dryer lint

In Margaret Atwood's novel Cat's Eye, there's a minor character who's an artist who makes sculpture out of dryer lint. I often think of her when I'm cleaning the lint filter. We just bought some lovely new blue sheets, which I washed for the first time this morning, and the lint they made was so appealing -- a pretty blue, so soft and fuzzy. So then of course I had to check Google. I found at least one sculptor working in dryer lint; recipes for dryer lint clay and other crafts; and tips for composting and firestarting with lint.

Yup, I should get to work.


why it's good I don't live in the suburbs

We would never survive in the suburbs. Not only for the cultural reasons (I haven't yet heard of a gay lefty bohemian suburb in my city), but because we'd probably be stoned out of there for not keeping up appearances.

I just spent 90 minutes or so cleaning up our (fairly large) back yard-- scooping dog poop, gathering up dead branches, raking leaves. Really the bare minimum kind of maintenance. And that's about all I ever do to it. We rent our house, but I don't really think that if we owned property I'd suddenly be planting flowerbeds. We didn't do a very good job of keeping up the minimal decorative planting that existed here when we moved in. And I just don't really care about having a nice lawn. It's better than dirt. But the kind of focus and energy required to keep a lawn watered and green and mowed is just more than I have available to me. Our landlord (well, actually, another of her renters who gets a deal on rent) takes care of mowing our front yard, so that at least looks semi-respectable (except for the flowerbeds). But she's refused to deal with our back yard, so that's up to us.

And we just really don't care that much. As long as the dogs are happy and have space to run around, and we can sit out there and drink coffee in the mornings, it's fine with us.

Luckily, we live in a mixed-income neighborhood, on a not-yet-developed and not pretentious street. I'd say we are maybe the 3rd or 4th worst-looking yard/exterior house on the block -- so that puts us at the 75th percentile, maybe 80th. More than a passing grade. After all, down the street there's a guy who runs his own contracting business and usually has two bulldozers and other heavy equipment in his back lot. And we don't have chickens in our yard, like they do one street over.

So I guess I don't really need to worry too much. It's not the suburbs.



It's 8:30 at night and I'm actually contemplating getting ready for bed. Though I'm reading blogs, which could easily take up an hour or two -- except I'm so tired that I don't feel able to comment or even read terribly clearly. Which is probably a sign that I should cease and desist.

After posting my cranky list yesterday, I actually went on to have a not-terrible day. Just kind of long and tiring. And today was my day off: went to yoga, went out to lunch with my gf, we did a few errands. But then the tiredness of the week hit me all at once. Took a nap, took the dogs out, ate some food, and I'm still braindead exhausted. But not yet really sleepy. Just too tired to think.

It is helpful to realize from other people's blogs that lots of people are suffering from midterm malaise.

Large Urban U doesn't have a fall break. This is when we could really use one. Only half my students showed up on Thursday -- and if I could have blown off class I probably would have. If I weren't so darned conscientious, I'd just cancel a class day. I should have planned ahead to cancel one. But I didn't, and now I feel like there's too much still to cover on the syllabus. By the time Thanksgiving comes around, the semester is basically over -- it's a nice relief, but not really a rejuvenating break -- just a pause before the final crunch of exams.

But as tired as I am, I still know that my job could be so, so, much worse. So I really should just stop with the kvetching already.


blah. bleh. pluh.

Reasons why I'm feeling pretty pluh today:
  • I was supposed to get up at the crack of dawn (well, 7:30 which is awfully early for me) so that I could take care of a bunch of scanning for one of my classes, do some work on my own writing, and finish skimming the reading for my other class. But I absolutely, positively, Could Not Get Vertical. So then I sort of slept and dozed for 2 1/2 more hours. (my classes aren't til afternoon) So now I'm behind on the stupid crap, behind on my own work, and have to prep class and get out the door. More rested, but more cranky.
  • it's gray and rainy.
  • I wrote two long thoughtful posts earlier this week and now have nothing left to say.
  • midterm season sucks.
  • there's nothing good in the fridge to take for my lunch.
  • yesterday was Day of a Thousand Meetings which effectively wiped my brain.
  • haven't been to yoga class since Monday. Will go do 15 mins of home practice to attempt to change my attitude. Though part of me obviously just wants to wallow in the suckiness of today.


National Coming Out Day

In honor of National Coming Out Day, which occurs every October 11, I thought I'd write a bit about what it means to me to be an out lesbian professor.

I've been out to my colleagues since I first interviewed for my job. I asked a lesbian prof to tell me about the local glb community. Obviously, I was asking her to get some information and also to clarify things, in case her gaydar wasn't working. But I chose to ask her in front of some other people, which apparently surprised everyone. (But this is also a campus where one person told me that she was impressed that I wore pants to my interview instead of a skirt. Apparently I was getting bravery points left and right without even knowing it.)

I have two gay or lesbian colleagues in my department, and there are others on campus. Because of our urban location, there isn't much organization or community for glb people on campus -- there's an undergrad student group, but very little networking among glb faculty. But since I've been here for several years, word of my existence has sort of gotten around -- I can tell when certain students show up in my classes and say that "Dr. Gay Sociologist told me I should take your class for my Lit requirement."

And the same holds true for students. I don't explicitly come out to all of my classes -- my rule is that it has to be pedagogically relevant and useful to do so. But I drop enough clues that any student who has a vested interest in figuring out that I'm a lesbian can do so. (My appearance, the picture of my partner on my desk, no screening of gender pronouns, no hetero-normative assumptions in course lectures, etc). Of course, there are plenty of students who'd rather not figure it out. And that's OK too. Because I teach women's studies courses, my students are busy dealing with Feminism 101 and sometimes that's more than enough for them to handle.

I also teach courses that explicitly deal with sexuality and identity politics, and I do come out to my students in those classes on the first day. The first time I actually came out to a roomful of students was an incredibly powerful moment, even though most of them already knew or assumed I was a lesbian. I gave my usual spiel about how I don't make assumptions about aspects of their identity -- gender, race, ethnicity, religion, orientation, etc -- and how they are never required to self-identify in class dicussions. If they choose to, they can. But the ground rule of my class always is that you can't force someone else to self-disclose if s/he doesn't choose to. So I said all of this, and then said "But I should also tell you that I'm your lesbian professor." I could feel the energy in the room -- something sparkled like electricity. I'm quite sure none of them had ever had a teacher say something like that before. And even if they knew it beforehand, it does make a difference to say it. But my reason for coming out in those courses is a pedagogical one, and has to do with creating a safe discussion space for exploring cultural issues around sexuality. In my other courses, my explicit self-disclosure wouldn't have any connection to the course material, and might (at least on the first day) actually shut down students' minds more than help open them.

Being one of the few out professors on campus, and one of the few who teach courses related to sexuality, brings with it certain responsibilities. I frequently wind up being the unofficial advisor or mentor for glbt students, or the listening ear for students who are beginning to question their orientation. It happens less often than it might at a smaller college, simply because there actually is a thriving gay community in the city. But just because we're in a city doesn't mean that it's not important for glb faculty to be out on campus, to offer students advice and resources, to be the role models most of us didn't have.

"Coming out" is always a process, if only because you have to repeat it over and over again. It's not like you do it one day and then you're done. But every single time, no matter what response I've gotten, it's always been worth it.


Jacques Derrida 1930-2004

The news of Jacques Derrida's death is currently being reported in a variety of ways, some more irritating than others. The NYT obituary, for instance, twice detours into allegations surrounding Paul de Man's Nazi involvement -- which ultimately have very little to do with Derrida's life and work. I'm glad to see that various news sources are at least taking note of his passing -- and some are trying to be neutral in their appraisal of his contribution to 20th-century philosophy. But others are just rehearsing the same old tired claims that his writings are "absurd" or "difficult" or "controversial." (Actually, it's sort of fascinating to read several of these news clips -- most of them clearly derived from one never-to-be-located Ur-text, but each recombining the sentences in slightly different ways.)

Every week or two, famous actors and public figures pass away -- but at this point in my life, most of them have not yet been actors I identified with or saw as part of my own formative imaginative life. Musicians are a different category, of course; but I'm thinking here less of the tragic early deaths than those at the end of a long glorious career -- I'm not really familiar with actors from the 40s and 50s, so their passing registers less strongly with me.

But Derrida had a huge impact on my intellectual development and my drive towards the academy. I was introduced to his work as an undergraduate, in two different classes in one amazing semester: a mixed grad/undergrad course on literary theory and a modern philosophy course (also mixed grad/undergrad, now that I think about it). Quite simply, his work turned me on, caught my imagination, opened up new horizons for me in a way that other writers hadn't. Reading Derrida in the context of Kant, Hegel, Heidegger, Gadamer, Sartre, and others meant I came to his work from a different perspective than many literary scholars. It demonstrated to me that philosophy wasn't dead, and wasn't inaccessible -- that instead there were people committed to the exploration of new ways of thinking about the most basic ingredients of human thought and communication.

The late 1980s were an amazing time in the American academy -- by the time I started my PhD work, my cohort understood theory as an integral part of the study of literature. At no time were we ever taught that there was only one right way of reading a text, or developing an interpretation -- instead we were handed an amazing toolbox to use in figuring out for ourselves which methods and paradigms seemed most interesting and most useful for our particular questions. What the right wing and the general media never seemed to understand, in characterizing all literary theory, and especially deconstruction, as the Evil Force of Chaos about to Destroy the Canon (remember the so-called Culture Wars?), was that in order to really understand Derrida's work, you had to be steeped in the Western literary and philosophical tradition. And, of course, Derrida's goal was never to produce a "reading" of a single literary text. To read any text is necessarily to participate in an endless process of creation, misunderstanding, and re/creation -- the play of the text is what allows for the free play of the mind. To watch Derrida's mind at work in his essays is still an awe-inspiring performance for me -- and has the effect of strong espresso on my brain cells. It wakes me up, makes me think in new ways, helps me see the larger horizons and stakes in what we do as readers and teachers of texts.

My own published work rarely draws on Derrida's, because my goals and procedures are rather different. And yet I credit his work as one of my formative influences. Although I didn't know him personally, I had the privilege to see him lecture twice (in English, at US universities) -- I found him completely captivating, exhilirating, and funny. His quirky personality was legend in certain academic circles -- yet the sweet side of him showed through, I thought, in the documentary film released two years ago. Sure, he was sort of a rock star for geeky academics -- there was some kind of thrill in watching him butter his toast in the morning, to see the room where he wrote, to see him putter around the house with his wife. But the film also nicely captured the complexity of his life -- his early life experiences, his intellectual trajectory, his commitment to political causes -- and even, in some well-selected quotes, gestured at the rich emotional tones in his work on nostalgia, memory, and loss. Reading Derrida, I never lost sight of the individual man behind the text -- playful and serious together, unafraid to swerve, to alter course midway through an essay -- in just the way the human mind and its languages invariably lead us to do. He was a great thinker, a complicated person, and a wonderful writer who pushed our boundaries about what serious texts could and could not do. I know my own intellectual life is richer and more free because of his work.

Update 10/10/04 2:30 pm: Others too around the web are recollecting Derrida's impact. A few worth reading:
I know there will be many more over the next few days.


anti-growth rant

I'm a week or so overdue for a haircut -- and today my hair crossed over that line between "needs a good trim" to incredibly annoying overgrowth. Comparable only to the feeling of when your fingernails are too long and you don't have a clipper handy. Eventually all you can feel is the length of your nails touching the keyboard or even your skin. Errrggh.

I've often suspected that my hair and nails grow awfully fast (I have to clip my nails every 4-5 days), but maybe it's just that I'm more sensitive to it than other people. So, humor me please with a quick poll: If you keep your fingernails short (and you should for hygienic reasons if nothing else -- and how else could you type, dear bloggers?) , how often do you have to cut them?



Update on Mr Text Messaging: he did come to meet with me about rewriting his paper. Yet he spent most of the time trying to impress me by reciting the names of some of the other profs he'd had (all men) and saying that "I think I've been pretty well educated." OK, but you still wrote a C- paper. "Well, I just have such an archaic writing style." And how do you think that will serve you? He did eventually admit that he hadn't spent much time on the paper, and that he couldn't find a thesis sentence in it either. As he was walking out the door he was quoting one of my colleagues who'd apparently said some maxim to him about writing style that this guy took as a compliment, when it really wasn't. I'd sort of suspected earlier this term that this student has some issues with having a female professor, and now it's become much clearer. Invoking the authority of my colleagues isn't going to make me back down, dude. Get a grip.

And at the complete other end of the spectrum, one of those golden moments that make it all worthwhile. A shy young man who'd also gotten a C on his paper came to see me last week about it -- obviously nervous about talking to me one on one, but I felt that by encouraging him to explain his thoughts about the text I'd made a better connection with him. He's never spoken in class. Yesterday, he did! and the passage he brought forward started off a great discussion thread. It's really wonderful when you can help a student feel empowered to participate in the conversation -- especially when it's a class with a number of strong students who talk a lot. Each time someone new joins in, you can see the other quiet students taking notice. A kind of ripple effect.

Like most English departments, I'd say our major enrolls more women than men -- but I don't know any exact figures. In one of my classes this term, I have one-third men, which is a higher ratio than I often do (although that also has to do with some of the courses I teach). I've written before about how I think my presence in the classroom is significant for many of my women students. It's harder for me to theorize /understand what I represent for the male students, since I don't usually have so many of them. Sort of an ongoing project in this particular class. Thinking about these two examples -- I think my teaching persona & pedagogy must be a novel experience for both of these men. (Does it clarify anything to point out that Mr Text Messaging is a large white guy, and Mr Shy Speaker is Hispanic?) More on this anon.


to the disgruntled guy in the back row:

OK, dude, I know I kinda embarrassed you Tuesday when after almost 30 minutes of watching you text message I directly told you to put your phone away. But you know? the rest of us here are doing our jobs -- being students and being the teacher. If you want to message your friends, do it somewhere else, some other time. After all, my attendance policy does not require that you come to class every day. I simply point out that if you don't, it's likely that you will do poorly on assignments because you won't know what's going on.

Like the paper I handed back to you last week with a nice fat C- on it. You've got the rewrite option, like everyone else in class -- but only if you conference with me first. I'd be willing to bet that you will try to hand in a rewrite without having met with me. And that it will be just as crappy a paper as the first one. Unless of course you resort to plagiarizing. In which case I will bust your ass.

Oh, whine, whine, I'm being so tough on you? Well, it's partly because you've been acting like a jerk all semester. You sleep half of every class. And then when you do raise your hand to speak, you say something designed to rile up all the serious students who are actually doing the reading. Something really brilliant like "well, she wrote like that because she was a woman." I actually don't mind the devil's advocate comments that much -- it's just that I'm beginning to suspect that all of your "participation" is just a front for your basic slackness. You don't have to have done the reading to make the comments you do. And in fact, I heard you boasting to someone else that you hadn't read any of the novel that we're currently studying. Well, participation isn't just opening your mouth -- it also involves some thought and content.

You're a big guy, with a loud voice, and fairly decent speech. I'm pretty sure you've gotten this far in your life with people just assuming you know what you're talking about. Well, I know that you don't. Game's up, buddy.


work habits

Two of my blog favorites have recently been writing about procrastination and academic deadlines. I've been thinking a lot about these two posts, since I could easily have written much of their content myself.

In particular -- New Kid wrote about how somewhere during dissertation writing, the typical fuzziness about meeting academic deadlines set in:
In grad school especially, my friends and I disdained this behavior. How hard was it really to get things in on time? What kind of slackers were these people? WE would never act that way. After all, we needed good grades and letters of recommendation and jobs. We couldn't afford to turn things in late, and really, why would we?

But somewhere along the line the rot set in. I think it was during the dissertation, when external deadlines really had no meaning at all. I needed to set my own deadlines, and damned if I was no good at this at all. Because, really, deadlines came to seem so arbitrary.

I too have this idea that sometime in my past, I was better able to manage my time, my writing, and my deadlines -- I've been saying for years that in college I was not only turning things in on time, but sometimes had them done early. Well, that's true -- but the "early" part was mostly because I didn't have a computer -- I had to handwrite my papers, and then type them on my typewriter. (Yup, I'm a dinosaur. I first used a computer for word processing in my last year of college -- but that involved standing in line at the computer lab -- again, I wasn't composing on the PC, just editing and typing.) And, when I really think about it, I can remember a lot of late nights listening to REM on perpetual repeat as I wrote my papers. (Anybody else have certain albums from college that were standbys for writing papers? I can't listen to Murmur, or Low without getting that up-all-night-thinking-about-philosophy feeling).

OK, so maybe I wasn't completely super-organized in college. But it was also a heck of a lot easier to manage my time then -- far fewer responsibilities dragging me in different directions.

Profgrrrrl provides a wonderful glimpse inside the familiar procrastination so many of us know and dread:
I have oodles of things to do. Some with hard deadlines. Some with my own softer ones. Some (dangerously) with no sense of deadline.

Some of the deadlines have passed (thankfully not many). Some are right upon me. And a few are upcoming, just close enough to feed into that panic feeling.

I hate feeling like this. I hate the out-of-control world spinning around me. I hate that this seems to happen to me entirely too often.

Every single time I'm up late working for a deadline -- whether it's a writing deadline, or even just grading my students' papers, I think: how could this be happening, AGAIN? How could I be so dumb?

Now, depending on my frame of mind, I have a variety of answers to that question. (And I know several good books on overcoming procrastination: The Now Habit is the best, I think.) But tonight's answer involves a deeper look back into my work habits.

My very first research paper assignment was in fourth grade. We got to pick our own topics -- mine was ESP. We had to write outlines, use note cards, and eventually write a five page paper. This was a huge project for 9-year-olds in the Jurassic era. (I'm sure today's hyperachieving kids are doing this in kindergarten.) I read books on my topic, did my outline and notecards, and wrote the paper. But what do I remember most? I had to stay up way past my bedtime the night before the paper was due: til midnight. Because I had to slowly, painfully recopy the whole damn paper because the teacher was going to be grading us on our penmanship, and mine was crap. And my mom got mad at me for staying up so late.

Not an illustrious beginning to my research writing career. Although I did get an A, thereby rewarding my late night and suggesting that academic success and working right up to the deadline go hand in hand.

p.s. I also remember being mad that the teacher had marked my careful copying of the digraph in Encyclopaedia Britannica wrong, even though she'd impressed upon us that we had to copy all the titles exactly.


times are a-changin'

My partner and I attended an event this weekend that drew a large number of people, mostly from the so-called "women's community" (i.e., mostly middle-class lesbians). What was nice at this particular event was that there was a wide range of ages -- this is one context in which I don't mind falling into the old fart routine: You know, in my day, we didn't have events like these, or support groups in high school, or lesbians represented in film or on TV.

It's really great to see these young kids who are able to explore different aspects of their identity in a public and community fashion, not simply by sneaking off to the library to read whatever sociological treatises and 70s feminist tracts they could find. Sure, it doesn't necessarily make your life easy, just because you have the option of being out in high school -- but simply the greater availablity of a public discourse about sexuality in general, and homosexuality in particular, means that young people with a vested interest in exploring such topics can find their way to resources. The internet alone would have made my life so much better. I'd still probably have been a sulky, depressed adolescent -- but I'd have been able to write bad poetry and chat with other sulky kids online.

Growing up in a small Midwestern college town, I actually had it easier than many people I know -- there was a decent library, so I could at least read about gays and lesbians. My family knew gay people -- all of them men -- and there was a gay male English teacher at my high school. He wasn't out -- but everyone knew that he was gay. But that kind of unspoken tolerance only goes so far. A few years later, he was one of the first HIV cases in our town, and the nurses at the hospital refused to feed him, so our (female) high school Latin teacher would go every day so he could take his meals.

Gay/lesbian students at my high school? I can make some guesses now. But at the time (early 80s) no one was openly gay. Sure, there were the odd rumors about the daring exploits of the drama club. And several people probably handled things as I did, on an individual need-to-know basis. But there was no sense of community, no opportunities for glb students to connect with each other.

I basically just counted the days until I would graduate. Then, I knew, my real life would begin, somewhere else. (And it did!)


on biography

As a literature teacher, I generally feel some obligation to explain to my students some key elements from the life stories of the authors who we are studying: not only because they expect it, and because the anthology provides some cursory information, but also because it helps me explain aspects of the specific historical period. Issues about access to education, class status, professional options for men and women, etc, etc, all come up when you're talking about the lives of individual writers.

But at another level I hate having to do this. Not because I believe in Transcendent Literature that escapes all place and time (in fact, quite the opposite) or because I'm a staunch Formalist/New Critic /Deconstructionist who only wants to look for linguistic patterns of meaning (that's part of what I teach, but not my only approach). The historical approach of my own work means that sometimes specific biographical contexts are relevant -- and sometimes not. I can pick and choose depending on the kind of question I'm trying to answer.

But in the classroom, any discussion of an author's life inevitably seems incredibly reductive -- 10 minutes, 20 minutes even, to explain a whole life? And worse yet, some students want to take whatever tiny smidge of biographical information I or the anthology have given them, and construct elaborate and usually patently misguided readings of the texts.

I don't think it's their fault, exactly -- our general culture still valorizes a Romantic model of artistic production that equates the text (or song, etc) with the author's own feelings and is very resistant to models of aesthetic signification that complicate or pluralize the possible meanings in a text. And, faced with a text that might be deliberately ambiguous in its "message" or alluding to various layers of literary history that my students are relatively deaf to, they fall back on biography as the explanatory model. Obviously, my job is to explain those multiple layers of meaning, and I think I do that fairly well in the classroom. But then I still get one or two papers that insist "Robert Browning wrote this poem because he was jealous of his wife's success" with absolutely no way of backing up their claim. Sure, I can treat it as a problem of evidence, which I often do in my comments. But it seems to me there's a larger question about literary pedagogy here.

So, if you're in a humanities field for which questions of authorship are relevant to the interpretation of texts or artworks: how do you deal with biography?


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...