Thursday, August 31, 2006

Wee bit o' whining

So, not to worry - I am still feeling warm and fuzzy and pretty great about my new position.

However, the reason I am blogging at this moment is because I am not on a Greyhound bus traveling back to Home City. Oh no. And why's that? Because the city bus that was supposed to arrive at campus for 1:45, getting downtown at 2:15, in plenty of time for my 2:45 Greyhound, did not arrive on campus till 2:00. The driver then proceeded to have a smoke for twelve minutes. Then we had a lovely little 10-minute stop by the side of the road, halfway into the journey, while the driver finished his coffee and we waited for a change of drivers. So I missed my bus. I mean, I love it here and all, and it's nice that I'm in this friendly cafe with wireless Internet. But I'm hot and lugging bags, and I'm supposed to be going home! And every bus I have gone on this week has been late. Grr -too much!!

Anyway, also - since I'm whining - why not whine about education students? Actually, this isn't about the students, per se, as much as about the culture of education faculties and programs, when they are considered simply "teacher training". They make me crazy! I thought of this because I was surrounded, on my very late city bus, by tiny little women who look about sixteen, and act like it too - talking all excitedly and giggling about their first days of their education degree this week. What? These people are going to be teaching children in one year?

I developed a bit of an allergy to this whole culture last year, when my office at that university was surrounded by three Education classrooms, where the students sat in little groups of four at low tables, and all I could hear, all day long - even with my door closed - was:

--Education professor: "Good morning, Section 7". Chorus of adults, for chrissake, replying to the teacher in singsong unity: "Good morning, Mrs. X"

--Endless rounds of "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" and its ilk

--The following, sadly representative exchange between education professor and education student (which I have committed to aggravated memory): Professor: "Let's talk about the book about clay. Julie?" Julie: "It was just about clay, and I liked it." Professor: "Good."

I mean, come on! This is how we prepare people - who are so infantilized by the culture that they don't even seem like adults - to do one of the most important jobs in society? I find it infuriating. And it wasn't even just me being curmudgeonly - I overheard several conversations outside my office, between bitterly disappointed and sometimes angry education students, complaining that they weren't learning anything at all. It was just busywork. I have several friends who are second-career teachers - who have done their teaching degrees in the last few years - who tell me outrageous stories about the dumbed-down environment.

And we wonder about the skills - or lack thereof - of the undergraduate students we teach in BA programs? The inability to think critically, to interrogate things, to sit comfortably with questions instead of pat answers? It really seems to me that it's a vicious cycle...that they aren't learning these skills because the people who are teaching them often haven't been taught that that's their job, as educators.

This isn't to say that there aren't brilliant, critical thinkers in education faculties, and that some of those faculties aren't innovative...I know of a couple like that in Canada, where grad students and faculty are doing really interesting work. But this challenging work doesn't seem to translate at the "teacher training" level, for the most part - and those B.Ed programs largely remain nine-month-long factories, indoctrinating students in provincial policy, and not thinking.

In the part of Canada where I live, at least, this comes down in part to political shifts, which have seen the provincial government embrace a really retrograde approach to curriculum.

So yeah - as sweet as education students almost invariably are, they remind me of something more sinister.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

First Day Here

So can I tell you about my fantastic day yesterday…?

After finding my lost glasses in the least likely of places, I set off to the car rental place nearby to pick up a car I’d reserved…to drive my carload of books and files to my office in New University City. This plan had been a source of apprehension for me, since I just learned how to drive and am a very nervous driver, having only rare opportunities to practice. I was terrified to drive it alone. I was able, in the end, to wrangle my best friend, S, into coming with me. S, sadly, lives in London now – but is here and staying with us right now. And he knows New University City well, having spent a fair bit of time there…So we were able to set off on this little road trip – exactly the kind of time together he and I needed. It also enabled me to get there in normal time, because it wasn’t just skeert me taking the back roads.

The drive there was wonderful, hilarious – S and I were in our “on”, “us” mode, with me behind the wheel laughing so hard, so giddily that I learned the dangers of driving under the influence of hilarity. We arrived at the university and instead of unloading, were told by the very kind departmental secretary to sit tight and wait twenty minutes, because the folks from physical plant would be there to move me in. What? Good lord. I didn’t have to lift a finger to move into my own office.

I went in to say hi to the Department Chair, who greeted me with a hug and fresh baked goods…She’d stopped off at the best bakery in town that morning, she said, to pick me up a muffin and cookie, fearing I’d be flagging after my (actually not terribly long) journey. The treats were ridiculously delicious. We chatted about our dogs. Again, what heavenly sphere have I entered?

Then the departmental secretary handed me a package – the appropriate number of syllabi for each of my classes, all copied and ready to go even though classes don’t start for two weeks. My jaw dropped.

My office is huge and beautiful, and has a wall painted a rich, deep green (my favourite colour), and two windows. I am sharing it, and it is so spacious and so liberally bookshelved that it will be hard for my new officemate and I to get in each other’s way (though we won’t be using it at the same time).

S and I then went downtown for lunch at a place I remembered fondly from visiting friends in this city when we were undergraduates, a long time ago. To celebrate the greatness of it all, the luck of my being here at this place I’ve dreamed off, I reveled in the decadence of afternoon drinking. We met up there with a friend of S’s, a lovely gay boy who says he and I should hang out soon at one of any number of excellent coffee shops. Yes, please.

Then S was on his way and I came “home”, to the house that I’ll be staying in for the four days a week that I’m here, with two dear friends of mine and their gorgeous, eighteen-month-old daughter. This child kills me. Kills me, I tell you. She is the sweetest, most gregarious, and funniest toddler I’ve ever met. And she’s my roommate!

To top it all off, the four of us went out for noodles. I love noodles very, very much. And this dish was noodle perfection – the dish I dream of.

I couldn’t have imagined a better first day in New University City. All bases were covered – work, friends, food…No matter what comes of this appointment, I’m so lucky to be here.

Today has so far been a frustrating day...bureaucratic hassles as I try to get settled in...and the apparent implosion of my iPod. (Fuck you, Apple.) But I still have the remains of yesterday to float off I go to empty files into cabinets and books onto shelves.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Update: Blogging an important lost thing

Update: Things looked pretty dire last night, as I searched high and low for my little glasses. But this morning, as I opened the door of our only general-use, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink closet, they clattered to the floor. WTF? Anyway, thank you, blogspirits, for your compliance in this matter. For today is the day that I am driving my carload of office stuff to New University City, moving into my new office and my new life there. I couldn't have done it without my chic little glasses.

I have lost my glasses...I haven't been able to find them all day...I know people swear by blogging their lost objects as a means of finding, sorry. Where are you, glasses? I have been very sad without you and had to resort to my old glasses, which, while quite nice in a retro kind of way, weight oh-so-much more than your lovely, light selves.

I command you, show yourselves!

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Goals for a new year

So funny that New Kid, following others, had a post on resolutions for the academic year! I've been writing down scraps of goals for the new year for the last month or so, planning just such a post this week. They include:

I am still new at this game, last year having been my first year of full-time teaching. I had a great year, overall - learned a lot and boosted my confidence about 1000% - but I was aware, all along, of so many things to work on. Like these:

- Stop being a pushover. I tend to be too nice to students and tolerant of their disorganization and disrespect around issues of lateness, etc. I need to be firmer from the outset. I find this challenging; I fall for it all.

- Stop over-preparing. I did this for some of my classes, I think because I felt I needed a crutch. I need to trust myself more, trust my own ability to think on my feet. In May I taught a course in my own subfield, and was able to start being more spontaneous because of my comfort with the topic. (I get to teach it again this fall at the new university.) I hope to carry this over into the rest of my teaching. This isn't about cutting down on workload; it's about learning to be a better, more flexible teacher.

- Stop getting frazzled with technology in the classroom. Last year I taught one of my courses in a room that was really ill-equipped; it took me weeks to figure shit out, and I kept on having to chase down tech support in the middle of class. (Other classrooms worked fine, so it wasn't just me; I'm really not that tech-challenged, honest!) It was truly awful - because I was new and nerved out in general, I would lose my mind, become semi-hysterical in front of the students. Then feel humiliated and lose sleep. Since I'm at a new uni, the system will be slightly different, and I'm sure my adjustment will be a bit bumpy. I must stay calm!

- Enact strategies for managing all the students in my discipline, described here, who run off at the mouth and intimidate their peers, dominating conversation with their unique form of academic monotheism.

- Employ creative strategies for discussion in my third-year core, required course - don't just read about these strategies and think about them; spend the time to work out how to apply them.

- Said third-year, required course is the theory course for the discipline. Most students think they don't like theory; they're scared of it. Always keep that fact front of mind, and plan class in ways that emphasize the usefulness and attractiveness of theory.

- Lastly, revise approaches. I am teaching the theory course twice: once at the main campus and then the next night at a satellite campus, with a smaller group. I want to use this as an opportunity to reflect on my teaching; think hard about what didn't work and try out something different the next night.


- Most important: stop being precious about my research time! Stop thinking I can't read and write unless I have a whole day, or at least a half-day; that ain't gonna happen very often. So, learn how to approach my research for an hour here or there. I like New Kid's resolution to do research/writing five times a week, even if just for fifteen minutes at a time.

- Establish some sort of reading group - or reading dyad, as I'm talking about doing it with just one other person from my former PhD program - to keep thinking and talking regularly with other scholars about some issues that are relevant to my research but not so much, currently, to my teaching; I am loath to become rusty in this stuff I love.

- Write this conference paper that I'm to present on October 13, by September 22. Using comments from conference-goers, revise and expand it to submit for consideration at journal by December 15.

- By December 31, reread dissertation with red pen at hand, figuring out how to rip it apart, add to it, and sew it back together in radically different form as a book. Emerge with PLAN. I suck at restructuring my own work; I need to think about this not just as editing a dissertation, but as using it as the basis for a new project. (It's tempting to just file it away forever, but after thinking about it this summer, I think there's such a hole in the scholarship and it could be partially filled by this material.)

Job search
I'm on a contractually limited appointment at this university I've always longed to be at. This means I'm still on the market for something tenure-track. The folks in my new department keep telling me about the tenure-track position they hope will be opening up this year; it's hard not to suffocate from wanting that so badly.

- So, don't get too hung up on this, even though it's really my dream job.

- Cultivate nonchalance in my own thinking about my job applications; don't get too invested in any of the options I apply for, because that's only courting heartbreak. (Since we're looking at a much smaller market here, and in my discipline especially, you don't apply for that many things, and it is possible - as I discovered last year - to become really hung up on every possibility...)

- Stop looking at online real estate listings in the places I apply to!

Balance and Life

- Work out more regularly. I've never really stopped working out, but this summer has seen me exercising less than I like, what with relying entirely on running and no gym because I didn't want to spend the money. With income again, I can join a gym again - yay!

- When I do want to run, do it in the morning. This is hard for me; I am not a natural morning runner...but I made some headway with just-out-of-bed running this summer and I need to keep that up even as mornings get darker and colder...

- Take lessons in a dance form, now that I'm not going to be doing The Activity.

- Get better organized. I am quietly disorganized (although seem to have pulled the wool over people's eyes on this one; with the exception of uber-organized GF, who lives with me and sees it in action, people always think I'm so on top of things. They are wrong). The other night I was filing some stuff in preparation for my upcoming move of office stuff to New University City. What two disturbing reminders of my idiocy did I discover? One, a never-opened envelope, dating from last October, with a cheque in it addressed to me. Two, a fax I'd sent to the provincial birth registry requesting a new copy of my birth certificate. Did I remember doing this? No. Did I ever see the birth certificate? No. Do I know what the hell happened? No. Oy - I really, really need to get on top of things.

That's it for now. Lots to think about, but I'm energized for this new year and new university, so I'm ready for challenges galore.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Friday Recipe Blogging: Plum Cake

So last week Medieval Woman started her own little tradition, recipe blogging (and here is today's instalment). Since I'm not much of a poetry blogger, I'm following her lead.I'm just in the midst of preparing a dinner for some friends.

I've been so excited about all the local produce I've been getting at the neighbourhood organic farmer's market, so I'm using lots of that. Making this roasted tomato soup with the crazy tomato bounty I bought yesterday...also serving organic sheep's cheese from the market, with baguette (and then the decidedly not local-markety, but always awesome, lemon parmesan linguine).

And I've made this most gorgeous cake! I bought these plums at the market yesterday, too. The flesh is this startling deep fuschia colour...I've never seen anything quite like it. I've made them into this plum cake recipe that was in the Globe and Mail last sure looks freaking gorgeous...seriously, that colour! I don't even want to cut into it.

Will serve with *very* lightly sweetened whipped cream on the side.

Plum Cake (Globe and Mail, August 19, 2006)

2 pounds plums, quartered and pitted
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon

2 eggs
¾ cup granulated sugar
1½ teaspoon vanilla
½ cup canola oil
3 tablespoons orange juice
1½ cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt

Preheat oven to 350 F.

Grease a 9-inch round cake pan and line bottom of pan with parchment paper.

Toss together plums, 1/3 cup sugar and cinnamon. Reserve.

Use an electric mixer to beat eggs, ¾ cup sugar and vanilla in a large bowl until pale and thick. Blend in oil and orange juice.

Sift together flour, baking powder and salt in a separate bowl. Gradually add flour mixture to egg mixture, folding together until batter is blended and smooth. Reserve.

Spread batter into prepared cake pan. Artfully arrange plums over surface of batter and press them down slightly to partly submerge. Drizzle any juice over top.

Bake for 1 hour to an hour and 10 minutes in lower third of oven, or until a cake tester comes out clean.

Cool in pan. Slice and serve warm or cold. Serves 4 with leftovers for breakfast the next morning.

The left and moral disgrace

Yesterday there was a report released by the National Council on Welfare about the cuts to welfare that have taken place in Canada over the last decade or more. We are talking shockingly low rates. Rates that are very, very difficult to live on anywhere, but are impossible to subsist on in expensive cities like Vancouver and Toronto, without supplement from food banks, missions, etc. We're talking rates that have gone down in some provinces (like BC) by 50%. We're talking single parents in Alberta, a province very rich with oil money, given a rate that amounts to 48% of the poverty line. We're talking a single person getting enough, in Ontario, to pay for a room in a shared house in Toronto; nothing more. (This is yet another blow to Canadians' placid contentment with our social safety net, which has disintegrated rapidly over the last decade and a half.)

What I find interesting, captured in this article, is the language of morality. The guy from the National Council on Welfare calls it "morally disgraceful". It reminds of that cover article in the New York Times Magazine, last winter, about how the left is making inroads in the fight for a living wage in the US by casting it as a moral issue.

Though I'm wary of morality talk in the public sphere because it sure hasn't, historically, been the friend of women, queers, and any marginalized group, I'm intrigued. I really, really wonder if this is the only way left to make an impact - to take the right's strategy and turn it around. Take the focus off the moral policing of social questions like same-sex marriage, and make of political economy a moral issue. I mean, obviously the left is guided by a set of values, principles. This would simply entail foregrounding that in particular, strategic ways, right?

What think you, blogosphere?

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Tech culture

So yesterday I got a new phone. This was a big event for me – it was a cell phone. I had one briefly, five-six years ago, but got rid of it fairly quickly. No need for that, said I. With the kind of life I lead – working at home or at a home office, I’m always reachable. And if I’m not, I don’t want to be!

But for the coming year, I’m going to be dividing my time between Home City and New University City – spending half of every week in each. In University City, I’m excited to be staying with friends, who have very generously offered to lend me their guest room for the year. Since I don’t want to trample on their generosity by tying up their phone, I took the plunge and purchased a cell phone . Just chose the cheapest one with the longest battery life, not caring about any of the bells and whistles it came with.

It arrived yesterday. It took me hours – I kid you not – to figure out how to use it. Hours. I felt as if I needed a degree in wireless communication just to set up the basics. It took me 15 minutes to compose a one-line text message with the freaking unfathomable text system.

And there are plenty of things I still don’t know how to do, even with the help of the manual. The pictures I took of the dog? I don’t know how to locate them in the phone. The photo I emailed to myself? Never got to me. The mp3 player, video camera? Uh, whatever.

I was struck by the great, gaping chasm between myself and most of the students I teach, who could slice and dice this phone in fifteen minutes. Because they are growing up with this technology. It’s a second skin in a way it could never be for me.

I think this matters. I think it’s a key to a lot of what we face in the classroom. I think it changes their brains.

This is not a new insight, I know. But sitting on the couch struggling with that phone yesterday, I really felt a quite profound distance from my students. This is something I need to think about, because it makes me realize the extent to which – for me, at least – teaching them is a kind of cross-cultural communication, in very many ways.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Playing dress-up

Is anyone else looking forward to getting a wee bit dressed up when the year starts? (Or, since you seem to start the year earlier in the States than in Canada, perhaps already enjoying the feeling of being dressed up?) Last week - I can't remember why - I had the opportunity to wear something slightly dressy. And I thought, I miss this! I don't get terribly dressed up for work - I'm not a suit-wearer, for instance. But I realize - after three months of wearing bumming-around clothes and dog-walking duds, beat-up footwear and, if I have to go somewhere, some blah cotton skirt - that I look forward to having to pull it together a bit. Pulling out those light wool trousers will be nice, and that shirt with the cufflinks. That kind of thing. And different footwear...I can't wait!

Also, I ended up having to while away a very long rain delay (as a spectator at a fastball tournament) in an out-of-town mall on Saturday. I bought this fall jacket (I did need a fall jacket) and cannot believe how much I love it. I want the fall weather NOW so I can wear it. (God, it feels weird to be linking to a major mall retailer that sure as hell doesn't need my free advertising...oh well...)

Monday, August 21, 2006

Teaching and changing

So I did this little quiz I saw at PowerProf's. About how much I have changed in 10 years. (And am not reproducing the little thing here because I am such an idiot with this - know nothing about html - and it is reproducing all messed up and I don't know how to fix it. Fuck.) Anyway, it says "You have changed 40% in ten years. Ah, the past! You may not remember it well, because you're still living in it. While you've changed some, you many want to update your wardrobe, music collection, and circle of friends."

Now, I know I shouldn't take a blogthing too seriously. But frankly, there are some irritating assumptions in the little blurb...I'm certainly not living in the past...ten years ago I was living somewhere different, on the cusp of ending a very different relationship, beginning my fifth and last year of a BA, not imagining a future in academia but in magazine publishing (when I could imagine a future at all), spending time with very different friends, listening to entirely different music, and shy. Shy, shy, shy.

One of the things that makes me happiest about my life, though, is continuity with some friends. While I have continued to make new friends over the years, including some close ones over the last year, there are half a dozen people in my life that I've known for fifteen years or more. I love this. It doesn't feel stuck, to me; the relationships themselves change, too. A ridiculous ex of mine, whose reason for living seemed to be to criticize me, once told me that yet another sign of my essential evil was that I had so many old friends in my life (when I was twenty-three - good lord!). To her, this was an indication of my being stuck in some tradition-bound, conservative past. I scoffed as hard at this then - in the midst of making new friends and exploring decidely untraditional things in my first year of grad school - as I do now.

I digress, though. What I really came to Blogger to talk about today is personality change, and how lately I've realized that much of that has been accomplished through teaching.
That shyness that I mention above...the accompanying lack of confidence...? Not entirely banished, but certainly not debilitating. I can't say that I'm a big fan of the crowded house party full of strangers, but I can deal. And I can appear, in certain contexts, positively gegarious. (I'm pretty at ease with the social scenes of academia - I've always read this as a sign that I was meant for this life. By contrast, when I worked in publishing, I was a teeny, silent mouse...)

I realized a couple of weeks ago, when I was at camp-for-adults, just how much this has to do with teaching. I was a TA for six years, and in the midst of that, when I was off living in France, also an adjunct teaching one course. I remember that first year of teaching - I was teaching two-hour seminars - as one of the most frightening, nearly paralyzing, experiences of my life. I incarnated the publishing mouse in the classroom. But by the end of those years, I was a relatively confident teacher. And could feel a shift in the way I related to people outside the classroom...I did things - blind dates, etc. - that would have felt impossibly audacious, before.

And then I became a professor, last year, and taught much larger courses and many more students. And had to be "on", as a professional figure, constantly. Camp was what showed me just how much further this has pushed me. The last time I was there was before this year of full-time teaching. I remember the social awkwardness I felt there...who would I sit with for lunch? What would we talk about? Could I show up at this ostensibly open cocktail party even though I didn't really know the hosts? Etc., etc. This time, I didn't think twice about any of that. I was generally quiet, but not worried about claiming space.

I see this as a great thing. It is clear to me that teaching has had a transformative impact. I'm really happy for what it's done for me. Life feels easier.

And taking it back to the classroom, and my persona in there: What a treat it is to be going in to this second year of professing with the greater degree of self-possession that last year gave me. I was full of anxiety last year, and the first few weeks were terrifying to me. I was so negatively keyed up, so worried in front of my big classes. I couldn't sleep for fretting about it. This year, though I'm sure I'll be nerved out to meet new students (I hope I'll always have a small, healthy dose of that), I feel as if I can focus instead on the content of what I'm conveying to them in those first few, important meetings. Hooray for that.

Thursday, August 17, 2006


Speaking from my position in the Humanities/Social Sciences here…

Last night I went to the World AIDS Conference to wander around the part that’s open to the public, the Global Village . I must admit that sometimes I am envious of people who do work that demands thought and rigor, but also carries with it a sense of urgency, and indeed a great need to get right down to things immediately. There are 26,000 delegates from all over the world at this conference. It is more truly international than any conference I will ever attend. I know from glimpses of the politics of the thing that this world of AIDS research and activism I walked into is not perfect. It is riddled with cynicism over promised yet never forthcoming money, the appearances of the Bills (Clinton and Gates) at this conference, frustrating fights about treatment vs. prevention, wars with pharma companies, the neo-colonial status of afflicted African countries… But still. There was energy there. There was commitment and purpose. There were people really talking to each other across constituencies and cultures.

I compare this feeling to the one I get when I attend conferences, which are always just so…blech, really…just pulsing with people’s anxieties about jobs, appearances (on many levels), relationships. I may be mistaken, but it seems to me there’s much less room, in a conference like AIDS 2006, to worry about jobs, appearances, relationships. Because the stakes are so high, the consequences of not getting down to business too devastating.

This isn’t an anti-intellectual rant. The things I write and teach are theoretical and historical, and I’ve reconciled myself to what that means. I think it’s important, and I am a staunch defender of theory’s place in the academy and the world. But damn. Sometimes I miss the feeling that things are moving, that the intellectual work I do is will have immediate, concrete benefits in people’s lives.

That’s all.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Academic loneliness

I went out for a goodbye drink with a friend who's moving away to start a new job. She told me some distressing news. A former colleague in my PhD program has committed suicide. She wasn't someone I knew, really. She was a few years ahead of me in this program in which I was never very social, but I knew her to see her. I knew her, also, from her posts on the program's email list, which I am still on although I'm done with it- as was she even several years after she'd finished. She posted quite recently, in the same characteristic, quirky voice she had always used.

I have been told via a faculty source close to her that what drove her to end her life was her inability to find a job. She had been an adjunct at two universities for several years, trying to cobble together a living in an increasingly expensive city. Sometimes she would post to the email list on this topic - her posts conveyed deep disappointment, sometimes fury.

If it is true that her job situation led her to kill herself, then it is a terrifying measure of the psychic costs of the current academic job situation. I think sometimes we trivialize this, and this serves as a reminder of how the current model can have devastating consequences.

What strikes me even more than that, though, is the thought of this person's loneliness. She was quirky, odd. She wasn't ostracized or disparaged - just gently giggled about from time to time. But what is quite clear in retrospect is that she didn't have much of a community in academia. Not the way most others do.

As my friend pointed out, academia has its fair share of socially awkward people, and also its own social hierarchies - in which, sometimes, the awkward don't easily find a place. This death is a harsh reminder not to let those people become invisible.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

To camp and back

I’ve been away from this blogging game for a couple of weeks now…First I was empty of bloggable thoughts, and then I spent a week at camp. Yes, that’s right. Camp for adults. Dance camp. My days looked like this: Eat ridiculously delicious breakfast. Dance all morning. Swim, sometimes read, sometimes have a drink in the sun. Eat heart-stoppingly good lunch. Read. Nap. Dance vigorously. Swim, read, sometimes have a cocktail-hour beverage. Eat astounding dinner. Dance all evening. Sometimes a post-dance skinny dip. Sometimes a party afterward. Sleep like a log.

It is a great thing to go to camp. At least this one in particular, which I’ve been to before. I can’t remember the last time I’ve felt so carried away from my everyday life. Really, I forgot for a week that I had work to do. It occurred to me on Friday, the last full day, that there were these specific things I had to do upon my return, that in fact September and a new school year were nearing. I literally hadn’t thought about any of that for six days. Not even once. It’s positively therapeutic, living in the moment and in one’s body, not really emotionally invested in anything but having fun. Feeling productive, but not of research or writing or planning…productive of something for your body, and of the connections with other people that can be had through that.

Now that I’m back, having arrived home in the middle of the night on Saturday, there are different pressures. A week of dancing has taken a surprising toll on my body, and I’m hobbling around with joints screaming their protest. I went for a run last night, and my legs weren’t ready for that, apparently, and now I feel as if my bones are going to break apart. I have horribly vivid images of my shins just splitting in two, lengthwise. Charming.

And then there is that strange mixture of apprehension, excitement, and resentment that seems to hit many academics around the middle of August. I was struck, in my catching up on blogs, at how many people are feeling unmotivated and lethargic. Back from camp and into the real world of plans and deadlines and the upcoming year at a new university, I feel the same way. I want to hold on to something of the summer. But at the same time, given my excitement about having a job at the new university, I am finding myself impatient with summer routines and ready to dive in there. None of this is conducive to work…it’s fragmenting and confusing.

Ah, well. I shall go and read a book I’ve been needing to get to, in order to write an upcoming conference paper…starting back to work is always the hardest, and I look forward to that moment when I’ve slipped back into those work-ish patterns of thinking without even realizing it…

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Reading for Pleasure: Doomsday Book

I am going to try this Reading for Pleasure Wednesdays thing because, it being summer, I’m actually doing some reading for pleasure…I don’t know if it’ll be a regular thing, but I’ll try...

Last week, while away at the cottage, I did some reading on the advice of a blog commenter, Loren. He had suggested that I read Connie Willis’ Doomsday Book. This was in response to my writing, at the end of my list of 100 things, that I had always wanted to time travel to medieval Europe. I had also expressed that I, er, don’t like science fiction.

What a great read. Yes, it is science fiction – set about fifty years from now, at the University of Oxford. But it is an age that seems remarkably like our own (although featuring what seem to be more conservative social mores…), which is probably why I could handle it – I don’t like the extreme techno-futurity of many science fiction futures, which tend to feel cold and alien to me. In this Oxford, historians research their eras by traveling back in time to them…Historians, does this not sound positively to die for?

So we have a young woman traveling back to fourteenth-century Oxfordshire (so like the most inspirational book New Kid details today!)…She has been sent to the wrong time, though, and there is a parallel narrative set in the Oxford of the future, where her advisors are trying to locate her and bring her back. The two narratives mirror each other in some interesting ways that I don’t want to say too much about, for fear of ruining surprises. Suffice it to say that the dovetailing themes of the narratives have a satisfying relevance to contemporary social panics and anxieties.

There was so much to like about this novel. The plot was gripping – so gripping that my need to press on with it cut into the work I had brought with me to the cottage. It wasn’t just plot-driven, though; the characters were richly drawn. There was also an emotional resonance in the time-traveling character’s relationship with the people she gets to know in the Middle Ages – it seemed to say something about the possibility of connecting with people across our alienation from them.

Most of all, though, it was really just kind of a high to see, detailed there for me, the medieval time travel fantasy I'd had since I was about eleven. It's one thing to find a character or a situation in literature that you really identify's quite another to have your left-field fantasies unfolded for you in ways you're not creative enough to imagine. It was like a gift. Wow.

Thanks, Loren.

A question of tone

What if a book you’re reading to review inspires in you feelings of outrage, shock, indignation? How do you translate those strong reactions into an acceptable tone for an academic journal?

Let me elaborate just a little bit, without getting too specific.

The book is seems to have been written solely to cut down the group the author is writing about. The author even resorts – more than once – to calling folks in this group “ugly”, whereas she characterizes her “heroes” as beautiful and graceful! As well, the scholarship is notably and obviously questionable. The author fails to provide references for many of her more dubious claims. She makes claims that are patently false. She homogenizes a very diverse group in an egregious manner. She writes things like “[Scholars of X] have always written about X in such-and-such a way…” When I am alarmed by this misrepresentation, and very curious to know just who she thinks these scholars are – did I miss something important in my field? – I turn to the endnote and find that she has included a single reference, and it is to someone who really cannot be characterized as a Scholar of X! Further, the author doesn’t refer to any sources less than ten years old, when the stakes of the issue she’s writing about have changed dramatically in the last decade – there are prominent books published in the last eight or so years whose very existence invalidates her argument, full stop, and neither they nor their authors are mentioned.

Do you see what I mean? This is scholarship at its worst, and it makes me scream. It offends me, as I'm sure my liberal use of italics in the previous paragraph makes clear. I am certain, though, that a tone of moral indignation just will not fly in the academic press, dispassionate as it requires us all to pretend to be.

Have any of you had to write a review of such a book? What kind of tone did you adopt?

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Mmmm, blueberry martinis...

I just saw this at lil'rumpus'.
A bit of a surprise (a party hopper??) but not too far off the mark.

You are a blueberry martini

You Are A Blueberry Martini
You are a eclectic drink - liking to change drinks and venues often.You are usually the first of your friends to find a cool new dive bar or cocktail.
You should never: Drink mystery drinks strangers hand you. Unless you want to wind up in foreign country.
Your ideal party: Is mobile, hopping from party to party.
Your drinking soulmates: Those with an Orange Martini personality.
Your drinking rivals: Those with a Chocolate Martini personality.