Monday, March 31, 2008

That's DOCTOR Chump to you, buddy.

Yes, there's the honesty issue, the bald fact of intellectual theft. And yes, there's the display of contempt for the principles of learning, the point of humanistic study. But the thing I hate most about plagiarism is the insult of it: The student apparently thinks I'm an idiot, who either knows very little about the published scholarship in my field of specialization, or is unable to recognize the difference between material in SEL (or Sparknotes, for that matter) and student-level work.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Haul out the T-square, drop down the plumb.

I’m at the end of a poem I’ve been working on for nearly a year. I’ve been stuck at the same passage for months and months, and I spend all my days turning it over in the back of my mind. When I go running, I play around with the words in rhythm with my strides. Before I drop off to sleep, I freewrite for a few minutes. I even dream about the damned thing, my subconscious self typing away and deleting, typing and deleting all night long. I just can’t quite get it right. But I keep working. It’ll get there.

It’s not a great mystery to me why I ended up pursuing this career path. My natural inclination is to worry and harry and harrow things into perfection, which—as many of you who responded to my last post acknowledged—is perhaps not the healthiest way to go through the world. My sense is that the universe is so chaotic, so terrifyingly incomprehensible, that I seek to control my small sphere of it by nailing things down.

So I set myself the task of expressing something—doesn’t matter what: experience and ideas and emotions are, I think, equally ineffable, and equally resist our attempts at representation. And I work it, and work it, like my kid’s tongue works his loose tooth. But it’s not enough for me to get it right. I have to be validated in that verdict by someone else, an Authority. Editor at a journal. Editor at a publishing firm. Publishing becomes, for me, not a way of disseminating my ideas beyond my head, but the confirmation that I got it right, a pat on the head from the institutions of thought, from the Man.*

Because contained within the perfectionist urge, the more insidious face of it, is the conviction that one is never good enough.

I am what I like to call a recovering anorexic. I don’t actively participate in self-destructive behaviors anymore, but there are things I can’t do: I can’t shop for clothes, can’t look in a full-length mirror, can’t weigh myself, can’t miss a night of running. If I do any of these things, I spend days and days beating myself up for my failure to live up to what I have decided is my “perfect” version of myself. I’m a pretty smart girl, and I recognize the logical fallacies involved and the ways in which I am hostage to arbitrary designations and the illusions of a market culture, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t feel compelled to live up to them nevertheless. There’s some part of me that needs the pat on the head; and really, the validation I get from my own skewed determinations isn’t all that much different from the validation conferred by the (subjective, human) Authorities I want so much to impress. In both cases, I spend all my energies trying to produce something good enough. In practical terms, this impulse is very, very good for a life in the academy, because it impels me forward, keeps me working at a high rate of productivity.

But here’s the thing: there’s always the next tired night lacing up the shoes. The conference paper gets accepted, and then it must be written; the presentation must go well; the article must be written; well-placed; the article must be transformed into a book; the book must be published...and then there’s the next one. The poem gets finished and must be published; another poem nags at the mind; the book gets published...and then there’s the next one. At what point, I start to wonder, will the validation be sufficient? At what point will I feel like I’ve proven myself? And why do I seem to be the only one who thinks I need to?

I’m getting divorced. It’s been in the works for a couple of years, but now the legal part appears imminent, and I’m just devastated. There’s the grief you would expect, certainly, but there’s also the realization, especially hard for someone of my psychological profile, that no matter how much one tries, how hard one works to find the perfect words, the perfect behavior, the universe remains chaotic and incomprehensible and out of one’s control.

My response: devote myself to that book proposal, those chapters-in-progress, that recalcitrant poem. Because, damn it to hell, eventually they will be perfect.


*Yes, I’m aware that there’s a gender thing involved here. That’s a whole ‘nuther issue.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008


I'm working up to a post on the perfectionist urge, but my thoughts are too inchoate yet. So I thought I'd float a discussion question: Do you feel like your efforts are animated by a perfectionist drive? I'm especially interested in hearing how this urge relates, if you think it does, to life in academia--and whether that seems a productive or a problematic relationship. I'm still pondering....

Monday, March 24, 2008

I'm RG, and I'll be preparing your feast today...

I love to cook. Especially for folks who will, I think, appreciate eating what I cook. (Though, really, I'll cook for anyone.) And students are extra-fun to feed because they're a) hungry, and b) willing to expand their palates, and c) hungry. Last week, I was surprised to hear a very smart, funny, capable student of mine saying something--not about me particularly, if I'm remembering right, but speaking generally--about how female professors (she'd heard from a reliable source) shouldn't cook for their students because it undermines their authority in the classroom. Too motherly. Too domestic. Too I don't know what.

This comment doesn't really bother me as it relates to my own actions, but it bothers me a lot for what it says about the perceived role of women in academia, even in 2008, and in the world. Is a woman's authority so fragile as to be shattered by a plate of canapes? Must male professors be likewise wary about baked goods?

I've never bowed all that much to conventional wisdom about the construction/performance of classroom authority. I insist that my students call me by my first name. ("Renaissance.") I wear jeans or shorts and t-shirts to school, and during one very early-morning teaching gig years ago showed up more than once in, well, pajamas. Despite these breaches, I'm confident that my authority isn't so much under threat. My authority in the classroom, after all, doesn't derive from my clothing or my professorial reserve. It derives from my mind.

Now, my point is not an egotistical one, though it may seem to be. It is, in fact, the precise point I keep trying to teach my students--ALL my students, though it must be said that my female students need persuading a little more than my male ones seem to. That is, that authority isn't about deferring to the right sources or conforming to some kind of code.

Authority comes from knowing what you think and backing it up. Isn't this what we want students to believe when they sit down to write analytical papers? I own my ideas, even when they are (as they should be) subject to revision. That's why I have authority in the classroom.

Now. Anyone want some bread?

Monday, March 17, 2008

A Text’s Tale

Perhaps it’s because I’ve spent the last month reading portions of The Faerie Queene with one of my classes, but my life—or rather, subsections of my life—seems startlingly similar to Spenserian quest paradigms. This post will introduce readers to the plucky knight Sir Translatio Side-Project, and relate his adventures in the perilous world of publishing.

Sir Side-Project was born, as his allegorical moniker suggests, as a way to blow off steam while I worked on my dissertation, but after that work was complete he took on a life of his own. In true Spenserian fashion, he owes a great debt to much older literary endeavor; we might picture him wearing ancient Roman armor and carrying a plowshare as a weapon.

When Sir Side-Project was finished, he seemed strong enough to go out and face the harsh world. But, as with all true knights-errant, that meant a lot of wandering around. He seemed to belong most in the field of academic publishing, since he had all this scholarly apparatus attached to him like so much tiltyard furniture.

He thought he’d found a home with Big Cool University Press, but then they (in budget crisis like everyone else) cut their List In That Field and sent the field editor packing, along with all the projects he’d been shepherding. Then to Snooty Private U.P., whose editor expressed interest, until one of the two readers responded that Sir Side-Project wasn’t “edgy” enough. (Hard to be edgy when you’re 2000 years old, some might say.) On, then, to Glorious European U.P., which LOVED our hero, but whose giant international infrastructure meant that the contract had to be abandoned on the eve of its being sent because their overseas office had just contracted *someone else’s* handling of Sir Side-Project’s territory. I guess they felt they shouldn’t compete against themselves. The journeyings described in this paragraph took more than three years.

Despondent, Sir S-P entered the cave of Contemplation for a while, resting in the middest of the race, if you will, and trying to figure out what course of action suited him best, what direction would take him to his destiny. Small independent trade house? More U.P.s in budgetary crises? Slink away until the unlikely event of his author’s improved literary stature?

But then, last month, like some deus ex machina figure, an editor at Huge Market Share Literary Publisher, a friend of a friend, sent a note requesting an audience with our intrepid wanderer.

And today, dear readers, HMSLP, Inc., offered Sir S-P a permanent home.


Okay. That was weird, and vaguely D&D-esque. I don’t usually personify my projects. Especially with cute names. Chalk it up to giddiness on my part.

So! My life is falling apart, but at least I’m publishing well.


Thursday, March 13, 2008

Walk without rhythm, it won't attract the worm.

The danger of having Fatboy Slim playing on the ipod while running is that one is tempted beyond resistance to bust out some Christopher Walken moves.

If that doesn't scare off the stalkers,* I don't know what will.

* And by stalkers I mean shady nighttime baddies, would-be rapists, etc.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Stunned, exhilarated, gratified, vindicated, proud like a mother hen

A few days ago (Feb 19), I posted about an assignment I'd given my devotional lyric students: to write a devotional lyric, and an essay explaining why it was a devotional lyric. And I am eager to report that their poems are SO JAWDROPPINGLY FANTASTIC that I may do a toe-dance in class next week. The poems are smart, sometimes metaphysical, sometimes heartbreaking, revelatory, and more sensitive to the theories of lyric and of devotional writing that we've been studying for lo these many weeks than I could have hoped. Each student's essay indicates that the successes of the lyrics--the stuff that works really well poetically and argumentatively--is totally intended, and has arisen out of our discussions. In short, I'm feeling very, very pedagogically hot- rocking right now.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

The "We" in "Yes We Can"

I just watched speeches by Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama following 3 out of 4 primary results (Texas is still too close to call). I admire Hillary Clinton and I’m delighted to have a woman as a serious contender for the White House. She’s poised, smart, and heaven knows she’s a fighter, and I have little doubt that she’d be an effective, if expedient, leader. On policy issues, the difference between HRC and BHO isn’t really all that significant. But I find myself investing in Obama’s campaign with uncharacteristic depth—the kind that manifests itself as a sense of physical illness when he doesn’t win a state, a visceral response heretofore reserved for NBA Playoff disappointments—and I wanted to articulate why I’m supporting him.

Thoughout my voting life, since I was eighteen and able to vote, I have found myself on the political margins. I lean a little too far to the left to have felt entirely comfortable with the Democratic party and some of its compromises (particularly on the death penalty, which is as close as I come to a dealbreaker). For nearly two decades, I’ve voted either Green or Socialist, depending on who was running and how they articulated their positions. [And for those of you who’ll leap to castigate me for Gore 2000, I haven’t exactly been living in battleground states: my vote was a gesture of principle, with little or no impact on the wide margins of victory logged by one party or the other.]

Obama is the first Democratic candidate that has ever made me believe that my vote didn’t have to be a protest vote against an entrenched system. But perhaps more importantly, he’s the first candidate EVER that has made me want to be a better citizen.

In part, yes, it’s his rhetorical prowess. I’m a language girl, and there’s something thrilling about his facility with the rhythms of the word, the downright prosody of his sentences. [And it’s such a relief that he seems to know what words mean, unlike our current imbecile, who a fortnight ago berated the system “that Castro has tried to hoist off as democracy.”]

But the inclusiveness of Obama’s gesture—by which I don’t mean the wide reach of his popularity but rather his insistence that—as he said tonight—“government cannot solve all of our problems, and [Americans] don’t expect it to”.....this to me is a tremendously moving call to action, something I’ve not really heard except secondhand. I think of JFK’s admonition that we should ask not what our country can do for us, etc., etc. This stance puts US in the position of working to improve things, to capitalize on the volunteer spirit that sweeps through America whenever a crisis presents itself but then fades away into renewed capitalist self-absorption. I can get behind that. That vision of politics has trickle-down power: we get involved in our communities, improve the lives of our neighbors, and begin to take advantage of the practical effects of democracy. This, I think, is what Obama means when he invites us to say with him, “Yes, we can.”

And the most astonishing thing, from my perspective, is that my formerly Republican parents will get behind him, too. That may be the most compelling reason of all to support Obama.

I read not too long ago an article by Michael Gerson, the former Bush staffer, who lamented the droopiness of the Republican party. He said that there’s one figure in American politics who would galvanize the right, re-energize the Republican party, and that figure is Hillary Clinton.

I believe that Clinton would be a competent and shrewd leader. And I believe that she’s got fabulous chops. But I also believe that she will push back to the right all those moderates, like my parents, who might be persuaded to vote for Obama. I fear that if she’s the Democratic nominee, we’ll have four more years of division, four more years of every person for him/herself, four more years of me claiming to be Canadian when I travel overseas.

I’m not easily seduced by rhetoric--I've read too much Milton for that--and my political crush on Obama doesn’t arise from my hunch that Aaron Sorkin is secretly writing his speeches. I am, however, deeply moved by the idea that we are, each of us, our brother’s keeper, our sister’s keeper, in real, practical, active ways that demand our engagement and participation and even sacrifice. I’m supporting Barack Obama not only because I admire his policies, his independence, and his willingness to engage in dialogue with his opponents here and abroad, but also because he makes ME want to work to achieve the America I've been envisioning.

Monday, March 3, 2008

And "seat cushion" is just another word for ass.

Hello, lurking students and fellow faculty members. It has come to my attention that some of you have found your way to this blog. Some safety information before our flight continues:

You may experience a rapid change in pressure when you enter this space--that is, it may or may not express a different persona than I seem to exhibit in class or in the hallowed halls of our institution. In truth, not likely very different--you probably just don't know me very well. I'd really rather not worry about censoring myself, since I do that all the live-long day, so if you feel like you might be made uncomfortable by stuff I say, the exit row is found at the upper right of your keyboard. It's called "backspace."