travel day

Well, I survived my day of travel. It actually wasn't bad at all -- traveling midweek and midday meant that my flight was only 2/3 full. The extra security stuff wasn't an issue either -- it seems as though everyone's attitude was more serious, but my home city airport is always pretty efficient with these things.

I'm now at Conference City, happily ensconced in my hotel rooom -- which has both high-speed internet and cable tv! (The latter is something I don't get at home -- and this hotel actually runs channels I'd want to watch (the last conference hotel I was in didn't have much except sports, sports, and news). So I got to learn all about the evolution of whales on Animal Planet. Yay!)

Downside is that I'm still tinkering with my conference paper. The curse and the benefit of having the laptop. I've never been to a conference before as a laptop person, so this is all new to me -- I got a lot done in the airport etc today, but I suspect it might get tiresome to carry it around all over. And I don't really know how paranoid I need to be about leaving it in my hotel room. None of this is relevant right now, though -- right now I need to get back to work.


on teaching

All of George's prompts for the upcoming Teaching Carnival are excellent questions . . . a variant I've been thinking about is "how do you teach differently now than you did in your first year(s)."

I'm currently teaching a newly reworked version of a survey course that I've taught many times since taking this job at Large Urban, and I'm pretty excited about its new incarnation. I usually enjoy teaching the course -- many of the texts I pick are things I love -- and I've only had one truly dreadful semester with it, a mixture of a bad novel choice, a horrible classroom, and a dud bunch of students. That was 3 or 4 years ago, and I've had several good runs with it since.

Unlike some of my other, more focused courses, this one is definitely a juggling act, in which I have to balance all the literary genres, mixed media, and historical context, for students who mostly know nothing about the nineteenth century when they first walk in the door. But as frustrating as that ignorance can be sometimes (try asking them when the French Revolution was, or the American Revolution for that matter) their freshness or openness allows them to see things in these cultural objects that they might not otherwise connect with.

Because this is the only course many students will take in my area of expertise, I feel a certain responsibility to include some texts I wouldn't otherwise choose to teach. They have to know Browning, for instance, even though there are many other poets I prefer. But comparing this year's syllabus to the one from my very first semester, it's clear that I've altered the course to suit my interests. It's better for the students if I teach texts, ideas, and issues that I'm passionate about, rather than slogging through things I think I "ought" to teach.

What do I do differently? I'm much more directive than I used to be. I give my students explicit, written guidelines on how to begin approaching the texts, what to focus on in the reading, and how to prepare for the assignments. I used to do this in class, and I'll continue to tailor my presentations that way. But this year I'm trying out a more structured approach to the day-to-day work of reading and discussion.

Now, as compared with 14 years ago when I began teaching, I'm much more likely to begin a sentence in class "I think that..." rather than only presenting what other critics have to say, or hiding my thoughts underneath blandly neutral language. I want my students to be easily able to distinguish my critical opinion and arguments from the historical facts about a text, or its formal features, or the critical tradition. I'm at a place in my publishing and teaching where I know that I have opinions and arguments, and their position relative to other scholars'. I actually now also believe that some of my opinions are worth conveying to my students.

I'm more likely to talk to my students about which poems I love, and why I love them. I try to find out which texts they love, too.

I've set up my courses so that I don't have to hear excuses about late or missing work. My students know from the beginning what the consequences are of such things. I don't like to have to play King, judging all who come before my throne, weighing the stomach flu against a court date against a sick grandmother. So now I don't have to.

I know why I'm a hard ass about some things and generous about others. I've figured out my reasons for doing a lot of the things I used to do instinctively. So even if some of my practices haven't changed, my thoughts about them have.

One thing that doesn't change: the buzz of adrenaline I get right before a class, or the floating high after a good class finishes. There's not much else like that.


How do you know it's time to stop writing the paper for your upcoming conference and go to bed?

When your monitor display suddenly turns sideways. As in, the whole thing: task bar, text, everything.

It turns out that the video card in my new desktop machine has this capability -- if my old one did, I never encountered it. If you purposely (or accidentally, as in my case) hit Ctrl-Alt- arrow key, your display goes wacky. But then you can toggle it back.

But there's nothing quite like trying to read stupid Help screens sideways -- to no avail -- I Googled the problem after a few minutes and found my answer quickly.

But now I have a neck crick. And I'm tired anyway.

p.s. There really should be a rule that conferences can't be scheduled during the first month of classes. I'm so not ready to shift gears all of a sudden, since I have barely gotten into teaching mode.


how important is 1/8?

My U doesn't have any official "passing time" between class timeblocks. So one class is scheduled 11:30-1:00, the next is 1:00-2:30, the next is 2:30-4:00 (for the 90 minute blocks; there are others, for different kinds of courses). So, most faculty let their students go with about 10 minutes to spare before the next class hour starts, to allow them to walk to other buildings, etc. Occasionally I might run into that time and let them out with 8 minutes, or a little less; occasionally I might let them go with 15 minutes, if we've reached a good stopping point right then.

One of my students came up after class on Tuesday and explained that the professor in her class before mine runs class right up until 1:00, and she has to sprint across campus. She will probably be a few minutes late, nearly every day -- but that's not her fault. I'm glad she explained what the situation was, and it's slightly irritating, but she's been very good about trying to get to class as quickly as possible.

Also on Tuesday, in the same class, after I went over the syllabus and explained the set up of the course, I asked if anyone had any questions, before we moved on to the lecture/discussion part of the session. A student raised her hand, and when I called on her, she said "I have to leave early." I said, "Today?" and she said "I have to leave early every day, at 2:10, so I can pick up my children."

This really wasn't a question, of course -- she was simply telling me that she would be leaving. Add to that the ideology that assumes that because she's a mother all rules don't apply to her. That really irritates me. Because frankly, it's all the same to me why you think you have to leave. I don't really see why I should be accomodating in this instance. Why sign up for a course that you know you will be missing 1/8 of? But I also don't see what I can do about it. I can't bar the door, or drop her from the course.

So I told her that she'd better sit near the door so she wouldn't disrupt the other students when she left. She sucked her teeth at me about that, but on Thursday she complied. After class on Tues, another student came up and explained that she too would have to leave at 2:10 to pick up her kid, and that she'd sit by the door as well.

So they slipped out while I was still talking, which of course created a ripple effect of glances and restlessness among other students. This is going to be very frustrating every afternoon. And I refuse to go out of my way to make sure they get any handouts, announcements, or information that I deliver in the last 10-15 minutes of the class. It's their responsibility to find out what they missed, just the same as if they missed a full day due to illness.

Grr. Now my task is to not let my irritation with their poor choices interfere with my assessment of their participation and performance in other aspects of my class.


and so it begins

Yesterday was my first actual teaching day, and I'm pretty pleased with my schedule, my courses, and my students. The past two days were a horrible foggy blur since I had a horrendous bout of allergies (just like Julie)
-- or at least I'd prefer to think it was allergies and not a cold (because somehow that seems less my fault -- though of course genetic weakness is hardly a thing to be prized either) (yeah, I know, it's all crazy thinking, but I really, really, HATE to feel sickish) -- in any case, I didn't really sleep Sunday or Monday night because I kept coughing. I was even dreaming about having to cough. And then once I was vertical, I was sneezing and blowing my nose all day long. Not exactly a good way to start off the semester (though I did manage to not have to actually blow my nose in the classroom, which would be kinda embarrassing on the first day). Time will tell whether my husky phlegm-induced Lauren Bacall voice scared the students off on the first day (or made some of them stay?).

But this morning, I woke up feeling rested, and I could breathe easily. There's a little residual chest congestion, but my nose is totally clear, my brain is working again, and I feel like my own self, not Phlegm Monster. Yay! (We did have a weather shift that might have changed the allergens -- or maybe it was a baby cold that my garlic and herbal treatment knocked out-- I'm just happy it's over.)

Now, a day of finishing up all the organizational stuff (gradebook spreadsheet, scanning, WebCT, reserves desk, etc) and I'll be in the teaching groove again.


aging (a good thing)

I finally must be looking like my actual age. For years, I've put up with well-meaning (or not so well-meaning) comments like "you can't possibly be a professor" or "you look like you're 20 -- you'll be happy about that someday." I've grown a tough skin about such comments, and thankfully I haven't been carded for an R movie since I was about 27, but it still can be irritating. I don't, after all, randomly tell strangers "you look really old -- what do you mean you're only 40? I thought you were 60." But in any case, I think things are starting to change.

Sign #1: I'm teaching in a media-equipped classroom this semester, and in order to use the equipment I need a special key that the Classroom Support office guards jealously. They've restructured their offices, so last week I went to one place to get the key, only to be told to phone another office. I did, and was told to email someone. I emailed on Tuesday, and again on Thursday, and made another phone call on Friday. I was really making an effort to get the key before today, before the start of classes -- both because I actually need to use the equipment tomorrow, and because I know the first week is a zoo. Well, about 4:45 on Friday I was told that the key would be available for pickup Monday afternoon at the IT service counter -- the same place all the students go to get their new logon IDs etc. Exactly what I was trying to avoid.

So I walk over there, and as I approach the line, which had extended well into the hallway, a staff member walks up to me and says "hi, are you here to pick up something?" She ferried me behind the counter and found someone who knew how to unlock the special drawer where the keys were kept. She didn't know me personally, but I must have looked enough like faculty to be able to be spotted in a room full of 20-somethings. This was one occasion I was happy to get a little dose of faculty privilege. And without having to go through some rigamarole about proving that I really was who my faculty ID card says I am.

Sign #2: none of the guys manning the student organization booths on the central quad whistled, tried to chat me up, or even looked at me. I think I've finally reached middle-aged invisibility, which in these instances is a Really Good Thing.


last weekend

Ahhh, Saturday. This was a really busy week at the U, getting things ready before classes start Monday morning. I had two 7:30 a.m. meetings this week, which meant that my wacked-out sleep schedule of the past month got a stiff kick in the rear. I'd like to be a consistently early riser -- I think it's actually better for my mental health to get up early. I know it's better for my physical health if I get up at the same time every day. But sometimes staying up late is just so appealing. When I was younger, I was definitely a late-night person. So I have those tendencies too. In any case, after three days in a row of getting up at 6, (and 7 today) I'm now getting in the groove. I'd like to get up at 6 or 6:30 most days I think -- although my normal routine does NOT involve being dressed, caffeinated, and on the road before 7:00 a.m. -- thankfully. But if I can get up that early and do the morning walks, it would give me some good work time before needing to shift gears into teaching mode for the afternoon and evening. (My faithful readers will remember that at the beginning of the summer I was talking about a similar getting up early plan. It worked for a while, and then my sleep cycles started to drift...) I've been reading Steve Pavlina's tips on sleep management and going to give it another try.

I'm looking forward to my classes -- I've substantially reworked both of my courses for the semester, and I'm using a number of new readings, so I've got a lot of new prep to do, but I'm pleased with the changes I've made. I have a half-written post about teaching (in response to the great Teaching Carnival posts I've been reading) -- maybe I can actually finish it this weekend.

Mostly, though, I was working such long days at the office that when I got home the last thing I wanted to do was sit in front of the computer, or even read anything. GF and I watched the last DVD available of BSG -- aarrggh! negativecapability warned me that at the break midway in season 2 there was a horrible cliffhanger -- she's so right. Now we have to wait until midSeptember when the DVD of season 2.5 comes out.

Last night we went to see Scoop, which was a lot of fun. The last few Woody Allen films I've seen have really grown on me. And Scarlet Johannsen doesn't irritate me so much as she used to -- I was never entirely sure if it was her, or the pedophilic movies she was in originally. (Lost in Translation completely icked me out, even though I know so many people loved it.) But now that she's getting a bit older, I like her better. (And even though she's clearly Woody Allen's current muse, she's not portrayed as his sexual interest in any of these recent films they've done together.) I'm curious, too, about the cluster of films this year that deal with illusionists -- this one is comic, but there's also The Prestige and The Illusionist coming out soon, and they both look really interesting. Random coincidence? Deeper cultural pattern?

Last weekend we also saw The Descent, and Shadowboxer. The Descent is basically a better version of The Cave, with an all-female cast. If you like entrapment/disaster adventure-thrillers, you can't hardly go wrong with this one. The basic premise of both films is pretty standard (expedition goes awry, bad stuff happens, some people die, some make it) -- and I've been told there's a Scottish folk tale about cannibals that lies behind these movies as well as lots of other horror films. But what's interesting to me are the anxieties about evolution that these films play on. In each case there are creatures in the caves (oh, don't tell me you didn't know that -- you can still see the movie) that used to be human, but have adapted to life underground and have become something else. The protagonists need climbing gear and lights and other equipment, but the slithery creatures don't . . . these fears about the direction of human development are very 19th century in some ways.

In contrast to most of the critics, I really, really liked Shadowboxer. It's not for everybody -- it's extremely violent, dark, sexy, and perverse. But I found it visually and intellectually satisfying. The look of the film is incredibly beautiful, and Helen Mirren and Cuba Gooding Jr are wonderful together. It's The Grifters meets Oedipus in a Euro-hip-hop fusion that looks like nothing else on screen right now. Over the top, melodramatic, but compelling -- terminal cancer, hired killers, mob lords, and a crazy Macy Gray. Mo'Nique does a great performance as a crack-addicted nurse named Precious, paired off with Joseph Gordon-Levitt -- their subplot could almost have been a whole movie on its own -- you want to know more about lots of the peripheral characters. There's a richness to this world that fills out the noir plot and draws you in.

The fall looks like it will be full of good films. . . and I'm so excited about Viva Pedro. I think it's interesting that they're putting the darker, earlier films (like Matador) last in the retrospective, after pulling in audiences with the crowdpleasing romps like Women on the Verge. Smart from a marketing perspective, but not historical enough for my liking. And of course there are all the other Almodovar films that they're not re-releasing. I think I saw all of these during their original release, but I'll definitely go out to see them again on the big screen.

My weekend plans involve: more course planning and prep; working on a conference paper; finishing my closet purge; working out; hanging out with GF and the dogs who I've barely seen for a few days; and maybe another movie (the lines last week for Little Miss Sunshine were too annoying, but maybe we can sqeeze in a matinee today). And a haircut for the start of the semester. It does NOT involve going in to campus, which right now makes me very, very happy.


small manageable bits

I have to make more progress on my course designs today, and I have to manage my rising anxiety and distraction about work, upcoming travel, and the fact that Old Girl is having a biopsy today at the vet hospital. So, here's a list of course related things that I'm going to focus on today and tomorrow:
  • make final choices of readings from textbook for course A
  • read through last year's assignments for course A
  • plan new assignments for course A
  • revise boilerplate for syllabus A
  • calendarize course A
  • plan first day activity for course A
  • write new policies for course B
  • finish revising assignments for course B
  • decide about library trips for course B
  • select supplementary readings for course B
  • revise boilerplate for syllabus B
  • calendarize course B (this is going to be the tricky one)
  • plan first day activity for course B
  • create WebCT module for course A
  • create WebCT module for course B
and my "when all else seems too difficult" list of small tasks:
  • delete/file emails
  • purge filing cabinet

I'll be so much happier once the semester really gets underway. I'm teaching courses I like, updated with some new books, and I have a good schedule. But right now there's a lot to do and I'm feeling distracted.


shopping happiness

Every August, I get the urge to purge my closet and go clothes shopping as part of my back-to-school preparations. Partly, I think it's the slight confusion I feel, faced with the prospect of putting together teaching outfits next week, when I've been wearing jeans, cargo pants, and t-shirts all summer. Simply remembering what I used to wear to work seems like an effort. Plus, there's the slow decay of my wardrobe. I weed out a few things every year, but I'm thinking I need to start timestamping my clothes. After five years, most of my jackets and pants really need to be put out of rotation (I'm not that into "timeless" "classics". Especially since the cut of even basic clothes changes.)

This year I feel more frustrated than usual with my wardrobe, since I've lost a few inches and many of my clothes no longer fit the same. I'm going to have to re-hem most of my pants, since they're hanging down lower now. Some things I can just wear baggier, but some are really looking like shapeless sacks.

So yesterday I gave in to the urge and did a little shopping. And for the first time in years, I am so happy with the styles in the stores. My essential, fundamental tastes in fashion and music were formed in the 80s. So I was thrilled to find skinny black jeans and these boots on sale. They remind me of both my favorite elf boots from high school, and the punk boots I wore in college. There are other 80s styles I'm not interested in -- those shirts with huge ruffles down the front, for instance -- but I'm psyched that pants are finally narrowing. Flared pants are just not that good on a shorter person. Old Navy was rocking an awesome 80s soundtrack while I was in there, too... it's almost enough to make me bust out some purple eyeliner. (I already switched to a more extreme hair product a month or two ago.)

It's been a long, long time since I felt this excited about getting some new clothes. Of course, this isn't a full wardrobe overhaul yet, but now I feel even more motivated to clear the big baggy pants out of my closet.



Sometimes you really just need to laugh. But comedy is really tricky for me-- there's
a lot of stuff that other people find hilarious that just doesn't seem that amusing to me. And then, once in a while, there's a film that really just tickles me. Last night we went to see Talladega Nights, and I was really pleasantly surprised. I haven't laughed that much in a movie theater in a long time. It helped, too, that we were in a crowded room, with mostly adults, not just teenagers -- there's something communal and therapeutic about laughing with other people.

Anyway, why did I like this movie? Besides the fact that John C Reilly and Will Farrell were hilarious (especially since we'd last watched Will Farrell try to be Woody Allen in Melinda and Melinda -- which I liked, except for his performance, which was mostly just painful to watch). And that the ever-amusing Jane Lynch was in it, and various other people too. But even though it's a comedy about NASCAR drivers, it was actually really kind of sensitive underneath the gags. The humor was largely verbal, rather than physical (always a plus for me), and it was not hateful or mean.

It's a movie about Southerners that isn't mocking the South. It's a movie about the homosocial world of racing that does not veer into homophobia -- when the openly gay French driver (played by Sacha Baron Cohen) shows up to put Will Farrell's career to rest, the film could have turned really ugly. I'm always nervous at moments like those. But instead, the film pokes fun at homophobia itself, and by the time Farrell locks lips with Cohen, the audience we were watching with didn't groan or squirm uncomfortably.

Underneath it all, it's a movie about male friendship, and about believing in yourself. Facing your fear and finding your self-esteem internally rather than externally. Nothing new, nothing that hasn't been the structure of many other Hollywood films. But it infuses this comedy with a a generous spirit, one that made me feel safe to laugh and enjoy myself. (Unlike, for instance, My Super Ex Girlfriend, which was so misogynistic and homophobic that we walked out after 10 minutes and saw John Tucker Must Die instead. Which, as a mashup of Heathers and Mean Girls, was way better than the former waste of Wilson and Thurman talent.)

I realize that in talking about the movie in this way, I'm not really conveying the hilarity of it. But when Ricky Bobby begins saying grace at the dinner table, "Dear sweet baby Jesus" and his family gets in an argument about the right way to picture Jesus, I was dying laughing. Or when he crashes his car and runs around convinced he's burning with invisible fire. It's definitely going in the corner of our DVD shelf designed for making Crappy Days better.


ups and downs

down: I can't wake up this morning. Just can't.
up: GF volunteers to take care of the morning dogwalks for me and I sleep for several more hours.
down: half the day is gone when I do finally wake up.
up: I decide NOT to go into the office, as this is the last day I can get away with that kind of behavior.
down: summer is really ending/ended.
up: I set my goals for the day, trying to achieve something.
Extra UP: I get an email that my new computer has shipped early! (After my hard drive crashed I decided it was finally time to give in to my itch for a new machine. It already needed a new CD drive, and the hard drive, and who knows what else would be next...) FedEx tracker claims it will arrive today!
down: every time I hear a truck outside, or a noise remotely resembling a truck, I go and peek out the window. But it's not FedEx.
up: I get some work done.
down: it starts to thunder and I am the only person in the house. Three dogs, one of whom is very nervous about storms, attach themselves to me. I give up on work and read for one of my classes, since I have to pause every 30 seconds to wipe dog slobber or pet somebody.
up: weather clears
down: FedEx updates their tracker and my package has spent the entire day sitting in a warehouse 5 hours from here. Now it says it will arrive on Saturday.
up: I had a relaxing day in my house
down: I didn't get enough done, and I'm feeling the slow rise of panic about end of summer/beginning of term.
up: I'll still be getting my new computer 6 days earlier than they'd originally said.
down: I have a LOT to do (work, organizing, etc) so that I can play around with it if/when it comes.

yup, I'm all over the emotional map today.


Reading for Pleasure Wednesday

As the semester looms nearer, my pleasure reading tends more and more towards light things and SF. I'm almost finished with Jack McDevitt's Seeker, which I picked up at the library without realizing it was a sequel. But I'm not having any trouble getting into the characters or their world without knowing the earlier books. Set way, way, in the future, in a time that looks back to the beginning of interplanetary travel as an age of antiques worth collecting, the novel focuses on a couple of artifact hunters searching for a derelict space ship that once belonged to a freedom-seeking sect. There are puzzles to be solved, ethical issues about the collection and distribution of artifacts, and interactions with a telepathic alien species. Engaging, well written for SF, entertaining.


20 years

My 20th high school reunion will be taking place in a couple of weeks. I will not be going. I hated high school (only marginally less than I hated junior high school) and spent most of my time figuring out how to leave early.

There are a few friends I grew up with that I'm still in touch with, on a once-a-year Xmas card kind of basis. A couple of people are still living in our home town, and I see them when I visit my mother. But by and large I've been able to forget most of the people and events associated with high school. Or so I thought.

I'd never gotten any information about the 10-year and had thought I'd remained below the radar of the ex-student-council types. But someone passed my email along to the people who are organizing this reunion. They're circulating all information about it electronically, which makes sense in the current age. But they're doing this not via a website, like sane people -- but by sending email "blasts" (say that in perky cheerleader voice to get it just. right.) to everyone in our class who they have an email address for. This was a moderate-sized school, with maybe 350-400 people in our class. They've got emails for probably 250 at this point.

The best part? Various geniuses have been hitting "reply all" to send their enthusiastic comments and suggestions. One girl woman (sorry, but how can I think of her as an adult? in my mind she'll always be a preppy volleyball player) writes "hey, Joe Smith, can you still dunk a basketball? Kristi I loved your hair!! Kurt Henderson, remember barfing after the big game?"* And then Joe has to write back about yes he can still dunk, etc. The "popular people" are having a frickin conversation in front of 200 other people . Nothing changes. (Of course, the fact that the middle-class popular people are organizing the reunion via email also means that the other half of our graduating class, the ones who have mostly melted back into the Appalachian underclass, are pretty much left out of the loop. Nothing changes.)

The weird thing about going to high school in a small town -- with people you'd known since junior high and sometimes elementary school -- is that you knew people's names. I thought I'd wiped those sectors of my personal memory bank, but the email list brings it back. It's oddly exhausting, just reading over the names of all these people I'd forgotten. I'm surprised I don't run into more people from high school when I'm in my home town, but it's not like I'd necessarily recognize them face to face, even if I recognize a name. I'm mildly curious about a few of them, but it'll be more than sufficient to hear about the reuinion from some friends who will go.

The other weird thing? Because of the laws of my home state, we were all pretty much the same age in each grade. (Except for the guys who got held back and had beards in 7th grade...) So these emails are full of other people's comments about being 38. And that's struck me, since I'm almost never in a situation with a whole room full of other people my age. I don't think any of my friends or colleagues are my age. It's weird to think that at one time I only knew people my own age.

It's all kind of sad, but funny too. And I have better things to do, but I just can't help myself from reading each idiotic message that scrolls across my inbox.

*names have been changed


weekend summary

If you looked at my browser's history list for the past two days, you would see:
  • planting and care instructions for three different plants
  • addresses and phone numbers for two local nurseries
  • instructions for removing and for dressing the seat of a compression faucet
  • pictures of a seat wrench and dressing tool
  • directions for the use of boric acid in pest control


what do you say, follow-up

I had asked the questions in my last post because I've been reflecting lately on my own conversational patterns and what they might mean. I recognize myself in many of the comments, so I know that these concerns are not unique to me alone, or my situation.

I tend to downplay what I do, in casual and even not-so-casual conversation. I spent most of my life before college being harassed and picked on by peers and teachers for being "smart," and I'm still very sensitive to the social ostracization that accompanies any faint whiff of intellect. Announcing that I have a PhD just seems like wearing a sign that says "kick me I'm too smart for my own good."

I never say "I am a professor," unless I'm in a professional situation where it's required -- though even then I'd be more likely to say "I'm faculty" -- I don't know why, but that seems less aggressive, or less prideful. I think, too, that I am so far from being the stereotypical tweedy middle-aged white male"professor" that I tend to distance myself from the word. (This might also have a bit of self-protectiveness in it, as when I was a young-looking new professor I routinely had to defend my credentials to the staff in the Parking office and at the campus library--being told I couldn't possibly be old enough to be faculty was incredibly irritating.) I also know that when I lived in smaller towns, places where there was one college that was a significant component of the economy, geography, or identity of the place, the concept of "professor" was a more meaningful one to a larger number of people. In a "college town," the categories of "students" and "faculty" are more homogenous and more familiar than they are to average citizens of a large city which contains several colleges of different types.

I tend to focus on teaching in my response because that's something that most people understand, or have at least encountered. Yes, it does mean that some people think I teach high school, but that doesn't really bother me. Yes, I get stupid replies like "I have to watch my grammar" but I'm used to that by now. For casual conversation, it's fine.

But lately I've realized that when the conversation is extended, or the acquaintanceship is an ongoing one, the teaching-focused answer isn't quite enough. Or when someone does know something about what it means to say that you teach at a college. Like this conversation which happened to me recently at yoga:
A: What do you do?
M: I teach at Large Urban University.
A: Really? What do you teach?
M: I teach [X Subject.]
A: What's your specialty?
M: [Y Subfield.]
A: You have a PhD?
M: Yes.
A: You're a doctor?
M: Unh-huh.
A: You're a professor? (imagine the last three remarks with increasing pitch and surprise)
M: Yes.
A: Wow. That's so amazing.
M: (shrugs, feeling really awkward)

This is where my lowkey strategy backfires, somehow making my job title into more of a focus rather than less of one. Or recently, I was chatting with another woman who I'm fairly friendly with at yoga -- she knows I'm a professor, and it hasn't been an issue. Out of the blue, she says "so, do you write?" and I was left confusedly saying "Yes" but also trying to figure out what she was really asking. Turns out she knew that faculty have to publish scholarship and was curious about what I did. But that was the first time in casual conversation that anyone has ever asked about what I write about. Usually when someone says that, they mean "do you write novels."

So lately, when it's conversationally appropriate, I've been experimenting with ways to talk a little about my work, all of the different pieces of it. I don't talk about my work that often even with other academics, so this has been a real stretch, but in a good way. But it's made me extra-aware of how guarded I tend to be, how I manage my responses based on the context or what I think I know about someone's background or education level.

Our culture doesn't have a clear concept of "professor" the way that "lawyer" or "medical doctor" circulates. People don't watch TV shows featuring academics. And even though many people have gone to college, and presumably encountered professors there, sometimes it seems as though we might as well be monks or CIA agents, members of mysterious cabals with secret behaviors that sometimes impact ordinary folk. Sometimes it's fun to play with people's assumptions. But sometimes I wish it wasn't quite so complicated.


what do you say (a poll for the academics)

Here's a question. In casual conversation, when someone you don't know asks you what you do, how do you answer?
1a. I teach.
1b. I teach at [X College/University].
1c. I teach [X Subject]

2a. I work at [X College/University].
2b. I am a professor.
2c. I am a professor at [X College/University].

3a. I am a researcher.
3b. I research [X Topic]/
3c. I do research at [X College/University].

And why do you think you answer the way you do?

For myself, I tend to go with 1a, 1b, or 2a. Which then usually leads into a follow up statement about 1c.

I have more to say about this, but I'm curious to see what other people do, first.

Reading for Pleasure Wednesday

(Yeah, I know it's Thurs. I started this yesterday and got interrupted. )

The premise of Sue Miller's While I Was Gone is interesting --the heroine, Jo Becker, is a middle-aged veternarian with grown daughters and a comfortable life with her husband of 20 years. But long ago, when she was in her early twenties, she had a first marriage -- which she abandoned for a year, moving to a new city, changing her name, and living in a shared group house. When one of the men from that house shows up in her current life, she is forced to reassess who she really is, what she had been looking for, and how to make sense of her past in her present. But the last third of the book really dragged for me, and I found her character less and less appealing. Oh, and there's an unsolved murder from that past life also, just to sensationalize things. Certain moments, certain emotions, were well handled and interesting. But overall it was just OK. But I did care enough about it to finish the book. Perhaps if I were a baby boomer I would relate more to the book.

If stereotypical "chick lit" is about the trials and tribulations of singletons in the city, I'm not sure what booksellers are calling popular women's fiction that focuses on slightly older women, married women, etc. I think it all gets lumped together, which can be misleading. Jeanne Ray writes novels that remind me a bit of those of Sara Lewis, Claire Cook, and maybe Jennifer Weiner. Eat Cake is a quick, entertaining read (though I think I laughed more at Step Ball Change, one of her other novels) -- the sadness and hilarity that is family life. Add together under one roof fdivorced parents who don't get a long, a husband put out of work, a sulky daughter, and all that Ruth wants to do is bake cake. Warning: there is a LOT of cake in this novel. And recipes at the back. Luckily, I can appreciate the idea of cake without actually needing to eat some, but that might not be true for everyone...


the undead in my freezer

How do you really know when an undead being is truly dead? That's the tricky part.
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After my first successful reanimation of my crashed hard drive, I tried several more times on Sunday, getting in once and getting a few more files that I thought I wanted. Every tech person's suggestions about this kind of situation mention that sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't -- and that therefore you should try more than once. But exactly how many times, I wonder. How many more files that are on the dead drive do I really absolutely need?

The answer, of course, is none of them. There is nothing life-saving or career-essential or even sentimentally important that I don't have, since I was able to get my financial data, the latest notes and drafts for two articles, and all my pictures. But as every mad scientist tempted by the power to control an animated corpse would tell you, you just keep coming up with reasons to try and turn the monster back on. The graphic design project I did for a friend, some PDFs from interlibrary loan, etc, etc.

Sooner or later, I'm going to just have to accept that it's really and truly dead, and that anything that wasn't backed up is gone. I suppose it's all really a lesson about responsibility, and guilt, and regret. I'm not someone who engages in much regret, mostly because I take a really long time to make decisions. Now I know what it feels like.

OK, and Universe? I'm listening. I'm going to get my life in order. Please don't send me any more messages like this because I'm really and truly working on it.