Sunday, September 30, 2007

Glaciers Move Faster

Urgh. I'm sick, y'all. Which hardly ever happens. But Thursday, I woke up with a sore throat and a deep resistance to standing up. I debated for a long time about whether to cancel my classes---my seminar could have lived without me, and gone on to read more of the novel. But the first years are deep into their first significant assignment, and I needed the time with them. What to do? What to do? In the end, I went in, but I think it had far more to do with the fact that I had come up with a cute outfit for the day than it did with my work ethic.

So, this weekend I've been moving slowly. Too slowly. Like, not doing anything on my ever-burgeoning list of things to do, except maybe paying bills online. Instead, I spent the morning in bed, and then moved downstairs to the couch. I watched a bewildering Colin Firth film, made more so by the fact that I fell asleep in the middle. Then there was an episode of Torchwood (and damned if I can figure out what's up with that show, although I think I like it). Why didn't I just read Naked Lunch in my fever dream and be done with it?

Before I was struck down by the plague, however, I had an epiphany about the glacial pace of institutions, and what that means for my own expectations. [Yup, that was officially the world's clumsiest segue. Sue me.] It goes something like this. When I was hired at Askesis U. 5 years ago, I had been just started doing some work at my previous institution with student films. As part of my negotiations with Askesis, I asked whether I could get the equipment necessary to continue. The dean assured me that she was invested in me being able to continue that work, and that she'd do her best. It wasn't much of a guarantee, but since my other job choice was deep in the bowels of the Midwest, I jumped. And at the end of the year, when the budget went in, I got two shiny little cameras to use in my course. And the year after that, another one and some tech support with editing software. And the year after that, another two and some audio recorders. In the intervening years, I've been involved with some discussions about the role of technology on campus, and I've felt a bit like I've been banging my head against a wall. There are a handful of faculty who are exploring how to make students critical and rhetorically-savvy users of existing web applications; there are any number of faculty who record 15 hours of lecture and powerpoint materials for students to watch on Blackboard. Both of these groups fall under a wider institutional umbrella of "e-learning." Sigh.

On Wednesday, however, I sat in a room with some of the former group of faculty, some librarians, some IT guys, the deans and the provost, and talked for an hour about how to begin an on-going campus wide discussion of the exigencies of digital media and pedagogy, how we want to build an innovative program, and brainstorming for some grant opportunities on the horizon.

Over the last few years, I've been both frustrated and disgusted by the gulf between what was going on in the world and what was going on at my institition. And in the gentlest terms I could muster, I've talked to whomever I could about the ways that we could embrace some new developments and make them our own. The responses to these have ranged from deep suspicion and dismay to blank stares to interest with no follow-through. But on Wednesday, I think I saw the fruit of some of my labors and that of others on the same page. And I realized that an institution shifts incrementally, and only with a number of people wielding big levers. And more importantly, that I should be pretty psyched about being at a place where I can participate in the shift. So when I read other job ads and fantasize about moving, I'm beginning to wonder whether I'm not at the right place after all, given what's important to me.

And now, if I can only shift the crap from my sinuses to a Kleenex, I'd be all set.

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Sunday, September 23, 2007

It's a Small World

Now that you've all got that evil ear worm eating your brain...mwah haha!

I was looking at a few journals online the other day, and I had what I guess is an inevitable experience: I saw the name of someone I used to date. Hey, it happens, right? We manage to accumulate a certain number of people in our own personal stable. Of course, I thought that I could dodge that bullet; Senor Fluff and I met my first year of graduate school, so there wasn't a lot of weird flirting, drunken parties, having to face someone in a seminar on Dickens that you've gotten with the night before. Okay, there was some of that, but I suppose since we're married and all, it's okay now.

But this journal article? Written by my college boyfriend. Not the sweet and pathetic guy that I dated for three years, that I drove to Nebraska to be with the summer after he graduated, that I eventually had to break up with because he couldn't deal with the fact that I read more theory than him (true. sad, but true). No, I could manage that; hell, that college boyfriend came to my wedding and got tanked. This college boyfriend was the one that I had a weird clandestine relationship with because he worked at the university; the one that wooed me with avant garde poetry and film; the one that my mother hated and I should have known better because he was 12 years older than me. He needs a pseudonym, no? Let's go with Batshit Crazy, or BC for short, because when I think of him, that's the phrase that always comes to me. I've never in my life been so totally confused by someone. You combine that with a 21 year old's idea of romantic love, and it's just trouble. I went to the UK for a month, and he wrote me amazing letters that magically appeared at every place I stayed. On my way back to the West Coast, he met me in New York and we wandered around in Park Slope in the snow, and he said it was like a honeymoon. [Note to men everywhere: do NOT tell a girl that anything is like a honeymoon. Ever. Total mindfuck, even if she's not interested in marriage. Which I wasn't.] We went back West, I met his parents, hung out with his sister in San Francisco, and then he sat on the bed in my apartment and read me a letter in which he told me that we had to break up before he slept with different woman later that night.

Oh, WTF, my friends. WTF indeed. I will spare you the ensuing drama. Needless to say that it involved much rage on my part, and a good deal of time spent crying in my closet so as not to disturb my roommates. And the university did not look kindly on him deflowering students. Because to think that I was the only one was a laughable misperception on my part. Ugliness galore.

I had vague notions that he went on to get a PhD, and that he'd been teaching, on and off, on the coast. Other than snorting and scoffing a bit when I heard things through the grapevine (because, seriously? one trick pony.), I tried my best to ignore that we are technically in the same field. But seeing his name in print in a journal I read--that really took me by surprise.

So I read his fucking piece. And it seems laughable to me; the form is wrong, the argument is weak, the references are random. But I'm far from a reliable, objective reader. How I dearly wish I could publish a link to the article and ask y'all what you think. In the meantime, I suppose I'll have to nurse my apparently-still-quite active resentment by myself.

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Saturday, September 22, 2007

Denial, Denial

When I woke up on Friday morning, I had twelve odious tasks to complete. They are all wretched in different ways. Some require extended conversations with people with no social skills, which will satisfy them temporarily, but will commit me to contact them later in the spring as well. Some are simply tedious, requiring looking at horrendous, dry assessment materials and revising them. One requires locating a bunch of information that is spread across two catalogs, three computers, and a number of emails from last year. One means sitting down with an almost finished article on a traumatizing topic, editing it, and adding a section that acknowledges the complexity of violence without blaming the vicitim. Another is the task of starting the research for a paper I'm scheduled to give in three weeks. This list goes on.

On Friday, I tackled two of the odious tasks, which were actually two versions of the same one: writing letters for colleagues going up for tenure. This is an odious task only because the stakes are high; honestly, how can you wax rhapsodic about people you work with and admire without wondering if the committee reading the letter thinks you're blowing smoke? Needless to say, there was a lot of handwringing Friday, interrupted only by the process of writing horribly inappropriate sentences ("not only is Dr. M a credit to the college and a fine scholar, but she also gives great head!") and erasing them, and then quadruple-checking to make sure that I didn't actually leave them in. As of Friday afternoon, I crossed the task off the list. Two down, ten to go!

So, of a Saturday afternoon, I'm contemplating my list, wondering which of stinking bastards to do first. [Note: in case you're wondering if you missed something: no, the teaching prep hasn't even made it onto the list. Because on the scale of odious? Watching a Kathryn Bigelow film and reading contemporary literary theory for class ranks just under cruising on a yacht in St. Tropez. Sad, but that's where I am, folks. Clearly, I need to get out more.]

With all of this to do, then, it will come as no surprise that I've spent the better part of the last two hours consumed by a single question. Not "isn't it time to get a new job?" Not "how is it that this is my life, and what would I have to do to work on a goat farm in New Mexico?" Not even "am I hungry? sleepy? needing to fix something in the house rather than work?" No. Instead, I have examined this classic query: "how short is too short for a maxi skirt? Am I just too stumpy to pull it off? And do boots ameliorate the problem, or is that just wishful thinking?" And periodically I visit the Boden website for a visual:
Looking to escape your own swamp of odiosity? Feel free to discuss in the comments!

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Monday, September 17, 2007

Allegory, Sweet Allegory

When you work with contemporary texts, you don't see much action with allegory. I don't know if it's because the Modernists exhausted it, or living writers have shied away from the medieval or what, but I don't get to work with it so very often. I do find, however, that there are several allegories that work as my pedagogical models. Newton and the apple; Joycean epiphanies, you name it. My favorite one of all time, however, is The Miracle Worker allegory. Children of the 70's, cast your minds back to Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke playing out the story of Helen Keller. If I remember correctly, there's an extended sequence of Bancroft taking Duke down to the pump. She signs the word "water" and pumps the water over her hand to indicate the connection between the two (and, many would argue, the role of linguistic/semiotic representation vis-a-vis the world). Through the ever-useful, time-compressing qualities of montage, we see this again and again. Sign the word, pump the water. Sign the word, pump the water. These two things are connected! If you get that connection, you'll see a whole new vista on your place in the world! Perhaps you've had this experience as a teacher? Both the "I just showed Helen the world!" moment, and, more often, the "I have tried every trick in the book but this child is trapped in her own head" moment?

This morning, I had one of the top five latter Annie Sullivan moments of my teaching career. I was meeting with a student about her upcoming presentation on a canonical theorist. I've had her before, and I know this is not her strength. This is not even her weakness or Achilles heel. To follow out this metaphor, this is not even somewhere near her body, but more like down the hall locked in a cabinet. So we're struggling through. I'm signing and pumping, signing and pumping. And she's grasping at straws, one after another. I sign "water" and pump the water. She says "toaster." I sign "water" and pump the water. She says "baby panda." I sign and pump, sign and pump, sign and pump. She leaves, and maybe whispers "wet?"

We'll see how it goes tomorrow. I'll hold my breath and get my pumping arm ready, but I have a feeling that Keller's parents would have hired a new teacher by now. Miracle worker I'm not.


Sunday, September 16, 2007

Time for a Rally (but not in a monster-truck sort of way)

Hey y'all. Thanks for the expressions of sympathy, for which I am eternally grateful. I'm feeling a bit less histrionic now, which is always a good thing. So where am I?

Well, I realize that this is yet another installment in the pattern that has constructed my academic life for the last few years. Crummy "collegial" interaction early in the week, days of depression and reaction with nights of bad sleep, and a return to some sort of equilibrium by the end of the week---just in time to start all over again. This is no way to live, and it's no way to get things done, since very little can be accomplished while depressed, meaning that weekends are spent making up for the crap week prior.

So where does that leave me? When I started the year, and anticipated that reentry into this kind of system, I thought about how I might change my own actions. I've been playing the "definition of insanity" game for too long. Given that I can't change how others act, I've got to change myself. But what to change? Trying to be honest and transparent hasn't worked; logic and data are discounted; silence and submission encourage targeting. What's left?!

The only thing I can think of is that I have to stop wanting. The more I articulate my support (or lack thereof) of something specific, the less likely it is to happen, and the more I activate animosity. So, not to be all watered-down Buddhist and shit, but my new purpose is to obviate desire. Detach from the outcome. Know that people will behave as their characters dictate, not as I think they should, or deem ethical.

Before you think I've gone all David Carradine (and honestly, wandering the earth like Cain is looking pretty good right now), I should probably note that this strategy is antithetical to my own nature, and the entirety of my experience in higher education. As a college student at a hippie school, I designed a major based on what interested me (literature and quantum physics. Voice recitals and directing plays. More German modernism than you can shake a stick at. No underwater basket weaving, but that was next.) In graduate school, I took independent studies, courses in other departments, and requested a qualifying exam that didn't exist. I wrote a dissertation with a departmentally-exiled professor and outside readers. I've spent my whole life figuring out how to get around "no" to get what I want. I live to get around requirements. (Now that I look at it like this, I have to wonder where all this academic rebellion comes from. I blame my parents.)

So here we go. Let's see if, at 32, I can kill the want. After that, I'll ponder the sound of one hand clapping.

In our next installment, I promise to lighten up. Hell, Sisyphus has tagged me for a meme, for crying out loud! How about I get on that?!!

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Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Note to Self

Never read your email before going to bed. What good will come of it? Honestly, it's not like you're going to be informed that you've won the lottery. It's much more likely that you'll find an email that can, in one fell swoop: rub your nose in your misguided attempt to make a suggestion to your colleagues; show how that suggestion was perceived as you misrepresenting the idea of another faculty member; endanger your good working relationship with said faculty member, which you've been building for four years; document that faculty member's response, in which he disavows having said such a thing (because he didn't, and you didn't either, but that's what got written on your behalf); embarrass and malign your integrity to as many people as possible using the crucial group mail function.

That's much more likely to be sitting in your inbox. And then you'll have to cry out of both rage and despair, and wonder why it is that some people are so deeply invested in being mean just for the sake of it. Or perhaps they're mean as a way of showing you that really, you have no power, and you'd be better off just shutting up. And then you'll have to contemplate the deep karmic toll of deciding that it's okay to hate someone. Particularly if that person has a long history of using these kinds of tactics to bend or break individuals in order to maintain power. And even then, you'll have to wonder if you can truly hate the person, or just yourself for allowing yourself to be treated this way.

Then, I suppose, it will be a long night spent churning over the idea of whether it's better to suck it up and hope that this will die down, in the way that once a predator establishes dominance, he'll leave the weaker animals alone, or whether the predator will continue to press the attack, because the weaker animals are even more vulnerable when they're down.

And I know this is whiny and pathetic and sad, but it's true. Once, just once, I wish someone would speak up to defend me in a public forum. I like to think that I do it for others. I'd like to call in a chip, if I have one. Because I'm really tired, and I'm really sad. And I don't want to become a disfigured, bitter person who's scared of taking a chance. But much more of this, and I'll be well on my way.

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Monday, September 10, 2007

Stealing Student Eyeballs

You know, when I interviewed for my job, they asked me what the relationship was between my research and my teaching. Now, in retrospect, I know that that's supposed to be one of many cues about the significance of teaching to our little SLAC. At the time, however, I was a sincere graduate student looking for a job. "Well," said naive little me. "The teaching actually feeds the research."

I meant it of course, and I suppose that I've had vague experiences in the past in which something has come up in class that has inspired me to run off and read up on things. Last week, however, I had the real deal. I'm teaching a seminar to majors. It's a seminar that I've taught before, and one that I've never gotten quite right. I've overhauled and redesigned the course, and swapped out many of the texts. I happen to be teaching a novel by an author that I've actually written an article on; an author, in fact, that I long considered writing my dissertation on. I know this bee-yotch, inside and out! I own her and all her works! Last week, however, one of my perspicuous students, however, noted a truly weird syntactical pattern in the novel. I've noticed it before, but the class really ran with it, and I realized that it's dovetailing with some ideas I've had about the genre in general. As I'm finishing up the reading for class tomorrow, I'm realizing that this syntax is all over this novel. Holy beezus! How did I manage to miss this before?! Why haven't any of the other critics besotted with this author noticed it either?!!

Well, clearly, it's because they don't have my class of wondrous curious students. Rock on, students, for letting me see things through your eyes. Even if you're not nearly as excited about your own discoveries as I am.


Saturday, September 08, 2007

Fall Clean-Up

Here in the Northeast, I see a number of print ads for yard services that offer "fall clean-up specials." Since our yard is the bane of the neighborhood, I have only the vaguest idea of what that might mean (trimming? mulching? burning and salting the earth like Napoleon's army?). But I wish to God that these people would offer the same services for office work.

When I started the semester, I had this bizarre goal of trying to keep my emails to 3 pages. That seems like the outside limit on the number of projects I can visually keep in line at any one time. If an email falls onto page 4 or 5, that's it---it's over. Out of sight, out of mind. At the same time, in keeping with The Year of No {tm}, I've been consciously trying to avoid being bullied by my email. There's just no need to answer anything immediately, I kept thinking, and sometimes, if you're lucky, they solve themselves. As a result of this latter practice, I've been more prepared for my classes this semester than at any time in the last two years. Not only have I read the material, I've thought about it, specified passages that I want the students to look at, read their preliminary writing on the readings, and looked at some secondary criticism on it. I've planned at least 4 different activities per class to keep my little chickens (my internal name for my first year students) occupied during their 100 minute class period. All of which is making me more relaxed and able to enjoy the classes more. In addition, I'm getting on top of an article that is just shy of being finished and a conference presentation in October.

You've probably anticipated the problem here: all of the work and joy of focusing on teaching and research and not on incoming tasks has let my wretched inbox swell to gigantic proportions. When it hit 6 pages yesterday, I knew I was in trouble. And indeed, I received a voicemail and email from a panicky intern who needs to meet with me immediately and why didn't I respond to her earlier email?! I've missed the deadline for participating in the curriculum extravaganza; I've not told the members of my ACUN when we're meeting this semester, and so they're scheduling other meetings in our usual time block, blah, blah, blah.

Obviously, what I need is a clean-up, or perhaps several clean-ups during the week. If for no other reason that to quell the panic of those who are used to me responding immediately. But now I begin to see how the teaching and research suffer at the hands of all of the other CRAP that has to be done, and demands done immediately if not sooner. And I have to wonder: have I unwittingly sunk myself over the last three years? Is it the case that in my fervor to try to clear the plate, I answered everyone as fast as I could, like a little hamster on a wheel, and they got used to it? If I had been slower with responses from the beginning, would the bar be a little less high right now? Would I get three days to answer an email from my intern rather than one?

This morning was my first allotted clean-up: I've spent two hours on email, and I haven't even begun the real tasks that need to be finished. That will be, perhaps, the next 4 hours of my Saturday. And it occurs to me that I'm going to need to continue to schedule at least one of these a week for the rest of the semester. So if you see Ted's Lawn Guys offering a fall clean up special for $39.95, call them up and ask them if they do email and admin services.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

The Freshman Brain

This year, like last year, I find myself teaching a course comprised entirely of first year students. Twenty two students who come to me fresh out of high school. Students who are 17 or 18. Students who, as they told me today, were in seventh grade when the events of 9/11 occurred. Sweet Jesus.

This year, unlike last year, my class of first years is energetic and easy to get into a conversation. In fact, while last year I was pulling teeth trying to get the students to talk, this year I can't get them to shut up. I have a student who responds to everything I say as if I were only saying it to him. Ten minutes of class discussion is about the outside limit before I see students turn to their neighbors to chat. I meet in a classroom in which each seat has a computer; on the first day of class, the only way I could get them to stop logging into their MySpace and AIM accounts was to tell them to put both hands in the air, like it was some kind of stick-up.

All of this is making me think about the Freshman Brain. There is a small cohort of us working with all first year students, and we've talked a lot about how alienating and difficult coming to college can be. How Maslow's hierarchy of needs kicks in right away (e.g., knowing what time the caf closes is far more important than being able to summarize the reading for class). In the abstract, I have all kinds of sympathy, and it makes absolute sense to me. In daily practice, however, I'm constantly having to remind myself that these students are learning how to participate in college life. Or, as a colleague phrased it to me today: "They're not just learning the content; they're learning how to learn in a college setting. That's a whole lot to learn all at once."

For now, the only allegory that seems to be working is the one that compares coming to college to a semester abroad. They may have a vague handle on the language, but the habits and etiquette are foreign to them. And if we were all good natives, we'd understand that they're trying things out, and that if we want them to enjoy our country, then we should gently explain how things are done, not yell at them and treat them like foreigners.

So I'm trying, daily, to be explicit about the practices that underpin college life. As in "we're going to discuss the reading now, and what that means is that you speak, one at a time, and listen to one another, and think about what your classmates are saying and reflect on how your own ideas intersect with theirs." As in "you don't have to ask my permission to go to the bathroom." As in "please don't ask me repeatedly if we have homework for the next class and what it is, since it's printed in the syllabus and you can look it up whenever you want." Because when I go to a foreign country, I just want someone nice to tell me what to do and how to do it, rather than blundering about and acting like an asshole without knowing it.

I don't know how or when we learned how to be college natives, so it's a bit difficult to shape the experience for someone else. But I'm not buying the idea that students that don't know should be punished, or are stupid or worse, purposely behaving in ways to piss off professors and disrupt class.

That being said, when they packed up their stuff and walked toward the door at the end of class and I was in the middle of a sentence, I did say: "If you do this in any other professor's class, she will bitch slap you for sure. Sit down until I'm done."

Sometimes, the natives get restless.

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Sunday, September 02, 2007

Year of No, Part II

There seems to have been relatively little fall out from instituting the Year of No; I got a surprisingly neutral response about dropping off a committee from the chair, and while I haven't yet heard from the person who asked me for a letter, I'm hoping that she's just not the responding type. In my more optimistic moments, I imagine that this is how real people roll---how they manage to protect their time, and thus they engineer rational responses. My inner Eeyore, however, keeps expecting the other shoe to drop any minute.

All of this "no-ing" has made me think about the other things that we assent to in this job, perhaps without conscious thought. I had a beer with a former student this week, because he's interested in going to graduate school. In my head, I often call him "Sideshow Bob," because during a large part of his tenure at Ascesis, he sported an enormous 'fro:
The thing is, I never would have picked SB as one for graduate school. He's very bright, and, although I realize it's a cliche, he's what I would call "intellectually curious." He read all sorts of books and poems on his own, would come to my office to chat about them. Despite all of this, however, he never really liked to do things on other people's terms. I find this to be an admirable quality in people in general, but I worry about how it suits one for graduate study. What really got me was the moment he told me: "I want your job." "No," I said. "You really don't." Because when he said that, all I could think of were the various arenas in which I'm told that I'm wrong, or that what I think doesn't matter, or that I need to show my work to someone to make sure that it's right. "Sometimes in this job, and in preparation for this job," I told him, "you have to be able to eat shit. Do you think you can do that?" Talk about an unfair question.

But it really got me thinking about meetings and procedures and interactions in the professorial life that I engage in, yet think that they are unjust, debilitating, unethical. Sadly, I can't really say no to these in the way that I'd like, despite my fantasies of walking out, screaming "BULLSHIT" at the top of my lungs, throwing things. But surely, if the Year of No is in effect, there have to be other ways to register negation? How do you say no to manipulation, passive-aggression, power-trips, infantilization, narcissism, and your other run-of-the-mill academic interactions?

In a bizarre twist, I think it might mean saying no to no, both for myself and for others.
  • "You can't do that because...": Well, actually, I think I can, and here's why.
  • "We've been doing it this way forever.": That's super, but here's why change is necessary.
  • "Isn't his insistence on this practice funny? [institute round of sniggers.]": No, it's admirable.
  • "You're bringing about the downfall of [choose one: the English language, the university as we know it, the rigors of our discipline, the educational project, human life as we know it]": in actuality [choose one: already done, began happening a long time ago, what rigor?, see current research, maybe it's only life as you know it, etc.]

What's that old adage about two negatives making a positive? Who would have thought that you could work for a Molly-Bloom like "yes" via "no"? Not me. And yet it feels like a necessary part of the Year of No. I say no to myself and others being negated. No. And perhaps, when I'm feeling particularly fiesty, "No, bitch." [I might have to work myself to that one.]

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