Now, smelly is a word you just don't see in advertising very often in the US. London transit authority have removed posters that asked Underground passengers "Please don't eat smelly food" after people complained that the image unfairly targeted Italian people and foodstuffs:
see it here.

This seems so, I don't know, last century -- Not a ban on all food, just a polite request to avoid smelly food. Smelly, smelly, smelly. The word gets sillier the more I say it.

All this seems relevant to my current reading -- Forster's Howard's End, which is all about codes of conduct, cultural capital, and shame...

revenge of the spuds

So perhaps instead of silly diet slogans, bags of potatoes should be marketed with an accompanying alarm that would go off if you didn't use the potatoes within a few days. I swear, I bought the potatoes with the best of intentions. (I'd used up the previously blogged sack right away, and figured I could do so again.) But one thing and another intervened, and now, a couple weeks later, I just found the most disgusting thing in our pantry. Semi-liquid, semi-pasty, extremely malodorous, and oozing out of the airholes in the plastic bag to infect everything else on the shelf. Truly horrible.

Well, now I've cleaned out one shelf of the pantry, anyway. But the smell from the potatoes is clinging to my fingers no matter what I do. Ick. Fit punishment for ignoring them I guess.

more on gender

Two great posts about gender and blogs (via Pedablogue):
Gendering the Blog 1
Gendering the Blog 2

I find "inconsequentiality"'s comments about diaryland/livejournal vs other blog formats very interesting. I wonder if Blogger's increasing range of templates etc (and increasing visibility b/c of merger with Google), plus the membership changes at typepad, are causing some shifts in the blog world. But clearly, in her terms, I'm a blogger rather than a diarist. (NB: I do keep a journal, in ink and notebook form, and have for years. This space is something altogether different.) Whenever I read diaryland blogs, for instance, I feel more like I'm eavesdropping than when I'm reading a Blogger-formatted blog. Which is interesting, given the faux privacy of any of this: the conversations between commenters, for instance, which look like (and indeed function like) dialogue -- yet performed in front of a potentially infinite (but realistically much smaller) audience.


Well, the Chronicle has just put up a list of links to academic blogs. Some are familiar, others I haven't seen before. And some of my favorites aren't yet on the list.

Not sure how I feel about this. Because it's in the Chronicle, even if only the online version, it's somehow different than the list of favorites many people have on their own blogs. Too much like a canon.

Though, research suggests that a very very small percentage of internet users read blogs, and an even smaller percentage write them.

And I came to the world of blogs because I read this article, which mentioned Barely Tenured.

So maybe this will bring other interesting folks to the table. That's a good thing. So why am I ambivalent?


"so what do you do?"

I had an interesting conversation last night at the park where I took the dogs to run -- I was chatting with a couple who I've seen with their dogs before, but for whatever reason last evening we got to talking more about ourselves. When I explained that I taught at Large Urban, Doug got all excited and explained he'd taken English classes there 25 years ago as part of a journalism degree. He asked me about various faculty (now all retired) and reminisced about reading "The Waste Land". Then came the inevitable question: what's your favorite book? although he gave it a nice twist, which was I think what's your favorite book to teach?

Anyway, since I've been flummoxed by this question in the past (uh, my favorite book in which category -- to read for fun? to write about? to teach to undergrads? in my specialty? or in general? etc) I have now settled on an answer: George Eliot's Middlemarch. Is it a great novel? yes, undoubtedly. Is it a great novel to teach? sometimes, anyway. Is it a good answer to the question? yes -- because people have heard of it, even if they haven't read it (unlike many other Victorian novels). Is it my favorite novel? I don't know if I even know what that question means. But now I have an answer.

But then, to my great surprise, we had a nice chat about why he'd not liked Mill on the Floss and Silas Marner -- he said Eliot was too difficult for him -- I suggested that now that he was an adult he might be ready for MM. Turns out he's a huge Thomas Hardy fan (who would have guessed?) and so we talked about him too.

I'm so used to one of stock responses once I've revealed what I do that I was really caught off guard, pleasantly, by his enthusiasm. (#1: "Oh, I hated English. You must have really good grammar." #2: "Oh, you must like to read. What's your favorite book?" #3 is some variant on "which campus do you work at?" followed by tales of difficulty in getting transfer credits, a cousin who attends a suburban branch campus, or other bureaucratic issues. Since Large Urban is just that, there are probably a million people in the city who have taken classes at one time or another.) He's probably the first stranger in years who actually knew what 19th-century literature was, and remembered reading some. (I've been asked questions about Shakespeare SO many times...)

Do people in other academic fields get this sort of response? "Oh, I hated math. You must be really precise." or "what's your favorite law of physics?"


dream analysis

So I had this anxiety dream last night. Now, I very rarely remember my dreams -- I would say I don't have them, except that scientists claim we all do. So when I remember enough to make an impression, it's significant.

Starts with walking up some stairs with other people -- the feeling is that I am going to a meeting, or a conference, or something like that -- an air of intellectual engagement, interest, no nervousness. The building is standard institutional Gothic.

Wind up in a large room filled with academic types. It turns out that this location is "NYU." (NOTE: I am not, nor have I ever been, associated with NYU in any way. Nor is anyone I know. I have never even been inside a building on its campus. This is pure symbolic.) So, there are a bunch of intellectual-looking academics -- dark-framed glasses, turtleneck sweaters, whatever my brain produced as the "NYU" crowd.

And there are also approximately 20 women in red dresses (different fabric and cut, though most of them satin, slinky, evening or party dresses). As I note this to the person sitting next to me, I realize in horror that I am wearing a red sleeveless satin dress. Egads! (NOTE: in real life, I never wear dresses. And certainly if I did it wouldn't be red, it's be black.) I look down at my legs and think, geez, I would have at least shaved if I'd known.

Then somehow the focus changes (my dreams are often shot like movies) and the camera zeros in on the main guy at the seminar table which has suddenly appeared in the room (who I suspect represents Leading Critic who I met once (and who was funny and pleasant) -- I saw an announcement for his latest book yesterday and wrote down the title to look for at the library next time I'm on campus). He says, "well, maybe you should just look at the entertainment industry." Snickers from all around the table. "You're just not right for us. This is not what we're looking for." I don't get a chance to defend my research, which is suddenly the topic of conversation -- nor to even explain that I was just there for the conference, not for the job interview.

Summary: Why is it that feeling like you belong in academia is so fricking difficult?


my favorite

My favorite vegetable is kale. It used to be broccoli, but then a few years ago I started eating kale, and it quickly moved to first place. But I think a lot of people don't know about kale. At least 80% of the time the check-out clerk at the grocery store has to look up the code # for it (and probably 50% of the time I have to identify which vegetable it is). The other day, as she was looking up the code, the woman behind me in line started asking me what it was, how to cook it, what it tasted like.

So, in the hopes of introducing more people to this lovely vegetable:

Kale is full of nutrition -- tons of vitamin A & C, plus calcium and antioxidants. It's actually related to cabbage, and some varieties are grown as decorative plants.

Most of the kale sold in stores here is curly kale -- dark green leaves with ruffled or spiky edges. Sometimes you'll also see Lacinto, or "dinosaur" kale, which is smoother, darker, and bumpy (like dinosaur skin? not sure where that nickname comes from). Curly kale has a nice kind of sharp or peppery taste. Lacinto is sweeter, and usually more expensive. Both are good.

My favorite way of cooking it is super easy. Wash & tear the leaves away from the center ribs, which are tough and bitter. Steam until dark green and tender. Season with umeboshi plum vinegar, which you can find in the Asian section of a large market/health food store. Other good seasoning options are tamari or Bragg Amino Acids. You can also saute it with garlic and olive oil, Italian style. And here are some other recipes. Enjoy!


yet more about pseudonymity

Reading over the many (59 last time I looked) comments at Leuschke.org in the discussion about pseudonymous blogs, I'm struck by what seems to me a certain smugness in tone from some of those bloggers who keep their blogs under their own name. For instance:
It seems to me that one of the main reasons why people keep anonymous blogs is so they are free to bitch and/or complain. This strikes me as a bad reason to keep a public blog in general, and perhaps a good reason to keep an old-fashioned journal or diary. Perhaps with a lock. link

I feel able to be completely honest on my own non-anonymous blog but at the same time, I admit that its non-anonymity means that there are some things which are interesting to me, that I think about, which relate to academia, which I do NOT feel I can talk about. Most of those it would be self-indulgent to talk about in the first place, and so the world need feel no sadness at being denied such petty self-absorption, but there are probably a few issues which would be interesting to a wider audience that I can’t talk about in a non-anonymous context. But at the same time, I don’t feel any less honest, forthright or self-confessional simply because the world knows it is me. link

What bothers me about these kind of remarks (and these are just examples from the discussion -- I don't know either of these particular individuals online or IRL) is that they replicate what I see as one of academe's most insidious structures: the attitude that if you criticize something, or if you have difficulty with something, then you must be either not smart enough, not working hard enough, or just plain not good enough in any of many different ways. The illusion of academia being a meritocracy tends to get more heavily invested in, the longer an individual's participation in it and/or the higher an individual's status within the institution.

I also don't think it's an accident that both of these writers are male, and that their choice of censorious adjectives (bitch, petty, self-indulgent, diary with lock) are often coded feminine, whereas "honest, forthright" sounds brave and masculine. Sure, "self-confessional" can go either way. But in the context of this larger discussion, the gender politics seem extremely important to me. What these writers seem to express is the institutionally sanctioned view: the only thing worth saying is something serious, non-personal, crafted for a public audience. The corollary to this is that if you feel alienated from the institution, or if the rituals and mythologies of that institution don't fit your own worldview, then you are crazy, insufficient, silly. (See, for instance, Paula Caplan's excellent book Lifting a Ton of Feathers .)

That's precisely why I've been so glad to see the arrival of several new blogs this summer which give voice to doubts, questions, problems within academic culture. Blogs offer space for alternative modes of discourse, kinds of speech -- and kinds of community -- that don't often exist within insitutional frameworks.


you are not imaginary

YelloCello has some interesting comments about anonymity and blogging, including:
This is a community of molecules — few of us really responsible to or a part of each other’s lives. Okay, let me amend that: What I read on strangers' sites does become a part of my life, in an imaginary, and not insignificant, sense. Because I am affected by the choices and observations of others. And, naturally, I begin to care about them and their lives. But blogging, and especially academic-world blogging, is necessarily a masked ball. (I dislike that hackneyed metaphor, but it applies here.) In real life, those dearest to me will be the keepers of my history, and I the keepers of theirs. In blog life, there’s freedom in forgetfulness.

In part, I read her discussion as questioning what kinds of community are available or possible when some are anonymous and some are known -- or when those knowledges are unevenly distributed. (For instance, one regular reader of my blog is a friend IRL but she's careful to respect my wish for pseudonymity in this space.)

For me, just because I think of individuals by their blog-name rather than by the traditional First Name Last Name we use in this culture, doesn't really change what I think of them. Over time, in reading someone's blog, I develop an idea of who they are -- their interests, preferences, and sense of humor. Sure, I might have different ideas about you if I met you F2F, but then again, my assumptions or preconceptions based on physical appearance, age, etc etc could easily prevent me from ever finding out some of those things that are revealed on a blog.

A lot of my Real Life friendships are largely virtual too -- people from college and graduate school who I'm still in touch with, for instance. Phone, email, maybe dinner at a conference once every few years or a long weekend visit. Some of those relationships change or diminish with time; others don't. My best friend and I talk every week on the phone, and have done so for years. It's great when we can see each other and go to a movie or something -- but a lot of friendship is taking the time to connect and communicate.

Now, blogging isn't exactly friendship (or not necessarily, or not always) -- but for me a lot of the same things hold true. Communication makes community. And since I'm just a big nerd underneath the surface, communicating via keyboard suits me just fine.

There's a wonderful novel by Sylvia Brownrigg called The Metaphysical Touch. It's one of the few novels I know that adequately captures both the richness and complications of relationships, both virtual and otherwise. It's a long novel but really engrossing -- perfect if you've got some summer vacationing left . . .


thoughts from the mat, part I

In many styles of yoga, sivassana, the corpse pose, is performed at the end of a practice to produce a deep relaxation that allows the body and the mind to integrate the lessons or experience of the day's yoga. Sivassana is a very difficult pose, although it looks a lot easier than arm balances or handstands: you lie on your back, heels touching, arms at your sides, palms up. And you are completely still, focusing only on the breath. As soon as most of us try this pose, the mind starts running around like a crazy monkey, chattering about the grocery list and due dates and did I remember to bring socks . . . the challenge is to figure out how to let the monkey go and to just be there for those minutes.

In Bikram yoga, we also do short sessions of sivassana in between each of the floor postures in the last third of the class. It is believed to help the body relax and return to homeostasis in between postures that detoxify the internal organs and open up the energy centers of the body. At the obvious physical level, if done properly, a one-minute sivassana can induce deep relaxation: the pulse slows, the breath deepens, all muscles soften.

This practice of short sivassana makes a lot of sense to me based on other forms of meditation and bodywork I've studied. I came to yoga only a year ago, after ten years of studying taiji and other Chinese martial arts. The first move of the taiji form -- from wuji to taiji -- from stillness/nothing to movement/presence, is incredibly important and subtle. Learning to feel stillness is the basis of understanding movement. In Feldenkrais bodywork, which I have found incredibly helpful for correcting knee/hip alignment problems and for relaxing my "computer shoulder," the enire practice consists of deep relaxation on the floor interpersed with small, gentle movements designed to reprogram your central nervous system.

American culture in general has little acceptance or patience with rest and stillness: we work hard, play hard. To sit and do nothing -- and especially to intentionally do nothing -- is very difficult. Yet it is in rest that healing and growth occurs: think of weight training. You work a muscle to the point of exhaustion, and then you have to let it rest for a couple of days so that it can grow new fibres. Training more frequently doesn't build more muscle, it actually tears it down faster than it can grow back.

Academic culture, in my experience, tends to fetishize the summer as a time of intense productivity -- yet no one I know ever accomplishes everything they had hoped. The ritual conversations ("how was your summer" "oh, I just didn't get enough done") are already happening in the hallways here at my department. But we need some rest and relaxation in the summer in order to recuperate and grow and be ready to face the new throngs of students in the fall.

Saying things repeatedly tends to make them seem more true. Last August, I tried this little experiment, which I'm going to repeat this year. Whenever someone asks "how was your summer," I just say "great." I might add "very relaxing." It kind of stops people short in their tracks, but then they smile and say "mine too." Which makes us all feel a little better. My closest friends might know more details about the full reality of my summer, which is a bit more complex. But why not repeat a good thing over and over in casual conversation in the hallways, instead of the usual self-deprecating criticism?


what's up with the post office

You may not be able to tell this from my blog design, but IRL I'm not very tall. In some parts of the country, I'm definitely shorter than average (i.e., in the Midwest where I grew up). And I never was tall -- I know some people who were tall in 1st or 2nd grade and then lost their advantage. Me, I was always the short kid who read a lot of books and would be publicly humiliated in things like the Presidential Physical Fitness test (where the teacher had to lift me up to the bar we were supposed to chin-up from, since I couldn't jump up that high.)
But now as an adult living in a more diverse part of the country, I rarely encounter situations in which my height is the object of derision or an obstacle to my daily pursuits. Maybe the last time I thought about it was at Target, where the item I wanted was at the back of the top shelf and I had to climb a bit on the lower shelves to get it.
In the past few days, I've had occasion to use the drive-through mailbox at two newish post offices in the city (the parking lot of my neighborhood PO being a pain to negotiate at certain times of day). At both of these branches they've installed super-tall mailboxes aimed I guess at the drivers of SUVs. I drive an 11-year-old little Toyota. The mail slot is actually taller than the roof of my car. Requiring me to stop, put it in park, open my door, get halfway out and mail my letter, feeling like I accidentally shrunk like Alice. What I'd like to know is whether this is now standard at all new post offices, or if they calculate the density of SUVs in a particular area? Or is it the SUV and truck lobby?


acadblog questions

I've been delighted to discover new/newish academic bloggers over the past week or two (Playing School, Bitch PhD, and Learning Curves to name a few). Only a couple of months ago when I started poking around in the blogosphere, I felt somewhat alienated from a lot of the academic blogs that I was finding. So it's great to discover some additional voices in the mix.

Graham Leuschke cites this blog and others in questioning why so many academic bloggers choose anonymity/pseudonymity. I've already commented on his post (and discussed my take before), so I'll save that for now. But his post, and the discussion we've been having about personal appearance (edgy or not) and gender raises the following question for me. It is my impression -- purely anecdotal at this point -- that a greater number of non-pseudonymous academic blogs are by men; it may also be the case that a greater number of pseudonymous blogs are by women, although that's not necessarily a corollary of the first.

It would seem to me that, just as women academics are subject to greater scrutiny and commentary about their personal appearance than men are, women academics might feel themselves to be under greater general scrutiny than the men do, and hence more likely to opt for pseudonymity. What do you think?

Another version of this question: do you know any male academics who would say that they have had a student (male or female) who has "tested their boundaries" in a way that felt threatening or inappropriate or disturbing? Do you know any female academics who haven't had such an experience? (I'm trying to be careful in my wording here -- because it's not a question about teaching styles, classroom personae, or pedagogy -- but rather about the gendered assumptions students bring with them into the academic space.)

UPDATE: There's lively and interesting conversation still going on in the comments at Leuschke.org

dinner with my pack

I really love watching the dogs eat their dinner. They're so focused, so happy, and communicating so many things in their body language that we humans of the pack (who also enjoy our dinner) don't always remember to communicate in our laziness of having verbal language.

(I don't have a picture of them eating, but here they are doing yardwork.)

I started preparing the dogs' food myself a little over a year ago. I started doing this for basically the same reason that I cook most of the food that I and my gf eat -- to know what's in it, to make it as healthy and tasty as possible, and avoid as many chemicals as possible. You don't have to look very deeply into the ingredients of most commercial pet food to be horrified. Wendell and Gracie eat a high-quality vegetarian packaged food once or twice a week, when I'm too rushed or my gf is feeding them. And they eat the vegetarian kibble as supplemental food during the day. But most nights, they get food that I cook for them -- food which is very similar to what the humans eat: brown rice or other grain, tofu or legumes, vegetables. (If you're interested in preparing your dog's food yourself, the standard reference is Dr. Pitcairn's Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs & Cats , which includes both carnivorous and vegetarian meal plans. If you want to go the strict vegetarian route, I'd also recommend Jonathan Dune's Vegetarian Dogs which has excellent recipes and information on doing your own nutritional composition calculations using the USDA database (available on the web).)

Although I started doing this because of my concern for their general well-being, it's really enriched my relationship with them in unexpected ways. Because they eat a varied diet, I now understand their individual preferences and habits in ways that I wouldn't if I was simply feeding them the same packaged food every day. Wendell prefers rice, and Gracie prefers oats; Wendell will always eat all her broccoli first, whereas Gracie nibbles from her vegetables throughout her meal. If Gracie comes across something particularly tasty or large, she'll take it off to the backyard to eat it -- a holdover from her days on the street. Wendell likes crunchy food; Gracie likes it when there's broth or thin sauce in their bowls. They'll both eat almost everything I give them, though I've learned that collards or broccoli will always win over zucchini, and pinto beans are not big favorites. If we've had a stressful day, I'll fix something special that I know they'll like. And I think they appreciate the variety, as well as the fact that they're eating the same kind of food we do. If you had to eat pop-tarts every single day, you'd be bored, even if you did have minimal basic nutrition. How is dry kibble any different?

Sure, sometimes it feels like a hassle to cook for them -- just as it sometimes feels like a hassle to cook for myself. But more often than not it makes me really happy to see them eating food I made for them, with good nutrition and love mixed in.


On edginess

I love that two of my readers suggested that my new color scheme says "edgy" (along with other nice adjectives). It seems really appropriate, if you know the following story.

When I first came to Large Urban University, my first full-time faculty position, I was routinely irritated by people insisting "you don't look like a professor" or "you're not old enough to have a PhD." I was 30, and that felt plenty old enough to be treated as a full-fledged adult. It is true that our campus enrolls a large percentage of adult students, and so the difference between faculty and students in terms of age is less pronounced than it might be on other campuses. But I was hearing this not from my students, who were more curious than insulting, but from clerks at the library, at the bank when I opened my checking account, etc. And of course after I indicated my age or proved my faculty status (2 forms of ID and 2 phone calls were necessary to get my faculty parking tag) then I'd be told "well, you'll be grateful when you're older that you look young." Does that excuse rudeness now? Hardly.

In addition to being chronologically younger than all of my colleagues, even the "young" cohort, it was also the case that I had a different look. It's not hard to appear hip or stylish in academia, when you consider what you're being compared to.

So, at the end of my first year, I was asked to lunch by one of my senior colleagues, a woman whose extremely business-like approach to the profession is matched by her Talbots wardrobe -- neat tailored dresses, pearls, that sort of thing. We were discussing a graduate student who'd been having trouble on the market -- he'd get interviews, but never get past that stage. I'd done a mock interview with him, and could see that his embittered attitude and lethargic affect basically ruined his chances with potential colleagues. Plus his hygiene wasn't the best. So Professor B. and I are discussing Student X and I told her what I had told him about trying to improve his body language and appearance for the interviews.

Professor B: Oh, I'm so glad you talked to him about his scraggly hair. I'd wanted to, but I thought he'd take it the wrong way.
Mel: Mmm-hmm.
Professor B: You know, I'm so bourgeois. And you, you're . . .
[Mel waits with bated breath as Professor B. scans her from top to bottom, seeking the right adjective.]
Professor B: . . . edgy.

I thought that was very generous, coming from Professor B. And so the word edgy became my personal mantra -- whenever someone criticized my youthful appearance, I simply thought to myself: no, I'm not too young -- I'm edgy.

And I think it must still be working. I recently heard from a former student that they had bets running as to whether or not I had tattoos completely covering my arms, thereby explaining my habit of wearing long-sleeved jackets to teach in. (The answer is no, not yet. Just one.)

now it's paying off

A little-known fact about me: I actually don't mind, and sometimes even enjoy, answering surveys. At one time I worked for a social science non-profit group that designed a lot of surveys, but it's actually not just my sympathy for the people whose job it is to design, administer, and analyze them -- I like the chance to make my opinions known. Lately I've answered a couple of market research type surveys on the phone. Of course, half the time I'm the last person they want answering their questions -- I don't watch much TV, and we don't even have cable, so I rarely know what they're asking me ("which automobile advertisements have you seen in the past 7 days").

But now it's paying off. I've been asked to participate in a study of magazine reading: they're going to send me a copy of People and then call and ask me some questions about it. And pay me $35. Whoo-hoo! I'd read a junky magazine for free if it was in front of me. And, for what I figure will be an hour's time (reading the mag and answering 10 mins of questions) I'll get paid more than double what my salary comes out to in hourly terms. (Don't do that math unless you want to be depressed.)



I will see almost any film, however lame, that deals with schools/students/teachers/etc --I'm always interested in how those institutions and relationships get represented on screen. Lately I've been noticing how larger anxieties about standardized testing are making their way into films. Better Luck Tomorrow tried to debunk all sorts of stereotypes of young Asians, including a plan to sell test answers (although that's not the main plot of the film). A recent MTV-produced movie, The Perfect Score, pokes fun at the importance placed on SAT tests -- the standard motley crew of highschool stereotypes (the stoner, the jock, the outcast) band together to steal the answers so that they can each go on to pursue their respective dreams (college ball, a girl, etc). It's not a great movie, but it is interesting in terms of how the pressures on middle/upper-class students today to apply to/get into college are being acknowledged, parodied -- though ultimately upheld as well.

Far more interesting -- Cheaters, which I just watched the other night from Netflix. Based on an actual case in Chicago, it follows an academic decathalon team and their coach from Steinmetz High School, an underfunded public school, as they compete in regional academic competition. They are the underdog team -- no one at their own school expects them to do well, and they don't even believe in themselves initially. They make it into the state competition -- and that's when the film gets interesting. It's not simply the usual "teacher motivates underprivileged kids" or "underdog team wins out over the preps" plot. They obtain a copy of the questions for the state competition and prepare their answers ahead of time; after their scores are challenged after winning the state competition, they deny having cheated. Their lawyer defends their right not to retake the test, and the media is all over it. The film suggests that their cheating was only exposed because of a disgruntled former team member who knew about it -- I don't know if that was relevant in the actual case.

So the film tries to make the following claims:

  1. schools in lower-income / racially diverse neighborhoods are underfunded in comparison with other public high schools. (often true, certainly in city like Chicago)
  2. Neither students from lower-income/immigrant backgrounds or their parents know how to "work the system" to be able to attend a better public school. (often true)
  3. the once-common ideal of working hard to succeed (in this film linked to German and Polish immigrants) is no longer relevant, since corporations can't be trusted to take care of their workers (certainly the ideal of the benevolent paternal corporation of the turn of the century has been shredded in recent decades)
  4. the "system" only rewards winners (probably true)
  5. winning is so beneficial to students' self-esteem that it doesn't matter how they won (WHAT???)
  6. for these students to cheat in the competition was a victory for underserved schools and immigrant students against the wealthy, white, preppy students whose school always won (and, it was implied, may have had access to answers since the decathalon offices were housed at their school) (I'm all for championing the underserved -- that's in part why I teach at Large Urban University. But cheating isn't the way to do it.)
  7. the teacher/coach wasn't responsible, because he let the kids vote on it. (WHAT???)

This film raised lots of issues for me. I'd have to see it again to really be precise about the director's beliefs/arguments -- but this was not a simple "caper against the evil system" kind of movie. As much as I wanted to (and did) sympathize with the English teacher teaching the uninterested, the nerdy kids trapped in a hellhole of a school, and their desire to prove themselves -- I think what they did was wrong, and there's no way around that.

Part of what makes the film so problematic is that basically it's a sports movie -- the team that cheats in the big game. It's not really a movie about academic cheating of the usual sort, in the classroom, or even on the SAT. When I was in high school, there was no such thing as academic decathalon (or at least not in my semi-rural location), mathletes, or any of these other attempts to make academically-oriented students fit the Always Compete model that's so prevalent today. (Back in my day, the nerds just got beat up a lot by the jocks, and ignored by the teachers.) A film trying to defend a sports team who took steroids because they were ignored by the system wouldn't get very far, I don't think, despite all the scandals that remind us that sports are not an arena of honesty either.

At the film's close, statistics are run on the screen reminding us that 80 percent of high school students admit to having cheated on a quiz or test, and over half of them don't think it's wrong. But this story isn't really about those students. This story is something else -- and the film tries to blur the lines for added "relevance". Giving, I think, the false sense that it's ok for some students to cheat because there's no other way to make it in the system.

I think our academic systems and institutions are definitely in need of overhaul -- the over-reliance on standardized testing is one thing that's having dreadful effects on the average high school student's ability to think and communicate. And this film is right to point out some of the racial and economic politics that get played out in the competition between schools for scarce resources. But it's deeply problematic in other ways.

because I needed to lose 90 minutes from my day

...I finally changed the colors on my template. I never was a big fan of the orange anyway. Not sure if this is what I'll stick with, but it suits me for now. So you tell me: does my "voice" seem different now?


thoughts from the drive home

(1) driving past the high-priced hand car wash and detailing place, a sign that says "Brazilian Wax." Now, I've never heard of this for cars before. What's next, cars that need pedicures?

(2) at a stoplight, I look over at the blond girl in the silver convertible in the lane next to me, and she is mouthing/singing the words to the song that is playing on the radio in my car (that Divinyls hit, on the all 80s station). Now, statistically speaking, hundreds/thousands of people in our metro area must be listening to that station simultaenously, but I've never before known for sure that my neighbor was sharing the listening experience.

(3) there has been a small snail perched on the lintel over our front doorway for two days now. I think about her/him quite a bit. (assuming snails have gender, though I realize I don't really know). How did she get up there, and how long did it take? Is she going to get anything to eat, or is this some kind of hunger strike to draw to my attention the snail like pace of my work? Or is the message something else, like slow down and appreciate the small things of the summer?


these people run our visible world

This is a fabulous article on the Color Marketing Group -- the cabal who every year determine what the dominant marketing palette should be -- not just for clothes, but for everything -- housewares, furniture, cars, little plastic items, notebooks, etc. In case you were wondering, here's the forecast: "According to the CMG, color is becoming clear, therapeutic and nurturing . . ." and we can expect to see "optimistic and genderless colors." There's a long list of prescribed 2004 colors and their descriptions that have no clear visual referents -- for example: "Tickle--A happy red--tickle makes the whole word giggle." This is where catalog-speak comes from. (anyone besides me remember that late 80s catalog Tweeds? they had the best color language, delicious in its excessiveness). And here's the 2004 color fashion forecast -- which claims "Color can help us go back in time, and many of the shades suggest the pretty pastels of the 1950's, and the autumnal reds, oranges and browns of that decade, when gender roles were more carefully defined." (Well, this palette does remind me of Far From Heaven.) And how, exactly, is that supposed to mesh with our newly optimistic and genderless colors?

The secret: just wear black. Always. Forever. It's always appropriate.



Yesterday I saw My Mother Likes Women, a Spanish film that our local free citypaper had described as Almodovar-like -- I'm not sure about how strong that influence was, but it was an enjoyable film. Three adult daughters are forced to confront their own issues when their mother gets romantically involved with a woman. It's not entirely comic, in part because the pacing between drama and comedy was not pat Hollywood. But it has, ultimately, a generous spirit. And visually it was a treat -- the clothes, their apartments, Madrid, Prague -- everything was fabulous to look at. And in a nice touch, the mother is a concert pianist, and their divorced father an author/intellectual -- which in a Spanish film doesn't come off seeming so unusual as it might for something set in, say, Chicago. (NY, maybe. In the era of Woody Allen. But today?)

I tried to watch The Office, the British TV series I've heard so many things about. I made it through one episode, but couldn't bring myself to attempt watching another. Maybe it gets better. But watching a complete boor embarrass himself and others just isn't my cup of tea. There are enough boors in the world as it is, need we celebrate them?

Brokedown Palace turned out to be something rather different than I'd expected based on the trailer. The imprisonment/rescue plot is just a vehicle for an interesting depiction of close female friendship, it's strengths and difficulties. And it's nice to have a movie with a flawed heroine/narrator. There are some psychological twists and turns I didn't quite expect.

And in the total fluff category: Freddie Prinze Jr is charming as the nerdly character in Boys and Girls. Since he's usually the high school stud, it was a nice change. It's not in my top percentile for the fluff romantic comedy genre, but it had some good moments. It's sort of When Harry Met Sally for Gen Y.

federal marriage amendment

The proposed FMA, a divisive election-year strategy, did not pass the Senate.

So that's good. Although the future of equal civil treatment for all partnered individuals looks pretty bleak, since it's being turned over to the states, most of which have made same-sex unions illegal.


more thoughts on research

Apparently (at least to one commenting reader) I guess I came across as more conservative than I had meant to in my last post. Which is part of the problem with all of the nuts-and-bolts sort of courses I guess: as soon as you start saying "this is required" or "this is important" then it is assumed that you're consigning the rest to oblivion.

But I do think that there is little consensus within the large category of English studies (which in many depts encompasses Eng/Amer literature, theory, creative writing, maybe linguistics, sometimes lit in translation, etc...) about what constitutes "research." And that is a good thing. Even if it makes my job difficult in teaching a course on "Research Methods." I wouldn't want to be in a dept or profession that mandated one kind of research necessary for every project, every text, every approach. A deconstructive close reading doesn't draw upon the same kind of sources as an historical argument. And that's not just OK, but good.

So what I hope to do: equip these students with enough basic tools that they can later decide, based upon the text, approach, question at hand, what kinds of research they might do and how to begin doing it. Whether that would be reading Heidegger to understand Derrida, or using the Short-Title catalogue to learn about the distribution of Marvel's poetry. For students like ours at Large Urban University, neither of those tasks might seem obvious or easy.


research methods

This fall I'll be teaching our Bibliography and Research Methods graduate course for the first time. It's been long regarded by both faculty and students as something of an artifact -- in part because of the individual who's been teaching it for many years. But also, I think, because in many subfields of literary study, the past 20 years have been focused on different hermeneutics that often have nothing to do with history. This is not simply my own observation: see the work of McGann etc. But now it's taking on a much more concrete specificity in terms of my course planning. I always want to fit in more than can actually be accomplished in one semester, but I'm fast realizing that I'm trying to meet several distinct goals in this single course.
At the simplest level, my course goals are these:

  • introduce students to basic theories in bibliography and materialist textual study (what are books? why does it matter which edition you're looking at? etc)
  • give entry-level graduate students the basic research skills they'll need (MLA, WorldCat, print sources, etc)

That's doable in a semester. But along the way, I will also have to:

  • convince them that research actually is part of the advanced study of literature. I'm afraid many of them don't really believe that.
  • help them define appropriate research questions and topics (although this is not a research writing workshop)
  • teach them how to evaluate the most basic sources in their field (how do you know a first rate journal from a fifth-rate one?)
  • introduce them to the range of approaches in the profession, since this course is the only gateway for the MA students.

It's forcing me to confront in a very specific way the large differences between my own training and that which our students have received prior to entering our program. I never got a research course at either my MA or PhD institutions -- it was assumed that we already knew this stuff, or would figure it out on our own. Our students are frequently capable enough, but they don't have that kind of professionalization coming into the program to even know what it is that they don't know. In addition, I suspect that even in many good undergraduate programs these days, many students don't necessarily write sustained independent research projects.
So I do think it's an important course -- many times in my seminars I've suggested to students that they look something up in OCLC and get only a blank stare. So I can try to remedy that. But it's not a respected course -- by students or teachers. Some of my colleagues probably don't use OCLC/WorldCat very often, if ever, either. Being one of the few historically-minded people in the department is in part why I was tapped to teach this one.

my finger's on the pulse

So now after a couple of days, I'm thinking that I'm going to try the Roomba. So I sat down at the computer to look over the different models once again -- and, as of today, IRobot has announced a new line of Roombas set to ship in September. So you can expect to see the old ones on sale. But I'm thinking I might wait for a new one -- bigger dustbin, faster charging time, and they can take themselves back to their charger when the battery runs low.


it is still summer

It is still summer. It is.

If I repeat this phrase often enough it will seem true, yes? Actually I'm feeling better today despite the fast slippage of my summer away from me because I took yesterday off. I realised that since it's summer, and I'm not on a teaching schedule, I also haven't been paying enough attention to time off. Everything is more relaxed in summer, thankfully -- but unless I specifically say a certain day is off, then I have some nagging anxiety about all the things I ought to be doing. So yesterday was my first intentional totally off day, and it was great. Went to the downtown library and stocked up on some free reading. I'm currently slurping my way through Gibson's Pattern Recognition -- this indeed feels like summer, to be able to gulp a book in a couple of days. I haven't read any Gibson in several years, and I'm enjoying this one so far (though Scribblingwoman's comments about the end are lurking in the back of my mind, pressing the brake pedal as I get closer to the finish). It's all about pop culture, internet subcults, the semiotics of fashion -- loads of fun. Weird tic, though: he's used the word "scrim" at least three times in the first 157 pages. In a novel where none of the other words stick out, that's kind of odd. Perhaps intentional; I can't say yet.


30 second diversion

Alien in 30 seconds, done by cartoon bunnies. (via Miscellaneous Heathen) They also offer The Shining and the Exorcist.


I am tempted by the Roomba, the first mass market robotic vacuum. There are others (some available only in Europe) that are no doubt fancier, sturdier, smarter -- but this is the only one even remotely within my price range (and that only because I have a store credit from returning a well-intentioned relative's gift that I couldn't use).

In favor:
  1. It's a robot. I mean, come on. Of course, I think it was on the Death Star where they had those cute little vac bots, but still. It's a robot. In the first half of my lifetime (just barely). At Target.
  2. We have two active dogs (sometimes 3 since we babysit my would-be father-in-law's* dog frequently) and a yard that has, um, a lot of dirt where more fastidious folks would have grass. We do have a fair amount of grass, don't get me wrong. But where the rotten deck was ripped out is basically just dirt. Dogs go outside; dogs come inside; much sandy dirt on the floor, no matter how much I sweep.
  3. I Swif frequently. But unless I do it every day, then it also means getting out the dustpan and broom to pick up the piles of hair and sand.
  4. I don't really enjoy vacuuming and tend to put it off. So having a little robot to do it while I'm cooking or, even, reading, would be great.

  1. I don't know anyone personally who has one. So it might suck (by not sucking, as it were). User comments on Amazon and Epinions seem generally more positive than not, but everyone has different tolerance for ease of use, efficiency, etc.
  2. Maybe I should wait a couple of years until the really good new robots come out.
  3. The dogs might freak out about it. Especially since apparently people are treating Roombas like pets. None of us are ready for a new member of the pack, even if s/he spends much of the day recharging. (actually, that does sound kind of like the dogs: sleep...charge outside barking at squirrel...sleep...)
  4. If I have the robot to vacuum the floors, what will I do when I need to procrastinate when I'm writing?

*"would-be father-in-law" -- that is, he would be my father-in-law if my gf and I were allowed to marry. The discussion of the proposed Federal Marriage Amendment started today in the Senate. I know some people think this is just about party politics, and that it can't actually pass, even in the Senate. But it feels like a hostile cultural moment to me.


tenure, briefly noted

A good defense of tenure at Cliopatria (via Joseph D.)


Wendell is recuperating from her surgery very well -- thanks, everyone, for your good wishes -- she is sporting a line of metal sutures across her chest, giving her a kind of monstrous look for a week. After an evening tripped out on morphine, she's doing very well, her usual alert self. She's currently barking at the thunder hoping to prevent another rainstorm.

the way we eat now

If you saw (or read about) Super Size Me -- here's an article that provides an informative overview of the evolutionary perspective on nutrition and the current rise in obesity in the United States. Good range of sources, and written in a fairly well-balanced way. (to my mind the political critique could be much stronger (i.e., how the current administration spoke out against the WHO's plan to combat obesity), but you can find more on that elsewhere)


Wendell update

Wendell's surgery went well, although the tumor isn't as well defined as one would wish (this might mean cells have spread elsewhere). She's waking up right now and I can go pick her up in about two hours. So that's a huge relief.

think good thoughts

Think good thoughts today for Wendell, who is in surgery to have a mass cell tumor removed. Her third tumor this year.

Right now I'm waiting to hear from the vet about how the surgery went. I should be able to pick her up this afternoon. We won't know the full biopsy results for a few days -- what grade of tumor it is (i.e. which kind of cancer).

She has a very strong constitution and hopefully it's going OK. But I'm an anxious dog mom right now.


food ads

I've never really seen the point of those ads that are not for a specific product, but for a category of food: eggs, milk, pork. I understand that our government is highly invested in promoting Agriculture (more so than in regulating food safety) -- but do they really think that these ads will affect people's actual eating habits? For instance, in our city we have many billboards for avocadoes -- the most bothersome one says "We also have a support group called AA." I think I find this kind of offensive, on the part of people who are in the real AA (which I'm not) -- and it certainly doesn't make me feel like eating more avocadoes. Does this strike anyone else as odd?

Even more pointless are the ads that are stamped across the actual food packages (as opposed to billboards or magazine ads for milk etc). I was at the store a couple of days ago and went to pick up a bag of potatoes -- across the plastic sack it proclaims "A DIET FOOD". The old man next to me also getting potatoes snorted and said, "Ain't no such thing as a healthy potato." Now that just seems to illustrate the problem. Potatoes can be healthy, or not -- depends on who's eating them, in what quantities, and most importantly, how they're prepared. But it's not like anyone is going to see that slogan and think, "well, I'm going to pick up two sacks today, since they're a diet food." It'd be far better to put money into educating people in how to cook the darn things. Reminds me of a few years ago when low-fat was all the craze -- I bought a bottle of vinegar that said "NO CHOLESTEROL." Anyone with any sense would know that there is no way that vinegar could possibly have cholesterol.


Somehow I'd never heard of National Novel Writing Month until today. At the most basic level, it's kind of inspiring: basically a bunch of people pledge to each try to write a 50,000 word short novel during the month of November. Quantity, not quality, is the goal. Not everyone makes the word count, but along the way there are local meetups of the participants, t-shirts, discussion boards and other community support -- something writers can always use. Just in terms of all those people actually sitting down and writing -- getting past the fear of the blank page, the endless procrastination that so many of us know so well, this seems inspiring. Sure, many of the novels written during that month might be junk, but so are many first novels written over the course of ten years.

Every so often, a curmudgeonly critic will opine something along the lines of "the book is dead, people don't read anymore, it's all the fault of tv/movies/the internet." Print culture changes every century -- as do most other aspects of human culture -- and we are in the midst of a profound technological transition. Undoubtedly there were people who complained when the codex book (what we think of as a physical book: pages stitched/bound together that you turn to read two sides of each leaf) began to displace the previous form of the book, scrolls (like the papyrus scrolls of the Egyptians, or the traditional form of the Torah) (one long piece of writing surface that can only be read from one end to the other -- difficult to find a specific place in the middle). There are similar profound changes in the ways that people read now, with the increasing presence of digital texts and electronic formats for accessing those texts. But because of digital technology, many people are reading -- and, even more significantly -- producing/publishing texts every day. That's what's really exciting to me -- blogs, fan fiction, and all sorts of other venues that are something more formalized, more like publishing writing than, say, chat forums. I hope someone has written a study of the word processor's impact on writing over the past 15-20 years -- I know as a writing teacher I've seen a lot of changes in the way my students compose, and in my own writing habits.

So, who cares if November's novels might not be the best works ever? what a great boost for the participants -- and as any writer knows, getting started, and getting in the habit, can make or break a project. If only my Novembers weren't always so filled with grading and conference preparation, I'd try my own hand at it. Who knows, maybe I will someday.


movies part 2

So last night I finally saw Michael Moore's latest. And, as I expected, had sort of mixed feelings about it. I'm totally on his side and usually agree with his message, if not his methods. My issues with the film mostly were about rhetoric and craft. He's grandstanding for our laughs and our attention -- which people on the left don't do nearly as frequently it seems (or maybe not as visibly in the larger pop culture) as those on the right -- which to me sometimes comes across as sloppy, or simplistic, or just cheap. For instance: it's really easy to find pictures of W looking stupid. But Saturday Night Live has been doing this for years -- you can do this for any public figure who's frequently in front of the camera. Moore intersperses these images to punctuate his critique with our laughter -- and I laughed too -- but it's not argument, and it tends to reduce his message to the simplest common denominator. Ditto for his use of music in the film -- again it gets the laughs from the audience (since the film is playing mostly to people who already agree in advance (at least in my city)) but it weakens the power of the facts exposed in the film. Most glaring omission in the film: any mention of religion. A month or two ago, I happened to see a really powerful Frontline piece on Bush's religous beliefs that offered compelling lines of interpretation that many journalists aren't willing to open up. It's called The Jesus Factor and can be viewed online.

I wish, too, that there had been something else at the film's close. Moore defends the working poor (although with no mention at all of the increasing Hispanic presence in the US and how that may affect political and military outcomes) and skewers the "haves and have-mores" (that's a Bush quote) who run everything. But the middle class is virtually absent from his film's representation of class warfare in the US. He shows us military recruiters in depressed Flint MI combing the mall for young men who have very few other options, asking them to fight a war that Moore shows to be directly increasing the wealth for some of the wealthiest individuals and corporations in the country. But what about the middle class? it's middle-class people's willingness to vote for Republicans who really don't have their interests at heart that are at least partially to blame for the mess things are in. And it's also educated middle-class Americans like many of my friends who vote Democratic but feel largely disenfranchised because in our states our votes don't really count, except on the local level. Moore's film does little to help his viewers figure out what to do with their frustration with the way things are. Good exposure of problems, no suggestions of solutions. At the film's close, to list a few websites like Move On would have been something. (Even if, again, most of his viewers already know this stuff.)


There ought to be a rule for young filmakers not to have a main character who's an artist, writer, or filmaker. It's just so easy for the writer/director's surrogate to take on far more existential suffering than the character can really sustain. Or when that's not the issue, then it's the problem of how do you represent the creative process on screen. (At least in the Kunstlerroman you get hundreds of pages to try to show the growth of the Artist -- but it's still potentially tiresome.) Watched Washington Heights a few days ago on DVD -- it's a good enough film all in all -- warm but not too cheesy in its portrayal of the Washington Heights neighborhood in NYC, and the lives of first-generation young people struggling to define themselves in relation to their parents' culture and their own. The always watchable Manny Perez plays the main character, a cartoonist who has to take over his father's bodega. So far so good. But the parts of the film that deal with his drawing are just so predictable, and so unrealistic. He's a good artist, but his comics aren't great comics (i.e., Art) until he starts to write about his father, and the immigrant experience. Since the filmmaker is already doing that, it just seems like a heavy-handed lesson. Then he's able to sell his comic right away, to the hot Latina executive who just happens to be newly single... Actually I'm making the film sound much worse than it is -- which is precisely my point. Without the strain of the "Art" theme, it'd be a more solid film.

Yet, watching him draw his comic isn't half as painful as, say, listening to the god-awful prose supposedly written by the Jenny character on the L-Word series, which thanks to a friend who'd taped it, we just got to see. It's positively embarrassing to watch her "write" her short stories which are supposed to be so artistic and thoughtful. Argh. Overly Romantic in the capital R sense -- navel-gazing about her feelings, talking about ripping her bleeding heart out. Ugh.

I'm trying to think of a movie where I liked the artist/writer character. I'm sure there are a few but the negative examples are popping up faster.


superagent? -- uh, no.

One of the bits that stuck with me from the film of The Bourne Identity (didn't read the book) was a twist on the usual amnesiac story: he wakes up not knowing who he is, but realizing that he has these amazing skills of observation, martial arts, escape, and all sorts of other things that show him that he's really a superagent. (I'd wake up and what skills would I have to deduce my original identity? I know what pentameter is, I have a lot of black clothes in my closet, and books by Foucault on my shelf: aha, I must be an English professor!)

Well, I would suck at being a superagent. For all sorts of reasons -- but among them apparently I have lousy observation skills when in a difficult situation. (As do most people -- basic sociology and criminology experiments show this all the time.) I got rear-ended yesterday -- I'm fine, and my car isn't too badly damaged -- I was stopped at a red light, and the car behind me was stopped. Then a fourth car hit the third car which hit the second which hit me. So I got the least amount of impact, thankfully. My neck was sore last night but after ibuprofen and a nice hot Bikram class this morning I'm feeling fine. (Which I think has to be due in part to the yoga -- my neck having been in better alignment to start with, after 8 months of yoga.)

We sat there for 90 minutes in the rain waiting for the police officer to come and file the report. You'd think I'd have every detail memorized. But, no. Talking to the insurance guy this morning I was like: we were in the right, no, the left lane. No, I don't know what make of car the third car was -- but I have his DL number. Etc.

The other weird thing is the intimacy an accident suddenly creates among total strangers. I have all their names and phone numbers (and more) -- we were sharing our frustration at the slowness of the police to arrive -- bonded in some small little way. Thankfully no one was hurt, we weren't really stranded, we weren't far from civilization --so the forced bonding was limited. But kind of a weird experience nonetheless.