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Late Spring To-Do List
Wednesday, June 29, 2005
Yesterday, my next-to-last-day at the office, a truly vile manuscript crossed my desk. I was cranking out rejection letters for one of the editors I occasionally assist, and, as the author did not include the TITLE of his work in his cover letter, I had to flip around through the supporting materials to find it.
(Okay, I actually probably would have read the proposal anyway, because I'm nosy and it was a slow day.)
And what does this work propose to do? Why, to reveal the LIES AND DECEITS of higher education, that YOU, the PAYING CUSTOMER, deserve to know. I wish I could quote from this screed (which actually, um . . . I did photocopy), but I suppose it counts as intellectual property. And anyway, although the phrasings are unique and enraging, you can probably imagine them for yourself.
In many ways the book is incoherent--at one point, the author will complain that universities don't provide the classical liberal arts education parents want, but instead political, revisionist INTERPRETATIONS. . . and then a short while later he'll argue that while the general public understands that college exists to prepare students for the working world, actual universities look down on job training. It also frequently shows its author's age (academics are all bearded, draft-dodging Communists), and wastes its time on pointless attacks (don't you hate the way academics talk like those idiots on NPR? And hey, how *about* NPR? I mean, do you, reader, know ANYONE in real life who talks like those weirdo snobs?).
There are the usual far-right claims: academics hate Christians, America, and any notion of "truth." But they looove homosexuals, and have a fearsome ability to affect the minds of your children [George Washington Boyfriend snorted aloud when I read him that part]. And, of course, they don't actually work for a living!
But there are also some more bizarre and seemingly unrelated issues: High school guidance counselors don't know dick. (Often true, but WTF?). Most classes are taught by graduate students. Accreditation is a sham. Education majors have the lowest SAT scores. Universities are badly run because they're managed by the faculty (??).
But if there's one underlying message, it's that colleges and universities aren't accountable to their actual employers, students and their parents. Scientists research whatever they want to study, not what the public, or our elected officials, think is valuable. (No mention of what industry thinks is important, or where some of those research dollars actually come from.) Grade inflation isn't actually a problem--in fact, many teachers take delight in failing their students! Some fail 50% of each class! Researchers get sabbatical years off--on the taxpayer dime. To do nothing. Academic freedom means that instructors are free to teach whatever blatant untruths they like, but students aren't allowed to argue.
ARRGGGH. I know many people have discussed this consumerist mentality before--the students who think working really hard means they must deserve an A rather than an A- (and anyway, they need it to get into law school!); the parents who outright say that they're paying $100K so their students deserve good grades; and all the rest--but to see so much of it, in one place, combined with a complete misunderstanding of how higher education actually functions, is just deeply upsetting.
Even more upsetting is the fact that this book will get published. Or one like it. It's badly written, but it's not SO badly written that an enterprising editor couldn't make something out of it that would appeal to the right audience. And though the author isn't an acdemic, he's got just enough professional credibility to make up a convincing book-jacket author bio.
I guess what kills me is the resentment combined with the sense of entitlement--this deep, deep suspicion of the educated, of anyone who thinks differently than they, or of anyone in any minimal position of power (that's us--the ones molding young minds).
I mean, really. Go ahead and open your own fucking schools.
Priests on film
Love those Jesuits. LOVE THEM.
(But I wonder how Benny XVI would feel about Kung-Fu Jesus?)
Monday, June 27, 2005
MORE on student evaluations
Some thoughts on student evaluations, based in part on Bright Star's post on the subject a couple of weeks ago (which I just came across today and so won't start chiming in on belatedly over on her blog)--and in part, of course, on my own evals for this past semester.
I wasn't expecting great evaluations, since I taught an unexpectedly small introductory literature seminar where the personalities just never really jelled; the course was also a new one, designed by committee with all the problems that suggests, and I personally didn't feel as though it was constructed particularly coherently.
Anyway, considering that I had a total of only NINE students (one of whom I failed and another of whom was a local high school student who just wasn't up to college-level analysis), my evals were actually not as bad as I'd feared. But I did get two "below-average" overall ratings, which is rather a high percentage in such a small class, and I got some snarky comments very like Bright Star's, including "Pompous. Get off the clouds." And, "know-it-all."
I'll skip the self-defense, since I'm pretty confident that my classroom manner is neither of those things; what I'm interested in is where these inaccurate assessments came from.
I'm trusting that Bright Star isn't any more arrogant in the classroom than I am, in part because I feel like I've seen this pattern before. Right before I interviewed at the MLA this year I googled one of my interviewers and came across her RateMyProfessors.com evaluations. I already knew she was a hotshot who had graduated from my program several years ago and already had a second book forthcoming, and I was prepared to be intimidated by her. Many of her reviews were very positive (e.g., "made me become an English major"), but a lot were just eviscerating ("arrogant"; "huge ego"; "thinks she's the shit"). But when I met her, even in the stressful context of a job interview, she was incredibly warm and eager and unpretentious. I later mentioned both my impression of her and her evals to a friend a couple of years ahead of me in my program, who'd known my interviewer slightly, and she seemed equally puzzled by the ratings--"but she's so sweet!"
Anyway, through snooping around more on RMP.com, I've seen more of this. Women whom I know to be helpful and enthusiastic teachers wind up with, often, more than a handful of evaluations along the same lines as those of my interviewer's--but the men? Almost none of this.
Obviously evalations are prone to a host of problems, and I think most of us agree that they're of only very limited utility (funny how the silent students will say "discussions dragged and were boring" while the talkative ones say, "discussions were always lively and helpful")--but I'm wondering whether part of it isn't also a gender thing: maybe women who know what they're doing and have exacting standards are more likely to be perceived (by some students) as arrogant or demanding? I'm not completely sure that this is the reason, but it's certainly true that many students want female instructors to be their sympathetic mother or older sister and don't understand how you can seem so nice! but be way too harsh as a grader. And anecdotally, it doesn't seem that men deal with this as much--is it that students are prepared for male instructors to be authoritarian hard-asses?
Anyway, I'd be interested in hearing anyone's thoughts on this. . . .
Boring work update
Update the first: finished with my second round of hand-editing; transcribing now onto the computer. The chapter is getting better, but probably needs two more rounds before I can ship it out to FA.
Update the second: the couch of destiny continues to rock.
Update the third: I've decided not to bother with the abstract for that conference. George Washington Boyfriend wisely pointed out that I have another conference next spring that I'm going to have to pay for out-of-pocket, and that I know will be worthwhile. There's also some likelihood that many of the people I might meet at foreign-country-conference will be attending the conference in the fall at which I'm giving my Big-Ass Address. However, if the deadline is extended, I might reconsider this decision.
Update the fourth: I'm going fucking stir-crazy. Over the past four days I have left my apartment twice, once on Friday for 35 minutes to get groceries, and then yesterday for the party. Gotta get out of here.
So today I went to a party, intending to stay for maybe two hours, and left instead after five. One of my college friends and his wife are moving to Different Eastern City, and they decided to celebrate the event (which really deserves a celebration, as it involves throwing off the shackles of their corporate law firms . . . albeit to embrace the slightly less chafing shackles of two different law firms) with some beer, barbeque, and lots of other lawyers.
No kidding: I counted, and of the 20+ people present, I was one of six non-lawyers. The others were:
1 doctor just finishing her internship year
1 Big Pharma bigshot
2 owners of a local franchise of a national retailer
1 international woman of mystery otherwise ensconced in a Fortune 500 company.
They're mostly pretty fun people, many of whom I knew in college or who I've met before because they're friends of Def and Stave from law school or wherever--and I might well have wound up sticking around just to catch up with a few of them and to help myself to the fantastic pulled pork and watermelon slices--but part of the pleasure of the event was all the attention I got for not being a lawyer.
I mean, as faithful readers of this bog know, I worked at a law firm for a couple of years and I can talk the talk well enough to engage your MEC jurisprudential types in five or ten minutes of law-related chit-chat, but the fact of the matter is that law talk is what lawyers fall back on when they have nothing else to talk about. They don't really want to talk about their work.
No, apparently what they want to talk about is my work. I had at least five separate conversations in which I discussed my dissertation project, in detail, giving my layperson's version of why this stuff is so cool and so interesting and so Relevant to Us Today--and either they bought it or they were making nice, but I pretty much wound up feeling like the most fascinating and in-demand person in the room. Which never happens when I talk to academics--maybe because I'm often uncomfortable around academics and constitutionally unable to frame my research in Big Serious Theoretical Terms.
That last part is a separate issue, I guess--but the most-fascinating-woman-in-the-room phenomenon? Pretty sweet. Sure, they may all make four times what I'll be making next year, but it's nice sometimes to have cultural capital. (And as grandpa would say, "don't spent it all in one place!")
Saturday, June 25, 2005
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . worthier of Gods, as built
With second thoughts, reforming what was old!
For what God after better worse would build?
Sofa of destiny
Okay, I take that back about the writing and the hating. Printed out a fresh copy of my chapter and settled in on the sofa--rather than on my bed, where I've been doing most of my hand-edits--and had a GREAT three hours of revising.
Was it the fact that my first five pages were already better than most of the rest of the chapter? Maybe. But I like to think that it was the sofa. Ooh, the sofa. I never work on it any more, and indeed hardly even sit on it, but today it seems to have recharged my mojo. Maybe it's the lovely dragonfly-green shawl/wrap that HK gave me for my birthday, and that is now draped over the back of that 8-year-old, $300, Pier One, faded and rather lopsided sofa that reinvigorated it?
Whatever. Five good pages is better than no good pages.
(BELOW: This--minus the shawl--is where the magic happens)
Friday, June 24, 2005
So I have to decide whether I want to submit an abstract for this upcoming conference. Deadline next Friday.
On the one hand, the abstract really shouldn't take long to write, but it could well eat up a day's worth of productive work time, and I'm not sure I have a day to waste. Other problems are these: I'm giving a big-ass address drawn from the same material this fall (BAA will be, I don't know, 45 minutes to an hour long), and since I haven't yet written that, I'm going to have a hard time knowing what I will and will not wind up covering. Also, the conference in question is likely to be quite small. It's also in a foreign country. And I'll have to pay my way.
All of which sounds pretty negative, huh?
The really big positive is this: the conference is on an author in whom I'm really and deeply invested, and the scholarship on whom has been pretty bad (he's the same dude I mentioned in an earlier post, in re: a mediocre new work of scholarship I'd just read)--and this conference, which the organizers are hoping will become annual, may signal a revival of interest in his work, and I'd really like to get in on the ground floor if so.
There are a few other positives, or at any rate not-negatives: airfare shouldn't really be that expensive to this particular city at that time of year; I have a very good friend who lives in that city & who I'd love to have an excuse to see (esp. since I'm missing her wedding in September!) . . . and, of course, vanity.
The vanity here is several-fold. First, the organizer of the conference emailed me a personal note asking me to submit an abstract. I should say that I've never met this dude, he knows nothing about my work, and he only mistakenly thinks I'm someone because I'm giving this address in the fall (which gig I wound up getting through a similarly random series of circumstances). He probably also assumed I was faculty at INRU, not the punk-ass grad student I actually am.
So, I'm totally flattered, even if his invitation is based on nothing meaningful. But I'm also flattered by the idea of making some kind of a name for myself (albeit in a TINY circle) rather quickly. Given that I hope to make said author a major focus of my career and am mulling over some future projects on him, it would be fantastic to meet whoever else is out there doing interesting work . . . and who might be looking for future conference panelists, or co-editors for a critical edition of his works, or whatever.
I don't know. Maybe I should just see how the chapter looks after the weekend? Right now I'm feeling that it's frustratingly without shape, and hugely repetitive, and though I think there are good ideas in there, they're JUST NOT MAKING THEMSELVES KNOWN.
God, I hate writing.
Thursday, June 23, 2005
Deals of the day
Even in the absence of SRJ, one good thing did arive in the mail yesterday: the pair of vintage Ferragamo flats I bought on eBay ($10.85, including shipping).
They're funky two-tone jobbies in pearlescent taupe and chocolate brown, kinda deco-ish and 80s at the same time; totally fab. And worth every one of those 1085 cents. I wore them to the office today to break them in, and then out to meet D for drinks (she, of course, had on much cooler shoes than I).
And at the bar the deals kept coming: $4 happy hour margaritas, and we're talking some strong mofos--two had me on my ass, but of course I went and had a third. Resulting in unglamorous hiccups. And a very uncomfortable trip home.
But hell: it's summer! And after all the water I drank to vanquish those hiccups, I'm rarin' to return to my chapter.
Where? Where? WHERE?
WHERE is my copy of Smaller Respectable Journal? And my offprints? Wherewherewhere?
10 days ago I received an email from the editorial assistant at SRJ, publisher of my very firstest article, saying the issue was out, asking for my mailing address, and claiming to be dropping them promptly in the mail. And I still haven't received it.
I know I'm a little overeager, but seriously: this issue was expected to come out in the winter. Then the spring. And in fact, it's already years behind the date that will be imprinted on the spine (the journal is an annual, but the editorial staff has gotten seriously backlogged).
Grr. I'm way less excited about this article than about my other one--but still! My name in print! For a readership of like eight whole people! Let's get a move on, already.
Wednesday, June 22, 2005
I came across a book the other day, Karyn McKinney's Being White, that started me thinking some more about the past two years of living here in Historically Black Neighborhood. (I should put in a disclaimer here: I don't know McKinney, I know jack shit about "whiteness studies," and I didn't actually buy the book--sorry! no money!) McKinney's a sociologist, and her book is an examination of the racial attitudes of white college students, based upon autobiographical accounts she's collected at a number of different colleges and universities, asking students, basically, to talk about what being white means to them. The usual initial response is kind of, "Huh? It doesn't mean anything. It's not an identity. It's just, you know, neutral."
The stories I read, and the common themes McKinney draws out of them, were really interesting, and some of them mirrored elements of my own experience. I guess I've always been semi-conscious of my race, in that white-liberal-guilt way, and because, being from the Pacific Rim, I've always had an unusally large number of Asian American friends and so grew up absorbing bits and pieces of some of their families' cultural attitudes. And yeah, that summer I spent in Japan in high school did serve as a brief introduction to being an outsider--but what I experienced there was really the feeling of being a foreigner, not of being this race or that race, and I think that's different.
When I moved to HBN, though, I became very, very aware of my whiteness. For a long time I was conscious of it every single moment that I was outside my apartment--how I was being perceived, how I might act in order to be perceived a certain different way, and what all this meant about who I actually was. And it's funny how, until having this experience, it had never really occured to me that this is what it's like to be a person of color: to be always intensely conscious of yourself as a member of a particular race. I mean, yes, we've all heard stories about the black businessman who can't get a taxi to stop for him, and who dresses professionally at all times so as to appear less "threatening" in his wealthy neighborhood--but when you're a visible minority you don't experience those kinds of things, the behavior of the occasional jerk, as separate, unfortunate occurances that don't really have anything to do with you--you start to view people differently, and more significantly, you start to view yourself differently.
And I'm still trying to figure out who to be in my neighborhood. At first I was determined to be friendly, all the time, since I didn't want to be mistaken for a cold, calculating gentrifier--someone who didn't give a damn about the neighborhood's history and was just buying up property. (In reality, of course, I can barely pay my rent.) But there's a problem with friendliness when you're a young and not visibly attached woman, and though I was only rarely made to feel uncomfortable, after a few too many ridiculous rounds of, "hey! what's your name! Are you married? Hey, let's have lunch!" (in response to my saying "'morning"), I realized that I wouldn't be making such an effort to be friendly anywhere else in the city, and I scaled it back a bit.
It pains me to feel like an outsider here, though, or to know that I'm part of the wave of gentrification that will probably completely change the neighborhood in 5 or 10 years' time. I love how friendly it is, and how multi-generational. And I love the fact that there's still a street culture: at 10 o'clock at night on the main drag there are tons of people just standing around--the young women together checking out the young men, the older folks chatting with the shopkeepers, kids zooming perilously up and down on their bikes, and all the hair salons open until midnight. Summer evenings the sidewalks on all the residential blocks are full of chairs and card tables as families move outside to keep cool--and they're there playing cards or checkers, listening to the radio, chatting with the neighbors.
I love this neighborhood for itself and its history (and yes, for the fact that it's affordable and in a convenient location!), but I've also learned more than I ever thought I would about race and class--my own as much as any other. The recent discussions about class on several other blogs got me started thinking about these things before finding McKinney's book, and I think the conclusion I've come to is that you can't really understand the reality of class (or race) for anyone else, though it's always necessary to try, and the effort is always rewarding. What you may succeed in doing, however, is understanding your own.
Tuesday, June 21, 2005
Tuesday slog blogging
Making progress on the chapter revisions. It's not exactly going to be my longest chapter, especially given that I've been cutting and cutting and cutting, but I think it's going okay. (That it's also not going to be my greatest chapter goes, I think, without saying.)
I emailed my advisor the other day to give her the update and an ETA for this draft . . . and she wrote back a short cheery note with an exclamation mark. Cheery. Exclamation mark. Atypical, and hence worrying. I should know by now that nothing she does has anything to do with me, even when she is in fact ostensibly reacting to something I've done, but it's hard not to overread everything she does. Several years ago she sent me an email telling me that I really should come hear a speaker the department had invited in later that week--and I spent HOURS wondering why she'd emailed me, and moreover why she'd phrased the note just the way she had. (And of course, I attended!) I later found out that she had sent identical notes to several other students in the department, and that each one of us had obsessed over the secret meaning of the message in much the same way. (I note this to show that my paranoia over her recent message isn't just the usual advisor-advisee drama--she inspires this reaction in everyone, and in fact I'm convinced she deliberately cultivates this persona.)
I've got Liz Phair on in the background, just audible over the fan. She always feels like summer to me, maybe because I listened to Whip-Smart over and over the summer after my sophomore year, when I was living in College Town, working 9-5, and without a hell of a lot to do with my evenings and weekends. And now that I think of it, I'm pretty sure I bought whitechocolatespaceegg in the summer, too--a couple of years after college. I was psyched for her last album, when it came out a couple (two? three?) years ago, but wound up not buying it after some disappointing reviews. Maybe I should reconsider. Anyone out in blogland have an opinion?
Monday, June 20, 2005
Six Feet Under
George Washington Boyfriend and I have been working our way through the third season of Six Feet Under recently, and though I guess it's dumb to talk about having a favorite t.v. show when you don't actually own a t.v. (as I don't), Six Feet Under is definitely mine.
I like all the HBO series for all the reasons that everyone likes them--original concepts, complicated characters, and damn fine storytelling--but Six Feet Under is to me a much more sophisticated and interesting show than Deadwood or The Sopranos. I've been trying to figure out for a while why this is. There are a lot of little things: that fantastic, Hopper-esque house the Fishers live in; the fact that David and Keith are the most realistic and multi-dimensional gay characters on t.v.; the sheer oddballity of so many of the characters and situations. I also really like how carefully constucted each episode is, and the way the opening death scene and subsequent funeral arrangements raise issues that wind up echoing throughout the episode.
But the thing that most affects me, I think, is the show's treatment of the psychological and spiritual aspects of death, and the ways in which death and life interconnect and overlap. In some ways that's an obvious statement: the show is, after all, set in a funeral home and each episode begins with one or another random and usually unexpected death. But the show is also so funny, and so relationship-driven, that I think sometimes its spiritual issues recede into the background, and I want to pull them out to examine them for a moment.
I don't think most people would describe the show as religious in any conventional sense, but as someone who does a lot of thinking about religion--or maybe more accurately, about the ways in which belief affects and shapes individual identity--I feel that Six Feet Under deals with these issues with more complexity than just about any other television show or movie I can think of.
The trappings of organized religion aren't much present in the show. In the early seasons David is very active in his (apparently quite conservative Episcopalian) church, and we learn that this is where he met Keith. After some flap surrounding his homosexuality, he starts going more regularly to a more liberal church, which Keith and his subsequent boyfriend also attend. The fact that David goes to church isn't a big deal for the show, and neither is the fact that his siblings and mother don't; there's no attempt to make it "mean" something in any reductive way.
Similarly, the church David attends is just a church. There's pettiness among the members of board, and there are silly and annoying people who attend--but the institution ITSELF isn't silly or petty or self-satisfied, or anything, any more than it is sickeningly sweet or populated with uniformly loving and generous individuals. It's like most churches that I know of, in other words; the show doesn't play it for laughs or use it as a shorthand indication of a character's automatic hypocrisy OR his all-American values.
But it's not really the show's treatment of organized religion that interests me--it's the way the show presents death and the dead. From the way the scenes fade out to white, like overexposed photographs, rather than to black, to the constant appearence of the dead in the lives of the living, there's an abiding interest in what comes after death--but no ruling as to what, if anything, actually does. When the Fisher kids have conversations with their dead father, or their dead clients--are we supposed to understand these as projections of their own wishes or anxieties? Sometimes, yeah, as in David's arguments with the murdered gay teenager, but for the most part it's not clear. The dead have a presence here, and whether you want to believe that they actually ARE present, or whether it's just the lingering effect that anyone's life has on someone else's, the show underscores both the materiality of death (blood and guts on the floor; severed heads; characters wrestling grotesque corpses onto gurneys) and its more intangible but still deeply felt effects: the ways lives are completely changed, or hardly changed, or not changed at all because of this person who has somehow stopped being.
I don't know. A media-studies person could talk about all of this more intelligently than I can, and I'm not even sure that I've gotten at what this show really does for me. I often say that what I want out of a book or a movie or a play is to learn something new--by which I generally mean something new about human nature or the way we experience our lives--and I feel that Six Feet Under does this. It struggles with death and its meaning or lack of meaning, and what this in turn means for life, in ways that raise it, often, to the level of great art.
Saturday, June 18, 2005
Okay, I have to admit that (a) I did not know that today was Juneteenth, and (b) I further did not know that it was a holiday that was still celebrated, some 140 years later. (For those of you who know even less about the holiday than I, Juneteenth is the day that word of the end of the Civil War finally reached African Americans in Galveston and the western territories of the U.S. Which was two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation had actually freed the slaves--but no one had, you know, actually bothered to TELL THEM. You can read more about it here.)
But apparently, here in Historically Black Neighborhood, it's very much celebrated (I must not have been in town on this day last year, and I had only just signed my lease on this day two years ago). I guess I missed the parade, though George Washington Boyfriend ran into it when he went out to meet a friend for lunch. However, as I was making my way up to Staples just now to buy a new printer cable, I encountered men in smart suits with flowers in their lapels, women in big brightly colored hats, and kids looking well-scrubbed and a little ill at ease. Though many people in the neighborhood dress up for church on Sunday, the clothes were smarter today and there were an unusual number of flowers (at the Baptist church right on my corner, the folks loitering out front were carrying plants that looked kinda like unbloomed Easter lily plants). Is that a feature of the holiday celebration? Dunno.
What I CAN tell you, though, is that as my own Juneteenth celebration I'm just about to print out a draft of this chapter and start my real revisions in longhand and on the floor (I often cut up my drafts and spread the pieces out on the floor; it frees up my sense of structure and lets me try out more possibilities--you just can't get a sense of the whole work when you're dealing with a computer screen).
But before the scissors come out, GWB and I are going to run some errands and then meet Def and Stave for dinner. Mmm, Vietnamese food!
Friday, June 17, 2005
Another blow to academic respect and self-determination
This just in: NYU has decided to end its recognition of its grad student union, the first at a private university in the U.S. (Read the article here.) Of course, the university is sweetening the deal by pledging on its own to keep increasing stipend levels, keep down entering class size, and establish new forums for student governance and complaints—and I think it will, since NYU has a lot invested in keeping its rankings going up—but this is bad bad news for the academy.
And whatever happens at NYU, there is now TOTALLY going to be a strike in the fall at INRU, probably of indefinite duration. (And yes it’s selfish of me, but after participating in two week-long strikes in my time there, I’m really, really happy I won’t be teaching there this fall.)
Wednesday, June 15, 2005
More financial trials
So today I found out that my new position, despite requiring my presence on campus the third week in August, will not actually be giving me a paycheque until September 30 (bear in mind here that May 30 was my last paycheque from INRU). For reasons that are apparently as obscure to the department chair as to me, lecturers at Big Urban University are paid monthly, not bi-weekly. Okay, but what? You have to test-drive us for six weeks first?
Whatever the reason, it SUCKS. Guess I'll just have to put all my living expenses for the month on a credit card and hope I can then turn around and pay it all off. Right. Along with that computer I just bought.
I feel guilty bitching about my salary, but at the same time I feel mad at myself for feeling guilty. I'm lucky to have this job, when I might have had to spend a second year trying to scrape together a living teaching at INRU--commuting nearly two hours each way--while also holding down some kind of an office job. BUU is a good school, and it will be great experience, and as I've learned from recent posts and comments on a variety of academic blogs, I'll actually be making more money than many tenure-track assistant professors (admittedly, in less urban areas)--while teaching an equivalent load and not being expected to do any service or committee work.
But this is what the conversation about academic pay and workload always comes down to, isn't it? This oscillation between feeling guilty for what one is lucky enough to HAVE (a job of some sort; a relatively flexible schedule; The Life of the Mind) and feeling resentful about what one doesn't have (chiefly, reasonable compensation and, often, institutional respect). I've said it before and I'll say it again: I don't expect to be compensated as well as a corporate lawyer. But I've had about enough of people claiming that bankers and lawyers "earn" their money--as if in some way academics didn't. Okay, so if I'm working 50 hours a week, I should make less than the lawyer who's working 80. Fair enough. But to pretend that a 25-year-old J.D., in his first year on the job, somehow, in some intrinsic way, "deserves" $130,000 a year (NOT COUNTING ANNUAL FIVE-FIGURE BONUS), whereas a 35-year-old Ph.D. with years of experience, teaching four classes a semester, "deserves" $45,000 (or less) is fucking ridiculous.
And it's not a supply-and-demand problem, either: there are more students in college today, and more teachers. It's just that the teaching is being done by graduate students, adjuncts, and other non-ladder faculty. Sure, they can usually do the job--but when I was a paralegal I could do a significant portion of the daily work of the junior associates I worked for (and I could have been trained to do even more of it). The difference is that the corporate entities who pay for the services of law firms want their work done by actual lawyers. Ideally, lawyers at the best goddamn firms and with the best goddamn degrees. But more importantly, corporations have the money to PAY for those desired services. (I reviewed a number of the itemized bills from multi-million cases I worked on . . . and anyone who doesn't think that those bills are padded, or who thinks that corporations even fucking care, is a moron.) Colleges and universities often don't have much money--but, more to the point, they often just don't feel like putting that money into faculty hiring when there's a new stadium or student center that could be built.
I'm not saying that corporations are evil, and I'm certainly not going to pretend that academia isn't also a prestige economy; I'm willing to bet that one of the main reasons BUU hired me for this job (for which, incidentally, I was NEVER INTERVIEWED, not even on the phone) is that I have three degrees from INRU and my advisor is a big player in the field. But the game is fucking rigged in so many ways, and they all make me furious. The fact that I'll probably land a decent job eventually, because of who I know and where I've been trained, is completely and grossly unfair--but even that unfairness is relative. For example: a former grad school classmate of GWBoyfriend's, who is fucking brilliant, as well as an amazing teacher and the warmest, most engaging person you could every want to meet, still doesn't have a t-t job after three years on the job market and a visiting professorship at a great liberal arts college. Not only that, but at the MLA this year she had . . . ONE INTERVIEW. Yeah, if she sticks around she'll unquestionably land a great job, but how many times do you try before you wind up completely disillusioned with the process, and so far in the hole that even that job at Harvard isn't going to pull you out?
Sometimes I think that academics themselves are to blame--if we weren't such suckers, and didn't put up with so much shit, there wouldn't be so much shit to be put up with. But this I can tell you: I know my own breaking point, and I'm not going to be pushed past it.
Tuesday, June 14, 2005
Fun times with Dr. Fun
Went out for drinks last night with GWBoyfriend and Dr. Fun, and wound up staying for hours and shutting down the pub. Dr. Fun is a colleague of GWB's, a novelist as well as a scholar, and also pretty much what his name implies. I hadn't seen him for a few months, having just missed him each of the last few times I was in town. (First he was in Europe visiting the incorrupted body of Saint Somebody; then he was in the midwest visiting family; and then most recently in MEC, visiting his lovely girlfriend. Somewhere in the middle there he may have fallen into an open manhole and gotten lost for a few weeks--that's just the kind of thing that happens to Dr. F.)
This particular pub is right up the street from Atypical College, where GWB and Fun teach, and also just up the street from Fun's apartment; the two of them are regulars, and I'm not entirely sure that Fun doesn't actually keep a room in back as well. We shot the shit for a while with Horse the bartender and got some free samples of a new beer they have on tap, and in between the drinks we purchased for ourselves kept winding up getting free ones--first because Horse was glad to see us, then because Dr. Fun just proposed to his girlfriend, and then because, after about a goddamn hour, we succeeded in putting back together one of those wooden bar puzzles--a cube that breaks down into about eight oddly-shaped pieces that seem impossible to reassemble. I'm sure my engineer friends could have done it in five minutes, but goddamn!
(Horse told us that last week he'd dropped the puzzle in front of a group of three somewhat obnoxious ex-military guys who are also regulars, and that the moment he did, silence descended. When they finally came up for air two hours later and wanted to know why he'd given them that damn thing, he said, "Why? Because for two hours I haven't had to listen to your loudmouthed, Republican BULLSHIT, that's why!" Yeah. Smart man.)
Sunday, June 12, 2005
Really not a whole lot going on here in Quaint Smallish City, where our days tend to fall into a predictable pattern: start the day very late (this is actually my own pattern at home when school isn't in--if I start writing before 3 p.m. it's a rare day), write/research/revise for a few hours, break for dinner, work some more, and then watch movies for a couple of hours. Preferrably with a couple of glasses of Jameson's.
I've also been playing around a bunch with my new computer, which seems to be stealing wireless from a neighbor. Since GWBoyfriend and I both still have dial-up, this is pretty sweet. I have to say, though, that although I'm happy to have a new computer I don't have quite the same feeling of excitement as when I first got my old laptop five years ago; it's really just a piece of necessary equipment now, not a new toy. Still, hopefully it will be a piece of necessary equipment that ACTUALLY FUCKING WORKS, unlike that miserable piece of shit I was using before.
Anyway, I made my way through the article correx and am in the process of typing out a list of changes and questions for the editor. I'm feeling pretty great about this essay again, though I also have that feeling I often get when I come back to something that I wrote a long time ago and that now seems to have an existence apart from me--it's that, "Damn! I wrote THAT?" feeling, where it's hard to imagine how you ever wrote anything that smart and confident-sounding, and where it's even harder to imagine doing something like it again.
But on the whole, my current chapter work is going okay. I'm in the first round of revisions now, trying to get through five or six pages a day . . . and trying above all to remember that this final chapter doesn't have to be ground-breaking: it just has to be there.
Friday, June 10, 2005
Right before going to bed last night I checked my email and found in my in-box the edited and coded (but not yet typeset) version of an article I have coming out this winter in Big Journal in my Field. At first I was squealing with joy, since I'm SO excited about this essay--but then I took a look at the editing. The dude who edits this journal has not, to my knowledge, published a book on his own, but he's been at the helm of this publication for quite a while now and I certainly give him credit for knowing his stuff--but isn't there something more worthwhile you could be doing with your time than fucking up my prose style?
He's a good copyeditor, and definitely slapped my endnotes upside the head with the Chicago manual and they're all the better for it--but most of his many, many "corrections" amount to quibbles over word order, or changing a participle to a verb, and the resulting sentences tend to clunk when they aren't downright incomprehensible. Boyfriend is no Maxwell Perkins, is what I'm saying.
In the end I don't think it's a big deal (as I say, the thing hasn't been typeset yet and the editorial assistant I e-mailed today sounded pretty laid back about my restoring my original text where I felt necessary), but again, dude! You've got tenure at a decent regional school; your students are the appropriate objects of your pedantry.
Change in venue
So here I am sitting in the lovely home of the lovely GWBoyfriend. (I'm only just now realizing how inconvenient that pseudonym is--I can't refer to him as GWB since there's SOMEONE ELSE out there with those initials who I really don't want to be mistaken for speaking lovingly about.) Yesterday was a long day at the office followed by a long train ride--long mainly because the train left 30 minutes late, then sat in another station for 10 minutes, and proceeded very slowly along another stretch of track. And the Eastern Corridor is supposed to be the best part of the rail system?
But I got in eventually and we grabbed some fine cheeseburgers from a local outfit on our way home and then sat around watching basketball while I attempted to un-cramp every one of the muscles that had clenched up throughout the day. Concluded with Ocean's Eleven, which I'd seen before but was happy to see again--nothing like a caper movie, unless it's a caper movie featuring dashingly well-dressed men.
Wednesday, June 08, 2005
Do NOT sing, cuckou
Ugh. Hot and oppressive again today. Just about the only good thing about this weather is seeing the complete wardrobe revolution going on in the streets: no more coats and sweaters, those fall and winter clothes pressed back into service through a cold, wet spring, but women everywhere suddenly in cute cute clothes: sundresses, tank tops, skirts, shades. Hats, sometimes. It's a pity men don't have equally stylish and practical warm-weather options--I've seen some banker-types rocking the light-colored suits with darker shirts and ties beneath, but really? SUITS. MY GOD. I can't bear to go out even in short sleeves in weather like this.
So, in fact, I did not go out today. I stayed in with two fans blowing on me and finished up this rougher-than-rough draft of my final diss chapter. I wasted a lot of time on the internet. And I read bits and pieces of a couple of books, one on turning a dissertation into a book (given to me yesterday by the publishing director of my group--and yeah, a little fucking early, I know), and the other a recent scholarly work in my field.
I was a little worried about the latter--it's the first book-length study of one of my authors in 35 years, and it's written by a women with whom I'm sharing a stage at a conference next fall. I've got a lot of emotional energy invested in this particular author, my chapter on whom is probably the strongest part of my dissertation. (I also have grandiose plans of single-handedly rescuing him from mediocre, sentimentalizing scholarship with my next book-length study, but that's just the hubris talking.) Luckily, the book looks to be just what I want it to be: a nice, well-put together study, published by a biggie press, that will hopefully increase interest in Author--but one which ultimately overlooks almost everything I'm interested in. If I were being mean, I'd add that what it does focus on is itself only passingly interesting, and that its author has a hugely annoying, patronizing and belletristic tone--but of course, I'm not being mean. Couldn't be if I tried.
Anyway, must go call George Washington Boyfriend . . . whom I'm seeing tomorrow! In less than 24 hours! And who has airconditioning built right into his apartment! (Damn, now that's a gooood boyfriend.)
Tuesday, June 07, 2005
As of today, I have a month left at my two-day-a-week office job, and I have mixed feelings about leaving.
On the one hand, it will be GREAT to be able to support myself purely on an academic salary, and I'll be plenty happy to leave behind the more tiresome photocopy-this, print-out-that aspects of the job. But at the same time I feel reluctant to leave. It's been a good experience (the job is in academic publishing, where I already had some prior work history); the people are generally nice; and I've managed to wangle quite few free books out of it. But it's more than that--it's that I like having a life apart from academia; I was work-study in college, and I worked full-time for two years after college, and I've had a part-time job all through grad school.
The thing is that I like structure and I like regular deadlines and I like people who don't always live inside their heads all the time. Working after college (paralegalling at a big, scary, white-shoe law firm for many many hours a week) was such a revelation to me: for the first time, I really felt good at stuff. In college I just never seemed as smart or as hip as the Boston-New York-D.C. prep school kids, who would riff confidently on this or that in the classroom, write beautiful papers, and casually get shitfaced at parties. But in the working world I was . . .reliable! Organized! Quick on the uptake! It was also while working that I learned to make small talk, and it came as a complete revelation to me that the much-maligned "talking about the weather" could in fact be a pretty meaningful exchange in which one cemented bonds over the coffee maker. And having a teasing relationship with the folks in Word Processing or Duplication? Meant my projects got done faster. And that I had friends who had my back. (It was also while working that, arguably, I learned how to dress and how to party, but that's another story for another time.)
So going back to grad school was hard. I was sick of the corporate world, but after a few years of being a genuine adult--earning a respectable salary, being depended upon, organizing major financial transactions--being thrust back into that infantilizing classroom role, where you're a suppliant to your professors' wisdom, was tough. Once again I was never the smartest person in the room, and once again I had no gauge of my intelligence or skills--unless you count that single end-of-semester essay as a gauge. I honestly believe that it was working at the university press, and then teaching, that got me through those first three years of grad school--those things that made me feel I had some control, and some competancy, and that, not incidentally, reassured me that if I dropped out of grad school I'd still have options.
When I moved back to MEC I lucked into this job with a reasonably well-regarded press. It was originally intended as a three-month internship, but then one editor went on maternity leave and another left (and eventually the new mom left as well), so my group was tremendously understaffed and managed to keep me on. I did a lot of grunt work, but for a while I was also handling tasks normally assigned to senior editors. (As a side note: if you've ever wondered why the back jacket copy of certain books bears NO RELATION to the actual text within, it's because people like me, with no background in the relevant field, are usually writing that shit.)
Anyway, it's been almost two years now, and the learning curve is long since flat; it would probably be time to move on even if I didn't have a full-time job lined up. And yet, I still have pangs. I like to believe in myself as someone who isn't completely beholden to the academy, as someone who has outside skills and interests--and this is one tangible proof of that. By leaving I feel as though I'm saying no to that other life, and yes I will yes I will yes to academia . . . but I'm not yet convinced that academia feels quite so strongly about ME.
So--no diss work today: tired and rather tipsy. After spending all day at the office I went out to meet one of my oldest friends for drinks. For which she was . . . an hour and fifteen minutes late. (But she paid for my drinks in the end, so I really can't complain.)
Monday, June 06, 2005
Entering an alternate universe
Dunno what happened to me, but today I wrote FIVE PAGES. All before 8 p.m. (I'm normally just starting to write around that hour.) Granted, they're pretty shitty pages, but at least I'm grinding through text.
This productivity is all the stranger because today has been a miserable day. I slept poorly, waking up several times due to the weather--not so much that it was hot, but because the humidity was making the 100-year-old woodworking creak and pop in weird ways every so often. At least, that's what I've finally concluded it was. I tend to sleep soundly, but I'm jumpy about unusual noises, being as I am always half convinced that there's an axe-murderer hiding in my closet. (In point of fact, he wouldn't fit IN my closet, but I'm alert to noises that suggest he might be trying to wedge himself in there.)
And all day today has been yucky. Around 85 degrees, heavy and oppressive, and periodically getting way humid as thunder rumbled through, only to cool down again, and then get humid again. So I've felt draggy and ill all day, the way you do when you have a cold and everything just feels so-o-o-o-o dif-fi-cult.
But I guess that's how things work in this alternate universe: horrid weather and a bad mood = high page count. And really? I could live with that.
Anyway, I'm up to 40 pages now and I'm nearly through the principal text I'm analyzing, so it'll be time to start revising soon. Problem is, I have a sneaking fear that everything I'm arguing is total bullshit: simultaneously tendentious and unprovable, and not really very interesting if it WERE true. I know it will probably sort itself out eventually, but I don't really have all that much eventually to work with--I've got to get a draft to Fearsome Advisor by the end of the month. I suppose I'm allowed one crap chapter (at this point I've already proven myself to FA and she's as eager for me to have my degree in hand as I am), but I tend to have a hard time moving on from one project to another unless I'm happy with the first one.
Summer To-Do List
(by or before late September)
It's all doable, but it really depends on this chapter. If FA doesn't like what I give her, or if I'm not happy with it myself, there's no way I'm submitting my diss for a fall degree. Arrgh.
Okay. Don't panic. Clearly it's time for a drink.
Hello operator? Get me long distance.
Anyway, maybe the A/C can wait a bit. I'm going down to see George Washington Boyfriend for five days, starting Thursday, so maybe I can at least hold out until I get back.*
Yes! On Thursday! Five days!
It's funny how normal the long-distance relationship thing seems to academics, and how odd to most everyone else. I mean, yes: a reasonable number of non-academic couples DO wind up spending a year or so apart, due to job transfers or new careers or one person finishing law or business school before the other, but the sustained long-distance thing? Not normal. GWBoyfriend and I have been together for just over four years, fully three of them long-distance. And the fact that we're now about three-and-a-half hours apart (as opposed to the five-and-a-half for that year when I was still living in the same location as INRU), in cities easily accessible by train, bus, plane, and car, is actually considered a pretty plum set-up--by the two of us as much as anyone else.
I was explaining this to a friend's roommate a couple of years ago, after I'd just moved back to MEC, saying that, really, if I could get a tenure-track job in this area, or at any rate no more than about four hours from GW Boyfriend, that would be pretty sweet. And she was like, "FOUR HOURS? Are you kidding? For the long term?" And I said, uh, yeah . . . I mean, we have weekends and summers, right?
This is not to say that it's easy, or that I wouldn't much rather that we were in the same place--but, right now we're not. And the fact that I need my part-time office job to stay afloat financially means that we haven't been able to spend full summers together, though we spent two weeks together over spring break (one week there, while he was still teaching, and one week here, while I was). What our separation does, mostly, is make the job market more stressful: what if I got a great job (or, hell: just a job) in a hard-to-reach location? Or what if I wind up staying on as a lecturer a second year? Should he think about going back out on the market, selectively, in locations where I'm applying? Or is it better to wait two or three years and see if he gets tenure?
So yeah. As I said: things aren't bad now, comparatively speaking, and it's really better not to make those possible comparisons.
*I realize I never explained GWBoyfriend's pseudonym. Well, he's an early Americanist. And has done work on George Washington. And . . . you know . . . George Washington Carver? George Washington Irving? George Washington Boyfriend.
Summer is y-comen in
Yesterday was the first day that really felt like summer around these parts--and it was marvellous, if a little hot. Today, though, the humidity is creeping in and I'm already feeling oppressed. I'd really like not to have to install my airconditioner (read: jury-rig a window ledge support system consisting of four bricks and a bunch of old magazines) yet, but I just don't deal well with humidity.
In my first post-collegiate apartment, which was also here in Major Eastern City, I went for a summer without A/C, and it was bearable--for one thing, I was working ridiculously long hours during the week. On weekends I'd hang out at a coffee shop or library for most of the day, and when I came home I'd sit in a cool bath, read until bedtime, and go to sleep with the fan blowing directly on me. The following summer, though, which I don't think was any hotter than the previous one, I just broke down at the beginning of June and went out and bought the small window unit I've had ever since. It's served me well, apart from the large electric bills it generates and the fact that it makes me feel like a pampered wuss.
(But . . . I really don't think that sitting in a cold bath and TYPING would be a smart alternate solution.)
Sunday, June 05, 2005
I am a page production machine!
Today: FOUR PAGES. Maybe the day away from writing helped? Maybe it was an afternoon out in the glorious sunshine? Who knows. Point is, things are moving forward.
So now I’m just chilling with one of my preferred gin-based drinks, waiting for G-Fav and J-Fav to return from their friends’ wedding on the other side of town. They arrived around noon and we went out and grabbed lunch, wandered down to the park and walked around for an hour or so, and then collapsed on the floor for a while, sun-exhausted, until they had to put on their party clothes and leave for a plate-smashing, ouzo-drinking Greek wedding.
Saturday, June 04, 2005
So I didn't write a single page yesterday, but I refuse to feel bad about it. Instead, I spent literally three hours on line, ordering a new computer. Why three hours? Because George Washington Boyfriend's computer, for all its strong points (chief among them the fact that it isn't exploded and lying on the floor with its guts out), is the slowest machine in the western hemisphere. I'd click a link, get up, start making some coffee, come back, click another link, go pour myself a cup and mix in some milk and sugar, come back, click another link, make some toast--five minutes or more to load each page. Which is really a problem when you're trying to figure out which of many different models you want, and with what specs, but it at least confirmed to me that it was a good idea to buy the thing now (helllloo credit card), because much longer with GWB's laptop and I'm going to be running amok in the street.
After those three hours I didn't really feel like working on the computer, so I instead picked up a book of Judith Butler's that I've been meaning to read for my diss work . . . and to my surprise, it was REALLY GOOD. Now, those of you who don't know who Judith Butler is: she's a literary theorist who works largely on issues of gender and sexuality. Lotsa performativity-of-sex-roles, lotsa power, oppression, and exclusion. She's also the perennial whipping boy of those who claim that theory is just unreabable, intentionally obscure, and badly-written.
And for those of you who don't know what I work on: well, let's just say I work on extremely dead, extremely white men, none of them known to have been gay, and most of whom led interesting but not especially sexy lives (there's one major exception, but I don't work on his sexy stuff). Also? I've always disliked theory.
I won't explain why her work is relevant to mine, but although I'd become convinced that I needed to read a couple of Butler's books, I really wasn't looking forward to it. I tend to feel that theorists (or maybe more accurately, the scholars who rely on them) write bad, jargon-heavy, offensively tangled prose, and speak in unhelpful abstractions. Partly this is a prejudice born of temperament: I'm not a top-down thinker, but a bottom-up one: I start from interesting details that I can't quite figure out, gradually find a pattern, and only at the end can generalize about what I've found. And partly it's the result of my education: my undergrad institution, Instant Name Recognition U, really didn't teach theory. If there was a theory survey course, I never heard of it, and while most classes incorporated literary criticism, we weren't taught it as coming from any particular perspective. I'm getting my doctorate from INRU as well, and there was a theory survey class that I sorta felt I should take--but it conflicted with a much more interesting class. And anyway, although some of my colleagues know theory better than I do, I don't get the sense that most know it that well, or use it much; the theory-heads are in Comparative Liturature or (sometimes) American Studies.
So this is all a way of saying that I've always felt anxious about my lack of familiarity with theory, but at the same time I've had a kind of snobbily dismissive attitude: it's all irrelevant abstractions, isn't it? Taking stuff out of its original context and forcing it into different molds? I've read individual articles by important theorists, some of which have been really useful, and I've read an intro text or two on literary theory, so I've never been totally clueless about what's out there--but at the same time I've never really felt that theory had anything to offer me.
Now I'm wondering. The first surprise was that Butler's work was very readable. Yes, I did need to read many sentences twice--but twice I'm willing to do; five times, not so much. She also clearly has a sense of humor, and a real sense of passion about her subject; these issues she's dealing with are intensely personal ones, you can see--undercutting my belief that theory is all cold, dry, abstraction. Even the material that wasn't remotely useful for my own research was interesting and intellectually exciting to read.
I don't know whether it would have been that interesting to me a few years ago, though, and maybe this is a sign that I'm finally ready for theory. It has always seemed to me that for some young scholars theory is like the proverbial hammer: when all you have is that hammer, everything you see looks like a nail. But now that I've mastered a body of literary and historical material on its own terms, and now that I've developed significant intellectual ideas of my own, I think I'm ready to see where and how specific theories amplify and illuminate my own work. I'm not saying that theory shouldn't be taught early on--in fact, I wish I'd had a better introduction sooner--but at the same time I'm happy I wasn't educated in an environment that expected us to take a particular theoretical approach early on. (See the pseudonymous Thomas H. Benton's amusing column on this subject, here.)
Friday, June 03, 2005
So Elizabeth Kolbert's recent 3-parter in The New Yorker on global warming was pretty frightening, if also a really great read (those of you who haven't read it can find the first part here). And then I started reading about Peak Oil over at Ianqui's blog, and especially at Life After the Oil Crash--and that COMPLETELY scared the shit out of me. I mean, high gas prices? Whatever. I don't have a car anyway. Severe economic depression? Worrying, to be sure, but bearable. Complete collapse of civilization, within a single generation? Hm. Now you've got my attention.
Anyway, this morning I decided to sign up for green power, by way of doing something minimally constructive, and it was easy as pie. A division of my local energy company gives consumers the option of receiving a mix of 75% hydro and 25% solar energy, rather than energy from non-renewable and carbon-dioxide-emitting sources--and for barely anything more than the regular rate (in fact, since you commit to a year-long contract, you could conceivably pay even LESS, since you wouldn't be subject to the usual monthly price fluctuations). Anyone's who's interested should check out Ianqui's much better explanation for how this works; she also has links, in both the post and the comments section, to the appropriate providers in a number of U.S. cities and regions.
So that was my good deed of the day (or who knows? maybe the month). Got up very late, as up until 2.30 a.m. forcing myself to crank out the three pages. They were kinda cheat-y pages (lots of long quotations), but I still feel okay about the progess I'm making. I'm now just shy of 30 pages, and I hope hope hope to be able to have enough matter to start revising soon.
Thursday, June 02, 2005
Big Academic Press wants to see GW Boyfriend's manuscript! He sent them the proposal and an offprint of his article last week, and they just requested the full sheebang.
In other good news, my brother claims that he can recover the files locked inside my exploded computer's hard drive, so I'm mailing it out to him tomorrow. Sweet sweet brother, in all senses of the word--but mostly, "Dude! How sweet!"
And finally, in the last good news before I go to bed: three pages again today, and I think somewhat less terrible.
Wednesday, June 01, 2005
Damn fine evening
A damn fine evening out with Miss D (technically Mrs D, now, but that's really just too matronly-sounding for someone I've know as long and partied as hard with as she). We went to the jazz club just a few blocks up from me, which dates back to the late 1930s and looks more like a Hollywood set than any place you could actually walk into and order a beer: red metal exterior, octagonal floor tiles, and crazy zebra-patterned flocked wallpaper in the back room. I understand that the whole place wasrenovated and restored about five years ago, but it doesn't look like the usual shiny remodel job--it's a little dim and dingy around the edges, just the way you want it.
Weekends the lounge has in big acts and charges a hefty cover, but Wednesday nights feature a talented three-man combo and only a two-drink minimum--a fantastic deal, so sometimes the place is crowded with hipster kids from the local private university and Japanese and German tourists. Tonight, though, it was only 2/3 full, and almost entirely locals (some getting up there in years), drinking their scotches and martinis and yelling encouragement to the sad-faced guitar player in his Pittsburgh baseball cap.
So D and I sat there and grooved and had a few drinks, and I think as I think every time that I ought to drop in every week. I love this neighborhood, and it makes me sad that many of the folks in the bar probably see me as a gentrifier pushing them out. And in some sense that's true--the more people like me (young, white, female, and obviously professional though actually quite poor) move in, the safer people with money feel, and the more they're willing to pay. The other day I was walking home from my office job, and as I passed one middle-aged black man said jovially to his friend, "man, I'd sure like me a beautiful white girl with some money . . . and a building!"
And I thought to myself, you want money and a building, you talk to my aging black landlady.
On writing well, badly, and/or with great resentment
I was going to write a bit about writing last night, after I'd successfully turned out that day's three pages, but then I made myself a cocktail and then I called George Washington Boyfriend--and then the drink was drunk and I was tired and I went to bed. So I'll start this now, maybe interrupting it to work on my diss, and post it when I'm done.
If you're a literature scholar--and probably if you're a scholar in just about any field other than the sciences--you get a lot of comments like, "Huh. A Ph.D. in English? You must really like to read." Not always spoken but usually assumed is the second part, ". . . and you must really like to write." And it's true that I like to read, and that I still consider it a leisure activity even thought it's also my primary professional activity; I have friends in corporate jobs (some of them former English majors) who bemoan the fact that they never read now, because "after 11 hours at the office, the last thing I want to do is read." And I understand this in theory, but not really in practice: even when I was studying for my orals, and spending a strict eight hours a day, seven days a week, reading and taking notes, the first thing I wanted to do, the thing I looked forward to most, was the hour or two I allowed myself at the end of the day to read The New Yorker.
But my relationship to writing is more complicated. I think there was a time when I would have said that I loved it--that period in junior high, high school and early college when I was convinced that I was going to become a novelist--but it's hard for me to recapture that feeling now, and I wonder whether that isn't because I learned, somewhere along the line, that writing is actually really hard. When you're 14, you just want to tell a story, and everything you do is new and interesting and you learn a lot about both writing and yourself along the way. But in college I discovered that I was really crappy at plotting, and that I didn't enjoy it much--I was a better writer, stylistically, than most of the people in my writing seminars, but I kinda resented having to create a plot around whatever issue or idea I wanted to explore. (At best, this led to Early Woody Allenish stories in which characters sat around talking amusingly and semi-profoundly about interesting stuff. At worst . . . well, see Late Woody Allen.) I also discovered that I couldn't write without the structured environment of a class or a deadline; writing just wasn't . . . fun, really, in the way it had been when I was younger.
Eventually I went to graduate school and transformed myself into an academic writer, and the medium is definitely a better one for me: I like order and I enjoy putting all the pieces of an argument in place and structuring a work so that it is maximally clear and persuasive. The problem is that it still isn't really fun, not in the beginning stages. Part of this is because I think as I write, and only slowly figure out what I want to say as I try to say it. (Example: I write a sentence about something--maybe it's a summary of some historical event, or maybe it's an argument about how a piece of literature works. Then I sit there and look at that sentence, thinking, "is this what I mean? Is this true? What if I try it this way . . ." And I'll rewrite it and rewrite it, for rhythm, for meaning, whatever.
Now, this is an okay strategy for a short project, and I'll write a five-page piece really slowly, sentence by sentence, and then revise the whole thing a couple of times. But when it comes to a 50-page chapter? When I have no initial idea of what I want to say? There's no hope. So all I can do is set myself a strict daily page limit, and make myself meet it. What comes out is complete trash, but it's a way of keeping myself thinking and working through material. At a minimum, it ensures that there are placeholders for interesting passages and issues; paragraphs that, when I see them, will jog my memory and allow me to make connections across a large body of matter.
After I get up to 40 or 50 pages and have run through all the stuff I think I want to cover, I spend a week or two shaping that material on the computer, so it's not completely awful and repetitive and so there's the begining of some kind of shape. THEN the (relatively) fun stuff begins: I print it out and revise on a hard copy for several days. Input changes, print out new version, revise--lather, rinse, repeat. Once I start to have a sense of where things are going, and I can really start to work on the architecture and style of the piece, I start to enjoy myself, often quite a lot--but honestly? Never as much as when it's all done, and gleaming and beautiful, and I can sit back and congratulate myself.
I'm told that I'm a good writer, and I certainly take pride in the finished product, but I wonder whether it wouldn't be more accurate to say that I'm a good reviser; to work, I need something to work with. (Incidentally--I remember being a freshman in college, reading Ulysses, and learning that according to the Catholic Church the notion of a creation ex nihilo is a heresy: nothing comes from nothing. And I remember thinking, damn! That's me and my writing all over. And yes, with the election of Benedict XVI, it's a relief to have the RCC behind me on something.)
I've got more to say about writing and resentment, but speaking of both, I've got to return to my chapter--only one page so far today, and I'm going out for drinks tonight with the former Miss D. And after THAT, dear reader, I won't be good for very much in the writing department.