Thursday, April 27, 2006

Miss Manners Regrets

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Is it our job to teach manners? Should it be?

As a bossy oldest sibling, I am happy to enforce norms and box ears. However, some bloggers take issue with "raising" students as well as teaching them. This is a point which also turns on gender in several ways, since it may very well be that those of us who resist and resent feminizing roles in the academy might also draw the line at being Mommy in the realm of manners, while those of us who do not feel particularly feminized might be perfectly happy to enforce better behavior. Or, some of us who HAVE experienced quite a lot of pressure to "act like a girl" in the academy--ie be daughter-like or mommy-like in legible ways--still might not mind being Miss Manners, because there's something satisfying and powerful about putting young louts in their place. After all, Mary Poppins understood that most of the fun of being in charge was being PERFECTLY superior in every way.

I am in the latter category.

It may be that it is related to teaching English, as I imply in my earlier post. After all, if we draw the line at knowledge (I am teaching Contemporary British Lit., and that's ALL I'm teaching), then I guess we would only teach writing in writing classes. That seems absurd. If we read Foucault, we know that besides our expertise, we are also correctly training docile bodies. That also makes the issue of not teaching manners and civility seem like an arbitrary line in the sand. After all, we are already doing so much more than teaching our actual narrow fields.

I wonder what you think?

Thursday, April 20, 2006

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This seems to be I Hate My Students Week in higher education. In the Chronicle, the pseudonymous Thomas Benton writes of "The Seven Deadly Sins of Students," while on the web, Inside Higher Ed features a blog by Anonymous Professor titled, simply, "I Hate My Students." "Benton" hates his students because they fall behind (sloth), grade grub (greed), cover their vulnerability and terror with hostility (anger), wear revealing clothes (lust), eat whole chickens in front of him in class, apparently without his intervention (gluttony), express the frustration they feel at their professor's alienation and indifference by attacking smarter, more together students (envy), and wish to be better and better off than their parents and yes, their teachers (pride).

I felt horror when I read this: "It seems hard these days to find a student in class whose mouth is not stuffed with food. Such students will often say that they have no other time to eat, but previous generations — who were no less busy — managed to consume small snacks between classes. That is why colleges have vending machines."

So let those students rushing to or from jobs, and those students on financial aid overscheduling themselves, eat cake, right?

Reading Benton, I am reminded of professors I know in disciplines other than English who complain about teaching writing to undergraduates. The sad fact is that it is ALL of our jobs to teach writing to undergraduates, because that's what we do: we teach. Similarly, when students sit half-naked eating chickens while trashing each other in class, it is our job to teach them manners. Sadly, most people don't have manners anymore, but the world is usually always improved by civility. Why are his students so indifferent, desperate, freaked-out, naked, hungry, hopeless, and grandiose? Is anybody talking to them, working with them, giving a shit about them? What the hell is going on here?

Anonymous Professor hates his students because they grade grub, write crappy papers, and want genuine feedback from him about their ideas as they relate to the discipline, rather than the responses of a TA paid to grade for him. It is clear from his tone that he doesn't respect them; he calls them "Stupid Bitch" and "Moron" in his blog, which is structured to show what he actually said ("I'll be happy to give you more substantive comments") and what he wanted to say/should have said ("Hey, moron, no one will give a fuck about what content you have when you don't even know the difference between than and then or weather and whether. They will just laugh at you. So shut up and sit down and fuck yourself.")

Wow. And they pay you to teach ANYWHERE?

Students are frustrated because they are paying tuition at rates that terrify them, their parents, and their spouses/partners. They are working hard for a degree that may not lead to a job when they graduate. They are working full-time jobs. They have kids. I have taught students from Trenton and Newark whose large families lived on less than 12K a year. I have taught culinary students up since 3:30 am cooking who wished they never had to write another paper. I have taught first-generation college students from immigrant families, students working, going to school, and raising families of their own. I've taught kids who just want to party in Florida, kids who giggle when I joke about coming to class stoned--because they ARE stoned. I've taught geeks and sorority types, athletes and rich kids, students from fancy suburban high schools and students from the inner city.

Sometimes they have driven me crazy, but I never hated them. Their arrogance usually masks terror at what they don't know, so you teach them. Their envy is a fear that they can't compete, so you teach them. When they don't do the reading, you make them do it there. When they are frustrated or scared, you encourage them.

It's your job.

What they don't need is some dickless wonder with an incredibly nasty attitude who doesn't have the courage to say something close to what he needs to say to get their respect. Why don't they respect you, I wonder, reading his loathsome hurl of a blog. How can they not adore you, when you clearly possess such empathy, such respect, such strong boundaries?

And what the hell is up with Inside Higher Ed giving a forum to this moron?

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Back to the Hellmouth, or, You Can't Make This S#!* Up

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If you were writing a novel about my life, what new, sadistic twist would you add, just to keep things interesting? Let's review the plot so far.

Previously, on Sfrajett's City:

Excellent Public U Grad school, followed by four years on the job market, a job, finally, in an expensive Southern city at the miserly salary of 38K, with a friendly but strangely factionalized bored small department, a girlfriend who refused to move there, a new job the following year in an even more expensive city at a mere 5K more, an unfriendly, huge, completely alienated department with massive personnel changes (three different Heads in four years, minority scholar desertion, famously self-promoting new Dean with Something to Prove), a girlfriend who left anyway and a decimated academic leave, the realization that my book wouldn't fly and that I'd have to write a new one fast, a mother diagnosed with brain cancer and dead seven months later that same year, a forgotten fifth-year review (they just "forgot" to do it) also in the same year, a new Head who didn't think much of me, a Dean who wanted only Ivy League junior faculty, a fabulous new girlfriend, an unfabulous turn-down for tenure, a great book contract on the new book I wrote very fast, the department Head's promise to re-open my case, the decision not to reopen my case, a bad job market again and again, unemployment, depression, the decision to go to law school.

Are you keeping up?

So in this episode, I'm enjoying a lovely, no-strings sojourn teaching Gender 101 at Elite City University. Fall, moving, and law school readjustment seem far away. I keep having these wonderful dreams at night where I find new rooms at Elite University, rooms that somehow will help me be able to get my life back. These dreams make me feel happy in the morning. It's a beautiful spring day. The forsythia is blooming, the blossoming trees are blooming, the hibernating bears that work and live here are rolling their tummies out to the Big Park jogging paths. Everyone is happy. My class has spring fever, so they are useless today, but it's still ok.

I come home and I'm checking my messages yesterday, and I see a call from a number at my old school. The one that fired me. I listen to the listless, heavily-medicated voice of one of the incredibly unhappy department staff tell me a box of books arrived there with my name on it, and could I please tell them what to do with it. My books. My book.

The one I wrote to get tenure there, remember? Keep up.

The stupid press, in other words, has mailed my frackin' book to Satan's University, where I no longer work or wish to work or remember or ever think about again, ever. All I have to do is go back to this hellmouth and pick it up.

I slump against a chair. The good news that my book is actually out is quickly replaced by the horror of what I might have to go through to get it. Immediately I imagine parking the car--no, PAYING to park the car--and walking across the street, across the broad, flat, public expanse of concrete and grass where I will be unmistakeable to anyone going in or out of the building that houses the English department, the Administration, Registrar, all the other language departments, Gender Studies . . . the list goes on. The main building on the east side of campus, in other words.

I imagine running that gauntlet only to take the elevator up to the twentieth floor, where I can walk by everyone's office on the way to the English department. Once there, I can declare my name, have others overhear, see the flicker and snicker in the eyes of the medicated secretaries.

If the box is big, I can struggle out the door, into the elevator, and across the concrete expanse once more, fleeing in humiliation with this last, sad vestige of my academic self, the book that should have been a Professional Achievement.

I feel myself slipping into an Incredibly Bad Mood.

GF comes home and immediately declares she will fetch the box for me. I am momentarily cheered, until I begin to imagine sitting at the curb, giving her directions to get to the 20th floor. I don't want her to have to go there, either. Things get even more complicated because her ex works at Satan's University, and wouldn't it be perfect if she ran in to her? But that's a whole other story.

I call a friend to commiserate because I know he will cheer me up. He congratulates me for the book coming out, and declares that it is PERFECT that they sent my book to Satan's U. Warming to the topic, he theorizes my clearly-labeled box of books as a kind of brilliant serendipitous affront, a real statement, an out-and-out rebuke to the mess of misfits who didn't tenure me.

Sometimes I love him so much.

GF, Phone Call and I all pour ourselves drinks and toast each other. We are all cheered up. Friends save the day.

This morning, in a sluggish monotone, Satan's secretary offers to mail the box to me.

Hell avoided!

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Easter Bitch

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I thought in this season I would republish this old story from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette because it still makes me choke convulsively on my own t-shirt collar. As you can see from this picture above (not part of the original story), the Processional Pageant of the Penitent Bunny seems to be spreading to other communities around this great nation of ours.

Easter Bunny whipped at church show; some families upset

Wednesday, April 07, 2004

Associated Press

A church trying to teach about the crucifixion of Jesus performed an Easter show with actors whipping the Easter bunny and breaking eggs, upsetting several parents and young children.

People who attended Saturday’s performance at Glassport’s memorial stadium quoted performers as saying, “There is no Easter bunny,” and described the show as being a demonstration of how Jesus was crucified.

Melissa Salzmann, who took her 4-year-old son J.T., said the program was inappropriate for young children. “He was crying and asking me why the bunny was being whipped,” Salzmann said.

Patty Bickerton, the youth minister at Glassport Assembly of God, said the performance wasn’t meant to be offensive. Bickerton portrayed the Easter rabbit and said she tried to act with a tone of irreverence.

“The program was for all ages, not just the kids. We wanted to convey that Easter is not just about the Easter Bunny, it is about Jesus Christ,” Bickerton said.

Performers broke eggs meant for an Easter egg hunt and also portrayed a drunken man and a self-mutilating woman, said Jennifer Norelli-Burke, another parent who saw the show in Glassport, southeast of Pittsburgh.

“It was very disturbing,” Norelli-Burke said. “I could not believe what I saw. It wasn’t anything I was expecting.”

Friday, April 14, 2006

Fun With Number Two

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File this one under: Huh?

Money Magazine just reported that the second-best job to have in the country (behind software engineer, at number one) is "college professor." Money's rankings are based on level of stress, pay, and growth possibilities, among other things. Money acknowledges that competition for tenure-track jobs will remain stiff, but that higher demand for faculty is bound to happen, given an exploding population of students. Money thinks that the average professor's salary is 82K a year.

"So by 'college professor' do they mean 'full professor'?" you ask. The answer is no. Apparently they are factoring in what they call "moonlighting adjuncts" as well. It's a good thing they factor these in, too, since the fantasy that retiring tenured professors will be replaced by tenure-track lines is, well, a fantasy. In the meantime, if anybody knows anyone who has one of these low-stress, high-paying jobs, let me know.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Swan Song

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I want to hate Elite University. I want to feel cross at the students for being so privileged, so confident, so enthusiastic, so (mostly) white. I want to hate the campus, so noveau and midwestern and striving, its 1920s and 30s Oxford/Princeton/Yale bespired and gargoyled buildings so out of date when they were built, even by gothic revival standards. I want to resent the immensely pleased faces of the faculty and administrators floating by me as I leave class, their clothes so respectable, their hair so gently mussed, their smiles the drugged smiles of cult devotees. I watch yet another boy in sandals bob across the quad, the afternoon sun making a golden halo of his long, soft brown curls. Of course you're happy, I think to myself. All you have to worry about is writing papers and passing tests. You have the best teachers, the smartest classmates, the brightest future.

I test my grumpy attitude out on each figure I pass as I walk to my car. The girl with maroon tips and a pierced eyebrow who waddles on her way to class. No, I can't hate her. She looks a little out of place. She's overweight and awkward, and for some reason I decide she can't be rich. The boy with the dreadlocks might be smug enough to hate, but his battered army jacket is a little soiled, like it might be his real winter jacket, maybe for a couple of years now. Another guy with a bad haircut is walking very slowly because his backpack is so loaded down with books I'm surprised it hasn't burst open. An older woman with a lined face and fading blonde hair is wearing a puffy, unfashionable down jacket that also looks as if it could use a washing machine. She is obviously no friend to either sun block or makeup. Can't really hate her, either. I'm looking for rich kids and frat-boy types, but all I see are misfits, nerds, and sweet, dorky intellectuals who don't seem to notice the peeling paint and indoor-outdoor carpet, the sooty buildings and dull classrooms of this school. There is a grail inside their heads, shining out of their eyes. They are living for something higher, something more than what is here around them.

In fact, I'm finding it hard to hate anybody here, or anything about this gig. When I go in to class, the students are respectful and hesitant at first, then their ideas and feelings come tumbling out. They have not only done the reading--they've digested it. They have ideas about it, criticisms, hypotheses. Some think Roe v. Wade is a curiously woman-centered document. Others are suspicious of the conclusion that everything rests on the bourgeois confidentiality of a woman's relationship with her doctor. I let them go. I rein them in. I remind them what the manifestos wanted. I try to make sure the two really talkative boys don't take up all the space, though I love how excited they are. I try to get them to think hard about Othering in Simone de Beauvoir, but then let go when they also want to just talk about the plot of the original Stepford Wives. They like the comfort of all these different levels. One chubby long-haired boy scrunches up his face when he thinks hard. Another young woman remains cool and impassive in her groovy silk headscarves and big earrings, asking smart questions from the far corner. A tall, gangly blond boy whose mouth falls wide open and stays like that when he gets an idea has finally gotten up the courage to sit next to me at the discussion table. I try to resist them, but I can't help it. I think I love them.

I know I should get paid more. I put together a great syllabus. There's a lot of reading. It takes years of experience, education, and research to be a stimulating teacher. Still, sometimes when I look around the room after a great discussion I can't believe they're giving me money to do this. And I can't believe people who get to teach here for good could ever not know how lucky they are. This is what you hope for in grad school. This is what you think a professor's life will be like. This is what it almost never is.

No wonder so many people walk by me with gentle smiles on their faces.

I tell a friend of mine who taught here as a postdoc that I can't find anything not to like about being here. He agrees that there is no place like it that he has ever been, before or since. "People really care about ideas there," he says. "I think it's a great place for you to be right now in your life. A perfect Swan Song."

I feel myself getting irritated. Swan Song? Is that what my career is doing? Dying?

I was hoping that law school would give me new things to think about. I don't really think of it as an ending--more like a road leading out of what for me has become the cul-de-sac of literary studies. The other day I had a conversation with someone who works out at my gym and can't get a job. She has an Ivy League degree and a postdoc at Elite University. She told me that the MFAs hired as creative writers are teaching all the modernist courses in a lot of departments now, since that's what so many undergrads want to read. I thought about all the PhD programs continuing to accept more applicants every year than they will ever be able to place, a pool of today's exploitable graduate students that will become tomorrow's exploitable adjuncts. I told her I was going to law school. She told me she was going back to her Ivy school to adjunct for a couple more years. "If I can just hang on," she said. "I just have to hang on."

I think about how law school seems so different from my academic world of scarcity and myth. Law students know there are probably going to be jobs for them when they finish. The professors know it too. There's a ridiculous amount of optimism. I wonder if that optimism is misplaced. How could things get better? How can it not be just another delusion on the road of delusions that make up my student loan debts? I hug close to my heart a recent study I read that found that while law firms have grown bigger and bigger to accomodate new business, the number of law applicants has fallen, setting off fierce competition for graduates, second-year summer associates, and even some first-years among employers. It's hard to believe, but there seem to be a lot of opportunities out there for a JD-PhD. It seems, finally, like there might be more to life than hanging on.

When I look around my classroom, I see a lot of optimism. I see students whose liberal arts education has given them critical minds, political consciences, and the desire to make the world a better place. I would never recommend a vocational major for them. I believe in their broad education, and I hope they will take a wider, bolder road after they graduate than the one I took. I didn't know what to do after college, or how to do anything other than go to school. They seem less worried about what they can get and more interested in what they can do. I wish I had been more like them when I was their age. I'm glad I get to know them know, though. They are curious and kind. Their education is a privilege they seem to take very seriously. I don't think this class is a Swan Song, for me or for them. These days, when I walk out of the classroom into the afternoon air, across a campus that smells and feels like the first muddy green days of spring, everything feels more like a beginning.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Ague Potion

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Here's a potion for the colds, flus, and agues that come in the change of seasons. Not only does it work, but it soothes your throat and gets you tipsy enough for sleep. The original recipe was from a friend I used to have in New Jersey who is a chef from Provence. My dog used to bark at him because he had a beard. Then one day he brought her filet from his restaurant, and then she drooled whenever she saw him. Me, my then gf, him, and his wife were all good friends until his wife went psycho. Even though I met them through my then girlfriend, and I really don't care about anyone's weight, and I'm gay, his wife decided that I was making fun of her weight and I was out to steal her husband. I got him running and he taught me how to make a great caesar dressing. I still have a picture of me and then-gf holding their first child. I painted a little chair for this child with the man in the moon and stars on it. I take his wife's psychosis as a sign that I was once beautiful, which I was then. The dog is dead now and the relationship with then-gf long over, but I'm glad I have the potion, and the caesar dressing, and my gf now. She has added garlic, hates the lemon, and always, always drinks the whiskey.


boiling water
lemon juice from a lemon
fresh ginger
tea, preferably echinacea, gypsy cold care, or both
2 shots whiskey (bourbon, Jameson, etc.)
several chopped cloves of garlic (my current gf's addition)

Boil water, cayenne, cloves, garlic, ginger, and cinnamon until you feel it has all steeped in--5 min or so. Pour over tea bags in a mug, straining out garlic chunks and cloves (if you want). Add lemon juice, honey, and whiskey. Stir and drink while hot.

The cayenne helps burn out the cold, and along with the ginger is good for intestinal distress; the garlic is good for resistance, the honey and cloves help a sore throat, the lemon has lots of vitamin C, the cinnamon makes it spicy good, and the whiskey is god's gift to man. I swear you will feel better and sleep real good, or at least soothe your throat, quiet your stomach, and get a good buzz. GF swears by my potion. Feel better.