Monday, February 18, 2008
Rodney wins the day
There are so many things I have wanted to tell you about. I wanted to tell you about the discussion class where I try not to ease my eyes out of their sockets and slip them back in again for mere entertainment (since there is no vodka to be had), and I feel as if I am being waterboarded by bad, bad teaching. The kind where the teacher says he wants to sit there until people start talking, and then when they do, he dismisses those people who haven't magically come up with what he wanted them to say instead, and the whole thing becomes either a macho demonstration by the boy students who come up with the "right answer" or a feminine coy subservience butt-licking act by women who come up with the "right" answer, or both. That kind.
I wanted to tell you about the amazing experience I am having in a critical race feminism class, taught by the sweetest, kindest, youngest woman who refuses to be cynical about the classroom, or race, or feminism, or even the law, and who is entirely comfortable insisting that everyone sitting around the circle--yes, the circle--define what feminism means to them. And talk about what it means to be in law school, and choose aspects of your identity while discarding others.
I want to tell you what it is like to listen to the heart of a growing baby every day when I am home, and GF calls me into the hallway, which for some reason is where she likes to stand when she tries to find the heartbeat, and she puts the headphones on my head to listen to the fetal monitor she bought, as she slides it around her growing belly until we find the elusive whoosh-whoosh! of a tiny heart beating under water.
But somehow what I end up finally writing about here is the strange, painful, joyous accretion of identity that is academic identity, the kind you try to leave behind like the snake in the garden, or the burning sword, but that comes back to find you and rain bread on your head when you least expect it. The kind that hurts to think about, but won't let you go, like a bad girlfriend sending you money. Well, enough with the analogies.
So tonight there were elections on the law journal. At first I didn't want to run for anything, since I'm too busy even to blog now, with who knows what to expect once a baby comes this summer (GF's sister has advised us to prepare for the birth by setting the alarm to ring every two hours so we can wake up and fight on a regular basis). I looked at all the positions, considered running for nothing in order to do as little work as possible next year, and then one caught my eye.
Notes Editor. This is where you grade all the competition entries for people trying to write on the journals during the aptly-named write-on period, and then you shepherd a group of students through the note-writing process during their 2L year (currently I am doing a fantastic job NOT writing my note, which is due this week). It means big batches of papers that must be sorted through and evaluated. It means separating the good writing from the bad. Later, it means helping students find topics, organize information, and build arguments into publishable law notes that make a contribution to contemporary legal thinking.
In short, is a lot like being a teacher. I decided to run for this position. Something about it felt familiar, like the smoky smell in a wool blanket that reminds you of wood fires in fireplaces from longago winters. That kind of smell draws you in because you are looking for it before you find it. There were only three of us signed up for three positions, and I thought that was a sweet and kind of perfectly amateurish scenario where everyone who participated got a ribbon. I even briefly thought about crossing my name off if other people wanted to sign up.
At some point it became clear that everyone running had to give a speech and try to convince the other journal members to vote for them, like a high school election. At some point, that is to say, it became competitive. Then tonight, as the first candidates began presenting, left the room, and the Editorial Board began telling everyone how each candidate behaved in cite check, or how each was doing on their note, or if each was the kind of personality that was best suited for the job, I began to panic. I thought about erasing my name from the board. Really, I had no idea how I did in cite check. I knew I lost track of some rules sometimes, like the footnote forms that always required parenthetical explanation, or the correct use of supra., or why our Board didn't like "Id"ing statutes, even though the Bluebook said it was ok (Id.is the legal abbreviation form for "same source as the last quote" or what used to be ibid., I guess). I thought, as I often do, about the ridiculous image of Rodney Dangerfield in the ads for the "Back to School" movies, clad in doctoral robes made ridiculous by the contrast between the gravity of what they signify and the silly chutzpah of his expression as he waves his diploma in the air. Does he know he is ridiculous? I wonder. I think he does. I think his buffoonery is the bravest, most dignified thing he can do in the face of it all--the ageism, the classism, the professionalism that justifies all sorts of predation.
I left my name up on the blackboard and turned over and over in my mind the word "qualifications." I am qualified to be a Note Editor even if I suck at cite check because I like to proofread, I began. I like student papers. I am a kind reader, a helpful reader. I am not a dick. I can deal with large volumes of papers and I can pick out the good idea and help people with their writing.
My old identity crept up on me. I DO like grading papers, I thought, with a pang. I can pretend I don't care anymore but I do. I love making writing better. My own. Other people's. Student writing. Peer review.
As I thought about it it all came back in a rush. The peer-reviewed manuscript, thrown out into the tumultuous publishing sea to wash up on my desk. The page proofs of an article you think you know by heart because it is yours, yet which look so much smarter, so much more careful and polished, when you proudly survey them for the last time. The student writer who suddenly, inexplicably, GETS transitions, or thesis statements, or--Heaven bless us--genuine supporting arguments. All that writing, and the pleasure of it, and the smell of fresh paper and the pride of something carefully crafted or well-taught.
I missed it. And it would never come back to me again, but I might, for a brief time, wallow a bit in the pleasure of writing, and thinking, and striving for something careful, and well-made. So I left my name up.
They elected me, of course. They asked me about my qualifications, and I told them, and they asked with some incredulity why I was running for something I was so obviously overqualified for. I warned them of the danger of thinking they were qualified, let alone overqualified, for anything in the daily humiliation that is law school, and mentioned my interest in damage control vis-a-vis that daily humiliation, and I thought they would die laughing. I had 'em in the palm of my hand. They asked a few more questions about getting along with people, and being helpful, and strategies for helping students come up with topics for law notes, and then it was over, and I left the stage. Apparently while I was out of the room one of my old students, who is a year ahead of me in law school, said fond things about my teaching. For a minute, it was like I WAS a teacher again. I had taught them something about kindness to other writers in my description of how to help people find topics. We had begun an interesting discussion about the relationship between bad writing and good ideas, and whether you can have both those things, or their opposite, in a paper. About the intelligence of grammar and style. About, I think, humility. And all the things life throws a person sometimes. When I came back all the people in the row behind me wanted to ask me questions. Everyone I looked at was smiling. I felt silly, giddy, relieved. Known. Finally, they knew who I was. Or so it seemed to me for a few minutes at the end of the evening.
And so I am drawn once more to grading papers, and to teaching, and to the ways helping people with their writing helps you think about your own. I look forward to stacks of papers coming in, and the deadlines of publication, and the communal project of bringing ideas out of the muck into the light of day, and to the craft of making. Tonight I am struck more than ever by the realization that no exile is necessarily forever, and that the very angel that drives you away from your dearest grove has the unnerving habit of coming back for you just when you have gotten used to your neighborhood, to remind you that what you care most deeply about is not a job, or a place, or a stage in your life, but a workshop in your heart, an experiment in being with other people and their ideas that is always--and this is startling to you--ready to be built anywhere again, at any time, at any season of your life.