Saturday, June 26, 2010


No, not this kind. Just my usual summertime brain-funky ways, exacerbated by the fact that I'm spending most of this summer in Deep South Town, which is the laziest place in the universe. (I think it would be a good idea to finish the book manuscript, or at least send off an article or two, so I can look productive and won't have to do this again next summer. But I'm not very good at translating that thought into action.)

I don't do well without structure and deadlines. I know this. I figure I'll do stuff later, and then when it is later, I think of something else that I need to do first. The only reason I finished my dissertation, I sometimes think, is because I managed to trick myself into writing it as a series of conference papers, which come with built-in deadlines. (Also, I had a summer tutoring job which involved sitting in the student lounge night after night, waiting for students to show up, and I did have a laptop but didn't have wireless access. This is a tricky and difficult-to-replicate set of circumstances.)

And now I'm trying to turn the thing into a book that someone might actually want to read, and it feels like this endless process of unweaving something that was perfectly serviceable to begin with, and turning it into a tangled mess. Like being Penelope, only without the higher purpose. (Because honestly, I'm not convinced that anyone really wants to read scholarly books of any description, let alone this one. Frankly, the whole scholarship machine strikes me as about as useful as running on a hamster wheel and rather less fulfilling, and if someone offered me twice the committee work in exchange for no publication expectations ever, I would take that deal in a heartbeat. There, I've said it. I know we're all supposed to love our research and be excited about having time for it, but I don't. I'm in this profession because I like most of my students and believe I'm teaching them something worthwhile, and because I believe that my poor, underfunded, embattled university is doing meaningful work in a community that desperately needs it, and I want to do what I can to support that mission.)

But in the meantime, I probably do need to publish something, and I probably need to make some progress on that front this summer. Only it's not absolutely necessary that I do so today. Or tomorrow. Or on any given day, really. So it's ridiculously easy to turn into a complete slug who can't even maintain a blog properly. (You'll notice the near-complete silence since April's Shakespeare blogging. Somehow I could do that while teaching four classes with four different preps, but take away that structure, and it all goes to hell.)

On the plus side, I have very nearly finished unpacking the boxes from when I moved here two years ago! Woo hoo!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Undergraduate Diaries II: List-o-mania

So it turns out the applying-to-grad-school journal I quoted from in my last post has a whole section that consists entirely of lists. Some of them are more or less sensible and practical: addresses and phone numbers of grad programs, U.S. News rankings, professors I might be able to ask for letters of rec. And then some of them are completely daft. To wit:

Questions I'd Like To Know The Answers To, Someday

1) Why is hunting badger a deed of darkness?

2) Why does any attempt to discuss any version of the Philomela story end with the whole class rolling on the floor in unbridled hilarity?

3) Why are there so many dead birds in medieval & Renaissance lit?

4) When & how does a sorceress become a witch? How does this relate to historical developments, or does it?

5) So what is it about the cloth-making trade that makes women so uppity?

6) Where do werewolves come from?

7) Was the siege of Troy the ur-war, so to speak? Do writers generally treat this story in terms of military conditions in their own society? (Rhetorical question ... I think.)

8) Bill tells us that the Capulets and Montagues were alike in dignity, not in social class per se. My feeling (based on my own knowledge of how people talk and whose parties are more fun to crash) is that the M's are old money and the C's are the bourgeois upstarts (Lady C. is very anxious to forget this.) Is there any way to prove this w/ textual evidence?

9) Is Hamlet really just the collective subconscious of Denmark? (Funny how everybody who tries to kill him ends up destroying themselves...)

And then there is a page of alternative career plans, which are, alas, not very practical at all. I reproduce them as a public service for anyone wondering how to ride out the recession.

Fun Things To Do With an Advanced Degree in English (BESIDES being a professor!)

1) Teach high school.

2) Own a secondhand bookstore with a labyrinth of little rooms and several armchairs full of cats. (And a friendly room for kids.)

3) Run a creative writing camp (the diametrical opposite of
[my summer employer from hell] -- no pressure, no computers, lots of shady trees to write under.)

4) Teach junior high.

5) Write perverse fairy tales.

6) Labor on behalf of starving artists, especially Shakespeare companies.

7) Run a cool coffeehouse with plenty of books and armchairs in small rooms.

8) Run a Shakespeare camp.

9) Be a plumber who discusses English lit while fixing drains.

10) Teach (what the heck) elementary school.

11) Write poetry that is not pretentious enough to publish.

12) Teach ESL.

13) Write book reviews.

14) Find creative ways to give poetry back to the masses.

N.B. With the possible exception of #9, none of these seems exactly like a lucrative career choice. Ah well.

And then there is a page of cynical, but probably accurate, advice for dealing with professors. I'm fairly sure that I figured out most of these the hard way.

Rules for Students

1) Don't ever forget how powerless you truly are. If you may speak freely to a professor, it's by his will, not your own. Know when to bite your tongue, when to nod & smile.

2) On the other hand, you have an advantage because you know your prof far better than he will ever know you. Also, you're trained to listen and he's trained to talk. Keep your ears open & learn to judge character!

3) Rapport is a gift from heaven. Don't question it, analyze it, or push it too far. Do enjoy it.

4) Expect to do all the listening & almost all the remembering.

5) Gossip only with fellow students.

6) If your prof is in the habit of bad-mouthing her colleagues, do not trust her.

7) Demand no favors.

8) An acid tongue is OK, but don't forget to smile!

9) Be honest -- but know when to keep silent.

10) Remember they're human (as if I could ever forget).

11) Even if your prof is a priest or a deacon, don't ask him to deliver your wedding sermon. You will get a bad sermon.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

undergraduate diaries

After reading Flavia's post on student evaluations, I've been thinking a bit about professors, and how my undergraduate-self perceived them, and how gender figured into those perceptions.

Fortunately, I have a primary source: for the last half-semester of my junior year and most of my senior year, I kept a journal of my adventures in applying to grad school. Well, actually it ended up being a journal of lots of other things as well; I've just been reading about the ins and outs of office politics at my summer job, and I've learned that I dressed as Huey Long's wife (???) for Halloween in 1997 -- but mostly, it focused on academic matters, loosely defined.

Anyway, it's interesting, and a bit disturbing, to read over what I thought about these issues as an undergraduate. I reproduce a passage -- slightly edited to eliminate identifying information, but I've left the language (and the Victorianesque passion for underlining) intact. The context is that I'm commisserating with a friend over her thesis defense, which she passed with high honors, but only after being put through the wringer by a female history professor.

This leads us into a discussion of why young female profs are such bitches. Okay, that's probably the wrong word for [the professor in question], but they do act like they have something to prove. And they dress impeccably, which I know I'll never be able to do. But I think you have to, if you're a woman, to have any hope of getting a job. It does seem like they've all got this generic persona (tough, ultraprofessional, stylish, and brilliant) while men have a lot more freedom to be themselves ... I guess Prof. M--- is living proof that you can go your own way and not feel like you have to cut people's throats all the time; but then she has tenure. (And it's impossible not to take her seriously when you've seen her teach.) It's so unfair. I wish I'd been born a guy. (I keep thinking that, although I've had many terrific female teachers in my life, the ones I've wanted to be like have all been men.)

(Prof. M. was the department hippie, whom I mentioned briefly in my comments at Flavia's. She was awesome, even though she was so gloriously disorganized that I had to sit in her office and address the envelopes myself while she printed out my rec letters for grad school, hours before the deadline.)

Anyway, one of the things I found interesting about this passage was the weird tension between feminism and misogyny. At twenty, I was evidently aware of double standards in the academy and the ways they affected female professors' self-presentation -- yet at the same time, my student-self is clearly buying into some of those gendered expectations and stereotypes. I doubt very much that I would have labeled a tough line of questioning at a thesis defense "bitchy" or "cutthroat" if it came from a man. And the whole rant is bound up in all sorts of anxieties about my own self-presentation, and whether I could ever live up to the profession's unwritten expectations and codes. I don't know what to make of it.

On a lighter note, here's my younger self on the topic of pretentious-assed literary societies:

The Phoenix Society held a poetry reading at the coffeehouse last night -- I was not in attendance, although their fliers urged me to "come here the poetic stylings of several savants, and feel free to throw in your own spiced verse." Idiot savants, apparently, given the spelling. Anyway, I'm not sure any of my poetry could be described as "spiced" -- what are you supposed to do, grate nutmeg into it?