Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Great Moments in Irony

A Mercedes-driving student, whose outfit (with accessories) must be worth more than any car I have ever owned, has just informed me that I disagree with her proposed thesis not on the grounds that I think she won't be able to find enough evidence to make a good paper of it, as I stated, but rather because I'm one of the 'liberal elite' trying to keep 'people like her' from success.

You know, that was so good that I'm not even offended by the fact that she accused me of being petty and unprofessional.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

A Pretty Dream

... to get me through the paper-writing/presenting/editing/grading season.

This May, I drop off the last of my paperwork at the department and administrative offices, luggage in hand. From campus, I take some form of public transport to the nearest city that counts as an actual, you know, city. From there, I catch a plane to a major European city, where I have rented a furnished apartment for the next month or two. I drop off my luggage, go to the local grocery store and try my hand at buying things that are exotic, but aren't too foreign to the American palate (trying to avoid the ick factor here). I then go to the bakery and vintner and buy EVERYTHING I can carry. I read only popular literature for the duration of my stay, and call it scholarship because it's in a foreign language. I flirt outrageously with well-built morons, because 1)who cares if they're interesting when you don't know what the hell they're saying? and 2)a lady may do anything she pleases and remain a lady, provided she doesn't get caught.

1-2 months of fat, drunk, and stupid to follow.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Promoted to the Level of My Incompetence

I'm in charge of dinner Thursday, and I have begun preparations for the annual over-feeding of the barbarian hordes. (I have to start early because I wouldn't know a frappe from a puree if it hit me.)

If you're stuck for stuff to be thankful for, be thankful you haven't been sentenced to dinner at my house. Now, where the hell did I put that thing? No, not that thing; I saw that. The scary looking spikey thing that the book says I need. Oh, nevermind.

Happy Thanksgiving Everybody!

Monday, November 20, 2006


Ever notice that, when you're reading 18th and 19th century literature, and you look around your department at all the internecine warfare, 'cutting,' constant threat of utter ruin at the slightest misstep, and desperation to be among the 'right set', you know precisely what the author must have had in mind? And you can tell who's at which level of the new aristocracy?

He's new, but he knew Said personally. Um, Viscount.
That other new guy -- he met Bloom once. Baronet.
Her? She knows everybody, and has angered them all. Impoverished Marchioness; you might as well have a conversation with a milkmaid.

It's fun.

[Update: Ever notice that you write something, and then publish it, and then read it and think, "D'oh! Not what I wanted to convey at all!"? Ah, the difficulties of having a 'raw' blog. Anyway, I don't actually court the 'right people.' In fact, with my foot-shooting tendencies (did it again this week) I'm most likely to become some sort of impoverished and/or 'fallen' milkmaid. The fun part is deciding who is which character, and which character they should aspire to become. As for me, I'd like to become Eliza Bennett -- minus the love of difficult men -- but chances are that I'm Kitty. Elizabeth wouldn't have to update a post. ]

Saturday, November 18, 2006


Upon learning that one of my part-time academic jobs is compensated at a much lower rate than the same job in another department, I wrote to the dean to ask for an explanation of the logic behind that choice. The response: Disciplines pay differently all over the world. This University's pay rates are in line with national averages.

So, is it true that it is nationally accepted practice to pay English graduate students at approximately 1/9 the rate of other graduate students? Because when I checked The Chronicle of Higher Education, as was suggested to me by the dean, I didn't find such ratios among faculty. I didn't even find a 2:1 ratio, though some came close. Certainly I didn't find other disciplines within the humanities/social sciences that were paid 9 times as much as their English student peers, as is the case here at Microburg.

I'm now even more convinced that the administrators of this university should be arrested.

Friday, November 17, 2006

University of California at Los Angeles Police: Merging Brutality and Cluelessness

(hat tip Amanda)

In the God-I-Wish-It-Were-Unbelievable File:

University Police at UCLA repeatedly used a taser on a student Tuesday night. Several times after he was already handcuffed, in fact. The student was in the library after 11pm, and didn't produce his ID when asked.

The police have stated the student was belligerent, and trying to incite a crowd. Um, yeah, from what I see in the student videos, the student was in fact belligerent, but the crowd was incited not by the student's actions, but by those of the police.

The kid was told to leave the library, and was either being obnoxiously slow about it, or needed a minute to get his crap together. That's not clear. The police went to take him into custody as he was leaving, and he screamed 'don't touch me.' That's where the student videos pick up.

The student stated that he had a medical condition, and the police continued to use their tasers on him. (I'm pretty sure that's a second reason this assault was against the law. The first being that the student did not present a clear and present danger to the police or his fellow students.)

I'm not a law enforcement officer, but as far as I can tell, being a dick is not cause for using force. I'm also not a neurologist or a psychologist, but I'm pretty sure I would become pretty damned non-compliant after being assaulted. When a student who was explaining to the police that electrical shock makes people unable to comply with physical commands, he was threatened with tasing. So, that's illegal act number three. The police cannot threaten you for asking for their identifying information.

Use of force is meant to be the LAST RESORT of the police. "I don't like your attitude" is NEVER a constitutionally-supported reason to use force, or to threaten the use of force.

The Video

UCLA Interim Chancellor Norm Abrams Contact Information:
Telephone: 310-825-2151
Fax: 310-206-6030

Address (U.S. Mail):
Box 951405, Murphy Hall 2147
Los Angeles, CA 90095-1405

Address (Campus Mail):
Murphy Hall 2147
Campus: 140501

E-mail (chancellor@conet.ucla.edu)

Friday, November 10, 2006

Picking Your Brains

I have an unusually high number of Educational Opportunity and Study Abroad students under my teeny little wings this semester.* For the most part, things have been going fairly well. Their papers are getting better each time, anyway, so my comments must help somewhat. More people are contributing to discussion. In other words, life in the classroom is fairly good.

However, some of the kids are missing work or missing entirely too much class. I've spoken to them -- as a group -- about it, and a few people have handed in late work and/or started coming more regularly to class. But many have not changed their habits/made up the work.

Here's what Ive done so far:
- encouraged the students to come see me at office hours in class and in comments on their papers.
- written directions to my office on the board multiple times.
- changed the attendance sheets to put little stars next to the names of people I'd like to speak with, and added a giant note that a star means it's your turn to conference with me.
- offered email conferences, and have written my email address on the board numerous times.

All to no effect. And they absolutely know that I want them to succeed, and will do whatever I can to help them succeed, but I will not give them a passing grade if they haven't done all the work. Now, if I thought these kids were just lazy and uninterested in their education, I wouldn't care either. I don't get that impression, though. Frankly, I think that being proactive about their education is a skill they haven't learned. Middle-class and upper-class kids always come to speak to me about their work. All the time. Can't shake 'em. But the kids who are here from elsewhere, or are first generation college students, will not come to speak with me. This will absolutely negatively affect their marks if it continues. I can't set a standard, and then tell them they've met it when they haven't. That wouldn't be fair. But, I also know that the stakes are much higher for them than for their peers. They are taking loans, or here on scholarships, and bad grades could make them lose their funding.

Other folks have this answer: "They're adults now, they have to take responsibility for themselves. Let it go." But, I have yet to meet an 18 year-old adult. And these other folks with authority/experience are all middle/upper-class people from Anglophone countries. They were never taught helplessness in the face of authority. Many of my kids were taught just that. "Be silent. Accept the teacher's ruling without complaint or questioning. Know your place."

So, how do I get these kids to understand that the teacher is not some weird other life-form? That it's absolutely necessary for them to work with me to make a plan for their success? That it's not disrespectful to ask questions, and education is not something that happens to you without your consent?

*In some ways, this makes a nice change from having too many over-entitled little snots who can't believe a mere know-nothing grad student would have the unmitigated gall to give them a grade below an A, ever.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Excuse Me,

but what are you doing reading a blog when you should be out voting?

[Update: I woke up early and voted with the elderly this morning. Since that time, I've been stressing about the election returns in between trying to read very dark and brooding prose. Aargh! Stressful voting plus Victorian Novels: bad. Next time, I'm going to do the final hour voting run, or at least read something light and peppy on election day. And now, I should return to reading the works of George Eliot, if that IS his real name.]

Friday, November 03, 2006

A Question of Philosophy: Grad School Theater

It's Friday night. Even as we speak, I could and should be at a party with my graduate student peers. We should be discussing literature, and philosophy, and art, and science, and the quasi-local opera's craven choice to provide bowdlerized supertitles to their productions this season, and the cheap things you can buy to turn frozen left-over pizza into a delicious meal that doesn't feel like the seventh time you've had left-over pizza this week, and whatever the hell the mathematicians are talking about while the rest of us smile and nod, as one does with mathematicians and lunatics.

But I'm not there. After the week I've had, I could use a drink and a lovely conversation. But, here's the thing: these people are the cause of my uncharacteristic thirst. Well, I'm the cause of my uncharacteristic thirst. However,
interacting with them has really helped the process along. Frankly, I'm hating the hell out of the majority of my graduate student peers right now. No doubt that'll change back to normal in the week ahead, but for today I'm content to hate them.

For some reason, the number of people willing to perform the role of 'intellectual superior' among our cohort has spiked dramatically this week. You know these people, I'm sure. The ones who seek out peers who are feeling stupid, and try to convince them they're right. For instance, I was having trouble with a paper. My thesis was falling apart, actually, and I needed to go back and revise my entire reading of the problem at hand. Well, I made the mistake of saying that in a conversation about these papers, and I was told, 'Hey, not everyone can be a scholar. It's good that you found that out now.' Nice, right? I won't tell you what was said to a friend of mine, who's having some trouble grasping literary theory. I actually can't tell you that story without wanting to shoot my keyboard, it makes me so mad. (We'll get back to the broader 'theory question' later.)

It scares me that such unsupportive people are teaching post-adolescents away from home for the first time in their lives. But, I digress.

I recognize this behavior as the coping mechanism that it is. Being a student is extremely humbling. Having people evaluate your thoughts all the time is extremely stressful, and makes for some pretty powerful neuroses. I get all that. As I've said before, I'm working on a full complement of all codified neuroses myself. Besides that, I've seen this behavior before in the special needs children I used to teach. They get so tired of being the ones to make errors that they revel in the errors of others, being sure to be as loudly derisive as possible when the mistake is not theirs. It's actually very tough as a teacher to learn to recognize that behavior as normal and indicative of personal insecurities, and then react accordingly, while still supporting the child who has made the mistake currently being ridiculed. It's even more difficult to recognize the same unattractive tendency in yourself. I'm less patient with adults than with children, though, and I include myself among the adults. Even though I know the psychological triggers and behaviors are the same, it's just harder to take from someone old enough to vote, ya know? It took all the energy I had not to say something like, "You're right. She and I have some issues with this one class that stands within your major area of interest. Now, tell me, what are your thoughts about this stuff that stands within our major areas of interest?" It would have been a fair but ugly response, and I'm trying to avoid that whole ugliness thing. Whether momentary ugliness would have been better than this prolonged and repressed anger is probably something else I should consider.

Now, this class is theory-heavy. Which means that the theory drives the literature, rather than the other way around. Which means that there are many many 'theory people' in the class, and they often introduce theories into discussion that others of us have no access to, because we don't study them. It gets a little tiring to be perpetually saying, 'Well, that sounds like a great phrase. What does it mean?'

Anyway, I'm not exactly sure I agree with the theory-driven formulation, but it seems to be the way things often go in my department. This argument gets sticky quickly, I know. Sometimes, I want to just read the damned book and come up with my own ideas about which theory will be most effective in understanding it. But there's never really a time when we read completely free of a philosophical frame, and shouldn't we at least be aware of what that frame is? I know that as an undergrad I did some feminist readings of novels, without knowing that I was employing feminist philosophy. The professor had to tell me. "OK, Heo, that's a good feminist reading. Now, how would you read this same novel from this other viewpoint?" To which I often responded, "Huh?" So, I get the whole 'be aware of your ideological frame as you read' thing. I just don't always want to adopt someone else's frame. My best example of this is the professor who's frame leads him to believe that all literature is oedipal. That gets really creepy, really quickly. I mean, what does this guy's mom look like, anyway?

**Before the conservative reader decides to make the following his proof that liberalism reigns supreme in the humanities, he should know that there are conservative theorists who are just as determined as their liberal counter-parts that theory is all-important. They all think I'm an idiot, too. **

Back to the point I intended to make a while ago, there seems to be a deep philosophical divide between me and those who self-identify as 'theory people.' We can't talk to one another. And I mean that literally. Attempts at communication leave everyone slightly confused and irritated. (The following are two actual conversations, fused into one for blogular presentation purposes.)
Me: "What do you study?"
Them: "Theory."
Me: "OK, which theory?"
Them: "No, theory."
Me: "OK. So, what type/time frame of literature are you applying theory to, most often?"
Them: "Not literature, literary theory."
Me: "But the term 'literary theory' suggests that there will be some 'literary' mixed in with all that theory."
Them: "Hm. Not really."
Me: "So then, what do you do with the theory?"
Them: "We study it."
Me: "So that eventually you can apply it to a broader range of literature?"
Them: "Look, idiot, we're theorists."
Me: "Is it like comparative theory, or the history of theory, or what?"
Them: "Yes, all of that."
Me: "But....what role does the literature play?"
Them: "Theory is the literature."
Me: "I'm not much interested in meta-theoretical stuff, I'm afraid. I'm studying medieval literature."
Them: "How can you possibly teach literature without theory? I mean, how do you contextualize the literature?"
Me: "By contextualizing the literature. Time, place, form, intended audience, current audience, that sort of thing."
Them: "But, what theory do you apply to the literature?"
Me: "Whichever theory seems best supported by the literature."
Them: "So, you let the literature decide what theory you'll introduce?"
Me: "Yup."
Them: "But, that's insane. What is your point in teaching literature? What do you want to accomplish?"
Me: "I want my students to be able to read this literature in an informed way."
Them: "But how are they being informed? You haven't given them a way of reading that informs them."
Me: "Sure I have. They can think of the time and culture in which the literature was produced, the traditions that the literature works from and with, language choices, imagery, medium, etc."
Them: "Why aren't you in the history department where you belong?"
Me:"Why aren't you in the philosophy department, where YOU belong?"

end scene

And the point of all that above is this: There are more of them than there are of me, and I think I might really be a dinosaur. Perhaps literary scholarship no longer seeks people who have what I have to offer it.