Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Leaving Here

Last week I was all about the emotional trials that the uncertainty of a burgeoning academic career can bring. But this week I’m reminded – in part by my students – of the other side...the unexpected experiences that can arise and enrich our lives as a result of the places we're pushed in these early years. (Of course, this perspective is possible for me because I’m childless, I’m mobile, I have a supportive partner who isn’t dependent on me for the day-to-day and can manage my not being around most of the time…and is willing to take care of the dog on her own! It’s not so for everyone…)

I’m in the midst of packing up my university office and my home in Canadian University City because I am moving back to Home City this weekend. I won’t be coming back here, since I have a job at another Cdn Uni next year. Today, a tough-yet-oh-so-vulnerable student for whom I have a very parental soft spot – she’s been in three of my classes this year – came up to me and cried about my leaving. (What is it with me and the crying students?) I was incredulous, shocked, to see her guard down like that. She got me thinking about what this place has been for me.

Seeing her like this made me realize just how sad I am to be saying goodbye. I really care about these students, this place. I was freaked out as I watched Tough Student walk out the door and wanted to call her back, to say, “let’s go for a drink, now that you’re not my student anymore.” And the thing is, that’s so far from what I expected when I started this gig. In fact, I wasn’t even supposed to be here, in a way. I thought I would spend this past academic year lazily finishing up my PhD. I certainly wasn’t on the market .(I still can’t get over the fact that we regularly use that term to describe ourselves!) When I saw the ad for this job, I applied on a whim. After I interviewed and got the job, I frantically finished my PhD and moved here – a year ahead of my own “career plan”, such as it was. It all seemed perfectly accidental, and I felt unencumbered by anything related to this city or institution.

I didn’t expect much from the year, except a few months of panic leading up to my defense in December, plenty of new-professor anxiety and learning curves, and some time to spend with family members who happen to live in this city. It has turned out, though, to be one of the most satisfying periods of my life. The community I have found here has been overwhelmingly wonderful. I reconnected with my old friend, Gorgeous Big Personality, and made the closest New Best Friend I’ve made in many, many years – Faux Girlfriend. I became very close to an aunt, with whom I shared many a gossipy meal and drive – including a shockingly wine- and gin-soaked goodbye dinner on Monday night. I’ve had colleagues like Eccentric Mom, whom I adore as people and also have a productive intellectual connection with. And the students I’ve met are lovely.

All of this connecting flies in the face of an assumption about the difficulty of making connections – an assumption that is true a lot of the time, I think. How much harder it becomes to forge friendships as we get older. People are in relationships or they’re just…busy with themselves and their lives. That feeling that there are infinite possible friends to be had fades with adolescence. But this year was enchanted in the way it opened up that horizon again.

When I got a job another university even as I was being offered a renewal of my contract here, I faced a tough decision. The school I’m at now really isn’t very good. When I eventually decided to take the new job, I was making a career choice instead of an emotional choice for perhaps the first time in my life. And now, as I do all this packing up and saying of goodbyes and watching Tough Students walk away, I’m still not entirely sure about it.

Anyway. As much as I wish for a tenure-track job – I really want to settle – and as strongly as I object to the culture of the bloody nine-month, limited-term appointment that is taking hold and causing so much uncertainty (and intermittent unemployment) for so many folks, right now I’m also feeling damn lucky to have had this time here. Tonight I had dinner with two friends and then we went for a walk. The sun was setting all pink and streaky and we ended up in a park, looking at a beautiful monument I'd never seen before. And I wouldn't have seen any of the loveliness that is this place if it weren't for my shitty nine-month contract; I'd certainly never have considered moving here. And look at all I've gained. Huh.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Teaching for the love of research

This morning I taught my last class at this university (more on this bittersweet ending in another post). This was a course I’d designed in my precise sub-sub-field. And it has been a triumph, I have to say. What a difference to be teaching things I know this well. I know I bring a different energy to this material and to my classroom persona when I’m in this territory; I can feel it. There is much more off-the-cuff, productively tangential lecturing, more very specific engagement with students’ questions and comments. Though there are certainly areas for improvement, I think I’m a competent teacher when I’m teaching my regular classes – and judging by feedback, most students agree. I do know of what I teach, for the most part. But not to this degree; not so well that is has become a second skin, a part of who I am. That is not, I think, to overstate the case. Of course the questions of this field have made me who I am as a scholar and a thinker and, yes, a person. How could they not, considering the years of my life I’ve poured into them?

After I left today, buoyed by enthusiastic comments from the students, I found myself thinking about the relationship between teaching and research. It seems clear to me that one way to counter the oft-bemoaned Apathy of the Modern Student is to have them see us at our best. When the inquisitive mind of the researcher finds its way into the classroom, it generates an intellectual energy that engages students more effectively than anything else can. In this class I could hold them hostage with an old-fashioned, PowerPoint-less lecture on difficult material for three hours (and I did, some days) and they’d be more alert and listening more carefully than my students ever were in a survey course where the material was relatively easy, I spoon-fed them with slides (never again!), and they got to ruminate on current affairs, as they so love to do.

Modeling for students what it means to be an engaged researcher can teach them a lot about the value of careful, analytic work. When I throw in side comments about methodology, about the status of the field, and about the various authors we’ve read, they absorb a sense of the satisfaction and confidence that comes with knowing something thoroughly. What is more, this kind of class can bring them the sense of fun they seem to spend their lives on the lookout for, and can never find in the scholarly experience because they don’t know where or how to look for it here.

Of course, the teaching-research relationship works the other way, too. I am leaving this class newly invigorated in my own work, about which I was feeling predictably exhausted after defending a PhD in December. I had thought of moving on to a different topic. But each lecture I prepared stirred up my love a little bit more, so that by yesterday, even as I was preparing this class, I was simultaneously jotting notes for a new article and excitedly planning my summer of writing. Teaching this month-long course has even made palatable the daunting labour of turning the dissertation into a book – a task I was ambivalent about, given the deep, structural revision I know it will entail.

Students’ enthusiasm works on me, too. The class was like an endless feedback loop. Even as I was able to help generate some excitement in them, their comments on the field and its central questions were part of what helped me look at the material with fresh eyes, and see its potential as scholarly inquiry for a future generation of scholars.

The best thing about all of this is that this was only a trial run. I can take the students’ comments and my own evolving interests into the redesign of this course, which I’m lucky enough to be able to teach again at the new university in the fall. In fact, it seems my proposal for this course helped land me the new job, potentially impermanent though the job may be. So I get the sense the department at the new uni understands the value of having us teach what we know well. Others would be wise to follow that lead, in the interest of reminding everyone – students, professors – what we’re here for.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

The teeny, tiny country

I'm finding it's a real trick trying to pull off this pseudonymous blogging as a Canadian. (Not that I have legions of readers to recognize me!) I mean, I know it's far from airtight down there in the U.S. I know people are recognized in spite of their best efforts. But with a population ten times ours, and an astonishing number of colleges and universities, it becomes a couple of degrees easier to guard your identity than it is here. This country's massive landmass is offset by a downright claustrophobic academic scene. In the discipline in which I teach, it's a fishbowl. I have been frustrated by this on the job market, on which I'm competing with the same handful of people I know for every one of the precious few available jobs.

So I've already made decisions that might have turned out differently, in a context more conducive to anonymity. I haven't trumpeted my queer identity in my profile, thinking that might be a too-quick clue to people who just casually surf by profiles but are intrigued by a national guessing game - especially about sexual identity. I won't discuss my location in the country, though regionalism is as important in constructing Canadian identities as it is to Americans, and having at least a general sense of where I am would arguably enhance the legibility of future posts about the places in which I am teaching, the students and communities I interact with. Every time I give a clue as to the kinds of questions I'm teaching - and I know I've given several, just this first week - I'm wearing a massive target. And when I talk about friends, I'm dressing them in very bright target-wear, too, and I'm not sure how much they'd like that.

This limits the scope of this blog, and that makes me sad. I recognize that a solution might be to write abstractions. But that's not what I want for this forum. After all, it was started to deal with the very concrete realities of this academic life. But some of those realities are bound to be experienced as negative, and the high recognition factor in this country limits the safety of recounting the negative impressions when it comes to jobs I am doing, jobs I want, or friends and acquaintances.

We'll see how I do. I suspect that I just need to get used to what it feels like to tread this line. And I need to remember that all of you who are doing this anoynymously in the US or elsewhere have been treading it, too, if in a less immediately threatening way. How have you managed it?

Notes on the in-class essay

I'm just grading a batch of in-class essays for this spring course...

1. God, awkward sentence constructions and freakish vocabulary use slay me. How about this: "the strong relationship between dress and love on the butch/femme pedestal". Uh huh. The good ol' butch/femme pedestal...

2. I am teaching this short spring course on a topic that prompts quite a bit of impassioned, personal reflection from students (and people in general). So I got an original, four-stanza poem to open one of these in-class essays.

3. On a more serious note, I've never assigned an in-class essay before. These students had one and a half hours to write (by hand) this approximately 6-page essay. I gave them a choice of two questions in our last class meeting, which was five days before the writing of the essay, due to a long weekend. I told them they could bring in their readings and an outline. And what do you know? This batch of essays is better than any I've seen before. WTF? What is particularly weird is that where it's better is not in content, really, but mechanics. They are writing, for the most part, coherent paragraphs. Spelling properly. Not writing run-on sentences. In short, this is clearer writing than I've seen all year. This is weird and sort of scary. What does it tell us about the work they normally do? What does it tell us about their working on computers?

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Scholars and dolls

So this afternoon, though I'm in the thick of the worst cold I've had in a couple of years, I walked 10 minutes down the street to visit my colleague from another department, Eccentric Mom. We've discovered some bizarrely overlapping research interests, and monopolize each other at social events these days, buzzing about ideas for future collaborations - panels, an edited volume...So I went over today to look at some images she has gathered in her research - predictably rich and fascinating. She made lemonade for my throat.

And then.

And then we looked at her Barbie collection! Some of the dolls are on a shelf in her funky living room, but most are carefully packed away to preserve their 60s and 70s fashions. EM told me that people have given her books and articles on Barbie over the years, encouraging a scholarly interest in them. She says she's just not interested in looking at them that way - "it would take the fun out of it". I love her! Though I myself have assigned scholarly articles on Barbie, I love EM's attitude. She's a careful, committed, and politicized scholar who thinks very hard about most everything. But if there isn't room for irrational pleasure in this line of work, then what?

How fun is that for an afternoon coffee with a colleague? Work, lemonade, and Barbies?

Loss and the academy

I have a close friend here named Gorgeous Big Personality. When I arrived here last August to take up this contractually limited appointment, I rediscovered her…she and I had a graduate seminar together about six years before, and we’d become fast friends in that grad-seminar way…the way that doesn’t transpire into a friendship outside of that context, but that is intense and oh-so-valuable within it. And then she’d gone on to another university to do her PhD and I’d never seen nor heard of her again. It turns out her husband, Lovely Humble Man, had been hired here for the year, like I was. So we rediscovered each other, and it’s been a year-long love-in. They’re a fantastic couple and she is particularly brilliant and perhaps the kindest person I’ve ever known. It’s been a year of drinking hard together in that semi-genteel academic sense I’ve discovered since I’ve become a professor. This leads to bonds.

Anyway, Lovely Humble Man, who is an accomplished junior scholar, has suffered defeat at the hands of academe since he finished his PhD several years ago. He is one hell of a smart guy, working in an obscure but somehow sexy/hip field, with a prestigious postdoc under his belt and his book on the way. His students like him. Suffered defeat, you say? That doesn’t sound like defeat…And yet, from his perspective, it has been…five years of applying for jobs has resulted in nothing but the 9-month contract at this university. He didn’t get a single interview this year. GBP talked to me about how shattered he’d been. This has torn him apart, in her words, as a guy singularly suited for academic life. He wanted so badly to just settle somewhere and do the research he loved. Instead of criss-crossing the country running after the nine-month contracts that are increasingly the favoured money-saving scheme of bastard (and shortsighted) administrations everywhere.

Yet this year, what did transpire was an offer of a permanent, very fancy position at this very university. They loved him, it seemed. It was all contingent on some external funding, but there were reassurances from high and low that the funding was in the bag. And he was the chosen candidate, the golden boy.

So LHM started to relax. He and GBP started looking at houses to buy in this here weird city, and planning kids. GBP, who is working desperately to finish her PhD this summer, managed to get herself a not-too-shabby full-time contract here for next year. Things were set. LHM seemed giddy. So did GBP. I went to real estate open houses with them. They had a meeting two days ago with a credit union about a mortgage.

Then yesterday LHM got a call from the VP. He was asked to come in as soon as possible. GBP consulted with me anxiously, and we decided that it couldn’t be anything but good news. Were all ready to break out the champagne.

At 5pm yesterday I was sitting at home at my desk, when GBP called to me through my screen door. She’d come to get me because LHM didn’t get the fancy position. The funding hadn’t come through. He was sitting alone on a patio drinking beer while she came to round me up and take me there to commiserate. She looked stricken but professed numbness. When we got to the bar, LHM was joking around. But it was at his own expense, and I could feel them slip into a dynamic they’d thought they’d escaped from.

Fuck. This fucking life. Over drinks and dinner we and a couple of other friends had the conversation junior scholars have so often it has become banal (sorry, folks). About what we are not told when we choose this path. And the sad knowledge that we would probably have chosen it anyway. Which should make us proud of our passion and commitment, but instead, at moments like these, makes us feel profoundly idiotic. Just the other night, over dinner at my house, GBP had been talking about how really, when you really arrive – when you escape from insecure, contractual hell – being a professor is the best job in the world. Last night, she called it “the third worst job in the world” – can’t remember the first two. Putting things in perspective, and remembering the millions of people out there who do excruciatingly difficult labour for fifty cents a day, I think it’s somewhere in the middle, perhaps with a strong pull toward “best”. Perhaps its rank changes depending on where you are in the profession, and in your career.

No matter, really. Nights like this – happening to good, nay great, people like GBP and LHM – are sick. And thinking of their next few days together – which are apparently going to consist of entire days’ worth of episodes of Lost – gives me shivers.

This has been a rehashing of what so many of us already know. But like any trauma - and I think this is what it is (like), to a limited extent - it needs going over. Ugh.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Crying students (and their professors)

I had a student melt into tears in my office at 8am this morning, just before class. This has been a regular occurrence this year - oh, the student tears I've seen. About missed periods, hospitalized mothers, and forgotten exams. And, several times, my gentle accusations of unintended plagiarism. This one was crying because she is overwhelmed and doesn't understand my's too conceptual and she says she's not used to thinking this way. It seemed to me that the problem is probably more that she is taking three, intensive spring session classes at once, including stats (?!), and not that she "can't do" this one. She repeated her refrain about her brain's unsuitedness to conceptual work, and when I said, "you know, it could be me", she looked at me as if I was crazy and said, "no...everyone else is getting it..."

"We don't know that," I said. Flying in the face of advice from colleagues that I should never apologize or admit weakness to students. But it's true. We don't. What I do know is that I have 20 students in a class with no prerequisites, including about 6 smart students from my major. To the rest, it could be, and probably is, a different language. And how are my language-teaching skills? I'm not so sure...I'm better at working with the "converted", working with students who already grasp the basics. I don't think I'm particularly successful at breaking things down, especially when I'm concerned about wasting the time of the converted - to manage this problem, I sometimes have the converted help me explain a theory...that gives them a role, but it might also inflate their sense of self-importance. I do worry about the students who certainly have the aptitude for theory, but who might not be getting the push they need from me...

So Crying Student and I, we went to class, and the students wrote an in-class essay for the first half, and then I lectured for an hour. And it was my turn to (almost) cry, which I got to disguise because I am getting over being sick and have a froggy, cracking, and dwindling voice. I was lecturing on commodity fetishism - an article I adore that has an emotional resonance that is rare for theory. What a difference, I thought. Crying Student was in tears because she didn't get the theory; I was on the verge because I did. This only underscored my worrries about the differences between us.

I try and remember that last week a colleague overheard a student in this class telling another about how great the class is...and how "the prof, like, actually makes it interesting..." Something is getting through to her, obviously. But still, I worry about teaching clarity. We talk a lot about clarity in writing, don't we, and fight over the (in)accessibility of theoretical language. It seems to me that a lot of our worries could be assuaged by learning how to translate that language for our students...after all, the problem isn't intrinsic to the content, it's a question of intelligibility (yeah, yeah, I know one could argue they're the same thing). Rearticulating theoretical work is as important in this context as is its accessibility as scholarship. And yet, how? As a TA, I once went to a workshop on how to bring difficult concepts to life using creative teaching strategies. It was all about drawing pictures and role-playing. This is SO not my style - it felt like kindergarten, and I am loath to feed into students' belief that they are not adults . There must be other ways.

This feels urgent to me given my dilemma in my previous post, whereby the few students who feel an affinity with theory run amok with it, effectively beating their peers into submission. I want to be able to give those silent peers the language and the confidence to turn that into a dialogue.

I remember that I'm a new professor, though, and how I've realized that this will take years. Years and years to polish this craft. Sigh.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Managing the cool kids

I am teaching a spring course right now, before I return to Home City for the summer of unemployment. This particular course is giving me plenty of opportunity to watch class dynamics in action, and to try (usually unsuccessfully) to intervene. It seems that as my politically charged (inter-)discipline has developed, it has been cursed with cliques. Small compacts of 21-year-olds - one such compact per university - each of whom is lovely and smart on her own, for the most part (especially when they are divested of the clique - speaking with their guards down in my office, for instance). But who are much, much too big for their britches, intellectually and socially, and end up policing classroom discourse with a doctrinaire attitude that is notably lacking in depth.

One of the things that makes me laugh about their attitudes is their recent, provisional and, dare I say, convenient, embrace of all things "postmodern". Now, I'm pretty unavoidably postmodern in my own theoretical orientation but I am, at least, aware of the pitfalls of the pomo, and can trace the electrically charged fault lines that have been left in my own field by two decades of impassioned argument about the effects of this beast. These kids, though - I watch them grab hold of a few ideas they have identified as "postmodern" and use them to excuse themselves from consequences, essentially. This in a field in which we are profoundly beset by consequences - in fact, are consequences not our MO? It makes me think, cringing, of diary entries I wrote 10 years ago, as my first long-term relationship collapsed when I left my girlfriend to start sleeping with a boy. I treated her badly (not the sleeping with a boy, per se, just the deets of the whole thing - the shameful way I behaved) and justified it, in my journal, in terms of the pomo theory I was then heady with encountering as an upper-year undergrad! What's worse, I now recall that I had the nerve to put such thoughts into a singularly remorseless letter to her. I shudder to think. What distresses me about such noxious uses of this theory is that the best of various "post" theories was conceived out of concern for the consequences of individualist refusals of responsibility, right? Using it this way violates that spirit.

Anyway, these kids, they're doing it too. At least in my classrooms, my colleagues' classrooms, and in the general culture of the university, such as it is at a place like this. And the problem is, they're not doing it in their diaries, but proudly and publicly and unthinkingly.

This is a problem. Especially at a small university like the one I've been at this year, where the pond is too small for these wannabe big fish, who end up in the same classes together all the time, and terrorize the same few dozen fellow students with their shtick. I've had several bewildered non-clique majors come to my office to tell me how difficult they find it to speak up in class with this kind of thing going on. In fact, as a colleague - let's call her Faux Girlfriend, which is how my actual GF, who lives in Home City, jokingly refers to her - as Faux GF noted, I seem to have become a bit of a mentor for precisely these students who feel excluded by the whole dynamic. This makes me happy. After all, it is these quieter, less confident ones who need my "help" (although I suppose one could argue that the pomo vixens could also use some help getting over themselves).

Still, though, I need help! I haven't been particularly successful in shutting down this dynamic when it really comes to dominate. Probably because I am naturally an introvert, and I myself almost never opened my mouth as a student. (Teaching has been a steep learning curve of the spirit, in that it has meant overcoming that past, and I'm not all the way there.) I mean, they sometimes intimidate me, which is pathetic. (I am heartened that Faux GF expresses similar sentiments.) And the university where I've accepted a job for next year is going to be full of such folks - though they're probably a little more astute, and there will be more of them. I need to conjure up a strategy for dealing with this nonsense. Any thoughts would be much appreciated.

(Since no one knows of the existence of this blog, I'm not sure who I'm asking for help...:)

How I found myself here

I said I wouldn't do it, that it would take too much from one already predisposed to procrastination. That I'd wait until this summer was over, at least - I'd reward myself with a blog for an ever-so-productively unemployed summer of writing and revising and publishing. If I'd done a lot this summer, then I'd allow myself a blog. Just in time to record impressions of my new FT contractually limited appointment at Canadian University, which starts this fall. Surely now - when I'm just finishing up my PREVIOUS 9-month FT contract at another Canadian university and about to move back to Home City, back to GF and Doglet - now is not the time for this, I told myself...

But I read you all a lot these days, you academics in the blogosphere, and I can't help but envy you the space to work through what you're all doing...and I'm a writer, not a talker (like "a lover, not a fighter"?) and see my way through problems - like the tricks of this newly PhD'd life - better in print than in my own reeling mind.

So this blog's beginnings, on the cold, rainy Monday of a Victoria Day long weekend, are dedicated to you, my fellow academic bloggers. Thanks for the inspiration.