Tuesday, February 27, 2007

On Thinking

Today, I read a book, and thought about it very hard. Is that good? Bad? Have I accomplished enough today? Should I be doing something more? It’s tough, because as academics, such a large part of our research involves thinking, which takes time and is hard to quantify. Us English scholars are the slow cookers of the academic world; speeding up the process would interfere with the melding of the flavors and slow simmering that makes what we do what we do. Thinking is very important, and yet it is internal, hidden somewhere inside like a secret. It’s productive (eventually) but not production. By this I mean that we can show the world — tenure committees, editors, funding awarders, fellow academics, dissertation committees — tangible productions like publications and written conference papers, or even a stack of books read, but we cannot really “show” thinking, or the quality of thinking. It comes out in productions eventually, of course, for publications and conference presentations and well-run classes all require thinking through, mulling over — there’s that cooking motif again — but there is always pressure to “produce something” rather than think. For if thinking can’t be directly seen or measured, it begins to look like wasting time to those who oversee us, like we are having one over on those who are supplying us with money or awards, squandering their resources on junk food and bad daytime tv. (Full disclosure: although I have no tv access at home, large quantities of pine nuts were eaten today.)

And so we can become busier and busier — filling our time with busywork and trivial tasks, afraid to stop and think because that would involve, well, stopping. And various gatekeepers, from tenure committees on down to grad advisors, delight on cutting off those who appear to be “dead weight” or “gaming the system.” Unfortunately, there’s no way to list on a CV, as one might on a nonacademic job review or resume, “2007 — continued to reflect upon and deepen my understanding of why I want to be a professor and why theories of the decentered subject are important to students,” but that was the order of the day. The book itself? — doesn’t matter; it was recommended for the article I need to revise and that information took but a short time to ingest. I was side tracked, however, into a beautiful, lucid explanation of subjectivity — one of those books from the 80s that, in the course of first “importing” theory to apply to a certain author, was impelled to explicitly ground and justify these theories about subjectivity and, in the process, provide me with a refresher that was in many ways more satisfying than rereading all the originals. (It was quicker, for one thing. For another, I was really excited, rather than having a headache.) I love when a scholar takes the time to explain a theorist’s argument seriously and clearly, and makes the effort to describe it in a new or amusing way as opposed to merely gesturing toward it. In the same way I appreciate someone who creates a wonderful sketch of the novel’s plot before jumping in and analyzing it — someone who can both contextualize the book for a newcomer as well as produce some new or interesting angle on it for long-established critics. Not that I needed to add anything to my own writing skills to-do list, but, well.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Because I am so good.

Happy almost FAFSA-renewal day, fellow grads! The big day’s the 1st. I hope to sicken you all with how well-prepared I was this year and how smoothly everything went. (Please remember that if I am on top of this, it means I am procrastinating something else probably even more important.) My togetherness with the FAFSA renewal and my taxes (Yes, I’m done with those too --- hey, they’re easy to do if you have no money) stands in marked contrast to the previous years, when I discovered that trying to upload anything on the evening of the FAFSA deadline would make my browser first chug ever more slowly, then crash, and sometimes take down the computer with it. Or the years I couldn’t figure out how to estimate my taxes and income stuff, so I sat there trying to do my entire taxes (on paper! that’s how long I’ve been in this game, folks!) with less than three hours to the deadline of the FAFSA, the fed website still open forlornly on the computer, half-finished.

You may ask why, if I am so jaded and cynical as I claim, why am I not stickin’ it to The Man with some civil disobedience aka ignoring this sort of crap? (You must have skimmed that earlier parenthesis, didn’t you? Seriously, it’s either this or start a new chapter.) Well, sez the cynical me, at my school if we don’t fill out the renewal every single damn year, the trolls come out of the underground lake beneath the Administration Building and haul you back to their lair, where they beat you with teaspoons. And if you’re at a school where they don’t care or make you do this crap annually, I’m going to haul you off somewhere and beat you with teaspoons. While reading you bad 19th Century American epic poems.

Slightly more seriously, if our grad advisor discovers that there is no happy little check mark by your name on whatever secret list she gets, you will be considered Unhelpful, or even, A Troublemaker, and your name will be moved to the bottom of The List. This means that extra bits of money or useful information will not get sent your way, as it will first be distributed to the grad student Elect at the top of the list. Moving to the bottom of the list puts you among the preterit, the unchosen, the ones doomed to languish in the land of famine while the blessed dine at the table of scarce TA assignments, or even ascend to the Elysium of fellowship funding.* There are countless other ways to offend, and probably several ways to get back in the good graces of administrative trolls, but no clear rules on this are written, so when one discovers, or hears about, any effective remedies, one slavishly follows the appropriate rituals. Therefore, do not consider this accomplishment a sign of how organized I am, but how superstitious. I lay this burnt offering on the dark and terrible altars to bureaucracy.

* (Could I hash my metaphors/religious allusions any further? Hey, has anyone done a grad-school-as-Pilgrim’s-Progress thing yet?)

Sunday, February 18, 2007


Ok, I'm peering this way and that around the blogosphere, looking and learning about all things technical. (I mean, yeah, I didn't fall off the turnip truck yesterday, but it's different making offhand comments that sound in the know compared to actually using and creating this technology.) I understand the concept of "tags," and even "tag clouds" and I'm still trying to get my head around what a trackback is and whether it's useful. Are they annoying, to get pinged all the time, or does it help continue the conversations? (And did you notice my links? heh. Such the quick learner!)

But a more general question: does anybody in the academic blogosphere use tags? I see that people use them on their posts, of course, but does anybody actually search for tags or navigate personal blogs using tags? I've searched massive sites like Daily Kos with them, but they don't seem necessary in a little blog where you can run through the archives pretty quickly. (And I should add that I prefer to read blogs about academics rather than academics' professional blogs, blogs about life rather than a technical subfield. To see how the other half lives, or me with a real job, or something like that. I'll do a post about envy and blogging later.)

In fact, tags seem to function more as a stylistic element on the blogs I read, a final (often comedic) touch to round off a post --- a digital garnish, if you will. These tags often seem to be a way of having the last word, or making an ironic twist on the post (or a resounding recapitulation of it) than categorizing topics in any sort of logical way. Borges's description of the Chinese encyclopedia (as analyzed by Foucault) moved to cyberspace, as it were. How would a complete stranger know where to find, say, easy recipes for baba ganoush, or videos of academics gone wild, or instructions on how to submit a conference abstract, if they tried to navigate such tags as "that other thing ... life" or "the label for posts that defy labels" on academic blogs? Perhaps this is blindingly obvious ---- I mean, academics are of course going to be aware of these theories and self-aware of their own ironic play within the constraints of the blogging medium, but I was just intrigued by the fact that tags seem to be used consistently as a rhetorical maneuver rather than an ordering system. (This could also indicate the humanities-sciences differences in thinking, as well.)

So, anyways, what other technical stuff can you do with a blog? Anything else interesting?

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Happy Valentine's Day!

In honor of the day I give you my cat. Please, take him --- he's driving me nuts right now.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Grading without students

(You know, I should make some sort of cool pun about Deleuze and Guattari based on that title, but I'd have to read them first, and I'm behind enough with life as it is.)

So, currently I am grading midterms. (Here is a picture of the midterms for those of you who are visually inclined.) This is my first time grading without teaching, i.e. being a "reader" for a mid-sized lecture course for pay. It's kind of strange grading work by people I don't know, and not leading a section. There are many things I could tell them to work on if I had a discussion section with them, but I don't, so I keep stopping myself from making notes for a lesson plan while I grade, which is my usual practice. I'd actually rather be teaching, not least because I'd be paid more and they'd have to kick in for my fees, but also because it feels so strange and disconnected. I'm hoping that snagging this job at the last minute will help me get on the "ins" with this department and eventually they will let me teach for them. Since I am almost at the limit of teaching availability --- the graduate division has recently started being draconian about cutting off grad students who have been here "too long," not allowing them to teach any more classes (I could go on about this further in an additional post) --- it will also require asking them to file special exception paperwork with the evil trolls of administration, which makes it all a long shot.

The nice side to being an "academic dumpster diver" --- i.e. scrounging up work in whatever outside department you can find --- is that you get such different perspectives on the university, the disciplines, and even the students. I've taught a lot of gen ed classes in many different departments, but usually you wind up with the usual "clueless frosh" ---- that rather unformed, vague type it's your job to wake up and shape up, teaching them more about the norms and expectations of the university and the concepts of hard work and study skills than specific content. You basically, regardless of department, run them through their paces on the library and paper-writing process, coax, cajole and threaten them to come to class and do their reading regularly, and sometimes splash them with a cold bucket of the realization that they need to stop whatever stupid thing they're doing (like partying or working 3 jobs) if they want to still be in college next quarter. This department, on the other hand, actually prides itself on being hardass, having "weeder" courses with high fail rates and not allowing students to sneak around requirements (one must also petition to become a major after successfully passing the intros). I'm pleasantly surprised by the midterms. They might still be a bit thin on the analysis, but the majors have all their terms down. It's a refreshing change. On the other hand, one reading's offhand mention of the word "phallocentrism" has made me understand why people might want to ban it, and theory in general, from the face of the earth; these peeps are randomly sprinkling the word around their tests like red hots on a meatloaf. It's just wrong, I tell you.

Thursday, February 8, 2007

Today was Pajama Day

This term I am experimenting with staying here on Tuesdays/Thursdays and working from my couch. I say "experimenting" because I've had trouble with my couch before. It knows my name. It whispers a sweet siren call, beckoning me to stretch out on it and "think through" a tough patch of argument or close my eyes to get "inspiration" for the perfect synonym. Then, before I know it, it has enfolded me in its soft fuzzy clutches and sucked away my entire afternoon.

I had known this before, but the problem didn't really hit home for me until the year I managed to snag a fellowship. No seminars, no research trips; all I had to do was write. It wasn't long into this wonderful opportunity that I discovered I was waking up at noon and needing a post-lunch nap by 2, and my roommates were bringing home their talkative selves around 4. Drastic action was needed to save the precious fellowship time and money.

Luckily, a friend in my department had had much the same problem in her fellowship year the year before (well, not lucky we hadn't figured it out a year earlier, but you know what I mean). Somehow we got the idea that we should form a "dissertation group" of some sort --- not to read each other's work, but to poke each other with a sharp stick if we tried to sleep. We soon learned that working at our homes and coffee shops tempted us to talk and people flocked to us like we had a homing signal if we were in the department, so we braved the library. The grad cubicles had a wait of at least a year once you were ABD (a saga I'll tell another time), so until we got something we had a daily ritual of scrounging one of the group study rooms. Whoever got there first would take the elevator to the topmost floor, and then circle the stacks, slowly wending her way, floor by floor downward, until she found an unoccupied room. You could tell what week it was by how many rooms we'd have to check. But this worked out well, and meant that we'd put in 2 hours of dissertation work first thing every morning (Diss Buddy was back to teaching by this time so we had to fit in her schedule). Unfortunately, I write --- and revise! --- very slowly, which is an additional problem to discuss in a later post.

We have kept up our "buddy system" remarkably regularly, revamping the system as each new term brings us new schedules and new workarounds, but overall our support group has been a great help. Now, since we both have no reason to be on campus T/Th (and the slow bus system giving us an incentive to stay home), we're trying working at home on those days. I will have to ask her if it's working for her, and can we work, after this long, without someone sitting right next to you as your external conscience and motivator?

So, how did it work for me today? I've been scraping away at the conference paper, moving things around, turning blobs into sentences. I had hoped to have it finished and reasonably polished today as I'm about to get midterms, and it's not, but I did put in a reasonable amount of both time and effort. I took a half hour nap 'round 2 and by 4 my editing efforts were pretty desultory, but I got way more done than I did back when I was first fighting my couch, and maybe more than I've gotten through lately at school. (The commute to the couch is fabulous!) Plus I love lying around in my schlobby pjs all day. The only downside is that I get sorta stir-crazy by the end of the day and really want to talk to people. I couldn't do this every day of the week ---- I'd be on the internet and phone more than I already am. Maybe this is one of the reasons I'm drawn to blogging. For the companionship, or for the poke with the pointy stick? Yes. Heh.

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Hello, cruel world!

I have been a dedicated blog-lurker and internet procrastinator for years. I have long hid my problem and refused to take any steps to get help or admit my addiction. I have also, despite years of a nagging desire to join the rest of the cool kids in the blogosphere, managed to prevent myself from creating a blog, thinking that what little progress I have made on my dissertation would dwindle to zero and I would eventually end up living out of a cardboard box under the overpass, talking to my imaginary friends about the space aliens. But then, I had the brilliant idea that I could use the blog to prevent rather than aid my procrastination! Suddenly, everything seemed feasible and the space aliens even agreed. So, here I am --- in keeping with my character I am leaping on the blog bandwagon years too late, with the entire blogging fashion passe, as Michael Berube's exit from the blogosphere should make clear. So, while people all around me mill towards the exits I shall struggle my way upstream to spawn ... uh, brilliant internet diatribes. (Tune in regularly for more hashed metaphors!)

I hope one thing I will discover is why I want so much to blog in the first place. Why do I like reading these things? Why do I want to write one of my own? What sorts of little buttons is this pushing in my brain? As part of this investigation, I also have a lot of questions about the blogosphere --- 'scuse me, the academic corner of the blogosphere --- and why it is set up the way it is. This will also be a space for me to consider academia and my place within it. As you can see from my blog title and nom de plume of Sisyphus, I'm suspicious of the place that's been assigned to me and how to survive its machinery.

And a little bit about myself: many people have linked to, and hashed out, the arguments over blogging anon- or pseudonymously. I will post some theories about anonymity and academic blogs later, but the consensus is that blogging can be a drawback for people on the job market, so I'd like my secret superhero identity to stay under wraps. I will say that I am a graduate student in English living on the West Coast of the US. It's my seventh year here. I'm about halfway done with my dissertation, and since I had a fruitless bout with the job market, I guess I'll be sticking around for another year. What will happen next is an open question.