Sunday, April 29, 2007

Burning Questions

I almost had to evacuate last night; the duplex a few doors down from mine caught fire. I was watching a movie at the time and instantly knew something was going on --- within minutes the air changed from a harsh "someone's barbecuing nearby" to a much more serious, acrid smell, a smell of paints and chemicals as well as wood. I saw orange reflected on the low-hanging cloud cover and got up to peer out the window; that was when the sirens and cop-car lights began to arrive.

Now I know the rules --- or at least vaguely remember the safety first filmstrips from school --- for escaping one's own burning building, but I was a little at a loss to know what to do about the neighboring building being on fire. I quick put on shoes and a sweatshirt and packed my laptop and phone in my bag and headed outside. (The computer ---- and the time and effort put in on the dissertation that's on it ---- are probably the only real items of value in here. The rest would just be inconvenient or saddening to replace.) The cops had made a blockade and were diverting traffic down the little alley road off my street. Some groups of people were milling around. Outside, the smoky smell was just as strong but it was even clearer that it included plastic and other building materials, probably insidiously taking away from my lifespan or mutating little cells inside me. But that was of secondary importance: what I wanted to know was, should I be packing up my cats and evacuating? Where should I go and how long would I be gone?

Even in a potential emergency I'm no good at going up and breaking in on a conversation, so I stood around for a while and watched the red-and-blue police car lights mingle with the glowing orange clouds overhead, until someone said "I think it's the gas station" and someone else "there's a gas station further down?" and everyone broke up and went back in their houses. There is a gas station, and it is across the street and several streets down from me, so I figured --- but was not sure, it being California and all --- that I could just stay inside and hopefully someone would come tell me to leave if the fire was not contained.

Once back inside I was too rattled to go back to my movie and couldn't figure out how to get the information I wanted. How does one find breaking news about an emergency-which-may-not-be-an-emergency? The radio stations weren't saying (and it had only been a half hour), and the internet was less than helpful. Obviously no one thinks to post advisories for neighbors to evacuate from next to a burning house on the internet, but I did find articles on: California's record-level drought, even for recent years, articles about the last big wildfires in the area taking down whole neighborhoods with them, a warning that wildfires would be coming early and more severely to my county this year, and a Severe Wildfire Warning, posted yesterday, for the region I am living in. So you can see that I have justification in being worried ---- if not beforehand, then after getting on the internet and working myself into a state. But in the end I decided that the police and fire people probably had it under control, and surely they had some sort of training or backup plan to inform people and move them if a fire did get out of control, and tried to go to sleep.

I slept horribly, though ---- every noise woke me and made me sure that I would have to battle my way down my rickety wooden stairs in flames a la Backdraft, a cat under each arm and my computer slung across my back. I also had cramps and a backache, but couldn't bring myself to take something to knock myself out as I had visions of myself sleeping through a massive fire. I hope that this will die down as time passes, for I'm quite neurotic enough already and need my sleep ---- I spend enough nights worrying about my work, the job market, global warming etc., and adding worries about everything else about life I can't control would only serve to make me completely insane.

I will, however, be getting renter's insurance ---- something I knew nothing about and even when I did finally hear about it, assume that it was a) too expensive and b) something that would never happen to me ---- and possibly, a fire extinguisher for the kitchen, as I am incredibly clumsy and the extinguisher is outside bolted to the (rickety wooden) stair railing. One of the downsides of living in a cute little historic section, besides the astronomical rent, is that, as my friend put it, all that dry hundred-year-old wood riddled by termite damage is like tinder for a blaze ---- and she should know since a building just next door to hers just went up like a rocket, leaving nothing but some charred beams and foundations. That's not counting the professor of ours whose apartment building burned to the ground a few years ago, so I probably should be counting my blessings that I have made it so luckily so far.

And the building? I walked down to see it on my way to my local coffee place. It's not the gas station; it's a cute little duplex on my side of the street, on the same block as the little alleyway they were diverting traffic through, much closer than I had thought. The front, near the window, has the most damage, which makes me wonder if it was started by a candle on the dining room table or something. And piled on the front lawn are heaps of scorched carpet, charred bits of what might be end tables or chairs, a shell of a mattress, scorched melted dishes, and all the other effluvia of a life.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

You fool, you!

Why did you listen to your prof's advice that assigning a piece of in-class diagnostic writing would be helpful? Of course it would --- and it would be more work for you! And why did you then assign a practice close reading assignment as homework as well? Now you must actually read and comment on them, you yutz!

Sigh --- I should probably comment on them right now in order to give them back in time for the students to prepare for the midterm ... or ... (she says, getting a maniacal gleam in her eyes) I could claim that the practice of doing the close reading is what they really learn from as much as the correction of it. Hmm. Part of the benefit of getting samples of their in-class and prepared work is that I can see what they need to work on (Prof suggested the most important aspect of it was catching and referring people with learning disabilities or major writing problems or ESL problems to the appropriate tutors), but part of what makes the midterm great is that it, frankly, come back to them as a wake-up call, that this will not be an easy class and they will need to shape up now. It's harder to do that if you've already OK'd their writing --- a lot of students take any sort of response besides "do it over" as "this work merits an A." Sigh --- plus there's the problem that, now that I have writing samples in my hands, anyone who does something wrong or awkwardly on the midterm who I didn't correct and warn beforehand is, in my mind, sorta justified in complaining about a bad grade.

On the other hand, here is a panda.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Nothing Like a Monday to Get you Going

Tada! For some reason I got a lot done today --- momentum is a wondrous thing. First of all, I have groceries and took lunch to school, which is impressive and amazing. (I should note that I went out at 8 am to get said groceries, and managed to go directly from unpacking the groceries to packing for and going to school, without stopping to eat tasty snack things or take a nap or any of my usual post-grocery-trip procrastination.) Second, as if I were in an over-caffeinated supermood, I got to school and immediately looked up everything that needed to go in my last two footnotes, wrote everything up, and printed off the chapter. Uh, yeah --- did I mention to you the ignominy of having my chapter done except for a few footnotes and a few awkward sentences? And that I took two months getting these few changes done for my advisor? Multitasking is evidently not my skill. Procrastination of one task by starting too many others and getting distracted, is, however. My advisor had signed off on the chapter and I just had to do those 8 changes (plus fix some typos) before giving it to the rest of the committee. Every day I would tell myself, “Today I will bust out those changes really fast and hand the chapter on to my committee with a quick and wonderful turnaround,” and every evening I would pack up for home thinking, “Where the hell did today go? Guess I’ll deal with the old chapter tomorrow.” I have been getting stuff done lately, just nothing I could cross off as a finished task, with relish and satisfaction --- until today. Unfortunately, all my hard work has bumped exercising off my list ---- I haven’t swam since ... well, I was going to say, “Since my New Quarter Resolutions,” but actually, I haven’t swam for much longer than that (have swam? have swum? swimmed? swumpt? dunno.) Actually, the truth is I hate exercising (well, it’s ok once I get into it but I hate starting it and I hate trekking across campus to the pool and lockers. I do love the stretchy relaxed feeling I have for the rest of the day.) --- anybody got any suggestions for motivation, so I actually get my butt over and into the pool regularly?

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Happy Earth Day!

I'm celebrating Earth Day much like any Sunday --- cleaning up the apartment and wondering if I can manage another couple days before going to the grocery store. I don’t feel like going down to any of the big celebrations or rallies, especially since it’s drizzling (water dropping from the sky in California? It must be some sort of terrorist attack!) I did walk down to my local coffee place and read the paper with my bagel and mocha, but I’d walk there anyways --- a coffee place every block and terrible parking; it actually works to promote pedestrian travel! That and obnoxious yuppie-wielded SUV accidents in tiny parking lots, but whatever. I even brought a travel mug today --- I bought several over break since I lost the old one, and now I can carry caffeine to class for 10 cents cheaper, and not have the cup self-destruct and deluge me in front of an audience.

So since I have very little in terms of important news to report today (don’t worry, I’ll run away to join the circus next week and have lots of interesting copy for you all. Or maybe get out another library book instead.) I thought I’d make a list of wishes and peeves. I updated it as petty wishes 'cause of course if I had unlimited wishing potential I’d wish for an end to the Iraq war, world peace, renewable energy and all the big stuff, which is laudable but not as fun to make little lists about. Consider yourself tagged if you wish.

Five trivial wishes:

  • I wish I was taller. (Anyone remember that one-hit wonder rapper, the guy whose video was a takeoff on Forrest Gump? “I wish I was a little bit taller / I wish I was a ‘baller / I wish I had a girl and a phone so I could call her.” Ok, cheesy, but I totally understood him. Really, I’m not asking to be a tall ---- 5' 3" would be nice. Of course that would be adding almost five inches to my frame. It would just be nice sometime to see some of the stuff you all are talking about behind the wall of your shoulders. I console myself with the fact that I can see up your noses when you talk to me, and that’s hardly dignified.
  • I wish I could whistle, those big loud calls with two fingers to your mouth –type of whistles. It would probably come in handy for rousing a class from loud and talkative group work.
  • I wish I had a maid. 'Course, not a real person maid --- I would feel too bad about the exploitation and employer relationship and all that crap, and I believe firmly in the notion that you should clean up your own shit, but I still want one. Maybe a robot maid or something. Or maybe someone could train my cats to clean for me. Hah.
  • I wish I could juggle. I know people who have taught themselves this and it doesn’t seem too hard. I don’t know why I never actually got up off my ass to learn this. Plus it would be helpful for my circus ambitions mentioned above.
  • I wish I could teleport. I wouldn’t even use it most of the time, just when it rained and everyone around here gets completely clueless about the notion of driving while liquid is on the roads. It doesn’t help that whoever planned and graded my town assumed that it never rains in California, so there are no gutters and little drainage. It floods on almost every street, almost immediately, with only the speed bumps rising up like little sandbars at high tide.
That's all I've got today. Now, toread a library book for my research, or the new copy I just bought of Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake? (I have a minor story about buying the book as well.)

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Campus: Safe Zone

I’m so sorry about the people who were killed at Virginia Tech. My prof held a moment of silence during lecture, and then talked for a bit about how colleges are supposed to be bastions of freedom and learning, and as such, are very open and vulnerable. What could I have done to help? Sadly, nothing --- I am across the continent and first heard about it all long after it was over. What could I do, then, should something like this happen here, at my campus? I don’t know --- or more exactly, I am a roil of conflicting feelings about the issues this brings up. Would I want to be here, or anywhere, that resembled a prison on lockdown, windowless and with barred bulletproof doors? Would I feel safer or just more paranoid? Would I actually be any safer?

I have had a dream, on three separate occasions, that I was in my library cubicle working and someone came through the stacks, the reference area, the computer lab, shooting --- popping off shots with a methodical crack crack crack. I could hear shouting, screaming, silence. I dreamed that I moved the desk in front of the door and hid in a corner where I could not be seen from the little inset window, trying not to breathe loudly. Someone tried the handle, and I woke up. I tried, once, in waking life, moving the desk and seeing if I could be spotted from the corner. Are you sure you want to call me paranoid?

This dream has a source. We had a violent incident like this some years ago --- although not with guns --- where a student “snapped” and “out of nowhere” killed people. Except it wasn’t out of nowhere. My friend had asked this student to leave her section, and eventually kicked him out of the comp. lit class, for standing up and ranting in a bizarre way about how sick and disgusting the class was and they all were for being obsessed with death, that they and Gabriel Marcia Marquez all were evil and obsessed with death. I don’t remember if she reported this to admin. or if she referred him to counseling, but it turned out, after the killings, that quite a few people had tried to get him to the counseling center, and tried to get counseling to force him to come in.

The New York Times has an article amassing profiles of a lot of other people who have gone off on violent rampages, and the reporter points out how often we say the killer “suddenly snapped” when in fact that is almost never the case. Over and over again there are signs of violent or unusual or anti-social behavior, threats to kill other people or themselves that are laughed off or minimized, and individual people trying to get them psychiatric help or inform the police, but since these actions are scattered and isolated, no one connects the dots or comes forward to make a push for consistent treatment.

There are two sides to be considered in this: the relationship of teachers to their “troubled” students, and their relationship to their students in general in cases of emergency. Tenured Radical has a lovely post up wondering what we, as teachers, would do in the same situation as those at Virginia Tech, and I honestly don’t know if I would find the courage and self possession to take action, literally, under fire. (Earthquakes I’m prepped on; I could handle one of those. I’ve even looked up my building’s evacuation point and know what I would do with my class. But you don’t get to pick the disaster that happens to you, do you?) My sister, the safety officer for a large company, was appalled after 9/11 to learn that the Twin Towers had no organized evacuation policy nor had they ever run a practice evacuation to train people how to escape (stopping a over a hundred floors of high-paid workers to have them practice going down stairs and milling about outside would be very expensive, I’m sure). But someone has to think about these things --- hopefully more someones than fewer, as there was that Time Magazine article about how the vast majority of people freeze and stop thinking when a disaster happens, and tend to follow the lead of people around them, which means someone there better be capable of being a clear-headed leader. Which means that teachers and even (gulp!) TAs, as the leaders in the classrooms, should be thinking, planning, about these sorts of things.

Except I feel such mixed feelings about this. I don’t want to go through teaching scoping out every classroom for escape routes and scrutinizing all my students for signs of violence and mental illness. Horace makes a good point about how these types of incidents close down students’ academic freedom and make certain topics unspeakable --- and high schools have radically transformed since Columbine, as students have told me about an ever-increasing surveillance and an ever-narrower definition of normativity (Shades of Foucault indeed! Never would I have thought I would think of my high school experience as free and unrestricted, but comparatively, it was.) And I worry that even if I were to refer a student to counseling, nothing would be done --- let me add that, nationally, we should be working to fix our health care and mental-health care system, which is so strapped and overburdened, because funding and fixing these systems would do a lot to make us safer. But when students refuse treatment or deny that they have problems, colleges run into the conflicting rights of students as individuals to determine their treatment and not be institutionalized against their will, vs. the rights of the larger student community to be protected. And how responsible is responsible? How much of an obligation do I, as an overworked and underpaid grad student hoping to soon be an overworked professor, have to the mental well-being of my students and their physical safety? How much time and effort do I put in before the problem is bigger than I can handle and somebody else’s responsibility?

I suppose, in the end, I come down on the side of be prepared, although I hate to reduce this to a cheesy Boy Scout clich√©. And I rationalize that if one of my students seems hurt and upset, referring them to the counseling center would be a gesture of caring, not that I was suspicious and distrustful of them, but that I wanted them to not hurt so much, no? But mostly I’ve decided that being a leader and an authority in the classroom entails being prepared to take the lead if a disaster happens there, and that if I don’t think about all this now, I won’t be thinking at all in the moment. For, to steal the line from the labor movement, If not now, when? If not you, then who?

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Procrastination Pics

I don't feel like working. I don't want to write on my diss or read research books right now. I don't want to clean the apt. or wash the mountain of dishes in my sink, or haul a load of crap down to the Goodwill. I don't even want to put on enough clothes to go hang out at the corner coffee shop. Therefore, I should pull some pics off my camera and upload some shots of my cats. (Be warned, I have a boring life. And I forget to take my camera anywhere, so the cats are my only semi-reliable sitters. And even they haven't gotten the concept of sitting still for pics yet.)

So here are my cats:


But what's this, you say? You only see one cat there? This handsome devil, Loquito?

(Loquito poses like the GQ model he is.)

The other cat, as befitting his blog pseudonym, Timido, is cleverly hidden in the above picture. He always likes to unmake my bed and sleep under the covers:


Awwwwwwww!

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Time Management, Einsteinian Relativity Edition

Let me first say how wonderful it is to be teaching back in my home department after quarters or years spent scrounging in other departments or underemployed (and some fellowship time is in there too). I hadn't realized how much the isolation and lack of appreciation I was feeling was due to wandering from the library to a building far from my department and sitting alone in a TA cubicle, without ever seeing anyone. How different it is right now! On the first day I taught section I must have chatted and caught up with about 20 different people --- so many people said nice things to me! So many people wondered where I've been and how I was doing! They made plans to do social events with me! Yay!

However nice that may all be, I am now remembering the down side of departmental connectedness, and don't really want to count up how many hours I spent last week on chatting, talking, lunching, griping, reminiscing, advising, and pontificating. And that's not counting the time I was spending on dealing with teaching administrative details. This week, so far, has been more of the same ---- Hey, I don't feel depressed, who cares about that little ol' dissertation thing anyway? In fact, after lecture, I felt weirdly "off" and unwilling to turn towards my diss work --- as if I wanted to teach and was riding the high of giving a good lecture (I'm the TA, not the one actually giving said lecture, I should add. I guess I can wax enthusiastic just by association). I found myself hunting for talking/teaching related things to do, and as I didn't have any on my list, I did pretty much nothing for the rest of the morning. (Oh, afternoon wasn't a waste ---- but needing a cooling-off period just from listening to lecture? Meh.)

I need to do about a bazillion things this quarter for my own work (see to the right; I have more stuff to update for that list). And I still remain fixed in my lumpish, unathletic ways (a social lump, but a lump nonetheless). When last I swam regularly, I went in to campus super early and just got it all out of the way. I just wore a hat in on the bus and packed in my makeup and nice clothes if need be, and did one set of shower/dress up for the day. I can't deal with multiple sets of showerings and dressings and all that crap. However, the times I have worked best and hardest at my diss were the times I made sure to get a couple hours of writing done right away and then read or did piddly little organization stuff in the afternoon. And however however (or however one is doubly digressive, or contrary, or whatnot), my lecture and sections are smack in the early morning this quarter, making it good to get over with but also taking up my most alert and perfectly caffeinated time of the day, before I finish the second big cup and get so jittery I have to take a walk.

So I need to do everything first thing in the morning, or it doesn't get done. Right now, the only thing I can and will be able to put later is hanging out with other grad students. How should I set this up? What can I put later in the day, and how should I actually get myself to do that later thing?

(You know, I have the same problems with writing essays: "But all four of my major points need to come first! They are each predicated on the other, like an M.C. Escher painting! Can I write the paper in parallel rather than linearly?)

If only someone could invent a time machine, or perhaps clone myself and have the other Me do some of the work? (Although if Other Me got to be all buff and social while I graded things and wrote pages of diss crap, I would be pissed.)

Sunday, April 8, 2007

Oof

I'm not used to this. I have been out not once, but twice this week to socialize and imbibe beverages, and today I think I need to just lounge quietly on the couch over here. Please stop the internets from being so loud!

That said, it was quite fun and I'm storing up the sociability like a camel preparing for a drought. On the other hand, I need to get out of here; I know everyone and all their stories, and there's no new gossip going around except us bitter old fogies being catty about the newbies. I've been here too long and am tired of the small department and small town, where everybody knows each others' business and you can't get your coffee or your groceries without running into three professors, an old roommate, and an ex.

In other New-Quarter-Resolution news, it's too cold to wear skirts, which may torpedo my plan. I "dressed up" this week but I have 8am sections and 9 am lectures, which means it is gray and chilly and dark when I get dressed mornings. My poor purchases, lost and abandoned in my closet! I also have not yet started exercising, which I blame on the hours of drop-add bureaucracy I've had to deal with this week, but I have worn my sunscreen zealously.

Dissertation-wise, I am working but ... have you ever been engrossed in a scholarly book and turned back to read the bibliography? And then had it go something like this: I've read that, read that, heard of that, library copy of that is missing ... what's that? And that? Who's that guy? And oh my god there are entire academic subfields to my specialty I've never even heard of before this moment, with lists and lists of books and people completely new to me! And then you start hyperventilating and wake up the cats. That's kinda been my week.

Friday, April 6, 2007

Shopping

This week was the first week of the new quarter, which means the chief task of any TA is dealing with the time-sucking and bureaucratic details of enrollment. No matter what class, it seems, students mob the instructors before, during, and after lecture, by email, in person, and by carrier pigeon, with sob stories about how this class and only this class will allow the student to graduate (why fifth-year seniors with one class left couldn’t add the class during their senior level priority enrollment pass last quarter and be assured of a spot, I don’t know). Meanwhile, the professors either put on a grand show the first few weeks or appear as mean and evil as possible, trying to convince students to stay or to leave, depending on enrollment. The first two weeks at this school are known as the “shopping period” ---- and considering that’s two weeks out of only 10 it is disproportionately disruptive ---- and perhaps the most frustrating thing is when you turn away legions of crashers from sections you have already overenrolled to the gills, only to have your “shoppers,” signed up for 24 units and “test-driving” them to find 16, drop the class just before the deadline and leave the sections underenrolled, freeing up spaces at the last minute that you could have given to some of those seemingly desperate students. Is shopping common at other institutions or especially bad at this one?

All this means that my time this week was spent dealing with forms and ID numbers and frantic emails, not on actual teaching or my dissertation, and on top of that I was grumpy and annoyed. Some fellow grads who went to my undergrad institution note how our computer enrollment system actually worked; although it didn’t prevent people without the prerequisites from enrolling anyway, it prevented you from signing up for a double load or enrolling in conflicting classes, and it had a built-in wait list system. As people dropped (or were accidentally dropped by financial aid, one of the few problems actually worse there than here) students on the wait list were moved up a slot and eventually into the class automatically, allowing TAs and profs to actually make a thundering takeoff into the course and tear through material at a blistering speed. Here, even if you keep the sign up sheets and counting people and interruptions to a minimum, instructors often feel as if they need to “hold back” or have to reteach large portions of those first two weeks because the class population drastically changes over that time.

I know that I am just a cog, and that this campus’s computer enrollment system, if it is designed for anyone’s convenience and flexibility, is not designed with me in mind (or the students either, perhaps). But, if I could ask for one thing for Christmas, it would be for a better computer system that “held the line” on such things as students adding a class they are not eligible for, double loads of units, conflicting lecture times, and provided a wait list rather than force me and the other instructors to deal with it. Oh, wait, no ---- I wish for a tenure-track job. Can I ask for two things? No? Then forget it. See what I mean? This isn’t my “real job” so I have no investment in fighting the kind of fight this would take to fix, and so no one pushes to fix the problems in this system. Revamping the system or creating a new one would involve too much disruption for the enrollment admin people, as it would probably require being taken down and reinstalled, and only problems that affect or annoy that staff level would get fixed.

The problem is, although I’m pretty blas√© with the fact that I am a cog, and after teaching so many students and hearing so many stupid excuses or sob stories, I can definitely see the students as cogs, the students themselves don’t necessarily get it. Of course a lot of them do know they are cogs in a system and that what they need to do is work that system in order to get it to work for them, which is why we encounter so many tricks and evasions and outright lies, students saying whatever they think will push the magic button and except them from the rules (any dead grandmother stories recently, anyone?) but a lot of them have a rather rude shock when they discover they are screwed just because of an accident or their own stupidity. You can hear the tone of real panic and realization sometimes. The student whose financial aid did not arrive in time, the one who accidentally pushed the drop button on his/her online schedule, the one who enrolled but did not realize that both lectures were at the same time, the one who couldn’t find the classroom and thus was not there to hold his/her spot ---- these people think of themselves as unique and worthy individuals, people who should be given a break or help just because of who they are, the heroes of their own personal stories, but I have heard it all before. Not heroes but spear-carriers, they are just ingots being pushed through the machine, a series of interchangeable ID numbers and a range of familiar predictable behaviors. I’m not sure how much this process of discovering their cog-ness is a valuable lesson for their future lives and how much it is a sign that this system is a fucked-up one.

Monday, April 2, 2007

The Humiliation Game:

On Reading, Not Reading, and Halfassery.

Chaser is mulling over Lennard Davis’s article, "Huckleberry Who?" published in the Chronicle. And Undine is trying to make it a meme: what are five big books you haven’t read? Admit it! (I don’t think I’ve read any of the Continental great novels Davis mentions, not any Proust, nor Hesse, not War and Peace nor The Man Without Qualities. Though I did do well on his list of stuff in English.)

Davis, combining How to Talk About Books That You Haven't Read, by Pierre Bayard, and the game Humiliation from David Lodge’s Changing Places (wherein a professor is eventually fired for admitting he had never read Hamlet), has some very vague statements about the myriad ways one can read books besides scrutinizing every word, straight through to the end, and urges us to be "more open and honest about what we haven’t read" as well as less "sanctimonious" and judgmental towards our colleagues who haven’t read everything, which will result in …? Here’s where he gets a bit vague: how exactly will we benefit from being more honest about what we haven’t read? Well, he says, we might be more likely to read more or read important books that everyone else was talking about and we didn’t get around to in the moment (for me, this was Rushdie during the whole fatwa controversy). Hmm --- so not pressuring people to read will make them read more? And we might also discover new ways of reading. Hmm. I’m not entirely impressed by these conclusions.

For one thing, I agree with Chaser that the people I know are far more likely to be geekily excited and enthusiastic about reading, or about describing a book you’ve missed out on, than snootily condemning you for your ignorance. Second, my profs are much more likely to dismiss the books themselves out of hand than admit they should be read: What? By who? (cutting-off gesture of finality here) I don’t read that; I’m a ______ scholar. For at the R1s, fields are highly specialized things and the mark of pride and one-upmanship comes in ruthlessly excluding anything that falls outside of one’s sphere of expertise.

Besides, the problem isn’t fear, it’s time. (Hey, if I can admit to blogging, and to watching What Not to Wear when I have access to a TV, I would have no problem admitting attempting Midnight’s Children or Vanity Fair for belated pleasure reading.)

And if Davis had ventured more explicitly into “required field lists” rather than “what every educated person should know,” he would have exposed his arguments as silliness: a Shakespearean never having read Hamlet? A postcolonialist specializing in the Subcontinent who had never read any Rushdie? If either of these examples were confessed they would be met with bafflement, laughter, and derision: I know because of what grad students tell me.

And I would here like to put on my curmudgeon hat (the one with the tassels and all the sparkles) to declare that I am against this practice of grad students openly admitting what they did not read on their exam lists. The eighteenth-centuryist who cavalierly cops to only having read a quarter of the 18th C list stuff because s/he specializes in a single author? The person studying the Romantic/Victorian list who only read one side of the slash mark? The Americanist who skipped all the male authors? The person who intentionally misread all of the “and”s as “or”s whenever multiple plays or poems were listed for an author? This all shall stop right now! I am putting my fingers in my ears and singing lah lah lah whenever you-all admit this from now on.

Of course time runs out as one prepares for the exams! Of course there is "reading" vs. "reading" a text ---- or what a friend of mine referred to as "gutting" a text, where one skimmed through, taking some notes as fast as possible and then read a critical article or two on it. Of course, when scanning the puritan sermons or Dickinson poems some individual texts might get a bit short shrift while plowing through the whole ---- but this pragmatic decision-making, while the centerpiece of being a grad student, is nothing to proudly pronounce about. It should be saved for tipsy giggling confessions of commiseration with fellow grads at someone’s party, or consoling words to the student hyperventilating, two weeks before exam time: keep calm; keep working; most people don’t completely finish their lists. Know what I ran out of time for and didn't read …? It should not be admitted in the TA mailroom, the department hallways, or god help me, blithely to any professor’s faces. What are you thinking??

In short, while I always talk about halfassery as the central method of surviving grad school, you should not take it as a half-assed effort but more in the spirit of "gutting": make smart decisions about what is really important for you to know in the profession and what is a hoop put up for you by the program. Halfassery (gutting) is not laziness but the recognition of limitations on our time. Halfassery (gutting) is not cockily thinking that whatever you write about author X will be so brilliant you don’t have to know your century inside and out, but knowing your field well enough you can prioritize who on your list is indispensable and who is marginal --- and that this prioritization will vary depending on the professor who examines you and what his/her pet hobbyhorses might be. Halfassery (gutting) is not skipping half the poems of author B because they are boring, but trading reading time for some of those poems for a read-through of a book that will allow you to place those poems in the appropriate stylistic or literary-historical context. I should really stop even using the word halfassery in case it is misleading impressionable grad students at my institution, but it is such a funny-sounding neologism I can't resist.

I am saying, then, that "Humiliation" is not the point of exams or the game of grad school --- or rather, it is, but to play it is to lose it. To win at halfassery one must keep one's mouth shut while still acknowledging, in a general way, one's human limits. I am completely in favor of the humiliation of any grad student stupid enough to admit or get caught out in not reading something. Halfassery, to be done properly, must be successfully gotten away with. Sigh ----- Could I be any more of a cranky little old man? Ah well.

And those high-handed grad who took the lists as suggestions rather than rules have all come, if not to a bad end, then to bad middles. If they didn’t have to retake the exam they were studying for, they got found out by the time the next set of quals rolled around. The profs here might have specialized views, but they don’t allow that behavior from their students. Cruel hypocrisy or necessary hierarchy? You decide.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

New Year's Resolutions

I’m back! I have returned, picked up my cats, and gotten to the down-and-dirty of preparing for a new quarter. Today was give everything the last really good cleaning it will have for 10 weeks, including chipping out the ice from my freezer before the last tiny hole closed entirely day ---- Hello frozen chicken! Look, peas and green beans! Dr. Livingstone, I presume? No, call me Shackleton. Tomorrow is for cleaning up me and my new spring wardrobe ---- thank you Tar-jay. I may have gone overboard with the cheap new fabulousness and spent my TAship already, but I have been holding out for a long time on shopping, thinking that I would be getting a job and/or moving somewhere different that had weather, but since I did not get any job offers and so will not be needing professor-ly clothing, I finally came to grips with that fact and got new grad-student-ly clothes to replace the stuff which is looking, frankly, rather ratty.

The downside to the quarter system is immediately evident to anyone who wants to do research or survive grad classes (on either side of the table). The upside is that you feel you are starting anew every few months, a plus for the socially ADD. That new-eraser smell of a new start all around! Fresh new student faces and new class topics! (I had the quarter system as an undergrad and it was fine ---- sometimes I felt I was just getting over my shyness to really talk to my classmates after class when --- whhsssst! --- a new quarter whirled up and I never saw those classmates again ---- but for the most part it was just about right. You didn’t get bored, and if the class or teacher sucked, you just leaned back and waited it out for a bit.) I tend to think of these new starts as like new years, and since I never keep my New Year’s Resolutions for more than a few weeks anyway, I try to take the time to rededicate myself to them and rejuvenate myself. So, with that, I will brainstorm a few areas to work on during the upcoming spring whirl.

1. Write on the diss. every day. This is obvious, as not being finished is my biggest barrier to any sort of progress on my life. I’m usually pretty good at plugging away steadily, but I’m researching and planning a new chapter right now, so I need to make sure I don’t procrastinate endlessly by reading books and also that I don’t make impossible daily goals that interfere with my survival (see below). I’m not going to make any page/hour goals here, just promise that teaching won’t prevent me from putting in regular daily work.

2. Wear skirts. I love clothes and makeup but hate the daily effort. I may be modest and reserved, but if nudism were at all an option I’m sure I’d overcome any lingering embarrassment for the ease of just get-up-and-go without dealing with matching things and prepping and making an effort to look professional, or at least cute. I’ve made the case before that, if we in the academy really profess to be living the life of the mind, we should all wear monk’s robes ---- preferably something softer and fuzzier than hair shirts. See? Loose, comfortable, just add sandals and a rope belt and you’re good to go!


Anyway, when I work at it I can be not just decently dressed, but fresh and sparkling or even, dare I say, snazzy, all the way until 8th week, when the shit hits the fan (you can see the sartorial standards slide for everyone starting then, not just me). When I don’t consciously make an effort, I start out at week-8 quality and degenerate into borderline homeless-looking.

3. Keep up the sunscreen. Ever since finding a Disturbing Splotch and being told to keep an eye on it by a dermatologist, I have actually been quite good at wearing sunscreen and various snake oil youth preserving ointments every day, even on overcast days. Sad to say, it was the vanity and not the possible impending mortality that got me to get religion on the sunscreen. What can I say ---- I’m in California, where shallowness and an emphasis on surfaces are virtues. I may be vain, but I am pale now, which is a slight rebellion against the California-ness.

4. Exercise. Sadly, I have kept this resolution successfully in the distant past, but did not work out once all of the past quarter. (I’m not counting taking nice little walks.) I need to get back in the swing of things and force myself not only to work out, but to do it regularly. My schedule is conducive to workouts this time so there is some hope. The exercise would also help drop the weight I think I put on over break --- my dad’s scale seems untrustworthy. It didn’t change all week, but considering my dad is the king of middlebrow food and insisted we go out to: Applebee’s, a Chili’s, two different ok deep-dish pizza chains, and Best Mexican Restaurant in the world, a hole in the wall place near my parents’ house that we have loved since coming to California --- I am dubious that I have maintained my weight.

5. Social life --- what’s that? This may surprise you, but this one is the most important and most difficult for me of all. It really should be number 1, but I didn’t want to confuse you. I hereby resolve to go out and socialize, in a social setting, not at my house and not on the phone, with people, at least once a week. Ideally this will be with new and different people than just my dissertation buddy, who is wonderful in every way but we already spend a lot of time together. My Achilles heel --- besides being a bit shy and also cantankerous, which keeps people at their distance --- is that I tend to “punish” myself for a seeming lack of dissertation progress by cutting off the social world. Strange but true, and I wonder if this is at all common. Not only do I not allow myself contact with the outside world on days when I get nothing done, but I ratchet up my goals if the diss work is going well ---- Two paragraphs written! Whoo-hoo! …Two? Only two? You suck, you work so slow! You should have written 10 pages today! Get back to work! And forget about seeing anybody tomorrow --- no talking to a living soul unless you get 20 pages done the next day! … Then I get depressed and isolated, not talking to anyone or going out of the house because I have been “bad.” I start procrastinating more and more and getting less and less done, finally just shutting down and curling up into a ball under the covers. I need to avoid this, and need to remind myself that some socializing will keep me happy and going along as I work. Granted, I can use chatting with people to suck up my available work time like nobody’s business. But I know I need the rejuvenation ---- and chatting with grad students for 20 minutes in the mailroom doesn’t really work to rejuvenate me. So, fun and excitement, here I come!

6. Use a cup, stupid! This last little one is easy. I’ve lived in CA long enough to be a recycling little tree-hugger, and I try to not get bags for purchases or other wasteful things. And further, I’ve brought coffee or tea to school in a thermos or mug for years! But, insidiously, I have fallen into a bad habit of buying coffee at school or the coffee shop right near school. (Latte and a bagel …. mmmm!) I don’t know where my travel mug went, and my beautiful thermos leaks if you put it on its side and try to smuggle it into the library. I’ve been putting off hunting down a travel mug that will hold up to my James Bond-esque smuggler lifestyle, and in the process wasted paper like crazy. But I have new mugs from my budget-breaking Target trip and it should be an easy thing to start carting them around again.

So, ta-da! A shiny new me! With clothes, even! Whaddaya think? Too many resolutions, not enough? Anybody else do this, or have I definitively proven how strange I am?