Monday, April 27, 2009

News flash: First person column in Chronicle reveals depressive self-absorption

I don't want to turn this blog into the Chronicle's loyal (or not so loyal) opposition, but this caught my attention today.

The Mediocre Professor. Shorter Chronicle: Professor Mediocre laments his mediocrity. Some might find this depressing, but I find it irritating. He wants suggestions? I've got suggestions.
  • Take some vitamins and show a little energy. The students respond to your energy. If all you're showing them is sighs and ennui, guess what they'll reflect back to you?
  • If you speak the way you write, try turning your efforts outward instead of inward: the point of teaching is communicating directly, not being Henry James with well-turned sentences. I'm not criticizing your writing; I'm just saying that teaching demands something different.
  • Teaching is like playing tennis, not like performing Hamlet. Students are not interested in watching you dramatically stare out the window as you ponder self-doubt and despair; leave that to the student from Wittenberg. They're adolescents, or just out of adolescence. They have enough self-doubt and despair for the both of you. It's your job to get them to hit the ball back and keep the discussion going. If they don't hit the first one, lob another. They want to talk about the literature, but you may not have served them something that they can respond to. Try a different approach.
  • If you really think the students are right and that the humanities are a dying carcass, have you thought about doing something that you would really like to do and giving your spot up to one of the eager hordes of Ph.D. jobseekers out there? I don't want to sound too much like Willy Loman, but in a way part of your job is to sell the humanities. You can't sell a product that you don't believe in.
  • All those laments about "digital twitterings" are a red herring. If you think the students are uniquely indifferent nowadays, you should look back at the laments about students from ancient times to the present.
  • Also, "digital" means a different form of expression, not a killer technology that swallows up books. This isn't a deathmatch between digital media and the humanities, however much the news media like to propose that it is. They're in love with the "digital natives" idea and celebrity culture, too, but that doesn't mean that they're right.

    In fact, that isn't a bad starting place for a discussion with your class. How about it?
  • Thursday, April 23, 2009

    At the Chronicle: "Against Readings"

    Dr. Crazy has a long and fine post about Mark Edmundson's "Against Readings" at the Chronicle. Her analysis is more, well, analytical than mine is going to be, so go and read it. She agrees and yet doesn't agree with him, and I can see why.

    Edumundson's argument is really seductive in a Culture and Anarchy kind of way: "the best that has been known and thought." When you're reading that book for the first time, especially as a naive reader, you just want to say,"oh, give me the touchstone, Matthew Arnold, and I'll be as good and sensitive a critic as you are--I promise." And certainly we've all read our fair share of the kind of mechanical-application-of-theory-to-texts-criticism he's critiquing, as in "here are five things that Judith Butler says about performing gender, and here are the five points in X text that prove her point."

    (And I can't help taking umbrage at this: "Prius-proselytizing." Hey! You talking to me?)

    But this seductive vision of reading also demands some absolutes, or maybe binaries, that make me squirm. For example, if you read between the lines, it's clear that there are two kinds of books: the kind that transforms your life, and the kind that doesn't. The first kind is literature, and the second kind isn't.

    Here's the problem: while he's right about "befriending the book" in the sense of reading it with an open mind as to its possibilities, and to teaching it in the same way, it's possible to befriend a book that you don't like and that hasn't transformed your life at all, especially if you've chosen to teach it for some reason.

    For example, haven't you ever worked up enthusiasm to teach a book that personally left you cold? Heck, I've befriended some texts I didn't care for to the point of going steady with them, but what made that unholy partnership possible was my understanding of how well they performed some particular literary or cultural task, an understanding made possible by understanding some theoretical frameworks, even the New Criticism that's at the heart of his "no criticism" idea. I think what he's saying is that the book that left you cold--say, Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent*--but that you could understand conceptually was great might transform a student's life.

    I always feel a little dishonest in presenting the books in this way, though, and if I'm going to make Blakean ecstasy and the power to change lives criteria for course books, that creates a problem. How can we know which books will change lives until we teach them? And since as far as I know there isn't a Norton Anthology of Changing Lives and Creating Ecstasy in the Reader, the judgment is still going to rest with us as teachers to balance what we like, what we know students like, and what gets across the concepts that we hope will catch fire with students.

    *I know it's supposed to be great, but years ago it just plain left me cold. Are there any books that you feel this way about?

    Wednesday, April 22, 2009

    Service and servitude

    Because of a situation that came up recently, I've been thinking about the difference between service and servitude in academe. We all perform service for our departments or institutions, and we're supposed to pitch in with the service needs of the profession at large (chairing and organizing panels, serving on committees, and so on).

    Service to the profession at large is more complicated, however, because you're not reporting to an academic hierarchy (chair/dean/etc.) and you're all on the same level ground, meeting as professionals in the field.

    In this situation, it's service when there's a collaborative effort involved and everyone pitches in: "You do X and I'll do Y, and then we'll get together with the result." In this case, you say "yes" and get on with it.

    It smacks of servitude, though, when one person tries to get others to do the work: "You're so organized; can you contact these 200 people and find out X?" or "You're so good with computers; can you look up this information and get it back to me?" or "I'm so busy right now with some writing; can you do X for me?" In these cases, the polite answer would be "No." The impolite answer would be "You may be busy or inept, but that's not my problem. Do your own work."

    But some people seem to have difficulty in separating service from servitude. Let's keep this hypothetical: say a Beloved Senior Scholar (BSS) contacts you about a scholarly project that you've worked on successfully but that he is now taking over. You're at a peer institution and have been a professional on your own for some years. Yet when you've worked with BSS before, you had to deflect suggestions like this: "Why don't you go through the MLA Directory and see if all the institutional affiliations for our membership lists are correct?" or "I'm really busy with a writing project right now, but why don't you contact all the people who have published on this subject in the last five years and ask them if they would like to join our organization?" To this, you suggested that you were yourself very busy with a writing project and that he should hire a research assistant to do those tasks or do them himself. You also extricated yourself from the professional partnership as soon as possible.

    BSS, it seems to me, confuses service and servitude. I don't know whether it's a generational thing or a gender issue, or maybe both. If it's a generational thing, it may be complicated by the idea that incompetence at and disdain for understanding machinery (i.e., computers) was a status marker of a Deep Thinker in the Liberal Arts back in the day. If it's a gender thing, well, maybe the traces of the "wives are there to type our papers" school of thought are coming out in these suggestions. Or maybe he's just one of the many academics who have a hard time seeing beyond their own research interests and recognizing that other people have their own necessary work to do. All I know is that when I hear from BSS, I start thinking of graceful ways to say no and stay calm before I even hear the question.

    Do you know people like this who confuse service with servitude? What have you said to them?

    Monday, April 20, 2009

    My plant wants to go home

    I need to get back to posting soon, but there's something I've noticed in my office.

    My plant wants to go home. More specifically, my plant wants this semester to end. I've always prided myself on not being one of those people who could tell you down to the last nanosecond how far into the semester it is. I had a colleague like that once: "It's week 6, and they're acting crazy, just as they always do," she'd say. I never knew what week it was, or, without looking at the syllabus, the date that the semester would end. But my plant knows.

    Sure, the end of the semester is busy--isn't it always?--and I'm really pleased with how my students are doing. This should be a busy and a happy time, since they're doing good work. But the plant just sits there, wanting to be taken home, telling me through some kind of plant telepathy that we've only got a few weeks left and it is so done with this semester.

    If it were me, I'd be embarrassed at how ready I am to pack it in and call the semester over with. But it isn't me. I'm pretty sure it's the plant.

    Friday, April 10, 2009

    Blogworld creativity

    All right, it was a dream (hence the OT qualifier), but I think it says something about the relationship between blogging and "real writing," so I'm posting it. I think it was inspired by a message I received recently from an acquisitions editor at a press where I've reviewed several manuscripts, asking me to have coffee at an upcoming conference.

    In the dream, a colleague and I were part of some focus group about academic blogging, and he began to pontificate at great length about it. In real life I like and respect this colleague, but you know that Mark Twain saying "it is better to be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt"? It became clear that he knew nothing about blogging, although that didn't stop him from expressing a lot of opinions dressed as theories, and that I had a whole lot of ideas about it just from reading blogs and from writing this one for three years.

    The editor and I walked to a nearby coffeeshop through a thicket of blogs, which were posted on beautiful wooden signposts (all of your blogs on the blogroll were there) on gentle green slopes, and the comments pages were paper pages left beneath them where people could write things with the attached pencils. Once at the shop, I outlined something like a theory of blogology--if not like Mr. Casaubon's Key to All Mythologies--and the editor thought this should be a book.

    Now, I'm not writing a book about blogs. Instead, I think it signifies a lot of things that blogs seem to mean to us all:
  • The ability to try out ideas and be heard by a supportive (but honest) community, even if it's largely a pseudonymous one.
  • The ability to be playful in writing.
  • The liberating quality of writing about what you know, and what you know you know even if it doesn't square with someone else's theories (as Professor Z often discusses).
  • The beauty of a writing space--for it was very much a space--in which writing does not need to respond to deadlines, is never stressful, and makes the writer feel as though the expression of ideas and emotions is a good thing.

    In short, I think it was about the ways in which blogs foster creativity, and who could say that that's a bad thing?
    [Title changed to be less confusing]
  • Friday, April 03, 2009

    Reading criticism irreverently

    When I'm reading a sentence like "My project is to stage an intervention into X," my first thought is "Why? Does it have a drug problem?"

    (With apologies to profgrrrl for stealing her blog title.)