Sunday, January 29, 2012

RBOC: First week pandemonium

I feel like it's bad form to just throw post after post of random bullets of crap on the blog, but there are times when you can't get it together to do more than note everything flying at your head.  (And then duck.)
  • I kind of feel like I will never again hear good news from Hometown.  This past week's bad news was so out of left field that I hardly knew how to process it.  I'm used to two or three different kinds of bad news from home, but I discovered a new kind this week.  Fuck.
  • I feel like I'm clicking into the brute survival mode that got me through my last semester of dissertation writing.  For months now, I've been laboring with the unhappy sensation that accomplishing everything that I have to do might kill me.  Somehow, I have transitioned into survival mode, which feels more like I am going to accomplish all this even if it kills me!  Once again, it is life during wartime.
  • This means that I suddenly feel more capable (because I have to be so), and therefore a little less tragically depressed.  I can actually laugh to myself, rather than cry at the fact that one of my students emailed me in confusion, upon learning that zi could not buy books at the library.  Just when you think you've heard it all...
Now, for the more positive bullet points:
  • My Pseudology of Area Studies course seems to be off to a good start.  I scared away a few students who admitted to themselves that this class wasn't for them, which means the total registration now stands at fourteen: excellent size for seminar-style discussions!  I rather suspect that almost none of my students will do the reading for the next session, even though I went to some lengths to point out that this stuff is heavy-duty.  (That was one of the scare tactics.)  I've accepted that most students need to feel some heat under their asses to start studying for real, so they will likely find out this week what it feels like to sit in dead silence, waiting for someone who actually read the piece to say something.  Like I told 'em, I can outwait them.  And if that doesn't tell them to study, the quiz they'll have to take this week should drive home the message.
  • I'm getting a little detached and less emotionally invested in the success of my students in Introduction to Pseudology.  This makes me happier.  Most students in that class take it to knock off a distribution requirement, and they don't really give a fuck.  I'm going to teach those classes, do them well, and not lose sleep about how they do.  I've made the syllabus easier than last time, and the tests are fucking jokes, so I rest easy in the knowledge that passing the course will be pretty easy.  Those who want to learn something for real will do so, and the rest should be able to slide by with little trouble.  I've made my peace with that.
  • I was planning to forego conferences for this year, since I was so wrung out (and broke!) from last fall's double-header.  But this morning, I got an email from a senior colleague inviting me to join hir panel, which zi and another colleague are organizing.  Both of them are heavy-hitters who have written crackerjack books that I have not only read but studied closely.  And the theme of the panel is on one of the big theoretical topics I've set myself to develop from my field research!  After catching my breath at the thought of how much money I'll have to spend to go to this year's Big Giant Pseudology Conference, I admitted to myself that I'd be a damn fool to pass up this invitation.  I'm psyched at the thought that I might get to sit on an invited panel alongside scholars I admire, and pleased (albeit a little scared) that this means that I must attack this paper with a lot more theoretical rigor than I devoted to the one I gave last year.  
  • Speaking of research as well as life during wartime, today is one year and a day after I began one of the strangest, scariest adventures of my life.  But an adventure it remained, for me, and led to some fondly remembered times with some old friends and some new friends — Shedding Khawatir and her husband foremost among the latter.  The whole business, as vexing as it can be to analyze professionally as a pseudologist, is going to shape my career for years to come.  Now that I listen to the song I keep name-checking, I'm a little stunned to recognize some lines as things that have actually happened to me.  The sound of gunfire off in the distance, I'm getting used to it now.  I've got some groceries, some peanut butter, should last a couple of days.  Trouble in transit, got through the roadblock, we blended in with the crowd.  I hope I make the best of all this.  I hope my friends back in Research Country do, too.  Al-sawra mustamirra, y'all.
This ain't no party; this ain't no disco; this ain't no foolin' around.  The war is on.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

RBOC: Spring 2012 semester edition

  • It's been an emotional rollercoaster for me this week, just like the rest of January.  I'm increasingly convinced that Ghosttown, for a variety of reasons, is actually bad for my mental health.  It is therefore uncomfortable to speculate on the possibility that my only hope of employment for next year may be begging to have my current contract renewed for another year.  Sick irony, anyone?
  • My therapist seems to have zeroed in on my emotional distress as rooted in guilt, shame, and self-loathing.  I find myself agreeing with this and, at the same time, wondering, Are there survivors of graduate school who don't fit this profile?
  •  The semester kicking off doesn't do much good for my emotional stability, since there's the inescapable fear that I will somehow screw everything up and scar my students.  I'm calming down from that one, as the classes start to knock themselves into shape.  The add/drop period makes everything so chaotic that I have totally abandoned teaching actual material for the first week, since so many people register late.  I feel good about this choice, now that I've tried playing it both ways.  This is definitely the more efficient way to go.  The students may be bored the first few days, just going over the syllabus, policies, study skills, etc.  But hell, it's not like students won't be bored anyway.
  • Even faster than last semester, students are dropping my courses (or the idea of them) after getting a look at the requisite work.  Effort appears to frighten them intensely.  I feel I chose wisely this time around by forcing the students to go through the entire syllabus with me so I can explain to them what college professors mean when we say things like "read" or "take notes."  No one seems to arrive at Ghosttown U. with any study skills worth a goddamn, and I figured that out too late to really address it properly last semester.  Now that I'm walking them through the processes en masse, and am forcing them to confront the reality that they will have to read for nearly every single class session, a few more of them seem to be jumping ship during the first week.  
  • My favorite example of this so far: a senior came by my office today after class, apologetically explained that zi had just registered a few minutes before, and wanted to know what zi might have missed the first few days.  Zi seemed on the ball, well aware of how college operates, and I was fine letting hir know where we'd be picking up.  I printed out a syllabus and the little sheet I concocted this morning about reading and note-taking skills and gave them to the student, who seemed almost insulted by the thought that zi would have to read such elementary instructions.  I practically apologized as I gently urged Stu to read them through to understand my policies, even though I was sure zi knew all of this stuff already, and explained that these things were intended primarily for my first-year students.  Before the work day ended, Stu had already dropped the course.  I believe zi was on my roster for approximately two hours.
  • Not that this is brag-worthy, but I have managed to write bits of my book manuscript more days than not, so far this week.  This evening, I was puzzling over which chapters to focus on preparing for my potential book editor's review, and I suddenly realized, while fiddling the wording of a footnote, that Microsoft Word doesn't include footnotes in the word count.  (Is this a Mac thing?)  I can't for the life of me find whatever widget in Word would change this scenario.  But anyway, I created a separate document and copied all of my footnotes from all my chapters into the body text, so I could see the count.  It expanded my manuscript word count by nearly 3,000 words!  Celebrate!

Sunday, January 22, 2012


I am sitting anxiously at my desk right now, during the first serious tornado watch of my life.  We had these things occasionally in DOU-Town, but they were kind of a joke: the landscape, as I was told, did not easily permit such things to form, and tornadoes were exceedingly rare. 

Apparently, that is not quite the case here in Ghosttown. 

I have vast experience in comporting myself appropriately in, say, heavy rainstorms, snowstorms, ice storms, sandstorms, hurricanes, cold snaps, and heat waves.  Been there, done all that.  I do not fear them very much.  (Even though ice storms are a godawful pain in the ass to cope with afterward.)  But I'm afraid of tornadoes.  *whimper*

We're only half an hour into the "peak severe timing" for this tornado watch, and the weather service, which I am now checking obsessively online while I am still blessed to have internet access, says there are already tornado warning sirens going off in half a dozen towns and cities not so very far away from Ghosttown.  There have been periods of intense rainfall tonight, and some high winds.  I've been through all of that many times before, and wouldn't really think much of it if I didn't know the larger forecast.  The peak severe timing – what does that mean, anyway, 'be even more afraid right now'? – isn't due to end for another four and a half hours.  Seriously, until 3AM!  How the fuck am I supposed to get a decent night's rest when I may have to somehow rouse myself to stand in my bathroom as Dorothy's express commuter service rips my house off its foundation?

Needless to say, this is not how I hoped to unwind on the evening before my first day of classes.  It's entirely possible that both professor and students will be frazzled and underslept tomorrow in my classrooms. 

I guess I'll have a shot of whiskey to calm my nerves, and then prepare for bed, where I will sleep with my iPhone by my ear, in case Ghosttown U.'s alert system sends out a "take shelter immediately" warning.


Thursday, January 19, 2012

Evaluations and syllabus revamping

I had all kinds of bad physical feelings today: I resolved this morning that I need to man up and review my students' evaluations of me, which I've been avoiding.  One way or another, I need to know what's in those documents, since they will factor into my job hunt in a few different ways.  After fighting off the very real urge to have a whiskey first, I sat down after lunch and downloaded them all.

I'm kind of shocked to see how positive these evaluations are, all in all.  Class by class, my students were remarkably high graders on every metric that the university uses.  Thankfully, this seems to be due to the tendency of the disgruntled students to chuck the survey altogether, and of the happy students to effuse about their success and whatever they perceive to be my role in it.  The only class that seemed generally less contented was, of course, the one composed primarily of lost souls who scored way below their peers in my other classes.  Can't say I'm surprised to see that I didn't rate quite as highly with them.

The critiques my students gave ranged from the totally absurd – one in particular seemed aggravated that attending class was a needful part of the course – to the dead-on accurate, which was generally the suggestion that I chill out a bit.  I'm never going to be Zen master-mellow, but I can recognize that the students are right that I tend to come down harshly on people who screw up.  I need to remember that those who screw up will be penalized for it in their grades, and that attempting to goad them into getting it together comes across as shaming and counter-productive.  Let the grades tell them the story, let the grades tell them the story.  I can do that, I think.

I've also thinned out the readings, over my instinctive objections.  Some of the readings I tried last semester are simply too hard to comprehend without more prior knowledge (or – sigh – better reading skills), and I'll be able to communicate the material better by interactive lecturing than by making them read.  Where I could, I also trimmed the lengths of the readings I kept.  No doubt I will always get complaints on evaluations that there was too much reading, but I'm hardened to that: way too many students come to college with the apparent belief that reading should not be required at all.  I've made my peace with the reality that some students will skim, and some will skip a reading completely, and they may even have good reasons for doing that, but all of this does not mean I shouldn't assign a useful reading anyway.

On the other hand, something I plan to try to avoid a bit of this is to hand out the syllabus in hard copy.  Last semester, since I had a huge number of students to deal with, I decided to just upload the syllabus to Blackboard and let them download at will.  This led even some smart, hard-working students to give into the temptation not to read the syllabus at all.  I'm hoping that sticking a copy under their noses will make them a little more aware of what awaits them.  (And, in a perfect world, encourage the real slackers to drop during the first week.)

Finally, I'm also planning to spend part of the first week walking students through how one reads in college, and how one takes notes on that reading.  I figured out way too late in the game last time that most of them didn't know these study skills at all, and I had to tell them on an individual basis, which meant that only the students who came to my office hours ever heard that talk.  Clearly, I need to take the bull by the horns here.

I have some other issues to deal with for my new class, Pseudology of Research Area.  This one will be a brand-new experience for me all the way around, and I'm a little freaked out about not screwing it up.  I never even TA'd for an upper-division course, and now I have a course of my own and a TA.  Good heavens, how will this work out?  I settled on what I think – I'm probably wrong, but whatever – is a really light, doable reading schedule for the syllabus, one which will let us read two full books closely, and take in a bunch of articles and, depending on how crazy I feel, a little multimedia.  My enrollment is all over the place, so I have no gauge of how this will pan out.  Most of the registered students are pseudology majors, but a fair minority are not, and many of those are only sophomores — and this is an upper-division course.

One might ask how or why such students could even register for my course.  The answer is that, for some politicky purposes that I hope will eventually serve someone's interests (preferably mine), I was not permitted to impose any prerequisites on registration.  I'm not actually certain that I won't end up having a frosh or two.  It's weird, but as long as registration doesn't go much higher than it already is, I'll be content.  Ideally, this class would function as a smallish round-table seminar, and we're already on the hefty side of that.  If a few more students sign up, I'll have too large a class for my preferred style of interaction, and the course will necessarily skew more toward lectures and less toward student-to-student interactions.

To combat this, insofar as I can, I've arranged for the first few readings to be on the harder, theory-oriented side of things.  That, plus a few early quizzes, ought to clue in the idler students that they need to, in the words of Junior Soprano, "come heavy or not at all."*

*In the metaphorical sense ONLY.  Don't even get me started on the topic of concealed firearms on college campuses.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

RBOC: Storm and Stress edition

  • I feel curiously ambivalent about today's haphazardly observed information blackout protest against the Stop Online Piracy Act.  Not about the protest itself, mind you – it's essentially a low-grade civil disobedience project, and I'm cool with much stronger forms of civil disobedience than that – but about the sensation that this fight is in some ways between two sides composed of large and powerful entities.  Congress is considerably more powerful than, say, a software company, but I can't help but get a feeling on the back of my neck that this current brouhaha is not necessarily about protecting my personal access to unfettered information.  My political voice is being courted by Google, Yahoo, eBay, and other corporate business endeavors that make an awful lot of money, and see themselves on this issue as in opposition to other large moneyed interests like the MPAA, the RIAA, and a host of companies that seek to defend their copyrighted stuff.  I can see the validity of both sides' arguments here, although I admit that I instinctively lean toward opposition to the bill as a matter of protecting free speech before protecting intellectual property rights.  At the same time, I'm a little put off by the implication of some of the rhetoric of taking down content before the gubmint can do it.  And I feel pushed around by both sides.  Hmm.
  • You know those fights that happen between friends that seem to come out of nowhere, all because something came out of someone's mouth a little oddly and someone else took offense to it?  That happened on the internet a few days ago.  I resigned myself to not following it closely, because it seemed like everyone involved was getting progressively angrier and more accusatory, and I was afraid I would be sucked further into it as well.  I quite like Historiann's blog, as a rule, and feel bad for her that her digital front porch sometimes plays host to flame wars.  I was kind of blindsided to see how quickly tempers rose, since almost all of the early commenters, to my knowledge, are at least internet-level friends of Historiann, and the interactions are usually pretty cordial.  It upset me a bit, perhaps because it reminds me of analogous scenarios with my family.  :(
  • I had my second therapy appointment yesterday.  After hearing me go off about everything messing with my head for a second time, the therapist seems to be getting a clearer picture of what's eating me, and how zi might help.  Hope zi's up to the task.  Zi had originally believed, from our first meeting, that my problem was stress.  Stress?  Really?  I survived eight years of grad school, two years of field research, a dissertation, and ongoing job hunt with no end in sight.  I'm actually pretty good at managing what some might call stress.  Zi eventually got the picture, though, when I spoke for almost an hour about all the horrible emotions that my family brings out in me.  Stress = no big deal.  Horrible emotions = big deal.
  • Why must I keep encountering racists in Ghosttown bars?  I felt like I'd crossed into the Twilight Zone last evening when a guy next to me at the bar struck up a conversation, and went from perfectly pleasant chit-chat to advising – in that thinly coded language we pseudologists recognize so well – that black welfare queens were going to destroy this country, and I should get myself a second passport and move to some nice Third World country where there's at least less corruption than the US, and topped it off by outing himself as a birther. 
    I suspect that I keep attracting this sort of vermin in bars because I look white, and I dress on the conservative end of professorial haberdashery, as pseudologists go.  In other words, I think tipsy people mistake me for things that I am not, but which they assume as normal around here: a) a Republican, b) a white supremacist, c) a wealthy person with unsentimental class interests to protect, or d) some combination of the first three.*  They're invariably older people, as well: not a one of these characters I've had to talk to at my favorite bar is under sixty.  Maybe I need to start politely ignoring tipsy old people?
  *With apologies to any of my readers who may be (a) but neither (b) nor (c).

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Is this the better way to spend the day?

I am still here, folks.  The last few weeks have been some of the worst and most painful that I can remember since I was in the depths of dissertation despair.  I've been so depressed and miserable that I couldn't work.  Clearly, that state of affairs cannot last if I want to keep feeding and sheltering myself.  I would like to think that I'm starting to come out of such low places now.  I started seeing a therapist this week, who freely acknowledges that zi cannot solve my problems (no one could), but who hopes that zi can help me to work on some coping skills.

It took tremendous effort on my part to focus at all this week, but somehow I managed to complete the assigned reading lists and course packs for both my syllabi.  And today, wonder of wonders, I actually did some fiddling with my book manuscript for the first time in months.  (Without the stupid course packs hanging over my head, I felt better able to tackle the book.)

I don't want this blog to become a constant stream of doom and gloom.  I think it may depress me as much as anyone else to read that here.  Now that I have a professional to talk to about the bad stuff on my mind, I shouldn't feel quite as driven to use this blog for personal one-sided talk therapy. 

In any case, though, I still have a penchant for posting music clips.  That will continue indefinitely, have no fear.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Trouble in belly

Groan.  As if I didn't feel bad enough already, I managed to start off the new year by poisoning myself with my cooking.  I'm reasonably sure that the culprit was the catfish I made last night – it was still good, on paper at least, and I bought local stuff – although it's a toss-up whether the larger issue was the freshness of the fish or the dreadfulness of my cookery.  I tried my hand, on a whim, at dredging it in flour and preparing it in something like Southern style.  It all went so badly, though: the butter burned in the pan, the seasoned flour I prepared had no flavor to speak of, even though I added enough cayenne to make me choke on the fumes, and the thicker parts of the filets didn't even cook through by the time the ends were burning and filling my kitchen with noxious smoke.  (On a side note: if that mess didn't set off my smoke detector, then it may be non-operative.  Hmm.) 

My guts have been causing me to whine out loud all day long, even though I live alone and there is no one to hear me bitching.  Remind me never to let fish sit in the fridge overnight before cooking it — at least, not while I'm living in Ghosttown, which seems incapable of getting truly fresh seafood in the supermarkets.  Ow.

On the plus side, I've just cooked up a beautiful pot of Indian-style lentils with spinach, which is already making me feel (a tiny bit) better.  Now that my grumpy belly is newly filled with lentil soup and red wine, I have several multimedia observations to make.

First, meaning no offense either to singer or to fan, I'm having trouble getting into Florence and the Machine.  Leaving aside the lyrics (hit or miss, with me) and her voice (undoubtably strong and beautiful, but disturbingly close to Celine Dion), I find myself unsettled by Florence Welch's gestures.  The things she does with her arms when she's not even singing, you know?  Tragically, she keeps reminding me of this bit of Cold Comfort Farm:

Sorta takes the wind out of Flo's sails, doesn't it?

Meanwhile, if you want a groovy live performance with great vocals, how about this?