So I have a new favorite tumblr: Libraryland, which is surely curated by someone who would be a high priestess in my religion of libraries. This image is relatively unusual for the site, but who doesn’t like to learn new words?

But I also post this because I fear being an academic will always prohibit me from living in that place where I feel I ought to live. We professors go where we’re lucky enough to get a job — and if we have choices about jobs, the choice rarely permits us to select even a region of the country, much less a highly specific region or town. This depressing fact about academia has been enough to drive people out of it, even after they’ve dedicated 8 years to a dissertation and 6 or 7 years to an assistant professorship.

There are no jobs for professors in Fort Bragg, California, which would be my cynefin. So I guess I’m relegated to option #2, which is not living in those parts of the country that destroy my soul.

Versatile blogger award!

4 January 2012

Many thanks to the elegant SpanishProf for nominating me for The Versatile Blogger award!

Conditions of the award:

  1. Nominate 15 fellow bloggers
  2. Inform the bloggers of their nomination
  3. Share 7 random things about yourself
  4. Thank the blogger who nominated you
  5. Post the award badge.

My nominations for fantastic versatile bloggers:

  1. Angry Black Bitch. Does any blogger out there have a better blogger voice than Shark-Fu? Not when she’s talking about politics, feminism, and crazy sex scandals, which she’s been doing since 2005. Holy crap — who can do this that long? Only a genius with stamina, baby. See her take on Herman Cain’s scandal here.
  2. Comradde PhysioProffe, who holds forth on sports, food, and politics, and very occasionally academia. I drool over his illustrated recipes. And for all of it he uses the motherfucken best, creatively-spelled curse words. Want the best shitte ever? His recipe for chicken chile verde tamales here.
  3. The Delphiad, where Dominique Millette offers up on-target, biting and funny commentary on life, politics, feminism, and all the good things that keep blood running through our veins. She puts up with no shit, except when she just pretends to put up with it, like in her take on lingerie football.
  4. The Fantom Country. JB there writes about movies in a way that’s above & beyond the typical; his reviews always seem to expand outward in a way that sings to me. See for example his assessment of the movies of 2011.
  5. From a Left Wing, where Jennifer Doyle talks about sports, feminism, and the sexual politics that are inevitable when we talk about sports (and yet seem so absent from most sports pages). Here’s a great piece on women’s soccer in the 1920s (who knew?) that’ll give you a taste of this terrific topic.
  6. Historiann. Most of the time she offers up a feminist take on history and academia, and sometimes talks about great music from my era (80s, 90s), and always displays a delightful good nature and those great 1940s pinup cowgirls. If you’re an academic, this is a must-see. See here for the horrors of “smokers” at annual meetings.
  7. I Blame the Patriarchy. Surely we all read Twisty Faster’s blog while we clean our feminist weapons in the evening, drink a marg, and brush up on our blamer mouth muscles. I just wish I could come play with her animals. Read “My unique style self-expresses who I personally am” and get a taste of what you could be enjoying with more feminism, too.
  8. LadyElocutionist, where Sara writes about feminism & popular culture, a woman after my own heart. Her takes are always smart and perceptive — see for example her bit on Bridesmaids.
  9. The Lotus Notebooks, where Natasha Rosen discusses living in Turkey, teaching, becoming a mother, and the vignettes of life and memory. Beautiful. Her least serious — and most elegant — posts are stylish images from the 20th-c. past, “Elegantly Dressed Wednesday.”
  10. Lycanthropia, who writes so eloquently she takes my breath away; often about the trials and tribulations about life in grad school. What I’ve read 15 times: her poem, Operation Soul Retrieval.
  11. MeAndRichard. Now, you may say to yourself, how can an effusive fan blog about Richard Armitage be versatile? Well, friends, you have never read Servetus discuss an actor’s craft and persona. She throws everything into the effort — take, for example, her discussion of Armitage’s interviews, in which she mobilizes the whole critical arsenal from post-structuralist views of authenticity to pragmatic reasoning. Brilliant, silly, and often educational — just like the author.
  12. Mirror, the breathtakingly great film blog by Kartina Richardson, whose unexpected takes on the movies always delight me. She’s smart as shit and talks about things I wish I’d noticed. See for example her take on A Dangerous Method in which she talks about how Keira Knightley (unexpectedly) evokes race and the scent of a woman’s actual vagina, which is so clever a take on that early era of psychiatry that I wish the film would @#$%ing show up in my city already. (Richardson also has a nifty companion site showing how much she enjoys beverages. Wish I’d thought of that.)
  13. The Ms. Education of Shelby Knox. The center of the amazing documentary The Education of Shelby Knox — about the growing political/feminist consciousness of a high school girl — is in her 20s now and kicking some serious ass as a professional feminist. She’s a brilliant writer and is compiling a “radical women’s history project” to compile information about the feminist past that isn’t just about the white ladies.
  14. SisterArts, a blog about gardens, history, and poetry, and sometimes just about beauty. Lisa Moore shows that it’s possible to be an academic — a literature professor, in her case — and also just love her chosen subject of analysis. Look at these gorgeous images from Stourhead, for example.
  15. The Solipsistic Me, where Michael Hulshof-Schmidt shows absolutely no hesitation in calling out good and bad behavior during these dark days of incredibly bad public behavior. As a good progressive feminist pro-gay type, I read it every day. I especially liked his Bigot of the Year and Hero of the Year awards.

And seven random things about me:

  1. My favorite film of all time: The Third Man (1949), Carol Reed’s amazing, cynical postwar film that shifts all the ground under your feet during the course of watching it. Orson Welles has never been better; Alida Valli virtually never smiles, yet she glows; and the zither music! This is why I watch film so utterly and absolutely.
  2. The music that rocked my world (and still does): The Pretenders (1980). The drive, the sexually explicit lyrics, the stance … it’s still the album I turn to for long drives. For a long time, “Mystery Achievement” was the song that ramped me up for tennis matches.
  3. My favorite place: Fort Bragg, California. In case I ever make enough money for an expensive vacation/retirement locale. A place for those people like me who can’t choose between mountains and ocean. Nuff said:
  4. Some people I would invite to a dream dinner party if I could: Helen Mirren, Dorothy Parker, Bill Clinton, Rachel Maddow, Steve Earle, and all the bloggers abovementioned. (Yes, I know Parker is no longer with us. It’s a dream dinner party, dammit.)
  5. What we should all be fighting for in 2012: women’s reproductive rights. Yes, abortion. I have a lot more to say about this — including why I think progressives have let it slip — and will hold forth shortly on the topic here.
  6. A random list of things I would eat every single day if I could: roasted brussels sprouts, sushi, kaddo bourani, guacamole, steamed BBQ pork buns, paté, garlic bread, and my sister’s roasted red pepper/walnut/smack spread. In my utopian universe, everything will come in a dumpling/ravioli/empanada/pierogi/cannoli/blintz/crèpe format.
  7. My favorite expression: “When I run the world…”, which seems to come up a lot more frequently these days, especially when I serve on university committees. And yet I have no desire to actually run universities (like being a dean or department chair or whatever). Which leads to my motto, which needs to be put on a bronze plaque: Refusing to Drink the Kool-Aid Since April 2005.

Herman Cain “totally respects women,” says his wife, Gloria Cain.

Teaching moment! Why we avoid unnecessary emphasis. (Remember the Seinfeld episode about the overuse of exclamation points?)

  1. Is there a human being alive who doesn’t hear the word totally without adding a Valley Girl voice, thereby undermining all its legitimacy as an emphasis? If only she’d added like — as in, “he, like, totally respects women!”
  2. When you’re making an assertion like “he respects women,” there is no emphatic term that can make it more believable. Let’s run through some options: “he really really respects women”; “he absolutely respects women”; “there is no one who respects women more than he;” or for that matter “he respects women!!!!!!!!!!!!” What you need is evidence, not assertions with emphasis.
  3. I personally would feel much better about this statement if I’d grown accustomed to hearing Herman Cain use the word “women” instead of “girls” and “ladies.” And if he hadn’t used that expression about “letting Herman be Herman.”

So whether writing papers or giving press announcements, please: avoid unnecessary emphasis! Back up a statement with evidence rather than empty words.

And (ahem) the word totally totally does not achieve what you think it achieves.

 

100,000 views

21 October 2011

Today this blog hit 100,000 views — and although I don’t tend to be the type who celebrates big round numbers (turning 40 was, like, whatever), I’m kind of stunned that an obscure blog about movies, feminism, and pop culture would get so many views. Thank you, all of you who’re checking in, and who post comments and make me think harder all the time about what I observe.

Most of all, as I’ve been telling my sister lately, this blog has been amazing for me as I learn how to write in a non-academic voice and enjoy the process of writing beyond very small niche circles. I can guarantee that more people have paused on this URL than have read my book or any one of my articles. Sure, I don’t have a bestseller blog — but I never set out to be popular, and because I’m a busy person I don’t have time to engage in the blog promotion that would get me more regular readers. Yet more people read it every single month — and I’m so, so pleased, and humbled.

Novelist James Agee was famous during the 1940s for his movie reviews in The Nation and Time — indeed, W. H. Auden called those reviews “the most remarkable regular event in American journalism today.” I’m reading some of them now, and they’re so terrific that they prompt me to emit involuntary outbursts of glee. His writing somehow packs all manner of ideas into single sentences without taking on that confusing and bloated quality that one sees in one’s own writing. For example, about the film Out of the Past (above) Agee writes:

In love scenes [Robert Mitchum’s] curious langour, which suggests Bing Crosby supersaturated on barbiturates, becomes a brand of sexual complacency that is not endearing. Jane Greer, on the hand, can best be described, in an ancient idiom, as a hot number.

I can’t even tell you how happy this kind of writing makes me. And how much it makes me need to see Out of the Past again. And how much it makes me warn amateurs against attempting such feats of descriptive gymnastics. (Many thanks to the Unexplained Cinema site, which turned me on to Agee’s collected film writing.)

A room with a view

13 September 2011

Once upon a time, an old friend let me use a seaside house she’d rented. I had a whole week to myself, and it was going to be a writing retreat during which, essentially, I would write my whole book. I set up my laptop and all my notes at the kitchen table, which had a view looking out over the sailboats, and then failed to concentrate on my writing for the entire week.

What is this fantasy of the room with a view? I am utterly, romantically dedicated to this fantasy, yet I’m also quite sure that as with my failed Rhode Island retreat, my own great views have been directly tied to periods of severe writer’s block. Give me a view, and I’ll daydream.For a single year in grad school I was given an office — my own office, a true luxury — and perhaps because it was a miserable, tiny, windowless room lit with a quite feeble fluorescent light, I wrote like a demon. To finish my book, I arranged myself at home with the desk facing a wall. Anytime I tried to move to the back porch or to that one coffee shop with a view of the river, the writing slowed to a standstill.

Yet the fantasy remains. I write, really write, in a tiny windowless cave of a room with lights that buzz. But when I go home I sit in a nice sunporch and try to read scholarly literature — and instead I stare out the window at the woods across the street.

Or I force myself through that draft of a chapter from a grad student by saving it for a rainy day, when the sunporch offers no view at all. Yet the romance of interiority of reading (“I am reading on a rainy day! I am cozily arranged under a comfy blanket with a cup of tea!”) takes over, and I feel so incapable of following the argument that I retreat to a less distracting room.

I can remember every great view I’ve had, especially the ones I had only briefly — glamorous cityscapes, charming neighborhood scenes, oceans, or that one time when my upstairs apartment seemed so surrounded by trees that it was like a treehouse. It was great. Just not for writing.

I’d like to suggest that our fantasies of rooms with views are cinematic — directly evocative of all the art and photography and film that portray individuals thinking and emoting while posed in glamorous windowsills. In front of each one of these images, we can imagine ourselves in that cinematic scene (of course A Room With a View was such a great central motif for a film). But the pleasures of looking are very different than concentrating and writing. Writing is a decidedly uncinematic act.

After The Social Network was released, someone brought up the fact that it’s incredibly difficult to portray cinematically the act of writing code on a computer screen. It’s just so dreary. Yet we insist on imagining that other forms of writing and reading can be romantic. And even though I should know better, I still hanker for a room with a view.

I’m having a coffee with a grad student. He’s very smart and seems utterly lacking self-doubt. He tells me at length about his research in a way that’s very polished, direct, and never pauses for those other filler expressions — I’m not quite sure yet about these conclusions, forgive me for going on so long. He doesn’t even insert any I thinks. His whole persona tells me, I have the wind at my back. By the end of the conversation I want to hurt him. (Be patient: it takes me a while to get to my point.)

It’s the time of year when I use metaphors drawn from tennis, so I’m going to come up with a term for this student’s self-assurance: The Wind At His Back, a.k.a. Federer 2004-09. It’s hard for me to forget the mixed emotions with which I watched Roger Federer win all those tournaments before 2010 or so. It’s not just that he was unstoppable, capable of the most extraordinary and magical moves. It’s that he made it look effortless. He didn’t sweat; he didn’t even seem to be very tall or muscular compared to some of his most serious competitors. This was a mirage, of course, but it makes my point: Fed exemplified The Wind At His Back. When he started endorsing all those luxury cars, espresso makers, and expensive watches (who wears a watch anymore?) and wearing an awful, pretentiously monogrammed white dinner jacket onto the court before matches (see above), it seemed to cement the notion that everything came easily, effortlessly for him.

This grad student is the same way. He’s on fellowship at a very fancy grad school. He talks too much, dominating the discussion. With some students I might assume such dominance was a sign of a kind of insecurity, but this guy seems accustomed to being the center of attention. He also makes frequent references to “my wife,” a classic move by straight male academics designed to suggest, “I am safe, utterly untroubled by gender, race, or sexual orientation concerns, and concentrate on very little but my research.” Obviously, I have never met a woman, a person of color, or a gay student who takes this posture.

In important ways, grad students learn some of this behavior early. They take classes in which some of the ideas or readings leave them fuzzy-headed, but they pretend to understand it all. They learn to write jargon-laden paragraphs that obfuscate the conceptual vagueness underpinning it, or if they have a gift for good prose, they write long, lovely, descriptive paragraphs that don’t say anything but which charm for their elegance. If they’re terrified or depressed, they cover it up — not just from their professors but their fellow students, whom they see as competitors. When — or rather, if — they become assistant professors, they continue to fake it till they make it. But some students, like the one I had coffee with, never seem to be faking it. For a rare few, everything comes easily; writing is easy, publishing is easy, maintaining psychological equilibrium is easy, getting recognition from important scholars is easy, getting a job is easy. And they act as if it’s only natural, as if it is the universe’s job to open doors and proffer important dinner party engagements in Cambridge or Paris or Mexico City.There was such a golden boy in my department. My senior male colleagues said things like, He’s making all the right moves, even though he wasn’t really doing anything differently than the rest of us. He was welcomed into the confidences and living rooms of the men who made big decisions in my department. To be frank, I’m not sure I would have wanted to watch football with those guys, but that’s not the point: they provided the wind at his back, the way that supportive and loving parents buttress their children. My colleagues called him brilliant and an excellent teacher and all the other things that made him feel supported.

One time I tried to talk to this young colleague about his circle of supportive men. I assumed he, too, realized it was a little weird and crazily beneficial, but I was wrong. In fact, he got angry that I brought it up — angry at the notion that it might not be natural that he would have such support, angry that I might suggest that other darker-skinned, female or gay colleagues could never receive it from those same men.

The thing is, Roger Federer’s era with the wind at his back ended. Maybe it was the natural course of things: he’s older now (the ripe old age of 30), more beset by injuries. He has two small children, and one suspects that having a family is a distraction for one in the intensely psychological game of singles tennis. He loses now, and sometimes it looks as if the tennis isn’t coming so easily any more. Now, when he wins he has to fight for it — he has to show the effort. And when he loses, it’s as if he caves in on himself. It’s not that he gives up; it’s more like he stares at the court and thinks, how could I have lost that point? I’ve found myself to be a much more straightforward fan now that I see him sweat and work and struggle.

Not long ago the Chronicle of Higher Education featured a story, “A Professor and His Wife on Absorbing the Shock of Tenure Denial,” which doesn’t offer much except a fascinating view into a golden boy’s psychology. Despite the fact that this professor immediately found another job (and a big raise) at another major university in a major US city, he calls it “the loudest F one can earn.” Meanwhile, “His Wife” explains that she’d never seen her husband experience such a shock to his confidence.

I’m tired of the confidence, the guys who act as if the wind is at their backs, all of which cloaks the true effort involved. Let’s stop pretending that this is easy. Let’s confess that writing is hard, teaching is hard, and striking a balance between the two is the hardest of all. Let’s talk about how hard it is to get a piece published in one of the top journals in our field. Let’s talk about how much harder it all is when our universities increase our teaching loads, put us on “furlough” (i.e., cut our pay), or rescind the $325 they had promised to help us fly to a conference. Let’s talk about how hard it is to do all this when you’re single, or when your partner lives 1200 miles away, or when you’re in an unhappy relationship.

Instead of trying to be Federer (2004-09), let’s emulate someone like Rafael Nadal instead — he sweats profusely, he grunts and sneers and has that whole superstitious routine before each point (tugs at his underwear, tucks his hair behind his ears), and you see him strain for every single ball. You might marvel at what he can do, but you’re never tricked into thinking he’s not working for it. Let’s call what we do WORK, and let’s stop wearing white monogrammed dinner jackets when we do it.

(This post is for Servetus, Profacero, Spanish Professor, Historiann, and the rest of my compañeras fighting the good fight in academia. More movies and feminism soon.)