Thursday, February 22, 2007

Support Hos

You'll forgive the cheekiness of this post title, I suspect, if I can make it clear why it's necessary with an overly sincere question: how much support can you reasonably expect from your colleagues?

I ask because yesterday was round two of horrible committee meeting; the follow-up to this misadventure in faculty personalities. In large measure, the expectation of being the human punching bag was much the same, and led to the same bodily effects: I don't technically have to go in to school this morning, and I've been planning all week to get some work done on a paper I have to give in April. Instead of happily reading through my stack of new books fresh out of the Amazon package, however, I've been oscillating back and forth between rage and despair. Here's the problem: on the table at yesterday's meeting was the future of a project that I've been working on, for a month or so, with an ad hoc committee. I won't go into details here, but suffice to say that we're hoping that it will have positive ramifications for a student population that no one has heretofore given a crap about. Last important point: a third of that committee is comprised of members of my department.

At yesterday's meeting, the issue hit the table and endured the typical (but still baffling) responses from attendees: "I don't get it, and thus I think it's bad;" "It doesn't serve my majors, and thus I think it's bad;" "It's not like when I went to college, and thus I think it's bad." You get the picture. Then there were more substantive questions, suggestions, comments, etc. All in a day's work (all creating great intestinal havoc on my part, but in a day's work, nonetheless). But here's the kicker: when it was put up for a vote, a member of my department voted against it because she "didn't know enough about it."

Whoa. It took me awhile to fully feel like I'd been kicked in the stomach, but punted I do indeed feel. A quarter of your department is working on a project, and you officially register your discontent because you don't know enough? If only we lived in a world where one could obtain information without having to resort to the fallible telegraph system or the lengthy wait time incurred by the Pony Express. Oh, wait...

So, tell me, blogosphere. What is it that one can reasonably (note: I'm not saying "realistically") expect from one's colleagues? How do you comport yourself with regards to their ideas and activities outside your department? Is there any sense in which the bounds of collegiality suggest that you communicate your concerns about these to them in person?

Am I turning into Professor Pollyanna, asking for ethics in the academy?

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Boy/Girl Blogging

Over at the inestimable Nimue's place, I ran across her reference to the "Gender Genie"--a site that purports to predict the sex of the author of a chunk of text by analyzing the use of certain words. Who's NOT up for that kind of game?

Here's the odd thing: when I fed the genie a post from this here blog, I came out predominantly female; or, as the results put it:
Female Score: 954
Male Score: 712

The Gender Genie thinks the author of this passage is: female!
Just for fun, I fed it a post from the blog that I keep for work purposes. Check this out:
Female Score: 558
Male Score: 1080

The Gender Genie thinks the author of this passage is: male!
So, apparently, when I'm talking about work, I'm a bit more butch then I am here. Actually, I'm more than just a bit butch--I'm twice as male as I am female, compared to my writing here, which is just slightly more female than male. I bet I could extrapolate some theories about the gendered components of different discourses, but you all can guess where I'm going with that.

[And for the record, no one told me that in the new Blogger you could change the color of your text with ease. Thanks a LOT, early adopters!]


Saturday, February 17, 2007

East Coast Etiquette

Here in Urbania, we're finally getting used to the aftereffects of the snowstorm. Senor Fluff and I spent the better part of Wednesday (yes, while the snow was falling) and Thursday and even a bit of yesterday digging out our driveway, sidewalk, and the two cars. NOTE TO SELF: park closer to the damn street so you don't have to dig out those extra 5 feet of driveway.

Aside from that crucial, back-breaking mistake mentioned above, I think the two of us are getting used to this whole living-in-cold-weather-country gig. After all, between our time in the Midwest and on the East Coast, we've booked about 10 years away from our balmy points of origin. It's been a rocky transition, however, and I'm still not sure that I get all of the finer points of living in snowy climes. Y'all have very particular cultural norms and expectations that are not always clear to us furriners.

One of the experiences that Senor Fluff and I share is that of being berated by Midwestern neighbors about our lack of community mindedness during snow season. Independently (in fact, before we ever met, when I was but a lass and Senor Fluff was well on his way to maturity), we were each taken to task for the venal sin--oh, the horror!--of failing to shovel the sidewalk in front of our respective domiciles. In my case, my wizened neighbor, who looked a lot like an elderly Ichabod Crane (not of the Johnny Depp in the Tim Burton movie, unfortunately) marched up to my door at 9 a.m. to inform me that I had better watch myself. For Senor Fluff, it was a similar dressing down, although carried out by his roommate at the time. In both instances, we were utterly floored. WHO KNEW?!! It's not as if, when you move to places with snowy winters, someone gives you a handbook. I thought I was doing my civic duty by not trying to drive in the snow. No one told me that I was responsible for my 12 feet of sidewalk! Contrary to popular Northeastern beliefs, this stuff is not common sense!

Let me give you an example from my corner of the country. It's summer. When do you water your lawn?

If you answered "after 7 p.m. and not every day" then you're at least within the legal range. You get extra points for saying "I shouldn't have a lawn as the West is going through a historic drought. I have xeriscaping." If, however, you responded with "whenever the hell I want and is convenient for me," you've proven my point exactly.

So, with that in mind, snow country natives, answer me this. Where is the polite and appropriate place to aim your blown snow? Unlike us, the neighbors on both sides of our house own snowblowers. with one, we share a driveway, and the other has a small parking area behind the house that directly abuts our backyard. As the two cleared their driveways, they directed the arc of snow not into their own small strips of yard, but rather into ours (which, to be fair, is probably twice the size of each of theirs). The result of this? They have about two feet on their strips of lawn, and we have 5-6 piled up in our backyard. [I should post a picture. The snow field has eclipsed the fence.]

Is this common practice?! It seems rather presumptuous to me (since when the snow melts, were going to be re-enacting Titanic back there), but I'm willing to be told that this is a typical neighborly duty.

Give it up, Northeasterners. Write me a handbook.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

No, Seriously, What Do You REALLY Value?

For the past week and a half, I've been working with on a notoriously difficult American novel. You know the one I mean: the author wanted it printed in four colors, author also memorialized in an early Coen Brothers movie? Right, that one.

Every time I mention to one of my professor friends that I'm teaching "important American novel" or IAN, for short, I get the same response: "I loved that book when I was a student!!" Generally followed by "wow, you're brave." It should tell me something that those of us who have chosen to study literature as an occupation love this novel. But what about my students who didn't, and won't, choose that? What is their relationship to this novel?

My class this semester is full of English students, but the population is dominated by students studying English so that they can go on to teach elementary school. I introduce this fact not to cast doubt on their skills--they're not less talented than any other English major. Rather, the skill set they are intent on acquiring is different: they're going to be teaching Scott O'Dell and Judy Blume, not Fitzgerald and Ellison. What's at stake, then, in forcing them to read the IAN?

I'd like to argue that the benefit is in them having the experience of reading the IAN, that they should feel a sense of accomplishment there. Of course, I also hope that there are a few who will respond like me and my colleagues, finding great pleasure in spite of, or perhaps because of the difficulty of making meaning from the text.

As we close in on the end of the novel, however, I'm not sure that my teaching is actually tied to the above goal. I've never been Canon-Girl (who'd make a great superhero, no? Leaping complex narratives in a single bound? Look out for her lasso of literary value!) by any means. In fact, I'm teaching a well-known comic book in another course and found myself marshalling every literary theoretical piece I could think of (and there are many) to support the claim that this piece IS literature. But here I am, teaching IAN, and suddenly my pedagogy goes awry. For the first few days of discussion, I was more directive than I've ever been. The phrase that kept floating through my head was "they have to get THIS, or they'll never understand the novel." As a result, I think, the students were completely ready to let me lead them through the text. They are, to date, one of the least talkative and most passive classes I've ever had. I've used the IAN to kill their spirits!

Note to self for the future: it's more important to let students make sense of a text--any text--to the extent that they can with some guidance from you (not authoritarian dictation of knowledge). We learn to love texts not when someone tells us what they're about, but when we've found their multiplicitous meanings for ourselves.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Herding Cats, Media Version

As I was writing the post below, I had a nascent recollection of a video by the same name. Thank you YouTube.

If only I could rewrite the end titles to read:
In a sense, this is what we do.
We bring together faculty, their weird-ass ideas, and a program
And make them go where we want.

Herding Cats

It's currently 8:21 a.m., 17 degrees outside, and I'm sitting in bed with my feline friends typing up the minutes from yesterday's meeting. The title of this post is no insult to my little furry companions; rather, it's a reflection on the job of running a meeting of faculty members, which is further instantiated by the difficulty of trying to sum up the conversation that I had with them. Oy.

Let's see if I can give you a thinly-veiled look at the meeting. First: a snapshot of the group. Eight members, from five departments and an special office, representation from four schools at Ascesis U. As I hand out the agenda, the dean's secretary shows up to take a picture of the motley crew for the website. Outside. In the snow. Everyone gets up, puts coats on, marches out the door, at which point one committee member--Tex--starts "asking" me about his request to teach in the fall, which actually comes out like this "you ARE going to get back to me about teaching." He then segues into a discussion of his teaching evaluations from this past fall, while I try to get the other six faculty members to arrange themselves into some sort of winsome shape for the camera.

We pile back in to the meeting room, having now expended fifteen minutes of a 55 minute meeting period. We have the obligatory five minutes of griping about the room (it's architecturally unsound, we should move, people are made sick here, etc.), before I can turn the conversation to the agenda, at which point I begin burning through the announcements at lightning speed. A committee member who can only be known as HippieWoman stops me at two, to inquire about the spring semester, at which point another committee member, Bossypants, turns to me to discuss how our spring semester offerings will intersect with a new program at Ascesis. Except no one else at the table knows what the crap Bossypants is talking about, so she has to stop and explain it to everyone, and it's confusing if you haven't been sitting in on the last two months of meetings about the new program, so it takes me five minutes to explain the logistics, another five to re-explain it, and then another ten to explain how it is, as HippieWoman says, a good opportunity for us, but also, as Captain Bringdown [**note: this is his OWN name for himself, not mine. And it's not always accurate, but is a bit in this particular case.] says, something we need to be careful with as it goes forward.

That's just the announcements, kids. If you're still following along, we're 35 minutes in, and I haven't even gotten to the first order of business, which needs to be settled ASAP. So, as a committee, we need to determine a procedure for (here's the thinly-veiled part) "buying a pair of shoes" with another department. This is tricky on many levels. Who will get to wear them when? How do we pick the pair of shoes that's best for both of us? Clearly both departments want the most high-end, comfortable, long-lasting shoes we can get, but what happens if we want Manolo Mary Janes and the other department wants Mephisto hiking boots? How will we resolve this?

Talk about opening the gates of Hell. Here are some highlights:
HippieWoman: You tell that other department that we want one shoe all the time! We need to establish our position of power immediately!
Bossypants: I agree. We're buying this pair of shoes together, and thus we need to tell them that we're half owners. When we go to the store, we have to check the soles--I don't care if the other department is focused on the laces. We care about the soles!
Kfluff: Well, actually, I think we care about the laces too, but maybe in a different way.
Bossypants: yes! we care about the laces too! And thus the shoes should give us a part of one of its laces in advance, and that way we can use it to assess the shoes.
Mr. Bossypants: But the shoes ALSO have to have great soles.
Kfluff: It seems to me that we're suggesting a large, multipart shoe assessment process that will stretch over a few months, and will be rather work intensive. There are two models for this: a smaller committee participates in the entire process from start to finish, and all of us trust that committee, or all of us take part in all of it.
HippieWoman: Well, I'm happy to help out at the end.
VeryPregnantColleague: I'm happy to help until I give birth.
CaptainBringdown: In our department, we use a committee or else we'd never agree on anyone.
Bossypants: In our department, everyone sees the shoes! Because we have to be interested in their soles!

There was a time in my career as the director of this ACUN when I really believed that you bring all of the information forward to the committee and let them make a collective decision. That time, my friends, is over. I realize, as I read through the above, that I spend half a week, every week, thinking about these issues and dealing with their consequences. This committee? They spend 55 minutes a month thinking about them, and never see what their work reaps. I will say this, however. Hearing these ideas helps me solidify my own position; so as I sit there and nod and smile and take notes for meeting minutes, I begin to see exactly how I'll proceed. To quote an overused commercial cliche:
Struggling to facilitate a conversation among colleagues=gallons of emotional energy.
Doing what you want in the end? Priceless.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Warding Off Scurvy

I can't remember if I've blogged about this before, but I'm a germaphobe. When I was a kid, it used to manifest itself in an affectation where I would dust invisible crumbs off my hands after eating. Now, it's a bit less cute; I try not to touch doorknobs, I'll wait three hours to pee if it means that I can use my bathroom at home rather than a public one.

Despite (or arguably because of) these precautions, I find myself with a scratchy throat and an aching body. I intend to give each and every one of my hacking, snorfling students the evil eye tomorrow as I attempt to remember which of them handed me a paper, touched my pens, or breathed in my general direction.

It's 7:30, and I've still got to read the literary theory handout I've given to my students for tomorrow (nothing like Derrida on a NyQuil high). What have I spent my afternoon doing? Planning on curing my sickness through osmosis. I was at the Bath and Body Works this afternoon, ostensibly because I needed shower gel. Yes, I could use the last half inch of crappy Target shower gel that I have, but I'm sick, dammit! I want exciting, fragrant, soap-free shower goodness! Of course, if you go in for the shower gel, you have to check out the hair products. And being as how we're in the middle of an "arctic freeze," I may as well browse the body butter collection. [My epidermis may never recover from the Fluff family excursion to the big city. I'm hesistant to wear jeans nowadays, as the stiffness of the denim rubbing against the scaly sandpaper of my skin may cause combustion. Which, at least, would keep me warm for a few minutes.]

***Tangential Screed: Who comes up with the scents for stuff at B&B Works? More to the point, who likes it?!! Midnight Pomegranate? Exotic Coconut? And, my favorite, Coconut Lime Verbena?!! I feel like they should include a brochure for your hetereosexual mate entitled: "What to do when your woman smells like a fruit cocktail."***

As I left with my bag of scented goodness, it occurred to me that I must have some kind of nutritional deficiency: Lemon shower cream, lemon body creme, and MOP's C conditioner. I'm like some kind of pirate lost at sea, or, as this crazy group of kids tells it, a "cool scurvy dude" (this site is a piece of work, and I mean that in the best possible way!). I guess my body is trying to tell me that I should up my internal intake of ascorbic acid, as well as globbing it on my external appendages.

Take your vitamins, everybody!