Dr Crazy has a great post about service -- the pressures, the drawbacks, the inequities. If you haven't read it, then go there first. I agree with her points about the special pressures for service that women often face, and also with her guidelines about how to cautiously and carefully choose what you say Yes to, especially while in the tenure track. I just wanted to expand a bit about what service looks like from my perspective, as someone recently tenured.

My department expects a lot of service from its faculty -- we are understaffed and underfunded (like most public institutions) and so there is always a need for people to manage the day to day running of a large department: graduate studies, the major, the general ed track-- each of these divisions of our curricula have equivalent managerial divisions, with one or two or sometimes three faculty who get a course release to work as administrators to make sure the bare minimum of student advising, problem-fixing, and degree-awarding gets done. Each has a supporting committee of faculty who review applications, draft proposals for curriculum changes, etc. (basic service expectation is participating on one of these committees).There are two other committees charged with the most important managing of the department (merit reviews, hiring, overall mission) and their membership is elected. Then there are all the other things that crop up during a year: speakers to be picked up from the airport; lectures and receptions to organize and attend; job market coaching; essay contests; committees to deal with special requests from the Dean or Provost, amendments to the bylaws, political brawls with other departments, etc.

As a junior person, I did a fair amount of service within my dept, but was protected from doing anything at the College or University level. So in 6 years I served on three different standing committees, a 2 year term on an elected committee, 3 hiring committees, and probably 10-15 ad hoc projects of varying lengths. I also said no to a lot of things -- especially during the last two years before I was up for review. My colleagues understood the need to protect my research time.

But now I'm tenured, that's all over. The day the letter came from the Provost, I was asked to take on a 3-year administrative position in the department; in the past two weeks I've also been asked to serve on the University-level faculty governance board and asked to advise the Honors students, in addition to my current position on two standing committees within the dept. Now, I said no to the admin position, because I'm in the middle of a big project. It's understood that I will probably be asked again in a year or two. I said yes to the governance board, since I don't know anything about how it works and feel like it would be worthwhile to learn. I said yes to the Honors advising, after one of my favorite colleagues said we could co-advise.

Looking around there are different models in my department. A couple of my colleagues periodically withdraw from all service for a year or two while finishing a project. A few have withdrawn totally. Some of my colleagues on the other hand, have given up 5 or 10 years of their careers almost totally to service -- for some, that's a prelude to a later career in university administration; for others, a recipe for burnout, overwork, bitterness. And then there's a hardworking dedicated group of people who manage to choose service commitments that are important to them, and still produce scholarship. And without these people, we wouldn't have a department.

That's another reality of service, at least post-tenure. It has to get done. And if you completely disinvest, you have to be willing to have people who you disagree with totally in charge of hiring decisions, curriculum, course assignments, parking space alotments, photocopying budgets -- all the big things and the little nitty-gritty things that are a big part of our working lives. I'm a good departmental citizen not because I have to please anybody, but because I really do care who we hire in the next five years -- those are the people I'll be stuck with for a long time. I care about being allowed to teach the kinds of courses I want to teach. Etc. Sure, it can become a disastrous time and energy vacuum -- but without it, I'd have far less input and control over my working life.

spotted on the way home from yoga

  • a Kerry sticker on a Jaguar
  • near the little dog park: a couple on bicycles, one of which had one of those child trailers behind it: with two little dogs inside! a Jack Russell and another small dog. Super cute! (although those trailers can't be very good for the dog or child dragging around at exhaust-fume level -- I just hope they weren't biking very far)

getting unstuck

I've been feeling really stuck lately, here on this blog. Not so much elsewhere in my life -- the past week wasn't especially great or terrible -- actually fairly smooth. Which maybe gives me less to blog about? Some of it is my election anxiety-- reading the vast amounts of commentary on other people's blogs only increasings my own angst about Tues. Some of it is the recovery from midterm hell -- I've been sleeping a lot. And I was working at the office a lot last week -- I've been sticking to my no blogging at the office rule, partly to stay productive, but also to keep the shreds of my pseudonymity together. But mostly I've just been feeling like I didn't have much to say that wouldn't be just so far embedded in my own navel as to be even too narcissistic for a blog. Bleh. Time to get unstuck.


my brain needed some down time

Well, Profgrrrl had declared Friday to be a writing day. Without declaring or really even planning it, my Friday turned out to be Sleeping Day. I slept for 12 1/2 hours (waking up only briefly to let the dogs out & decide I was too tired for morning yoga class) , and probably would have just kept on going if the dogs hadn't woken me up because of thunder. And it was really deep sleep, too, with long, complicated, but not upsetting, dreams (which I don't usually have (or remember)).

So then I made some food & talked to my best friend for 2 hours on the phone -- we usually talk at least once a week, but work & family schedules have interfered so we've been out of touch for a long time.

Now, although I'm ready for a nap, I'm going to walk the dogs first. Maybe watch a movie. And then sleep some more. Guess that's what I needed.


eminem's latest

Have you seen Eminem's get-out-the-vote video? You can, at Guerilla News Network.

Despite the fact that Eminem is often unbearably homophobic, I also think he's smart and charismatic. 8 Mile, and the single he released from it, was oddly inspiring to me as I was working up to tenure :

You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow
This opportunity comes once in a lifetime yo

[note to self: what am I doing this late wandering the blogosphere and posting about Eminem when I should be crafting powerpoint slides for tomorrow's class? or sleeping? ]

election angst

I was insanely busy Monday and Tuesday, to the point that I was rendered nearly wordless, so I didn't blog. And then this morning, when I had some time to catch up on the blogosphere, Blogger's servers were down and I couldn't post. Couldn't even read other blogspot folks.

Well, it's all speeding along just fine now, thankfully. But I feel dreadfully out of touch with everyone.

But I realized this morning that I've also been reading less and saying less the past few days partly out of my anxiety/exhaustion/cynicism about Tuesday's election. The world I live in is populated with people who are all going to vote against Bush on Tues--there's no convincing necessary. And my tolerance for wading through political faction-speak has really really worn thin. So that's part of it. But another part is my anxiety and pessimism. I actually think it's entirely possible that Kerry will get the votes next week -- but that doesn't mean they'll let him "win." Each time I check my inbox, I read more dreadful news about voter intimidation, registration tampering, etc. And that's just the stuff we already know about.

Unfortunately, I can't even say that I once had a belief in representational government that has now been tarnished (as I've heard many people claiming lately). I've never lived in a state where the Electoral College rep voted the way I did (or would have, in my pre-voting age years). I've never lived in a state where my politics, my beliefs, were given voice at all. I've also lived in more than a few places where the state government was so obviously corrupt as to be practically a joke. (For instance: I grew up in a state where all jobs in the parks, the DMV, the road crews, and many other things were controlled by whichever party was in power in the State House. And this was written into the state constitution.)

Yet I do still vote. I believe in voting. That was one of the few things that was really impressed upon me as a child. Voting was a solemn, somewhat mysterious activity, not just a civic duty but a moral responsibility. My mother is a 1st-generation American, and her parents had left an essentially feudalist society in coming here. They took the democratic process very, very seriously.

Once when I was young, my parents brought me along to the polling place with them. I had to wait in the hallway while they went into the curtained booths, making the whole thing seem very mysterious and powerful indeed. Afterwards, I asked my mother if she and my dad voted together. She said no, that whatever you voted was secret and you didn't have to tell anybody. She said they might talk about it beforehand, but in the little booth you were by yourself and it was only up to you. (Yup, the existential overtones were pretty common in my family. That was the closest thing we had to a religious creed. By the time I actually read Sartre, I already knew that existence involved suffering and responsibility.)

So I believe in voting. Especially in the local elections held in off years -- who sits on city council often has much more direct impact on my life than my ineffectual votes for Senate or President. It's odd to believe in the act but to know that in an election like this year's, it's purely symbolic. My little ritual of participating in a system, in a society, that doesn't really want me to participate.


Sunday groggy Sunday

Well, it's Sunday. Not even morning any longer, in my time zone. And, like my fellow bloggers, I'm trying to figure out where the weekend went, and what to do with the remnant that remains. I wound up taking yesterday off: yoga, lunch with a friend, some shopping at TJ Maxx (found an inexpensive jacket for teaching, and a fleece blanket for the dogs) and the cosmetics discount place (hair gel! lotion! new lipstick!), dinner with my gf, fun browsing (but virtuously, no buying) at the CD shop. All in all, a very relaxing day. I just want to hang onto that feeling and not have it shadowed by the Sunday grumps.

Slept really late today (I'm definitely catching up from last week), which was enjoyable and necessary, but also makes me feel limited in what I can accomplish.

things I've done already:
  • fun reading & breakfast while lounging in bed
  • clip dogs' nails
  • help gf express the dogs' anal glands (truly disgusting, but it costs $15 each dog each time at the vet or groomer, so we learned to take care of it ourselves)
  • start laundry
  • answer student emails

The big question is whether I work at home this afternoon, or go into the office. I have a bunch of overdue administrative stuff that can only be done at the office, and it would be satisfying to go in and get it taken care of. Yet, although it's urgent, it's not necessarily the highest priority task. I've got other priority and urgent things I could easily do from home. A few years ago, when I was unpartnered, I'd go into the office on the weekends both to get stuff done and for the socializing (several of my colleagues were frequently there too). Now that I have a settled down life, it's harder to leave the house. Yet also harder to get stuff done when I'm at home.

Trimmed down priority short list:
  • purchase & finish setting up new software --I've been using the trial version and am loving it
  • research for conference paper
  • work on ongoing writing project
  • grading
  • go to the gym (long walk instead)
  • it's my turn to take the dogs to the park

And then, at the end of the day: dinner with gf and our Sunday night indulgence, Desperate Housewives -- anybody else gotten hooked into this? It's wonderfully campy, sort of Stepford feminist, very different from what I usually expect from TV.


movies you should see

Run, don't walk, to I Heart Huckabees . It's smart, funny, and it features a bunch of eminently likeable actors. (Mark Wahlberg AND Lily Tomlin, for starters. Jude Law and Isabelle Huppert. Someone for everyone.) Probably more appealing to those of you prone to self-examination -- but somehow I suspect that already includes anyone who keeps a blog. It's been getting mixed reviews, I suspect because it features environmentalist idealists (a rock-hugging poet and a firefighter who both bicycle everywhere) talking about trying to discover the meaning of life outside of the consumerist pap fed to us by Big Corporations. The surreal existential detectives are charming in their enthusiasm for interconnection, as is the devilish dark French philosopher who operates as their opponent. Finally, both teams (and their philosophies) are reconciled: everything in the universe is interconnected -- and life involves suffering. The great challenge for human beings is to try to embrace, understand, and deal with both of those axioms. Now, for me, none of this is new -- nor do I expect it would be for the select few who actually read my blog. But survey the reviews over at Rotten Tomatoes and you quickly realize how threatening a little Buddhist philosophy can be to some viewers.

You should also see Tarnation. The story behind the making of this movie is every bedroom auteur's dream: Jonathan Caouette, the editor/director/subject of the film, took 160-plus hours of home movies and captured audio, sat down with his Mac and iMovie, and created a film that got Gus Van Sant and John Cameron Mitchell to sign on as executive producers. The original 3 hours has been further edited down to 90 minutes for its general release. The other story behind this film -- Caouette's experiences growing up and his mother's many treatments for mental illness -- is plenty compelling in and of itself. But this is a film that takes your conventional ideas about autobiography, documentary, and self-exposure, and remixes them into something totally new.



There's a run-down strip of storefronts that I drive past on my way home. For years it's contained only a mini-mart, with a big sign out by the street that says:
Neighborhood Mini Mart
WIC Accepted

Just recently there's been some signs of new activity in the strip. And now the sign says:
Neighborhood Mini Mart
WIC Accepted

Hey, dude, let's pick up some beads since we're stopping to get beer and chips.



in today's email

Emailing me to let me know that you missed class because you were too hung over because of watching baseball is really Too Much Information. Emailing me to request that I write you a letter of recommendation for professional schools when we're only half-way through the semester and you've barely ever spoken in class gives me Not Enough Information.

And, from the administration: Useless Information I Don't Really Know What To Do With.


80s 80s 80s

New Kid started a Bad 80s Clothes thread, which I just have to follow up on. I did sport some truly horrendous 80s looks:
  • denim mini skirt, black T-shirt, and black Reebok hightops (now back!)
  • the fuschia sweatshirt minidress -- just a big huge sweatshirt, really
  • huge, huge, HUGE shirts over leggings
  • stripes and patterns together
  • neon
  • rock n roll eyeliner (black, purple, silver...)
  • ruffled hippy-peasant skirt with big clunky boots: punk on the prairie
But I had some pretty awesome clothes too, at different points:
  • white shirt with a super- skinny black tie (a la Duran Duran)
  • asymmetrical dangly earrings (I don't think I wore matching earrings for maybe a decade)
  • a mandarin collar pink patterned jacket that was very Prince
  • pointy-toed boots
  • Culture Club t-shirt (one of the best shows ever!)
  • denim jacket festooned with vintage rhinestone brooches
We were at an arty reception thing last night (my gf is an artist so we have to go to stuff like that sometimes) and there was a guy with a little David Bowie Low button pinned in his lapel. In a box somewhere, I must have all my old buttons -- remember the semiotics of adolescent cool?


dryer lint

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

Yup, I should get to work.


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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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


blah. bleh. pluh.

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


National Coming Out Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Jacques Derrida 1930-2004

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

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

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

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

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

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


anti-growth rant

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

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



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

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

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


to the disgruntled guy in the back row:

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

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

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

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


work habits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


times are a-changin'

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

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

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

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

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


on biography

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

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

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

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

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