Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Illusion of Shallowness

More on my month long absence later; suffice to say that I've been distracted. But I did pop my head up just long enough to respond to Sisyphus's post on anthologies. And in doing so, got into a familiar rhetorical spot: the one where I argue for a larger awareness of students' priorities, only to be told that others' refuse to coddle students. I'll say here that I don't know Dr. Koshary, and that she (oh god, I hope it's a she. like I said, I don't know him/her well enough to determine that) wasn't rude, abusive, or anything even resembling that. This post, then, is really not about her response, but rather the logic that underpins responses like that one.

One of the occupational hazards of teaching newer stuff, and using a lot of media (for lack of hazy identity concealing specifics), is that a common response to my classes and course content is "oh, the students must love that [eye roll]." It's a two-fer, really. Other faculty members assume A) that students immediately love the stuff that I'm teaching, and so automatically do the work and B) that there's no little to no thinking involved in doing the work. Unlike, for instance, the content of their courses, which students dislike initially, but has real relevance to the field/culture/canon, etc. On good days, this is infuriating, and on bad ones, it's depressing. Because here's the reality of what happens in my classroom: perhaps 2/3 of the students are really down with watching episodes of Sex in the City. But it's taken me years to figure out how to maneuver them through an analysis of the issues of race and class that come up in those episodes, and then to assess their own viewing practices, expectations, and see themselves as part of a larger target audience that shares and reproduces certain values. Is it the Miller's Tale? No. Is it an important set of critical thinking practices that they might use in their later lives? I like to think so. Is it easy? No. It's some of the most frustrating and difficult teaching that I do. Teaching theory is WAY easier (for me) than asking someone to critique and analyze her own predilections.

I suspect, however, that the dismissive response to the content of my courses is exacerbated by my particular pedagogical philosophy---and herein lies the logic that exists in responses like Dr. Koshary's. My take on students is this: it's helpful for me to remember that they have a number of different, competing priorities, and sometimes my class is not at the top of the list. It's not helpful because I operate with an "anything goes, it's okay with me if you don't do the work, feel free to come to class late and unprepared, have multiple absences, don't think hard" protocol. It's helpful because I don't get offended and pissed off when these things happen. They happen, there are consequences, and it all feels to me like students are making choices (consciously or unconsciously) that will determine how they move forward---in my class and in others'.

In Sisyphus's post, I linked this notion to that of her actual question, which was about course content, and perhaps that's why it all went south. But my other guiding pedagogical philosophy is this: it's okay--perhaps even advisable--to meet students where they are. Do I want all of my students to be able to read and understand complex Modernist novels or French feminist gender theory? Sure. That doesn't mean that I teach it to my first year students. As I think back over my last class of fyers, I can think of maybe two in the group who would have been able to get something out of, say, Frederic Jameson. But I would have to emphasize the "something" in that sentence. I'm not opposed to giving students content that's above their heads; but I find that it's a frustrating experience for me and them if they can't get any kind of handhold at all on the reading. What's the point of that? To show them that they're stupid? That they're bad readers? The majority of my students describe themselves this way on the first day of class---I don't have a significant need to prove it to them. They have four years to develop the skills they'll need to read and understand the kinds of work that specialists in their chosen fields read. And I hope to be part of that learning curve as they accumulate those skills.

So here's the connection that has always baffled me, although I wouldn't have thought about it in this way if I hadn't been trying so hard to make the connection clear in my own head: why is it that many of us instantaneously interpret "compassion" as "coddling"? Are there so few pedagogical models of "compassion" + "challenging"=learning that we're unable to conceptualize that idea?


Wednesday, July 21, 2010

On the Incredible Difficulty of Being Kind to Oneself

It's a beautiful Wednesday morning here. The heat wave has broken a bit, so up until 11 or so, it's still in the 70s. I can hear the sound of the wind in the trees, the sussurations of the sleeping cats. And I'm itchy.

Yesterday, I had a beautiful moment, where I thought: "whoa. I think I'm done with the frantic itching. Yes, I was a bit scratchy when I woke up, but now that I've downed both my steroid pills and a Claritin, I feel good. Is this what concentration feels like? The utter lack of distraction from itching?"

What's changed, you ask? Because I felt good yesterday, and because I'm signed up to participate in a team athletic event in five weeks, I went for a run. Without sunblock (because it would irritate my skin---irony!). In the 80 degree, humid weather. What would inspire me to do such a thing, you ask? Well, I wouldn't want to waste the extra energy of these steroids!! Might as well get something out of it!


After a Benadryl last night at 10, and then another at 11:30 when I couldn't sleep, and then waking up every few hours because I was all itchy (something that hasn't happened at all over the past 2 weeks of affliction), I blearily googled "poison ivy exercise" this morning, to discover that, yes, sweating can indeed intensify the rash and make you more itchy. %$^&**!!

The real biter is this: despite the fact that I know that I'm suffering because I couldn't take some time off from working out, it's everything I can do not to go again. Or at least go to the pool. Part of that is because the steroids have the tendency to make me jumpy (ooh! look over there! shiny! what were you saying? what are we doing? I think there's something in the other room that I need to do, but I can't remember what it is. Hey, is the bathtub dirty?). Exercise of any sort tends to cure that right up. But the larger motivation, I think, is the difficulty of not doing what you think you should be. At any time.

As I was finishing up my run yesterday (which, I must say, when fueled by drugs, is a sure way to shave some minutes off your time), I was thinking about all of the academics I know, and the ways that we push ourselves too hard, even when we know we shouldn't. This tendency, I think, is even worse with academics who are also sporty---all of my runner friends (who deign to hang out with me, poky and shambling as I am) want better times, push themselves, etc. And despite all of this push push push, to a one, there's also a berate, berate, berate. "I should be doing more." "I should have done that better." "I suck at this." Accomplishment, here, is just a set-up for giving yourself a grudging pat on the back before moving on to evaluate all of the ways that you should have done it better.

Or, to go back to the cause of all of my itchiness. What's driving the self-flagellation right now? Sure, I ran yesterday, but I can't possibly take today off, or I'll have wasted everything I did yesterday. Sure, it will aggravate my affliction, but surely I have to get to training?!! If I were training harder when this started, I wouldn't be in this position! And while I'm at it, shouldn't I have gotten more work done by now? It's July already!

It's a hard thing to learn: stop being so hard on yourself. Stop pushing and give yourself room to work on something. When I listen to my friends berate themselves for all that they should have done or should be doing, over and above all that they've accomplished, I've taken to giving them a bit of crap about it. "Right, and the most important thing is that you be as hard on yourself as possible, and refuse to acknowledge anything good that you've done." It's easy for me to recognize this in others, who I consider smart and accomplished and laudable. It's less easy to recognize this in myself (as in: "well, yeah, but I'm not like them."). I need more practice. [And why haven't I been practicing this before?!!----you see the problem here...]


Saturday, July 17, 2010


Okay, so it's been more than a week since I've posted. So sue me. I've got a really good excuse. Seriously!! Wanna hear it? Here it goes! Let's start with a visual:

That's my arm, and my new favorite patch of leprosy on it. In all of the "I can't do x because I'm afraid to go out in public like this" correspondence that I've sent out this week, I'm oscillating between two different jokes about it.
1) The first rule of Fight Club is that you don't talk about Fight Club.
2) If I have to play a Jared Leto role, I would have preferred Jordan Catelano to Harry Goldfarb of Requiem for a Dream (see below):

Sometimes, just for kicks, I throw in a joke about Job, and how I wonder where in Urbania I can find some broken pottery to scrape my sores. Because, folks, that's just the one that's easiest to take pictures of! Oh yes! They're everywhere!! My left leg is the worst, but the right one is quickly catching up, and I've got a few ambitious ones on the right wrist as well.

Did I mention the itching? Because nothing really caps off unsightly, weeping skin craters like intense burning and itching. Yay! Little helps. As per info on the intrawebz, I've been using rubbing alcohol and tea tree oil to help dry these suckers up, but to no avail.

Yesterday, I finally gave in and went to the urgent care, because the bread knife is starting to look better and better. (If I had a belt sander, I'd consider using it at this point.) The nurse who took my vitals proceeded to wipe down all of her instruments with alcohol at the end of my visit. And the doctor? His first sentence to me went like this: "Ms. Fluff? I'm Dr. X. (glances at arms/legs). You'll forgive me if I don't shake hands." Wuss. You think a little pus is going to hurt you?

The diagnosis (aside from "most people can treat poison ivy at home, but you've managed to spread it everywhere"), included "gee, you've really burnt the hell out of your skin," and "tea tree oil is good for some scabies. But that's about it," and "don't scratch."

Two weeks on steroids, witch hazel and caladryl. I am DONE with yard work, folks. Forevah. As god as my witness, I will never pull weeds again!!


Thursday, July 08, 2010

Do As I Say, Not As I Do

So, before I can even get to something vaguely substantive, can I just say that it's mothercussing HOT up in here?! It's not even 8 a.m., and it's 84 degrees and humid. In the house. Yagh. And this is totally not helping the small but virulent case of poison ivy blisters that I managed to acquire sometime last weekend. Balls. The only thing stopping me from pouring concrete over the entire yard so as never to have to maintain it would be the fact that it would really increase the heat factor. And thus, we've come full circle.

But while I've self-pityingly, with morbid fascination, watching beads of sweat form and roll down my leg while I'm indoors, sitting perfectly still, exerting as little energy as possible, I've also been trying to revise and resubmit this co-authored article that I should have finished last summer. While I was selling our house. And buying a new one. And pissing and moaning about that.

There are several things that are not helping with the r&r (and may I just say, for the record, that there is a brutal irony in the fact that this kind of "r&r" is so antithetical to the other kind of "r&r" which is what I should be doing in the height of the summer?!! ).
• we waited, like assholes, to go back to this article, and thus have to account for all relevant research that's been published since the first time we sent it out, up to and including a major revision of a primary piece that we're critiquing. Crapballs.
• in the course of examining said new research, I've pulled a couple of pieces from the journal that we're revising for. And while the articles are interesting (I guess), they're not world-rocking. There's nothing that I've read thus far that makes me sit up and say: "gee, I never thought of that!! This is totally going to change the way I think about x!"
• the above lack-of-revelation makes me wonder why we're working so damn hard on this revision.
• and then I realize that it's because my writing partner is an evil demon-sprite of revision integrity, in which she believes that anything worth rewriting is worth rewriting right, and thus we've torn this sucker down to it's pegs and started over with the detritus.
• I know that this should make me feel all high and mighty, but instead I keep wondering if we couldn't just make exactly the changes suggested by the editors and be done with the whole thing. A month ago. When we go back in our DeLorean time machine.
• I'm mighty suspicious of journal articles and scholarly publishing in general right now, and that attitude is not making me want to toe the line about academic discourse and formatting, all of which is tedious and necessary for this revision.

Whew. The real biter, however, and the inspiration for the title of this post, is that it's only in these situations when I really realize what it is that I'm asking students to do when they write and revise. Last week, I sat down with a book and two articles that I knew needed to be integrated into the draft of the article. But where did they go? Did I need specific quotes, or did I need to gloss the argument of the pieces and use that to frame my points? In the article that is most closely related to my argument, do I need to dismantle the author's conclusions point by point, or is it enough to explain in a few lines the ways that our studies diverge?

This week, I ran through all of the dreck rough material we pounded out trying to integrate this stuff, and found myself thinking: "good Christ, is there any consistent idea that holds this paragraph together? What is it's relationship to the rest of the section? Why don't we analyze this quote here? This idea is good, but really tangential to the point we're trying to make..."

Sound familiar? So was the feeling of frustration/rage that built up. Only this time, it was aimed at me and my writing partner, not at a 20 year old budding novelist. Hi! My name is kettle---did you have something you wanted to call me?

God willin' and the crick don't rise, we'll send this sucker out by the end of the week, and then hopefully I'll never have to think about it again. But I hope that I'll have some sympathy for my students when I blithely collect the drafts of their papers in the fall.

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Friday, July 02, 2010

The One Body Problem

Poor Kate, on whose post I left a chirpy little comment today. Her thoughts about what inspires exercise really dovetail with a number of things that I've been thinking about over the past week.

After The Epic Ride from Hades (see below), I did indeed lay off the bike for awhile. Actually, I had no choice---given that the brakes were non-existent, I had to take it in for a tune-up. But round about that same time, I started to have one of those weird "I think the universe is talking to me" moments. Early on in the spring, my super-athlete friend J had started training to do a local triathlon and had asked if I wanted to. I toyed with the idea for a minute in that "that sounds interesting! And so does hiking Kilimanjaro! And being an astronaut!" way, only to stop thinking about it when I found out that the date coincided with The Fluffs' trip abroad. But last week, it occurred to me: if the cursed paper had brought down the trip, then maybe I was supposed to do the tri? Could it be done?

So in the blazing heat and humidity, I went for my first run in months. It was painful, and more sweaty than anyone outside 300 has a right to be. But I got it done. So if that part were possible, then maybe? To really know, I'd have to try a couple of the activities back to back. So the next day, I went to the gym and swam the tri distance, got out of the pool, changed my clothes, went upstairs and ran. [For the record, I find running after swimming no more difficult than running without swimming. You just smell worse.] Chlorine-chafing aside, it was doable. Holy crap, maybe I could actually do this thing?!

I fully planned to rest the next day, since I could barely walk. But when J said that she and her awesome Amazonian partner were going to a training camp that night, I packed up my gear and picked up my bike and took out my wetsuit. And promptly had my ass handed to me. It's been awhile (high school, maybe?) since I've worked out hard enough to approach vomiting. By the end of the bike ride (which wasn't even the regulation distance), I was starting to hallucinate. I had always been climbing this hill, I would always be climbing this hill, dudes in tight shorts would always have their asses in my face as I climbed this hill... But I survived. I could barely walk the next day, but I didn't drown, and I didn't have to walk my bike. And I didn't cry. Not in front of anyone, anyway. Just internally.

By the time I had gotten up the gumption to register for the race, it was sold out. Disappointed. Relieved? It would have been a great thing to obsess over (you have no idea how complicated clothing can really be until you see people try to figure out how to do three different sports in it. This should be a Project Runway challenge. Come on, Michael Kors, get all South Beach sport with a frisson of Chanel on us!). And in the run-up (so to speak) to the idea that I'd have to train for that sucker, I started planning out what I'd have to do each day, what I should be eating (see Kate's post on this too!!), recovery days, etc.

Thinking about competition, or challenge, when it comes to exercise is such a different motivator than "my ass looks fat in this skirt." Because seriously, when it's hot, and I'm running (and I hate running), what's the motivation to keep going? Burning off another 100 calories? Bitch, please. I'll down that the instant I get back from the run! [And woe betide my running if the ipod falls on Aretha. Because then all I can think is "dude, Aretha is awesome, and she is a big woman. What the crap am I running for? I should be at home belting it out! And eating a donut!]

But doing something hard to show yourself that you can? Or because you're going to have to do it in front of hundreds of other athletes and spectators who will point and laugh if you choke? That's motivation. [They won't actually laugh. They'd probably just pity you. Or judge. But I bet the pointing would happen.] And better yet, it's a way to think about your body in terms of what it can do, not what it looks like. Any change in the latter is the side effect, not the goal. I'm never going to be tiny---that's not in the cards. But I can haul ass up that hill on my bike, yessirree bob. And that's the ass that is so happy with what it can do that it doesn't even mind being padded out in public.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Tour de Fiasco

As I may or may not have mentioned, Senor Fluff and I bit the bullet a few months ago and bought bicycles---something we've been wanting to do since we moved to Urbania. After only six years of talking about it and putting it off, we finally did the deed, loaded up the credit cards, and jumped. (In a follow-up to my new-found bougieness, I must note that it's a hell of a lot easier to buy a good bike when you can put it in your garage, rather than chaining it up outside your house in the neighborhood where local thieves have been known to break into people's porches to take a bike. In our new neighborhood, people tend to leave their bikes outside their houses unattended for a few hours while they go inside to...? Fix their hair? Drink a vodka tonic? Get a fake tan?)

It's been a good decision on a number of levels: it's a kind of exercise we can do together (Senor Fluff is a much better runner than me, and attempting to run together just makes me whiny and his knees hurt); it's allowed us to see more of the area; it doesn't seem to be as much of a monumental exercise task, and so both of us will do more of it, even when we're tired, or not motivated.

So yesterday, I was scheduled to have coffee with a friend, and so I planned to squeeze in a quick bike ride and shower before our meeting. And I have rarely seen such a clustercuss outside of a faculty meeting in my life.

It started out fine. I realized early on that I had forgotten my sunglasses, but it was a bit overcast, so I didn't want to take up the time to go back. I had planned to go for about 45 minutes, so I needed to go far fast to get it all in. I did the first half of the route at a good clip, and started up the hill that marks the official apex of what I had planned to do. It's not a massive hill, but it takes some doing, and so I was mostly looking down and pedaling. When I looked up as I neared the top, I saw that a woman was parked, in the lane, with her flashers on. She flagged me down, and so I slowed up, thinking that she might need something, or that someone was hurt or something. As I got closer (still going uphill, mind you), she said "can you give me directions to D_____?" Unbelievable. You're parked with your hazards on for directions?! Whatever. I pedaled the last few feet to the top of the hill, and made to stop so I could tell her how to get there. Since I'm concentrating on her and how close her car is to the (virtually non-existent) shoulder, however, I misjudge the place where the crown of the road falls away into the dirt. And thus, unable to get my foot out of my clip, I go down like a bag of rocks. To the woman's credit, she helps me up and tries to dust me off, but still clearly wants directions.

After she goes on her merry way (with excellent directions, I might add), I use much of the second half of my ride to get the gears square, since the chain has slipped during my fall. At some point, I realize that my legs have turned to jelly. (I should say that the quads have turned to jelly. The rest of my legs turned to jelly somewhere around age 22. Ba-DUM-dum!) "I better cut this short and go home," I thought, and turned around.

As I approach the cut-off to the country road that leads to our section of town, I realize that a woman is standing on the shoulder waving me down. "No fucking way!" I thought. But yes! She wants to talk to me!! She's part of a news crew that's doing a story on the local road repairs! Full disclosure here: at this point, I have been riding for about 30 minutes. And I have fallen off of my bike. And before I got on the bike, I hadn't showered in two days. Gee, what would I like more than to give you a quote about how the road crews effect me? So, greasy, dirt-smudged me recorded a spot for the local television crew, and then they asked if they could just get a shot of me riding away. Yes indeed!! Here I go!!

As I rode away, I was both obsessing about how hideous I imagined I'd be on the local news, and worried about how late I must now be for meeting my friend. Luckily, I was cruising down this long hill. And cruising. And cruising ever faster, wind whistling in my ears, all the way down to the bridge.

There's no bridge on the way to my house.

The news crew had stopped me right before the turn off route that goes toward my house. In pedaling away from them, I had gone straight on, down the horrible horrible hill. A few weeks ago, I rode down part of this hill by mistake, and it was so painful to get back up that I swore I'd never go this direction again. A friend of mine who just did a 50k race in May "studiously avoids that hill." The hill has about 3 or 4 steep climbs, one after another. And I was down at water level---ironically, just the place that the road crews were starting to work on. Thanks alot, lady newscaster! This fucking road repair affects me now!! So I turned around and climbed Epic Hill, cursing and sweating all the way. When I got to the top, the news crew was still there, interviewing a couple in a Hummer. The intern and cameraman cordially waved at me as I went by.

Finally, I'm on my way home. I'm pointed in the right direction, and I'm doing my best to sprint, since I know I'm going to be late for coffee. And then the raindrops start to fall. And believe me, I wish I were shitting you. Racing home, I also discovered that the fall screwed up my back brake, but really, isn't that all just icing on the cake?

So much for my love affair with the bike. It's dead to me. With bike rides like these, I'll be back in the pool in no time!!


Thursday, June 17, 2010

It's the Pictures that Got Small

At Askesis U., we have a fairly aggressive PR department. The big announcement at fall commencement a few years ago was that we'd gotten a spot on the premiere national morning show. In the interim, a number of faculty members are called upon to participate in all sorts of local news pieces---the city paper, the local NPR affiliate, etc. I suppose it makes sense. It's a good way to get the name of the college out there, although sometimes I have to wonder if what the faculty contribute is really solidifying our reputation in quite the way that the administration might want.

Case in point: a few days ago, I was contacted by Mr. Micawber, our PR guy. [He's actually a very nice man. But there's just this slight air of despondency about him. But what the hell do I know?] A local paper--not the big city paper, mind you, but the Podunk Town Register from up the road--needed an interview with a literature prof. The writer was doing a piece on an emerging trend in contemporary fiction, and would I be willing to talk with him? Seldom has someone been so quick to participate in her own exploitation. "Sure! I'm familiar with this trend! I can talk to him!"

So I had a brief conversation with the guy. I should have known that I was in trouble when I came out of the box explaining how I thought this trend was part of a larger concern about the role of books in contemporary society. How many hours of Fox News would I need to watch to realize a loaded question when I heard one? "But really, isn't this all just really a fad?" "What do you think classic authors would think about this stuff?"

Whoa there, cowboy. You've got yourself the wrong lit girl. I think you were looking for one of my colleagues who like to pound the table about the necessity of the canon. What, Stanley Fish wasn't available? Sadly, if you want a blurb from me for your article, you're going to get the line about how books are related to movies are related to rap music. After our increasingly uncomfortable chat, I looked up his blog, only to discover that he's a 55 year old cranky white dude who, in addition to writing for the Podunk Town Register, also owns a business that sells "authentic" trinkets from a certain Western European country known for clogging and abstruse Modernist writers who spent a lot of time in France. You all know one of these guys, I have no doubt. In making his argument---I mean "interviewing me"---he said: "I don't know if you're old enough to remember these guys in the early 70's who did this kind of thing in music." There's just no way for me to respond to that graciously.

Yesterday, I got gussied up so that they could take my photo for the PDR. I hope there's airbrushing involved, but I doubt I'm going to get that lucky. I'll be curious to see what, if anything, the writer includes of my incisive theory about the books. I expect to see single words like "and" and "the" as the only ones in quotation marks. Someone remind me never to go into politics. As a latter-day Norma Desmond, I'm afraid that I'm not ready for my close-up.