Friday, April 30, 2010

Crisis Resolved

All is going to be ok with the house and closing will move forward as planned. Um, except I've got an ass-ton of grading, am on a search committee, and haven't really been packing for like the past week. I'd better get on that.... (Am not moving right at the close, but still, if the plan is to move before the end of May, I'd better get on this whole packing thing.)

Thursday, April 29, 2010

House Drama

So. As we all know, I'm buying a house. Or, well, trying to.

The house was being sold as a short sale, so the process has been a bit more... unconventional... than it otherwise might have been. A) It meant that the time between when I submitted my offer and when it was accepted was extended (though not as much as it might have been, from all reports from others who have bought short-sales or foreclosures). B) It meant that there was basically no room for negotiation after the home inspection, since I was already getting a "great deal" on this house.

Now, I knew what I was getting into with the above, and all of that was fine. Sure a few things came up in the home/pest inspection, but nothing major or that would stop me from buying the house for the price that I offered. I mean, I'm getting a "great deal" and so it all balances out.
But I'm also buying this house with an FHA loan, which means that FHA does their own inspection at the time of appraisal, which can bring up other issues that won't come up in a home inspection. The house appraised just fine, so that hurdle was jumped. But. Something did come up (a structural thing) in their inspection. It's not a huge deal, and, as my realtor has been constantly reminding me, wouldn't have even registered with a conventional loan. But I'm not going with a conventional loan. Why? Because I don't have fucking 30K just hanging out in a savings account. I mean, I'm the sort of person that the FHA loans were MADE to help out. But just because it wouldn't have registered with conventional financing doesn't mean that this isn't an actual issue with the house, either. And it's an actual issue that's going to cost like $1,500 to fix, and the loan is contingent upon this $1500 fix happening.

Now, if this were not a short-sale, I would go back to the seller and say, "Um, this is on you to fix, homeslice. And before the date of the close." But of course, it is a short-sale, and my seller is broke as a joke. The seller is not going to fix this problem prior to next Friday. Now, I'm not going to fix a house I don't own prior to next Friday, either. The solution available from the bank is that I put 1.5 x the cost of the fix (according to an estimate I submit) into escrow, and then once it has been fixed, I get that money back. But I have to do that at the date of the close. So all of a sudden, I am supposed to come up with like $2,300 by next Friday that I hadn't thought I'd need to lay out this month. (I have it, and I could do it, but you know what? $2,300 out of my pocket at close that I'd not expected to pay, with only a week's notice? Fuck. Off.) Sure, I'd get that money back ultimately, but still: fuck. off.

So my only recourse at this point, or at least the only obvious one, would be to go back to the banks involved and trying to get them to cough up the cash, whether by getting them to stick the money in the escrow account or by getting them to take it off the asking price. Which a) they may not do and b) could take weeks even to find out what their decision about doing it would be, thus making whole lots of people unhappy about the delay in closing: my realtor, my realtor's husband (who is the realtor for the seller), the seller, my bank that's doing the mortgage, and the banks who hold the mortgages on the house currently.

But you know who wouldn't care all that much about the delay in closing? Me. I am the person who has the least to lose if the closing is delayed. Sure, it would be annoying, and it would screw up my plans, but it's not like I'm going to be homeless if I have to wait a month to hear about this. Also, it pays for me to wait it out: I can't find another house and have a signed contract by the deadline to get the 8K tax credit, but I can wait it out on this house and still get the 8K tax credit, even though it would piss everybody else off.

Further, I think that it would be stupid for me to just eat the cost of this repair, as seriously: this is an actual structural issue with the house, however much it's not a big deal. It's not my fault that this came up as an issue - I don't even own this house yet. Dude, I can twiddle my thumbs for the next six weeks, and even still buy this house, and it wouldn't hurt me at all. In fact, it could even help me. I'm the strongest player in the mix here.

That said, I, too, would love for all of this to go away. So I presented a compromise option to my realtor to then relay to the seller tonight. It's basically a 50-50 proposition, that would allow for us to close on a week from tomorrow. Now, the seller (as of later tonight) can't do what I proposed, but she's working on a version of what I proposed that I could accept. BUT, what I made very clear is that unless it all works out according to my satisfaction, I shall SO wait on the banks for an answer. Because you know why? It hurts me not at all if I do so.

My realtor gets that, I get that, and I think my realtor has communicated to the seller how I feel about all of this. In other words, depending, I may well own a house a week from tomorrow. Or I may not. It's very hard to know. All I know is that where I am with this right now? LAME. And I am not going to eat the cost of this repair in its entirety just to grease the wheels of this process. NOT my responsibility to do that. NOT. At. All.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

In Which Crazy Says No

As you might have gathered if you've been reading this blog for any length of time, if I care about something, I regularly say "yes," even if saying "yes" is not the most advantageous thing that I can do in terms of protecting my time and productivity and well-being. For example, I recently said "yes" to serving on an internal search committee, even though it's the end of the semester and I'm fucking overwhelmed with personal life stuff. But the position is an important one, and I felt like it was important that I serve when my dean asked. (It's not just that he's a dean that inspired me here - it's that when this particular individual who happens to be my dean asks, I am strongly persuaded.) Anyhoodle.

Today, I said no. Not "I'll need some time to think it over," not "Well, who else will I be working with?" not "Exactly what will this service involve?" and not even, "Well, here's what else I'm doing and I'm not sure that I'll be as able to devote myself to this 100% and I believe this task should really get 100% from me." (Note: all of these responses often end up with me doing the thing I've been asked to do.) Nope. This time Upper Administrator Whom I Like and Respect Very Much asked, in a very flattering way (and flattery typically does get people everywhere with me, which is why it's so difficult to say no to the particular person who is my dean), but I immediately was all, "Um, totally no dice! I prefer not to! Indeed! The Magic 8-Ball says, unequivocally, a hundred times no! No ifs, ands, or buts! Not today, and not tomorrow and not a year from now! No, sir!"

Now, let's not pretend that if I hadn't said yes to that other search committee that I wouldn't have felt incredibly compelled to say yes to the thing that was asked of me. Having said "yes" to that other thing gave me a completely legitimate and easy way out of saying "yes" to this other thing. But, can I just say how AWESOME it was just to say no? It was AMAZING! It was FANTASTIC!

I have to say, for as much as I do say yes to the various things that are asked of me, I truly love it when I am certain that no is the right answer. I had a similar experience around this time last year, with the immediate and clear feeling that no was right, and I have had absolutely no regrets about that, and I know I won't regret saying no to this either. Also, I feel absolutely no guilt about it, nor do I worry that saying no will reflect badly on me. This, I suppose, is the good thing about saying yes as much as I do. When I say "no," well, everybody knows that it's with good reason and they don't think I suck because I did so. In fact, even the people who've asked me usually think better of me for saying no. Saying no motherfucking rocks. I love it with a love that is pure and true.

In other news, things with the House progress, but there is an FHA-loan-related snag (which is only a snag because it's a short-sale and I can't really go back to the seller to get this thing rectified - nothing with the appraisal (which is done) or with me as a borrower). I'm choosing not to freak out about this right now, especially because I'm supposed to close in less than two weeks, but it is... annoying. I just want everything to be in place - I don't want snags. So, I'm thinking positively for the moment, and hoping that all goes according to plan, but I'm also exercising caution in terms of real and true excitement.

In still other news. Very Good Journal, which wants to publish something of mine pending some minor revisions, except I haven't had time to do them and so I'm lame, has asked me to peer-review something for them. I feel like this is the perfect time to say, "Um, I know I suck for not getting my own article to you sooner, but it is coming, and sure I'll review this essay for you." With this all in the hopper, I think I've decided not to write the pedagogical essay for a special issue that I'd considered submitting. Something's got to give somewhere.

As for the upcoming conference paper, that's going to be just fine. Now I'm stressing re: the conference paper after that moreso, just because I know I've got to knock that out pretty quickly after conference paper #1.

I cannot wait until July, when in theory the house shit will be resolved (barring some sort of fuck you last-minute pull-out by me), the two conferences will be done, and I will be able to settle into the time of summer fellowship and sabbatical. I also cannot wait until the semester is really and truly put to bed.

So that's the latest.

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Conference Paper, or The Emphasis in Some Disciplines on Reading Aloud

I read the comment thread to this post over at Historiann's with interest, and the conversation turned to the convention in many humanities disciplines to "read" our papers, as opposed to "talking" them. (See also this post by Jonathan Rees.) I thought that it might be worthwhile to do a post that actually addresses that issue explicitly, because this is not the first time I've seen this conversation happen online, and it's a conversation that I've had frequently with real life colleagues outside of my discipline.

The conversation typically goes something like this.

Non-humanities person: "OMG! You actually read to each other?!?! WTF!?!?"

And then the humanities-type person responds with one of the following:

a.) "[mumble, mumble] um, yeah [mumble, mumble]"
b.) "I know! Isn't it outrageous! I am ashamed of the conventions of my discipline and I think it's all a bunch of old-fashioned hogwash!"
d.) "We do, and there are some benefits to it [and then the person enumerates the benefits]."
e.) "We like to rock it out old school in the way of monks! [hardy-har-har]"

So in order to move beyond the above responses (and I most frequently choose e, in case you were wondering), I want to talk a bit about why I think reading aloud is appropriate for the research that I present, and how the skill of reading aloud actually does translate into other parts of my professional life. (Because you know what? It totally does, contrary to what the haters of reading conference papers aloud say.)

1. I am not at all saying that reading aloud would be appropriate in all disciplines, or even that it is the most appropriate format for presenting all research in my own discipline.
2. I am not saying that sometimes listening to somebody read a paper doesn't suck.
3. I am not at all saying that a conference paper that is read should be written identically to something that one submits for publication.
4. Now, obviously, I'm coming from English, so my comments on the issue of reading conference papers is coming from that disciplinary perspective. I welcome my other humanities peeps to offer their insights in the comments about what their individual disciplines value and how that translates into what happens at conferences.

The Values and Substance of Scholarship in a Discipline

I think we need to begin by talking about what "research" means across and even within disciplines - what our primary motivations, our primary sources, and our methods are. Even within the broader discipline of English, there are times when it is less appropriate to read a paper, but this all depends on the primary motivations, sources, and methods that are being engaged. If one's research focuses on archival materials to which you are trying to introduce your audience, pedagogical research that engages some of the methodologies of social sciences fields, or research related to the field of rhetoric and composition that can also sometimes trend toward more social-science-y methods, then reading aloud for 15-20 minutes is not necessarily the best way to present the material. Why? Well, because the point of such a presentation is about introducing something to an audience that they've never seen before, and then "talking them through" the implications of this new discovery.


Let's say one is doing scholarship in literary studies that is not archival or pedagogical in nature, as mine generally isn't. When I present at a conference, my "primary source" material is generally quite familiar to my audience - or if it's not, all it would take would be a quick trip to the bookstore or library for an audience member to rectify that. I am not presenting "data" that I myself (or I in conjunction with a team) has generated to prove or disprove a hypothesis, nor am I presenting a brand new text that no one has ever seen before, nor am I presenting some practical innovation (in terms of pedagogy or in terms of technology). I am not modeling something that I discovered through experimentation, nor am I attempting to offer visuals that exemplify a particular phenomenon.

What I am offering, instead, is an interpretation. The source material isn't new, and typically the audience will have at least passing familiarity with the source material that I engage (whether we're talking about the literature itself, the theory that I use to read the literature, or the critical conversation that influences my reading of the literature), and so all that really matters, at the end of the day, is my argument about all of the above, how I bring it all together.

And this, I think, is where reading as a presentation method becomes essential. What my audience values is the interpretation that I put forward and the precise and specific structure of argument and analysis that I engage in order to make legitimate that interpretation. They don't come to see my panel so that I can teach them about the literature or introduce them to something that they've never encountered before. Instead, they come to my panel so that they can perhaps find a new way of seeing something with which they are already quite familiar (whether that familiarity is with the approach I take to an unfamiliar-to-them text or whether that familiarity is with the text itself and not with the approach).

In other words, the "new knowledge" that I offer as a result of my research is more about combination or approach than about "discovery," if that makes sense. And with that being the case, precision is all, and reading offers a pathway toward that precision. Every single word in that 15-20 minutes that comes out of my mouth counts to my audience because my primary agenda is not to communicate information but rather to demonstrate how my mind got to my particular interpretation and to convince the audience that how my mind works can assist their own engagement with a literary text.

A Real Life Example
Once upon a time, I presented a paper of mine at MLA. This paper was on The Most Famous Book Ever by Author X, on a panel sponsored by the Author X Society. Every single person in the audience had likely read this Famous Book, as well as the attending scholarship on it, and most in the audience had published their own articles not only on MFBE but also on other works in Author X's oeuvre. If I had gotten up there and talked my way through the presentation, showing slides with evocative quotations from MFBE and conversationally described my understanding of the novel and the criticism of it, this would have contributed absolutely nothing to the 30-year-long critical conversation about the novel. Further, I think it would have irritated people who'd been working on the novel intensively. I mean, dude, they know the novel backwards and forwards, and they know the gist of the critical conversation because they started it and continue to participate in it. Most of them in the audience were there not because they gave a crap about my paper but rather because they just wanted to see their friends. My job was not to alert them to some new discovery I'd made about the novel, or to synthesize all of the conversations about it (that had already been done) but rather to offer a new interpretation that would make them sit up and take notice. A pretty daunting task, given the audience, right? And any missing step in my logic or analysis would have immediately given them permission to check out.

So imagine my surprise when I got an email from an editor (an Author X scholar from the early days of Author X scholarship) who was in the audience, asking me to submit a polished version of the paper for consideration for Very Good Journal. The email went something like this: "When I attended the panel, I really hadn't expected to hear anything new about MFBE, given the fact that I've worked on it for 30 years and written multiple books on it. I just wanted to see my old friends who would also be at the panel. But your paper made me see the book in a new way, and I'd really like it if you submitted a full-length version for VGJ to consider." (The email was actually a good deal longer than that, and went on a lot about how the editor really thought there was nothing new to be said about MFBE, and went on a lot less about my awesomeness than my redacted version above indicates.)

My point here is that in my scholarly world, since all that really matters is the interpretation and convincing an Audience Who Knows, extreme care in presentation really, really matters. I don't care how great of a talker one is (and I'm a pretty good talker, if I do say so myself), I don't believe that anyone can exercise that extreme care that my field requires in talking through a presentation. The time for talking through one's research is in the Q and A after the panel, or at the reception or cocktail party that evening. Not in the time allotted for one's formal presentation of research.

[Note: there are a lot of times when "talking through a presentation" is exactly what's called for even in terms of my own research - in the classroom, at an internal research colloquium to people outside of the field, etc. I'm not saying that this is a skill I don't need. Just that in my experience it's not the only skill I need.]

The Difference between a Written/Read Conference Presentation and Writing for Publication

All of the above being said, a conference presentation that one reads must be very, very different from writing that is of publishable quality, if it is to work effectively as a presentation. The conference paper is its own genre, and it needs to be treated as such. It's important to remember that your audience is "hearing" your paper - not seeing it on the page - and it's important to remember that, as Michael Berube reminded me once when I was whining about writing a conference paper on this blog, you only have time to fully develop maybe half of an idea in a conference paper.

An engaging conference paper that one reads, as far as I can tell, involves the following things:
  • A real attention to the specific audience whom one will address. Is the audience likely to be familiar with the literary text and author on which your paper focuses? If so, jettison most plot summary and extraneous background material about the author. Is the audience likely to be more general? If so, you've got to offer a good amount of sign-posting so that the audience doesn't get lost.
  • Clarity and simplicity in terms of use of language (both word choice and sentence construction) and the structure of argument. Since people don't have the paper in front of them, you can't expect them to remain engaged with the paper if it's weighed down with tons of jargon, convoluted sentence structure, or confusing organization of ideas.
  • Making sure that your paper doesn't feel "read" but rather that it feels "performed." Reading a conference paper should feel more like auditioning for a play than it should feel like being forced to read something aloud in class when you're in ninth grade. In other words, performing the paper requires animation and interaction with the audience (eye contact, pauses for effect or to allow the audience to react, and if one is comfortable a planned aside or two, and as one prepares to present the paper, one needs to allow time for those things to happen so that one doesn't go over time).
  • Understanding that your paper starts a conversation and that it's not a finished, polished nugget. One needs to leave room for questions, as well as to anticipate how one might address those questions should they come up. The audience should feel like they want to talk after listening to your paper, not like they can't wait to leave to go grab lunch or a coffee.
Reading Aloud as a Translatable Professional Skill

An argument that is often made against the reading of conference papers is that it is not a skill that we practice or need elsewhere in our professional lives. For example, we don't read off lectures in our courses, or we don't ever have cause to read aloud in the other work that is required of us professionally.

It is true that I don't read lectures to my students. Truth be told, I don't lecture all that much. My pedagogical style is more oriented around generating class discussion than around lecturing. However, just because I don't read off lectures to my students doesn't mean that I don't read aloud to my classes. I would venture to say that I read aloud in nearly every class period in which I teach. Because here's the thing: one of the primary ways of engaging with written texts is through listening - not just through seeing. On the one hand, this is the way that most of us first encounter literature - through "story time" in which grown-ups read to us. And I think that it's important to return to that initial pleasurable experience of being read to in the classroom. On the other hand, I think that listening to the literature is important because it forces us to slow down and to savor each word that is read, as opposed to just plowing through an assignment so that one is prepared for class. We can often "hear" things in literary texts that we miss when we read silently, and careful close reading depends on catching those nuances. And so yes, I will often read to my students in order to draw their attention to a pivotal passage or to start a conversation about form and style. Pausing to read aloud gives students time to think, and it gives them precise things about which to think, and it moves us beyond a discussion of plot into a deeper discussion of the many different facets of the literary text.

I've also had cause to read aloud outside of a classroom context. Most notably, one of my service tasks this year required that a working group of which I was a part put together a power point slide-show with a recorded voice-over. (There were other working groups with the same assignment.) I agreed to do the voice-over duties, in part because I was the only person in my working group who had the skills of writing something to read aloud and to read aloud in an engaging and performance-based way. At first, when I made the offer to handle this part of our work, the rest of my group was all, "OMG! You actually read to each other?!?! WTF!?!?" But at the end of the project, my group's offering was the only one that worked as a polished presentation, that didn't involve ums and ahs and weird pauses and shuffling of papers, that had a clear and easy-to-follow argument, and that really used the time we had to fill in as comprehensive and tight a way possible. (The voice-overs in the other working groups were handled by people outside the humanities who "talk" their conference presentations.) While the plan that we presented wasn't ultimately the one that was chosen, across the university my group was complimented on the presentation of our ideas, and I had a weirdly large number of people note their surprise that it was me who did the voice-over because, in contrast to my regular "talking" voice, I was in "presentation" mode, which apparently people hadn't realized was part of my professional repertoire.

So, To Conclude:

I think when we think about what presentation formats are appropriate, we really need to think about the following:
  • What is being presented.
  • The goals of the presentation.
  • The demands of the audience.
Reading a paper aloud isn't just some old-fashioned refusal to keep up with the times: sometimes it really is the best possible way to address the above needs. Further, "talking" a presentation isn't always more interesting, more engaging, or more advantageous for keeping an audience's attention or for presenting research. I'll admit, I get kind of bored with claims that the way my field does things is wrong or out-of-touch, claims that are most typically made by people outside of my field who have no clue about what "research" or the presentation of it means in my field. And I also get bored with people in my or other humanities fields who think that they are in some way superior if they choose to present in another format that doesn't involve reading aloud.

This isn't to say that people shouldn't have the freedom to experiment with different presentation formats - of course I think that they should - but rather to say that there is nothing inherently superior about rejecting one format in favor of another. I have attended excellent presentations in which the presenter did not read his/her paper, so I'm not arguing that it's always better to read rather than to present in another way. Reading is not superior to presenting in another way, necessarily, just as "talking" a presentation isn't. Sometimes, however, reading one's paper aloud is the best choice of format in a particular context, not because it is superior as a format but because, at the end of the day, I believe that the content of what we present should drive the presentation format that we choose.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

No, Mom, My Sabbatical Will Not Be a Vacation

I love my mom. After years of me explaining my job to her, she does pretty much get it. But. Today there was a minor... regression.

See, one of our biggest sources of conflict throughout the time that I was in graduate school is that she would expect that during summers, for example, I would be on "summer vacation" and would just have all of this time to journey back to hometown and to be paraded around to distant relatives who I don't even know, as well as to my actual family (like aunts and uncles and first cousins of mine on my mom's side and on G.'s side - and let's just note that my mom's one of ten and G. is one of 4 living siblings plus 2 who have died since coming to America, all of whom have/had at least three kids of their own and whose kids are now having kids of their own) and that if I took any time to, I don't know, see my friends (who, let's note for the record since I'm basically an only child my hometown friends are seriously like sisters to me), or to see (when he was alive) my father or my father's side of the family, then I was a jerk. Or if I couldn't come for an extended period of time in order to be paraded to her heart's desire, or come when beckoned, that I was also a jerk.

After the long slog of grad school, she finally did seem to get that this was perhaps an unrealistic expectation on her part. And she's been very cool about not putting those sorts of demands on me since I started on the tenure track.

But here we are, with my sabbatical near on the horizon. Let's note that I've got two conferences this summer, MLA in January, a conference to plan (which I'm hosting) for next summer, as well as substantial work on a draft of a book manuscript to accomplish between now and when I return to the classroom. Um, no, Mom, I will not "have all this time being on sabbatical" where you can expect me to devote days and days to seeing second and third cousins that I've met maybe twice in my life. Those people are not actually my family. I don't know them. And also, let me just say again, that sabbatical does not equal "having all this time."

And when I alerted her to this fact when she expressed this expectation on the phone today, oh yes, she accused me of being a jerk. GAAAHHHRRRGGGGHHH!!!!!

I have grown up slightly in that I didn't let the whole thing escalate into a fight, and I actually did offer her a compromise solution (if she really wants me to see these people, then she's just going to have to invite them over to our house so that I'm not trapped for like 5 hours at a pop while she visits and I sit there twiddling my thumbs, which was a challenge for her because she never has people over, but guess what: you can't expect that I'm going to devote 2-3 days to seeing people I don't know when the only times I'm planning to be in town between now and 2011 will be for two weddings of actual cousins of my own).

At any rate, the whole thing with your non-academic parent, who you think you've educated into understanding the requirements of your job, not understanding anything about your job or your life or your responsibilities? It never motherfucking ends. Sigh.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

In Which the Freak-Out of the Last Post Has Subsided

"It was an uncertain spring."

As I opened up Virginia Woolf's The Years yesterday, deciding to read rather than to pack or to grade, and when I read that sentence, I knew that the decision to read, to read carefully and with pen in hand, and to read this particular book, rather than to do all of those other things that I "must" do, was the right one.

The Years is a novel that I last read with care when I was an undergraduate working on my senior honors thesis. That was an uncertain spring. I was anticipating graduate school, and I didn't really know what that would be like or would come next for me in a broader sense. I was 21 years old, and the future stretched out before me like blank and uncharted territory. It was exciting, and it was terrifying. I saw change coming, but I had no idea what that change would look like or who I would become on the other side of it.

It's 14 years later, and it is another uncertain spring. Yes, there are some things in my life that are much more certain, now. With tenure comes certainty - at least about one's professional life. It's easy to forget when one is bound by that kind of certainty that change is still possible, and that when change is on the horizon, however bound by certainty one is in a particular part of one's life, it is still both exhilarating and scary.

The Years is a novel that's all about change - sweeping historical change, changeable weather, changes in relationships. It is a novel that refuses its reader comfort - every time someone almost says something really important, the narrative cuts away. It is a novel of gaps and of missing pieces. It refuses the reader easy pleasures. On the other hand, it's also a novel that is in many respects incredibly comforting in terms of how it works at the level of character development and exposition. It is a novel that for me evokes the presence of the past, even as it is a novel about how change happens in fits and starts, separating us from the past.

As I read throughout yesterday afternoon and into last night, I found myself marveling at the book's beauty, and also about how perfect a book it was for me to dive into at this particular moment. It's funny: I remember feeling the same way at 21, though for entirely different reasons. One of the things that has been somewhat challenging is reading the book with my annotations from that first careful reading (many fewer annotations, thank god, than I'm making now), annotations that remind me of how naive and undeveloped I still was then as a reader. But, if I'm being more generous, those annotations also remind me of how bright and fresh I was then, and that is kind of nice, too - like getting to see my student-self, and getting to think about the things that I would want to force my student-self to think about, knowing now what I didn't know then, which is sort of awesome. Since I will teach this novel for the first time next year, when I return from sabbatical, I think this is also a really valuable exercise, as my old marginalia gives me a map for thinking about how my students may encounter the novel when they read it for the first time.

Returning to this novel also reminded me of a detail of my intellectual and professional history that I haven't thought about in any sort of comprehensive way in a very long time. In the June of 1996, at the encouragement of my honors thesis adviser, I gave my first ever conference presentation, which just so happened to focus on this novel. In the weeks leading up to the conference, I was terrified. I mean, I had only just finished undergrad. I was terrified that I wasn't qualified to talk about literature in front of "real professors," terrified that all of the things that I had to say were stupid only I was too stupid to know how stupid they were, terrified that what I would present just wouldn't be good enough. Terrified that I was sort of a slacker and a lazy scholar and that in giving the presentation that I would be found out as just those things. Sound familiar? Um, yeah, I may be 14 years older and a tenured professor with a Ph.D. who has published a freaking book, but apparently I'm still the same person.

It's also worth noting that it was in that June of 1996 that I met VSIG for the first time, and he was interested and kind and totally didn't act like he thought I was a fraud, and since that first meeting, he's been a mentor and a friend.

It's also worth noting that the entire reason I thought to return to this book at all is because another mentor - one of the people whom I admire most in my field and who has been a huge help to me professionally with absolutely nothing in it for her - suggested that I do so when I started talking to her about my ideas for the Next Book at an MLA party this year. In other words, I'm not coming from out of left field with the ideas that I've got, and I'm not some novice who has no business having the ideas that she has. I'm on the right track.

And rereading yesterday, I found everything I needed right there in the book. I think I was so freaked out a couple of days ago partly because I was afraid that I wouldn't find what I needed - not only in terms of scholarship, but also just in terms of.... I don't know. Emotionally. That I wouldn't find the book that I remembered, or that I wouldn't find the self - my self - that I needed to find. I don't know if that makes sense, but that's the best way I know to try to articulate it. Because here's the thing: as much as I think that work reading is different from other kinds of reading, and while I think that has to be the case in order to move beyond initial reactions into deep and careful analysis, I also believe that unless I find the self that I need to find in the work stuff, that an intrinsic spark goes missing from anything I might ultimately write. It's the difference, if we want to think about it in undergraduate terms, between writing the obvious paper that will secure you a B+, with a minimum of mental stretching, and writing the risky paper that has the potential to get you an A+, even though attempting that will kick your ass and may end up not working out as planned. It's the difference between writing something that allows you to jump through a hoop and writing something about which you really care, about which you really believe you need to communicate to other people.

In that way for me, scholarship and teaching are linked. In both areas, what's exciting to me is the prospect that the way I see a work of literature has the potential to shape how other people see it. If I don't care - on a personal level - the work just feels empty and pointless - whether we're talking about scholarly work or work in the classroom.

But so anyway, I'm feeling a lot better. I'm feeling like even if that conference paper doesn't end up being as polished and tight as I'd like, that it will have substance. I'm feeling confident.

On a final note, you may notice that I'm not being as vague as usual about research stuff in this post. I think that this is in part about the transition into sabbatical - I mean, if I'm not going to write about research in a non-vague way over the next 9 months, what am I going to write about? 'Cause I know you all don't want to just read annoying whining to-do lists, though I'm sure there will be some of those, too.... - but I also think.... I don't know. It just feels like the right thing for right now.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

In Which My Slackery Ways Catch Up with Me

So you all know that I've got a conference coming up in the near-ish future. The paper that I will give is related to the Next Book, at least in theory. I say at least in theory because, well, let's just say that the paper is at this point only a vague idea inside of my brain.

But so anyway, the program for the conference is up online, and I took a gander at the schedule yesterday, and I'm a little... concerned. Somehow, I have been placed on a panel with Very Super-Important Guy. (I am not exaggerating his very super-importance: he literally is THE authority on the author whose work on which I'll present.) Now, VSIG and I are friendly, and I've known him since like 1996 (the only reason that this is important is that when I first met VSIG I didn't realize how very super-important he was, because I was clueless, and so only was intimidated after the fact because really he's incredibly nice and generous, which probably served me well, in the long run, but still). But it's one thing to be friendly with VSIG in a "let's chat and have a glass of wine at MLA" way, and entirely another to be on a freaking panel with him with work that does not yet even exist. And, beyond not wanting to embarrass myself in front of VSIG, his very super importantness means that a goodly number of OTHER very super important people will likely attend the panel, too, so there is a HUGE potential for me to make an utter and complete ass of myself.

I suppose the bright side of this is that I realized it all while I still have time to do something about it. There was another conference a few years ago where he showed up unexpectedly in the audience to hear the paper that I was presenting, and that was scary indeed, so at least in this scenario I'm forewarned. Of course, the dark underbelly of this situation, though, is that it's not like I can focus on this paper at all over the next month in the way that I really need to do because I'm motherfucking moving and school is ending and I'm on a search committee and I have no time to do anything other than crap this paper together.

So, readers, let this be a lesson to you. Don't write abstracts in January for vague and fuzzy ideas that you will then have to turn into super-polished work by June. It's very anxiety-producing.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Academic Blogospheres

I should be packing and purging. But I'm taking a wee break. Since reading this post yesterday, I've been mulling, and while I'm not going to respond to what inspired her post, I do want to write, and to think through, something that Anastasia brings up. Specifically, this:

Blogging is a powerful forum for graduate students because our voices aren't moderated. In this forum, I am freed to speak to other academic folk as an equal and a colleague.

Except I see an increasing polarization of faculty and grad students. The grad students are "listening in" on faculty conversations in the blogosphere. The faculty bloggers sneer at graduate students who are just so naive.

Is it the economy? The shitty market? Is it an invasion of people who are equally prickly in real life? Or has our discourse evolved in a direction that lends itself to the reification in writing of the same damn dynamics of power that characterize my offline life in academia?

I feel pretty squarely put in my place by the way some of ya'll choose to write.

It's a shame, really, given that when I started blogging I wasn't even sure all the time if the blogs I read were by graduate students or faculty. I read them because they were honest and fresh and because the people who wrote them treated me like a person first and a graduate student second. We all blended together. And I really did feel like a respected member of the community and a junior colleague.

I love many of you with a love that is pure and true, but I no longer see the academic blogsophere as that kind of haven. I think maybe we killed it. But it was nice while it lasted.

I think it's worth thinking, first of all, about how the "academic blogosphere" came into being. I think that many of us who started blogging 5 or so years ago (OMG! I think I actually began blogging as Dr. Crazy, though not in this space, in 2004! Nearly 6 full years ago! That is INSANE!), were inspired to start because we felt, for whatever reason, like we didn't have a voice in whatever our context was. Invisible Adjunct's now defunct blog was a model for how powerful a medium blogging could be for speaking about academic culture and for developing community across experiences within academia. It's easy to look back on that time (and blog years are sort of like dog years - 6 years is seriously like a generation when we're talking about blogging) as one in which blogging as a genre was this fresh new thing, and to see blogging as creating a forum that allowed for the free exchange of ideas across hierarchies where everything was sweetness and light, but as I look back, I don't actually remember it being like that, or at least not entirely.

Back in the olden times of aught-four, major kerfuffles arose between various factions, as we all tried to determine what it meant to blog as academic people. There was a lot of friction between people who saw using a pseudonym as a crime against verifiable academic discourse and those who saw using a pseudonym as essential to protecting their real-life progress in the profession. I remember a major hullabaloo that occurred during my first months of blogging between child-free academic bloggers and ones who had children. There were deep divisions between those who saw blogging as a medium that was an extension of their professional scholarly lives (more "cooked" blogs, like Michael Berube's), and those who saw blogging as a medium in which we could weave the personal and the professional more seamlessly together (more "raw" blogs like mine).* And yes, there were even conflicts between graduate students who felt like people on the tenure track were "talking down" to them, or were not treating them like proper colleagues.

There were, in other words, even in those early days, controversies about who had authority and who didn't, and about what communities could or should develop through the medium of blogging. There were people who felt left out, and there were people who felt invited in. And some of those same controversies that I recall from the early days come back around every year or two, as people's positions change, whether those changes in position have to do with personal-life things (having children, changes in marital status, changes in location) or professional (finishing graduate school, getting a tenure-track job, getting tenure, leaving academia).

I also think that people's blogging identities have evolved as they've blogged for longer and longer, or at least I know mine has. Whereas early on I was constantly negotiating issues of authority and voice on the blog, those things now feel habitual, and I feel a lot less concern about self-presentation on my blog. (I do think this also goes along with my greater comfort in all of the kinds of writing that I do, even off-blog writing.) Whereas early on I paid a lot of attention to who was reading my blog, who was linking to my blog, and how many hits I was getting and where those hits were from, I just don't pay much attention to that now. (Seriously: I haven't looked at my stats in at least 6 months, if not longer.) I used to feel a lot more insecurity about revealing my "real life" identity to readers, or about being "found out." Now, I count among my real friends some people whom I "met" through my blog. I guess, if I want to put it succinctly, I've relaxed into my blog as just one more part of my life, and I don't agonize over the "space" that I've created or what it all "means," which I used to spend a lot of time doing.

On the other hand, though, as a corollary to all of the above, I do think that this space is much less of a free-for-all than it once was, in ways both positive and negative. Positively, I think there's a lot less conflict generated by my blog, and that has a lot to do with me learning when I should just shut up. (Not that I don't still make some mistakes in this regard, but those mistakes are a lot fewer and farther apart.) Negatively, there are hundreds of people who read or have read this blog who've never commented here, and likely at least some of them haven't done so because they don't feel welcome or they don't feel like they're part of the clique of those who do comment. While I don't exert a heavy hand in moderating most comment threads, and I don't have a moderation policy - I mean, seriously, if people post a comment, nine times out of ten it goes through without any sort of intervention or push-back by me, and that's even if the person is very critical - I do have comment moderation enabled for old posts and I don't allow anonymous comments, mainly to stop people from grinding their own axes in my space, from attacking my other commenters, or from contributing in unproductive ways (and also to keep the spam to a minimum). While I like that people leave comments, I'm also not interested in having the sort of blog where people get in snits with one another in comments. Does that shut down certain kinds of conversations? I'm sure that it does. But it also makes my life more pleasant, and it's my party, and the pleasantness of my life is more important than letting people duke it out with each other in comments to my posts. Because, dude, that is stressful, and it makes me feel yucky and like I don't want to post. So while I'm sometimes jealous of the spirited and lengthy comment threads that are a regular feature of other blogs, I'd rather not deal with managing such spirited and lengthy comment threads.

Another thing that I think about a fair amount is how comfortable (and probably set-in-my-ways) I've become in terms of my blog reading. I don't really go seeking out new blogs to read very much anymore, nor do I go out of my way to link to a range of other blogs in my posts. At any given time, I probably am a daily reader of about 5 or 6 blogs (though I have many more on my reader that I keep less steady track of), and most of those are blogs by people with whom I'm now friendly in real life. That's kind of lame, and kind of lazy. But the thing is, it's just not that important to me anymore to get new readers by linking to unfamiliar blogs or by commenting on unfamiliar blogs, and I've really been too busy to devote much time to thinking about blogging over the past couple of years - and reading around to find new blogs - blogs that will most likely go belly-up in 6 months or less - is time-consuming. This means that I'm rarely in a position where I'm going to encounter a blog by a person who doesn't leave comments here, or to a person who's new to blogging - not unless somebody else I read links to that person. And, let's be real: even if I encounter a new blog, that doesn't mean that the blog, even if I like it, immediately makes it to my "must read" list. Anyway. All of this is a long way of saying that I know I'm guilty of not really expanding the academic community that I've fostered in this space or of inviting new voices into it. That's not to say that new folks aren't welcome - it's just to say that I'm kind of an asshole who puts it on the newbies to introduce themselves and to make their presence known.

Finally, there is this issue of personal and professional growth. I think that this space has perhaps become less open to contributions from grad students or adjuncts, just for example, because the things that I'm driven to post about, while grad students or adjuncts may find them interesting, are less directly linked to their experience or to their primary concerns. Especially over the past year, I think a lot of my posts have trended toward talking about things that are central to my experience now that I have tenure, but that before tenure were things that barely registered as interesting to me, or at the very least didn't register as significant things I had to think about. I don't post about those things to leave people out, but if I post about them, they are going to leave people out - because the fact of the matter is that with tenure comes a vast amount of privilege, and if readers don't have that privilege, they are likely going to feel silenced. I mean, I do get that. While I might bitch and moan in this space about committee work and mentoring junior faculty and all of that, and while I think those are completely legitimate topics for me to cover, I also do know that if readers are not in tenure-track positions that they aren't going to have a lot to contribute to those conversations, or they will feel disenfranchised and like they have no place in contributing. The fact is, I don't know of a way around that.

Also, though, just as I've grown and changed personally and professionally, so, too, have my readers. People who were my grad student readers or adjunct readers are now in positions on the tenure-track themselves. People who, like me, were junior faculty sorts of readers have either left the profession or are now tenured faculty. These changes have made this community look a whole lot more homogeneous, but I'm not sure that's because it is, or because anybody - whether me or my readers - intends to silence anybody else. I think it's just in a lot of ways the nature of how these communities develop.

So what I wonder is, are there other academic blogospheres emerging - a new generation of academic bloggers, if you will - of which I'm just unaware? Or is tweeting the new blogging for that next generation of academics? Is it just that this particular community of academics is not the One True Online Academic Community? I'm inclined to think that this must be the case. Because actually, this blogging community never was the OTOAC - long before the academic blogosphere there were the Chronicle Forums.

But so anyway. Are you a lurker who reads Reassigned Time but who never comments? Well maybe it's time for you to de-lurk and to say hello. Are you a reader who feels like you're being silenced or like you're an outsider to the conversation? Maybe leave a comment to this post and talk about why, or about what you'd like me to post about that you would feel compelled to comment on. Or do you blog but I've never heard of your blog, and you'd like me to check out what you're writing? Tell me where to go read, and I'll get on it. In other words, the point isn't that the people who read and comment over here are some sort of elite group and there are no open slots for new people. And I could not care less whether people are grad students or adjuncts or tenure-track or tenured. It's not like there's some credential people need for me to think that they've got something interesting to say. It's just that most of the time I'm too distracted by other stuff to remember that sometimes you need to roll out the welcome mat in order for people to feel welcome.

*The "raw" and "cooked" terminology was Berube's, but what's funny is that I think as the years have rolled by that his blog has become more "raw" - especially when he writes about Jamie - and my blog has become more "cooked." In other words, it's not like these are fixed subject-positions in the blogging world.

Edited to add: In this post, I originally didn't link to the post over at Notorious Ph.D.'s or to its follow-up
. I made that choice because I didn't really think that the section of Anastasia's post to which I wanted to respond had much to do with that original post, or anything that happened in the comments. In fact, in that post itself, Notorious Ph.D. very clearly stated what the rules for commenting would be: "ONE POST PER PERSON, AND KEEP IT BRIEF. Otherwise, people will just skip over it." When I read that direction, it appeared to me that she was trying to make sure that the comments remained a conversation and that no one person dominated or whatever. Perhaps others read it differently, they skimmed over that part of the post, or they just didn't think that she really meant it? But so when she stepped in to moderate, reminding people of the rules that were clearly outlined in the post, I didn't think that it was pulling rank or being a jerk or anything of the kind: I thought it was running her blog as she clearly stated to her readers that she would be running it at the outset. No controversy there as far as I was concerned, and really that all had nothing, as far as I could tell, to do with what I wanted to post about. But now a people have directed me to the original post over at Notorious's, or have referred to it in comments. So I feel like in the interest of keeping all people who read over here who don't read over there fully informed and contextualized that I should add the links to the end of this post.

Let me just note, though, that I think that my post is about issues much broader than one person's blog post or choice of how to moderate a discussion on her blog, or one person's negative reaction to those things. I'm trying to think more broadly about the communities that develop between academics online, across stages of career and across disciplines. And further, I'm trying to think about how those communities grow and change over time, and what the implications of that growth and change are. So this addendum is not meant to put me on one side or another in any specific debate. It's just to give my take on the broader issues in play, but I figured after the fact that it made sense to provide more context than I did originally.

Hoarding, Packing

Ok, have any of you watched that show Hoarders? Because I've watched it a good amount, and I find it incredibly compelling, and I've been thinking about it a lot as I've begun packing.

Now, I'm not an actual hoarder. I don't go into a panic about getting rid of "my treasures" or "keepsakes," and when I sit down to actually get rid of stuff that we'd all consider garbage, I'm pretty good at just getting rid of it and not hanging onto it because "someday I might regret getting rid of that grocery list from 6 months ago" or whatever. But when you live in one place for approximately 7 years, or at least when I do, a certain amount of accumulation does occur. And a lot of what I've accumulated really has to go.

Now, on the one hand, I have a lot of stuff that many people would consider to be... unnecessary. In just thinking about books alone - I've packed 8 boxes, and I still probably have about 1/3 of my total collection of books to pack - many people would say, "but you're not going to reread those books! Get rid of them! Donate them to the library! Sell them to a used bookstore! Away with all the books!" I think, for example, that Cyndi the Realtor would be of that opinion - indeed, when I suggested that I was concerned about where my books would go when we looked at the house, and when I noted that not all of my books would fit in The Nook of Ideas, she asked, sincerely, "But do you really need to have all of your books out and accessible all the time?" Now, for a normal person, that was probably a reasonable question, but I am not a normal person. I am an English professor. Yes, it's important for me to keep and have accessible all of these books (though it is not necessary, or even desirable, for all books to be in the Nook). (I should note that I have not kept every book I've ever bought or acquired, and I've regularly weeded books out even while living here. If I hadn't done, I would probably have twice as many books. Seriously.)

And then there's the paper. PAPER. Different versions of drafts of scholarly stuff, printed out articles, research notes, etc. Now, last year I totally went through all of this and got rid of a ton of unnecessary stuff. But that still leaves me with a lot, a lot that I still "need." And no, I can't just start doing all of this electronically. I've done a lot more as time has passed on the computer (my entire process used to be hard copy - I mean, heck I used to write everything out longhand before ever sitting down at the computer!), but the way that I write very much involves paper because I can't think as deeply as I need to think and as slowly as I need to think without it. And so managing the paper is an issue.

And let's not even talk about the kitchen and my closet and etc.

But. With the thought of moving into my very own house, I am motivated. I DO NOT want to move all of this crap with me. And so. I am in the middle of One Great Massive Purge. Ideally, there will be no weeding out of shit once I've moved. Ideally, all of the weeding out shall occur now, on the front end, and unpacking after the move will only involve unpacking. As you might imagine, the One Great Massive Purge is quite a large undertaking.

On the other hand, though, it also is... how do I put it... really energizing. It's like with each decision not to pack something or not to move it with me I become less and less stressed out. Less burdened by stuff. And I'm finding the decisions about what not to move to be much easier than decisions to keep or to toss when I'm not. Moving is a huge motivator, maybe because I know that the more that I take with me the more work it will be for me on the other end.

Going along with all of this purging is also list-making about where things will go in the new house, as well as list-making about things I will buy for the new house. As much as I want a new couch, I've decided that I'm just going to get my current couch cleaned professionally and keep it for another couple of years, which will mean that I'll have the money to buy a nice comfy chair and ottoman. Also, instead of buying a brand new full sized vacuum cleaner, I'm instead going to get something like this one, since my vacuum cleaner right now works fine - it's just that it would be a pain to use for vacuuming the stairs. So the old vacuum will just live in the closet in the front bedroom, and the hand-held one will be the one I use for the stairs and the furniture. I've also decided that I'm going to go the yard sale/thrift store route for dressers for the bedrooms, as the reality is that these are not huge McMansion Style bedrooms, and they really can't support gigantic dressers like one typically sees in furniture stores. I'm going to wait on dealing with the dishwasher issue until I've been in the house for a few months, though I do want that taken care of before winter comes. I know, I know, in some ways it would be easier to do this before I move in, except I don't want to get myself in over my head with money stuff right off the bat, and given the fact that I've got a lot of trips and stuff between when I move in and mid-July, it just doesn't make sense to rush. Since I'll be on sabbatical and not teaching, not having a dishwasher for a few months is not going to be a major hardship. Similarly, I'm going to deal with the porch/deck furniture when sales on that stuff begin in July, both to save money and because I won't really be around a whole lot in the couple of months preceding.

There's more, but you get the picture. I'm finally thinking in an organized way about what I need, where things will go, what needs to be done immediately and what can wait a bit. All of this feels very good, and I am not freaking out in the way that I was just a week or two ago. I'm a lady with a plan.

But so anyway, I should get going with my tasks for today. I want to get a bit more packing and purging done, and then I need to do some grading.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

In the Home Stretch - First Year with Tenure Nearly Done

Not to pretend that I don't remain stressed out (for I do) but at the very least Major Committee has had its last meeting (with some fun and stupid contentious discussion that changed nothing to end the year on a high note!).

I feel like I probably pissed some people off with some of the things I said during the fun and stupid contentious discussion, but dude. Somebody needed to say those things, and what is tenure for if you can't just say the things that need to be said?


You know, I thought the above was all I was going to post, but it occurs to me that this is the perfect time to reflect on my first year with tenure.

The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same

I think the dirty little secret about earning tenure is that doing so doesn't really change a whole lot about one's job, about one's status in one's department or institution, or about one's attitude. As one was before tenure, so too is one after tenure. In other words, if a person hates her life pre-tenure, she'll probably continue hating it after tenure, only with greater intensity and a greater license to complain aloud. If a person basically likes her life pre-tenure, she'll basically like her life after tenure, although there may be greater pressures in certain areas (ahem, service). Tenure is not some magical thing that changes the game entirely. Instead, it just means that you'll keep playing the game in perpetuity.

I think this is probably a lot like those studies that show that major life changes like winning the lottery or ending up in a wheel chair don't actually change people's lives that much ultimately. While they may experience an immediate burst of joy or an immediate slough of despond upon first receiving the news, and while that may linger for about a year, after that initial reaction, they basically revert to how they felt before the major life change.

This convinces me that it's really important not to hold out for tenure as some milestone that will change every single thing about one's life, because as far as I can tell from my experience and from the experience of those around me, it just doesn't work that way. Happily, I was pretty happy before tenure. I remain pretty happy. I think if I'd felt really miserable pre-tenure that tenure would not, ultimately, have released me from my misery.

Except Being a Faculty Member with Tenure Really Is Different, and Mostly (for Me) in a Good Way

So what is different about tenure? Well, pre-tenure I was very protected from controversial, contentious types of service. This was wise of my department, to protect me in this way, and it ultimately benefited me. But, here's the thing: those controversial service things? That's where real decisions get made, and that's where the work that you do has the most potential to make a significant impact on the direction of the department and institution. This is something that I think is particular to my personality, but I'd much rather be dealing with something controversial and contentious and have it mean something big at the end of the day than do what I perceive as "busy-work" style service. To be fair, what I would call "busy-work" style service others would call "enriching" or "positive." But at the end of the day, I'd much rather serve on a difficult university-wide committee than be in charge of planning events for students, to give just one example. Those "positive" things are nice and all, and I'm happy to give my support to them in order to lend a sense of occasion and importance, but I don't want to actually do all the leg-work that they involve, mainly because from my perspective they don't really mean much at the end of the day in terms of the future of the institution. Also, I hate the details of that kind of service. Not that there aren't details to the other kind, but those details contribute to a wide-ranging bigger picture, and I'm a much more "big-picture" sort of a girl than one who cares about enrichment and positivity. (Let me just say, though, that I love that I have colleagues who want to devote themselves to these other types of service, because I do like that they happen, and I do think that they are important to the unity of our department, to the university community, and to our students. I just don't want to have to do the work on the front end to make them happen. I feel like it's a waste of my talents, rightly or wrongly.)

And so now, this year, for the first time, I've been able to participate in those wide-ranging bigger picture things, and that has been really rewarding (though often maddening, too) for me. For the first time I have really felt like I have a voice that matters at my institution, and I've reveled in using that voice (even though I do worry, sometimes, that people feel like I'm a jerk, except that I sort of don't care, because the people who think I'm a jerk are people whom I think are stupid, and the people whom I respect seem to think that I'm grand). Doing the "difficult" service has given me a greater sense of investment in my department, my institution, and even in this place more generally, and I really do feel like I've accomplished great things, although obviously I made many compromises along the way (and I wasn't happy about all of those, but still, even if I wasn't, I feel like we're still in a better place than we were at the start of this academic year). It has, ultimately, felt really good to be in a position where I could speak up for things that I cared about, and even to compromise where necessary to make change happen. The freedom to stand up for what I believe in and even the freedom to let go at certain points even though I know some people wanted me not to do so has meant everything to me.

But Beyond the General Attitude and Service Stuff, What Does Tenure Mean to Me?

Tenure means not stressing over student evaluations. Not that I don't care how students perceive my courses - obviously I do - but that the evaluations themselves no longer have the power over me that they once did (even though I don't think I realized pre-tenure how much I was fishing for positive evaluations). Tenure means that I feel completely confident in my "research agenda" and that I'm not worried about how others will perceive it (though, again, I don't think I knew i was worried about this pre-tenure).

So the Long and the Short of It Is....

Tenure for me has felt very, very good. For the first time I feel like the mountains of service that I do actually mean something. (Because, seriously, I had a heavy pre-tenure service load - it's just that it was mostly service that I pretty much loathed and saw little value in, other than that it provided the service lines on my going-up-for-tenure cv.) For the first time I feel completely free to teach as I believe my courses need to be taught, without worrying about how the numbers on evaluations will rank me. For the first time I feel like I truly can do whatever strikes my fancy in terms of research, although obviously the research is going to matter very much in terms of my desire to go up for full. But I no longer need to worry about satisfying people who don't actually do very much research in the range of what I do, if that makes sense.

So tenure. One year in. I'm into it. Sure, there are annoying things, but because I was basically happy pre-tenure? Tenure is golden.

But at the end of the day....

And this is why I feel like those who think that tenure should be abolished are wrong. All tenure has done for me is to give me a greater commitment to my department and institution, a more honest commitment to my students, and a stronger commitment to innovation and originality in my research. In what way are any of those things bad for higher education? In what way are any of those things bad for my university or department? What we need is to give the privilege of tenure to more people, so that more people can feel that strong commitment to the institution and to students, so that more people can do research that really matters as more than just a line on the cv.

But what about the "dead wood," you say? What I say is that those folks were "dead wood" long before tenure. Don't give those people tenure. That's just fine. But tenure, as a concept or institution, isn't the problem, in that scenario. Those people are. And seriously? Those people were a problem before tenure, just as they will remain a problem after it. I'm not saying that we should as a rule deny a certain percentage of people tenure, or something like that. I'm saying that it's not like, in most cases, it's a surprise who becomes dead wood. Those people were dead wood before - we just have tenured them because we were afraid of losing the line.

Now, there are good reasons for being afraid of losing the line. It's because lines have been lost. This is where institutions need to step up and guarantee that if you don't grant tenure to a slacker that the line won't be lost. (I know, I'm an idealist. And I also know that this is unrealistic.) But if there's a problem with tenure, it's an institutional problem with how institutions regard what tenure means, and it's a problem with institutions not being committed to the programs that they advertise. It is not a problem with tenure itself, as a concept, ultimately.

At any rate, tenure. There should be more people eligible for it, not fewer. And earning it should be dependent upon performance, not on a department or college protecting a line. And if a person doesn't earn it, then the department or college should be able to deny that person without fear that the line will be lost. Period. Because, seriously, people who only do the basic requirements for tenure, doing the bare minimum and nothing more before tenure, are going to suck after tenure. You know what's funny? At my institution, people in business, and accounting, and computer science recognize this. Where it's not the case is in the Humanities and in the Social Sciences, those disciplines that most serve the general education of our entire student population. In those areas, we award tenure to people who are lackluster because we're afraid that the lines will be lost. Why? Well, because clearly if we don't "save the line," then the institution will just get adjuncts to teach those courses. How fucked up is that? How antithetical is that to the health of the institution and the university? Oh yeah, it isn't healthy. But it's possible, and so that's what is done. What a great plan for how to run things. What a great plan for demonstrating the value of general education for students.

I want people to be tenured in my department and college who are invested. Who do the work. Who think that the work matters. Because if they are those things before tenure they will likely remain those things. As so many of my colleagues have. But not all of them. The reality is that we'll tenure anybody who's hired into a tenure-track line, because we're so afraid of losing tenure lines that we exercise absolutely no judgment. That fear is what produces dead wood. Not tenure.

So yes, I love having tenure. And you know what? I think tenure has made me a better faculty member. I think that's also true for many of my colleagues. But that's only possible because I was already a strong pre-tenure faculty member. If I had just been biding my time until tenure because tenure would set me free? I would suck right now. Because, ultimately, tenure doesn't set you free. It just allows you to be more of the person that you were pre-tenure.

So those are my thoughts after my first year on the tenure-track. Tenure is good. But only for people who are really willing and excited about using it.

Stress Doesn't Even Cover It

Sure, there's the house-buying. But actually, the actual buying of the house is sort of going along without me at this point, so that's just background worrying that something will go wrong even though nothing likely will do so sort of stress.

Then there's the moving stress, which is moving into high gear.

Then there's the research stress, because I have a couple of things that I will need to accomplish between now and June 15, in the midst of moving.

Then there's the end-of-semester stress with classes and grading.

Then there's the "I'm an idiot and I agreed to be on a search committee" stress (though it's not a national search, and they need for it to be taken care of in like the next couple of weeks, and I've been promised that it won't be very much work - and I don't think it will because I suspect no more than 3 people will apply for it - and it is very important, and it's very important that my department has some strong say in who gets picked)....

Um, yeah. There is a lot going on with me over the next few weeks. Now, I'm sure it'll be great when it's over, but for now?

Holy. Motherfucking. Hell.

Oh, and to top all of this off, a Certain Person on Campus (and you know every campus has one of these) is trying to force Major Committee on Which I Serve to reconsider an issue on which we voted at our last meeting. This probably will be nothing, but I really had considered skipping out on this meeting today, and now that is just an impossibility.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Forever Home

When you adopt a pet, the language of that is often such that this adoption is characterized as you giving a pet a "forever home."

Now, obviously, when I committed to Man-Kitty and Mr. Stripey, I committed to those two fellows, for good or for bad (and sometimes it is, well, if not bad, annoying), but this whole "forever home" thing? Well, yes, surely these two fine boy-cats are life-partners of mine - I shall care for them for the span of their lives, and they shall serve as confidants and entertainment for me throughout that time. But have they - or have I - had a "forever home"? No. Because at the end of the day, we live in a crappy apartment that only serves the most basic of our needs, and that pleases none of us.

But in approximately 6 weeks' time, we shall live (barring any unfortunate incidents) be in a home that is so much closer to this idea of a "forever home" than any of us have ever experienced.

Yes. Today I did the mortgage stuff. This is really happening. Now, I realize that this likely will not be the last house that I ever buy, or the last house in which I ever live. But it will be my first home. I've never had a home, not as a grown-up lady. I have only ever lived in transitory spaces, and the same is true for my two fine cats (whether they knew that or not). But this house, should nothing go wrong, it will really be our house. And it will be so fantastic!

The things about which I am most excited include:

  1. The Nook, which shall become the Nook of Ideas, which shall become the Nook of my Next Book.
  2. The front porch, which is so amazing, and which will also be a place in which the next book is written and which will also be a place where my friends come to hang.
  3. The basement, which will house my very own washer and dryer, which I won't need to have a card charged with money to use, and which will also be the place where litter boxes will reside (as opposed to in an actual living space, and nothing is grosser than litter in a bedroom, even if it's a bedroom that no one uses).
  4. The awesomeness of kittens chasing each other around the entire downstairs, from kitchen through dining room and living room and then through the hallway and back to the kitchen, and then lounging on the window seat when they are tired. And also kittens wrestling on stairs. Stairs. Which they've never experienced other than when they went to my mom's house.
  5. Having my sleeping space be on a different floor from my living space. Having my working space be on a different floor from my living space.
  6. The potential for dinner parties and full-on parties that occurs with my fabulous dining room and the excellent deck and backyard. Who knew I wanted parties? Not me, but I so do.
I'm not going to lie. I still feel like this could still fall through, even though I know that feeling is irrational. But I still fear that something will go wrong. That said? My level of excitement? 99% Yes, there is a 1% margin of error, but barring that? This is happening.

And it is totally motherfucking amazing.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Blossoming Students (In Which I Totally Exploit the Gardening Metaphor That I Disparaged in the Last Post)

BES has been accepted into a top-20 grad program for English Lit!!!!!! (Still waiting to hear on funding, though the DGS at Top 20 begged her not to accept her OTHER totally respectable offer with full funding - though that full funding does include teaching immediately upon arrival - until the April 15 deadline, as DGS thinks that full funding - and we're talking tuition remission plus stipend with no teaching responsibility for the first year - has a chance of coming through.)

Is this achievement mine? Hell no. Do I feel a HUGE sense of achievement that I've mentored a student of mine to such an accomplishment of her own? HELL YES.

So congratulate BES on her awesomeness in the comments. (She does read over here, and she'll find it grand that people think she's awesome.)

Bad Gardeners, Bad Mommies, Bad Teachers

In my first year of graduate school, I took a semester-long course in the teaching of composition. This course was required for anybody who wanted to teach in the program, and it involved a mix of practical instruction (how to construct assignments, how to construct syllabi), shadowing of other instructors, working in the writing center, and theoretical readings. In other words, it was pretty comprehensive, as such courses go. (This was during my MA, by the way. I had a similar required 8-week-long "workshop" in my PhD program that expected nowhere near as much, and that contributed nowhere near as much to the teacher I've ultimately become.)

Anyway. In that semester-long course, one exercise has stuck with me after all of these (more than 10) years. First, we were asked to come up with a metaphor for the relationship between teacher and student. I don't recall whether we did this in groups or on our own, but whatever the case, the outcome was that the vast majority of students in the class talked about the role of a teacher being like that of a gardener - that we plant the seeds (course content), we tend the plants (feedback), we harvest the fruit/veggies (students demonstrate what they've learned through their grades on tests or papers). All in all, a pretty teacher-centered metaphor, right? Basically, we do all the work, and from our hard work, we get to enjoy delicious salads and good nutrition. In this metaphor, students are the objects that we do something to, and depending on what we do (fertilizer? weeding? individual conferences? multiple opportunities to practice the skills of the course?) students either grow or they die.

So once we all did that, however, the instructors of the course then had us do a variety of readings about student-centered learning. The main one that I recall was Paulo Freire's "The Banking Concept of Education," but I believe that there were a few others (maybe something from bell hooks' Teaching to Transgress? and then maybe something else that was more about data on what kinds of approaches work best in the comp classroom?). At any rate, the point of the exercise, and then the readings that followed, was to demonstrate that a theory of teaching in which the instructor holds all of the responsibility (and power) and students hold none is ultimately pretty much antithetical to what "education" is supposed to mean. (That's an oversimplification, but I do think it's the bottom line.) And so then, after discussing the readings, we were asked to do a follow-up exercise in which we tried to come up with a metaphor for the teacher/student relationship that wasn't all about the teacher - that wasn't about the green thumb who makes delicious vegetables happen.

I think it's an example of just how pervasive a "teacher-centered" approach to thinking about education is that I can't recall the follow-up metaphor at which I arrived. I do remember how difficult a time all of us had in coming up with student-centered metaphors for what happens in the classroom, though, and I have always thought about this exercise when I am tempted to take all of the credit or blame for what my students achieve or fail to achieve. At the end of the day, if I believe that what happens in the classroom is about me, I'm really doing my students a disservice.

This exercise came to mind today when I read Historiann's post about a newspaper column that at turns attacked tenure as protecting ineffective teachers and suggested that the path toward improving the education of students lies in more stringent evaluation of teachers.

Now, this is not going to be a post about tenure and its merits or problems, whether in P-12 education or in higher education. I believe in tenure. You may not, but let me repeat that tenure is not what this post is about. This post is, rather, about the idea that the path to improving student learning (or, at least, pass-rates on tests mandated by agencies external to the classroom) is to look not at actual, individual students but rather to look at teachers.

Now, this way of thinking about teaching is nothing new. It's been characteristic of the ways in which we have thought about public, P-12 education for at least the past 20 years when state-mandated testing for high school graduation gained traction as a practice across the country, and then later with the federal mandates of NCLB. These effects are now being felt in higher education with great urgency, with increasing demands of accrediting agencies for program-wide outcomes assessment data.

Let me pause for a moment to make something clear: I am not arguing that teacher's performance in the classroom should not be evaluated. I'm also not arguing that program-wide (or institution-wide) assessment is a bad thing, in and of itself. I am questioning, however, the idea that any such evaluation or assessment directly and uncomplicatedly will benefit any and all deficiencies in student learning.

Because, here's the thing. The only way that the above would directly and uncomplicatedly benefit any and all deficiencies that we perceive in student learning is if we believe that Freire's "banking concept of education" is, in fact, what education is. For Freire, the "banking concept" works like this: students are passive "banks" in which teachers deposit knowledge; at the end of term, teachers then "withdraw" the knowledge that they've deposited, and then they issue a statement (grade) for whether the "bank" gives back all of what was originally deposited. There is no critical thinking: knowledge is deposited by the teacher; students spit that knowledge back out, sort of like how an ATM spits money out when we make a withdrawal. When you go to the ATM, there is no potential for you to get back more money than is in the account; if you haven't been keeping track of your balance (or, if we stay with this metaphor, teaching effectively), you may get back less money than you thought was in there (subpar performance), or you may get a slip that says "insufficient funds" (a failing effort).

As an alternative to the "banking concept," Freire offers an alternative: the "problem-posing method" of education. Note the difference in terminology between "concept" (passive, object-oriented) and "method" (active, practice-oriented). The problem-posing method is about encouraging students to ask questions, to pursue original lines of inquiry, to challenge the instructor, to determine the shape of his/her own education (with the expertise of the instructor guiding that inquiry, of course). Now, if we think that the problem-posing method is potentially valuable, how can we "assess" its effectiveness? Doing so is a lot more complicated than assessing the banking concept, and it requires that we attend to students themselves and not merely to teachers who deposit knowledge into them. In giving students ownership over their educations, at least to some degree, we would have to acknowledge that evaluating teachers isn't necessarily going to produce gains in student learning or improvement in education generally. Because at the end of the day, such an approach to student learning and to education isn't all about the teacher.

Critics of the argument that I'm outlining here might say, "But of course the move to gauge the effectiveness of education by evaluating teachers is about student learning! The idea is that we'd evaluate teachers based on the performance of their students! How is that not about students?" My response would be that this sort of measurement assumes that inputs from teachers will be identical to outputs generated by students. And I think that assumption does not - and should not - mirror what actually happens when students are thinking. Instead, I would argue that what's going on with this sort of measurement strategy is that we don't really care about students at all - whether they think or not - but rather that we care about disciplining and regulating their instructors. And I think that impulse to discipline is deeply gendered, and it has to do with the feminization of teaching as a profession.

Rather than reinvent the wheel, here's what I wrote about this in my comment to Historiann's post:

I’m especially interested in the call to evaluate teachers based on student performance, particularly in terms of the gender implications of such a move. I feel like this connects a lot to the whole “our boys are not succeeding” rhetoric (this is not to say that there aren’t issues with how K-12 education serves male students vs. female – only to call into question the rhetoric). Basically, the rhetoric in both cases constructs teachers as bad mommies who aren’t doing their jobs if students don’t “succeed” by whatever external measurement is imposed.

If students (gendered male, whatever the “actual” sex) can’t excel, get into the right college, get a job, then it’s the teacher (gendered female, whatever the “actual” sex) who must be punished/regulated, much in the way that mothers must be punished/regulated for breast-feeding/not, making their own baby food/not, eating the right/wrong things during pregnancy, staying home/choosing daycare, as if a choice in one direction or the other would produce perfect children.

The discourse reduces the development of children/students to the performance of the phallic mother/teacher, and it fails to take into account the actual children/students in question. Now, of course, this gives us somebody to blame, and it’s a much easier thing to do that than to actually look at the complexity of human development. So in that regard, I get it.

But let me go further in my explanation, in order to link it back to my discussion of student-centered vs. teaching-centered approaches to learning. (This is still a little fuzzy in my head, but I think you'll get the gist of what I'm saying.) A truly student-centered ("problem-posing method") approach, one that values critical thinking, original inquiry, and "active learning," is often what legislators, tax-payers, and accrediting bodies would agree is desirable. However, having internalized the "banking concept," they only believe that those things are possible if a Subject Who Knows (read: teacher as authoritarian purveyor of Knowledge) administers the skills and information that they would say is required for those things to happen. Education is supposed to be something that both socializes and regulates students (a subject-position that I would also argue is feminized in our culture), and that can only happen if there is a figure of authority controlling what happens in the classroom. With the feminization of the teaching profession (and when I talk about this I'm not talking in a simplistic way about having a female teacher in front of the class, but rather the perception that teaching is an "appropriate" profession for women, so whether we're talking about male teachers or female teachers, we're still talking about a feminized profession), faith is lost in the "authority" of those who administer education. Thus, teachers must be policed, disciplined, and punished when students don't "succeed" by whatever measure, because at the end of the day, while they possess phallic authority by virtue of their position at the head of the class, they don't possess "real" authority in a patriarchal (or "banking concept") economy.

(I know my theorizing above is sloppy, but I'm thinking this through as I'm writing. Forgive me.)

At any rate. If we believe that students are passive objects upon which gifted teachers work their magic, or if we believe that students are passive objects upon which terrible teachers perpetrate harm, then we don't, at least from my perspective, actually believe in student learning. Heck, I'd say that we don't believe students are actually human beings with agency. Nevertheless, a more complicated picture of what student-centered instruction looks like, or a more complicated picture of the process by which students learn in a classroom environment, does not neatly fit into a business ("banking concept") model for education, nor does it produce the kind of data that such a model values.

Do I believe that teachers should be evaluated on their work? Yes. Do I believe that we must try to educate students as well as we possibly can? Yes. But I wonder at the belief of so many that the best strategies for doing so are so simple as administering tests and calculating pass rates.

(And no, I'm not going to offer some grand alternative to these strategies in this post. I've got work to do.)

Sunday, April 11, 2010

On the Abatement of the Freak-Out (Though I'm Sure I'll Still Freak Out Again)

So. I'm feeling loads better.

Something I keep relearning throughout this process is that I'm the sort of person, every time I reach a new step in a process, whatever it is, who loses it a little bit. Now, you'd think I wouldn't forget this about myself. I have felt very similarly with various steps in going to graduate school, going on the job market, the publication process, with the process toward tenure, with teaching new courses.... If anything, I'm probably better equipped than most people to know this about myself, as I've already done a lot of pretty major things on my own, and I know what that feels like.

I suppose where I keep getting blind-sided by the house-related stuff is that I had thought just making the big leap to decide to do it was the major thing, and I hadn't really thought very much about the other steps along the way. And so each time I reach a new phase, I lose it a little. Then, after a few days pass and I've had time to mull and plot and plan, I feel better.

So anyway, I'm in the "I feel better" place right now. My parents are going to lend me some money so I feel like I have more of a cushion (which I felt horrible asking them, but on the other hand, I'll pay them back as soon as I get my summer fellowship money and am moved, and they're happy to do it, so I need to just be grateful for the help and stop beating myself up about it), I think I have realistic plans for what I'm going to do/buy in the house in the short term/medium term/long term, and I'm feeling pretty comfortable with how it all will work out money/time/stress-wise.

I hope to have all of the money stuff totally squared away tomorrow or Tuesday, and I think that will be a huge weight off of me, and I've got a plan for packing and I've been making a list of things to donate and not to move. The plan, should everything go smoothly, is that I'll move at the end of May, be a bad conference attendee for my June conference and just drive down for the day of my paper (or maybe another day, too, depending, but not stay overnight at all - it's that close, and while I do think that attending a conference that way sucks, I also feel like my top priority in May/June has to be settling into my house).

I'm not jazzed about the end of the semester stress that I'll have over the next few weeks which is dovetailing with all of the closing stuff, but it will be fine.

So anyway, thanks for all of your comments to the freak-out post. They really did help me to put things into perspective.

(Oh, and another thing: yes, it is empowering for me to be doing this on my own. It really is. But it's also harder in some ways than it would be to be doing it with another person. I would never tell anyone that they shouldn't buy a house if they're doing it alone, but I also totally understand why people would choose not to do so and to just keep renting. It would be nice to spread some of this stress around to somebody else.)