Wednesday, December 31, 2008


Well, I managed to eat four meals in two days with entirely different groups of friends, hang out with former fellow grads for short and long conversations, have coffee with some bloggers and alcohol with others in a meetup that went so late I only caught the tail end of what seemed like a successful and packed department party and regretted only having short periods of time catching up with friends (some of whom are still at school with me so I should be seeing them regularly --- sad). All this and I managed to not go to a single panel. It was a very nice, very non-anxiety-producing MLA and much fun. It was exactly the experience people claim conferences should be like and entirely devoid of any job-market-related stress. Now if only it had been completely un-job-market related because I had a job and didn’t need to think about getting one.

Lots of my fellow grads had interviews, but I have never met anyone who has interviewed in “the pit.” Do they still even use that anymore or have the indigent search committees moved straight to phone interviews? Nor have I heard of the “drop your resume off for the schools who are just taking people on a first come, first serve basis” actually happening since, oh, I don’t know, the 70s. Why are people still advising me to do this? Anyway, I hardly even saw the usual black-clad job applicants sweating bullets. Perhaps it was because SF was totally crowded with every single friggen Bay Area resident coming up to shop on the square. Seriously, MLA planners, did you really think this was the cheapest and least crowded venue? I thought you picked cities for their snowy “off season.” I definitely saw more job applicants carrying their anxiety spewing out of them like a cloud that perfumed everyone around them last year. But perhaps the weather kept more people indoors in Chicago?

Lessee ... I got to pet Horace’s coat (not the blue one he has written about but a lovely burgundy velvet one, but it had more of this toffee-butterscotch tone to it than a really purple-y wine-y color) and did not steal Flavia’s shoes or heu mihi’s handknitted sweater (seriously? you knit that? why does everything I try to knit ---- which has been no more difficult than a sort-of rectangular scarf ---- look like the cats have chewed on it, regardless of whether they have or not?) and reminisce with Medieval Woman and Dr. Virago and some guy who herds words for a living but I don’t remember his nom de blog or even his nom de name, and compared tattoos with another blogger (I don’t have any; I’m afraid of needles. But I feel like I should).

I had a long conversation with the various colleagues of the Acephalous one over the relative merits of technology, comp/rhet, and sanity, punctuated with copious pop culture references and movie suggestions; unfortunately the names of all the films that I haven’t seen yet have escaped me. I also got to meet the Bride of Acephalous aka the Little Womedievalist and totally get Scott in trouble with her --- she got this expression of “you did what? I’m going to kill you” and I was like, I have worn that expression before; that is what I looked like, eh?, although I wasn’t married to the person I was throttling. As for Scott, he had many shocking revelations, not least of which that he had gone to the MLA Delegate Assembly and a) stayed awake and b) understood what was going on. As for the rest, we decided that the only thing he could do to redeem himself would involve creating a time machine and any effort at going back in time could potentially jeopardize the results of the presidential election and I’m just not willing to risk that, so he’s going to have to dig himself out of that hole using only a spoon.

I also got my schadenfreude on hearing about how everyone at the Junior Farm came up dry this year and someone at the dept. party responding to my brush-off answer* “It’s a very bad year for the market” by vehemently saying “it’s a shitty bad year” and suddenly looking almost about to cry. In the same vein I was heartened by the person from my school but not my department who is now at a Prestigious Postdoc Somewhere Synonymous with the Term Ivy League complaining that her brain has been kinda melty since filing the diss and she has been reading nothing more academic than People Magazine and Go Fug Yourself and she has been unable to write her articles and R&Rs too and besides, don’t you know that R&R deadlines are more of a general guideline than a hard and fast cutoff anyway? Suddenly my list of accomplishments this quarter seems acceptable. You already know my argument that I should be able to list those damn job applications on my cv just to show time and effort put in, if not success coming out. Like I said, lots of my ABD colleagues got some interviews this year and most got at least one and while I like them all and sorta wish the very best for them, I also kinda wish that they would trip and jam that fork into their own eyeball with the little party canapĂ© still on it. The world should be glad I have not been put in charge of instant karma.

*you know the question. It always follows someone pontificating about how well their own, multiple interviews have been going, doesn’t it?

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Finished, Finally! Or: How preparing a new course is a lot of work

Whew! I have just finally completed putting together my reader for the second class I'll teach in winter (for those of you just tuning in, I'm taking on an emergency appointment that abruptly came up due to someone's illness.) This took a long time. In fact, it took more than a week, with full days of doing nothing but the reader. That was way longer than I had anticipated or could afford to spend. I'm trying not to beat myself up for it though; how could I know it was going to be such a project?

Having prepped only two new courses from scratch for next quarter, I'm amazed thinking of my friends who got jobs on the tenure track and had to deal with navigating a 3-3 --- no wonder it's so important to be filed before you start! No wonder people say you won't get any research done your first year! I hope my friends manage to finish and file over break (some of them have, others are still ABD and I worry about them).

My case was complicated by the fact that I'm doing something that isn't really my specialty and is very interdisciplinary (though I do interdisciplinary stuff, it doesn't map neatly onto this interdisciplinary stuff). And the reader's it; can't just throw together some books and have them show up for the class in time, can't use a textbook because I don't think there are any that cover this precise thingy (and man, I have been googling up the wazoo, if that's possible, trying to find materials. If I could have found a textbook and just photocopied half of it for the course, I sure would have.)

I think if this were a literature-only class it would have taken a fraction of the time to prepare --- if it were just a matter of choosing novels/books and arranging them in an order, that would be mainly a matter of dithering about deciding between things. For example, what I did in fall didn't take that long at all, and I had lots of fun figuring out who should go where in the syllabus --- hmm, go strict chronological or pair them to make contrasts? or by coteries? or by influence? How much should things be organized by genre? or geography? What if I have a certain major theme and four different texts that I want to discuss around it ... which text should I use to introduce the idea and which ones go later, considering I can't have them read all four texts simultaneously? --- Yes, considering this topic was right in my field and near and dear to my heart, it was like rearranging chocolate truffles in the perfect pattern and order for nibbling on, a pleasure contemplated and a pleasure consumed. Yum.

Even the class I was originally scheduled to teach (hmm, they may need names in the future.) didn't take too too long in making a reader; it could have been condensed more or made more protracted, depending on how much I wanted to stretch myself or do a good job. Not that I would advocate anyone doing a halfassed crap job of putting together a reader/syllabus, but I have been known to teach a plain vanilla version of "introduction to the major" while a grad student, rather than really use the opportunity to create something well thought out that would really showcase my talents and leave me with great sample syllabi for job search stuff. Some of my friends have created amazing courses showcasing their research under the rubric of their writing or intro to the major classes, whereas I usually went for quick-and-dirty, I've-got-to-do- the-diss, as my motto. So rule number 1 was to re-use as much stuff as I had TA'd (and had gone well) as possible. This time, I have expanded my reading list --- a fair amount of stuff I have taught before, another good chunk that I know well and like but haven't taught yet, and a few works that I have not read but really should have, so this way I can say I have breadth and teaching chops and whatnot.

But to go back to my earlier point, this other class ---- this Emergency Class ---- is, as I have said, interdisciplinary. And so I was a bit out of my element. With the fall class, I'd put two texts next to each other and then say, "Ah! I should have my students read X recent critical article, or Y historical document!" And then I would sift through my anthologies and grad school readers and find a clean copy. With Emergency Class, I would know that I wanted to cover Q concept or R major development, and then I would have to search and search and search to find some books and articles that talked about those ideas in the time and geography I am actually supposed to be dealing with. And all that crap is organized under other databases, which I had forgotten about and was using GoogleBooks to read a whole bunch of tables of contents without going into the library --- anybody else do this? Or am I being a bad scholar? :)

So when I would remember a scholar who was relevant, I'd go look him/her up, and then have to decide if I throw in an article about the right concept but totally different content, or if I should run all the keywords in this article's title through every database I knew. Then I went and pulled everything I could find remotely related to the concept off the shelves and skimmed everything to see if it actually worked, which ate up lots of time ---- it was kinda like cramming for my prospectus exam (although that did take longer than a week) as I was reading around and familiarizing myself with the field. And that was humbling and anxiety-provoking. Seriously, am I qualified to teach the course if I'm skimming through stuff going, "Oh, look at this entire area of research! News to me!" Of course, on several days I put in a full day, skimming about 6 books, and either didn't have anything for my week of readings or had only one article. This lack of progress despite putting effort also was demoralizing. Sometimes I'd have to admit that there just wasn't anything good published on this topic, but this would make me anxious too, as there might be something really appropriate (even obvious to the initiated) out there that I just missed.

And to top it all off, I don't think I have a good course here. I think when I'm done and have notes I'll have a really good draft toward a course, but right now things are glommed together without a clear "arc" on the syllabus and I have several places where I'm going to have to go "squint really hard and pretend that the case study for these concepts is actually topical" or "yeah, I'm sorry that this article is both boring and crappily written, but it exactly matches our topic." Well, we'll see. I've sent out the reader and still need to clean up the syllabus and make certain decisions about assignments and such, but the reading is mostly set. It took a long time but it was necessary --- if I had assigned some of these things based on the title without reading around, I would have had a major meltdown on my hands later, while teaching, and it's worth it to not look like an idiot or have a mass rebellion in the classroom ---- well, to not be an idiot in front of a raging public any more than I absolutely have to. I assume there will be disasters; I'm just trying to minimize them.

(wow, was this a long rambly post or what? Goes to show what happens when you lock a Cog up somewhere with no human interaction for a week. I'll update with other aspects of my life soon. As in, when I find that I have them.)

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

That's a pretty good essay, if I do say so myself

Grading, grading. It certainly goes faster when you're missing a bunch of assignments. Or perhaps I'm in denial that they will all come back to haunt me in even more annoying ways later. Ah well. Not my problem (at the moment).

Ever get this situation? You're reading through a student essay that raises the argument that the flying wombats in Sir Peeble's Posthumous Pessiary are in fact allegories for the Catholic Church, and you are reading along nodding sagely, of course, of course, there, and there, pleased and not at all surprised by the turn the arguments are taking, because this essay is almost exactly the reading you presented in lecture and through questions during class, and you are struck once again by how right --- nay, brilliant! and original! --- your mental perambulations were, and how you still find it quite a nice little reading, even if a lot of the subtlety has been sanded off in the process of being summarized by a student.

Just how important is it to you that your students produce an original argument rather than repeat the lecture or flow of the discussion?

For me, it is very important. When I control the course, I like to assign multiple short works by an author and make every effort to get students to write on the texts we did not cover in class. "We beat poor old "Confessions of a Scoundrel" to death in class. Why don't you write about "A Scoundrel's Retraction" instead?" I'll say, and even write it into my prompts as a requirement that they must choose something we haven't discussed extensively.

Even if they take my exact same argument, framework, format and bite-size chunk of theory from class and then apply it decently well to one of that author's other texts, I am happy. In fact, being able to reproduce what we talked about in class on a new text (as long as they actually applied it in a way that fit with the contours of that specific text) would be the perfect proof for me that they understood what we talked about so well they could extrapolate it onto something else. Plus, they usually open up all sorts of interesting little details and readings in the new text that I hadn't noticed, or that inspire me in some way. Those are always quite good and interesting, and even the ones that try to follow the framework too formulaicly and end up doing violence to the new text in a Procrustean fashion tend to teach me, at least, interesting new things about the text through their very failures of argument.

But being able to summarize accurately what we talked about in class, even if it means rearranging our discussion into a more orderly and linear format, does not seem to be a complex enough skill to be worthy of college student writing. Thinking about it, I guess that being able to remember and reorganize a bunch of stuff you heard and then to go back and reread the text and successfully pull out all the quotes again that prove that argument could be a fairly complex process, but still, I am meh when I receive those essays. It could be a factor of their increased youth this time. And actually, it may be a case of the bite-size theory chunk being absolutely amazing and so mind-blowing that the student had to spend a lot of time just repeating it in order to process it, an obsession with just comprehending it having to come before realizing that, as a theory, it can be extrapolated or tested in many different contexts. (Think: OMG No Way! Gender! It's, like, constructed! Whoah! Well, it was a little more up-to-date a theory than that.)

* * *

On the flip side, I got one of those essays where the opening line is so damn good that you start drooling in anticipation, fireworks going off everywhere in your brain with great new insights into the work and you are just amazed and ready to publish your own article on the topic right then and there.

Think like saying Author X is using Darwin's theories alongside geometry to make a very complex statement about class and gender divisions in this novel. And you're like, ZOMG! Of course! Darwin! It's totally all over the book; why haven't I seen it before? How the hell is geometry going to come in here, and be integrated with Darwin, I'm so excited I can't wait!

Then you continue reading and discover that the analysis consists of mentioning Darwin and mentioning the events of the novel, sometimes even in the same sentence, and also in pointing out the repetition of certain geometric figures, which happen in the novel, and oh yeah Darwin. He existed. And you say, oh. That was a disappointment. And then you keep reading and realize that the student did not need to invoke Darwin at all, because the point that is being made is that courtship happens in this text and that men tend to use ostentatious clothing and behavior to attract women to choose them over other men, and you are frustrated, because this actually could be a really interesting argument specifically about the mechanics of Darwin's theories, and because there are a lot of references to squares and angles in this book, and arcs; in fact, you can think of five or six more for every one that gets plunked into a paragraph here without any analysis, and yes, you think, there is something very interesting and very original to be said about this topic that would be totally worth publishing, but this essay doesn't really get at it.

So I guess the question there is, is it ok to grab this idea and run with it in a publication of one's own? Would that be ethical? Would it require acknowledging the student paper? And if you were to build up this kernel of an idea into a really cool teaching presentation, and then it blew one of your student's minds and they summarized exactly what you said in some future student paper, would it exactly resemble that first student's attempt, a la Pierre Menard's Quixote?

Sunday, December 14, 2008


I had a full mailbox yesterday: a couple of the standard job rejection letters, a rejection letter for my Other Article, and my diploma. It seems significant, a sign, but I don't know how to interpret it. I'm just too tired.

I’ve actually been looking at what I posted here last year to find a baseline for comparing how I’m feeling this year. It’s interesting; I noticed that I posted a lot then and hardly at all (at least not extended stuff on the state of the profession) this time around.

I haven’t been writing much of anything at all, really. And I feel so exhausted and burnt out on what I do have to do that I’m actually not even opening the folders or looking at the drafts --- and I’ve never fallen into that trap before. (My friends who only look at their dissertations at the end of each quarter end up never finishing.) Now last year I posted many many times about how sick I was of the dissertation and how hard it was to work on it ---- but I was inching along and making progress. This year I’ve made it through sending out applications and teaching my class regularly and that’s it. Not even any attempt to revise my long-overdue shit. I feel more tired and am doing so much less this end of year compared to the last one. (everything from work to writing funny parodies of the job market.) I think I’m burnt out.

But what do I mean by that anyway? I know I really needed a vacation --- going straight from a hard push to file the diss to a hard push on the job stuff is kind of brutal --- but on the other hand, I’ve sorta been having a vacation all quarter: lots of starting late and giving up early and sitting around reading blogs or newspapers and not doing much of anything. So you’d think I should be recovered and capable of doing stuff by now. Someone asked me the other day what my dissertation was about and I drew a total blank, I’ve so thoroughly expunged the topic from my brain.

So when I feel burnt out, am I saying I don’t like the research side of things any more? I do really like my teaching --- this class has been a blast when I’ve been able to ignore the bizarre structures it labors under --- and I do really like talking about various cool ideas and making a stab at them and learning new things. But there is definitely something about sticking to an idea (or a draft, or a revision) after I have worn the newness off of it that is very difficult for me, and this could be a big problem for staying in academia, if it means I’m just not capable of seeing projects through to publication.

I’m thinking about that again, you know, as it gets closer and closer to the MLA convention and my third year without a single job interview. I need to start assessing where I am going and what my post-PhD plan will be; will it involve teaching or something else? Would I rather go into teaching comp at a CC or general English at a high school? The complete lack of interest search committees have in my application seems to say that, in addition to the tough job market, there is something lacking in my materials. I have a hunch it’s the lack of publications but it could be something central to my very topic and approach too. I won’t be able to change something as fundamental as all that.

I’ve felt quite detached from the job search so far this year; spending relatively little time on the wiki or kvetching with grads or even with polishing my job materials for individual jobs, and definitely no hunting for my dream place to live on Craigslist, which certainly consumed quite a bit of my life the first time around. You'd think, what with being so much more experienced and efficient on the application front I'd have gotten lots of other stuff written or completed, but that's not the case. I've just been floating along by, doing the bare minimum on my teaching, not thinking about anything at all, because having a break from thinking has been kinda nice. Maybe it's a sign that I'm really not all that driven and ambitious, that I need some sort of steady crap office job where I don't have to plan and somebody tells me what to do. Certainly the sheer effort of switching my cv into a resume and of learning how to apply for outside jobs has stopped me from making the effort to pick up a second job.

And maybe this weird job search detachment is a sign that I shouldn't go into academia, or that I am already mourning it and moving on. If I were moving on toward something I'd feel a little better about that, but currently I'm acting as if sitting around feeling relaxed were a viable career. My energy level implies that I need a job that takes about 15 hours a week, no effort, and pays something livable for a middle class lifestyle, and I doubt that I will be able to score that. Last year I was frantic and upset about my dissertation and finishing; this year I feel calm and like I have achieved something, but, compared to dissertating, I feel oddly purposeless. Less shitty, but ... kinda drifting. There's no clear goal here. Sure I could land a tenure-track job (part of me wanted to add "and monkeys will fly out of my butt!"), or I might not, and I could go off and do any one of a whole lot of things and that won't change the fact that I did get my PhD, that on one level I won, that I did what I came here to do.

Eh. I'm boring myself even thinking about it. I think I'll go back to bed for a while and deal with it all later.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008


Does anybody else remember that children's book? I vaguely remember it had a picture on each page with only a couple lines of story, which went something like UNFORTUNATELY the main character fell out of the airplane. FORTUNATELY there was a haystack right where whats-his-face was going to land. UNFORTUNATELY the haystack was full of pitchforks. And so on.

My day (perhaps my entire grad school experience) has been like that little book, back and forth, ups and downs, all of which results in me not getting anywhere far but feeling very tired. If Sisyphus's day was a children's book, it would go something like this:

FORTUNATELY, Sisyphus's class is almost over.

UNFORTUNATELY, that means Sisyphus has to get the next course all ready over break.

FORTUNATELY, Sisyphus has a break wherein she can get her course ready and catch up on her scholarly writing.

UNFORTUNATELY, Sisyphus has no money and needs to find a second job as soon as possible, and working extra hours somewhere else will take up her break.

UNFORTUNATELY, the time and herculean effort it will take to seek out a temp job in this economic climate, especially a temp job that will hire her despite her having to waltz off to MLA later, seems near impossible.

UNFORTUNATELY, Sisyphus is no Hercules.

UNFORTUNATELY, Sisyphus has succumbed to paralysis and procrastination and is not looking for a second job.

(hey, what are you doing? You're not following the rules! It goes back and forth, back and forth, you know?)

FORTUNATELY, a last-minute college course may have opened up for next quarter and Sisyphus the Procrastinator is sufficiently under-employed to apply for it.

(that's better.)

UNFORTUNATELY, the chair will not know until much later if the original teacher will be well enough to teach the course, but Sisyphus needs to put in all the materials to apply right now.

FORTUNATELY, the chair was interested in one of the sexy and captivating courses Sisyphus proposed blurbs for long long ago, which inspired the chair to send her a friendly email.

UNFORTUNATELY, the course in question is not exactly the same number as the original blurbs and a new proposal and reading list will need to be re-worked to match this other spot in the curriculum.

FORTUNATELY, Sisyphus kept all her brainstorming notes for those proposed course blurbs and can easily adapt them due to the magic of having a PhD.

UNFORTUNATELY, this course is highly interdisciplinary and only tangentially related to Sisyphus's awesome powers of PhD specialization.

FORTUNATELY, Sisyphus is a highly interdisciplinary researcher and well-versed in teaching in many different kinds of departments, including this one.

UNFORTUNATELY, Sisyphus may put in an immense amount of work bringing herself up to speed in other disciplines and not get the course.

FORTUNATELY, Sisyphus is on break and can spare the time to run up a new course proposal and (hopefully) make a second course reader in addition to catching up on her scholarly work. And getting and grading all her finals. And the mock interviews.


UNFORTUNATELY, Sisyphus has scheduled a mock interview for herself and is helping give mocks to some other candidates this week. None of which she has prepared for yet. And which are due at the same time as the revised course proposal is. Not to mention finishing the first course reader. And potentially matching her proposed syllabus to books already in the bookstore.

(crap! wait... what? I have what due? Crap! Wait... I don't---)

FORTUNATELY, Sisyphus knows that the ideal last-minute adjunct fill in beats out the competition (Wait, competition? What? Pant, pant.) by meshing into the existing structure as well as possible and not causing any troubles. She goes to the bookstore to see if she should be working with a specific textbook.

(I'm still back on the competition bit. How many people were CC'd on that friendly email?)

UNFORTUNATELY, while she's there she decides to check the status of her original class. None of the books she has ordered are there, and instead are a random collection of non-relevant books, some of which have similar titles as her textbook and some of which, presumably, have similar ISBNs.

(Crap! Crap! Crap! What? I'm starting to hyperventilate here! Where are my books? How am I going to fix this? Why are there no bookstore people around to talk to right now?)

UNFORTUNATELY, Sisyphus will have to spend time tomorrow hunting down her textbooks and seeing if she can resolve this problem, and if not, revamp her syllabus and reader. Not to mention the proposed course. And the mocks. And the grading. And the Unfinished Scholarly Article of Doom.

UNFORTUNATELY, not knowing what's going on with the books prevents Sisyphus from continuing work on her reader and syllabus, throwing her into what is technically known as a "tizzy."

UNFORTUNATELY, this unsettled status pushes Sisyphus into an existential crisis whereby she second-guesses everything about the construction of her course and its readings and gets completely stymied about how to take her proposed course and make it 1/3 of a totally different potential course, causing her to doubt that her PhD is made of awesomeness and to believe instead that she is in fact absolutely incompetent to teach anything at all, particularly not anything requiring being up on recent research in other disciplines when she hasn't even touched any readings in her own discipline in ages.

UNFORTUNATELY, in the process of running panting around the room in little circles like a chicken with its head cut off, Sisyphus bangs her knee hard, causing the running amok to slow to a weak hobble and making her realize that her back up plan of running away from everything to become a yak herder in Mongolia is not going to stand up too well, considering her propensity to injury.


(Stop! Crap! Wait! I can't take it any more! I can't... pant, pant, I can't ... I c --- wait, what?)

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Query: Using Google Groups or Google Docs for classes?

Mmmm, so, I spent a restful and low-key day today avoiding overdue work by getting stuff together for my next class. (Now, having written that, I do acknowledge that I have to get on it with this class, so it's not like I'm looking super way ahead. But I am blowing off all the stuff that is currently due in order to play with a new class that is soon-to-be due. Ah well.)

Anyway, I went through a couple textbooks* and am playing with schedules and copying assignments and taking preliminary notes on stuff and suddenly had the idea about the Google apps. Has anybody tried making their class a Google group and having them upload documents? I know GradSchoolLand had, um, one or the other of those online course sites, which I don't think I ever used, but I had the sudden idea that Google Docs would be nice for collaborative writing --- have you ever put a thesis up on the board and collectively brainstormed an outline and then had each group get evidence and write one paragraph of the essay? You get to model all the steps of the writing process and it goes faster because each group writes a portion. Plus you get to show them the importance of revision when the different sections don't go together or make any sense and it sucks bad enough even they recognize it. In the past I've been in rooms that had computer access or could take students to a computer lab; right now I don't have that option. So, maybe setting up this online and having the groups paste in their paragraphs from home would work?

Help me, oh Internets, forsee all the different stupid shit that will go wrong here, so I can be prepared when/if I use this new technique. And do the online course thingies like Blackboard and Whiteboard or whatever allow students to post and edit each others' stuff? Or is it only able to do the little forum discussion things? I could also post the syllabus and assignments and stuff on a Google group, but obviously I don't want students to be able to edit those. Hmm. Thoughts?

* Random side note that you don't care about: So back when I was supposed to pick my textbook I didn't have time to read and choose between two of them so I just picked one. Luckily, I like it better, but I think I'm going to end up using about half of that and half of the other one, which will involve going back through them in more detail later, to pull all the crap I'm going to have to photocopy and bring in. Still, I did get a fair amount done today on the course prep, if not on, say, cleaning my apt. or putting on clothes or any of that other silly stuff.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Why didn't anyone tell me

about the all-around awesomeness that is Dr. Isis? Seriously, I am in love, overflowing with a special love that can only be evoked by equal amounts love of science, feisty attitude, and hot shoes.

I'm not sure how I got to her blog, but, if you know me at all, you know that everyone in my family does either science or engineering (or math/science teaching), and that, combined with my friendships with wonderful people like Cool Scientist Friend, means that I have a soft spot for scientists and their love of cool and geeky ideas. Mind you, I have no aptitude for science or patience for reading actual science, but reading semi-personal blog posts about the experience of doing science, bringing out the nifty conceptual ideas without making me wade through all the formulas and statistics, that's right up my alley. And since a major part of my support for Cool Scientist Friend is to be a venting-place for all the shit she constantly gets about being female in a hard-science field where nobody dresses sexy and the few women who are in the field are often each others' own worst enemies, I love reading Dr. Isis's posts for their confident, take-no-bullshit tone and assertive femininity. I may have to forward her blog to CSF. I may even have to infringe upon her style and start writing about how hot the Cog looks when she is rocking the heroic couplet in class. Indeed, I may even have to start writing about myself in the third person.

But even that would not be enough to write an entire post on the Domestic and Laboratory Goddess, were it not for her post today nominating her Shoe of the Week, which introduced me to, which had, besides Dr. Isis's preferred boots (which were too pink for me), these little babies:

Damn! I want those! I mean, I like boots, but it is a rare and special boot that inspires me to dream of buying a whole new wardrobe built around them and cultivate a special walk to properly flaunt them. Alas, and tragically, they are not available in my size. So hooray for Dr. Isis, and damn you, Dr. Isis, for causing me to lust after the impossible. Curses!

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Affirmation as Critique: What Do We Look for in Class Discussion?

Things are winding down and starting to wrap up here at the school-o-hippies. I still haven't really found my feet in the classroom because it is so unstructured, and every time I start to have things going well, everything changes and suddenly I am dealing with a new and totally different set of influences. But, I guess that's teaching in general.

For this school, I've noticed that one of the main teachers leads discussion mainly by way of affirmation; since I'm the temp and she's the permanent teacher creating the school's temperament, I'm not trying to change the way things are done structurally or kick against this style here, although I am poking at it a little bit around the edges.

When I say she teaches through affirmation, I mean that (it seems) she and the students all sit around and say things like "wasn't that a great novel?" "I just loved it." "Wasn't it great when this part happened?" "Isn't Author So-And-So just the best at doing _____?" So when my students reproduce that model of discussion in my class, my reaction is more "yeah, and?" This is, to put it plainly, not my style. Nor is it the way my English department back at GradSchoolLand does things. So my method of trying to poke at this approach is just to smile and say, "where do you see Author doing ____? Show us a really good passage." and to just get them to interact more directly with the text than they have done so far. It is a perplexing experience for many of them. Although when one of them mentions that Author has a humorous or satirical tone and I say "where is that happening?" another student can usually jump in with a favorite word or passage, none of them can really explain how the author is creating this effect. In fact, most of the time I get that quizzical-dog look where they cock their head to one side and look at you like "Aroo?"

I did have this to varying degrees back in my departmental classes, where particularly the students who wrote bad essays would kind of float over the text rather than engage with anything in the text. I specifically remember one student who kept having really strange readings of some poems, just wrong, pretty much, and when I would push her to tie her reading of a mood to word choice she would do something like take the word "black" and then say it reminded her of this one time when she was sitting under a tree and the tree was so big and had such a strong peaceful feeling and clearly this poem was all about the restful, healing power of nature and the connection to the land. And I'd be thinking, in "Ariel?" Are you serious? I don't see it. Like this student was basically having random associations with words, often associations that cut against its definition or connotation, and then making up a new poem out of the memories and feelings she associated with the word. There seemed to be something really important in that, that if I could only teach her to read the text that was in front of her instead of the text she imagined there, that I would really be making progress with this student. That and convincing her that "dour" was not an uppity word implying someone was snooty and over-educated. I mean, maybe it was primarily a vocabulary thing. But the refusal or just plain inability to dig your fingers into the guts of the text and mush things around is prevalent in my class right now.

On the one hand I'm trying to see how I can push students to do "more traditional literary analysis type things" without seeming to cast aspersions on the way other teachers are teaching, and on the other, I'm thinking, well, why do analysis in class? Why do close readings? What are they supposed to do? What are their benefits? I'm obviously not going to throw it out, but, you know, maybe articulating it out here will help me understand what my goals are and thus help me better achieve those goals. We can hope, at least.

Also, this summer I had a student comment on evaluations that I "took all the fun out of everything by analyzing it too much. Be more of a romantic!" I'm trying to figure out what that means. I mean, if I can use it in some sort of useful, improving way. If pinning stuff down too much means "I make them back up their fuzzy claims about texts with actual quotes from it," then I'm not really going to change. Similarly, if that statement is code for "you made me think and work and that is not fun," I'm going to ignore that too. It's my job to make students work and do things they don't want to (at least, usually. this school is kind of a special case). It's my job to push students out of their comfort zone and to show them that they really can measure up to my higher standards.

However, if I am killing all the pleasure in reading literary texts by being too formulaic or too heavy-handedly wringing every last drop of meaning out of it, maybe there's some way I can change for the better. That's why, when I get these comments that are more of affirmations than analysis or argument, I'm trying to let them stand out there for a little bit before pushing. I'm also trying to occasionally preface my remarks with "I love the way Author uses objects in a subtle way to help express character. For example, let's look here at how ..." In the past, I've tried to avoid making any sort of appreciative remarks because students often then seemed to clam up, terrified that they might get a bad grade by "offending" me or giving the "wrong" answer --- which sometimes can be, evidently, that they did not like or even did not understand a certain passage. (I think Fretful Porpentine had a post about a similar situation where students wrote one thing in their freewrites and then changed their answers to fall in line with her remarks as the professor.) Of course, in the past, I've usually been the TA, and often was leading discussions on texts I did not like at all. In that case, it hardly seems fair to poison the students against their required reading. Perhaps the solution is to give a more balanced discussion of stuff that I both love and hate in a text? But then how much time am I spending on my own opinions rather than historical background or patterns or word choice or other structural stuff? (I like structural stuff. I tend to teach texts structurally, unless they're short enough to look at in terms of diction and image patterns alone. I have my go-to teaching methods, I guess. Or perhaps I'm just weird.)

So, what do you all think? What are we supposed to be doing when we "analyze" or "critique" a text? And what place does affirmation as critique --- or pleasure, more simply even --- have in our discussions? What models do you follow in the classroom? How tightly do you hold the reins of the discussion --- do you have someplace you want them to "get to" or is it all right if they just kind of meander their way across the text? From here I could post another whole thing about the undergrad class styles I experienced, explication, and the New Critics, which I could elaborate on if you are so inclined, but the next topic I really want to talk about is essays. Why do we teach them, and write them, indeed?

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Movement on the wiki

I have been so good about the wiki so far. I have barely checked it, only occasionally glancing over it, and looking at the long list of canceled searches on the front page (sigh). But now it is a month to MLA, which means that it is time for the countdown to calls for interviews.

I have worked today, and I have even pushed a little bit at that damn revision, and so I finally sat down and looked closely at which schools have made materials requests and even some interview calls. And, man, it was a busy week last week for search committees, but a very quiet one for me.

As far as I can tell, of the 62 jobs I have sent out for, all but 12 have either been canceled or made requests for more stuff, and I have only gotten one such request. Theoretically, I am not out of the running for all those jobs yet, but when the wiki says there were about 10 writing sample requests on a single day two weeks ago and you have heard nothing, the chances of hearing from them later are pretty much nil. Sigh.

I guess I need to apply to my last couple jobs and go look see if anything came out on the JIL in the past couple weeks. The problem is, wiki-watching and doing the math on my spreadsheet (to say nothing of the math on my budget or soon-to-come-due student loans) gets so demoralizing that I don't want to do anything at all, whether it be writing up another stupid application or looking at my stupid article which makes no sense. And really, in the back of my head, as I watch the slim job chances get slimmer, I wonder if I should even bother revising: right now it looks like a bag of shit and do I really want that published under my name permanently? Especially if I never do anything in academia again? Argh.

I'm also mulling over applying to the local bookstore or local coffee chain, both of which have openings right now, for a holiday job to help tape shut some of the gaping holes in my budget. Thing is, though, between traveling all over to visit family in the north and the south and then going to MLA, that's a huge chunk of time that I would not be available to work the holiday rush hours, so I wonder if I should even bother. I know the retail type jobs look to fill holes in the schedule and won't even look at people who don't fit the right availability. Hmm. Maybe I could just sell my organs on the black market.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Recipe Posting: Empty Fridge Edition

I don't know why I am always tired and unable to do anything I'm supposed to do whenever I drive back from the parents' house. But, that is the way it is. If I'm lucky I manage to push through the laundry and put out food for the cats (who are back as well, and very pissed off they are about their most recent kenneling). Me being me, I always plan out an enormous list of Things To Do, envisioning a magical day and night of full productivity that will make everything perfect and organized for the first time in my life. And, of course, that is never the case.

For instance: groceries. I should go get them. And yet, getting back in the car tonight is one of the last things I want to do. We'll see what happens with tomorrow's breakfast (radical prediction: I will be in a coffeeshop at the butt-crack of dawn trying to get my reading and class prep done before I have to go in to work). Luckily, I have found a recipe from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone that is quite tasty and lets me get around the whole "I have no fresh food" problem. And my mom always loads me down with some stuff from her garden (nothing says delicious like, "here, eat all of these before they get completely disgusting. Take more; I'm pushing the tomatoes!"), so I have lots of tomatoes and lemons, and this time, a bag of leftover turkey too. I kinda combine the two recipes on Madison's p 454:

Spaghetti With Tomatoes, Olives, and Capers


1/2 cup olive oil
3 large garlic cloves, 2 sliced and 1 chopped
1 pound Roma tomatoes (or whatever your mom pushes on you)
24 Kalamata olives, pitted and coarsely chopped
1/4 cup capers, rinsed
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 tablespoon chopped marjoram (ok, I don't even have this when I have been shopping, so I never include it)
salt and pepper to taste
1 pound spaghetti (I don't like spaghetti, so I use penne from the receipe below, and sometimes add some lemon zest and juice, also from the next recipe)
1/2 cup chopped parsley (I don't use this either, as I killed my parsely. Maybe I could buy the dried stuff?)

Heat the oil with the garlic slices in a wide skillet When the garlic is golden, remove and discard it. (I ain't never gonna throw away good garlic. Subtle infusion my ass! This girl is not a subtle garlic girl.) Add the chopped garlic, tomatoes, olives, capers, pepper flakes, and marjoram. Simmer briskly for 10 minutes and season with salt and pepper.

Meanwhile, cook the spaghetti in plenty of boiling salted water, drain, and added to the sauce along with the parsley. Toss and serve.


This time I heated up some slices of the leftover turkey, broken up into bites, and stirred it on in. I might not have added enough tomatoes this time ---- you get more of a dampening than a heavy sauce. Next up I'll get out and bring in some fresh stuff. Eventually.