MADLIBBING: The Chronicle's "First Person" Columns

Welcome back to my Friday Madlibs game.

Here's what got me thinking. There are quite a few unintentional genres of writing and stories that are appearing on the web these days. This game is designed to poke fun at them.

This time, we'll start with something fairly common. I've been reading blogs for awhile now, and other things besides, and it seems there's some frustration with the Chronicle of Higher Ed's "First Person" columns. When I read them, they seem formulaic. You can predict with reasonable accuracy how any "First Person" column is going to begin. They're a genre unto themselves. Only the nouns have been changed to protect the innocent.

Honestly, when you read them too often they start to seem like those letters to the Penthouse forum or the columns in Cosmo about women who got their periods at inconvenient times. They're painful to read even as they seem just a little (or sometimes a lot) made-up. So what I did was to come up with a brief Madlibs style "First Person" teaser to play with. Tired of reading about how some one's wife/Magic 8 Ball/stamp collection helped them get through their dissertation? Propose something better.

Or maybe more importantly, if I'm right and have cracked the formula, then here's an easy way to get published. Here, then, is my guess at the formula for the Chronicle's "First Person" pieces and how your answers worked out. I think we have some contenders!

First, the formula:

First Person: "What your nemesis would title your biography"

A name of a degree or achievement chronicles their struggle to gain something you've lost (or at least never found) with the help of a gift you'd been given at graduation, ultimately deciding that name of a degree or achievement was not only adjective but a complete waste of noun and not what they thought it would be when they started because they should have focused on something you're interested in that no one else is instead.

And now....your answers!

K gives us:
First Person: "The Destroyer of Sacred Idols"

A writer of a book chapter on "Firefly" chronicles their struggle to gain the ability to drink without getting drunk with the help of the ability to not get much sleep, ultimately deciding that the ability to drink without getting drunk was not only creaky but a complete waste of archives and not what they thought it would be when they started because they should have focused on
whether there's a link between speed-reading at high comprehension levels and sight-reading music at high performance the same person instead.
Dr. Crazy gives us:
First Person: "Bright Gumdrop Unicorn"

A Doctor of Philosophy chronicles their struggle to
gain her virginity with the help of the complete unabridged audio version of "Ulysses," ultimately deciding that gaining her virginity was not only luscious but a complete of apples and not what they thought it would be when they started because they should have focused on "Booknotes" on C-Span instead.
Samantha gives us:
First Person: "Sarcastic Missy Know-it-all"

An MVP chronicles their struggle to gain a trust fund
with the help of a Christmas card, ultimately deciding that gaining a trust fund was not only sparkly but a complete waste of keys and not what they thought it would be when they started because they should have focused on Dorothy Stratten instead.
kermitthefrog gives us:
First Person: "She Smiles Until She Spits In Your Eye"

A Guitar Hero Champion chronicles their struggle to gain God with the help of a Cuisinart food processor, ultimately deciding that gaining God was not only spiky but a complete waste of a chaise lounge because they should have focused on their leg hair instead.
adjunct whore gives us:
First Person: "Whore"

Clara, in the Nutrcracker chronicles their struggle to gain peace with the help of a Mac laptop, ultimately deciding that gaining peace was not only sordid but a complete waste of a multitude because they should have focused on singing, dancing, and playing instead.
Rebecca gives us:
First Person: "God hates a know-it-all"

An MBA chronicles their struggle to gain 50 lbs, with the help of $5,000,000, ultimately deciding that gaining 50 lbs was not only sexy but a complete waste of a vampire because they should have focused on Moonlight (the TV show) instead.
Sisyphus gives us:
First Person: "The Boring Confessions of a Smartass"

The Best in Show chronicles their struggle to gain treasure, with the help of super powers, ultimately deciding that gaining treasure was not only mellifluous but a complete waste of a zebra because they should have focused on punctuation instead.
Ash gives us:
First Person: "She Uses Her Powers for Evil"

A mother chronicles their struggle to gain the ability to suffer fools with the help of therapy, ultimately deciding that gaining the ability to suffer fools was not only perky but a complete waste of hegemony because they should have focused on frogs instead.
So how about it, dear readers, have we cracked the formula? And if so, which of our entries should we try and submit?

My New Blog Game: An Introduction

It's near the end of the term for many of us. And a lot of folks are freaking out about the job market, the holidays, the cost of gas and what not. It is clearly time for a break. And so I'm calling time out for a little brain candy. Tell your friends. It's practically Friday (or it will be by the time most of you read this). Come on over to Curmudgeon's 'cause he's got a new way to pass the time.

But first, some general theoretical buildup by way of a tease.

Recently, I was talking with my students about how interesting I find the study of genre. And I was surprised to see how much they seemed to loathe the topic. Active disinterest, sure, but to actually have to commit to a stance?


Naturally, I tried to explain to them that genre is so interesting to me because it manages at once to show us a formula that we culturally recognize even as we dispute that formula as universal. We know a Western, as they say, but we can't come up with an exclusive list of what movies count or what things make that genre happen (Is it the coloring of the film? Sometimes. Is it gunfights and the horses? Maybe. Is "Firefly" a Western? Depends on who you ask.).

Genre, I said, represents a moment of both cultural agreement and of cultural dispute. When a genre is born, it is almost immediately contested. When we're presented with a genre, we know what to expect and what is expected of us, in turn.

And, perhaps more importantly (and probably more amusingly), once a genre emerges, we can turn the genre on itself. Sometimes we do it to take advantage of particular features (the way "Blade Runner" exploits the film noir formula to do something different with a science fiction story and in talking about man's relationship with machines) or to point out the conceits of the form (the way "Hot Fuzz" does with the buddy cop film).

And some things that have happened on the interweb have had me thinking about genre as well. Just what had me thinking will be apparent tomorrow when I post the second part of the game. To help demonstrate how conceited and formulaic the item in question has become, I have constructed a sample text but removed certain central phrases from it. If I'm right, simply supplying new elements will yield perfectly acceptable results (or at least humorous ones). So be patient for the explanation and indulge me in a game of Mad Libs. In the comments, if you feel like playing, give me the following:
  • what your nemesis would title your biography
  • the name of a degree or achievement
  • a gift you wish you'd been given at graduation
  • something you're interested in that no one else is
  • a noun
  • an adjective
  • something you've lost (or at least never found)
Be warned, this is an experiment and may not work perfectly. If all goes well, I'll post your responses tomorrow, and we can vote for the best one (and possibly nominate it for publication).

Interview Monster Movies and other things

So, I've been struggling with what to write about today. Having a regular blog post, as I think I've noted, has helped to keep me organized. And yet, today I thought how nice it would be to leave the blog hanging and to break out the metaphorical fishing pole. Part of the problem was what to write about. It was between what you're about to read and one on my desire to have a permanent soundtrack that would accompany me in my daily life. For some reason - let's call it near-exhaustion - I've been trying to figure out how and when I'd want "Eye in the Sky" by the Alan Parsons Project to play.

The answer should clearly be "never." And yet I can't get it out of my head. So here we are.

And I've been trying to figure out how to talk about job talks and interviews and all of that. I keep thinking about advice people have given me about interviews and why it is I approach them the way I do. It seems to me that I've got two strategies that I tend to adopt with interviews: the first is to make tangential jokes through the process (not surprising) while at the same time treating the process like Tokyo to my Godzilla. Nothing would make me happier in a job interview than to make an ugly mess of the job description I've just been asked to fill. I want citizens fleeing in terror. And I want the next applicant to be seen as Mothra.

I will be a monster. I will be your savior. I will breathe atomic fire and poorly dubbed dialogue into your department.

I may be delirious.

I'd like to offer strategies - useful things like "make them wait just a bit for you; don't jump at the first offer, even to talk with them" or "be yourself at all costs." But what do you say when "yourself at all costs" equals "make them laugh and trample their tallest buildings"?

Does the thought of job talks make everyone this nuts?

Random bullets of sleepiness

So...tired...must escape...grading jail.
  • found Black Box - in panic bag in trunk of car, with backups of dissertation, two black pens, and fleece blanket. is that really all I figured I needed to survive a grad school apocalypse?
  • where did these papers come from? did I assign them?
  • why are students breaking down now? must drink caffeine in preparation for grade arguments
Please...send help. Or a pillow with a file (or a new red pen) tucked inside. Tell the guard it's for me.

Holiday recovery

In keeping with the rule of holiday ends, it is naturally gray and rainy here. I'm still feeling a little under-the-weather, but it seemed like something my students would've done to have called in today. There are only a few days of lecture left anyway, so surely I can struggle through.

It's funny how little the job rejection is bothering me, though there are a lot of things factored into it, I suppose. The bigger distress right now is the loss of my little Black Box of the Dissertation, containing note cards that I need to pull together a book chapter. Yes, I used the note card system they probably taught you in fifth or sixth grade to do my dissertation: one fact per note card, the page and citation information at the top. That and the judicious use of End Note made the dissertation work fairly smoothly. And it has been useful when pulling things from the dissertation as a way of making sure I'm not writing things exactly the same way even when the topics are similar. There is, of course, one fatal flaw to this system: you must know where the note cards are to use them.

So sages and prognosticators of the interweb, lend me your magic and help me find the Black Box of the Dissertation, I beseech thee.


The pumpkin pie is gone, classes are all set to resume, the weather's gotten colder. It must be the end of the term. So naturally, just as the break is winding down, I'm starting to feel sick.

No, I'm not trying to get out of classes.

Not that it wouldn't be a welcome idea, now that I say it. But no. There are only a few weeks left, and surely I can muster through. I also received today the first rejection notice. It's easier to take this time around, having been contacted about a job talk and already having a job. But for those of you rooting for a gig in Chicago, the odds just slipped a little.

Last night though, I watched Michael Moore's "Sicko," and it got me thinking. Generally, I like Moore's politics though his delivery leaves a bit to be desired. That wasn't the case with this one, though, with the exception of one very unfortunate episode. Still, it left me thinking about the nature of business and such here in the U.S. This is a question for any historians, economists, or people who study labor/business/etc from some other field.

Is there a historical precedent for a style of business organization in Western (or industrial) history that forces the organization to factor in public interest (I'm trying to keep this distinct from public demand) over profit?

Historically, we know that the corporation is a fairly recent development, having taken off in the late 1800s as a means of drawing business to particular locations by protecting owners. And, at least here in the U.S., corporations are required, by law, to place the profits of their share holders above all other designs. But that clearly isn't the only way business has to be organized. What I'm wondering is what would a business model look like that were organized around a different set of needs, and I'm not sure whether there's another form out there that I'm missing.

Your Questions Answered, the Conclusion

Before diving into the last question, thanks to all of you who asked. Having a blog post to think about for whatever reason seems to help the rest of the day stay organized, and the way this week has run, any help keeping things going is appreciated. With any luck, I'm back on track and can do the next few weeks of the term under my own steam. Props to all of you.

With that said, the last question came from Samantha, who asked:
What was the first record album you bought?
Now I could answer that question directly, but it wouldn't reveal too much about me as there wasn't a great story behind why that album. There's data and then there's evidence, after all. So let me try to expand the question a bit.

So first, some back story. I really didn't start buying music until college. I'm a middle child of the Mtv (when it was music videos) generation so for a few reasons, I didn't need to buy much. The first was that I had an older sister who loved music and who was generally ahead of the musical curve. She was the Jimmy Rabbitte of our neighborhood: she knew when a band was just coming on (imagine Duran Duran just days before "Rio" hit) and she knew when they had outlived their welcome (think Duran Duran right around the time they recorded "A View to a Kill" straight up to today). And so I was able to poach her albums when she wasn't around or occasionally blackmail her into letting me borrow them when she was. And of course, there were some musical hand-me-downs, too. And for those things neither of us had, there was Mtv.

It'd probably also be worth thinking about this in terms of format. I'm old enough that I've lived through more than a few generations of musical technology. So I could talk about - and maybe you could infer some things from - the particular albums and formats I bought them in. And just for kicks, I'll throw a couple of other musical touchstones in there.

And before we dig in, a confession, an apology, and grounds for further inquiry all rolled into one: I am unapologetic about even my worst tastes in music. And so I offer no apologies and will feel not one ounce of remorse for what's about to be said, revealed, and/or thought about. I own a lot of albums, and I've only ever gotten rid of two of them in my time. I'm a bit like Rob in "High Fidelity" on that one. You can chart me musically, but you can't shame me. So, with that caveat, let's dive in...

First Vinyl: J. Geils Band "Freeze Frame"

So, the first vinyl I bought was J. Geils Band's "Freeze Frame." Say what you will, but even for me at such a young age - and probably my parents wouldn't have let me pick the album up if they'd known the song I wanted it for was "Centerfold" - but that album was great. The band had a tight sound, and I think there's a lot buried in there that I still like today. Maybe this was the first place, for example, that I consciously heard someone play a harmonica. And the video for "Centerfold" still kicks ass, if only for the drum roll at the end. Watch it, and you'll see all sorts of video precedents set - there's a hint of Robert Palmer's dancing models in the "Addicted to Love" video (and the ones that followed, and the first suggestion of just how cool a video Van Halen's "Hot for Teacher" might be.

First Cassette Tape: Run D.M.C. "King of Rock"

My first cassette tape didn't come too much later. But I'd jumped genres by then. Like white kids from the burbs for the next several decades, I wanted in on that "Other" action. Remember when rap music was fun? I still remember hearing this stuff for the first time. Suddenly, all the kids at the Southern Baptist middle school I went to were listening to it and trying to make sense of it. If you thought "Footloose" was cool in the 1980s, imagine it at a school where the sixth graders are listening to "ghetto music" and wanting do dance?

I went through two copies of this and one vice principal in about seven months with this. It was that good.

First CD: U2 "Rattle and Hum"

Technically, this was one of several CDs I bought all at the same time. Among the others were Def Leppard's "Hysteria" and The Cure's "Disintegration" and a blues sampler that had the first songs I remember loving by John Lee Hooker and Ray Charles on it (the songs, incidentally, were "Boom Boom" and "Drown in My Own Tears," respectively).

I don't have a whole lot else to say about this time period or those purchases except that it was right around the start of college, and music took on a whole different meaning then. This was also pretty close to the time where I discovered the joys of the mix tape.

With that, here's some bonus musical knowledge for you.

The First Album Someone Else Bought Me: Joan Jett and the Blackhearts "I Love Rock and Roll"

A gift from my sister, this album set the standard for rock and roll sexy for me. The only thing to touch it would be that little sidelong come-hither glance by Susannah Hoffs at the end of the "Walk Like an Egyptian" video. But honestly, what's cooler than Joan Jett casting aside the Runaways and bringing us this (incidentally, notice that she plugs her own song at the beginning of the video). Why do I love Sleater-Kinney or The Donnas or the Yeah Yeah Yeahs or Be Your Own Pet so damned much? Why can I still somehow stomach songs by Courtney Love? It all owes to just how bad ass Joan Jett was in my formative years.

Best Mix Tape: Jen T.

Jen is, more or less, the one who got away (and I was, sadly, the one who needed to be gotten away from). But she did mix tapes right. This one had a cover with a penguin photo, and it got lost in a move someplace which seems somehow so tragically metaphorical that emo kids would shake their fingers and tell me to get a life. I can only remember about half the set list today, but this is the mix tape that all the mixes I've ever made for people aspire to be. Standouts from the mix include Tori Amos' "Winter," His Name is Alive's "Is This The Way the Tigers Do" and Meryn Cadell's "The Sweater."

The First Album I Bought That Wasn't Just About the Music: Thelonious Monk "Straight, No Chaser"

In college I took a jazz appreciation course, not because I wanted to be pretentious or anything but because it fit into my schedule, and I'd just enjoyed a Rock History course. And that course brought me all sorts of things. The use of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys made some country music okay (and led me to things like Lyle Lovett and Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams among others). And some of it was very easy. Who couldn't love Louis Armstrong? That tone, that speed, that voice. Jazz was easy to understand until the late 1940s, when things got funky for me. I liked what was happening but there was stuff that I just couldn't get. And the king of that stuff was Thelonious Monk.

I struggled with Monk like a good theory. I struggled with his music the way I still struggle with the idea that being literal in an argument with a girlfriend isn't the same as being rational. I struggled with it the way I struggle with the idea that people who say they're Christian can vote against welfare. I struggled far more than I needed to for such a class. And I still didn't get it until the instructor finally told me to stop thinking about it so much and just listen. Right there in his office, we sat down and put a song on, and every time I tried to say something, the instructor shushed me. And we listened.

And there, underneath all that confusion that Monk had invented just to trample me, there was something else happening. All that stuff that seemed like discord, all those bits that seemed out of place? They were doing something else - something related, but different. There was almost a second song hovering there. It was so big and simple a revelation that I left his office and went to my local record store and ordered the disc right then.

It was, as moments go, near transcendent. And it's the reason today that I'm nervous telling students not to take courses just because they fit their schedule. Who knows what you might find, right?

A Thanksgiving Interlude

So, as you may or may not know (maybe you're spying on me) Thanksgiving is probably my favorite holiday. And though this may come as a lie to my first grade teachers (who put us all into an Arbor Day play, and we swore what a great holiday that was), that means even in the world of blogging some pause to be thankful must be given.

Part of what I love about Thanksgiving is that it's a holiday that isn't about anything other than recognizing how good you've got it (and this, roughly four weeks before a holiday that seems to be about demanding to somehow have it better). Growing up, Thanksgiving meant a little calm around the Curmudgeon homestead (I am, so it seems to me, the calm one of the lot so any moment that cooled the rest of them down was always welcome). In grad school one of my dearest friends would invite us all to her place for Thanksgiving, and those days, chaotic as they sometimes were with drunks of many persuasions and all the grad school drama you could shake a dissertation at, it was one of the best pauses in a great time period. And in recent years, a number of close friends and new acquaintances have invited me into their homes and made me feel like part of the family.

Maybe because I'm pretty far from all of them at this point, I'm thinking more about them. And so while I won't bore you with the full list of things, I'll say a quick thanks to all those folks who've helped me love this holiday (even though most of them know nothing of this blog).

So Happy Thanksgiving to you. I'll return shortly with the last of the "Your Questions Answered" entries.


Your Questions Answered, Part III

Crazy times here, people. With some extraordinary willpower (not my own), the universe has been bested in the midst of bad weather, and I'm back and warm and here for your blogging pleasure. We're nearing the end of reader questions (and who am I kidding, it's Thanksgiving and no one should be reading this anyway - there's family and football and food and and and...). You get the point. Today, I'm going to group two questions together.

The first comes from Maggie:
2. What film or TV character would you most like to be & why?
And the second from Belle:
Coming off Maggie's - what character (TV/film) would you most like to invite to dinner? Why?
Now I fear that my answer may disappoint a little here, mostly because there are some pretty big hitches in my willful suspension of disbelief. For whatever reason, I can imagine being fictional characters from shows that are unrealistic in the present or past but not the future.

So though I watch shows like "Heroes" and "Battlestar Galactica" (holy crap! thank goodness you asked this question - I had no idea there was a special BG episode on the 24th!), I have a harder time thinking about who I'd want to be from those shows.

And worse, I have a hard time picking a single favorite of nearly anything and adding in possibilities (film and tv? how do you pick just one?). So for Maggie's question, I've got a couple of answers based on those things. First, I'll give the one that I can almost suspend my disbelief enough to allow for, and second, I'll put what I came up with when I really pushed the limits of it. But I'm just going to do tv.

So here goes: who would I be and why from TV (the almost real version):

Magnum, P.I.

I don't think based on this opening I even need to explain. But, if you must know, living a life of leisure, solving mysteries, driving a Ferrari at excessive speeds, a friend with a helicopter, living on a beach in Hawaii? Even without the moustache and the action hero love life, how could you resist that?

Now then, who would I be and why from TV (the to hell with reality version):

Bugs Bunny

Now, to be fair, I have a hard time deciding between Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and Pepe Le Pew, but Bugs wins for cultural cachet (not to mention he tends to get the best of Daffy - unfairly, I think). Not only is he an icon, but when HE takes the wrong turn at Albequerque, he winds up somewhere cool. He's funny, fuzzy, and he and his pals taught me nearly everything I know about classical music.

Just because, here's a link to some Bugs goodness (and it's one of my favorites).

Incidentally, there were runners up here and they weren't all cartoons. They included Animal from "The Muppets" and Starbuck from the new "Battlestar Galactica."

Now Belle's addendum to the question is even more fun to deal with. Here the suspension of disbelief thing is really a problem for me because I'm actually inviting someone to dinner. Dinner invitations carry all manner of considerations. Obviously, I'm overthinking this.

So, from TV, who would I invite to dinner and why?

Johnny Carson

Here's the thing. I value funny. And if someone's coming to dinner, they'd better have something to say. Johnny would seem to have both. Think of all the people he interviewed and the stories he must know that never got told. And who couldn't he interview and make funny? And think about this, he did it in a suit and was able to make jokes about sex on TV in the 1970s. He didn't have to do the coked up, disheveled thing (I'm looking at you, Dane Cooke). He just was. He recognized funny: think of all the comedians whose career was made on his show. Plus, he carried a sidekick who, near as I can tell, was there only in case someone got out of control.

Also - and this is probably the biggest reason - I wonder whether he'd laugh at one of my jokes. That would be awesome.

Maybe I should try and come up with some more modern answers, but I don't really watch any real TV these days. It probably doesn't help that some of the other possible answers included Captain Kangaroo, Soupy Sales, and Martha Quinn.

Man, I'm getting old.

Your Questions Answered, Part II

Just days till Turkey Day, so good luck to all you folks traveling. I'm gearing up for a marathon run at "The Wire." And, of course, answering your questions.

And incidentally, the offer is still open. If you've got more questions, owing to the nature of the week, now's your chance. This one is one of two from Maggie (I'll answer 'em both). Maggie asks
1. What was your favorite toy as a kid? Explain.
This is one of those questions that's fun to answer but is maybe just a bit deceptive.

I had a fair amount of toys growing up, in part because my mother ran a day car out of the house. That also meant that while there were a lot of toys around, none of them were really mine either. In third grade, for example, a child bit the head off my Han Solo action figure and only I morned Han's loss. If only it were the carbonite, but alas, as I think Greedo tried to explain, for the family it was just business.

Those sorts of moments aside, when I think about growing up I don't really think about toys for most of it. Because my mom ran a day care, for a long time, there were plenty of kids to play with. And so when we played, it was freeze tag or superheros or some other pretend game. And when I was older than the kids she was watching, I spent most of my time at my best friend's house, swinging out of a tree, accidentally hitting his dog with a soccer ball (I swear, Pierre was a freakin' soccer ball magnet), reading comic books or later, watching Mtv.

But there is one toy that, by virtue of its simplicity, maintained its joy across most of those time periods: Silly Putty What a genius invention! Admit it, you would have played with Silly Putty long into your middle school days at least. Who didn't love stretching their favorite comic character's face? Silly Putty was the strangest thing to happen to comics till 5 Card Nancy. But Silly Putty went even further. Want to trap your G.I. Joe? Silly Putty is the answer. Want to simulate bodily functions to younger kids? Silly Putty. Stretch Armstrong just tried to steal Silly Putty's cool. And he failed! And that failure made his insides turn to goo (we know your weakness, Stretch).

Waxing poetic about it, Silly Putty is proof that the simplest ideas are often the best. It was, as are Crayons, an elegant, simple solution (and I mean this along the same lines as Watson and Crick's explanation of the double helix as a simple, elegant solution) to nearly any bored childhood (oh, who am I kidding, I still own them) moment. Keep your Nintendos. Break your GameBoys. Silly Putty on a family vacation almost made it tolerable to be stuck in the back with one of my siblings, the same way Crayons made more than a bit of life in a cubicle make a bit more sense.

Okay, now that [/geek] might really work. Tomorrow, part two of Maggie's question and maybe Belle's, too.

And, of course, just like Stretch always said, have a Happy Thanksgiving.

Your Questions Answered, Part I

Things are busy here in Curmudgeon laboratories., what with the turkeys and the monkeys and all. So thank you to those of you who've given me some polite prompting with questions. I'll start with Kermitthefrog's question:
Where's the most exciting/satisfying/bewildering place you've traveled (choose one or all, and elaborate as desired)?
This is a tough question because I can only think of one trip I've ever taken that wasn't worth the trip (and if I could cope a bit more happily with the lesson from that one, it'd be good, too, in that "pain builds character" way). It's compounded by the fact that I love traveling the way only someone who feels they were unfairly denied travel can.

I grew up a military kid, around military kids, only we never got sent anywhere to speak of. There were kids who talked about snowball fights in Germany, about playing Spiderman on the bus in England, and all sorts of things. One of my siblings was born overseas. But not me, no no! And I was a geek as a kid (this should not be surprising) so I read about Greece and London and the Pyramids and all sorts of places, and it seemed the cruelest irony that I had friends who had been there and hated it, but I never got to go. The grass is always greener.

With that said, you'll understand (even as I'm about to pick one place) why I can't really pick one place. Paris was great, Spain was awesome, New York City was fun, Chicago was cold and bluesy. But just one? This feels like a Calvino "Invisible Cities" moment, and I love that and apologize for it.

Alright, Kermie, here it is: back when I was an undergraduate, I did roadtrips fairly regularly (and rarely to exciting places). But one Spring Break I went to stay with a friend in Monterrey, Mexico. This is not to be confused with any of those Spring Break beach trips. Monterrey is in the mountains in the center of the country. The weather was perfect, and my little Spanish wasn't up to the task. But the days there were the perfect mix of everything. I walked around a foreign place with my camera. I saw museums and visited a university. And at night, the mountains looked like they were lit by candles, so you could just mark their edges when the night was blackest. The city wasn't as bright as the places I grew up, so from my friend's balcony, you could look up and see the stars. For that week, we sat out on the stars and talked about books and computers and drank Mexican beer long into the morning. I didn't speak the language, and it proved (even having grown up in the Southwest) that I didn't know as much about the culture as possible, and it was strange and amazing and exactly what I wanted travel to be.

Monterrey set the rule for travel for me from then on. Pack as light as possible, carry the camera and the film, and walk around. If you don't speak it, try anyway and laugh - most people will forgive that. Monterrey was Paris. It was New York. It was the place I go back to anytime I travel, even though the new places are themselves. You can't compare the two - Paris was amazing and spectacular and mystifying and beautiful. And I got the pleasure of falling out of love there which is one of the only two ways to be in Paris. But who I am when I travel - how I see the places I am - that's all Monterrey.

Peanut gallery, your moment is now...

Having tapped into the collective cultural generational distaste for Uggs and to all the other fashion disasters, I'm going to attempt to change tact lest this blog be mistaken for Blackwell's. And as I prepare for the Thanksgiving week, complete with the broke academic Thanksgiving (consisting of pumpkin pie, frisbee with the pup, and all the kung fu movies I can take plus several episodes of the wire), I'm feeling a bit lazy.

I've been poking fun for days - the surest way you knew I'd eventually do this myself - and since it worked so well over on so many other blogs, I'm going to dive in and take questions from anyone who's got 'em. Since I'm feeling lazy, I'm going to spread the answers out over the next several days (assuming, of course, there are enough questions to spread out - if not, I'll likely just take a vacation). All the usual privacy caveats apply, so while the answers may not be what you're expecting, I'll shoot for entertaining and if that doesn't work. I'll just try to shoot from the hip.

You may fire when ready, Grizzly...

RBOC: the in-class quiz (now you're zug-zugged) edition

Just random thoughts from the midst of an in-class quiz:
  • I hate those moments when, behind on my grading, a student asks me in that earnest, meaningful tone of voice whether I've graded a particular assignment. For whatever reason it always makes me think they've said something very personal in it that they're hoping for some value judgment on.
  • I have the song "Harakiri" by the Ponys stuck in my head. You should get it stuck in your head, too, so I won't be alone in this.
  • You know those furry boots people wear, the ones that look like bad costume refugees from some prehistoric or post-apocalyptic movie (think "Caveman", "Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome" or "Barbarella")? If I'm not the first, let me add my name to the list who'd like to suggest that those things need to go away. Seriously, if Ringo Starr, Tina Turner, and Jane Fonda all saw the light, it's time you do, too.

Thinking about Thanksgiving?

This was very nearly a "Things from My Inbox" post because I'm making so little and owe so much that the notion of donating even $50 to charity seems a stretch. But the idea is a nice one, and maybe there are folks better off than me out there who hadn't heard about this. So if you're trying to think of something good to do for whatever holiday you might celebrate, or you think that Thanksgiving is nice, but Giving is even better, this is for you.

Check out One Laptop, One Child's "Give One/Get One" campaign.

I wish I'd known about it earlier, as I think it would've made for an interesting community service project for students - ideally, the free laptops could be given to people in our community. I don't think, however, that I've got time to try to organize that before this particular promotion ends.

Job Market Thoughts - Teaching...

So, two more applications out which puts the grand total at 17. I guess I really am hitting the market. Some people might ask whether it's smart for me to apply so broadly, and what follows is my rationalization on it.

For those who're curious, my field isn't quite as glutted as English, though my areas of research and focus are fairly popular, with a lot of people interested in it, though it's no longer THE hot topic. That's meant that competition for the same position changes - right now it's tougher than it was four years ago but it will probably be easier again three or four years from now.

One thing that I've not seen people address elsewhere - maybe it's not true for other fields the way it seems to be for mine - is that the job market itself is also fairly cyclical. The year I cam out, there were a number of jobs in my area, and the following year - when my visiting was ending - there were almost none. Having watched the market for awhile now, there seems to be a 3-4 year cycle of jobs. This would be one more factor in that junior faculty migration that's been mentioned previously.

I've also seen a few questions about the notion of academic pedigree and how important it is. It seems to me like there are a few factors that play in. One is certainly the field your in. In fields that are glutted, pedigree is going to help. In fields that are less so, pedigree will matter more if you're shooting for the Research I jobs than elsewhere. I came from a fairly new program - roughly 10 year or so of Ph.D. graduates when I came out - in a popular but not yet glutted field. That meant there were a couple of things I could do to strengthen my hand in the market. The first, which I didn't do, would have been to come out with my dissertation in hand. The second, though, was to turn up at every interview (whether they asked for it or not) with some thoughts about how I would teach the courses that I knew no one else wanted. In most fields this seems to be the intro courses. It also meant I could apply to a variety of departments - small liberal arts places and the bigger prestige sorts of places.

Going into the market now, several years in, the strategy seems to have shifted. I feel like, having taught in both a visiting and now at a SLAC, one of the things that's going to help me is the fact that I've got a proven teaching record across a variety of courses (and a lot of them are still the less popular ones). And I've been able to develop some edgier courses to try out that let me apply for some of the more cleverly specific jobs that might have been tangential to where I was in terms of research several years ago. I also get to play up the fact that I've worked at both sorts of places - most of it at the SLAC level but also that one year at a Research I.

Of course, I'd like to claim that much of that was actually strategy, but really so much of the job market seems about how you can best express what you've learned and can carry with you from the experiences you've stumbled, fumbled, and fell into.

Take that, Hollywood...

Still nothing to tell the internets - perhaps I'm in a slump. Or maybe I'm going for tall, virtual, and mysterious. You're welcome to be the judge. In the meantime, I'm trying to put together a reading list for one of my courses next term which equates to hurriedly reading all sorts of books and articles (I'm getting set, I think, to opt for a reading list). I could ramble about it, but it isn't grabbing me.

So instead, I'll offer you this which is the most interesting thing I've read in days (but then, I'm grading so there you have it):
We can not pardon you for never filming girls as we know and love them, boys as we see them every day, parents as we scorn or admire them, children as they astonish us or as they spark only indifference, in short, things as they really are.
- Jean-Luc Goddard
Hopefully, I'll have something more to tell you soon. In the meantime, my poppets, here's to the world as it really is.


Since it's all the rage to ask questions of the blogosphere this week (I'll probably do it soon, 'cause I'm behind the times), here are some questions I'd like to ask of folks who may or may not have blogs.

For IT:
If neither e-mail nor phone calls elicit a response, what method do you suggest I use to contact you to help ensure you understand my questions are not rhetorical?

For my parents:
What makes you think asking the same question I already told you definitively no to will get a different answer if you wait awhile and ask it again?

[ED: actually, this works for other folks. Feel free to ask yourself this question if you've got a situation involving me that's frustrating you. It might help.]

For hiring committees:
What is the minimum you require to demonstrate "teaching excellence"?

For the striking writers in the entertainment industry:
Si se puede! But what can I do to make sure the strike won't interrupt the last season of "Battlestar Galactica" which I'm anticipating the way my mother hopes for grandchildren?

But doesn't this mean I'll be first against the wall?

Because I have nothing particular to tell you, I'll let a random online test tell you something about me.

Dr. Curmudgeon is:

It's (You) Go (Girl) Time!

So today I almost got into a fight with a woman. This is uncomfortable for me to admit because I was raised in the semi-South and still have some bit of discomfort if I go in a door before a woman. And I rarely feel that violence is the answer (exceptions being dealing with my older sister when we were kids and loud people on cell phones). So it is with some bit of shame that I admit this.

To be fair, she seemed ready to pick the fight with me, but I'd have taken my shot.

The problem - as so many do here - stems from driving. I'm convinced that you can understand a lot about the place you live by observing its drivers. How people drive, I'd claim, says a lot about how they deal with governance, with each other, with life in general. And it's no secret (well, maybe to all of you, it is) that I think the drivers here are awful. And I've been scared by taxi drivers in multiple countries and done road trips to a majority of the 50 states. And so, with self-imposed authority, I feel I can say that the drivers here are the worst I've seen.

I'm convinced that folks born in this area are given an option when they first receive their license, allowing them to opt out of any one category of traffic regulation. Pass your exam? Pick a category. Choose wisely, and you never need obey a traffic signal again. Or perhaps speed limits are your nemesis? To their credit, people don't always choose the obvious things. Some of them opt to ignore lanes; some simply decline to obey parking laws in even their most basic form (just after moving here a few years back, I was stunned to see two police cars parked so the officers could talk right in the middle of one of the major traffic arteries. At night. With no lights on.). People here are very creative in their violations of the social compact that is driving.

I should note, up front, I have been accused of being an aggressive driver. I would claim that I am not aggressive, I am goal-oriented. I am definitely a Type-A behind the wheel. But I don't tailgate, and I use my turn signal. I rarely honk my horn or give the finger. Just don't slow me down.

So today, I was out running errands in preparation for the upcoming job shenanigans (and to get a couple more applications done) when I came to a traffic light. It was T-intersection, with two lanes. And this is where it gets odd. The left lane could turn left. But the right lane, in keeping with the innovation that has made this area what it is, could turn left, right or go straight. I was in the left lane. In the right lane, were a variety of cars, some of which which had applied their turn signals (some of those even turned the way their signals indicated).

As I turned left, a white pickup truck in the right lane was also turning left (for those of you who are wondering, the truck came with the requisite American flag - in this case as a sort of ripped decal indicating that the truck itself was actually red, white and blue and had only bee unpatrioticaly covered with white paint, possibly by some pinko leftist or foreign car driver (if not both)). But as we both turned, the white truck pushed well into my lane, forcing me into the lanes of traffic crossing the top of the T). My choice was hit or be hit or brake and honk my horn. I went with the third option.

To my surprise, at the next stop light, the truck stopped well short of the light so I'd pull up beside, and the window rolled down and a woman began to yell at me, demanding to know why I dared honk at her. I rolled down my window, and without raising my voice explained that she was cutting into my lane and forcing me into traffic and that I was either going to be hit or I could try and communicate to her that I was there.

And that's when it happened. She said, "YOUR lane? YOUR LANE?!" and began to open her door.

She was going to get out of her truck and give me a piece of her mind. Perhaps she was going to open a can of whup-ass on me.

Now this isn't the first time in my life this has happened. When I was in high school in Texas, someone got angry with me for something in traffic and did the same thing. But it was a 19 year old guy with a mullet driving a Camaro. Macho makes a sort of sense when you're 19. But this was, to my eyes, a 40ish woman.

And so I started laughing (which is what I always do at these moments) and thinking about what a statement it would be if I opened my car door, too. This is where our society has come, I thought. This is why I must get out of here. And then, as happened when I was 19, the light turned green, and the moment was over.


I just found out I need to get my first job talk ready. Good times.

An Interfolio for References Downside

I've been using Interfolio to manage references during the job search. I've not worried particularly about whether committees will react badly to it; as far as I'm concerned they can suck up that they don't get letters tailored to them specifically from every person involved in the process since they ask for so much information at the start of the process in my field.

The decision to use it was based around the fact that getting reference letters from afar, like managing a dissertation from far off, is like herding cats. It was easier to me to set one deadline with everyone, to ask each reference to highlight particular things, and to have some bit of a backup. Part of why it's necessary is that I've taught at two very different types of schools in addition to the grad school related issues. So I want references that will highlight that I thrived in my One Year Visiting at a Research I as well as references that can talk about how I've been good for the SLAC that I'm currently at. I want to make sure someone is talking about how useful my research is and how good my teaching is. I need someone to talk about both undergraduate work and my experiences teaching graduate students.

But even with Interfolio, it's still cats being herded. Part of my backup was to have an extra reference letter available. One from my dissertation adviser (covering research), one from my current department chair, one from my current dean, and one from my division chair at the one year where, among other things, I gained experience with graduate students.

Naturally, only three of the four letters came in on time for the 15 applications I sent out (please note, more than a month and a half was given before the first deadline for the reference letters). The fourth one came in today, and I'm left with the question of whether that fourth letter is worth sending out, even to a limited number of places, at the $5 per mailing cost.

Debating my role in the information society

I had a dream awhile back where I was nothing but information and that every job application and public revelation was like taking a layer or a limb. So maybe it isn't so surprising that I'm finding myself a bit discombobulated with the world at the moment. A day or so ago - somehow it slipped under the blog radar - I sent out what I anticipate as the last major push of applications, putting the grand total at 15. And having those little type written simulacra of myself floating around and being judged with me in absentia is always a bit nerve-wracking.

And yesterday, life in the information society caught up with me just a bit as my worst (Facebook) fear came true and a student found my profile and requested that I be their friend. I'll be curious to talk to my class about whether they ever agonized over the question the way I did.

And yesterday evening, I received a request for information from Who's Who in America, which actually feels like a scam to me, though I've read all the reviews. Really, what I want to know is who nominated me and whether it does anything for me to actually be listed there. In case it hadn't come across in the blog - which nearly always feels obscenely expulsive to me - I'm a pretty private person, and so I don't know that I necessarily want to be a Who's Who. I wonder what they'll do when (if I decide to submit) I refuse to divulge certain pieces of information they ask for?

So how about it, internets, what's your take?

RBOC: midweek advising addition

Many things happening, most of them good (or, at least, interesting).
  • surprise wedding announcement from my friend Eric Stratton (kudos if you get the reference). I should have known something was up when he called for my address a few weeks ago, saying it was time to act like a grown up. This is one more piece of evidence that attempts to get organized lead to bad things.
  • the first third of student have signed up for courses, causing me the temptation to look and see who has signed up for my Spring classes. This has the potential to be like Christmas morning. I'm teaching a course I've been dying to get to for more than two years, and there's the chance that the students in it will be the dream students. Or I could open the package and find I've been given monogrammed socks. Again.
  • yesterday two students stopped in the office to talk about advising, and one of them turned to the other, advising her to take "the black people course" next term. Laws forbidding me to thwap them both soundly upside their heads forced my hand to suggesting that if they wouldn't like to have someone refer to them as "white people" they might consider paying attention in courses like that rather than just taking up space for credit.
  • the first disc of season one of "The Wire" should be waiting for me when I get home. Don't spoil it, but I'm excited as it's gotten high marks in the right proportions.
  • finished the course proposal finally, and decided to try and dodge the outrageous demands about attendance policies chronicled in some previous post I'm too lazy to go find. I'm reminded of the advice someone gave me about dissertation corrections - sometimes you have to take a stand that you know better than your editors.
Back to the grind.

No pithy witticism today

Here's the deal. It's 4:15. I've advised 15 students, taught two classes, written out all sorts of forms, and tilted with IT. I have only just done something like eating lunch.

There is no time or energy for wit.

All that matters is that I cannot find my tape. I don't know which one of you took it. I don't care if it's buried under paper and advising forms or poltergiested by the ghost of sandwiches too soggy to eat. I have no care for explanations or apologies.

Return my tape now and the Earth may yet be spared.

Conflicts: a One Act Play In Bullet Points

Setting: an academic office, desks covered with papers, articles, books like a publishing factory has vomited or perhaps been killed in a suitably Phillip Marlow sort of way, mid-morning.

The cast:
Our hero - played by whomever you'd like to see play this role
The Downside of the Conflict: Stacy Keach
The Upside of the Conflict: Kermit the Frog

Scenes to be improv'd.
  • Feeling the need to post on the blog versus a fear that an "I Hate This Monday" post will sound dangerously close to a Garfield cartoon
  • The need to organize various papers with the certainty that at least 70 more tidbits will be headed this way shortly
  • The knowledge that I might be observed tempered by the fact that the observer, in a moment eerily reminiscent of something one of my students tried earlier this week, has sent me a "I might not make it to class because of a dentist appointment" e-mail
  • The inability to look away from the gruesome Gumdrop train wreck still happening elsewhere versus the desire to actually have a life
  • The desire to write a scathing letter to the VP for whom IT answers, complaining about their awful track record this term and their amazing ability to be at lunch 7 out of 8 hours a day versus the certainty that such a complaint will land me on a committee
  • The desire to make a list of things to accomplish and be crippled by it or to wing-it, feel better about it, and take the 50/50 chances of doing more that way
  • The overwhelming desire to find my playmate and get into some mischief versus the need to do some serious work quickly
Discuss and/or add more dilemmas for our cast.

If Assessment Goals Were In Any Way Honest...

So I was just writing an e-mail talking about a class and an assignment I'd given off the cuff, and why that course is a challenge for me. And on the side of the path of that particular conversation, it occurred to me that the assessment goals I've been forced to develop and refer to aren't really honest.

The course is an intro class. I'm loving teaching it, honestly, though it has all the major drawbacks that go with teaching an intro class (only skimming the surface, students who aren't interested in the topic, etc). But the course isn't entirely mine. It's got all sorts of mandates on it from the department and the University at large. And it has high-fallutin' assessment goals with phrases like:
  • "demonstrate key distinctions in the historical emergence..."
  • "enable students to become critical consumers..."
And these are lovely, even if I have been forced to use the word "consumers" as part of my vision for students.

But they're big, fat, honking lies.

The course is my department's intro course, but it is also meets a general education sort of requirement. And while, in theory, those sorts of things are the goals for this bunch of freshmen, if I was allowed to say what the goals my department really has for me teaching this course they would look like this:
  • to provide a dog and pony show of the discipline
  • to entertain so that prospective students will join the major
  • to (while doing an entertaining dog and pony show) establish the department's minimum standards
  • and, oh yeah, if there's time, to help you learn to think critically and such

The Rules of Academic Engagement

You know, sometimes I wish blogs could have subtitles. Or that when academic bloggers wrote, they gave their posts titles the way they title their papers. And in the interest of humor and familiarity, I decided to take up the challenge myself and make try a post that draws on the conventions of one form of academic communication to talk about another form.

[Addendum: Be warned, this isn't a blog post. It's a commitment. And as you may have learned, that means once you start reading it, you cannot stop. ]

That said, if this post was a journal article, it would be titled thusly:
Advice for Soon-to-be-Gumdrops Who've Been Following The Happy Gumdrop Dustup and Who Haven't Yet Killed Themselves/Their Senior Advisers or Completely Abandoned This Career Path: A Meta-Analysis
It's a long standing truism of academia (typically attributed to Kissinger) that the reason academic politics are so vicious is because the stakes are so small. Certainly we've seen some evidence of just how vicious they can be recently. Among the posts of lurkers in various places, of soon-to-be Gumdrops, and amongst those of us already in this particular set of trenches, the whole episode has raised serious doubts. But even so, there are some lessons to be taken from this whole hullabaloo. If nothing else, realize that the academic community, just like your family, is, shall we say, quirky at least.

Part of why I invoke Kissinger's quote - though I think he's wrong about the stakes - is that what you've just seen is the academic equivalent of guerrilla warfare. And while Kissinger didn't exactly know how to get us out of those situations, he did ultimately learn that the danger of guerrilla warfare was that the rules which were evident weren't the rules that should best be followed.

So, knowing the rules, you can begin to develop strategies to circumvent them. I'll be using the Happy Gumdrop Dustup as a means of both explaining the seeming rules of conflict management within academic society and strategies which may be of use by would-be gumdrops and gumdrop collaborators in helping circumvent these problems. For a concise history of the dustup, here is a useful reference.

If you look at the discourse so far, you'll see a few rules very clearly in evidence. Sadly, I'd like to say that these things just happen here, but having sat through faculty meetings at three different institutions (as Gumdrops go, I'm getting stale), served on a variety of committees at two, worked on organizational boards, and played at faculty poker nights, I can say that this isn't the only time I've seen this1

It must be stressed that while this behavior is more common than we might like, it is far from the norm. What triggers the behavior is up for debate, and its worth noting that a close reading shows some interesting metaphorical trends and is grounds for further inquiry.2

Rule 1: Give No Quarter

Kissinger says academic fights are vicious because the stakes are small. I say they're vicious because they are our equivalent of bare-knuckle boxing. Proving we're right is sport - and for some, it's a blood sport. And in blood sports, you must ALWAYS fight to win, not to compromise. 3

Strategy and Analysis:
This rule, in fact, suggests, the first and most important strategy to dealing with this sort of situation. Unlike the metaphorical cage match we are comparing this to, no one in fact is locking the metaphorical cage. You are free to step out at anytime, whether this be the debate or some larger situation, such as a job.

Along similar lines, you must be careful not to mistake the proposed solutions - which are often either/or solutions - with the full range of possible solutions. Most of your colleagues, when not in the heat of the battle themselves will recognize this (and the good ones will do this even if in the midst).

It's worth noting in the Gumdrop brouhaha that the arguing got loudest when people asserted these rights - whether in the right to leave a job or the right to leave (or to be asked to leave) a conversation. Arguments always require participants, and those who love to argue know very well how to try and gain them.

Rule 2: Choose Your Weapons But Don't Show It

In the academic dust-up, the chief weapons are definitions. This is a rule you should have learned in graduate school, where we've learned to cite our sources and clearly explain not just our definitions but why we've chosen them.

The academic dust-up, however, takes this rule and inverts it. In combat, after all, showing your strength is to expose your weakness. Offering up a definition is to allow the opposition to disarm you. So you must do your best to use your definitions stealthily, only revealing them as the briefest slashes of logic - enough to draw blood but untouchable.

Strategy and Analysis:
In any situation where you're being intentionally left in the dark, your goal becomes to try and gather information yourself. In the heated academic knuckle-duster, this is akin to dancing just out of reach while you study. Ask questions. Ask them different ways. Put the definitions themselves through their paces.

Just as importantly, be clear in yours. One place you can do this is in the academic interview. When I went through my first round of interviews as I was coming out of my program ABD, the fear of not having a job (and hence not having funding which would lead to not being able to finish the dissertation which swallowed the spider to catch the fly...) presented the temptation to try and be whatever a job wanted me to be. Resist this urge. In an interview, in your interactions with colleagues, be yourself. If there is a problem - and sometimes there will be - take it for the sign it is (and only for the sign it is).

The most interesting example of this from the Gumdrop debate was a member of the senior faculty camp who was upset that mentoring and invitations to dinner and invitations to dinner didn't net a junior faculty member's continued presence in the department. As a member of the gumdrop camp, I never would have imagined that a colleague's invitation to dinner(s) would equate to anything but some conversation and collegiality. Honestly, would any of us go to dinner with anyone if we knew it meant the possibility of shackling ourselves to their image of how we should behave for the next year of our lives? Sometimes a steak should just be a steak (or a veggie burger for my West Coast friends). Failing that, at least make sure if your dinner comes with a cost, that you actually put a bill out there. My assumption- and I think a reasonable one - was that the last time I had to put out because you bought me dinner was at the interview.

One of the truly distressing moments in the Gumdrops debate was that there was little attempt to define the problem. Reading between the lines of the debate, there were at least two different things happening. On one side, the junior faculty at the start of the debate didn't actually fit the definition being offered by seniors at the end. None were of the "one and done" variety being decried for taking a job and then leaving. Moreover, many of the faculty lumped into the Gumdrops actually fit a more senior role. Part of the underlying struggle shifted in the midst to trying to clarify what was actually meant by "junior faculty" because there were a substantial number of people in the middle (if only the early stages of it) of their careers.

Rule 3: Control the Terrain

Notice in the discourse of the academic dust-up how often one side or the other assumes that their context is every one's context. One thing Sun-Tzu has taught is that he who controls the battleground controls the battle. This is particularly true in the battle over meaning, where the clearest way to control the battle is to know the terrain better than anyone else. Begin by making them come to you and never, ever concede that there could be another possibility.

For example, while even recent studies show there is marked difference in how academics of different generations view their careers, including what they were and weren't satisfied with, this was largely left out of the debate.

Strategy and Analysis:
Most academic debates become about the context of the people involved. Sadly, as seen in the Gumdrop debate, there is no certain to guarantee that even when you offer a context for yourself that anyone will pay attention to it. But be sure you know yourself well enough to know not only what you want but why you want it.

One of the frustrations expressed by the "senior faculty" was ultimately that they couldn't understand why junior faculty didn't love their department/university/city as much as they did. While this is largely their failure of imagination, there are things you can do to try and prevent this problem in your own relations. First, ask questions about the things that matter to you. Almost invariably with the academic interview, there is not only time set aside for your questions but some time set aside for a tour (this may simply be a lift from the airport). This is your moment to begin to mark out and determine whether this is the place for you or not.

Rule 4: There are Two Kinds of Intelligence - Use Them Both

You know you are intelligent; that's how you got here. Rely on that. But don't be afraid to find intelligence about your opponent and to take advantage. If this means referencing some unfortunate behavior or some unthinking disclosure to gain advantage, you must do it. To some, this would equate to dirty fighting, but in any blood sport, you can't be afraid to press your advantages and take advantage of tactical errors

Strategy and Analysis:
This was one of the most unfortunate moments of the dust-up and probably the most distressing. That members on both sides began to strike out in highly personal ways on the road to trying to make their point. Honestly, it's pretty embarrassing imagining students or colleagues or donors somehow chancing on these moments. And that's the question I've been asking myself today: how would this look to someone not in the midst of it.

I would also imagine, having read some of the more vitriolic moments, that there's a temptation by bloggers involved to stop entirely. Charitably, I'll say that this wasn't an attempt at an actual chilling effect on the parts of the posters who felt the need to resort to attempts at using personal details about members of the blogging community as a means of bolstering their arguments. I'm not personally convinced of that. From the standpoint of those who have benefited from others blogs, I certainly hope this won't be the consequence.

But the bigger point here is that you've got to be prepared to own up to what you say and you've got be prepared that it might be used against you. This sort of thing doesn't happen just in the blogosphere, though it is (in my experience) much more common here. A recent Chronicle column (which I cannot find at the moment) suggested that new faculty should guard their secrets. That's not bad advice, though again, you mustn't be so guarded that you miss connections or somehow misrepresent yourself.

One of the secrets to negotiating any group dynamic - and take this form someone who's survived corporate America and is now navigating the Ivory Tower - is that spending more time listening than speaking will usually tell you all you need to know about your colleagues and your campus. As Gumdrops (or Gumdrops-to-be), spend those first moments of service listening - while we value your input we also understand that it can be overwhelming to be thrown onto the Curriculum Committee or Strategic Planning or whatever - and so we expect you'll be a little quiet. That's your chance to feel out where things stand and whether you've made the right choice or not.


There are a few important conclusions that I think can be made here.

The most important one is that those of us who blog and respond to blogs are only one segment of the faculty you're going to meet. The very fact that we're here and posting suggests something about us and how we deal with problems. We're a vocal minority, and should be interpreted as such. Recognize, too, that we use anonymity in productive and unproductive ways, and that same feature may well have been used against some of us in the community.

Secondly, though, I think you'll see that part of what really underlies the problem here isn't so much a generational thing (though that might be something of an intervening variable) but one of communication itself. By and large, those "senior faculty" who complained were really talking about how they felt deceived and used, a set of feelings the Gumdrops also feel but for very different reasons. My generalization of it is that for "senior faculty," it's about trying to foster relationships that fail, and for "junior faculty" it's about how relationships are set up to fail in the current structure. Those questions aren't going away anytime soon.

Third, I hope it's recognized that most (if not all - I couldn't say for sure) the "junior faculty" all did more than a little to give their jobs a chance. Taking that time to get to know the place and the people is certainly worthwhile, but that doesn't mean you have to stay. I've been advised by more than a few senior faculty (I know them and their credentials, so no quotes for them) who've advised me that even in the second year it's acceptable, but the third year may be seen as more preferable.

Finally, I hope that while the waters here seem treacherous and uncharted, that it's realized that most people really do want to work with you and see you advance in your career in a way that works for you, not just for them.

[Addendum: What? You're still here? Well, alright, have some footnotes then.]

1: Please note, however, while this implies that such academic guerrilla warfare is more common than just this thread, it does not imply that it is ubiquitous.

2: There are a few interesting patterns here. The question of academic vocation is often tied to a series of very particular metaphors. The first is of academia as a calling. Outside of academia, this use of languages often carries with it a particular religious connotation. The extreme version of this, in both academia and religious callings, becomes a form of zealotry or fanaticism. The second metaphor has attempts to speak of the academic career in relationship (typically marriage) terms. In this formation, questions of abandonment, and infidelity become metaphors for behaviors by faculty in relation to each other, to structural agents, and to institutions. Both often carry with them implicit power dynamics that suggest peculiar (and often disturbing) implications.

3: This rule suggests certain corollaries:
C1) First, the more marginal you feel your research/teaching is in relation to another variable (your colleague's research, the university's goals, the funding you receive, etc), the more likely to view to go the bloodsport route.
C2) The more marginal you feel someone else's research/teaching is in relation to another variable, the more likely to go the bloodsport route.
C3) The longer the pre-fight, the bloodier the match.