post MLA post

I woke up pretty early this morning and lay there thinking "wow, I'm not as tired as I usually am after the convention. This is great! I can get up and start in on all my various New Year projects." I lay around for an hour or so, enjoying the feeling of being in my own bed surrounded by my loved ones. Ate a bowl of oatmeal, and then the true post-MLA exhaustion kicked in and I promptly fell back to sleep for 4 more hours. I think the first wake-up was just a little bit of leftover conference adrenaline.

Then we took the dogs to the dog park to run themselves silly, which was great fun for everyone. They were very unhappy when I was away -- The Boss followed GF from room to room to make sure she didn't leave too, and Speedy obsessively licked her paw. Old Girl didn't do anything in particular that I've heard about, though she did come and snuggle in the bed with us this morning for my second-stage sleep, which she usually doesn't do unless there's a thunderstorm, so I think even she missed me.

After we came back, I assumed my recovery position on the couch: lying down with the fuzzy blanket so as to stay warm and use as little energy as possible. Speedy is snoozing with her chin on my feet, and I've been checking up to see what everyone else is saying about MLA. I plan on staying on the couch for the rest of the day-- I have Special Topics in Calamity Physics to read (all of my public library hold requests came in at once -- unfortunately this book was too big to carry on my trip, and now it's overdue, so I'm going to try and read it by Tuesday), and we are celebrating New Years Eve in our usual fashion: take out food and DVDs. Which, since GF is out in the car doing errands, won't require me to leave the couch at all. So far I seem to have avoided the dread MLA Virus (I washed my hands as often as I possibly could throughout the trip) and I just need to rest and build up my energy stores.

Knowing that so many bloggers who I regularly read were at the convention (and today I've discovered that still others were there too) definitely added a little extra buzz to the people watching and nametag scoping which is so central to the MLA experience. I kind of liked the uncertainty of it all, not knowing who I might have crossed paths with in person. And I really liked meeting so many bloggers -- though "meeting" doesn't seem quite like the right word. After the blogging panel on Saturday, Horace, Dr Crazy, BitchPhd and I had coffee and talked about the dynamics of blogger meet-ups, as well as our responses to the panel. One of the questions we wondered about was how meeting each other f2f would affect our reading practices (which all remains to be seen, I suppose). But the experience wasn't at all like meeting strangers, or even professional contacts -- we already know so much about each other's lives. And what also struck me was how easily we referred to shared texts -- "do you remember when such and such happened on my blog" -- a simultaneous ease and depth of reference that's pretty unusual I think, even for text-based academics. I'd only ever had one meet-up before, so probably this is all familiar territory, but it was new to me, and thoroughly enjoyable.

The blogger panel was very interesting, but for me (and probably for most people who have been in the blogosphere for a while) it didn't really alter the way I understand my experience. I would be really interested in reading responses to the panel from nonbloggers (were there any there? I would have enjoyed a quick hands in the air survey about who was or was not). (Of course, I just read over my previous sentence and noted that I am unlikely to read such responses unless the panel creates new bloggers. Or gets written up in the Chronicle or some such venue.) I appreciated, however, that different points of view were included in the group -- there is no consensus about what "academic blogging" or "bloggers who are academics" or "the academic blogosphere" might mean, include, or require, and I'm happy with that pluralism. Certain very well-trodden points of disagreement were evident, and there's really no need to go over them again here. I blog for my own reasons which are possibly very different from some other people's reasons. Enough, fine, good. There's more than enough internet to go around.

Because of the politics of nametags at the convention, I've had very different experiences over the years: as a graduate student with Prestigious U on my badge, I got many more second glances, even a few oddly fawning elevator conversations trying to determine how well I knew certain Famous People. Once tagged with my job at Large Urban, I began passing under most people's casual radar. That was fine with me since there's so many other kinds of radar beaming through the crowds too. I share face recognition with a number of people in my field who I don't really know, so we do a kind of quick smirk of acknowledgement. There are a few Pretentious people from Prestigious U who used to make my stomach flutter nervously wondering whether we would acknowledge each other or not; this year was pleasantly free of any nerves. We're all too old to worry about all that jockeying for position any more. (Or at least I am.) I even got a "hello" from a guy I was in grad school with who has since become Most-Quoted Critic for junior candidates in several subfields (I know, since I've sat on those searches), and an eyebrow wiggle from SuperSnobby Editor at Prestigious U Press. I trigger dyke radar for those of us on the team, so there's a whole set of codes of acknowledgment we perform (ranging from smiles to cool glances in the opposite direction). And now, there are the bloggers. Perhaps next year we can invent a nametag icon that means "yes, I'm a blogger but you don't know which one I am."

Of course, when we actually met up it turned out we had various shared connections -- everyone at the MLA is only separated by two or three degrees of separation anyway, so this wasn't so surprising. Trawling the web for MLA posts today did fuel my curiosity about a few identities of people I didn't meet (especially as I discovered some new to me blogs along the way). And I stumbled upon the (nonpseudonymous) blog of one of our short-listed candidates (which I'm not going to reveal to my colleagues, but will defend if someone throws a Tribble). If that person winds up in my department the thin veil of pseudonymity might get even thinner I suppose.

All in all, it was a good MLA. I have more to say about interviewing and about vegan travel, but the magnetically soporific couch is having its effects, so that will just have to wait.


MLA 2006

I'm one of those people who actually likes going to the MLA convention. For anyone who knows me, this might seem contradictory, since I'm not exactly an outgoing social butterfly. But socializing at MLA is not hard work -- after all, you're surrounded by thousands of people who are in your tribe. This means that you can blend in: there is no sartorial choice, behavioral tic, or neurotic anxiety that you could possibly have that no one else in the room has. It means that other people are likely to be worse at socializing than I am. And, perhaps most importantly, people from all the stages of my life are at the convention, and I can't help but run into them. Some of my favorite moments are like today's sidewalk encounter with a guy I was in grad school with, a guy who wasn't a close friend, but who lived in the same apartment building with me. I've occasionally wondered whatever happened to him, but he's not someone I would look up and email. But it was very pleasant to run into him and chat for a few minutes. There's an easy comfortableness about MLA socializing for me, probably because it's so freeform, largely unplanned, and fairly fleeting.

The other layer of MLA socializing are the planned get-togethers, the once a year lunches and coffees with old friends and new professional contacts. This year I haven't had as many of those meetings as I usually do -- I've been locked in a hotel room with my colleagues doing interviews, and Philadelphia wasn't a big draw for many of my friends I guess, so certian people who I usually hang out with aren't here. But tonight was an extra special treat as I got to meet Dr Crazy, Flavia, Nels, Horace, Dr B., and Scott! And there will be even more bloggery goodness bright and early tomorrow morning at the panel.

Here's hoping I can actually get some sleep tonight, as I haven't really been doing that the last two nights and was about to disintegrate from exhaustion over dinner. (You know, that horrid feeling when you feel like your face is going to suddenly melt and start dripping down the front of your shirt.) I can nap really well in hotel rooms, but sleeping at night is tough. It's always either too quiet or too noisy. I don't have GF and the dogs and our white noise machine to accompany me to the land of Nod. And I tend to get overstimulated by the whole MLA experience, and can't really wind down enough for bed. (Did I mention that I came up with a revised plan for my current book project this afternoon? As well as two editorial projects I'd like to do? There's something about being in the same space as all these other brains that fires up my own.)

But even if I don't sleep I should be able to get through tomorrow, since my professional responsibilties are OVER. An early panel, more bloggers to meet, and some time in the book exhibit. Then it's just hauling my ass to the airport so that I can get home and truly collapse into a post-convention fog of television watching and dog-snuggling. Word has it that the first disc of 90210 has arrived from Netflix at our house, just in time for New Years. (I didn't own a TV back in the day, so I have actually never ever seen an episode. It's about time I catch up, eh?)


The Emperor's Children

One of my great delights over the holiday season was the entire day GF and I spent lounging around the house, napping and reading books. Not work reading, either. It was like a sick day without having any unpleasant symptoms. I rarely get (or take) a day like that now that I'm an adult, but some of my fondest childhood memories are of days spent reading.

And the book I was reading on that day, Claire Messud's The Emperor's Children, was deeply satisfying, too -- on its own accord, but also because my hold request for it came in after a long stretch of mediocre library books that I didn't even find worth finishing. This book is probably a bit too talky for everyone's taste--a glance at Amazon's readers' comments suggests as much -- but I found the characters interesting, and their conversations and self-reflections quite realistic. The novel is all about identity formation, focusing primarily on a trio of 30somethings in NYC, friends since college now trying to figure out who they are, how or if they are living up to the potential for greatness they thought they once had. It's about family, about professional and social expectations and aspirations -- about relationships of all sorts. Because it's a New York novel about a preeminent writer (the father of one of the protagonists, and a protagonist in his own right as the chapters trade off) it feels in places as though there might be insidery references (which I wouldn't be in the know enough to catch) -- or it might all just be fiction good enough to be taken from real life. The characters are smart, frustrated, insecure, flawed: like people I know or could know. Messud is best I think at capturing different flavors of alienation: the awkward cousin who shows up from the sticks is painfully realistic in his sweaty blundering way, but even more impressive is the portrayal of the famous writer's daughter, trapped in a book project of her own, hovering in her father's orbit, desperate for his approval. The desperation embedded in ordinary lives is nothing new (and these literate, and literary, characters talk about Russian novels quite a bit) but this novel has a few twists and turns that spice things up. Books are significant, for these characters -- as romantic templates, ethical guideposts, cultural capital -- it's a novel written for people who love novels for something a bit more than mere escape.


closing the door

Today, I closed & locked the door to my campus office and I will not return until after January 10.


I even took my little plant home with me so it would survive and I would have NO REASON to go back there until just before school starts up.

I turned in grades late Monday; Tuesday was for wrapping up rec letters and admin stuff, and I thought for doing research at the library. But all the admin took longer than I thought and so today was library day. I might, of course, sneak back on campus just to the library before classes begin. But I'm really going to try to stay out of the office. Morale in the department has been utter crap this semester and I was doing an overload that I'd agreed to without realizing what effect it would have on me. I definitely need a break.

Of course, this thing called "break" also involves writing an article, prepping for 2 days of MLA interviews, and a variety of organizing/cleaning/household projects. But first, I need to somehow gear down and get into relaxation mode...


Xtreme Grading Championships

O'Brien: Hello, and welcome to today's exciting show here on X-Net, where we bring you highlights from this week's Xtreme Grading Championships, an all-terrain multi-day solo event in which contestants must use their skills of reading, evaluation, and writing to overcome obstacles like late work, hand cramp, and sleep deprivation -- all in a race against the clock. I'm John O'Brien, sports commentator for X-Net, and with me here today to provide expert commentary is Professor Alberta Higginbotham of Snooty University. Tell us, Professor, what does it take to make it through this grading event?

Higginbotham: Well, John, a grader needs incisiveness, strength, and focus. In addition, a seasond grader knows how to pace himself -- when to relax and when to put on the pressure. One of the exciting things about these Xtreme Championships is that the organizers have built in certain obstacles into the event to add some extra challenges.

O'Brien: What kind of obstacles are these? Are they realistic?

Higginbotham: Oh yes, absolutely. For instance, take our lead contestant at the moment, Dr Mel Lastname. In Wednesday's round she faced a meandering committee meeting and a trip to the dentist, both of which take away valuable time from her grading progress. As a special Xtreme Twist, she also received a large nail in her car tire. She lost some points then, because she didn't have any student papers with her in her vehicle to grade while waiting to get the tire patched. A champion grader should never leave home or office without some undergraduate papers!

O'Brien: Our cameras are showing you clips of Dr. Mel as she was completing the dreaded 2 a.m. sprint, a required event for Xtreme competition. Note her judicious sips of tea and water in between pages that she's marking -- a hydration strategy that serves a dual purpose since her carefully timed bathroom breaks keep her alert and enhance blood circulation. Notice how she stretches her spine and cracks her neck each time she gets up from the couch.

Higginbotham: Physical condition is a hotly debated topic among Xtreme graders. Dr Mel keeps to a vigorous activity schedule and clean eating up until the actual days of the event. At that point she switches to mostly carbs and caffeine -- the plan tried and tested by legions of experienced grading competitors. Some believe that healthy eating before a competition helps the grader handle all the bagels and corn chips, while others work to build up their junk food endurance on a consistent basis, not just during events.

O'Brien: So the 2 a.m. sprint is one of the compulsory events. What are some of the optional events, and how are they scored?

Higginbotham: Competitors can be very creative with their optional events, trying to maximize their points, which they receive for speed, flair, and risk. Last year's champion, Gregor Vandinsky, won because of his two-handed grading method -- he'd mark two tests at once, one with each hand -- which impressed all the judges even though his speed scores were slower than others. Here are some clips of Dr Mel going for speed and risk bonus scores by doing a Beat the Clock penalty sprint. It's a risky event because she risks elimination from the finals if she miscalculates.

O'Brien: In Beat the Clock, a grader is pitted directly against the clock -- with potentially devastating consequences. Dr. Mel's students are seen here taking their final exam, which lasts up to 3 hours. Mel has 6 papers left to grade when the exam starts. So she has to correctly predict which of these 6 students whose papers remain in the pile will finish the exam first.

Higginbotham: It's a nail-biting event for sure -- performed in front of her students, which adds to the tension in the room. If she makes a mistake -- if a student finishes his exam before Mel's graded his paper -- she's out, disqualified from Xtreme competition for a whole academic year.

O'Brien: There's also an additional humiliation penalty. Look here, at the first student who finishes his exam. His paper is already graded, but you can tell Dr Mel is wondering if others will finish as early. She picks up her pace, moving at top grading speed.

* * * * commercials from Xtreme Grading's sponsors, Advil and Red Bull * * * *

O'Brien: Welcome back to the exciting conclusion of Thursday's Beat the Clock round as Dr Mel switches the order of the last two papers she has to grade. Only 15 students remain in the exam room.

Higginbotham: Notice, though, even under this pressure, she still writes a long paragraph of final comments on each essay. This is part of the form that judges are looking for.

O'Brien: Look at that! the switch was the right thing to do, as we see Student Amy come up to turn in her exam and get her paper back. Dr Mel sure loaded up the risk points with that last-minute move, didn't she!

Higginbotham: Absolutely, John, and that's what makes her such a favorite for this year's competition. She always finishes strong.

O'Brien: What's her strategy for the final days of the event?

Higginbotham: We've heard that she's probably going to go for the procrastination bonus, eschewing all grading over the weekend, and leaving this last stack of blue books all for Monday morning.

O'Brien: Whew! That's going to be some exciting Xtreme sportsmanship. Be sure to join us Monday night for highlights from that round -- as well as the new relay team race between Spreadsheeters, Calculators, and Pencillers as they rush to finish their final figuring of course grades and input them into the system. I'm John O'Brien, this is Professor Alberta Higginbotham, and this was XTREME GRADING -- only on X-Net.



Well, after much institutional hemming and hawing, I am definitely going to MLA this year -- I've actually known this for about 2 weeks now, so it's not exactly fresh news -- I made all my travel arrangements the last day of Nov, just under the wire for the registration discount etc. But it's starting to sink into my mind a little more. I'm on a hiring committee, but the doubts about my travel were because our department policies about these things change from year to year (who goes to the convention, who pays, etc) -- I actually really like going to MLA, so I was glad to volunteer, especially since my Chair is paying for it this time. About half my time at the convention will be spent interviewing, but truth be told, I actually enjoy doing that work.

The duties involved in hiring new people are some of the few service duties that I think are inherently important. It matters to me -- both individually and as a citizen of the department -- that we hire smart, interesting new people who will fit well into our departmental culture. Since I'm probably going to be here for a few or many more years, this kind of service has real impact on my life. Yes, it's a lot of work -- and it can be emotionally draining -- reading stacks of files from good candidates who aren't right for a job can be depressing, since the job market in literature has so much randomness built into it. I wonder how many of these people will find jobs at all, much less jobs they are a good match for. And I have to confess to the occasional twinge of insecurity or jealousy reading some candidate files -- people who've had very different careers than I have, people who've drastically outpublished me, etc. But it's exciting, too, to remember that there are so many smart interesting scholars out there in the larger academic world beyond the walls of this concrete office building, and to pursue the chance that we might be able to entice some of them to come join us here.

Obviously, the job process is incredibly, horribly stressful for job candidates. But it can be anxiety provoking for those of us on the other side of the process too: will my top choice candidates turn out to be horrible duds in person? will we be able to persuade the various factions in the department to set aside old battles in order to make a good hire? will our top candidates even consider coming here? There's a certain kind of institutional insecurity that causes departments to second-guess themselves and the candidates, which I think is as damaging to the process as the arrogance of certain top-five departments who are rumored to make actual job offers at MLA itself to cut out the competition.

But for now, we're in the excitement stage, filling in our dance card for the convention. Lots of possibility in the air. 'Tis the season.


12th day

Just finished the 12th class of my mini-challenge, which I've been enjoying immensely. It's really been helping me to feel more calm during the end of semester zaniness (although the time commitment does sometimes feel like a struggle when I have piles of things on my desk). I was thinking this evening about my current favorite and struggle postures -- it makes sense that they are opposites of each other.

My favorite (if I had to pick one, though there are others I like too) at the moment is standing separate leg stretching pose (Dandayamana - Bibhaktapada - Paschimottanasana). I like all of the poses in which you extend the spine and reverse the direction of gravity. I probably like them because I'm reasonably flexible in this direction, so I can get fairly far into the posture. Once you can get your neck and spine in alignment upside down, it really feels great. This pose stretches your calves, hamstrings, and glutes, too, before you get to the spine -- and it's refreshing for the face & brain since the blood rushes forward. Not a pose to do without plenty of warmup, or without careful attention to the knees -- but by the time we get to it in the sequence, we've done a lot of standing poses and so the reverse direction feels great.

My least favorite pose, only two later in the series, has been my least favorite for a while: standing separate leg head to knee pose (
Dandayamana - Bibhaktapada - Janushirasana). I've gotten better at it over time, but I still have to do the beginner version with the front knee bent. The front compression poses are all difficult for me (since I've got a lot of body weight to the front), and this one requires core balancing along with the compression. It's a powerful pose -- it will clear your sinuses when you didn't know you had congestion -- and it works on the internal organs as well as torso alignment. But I find it a struggle. Which means it's what I need to work on the most.



Several people have been writing very movingly about their last days of class -- a day that I already had last week. My classes all ended a week ago Thursday, but I had final projects for one class due this past Monday, giving them an extra weekend. So Monday afternoon I sat in my office and students dropped by in various stages of caffeinated excitement to hand over their projects (some required materials that couldn't be turned in electronically). It was fun, in a way -- some of these projects are really exciting for them and for me -- but it attenuates the long goodbye process of the semester. We still have a final exam day next week, which is even weirder. I'm not very good at saying goodbye and so it feels kind of weird to have this sequence of moments of closure: last lecture, last paper, last exam. Especially since this particular batch of students were special favorites of mine.

About half the class will submit their projects over this weekend or coming Monday, taking advantage of the grace period I allow them (with appropriate points deducted from their final grade). I set up the grace period system so that I don't have to hear any excuses about why an assignment isn't ready on the due date -- everyone knows that if it's not ready, they have one more week. Easy. No complicated judgments required about ailing grandmothers or flailing hard drives. But even though excuses or explanations aren't necessary, some students offer them anyway. Best one I've received in a while was from a girl who's quiet, reserved, kind of conservative in appearance and demeanor. She wrote to tell me that her paper would be delayed because of the big football game -- because she's the mascot. Now, this is one of those funny little glimpses into a student's extra-curricular life that you sometimes get by looking at their email aliases (grrrlsk8r or luvswhales) -- it doesn't change anything about her intelligence or her performance in my class -- but it sure as heck was surprising. I just keep thinking, "so you're the kind of person who dresses up in a furry suit and runs around acting crazy?"

Like some of the other teachers I cited, I do perform some larger-scale wrapping up on the last day -- usually building on student discussion about the course as a whole (what did you expect to read in Literature of X, how have your ideas about the topic changed), throwing in some review for the final exam (here's the grand overview of the major themes of the semester), and adding some of the Big Idea sentences: Why I think literature is important. Why I think this literature is important. What we can all learn from this. Etc. I don't plan this stuff (it's embarrassing enough to admit it here), but it often winds up coming out of my mouth anyway if I get warmed up enough. And if not on the last day, then when, you know?

So yeah, I'm the person in the professor suit running around saying Grand Things about Literature and the Meaning of Life. Hopefully you wouldn't guess that to look at me. . .


by the numbers

So far this week, I have:
  • sat through 9 hours of meetings
  • met with 15 students
  • written 2 recommendation letters

all that remains of the semester:
  • 6 hours of meetings
  • 8 recommendation letters
  • 75 papers (4 to 15 pages)
  • 31 essay exams
  • two work-related holiday parties (one potluck)
And in an even happier numeric snapshot: last night was 9/25 with 16 more days left to reach my goal of 25 yoga classes by xmas. I've been feeling pretty strong, and oh so happy to be intensifying my practice right now. It helps me feel more grounded, given all the end of term chaos. One nice change is that my standing bow has dramatically improved -- it's not that surprising that given the way this semester felt (intellectually, psychically) that my balancing poses have been a struggle these past few months. Out of balance in life, out of balance in the yoga room too. So doing this little EZ-challenge has been a nice way to reclaim some focus and celebrate the end of the semester. It's not over yet (obviously) but in some ways I'm already detached from the routine and the things that were dragging me down this fall.


ending the semester

I taught my last class of the semester yesterday, which is always a kind of emotional day for me. Of course I'm usually glad to be reaching the end of the semester -- but it's also an ending, a time for thinking back with a little nostalgia or regret for what did or didn't occur during the past four months. For one of my classes, I was definitely sad on the last day -- this particular group of students had been a real joy. I've been teaching long enough to really know the difference between an ordinary class and one that is something else. This is not to say that they were all A-level students, or the best writers I've ever seen, or all heading to graduate school. But they were lively, engaged, interested in the material. They read the books, and came to class ready to learn more about them. And, not to put too fine a point on it -- I liked a lot of these students, and I think they liked me too. And that always helps. We all learned something over the course of the term, and enjoyed ourselves in the process.

In the yoga report: today was 5/25, 24 more days to complete my goal. I was tremendously distracted during last night's class, my monkey mind scrambling all over the place; this morning's early class was kind of a shock to my system, since I have been mostly going in the evenings -- but in a good way, since I wasn't yet awake enough to have distracting thoughts in my head. Thus far I've been feeling really strong and happy about getting back into a regular practice -- and it makes me feel more optimistic and grounded in general. It actually feels as if my yoga has jumped up a notch, too -- I know that has to just be my attitude, since a few consecutive classes isn't really enough to make a huge difference -- but I've been trying to get there early to soak up enough heat, and having a focus on getting to yoga throughout the day helps clarify what I'm doing when I'm there. So far, it's all good. (But I'm saying this knowing that inevitably there's going to be a horrible difficult nauseating class in my future -- that's just how it is, as you work through your stuff (toxins, issues, injuries...).)