If they don't, they will do poorly, and they'll really miss the point of the whole course. This is not like assigning a reading from a textbook, where if they don't read they can pick up the highlights from the lecture. Even if I lecture, and if they're there and attentive and take good notes, if they don't read the literature, they're not learning what they're supposed to learn in the class.
I would argue that the above three things are true whether one is teaching literature to undergrads or to high school students. The difference between what I do, however, and what my BFF from high school who teaches high school English does is that I get to pick all of what I teach without any directives from outside. I mean, sure, I can't teach a course in 19th C. American literature and teach all 18th C. British literature, but nobody mandates the books that I'll teach in my courses, and the books that I choose and the way that I teach them don't need to match up with some test a student will take administered from the outside. The reality in high school teaching is that there are certain books that school boards say teachers MUST teach. This is why my list of books below is going to be totally beside the point. Because the bottom line is that high school teachers don't get to pick and choose. There is a board-mandated, and state-mandated, curriculum. Period. Sure, they can add things in here or there (though, typically, it is my understanding that a lot of times all of the teachers of a certain grade get together and choose those "optional" texts, so it's still not totally autonomous), but if they're required to teach The Odyssey, The Inferno, and King Lear, then, dammit, that's what they've GOT to teach.

Seriously. I'm really going to get to my Dream Curriculum. But before I do, I want to respond to the last part of Frau Tech's comment: "But how do you determine what makes the cut? If something is not as well written as other stuff, but adds a particular historical perspective or cultural perspective that the students aren't exposed to normally, does it make it worth it?" I'll tell you how I do this in my courses for students at the undergrad level. First, if something adds important historical or cultural perspective, even if it's not beautifully written, yes, sometimes that is syllabus-worthy. Even if I hate it. But further, I'll say that sometimes I put things on my syllabi that I hate and that don't even necessarily add all that much historical or cultural context from my personal perspective, but they are things that other writers reference, or they are things that the critics will reference, and so students need to be familiar with them. A syllabus is not about "great writing" or even a "great story." Sure, it's cool when those things happen. But a syllabus, in large part, is about what you need to know. It's about cultural capital (cf. John Guillory). And so no, my students don't "need" to read excerpts from Coleridge's Biographia Literaria because of its inherent quality as a piece of writing, or even for historical or cultural context, but they sure as hell should know where the phrase "willing suspension of disbelief" comes from and understand why that matters as a reaction against Wordsworth's assertion that poetry is "the spontaneous overflow of powerful emotion recollected in tranquility." And yes, they need to know how all of that relates to Keats's theory of "negative capability" as well as to Eliot's theory of poetry as intrinsically impersonal. None of this is a) gorgeous prose, b) fun (or even very interesting) to read, or c) providing important historical or cultural context in terms of showing how people lived at the time or thought or whatever. But it nevertheless matters if we're going to understand the aesthetics of literary representation. And yeah, if you're studying literature, sometimes you need to read stuff that you don't believe is well written or terribly interesting, taken in isolation. Such as a book like this, for example.

(Though I'd also argue that "well written" or "interesting" are value judgments that we make based on experience, and so if we are in a context where Jane Austen is presented as the gold standard of "well written" then Charlotte Bronte will always end up being judged a writer who fails in her execution - as Virginia Woolf did judge her, incidentally - just as an example. In other words, what counts as "well written" isn't some objective fact, but rather it is shaped by what we are told counts as "great writing" (cf. Longinus, who was then followed by fancy d00ds such as Burke, Schiller, Kant, etc.) and the people who have most often had the power to do the telling for all but the past 30-40 years have pretty much been white upper-class men who were classically educated. So the fact of the matter is, some things may seem "poorly written" to us because we've interpellated those values. This is a huge issue when we consider the place of women's fiction from the 19th century in the canon, for example, so novels like _Ruth Hall_ and _Lady Audley's Secret_ are completely unfamiliar to a lot of readers because some d00d somewhere along the line basically decided they were "chick lit" and not literature, even though each of the novels does have its merits.)

At any rate, sometimes we need to engage with texts that appear to be of lower quality (however we define that), mainly because if we don't, we can't actually be part of a conversation that means something and that actually investigates what makes something "good writing" or "literature." In fact, I'd say that is a very good reason to put Catcher in the Rye on a syllabus - because whatever you think of Salinger's novel, it presents a voice and narrative that challenges what people historically had considered "literature" or "literary writing." That book can allow students to have a conversation about what makes something "literature," and that's exactly what should be happening in classrooms where people study literature. It's important to note, however, that Catcher isn't the only book that could do this. A book like The Bell Jar could achieve exactly the same thing, as could any number of other books.

So what should make the cut? In my undergrad classes, I determine what makes the cut basically by trying to choose what students need to know (not necessarily what I want to teach), plus what will give them historical/cultural context (not necessarily what I want to teach), plus what I think is most awesome (which ends up being maybe only a quarter of what ends up on a lower-division syllabus for me). But I suppose the short answer is this: how you determine what makes the cut has everything to do with what we call "the canon," and "the canon" does change based on the needs of a particular historical moment, but at the same time it remains quite fixed for long stretches of time, in that it's very difficult to oust a work (or author) from the canon once it's firmly entrenched. So, for example, one of the results of the culture wars was greater inclusion of writers of color on syllabi, but that doesn't mean that we've gotten rid of Salinger. Instead, those "other" writers have been squeezed in (a Gwendolyn Brooks poem here, a Black Boy there) and Catcher in the Rye remains where it's been for the past 30 years. In other words, I highly doubt that Catcher in the Rye will disappear from high schools tomorrow or even next year, whatever the impact of Salinger's death.

But so now, finally, Crazy's Dream High School Curriculum. This is tough as I feel like my high school experience was a gajillion years ago, and I don't really know how high schools typically set things up now, and I also know it varies district by district, state by state. With that being the case, here are things that I think that I would love for students to see at some point in high school, in no particular order, and not divided up by grade. I am clearly leaving things out, and I'm also failing to include a lot of YA stuff that I know gets taught just because I'm not terribly familiar with a lot of it.

  • The Odyssey
  • poems by Sappho
  • Oedipus Rex (or Medea)
  • selections from The Canterbury Tales
  • The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano
  • Oroonoko by Aphra Behn
  • poems by Anne Bradstreet
  • The House of the Seven Gables or The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne (In high school, I personally preferred The House of the Seven Gables, and I feel like I only really "got" The Scarlet Letter when I read it in my late 20s. I don't think I was ready for it at 16, but I know some people really prefer TSL, so whatever. I suppose the point that I would make regarding this is that just because something by an author is superior to something else, it still doesn't necessarily mean that one should assign the superior thing. The Waves may be Woolf's best novel, but sticking that on a high school syllabus will likely produce a lot of students who despise Woolf and never read her again, and in fact, who may stop reading altogether. Literature courses are not supposed to produce that result.)
  • Bartleby, the Scrivener by Melville
  • selections from Emerson
  • selections from Thoreau
  • Little Women by Alcott
  • Turn of the Screw and What Maisie Knew by Henry James.
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
  • poems by the Romantics, but most especially by Keats, for Keats RULES
  • poems by Tennyson, the Brownings, Rossetti, Emily Dickinson, Whitman, Gerard Manley Hopkins (whom I love with a love that is pure and true)
  • A Tale of Two Cities by Dickens
  • Tess of the D'urbervilles by Hardy
  • Huck Finn by Twain
  • The Coquette by Hannah Foster
  • Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet, Richard III, Hamlet, Othello, A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Tempest.
  • Summer or House of Mirth or The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton (but please NOT Ethan Frome)
  • The Professor's House by Willa Cather
  • The Sun Also Rises by Hemingway (I like it better than A Farewell to Arms and HUGELY better than that stupid story where he chases around the fish. What's it called? Ah yes. The Old Man and the Sea.)
  • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • selections from Joyce's Dubliners
  • selections from Woolf's A Room of One's Own, or, alternatively, some of her short stories (NOT To the Lighthouse or any other of the novels, not because I don't love them but because I really don't think most people under the age of 18 can actually enjoy them)
  • selections from W.E.B. Dubois, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison
  • Cane by Jean Toomer
  • poems by Yeats, William Carlos Williams, T.S. Eliot, Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, the WWI poets, Ezra Pound, H.D., W.H. Auden, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Allen Ginsberg, Philip Larkin, Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney.... I could go on, but those would make me happy
  • The Garden Party by Katherine Mansfield
  • A Rose for Emily by Faulkner
  • The Awakening by Kate Chopin (or, if one couldn't strap that on, her short story "The Story of an Hour" is brilliant, is only like 3 pages long, and does much of the same work)
  • Krapp's Last Tape by Beckett (I think a shorter and in some ways more fun choice than Waiting for Godot, though I did love Godot in high school)
  • The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing
  • Stories by Nadine Gordimer
  • Stories by Salman Rushdie
  • The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde
  • The House on Mango Street by Cisneros
  • The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston
  • The Bluest Eye (or Sula) by Toni Morrison

What occurs to me as I write this list is that I could go on forever. It's already way too long, even though it's also incomplete, and half of what I've put on it would cause huge controversies in many American school districts. The point is, anybody can come up with a list of books they think that people should read. It will vary by personal taste, training, and the outcome that one wants to achieve. I'll note that these are not all things I read in high school, and I'll go further and note that they are not all things I'd ever teach in my classes now, even when teaching classes outside my specialization (which I do regularly). Basically, I made a list comprised of texts I love (a) or texts that I don't love but that have served me well (b). Who the hell knows. But it's a pointless exercise anyway, because teachers don't have a whole heck of a lot of power over high school curricula.

Friday, January 29, 2010

A Variation on "Humiliation"

In Changing Places, David Lodge describes a game that his professorial characters play, which involves owning up to those classics of literature that one hasn't read. As The Guardian page to which I linked summarizes, "Players name classics of literature that they have not read, the winner being the one who exhibits the most woeful literary lacuna. In Changing Places, Lodge's obnoxious American academic, Howard Ringbaum, admits that he has never read Hamlet - and thus wins the game (but loses his job)." This is a classic moment in that novel, and a hilarious one. And even if we weren't explicitly playing that game, I'd bet a good many of us have had that conversation amongst friends in which we admit those books we ought to have read - and maybe even that we were assigned to read - but didn't. (Or maybe it's just English types who do this?)

What's interesting about the exercise is that there's a kind of elitist pride that goes along with each admission. Somebody who is not widely read wouldn't play this game, or if they ended up in the middle of it, they'd feel ashamed, or, as the name of the game indicates, humiliated. But the trick of the game, and what makes it fun and not actually humiliating, is this: if you're going to play this game, you're kind of boasting about what you haven't read. You're basically saying, "Oh, I'm so fancy and widely read that I can admit to having skipped one of the classics with a smile on my face and a drink in my hand. I'm such an impostor (except obviously I'm in the club, and I'm not an impostor at all)." This is not the same thing as just plainly stating that one hasn't read a particular book. Rhetorically, it's a lot more interesting. You can't just state the title that you haven't read, or the game wouldn't be any fun. You've got to provide a narrative, something like the following:

"Oh, GOD. I've totally never read Moby Dick! All of that whaling jargon!"

"Surely nobody has ever actually read the entirety of Ulysses! It's just Joyce masturbating on the page!"

"Of course I was assigned Milton's Paradise Lost, but after the first 100 or so lines I just figured, 'is this really necessary'? I mean, who doesn't know that Lucifer's the most interesting character?"

"I know I should have read Kate Chopin's The Awakening, but late 19th-century suicidal housewife angst is so boring!"

What you'll notice about the above is that the admission of not having read the book is always accompanied by an authorizing statement. In other words, I might not have read the book in question, but I am nevertheless a Subject Who Knows, and so in fact it's that I'm so wonderful that I don't need actually to have read this Important Tome in the Canon of Western Literature. If you don't have the authorizing statement, you not only embarrass yourself but everybody else in the room, too. Game over.

All of this came to mind as I read the comments over at Historiann's today, to her post about J.D. Salinger's death. With one lone exception (me), everybody pretty much either a) admitted never to having read Catcher in the Rye or b) said they'd read it but of course they didn't like it because Holden's whiny, because it's boring, because it was irritating, because it's dick lit, whatever.

Now let me just state this clearly and for the record:
  1. I am not some huge Salinger fan, and never was, not even at 16. This post is so not about whether Salinger is "important" or something. Honestly, I have no idea whether he's an "important" American author or not. I think that his status as a recluse has obscured whatever literary merit his books might have, quite honestly - much in the way that Sylvia Plath's suicide has obscured the literary merit of her novel or her poems.
  2. People have the right to read or not read, to like or not like, any book out there in the world. I am not disputing that.
What I am interested in, however, is the discourse of not liking, or of not having read, particular books that one "should have" read. It strikes me that there is an element of braggadocio that comes to the fore whenever conversations like these come up, whether because an author has died or because it's an anniversary of some book's publication or because a movie is being made or whatever. (Note: this doesn't only happen with books. It's also pretty common when people talk about music, for example. Just think of that moment in Juno where Juno tells Jason Bateman that Sonic Youth just sounds like noise. That moment gets a laugh only from Subjects Who Know, who understand how "important" Sonic Youth is as a band.)

And in large part this is interesting to me because it's totally the thing I fight against with my students, because at its heart it's totally anti-intellectual. Again, this isn't to say that one can't dislike certain books, and that there aren't good reasons to dislike them. Nor is it to say that one should read every book one "ought" to have read. But the cocktail party "Oh of course this is stupid and not worthy of my attention" thing drives me a little bit batty. Because here's the thing: I guess deep down I really believe that one should be a little ashamed, a little humiliated, if one doesn't read it (whatever "it" is) or if one reads it and doesn't see why having done so, even if one disliked it, matters. I don't really think that any amount of authorizing statements really let us off the hook for not engaging, or at least noting that our failure to engage is really our own personal responsibility. Again, let me make this clear: there are lots of entirely valid reasons not to like a book, or not to have read a book that one ought to have read. And there are a ton of books that I can name that I've read and not liked, and a ton that I ought to have read that I've either tried and put down or just outright ignored. But that doesn't mean that I don't see the value in them, or at least see why they've been seen to have value. Ultimately, whether one likes a book or whether one enjoys it or whether one agrees with its philosophy or not is totally beside the point.

Of course people think Holden Caulfield is a whiny git. He is. He's an anti-hero, people. You're not really supposed to like him. (Though, of course, I did, because I was a whiny git myself when I read Catcher in the Rye.) "Liking" him, or "identifying" with him really isn't the point, whatever you think of that novel. Similarly, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that Ulysses totally is Joyce masturbating on the page. But that doesn't give anybody a pardon for not having done the reading or for saying that the novel is worthless. Obviously, the novel has worth, even if I didn't personally read it or even if I did read it didn't like it. (Or even if I had a more complex response: that I liked some parts and didn't like others. Complex responses are possible, or so I keep trying to convince my students.)

The bottom line is this: there is pleasure in confessing that one didn't like a book that is supposed to be great or that one didn't read a book that one ought to have read. But that pleasure shouldn't obscure the fact that disliking or not reading a book does not equal the book not being worthy of attention. If we believe that either of those things does equal that, we're basically saying that no books are worthy of attention, because, seriously folks? There is at least one reader (or non-reader) of every single book in the world who would dismiss it, and might even congratulate him/herself for doing so. If this is how we're going to judge literary merit, we may as well give up and say that there is no such thing.

Thank Goodness This Week Is Over

I've still got tons I need to do to be well and fully caught up, but happily, I have no reason that I need to go into campus today, I'm sitting at my computer with a cup of coffee, and I'm feeling like I can take the day slowly for the first time in like 3 weeks. All that's on the agenda for today is to do some writing stuff, to go to the gym, and to make some soup. Maybe I'll grade if I feel the urge. Maybe I'll work on some curriculum stuff. I may pay bills. I should do my taxes. But I don't have anything I absolutely must do except for the gym.

Speaking of the gym, in spite of the monkey wrench that was thrown into my month with the whole funeral business last week and with the various candidates coming to campus for their visits, I still managed to lose 9 pounds since the new year. Let's note that this puts me back where I was about last March, so I've still got more pounds than I'd like to record in this forum to lose, but the whole "my only resolution is fitness" thing appears to be working. Even when the working out has suffered, and even when I had to eat out for various things, I still managed to stay on track and I feel on track to continue with my progress.

It's worth noting that I haven't been doing anything super-magical to achieve the above. I've got a calorie tracker in my phone (which keeps me honest), so I have been keeping track of how much I'm consuming, and I've been working out an average of 4x per week, though not for some ridiculous amount of time or anything (30 mins to an hour). I'm not on a "diet" per se, but I am cooking a lot and eating more veggies than anything else, and I have breakfast every morning, which has not historically been something I'm very good about. So yeah. Apparently it's going ok, and I remain motivated. And I'm losing inches and not just pounds, so things are clearly going in the right direction.

So. Let's see. What else? Nothing really. I just have a lot that I want to do, and once this search cte nonsense is over, I have high hopes that I'll be able actually do do some of it. Only a few more days.

Perhaps more later. I've got a few posts percolating in my head, but for now, I'd like to check some things off of my to-do list.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

A Day of Forms and Other Complaints

So there's all of this crap due for curriculum stuff, and lucky Crazy, the department's curriculum guru, has the totally unenviable task of spending HOURS today working with her chair and with the grad coordinator submitting stupid forms that are not - and I mean NOT - intuitive and that drive me crazy.

In other news, the Man-Kitty revealed a tiny rash on his tummy last night. He seems fine, other than that who likes having a rash, but I called the vet this morning, and they said to put neosporin on it and to keep an eye on it, and if it gets worse to bring him in but probably it's no big deal and it would just go away on its own. Let's note for the record that it's entirely possible he's had similar rashes before but I never saw them what with his very furry self and the fact that unlike Mr. Stripey he does not like me to touch him all over his body daily. He just happened to be stretching himself kittenishly last night and I could not resist petting the tummy. Perhaps it's just dry skin? Some sort of physical manifestation of anxiety from having been left over the weekend? Hard to know.

What else? Oh, yesterday I was filled with irritation for a reason I won't write about at length, but let me suffice it to say that I get very, very cranky when people waste my time because they have no clue how efficiently to present information and to move things along so that business can be taken care of in a way that doesn't drag things out. I mean, how hard is it? A handout summarizing the business at hand had been distributed (not by the person who was leading the discussion) and everybody'd had the chance to look over the fuller documents about what was to be decided prior to the meeting. And yet, nevertheless, things that could have been dispatched in 10 minutes took roughly a half an hour to dispatch, and this with me and a few other colleagues rudely making motions and seconding them in order to keep things moving. If we'd not taken matters into our own hands, we might still be there. It'd be one thing if any of what was being discussed was at all controversial or even interesting, but it was administrative nonsense. I know that it is important to bring things like this to the whole group to be ratified, but I do not see why anybody thinks that such matters should take forever and a day to handle. Note to inefficient people: when people start walking out of a meeting when it's not yet over, that's a big freaking clue that you suck when you're in the front of the room. You know, I feel like I've written a version of that last sentence before. Clearly, I will have a problem with this particular pet peeve until I retire.

The only thing that is not irritating to me at the moment is teaching, which is going well, actually. No complaints there. My one class that had seemed not to want to participate at all in the first few class meetings was very energized yesterday, and I'm excited to really get the semester going in my other class (we haven't really met because of my grandma last week). Oh, and another thing that causes no complaints: my cousin had her baby yesterday! New babies are nice. (And yay for her that she only had contractions that she described as "uncomfortable" for 7 hours and then only had to push for 5 minutes and voila - baby! Would that everybody had that kind of labor and delivery!)

Ok, I've rambled on enough this morning. Time to get in the shower and to head to campus for what i sincerely hope will be the longest day I'll have this semester (knock wood).

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Long Days Ahead

Do you ever have those times where you think to yourself that if you can just make it to the end of x amount of days, that everything will be ok, but yet you don't know how you will make it to the end of x amount of days and get everything done that needs to be done? I'm in one of those places. The days shall be long; the amount of work enormous; the amount of stress, in particular contexts, through the roof. But if I can make it to Feb. 2, just one short week from today.....

Between now and then I have to:
  1. Do recommendations for approx 3 students
  2. Do two different letters to membership of my society
  3. Help with hosting one more campus visit
  4. Update syllabi for two of my three classes
  5. Grade 25 short (2-page) papers
  6. Grade 15 portfolios (approx. 10-20 pages each)
  7. Finish comments on two essays from my grad class last semester (I know, I know: it was a tactical error not to complete that before the holidays, but I didn't have time)
  8. Submit approximately a gajillion forms for new courses and program changes to get them started in the curriculum process
  9. Try to stay above the fray in Big Political Mess, while at the same time doing what is best for my department and those pesky students, which seem to have been forgotten in all of this
  10. Do the catalog copy for our major, which is mostly done, but small revisions must be made and submitted
  11. Finish my research for Most Embarrassing Conference Paper Ever, which I will have to deliver in less than one month's time
And I'm sure there are things I'm forgetting or leaving off because they're not major things. But if I can make it to Feb. 2, all of the above will be finished. Well, or at least 7 or 8 of the above 11 items will be finished.

Ok, time for me to get myself ready and pack myself up for the long day ahead of me and get myself to campus.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Reporting Back

So, I'm back home. My travels were, in a nutshell:

anxiety-producing, exhausting, happy, kind of fun, overwhelming, good, exhausting, sad, anger-producing, sad, good, weird, nerve-racking, fun, odd, irritating, bizarre, comforting, pleasant, and then, ultimately, over.

The week begins tomorrow. I'm so not ready.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Right Thing?

So I canceled my classes (not the thing I'm questioning the rightness of, by the way - that was totally the right thing, but for whatever the reason it just took me a while to bite the bullet and do it), and I've organized for somebody to come and check on the cats while I'm gone, and now I just need to do crap around the house and pack. I'm just feeling sort of numb and unable to make myself do things, which I suppose is normal.

The thing I wonder if it was right was that I sent my brothers (from my father's second marriage) a note to let them know about my grandma. First of all, it's fucked up that I did it over a Fb message, but as that's the only way I communicate with them (I don't have their cell numbers and I'd never call their home phone), what else was I to do? Not tell them? Because nobody would probably tell them because everything was so fucked up last year when my dad died and I know that nobody in the family would feel comfortable calling their mother, and since their mother was totally fucked up when my dad died and didn't tell anybody but me in the family and said that nobody was welcome to come to the calling hours other than me (and I wasn't even invited to whatever their actual service was), well, it's a totally fucked up situation.

And it's not like they're grown-ups - they're only 15 and 13 - so I wasn't sure that I should tell them, or be the one to tell them, or whatever, but then I thought to myself how totally fucked up about it I would be if nobody told me my grandmother had died and it just came up in conversation like a few years later. So I sent them a note about it because I figured that it's what I'd want an older half-sibling to do for me if I had one. Fuck.

Anyway, I got sweet notes back from them both (although I do wonder whether the older of the two is functionally illiterate because he only writes in weird texting language) and then I did another thing that I'm not sure was right, which was that I told them that if they wanted to go to any of the stuff this weekend, though only if it was cool with their mom (which I doubt it would be), that I'd be happy to go get them and to take them with me. Again, I was operating under the notion that if I were them, I'd want to know that I wasn't excluded because of weird shit that had nothing to do with me (i.e., my fucked up stepmother and father's problems with my father's family).

I can't wait until they grow up and we can have a normal relationship. For now, though, at least we have whatever it is that Fb enables.

In other news, I wonder whether it's the right thing that I made plans to meet a person from high school for a drink while I'm in town. That seems sort of tacky, but on the other hand, it works out that we'll both be in town, and I feel like my grandmother would have thought it was fine (though who knows, really, since she is beastly dead).

God. I just accidentally alluded to Ulysses and only realized it after the sentence was typed. Clearly I'm out of it.

But thanks for all of your kind comments and support. Between you guys, my real-life friends, my family, I'm a very lucky girl, even if I'm sad.


My grandmother, my father's mother, died this morning around 5 AM. Since I heard the news, I've been trying to clear my calendar and figure out what the fuck I'm doing enough that I can go to Hometown for the funeral. She was very sick, and I'm glad that she's not suffering anymore. I'm also glad that I was able to reconnect with her this year, and that I saw her at Christmas. All of this doesn't make it any less sad, really, but somehow it does make it feel a little less awful.

I still can't decide what to do about canceling classes or not. I should probably just cancel them. So why can't I just make the decision and be done with it? Stupid.

There are so many things I want to write but they all seem stupid and selfish and pointless. I think I'm going to go and figure out what to do about my classes and then I need to do some laundry and pack for the weekend. And I think I'm committed to throwing away the dress that I seem only to wear for funerals as soon as this one is done. Except, of course, it is the perfect dress for a funeral, and it's not like people will stop dying if I get rid of it.

I don't know. Maybe more later.

Steps for Turning What Would Have Been a Decent Recommendation Crappy

Before I begin, let me note for the record that I have a very clear and extensive explanation of what I need in order to write the best possible recommendation for a student available online. What follows is not a complaint that is about me being a meanie who doesn't hold her students by the hand with the academic socialization stuff or provide information that students need.

Step One:
You run into a faculty member sometime in October, announce that you're running off to the City to live with your One True Love and, Oh, yeah, will also be applying to grad schools. Your mentor says, well, you know, do people know that you'll be needing recommendations? Who are you asking? You want to be sure to give people enough time to write you a strong letter, and all of the information that they'll need to do so.....

Step Two:
Disappear into the ether for 2 and a half months.

Step Three:
Pop up during the last week of classes, from out of the blue, with a bizarre email in which you say, "Oh, I totally am almost finished with my SoP, and you're still writing on my behalf, right?" to which your professor responds, "um... ok, but you need to understand that this is a very busy time. Please give me all the stuff listed on my webpage, and tell me where you're applying and what the deadlines are...."

Step Four:

Step Five:
"Happy New Year! Are you writing letters that you don't have any relevant info about? Right at the start of your semester?"

Step Six:
"Here's my SoP and a couple of papers I wrote for you...."

Step Seven:
"Oh, and here's a list of schools I'm applying to, but with no information about why I'm applying to them, what the deadlines are, or forms for you to fill out." I received this yesterday.

I know. I should have reneged on my agreement to write for this student at Step Three. I foolishly believed that this student would get it together when I explicitly told the student how to get it together. And now it's basically too late for me to bail on the student. But let's just say that this letter is not going to be the most glowing I've ever written. Mainly because it's very difficult to be glowing when you think a person is an irresponsible, disorganized ninny who can't even follow basic directions or show basic common courtesy.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010


I've got a meeting in just under an hour, and then I've got another kind-of-sort-of meeting with my chair and asst. chair, and then I've got to teach a group of students who don't seem to get it that I'm not going to be spoon-feeding them the material, and then I've got to go to the gym, and then I've got to come home and do all the stuff I didn't do yesterday because I spent the afternoon watching Hoarders (which is mesmerizing).

So I'd better go get myself presentable and get myself to campus. It never ceases to amaze me that the reentry after a holiday weekend remains hard, even though my schedule all semester means I don't teach on Mondays. I have no idea what that's about.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Tipsy Times with Former Students

So tonight I went to this benefit-type thing that BES put together, and it just so happened that also another former student of mine was in one of the bands playing at this here benefit-type thing.

It was a really fun night. The music was good, the cause was good (helping to fund a documentary about something awesome), and, well, it was just good all the way around.

1. BES's parents (whom I adore) were there early, and her dad was all, "when you are really going to buy your house you call me and I shall be your pro bono lawyer! 'Tis the least I can do given all of your awesomeness with BES!" (Let me just note that I feel like BES's parents are the most awesome and I so wish they were my parents. I mean, my parents are awesome, too, but that doesn't mean I can't adopt some extra parents. I entirely intend to adopt her parents if at all possible. And who doesn't love an offer of legal advice and references for mortgage broker people when one is about to embark on the purchase of her first home?)

2. I met all of BES's BFFs from like high school and such, and it was so cool because I'd already heard all about them, and (horrifyingly) they'd all heard about me (I was afraid they'd only heard that I was a mean lady) but they are all so great, and, although this is probably shallow of me, it did make me feel good that one of them told me that she was so happy that I wasn't some weird old lady and that I look "normal" which of course I know I'm not a weird old lady and I know I look normal, but this means something coming from a chickie in her early 20s.

3. I had a most awesome conversation with BES about our friendship, in which we both confirmed to one another that we think that it is awesome and that we are, in the words of Anne of Green Gables, Kindred Spirits. I think we've both known this for some time, but it was so nice to have the conversation.

4. I also had the pleasure of seeing and chatting with another former student of mine, who was in one of the bands playing tonight, and he totally apologized for slacking in this class of mine that he took! How silly! I reassured him, and then we had a grand time talking about life and cats and music and whatnot. And his band didn't suck. All of this was totally cool and unexpected, as the only reason I went to this shindig in the first place was because BES had made me promise I would for her, and she hadn't told me that he was in one of the bands playing (I introduced the two of them a few months ago).

5. A random stranger told me I look like Kate Winslet, which hasn't happened in years. I feel that this is evidence that my resolution regarding the fitness is paying off, for I don't look like her when I have the chubby face I've had lately. I've not heard that from out of the blue in a long while, and I feel like that is a totally wonderful comparison to make, given that I'm in no way as cool or as pretty as The Winslet. (Though, to be objective, I really must resemble her, as this is the only celebrity to whom people have historically compared me, and even I can sort of see it if I'm in a generous mood about my appearance.)

So tonight was super-fun. And now I must go to sleep. The end.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Oh, The Prospects Are Bleak

In my last non-post, I wrote the following, as a sort of thesis statement of a larger post I might have done if I weren't wicked-busy and overwrought:

Teaching at an institution like mine is not some dream gig, and you will do a ton of administrative work and generally stupid paper-pushing, along with fighting battles you will likely not win, and you will not be leading a life of the mind 90% of the time, and so seriously, people probably shouldn't lump all professors together into one big pile of privilege, because the fact of the matter is, not all tenure-track jobs are created equal, and no, I do not feel guilty for being on the tenure track nor do I think that I should have to do so.

Now that I've submitted the abstract that I labored over for the past 6 hours (and yes, it was only a 250-wd abstract, but I was in a very dark place with it), I can actually write the post that goes with the above.

First, let me link around a bit. It all started with this post from Dean Dad. And then Tenured Radical chimed in, and then Historiann picked up where that post left off. And now here I am.

So let me give a totally reductive and stupid summary of the above. Dean Dad asks, "what kind of idiots would go to grad school in any liberal arts discipline and what could possibly motivate them?" and then TR is all, "Hey, did you see that post by Dean Dad? And here are some suggestions about what grad schools should do." And then Historiann was all, "the comment thread over at TR's was wack and stupid and people need to take some freaking responsibility." (Let me reiterate that I totally realize the above is a reductive and stupid summary. It's just I'm not going to be responding point by point, so I figure stupid and reductive is the most entertaining and briefest way to go.)

So here are my thoughts, in no particular order, having witnessed the clusterfuck that resulted from the above posts to which I linked. And I'm talking as much if not more about the various comment threads as I am about the posts themselves.

  • There seems to be an implicit assumption that students will choose grad school because it's more "comfortable" in some way than going on to get a "real" job. As a woman who chose an academic path when neither of her parents had education beyond high school (and whose parents' siblings didn't even finish high school, and who has cousins younger than she is who didn't finish high school and who survive by working as gas station attendants and such), and who attended a regional undergrad institution where the vast majority of students had no clue that there was anything beyond the B.A., and as a woman who advises a student population from a similar background, I am totally confident in saying that the only people who think grad school is the "easier" choice are people who come from backgrounds where, at the very least, college is a totally normal and expected thing. Seriously, it would have been easier for me to go and get a job in a cubicle. The people I love would have understood it, and I wouldn't have been a freak. For me, and for my students, the thought of pursuing a graduate degree is a big fucking deal, and it is not something entered into out of a sense that this is a more "legible" path than other paths. Sure, I was always good at school. But the fact that I even went to college was a stretch, and the idea of going to more college was pretty much unthinkable. (And that's all any of my family thought it was: "more college." I was ABD and my dad referred to me as a "lifetime student" like I was some fool who hadn't graduated from undergrad. He totally didn't get it.) So it's not like I thought that grad school was the natural path, and I don't think that this is the way that most students who go to regional universities, who are in the first generation of their families to go to college, think.
  • I didn't think, in pursuing grad school, that I was a unique snowflake who'd succeed because of my innate awesomeness. In fact, I thought that I was likely to fail because I had no clue about the culture of academia and I felt like a fraud and a loser who would be expelled at the least provocation. So when I went to grad school, it was not because I thought I was exempt from the market (about which I had been - in a way that was totally unproductive, incidentally, because the person who warned me basically was like, "you're never going to make it and you're a loser," and I was all, "you are a bitch and you can kiss my ass and I'm doing it anyway" - made aware), or because I thought I'd be some sort of exceptional success story. No, I took that path because I figured I had nothing to lose (I mean, seriously, when your parents make like 40K combined, and when you've got friends from high school who are bartending for a living with no benefits, how big of a risk does it seem like it is to take 7 years, with tuition remission, a stipend, and insurance, to read more books?) and that I really had questions that I could only answer and ideas that I could only explore if I took that path. I entirely figured that I would fail, if "failing" means not becoming a professor. And part of the reason I felt that is because people who come from where I come from don't become college professors. I mean, seriously. My mom, even when I was in my PhD program was all "you know, if you can type you'll always be able to get a job." This idea that a job as a professor was some sort of obvious end point for me just didn't exist.
  • I am entirely against the idea of equating education with job training. I know that's how it works in the corporate economy of contemporary universities, but I think it's disgusting to do so. And also really short-sighted and stupid.
  • Faculty have little to no power over budgets. Budgets determine hiring lines and they determine policies regarding adjunct hires and TAs. To act as if tenured or tenure-track faculty have any power in terms of these issues is, seriously, idiotic. When people make the argument that tenured faculty are responsible for the problems with contingent labor, I am... confused.
  • The big elephant in the room for me in all of these discussions about the structure of higher ed (which this is ultimately about, as grad students are part of this current structure, as are the supply of PhDs that we produce in order to staff classes as adjuncts) is incredibly obvious, but nobody wants to say it. The way to fix all of this is to stop pretending a) that a college education will produce a middle-class lifestyle b) that all Americans "deserve" or "have a right to" a college education c) that we can support a general education curriculum (one that is in many ways mandated by accrediting agencies) with the current level of state funding, without limiting access. You want to immediately fix the problem of the "oversupply" of English PhDs? Get rid of the mandatory 2-semester comp requirement for all college students. You want to reduce the number of adjuncts across disciplines, given the situation with endowments and state funding? Limit enrollments to those that can be supported by t-t faculty. Either we throw general education out the window, or we just admit that not everybody has a right to an education. Would such a course have meant that I wouldn't have had access to a college education (let alone grad school)? Yes. Would such a course of action mean that higher education would be the perk of people who were white, male, and privileged? Probably. But at least what we'd have in that case would be a fuck of a lot more honest than the hemming and hawing that we now have about adjunctification and privilege and inequity. Yes, what we've got now is unfair and wrong and whatever. But the reality is that what we've got now is why everybody thinks that college is an achievable goal, why employers think that they can require college degrees even for jobs that really only require the ability to answer the phone and to alphabetize. The short version of this entire bullet is that this conversation is not actually just about graduate education. It's about education generally, and the ways in which graduate education feeds into that. And the easiest answer to these problems is also the most offensive. No amount of advice or "thinking outside the box" about job prospects changes that.
But people really wanted to hear about my job and my reactions to all of this in light of it. The thing that struck me in a lot of the comments to the various posts to which I linked, but most especially in regard to those comments over at TRs, was that those railing against the Privileged Tenured Professoriate seem to think that having a tenured or tenure-track gig means that you don't need to have skills beyond research and teaching, or that somehow if you get a PhD that you're exempt from doing bureaucratic bullshit. Or that somehow if you get the golden ticket to a t-t gig that you will not be a cog in the corporate machine, or that you won't feel exploited by your employer, or that you will somehow have entered employment nirvana. There seems to be a sense that those people with t-t gigs, and especially those who've earned (notice I say earned, for while this profession surely isn't a meritocracy, and while surely a lot of luck is involved, one does still have to earn tenure) tenure, are somehow alienated or insulated from the breakdown of the "social contract" that has occured with this recession/depression. Indeed, all of us folks with tenure or securely on the tenure track skip and canter through sunshine-soaked fields of daffodils and daisies, without a care in the world. And we think Great Thoughts all the time, and our lives are grand.

Once upon a time, BFF told me about an encounter with a student, who told her that he wanted to pursue an academic career because he felt that being a professor would be "both lucrative and rewarding." When BFF recounted this tale to me, we both laughed heartily. I think that most professors across the world would join us. Because you know what? It surely ain't lucrative, and while there are rewarding moments, the vast majority of my life as a professor is not about the "rewarding" moments but rather about being what amounts to a middle-manager. Sure, I've got my own office, which is better than a cubicle (I've had a cubicle in my time) or than sharing an office with 20 other people (I've done that, too). Yes, I have ecstatic and phenomenal moments of joy in this job. I have moments where I feel like I'm doing something that really matters. But the vast majority of the moments that I have are not those.

People say that the solution to the problem with hiring in fields like mine is that professors should teach more. I teach four courses a semester. How many more would you like me to teach? And still have time to do the MOUNTAINS of service (department, university, community, professional) that my institution expects?

People say that tenured folks should take a pay cut, in order to facilitate the hiring of more full-time instructor folks. How much are we talking about, for the work that I'm doing, work that people off the tenure-track don't do? 5K? 10K? You think that the solution to this problem is further to depress the market in this field? In order to get t-t folks for all of the instructor and adjunct positions that we've got, complete with benefits, I'd imagine that tenured faculty would need to agree to reduce their salaries by at least 50%, if not more, which would put me someplace around 25K a year, and I'd be at the upper end of the whatever this new "equitable" pay scale would be. That solves the problem?

None of this takes research into account. I teach at a university, a crappy one, but a university still. We've got an MA program. Research is expected of me, though obviously not the amount or quality of research expected of people at actual "research universities." Do I do this for "love"? This thing that is a total requirement of my job?

Here's the thing. I really like my job. I think I'm really good at my job. I care about my job. I even care about my institution. It would be awesome of all people felt the way about their jobs/institutions that I do about mine.

But it's a job. It involves a hell of a lot that I never experienced in grad school, and it involves a hell of a lot of bullshit that resembles more about my days temping than it does some sort of idealized life of the mind. And sure, there are a thousand adjuncts who'd kill for my job, but I'd argue that they'd kill for it precisely because they don't realize the bullshit that it mandates. My saying that is not me being a diva, nor is it not realizing my "privilege." I realize that I'm privileged in that I've got a job I like and that uses my training, but that makes it no less a bullshit job.

Look. I teach four classes a semester. I'm on two major university committees, a department committee, I do service in the community, and I'm the president of an MLA Allied organization. In addition to all of this I'm an active researcher. The most significant romantic-style relationship I've got is with somebody who lives 2K miles away from me (and seriously, this is barely a romantic-style relationship), my grandmother is in the hospital and I can't get away to go see her, and I've never taken an actual vacation in my life. I've lived in a crappy apartment for the past 7 years, and I'm 50K in student loan debt. Oh yes. I am the exemplar of motherfucking privilege.

But here's the thing: I don't think that I don't deserve what I have because academia is fucked or because my discipline is fucked or because I am basking in some sort of undeserved privilege. I think that I have a job - just like my friend who works in the non-profit world has a job, and just like my other friend who's a photographer has a job, and just like my friend who works in insurance has a job. I work hard, and I did what I had to do, and I got lucky. Yes, I got lucky. But that doesn't mean I should have to apologize for the bullshit job I've got. This job may not be the 2-2 job that my adviser imagined for me, nor may it be an adjunct gig where I'm making 2K a course. Either way, I don't have to feel sorry. The fact that I've got the job I do means that I can do the kind of work that really matters for my students and for an institution that serves that kind of student. For me, that justifies the existence of jobs like mine, even if I'm not an exploited adjunct, and even if I'm not at an upper-tier research university or elite liberal arts college. I feel like the whole conversation that resulted from the posts at DD's and TR's especially indicates that people like me should feel sorry. As if all t-t gigs are created equal, and as if all of them are bastions of happiness and light. Can anybody possibly believe that this is reality? Seriously?

You know what I advise my students who think about grad school? I advise that they should never get a degree in my discipline without full funding. Period. Whatever the circumstances. And then I advise them that the market sucks and that if they're going to pursue grad school then they need to know and really think about it. But I also tell them that if they want it, and they get an offer of full funding for grad school, and they have nothing else they'd rather do, that I'll support them. Because I believe if they want it after all of that then I probably should respect their choices. Isn't that the least my students deserve? Basic motherfucking respect?


I have about four really awesome blog posts that I really think you'd enjoy, but the fact of the matter is this:
  1. I need to write an abstract for a conference that is due today.
  2. I need to do a bunch of admin. stuff for a society.
  3. I am on a search committee, and have been very busy with things related to it.
  4. I basically went after and did my best to humiliate and discredit a Person with Administrative Ambitions yesterday, quite publicly, related to MUWCI, and I am considering how best to organize resistance to things that are not only bullshit but also incredibly stupid. Yay tenure.
  5. I have to write letters of rec for a couple of students.
And I could probably go on with this list. I have, you'll be happy to know, already gone to the gym and to the grocery store. Having one resolution for the year really and truly does suit me.

But anyway, so yes, there are about 4 posts I'd really like to write, but I am too busy to write real posts. So rather than write them, I will just give you the bottom line of each:

  • Either tenure is the best thing that ever happened to me (which I daily think it is) or it's really a bad idea that they gave it to me because now I think I can say anything I want in any tone I want to anyone, which is making me a little drunk with power.
  • I can't wait until the searches in my department are done, although I'm very irritable about how some people involved in a search in which I am not involved have chosen to run things.
  • If you are too sensitive to read literature with "vivid images" or to watch movies that are rated R then you should probably a) drop any course in which I am the instructor and b) maybe think about going to a Bible college, because dude, secular college education assumes that you can look at material aimed at adults without it burning your eyes or compromising your personal beliefs.
  • Teaching at an institution like mine is not some dream gig, and you will do a ton of administrative work and generally stupid paper-pushing, along with fighting battles you will likely not win, and you will not be leading a life of the mind 90% of the time, and so seriously, people probably shouldn't lump all professors together into one big pile of privilege, because the fact of the matter is, not all tenure-track jobs are created equal, and no, I do not feel guilty for being on the tenure track nor do I think that I should have to do so.
Ok, now I have a ton of shit to do that I don't want to do.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Annoying Things at the Start of a New Semester

My teaching semester began yesterday with a query from some students in my general education literature course about whether it would be fine if they just "shared the books for the course."

If you are a student, and you've wondered about the answer to that question yourself in regard to a literature class in which you enrolled, the answer is NO. NO, SHARING THE BOOKS IS NOT A GOOD IDEA. (And, in fact, my course policies, which state that you need to have the literature we're discussing in front of you each and every class period or you'll be asked to leave and charged with an absence does underscore that fact.)

I wasn't actually going to blog about the above. I posted a one-liner on Fb about it, and that was going to be that, I thought. But I forgot that my Fb friends are not all academics, and in fact I have a goodly collection of former suitors among my Fb friends, and I've had a history of fraternizing with suitors who are exceptionally irritating and who like to pipe up in ways and at times that are completely wrong, and so of course, who comes along to put in his two cents but this fool, also known as The T., with whom I cavorted for like a month in 1998 and who remained a bizarre (and usually drunk) fixture until approximately 2001, who was all, "You are a compassionless cog in the corporate machine, for the students are poor and how dare you expect them to purchase the required materials to learn your subject?" And then when I accused him of being a malcontent (jokingly, sort of) in his comments to my status updates he was all hurt and prickly (or just a prick, take your pick).

Fb for me is like a dream where you show up at a bar and all of the ghosts of your past are milling around and either blabbing about their children (mainly high school and elementary school people) or or leaving random comments to you about your current life (guys from your misspent youth), while at the same time all of your current friends are there and look confused at who all these other weirdos are, and also your family is there shouting (in all capital letters) over the din and giving updates about family illnesses and such. In other words, it is surreal.

But anyway, I was very irritated not only by the students who asked about sharing the books but also by The T., who made it his business to take up for them. Because here's the thing. I spend a lot of time and energy working to keep book costs low. (The books for this course cost students around 60 bucks if they buy them totally brand new, much less if they get used copies.)

But the reality is that in my discipline, where the entire object of study are those texts on the syllabus (in other words, it's not like the books are just "about" the subject - they in fact are the subject):
  1. You need to be able to consult the book after you've done the reading.
  2. You cannot write a paper without the book.
  3. You cannot participate in class discussion without the book.
  4. You cannot think about the literature without the book, not in a way that has any depth.

And if one is going to teach literature that was written anytime in recent memory, one is dependent on making students buy actual books because you can't access stuff under copyright for free. And let's be real: in a general education type course, if it's possible, you want to convince students that literature is something that connects to their lives and that is worthy of their time even outside the classroom, and while you might teach some historical stuff, you also probably are going to want to show them that literature didn't stop being produced somewhere around 1900 (given the constraints of the course, naturally).

I suppose the thing that underlies all of my irritation about the above is that I think that the idea that the books in my courses are somehow unnecessary is really about people thinking that reading literature and analyzing it requires absolutely no training. I think that people assume that the study of literature isn't important or serious or meaningful. And that makes me want to pinch people.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Only 17 Weeks to Go...

I know, that's the wrong way to look at the semester. But I am so looking forward to what happens AFTER the semester that I can't really get too psyched about what's going to happen during it. Today I'll teach my first class, which will amount to going over the syllabus and having a little chat about what the heck literature is anyway, and then I'll be free! Free! Because I have the BEST SCHEDULE EVER! Well, as long as we ignore the fact that I'm teaching that stupid online class that I loathe, which while it does make for a better real life schedule nevertheless makes me very irritable.

So I'm trying to get in the groove of writing as close to daily as possible here, just to get back in the groove of writing in general. I've got lots of research things that I need to accomplish this spring, and while writing isn't technically one of them, being conditioned to write will only help. If I'm honest I think that one of the reasons why my writing here has fallen off over the last 6 months (I wrote only 271 posts in 2009, as opposed to 414 in 2010) has to do with the fact that I'm not entirely sure what Dr. Crazy has to say that she hasn't already said. I'm sure this has a lot with the transition to tenure. Also, I think that Facebook has taken a lot of my day-to-day whining to another forum, so I don't just write here out of irritation or boredom as much as I maybe used to do. But so anyway, I'm trying to write more regularly here in the hope of reimagining this space for myself, and maybe of refining the voice that I've got here to fit who I've become since earning tenure. We shall see.

You know, I wonder, though: maybe part of the issue is that I now have tenure. A lot of the stuff I've been most involved in doing over the past six months I really couldn't talk in any explicit way about. Maybe, though, as my focus shifts more to research, some of this will change. Except I don't actually like to talk explicitly about research here either. Sigh. I guess over the past months there have just been a lot of things that have entered into the "not for blogging" category. How irritating.

Ok, I must get in the shower, eat some breakfast, pack my lunch, and make my plan for the day.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Thoughts on the Coming Semester

I can't believe the semester starts tomorrow. And I'd like to note for the record that I think it's stupid to start the week before a three-day weekend, and that seriously we should just chop a week off of the semester so that we can start on the Tuesday after MLK Day and still end at the same time. I promise that I would make my students do just as much work. Seriously.

But so anyway, there is part of me that's looking forward to this semester, but also part of me that totally is just looking forward to this semester being over.

The part of me that's looking forward to the semester is doing so for the following reasons:
  1. I'm so excited for my course release! Huzzah!
  2. It will be my last semester having to teach the online course that I loathe!
  3. My teaching schedule has returned to a very normal and reasonable schedule, as opposed to the monstrosity with which I was stuck last semester!
The part of me that is looking forward to this semester being over is doing so for the following reasons:
  1. 6 campus visits in a 3-week period, three of which will require a lot of engagement from me.
  2. The continuing saga that is Gen Ed, which makes me want to hiss and scratch people with cat-like fury.
  3. I actually have to teach that online claszs that I loathe.
But so anyway, I don't have a whole bunch of goals for the coming semester or anything, or resolutions, or what have you. My main objective is just to get done with it so that I can revel in research for the 8 months that follow it. I feel like that may not be a comment that would win me any teaching awards, but that's totally how I'm feeling.

So. I need to finish a syllabus and other course materials for the dreaded online course today (sigh), and I need to finish the Great Closet Re-Organization. But before I do any of that, I'm going to the gym. I feel like some cardio will put me in the proper frame of mind for the week ahead.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Sidebar Updating

Oh, and it also occurs to me that I've not updated my list of links in a while. If you'd like to be in the sidebar, and you're not currently there, or if I've not registered that you moved or something, drop me a note in the comments with your url.

Saturday Rambling

So I'm thinking about what to accomplish with my day, and I'm considering my options. Here are all of the things that I might do:

  • "Research" for a conference paper that I have upcoming (though this is totally stupid research, so it's not a terribly good use of my time)
  • Preliminary research for The Next Book
  • Go to the gym
  • Organize closet, clean bedroom, do laundry (this has been on my list for a hundred years)
  • Go to target
  • Read
  • Work on syllabus that I must have done by Monday (really it's just minor revisions/updating)
  • Abstract for summer conference
  • ?
I don't really know what sounds like the most promising course of action, or which I should do first or whatever. Hmmm. I think that I should do either the bedroom stuff or go to the gym as my first order of business. Well, my second order of business. I'm going to have a snack first.

(I know, this was a totally boring post. I'm trying to get back into the groove of regular writing.)

Friday, January 08, 2010

Fitness Update

Ok, you know how they say that if you get into a routine you'll actually want to work out? Well, apparently after working out for six days in a row, I have achieved this for myself, because when I did not go to the gym yesterday, I found myself antsy, annoyed, bored, and like I really wanted to go to the gym. This is not to say that I "enjoy" working out. But apparently, something has clicked where I no longer despise doing it. I think that this is positive.

In other news, I've been eating very well, and I'm excited to keep myself on track with the eating because it turns out when you plan your menu for the week and you really are thoughtful about including delicious things on it, you make really delicious food and you don't feel deprived whatsoever. For example, yesterday I made the following YUMMY vegetarian dish, modified from a recipe I'd tried before.

Eggplant and Squash Gratin with spinach.


  • 1 large onion
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 3 small yellow squash
  • 2 large tomatoes*
  • 1 medium eggplant (though on the small side of medium)
  • approx 3 servings of spinach (around half of the big bag of spinach from the store)
  • Grated parmesan cheese (I didn't measure, but I'd estimate around 1/4-1/2 cup)
  • 1/2 cup Shredded mozzerella cheese
  • 2-3 tbsp olive oil
  • 1-2 tbsp of dried thyme
  • salt and pepper to taste
  1. Preheat Oven to 375 degrees.
  2. Spray 3 quart casserole with cooking spray.
  3. Thinly slice the eggplant in rounds, and lay the slices flat and salt to take out the bitterness/liquid (takes about 20-30 mins). Rinse and pat dry.
  4. Thinly slice the tomatoes and allow to sit on paper towels or a regular kitchen towel to drain excess liquid.
  5. Dice the onion, and saute until limp and brown (about 20 minutes) in some of the olive oil. (While this is going on, you'll also want to thinly slice the squash on the bias.)
  6. Mince the garlic, and at the very end of cooking the onions, throw it in with them for 1-2 minutes, being sure not to let it burn.
  7. Spread the onion and garlic in an even layer in the bottom of a casserole dish.
  8. Spread a layer of spinach on top of the onion and garlic.
  9. Toss the eggplant and squash in remaining olive oil and thyme (also salt/pepper to taste, though you won't need much salt as the eggplant was salted).
  10. Layer the veggies in rows, gratin-style, on top of spinach. When finished with that, sprinkle some grated parmesan on top.
  11. Spread remaining spinach on top of that layer.
  12. Repeat step 10, using up remaining sliced veggies.
  13. Top with mozzarella.
  14. Bake for 60-75 minutes (If the cheese seems like it's getting too brown on top, cover with foil)
  15. Let sit for 10-15 minutes before serving.
It's kind of a pain to make, but it's really good for you, gives you the sensation of eating something really fattening like lasagna, and also totally delicious.

*This is a great way to use tomatoes in winter that aren't terribly flavorful.

Thursday, January 07, 2010


Outside it is a winter wonderland, and I am bored. Totally bored. Stir-crazy. I blame all of the working out. I have stuff I could do around the house, but it's cold and I don't feel like doing housework. So I've spent much of the day curled up beneath an afghan on the couch, reading a novel that is the key to a problem I'd been wrestling with in the Next Book's structure. Huzzah! I have solved an important problem. But this makes me no less bored and stir-crazy.

In theory I could go out into the world, but I live in a place with approximately one snow plow and a ton of hills. I don't understand why this is the case, given the fact that it does snow here every single year.

In other news, I've become the sort of person who turns on Big Cat Diary every day at 3 PM for Mr. Stripey, who watches it with almost religious fervor. Like, seriously: I turn on the television, he realizes that "his stories" are on, he parks himself on the sofa right in front of the tv and stays there for the next hour. Nothing can move him. During commercials, he looks out the window. He seems to enjoy the cheetahs best, and I am beginning to wonder whether he believes that he is a cheetah. The Man-Kitty is far too evolved to find television interesting, so he is taking a nap with his eyes open, which freaks me out.

I am so bored. So, so bored. Maybe I'll cook something. Sigh.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

On Writing - Part II (The Beginning of a New Major Project)

The beginning of a new project for me used to mean only that I had an idea and that I thought it was neat. What I learned through the course of graduate school and most especially through dissertating and then the writing of articles is that having a neat idea is totally not enough for major scholarly endeavors, at least if you're me. I've got tons of neat ideas. The difference between a neat idea and an article or a book, at least for me, is proceeding with deliberate care.

In other words, the most important thing I learned was that I needed to slow down and sit with my neat ideas before I begin researching or writing for a much longer period, and I needed to sift through the ideas that I wanted to explore and map out which ones were worth exploring and make actual decisions about how I would explore them. The thing that happens when I just explode a piece of writing is that I'm not really making decisions or choices. I'm not really thinking about what I'm trying to communicate, nor am I thinking about the audience to whom I want to communicate it. Thinking about those things on the front end, while I experience that as tedious, really does make it less painful when I begin researching and writing.

So while I still start with step 1 (Ooh! Neat idea!), it takes me a heck of a lot longer to move on to step 2. I don't pretend that what I do in the expanded step one is part of the practical work of researching and writing, nor do I regard the work that I do in this phase as procrastinating. Instead, I actually invest the time in step 1 to figure out how my idea works, why it matters, and how I want to approach it.

This involves the following school supplies:

1. Pens with which I like to write.
2. Mechanical Pencils. At this early stage, I find that I like to be able to erase. At the same time, I really hate dull pencils or having to sharpen pencils.
3. A journal, in which I record my thoughts about the project and in which I attempt to map out schedules for different tasks related to the project as well as to refine my ideas before I ever start "writing" or even "researching."

I used to think that once I had an idea that I had to begin "working" on it immediately. Working meant going to the library and mining the literature I'd be analyzing for things that fit my idea (notice I say "mining" and not "reading" here). Once I'd done a little of that, I felt like I was "supposed" to be writing, even if I didn't have a clear picture of what I needed to write, why I needed to write it, or how it fit into the larger project. My problem has never been that I didn't have anything to say, not really. Rather, my problem has been that I've wasted a lot of time writing before I'm actually prepared to write.

So, practically speaking, what does this phase of things look like? Well, I started my journal when I submitted my sabbatical application, though I didn't write much in it over the next couple of months. As the semester drew to a close, and I got definite word that my sabbatical would be a reality, as would a summer fellowship, I'd estimate that I've been writing in the research journal at least every couple of days, and I think about my Next Book at least once per day, probably spending 30 mins. to an hour thinking about it per day if we were to add all of my thoughts up. I've been doing things like trying to figure out the organization of chapters for my next book, coming up with reading lists for theory and literature, coming up with schedules for when I will do which pieces of work, playing around with titles (I always start with titles), evaluating how the literature I claimed I would analyze in the sabbatical application really fits together and whether I need to change up my choices at all, thinking about potential objections to the project, blind spots that I have in my approach, etc.

It's all very informal, free-writing sort of writing. But it also is clarifying the point of my project to me, and it's preparing me to start with reading and research throughout this spring. I think that I used to think that really spending time with my idea was not an efficient use of time, or that once I had the "neat idea" that it was self-explanatory and needed no justification or clarification. If I've learned anything throughout my years on the tenure track most especially, having dealt with readers' reports and editors and what have you, any idea that I have really needs to have a clear justification in my head and needs to be clear not only to me but to everybody else.

So I am very close to needing to move into the next phase of my process, though I'll continue to keep up with the journal and to do this sort of thinking work throughout. That's another thing that's changed with me: I think I have to do this sort of temperature-checking and evaluating throughout, now, instead of thinking I have the project solid in my head and then I never think about it again. This means that I'm going to hold off on the third part of the series until I'm actually beginning with that next phase - I'll have more and better things to say about it when I'm actually doing the things.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

On Writing - Part I (Bad Habits)

In the comments to the last post, human asked for a post about my writing routines, habits, planning, etc., and when I read that request, I thought, "Have I not written that post before? Surely I've written that post before!" But having blogged in this space since January of 2006, and having blogged in general since 2004 (God, seriously?), I have officially reached the point where I have no freaking clue where to begin looking for old posts I've surely written, and doing a search for "writing" on this blog does absolutely no good. So, though I'm convinced I can''t have been an academic person writing a blog for 5 years who hasn't done a post about this, I'm going to write a post about it now that's almost definitely redundant.

So writing. There are tons of books that give advice about writing productivity, about identifying the kind of writer a person is, about "best practices" for writing without anxiety, etc. etc. As somebody who teaches writing, I spend a lot of time introducing students to such things on a small scale and on showing them how to manage their lives as writers. As a professor, a good chunk of my job requires me to write - and not only the scholarly portion of that job.

But so first things first. For about the first Oh, 20 or so years of my life, my "writing habits" basically involved a three-step process, which went something like this:

1. Ooh! Neat idea!
2. I have a thousand other things I must do before I can sit down to pursue this idea in writing. Really. I do. No, this isn't procrastinating! How dare you say this to me? But clearly I must wait to write until I know what I want to say! And until I've read a lot of things! And, and, and....
3. Vomit out a piece of writing.

Now, to be fair, there was a step 3-and-a-half, which did involve some revision, although that revision wasn't terribly careful. You see, back in olden times when the above was my way, I didn't have a computer (and then when I first got a computer I still didn't compose on it). And so I would write every paper long-hand, and then while typing (on public, university computers) I would make revisions, though these were not executed in any systematic way.

Obviously, the above is not a solid strategy for writing anything of great depth or complexity. But I record it here because it's still pretty much the bones of my writing process. For example, if you want to know how I write a conference paper, the above is a pretty good representation. It is also pretty close to how I write blog posts (though I don't compose them longhand!). But the above "process" isn't terribly efficient, it has the potential to produce a great deal of anxiety if you use it for stuff that really matters, and it just doesn't work for anything longer than 1500-2000 words - or, at least, it doesn't work for me.

I realized that was the case twice in my graduate education. (Yes, twice. I think this is an example of how when we're encountering a difficult new challenge we regress as writers.)

Situation 1: I was in my MA program and I was in my first ever theory seminar. I had to write a seminar paper. I slogged away on a topic that was a piece of shit. I knew that it was a piece of shit, but I didn't quite understand why. I was doing everything I usually did when I would write a paper. At the last minute (a week before the 20+ page seminar paper was due) I totally changed my topic and wrote the entire thing in a mad dash (which may seem like it was not a change of approach, but it was, for the new topic that I chose incorporated all of this work I'd done on a presentation, plus research I'd done in another context, plus some of the salvageable stuff from the original crap topic: instead of vomiting out the seminar paper, I really synthesized material from across contexts and created something deeper than had been my tendency to that point).

Situation 2: This is the one and only time I'd characterize myself as having experienced writer's block. I was working on the opening chapters of my dissertation, and I could not produce any writing for approximately 3 months. I mean, I wrote. But I didn't actually produce any writing - anything readable or that had any reasonable relation to what the dissertation would ultimately become. I freaked out that I didn't know what a dissertation was. I wondered whether I had made an awful mistake in pursuing my Ph.D. Only when I stopped trying to use my old process - a process that pretty much relied on my natural talent as a writer and not on hard work and careful strategy - did the chapters start evolving. Again, it was about realizing that I couldn't just vomit out pages and have them be wonderful. It was about slowing myself down as a writer, thinking more deeply than I really wanted to think, and writing through the challenges and changing course when it became clear that my original ideas needed to be refined. (You know, maybe that's the biggest problem with my natural tendencies in writing - it's really hard for me to shift gears when my original bright idea isn't quite right once I begin writing. I have no problem scrapping sentence after sentence, but I have a really tough time realizing that I need to refine or change an idea.)

But so anyway. As I said, it's not that I've entirely abandoned the above. In some respects, I think that my ability to do the above has kept me a productive scholar in a job situation where I don't have a great deal of time to devote to my scholarship. Nevertheless, I do think that I've supplemented it with strategies that make it easier (and possible) for me to move forward with longer, more sustained projects.

In the next installment, I'll try to talk about the habits I've developed that I think are good, and some actual things I do throughout the course of a writing project. I need to get busy and take care of some school-related work before I tackle my non-work to-do list.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Why the Silence in the New Year, You Ask?

Well, after the madness of MLA, I've pretty much crashed for the past 4 days. Well, not actually, though. Really my primary focus has been on my New Year's Resolution, which to get off the ground has taken no small amount of focus. (Note to self: this may be why I've always failed at the fitness resolution in the past: I've never devoted adequate resources to it.)

So anyway, Since the 1st I've been busy with a) daily trips to the gym, b) shopping for a v. detailed menu created on New Year's Eve, c) cooking delicious meals and eating them. In addition, there has been napping, catching up with various folks on the phone, and playtime with the kittens.

Now, lest you think I've totally lost my mind, the daily gym regime is not something that I expect to continue for the rest of my life (or even the rest of the month or year). I think daily gym trips are not likely something that I can sustain. However, in the interest of making going to the gym a "habit" I'm doing the daily thing for the first week, and then I will move over to the schedule that I've created for my real life, which will be four days (scheduled, on a calendar, no excuses other than dire illness will allow me out of that schedule) on which I am committed to go to the gym. There will be no bargaining about "Oh, I'm going to change days" or "Oh, I'll just go three days this week and five next week." The minute I start allowing myself to negotiate with myself, that's the minute that the whole house of cards is in jeopardy.

The other days of the week I am going to do my best to be active, and surely I'll work out if I feel like it, but I am not scheduled to do so, and if I don't, that's just fine. This particular schedule is in place for the month of January, and I will evaluate whether it needs tweaking at the end of the month. Oh, and another part of this schedule is that Thursdays have been set aside for weekly menu planning and grocery list making, and I will not work out on Thursdays. On Fridays, I'll shop for supplies. I decided that scheduling this part of things was necessary as well, if I intend to stay on track with eating well in a way that I can really sustain. Because if I fall into eating boring food, I will very quickly start supplementing the boring food with food that is very, very bad for me. It is my way.

You may note that all of this is very.... regimented. Well, in reflecting on the fact that I'm now the heaviest I've ever been in my life, and how I got there, and what that all means, I realized that part of my problem is that I always figured that the fitness stuff would just somehow do itself if I worked out irregularly or was fairly active and ate basically reasonably. While that was true when I was 20, that is not true now. But as I thought about it, I realized I used to think about writing/research that way, too. Before graduate school, and particularly before the dissertation, writing was something that just somehow did itself. After, I learned that I needed to be very focused and detail-oriented in my planning, that I needed to allow for set-backs, that I needed to approach writing/research like a job - not like something that happened magically. Well, all of that, after 10+ years of working at it, is like second nature. And that sort of very carefully designed structure feels very comfortable to me. So I thought to myself, "self, if you want to be successful at the fitness thing, you need to approach it in the same way that you've approached your research/writing work. You don't need to resolve to do that anymore for work because it's so ingrained that you just do it. The trick - and the challenge - is trying to make the same thing happen with the fitness stuff."

So, today I shall be heading (briefly) to campus and then I shall go to the gym, and then I shall come home to make black bean soup and eat some lunch. I also need to do some crap for the 2011 MLA, respond to some emails, do syllabi for next week (eek! Though seriously there's not much to do beyond changing dates and a couple of tweaks based on some failed experiments this semester), continue thinking about what I want to propose for a summer conference....

Yeah, so I'd better get to all of that :)