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Late Spring To-Do List
Wednesday, November 30, 2005
Day of leisure
I did wind up cancelling my classes for today, and it was a good move: if I try, I can now speak short sentences audibly, but only in a very very low register and usually followed by fits of coughing. My mass email to my students also provoked some sweet messages in return, wishing me a speedy recovery and offering home remedies; if nothing else, this day off has given me time to catch my breath and remember just how lovely my students really are and how much I like them. At least some of them, some of the time.
So this is what I did with all that free time:
Tuesday, November 29, 2005
Just call me Epicoene
I'm speechless. Literally.
My throat was feeling a bit weak yesterday, as a result of my cold, but I spoke pretty much as usual in my first two classes. My freshmen, however, were especially lifeless and recalcitrant, so I had to talk talk talk them through our text, hector them, and exhort them--and by the end of the class period my voice was hoarse. By the time I got on the train a half hour later, I could only croak. And as of this morning, I can't get any resonance from my throat at all.
I'm sure it won't last more than a day or two, but I'm wondering: would this justify my cancelling my classes tomorrow? There's nothing pressing happening in any of them, and although I could probably have a productive session with my morning survey by typing up instructions for group work and having the groups lead discussion, I'm less confident about my afternoon survey's ability to do the same--and I have NO faith in my freshmen. They're the ones who got me into this mess!
Please please please can I cancel my classes?
Monday, November 28, 2005
Warning: The subject of this post is probably not quite what its title promises.
I've been thinking about this subject off and on ever since Dr. Virago's great post on teaching religious texts in the literature classroom, but I've been thinking about it even more since getting this most recent batch of papers from my survey students.
The question is: how do you get students to understand that writers from different periods sometimes have values that are, uh, different from ours? Even if those writers can otherwise often seem fairly modern in their sensibilities?
One paper, in particular, nearly sent me over the edge. It was ostensibly about the role of women in Canonical Work (although in point of fact it wound up being more about sex and sexuality). Now, there's definitely some freaky stuff in there, and the author's treatment of sex is occasionally bizarre or uncomfortable-making--but that's mostly below the surface. On the surface level, there's really nothing in the work's depiction of women that would be out of place in many a Victorian novel (or, for that matter, many a 20th-century movie or pop song).
But. This kid just couldn't deal. He couldn't get past what he perceived as the work's sexual double standard--and so intent was he on proving that the work was hypocritical that he completely ignored the repeated evidence that the male characters actually do get punished for their sexual trespasses (albeit in rather different ways than the female characters). Worse yet, with each seeming inconsistency, he would write, "this doesn't make sense," or "this seems unfair," or, worst of all, "this doesn't make sense to a modern reader."
Finally, I wrote on his paper, "THIS WASN'T WRITTEN FOR THE MODERN READER!"
It's the more frustrating, because there are really interesting things to say about the work's treatment of sexuality--but in order to say them, my student would first have had to think for a moment about why the author depicted men and women the way he did: what values that depiction illustrated and what kind of message he might have been trying to send to his readers. And. . . he just couldn't do that.
Really, it's cultural insensitivity on a par with going to a foreign country and saying, "Eww! Why do people EAT this stuff? That's just stupid!" Or, "What a dumb kind of toilet! Why don't they get with the program and join the 21st century?"
The question then is: how does one forestall this kind of reaction? In the classroom--as I wrote in response to Dr. V's post--I try to emphasize both the foreign-ness of a given work or period and its modern relevance, and I like to think that I often succeed. (After we've read a fairly steamy poem aloud and worked through it, I'll ask, "does it surprise you to learn that this was written by a clergyman? Why?" And then after we hash that out, "is there any way that this could be seen as a deeply Christian poem?")
I really do think that the authors I work on are pretty wacky, and I love their wackiness and the quirks of their particular belief systems; encountering an unexpected way of looking at God, or sex, or civil government in the works of several centuries ago is a large part of the fun of what I do. And I want my students to find these things surprising and new, too. They may certainly challenge and criticize the works we read--that's my business too, after all!--but when they challenge them, I want it to be from a position of comprehension, not automatic and presumed superiority.
I wonder, though, whether this is something that I have to state explicitly to my students, in my syllabi or on the first day of class--or whether it's only a spiel (or harrangue) to be kept in reserve to deliver as occasion warrants.
Sunday, November 27, 2005
Happy six-month bloggiversary to me!
I've been contemplating a couple of real posts for a while now, but I haven't had nearly the time--I still have 45 papers to grade, all the reading for my classes to do, and a nasty cold that has left me aching in every bone.
So for now I'll just say that I've enjoyed these past six months more than I could have imagined, and I've benefited from the collective wisdom of the blogosphere--especially the academic blogosphere--more than I would ever have anticipated. I owe you all a debt.
So, thanks to everyone who has dropped by, commented, or is still lurking out in the shadows somewhere. I hope to be back at full-strength soon!
Words I never thought I'd write on a student's paper
"No, you're misreading this: the poet has an erection."
(If you know what I work on, you'll know that I have precious little occasion to talk about penises, or even sex, in my scholarship--so maybe I'm making up for it now in my classes?)
Friday, November 25, 2005
Gays in the priesthood
I'm a few days late in getting to this, but I wanted to react to the new Vatican policy on gay priests and seminarians. The main points were leaked to the press a couple of weeks ago, but the thing itself was finally released on Tuesday.
My first thought is that the policy isn't actually so bad, and that the New York Times really overstated the case with their headline, In Strong Terms, Rome Is To Ban Gays as Priests. The gist of the policy is this: men "who are actively homosexual, have deep-seated homosexual tendencies, or support the so-called 'gay culture'" are barred from entering the seminary (this policy does not apply to men who are already ordained).
Let's take those three items one at a time. As for the first one: well, obviously active homosexuals are barred from the priesthood--as are active heterosexuals. And as for the second two: who's to say? If you're contemplating a life of celibacy, it seems to me very easy to conclude (or rationalize) that your tendencies aren't "deep-seated," or else you couldn't give them up to live as a celibate. And if by "gay culture" the Vatican means, as I suspect, all those stereotypes of gay men as promiscuous and hedonistic, then a man who believes he has a vocation for the priesthood could equally well conclude that he doesn't support that gay culture even if he very much supports gay rights.
The policy also stipulates that men entering the seminary must have had only "transitory" gay tendencies, that "were overcome" at least three years prior to ordination as a deacon (which comes very late in the process, BTW). "Transitory" is a harder term to work around, but not impossible, if one chooses to interpret that as the desire for a sexually active life as a gay man--and frankly I think anyone entering a life of celibacy should have abstained from sex for some reasonable period of time before making that decision, on pragmatic grounds alone.
So, my take on the policy is that it's written to be deliberately vague and to leave individual seminaries and religious directors a tremendous amount of wiggle room. It's a clerical version of "don't ask, don't tell." Now, I don't have any affection for "don't ask, don't tell"--I know too many gay servicemen to think that this is a sustainable policy, and I hope the next Democratic president will allow gay men and women to serve freely. However, as a short-term compromise to allow gay men and women to stay in uniform while the culture shifts more decisively in the direction of gay rights (or at least acceptance)? I'll hold my nose and take it. I feel the same way about this latest Vatican pronouncement: given the papacy we're dealing with, and the papacy that came BEFORE this one, I find the news depressing but better than I expected.
Tuesday, November 22, 2005
At some point over the weekend I appear to have taken a wrong turn and wound up in Updike Territory (which as you all know shares a long border with Cheever Country).
And all I can say is: even when seen from the highway, in a speeding car, and with the windows rolled up tight--it's really not somewhere you want to linger.
I hope everyone makes it out okay.
Sunday, November 20, 2005
Good publication news
Item the first:
I just received my advance copy of Big Journal in My Field, which contains my longest and most substantive publication to date. Whoo-hoo! (And what a handsome journal it is, too. I might just have to carry it around with me and force it upon people to admire.)
Item the second:
George Washington Boyfriend just got offered a contract by Major University Press for his dissertation-derived book. Double whoo-hoo!
We lost. In triple overtime. After being ahead the entire game. Mothahfucker!
But the weather was lovely (as it always is, at home--at that other school there's always a fierce arctic chill), the company good, and we had us a damn fine tailgate before the game. Afterwards we repaired to one of our favorite dining establishments where we drank some more, did some shots, and continued our catching up. We were all in the same extracurricular activity in college, so the group of us who gather is fairly large and fairly loose. Many of these people I see somewhat regularly, but some I see only once a year. We long ago agreed that the only excuse for missing a game was childbirth, hospitalization, or residence overseas--and although many of us have violated that pact once or twice, it's so nice to know that I can reconnect with these particular friends and this particular part of myself at least once a year. That Saturday before Thanksgiving? I've been spending it doing just one thing, for each of the last 13 years. And I expect to be doing the same thing, on that date, in perpetuity.
Thursday, November 17, 2005
Okay, so I'm back on the blog to report on a new pedagogical problem.
Backstory: All 75 of my students have papers due on Monday (I know! and it's completely my own fault, too), so I've been putting out fires all day long: questions about theses, requests to review introductory paragraphs, pleas for extensions--you name it.
One kid sent me the rough draft of his paper, a close reading of a poem by an author I happen to work on, and since it seemed to be going in a dangerous direction, I wrote him back quickly to say that, well, actually, the poem isn't really ABOUT the issue he claimed it was about. It wasn't a case of a totally boneheaded misreading--just an anachronistic and ill-informed understanding of the psychology of the period combined with not quite enough attention to the signals from the poem itself. I complimented him on getting certain things right, but told him he had to take a new look at the poem and think about X and Y and Z as he re-read it.
I was a little worried, since this is a sweet and well-intentioned kid (a first-semester transfer from a resource-strapped community college) who's working hard to pull a C for the class after bombing some major early assignments. And I did right to be worried, because he wrote me back this email:
Sigh. I wrote back and told him that, yes, he's entitled to his interpretation, but that not all interpretations are correct. I then spent quite a bit of time explaining how the phenomenon he noted could be the result of all kinds of different things, but that it probably wasn't the result of THIS thing.
I doubt he was convinced, I doubt he'll write a decent paper, and I doubt that he has the ability to see outside of his own frame of reference.
Because, really--how can you teach that in any overt or effective way?
[UPDATED TO ADD:
I actually got an email back from the kid saying that what I said made a lot of sense, and that he was going to rethink the poem. I'm not sure if he was just being politic--but I'm hopeful that I convinced him that he didn't fully understand the issues involved. We'll see.]
Long time no post, I know--but I've been both busy and rather unusually social for the last week and a half, with a drinks thing here and a lunch there--and it's all cut severely into my blogging time.
I'll be off at the Big Football Game at my alma mater this weekend, probably drinking entirely too much but hopefully not embarrassing George Washington Boyfriend quite as excruciatingly as I did last year (long story, which I'd love to tell--but as it bizarrely involves an exchange about my academic specialty, methinks it would compromise my pseudonymity more than I'm willing to do).
All of which is to say, I may not be heard from for several days. No need to send dogs.
Monday, November 14, 2005
Pepys's choicest bits*
7 Feb. 1659/60
"Boys do now cry, 'Kiss my Parliament' instead of 'Kiss my arse,' so great and general a contempt is the Rump [Parliament] come to among all men, good and bad."
*If y'all are lucky, this may become a running feature of this blog.
This blew my mind: in my comp class today I brought up a passage in one work we're reading that discusses phallic symbolism in recent movies and advertising. And we weren't too far into our conversation before it became clear that no one in my entire class had ever encountered the concept of the phallic symbol before (I then confirmed this by asking them outright).
Am I crazy for thinking this is weird? I thought the phallic symbol was a staple of the high school English class, but maybe those were just my high school English classes.
(And then, after explaining the concept and giving some examples, I said--thinking this would provoke nods of recognition--"well, you've all heard the term, 'penis rocket,' right? For a sports car?" And uh, no, actually, they hadn't.)
Sunday, November 13, 2005
Sing those blues
Right now, I'm feeling good--what with the vita-updating and the general on-top-of-shit-ness that comes from spending the day crossing a gazillion things off my to-do list--but I've been in a funny mood these last few days, often sinking rapidly into despair or oh-what-the-fuck-am-I-going-to-DO? as the evening wears on.
Partly it's the usual late-semester blues, which have me thoroughly sick of all my classes. It's not so much the material--I love what we've reading in my survey sections, and even the material in my comp class is holding my attention for perhaps the first time all semester--but I'm worn out and find it hard to muster the energy to prepare for class. That's no big surprise, I guess, in mid-November.
What's more surprising is that I think part of my low mood is connected to finishing my Ph.D. I certainly wasn't expecting that the actual awarding of the degree would be a transfiguring experience--nothing has changed in my career circumstances, and in any case I really finished my degree six weeks ago, when I submitted the dissertation. But I also wasn't expecting to feel as low as I've been feeling lately.
I got my readers' reports in the mail yesterday, and they were generally quite good. No one said, "the field has been waiting for decades for this project! Lecturess must go find a publisher immediately! And in fact, here's my editor's name!"--but they were encouraging and offered me some very useful suggestions for revision. Still, reading my readers' criticisms brought home to me the fact that nothing HAS really changed in my circumstances other than the degree, and that this project really isn't done yet, or as close to done as I'd hoped it was.
The biggest criticism, and an entirely valid one, was that the project lacks a clear and overarching theoretical framework. True enough: I'm a trees more than a forest kind of person, and I tend to be suspicious of systematizers; as it stands now, my dissertation draws on several different theoretical models, but doesn't fit comfortably within any of them. I already knew that I had to do more reading in a couple of relevant fields before I did anything else with the manuscript. But when I read that, my immediate thought was: "what if I get asked that on a job interview--what my theoretical approach is? I don't have a good answer!"
And, yeah. I think that's what this is all about: the job market. I've been so focused on finishing my degree that I haven't been dealing, at least in recent months, with my larger professional anxiety. I mean, shit: I know a number of whip-smart academics with PhDs from Instant Name Recognition U who took years to land tenure-track jobs. Which leaves me (less than whip-smart, in case you were wondering) exactly where?
Well. We all know that the job market can be grossly unfair. Who's to say, then, that it won't wind up being unfair in my favor!
Updating the vita
Whoo-hoo! Right after I edited my curriculum vitae so that "Ph.D. in English Literature, 2005," replaced "Ph.D. candidate in English Literature (degree expected, Nov. 2005)," I received an email informing me that I've had a paper accepted for a conference in late winter. It's not a surprise, this acceptance (the society in question is rather small & I've delivered papers at its conference for each of the last couple of years)--but I'm early enough in my career that I do a little dance with every line I add to my vita.
Pity no one's here to see that dance, but I'll let you imagine it.
Thursday, November 10, 2005
I haven't posted in a few days because I've been sitting fidgeting in front of my computer, waiting to hear the results of Tuesday's faculty meeting to approve dissertations for December degrees. The official notification is sent through the post, but the graduate registrar--a dear but deeply flakey soul--had assured me that she'd email me first with the news.
No email Tuesday. No email Wednesday. No email today. So finally, at 4 p.m.--after my mail had been delivered and I'd confirmed that the official letter wasn't in it--I broke down and emailed her.
Bless her heart, she wrote back right away to tell me that the vote to approve my dissertation was unanimous--adding, "your dissertation was especially praised for its high typographical standards!"
Which. . . huh. Could you have come up with fainter praise?
Whatever. I'm not going to fret over that or anything else right now. Instead, I'm going to make myself a big old drink. I don't really need to prep for class tomorrow.
[UPDATE: I had just enough brandy left to make a good-sized sidecar, my once and future favorite cocktail, so I'm sipping that and munching on Japanese snacks. The radiators in my building are on for the first time this fall, and I'm loving the warmth and that amazing steam-heat smell that always says autumn to me. . . mmm. If only I didn't have to get up at 6 a.m. tomorrow, life would be grand.]
Monday, November 07, 2005
I'd wager that there are more introverts than extroverts in academia--or at least more introverts in academia than there are in the general population--which means that there are a lot of teachers out there projecting a classroom persona that isn't entirely natural.
I enjoy performing, and I have this wacky persona that I slip into when I'm in that mode, but on the days that I teach three classes (and am thus standing at the front of a classroom for four full hours), I'm almost dead by the time I crawl onto the train. During that break before my last class of the day--my longest, and my least favorite--I have to actively psyche myself up, reminding myself that I'M the one who has to bring the energy to the room and set the tone, and just that prep work can be tiring. It's like running around backstage making sure all the props are in place and the hem of one's costume not falling down.
I suspect that my students, if they were ever to think about it, would say that I must be an extrovert--because, after all, I'm the one up there cracking jokes and directing traffic, and who could be comfortable with that if they were constitutionally shy?
I'm certainly less shy than I used to be, but it continually surprises me that I don't, apparently, project the impression of shyness. No one who knows me well would call me an extrovert, but acquaintances actually sometimes do--and in fact, one just did: at my conference the other week the subject of introversion and extroversion came up, and I mentioned that George Washington Boyfriend and I are total opposites: he's a classic extrovert and I'm a classic introvert. When I said this, one of the more boistrous of the attendees just threw his head back and started laughing: "Oh, YOU'RE an introvert! You! That's a riot." And, okay, so I was sassing much older and more important people, kicking back the drinks, and egging people on in their silly stunts--but I was back in my hotel room before 11 every night.
I remember coming across an article in college--I think it was in The New Yorker, and I think it was a profile of some mid-20th-century actor--in which the author said something like, "like many actors, [Name] was actually a deeply shy person, who expressed himself most freely when wearing the mask of a fictional character." I don't remember anything else about the article, but I remember being struck by that sentence and its expression of an idea that seemed both entirely novel (actors, shy?) and entirely true. It was probably my first encounter with what could loosely be called performance theory, and it went a long way toward explaining some of my own behavior to myself.
Tiring or not, this is one more reason that I wouldn't wish away any one of my thirty years: it's taken me this long to learn how to control, manage, and take pleasure in this self that I project.
Got virtually nothing done this weekend, apart from the reading for my classes today, but it was a nice break. I was in Quaint Smallish City until this morning, where George Washington Boyfriend and I did some shopping (bought a fabulous, peacock-blue 3/4-length coat on sale at Nordstrom's); met up with his mother, sister, and brother-in-law; saw the fall theatrical production at Atypical College (a great, lesser-known 18th-century play). . . and had my first blogger meet-up! What Now joined us for brunch and then a stroll around town on Sunday. She's as lovely in person as she is in cyberspace, and I'm glad we had the chance to hang out.
I really ought to have done some work on an old conference paper I'm revising for publication, but I just couldn't muster up the energy. It's a tiny little thing, and non-refereed, so it isn't high on my priority list except insofar as it's due a week from tomorrow. Instead, I've been reading, yes READING, actual, non-teaching- or research-related books. Books! I literally can't name the last entire book I read that wasn't either immediately or peripherally related to my work. The ones I'm engrossed in now are, arguably, semi-professional (Michael Berube's The Employment of English and Pepys's diary), but since they aren't serving any immediate purpose other than pleasure and general information, they count as leisure reading from where I sit.
But stay tuned to see whether I actually finish either one--papers are coming due soon.
Friday, November 04, 2005
Inappropriate in so many ways
I'm worried that I was dressed inappropriately today, but by the time it occured to me that I might be, I was late for my train.
Here are the specs: sleeveless black cashmere turtleneck, bias-cut grey skirt hitting just above the knee, and tall black knee boots. No tights or stockings.
I'm always a little uneasy about the sleeveless tops, especially the fitted ones, but I get warm when I teach and one of my rooms is REALLY overheated. I usually wear such tops with wide-legged, Katherine Hepburn-esque trousers, which I feel balances things out--and I've worn the skirt and boots before with long-sleeved tops and felt completely comfortable--but somehow I think that this particular combo crossed a line, showing too much skin or something.
As if that weren't enough, I then caused a mini-riot in one of my survey sections when, in an attempt to make something out of a student's comments, I wound up describing two characters, IN A SHAKESPEARE PLAY, as "the kind of people who are always throwing key parties." (I was actually looking for the term "swingers," but couldn't come up with it in time. Not that it would probably have been any better.)*
But hey: I have to amuse the troops, right? Especially when I've apparently already been pegged as one of the department's hardest graders?**
*The comment made sense in context, but trust me when I say that these are probably the last characters most people would ever imagine as extras in The Ice Storm.
**I heard this from a long-time lecturer who also holds an admin post in the department--we were identified, by students who have had us both, as "the two hardest graders." The comments he heard weren't complaints--just matter-of-fact observations.
Thursday, November 03, 2005
Further dispatches from the midterm party
This is probably only funny to those of you who know the poem, but what the hell.
For the close-reading portion of my midterm, one of the poems my students could choose to analyze was Wyatt's "Whoso list to hunt," the last four lines of which are:
And graven with diamonds in letters plainOne of my students wrote, "The last lines of the poem have French written in them to create a superior feeling. The deer belongs to 'Caesar,' and knows foreign languages, and is too good for the hunter."
Tuesday, November 01, 2005
Logistics and ethics of the curve
Okay, so I'm not drinking quite yet, and I've got a question for all the more experienced teachers and graders out there: curving.
Do you do it? And if so, when and how?
Here's the deal. I've now graded all the midterms from my one survey section (the better one), and I'd initially been thinking about scoring them on a slight curve--say, calculating grades out of 95, the highest grade, rather than out of 100. This would give everyone a small boost and perhaps increase goodwill: I know I'm a pretty hard-ass paper grader, and I'm perfectly willing to be more leniant on the midterm.
However, in the end, I wound up with 5 or 6 grades in the A range (out of 30 total students), which seems reasonable except insofar as the midterm really wasn't that hard. If I curve, I'll have probably 9 midterms in the A range--but I'll also boost a few students who shot themselves in the foot in dramatic and tragic ways and whom I'd like to be able to give, say, a B- rather than a C+.
The other issue here is that I have another section still to grade, and while I think it possible that a couple of students in that class might have hit 95, there are likely to be fewer As and a lower overall range. I don't feel comfortable curving one class if I don't curve the other one, but I wonder if there's a rationale for curving only within a given class--that is, curving the one class out of 95 and the other out of, say, 92, if that's the high grade there. Sometimes I think that makes transcendent sense, and other times I think it's absurd: a given student can't help the fact that she's in one class rather than the other.
So. I throw it open to the fray!
Ain't no party like a midterm party 'cause a midterm party don't STOP
I may have to bust into those bottles of Jameson's sooner than I expected.