Tuesday, August 28, 2007

All praise Costco

Costco opens tomorrow -- the first one in Rust Belt, and it's right in our neighborhood. Bullock and I stopped there after work tonight to get our memberships so we're good and ready. Turns out they were having a pre-opening party with food and drink and wander-at-will tour of the store and the place was *packed*. Parking was as hard to get as the past two weeks on campus (don't get me started on that.) Though Bullock and I are familiar with Costco from relatives who are devotees, er, members, many Rust Belters had never been in one. There were many "oohs" and "ahhs" to be heard, as well as "Wow, that's a lot of Tic Tacs." (That last one was actually from Bullock. I don't know why it cracks me up so much. Maybe because Tic Tacs, like monkeys and the word "pants," are inherently funny. Pants-wearing monkeys eating Tic Tacs would be *hilarious*.) There were also lots of smiling, cheery employees. My god, they were cheery. It was almost a little cultish.

Anyway, I think it's a sign of my having drunk their figurative Kool-Aid or else just how boring I am that I'm *really* excited about the new Costco. Woo-hoo! And it's kind of crazy that so many people turned out for the pre-opening party. You couldn't even buy anything yet -- though you could see their wares, eat lots of free food, and get a free make-over if you wanted one. That's definitely a sign that we need more to do here in Rust Belt.

OK, right now I'm imagining a new reader stumbling onto my blog and thinking, "Hm, let's see what an intellectual who has devoted herself to a life of the mind is up to...Oh, I see, pre-shopping at Costco." Well hey, I appreciate a store that offers a good bargain *and* pays its staff a living wage with good benefits. And bulk often means less packaging -- it's good for the environment, too. So see, I'm thinking. Really, I am.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Making my tenure dossier narratives matter

On some level, the narratives I have to write for my tenure narrative are merely hoops I have to jump through. But as I'm telling my graduate students in my research and methods course, there's a way to make every hoop of this profession into something that matters -- if not something that MATTERS on some grand scale, at least something that's useful for preparing for a next step or stage that matters more, or at least for thinking about what does matter.

So I'm kind of happy that I'm practicing what I'm preaching and I'm pretty pleased with what I'm doing with my narratives. They have a recurring theme (how literary of me!), which is the value of the liberal arts, the humanities, the study of literature, and the study of the past (specifically the Middle Ages in my case, obviously). I'm sure I'm not saying anything particularly original, though I am trying to avoid cant and also trying to come up with concrete examples. But I think this is important for those people on the college and university level of the tenure process who might need to be reminded -- or even taught -- that there's a value to what we do in the English department, and that there's an audience for it as well, not just in our students and other scholars, but in the general public, too. Given that our president at one point wanted to make RBU into a science and technology focused university (though he seems to have backed off of that plan lately -- maybe) and generally talks about education in instrumentalist, vocational terms (i.e., as training for a particular occupation or profession), I think the message I'm trying to send is still needed. I'm perfectly willing to make myself the poster-child for these causes.

Friday, August 24, 2007

T & P at RBU (that's tenure and promotion at Rust Belt U)

I'm so sick of writing the narratives for my tenure dossier that I thought I'd write *about* my tenure dossier instead. Sure, I could do research work or get a head start on next week's classes, or work on service-related things, but that would mean not obsessing about tenure, and I can't have that, now can I? :)

Here at RBU, a public university with a unionized faculty (through the AAUP), we have processes for renewal, tenure and promotion, professional assessment, and merit evaluation that involve a lot of paper work, some of it every year, but which also provide a solid and undeniable paper trail when it comes to tenure and promotion. As Martha Stewart would say, "It's a good thing."

Here's how it works: every year prior to going up for tenure and promotion, assistant professors must turn in a big fat renewal dossier that includes narratives in which the candidate for renewal discusses his or her "teaching practice and philosophy," "service to the institution and profession," and, of course, "professional activity" (i.e., publications and presentations, grants, or creative work etc.) -- or, as I like to call these narratives, "Why I Am So Wise," "Why I Am So Clever," and "Why I Write Such Good Books" (apologies to Friedrich Nietzsche). The dossier also includes supporting documents proving the validity of these narratives, as well as a CV summarizing them all. And every year before tenure, this dossier goes up through the following Great Chain of Approval: the department personnel committee, the chair of the department, the college personnel committee, the dean of the college, the university personnel committee, and the provost (plus our new president likes to sign off on it, too). That's essentially the same chain as the Great Chain of Tenure, except that the trustees also get a piece of that action. And as the renewal dossier goes up, the candidate gets a letter saying whether they've voted for or against renewal. Votes against can be appealed at every stage before it goes to the next level, and there's a set calendar of the deadlines for every step of the way (the process takes all year). And if any of these bodies approve but have worries about a candidate's performance in any area, they'll say so in the letter they send the candidate. When it's all said and done, the renewed candidate will have renewal letters from every step of the process, all of which will eventually be added to the tenure dossier (more on its differences in a moment).

There's also a short document used for merit evaluations (and the sad little salary increases that come with that), which goes only to the department personnel committee, the chair, and the dean. But copies of past merit evaluations also go in the dossiers for both renewal and tenure/promotion.

And prior to all of that, when an assistant prof is hired, s/he is given not only a letter of offer that sketches the expectations of the job, but also a separate letter of expectations, which is crafted by the chair in consultation with the new hire. The evulations of the renewal dossier each year are based on comparison with the candidate's letter of expectations (also included in the dossier).

So what this means, ultimately, is that the various bodies who have the power to grant or deny tenure and promotion also have chances each year prior to that to warn someone that they're not doing enough to merit tenure and promotion, or even to fire them outright. So a person who has had nothing but good evaluation letters can go into the tenure process with a certain amount of confidence (aside from the usual paranoia characteristic of the culture of tenure).

It's an incredibly sane system, unlike the way renewal and tenure can operate in many other institutions. All such processes should be so sane.

For tenure, there are some additional requirements. The narratives one writes aren't merely about one year's worth of work, but about one's whole career at an institution, and they need to give a sense of the future, too -- a research agenda, the willingness and ability to take on greater service commitments after tenure and promotion, and a continued engagement with teaching.

And then there are the "outside letters." Here, too, RBU's practices are sane and healthy -- although one of my letter writers was taken aback by one element of our practice. At many places, the letters of recommendation solicited from scholars outside the candidate's institution are the Big Unknown and therefore a locus of a candidate's anxiety since it's the one thing s/he has no control over. This is because at some institutions, the candidate has no say over them at all, or at best, little say. But at my university, the list of people contacted for letters came out of names suggested by me and by a member of the personnel committee most familiar with my field. My chair then selection names from each of those lists and consulted with me to make sure they were agreeable -- e.g., no one whose work I had vociferously disagreed with in my work. And in the end, I was told who the letters would be coming from; I can even, if I choose, ask to see the letters because of the open records laws of our state. (That's what gave one writer pause; actually, the very fact that I was cc'd on the e-mail asking if she'd be willing gave her pause.) Seeing them might give me opportunity to counteract, in my narratives, any criticism in the letters, though I wouldn't be able to suppress them, since once solicited, they must be used. My chair told me they're all positive, so I'm not going to worry.

See, totally sane. What's also fair about this process is that the chair must include in her letterto the recommenders that the letter-writers must NOT decide whether the candidate would get tenure at their institution. That language is required by our contract because it's a frequent tendency of letter-writers to make just such observations, and I'm glad to see them discouraged from doing this. Since tenure is decided on the three categories of teaching, research, and service, and the letter writers are only getting my research materials and my CV, they're not in a position to judge my whole case. And besides, different institutions have different requirements for tenure, and some of my writers are at flagship research universities, so even if I didn't meet their requirements, I might still meet RBU's. The point of these letters is to put my research in context and to judge its contribution to my specific field. Since I'm the only medievalist in English at RBU, their contribution to my file is really important in this respect.

The outside letter issue is an area where the tenure process can get really scary and stressful. Even in a sane process like ours, it is a little nerve-wracking to entrust the judgment of your work to people you know only through their work or meeting them at conferences! But I have one friend whose process is even saner -- no outside letters at all! Their university feels that the peer reviewers for published work have already done that job. Wow. Imagine that! Still, our process is better than at some places. We need only 3-5 letters, whereas some places are asking for crazy numbers -- 10, 15, even 20! Some places also require all letter-writers to be full professors at top tier research institutions. That last bit is especially snobby and anachronistic, since today important and influential scholars are spread out across all sorts of different kinds of institutions. Anyway, ours need only be tenured and promoted to the level the candidate is seeking promotion to (in other words, Associate Professor) and need only be employed by a four-year college or university. Mine are from a range of colleges and universities -- SLACs, public branch campuses of state universities, R1s, and metropolitan universities.

There's a lot I like about working at RBU (even though I call the town and the university "Rust Belt," I always mean that affectionately, and it is accurate in terms of its economic history), and one of them is the no-surprises system of renewal, tenure, and promotion. (Not to mention the fact that even tenured profs must do a similar professional assessment every five years, in addition to annual merit evaluations, which I think is healthy for the institution and its faculty.) The relative fairness of it all is something I'm grateful for.

However, because I have a slight superstitious streak, I've typed this entire entry with my fingers crossed! (For luck, that is -- not because it's all a lie.)

Monday, August 20, 2007

Dr. Virago, wuss

The semester started today, but I don't teach until tomorrow. Instead, my first class of the year was an hour-long lunchtime spinning* class at the rec center. It also happened to be my first spinning class ever.

Oh. My. God.

It kicked my ass, utterly and completely. I was especially wussy on the standing-up parts after about two or three sets: my knees went all wobbly and my legs said, "Are you KIDDING us?!" and gave up. I was too afraid I'd topple over and smack my face into the handle bars or something, so for the rest of class, everything time we were supposed to do a standing routine, I just upped the resistance, but remained seated.

But I'm totally jazzed now to have a new challenge. This is going to be good cross-training for running and it's a lot more intense than any of the running jogging I'm doing now anyway. And I've got Victoria doing it with me, so it's more social than my running, too. Maybe this will reinvigorate running for me; I hope so, because I'm starting to get bored (hence the lazy jogging).

So I'm psyched. By semester's end, I want to kick ass back.

*For the uninitiated, "spinning" is a group exercise class using stationary bikes. We do interval training -- various speeds, resistance levels, and positions -- to upbeat music with the guidance of an instructor.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

T & P stands for tenure and *paranoia*

So I'm putting together my tenure file -- writing my narratives, gathering stuff for the supporting documents, polishing my CV -- and I keep sweating the details, the petty stuff. And each time I do, I keep imagining some faceless person I don't know on the college or university level saying, "But she hasn't done enough of X," where X is something that should be inconsequential at my stage of the game by my U's standards (for instance, serving on university-level committees) and isn't something anyone should be judging my case by. In fact, at my university, we have a pretty transparent and fair process that involves annual reviews that go all the way up through most of the levels that the tenure and promotion file will go up. (This is something I want to write about in more detail later, because it's how I think all tenure and renewal processes should go.) In all of those I've gotten good reviews. I have every reason to be confident. Not cocky, but confident.

So what gives? Why am I so paranoid and anxious? Is it just me or is it a larger cultural thing? Does the anxiety cloud that forms around tenure in academia in general cause me to pick up on that even though I don't have any reason to be so anxious here at Rust Belt U?

Friday, August 17, 2007

I got the power! I got the power!

The power of computing, that is.

My computer is mostly back now, thanks to the heroically patient work of Bullock. (I love my handy man. I think the only thing I haven't seen him fix is a car and he can probably do that, too.) To make a long story short, restoring the back-up set of the entire hard drive, backed up on my external hard drive, failed because of a single frakking corrupt file. Grr. So we had to rebuild the computer from scratch. There was one moment of hair-tearing irony when the computer didn't want to recognize the wireless modem and then told us to go online to search for the drivers. Uhhhhh...Lucky for me Bullock was able to use *his* computer to find it and download it to my memory key. But rebuilding also meant re-downloading updates to a lot of things, especially for Windows XP, my version of which pre-dated the big Service Pack 2 download. Pretty much all of my Wednesday and Thursday were taken up by this, and most of Bullock's too.

Luckily I had also made a duplicate of the Documents and Settings folder and all of its contents on my external drive, too, not quite trusting the mysterious back-up system which saves everything in some proprietary, compressed form. That turned out to be handy for accessing all my saved files not only while I used Bullock's spare laptop, but also after rebuilding and reinstalling everything. Then it was just a matter of copying all my files back over.

And now, I have a cleaner hard drive that's 3x as big as my old one and partitioned into two drives, C and D, with the first, smaller one, for programs, and the larger one for data. And I've set up My Documents (including Pictures and Music), my mailbox and e-mail profile files, and my PDA calendar and contact files, all to save to the D drive. And I plan on exporting a copy of my Firefox bookmark file there before every weekly back-up, too. So now I can save the actual stuff I need without a lot of extra junk. I might try the complete hard disk back-up again, too, but I'm still suspicious of it. Having the data itself in duplicate is a good thing, I think.

I recommend external drives, by the way. Mine's 80 gigabytes and when I bought it, I think it was only about $1 per gigabyte. They're much cheaper now. Meanwhile I'm also thinking about getting a 4 gigabyte memory key for backing up all of my documents and pictures and taking them to the office for additional safety. After all, an external drive doesn't do me any good if the house burns down.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

RIP hard drive

Hard drive installed: none.
I am the Blue Screen of Death.
No one hears your screams.

(Credit Peter Rothman, with first line altered by me)

Yes, my hard drive died last night. Luckily I backed up the entire drive to my external drive just last week, and also saved all my document, picture, music, and e-mail files at the same time. (Fingers crossed that the fact that I can't turn off the damn external drive right now is just because it has been disconnected abruptly from the dead computer and so is 'thinking' it's still 'in use' -- and NOT because something's screwy with it! Please, please, please!) And I ordered a new hard drive on Amazon last night, which will get here on Monday or Tuesday. This was after Bullock helped me go through all the steps to diagnose the problem and make sure it wasn't just that the hard drive had gotten jostled and disconnected from a proper sitting in the computer. It is a well-traveled notebook, after all. And then he helped me find the right new hard drive at a decent price online. Thanks Bullock!

In the meantime, I can use Bullock's old laptop for accessing those saved files and doing work at home. Right now I'm on his desktop, the only computer with access to the internet in our house at the moment. So it may be a few days before I blog or comment (here or at your blog) or respond to e-mails other than work ones. (I have Eudora on my work computer set up to download only my .edu mail, to keep me honest. And I don't blog from there on principle.)

So the only things I lost aren't a big deal -- annoying, to be sure, but not a big deal: all the damn dates I entered in my calendar for the semester, including the tenure file deadline I finally remembered (but I printed all of that out); a week's worth of e-mail messages (though those sent to the .edu address are still on the server); the updated CV I worked on yesterday for my tenure file (but also printed out); and the 1000-word response I wrote for that article mentioned below (but that's been sent to the volume editors and also printed out for my files).

So I am maintaining a Zen-like calm. And now, I'm going for a run.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

The T word

I'm going up for tenure and promotion this year, a year early.

What's that, you say? Why haven't I mentioned this before? Because I think I'm in denial. The file is due in 3 weeks, and other than asking my chair to arrange outside letters many months ago, I haven't done a thing.

The other sign of my denial: I just finished making to-do lists for the semester and putting deadlines on my calendar, and the one deadline I forgot was the tenure file deadline. And it's sooner than any others.


(I'm sure there will be future posts on this topic, btw.)

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

A short post on (my) religious identity

Over at Unlocked Wordhoard, I made the comment that I'm "culturally Catholic, but not actively religious." You don't really need to read the whole comment, but I link to it as a reference and courtesy. To give you some context: it's a small part of a long-winded comment in which I try to explain where I was coming from in a previous post because Dr. Nokes misunderstood it. That misunderstanding I attribute to bad writing on my part -- assuming all of my audience has deep knowledge about where I'm coming from.

But that's not the point here. Rather, right after writing that comment, I turned to Bullock (or rather, called from my study to his) and asked, "Can a person be 'culturally Catholic'?" And his response was an immediate: "Yes. You are."

But what do you think? Is there such a thing as "culturally Catholic"?


Btw, this post may be confusing to readers who remember the two or three times I've called myself an "atheist." I really shouldn't toss that word around since it implies an active disbelief in a god or gods (not to mention the connotations it has for some people of being actively anti-religion) and I'm just not that adamant. Conflicted, maybe, but not adamant. "Agnostic" is probably more accurate, but I have a hard time with the wishy-washy connotations that term has developed alongside its more precise meaning. It's not like I'm flaky and can't make up my mind or something. While it's true that I'm "without knowledge," I choose not to practice any kind of devotion, and I do so rather continuously, day after day, with a lot of thought and sometimes even angst involved. And yup, there goes my chance at ever running for higher office in the U.S. (Or can I claim plausible deniability with an anonymous blog? Te-hee!) Not that I was planning on it anyway.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Give me a P! Give me an R! Give me an O!....

...And a C-R-A-S-T-I-N-A-T-I-O-N!

Today I sat down and forced myself to write something that I've been dreading to do, and should have done last week, but have been putting off because of said dread. And yet the draft of it only took me half a day. D'oh!

What's my problem? Seriously, I'm usually not a procrastinator, so why did I put this smallish task off?

Well, part of why I was dreading it was because it was a response to a critique of an article I'd written, and that's never fun. It's moments like these that I sympathize with my students when they get my comments on drafts and have to respond to them and take them into account. No wonder some of them just go with denial and don't change anything except maybe the typos! And for that very reason -- that sympathy with students -- I think the whole process of peer-review, of revising-and-resubmitting, or responding to critics, etc., is valuable to us not only as scholars/researchers, but as teachers as well. It's valuable to keep us humble, to remind us of what it's like to get a marked-up piece of work back, but it's also valuable so that we can say to students, "Hey, I have to go through this, too" and to convince them that they are indeed part of a writing community.

Anyway, back to my procrastination issues...This was also just a weird piece I had to write. It wasn't revise-and-resubmit or a response to an editor to convince him/her that a peer reviewer's criticisms were misplaced -- those I've done. But in this case, my article is being considered for a edited collection and the editors assigned various people in the field to write introductions to groups of articles. And in my case, the introducer took my article to task for a few things he thought were wrong with it. And so I was supposed to write a response which will be published along with his intro and my article. I guess it's suppose to be imitating the kinds of conversations/debates that can happen over longer periods of time in a series of journal articles, which in theory is cool, but it still made for a weird kind of writing performance for me since I've never taken on criticisms of my work in (potential) print before. So the strangeness -- not to mention dealing with criticism -- made it all something I did not look forward to in the least. Hence the procrastination.

On the bright side, however, while procrastinating, I got my syllabuses for fall done! Woo-hoo!

Friday, August 3, 2007

I'm buying these and putting them next to my Python Holy Grail figures

The Pastry Pirate just sent me the link a BBC News story with the headline "Faith-based toys to hit US stores." Here's a taste of what you'll find in the article:

David Socha, founder of One2believe, the company which makes the dolls, is confident the demand is there for "God-honouring" toys which reflect Christian teachings and morality.

"We get a lot of people, even people who are not of faith, don't go to church, saying 'I've got a four and a six-year-old and I don't know what to get them any more'," he said.

"If you go in a toy aisle in any major retailer, you will see toys and dolls that promote and glorify evil, destruction, lying, cheating.

"In the girls' aisle where the dolls would be, you see dolls that are promoting promiscuity to very young girls. Dolls will have very revealing clothes on, G-string underwear."

What his company offers instead is "something faith-based that is not only fun to play with but also is solidifying a person's spiritual wherewithal and their spiritual journey", he said.
Hm. Yes. And they're also so much more manly than those sluts in the "girls' aisle." Oh so much more manly. OK, seriously, there does seem to be an emphasis on male figures, and even Moses, complete with gray beard, seems rather buff and virile (go see for yourself). What's more, I find it disturbing that Socha segues to the dolls in the "girls' aisle" after talking about toys glorifying "evil, destruction, lying, cheating," and then talks about their underwear. And just why does he know what the dolls' underwear looks like anyway?

But the main reason why I wanted to post about this -- and perhaps more germane to a medievalist blog (although I'm also a feminist medievalist) -- is that I find it curious and interesting that there does seem to be a growing market (or at least growing visibility to an existing market) for materials that re-tell Biblical stories and that most of the consumers in this market are, presumably, Protestants. It all seems so "papist" and "Romish" and, dare I say it, medieval. (Well, OK, there's Milton. But he's kind of in a class by himself, isn't he?) It's also kind of odd coming from a culture where there are a lot of people who say things like "the only book I need is the Good Book" -- well, and, apparently, multiple re-interpretations of it. It's the same kind of oddity I found in the Protestant evangelicals flocking to The Passion of the Christ, which, you'll note, is cited in this article as showing that there's a market for Christian-themed entertainment.

The article also cites a
"boom in Christian fantasy fiction" as an alternative to the Potter books. Hm again. To all you folks out there looking for Christian fantasy fiction who may end up here now via Google, I have two words for you: medieval literature.*

There, now maybe there will also be a boom in our course enrollments (although, not to brag or anything, mine are usually full, thank you very much).

*Though to be honest, not all of it would qualify. But you might especially like the romance and hagiography genres.