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.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

On a lighter, happier, livelier note...

I've got a production schedule for my book, at last! Woo-hoo! And it has a June 2007 publication date, so even if it's not completely ready for K'zoo, it will at least be there in proofs and ready for pre-order.

And I just got proofs back for one of the articles that are currently "forthcoming." So that's moving forward, too.

Just didn't want to leave for the holidays with the somewhat dark "speaking for the dead" post on top.

On that note, Bullock and I are leaving tomorrow for a trip to visit Virgo Sis in her natural habitat. Fast Fizzy and the Fizzy family will be there, too. (Dad will be staying in Cowtown, but Eldest Niece will be spending Turkey Day with him, so he won't be alone.)

And when we get back, Bullock and I have to get the house ready for a visit from the Pastry Pirate and her dog, Wiley, whom we will be fostering for 16 weeks while the Pirate is doing piratical things to pastry in Vegas, baby.

So you won't see any new posts for a few days. And in the future there may be dog stories every now and then. Consider yourselves warned.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Speaking for the dead

Yesterday I gave a talk on my work in progress to our humanities research seminar, and since it was a pretty technical, specialist talk, I wanted to give an introduction that put it in a broader context, especially because I was speaking to a generalist audience, but also because the value of my work – why it should matter – has been much on my mind. Lately I’ve been feeling a little down about the worth of my work – my research in particular, but sometimes my teaching, too – and that has everything to do with the ways the current administration at my university has been treating those of us who work in the humanities and social sciences (or, for that matter, the pure sciences). I won’t get into specifics, but it’s gone way beyond the usual nonsense that humanities people have to put up with, to the extent that it’s been seriously affecting morale in these parts. So I’ve been thinking a lot about what the value of my work is, but not in some instrumentalist, utilitarian way. I think when you start to talk that way about education, it plays right into the hands of the technocrats who think the point of education is to give them a well-trained workforce and to meet their needs and their needs only.

This kind of talk is especially nerve-wracking for me, since it’s hard for a medievalist to justify her work on the basis of use-value and practical needs. Every now and then current events make the general public see the value of, say, a Crusades historian, but when one’s work is about a miscellaneous manuscript of anonymous saints’ lives and romances and allegorical poems, which was once owned by a London merchant who might have been “somebody” in the 15th century but is pretty much a “nobody” to the ages after, well then, you’ve got the kind of obscure-seeming project that’s just asking to be mocked by the utilitarian and instrumental thinkers. I mean, it’s not even about Chaucer or Arthurian romance – at least people have heard of those. And medievalists sometimes even get dismissed by their peers in their own disciplines for some of the same or other misguided reasons (as HeoCwaeth has talked about), so even if my university weren’t going out its way to make the humanists and social scientists in general feel like schmucks, I still wanted to contextualize my work for my general audience.

So here’s what I said.

Lately, honestly, I’ve been feeling kind of down about my work and its value; after all, it doesn’t save lives and it doesn’t make the world a better place. So what use is it? [note: spoken with some sarcasm – there’s a context here for my original audience]. If we ask students what the value of studying the past is, they say we can learn from the past or from those who study the past. And as I often tell my students, we can point to medieval origins of much of our contemporary world including the university and the liberal arts. But that’s using the past as means, and I’d rather study it as an end in itself, to give it its own integrity and dignity, rather than make all about what it says about me, us, now – that’s “presentism.” Moreover, that use of the past as means can be abused. The medieval origin or association of something can be used to denigrate it: “how medieval” versus the privilege and supposed progress of modernity. Or, it can be used as a fetishization of “tradition” to oppress and to maintain the status quo – as in the conservative cry to preserve “traditional marriage.”

So, of what “use” is the past? In my teaching narrative in my dossier, I wrote the following, and I deeply believe it: “I believe in the humanist, liberal arts ideal that deep, critical encounters with lives, literatures, cultures, discourses, and ways of thinking other than one’s own makes one a fuller, better human being. In that sense, I hope students will ‘use’ their experiences in English courses for the rest of their lives.” That certainly includes lives, etc. of the past. But that’s about the classroom – what about my research? Why does it matter?

Having thought much about this in recent months, I realized just last night that while my work may not save lives in any literal sense, neither does any other work except temporarily, because ultimately we all die. Thus, those of us who work on the past speak for the dead, either as individuals or as cultures. We are all mortal, and we share this mortality with all life on earth; but what makes humans distinct is that we can memorialize, represent, study, and remember the long dead – their culture, their art, their literature, their governments, their disasters and triumphs, their religions, their social practices, their lives – and we, like them, can leave our traces to be so remembered when we are dead. We all die. And so to speak for the dead is to speak for humanity, for the human condition itself, and it is also to be human.

The dead I’m speaking for today wouldn’t have needed me to speak for them when they were alive. I’m talking about wealthy, powerful aldermen of late medieval London – the kind of men who were sheriffs and mayors, or the sons of them and who loaned money to the crown. Indeed, they’d be a little baffled and bewildered to have a woman scholar speak for them. In their world I couldn’t have existed! But “Dead White European Men” need us to speak for them, too, because the dead can’t speak for themselves. And these particular “DWEMs” really haven’t had much said about them at all (only the briefest mentions in books dedicated to their social milieu) And the manuscript they’ve inscribed their names on, as they knew it, has also been overlooked – though certain of the earlier texts within it have gotten plenty of scholarly attention, just not together. Plus, the texts are anonymous – there’s no Chaucer or other named author here – and even rich merchants aren’t kings or other world historical figures, so their reading and cultural practices have only begun to be studied in recent decades.

As for why I’m interested in them, I’ve always been interested in the readers and audiences for texts as much as or more than I’ve been interested in their authors. After all, I’m a reader not an author (at least not in a literary sense) and I fell into literary study because of that. More and more, questions of how and what and why we read (or don’t read) interest me more than how X author wrote. I never really needed Roland Barthes to tell me that the author was dead or that a text’s meaning lies in its audience, its destination – though when I first read that essay in college, I thought “Yes! I’m not the only one! Maybe I’m not a freak!” So that’s what this project is about: about a particular manuscript’s “destination” in the 15th century and its audience with 15th century merchants whose names are on its final folio. But it’s also about those larger questions of how and what and why we read, and how reading produces meaning, how it produces culture, questions that I’m not the first to ask certainly, but which still have not been fully answered, for the dead or the living.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

I got bupkis

I know I promised to get back to substantial posting and I really want to live up to that promise, but I've got blogger's block. In lieu of real substance, I offer you a moment in the life of Dr. Virago and Bullock (who is also a Dr., btw, in case you didn't know that).

[Setting: a really comfy, tomato red couch facing a ridiculously large TV. A man and a woman sit on the couch, mesmerized by a local television commercial with embarrassingly poor production quality and an annoying, repetitive catch-phrase. (Seriously, I don't remember local TV commercials this bad since about the 1970s.)]

Dr. Virago: Wow. That was incredibly annoying.

Bullock: Yeah, that was so annoying it made me want to vote Republican.

Dr. V: Huh?

Bullock: You know, like the annoying robocalls.

Dr. V: Huh? But I thought those were by Republicans.

Bullock: They were. And they may have made a difference in about 7 races.

Dr. V: But wait. Why would the commercial make you vote Republican? Why did the robocalls work? I don't get it.

Bullock (sighing patiently at Virago's wonk-less-ness): The annoying robocalls seemed to be from Democrats. They posed as pro-Democrat calls and called Democratic households.

Dr. V: I know, but why would they make you want to vote for the Republicans who made them?

Bullock (continuing with utmost patience): Because, people would hang up on them, as usual, but they were programmed to keep calling back. And they were programmed to call at dinner time, during local sporting events, and even in the middle of the night.

Dr. V: Go on.

Bullock: And if you didn't listen all the way through -- and most people didn't -- you thought they were from Democrats...

Dr. V: Oh, I get it. So people got so annoyed at all the calls from "Democrats," they voted for Republicans out of spite.

Bullock: Exactly.

Dr. V: So this commercial is so annoying, like the robocalls, it's making even you, a Democrat, want to vote for Republicans.

Bullock: Yes -- now you get it!

Dr. V: Wow, honey, that's a really obscure joke.

Bullock: But see how brilliantly it comes together once you get all the pieces?

Dr. V: But honey, it took me an 8-step process and I have a Ph.D.!

Bullock: Do you think this is why my students don't laugh at my jokes?

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Postcard from Profgrrrrl

Yay! Bullock and I finally got our postcard from Profgrrrrl, mailed nearly two months ago, I think. Perhaps the batch ours was in took the scenic route? Speaking of scenic -- wow! Gorgeous! Just gorgeous!

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Who knew?

ETA: OK, I conflated the Welsh and the Cornish in my babbling about pasties and miners below. D'oh! Pasties are Cornish. And the miners who brought them to the UP were Cornish as well. But the miners in southern Ohio were indeed Welsh. But wait, there's more! -- see below.

So I've spent at least half of each of the last three days compiling a mailing list of every high school English department in our metro area and every college and university English department in the upper Midwest that doesn't have an MA program -- all for recruitment purposes for our own MA program. And since I'm doing this on the web and not in phone books, it gives me opportunities to learn all sorts of interesting things about education in my metro-area and region of the U.S. because it's hard to keep myself focused on getting the basic information I'm there to get. Clicking around is almost second nature!

For one thing, I've learned that you can do three electives in gourmet cooking at one of our area's best public high schools, and that graduates have gone on to the CIA (the culinary one, not the government one). I wonder if they'd take an "adult learner"? Te-hee!

I've also learned that there are an un-frakin'-believable amount of tiny colleges in this part of the country. Seriously, how do these places survive?! Now, some of them are Christian colleges with very active religious missions, so I suspect they have a very directed marketing campaign. But how do the rest survive? These are the kind of places that are so tiny that they have departments of "language and literature" where there are five English profs, a Spanish prof, and maybe a French prof. Our area high schools have bigger faculties -- and their own, separate departments of English and Foreign Languages! (Clearly my life-long association with research universities is beginning to show here. But dang, even the SLACs I know something about are about 10x the size of these places. Maybe we should call them TLACs for "Tiny Liberal Arts Colleges.") Anyway, I'm especially targeting these places because their students really need our MA program if only to get a decent generalist program of study in English for whatever their goals are. They probably wouldn't be able to get into most Ph.D. programs with their majors in "English/Humanities."

But I've also found out all sorts of little cultural and historical tidbits. I remember last summer finally learning how the "pasty" (pronounced "past + y" and not "paste + y"), which I think of as belonging to certain parts of Great Britain, became the regional treat of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and parts of Northern Wisconsin -- the Welsh Cornish miners who worked there brought it with them. But does Northern Michigan University, situated on the Upper Peninsula, have a center for Welsh Cornish studies? No, it does not. Meanwhile, it turns out that southern Ohio is a region with a Welsh heritage, also related to mining, and so much so that teeny weeny University of Rio Grande (and no, it's not in Texas) has a Madog Center of Welsh Studies. There's even a Welsh Scenic Byway in that part of the country. Who knew? Now I totally want to take a scenic drive there someday.

ETA: OK, so while the Welsh were in southern Ohio, the Finns were waaaay up yonder in Michigan's UP, founding Finlandia University on the tip of a smaller peninsula jutting into Lake Superior (pretty much as far north in Michigan as you can get). And get this: you can major in Finnish studies! Again, who knew?! I'm learning so much about the upper midwest.

And now I swear I'll stop updating this post.

Ah the internets -- making a boring task fascinating and much, much longer that it really should be! Sigh.

Wednesday, November 8, 2006

Well *that's* interesting

The powers that be at my university think that our future lies in science and technology education, and that such should be our focus. They say they think this because it will best serve our region and will provide our constituents with the best chances at jobs.

Perhaps they should have a look at this study by the National Science Foundation. According to the summary on InsideHigherEd:

More than half of those who graduated with science bachelor’s degrees in 2001 or 2002 were employed outside of science and engineering or unemployed, non-students by October 2003, according to a report released by the National Science Foundation. The report features numerous tables on the post-graduation work and education histories of science graduates.
I still need to look at all the tables, and those of you out there trained in statistics and survey methodology (that means you, Bullock) will probably have more substantive things to say about its methods it than I (though I just want to note that it weirldy includes the social sciences). Right now I'm just posting this without much comment as a way to get me back on track with substantive posts, including those posts about just what it is that I think a liberal arts education is supposed to do.

Things to celebrate

Yesterday was an auspicious day in America.

Finally, the long national nightmare of the Britney Spears - Kevin Federline marriage is over.

Tuesday, November 7, 2006

Election Day academic humor

On today, election day, I thought everyone could use a little election-inspired academic humor (funnier than the silly card in the post below). If you haven't seen this before, you need to check it out: it's a parody of a negative political ad, created in good humor by Jeremy D. Mayer, Associate Professor and Director of the Masters of Public Policy Program, School of Public Policy, George Mason University. The subject of the ad is John G. Geer, whose book, In Defense of Negativity: Attack Ads in Presidential Campaigns, makes the argument that negative campaign ads benefit the democratic process. Here's Mayer's parody negative ad about Geer:

I loved the bit about the "8 jobs in 14 years." I never thought how weird that might sound to someone outside of academia! Too funny! And the best part of it all is that Geer apparently thinks it's funny, and the U Chicago Press even posted about it on their blog (yes, they have a blog).

Sunday, November 5, 2006

And now for something completely different

The former blogger known as the Pastry Pirate sent me this card not long ago:

...and now you are, too.

(That's what is said on the inside.)*

I'm not sure if she sent it to me because a) she knows the word "monkey" makes me laugh, b) she knows the fact that the chimps on the card are *apes,* not monkeys, would drive me nuts, c) the thought that I wouldn't know whether to laugh or get frustrated ("Apes! Dammit! Apes!") gave her sadistic pleasure, or d) all of the above. All I know is that I'm sharing it with you all for a little levity and easy reading after my last 3000-word post! And also, I'm practicing using my scanner! :)

*Image and text provided for demonstration purposes only and will be removed upon request. Copyright AGC, Inc., Cleveland, OH.

Thursday, November 2, 2006

Liberalpalooza: Inside the Humanities Classroom

John Holbo, editor of The Valve, has kindly invited me to participate in The Valve’s What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts? book event, running all this month. I am pleased and flattered and a little overwhelmed to have been asked to contribute, but what tickles me most about this is the original list of participants that John sent to us, which included about twenty or so names that I’m pretty sure appear on those writers’ driver’s licenses, plus the following two:

The mysterious Bitch, Ph.D.

The mysterious Dr. Virago

Ooh, such august company! And to be as mysterious as Dr. B! Cool! (And for those still beating the dead horse of the pros and cons of blogging under a pseudonym, this is the main reason why I remain pseudonymous: because my pseudonym is cooler than my real name.)

But enough about me – on to the book event. First of all, for my non-academic readers, especially those who read no blogs other than mine, What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts?: Classroom Politics and “Bias” in Higher Education is by Michael Bérubé, the Paterno Family Professor in Literature in the Department of English at Pennsylvania State University, blogger extraordinaire at the currently titled Le Blogue Bérubé, public intellectual, postmodern literature and cultural studies scholar, father of an exceptional child, co-director of Disability Studies at Penn State, and also a really fast talker. (He has also been said by some to be a “whiz-bang manic trendy,” and he only half denies this.) One of the recurring topics of his blog (along with Theory Tuesdays and Arbitrary-But-Fun Fridays) and of his public (i.e., general, non-academic audience) writing is the attack on the academy by figures such as David Horowitz (“author” of The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America) who claim that the preponderance of liberals on American campuses is both the result of active discrimination against conservatives in the academy and also a danger to American youth. Part of What’s Liberal directly addresses the claims of Horowitz and others, while part of the book takes the reader into Bérubé’s classroom with examples of just what happens when students disagree with him and with each other – with an emphasis on Bérubé’s areas of expertise, American literature and culture, and the (often poorly defined) bogey man of many a conservative commenter and blog troll: postmodernism. If you go to Bérubé’s blog, you’ll find reviews of the book listed in the sidebar; I don’t feel the need to add yet another one since a whole bunch of reviews ad infinitum would make a very boring book event for the Valvesters. So if you want a review, go check out those links.

Instead, I’ll do what I think this blog does best, which is, in part, to shamelessly use someone else’s writing as inspiration and general theme and provide my thoughts on the subject. Oh, and also, to talk about concrete examples of what goes on in my classroom and my work in order to give the world out there a sense of what it is assistant professors at regional, public, non-flagship universities do all day.

When I first read What’s Liberal, I thought: man, I *wish* my students were this combative, or at least questioning and argumentative, or even, at the very least, talkative! I spend so much of my energy and time in the classroom and in the preparation of my classes and assignments teaching my students how to be students in a liberal arts tradition, how to analyze, argue, discuss, think, use evidence, and write persuasively, that I don’t have much time or energy left to care whether their assumptions are coming from the left, right, center, or some bizarro-world point off the political map. So many of them would rather please their professors than argue with them, and so they often give tentative and brief answers that stop short of arguments, use “hedge phrases” like “Well, I don’t know if this is right,” or else keep quiet and save their energy for the graded stuff. And some of them are so exhausted from trying to take on full-time school on top of full-time work, that they have little energy left come class time. I find myself saying “Say more” a lot. And I’ll do it until the cows come home, and I’m also perfectly content with awkward silence, which is good, because I get it a lot. I’m trying to work on my assignments and course structure to get them to process more before class. Like I said: I spend a lot of time teaching them how to be students in a liberal arts tradition.

Likewise, when it comes to papers and other assignments, I think Bérubé has slightly higher expectations than I. He writes of his own grading practices:

All I ask is that their interpretations be plausible, and my criteria are lawyerly and austere. One, I read their essays to see how well they handle textual evidence, that is, how well they support whatever claims they make by reference to the material in front of them; and two, I want to know how well they anticipate and head off possible counterarguments. That’s it. Meet those two criteria in my classroom, and the field of interpretation is open.

If I had written that, it would look like this: All I ask is that they have an interpretation (instead of a summary), that they use textual evidence, that they make claims, that they realize that to be an argument their ideas must plausibly have counterarguments. That’s it. Meet those criteria in my classroom and I’ll be so happy I’ll cry tears of joy. Go beyond those criteria and make a persuasive argument with nuanced handling of the evidence in support of those claims and I’ll do my happy dance for you. And I don’t say that to be mean to my students; clearly they’re not getting this instruction before they get to my classes, and if I don’t insist on it, the problem will replicate itself, because many of these students are Education majors and will be the teachers of my future students. Scary.

Anyway, in my specialty field – medieval literature – my biggest problem is trying to get students not to be so “presentist,” not to read the texts only through the lens of their own worldview, or at least to recognize when they are doing so. Such presentism can come from any explicitly or implicitly political direction or it can be largely apolitical, as well. What such comments have in common is that they are usually so wildly off topic that I have to reign the students back in and get them to focus on the text again. They very well may perceive this as “bias,” and they’d be right: I’m biased towards discussing the literature in terms relevant to it, which may or may not be how we perceive it now, depending on the text and the terms of discussion. Let me give a few examples, from one of my medieval lit courses and also from the introductory course for the English major, in which the texts we explored ranged across British and American literature.

In one of my Chaucer courses, I once had an enthusiastic young woman who just loved to talk in my class, but usually on the level of comparing characters to celebrities or people she knows. (So, OK, I *do* sometimes have talkative students.) Anyway, one day we were talking about “The Miller’s Tale,” and I was asking students to describe the diction and imagery of the description of Alison at the beginning of the tale, and to tell me in what terms she was made appealing, to whom that would appeal, and what did that mean? Ms. Talkative shot up her hand. I called on her and she said: “I don’t think she’s appealing at all. She reminds me of all the bitchy pretty girls in high school who think just because they’re pretty they can do anything they want.” This was actually probably the smartest thing she ever said in my class and she was in many ways right or at least on the right track. But it was free-association argument, it wasn’t making its point with specific reference to the text, and it wasn’t answering the question I was asking at that point. And while I don’t mind when students jump ahead when I’m slowly building a reading or set of readings of a text, I also know that some students haven’t made the leap yet. And in this case, I think this student just got lucky. So I said what she was doing was reading “against the grain,” but to do that well, one has to establish what reading “with the grain” is. So I asked her, “Who finds those bitchy pretty girls appealing – or more important, to whom might this description of Alison appeal?” And then we got to talk about what the text was assuming about its audience or perhaps conveying about its teller, and about how and why different readers then and now might have different responses to such assumptions, and so on.

That kind of moment can stand in for the bulk of my classroom experience. Getting students away from free-association, impressionistic readings and getting them closer to the text is, I’d say, about 50% of what I do in the classroom. In the example above, the comment wasn’t expressly political on a Democrat-Republican scale, but it was implicitly about gender, and it was ultimately about the different subject positions of male and female readers, an idea developed by modern feminist critical practices but certainly not foreign to the Middle Ages. But then students don’t seem to balk when I talk about those things in Chaucer classes, since all I have to do is point to the Wife of Bath to show that Chaucer himself is interested in those very questions. One of the complaints the David Horowitzes of the world like to throw around is that liberal professors don’t stick to their subject of expertise, that they import their liberal ideas about gender, class, and race to their subjects. Quite the opposite, I think. My students are the ones most likely to veer off topic, to see the text in terms of their own world (and really, what average 18-22 year old isn’t “presentist”?); I’d add that that particular student who was implicitly making an argument about gendered behavior expectations and refusing the way the text wants us to desire Alison also happened to self-identify as a conservative Christian. So the relationship between politics and classroom subject for a student or a professor can be complicated and difficult to read. (I’ve written before, in fact, about how many of my students assume I, too, am a Christian because of the texts I teach and my insistence that we at least try to see them through their historical contexts.) And, of course, the complaint that gender, class, and race (and sexuality and disability and environmentalism and so on) and are inventions of the (post)modern world is not only patently false, but a rhetorical move to delegitimize such topics and concerns for being “newfangled.” Are there historical and cultural differences concerning the ways gender, class, race, etc., were constructed, defined, and perceived in different times and places? Absolutely! In fact, I believe that the study of the past through various disciplines is an intrinsic part of the liberal arts mission for the very reason that it means an encounter with ways of living, thinking, writing, knowing, and being that are often different from one’s own world. And I also believe one can’t really read a medieval text as a medieval person, but one can try to read like a medieval person, or at least imagine what that would be like – just as I was asking my student to imagine what a heterosexual guy (like the Miller telling the tale) might think of Alison or of the “bitchy pretty girls” and what that means for Alison’s function in the tale. But to think like someone else, students have to engage deeply with the texts and activate their sympathetic imaginations, and it’s only in doing so that the encounter with other ways of living and being happens. And so I spend at least half of my classroom time trying to get students to do that.

And sometimes, that means steering conservative students away from their free-association responses, too. In another classroom, we were discussing the opening scene of The Tempest – the storm scene in which the ship’s crew and the royal passengers are at odds over issues and sources of authority. The shipmen know how to sail, and therein lies their authority; the various kings and dukes think they have the authority of royalty and that the shipmen should follow their orders. And of course, they’re all equally subject to the power of nature. The problem is less about who has greater rank than about which kind and source of authority matters here, and that’s an interesting issue for the rest of the play. But one of my students was having none of it. He brought discussion to a halt with an awkward analogy to George Bush and Air Force One. Should George Bush, he asked, give over his authority as Commander in Chief to the pilot of Air Force One because the pilot says they’re headed into bad weather if they follow their intended route. For a second I was completely thrown off. But then I collected my senses and realized the question was completely irrelevant and anachronistic, since the idea of the head of state as Commander in Chief of the military wasn’t applicable to the scene in the text nor the era it was written in, and moreover, in the scene in question we had multiple heads of state on a non-royal vessel, so even if you held rigid authoritarian and monarchist beliefs, there’s still the question of who has sovereignty in that scene – another question viable throughout the play. And it’s the lesser ranking brothers of the monarchs who are making most of the fuss, anyway. And for the record, my student seemed satisfied with that. In fact, although he tended to dominate class discussion the rest of the semester, and occasionally had more off-the-wall comments, none was ever explicitly political again. My response to his comment – my deflection of it and redirection of it – had less to do with its politics than with its irrelevance, and perhaps he learned that from that moment. And again, it was the student who tried to get us off-topic and away from the text.

And at this point I have to say that’s the only example I’ve had of students being openly political in my classes, and I’ve been in the classroom for a dozen years now. And I’ve only ever gotten a single student evaluation in all those years that suggested that I graded based on a political bias. The vast majority of complaints about my grading are that I’m too hard. That’s it. One guy once, in twelve years and hundreds of students, said that if you weren’t a feminist you got a bad grade in my class. This was in a lower-division, general education literature course, and the texts we discussed ranged in time from the Anlgo-Saxon era to the 1980s, and included all sorts of texts from different historical, cultural, and political contexts. Of course, like many quirky comments, I knew exactly who it must have been, and why he wrote it. I had given him a B- (ooh! really bad grade!) on a paper in which he argued that Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper is pro-patriarchy, that it shows that John, the husband in it, is just trying to do his duty as a man and a husband. Now, for those of you who don’t know, The Yellow Wallpaper is a about as unsubtle a hit-them-over-the-head-with-your-message feminist text as they come. (OK, there are those who would argue with me on that point. It’s a complicated text, but I really wouldn’t call it subtle.) But the student had some good points. Certainly the character John thinks he’s doing what’s best and what’s right; that’s part of Gilman’s point – that good intentions can have terrible consequences if they rest on assumptions about the supposed natural weaknesses of women. So what I wrote in the comment was something along the lines of this: “You may have an argument here, but it’s badly executed. If you’re going to argue that an avowed feminist’s work is pro-patriarchy, you have to first recognize that that’s a counter-intuitive argument. And then you have to overwhelm your reader with evidence that the text undercuts its own purposes.” Perhaps I shouldn’t phrase comments in the conditional, because clearly he didn’t get that I was actually telling him how to make the argument he wanted to make, not saying “You can’t say that because it’s not feminist.” Sigh.

So what’s the point of this post of Bérubian length? In part, it’s the same point as the ‘classroom chapters’ of What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts: that what goes on in the classroom is complex, both on the observable levels and in the unobservable motivations of students and professors. I also think that the more stories of what the classroom is like, the better, since popular culture is full of strange and silly images and narratives of the classroom (especially literature classrooms!), even without the stories of “liberal indoctrination.” That’s one of the values of those central chapters of What’s Liberal – they let you in on an extraordinary classroom experience with a master teacher (for the mere price of a book! Even for non-Pennsylvania residents!). As for me, I’m at best a journeyman, still perfecting my craft. But the more stories the better, for what really allows the myths and rumors and misunderstandings to flourish is the distance that most people have from their own college experiences, if they even had them. Anecdotal evidence, I know, doesn’t make good policy argument, but narrative is still a powerful tool for understanding the lives and minds of others. It’s why I do what I do – as a scholar and teacher, and also as a blogger.

Wednesday, November 1, 2006

Should I call bullshit?

So one of my grad students is spreading bullshit. S/he's telling other students -- who are then telling me -- that s/he got into a very prestiguous Ph.D. program, with a fabulous fellowship, all within a few weeks of submitting the application this semester and then having a phone interview.

Um. Where do you start with "that's not how it works"?

And that's the problem I have. I really couldn't care less that this particular student is parading around like a peacock based on total fantasy. Heck, it might even have the benefit of giving hope to our often self-defeating students. But the thing is, this story is not how it works (especially given the school s/he's bullshitting about). And my students already have enough crazy misinformation and bad advice running around in their heads as it is. Knowing some of my students, if they submit applications and don't get accepted until March, they might spend the rest of their graduate careers thinking they weren't as nifty as the bullshitting student. Or, if they submit applications and have to wait until March or April, they might have neurotic fits of insecurity in the meantime. Seriously, the more neurotic fits I can head off at the pass, the better.

With the two students who told me this "news" about the bullshitting student, I had different reactions. To one of them, who's a pretty reasonable person, I said, "Really?? Because that's not usually how it works." I'm pretty sure that planted enough doubt in her head that she checked things out for herself. And then the other student was so wowed by the very idea of fellowships that I decided to steer the conversation to that.

And maybe I just answered my question, which was what the hell to do about this, if anything. Thoughts?

Uh-oh, now what? (On feeling relief and a lack of motivation)

On Friday I turned in a revised article as a response to a revise-and-resubmit peer review. Since it was all being done electronically, one of the editors (it's a book collection) got back to me on Monday and said she was satisfied with the revision and hoped the co-editor would be, too. Wow, that must be the shortest turn-around in the history of academic publishing! And it's a good thing that she said yes (and, I hope, the other editor will, too) because originally I thought the response was accepted-with-revisions and not revise-and-resubmit, and my merit and renewal documents and dossier all say that the article has been accepted. Oops. (The letter was vague, I tell you! You would have been confused, too!)

But that's not what the "uh-oh" in my post title is about. Instead, I'm feeling this immense sense of relief and a dangerous sense of liberty because for the first time this semester I don't have a grant or article or abstract deadline looming. I do owe some friends and acquaintances feedback and other things I promised I'd help with, and I've been putting all of those things off for months now. And, of course, there are things to be done for my current classes and as graduate director, such as reading (no grading at the moment, however -- ah, the bliss of all graduate courses this semester -- no major grading until the very end!) and putting together recruitment packages to send to all the tiny SLACs and the RCUs in the area to tempt people to our MA program. And I need to call a meeting of the grad committee -- we really need to see if we can find a way to lighten the teaching load of our students, and we need to discuss the MA exam format. And the chair asked for flow charts of course selection processes (this is coming from the higher-ups --- it seems our new president is a "visual learner," and also, clearly, a micromanager) so I have to do one for graduate courses. And I really need to work on a clearer, more detailed, and physical (not just web-based) grad student handbook, because our students aren't as comfortable with hypertext links and web organization as we think they are. They like linear narratives.

But I don't want to do any of that. For the first time this semester I feel unburdened. And for the first time since, oh, I don't know, 2005, I feel on top of things. And I just want to take a little mid-week break and do nothing but go for a run, read for tomorrow's class, and meet students in office hours. Nothing but the immediate and necessary tasks, in other words. (Hey, running is immediate and necessary!) And did I mention it's a crisp and beautiful autumn day? But the blood of my Puritan ancestors is crying "Idler! Wastrel!" And the voices of hundreds of millions of other working people are yelling in my head, "Hey *we* don't get to take Wednesday off just because we feel like it...even if we do 'zone out' for half of the day." (Heh. I loved Office Space.) And there's also an Irish Catholic voice in there somewhere mumbling something about a holy day of obligation. Oh the guilt! (And now *you* are saying I should see someone about these voices in my head.)

Right. Ahem. Anyway....I'll probably at least tidy up my pigsty of an office and work on syllabuses for next semester, all of which is untaxing, soothing, and full of hope for the future. And then that will quiet the voice of the Protestant work ethic in my head. And this is why I got into this profession (well, one of the reasons, well below "because my work fascinates me" and "it suits my talents") -- so that I can decide *which* 60 hours of the week I'll work!

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

What's next? Bubonic plague?


Oh, I'm sorry, was that supposed to be a rhetorical question?

My post title is the headline of an article at Inside Higher Ed (linked in the post title) about the recent outbreaks of mumps, whooping cough, and tuberculosis at college campuses. And as the second commenter at IHE points out, bubonic plague does indeed still exist (ETA: right here in the United States, in fact -- see that commenter and also my first commenter below). I don't have a link for this, but I remember hearing a story on NPR in the last year about miners in South Africa contracting it, and in some it developed from bubonic to pneumonic -- and as I understand it, that's where things can get really scary.

Just a friendly reminder that the past is with us.

Oh, and PS -- Happy Halloween! Nothing like the threat of infectious diseases to make this holiday especially spooky!

Sunday, October 29, 2006

American aristocracies, academia, and bad sermons

So I went to Latin mass again, this time taking a few students from my graduate seminar. It wasn't as pleasant an experience this time, in part because the church was packed, mostly with young families teeming with crying babies and cranky toddlers.

[Totally tangential comment: there were multiple familes with five or more kids, one of them with seven. It's like they all woke up one morning and said, "You know, I'd like to be a walking stereotype of a Catholic family -- let's start breeding!" Seriously, when did this happen? I went to 12 years of Catholic school in the '70s and '80s and most families had 2 or 3 kids; we thought the unusual ones with 5 or more were serious throw-backs. Mine had 4 kids, but I was a big fat accident, 14 years after the last of the other three, and anyway, that's still under 5. This church was *filled* with families of 5 or more kids. How do they afford them all??]

Anyway, the priest's sermon also wasn't as good -- or rather, as useful for my purposes -- as the last one. Last time he talked about the World, the Flesh, and the Devil, as if he knew I was teaching medieval morality plays that very week! Too bad the students weren't with me that time. But this time, since it was the feast of Christ the King, he talked about metaphors of kingship, but not in a very interesting way, or in any usefully medieval way. He bulit up this awkward analogy of the aristocratic entourage that surrounds a king to the followers of Christ. (However, as awkward as it was, it did remind me a bit of medieval romance, where *everyone* is a king, queen, prince, or princess of some sort. But I digress.)

The most awkward part, though, was the vast middle section, where he assumed that none of his audience would know what an aristocracy was (well, maybe he's right -- I dunno, I prefer to err on the side of overestimating my audience) and so made less than effective analogies to three groups he called "American aristocracies": powerful CEOs of large corporations, wealthy people, and academics. Huh??? OK, first of all: which one of these things does not have the stock portfolio of the others? Great, so now all those people who don't know what an aristocracy is (he presumes) may now assume that academics are rich like CEOs and miscellaneous rich people. I was also thinking, "Hm, we must be those land-rich, cash-poor kind of aristocrats, because I'm not getting any of those aristocratic perks."

But then it got goofier. When he talked about all those groups, he talked about how they surround the king (not sure who the king is in each of these scenarios) and only associate with each other. When he got to academics, he even said, "They live with each other." Um, OK, well I live with an academic, but that's because he's my partner. But I assure you, I do have non-academic friends. I mean, I may usually scare them away from this blog with all the 'inside baseball' talk (as one friend once put it), but I can talk about other things! Really! And I don't think I'm too good for 'regular' people, either, which I was worried is what he was implying. After all, he was calling academia an aristocracy, and since I just saw Marie Antoinette last night, I was thinking, "How isolated and insular does he think we are? And when is the mob coming for our heads?" It smacked slightly of that anti-intellectual, pseudo-populism whereby educated people, and especially the people who educate them, are a despised and evil elite -- a kingdom of this world, versus Christ's kingdom of heaven. That spooked me. (And never mind that the populations of his congregation and of academics might even overlap!)

But the "they live with each other" really cracked me up. Because if we all lived in some academic group home, cut off from the World, associating mainly with each other except in our official capacities as teachers and advisors, wouldn't we be just like...priests and religious?? Project much, Father? (And of course, there's a historical connection between the university and religious education, but never mind that for now.) It was a confused sermon, to say the least. Really, I should've gone up to him after mass and said, "Hi Father, I'm Dr. Virago. See, we do get out sometimes!" Te-hee!

Friday, October 27, 2006

On boundaries

Compared to some of the curmudgeons who have been the Graduate Director before me, I'm as warm and cuddly and approachable as a puppy. But that's not saying much, because some of those guys just loved playing the part of austere authority gazing down on the students' puniness. It's easy to seem approachable compared to that. I also think part of my approachability is illusion; students assume it because I'm young(ish) -- and look younger still -- and female. And also, when students come to my office, at first my back is to them -- vulnerable, an easy mark -- and then I turn to them, welcome them in, and offer them a seat that's practically in my lap, all because I have an office that's 7' x 7' (I'm not kidding). The old guys have big offices where they can sit behind their desks, which serve as a visible sign of the social boundary between them and the students. And the one guy who takes the middle ground -- a desk perpendicular to the door so that he can turn face-to-face with the visiting student with no physical barrier between them -- has a voice so booming, no matter how conversational, that he couldn't avoid being intimidating if he wanted. Heck, even his "soft voice" is a stage whisper that could carry across an unamplified theater.

So, in contrast, students find me approachable. I've been told this, but even if I hadn't, I'd know because I seem to get an inordinate amount of student unloading their troubles on me. This happens with the undergrads, too, but it is especially true of the graduate students. This is a good thing for many reasons, not least of which is they give me a heads up about problems and conflicts before they get too far out of control and nothing can be done about them. And they ask me questions, rather than floundering or getting bad advice from their peers. All good. But then they start coming to me with personal life stuff and sometimes, "just to talk." When it stays on the level of things like time management or dealing with family members who think that they have Friday "free" because they don't teach or have classes, then I'm fine, because it's all about professional advice. But when I start hearing the stories of addiction, abusive relationships, or things like that, I have to admit, I get a little uncomfortable. And a lot of them feel like they can talk about their spiritual lives with me, because I can do the Jesus talk, it's true, and I'm probably the single most sympathetic liberal atheist they'll ever meet. But still it makes me uncomfortable.

It's not that I'm a cold and unfeeling person. It's not that I think that students should be brains-on-a-stick with no personal lives. And it's not that I have some abstract principle of distant professionalism in mind. It's because it makes me, Dr. V., uncomfortable. Why? Well, because I have them in classes, and I administer exams, and I sign off on petitions for exceptions and course substitutions, and sometimes I have to give them grades and responses they don't like. And then they feel betrayed and I feel like shit. It's not personal and it's not a judgment of them, but they read it that way. And it seems like the only way to prevent it from getting to that point it to be cold and distant and unapproachable, which I don't really think I can be. When they come to me in tears because their partner of five years has suddenly moved out or because their father is dying or because they've just lost it trying to juggle their overburdened lives, I am sympathetic, and I give them kleenex and comfort (no hugs, though -- I'm not huggy by nature and that gets into sticky legal territory, anyway). And shit, although I never cried to a professor, I did cry a helluva a lot in graduate school, mostly from loneliness, sometimes from stress, and so I know what it can be like. (Though when it starts to get into addiction and abuse type seriousness, that's when I pull out the numbers for student psych counseling, because I am not a professional mental health counselor and that's beyond my ken.) So I can't help but be sympathetic.

And yet I know where it might lead -- to that feeling of betrayal -- and so I remain uncomfortable and completely torn. Should I steer it back to concrete academic issues? Should I say, "How can I help you?" whenever it gets too personal and just refuse to let them keep talking about things I have no control over? Or should I let them talk because that's probably what they need?

What do you do in situations like this (with undergrads or grads)? Do you have boundaries? Where do you draw them?

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

So much for the supposedly pernicious influence of Ward Churchill on the academy

Some of you with elephant memories and too much time on your hands may recall that I'm teaching a first year graduate course on research methods in literary studies, or, as I like to call it, "How to be a Graduate Student." I kind of wimped out on making it really tough and rigorous -- mainly because I needed to test the waters and see what one of our typical first year groups could and couldn't do, what they did and didn't need -- and while I have really useful, practical assignments (which I might talk about in another post), most of the class after the first 3 weeks has consisted of visits from my colleagues who introduce their fields, current work in it, and the most important resources for research in it. (I have to say, this is so much fun for me. It's like I get to be a student, too! Weeeeeee!)

Anyway, yesterday one of our Native American lit. scholars came to visit and, among other things, did a hilarious riff of the character Billy in Predator. But also got serious and talked about the shape of the field and current trends, etc. He also talked about major scholars in the field. And then he got to vexed issues of identity and authenticity among authors and critics, and talked about various fraud cases. And, of course, Ward Churchill came up.

As my colleague brought up his name, he looked a little sheepish, as if he regretted even having to invoke the man. But then he noticed the blank faces of my students. And so he asked, "How many of you have heard of Ward Churchill?"

*crickets chirping*

Not a hand went up. Not a head nodded. Not a look of recognition so much as flitted across a student's face. Out of a class of 18 students in a master's program in English literature, not a one had heard of Ward Churchill.

I'm not sure if that's a good thing (he doesn't deserve to be known) or a bad thing (they're unaware of controversies in their chosen profession) but it's not a surprising thing. A year ago they were undergraduates (well, most of them); or else they've been busy public high school English teachers. Undergraduates are busy trying to keep Jane Austen and Jane Eyre straight and my brilliant high school teachers (and they always are some of the smartest ones in the bunch -- they rock) are busy trying to get their struggling students to write an intelligible paragraph or two. I'm not saying they should remain ignorant of such controversies; I'm just saying I'm not surprised they are.

As for my colleague, as soon as he realized they hadn't heard of Churchill, he looked relieved. I'm sure that everyone he encounters who has heard of WC wants to know what his opinion is. And many of them probably ask in that most annoying way: "How do you feel about Ward know, as a Native American yourself." I think he was thrilled not to have to do the distancing dance for once.

Maybe there's something more to be said here -- about the insularity of our controversies, perhaps? -- but maybe I'll leave it for the comments. All I know is, like my colleague I'm happy to let Ward Churchill slip into oblivion.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Chicago, it's a helluva town

[Updated below]

So a couple of weeks ago, Bullock and I went to Chicago to see a couple of friends of his. We had *stunning* weather and walked all over downtown from the Navy Pier to the museum campus. But we also decadently splurged on a huge and outrageously expensive (for us) meal at Topolobampo, Rick Bayless's fancy restaurant (we got reservations months in advance). (If you go, I recommend the tasting menu -- and they will redesign it for vegetarians or people with dietary restrictions -- though the matching wine tasting menu isn't a very good deal. Still, it's nice to be able to try different wines and have them suit your food.) At any rate, I'm sure those decadent calories outweighed all our walking and museum touring. But oh, it was sooooooo good!

My brother Fast Fizzy, on the other hand, is in Chicago today, and he's not eating a rich meal and sitting around with his belt-buckle undone. Oh no. Guess what he's doing. Yup, that's right, he's running another marathon, the Lasalle Bank Chicago Marathon. (He will soon have 6 to my 5.) I won't live-blog it like I did his past races, except that I will update this when his final result is in. He's hoping to average 7 minutes/mile and finish in 3:03, which would be a PR for him (currently his PR is 3:06). So far, the only results I have are for his time at the 10K mark, and that puts him at an amazing 6:43 pace -- though he does have a tendency to start fast. If the wind and the rain don't wear him out, he could break 3 hours. Go Fizzy Go!

Holy crap! Fast Fizzy broke 3 hours! He finished in 2:57:48, with a pace of 6:46 minutes per mile. Way to go Fizzy!!!!!

Friday, October 20, 2006

Friday *Jane Austen* Blogging

OK, I'm not really starting a new blog meme. It's just that in lieu of Friday Poetry Blogging, I'm telling a story involving Jane Austen (not in person -- that would be weird and disturbing).

So one of the grad students who's set to take the MA exam tomorrow admitted to me that she hadn't read Pride and Prejudice. WTF? It's on the list! And the list is only a little over 30 books long! She's not supposed to skip *any* of the texts on there, but not reading Jane Austen was especially surprising in the case of this graduate student. (She's an Americanist, but the 19th c. novel is one of her interests.) So I was shocked on many professional levels, almost as shocked as I was by the Spark Notes guy.

But, more important: how can *anyone* with an avowed interest in literature skip over Pride and Prejudice??? Come on! It's smart, it's funny, it's pure reading gold!

And that's exactly how I reacted to her. I couldn't mask the shock and the horror. I may have even said, out loud, "what the fuck?!" (Granted, I have a comfortable relationship with this student.)

Well, it turns out that I shamed her into reading it. She e-mailed me today to say she's reading it cover to cover this morning and almost done. And of course she's loving it. And I'm kind of glad she's zipping through it and not studying it ponderously with a mind towards the exam. Not that it's not worth studying deeply -- it's a complicated, rich book -- but on a gray Friday morning, on the day before a stressful exam, it's good that she's curling up with a wonderful book and getting pleasure from it (even if I had to shame her into that pleasure).

And there's something a little radical in that pleasure in a university environment that intimates that the woeful state of the region's economy is all because the best and the brightest are sitting around reading books -- and liking it! -- instead of industriously toiling to patent new products that make our lives faster! more convenient! more active! healthier!

And now (she says with bitter irony) back to work with me!

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Data collection guinea pig -- that's me!

I'm in the Sister Study. If you don't know it, it's a longitudinal study of the sisters of women who have or have had breast cancer. My sister Ms. V. died of complications due to breast cancer in 2002, having been diagnosed four years earlier.

So far I've done the two phone interviews, I've filled out all the questionaires and I've done the seemingly weird things like clip toenail samples and collect dust samples from door jambs in my home (ew!). This morning I was supposed to have a home visit by a technician who would pick up all those samples and forms, as well as collect a urine sample I produced early this morning (ew again!) and draw blood from me. But she didn't show up and there was no answer at the phone number she gave me. I called the Sister Study main number and left a message after waiting on hold for 10 minutes. They haven't called back. When I finally do get in touch with them, I'm sure they'll have to send me a new "Last 24 hours" kit and I'll schedule a new home visit. And I probably should redo the toenail and dust collection steps, too, since I originally completed those way back in March, when I lived in a different home. I then set up a home appointment for May -- the earliest available -- which was then cancelled because they didn't have enough trained technicians in Rust Belt, despite the fact the study works with subcontractors. As it is, the technician who did eventually call me and set up this morning's failed appointment works full time in a local hospital and the reason we had such an early morning appointment was to work around her schedule.

I'm not telling you all this to bitch and moan, or to malign Sister Study. I think it's a fantastic study and I'm happy to stay in it for as long as they need me -- decades even. And I marvel at even the idea that they could collect the amount of data they are collecting and analyze it in any way that's meaningful, not because that can't be done, but because it's just conceptually beyond me. You should see the pages and pages of questions we answer, and that's in addition to two hour-long phone interviews. So many variables! So many potential correlations that aren't causation! It's mind-boggling! More power to the researchers.

But I'm getting the feeling that the study is struggling a little bit with the practical end of things, either to manage an operation of its size, or, just as likely, simply to find and pay the number of people it needs to reach all the participants -- whether it's enough technicians for home visits or operators to answer the phones. Though it's funded by a behemoth like the National Institutes of Health, that's still a government agency, and in the current administration, I wouldn't be surprised to find out that the Institutes in general are woefully underfunded. And this is research science. What's more, it's epidemiological and long-term. There's no immediate "business application" to their findings, and even though anyone with half a reasoning mind knows that there are economic benefits to a healthier populace, and that prevention is a good part of health, and that education is a large part of disease prevention, there's no drug being manufactured here or new surgical procedure with expensive technology to market to hospitals. So it's probably not as well funded, relative to its complexity and the number of people involved, as a basic pharmaceutical study is.

Of course, I don't know this. Maybe it's an organizational management problem. But everyone I have encountered with the Sister Study has been polished and professional and eager to see things works smoothly, so my guess is that there just aren't enough of them to make it work as smoothly as they wish, and that that's a funding problem. It's just an educated guess. But given my own state's taste for funding only that research that has "real world," "practical," and "economic" benefits, and the state's call for universities to turn their collective research interests to "patentable" products,* to be incubators for the state's economic turn-around, I don't think my guess about the federal government's current research funding habits is completely off-base. And my experience in retail and service industries, and in social services, on both sides of counter, so to speak, suggests the people involved in the Sister Study are doing the best they can with what they've got.

*My idea for a patentable, medieval literature-related product is the "Johnny Jouster" (all rights reserved, Dr. Virago). Modelled on the Johnny Jump-Up, the Johnny Jouster helps your young child develop hand-eye coordination, balance, strength, and the ability to win tokens of love from the unobtainable object of his or her heart's desire.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Finally, an updated blogroll!

So I've finally updated my ancient and out of date blogroll. And in order to keep it updated, I've subscribed to Blogrolling, so that if I want to add something, I need only click the "Blogroll It" button I put on my browser. And if a link is old and out of date, to erase it, I need only go to my Blogroll account and delete it, without having to go into the headache of manually editing my template.

But of course, this means no more categories. That, too, is a good thing. Too many blogs fell into multiple categories (Bitch Ph.D. -- academic blog? feminist blog?) and I didn't have a "multi-topic" category (though I supposed I could have). So now they're simply alphabetical -- though Blogrolling annoyingly doesn't ignore "the," "a," or "an." I may move the various carnivals out of the blogroll, since they're homesites, but other than that, I'm pretty pleased.

If I've forgotten anyone -- epsecially if you regularly read and/or comment here and have a blog -- please let me know!