It is a truth universally acknowledged that there are few things more annoying than a colleague who sends a 300-page PDF document to print on the one and only printer for the entire department 10 minutes before the main class hour for the afternoon starts.

Except for when he does it again later in the day, 10 minutes before my evening class started.

Guess who tends to print her lecture notes right before class time?


on procrastination

Well, I have just spent the last two hours simply hanging around, half-watching a movie with my gf, instead of getting right down to the class prep tasks that I ought to do tonight. Why is this?? Several possible answers:
  1. I don't really need to do these tasks tonight -- I can do them in the morning before class tomorrow. (I teach afternoon and night classes.)
  2. According to my favorite procrastination self-help book (Neil Fiore's The Now Habit), most procrastination stems from one of 3 core reasons: fear of success, fear of failure, or resentment of authority. It's the last one that usually gets me regarding teaching stuff. Not authority, per se, but resentment all the same. Resenting the intrusion of the institution and my students into my home, my weekend, my evening, whatever (this usually comes up when I have papers to grade). (Just because I'm admitting to my procrastination doesn't mean you shouldn't read this book -- it's actually been incredibly helpful to me at certain times. Maybe I'm due for a re-reading.)
  3. I actually thrive on the adrenalin of doing it all tomorrow.
  4. This is part of the transition into the new semester and its new schedule.
  5. I'm tired.
  6. I'm bored.
I think it's bits and pieces of all of the above. Obviously, this isn't career-threatening procrastination. Just incredibly irritating. And I am sitting at the computer now, so once I finish this I'll write up some new notes for tomorrow's first class, take care of administrivia, and reread the essays for my other class.

The worst problem about procrastinating, which Fiore is quite eloquent about, is that you don't fully enjoy whatever it is that you're doing while procrastinating, since you feel bad/guilty about it. So it is actually better just to start doing something.

Here I go.


Sunday list

Profgrrrrl is cleaning up and PowerProf has a long task list before her classes start. Myself, I'm torn between my professional responsibilities and dealing with the state of our house.

We (me, my partner, and 2 dogs) live in a TINY little house, which dates from a period when people didn't have closets built into their walls. Two very insufficient closets were added later on, but storage options are pretty limited. We've added wardrobes from IKEA that totally changed my life -- my clothes are all in one place, and actually in the bedroom! and I've been creative with bookshelves etc. But all of this means that we have to regularly purge stuff or we will be overwhelmed. I actually think this is a really good thing, since my genetic heritage and early childhood training was to keep everything.

So, it's the beginning of a new year AND we have a houseguest coming in 3 weeks. So I've got the clean & purge bug. Though some of those tasks are going to have to be spread out over the next couple weekends. What's actually possible/necessary for today:

  • Make work plan for the week
  • Half an hour minimum reviewing and sorting materials for my current article
  • Scan, scan, scan a zillion readings for my grad class
  • Finish updating WebCT sites and my general university site (which I've been redoing in CSS) [made some good progress though not finished yet]
Life Maintenance Projects:
  • Weed out my clothes again: just say no to faded black pants and anything from my first or second year of teaching. Jeez. I could really use some wardrobe updates...
  • Hem my new black pants. This is a major stall in the updating process -- I bought them (2 pairs end of last spring, 2 pairs last week) but haven't been able to wear them yet.
  • Sorting/filing/updating financial records, bills, flex medical account stuff, etc. Blech.
  • gym
House projects:
  • Laundry: clothes, towels, sheets, rugs, dog beds, dog blankets, dog towels
  • Vacuuming: floors AND furniture (sigh) [nope, but I swept]
  • Bathroom
  • Kitchen surfaces/stove
  • Deal with weird piles of stuff in our hallway/laundry-utility area
Actually that doesn't seem too bad. Tonight we'll have one of our favorite (and easy to make) meals and watch a movie together, which should stave off the Sunday grumps. I hope, anyway.

update: there's always tomorrow.



I just finished reading Karen Joy Fowler's The Jane Austen Book Club -- I really enjoyed it, even though it has been several years since I last read any Austen. It follows six members of a book club as they meet each month to discuss a different JA novel. It helps if you love reading, and it helps if you know something about Austen -- but you don't have to be a JA fanatic to enjoy the book. I'm sure if you were, you'd get more "insider" references to JA texts -- but it's really about the love of reading, and how we use literature to help us make sense of our own lives. A line I especially liked:
What if you had a happy ending and didn't notice? Sylvia made a mental note. Don't miss the happy ending.
I also loved Fowler's first novel, Sarah Canary, which is a fabulous romp involving late-19thc feminism, Chinese immigrants working on the railways in the American West, circuses, and various other ingredients.

My gf and I went to see We Don't Live Here Anymore -- a stunning, grownup film with Mark Ruffalo, who I think is great, and Laura Dern, who gives an amazing performance. It's the kind of movie I tend to enjoy -- four characters, lots of talking -- the complexities of human relationships. In this case, two married couples whose relationships are in different states of disarray -- and which are tested by the affairs all members are having with each other. It's got a very literary feel to it, perhaps because it was adapted from two short stories by the late Andre Dubus. Also really interesting to me was the fact that the men are both supposed to be professors at a small college -- one of creative writing, the other of literature. That's not the focus of the film, exactly, but I thought they got the academic flavor pretty well -- the decoration of their respective houses -- the financial difficulties during the summer -- one couple is better off, but they get regular checks from the wife's mother to help them get by. And their flexible summertime schedules are perfect for adultery. The only off note in the film I thought was that neither wife seemed to have a job -- the gendered issues about family responsibilities & household chores are pretty relevant to many couples, but parts of the film felt kind of dated because of the "housewife" role. I don't know how old the short stories are -- maybe that would explain this.

We also recently watched The Barbarian Invasions, Denys Arcand's sequel to The Decline of the American Empire, which I remember really enjoying in 1986, but haven't rewatched since then. The recent film involves some of the same characters -- one man's terminal cancer is the pretext for gathering together his group of friends again. It's thoughtful, intelligent -- and also, coincidentally, involves academics and intellectuals. (why is it that intellectuals show up so much more frequently in Canadian, French, Spanish films...yeah, I know, duh, it's obvious). As depressing as it sounds, this film is part of a sub-genre I often really respond to -- the "gathering of friends before death." (It's My Party is another one, for example.) Because when done well, such films aren't about death so much as about the connections of our lives.


thoughts from the mat, part 2

One of my favorite yoga teachers frequently reminds us "it's yoga practice, not yoga perfect." The whole point of yoga practice is to learn to tune into your own body and figure out where you are -- physically, mentally, spiritually. The effects of yoga build day after day, as you return to the mat and attempt your postures again. Some days I'm flexible, other days my hamstrings are tight; some days I can quiet my mind, and other days my main challenge is trying to remain present in the moment of whatever breath or posture is my focus.

When I was much younger, I studied music, and continued to play up through college. I grew to really love my practice time -- something which as a young child was just a routine part of family life became my own as I grew older. Practicing a piece of music is a lot like practicing a yoga pose: you have an idea(l) in your mind of what it should eventually sound like -- but the daily act of sitting down to the instrument isn't just about getting somewhere, reaching a goal -- it's about the process. I would spend at least 30-45 minutes just with scales and etudes -- exercises that I think of now as sort of the equivalent of the Triangle and Eagle poses I do every day. A kind of focusing discipline which contributes towards some larger improvement: strength and flexibility in yoga, precision and technique in music.

I've been trying to think about ways to understand what an equivalent kind of practice might be in my professional life. One of the things I've always liked about academic work is that you're always starting fresh every few months. New students, new materials to teach. And certainly each research project involves new ideas, texts, or arguments. But all that newness can also be overwhelming -- or, in my case at least, lead to perfectionism. When my yoga teacher reminds us that our class is practice, she's trying to get us to stop the litany of self-criticism that so many of us have running in the background like some hypnosis tape. So I've been wondering about what I can designate as my academic practice time -- what are the repeated actions that are part of my work and which could let me focus and build strength, flexibility, or balance.

This might be a way to reconceive what sometimes has felt to me like "wasted time" in my research and writing process. I read a text, mark key passages and take some notes as I'm reading, but then have to go back to transcribe quotes from those key passages. It's too disruptive to transcribe them while I'm reading -- and, when I can make myself sit down to do it at some later time, it often affords me a chance to review (and re-view) the text in useful ways. But often I put it off -- and then while I'm writing an essay I have to flip through the source texts to locate passages and type them in. Not efficient in terms of time or mental acuity to be doing that during the writing process.

All of this is in part an attempt to think about (and hopefully redefine) what "counts" as work for me. Several other people have also been talking about these issues in ways that suggest it's a shared concern, at least for humanities scholars. In graduate school, I had some good friends in the sciences -- I used to envy their regular trips to the lab to collect or enter or process their data (during some phases of their work). A few hours collecting data, however tedious it might be, definitely counted as work. But my sitting on the couch thinking hard about an argument for my dissertation seemed so much more nebulous.

I don't entirely know what the relationship between practice and work might be. But it seems worth pursuing.

first day report

I can't believe I'm still awake -- I'm in that tired & wired state. It was a really long day, but being around so many people, and so "on" (especially compared with my summertime existence) is taking a while to process out of my system. My undergrad class felt good -- though I have 4 Jennifers, 2 Ashleys, and 3 Jessicas. It's going to take me a little longer than usual to learn their names. I suspect 5 or 6 of the students were only there for the day/time slot -- maybe I've scared them off to take an easier class somewhere else.

I'm undecided about the grad students -- it wasn't an ordinary seminar meeting, since they hadn't had any reading assignment beforehand. Will reserve judgment until next week. But I think I really prefer teaching undergrads -- even though I know we're not supposed to admit that. I had a couple of really top-notch seminars a few years ago that were pretty energizing -- but lately I've been doing our MA-level courses (part of the rotation) which are frustrating in various ways. I'm pleased with this new course, though -- I was still tweaking it right up until the last minute.

I have several really intense students this semester -- and you have to be pretty intense for it to be noticeable on the first day! Intense not in an intellectually serious way -- but more in the awkward "make myself known to the teacher" kind of way. (Behavior that we don't often get in our student population -- a nontraditional bunch by and large.) I don't really know what to do with such obvious suck-ups. Especially since one of them is already irritating the heck out of me -- my ever-frostier responses to her didn't seem to sink in. I'm sure things will settle down a bit once they realize that having a nose ring and a sense of style doesn't mean I'm not demanding.

I've been practicing my "very relaxing" response to the inevitable summer questions (as have other people!) with good results. I got to hear several great stories about dogs. We could practically have a dog park just for my department, if only it were allowed. It was only my chair who persisted (rather rudely I thought) in saying "well, did you get a lot of things done?" I simply said "yes, I got a lot done." He doesn't need to know what, exactly.

to follow the crowd

yup, another Wildean among us:

The picture of dorian gray
Oscar Wilde: The Portrait of Dorian Gray. You are a
horror novel from the world of dandies, rich
pretty boys, art and aesthetics, and
intellectual debates between ethical people and
decadent pleasure-seekers. You value beauty and
pleasure but realize their dangers, as well.

Which literature classic are you?
brought to you by Quizilla


first day

Here we are: the first day! I'm pumped up with adrenaline but not well rested -- I thought that was just because I stayed up late last night talking with an old friend who's going through tough times -- and because my brain is buzzing with all the things I have to do today in order to be fully prepared. But then I remembered that I nearly always feel this way. Except usually my "first days" don't involve a whole lot of teaching. But grad classes are tricky -- you have 3 hours, but they haven't done any reading. So I've got a lecture/activity that still needs preparing.

I've got a whole list full of stuff I wish I could have done by today -- loading everything into WebCT, etc. But I'll have the necessary minimum ready: a xeroxed syllabus and my ideas.

Sometimes I feel like teaching days are endurance events: I have to manage my caffeine and food intake properly to keep my energy up -- my last class ends 11 hours from now. I know, it's nothing like dragging a canoe through the woods on your head (not my sort of game at all) but there are physical as well as mental components to succesfully completing the day.

And I miss reading everyone's blogs! I've been so busy I haven't been able to read or write. But tomorrow I'll get to catch up.


composing a course

I spent most of the afternoon at the office today, pulling together my graduate course. It's been a different process for me than my past few new preps, because it's an entirely different kind of course from what I've mostly been teaching the past couple of years. Many of my courses have a similar basic structure, and the differences come from the content. But this one could be organized in several different ways. The process of figuring it out really has felt very much like writing an essay. At the end of the afternoon, I finally looked at what I'd outlined on screen and felt that magic a-ha! just like when you've been writing and rewriting for a while and then finally see the kernel of real argument. It all makes sense now -- it reveals its concerns in its shape -- just like some kinds of poems. Not that a syllabus is a poem -- but there can be creativity involved in both.

I still have a lot to do -- final revisions, proofing, and a lot of drudge work (copying/scanning etc). Plus there's my undergrad class -- but that's a familiar prep, so its syllabus just needs some fine-tuning.

No matter when I start thinking about my syllabi, I usually wind up writing them only 1 or 2 days ahead of time. I guess I just need that adrenaline. And I've got it - - I'm feeling pretty pumped up about the semester. What a relief. Last year was such a blur, with tenure review, and various personal events, that I don't think I ever really got that rush. But right now I do -- looking forward to new rhythms, new students.


Over the last few days I've noticed the following signs on storefronts around the city:

Loose 25 pounds this month!

Gold Jewlry and more

All Jewelerey Cheap!

and, at a fast food place: Try Our New Smok Bugr

Now, the first few are egregious errors but not disgusting. But smoked buggers can't possibly sound appealing even to diehard fast food eaters, right?


are you the teacher you would have wanted?

I've been thinking a lot today about my undergrad course, a course I've taught at least 5 or 6 times before at Large Urban. I've made a variety of changes over the years -- in readings, in assignments, in my general approach to the material. I'm still not entirely satisfied with it -- which is probably a good thing, as it keeps me reviewing the materials and asking myself how I can make it better.

As part of my planning process, I took a 2nd look at my student evaluations from the last iteration of the course. They were about what I always get: some people say it's too much work, others say there's not enough (?). Some students love the way I run the class, others complain that they hate discussion. I always teach with a mixture of lecture and discussion -- for all kinds of reasons:
  • after about 20-30 minutes of even the most exciting lecture, most undergrads start to tune out. So if you mix in other types of activities -- discussion, group work, in-class writing -- then you can re-engage their minds and attention.
  • I believe in a student-centered model of pedagogy -- if I don't know what it is that my students understand or don't understand, how can I teach them? I can only learn where they are in the material by hearing them discuss it.
  • Students come to understand the concepts of the course, and begin to learn/practice analytical skills, only by engaging in dialogue (both written and oral) about the texts. Passively receiving a lecture from me about the material doesn't ask them to synthesize or apply any of what they are supposed to be learning.
So, for every 15 or 20 students who say they learn a lot from the way I blend discussion and group work with lectures, there is always 1 or sometimes 2 who write in their evaluations things like: "the professor should lecture more. I don't care what my peers have to say." Sometimes I can guess who these students were, other times I have no idea. Not that it matters. But I'm concerned about them. Not simply because it's too easy to focus on the negative evaluations and ignore the positive ones (after all, what do they tell me to work on?) -- but because I sometimes wonder what my old student self would have thought of my class.

I very rarely participated in class discussion when I was at university -- except for two or three memorable classes that really changed my life. It's in part my experience in those courses that keeps me convinced that getting students to actively engage in the material is crucial. But I spent a lot of my time sitting in the back row, taking notes, and not really entering into the ideas of the course until I was on my own in the library with my book. To be fair, not many of my university professors even attempted to run discussions.

Also, to be fair -- most of my students at Large Urban are nothing like the person I was -- they have very different goals, background, and assumptions about the educational process. And it's those assumptions that drive most of the dissatisfied ones -- a kind of consumerist model of the university -- "I paid tuition for this class, so I just want to hear the professor speak." Every so often I get junk mail advertising Lectures by the Greatest Professors on CDs -- and there's nothing wrong with people who want that sort of thing: bits of cultural capital nicely packaged and expensively priced -- here's your little taste of Harvard. But that's not my idea of the best possible use of classroom time.

So: are you the teacher you would have wanted when you were a student? I hope I am. I suspect my old self would have sat silent in the back row for the first few days -- but gradually figured out what was going on and joined in. But remembering my history of silence is useful in helping me try to figure out ways to reach all of my students. And, in fact, I usually get everyone to participate one way or another. But they don't all like it. And that's OK too. I'm a big girl and I can take it if 2 or 3 out of 35 say I don't lecture enough. But I guess part of what I'm teaching them, beyond the specifics of subject matter and skills, is that growth is an active process -- the more you engage, the more you gain. But that kind of engagement -- in discourse, in dialogue, in the world of ideas -- runs counter to so many other tendencies in our culture that it, in itself, is pretty alien to my students.


Cindy's post about list-making resonated with me today, since I'd been puzzling a bit over why I sometimes post my lists, why I like to read other people's , what the motivational or support factor might be. Because mostly I do find it helpful -- it makes my tasks seem real but manageable once I've posted them -- and it's great to be reminded that other people also have to clean the kitchen or go to the bank or whatever. It's all that pesky life maintenance stuff that always seems to be dragging me down these days. (where's my robot housekeeper? too bad I'll be aged and decrepit by the time we can all have robots to do our chores).

But there are also days when I've looked at other people's lists (I'm not naming any names here) and felt a really junior-high-ish wave of anxiety: I'm not working as hard, or getting as many things crossed off, or being as serious as this other person. And then I feel much worse, rather than better. Even though I know that it's just that pernicious internalized guilt of academia (the categorical imperative: you should be working -- all the time -- and only on things that are Serious Work, not all the prep work, teaching work, job work, life work).

Some of my favorite books as a very young child were the Frog and Toad books by Arnold Lobel -- in Frog and Toad Together , there's a story called "A List." Toad (who I nearly always identify with) starts off sitting in bed making a list (I do this sometimes). His list begins with Wake Up, which he promptly crosses out, and then writes other stuff. (I love Toad's life: eat breakfast, get dressed, go to Frog's house, take walk with Frog, eat lunch, take nap...). (Btw I'm referring to a well-worn copy as I write this, it's not all entirely from memory, although it probably could be.)

Frog and Toad are really good friends. I suspect they formed my first subconscious model of a same-gender romantic relationship -- because somehow they're both boys (they wear pants and little Britishy tweed jackets, except when they go swimming) but they really love each other, they hug and sing songs and are always hanging out. And there are no girl amphibs to get in the way of their affection for each other. Toad is mildly depressive and kind of self-deprecating; Frog advocates will power and activity, but doesn't mind getting sidetracked to comfort Toad. Their relationship is all about mutuality and equality -- Toad has a nighmare once when he's really successful and Frog just keeps shrinking away: the message always comes down to the importance of their love and respect for each other.

So Toad goes over to Frog's house, where Frog admires his list, and they set off on their walk. But the wind blows the list out of Toad's hand:
"Hurry!" said Frog. "We will run and catch it." "No!" shouted Toad. "I cannot do that." "Why not?" asked Frog. "Because," wailed Toad, "running after my list is not one of the things that I wrote on my list of things to do!"

Frog ran after the list. He ran over hills and swamps, but the list blew on and on. At last Frog came back to Toad. "I am sorry," gasped Frog, "but I could not catch your list."

"Blah," said Toad.

I so know what Toad means. I love having a list, but if I get off-track then sometimes I can wind up feeling pretty Blah.

In the story, Toad says that since he can't remember anything that was on his list, he has to just sit and do nothing. Frog sits with him (ah, love). Finally Frog says they should sleep:
"Go to sleep!" shouted Toad. "That was the last thing on my list!" Toad wrote on the ground with a stick: Go to sleep. Then he crossed out: Go to sleep. "There," said Toad. "Now my day is all crossed out!" "I am glad," said Frog. Then Frog and Toad went right to sleep.

And in the picture they are smiling and snuggled up together. As I see it, posting lists on our blogs lets us play Frog for one another: supportive for the things that get crossed off and liking Toad despite all the things that didn't get crossed off. And we can play Toad, too: full of good intentions, and squeezing whatever satisfaction we can from the process.


b4 tues

Definitely time for another list. My first teaching day will be Tuesday -- which, since my grad class is that day, will actually require real teaching, and not just "hi, this is how the course works, etc."
So what is absolutely crucial?
  • finish drafting reading schedule for the new grad class [well, I chose the readings today but haven't finished arranging them]
  • decide on assignments for the new class
  • Update syllabus for my repeat undergrad class and squeeze it into this term's calendar (big mystery to me why sometimes we have 14 weeks, sometimes 15...)
  • proofread and photocopy syllabi (probably over the weekend, since the copier will surely be broken down by Monday)
  • update my web site (and move it to my new account on a better server)
  • meet with librarian about class visit
  • scan and create PDFs of supplemental readings [did three of them]
  • upload files into WebCT (which is down until Friday, thanks to whoever decided a system upgrade would be a great activity in the week before classes start)
  • prepare first day lecture/activity for grad class
  • Haircut! I hate to go into the first week all shaggy
  • Go to stupid overpriced watch shop and get new battery (since the clerks at Target couldn't manage to open the back of my watch today)
  • get leaking tire patched
  • do a lot of yoga and maybe see a couple movies?

I have a zillion other things on the wish list, but these are the absolute requirements. Whew. Guess I'd better get some sleep.

Update: I did a lot of work today but I haven't been able to cross off that many things. But my new prep is pulling together.


getting ready

Well, the countdown to the new semester has begun: newly arrived grad students are in the hallways for orientation; I've seen 5 or 6 of my colleagues for the first time in months; the city's construction project on the main avenue into campus has ramped up, which will give us only one lane in each direction next week when thousands of commuter students drive in for class; and when I went to the library I had to zigzag around tons of yellow Danger Do Not Cross tape to get to the circulation desk. No, it's not a terror site -- they've decided to replace some carpet. Everything's kind of chaotic, but also full of promise. New beginnings.

I've been working a lot on putting together my new graduate course. I've got about 3 semesters' worth of possible goals that have to be whittled down to 1 manageable term. But I've been enjoying skimming through a bunch of essays that may make it onto the reading list. Today's big task is to actually start plugging readings and assignments into the calendar for the class: it's in part a methods course, and could be organized in several different ways.

I agreed to put one of my courses into WebCT this year. In the past, I've always just put my syllabi and other course materials (handouts, link lists, etc) up on my university site. Since I'm comfortable with HTML and actually enjoy tweaking my site, that's always seemed sufficient. But the university is really pushing WebCT on us -- I expect that it will be mandatory in a couple of years. This is part of a larger plan to encourage more distance ed & hybrid teaching. But WebCT does make certain kinds of things easy, or easier -- particularly since it's password-protected so that only students enrolled in the course can have access. (And that all gets done at an institutional level--I don't have to worry about handing out passwords.) I can thus post images from my lectures that I'm not comfortable putting on a freely-accessible page for copyright reasons, and craft assignments around those materials.

Yet I'm still going to post my syllabus on my university site, along with other basic info about the course and my other activities. Why? Partly because it's useful for students to see what the course looks like before enrolling. But mostly because at heart I really believe in the open-access philosophy of the web, and specifically in its capacity to transform pedagogy. So many of the common practices in academic departments encourage a kind of secrecy about what we actually do behind the closed doors of our classrooms: once you're not a grad student TA, how often does anyone actually see you teach? I was observed only 2 or 3 times -- twice for my 3rd-year review, and once for my tenure review. Now, my student evals are really strong, and so there was no concern from the department's standpoint about how I was teaching-- but I'm not sure my experience was that unusual.

But beyond observations (which often are, or at least feel, hierarchical and potentially threatening) there are few things that encourage real conversations about teaching at an institutional or department level. Sure, I might talk about teaching with a friend, but I have no idea what the vast majority of my colleagues actually do in their classes. Because we don't have a culture of openness, when pedagogical issues come up in dept discussions about curriculum reform etc, then there tends to be a lot of defensiveness, etc.

So, why post syllabi on the web for anyone to see? Because it's one simple way to begin transforming basic practices. I've learned so much from looking at syllabi posted by colleagues at other institutions -- not just learning which anthology is being used, or which novels get taught most frequently, but also how other people are representing and shaping the field and the discipline in their classes. I hope mine are useful in some similar way to someone else. So, I'll be putting my syllabi up on my site and in WebCT this year. A little extra effort is I think well worth it in principle.


have you noticed

...the new Blogger bar at the top? it's a google search box for whichever blog you're on. Very handy, since Blogger doesn't let us categorize posts the way MT users do.

And, last night I just discovered All Consuming, which tracks mentions of books on blogs (if they're linked to amazon or B&N) and maintains lists of various sorts. Looks like you can sign up and have it generate a list of books you're currently reading for your blog, which is feature I've admired in several MT style blogs. (I love what I learn from occasionally looking at my referrer list).

Update: look down to the right... not only a list, but also lets you comment on them.

more on Ed

Thanks, everyone, for the supportive comments. I'm feeling better now, six+ hours later. Coffee and a change of scenery helped me focus and actually get some work done.

I'm still figuring out what it means to identify myself as someone with depression -- it was actually a big deal for me to write the last post. I've been depressed probably most of my life, at one level or another (like most of the intellectual types I know). It's better in my 30s than in my 20s, and certainly better than my teens. But overall I'm mostly pretty high-functioning. And also fairly good at concealing it from anyone outside my closest circle.

I did a couple of years in therapy with good results maybe 4-5 years ago, when I was mostly concerned with relationship issues and their connection to my past. Good work in therapy and then entering into a healthy, supportive relationship really kept me on a more even keel for a while. Then over the past year and a half, I experienced a number of significant traumas/stressful situations involving me or my immediate family (illness, accidental injury, cancer), plus a death in my birth family and many related family difficulties. And of course I was undergoing tenure review all of last year, which in itself bumps you to the top of the stress chart. Somehow I muddled through the academic year. And then, the summer arrived, and my mind and body finally had time to deal with all that stuff. It hasn't been pretty.

I started back with seeing Dr Shrinky maybe 4 or 5 weeks ago now, which was the first step in admitting that this was harder than previous visits from Ed had ever been. She basically thinks that I have no serotonin left after the events of the past year. So I've started taking 5-HTP, an amino acid supplement that works on the serotonin system -- it's amazing stuff, and the first week or so I was on I was deleriously happy with how much better I felt. But I've been trying to finetune the dosage so that I don't get any side effects, and sometimes I go too long without it, and Ed glumps onto my shoulders. But I'm still depressed, of course, even with the supplement. It just helps me function and converse normally.

One of the hardest things for me, as someone whose work depends upon careful communicating, is that depression makes it really hard for me to talk to anyone. Which is why this blog community has been really important over this summer. I could still feel like myself, having you guys to talk to about academic politics or pirate quizzes or whatever. Part of me still has her shit together, and it's good to be in touch with that. But part of me doesn't. And the depression makes me feel ashamed and irritated with the fact that I am depressed.

I've been learning from so many of you, and have been so impressed with your honesty about deeply personal things, that I felt like I needed to try to overcome my wish to keep up good appearances. So now you know.


Hi. Have you met my depression? Allow me to introduce you. My depression is a 70-pound blob of green mucus named Ed. Sometimes he disappears for a while but then when I least expect it, Ed's back, just lounging on my shoulder and blobbing around and taking over all my brain space when in fact I REALLY NEED my brain cells today, thank you very much.

You know those ads that used to run on tv for some anti-depressant (paxil?) that would show this really cute little sad blob who had social anxiety? and then blob takes pills and hops around with the flowers. Well, my depression blob ain't half so cute. He's made of green mucus, after all.

I just looked up the difference between mucus and mucous. One's the noun and the other is mostly used as an adjective (i.e., mucous membrane). In case anyone else cares.

Rrggh. I'm going to go drink coffee in the hopes of scaring Ed away so I can get some reading done.



Today has actually been a pretty nice day, for a Sunday. For a long time, as long as I can remember, I've really disliked Sundays. When I was a kid, Sunday was always the day my mother would (undoubtedly tired of having us around and perhaps dreading her own work week) start yelling at us about cleaning our rooms etc. It was also a day when everything was closed: in a small town in the Midwest, the mall was closed on Sundays -- up until I was maybe 14 or so, when most of the mall (and Target, which was nearby) started being open, although the department store was still closed because of religiosity. Not that we went to the mall that often, but it was the idea that everything was closed and that there was no escape from the fact that it was Sunday that bothered me. Plus, of course, I dreaded Monday's return to the tedium of school.

Now, I still loathe Sundays. There's always the pressure of the weekend's house/life tasks still undone, plus the academic workload -- the reading for the week's classes, the papers to grade. Which, combined with the fact that neighbors and people out and about are doing things like going to brunch and shopping and relaxing, often makes me grumpy. (I know, it's not rational, especially since I should be grateful I don't have their get up at 5 a.m. kind of schedule during the week.)

I try to have one day each week that is totally off from work (writing and teaching and department stuff). In past years it's generally been Friday or Saturday: Friday when I've had an exhausting long Thursday schedule, Saturday years ago when I was dating and had a fairly exciting social life. But my day off has never been Sunday. Maybe I should try that. But that would require working a lot on Fri and Sat.

At least this semester I'm on a Tues-Thurs teaching schedule, which I prefer to MW or MWF. But my grad seminar is on Tuesdays this term, which will put a lot of pressure on the weekends. (Of course, I could start prepping the next week's class on, say, Wed or Thurs of the week before, but that would not only require nearly superhuman will and organization, but also a review on Sun or Mon, since I do my best teaching after a fairly fresh rereading of the texts.)

Since I worked on putting together my new course syllabus yesterday, I wound up taking today off (although that wasn't exactly a conscious decision). Though it's hard for me to say exactly where the day went. Some time in the yard with the dogs, some computer time. Cooked a nice lunch. Cleaned the kitchen. Lots of laundry. Weeded out part of my closet, although I didn't really follow through on the whole job. But I've been pretty relaxed about it all today. I'm going to go to the park with the dogs soon, and then we're having dinner with my gf's father. If I can just keep the nervous Sunday grumpiness at bay, it will have been a good day.


a blogger question

Can anyone explain to me the reason for this problem I've been having lately? Whether you write the link http://infavorofthinking.blogspot.com or http://www.infavorofthinking.blogspot.com, it should work either way. But lately sometimes I'm having problems with the links without the "www" -- for my own and other Blogger sites. I get an error box that says "the file is not available on this server." From within Blogger, for instance, after I post, if I click on View your Blog, I get the error.
I'm using Firefox, if that makes any difference.

would appreciate any ideas. I can work around it, by changing the format of my links etc. But it's irritating.

what I've been watching lately

My gf returned to a more normal schedule this past week after several months involved in her art project -- so our shared domestic life is beginning to return to something like its usual schedule too. One nice thing is that we've been able to go to the movies a couple times this week as well as watch some at home.
  • Open Water -- I'm not a big fan of horror movies -- but thriller/suspense is sometimes OK. You already know what's scary in this film -- and it's completely compelling. The whole scenario freaks me out to begin with (I'm way too claustrophobic and paranoid to do something like scuba dive) even before the sharks show up. But what's really interesting is that it's a relationship movie -- that's where its strength is. Whether you sympathize or are irritated with the couple, you understand them -- they are ordinary people in a relationship trying to be on vacation -- the sharks are, in a sense, just an literalization of the issues in their marriage. Bring your sweetie to the movie, though, you definitely need someone to hang on to in places -- the whole theater was filled with couples squinching closer and closer to each other.
  • A Home at the End of the World -- Read The Book. No, really. The novel (by Michael Cunningham, author of The Hours) is complex, emotionally subtle, a rich and full reading experience. It follows the intertwined lives of four individuals over three decades -- with chapters from each character's point of view, Cunningham deftly plays with your readerly expectations. It's also wonderful in its dealing with US cultural history, late 60s thru 80s -- largely through music, which is an important thread in the book. The screenplay was also written by Cunningham, so I can't do the usual "bitch against the adapter missing the point of the whole novel thing." In order to fit the story into film format, he had to cut out so much. All the emotional complexity of the book gets telegraphed in obvious dialogue and truncated to fit the Hollywood arc. It is a beautiful film -- and for me, who'd read the book, there were parts I enjoyed just to see them realized on screen. But the richness of the novel doesn't come through -- my gf, who hadn't read it, found the whole thing fairly flat. So, let me reiterate: read the book.
  • Sweet Sixteen (we saw on DVD) -- from Ken Loach. Good, if kind of bleak and depressing, focus on an almost-16 year old boy and his attempts to build a new life for himself and his mother, who's about to be released from jail. Note: we had to turn on the subtitles because the Scottish accents were so thick. Thank goodness for DVDs with those options.
  • The Magdalene Sisters (DVD)-- another sort of depressing movie, this one in Ireland. Based on true accounts, the film follows several women incarcerated at a Magdalene community. Many of these women were put there by parents after having a child out of wedlock. It's pretty horrifying -- especially to remember that this was in the 1980s. Not the 1880s.
  • Secret Window (DVD) -- Johnny Depp, John Turturro in a Stephen King thriller type of thing. Creepy in places but it had that short story feel to it ultimately.
  • I've finally gotten hooked on Queer as Folk after several friends kept talking about it. I'd watched disk 1 of first season maybe a year ago or more, and hadn't gotten into it. But I started again a few weeks ago and am totally hooked. I watch almost no TV in regular life (we don't have cable, so all we get are Fox, WB, and PBS) but I love being able to get DVDs of TV shows thru Netflix. Perfect for when I have too much work to watch for 2 hours; perfect for when you want to know that you'll have a satisfying viewing experience. (Unlike starting a film that turns out to be not what you expected.) Sure, it's a soap opera -- and that's why it's fun.



New Kid on the Hallway posted today about the Chronicle article on mentoring. It's an interesting piece, with examples drawn both from the humanities and from the sciences, as well as the corporate environment. Ultimately, the author strikes a middle ground -- neither for or against mentoring, but pointing out the differnet forms it takes, and the different effects it can have. New Kid's discussion, and the comments there, usefully highlight the complicated terrain for mentees. She suggests some of us have to learn how to be mentees, as well as mentors for future generations.

My own experiences with mentoring are pretty mixed. As an undergraduate, I was fortunate to find two outstanding faculty who really pushed me intellectually and supported my wish to go to graduate school. One of them later became a friend, in part due to geographical proximity for a while after I'd graduated -- we had to really work to transform the student-prof hierarchy, but it did eventually happen. The other has remained a sort of mentor figure to me, although we are rarely in touch now. I'm still intellectually very much in his debt -- and only wish I could have studied with him as a graduate student rather than just as an undergrad. This kind of mentoring was (and sometimes still is) exciting, challenging -- but also gives me butterflies in my stomach even now, when I think about sending him a current article of mine. I wish I didn't care so much about what he thought, but I do. I suspect that response is in part because I was so young when I met him -- but it feels uncomfortable now as I'm nearing my own middle age.

My first experience with graduate school didn't provide me with any mentor figures. I found a couple people willing to write me letters when I left that program for a different one. If I'd stayed past the MA degree things might have been different.

At my PhD institution, the politics of mentoring seemed far too bound up with the politics of bootlicking. There were several Big Egos in the department only too happy to have crowds of grad students to stroke them (figuratively but also occasionally literally). Never being a good follower or bootlicker, I walked a different sort of path. My diss committee was formed because of my intellectual interests, and basically left me with only one person to be my advisor. He suited me just fine -- of an older generation, but up on current scholarship, he let me develop my project pretty much free of his influence. He answered questions when I had them but didn't interfere with my choices. He was instrumental (in a subtle way I only recognized years afterwards) in getting me to submit a proposal for my first major conference -- something which set me off on the right foot in my field but also let me feel that I was doing it at least partly on my own merits, not his.

There were other faculty I admired and worked with in one way or another during those years, but none of them quite reached what either of us would consider "mentor" level. I think in part because I was a lousy mentee -- bad at what I perceived to be sucking up; awkward and unsure about what they expected from me; interested in pursuing my own project and my own professionalization as a teacher. I was busy teaching classes, working in a non-academic job, and training new TAs. I wasn't interested in playing the subservient role in what I saw in a lot of the so-called "mentoring" relationships around me.

With more distance (and perhaps clearer sight) from my graduate school experience, I'm able to better evaluate some of those examples. For myself, mentoring at the graduate level ought not to be about bootlicking. I'd like to think it was about introducing the profession; helping someone figure out his/her own viewpoint and goals; and eventually assisting with the transition from "student" to "colleague." But for some people bent on becoming star players themselves someday, some of that social grooming in the clique system might be exactly what they need.

During Large Urban's general Faculty Orientation, they issued each of the incoming faculty a book called Mentor in a Manual. I guess they figured that would take care of the issue. My department chair tried to start a mentoring program for junior faculty, but it never really took off. I think there's a sense that we all should know what mentoring is, and be good at it already -- but no one exactly knows what that would entail. Is it about the content or methodology of your work? is it about navigating the politics of the institution? is it about figuring out what academic life/work is all about? It could be any of those things -- but I imagine that it would be the rare "assigned" mentor who could provide those kinds of support. Gradually over time I developed friendships with some members of my dept who were able to advise me on some aspects of life within our department etc.

The idea of mentoring as it is often taken up in corporations or academic institutions assumes the old-style hierarchy: that power and knowledge are passed down from the elders to the newly-initiated. I'm not convinced that this model entirely holds true today in all aspects of academic life. Certainly, I can learn about the politics of my institution from its senior members. But because of my training and experiences as a graduate student, I actually know a lot more about the current state of academic publishing than someone who published their book 10-15 years ago. Large Urban U is not a top-tier institution; but increasingly, like many other mid-level or low-level research universities, it is staffed with people with degrees from top-level places. This is changing the landscape of knowledge in ways that the conventional mentoring dynamic doesn't address.

The Chronicle article mentions peer-mentoring dynamics as an alternative model, and I think that's really important to consider -- not as a replacement, but as an accompaniment to the hierarchical model. I learned a tremendous amount from someone who was only 2 years ahead of me in the tenure system -- and I'm trying to do the same for someone we just hired a year ago.

Why the long essay? Our blogs offer a way to make sense of our own experiences, but also offer them up as part of a way to change the knowledge landscape of academe. Academic institutions vary tremendously, as do the disciplines; but overall one consistent factor is that a lot of the "rules" of professionalization go unsaid. By the time you've learned how things work, you forget that you didn't always already know that stuff. I made a commitment when I was in graduate school to try and not forget what the experience of being a PhD student was like; similarly I've made the commitment to not forget what the experience of being a junior faculty member is like. Only by remembering can I hope to create some positive change in the system for people after me.



Well, my no-blog-at-the-office rule meant that I didn't post at all yesterday -- because I was actually being productive at my office at the U. Not only did I finally sit down and wrestle with my ideas for my new course, thereby making it slightly less daunting, but I cleaned my desk. For the first time since I was hired at Large Urban (this will be my 7th academic season here) I completely emptied every drawer. This is part of my plan to Make the Office Seem New and Inviting to Work In: I've rearranged the furniture and am reorganizing and purging stuff. Among the strange/useless items I found in my desk (an old metal thing circa 1961, like most of our furniture -- Large Urban is woefully underfunded by the state):
  • Large Urban promotional items that I must have received at Faculty Orientation my 1st year, although I have no memory of them: a tie tack, a letter opener, and a mug
  • thank-you cards from 2 secretaries for gifts for their wedding & baby showers
  • at least 3 different little bottles with echinacea capsules in them -- obviously from 3 different cold/flu seasons
  • a box of chalk, which I've never ever used and which is now worthy of museum placement, since our building is completely whiteboarded now
  • some sad-looking teabags of indeterminate age
  • at least 50 interoffice envelopes, thereby proving that they breed in dark corners and are still never available when you need them
  • worst of all: the Aged Cough Drop which had, like a spider, divested itself of its essence, leaving only its still-twisted wrapper glued in place like a discarded exoskeleton. The right side of my middle drawer is now declared No Man's Land for the In-Service office supplies: one brave little stubby pencil already got glued down from the cough drop which managed to spread itself over quite a lot of territory.

I'm feeling so much better having done this. Next week, if my syllabi are done, I'm going to tackle the file cabinet.


current reading

Since I really enjoy learning what other people are currently reading, I'll join in. After gulping down Gibson's Pattern Recognition, as previously noted, which I really enjoyed, then I had terrible luck with my library picks. Got only partway through various mediocre things.

But now I'm on the upswing again, after a better trip to the library. I just finished Greg Bear's Darwin's Children, which continues my recent history of picking up sequels, which really sucks. If you read #2 first, #1 is not nearly so satisfying, since you've already read the recap of its events. (C J Cherryh's Cloud's Rider was thoroughly enjoyable, but then I tried to read Rider at the Gate, the first one, and couldn't even get past chapter 2.) I liked some aspects of Darwin's Children, which describes the political and scientific ramifications of a new kind of human being born (due to viruses) -- but the quasi-spiritual elements didn't really fit very well with the anthropology, sociology, etc.

I just started Richard Powers's The Time of Our Singing. I love Powers, although I can only read him at certain times of year/certain times of day: I have to feel smart enough. He's received one of those McArthur genius awards, and certainly seems to merit one, based on the novels I've read. I've avoided this one until now because its ostensible subject matter seemed too daunting: classical/opera music, race relations in the 1960s, identity, family. But I'm giving it a try, and his always-compelling language is drawing me in. But if you haven't read any Powers, I'd recommend Operation Wandering Soul or Galatea 2.2 as a start. The latter if you like metafiction/SF, the former if you're less inclined that way.

For my fluffhead minutes of the day, I'm reading Slim Chance, a fairly weak chick-lit book. I've read a lot of what I'd call the good stuff of the genre and this isn't it. But it's readable enough. It's the book version of Pringles. Tasty, not particularly good for you, but not heroin either. (Besides, I sort of have an ulterior motive for reading chick-lit brewing in the back of my mind. In case you care.)

Stephen Cope's Yoga and the Quest for the True Self, which I've been slowly and intermittently reading for a couple months.

Jim Loehr & Tony Schwartz, The Power of Full Engagement. More on this later.

E M Forster's Howard's End which is only still on the list as a "should." I'm finding it horribly bitter and dyspeptic.

Julie Morgenstern's Organizing from the Inside Out, an old favorite which I pulled out for inspiration as I tackle my home study and school office.


why I read blogs

I've used up almost all of my afternoon "blogtime" reading and commenting elsewhere. There's been lots of interesting discussion going on in two related threads -- one the Stephen Krause - Profgrrrl conversation; the other begun by Apt 11D reviving the question of personal vs political blogs (and the gendered assumptions about the value of each.) There are lots of good comments happening everywhere in these links.

As I've commented elsewhere, I don't really see the utility in declaring that one way of blogging (or writing, or teaching, or living) is the One True Right Pure Way and others are Weak Irrelevant Effeminate or Dumb. Yes, I'm exaggerating. A bit. But the arrogance and defensiveness that comes up in a lot of these conversations suggests that there are much deeper cultural issues at work. Some of my hypotheses & observations:
  • it is threatening to those who are invested in the system to realize that there are participants in the system who are criticizing it (or perhaps not even talking about it or them at all)
  • because a myth of meritocracy is rampant throughout academic hiring & promotion practices, the most expedient way to attempt to shut down criticism is to claim that the critics are not articulate or not smart or not qualified enough
  • much of this conversation continues to reinforce, rather than deconstruct, the binary between personal and public identity and voice, precisely because those who are invested in the maintaining the system the way it is are threatened by the political implications of the personal. Yup, basic feminism 101.

So, bypassing the many reasons why I write this blog, why do I read blogs (both pseudonymous and nym'd)?
  • so-called "academic blogs" offer me understanding of a range of experiences and points of view (female, male, untenured, adjunct, tenured, senior, administrative, etc) from within academia in the largest sense. Most of us in our day-to-day interactions deal with people from one department, or one college. Maybe the whole university, but that's rare on a daily basis unless you're a top administrator.
  • blogs create new possibilities for community and dialogue -- within and beyond our professional identities. Understanding your own experience and its larger significance improves by comparing it with that of others.
  • many individuals are in departments, fields of study, or institutions that are not especially supportive, welcoming, or open to change. Blogs offer them support and encouragement. Even though my own department is fairly congenial and has been fairly supportive of me personally, there are many issues that I want to discuss that I don't particularly feel like sharing with the office grapevine. Seeing outside the particular institutional box one finds oneself within is often really clarifying.
  • blogs offer ways for academics to communicate beyond our own little ivory tower world. I read non-academic blogs, too -- because my identity encompasses so much more than my PhD.
  • blogs are one of the most lively forms of publishing currently going on. Blogs are all about reading writing. Not only have I learned about other people's lives -- I have been daily impressed with the style, verve, thoughtfulness, and pleasure to be found in reading the words of so many diverse minds. The more the merrier.


credit where it is due

I realize that in my last two posts I have inadvertantly adopted a mannerism of one of my favorite blog reads, Mimi Smartypants. (the use of exclamation marks! in series! etc!)

Let it be widely known that Mimi Smartypants invariably makes me laugh, often out loud. She is way funnier than David Sedaris (and I mention this only because she has a book deal in progress based on her blog). I thought I was the only person who had ever spilled a whole bottle of olive oil -- but I was certainly not nearly so funny about it.

You could start almost anywhere on her blog -- and since she frequently cross-references, you can jump back a year or more too with no apparent loss of fresh humor ingredients.

But here's a good sequence:
  1. start here
  2. next
  3. third
(these are consecutive so you can also just click to the next one yourself)

So, I may not be able to eradicate the exclamation marks because I really kinda like them . . . but I wanted to provide adequate citation for the habit.


Mel goes to the mall

So, yes, I did go shopping. I actually went to one of the malls, which I very rarely do -- I get most of my clothes at discount places (TJ Maxx, Loehmanns, etc) or at Old Navy, none of which are in malls. In fact, I think the last time I was shopping in the mall was Dec 23, when my gf and I went to do some last-minute errands for the holidays. (Not exactly the best time to go to the mall.) So it was fun today to just browse around and explore the current state of mall fashion culture, which is not something I'm in touch with always.

I tried on a lot of things, but only bought one pair of black jeans marked down to $15. Not exactly what I was looking for (teaching clothes), but too good to pass up. I'll just have to go check out the stuff at TJ Maxx sometime as a reward for good behavior.

Along the way, I saw a lot of clothes I would have loved when I was about 14 or so. The 80s really are back now, with the worst bits of the 70s sprinkled in (pink polyester crocheted ponchos???). But I definitely remember the flounced/tiered mini-skirts and bright-colored tights, the pointy shoes. All these little layered and shredded t-shirts, so Flashdance. But I'm sure I'm not really reading the semiotics correctly. For instance: when I was in high school, if you wore a black belt covered with those pointy metal studs, it meant you listened to the Sex Pistols, you drank cough syrup to get high, and you pierced your own ears with safety pins. But I suspect the studded belts (which now come in baby pink! and powder blue! and pearl white!) mean something different today.

It's chastening to realise how much this makes me sound like an old fart. Whenever I see girls with an armful of black rubber bracelets, I want to sit them down and tell them how I vividly remember the first time I saw a picture of Madonna. I was sitting in the public library of my hometown, where I would avidly read all the fashion magazines, even though they were kept behind the desk and you had to ask the old drooly librarian guy for them (please, could I see the current Mademoiselle? or Seventeen?). They didn't keep the "guy" magazines behind the desk, except for the SI swimsuit issue. Anyway, I had a deeply ambivalent relationship to dominant culture even then, and I had very little money, so I preferred to read them for free where I could maintain my ironic proto-punk distance but still scoop up important tips about acne prevention and eyeliner application. Anyway, I think it was Mademoiselle, but maybe it was Glamour -- I don't remember which magazine any longer -- Madonna served as the model for a spread on denim, which she wore with her own signature look -- circa Lucky Star, so tons of jewelry, the rubber bracelets, lingerie, eyeliner, big hair. The text said something like "Model is up and coming NYC singer Madonna." I was blown away by the picture -- it made a huge impression, though I never tried to imitate her (except for some rubber bracelets and a bunch of rhinestones at one point). I'd love to see that magazine spread again, although I'm sure it's stronger in memory.

Sure, there were some elements in 80s style that were recycled -- shoulder pads from the 40s, the skinny ties & the zoot suit style some of the New Wave bands had -- the New Romantics/Adam Ant pirate look (!), of course -- plenty of fashion quotation happening then. But it seemed that some things were uniquely 80s: plastic (bracelets, earrings, shoes); neon (everything); the hair, the eyeshadow. I just wonder what 14-year-olds today will remember 22 years from now. I'm sure it's nothing I could see at the mall today with my nearly-middle-aged eyes.

But everything is so much more multifaceted now too. Pre-MTV, it was a lot harder to get your rockstar duds down at the mall. You had to order Doc Martens out of the back of Rolling Stone (at least if you lived in a smallish Midwestern town). I was really happy today to see a place called Torrid next to Hot Topic, which where all the young mallGoths get their stuff -- Torrid is basically the same but for sizes 12-24 -- they had three awesome looking big girls working in there, making life a lot better for a lot of adolescents than it used to be.

So, even though I didn't buy much, I had a good time.

list misc

There's this thing called del.icio.us which describes itself as a "social bookmarks manager". Basically it lets you share your bookmarks with other people, which I find completely incomprehensible as to why I would want to (sorta like downloading songs on my cell). But I understand that other people enjoy, maybe even need, to do this.

But today, as I'm catching up on blogs (being more than 12 hours behind, gasp) I'm thinking how comforting it is to see everybody's lists. Maybe this is the academic equivalent of bookmark trading.

So, which of these many things shall I actually do today?
  • go to afternoon yoga, having got up too groggy to go to the morning session [No, but I went to the gym instead]
  • go shopping for some new teaching clothes because my old favorites are showing their age
  • work on the massive reorganization project in my home office
  • think about syllabi? [a little]
  • laundry & vacuuming
  • take dogs to park
  • work even a little bit on current research/writing project
  • read blogs, comment, post some more
  • cook something good for dinner since I've been eating weird miscellaneous food the past 2 days

I really, really want to go shopping. There are back to school sales! it's that time of year! get in the spirit! Damn, I'm just a slave of capitalism. But I haven't bought any new teaching clothes in a very long time. And the jeans and t-shirts I wear all summer just won't cut it in 2 weeks. The question is whether I just get off my ass now and go before it's mid-day, or force myself to "do work or chores" first. Which might mean I never go.



I know, that's so old-skool. But I like it.

You know how it is when you learn a new word, and all of a sudden you see it everywhere? Which is probably nothing more than your attention being sharpened to what was already in front of you. The universe is full of unrecognized connections.

Well, that word for me this week isn't just a word, but a person -- George H Williams -- who I don't know IRL -- and whose blog I occasionally look at (link in my list to the right). I wrote in response to an item on his blog 2 days ago. And then yesterday, I'm reading the Chronicle of Higher Ed (yup, sad to say it's one of my main sources of interesting info) and there's an article with a picture of the aforementioned GHW (in the 8/6 issue) detailing his involvement with Skin.

Now, all the cool kids obviously already knew about this amazing project begun by Shelley Jackson (author of the hypertext Patchwork Girl and many other things). She's written a story called Skin, and is publishing it, one word at a time, on the skin of volunteers who agree to get tattooed in a classic book font with the word she issues them. These volunteers are then called her "words", functioning as the embodiment of her text. According to her website she's behind in her correspondence due to an RSI -- there are approximately 350 words left to be issued, but it's not clear whether they will all go to people who've already written to her, or if she's still taking applications.

There's a post with many comments on GHW's site, including his thoughts about how the project exposes "cultural anxieties about permanence and impermanence, and that these anxieties are heightened in a digital age, where words seem to vanish from the screen as soon as we shut down our electronic reading devices." What I also find compelling about it is the way it makes evident the interconnection of multiple agents and a single author in the construction, distribution, and manifold interpretations of a text. Every text inevitably means more, or in different ways, than its author "intended"; every text has many hands at work in shaping it.

Do I want (to be) a word? Yeah. Though of course that also raises issues of another sort. Saram's essay on waiting for her word (which turned out to be "the") captures many of my own thoughts: what if you get a word you don't like? not just in terms of content, but there are words that are disturbing in their sound or shape. You have right of refusal, but then you don't get a 2nd word. You're either in or out.

Plus, my first tattoo (and my plans for a 2nd one) was all about signifying something to me, marking a specific time in my life. My idea for the design, selection of a model, my choice of an artist to modify it and create the tattoo, the placement of it -- all under my control. To be a word in this project would remove some of that control. But it would also be pretty amazing.


my pirate name

I saw it first from Jimbo: the quiz to determine your pirate name

My pirate name is:

Captain Ethel Flint

Even though there's no legal rank on a pirate ship, everyone recognizes you're the one in charge. Like the rock flint, you're hard and sharp. But, also like flint, you're easily chipped, and sparky. Arr!

Captain, and Flint, I can go for. But Ethel? I guess that's what happens when you type in Mel. Sigh. I mean, Arr!


what do we do, anyway

Three related questions -- one a long time ago, two today:
  1. In an elevator, late in the evening at an MLA convention, a bewildered drunken couple obviously in the city for vacation, not realizing that they'd be sharing the hotel with several thousand literature and language professors, accost me and ask "what is it that you people do anyway?" (I first mumbled something about it's a conference, we read papers -- getting blank stare in response. Then I said we meet to talk about teaching, and he at least nodded because that made some kind of sense to him.)
  2. Today I was talking with a friend who's reading Middlemarch who asked "what is it I'm supposed to be looking for? how do I know when my ideas make sense?" (my answers on that later)
  3. George Williams has posted one of his goals for his blog: "making clear to people who are not scholars of language and literature what scholars of language and literature do for a living." His excellent post, with good links, responds to a variety of conservative attacks on the profession of English (at, for example, Erin O'Connor's and Joanne Jacobs's sites) in part by pointing out that although the right wing likes to criticize what they think is happening in college classrooms, there are very few accounts of what it is that we actually do, or should do.
I don't usually visit the conservative academic-bashing sites because I'm not really interested in rehashing age-old debates that I don't really see as debates (i.e., the status of "the" canon, etc). But George is right that the rest of us who blog do have an opportunity to claim part of the conversation by representing what it is that we do. Of course I model that every day in the classroom, and sometimes talk about it in conversation with non-academics. But, for the record, here are some of my thoughts about what it is that I do:

  • I introduce students to ideas, texts, and modes of analysis that they have not encountered previously (how to read a poem; how to read a Victorian poem; how to write a persuasive essay describing an interpretation of that poem; etc)
  • I introduce students to texts that they may find beautiful, troubling, perplexing, sympathetic, difficult, annoying, exciting, or any other sort of response. I don't limit, praise, or criticize their response; I focus on teaching them to articulate and explain that response by reference to specific passages of the work in question and/or other relevant texts.
  • I teach my students skills (of research & analysis) to understand the language, form, and cultural context of works from other historical periods and/or cultures.
  • I introduce students to concepts in history, philosophy, art/aesthetics, politics, religion, geography, scientific thought, and anything else that is relevant to the particular text under study so that they can have a richer understanding of both the pool of allusions within the text and the culture which produced the text.
  • I teach my students to listen carefully to the interpretations of others -- whether the comments of their peers, the published scholarship, or my own comments -- and to engage in dialogue with those different interpretations. A text only gets richer and more complex once you've explained why it means what it does to you.
  • Because many of my courses deal with materials from the 19th century, I also introduce students to the basic history (political, economic, cultural) of the period so that they can begin to draw connections and make distinctions between that historical moment and our own.
  • I introduce students to the many different functions literature played in 19th-century society, and encourage them to make comparisons to the functions of literature and other forms of art and popular culture today.
  • I don't presume that my students will remember particular poems or novels ten years from now -- maybe a couple will, maybe a couple will actually have recommended a book to someone else, or re-read it years later. But what I do hope they take from my class:
    • an increased interest in how texts work;
    • an increased ability to analyze any text -- literature, advertising, political speech, television, film -- to discern not just its overt message but also its rhetoric and its larger cultural implications.
    • a belief that reading, writing, and communicating ideas are worth the time it takes.
I'm sure there's more but that's a start.

I Robot U Robot

Last night I finally got out to see I, Robot -- I'd loved those Asimov stories when I was younger. From age 11 to about 14 or so, I only read science fiction -- which meant I read everything -- good, bad, indifferent. Much of it doesn't stick with me at all now, but I remember the robot stories -- partly because in addition to being about robots (always a plus) they involved ethical quandaries and logical puzzles. The movie of course emphasizes the thriller/detection parts -- the robo-psychologist character, who's really strong in the book, is unfortunately diminished (because how would you sell a movie about a smart woman psychologist instead of a male action hero?). But it was enjoyable enough in the watching.

I would expect that we'll see more movies about robots in the next few years as the technology begins to catch up to the SF (these stories are from the 50s). A couple of years ago, there was Spielberg's beautiful, if too long and too Oedipal, meditation on boundaries of the human. A bit ahead of the curve. The presentation of the robots in this film, however, is probably a bit closer to what will eventually happen -- robots used to assist humans with tasks, rather than emulating personalities. But then eventually the code evolves. Plus, humans impart personalities to their robots, as I mentioned before with the Roomba.

Why more movies about robots? Sure, there's the general anxiety about technology run amok, wired culture, the death of human values, etc. But robots are an excellent analogue for fascism or slavery or even the corporate enslavement of underdeveloped nations. This movie made a few gestures in that direction -- enough to make me want to reread the Asimov stories to see their political echoes. The film was also glaringly filled with product placements -- his futuristic Audi car, his "retro" converse sneakers, FedEx, and many others. The reason the dangerous robots can have power in the film's story is largely because of consumerism -- people encouraged to trade in their old models for new -- the film nicely encapsulates the double-edges of late capitalism -- consumerism for identity (his much-commented on sneakers) and consumerism as threatening identity (the consumers trading up & the army of robots marching in the streets). Humans make the robots but also are the robots.


21 days

Urgh. Our heat index is in the triple digits, I have only 21 days left before classes start, and I'm feeling especially brain-dead today.

I never like these last few weeks of the summer -- too many hopes for things to squeeze in, all the anticipation and flurry of activity for the new term, regrets over what didn't happen in the summer. That's partly what my August experiment was designed to counteract -- with good results -- but today it's just me I'm talking to, and repeating that the summer was great isn't really cutting it.

Things I did this summer:
  • Spent a lot of time with the dogs -- ours and various others we've had to babysit for the past few weeks
  • Took on all the household duties so my partner could create art
  • Watched movies
  • Read for pleasure
  • Agonized about an overdue essay
  • Admitted I have depression and re-started therapy
  • Started taking a supplement that's altering my brain chemistry for the better, but I'm still trying to get the dosage right
  • Did a lot of yoga

Things I'd still like to do:
  • plan my courses, set up reserves, etc
  • read some more novels for fun
  • skim some possible novels for spring's courses
  • write an article
  • reorganize my home office
  • purge and reorganize my school office
  • make all my handouts, & prepare all my slides for the whole semester (or at least 1/2 of it)

Making a list does always make me feel better. That's the benefit of the academic calendar -- we get to start everything fresh 3 times a year. No matter how terrible a semester is, it always comes to an end. And each one begins with bright new hopes and possibilities.

Well, it supposedly only takes 21 days to start a new habit. Guess I just have to pick something to improve and get started.

signs seen yesterday

At an elementary school: Are you enjoying your summer vacation? August 16th will be here before you know it! Now, who on earth is that aimed at? Is it an ironic nod to stressed parents eager to hand over their kids in 2 weeks? or some kind of sadistic dig at kids able to read it as their family car passes by the place they're dreading having to return to?

Painted on a van: A sleek looking M and www.muzak.com. Now, although I knew somewhere in the back of my mind that Muzak was indeed a trademarked company name (one of those words that's been promoted like Xerox to a general word) I didn't realize we had a local office (though I suppose all big cities do). The website is really sleek looking -- and for the brave of heart, allows you to listen to a feed of muzak while you browse. General ambient doesn't bother me (having spent years listening to Brian Eno etc when I was younger) but it's the watered down orchestral arrangements of pop songs that I find insidious. Worst for me was the time I was in an airport and heard Muzak'd Cure. A sad sad day.

A billboard: beautiful young girl out in nature, with the slogan Inspiration Shining Through. Any guesses as to what this was for? That slogan seems appropriate for a sports team, a teacher-training institute, even one of those huge scary suburban Baptist churches that have billboards along the freeway. But no. It was for Blue Cross Blue Shield. (Disclaimer: BCBS is my health insurance provider, through the state's higher ed employees program.) There must be a handbook of "good-sounding but meaningless" adjectives for ad execs to pick and string together for all-purpose signage. Frankly, I don't want my insurance company to be gleaming with inspiration. Efficiency, maybe even compassion. But they're not painting pictures -- they're just supposed to process my provider statements.


more handyness

We rent our house -- from friends, who are also our neighbors. I'm happy to be renting -- on my salary, we can't afford to buy a house in any of the neighborhoods we'd like to live in -- so for us, it's worth it to pay rent and not have a 2-hour commute to work, or to good restaurants/movies/etc. But the terms of our renting this house (at a substantial friend discount) mean that we repair everything ourselves, short of some major appliance breakdown (i.e., if the water heater rusted out or something). So yesterday I spent most of my day cleaning and fixing stuff. I'm most proud of replacing our shower arm (the metal pipe that come out from the wall and holds the showerhead) -- the old one had developed a crack and was dripping onto the drywall. I was nervous about it, because I've discovered a lot of non-standard things about the house in the past 2 years -- and once I removed the old one, if something was wrong with the pipe in the wall, I'd be in trouble -- there's no access panel, so I'd have to cut the drywall, and do a lot of stuff I'm not yet experienced with. But thankfully, that wasn't necessary. I never realized, when I bought my pipe wrench many years ago, how handy it would be. I only bought it because in graduate school, I lived in a beautiful old apartment building from about 1900. The radiators were probably not original, but probably 1940s-ish -- pretty primitive. The only way to adjust them involved a pipe wrench. But now somehow I've turned into a plumbing-fixing handygirl. (Although my caulking skills still need work -- redid the bathtub caulk yesterday -- it always looks easier than it really is, somehow. Guess I never frosted enough baked goods when I was a kid.)

Discovery from yesterday: tea tree oil really does remove mildew & mold -- I'd read this somewhere but hadn't tried it. Mix 1 tsp tea tree oil into 1 cup water, put in a spray bottle. Spray on disgusting grout, let it set for a few minutes, and rinse. Much safer for us and the planet than all the chemicals you can buy at the store.