Sunday, May 30, 2010

All the Smart People Want

Yesterday, I had the unexpected opportunity to have coffee with someone I sort-of knew, and his wife, whom I totally didn't know, and it was great---like a little oasis of inspirational connection with cool people.

"Bully for you," you say? Right. But here's the thing: this kind of happy synchronicity is so very very far outside my comfort zone. In the face of virtually all situations, I choose not to expose myself to a potentially-uncomfortable interaction with near-strangers, particularly without a well-worked out escape route. I am the person for whom the app exists that makes it look like someone is calling you and you have to go.

I met Baldie a few years ago because he was one of a group of people that I worked with on a project. Smart guy, very extroverted (in inverse proportion to the amount of hair he possesses, thus the name). We had a number of good conversations at the project meeting, and then a couple of follow-ups over the years: I saw him at a conference or two, exchanged emails, etc. I found him to be charming and also a bit "charm-offensive" on occasion---you know the dudes who refer to themselves in the third person? As in the ones who say, about themselves, stuff like "and I told them that Baldie McShine was having none of that!" Yep. Sort of like that. [Why I'm simultaneously attracted to and repelled by these guys is fodder for both therapy and another post.]

Last week, I noticed on Facebook that he and his wife were headed out on vacation, and would be driving by my city, and on a whim, I wrote to tell him that, if they had time, he should drop in for coffee or lunch. Let me say, for the record, I never really thought that he would. Who stops on a road trip to see people?! Um, apparently Baldie does. So with great trepidation and no escape plan (he caught me really flat-footed, as in "we'll be there in about an hour, will that work for you?"), I headed out to meet them.

Mrs. Baldie, or "Hash" as I think I'll call her (reasons below), was far more delightful than I would have expected. As was Baldie. I don't know if this is his pre-vacation stance, but he was natural, and relaxed, and using the first-person pronoun. [As I think about it, it may also be the case that he has settled into a solid job at a fairly prestigious SLAC, and so can relax a little.] Our conversation, as noted before, was really enjoyable, in that "wow, you think Polanski is a douchebag too? And you are appalled by Dr. Drew? Be my friend!" kind of way. [And here's what really made me love Mrs. Baldie: I was explaining how much I missed having cable, and the lucky happenstance of catching something on it that is just crap that you wanted to see. Her reply: "That's my favorite thing too! Who knew that I really needed to see Independence Day again, for the eighth time? What I really wish I could do is settle down with it with a big bowl of hash, and eat the old ice cream, the kind with the ice crystals in it." You want to be friends with her now too, don't you?]

Toward the end of the conversation, the topic turned to the "now what do we do with our lives" topic that is so much a part of my mental geography of late. Both of them laughed and talked about how they'd been thinking about getting new degrees, although it was difficult to support that idea---not for the reason I thought (cost, application, time commitment)---but rather because they have the skills to read something hard in a particular field and use secondary criticism to get more out of it. If that's the case, then why go to a program? "It's obvious," said I. "We all just want to have great, focused conversations with smart people."

As I walked them back to their car, it became clear to me that outside of the academic programs that I've been in, which really helped to engender those kinds of conversations, I would really have to be focused about creating them. I wonder if, in fact, that's one of the reasons many of us choose this profession: because we imagine that it's as close to a guarantee of those interactions as we can get. Baldie, it seemed, was making an effort to find these kinds of things too, or else he and Hash would have kept right on truckin' up the freeway. There are many things that I have thought I need to spend more time doing, now that my leave is up: write more, read more, get more exercise. But this seems like something I need to practice and develop an intention for as well---getting myself into social situations with smart people. Why has it taken me so long to figure that out?

I'm going to see if I can find a copy of Independence Day. Happy holiday, y'all. Go find a smart person and see what they can tell you.

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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

So Random that I should put "Random" in Quotation Marks

In the grand tradition of RBOC, I offer you "R"BOC, or better yet, URBOC (Unbelievably Random Bullets of Crap):

• We are headed for a record high today. It is not even June. I am unprepared for this kind of heat, as it scrambles my brain and makes me want to nap in the cool downstairs part of the house all day long. I remember when we were looking for a house last year, and finding nothing, and I thought that air conditioning was negotiable. It is not. We have air conditioning, and yet can barely hold the upstairs to 82 degrees. But it's a dry 82 degrees, I suppose. Regardless, I think it means that I should have someone come out and look at the system. Le sigh.

• I need to post a paper for a conference on Friday. The limit is 8 pages. I have five beautifully polished pages, and an additional 10 pages of crap/notes/musings where the real meat of the paper is. Balls.

• Having melanin sucks. I'm happy to go with being pale, and am for about nine months of the year. But despite regular usage of sunblock, it takes very little for me to acquire weird tan lines, and they last forever. To wit, my bathing suit tan lines just faded in March, after the summer spent in the pool. Meanwhile, I went on an early bike ride on Friday, which lasted for about two hours. And now I have the farmer's tan. Two hours! That's it! So, do I slather sunblock half way up my arms and do yardwork tomorrow in an attempt to get it to even out? Do I embrace self-tanner? Do I just suck it up and live with the ghost of a white t-shirt for the next eight months?

• My cats, who are cute and fuzzy, want to eat early in the morning. Like, at 4. We have tried any number of tricks to get them to leave us alone. Feeding them late has no effect---they get on the bed and paw at us, purring, until we get up and feed them. Closing the door has no effect---they claw at it and rattle it in the frame. Putting sticky tape on the door worked for exactly 6 days, and now they've apparently decided that sticky paws are worth the trouble if it means they can eat. I am running out of ideas. Save us. I beg of you.

• I am signed up for not one, but two group athletic events, one in August, and one in September. Despite that, I have little to no motivation to train in the actual sport that I will be doing. Where's the panic? I could die in this sport, you know. (there. there was a slight frisson of fear there. Maybe that's what I need: I should spend time visualizing my own death in a watery grave because I failed to train. problem solved via gruesome, worst case scenario thinking!)

You can see what I mean about unbelievably random, right? Back soon, after I whip that paper into shape.

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Saturday, May 08, 2010

Faculty Behaving Badly

Do you think I could make a million dollars by pitching a show to a cable network that's based on highlighting the most egregiously-awful faculty behaviors? Could I be the Chelsea Handler of higher ed?

I think the pilot might involve the abuse of the campus-wide/whole-faculty email function. I'm sure that some IT guy, when he programmed this function into the mail service, figure that it would be a crucial function. There ARE announcements that the entire faculty needs to hear: graduation speakers, faculty governance issues, all-school calendars, etc. And actually, I like to know about speakers, concerts, class presentations, even if I can't or don't plan to attend. Hell, I don't even mind the occasional "I left my thumb drive in Classroom 117, has anyone seen it?" message. What I cannot abide, however, is the use of this communication feature as a means to castigate others publicly and/or pontificate. And really, how often is it one without the other?

Case in point: weeks ago, a committee sent out an announcement about a program they had designed for the campus community, and very kindly were inviting people to take part in. And then the email responses begin.
•Cranky Western Civ Guy: "I don't approve of the content of this program. Shouldn't we instead be forcing students to take part in [ideology A]? Your program contributes to the downfall of Western culture."
•Young Hipster Dude: "on the contrary, I've taken part in a corollary of said program, and it is works as a sincere questioning of the make-up of Western Culture. Which would be obvious if you'd read anything about said program."
•Dr. Can't Let A Conversation Go On Without Him: "I'm also concerned about the status of Western Culture. Kids nowadays. What are we going to do with them? I suggest that all take part in a a multi-hour re-training program that supercedes the one that this committee planned."
•Professor Literacy Advocate: "Based on this fascinating discussion, Western Culture is something we're all interested. The suggested program, however; approaches this in new and exciting ways which I support."
•Dr. Gravitas: "I think the point here is that the initial committee got off its collective ass to plan something, and thus it's their show. If you all want to plan something else, do it your damn selves."

Thank you, Dr. Gravitas!! If only you'd included the phrase: "now stop cluttering up my inbox with this crap, you pompous windbags!" That endpoint notwithstanding, the "conversation" finally died down, based, I think, on the reasoned position of Dr. G, as well as the relative weight of his seniority and stature.

BUT THEN!! Weeks after this has all finally gone away, Dr. Endowed Chair chimes in! As if none of this has happened! He too has concerns about the effects of said program, and the way that the students will interpret the implications of "our" decisions to run said program!! Oh, wailing and gnashing of teeth! And we're off, again, into round four thousand of faculty who see this as their opportunity both to express their individual opinions about the state of Western Civilization as we know it, and to offer their own brilliant suggestions about what the campus as a whole should be spending its collective time thinking about. [Thankfully, this last round ended in what I can only imagine is a shared sense of incredulity that shocked people into silence. Dr. Insano suggested, based on recent ecological events, that we all carefully examine and discuss this Malcolm Lowry novel. Sweet Jesus on a popsicle stick.

I'm floating a new suggestion amongst my colleagues who are equally suspicious of this abuse of the campus email, and it goes something like this. There should be some sort of non-negotiable, semi-punitive sacrifice that community members must make if they want to use this function. Non-negotiable, no exceptions. I suggest that they be forced to give up a toe. Then we'll see how important you REALLY think your contribution to communal discourse is.

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Saturday, May 01, 2010

A Tale of Two Taskmasters

As I read around the academic blogosphere, I see that you all are coming into the home stretch. You're reading papers, managing student freak-outs, and switching into summer mode: simultaneous relaxation and research. So congrats to all of you. While you're busy feeling both exhausted but accomplished, I'm relaxed and freaking out: my leave is OVER!! And what do I have to show for it?!!

As per usual, I find myself oscillating between two opposing poles. On the one hand, my inner sadistic schoolmarm is flagellating me. What's worse that wasting a three month leave? That one is ostensibly given for research? Shouldn't I have mapped out a fabulous book project by now? Or drafted three articles? Or painted the Mona Lisa, trained for a marathon, and cooked my way through all of Alice Waters' books?

On the other hand, my inner overly-compassionate voice (who I imagine as an old school, baked, middle-aged hippie) is talking me down. The origins of sabbatical, after all, lie in "sabbath," as in rest. And I've done a lot of resting, that's for sure. I've traveled, I've reconnected with friends and family. I've spent a lot of time thinking about the kinds of bad work habits I've accumulated over the past five years. I've become pretty conscious about the consistent, negative talk in my head that goes on (see sadistic schoolmarm, above), and convinces me that it's not worth starting anything. For the record, it's sort of shocking, when you really write it down. Here's a sampling:
•"I didn't follow-up trying to publish my diss, so I've wasted all that work."
•"I didn't continue my diss research, and now I'm so far behind I'll never keep up."
•"I've given far too many conference presentations and failed to turn them into articles."
•"It's too late for me to pick a research field now."
•"Everyone I know has done/can do x, and I have tried and I can't, so I should just give up."

What a total and complete bitch that schoolmarm is! And just so you know, I totally recognize that this is textbook, and that I sound like a case study in a "pathetic academic psychoses" review.

I'm trying to go with the baked hippie, here. (Please don't ask me where these characters come from. Why can't the hippie be a Buddhist or something? Beats hell out of me. But he's a hippie, for sure.) For as much as the arguments that the schoolmarm are making aren't wrong, exactly, I think that for me, the last three months have been about slowing down enough to realize the accumulation of crap that I've built up during the tenure process in a toxic department. (The schoolmarm narrowly missed being a nun, but that would make her so close to an actual colleague of mine, whose discourse is so close to this kind of negativity, that if I had her talking in my head, I'd have to quit my job and move to Woodstock.) Sure, it would have been great if I could have just jumped at the chance of a leave to dive into a pre-established project that was a natural extension of the work that I'd done on the diss and continued doing throughout my years as an assistant prof. But that's not what my career trajectory looks like. Instead, it's a messy testament to getting interested in a number of topics and ideas that are loosely aggregated around a couple of consistent big ideas. I'm still learning how to focus those and describe their relevance. And more importantly, I think I'm figuring out who I want them to be relevant to, and that might not be a strictly academic audience.

So suck it, sadistic schoolmarm! You can have my spring leave, but I've still got my hippie summer! Here's to hoping for some compassionate, productive research in the coming months, that comes out of peace, love and folk music, rather than pain, suffering and judgmental silence.

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