Saturday, December 31, 2005

Why do I blog?

In my life I make few conscious decisions. Sad, but true. I kind of just end up where I am and what I'm doing and somehow it usually works out for me. I didn't plan on being a professor; as an adolescent I wanted to be a zoologist and zoo curator and there's still something appealing to me about a job that combines research science, animal care and conservation, showmanship, marketing, and non-profit management acumen -- what a renaissance person a zoo curator has to be! But I got bored with college level science, so I switched to my other love, literature. I liked English because it encompassed so much (especially since I began my studies in the early heydays of the New Historicism and cultural studies) and I learned a little about a lot of things through it. So in that choice of majors I was actually kind of avoiding making a choice. And I had no idea what I wanted to do after college, but I figured I'd find something I liked. I had vague thoughts about law and guessed it also encompassed a lot of kinds of thinking. But after some time, when I realized law would make me unhappy, I remembered all my former professors who said I'd love the life of academia and so I thought, "OK, I'll give that a try." Not exactly the best reason to go to graduate school -- and people like me usually leave because of that -- but here I am. I live one of those infuriatingly charmed lives and because of that I keep waiting for the shit to hit the fan in some catastrophic way because I am so overdue for it. But maybe it never will. One of my friends once wrote the following in a Friendster profile about me:

Things just seem to happen around her; important things. Even in college there was this aura of inevitability she carried with her. It's not just that when in her presence you get the feeling of greatness (although that is there too), but it's also a hopeful optimistic greatness. You just know that as long as you're with [Dr. V] everything will somehow work out in the end.
OK, well maybe that's a bit much. Certainly it's the kind of praise that could give a Virago a big head. (There was a also a bit about my being a Hegelian world historical figure!) But notice that part about "things just seem to happen around her." See, even my friends notice that I'm not really making things happen consciously; they happen around me. And apparently, according to this friend, it's all good. But honestly, isn't it about time I start making decisions and choices myself and guide my own life a little bit?

All of that is a preamble to what I'm about to say: I have no idea why I'm blogging. I just ended up here. Really. The real reason why I ended up with a blog is that I wanted to comment on another blog that would only allow people with Blogger accounts to comment. (I think it was Got Medieval. Damn that Carl. :) ) So I signed up for an account, hastily picked a blog name, and then later decided that "Quod She" was too good a name for a medievalist's blog to waste and that I should use it for something for pete's sake. And so then I wrote this mission statment; go ahead and read it again and see if I'm doing anything remotely like what I thought I'd do.

So what the hell am I doing? Although I think this blog, like my life, has had its moments so far, it has no mission, no consistent raison d'etre, no consistent theme or subject matter, except insofar as I, Dr. Virago (no, that's not my real name), am a single person. (Although, am I? Am I a Romantic subject -- unified and whole -- or a fragmented, polyvocal postmodern subject? Who's to say? Not I.) There's a reason my masthead has no description of the blog contents, but rather winks and nods to what the blog name and my belatedly-picked pseudonym mean. And having never set a firm subject, this blog has been all over the place. But fear not, my mostly new, mostly anonymous blogospheric friends (and the friends and family who read and do or don't comment), I'm not about to give up the life blog-tastic. I do want to make some conscious choices for once in my haphazard life, however, and I've decided to start small (so as not to rock the boat in what has largely been smooth and happy sailing) and make them about this blog. Given that today is December 31st, I thought it was a perfect day to make such choices and small changes to the mission of the blog.

Yesterday, I was rereading one of the two posts I've written for Catching Flies (yes, only two -- I'm a lame group blogger), called "What Does a Professor Do All Day?" -- written under my old boring initials -- and I decided, in retrospect, that that's what this blog is about, the life of a junior prof and what she does all day. Originally it was meant to be personal first, professional second, but I think maybe it should be a bit the other way around, though with more narrative of daily life. Now that I'm gearing up to get back into teaching, I should have more concrete stories to tell, as well. (Though I still will refrained from saying anything I wouldn't say to my students, just in case one of them discovers this blog.) But I also want the people out there who aren't academics -- including the ones who stumble upon this blog accidentally -- to know how we spend our time. Recently, the blogger Tabitha, at Tabitha Writes Back, wrote about having to explain to her family that the time between semesters wasn't a vacation, and in that Catching Flies post I wrote, I described what I did on my "unpaid summer non-vacation." We write these things because so many people, even those who went to college, think when we're not teaching we're not working, and that's just one of the widespread misconceptions of professorial life.

So I want this blog to describe more of my life, for the benefit of those who are considering it, who are already in grad school or thinking about it, and also for the benefit of the profession as a whole, since I think more transparency about what we do and how we do it, and about the different kinds of institutions at which we work, would be good public relations. I don't think this will make my blog much different from other academic blogs, but it will give my blog more of a focus. There will still be personal stories, because in choosing careers and occupations (or happening into them, as I claim I did) we also choose ways of living, which for academics includes moving to places they might not have ever considered before and possibly living in communities very different from the ones they grew up in or went to school in. So some of what I wrote in that original mission statment, then, still holds. And since this is, in the end, a chronicle of only one professor's life -- a particular kind of institution, a particular discipline, a particular individual, a particular community -- this blog will continue to be idiosyncratic and still a way to keep up, for people who know me in real life, with what I, personally, am up to. It will not and cannot stand in for the profession as a whole (although as we bloggers have discovered, sometimes we lead shockingly parallel lives).

That said, expect fewer quizzes and pictures of interspecies love, more narratives about teaching, research, and service (where I'm not in danger of revealing confidential information, of course), and continued stories of how I fit the rest of my life in -- including running, my social life, family responsibilities, etc. There might be fewer declarations of love for A.O. Scott, however. I may still write about television, though, because people should know that there are ridiculously scholarly medievalists who nevertheless can't stop watching The Gilmore Girls.

Of course, four months from now, expect to find me blogging again about how my blog has become something I didn't quite intend!

A new blogger worth reading

You know, the blogosphere is a weird thing. Because of something GZombie said in his update to his MLA post, I decided to check out the links for MLA 2005 (here is GZombie's list -- I still have to sign up for a account). I don't know why I did that -- maybe just because I hadn't finished my barely-still-morning coffee yet (hey, I didn't go to bed until 3am) and I'm procrastinating cleaning my house and running. But at any rate, that's where I wound up. And because of that, I discovered Scribbling Mama, a brand new academic blog by an associate professor of English and mother in devastated New Orleans. She only has three posts so far, and they are all beautifully written and heartbreaking as well. Let's welcome her to the blogosphere.

Three things

  • I can't sleep. It's nearly 3am. This is not like me.
  • My mom is likely getting out of the hospital and going into short-term rehabilitation in a "skilled nursing unit" (aka, nursing home) sometime this weekend, perhaps even tomorrow. Medicare only pays for a semi-private room (oh, for god's sake, why don't they just call it a "double" or "shared room"?!) and all I can say is: her roommate better like Jeopardy!
  • I really need to update my damn blogroll. Some of my regular commenters aren't there and need to be, as do all the blogs I'm now reading via BlogLines. (It's 3am -- I'm too lazy to link.) There are at least 30 blogs I need to add. Mea culpa.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Don't get between my mom and Jeopardy!

So remember when I said in the last update on my mom that she likes her habits and rituals, especially her daily does of Jeopardy! at 4:30 every day? Well, when they moved Mom from the ICU to a regular room day before yesterday, the first thing she said to the nurse who announced the move was, “Not during Jeopardy!” And when the switch was made, it was dangerously close to impeding Mom’s television quiz show enjoyment, coming as it did during the pre-Jeopardy! airing of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? (OK, what is it with game shows and punctuation?!) And then my mom was so worried about missing the show that it got the nurse a little anxious for her, so that when the first elevator we tried to take wouldn’t go to the floor we needed, the nurse said to my mom, “Hold on, I’ll find out which one to take and we’ll get you to your Jeopardy! in time.” Soon she’ll have the whole hospital scheduling around Jeopardy! If you ask me, this is a damn good sign she’s on the mend.

Real Life Irony

Irony is…my elderly father complaining about my elderly and physically frail mother’s short-term memory problems by telling me a story about how Mom forgot to buy orange juice on her weekly shopping trip and how she covered by claiming the store was out…

…then his telling me the same story again later that same day.

And then telling me a third time later that same day.

And then telling me two more times the next day.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Slowly but surely

I thought I'd write a new post for another update on my mom. She's a little bit better every day and soon they're going to be moving her out of ICU and into a regular room -- perhaps tomorrow, though the doctors have a wait-and-see attitude. Anyway, she's off all of the IV drips, eating more, doing her crosswords and Jumble, playing cards, and watching her favorite tv shows, including Jeopardy. All that really remains is for her to get stronger; all of her internal systems that were in critical condition when she entered the hospital (heart, lungs, kidneys, blood pressure) are now back to good or good-as-can-be-expected levels. And today the case manager/social worker came in to talk to us about a short term rehabilitative stay in a "skilled nursing unit" (aka a nursing home) to give her the therapy, especially physical, that she'll need to get strong enough to go home. So going home is the eventual goal, and that's very good news, especially to Mom, who likes her habits and her world to stay as regular as possible. (Seriously -- god forbid that one of us calls during Jeopardy! or Wheel of Fortune.) She's less put out by the idea of a stay in a nursing facility now that she's heard it's temporary and home is the goal. Hmmm...maybe I should tell her to think of it as a vacation from Dad, who is more or less the bane of Mom's existence. Really, I think half the reason why she survived this -- why she has such a will to live -- is because she wants to outlive Dad out of sheer spite.

Ah, family. As Tolstoy famously wrote, "All happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Mom and Dad are definitely uniquely unhappy. But that's a different post entirely!

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Wishing you happier holidays than mine

Expect the quiet of a midnight snowfall around this blog for awhile. Not only am I away from home, but things are not well. On Monday morning my 75-year-old mother suffered a heart attack heart failure and Boyfriend and I hopped in the car two days earlier than planned and drove straight to the Old Homestead, stopping only to catch a little safety-necessary sleep on the long trip. The good news right now is that she seems to be getting stronger and better each day, but there's still a long row to hoe.

Here's wishing everyone out there a much, much happier and healthier holiday season than mine.

PS -- And if I know you IRL and I recently e-mailed your for your snail mail address, those holiday cards I meant to mail to y'all are probably going to end up New Year's cards, since they're in Rust Belt City and I'm in Cowtown.

UPDATE: Thanks to all of you who have posted your warm wishes for my mother's health. I thought you might want to know that she is continuing to improve. Two days ago they took her off the respirator and the sedatives, and she is alert and talking in between a lot of napping. The physical therapist has also gotten her out of bed and into a chair once a day in the last two days, but she's still very weak and can't do that on her own. She'll continue to be in the ICU at least through Christmas, but she gets a little better each day. Here's hoping that continues to be the case.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Happy Birthday

Today is the Boyfriend's birthday. Let's have some cake!

Note: I did not make that cake, though I wish I had. I did a Google image search - whew, what hard work! Credit for the picture belongs to Ethan Tira-Thompson, who makes robots. I'm hoping that a guy who makes robots will be cool enough to let me borrow his beautiful cake picture. But if he comes here and asks me to take it down, I will do so.

Winter is icummen in....Goddamn.

In dubious honor of my having had to shovel snow not once, not twice, but three times already this 'season' even though it's not even offcially winter yet for three more days, I give you Ezra Pound:

Winter is icummen in,
Lhude sing Goddamm,
Raineth drop and staineth slop
And how the wind doth ramm!
Sing: Goddamm.
Skiddeth bus and sloppeth us,
An ague hath my ham.
Freezeth river, turneth liver
Damn you, sing: Goddamm.
Goddamm, Goddamm, tis why I am,
So 'gainst the winter's balm
Sing Goddamm, damm, sing Goddamm
Sing Goddamm, sing Goddamm,

To read the Middle English poem upon which Pound based this rare moment of humor, and to see and hear the medieval score, go here.

I wanted to take a picture of the "No Parking - Leaf Removal" signs sticking up out of mounds of snow, but I haven't had a chance yet. Pound will have to do.

Teaching Carnival Four!

Now that the internets (and specifically, Typepad, which really was down yesterday) are not broken anymore, I want to direct y'all to Teaching Carnival IV at New Kid on the Hallway's place.

Note two things: 1) I am not in it, so this is not shameless self-promotion. 2) Since it's an end-of-the-term Carnival, you'll see a lot of posts in which profs and TAs bitch about grading, student meltdowns, slackers, and the like. This is not who we (as in the collective professoriate) are as a general rule, but it does let you know that when you were a college student struggling with all those end-of-term papers and exams, your professors had their own stress because of it. Also, because many of the posts are of anecdotal nature, it might actually be interesting to the non-academics out there.

Speaking of not being in the Carnival, I do want to get back to substantive posting, but that probably won't happen until after Christmas. Still dealing with multiple tasks in the wake of turning in my book manuscript (which arrived safe and sound, btw, and has been acknowledged by my editor and her assistant, so I know it wasn't just sent out into a void).

Friday, December 16, 2005

OK, who broke the internets?

Why is everything running sooooooooooo slowly? It's not my computer -- I ran all the scans and checks for things malicious and defragmented my disks and everything -- and it's not my DSL account, which is showing its usual speed.

Could it be Firefox? Is it because everyone in the world is downloading the new update? Or is it because I haven't done so yet?

Or is it that Google, Blogger, Typepad, Bloglines, my university server, and various independent web sites are all simultaneously experiencing problems?

Or is it because millions of college kids just got out of school and hundreds of thousands of professors are procrastinating from doing the final grading, and they're all on the internets at once? Judging by the surge in posting and commenting on academic blogs in the last week, that might have something to do with it.

Or is it just all Michael Bérubé's fault? (Scroll down to comment #5; then go back and read the wonderful stories about his amazing son Jamie, which have nothing to do with breaking the internets.) His blog is suspiciously slow-loading, despite all his fast-talking. Hmmmmm...

[UPDATE: I guess Monsieur Bérubé fixed whatever he broke, because everything's running lickity split this sunny but cold Saturday morning.]

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Truly scary Christmas

If you really want to see kids cry, don't take them to visit Santa, take them to visit this light display (of Jesus being flogged!) in Blue Springs, MO:

Holy cow! I think one of those cranky old men who are always yelling "you kids get off my lawn" put up this display. And, um, isn't it more of an Easter display -- a horrible, tacky, Easter display that still really kind of misses the point (the Resurrection, that is)?

I think this sort of thing makes the Baby Jesus cry (go ahead, click on that and make the Baby Jesus cry!) especially in its full animated glory, which you can see at Ship of Fools, where they have also added a sound file of whipping noises to complete the effect. Nice.

As seen at The Green Knight.

Oh, and here's a vaguely related side note: growing up not far from Blue Springs, MO, I was subjected to a car dealer ad with a jingle that to this day I still cannot get out of my head. The lyrics were "Blue Springs, Blue Spring, getta better deal when ya got Blue Springs" (and then they'd show a car or a truck with its springs painted blue -- get it?) but that doesn't convey the irritating country catchiness of the jingle music. In other words, I think the folks of Blue Springs, MO, are all sadist who like tormenting people.

[Updated slightly to make clear what you're seeing in the picture and where the links lead you.]

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

"All I want for Christmas... for this scary man to let me go."

This actually looks like it could be an old picture of the Boyfriend* (definitely the right hair color), but it's not. It's Mark Williams with Santa in 1969, and it was submitted to the Scared of Santa Gallery by his wife, Rachael Williams of Spring Grove, FL. There are 42 other photos where this one came from and they'll all make you laugh and then feel like a big meanie for doing so. (You can almost image the kids saying "Stop laughing! It's not funny!") Go ahead -- take a look.

Brought to my attention by Going Jesus, the funniest damn (er, darn) blog by a church secretary EVER. The woman makes t-shirts that say WTFWJD? and keeps up a "Cavalcade of Bad Nativity Scenes" and a parade of "Angels We Have Heard Are High" -- all listed on the main page.

So there ya go: plenty of Holiday Humor to keep you busy for awhile.

*Sorry, hon, but it does look like you!

[Edited to add that the Boyfriend says he was much cuter as a child. I think the child in the picture is plenty cute, but it's true that the Boyfriend was professionally cute, appearing in a handful of TV commercials, including some national ones. It'd be pretty hard for any ordinary mortal to measure up to that level of cuteness.]


Yipee!!! The book is off to the press!!!! Now I don't have to worry about it until they send me the proofs!!!

But in the course of trying to get it to FedEx, I discovered that one of my tires was flat. Is this a sign or something? At least it wasn't a huge disaster: as I happened to be at the Boyfriend's house to print out the hard copies of the manuscript (because his printer is faster), he very helpfully loaned me his car. Thank you Boyfriend!

Driving his zippy car, though, reminded me how much I miss my old Honda Civic, or "La Cholamobile," as one of my friends (himself Chicano) dubbed it because of its lowrider rims and wheels and its bitchin' Pioneer speakers. That car with me as its driver caused much merriment and surprise in Sprawling Big City. I learned all about police suspicions and assumptions, for instance, after having been tailed and pulled over a number of times and then let go once they saw who was driving the car. But mostly I loved its get-up-and-go and its flashy redness. Alas, my current "mom car" (Boyfriend's Mom had the same one!) does not have the same get-up-and-go, though it also doesn't have the same problem-causing cultural assumptions. (Though I'm not sure what Rust Belt City cops would make of a lowrider. We have a Latino population, but the climate is not lowrider friendly, so I don't know that the car would "read" the same way.)

Anyway, in the process of finally getting some air in my tires at the local service station, I found out that one phenomena in my life is the same here as in Sprawling Big City: old men are drawn to chewing my ear off. (And by old, I mean WWII generation.) As I was going into the station to get the air pump turned on, an old man pulled up behind me (in a Cadillac, of course) and by the time I got back he was out of his car looking as if he was going to jump the line and fill his tires first. I should have just let him because while I was filling mine, did he get back into his warm car and keep his wife company? No! He hovered over me, watched me, offered unsolicited advice, got down and measured the air pressure for me without my asking, and yammered on about the problems he'd been having with his otherwise "new" car. (By my guesstimation, his car was at least 5-6 years old. Omigod, the expectation of old men that things will never break is universal! My dad is surprised when 20-year-old microwaves break!) All of which made the tasks I had to do take exponentially longer, so of course he then asked if he could jump in and just fill his one tire, since I had to do all four. Oh, and he also distracted me so much I actually over-inflated one tire a little bit. Is that a big problem? Should I do something about that?

But anyway, here's the kicker: When I thought he was finally going to go, he turned around and said in a frustrated tone: "My wife thinks I'm an idiot. She thinks you've got *my* tire pressure gauge." I thought for a second that he want to make sure we hadn't switched, so I said, "Nope, I've got mine." And he responded: "Yes, I know. But *she* thinks I'd leave my head behind if it wasn't attached to me. Can you believe it?"

Oh. My. God. He was doing the "My wife doesn't understand me, but I bet *you'll* listen to me, pretty young woman" thing! Ew! Ew! Ew! It's bad enough when they're alone, but his wife was right there in the car! Ew!

I hope his wife is *still* bitching him out about this even as I type these words. Ick.

But hey -- my book is on its way to the publisher!!!!! Yipeee!!!! Now back to that to-do list of a few days ago!

PS -- I couldn't think of a title for this post, as it covered so many odd bases -- books, cars, old men.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

On italics abuse

So I’m almost finished getting my book manuscript ready to ship off to the press.  Yup, that’s right, I’ve rewritten the introduction (not from scratch, mind you) and even had Victorianist colleague read it for matters of form and clarity and intellectual excitement (gotta grab that reader!).  And I’ve just been finishing up the formatting clean-up; in the process of doing that, I decided to do a search for all uses of italics because I know I have a wee bit of a tendency to abuse them.

Man, do I ever.  It took me an hour to go through every chapter and get rid of them.  For crying out loud, you’d think that a professor of literature would know how to emphasize a point with syntax or maybe style without having to resort to italics.  But no, not I.  It seems italics are to my writing what my hands are to my talking – I can’t communicate without them.  (Once upon a time, some four and fifth graders in a summer enrichment course I was teaching challenged me to teach without my hands.  They asked me to lean against the wall with my hands behind my back.  It didn’t work.  I resorted to using my shoulders for emphasis.)

I am, of course, exaggerating the italics here.  But you should’ve seen them – man there were a lot of them.  Well, at least I can search and replace italics – not so much the hands problem.

Friday, December 9, 2005

I *heart* A.O. Scott even *more* - enough to break away from the book revisions

Go now and read A.O. Scott's review of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, especially if you loved The Chronicles of Narnia as a child, but also even if you didn't. (Note: registration required.)

Oh, he gets it, he gets it, he really gets it. Here is an especially good passage that could serve as general primer on allegory and symbolism for those viewers who think there's a fixed "real" meaning to a film or other narrative:

It has never been a secret that C. S. Lewis, who taught that subject and others at Oxford for many years, composed his great cycle of seven children's fantasy novels with the New Testament in mind and with some of the literary traditions it inspired close at hand. To the millions since the 1950's for whom the books have been a source of childhood enchantment, Lewis's religious intentions have either been obvious, invisible or beside the point.

Which is part of the appeal of allegory, as he well knew. It is a symbolic mode, not a literal one - there are, after all, no talking beavers in the Bible - and it constructs distinct levels of meaning among which readers travel of their own free will. An allegorical world is both a reflection of the real one and a reality unto itself, as Lewis's heroes, the four Pevensie children, come to discover. The story of Aslan's sacrifice and resurrection may remind some readers (and now viewers) of what they learned in Sunday school, but others, Christian or not, will be perfectly happy to let what happens in Narnia stay in Narnia.
Love him! Then there's the closing, which is a veritable manifesto on the pleasures and importance of fantasy and imagination, especially in childhood, and which actually kind of made me teary, because I am such a sap:
For me, the best moments in the film take place in the wardrobe itself, which serves as a portal between England and Narnia. When the children pass through it for the first time, I felt a welcome tremor of apprehension and anticipation as the wooden floor turned into snowy ground and fur coats gave way to fir trees. The next two hours might not have quite delivered on that initial promise of wonder - we grown-ups, being heavy, are not so easily swept away by visual tricks - except when I looked away from the screen at the faces of breathless and wide-eyed children, my own among them, for whom the whole experience was new, strange, disturbing and delightful.
When I get around to seeing Narnia, I might write about it myself, in part because I was very much a Narnia-obsessed child, rather than a Middle Earthling, although now I prefer Tolkien to Lewis. I think the reasons for my childhood preference are pretty simple: Lewis gave me girls with whom to identify and Tolkien did not. Though one could argue than Hobbits are both childlike and androgynous, I was too literal as a child to see that. Plus, I was nutty about animals back then, especially lions, and I had a tremendous crush on Aslan. Really! That perhaps explains why, despite being pretty irreligious from an early age, I completely understand the erotics of religious devotion in so much medieval and renaissance literature! :)

OK, this break from my book revisions brought to you by the Unofficial A.O. Scott fan club.

Wednesday, December 7, 2005

Not done yet

I just got comments back from the series editor -- in record time! -- regarding my book manuscript.

The good news: We're going forward. I'm sending it to the press. Yay!

The bad news: I have to rewrite the introduction. In a week.

OK then, you probably won't be hearing a peep from this blogger until then -- either here or on your blogs or in your e-mail in-boxes. So, if there are congratulations or commiserations or empathetic comments to be made, just assume I'm there in spirit.

How the megachurches stole Christmas

Oh. My. God.

Get this: according to this article at, mega-churches around the country, including the mother of all mega-churches, Willow Creek in Barrington, IL, are closing for Christmas.

Yes, that's right, I said closing for Christmas. Because it's on a Sunday (not like that usually has anything to do with Christian worship) and that's a "family day." The best part of the article is this, from the Willow Creek spokeswoman (OK, already I have a problem with a church needing a separate spokeswoman -- where's the freakin' pastor? -- and don't get me started on the word "unchurched" in the quote):

"If our target and our mission is to reach the unchurched, basically the people who don't go to church, how likely is it that they'll be going to church on Christmas morning?" she said.
>Dr. Virago smacks head on her desk. Multiple times.<

The second best part is the final section's subheading:
Mainline churches staying open
Really? You don't say!

Thanks to The Disenchanted Forest for the heads up on this one.

Updated to add that The Green Knight has the best one-liner on this; he calls it "Christmas without the Mas(s). Or the Christ, for that matter." Heh heh.

Technorati tag:

Tuesday, December 6, 2005

Hey Kristof: Liberal Arts ≠ Humanities!

Technorati tags: ,

Clearly, I should finally get that post about the value of the liberal arts up, because some people out there aren't even clear what "liberal arts" means. (I know, I'm preaching to the choir.)

One of those people is Nick Kristof, who thinks the Liberal Arts and its proponents are responsible for the lack of science education in the U.S. Wha?? Seriously, here's what he has to say:

The problem isn't just inadequate science (and math) teaching in the schools, however. A larger problem is the arrogance of the liberal arts, the cultural snootiness of, of ... well, of people like me - and probably you.

What do I mean by that? In the U.S. and most of the Western world, it's considered barbaric in educated circles to be unfamiliar with Plato or Monet or Dickens, but quite natural to be oblivious of quarks and chi-squares. A century ago, Einstein published his first paper on relativity - making 1905 as important a milestone for world history as 1066 or 1789 - but relativity has yet to filter into the consciousness of otherwise educated people.

(emphasis mine)

Seems Kristof really does need a bit more education in the classical liberal arts, and not in the science part. Seems he needs to take a course in Logic and Rhetoric (two-thirds of the classical and medieval trivium, the other third being Grammar), because he doesn't know about the problems of starting from a false premise. (Complete article at the bottom of this post.) [Edited to add: hmm, actually, I think it's more a category error than a false premise. But I had other problems with the article, too. Read on.]

In this case, he doesn't seem to know that the Liberal Arts includes not only arts and humanities, but also mathematics and pure sciences (with origins in the second part of the classical/medieval liberal arts, the quadrivium: Arthimetic, Geometry, Astronomy, and, perhaps surprising to us, Music). Just about any basic reference work would have told him that, and in these days of Google and Wikipedia, he could have come up with some reliable, if not quite scholarly, sources very quickly.

I'd be more forgiving of his confusion, given a general confusion of terms -- after all, my own department is in the College of Arts and Sciences -- but then he creates that straw-man of an educated person who thinks you should know art and literature but not science. Please. Who is this person? My undergraduate college required a year of science of all majors and has since expanded that to two years, and we read some landmark texts of science in our required Western Civ. class. And I'm pretty sure his alma mater was no slouch in the broad, liberal arts (all of 'em) education either. Yup, in fact, I just looked it up here (warning: PDF file) and it seems that that old college (of arts and sciences) in Cambridge, MA, has a core curriculum with the following requirements:

Foreign Cultures
Moral Reasoning
Historical Study A
Historical Study B
Quantitative Reasoning (Math!!)
Science A (Science!!)
Science B (Science!!)
Social Analysis
Literature and Arts A
Literature and Arts B
Literature and Arts C

Apparently he's forgotten that he took math and science classes. (Yeah, yeah, I know. The requirements were likely different when he went there. But I bet they still included math and science.)

Really, who are these "educated people" running around in "educated circles" saying you don't need that icky math and science stuff, (edited to add: since they clearly aren't people who work on general education curriculum committees at liberal arts institutions)? Ohhhh...they're journalists at the New York Times:
A year ago, I wanted to ornament a column with a complex equation, so, as a math ninny myself, I looked around the Times newsroom for anyone who could verify that it was correct. Now you can't turn around in the Times newsroom without bumping into polyglots who come and go talking of Michelangelo. But it took forever to turn up someone confident in his calculus - in the science section.
Let me get this straight. He looked around a newsroom, full of writers and editors and other sundry sorts who make their living working with language, and couldn't find anyone who knew calculus off the top of their head until he went to the science section.

I have a one-word response to that: duh.

Oh, and I'm sure their knowledge of Michelangelo and T. S. Eliot (that's his poetic reference, in case you didn't know) was deep and boundless. (In the arts and book review sections, perhaps.)

Argh. The point of an education like the one Kristof had, that I had, that most of you have had (at least the people I know who read this) is not the information learned -- much of that is forgotten if you don't use it (as journalists would not be likely to use calculus but clearly have use of the occasional T. S. Eliot reference!) -- but the process of learning across different disciplines, of understanding how knowledge is developed, produced, disseminated, judged, etc., in different disciplines (through experimentation, archival research, writing, etc.). But that's a post for another time.

Today I just wanted to bitch about this assinine piece by Kristof. Yes, science education in the U.S. could be a helluva lot better. But no, the problem is not people in the humanities, and definitely not people in the "liberal arts," which includes the sciences.

Read the whole straw-man argument here, since it's one of those "if you want it, you'll have to pay for it" articles at the Times (I got to it by doing a Technorati search and lifting it from here):

The New York Times
December 6, 2005

The best argument against "intelligent design" has always been humanity itself. At a time when only 40 percent of Americans believe in evolution, and only 13 percent know what a molecule is, we're an argument at best for "mediocre design."

But put aside the evolution debate for a moment. It's only a symptom of something much deeper and more serious: a profound illiteracy about science and math as a whole.

One-fifth of Americans still believe that the Sun goes around the Earth, instead of the other way around. And only about half know that humans did not live at the same time as dinosaurs.

The problem isn't just inadequate science (and math) teaching in the schools, however. A larger problem is the arrogance of the liberal arts, the cultural snootiness of, of ... well, of people like me - and probably you.

What do I mean by that? In the U.S. and most of the Western world, it's considered barbaric in educated circles to be unfamiliar with Plato or Monet or Dickens, but quite natural to be oblivious of quarks and chi-squares. A century ago, Einstein published his first paper on relativity - making 1905 as important a milestone for world history as 1066 or 1789 - but relativity has yet to filter into the consciousness of otherwise educated people.

"The great edifice of modern physics goes up, and the majority of the cleverest people in the Western world have about as much insight into it as their neolithic ancestors would have had," C. P. Snow wrote in his classic essay, "The Two Cultures."

The counterargument is that we can always hire technicians in Bangalore, while it's Shakespeare and Goethe who teach us the values we need to harness science for humanity. There's something to that. If President Bush were about to attack Iraq all over again, he would be better off reading Sophocles - to appreciate the dangers of hubris - than studying the science of explosives.

But don't pin too much faith on the civilizing influence of a liberal education: the officers of the Third Reich were steeped in Kant and Goethe. And similar arguments were used in past centuries to assert that all a student needed was Greek, Latin and familiarity with the Bible - or, in China, to argue that all the elites needed were the Confucian classics.

Without some fluency in science and math, we'll simply be left behind in the same way that Ming Dynasty Chinese scholars were. Increasingly, we face public policy issues - avian flu, stem cells - that require some knowledge of scientific methods, yet the present Congress contains 218 lawyers, 12 doctors and 3 biologists. In terms of the skills we need for the 21st century, we're Shakespeare-quoting Philistines. A year ago, I wanted to ornament a column with a complex equation, so, as a math ninny myself, I looked around the Times newsroom for anyone who could verify that it was correct. Now you can't turn around in the Times newsroom without bumping into polyglots who come and go talking of Michelangelo. But it took forever to turn up someone confident in his calculus - in the science section.

So Pogo was right.

This disregard for science already hurts us. The U.S. has bungled research on stem cells perhaps partly because Mr. Bush didn't realize how restrictive his curb on research funds would be. And we're risking our planet's future because our leaders are frozen in the headlights of climate change.

In this century, one of the most complex choices we will make will be what tinkering to allow with human genes, to "improve" the human species. How can our leaders decide that issue if they barely know what DNA is?

Intellectuals have focused on the challenge from the right, which has led to a drop in the public acceptance of evolution in the U.S. over the last 20 years, to 40 percent from 45 percent. Jon Miller, a professor at the Northwestern University medical school who has tracked attitudes toward evolution in 34 countries, says Turkey is the only one with less support for evolution than the U.S.

It's true that antagonism to science seems peculiarly American. The European right, for example, frets about taxes and immigration, but not about evolution.

But there's an even larger challenge than anti-intellectualism. And that's the skewed intellectualism of those who believe that a person can become sophisticated on a diet of poetry, philosophy and history, unleavened by statistics or chromosomes. That's the hubris of the humanities.

The remains of the month


Got the manuscript of my book FedEx'd to my series editor yesterday. But it's not over yet. See, that was a revision in response to the reader's report and the series editor (an academic) has to approve of what I did and then, if she approves, I have to get it ready to send to the press by the 15th (my contract deadline). Knowing my luck, the series editor will e-mail me on the 14th; and frankly, I don't know what will be worse -- a flat-out rejection or the scramble to get it to the press on time. I think I'll prepare for the best-case scenario and have it ready to go. UPDATE: Oh but it is over! See this post.

So other than that, I can relax now, right? Especially since I'm not teaching?

Nope. Wrong. Not even close.

Here's what remains to be done this month:

  • Revise an article for submission by December 31st. (Thank god it's pretty close to a full piece already.)
  • Write the acknowledgments and do all the formattting and printing and futzing around with the book manuscript to get it ready for the press. (It's currently saved as one document, for example, and needs to be saved in separate chapters, but the notes pages still need to be numbered according to where they'll fall at the end of the book. So confusing. At least there's no crazy margin-measuring involved, like with the diss.)
  • Write easy-to-write letters of recommendation for fabulous former student from previous institution for graduate programs in my discipline (Basic letter written, one version in the mail, the rest to follow.)
  • Write slightly-more-difficult-to-write letters of recommendation for extraordinary student at current institution for graduate programs complete unrelated to my discipline.
  • Clean my pigsty of a house.
  • Do laundry and dry cleaning, especially of winter clothes. It's 8 degrees Farenheit out there!
  • Put the rest of my storm windown down finally. See last bullet point.
  • Buy some food.
  • Help Boyfriend get ready for work-related party he's hosting on Friday. Buy Christmas tree for his house and bring over decorations. Hang ornaments.
  • Hang own Christmas lights. OK, this one is just not going to happen.
  • Finish doing laundry that was in laundry chute to clean off insulation that somehow got blown down from the attic to the basement, through the chute, into the cage three floors below. (My landlord said he'd come and vacuum up the gi-normous pile of insulation now sitting in the basement, where I left it after digging out my laundry.) Thank god it's cellulous insulation and not fiber glass.
  • Celebrate Boyfriend's birthday.
  • Buy Christmas presents. Send presents to far-away loved ones.
  • Send awesome holiday greeting cards with my marathon finish picture, which is not quite as annoying as a holiday letter-o'-achievements, but still is a little mildly braggy. Almost done with this one, so I'm crossing it off my list now.
  • Take the Christ out of Christmas. (Just kidding. Just wanted to see if you made it down this far.)
  • Visit old homestead with Boyfriend over Christmas. Introduce Boyfriend to most of family for first time.
  • Get ready for next semester, which will include 3 courses (one of which I've completely redesigned, another of which is partially redesigned), 1 independent study, and 1 mini faculty-in-residence gig at a local junior high, where I'll guest-lecture on The Hobbit to at-risk 7th graders. Can I tell you how excited I am about that!!! Weeeeee!!!
  • Talk to fellow medievalist in French deparment (but speak in English!) about our plans to apply for summer fellowship to design team-taught general ed course on "Saints and Sinners in Medieval Literature." (This could wait until January, but I should at least drop her an e-mail.)
Right. I better get to work!

Thursday, December 1, 2005

Two signs that blogs have abducted me and taken over my body and mind

Sign #1:

I dreamed about ProfGrrrrl last night (even though I routinely forget how many rrrrrr's are in her nom de blog). In the dream, she and I were hanging out (even though she doesn't know me -- I think I've commented on her blog maybe twice) and went to a chocolate tasting. We ate way too much chocolate, and had upset stomachs, but this didn't stop our fun. Then we went to see Wilco at a teeny, tiny club smaller than the Troubadour in LA. We were so close I could see Jeff Tweedy's stubble. I know ProfGrrrrl would have preferred Elvis Costello, but this was my dream, and Wilco edges out EC in my musical collection (although they're both there). Sorry ProfGrrrrl.

If you're wondering why I didn't dream about you -- you know, you other anonymous female academic bloggers who actually comment here and who I can say I virtually know -- it's because ProfGrrrrl posts pictures of herself (well, sort of) and I have a picture of her in my head. I'm very visual for an English lit chick. And also probably because she talks about going to concerts.

Anyway, when I told the Boyfriend about this, we had the following conversation:

Me: Omigod, I need a break from blogs. I dreamed I was hanging out with ProfGrrrrl.
Boyfriend: Was there any lesblogian activity?
Me: Uh, no, there was chocolate....But I like the word "lesblogian."
Boyfriend: Thanks, I just made it up.
Me: I thought so.

Alas, unfortunately for the Boyfriend, he's not the first or the only one to make up the word "lesblogian." According to my Technorati search, way back in May a blogger called "Ol Cranky" at The Disenchanted Forest also used it. Perhaps they can share credit. At any rate, because of Boyfriend's creativity -- for he did make up the word wholly innocent of Ol Cranky's having used it -- I have now discovered a cool new (to me) blog.

Refer to post title. This could be a bad thing.

Sign #2:

Just before posting, while working on my book revisions, I attempted to write the phrase "guild community" (craft and mercantile guilds figure prominently in my work; yes, I'm a literature person -- no really!). Guess what I wrote instead. Yes, that's right: blog community.

OK, I think there will be light blogging ahead as I focus on finishing the revisions by the end of the day on Monday.

And right now, I'm going to turn off the computer and enjoy CSI.

Blog Against Racism Part II: Update on voting

It occured to me while responding to a comment on my post below, that my post earlier in the month about my disconcerting voting experience also suits the theme of "Blog Against Racism Day," especially the idea that racism isn't only about overt expressions of hatred. So I'm linking to that voting post again.

I also wanted to provide a brief post script to the original post. It turns out that my county was the last county in my state to finish counting their votes and didn't finish until the wee hours of Wednesday night, November 7. But even more troubling, and more apropos to my original post and Blog Against Racism Day, is that in my district, which is largely populated by African-Americans (apart from my immediate neighborhood, Rust Belt Historic District, which is racially mixed but still has a significant population of black folks), there were voting machines that had completely blank paper where the hard copy receipts should have been. The elections board, in a meeting held at the NAACP headquarters here in the neighborhood, said that what's important is that the memory chips will have recorded the votes. Um, that's like saying, "Oh, I don't back up the book I'm working on, because what's important is that it's saved to my hard drive." *Virago's head smacks desk.* (Note: I'm not giving links to article about the meeting, though I know I should, if only to preserve my very thin veneer of anonymity. Plus I actually read about it in an old-fashioned hard copy newspaper. Imagine that!)

So, can I prove that Diebold or the elections officials definitely disenfranchised me and my district? No, I don't know that for sure. If our votes weren't counted, can I say that there was malicious intent to disenfranchise a largely African-American neighborhood. Not for certain, no.
But can I say that I'm suspicious of the system, particularly where black voters are concerned and that there may be institutionalized racism at work and that this all deserves a closer look? Yes I can. And I just did.

Blog Against Racism: Invisible Men and Women

[Updated to change weird formatting stuff that made nonsense of bits of what I wrote, and also to add that you can read what others wrote, as they Blogged Against Racism, by going here and scrolling down to the comments and trackbacks. And I'm also now updating to add a link to my latest post, which continues a story about voting and the possible disenfranchisement of my predominantly African-American district.]

I am an invisible man.... I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.

- the narrator of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (1952)

Chris Clarke has declared today Blog Against Racism Day in honor of the 50th anniversary of Rosa Parks' historic act of civil disobedience on that Montgomery bus. But also, part of the conversation that led Chris to do this concerned the ways in which "racism" has come to mean, unhelpfully, only acts that are obviously evil in their intent and effect (or even just in their intent), and the ways in which it has somehow become worse to be called a racist than to be racist. You can read Chris' original post at the link above, but for those of you not apt to follow links, here's a good chunk of it:

Some of the response to my posting a criticism of that cannibal cartoon – all of it from people I know to be smart and educated – makes me think that the common definition of the word "racist" has been restricted to the point of near uselessness. It seems these days that many people consider it a worse thing to be called "racist" than it is to actually be racist.

I'm not saying there's no room for disagreement. For instance, I said I thought Sara Silverman is racist, and I know that's a gut feeling on my part. People can certainly disagree with that assessment without ill motive.

But it increasingly clear to me – and probably has been for some time to people smarter than me – that many folks think of the word "racist" as meaning something akin to the word "evil." Thus the defenses of the cartoon that focused on the artist's intent. If his intentions were benign, then he is not evil and thus not racist.

Anyone who's studied the history of racism can trot out numerous examples of racist behavior committed with allegedly good intentions, from Moynihan's "benign neglect" to the myriad acts of condescension by white liberals toward their black acquaintances. I assume, people being more or less the same now as they were two hundred years ago, that there were a number of slaveowners who told themselves they took wonderful care of their chattel property.

Ask a Klan member whether he or she has good intentions. I guarantee you the answer will be in the affirmative, even as the cross is lit.

With Chris' original post in mind, I want to tell a very short story that I think exemplifies a kind of racism as equally destructive as overt discrimination, segregation, or oppression. Ralph Ellison powerfully invoked this kind of racism in his novel Invisible Man and it's a racist habit of mind that is much harder to combat than more obvious manifestations, so hard, in fact, that it is still very much with us 53 years after Ellison's book, even though the overtly segregated buses and water fountains and public bathrooms of his and Rosa Parks' world are not.

When I landed my job in this Rust Belt City in Great Lakes region, a friend of mine in Sprawling Big City, who'd never lived farther inland from the left or right coasts than the inland parts of coastal states, said to me: "Why would you want to move to the all-white midwest when you could stay here?"

Let me draw your attention to his characterization of the midwest: all white. Partly this is the ignorance of a coaster who considers everything else in between "flyover land," and has less to do with racism than regionalism. But I had a feeling that his ignorance also came from the invisibility, to him, of African-Americans, so I said to him, calling on his taste in music to make him see what should have been obvious:

"Excuse me? All white? The midwest in general, and especially its industrial cities, like Rust Belt City, has a significant African-American population. Motown? Kansas City jazz? Chicago blues? Does any of this ring a bell?"

I added that Rust Belt also has a large Arab-American population, although I don't expect many people from outside this area to know that as readily as they should know that it's certainly not all white. (By the way, I know I was partly drawing on stereotypes of blackness -- the black musician, the entertainer -- to illustrate to my friend that the midwest is not all white, but I needed something concrete, iconic, and immediate in its impact to make my friend see what had been invisible to him. And since he's a musician himself, I used music.)

To my friend's credit, he was ashamed and chagrined once I started naming obvious reasons why he shouldn't think "all-white" when he thinks "midwest." And this friend is not a bad person, nor did he have malicious intentions. In fact, I think it's clear that he feared I was participating in some kind of white flight by taking a job in a place he thought was all white. His intentions were good. But as Chris said later in his original post:
Intentions are all well and good, but more important are the assumptions from which those intentions spring. Garbage in, garbage out: bad information times good intentions equals bad results. And those results are the most important thing of all.
The bad results in my friend's case was the invisibility (to him and to many others) of black people as part of the category "midwestern," and, by extention, "American," for what's more conventionally part of the myth of what is "American" than the corn-fed, apple-pie-eating midwesterners? Invisibility can be an ideal goal in the sense of working for the day when, as Martin Luther King, Jr., said, people are "judged not by the color of their skin but by the quality of their character." In that sense, the color of someone's skin, their race, is invisible because they are seen first and foremost as human beings. But we haven't reached that day. That world does not yet exist. And as long as real, material inequalities exist for people of color, largely because they are people of color, in a world where the most abject victims of a disaster like Hurricane Katrina are mostly black, and it takes a catastrophe like Katrina to make visible those inequalities, then the invisibility of African-Americans in a comment like my friend's is a destructive and, yes, racist invisibility.