Saturday, June 30, 2007


One of my colleagues and I were talking about teaching theory. When I teach our theory course, I start with Marx, then do some Freud (and Lacan, a little), then turn to feminism (starting with Virginia Woolf, and including Gayle Rubin's great essay "The Traffic in Women," which picks up beautifully on Marx and Freud and into Levi-Strauss).

My colleague wondered why we don't teach Darwinian theory, since it's the most well-supported and influential theory around, pretty much.

So I'm trying to think of ways I might find Darwinian theory useful in analyzing or understanding texts. I haven't read much in the way of Darwinian or evolutionary theory since I was an undergrad, and what came to mind first was the really irritating socio-biology I had to read then. The irritating part was the deep sexism. If you've read socio-biology from the 70s and 80s, you know what I mean: the arguments that male humans were innately more sexually active than female humans, and more sexually desiring. This irritated me as an undergrad, even, but our sexual jokes tend to focus on male desire and female lack of desire, right?

But when I was in the Peace Corps, I lived in an area where three indigenous cultures came together. One of these cultures deeply believed that women were so sexually active and predatory that men were pretty much endangered any time they were alone with a woman. The solution in this culture was (of course) that women pretty much took a kid or another woman as a chaperone any time they wanted to go out. So that made me question the things I'd read and been taught.

When I really got into early modern culture, I learned that a ton of the sexual jokes involve men who are cuckolds; there's even a word for a cuckold who's happy about it, a wittol (usually because he's happy someone else is satisfying his wife). There are also lots of jokes about horny widows. So it looks like early modern culture thought of women as somewhat more sexually active and desiring than men.

So I tend to think that evolutionary theories about human behavior need to be way more culturally aware than they were then. But I don't necessarily think that's an easy direction, given the level of institutionalized sexism (including in the sciences).

Then I started thinking about the ways texts and art work on our brains. In English, for example, short rhymy lines tend to feel funny. But I don't know poetry in every culture; do people have the same reaction across cultures, or is this reaction a matter of cultural training on some level?

Poe thought that certain sounds evoked certain responses. But would that hold across cultures? English doesn't use all the sounds humans can make, and doesn't distinguish between some sounds that other languages do. It's hard for me to think that there's a way to use evolutionary theory to explain poetic responses in anything but uselessly broad strokes.

Is there something innate in the way that humans create narratives? How could we figure that out without some other sort of narrative forms?

And what would that sort of thing tell me about King Lear?

In a way, relativity is more useful in helping me understand how artist in the early 20th century were exploring ways of representing human experience and the problems of objectivity. But I can't imagine being able to use it usefully for Shakespeare or early modern texts, and really, that's the test for me.

I'm obviously missing what might be a fruitful approach, but I'm not seeing it. Help me out?

(nb. For texts and such by authors who were influenced by Darwin or evolutionary theory, bringing evolutionary theory in makes obvious sense, of course, in the same way that understanding medieval Christianity is vital to understanding Chaucer. But when we're really after theory qua theory, we want it to have explanatory power beyond it's direct influence, right?)

Friday, June 29, 2007

Reading to the End?

At some point, I developed a habit of just plugging along reading whatever I was reading until I got to the end, whether I liked it, found it useful, or whatever.

A couple years ago, I let go of this habit with regard to things I read for pleasure. But I still have difficulty putting down a book (articles are less difficult) that's work-related.

But I did it! I feel strangely liberated. But the book wasn't doing what it promised, wasn't helping me, wasn't challenging me, and wasn't keeping my interest well. And it set up Shakespeare folks as idiot strawmen, and that irritated me.

And yet, in addition to feeling liberated, I also feel a little guilty.

I think it's a holdover from graduate school, where I put a lot of emphasis on trying to actually do the reading required for classes. I took this to stupid extremes, even. I was in a class where the prof said that graduate students were supposed to read the primary texts in the original language whenever possible. So I did. I read plays in two different languages. And no other grad student did. There was no reward for my effort; I didn't know either language well enough to get nuances from the 16th or 17th century texts, even. And it took way longer to read the texts in their original languages. And since no one else bothered, I couldn't even commiserate.

Time to LET GO!

A Little Frustrated

I'm just not adjusting to my wonderful new bike as well or fast as I'd hoped. My wrists hurt. I had the handlebar stem thing changed, so it's a bit higher, and then my hands went numb. (I THINK and HOPE that I just didn't move my hands around enough today, but dang, the ride wasn't that long.)

I've been doing some reading, and I'm thinking maybe we need to adjust the angle I'm holding the bar with rather than the height? I'm heading over to do that this morning. (I feel stupid going into the bike shop so often; they're nice, really nice, about making adjustments, but I still feel stupid.)

I'm riding slower than on my old bike!

When I went on a 40 mile ride on Saturday with my friend's son, a teenager, well, even though he rarely bikes, he was very polite about not kicking my rear. But it was very clear that he could have.

At one point, we stopped to drink and shake out my wrists, and another guy passed us. So we joked about catching and passing him. And off we went. I encouraged my friend's son, and he took off as if I were standing still. I managed to pass the other guy, too, eventually, and caught up to my friend's son when he stopped for me.

But still, I've been biking lots and working up, and this guy just has lots more power in his motor than I do.

He was a fun riding companion, though. Lots of fun to chat with, considerate, all good stuff. I'd be happy to ride with him again.

Then there's the weight thing. I've been trying to lose weight for a couple of years now, this past year, fairly seriously. And I've gotten nowhere. I bike at least 5 hours a week, working pretty hard (and more in the past several weeks).

Now, I know I've probably built a bit of muscle, and if I could actually SEE muscle, I'd be less frustrated. But I can't. Nor do my clothes fit differently in any real way. But the exercise makes me hungry, so I eat (and try to eat sensibly and all). And I'm frustrated!

And yes, while I can't compete with a man reaching his physical prime, I'm probably in pretty decent shape aerobically and such. And that's the real point. But losing some weight would really be a nice bonus. Or riding faster. Or something!

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Ephemeral Memories

Recently, I checked in on a message board of some folks I used to hang with in an mmorpg and saw that someone had left me a message talking about a memory she had of something we'd done. Yeah, that's vague, but the specifics aren't the thing.

What we did in that game was totally virtual. I never met most of the people who met lots to me in the game outside of the game, though I have met a few.

We acted through our avatars in a virtual world, and mostly, I had tons of fun.

It's surprising to me, after several years, how strongly I remember some of those ephemeral moments, though. How much I'd like to chat with familiar folks long since logged off (as have I). How much I'd like to have some of those experiences again (but you can't really go back, of course).

Some of the most fun I had in the game came from doing unexpected things, especially going somewhere with a couple people and doing something that required teamwork and skill, and pulling it off. Big cooperative multi-group accomplishments were also good, but the things I did with a couple people were usually more intense and my skills felt more necessary and important.

For me, life is rarely as scary, dangerous, or intense as that game was. Mostly, I'm glad of that, because the game's a LOT more forgiving of error than my body is. But still, the intensity was fun, and I sometimes miss it. And I miss being fairly good at doing my part to accomplish stuff. Somehow, committee meetings, even when we accomplish something important, rarely give me the rush of excitement. Teaching gives me a steady, lower level of rushing excitement, thank goodness, but I don't often have the sense of really good teamwork in teaching. Ideally, I would. But mostly, I don't.

No doubt, that combination of real safety and rushing excitement contributes a lot to the popularity of both MMORPGs and Disneyland-type places.

When I was a very young child, I visited my Great Grandma K, and she visited us. As she got really old, GGK would confuse me for my mother as a child, or talk about waiting for her husband to bring the buckboard to pick her up (she was a teacher). I was fascinated by the way she'd talk about the past; her conversation was like bringing all those Little House books to life.

I knew four of my great grandparents (some on each side), so I probably have decent genetic potential for a long life. So, if I get old and demented, I wonder what people will think if I start reminiscing about dragons and such. What will happen when I start talking about the avatar names of people I interacted with (none of which sound like normal names)? Of how genuinely concerned I was the first time I met the famous B? Of how I feared Fear itself?

I went for a ride today with some friends, and got a moment of real fear when one of my friends stopped in front of my on the bridge. I barely got unclicked before I fell against the bridge railing. It would have been BAD to fall high against it and over! (I don't think I'd actually go over, but it did get my heart going!)

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Short-live Book Order Success

Having gotten my book orders in yesterday, I was dismayed, but not surprised, to start getting notes from the bookstore today. One book seems to be out of print (but Amazon thinks not?); another is in a new edition (same editor and press, new ISBN, I'm guessing).

Our bookstore is so-so. I've heard of true nightmare bookstores, and much better ones, and ours is in between.

I've learned over the years to go check my books a couple weeks before the semester starts, and to start in on anything missing or looking iffy then. I've been able to catch some potential problems early, that way. And happily, each time our bookstore people have been good at solving the problem.

I need to get up on re-reading, and FAST!

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Book Orders - CHECK!

I finally got my rear in gear and got my book orders done. Unfortunately, that made me realize that I'm going to be teaching a bunch of new plays in one class. And I've decided to revamp another class significantly. And there's a new common text (that I've read, but I'm not enthusiastic about) for the writing class.

I ought to get my common sense examined!

I'm going to teach history plays (and historiography stuff) in an upper level seminar, and I've decided to teach the Famous Victories with Shakespeare's Henry V. I'm also lined up to teach another Shakespeare play for the first time (in line with my goal to teach all the plays by the time I end my career). I'm going to have the students use EEBO (Early English Books On-line) to read the Famous Victories, so they'll actually get to know that resource a bit better than otherwise.

I've ordered Graff and Birkenstein's They Say / I Say for all three classes. I actually think it's got a lot of potential to help all three very different levels of student. So, we'll see if I'm right! (And if I'm totally wrong, which class will I be most wrong about?)

Sunday, June 24, 2007

How Not to Impress Your New Co-Workers

Recently, a non-English department hired a new faculty member with a trailing spouse who happens to have a phud in English, and cooperatively, we hired the spouse as an adjunct to teach several courses. (This sort of thing happens all over academia.)

The non-English department chair was having some sort of gathering, involving these two, and wanted some English folks to go to meet and greet. Through a friend in that department, I ended up going. (I'm not entirely sure if the gathering was for these folks, or just coincident with their visiting to look for a place to live or what.)

The gathering is outside, and it's dusky, but quite pleasant.

I get introduced to the New Guy. I've heard you do British modernism, I said, that's a fascinating and complex period.

I answer the what do you do question with the usual Shakespeare rap, and the New Guy says, I really would love to teach some upper level Shakespeare classes. Erm, I replied something about how great it is to teach Shakespeare, internal claxons alarming the while.

I ask him what he'll be teaching this semester, and he says writing (which we pretty much all teach) and an intro level course in modernism. He makes a sort of derogatory comment about intro courses in modernism. I ummed uncomfortably.

He lit up a smoke.

And began to talk about how much he'd had to read in early modern lit through studying Eliot.

And happily, we were interrupted by someone in the Philosophy department. I did introductions, and the New Guy immediately said how much he loved reading philosophy, and he really wanted to teach a philosophy class. The philosopher asked pleasantly who he liked to read. Then the New Guy noted that he'd liked his philosophy class as an undergrad, but hadn't actually read any since then.

We turned the conversation to the Northwoods housing availability, and what sorts of things are available to do around here. New Guy talked about how they'd already been out to check out some of the bars in town, and were looking to check out some more.


One of my faults is that I really don't like being around smoking. It's not some moralistic or health thing. It's a nausea thing. When I was a little kid, one of my grandmother's smoked a fair bit; she'd smoke in the car, and the windows would be closed, and I'd get nauseated. I've never really gotten beyond that. Smoking just turns me completely off. (Though, to be honest, I rather like the smell of unsmoked cigars.) There's no way he could have known about the smoking thing, and the gathering was outdoors, and he wasn't even being rude about how he smoked. That's totally me.

At first the bar thing made me think I've gotten old, but then I realized that I just never had that much interest in checking out bar scenes. I think the smoking thing is a HUGE part of it. I used to party in a specific club, and when I'd come home, I'd have to take a shower and put my clothes in the washer before I went to bed because I stank so much. But it was a fun club, lots of dancing. Maybe I am just old?

I do go to one bar in town, probably every 4-6 months. But I go for their great soup and sandwiches at lunch. Seriously, messy sandwiches, served on waxed paper, but oh so yummy. And hot bean soup. It's perfect for really cold days. I drink water because I hate the taste of beer and it's way too early to drink anything else.

The big thing, though, and this isn't about me: If you've done your phud in field X, sub-field Y, that's what you're qualified to teach. You aren't in all likelihood qualified to teach in a different department, nor are you likely to be qualified to teach upper level courses outside your sub-field. This is especially true in a field such as English, when there are so many folks who actually spent time studying sub-field Z. Yes, to really read Eliot, you have to read tons of early modern lit. That will stand you in good stead when you teach Eliot, and when you teach intro courses, and let's face it, early modern lit is just down-right fun. But if you haven't read recent criticism or historical contextualization, you probably aren't ripe for teaching that upper-level class in early modern lit.

If you wanted to teach sub-field Z, you should have done your dissertation in that area. If you wanted to teach field Q, you should have gone to grad school in that area.

If you're starting out as an adjunct, then it's unlikely you're going to get to teach upper-level courses even in your own field. That will change if you're proven to be a capable teacher of our students AND there are opportunities. We have a couple adjuncts who are brilliant in being great teachers, adaptable and willing, and who've taught upper-level courses for us often when needed.

Yes, I know adjuncting is painfully exploitative. I've done my time. And, really, there's nothing I can do to make it less exploitative (though I can do things to make it less painful locally, by respecting my adjuncting colleagues and doing my part to make sure my department/school treats them as well as it can. I can talk all day about trying to do that, but unless you're here, you won't have a sense of where I fail and where I succeed).

So, what should you do when you're meeting folks for your new adjuncting (or other) job?

It's always fine to note what a fascinating and complex field someone else works in. Every academic field is fascinating and complex, so you're not lying. If you can ask a minimally intelligent question about the field, then you get to learn something from the conversation! YAY!

It's always fine to be enthusiastic about your field. You studied it, right? You'd better be enthusiastic about it. Seriously, your enthusiasm is one of the tools you get to use to face down a class some days, so grin and go for it. Don't put down the intro class in your field!

It's never great to BS about someone else's field. If you really love Sartre, then by all means, feel free to say so. But don't say you love Sartre if you haven't read anything by him beyond No Exit, because the philosopher over there is not impressed.

So that's it.

I'm guessing the New Guy I met was really trying to make a good impression and trying a bit too hard, maybe? I hope he and his partner are happy here and that things work out well for both of them.

I don't mean to sound as if my initial impression is some huge deal, first because I have little power in these sorts of hiring decisions and second because I'm not that caught up in what people say after a couple of beers at a gathering.

And on the other side of the deal, maybe the New Guy looked at me and laughed inside when I talked enthusiastically about the bike trails, about learning basic kayaking on our non-whitewater river, about what a great department we have, and such. I'm no model of the athletic type, and not much to write home about as an English scholar.

Friday, June 22, 2007

The Week in Review

Some stuff accomplished:

*Made some appointments I've been putting off.

*Took a mower in to be fixed after I couldn't get it started. I think it's 8 years old now, and hasn't been tuned up, so I'm hoping this helps!

*I've ridden just over 100 miles this week, including a new hilly trail and road area south of my house. I also solo tried another trail some friends showed me last year, which was a really nice change; it was a longish drive to get there, but worth it!

*Did some reading, but not nearly as much as I needed to.

*Planted more plants.

Overall, not the most successful week, but not horrific, either. I'm not spending enough time on my language study! I need to change that.

I'm not reading and writing enough. I need to change that.

I have plans for a long ride tomorrow. Here's hoping for not too hot weather. A friend's son is going to ride with me, a charming, nice guy in his late teens. He's either going to kick my rear in terms of speed and stamina, or he's going to be a sore puppy. He doesn't ride much, but he has all the advantages of being a male teen who does physical labor a lot.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Tufted Titmouse!

My first! It was perched on a small trellis I have for a deck planter. It stayed there a bit, quite courteously, I thought, so I could have a good long look with my binoculars.

I'm excited :)

Blog Rolling

Hey Folks,

It's time to update the blog list on the sidebar. Alas, some of the links are long dead.

If you want me to add you, please let me know in the comments.

Compendium Up!

Horace over at To Delight and Instruct has put together a compendium of "must reads" for graduate students. Good stuffs!

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Taking Care of Business

Big Business

I got a call again on Monday from one of my credit card companies, Urbi-Finance, complaining that I owed them money. Ugh, I thought, I did that on-line bill pay through my bank, and something went wrong. I asked them if they hadn't gotten an on-line payment, and no, they said they hadn't.

So I checked the on-line thingy for the bank, and it showed that the payment went through. And then I noticed something, a BAD something. The last four digits of the credit card number that weren't Xed out were the same as on my other credit card, the one that wasn't having problems.

I figure I somehow, stupidly, typed in the same number. So my mistake, and not a good one.

I called the bank, and they said the payments had gone through and been accepted by Urbi-Finance, so I should try talking to Urbi-Finance.

I called Urbi-Finance, and told them about my mistake. They said there is no way to track down a payment problem, but that I have to have my bank fax the payment information. [I was frustrated! What kind of multi-national financial company doesn't have the ability to track payments in all sorts of ways? Seriously? Think about it!]

So I called my bank again, and explained my mistake and what Urbi-Finance said. The customer service person said he couldn't fax that information, but that he'd put through a search request to track down the information and resolve the problem.

This morning, there was a message on my machine when I got back from my bike ride asking me to call so that the bank could put through a conference call with Urbi-Finance. We played phone tag a bit today, but finally this afternoon we got it all together.

The bank account guy put through a conference call to Urbi-Finance; I explained what I'd done to the Urbi-Finance guy. And the Urbi-Finance guy looked and said that I've got a large credit to my account with the last four digits XXXX. But, XXXX is the other account, I said.

Well, turns out my other account, even though it's with a different company, is actually an Urbi-Finance card. It took a while, but the guy said he was able to correct it and that the money will be credited to the right account within a couple days.

Boy, was that a stupid mistake!

Still, if the customer service folks at Urbi-Finance had tried to figure stuff out with my first call, they should have figured it out, no? They did when the bank got them to try.

Little Business

I made a couple of calls today that I've been putting off. I'm bad about putting some things off, but there's no good reason I put these calls off. And both of them are in my own interest, totally, and my choice, but still, I put them off. But I couldn't put these off any longer, realistically, and get what I want. Now, because I put one of them off so long, I'm going to be have a minor difficulty in the next week (or whenever). I am NOT thrilled with myself. Stupid Bardiac! I need to learn not to put things off, but even so, I should have predicted that it would be six weeks to do this, rather than say, three or four weeks. Three or four weeks would make sense to me; but six weeks is reality.

Biking Business

Usually, I drive my bike to a trailhead and ride a rails-to-trails trail which is relatively flat and goes a long ways. But I've felt that I should at least try some hills to build a little leg strength. One of my friends was teasing me a while ago, about how she knew some hills that would kick my ***. I responded that she should be real, because my driveway kicks my *** (and it's a normal driveway, with a very slight slope, about a car and a half long).

I live near the top of a hill in some hills. [NB. If you're a real biker, these count as hillocks, perhaps. The Northwoods is NOT the Rockies, the Sierras, the Andes, the Pyrenees, the Alps, or anything like that. But for me, they're hills.]

A couple times now, I've taken short rides (5 miles or so) up and down the hills near my house, and I can make it up the hill.

A while back, I noticed a trail along the side of a local highway about a mile from my house, but prompty ignored it figuring that if I made it to the highway and rode there, I'd never make it back up the hill to my house. I continued to ignore it, but wondered where it went.

Today, I finally put things together and rode my bike down to the close trail and rode out on it. It went out about 3 miles along the highway out of town, but then there was a nicely paved road leading off away from the highway, so I took that. And there were hills, up and down hills. And very little traffic.

The problems are, and there are two: one, I'm a scaredy cat going downhill. If the bike gets up to 30 on the speedometer, I'm wide-eyed with terror, and playing the brakes. I pretty much brake down all the hills to keep it well below that. And then, I'm a whuss going uphill!

But the new bike was a help, since it has some serious granny gears!

I rode about 16 miles, and my legs really knew they'd had some exercise coming up the final hill to my house. Boy did I go SLOW!

When I was a little kid, I remember having this sense of total freedom when I got on the bike. I could cross the local highway to go to the store when I had money; I could ride to other suburbs. Today, for the first time in a long time, I got that sense of freedom on my bike instead of in my car. There's something about being able to go up that hill to my house, so that if I want to ride somewhere, I know I'll be able to make it home. Very fun!

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Gardening Thoughts

One of my friends has helped me several times now choosing plants for my garden, advising me on putting them in, and so forth. F and I first went to a garden shop last summer for plants for my shaded area and a small sunny area. F's a good garden guide, and asked me what sorts of plants I really liked and wanted in my garden. Alas, I gave her a rather blank look; I just wanted stuff that would grow where I had room and not take too much effort because I'm a lazy bum.

Turns out, my lack of real preference for specific types of plants rather shocked my gardening friend. Seems she's been gardening since she was a small tot, and has strong affections for certain species and cultivars, even.

I've been thinking about the garden I'm trying to have now, and the garden my folks had when I was a kid. I spent a lot of time in that garden, and felt a fair affection for the yard and such. But living in the upper midwest means that almost none of the plants I grew up with in that rather temperate area survive here. I've lived here long enough to understand that, but not long enough to know most of the plants around here or to have developed real affection for them.

There's a notable exception. I love Tamaracks (aka Larches). There's something deeply appealing in the softness of their needle things. But, the first time I had a Tamarack in my yard, when fall came, it turned yellow and I thought I'd killed it. I was miserable until I mentioned it to someone who'd been in my yard, how I was heartbroken about killing this tree, and he told me about the whole turning yellow thing with Tamaracks. I thought they were like Pines or Spruces, but they're not!

I'm sure a real gardener would have grown to know the local plants by now, but I'm not any sort of real gardener.

I'm much better about learning the birds in this area, though I sometimes have to think twice (or more) when I realize that my first thought about a sparrow doesn't make sense here.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

My Colleague's Work

I had cause to read a colleague's article proposal and talked to him about it recently. The article was about a short story by an author who also wrote a fairly famous novel. The author wrote an introduction to the short story collection in which this particular short story is printed.

My colleague's proposal looks at what the author has to say about the story, and then makes an argument about how the story works. Yeah, vague, sorry.

What was really cool was that there were all these things I knew just enough about to ask good questions (well, I think they were good, and my colleague said he did, too).

For one thing, I think I trust what authors say about their work less than some folks do. It's not that I don't think authors might have interesting insights, but I don't automatically think authors have full insight even into their own writings. (Nope, I especially don't trust Spenser!) We had an interesting discussion about the way my colleague was framing his argument, and I think it's going to be really interesting.

In a way, knowing relatively little about the period means I need to ask questions about historical and cultural contexts that (I hope) helped my colleague see some potential connections.

One of the amusing things about the cultural/historical thing was that in my cultural questioning, knowing relatively little as I do, I had to call on my pathetic high school English class knowledge, which meant, of course, that the one example I had was of an author who pretty much strikes me as intensely misogynistic and nasty, and very canonical. (And, this Mr. Canon was one of the authors I hated reading in high school, when I pretty much hated reading everything assigned.)

But I actually think that ended up being really interesting because my colleague's work is on a far less canonical author, one who maybe stands in real contrast to Mr. Canon. Or maybe reacts to Mr. Canon, or influences him?

Responding to a colleague's work is fun in a way that responding to a students work rarely is because you can just go to town with ideas, and know that it's not my responsibility to grade the end result. And, of course, my colleague's work is more intellectually challenging and mature.

On the Trail Today

I have some good friends, most of whom are very willing to put up with my foibles, and even encourage me. One of these friends agreed to do a bike thing with me today. The plan was that I would drop my car and keys at her house, ride out to the Malt shop, calling her along the way so she could meet me there for a malt.

I thought it was longer, but it was actually just 30 miles. There's about 10 miles of good paved trail, 10 miles of bumpity paved trail (hard on the wrists), and 10 miles of surprisingly good packed dirt trail. It felt great, overall.

Along the way, there was a female turkey on the trail. She saw me coming, and instead of taking off to the side of the road, she decided to run down the trail. It's a sort of funny sight, seeing a turkey running down the road. But as I was obviously a dangerous predator in not so hot pursuit, she started putting out her wings, flapping, and finally took off! She flew about 20 feet before swerving off the path, and was actually really beautiful and graceful in flight.

I feel strangely privileged. I know lots of people who've never seen wild turkeys, or never seen them doing the whole display thing. I bet relatively few get to see them fly. And I did!

The only downside to the trip was that the malt shop was closed for a family emergency. I hope that it's not too serious, since I've met several members of their family, and they seem like nice folks. And they make a fantastic malt!

My friend and I went out to lunch, though, so things worked out well. We're going to do it again, but I'll go past the town and then come back to add another few miles to my ride.

Bikewise: I'm getting a bit better with the cleats and clicking in and out. My wrists are less sort today than after my 35 mile ride Monday (shorter distance or getting a stronger core, or both). I need to start working on my speed again, though!

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Feeding at the Feeder

I have a small, ugly, little block suet feeder cage hanging on a trellis where I can see it from where I sit to use the computer.

This morning, there were two small woodpeckers, Downy, I think, though maybe Hairy (they look a lot alike, but are different sizes). In my Peterson guide, it says you can tell male from female because the males have a red patch on the back of the head, and females don't.

So these woodpeckers. The female is right on the cage thing, and the male is on the trellis, and both are pecking at the suet. Then the female reaches over and feeds the male. And again and again. So what's happening?

Is this some sort of courtship/mating thing?

I'd just assumed that males don't get the red spot thing until they're mature, but maybe they do, and this is a baby getting fed by Mom?

What struck me was that he was right there, pecking at the suet, and she'd feed him anyway.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Lending Books

I've been getting notes for a couple months now that I owed a fine to the library for a book I didn't return. I've searched my office and house up and down, and I can't find it, so I paid up. I usually don't lose library (or other) books.


I have a habit of loaning books to students in classes to help them with their research papers. And I have a feeling that I loaned this one to a student and because it's not mine, didn't think to have the student fill out a little index card to stick in the shelf as a placeholder. (Not that doing the index card thing guarantees I'll actually get books back, alas.)

I loaned a grad student a library book once, and then asked to use it in the class, where I discovered, to my horror, that someone had written in INK in the book! I was so horrified that I ranted about it in class, much to the apparent embarrassment of the student who'd done the writing (which I hadn't realized at first in my utter horror). Who takes a library book and writes in it in ink? (Or borrows a book and writes in it period?) (I write in my own books, but not library books.) (The book was brand new, too, as I'd just had the library buy it as a resource for the class.)

I keep telling myself that I'm not going to loan out books anymore, and then I stupidly do. I tend to have lots of useful books in my office, including ones our library doesn't have. Most students are great and return my books in good condition. But sometimes they don't, and I have to track them down, or they never respond to my emails or messages.

It's not like students are unique: I've loaned out at least four copies of Pavic's Dictionary of the Khazars, and I've finally quit buying myself new copies. But dang, that's an amazing book!

So, what's the verdict: loan or not?

No Witty Title

So I went to get my eyes checked today. I had eye surgery about ten years ago now, so of course I told the medical assistant/nurse (she didn't say, but did at least tell me her name) and she (I assume) put it on the form. Then she did all the tests. It's not her fault, but seriously, I want to know if I failed or whatever because I'm test obsessive and all.

My eyes get all dilated, my contacts are out (not in that order), and Dr. Eye Guy comes in. That's a little weird, since having no contacts in and not being able to focus, I can't actually see him much. But we proceed. He's looking at my eyes and making notes and stuff.

He's looking in my eye, the cyborg eye, with the magnifier things, and all of a sudden he sort of gasps. And I sort of gasp and hold my breath, thinking OH, BLEEP, something bad has happened to my eye again! PANIC! Heart thumping. Mouth dry.

He keeps looking, and I'm feeling my fingernails dig into my hands, and he's having me do the look right, look left, look up, etc thing a couple more times. And finally he says, oh, you have a [name of type of implant thing].

Um, yes, I say (hard with a totally dry mouth), I told [name of assistant] and it's on the chart. (Seriously, did he think this was news to me? I was there when they put it in.)

So the scary gasp and all was when he saw the implant thing and thought something was really wrong until he realized it was an implant.

It's ON THE CHART! If he just glanced over it before starting, he'd see it's ON THE CHART, and I wouldn't have to be sitting there wondering if I'm going to go blind in that eye this time.

(Why do they make me do the bleeping charts if they don't look anyways? Should I just blurt that out right off? I mean, he asks what concerns me, but my cyborg eye doesn't really concern me; it's just there. Should I just jump in and say, by the way, I'm a cyborg so check out the implant, and assume that's not just repeating what he already knows?)

So, anyways, my eyes are as good as they're going to be (my implant rocks! I'm so happy not to be blind in one eye! Thank you to the Eye folks and all who did that!). YAY! (And also the no glaucoma or pressure problems, no problems with the contacts, or anything else.) And I'm breathing normally again and all (it was a mercifully short panic time). The dilation stuff is wearing off, so I can focus to read the computer screen.

I'm going out for a short ride! (I spent part of the morning learning how to adjust my cleats and stuffs!)

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Sometimes a Great Posting

Every so often, I read a blog post and find myself nodding along enthusiastically. Terminal Degree wrote just such a post today, about working as a musician. Really, though, it could be about any sort of working and any sort of "calling" one might have.

I'm in awe. Go read it!!

I'm sort of a Hobbesian in one way: And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.” Not so much about the religion thing, though.

Given that I think we're pretty nasty critters, and that most critters will do in whatever other critter in a nasty way given the opportunity without potential danger, I'm sometimes amazed that people do as well as we do. I come to a four way stop, and lo, pretty much everyone stops and takes their turn. It's truly amazing in some ways.

Nonetheless, (and back to TD's post, sort of) I don't think most people jump for joy at going to any job every day. We make compromises about what we're doing all the time. I guess I hope to try to be ethical in what I do, but I know I don't do so well at that all the time.

And yes, I'm aware of the difficulties of grounding an ethics without any sort of religion or diety thing.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The Reading Omnivore

I finished The Omnivore's Dilemma (by Michael Pollan) last night. It was fascinating!

I found the corn section the most compelling because I'd never really thought about how much corn goes into all sorts of foods (because it doesn't all say "corn" but says "xantham gum" and such). I thought Pollan's discussion of the ways food companies have endeavored to get folks in the US to eat more (relatively) cheap corn calories, by super sizing, for example, was fascinating. It's gotta be a sort of brilliant marketing, and just scary at the same time.

I was equally fascinated by Pollan's discussion of the oil energy needed to process foods, especially corn products, and also to transport food. He talks, for example, about eating 4500 calories between three people at lunch, and how those calories took at least ten times that many calories in oil (117). So, ten fossil fuel calories per edible calorie. I would have been interested to see Pollan continue that level of discussion about the ways fossil fuels contribute to feeding us because that seems important in all sorts of ways.

I know some folks who are pretty concerned to try to eat locally and to make less of an impact on fossil fuels in all sorts of ways, including in their food uses. And I find that process thought-provoking, clearly ethical. But I also find it frustrating because I live in a part of the world where, eating only locally, I could get fresh fruit from, say June to November (the first berries at the co-op were in this week, and the last apples seem to come in early November). I'd have more choices among veggies, but there'd be a serious lack of some of my favorite veggies, artichokes! Still, in the past year or two, I've tried to eat a bit more thoughtfully in terms of food travel and such. I'm not fully informed, nor as careful as one might be.

Pollan's section on organic farming says a lot about how industrialized organic farming has become in some areas, and how labor intensive really good farming seems to be. Here, the information that getting a box of organic salad from where it's grown in California to the east coast takes something like 4,600 calories of fossil fuel, or what comes to 57 fossil fuel calories per edible calorie (167). Wow, that's a lot! Even more than the ten to one ration for his corn meal.

I was thinking about fossil fuel costs when he talked about people who drive over 100 miles (one way) to pick up chicken at an organic farm (242). Surely the pollution they're adding basically negates any benefits of eating organic chicken in the big picture?

Pollan seems to have a rather romantic attitude towards the foraging thing, especially with mushrooms. So, I couldn't help myself but do the math for basic fossil fuel and the morel mushrooms he talks about foraging (381-390), because, yes, I'm a nerd. They got 60 pounds, Pollan says (390).

So, they drove from the Bay Area to the Sierras. Let's say 300 miles round trip (a conservative estimate, from the east Bay), and let's imagine the SUV gets 25 miles / gallon of gasoline (hey, maybe it's a really tiny SUV; it makes the math easy). So straight up, just counting gasoline, we're looking at 12 gallons.

I looked up the number of calories in a gallon of gasoline, and found that there are 31,000 KiloCalories per gallon. (This is important because dietary "calories" are really KiloCalories, and that's what I've been using, and what--I think--Pollan uses throughout.)

So, 12 gallons of gasoline makes 372,000 calories (going with dietary calories).

Now let's look at the other side of the equation, the mushrooms.

According to this food site, a serving of Morel Mushrooms is 4 grams weight, and has 15 calories (per serving).

Basic math: .27 calories/gram * 453.6 grams/pound = 122.5 calories / pound

So, 60 pounds of Morels makes 7350 edible calories. That's a ratio of about 50 gasoline calories per edible calorie. Which is five times as much as the corn fed dinner he talks about (117).

I'm guessing, from reading about the guys' marketing of those morels, that they're going to fancy restaurants in the Bay Area, which means that more fuel goes into transporting them around there, and that they're going to be described as locally gathered or whatever, and sold at a premium.

Running even those few numbers makes me realize that the whole ethical eating, or slow eating, or whatever is even more complex than it appears (and that's plenty complex).

So, now I'm going to drive my bike over to the trailhead so I can get some exercise, because I'm full of contradictions.

But I think I'm going to learn more about local eating and such, and try to make some small changes.

NB. I think it's worth saying a good old thanks to Mr. M from my high school chemistry class. Because of his great explanations, I understand the whole canceling things to work out basic math. Actually, Mr. M was one of the best high school teachers I had, great at explaining, not overtly sexist (hey, it was the 70s!), and even fun. I really enjoyed my HS chemistry!

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Bike Math

Ignore this!

Odometer on old bike on Jan 1: 725
Odometer on old bike now: 1284
Miles on old bike so far this year: 559

Miles on new bike before computer: 91 (Yay for marked trails!)

Total miles so far this year, pre-new bike computer: 650

Hey, not bad!

I got my new bike computer yesterday, so I thought I'd put the numbers somewhere easy to find them.

I rode 35 miles this morning, and can I just say, bonk.

I ate an orange a little over half way, and drank a couple liters of water (I carry 2, poured some over me, drank lots, refilled, poured more over me. I look like an idiot, but it feels nice!)

I'm still adjusting to the new bike; the drops are a little lower relative to the seat than my old, and my wrists get sore when I go very long. But I iced them, and now they feel nice and relaxed again.

The good news is that it's taking a little longer for them to get sore, so I think the core exercise thing is helping a little. And the saddle's feeling more comfortable at the same time, so I think the core thing and my legs getting used to the clipless is working.


The current fixation: chocolate ice cream. (I'm blaming Artemis because she talked about chocolate the other day, but really... to be fair, she didn't talk about chocolate ice cream. And yes, I'm also thinking lots about strawberries.)

I'm trying really hard to eat a good diet and lose weight, and get lots of exercise, which should make the losing weight thing work, right? It's summer! If I'm going to do it, summer is the time! (Lower stress, time to exercise, fresh veggies and such at the farmers' market.)

But I keep obsessing about chocolate ice cream.

If you hear about a random biker mugging an ice cream truck in the Northwoods, please send bail money!

Monday, June 11, 2007

Birding by Bike

I went out for a ride today, later than I'd planned (car oil change). As I was riding back, I suddenly heard this LOUD rustle sound. I know "rustle" makes you think soft, but think LOUD. Of course, I looked over, because, holy cow, loud rustling sound!

And there, about 10 feet off the trail, a turkey had flown up, and within an instant settled back down again. The trail at that point is in a grassy area, and by grassy I don't mean lawn, I mean prairie type grass about four feet high. So I hadn't seen the bird, and I suspect she hadn't seen me, but when I'd whirred by, I guess I startled her? She sure startled me! I almost fell off!

I also saw a Killdeer the other day, and a Catbird today. (Along with the usual suspects: Robins, Cardinals, LBJs.)

On the deck lately: a Red Winged Blackbird has figured out that it really likes suet, and comes to visit a couple times a day. He has competition there from a pair of Red Breasted Grosbeaks, but when he shows up, whichever Grosbeak is there decamps quickly! I've only seen the Grosbeaks there together once, but I think there's a nesting pair in the area, because I see a male and female fairly regularly.

House Finches (a pair) and a Song Sparrow (one at a time, anyways) at the seed, and lots of Goldfinches at the thistle bag (I see six or seven hanging out, sometimes).

Bluebirds seem to be using the corner of the roof as a launching point for hunting, so I sometimes get to see them bring back a big bug and chow down there.

Tree Swallows and (I think) Barn Swallows blow me away. If I could fly, I'd like to fly as they do (as opposed to the turkey!).


I love the local bike shop. I stopped in today to see if they'd gotten a computer in for me, and one of the guys gave me a tire changing lesson. He had to change two, and I did the second one!

I know that sounds lame, but I haven't changed a bike tire since forever. And I'm the sort of learner who learns best by actually doing something rather than hearing or reading about it. (When I was a kid, my folks wouldn't let me get a driving license until I demonstrated that I could change a car tire. My first car tire flat was late on a rainy night, on the freeway. Happily, practice worked. I got out and lit my flares, changed the tire, and all was good.)

Thinking About Teaching Research Again

I'm up this year, after a break of a couple years, to teach our intro graduate research class. I've taught it before with fair success (or so students said during their graduation assessment interviews: things like the class being useful and such), but I want to do it way better.

So, I thought I'd think out loud a little about it. Dr. Virago, over at Quod She (is there anyone who doesn't get a silly grin on their face just at that title?) has hinted that she may do a post on how she teaches her research class. I'd also be interested in other people's experiences, both as students and as teachers.

Part of the difficulty of doing a research course in English is that we don't tend to share a single methodology in the way that a lot of fields do. For the most part, we're working with unique stuff (a novel, a play, a poem), and we take all sorts of approaches. In broad terms, we tend to approach things historically and theoretically, sometimes overlapping those lots, sometimes little. The difficulty is that knowing historical and cultural context about any given era takes a long time; knowing much about every possible context?

And it's not just knowing historical and cultural stuff, it's knowing how to get at that stuff in a given field. I know there are ways to get at LOADS of early 20th century periodicals, and that it's a really interesting project for students to choose a periodical and read a whole year of it, paying attention not only to the articles, but also to advertising and such. But I have no idea where I'd begin to look for those periodicals, especially at our university. (Okay, I know I'd go to our librarians and to my colleagues who do early 20th century lit, but on my own, nope.) Part of our long apprenticeship in English involves learning to access stuff, learning to read it (in Latin, secretary hand, whatever), and learning to interpret it. It matters, for example, that we call the "Geneva Bible" the Geneva Bible, and that we have some ideas about what that means to readers.

So, I gather, most folks teaching research make some choices: teach broadly, and hope to know enough to introduce students to lots of areas. Teach within one's own field, and hope that the students gain enough in that field to learn on their own in their own field. Then there's the added problem of actually having the necessary resources at my school (thank the Flying Spaghetti Monster for EEBO!).

And theory is just as, or perhaps even more, difficult!

So, the question to the internet: If you've had experience with a research course, what's the most important thing a student should learn in a research course? What are the best ways to get a student there?

What projects give the most bang for the buck?

Saturday, June 09, 2007

A Question for Exercise Types and Such

I had a really nice ride today, 30 miles, didn't fall, and at a few points for a while, just felt right with the bike. Very nice! The weather was cool enough to feel great, warm enough to feel great. I stopped at a rest stop at about mile 20 and sat in the shade to eat part of an orange, and it was just yummy! (The other part had to go to the deck to see if some cardinals or such would come visit. Yes, I saw at least one!)

Afterwards, I went to an open air arts thing at a local park, meeting a friend there.

A couple of the local massage businesses (parlors sounds a tad naughty) had intro type chair massages for 15 minutes, and I thought, hey, that would feel good. And it really, really did. (I haven't had a massage in about 10 years, and wow, it was great!)

The friend I was with said that I should drink lots of water today. Okay. But here's the question: she said I needed lots of water because a massage releases toxins and you need to drink lots of water to get rid of them.

Is that like lactic acid from working muscles? Is that a "toxin"? Is there something else? Or is my friend pulling my leg in some sense?

Friday, June 08, 2007

Bardiac the Athlete

I fell with my new bike.

While standing over it in the garage practicing clicking into the cleat of my clipless pedal. I sort of forgot about the clicking out part, which was what I should have been practicing. Oops.


The week's accomplishments:

Read and responded to a colleague's work
Made a car oil change appointment for next week
Made an eye (prescription) appointment for next week (I hate that I'm going to lose most of a day to having my eyes too dilated to focus close or go outside)
Planted 30+ plants in the yard
Weeded front yard and a little of the back, too
Mowed 2/3rds of my mowing
Looked up stuff for an essay I'm brewing (it's NOT Shakespeare, or even drama, so I feel especially clueless)
Looked up stuff for an essay I'm revising (to see what's come out since I last worked on it, thankfully, looks like little!)
Learned the first symbols for my new language
Started reading The Omnivore's Dilemma for my reading group. Fascinating so far!

To do:
Ride the bike for real (it's been lousy riding weather mostly lately; I need to start working up to the century, but it's got to stop being so rainy!)
Mow the other 1/3 of my mowing
Weed the rest of the yard
Read and respond to another colleague's work
Read stuff for my essays
Pre-write for the essay I'm brewing
Make the other appointments I need to make (I wait for summer)
Call lawn company about the dandelion farm outside

Literacy and Flashcards

More on learning my new language. I have to learn a new writing system, so the other day I made up flashcards. I'm taking about five cards a day and trying to memorize, adding them to the pile of the previous day(s), until I can recognize and make the sounds (sort of). As I was writing the cards, and then as I was working on them yesterday, I realized that I've effectively separated the process of learning to read from learning to write.

I don't remember learning to read or write. Seeing kids who are learning, though, leads me to think that we now tend to teach both skills at more or less the same time. Kids trace letters, learn to write their names in crayon, and so forth.

In early modern England, however, the skills seem to have been taught at different times, with people learning to read well before they learned to write. This adds complexity to questions of literacy, because someone might be able to read, but not able to sign his/her name, much less write anything else, and 400 years later, how do we know?

I talked to my friend who's done this teaching abroad program recently, and she said that basically, I'd have to adjust to being illiterate for a semester. I have a hard time wrapping my head around that, really. When I joined the Peace Corps, I didn't speak the language at first, but I could always more or less sort things through using a dictionary. But when I look at my new dictionary, I can't begin to understand. (And, in my flashcard way, I hadn't thought at all about having to learn an order so that I can find things in the dictionary! ACK!)

The writing symbols are mostly complex to my eyes, and seem to need to be drawn/written in a specific order of strokes. Now, while I'm willing to guess that most folks draw/write in pretty much the same order of strokes for English letters, we do a fair bit of variation, especially for some letters. Miniscule "a," for example can be either a simple slanty circle with an attached line on the right, or a mini-sideways-oval with a longer curved line from the top left to the bottom (reproducing the printed look in this font). And yet, without thinking about it consciously, I recognize both forms of the letter as the same thing.

It also occurs to me that I'm teaching myself to associate sounds with symbols rather than names. In English, we name letters in ways that sometimes resemble their sounds (m = em, and so forth), but w = double-you doesn't at all.

At this point, what I can learn, I'll learn. And I'll count on the generosity of most people, most of the time, to help me find my way once there. (I'm planning to take a beginning class in fall, but want to learn what I can this summer as a start.)

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

More Geekitude!

I saw this over at Lisa's The Paper Chase, and couldn't resist.

You scored as Monk, Dotted across the landscape are monasteries-small, walled, cloisters inhabited by monks. These monks pursue personal perfection through action as well as contemplation. They train themselves to be versatile warriors skilled at fighting without weapons or armor.























Which D&D Class Are You?
created with

For what it's worth, I did indeed play D&D in college. My character was a cleric, though.


One of the difficulties of being at a smaller or comprehensive college or university is that you're usually nearly alone in your field. Yes, there are other, say, lit people, but it's not like we're all fully expert in 900 years plus of literature in English from the British Isles, the Americas, and post-colonial places such as India or Jamaica. There are commonalities between the ways one might approach Derek Walcott's work and Alexander Pope's work, but there are also substantial differences.

In most R1 places, there's a group of people working on post-colonial lit, and another group of 18th century folks, and so on, so there are lots of people who know the cultural and historical stuff you're interested in, who know different theoretical approaches, and so forth. Even so, my dissertation group involved an Americanist working on novels, a Brit Lit person working on early 20th century stuff, and me working on early modern drama. That was good because we could read critically, but also insist that the writers not assume we'd know everything, so as writers we learned important ways to tell a wider audience what we had to say. Still, everyone was in the same department, so we all spoke the same critical language to some extent.

A group of us folks from around the university formed a small reading group to give and get feedback on our writing. We're a bit more diverse area-wise than my grad school gang, and that diversity makes for some interesting reading and discussion.

Today we worked through a paper by one of our members. Let's just say it wasn't lit or anything like lit at all. It was fascinating.

Reading it made me hyper-conscious of how strong generic conventions in our different fields are. There were places in this paper where I'd put things in foot or endnotes, but this field tends not to use notes that way. Sometimes the paper used the passive voice in ways that sound artificial and strained to me, but evidently this is so strongly conventional, still, that it's necessary. (There were a few places where the writer decided to change voice to the active, too!)

In writing about early modern lit, we tend to use fairly long and discursive notes to show that we've read the background stuff, while keeping it from overwhelming our main argument. In this field, background stuff has to stand out more, which feels just strange to me.

Very cool to see a fairly mature writer's work in progress, I have to say, especially in a field where the writing as writing stands out for me (since I know diddly about the field itself).

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Why I'm Glad Bikes Don't Talk

In my garage, late morning today:

Old Bike: Hey, you're back from your first real ride. How'd it go?

New Bike: Well, she's a little, you know, heavy.

OB: You should have seen her before!

NB: Wait... that was it for a ride? You're kidding, right? I was just getting warmed up. And it was so slow!

OB: I know...

NB (taking a good look at OB): She's not nearly as sleek and functional as we are, is she?

OB: You should have seen her before I started working with her!


Yesterday, when the bike shop guy was getting me going on my bike, he had me stand over the bike and clip in and out repeatedly until I could do it pretty well with both feet. Then I went for a little ride with a friend who'd happened to come into the shop to see about getting her bike tuned, and managed to do okay.

Amazing: when I walked into the bike shop (after the BSG had called to tell me my bike was ready), my bike was in front, leaning against the counter, waiting. And when I got on it, the seat was at just the right height. I think they'd adjusted so many seats when I did test rides that they knew exactly how to set it for me.

So today, my first real ride, clipless and everything. And I didn't fall (YET). I did a slowish 20 miles or so (no computer yet). The geometry is a little more "aggressive" than my old bike (with the stem adjustment thing to raise the handlebars and such), so my arms are a little tired, but DANG! It felt really good, just smooth!

I need to start doing some core exercises to hold my body up off my hands, I think. And I need to learn to pedal more fully around, I think.

Monday, June 04, 2007


One of the family tales goes like this: Aunt Bea got a new coat for Christmas one year, and she loved it. She loved it so much that she slept with it (for several nights, I think). And forever after, when Aunt Bea got something she really liked, something really special, she would tease and be teased about sleeping with it. So that became a sort of generalized joke in the family; when someone got something they'd really love, there'd be teasing about sleeping with it.

The thing is, Aunt Bea is one of those people that makes teasing a pleasure. Being teased about being just like Aunt Bea is like being teased about being beloved by everyone. That's just how Aunt Bea is.

I'm trying to figure out how to fit my new bike in bed.

What a Grad Student Should Know

Horace over at To Delight and Instruct has asked folks to contribute things that grad students should read. So here's my go:

At my university, we make a lot of effort to help our students see that their liberal arts education has taught them valuable skills that they can actually use to get a job as well as to live a well-considered life. The Dean goes around talking to classes about what employers of all sorts want from college graduates. We faculty learn from resources from the Association of American Colleges and Universities. Our career services helps students write resumes that relate what they've learned in classes to the skills employers are looking for.

We have a fair bit of contact with alumni, most of whom leave college and start careers, and they largely seem to tell us that they really do appreciate and use skills in writing, critical reading, oral presentation, listening carefuly, analyzing data of different sorts (numerical, graphic, and textual), understanding cultural and historical contexts, etc. They relate that doing group projects taught them important leadership skills, and encourage students to do more of those sorts of projects. Those who studied abroad talk about the importance of that experience for their education. And those who've been deeply involved in community or university service find new ways to serve their communities and find that service enriches their lives.

In grad school, it's easy to forget that you learned and reinforced a ton of useful skills as an undergrad, and that, in fact, you're learning and developing new skills as a graduate student.

And it's even easier to forget that there are wonderful lives to be lived outside academics.

When you're in a grad program, there's a huge investment in doing that graduate program, emotional, temporal, financial. It's painful to get an A-, to worry about passing exams, jumping hoops, fellowships, teaching. Typically, you're spending your time at an R1 institution, amongst people who've never had a job outside academics, and who really can't imagine other possibilities. And some of those people are total jerks.

Here's what you should know:

1) Getting a PhD doesn't make you a good, moral, ethical, decent, smart person. Sometimes, it has the opposite effect. Look around: see those professors who are jerks? They probably have PhDs (or some terminal degree).

2) If you don't love teaching, get out while the getting's good. Relatively few people end up in R1s, and even those people make appearances in classrooms. (If you love teaching, there are lots of ways to be involved in teaching outside college and university settings!)

3) If the politics of academia make you miserable, leave. Heck, go join the administrative side and change things! (Maybe you can change things from inside as a faculty member, but I really haven't seen that happen except in very tiny ways.)

4) Yes, your work in [enter obscure subject here] is fascinating! But in the grand scheme of things, lots of other lines of work are fascinating. Face it, the person who collects garbage or trucks vegetables from farms contributes more to the basic living of people than most academics ever will.

5) There's a huge opportunity cost to spending 8 or so years earning a PhD, especially in the humanities where, for your labor, you're likely to get an entry level tenure track job starting in the mid 30-40K range.

So, if you're unhappy in graduate school, realize that you can leave, and there's no shame in leaving. Choosing to leave (or heck, even being kicked out of a phud program) doesn't make you a lesser person.

Sometimes, just realizing that you can leave will make it easier to stay. And you'll make the decision, and not just live in misery. Know also that you'll probably find a really good job (or jobs, or careers) outside academics, making a decent salary (probably more than in academics) and doing meaningful, good work. And, most people in non-academic jobs have a LOT more choice about where they'll live, and if that's important to you, that's important. (Not that I don't love winters... okay, I hate winters. Why can't my school open a campus in Hawaii?)

When I was in grad school, I knew a number of people who left our grad program for a variety of reasons, including the smartest grad student I knew. And I knew some great people who didn't get academic tenure-track jobs after they'd earned their phuds. And those people, to my knowledge, have fulfilling and interesting jobs and lives.

All those skills you learned as an undergraduate, all the additional skills you've honed doing grad work, all of those are actually meaningful in lots of jobs and careers. If you're not sure of that, go visit your local career center and start thinking about how you can explain how your skills help you contribute to an employer.

Make up a resume, and maybe even put yourself up for some jobs. It's good to have an alternative and to know that you have that alternative. Knowledge is power.

Sunday, June 03, 2007


I've begun working on my new language in earnest! I need to learn the writing system at first, so that I can sound out words, and for me, learning something like that means flashcards. I also rely on flashcards for vocabulary/definitions type learning. I'm not great at memorizing things like vocabulary and such, but I've learned that flashcards help me a lot, so that's what I go with.

From what I've learned about learning, the process of writing out flashcards is really important, sort of making muscles work helps me learn.

In my usual day-to-day learning, I'm building a whole lot on a fairly good framework (lit stuff, history, and so forth), so what I'm learning fits into what I know, generally. But learning a totally new writing system is hard because I don't have any framework at all to work from. Of course, once I learn it, I'll begin to have a framework for the rest of the language learning.

All this effort is a good reminder how hard it is to actually study and learn new things. I have an advantage in having lots of experience learning. On the other hand, I'm not exactly a toddler learning a language, and it's hard to wrap my mouth around things.

I tend to be good at conceptual learning. For other sorts of learning, I need visual and physical help. Pictures help me a lot, but actually handling an object helps me even more. I don't have an easy time totally visualizing from a description, for example. But my brain makes aural and visual connections well.


I'm listening to an absolutely fascinating book on CD these days called The Judgement at Paris about the decade from the early 1860s to the early 1870s, focusing on the French art community and the beginnings of impressionism.

When I started back to school after the Peace Corps, I took several semesters of art history. Remember that framework thing I was talking about earlier? Art history built the scaffolding for my historical and artistic framework, and I depended on it hugely during my first several years of graduate school. I still depend on it for some eras (ancient Egypt and classical Greece, for example).

The thing is, when I took art history, we looked at the pieces that get into books, in the same way that when I teach intro to lit, we focus on the poems, short stories, and plays in an anthology, reading more broadly than deeply in any field. But when you learn that way, you see what critics think is the finest work by Manet or Monet or whoever, rather than getting a sense of how they developed. And even when you study more deeply, say as I've studied Shakespeare, you get a sense of the development retrospectively. What you miss unless you're careful, though, is that Shakespeare wasn't SHAKESPEARE until he'd been dead a while, if you know what I mean. No one knew when he was born that he'd be a great playwright, or that he'd survive to adulthood, even.

It's important, though, to always remember that when someone writes a book or paints a painting they may love it, but they don't know what's coming. They don't know if it will get ruined in a fire, be loved/despised by a critic, be bought for a fortune, be unfinished because they get smallpox or syphilis and die. Life was as difficult and scary and uncertain for those famous folks before they died as it is for everyone (even the famous, I'm told).

The cool thing about this book, though, is that it gets much more of a sense of the frustrations of painters having trouble painting, being late with the rent, and being rejected or accepted by the Salon. I also have a basic understanding of what the Salon was, even!

I'd never heard of Ernest Meissonier before, but he was a major figure just before the impressionists hit big, and I gather his reputation has suffered from being sort of old fashioned just at the propitious moment when fashions were really changing. (Sort of like Spenser, perhaps?) Still, it's fascinating listening to the tape and then seeing some of his pictures on the web. For example, the book talks extensively about the difficulties of painting "Friedland." The book also talks about "The Siege of Paris" after the war of 1870, during which one of Meissonier's pupils died.

We saw several of Edouard Manet's paintings in my art history class, but without a context that they were shocking! SHOCKING! And not greatly admired during his early years entering them for the Salon. How many times have I seen pictures of "Olympia"? The book does a good job giving enough context so that I can understand something of the shockingness of it. For me, it always appears in the context of "art" or an art book, and so it's safe and such. But it wasn't when it was rejected for the Salon of 1863.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Bardiac the Gardener

Errands, the farmer's market, tons of weeding, and a few plants planted.

My hands are tired from pulling weeds. I'm used to having tired legs and such, but I don't usually get tired hands. What a whuss!

My dogwood is in and looks sweet. Just that little plant is a 100% improvement in the ugly area. I got about one third of the plants in, after weeding the areas they'd go. I have high hopes for the Asters, too; if they survive, they're going to look wonderful.

When I was young, I would have easily been voted "least likely to garden." Seriously!

Something about winters here really makes me want growing green stuff around as much as possible.

A question for the wisdom of the internets: I need some fun ideas for fresh spinach and aparagus! Can someone share? (Simple is best, but I'm willing to try following directions!)

Friday, June 01, 2007

Things Put Off

I'm guessing other faculty folks tend to put things off during the final weeks of the semester, and then try to do them once grades are in. I do.

So far: I've painted the ceiling of a bathroom. I try to be minimally competent about basic householding stuff, and I managed to do this without falling off the ladder. And it looks pretty good, too. (Yes, this also involved washing the ceiling with bleach solution to kill off the mildew.)

My friend K and I agreed that there's pretty much nothing that goes wrong with a house that you can actually afford to let go any longer than absolutely necessary. I get over the occasional cold, but my house doesn't clear up a mildew thing in the bathroom on its own. Nor does the washing machine recover from a messed up whatever (I had it checked, and it's not worth fixing, alas).

I got a new washing machine because the old one totally died. Fun, fun. Delivery tomorrow!

More householding stuff: The semester is simply not convenient for gardening. The ground's still frozen during spring break. And now, I'm a good three weeks later than the rest of the Northwoods in putting in annuals and such. But after a long winter, having plants come up and start blooming and such just makes me happy, so I'm going with the feeling.

I moved into the BardiacShack about four years ago now, and put in some trees when I moved in. Last year, I put in shade plants in the shady area in back. So this year, I'm hoping to get the front looking better. So K and I went to the nursery today.

K's a great gardener, and I, well, I am not. I tend to get sort of overwhelmed buying plants because you actually have to buy a ton of them. Fortunately, K is patient and guides me gently. Today, we got some Seedums, Salvia, and a load of other flowering stuffs. And I got a dogwood for a particularly ugly area.

There are two really irritating things about my yard. First, the house is built on nasty rocky stuff. My "soil" is more small gravelly stuff than soil. K was shocked and horrified the first time he helped me get plants, and said it was the worst soil he'd ever seen. Second, the people who did the landscaping really liked that small river rock stuff. But it doesn't actually keep weeds from growing, and it makes planting and weeding a huge pain. The local weeds seem very well adapted to the lousy soil, however. I should really just put up that "prairie restoration project" sign and be done with it.

Were I hugely energetic, I'd just start bagging it up and get rid of it. But rock is heavy! And there's lots of it. And I'm not hugely energetic.

I've also put off getting my eyes checked. Yeah, I haven't been for over a year now, and I probably need some new contacts. I should call and make an appointment.

I also made a blood donation appointment, now that my time's a bit more flexible.

And rode 17 miles with a friend this morning.

To do list, other things put off:

Car Oil Change
Call the local grass company about my dandelion farm
Plant plant plant the plants I got today (it started raining after I got them home, and I was lazy)
Learn a fourth language
Read read READ!