movie roundup

Considering that most of I am Legend consists of watching one guy go through his daily survival routine, it's fairly engaging. I like most apocalypse, survival, and zombie movies -- and this one combines all three. What I found irritating or inconsistent might be problems in the original novel, but I'm guessing they were somebody's bright idea during the adaptation process: the whole Bob Marley thing was painfully overdone and heavy handed and didn't really add to the "meaning" of the film, which was never really made clear. Sure, medical science is overreaching in trying to present cures before they're tested -- that's a message I'm wholeheartedly behind. But then is the main character supposed to be heroic or not? because he's arrogant, hung up on a messianic complex, and justifying experiments that look an awful lot like torture. The ending of the film would make him a heroic figure but the body of the film doesn't. Which, if this were a more complex film could be an interesting tension. But it's not. It's an adventure movie that's trying a little too hard.

I really liked Margot at the Wedding, and it has fantastic actors giving great performances -- and yet it's not a film I'd lightly recommend to just anyone. All of the characters are pretty repellent, and the conversation veers wildly between caustic wit and wounding blows -- it's not a film that one necessarily enjoys so much as experiences, feeling grateful for those moments that don't seem too familiar. And feeling a mixture of shame and relief at seeing those moments that do seem familiar displayed on screen. It's smart, painful, and kinda funny -- like most art made out of the suffering of reflective intellectuals.

Best unexpected response to The Golden Compass: we'd invited GF's father to the movies with us, and were a bit surprised when he said yes to this film. 5 minutes into it, he turns to GF and says "is this an adaptation of the Doris Lessing book"? But, to the credit of the material and the film, he actually wound up enjoying it. I liked it pretty well -- it's nothing compared to the books, which I've read and reread for years -- and they cut out lots of important stuff. But it was a fun holiday season spectacle.



Now, I'm all for transparency as a general rule: clarity in communication, in organizational processes, and in storage bins around my house. But over the past few days, as I completed some holiday elf-like tasks, I was surprised by the number of f2f retailers who were handing my purchases to me in a clear plastic bag. (A heavyweight, handsomely designed bag -- but clear nonetheless.) And then there were online retailers who mailed packages in translucent mailer bags, and one that printed the package's contents on a label right on the front of the box.

Hello, people. Ever imagine that one might need to transport the gifts inside the doorway and would like a little obscurity to do so?


25 days!

Finally, at about 5:48 this evening, I put this fall semester to bed. My grades were submitted a few days ago, but there were administrative reports to complete, letters of recommendation to mail, and various other odds and ends to deal with. So now I have 25 days stretching ahead of me. Realistically, that's more like 19 before I'll have to go in and put on the administrator's hat again. But 25 before the semester begins in earnest.

This was supposed to be a "light" term for me, but it didn't feel that way. I have nothing to complain about -- and I'm not complaining -- but I do feel like the end of term requires some reflection, as does the end of the year. Reflection and planning are major goals for these next couple of weeks -- for all areas of my life, not just the professional. I really like new beginnings, new years, new semesters -- the chance to improve things, improve myself, become somehow smarter, stronger, better, or happier -- this is nearly always appealing to me. Which is strange, since I'm really not much of an optimist. But give me a pen and a piece of paper and 30 minutes
and I'll happily redesign my filing system, or sketch out the next year's goals, or plan how we should redo the living room. And for a while I'll feel a burst of energy and possibility that must be kind of like what optimists feel -- kind of like a triple shot latte, come to think of it. (As an INTJ, of course, I'm much better at the planning than at the implementing -- that's where my depression and cynicism start to kick in and get the better of me.)

So, since I've been on winter break for about 5 hours, I'm still feeling full of possibility about what I might be able to accomplish or enjoy in these next couple of weeks. Unscheduled, unplanned, mellow time with GF, Speedy, The Boss, and Old Girl is high on my list, as is yoga and the gym. Some sorting, purging, and cleaning of the house. Some organizing, stock-taking, planning of work related materials as well -- a purge of my bookshelves and files is long overdue. I'd like to do some crafty stuff as well, which is an itch I haven't scratched in a long time. I've got some library books to read for fun, and some to read for work. A long list of movies to watch. Some new recipes to try. Etc, etc. I've got far more that I'd like to do than will ever actually fit into the time. But it's a lot of time, and I want to get the most from it.


why so stupid

I've been visiting my mother for a few days -- originally scheduled to be after the semester was all over, but this year it wound up being during the bitter bitter end of things. Combine that with my usual feeling lobotomized when I'm in this place and it's been really hard to imagine writing anything. The combination of stressful family circumstances, bad internet connectivity, and piles upon piles of tedious chores always turns me into a dull, depressed lump.

Not everything is so bad, of course. I have some great things to look forward to upon my return to my own home. I just feel awfully far away from my home, from my routine, from my own brain.


down to the essentials

vitamin C

eucalyptus essential oil




repeat, repeat, repeat.


tipping point

Apparently, 12:30 in the afternoon is the tipping point beyond which it seems futile to drive into the office for the day. I'd planned to work at home this morning finishing up the proofs, then go into the office to deal with administrative stuff and power through some grading. But now it just seems like I might as well stay home. I can, after all, do the grading from the couch.

Should I flee the germs of GF's sickness that might be lingering in our house, or stay home to grade in a somewhat restful fashion to ward off the beginnings of congestion I've begun to feel. Just because I got dressed in work-casual style and even put on mascara doesn't mean I have to leave the house.

I think this is the right thing to do. I know I'm capable of over-thinking it (wrestling between following my usual structure/plan and being flexible). It's also possible that I might not get enough done -- either by wasting time driving, parking, and then having to deal with chit-chatty office staff or by staying home with dogs and teakettle and the internet. But it seems 50-50 either way at this point. And at home I have more rewards available for each block of grading I get through.



How is it that during the same 10-day span in which I must sit in grading jail, write two end of term administrative reports (with spreadsheet appendices), assist weeping students with graduation problems, and attend 2 and possibly 3 department holiday parties, that I receive first-stage page proofs and a page of editor queries for a forthcoming article? Proofs and queries that must, of course, be returned, within 8 days.



Ellen Paige (who I loved in Hard Candy) is perfectly cast in this movie: alternately snarky and sad, her teenage heroine navigates relationships and identity formation with an appealing down to earth sense of humor. I only wish the film was as appealing to me.

It's certainly not everything the media hype about its writer Diablo Cody would have you believe. It's not the feminist (or feminine) "answer" to Judd Apatow's recent hit comedies. It's not the smartest movie about teenagers since John Hughes. And is Cody the best writer under age 35? She photographs well and has certainly seized the imaginations of a lot of journalists. But I'm waiting to see what she'll do next.

It's enjoyable, sure. I laughed. The audience I was with laughed a lot too. But it's cutesy-edgy, suffering from the mainstreaming of so-called "indie" attitude -- here signified by wordplay that is only semi-current, semi-funny, semi-successful. It's very hit or miss. The shorthand phrases instead of character development, the colors and camerawork, the clothing, the interior set design all scream at you: this is a film that wants to be like a bunch of other films (Little Miss Sunshine, Napoleon Dynamite, Garden State, etc). Now, imitation is flattery, and also smart marketing. So in and of itself, that's not the worst.

But even reading this as a fantasy movie (no less a fantasy because it doesn't involve wizards (although that is one of Juno's nicknames) it suffers from a lack of conflict: she has no serious struggle in deciding what to do about her pregnancy, and pregnancy itself operates as a kind of bodily fate. There's nothing really for her to do except wait to be done with it. Her parents are astoundingly mellow and supportive; and her boyfriend's parents somehow never find out. School is supposed to be tough on Juno, but that's never really shown to us, except in the occasional glances of students in the hallway. This is a fantasy world in which Juno's pregnant and allowed to stay in regular high school, is not physically or verbally harassed by other students or teachers, and has all the time in the world to flirt with inappropriate older married men. But even that situation is watered down so that it doesn't really constitute a conflict. So there's nothing for her to overcome, nowhere for her to grow, because the film presents Juno as already so wonderful that she just has to keep on keepin on, and wait to deliver the baby.

The sharks really started to circle, though, in a couple of painfully self-conscious and juvenile scenes that demonstrate the film's need to proclaim its coolness. It reminded me of the 13 year olds I used to supervise at summer camp. Who's cooler, Iggy Pop or Sonic Youth? Who the f* cares? I know I'm not the target demographic for this film -- but watching it was ultimately kind of tiresome. And I'm someone who likes the romantic comedy genre. Give me Some Kind of Wonderful or Valley Girl any day. Those movies have characters who develop and change; class and family conflicts; and awesome soundtracks that the characters don't feel the need to talk about, sing along to, or otherwise announce.


The Formation of Scholars

There's an article in today's Chronicle about the forthcoming Carnegie Foundation report entitled The Formation of Scholars, which argues that PhD-granting departments and programs aren't adequately preparing doctoral students for the challenges of conducting top-quality research today. The article doesn't explain how preparation or education in research was measured, across many different fields and disciplines, but some of the general points seem applicable to many areas:
The solution is not to add more requirements and components to doctoral education, say the study's authors, but to investigate whether many of the traditions that have grown up within academe still serve their intended purpose. The authors question many conventions taken for granted in doctoral education, such as qualifying examinations, program requirements, and even the doctoral dissertation. Many of the origins and purposes of those practices are opaque or forgotten, they argue, and continue only through force of habit.

That "force of habit" is a real obstacle to change. My own department has been through several bitter fights about proposed changes to our PhD program, which tend to pit generations of scholars against each other, most of us arguing for whatever methods and formats trained us. So if you passed a 6-field comprehensive exam, that's what you think every student should do. If you took orals, or defended each chapter of your dissertation separately, you tend to think that's the way it should be.

What's especially pernicious within my own department, and within the field generally, is the way that institutional hierarchies get mapped onto program requirements. Thus if an Ivy department required all of its doctoral students to stand on their heads while reciting the first page of their dissertation, then other departments would eventually take this method as the accepted mode of examination. Faculty are often caught between the real identity and projected fantasy identity of their own department ("we are a fourth rank research school but we want to be second rank") as well as their own internalized professional ranking, which is frequently calculated using PhD institution and number of publications as factors ("I'm a first-rank PhD with the median number of publications for graduates of my program with x numbers of years in the profession").

These hierarchies -- real and imagined -- are also involved in how we envision the futures of our own doctoral students and how we train them. In my experience of an R1 doctoral program, we were never explicitly instructed in research or professionalization. It was assumed that we were able to figure it out along the way. This meant those with good mentors figured it out sooner; the rest of us developed our own various compensatory strategies. I'm currently teaching at an R4 university, where we know we need to teach our students a lot of things they probably didn't get in their previous BA programs. Yet many of our faculty (most educated at R1s) believe one "shouldn't have" to tell students how to do basic research.

I'll be interested to see how or if this forthcoming report affects our institutional and professional conversations about graduate education.


special steps

Tonight I went to get The Boss some steps, because she's starting to slow down from arthritis. She's 14, and has been very athletic all her life. So she's kind of depressed about now having to go on the slow dog walks with Old Girl. Meanwhile, Speedy is alternately excited about having her own (fast and long) walks, and nervous about walking with only a human for company. So having her own special steps to get up on the couch with did make The Boss feel important. But we're all feeling a little sad that age has come upon her rather suddenly in the past two months.

I love to go to the companion supply store -- there's always adorable and desirable stuff to look at. And lots of people bring their dogs into the shop. But most of all I just find it heartwarming, all the people in there looking for toothbrushes or sweaters or bowls or cookies for their special friend.



Because December is full of possibility!

Fred Claus

Vince Vaughn and 7 year olds don't usually go very well together, so I was a bit skeptical of the parenting skills of the women sitting with 15 children in the row behind us at the movie theater. Sure, we were going to see a holiday movie, but still, it was rated PG13 and these kids were awfully young. But I enjoyed the film, for what it was, and I suspect the kids did too. It's skillfully double-layered, so that kids would only see Santa and some slapstick comedy and some elves dancing around. The adults, on the other hand, get to enjoy Vaughn's usual slacker antihero and a hilarious scene of Siblings Anonymous featuring Stephen Baldwin, Roger Clinton, and Frank Stallone. Because that's Fred's problem: he's always been overshadowed by and compared to his brother Santa. (Oh, and there's a little vampiric immortality clause invoked by the offscreen narrator to explain why the Claus family look almost the same today as they did back in their medieval hut.)

The main message of the film, oft-repeated and heavy-handed, is simple: there are no naughty kids, just kids who have been overlooked or misunderstood. So, target one is the old-school Santa practice of divvying up the list of kids into naughty and nice. Fred's guerilla tactics on behalf of neglected siblings shakes things up at the North Pole. But Santa's also fighting the black-coated "efficiency expert" (brilliantly played by Kevin Spacey) who wants to find any excuse to shut him down. So, like most Christmas movies, this one pits heart and humanity against cold misanthropy. Guess which wins?

But there's another interesting subtext that runs throughout the film, which serves as a kind of corollary to the updating of childrearing philosophy: it's very pro-exercise and anti-fat. For instance, when Fred's working as a repo man, he tells the little girl who complains that he's removing her flat screen TV that she should play outside and do sports. Everyone makes jokes about Santa's weight problem, and he's so fat that throwing snowballs gets him winded. And the simple toys the elves make in their all-nighter are athletic, too: baseball bats and hula hoops. It's clear that Santa's responsibility to eat all the cookies set out for him are what's hindering his health, and that maybe we should start putting out carrot sticks instead.

I'm not criticizing this element in the film -- it seems more positive than a lot of the usual holiday ideology -- but it was the fact that I could agree with it that got me noticing. Yeah, Santa's fat and probably heading into diabetes, and kids who get into fights are probably misunderstood, or mistreated at home. I accept those ideas without much question. I just haven't figured out what else I might have been absorbing as I watched this movie.

Other than the simple happiness of a holiday movie that actually is fun for grownups, even if it's about Santa.



  • If only I had a keyboard invisibly and magically attached to my mind, I could show you all those posts I wrote this past week, invariably while showering, driving, or sitting in meetings. Now, even unwritten as they are, they seem stale and dried out. But considering that it's midnight (or later if you're still on "the time that it was before it changed") I don't have much in the way of freshly squeezed posts either.
  • All the mean comments this past week (which I read too late to get involved in, natch) about junior faculty going on the market are awfully disheartening. Dr C handled it fabulously well, but I would imagine several dozen junior (and not so junior) people's paranoia levels have risen to supreme stress levels. Academic departments are not families -- either of the biological sort or the mobster sort. So if you want to consider leaving, you can and should. And it's really no one else's business.
  • Today, yoga class kicked my ass. It didn't help that a rambunctious screen door had slammed me in the kidney yesterday, or that I had to detoxify some fried veggie chips out of my system. But I think it would have been a tough one no matter what. And, as lousy as I felt during the experience (nauseous, shaky, the whole bit) , it was kind of a welcome reminder about what I love about Bikram yoga. It stretches me to my limits, and makes all the other things that seem tough seem a bit more manageable. And I know tomorrow's class will be easier. It always is.
  • I love this time change. It's so rare that I look at my watch and actually think "hey, I have MORE time than I thought" -- usually only when I'm having a rare manic insomnia episode. Most of my life is spent with all timepieces set 5-15 minutes ahead because I'm going to be slightly late otherwise. Unfortunately, after a few days the freshness will probably wear off and I'll be struggling to get up before 6 again.


at home

Today is one of those wonderful days, too rare indeed, when I can stay home to work rather than go in to the office wearing my Administrator's hat. So I've been catching up on the 50 million small tasks that have been piling up: ordering books for next term, posting stuff to the department's website, writing up various memos, grading, writing some new assignments, etc etc. And given that I am constitutionally only able to work for maybe 50 minutes at a stretch, I've had a few breaks as well.

I much prefer homestyle unproductivity to what I'd typically be doing at the office. It's not like every minute there is productive: there's the socially required (and politically useful) chit chat with staff and colleagues, the trips down the hall to the facilities, the endless distractions of email, and of course, my irritating office neighbor. Here, at home, there's email -- but also the ability to get up and walk away from the computer altogether, which is much better. There are three dogs who are more than happy to distract me with tennis balls and rope toys and disarming cuteness. A whole kitchenful of possibilities: tea, coffee, fruit, nuts, and even dishes and laundry to wash if I get too anxious.

Best of all: the feeling that I'm playing hooky, even though I've actually been crossing stuff off my list. I'm not wearing mascara or shoes, so I must be having fun. . .


if only we had a fall break

Sometime this morning I actually had a minute to think, "I wonder what's been going on in the blogworld." And then it was six hours later before I got to poke around a little bit and just check that my team of usual suspects are still all there. The past week was Midterm Extreme, with no spare minutes. Made more so of course because I was playing catchup (on work, on teaching, on sleep) since I'd been away at Big Conference. But really, a week without any free time online? that's freakin' ridiculous.

This was also the week that almost half of my students decided would be a great time to skip class -- a different group each day, but still the empty seats yawned contagiously on sunny afternoons. Those kind of days when I want to tell the absent students, "I wanted to skip, too. But I came to class anyway. Dammit."

And then I read on other people's blogs of this thing called Fall Break. Ah, I remember that from my undergraduate days of yore. That would be really awesome right about now. Going to the conference charged up my professional and intellectual batteries -- but it's not exactly the same thing as a break. It's the weird anti-break that masquerades as a vacation. Because you're performing, and networking, and having bouts of anxiety in the airport when you see all the conference people. But also seeing old friends, and learning new things, and meeting some great new people. Simultaneously very energizing and kinda stressful, but not really a break.

In my fantasy version of fall break, I'd get my house entirely clean, we'd see a zillion fantastic movies, I'd cook large quantities of Italian food, and do hours and hours of yoga. I don't need a tropical beach vacation, just some pasta and family time. This weekend is full of work for both of us, but maybe next weekend we can make a date with the colander and the DVD player...


conference happiness

Since I'm basically a very shy person, it's really quite strange that I enjoy going to academic conferences. Not every conference, to be sure, but over the years I've figured out which ones are more useful for me, both in terms of networking and for actual intellectual content. Right now I'm at my favorite conference, where I get to hang out with conference buddies and talk to the 3 or 4 people in the world who actually read my published work. And hear some smart interesting papers -- as well as a few that are not so smart, and although tedious are thus somehow comforting. One doesn't want to be totally impressed all the time, and therefore feel that one's own approach is not up to par.

Biochemically, however, the conference experience is an odd one -- I'm suffering a time zone alteration which has me wide awake in the wee predawn hours, and coffee is more accessible than water. So I come back to my hotel room and chug down glass after glass. But it's the socializing that for an introvert is like speed: throughout my dreams and especially in the half-lucid pre- and post- sleep stage I find myself simply repeating the conversations I had during the day. I'm hyper on the inside of my head, if not in my outer appearance. I've had more social interaction in the past two days than in the past six months or something. I'm loving it, but I know there will be a nasty come-down sometime early next week. Pity the students whose papers I'll be grading then . . . (since I'm certainly not grading them now, even though I could/should be.)


mysteries of my process

  1. Why is it that, faced with an upcoming trip to Big Conference for which I should probably expand or revise my paper, I have spent the last two days thinking about and looking for new shoes?
  2. Why is it that although I space out the small writing assignments so as to distribute the grading effort throughout the week and month, I still wind up with a huge pile to mark all at once?
  3. Why is it that after two months of faithfully adhering to my new Early Morning Riser anti-depression schedule, I'm suddenly staying up til 2 or 3 a.m., which makes the dawn thing kind of tough/impossible?
  4. Why is it that even though I have planned to skip out on certain useless meetings this semester for very good reasons, I still feel a tug of dutiful responsibility?

Thankfully, I'm still getting by despite this ridiculous behavior. I think my paper is fine, I found some new shoes, the assignments are mostly graded, and a couple of emails will absolve me of my committee crap. Now, how I'm going to get to sleep and then wake up all in the next four hours, I don't know. That's still really a mystery.


tv week

I have to confess to feeling awfully excited about the television season opening this week. For the first. time. ever. we can watch all the networks! I'm still delighted about our decision last winter to get basic dish service. It sure beats the rabbit ears, which in our neighborhood only got us two stations. Plus the DVR means we build up a nice reserve of shows we want to watch. I always like that feeling of surplus, a cushion of entertainment when I just can't read any more.

I do really enjoy watching TV shows on DVD, which we have been doing a lot of this summer, but I think it might also be nice to watch some of them in sync with everyone else. We've been watching Heroes and House this summer ostensibly with the idea that we'll eventually catch up. 3 or 4 more episodes of Heroes left and then we can watch the opener that we recorded. I'm trained to look for and enjoy narrative structure, so I can't stand to watch episodes out of order.

But there's lots of new TV that looks potentially interesting too . . . Bionic Woman has been on our household's radar for months now. And nerd heroes have finally made it to the networks -- even if they're all boys, and stereotypical, etc, I still enjoyed the first episodes of Big Bang Theory and Chuck. Not sure how those shows will develop, but I'm willing to stick with them for a little while. We tend to watch heavy drama shows (Lost, Battlestar, Heroes) so having a little sitcom on Monday night is a nice treat. (Adventures of Old Christine was perfect that way last spring/summer.)

So, yay, it's tv week! Makes the craptastic meetings I've been sitting in at work seem just a little bit better...


smarter not harder

The phrase "work smarter not harder" isn't mine, of course -- and when I mentioned it last week, it was resonating because I'd heard it recently on a podcast by Cheryl Richardson, a life coach whose books I've read for years. She's not the only person I've heard say such things, or use that phrase even; but for whatever reason, I paid more attention last week and I've been mulling it over since.

In that particular podcast, Cheryl focused on three main areas which could help you work smarter not harder: organizing your physical space, working in sync with your natural rhythms, and planning your work. All areas in which I've been trying to make some adjustments, so it was nice to hear some more ideas about those things.

But what really hit me -- probably because I was listening to the podcast, rather than reading it in a book -- was the emotional resonance of the word "harder." The psychological damage we do to ourselves every time (and I heard myself do this recently in a conversation with colleagues) we say "well, I didn't get as much done as I wanted to" about a term break, or think silently "I just have to work harder." No one I know or work with needs to work harder -- it makes work sound awful and painful and difficult before you've even begun anything. Work differently, yes. Work more creatively, yes. And that's what hit me about work smarter -- not only because smart is a word I appreciate -- but because art is there in the middle too.

So my goal this week: not to use any words, to myself or others, about quantity or hardness of work. And instead, try to find the sweet creative juicy middle that is, no matter what your field, about art.


enhanced nourishment

There's a pretty common metaphor in psychological/self-help circles that labels certain people as "toxic" or "unhealthy," which is very helpful in understanding why you're left feeling awful after dealing with those people.

Since nutrition and good health are important to me in the physical realm, I've been thinking a lot about how similar metaphors might be extended. There are people and foods which are toxic; there are people and foods which are nourishing; and then there are an awful lot of people and foods that are somewhere in the middle. And too much of the food or people that are in that middle spectrum, over the long haul, is unhealthy too.

One lunch or coffee or meeting with people who are emotional equivalent of white bread won't kill you, any more than a slice of white bread would. On occasion it might even seem comforting or tasty (if we're thinking French baguette and not Wonder bread). But eating baguette more than once every few months would have me feeling lousy.

Luckily, I have a few people in my life who are like the sprouted whole grain bread I eat -- hearty, textured, complicated, and nourishing. And the rest? I'm cleaning out my emotional cupboards.


looking at the JIL

Flavia has a good post about looking at the MLA job list from the perspective of already having a job you like or mostly like. I too look at the list -- it's a good way to learn about certain patterns in my subfield (which due to curricular, ideological, or funding issues can often get paired with others, or configured in certain ways). It's a good reminder of all the things I really do like about my current position. And it's also a strong reminder of what I still need to do -- thank goodness my dream job wasn't on the list this year, since I'm not ready for that one yet. I still have some preparing, some publishing, some developing to do.

But even though I read the list from the very comfortable perspective of being tenured in a job that's a good fit for me, it still raises up all sorts of anxieties. They're not the real concerns so many people face, about whether they'll get any sort of job, or whether they should stay in the profession. For me I think the list is the clearest reification I encounter of all the hierarchies of the profession: the evaluative terms that pop into my head as I look over the postings, automatically ranking jobs according to the list I internalized 15 years ago of what constituted a great job, a good job, or just a job. Even though I know I wouldn't have been the right person for most of the jobs the profession would consider to be the top of the pile -- never mind the self doubt about my qualifications, I know I wouldn't have played the game in the right sort of way -- reading the list makes me begin to question some of the choices I did make. Some of that questioning is good, but some of it just feels horrible.

If I can stand it, later this season I might read through the entire job list. That's how we used to have to do it back in the olden days when I was on the market: the list came out in paper hard copy format and was mailed to the department in mid-October and then photocopied by the staff for the nervous graduate students. There were only a couple of later updates to the list, which put a lot more pressure on institutions to get all the funding approvals lined up in time for the October release; that pressure is still there today, but mitigated somewhat by the weekly updates to the electronic list. There was no sorting of the list by rank or field or keyword -- typically when I look at the list lately, I just look at the postings in my subfield. But there was something valuable about having to read through the whole darn thing (which was organized by state if I remember correctly) because you did get a sense about the profession more generally, the shifts and patterns that meant one year was strong for medieval and another was strong for eighteenth-century.

Of course, spending too much time trying to interpret the tea leaves that are the job listings isn't necessarily that productive. Like most fortune-telling devices, it tells you much more about your own state of mind going in to the palm reader's or shrink's office rather than any definite information about the future. So, last weekend the JIL told me I think I need to work smarter (not harder; but that's for another post) -- and that's definitely true, whether it leads to a different job or not.



Yesterday I saw this story about the baby macaque who loves a bird. Like the well-circulated pictures and stories of the baby squirrel raised by a dog, the hippo who's friends with a tortoise, the pig acting as wet nurse for tiger cubs, or the classic stories of Koko and her kittens, these images just pull at my "awww" response. (A lot of the reporting on such stories recognizes the likelihood of such response, and semi-ironically deflects it by commenting on it.) So, I've been wondering, why is this?

The cute factor. I'm as susceptible as anyone else to pictures of cute baby animals. I get the Daily Puppy update in my inbox each day, and on crappy days I've been known to surf Cute Overload and the like.

I don't think that for me, at any rate, it's an idealization of maternal love. Biologically speaking, many animals are inclined to care for young infants who can't care for themselves -- particularly those who have long nursing times. So that's why the zoo keepers in China brought the pig in to nurse the tiger cubs. Why do we think such arrangements are cute, when the idea of human wetnursing tends to seem more icky? (To my students, anyway, whenever it comes up in a 19th-century text. To me it does too, but my horror of milk might be a factor there as well.)

But the idea of cross-species friendship, now, that's appealing. Partly, of course, because I share my life with three dogs. The experience of cross-species communication and affection is something very powerful. It has definitely changed who I am as a person -- made me a more affectionate and open human being. Seeing examples of animals who develop what we can only understand as friendships (though of course their understanding of what a friendship is might encompass some different elements than ours typically do) seems somehow hopeful to me. But it's not interesting or appealing to me to look at pictures of people's friendships (in fact, what's more boring than looking at a stranger's myspace party pics?). It's the possibility of reaching out past the species barrier -- the hope we could someday communicate even more deeply with dogs, with dolphins, with elephants, with horses, seems somehow promised in these examples of animal friendship.

Maybe this is just my misanthropy coming out in a socially acceptable cute form?



I got my first pair of glasses in the fifth grade, starting off my years of Extreme Ugliness. (I got braces the same year, and although my mother let me pierce my ears as consolation, it didn't do much for my looks.) But the glasses did make a huge difference in my myopic life -- I still remember the shock at putting them on for the first time and seeing threads in the carpet, and individual leaves on trees. Things that I knew were there if you were up close to them, but never knew that people could ordinarily see them. Being fairly stubborn and logical, even as a kid, I had come up with all these explanations for why pictures in books looked a certain way even though the world never looked that way to me: I saw stop lights as three splayed-out starry blobs, not as three perfect discs -- but I figured that was too hard to draw. It never occurred to me (or to anyone else) that I might need to have my vision checked until I was seated at the back of the classroom and didn't even know how many math problems were written on the chalkboard.

So fast forward from age 10 to 39. Over the past few months the natural aging process that affects the focusing muscles in the eyes started kicking in big time. Over the summer, frustrated with how tired my eyes were feeling at the end of every day, I somehow figured out that I could read in bed without wearing my lenses or glasses. The distance from face to knee while half sitting, half lying in bed, while looking at the average font size used in contemporary hardback fiction books, is apparently the perfect focusing distance for my now aging eyes. Other close-distance work (reading other kinds of books, or reading at the desk, or reading on the computer) is a little more awkward. It's not bad enough yet as to need reading glasses on top of my existing contact lenses, as was confirmed at my annual optometry appointment today. We adjusted my Rx a little and I'll do some eye exercises, continue to shift my desk chair a bit, maybe wear my glasses more than my contacts, that sort of thing, for a few more years at least.

But in the frustration of realizing all these sudden changes (which are hard not to see as declines no matter how typical they are) I have to also celebrate the pretty amazing fact that I can now read without any glasses at all, at least some of the time. I'd forgotten what that was even like!


academics and money

Somehow I wound up reading New Kid's post about house envy just before reading an article in the Chronicle about the strategies faculty are using to get by financially in areas with higher costs of living. (Unfortunately I think the article is in the subscriber-only section of the CHE -- part of some new special section called The Academic Life. I haven't looked at my print copy yet to know what that actually looks like, probably one of the folded magazine-type sections.) The Chronicle article is pretty good, though hardly a surprise to anyone who is also living in a high-cost area. Of course, they sought out extreme examples -- the faculty member who got tenure while living in her parents' home, the professor who butchers meat at the grocery story to help pay his bills. But the article overall raises some good points about the discrepancies between the cultural positions and the actual economic positions many of us inhabit.

As I've no doubt said before, I've always found Bourdieu's account of the dominated fraction of the dominant classes to be extremely compelling in pinpointing that weird dynamic that occurs in the households of academics. But I think it comes out most strongly around the issue of home ownership - - particularly as the ideology of home ownership begins to be assailed by the economic realities for many younger professionals in their 20s or 30s. It's no longer necessarily the best choice -- or even a possible choice. And yet, of course, it's an ideal that many people still aspire to.

I should specify that New Kid's points were about feeling unsettled, about transitions, and space, not necessarily financial concerns. But all of these things resonate around what she called "feeling like an adult." I'll be real clear about this: GF and I don't live in what most middle-aged folks would consider an "adult" type house. We don't have a guest room. We don't have a dining room. Our at-home lives are spent happily piled on one saggy couch. It's partly because certain bourgois markers don't matter that much to us (if they did we probably wouldn't be educators); it's also because our happy family includes three dogs; because we're introverts who'd rather make our personal space comfortable than company-presentable; and because we can't afford to live in the kind of house that grownups live in.

Who are the grownups? the Chair of my department, obviously, who not only has a Chair's salary but significant family money. He can have the whole department over for a catered holiday party during which we stroll around examining his rare books and antiques. Certain faculty married to professionals in industry. Others well into their 50s-- in my department, many people don't buy homes until their parents are deceased -- the small estates the previous generation's middle class can leave are usually suitable down payments in our real estate area. There are a few other "grownups," mostly those with children, who've chosen to live in the far away suburbs in order to purchase a home. The rest of us in the department tend to live in much more bohemian, eco-friendly, or downwardly mobile ways. (pick the label you prefer)

I'm definitely a grownup in most other areas of my life, and I don't spend much time worrying about this one. But when an old friend who's my age but definitely far ahead of me on the house scale came to visit, her shock and dismay told me quite a bit about how my life would look from the outside. Would I trade? no way. I'm pretty happy with the choices I've made. Flexible time and professional autonomy definitely trump swimming pools and new cars.



I had a good conversation last week with an old friend about the eerie deja vu of returning to the department hallways and routines after the summer. It's a strange mixture of welcoming the familiar-- getting into the rhythms of teaching, seeing former students, seeing colleagues again-- but tinged with faint notes of familiar despair: the first department meeting, the low morale in the main office, the pompous grandstanding at the welcome reception.

We're now in our fourth week of the term, so we're hardly beginning anything any longer-- I've graded two sets of student writing and feel pretty accustomed to this semester's schedules and routines. But I'm trying to focus on what I had suggested to my friend: that we have the opportunity this semester to rewrite some of the patterns and outcomes of last year. That we have the opportunity this week, this day, to change something, not just to fall into the dull mediocrity of the routine. I always am happier at the beginning of the semester, when I'm excited about new courses, new texts, new students. But I'm also trying to focus on what actions or attitudes I can cultivate that will help new ideas or events emerge.

So far, I'm deliberately stepping back from a lot of things. I'm thinking or writing about my current research every day, even if only informally. I'm doing a lot of mantra chanting. And I'm trying to think of each day as a potential new start.



grading: side effects may include...

OK, I realize I'm basically the only person in the blogosphere who is STILL grading. And it won't even end today when I finish this stack of papers: I give a final exam this afternoon so I'll have that fun to look forward to tomorrow. But exams don't require comments, so it's a much faster process.

And of course I procrastinated on reading the papers, blah, blah, blah, so I'm up against a deadline for returning them. Same old story, familiar to me and my three readers. But this term I experienced a new side effect: last night from 4 a.m. to 6, after waking up to let the Old Girl out, I dreamed that I was grading papers. Not new ones -- the same papers I'd read yesterday afternoon. I regraded them all in my dream. I was actually reading text and thinking about grades. Not at all restful.



Kilter: Good condition, order; state of health or spirits. Used in the phrases out of kelter, in (good, high) kelter, to get into kelter. [OED] [U.S. form kilter]
But when you look more closely at the examples listed with the definition, the latest example of kelter being used in its positive sense was 1828 -- most of them are 17th century. In recent centuries, and especially in U.S. usage, the negative phrase of something being "out of kilter" or "off kilter" is far more prevalent.

It's often easier to talk about things being out of balance than it is to focus on the things that are in order. It's easier to see what's disordered, to focus on the problems, than to see what's actually working. It's perversely easier to complain than to talk about what's already good.

I've been literally off balance for a few weeks as an ankle injury heals. It's always the same ankle, the one weakened years ago by a bad injury that didn't heal properly, the one pre-disposed by genetics and physical anomalies towards injury. Thankfully I wasn't born into a time and place in which my only function was to sit still and look delicate, since the rest of me doesn't exactly fit the latter requirement, but my ankle would be perfectly happy just flirting under a fan sipping tea and knitting lace. My ankle is a bit of lady - -grafted on top of a leg that's built like most of my ancestors, for peasant work out in the fields. It's only an uneasy truce these warring class factions have been able to negotiate, and the ligaments who police
the ankle treaty are at fault for being too lenient, too flexible.

I'm never a very good patient, for all my attempts to cultivate patience in the rest of my life (my deliberate choice of the slow lane on the freeway, my deep breathing in the grocery store): I hate to be sick or injured and too easily fall into all or nothing doomsday foretellings: if I have a cold, I become convinced that I'll NEVER be able to breathe through my nose AGAIN. If my ankle sprains, I imagine never being able to walk, dance, jump freely. Of course, this is a good reminder to be grateful for what I mostly still do have. This week, as I'm able to return to half of my normal level of activity (with ice and a brace and all the rest) I'm better able to contemplate my good fortune. How good it is that it was only an ankle sprain that has been making me feel so sad, so slothful, so trapped. Something relatively temporary, no matter how long three weeks can feel to my ego, to my fragile brain chemistry, to my waistline.

I'm moving back into kilter. Slowly, slowly, but ever so gladly.


done! or at least semi-done!

I'm done with teaching for the spring term, and I am so happy! This weekend is a nice little happy transition type weekend -- final papers don't roll in until Monday, and then we have this tremendously long exam period -- with my final exams unfortunately not scheduled until the last day, which would be the 10th. So I have two weeks of grading and meetings and graduation hoopla coming up, but I do not have to think about my students at all for the next three days. And that is very nice.

This weekend I plan to do some massive house cleaning -- we have an out of town visitor coming the middle of next week, and my conference trips this month meant that I was just doing basic sweeping and surfaces. So a lot of cleaning, which is not my favorite thing, but it's also kind of therapeutic and part of my transition into summer. Also some sorting and returning of library books, sorting some files, getting things ready for my summer work plan.

I'm really looking forward to the summer - - I've done enough writing and conference presentations this semester that I'm already primed for digging into my research. This is probably why I've been so indifferent to my students this term-- they weren't particularly bad or irritating, and my teaching was OK I think -- but it wasn't where my focus was, and I'm glad to be wrapping it up. My administrative responsibilities lessen during the summer months as well, and that will be a real relief. I'm ready to not have to see my colleagues for a while.

So, cleaning, some moviegoing, some cooking and relaxing. An excellent weekend ahead, to be followed soon enough by two months of relative freedom! No wonder I woke up feeling so happy today!


First Snow

The most interesting moments in First Snow are fleeting ones -- the glint in J.K. Simmons's eye, and the expressions on William Fichtner's face as his character falls into the little brother wannabe role with Guy Pearce's overladen badass character. At its best it's a movie about men's relationships with other men: Pearce tells Fichtner "I love you" twice and his old buddy Shea Whigham kisses him just before blowing his own brain to bits. Despite a steamy bathtub scene with Piper Perabo, it's Pearce's male friends that have the most power over his life. But the movie drags, and by the time Pearce has his paranoid breakdown holed up in a motel room, I just didn't care very much about his existential problems upon hearing from a fortune teller that his days were numbered. The noirish feel was neither fresh nor self-aware -- just a collage of predictable ingredients: highway, liquor bottles, desert, etc etc.

I was interested in seeing this movie, though, because I think it's part of a larger Zeitgeist, a trend I've been noting in recent films that are concerned with epistemological or philosophical "what ifs" -- what if you could foresee the future (Next, Premonition), or what if the future is
just a repeat of the past (Deja Vu, the short-lived TV show Day Break). I think this rash of quasi-fantastical, quasi-realistic stories can be seen as cultural responses to the war in Iraq and the epistemological crises that even the most mainstream newspapers have been recognizing: what if we/they had known then what is known now; what if we could foresee the outcome of our current actions; what if the future is only a doomed repetition of the past.



Last night at the keynote speech for the conference I'm currently attending, I was sitting behind a guy whose pen started to leak ink all over his hand. I was so impressed with his calm reaction as he put down the leaking pen, reached into his book bag, and pulled out a moist towlette packet and cleaned his fingers. Then he got another pen and continued taking notes.

Talk about being prepared. Moist towlettes are one of those things I sometimes think it would be nice to have in my bag, or in my car. Occasionally I've purchased some, like before a long road trip. Usually I use a couple, and the rest sit in the glove box for months, until they are so dried out even inside their sealed packaging that when I get grunge all over my hand from airing up my tires, the towlette is useless. Or, I stick a towlette packet in my book bag's zippered pocket and it slowly gets frayed and dusty, until again, by the time I actually need it, it's no good. (The same thing happens with cough drops, except that they have a tendency to go soft and gooey and stick to things-- again a situation in which one would like a towlette, if it weren't caught up in the dust ball of cough drop ooze.)

Basically, I've resigned myself to being somewhat less prepared than I sometimes think I should be. Although it would sometimes be nice to have easy access to a needle and thread, scotch tape, stapler, hole punch, scissors, pliers, flashlight, shoelaces, and of course moist towlettes -- I do not, in fact, carry those items around with me on a regular basis. Some of them can be found in my desk at home or work, and some in my car. But I rarely have all of them at hand at the same time -- or at such a time when they would actually come in handy. If I have my bookbag, I do have nail clippers, ibuprofen, kleenex and probably a paper clip or two, which you can do a lot with. I've also resigned myself to the fact that I don't completely empty all the pockets in my bookbag on a regular basis so as to clean out the no-longer useful or fresh things. My inner safety officer personality is disappointed, but I just can't make that sort of thing a priority.

This prepared guy did have an awfully large bookbag/briefcase with him -- as I sat there I started really wondering what else he had in there, just in case any of the other academic emergencies occurred: paper cut, loose eyeglass screw, coughing fit, malfunctioning projector...


what I got out of last week

  • A new model of generational differences in my dept. Forget theoretical modes, or graduate mentors. Here's the distinction that really matters. When searching in the online registration system for information about next year's courses (like time, day, room number) there are those faculty members who see a link around their section number and know (or try) to click on it to get the screenful of detailed info. And then there are those who prefer to send off five emails to two secretaries, one faculty administrator (me!), the chair, and an assistant dean. (And then, of course, there are those who don't even use computers, but we've whittled that list down to just a mere handful and are waiting for retirements to thin their ranks).
  • A theory about contemporary film and cultural anxieties about the war in Iraq, based entirely on the previews I've seen for recent movies. I think it holds up but I haven't actually watched any of the texts I'd use as evidence. (But considering that I once had dinner with an Eminent Critic who confessed to only having read the epigraphs to Moby Dick -- a novel he teaches regularly -- I don't feel so bad.)
  • New respect from my students because I calmed a yelping student by scooping up a spider in my hands and taking it outside. Who knew it would be so easy to make them applaud?


post conference recovery

Well, despite my grumbling last week, our little regional conference was a tremendous success -- all the invited guests were charming and smart, the panels came together well, and everyone had a good time.

It's odd that I enjoy conferences (large or small) as much as I do, given that I'm fairly anti-social and not an academic superstar or anything. But being around people who work on things I'm interested in is very energizing. My day to day experience doesn't really include that kind of intellectual engagement and camaraderie. I had the chance to talk with people whose work I really admire and get some good feedback on my own projects.

The only downside to the weekend was that I. am. so. tired. I mean, really tired. So tired that one of my old crusty colleagues even said something to me today in a meeting about my not looking very chipper. (Why do people think that's an appropriate or nice thing to say?) And for someone like him to notice, I must really have looked like the walking dead.

So I gave up on getting to yoga tonight and came home early to do my reading while lying down. Hopefully I can get some extra sleep tonight. I've got to get my post-conference recovery plan fine tuned, though, because I've got two more conferences coming up this spring. It's a crazy season, but it might actually help me feel more grounded intellectually --even if it means I'm slacking off a bit on my teaching prep.


how did I get here?

So it goes something like this. Someone has an idea, maybe even a good idea, for bringing in a guest speaker. They talk to someone else about finding some funding. The funding has some conditions attached, a particular constituency who needs to be addressed, maybe a particular approach as well. So then one guest speaker turns into two. Then someone talks to someone from another department and finds another source of funding. And now we have a symposium. And then some other people get involved, at least nominally, and it becomes a regional thing, with multiple sessions.

This is all good -- exciting even. But it means that while I'm trying to write my own paper, I'm also dealing with airport shuttles and paper napkins and all of the very non-intellectual details involved in hosting such an event. Next time someone has a good idea, I'm just going to say "yeah, that sounds good" and leave it at that.


dream analysis

Last night I had a dream that I was walking in a large park in my city. And then a wild animal (which happened to be the same one that is my university's mascot) approached. Because it was huge and dangerous, I stood very still hoping that it would pass by. Instead it peed on me.

Now, we have been lately watching the Discovery Channel's impressive new Planet Earth series, which includes dramatic film of all sorts of wildlife. But I have to think that my subconscious might be trying to tell me something?



Like people, individual dogs each have their own particular scent, even when they're clean. Our youngest, aka Speedy, actually has two: when her hair gets wet, from rain or from a bath, it gives off an odd, acrid smell that always reminds me of the old-fashioned beauty parlor my mom used to go to and to which I would be dragged along as a child -- full of horrendous chemicals used to pouf up the gray hair of its longtime customers. But when Speedy is dry, she has a lovely faint sweet smell. Best of all is when she's been sitting in the sun for a while -- the dark hair on her head soaking in the sunshine -- she smells a bit like toasted almonds, maybe a hint of banana, with a little dandelion blossom mixed in. It's the smell of sunshine, of relaxation, of the total present-ness that dogs help us share in.

Today I was able to work at home all day, eschewing the office politics for a day of reading and writing (and, yes, some emailing). Best of all, and what I really need to remember so I can get more days like this one: the many breaks I was able to take to play with the dogs in the yard, to sit and eat a snack with them, to snuggle with them on the couch while I prepped for class. And to bend over and kiss the top of Speedy's head and smell that sweetness that always makes me feel calm and happy.



One of my administrative duties this year involves sitting on the committee that reviews the annual faculty reports submitted by each member of my department. Service on this committee rotates through the department to prevent one clique from having all the power, and of course the Chair can override the decisions of the committee, since he's the one who actually assigns all the merit rankings. Our current Dean doesn't set firm quotas for these rankings, although there is a tacit understanding that there shouldn't be too many people in the top category, and not too many in the lowest. In fact, since an extremely low score triggers a college-level review process, it's pretty unlikely that anyone would receive it -- so a five-point ranking scale becomes a de facto four-point scale. It's not unlike the grades given out for graduate courses, in which a B really means you're substandard, and A, A- and B+ are the only actual grades one can assign.

But unlike course grades, which are usually determined (however subjectively) by a person who is thought to have more knowledge, education, or credentials than the people who are being evaluated, these scores are determined by peers. It's more democratic than if the Chair alone judged us, but there's something inherently repellent about the process too. There are of course pre-existing affinities and disagreements among the faculty, cliques and feuds, and those often color the judgements that are made. There are some set criteria for how many publications are expected, how much certain kinds of publications should be weighted, and so forth. But things like teaching load and service load are much more nebulous, and can be used either for or against a particular individual.

I think the process is as democratic and as fair as it could possibly be -- and perhaps it is the very collegiality of my department which makes service on this committee an onerous task that few people want to undertake. The meetings in which we decide the scores for our colleagues are incredibly draining. Not because making judgments is necessarily that difficult. But because doing this, commiting to numbers on paper, reminds us that we are always judging each other and being judged. This committee takes its work seriously, and what happens in those meetings is confidential. But gossip and snarky remarks are an unfortunate part of academic life. Who hasn't heard, said, or thought something dismissive about a colleague?

I'm as guilty as the next guy. I really try not to gossip about colleagues (except maybe to my GF who's not an academic). But I don't always cut someone else off from saying things to me, which is the next worst thing. I've certainly thought critical thoughts about some of my colleagues. Plus, I hate feeling that I'm being judged. I know that I could always do more, do better -- I'm a pretty strong critic of myself. I hardly need to feel that people down the hallway are whispering about what I did or did not publish last year.

Buddhist psychology reminds me that the person or thing who irritates me is the person or thing who can best teach me a lesson. So I have many questions to think about as I sit in these meetings. How might we learn to accept one another a little more? How can I learn to be tolerant of those who are intolerant of others? What kinds of judgments are helpful and which are harmful? How might I best judge my own efforts -- through the year and in this judging committee?


teaching eve

Well, among the many wonderful things I did do over spring break, prepping my teaching for this week wasn't one of them. I like my students this term, but my focus really isn't with them. I'm worried that I might even have forgotten some of their names over the past 9 days. I got a few emails from students during the break, asking questions about their next assignment -- each time it was sort of a surprise to me, like "oh, yeah, that other big part of my job." I decided several months ago (even before January) that this semester would really have to be a research-focused semester, as much as I can manage that during the year. And I think I've been more successful at that than ever before. But it's still a weirdly disconnected feeling. And it hasn't helped smooth out my usual night-before prepping mode. No matter how many days ahead I start preparing a class, I still usually do most of the work the night before, or the morning of, depending on the class time.

So I have to skim/reread half of a moderately long novel before tomorrow's class. And transcribe my handwritten reading notes from two years ago into readable typed notes. (I haven't yet figured out a smooth system for typing while actually reading from books.) And figure out class plans for this week. It's all doable. And I like the book I'm teaching. But I'm just not feeling very high energy about the task. I have post-vacation malaise.

What I actually did over my spring break (the reality edition):
  • saw three movies in the theater
  • watched some tv shows on DVD
  • redid my study so that it should be more pleasant to work in there now
  • cleaned embarrassing amounts of dog hair out of every nook and cranny of the house
  • 97 thousand loads of laundry
  • spent lots of time with GF
  • bought some new spring clothes
  • slept a lot
  • finished an article
  • kinda sorta started a conference paper
Not quite as impressive as the fantasy version, but mighty nice anyhow. It was a really great spring break, quite possibly the best I've ever had. Now I just have to get through the next 8 weeks until summer . . .



I suppose it's because I'm on spring break this week, but I've been having a hard time adjusting to this year's early time change. I spent my childhood in one of the states that doesn't do time changing, so the whole concept of it has always seemed kind of alien to me, though I've been living in all those ordinary states that flip their clocks since I was 17. Especially calling it "daylight savings" -- it's not really saving anything. It's just a big mind game the government makes us all participate in. The sun still rises and sets. Rrrgh. The whole notion that federal authorities should be messing with Time just sets my teeth on edge. And especially this year, declaring that we now have to do the time change early. Because given that we are no longer primarily an agricultural nation, and given that most modern buildings are designed without much attention to natural light, and given that most of us are plugged in a zillion different ways no matter what time of day or night it is -- how the heck is this really going to make any difference in energy consumption. I just don't buy it. So what is it a cover for?

When I'm not feeling paranoid about the feds messing with the clocks, I've been attempting a much more relaxed approach to time than I usually have, since it's spring break. I've been sleeping ridiculous amounts and trying not to feel guilty or anxious about it. Feeling tired often makes me anxious because I'm never too sure whether I'm really tired, or just depressed. This week I think it's actually been tiredness-- I'm still kind of recovering from being sick a couple of weeks ago, which has been very humbling. I started back to yoga last week, and got into the gym a bit too. But I'm not up to my usual every day workouts yet, except for walking.

I've been relaxing, and having a great break -- and also getting some work done. But still, it's Wednesday and I'm starting to feel a little bit sad already about break ending soon. I don't want to see anybody, or even go anywhere -- I just want to hang out in my house and play with the dogs and work on my various projects.


spring break!

Spring Break List -- Fantasy Edition
  • write three conference papers
  • revise article that came back from editor with comments
  • finish massive home workspace reorganization project begun over winter break and then put on hold during the semester (filing & weeding of papers, Endnote updating, furniture moving, general cleanup)
  • read and prep the 2nd half of the book I'm currently teaching
  • read the next book I'll be teaching so as to be ahead of the game
  • clean, clean, clean the house
  • weed out clothes I don't need/wear
  • do my taxes
  • research/purchase a new printer
  • take car in for maintenance
  • do lots of yoga
  • take a couple of trips to the dog park
  • get back into the gym
  • read some books for fun
  • goalsetting/work planning for the next three months
  • prepare faculty activity report
  • sleep late
  • go to the movies
  • hang out with GF
  • blog
I've got ten days . . . I just have to figure out the delicate balance between doing things and not doing anything at all. I need some of each. The past few weeks have really thrown me off balance -- my schedule's been weird, I was sick, I've been cranky. So this break is all about getting back to myself.


flu girl watches oscars, health improves

I think I finally turned a corner with the flu (which I keep typing, inexplicably, as "flue") at about 1:45 this afternoon. Last night I sent off a message to my Chair saying I was sick and wouldn't be able to make it to today's horrible meeting -- so I had all of today already clear for getting better. This morning I could do nothing but lie flat in bed, half sleeping. But then something shifted and I am starting to feel a bit more like myself. My fever's much lower, still about a degree left to go, but my brain is starting to cool down and function again. I've been rereading the last half of the book I'm teaching this week, and actually having some good ideas for how I want to wrap it up. So that's all good. Now I just have to finish grading that stack of essays, and I'll be golden. Since I can do that while reclining, it should be feasible, if not enjoyable. Now getting up and out of the house tomorrow may still be a challenge, but I can limit my time on campus to a few hours.

If you have to have the flu, there might as well be a tv-fest like the Oscars on. I wasn't too surprised with how things turned out (I don't expect my favorites to match the Academy's) -- except perhaps for Little Miss Sunshine for best screenplay -- sure, it was funny, quirky in that mainstream-indy way. But it wasn't interesting writing, originally structured, etc. That seemed a very odd choice, especially given the other nominees in that category. I hope that Ryan Gosling's nomination will at least get more people to see Half Nelson, and get him some other interesting roles -- it was one of the films I saw last year that stuck in my mind. I didn't for a minute think he'd get the award, but sometimes that's ok or even better for someone's career. Helen Mirren was fantastic in the Queen, but you should rent Shadowboxer as a wicked-delicious double feature to really see how amazing she is. I'm hoping that the foreign language award for The Lives of Others will bring it back to our theatres, since I missed it due to my work crunch of the past couple weeks. I really wanted to see it, and I much prefer to watch subtitles at the theatre. I haven't seen Dreamgirls yet, so I don't have an opinion about Jennifer Hudson (except that she shouldn't put her hands in the pockets of her evening gown while talking to reporters on the red carpet), though I was hoping Rinko Kikuchi would get the award. Babel seemed surprisingly overlooked, given the number of nominations. I also thought Children of Men should have gotten something -- cinematography or adaptation -- it was such a powerful and beautiful film. I thought it was way better than Pan's Labyrinth. But apparently no one else agrees with me. Totally appropriate that Marie Antoinette's costume designer won -- and how fabulous that she was wearing a tux!

During my flu, in addition to the home-repair shows on tv, I've been watching things from our shelf of DVDs for crappy days: Valley Girl, which is my all-time cheer-up movie, and many episodes of Freaks and Geeks, which is perfect medicine for whatever ails ya.



That's the number of the day, which has remained fairly consistent. But never dropping lower than that. Since my normal temp is about a full degree lower than "average" that's still a considerable fever.

And I am So. Over. Being. Sick. Yes, universe, I am grateful that this is a virus that has not involved the expulsion of gross bodily fluids. I am grateful that I came down with it just before the weekend. I am grateful that I sent off my article before getting sick. I am especially grateful for the Dish tv we got a few months ago. If one has to be sick once a year, this is not so bad.

I am trying to relax and rest and get better -- and certainly the weak state of my fevered brain means that I can't really do anything else. My eyes have been affected by the fever too, so I can only type this because I have the font set to humongous -- I can't read a book, for instance (which makes me sad since I even have some fun reading on hand from the public library).

But can't help myself from thinking about the work that needs to get done, the prep for next week, the conference paper I need to write. Will I be better for Monday's gruesome hiring committee meeting? (though, come to think of it, having a high fever as an excuse to miss that bloodbath might not be a bad thing) Will I get all the papers graded for Tuesday and teach a brilliant lively class so as to dispel all lingering questions about my abilities and commitment? Will my brain ever be back to normal?

ok, now I'm exhausted. Time to turn back to the 5 million home design/rip up your house shows I've been watching on tv. (Not that we are buying, remodeling, or flipping a house, or even own our house -- but it's fun to see how horrible most people's houses look. And I've seen a couple of neat tricks. )


fevered teaching

I'm home sick today, having been hit by one of the many evil viruses making the rounds at work. My fever is hovering between 102 and 103, so I'm really not trying to do anything more strenuous than change channels on the tv and skim a few blogs. I started feeling the onset Wednesday afternoon, but I didn't have any fever then, and kept trying to convince myself that it was just tiredness or allergies or some other non-sickness condition. But it soon became clear that I was actually coming down with something, and that I wasn't going to be able to finish grading all of my students' essays to hand back in class on Thurs. (Of course, if my psychic abilities were good enough to let me predict who would actually show up for class that afternoon, I could have just graded those students' work -- but that's not really my strong suit.) I feel genuinely sorry for my students, some of whom are anxious to learn their grades, and I hate feeling like one of those professor cliches. So I was heading into Thursday's class feeling bad about letting them down, and also just feeling plain bad physically: my head ached, I was coughing, and I could feel the fever beginning to burn.

So I was upfront with my students: I explained that I was coming down with something -- this was of course pretty obvious, since my voice had dropped two octaves and I was coughing. And then we did a small group activity in which I assigned each group a section of the text, and some focus questions based on the previous day's lecture, asking them to discuss it, and come up with some specific passages to present to the class. They spent 20 minutes in their groups, then the rest of class was a moderated discussion with their presentations and my expanding on what they pointed out, and bringing up some additional passages.

Yes, this activity was easier for me to manage, given the state of my voice that day and my low energy level. But it was also the group activity I usually do with this particular novel at about this point in the text. I would have done a similar activity in any case, sick or not. There's no way to make that clear to my students, although we've done group work before in class. I'm sure some of them assumed I did the group work because I was sick.

I always give very clear directions for group projects, and make it clear how that work relates to the rest of the class (in this case it was about developing close reading skills). That, and doing lots of different kinds of things in the classroom, are part of my approach to making my pedagogy visible to my students.

Although I don't think I could or would have done anything differently, I'm still thinking it over. Earlier this term, I made the mistake of looking myself up on ratemyprofessor because one of my students said he'd enrolled in class because my ratings were good -- to me they don't seem that good, but maybe I don't know what ratings my colleagues get. In any case, there was a vicious comment from a student last semester (a term for which I have not yet seen my official evaluations) about how I was lazy and did group work because I didn't feel like teaching. I know that the negative comments always ring louder than the positives, and I also know that each semester I have a couple students who dislike an active-learning, discussion based approach. They would rather sit and listen to a lecture. Because that's not the way I teach, they're never going to be happy, and I can assume that the complaining student was probably one of that group.

I don't need every student to be happy all the time, but I also don't want my class to think I was lazy. Plus, I made myself kind of vulnerable to my students by revealing my sickness. I was honest in telling my class that I was sick. To pretend otherwise would have been stupid. But I fear that it might have seemed manipulative, like I was asking for sympathy. I suppose I feel a little odd because, in fact, several of my students were sympathetic. One offered me cough drops and another sent me an email hoping I get better soon. It's a weird position to be in with my class.


out of the rabbit hole

I'm back! My knees are scraped and my fingernails are dirty from clambering out of the perversely magical rabbit hole that dropped me into WritingWorld, and my pinafore got a bit mussed too, but I'm all back to my own true size and promise I won't ever eat any of the mushrooms again . . .

I just sent off Big Article! and am deliriously strolling around the internet, which has been Off Limits except for committee- or student-related emails for about 10 days. Luckily my caffeine intake won't wear off for a while, since I do actually have to attend to a pile of essays that I all-too-optimistically suggested to my class that I'd have ready to hand back tomorrow. That was back when I thought I'd be able to email Big Article out of my life on Friday. What is it now? Monday night (at least it was when I started typing this post). The past six days are just a big fuzzy blur, especially once Thursday night rolled around and I no longer had to go to campus. I was sleeping polyphasically and only leaving the house to walk the dogs. Wearing the same soft baggy clothes nonstop. Rarely showering. Eating salsa at 10 in the morning, and carbs late at night.

Basically, in other words, I did every single thing that Boise and other experts tell you not to do. I binge wrote. I binged, and binged, and binged some more. And in the process I found my way to an argument I'm happy with, and some really sleek paragraphs (and some that are just plain and functional). This is the way I've always written and I'm familiar with its strange rhythms, the bursts of elation and the 4:30 a.m. breakdown, the snoozing at the keyboard and footnoted dreams.

It's not how I want to live the rest of my life, or even how I want to write the next piece I have due in a few weeks. It's just really hard for me to change. But I'll worry about that later. For now, I think I'm going to go stretch out on the couch and see what's on tv.


10 things I could have blogged about

  1. how enjoyable my teaching is this semester
  2. how morale in my department is plummeting
  3. how exhausting job searches are from the department's perspective
  4. how I haven't been sleeping enough
  5. how I am writing something for a deadline and am feeling anxious
  6. how my career is all just a series of accidents and I'm really a fraud
  7. how crappy the weather has been this winter
  8. how Speedy tore her dewclaw and is now stoned on doggie painkillers
  9. how I'm a pathetic excuse for a blogger
  10. how fantastic a mate my GF is: happy anniversary to us today!


if I were the Emperor of everything

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


last week's movies

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

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


what not to write

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

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

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

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


week 2

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

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

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

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


great stuff

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

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

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

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

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

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


Where have I been

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

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

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

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


lightening my load

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

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

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

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

the week's movies

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

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

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

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