perhaps hopeful signs

A friend sent me an article from the NYTimes (from the 9/27 edition) discussing NYU's planned expansion of its liberal arts faculty:
New York University is on a hiring campaign that it hopes
will put its graduate and undergraduate liberal arts
programs on sounder footing and give them the stature of
some of its most prominent professional schools.
Over the next five years, it plans to expand its 625-member
arts and science faculty by 125 members, and replace
another 125 who are expected to leave.

Apparently the visit of an accreditation team pointed to the relatively small size of NYU's liberal arts faculty as a factor that would hamper its quest for research university status.

What's also interesting is that the article points to other universities which also plan large scale hires:
N.Y.U. is not the only university recruiting many
professors at once. Other universities also engaged in
wholesale hiring include Brown (expanding 20 percent in
five to eight years), Temple (hiring 176 new professors
this year and next), the University of Southern California
(hiring 100 new senior faculty members at its College of
Letters, Arts and Sciences) and the City University of New
York (adding 300 new faculty members and staff at its six
community colleges).

People have been promising some improvement in the dismal market statistics in the humanities for years; the problem is that many retirements were just never filled again, causing faculty lines to dry up or be reassigned to other units.

But if a few big players start doing major hiring, perhaps the idea will catch on...


I guess this is a compliment

"You know, I just signed up for this class because it fit into my schedule. And I really didn't want to take it, but my friend, who's a real jock, said he'd taken Victorian and it wasn't so bad. But I was really dreading it. But you know, I actually kinda like this stuff. You know? And, like, I have this other class and the professor is really, like, boring and he never tells us whether what we said is right or not. I have a paper due in there tomorrow! So anyway, I just wanted to say that."


better grading through chemistry

Red Bull.

It's the answer to my grading woes. (Plus it's a full moon so I wouldn't be sleeping much anyway tonight.)

I've enjoyed RB before when meeting writing deadlines, but hadn't indulged while grading. It definitely makes grading a less painful experience.


for the next few days

here's what the short version of my list looks like:
  • grade papers for class #1 (approximately 25 20 12 6 left to go) (plus 5 late papers coming in today makes 11 to be graded by Thurs) HAPPY DANCE!!
  • grade papers for class #2 (approximately 28 left to go)
  • write quiz for #1
  • write class outlines for #1
  • write lecture for #2
  • update powerpoints for #2
  • write assignment for #2
  • reading for #1 (approximately 5-6 hours total for the week, 2-3 for Tues)
  • reading for #2 (approximately 3 hours)
  • write first draft of funding application for proposed guest lecturer visit
  • write first draft of paper proposal for upcoming conference
  • read three articles related to my current research project
  • actually write something towards my current research project
  • plan upcoming week, report to writing group
  • write two letters of recommendation for former students
All the teaching stuff has to be done by Tuesday. There's a little bit of wiggle room on the rest of the list, although the other stuff is actually more important.

And my personal list:
  • yoga (goal: Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday)
  • rake yard, bag leaves
  • homework for shrink appointment
  • time with gf
  • minimum weekly housecleaning chores
  • cook real dinners at least 4 nights
  • blogging!
UPDATE, Wed noon: there's definitely something satisfying about crossing these things off even on the next day. Obviously, I prepared my lectures for yesterday's classes -- but I still like crossing it off.


more on appearances

There's been lots of interesting discussion the past few days about clothing and other aspects of academic self-presentation -- in the comments to my post, at BitchPhD, at New Kid on the Hallway, at Pharyngula, and Lilliputian Lilith. And probably elsewhere too that I've just lost track of.

In the five months I've been reading academic blogs, this or similar topics have come up several times -- and I'm always an interested participant in such conversations. Academics (or at least those I've encountered in these virtual spaces) are interested in our appearance not because we're hopelessly vain or self-centered, but because we have the skills to analyse our own visual texts (at least some of the time), and our somewhat contradictory position within general professional middle-class culture. In Distinction, Pierre Bourdieu offers a framework for a sociological understanding of cultural taste, based on extensive empirical work with French subjects. Although the specifics of his analysis don't translate to U.S. culture, much of his analytical framework really hit home for me when I first read his work. Academics, for Bourdieu, are the "dominated fraction of the dominant class" -- those who have the education and cultural capital equal to or greater than that of the socially/politically dominant group, yet don't have the social prestige or economic power of that dominant class. So we often respond to that situation by cultivating an anti-establishment attitude, aesthetic, personal style. Yet the desire to buy into the mainstream can still persist (witness the discussion about the economic constraints faced by academics in many of the blogs linked above).

Academic jobs do require us to be up in front of large numbers of people several days a week. Unlike media figures, we don't have handlers, designers, and makeup artists to get us ready to "appear"; unlike people in the so-called "service industries," we don't get uniforms handed to us with the job. So we're on view in a performance or quasi-public kind of way, unlike many people in the corporate world, who may only interact with the people in their unit or meeting room, or a handful of clients at a time. And in that classroom space, we are simultaneously representing ourselves as individuals, but also a number of large abstractions: the University, Knowledge, The Professor.

As an example: for many of my students, I represent the Highly Educated Woman, who seems sort of like an alien from outer space. Every semester, I'll have women in their twenties or thirties, often from East Asian or Hispanic backgrounds, show up in my office and shyly start asking me whether I'm married, if I have kids. For them, I represent an entirely different way of being in the world, one that they hadn't really imagined. I'm Youngish Unmarried Childless Educated Professional Caucasian-Appearing Woman. (The fact that I'm also an out lesbian is usually a bit much for these women to comprehend early on in the term. Other students figure that part out right away.) Whatever content I'm teaching them in class, I'm also teaching them something just by being who I am.

What does this have to do with clothing? One one hand, not much: the fact that I'm at the front of the classroom and have the power to grade will always reinforce certain kinds of power structures, etc. But on the other hand, I'm wondering if the tendencies that are so easily mocked in academic dress (shabby or sloppy appearance, outdated styles, or eccentric costumes) not only serve to mark us as members of our own academic tribes and sub-groups (in English, for instance, medievalists are statistically far more likely to wear velvet to class than scholars in any other subfield), but also present a kind of vague-enough screen for students to project their own classifications and wishes onto us. For them, it's probably better if we look not quite parental, not quite like their peers, not quite of this time period, not quite like anything you could see at the mall. Who wants to be able to stroll into the Gap and come out looking just like Eccentric Biology Professor?

Now, if the comments I've been reading on various blogs are truthful and not just wishful, perhaps the new/next generations of academics will be more stylish. We all (and I have done this too) like to criticize our colleagues but suggest that we ourselves know how to put an outfit together. Part of the freedom and the difficulty of having these discussions online. For all you know, I could be a total J Crew prep who just likes to talk about her proto-Goth alterna-80s aesthetic. [grin]


I'm already missing my Friday

I'm up earlier than I'd like to be. . . and in about ten minutes I have to start the shower/dress/drive routine in order to be in the middle of morning freeway traffic (which I never do) in order to go and sit in a day-long planning meeting with my department. Whoo-hoo. I am so excited. I know, I should just use this as an opportunity to reflect on the ways in which my life doesn't have to follow this sort of routine very often. But at the moment I'm tired, not-yet adequately caffeinated (holding back since I know there will be big urns of coffee at the meeting), and feeling sad that I won't be able to catch up on blogs until the end of the afternoon. Not to mention all the other Friday things that won't happen today: lunch with gf, yoga, my day off. I know, I know, poor little tenured girl who likes her Friday afternoons to herself.

Did I mention I have a big stack of grading to do this weekend? Yippee.


there's a body in the classroom

Now, I am fully aware of the fact that I am both mind and body -- and I actually feel that I live and work very much aware of and in my physical form, considering that thinking is such a big part of what I do and who I am.

Part of my pedagogical practice also involves being aware of how I present or manage my physical body in the classroom. My first teacher training instructor stressed a lot of things about bodily awareness -- for instance, your students are asked to sit relatively still for the 75-90 minutes of class -- if you walk around the room, it helps keep them alert, as you are moving for them by proxy, in a sense. We all tend to have a preference to look towards the right side or the left side more often -- figuring out what your tendency is and then remembering to include the other side of the room (or seminar table) is especially important. Bending your knees while you're teaching is crucial to keep your energy up and your back comfy. Deep breathing.

At the same time, I'm also aware that my students will, like it or not, be observing me for those 90 minutes. Female professors tend statistically to receive more comments on their personal appearance in course evaluations than do male professors. That's an inevitable feature of patriarchal society, but not something I want to encourage. So what I choose to wear to teach in is selected to be stylish, yet comfortable and not especially revealing. I don't wear very revealing clothes at any time -- that's just not who I am -- but, for instance, I usually wear long sleeves when I'm teaching. I'd never teach in a sleeveless top, though I have some female colleagues who do in warmer weather. Having certain clothes I wear when I'm teaching helps create my teaching persona, and mark that persona as distinct from who I am on the weekends or at home.

But then sometimes the body makes its presence known anyway. I've occasionally taught with a cough or a scratchy throat during cold/flu season. Once I sneezed during class, which made me feel oddly vulnerable.

But yesterday was perhaps my most embarrassing moment yet. My stomach was growling. Loudly enough that I'm sure the students in the front row could hear. Not just once, but a couple of times. Grrr. Grrr. GRRR. I was embarrassed enough that I didn't even make a joke about it, just continued on as if nothing had happened.


various good things

Some good things:
  • Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow: we caught a matinee today and both thoroughly enjoyed it. It's a lush filmic love letter to George Lucas, Spielberg, and all the 30s & 40s serials that inspired them. But it's also just a lot of fun, too. It's not retro only for the sake of being retro, the way some of Spielberg's later stuff seems. It's kind of more campy than that, which I like.
  • it was phone call weekend -- calls from three dear long distance friends! I wish they were local, but I'm awfully glad for the phone.
  • The Time Traveller's Wife, which I finished a few days ago. Loved, loved, LOVED it. It's smart without being ponderous -- the author is an academic, actually, and one of the characters works in the Newberry Library -- the references to Rilke etc actually blend in pretty well. The premise involves time travel (which doesn't put me off, since I read SF/fantasy) but it's a novel anyone could enjoy. Time travel is just a device for exploring the complexities of human relationships - - how people change, how you can't forecast the future of a relationship. It's well written, moving, completely engrossing.
  • being available to help a friend deal with her dead car battery (it wouldn't take a jump, so we had to go get a new one) -- it's great to be able to be concretely helpful for someone in a bind.
  • the excellent t-shirt my friend sent me. (To underscore her comment on my blog.)
  • a relaxing Sunday mostly free of the usual Sunday grumps
  • play time with W and G. Dogs keep you really zen. They don't care about the future and they don't care about the past. Only the now.
  • feeling grateful for my gf. Nothing like a night out at one of the bars to make you extra super glad you've got a good catch right here at home.
I'm feeling pretty mellow tonight, trying to get some things in order for the week ahead. I didn't get as much work done as I'd hoped this weekend -- our houseguest was such a pleasant distraction -- but I'm feeling good anyway. It's going to be a busy/unfun week -- lots of grading coming in, and meetings in my department. So I want to focus on some of the good things to keep my perspective...


yesterday's frenzy

We have a houseguest with us this weekend, an old friend of my gf's, who is very sweet and great to have around. So yesterday afternoon involved a mad dash to clean up the house -- we really ought to have guests more often, so as to keep everything in tip top shape. I was cleaning the bathroom, Roomba was vacuuming the family room, the washing machine was going, and my gf was cleaning her car and carting things off to the recycling drop-off. All this activity plus an unseasonably warm afternoon put our younger dog into a panic. G. tends to be a bit nervous anyway, especially in new places or around strangers. But she hasn't had a panic attack at home in over a year--shaking, panting, basically just like a human in panic. So I had to shut off the appliances, sing to her, stroke her with an ice cube, and play dogmommy for a while (if I put my chin over her neck the way a superior dog does, she calms down, remembering that I'll take care of her). She recovered, and today even deigned to sit on the couch next to our guest, which is a big brave step for her.

Roomba hasn't bothered her before this. I think it was the combination of all the noise factors -- especially, perhaps, my gf going in and out of the house with stuff in her arms. She knew something was really up, but didn't know what it would be.

I know many people have preconceived ideas about certain dog breeds, or certain training methods, and how "labs are friendly" or "poodles are smart." But no matter what your dog's heritage, she will also have her own learning style and personality. Plus, since G was a street puppy when we found her, her past experiences have definitely shaped her attitudes about bicycles, teenagers, and various other potential aggressors. (Krista Cantrell's Catch Your Dog Doing Something Right is an excellent training book that offers advice on how to figure out what your dog's learning style is and how to motivate her appropriately.)

For all sorts of reasons, it doesn't bother me at all that we have a sensitive dog -- I'm glad both G and W are cautious around strangers rather than goofily friendly -- no one can walk into our yard or down the alley without our knowing about it, which in our neighborhood is a good thing. G's anxieties are just part of who she is and I love her as she is. I kind of share her sensitivity to loud noises, and I completely understand her dislike of new situations, although my response is far less visible. Her panic yesterday was a good reminder that maybe we didn't need to spaz out quite so much with the cleaning.

(Do my dogs need pseudonyms on this blog? I've outed them before, and only recently started to wonder if I should alter that practice. Though you'd have to be a pretty smart searcher to (1) know my dogs' names and (2) imagine that if I had a blog, I'd write about them (well, maybe that's not too tough to figure out) and then (3) search the web for them. Something to decide another day.)


where did my week go?

Urgh. I can't believe it's Thursday night -- I'm glad enough, mind you -- that means my teaching week is over, my day off is supposed to be tomorrow, and all time is "my" time, for the next couple of days at least.

But where did my week go? The Sleep Monster ate it. I've just been dragging my sorry ass around this week. At first, I blamed it on my Tuesday night graduate seminar -- seminars themselves are always exhausting -- I walk out of there completely wired 'n tired -- I have about 45 minutes to go pick up take-out dinner and get home before collapsing on the couch to watch a silly movie. And, of course, there's the sometimes frantic prepping beforehand. This is a new course for me, in a new area, so it's taking up a lot of time.

So I slept in a bit on Wed morning but was in a foggy haze for the whole day. Maybe it's the zillions of mold spores I'm apparently breathing in my geographical location. One of my favorite students (in my AWESOME undergrad class this semester -- I love this group, they're way better than the students I've had the last 2 times I've taught this course, so they're consistently exceeding my expectations) on Tues was talking about a poem -- "well it's just so existential, it's really about how there's no hope in the world" and I'm looking at his watery red eyes and thinking Is this because of the poem, or did you forget your allergy meds today? (I think it was the latter. At least I hope so. I'd hate to be accused of causing mental distress and physical symptoms of ill health in my students with the poems of Matthew Arnold.)

And today? Teaching was fine, meetings weren't too onerous. It really wasn't a bad day, or a tough week, or anything like that. But I'm still dragging around, and frustrated at my lack of productivity on the real stuff this week: my own writing. (I'm ready to play the self-flagellation game with Jimbo.) (oops, that sounded a lot naughtier than it actually would be --)

A few years ago, when I was involved in training new TAs, and doing pedagogy workshops etc, I read a book (unfortunately don't remember author or title) that made some really good points about the rhythms of the semester. How every term has its own life cycle, and if you're trying to accomplish certain things during midterm week, for instance, you're bound to be frustrated because your students won't be at their best. Right now, week 4, is a pretty good week -- the students who are staying are committing themselves to the class, they're doing the reading, and taking it seriously because 1st or 2nd assignments are due. Things usually get tough around week 8 or 9, when everyone is getting sick, they're behind on the reading, and we could all use a spring break, which we don't get in the fall of course.

I really did enjoy my classes this week. That was the good part. And I want to hang onto that feeling since I know it won't last through the whole term.

Maybe if I appease the Sleep Monster with 8 1/2 hours tonight, he'll let me do some of my other work tomorrow.


blogs for a friend

I'm trying to come up with a list of some blogs to get a friend started -- he's a great writer, and sends out travelogues to people via email. A transition to blog format would seem natural. But I'm anticipating he'll be skeptical that he would find blogs he'd like to read, or any sort of community (just as I used to be long ago). So, I'm trying to gather up some good links for him and maybe you can help -- I know I've come across some good ones in other people's blogrolls but didn't record them for myself.
My friend is a stay-at-home father, a travel writer, a former academic, married to an academic. I don't think my roll of mostly academics would interest him at this point -- still a lot of issues to be worked out. But if you know of any interesting dad blogs or travel blogs, that would be really helpful.

the blinders of patriotism

Driving to campus on the freeway yesterday, I was behind a small, lightweight pickup truck with two "W" stickers placed symmetrically at the left and right edges of the back windshield. A large flag (or perhaps a flag-printed towel or other heavy cloth) was hung inside the truck cab, covering the entire windshield.

Who needs to see clearly when we've got W?


my new love

I'm in love: with a new coffee shop that just opened in my neighborhood. Really, I'm completely delighted -- far beyond what I'd think of as the range of "normal" responses to such a thing.

So, to explain. They've been working on the building for this place for a while -- rehabbing an older property, with a tantalizing sign that made it clear it would be a coffee shop eventually. Then finally last week we drove past and they were open. So today I went over there for the first time. It is amazingly great: cool old space, with heavily varnished wood floors, beamed ceiling, nice windows. Plenty of seating -- about 15 tables or so, plus two counters with bar stools. Great selection of coffees and tea, soy milk espresso drinks available, pastries and lunch food even. Friendly alterna-girl working the counter. The chairs are actually comfortably padded without being armchairs. Not too cold, not too dark, not too bright. Just perfect. They were playing the Cure. How could it be any better?? Plus it's only 4 minutes from our house.

The only other coffee shop in our neighborhood has turned into really more of a bar -- a problem with a lot of the independent cafes in this city. I know that's how they make their money, but still. The other one near us is totally bar-like from 4:00 on as the happy hour crowd comes in. Plus they have TVs over the counter now, and loud music. It's fine if you're going to socialize (although sometimes too loud even for that) but impossible for working in.

So that means a 10-minute drive to another neighborhood, where there are 2 Starbucks that I like OK, but their seating is pretty limited and many's the time I've gone over there at 3:00 and all the chairs are taken by other people studying/working. There's a local chain coffee place I like to work at, but it too has very limited seating -- and a heavy student-type crowd. So again, if they're full then you're really out of luck, since there's not much turnover for the chairs.

There are 4 or 5 other non-chain cafes in the same general area -- several of which I really like for social coffees, but not so much for working in. The cool Greek place is my favorite for a night out -- great jukebox, weird international magazines to flip through, eccentric old guys playing checkers -- but it's dark and full of smoke which is too much to deal with while grading papers. There's the yuppifying boho place which used to be mellow and has gotten increasingly overpriced and fascistic over the years. OK but I'm not happy supporting their bad attitudes -- and they're very anti-readers, anti-studiers in their quest for profit. An arty place that tends to be really smoky. (Sure, there's supposedly a non-smoking section, but it's sharing the same air space as the smokers.) A super yuppy place I really dislike.

So to have a fabulous new cafe to work in that is so close to my house really brightens up my world. I love to work at coffee shops and haven't done as much of that as I would like to lately -- partly just because of the lack of a really inspiring place to go.

I've found my second home. And it's beautiful and groovy and not very crowded in the mid-late afternoon, which is my primo cafe time. Let's hope it stays that way. (Though I'm wishing them massive crowded success in the early mornings so as to keep them in business...)

the reconstructed lost posting: on training

Ok, this is a reconstructed version of yesterday's lost post. Feel free to imagine it wittier, more insightful, and illuminating...

I saw The Bourne Supremacy a week ago, but didn't have the time to post about it. And I should say up front that I enjoyed it for what it is -- I didn't go to see it in order to exercise my cultural analysis skills or anything. In fact, mostly I go to the movies as pure entertainment. And I have a pretty capacious tolerance for big Hollywood schlock and spectacle as well as artsy indies. So, I went to see an action pic on a hot summer afternoon. I enjoyed the first film (Bourne Identity) and figured I'd like the second. But it also has given me a lot to think about, specifically in terms of why I respond to the main character and how the 2nd film seems to be responding to an ambivalence in our culture right now about the highly trained physical body.

I haven't read the books that these films are based on, so I only know what the films show. But what makes Jason Bourne an interesting action/spy/assassin hero for our current historical time is that he's on a psychological quest. In Bourne Identity, he wakes up with amnesia and doesn't know who he is. Eventually he gets to a safety deposit box and discovers a handful of passports, all with different identities. Amnesia is always an interesting premise, but here it's expanded into an analogue for the modern professional: how do you know who you are, if your life/job requires you to be many different things? The second film continues the psychological framework as Jason Bourne is suffering headaches and recalling fragments of his pre-amnesia memory. He's searching for wholeness, to pull together the lost pieces of his internal self -- a basic premise of much Western psychotherapy. Ultimately in this film he has to try to reconcile the newly healing self he is becoming with who he was: one of the most highly skilled CIA assassins.

So viewers can relate to JB because of the way his psyschological issues mirror those faced by many professionals who feel constrained by their jobs, or who find themselves seeking new self-knowledge after achieving a certain level of financial or professional success.

Now, one of the things I really liked in both the first and second films was that, unlike Bond or other classic spy heroes, Bourne doesn't have a lot of gadgets and high-tech stuff to get out of sticky situations with -- instead these films show the viewers again and again how he uses his powers of observation and basic martial arts skills. For example, there's a scene early on in Bourne Identity when Jason and Marie walk into a diner. As he sits down, he says to her something like "the back door is the closest exit to our table, there's a policeman at the counter, and the guy in the corner looks suspicious" (NB: that's not a quote, I don't remember the specific details) -- pointing out all sorts of things most viewers hadn't paid attention to yet --and then he says "why do I notice these things? I can't help noticing these things" because he hasn't yet figured out who he is, and why he has these skills. And then shortly thereafter, those details are what let them escape some kind of attack.

Now, when I saw that, one of my first responses was "cool, I wish I was so alert to my surroundings." We are put in a position of admiring JB not because he's super suave or clearly on the side of Good (morally he's somewhat ambiguous, as are all the other parties in these films), but because he's a smart, relaxed, strong street fighter. He has skills that anyone can learn, at least at a basic level of effectiveness.

The word "training" is repeated numerous times in Bourne Supremacy -- it's part of a memory fragment that haunts JB as he tries to understand why the CIA seems to be trying to hunt him down again, several years after he defected. The film opens with him out on a run along the beach. He stops, gets a bottle of water, and then suddenly finds himself outwitting a pursuer. The connection between training for physical fitness and his advanced skills is evident throughout the film, as well as in some of the media interviews with actor Matt Damon, who trained in boxing and martial arts to play this role. We are always interested in the physical transformations actors undertake to play a role -- but in this case, some publications seem to really enjoy the ambiguity inherent in Damon's training -- if he could play the role of a killer so well, does this mean he too has a killer's capabilities?

I should note that Jason Bourne's skills aren't that far-fetched -- I studied taiji in Chinese martial arts schools for a number of years and met several individuals who work as bodyguards, private detectives, and probably other less well-defined things. These men know how to disable someone using pressure points, how to break out of a locked room, and how to deflect an attacker's weapon. These are not super-human qualities, but learnable skills. And that's something that the Bourne films seem to be reminding the viewer.

Thus they tap into a strand in our current physical fitness culture that celebrates and admires those who test the limits of the human body: witness the increasing popularity of military-style boot camps for suburban dwellers, endurance events like marathons, and adventure races like the Eco-Challenge. During the Moscow section of the film, there's a shot of a billboard advertising some kind of exercise facility or equipment -- a torso with six-pack abs, and a slogan that read "~~Ergo" (I don't know what the first part was). The film thus points out that Western-style physical fitness culture is one more element in the emulation of western-style capitalism. (The cars and suits in the Moscow sequence are another example too.)

But, as much as the film reminds us of our admiration of the super-fit body and the special skills that Jason Bourne possesses, it also plays on cultural anxieties about such "training": what happens when such training goes awry, or produces a rogue agent such as Bourne? (The recent film The Hunted is another example -- I haven't seen it, though.) Bourne's handlers are trying to bring him in -- for various possible outcomes -- reprogramming, counseling, death. The movies put us on JB's side -- he's the hero, he's the hunted prey-- and the CIA is shown as full of corruption and intrigue. It's a thriller/action/spy story, after all. But still I think the film reflects a larger cultural concern about the new political realities of the war efforts of the past 10 years -- vague, confusing situations where events and individuals are continually being reinterpreted -- and especially about the effects on the soldiers trained to fight in those battles, and their eventual reintegration into the larger society. If you are trained to respond to information and stimuli in a certain way, can you ever leave that training behind? Will the war ever be over?



Damn. I just lost a really long post. I was in the middle of looking it over and editing it and must have accidentally hit some horrible Blogger or Firefox shortcut key that sent me back one screen and totally lost everything I wrote. damn, damn, damn. I know better. I copy things to notepad before hitting Post just so they won't get lost. Arrgh.

now do I try to reconstruct it or do I just give up and do some work. sigh.


friday library blogging

For some time now, my partner and I have been taking Fridays as our day off: it's the end of my teaching week, and she doesn't teach on Fridays either. So we usually go out to lunch on Fridays, and every 2 or 3 weeks we go to the big public library downtown. She is the only girlfriend I've ever had who liked libraries as much as I do -- and who thinks that spending an hour browsing in the library and returning home with a big stack of books is a great way to have a date afternoon. One of many reasons we're right for each other.

I got my first library card when I was about 4 -- my favorite babysitter, the same one who had taken me to see the circus train come to town when I was 3, took me downtown and signed me up for a card. Surprising my parents, readers and academics themselves, who hadn't yet considered that it was time to introduce me to the library.

During childhood my parents -- often my mother, sometimes both of them -- would take us to the library on Saturday or Sunday afternoons. On the best days -- rainy cold winter days -- we'd make popcorn or hot chocolate when we returned home with our loot. We went pretty regularly -- returning books on time was a serious moral obligation, according to my mother, and the fact that I did return my books was the only reason the children's librarian was willing to relax the five-book-at-a-time rule for me.

Did I say I was a voracious reader? I learned early, on my own -- and many of my strongest childhood memories are of reading -- not just the contents of certain books, but the thrill of waking up before the rest of the household to read, nestled in a quilt; hiding books under my desk at school to read while the teacher was lecturing; and especially the freedom represented by the library. There I could learn anything, become anyone. That library card gave me as much right as anyone else to be there. A kind of equality that didn't operate in all of the other spaces of my life.

As I got older, I didn't need my mother to drive me anymore -- I could walk downtown on my own, and so took to spending several afternoons a week at the library. I was basically a good nerdy kid, so that's really what I was doing. Reading, daydreaming, plotting my escape from small town life. As the years went by, I graduated from the Children's section to Young Adult -- and then to Science Fiction for several years, until I was ready for Classic Literature and Adult Fiction. Eventually I started doing my school research at the College's library, but never entirely gave up my attachment to the public library's easy display of the good stuff: new novels, new magazines, all the possibilities laid out on a big table in the front.

Except for a couple of years during college, I've never been without a public library card. Even during graduate school, I had to have at least one book on hand to read just for me, just for fun. What my third grade teacher would call "free reading." The last 15 minutes before sleep have to be for free reading -- not academic work, not a news magazine, nothing too stressful or taxing. And library books really are free reading -- that feeling of walking in the front doors of the building and not yet knowing what I'll walk out with -- the freedom in being able to ditch a book after a few chapters if it doesn't really grab me -- the freedom to explore, to be wrong, to be delighted by something unexpected.

I love library Fridays. Today I came home with The Time Traveller's Wife -- I'm already 80 pages into it, hooked. (Thanks to profgrrrrl, who was reading this earlier in the summer.)


Roomba update

I'm completely delighted with our robot. I just finished cooking dinner -- while I was working in the kitchen, Roomba cleaned our family room, and did part of the bedroom. (He tried to eat the phone & electrical extension cords that run under our bed, which meant I had to keep stopping and redirecting him. I need to get one of those plastic coil wrap thingys for the cords so he can really clean under the bed...) Roomba's definitely a "he" in my mind. Why, I couldn't really say. (Except maybe for my concerns about the exploitation of women as domestic workers. Which is another reason I'm much happier to have a robot.) And I'm beginning to think he needs a stuffy butler-ish kind of name: Cecil, or Roberts, or Carruthers. Because he's so damn thorough!

I set him to work in the family room, curious to see what he'd do, since I'd had him working in there on Monday. (Although I stopped him before the full cleaning cycle was done, wanting to see what he could do elsewhere.) Obviously I had no idea just how thorough Roomba was. He cleaned and cleaned and cleaned. And the floor in there is now far cleaner than it ever has been.

We live in a small older house that has been a rental property for a number of years. Old wooden floors, except in the kitchen & bath, where there's old vinyl with crumbling grout. The last tenant before us was not especially clean -- and she shared the house with two enormous long-haired dogs. When we moved in, we found dog hair clinging to the walls, in the drawers in the kitchen, & clogging the furnace vents. I vacuumed, scrubbed, mopped, etc., and have been doing so in the years we've lived here, although my consistency is sometimes lacking.

We also have two dogs, one of whom goes in and out all the time. So there's frequently a fine coating of dust/dirt on the floor from the dogs -- the throw rugs in the bedroom are mostly to wipe their feet off to try and keep our bedspread sort of clean.

So I never walk barefoot in our house. It's usually too icky.

The Roomba advertising claimed it'd make your floors barefoot-friendly. And, astonishingly enough, when I let Roomba do a full cleaning cycle in our family room -- our ancient cruddy wood floor, with old cracks and crevices full of dirt, is now so incredibly clean. It's smooth. It feels like a new floor. I'm dancing around barefoot. I love our robot.

So not only was I able to prepare dinner while my floor was getting cleaned, it's cleaner than I have ever gotten it -- with the vaccum, with the dry mop, with a wet mop even.

Yay robots!

mid-week musings

Some of the thoughts in my slightly-foggy head this morning:
  • I still haven't fully integrated my blog habit with the new semester's schedule. I occasionally post from my office, but I so far have been able to stick to my "no reading blogs" rule while at work. Which is good for my privacy and for my productivity while at the office, but lousy for keeping up with all the blogs I like to read. And I had to get up extra early the past two days (to get a new battery for my car and to take the dogs in for annual checkup/shots) so last night I was so tired -- but kept compulsively clicking on various pages even though I was too tired to really understand, much less respond. Silly, I know.
  • We had our first department faculty meeting yesterday. Ah, the joy. I actually don't mind a meeting when there are things to be discussed or decided -- but this was mostly reviewing a heap of bureaucratic decisions from the administration. Which meant our chair telling us things and the rest of us sitting there like recalcitrant students. But such moments are useful reminders of what the classroom experience is like much of the time, for many students -- it's so rare that I'm being lectured at in a droning tone about things I don't really understand or care about -- my brain almost immediately shuts off (and starts pleading where's the coffee? you know you should bring coffee to these meetings). No wonder some students love a discussion class, and others complain that it's too much effort. They're used to just sitting back and checking out.
  • Tenure really does feel different. I feel honestly lighter, freer in my interactions with my colleagues -- which were mostly pleasant and engaging for the past six years, so this isn't like I'm really acting any differently. But underneath, there's no anxiety. If anything, there's a sense that I've got an invisible shield around me now: I can do whatever I want. The reality, of course, is that I'm a good departmental citizen: I am still serving on one of our major standing committees, I'll probably do extra work this fall for our accreditation review, and I've already had to fend off the invitation to take on an administrative position. (Someday I might do it, but not this year.) But any and all of that is now buffered with the knowledge that I am finally a free individual in the academic state. I've had voting privileges in my dept since day one, and actually have contributed significantly to some decisions in my dept over the past few years -- curriculum, hiring, etc -- so the freedom isn't anything as concrete as voting power. It's really something much more ineffable. Whatever I do is now my choice, not simply a response to an internalized categorical imperative.
Allright, I really should jump in the shower and go to campus. I did my class prep this morning sitting out in the yard with the dogs, which really has put me in a good frame of mind for the day.


labor day for the 21st century

So, I did it. I got us a Roomba. As mentioned earlier, I've been really tempted by the idea of an affordable robot to do my vacuuming. And, I had a merchandise credit at Sharper Image, a store I almost never go into, because I'd returned a generous but not-useful-to-me tenure gift from a relative. So I wound up getting a top of the line new Roomba Discovery for only $80 of my own money: less than the cheapest model would cost me elsewhere. (The Discovery line just came out a couple of weeks ago -- bigger dustbins, more features, etc than original Roombas).

So I got it yesterday, and put it to work today: Roomba vacuumed the main areas of our house, except for the bedroom, while I put away laundry, picked up clutter, talked on the phone, and followed along with a Swiffer to get the corners. All in far less time than it takes me to vacuum the same rooms. Awesome. Some of my initial notes on having a robot in the house:
  • It's really, really, really hard not to start talking to it or of it as if it were another being. I feel bad that we're still calling it Roomba, its factory name, rather than a family name. I'm sure that will come in time.
  • Roomba has its own method of doing things. You're supposed to start it off in the center of the room; it then spirals outwards to cover the territory. But it has a complicated process of bumping off of furniture/obstacles and then zigzagging back and forth over the floor. On one pass it probably isn't as thorough as a regular vacuum -- but Roomba goes back, again and again and again, until it decides the floor is clean. This is a really different way from the approach of most humans, which is to clean in stripes or squares in a grid. Even my girlfriend, who is one of the most relaxed people I know about cleaning, and about how to clean, watched the robot for two minutes and was like "no, Roomba, get that piece of dirt over there!" And then she had to leave out of frustration. I think this is a fascinating response to a machine -- and apparently completely ordinary. All the articles I've read (and the very active user discussion groups I've seen) suggest that people almost immediately start treating it as a sentient being. We're all just getting ready for the really smart robots.
  • The dogs really didn't care too much about it -- it was less upsetting than the regular vacuum to W, except when it beeped. G was outside in the yard most of the time, but did seem kind of anxious when she noticed it getting close to the outside door.
  • Roomba doesn't do corners, or big clumps of dog hair. But I can follow along with a Swiffer to get those pretty easily. My regular vacuum doesn't really do corners anyway.
  • Our lifestyle isn't totally robot-friendly -- too many items on the floor that have to be picked up, power cords etc that you have to watch out for. But maybe this will help us be neater. ("Honey, you know the robot doesn't like your shoes to be in the living room".)
  • I really don't like to vacuum -- it always seems like tremendous effort to drag out the machine, plug it in behind the sofa, etc. Then I get really hot and dusty, and usually pretty cranky while doing it. This is way more fun.
  • Roomba isn't a HEPA vac -- if you have really bad allergies it might not be the best thing. But my HEPA vac is a really cheap one, and I didn't notice too much of a difference. And if I used Roomba more frequently than I use the vac, then we'll all be better off in the first place, not just while vacuuming.
  • Now, if only they'll come up with a hamster-sized robot to vacuum my upholstered furniture...



Earlier today I was doing a round of housecleaning-- sweeping, vacuuming, etc. I have to wear lace-up shoes while doing this -- not only for the psychological benefits of taking your housecleaning seriously, but mostly because I used to live in a part of the US in which the brown recluse spider was common. They are poisonous to nearly everyone, but some individuals are especially allergic to their venom. One year while I was in graduate school there was a horrible case in the news -- a woman had been vacuuming her home while barefoot and disturbed the spider, which bit her. She was really allergic and fell into a coma. By the time she woke up (I think several months later) all of her arms and legs had been amputated to save her life. So, ever since, I vacuum only while well-shod.

Anyway. My running shoes were caked with mud from taking the dogs to the park yesterday, so for some reason I pulled out my old hi-top Converse sneakers, which I haven't really worn in ages. They're splattered with paint from when we moved into this house -- but even long before that they weren't in my regular rotation. But wearing them as I cleaned made me feel pretty happy -- it's hard not to feel cool in Chucks. They were one of the few seriously symbolic pieces of clothing I've ever owned.

I got my first pair -- black, of course -- sometime during high school. I was mostly wearing boots all the time (a kind of elfen pair and a punkier suede with those fireman jacket buckles all the way up the side), but Chucks were cool for summer.

By the time I went to university, I had my old black pair and new yellow ones. This was the early/mid-80s, so they were perfect with mini-skirts, with brightly colored leggings, and the enormous wrinkly satin shirts that were really hip my freshman year. I went to school on the East Coast, at a place full of preppies -- serious old-money preppies, not the wanna-bes who just shopped JCrew. So the Converse were a kind of signal for those of us in the soon-to-be underground. All the freshmen were housed in dorms in one part of campus, and so I soon knew that there was a girl with red ones 2 buildings over. Somebody came up to me a few weeks into the term and said, "hey, you're the girl with the yellow Chucks, right?"

There were other signals we were all busy sending -- our haircuts, our t-shirts, our music -- but the Chucks were a big part of resisting the dominant style of the place (which tended towards khakis, perfect white t-shirts, those preppy jute(?) woven totebags, and loafers). They were a recognizable symbol of the margin -- a shared vocabulary that even the prepsters could read. (This was a seriously preppy place -- which made it really easy for us to be the cutting edge of alterna-fashion, 80s style. . . I was once stopped in the library by a guy who took a look at me and said "you like the Cure, right?" All of those signals were so important for us back then.)

Over the years since college I gradually stopped wearing Chucks -- partly because I was trying to look older, I guess -- and partly because my feet were finally protesting years of mistreatment. (Anybody else remember high-impact aerobics classes in the 80s?) I wore them sometimes in the summer, since summer clothes and shoes have always been so puzzling and problematic for me. (To this day, I wind up looking like a 12-year old boy or a camp counselor on the hottest days, if I'm not in my work clothes.) But the Chucks have been sitting in the corner of the closet for a long time.

Too long, I think. My best friend recently bought herself her first pair of Converse -- pink ones -- at the age of 40. She says it's one of the most happiness-generating purchases she's ever made. Wearing Chucks makes people respond to you differently, too, even if you are a nearing-middle-aged mom of 3. (her, not me.)

I might have to get a new pair -- not because of the paint, but because my aging feet seem to have spread out a bit. But I'm thinking it's time to regain some attitude for my feet.


a great class -- and miscellany from my day

Today is one of those days when I just feel so damn lucky to be able to do this for a living. I spent the morning rereading and thinking about poems from one of my favorite poets (Elizabeth Barrett Browning) and this afternoon discussing them with my students. My undergrads this semester are really sharp -- I'm so impressed and pleased. Last time I taught this course I had a much slower group. So discussion was lively and interesting, and I had a great time. The only problem is that we are already behind the syllabus. But good discussion is worth that, I think.

A joke that only Victorianists who listen to hip hop music or smoke weed might understand (maybe there's one of you out there?) . In a paper on Tennyson's poem "The Lotus Eaters," one of my students repeatedly mistyped "Choric Song" as "Chronic Song." Yup, those tranced-out sailors might just as well have been smokin the chronic...

A new low for students (not mine) paying attention in class: I received a very apologetic email from a student today explaining that she had missed the Blake quiz on Tues and could she make it up. The problem is that she's taking a class that I am not teaching. (Nor have I ever taught it.) I wrote her back and politely suggested that she consult her syllabus to discover the name of her professor.


my auto repair guys

My 11-year-old car is in the shop today. It was diagnosed 3 months ago with an incurable oil-burning engine problem, so at this point I'm simply adding oil to it regularly and trying to get as much life as I can out of it. Luckily, I don't have a very long commute, so it's possible that I can get a year or more out of it before having to buy a new car (and take on more debt). But today it's in the shop because I need new struts. There's other stuff too -- it needs a new axle, but that can wait a while. But the struts are a safety thing -- it had started to feel shaky on the freeway, and my Dour Crusty Mechanic said "I'd worry about you if we didn't do this now."

I don't like having my car in the shop -- who does? -- but I've come to really trust and like the people at this particular shop, who've been caring for my car for over five years now. It's run by a Greek family -- an older man and two brothers. Dour Crusty Mechanic is the head mechanic, and there's a slew of other guys who do various things. Brother #1 is the best at explaining things to the customers and setting the priorities for the day's work. The Brothers mostly manage the shop, I guess , rather than getting under the cars, but they know a heck of a lot.

The Bikram yoga studio I go to is only a few blocks away from the car place, so I try to schedule my oil changes around yoga class -- I'll drop the car off, go to class, and by the time I'm done they've finished the regular service. So one day Brother #1 asked me what I'd been doing, and I said I'd been at yoga. "Oh, the hot yoga place over on X street?" he said. Yes, I said, and I started chatting to him about the benefits of Bikram yoga. He sounded interested --he had a back injury he was rehabbing that was keeping him from running as much as he usually does. And he noted "A lot of our customers talk about the yoga -- men too."

But I was fairly surprised when he actually showed up in yoga class a few days later. He got really hooked on it -- he's about my age, in pretty good shape, and yoga practice helped him strengthen his spine and improve his flexibility.

One Saturday, after a particularly intense class, several of us were sitting on the benches in the front garden area, talking about the mental benefits of yoga practice. Brother #1 said "for me, it's a lot like going to church. There's certain things you have to do, certain rituals, they're talking in a foreign language -- it's really calming for the mind." (He attends a traditional Greek Orthodox church.) And I think he's absolutely right. That's part of what practice is all about.

He'd told me that he was keeping his yoga practice a secret from the guys at the shop, who would give him a hard time if they knew what he was doing. But as a manager, he can skip out for two hours without being noticed. (Although I would think the sweaty glow post-yoga might be a telltale sign.) I hadn't seen him in class for a while -- this morning he explained that he had injured his back again moving a washing machine, and hadn't been going to yoga. He's ready to sign up again this month, though, and sounded enthusiastic about returning to class. I like seeing him there -- it's a kind of weird overlapping of worlds that I enjoy.

Today I noticed that there was a stick of incense burning at the front desk where he was working. I wonder how long his yoga practice is going to remain a secret.