Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Wendy Wasserstein

Sad news today. Wendy Wasserstein died yesterday, of lymphoma, at the much too young age of 55. The New York Times article is very good in reviewing and assessing both her talent and her impact. A small sample:

Ms. Wasserstein's abundant gift for comedy and her plays' popularity disguised the more serious ambitions underpinning her writing. "My work is often thought of as lightweight commercial comedy," she told The Paris Review in 1997, "and I have always thought, No, you don't understand: this is in fact a political act. 'The Sisters Rosensweig' had the largest advance in Broadway history," for a play (not a musical). Therefore, she continued, "nobody is going to turn down a play on Broadway because a woman wrote it or because it's about women." When Ms. Wasserstein won the best-play Tony for "Heidi Chronicles," it was the first time a woman had won the prize solo.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Jeffrey Jerome Cohen has a blog

Thanks to a comment left by Karl (aka The Idiot, or sometimes The Grumpy Grouchy Medievalist) , I and a bunch of you now know that Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, medievalist and professor of English at George Washington University, has a blog. I thought it was worth bringing this out of the comments below and noting on the front page, so to speak. There's some heavy-duty commenting going on already (right now mostly by Prof. Cohen and Karl) in addition to Prof. Cohen's wonderful posts (which are mostly excerpts of works in progress), but mostly what I want to point out, in case you miss it by not visiting the comments, is that Prof. Cohen is also very, very funny!

Dr. Virago fact no. 2 of 100

Dr. Virago hates grocery shopping, especially when it means having to drive to the store.

This fact brought to you by another fact -- the fact that at this very moment Dr. Virago should be going to the grocery store to buy necessary staples like milk, OJ, bread, and butter, so that she has things to eat for breakfast and lunch tomorrow, but she really doesn't want to haul her ass out in the windy (though warm) night and drive all the way to the grocery store, which is inconveniently about 4 miles away.

Apparently, though, Dr. Virago loves to write about herself in the third person. (Not really.)

Saturday, January 28, 2006

100 facts about Dr. Virago, one at a time

Because of a recent post by Lisa, it has been brought to my attention that Prof. Bastard is doing the "100 facts" meme one at a time, over 100 days. Now, Prof. Bastard seems like a much more interesting person than I am (and I need to start reading his hilarious cranky blog more often), but since I kind of half promised Ancrene Wiseass that I'd do that meme and know that I'll probably never actually get around to it in complete form, I thought maybe I'd do it Prof. Bastard style. Plus it will give me an easy way to do more frequent posting in between the gargantuan posts. I probably won't do them consecutively, though, as I think Prof. Bastard is doing.

So here's fact number one about Dr. Virago: Like Ancrene Wiseass, as a child I used to climb up in trees with a bunch of books and sit up there reading happily for hours. And sometimes I still have urges to climb trees.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Friday night procrastination

OK, so I finally started updating my blogroll, but I've only managed to get through "H" in my Blogline subscriptions. In other words, if you aren't there yet, don't worry, I'll get to you eventually.

Meanwhile, tonight I also did a very little thinking about my research, but mainly spent the evening finishing off the January budget (rent check!), doing February's budget (ugh -- I can't believe I'm so late renewing my MLA and Medieval Academy memberships!), and making a plan for finally getting all of my credit card debt paid off by the end of the school year (woo hoo!). Of course, there's still the student loan debt, much of which started life as credit card debt before I borrowed from Peter to pay Paul, but at least its interest is tax-deductible. And once the credit cards are paid off, I can double the amount I send to the student loan folks. I offer this information as a ray of hope to the debt-burdened out there, especially for the graduate students. If all goes as planned, I will have paid off quite a lot of consumer debt (low five figures) in three years in a t-t job. Of course, I realize I'm single, childless, and mortgage-less, plus I live in a town where the cost of living is ridiculously low. But still, just know that it's possible.

And I also did the following, which I found at Badger's place, and which you can do here.

For your reading pleasure: Bérubé on academic freedom

Probably everyone who reads my blog already reads Michael Bérubé, but just in case you haven't been there yet today, he has assigned this weekend's "homework" reading: a fantastic, 5000-word post on academic freedom. Since I seem to be unable to manage my time well enough to do a substantive post on anything myself, I'm sending you there.

Btw, you might notice that the first link he has (wherein he claims he does not read "at a 'lightening pace,' as some people claim") I am the "some people." But that's not why I'm sending you there. I mean, if I wanted you to end up back here, why would I send you away? Besides, as Boyfriend points out, he's just mocking me. [Edited to add: perhaps "ribbing" is a better word here than "mocking."] Or rather, since the link he gives (which I've now repeated here) is all about him -- in fact, the post title in question is "Go to Bérubé's blog right now" -- he's not leading anyone to anything I have to say, really, but just to more of him. And since my link to him leads you to a link back to me which leads you to a link all about him maybe it was all about Bérubé anyway.

Let's face it: we are all Bérubé's puppets. Now what are you still doing here -- you have a reading assignment! Bérubé speaks; you listen!

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Maybe my students actually want to be in my classes -- imagine that!

OK, this is kinda cool. I was talking to my students in class the other day about Beowulf's fight with Grendel's Mother and how it was different from the fight with Grendel and whether that difference was either gendered or sexualized...blah, blah, blah. Anyway, I remarked that I was surprised that they were not skeptical when I raised the issue of it being sexualized and one of them said, "Oh, we've all taken a class with Dr. Libertine, so we're used to seeing sexual imagery in literature." [Note: Libertine is neither his real name nor his personality, but rather, fits his subject matter and period.] I laughed and suggested that maybe it was a lot easier to find sexual imagery in Dr. Libertine's literary period than in Old English texts (unless, of course, you're talking about riddles about keys and dough, but we weren't) and we went on discussing the text.

The reason why I brought this little story up is that later, while doing my evening run, something interesting dawned on me about that conversation. Students don't generally take both Dr. Libertine's class and mine, since they are actually only obligated to take one course about literature before 1800, and our students tend to stick to the requirements, especially when it comes to old stuff. Given that this large group of students had already taken Dr. Libertine's course and were now in mine, could it be actually possible that these students had chosen to take my class voluntarily?!

Wow! Imagine that! :)

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

The post that almost was and possibly will be about an insignificant scrap of a manuscript

So. I was going to write a post about a) how I will soon be joining the ranks of Sir Cotton and Bishop Laud and Mr. Additional* as a manuscript collector, at least according to the fluffy piece about me and my lame $25 scrap of vellum in my university's official newsletter, and b) how the article exhibited the very fetishization of the old that, actually, I was trying to avoid in showing said scrap to my students, and c) how all this connects to teaching old texts and their material contexts....BUT...first my friend with bad news from the job market called, and then I had to call my sister re: the 'rents and their situation, and then I had to catch up with y'all's blogs, and now, I am plum tuckered out. 'Course, it would help if I didn't write such ridiculously long sentences in posts with laughably long titles. If I keep that up I might break Blogger.

*Note: dumb manuscript joke. Ignore it if you don't get it.

Anywho, I will write said post -- perhaps tomorrow? -- but now to bed. But before I say good night, I'd like to add that, for those of you who know who my dissertation advisor was, there's a totally random (OK, not random, but unexpected) picture of him in AAUP's magazine, Academe, at the front of an article that has absolutely nothing to do with him, but which might lead people to think he's a Catholic priest. Weird. Must e-mail him about this. And why have I mentioned him in this post that's not really about a scrap of manuscript? Because in the picture he's reading a medieval manuscript. See, and you thought these two paragraphs were totally unrelated! (And now some of you might figure out who my advisor was, if you've ever met him and have a facility for remembering faces, and you have the magazine. But that's OK.)

Update: I think I have managed to piss off the director of our rare books collection because I bought my own worthless scrap instead of bringing students to see their collection (bought at considerable expense, she noted). Again someone's failing to see the point of my giving students something they can touch in order to demystify old things. Sigh. More details and thoughts later.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Happy happy joy joy! Good news!

The good news I have is not mine, but the Boyfriend's -- he got the first review of his first book and it's absolutely glowing! Woo-hoo! The reviewer liked him so much that by the end of the review he was using Boyfriend's last name as an adjective, as in "Smithian argument" and "Smithian framework." (Boyfriend's last name is not actually Smith, btw.) How cool would it be if people in Boyfriend's field started tossing around "Smithian framework" (albeit with Boyfriend's actual last name!) as common parlance?!

Oh how I wish I weren't anonymous right now because I'd really love to tell you all about Boyfriend's book, especially since it's on such an important issue in American politics and political theory. [Edited to take out original link to article to preserve the Boyfriend's anonymity. Duh.] And also because near the end there's a really funny line comparing Boyfriend to the literary/political thinker/public intellectual whom he takes on. A clue: the intellectual in question has a last name that is also an aquatic creature. Alas, I cannot share that with you in this forum.

And in other Boyfriend-related news, Boyfriend's nephew has a new hairstyle for the new year: a blue arrow-shaped mohawk pointing at his face. Apparently it's based on a cartoon character, but I don't know which one.

[Edited to fix odd typos.]

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Great - now I have a contact high, too

OK, I don't really have a contact high, but I do have a headache from the copious amounts of pot smoke wafting out of my downstairs neighbors' kitchen door, which, like mine, is located on the back stairs that also lead to the basement, which is where I'm doing my post-flood laundry (see post below). The fact that the smoke is coming from the kitchen suggests that they are smoking a lot of pot, because the bedrooms, living room, and den would all be much more comfortable for such an activity, and they're all a few rooms down from the kitchen.

This may explain why there's bad '80s music coming from their apartment as well. Normally they have better and hipper taste.

Early onset absent-minded professorism

I am currently spending a beautiful Saturday afternoon washing all my towels and bathmats -- before I get to go out for a run in our unseasonably warm-ish weather -- because of the very sleep-addled thing I did yesterday morning.

I was getting up extra early to drive out to the suburbs across the river to meet with the junior high teacher with whom I am working on her plans to teach The Hobbit. (Can I just say, btw, how dorkily excited I am about the two guest-lectures I'll be doing -- one on runes and one on Old English riddles. Though I think it's hilarious that I'll be teaching 8th graders how to write in code in the runes lesson! Not sure that's such a good idea!) Anyway, because it was early for me -- or because I am already becoming a stereotype of absent-mindedness -- I did something really dumb. I turned on the sink faucet to do some hand-washing -- plug engaged, of course -- then turned on the shower, and then forgot all about the sink running. Twenty minutes later I stepped out of the shower to a flooded bathroom floor. Every towel I owned went into soaking up the mess. Thank god, at least, it didn't fill up around the toilet and stream into the floorboards or the apartment downstairs.

Sheesh. I'm starting to think what "they" say about intellectuals having no common sense might be true in my case. I blame the last month and half of professional and personal stress, plus my lack of sleep lately.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

How do I switch my brain from "teaching" to "research"?

Help me. Give me advice. Tonight I finished my teaching day (and week) at 5:30 and then headed off to the rec center for a run. During said run, all I could think about was the week of teaching behind me and the week of teaching ahead of me, even though tomorrow is my day o' research and I have a work hardly-in-progress due to folks in a reading group in a month.

How do I make myself stop thinking about teaching and start thinking about research? They're both making me equally anxious right now (yeah, two of my classes aren't going so well -- or at least are frustrating *me* -- and I'm kind of stuck on the research project) so you'd think I'd be equally obsessive about them. But I can't seem to switch my focus to the research project.

How do I do that? Or rather, how do *you* do that? All advice welcome and appreciated, please!

(And by the way, I hope to do a related, and perhaps more developed post in response to the thoughtful post Dr. Crazy did on setting aside time for research and writing. But right now it's not the time that's a problem for me -- or maybe, really, it is -- but the focus.)

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

That gurgling and splashing you hear is the sound of me drowning

I have too much to do. My three classes are kicking my ass and would be doing so even if I hadn't lost all of this weekend to helping out my folks (which I needed to do and I'm glad I did, but still...), and thus are doing so doubly because of that lost time. (I know that's an ugly sentence, though I must admit I like "thus are doing so doubly" if only because it's fun to say out loud. Go ahead, try it and see.) There is too much to do and not enough time to do it. And it's only the second week! Ack!

Of course I realize this describes all of academia. So I'm not really giving you a "poor me, pity me" rant. What I am doing is alerting you to the fact that I haven't had time to blog. Or to comment much (and when I do it's likely incoherent). And I'm behind on everybody's posts from about last Thursday up until now, which includes the marvelous Teaching Carnival V over at Ancarett's Abode (where, I've been told, she has included three of my posts, not just the one I tagged -- thank you, Ancarett!).

By which I mean to say, it's not you, it's me. :) I'll be back soon, I promise.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Light blogging over the three-day weekend

Just like ProfGrrrrl, I'm blogging from an airport. Woo-hoo -- look how high-tech I am!

Anyway, I'm on my way to see the 'rents and help out around the house for the weekend. Mom may be coming home this week from the rehab nursing home, so there may be a lot to do, which means not a lot of time for blogging. Then again, I might need to escape for awhile and what better way to do it than going to a Panera for coffee and free wifi? So who knows.

If I am silent, feel free to keep saying hi in the Lurker open thread below. It's been really cool to hear from everybody there and finally "meet" you.

Also, people are still commenting on the surveys and anthologies post, as well as the related post on the Norton's treatment of medieval drama (all below -- I'm too lazy to link). So talk amongst yourselves. :)

Oops, looks like I'm boarding soon. Have a good weekend everyone.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Hey, it's National De-Lurking Week!

I've gotten a lot more readers recently in a pretty steady stream (many of whom came by way of Inside Higher Ed, but others from my commenting spree of late). Since some of you may not have felt like you could just jump in to the conversation, I thought I'd give you an open thread to say hi and maybe tell me how you got here, if you like. Go ahead -- I won't bite, I promise! But if you prefer to keep to yourself, that's OK, too.

Graphic from Paper Napkin.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Dead dog tired already!

Man, it's only the first day of classes for me and I've only taught two classes so far today (another in 15 minutes) and I'm already worn out! And since I haven't been teaching for six months, my vocal chords are out of shape and I'm already losing my voice. On the first day. After two classes. How lame is that?

So anyway, I'm so excited that people are saying interesting stuff in the comments on the two posts below -- and talking to each other! yay! -- but my day o' teaching has kept me from having time to comment thoughtfully myself. Don't worry, I'll get to it!

Monday, January 9, 2006

My tempestuous relationship with literature surveys and anthologies

As I wrote in an earlier post, the recent NY Times piece on M. H. Abrams’ retirement from editing The Norton Anthology of Literature got me thinking, not for the first time, about the perils and pleasures of literature surveys and the anthologies generally used in them. There has also been some discussion in my own department about initiating survey courses, although I am glad to say, for practical reasons as much as pedagogical ones, that that is not going to happen any time soon – we just don’t have the staff to do it. Contrary to Stephen Greenblatt’s odd assertion in the NYT piece, the reluctance of some departments to offer survey courses may not be because there a shortage of generalist faculty with enough breadth to teach surveys, but rather because there is simply a shortage of faculty.* Period. (Really, sometimes I think the grand poobahs should get out more and visit a university like mine once in awhile.)

*This claim that departments and deans don’t want to pay to hire faculty with breadth to teach surveys comes in the last paragraph of the article and isn’t a direct quote. It’s possible that he said something more nuanced and was misunderstood.

So anyway, at my current university I don’t teach a Beowulf to Virginia Woolf (or Thomas Wolfe) survey, but I did TA multiple times for one as a graduate student and saw many different approaches to such surveys, and spent many hours thinking about their positive and negative qualities. Meanwhile, though liberated from the “grand narrative” kind of survey, I have actually used anthologies quite a bit in my medieval literature courses here at Rust Belt University and have found them both vexing and useful, and sometimes both at the same time.

But let’s start with surveys. I think they can be generally useful in giving students a broad historical framework into which they can fit their more particular upper-division courses, or at least apprise them of what some of the larger issues are in periods that they don’t end up studying in more depth. But unfortunately, I think too many students fail to see how sketchy and oversimplified a survey must necessarily be, in its selection of texts, in the issues it addresses, and in the narrative it constructs. It doesn’t matter if their professor tells them on the first day that everything in the class is “a bunch of lies” that their upper-division course professors will have to “unteach” them (which is what one professor I worked for did indeed say) because they will forget that or not quite understand what that means until years later. The sense of literary history as a linear narrative (one damned thing after another) that a survey delivers – even if the students take its components out of order, as many at my grad institution did – is hard to “unteach.” So students may very well end up thinking that The Book of Margery Kempe influenced later women autobiographical or spiritual writers because she came first, so to speak. But while she may have lived in the Middle Ages and first created her Book then, her Book is in many ways a 20th century book, because that was when it was (re)discovered and edited and printed; furthermore, she’s a late 20th century figure, not valued as a specifically literary figure until feminist critics valued her as such. Or take the case of most of Old English literature. We know nothing of who owned and kept the Beowulf manuscript, for instance, until the early modern period; it seems to have been virtually unknown in the late Middle Ages. We know more about Old English literature than Chaucer or Malory did.

Of course you can say that – and say it over and over – in a survey, in the hopes of undoing the problematic illusion of continuity and continuation. (Or worse, the sense of progressive replacement – i.e., the Renaissance replaced the Middle Ages and then the Enlightenment replaced the Renaissance, and so forth. That version of the story is, of course, particularly bad for the medieval period, which will always be historically first, and therefore seemingly “primitive.”) But better still would be to show the seams in that narrative fabric. If I did have to teach a broad survey course, I think I would try to disrupt the timeline somewhat, grouping texts thematically rather than chronologically. This is something that the Longman Anthology of British Literature does to some extent – and which the new edition of the Norton seems to be emulating – and which the Longman further encourages in its hefty instructor’s guide. But of course, they can only do so much of that, and usually the chronological disruptions only occur within larger periods, not across them. And if the instructor does that, how far should one go? After all, one doesn’t want to confuse students completely. We do want them to have some historical sense, don’t we? I might split the difference by putting things roughly in chronological order, but pulling a few things out of order every now and then, and by constantly asking students to think back to texts we’ve left behind (which is helpful pedagogically, too, as they won’t forget them come exam time) – and so to find thematic continuities across periods.

In my early English lit course that starts tomorrow I’ll be doing a little bit of that, but with an emphasis on the materials contexts of the manuscripts for texts we read, both then (in the Middle Ages) and now (that is, their printed editions and how they influence reception). So while my course is entirely medieval in immediate content (including Old English – which I know some people don’t refer to as “medieval”), it will also have an eye to how medieval literature in the context of the 21st century English lit classroom is a construct of that classroom and the texts made for it. Case in point: Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf. To what extent is it an Anglo-Saxon text? To what extent is it a 21st century Irish text? And I’ll also provide excerpts of other translations and ask them how different translations might shape their experience of the Old English poem. Or how does reading Judith with it (in the manuscript and in my class) shape one’s reading of Beowulf? And that’s just the tip of the iceberg of what I’ll do in that class.

Which brings me to anthologies. Anthologies definitely shape reading experiences in lots of odd ways. This is especially true of the longer works which they only excerpt. Talk about taking things out of context (and placing them in new ones)! This troubles me with certain medieval works – such as The Book of Margery Kempe again, where the Norton used to make her seem nuttier by virtue of the passages they excerpted; or with the Morte Darthur, where the excerpts made the Lancelot-Guinevere infidelity seem a large proportion of the text (which is more Tennyson’s Arthurian narrative than Malory’s) – but, BUT, I also kind of like anthologies. For one thing, they’re a bit like medieval manuscripts: lots of different genres, including seemingly ‘non-literary’ ones, all jumbled together, and sometimes excerpted. That’s the ostensible reason why I used to assign them in my early English literature course (i.e., because they were medieval in spirit), but I also used them because they’re gosh-darn handy (if truth be told). The last time I used anthologies I also found that you could use them against themselves. I did that by assigning both the Norton and the Longman medieval break-away volumes and assigning some texts from one and some from another, which made students realize that no one anthology is the final word on what’s important. (I also called this to the students’ attention. Though I have to say that back-fired a wee bit, because certain texts are printed in full in both, which made some students insist on their indispensable importance.) Moreover, with the Norton’s formerly lousy and out of date headnotes on medieval drama, and the Longman’s much better ones (though I still had to correct some things, as I recall), I could point out how relatively recent scholarship had changed our understanding of these old texts. And where the two anthologies used the same text, but different translations, or different excerpts, I had some built-in resources for talking about editions and the effects on their reception and perceptions of the texts. Although I didn’t do the following, one could also pull out older editions of the Norton and show students how malleable the very subject of English literature has become, and discuss some of the reasons why. So, in short, one could turn a survey course – whether a survey of one period or many – into an course equally about the history of the discipline and the history of the anthology as genre.

In the end, I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t so much like survey and anthologies as dominant paradigms, but I do very much enjoy subverting them! What’s your love/hate relationship with either or both?

On the new Norton Anthology and medieval drama

This is actually not my post on the pleasures and problems of surveys and anthologies, but a smaller, related but more specific bit that I thought I should separate out of the more general post I’m working on (which I'll finish tonight, I think).

So I finally looked more closely at the medieval drama selections and headnotes in the new 8th edition of the Norton Anthology of English Literature and I have to say I less to complain about where the cycle/mystery plays are concerned (except, perhaps, missing the Chester Noah play, as Lecturess also lamented in the comments to the last post) than I used to. In fact, all in all, I’m actually really pleased with the updates to those selections. Until this new edition, the headnotes for “Mystery Plays” in the Norton were hideously out of date (by about 50 years!) and factually wrong. Finally they’ve been updated by medievalists who know what they’re talking about and, in fact, I think I now prefer them to the ones in the Longman Anthology of British Literature. Best of all, the new Norton headnotes correct the old chestnut – which was overtuned half a century ago but which stubbornly persists – that the vernacular Biblical drama developed out of Latin liturgical drama. (It didn’t.) This medievalist says “Yay! Finally!” Now if only we can get it out of the ‘world drama’ anthologies. There are a few little bits to nitpick – for instance, Simpson and/or David (whoever wrote this particular headnote) seem to think that N-Town and Wakefield were also guild-sponsored like York and Chester, when actually there’s no external evidence for that in either case, and only very questionable manuscript evidence in the case of Wakefield. But that’s a tiny nit. All in all, I think the headnotes for both the York “Crucifixion” (a new edition) and the Wakefield “Second Shepherd’s Play” are very good.

As for the missing Chester “Noah” play and the addition of the York “Crucifixion” (copying Longman, it seems), I think I can guess their reasoning. When the “Second Shepherd’s Play” and “Noah” were the representatives of cycle drama, it made it seem as if it were all slapstick and failed to demonstrate that the vast majority of plays in the cycles are about the trials, passion, and resurrection of Christ, or that there’s a plethora of tones and moods. The replacement of Noah with the Crucifixion not only shows the variety of tones the plays strike – and the weird ways they can combine “gallows humor,” everyday realism, purposeful anachronism, and piety – but shifts the emphasis back onto the central Christian narrative (although I personally would have kept Noah or put in a different Old Testament narrative so one could show how they work in the cycles, too). I like, too, that they put the Crucifixion play right after Margery Kempe, making connections thematic rather than simply generic (again, seemingly copying the Longman).

But why, oh why, must Everyman be the example of a “medieval morality play.” (Never mind the problems with the term “morality play” – or heck, “mystery” play, for that matter. Too big an issue for this blog post.) I remember a Kalamazoo paper title (I should find it online, but I’m rushed now – I’ll find it later) along the lines of “Everyman: Quintessential? English? Medieval? Morality? Play?” and that’s the way I teach it. Everyman is an anomaly and a vexed one at that. Much more representative would be The Castle of Perseverance or Mankind (if they wanted to copy Longman once more). Seriously, no wonder students think medieval drama is stiff and boring if Everyman is all they read (which may be the case in some courses, where there isn’t time for the mystery play selections). And gosh, it sets up the “renaissance” of Elizabethan theater quite nicely, doesn’t it? (I know early modernists who teach it in just that way, as a foil for the greatness of the Elizabethan theater. Of course I know not all would do that, but many Shakespeareans of a certain generation are prone to that sort of reading.) Oh well, stuff to work on for the 9th edition.

OK, so that’s my bit about the medieval drama selections in the Norton. I haven’t had a chance to really plumb the depths of other changes to the medieval selections, but I did notice this: they added “Cheverfoil” to the Marie de France selections. Oh for pete’s sake, why “Chevrefoil” when just about any of the other Lais is more interesting?! I mean, come on – “Bisclavret” is a werewolf tale!

Sunday, January 8, 2006

The Sunday before the semester and what I'm doing with it

The sun is up, the sky is blue,
It's beautiful, and so are you.
Dear Prudence, won't you come out to play?

Here in Rust Belt, the sun is actually shining through the gray coat of winter dullness that usually covers us from December through March, so this particular assistant professor is going to celebrate the last Sunday before the start of the school year by lacing up her Saucony running shoes and heading out for at least an hour's run, more if I feel up to it. (I've been off my game since the marathon, and in the last three weeks I've only gotten in a run or two a week, so no mega-long runs for me for the time being.)

And then I'm going to come back and write something about the problems and pleasures of literature surveys and anthologies -- for the upcoming Teaching Carnival, to be held at Ancarett's Abode on January 15 -- inspired by this NY Times article on M. H. Abrams' retirement from editing the Norton Anthology. (He's handing over the reins to Stephen Greenblatt, which gives this medievalist pause, although no greater pause than the Norton Anthology already does. More on why in the promised post.) So, in other words, I'm spending my last free Sunday thinking about teaching. Will it never end? (She cries in mock despair.)

[ETA: I thought it best not to post my "Why I love/hate surveys and anthologies" post until tomorrow, as my Norton and Longman anthologies are at the office, and as the Norton is a new edition, I should really make sure none of my particular beefs with it have been made obsolete.]

Saturday, January 7, 2006

Eek! I've been tagged!

Not only have I been tagged for the very first time in my young blogging life, I have, in fact, been team-tagged. Both the Bailiff at Night Court and Michael Bérubé have tagged me for the “Meme of Fours.” And darn it all, I had a post all written last night, with Bérubé lined up as my final taggee, but Blogger went all wonky on me and kept adding hundreds of extra “span” and “font” codes and the darn post wouldn’t publish. I was even going to “double dog dare” Michael to sully his blog with a silly meme, but he beat me to it and tagged me first. Alas, I guess that’s how tagging works. So here goes…the Meme of Fours.

Btw, in Bérubé’s answers, under “Four Jobs,” he wrote “1. Foot messenger” and at first I thought he wrote “1. Foot massager.” See my list of “Four Movies You Could Watch Over and Over” (#2) for an explanation why I would make that particular misreading.

Four Jobs You’ve Had

  1. Taco slinger
  2. Punk-ass record store clerk
  3. Telemarketer (with a 96% success rate! No, really!)
  4. Paralegal
Four Movies You Could Watch Over and Over
  1. A Christmas Story (all year long, even)
  2. Pulp Fiction
  3. Small Change (L’argent de poche) – Truffaut (seriously, the best movie about children ever)
  4. His Girl Friday
Four Places You’ve Lived
  1. In my parents’ 1950s suburban ranch-style home
  2. In the Big City high-rise co-op my sister and I shared
  3. In a 1929 Spanish-style courtyard apartment building, like Melrose Place without the pool
  4. In a second story Arts and Crafts duplex in a historic district
Four TV Shows You Love to Watch
  1. Lost
  2. Battlestar Gallactica
  3. The Gilmore Girls (gotta support my doppelganger – plus it’s a good show)
  4. Deadwood (gotta support my old neighbor in the courtyard – plus it’s an excellent show)
Four Places You’ve Been on Vacation
  1. The Isle of Man
  2. Beijing
  3. Bergen, Norway
  4. A small island on the Menominee River, Wisconsin
Four Blogs You Visit Daily
(Here I’m going to give the four still-extant blogs I’ve been reading the longest – although some of them are current incarnations of earlier forms)
  1. Thanks for Not Being a Zombie
  2. Danah Boyd at Apophenia (who, btw, turns out to be a friend of a friend in the “actual real world,” not on Friendster, which she studies -- seems strangely appropriate)
  3. Ancrene Wiseass
  4. Michael Bérubé Online
Four of Your Favorite Foods
  1. Duck, any style (Peking, à la orange, paté, you name it)
  2. The Boyfriend’s pasta with tomato-anchovy sauce
  3. The mussels at Jar in LA or Monk’s in Philadelphia
  4. Pulled pork (any BBQ sauce, though I prefer KC style, Arthur Bryant to Gates)
Four Places You’d Rather Be
  1. New York
  2. Cambridge, England
  3. Anywhere in Yorkshire, England, preferably in the country, but near to a train into Leeds
  4. Vancouver
Four Albums You Can’t Live Without (well, lately, anyway)
  1. Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
  2. The Essential Johnny Cash
  3. Flaming Lips, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots
  4. The Jayhawks, Tomorrow the Green Grass
Four Vehicles You’ve Owned
  1. 1975 Ford Grenada, 1985-1989 (Strangely, this same make, model, and model year is on Bérubé’s list. Mine was actually owned by my mother, but I totally pwned it once I could drive.)
  2. 1993 Honda Civic in cherry red, with bitchin’ low rider rims and low profile tires -- suh-weet!
  3. 1996 Saturn sedan – so boring I can never even remember the damn model number and it's the car I currently own!
  4. Saucony running shoes (like The Bailiff, I haven’t owned enough vehicles to fill this category, so like her also, I will add my brand of running shoes, which also happens to be the same as hers)
Four Taggees
(Forgive me if you’ve been tagged before.)
  1. Heo Cwaeth
  2. The Green Knight (who's too mysterious to do this sort of thing often)
  3. Ancrene Wiseass (if she isn’t worn out from the “100 Things” meme)
  4. Another Damn Medievalist (when she gets back from AHA and needs a break)

Public Service Announcement: Publication CFP (Medieval and Renaissance Studies)

As a public service announcement and a favor to friends, I am posting the following CFP for the journal Comitatus. It really is an excellent journal – I’ve sited sources from it, I’ve given articles to my students as models to imitate, and I have friends who have published in it – and I urge those of you out there in the blogosphere who are graduate students and recent Ph.D.s in medieval and renaissance fields (all disciplines) to submit something for consideration. Here’s the official CFP:

annually under the auspices of the UCLA Center for Medieval and
Renaissance Studies, invites the submission of articles by graduate
students and recent PhDs in any field of medieval and renaissance
studies. Double-spaced manuscripts should not exceed thirty-five pages
in length, and all references should be in footnotes. We prefer
submissions in the form of e-mail attachments in Windows format; paper
submissions are also accepted. Please include an e-mail address.


The editorial board will make its final selections by early May. Please
send submissions to sullivan[at]humnet[dot]ucla[dot]edu, or to Blair Sullivan,
CMRS, 302 Royce Hall, Box 951485, Los Angeles, CA 90095-1485.

Wednesday, January 4, 2006

What a fuss about a syllabus

Hee. I'm a poet.

Seriously, since I've decided the raison d'etre of this blog is to describe what this particular professor does all day, here's a sketch of what I did yesterday:

  • Worked on the syllabus for my early English literature class
  • And also:
    • quickly mailed some overdue holiday presents
    • quickly deposited Christmas money
    • turned in two completed syllabuses* for photocopying
    • e-mailed the junior high teacher with whom I'm working on teaching The Hobbit
    • did a 45-minute run
  • But mostly: worked on the syllabus for my early English literature class
Ack! Why oh why does it take all day long to do one bleepin' syllabus?! Is it because the formatting is slow (I am anal about making sure there aren't page breaks in the midst of a day's list of assignments)? Is it because looking up page numbers in the editions and ISBN numbers and all that is tedious? Or is it that I'm like New Kid, hopefully tweaking the policies sections to cover every possible problem (late papers, plagiarism, cell phones in class, absenteeism, blah, blah, blah) in order to nip it in the bud before it blossoms? Or could it have something to do with the fact that I re-tool and overhaul my courses every time I teach them (except Chaucer -- I found a rhythm I like in that one)? Or all of the above?

And btw, is there a program or a plug-in for making syllabuses* that makes the dates automatic, a bit like using the "repeat" function on Palm software? Because I swear, typing in the dates takes up about half the work.

*From now on this blog will use "syllabuses" as the plural of "syllabus." I'm making a stand. The word is fully Anglicized and therefore open to forming its plural through analogy to the most common English morphology for plurals of words ending in -s. And anyway, my American Heritage Dictionary says I'm not the only one -- it lists "syllabuses" before "syllabi."

Sunday, January 1, 2006

On the inflexibility of academic life

[Welcome Inside Higher Ed readers. Now I know why I'm getting new commenters, which is terrific! Please forgive the typos!]

For those of you who'd like to know, my mom is now in the nursing home for her rehabilitation. It's so close to the old homestead that she and Dad could probably communicate by semiphore flags if they were so inclined. But alas, I am far away -- back in Rust Belt City -- and that has prompted the subject of this post.

When I went into academia -- a little more consciously than I allowed in the last post -- one of the reasons why I thought the life would suit me is because I'm generally self-directed (I have trained myself for four marathons, after all) and much happier organizing my own time than being on a set schedule. Indeed, I pretty much hate being on someone else's clock. And yes, the academic lifestyle is often about organizing your own time, especially on days or in periods when you're not teaching. You decide which hours you'll devote to sleeping, working, eating, running errands, watching tv, socializing, blogging, exercising, etc., and sometimes departments can be amenable to setting your teaching schedule in ways that are most convenient for you. (I had an interview at MLA one year in which the interviewer cheerfully told me their department scheduled courses according to faculty members' biorhythms!) That can be a real *problem* for some people, though, and even I struggle with procrastination almost daily. [Edited to add: As The Bailiff and I were discussing in the comments, the day-to-day flexibility of academic life is indeed one of its great perks. It makes the little stresses and responsibilities of life so much easier to schedule. But there's a flip side to this, and that's what the rest of the post is about.]

But what I wanted to talk about now, just generally, is the ways in which the the academic life can be surprisingly inflexible. Or, at least, it was a little surprising to me. Anyone with kids knows that the school year patterns a family's life, but the majority of people entering grad school do not have kids and, if they are like me, haven't thought about how fixed that calendar is. Take, for example, my family's current situation. I'm really lucky it all happened over Christmas, when I could be there for most of the hospital stay. I'm not there now to be Mom's support through the rehabilitation, however, because classes start in a week and most of everything I needed to get things going is here in Rust Belt City. (Not to mention the research and grant deadlines I have coming up.) The semester starts when it starts, and it ends when it ends, and in between the work is non-stop. If it had been absolutely necessary, I might have been able to arrange sick or family leave for a week and delayed the first meeting of my classes, and I would've done it if it had been necessary. But my classes would have had to be trimmed of some of their material (epsecially hard in the linguistic classes, where each week builds on the former), because there's no one really in my department to cover for me. I'm the only medievalist. And I don't know what would have happened if I'd needed the whole semester -- as one of my colleagues recently did when her teenage niece was tragically orphaned. In my colleague's case, there were others in the department who could take over her courses, and she had a sabbatical coming, as well. In my case, I'm sure something would've been worked out, but a lot of students might have been seriously inconvenienced, since many in my current classes need those classes to graduate and to complete requirements. And as I just had a semester off from teaching, it might not have looked great, either.

That's not to say that in other professions you can drop things willy-nilly. But there's a little more flexibility. People work in teams or pairs in many other professions and there's someone to pick up the slack when shit happens. A person can rearrange vacation time, meetings can be postponed, and work can be shared or delegated. [Edited to clarify: I'm thinking of other professionals here, the kind with a month or more of vacation plus personal days. Not the lower rungs of 9-to-5ers, of which I have been one, or retail workers (also been there, done that) or factory shift workers, etc., etc. I was trying to compare apples to apples or professionals to professionals.] That's often not the case in academia, especially in the humanities in small colleges and univerisities, where we work alone, often the only one in our field, both in the classroom and in our research.

And it's not just in times of distress that the inflexibility is felt. One of my best friends and I keep talking about traveling together, but generally my most flexible time is summer, which happens to be her busiest time in her current job, not to mention peak travel time above the equator and therefore the most expensive time to travel. We did manage to fit in a hiking trip on the Isle of Man over my spring break one year, and we picked the destination not only out of interest but because Man is pocket-sized enough to cover in a week!

And then there are the plans that the Boyfriend and I have for cohabitation. We're both ready to plan and make the move, but there just won't be time for such chaos until the school year is over. On the one hand, that gives us time to have all those necessary discussions about who's job it is to mow the lawn and all that, but on the other hand, wouldn't it be nice to already be sharing a home!

And everything is planned so far ahead and moves so slowly in academia. It takes a full year for the job market cycle and a full year for the tenure process. Classes are scheduled and assigned a year ahead. Fellowships and grants must be applied for six to eighteen months before they're needed. And if you want to get pregnant and take maternity leave, you better start scheduling it while you're still trying to get pregnant or, at the latest, soon after you become pregnant.

And even summers aren't the flexible times that non-academics think they are. If you teach summer school, you're still on the term-time clock. And if not, that's when everything else happens, when research time must be scheduled, when trips to specialty libraries and archives and field work sites are made, when preofessional development institutes and seminars and meetings are held. Solid blocks of time are precious commodities and other plans must be balanced with those needs.

In short, the academic year is an inexorable and unmovable mass and our extracurricular lives must simply be made to fit in the gaps and breaks and crevices. It is, in fact, much like the daily grind of an office job, but on a much bigger scale. Sigh. Despite having obviously been a student myself before thinking about an academic career, being the callow youth that I was, I didn't quite realize all of this until I started to live it.

And I have to say that inexorability, especially its cyclical nature, makes me feel the passage of time and my own mortality more than I ever have before, and that's even before my mom's recent brush with death. I think in graduate school, there was still a sense of "getting finished" and "getting out" to give it a sense of suspended time. (Well, that and the lack of seasons in Sprawling Big City.) But now it marches on, year in and out, and the rigid rhythms of the school year combined with the natural year feel a little bit like doom. Or maybe I've just been reading too much Old English poetry. Still, if you yourself -- you out there in cyberspace -- are thinking about academia or just beginning in it, and haven't realized all of this about the academic calendar, consider yourself warned.