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!