Friday, December 22, 2006

Happy Holidays from our home to yours

[Edited for typos. Nothing new to read here.]

Bullock and I are leaving for various home towns tomorrow and won't be back until the new year. I may be able to do some blogging from Cowtown, but I may not, so I wanted to wish you all a very happy holiday season with this virtual Christmas card. That's our brand new authentic fake tree -- plenty of room to start collecting beautiful ornaments (gift hint to relatives for future reference)! Note the candy canes used as filler and the rather bare bottom branches. Alas, all the pictures came out blurry -- I think the battery's low or the light was just too low -- but this is the least fuzzy of them. (Oh, and by the way, the fabulously perfect paint job on the walls, windows, and ceiling was all done by Bullock himself. He is truly multi-talented.)

And below, for Friday Poetry Blogging, I give you the Coventry Carol (with modern spelling).

May you have a very happy holiday season -- MLA and AHA included! -- and a splendid new year!

All our best,
Dr. Virago and Bullock

The Coventry Carol

Lullay, Thou little tiny Child,
By, by, lully, lullay.
Lullay, Thou little tiny Child.
By, by, lully, lullay.

O sisters, too, how may we do,
For to preserve this day;
This poor Youngling for whom we sing,
By, by, lully, lullay.

Herod the King, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day;
His men of might, in his own sight,
All children young, to slay.

Then woe is me, poor Child, for Thee,
And ever mourn and say;
For Thy parting, nor say nor sing,
By, by, lully, lullay.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

MA thesis or exam? Or both? Or none of the above?

OK, here's a follow-up post to the previous one on our MA exam reading list. We don't do a formal thesis; instead, we have the exam and a "master's paper." While currently the official language doesn't compare it to a journal article, we're currently discussing making it more rigorous in some way or another, and I think a "potentially publishable" work of about 30 pages is a way we should go.

But I don't think we should go back to the old MA thesis. First, I think the 60-100 page document has no connection to what we do as scholars -- it's too long for an article and too short for a book. Second, our students (meaning the university's -- I'm drawing on what I know of the other MA programs) tend either not to finish or to drag out their time to degree when there's a thesis, and I don't want to contribute to the ever-lengthening time to the Ph.D. for students in the humanities. A stand-alone MA should be no longer than two years so the students can move on to whatever comes next. Besides, we can't fund them longer than that, anyway, and I'm also looking to reduce the number of unfunded semesters students tack on.

That said, the discussion list for directors of grad programs has lately gotten into this discussion, and I've seen some passionate arguments for the thesis. They fall roughly into two groups: 1) those who report that their students who go on to PhDs find that having already worked on a sustained piece of research and writing helps them with the dissertation; and 2) those who argue that a student will remember his or her thesis years later, but not what s/he wrote or said in an exam. The first argument moves me more than the second, but I wonder if the same can be said of a "potentially publishable work," since something like that takes sustained research and writing, even though shorter.

I also think something like that combined with some kind of exam that demonstrates more breadth -- though I'm still not sure what that would look like -- gets at the heart of the MA experience, which I think should give you the sense of the discipline and allow you the opportunity to show your "mastery" of its discourse and knowledge. (And I'm really starting to think that George Justice's description of a portfolio exam/capstone in the comments in the post below might be the best possible combination of all of the above. Thanks, George! And welcome to the blogosphere.)

What do y'all think?

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Reading with my students

So I'm in grading jail, and what I'm grading at the moment are essays on the state of scholarship in the last 15 years on selected texts from our MA exam. And while I can assess the effectiveness of these essays pretty well without myself knowing the criticism of, say, Louise Erdrich's Tracks (it's all about the student convincing me s/he knows it), I realized that there are a number of texts on our MA exam that I either haven't read at all, or have only read excerpts of, or that I haven't read since I was an undergraduate. And yet, when it's my turn to write an exam, I'm supposed to write questions with these texts in mind. Hm. Maybe I should read them! Ya think?

So, I'm going to make a resolution -- not exactly a New Year's resolution -- to have read all the works on the MA exam list by the time the current 1st year class is graduated in 2008. Below is our rather odd list (seriously, isn't it bizarre?!), dominated by the 19th century and doing poor service to everything from the Middle Ages to the 18th century. (We're currently in discussions about that, but I've got a very stubborn colleague on the grad committee who thinks the list should be *shorter* and should just be a kind of exercise in "practical criticism" to show they can read a few things deeply. In that case, why not just give them random passages on the exam -- like the actual Practical Criticism Tripos exam at Cambridge -- and forget the list? Honestly, I have no idea what this list is suppose to be or do.)

Anyway, I've crossed off the texts I've read recently and know well. What's left is what I think I need to read or reread (so this isn't exactly a game of humiliation -- I have read Paradise Lost, for instance, but not since I was an undergrad).

Chaucer, Canterbury Tales
Shakespeare, King Lear
Shakespeare, Hamlet
John Donne, Poems

Milton, Paradise Lost
Swift, Gulliver's Travels
Pope, Poems
Austen, Pride and Prejudice
Shelley, Frankenstein

Wordsworth, Poems
Keats, Poems
Brontë, Jane Eyre
Dickens, Great Expectations
Tennyson, Poems
Conrad, Heart of Darkness
Yeats, Poems

Joyce, Dubliners
Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway
Franklin, Autobiography
Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave: Written by Himself
Melville, Moby-Dick
Thoreau, Walden
Dickinson, Poems
Whitman, Poems
James, Portrait of a Lady
Eliot, Poems
Williams, Poems

Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury
Ellison, Invisible Man
O'Neill, Long Day's Journey Into Night
Rich, Poems
Morrison, Beloved
Erdrich, Tracks

And for discussion purposes: what do you think of this list? How would you change it if you could and why?

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Who taught you your moves?

Next time I teach the "how to do graduate school course," I'm thinking about assigning Graff and Birkenstein's They Say / I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing. It's a book written with undergraduates in mind -- and I'm also going to assign in my undergrad classes where I'm going to start requiring a research paper -- but my graduate students need it. Many of them probably came through undergrad programs where they didn't learn to write a research paper, and it seems a number of them haven't figured out yet that they can use the scholarly articles they cite as 'how-to' models.

I say this because I'm reading the papers from my other graduate course -- my seminar -- and realizing that many of the students don't know how to use secondary sources, how to integrate them into their own writing, or how to contend with them in their own papers. Some of them know how to integrate the sources grammatically and with some polish, but then the content of their papers is largely a review of the criticism and doesn't have much of their own argument. Others seem to think secondary sources can be used as evidence. One students keeps stringing together quotes from scholarly works following assertions about the primary text and with introductory phrases such as "For example." In other words, he'll say something like "Fart jokes are common in medieval literature" and then follow that with, "For example, This Dude says X, That Chick says Y, and Some Other Dude agrees with them both and says X and Y." And then he never cites any actual medieval literature! (Note: none of my students are actually writing on fart jokes in medieval literature. That's just my silly and totally fictious example.) And often they quote huge blocks when really all they had to do was simply say something along the lines of "So-and-so also notes this."

So next year, in addition to assigning this book, I'm going to spend some time giving them scholarly articles to read and we're going to do rhetorical analyses of them to see how those critics made "the moves that matter." Or something like that. I have until fall to figure it out. Any other suggestions? How did you learn to write a scholarly research paper?

Friday, December 15, 2006

What's an MA for anyway?

The subject line refers to a question a prospective MA student asked me yesterday, completely sincerely.

My response? "That's a very good question!"

I did have some answers for him, including:

  • public high school teachers in our state are required to get one within 5 years of being hired full-time
  • it's possible, though these days not as likely as it used to be, to get a stable job teaching in a community college with an MA (for more information see this thread on my blog, and this one over at Dean Dad's place)
  • it might increase your marketability for jobs in publishing (though it's certainly not necessary)
  • it might increase your marketability for in-house editing and writing jobs
  • it's a way to test the academic waters before committing yourself to a PhD program (and without the hassle of the intense application process)
  • those students who come from teeny, tiny schools and don't quite have the breadth or depth of study to make them competitive in PhD admissions, might do better with an MA
  • those students who are changing careers or disciplines and weren't English majors might have a chance of getting into PhD programs with an MA
Note all the "possibles" and "mights" in those phrases. Frankly, I don't know if anyone is more certain about those outcomes -- or if there's data out there -- but I'm definitely uncertain. I can say that some of our students have gotten into PhD programs and they say they wouldn't have been prepared for them had they gotten in straight out of their small BA programs. But since I've been here, there have only been a two or three who went on to the PhD. And I ran into one of our former students at *$$, where she was working as a barista, and who grumbled, "Look how far my MA got me."

So I turn the question over to you, oh wise peoples of the InterTubes. What *is* an MA for anyway? -- that is, if you're not a high school teacher, which seems to be about the only category where it's the terminal and required degreee.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Show trials are fun! Confusing and full of inside jokes, but fun!

OK, I have to admit that even as a regular reader of Le Blogue Bérubé, I'm still a bit lost by the whole We Are All Giant Nuclear Fireball Now! Party and Chris Clarke Show Trial escapades. I think you have to have read every damn comment on every post for the last three months or so to really get everything. And who has time for that when there's a new 1000+ page Pynchon novel to read! (Not that I'll ever get to that since, to paraphrase Bardiac, I'm 600 years behind on my reading.)

BUT...I wanna play, too! So, to add to the list of charges against Chris I give you this:

He says he's not a feminist even though he is! He says instead that he's a "fellow traveler" and that sounds mighty suspicious. Who needs to travel when all you need is right here in the good ol' U. S. of A? And what does travelin' have to do with feminism? Hm? Clearly he's confusing a populace about what it means to be a feminist when they're already confused enough as it is! Heck, even I'm confused and I'm a feminist. At least, I think I am. See! Dammit! Confused! Makes head hurt!

Guilty, I say! Guilty! Guilty! Guilty!

Monday, December 11, 2006

Message from the Pastry Pirate

Since I (Dr. V.) have been craptacular at posting lately, and since it's the end-of-the-semester crunch time, I thought I'd let the Pastry Pirate pilot the ship today. She sent me an e-mail detailing her cross-country trip to Vegas and said I could post it as a shout-out to her blog friends. I've edited a few things to protect my pseudonymity, but other than that, the rest of this post comes straight from the Pirate's mouth!

Greetings all...I just wanted to let you know I arrived in Las Vegas to start my
externship at MGM Grand in one piece, though the same cannot be said
of my car, which is being held together by a wire hanger (no, really).

In the immortal words of Inigo Montoya: I ess-plain. No. There is too
much. I sum up.

Last Friday (Dec 1), a freak storm caused my apartment to lose power
while I was doing laundry and packing, so instead of leaving Saturday
as planned, I had to push things back and hit the road Sunday morning.
Wiley and I arrived in Rust Belt, home of Dr. V., Bullock, and the world's
most famous Lebanese actor, on Sunday night. Wiley seemed to settle quite
well into his foster parents' pad (that would be the lovely home of
Dr. V. and Bullock, not the Lebanese actor), perhaps because he overheard
Bullock say that he sees no reason not to feed dogs table scraps.

After a relaxing morning (it was nice to talk to grown-ups again!), I
set out from Rust Belt sans Wiley Monday afternoon and got as far as
Boonville, Missouri. The next day, I made it all the way to
Georgetown, in the heart of the Rocky Mountains, but not without some
peril. Outside Colby, Kansas, my Ford Focus tussled with a tumbleweed.
I thought nothing of it, but when I got stuck in Denver rush hour
traffic and had to slow from 90 mph to a crawl, I heard a horrible
scraping noise. I pulled over to the shoulder, got on my hands and
knees and discovered that the bottom of my car seemed to be scraping
the ground.

Not good.

I also discovered that Denver, or at least the area I was in, has no
gas stations. I got off the Interstate and drove around fruitlessly
with my car dragging and my fuel gauge empty light on until I found a
truck stop that was open. It was funny because all the tools, etc.,
they had were for trucks and dwarfed my poor Focus, but finally David
(born and raised in Brooklyn, in the process of moving to Las Vegas as
soon as he has enough for the Greyhound ticket... so far he's only
gotten as far as Denver, and no, I'm not kidding) managed to jack the
car up enough to crawl under it and inform me that half the screws of
my catalytic converter shield had been torn off, leaving gaping holes
behind, but that he did not have the right screw driver to either pull
the shield off entirely or repair the screws that had come off.

Damn tumbleweed.

David, who was very cute in a James Hetfield circa Garage, Inc. days
way and very sweet but, uhm, slow in a Joe the produce carny way (many
of you will remember my long lost produce carny...), said it would
take days to order the new part anyway because the shield itself was
unsalvageable. He then got excited with "an idea" that would get me
"over the mountains safe and to Las Vegas ok"... he ran into the
locker room and came out with a wire hanger, which he threaded through
the gaping holes, twisted and pronounced a successful repair.

I decided to trust him that my car would not become a fireball
somewhere near the Continental Divide because he said he planned to
look me up when he got to Vegas and seemed quite sincere.

David's jerry-rigging did indeed hold, not only over the mountains but
the following day, over the San Rafael Swell where the road seemed
much steeper. The San Rafael was also gorgeous in a bleak, hostile
sort of way, and I wound up stopping at all the geologic view points,
because you know how much I love that stuff. Much of the exposed rock
is from around the Permian extinction timeframe, which was the most
devastating with more than 95% of all species on earth utterly wiped
out. I dunno about you, but that gets my blood racin'.

I also love being able to see rock layers all twisted and bunched up
like taffy, and some of them were as tortured as anything I've seen in
Iceland. Every time I stopped to read the roadside plaque, however, my
car literally groaned. It made these awful noises when I turned the
motor off that, translated into human, were probably "ohh, my back...
my achin' back."

I spent Wednesday night in southern Utah, in the dumpy town of Cedar
City, because I wanted to arrive fresh and awake in Vegas. Good thing
I made that decision, because Vegas traffic is a bit insane.

Actually, the epiphany I had earlier today about Vegas is that it's
like a desert Moscow.

No, it's not that bad... but there are disturbing similarities. The
traffic, for example, is all six or eight lanes, and with a lot of
liberal interpretation of traffic laws and frequent U-turns. Every
time I do a U-turn, I think in my head "Vwot! Razresheniye!" and
remember with some fondness the insane dip-razes I used to pull in
Moscow ("razresheniye" meaning u-turn, and dip-raz being short for,
essentially, a diplomatic u-turn, as in a reckless manuever that only
someone with diplomatic immunity would try, such as a u-turn across
five lanes of traffic and in front of a cop with sirens blaring).

More Moscow similarities: you'll be driving along one block after
another of anonymous buildings (in Moscow, it's grimy gray blocks...
here it's strip malls) and then suddenly come upon an enormous,
ostentatious building that looks ridiculously out of place (the
Stalinist behemoths in Moscow, the hotels here, which exist off the
strip, too, and stick out even worse).

Also: regardless of the weather in Moscow, even in the heat of summer,
people would be bundled up. And here in Vegas, where it's 70 degrees
and sunny and I am melting in a t-shirt and jeans, I keep seeing
people in winter coats and boots and hats and scarves. Yes, there are
a lot of people in tiny clothes, too, but the number of people dressed
for an Arctic expedition is unsettling.

For those of you who know how I feel about Moscow, Don't Worry. I am
fascinated by Vegas, by its weirdness and foreigness. Quite frankly, I
think this is the most foreign place I've ever lived... it's just
so... *odd*... like the lady who waited on me at World Market
yesterday. She was about 50, my height and maybe 120 pounds, with a
very ill-fitting long blond wig and a lot of really, really bad
plastic surgery and strange, badly-drawn eyebrows. She was very nice
and I felt bad because I was trying not to stare, but wow, she looked
like one of the freakish Frankenstein nurses in "Escape from L.A."...
and don't tell me I'm the only one who's seen that movie! Also, in my
29 hours here in Vegas, I've already encountered at least half a dozen
people shouting that Jesus is coming and Hallelujah and so on. It's
already got me wondering if Vegas acts as a freak magnet, drawing the
troubled, or if people go nuts after living here too long. It's
probably both, so while I'm excited to be here, I'm also glad it's
only for a few months.

My apartment is nicer than I had thought it would be, though the
complex looks very dumpy from the outside. My unit is clean and quiet,
however, with big shade trees that let me keep the vertical blinds
open and still have privacy. It's about two miles from MGM Grand, and
I plan on walking to and from work as often as possible since it's a
safe, straight shot along Tropicana.

This morning I got my health card and now I'm running errands, picking
up some things I couldn't fit in my car. I don't start work until
early Tuesday morning, and between now and then I plan on visiting the
Liberace Museum (in a strip mall just two blocks from my apartment!)
and doing some hiking at the Valley of Fire, which sounds like my kind
of place.

This morning as I was walking out of the scary community health center
with my health card, I took in the brilliant sunshine (the sun really
is noticeably stronger here than in NY or Wisconsin) and cloudless sky
and had that gut reaction of "Wait! I have to go hiking today! I have
to go hiking RIGHT NOW because who knows when I'll see the sun

Then I realized I'll be seeing the sun again tomorrow. And the next
day... and the next day... and the next day...

Thursday, December 7, 2006

Funny mix-up

I just received part of the birthday present I ordered for Bullock's upcoming birthday of a certain number, but instead of the very appropriate present I ordered for him, I got sent someone else's present: the book 29 and Counting: A Chick's Guide to Turning 30.

Too funny!

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Welcome Wiley

[Edited to fix a link.]

This handsome fellow staring at a squirrel outside my study window is Wiley. He usually belongs to the Pastry Pirate pack, but his "alpha bitch" (as she sometimes refers to herself) is on her way to Las Vegas for a 16-week stint in the bakery of one of the Strip hotels and couldn't find a place to live that would accept dogs bigger than pocket-sized, so he'll be running with our pack here in Rust Belt until late April.

Wiley is a type of laika -- a generic name for a set of closely-related Russian hunting dog breeds. Laika was also the name (not just the breed) of the dog sent into space in Sputnik 2. And, last but not least, Laika Dog is also a rock band from Yorkshire.

This is what Wiley has to say for himself (in first person!) in the introduction to "The Book of Wiley" (the hilarious and informative guide the Pastry Pirate left with us):

I am a very good boy, overall...I am very smart, but I also worry more than most dogs, sometimes about things that may make no sense to you, such as the bad Feng Shui of how you place my water bowl.
Indeed, he has already moved his food bowl to the center of the room, away from the wall where we originally placed it. Fine -- we can walk around it. And so far he has been very good and very easy. He howled for a little bit after the Pirate left, and was kind of sad that first day, but now he's got his routine down and he's playing with us, eating healthily, and barking joyfully when either of us comes home from being at school or out. If you followed the laika links, you learned that the word "laika" means "barker." As "The Book of Wiley" states, "I bark a lot. It's my idiom. It's how I roll." He barks pretty predictably so far: at squirrels and other dogs, and when we come home. Oh, and when the old man who lives behind us makes doggy noises in an attempt to *get* Wiley to bark! (Well, at least the neighbors are understanding -- it's a doggy neighborhood.)

So everyone say hello to Wiley and give him a virtual butt scratch -- he really likes those!

Friday, December 1, 2006

Odds and ends

Edited to add a query to the internets: If you had to choose between MA programs in Medieval (or Medieval and Renaissance) Studies at the Universities of Leeds, York, and Durham, which would *you* choose? (Obviously this a question for the medievalists -- all disciplines.)

Woah. I really didn't mean to go silent for a week and a half there. (Random note: I typed "hlaf" for "half" at first, which amused me, as that would me "a week and a *loaf*" in Old English.)

Since we've been back from our Turkey Day weekend road trip, I've been running around like an acephalous farm fowl, but without any real reason for feeling so busy, at least not that I can think of at the moment. Hm. How does that happen?

The trip, by the way, gave me lots of food for thought about the zombification of the past, which, if I can find the time and space, I hope to write about. It also presented me with yet another Jesus, Son of Godzilla -- or maybe it's the same one and I just forgot which interstate highway it was on -- and I have things to say about that, too. I don't which is weirder, it or Jesusland Jerusalem in Orlando.

But now, a quick little story of academic happy happy joy joy. One of my favorite former students in the whole wide world just got word that she got into all three UK medieval studies MA programs for which she applied, and she forwarded the comments of one of the program directors to me. They're *very* impressed with her. She thinks it's all because of me, but really, she was fabulous all on her own. Anyway, I'm so very excited for her! I love it when good and exciting things happen for my students.