Saturday, September 30, 2006


I woke up early this morning in hopes of a bike ride, but the ground was wet, and there was a slight drizzle. So I did some reading and then made a call, ran an errand, and went to the local farmers' market. I'm not much of a cook, but I enjoy walking through the farmers' market. For one thing, it's great to see all the seasonal vegetables, fruits, and flowers. For another, it's the one place and time for me when the minority communities become really visible.

Like many areas in the upper midwest, we have a fairly significant Hmong immigrant community in the area, and many of the sellers at the local market are Hmong immigrants of various generations. Mostly they sell fresh veggies, produced, I guess, through labor intensive small farming. And like many areas of the upper midwest, we have local Mennonite and Amish communities, and some of the sellers come from these communities; mostly these folks sell dairy and baked goods. Then there are a couple orchards whose sales folks seem to come from one of the traditional Euro-immigrant backgrounds common in the area. If you just walked around town on a given day, you wouldn't get much sense of the ethnic diversity in the area, and I certainly didn't expect it when I first moved to the midwest, but I realize it more at the farmer's market.

I walked with a friend's mother-in-law and another colleague; they speak a common language which I sort of speak (and mostly understand), so there we were, adding to the mix, I suppose. I'm lucky they're so patient with my manglings of their language. I long ago gave up being embarrassed about my linguistic mistakes because native speakers have treated me with such generosity from the time I first learned; it's totally different from the self-consciousness I feel when I try to say something in the foreign language I supposedly studied in high school.

The thing is, my friend's mother-in-law comes from roughly the area where I learned the language (which has lots of regional accents and dialects), so when she speaks, it feels like home to me in a way.

I used to be considerably more fluent, but it struck me as I struggled with one word, and had to stop to "translate," that mostly I can still understand by thinking in the language rather than translating to and from English.

It was a good way to spend the morning. This market's one of the best things our community has done in 20 years, I'm told. I can't judge about the 20 years, but the market's the best thing I've seen change since I've been here.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Learning and trust

Every semester, I begin my classes with a few questions. I ask my students what an "essay" is. I do this in pretty much all my classes, since I think writing's really important in all my classes, so I'm used to a variety of answers. And I learn something from these answers.

Some graduate students tend to think I'm asking a trick question to make them feel stupid or something. Some graduate students look blank. Some answer confidently.

I learn which students have learned to distrust professors. I learn which students haven't thought reflectively about the work they've done in the past, and which students have picked up what their writing teachers probably wanted them to learn.

In my literature classes, most students answer with some confidence. A few look blank, and a few get nervous about forgetting what they were supposed to learn in their first year writing class.

I learn which students are willing to answer even an obvious question, which probably aren't going to be active learners in my class, and which may not remember much from their first year classes (for whatever reason).

In my first year writing classes, most students look confused. A few offer tentative answers.

I learn that they've been told to write "essays" for 4+ years, but that no one's ever really taught them what an essay is. What the heck? Can I just make a request to EVERY teacher who assigns anything called an "essay" that s/he take five minutes in class to look up the word together, talk about what an essay is, and what the expectations for the assignment are?

On one level, doing my little exercise teaches students about me, too. I hope they learn that I'm going to try to be explicit in my expectations, that I'm going to try to answer questions, that they can hold me to the same standards I hold them to as far as defining terms, providing examples, giving reasons for what I think or expect.

I hope the graduate students learn that I don't ask trick questions. Real questions are plenty hard, and I ask lots of those.

If I can teach students those things, then they'll let me teach them other things a lot more easily because I'll have begun to earn their trust in my role as their professor. After that, of course, I have to do my best to live up to their trust.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

*Arden* and a metatheatrical moment

I was rereading Arden of Feversham the other day for a class. As you may remember, the play's a rather black comedy, culminating in the murder of Thomas Arden by his wife Alice and her nefarious pals, after which the Mayor comes, the body's found, and the murderers are headed to an unpleasant future. There's a short bit where the mayor comes in and sees Arden's blood on a hand towel and knife, and asks about it.

Alice answers, "It is the pig's blood we had to supper" (14.389).

I just totally cracked up in my office reading because it WAS probably pig's blood, since (from what I've read) early modern practice was to use pig's blood in a pig bladder from the butcher's shop to enact blood on stage.

It's the early modern equivalent of watching some TV crime drama and having the murderer say of the blood, "It's just catsup!" or whatever they use these days.

I just love those sorts of bizarre moments of meta-theatrical awareness.

My students didn't think it was nearly as funny as I did.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Sounds in the Hallway

Each English department I’ve been in, four so far, has its own familiar sounds. In one of the departments I taught at, the English department was housed in a former frat house, the common room on the main floor occupied by our tutoring center and a casual, friendly gathering place for tutors, majors, random other students, and faculty. The building hummed with chatter even late in the evenings when I worked upstairs in my office.

I’ve experienced several “events” (for lack of a better word) since I’ve been teaching. Some were national in scope (the 9/11 terrorist attacks), some more local. In each case, the departments seemed to have a kind of corporate response, multiple individuals working through things together or alone. In one department, the corporate reaction to a difficult situation was to draw attention to focusing on students, giving them opportunities to write about their experience of the event as a way of dealing with it, supporting them through the aftermath. In another department, no one publicly acknowledged the event, and private acknowledgments tended towards a sort of self-satisfaction at being little affected by it, even though some people in the department were deeply affected.

Today, my department is reacting to news of a very local tragedy. You won’t hear about it in the national newscasts, CNN won’t cover it, and yet it’s as big for us as individuals as more widespread events are for those individuals directly affected. This little fact is true of all the little tragedies that make up every day life, though.

Our students will be mostly unaware of it, little touched except for a few individuals.

The sounds in the hallways changed as the news crept about until an email exposed it to all. No doubt, later today, the university as a whole will acknowledge it, and students will become aware in a vague way. For now, though, student voices sound in their usual ways, making plans, asking questions, discussing the fine points of esoterica from Cavendish to the latest celebrity publicity.

But there’s an echoing silence underneath, more doors closed while faculty and staff members try to compose ourselves, quiet knocks as friends visit friends, comfort each other. The heels of the few who wear heels resound more strikingly.

I’m feeling old today, noticing for the first time who goes into whose office for a quiet moment of reflection or comfort, who turns to whom for support in the moment of getting the news. Some of us react quickly, powerfully. Others seem unreactive. In the past, getting news like this, I’ve always been so wrapped up in my own self that I don’t think I’ve really looked around, but now for some reason I’m looking around and listening to the sounds in our hallway.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Another Monday, Monday, Monday!

It's Monday, and already "that" time. Yes, still September, but I'm getting emails from students who are too sick to come to class. Now, normally, I figure so long as they get notes from someone, they're adults and they decide. But today was peer editing day, which means I have to arrange with three other students to contact that student, email essays, and so on. It happens pretty much every time, and it gets tiresome. And I don't know how to make it easier on me or them and still do the meaningful work peer editing can do. Grrr.

I accomplished a really good bit of work this weekend, and finished two painful committee tasks today (which aren't actually DUE until next week!). Totally unrelated to each other. Sometimes, I feel I'm driven in too many directions all at once: three classes (two new), four committees, one elected responsibility, advising, mentoring, researching, and more. But today, for the first time this semester, I feel like the week is under control, pretty much, like I can accomplish what I need to accomplish this week.

Time to actually make that happen and get on with the reading!

Friday, September 22, 2006

Friday Poetry Blogging and Dorothy Parker

It's Friday, finally.

But it's raining, as it has been every time I had time to go outside during daylight pretty much all week. And it looks like it will be raining for the weekend.

Although I'm drip dry, I'm a whuss about biking in the rain, so rain means it's time to start back to the gym instead of enjoying fresh air while I'm pretending to get some exercise.

Still and all, I'm warm and dry, and have nothing really to complain about.

Which leads me to Dorothy Parker. She's just amazing, such twists on the usual way of seeing stuff. Yes, life is beautiful, but really, it's raining.

Here, celebrating my completely unironic optimism about human beings and relationships, is "Unfortunate Coincidence."

By the time you swear you're his,
Shivering and sighing,
And he vows his passion is
Infinite, undying--
Lady, make a note of this:
One of you is lying.

This will teach me to make noise

I've finished teaching for the day, finished seeing students in office hours, and am now waiting for a meeting that's going to be long and complicated.

Back at the beginning of the semester, I blogged about the mentor I had for our special programs special day, who told my brand new students that they shouldn't take classes like history but only classes that would help them get a job. In addition to blogging about the situation, alas, I also made noises in the break room and elsewhere about it. And I made noises in front of the chair. The chair's already plenty frustrated by the way the program's handled, and he made noises about my noises to the Dean, yes, the Dean who seems to sincerely believe in education and stuff.

I was headed to a meeting earlier in the week, which just so happened to be in the administrative building, the building where deans and the like hang out, and naturally, I ran into the Dean. He reminded me of the incident, and talked about talking to my chair about it, and then asked me to write him a note explaining what had happened. The idea is that we need specifics to take to the program folks to say, the program's not doing what we want it to do, and we need to change it, and I'm exhibit #17A or something. Lucky me.

I've spent the past hour drafting the letter. Okay, I have stakes in this. No, I'm not going to lose my job, even if the Dean wanted to hang me out to dry (I don't think he does), because yay tenure. BUT, it's important to me that we change the program, yet the program now is at least partly the special pet of someone higher up, it seems. And I don't have a good sense of things with that someone higher up (because I don't hang with that crowd, the all straight white male crowd). AND, I don't really know where I stand with the Dean. Our interactions have been uneven.

So I'm drafting and revising because it's important to write the letter well, and because I want to impress on the Dean that yes, I actually do have a brain and am a thoughtful, valuable faculty member, even though I don't wear tweed jackets with leather patches on the elbows and stuff.


In other news, today my body class was talking about Iris Young and Toril Moi, about the idea of the "lived body" as opposed to the abstract, idealized biologic body. One of the students came up with a great, real example: during her high school biology class, her fetal pig had been a hermaphrodite! It hadn't looked like the pictures in the book they were supposed to look like! The pictures were abstractions, while the real body was a sort of lived body, even if only fetally. It rocked!

Then, to add to my excitement, one of the biology majors said that she'd never thought about these issues, but that they made sense of her experience.

It's like education in action!

(And I have to thank TBTAM for suggesting Eugenides' Middlesex as a text for the class, since that's the center we're reading theory and stuff around! Thanks again, TBTAM! The students are enjoying the novel while being challenged by it!)

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Chemical Indiscretion

My writing class has been reading Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed, and the other day, we talked about the section where she tries to find a "cleansing" program before she gets her urine test so that it won't reveal what she calls her recent "chemical indiscretion."

One of my students said that part of the book surprised him, because he doesn't think of old people, you know, 40 year olds and stuff, doing drugs. I made a joke about yeah, people like me are WAY too old to be chemically indiscrete!

Then someone else said that they weren't surprised because their friends' parents were "chemically indiscrete" and high "all the time."

"Chemically" or otherwise, "indiscrete" became the catchwords of the day.

Sadly, these days, caffeine after 10am marks the heights of my chemical indiscretions.

The seven songs meme thing

Artemis hit me with this the other day, so here goes. The directions on her blog say to list "seven songs you're into right now. No matter what the genre, whether they have words or even if they’re not any good, but they must be songs you’re really enjoying now."

Errmmm. I'm a little musically challenged these days. But here's the playlist from the CD stack:

1. John Lee Hooker, "One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer."

2. Arlo Guthrie, "Alice's Restaurant."

3. Georg Friedrich Handel, "Music for the Royal Fireworks."

4. Miles Davis, Bluing: Miles Davis Plays the Blues (if I can do the whole of the Royal Fireworks...)

5. Eric Clapton, "Wonderful Tonight."

6. Yo-Yo Ma playing Bach's Cello Suites (I know! How passe is THAT?)

7. Pete Townshend and Ronnie Lane, "Annie" (from Rough Mix)

I think I'm late to the game, and most people I read have been tagged already; but if you haven't, please consider yourself tagged and go to town!

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Realities of the job market

Today is a non-teaching day for me. Sometimes, around here, we call these "unscheduled" days, and most people in my department manage one a week. Alas, today I have a university committee meeting scheduled, so it's not really "unscheduled."

One of my mini-projects today is catching up on some journals and such, and the ADE Bulletin (Association of Departments of English) is on the list. These bulletins usually provide some interesting reading, not only about teaching issues, but about the bigger picture issues for faculty members in literature and languages. One of those issues is the state of the job market.

If you're a grad student, or thinking of becoming a grad student, it's worth reading the MLA survey information on hiring and PhD placement (Laurence and Steward, see below for bibliographic info). It's depressing, but better to be depressed by reality than by rumor, I think. The ADE Bulletin survey articles provide information about both English and foreign languages, but because I'm an English department person, I'm going to focus only on the English side. (The statistics are pretty similar for the foreign language and lit job market. Neither should leave you rosy cheeked and thrilled. I'm also only looking at information for graduates of US PhD programs.)

The survey naturally lags a couple years. In this case, the numbers are from 2000-2001.

Table 11a lists the employment placements of graduates from English programs by type of hiring institution (111). It gives an overall number of graduates as 785; from the earlier information, the 785 appears to be the number of graduates about whom the survey got information who are still in higher education, so if you or your PhD granting institution didn't give the info, you weren't counted.

Of these 785 people graduating with PhDs in English, 373 got tenure track jobs in higher education (47.5%). Additionally, 193 people got full time non-tenure track jobs (24.6%), and 88 got part-time teaching jobs (11.2%), with an 71 people getting teaching jobs that didn't specify appointment type (9%).

The numbers are more complicated when you remember that these data only attempt to show what happened to people earning PhDs in 2000-2001. It doesn't account for people who went on the market ABD, or for people who were in non-tenure track jobs who went back on the tenure track market, and so forth.

But it does give a general idea that the job market is, indeed, very tight still. If you don't get a job your first time out, you're sharing a situation with more than 50% of your cohort. (Dr. Virago at Quod She has a post on the pre-professionalization of grad students that you might find helpful and interesting at this point.)

Interestingly, although more women graduated (463) than men (319), 46.2% of women graduates (214) got tenure track jobs compared to 49.2% of men graduates (157). Once again, it seems to be of some advantage to have a Y chromosome. (There may be some level of self-selection in these numbers, of course. I just don't have much patience for those arguments because women are asked to self-select for part-time or adjunct work in more insidious ways, and far more often, than men.)

Finally, there's time to degree information (Tables 13a and 13b, 118-119). In 2001, the average time to degree in English programs is 8.4 years for women and 8.0 years for men. That table shows the total number of people getting PhDs in English in 2000-2001 at 1,104. (The discrepancy in numbers has something to do with people who didn't answer the surveys, but there's probably more.)

Eight years is a long time, a major life commitment, more than 10% of the expected lifespan of most people in the US. Were I in an econ department, I'd talk meaningfully about the opportunity costs of spending 8 years getting a PhD to face a job market where less than 50% of the SUCCESSFUL people in my cohort got tenure track jobs. Let's just acknowledge that there's a huge opportunity cost; smart, capable people could be doing other things with their lives. (On the othre hand, there's also a potential that you can get a job you love, doing meaningful work, in a place you're happy to be.) Were I in an econ department, I'd also talk about the problems of student debt, delayed starts to retirement savings, and so forth. (Speaking of which, Ancrene Wiseass has a great post recently about the costs of putting off healthful living in graduate school. Read it!)

The system continues to fail its graduates by training overwhelmingly more people than can hope to get a tenure track job for which it prepares them.

Seeing the numbers, thinking about the numbers, is a reminder to think about how the system works, how even we regional university folks contribute to the problem.

Bibliographic info:

Laurence, David, and Doug Steward. "Placement Outcomes for Modern Language PhDs: Findings from the MLA's Surveys of PhD Placement." ADE Bulletin, No 138-139 (fall 2005-spring 2006), 103-122.

(I was about to write "Work Cited" for the article, and then realized that I should also cite the Ancrene Wiseass and Quod She blogs I linked, but I'm going with laziness and just giving you the bibliographic info so you can find the article, and the links so you can click them. Go lazy Bardiac! I'm such a nerd, really, I am. I'm just a lazy one.)

Monday, September 18, 2006

Interview Question: big room or bedroom?

The Modern Language Association conference is a HUGE to-do starting about December 27th, and ending a few days later. Lots of papers are given, a few plenary sessions happen.

And then there are the interviews.

First, in September, and again in October, November, and December, the MLA Job Information List (aka, the MLA JIL) gets published listing most of the academic jobs in the Modern Languages, English lit, Modern Foreign Languages and literatures, and so forth. (Linguistics usually gets listed elsewhere, as do many jobs in English Education and such.)

Job candidates search the lists, and depending on field and year, come up with a few to perhaps 50 jobs to which they want to apply by whatever deadline's given (50 is a HUGE number, and not likely in many fields most years). Applicants send in a letter of application and a CV, generally. They may also be asked either right off, or later, to send a writing sample, a dossier of letters of recommendation, a syllabus and assignments, and/or a philosophy of teaching statement. From the applicant's angle, this is pure hell.

From the hiring committee's angle, the work starts with phrasing the ad. The key for the committee is to figure out what they want, and to target the people who can provide that, while being open to people who can provide that and offer something else, a really neat interest, some additional experience, whatever. So it's a balancing act. And that's when the committee gets along well; if the committee has disagreements, then the ad gets way more complicated.

Then there's the waiting game. In most fields, most schools get plenty of applications. I heard about one regional university in an incredible city that put out a broad "Americanist" ad, and got 800 applications in the '90s. OUCH. In every field, in every job search in my departments over the years, we've had an abundance of applicants for the ONE job we have open. We may have two splendid, perfect applicants, but we can only hire one. Choosing is hard. Being number two is even harder for that great candidate, and we all know it.

The ideal is to get a plentiful selection of candidates, from which a committee can put together a clear pool of 10 or so people the committee wants to talk with further. That further, in most language cases, involves meeting for an interview at MLA.

While committees read application materials, put aside those that just don't fit, and winnow down the pool, applicants hang on every phone call, hoping for requests for dossiers or writing samples, and finally, for an invitation to an interview.

So, here's the big question around here: room or room for the interview?

Most interviews at MLA happen in one of two venues.

The first is the huge interview room, an immense hall set with rows and rows of tables and chairs, each table occupied by 1-4 people, each with a sign of some sort identifying the department and school. And all in plain view of everyone else. So interviewees stand at the edges, waiting their turn, scoping out the department members they may be interviewing with, and watching the competition. At the half hour or hour, there's a general bustle in the room as the people being interviewed stand up, shake hands, and move away, and the next interviewee, having watched the table for at least the last 10 minutes, walks up, introduces him/herself, and sits down for the interview. It's one horrific cattle call.

The second venue is the hotel room or suite. In this case, the interview happens a lot more privately. An interviewee waits outside the room until the moment to knock, hoping not to disturb an interview already in progress, wanting not to be late. Better to knock or wait? There's often an awkward passing in the hall, one interviewee coming out of a room, the next waiting just outside.

Some departments can afford suites, and everyone sits like a civilized person in a chair, maybe at a comfortable table, with coffee even. Other departments have more basic rooms, which leaves the ever-so-popular bed as the prime sitting area. If department members get along well, that can show more in a hotel room, I think; and if they don't get along, that will come out pretty much anywhere.

There are disadvantages to the huge room: the cattle call feel, the lack of privacy, uncomfortable chairs, fish bowl effect, and so forth.

And advantages: central location, no need to make up the hotel bed by a certain time, privacy, less awkwardness sometimes.

And there are disadvantages to the hotel room: the bed as interview perch, the weirdness of interviewing in a room with a bed, a general lack of chairs, hotels far from the main conference hotels, and such.

And advantages: good rapport comes through better, perhaps, more privacy, refreshments and bathrooms at hand.

So, the question of the day: which is better or worse for the MLA interview, the big room or the bedroom?

(The MLA interview generally gets used to narrow down the candidate pool to 2-3 people who will be invited for a campus visit. More on that later, perhaps.)

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Research Television!

As I'm reading, I sometimes turn on the TV for background noise. It's not ideal, though, because sometimes it catches my attention and takes it away from my reading. That's what's happened tonight. I turned on a PBS program with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., African American Lives. The basic idea of the program is that Gates leads several guests in researching the genealogical history of their families.

The program fascinates me on several levels, not the least of which is that Gates goes around to libraries and looks at books and records and stuff! How cool is THAT? And it's riveting to watch the research process.

Gates goes to a resource or resource person, and talks to them about a resource, and how it might help him find his family, and then they take that resource and bring out something about Gates' family or one of his guest's family, often making connections between them. For example, Gates learns that one can research African Americans who fought for the Union during the Civil War, and finds out that one of his ancestors served, and was later reburied in Arlington National Cemetery. Then they turn those tools to look at one of the guest's family members, and find a white who served on the Confederate side. So there's LOTS to think about!

One of the things I like best about the show is that Gates finds something out, and he's interested and happy to have learned something, and then he asks further questions. Learning something opens up more questions, rather than closing questions off. That's how really cool research should work, isn't it?

I knew about some of the basic resources they talk about, court records, military service records, wills, federal censuses, but they get at specifics in just fascinating ways.

I'll confess: a couple of my family members have done some genealogical stuff on my family, and I've always found it uninteresting. I just can't get into the focus on names and such.

But Gates' enthusiasm for learning, and his guests', too, draw me totally in.

This is exactly what reality television should be! (Well, the science type shows, too. But this is even more cool!) (I really need to get back to MY reading for classes! But dang, this is great stuff!)

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Christianity questions in class

Yesterday's class discussion got me started thinking about the ways I discuss religion in my classes.

In the first draft of this post, I started off talking about my own loss of faith, and about studying Christianity from the point of view of someone trying to understand the complexity of Christian beliefs and practices in medieval and early modern England.

Like Flavia, I find that non-Christians tend to lump all Christian thought together, while Christians tend to see only their brand of Christianity as valid, without actually understanding how their sect relates to others. And like her, I find that my students don't realize that Chaucer, Herrick, and other writers can be fully sincere, can take Christianity very seriously, and can also question its practices deeply, recognize contradictions and problems in the belief system, and laugh raucously at it.

I distrust Christians who can't laugh at Christianity. Happily, I know a few Christians who can.

I sympathize with Delagar about wanting to preach my faithlessness.

Mostly, what I hope students will do through their college education is question basic assumptions, and think about why they do or believe or think things. I want them to question why they all know how to sit properly in rows in the classroom, to question why they drive on the right side of the road, to question all sorts of things. If we do it right, their questioning should lead to positions that they can reasonably explain and defend.

If at the end of real and serious questioning, they find good reason to believe something different than I do, well, okay. It may be that I'm wrong about something. For example, I think Dryden's a bit of a bore. But I respect some people who think differently. Perhaps I'm wrong? I don't think so, but before I refuse to admit that possibility, I'd have to reread Dryden. Which I'd be happy to do, except that I'm 400 years behind in my reading, and he'd bore me to tears and...

The point I'm trying to make is that the questioning can't all be one-sided. I'm not "done" and settled in everything, or at least I shouldn't be. If I'm not going to change in understanding or SOMETHING, then I should die and be done, and quit wasting oxygen.

If I ask students to be ready to question their assumptions and beliefs, to be ready to explain why they think or act as they do, then I have to be ready to do the same.

At this point, I can explain and defend my atheism sufficiently for myself; but no Christian I've discussed this sort of thing with considers my reasoning adequate to change their position.

I also want my students to learn that asking hard questions doesn't mean someone is mocking them or being mean to them. Asking hard questions indicates that I respect them enough to care what they think and why.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Poetry Blogging and Problems of Christianity

George Herbert's "The Collar"

I STRUCK the board, and cry’d, No more ;
. . . . . I will abroad.
What ? shall I ever sigh and pine ?
My lines and life are free ; free as the road,
Loose as the winde, as large as store.
. . . . . Shall I be still in suit ?
Have I no harvest but a thorn
To let me bloud, and not restore
What I have lost with cordiall fruit ?
. . . . . Sure there was wine,
Before my sighs did drie it : there was corn
. . . Before my tears did drown it.
Is the yeare onely lost to me ?
. . . Have I no bayes to crown it ?
No flowers, no garlands gay ? all blasted ?
. . . . . All wasted ?
Not so, my heart : but there is fruit,
. . . . . And thou hast hands.
. . . Recover all thy sigh-blown age
On double pleasures : leave thy cold dispute
Of what is fit, and not forsake thy cage,
. . . . . Thy rope of sands,
Which pettie thoughts have made, and made to thee
Good cable, to enforce and draw,
. . . . . And be thy law,
While thou didst wink and wouldst not see.
. . . . . Away ; take heed :
. . . . . I will abroad.
Call in thy deaths head there : tie up thy fears.
. . . . . He that forbears
. . . To suit and serve his need,
. . . . . Deserves his load.
But as I rav’d and grew more fierce and wilde,
. . . . . At every word,
Methought I heard one calling, Childe :
. . . . . And I reply’d, My Lord.

Forgive my using periods to produce some of the spacing effects. I haven't mastered the ways to space on the blog using html, and since it's not likely to happen tonight, I'll count on your generous spirit.

I love George Herbert at times. His poetry takes on the difficulties of Christianity: it's HARD to do what a Christian is supposed to do. If one takes it seriously, Christianity is a demanding religion. And he does it in poetry that challlenges my mouth when I read it aloud, brings me to full stops, to rushing changes, "I struck the board and cried, no more I will abroad." I have a hard time with "board" and "abroad" for some reason, when I read them aloud, and that makes me wonder what exactly he meant by "board." I think he means either some kind of writing tablet or a table, but I'm not quite sure.

This week, my writing class has been reading Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed, and today we discussed the second section, the part where she works for a maid service and also at a nursing home up in Portland, Maine.

My students wanted to talk about how she mocked Christianity, so we looked at the section where she talks about visiting a tent revival meeting on a Friday evening. We read bits aloud, and talked about the connection the preacher was making between the money he was soliciting and the crucifiction, and I think they saw that her critique wasn't mocking Christianity, but pointing out a contradiction between soliciting money and the passion. And so forth.

Some students really do believe that Christianity is constantly under attack, and so see any critique or analysis of anything to do with Christianity as a disrespectful attack. I don't think Ehrenreich is being disrespectful (or mocking), so much as pointing out that the meeting she went to didn't address the needs of the poor people such as herself (well, at that moment) who were in the audience, didn't provide the message of caring available within Christianity, but instead provided a message condemnation.

At one point, Ehrenreich points to a preacher who says people only need one book, and shouldn't waste money on other books. At which point, his speech (within her representation) breaks down into basically gibberish. My students felt this mocked Christianity. I told them to hold up what they had in their hands. Look, a BOOK, I said. Do you think Ehrenreich believes books are important, and in fact, believes that buying books and maybe reading them is important? They readily agreed. Then I asked, do you think scholars of Christianity think books are important? They agreed, though less readily.

It was a tough day. I fear I sounded strident.

I'm so frustrated by the unquestioning Christianity so many of my students come with. George Herbert wouldn't have let those preachers get away with such careless arguments any more than Ehrenreich did.

What horrified me as I was writing the post today, was that as I started typing George Herbert's name into Google, the new drop box thingy offered me oodles of options to click on, all leading to another George Herbert, with a couple more names. George Herbert would be rightly ashamed of his namesake, I think, too.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Reality check time

I recently got a note from a student about grades; usually these sorts of communiques come later in the term, but whatever. The jist of the note was, "So if I get straight As for the next two terms, I should graduate with a 3.0!"

Of course, if it were easy for this student to get straight As, she'd be planning on graduating with a 4.0.

Usually students are working on the "in this class" model after receiving a midterm report of F for some 40% of their grade. In that case, they're usually saying, "if I get all As on the rest of the assignments, can I get a B in the class?" I usually sit down and do the math right there with them:
F (say, generously, half of full credit) for 40% of 100%=50 x.40=20.
Add to that, 100 x .6 = 60
20+60=80 and YES, it's mathematically possible to get a B-!

BUT, since you've never gotten a single A on an assignment yet, what makes you think you can pull straight As? (I do try to say that with reasonable compassion.)

One time, I've been totally surprised by this type conversation: My advisee had come in to talk early during the semester. She was taking 16 credits, and figuring out how long it would take her to graduate. She figured out loud, "if I finish 16 credits a term, I can graduate in 2 terms."

I gently pointed out that she'd never managed to pass more than 12 credits in any term, and asked her why that would change, and even that wasn't a sure thing.

And her answer convinced me: "It's changed because I went through rehab and I'm not drinking anymore."

You know what? She was right! She did graduate according to her plans, and with a much improved grade point average. I loved that surprise.

UPDATE on the blood thing!

Apparently, yes, I had some. And it's red despite my being an alien.
Pulse: yes!
Iron: good to go!
Blood pressure: sleepy mode

How tough are my veins? I made the Red Cross nurse cuss. Yes, I made her cuss. She stuck in the needle, took off the clamp thing, and got nothing. Then she cussed and dug around until she found something. That was less fun than it sounds.

A minor technology rant

I've given blood regularly for a fairly long time. Here's what used to happen: every about 56 days, a human being from the Red Cross would call and say, "Hi Bardiac, you're eligible to give blood again, can we help you schedule an appointment?"

And I'd say, "sure!" and then we'd figure out the time and date, and I'd show up, and voila.

That system was archaic, though. People talking to people! Yes, and probably costly. Phone calls and such. So they changed to a computerized system.

Now here's what happens. I gave blood in mid July. The next time I can give blood, using the 56 day rule thing, is mid-September, right?

Since giving blood, I've received three emails reminding me to give blood (in late July and August), a letter (July), and then a postcard (early August), and another letter (August) (oh, and two other letters to alert me to an addressing error in a letter thanking me for my last donation, and explaining the error).

Of course, reminding me multiple times isn't going to make my next donation any faster. How about sending me ONE email that says when my last donation was and when I can donate again? ONE! About a week ahead of when I can make a new donation?

Being me, (and having switched to a new academic year calendar) I didn't remember the date when I last gave blood. So I tried to call the phone number on the card. Except it's not actually a phone NUMBER on the card, it's mostly words, 1-800-GIVE-LIFE. (And yes, if you're up for giving blood, go ahead and call!)

And have I mentioned that I use reading glasses? Actually calling means that I can't just look at the BIG numbers on my cell phone (my office phone is a dial phone, so I avoid using it to call big organizations that I'm sure will have touch tone systems and put me on hold for HOURS if I don't use one, or worse). Nope, I have to put on my reading glasses, because phone numbers are OLD technology but the letters on my phone are miniscule. (Please, feel free to give BOTH the number and the words! The additional ink cost is more than worth it!)

(How much of a Luddite am I? I still remember my grandmother's phone number from the sixties, complete with the exchange word to remind you of the first two numbers, and I loved that exchange! What poetry in a phone number! It's the only phone number I learned as an exchange, and it was an old number she'd had for a long time.)

I managed to dial, four times over the course of the day (well, after the second one I realized that I could just use the redial feature, because I'm just that inept with my cell phone), and got a busy signal each time.

So, I went to the website ( and tried to sign in. What's my password again? I have no clue. (Happily, the system let me in through a name, rank, serial number sort of system.)

AND once I'm in, the system tells me when I last gave blood (which is how I know it was mid-July). But it doesn't tell me when I'm next eligible, so I did some stupid calendar math. (Could they make it 60 days? 45? Something easy to remember? No doubt the 56 days is so exact that even a round 50 days wouldn't work!) I'd love to see a little note on there giving the date when you're next eligible to give. (And if it's complex because of different types of donation, then the note can be a bit longer and more specific.)

Then I tried to sign up to donate in a couple of weeks. But for some reason, I'm no longer signed in. I typed the sign in info again, and wait. And wait.

In the process, I've spent four or five times as long working on making an appointment as I used to when they'd just call.

I'm all for giving blood. I'm very lucky to be in good health and eligible and all. And there's a chance my blood might actually help someone, or up to three someones. (And I don't underestimate this; my father needed blood donations for heart surgery, and one of my friends has gotten literally gallons of blood during a recent illness. Donated blood makes a positive difference in people's lives.)

But spending half an hour just trying to figure out the timing and setting up the appointment is irritating.

Was it so very bad to have someone call me? Really?


The day has come today. They've streamlined the questionaire process a lot (though they were fined recently for not screening well enough somewhere along the line, so maybe that's a separate problem?), so I won't have to go through a long questionaire about where I lived in the Peace Corps and assure them it's not on the old list of places you weren't supposed to have lived if you wanted to give blood.

And then there's always the excitement of the questions: will my iron be high enough? (go go women's multi-vitamin!) Will my blood pressure reflect the stress of the semester, or the fact that I'm not really awake yet? Will they choose the good old vein marked by a line of scars and risk gunking the needle with scar tissue as they go in, or will someone get adventurous and try the other arm? What kind of cookies do they have?

Yes, it's like leaving you with one of those old television serial cliff-hangers: Tune in next time, same Bardiac-URL! Same Bardiac-blogosphere!

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

What was I thinking?

I'm teaching two new classes this term (out of three, the other being first year writing). What WAS I thinking? Seriously? (I did this to myself.)

When the opportunity for the second came along, I'd sort of forgotten that it was my turn to do something new for the first.

And in one of those new classes, about half the texts we're reading are novels. NOVELS! As in, prose fiction of more than a few pages, and not wildly fun like, say, Sidney's Arcadia. (And why isn't Arcadia a novel? Or Beware the Cat? Deep down, I've never really understood the distinctions people make at the "beginning" of the novel, which seem to be broken by later prose fictions they still call novels. It's like, if Arcadia were written today, it'd be called a novel, right? But not since it's written in the 16th century?)

I find novels (or more broadly, longer prose fictions) incredibly difficult to teach; they're just so big. And they aren't conveniently broken into passages of speech, either! Often, the same narrator just talks and talks.

Things will calm down in a couple of weeks, when I get into more familiar territory with Titus (yeah, you'd never have guessed, right? Me? Titus? A complete surprise!). Meanwhile, since we're working with a common text in our first year writing class, I've also added that, so for now, everything in all three classes is looking rather new.

I feel like I'm trying to dance one of those 18th century Jane Austen movie dances to a synchophated beat, and I just haven't found the rhythm to keep moving.

I was taking my usual obsessive teaching notes on the novel today, and it occurred to me that I'll probably never teach this particular text again. Usually, I take obsessive teaching notes with the knowledge that they'll be useful again at some point. But today's realization frustrated me a bit. (Okay, after a deep breath, I know I could put in to teach this same course in a couple years. So it's not like all that paper's just going to waste.)

There I was, guffawing in my office, and wondering if my students will think this book's nearly as funny as I do, and hoping beyond hope that they have something to say about it tomorrow.

I managed to get elected to another committee today. It should be really interesting, steep learning curve interesting.

I feel like I'm entering a new period of growth and learning in my work these days. In the ed biz, I often have conversations about how fruitful it is when students get out of their comfort zones and are really uncomfortable, how much they can learn from those situations. And more than once, I've done my part to push students out of their comfort zone. But I'm reminded this week how uncomfortable it is to be out of my comfort zone.

Monday, September 11, 2006


I moved to a new office this summer, so this is the first term I've been here, the first term I've heard the buzz of sounds from this part of the department.

Overall, I'm pleased; there's less noise in general. The voices I hear, my colleagues talking to students or each other, students talking in the halls, sound right, in place, interested. Teaching is once again in full progress, steaming forward, and the sounds bring me contentment and joy.

But I also feel a little more lost than I expected when I moved from my office right across from the main department office, a little less in touch with the departmental staff. I've wandered down there, but it's not the same as being across the hall a good part of most weekdays.

I came in yesterday afternoon to finish prepping (teaching two new classes will keep me hopping this term), and stayed til well into evening, and felt at home in my office. One of my colleagues was also in, in the next office, and we chatted occasionally, on and off, sharing news, a joke, friendly without invasiveness.

The student I'd talked to last year about mentoring my special program class came by today, and we figured things out, got her signed up. I'm happy to see her. She's going to be a great mentor, someone who can really inspire the first year students to approach their education more thoughtfully.

One of my colleagues from another department gave a guest talk in one of my classes this morning. She was wonderful, insightful, and did a great job for us setting up some issues from a point of view that will be very helpful as we progress.

While I'm not looking forward to cold weather and winter, I'm grateful to be here, grateful for my colleagues and students, grateful for the administrative staff.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Resolutions for the semester

I've been getting a LOT of emails from my first year students, more than I remember from any class in the past, asking pretty basic questions; yes, some of the questions have already been answered in class, but most of them haven't. I forgot to tell my students to double space their typed work, for example, and have been asked about that more than a few times. I've been asked about formatting.

I'm taking the questions as a good sign. Or I'm hoping they're a good sign, anyway. I'm hoping they mean that I actually did communicate to these people that asking questions when you don't know something is actually a great thing, and not something to avoid. (Though, yes, I hate to ask questions sometimes, too, especially if I think people will think I'm stupid. I'd be my own worst student, I fear.)

The upshot, though, is that I need to keep that in mind when I answer the questions, every time. EVERY time.

I'm not the most patient person in the world, and I have a tendency to respond impatiently at times. Sometimes my response isn't so much impatience as coastal attitude. Coastal attitude doesn't fly well here in the midwest, though, especially with students who are understandably on edge in their first semester of college.

My second resolution is to grade more quickly and efficiently. Oh, that should be easy. NOT! But I need to do it.

I also need to find a way to fight winter, to get out and get some exercise even on the gray days when the cold bites through layers of long underwear and fleece.

That's all. I need to start reading student papers now. FAST! And then get out and do something!

Saturday, September 09, 2006

The fascination with Strunk and White

As I read around the blogosphere, I've noticed a weirdly worshipful fascination with Strunk and White. [My quotations are actually from the original Strunk, 1918, because that's what's available on line via Bartleby; yay for copyright workarounds!] Okay, I'll confess, I vaguely remember using Strunk and White in high school, or something. The fact that I remember anything about high school says something about my nerdliness even then, I suppose.

Lots of non-academic bloggers have links to a web edition of Strunk and White up on their blogs, or talk about Strunk and White in worshipful terms, or fantasize about teaching writing by making people read Strunk and White. (I'm not going to be mean and link these folks, but I'm sure you've seen similar stuff if you've read around in non-academic blogs.)

Being curious, and having only a vague memory from the last time I opened the book, I looked on line, because these are smart people I'm reading, and maybe they're right and I really SHOULD make students read Strunk and White. I'm willing to learn, because I find teaching writing incredibly challenging.

Here's an example of the writing, from the beginning of section 10, on paragraphs (seriously, this was the first section I clicked into because the section on paragraphs seems like a good place to look for really good examples of paragraph writing):
As a rule, begin each paragraph with a topic sentence; end it in conformity with the beginning.

Again, the object is to aid the reader. The practice here recommended enables him to discover the purpose of each paragraph as he begins to read it, and to retain the purpose in mind as he ends it. For this reason, the most generally useful kind of paragraph, particularly in exposition and argument, is that in which

A. the topic sentence comes at or near the beginning;
B. the succeeding sentences explain or establish or develop the statement made in the topic sentence; and
C. the final sentence either emphasizes the thought of the topic sentence or states some important consequence.

Ending with a digression, or with an unimportant detail, is particularly to be

If the paragraph forms part of a larger composition, its relation to what precedes, or its function as a part of the whole, may need to be expressed. This can sometimes be done by a mere word or phrase (again; therefore; for the same reason) in the topic sentence. Sometimes, however, it is expedient to precede the topic sentence by one or more sentences of introduction or transition. If more than one such sentence is required, it is generally better to set apart the transitional sentences as a separate paragraph.

Okay, so, the basic advice sounds good! Let's have a paragraph make a point! Indeed!

But let's look at an actual paragraph in this scintillating prose, shall we? I thought we might. And in order to do so, I'm copying the final paragraph from before, but this time I'll bold all the verbs, and italicize the subjects of those verbs. Here goes:

If the paragraph forms part of a larger composition, its relation to what precedes, or its function as a part of the whole, may need to be expressed. This can sometimes be done by a mere word or phrase (again; therefore; for the same reason) in the topic sentence. Sometimes, however, it is expedient to precede the topic sentence by one or more sentences of introduction or transition. If more than one such sentence is required, it is generally better to set apart the transitional sentences as a separate paragraph.
I thought I was good at writing in all passive voice, but Strunk and White make me look like a rank amateur. Here we have, one active non-copulative verb, "forms." Then we have several complex passives (the passives, not the complexity makes the prose dreadful). And finally, a couple of expletive constructions using the placeholder "it" and the copulative "to be." And what about the pronoun "this"? What noun exactly is it replacing? Gosh, English professors are picky!

(Not to be mean: partly I'm seeing a generational divide; now, most college writing instructors are happy to see students use pronouns such as "I" in their writing. In 1918, using "I" seemed to subvert objectivity. Post Einsteinian relativity, it's harder to make a really good argument that any position is really objective in that sort of way, so maybe we're more open to subverting supposed objectivity?)

Amusingly enough, perhaps, section 11 is, yes, you guessed it, "Use the active voice." I have to wonder if Strunk's editor wasn't grinning a bit at the juxtaposition.

Okay, so my main complaint really isn't with Strunk and White, even though I don't think it's all that great, because I don't think that Strunk and White are wrong about the basic ideas. Yes, having paragraphs that make a point rocks. And using the active voice might bring a smile to your professor's face as s/he grades, a feat much to be admired.

I think what most irritated me about blogs and posts lauding Strunk and White are more complex issues, all tangled up together.

In classes I took to learn to teach composition (and I took a number because I started my graduate studies at what had been a state normal school with a focus on teaching) I learned that learning to write is a complex process, that students move through different stages of experience, that teaching students rules doesn't really help them write well UNLESS they're at a stage where they write pretty darned well and need only more confidence with comma placement or something. These bloggers found Strunk and White helpful because they're already pretty advanced writers, all with at least some graduate school, from the sounds of their blogs. So, yes, tell them a few rules, and voila, you help them avoid passives. But a few rules doesn't help entering college students.

A bit ago, Dean Dad wrote a post about college remediation, and the different expectations high school and college instructors have:
At my current college, we're working with some of the local high schools to combat 'senioritis' (the sloughing off of academics by high school seniors) by enrolling 12th graders in college-level classes. We've hit an unanticipated roadblock with placement tests. Many of the students who have been cruising through high school have placed developmental with us. After a considerable amount of back-and-forth with the department, the high school, and the testing center, I think I've located the gap. We test different skills. The high school defines 'good writing' as error-free prose. The college defines 'good writing' as 'sustaining an argument.' So the high school kids take our essay exam and write “See Spot run,” which got them accolades in high school; they place remedial with us, and get terribly upset.
What Strunk and White can help a student with (if s/he's ready) is "error-free prose," correcting minor punctuation problems or giving a sense of confidence. Most of my students can write sentences with relatively few errors. But what we college folks worry about is sustaining an argument, actually saying something with one's writing. And Strunk and White won't help anyone with that. The bloggers who praise Strunk and White, though, already have something to say, have already been trained to sustain an argument.

My greatest ire, though, attaches to the guy who fantasizes about teaching writing by making students read Strunk and White. It's as if he has no conception that people have actually researched writing practices and composition teaching, and that we actually try to do things research indicates has a chance of being effective. (A chance. No guarantees, alas.) He's looking at a book whose ideas are 50+ years old, without studying the subject matter in any real way, or studying pedagogy period, and he's ready to teach writing.

Seriously, I think he should have a go: Apply to his local community college where, should he be lucky enough to compete successfully for a job (he won't), he'll basically take a pay cut to work harder. Maybe he'd realize that in most writing classes, we don't teach highly motivated graduate students such as himself. Instead, we teach a range of first year students, some of whom have gotten an excellent education in high school and are well prepared for college, and some of whom can barely read. Strunk and White may be a minimally torturous experience for the well-prepared, and may even help them a bit (hey, I could point out how crappy it is to read that over-passive paragraph! A model of what not to do!), but it won't do a single thing to help the less-well-prepared.

So, now I've gotten it off my chest, and I'm prepared for a weekend of reading my first year students' diagnostic essays, trying to get a sense of them as students in writing.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Back with Friday Poetry Blogging - "Barbie Doll"

Marge Piercy's "Barbie Doll"

This girlchild was born as usual
and presented dolls that did pee-pee
and miniature GE stoves and irons
and wee lipsticks the color of cherry candy.
Then in the magic of puberty, a classmate said:
You have a great big nose and fat legs.

She was healthy, tested intelligent,
possessed strong arms and back,
abundant sexual drive and manual dexterity.
She went to and fro apologizing.
Everyone saw a fat nose on thick legs.

She was advised to play coy,
exhorted to come on hearty,
exercise, diet, smile and wheedle.
Her good nature wore out
like a fan belt.
So she cut off her nose and her legs
and offered them up.

In the casket displayed on satin she lay
with the undertaker's cosmetics painted on,
a turned-up putty nose,
dressed in a pink and white nightie.
Doesn't she look pretty? everyone said.
Consummation at last.
To every woman a happy ending.

Despite not yet being dead for 300+ years, Marge Piercy rocks! I love the intensity of this poem. The enjambment of "cut off her nose and her legs / and offered them up" works so perfectly for me. I find it really difficult to describe why a poem works for me without going on at length (a problem when I teach poetry classes!), but the imagery here, and the short cut lines, especially some lines, I find really strong. I also love the line "consummation at last" for all the meanings of consummation.

I love the way she uses the iconic Barbie Doll here in the title to set up the problem of how an individual girl's experience plays out.

I find the poem painful, but in a good way, I suppose.

I worry sometimes about self-destructive attitudes and behaviors in college women, about literalizing the metaphor of cutting, about hurting themselves cruelly because they don't see alternatives.

And yet. I had a great discussion today in my body class about the introduction to Thomas Laqueur's Making Sex, and the ways female orgasm is mis/understood culturally, and how our concepts of sexuality work into our experience of self. Despite the difficulties of the readings, I think they actually got into them. So I have hope.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Paddle to the sea?

When I was a kid, I adored the book Paddle to the Sea. I longed for the kind of adventure the little canoe had, the travels. (Though the geography completely confused me. I was pretty confused by even the most basic geography.)

I went kayaking today, just an hour or so on one of the little lakes so common in this part of the NorthWoods. While I was paddling along, looking at the trees, I thought about putting a kayak in one of the local rivers and following it down, all the way to the ocean. I could be my own little "Paddle to the Sea."

I wonder how long it would take? Or even if it could be done? Are the rivers too controlled to the sea from here? Would the powers that be allow a little kayak through the locks? Would I be crushed by some enormous barge once I got to the big river?

Then I started thinking about what I'd have to pack: a few days of food, but I'd plan to buy food along the way, as much as I could. A small tent and sleeping bag. A couple changes of clothes, including some rain gear. A tooth brush and towel. (When I was in the Peace Corps, I literally COULD travel with just a tooth brush and a towel. I've gotten way too enamored of luxury since then.)

The pile of even basic supplies grew in my head, and I wondered if you could even fit all that stuff into a kayak (or on top? I know nothing of kayak packing. Heck, I can barely get myself in without tipping over). And then, of course, there's the question of what kind of kayak I'd need? I'm guessing something more substantial than the little recreational kayaks I've been renting this summer, or I'd be in trouble when I hit the real river.

And every once in a while, fleetingly, I caught a view of a bald eagle or a green heron.

And every once in a while, for just a bit, I got into a rhythm, and the kayak moved as if effortlessly.

And I earned a very tiny blister. Yes, I'm claiming a major kayak injury at work tomorrow.

(I need to redeem myself a bit. The other day, my reading glasses broke. I went to use the office super glue to fix them and promptly glued myself to the glasses. The office super glue? Left over from a summer misadventure. Don't ask.)

Random Reading Notes - *A Primate's Memoir*

A good night of sleep makes a world of difference. I think I've decided to jump in the deep end with the problem, as it were.

One of the many joys of IF's recent visit to the NorthWoods is that she reads lots and always has great reading recommendations for me. Robert M. Sapolsky's A Primate's Memoir was one of the books she suggested, and it sounded so good that I started in pretty quickly. That may have had an unfortunate effect on the speed with which I finished prepping my classes, but, oh well!

This one's a winner, through and through. Sapolsky starts by saying "I joined the baboon trip during my twenty-first year. I had never planned to become a savanna baboon when I grew up; instead, I had always assumed I would become a mountain gorilla" (13). Seriously, does it get any better than that for a book opening?

Sapolsky weaves in his observations of the baboon troop as an anthropologist, his self-observations as an anthropologist who realizes that we're all primates who behave like primates, and his observations of Africans and other anthropologists or scientists. Along the way, I got some laughs, learned some African history and biology, and, yes, whuss that I am, shed a few tears.

He's got a great voice; I'm not quite surehow to explain it, but he uses commonplace phrases in slightly off ways to great comic effect. Part of the amusement comes from conscious anthropomorphisms, as when he says of one baboon, "he shoulda been a contender" (97). I've never been to Africa, but my experiences in the Peace Corps resonated with the ways he can be charmed and frustrated by the ways Kenya works (or doesn't work), and by the effects on himself and the baboons he follows.

There's a sort of balance between seeing oneself as "out" of a culture, and thinking that implies some kind of objective observation and judgment, and seeing oneself as "in" and knowing, and thinking that implies a kind of superior knowledge, a sort of Orientalism, and he moves around that continuum, but always manages to help his reader recognize his subject position. It's a precarious balance between striking an authoritative tone and getting the reader to see the fictionalized persona of the Orientalist. Sapolsky gets that well.

Mostly, what comes across is Sapolsky's sheer pleasure in his work and life, his interactions, his concerns, his engagement. If I write some memoir someday, I hope I can give the same sense of joy in intellectual work and living.

ps. I'm always looking for suggestions of good books, especially more recent novels or non-fiction. I'm 400 years behind in my reading, but that doesn't mean I can't acknowledge what's been written in the past 10 years!

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

One of those days

Today, I had ample opportunity to realize how incredibly, stupidly lucky I am in life.

Today, I had ample opportunity to feel completely helpless to meaningfully help friends who need real help. I'm too self-protective, sometimes, I think. I think it may be time to just take a radical step and maybe change things. Or try, anyways. I can't meaningfully change things for one friend. But I could for the other.

I read a great entry by Maggie at Professorial Confessions, about getting students to ask a central question by way of starting a class for the semester. I love what I teach, but it's hard to imagine my questions getting at the most profound questions of the universe. Well, okay, maybe if I framed my questions in terms of how humans make meaning and such. I don't know what Maggie teaches, but one guess was philosophy, and she says no. I'd guess physics maybe, or astronomy, since both of those seem to really get at some deeply profound questions about beginnings, especially. I can imagine important questions coming out of lots of fields, but not mine right now.

I'm tired and empty tonight, coming down from teaching my night class. I have no answers for even the easiest questions. All the factoids and dates I've spent so much time learning seem meaningless right now.

And I have a weird desire to learn something about the life of Henry VII's elder son, Arthur. Go figure.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Rape narratives on the internet

Internet personae fascinate me.

The other day, I ran across a couple of blogged narratives* by women about being raped (linking to each other). Now, I've been told about individual rapes by numerous women over the years. I'm wondering why internet rape narratives are so detailed compared to the verbal narratives I've heard over the years. Verbally, I've tended to hear things like, "well, I was on a date with X, and I had a few drinks, and he raped me." In every case I can think of at the moment, the woman knew the rapist, and talked a bit about their relationship before the rape. But the details of how, the women haven't told those.

In contrast, the internet narratives tend to be detailed, focusing on minute information about how the woman was raped.

When I think about, say, The Rape of Lucrece (because you knew I'd bring Shakespeare in), Shakespeare spends a lot of lines before the rape giving the reader intimate knowledge of Tarquin's thoughts. And after the rape, he gives us agonizing detail about Lucrece's thoughts and actions. The actions leading to the rape get a fair bit of detail; we learn about Tarquin's threat to kill a groom and put him in bed with her corpse, and then claim that he found them together and killed them. (That would implicitly shame her and Collatine pretty much for eternity.)

The act of penetration, though, takes place between stanzas. It's sort of hard to show the between stanzas, except by putting the stanzas on either side, so here goes.

For with the nightly linen that she wears
He pens her piteous clamors in her head,
Cooling his hot face in the chastest tears
That ever modest eyes with sorrow shed.
O that prone lust should stain so pure a bed!
The spots whereof could weeping purify,
Her tears should drop on them so perpetually.

But she hath lost a dearer thing than life,
And he hath won what he would lose again;
This forced league doth force a further strife,
This momentary joy breeds months of pain,
This hot desire converts to cold disdain;
Pure Chastity is rifled of her store,
And Lust, the thief, far poorer than before.
(The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans, 680-693)

The narrator interrupts the description to emote at the end of the first stanza I've quoted, and then immediately he moves to the past tense, and the rape is over.

And thus, in the rape narratives I've heard in person, the rape gets few details, and the focus is on the before (the relationship) and the aftermath, often focusing on the woman's decision to go to legal authorities or not. Thus, the verbal narratives work sort of like The Rape of Lucrece (except I'm only hearing the woman's point of view, and not getting the rapist's mindset).

The blogged narratives work very differently, though, and I wonder why.

Is it because they're written narratives, and in writing, "I was on a date with X, had a few drinks, and then he raped me" seems too minimalist, unsatisfying? Are the narratives driven by the need to write longer stories, the need to blog details? (Or, conversely, are the short verbal narratives driven by discomfort, perceptions that I'm an unsympathetic audience?) (The responses to the blog entries seem to express sympathy and a sense that readers find the narratives emotionally moving; so they're affective--and no, I don't mean effective.)

One of my favorite short stories is Margaret Atwood's "Rape Fantasies" (see also this site for further information on Atwood). In the story, the narrator starts by telling her listener that she was in a work lunchroom when some of her co-workers started talking about a magazine article saying that some women fantasize about being raped. Several of the women then relate their own fantasies, which the narrator says are basically just fantasies of having sex with someone you haven't been properly introduced to, but not really rape fantasies, because rape fantasies involve real fear.

The narrator then relates several fantasies in which various men threaten to rape her, though in each case she prevents the rape, and usually manages to actually help the rapist become a non-rapist, or even befriends him. By the end of the story, the attentive reader realizes that the narrator's talking to a someone in a bar. ("Rape Fantasies" is widely anthologized and an absolutely fantastic story to teach on many levels, not least because that you can talk about how brilliantly Atwood sets up details and how rewarding attentive reading is.)

The point I want to make by bringing in Atwood is that rape fantasies are pretty common for both men and women, and that they're pretty complex. In Atwood's fiction, they involve strangers coming in through windows and such, not known men. There are specific narrative strategies to the fantasies reported in the lunch room, and different strategies for the fantasies told by the narrator in the next section.

The internet, too, is full of rape fantasies and discussions of bdsm activities and fantasies. I think commercial pornography has influenced internet writing, and been, in turn, further influenced by internet writings. There are shared generic features, especially in the level of detail, that are very different from the generic features of the verbal narratives I've heard.

To some extent, the blogged rape narratives seem to reflect those fantasy and bdsm narratives, as narratives (and thus reflect commercial pornographic narrative strategies). I'm not saying that the blogged narratives are fantasies or bdsm narratives (or commercial pornography, though the ones on blogs that sell ads may come close in effect if not purpose), but that as narratives, they seem to use the same strategies, include the same levels and types of detail, the same focus on how the rapist rapes.

On the other hand, of course, all these narratives are about the internet personae set up. Shakespeare sets up the persona of his narrator, a voice that interrupts the flow of narrative at the crucial moment to emote. And bloggers and internet writers set up their personae, some ingeniously.

What does it mean that the internet rape narratives share so much detail? Why do they read so pornographically? Are the narratives driven by perceptions of commercial pornography? Rape and bsdm fantasies? (I'm not saying those perceptions are something the writers are necessarily consciously aware of, of course.) Is there a sense that more detail is more convincing? Will arouse more sympathy?

Or does the detail serve to arouse sexual interests? (At least one blogger complains that her narrative gets google hits for searches she finds really upsetting and disgusting.) Are some of these narratives driven by the urge to create personae with given experiences?

Does the relative anonymity of the internet free bloggers to tell stories they might not verbally? Or do the narrative drives familiar through internet narratives of fantasies and bdsm activities provide a sort of generic demand for detail?

I wonder to what extent the writers of the rape narratives I've read think about their writing, and especially their choices to provide such detail to their narratives?

*I thought about linking the narratives, but decided not to. I think my discussion of their narrative strategies might be seen as unsympathetic or mean spirited by the writers and their readers. And I don't want to be confrontational about narrative strategies in posts which, at least on the surface, reveal apparent vulnerability. On the other hand, I tend to be interested in personae as personae.

You don't get the real me here, folks; you get the persona I try to set up, successfully or not. As with Oakland, there's no there there.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Won't you please be on this committee?

I'm on a nominating committee. Basically, my job is to ask people to put their names forward as nominees for committee or other jobs.

Doing this really makes me aware of what a horrid networker I am in so many ways.

For one of the jobs, I took my list and asked a couple people if they could name someone from the list who might be good for the position. Then I emailed the people named and told them their name had come up as someone who might be interested. Strictly speaking, that's true. But seriously, I wish people would respond to blanket requests for volunteer nominations.

Of course, it's not like I put my own name up for just anything. Nope. (Okay, actually, I did. Stupid Bardiac.)

Friday, September 01, 2006

Bardiac's Big Bookstore Adventure

I couldn't find my copy of one of the books I'm teaching this semester. I'm guessing it's buried in a pile of books somewhere in the BardiacShack (tm), but I couldn't find it. So I braved the bookstore today to get another copy. Heck, it never hurts to have a second copy of a book I'm teaching.

I must have been a truly evil child, because if my parents had tried to go to my college bookstore with me, I would have flipped out.

Not true of many students here, it seems. Either that or we suddenly have a massive influx of non-traditional students, which should make first year classes really interesting!

Seriously, at least half of the youngish looking customers in the store were accompanied by someone who looked to be from my generation. As often as not, two folks like me were following around one youngish looking person, each of the older folks carrying an armload of books while the younger person worried a bookstore printout. (The bookstore makes a printout for any student so that s/he gets a list of class texts. Neat, eh?)

What's more, these people seemed to be talking to each other in voices NOT dripping in sarcasm or impatience. Some of them appeared to be smiling at each other. They weren't screaming at each other.

Even more surprising, they weren't fainting or screaming about the book prices.

I found the book I needed, and raided another profs book selection for a book that looked really fun. (Yes, I still raid the bookstore looking for really interesting books.)

And then I checked to make sure that the shelves for my other classes were in order and such. Alas, no such luck. Two books are missing from my first year class shelf area. OOPS. I talked to the bookstore manager, and it appears that the order never went in, and given the general competence and efficiency of the English department office staff here, I'm probably the root cause of the problem. I apologized to the bookstore manage and she smilingly said she'd order up the books and let me know when they got in. I apologized again, and thanked her, all the while swearing at my own idiocy for not checking the order info more carefully after I put it in.

One of my former advisees is working in the bookstore, so we chatted about her plans while I got into line. Shockingly, the line moved FAST. Almost walking speed fast. (How are our students going to learn proper line standing patience?) That didn't stop me from overhearing one student, arms full of books, tell another that there's no way she's going to buy all the required books since they'll only be reading a page or two out of them. Happily, her arms weren't full of books for MY courses!

And that was my bookstore adventure.

To sum up: holy cow, parents are taking their kids shopping for college text books! My mind boggles.

I screwed up. I'm not really surprised.

And I found a neat new book, with lots of cool pictures!

I confess to being totally wrong

Remember this post where I thought I'd actually done something useful by helping the mentor think a bit more critically?

I was totally and completely wrong. I confess it to the internet. Totally and completely wrong.

We had our meeting today. I started out by asking them to brainstorm about what qualities they wanted to have, what they wanted to be like, or what they wanted people to say about them in ten years. I brainstormed, too. Then I told them my brainstorming things and asked each of them to share one thing, too, while I started learning their names. That went well. And they all started to learn each others' names, too.

Things went on a bit, and I turned it over to the mentor to talk about her three things. Except she wanted to go on and on and on and on. She wanted to talk about the going to see one's advisor. I'm all for that. Go talk to your advisor. But then she went on, go talk to your advisor because it's really important that you take the right classes so you can graduate in four years and get the right job so you can pay off your student loans and have the right job and make money and the professsor might talk about taking the courses you think will be great but you need to take the classes that will get you the job and you might want to be a history major but you have to study what will get you a job and

I stopped her. I wanted to stomp her, but I just stopped her and said I wanted to offer an alternative view. You're here to learn. I said, I took Basic and Fortran in college because I thought they might help me get a job. They didn't. And they're useless now.

I tried to explain that it's okay if you fail a class, but that you should aim to be learning, and not worry about grades so much. I tried to explain that the skills they could learn as a history major, communication, interpreting texts, working in groups, analyzing data, were all skills that would be important to employers, and they should learn those skills and they'd be able to tell an employer about their skills and so fort.

And I told them that I'd managed to get a PhD in English after getting a bachelors in something totally different, and that while that might seem weird, I had two things going for me: I love what I do and wake up every morning looking forward to my work, and that I'd had a wonderful learning path along the way.

My poor mentor, she kept trying to interrupt, but I kept firing back.

Seriously, I tried to tell them, you may make a ton of money, but if you hate yourself for what you do, no amount of money is worth it.

So, what I said in that other post about having taught this mentor something? I take it all back.

I think what's upsetting me, especially, is the degree of real fear that came through what she was saying. She's not talking about taking the right classes because she's looking forward to a wonderful life.

She's talking about taking the right classes because she's filled with fear. She's afraid she'll never get a job, or make a living; she's afraid of the basics of life. And yes, those things ARE scary as all get out, but her fear will take her in all the wrong directions, and at the end, fearful or not, we're all food for worms. But being afraid of the worms makes getting to them a lot less fun.