Suck it, Negativity

So it's the end of the term, I'm in the last long day of office hours for the next several months. It feels like someone is slowly, ever so gently driving a spike into my skull just above my left ear. But rather than succumb to the headache and the boredom of the last day, to the tendency to bust down the term with stark reflection, I'm going with the road less traveled: today's about what I've liked.

It's easy, actually, because I do enjoy this part of the term quite a bit - and not just because it's almost over. Maybe it's the grouping of students I get - students just starting and students finishing - but there is always a sense of change and excitement at this point of the year. I hope one thing that happens in this blog is that when I complain, it mostly isn't about the students. I like them. I like them here. I liked them at my last job. I liked them when I was teaching them in grad school. Yes, sometimes they're inconsiderate. Sometimes they're disinterested. Sometimes their work is so bad you feel like you're teaching writing at the University of Iowa (see this) . But I like them.

Last night, I got to help our seniors celebrate their passing a bit (as a side note, check out this band somehow when you get a chance), and it was a nice moment. It was good to see that they'd picked up some things. And it was good to see them before they'd accepted all the little rules and obsessions "grown up, working world" life is going to insist on.

Tomorrow, I get to congratulate our best and brightest and thank them and wish them well. I get to do it in a big public moment, and I'm excited for that. A lot of them are students I had my first year here. They're students I've been writing confidential reference letters for, busting out my best praise in prose for. I like that I get a chance to tell them in public what I've said about them to their future employers and teachers, to my colleagues and friends, for ages now: that I expect big things of them and that I wish them well.

I was teasing a student recently about how they make faces every time I give out the day's objectives. And they laughed and said yes, but they've not missed a class because they can see a change from one day to the next, and that - though sometimes a pain - makes it worth it.

So that's what I'm going to frame these last days with - if it's a pain but worth it for one of my students, it seems alright that it might be for me.

The manly art of saying "no" and other lessons to be learned

Way back towards the start of this blog, I was talking a lot about contract negotiations around here. At various times, I probably characterized those negotiations as an utter clusterfuck, accidentally successful, ironically self-defeating, and maybe once, as a good thing. As I'm careening towards the end of the term, I'm already running into the nightmares that tie, at least a little, to that contract and general planning.

The Big Deal in the contact was the shift to a 3/3 teaching load. We're presently at a 4/4 here, and as anyone can tell you, that's a nightmare for all sorts of reasons, not the least of which is that it makes it impossible to do much of anything aside from man your hours, grade your papers, and not collapse during the regular term (which is why I found this Chronicle First Person column hilarious). For the record, it's a lovely great example of anecdotal evidence. I've interviewed at more than a few SLAC's, and the deal described in the article seems to be the exception rather than the rule. But it's interesting because the expectation of research seems to be increasing. That's the case here where in every review I've received the one consistent complaint is that I need to publish more.

So next year, we're starting our ill-thought out transition towards the 3/3. In most cases - except for the privileged Business and Education departments which, in spite of smaller enrollments than the other colleges, have managed to parlay not only better salaries than the rest of us but have been on de facto 3/3s for several years already - that means we're doing a 4/3 of some sort until the final shift.

Why do I say ill-thought out? Well, it was only after the contract was signed and people began to plot out their courses that something occurred: we have no one to teach those extra sessions. In a department like mine, that means we suddenly have somewhere between six to eight course sections that we have to fill in a given year now. Or, put another way, drawing on the student-as-consumer model that's all the rage with the kids in the administration these days - the way it's been framed at least once here - we have X number of student seats we have to accommodate. A variety of solutions have been put forth:
  1. hire more full-time faculty
  2. hire more adjunct faculty
  3. make class sizes bigger
This is where the hiccups come in. If we make class sizes bigger, we're not really freeing up all that time, we're just compacting a couple of hours a week and expanding grading time. Hiring more adjuncts is naturally the "logical" decision, though it carries with it several problems: do you have adjuncts teach your intro courses and thus lose valuable contact time with students at the start of the program? Do you hire specialty adjuncts to teach one-time specialty courses in their areas of expertise (assuming, of course, you're in a field where this is viable)? And if we're talking new full-time lines, who gets them and who doesn't?

In practice, it's bumpier still.

My department's been good about organizing things. As soon as the contract passed, we sat down as a group and attempted to map out the next four years with as much certainty as we could have considering I was on the market and we were hiring. There was an attempt to both make sure we were teaching the requirements - and that the full-time faculty were there for those key courses - and to make sure that we were getting a shot at keeping preps down while holding onto the courses we each enjoy teaching the most. And we nearly worked it out, though it's far from perfect because to make it work we had to tie ourselves to a particular set of numbers and needs. One hiccup in those assumptions, and things go astray.

There was a hiccup.

To counter high costs of tuition here, we've seen a rise in the number of students transferring in from community colleges and upping their workloads to get out early. We're also one of the popular majors on campus in spite of some very specific requirements. This has meant that our enrollment by student year (Fr/Soph/etc) can fluctuate pretty wildly. This surge - sorry, I can't type that word without wanting to flog myself: thanks War in Iraq for ruining a word and the world - has caused a problem for one of the gateway courses in our department (in this case, the first course students take on their path to graduation). Rather than the usual 25-30 students who need it, we have almost 45.

You'll never guess whose course that is.

Instead of the first year being a 4/3 for me, the surge in students combined with the lack of people to teach courses and the need to have tenured faculty teach the gateway courses, means that I'm effectively (if not actually) teaching a 5/3 next year. Where I'm already seeing the impact of this is in my ability to do anything but teach those courses. I've already had to turn down two honors students and a graduate student, because I'm feeling stretched thin now, and it hasn't even started.

I should be ready for this term to end, but now I'm frightened of the one around the corner.

Once again, rough waters

So, somehow amidst all the madness, a job deadline slipped past for one that I think I stood as decent a shot as any at. All the wind's out of the sails again, which is just fine since the term's about to be over anyway.

My day today:
  • finished four conference paper reviews
  • helped with last minute arrangements for celebration for our seniors that involves not only calming a colleague but a discussion with campus legal
  • assisting two students with their Senior seminar projects (though I'm not teaching the seminar: I was just the only one in the building)
  • gathering up all the soon-to-be-too-late papers and grading them
  • agreement to serve on two honors committees (huh - they want to defend next week....lovely)
Now to prepare an abstract and a grant proposal so I can (dare to dream!) do research this summer and maybe go to a conference.

RBOC: Oh What a World Edition

  • Cookies by mail? Holy god, so good. Girl Scouts, you're on notice.
  • Last week of the term (not counting finals, of course). Now if only one more person would sign up for my summer course. They could drop at the end of the first day. That'd be alright.
  • I must be getting old because I found myself mentally trying to marry two of my favorite students to each other. I can only attribute this to age.
  • Two departmental events left to get through.
  • I'm considering changing my insurance company because their commercials are that annoying.
  • What do you think it would take to get Oprah to pay off my student loans? Hell, I'd let Flava Flav help, even if it meant hearing him shout his name for three hours straight.
  • Did I mention cookies in the mail? Swoooooooooooooooooooon. Seriously.

Everything in Moderation

Recently our school put on a conference highlighting our undergraduate's research. It's a nice affair that probably says as much about what the interests of professors are here as anything. My department usually puts up a pretty good showing, though this year we've tried taking students out of the barnyard a bit.

As part of all of this, I was asked to moderate a panel of, shall we say, eclectic papers (including one by my Honors student). Glad to do it. But it seems I might've stepped on a toe in the midst of it.

There are different schools of thought to moderating panels, even when undergraduates aren't involved. Under normal circumstances - when the panel is one composed of seasoned academics or graduate students - I see the job as having the following responsibilities:
  • introducing folks and setting expectations
  • keeping time and attempting - but only attempting - to ensure that time expectations are kept
  • drawing parallels/themes/etc between presentations
  • throwing out a question or two - sometimes the first question - to make sure there's some discussion
In a situation where the job is expressly about moderating student presentations, I'd say there's an additional duty
  • to offer instruction along the way (gently, of course)
In exchange for these duties, I think the moderator gets some small right of editorial comment - if only to generate thought and conversation (unless there's a specifically named respondent, I suppose).

In the panel I was moderating, one of the papers was from history, and in the midst of it, a couple of things happened that I felt needed comment. First, the student referenced doing a Google search for a historical figure who interacted with the focus of their study (say, around 1917). The student said, and I quote, "According to Google, he was also a hockey player in the 1960s, which is pretty cool." Now simple math will tell you this is an embarrassing mistake for a historian to make, but it seemed like one that I could mention after in a more lighthearted manner.

But the other thing that the student said was essentially "It seems like there could be some parallels between my event and current events. But I don't want to make them."

This seemed a much bigger issue to me, and worth a comment because it was a research conference. And when there was a moment for me to speak after the presentations, I said, "I'd hope that if there are parallels between history and today that we'd point them out - isn't that a goal of history, after all? We want to hear your thoughts."

To my way of thinking, a college history paper that doesn't analyze and suggest isn't really a college level work. If you're just going to describe when events happened and who was involved, then you're doing the sort of work I did in fifth grade social studies. It'd be like being asked to look at a text and merely summarizing the plot. It's shallow. And maybe it's even fin for some classes, but for a conference about research, it's shallow.

So imagine my surprise when the student's sponsoring professor from the history department pulled me aside at the end to tell me in a tone that didn't seem happy to me that - and I'm paraphrasing - he didn't understand or appreciate my comment to his student.

And so now I'm in my office, doing a little of this and a little of that, wondering if my question was somehow unfair. Did I torpedo a student presentation? I don't think I did. And yet I can't help thinking maybe I've just made some bad blood.

Now the Student Has Become the Master (an "Ah, hell..." moment)

In honor of the music meme that has made these few days of blogging so much easier, I was tempted to title this "Maybe I'm just like my father: 2 bold." The sense that we become our parents - or our advisers - is palpable.

Plus this way, I can reference kung fu.

When I was in grad school, one of the ways I came to choose my committee was to watch how various departmental members behaved at the defenses and presentations of others. At the Ph.D. level there was never a question of who my adviser was going to be though. My work was close to what my adviser's was and far from what anyone else did.

At defenses, my adviser was known - or I knew - did two things: make faces at answers they didn't like and, sooner or later, ask the same question. It isn't to say that they were a one-hit wonder, though they were pretty entrenched in a particular view of the world. But the question was about something they saw as fundamentally lacking in most critiques of things (at least in American critiques). Sometimes the question was more valid than others. But you could count on it happening.

Back here in the present, where I've earned my wings and am advising my own monkeys, I just found myself writing the same question on my best student's paper. And though it was appropriate - and my advisee started it - still, I have a slight chill. I guess I'll just hope that my dragon style is up to the task.

A Music Meme

As seen at Dr. Crazy's, a music meme almost guaranteed to upset the nun next door and to drive away the stuck in office hour blues.

First, the rules:
Step 1: Put your MP3 player or whatever on random.
Step 2: Post the first line from the first 25 songs that play, no matter how embarrassing the song.
Step 3: Post and let everyone you know guess what song and artist the lines come from.
Step 4: Strike through when someone gets them right
Step 5: Looking them up on Google or any other search engine is CHEATING. [EDIT: Technically, as was pointed out to me, this isn't a step, it's a rule. So no cheating.]

Here goes:
1) There was a time when I had nothing to explain
2) Tonight I'm tangled in my blanket of clouds
3) When you reach number ten and think the struggle ends [Hint: This is, I think, a B-Side, and unlike most of the band's songs it was written by Stewart Copeland]
4) I was born my papa's son - a wandeirn' eye and a smokin' gun [Hint: from an alt-country singer's second album out of rehab that had this as the almost-title track]
5) Look up from the hymnal, look 'round at the faces of families closing their eyes [Hint: I don't have any good trivia here, so the band is Cold War Kids, now you can guess the song]
6) ah, heaven - here it is again [Hint: Long before Canadians were doing supergroups and collaborative projects, this group was playing in NYC and has included at different times Bootsy Collins and Michael Stipe. The title is in the quote.]
7) In tired paths of light
8) Now my room has got two windows but the sunshine never comes through [Hint: Heartbreak hotel was on Lonely Street, while this song by an R&B genius featured a similar sounding name]
9) I've been seeing the same old things [Hint: This was a new acquisition, so I've got no trivia. The band is Ted Leo + the Pharmacists]
10) I cover the waterfront, watching the ships go by [Hint: The title's in the lyric. The singer's known for his Detroit style blues.]
11) We've been here too long trying to get along [Hint: Former Runaway wants to know what you want to do]
12) I'm looking for an interruption [Hint: Athens' favorite suns aren't content to rest]
13) I took the train back, back to where I came from [Hint: I guess it's better than walking with ghosts...]
14) I wonder, wondering all around this big place I live [Hint: a member of the Strokes offers this song that shares its title with a Marilyn Manson song]
15) Well, I'm a little bit lonesome, I'm a little bit blue [Hint: lyric has the title; by an Australian country singer]
16) Green hours, blue ropes, hot wax for hearts that are cold [Hint: avant punks? art stars? Karen sends smooches.]
17) Brassy monkey - that funky monkey
18) The street's alive with camera crews [Hint: post-Genesis, this song's about a hell of a way into the photo album]
19) There's a solitary man crying "Hold me!" [Hint: Stan from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind loved the band; the song's got an ace up its sleeve]
20) I'm a high straight in Plainview, a side bet in Idalou [Hint: a Texas alt-country road song, sung by Lyle Lovett's roommate]
21) A very old friend came by today [Hint: this is a cover of an Elvis song, sung by a Texas drummer who wrote a couple of big Stevie Ray Vaughan songs. It's about finding out his best friend's dating his soon-to-be-ex]
22) I got a story, it's almost finished [Hint: early EMO'ish band out of Phoenix (to whom I must say: Go, Spurs, go!!) It isn't about the one you live in...]
23) A wild pack of family dogs came running through the yard one day
24) If you can play the fiddle, how about a British jig and reel? [Hint: Stan's favs back again go just where these hints can go]
25) Lunchtime is just not fair - hot dogs, mustard in your hair [Hint: Young Nashvilel punks should not be taken out to eat]

Interestingly, my .mp3 player seems to somehow weight things even on random, as these aren't particularly surprising songs to come up. To be fair, in some cases I've got a ton of their stuff on my .mp3 player, but a lot of them are things I've listened to recently. And to keep this from being a meme that is completely useless to me except as time filler, if you've got any good music blogs I should be reading, feel free to stick a link to 'em in the comment as well.

And I'll post answers eventually for anyone who really cares.

p.s. The 26th song? "On the Dark Side" by Eddie and Cruisers (or John Cafferty and Beaver Brown Band, depending on how you want to credit it).

You Will Feel Sorry For Me and Send Me Drinks

I was going to call this "I know why the caged Curmudgeon sings..." but I didn't want to rain on the power Angelou's metaphor...

Oh my lord, it is so sunny outside, and I'm stuck in the office.

And none of my colleagues are here, and all there advisees are. And they all need forms filled out and new schedules to be produced out of thin air.

And all of my old students want me to read drafts of their what-not before the end of the term.

And the mean nun next door through a tantrum because I had the music up to level 2 on my .mp3 speakers again. I could almost hear the lyrics when I was putting books on my bookshelf that looks like it's ready to do a half-gainer off the wall again.

And stupid Blogger won't let me add the image I want to this post.

And I haven't had any caffeine today. Every time I stick my head out the door, a student appears. I begin to suspect I am the mole in a very bureaucratic version of "Whack A Mole."

Oh, oh, oh, for this term to end.

Friends Like These

Three or four weeks ago a friend from grad school e-mailed to ask if I could help review papers for an upcoming conference. They mentioned specifically they had a paper they thought I would give good feedback on.

Now, I hate the conference they wanted help with in part because the group that needed review help has consistently showed limited vision and a narrow range of what's possible. I've consistently avoided the conference since my Master's program for just that reason. At the conference when I attended it, I watched people savage young academics for very (academically) political reasons, and in the subsequent papers I'd seen, reviewer comments inevitably fell along the same lines. So I've got plenty of reason to dislike the place.

But I tried to see the positive with this one. I was being asked to review by someone I know who I know is open to different approaches. I checked my schedule to figure out what I could do, and seeing that I had a little free time, replied that I could look at two papers maximum but that I'd be glad to do it.

You can all see where this is going, can't you?

Today I found a very thick envelope in my mailbox with well beyond the two papers I agreed I could review by the deadline.

This is what comes of trying to be nice.

When the Priest's Away...

Being a SLAC with a Catholic bent, our president is off listening to the Pope lay down the new directives on education and Catholicism. That'd bother me immensely, except that as I was out to the grocery store today I ran into one of my students who not only told me she'd been accepted into one of the Master's programs she wanted but also invited me to a luau being thrown on campus.

Her parting shot was the best though.

"There's a drag show at six. It should be fun."

I'm almost intrigued enough to go support this. I'm certain no one approved this far up the line - though it probably isn't what I think of when I think of a drag show either. But still, a drag show on a Sunday afternoon at a Catholic school?

Freakin' awesome.

You Are My (Lukewarm) Sunshine

So the one thing I would complain about from the conference trip is something that I've noticed a lot here. Here's the story.

When we were going to dinner, my former student suggested a little brewpub, and we enthusiastically agreed. When we arrived, a sign outside said that the patio was now open: Spring seems to have arrived, after all. The sky was wide-open and blue; the sun was high and bright. There was a nice breeze, and the temperature hovered near 72. No cloud dared intrude on the idyllic moment.

Naturally, I suggested we sit on the patio.

And the response? "It's too hot."

It's a good thing I hadn't found something to drink yet, as I'd have surely choked on it or possibly spit it out.

"Too hot?" I asked, stunned. "This is pretty much the definition of a perfect day."

"You're from Texas. You're used to this."

Used to 70 degrees? Yeah, at Christmas. If I was lucky. I don't care where you live: the day 70 degrees is too hot, you need to see your doctor and/or possibly be put down like a lame horse. I'm not sure what the ideal temperature is for folks from the area. Based on the numbers I've heard them complain about (in large numbers), I think it sits somewhere between 51 degrees and 53 degrees.

We wound up sitting inside - in the air condition, for Christ sakes. It makes no sense - and it feels like a tragedy to me. I just had to get it off my chest.

Academic Brightside

So it might not have been my first choice for how to spend a Friday when there was 70 degree weather and a blue sky for miles, but it was a good one.

Today we took a little field trip, dragging a few of our students to a research conference. Imagine a car filled with your department members, no music (!!!!!), and several undergraduates about to attend a conference where they're going to present their own research. It wasn't the most thrilling spot to put oneself into, but it really went well.

We've put this as a priority for awhile now, though this is the first time we've really tried it. In part, we wanted to get a sense of what other departments in the region are doing and of where are students are sitting at the end of their time here. In both regards, that was comforting - our students did a great job presenting. They handled some tough questions; they had projects that were as well informed or better than similar ones from other schools.

For the students - who we'd not factored into this quite so much - it was good, too, for very similar reasons. The confidence they pulled from it was amazing, and now they not only see that we're not the only ones asking them to understand how to do research, but they see that they can do it well and make it matter to other people. That their research - and their projects - don't just have to be things that play to a class seems really important to me today.

On top of that, I got to see one of my former advisees, now in graduate school, and about to graduate, and they're doing quite well. We managed to get everyone together for dinner and a beer, and we compared notes. My sense with them is that they've outgrown the graduate program they're in - and how awesome is that when they're about to graduate? They'll be doing interesting things soon, and they've got something beyond the job that matters to them that they're pulling into their work.

Today it all feels like a success.

Discontents, Declarations, Toasts

Today was not the easiest of days. It's advising/registration time here at Curmudgeon Central, and in addition to all the usual bumps, we've hit some snags today.

It would seem that - in spite of all the ridiculous ways in which the university tracks, measures and spews reports about student numbers - a giant throng of students is about to hit their final year, and that means they've got to go through one of my courses. Only there are more of them than my current course load will allow. We do not, as yet, have a coherent plan to deal with this. My task for tonight will no doubt be finding a way to say this to students politely and in a way that doesn't make them break out their torches and pitchforks.

And with all the recent oddness - that I don't actually know how to address or what to say about (and so, thanks for the support and the good wishes, but I likely won't be talking a lot about it until I'm sure what it is, exactly, that's going on) - there was only one thing to do.

I declare today Spring.

I know, I know. In some parts of the world, it's long been Spring. The day officially happened way back when, probably. But declaring Spring on the calendar is like declaring war in a dream: it's not real till the rites actually happen.

Some people declare it Spring with baseball. Others by when wildflowers appear. The ritual here is simpler: sunshine enough to support shorts and a beer.

And so, dear readers, my dog and I are writing this from a sunbeam on the patio. I'm in shorts and a t-shirt, even if the wind is making that a little tougher than I might like. We're drinking the first beer of the Spring - a Magic Hat #9, which is good but is no Mirror Pond, no Full Sail Pilsner, no Shiner Bock. The stereo is up a little louder than it probably should be. I'm staring warily at my bike, trying to decide where and whether I dare ride anywhere here.

It's days like today that I truly miss grad school. Back in the day, there'd be a troop of us on the patio - probably starting at some unseemly hour like 1:30 pm (maybe earlier if I had my way) - at one of our preferred establishments. And if it rained, it was incidental. So it will be today. Spring has been declared, and here's to all of you.

Comedy and the Writing Process

Taking my joy where I can find it - and writing tips, too. I wish my students thought this much about word choice:
"Bill Willingham and I have had conversations about which is the funnier item to poke someone with: a spatula or a slotted spoon. You’d probably think spatula, which would be the right answer in prose, because spatula is a funny word; but visually, a slotted spoon is actually slightly funnier. Because it’s rounded. "
- Matt Sturgess, from an interview at Newsarama
Maybe I'm poking folk with the wrong things.

My Father's Son

I've hated the nature/nurture question. I'm fairly primed to see it both ways. There's pretty clear evidence - my mother - that genetics is playing its part with me and sewing its own moments of fear for me. But there's pretty solid evidence that upbringing has its hold on me - my father.

As I've gotten older, I've realized that I'm very much like my father. That doesn't produce the angst it does for so many people. My father has always been good to me, and I hope that I've picked up the finer points of his character - he'll give anyone the time of day, any friend the shirt off his back. What I do know is I'm quiet like my father, and I approach groups and new situations the same way he does: sitting quietly and listening until I'm sure that I've got an idea how best to fit in. I've got his love of a ridiculous joke. I've got his temper - long fuses mean big explosions. We're both sentimental about ridiculous things.

When I was growing up, my father worked a lot - there were a number of years he worked at least one job in addition to his military day job. And so, I felt closer to my mother. But I remember my father reading me stories, even when he was dog tired and never complaining (well, not till years later when he heard I was naming my dog after a character in my favorite children's book). But sometime - maybe middle school or so - my father and I became very close. Maybe it was because we shared the distaste for - but understood the necessity of - religion in my mother's life. Maybe it was just that I suddenly liked some of the things my father liked.

But it was clear my father understood me long before I ever did.

When I was in seventh grade, my current sleep pattern really took off. I liked to be up late at night, reading, writing, whatever. And I didn't like mornings. I do not envy anyone who had to wake me up then (I'm better now though I'd still rather sleep through at least 10 a.m.). My father had to suffer through that duty the most, leaving as he did for work at the same time I should have been peeling out of bed for school. And he was fed up with it - the way someone working multiple jobs might be. The way someone who'd grown up on a farm that struggled might be. The same way someone who'd spent years in the military because that was the way out of the small, struggling farm might be.

And so, one night, he came into my room, and matter-of-factly laid bare his understanding of my personality.

"You're going to do what you want to do, and nothing I say is going to stop that," he said. "So rather than fight it, here's the deal: you can do whatever you want, and we're not going to argue with you. You can stay up as late as you want; you can go where you want. Whatever. We won't get in the way. But when the consequences come, we won't blink either. And we won't listen to you complain. You know enough to make smart choices."

It was, more or less, the only real lesson I needed for adolescence (my mother would disagree, I'm sure, saying that I've still not yet learned to control my mouth). But it set the pattern. It was also, maybe, the fastest I'd heard my father speak. He'd obviously thought about it, I realize now. He'd rehearsed, many times probably. I can imagine him now, driving home from one job or another, coaching himself through it. Or maybe working in the small garden he'd put up in the backyard: the garden he'd lose years later because the city annexed the land.

My father has always taken his time to speak. It's one of those fine points I hope I pick up someday. And he's a man of few words, which I sometimes am.

This weekend my father and I talked, as we often do on Saturday or Sunday mornings. We complained about the Spurs. We talked about my job prospects, and my father - as he so often does - counseled patience. The calls are important; my father misses having me home more than the rest of my family does. Maybe this is because we so many things the same way. And I've not always been good about them or about getting home the way I'd like. Some years - particularly in grad school and the first year in this position - it simply wasn't affordable. And that's truly awful, really.

So my father ending a call asking about when I'd be home wasn't so unusual. He's 70 now and recently had a heart attack. But this time, the ending was different.

"Well, I'll see you this summer, if I'm still around."

"That's not funny," I said. "I don't want to hear that."

And when my father just sat quietly, and then said he should go take a nap, I didn't have to be my father's son to know just what was really being said.

Burn Out or Fade Away: a Cultural Dilemma

I was well into a post about how I got drafted to help organize a conference coming here, and how, while I love the conference, after the long, excruciating meeting today, I was sure to be irritated over the next several months. I was frustrated because the conference seems to be focusing - as probably should be expected - on the largest personality's view of what it should be.

I spent paragraphs grumbling how that person already has a vision for the conference and who should come that doesn't match what I'd like to see and a whole rant about how they want to bring someone who irritates me as a keynote speaker. And the way their name was Dropped (capital-d intentional) bothered me: very "well, I know X so I'm sure they'll cut us a deal" (not my experience with them - there seemed to be no deals, ideological compatibility or not - but maybe it'll be different).

But in the midst of all that, I realized that what I should write about was why that possible keynote speaker irritates me and whether anyone else has this same difficulty. Because if it's just me, maybe I should think about getting over it, right?

So here's the thing. I have an averse reaction to things other people like too much. The surest way to make me not want to read a book or see a film or listen to an artist - or to make me resent the time spent doing so - is to tell me over and over again how awesome the experience is or how much I'll enjoy it. Tell me once, and be vague about it, and I'll probably give it a whirl and love it. Tell me you'd be curious to hear what I think about it, and leave it at that, and I'm almost certain to have to check it out. You can lead me or level me with curiosity more certainly than anything. But give your review too loudly or too often, and no. Is it just me? Do I need to find a way past this?

That may be the case with my near-instant retching about this keynote speaker. When I was in grad school, scads of people loved this figure. But I also think it may be that this particular person also gets a pass because they've got a particular label attached to them.

Let me try it with a musical example. It isn't that they've become a caricature of their reputation like some once good singer forced to do a sad Vegas review or the county fair, but that by virtue of having the right brand word attached to them, even their middling efforts get treated as impressive. It's the trouble between, say, Pat Benatar's current career vs. Ringo Starr's.

Six String Greats (a story and a complaint)...

When I was in sixth grade, I started taking guitar lessons. For six weeks, my guitar teacher - a woman from the church my mother went to - had me playing "Mary Had a Little Lamb" and "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star." This being the heyday of Mtv, this was not the way I wanted to spend my Wednesday nights. One evening, just in from lessons, I was more than a little distressed. It was at that moment when my sister came out of her room, asked if she could see my guitar, and 30 minutes later re-emerged and played one of my favorite songs.

I don't remember what the song was. In some versions of the story, it was The Clash's "Should I Stay or Should I Go." In others, it was "Photograph" by Def Leppard. The song doesn't matter. What does is that it was on that night, that I gave up on learning to play a musical instrument.

I tell you this because tonight I gave in and bought "Guitar Hero III," and I must say that while there's an interesting set of songs in it, it seems a tactical error to have mixed the guitar underneath the fake vocals. I'm just saying. And, honestly, "Talk Dirty To Me" by Poison? That wasn't even good guitar rock when it came out.

Still, now I'll at least have an excuse for why I can't do any grading for the next several weeks.

...What the Moral of the Backstory Could Be...

So amidst the bi-annual chaining of Curmudgeon to his desk to advise students (read: sign forms, pick out classes, and do other irritating busy work that comes of the hand-holding service model of higher education), I managed to squeeze in an interview with a student for one of the various campus newsletters.

It was the typical sort of fare. Who are you? Where did you come from? What do you do here? Very "getting to know you," very "journalism 101." And it had some local peculiarities. I've never heard an interview in this region that didn't, at some point, include a some version of "tell us why we're not so bad for living here" - mine was "What do you like about the students here compared to the other places you've taught?" And there are some good answers to those questions - I do like the students here for particular reasons (though not because they're somehow better or worse than the students at other places: because they're distinct).

And then two questions that threw me:
  • why did you decide to teach at this university?
  • are you planning on staying?
Part of why I was thrown was obviously because of how close to home those questions are to current considerations for me. And I wondered whether it was transparent to my students. Do I look like I'm watching the metaphorical door while I'm instructing? Does the bedlam that is my office somehow convey that I'm trying to pack my bags? I hope not, because that seems like it would be shafting these students a bit.

But the other reason it came across strangely was the realization that I couldn't tell the whole truth in my answers. I couldn't say "Yes, I want to leave so badly I'm clawing at my own skin." or "I came here because it was here or a year of unemployment." This interview was very much a PR moment. For the part of the school that will publish the article. For me. And I'm living in a pretty small fishbowl, as it were, and I can't afford to piss off the bigger fish.

But I've got to say, I've never felt quite so unprofessorial as that moment.

Just because...

Nosing around places, I came across a haiku generator based on past blog entries. Since haiku is my chocolate kryptonite (pick your own metaphor if you don't like it), I had to try.

And this seemed too good not to publish.

Haiku2 for thedoctorisnt
in job searches which brings
us to the following noun
job search surviving
Created by Grahame

RBOC: No, no, don't try to explain it...

Things that have made me wonder today:
  • did I really see a student wearing flip-flops and leg warmers?
  • did I really see an four-door extended cab pickup truck that not only had to take up for parking spaces, but that had each door labeled? What happens if Sarah gets in the wrong door? I thought folks in Texas were supposed to be the dumb rednecks.
  • why can my students pick out a phallic image that's almost subliminal while texting and looking away from the screen but be unable to recognize the difference between a comma and a semi-colon?
I hope your Spring has sprung.

"The Talk"

[Note: apologies to folks in advance whose posts I'm about to mischaracterize in order to make a point. Readers, be advised that the links may not actually represent the tone of what they link to (though if you look at the comments on most of the posts, you'll see what some of what I mean with this post...)]

Today's the one year anniversary of The Doctor Isn't. And many of the same difficulties I struggled with a year ago are still here. But there's an interesting thing happening that I didn't know about (maybe it wasn't happening last year, maybe I was just a bit too insular): academia is going through its own struggles. And so, tongue in cheek as always, I find today's post particularly appropriate.

That said: a "Dear John" letter to academia.

Dear Academia,
I'm sorry I can't do this face to face, but I can't seem to get you to return my calls or to invite me out for coffee, so I'm afraid this is how it has to be. I cannot help but notice that we've had trouble lately, and we seem to be growing apart. We want different things. Everything you do screams that you have trouble with commitment.

I love you, Academia. You should know that. You've given me so many good things. But I've watched you struggle and stagnate. Worse, I've seen you struggle with an sort of sad romantic version of who you want to be. I don't understand why you can't just be who you are. Maybe we're all that way. I don't know. Your friends keep telling me how you suddenly want to be "Mr. Corporate" - living your life like it's high finance.

"It'll make life more efficient," you say. "It'll make things better."

But efficiency isn't our problem, Academia. Neither is competition. Those are just beautiful but misleading words. They'll sway you, but they won't make you feel any better. And they won't make me stay.

Trying to change our relationship won't make you feel better about yourself.

I'd be lying if I said I wasn't having my share of problems with our relationship. You've caught me looking and asking "What if?" I'd be lying if I said this was the relationship I thought I was getting into. I guess we all really do make ourselves someone different when we're first getting to know each other.
Still, it's painful to watch this midlife crisis. Most middle aged institutions go through this - wanting to slim down and flirt with younger (business) models. But I hope you'll stop to ask yourself what that choice costs you. Those models are lovely, to be sure, but they don't live like you do. Sure, you'll be able to keep up for a little while, but eventually it's going to wear you down. Do you really want to enter the dog-eat-dog world they live in? What efficiency exactly do you need? What competition can you stand? Will it really make you better? Do you really think it will make us better?

The (brass) ring isn't the problem. The problem is that you've decided you want a whole different world, not even a different relationship. You think getting rid of the ring will make me and everyone compete to be with you, but it just means we're likely to seek out the security that ring symbolizes somewhere else. And then where will you be?

I hope I'm getting through to you. I hope you'll listen. Becoming like those corporations you so admire won't make you better. And it won't make me love you more. Think about it.

Good Thing This Doesn't Check My Lectures

The Blog-O-Cuss Meter - Do you cuss a lot in your blog or website?Created by OnePlusYou

This seems low to me. But at least I beat Maggie's score. And have I mentioned that if I were in a band I want the name to involve the word "F-bombs" - perhaps "The No Nothing F-Bombs." If I ever get my record deal, you'll be able to out me when my album goes platinum.

Just a little filler for the evening. But seriously, tomorrow we're going to have the talk.

You've been warned.

The [noun] is dead; long live the [noun]...

It's like MadLibs but with my life...

Noun = bracket:

I was clinging to hope - my finalists both made it to the Final Four, and I was an outsider in the standings. If they both won their games, I'd move into first or second, depending on who won it all. But alas, it was not to be. UCLA couldn't do it, and now I'm likely relegated to the top 10 of the pool which gives me no money and no bragging rights unless people give me an award for my moniker.

But the games have been compelling, and I don't ever expect to win these things. And at least I'm not the poor sap who has been weighing down the wrong end of the curve this go-round. And the Spurs are still there in the NBA.

Noun = crunch time of the term

Somehow I made it through all the big bits of the year (except the book, which I'll thank you not to mention or ask about) with only three weeks of the flu to cope with. Our hire is completed and on their way. My third year review is floating around the university two levels of management above me (where I expect it to be lost for a month if precedent means anything).

But already projects are appearing.

I've been more or less conscripted into a steering committee for an upcoming conference. Thankfully, at least, the conference is the one that confirmed to me years ago as a graduate student that I was in the right field with the right people. It's one of my favorites in the field - small, personal, critical, engaging - and I haven't been able to participate actively for awhile. And if I get to shape the theme of it even a bit, it'll be something positive for me and for those participating. And lots of my grad school friends usually attend so there's no reason I shouldn't expect to see lots of them appearing on my doorstep next year, too.

And when the book's tamed a bit, it's time to tackle some new research projects so that I don't lose any ground in job searches. Which brings us to the following.

Noun = job search:

There was some hope there, too. I guess, technically, there still could be since the school that rejected me earlier in the cycle now has some new things to deal with. Some places would be able to swing a second hire from the same pool; most places can't. And there's been no word from two schools.

But really, it's time to let it go for the year. And there have been some lessons - good and bad - to take from the whole thing.

One thing I've learned to ask about is housing assistance. Mark my words: more schools are going to look at and find ways to help faculty with this as part of the employment package. In my case, I found that there are often programs for new home buyers in some states, and they're often pretty favorable. And in a market like this, where the pay isn't so competitive as it might be and that is seeing increasing numbers of advisers beginning to warn off potential students, this is going to be something places are going to have to consider.

And I've recognized you need to pay extra attention to the process. What you see might be what you get, but what you're not shown or told can tell you even more. If you don't get to talk to a particular group of faculty, for instance, it means something. You might not be able to say what, but it is rarely a good sign. And any place that tells you they've got a union and speaks poorly of it should cause you to take a second look and come armed.

It was also interesting to come across folks who admitted that they felt trapped in positions by virtue of a slightly better than average salary. There are places, for example, that pay better by virtue of trying to meet the cost of living. But once you're there, it's at least possible it can trap you the same way tenure can: fewer places may be willing to match high(er) salaries once you've achieved it.

In the end, there's always next year, right?

Not With a Bang...

And so ends this year's job search.

Surviving Wednesday

It may well be that I'm still sick. Or sick again. The chills are back, and the moment I felt like lying down on my office floor - dubious enough because I'm not sure anyone has ever really vacuumed them - in the middle of office hours, I began to suspect.

And yet the oddness of the day makes it compelling.

I started a sort of Facebook experiment awhile back, creating a group to organize students in the department, and it's been going well though requiring some adjustment. It's been a success in that students I don't normally hear from are contacting me, but the downside is that since I'm the only member of my department there, there are a lot of students who ordinarily should be contacting someone else are now coming to me, too. What has been really nice about it though is that it's let me look for some of our alumni - the alumni office here is another one of those spots on campus that doesn't seem to serve any function other than to make sure there's a head associated with the department's nameplate. And they're starting to chime in to conversations, reinforcing some of the things we've been making big wind about to no avail. One of them today lamented how he'd not done more internship work.

And I just heard from a job I was rejected from that someone else in the same division jumped ship, and so they're scrambling. It'd be funny if one of them went to the job I've been currently wondering about. Who knows what it means at this point, but it's an interesting hiccup to the day.

And most thrilling, my latest shipment of new music arrived, and the bit that I'm truly excited for isn't the punk stuff (a Social Distortion disc I'd been dying for and a Ted Leo and the Pharmacists disc) or the Canadian super-band escapee (Emily Haines of Broken Social Scene) but a copy of "La Boheme." I'm not ordinarily a classical fan, and I don't think most people would pick me for an opera buff (I've only seen one and if you need two guesses of which one it is, you need to read more carefully). I've been pretty hard on musical theater in my time, honestly, and find Broadway shows as a concept amusing at best.

But way back in my grad school days, our graduate secretary who may well have been a Bodhavista or a Tzadikim Nistarim (apologies for faulty spelling and conjugation there) so serene and centered and lovely was she, chanced into a pair of tickets for this opera, and unable to go, passed them on to myself and another grad student. It was a night out on the town for us - dressed up, off to a nice dinner and drinks, and the opera itself. The fact that, years later, I've bought a copy of it should tell you how amazing I found it.

I don't speak Italian, and so a lot of the subtlety may well have been lost on me. But it was truly beautiful, and I've been watching for a copy on my usual used CD site ever since. It may well be my best example for trying things you're sure you won't like just once. I'm dying to listen to it, but the roommate would be home soon, and lovely or not, opera blaring isn't the sort of thing you spring on the unsuspecting.

Where's Robby Benson When You Need Him?

The sun has been taken away, in favor of winds and rain, and for whatever reason this isn't helping how anti-social I am at the moment. My mood makes me feel like I'm due to be featured in an ABC Afterschool Special.

After all, if they taught me anything, it's that my desire to sleep a lot, to not talk to many people, and to avoid my job means I'm either depressed or on drugs. And since I can say for sure that I'm not on drugs, we'd better find Robbie Benson to play a young me. Maybe he'll come from the past to tell me about a key choice I made that led to my desire to stay in bed all day. That'd be just like young-me, after all: time traveling and then interrupting me in the midst of a good nap only to kick me when I'm down. Young-me was often a jackass like that, though he was great fun at parties and really good about scoring free drinks for the table.

Whatever this mood is, I'm trying not to wallow in it, not to send snarky e-mails - or worse, ones that are so true they scald. I'm trying to give into the urge to reply to the Ex Who Crushed Paris or to the Grad School Friend Turned Nutter. Instead, I'm listening to music and trying to find things worth thinking about that don't piss me off. Here are a couple of nice musical touchstones. On the loud side, there's Be Your Own Pet's homage to "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls" with "The Kelly Affair" (the name of the band in the movie before G-Man changed it to "The Carrie Nations"). On the softer side, check out Bat For Lashes' "Trophy". Once the term's up, my buddy "Eric Stratton" has been working diligently for R.E.M. and Pearl Jam tickets. That also likely means camping. And there are other things, like the return of "Geek Date," the lingering hopes of my March Madness bracket, and the impending return of 'Battlestar Galactica" (check out the semi-"Last Supper" homage on the opening page).

So don't worry too much. You can have young Mr. Benson put the script down, and you can keep the melodramatic music. But if you see young-me, feel free to smack him upside the head. He had it coming, almost certainly, and he should know better than to try and wake me up.