No one wants to get kicked off a tour in Nebraska. Not even in - maybe especially in - their dreams.
In more interesting news, I just received my copy of the edited collection my most recent chapter came out in, and it looks spiffy. And - I didn't know this before - I'm in the book with a bunch of people who I'd drool about being in a book with. Many of the names I cite are in the table of contents with me.
And my 3rd year review crap is done and ready to go in - now with a spiffy copy of my book chapter.
And I'm listening to this in my office and hopefully it won't piss off the neighbors.
I'm tempted to cancel office hours today, except that would mean going home where, odds are, there is still no power or heat. And I can't really afford to not get work done as I'm watching those days my teaching release are supposed to give me to work on my book get progressively reclaimed by the University by candidate searches - there's no dodging those duties in a department this small (I'm one of 3 tenure track people at the moment, so...).
I'd be curious to hear from other people who have gone (or are going) through similar situations. I generally feel like I'm pretty good at saying no to things, but evidently my skills aren't quite up to this negotiation yet. Any tips on how to politely make sure that the department and the University are allies in this little bit of time to research rather than enemies?
Khora, whose handle makes me think of all sorts of 80s songs and Spanish questions, asked what was one thing we wished we'd been told in graduate school before we leaped out into the world, and my response was predictably "what other job"-ish. But today, I think it'd be about how food is tied into all of this. Here are some examples:
- you can absolutely tell who cool a theory/school of thought/disciplinary division is by how good their parties are. The best conference party I ever attended was thrown by a bunch of broke Marxists, but they shared the bottle and the music was good. For my money, a party thrown by Marxists or Feminists usually tops the situation (curiously, Marxist feminists are hit and miss...hit or Ms....or...I just know as a joke that's going to fail); folks who do cultural work come in a close second foodwise, while historians have the best stories
- Don't be mistaken by size of the party or lavishness, however. The Marxists' polar opposites in my field tend to throw huge parties at conferences which are noteworthy for the enormous amounts of booze which somehow do nothing to make the moment pleasant
- if someone can include a bottle of Patron in their contract for a speaking engagement, you can bet they'll be an interesting speaker.
- maybe we really go into academia because we like eating the same type of food we've eaten for years. I was just finishing my PB&J (strawberry jam, suckas - the only way to roll), a container of yogurt, and a banana and suddenly it was 3rd grade all over again (except it's harder to have a crush on my home room teacher now)
- interestingly, academics have the worst manners around food I've ever seen. At a recent conference, I watched academics swarm waiters as they emerged from the kitchen with trays of fresh goodies, nearly throw elderly British scholars to the ground, circle tables like sharks, and what appeared to be an inadvertent exclusion of third world scholars and graduate students from the buffet
For example, my syllabus this term would top nine pages if I followed the required guidelines that now demand a chart be put in explaining how my course goals link to the department goals, and how those goals link to the general education goals, and how those goals link to the university's mission. I hated that song about the old lady who swallowed a fly when I was four years old, and I certainly can't stand a bad remix of it now.
But today's affront was an entirely different affair. As I've eluded to previously, my university carries with it a religious tie. That's fine. I believe in science, scrambled eggs and Tabasco as the surest cure for a hangover, and The Clash; you can believe in God. Whatever; we can work our differences out. Or ignore them. In keeping with this, however, we're regularly treated to e-mails asking us to pray for the recently departed. For example, over the holidays, I received an e-mail notifying me that the brother of one of the University's board had passed. It wasn't a personal e-mail, mind you, or even the typical interoffice spam, but rather, it went out as part of the official e-mail bulletin that gets sent out about major campus events.
Anyway, you can imagine how amused it made me then that today's e-mail of campus big events contained only a hint of important news, forcing me to go look for the real story myself. Evidently, the university has finally decided on a policy about disposing of documents. You know, pesky things that might have student information on them and such? Of course, the e-mail doesn't tell me what the policy is, or even where to go find it quickly.
I spent a decent portion of yesterday wrestling with how to tackle it myself. I rather enjoy the illusion of anonymity that has come with not identifying my field so far (in part because it has resulted in some interesting guesses about who I am and what I do). If I must be honest, I love my privacy and a bit of mystery, so this isn't all about my protection. But this line of topic seems to beg for some specificity. I could, of course, list specific general courses - Research Methods - but who really wants to hear that the real reason I teach it is because I was the low man on the totem pole and no one else would do it? Or I could talk about why I've found I enjoy teaching intro sections, but even that doesn't seem terribly compelling.
Adding to the confusion is the fact that I'm in a field that has pretty porous boundaries. On one hand, we pride ourselves on the interdisciplinary nature of what we do. On the other hand, we have regular debates - we're about due for another one - about whether we're really a field at all. That's meant that what I teach plays well in a variety of areas at the same time that it can be regarded with a fairly questioning eye. This year, for example, I've been able to apply and be fairly competitive in four different types of academic departments. I probably could have done more than that, but a couple of fields I could make a run in are already glutted so who needs one more applicant challenging for those jobs?
So what I think I should talk about is something that falls into what I teach but isn't the field I teach in; something that has those interdisciplinary implications (both positive and negative). So today's topic:
Why I teach Popular Culture*
Popular culture itself is a sometimes maligned area of inquiry (often rightly so). First, because culture itself is a word with not one but many histories. We're not likely to agree on a definition here, but it shouldn't be hard to imagine that tacking an adjective onto an already contested concept is only going to multiply the distress.
The very notion of popular culture, after all, carries with it the notion that it is somehow less worthy by virtue of being popular, that what happens in popular culture is somehow demeaning, secondary, or less valued than what happens in the other kind(s) of culture. In one sense (sorry, anthropologists, this might grate), culture is meant as counterpoint to and a mechanism of change and comment on the things that are less than ideal in society. Culture is art, art is political, political is not popular seems to be the logic.
But in spite of that contested space - maybe because of it - there are some pretty compelling reasons to teach popular culture.
- "You're Soaking In It" - sadly, for much of our society, share culture isn't about the great works of literature (whatever they are) or living through similar events and lives anymore (growing up in the South, for example, has taught me just how radically someone ostensibly in the same American culture differs based on whether they live in a place where it snows). Popular culture, though, often serves as that glue. I've tried talking to tons of people about my favorite books and found glassy eyes, but I can engage virtually anyone on the street by talking about the relative merits of reality TV. That's the power that teaching popular culture gives: the ability to engage virtually anyone who walks into your room.
- "The Pause That Refreshes" - At the same time, it doesn't mean I can't relate things to the great works or to shared experience. It provides an easier entrance to whatever needs talking about and can be taken in any direction you need to go. Want to make a student care about authorship of something? Tell them about how much Milton's estate got for "Paradise Lost" and how they viewed it in comparison to today's views. Good teaching of popular culture isn't just about why this is cool (I'm talking to you people who teach technology in particular), it asks the questions that more formal disciplines tackle.
- "Have It Your Way" - One of the real joys, though, is that teaching popular culture means I'm not limited to one approach. I get to play with the toys that more traditional disciplines (or at least departments) often put off limits. I've worked places where certain approaches were clearly not welcome. Teaching popular culture well requires an openness to approaches. I get to talk history, economics, psychology, sociology, business, cultural studies. I can use Karl Marx or B.F. Skinner or Benedict Anderson or any other notable under the sun. Sometimes I have to, and I'm always glad to.
- "It Keeps Going and Going and Going..." - One of the beauties of it is that popular culture changes constantly, and so there are always new questions to be asked and, hence, new ways to engage. Maybe the most useful thing about teaching popular culture topics is that it provides a way to keep yourself feeling fresh (sorry, having stolen ad slogans to help with this, that phrase makes me pause) in a job that often lends itself to sameness.
- "Make Yourself Heard" - Even before the 500 channel universe, the Internet, social networking, blogs, media literacy, network identity and such, popular culture has tended to be participatory. Recent years have only made it more so. The power to see themselves in popular culture - to shape it - is one of the things that makes it such a useful tool pedagogically. One of the things that often seems frustrating to students is that they get no say in the Canon or the great moments of history; they can want to write the Great American Novel, but the classroom doesn't always provide a path - or at least a clear path - to that sort of goal. It takes a special student to be able to see themselves in Hawthorne or the works of Cicero. But the realm of popular culture, particularly now, is one that almost any student can not only envision themselves but more easily make themselves felt.
- "Now You're Playing With Power" - One thing that often gets missed about pop culture as a topic is that it is more often than not where the first battles over those ideas that high culture and art are meant to challenge really take place. It would be foolish, for example, to suggest that "Will and Grace" made homosexuality acceptable on its own in America, but it is an interesting signpost in that struggle.
I'm not going to tag anyone for the meme specifically, but I would love to hear from anyone reading about it. Let me know, and I'll add links to your posts.
*[Edit: a close second to this would have been why I teach Marx, but since that seems to happen in smaller, more sporadic doses and is generally seen as either obvious or blasphemous by most with no in-between, this seemed the more interesting way to go]
All of this makes today such a ridiculously good day to have me writing reference letters. In fact, I've managed to put six of 'em in the mail today. Also two articles to review for the journal I (perhaps foolishly) agreed to help edit. I should probably take this moment to write a letter for myself to one of the jobs that's opened up a bit closer to the family.
And later this weekend, I'll take on the meme Dance tagged me for about why I teach what I teach, once I've had a chance to look at the format and allow the general giddiness that comes from listening to good music in the sun to reach a level that makes me seem less like a morning person or someone with inspirational kitten posters hung up around the office.
But really the whole term seems to be going well right now. Both of my courses are cruising along and even when - as in today's lectures - things are dry (and there were moments in the last lecture today where the topic could've been used to scour your pans), my students are hanging in and asking good questions. And even though the next month appears to be built to steamroll me - potential candidate interviews, a major departmental event, my third year review due - that the students are hopping seems to be enough right now to pull things through.
I'd still like some movement on my own job front, but I'm prepared to try a little patience at the moment and hope something interesting comes my way (*cough: PARIS!*). That does mean, though, that I'm a little at a loss for blog topics, so suggestions are certainly welcome (I'm also behind on my blog reading, so perhaps there are memes or something that I'll rip off and, at the very least, maybe I'll turn up elsewhere).
But today they had the meltdown. The internship they're doing this term has been going since Christmas. The course load for the term is more than a bit intense. Something, they said, feels like it is going to give. But they hate feeling like a quitter, like they're going to let someone down.
This may be the hardest lesson college will offer them: that sometimes you have to let go of things - and that sometimes, even, you have to fail (though that isn't what the student is doing, by any means). One of the things I tried to tell them, in our conversation, is that one of the biggest moments in life is learning that beyond seeing how far you can go, sometimes you've got to figure out what things about you to protect and to not push against. Sometimes you don't even have the reason - and I can well understand how for this student that would be as uncomfortable as quitting. It's a tough lesson to learn, if you ever really learn it.
For me, that lesson started sooner than college. I am, it has been suggested, perhaps a little too laid back for my own good. To some, my tendency to not offer a definitive opinion on every little thing gets interpreted as having no opinion; my intention, really, is to make sure that when I do offer one, that it comes across that much more strongly for the quiet it disrupts. Like my student, I like a solid answer to things. I want to know the why's of what I'm going through, and I don't like to make my decisions until I do. And so learning to protect the parts of life that made things more comfortable, even when there wasn't an obvious reason why, took a bit of coaxing.
I went to a high school of over-achievers. On the first day of freshmen year, people were comparing what colleges they wanted to go to and using those estimates to establish a hierarchy. GPA could determine where you sat in the lunch room or whether you went to a dance. In my junior year, the presumed valedictorian had a nervous break down from the pressure of three people nipping at his heels. While he was away, the runner's up mounted campaigns against his return and told stories of his downfall. A guidance counselor once suggested at an assembly that college wasn't for everyone, and the resulting horror was long enough that you could have flown to Timbuktu for the pin you were going to drop.
In my junior year, I had an internship at a hospital, working in various areas, culminating in the Emergency Room. In the middle of that rotation, my father was brought in with a heart attack, and I set up his heart monitor and I.V. without a word. No one knew we were related until about three hours later when a nurse noticed a patient with my same last name on the board. I'd gone about my business, and no one would suspect. Only when the nurse joked about the name, suggesting I'd put it up so I could steal a nap in the cardio monitoring room, did I say (matter of factly) that it was my father.
Thinking about it later that evening, I realized that I'd done a great interpretation of the doctors I wanted to be like: detached and quiet. I'd done my job better than anyone could ask of me. And I thought about the questions that friends at school had asked that afternoon: did I think it would impact my Calculus test? Would I get a bad evaluation for failing to disclose patient information? How quickly could I hook up a 12-lead EKG anyway?
And I realized it wasn't who I wanted to be, and that the question wasn't about who everyone else wanted me to be or how they thought I should behave. It was about what I wanted and needed.
To be honest, I'm probably still learning that lesson today - and some days, I probably take that lesson much too far. I hope, though, in telling some of that story to my student that they'll realize that sometimes success isn't measured in terms of how much you're doing, but in terms of how happy you feel. It's not just about going far. Sometimes it's about going happily.
Maybe I shouldn't have tangled with someone from religious studies.
Thus far, the challenges of the term:
- keeping the music down so as not to disturb the Religious Studies person next door. Honestly, the music is no louder than it was before. It's interesting that her complaint was about the type of music (I had The Roots on low), and her description was that it was "that bump-da-bump bump music."
- all the computers IT have updated with Vista in the classrooms completely freeze when the screen saver kicks in. The IT person I spoke with described this as a very limited problem with minimal impact. This has prompted my suggestion for a new slogan for our university: "University X: Hiring University X Graduates No One Else Will Have"
- a more general battle against the "because it's already here" sort of logic that inflicts this place in terms of hiring has overtaken me. Granted, we're in a crappy place and luring people from elsewhere to here is one of our big hiring challenges, but still...
- how to tell students I'm writing reference letters for that the programs they're applying to are a waste of their talents (including one student whose announcement that he intends to apply to a program here at University X was as close as I've come to having my skin literally crawl)
I put it off because, it seems to me, the Dean's office should have the ability to look this up for themselves. But now I wonder: what if they don't? The possibilities get quite amusing, really.
- What would happen if I gave myself credit for every course the department has as an overload?
- What would happen if I claimed more students than really are in the course?
So naturally, the term is going, and I can't recall any of the genius ideas that were generated over the break. I've got a little time for the memories to come flooding back, but it's still awfully disconcerting.
I was thinking as I drifted off to sleep at 3 am this morning (am I still the only one who can't sleep the night before school starts, lo, these many years in?) about how in the midst of one of the worst times I ever had, some very dear friends (shouts out to N. and T.) managed to keep two of my wheels on the track by continually, gently nudging me to look for and mention things that were good over the course of any given day until that day itself seemed brighter for it.
As recent blog posts - what few there have been with my recent visit home - are pretty good evidence that I'm in a funk. And so I was going to make sure to mention three things today that seemed so perfectly formed in their own moment, that the day would be better whatever came. I still will, mostly because I'm stubborn, but having started through the beginning-of-term madness, there are madness - other than mine, which no doubt can be thoroughly chronicled and dissected at our leisure, here and elsewhere - that need mentioning.
First, this morning's e-mail of doom, from one of my freshmen, informing me that she has to withdraw from the University because she can't afford our exorbitant tuition. I should note that I found her work to be senior level (and in fact, I mistook her for one the usual senior stragglers one finds in an intro course), and I was upset to discover we had a senior doing that quality of work I'd not met before. I'm choking on the irony of having had her e-mail followed immediately by a note from the coach of one of our major athletic teams about how we could get the star player with a well-below 2.0 GPA set so he could continue with his scholarship this term (i.e. "Don't tell me improve his work and bring him back. " (what I told him)). I won't even mention how this actually manages to conflict with the mission/goal/theme expressed in the University's vision statement about working with the community's less fortunate.
Then, the paperwork disaster. Somewhere in the labyrinthine systems of the school, my super bright Honors student's paperwork allowing him to be enrolled as an honors student had vanished over the break, leaving the student at less than full-time status. I've been working to get the paperwork dealt with since the break: try getting five signatures from administrators via long-distance e-mails and calls over the Christmas holidays. It wasn't until today that I got the last one needed and could try to get my student back on track. We turned in the paperwork, and explained the situation - if he's not full-time, he loses his scholarship; his other financial aid is affected; he loses his work study, etc, etc - and handed the paperwork over, receiving the statement, "Thanks. We'll get to work on this later in the work once our own student worker situation stabilizes."
I didn't attempt to hide my displeasure and was told, "I've got a lot to do. I mean, is this urgent?"
So what three things am I thinking of as I wade through this day?
- Belly's "Full Moon, Empty Heart" (sorry, you'll have to go find it yourselves as there's no good clip to link to that I've found): first song off the .mp3 player with sage advice ("sleep in, now now...") and just a gorgeous sound
- the chill in the air as the dog and I went to find a frisbee spot this morning: no bitter winds, nothing wicked sailing in, just enough to help wake you up and make you think of Spring without actually hating the season you're in
- an explanation of how to make pumpkin pie for vegans so I can try one that one of my colleagues could eat
But it didn't help that my first conversation of the day was my roommate getting upset that my dog got mud on the white bathroom carpet. I mean, first of all: white bathroom carpet? But second, it's a dog, the snows here have all melted but there's been no warmth or sun to evaporate the water, and it just rained. You do what you can - try to dry the dog off for several minutes, cover a towel in mud, walk him on the mats outside the door. But there's a limit.
So you'll understand, I hope, why I was irritated to have the first words spoken to me today be "I'm not going to live in a house like this."
I could go on about that. But the point is really that the day hasn't gotten better. Every conversation - every single one, and I'm now almost 12 hours from when I woke up - has felt like it had (at best) a subtle vibe of combat to it.
Taken together, that means it's probably a bad idea that I designed my entire syllabus today for the course I've been dreaming of teaching since I arrived here in the place recently described as "the godforsaken place you live." There's not really time to go back and redo it, as the deadlines for my third year review have just rolled downhill, and I've got a little over two weeks to do have that completed, plus another course to design and an event to start scheduling for. So at some point in the term, when I'm complaining about the class, you'll all have some context for just how it happened.
Just don't feel the need to point it out to me. Especially if it happens to fall on a Friday.
It's probably not a good sign that I found myself wondering as I trudged up the backstairs to my office what I'd have to do to get fired.
But there are good things happening, to be sure. I had an advisee caught for plagarism last term who's contacted me, explained it was absolutely their fault and explained what they think the reasons for it were, asking for suggestions about how to alter the pattern they see that made cheating seem the way to go. As a beacon of hope for this term, that seems like a pretty big one. I mean how many millions of times have you felt like people - not just students - just refuse to accept responsibility for their actions. And to some degree this makes me feel better about the fact that, prior to the incident, I'd picked the student out as someone who had a lot of potential. I'll take it as the silver lining (he said, cribbing Rilo Kiley) to start the term.
But the trip home was pretty good. I do finally have proof that I have a grand niece, though in form true to my family, I only managed to see her for 10 minutes after a series of events that could be prevented if that segment of the family could only be bothered to live life on this side of the grid long enough to actually know their own address. For those of you who are curious, here she is: my niece Antoinette. Having received a billion cards (okay, maybe seven) from friends with pictures of their kids, this seems fair as it's as close as I'm going to come for the foreseeable future.
I also got numerous discs, the best of which right now (at least overall) was probably Spoon's "Ga ga ga ga ga" (though the best song I've heard is probably Les Savy Fav's "Patty Lee"). I also got halfway through a movie called "Black Sheep" that was embarrassingly funny to the point that the rental DVD stopped working. It should arrive shortly from Netflix.
Now I have two syllabi to write in time for the start of classes, plus the impending start of the book this term. And, of course, I need to sit down and start answering all those e-mails I haven't answered over the break and catch up on blog reading which I entirely ignored while I was away.
"Nobody's ever who they were."
- The Echo Maker
Sneaking a post from the vacation home, with just a few days left until I'm back into the usual swing of things.
Under the bed, the undisciplined husky - Maya - is sleeping, trying to burrow under the way my own dog does. My father is snoring, two rooms away. He and I spent the evening drinking beer and watching football and bad TNT movies until he feel asleep, after asking me about the blanket I had a child. There's a picture long missing from the hallway that used to lead to my room that had my hands at age five and a picture of me in the only Christmasy sweater I could ever stomach that was just found. Nostalgia comes for us all tonight. Beware. In the other direction, my mother sleeps in a recliner, ill beyond the usual soreness that comes from life. I've still no proof of the alleged grand-niece, though I hope this will resolve itself in the last days home.
I'm two and nine-tenths sheets to the wind, having fallen short on a request to drunk dial a friend from home (yes, people do make that request - perhaps I'm a charming drunk. You don't know.). I've spent the time home reading and visiting with friends. Yesterday, I taught a friend's 3 year-old about the sunglasses that turn her invisible. Last time I was home, I helped her learn just how fun blowing bubbles could be. We also flew kites and played peek-a-boo. She's the older of two children and is enthralled with Disney "Faeries" which ordinarily I'd find appalling, but somehow made me curious enough to read many books and to ask many questions about who was who and such like. The younger one and I spent several hours sticking tongues out and learning to pull up on things (I won't say which of us needed the help - use your imagination). Nightly, I check voice-mail to see whether there's any word from the many schools I've applied to, but otherwise, I've refused all communication from things northward (unless it was about my dog, which none have been). I think I've decided on the "classic" work of literature that my best friend N. and I will be reading (we choose one a year, and this year was my pick). I'm happy that the choice is about to be (any day now) "The Bell Jar" which I've never read.
I've spent much of the vacation coming to grips with the Relationship that Failed (aka the Last Days of Paris) which I thought I'd moved beyond only to have it come up at the Worst Possible Time (as a side note, I like the use of capital letters a la A.A. Milne which somehow seem oh so appropriate here). Home has been good for that sort of reckoning among other things (for example, the easy ability to find Mexican food and barbecue that didn't taste like someone dumped a bottle of cleaning vinegar into the sauce).
Life feels like two steps forward and three steps back.
But I miss things here. On the drive home from the kite-flying, invisi-sunglasses trip, my oldest friend remarked how good I was with the two children. Off-handedly, I suggested that it might suggest something about my maturity level. There but for the grace of God (and/or student loans), go I. Or maybe there I'd go. Then he and his girlfriend both asked when I was coming home for good.
My former boss - from roughly 10 years ago - ran into me at a bar last week. She offered me a similar job for more money (both than I made before I departed for grad school and than I make now). I could total up large chunks of this trip which have boiled down to the following statement: "I think I'm good at what I do, but I don't like where I am, and I'm paid poorly. I should at least be decent at what I do and like one other thing at my existence, and hence, the approach to this year." But I don't know what to make of this beyond that I miss having a bar that old friends could find me at even if they'd only offer me Devil's bargains.
I've received many CDs as gifts and also a sweater and some socks. I'm tired and should probably sleep, but I have one more road trip to make tomorrow.
That's the trip in the briefest of nutshells.