Friday, June 29, 2007

A vacation from the vacation --- now with Books!

Evidently being back at school requires a post-vacation recovery period before beginning any useful work. Actually, no, it doesn't ---- this is supposed to be The Summer of Progress and Productivity, not the Summer of Sloth, you cog! I still haven't dumped crap off at school or even gotten the groceries yet, much less leaped back into my writing. Sigh. I did miss my cats though. You'll be glad to know they are as cute and as annoying as ever.

Instead of doing work or even doing preparatory work I have started a book (for pleasure reading! Oh my!) and watched a movie. But, isn't that the exact same thing you were doing at your parents' house, you ask? Why yes, it was. But for some reason it's more pleasant doing it here, where I am not constantly being interrupted. On the other hand, my day here has been devoid of human contact, which can get old pretty fast.

So I have started reading Chang-Rae Lee's novel Native Speaker, which so far is fabulous and wonderful and you should all go read it immediately if not sooner. You may wonder why I am reading this particular novel, and I suppose it is as good a time as any to tell you all about the Bookcase of Shame (not to be confused with the bookcase of theory which Timido is hiding behind in that picture). Several friends had raved and sang the praises of joy of Lee's "new" novel, Aloft, back in 05, and I read some intriguing reviews of it that made me want to get it. But when I looked on the aforementioned Bookcase of Shame, I noticed that I already owned his first novel and had never cracked it. So I promptly avoided having anything else to do with the topic for the next two years or so. You see, I buy books constantly and compulsively, like a crack addict or shoewhore (and if you think I can't drop that kind of money in a single bookstore outing, you sooo don't know me). I'm the reason your undergrad classes can't get their books ---- because I go in "just to look around at what other people are teaching" before the quarter starts and poach everything that looks good. And I mean everything, from theory to sociology textbooks and random history books to novels that have nothing to do with my time period or continent or language (as witness Lee) to anything feminist or racial-studies related. And I don't have the time to read these books ---- not surprisingly, when I do have the energy to read something in the evening, I pull a dissertation-related library book off the pile. And so, one of my bookcases gradually filled with unread books, those dense little packets of obligation and anxiety, until, with the exception of the bottom shelf which holds all my grad seminar readers for ballast, the Bookcase of Shame became full. (Jeez, you'd think I studied Dickens, or Henry James, with the way I herniate a sentence like that. But anyway.)

Finally I had to have an intervention with myself. This was not when I started moving unread books to the auxiliary bookcase in the bedroom, or even started packing them in moving boxes in the closet, but was the humiliating (and heretofore secret) moment when I realized I was preparing for a visit to my parents' by packing shopping bags of unread books to hide in their house. At this point I cut myself off cold turkey ---- no going inside a bookstore! Close all my online accounts! The only book buying I can do is for my dissertation! (You should be amazed that I spent so much of my Berkeley trip inside bookstores and did not buy anything, but an unfortunate side effect is that entire stores now feel like the experience of contemplating the Bookcase of Shame.)

All this means that I cannot buy new books without reading some of the backlog. Hence, my experience of "new fiction" is novels that are ten years old and that I bought at least five or six years ago. I feel incredibly out of it --- whole literary empires have taken root, grown, flourished, and built monuments in the desert only to have them crumble down to a shattered visage and be forgotten by the next generation of literary scholars in the time I have been on my self-imposed moratorium from books. Strangely, this corresponds with my sense of frozen stasis in grad school ---- I'm still 22, of course, and nothing has quite cured me of the notion that somewhere out there it's still the mid-90s and the Smashing Pumpkins is touring. Don't try to tell me otherwise; they claim that sleepers are dangerous to awake.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

I Heart BART

Good thing I hadn't planned to go visit Lake Tahoe. I'm still planning an actual adventure-type trip, but out-of-state relatives are suddenly descending on the family household, so I may postpone it a short (or even long) while.

But today I took a little side trip to Berzerkeley and had a fine old time. Really, I love public transportation, when it is convenient and not crowded, and when you never have to wait more than 10 minutes for a train (both directions I walked out onto the platform and the train I wanted pulled up right then). My only complaint is that it really should go everywhere; it especially should ring the whole Bay Area (otherwise why is it called Bay Area Rapid Transit?). And if San Francisco and San Jose are the two largest cities in the area (perhaps the nation?), it's only logical that they should be connected conveniently, right?

Now if I were my friend the cool scientist grad student, I would complain about BART a lot more, because she is actually cool and goes to shows and out to bars and cool indie places all across SF and Oakland and Bk, which is a problem when the BART trains stop at 10 pm. But I turn into a pumpkin about then and really can't handle going out places like that without some backup, so BART works perfect for me and my shopping-sightseeing-lunch eating itinerary.

I also love Berkeley because you can walk everywhere (for god's sake, don't drive! The only place worse is SF! And definitely don't try to park. Ever. Anywhere in the area.) and people-watch as you wander, and the people are interesting. And not just in the subcultural (punk, goth, indie, hipster) kind of way --- they are sprinkled in with different varieties of more mainstream looks and "ordinary" people --- I just love the diversity of everything and everyone. You just don't see different looking and dressing people where I usually am.

So I got semi-lost about three different times but it was a pleasant and lovely experience (when I usually visit Berkeley I'm doing labor stuff and have appointments and co-workers, which adds stress to the whole getting-lost experience, but this time it did not matter). The city looks like it's on the grid system but it has sneaky turning streets here and there, so I found myself in a residential area with all these cool old victorian houses (some ramshackle, some well-preserved, one a vivid sky blue all over) with wild and overgrown gardens. Beautiful! So I got my architecture fix.

Then I finally figured out where they put Telegraph Ave and did some thrift-store shopping and got CDs at Rasputin Records. Very fun. I'm very ambivalent (overthinking?) about most things and while I theoretically love the vintage indie style, I usually feel very self conscious, like everyone is staring at me and laughing, when I wear anything that is not completely boring. So I may buy clothing with patterns, but then never actually wear them. I may do that this time too, but at 5 or 6 bucks per item, I won't worry like I do when I buy an expensive store piece that is a little unusual. By the time I thought of jewelry shopping, though, I had tramped around the whole place and was tired. So no shiny baubles this time.

I had delicious chicken tikka masala at a little place where you bused your own plates and drinks, and eyed the cute grad student talking at a table behind me. Or postdoc; he could have been a postdoc. I couldn't quite catch all the conversation because I was simultaneously appreciating the techno music in hindi that was blasting through the restaurant. My only regret was that I tend to eat at the same places because the food is good, but everywhere I walked I saw intriguing food options both informal and fancy.

I also toured as many bookstores as I could find (I have misplaced Revolution Books somehow --- what street is that on?). Cody's Books appears to be closed, which is sad, and Moe's for some reason made me feel oppressed and overwhelmed with the sheer amount of interesting books I know nothing about --- do you ever get that sad feeling that here is an area you feel marginally conversant about but you realize you are completely ignorant in it and have not kept up with current stuff because you are reading obscure crap for your dissertation? Seriously, I want a publishing moratorium on all new fiction and scholarship for 5 years, so I can, if not catch up, at least make a dent in my reading piles. Bleah. On the other hand, I love being in a city that has so many bookstores --- I kept seeing more and more little places as I walked.

I wanted to take pictures of stuff --- like the "Smash the State" scratched into the sidewalk concrete, or peoples' fantastic costumes, or some gorgeous gardens, or the Granola Dude sailing along on a bike against traffic, on a cell phone, loudly telling the caller, "I'm calling you while on a bike right now." But I didn't want to look like a tourist schmuck --- and explaining to passersby, "No really, I want to put pics of my day on my blog" sounds even lamer, so you'll have to make do.

And so, here I am back in Ultimate Suburbia, tired but pleased. If only I could finish my dissertation up here instead! And no, even if it was feasible, I wouldn't finish because I'd be too distracted. But I would be having fun, me and my snazzy new wardrobe.

Monday, June 25, 2007

8 random things about a Cog

Ouch! Tag, I'm it! Adjunct Whore at Narratives has tagged me for a meme. Here are the rules:
  • I have to post these rules before I give you the facts about me.
  • Each player starts with eight random facts/habits about themselves.
  • People who are tagged need to write their own blog about their eight things and post these rules.
  • At the end of your blog, you need to choose eight people to get tagged and list their names. Don’t forget to leave them a comment telling them they’re tagged, and to read your blog.

1. Did I tell you all that I had my head shaved recently? Well, part of it. A small section. I had a thing (wart, mole, cyst, Bump of Generosity, whatever) that has been bugging me, and the dermatologist who looked at it said that it looked safe (i.e. non-cancerous) but if I was picking at it, that was enough reason to remove it. (He doesn't want me scratching my head raw, evidently.) They're going to biopsy it just to be on the safe side but I'm not worried. You can hardly notice the shaved-ness. If I had the guts, or could be sure I wouldn't look too Uncle Fester-like, I would just go for broke and shave my head completely.

2. I'm the youngest in the family. By a lot. So when I make jokes about my parents not getting that crazy newfangled rock-n-roll and how shocked they were by the appearance of Elvis on the scene, um, I'm actually not kidding.

3. I have a passel of nieces and nephews. They've passed the cute stage but not really become people yet. Except for the eldest, who is a music ed major at a local Cal State school. Can I tell you how depressing it was to teach last year, looking at my students who were her age and remembering when she was born? Yeah, good times.

4. I'm a child of the desert. I have technically lived in many states as a baby and was born in the City of Brotherly Love, but all the places I remember living have been in the southwest. Now having traveled around a bit more, I can actually say that it's true when those obnoxious people tell you "it's hot, but at least it's a dry heat." Humidity is a foreign element to me (I can just see where I will get a t-t job eventually, eh?) ---- I just love the way you can step out the door in the desert and instantly all moisture is wicked off your body and out of the inside of your nose. Ahh! That's not to say I haven't seen my share of snow; it's really the mugginess that I dread.

5. Favorite slightly disgusting thing to eat: stale popcorn, especially the cheddar-dusted kind. What could be better than some popcorn for breakfast the next morning after movie night (that is, if there is anything left)? It squeaks on your teeth --- how could you not love that?

6. And while we're on movies: I am incredibly strange and uptight about planning movie-watching. I have to be in "the movie-watching mood"; I can never just turn on the tv or throw in a movie without a lot of mental preparation. Seriously: we're talking a day or two of lead-up. Sad and weird but true. (this may explain why I can only watch plot-free tv shows while flipping around.)

7. I have been barefoot for most of my life. I'll put on some shoes if you really want me to, but otherwise I'm putting some slip ons somewhere near my feet so that I can pretend I had them on just a minute ago. This is regardless of weather, although if it's actually snowing I will probably have something on. However, I constantly lust after big difficult-to-put-on boots, the more leather and lacings and doo-dads the better. I know it is a love that will not work, for I can never be bothered to lace anything up or struggle putting it on, but the passion is there nonetheless.

8. Favorite color: loud. What do you mean that's not a color? I have to pick just one? Look, if it's not fire engine red, or electric blue, or a vivid green or any loud shade of what-have-you, I'm not interested. Patterns, now that's a different story. I'll go unearth one of my favorite childhood photos to demonstrate to everyone why I am terrified of patterns and clashing.

Now I'm supposed to tag people but I think everyone has gone already. Aiiiiggghh! Someone tag themselves and let me avoid the agony of indecision, people!

Friday, June 22, 2007

Random bullets of crappy tv

So, I'm in the lovely little town of Ultimate Suburbia, doin' nuttin'. My parents' hobbies include eating lunch, crabbing about the way the world is, and eating dinner. And also fighting over where they should eat lunch or dinner. Should we go to the Chili's or the Applebees? The Olive Garden or the Elephant Bar? The Tony Roma's that used to be the Outback Steakhouse that's right across the street from the Chevy's that used to be the El Torito? You can see there's so much to do here; the town has so much character. And, being retired, my parents tend to wake up with the birds and want lunch at 11 am, dinner at 5, and they were in bed by 9. Lovely.

However, I had lunch with my sister and got to see a small portion of her latest home remodeling disaster special project underway, which involves staining, varnishing and installing some fancy doors with trim. Do you know how easy it is to saw through stuff underneath your projects if you place it on the floor or carpet? Heh.

The nicest part of visiting family is recharging the thinking parts of my brain by doing completely mindless fun stuff. I mean, seeing family is fine and all, but the real lure is the television. For some reason I can't even get the free network channels at my grad school apartment, and I don't want to pay for cable and the internet (think of the procrastination! The money! ---- Yay! ---- No, stop that!) It's weird to go from tv abstinence to complete bingeing ---- hello, commercials! Hello, crappy gender conventions and cheesy materialism! I forget sometimes I'm in a protected little bubble so it's great to be reminded by home cleaner commercials with stay-at-home moms indulgently smiling on naughty, messy little boys they need to clean up after while clean docile little girls follow after the moms and learn how to scrub and tidy. So with one day of basking in the mindlessness, so far, I have noticed the following:
  • My secret vice would be all those fixit-remodel-DIY-home/face/body makeover shows. I don't know if that means I will become one of those obnoxious home-obsessed remodelers when I finally have a job and spare money, or, that, like the health-and-fitness shows I watch, it means I only want to experience these things secondhand. (Watch triathalons for hours? Fine. Actually get up off the couch? You've got to be kidding.) The fact that I have bought nice pots for outside my front door, but killed off several generations of the plants in them, indicates I might vacillate between the two positions crazily.
  • Baby animals are cute, but can you actually watch an entire show of them being rescued, even while channel surfing? Even with only limited tv access I find the format too predictable. I think over at Acephalous Scott said a similar thing about science shows. My mom has a weakness for all the "secrets of the Bible revealed!" type shows; even though they promise that mysteries will be revealed or debunked, they end up telling you obvious nuggets of common wisdom.
  • I haven't seen a new episode of The Simpsons for years; even when I had tv reception last year I only watched the weekday reruns while cooking dinner. I just saw a "current" episode and it made me throw up in my mouth a little. Oh, talent and funniness, where have you gone? Couldn't you go out with a bang, like a rock star snuffed out in mid-fame and glory, rather than hanging around to become a coked-out tired caricature of yourself?
  • Speaking of, I see that they are trying to capitalize on the success of the Ozzy Osbourne reality show by doing one on Gene Simmons of Kiss. Gene, Gene, see above bullet.
  • Evidently it is not enough to bring back 70s fashion and the nasty home decor accents that my mom is unearthing from closets with the triumphant exclamation that orange shag or dark wood furniture is back; I flipped past more than one episode each of: The Jeffersons, Dukes of Hazard, Little House on the Prarie, and Good Times. Clocking in at one episode each so far would be The Brady Bunch and The Andy Griffith Show. And these weren't the cable networks or RetroTVLand or whatever, either. I wonder what this does to the circulation of cultural values and gender attitudes; just think, we might have to not only deal with the assumptions fostered by contemporary pop culture but the "rerun effect" in our teaching.
  • I see that the same city council meeting as the last time I was here still appears to be in progress, according to the public access station. The local community college is still presenting student-acted and directed shows and shorts, which are often, in their sheer zaniness, the best thing on the tube at any one time.
  • Forget driving a three-ton-extendicab-megatruck with heated seats to prove how big your dick is. That's so last year. Now you need to be driving a backhoe --- as you dig and install your own Forever Illusion pool yourself. Oh wait --- no, that's the contractor waggling his backhoe around back there for you. You'll just have to make do with the size of the Forever Illusion you buy, so get a doozy.
  • Even with no regular access to a tv for almost a year now, I can still i.d. the Law and Order episode and its killer within about five minutes of tuning in.

I could do a whole series of bullets about What Not to Wear, which I am deeply ambivalent about, and the whole "makeover" phenomenon besides, so I may, if you're good, devote an entire post to the subject later. Just get me a set of those snap-together tupperware containers and send me three easy payments of only $19.95...

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Time to get the heck outta Dodge

So, I have graded, and turned grades in, and returned library books, and cleaned out various offices and workspaces, and made huge inroads into that stack of ILL books, and done various other end-of-year tidying things, and I have come to this grand conclusion:

I need to get the hell outta here.

It's this weird compulsion, this need to run away as soon as the quarter's over, and I have suffered from it since undergrad ---- a bad case of the stir-crazies, high-energy ADD-style jumpiness, and I just need to go. Usually, a week at my parents' in Ultimate Suburbia cures me of the travel-willies and makes me happy to be back here working and writing ---- as being bored out of one's mind while simultaneously being treated like a twelve-year-old tends to do. But this time I feel inspired; what if I actually went somewhere, besides my usual pilgrimage? Dissertation Buddy is going to Europe to give a conference paper and see her Long-Distance Love, which leaves me slightly envious (I am not touring Europe nor do I have a LDL, nor even an NDL. Sigh.) ---- and not only do I have to amuse myself while she's gone, but I've also been thinking about her travel philosophy vs. mine.

She will just travel places on her own, whereas I, for some reason, see travel ---- like eating out or going to the movies or special events ---- as something that must be justified by family or a significant other. But that means I sit around in my house being boring whenever I have no family or SO around. I should get out more and just do stuff; screw this waiting around for a special occasion or special person! (Note to self: hey idiot, if you left the house occasionally you might meet people and therefore find someone to travel with. Try it.)

So I think I want to go somewhere new and exciting, or at least new, before or after the parental visit. The question is: where?

I don't know, so I put it to my readers for a vote (no fair voting me off the island instead.). Can you think of someplace cool I could visit? For money and time reasons, let's say places within California, and not super expensive (sure I'd like a stay at the Westin Bonaventure a la Jameson, but that's not really in my price range, you know?). Any suggestions? Locations? Advice?

Oh, and I may be posting intermittently, or constantly, while I'm away. It depends on how bored I am and whether I can get to a computer without my mom going "What's that? What are you writing? How does that relate to your dissertation?" Sheesh thanks mom. Way to make me feel 12.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Awww, yeah, she's got a lotta junk in her trunk!

It's true. See?

I am finally done with my grading! Now I will take take some time to return my home, car, and various other work spaces to some semblance of organization. One of the problems of picking up TAships wherever you can is that you often don't get an office, and you definitely don't get to keep it after the term is over, so my trunk has been my de facto office and storage space for the past year or so. We only have to keep unclaimed papers for a year, so I celebrated being done (and brain fried) by shredding or packing away all that junk in my trunk:

The shreddings filled a whole container, and I'm not done yet. I burnt out my cheap shredder first. By the time it's no longer overheated, I don't feel like shredding anymore. Oh well.

Now I've got to reorganize my library carrel-cubicle-thingy, oh, and clean my apt., and tackle all those dishes of crap in my sink, and ... ugh. Then I may go travel about a bit, or visit the family again, before settling down to my long winter's nap. gruelingly productive summer writing schedule.

It feels weird to read other academic blogs and notice that they've been in summer for a long while already. I'm teaching in the late summer session --- I checked schedules and saw that my summer teaching session starts later than some of your fall academic years. Freaky.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Congratulations! Have Some Whine!

First of all, congratulations to all our new Ph.Ds! Hooray for everyone who graduated today, especially you, and you, and you, and you, who all don't read my blog! ---- You'll feel the well-wishes and good karma wafting your way anyway. You all rock, as do all you graduates, and I hope you may have wonderful things come your way in the coming year. You are all invited to my graduation party next year (keep in mind that those might be Biblical years, which I believe are measured in millennia). And may everyone have funny hats in their future! (really, regardless of whether you are in a grad program or not, funny hats are a good thing.)

* * * *
And now, some self-indulgent complainery, if I may:

What idiot decided to put about 4 end-of-the-year parties _and_ the class norming session all on the same day? And then follow it with two days of graduation ceremony mayhem? And make me designated driver for all of them? Seriously, I like people but I am so done with being social right now. And I could not skip any of those parties as they are vital sources of gossip, which is as necessary to me as a fourth food group. The norming session did involve a dinner (tho' I could complain about all the crap I've eaten this past week ---- ugh and I've been throwing money around like water, what with grading in coffeeshops and getting little stuff for parties and graduates), but it was not supposed to involve actual hours and hours of norming! And we were supposed to bring already graded material to exchange ---- I'm looking at you, grad student, who I harbor suspicions of trying to get us to determine as many grades for you as possible. I was not faking the headache that finally got us out of there, I might add; I went to bed at ten and had to stay in bed most of the next day before that cleared up. Which means that I still have a cubic crapload of finals to grade and the course grades to determine. Augggghhh!

Yes, I would like to be done and get back to my work. I would like my clothes to fit again. I would like to spend more than an hour at home one day this next week and not have to worry about going out. I would like to not have to navigate directions to your place to pick you up at the same time as dodging aggressive traffic. And most importantly, I would like to be done and lecturing right now rather than taking another year to finish off these last couple chapters. One of the grads was from my cohort, but came in without a Master's. Sigh. Not to mention that the featured speaker got her undergrad degree in 2000, took a couple years off, and then just graduated with a degree in epidemiology-micro-psych- neuro-clinic-venti-something-or-other after starting here in '03. Double sigh.

Ah well. Someday I shall be king and payback will be mine! Heads will roll. And you better bet I will look snazzy while I'm doing it. Hats from the Silly Hat Tarot Deck here.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Whither the B Minus?

Or, Random Bullets of Grading Glory:

  • I thought that grading outside would be more pleasant (hah!) since it was actually sunny and beautiful today. Now I am sunburned all over my arms. Sigh.
  • Eating healthy and grading a shitload of stuff do not seem to go together.
  • I was supposed to be grading this afternoon and instead decided an early dinner was a necessity, as I was craving chips and salsa. Do I walk down the street to Corner Mexican Food Store, or up the street to the Other Corner Mexican Food Store? (California, how I love thee!) I ended up going upstreet, and had a lovely burrito, and discovered that the little restaurant has a very pleasant patio. Of course I did not take the papers with me at dinnertime. I should go back and grade there tomorrow.
  • These research papers are motherfucking heavy. And grading 10 or so and leaving those home doesn't seem to help in the slightest.
  • Finally, to the title of my post ... Does anyone else have trouble "seeing" certain grades? As in, you can instantly point to an A- or a D but others you can't really clearly identify or describe clearly? Or you might have "favorite" grades? I seem to see pluses --- I can know a B+ pretty easily, and a C+, even a D+, but when you look at my grade breakdowns they seem a bit heavy around the B- and not in the B-. What do you think? What makes a B- quintessentially a B-?
I should go grocery shopping but I may go for a pub cafe crawl tomorrow instead. Maybe I'll even have pictures.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Attack of the ILLs

(why are the students in this picture so calm? Seriously, haven't they watched The Birds?)

Gaaarrrgh! Everything is coming due at once! This interferes with my plans to sleep exceedingly long hours and contemplate the universe (or my bloglines).

I have papers. I graded papers! I still have more papers. Thus goes my mind in a much faster, although less devastating, personal version of bipolar disorder. I'm down, I'm up, I'm down! And soon I shall get finals as well ---- why did I not plow through these papers over the weekend? Why did I not finish cutting down and prettifying my potential article to send out over the weekend? Now I have three major tasks staring at me even before I open up my email account this morning.

To give some context, a while back I discovered a neat way of being productive even at 10 pm after one's brain has melted into zombie food. I need to get material from the library, and that process is made infinitesimally less frustrating when one has a good bibliography in hand, organized by call numbers and with all the ones already checked out removed from the list. This can be done while watching tv, actually. So can requesting the zillions of books our library, being small and ugly, does not have. Ergo, a month or two back I watched old episodes of The Simpsons while cutting and pasting and hitting the Interlibrary Loan button. It felt great, it felt brilliant! --- and every couple days I would pick up some more books on my way in to write at the library. I felt as if I had outsmarted the limits of my own productivity. However.

Yes, however. Now it is later and I have read very few of these ILLs. And what do I see when I open up my email today? Many many "courtesy reminders" that these damn ILLs are now due to be returned this week. Curses! Hoist by my own petard! And I don't even know what the hell a "petard" is!

So now I can either 1) grade massive amounts of research papers, 2) fix all the bolded passages in my article that currently read [PUT A TRANSITION HERE, STUPID] or 3) read and take notes on a cubic crapload of ILLs that I now have to haul back to the library (my back will be shot this week, that's for sure). And tomorrow I can add 4) grade massive amounts of finals in very bad handwriting. All of which are due immediately. Ah, for a time machine!

Sunday, June 10, 2007


The Cog was chopping down a dissertation chapter to send out, and sought out advice.

"Why would you cut Part Five? Leave it in; it's your whole point," said Not My Advisor.

"Because a chapter is too long to be an article and getting rid of Part Five brings it under the word limit," said the Cog reasonably.

"No; boil down each section to its main point individually. You really need to condense your language anyway. Cut down all these long sentences, with their clauses heaped one upon the other,” Not My Advisor said to the Cog. “Be a wee bit less Joycean in your prose.”

Usually the Cog leaves no adjective unturned. In an effort to soak in streamlined clarity, the Cog opens Hemingway’s short stories and reads. Time passes. The light picks out the edges of the trees’ leaves in piercing detail. The wind surges, slackens, picks up again. A fat black cat dozes on the side table.

“Another drink?” The woman offers.

The Cog looks at the bright smooth hills and says nothing. Outside the light is dying.

Friday, June 8, 2007

Random Bullets of Sociability

  • I got hardly any work done this week. (I never count "showing up for lecture" or "leading section" as work work, and really I didn't get much more than that accomplished. Maybe I should go back to counting that ... that and getting dressed in the morning.) I did get lots of social chatting done this week ---- I must have run into everyone in the whole department in various places as we all finished our classes and did evals, and spent lots of time avoiding my writing or interrupting people who were doing their work. They did not seem to mind.
  • As my sociability --- face-time with other people in my department --- goes up, my overall happiness goes up too. But, my productivity goes down at the same rate. However, if my happiness level gets too low, my productivity also takes a nose dive. I'm sure there's a graph or an equation in all this. If I only knew how to balance short bursts of interaction with living in a cave, all this would be solved.
  • I accidentally had a double shot mocha when I ordered a single, and soon afterwards trapped a fellow grad in the corner of the mailroom/lounge, talking her ear off at a mile a minute. It didn't connect up to me at the time how uncharacteristic that is of me. I wonder if she thinks I was a little spun. Hoo! More rumors about me for the department.
  • I also went to a meeting and now am worried I talked too much in it (caffeine was not involved this time.). But hey, I am a busybody and love to give unsolicited advice (as you should note from this very blog), and if you encourage me to stay for a meeting I will give all sorts of suggestions and caveats about the program's future even though I plan to get a job and get out of here as soon as humanly possible.
  • I've forgotten just how depressing grad school and the job prospects are; while I know all the details of the horrible job market and the treatment of adjuncts, I have worked through the rage and arrived at peace with this. Not that I'm at all ok with the fucked-up state of grad funding and jobs and academia, but I no longer blanch at it in horror and can actually have a very matter-of-fact, not-at-all-depressed or bitchy conversation about it. New grad students cannot, and I keep forgetting this. I think I accidentally gave someone new a heart attack with my comments when I was actually in a quite good mood, and everything I said to make the situation better just terrified the grad student more. Oops. Sorry 'bout that.

I need to chop up my article; I need to grade things. I vow to go do these in the library next week rather than thinking I can go into the comp. lab or lounge and actually do work around other procrastinatory people. I always mock people who think they can get their work done in the same place as Gossip Central and inane questions from undergrads looking for the mailboxes and people doing the 24 Hour Faculty Watch as they lurk for an absentee advisor, and now I have backslid to become one of those people. Hunh. I need to get back to a better schedule and do my work alone, with short sociable breaks in the English building. I need to return to my previous status as one of those names on the mailboxes that makes new grads go "Sisyphus T. Cog"!?!!? Who the fuck is that??? Is this person even still around anymore? I've never seen her!

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

What are you here for, again?

Over at Not of General Interest, Undine has a post on the unofficial motto of grad school: “Catch Up!” (I had thought it was Grad School: Where We Tie You to a Chair and Beat You With Shoes, or perhaps, The Ph.D.: Do You Want Fries With That? ---- but I was wrong, evidently.)

Anyway, just as I was getting at with my removing-the-training-wheels metaphor, Undine says grad students must be proactive in their studies and their shaping of themselves into scholars ---- that a casual mention of an unfamiliar name or event or school should be noted as something one needed to study up on oneself, not wait for the professor to contextualize, to which I say, Exactly! Only it helps if you explicitly tell incoming grad students that.

(Especially when you consider a trend toward being more and more explicit for our undergrads now, as in the writing-program style of modeling all the assignments, which was different from my English-major experience of being handed a prompt and told to bring back a paper.)

Undine also stresses the importance of cultivating a verbal filter and more restrained public persona — not every thought you have or trouble you want to bitch about is worth airing in public. And not only is this true, likewise you should consider the context of when you do speak and the power relations thereof. Airing your complete hatred or ignorance of, say, the eighteenth century, or psychoanalysis, in front of a professor who might be in charge of allocating future funding or otherwise helping your graduate career, is foolish in the extreme. Whether that prof is your advisor or someone whose class fills a distribution requirement (or is merely passing you in the hall), painting yourself as ignorant or lazy, or even self-deprecating, will only predispose them toward helping the “more worthy” grads instead. The walls have ears! Take your cohort completely off campus to do your kvetching and gossiping; that’s what bars are for.

Now, no one told me any of this --- in fact, the most common advice I got as an undergrad or MA student was “go away and leave me alone! I have research to do.” (usually this was said through body language rather than explicitly, but not always.) What saved me --- and what got me out of my first, unhappy program into my second --- was the book Getting What You Came For: The Smart Student’s Guide to Earning a Master’s or Ph.D., by Robert Peters. I love this book! First of all, it is funny. And readable in a very accessible way. Second, it is so useful in revealing the structure of grad programs --- both their written and unwritten rules --- that I go back and reread it at least once a year, and dip in and out of it regularly (I reread it as much for a comfort ritual as for getting information now; I know some women in the hard sciences who similarly reread and rely on it). It starts with a chapter on what is grad school, is it worth it, and should you actually go, before even getting to the gritty details of applying and surviving. If you are a prospective student, and you are stupid foolhardy determined enough to actually apply for the experience of several long years on poverty wages with a very real chance of never getting the type of job that you have been trained for, then you absolutely should read this book beforehand; when I got to the “funding” chapter I was kicking myself at all the chances I missed. It includes a chapter on how to apply as well as one on how to improve your chances of admission.

It is just as important to consider politic (as in Machiavelli) and pragmatic aspects to how one should research and choose one’s future department, or dissertation topic, as idealistic ones. Furthermore, your personal behavior and interactions, as I’ve mentioned already, have serious repercussions on your future. The most important chapter of this book, to my mind, is “Playing Politics,” which begins with the subsection “Start Your Job Search on Day One” ---- it asserts that whereas undergraduates are granted excuses, somewhat like children, grad students are on probation ---- being tested for their fitness as future colleagues. The author tells the following story:
“John, one of my fellow biology students at Stanford, made the fatal mistake of getting a reputation among faculty as someone who wasn’t serious about his work — the greatest academic sin”
(I should note here that to research this book, the author interviewed hundreds of grad students from many varied disciplines, ---- English is well represented here although there is a strong science bent ---- and that the stories of defeat and despair, as well as success, provide many of the pleasures of reading, schadenfreude or otherwise)

Peters continues:
"Whenever he took a break from research, he practiced rock climbing on the sandstone walls of the biology building, shoeless, shirtless, and in cutoff shorts. When he ran into problems with his thesis, he could be viewed at all hours clinging precariously to the outside of the building. After he also began giving prolonged displays of shirtless juggling in the central courtyard, his future was decided. The departmental senate reviewed his academic progress, judged him inadequately serious, and he was exiled to a job in computer programming in which he made much more money than he ever could have as a biologist."
How can you not love this book? But seriously, he has many good points about the expectations for good graduate student behavior and ways to keep the faculty, other grads, and perhaps most importantly the secretarial staff, on your side. As someone who loves lists and time management crap, I especially appreciate his chapters about structuring one’s time and work space, and the chapter on the writing process and writing the dissertation was so important to me that at one point when I was young and stupid I assigned it to a comp class (they did not understand it. I might as well have given it to them in Arabic.).

However, while it’s amazing for learning how to navigate academic culture and politics and very useful in explaining how to survive and get a PhD, that’s only part of “what I came for.” It’s not so strong on the academic job market, or even the job market in industry, although he does have some science info (who have an industry to go into ---- I wish they had poetry factories and someone wanted me for a line foreman --- I’m sensing a Monty Python skit coming on ---) and it has nothing about being a professor or getting tenure. For that, I turn to the blogs. And here we are.

Monday, June 4, 2007


Well I have begun reading my bloglines a bit earlier than I usually allow myself on weekdays (it’s a reward, not a warm-up, for me), but I figured, I’ve managed to avoid doing work so far today, why break the momentum? I was amazed that I managed to make it in to campus by 9 this morning (evidently that is the extent of my Monday exertions). I have many things I need be doing and no desire to do any of them, including cleaning up after my cats and getting my household to-do list done. (Do not even glance at the to-do list on the sidebar. It can smell fear. Avoid eye contact and back away slowly.)

So, in an earlier post I promised many future topics for blogging and included wombats, because, frankly, the word is so fun and chewy in your mouth. Wombat. Wombat. Wommm---bat. See? But after everyone had gone home the other night after some drinking (we have a tradition of going back to my place and sobering up by watching Monty Python videos --- you see where my lifelong sense of absurdity has been fostered) I was really not interested in working, as it was 11 pm and I had that great feeling of rightness with the world (“I love you man!”) but not the capability to actually communicate that in sentences on my blog, so I surfed around on the ‘net. In my random internet perambulations, surprisingly, I found photos of wombats (and I was searching for more Victorian mustache illustrations to make fun of too, so it’s quite strange). They are, in truth, quite cute; I had no idea they would live up to the pleasures of their name so wonderfully. So, here are some wombats for those of you who need to take your mind off work and Other Serious Things:

Any requests for posts other than wombats and ranty, annoyed grad school advice? Hum a few bars and I’ll fake it.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

The Spoon and the Knife: Entering Graduate School

When Horace over at To Delight and to Instruct called for people to post advice about grad school, I was immediately suffused with so many ideas that they formed a logjam and I was unable to write on any of them (Oooh ooh ooh! Tell them about funding! No, the market! No the lack of social life! How not to write a seminar paper! ooh ooh ooh!).

But Dr Crazy has brilliantly cut through all that to go to the heart of things, the most fundamental and serious change that occurs in grad school: the reshaping of one’s identity from that of student to adult academic. And this is, I think, the hardest part to survive, or even really, truly get your head around. And I don’t know that telling anyone about it or giving them advice will help them “get it.” It may have to be experienced to be understood. (For example, in grad school (although not when I was first applying to grad school, I should note) I was told constantly how bad the job market is, and how unlikely it was that I would get any position, much less a cushy one at a research school in a beautiful location, but this did not sink in --- I rationalized it away --- until I actually tried to go on the market. So too might prospective grad students not truly hear the advice we are giving until they actually go through this process.)

As an undergrad, I took a class on a certain author and read a Very Big and Crazy Mindfuck of a novel. The professor liked to say that when you embark on an experience as big and strange as this, it changes how you think. It literally remaps neurons and synaptic connections in your brain. (I loved that idea; it fits so well with the book. Of course, thinking about it now I note that intensely training for a marathon, or doing calculus problems, or making burritos all day for an entire quarter probably also drastically changes one’s neurons, but it doesn’t have the same ring to it.) This seems to be an appropriate metaphor for how anywhere from five to ten years of intense schooling, culminating in completing a book of original research, will change one’s self image, one’s way of thinking, and one’s very identity.

For one thing, you will be reading large quantities of theoretical writings that will remap how you think about identity and how self-conscious you are about it. I was recently browsing through some discarded academic journals in the mailroom and found an article that describes this process well in Pedagogy* (vol. 5 no 1, Winter 2005), by Calvin Thomas, “Moments of Productive Bafflement, or Defamiliarizing Graduate Studies in English,” where he was talking about how one has to have a certain level of masochism in order to contemplate the idea of oneself as a broken, contingent, decentered subject as it is described in psychoanalysis and poststructuralism. It’s true. After you learn that you are a node in an institutional machine, determined by your place in history and larger structures of psychology and language, it is hard to think of yourself as a unique individual who has been the same essence and personality ever since she was Cleopatra in a previous life (can you tell I have some hippies in my class this quarter? Freakin’ hippies. Why were they all Cleopatra or an Indian princess in their previous lives, and not some random peasant living in squalor?)

So anyway, you go off to grad school thinking “I love reading and I want to talk about how great literature is!” (chirpy voice here) as Dr. Crazy puts it, the “good student” who wants to please and to be good, and when you get to grad school you encounter a lot of challenges to this way of thinking simultaneously:
  • you have to work harder to get by than you did as an undergraduate (just as our students are often shocked that the same amount of work they put in for high school will not enable them to pass a college class).
  • you suddenly have to learn how to teach (or teach yourself how to teach, depending on how good, bad, or nonexistent your TA training or pedagogy courses are).
  • you may have to compete for scarce funding. You definitely have to compete for scarce attention, as profs are busy and will take on a limited number of students. Your performance in seminars and your ability to “talk the talk” of other grad students that you find so alienating will have an effect on your success here.
  • you are expected to find your place in “the academic debates” (that you may not have even known existed prior to grad school) and to become conversant with everything that has happened since the Theory Explosion of the late 60s (you probably did not even know yet that this happened). When looking at these debates, you discover that love of literature and the “great works of literature” model have not been “in” academically for generations now, and that you will have to read works “against the grain” as much as you accept the strategies of the Author (who is dead, by the way).
And most confusingly, every time you try to talk about this confusion with a professor, or ask for help or the “right way” to be doing something, you will be gently but firmly told to go wrestle it out yourself. The entirety of grad school is a long process whereby profs take the training wheels off your bicycle and tell you to try it on your own. This brings me, at long last, to my title. Undergraduates want, to varying degrees, to be spoon-fed. Just tell me the right way to do it, they say. Just tell me what you want. Why wasn’t that spelled out on the syllabus? Will that be on the test? These questions come out of fear, fear and the anxiety about getting it right. Grad school is new and different and confusing and I think we all have similar fears about doing what “they” want, doing everything the "right" way. We want to be spoon-fed, to be told exactly what to do. But grad school, leaving aside for a moment the lack of paying jobs on the other end, is training you to become a professor, an adult. Someone who is self-directed and self-motivated. Someone who can figure things out for herself. Someone who leads, who teaches others. If grad school taught us with the spoon method, we would be completely ineffectual at the professor level; we would crash and burn.

We may want, at least unconsciously, to be spoon-fed, to have things easy while in grad school, and instead they hand us a swiss army knife and tell us to hack our own way through the jungle.

(this would be psychoanalytic theory. This, Marxist-feminist analysis. The Foucault doohickey will be incredibly useful for navigating the institution of the university itself. Is it taking a long time to cut down that tree? Hello, you came in with an entire cohort. Why are you going it alone rather than sharing the work?).

Of course grad school is not easy, and there is no magic way to get through it easily; telling you all this will not make it easy or any less of a severe psychic change. But I hope that being ready for this will make it less of a wrenching shock.

Now, to what extent is it fucked-up that grad school is this way, and to what extent is this structurally necessary? Ah, and how fucked-up is it that as grad students and adjuncts and new professors we have to turn to blogs to get this kind of mentoring, warning, and helpful advice for how to be academics? That will be the subject of another post.

*In going back to actually find the name and title I was struck by how much interesting stuff was in Pedagogy, especially the reviews, which were of books about teaching, graduate school, unionization and contingent labor --- good stuff; you should all get on your proxy servers and check it out. But articles behind a library institution wall will not help those who are still planning to go to grad school, and so I think our advice here, for free and easy access on the web, is still very important.