if I were the Emperor of everything

Three simple rules that would have improved this week, were they followed:
(1) No meeting should be three hours long. Ever.
(2) Faculty who don't come to any of the job talks, job candidate interviews, or faculty get-togethers should not be allowed to pontificate in the hiring meeting about candidates they never met. They shouldn't be allowed to vote either.
(3) Mel should get 8 hours of sleep every night. Or at least seven.


last week's movies

We had to buy a new coffee pot earlier this week, and it wasn't until today that we figured out that its "cups" are calibrated differently than our old coffee maker. So we weren't using quite enough coffee each morning (we knew it tasted a little off, but hadn't worked out the math appropriately). So today, I feel so much smarter, and happier. It's all about getting the perfect chemical balance.

In order to keep to my new year's goal of tracking my moviewatching, some quick notes from last weekend:
  • Children of Men: I enjoyed this one -- I think even folks who aren't much on futuristic dystopias have been liking it too. Gritty and yet beautiful; a dark vision of the future that seemed more plausible than many other films. Clive Owens is excellent, and I liked it as a film, but I did leave wondering what else might have been part of the novel -- I'm afraid some of the philosophizing and the quest for belief in the film for me took a back seat to the action. I suspect I might have had a deeper response to the book -- or at least I would know better where the book stood in terms of breeder politics. (I couldn't help but suspect that I was dragged into somehow caring about a prolife tract disguised as a film -- but I don't know anything about the novel to know whether that's actually the case.)
  • Pan's Labyrinth: Not to my taste. A couple friends of mine loved this movie, which blends fanciful dreamscapes with an account of fascism in Spain. But I prefer there to be a logical coherence that wasn't there (either have it all be a fanciful world, or a realistic one -- not both), and was quite repelled by the film's luxuriating in scenes of torture. Yes, maybe there's meant to be some kind of message in combining a child's fairytale with gruesome mutilations, but I found it really missed the mark and didn't hook me in. Ultimately I couldn't really care about any of the characters -- they all seemed too flat: "innocent girl" "heroic rebel" etc. Blech.
  • (TV) We've been working our way through the beginning of the 3rd season of BSG, which we were able to record from the rerun marathon 2 weeks ago. We might eventually even catch up to the current airings of the season's second part. Though it is kind of nice not to have to wait an entire week between episodes. This season is really taking on different kinds of issues -- larger political ones, and the characters' relationships are much more complicated too. As an odd counterpart, we've been watching the first few episodes of Rome -- I haven't fully committed to the show, as it seems very well done but kind of slow. But it's interesting to see how these dramas might connect or resonate with each other.


what not to write

One of my wise friends used to offer a sound piece of advice, usually in the context of relationships, but I think it works for the teaching context too. Basically, she said, you have to pick your battles. If something your mate does *really* bothers you -- if it's going to be a major annoyance every time you see the toothpaste tube uncapped, then you should say something about it right away. The first or second time. Because otherwise your irritation will build up to ridiculous proportions. On the other hand, if you recognize that the toothpaste cap isn't really that important, you have to practice laughing it off and letting it go. Because life is too short and too rich to waste time on the silly stuff.

So, I have this student, who is problematic in all kinds of ways I can't discuss here. But he has emailed me 3 times now. The first message addressed me as "Mr. Lastname" -- this was just before classes started. I replied, including my signature file (which includes my full name and title as is conventional at my U -- "Dr Mel Lastname, Associate Professor" ). His second and third emails have been addressed to "Mrs. Lastname." ARGGH.

I realised that although I laugh off a great deal of student email silliness (I don't care if they write to me from their surferdude87 account, or don't use capital letters, or much of the stuff that irks my colleagues), this was something that REALLY pissed me off. I couldn't help but read it as a marker of sexism -- even though I knew it was possible that this student was just ignorant of the correct conventions for addressing faculty. But those students who occasionally address me as Ms. don't bother me nearly as much. I've never before had someone attempt -- and persist -- in calling me "Mrs".

So in my last reply I simply said "the correct way to address faculty at the university is as "Dr Lastname" or "Professor Lastname." I'm interested to see what happens next.


week 2

Week 2 of the semester is, in my mind, the "real" week 1, because chronological week 1 is usually so chaotic with students dropping and adding courses, administrative snafus, bookstore problems, and copier breakdowns. Last week was made extra-ridiculous by the crappy winter weather, which not only makes me crabby but adds to the pile of student excuses. I was feeling kind of jumbled and out of sync last week, and attributing it to all sorts of immediate, local circumstances. But then I remembered that I feel that way during almost every single opening week of the semester. I'm just much happier once I have a regular schedule and things settle into some kind of routine.

Now, this semester has the potential to be really productive. I'm finally enjoying the fruits of my administrative labor, in the form of two course reductions, so I'm only teaching one class this semester. The timing couldn't be better: I have two articles due in the next couple of months, three conferences this spring, and a book project I want to have drafted by Christmas. I do, of course, still have my administrivia to do, and we're hiring this spring so there's a lot of meetings and job talks to go to. But last fall I started deliberately saying "No" to a number of things in order to protect this semester as much as possible.

What is going to be a challenge is to figure out how to prioritize research during the semester, as that's a rhythm that's just not very familiar to me. My teaching has to come second or even third right now, which is a different attitude than what I'm used to. It's a course I've taught before, so some of the prep will definitely be reduced -- but it's not even a question of hours so much as attention that I'm finding different. I'm just not thinking about my students or my course very much in between my teaching days -- I answer their emails, I read their work -- but my attention is elsewhere. Or it should be.

So far, my attention has been elsewhere -- but not always as fully on my writing as I would like it to be. Some of that I hope is just the first-week adjustment. So this week has to be different. I'm trying to set up routines for where and when to work on specific projects, so that my focus will be cued by location and habit as well as intention. Intention is good but habit is what gets me through a lot of the day, and tends to win the race.


great stuff

A list of small consumer items I'm currently thankful for:

  1. Merlin (who I read for his productivity insights even though I'm not a Mac person (nor a programmer) was right. This really IS the best timer ever.

    I've been using timers for years while grading, to keep me on track, and over the past few months I've been doing a lot of timed writing sessions, as well as a few "dashes" for really tedious things. I've spent many hours in the past trying out various PDA and computer timer applications, some of which were OK. Often, however, what I want to time isn't computer-related. Plus I'm very easily startled, so I don't like a timer that has a very loud beep. This is the answer to all of my timing needs: you can set it to flash a light, or vibrate, or ring a chime -- or any combination of those things. So it works nicely as a meditation timer, a work timer, and as a stopwatch too. Even has a magnet on the back if you were going to be using it in the kitchen (though it sticks nicely to my filing cabinet, too).
  2. I've been meaning to write a note about this little item for a couple months now.

    The computers that my university purchases have their front-panel USB ports placed at a very awkward angle -- I suppose for discreetness. But it means that it can be very difficult to connect a thumbdrive -- and my wider-bodied ones don't fit at all. Enter the amazing flex adapter which twists and turns any which way. So, no more cursing at the USB slot. I keep one at my desktop and one goes around with me for use in the library or classroom.
  3. As you might imagine, dog hair is always an issue in our house. This brush

    is OK on upholstered furniture, which is what I bought it for (found it on an aisle endcap at one of the big home/bath places). But it's really excellent for pre-cleaning dog hair off of the dog beds, couch pillows, etc, before putting them in the washer. I take the dog bed outside and scrape off tons of hair which then doesn't clog up the washer.

(Yeah, I know, it's a filler post. But it's a post. And maybe you'll think one of these things is useful, too.)


Where have I been

this week? I've been messing with the space-time continuum, trying to put a postmodern fluid subjectivity into praxis, AND emulating certain well-known reclusive millionaires.

Or, in other words: it's the pre-beginning of the semester, GF has been sick with horrible flu/virus so I have been acting like two people, and I've been washing my hands a lot.

The whole two-people in one body thing? for. the. birds. At least this week, when I was already stretching my own limits by trying to simultaneously write an article, purge my home, prep for the semester, and go into the office. So then add to that double dog walks, 10,000 loads of illness-related laundry, grocery trips, etc. Now, GF barely ever gets sick, it could be much, much worse, and I don't mind taking care of her -- my frustration is with myself, for leaving so much of my own stuff for the last week of my so-called break. Yes, Universe, I'm getting the message, yet again, that I'm not supposed to put things off because Something Will Get In The Way.

The up side: I haven't come down with the evil virus. I may have barely any skin left on my hands from scrubbing them every few minutes, but I'm not sick.


lightening my load

Luckily, I have one more week before classes start. I have to go into the office later this week, but I am putting it off as long as possible. I have a huge pile of office & teaching related things to do. But first I have to finish writing an article and reorganize my study. I've spent the last two days recycling or shredding tremendous piles of paper, and filing other piles.

There's an archeology to this: the papers from the recently concluded semester -- the plastic box of pre-sorted items from the last time I did a weeding (sorted, but never filed) -- the two boxes from several years ago when my depression prevented me from dealing with papers of any sort. Some of these things are easier to handle than others. There's an emotional energy to these documents -- positive or negative -- I sometimes feel like I ought to wear anti-static gloves -- or whatever the emotional equivalent would be. As I go, I've been dipping into the filing cabinet and weeding things out so as to make room. There I discovered bursar's statements from graduate school, drafts of dissertation chapters, and various other things that I thought were weeded out several moves ago. It's scary to find these ghosts from the past, but very satisfying to get rid of them.

I no longer have any written comments from my dissertation director in my files. (This is not too difficult, as he wrote very little on my drafts.) I am not keeping paper drafts of any of my old talks, articles, or book projects. (I do, however, have digital archives of these things.) I'm letting go of the materials from my post-dissertation, pretenure project so as to make room for my current projects. I'm a different person now, and I need different files. Just like getting rid of the jeans that don't fit any longer.

I have a bad history of starting to weed things out and not quite finish, leaving things half-sorted in plastic containers which produce a simulacra of neatness. But this time I'm feeling more optimistic. I think I'm making real changes this time.

the week's movies

We started out the new year by going to see Eragon last Sunday -- I have been a fan of dragon stories ever since I was quite young and was given Rosemary Manning's novel Green Smoke to read. (Which sadly seems to be out of print.) And then of course I moved on to the Anne McCaffrey books, etc. I haven't read the novel of Eragon yet, but the story deftly blends several satisfying genres -- and the CGI dragon hatchling is awfully darn cute. If you like coming-of-age fantasy heroism mixed with boy-and-his-dog stories -- then it's got all you need. (Plus Jeremy Irons and John Malkovitch!)

Then we finally made it to see Volver, which easily has made it into my top five Almodovar films. Penelope Cruz is fantastic--beautiful, wounded, strong -- you realize how limited she's been in Hollywood due to casting stereotypes and language issues. There's lots of homage being paid to various classic films, but the film stands well on its own for a less educated film viewer (that would be me, in conversation afterwards realizing I didn't catch a bunch of references to movies I've never seen). More feminist, and sweeter than many of Almodovar's earlier films, it focuses on the layers of betrayal and resentment that come between mothers and daughters -- and offers these characters a chance to repair their relationship. Yes, it's a bit far fetched in some regards -- but the emotional devastation of abuse is carefully handled. I strongly recommend it.

And then yesterday we saw Notes on a Scandal, which is also really well done. Judi Dench is such a convincing wolf in Grandma's clothing -- the first person voiceovers in this film are quite effective (since she's a diarist) in alternately persuading and appalling you. The corrosive effects of loneliness, the smugness of the married, the overinvestment and miscommunication in new friendships -- all very realistically handled, and nestled within a plot that neatly destabilizes simple binaries of predator and victim. Neither of the two protagonists is wholly sympathetic nor wholly unsympathetic -- and that's the point. Another strong recommendation.

Since I often get to the end of a year and can't properly remember all the films I've seen, I'm going to try to record them more systematically here, even if very briefly. On DVD this week we finished season 2.5 of BSG (does anyone know if they are going to repeat the first half of season 3 before restarting it later this month? We got the dish TV midway through the fall season and didn't want to start watching midstream but now we'd really like to catch up), watched the pilot episode of 90210 (I'm still reserving judgment, since pilots are always kind of tedious, but the clothes are hilarious), and a few episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm. We're still all about the TV shows on DVD.


intellectual community

One of the reasons I go to conferences -- probably the most important reason, actually -- is that I get a huge energy charge from being around people who are actively engaged in their work. It's different at a smaller conference in my subfield, of course, where the debates or topics would be more directly relevant to my own research, but I also get that boost from a huge convention like MLA, where the variety of panels and kinds of scholars attending is equally exciting. It's nothing as clear cut as networking, or citations to useful sources, or copies of new interesting books -- though I often come home from a conference with some or all of those things. It's something more ineffable, something about being around a bunch of smart people who think more or less the way I do --and none of us are being required to think or speak about all the other things that our day to day positions in academia call to our attention. When I was a graduate student, I frequently told my friends that if I ever idealized our time in graduate school, someone should remind me of the misery -- and certainly, there was plenty of that: we were neurotic pawns in much larger games played by our faculty in a highly dysfunctional department. But we also knew that what we were supposed to be doing was reading and writing and talking with each other about ideas. Pretty much the ideal life for nerdy bookworms. And it's not exactly the life that one discovers out in the tenure track.

I really like my colleagues and my job is a good fit for me. But I think most of us in my department would agree that we don't have much of an intellectual culture there. There are lots of reasons for this: high teaching loads for many years (slowly dropping, at least for junior folks) that prevented people from pursuing scholarship -- which now prevents them from getting promoted; high service loads; and a lack of funds to bring in outside speakers, etc. The best published people in my department are explicitly, even agressively solitary, refusing to do any service and also refusing any collaborative or intellectual gestures from colleagues (reading circles, colloquia, etc). Yes, they get their work done -- but it doesn't contribute to a larger community of inquiry. Our current Chair has done a few things to improve the atmosphere in the department, but change is slow, and hampered by inter-generational feuding and resentment.

So I'm pondering a few questions as I plan my schedule for the spring: Is it possible to be a good departmental citizen and colleague and also be a good scholar? I'd like to think that some of my mentor figures were all of those things, but since I was never their peer, I probably wouldn't know. What kinds of institutional structures encourage an intellectually productive atmosphere? Does it all depend upon personality? Or is there something we/I could do to change things for the better? Because bottling the air at MLA isn't going to get me very far, no matter how high and excited I feel when I first return home.


why I'm not a fashion designer

Or maybe the title of this post should read, "I buy my clothes at a store designed for persons much younger than myself."

OK, let me back up. During the pre-MLA holiday sales, I picked up a comfortable and stylish pair of corduroy pants . I was really excited about these pants, because they are the first single-digit sized clothing I've owned since 1983. (This either means that vanity sizing is getting really extreme, or that the yoga is having external effects as well as internal ones.) Anyway, today when I cut the tags out of my new grey cords to wash them so I could wear them this weekend, I discovered that my delirium about the size had blinded me to one critical design flaw. The pocket lining is printed in a cheerful orange and yellow SPIDER pattern. Errrgghh! I mean, come on. Flowers. Or stripes. Or even plain old white pocket lining would be just fine. But who on earth wants to think about bugs inside their jeans?

Noting that the link I provided to the website even highlights the spider print as "extra flair" I realize that yet again I am Out of Touch with Young People Today and heading full on into befuddled middle age.


blogging and community

Horace and Dr Crazy have written very smart posts about the blogging panel at MLA, and the experience of meeting up with virtual acquaintances. So far, the main change I've noted is that I "hear" their posts a bit differently than before. Most of the people who I met at MLA were already in my daily core list of blogs, so that hasn't changed. I have spent more time in the last 2 days reading blogs from other people either not previously in my core, or completely unknown to me; some of those might stick in my feedreader, others might not. And, perhaps most significant, the whole little flurry of interest in blogging (at and after MLA) and especially the f2f meetups have revitalized my own interest in blogs. (Plus, of course, my spring semester hasn't started yet. )

Dr Crazy suggests that rather than worry about how or if blogging should count as a form of publication towards tenure, one could better think of it as a form of service. I think this is true of some blogs more than others (her generous discussions of her assignment practices etc are a kind of service to the teaching community, certainly). And personally, I don't see why one would want a blog to "count" towards publication, any more than my department should "count" the articles one of my colleagues writes for his church newsletter. (And yes, sadly, he submits these on his activity report each year.) One of the appealing things about blogging for me is that it is separate from all those dynamics and institutions, and yet related enough that it is academically energizing, soothing, or interesting.

There's another spot on the traditional academic cv that strikes me as equally viable as a comparison for blogging: the section of Professional Organizations (or memberships, or associations, depending on your institution's template). Now, I've always assumed that this is a vestigial remnant left over from Ye Olde Days when membership in one of these Old Boys Clubs actually meant something other than that you paid $45 and receive a newsletter twice a year. Why should any committee care where you spend your hard earned cash? I only belong to those organizations which sponsor the conferences I regularly attend (which usually require membership, a neat tautological circle). Simply belonging to the MLA, for instance, doesn't really say anything about you except that you attend the convention and/or want to receive the journal. Now, if you're an officer, or doing substantial work for an organization, most people would list that under Professional Service on the cv. Membership alone is a much more nebulous thing. It might be significant; it might demonstrate involvement, or activity; but it might not. Having your name in someone's blogroll is sort of similar.

On the other hand, the sense of community I've enjoyed online (and now also in person) is very real, and important. And perhaps comparable to the role that the professional organizations once played in the pre-internet days. Academics need the advice, support, and interest of others in their field -- we need things that our immediate departmental colleagues can't provide (unless perhaps you're in an extraordinarily large and congenial department). Blogging gives me a sense of the larger profession that is different from what I get from attending a major conference -- but both are valuable, and help fill in each other's gaps. Blogging doesn't necessarily replicate the hierarchical structures of academe (which most conferences do) -- some of the most compelling voices I've found have been from persons or positions marginalized within the system.

I'd hate to imagine a future when academics felt "required" to have blogs, or to leave comments on Important People's sites, etc. That's what would ultimately happen if blogging began to "count" within the institutional system. I think it's a much more powerful force for change precisely because it doesn't "count" in the same way as our other activities.