and I'm off...

...to MLA! Where I probably won't have blog access. I'll just be storing up stories and observations to report upon my return.


party day

I got a huge box of plush dog toys super cheap online this year so the dogs had a lot of fun opening their stockings!
Image hosted by Photobucket.com

Image hosted by Photobucket.com

Image hosted by Photobucket.com

And then my gf and I exchanged gifts and played with the dogs for several hours. Much ball tossing, rope tugging, toy disembowling, and cookie eating. Then a movie and pizza and a trip to the dog park and now we're home, all of us kind of played out but really really happy.


fever free

Throughout my illness, the dogs have been taking their jobs as nurses very seriously, staying in bed with me even when they could have been playing outside in the yard. Most of the time one or both of them have been snuggled right up against me, pinning me tightly in the bed as I slept. (They're happy about the snuggle time but I suspect they also were enjoying my elevated body temperature, since dogs run much warmer than humans do.)

Because of their natural diet, our dogs are very fresh smelling most of the time. But whenever our youngest dog gets wet (whether in the rain, or from a bath) her hair gives off this funny smell, sort of like the old-fashioned permanent smell in the old-lady hairdresser shop my mother went to when I was a kid. Acrid, bitter, sort of surprising. But as soon as she's dry,the smell goes away.

About 4 a.m. I woke up with that smell in my nose and realized that I had soaked her with my sweat as my fever broke. My clothes were drenched, the blankets were damp, but most of all G was damp, since she'd been nestled up against me. Our other dog was perched on my shoulders, keeping some of my body heat in, as my damp skin was quickly over-cooling.

So I got up and changed clothes and dried the dogs and we all went back to sleep. And today I'm much much better! Still kind of tired, but I feel more like myself. And the dogs are happy to be playing outside again, their duties as nursemaids done.



I got hit with a stomach virus yesterday -- don't know whether to blame the family party or the lunch out with friends -- both of which probably would have put me in contact with holiday germs. Ick.

I thought a lot about blogging yesterday -- but since I was only semi coherent due to my fever, it's probably just as well that I couldn't.

but hey, today I've graduated to applesauce and even a piece of toast! which seems like cuisine compared to glasses of gatorade and tea, which is all I could handle yesterday.

real thoughts to commence once I get them...


Student portraits

Student 1: He sits in the front row every day, and misses only one class all term. His writing needs some work, especially in transitioning between ideas and avoiding repetition, because he's not a native speaker. He comes to meet with me two or three times for every assignment in the course, both before and after it's graded, to go over my comments and learn about what I'm trying to teach him. He's taking several advanced level literature courses (something that is challenging for most of our native speakers, never mind someone who only came here four years ago) and we also spend time working on his close reading skills. In the schooling he received in his country of origin, students were not expected to write essays based on their own arguments or opinions; they were only supposed to learn the teacher's words by rote memory. It is a huge paradigm shift for him to try and succeed in this educational culture which prizes logical argument and clarity of expression. He learns to recognize the differences in what is expected of him here, so that even if he is not always successful in crafting his written arguments, he can analyze and learn from his mistakes. When I suggest that he read a book on improving his syntax & style, he actually does, and I can see the results as his writing improves. He brings in ideas from his philosophy class and tries to relate them to the literary texts we're reading. He is engaged with the material and actively trying to improve his writing. He was not an A-level student when he entered my class, but his commitment to fulfilling all assignments, to benefit from the opportunity to get comments on drafts, and his A+ final exam brought his final grade up to A-. A grade I was happy to give him.

Student 2: Her attendence was extremely erratic, so much so that for a while I thought she had dropped the course. (With our student population at my U, you can usually expect to lose a few students along the way, and they often don't let you know. They just stop showing up.) But then she showed up again, briefly. When she was in class, she never participated in discussion, but sat with a sneering sulky look on her face. As I totalled up the attendance records, I realized she had only been there one-third of the course days. She turned in only two of the weekly assignments. But her writing is very strong and I think she's smart. Her first paper was good enough that I checked it several times for plagiarism. Her oral presentation was also very good. Her lack of involvement in the course was all the more frustrating to me because I sensed that she was naturally a strong student. She never turned in her final paper, not when it was due nor during the grace period I allow for late work (specified very clearly in my syllabus). Her final exam was at the C level, but because she'd missed so much work, her final grade was an F. Two days after turning in my final grades, she emails me her final paper, saying "I know it's probably too late to be graded." I glanced at it, even though I'm not accepting it for a grade, and sadly, it's a very strong paper. If she'd turned it in on time, she'd have passed the course. (just barely, but she probably would have passed). If she had a medical or personal situation that required accomodation, I would have been more than happy to help her. But never once did she contact me with an explanation about her absences or her missing work. I don't know what her story really is.

One of the qualities I try to cultivate in myself as a teacher is an attitude of generosity. I gladly spent long hours working with Student 1, because that's part of my work as a teacher. I make myself available to students during regular office hours and via email. I make accomodations for students with special needs, with medical conditions, or with family situations that cause them to miss class or fall behind in their work. My courses require regular assignments to be turned in -- some of which are graded simply on a particpation basis, so that if you do them, you get full credit. So putting forth serious effort actually does improve your course grade. I don't penalize students for missing class, but point out to them that if they miss too many classes, their assignments will necessarily suffer.

I don't think, however, that it would be generous to simply grade Student 2's four-week-late paper and give her a passing grade. I've thought a lot about this over the past two days. If she had contacted me at any time during the semester with a reasonable explanation -- a medical condition, for instance -- I would have worked with her either to establish due dates for her written work and a plan to improve her attendance, or to give her the passing-Withdrawal grade. But from everything I've seen of Student 2's behavior, she's smart enough that she thinks she can get by without doing the things that are required of everyone else. She's got an issue with authority, maybe some sort of issue with being in school at all. In a small-section (30) lecture-discussion course, you can't just act the way you might in a large lecture format course. You can't just read the books and still ace the exam. Part of the work of the course happens during the class. Otherwise I could just proctor study hall every day instead of actually teaching.

I feel frustrated with Student 2 -- and I felt frustrated with her during the semester, too. I'll always feel that I could have somehow tried harder to reach her. But her performance in my class is not only my responsibility -- it's also hers.


I can see the finish line

I'm getting really close. Everything is graded, and almost everything is entered into the spreadsheet. I still have to convert some letter grades to numbers and finalize a couple of formulas that are dependent on the number of class days etc. I already combed through my email inbox for any stray response papers that I hadn't printed out and therefore already entered into the gradesheet. I'm getting really close to wrapping this up. But I lost some of my momentum at 5:45 when I knew I wouldn't be done in time to get to yoga. (And then I got sidetracked deleting a bunch of other old emails that I no longer need to keep.) For some reason, the final calculation of grades always takes me longer than I think -- even though the spreadsheet does a lot of the work. Even once I clean up the formulas, then I still have to eyeball the grades, and make sure they make sense. And then do the scantron sheet, since we're still stuck in the quadplicate paper forms era at my U. But it's really the decisions that slow me down -- is this student's participation grade really a B or an A? etc.

But the end is really, really, near. And it really wasn't too bad, since this was a light teaching semester for me.

And tomorrow is going to be the most enjoyable day off EVER. I'm going to sleep! and read! and go to yoga! and go to the gym! and go out to lunch! and maybe even catch a movie. I'm going to just totally play, all day long. Saturday will be time enough to begin working on my 9,000 projects slated for the winter break.

how to have fun on Thursday

How to have fun (or is that "fun"?) at work:
  • drink SBX with extra shots in it
  • change pens periodically while grading final exams
  • be meeting in a windowless conference room when the power goes out
  • be within six hours of wrapping up the semester . . .


the Wikipedia thing

I first read about the latest Wikipedia "controversies" on Monday, though it's apparently been going on for a while.

The flurry of media attention was drawn to Wikipedia because John Seigenthaler wrote an op-ed piece for USA Today criticizing the site's open-access approach to information because he had been named in an entry related to the Kennedy assassination. His essay focuses on the impossibility of tracking down who wrote false statements about him, and criticizes Wikipedia writers as "volunteer vandals with poison-pen intellects". While his personal sense of outrage is perhaps understandable, his essay clearly shows the gap between older conceptions of publishing and what the web really offers. Several things come to mind.

First, why didn't he just change the entry himself? or have one of his minions do it? (In the past few days, on the heels of this issue, Wikipedia has changed the rules so that only registered users will be able to contribute information, allowing all changes to be tracked to a particular user.)

Second, no one with any sense would take a Wikipedia article on a super-controversial (and potentially wacky) topic like the Kennedy assassination very seriously.

The man who wrote the false information about Seigenthaler has since apologized and been fired from his job. He apparently didn't think any one used Wikipedia as a serious information tool. That doesn't mean it's justifiable to write a slanderous statement as a prank. But the status of Wikipedia as an information source is somewhere between "totally non serious" and "acceptable to teams of establishment experts."

Entries on tamer stuff don't change that often and are generally pretty reliable (you want to learn who were the key names in the history of, say, watchmaking, you can quickly check Wikipedia and then go forward with your research). But certain topic stems are of course magnets for opinionated folks, and the site editors can't keep up with everything. But usually (and I don't know why this didn't happen in this case) some other opinionated writer will step in and change it again.

The head of Wikipedia has now come out suggesting that no one should cite the site, but that it should be used as a starting point for further research. He also points out that no one doing real research should be citing any sort of encyclopedia, because the kinds of information they provide are very limited and prone to error.

But that doesn't mean throwing out the baby with the bathwater is the right response either, and Seigenthaler's mutterings about how Congress "enabled" and "protects" Wikipedia writers suggest a deep distrust of new media that risks violating the free exchange of information and opinion.

I think Wikipedia is one of the great things on the web -- largely because it shows (like some other key online ventures like Ebay) that much of the time, most of the people are mostly good intentioned. The fact that volunteers with knowledge about particular topics choose to spend their time writing about them is pretty awesome. Wikipedia is also extremely flexible and dynamic, allowing it to register developments in popular culture and slang that never make it in to print or print-equivalent sources. There are topic stems that also wouldn't make it into the traditional information architecture. The web gives voice to information and opinions from a much broader range of persons than any traditional medium.

Of course the media loves controversy. So items that encourage paranoia and distrust of internet-based communication, commerce, or culture always get more play than items celebrating those things.

Seems like there's lots of teachable material in this event for instructors at all levels...


guess it'll have to be a 1000 words

It looks like this is yet another year when we won't be sending a photo holiday card. You know, the cheery picture-equals-all-the-words-not-written kind of glossy holiday card that I've been receiving from many of my friends in the past few years. I'd much rather get a photo card that just has a signature scribbled on it than a regular card that's just signed. Alas, I know that the days are long past when I could count on personal notes or letters tucked into the xmas cards. I still tend to write a few sentences at least in the cards I send -- it's one of the holiday rituals that I really enjoy. I like to receive cards, and I also like sending them. Although I've been kind of slack about it over the past couple of years, and so the number that I receive is slowly dwindling. Plus so many of us are email-only these days -- some friends I don't even have postal addresses for any more.

I like to give and get holiday cards. I've usually picked handsome arty cards or lefty environmental cards, always with the most secular message I could find.

I've never liked having my picture taken. I'm only recently a camera user & owner myself. I have very few pictures of myself past the age of ten -- I tend to close my eyes, double my chin, stare off vacantly, and generally ruin almost any picture I'm in.

So why, I wonder, have I been so interested in creating a photo card? About three years ago my gf and I managed to get ourselves and the two dogs lined up in front of the camera with its timer on, and got a semi-decent picture after several tries. It was too late in the year to actually print them and mail them (plus I was new to the whole digital photo printer thing), but I did send email holiday greetings with the picture.

That was the closest we've come. Every year we talk about taking a picture. The week before Thanksgiving, a friend was supposed to come to the park with us to get our picture -- we'd discovered that we were dressed kind of nicely that day, all by accident. But she didn't show up, the daylight was dwindling, and we had a guy we know from the park take a few pictures of us. We were so close. Unfortunately, the only pics that came out (he was a little shaky, and the dogs weren't exactly sitting precisely still) were taken from too far away -- they're not going to work for the photo card, and when cropped they're too low resolution.

And ever since Thanksgiving we've been too busy. So I think tomorrow I need to go to the bookstore and pick out some cards to send this year, without a picture. But considering that I hate the way I look in pictures, and that I don't usually want my picture taken, it is actually kind of strange that I've been wanting to do a photo card. I guess it has something to do with making my life real and visible to my long distance friends, some of whom have never met my partner or our dogs. Perhaps a kind of counterbalance to all the breeders & baby pictures that my mailbox fills up with.


Dr Grumpy

I've been buried under a stack of job files -- our searches having been somewhat delayed by the Provost's office, our incompetent clerical staff, and the endless meetings about procedures required by the U's legal departments. This is the fifth search I've been on from the hiring side of things -- and the first since getting tenure. It does feel a little bit different this time around -- but I'm not entirely sure if it's how I've changed or the circumstances of this search.

I've always felt that the work leading up to hiring decisions was one of the most important kinds of departmental service I could do -- after all, as someone relatively early in my career (and especially now that I have tenure), I have a vested interest in helping to choose people who could be my colleagues for a Very Long Time. Plus, my department includes a couple of tenured faculty who it is widely felt were not the right choices -- so I've seen how mistakes in hiring (and tenuring) can really burn a department or college.

Reading job files always simultaneously makes me feel excited (new smart people! interesting topics!) and depressed ((1) all these smart people who have lousy jobs or don't have jobs at all and (2) all these not-so-smart people who shouldn't ever have been encouraged to get a PhD at Crap University because now what are they going to do, really?). During my first couple years in the job I would sometimes also feel a bit anxious about my own qualifications -- why did I have a job when obviously there were so many other super smart more accomplished people out there. Happily for me, I don't get that anxiety any longer from the job applications. I'm far enough removed from the fresh-PhD stage of things to not feel competitive with these folks. In fact, many of them seem outrageously young and unformed to me. (I do get imposter syndrome anxiety from other things, like reading the MLA convention program, but that's for another post.)

But today, I'm feeling like Dr Grumpy. The sheer burden of reading approximately 700 pages of writing samples in a subfield that is not my own, in order to prepare for a meeting that will undoubtedly result in one colleague insisting on more meetings, another only championing the male candidates, and a third stomping out of the room in a huff -- combined with the work I still need to finish in giving & grading exams, calculating final grades, and oh, yes, grading some late papers -- has me kind of off-kilter. If I can just make it to the 20th, all will be well. But getting to the end of the semester feels like a long haul right now.


rethinking grading

I'd really thought I could get through this set of papers without blogging about them, without complaining about them. After all, I was so virtuous, I even graded some of them on Friday night. And the assignment I'm grading is a potentially interesting one that allows for creative or original responses on the part of the students. So they're not as dreary to read as some more traditional critical essays. (Also harder to plagiarise.)

But then I just didn't get much further with the grading over the weekend. It is the one thing that I truly seem to procrastinate on -- much worse than on anything else in my life. Even when it's not so painful, it's really hard to make myself sit down to do it. Especially since I was trying to grade at home -- I'd been at the office so much that I wanted to be at home with the dogs, all cozy on the couch. Which was great, but it also set me up to be distracted and interrupted.

So once I wrap up here at the office, I'm off to the cafe, where it will be warmer than my house (I hope), and where there will be anxious kids studying for the LSAT and med students doing whatever they do with flash cards. My best studying-related memories from college are all about being in places where other people are also working -- the undergraduate library's armchairs, the heavily varnished tables in the magazine room, the late-night coffees at the divey Italian place. In grad school, my best friend would come over to study -- we'd work for a few hours, breaking now and then for coffee or a snack. It was companionable but not overly distracting. I think that's the key. Working in total isolation can make me feel really put upon -- at least when it's a task I'm not really engaged with anyway.

I need to figure out a way to reframe grading as intellectual work. Because I think that's the problem -- it feels more like service, or adminstration, or other energy draining aspects of the job.

Or, maybe I can teach my dogs to grade papers for me...


ETA for EOS: 13 days

Tonight is the first holiday party we have to go to. There's the "official" one for faculty hosted by my Department's Chair next week -- but tonight is the one that a colleague holds nearly every year -- a kind of selection from the dept, faculty and grad students, are usually invited. Since she caught me in the hall and said "you're coming on Saturday, right" I kind of have to go. And most years, it's been reasonably enjoyable. I'm just rarely in the party-going spirit at this time of year -- we're still teaching classes, stacks of papers are waiting to be graded, and there's a long final push to get this semester wrapped up.

And yet, at the same time, I'm also so over this semester already. My thoughts are with next term's classes, and more urgently with the work I hope to accomplish over the winter break. I spent the afternoon with my research instead of with the papers that I ought to grade -- but it feels like that was a good choice. Because it's all too easy for me to lose contact with my intellectual self, and just let the day-to-day task oriented self run the show. Especially right now, when there are job files to read and papers to grade and meetings to attend.


Flux is fun

We went to an early matinee of Aeon Flux today, along with a few other hardcore film nerds and Friday slackers, and TOTALLY enjoyed it. The story's ingredients are familiar (philosophical issues around cloning, false consciousness, the price of privilege and comfort) but it's well done. And at a purely aesthetic level, the film is great -- beautiful art direction, costumes, lighting -- the whole look of it was very appealing to me. If you like dystopic SF with style, this is your movie. Plus, it was directed by a woman! (all too rare in SF) I can't compare it to the animated segments shown on MTV back in the day, since I didn't have a TV then and only heard about the show. But as a standalone film, I really liked it. (If you liked Gattaca, Fifth Element, Dark City, and/or Matrix 1, run, don't walk, to this one. But I certainly don't need to tell you that, if you liked those films.)

And let's hear it for kickass sexy action heroines -- we also got to see the trailer for Underworld: Evolution (the sequel), which looks equally delicious.


meetings, meetings, tra la la

As the end of semester nears, and Meeting Season is upon us -- that joyous time when each and every university, college, and department committee feels that it must hold a meeting in order to finish undone business -- comparisons between one's department and family relationships inevitably arise. Although I am not related by blood to any of my colleagues, I am, in fact, stuck with most of them, just as one is more or less stuck with one's relations. These are some of the members of my department -- recognize any of them?
  • Vague Busy Dad (aka The Chair) -- um, he's Dad. Everyone obeys him but talks rebelliously behind his back.
  • Grampa Sleepy -- he's a jolly sort of guy who snoozes in the corner of meetings until someone jostles him awake with a question about the library committee.
  • Great-Uncle Fred -- a bitter, querolous man who begins every comment with "Well, 25 years ago, we decided..."
  • Wacky Aunt Sue -- wears handmade necklaces and has been known to sing during lectures.
  • Uncle Bill -- Terrifies the kids by always asking them "so, young man, how's your tenure file?"
  • Marsha (older sister) -- Marsha was once the only princess, and the prettiest in all the land. She's jealous of those who came after her, but she still tries to be the prettiest.
  • Joe (aka Class Clown) -- Joe is the quintessential middle child always seeking attention. He frequently interrupts discussions with off-topic (and sometimes off-color) jokes.
  • Little Betty -- still a girl after all these years. She doesn't have to take responsibility for anything, because she's just so, you know, girly.
  • Eugene the Nerd -- kind of smelly, kind of awkward, kind of sweet in his own way.
  • Serious Stan and Ann -- the Twins who work hard, keep their rooms clean, and seem so perky that you just have to suspect a Deep Secret lurking somewhere.
  • Whiny Toddler I -- he is always convinced that he needs something shiny, something that someone else has.
  • Whiny Toddler II -- has learned that flinging himself on the ground and screaming will get attention.
  • Tired Mom -- wants everyone to just settle down and agree on something.
And me? I'm afraid that I'm becoming The Babysitter -- the responsible older child you trust just enough to keep the little ones from burning down the place.


shark, shark -- and squid

Wifeswap has really jumped the shark. Late last night we watched Monday's episode that we'd taped -- I think the shark appeared early on in this second season, but we have kept on watching because, as I've suggested before, I found this show really interesting in its representation of domestic labor. Plus, it helped my partner and I make some changes in how we divide up that labor. So we have felt a bit loyal to the show, even though in its second season it has become more and more predictably exploitive, more like all the rest of the so-called reality shows. Recent episodes have been all about ideology (pairing the hunter with the PETA activist, the pastor's wife with the atheist) rather than the running of households. Sure, ideology is part of that -- but now they're just looking for the most extreme loons they can find. So the vegan animal rights activist wasn't just that -- she believed that staring at the sun would provide all her nourishment. Etc. Anyway, this week really was a lame episode and we are probably in the process of weaning ourselves off this show. But, if the first season is ever on DVD, it has some really great moments.

We went to see Prime, and were about 1 or 2 minutes late. So the shark must have been right on the opening screen or something. I just could not get involved in this movie -- and I have a much higher tolerance for cliched romantic dramas than does my partner. Maybe I'll watch it if I'm home sick with the flu. But there just seemed to be lots of talent not going anywhere. We lasted about 40 minutes and then surfed over to Derailed, which was very well done for what it is. Sort of an old-fashioned twisty suspense film, really -- predictable if you know the genre, but it made me jump a couple of times...

Belatedly -- we saw Squid and the Whale a couple of weeks ago -- it's probably no longer in your local theatre, but should be at the top of your rental queue. Great performances all around and full of the pain of real life. I didn't like any of the characters -- which was really the point -- your sympathy and attention are carefully distributed to the whole awfulness of family life. Really really well done.


today, no eyelashes

About 20 minutes before class, as is my usual habit, I looked in the mirror to put on a little lipstick and check that I didn't have anything stuck to my teeth. What I discovered was that I had left the house without putting on mascara. I think this was the first day ever in my teaching career that I taught without mascara, except for a couple of times when I've had my glasses on instead of contacts due to an eye irritation or infection. Wearing glasses is such an identity mask that mascara is almost beside the point. But today, I had my contacts in -- and the little bit of eyeshadow and face powder that constitutes my "professional" look. But no mascara. Which is a big part of trying to look awake, professional, and reasonably authoritative, since my natural eyelashes are so pale as to be almost invisible.

In my thirties, I began wearing less and less makeup -- I rarely wear it on the weekends, unless we're going to something especially dressy (kind of rare in our social life). Thankfully, I just don't care as much as I did as a teenager. Sure, I try to look reasonably put together -- but it doesn't have to involve makeup. Makeup is kind of fun, and I enjoy getting dressed up, but it's not really part of my casual life.

However, my professional persona involves wearing certain clothes and presenting myself in a certain way -- it's all about making myself feel like I'm at work. Putting on my teaching clothes helps get me in that mindset, which is different from the mindset I have when I'm reading on the couch wearing sweatpants. (Even if I'm reading for class.) And, eyelashes have always been one of the things I felt were helpful in creating that persona.

I wasn't especially tired or distracted this morning, or -- more disturbing -- I didn't think I was. Who knows what else I might have forgotten and just haven't realized yet? I guess I must have gotten interrupted during my getting ready process and just never looked in the mirror afterwards.

Oh well. I survived teaching without eyelashes, and no one has said anything. I guess maybe I need to add mascara to my personal drawer in my desk, where I've stashed Clif bars and dental floss and other things you never know but that you might need.


I'm back!

Yay! we're back! and we even have this evening and all of tomorrow to decompress in before having to face Monday morning. Definitely we planned the travelling well, trying to hit off days and times, and it went fairly smoothly, I suppose. But today, as it often happens when I fly through Midwestern Airport, I got pulled aside after walking through the metal detector without it going off, for a patdown screening. Why this happens to me, I have no idea. Sure, you can tell me it's just random numbers or something, but it's happened more than once to me, only at this airport. Today the screener was female, and young, which made it only slightly better that she was patting my rear, my breast, and (most horrifyingly to me) my belly. No one touches my belly except in the most intimate situations, and even then I'm not always free of tickles/grimaces/nervous sucking in. So this was pretty awful. Who cares that it's the back of her hand when she's touching you all over in the middle of the frickin airport. Uggh.

Then, on the plane, the pilot made many announcements about how terrible the turbulence would be (this was a Scare the Passengers Silly tactic I think -- he was warning us from the first minute onboard that it was Going to be Very Rough-- so when in fact it wasn't, it seemed kind of like a letdown, though one I was grateful for). About halfway through the flight, when the attendant usually makes a second trip through the cabin offering seconds on drinks, she said "I'm going to have to cut off the second beverage service because the blue liquid in the lav is about to overflow and that will eat the wires and cause mechanical problems in the plane." So no one was allowed to pee any more. This made the semi-turbulent last hour a little extra exciting.

Then we sprung the excited dogs from the kennel and came home to regroup. I've unpacked my bag, put away last week's laundry, and started some new wash -- the most disgusting thing about the entire trip was that most of my clothes reek of turkey, since I'd been cooking in my mother's house all Thursday. (She cooked the turkey -- I refuse to touch it or assist with it in any way.) Hadn't realized til we went back to the motel that night that the flesh odor was soaked through both my casual cooking clothes and the fancier clothes I'd worn for the evening's meal. Even my bra smelled like turkey. Truly disturbing.

So now it's going to be take out food and our taped episode of Lost, if our VCR worked properly in our absence. And tomorrow will be time enough to deal with all the other undone tasks looming ahead...



I'm at the internet workstation thoughtfully set up in the lobby of the motel we're staying in -- and I am so grateful that we are here and not on the couch at my mom's. Her new smaller place just isn't really set up for guests (esp since we have my partner's family here too) and this means we get to have a few hours of quiet private time. Because otherwise, it's Narcissist Mom 24-7.

Today I showed up at her house at 9:30 a.m. and did not sit down until I got in the car at 6:15 to dash back to the motel to change clothes for dinner, and then go back to her house. (Luckily this is a small town so nothing is very far from anything else.) I spent the day cooking, washing dishes, mopping floors, cooking, moving boxes in the garage, more washing of dishes, more cooking. Etc. My mother used to like to cook but she's older now and doesn't do much in the kitchen these days. And then of course there is the Issue of my veganism (which is going on 13 years now (plus 5 or 6 of being vegetarian before that). My mother still takes this as a personal affront. So basically I wind up doing all of the cooking, but also having to listen to disparaging remarks about vegetarian food. But everybody *ate* it just fine.

So yes, I'm tired and kind of cranky. Hey, it's holidays with family! Though actually I suppose it is going better than I could have imagined. But I'm going to need a vacation day to recover from all this togetherness.


out of town/offline

Our departure for the my mother's house is nearly imminent. (well, in about 7 hours we'll leave the house to begin the journey).

I am not exactly excited about this trip. What I'd really like is just a couple days in bed with a good book and not having to talk to anybody. But that's not an option right now.

Spotty and nonprivate internet access from there, so probably no blogging. Sigh.

But perhaps it will generate some blogworthy material: we're combining my family and my partner's, a first at an official holiday scenario. . .


how to talk to a professor

Over at lifehack, a column on "How to Talk to a Professor" from Michael Leddy, who blogs at Orange Crate Art, which I hadn't read before, but will start keeping up with. Leddy suggests five basic tips which usefully explain some aspects of academic office-hours culture to students, like greeting your professor when you walk in the door, phrases to avoid (what "will this affect my grade" really signals), and how to end the conversation.

When I was in college, at one of the "public Ivys," honors students were told over and over that we should "go talk to your professors in office hours." The idea was that you wanted them to get to know you, and that you the student would somehow benefit from chatting with them. I don't know if the same directives were issued to all students, but I certainly heard that message, and tried on a few occasions to follow it. But I often felt awkward -- like I had to make up questions to ask them, but questions that weren't in the book already or something I could research on my own. I have never been comfortable in situations where I felt I was being asked to suck up to an authority figure in any way, or where my actions might be perceived as an attempt to suck up. (Yes, this iswhy my track record with mentors has been so spotty.)

My own students usually come to office hours for one of the following reasons: they want to rewrite a paper or get assistance with a draft (usually because I've told them they should come in for extra tutorials); they are undergoing a medical or family crisis, or dropping the class; they want a letter of recommendation; or (and this is a small percentage) they are just curious about who I am.

This last group of students are the most awkward when they come in the door. They don't have clear agendas, or questions (although most have some flimsy excuse for coming in, a paper idea or something). What they want to know they can't really ask: "how does someone like you become a professor" or "how old are you" or "what is it like to be a childfree woman? So many of my students have followed their society's or culture's path and only later in life begun to question it. Many of them are confused about women professors, unsure of their qualifications. Their addressing emails to "Ms." rather than "Dr." which is the convention at my U, sometimes irritates me, but I've grown to see it as a symptom of the relative lack of women faculty on this campus, and the pervasive sexism in the larger society -- in most cases I don't think it's a conscious or personal attack on my qualifications, but a lack of awareness that faculty come in both genders. Plus many of my students don't really understand what it takes to be a professor, what the difference between a professor and a TA is, what "Dr" actually signifies.

But I don't mind answering questions about myself (within appropriate boundaries) and in fact consider it part of teaching students about academia, and about what a college degree might be good for. I'm happy to tell them where I went to undergrad or grad school, what it was like, why I became a professor, and what other kinds of work I've done. When a student wants to know those things, I know she's thinking about her own life path and what options she might have. When my LGBT students come to see me, often it's because I'm one of the few out faculty on the campus. It often matters less what we actually talk about than just being there. We chat about a movie, or a campus event, or a book one of us has read recently. That's the vague ineffable thing that's supposed to happen in office hours -- sometimes it's about defined intellectual topics -- but sometimes it's not. Sometimes it's about two people who can learn from each other just by opening up a little bit.

Because I'm shy and socially awkward by nature, office hours are kind of difficult for me too, even though I'm the powerful figure in the equation. I'm often unsure about rules for eye contact, smiles, and other interpersonal signals. So I tend to err on the side of formality rather than friendliness, just to keep everything clear and professional. But I do enjoy those rare chances to talk to students who just want to talk, who aren't there just about the grade or the paper outline.


ready and waiting ...

...for the end of the semester, that is. But since that is actually several weeks away, I will have to make do with the too-late and not-enough break that is Thanksgiving. I was a Bad Prof this year and cancelled my Tuesday classes so that I can be a Good Daughter and travel for the holiday. I hate, hate, hate travelling for Thanksgiving, so that's why we're going to leave on Tues, to try and make it a bit less awful.

So I just have to get through the next three days of classes and meetings. And then 2 weeks after the holiday. But in my mind, the term is already finished. I'm so over it already. Maybe my enthusiasm will return, but this week has been something of a low point in motivation level.

My Day: Today was the Faculty Council Meeting that Would Not End, in which no fewer than five senior administrators made an appearance. I just keep reminding myself that I'm learning about how things work at the U. But, in my second meeting of the day, we actually made a decision that will benefit students and academic advisors and make the requirements for graduating a little teensy bit more logical. So some meetings actually are useful.

An Embarrassing Reality: I am incredibly far behind in putting things into my gradebook spreadsheet. I used to be the kind of person who set up the spreadsheet the first week of class and then kept it up to date all the way along (every attendance sheet, every quiz, etc). And now I have this stack of things that have to be entered in, and the semester keeps going on.

An Achievement: In the past two weeks I have been able to properly do Dandayamana - Bibhaktapada - Janushirasana (Standing Head to Knee pose), a pose I've always had a hard time with. I'm good at backbends, but the frontal compression poses (the point of this one is your forehead must touch your knee -- your back is curved up like a cat -- it's not a leg stretch at all) are difficult for me. We do several of them in the Bikram series, because they're very good for the thyroid. I have a hard time because of my alignment, but also because, well, curving forward into your belly is kind of tough if you actually have a belly, which impedes your progress. Not to mention breasts. Anyway, miraculously, something is changing and I can now get further into the pose.

Task I'm Currently Dreading: grading Ph.D. exams.


not satire, it's true

I've been asked to serve on the Committee on Committees.

No, this is not a made-up bureaucratic extremity from a snarky academic novel. It's true.


where my yesterday went

I did not go online at all yesterday. I didn't even check email. Which turned out to be just fine, since none of my students were trying to reach me, and the only semi-urgent message, about changing the time of an appointment this afternoon, was duplicated via phone. It wasn't an intentional internet holiday -- I haven't been feeling overwhelmed by digital information-- if anything, I've been too cut off from the blogosphere etc. But I was in super clean-up mode and that wound up taking over my entire Sunday. Not only was I cleaning, but I also got rid of a bunch of stuff (some to the women's shelter donation, some to recycling, etc) and dealt with some things that had, embarrassingly, been just sitting in boxes since we moved to this house five months ago.
  • washed around 10 loads of laundry, including 3 dog beds, 1 couch cover, throw pillows, cotton rugs, towels, dog towels, and clothes.
  • dusted shelves and surfaces
  • swept/mopped floors
  • deodorized the main couch (sprinkle well with baking soda, let stand for 20 minutes, vacuum up the baking soda and all pet odor)
  • applied boric acid to insect problem area
  • cleaned air filters
  • recycled many years of MLA conference programs and copies of Profession (my favorite MLA publication, but I rarely read them more than once)
  • found shelf space (yes they're double stacked) for all the books
  • organized half of the storage closet in my study
  • consolidated tools and repair supplies
  • weeded out some more clothes
  • recycled a bunch of articles I don't need to keep now that they're available digitally
  • sorted through box of miscellaneous things
So today I feel good about all that I accomplished, but I'm also feeling sort of tired. Not physically so much as existentially. Having things is quite a burden. And coming from a household of disorganized packrats I have to work extra hard to overcome the tendency to hang onto objects, to let papers pile up on surfaces, to put things in a box or container and then forget about it. I can be well organized within certain limits, but at home it's a challenge, since it's all my personal stuff plus a lot of my work stuff. My office at school is much better, just because I have less stuff and clearer boundaries.


girl/boy movies

Two movies I liked this weekend.

The boy movie: Jarhead, which has apparently been getting criticized for not taking enough of a stand about the current war and/or Desert Storm. But the whole thing starts off with the hero reading Camus, after all. Mendes is busy signalling his disinterest in a typical war film throughout the piece, even as he plays with those conventions: brutalizing training experiences, male bonding, etc. To me, the film is a lot about how the technology of war is changing -- and the difficulty and inevitablity of comparing every contemporary conflict to Vietnam. In this film (I haven't read the memoir upon which the film is based), the young Marines of today, having undergone existential boredom and readiness, struggle to define themselves in relation to Vietnam, the war of their fathers -- happy not to have fought, but feeling inadequate too. The acting is wonderful, particularly Peter Sarsgaard's homoerotic fixation on Jake Gyllenhaal. And the desert full of oil works aesthetically and philosophically as an existential testing ground.

The girl movie: In Her Shoes, which is far better than the typical "chick movie" (a genre I'm partial to anyway). It's got everything: sassy senior citizens, dogs, sibling rivalry, and POETRY -- honest to god reading aloud of real poems, for a purpose. Yay! says the English teacher in me. But the film viewer in me loved it for other reasons. Although it's funny in places, and sad in others, it didn't wallow. It's about sisters (which I don't have, so don't know) but it's also about friendship, and the difficult decisions in family relationships which, once made, are hard to undo or revisit. Cameron Diaz actually gets a chance to act, and Toni Collette is strong as always. A great ensemble movie.

writing group followup

Having confessed my anxiety in this space, the actual writing group experience yesterday was not as bad as I had feared. But it's still an awkward group, in part because some of us are post-tenure and others are pre-tenure -- that process casts such a long shadow over one's research decisions in the early years, and some residue remains even several years later.

What I currently see as important to think about: how this group raises issues for me about staying here, about being here, about how this job is both absolutely right for me, and also somehow not quite what I was trained for. About how everything I love about this place and this job isn't quite enough to keep my intellectual drive going -- and how hard it is to keep that going on one's own.


writing group ambivalence

In five minutes, I have to leave for a meeting of my current writing group. Formed in August, it consists of people from my department and also from a neighboring university. Not all in the same subfield or even discipline, although there are enough overlaps to help us understand each other's work.

In theory, I'm all for writing groups. I know I've benefited from getting feedback on my writing. I know I learn a lot from reading other people's drafts, and giving them feedback -- sometimes more than I get from their comments, even. And the meetings of this group (we've only meet 3 or 4 times) are pleasant, mostly engaging. On the one hand, I feel grateful for the opportunity to think about other people's topics, to discuss ideas with my colleagues, and so forth -- it's a rare monthly treat in the midst of the day-to-day obligations of the job.

But at another level, this group gives me anxiety. Every time we've met, afterwards I've been in a foul mood of insecurity and doubt. Which is not the group's fault, obviously. But now that I've recognized the pattern, it makes me less enthusiastic about going to the meeting.

I should confess that my work has not yet been critiqued by the group -- which is comforting because I've seen how polished or not other people's writing has been. But probably ups my anxiety level, too. I think my turn will come in January.

In graduate school, I had two writing group experiences, neither of them exemplary. The first was a three-person group (the fourth dropped out almost immediately) that in retrospect I think I possibly subconsciously designed in order to spend time with Ex Girlfriend A., who I had not yet started dating. (Once we started sleeping together, the group disbanded.) The third person was on her way out of the program -- by the time the group fell apart, she'd basically decided to quit ABD. So you could say the group was psychologically or personally useful, but not so great as a writing support system.

My second experience was wonderful, but it wasn't a group -- I had a dissertation buddy, a close friend who became closer as we marched each other through the dissertation process. We each read every draft word, multiple times -- a kind of intensity and support that could never be replicated outside the emotional hothouse of a top-tier PhD program. Without her, I wouldn't have finished my diss. But we weren't a group, with orderly rules and procedures and a variety of opinions.

And then in the past few years there were a couple of attempts at forming writing groups in my dept that didn't really work. And another group I was invited to, but didn't want to join, because two of its members drive me nuts.

The sad truth I now see I must confess: I simultaneously want the support of a writing group, but I also apparently am more judgemental deep in my heart of hearts than I think I should be in order to be a good group member. I wish my group could be as smart as the group I think I ought to have had in graduate school. (Not even a nostalgic wish for the past, this is some idealistic mish mash). This is the kind of perfectionism that keeps me procrastinating and insecure.


how wifeswap improved my life

I think I've mentioned before that my gf and I routinely watch Wifeswap, which pairs two families of very different temperaments/styles/beliefs and has the wives swap places for two weeks. Like most "reality" shows, this one has certain rules and rhetorical conventions that regular viewers come to appreciate. For the first week, the wife (as awful as the terminology is, the show has included same-sex couples and unmarried couples) has to follow the rules of her new family, trying to live the way they do. During the second week she gets to set new house rules, which usually means asking them to adjust their behaviors to be more like her own family's. The show always includes key scenes of the women exploring their host family's house before the family gets there (which is fascinating because how often do you get to do that??), the rule change scene, and a final wrap-up where both couples meet face-to-face. Along the way there's plenty of conflict, of course, since the show's producers pick families that are as opposite as they can find: super-conservative Christians and punk rockers, etc.

So why do we watch this show? Because it's completely fascinating and often encouraging to peek into other people's houses, to see the areas of conflict and concern that inevitably arise in dealing with household chores, budgets, and children. It's interesting just to see how other people live. There are all kinds of relationship issues that come up, too, of course, and it's been a springboard for many good conversations in our house about how we manage things. But at the most basic level, I love this show because it clearly exposes that household work is work -- work that somebody (and interestingly, it's not always the "wife") has to do. It shows just how darn difficult it is to get everybody fed, cleaned, educated, and happy.

Unlike some reality shows, which seem designed to build on the worst aspects of human character (greed, vengeance, etc), this one is premised on the notion that human beings are capable of change, and that seeing the world from someone else's perspective can teach you something. Sure, maybe it's corny or even semi-staged, but it's still doing really important cultural work, to show husbands tearfully realizing that their wives are overburdened and that they should do more at home.

And my own lesbian husband? She's improved 100 percent in her contributions to our household chores since we've been watching the show. She credits it with helping her realize that both her life and my life would get better if we could have a more equitable distribution of household tasks. My partner now does the grocery shopping, washes the dishes, changes the bed linens, mows the yard, washes her personal laundry, and sweeps the floor. I do the cooking, wash the household laundry, clean the bathroom & kitchen, vacuum & mop floors, and dust & vacuum surfaces and furniture. We're not perfect, and our house isn't immaculate. But we're doing OK, and we no longer argue about these things. So thanks, Wifeswap!



What I learned last week:
  • At least two of my colleagues did not remember requesting to teach a specific course in Spring 2006 NOR receiving the Chair's letter telling them that they were assigned to said course. Now, a few weeks before Spring term begins, their panties are in a wad because they are dingbats.
  • That I was able to summarize an entire theoretical subfield in 20 seconds for an uncomprehending audience of faculty from Engineering, Math, Business, and Pharmacy who constitute the Curriculum Committee (stage 2.5 in the process of getting some new courses approved for my Department). Not sure they really understood what I was saying, even though I was watering it down for them. But they approved the course, and that's what matters.
  • I am on too many committees this year.


perks of this academic life

This morning I woke up earlyish -- it's cold at night now, so my gf and I and the dogs all pile onto the bed together. It's an awful lot of cuteness to wake up to. I managed to extract myself long enough to make some coffee, and then climbed back in to finish the reading for my afternoon classes. I got to spend three hours tucked under the comforter with a dog leaning on either side of me, drinking coffee and reading a great novel. How awesome is that?

I generally try to keep stricter boundaries -- no work reading in the bedroom -- but I make exceptions in the wintertime.


bathmen, where are you

Do men take baths?

Or, why is it that in American culture, anyway, you rarely see images of men taking baths? There are plenty of advertisements (& not just for bath products) which feature women relaxing in a bath. There are images of kids taking baths, I suppose because they're easier to supervise than showers. And certainly, in regions/cultures/time periods where there aren't showers, everyone takes baths.

But I realized last night as I was scrubbing the bathtub that I've never heard one of my male friends mention taking a bath. My father never took baths, as far as I know. Yet I happen to know that plenty of my female friends do choose baths at least some of the time.

I can't think of a single film scene of a man in a bathtub. I mean your regular bathtub -- not a jacuzzi, hot tub, sauna, or steam bath (all of which are sometimes very male spaces).

What's up with this? Is it just about menstrual cramps? Or are baths too soft and cozy and thereby feminine? Showers are fast and efficient and therefore manly? There's a Friends episode about masculinity anxiety where Ross goes too far in a conversation with Joey & Chandler (when they were worn out from going out with a visiting pal) -- they're talking about being "old" (at almost-30-something) and preferring quiet evenings -- and Ross says something like "and if we want to just stay home and take a bath and listen to Kenny G, that's OK" and Joey says "We're not women." I always thought it was a joke on Kenny G. But maybe it's also about men's secret desire to take relaxing baths? are men feeling shut out from bathtime rituals?

I have never seen bath gel, foam, oil, milk, or other products marketed specifically to men. (Though I haven't been looking for them, either.) A quick web search reveals D&G makes a "masculine bath gel" and Caswell-Massey makes something called "bath gin" packaged in a liquor-like bottle. But both of these are gels -- which can be used to lather up in a shower, too. No bubbly, foamy, milky liquids for the guys, oh no. It does appear that luxury hotels, which offer "bath menus" include a "masculine bath" option, but I don't know what that includes. But what about the guys at home, who shop at Target or Walgreens? Do they not take baths just because they don't have Surf & Sport Musky Bath Oil to lounge around in?


my november rules

I love this time change day. I got up and went to "early" yoga which was at New 8:00. It's great to feel so virtuous without really trying too hard. I'm full of good intentions for getting up early this week, since that's when the sunlight will be available. My sleep and work schedule got all out of whack the past couple weeks -- and so, of course, did my blogging schedule. But maybe all that will change & improve now. I feel like I got over the hump of the semester, and although my workload will not really lessen until Dec 22, my attitude sure has improved.

Rules I'm going to try and live by in November:
(1) GO TO YOGA. As long as I've slept enough, I never leave class thinking that I wish I hadn't gone. I've set myself a yoga goal -- to do 30 classes in 30 days (which is Bikram's basic "how to transform your life" recipe) next June. I've never done more than 4 or 5 consecutive days, so I have to really work up to this. The effects of hot yoga multiply the more consecutive classes you do -- you really do feel awesome. But it's strenuous. Lately, my work schedule has had me going two or three days, then off for a day or two. So for now, I'm working up to fives again. Then in January start working up to sevens.
(2) WORK AT THE CAFE. I get so much more done there. That's even harder to fit in -- I'll be at the office towards the end of the day, and think, well, I could stay here and take care of officey things, or I could go to the cafe and read for class (or, even, for my own work?!?). But it all depends on timing and traffic etc. But last week, when I did get my ass to the cafe, my grading and reading productivity sped up dramatically. And it usually improves my mood, to be working around other people working. (The fancy strong coffee probably doesn't hurt either.)
(3) READ MORE. My brain needs more input so that I can create better output.

a quiz I couldn't resist

theory slut
You are a Theory Slut. The true elite of the
postmodernists, you collect avant-garde
Indonesian hiphop compilations and eat journal
articles for breakfast. You positively live
for theory. It really doesn't matter what
kind, as long as the words are big and the
paragraph breaks few and far between.

What kind of postmodernist are you!?
brought to you by Quizilla

Somehow, this result doesn't quite surprise me, given where, when, & how I was interpolated into the academic regime. But the lacy camisole really isn't me.


an attitude adjustment cheaper than therapy

Want to feel much, much better about the state of your life -- no matter how crappy you might feel? Want to feel inspired to make a difference in the world? Go see North Country. Major points to Charlize Theron for taking on another substantive role after Monster, not just coasting on her success and doing pretty-girl action pics (not that I'm not going to rush out and see Aeon Flux, mind you).

What this film does very well is highlight not just the unrelenting misery of sexual harassment in a male-dominated industry that was only grudgingly employing women to comply with a legal ruling, but how that harassment is integrally connected to the treatment of women in society as a whole. Sure, you could complain that things are undoubtedly prettied up for Hollywood, the narrative channeled into certain formulas. But far less so than some of the other True Story Battle Against The Man movies. I think it's definitely worth seeing -- and, more to the point, worth paying for in the theatre so that audience interest in it is recognized.



I have now been at the frickin office for almost 10 hours. After staying up way too late last night scanning a book that absolutely had to be turned in to ILL today. My brain started turning off a couple of hours ago, but I've been plowing through a heap of emails etc. Now that traffic is starting to settle down, maybe I'll go home soon. To play with the dogs and then finish the reading/prep for tomorrow's classes. I've got to improve my work habits over the weekends so each weekday/night isn't quite so full.

Also on my agenda for the future, if I can overcome the magnetic attraction of our new duvet: polyphasic sleep. It was all over lifehack etc last week. Anyway, the idea is that your full sleep cycle is about 90 minutes -- so that the most restful sleep would occur in increments of 90 mins. The total number of minutes matters somewhat less than the increment, to make sure you aren't brutally yanked out of a dream state by an alarm clock. Full on experimenters split up their sleep into two or more sessions and claim that it's just as restful. This makes sense to me based on how I feel when I nap or wake up during the night. For instance, I will probably take a little nap at around 10 or 11 this evening so that I can wake up and get through the reading I have to do. (There is also a scary-sounding Uberman sleep schedule which doesn't sound nice at all because it's only 20 minute increments. That way craziness lies. No, really. The brother of a friend of mine had a psychotic break induced in part by lack of sleep.)

on the plus side of the balance sheet:
  • The meeting I ran today went well. So did the meeting during which I had to present something.
  • The cranky codger assigned to my departmental governance committee has not yet acted out inappropriately.
  • My third meeting of the day was shorter than I'd expected.
  • I got to think about my research for about 30 minutes! I had to write up a little paragraph to send to someone about a project he's inviting me to join.
on the minus side:
  • my shoulder hurts (too much scanning/computer/bad meeting chairs)
  • I'm tired
  • I'm hungry
I guess it's time to leave the office.


my students

We've rounded the corner on midterms -- and so, from now to the end of the semester, is when things start getting really tough for the students. And for the faculty, but that's a topic for another day and another attitude. Today I've been reflecting on how much I admire my students, even when they sometimes disappoint or irritate me.

What I mean is this: at Large Urban U, we teach a diverse commuting student population that mostly consists of older adults. Even the traditionally-aged 18-22 year olds usually work part- or full-time and are funding their education themselves. So instead of dealing with the still-drunk frat boys and over-achieving premeds of the previous institution where I taught, here we have students whose bosses demand they stay overtime, whose babies are vomiting, and whose lives are heartwrenchingly full with commitments. My colleagues take many different approaches towards working with this population who are inevitably rather different from the students we once were. Some maintain draconian attendance requirements (which, if applied to department meetings, would have them "dropped" awfully quickly); others serve as maternal shoulders to cry on, blurring the boundaries of professional conduct. And most of us are somewhere in between.

I set due dates for assignments, and also policies about how late I will accept written work. But I'm glad, when the situation warrants it, to offer a student special consideration or accomodation. Especially when I think about how easy I had it as a student, I am humbled to think about my students trying to write essays for my class in the midst of their life concerns. I am embarrassed to think about how pressured and overwhelmed I can feel, even though I am healthy, in a secure job with a middle-class salary, and not trying to learn new languages and modes of thinking on top of my regular life.

I don't expect my class to be the top priority in my students' lives -- when it is, or when it's near the top, I am honored by their efforts. When they can't get the work done, when they are tired and unfocused in class, it's my job to donate some energy, some ideas, some life force to them. It's easy for me to be casual about books, ideas, concepts -- the "stuff" of my discipline -- because I've been in environments that encouraged reading and learning for my entire life. My students have been working for their entire lives just to get here. Whatever small things I manage to teach my students, I am always learning from them as well.

student wisdom

A student talking about her other classes:
"Well, I really liked Madame Bovary, because, you know, she was a ho."


rebel whine

This is the week that, if we were a different sort of university, we would have Fall Break. But we don't get a fall break, only a spring break. And Thanksgiving comes far too late in the semester to be much of a rejuvenating break at all. Every single person I've talked to this week has been cranky, irritable, tired, and feeling overworked. Me included. Even though I know that this semester is lighter/easier than many I've had before. So I'm cranky and also irritated at myself for even feeling that way. After all, it's my own damn fault I'm overworked this week, since I obviously didn't do enough over the weekend.

This is the point in the term where my rebellious procrastination starts kicking in, and so over the weekend I persuaded myself that I needed some time for family & house stuff. But now, this week, it seems that almost every minute is devoted to teaching and administrative tasks -- few of which are that terrible in and of themselves, but I quickly get cranky when I'm not getting enough time to myself -- time for my "own work" as well as time for exercise and sleep. That phrase "my own work" -- which in my field is common parlance for "my research/writing" as opposed to "teaching/admin/service" is quite insidious, I think. Because it reifies that divide between writing and teaching, between the social mission of academia and the realm of the so-called purely intellectual. I don't really believe in that distinction, and it's one I try to blur or trouble in conceiving of my teaching and research projects. But it's at this micro-level of the day's to-do list that I can feel my heart sinking and my rebel self (who is not cool and James Deanish, but more like my inner 6 year old) popping up.

When I was six, I was in first grade, and I was bored out of my mind. I had been reading on my own for several years, but most of my classmates were still learning how. So most of the day was spent taking turns reading aloud, slowly and painfully. It was best when we had individual worksheets to do, because I could just get through it quickly. All I wanted to do was to read my own books. I would be perfectly happy sitting quietly and reading most of the day. I never talked in class or got in fist fights, or peed on the floor, or any of the stuff my classmates did. But my teacher was really threatened by this. She hated me to be doing my own thing -- even though she had to have realized that I was working at a much more advanced level. So she would try to catch me reading my own stuff and then she would give me extra worksheet crap to do. She dug out old "readers" from the 1950s that were in her closet and made me read those. Eventually she put me to work *grading* worksheets for her. This was my first introduction to what I would later learn from Foucault about prison design and strategy. It was less threatening to put the prisoner to work assisting the system than to allow small freedoms. What did it teach me? That my teacher was kind of stupid, and that she didn't like kids who already knew how to read.

This was in a smallish town, a town with a college in it, but which at its economic and social base was still very rural. There were no enrichment classes, magnet schools, or AP courses. This conflict between my desire to read on my own and what the school demanded of me was repeatedly played out throughout all my years in school. It's startling to realise, too, how many times I wound up being the unofficial or even official tutor or teacher's aide. I didn't mind helping other people, and in junior high had a very nice career working in the reading lab (where if no one was in for a session, I could, finally, read on my own). But that was always just a weaker substitute for what I wanted to be doing, which was thinking about other things on my own.

So when my week is completely filled with meetings, memo-writing, grading, and other things that are not especially onerous, but not intellectually challenging, then my 6 year old self starts showing up. She's well behaved on the surface but bored and angry underneath. She knows it's helpful and good to do the institution's tasks, but she wishes it didn't have to always be that way.


swamp week

I had a really, really nice weekend. Spent quality time hanging around with my partner and the dogs, doing yoga, going to the park. We also went shopping for some household things like a new duvet cover and pillows for the couch that are the finishing touches from our now five-months-ago move. We bought nice new stainless steel bowls for the dogs, so I can get rid of the old plastic ones that were kind of grungy no matter how much I washed them. I even did some of the work that was looming over my shoulder -- I read for this week's classes and I got through maybe one third of my stack of grading. There's a lot I didn't do, but I guess at some point my subconscious took over and said: you must relax a bit, since the work will inevitably expand to fill as much time as you give it.

So, now this week looks kind of crazy. But I'm feeling oddly calm about it. I got up early this morning and did some yoga and started in on a deadline-motivated research task. Later I'll deal with the administrative stuff at the office and the rest of the grading. The challenge will be to try and do some things, even small tasks, this week that aren't just time-pressured, that are part of my long-range goals and plans.


I did it!!!

Image hosted by Photobucket.com
I replaced the power supply inside my PC and now it is running completely quietly and smoothly! I feel even more handy than when I replaced a faucet for the first time last year. I'd never actually opened up a computer before, and never would have this time except for the incredibly helpful coaching of my buddy Julie, who helped me diagnose the problem and assured me I could figure out how to replace the power supply -- all over the phone. Thumbs down to the dude at Micr*Center who too quickly handed me the wrong supply (which I forgot to take with me on my errands today to return -- curses!) But a major thumbs up to the folks at Power-on whose website made it super easy to get the replacement power supply I needed, and shipped it to me quickly.

Now maybe next month I'll replace the DVD drive that is no longer working . . .


supporting extracurricular events

Over the years that I've been at Large Urban, I've been gradually developing my "policies" for certain things -- it helps me respond to situations if I feel that I'm not always reevaluating everything from the beginning. So, of course the first things were grading & attendance policies -- which are the official sorts of plans I publish and share with my students. But I also have my personal policies -- how to respond to service demands in my dept, in my college, and at the university level; how to deal with loaning books or sharing resources with graduate students; how to respond to emails; etc etc.

And one of my internal policies is that if a student invites me to attend an extracurricular event s/he is involved in, I go, if my schedule will allow. Because I teach at a large commuter school, the number of such requests is very small, as compared with my friends who teach at smaller colleges where faculty participation or encouragement of campus events is sometimes not only encouraged but required. But because of that, I think it's even more important that I do show my support for student efforts.

So, over the years I've gone to theater performances, poetry readings, film showings, and a couple of athletic events. Last night I went to a performance art event held at a neighboring institution, invited by one of my students who knew the performer. I stayed for the Q&A afterwards, and really enjoyed the opportunity to hear the students discuss gender issues in a variety of frameworks. It reminded me a little bit of my own college days, the richness that comes from engaging with ideas in many different forms and practices. Sure, I was the only faculty person there, and the oldest person in the room (this other institution draws a more traditional student base than mine does). But my student was happy I was there, and no one else really seemed to mind. At an institution like mine, where faculty and students all commute from different parts of the city, such opportunities are quite rare. I like my privacy and my freedom that come from that urban environment, but it's nice to connect with students outside the classroom occasionally too.


post conference follow up

So it's now one week since I returned from my wonderful conference weekend. I knew coming back here that the biggest challenge for me would be to maintain the level of intellectual excitement that I generated during the conference, especially once I was back in the day-to-day maelstrom of teaching, administrivia, and household responsibilities.

So, how did I do? or what did I do?
  1. I had 2 or 3 conversations with close friends where I reported on the conference and the support I received for my new research projects. Although this might just seem like me talking on the phone, it was actually useful to codify & clarify some of the experiences of the conference trip, and to explain my research ideas to people not in my field.
  2. I made a decision to commit the effort and money to try and attend conferences more regularly again -- something I had to give up over the past couple of years as I was heading into the tenure vote (and trying to pay down my debt). The money thing is especially troubling, since I'm trying to control our household finances and my U has extremely limited support for conference travel. But one of the big lessons of the past two weeks for me was that I really need much more intellectual stimulus than I get from my immediate environment. Conferences and research trips where I will be able to interact with people working on similar topics could be really important in keeping my momentum going. (Also important in easing my tendency towards depression, which has a strong overlap with a boredom-resistance pattern.)
  3. I did some initial bibliography searches and began jotting down some general procedural notes for projects A & B.
  4. I drafted some correspondence to Eminent Scholars related project A -- correspondence that makes me nervous but is necessary before I get too deeply embroiled in something that someone else might have already staked out.
  5. Began planning my graduate course for next term to fit along with my research for project B.
  6. I felt happier and more energetic. I thought about my research almost daily, even if I wasn't actually accomplishing a particular task. I felt more engaged than I have in a long while.
So, I guess I'd give myself about a C for the week if I were grading this. Which sounds more negative than I actually feel. But I had hoped to accomplish more in the past seven days than I actually did. What else did I do?
  • caught up after a two-week sleep deficit
  • read for, prepared, and taught last week's classes
  • attended six 1-2 hour meetings
  • caught up on basic administrative duties
  • planned an event involving five speakers
  • participated in a campus-wide panel event
  • graded student work
  • planned future assignments
  • read for, prepared this week's classes
  • dealt with the computer problem that ate my weekend (I blame this as the main thing that sapped my productivity)
  • shook off an unpleasant cold/virus thing
  • saw two movies
  • errands, chores, dogwalks, life maintenance
Maybe I should check in with myself every Tuesday and see how I continue to fare as the semester hits midterm crunch and the long slump towards December. It feels crucial to my mental health (not just to my professional career) for me to stay/get involved in research again. But it's really hard to do in my current institutional environment, where research is given lip service but little material support. And unfortunately, because of various life circumstances, I'm not able to easily fund my research out of my own pocket.

My time at the conference (at a major research U, with an excellent library) reminded me of the pleasures of intellectual inquiry, the enjoyment I used to feel in the process of research. That's much harder to tap into when the resources aren't available. I'm not sure I'd be cut out for life at the top ranks of my field -- I believe in the kind of teaching I'm doing at Large Urban U, and would have a hard time teaching in a rareified atmosphere of privilege. But I wish that my social mission, expressed through my teaching, didn't seem to be at cross-purposes with my intellectual growth.


afternoon ick

Sitting in a long committee meeting today, I couldn't help but notice the length of my (male) colleague's fingernails. There was visible white nail growth, easily up to 1/8" or more, past his finger tips, on all of his fingers. Ewwwww. Now, I find long fingernails kind of unclean and icky on almost anyone, but I guess I'm sexist enough to find it particularly disagreeable on men. (and no, I don't think he has a secret drag identity on the weekends.) Or is this some metrosexual thing I just don't know about? (not that I think he would understand the term metrosexual, either--he's definitely two or three generations older than that)

movie roundup

To collect my thoughts from the past few weeks:
  • Transporter 2 -- it turns out that Luc Besson did NOT direct this (as the promo somehow implied) but only had a hand in writing it. But this sequel to a film I'd never heard of was tremendous B-grade fun: hyper stylized martial arts/thriller: Breathless plus Jackie Chan with a dash of Bladerunner.
  • Lord of War -- well done, but it's kind of the Traffic of weapons dealing. I mean, the people who care about this issue already know about it, and don't really need the didactic voiceovers. But maybe it will wake some people up.
  • A History of Violence -- I'm always interested in what Cronenberg is up to -- this film was really interesting, more low-key in tone than many of his films (although with a few classic gore moments) . Some intense sexual scenes that unfortunately had people in the audience nervously giggling (too many teenagers not knowing what kind of movie they were getting in to) -- the audience was actually kind of distracting for me but the film was a really interesting exploration of family dynamics and identity.
  • Just Like Heaven -- I'm partial to romantic comedies, and I've long thought that Mark Ruffalo was a great underrated actor. Maybe this will be his breakthrough film (which would be no doubt goodfor him, but might tarnish my perception of him as indie underdog). Sweet, funny, a good twist on the genre.
  • Serenity -- seemed pretty fun but sadly I was so frickin tired that I fell asleep during part of it. I'll have to rent it to fill in what I missed. I was definitely glad they'd trimmed down the roles of some of the characters from the TV show.
  • Thumbsucker-- Excellent quirky bittersweet identity/coming of age movie that wasn't trying too hard (like some other indie films I can think of). Possibly Keanu's best role-- plus the ever amazing Tilda Swinton. I really liked this one.


On Friday night, my computer started making a lot of noise. Unusual noise-- an oscillating loud whirring sound that I eventually figured out was from the power supply fan. So, with the encouragment of Julie, who does more of this sort of thing, I opened up my computer and cleaned out the insides. It still made the noise, so I removed the power supply, and carried it in with me to one of the warehouse computer stores. A guy came to assist me, looked at it briefly, pointed out a $30 power unit, and that seemed to be it. Well, I get it home, and it turns out that it's not going to work, since it didn't have one of the connectors I needed, and the housing was too big to fit. Sigh. Meanwhile, of course, our internet was out because my computer was undone, so Julie tried to look up part numbers for me over the phone while I was puttering around. Eventually it became clear that none of the warehouse type stores seemed to have a power supply that would fit. So I put the old one back into my computer, hoping to squeeze a few more days out of it. And within a few minutes of searching on line, I think I found the exact replacement part. It should be here in a couple of days. I'm not really sure why I didn't look online in the first place, except that my computer was already lying open on the kitchen table when I realized that I'd have to get a new part. I was really thrown off by not having internet access and I forgot that of course, searching online would be way better than going anywhere IRL. (My pc is the connected one of our home wireless network, so not only would I be without access, so would my partner. This would not be a good thing.)

But, so far my pc is holding up. Everything is backed up and I will be going in to the office anyway this week. So I should be able to make it until the new power supply arrives. And I think I've definitely upped my geekery quotient. But internet, I really missed you -- especially when I was afraid I'd be without you for several days!


tis the season

...for panel discussions about graduate school, that is. Jason was getting ready for one today, and I sat on a similar panel yesterday. I was there as the "humanities" representative -- flanked by an admissions counselor from the law school, and a lower-level dean from the graduate school. The science folks were absent. Of course, none of the students in the room were actually interested in humanities graduate school, which made my job easier -- I could just talk in a general way about discovering your goals, researching programs, and preparing your application package.

Almost none of our students go on to PhD programs -- maybe 1 out of 1000. More than that will eventually get master's degrees, especially since we produce a lot of secondary school teachers. But even at the masters level, the same things hold true: figure out why you want to attend school and what you hope to get out of it (internal motivations usually being more durable than purely external ones); look carefully at a wide range of programs and don't cut off your (geographical, financial, personal) options before you've thought about all the possibilities; put as much time and effort as you possibly can into your application package. Treat your would-be recommenders with courtesy and respect, providing them with plenty of information and plenty of time to write your letter. Show your application statement to people for advice. Rewrite, proof, and proof again.

A job I know I'd never want? Being the recruitment dean for a graduate school at a mediocre state institution. I actually felt kind of sorry for her as she kept talking in a very Bright and Cheery voice about how much people's income levels increased with each educational degree earned. (hah! So not true for people in my field.)


best. conference. ever.

It was really an amazing trip. Last night I didn't get home until 8:30 or so -- spent about half an hour playing with the dogs, an hour eating dinner and hanging out with my honey, and then I totally crashed. Today's been teaching, and meetings, and more meetings. But now I can finally take 15 minutes to reflect a bit.

Some of the great things:
  • I had my first blogger meet-up! Jason and I successfully negotiated the social events of the conference, made a trip to Kinko's, and even talked about professional & intellectual Topics of Serious Import. And considering how socially awkward academic events can be, I was greatly relieved to find a new buddy who I really liked!
  • My paper went pretty well I think -- I got some good discussion questions, and made some good contacts through the panel.
  • I heard some good papers (and only one really terrible one where I wished I hadn't gone).
  • I met a few Semi-Famous People. I saw a lot of FPs who I didn't meet.
  • I got a nibble of interest for a potential publication...
  • I reconnected with my On-and-Off-Mentor Figure, who was incredibly charming, supportive, and inspiring.
  • I reconnected with my academic surrogate parents, an older couple who befriended me some years ago and who I hadn't seen in a long time.
  • I did some research in a serious academic library and was reminded how much I like research, which I'd kind of forgotten because I'm living in the academic hinterlands.
  • I floated ideas for some new projects and got great feedback and advice.
  • I visited with an old friend who was super sweet and hospitable.
  • The weather was perfect and my travel plans went smoothly.
  • I came back from the trip feeling enthusiastic and energized, rather than worn out. (Though today my throat's been feeling scratchy and my head feverish -- I'm nervous that I caught a bug on the plane home.)
It was a great conference. Not without its less pleasant moments, since I'm prone to social anxiety and low blood sugar (which often go together). This was a large conference with a lot of Famous People, which really increases the badge-staring game. These were hung on long strings around your neck, so people would walk past you and stare at your belly. A little better than when you have to pin the badge to your chest, but it's always cutting, the glance-'n-glide of experienced conference eyes, checking to see who you are and quickly pretending you're not there at all. But there were a few people who did want to talk to me, and next time around I'll know more people. And some of us on the institutional margins of academic High Society bonded together and had good useful conversations about those dynamics, and how to change them for the future...


a-conferencing I go

Fly off to conference tomorrow. Would be more excited if I weren't so tired. Why is it that I can never get more than 4 hours sleep the night before a trip? No blogging til I return Monday, since I didn't get that laptop yet...


conference paper writing

So I'm finishing up the conference paper I will be presenting in a couple of days. I write a thoughtful, carefully constructed paragraph. And my word processing software freezes. It happens sometimes for no apparent reason, when I've been typing too fast or doing too many things at once. Or when I haven't rebooted in many days. I knew that I hadn't saved the new paragraph yet, and I doubted that AutoSave had caught it either. So I phoned my voicemail and read the screenful onto it. Closed the program, restarted, checked the autosave file. More was there than I thought, but the new paragraph wasn't. And then I had to listen to myself reading my words at least five times in order to get it all retyped. But at least I thought of it before I restarted the program.

My very first conference paper was really carefully written. Well, actually, I don't remember writing it. What I do remember was practicing reading it aloud, numerous times. At home, and then again in the hotel before the session. Over the years, my prep time for such things has declined dramatically. I still read the paper out loud a couple of times to check the timing and figure out any awkward sentences that need to be fixed. But thankfully it's not a nervewracking experience any more.

Once the paper is finished, that is...


beginner's mind

In Bikram yoga, as in Ashtanga and some other styles, we practice the same series of poses each session: 26 postures and 2 breathing exercises. It's the same class whether you are a complete novice or a very experienced student. There are a few postures, like Dandayamana - JanuShirasana, which involve distinct stages (the first not even shown in the illustration) that you work through as your practice strengthens. But mostly, you are encouraged to hold each pose, using correct form, with the rest of the class. Teachers offer modifications for those who are injured or ill. But there's no moment where the class divides into "beginners" and "experienced," no special hours of the day for one or the other group. And I really like that aspect of this yoga.

I was surprised this morning to realise that it's been 2 years since I began studying Bikram style yoga. I still think of myself as a beginner -- and that's really good for me. Intellectually I've always been drawn to the Buddhist concept of "beginner's mind," which is often phrased as the need to "always bring an empty teacup." As a student of anything, if you are concentrating on what you already think you know, then you are less open to what someone else can teach you.

I've been drawn to this concept probably because I know it's an area that I have to work on. I was frequently a bored or impatient student when I was in school, preferring to do things on my own. I know now that if I could revisit some of those situations, I'd do things differently. Also, I hate being new, young, awkward, or incompetent -- all the things I tend to associate with being a "beginner." I didn't like being a 6th grader in junior high, and I didn't like being a newly minted assistant professor -- and the similarities between those two positions were more striking than you might think. I don't like to be at the bottom of the ladder -- not because I want to be on the top -- I prefer to be in the middle somewhere. Somewhere where I won't be noticed or picked on just because I'm new -- but also somewhere where I can share my opinions and be listened to.

In my professional life I'm still occasionally a beginner (as on various committees and councils I'm serving on this year, things I couldn't be elected to prior to getting tenure) and I'm trying to bear that position gracefully. But it doesn't come easily to me.

Which is why this yoga is so good. Sure, I'm familiar with the postures, and I know the sequence. But so does everyone after their first week of class. I like that there are no new postures thrown in, the superficial challenge of getting into a tricky balance or a deep stretch. In other classes I've taken, my competitive tendency can distract me from truly focusing on what's going on internally. In Bikram, it's the same sequence every day -- and yet it is not exactly the same. Each day my body & mind respond differently. I wish I'd been keeping a yoga journal all along to record some of these responses. I know, for instance, that I can now sink further into Supta - Vajrasana as my bad ankle heals. I know I'm stronger in certain postures than I used to be, or more flexible. But over time, my perceptions of the postures -- which I like, which are difficult for me, which feel beneficial physically or emotionally -- are always changing.

I've been thinking of my yoga path as a kind of spiral -- you get familiar with the sequence and then you really start to learn and grow. You keep coming back around to the same postures, to the same issues, but they're slightly different. Or you're slightly different. It all adds up to beginner's mind. In the best possible way.



In case you missed it, the current Discardia celebration continues through October 3rd:
Discardia is celebrated by getting rid of stuff and ideas you no longer need. It's about letting go, abdicating from obligation and guilt, being true to the self you are now. Discardia is the time to get rid of things that no longer add value to your life, shed bad habits, let go of emotional baggage and generally lighten your load.
Be sure to check out the various posts on the site, which include great strategies for getting rid of stuff and the mental benefits of a less cluttered mind.

Of course, it would be nice to gradually integrate some of these strategies into one's daily practices. But there is something beneficial I think also in having set dates for clearing things out -- making it into a kind of ritual. Because stuff has all sorts of emotional effects, and for me, certainly, attachments, or their residue, rather than laziness or disorganization, is, I think, usually at the root of the clutter that bothers me. I really like Dinah's phrase about "being true to the self you are now." Since we are ever-changing beings, our stuff should change too.

I've been celebrating Discardia early this year, selling off a bunch of books I no longer needed. That was a nicely defined project that has been really satisfying. More of a challenge will be the boxes of papers in my study that I need to sort through -- much of it I know can be shredded or recycled, but it takes time and mental effort to look at each piece and figure out its importance. Julie Morganstern has a great tip for the sorting stage of a pile of papers: take a bunch of small post-its and a pen, a paper bag for recycling and a paper bag for shredding. As you sort through the papers, the recycling and shredding go immediately into those sacks. For the rest, write on the post-it where it should be filed or the action required and make two stacks. It does make the sorting go a lot faster. The biggest drawback is that you wind up with a pile of filing, which for many people tends to get shoved aside and forgotten about. But the post-its do make it easy -- I've even filed stuff while on the phone, since I don't have to actually read the piece of paper, just the post-it. (Of course this assumes you have a workable filing system set up, but that's never been an issue for me.)