Monday, April 28, 2008


Or, if you're from Northern California, Yreka! [Just a little in joke for you West Coast types.]

So there I was, panicking about a new project. And then as I was reading a novel this morning (one that I got, btw, free from a publisher who wants me to review it on my blog---not this blog, of course), I came across a truly bizarre sentence that got me thinking about two topics that I've always been interested in (one from the diss and one from the reading that I did to escape the diss), but have never been able to bring to fruition. And then I got in the shower, lamenting the fact that I two years ago I taught a book that was about topic B, but couldn't really make it work. And then I thought that I'd just been talking with The diss director, Z., about something related to topic B, but didn't think there was much new to say about it.

Suddenly, between lather and rinse, it came to me: if I thought about topic C, it would bridge A and B! The sky opened up and the beam of light shown down upon me. Holy crap, could it be? Could I actually have a new project? And while I slathered on the conditioner, I outlined the three constituent chapters, and started brainstorming all of the secondary sources already in my possession.

Hot diggety! I'm still in that first blush of love with an idea, where I realize that somewhere in the near future, there will be the awful drudgery of figuring out complex relationships among disparate primary sources and constructing a theoretical framework, but none of it really registers because I'm so excited to get started. Yay reading! Yay researching!!

I know that I shouldn't have this reaction, but I do, so deal. I can't help feeling a bit of relief---look, Gepetto, I'm a real academic! I'm not out of ideas at the grand old age of 33! Thank goodness! That's the academic disease, isn't it---fear that we're going to discover that we're stupid or past our prime?

The other moral of this story, however, is that projects don't come from the ether. Despite the description above, it is definitely the case that this project builds off a small nugget of work for the diss (a really small nugget---like 5 pages---but one that also played a key role in my job talk). It's also building off of some ideas that I've been cooking on for a few years, but didn't see as connected. And finally, it will involve the kind of research that I love to do best [hint: it's the kind that involves renewing subscriptions, as opposed to visiting archives...].

So, if you need me, I'll be rolling around in the warm squishiness of my new idea. After that, I'll be rolling around in the warm squishiness of grading, but that's a warm squishiness of a totally different kind.


Saturday, April 26, 2008

Project Panic

This morning I got one of those charming, emails from, in which they show me books that I never knew existed but that I of course want to buy. I want to buy them and all of their little friends that everyone else who bought the book bought. I am a capitalist pig of the first order, and I buy to live.

It didn't help me to notice, however, that said book treads dangerously close to matter that I worked on in the diss, as does one of the other recommended books. In fact, both are put out by the same publisher that reviewed my manuscript. [At some point, I need to write up that delightful little experience, wherein the reviewers couldn't agree, and the editor asked what kind of revisions I'd be willing to do. I was so befuddled and frazzled by my job that I didn't respond for 7 months. The moral of this story? Don't send shit out until you're ready...]

Last spring, I started to panic about publications, as the loud ticking of the tenure clock finally registered in my ears. It's not that we need a tremendous amount of publications here, but there's enough agita involved with the entire process that I wanted to have my bases covered. Unconsciously, I think my strategy was this: it doesn't matter what you publish, as long as you do it.

At that point, I had failed to follow up on the manuscript review for the diss, and I had also turned down the offer for a monograph on a particular writer on whom I had once been very keen, but had not worked on in years. In retrospect, I don't know if all of this sounds like career suicide, but it seemed right at the time. Devoting myself to writing a book that I wasn't really invested in, when I already have to nail my feet to the floor to get writing done, seemed like an exercise in despair.

So, I've been concentrating over the past year to get stuff done and out, in whatever way I can. This has meant working on some insane projects---a collaborative piece with a group of people from a previous institition on a book that makes me batty; a collaborative piece with my colleague in a field that's not really mine, although it touches it; and upcoming---a piece that moves in a direction I'd like to shift my research, but one that's new to me, and with a press that I'm not particularly sure about.

Somehow, all of this has worked in my favor. Wonder of wonders, it looks like a respectable press is going to put out that first piece (I think there was bribery or blackmail involved. Seriously, it's the weirdest shit ever.); Gawd willing and the creek don't rise, the second piece has been accepted by a decent journal, pending peer review; and the third, assuming I can finish it, has been accepted and should wend its way through the publishing machine next year.

While I'm now sufficiently set for the local requirements, it does leave me with a bizarre CV. There's no central theme, no particular evidence of a consistent line of research or thought, except that "gee, she knows a bunch of people." It's no wonder that the diss has lost its place in line, and its not something I'm willing to go back to at this point, as it feels so removed from me and my current thinking. But what exactly IS my current thinking?

I think it's time for me to find a new project---one that's indicative of the kind of work that I've been doing, and that I'd like to build the next stage of my career on. I'd like it to take into account the kinds of interpretative work that I most enjoy and do best, I'd like it to have stakes that I think are relevant, and I'd like it to reference and resonate with the stuff that I've been reading and I think matters in the field.

Having said all that...I have no idea what that project is. I've spent so much time making sure that I have publications on the docket in time for tenure application that I haven't cared so much about what I actually want to do. In ways that I had never intended, I've pushed my deep-seated intellectual singularity to the background in order to foreground the immediate, the marketable, the do-able in a short amount of time. If this year's theme is completion, then it might be time to complete that cycle and move on to remembering how to find what it is that most excites me, even if it's slow in coming.

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Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Let Me Do Your Work for You!

Okay, interweb, riddle me this:

I have a colleague that I don't know from Adam. I've never met her in person. I've never communicated with her by phone or email. I've never actually set eyes on her, except, maybe from afar (if she is indeed the person I think she is). Despite this lack of interaction, we have a consistent and common link: every semester for the last two years, I've gotten emails from 3-5 of her students at about this time, asking me to answer their questions via email or interview me in person about a particular topic.

Seemingly innocuous, right? But these are not questions about my particular scholarly expertise---after all, these aren't all students who need to know about Asian American shoes for their research projects. No. Instead, they are all taking a liberal education course, and are doing projects on a very universal topic about which a simple internet search would yield a good deal of reliable research. So why does she send them to me? Well, two years ago, I was one of 6 faculty members who received a teensy internal grant to participate in a institutional initiative on this topic. Let's pretend it was "teaching with chalk." So the students want to ask me about my experience teaching with chalk. Except that I'm hardly an expert on it---and there are plenty of experts out there who have studied the ramifications of teaching with chalk, the best practices in teaching with chalk, what kinds of students and activities are best taught with chalk, etc. Furthermore, I teach with chalk in very different ways than many of my colleagues (and are they inundated with student requests?), and that often gets me into trouble with my department and the IT people.

So, tell me, y'all: what's the appropriate response to this? Am I compelled, by collegiality, to respond to her students requests? Is it okay to tell them to look that shit up online? Should I send them some links to key resources? Can I write her and tell her to call off the damn dogs, since they always write me in the final two weeks of the semester (often with phrases like: "please take a few minutes and answer these questions: why does someone teach with chalk? what are the benefits and what are the drawbacks? What have your student responses been? etc., etc." Right. I can totally answer that in three minutes. And those aren't questions that the LAST set of you asked me last year!!!!).

Perhaps the best idea would be to turn the tables. Maybe I'll tell this to my students:

I know that many of you have a difficult time formatting your final papers. Please feel free to contact Dr. X, who teaches on the computer. She's our local "expert" on document design. Just email her for help!


Sunday, April 20, 2008

Embiggening the World

Over the past few weeks, I've found myself having a series of interactions that are pretty far outside my comfort zone, all to positive effect:
  1. Via a certain infamous social networking system, I located one of my most favorite people from college and have scheduled a phone conversation with her.
  2. I've had a former student who is now in graduate school email me to talk about a book that she'd been assigned a presentation on. Sick to death of typing, I told her to call me at home so we could chat about it.
  3. I've had a publisher contact me about one of my class blogs and ask me if I would review a book for them.
  4. I know this guy (let's call him Smokey), vaguely through a book project I've worked on. He's someone that I had a great conversation with last summer, but never followed up on. On a whim, I've asked him to discuss the design for my monster seminar in the fall, and now we're carrying on a delightful little correspondence that is exactly what I hoped it would be: smart, funny, and giving me good ideas.
I think I've written, in the past, about the ways that I tend to keep my social circle pretty small. As in, it was my mother, Senor Fluff, Yogini for a good number of years. I think a couple of my colleagues have worked hard to bust me out of that---all to the good (heads up, Dr. Marxy and Frenchie!). Left to my own devices, however, I'm all too often mired in a tiny set of social relations, and drained by interactions with others. Because hanging out with people who don't know you? Socially awkward and painful. High chances that I will say something and make an ass of myself, or they will say something that will make me disappointed. There's a line from a song by The Story that goes "And in the end you choose someone, somewhere/ Others fade from view/ And the world outside your life exhausts you..." Yup. That's it, in a nutshell.

But then I found myself at a soiree at a colleague's house---someone I like very much, and would like to know better---and I found it almost impossible not to talk to him about work---and not even the good things about work (yes, Virginia, they do exist), but the crap business and outrages of work. What else did we really have in common? [It doesn't help that he's a slow talker and I'm a nervous bunny rabbit.] Horrors!! I don't want to be this person, for whom human interaction revolves around work.

So I'm slowly, ever so slowly, venturing out into new pastures (hmmm. bad metaphor? does that make us all cows?). In truth, it scares the beejeesus out of me. It's not like the fear of social awkwardness and disappointment and self-ass-making have gone away. It's just now governed by the idea that the world is a big big place, potentially full of wonder and joy and the quirkiness that makes people fun, and that I've been actively, but unconsciously, engaged in making it very very small for a long time. And that if keep that up, I'll be a wizened, cranky old hag much sooner than I will be otherwise. That's the model that I see in a certain type of academic woman, and one that I'm hell-bent on trying to avoid.

I'll let you know how the experiment goes.

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Thursday, April 17, 2008

Bodily Functions

With that title, this post could be all kinds of gnarly, but I'll spare you. It's a beautiful day outside, I only have two more drafts of my grad students' papers to read, and I'm looking forward to seeing a friend later this evening. Yeehaw!

Now, there's certainly no end to the amount of things that I need to do: I owe letters of recommendation to 3 students; multiple short reading responses and group drafts to a class, etc., etc. However, it's also the case that for the next week or so, there should be a lull, thanks to my awesome revelation that I was going to be exhausted and a basket case by the time I got done with article/conference/diss advisor.

So I'm just about the reap the rewards of my stupendous (no irony, for once) planning. For the final two weeks of the semester, two of my classes are workshopping and working on final projects. The third is watching a movie, discussing said movie, and studying for their final exam. All of which is making me feel like I can take a deep breath and start loving the world and everyone in it.

The true sign of this, however, is just at the end of my fingers. For the past two months, I've been biting not just my fingernails down to the quick, but also the skin around my fingernails. Yup, I know: totally gross. Disgusting habit. Makes me prone to illness. I get it, but that's what anxiety and oral fixation equal in my world. Y'all just be happy I never took to smoking.

That being the case, I realized today that I have fingernails. They clack on the keyboard, they get stuff stuck under them, and they scratch my itches quite nicely.

Until earlier today, at which point I was idly scratching my hip and I took off a mole. Can you believe it?!! Just sliced that little bugger right off. It was hanging by a little piece of skin. Once I cleared the blood away, I had to just take a deep breath and pull the rest of it off. Say it with me: "EEEEEEEWWWWWW!"

So there you have it. That's what I get for being semi-relaxed---bodily disfigurement. Does anyone know if a mole removed so inexpertly comes back?


Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Skimmity skim skim

Speed grading sucks. And don't let anyone tell you different. I'm going to get a stamp that says: "do you want it fast, or do you want it good?"

My fear is that it will be misinterpreted by some as offering of sexual favors.

Back to exams!

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Sunday, April 13, 2008


Just when you think astrology is all a bunch of hooey, you get something like this in your DailyOm, which so perfectly nails my mental morass over the past few days:
Praise from a family member or recognition from a professional superior can delight and energize you. You can make the most of this acceptance by allowing it to fuel your self-confidence rather than writing it off as an anomaly. As people in your home or workplace acknowledge your skillful execution of your tasks or comment positively on the poise with which you handle crises, you’ll likely discover that you feel driven to earn more of this type of admiration.

The acknowledgement and praise we receive from peers and superiors can be a potent motivator and one that inspires us to joyfully strive to outperform ourselves. Validation can make already sweet accomplishments seem even sweeter because they feed our pride. Provided we do not sustain our enthusiasm solely on the recognition we receive from others, it is wholly possible to find incentives to succeed in people’s reactions to our endeavors. Praise, furthermore, enriches our lives by showing us that we labor not in isolation but in the supportive embrace of a network of individuals who take pleasure in seeing us triumph over the challenges and adversity we face each day.
It's taken me about 4 days to come down from the high of Z's visit. "Delighted and energized" don't quite do it. It's more like "hyper and obsessive;" that's a bit more accurate. It didn't help that I got a brief uptick on Thursday when he wrote to thank me, and repeated his now unrepeatable compliment. So I have it in writing. And don't think I didn't go back and read that shit 40,000 times!!

What I like about the above horoscope is this line: "Provided we do not sustain our enthusiasm solely on the recognition we receive from others..." That's the tricky balance that I've been trying to hit over the past week. Because as super as it is to get some love, there's a kind of craven quality for reveling in it for its own sake. In my ideal world, I have some sort of vault of self-esteem that I return to in order to get through projects, try new things, etc. Sadly, this situation with Z. is the kind of thing that sends me into a tailspin, chasing the root of praise. Seriously, I've spent a bit of time over the last few days contemplating all kinds of things that I've put on the back burner for awhile: I need to get a new book project! I need to read more in x field! I should be watching more of x kind of films!! [**I do need to do these things, but I don't need to do them right now. And I really don't need to do them in order to impress Z.]

All of this has, of course, made me realize certain things about myself---shameless need for positive reinforcement, dutiful daughter syndrome, etc. At the same time, it's also totally revealed to me the utter LACK of praise that comes from other sources. I haven't bothered to transcribe the inner working of my department of late, but I have had any number of off-hand conversations with my colleagues about the ways that their work goes unacknowledged at best, and criticized needlessly at worst, by my department chair. We exist, for the most part, in an internal culture of denigration, which has the long term effect of collectively beating us down, and, if I were a conspiracy theorist, I'd say of "keeping us in our places." I have to imagine that this has a chilling effect over the long-term: why should you do anything, if all you get for it is grief?

So, again, I'm poised between two extremes. What I've learned, of late, is how absolutely necessary the occasional shot in the arm is. The self-esteem vault isn't a perpetual motion machine; it's got to get a fresh infusion every once in awhile!! And yet, how necessary to figure out how to refill it on your own, periodically. How one might move that from a personal level (hey there---nice teaching!!), to a cultural one remains a mystery to me, but one that needs solving unless I want to work in a department of drones who would rather invest their time and energy elsewhere. (And I count myself among these future drones.) Let us not labor alone, but rather "take pleasure in seeing us triumph over the challenges and adversity we face each day."

Thursday, April 10, 2008


All right, just because you've all been on tenterhooks since my last post, here's the skinny on my diss advisor (Herein known as Z.) and his visit.

First things first: I worked myself up into a tizzy for nothing. By the time I had met him at the airport and gotten him squared away in the car to drive to him to his lodgings, I remembered that I had always wanted to get a chance to hang out with him, because he's so fun to talk to. I checked him in, chatted awhile, and then promptly went home and spent 2 hours writing the introduction for his lecture. This, of course, guaranteed that I spent the next day---all 13 hours of it---hanging out with him in serious sleep deprivation mode. C'est la vie.

Z. had everything to say about his own projects, about mine, about the students and colleagues that he met, advice about my upcoming tenure bid, about the ways to negotiate the tense relations with some of my colleagues. With reference to the latter, in fact, he told me a couple of hair-raising stories about his own experiences at my alma mater in his days as a junior faculty member. Words to the wise: academia never changes. Same insults, different mouths.

But here's the big moment, and the one that I've been turning around and around in my mind since he left yesterday: he thanked the College and the department and me for inviting him, and then proceeded to call me "the single most brilliant graduate student he'd ever worked with." Holy of the holiest of craps, my friends. My friend Hz, who was sitting next to me, insists that I didn't move for the next 20 minutes. That might be because all of the blood in my body rushed to my feet. I felt a bit faint, for sure.

So, what to do in the face of that kind of compliment? I've been trying to come to terms with it in some authentic way. Let's face it: I'm charming and can rub a few brain cells together, but the "most brilliant"? Hardly. At the same time, I don't want to entirely discard the comment---not just because it feels awesome, but also because Z's not an idiot or a liar. He does indeed think that I've got something going on, even if it's hyperbolic.

This is the story I'm telling myself now, and it's the best I can do to make sense of the situation. What I see now that I didn't see when I was a graduate student is this: Z and I have interlocking neuroses, which enable us to think that the other hung the moon. The first match looks like this: I met Z at a time when he was persona non grata in my department (truly, I had to hunt him down). I think the fact that I chose him, in opposition to the movers and shakers, was deeply gratifying to him. On my end, that meant that he was invested in helping me more fully realize what I wanted to do, as opposed to guiding me into a project that fit his own schema perfectly. The second match is more personal, and probably sicker in a way that embarrasses me to articulate. Z. has, as I often say, a passel of daughters. In fact, when he was working with me, he had a college-aged daughter who was quite rebellious. She couldn't have been much younger than me, really (maybe 7 years?). And as for me, let's face it: I've got father issues. In ways that have only recently come to light for me. And I'll spare y'all the dramaz. But unconditional positive regard from man 20 years my elder? Oh, it made my heart sing.

The latter dynamic was ridiculously clear when he was here. From the "let's sit down, you're wearing heels" to the moment leaving the restaurant when he first asked me if I had my coat, and then helped me on with it---it's such a dad move.

So, while I'm riding the high of his comment (and let's face it, I'm going to put that quote on as many things as I can. I might tattoo it on my arm, in fact), I'm also aware of the ways in which mentoring relations are deeply invested by all of the various psychic wounds we bring to our work. I'm lucky that it's such a positive spin on all of mine, and I hope that it's the same for Z.

I'm off to read papers til I puke. And try to strategically avoid re-creating any bizarre childhood dramas with my own students.

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Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Note to Self, #768

Dear Self---

When possible, try to avoid letting your mouth run out ahead of your brain. Get that kid out of the street before it gets hit by a car! If you need a reminder of why not to do this, think about this moment, when you tied yourself in knots of social anxiety because six months ago, like a total meathead, you volunteered to invite your dissertation advisor to campus for a lecture. Sure, it might have seemed like a good idea at the time, and yes, he's a wonderful person and a great person for the students to meet. BUT. Remember that it makes you batshit crazy to worry about hanging out with him all day, and that he's going to finally figure out what a sham you are. Then you'll have to worry about having written a truly crap, embarrassing introduction for his lecture, which neither hews to the form of the official introduction, neither does it get at what you really want him to know about the impact that he's had. And the fact that he'll still be nice about it, no matter what kind of disaster it is will simply serve to make you feel worse, because there's nothing like having someone you adore watching you make an ass of yourself.

In short, remember this moment when you were the architect of your own freakitude, and zip it.


P.S. One more thing: try not to schedule too many nerve-wracking, high stakes events in the same week. Honestly. Article + conference paper + advisor? What are the chances you can survive that kind of thing without totally fucking up? Really. Get some sense...

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