Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Oracle of the Obvious

You know, I have a sneaking suspicion that I've used this post title before... I'm too lazy to go back and check, however, so feel free to call me on my redundancy.

It's 8 a.m., and I'm in bed with my laptop (praise you, Gods of the wireless technology!), in large measure because it's the only way not to freeze my butt off in our house. 56 degrees on waking up (curse you, Gods of old houses with leaky windows!). It does however promise to be a beautiful morning in my corner of the world; the sun is shining, and it's going to be a bit warmer today.

Apparently, it's reached the point in the semester where everyone is too busy to have multiple meetings weekly (as they did at the beginning of the semester, when they felt fresh and ambitious, rather than bogged down and recalcitrant, like now), and thus I don't have to be anywhere until 2 this afternoon.

My thoughts on waking (right after "oh crap. I forgot to email my pair of students who are just about to fail a class project worth 20% of their grades), was: Wow! I have HOURS to myself this morning! I could get a TON of stuff done!! This was quickly followed by: oh, except for that lingering stack of drafts that I need to comment on. Damn.

Ah, the circle of life at a SLAC. The promise of time, thwarted by the consistent interaction with students and their work. Sometimes, I truly wish that I didn't know how well process-writing worked. My life would be so much easier if I just assigned papers and graded them, without all of this silly drafting/commenting/revision work in between--a process we should just go ahead and call "The Time Suck." TST, however, has hidden benefits, however, that make it worth the time tradeoff. 1) When students hand you drafts of an assignment which includes extensive work in summarizing, you can troubleshoot widespread, unintended plagiarism with them in class, before they hand in the final copy and you have to go apeshit because they have, in essence, taken every other sentence out of the article they're working on. 2) Drafting lets you ask questions, request more information and interpretation, etc. in papers as time goes on, and thus in the end, you get to read better papers. 2.5--a follow-up example: I'm working with a student on a paper that she began writing for me in the fall of 2005. She's on her 4th draft (for reasons which require a post all their own). It's finally getting really good. Which means, I think, that it takes time and rewriting to get products you really enjoy out of students.

So, the moral of this story, kids, (and now is the time to reference the title of the post), is that willing engagement in TST before they hand in a finished version has a measurable positive effect at the end. I find, for my money, that it helps me avoid that feeling of anger at the student--always a good thing.

Now if only I could speed up the draft-return rate...

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Reading for Pleasure (shhh! don't tell!)

You know, Dr. Crazy began the blog tradition (blogition?) of the RFP Wednesdays--on which we'd blog what we were reading for fun, as opposed to all that we read for work. I've thought about this several times, but have found that I'm lucky to squeeze out a post on Wednesday AT ALL, much less one about reading for pleasure.

As I'm a bit ahead of the game for a Sunday, however (and thank you! oh gods of daylight savings time), I thought now might be the time to experiment. And how great is it that I'm actually getting to read for pleasure now and then?

So, what I'm currently taking to bed with me (aside from Junior Bear, who has noticed the the warmest place in our cold house is between myself and Senor Fluff--at about 3 a.m.) is Ariel Levy's Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture. Levy's book got lots of good press when it first came out, and I've been stalking its paperback release (I hate reading hardback books--no fun to try to hold up one-handed in bed in order to keep the other arm warm and under the blankets).

First off, I'm struck by the ambitiousness of her project. How do you even begin to account for a widespread, seemingly sui generis phenomenon of women and girls dedicated to the performance of sexuality? Levy does her homework: I'm about halfway through, and she's been out on the town with the Girls Gone Wild camera crew, interviewed the producers and hosts of The Man Show, talked about the strippers' workout (made famous by Teri Hatcher on Oprah)...the whole nine. Throughout, she's careful to note (and I think it's an important distinction), that she's not critiquing women's performance of sexuality per se, but rather of a very specific kind of sexuality--one that celebrates and seems to quote excessively porn (she mentions here the success of Jenna Jameson's book, etc.).

What I very much enjoy about her analysis is the way that she offers up some language and some criteria for assessing the actions of women--what it buys them, and what it buys other women around them. There are many great points in her analysis, but here's one definition that sticks out for me:
The Female Chauvinist Pig likes to position herself as something outside the normal bounds of womanhood. If defending her own little patch of turf requires denigrationg other women...airheads who prioritize manicures...so be it.

This gets away, a bit, from her overall thesis concerning women's need to perform a kind of sexuality (although she makes the link, I can't follow it all the way through here). The thing that struck me, of course, is the way that Levy describes the desire to/strategy of separating oneself from the undifferentiated mass of women. And while I have, on occasion, realized the need to work together for the sisterhood, I don't think I've thought through exactly how powerful the cultural messages are to stand out--to continually characterize ourselves as "not like other girls." We're not too girly, we're "like one of the guys," we're "not one of those kind of women"... What an incredibly powerful tool for both the establishment of the individual and the eradication of a group consciousness.

Levy describes a moment in her interview with Jimmy Kimmel in which he explains the ways that women have power by watching The Man Show (which had, at one time, a 38% female viewership). "You take responsibility for your life and you don't walk around thinking, I'm a victime of pop culture!...You get it." She thinks: "for a moment I allowed myself to feel vaguely triumphant." While the situation is laughable (seriously, the day Jimmy freaking Kimmel gets to say that women have power is the day that I barf all over myself), Levy's reaction isn't surprising. That moment of being told "you're not like them--you get it" is the moment of greatest temptation. I'm not even there and I think the desire to be let into the club is palpable. Yes! I'm different! I'm special!!

All of this, of course, fits into a larger American model of fetishizing the individual. Thus, although Levy never says it (or hasn't yet, that I've read), this invitation to be different from other women, even as that differentiation is based on your assent to craven objectification, fits neatly into a larger national set of values--thus making it more difficult to resist.

I'll keep reading, but in the meantime, I'll be asking myself how special I really am, and what I have to accept in order to be perceived as such.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

The End of an Era

That's it--it's over. I thought it was over years ago, but Andy Warhol's death changed everything. After that I thought "well now, NOW it's clearly over." But then again, it reared its ugly head. Third time, I have to say, has to be the charm. The BBC reported today, mere hours ago, that Duran Duran was losing it's guitarist. Surely, this is the moment when D-squared slips back into the nostalgia-filled, fluorescent memory that is 80's pop music. Right? Right?!

I give you the heartfelt words of the band itself, for your own edification:

To Our Fans

We know that there has been a tremendous amount of speculation over the past few weeks regarding Andy Taylor's continued involvement with the band and we are sorry that we've been unable to provide you with more information until now. The past five years have been an incredible journey for us all - and having the original five back together was something that we had wanted to see happen for some time. As of last weekend, however, the four of us have dissolved our partnership and will be continuing as Duran Duran without Andy, as we have reached a point in our relationship with him where there is an unworkable gulf between us and we can no longer effectively function together. Although obviously disappointed and saddened about this, we are excited about the next chapter of the Duran Duran story and look forward to seeing you all soon.

Simon, John, Nick and Roger

It sounds to me like Andy's been a bad boy. Which, given his hair in the 80's, is no big surprise. Here's one of the better pics out there on the web:

Excellent, no?

Look, here's the thing. I loved Duran Duran when I was in junior high. Like deep love. Like panicked when Simon Le Bon got rolled in a yacht during a race. Like drew their logo on my Trapper Keeper during algebra. Like collected facts that mean nothing to a 13 year old (like the name "Duran" comes from the villain in Barbarella. Did ya know that? Did ya? Glad it's still taking up room in the old noggin, pushing out other information like Foucault quotes!)

I'm all for a trip down memory lane vis-a-vis Rio, or even The Chauffeur. Hell, I'll throw out my feminist I.D. card and even give you Girls on Film. But let it go, boys. Let all the hairspray and eyeshadow and aging hipster groupies that are part and parcel of your "incredible journey" go.

Thank you, Andy Taylor, for having some damn sense.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Checks and Balances

Yesterday was really one of those days, in which a number of crap things happen which then trigger a series of events that seem to balance it all out. I started behind the eight ball this morning, speeding through an over-long reading assignment for my afternoon class (my mistake--too much of a complicated text). Knowing I was running late, I chose an outfit that required NO ironing, and I figured it out in the shower, saving me the 20 minutes of deliberation time that I usually waste. Suddenly, I was ahead! As I pulled on my sweater, however, I found a series of small holes (when they say don't wash cashmere sweaters in the machine, I suppose they mean it. But damn, I do it with my Isaac Mizrahi for Target sweaters all the time, and they're fine. Why is it that the $75 Hayden sweater from Bluefly looks like Swiss cheese?!). I couldn't manage to find a different sweater to match the outfit, so I mended the holes. And then I was behind.

I ran out the door, got to my office, and realized that there was no WAY I was going to get everything I needed done this morning before class, so I may as well answer emails, etc. This means, of course, that I'll have to make horrid excuses to the afternoon students because I'm, yet again, NOT DONE READING their papers. Sigh.

I get to my morning class, where I've radically revamped the syllabus to give the students more time to work on a group project. Five of eighteen students are missing--basically obviating the group assignment on tap for the day. This did give me the perfect excuse to work closely with a couple of students who are crashing and burning, however.

ALL DAY it was like this--give a little, take a little; up, down.

The coup de grace? After a particularly disappointing meeting, I came home and raked leaves in my weedy backyard until it got dark. Yay. But the upside? The Isaac Show is back on the air, with new episodes. I don't want to hear it from you haters--I love him BECAUSE he groped Scarlett Johannsen on the red carpet. It's back on! [And a quick scan of the website shows that they'll be airing the same two episodes, twice a night, for the ENTIRE week. And one of those features Haylie Duff. You see what I'm saying about the up/down thing?]

Sunday, October 22, 2006

This Aggression Will Not Stand!

You know, this totally wouldn't have been my first thought, but hell, if the blog gods say it is so...

According to the "Which Big Lebowski character are you?" quiz:

Why don't you check it out? Or we cut off your Johnson!

Dude. I do have an affinity for Caucasians (the kind you drink, not necessarily you other honkeys out there). If given a choice, I would lay around in my bathrobe all day. Not such a bowler, however...

Dining Room Blogging

How is it possible that none of you who call yourself my "friends" explained to me the delights and wonders of laptops?! Why, WHY would you hold out on me like that?!! You all have lots of 'splainin' to do!

It has been a bit of a travail, I must say, to get all of the ducks in a row. I know I'm way behind the times on this (see above) but isn't it the case the wireless connectivity is relatively (say the last few years) new? At least in a widescale version? Or is it that it's so old hat by now no one has to explain it to you? I had a long conversation with one of my colleagues on Thursday about the way in which you set up in-home wireless (at which point I acquired all sorts of new vocabulary words. "Router," for instance). "Go to Local Computer Giant and ask them what kind of router you need--and tell them that you have an Apple. They work differently," he says. So, on Friday, Senor Fluff and I pile in the car to go to LCG--a bit of a hike (25 minutes or so). At LCG, the very helpful guy tells me: "well, Apple makes its own router, which will work best with your computer. Unfortunately, we don't have it--go to the Apple Store." Wagons HO! Back in the car. Extended conversation with Apple Store employee (no lip piercing, this one). "What kind of access do you have now? You probably don't need the Apple router. Just call your service and see if they provide wireless." Fluff: "It doesn't have to be Apple compatible?" Employee, with look of disdain and wonder: "It's just a signal--how can it have compatibility issues?"

Back at Fluff HQ, I call and find out, indeed, my ISP DOES provide wireless; better yet, IT'S FREE. Huzzah! All I have to do is unhook my modem and come down and exchange it. Guess where their office is located? Wagons f*cking ho.

All of this is water under the bridge. I am now currently blogging from my dining room--a space that makes me realize how dim and cramped my poor little office is. Here, I have four windows, a HUGE radiator, and a big ol' table on which to stack whatever I need. I'm not sure that this will make the process of mitigating my atrociously-procrastinated reading of student papers any better, but I'll give it a whirl. At least I'm warm and sitting up semi-straight.

The best news of all, of course, is that by avoiding buying the Apple router (thank you, disdainful/incredulous Apple Store Employee), I now have $$ to buy a truly excellent laptop bag. Because, you know, I NEED one. [I can actually justify this, right? You can't just lug these things around unprotected. Or is that just what they tell me so that I can justify buying a bag? Tautology, anyone?]

After a morning of research (remember those papers?--Neither do I.), I came across this one:

Isn't it smart? Doesn't it just call out to gently nestle my dandy new technology? Doesn't it almost cost as much as a new router? Do you like this one better?

This is the problem with new things. They call for their own accessories. Here's to new technologies and their semi-couture trappings.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Feelin' Competent

For the first time in as long as I can remember (without actually looking in my planner), I didn't have to go in to the office today. I'd tell you to picture me doing backflips and cheers with my pompoms, if only I had that much energy. Although, in truth, I never did that kind of thing, ever. Not even in my most grody high school fantasies.

So, free from the demands of the office for a day doesn't exactly mean free from work; I've sent the requisite 40 million emails, begun editing student drafts, etc. Since I've saved tons of time by not showering or changing out of my pjs, however, I've also managed to do a few jobs around the house: transferring my desktop files to my new laptop (hear the angels sing!) and assembling a new television stand (hear the angels cry "carpal tunnel!").

Both of these are tasks that incite a set of opposing feelings in me. The first (and the one that motivates me to do them) is the joy at having something that is both aesthetically pleasing AND that works--my favorite combination of characteristics in the entire world. The second happens about 15 minutes into these tasks, where I realize that they're a bit tedious, will take more time that I had expected, and that I'll run into some glitches along the way. In point of fact, the data transfer was easy peasy--in fact, the hardest part about it was finding a place to put the laptop that was in easy reach of the desktop (yes, my desk is that small. I live in a house designed for hobbits). Crucial solution: laptop goes on chair, Fluff goes on the floor. After that, however, and praise the Apple gods, it was a piece of cake. And guy in black with lip piercing who sold me said laptop? You can SO transfer the applications! Hah!

The television stand, on the other hand--not so easy. Because when you order furniture from Target? Well, it comes in a big flat box. With numerous pieces. And a variety of hardware. And requires two different screwdrivers, a hammer, a piece of "thick cardboard," 3 agile limbs and a degree in physics to put together. My mistake, of course, was letting my excitement get the better of me, and trying to start it last night. Needless to say, two pieces got screwed on in the wrong direction, sending me into the groggy, I've-been-teaching-all-day-and-now-this pit of despair. After exclaiming to Senor Fluff that we would only be officially middle class at the point at which we could buy furniture that didn't need to be assembled, I gave up and watched Project Runway to drown my sorrows. [As a side note--SPOILER ALERT!!--Dude, Jeffrey? Seriously?! For polkadots and goth music?]

This morning, bolstered by a lack of meetings, I took everything apart and put it all back together, dusted off all of our various media components, placed them on said stand, and hooked the cable and DVD back into the TV. Voila! I may be maimed, but at least I'll be able to watch Grey's Anatomy on this:

God knows it doesn't look like that in my house. In part because the veneer is about a millimeter thick, so I've scratched it already by sneezing on it.

REGARDLESS. I have accomplished something for the day. I have made, if not fire, then a wee style upgrade in my living room. It's no academic manuscript, but it's making me happy.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Get Thee Behind Me, Satan

In a haze of exhaustion and meeting battle-weariness, I made my way to the local Apple store last night. After the utter geekdom of the tech conference a week ago, I began to think of all of the possibilities that a come with a laptop. (In general, these all involved sitting in a sun-drenched coffee shop somewhere, drinking the world's best latte, writing fabulous prose on a sleek titanium number. Isn't it sad that that's the best I can come up with? I should at least be able to envision myself as an international assassin a'la Angelina Jolie in Mr. and Mrs. Smith or something...) So, I did a bunch of research (which includes surfing websites, chat boards, and exhanging many many emails with the goddess of all things Apple--Lee). All of which resulted in the same conclusion: I have to go and play with them to really know if I can switch. What if I can't adjust to the track pad? I adore the deep action on regular keyboards (as I did on my parents' old typewriter)--what if the shallow sponginess of notebooks makes me cringe? Thus, the in-person visit.


If you've never been in an Apple Store, be warned. They are well lit and clean and white and there are all kinds of things to play with. The people who work there wear all black, go by names like "Scooby" and have piercings. It's the total "My computer makes me a rebel" hard sell. And I ate it up. With a spoon. Because I'm a pushover like that.

So, I slapped down the plastic and came home with this:

(That sound you hear is of the heavenly angels' chorus.)

It is beautiful and fast and has a glossy screen that totally enhances the quality of the picture. The keyboard lights up. In sleep mode, the indicator light pulses like the thing is breathing, for crying out loud.

I feel a bit like I've just eaten an eight course meal, with the middle six progressively more French, more haute, and more drenched in butter. Despite this bloated feeling of indulgence, everything is super.

Feel free to justify my spending habits in the comments.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Pedagogical Oil Change

It must be that time of the semester when the courses start to ramp up and the students are getting a little punchy; with each passing week, I feel myself getting more anxious about what projects are coming down the pike, what they'll need to have under their belts in order to do said projects, and when in the hell I'm going to find time to work with them in class on all of that stuff they'll need (case in point: see post on teaching making meaning, below).

All of this leads me to ponder the ins and outs of what I suppose I'll call "class maintenance" (not Marx--think Dewey). This is the only term I can think of that speaks to the bevy of tasks that we undertake over the course of the semester that fall outside the bounds of what's covered on the syllabus. I'd count activities like these as qualifying for the category: meeting/email exchanges with students who have missed key classes; design and delivery of new in-class assignments that prepare students for papers, projects, etc.; preparing handouts/blog or Blackboard posts that describe or isolate key themes; construction of group work activities that help students get to know each other better and work on emerging ideas/skills... I'm sure there are more of these that we do, but this is the slate that I'm focused on right now.

My paranoid fear is always that I'm doing, um, is it called "Tuesday Morning quarterbacking?"--i.e., trying to call plays (lessons) after the fact (or after I've already had my chance to teach it). But I've definitely had the experience where something clicks for students in one or more of the above situations, where it hasn't before. And they're often so reticent to say when they don't get it--even knowing that they'll need to understand a reading, an assignment, a theory, later. [This is when I love having the student who's willing to ask the "stupid question." Nothing like seeing that wave of relief on other people's faces that they're not alone in wondering what the crap I'm talking about.]

The reason I want to term these things "maintenance", of course, is because I've come to believe that they work like oil changes for your car. Of course, when you're busy and strapped for time, it's a big pain to drag yourself down to the dealership and sit there for an hour while the mechanics tune-up your vehicle. Doing this regularly, however, ensures that the engine doesn't seize on you while you're on the freeway. I'm sure we could take this car metaphor WAY too far here (pedagogical seatbelts? Air bags? anti-lock brakes?), but I think the overall idea holds: a little maintenance along the way can prevent a huge accident later (which is altogether more inconvenient and generally happens, to me anyway, at the end of the semester when I'm least equipped to handle it because I'm exhausted and cranky and thus more willing to blame the student than myself).

It occurs to me, of course, that this "class maintenance" is very particular to a specific kind of pedagogy. I like a constant flow of information from the students to me and vice versa, and when they're silent, it generally means that we've gone off the track somewhere (but hopefully not in a Neil Young "Alabama" sort of way). And this is made far more simple by the fact that I teach at a SLAC where my class size is 20 or so. But is class maintenance happening in all of our courses, regardless of what, how, and who we teach? What does it look like for others?

Friday, October 13, 2006

Things to Be Thankful For

Yesterday was the deadline to submit a request to the administration for my sad little Academic Unit. Despite the sadness and little-tude of said ACUN, I still had to complete the entire process, which involves locating, requesting, and interpreting a number of data sets that reside in various offices all over campus. My first reaction to all of this was one of bewilderment: people in my field don't even use the words "data set," let alone do anything with them. My next thought was: "why don't they ever teach us how to do this stuff? Where's the grad school class called GRA 579: Academic Admin Writing?" Oh right, I know, they don't offer this because if you ever thought you have to do use those skills, you'd drop out of your program and take up residency on a goat farm in New Mexico.

Despite my oscillation between disbelief, outrage and self-pity, I did in fact manage to turn this damn thing in. This was, of course, necessitated by two factors: 1) it was due, and 2) I had to finish it so that I could spend the day working on writing up my participation in a school-sponsored pilot project. And we wonder why I'm not pumping out the scholarly work?

But, as the title promised, there are two things for which I must be thankful. Three hours before the first document was due, I still hadn't located a key data set that I needed. I came back from a meeting, prepared to grovel to the appropriate office for it, and low and behold, it was in my email, courtesy of the dean. AND, as far as I can tell, it actually supported the argument I had been making.

The second thing? I tore my office apart last night looking for my notes on the pilot project, and couldn't find it. I came home determined to look through a stack of files located here--an exercise in despair, as I was sure the notes were gone into the black hole of disorganization. Lo and behold--on the top of my file stack--the notes! The notes!

So, thank you, universe, for providing the information I need to complete projects I care very little about. Now if you'd only provide me with an exit strategy from these projects altogether, I'd be ever-so grateful!

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Teaching Making Meaning

I'm about half-way through a (virtual) stack of student papers (they're short, so I'm writing comments using the comment function in Word), and I'm realizing that I haven't worked nearly enough with my students on how to make meaning when they read a passage. Time for damage control: go back to that classroom and teach them how to make meaning!

If you're a literature person, you may have an ambivalent response to this: in essence, I'm working with students to teach them how to read a short passage and develop what we have a tendency to call "close reading." This term, of course, was largely used by a group of guys called the New Critics, whose attention to the text was so focused that they refused to consider how things like culture, time period, gender, politics, etc. might be pertinent to an analysis of a particular passage. Once those kinds of ideas began to ripple through literature programs, the New Critics were dismissed as passe and their ideas, in large measure, were discounted as at best blindly apolitical and at worst ignorant and laughable. Despite these trends, however, we Lit. types do maintain (I think--somebody check me
here) a devotion to the ways one analyzes sentences for meaning and uses these analyses to make an argument about a particular literary work.

What I've been trying to articulate--for myself and for the students--is: HOW DO WE DO THIS? What is the process by which we make meaning from a passage? Think about how you read and begin to develop an analysis of a text (even something as intuitive as "The appeal of the Harry Potter books rests in their ability to tap into common,deeply-held ambivalent desires about wanting to be special and simultaneously afraid of the responsibilities of specialness" has to start somewhere). Where does it start? How would you break down the steps in the process? How do you "do" a close reading? How do you make a text mean something--and mean something other than its most literal conveyance of information?

This is what I did today. I chose two sentences from their pages of reading, and typed them into Word. This was then projected onto the screen so everyone could see it. I asked the students to read the sentences and give me a short summary of them. Then, I asked them to read the sentences again, and identify which words seemed most important to them. For each, we then inserted a parenthetical list of associations with the word. After we had developed a series of lists, we went back through and looked for the words or ideas that kept recurring. These, it seemed to me, would be the consistent basis for various meanings for the passage. But here, dear readers, I got hung up. What's the next step? What do we do after we note that a word excites an association in our head? How do we then go about articulating what the piece means to us?

Let's get specific. Chew on this one for awhile--it's the opening sentence of Thomas Mann's tetrology, Joseph and His Brothers. Yes, for the record, it is just sitting around in my office. All 1492 pages of it.

Deep is the well of the past. Should we not call it bottomless?
So, a summary of these sentences might say: "narrator questions whether past goes on forever." But what does it mean? The narrator wants to correlate the past with a well. What do we associate with a well? Still water, deep, digging, bucket, cool, clean... Some of these are not going to match up with what we associate with the past (history, future, human events, etc.). But the others--stillness, deep, etc.--intuitively I can get the well as metaphor for the past. But then "bottomless?" You can't have a bottomless well, right? that engenders different associations: vertiginous, impossible, without boundaries, falling, incomprehensible... Suddenly, the comforting images of the well become scary images. Thus, if the past is correlated to the well, then the past too must take on a that scary tone. In addition, if the well is bottomless, then the past is also bottomless, meaning that we can't touch the end of it (there's the vertiginous part.) Hell of a way to open a novel.

So what just happened there? The associations are necessary, but they are coupled with a return to the text to make the connections between sets of associations. But how do you explain that as a process?

Some people explain the human condition as one that is marked by the idea of making meaning. Colloquially, I've heard the contention that given a random set of events, the mind will turn itself into a pretzel to create a narrative that makes sense of those events (if you doubt this, check out any online discussion of Lost). In many ways, however, close reading becomes the opposite move--given something that already "makes sense," how do you open it up to allow for different and multiple meanings?

Intuitively, I want to make the jump here to the ways that I want students' experiences with literature and their lives to be grounded in this move: given any text (an advertisement, a contract, an expectation of your abilities), you can go beyond what it says, open it up, and bring new meaning to it. But if I can't explain how to do this, then what exactly is literature (and by extension, my teaching of it) good for?

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Tales from the Trenches

I'm getting the feeling that this is grading weekend for many of us. I have a huge stack that I'm going through (2 courses, one set is 3-5 pagers, the other is 5-7). I'm finally getting the hang of creating writing assignments that I actually want to read, so I'm enjoying myself quite a bit here; the downside is that with enjoyable reading comes slower reading, and if I keep up this poky pace I'll be reading til doomsday.

In the midst of all of this, let me share with you one of my favorite sentences of the day:
The idea of is one that has obviously been around since the beginning of time, take Emerson's piece for example. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote an essay in 1841 entitled “Self-Reliance”.

Oh my god, how I love it. Emerson as the dawn of time. Not only do I love this because I have the image of Emerson running around in a loincloth, hitting women over the head and dragging them back to his nature-lovin' cave, but also because this is not so far from some of the stuff that I've said AS A DOCTORAL CANDIDATE. In a job interview, I was once asked if I could teach Early American literature. My reply:
You mean like Melville?
I shit you not.

That's me--working with the same anorexic view of American letters as my students. Trying to teach them how to improve their writing.

Happy grading to all, and to all a good night.

We All Look the Same--To Kids

You know, we spend a lot of time romanticizing childhood in this country.
Oh, they're sooo innocent!
Children see the world with wonder!
If only we could go back to the time when we had no worries.

(This last one is actually courtesy of a student paper from this morning. Said student writer is SEVENTEEN years old, and is nostalgic about childhood?!)

But what if all of this is simply our own projection onto children? I have to imagine that the world is sometimes a scary, complicated place to kids, just as it is to adults. What brings me to these questions, of course, is my interaction with a colleague's child yesterday. I was strolling into campus with Senor Fluff, bound for a serious bout of paper reading, when we stopped by the local drugstore to pick up allergy medication. (For him, not me, although I've been known to steal it periodically. But not to make crystal meth or anything, so I think it's okay.) The Family Fluff ran into one of my delightful colleagues, who has a young daughter (I think she's 3 or so--I'm bad with the numbers). She was frolicking in the Halloween aisle, picking up different costumes and trinkets. When her father said "look who's here!", she looked me dead in the face and said "Hi June! Look at this!" and handed me a toy.

Lest you think I've just outed myself on my blog (alert the press!), June is actually a psuedonym for another of my colleagues, who the child confused with me. What's notable here, of course, is that June happens to be MY OTHER ASIAN AMERICAN COLLEAGUE. I should also note here that June and I look NOTHING alike (and I'm not just saying that). She's tall and thin; I'm...not. She's immediately identifiable as Asian, I've been told by my oh-so-sensitive senior colleagues that "no one would know you're Asian unless you told them"---so much for the carefully-considered politics of multi-ethnic backgrounds.

All of this leads me to ask--what exactly was going on in that kid's head? Did she just mistake one of Daddy's dark-haired colleagues for another? Does she see a subtle set of resemblances that escape many people?

Either way, it gave the grownups an uncomfortable little chuckle--and it's a great example to use in class when discussing the ways in which people can replicate racist behaviors that are free of the vitriol and prejudice that we assume motivate them. Obviously, this kid hasn't been raised on a Neo-Nazi version of Goodnight Moon or anything. She's identified the wrong person, and done it without reference to the kinds of stereotyping that usually underpin this kind of mistake (you know, the "they all look alike when they're trying to put good Americans out of jobs"). In short, this kid has made an innocent mistake, which, coming from an older mouth, would have been automatically perceived as some sort of deep racist behavior---the worst possible offense in our multicultural society. What she exemplifies, then, is that there's room to consider people's responses to similar situations: is it the case that any adult who makes the same mistake has fallen prey to American stereotypes perpetrated by the media? Or is it possible, in some situations, simply to say the wrong name?

Regardless of what she saw, I think she's bought all of us a little more breathing room for a time when we confuse one person for another (without the automatic mortification response of: "oh my god! [flog, flog] Secretly I'm racist! [flog, flog] Racist to the core! I need to go to sensitivity training at once!"

I suppose there is something to be learned from children---but I'm not falling for that "wonder" crap!

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Moonlighting as a Techie

I am back from the one-day conference on Wednesday, which took so much out of me that I turned into the human vegetable on Thursday (didn't get out of pajamas all day, watched Judging Amy, What Not to Wear, and a good portion of Walk the Line--yes, again, so just shut up.) I talked on the phone to FrenchieF and my mother, ordered dinner in, and then watched both Gray's Anatomy and the Project Runway Reunion special. Now that, my friends, is the way to recover from a conference. I've now burned my retinas right out of my head, but barring that, feel very relaxed (did I mention that I also ordered this from Bluefly? Good times.)

All of this to say that I have cleared a bit of mental space to process what exactly went on at this conference. I think I mentioned that it was not exactly the kind of conference that we academic types usually attend. Due to a bunch of crap that I've been doing on campus, the head of IT here hooked me up with a link to this group. The panels sounded a bit less theory-loaded than they would have if it had been SCMS, PCA, etc. (Here in the English lit. world, we have our own version of Roosevelt's alphabet administration). So, I took a chance, for sure, and it wasn't exactly a home run (here in the English lit. world, we mix metaphors with abandon). The panels devoted to "media literacy" were primarily grounded in "workshops" that asked participants to analyze the images in tobacco ads and then, in a stunning development, draw their very own SUBVERSIONS of said ads! How outre! [And why can't these people refer to Kalle Lasn, I ask you? Name-drop, dammit!] So, this was a bit of a bust (particularly since I got up at 5:30 to get there in time to hear this guy...).

Since I wasn't exactly bowled over by the talk, I entertained myself by observing the participants. Again, this is not the slick, geeked-out, punk rock group I'd see at an academic conference. Lots of jeans and bad shoes (e.g., leopard printed clogs), 80's hair, only one faux-hawk. A quick skim of the list of participants cleared this all up for me; the dominant populations at this conference were IT people--the folks who support faculty requests, who manage servers, and most interestingly, the peeps who actually work in libraries--areas which are, in some schools, getting included under the IT banner. In short, I was one of 5 faculty members there--and one of 3 who was not giving a presentation.

So, in my new role as spy, I had a chance to eavesdrop on some rather interesting conversations about the problems that IT people perceive in how media, technology, and literacy get disseminated to the students. First, a few people noted their frustration in being asked by faculty to help them work with a technology that is already outdated. Here, the techies noted the ways that faculty members "don't keep up." Second, many were truly surprised (and some were dismayed) at the ways that the conference continued to return to talk about media literacy; they were far more concerned with technological literacies/information literacy--ie., how do we get students to understand how to locate and evaluate information they find on the internet? The way in which that information comes to them (what I'd call the media "package") was an issue that, to them, came later. First locate, then analyze--this is their preferred ordering. Finally, a good number of them were worried about the various resources at their institutions; sure, they said, people at MIT could do all sorts of cool stuff because they had the equipment and a place for students to play with it. What do colleges without the $$ do?

All of this was a revelation for me. Obviously, one of the infrastructral problems for faculty that want to work with media/technology is their understanding of and communication with the IT people. There seems to be a fundamental distrust on both parts, which, I think, stems from the question of who knows what. Who's the expert in this situation? Is it the IT person who has worked with the program/equipment/platform endless times, or is it the faculty member who's reading/writing/teaching it? Add to this the (perhaps) discipline-specific problem of how we hierarchize learning priorities; when I ask students to assess various web sites, I emphasize the way in which the advertising target them, speaks to specific markets/subcultures, etc. One of the IT people in my group, however, insisted that students have to understand information architecture first--that the media analysis could come "in the next semester." Whoa. Massive paradigm difference.

Finally, and perhaps most relevant: all of these groups (IT, librarians, faculty) had some implicit assumptions about who would actually teach the students various skills--and sometimes there was no overlap. Do faculty teach web design, or does IT? Do librarians teach research skills or do faculty?

All of this leads me to think that the more we emphasize learning in media/technological environments, the more strain we place on the fragile seams holding faculty and staff departments together. Schools that can develop ways of asking each faction to articulate its expectations, and institutions that will focus on making teaching responsibilities clear, are going to be the ones to succeed as technoculture marches on.

Off to grade papers--and slobber over laptops. And Blackberries. And all the other cool toys I saw at the conference.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Spot the Masochist

Let's play my favorite new game "spot the masochist"!

Is she the one curled up in a ball on the couch, watching the last hour of Walk the Line, fixated on Joaquin Phoenix's odd naso-labial fold, convinced that it is the scar from a cleft palate, despite the fact that she has to get up at the ass-crack of dawn to drive two hours to attend a media literacy conference?

Or perhaps she's the one who signed up for said conference thinking that it would be a good line on her vita without checking the participants of said conference, many of whom work for a "media clearinghouse" corporation?

How about the one who then desperately recruited her new colleague to attend above conference with her, never dreaming that said colleague would be devoted to attending each and every second of the conference, despite the dodgy credentials of the participants?

Or maybe she's the one who wrote a rather complicated assignment for her students to cover her absence from class tomorrow--an assignment that requires them to state their preferences for group topics, but got them all confused, so only some emails have come in that actually will prep them for the assignment, but the others are totally lost and won't have a clue what to do when she's gone?

Or is she the one who is writing a blog post rather than washing her face, taking her vitamins, and and going to bed to sneak in a few paltry hours of shut-eye before the death march that will be Wednesday?

Hmmm. Difficult choice, I know. Think hard...

Monday, October 02, 2006

You Can Go Home Again...

Oh, my poor neglected blog! Languishing in disuse! Hast thou been forsaken?

The short answer, clearly, is yes. It was nutty bananacakes around here last week, leaf in the wind or no. Multiple meetings and necessary "conversations" (also known as knock-down drag outs about who can and can't do what) leading up to said meetings. And then, to top it all off, friends of Senor Fluff's and mine had to up and get married in a different state this weekend--all of which leads me to the title of this blog post.

These now-married friends are actually colleagues from Senor Fluff's previous institution, where he was the guy with the job and I was adjunct girl. Such is life when your partner in crime/academe gets his degree before you--you go where the job is and make the best of it. This previous institution--let's call it Old Guy College--had a very specific set of values, however, that made it particularly difficult to be adjunct girl. First off, OGC was run and largely populated by the blue blazer crowd; in fact, the doddering then-president had run a major state university prior to his tenure at OGC--sometime in the 80's. The Dean/Provost who made the majority of the meaningful decisions was (and I'm totally not making this up) a German immigrant with a glass eye. Next in line, and quickly climbing the ranks, was the Assistant Dean, who was in a long-term, long-distance relationship with a former student.

With this cast of characters at the top of the food chain at OGC, it may come as no suprise to you that the school itself saw ethnic studies as a fad, and many of the faculty refused to recognize it as a field of study. On at least one occasion, I was asked if I was, in fact, an American. Add to this the dubious distinction of being located in a rural area that was reportedly the last county in the South to desegregate its school system. And to top it off, the faculty held events like "Champagne and Schubert"--supposedly casual affairs to which men were expected to wear khakis and sportscoats (and we inevitably turned up in t-shirts). OGC bred a kind of old-school conservatism that was antithetical to my very existence. You may imagine that I was a bit surly at the prospect of my spouse being tenured at this institution, which was at least 50 miles from anywhere I might get a full-time job.

When I got a job offer from Askesis U., it felt like a big "F you" to OGC. Hah! I do have marketable skills! This is a reasonable field of study! I'm smart, and gosh darn it, people like me! When Askesis offered Senor Fluff a full-time (although not permanent) position, we agonized over the decision: what did it mean to give up a tenure-track job? Was it, as Glass Eye insisted, giving up his career? Was I sacrificing Senor Fluff's career on the altar of my own? How much did I suck as a wife for asking him to make this move?

All of these questions were back on the table as we made our way down to the wedding. We knew we'd see these same people, along with the colleagues that we'd actually enjoyed at OGC. As we drank and ate and cracked wise, people filled us in on the goings on there: who's now in charge of what, what the pertinent curricular questions are, how the administration is changing, where people are living in the teeny tiny town and what their conflicts with their neighbors are... By the time we piled back in the car on Sunday afternoon, it had somehow become clear to us both that we had never fit in at OGC, and we never would have. Even if Senor Fluff were given tenure, we'd be stuck in that town, trying desperately to fit into the culture of the institution--such a far cry from anything that was natural or comfortable for us, or recognized my work as legitimate.

In the end, to bastardize the Tom Wolfe quote, you can go home again and discover that it wasn't home to begin with. You can go "home" again and re-evaluate why you ever called it that. You can go "home" again and remember why you needed to leave in the first place.

Our thanks to J & K for providing us with the opportunity to see this chapter in our lives satisfyingly closed. Many happy returns to them both.