Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Grad School, With Zombies!

I haven’t read the new book sensation, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies! yet (does one actually need to in order to get the full experience? I think not.) but I was suddenly struck with the idea of a book of my own: Grad School, With Zombies! A tender and poignant coming-of-age tale set against a backdrop of rending flesh. Ahh, so cute. And once I write it and capitalize on the Undead Jane Austen craze I will not only become momentarily famous but make a tidy profit too! What more could I want?

After all, just think of a typical day in my graduate department:

Scene: A grad student is in the lounge, half slumped over, staring empty-eyed at an open book of Lacan. Some spittle dribbles down his chin. He groans. He stares deep into the Lacan but the Lacan does not stare back. It meets only emptiness. There are Cheetos open on the table in front of him. Nothing moves in the room. He groans again.


Scene: A young grad student rushes down the hallway, throwing terrified glances behind her. The only sounds are of the clicking of her heels on the linoleum and the rasp of her frantic breathing. Her heel turns under her and she almost falls. She scrambles back to her feet and lunges for a half open door, which she attempts to barricade behind her. She is unsuccessful, and backs up with fear-widened eyes until she is trapped in the far corner, shakily holding up her dissertation prospectus before her like a shield. Lumbering figures surround her. It is her committee! They tower over her and make clutching motions at her prospectus. Strange, unintelligible utterances drop from their mouths. Over the carnage of the prospectus defense no one can hear her screams.


Scene: “Has anybody seen Anne?” one of the grad students asks.
“Not for a very long time,” replies another wearily.
“Who’s Anne?” asks one of the newcomers.
“Well she used to be — before —”
Another one of the older grad students takes off his glasses, pinches the bridge of his nose with exhaustion. “This is ridiculous. I can’t take it any more. I have to get food!”
“No!” They shout in chorus.
“You fool — don’t go out there alone!”


Scene: There are five of them, huddled together, barely moving. They are not doing much, swaying slightly on their feet, seemingly quiescent. Their eyes are like pits, devoid of hope, knowing nothing but hunger. The grad student eyes first them and then, behind them, the open door. Can he get past them? Could he pretend to be one of them and slip by or would they smell it on him, smell that job offer? If he could just sneak by them and out of the building he would be home free, off to a better place of life and laughter and a salary rather than the living hell that this place was. But those … things, who had until recently been his friends, they were out for blood, and a desire for vengeance sat in their bones even deeper than a desire for survival. The grad student took another step to the side, quietly, but one heard nonetheless, and first one raised a head, then another, moving quicker than he had expected, until all five of them have fixed upon him with their eyes. Those eyes. Simultaneously they all break into motion and he also bolts, straight for them, aiming for that door.


Scene: The faculty are barricaded in the seminar room, besieged. Some are in attitudes of despair, others tear their hair and wail silently to the heavens. Others have shut down almost completely, burying their heads in their arms on the table or covering their faces with their hands. Only one stern matriarchal figure projects an outward appearance of calm. She is knitting with steely resolve. The monotonous whine of budget figures grows unceasingly louder, louder. The faculty roll their eyes around like spooked horses, as if the walls are closing in. “My god, they are coming at us from all sides! Slashing away, slashing! Will it never stop?” one shrieks, pushed to the breaking point. The matriarchal figure looks at him. “Keep calm. We must be ready — for the worst.” She reaches out to pat the knitting bag as if it held a talisman, their final hope. The faculty slump back into exhausted resignation, awaiting almost certain doom. The droning noise increases, drowning out the steely click click click of the knitting needles.

See what I mean? This whole thing'll be great once I add the zombies! Grahhhhh, braiiiiiins!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Sometimes You Must Destroy the Program to Save It

Ok, I was fine, then abruptly I got furious, then I went and walked it out, then I was tired and thought I was fine, but I'm still really high-emotion and maybe need to write about it.

I've been having some extremely frustrating classroom experiences lately, interactions that are clearly not so much about me being a bad teacher as in not meshing with the mission of the school and the way they run things and the way students expect things to be run. I do not fit. I am not meant to be here. It is a wonder why I was even hired. Well, except when you consider that there is a lone person trying to reshape the program and what I do would match perfectly this new, higher-profile, uh, shift or new viewpoint. But of course I am a temp, not a person hired permanently, and so am not really part of any of these internecine struggles except perhaps to begin the slow and painful process of re-educating the students to have this new set of expectations. Thus the frustrations.

However, when you look at the program description and objectives on paper and how they describe their students and learning styles and subjects it sounds so great, it sounds like a wonderful perfect fit. And so I am in the weird situation of really really wanting to stay here forever in a permanent job, if only I could gut the program and remake it and replace about 90% of the students and rewrite all the courses and structures to match the descriptions and basically just remake the whole thing over in my image. *rubs hands together evilly and cackles* Mwahahahaha! Yesss, my precious, I will Rule the World!

Ahem. Sorry about that. Yeah, so, I dunno. I love teaching here, I hate teaching here, I love the students, I hate the students. This place could be so cool if they just changed a few things around to do them my way and let me break down the students to remold them in my image. (stop it dude!) But since I was hired as a temp, I know I'm not sticking around past the end of the school year, so it's moot anyway. Which is why I've been just going with the water-off-the-duck's back way of dealing with the classes ---- just let it go and don't get too emotionally invested, which is probably for the best, as my current emotions have been running from frustration to fury.

However, because I am insane, or perhaps merely a split personality, and capable of acting and thinking in a completely rational way while at the same time indulging secret delusional fantasies, a second part of me has been deeply longing to nab a permanent post here, that even though they keep reminding me the money for this spot is drying up and will be gone next year and they are not going to keep me around, that somehow suddenly out of the blue they will say to me "hey, do you want to stay on and teach here permanently?" and I will say, "why yes, of course," even though I don't particularly like the program or want to live in GradSchoolLand anymore. Someone please make me a job offer somewhere across the country and just end my problem!

In sum: I am weird. Or crazy. Definitely locked into all sorts of strange psychological ambivalences. I wonder if all teachers would be better off in therapy? Not turning the classroom into a therapy room, which I hate, but having an outside person to help give the teacher perspective on the power struggles, the projections and displacements, the transference and countertransferance, going on in the classroom. My students want the class to be about exactly what they want to do, but really, am I any different? I want them to talk in class but to have certain me-approved topics come out of their mouths. In talking this over with a friend afterwards, venting about my latest struggles in the classroom, I abruptly became much more angry than I had been right after class. I can tell I need to calm down before planning my next class lesson, and to really carefully think about how I am going to handle our next encounter. So far the first 10 or so scenarios I have thought about (on my frenzied walk through town) have been much more about me and the psychological satisfactions I would get out of the confrontation than what my students want or need (see why I reference therapy? Unfortunately I don't like therapy, so I only have blogging).

Gah, I may need to take another walk to walk this out of my system. And I still have shitloads of grading, but I know better than to grade angry. Huh. Maybe I should just write off tonight and drive down to the beach and have some dinner and a beer instead.

(and as a side note, what is up with Inside Higher Ed? Did they seriously link to me and promote a post which consisted solely of me grading and lifting one arm up in the air? Must've been a slow news day.)

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Grading Papers Makes You Weird

It's been a long day and it's not over either. I've noticed in the past that the process of grading causes strange bodily reactions in me (ever had the paper that is so bad you spontaneously get up and pack up and start to leave the coffeeshop, but that doesn't work because you carry all of your stuff home with you and thus still have it? It's like some papers bring out my migratory instincts, or perhaps just my fight-or flight response.)

Well, today I had the strange reaction where, in the course of marking this one essay, I raised up my left hand, giving my side a good stretch, and held it outreached as if I wanted someone to call on me in class. But when I finally finished grading and wrote my final comments, I realized that I had never moved or put down my hand.

The worst thing is that I'd really like to repeat that on the other side and stretch it out for balance, but I'm damned if I can see how to use my left hand to write out comments.

Just wait. I'll know I've gone over the deep end when I start trying to paint with my feet, or something.

Friday, February 13, 2009

For all your academic amusement needs:

Please go check out Acadamnit. I can't get his site to let me leave comments so I'm granting kudos via my own humble blog. I had been meaning for a while to point out his funny post on Instructia (R) ---

--- which I was going to endorse as almost saving my life (truly, the energy level it brings is magnificent) until I had the unfortunate side effect of being unable to stop preparing my PowerPoint lecture for over four hours and had to be rushed to the hospital. Now they have me on a cocktail of Lector (tm) and 50 mg of Teachitrol (tm) which, while it works, hardly provides the same euphoric rush, the joy of academe, as Instructia did, sigh.

But anyway, Acadamnit. He has more posts up and they are also amusing. Go seek out some funny, for funny there you will find.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

A boring to-do list

Hello; I'm doing a little better. Sent out two more apps. I have a couple more I need to get to ... hmm, Saturday? That's a weird due date.

Anyway, I just got a stack of papers, and have oodles and oodles to do. I'm taking the opportunity to post my list so that I get a bit of a rush from publicly checking things off it. At least I hope this will work. So, voila:

- grade papers
(properly speaking these must be "aged" first, like American beef, so I won't actually get to them today.)
- laundry (one load done. The rest can wait.)
- humongous pile of dishes
(I may add to them first; I want popcorn right now.)
- read for tomorrow
- prep tomorrow's lecture
- make paper guideline handout for tomorrow
- check quizzes
- phone call about possible adjunct sub
- plan special outing for this weekend (half done)
- watch docu. and see if it will work for next week?
- send some emails to
  • students
  • coordinator
  • someone else who I forgot? hmm
As you can see, that's a lot and I probably won't get to applying to any more jobs today. But that is on the list too. Many many things are on the list.

I think I shall add "make and eat popcorn" to the list, but I need to be careful that this does not devolve into reading blogs/facebooking and relaxing. No rest for the wicked!

Update: the popcorn was delicious. Now back to work!

Update II: Not too bad, but now I am very sleepy. I may go in only half prepared, or wake up early tomorrow to fix my powerpoint. Unfortunately, I get the other class's papers then! (what was I thinking, scheduling them back to back like that???)

Monday, February 9, 2009

Well, shit.

I am such an idiot. I am such an idiot. I am so pissed at myself.

Forget the CC school applications. I am just not on top of the app process like I was for the fall round of MLA stuff. With being worn out by teaching two classes, or at least struggling to keep on the ball with them, I haven't been setting aside a specified chunk of the day to work on applications all in a pile. Instead, I've been taking time whatever night I am not too tired or obsessed with procrastinating on the internet or frantically prepping for a class because I accidentally read the wrong day's reading that afternoon to do an app here, an app there. This means I've been relying on the fact that the CCs here use electronic application processes and have been squeaking them out one at a time the night before they are due. None of this on the ball and get them in to the search committee early business here. It costs, too. Because I often don't figure out that I need letters and not simply names of references until the day before they are due and end up making emergency requests for the dossier to be sent out at the last minute for a zillion bucks. And I am probably out of the running for those places considering that my app will not be complete when the HR people go to look in the cabbage patch for the magical electronic arrival of job applicants. Sigh. And I had to overnight mail an app somewhere else too, so I'm doing a shitty, rush job and paying through the nose for these badly-put-together apps to arrive late. Fuck.

At that rate, you'd think, Sisyphus, you may as well just give up and not apply if you are going to do it badly and expensively. Go rewrite your article or damn, at the least get out and enjoy yourself. I've been coming around to that way of thinking myself and letting CC deadlines go by on the right and the left. Since they were either obnoxious application burdens or in places I would have to convince myself I wanted to be there, I wasn't too worried. But tonight I went through the process for this one place because I really would like to live there and work there; if I'm going to be teaching comp at a CC, this would be a nice location, and a nice body of students, to work with. But, no. This application is a mail-in app only. I'd need the finished app and my dossier to all arrive by noon tomorrow. Fuck. That just isn't happening. I'm not killing myself tonight for something that just is not going to work. As I said before, fuck.

And what am I going to do to feed myself and the cats next year? I have no fucking clue. I just hope that whatever bridge I find to build my cardboard box under will allow me to pay in California IOUs, because I don't think I'm seeing actual money any time soon anyway,

Once more, with feeling: Fuck!

Saturday, February 7, 2009

I found a Saturday stuck in the couch cushions, along with 2 quarters and a dried-up pen

Today was spent sitting around doing almost nothing; instead of applying to jobs, I merely looked at some of the colleges on the web. Instead of reading for my Monday class, I read my blogs. Instead of grading the last of my papers, I took a nap. Well, maybe two naps.

I have no clue why I feel so beat down. Seriously, I went to bed early last night --- why am I so tired out still today? Why is my brain as full of drive as a 1988 VW hatchback with a broken air compressor? Why do my metaphors today suck? And why do I feel like I need yet another nap?

Maybe I am coming down with something. Or fighting something off. I did see Famously Sick Colleague in the hallway earlier this week, so I might have caught one of the seventy-billion colds she has all going on at once. Or maybe I am depressed. Luckily, I am going out with a couple friends to self-medicate with chicken tikka masala and maybe a mango lassi. Mmmm, indian food!

That is, if I manage to stay awake for the next couple of hours.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Why Even Major in English?

I had a depressing talk with a student today about post-undergrad options. As you know I'm not big on sending people to grad school, but I tried hard to convince this student not to make a bad choice while still not shitting all over the whole notion of graduate study. (What's worse than going to grad school in the humanities? Paying 30k a year out of pocket for it!) My compromise advice ended up being to take a graduate-level course in spring, before graduating, to see if what people actually do in grad school is something that really lights a fire in Student X's soul.

Because, frankly, grad school for me was nothing like undergrad, where we had profs entertain us with some nifty novels. And I loved that! Enormous amounts of work, reading theory that was so dense it made me cry with frustration, writing long abstruse papers on minutiae of lesser-known texts because "Dude, Hamlet is so cool" is not a publishable argument --- I loved loved loved all of it. It was punishing. It was hell. It was the level of rigor that I most enjoyed. If your vision of grad school is that you love reading a novel and then talking about how wonderful it is, you will probably hate the souped-up, professionalized, scholarly, competitive model that grad school has become.

But as you can see, I am only getting paid the minimum to do something only tangentially related to all that right now. So I pointed out how many years I have been out there pounding the pavement and not getting a job, and I named my salary now, and my student debt amount, and mentioned that most English profs start at about 40k a year, and in general tried to paint a realistic, yet bleak, picture. Without being soul-crushing. It's difficult, I noticed. I think I have to work on my ability to be evil to someone's face, because watching someone's expression as they have their soul crushed hurts and I found myself backtracking and trying to cheer up Student X at various moments, which meant that my advice was pretty incoherent merely out of a sense of being nice --- "The job market sucks! Abandon All Hope Who Enter Here! Oh, but don't worry! You're a nice person! Something will work out for you! --- As long as you don't think that that "something" will be a tenure track job!"

And I noticed over at Bitch PhD they linked to yet another column by Thomas H Benton ---- Why You Shouldn't Go to Graduate School in the Humanities, version 2 ---- and I pretty much agree with every thing he says, just as much as last time he wrote about this. (And for those of you, especially for those people who commented in the Bitch comments that this was too bleak an assessment, coming from someone who has a tenure-track job, he has been doing actual stats and interviews for many years now, talking to the population of PhDs who never made it. He is going beyond the anecdotes of the successful to collect data. And that data is pretty bleak.)

But what really made me depressed about my student conversation today was that Student X made a dichotomy between going on to grad school, and being wait staff. Student X has done the whole waiter/waitress/bartender direction to help pay for school, and seems to think this is the only viable option ---- what the hell else do you do with a BA in English besides wait tables or go to grad school?

Ohh, honey.

I gotta say if this is all students here are being taught as available options, then I am just disgusted with the English department. Shit, you've been learning to read and write well for the past four years, surely there is a business that will pay you a middle-class salary to do their writing and researching? Some HR department needs reports written, marketing needs promotional materials, a nonprofit needs some grantwriting skills? I mentioned this, but Student X did not seem to believe it was a reality. And didn't seem interested in teaching high school. And liked the life of the mind and study associated with being a professor, even teaching comp at a community college.

Yeah, you and 300 other people. Of course it's a great job --- that's why we're all applying for it. There are a lot of people who want to do it and not a lot of paid spots for it.

I feel like someone needs to be working more with our students, if this is the mindset. Someone in the English department needs to be explaining them more about how the job process works, and the supply-and-demand of job skills works, and how to see yourself fitting the qualifications of all sorts of jobs out there you didn't really even know existed, and how to take a shit job and pay your dues before moving up the ladder into something interesting, and to aggressively push students to see options besides grad school.

But that person sure as hell can't be me. For two reasons:

First and foremost, I'm an adjunct. I'm not around; I can't count on being around; there's no reason I should invest my time and energy into a department when I (sigh) have no clue where I will be working next year. Someone permanent needs to make it his or her vocation to lead this program with zeal, to constantly reiterate that there are options for English majors and there are viable alternatives to grad school ---- our women's studies dept. doesn't have this problem, and that's because all the profs make explicit reference to activism in their courses and expect them to at the worst take jobs in mainstream businesses to transform them from within if they are not going out to the nonprofits and the activist organizations and the think-tanks. So at the very least there should be one full-time prof making a point of teaching, and reteaching, every year, the simple fact that there are other paths besides grad school.

Especially because we have idiot commenters making statements like this:
We've had decades now of terrible job markets; anyone who enters graduate school and doesn't realize it is a huge crap shoot hasn't been paying attention
Without realizing that, hello! Students finishing up undergrad and heading out to grad school are only about 22! They have not been around watching academia for decades, only for four years! Every single year you have a new crop of students start undergrad and it's like rebooting the computer; you have to start fresh with each group. And that includes teaching each group about the perils of grad school and the values of their major. Every single year.

The second, more relevant reason why I shouldn't be teaching our students about job searches and nonacademic placement is I don't have the first fucking clue about it. I went on to do a Master's because I couldn't figure out the first steps toward finding and getting a job; it all seemed like an open sea with no path or markers. And I'm not stupid, or lazy, or unambitious, just unclear about what the work world was like and how to go about entering it. In Benton's description of today's students, the following points really resonated with my undergrad situation:
  • They are emerging from 16 years of institutional living: a clear, step-by-step process of advancement toward a goal, with measured outcomes, constant reinforcement and support, and clearly defined hierarchies. The world outside school seems so unstructured, ambiguous, difficult to navigate, and frightening.
  • They can't find a position anywhere that uses the skills on which they most prided themselves in college. They are forced to learn about new things that don't interest them nearly as much. No one is impressed by their knowledge of Jane Austen. There are no mentors to guide and protect them, and they turn to former teachers for help.
Which all gets me back to the title of the post. Really, if the only thing a BA in English prepares you for is grad school or waiting tables, why go? What on earth do you get out of a liberal arts education? Surely it must be good for something that will help get you a job that pays and does not totally suck. If the English major has any lasting value for our students then we must be constantly articulating its value for each class, each year, each generation. And connecting its abstract values to concrete, step-by-step job results.

Remember, if we don't expect them to get through an essay without breaking down and modeling all the writing process steps, handing them prompts and bulleted checklists, and making revision comments, then why do we expect them to make the huge conceptual leap from "the critical understanding and appreciation of literature" to finding and applying for the first job of their career completely on their own?

Sunday, February 1, 2009

I don't see why they don't call it a PhD in Applied English

'cause I've been doing nothing except apply to these damn job openings! Position after position after position!

My latest hurdle, if I may bitch about it, is the "all-electronic application" thingy that the CCs round here have got set up. While I do like submitting stuff online (not, submitting to stuff online; despite the vicissitudes of the job market, I am not actually a masochist), some of these places have gone too far and want me to scan in all of my transcripts as PDFs online and then want those files to be under a megabyte. Argh! I have pages and pages in those transcripts, allright? Even my MA transcript, so don't give me the whole "well we expect most of our applicants will only have MAs as that's what the job calls for, Sisyphus" crapola. I'm about ready to get tested for some sort of PDF-related handicap so that I can get around this part of the application via the ADA, which is the only exception some of these sites will take. Rrr.

My other e-hurdle comes from my lovely placement center on campus, which holds our letters for us and makes them nice and confidential, but does not currently have the capacity to email, fax, or upload our letters. Lovely. No, seriously, they have been wonderful and timely for me this year (last year, different story. But also different staffers). First of all, since it has been 3 months since I filed, I had to pay them 50 bucks to "Reactivate" my file for another 12 months. I mentioned this to someone and she said, "wow, I'm so glad that Wellesly offers me a lifetime free dossier service that I can go back to use any time." Or wait, it was Smith. Was it Smith? The question is moot, I'd say, since I would have had the same reaction ---- which was to pop her one ---- either way. I think Smith (unless it's Wellesly. One of the seven sisters thingies) also automatically gives all of their allumnae free allumnae email addresses for life, too. My undergrad, a public, didn't even have that capability when I left it (and yeah, I met some Smithies that very year, so I've been grumbling about that email thing for a long time now.)

I could point out that one year of their tuition can buy you the entire four at my public undergrad, and it was no small shakes of a place. You've heard of it. It rocked. If you didn't mind that it was large and anonymous and that you really had to fight to stand out among a lot of super ambitious people, it was a great place. But those public Us, especially here in California, where we reacted to 10 years of the strong dot-com economy by cutting higher education and now are reacting to the weak economy by dismembering it --- those public Us will nickel and dime you to death. I (stupidly) mailed out my last original transcripts instead of copies midway through my fall application season, and when I wrote off for new ones from all my institutions, they had jumped in price ---- the undergrad one by 5 bucks. They raised the prices on all the food and drink over winter break and now are saying that if you use a credit or bank card to pay they'll pass along the card charge to you, so try to use cash. New little fees have been popping up everywhere like mushrooms, and previously free stuff is quietly going the pay route. Even the bus pass subsidy has gotten smaller ---- I don't want to know what they're charging per parking space these days. Bleah.

And the Regents passed along mid year cuts to all the campuses --- a little while back our Chancellor sent around some very dire emails explaining that there would be more cuts, as the Regents asked our campus to take a hit the equivalent of firing the entire social sciences faculty. Except, they can't touch the faculty pot of money, or the TA pot of money, which means that it all will have to come out of programs or just not holding enough classes. (Adjuncts are hired by the quarter, therefore they are never "fired," only not hired for the next quarter.) I should note that all these cuts are before whatever will come down the pike when Der Gubernator redoes the budget, which has to be fixed as it didn't really get fixed in any way when it "passed." When I start thinking about it, I wonder why I am even bothering to apply to any additional jobs in California. Why stay when obviously they are going to auction off the whole thing, fold it up, and mail it to India in a few months?

Hmm. Um ... because it was 50 degrees and sunny today? Which is good as pretty soon the state won't even be able to afford the heat, much less take it.