Monday, March 30, 2009

Students and Graduate School (Post # 400,000)

A bit ago I had a meeting with yet another of my students who is interested in graduate school in English. This is a student I'm only getting to know this semester, and zie is graduating in May. Zie is a strong student, and she's the first in her family to go to college, yadda yadda yadda.

I gave my standard spiel about how competitive it is, about how I don't in good conscience recommend that any student pursue this - opportunity costs, horrible outcomes, yadda yadda yadda - but also that if a student wants to do it after all of the facts are presented, that I support students that I think are strong candidates. Reading Sisyphus's post today... well, it has me thinking about that meeting. (I link to Sis here because I want everybody in the whole world to head over there and to give her some love. I'll know if you don't do it, so get on it.)

I've also been spending some time lurking on the forums at The Grad Cafe, and on the Chronicle's grad student life forum in recent weeks, thinking that it's good for me to know what those kids today (beyond "those kids" whom I know in the academic blogosphere - and I use "those kids" facetiously here) are saying about the process and about their experiences. It's nearly 13 years since I began grad school. I gather it's a brave new world - or maybe it was always that world and I just didn't have enough of a clue to realize it. And then there's the current economy, which is encouraging even more students to consider grad school (per even my local news), and yet which is fucking higher education just as surely as every other career path is fucked (although my students don't realize this).

At any rate, all of this has me rethinking my stance on the grad school advice. Well, not really rethinking - just thinking about. See, I still believe that it's fucked up to tell my students no outright. Especially given the fact that I'm at a crap institution where nearly all students are first generation to graduate from any college at all. I still believe that people from a wide range of backgrounds make higher education stronger, and I still believe that some of my students really are suited to academia. How can I just tell them I won't support them? I mean, the facts probably do indicate that I should, but my instinct is that once upon a time the "facts" indicated that lots of marginalized groups should be advised toward, say, beauty school or secretarial school and iron-working or construction. Not college. And yeah, I think that's fucked up. So sure, the facts are against me, but my beliefs really are on my side on this one.

But. There is a tiny part of me that feels like maybe I should be even more discouraging than I already am. There is a tiny part of me that feels like maybe it's not my job to advise based on what I believe. It's just my students are so clueless and so without support. I feel like if they didn't get support from me then they wouldn't get the informed support that they need. They have no idea that they need to apply to more than one program. They have no idea that they should expect full funding or not go. They have no idea that even if you want to teach at a place like my current place that you've got to go to a top 50 program - that even the crappy jobs are just that competitive. They don't know from SLACs and R1s - they just "want to be a professor" and they figure that any Ph.D. from any institution will do. They think that if they take out loans that they'll make a salary commensurate with their debt, if they're not funded. They seriously think these things. They think that they won't need to move away from their families. They think that they won't need to do anything other than to "pursue their dreams" and that it will all work out. Of course I disabuse them of all these notions, of course I tell them lots of things our grads have done that are not graduate school (or law school, or library school). But so many of them still want this. Even after I talk about the specifics of my job, of the things that are screwy in my personal life, even after I give them my best doom and gloom.

And so I support them. I give them the best advice I know how to give, and I support their research, and I write those letters of recommendation. But is that the right thing to do? Who the fuck knows.

I'll say this: I'm glad that I don't teach at a uni with a Ph.D. program. I imagine that the guilt that I feel right now would be quadrupled.

All of that said, my BES? She won two of our 7 or so department awards. She won the biggie for most outstanding graduating senior, and she won the one for the most awesome student in class (the award is something about the student's wit and irreverence... I forget the language). And two of my other students won book awards, and another former student (one of the boys who gave me a poem when he was a baby freshman!) won the leadership award. So maybe my worries are about nothing. Maybe my students really just are that good.

I'm still not sure if they should go to graduate school in English, though. Not even close to sure.

Cooking without Recipes

My to-do list lingers with items still to be checked off, but this weekend I pretty much allowed myself not to worry about it. Instead, I spent the bulk of my time cooking things.

I'm not sure whether I've talked about how I cook when I cook, but typically, I like no distractions - no music, no tv, no telephone. I cook in silence, just thinking about the ingredients and what I need to do. All other thoughts fly from my head, and I feel really peaceful.

It is for this reason that I totally understand why my Auntie Minerva in Lebanon and my Tayta in the states wake up and do the day's cooking before 8 AM. Cooking for them is not social - it's not something that they do with people coming in and out. No, they do their thing early early in the morning, and then their primary work for the day is done. So in other words, were I not a Ph.D. and did I not just get tenure as a university professor, I do think I might be content to be a Lebanese housewife who was born in like 1935. I would also have much better French if I were that instead of my current self, but that's neither here nor there.

Anyway, so on Saturday I made a london broil (whatever, it was cheap, it can easily be made into other things as leftovers), steamed asparagus with lemon, and a lentil dish that I made up (sautee a medium onion and some garlic, add in some sliced crimini mushrooms, then add lentils and low sodium beef broth - kind of like making a rich mushroom risotto only better for you and you don't need to watch it and stir constantly). My real challenge, though, was Sunday.

My absolute favorite Lebanese dish is my tayta's malfouf (or malfoof - arabic spelling in English varies). Basically, it's stuffed cabbage. Except what I learned in attempting to search for Tayta's recipe on the internet (it's no good asking Tayta, as she barely speaks English, I barely speak arabic, and she doesn't actually use "recipes" in cooking, so I've found it's better if I try to make something first, and then I know exactly what questions to ask when I see her) is that apparently she makes it differently from every Lebanese person in the whole world (and different from Syrians and other middle-eastern peeps, too, for good measure). Now I've found this to be the case with a number of my favorite dishes of hers (hummus, this chicken/beef/almonds/rice recipe that I've somehow managed to reconstruct), and so either a) she is really a phenomenally inventive cook or b) "standard" recipes for ethnic cuisines are totally not necessarily right.

But so anyway, I've always been a fan of cooked cabbage. Ham and cabbage? Cabbage and noodles? Corned beef and cabbage? TOTALLY my scene. HOWEVER, I've never really been a fan of American/Eastern European stuffed cabbage for what I've determined are the following reasons:

1) the cabbage is often really tough.
2) the texture of the meat/rice filling is often gooey and gross. (same problem I have with stuffed peppers, in addition to not really loving the pepper)
3) I hate the tomato component that is slopped over it. (same problem I have with both stuffed peppers and some meatloaf recipes)

So, what's so great about malfouf as my tayta makes it?
1) the cabbage is totally silky in texture - so much so that you can cut through a roll with a fork or even a spoon - no toughness. And yet, it is not soggy. It's like a cabbage miracle.
2) no tomato component - instead there is olive oil and lemon and garlic.
3) the filling includes no meat - and the rice is perfectly cooked and the grains are individual and not a sticky gooey mess. In addition to the rice, the filling includes chick peas that are pleasantly different in texture both from the rice and from the cabbage, and it may/may not include pine nuts (I'm not sure, but I threw some in).

But so anyway, I did lots of searching all over the internet to try to figure out at least the techniques for the cabbage and the rice, which I figured would be the hardest parts. I did this while the chick peas (which I'd soaked overnight) were cooking. I then improvised with seasonings, and I have to say, it didn't come out half-bad although I still need to do some tweaking. So, here's the recipe as I've figured it out to this point, though it's still a work in progress. It's labor-intensive, but totally worth it.

  • 1 medium cabbage.
  • 2 cups rice (I used short-grain brown rice because it's what I had, but I think Tayta typically uses long-grain white rice - the kind of rice will affect cooking time, I'd imagine).
  • 1/2 cup pine nuts.
  • 8 oz. dried garbanzo beans, soaked, cooked, and drained. (I really think it's probably important to use dried rather than canned for reasons of texture.)
  • approximately 1/4 to 1/2 cup olive oil. (I don't really know - I just eyeballed it.)
  • the juice of 3 lemons (guessing here, because I only used one lemon and it was decidedly not lemony enough.)
  • salt, pepper, and other spices (not sure) to taste. (this time around, I tried some cardamom, some cumin, and some nutmeg. I think the nutmeg was wrong and maybe I should use some oregano? Or if not that, maybe I should just use zatar? need to play with the spices)
  • water or chicken stock to cover the cabbage rolls.
  • Approximately 3-5 cloves of garlic.
  1. Put the rice in hot water to soak for one hour.
  2. While the rice is soaking, core the cabbage. The easiest way to do this is to stick a large cooking fork in the core as a handle, and then you cut around it.
  3. Lightly toast the pine nuts to develop their flavor (takes about five minutes). You can do this while the cabbage is just starting to cook in step 4.
  4. Put the cabbage in a large pot, core-side down, and cover with water. Cook the cabbage, and remove the leaves with tongs as they detach from the head. They will not be totally cooked, but they will be pleasantly flexible for rolling. This is a pain in the ass. It is worth doing.
  5. Drain the rice and mix the filling. Mix together the rice, the chick peas, the toasted pine nuts, salt pepper and spices (whatever those are), the juice of a lemon (I only used the juice of half a lemon, and it wasn't enough), and some olive oil (I'd estimate 1/8 to 1/4 cup).
  6. Pre-heat the oven to 350 or 375 (I started at 375 then reduced to 35o because I was afraid the cabbage would burn).
  7. Spray the baking dish with cooking spray.
  8. Next, you'll do the little cabbage rolls. It's important to note that these are not big honking rolls like American Style ones. Each roll is typicaly only 1 to 3 bites in size (depending on the size of your bites). For the larger leaves, you can cut them in half, and cutting the tough spine of the leaf out altogether is a good idea. Put only 1-2 teaspoons of the filling into the roll, and roll them up like little burritos. Fit them tightly into a large baking dish.
  9. Drizzle with olive oil and lemon.
  10. Cut cloves of garlic into large pieces and scatter over the top. This infuses the rolls with a light garlic flavor that is delicate and not overpowering. You'll discard the garlic when cooking is complete.
  11. Fill dish with either stock or water to cover (just) the cabbage rolls. I had homemade stock on hand in the freezer, so I used that.
  12. Cover with foil (you can take the foil off if you'd like the cabbage to brown a little on top and to make the liquid evaporate a bit faster during cooking, if you feel like that's a good idea).
  13. Place in the oven. My cooking time was somewhere around 1 hour and 45 minutes, but I was using a glass dish, and I had to check frequently (busting into one roll to test the rice for doneness) because I had no recipe, so that probably extended the time a bit.
As you see, it's a recipe that is a pain. But as it is my favorite, and it is so perfect texturally and the flavors so subtle, I'm glad I tried it out. I need to figure out the spices, but the fact that I got the cabbage and the rice right means that I'm totally up for that challenge. As it is, even though the spices aren't quite right yet, it's still better than any American stuffed cabbage I've ever tasted. So delicious! So nutritious! And it freezes fine, so you can make a ton even if you're only one person.

So yes. That was my weekend. Now I need to get back to work.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Thank God It's Friday.

Well, I managed to make it through this week. Seriously? That's an accomplishment on its own. Today I've got a lot to do that will clear my weekend for household tasks, drafting my upcoming conference paper, and grading. What's on the agenda?
  1. Service crap related to CTTCCFPD. Probably a couple hours worth.
  2. Finalize course fliers advertising fall courses.
  3. Deal with my calendar, which is a zoo of events that I haven't rsvp'd to, written down, or otherwise made sense of. This also will involve scheduling a mammogram (they want me getting screened every year because of my father's cancer (pancreatic cancer may have a link with breast/ovarian/cervical cancer genetically, and also because so many on my father's side have had those other cancers - none of this came up with my doctor before because medical history stuff asks about immediate family and not extended family, and as an only child, well, it just didn't come up in a meaningful way until my father's illness hit the radar), a hair appointment, a vet appointment for M-K, and the pet sitter for the upcoming conference.
  4. Deal with thank you notes for all of the expressions of sympathy I've received (and thank you again to all of you! - yay, one item checked off the list).
  5. Email students presenting in student research thingie.
  6. Grocery store, for I've been eating like garbage and the cupboards are bare.
  7. Some other odds and ends with service.
  8. Deal with the train wreck that is my online course.
  9. I want there to be a number ten but really, I think that's all of the things. Oh, I suppose catch up on phone calls.
In other news, right around now is probably my sweet, darling Mr. Stripey's first birthday. Now, of course, I don't really know his actual birthday, but counting back from when I first met him when he was an estimated few weeks old, I've guesstimated that he's an Aries. Here is the first picture I've got of him, from when he was maybe 6 weeks or so old:

He wasn't much of a poser in his infancy. Too busy playing.

And here's a picture of him from when I first brought him home:

He was such a sweet baby! So teeny tiny! So serious, in his repose!

And here is the glorious kitty-cat that he has become:
I've got to say, Mr. Stripey, well, he is one beautiful cat. And he has a sparkling personality and is very affectionate and has many good ideas. Of course, he primarily keeps those ideas to himself, but as a full-sized Man-Stripey I believe that he has the right to keep his own council about most things.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Sweet Little First-Year Students Who Want Me to Read Their Poems

It's been a while since I've had one, but yesterday, in a class populated almost entirely by first years, along one came. For some reason, it's always male students who want me to read their poetry, though I'm not sure why. And they're always really bright and engaged and alert in class and then one day, as class is ending, they come shyly up with a ripped out sheet of notebook paper. It's so darling. It's like one of my absolute favorite things about being an English professor.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Hanging In, Barely

I thought I should post just to let everybody know I'm alive. I'm behind after all of the drama of the last week, and I hope to god that I can get caught up this weekend. I've pretty much accepted that this week is a wash, that grading will not get done, that I can't really concentrate, and that you know, that's ok. I just feel totally wiped out and exhausted and at loose ends. This too shall pass, blah.

Anyway, I've got nothing really to report. Coffee is delicious, I've got a doctor appointment in a couple of hours, and things are progressing with the CTTCCFPD, in spite of the first paragraph. A vote has been forced - like a binding one - about how we move forward, and we'll be doing an actual vote by paper ballot - binding - so the results of that will be known in like a week. I fantasize that the whole thing will go totally smoothly, though I suspect there will be one part that doesn't pass, so one more vote before a proposal goes forward after this one. Still, I the whole process does seem to be moving along. I'll just be happy when decisions have been made. Because seriously: I just want us to decide - whatever the outcome.

In a funny moment in the meeting where we voted on how things would move forward, the colleague who threatened the entire process a few weeks ago expressed surprise that our committee hadn't met again before we reached this time of decision as a department. As if our committee would just keep meeting and meeting, even though we've met multiple times and these issues have been on the table with the whole department for months. Even though I did consult with the committee via email about a question and he at first did not respond at all, and then when he did he expressed his intractability about his own position: "I don't see what feedback students could give that would change my ideas about curriculum." Yeah, I was going to go out of my way and take my time and the time of the other committee members to meet with that person. Totally.

I mean, he wasn't happy with the direction that things were heading, and so clearly we should all go back to the drawing board, right? We would just continue meeting until we all retired, never reaching a moment of decision. Clearly I couldn't do anything to improve parts of the proposal based on feedback that I got (from all of our colleagues and from students) without running it by him first. I let the comment go by without comment (though I'm sure some amusement registered on my face), but in my head I was entirely gleeful that this colleague thought that I was supposed to continue to consult with him and to treat him like a collaborative member of the committee and to beg for his opinions after he went outside of the committee process and tried to ruin all of the work I'd done with some bullshit ideas that were all about obstructing forward movement and dismissing the mountains of work I'd been doing. I'm supposed to be just that nice, apparently, and just that much of a doormat.

Uh, no. He had his chance to be part of the process, instead of working with me and others to come to a reasonable compromise, he overplayed his hand, and well, from that point I really had no interest in seeking him out. Those are the breaks. It's so funny when people underestimate me in this way. I think it's that there is this assumption that because I'm so generally not about power plays and intrigue that I'm above those things. Ah, silly people. Just because I think those things suck doesn't mean that I can't or won't do them, nor does it mean that I'm not really freaking good at them.

I think what surprised him most was that what I presented was actually a compromise that addressed the heart of his concerns (thus taking the teeth out of much of his argument - and let's just note that he never offered any similar compromise nor expressed any interest in coming up with one). Keeping him out of the loop for the past few weeks wasn't about ignoring his position - it was about refusing to continue to entertain him and those who were disrespectful to me and to others who disagreed with him. I never intended not to address his position. Being treated like I was part of some evil and self-serving coalition did not sit well with me because it was never true. I always thought that there should be compromise at the center of the work that we're doing, and I proceeded that way in spite of people attempting to put me in a false position, and in spite of the fact that I took that really freaking personally.

So anyway, that's the latest. Let's keep our fingers crossed that things move forward smoothly from this point.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

RBOC of "Life's a Beach"

  • Apparently there was a service - today - as a "close friend" of my stepmother's accidentally blurted out to me at the end of the calling hours (so I suppose they're not all that close after all or the friend would have known that I'm not "really" part of the family) - and I wasn't invited. Nice.
  • So I've got no idea what's happened to my father's ashes, but I figure that since I had to bust my ass to visit my father for the past 15 years with no reciprocity that I'm probably exempt from having to visit his remains. In other words, wherever the ashes are is fine with me, though, as my mom noted, this does sort of exemplify the way that my stepmother has held him hostage (though in his life with his permission, so it wasn't all her) all this time.
  • The calling hours thing wasn't so bad. Only A. ended up coming of my friends (J.'s mom had emergency gall bladder surgery so direct your prayers that way!), but my uncle and his wife did come, too, and my grandmother's sister and one of her daughters. The whole thing was an episode of Celebrity Widow - not at all a send-off for the recently departed - and thus (I thought) gross - but I think I handled the whole thing with class and sensitivity. I realize my classiness and sensitivity are not in evidence here, but I blew my wad on that yesterday.
  • I should admit, though, that A. and I were starved in the middle of the whole thing, so at one point cut out for some taco bell, which some might not regard as a classy move. Hilariously, at about the same time my brothers cut out with some of their friends for dairy queen. Were my dad not dead and all, I think he would have been right there with us.
  • The great thing about the whole thing being Celebrity Widow was that I did get to have private (i.e., no stepmother keeping watch) conversations with my brothers, and the three of us are cool with one another and I think they get where I'm coming from in terms of wanting a relationship with them and being here for them.
  • Today I went to mass with my mother and it was really just perfect. Because it was a Lenten mass, the readings and the sermon were all about death and rebirth, and living with Christ as an example, and it really just was the perfect thing. Then I went to lunch with my parents, and then my mom and I tried to go visit my grandma but she wasn't home, so we left a flower and a note. Duty there done.
  • Now I'm back home with my kitties, and I'm feeling like I got the closure that I needed. Of course I'm still grieving, and will continue to do so, but I feel like I said goodbye to my father and at peace with things.
  • I think my favorite thing of yesterday was that one of the pictures (one of the few that included me) that was displayed was one that I didn't know existed. The picture seems to have been taken in the summer, when I was 12 or 13. I think that the picture, aside from my apparent age, can be dated about 1987, from my outfit. In the picture, a bunch of people are sitting around a table outside, at what appears to be a cookout of some kind. I'm sitting on my dad's right, my dad was in the middle, and my stepmother was on his left. My dad has his arm around my stepmother, and they're smiling happily. I'm a few inches from my father, arms crossed, a look of pure misery on my face. What was I wearing? Jams (totally) and a bright yellow t-shirt that said "Life's a Beach" in huge black block letters. First, there's something about my miserable scowl and posture that is so perfect with that shirt. But second, I really felt after seeing that picture totally validated in my feelings about where I've fit into my father's life for the past 23 years. I didn't make this shit up. "Life's a beach," indeed.
Thank you again for all of your condolences. They have meant so much.

Friday, March 20, 2009


I'm not sure why I've written so much about this stuff with my father on the blog. I think the impulse does have something to do with wanting support, and there's nothing like my bloggy peeps for support related to all manner of things. So thank you all for your condolences, and for being here and reading. Writing this stuff out, not only for myself but for other people, has helped me to think through and to... feel through, I guess, a lot of the complicated things in my relationship with him.

I loved my father, and my father loved me. I do know both of those things. But it also was never that simple. And while I suppose people might say that love is never that simple, blah blah blah, well, the love between my mom and G. and me is, and so is the love that I have from and feel for my closest friends. It really is unconditional and uncomplicated. So it's not just that I've got support from you all, but I've got lots of real and deep support from the people who are really in my life. In other words, although I am sort of alone in dealing with this, and am sort of disconnected from it in lots of ways, I'm a person who has an embarrassment of riches in terms of people who really care about her and on whom she really can count.

My father was cremated, and there will not be a funeral, nor any kind of service. I don't know whether my father will be interred somewhere, whether his ashes will be scattered, or whether my stepmother plans to hoard his ashes so that only those of whom she approves can know where he is. I think that this is wrong, but I don't have any say in what happens. Parts of this have to do with my father's wishes, but parts are definitely related to my stepmother's incredible selfishness. There will be calling hours at a funeral home, and I will go, flanked by my friends who are really more like sisters than friends.

My stepmother made it clear to me that she would prefer if none of my father's family - his mother, his siblings - attended the calling hours, and she hadn't intended on informing them of his death. She figured they'd see it in the paper. Classic. I called my aunt and told her last night. I don't care what animosity anyone has for anybody else, or what wrongs people have done - to think that it's appropriate for a mother to find out her child has died by reading it in the newspaper is disgusting to me.

And this whole "calling hours" thing has me upset, in part because I'll be such an oddball in that setting. I'm not really part of my father's family or the life that he left behind, and so there will be tons of people there who are strangers to me or brief acquaintances - the people who are actually welcome. I don't want to have to explain who I am to those people, or to make nice with them. If any of my father's family comes, I will know them, but then I'll have to deal with the anger and tension that will come from the fact that my stepmother has made it clear that she does not want any of them coming near her or the boys. She does not want them even to speak to her or to them, she indicated. And then there will be those people who are from my father's past - who knew him when he was married to my mother - and who will want to talk to me, and that will make me uncomfortable, too. Thank God I'll have A. and J. and C. surrounding me, buffering me from as much of this as is possible. I wish there were a service of some kind. If there were, I would go to that and ignore this calling hours business altogether. I do not want to be in a room with an urn and pictures, but no flowers, with people milling around. I want structure to my grief. I want ceremony. I don't want to make small-talk. So I'll go, but I'm not sure how long I'll stay. I'll do what feels right for me in the moment, because seriously, nobody's given me much thought in all of this, so I feel completely comfortable putting myself first now.

It is also disgusting to me that my stepmother packed her sons off to school yesterday - business as usual, because they had tests, you know - after telling them of their father's death. It's disgusting to me that on the day his father died the older of the two boys then went on to basketball practice last night. It's disgusting to me that my stepmother believes that the right thing to do is to get back to normal as quickly as possible, that somehow that will make it all less devastating. I know that people grieve in different ways, and that there is no right way to handle death, but I also know a thing or two about wanting to please one's parents, and I think if there's a lot of pressure from a parent to be a certain way - even if that pressure comes out of love - that it can be very, very difficult to assert one's own needs, especially when you're only 12 or 14 years old. When you're 12 or 14 it's difficult to even know what your own needs are. Witness how I handled (or failed to handle) my parents' divorce at that age.

Aside from my disgust at the way that things are proceeding, though, I also feel a lot of relief. I don't feel obligated anymore to "deal" with the complexity of my relationship with my father, and all of the other players. For the first time in my life, I feel like I can have a relationship with him on my terms. I no longer feel torn between anger and wanting to please him. I no longer feel like this is something that I have to negotiate. As much as I'm sad, that's a happy consequence I hadn't expected. All of a sudden, in relation to my father, I finally get to be a grown-up.

So that's where things are. I have a lot of feelings, as I said to FB on the phone last night, and it's hard, but I'm really ok, and I know I'm going to be ok. I've just got to go through this, and to let myself mourn and to feel whatever it is I feel. And I need to handle this in a way that I think is appropriate, regardless of what my stepmother wants, what my father thought, or how these people think that things should go. (For example, my stepmother made a point of noting that the dress for the calling hours will be casual, and I plan on ignoring that. I wasn't raised that way.) And I'll probably go to mass with my mom (who's being great, by the way) on Sunday - I need a ritual even if nobody else wants one. And if my grandmother stays away from the calling hours, I think we'll go see her afterwards. We're not close, but that feels right. And I think I'm going to make a donation in my father's name to cancer research - though no such option was offered in lieu of the flowers that were prohibited - in all capital letters - in the obituary. And later, I think my father's family will do some sort of memorial thing of their own, and I'll attend that. What I do in relation to my father's death is not dictated by anybody but me, really. It feels nice, quite frankly, to feel that way now, even if I didn't feel that way about my relationship with him in life.

Thursday, March 19, 2009


My father died this morning. So I didn't see him "one last time" or whatever, but I feel fine about that, actually. We had our goodbye in January, and I only had wanted to go see him if I thought it might give him some comfort. So that didn't happen, but that's ok. Apparently he went peacefully. I'm glad he's not sick anymore.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

I Know I Said Blogging Would Be Light, But...

I cannot grade. I cannot. I know I have to, and I will at some point, but now, no.

Today was long as shit. The cable access interview thing went fine, whatevs. Then I had to moderate a student focus group related to the work of CTTCCFPD, and it was great. First, the students came up with a couple of great suggestions about how to make things clearer, as well as for what should be included in a course we'd develop should the requirements be changed. Second, they really took the whole "focus group" thing seriously and offered incredibly substantive feedback, even on things that they didn't necessarily "like."

I suppose I was so happy with this because certain people seemed to think that the focus groups were dumb - that students couldn't possibly contribute in meaningful ways to this process. I've got to say, I really think that students generally will contribute in meaningful ways to whole bunches of things if they know that their input is being taken seriously. To be fair, though, participation was on a volunteer basis, and so it was a self-selecting group of smarties whom I know, and whom I know really care about these issues. I attract the smarties to me - what can I say? Engaged smarties who have great things to offer. Sure, they're not "experts" in the field, but their perspective is important and not uninformed and without merit. I've never doubted this - and not because I think we should "just give students what they want." Things like these focus groups allow for us to explain to students why some things are as they are and shouldn't change, and they allow for us to let students have ownership over their education. I think that should really be the goal, although I suppose some might think I'm a "radical" and a "revolutionary" for thinking that students should drive their own educations.

I've got to say, though, that I'm really astonished that those who have been in the minority in these discussions (and whose voices have been loudest and most offensive) didn't persuade more students who are into them to participate, because seriously: if they had, it might have made their position on matters related to CTTCCFPD seem a bit less self-serving. Had I been in their position, I'd have tried to stack these focus groups with students who would advocate for the thing that I wanted. Sure, that would have been totally political and even maybe diabolical, but it's what I'd have done. As it is, those people haven't paid attention to the focus groups (I'd asked for potential questions that we should ask students from these people, because I'm nothing if not inclusive, but they offered nothing substantive in response to those requests) because they don't value the input of students on these matters (I'm paraphrasing, but this is not just conjecture on my part - somebody actually wrote just about that to me in an email - which left me dumbfounded).

So, focus group number two will take place tomorrow, and I've also got some questionnaires coming in from students who can't attend the meetings but who want to participate. I'm excited to see what further feedback comes in.

In other news, I had a very productive meeting with BES, and I'm so proud of the work that she's doing. And I also taught some great poems in my intro to lit class, and the students worked very hard on interpreting them. On the fly, I also introduced them to "Susie Asado" by Gertrude Stein, and it was awesome to see their reactions. "What is a nail. A nail is unison." One of my absolute favorite lines of poetry ever. Ah, Stein. She rules. (I am loving her especially right now because I've been reading Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation as bedtime reading, and I'm wicked into all those expatriate modernists - and am coming around to the feeling that Pound and Hemingway may be the coolest, in spite of the fascism and misogyny.)

You know what's funny? In the process that has been CTTCCFPD, I've been painted by some as this "radical" who doesn't actually care about "real" literature. A "revolutionary" who is about "giving students what they want" (as in, the "customer" is always right) and who is caving to "pressures" from other "factions" - "factions" that don't understand what "real" literature is and who think "anything" should go (note: these "factions" involve people who work on "outsiders" like Melville and James and Toni Morrison). This has been so freaking weird because anybody who actually pays attention to what I teach and to how I conduct my scholarship - including the literary texts that I do scholarship on as well as how I use theory to get to my interpretations and to assist what I want to argue - would typically (I imagine) see me as a weirdly conservative traditionalist. I believe in the canon. Not in canons. I teach canonical texts. I believe in forcing students to read Wordsworth's Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, and I think that T.S. Eliot's claims in "Tradition and the Individual Talent" constitute some meaningful and important shit even in the 21st century. I advise my students to take courses that give them historical coverage - as in, dude, you need some Chaucer or, dude, you need some Restoration Drama; I emphasize how important defining a broad canon of literature is. I care about aesthetics and aesthetic traditions - and I sort of hate the idea of putting women's lit or multicultural/postcolonial lit into their own canons that compete (and never catch up with) with a dominant canon. I don't want "alternate canons" - I want a canon that includes the best - which means letting some people in who would historically have been marginalized, and which involves excluding some WASP males who aren't so hot, in comparison. I'm a person who took Latin and Anglo-Saxon at the graduate level, and I'm a person who wrote a book on three authors who are central to anybody's discussion of what the "canon" includes. Anybody's. And I'm a person who thinks that using literature to "do" theory, and that to do away with things like close reading and analysis in the service of the "next big thing" is pure stupidity. I care about foundations, and I believe that some texts have more merit than others. Sure. I'm theoretical in my approach to literature. And sure, I think that there is value in thinking about "low culture" texts. But dude: Virginia Woolf is more important than Judith Krantz. All things are not equal. More people may read Judith Krantz, but more people should read Virginia Woolf. Period. I believe in literary periods, and I believe in Literature - Capital L - I think Literature matters. I consistently advise my students that they shouldn't ignore things like the 18th century, for example. (I'll admit, I sometimes support my students when they want to ignore Tennyson, but that's because I'm not into him. It's not like a rejection of the 19th century or something. Dude, ignore Tennyson. Fine. But fuck off if you also want to ignore Elizibeth Barrett Browning and Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskell and Matthew Arnold and George Eliot and Walter Pater. Hell, fuck off if you want to ignore George Gissing. That's some good shit.) The point is (and really, I do have a point) I'm not some revolutionary at all.

It's just that I don't believe that literature begins and ends with Shakespeare (to give just one example). I want lots of important and canonical things to count for students. I want for the courses that students take (and that we require) to really show them the field. I want them to understand that historical coverage means covering a large swath of history in their upper-level classes - not just "really old shit" that they take because "really old shit" is required, but also not excluding "really old shit." I want them to understand that both American and British Literature matter - that it's not the early part of the 20th century and that we've really passed the point that Matthew Josephson was at in freaking 1916 when he lamented that "many of his own professors knew nothing yet of Melville or Dickinson and that they disparaged Henry James" (Fitch 232). I've got colleagues in 2009 who could be these 1916 professors. Dude, American literature exists and it's not radical to claim that it matters. We've got to acknowledge its centrality, especially as we live in America. And my specialization is not American literature, but I get that American literature counts and matters. And yes, texts from the 2oth and 21st century count and matter, too. In terms of the field today. Call me freaking Crazy. Clearly believing these things must mean that I'm off my rocker.

What was awesome about the students today is that they freaking know a hell of a lot more about the field as it stands today, and what matters in literary studies today, than some of my colleagues do - in spite of our current curriculum. And they really want rigor that doesn't exist in the current curriculum, in spite of it's circa 1970 requirements. Sure, they want choice, but they want to choose things that I think most professors in this field would call "good." They don't want Judith Krantz. They want people like Dreiser and Faulkner and Hannah Foster and Salman Rushdie and A.S. Byatt and Iris Murdoch and James Fennimore Cooper and Emily Bronte and Kurt Vonnegut. Seriously. And seriously, who'd want those authors as because they are "easy" or "fun"? Who'd choose them if they were just looking for cotton candy? Students are not saying that they want Dean Koontz. They want real coverage. Really? Those things are "easier" than Dryden? Or Pope? Or Marlowe? Or Aphra Behn? Seriously?

I've read all of the above, and personally I think that Behn is "easier" than Rushdie. But somehow Rushdie is "fun" and Behn isn't? Really? Read The Rover and then read Midnight's Children and report back. See which you think is more "fun" and "easy."

The point is, students freaking rock. And those who think that they have nothing substantive to offer to discussions of curriculum are stupid. Yep, I'm saying that. They are stupid. They are stupid and small-minded people. Not because students are customers that we serve, but because we're teaching them and they're learning and they have really awesome things to contribute. And if you reject those contributions, it's only evidence of the fact that you're a small-minded person and a short-sighted person. Period.

Tomorrow will be another long day, but I'm feeling very positive. Very, very positive. Because students are not idiots and they really have great things to say. That's more than I can say for some (and I should note that this is a small minority) of my "colleagues."

Today's Gonna Be a Long One


On the agenda:

  • Go to office and take care of some busy-work for student mtg I'm running this afternoon, as well as finish commenting on BES's thesis draft.
  • Interview with some university TV thingie about book.
  • Run student mtg.
  • Teeny tiny break.
  • Meet with BES.
  • Prep for class and grade stack of papers and midterms.
  • Teach.
  • Prep for tomorrow's classes.
  • Grade things that I must give back tomorrow.
  • Collapse.
Thursday looks similar.
Then Friday I go to see my father (though I'll also get qual. time with my mom and G. after that).

In other words, I suspect blogging will be light for the next short while.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Sure, the Student was Sucking Up, But I'll Take It

A student today, upon turning in hir take-home exam, told me that it was "awesome." I thought that ze was being sarcastic, but no. Ze went on and on about how much ze learned in doing the exam, how interesting it was working on the different parts....

Now, again, I do think there was a good bit of sucking up in the mix on this. But the other students, too, seemed to feel like they learned something from the take-home and like it was, in context, fairly enjoyable.

I love a test that students learn from doing. Love. That I appear to have succeeded in producing that for this class, well, that was the sort of thing that I needed today.

By the way, thanks for all of the comments on yesterday's post. It occurred to me today that yesterday would have been my mom and my dad's wedding anniversary, which may have had some effect on my emotional state. (It's always a weird day for me, in no small part because my dad often would call me on that day after the divorce, which I do think was a little bizarre, but whatever.) Anyway, I know I'm not totally alone, though I do wish that I had a brother or a sister who "got" things from my perspective. As far as going through this goes, I've got huge amounts of support from lots of corners, but I don't have anybody who is actually going through it with me. That's hard. And, frankly, I'm not into going through this at all, and I would like to throw a tantrum and refuse :) But so anyway, thanks again.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Bad Daughters, Bad Fathers, Etc.

When my parents split up, I was 11 years old. The divorce was finalized when I was 12. Let me get this out here first: I never thought it was my fault. I thought my parents were both assholes, to be honest, and I blamed them for not being grown-ups and for finding a way to honor the commitment that they made. I thought I was grand. I thought that the failure of their marriage was solidly their fault. They were the ones who promised to be together until one or the other of them died, and if they fucked that up, that really was on them. You could ask my mom and she would tell you that this was exactly my perspective: I'm not rewriting history as far as that goes.

No, where I started to wonder where I was a "bad daughter" was after the divorce. See, I knew them splitting wasn't about me. But when the split played out, well, I wondered whether I might be not the greatest daughter in the world - to my dad. I mean, sure, my mom is not the easiest person in the world to get along with, and sure, she can be a real bitch, but I always knew I was her number one most important thing to her. And yeah, she was a TOTAL bitch to my dad (at one point during the splitting up she spit in his face! Seriously! Who except for people on Rock of Love spits at people? And seriously, this was not the way of the two of them during their marriage) but she never actually got in the way of him seeing me. She didn't beg him to do so, but if he'd have manned up, well, she wouldn't have stood in his way. I know that with certainty, and I think my father should have known that, too, seeing as he knew my mom since they were both 14 years old.

See, the divorce agreement said my dad was to have every other weekend with me. My memories are fuzzy in the years when I was 11-13 years old, though I believe he saw me more frequently then, even though I don't remember many full weekends. But I can tell you with certainty that he saw me maybe 5 times - never for more than a few hours - over the entirety of the time that I was in high school. I can tell you with certainty that I wasn't invited to his wedding with my stepmother (when I was 13) and that I only found out that they were married after the fact. I can tell you with certainty that my stepmother was a bitch to me when they were first together, and those handful of times that I saw my father throughout my high school years that she was not present, I assume because she hated me. Or maybe because she thought I hated her and she was too much of a douchebag to get that I was a fucking kid and of course I thought she sucked but if she'd have made an effort then I'd have come around. Whatever. I can tell you that I only ever saw my father's side of the family - including 6 brothers and sisters and their kids and my grandmother - because my mom took me to see them - my dad cut them off (with the exception of one sister) as surely as he cut me off. The point is, the way my dad just... disappeared in that time... well yeah, it made me question whether I really was a cool kid. Whether it even mattered to him that I was his kid.

He believes that he didn't want to get in the way of my life with my friends in that time. That's what he's told me since. I'll note that it wasn't me who moved to the other side of town, which was why this was (if it even was) a problem. But I never had a room that was mine in his house, and I never was part of his life in a consistent way from the time my parents split.

Everything came to a head with my stepmother's first pregnancy, when I was about to turn 18. I only found out about it because my aunt told me that the baby had been stillborn, right around my birthday (in August - I hadn't invited my father to my high school graduation, though I found out later that my mother had sent him something telling him about it, which he ignored). I reacted not well. I called my dad on my birthday and bitched him out about not calling me on my birthday, knowing that he'd gone through that loss just a few days before, but pissed off because he hadn't even told me about the pregnancy. I acted like I didn't know that he'd just had a baby die. I made him tell me. Because I wanted to hurt him. Put this in the "bad daughter" column, if you're keeping score.

After that, things actually kind of got better with my dad. I had a car at that point, and we could manage our relationship without my mom, and I was basically grown, and he could relate to me on a friendy good-time level. He moved me home from college a couple of times, helped me out when my car died in Nowhere Ohio, we saw Buddy Guy and B.B. King in concert, etc. I thought things were going well. I introduced FL (high school and college boyfriend) to my father and his side of the family. And then my stepmother had my half-brother K. And all of a sudden she didn't think I was so much of a threat, and this was the time in my adult life where I was closest with my father and with my father's new life. I babysat K., and I visited with them somewhat regularly. Sure, I was astonished when my uncle acted like my father had contributed to paying for colleage at K's first birthday party (and I disabused him of that notion - my father paid for nothing of my education, and his pride in it has consistently pissed me off, since he never supported it), but we were in a "good place" then. Sure, I couldn't count on my father for shit, but things were fine, right? Sure, I felt like he didn't really know me and I consistently felt like I was crappy in relation to him, but that was all my mom's fault, right?

And then my dad "confessed" when my stepmom was pregnant with my youngest and most-favoritest half-brother C. that he was cheating on her. Over lunch. At a Ruby Tuesday's or Houlihan's or something. It was horrifying. I don't even know what I said, though I suspect it was something along the lines of, "What the fuck is wrong with you? Why are you telling me this? Do you expect me to tell you that this is ok?" I've done my best to repress this, and continued to try to have a relationship with my dad and his family. It sort of worked. Sort of.

And then grad school. This is when we became more distant again. My dad drove through Ph.D. Town when he went on vacation with his "real" family, and didn't bother to stop and see me. That was one clue that I sucked. And then I asked him to do something for me (a rare thing, that I would make a request) and he said yes at first, but then renegged. This was my last straw, and this was when I intentionally cut him off for over a year. I then started feeling like a "bad daughter" after about 8 months, and I wrote him a letter. He never responded. My stepmother got in touch with me, and this led to me visiting with them in the summer of 2004 for a few hours. My dad never even mentioned the thing that had caused the rift. He just acted like it never happened. From that point, he'd sent random emails to me, and I respond excitedly and extensively, and then he'd never reply. And then I feel like an idiot and like a shitty daughter, even though I know that I'm not. I'm the best daughter in the world to my parents who love me - my mom and G. - but apparently I suck for my father. Whatever. Fuck off, right?

And I make my peace with it. I think to myself that maybe things will be different with my dad if I get married, or if I have a kid. I think to myself that maybe when my brothers are grown up, or when I have a family of my own, that things will change with me and my dad. But then he gets cancer. Pancreatic cancer. Terminal cancer, right? All of what might happen once some time passes and some things change? Yeah, time's up for us! It's over! This is our relationship! Period.

And so I go see him in January, because I know that it's important. And I think I'll see him soon again. And he sends me an email and I send him an email back, but he doesn't reply. Which I figure is par for the course, because that's him, right? And I figure no news is good news. Except no news is actually that nobody is telling me fucking anything. I find out last week that he's in hospice, for once and for all, and apparently this isn't new news - this is news that came via my very persistent Great Aunt. And then my Favorite Aunt (my dad's sister) told me.

And I'd have gone up this weekend if it weren't for the fact that I didn't want to kill him with my horrifying cold. So I called my dad, and told him that I'd come this coming weekend if I wasn't feeling better. In the meantime, I got a report from Favorite Aunt about her visit (awful, though she said that my dad was very alert mentally, though ravaged physically). I then tried to call my dad. On his cell, which is HIS phone. I got my stepmother, who's apparently taken his phone from him ("he's too sick to talk on the phone anymore"). According to my stepmother, I shouldn't bother coming because he doesn't know who he sees anymore. According to my aunt (who I trust a hell of a lot more) he'd like to see me. Fuck.

So am I a "bad daughter" for not going up this weekend? I don't think so. I think I did the best I could. And I did go to see him in January even though it wasn't convenient, and I have done my best as his daughter since I was a kid. As I said to my stepmother, I'm planning to come visit him on Friday. Period. I think I should. I want to. If something changes (i.e., he dies) then I'd like to be informed. I know it's fucked up, but I have little faith she'd tell me that. Whatever. I plan to drive up on Friday. Am I a "bad daughter" for having done less than that? Given the father he's been over the past 22 years? I don't think so.

But is he a "bad father"? In a lot of ways, yeah. Was he there when I needed him to be? No. Was he what a father should be in all sorts of ways? No. But it struck me... my aunt said he was a good brother, when he was. Not always, but historically. She said that to him. He said to her, he tried. I believe he did. And historically, I believe he tried to be a good father to me. That's not to say he succeeded for a good bit of time. But I do believe that he meant to be a good father to me, and that he tried, when he could, when he was able. Was it enough? No. Is he lucky that I had G. as a surrogate? Without a doubt. But my father did try. He just failed a whole lot of the time.

And yeah, that sucks. Who wants to be a father who fails most of time? Nobody. But he also did love me. And he tried as hard as he knew how to try - it just wasn't enough.

So am I a bad daughter? I don't think I really am. I think I did the best I could with the dad that I had. Sure, I sucked in a lot of ways. But I tried. The truth is probably that my dad wasn't a "bad father" either. I think he did try to be as good as he could try to be. Sure, he wasn't everything I'd want him to be, nor everything he should have been. But he did try, when he did. I think a lot of times he just didn't believe that he could ever be what he should be, as a father, to me. I think he did better with his sons, though I won't really know that until I can talk to them as grown-ups, if I ever can do that anyway.

Bur my father is dying. And I don't know what I'm supposed to do, given all of this history. All I know is that it's horrible, and that I don't know what to do. And I know that I'm entirely alone in this, and that makes it more horrible.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

In Which the Man-Kitty Realizes a Dream

Life is always interesting, here with the Man-Kitty and his faithful sidekick Mr. Stripey. Mr. Stripey is affectionate and rambunctious and joyful, whereas the Man-Kitty... well, he has a more reserved personality and really doesn't like most people very much. He also plots and schemes.

At one time, his greatest wish was to figure out how to jump onto the top of the kitchen cabinets. It took him a couple of years, but he figured it out.

Now, a couple of years later, he has discovered how to get atop another high place - a place not intended for kitties. Mr. Stripey is intrigued by these things that M-K does, but for whatever reason, he does not attempt to imitate his antics. No, he just watches. Intently.

(My apologies for the lop-sided photograph - with the mirror in the picture, I had to make sure not to take a self-portrait as I captured this classic moment :)

Friday, March 13, 2009

You Know What's Great about Blogging?

Congratulations and celebrations, even when the inevitable has happened! Hooray!

But seriously, thanks all for the excitement over the final tenure decision. I'm excited, even though I know it's dumb, as really it was a done deal from the time I got the provost's letter a few months ago. And yet - yes, it's awesome to have the final word. And it's also awesome that everybody in my dept. who went up with me also got tenure! Yay!

Now, in non-self-congratulatory news, I actually got some (decent, though not totally productive) work done on the R&R. First, can I just say that (as I'd suspected) the reports really gave good freaking advice? I mean, I went through the manuscript, and I totally get where the comments were coming from, and I totally see why they made the suggestions that they made, and I totally see how to fix what's wrong. The true fixing will be for tomorrow, but yes, this will be a better essay for it. I'm a dummy for having procrastinated for so long out of fear. A serious dummy. In the words of A.'s nephew, I think that I was a real "whopper junior" (his latest name to call people who do lame things, which by the way I think is totally awesome as a term for lame-o people, and I plan to spread it around as such, as I encourage you to do as well.) Because you know what? The problems are along the lines of the exact same things that I tell my students that they need to do to make their papers better (though on a more sophisticated scale, of course). Basically, I need more analysis, more complication of assertions, more support, more complexity. And I'm totally prepared to do all of that. Looking over the article, it's clear to me why the harsher of the two readers responded as ze did. I probably would have been harder on myself than ze was, if I'm honest, if I were the reviewer. Seriously. These are really awesome and helpful readers' reports, and the suggestions are beyond manageable. Now, sure, this very selective journal may reject me ultimately, but even if they do, I know the article will be stronger for revising in these terms. Stronger on my terms, and something that I will be more proud of, at the end of the day. And if it is rejected, ultimately, I'll send it someplace else and be proud of it.

In other news, I started working on April Conference Paper (ACP henceforth) and I realized that I needed to take a trip back in the wayback machine to when I was doing my MA and to take a look at Jameson's Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. SERIOUSLY. WHO KNEW? I certainly didn't realize that I'd ever return to that, in anything other than a peripheral way. Especially in a paper that is, almost entirely, about the representation of gender and sexuality. But apparently, a) the things I read way back in Olden Times still are locked in my brain and b) I'm not totally locked into a Here's My Argument, Just Add Theorist I Use program, which is nice to know, as I sometimes worry that this is who I am. Apparently, I have original ideas every now and again. Original ideas that totally ignore my favorite theorists, in spite of my general tastes, which do lean toward my favorite theorists. Frederic Jameson is like some cardamom, in my general cooking repertoire, which includes salt, pepper, garlic, cayenne, and cumin. (Salt = Foucault, Pepper = Barthes, Garlic = Cixous, Cayenne = Butler).

So I'm sure I should do more work tonight, but I'm not gonna. Not. Gonna. Do. It.

Bad News, Good News

The Bad: I just found out that a panel I'd proposed for a conference wasn't accepted. Eh. One less thing I need to worry about.

The Good: The Board of Regents has approved my promotion to associate professor and my tenure. It's official. Done. Finis. (Not that this is real news, this part was a mere formality, etc., but it's still nice for the process to be totally complete.)

Work Expands to Fill the Time You Give It (One Hopes)

It is just after 2PM on the Friday of my spring break. I have accomplished nearly nothing. I have not graded, I have not worked on my R&R, I have not dealt with stuff for the CTTCCFPD, I have not begun work on April Conference Paper. I have managed to straighten up the living room and to do laundry. I have also been sick.


I'll be checking in here regularly with annoying updates about my accomplishments from this point forward. I need to feel like I am accountable to something, and the blog will have to serve. Ignore all posts between now and next week if you don't want to be bored stiff.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Melodrama, Nearly Over

Thanks for indulging my "I hate everything" post. Good conversation with FB. All is well there, and I no longer hate arguing with him because we are no longer arguing! Yay!

I still feel crappy, but I've slept most of the day away, I can almost breathe again, and I think I may be on the mend. As for seeing my dad.... well, I'll see how I feel tomorrow, but I think I'm going to go next weekend. Part of that is because it will mean 8+ hours of driving over a 48-hour period, and feeling like I feel, I don't think that's wise. As far as I can tell, going next weekend is soon enough.

In sick person news, why is it that I don't like orange juice really at all unless I'm sick? And why do I love it with a love that is pure and true when I am sick? It has always been thus.

I Hate Everything

  1. I'm sick as a dog with a stupid head-cold.
  2. This means that unless I have a miraculous recovery between now and tomorrow that I probably shouldn't go see my dying father this weekend.
  3. I'm arguing with FB, which really irritates me as I don't actually want to argue with him, except for that I need to because the things I'm upset about really are important, so if I don't fight about them they will never be resolved. He'll be irritated I'm posting about this at all, and yet I think I want to irritate him. That is not mature of me.
  4. My r&r is not done.
  5. It is gray and gloomy and cold outside.
  6. Spring break is almost over.
  7. I cannot breathe out of my right nostril, and yet my nose is also sort of runny. Oh, and rubbed raw from blowing it. (I know, too much information, but it's hard when you're in this state not to hate the world, as I know you all know.)
  8. I just feel miserable. Physically, emotionally, etc.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Spam Comments are LAME

And thus I've turned on comment moderation for posts more than a week old.

In other news, my dad is back in hospice (he was there for about a week, begged to go home, but now he's back, and I doubt will be returning home again). I'm not sure what to say about it. It's just sad and it really sucks.

Things Crazy Hates in Published Literary Criticism

Well, enough people seemed interested in my last post about things that I think are irritating at best and just plain wrong at worst when it comes to writing that I see in my discipline, that I figured I'd might as well do a post about that, and about how my preferences regarding published writing in my discipline translate into how I teach students to write about literature (which is informed by things I learned teaching comp and which bears not much resemblance to the way that I myself was taught to write about literature as an undergrad).

Now, let me just note for the record that I don't think I'm some expert arbiter of taste before whom others should bow on this stuff. I mean, seriously. I'm not so great, and what I'm about to write is not some definitive last word on these issues. Moreover, let me make it totally clear that I'm just talking about literary critical writing here. What I have to say may apply in other disciplines - or not - but I'm talking about my discipline here, because it's the one I'm trained in. Also, let's just note for the record that part of the reason that I'm writing this post is to warm myself up not to make these mistakes in the revise and resubmit that I must dig into knocking out today. I'm not coming from a place of perfection in my own scholarly writing, AT ALL, and there are a great many things that I can and should do better with in my own writing.

So, with those caveats in place, here is my list:

  • Good literary criticism for me opens with an interesting and specific hook. This can be theoretical, historical, oriented toward a specific issue in criticism or the world, biographical (although that's not my preference, personally), or it can be a "pivotal moment" from a primary literary text(s) under discussion. But the way into the piece should be engaging, and it should make it obvious up front what the writer is going to discuss. An article or chapter that opens with lit review - without first hooking me with something that I actually care about or without letting me know what the writer actually cares about - only to get to the point many paragraphs in, if ever at all, is lame.
  • I like literary criticism that really enters into conversation with its secondary sources - whether critical or theoretical. While it's important to me that an article or book demonstrate scholarly breadth, I'm annoyed when a writer uses quotes from sources to move quickly from one idea to the next without analyzing the sources or showing me why this source is useful in this context. You know you've read those articles, if you're in my field, where the whole thing is quotation after quotation linked together like a great collage of other people's ideas without very much insight actually provided on the page by the author. In these cases, I guess we're supposed to intuit what the author thinks of all of this quoted stuff?
  • Literary criticism should make a clear argument about a "way of reading" and it should make the reader see the primary literary text(s) in a new way. The fact is, there are books and articles that I've entirely disagreed with but that do an excellent job of this and that, for that reason, I find compelling. The point is not whether a piece "backs up" the ideas that I've already got. Good pieces of literary criticism aren't separated into two piles - the ones that "back me up" and the ones that are "stupid" or "wrong" or "bad." In fact, the more criticism I read, the more I realize that if I entirely agree with a piece, if I feel no need to talk back, then that's a bad sign.
  • Literary criticism should care about audience, and that should be evident through the rhythm of the prose (varying sentence structure and sentence length), through word choice, through clear sign-posting in a piece (reminding the reader where they've been and anticipating where they will go), through organization and structure that is easy to follow. Seriously. Being obscure is not a virtue in this genre. The point of literary criticism is, ultimately, to communicate something to an audience in a way that is clear without sacrificing sophistication. That's what makes it fun to write (and, in the best cases, fun to read). I'm not talking about dumbing down here, or about writing journalistically. But if your reader doesn't know what the heck is going on, or gets lost in jargon, or can't figure out what your piece has to do with the title, or figure out what exactly the argument is or how it's being supported, well, that's a problem.
  • Notes are an excellent thing, for directing a reader to useful sources and for expanding on a briefly made point. That said, one needs to exercise discretion in using them (I hate it when there are oodles of distracting and unnecessary notes that take me away from the actual article or book) or when people don't use them at all, and just throw everything into the main text (also distracting).
  • Literary criticism shouldn't be all argument and no context/support. The writer has to back up the claims in the piece and to put them into a critical (and theoretical or historical, where appropriate) context. Argument is central, but it alone with primary text support is not enough.
Now. You might say that this is a list that is pretty obvious, if we're thinking about literary studies in the 21st century.

And, if one confines one's reading to books that are put out by the best presses and articles that are put out by the best journals, all of which appeared in the past 10-15 years, usually one doesn't find these sorts of things with any kind of regularity. If, however, one burrows into the labyrinth of regional journals, journals that are basically conference proceedings, journals where established scholars never publish, books published by smaller presses, well, the above are more common than one would want them to be. And if one's research takes one back into stuff published pre-1990, or pre-1980, well, you see a lot of these things there, too. Depending on the specific thing that one is researching, too, one may not run into these things all that often. But if you research on something that is in any way obscure, you find yourself going to these sorts of sources because there are only 15 or 20 sources on your topic and you can't avoid them.

My point here isn't to dismiss things that appear in smaller or less rigorous venues out of hand (in my experience, I've found some gems in such venues, especially when the venue focuses on a specific author, for example), nor is it to dismiss scholarship that was produced in previous decades. First of all, just because one may see the above more frequently there, it doesn't mean that one will only see this kind of scholarship. Second, even if one encounters an article that does one or more of the above, there still may be worthwhile ideas to explore and with which to enter into conversation hidden within the irritating things. But in terms of my own writing, I don't want to bury my awesome ideas in irritating things, and I don't want my students to do that either.

Which brings me to the issue of communicating the above things to students - in my case, primarily undergraduate students. I think that there are probably three pieces to this for me: 1) teaching students effective strategies for research and reading criticism, 2) designing assignments that offer the students steps and breakdown the process for producing intelligible literary criticism of their own, 3) giving lots of feedback on students' own efforts at writing about literature. I'm going to limit my discussion here to stuff I do in upper-level literature classes for undergraduates.

1) Teaching students effective strategies for research and for reading criticism.
  1. I spend time in every upper-level class teaching students about writing with research. This involves talking about the differences between primary (literary) sources, theoretical sources, and secondary (critical) sources, and talking about how one integrates multiple kinds of sources into one's academic writing within the discipline of literary studies. Yes, these students have had composition classes. No, they did not learn how to do this with any kind of sophistication, not even when they had me for composition. The emphasis in required composition courses tends to be on researching responsibly and on writing in a general way with clarity. These are great foundations. They are not, however, the end of a student's education as an academic writer. The level of my students' writing in literature classes improved demonstrably when I started spending time in my lit classes on writing within the discipline.
  2. I spend time in every upper-level class teaching students about "why" we use different kinds of sources, and what different kinds of sources provide in terms of fleshing out our ideas. I talk about the publication process that an article goes through vs. that of a book. I talk about the necessity of using a range of sources, and using recent sources and not just old ones. I talk about where non-scholarly sources might fit into their papers, and about why non-scholarly sources can't be the only ones that they use (although I do not prohibit their use outright). I talk about determining the quality of a publication venue, and about how to evaluate the bibliographies of publications both to determine quality of a piece and to supplement their own independent research.
  3. I take every upper-level course to the library for advanced instruction on searching and using the best databases for literary research. We have great librarians, and they encourage me to participate and to offer comments within the library instruction. They also tailor the instruction to my specific requests for each class, so even if a student had library instruction in another upper-level class with me, they learn something new each time.
  4. I assign students an annotated bibliography, and we talk about how to scan sources in a way that is efficient for that assignment. I show students how to do reverse outlines of critical sources, where they should read carefully and where they should skim in order to boil an article down into a three sentence annotation that is useful as they move forward with their research. The annotated bibliography is due with their topic proposals, so it is framed as a beginning point in research - not as a plagiarism detection strategy, although it does help to cut down on plagiarism because it gets them researching early. It also allows me to give them feedback on the kinds of sources that they're finding, and for me to suggest sources that they're missing. (Because these are upper-level classes, I can easily direct them to sources in the field with which they aren't familiar with no actual legwork on my part. I can't do this as effectively when I teach comp because they're not typically writing on anything in my actual research area.)
  5. I talk about using sources as context for one's own ideas - not just to justify one's claims and not just as straw men to beat down with one's claims. I also talk about how to take a source that is not directly on one's topic and to integrate it into one's paper.
2) Designing assignments that offer the students steps and breakdown the process for producing intelligible literary criticism of their own.
  1. The first assignment I give my students is a presentation assignment. The student has to get background on a topic, to do some basic research, to connect the topic and background to the day's reading, and to offer a close reading of a passage from that reading that shows how it illustrates the topic. This allows each student to be an "expert" in one class meeting, and it allows them to practice some skills that they will need to engage in their written assignments.
  2. The second type of assignment is typically one that is primary-text oriented. Usually, I do a version of an assignment that I had as an undergraduate, in which students must present a fully developed argument about a passage in something that we read (their choice) in just one page (they can single-space). What makes my version of this assignment different from when I did it as a student is that I give them an assignment sheet that breaks down what they need to do in that one page and gives clear instructions about what must be included for them to succeed. They do this assignment four or five times throughout the semester, so that they can take the comments from each submission into account and to grow as critical readers of primary text materials and as critics of primary texts in their writing. I'm typically really tough on the shorter primary-text assignments, and typically that results in my students becoming much stronger writers. I can be tough because these assignments are very low-stakes in terms of the percentage of the grade that they affect.
  3. Finally, they do a research paper, and that assignment has two components: a) a proposal of an original topic with an annotated bibliography, and that proposal has clear instructions about what they must include, which basically mirror what a person includes when they submit an abstract for a conference in the field; b) the paper itself (though I have been building in a draft workshop day about a week before the paper is due). This assignment involves developing skills that the presentation and the short papers introduce them to.
3) Giving lots of feedback on students' own efforts at writing about literature.
  1. I comment extensively and directly on students' writing. I do not beat around the bush, nor do I spend much time on unequivocal praise. Not all students like this. However, when I give unequivocal praise, it's because the student truly deserves it - not because I had to go digging for something to make them feel good. Nevertheless, I care a lot about offering constructive feedback. I want students to know that I'm really reading their work, and that I'm really engaging with their ideas and with their writing. While I may not offer unequivocal praise on every paper, I do offer positive feedback on every paper, though usually with suggestions for how to make what they are doing even stronger. I do not spend inordinate amounts of time on nitpicky stuff (grammar, punctuation, etc.) but I spend a great deal of time on structure, argument, and analysis/exposition. I also try, where appropriate, to give feedback on stylistic things like varying sentence structure, avoiding passive sentence construction, etc.
  2. I spend lots of time meeting with students in person about their writing. You know how professors complain that students never come to them when they need help? So not a problem that I have. Why? Well, I insist that students make an appointment with me if they are really struggling, and I am not above holding papers hostage to get them into my office. I also positively reinforce students coming to see me by offering concrete and useful feedback on drafts, and I encourage students who take advantage of this to spread it around that it's helpful. It usually takes a couple of months to get things up and running with new students, but by semester's end, it's not uncommon for me to spend at least 3-5 hours a week in the last three weeks or so meeting with students about their papers. It's time well spent. I get awesome papers because I offer this one-on-one time, and the grading FLIES by.
When one moves out of the classroom context, to things like thesis advising, I think that the above strategies still apply, it's just that one is tailoring the "assignments" to the specific student and the specific project. I've had to think a lot about how to advise BES on breaking down her project into bite-sized chunks, about how to let her go her own way as much as is possible but to intervene when necessary when she's not getting where she needs to go on her own, and how to give her ownership over the project while at the same time guiding her through it. These things aren't entirely distinct from what I do in my classes, but because they are tailor-made to one person, it's been a challenge to keep myself in check and not to dominate the project. There are things that I, were this my project, would have approached differently, but it's not my project. I find in a classroom context that I rarely feel the investment that I feel with BES's project, and I rarely wish that I could just make my students do things my way, which I do sometimes feel in regard to BES and her thesis. But so thinking about my advisement of her in terms of creating assignments has been useful because it does keep me out of it, at least to some extent.

But so to conclude, you may be wondering, now that I've pontificated about all of this stuff, what my pitfalls are as a literary critic. Well, let me tell you. I've always been good with argument, but I've always had a weakness with really fleshing out my support. It's because I think what I think is totally obvious and all right-thinking people should see what I think is clearly the right way to think, without me actually developing my ideas fully. This is something that I've improved a great deal since graduate school, but it's still an issue in my writing. I have to be very careful about convoluted and passive sentence structure. Sign-posting and clear and tight structure are something of a battle for me. I am, however, very good at entering into conversation with theory and criticism, as long as I bother to include it in the first place. And I'm very good at the opening hook, I think. So I don't write all of the above as if I don't continue to work very hard at my own writing, as if I know everything there is to know about writing literary criticism, or as if I've resolved all of my own writing issues. Nah, that's just not the case. But I do think about the writing part of literary criticism a lot, and I work really hard to do literary critical writing well and to teach my students how to do it well.

I've wasted enough time. Need to shower and put my writing outfit on in order to get going with that R&R. Wish me luck!

Monday, March 09, 2009

Grad School Makes a Snob of Us All, But Usually I Fight the Impulse

Except for when I don't, that is.

Here's the thing. The place where I did my Ph.D. is not the most highly ranked school in the whole world. It's not too shabby, but in terms of those Big Lists of Where Programs Rank, it's not one of the ones featured in the top 10 or even in the top 25. Now, there are lots of reasons for this, few of which have to do with placement of its grads in t-t positions or with the success of its Ph.D.s once they end up on the tenure track. Basically, those big lists are based entirely on surveys, and since my program is a small one (because as far back as when I was admitted in 1997 they were already limiting the number of people that they admitted to fit how many people they could fully fund for 4 years, which meant my entering cohort numbered a whopping 6 or 7 people, if memory serves) and because the department itself has just one or two people covering each primary field in literary study (as opposed to having a slew of faculty for each specialization, so yes, I took classes all over the map during coursework and never TAd for a professor in my actual field), well, it's not necessarily going to do the greatest by the standards of the ranking people. That said, I was surprised to realize only after I'd gotten in just how stiff the competition is to get admitted to this program, and I was surprised to realize after I graduated just how highly people seem to regard me once they find out where I did the Ph.D. Anecdotally, I can tell you that the highest praise I've heard about the program is that it turns out, without fail, original scholars - scholars who aren't just shadowing their mentors but who really do independently interesting work. I can also tell you that as of when I finished the program (not sure about the stats now), my program placed more of its grads in t-t positions within 3 years than did Harvard (a number 1 program according to those who rank).

Now, I give all of this background to indicate a few different things. First, I'd never have applied there if I'd realized how good of a program it was. I went to a mediocre regional university for undergrad (unranked), and stepped up to what at the time was a top 75 grad program at a large urban public for the MA (they've since risen in the rankings). My Ph.D. program was a "reach" but I thought at the time that it was a reasonable one. (Apparently, after being on the wait list and somebody cooler than me passing their offer up, it was. But looking back now, I'd never have applied there.) So, I wasn't naturally inclined to snobbery, or to thinking that I was "worthy" of ending up at a top institution. Second, though, this was a grad program in the Northeast, and its faculty did think quite highly of themselves (and rightly so, I should add). So whatever my inclinations before I entered the Ph.D. program, I did learn how to be a snob there. I learned the difference in how people treated me with Fancy U. on my nametag at conferences, and I learned from my peers, who had gone to Ivys and Elite SLACS for undergrad, to look upon those in Lesser Programs with derision. (Needless to say, I didn't mention my humble beginnings much.) And I learned from my mentors what "real scholarship" is "supposed" to look like, and to perform scathing critiques of anything that didn't fit that model.

So, ending up at my current institution in a tenure-track gig meant I needed a bit of an attitude adjustment. I mean, first of all, that institutional affiliation on my nametag doesn't inspire people to chat me up anymore, unless they want to ask about how I'm surviving living in a place where people have three teeth, don't wear shoes, and marry their cousins. (Note: I'm actually in an urban area, but this is the stereotype of the whole state, an unfair one.) Second, my students are so not about the snobbery. Not only is it just not part of their m.o. personally, but also they will call you out on it if you display it in their presence. And not in a good way. Third, in order to be happy here, I had to stop caring quite so much about where I "rank" and where my students "rank." That's not to say that I don't push myself (I do) or my students (they'd probably be the first to tell you that I push them far more than they would like), but I push myself because I still have ideas that I'd like to pursue, and I push my students because I want them to have ideas. All of that rankings static doesn't mean much to me, in my current role. And yet, sometimes that educated snobbery rears its ugly head.

I was having a meeting a while back with BES about her senior thesis. (Incidentally, she's doing tremendously interesting work, but WOW am I needing to play mind games with her to get her to do it! She's pulling all of the things I remember pulling when I was dissertating - the freaking out, the avoidance, the anger, the refusal to revise, the apologies, the feelings of inadequacy, the elation.... all of it. It's very exhausting to go through this again from the other side.) Now, let's note that I'm pushing her to do work beyond what I really would expect her to do for a senior thesis. She can do more than that, so why not encourage (read: force) her to do that, right? She says she wants grad school, so better to let her know that expectation now than later, right? (Note: I've also let her know that she's already far exceeded the bar for a senior thesis, so I'm not totally sadistic here. She claims, on good days, that she wants to be pushed further.) But so anyway. We were having this meeting, and she'd recently returned to the secondary criticism to beef up her claims, and she mentioned that she came across this article that by the title had seemed like it would be awesome, but when she read it, the person was doing all of the things that I always tell her not to do, and she totally thought that it sucked and totally got why I tell her not to do those things because she hated reading something by somebody else who was doing them.

Now, good professor that I am, I wanted to know what the article was. I wanted to be sure that she wasn't just setting up a straw man (or lady) but that she was really engaging critically. I really didn't start off thinking that I was doing anything more than that. So she showed me the citation. And this is when the beastie of my Inner Grad-School-Educated Snob reared its ugly head. I should note that this only was possible because BES and I are "friends" of a sort, and so I sometimes forget that she's my "student" per se, but rather think of her as a junior colleague. This is no excuse for what follows, but it is an explanation.

First, I saw where the person had published the offending article. Before I even knew what I was saying, I dismissed the article because "that's not a real journal - everybody knows that." I then went on to explain all of the reasons why it's not a "real" journal. (Let's just note for the record that I've published in venues that aren't rigorously peer-reviewed, though they are important venues in my specific areas of interest, and while I'd argue that these are more meritorious than the journal that so offended me, others might say the exact same thing about places I've published.) Where things got out of control was that I then looked up the article in a database, and said, "Oh GOD! You're so right! This is awful!" which wouldn't necessarily have been the worst thing in the world to do, but then I proceeded to google the writer of the article.

I know. I'm a total asshole. And yet, the universe rewarded my googling with a wealth of information. The author received hir Ph.D. from an unranked institution, all of hir publications were of similarly low quality, and ze worked at a religiously affiliated institution (think statement of faith) in, well, I'll just say it, in Texas. I then waxed catty about all of the ways in which this piece of scholarship was wrong, based on the fact of it, and explained how the fact of it was underwritten by all of the googled information.

It was at this moment that Awesome Colleague from Another Department (ACAD from this point forward, and let's just say that she also has an awesome baby - well, toddler - who loves 90s dance music and will burst into song with lyrics like "Girl.... booty round... I just wanna... down" at the dinner table, and he is, indeed, also bilingual, and he is AWESOME) called across the hallway (her office is across from mine, and our doors were open), "CRAZY! I can't believe you! [guffaw] I never knew you had it in you!"

This brought me back to my senses, and I explained to BES that I'm a snob, and a bad person, and that this is why you don't want to go to graduate school, because seriously, it can instill such jerkitude in a person who is, like me, without couth. BES, sweet student that she is, said, "Dr. Crazy! You were just being honest! And I hated the article before you told me all of that!" And I said, "You shouldn't encourage me! I am not a generous person! I am bad!"

And then we giggled. Indeed. She and I giggled together. I have encouraged her through my bad behavior to emulate my bad tendencies. It's really quite sick. And it's exactly what happened to me throughout my education. I thought such horrifying snobbery was "cool." It is so not cool!

But then, in all of the rage-inducing curricular nonsense, what I realize is that while I may exhibit bad behavior that looks like (and even is) snobbishness from time to time, I'm not, ultimately, an actual snob. Actual snobs are about keeping people out. They're about keeping things "exclusive." What I'm about is not that. I'm actually totally about inclusivity. Now, I'll admit: a prejudice reared its ugly head when I saw the journal in which the article was published. But all of the subsequent info that I got - the institutional affiliation and institution that granted the Ph.D. - all of that wouldn't have mattered if when I saw the article I would have judged it awesome. All of that other stuff was ultimately secondary to my judgment of the article. This is not to diminish the ways in which I am a jerk, or to justify them, but it is to say that I made my judgment long before I found out more information about the author. The information that I found out confirmed my judgment, but it didn't make it for me.

What actual snobbishness is, in my recent experience, has nothing to do with how the snob (so-called) perceives the quality of scholarship or knowledge or teaching or anything else. It doesn't have to do with where an object of derision publishes, nor does it have to do with what that person publishes. Actual snobbishness has to do with trading on your grad program (highly ranked) as a way of putting yourself above other people (colleagues), even though you've not developed more than 5 new courses in your time at this institution (6+ years) and even though you've published in a fashion that is mediocre for this institution and inadequate for any instituion with more prestige. But you went to a fancy grad program! You're special! You know more than any of your colleagues, junior or senior, even if those people whom you claim to know more than have published books, went to excellent grad programs, teach amazing and innovative courses! All of the work that those people are doing, well, it just doesn't really count, does it? Because you've got this pedigree from an institution of rank. (And yes, I'm using rank here with the connotation of stinky firmly in my mind. Although, I'll say this, one of my most awesome mentors - unaccountably - got her Ph.D. at the same place. So all things are not created equal, even in this instance. In other words, the issue here is not the program. It's how people who went through the progam are using the fact that they did so for their own ends.)

I still feel badly about inviting BES into my snobbery in the way that I did. I don't think that it was necessary, or that I really taught her very much by doing that. If I had it to do over, I would probably have validated her sense that the article wasn't good, but I wouldn't have gone to the efforts that I did to diss the writer of that article. That was lame of me. It's not something I'd like to repeat, nor is it something that I'm proud of.

That said? If I've got to be a snob, I'd rather be the kind that exerts that tendency toward making my students do better. I'd rather be the kind that doesn't think that the fact that I went to X grad school means shit; I'd rather think that I'm the kind who thinks that what matters is her book. I'd so much rather care about making something new out of what I've learned than about remaking what I myself experienced as a student, as if that is "the best," just by virtue of it being what I myself experienced. Sure, doing something new might be a mistake. But isn't making a new mistake better than perpetrating an old one upon one's students? Just because it's the done thing? Just because you need to validate your own experience? And authorizing that with your pedigree? That's being an actual snob. And that's not what I am.

Perhaps I'm just a recreational snob? Yep. I think that's about right. But at least I am sensible enough to know that even recreational snobbery sucks.