Friday, March 30, 2007

Chalk One Up for a Colleague

If you've read more than a couple academic blogs, you've read about how we find certain student actions really frustrating. The student who misses class and then asks if anything important happened? Yes, frustrating. The student who asks one of us to repeat what was said in class discussion or lecture? Yes, frustrating?

Yesterday, I participated in a panel discussion lasting over an hour and a half.

And when I got back to my office, I had an email from a colleague:


I was too busy [detail about busyness] to go to the panel today. Could you give a summary of the discussion at the next department meeting?


I would love to point out to the colleague how much his email sounds like the sort of student request we all find irritating, but I won't, of course.

We all make choices about what we'll spend our time on, all of us, all the time (not just profs, all of us). I spent time last summer working on this project, I spent time at meetings this year working on this project. I spent time prepping for the panel. And then I spent time at the panel, listening to what others had to say and contributing to the discussion. (I didn't take notes of the panel discussion; it was interesting, but I didn't find the information new in ways that prompt me to take notes.)

I do not plan to spend time trying to reconstruct in some meaningful way the discussion so that I can present it to the department. Nope, the people who chose to go and participate, did so.

(But, as you'll have realized, I did spend a few minutes whining on my blog.)

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Rethinking Some Basics

I'm doing a panel thing this afternoon, so I've been thinking about what to say and how to contribute well to the panel. What I've been rethinking is the work I've done with the summer Shakespeare productions, and the work I've been doing lately with the NWU Shakespeare production, and, alas, I've come to the conclusion that I've done things all bass-ackwards.

I've been reading up on using theater approaches to teaching Shakespeare. Basically, the articles I've been reading start with a "standard" English lit classroom teaching of Shakespeare and then integrate some aspect of theatrical practice into the teaching, so that students may read aloud, perform short scenes, or perform whole plays in costume. And when I read these, I tend to be stuck on the "standard" thing, because they seem to think that lit classes generally involve an authoritative, professorial figure lecturing to a group of cowed students taking word-for-word notes. On the most basic level, then, the imagined classroom is one I've never experienced except as a TA a few semesters at the R1 where I did my phud, where a professor lectured three hours a week to about 200 students, and then TAs met with students for discussion in smaller groups for an hour a week. Before today, I've tended to get stuck on a basic level of irritation: that's not the way I teach. Nor was it the way my teachers taught 20 years ago, really.

It's felt sort of like the articles have set up a straw professor to knock down. On the other hand, I've seen perhaps five faculty members teach Shakespeare other than myself, so it's hard to say what goes on in classrooms across the world. And, indeed, many of the articles are aimed at high school teachers, and I know even less about what high school teachers do.

But today, I really came to a full stop. I've been looking in all the wrong places because what I'm doing is quite traditional dramaturgy. The starting context to what I've been doing is theatrical; the students have mostly been in other staged plays and are interested in theater as theater. And I walk in and introduce the more literary study of Shakespeare to the situation, get them thinking about verse as verse, and about Shakespeare's language. I ask them to look at stage directions carefully, and to think about early modern material culture. I ask them to break down metaphors and think about how they work, rather than just what they mean (though that's useful, too, of course).

The immediate beneficiaries aren't literature students or English majors, but theater students and majors. And it's valid and useful work, but it's more useful if I reframe how I think about what I'm doing that way, I think. (And, of course, I've been learning lots, but not things that are going to come into my classes in new ways, so much.)

Boy, do I feel stupid. Time to begin again, Finnegan.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Highlight of the Day

I won a contest!!!! Over at Styley Geek!!!! It was a caption the picture contest.

I'm weirdly excited about this. The news certainly overshadowed the day's meetings and grading. I should celebrate. /nod

Developing Characters

Last night's theater group work for the play was to work on character development. As I've mentioned, I tend to think of dramatic characters in terms of when they're on stage, or being talked about; when they're offstage, they don't really exist except as waiting in the wings to come back on for what's important.

But actors, or maybe students actors, or probably actors in our time and place, are taught to think about character development in ways that are at least partly about offstage lives. That's really alien to me. But, I'm in this project to learn as much as to teach, so I'm going with what the director wants.

The director had given each student a sheet asking him/her to fill in questions about his/her character, so they brought in the sheets. Then, since s/he was going to be gone last night, the director had the assistant start off the students with an exercise, asking each student to write a one word description for each character.

I then took over leading the discussion we had of characters. We worked backwards (in part because the end of the line is usually rushed, and the students playing characters at the end of the list tend not to get as much attention because they're playing spear-carriers, basically, so by turning that around, I could make sure to give those students help with their characters. Assuming those students are more likely to be less experienced actors, they're also more likely to need help. And the script gives them less help.)

Well, let me say, it was fascinating and stimulating. One of the friends of a main character roles we talked about in terms of development and friendship. In Shakespeare's comedies, he often has characters who are moving from homosocial friendships into heterosexual marital relationships; while lots and lots of people make this transition in real life, so it's easily recognizable, it's also a difficult transition. We move from having our kid friends to seeing those kid friends choose a more "partner" type relationship (or many, or whatever), and since we move at different speeds, sometimes one or another is ahead or feels left behind. So we explored where the friend character might be in the relationship, and how to represent that in acting the part. Challenging and exciting for me to think about how to enact relationships that way, but also important to staging the play.

I was repeatedly impressed by different students' insights, especially into other roles. They've clearly been thinking about the play, what happens and how, and they're learning a lot of cool Shakespeare in the process ("cool Shakespeare" is like the "department of redundancy department" from me, I suppose). I especially enjoy when a student who's been sort of on the sidelines for whatever reason comes up with good ideas that show s/he's been thinking and paying closer attention than I'd realized.

All in all, this has been a great experience for me so far; I'll be participating less directly for the next several weeks; I'll try to make it to a rehearsal or two, but mostly, my work here is done. Time-wise, I really need my 8-10 extra hours a week back, but I'll also miss the fun of working with these students in a new way (for me, anyway).

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Lingering Joys

One of the great pleasures of working in my new (since summer) office in the afternoon comes from casual chats with my colleague in the next office.

I have "Prufrock" on my plate tomorrow; I always get a little anxious about teaching "Prufrock" because it's unwieldy in some ways, and complex, and either captures, or pretends to capture, a moment. There's a bit of an illusion to the captivity, the moment, the whole "speaking for the age" sort of thing, but the poem works. And, once we're actually working with the poem in class, I relax and enjoy the experience, and I think I do a pretty good job teaching it.

My colleague's much better with modernist and 20th century poetry than I even dream of being, so I find pleasure in leaning on his door jamb and sharing ideas about teaching the poem, setting up the contexts, talking about imagery.

On and off, this afternoon, we've been chatting about it in that relaxed, almost pointless way that gives me time to think about the poem between points, walking to and from a meeting or whatever. When I come back, my colleague may remind me of the way a line works, or I may have another question or response to an earlier point.

And then my colleague shares an idea about a poem he's teaching, and we float texts and ideas in the air around our offices, sometimes one leaning into the other's office, and sometimes the other doing the leaning.

Sometimes, research or teaching is exciting, heart-racingly thrilling. But I also find a deep, satisfying pleasure in this more casual, almost playful work. It reminds me of the best of hanging out in graduate cubicles, figuring out how to teach something, or pondering some textual question, except that there's a maturity (not an oldness) to my colleague's responses, a depth that probably takes years of thinking closely about things, a lack of anxiety about impressing anyone or being harshly judged for a question, that makes the conversation more like a walk in a redwood forest with the smells of dampness, ferns, redwood bark, other stuff compared to the sharper, more distinct smell of a rose or barbeque?

Lame similes. The lameness of my simile goes far in explaining why I'm not a poet, doesn't it?

Monday, March 26, 2007

Learning Theater Stuffs

The word of the day is "Gobo." (Pictures! And more pictures!)

Today, the stage, lighting, and costume design folks came in to talk about what they're doing for the production, how things will look, and so forth.

To be honest, when I teach Shakespeare, I talk a fair bit about the material practices of early modern staging and how, for example, a thrust stage works dramatically. But lighting? Let's see, there's sunshine, cloudiness, rain, none of which the playing company could control. And in indoor theaters, there's either sunlight through windows or candlelight of varying sorts. (No limelight until later.)

Anyway, it's fascinating to watch as theater folks talk about their ideas and present them to the cast. They bring in lots of pictures or drawings, so it's easy to imagine how the stage and such will look. And fabric swatches, which gives a sense of a sort of color scheme to the costuming, which gets picked up in the lighting and stage design. This is going to be pretty spectacular in the old sense of the word.

I must confess, though, that I am as happy to have Shakespeare played in jeans and t-shirts as in fancy dress. But I really enjoy conceptual productions, and I like to think about the ways concepts work to make a play new for me, to make me rethink what I "know" about it. So this is exciting!

Tomorrow, we're doing character work, so again, I'm in a rather new world. Exciting!

Saturday, March 24, 2007

What I did on my spring break - Friday and Saturday

Random bullets of vacation goodness!

*I thumbnailed a flea. I either got it from playing with my handyman's dog, or picked it up while wandering the "back 40" area of the yard, talking with the handyman about where the new Bluebird box should go, and where he'd move the Wren box, and where the batbox will go. At least it wasn't a tick. I detest ticks. I'll thumbnail a dozen fleas happily, but I hate killing ticks. Now, of course, every hint of anything on my skin has me looking for fleas and ticks.

*I got and painted a batbox matte (brown). The guy in the hardware store helped me find the right primer/sealer. I love bats and hardware stores, not necessarily in that order.

*I moved one of my wren boxes from the back to the front yard, in hopes that a second pair will use it. We'll see. I also got a Bluebird box.

*I cleaned up the planting boxes on the deck, but resisted the futile effort of actually putting in seeds. 50' F weather is deceptive at this time of the year; it may look and feel great today, but it could snow tomorrow. I confess that I did look longingly at sunflower and vine seeds for more than a few moments before fully appreciating the futility. This may mean that I've adapted somewhat to midwestern seasons.

*I rode 20 miles today, at just over 15 mph on average, which seems to put me pretty close to where I was in early January, fitness-wise. My new shoes felt comfy (still and again), and my feet didn't go numb the way they have with the old softer tennies (which, biking folks say, has to do with the way pressure on your feet works). I've now tried out my padded shorts in every way you can imagine and come to the conclusion that the experts know what they're talking about.

*I cleaned up a bit in the "back 40" and beyond. I don't know how so much litter gets there, especially plastic bags and pieces of tarp, but dang! I think I'm going to put in some more trees, maybe a Crabapple or something, and some more White Pines.

*Grading? Not nearly as much as I should have!

Friday, March 23, 2007

In the 'Hood

One of our newish administrators bought a house recently, and didn't buy it in the 'Hood. The 'Hood in Northwoods is the neighborhood right near the University, a neighborhood of mostly charming homes built from the turn of the century through the 40s. It's one of the more expensive areas in town, setting aside the nearby lumber baron mansions that have been mostly turned into student apartments.

I've heard several people remark upon the administrator's choice, commenting that it means he doesn't care about the University community, that he doesn't want to be part of the University community. Notably, everyone I've heard remark on his choice lives in the 'Hood.

When I first came to Northwoods, I'd paid off my students loans and saved several years for a downpayment. (It was relatively easy saving in the rural midwest; I have to say that for living there.) I'd done my financial homework, and figured out what sort of downpayment and mortgage I could conservatively afford (because, despite my deeply leftist leanings, I was raised by depression babies, and I learned well from them).

"Everyone" recommended the 'Hood; it has the best schools in town, they told me, and it's close to everything. So, I asked my realtor who was showing me houses in town and she dutifully showed me a couple houses in the 'Hood, along with others on the "hill" and on the "heights." In the 'Hood, my realistic choices were a couple of tiny fixer-uppers, with more fixing needed than not. On the hill and the heights, my choices were basically GI Bill starter houses, built in the late 40s and early 50s, mostly in good shape, small and cozy.

I bought my house up in the heights.

Only after I'd been in town a while, and another colleague was buying a house, did I think more about where people from the University live in town.

Everyone I know in the 'Hood is straight, and all but two are married and have two incomes in their household. One of the unmarried folks is divorced, and had owned a house previously with a spouse. The other has been on the faculty for 30 plus years.

Single folks don't live in the 'Hood. Neither do gay folks, even those with long term partners. People of color pretty much don't. Married couples with one income don't tend to live there, either.

The housing choices people make are related to economics, of course. But how we think about where we live shouldn't be limited by our economics. I think about how the faculty residents of the 'Hood expect administrators to live close, to be their neighbors, to be in their social groups, to talk over the fence. I think about how the residents of the 'Hood think about the University community as centered in their neighborhood. I think about how they hang out with Headmasters, Provosts, Deans and Deanlings, with people who can casually make things happen, because it's human nature to make things happen for your neighbors and friends.

It seems to me that the negative comments about this administrator's choice have a lot to do with the 'Hood's residents' expectations that they'll have neighborly access to people in charge. But, of course, they can't say that exactly; instead, they talk about how this administrator doesn't want to be part of the community.

And me? It's hard to know how to say it to them, to get them to rethink their comments about the new administrator's choice.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007


The news this week has been sad and worse. News came to us of a terrible traffic accident in which one of our students died. Another student has died a few days later from injuries in the same accident.

I didn't know either of these students, but I'm stunned and saddened. I can't imagine how the world has changed for their parents.

I don't think much about how fragile humans are usually. I think parents think about their kids being fragile; certainly, most parents are protective. Sometimes I get frustrated by how protective people seem about their kids, how they hover and try to intervene in every aspect of their kids lives. I wonder at kids not being allowed to ride bikes by themselves or go to the park or whatever at an age when I was exploring my world with a fair sense of freedom.

But today I've been thinking about how those students' parents must have tried to protect them, and worried when they couldn't protect them, from the time they were born until the day they died.

I forget sometimes how hard it must be for parents to try so hard to keep their kids safe for so long, and then step back and watch them go off to college, make decisions that seem iffy and dangerous.

Reading about these students, and the others who survived in the same car crash, they sound like people who made good decisions, were doing well, would have been a source of great pride to family and friends.

But, purely by chance, a tire came off a truck going the opposite direction at precisely the moment it could hit the students' van, and all the protectiveness of their parents, all their good decisions and hard work are stopped short.

Birds of the Day

Yesterday, I traveled a bit, by car, stopping at a couple places because I had some time.

I saw a bunch of turkeys, as in a veritable thanksgiving parade of turkeys. I've never seen a flock this size.

Sandhill Cranes. I stopped to watch two for a bit off a rural road. I guess they were probably a mated pair. One of them had an odd step. Every time s/he lifted his/her left leg, it swung back and out a bit, in a way that the right leg didn't, and neither of the other crane's legs did. If you look at them through binoculars for a bit, crane legs look pretty silly, with a big knobby joint (what, I think, would be the ankle for people). But I couldn't tell anything different about this one's left leg. Usually, when I'm just driving, I can't see the red top to their heads, but stopped and taking my time, I could clearly see the red. And they were magnificent in an awkward sort of way.

A male Red-Bellied Woodpecker. I stopped at a nature area and went for a very short walk before I got too cold. But right near was this great bird, looking for food, and cooperating with my slow binocular skills. Wow! I'll never figure out why they're called Red-Bellied, though.

Black-Capped Chickadees. Yes, I see these all the time, and so do lots of folks. Still, they rock.

White-Bellied Nuthatch. I love Nuthatches, the way they go up and down, doing their thing despite gravity.

An uncooperative yellow bird, fluffy and small, I'm guessing a female Yellow Warbler. They're common, yellow, and found in this area.

Loads of Red-Wing Blackbirds, Crows, Canada Geese, and Mallards.

I had to slow down and swerve to avoid hitting a female Ring-Necked Pheasant. Perhaps not the brightest bird on the blacktop today.

And the other day on a short bike ride (yes, in the new shorts--and long johns and tights), I'm pretty sure I saw a male Blue-Winged Teal. Way cool, hanging out near some much larger Mallards.

I have hope of spring.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007


I spent the first couple of days of our break visiting my sibling, the Most Wonderful In Law, and their kids.

MWIL is an enabler extraordinaire. It's a good thing I'm not really into some illicit chemicals or wildly expensive high tech stuff, because MWIL would really help me get myself into trouble. But, with MWIL's encouragement and help, I bought myself biking shoes and two jerseys. They look GREAT.

As MWIL noted with gentle laughter, at least I look like I know what I'm doing, even if I don't. (I look goofy in them, to be honest. Alas, that's actually a slight improvement over my look in street clothes.)

While I was there, we also went out and looked at some nature stuff that MWIL knows about from a class. What fun!

If MWIL and my sibling ever split up, I hope MWIL gets custody of me.

Character Development

We're on break now, but when we come back, my collaborative project with my theater colleague will get even more interesting for me.

First, the design folks will be coming in to show the set and costume design plans. I've seen just a little bit of design stuff, so I'm really looking forward to seeing more fully how the project moves from design concepts to built sets and costumes.

And we'll be working with the student actors on developing their characters. That, too, is totally new to me. I have to admit, I think of dramatic characters as being created in the moment of the staging. But my sense is that the theater people ask our acting students to think about their characters as having a sort of pre-existence, as having more than just the text.

I'm conflicted about that, and my conflict has to do with the ways I conceive of characterization in drama, and of ways of acting. I resist students asking about characters' lives off stage. I'm of an academic generation that doesn't think much of the romantic and Victorian interest in Ophelia's childhood. But that seems to be how many actors learn to work, and I'm interested in learning their angle, their take.

Back Up?

I got emails recently from an organization called "backupyourbirthcontrol dot org" telling me that March 20th is "back up your birth control day." The email referred to the blog for choice effort, but didn't tie itself directly to that. For all I know, the organization's totally legitimate. But for all I know, it's not.

I'm all for people using whatever birth control they find helpful and effective, and for backing it up. I'm happy that emergency contraception is available over the counter. I'd like to see better birth control and sexuality education in schools, and even wider availability. Yes, I even asked my local pharmacy if they have Plan B, and they do, and offered to sell me some. But I was just making sure they had it.

What seemed weird about this effort, though, is that it's focused on only Plan B as the back up, and even say basically to ask for it by name, to paraphrase the old ads.

So that makes me wonder if this organization isn't some sort of sub rosa advertising strategy. If it is, maybe it's brilliant. Or not. I haven't seen people blogging wildly about backing up stuffs, but I haven't read a bunch today because I was on the road.

I should start a super secret blog virus ad campaign... read a Shakespeare sonnet, fight for social justice! End sexism and racism! Except, yeah, not like anyone's going to be convinced.

Monday, March 19, 2007


I went out to dinner the other night with a friend. You have to sort of picture this. I have this wagon. In this area, pretty much every woman who can afford one has the same wagon. A lot of men have them, too, just not the more macho types. This is the sort of wagon one expects friendly dogs, groceries, and gardening stuff to ride around in, perhaps with a small child in a car seat or something.

We're both middle aged women. Really. Middle-aged. Except that it's night, and I had on my nice warm stupid hat that I got to bike with, which happens to basically be a black, tight, skull cap, semi-worthy of someone half my age and at least twice as tough. I can imagine, in the dark, with my cap, that an outsider might be a little uncertain. My friend, though, had no stupid skull cap thing on, and has generous, wavy hair, even in the dark.

We rolled up to a stop light, chatting. Then we heard the loud revving. Vroom, VRRRROOOM. We looked over to see a hot rod, with a young male driver, and several other young folks (it was dark, I didn't bother to count). The male driver looked over at me. VRROOM! He eyed me, he eyed my car, and mostly, he eyed my friend in the passenger's seat. He nodded at me, silently clinching a deal.

My friend and I started helplessly laughing. The people in the other car started laughing too.

Then the light changed, and they zoomed off. My wagon eased sedately forward, humming quietly.

So what I'd like to know: in the world of young male car driving, exactly how many coolness points do you lose for trying to rev up against two middle aged women in a wagon?


I left town for a couple of days, and have been semi-internet-less, and hanging out with people whose ages work in the single digits. I have no clue what they're talking about at least half the time.

But, I have begun testing my new biking shorts, but not yet the way you're supposed to use them because it's too danged cold and I need all the strategic layerage I can get.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Slice Up Your Shakespeare

One of the fascinating things I'm learning working with a colleague in theater is how we think about staging and texts. Happily, the person I'm working with likes plays that move along. I, too, like plays that move along.

But we differ about how to move plays along. After a variety of experiences, I really want to hear plays, and see acting, and I really don't care much about scenery stuff. I'd be pretty much happy with a bare stage. I HATE having the play stop while the curtain comes down and we wait for a scenery change. I hate this especially with Shakespeare stuff, because he gives us so much in the dialog that we can use our imaginations. My theater colleague, though, takes pleasure in the scenery, and that means it gets changed.

My colleague focuses on making things faster with judicious cuts to the script. Now, I'm a realist enough to know that pretty much any time you see Shakespeare on stage, it's been cut, and I can deal with that. Seriously, someone could cut half of Hamlet and I'd survive. But it's a real education for me learning how a theater person thinks about and chooses cuts, and it says a lot about our differing focuses.

My colleague tends to want to cut the most difficult language; s/he argues convincingly that there are times when the modern audience just isn't going to get some metaphor or joke, but that people might focus on not getting it, and then miss important stuff coming up. In a class, on the other hand, we (or at least, I) take a lot of pleasure in teasing out the really difficult language. Thinking that sort of thing through helps us tease out how the play's working.

My colleague usually cuts weird racist metaphors and images because they don't make sense to modern audiences. In contrast, I tend to teach about how those images reflect and contribute to early modern understandings of human differences, and how early modern practices and attitudes feed into our own. I can live with these cuts, except I sometimes wonder if we're not making Shakespeare seem less racist than he is. And it bugs me that we never seem to have to cut his sexism, because we still recognize and accept that language. Some people even do it without flinching.

It's been fun to work through the play (which s/he calls a "script" and I call a "text") and talk about what should or shouldn't be cut and why. I was oddly happy last night to be able to suggest a specific cut, since I'm usually the one saying we should keep stuff. But this cut makes sense, I think, and flows better in my modern ear. (And it cracks me up to think I'm "fixing" Shakespeare. I mean, really, the arrogance!)

When we work with students, I tend to bring in broader themes, recurrent imagery or ideas, and my colleague says s/he's finding that useful, and actually using what we've talked about in his/her other class for this text. So that's neat, too. My colleague's better at communicating with students/actors about how to work specific scenes, and especially at how to think about the play as a whole staging, rather than in pieces. But I can contribute to helping students understand how to read the text for stage directions (which tend to be less full in early modern plays than in plays written in the past, say, 50 years), which facilitates his/her staging work.

I'm very much enjoying this process, but the theater life, well, I'm too old for that. They work in the late evenings, because that's when their students have learned to keep blocks of time free. It's also when I'm in the habit of being long abed, usually. And then after we work with students, my colleague and I have been spending an hour or so working through cuts and such for the next section. I don't know quite when I got so old; I used to be able to stay up until dawn without any trouble, though in those days I wasn't also getting up within a short time of dawn to go teach. So maybe that has something to do with it?

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Wake Up!

Last night, at some point, I decided that I'd sleep through the morning, through all my classes, just sleep. This is not my habit, but that's what I was thinking.

When I looked at the clock, it was 12:50. I cursed myself for sleeping through my classes, all morning. I cursed loudly and repeatedly. I lurched out of bed, angry at myself that I hadn't even had the courtesy to call my department and arrange to have someone put signs up so students wouldn't sit in classes endlessly waiting. Then I cursed myself some more.

Oddly, it was dark outside. Either there's a really bad storm, or the end of the sun has come.

Or, as it turned out, it's 12:50 AM, and I haven't actually slept through anything, not even the night. I had to walk around the house to make sure that it was actually dark out all the windows before I was finally convinced that indeed, it was very early morning and not actually some strange afternoon.

I must have been dreaming about sleeping through my classes, maybe trying to sleep through something, the neighbor's dogs barking, light from someone's headlights as they drove up the hill, something.

I do that waking up in the middle of the night and thinking it's day thing every once in a while. I've gotten as far as showering before realizing that it's dark out, on one occasion. Usually I figure things out before I'm that far along.

And when the alarm finally went off at a way more reasonable time, and I woke up, I was unusually happy that I hadn't missed my classes, that I would be on time and prepared for the day. Funny how thinking I've really messed up makes me extra happy when I realize I haven't.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Out of the Frying Pan

For the past several weeks, I filled in for a colleague teaching an extra five-hour a week class. Five hours taken by itself sounds like nothing, but when you add in an hour or two of prep for every hour teaching, it adds up. That colleague came back in yesterday and life got simpler for me again.

Late last summer, one of my colleagues in the theater department asked me to participate in the student production of a Shakespeare play this spring; technically, I'm a dramaturge, I guess. Yesterday, that started up, so I went over to the theater building to start doing my bit. It looks like I'll be there a couple hours a night this week, and then maybe a couple hours a couple nights more. So that's a substantial addition to the day. Happily, it's also a great learning opportunity. But dang, Skippy, I'm tired!

I'm a lit person. And they're the theater people. Lit and theater people tend to approach plays really differently. I don't want to stereotype; certainly some lit people have substantial theater experience, and some theater people have loads of lit experience. But we come at things from different directions.

Speaking to my experience, for example, I think of plays first as cultural texts; I think in terms of cultural and literary contexts, material contexts. Then I think in terms of theoretical questions. In there, especially in the material contexts, I think of play texts in theatrical contexts. Play texts, for me, are sort of potential stagings, multiple in meaning; I tend to hold multiple ways of enacting a given scene in mind without necessarily settling on one.

My colleague in the theater department tends to think in terms of staging this specific play in a specific production. She knows about early modern theatrical practices, and about theatrical practices through history, but she's far more prepared to deal with the specifics of a given space here and now, and not that interested in early modern spaces or stagings.

I've now participated in two summer Shakespeare programs with this colleague, so I'm learning to think more theatrically, but I still love coming at things through lit.

Some of the students in the play are in my Shakespeare class, where we'll also be reading the play (and where I'll require everyone to go to the play and write about it). But they're a little different in their theatrical department space.

Different departments live in their spaces differently. English students don't much hang around the department except for when their major society is meeting and such. But art types hang out in studios doing there work, and some science majors tend to hang around labs or whatever. In my grad program, students, majors and grad students, hung out in our specialized library; I usually felt a good balance there; I could work, and then there was usually someone around to take a break with, and then back to work.

My sense from last night is that the theater majors hang out in this one room, a crowdedly comfortable place circled by couches, and mostly seem to know each other pretty well from doing shows and classes together. They seem to feel comfortable sitting far more closely than English students do when they hang out, seem more comfortable with touching, leaning.

In my experience, students in different fields tend to idealize and take on traits they associate with those in the field. Here, the students act like they've been watching A Chorus Line a lot, or maybe Tootsie. They have ideas about what and how actors are, and they're trying out those roles.

I know two professional actors. Not people you're likely to have heard of, but people who make their day to day living acting, mostly stage acting. These two are intense and focused, and I can't really imagine them lounging in quite the way these students do. But then again, I don't know them primarily as actors, nor do I see them hanging out around acting jobs. One of my friends is New York based, the other West Coast based. When I was in grad school, one of them came to one of my Shakespeare discussion classes and gave an incredible little workshop. I still use what I learned from him. I wish I could get one of them to come do a workshop with my students here, but we're so out of the way in so many ways.

The theater department hasn't put on a full Shakespeare play for almost a decade; mostly, I get a sense that they don't especially value Shakespeare compared to the more modern plays available. (Obviously, I value Shakespeare lots more.) Their students have, as you'd expect, largely adopted the general attitude. So unlike where I went to grad school, where acting students crowded into Shakespeare classes, relatively few theater students take Shakespeare. (Except this semester, because they knew this play was on the docket and were encouraged by this director to take Shakespeare.)

When we talk about interdisciplinary work around here, this is the work I imagine most available to me, so here goes. Lots to learn, and hopefully lots to contribute to the production.

Right now, I'm doing this as an add on. If they decide to do Shakespeare more regularly, and I'm involved, then I'll have to negotiate something. But if this is just a one off, then I'm going full out for the opportunity.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Job Talk Talk

I went to the third job talk so far for a job we're trying to fill.

Happily, the candidate did not show us a bulleted powerpoint presentation. It's nice to see someone who can give a coherent, smart talk without bullet points, manage to keep focused and not run over. The candidate also rounded off the talk with an image reminiscent of the opening; it was clearly well-thought through and yet felt relaxed and responsive to the audience.

At every job talk, there's one. At every conference, there's one. You know the one, the person who has to ask some canned question that really doesn't go anywhere. We have ours. S/he reads the set up and question every time, although, seriously, I could do it by now, and at least I'd try to have more than a monotone.

There's basically one acceptable answer in the US to his/her canned question, and pretty much anyone past 9th grade should be able to nail it without any trouble. Certainly all these candidates do a fine job with it. For me, there's a way of answering really bad questions sometimes that makes them into good questions; today's candidate managed to sort of do that with this one, which I admit impressed me.

For those who care, the right answer is not, for once, hanging by the neck until half dead and then drawing and quartering. While this seems to have been a solid stock answer for many questions back in the day, it's not so popular in the here and now.

There you are, free advice: skip the powerpoint and don't offer to draw and quarter anyone in the central quad.


For some stupid reason I won't share, I woke up at 3:30 am this morning, and didn't get back to sleep, though by the time I needed to get up, I was finally ready to go back to sleep. I really want to sleep now, but instead, I'm prepping to go work with theater students on a play they'll be performing at the end of the semester. Let's just say, the playwright's pretty good, and I have an affinity for his/her works that makes this more a pleasure than a chore, except for the sleepiness part.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

A little bit o' sunshine

It's supposed to get into the 40s (F, that's 4.44 something in C, which frankly seems way colder) again today. Yesterday, I was hunkered down, avoiding grading. Today I'm just going to give in; the bike is coming off the trainer (where, to be honest, it hasn't been used nearly as much as it should have been).

UPDATE (because I know you've been waiting with bated breath)

Joy. Happiness. A little sweat, a lot of mud up my back (through all three layers, thanks). I rode out to where the city trail meets the state trail, which isn't cleared of snow at all, then turned back and rode up through the city park, which has enough trees to scent the air to remind me that once this area was a great pinery.

A fair number of folks were out walking and such, and all of us smiling.

There's something very weird about riding through the park, up the hill, and seeing in the distance people out ice-fishing on the lake, and then riding around and down next to the lake, and watching kids play at sliding near the ice fishers.

Note to self: trying to ride uphill on ice isn't as fun as it sounds.

I desperately await the arrival of spring. I sent away for biking shorts today, even though I've read how you're supposed to wear them.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

I just don't know

This week seems to be the week of just not knowing.

I went to two job talks, trying to think about which candidate would be the best choice. I just don't know. There are more job talks coming up, so maybe I'll feel some clarity after those.

Sometimes the thing is, we can hire someone who's taken the expected steps, one after another, just like almost everyone else, and we think they'll do the job as expected. Or we can hire someone who's taken a different stairway altogether, and we think they may bring something really exciting to the job. Or they may crash and burn because the stairways really don't come together well.

After one of the job talks, I was chatting someone from another field; she wanted me to understand that the different stairway model is much more typical of how women get into this field. That's something to think about, isn't it? If women aren't getting a chance at the usual steps, but the go-getters find a different stairway, well, there's a lot to think about. I hadn't put two and two together about the gendered stairwells because of my relative inexperience in this field.


I talked to a friend and had the sinking, nauseating "we're the wrong kinds of doctors" feeling. We talked about feeling useless and ignorant. Unfortunately, even the right kinds of doctors apparently aren't much more use. I just don't know.

I do know that statistics are cruel.


A colleague asked me to take up a concern (without using her name) that she has about a campus activity X, reported to a committee I'm on. The procedure is for someone (anyone can, but I'm a logical choice) to take the concern before the sub-committee of the next-step to the powers-that-be. That's part of my job. And part of what usually happens when someone takes a concern to the n-s is that the powers-that-be are there and get alerted to the concern. Or you can ask the n-s to take up the issue in an official way. So that seems straight-forward, right?

This colleague, though, is also fairly close with the powers-that-be.

My colleague asked me to take up the concern, and I suggested that the procedure was that I would go before the n-s. I checked with the head of the n-s, a woman I regard with high respect for her ethics and judgment, and made sure I understood the procedure, and then asked my colleague to give me some more concrete idea of what she wanted me to ask of the n-s. My colleague hesitated, and warned me that the issue is very political, and that she didn't want me to get in trouble. My colleague is senior to me, and has had substantially more interactions with higher ups here than I have.

This seems less straight forward. But I'm seeing a pattern.

I told my colleague that nonetheless, it was my job to represent her concern before the n-s if she wished the concern to be heard, and that I would do so. I wrote up a short statement, asked my colleague to check it to make sure I was representing her concern accurately and appropriately, and then sent it on to the head of the n-s so that she'd know what was coming. My note expressed concern about X done by Y, and asked the n-s to inquire into X. So the head of the n-s invited someone from Y to come to the meeting. At the part of the meeting where people from outside have their say, I read my note, and then we had an informative discussion about X.

The powers-that-be were there in force, and I was nervous. But it was okay. The powers-that-be that were at the meeting spoke in agreement with the concern I raised. The person representing Y felt a little under the gun, no doubt, but really, we're right to be concerned about X. The power-that-be who actually has most direct control over Y wasn't there.

Afterwards, one of the powers-that-be stopped me to thank me for bringing the issue up because s/he shares the concern, but it's hard to bring the issue up between powers-that-be because they're afraid to step on each other's toes (or egos). And, not at all surprisingly, this particular power-that-be mentioned in passing that s/he and my colleague (yes, that colleague) had already had a chat about the issue. And we come full circle.

So, yeah, the pattern was pretty much what you'd expect. My colleague went to the power-that-be, who couldn't step on the toes of another power-that-be, so did a faculty end run to get the concern on the table so that the original power-that-be can now take it up as a faculty concern, and thus not step on any toes or egos.

Will anything change about X? I just don't know. I don't have the energy to put into this particular concern in a big way. I recognize it as a concern, and I'm willing to do my job as a committee member and all, but I'm not putting my energy here.

Why was my colleague all het up about how political the issue is? It is political. A lot of what we do involves exercising power and governing ourselves, and is by definition, political.

I just don't know why she needed to warn me. Either she's way more politically savvy than I am, and I've stepped into quicksand without realizing I'm already sinking to my knees, or she's oversensitive and over-worried. I'm hoping it's the latter, because this colleague is the sort who, I think, would be willing to ask a less senior colleague to do something damaging and then say, "but I warned you not to!"

I just don't know.

Thursday, March 08, 2007


A couple weeks ago, I read on someone's blog (sorry, I don't remember whose), a discussion of how people felt about being customers of businesses that advertise with the fish sign, the ichthys, long a symbol of Christianity.

I don't see a lot of businesses up here in the Northwoods using the symbol, nor do I remember any from where I used to live.

On the other hand, a LOT of places throughout this area display Christian symbols in their offices and such, not just the symbols of ubiquitous capitalism at Christmas, but the more religious symbols at a variety of times during the year. I know one eatery here in town that's overtly Christian; their menu explains that they're closed on Sundays so that their employees can have a day with their families. Though I'm not Christian, I respect that choice, and I patronize this place.

I don't think all Christians are evil or anything, but there's a very vocal segment of Christians in this country that overtly hates and encourages hatred. They fight against human rights. They hurt people.

In some places, the overt religious symbols make me tense and edgy because I can't tell whether the symbols are being displayed because the displayers are in the hating group. I just know it's a distinct possibility. I'm a coward.

Just once, in those places, I would love to see a rainbow sign. Just once, I'd like to feel a sense of openness, welcome.

I was thinking, last semester, about that, and I looked around my hall. We tend to display signs on our doors, on our bulletin boards, and in our offices signalling our alliances and interests. Some doors have Native American symbols, some indicate affiliations with organizations or specialties. Baby pictures take prominent positions in several places. My office had a Shakespeare thing, a street sign from my fantasy City, and a picture of a big tree. But with one exception, rainbows are few and far between.

I wonder how our department floor feels for our gay and lesbian students. Do we give a sense of openness or welcome? Mostly, people in this department are pretty open and welcoming, but we don't really seem that way from our doorway displays.

So I sent away for some rainbow design stickers. I couldn't decide from the website which I liked most, or which would fit best on or around my door, so I ordered several. (I had to order them on-line because I couldn't find them for sale anywhere in town, after looking for several months.)

They came this week. I trimmed a small one to fit in the name tag area of the door. And one of my colleagues admired it, so I gave her another to put on her office. Then I put the third up in my office window.

Many of our students seem oblivious to the rainbow symbol, but the students to whom it matters aren't. They'll see it as a symbol. And maybe they'll feel a little more welcome and safe. That's my hope, anyway.

There's no way to control the reading of the signs we use, though. Just as I read the signs Christians use in a variety of ways, so people can read my rainbows in a variety of ways. I wonder if many Christians think about how their signs and symbols look from the outside?


I can see the light at the end of the tunnel of the week. It's been a week full of meetings and teaching and reading and discussing. I've gotten some useful tasks accomplished, but I'm still feeling overwhelmed and tired.

Can we have spring soon, please?

Monday, March 05, 2007


The reading for the day in Bennet and Royle was all about Wordsworth's Prelude and how movies make us see ourselves seeing. Apparently, no art of any sort before movies made us think about art as art, about perspective, time, and such. Thank the Flying Spaghetti Monster for movies!

Too bad no one thought to let Holbein know! I get frustrated when someone looks at stuff from the 20th century and thinks that no one had a brain before 1901, can you tell? Yeah, lots of new technology, and lots to play with about that new technology, but people played with lots of ideas in just about any century or age you can imagine.

Holbein's Ambassadors is everyone's favorite picture to demonstrate anamorphosis, the strategy of using a radical change in formation (or deformation) that forces the viewer of a piece of art to look from an oblique angle or use a mirror or other means of seeing. It's just one strategy to make the viewer think about him/herself as viewing, as having to take a stand and think about perspective.

In The Ambassadors, that blob at the lower part of the picture, next to the charming shoes (Look, early Earth Shoes!), is an anamorphic skull. If you look at the picture from way low on your left (or way high on your right, which is easier with my computer screen), and look up at the blob, you see that it's a skull. It's way more fun than reading The Prelude. I may be biased. (Romanticists everywhere are preparing nasty comments; or they would be except they all secretly hate The Prelude anyways. Kidding, folks!)

Few people are aware that Holbein was actually a big Silence of the Lambs fan, but this homage to the poster provides clear evidence. Or maybe he was into Dali?

NB. If you are a student, please think hard before you use that last paragraph. And be sure to cite my site! Here's how!

Sunday, March 04, 2007

At a Loss

I was grading papers today in the local Frontiers, that big bookstore chain with cafes, music, and tables for grading. The papers I was grading were the sort that allow students to respond to a text, including gut level responses. Every so often, I get a response that leaves me at a loss. Today was one of those times.

You can guess the sort of issue--spousal abuse, childhood trauma. In this case, the response said that the incident had happened in the past, and that s/he'd only told one other person. But the text was evocative, and so s/he wrote about his/her gut level response, which had to do with his/her previous experience. I read a lot of texts, and it strikes me that if my student has written about the issue now, s/he may be reaching out, recognizing or not that s/he needs some support or help. Or maybe s/he's just ready to be more open and less shamed by the issue.

At times, it stuns me to think how much trust some of our students place in us. I know professors who are total jerks. I can certainly be pretty much a jerk at times. I don't imagine, in this fairly large class, that I've done anything to earn this student's trust. And yet, s/he handed in this response.

I feel like I've been holding my breath all afternoon, since reading that paper.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Being Grateful

I spent several hours reading some Brecht stories and trying to figure out how I could use these stories to teach concepts important to lit study. The first thing I want to teach students about literary study is that you actually have to read whatever it is you want to study. It's even better if you read it carefully. But then there are other concepts, and I'd like to get to those.

Then I spent several more hours trying to actually teach the Brecht stories, lit concepts, and so forth, and wanting to express my dissapointment at those who don't read carefully.

Which leads me to my gratitude. I sometimes start out a class asking students what they thought of the reading. And when I do, I DETEST hearing that a student didn't like the reading. The worst is if they don't like it because it's "hard." But I found myself feeling about the Brecht stories that I just don't much like them. It's not that they're hard.

So while I was prepping, I kept imagining how the students would feel these stories are pointless, and how do they fit into the conceptual learning that's the overall point of the class. And then I confronted the problem of how to get us all beyond being blah about these stories, and to a point where we found them useful, and because useful, perhaps, interesting and worth spending our time with. The more I thought about how to teach them, the more interesting the stories got for me.

I went all materialist with them, because, it's Brecht, for gosh sake, and he's all over materialism, and the ways objects mean and such. I made up a handout with some questions about objects and meanings, about representations of material practices, money, and finally asked them to connect the story with two concepts they've discussed so far in the course. They worked in groups on the questions with one story for each group, and then explained what they'd found to the rest of the class using an overhead they'd had time to prepare. It wasn't the most scintillating and exciting class ever, but at least the students felt some pressure to talk about their story, and the ones who'd read well stood out. It showed. But even the ones who hadn't read well had time to dig themselves out a little with regard to their one story. Everyone contributed at least a little.

Then I had them do a little writing, to get them thinking a little reflectively.

And that leads me to my gratitude. Were I a high school teacher, I'd have to teach texts mandated by the system or school for different levels pretty much. No, I'm sure no one teaches Brecht at all (more's the pity!), but I would be a seriously unhappy Bardiac if I had to teach Hemingway, say, or Dickens.

Yesterday, I turned from teaching this class to teaching another where we're reading Gawain, and felt my spirits lift. The students, as they almost inevitably do, were excited by the story, confused, interested, challenged, and so was I.

So, I'm grateful to be able to pretty much teach texts that fascinate and challenge me, in ways I find exciting and useful.

And I'm grateful to have ten down, and five to go!

A Woman I'd Like to Thank

I was cruising the blogosphere and ran across someone arguing that she didn't trust the FDA's approval of Gardisil; she used Thalidomide as an example of a bad FDA approval. Except that I've read before that the FDA didn't approve Thalidomide. So, I googled and read around, and was reminded that while Thalidomide was put into use elsewhere, the FDA never approved it in the US (well, until 2006 for something else, looks like).

Why didn't the FDA approve Thalidomide? Turns out one Frances Oldham Kelsey insisted on further testing before she'd sign off on it.

The first baby known to have been adversely affected by Thalidomide, according to the Wikipedia article on Thalidomide, was born in 1956. It came up for approval in the US in 1960.

And it was given to pregnant women to help deal with morning sickness.

I gave my Mom 5 months of unmitigated morning sickness. She reminds me of that whenever I do something particularly stubborn or irritating, insisting that she knew from the start I'd want my own way. I revealed my basic character early, no doubt.

But because of Frances Oldham Kelsey and the FDA, Thalidomide wasn't in wide use in the US (only investigational use). So my Mom, right in that period when it was being used in Europe, wasn't prescribed Thalidomide.

There's no telling, of course, whether she would have been prescribed Thalidomide if it had gotten easy approval, or if the approval would have come in time before I stopped giving her morning sickness and got on with just being a rotten kid.

But I'm grateful to Frances Oldham Kelsey for being a smart, dedicated scientist. She saved a lot of kids in the US from serious birth defects. She may have saved me.

One of the sad things in this is that we seem to have forgotten this scientist, a female scientist, trained in the 1950s, who made a significant contribution to public health in more than one way. We should celebrate her work, not forget it.

Kelsey's story of standing up to a drug company and holding out for real scientific data should be common knowledge, and not something people like me vaguely remember. And we certainly shouldn't misremember the story and forget Kelsey's contribution altogether.

It's March! And in the US, we celebrate National Women's History Month. Except I haven't seen much celebration about it.

But I'm celebrating. When I was born, it was barely imaginable that a female from my social background would go to college. Graduate school? Not so much.

When I was born, real estate agents and mortgage brokers routinely and legally discriminated against single women, so did employers of all sorts.

Things really have changed; they're not perfect, but we have made progress.

Every so often, it's time to reaffirm my values. So here goes: I'm for fighting oppression on all fronts, and my fight is informed by, and focused through feminism.

I challenge anyone who runs across this to remember one woman who's provided leadership, to encourage one woman who has potential, to recognize one woman who's contributing, especially if she's contributing in ways that aren't well-valued by the patriarchy.