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Archive for the ‘Reading’ Category

I’m sure lots of you, if not all of you, have seen this take-down of Slavoj Zizek for being a Giant Jerk Who Says Rude/Insensitive/Terrible Things About and To Students.  I’m not going to write a big, long post about this, but I just want to put it out there that I find Zizek a delight.  I thoroughly enjoy reading his stuff, I enjoy teaching his stuff in my critical theory course and find it incredibly useful to teach him, and I have seen him speak and it was probably the most memorable, educational, and enjoyable academic talk I’ve ever attended.

I certainly don’t think the Crisis in the Humanities is the fault of Slavoj Zizek, a dude that most people castigating him don’t seem to know much about. They don’t seem to have a familiarity with his work or to have even known existed before this brouhaha (check out the comment thread of the piece to which I linked).

I find Zizek useful for my scholarship, in spite of his flaws.  Kind of like how I love D.H. Lawrence’s novels in spite of the fact that he has some peculiar ideas (to say the least) about sex and women, or how I appreciate Ezra Pound’s poetry even though he was a fascist.  Does the fact that I can find value in the work of these yahoos provide an excuse for the horrible things they have thought or said?  Nope, not at all.  But I am comfortable with being critical of the person while at the same time acknowledging the value of their intellectual and/or artistic contribution to culture.  I don’t look to theorists or authors or celebrities or artists or whatever to be “good role models.”  I mean, seriously.  That’s awfully reductive, no?  Anti-intellectual, even?  This reminds me of a colleague of mine who said T.S. Eliot should not be taught in any college classroom because he objects to Eliot’s politics.  I feel like those sorts of assertions have more to do with the Crisis in the Humanities than any blustery bullshit that Zizek spouts.

In other news, I am back to my book project with a vengeance and it turns out that writing comes easily when you buckle down to actually do some writing.  I should have two chapters revised and my book proposal done before I go to Italy, and I should be able to get the whole manuscript ready (should somebody want to see the whole thing) by September 1.  Yes, this is ambitious, but I need to be fucking done with this idea.

Now time to clean up around the house and get ready for Talking about Ideas and Drinking Wine with CC later.

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So I’ve got a Kindle, and I love it with a love that is pure and true.  All the books in a tiny device!  It has helped to stem the tide of book accumulation in my life, which might not seem like a real problem, but it is.  See, houses only have so much space.  And books, I’ve finally come to acknowledge, have the power to stress me out.  This is why I find it impossible to work in libraries.  I love reading a book, but to be surrounded by books actually makes me feel claustrophobic and anxious.

That said, I need to have a physical copy of a book that I think is very, very good.  I need to hold a pen in my hand and underline things, and flip backwards and reread gorgeous passages, and annotate questions and thoughts and ideas.

So I typically reserve my Kindle for full-on pleasure reading.  Smut, Biographies and Memoirs and other non-fiction stuff, Crime Fiction, YA stuff.  Never anything I would want to teach or do research on.  Stuff that I will never care about engaging with deeply but that I just want to CONSUME, ravenously.

I have made three mistakes in which I bought a book on Kindle that I should have bought in Print.  Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom (which, yes, I’m a Franzen apologist and I get that he’s a dick, but I adore his novels), Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot, and, now, Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings.  Apparently I make this mistake with contemporary American literary fiction, because I think to myself that since my field is British Literature it’s ok to read the American stuff in e-form.  What I apparently forget at those moments is that I actually teach courses that include literature outside of my research area, and if something is amazing my first impulse is to want to force unsuspecting undergraduates to read it.

So I’m only 37% of the way through The Interestings (fucking Kindle with percentages instead of pages), but I want you all to go out and read it.  NOW.  It is beautiful and funny and heartbreaking and suspenseful and lovely.  And then we can all talk about how amazing it is.

Also: all the shit with Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult bagging on the publicity for Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom (which, let’s note, is a 600+ page novel that I have now taught twice to General Education non-majors and both times students have found it one of their favorite texts in the course, and given my quizzing I know they aren’t just bullshitting about having read it), like they were somehow being abused because he was getting press for writing about “domestic” things and they weren’t getting similar attention, because, you know, he is a Giant Penis and they are Wronged Women Writers Assigned to the Chick Lit Section of the Bookstore?  Let’s just note: Meg Wolitzer is fucking amazing, writing about “domestic” things, and I would read a novel by her any day of the week and twice on Sunday, based on 37% alone.  I am already looking forward to rereading this novel, and I’m not even done with it yet.  I have never felt the desire to reread anything by Weiner or Picoult (indeed, they are Kindle reads for me).  There is a fucking difference between a novel that matters and that is beautifully written and… well, other sorts of novels.  (I wanted to write a really snobby thing just then, but I am refraining.)

Point is: I have just discovered Meg Wolitzer and I kind of have a crush on her.  The Interestings is SO. FUCKING. GOOD.  It is a real book.

 
 

 

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Doris Lessing

Doris Lessing, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, has died, at the age of 94.

I know that I want to write about what Lessing’s writing has meant to me, and I want to do it here, but I hardly know where to begin.  In some ways this post is much more personal to me than any of the “personal” writing I post in this space.

I never was assigned any of Lessing’s writing as a student, not even in graduate school.  I never studied her writing in a course.  I encountered Lessing because a professor suggested that given my interests The Golden Notebook would blow my mind.  And so I checked a copy out of the library, and I vividly recall reading it at 19 years old, in the top bunk in my dorm room, blowing off the work I had to do for my other courses (I wasn’t an English major yet), and just feeling… feeling like I had never experienced anything like that book.  I felt inspired, and “seen,” and excited, and fascinated.  My mind was, indeed, blown.

For a long time (far longer than I should admit), The Golden Notebook was the only thing by Lessing that I’d read, although I reread it compulsively.  And for a long time (far longer than I should admit), I didn’t really dig deeply into what that novel really had to say, but instead I picked out the parts with which I identified (and let’s note: I was identifying with a book with an ultimately unlikable protagonist who is going through a mental breakdown) and the parts that expressed my own confusion, anger, frustration, and inarticulate feminism.  But it was an important book to me, and I grew up with it.

Only later did I begin to study it, first in putting it on my list for my Ph.D. comprehensive exam, and second, once I had a tenure-track position, teaching the novel.  And then I began reading Lessing’s other works and teaching them and to learn more about Lessing herself.

I began to love Lessing for her antagonism to critics and her refusal to do what readers wanted or expected her to do.  I began to see Lessing as an author that was radically reinventing the genre of the novel, even as she resisted many of the conventions of postmodern narrative experimentation.  I discovered that Lessing’s novels, as I reread them, grew and changed with me, that I understood them in new ways as I accumulated more personal and intellectual experiences.  Not all books do that.  Not even all books that people describe as “literature” do that.

So I feel profoundly sad today, even though I recognize that Lessing lived a long life and that this was her time.  And it’s a loss for which I should have been ready, for her health has been in steady decline.

Of course, I was not ready, am not ready.  Perhaps I will spend the afternoon rereading The Golden Notebook.

 

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It occurs to me that when I planned my courses for this semester I wasn’t entirely in my right mind.  I would like to blame The Dude for this, but, really, it’s not (entirely) his fault.  If anything, part of my problems right now are that I had decided that I was going to check out of the dating scene until summer, and that was when I decided what books I would make my students buy for the four separate preps that I teach.  Frankly, if I were not dating, I would have a lot more time for reading.  As it is, I am under a lot of Reading Pressure.  Like, imagine reading for comps while also doing all the duties of a tenured professor.  This is my situation.  I do at least partially blame that Phil Collins guy I went out with before I went out with The Dude, because if that date weren’t so horrible, I might not have made these silly choices.  But who am I kidding?  The Blame rests with Me.  Sigh.

That said, part of how I designed my courses does have to do with the fact that I constructed them during the initial Lovesick Phase with The Dude, where I felt like Anything Was Possible.  Now that we have settled into this Thing of ours, it occurs to me that Anything is not, in fact, possible, and reading takes a fuck of a lot of time and energy.  Ah well.  I shall soldier on.  Only 10 more weeks of the regular semester to go.

But this week is especially rough.  I gave a test today (although, huzzah, those tests are already graded because of the stroke of genius I had (in spite of my Lovesickness) that I should design a 1-hour test and screen a movie afterwards), three batches of papers to arrive tomorrow.  One of those batches of papers I need to do some assessment-related stuff with, too, which reminds me that I need to design a release-form for students before I collect them (the next time I teach the course there will be IRB approval, but for now, I just need to make sure they are ok with me collecting the assignments with names taken off for a thing related to a grant; also, I need to design an assessment rubric for how some other non-important assignments relate to this assignment; active learning turns out to be a pain in my ass, at least for the purposes of fulfilling the terms of the grant). Plus we’ve got a not-pre-scheduled department meeting tomorrow (related to a Very Important Topic, so I’m not comfortable missing it, even though I don’t plan on saying a word), plus I’m giving a talk tomorrow evening.  Plus I’ve got 14 individual student conferences scheduled for Thursday (though to be fair, they are only 10 minutes a piece), plus I’m finishing up a novel in one class and starting a new novel in another.  And I’ve got two other appointments scheduled for Thursday, too, plus I’ve got an MA thesis to read and respond to.  Plus it’s motherfucking Valentine’s Day this week (though, thank goodness, The Dude was totally amenable to making Valentine’s Day for us happen on Friday, though it’s also the case that I’m cooking, which means the need to go grocery shopping and to chef up a delicious meal (though, to be fair, the level of difficulty of that meal is totally my decision, for he would be happy with something much easier than what I have planned). That said, though, by the time that Friday arrives, I might be a zombie.

I don’t know why I do this to myself.  There is no reason why I should think that I can do All The Things at the same time, or that I should do All The Things at the same time.  But I think that maybe this is just who I am.  S0.

Ok, enough complaining and whining, though.

You know what’s great about The Dude?

  1. He has been totally cool about the fact that I’m busy and overwhelmed and, following that, blowing him off a little (although, of course, that initially made me freak out on him, though it turns out that his coolness does not mean that he’s a jerk but rather that he is supportive and I am ungenerously suspicious).
  2. He is not a guy who thinks flowers are an appropriate present for a holiday (for, as he and I both agree, they DIE, but I also don’t love flowers because of a whole sordid story from my parents’ divorce in which my mother, after she’d kicked my dad out, received the bill for the flowers that my father purchased for her, AS WELL AS THE ONES THAT HE PURCHASED FOR THE HOME-WRECKER WHO WOULD BECOME MY STEPMOTHER, for their closely spaced birthdays, so I tend to see flowers as insincere and fucked up, as such things go, though I didn’t get into all of that with The Dude when he announced I would be getting two fun presents, as opposed to flowers, but rather I just enthusiastically agreed that he was entirely right in his antipathy to flowers as anything but a spontaneous occasional offering for a non-gift-giving time).
  3. EVEN The Man-Kitty has accepted him.  For true.  It all started when The Dude somehow convinced The Man-Kitty to PLAY like 3 weeks ago (which The Man-Kitty does with no one, not even with me most of the time), and this weekend The Man-Kitty ran up to him for petting when he arrived PLUS when we were hanging out The Man-Kitty totally rolled onto his back, baring his furry, furry belly,  in a snoring sleep In The Same Room with The Dude.  This is UNPRECEDENTED.  The Man-Kitty does not make himself vulnerable in this way when Visitors are in the vicinity.  EVER.  (The Man-Kitty’s usual M.O. is to entice people with his fluffy self, while glaring at them and planning their deaths, and then when they try to pet him, he bops them on the hand, which, let’s note, he did with The Dude for a good couple of months.  But now, apparently, he has decided that The Dude is One of His People.  Also, let’s note that he only has three people: me, G. my stepdad, and FL.  And there’s no rhyme or reason to his appreciation of G and FL, given the fact that he only sees them on random visits and he apparently took to them on sight.)

So, sure, there is still the Problem of The Dude’s Old Dog, Little Mama (I love her, and she loves me, but he is entirely unreasonable about her, I think even more so now that it is clear that she loves me), and sure, there is still the Problem of My Relationship-Phobia, but all is well with The Dude, in spite of the fact that it is really interfering with the many hours that I appear to need this semester for reading.

On that note, I need to sleep, because dude, I’ve got a motherfucker of a week ahead of me.  (And let’s not even talk about the writing I should be doing but have no time or energy to do, because if we talk about that, I might cry.)

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Dame Eleanor has a great post up about perceptions of teaching and research and how they are valued – considering how things like personality and institution type determine the ways in which the balance between these two things is perceived .  I know I’ve written about the relationship between teaching and research before, but hell if I know where to find it, being such an erratic tagger of posts that I write here and also having all those other posts at my old location.  At any rate, suffice it to say that I think I’ve written that the two really are inseparable, at least in my experience both as a student and a teacher.

But so anyway, a lot of great discussion is going on in the comment thread of Dame Eleanor’s post, and I was going to leave a comment over there, except for that I knew it would be way too long because her post got me thinking about some things that are tangential to the question that drives her post. So Dame Eleanor’s big question is this:

Then there were the people I had dinner with, people who work at Ivies or prestigious SLACs, people with distinguished research to their names, who all insisted to each other that teaching is the most important work they do.  Do they truly believe this, or is it a sort of defense mechanism with which they protect themselves from doubts about the significance of their research, precisely because their institutions place so much emphasis on it?

As background to the question, she talks a bit about how she sees herself as a scholar first – not an intellectual – and she indicates that while she does invest herself in her teaching, that she does not think that it is the most important or most pleasurable work that she does. But then she goes on to ask:

Again, though, is my present attitude toward both teaching and research a defense mechanism?  LRU is an R1, but it is also teaching-intensive, and recent developments are focusing ever more on teaching (in a way that makes me a little nervous).  So perhaps I deny that teaching is the most important thing I do for precisely the same reason that my dinner companions affirm it, because of insecurities.  They, having fewer students and more writing, hope that human connections matter more than producing books.  I, facing large classes in which it is hard to nurture individual connections, take refuge in writing, through which I can address those individuals who share my interests.  If I had spent my career at a SLAC, Ivy or near-Ivy, no matter my temperament, would I sound more like my dinner companions?

So since I first read the post, I’ve been thinking about these questions, about whether we value teaching, if we value it, out of insecurity about the value of the research that we do, as well as the inverse.  I think that my answer to those questions is no.  I don’t think that the discourse surrounding teaching and research is really about compensation or even about self-defense, most of the time.  I think that it’s actually about something different and much less psychologically interesting.  We talk about teaching and research as an “either/or” – as if one is either “research oriented” or “teaching oriented” – because of the radical differences between these two activities.  The problem is that teaching and research, while they have everything to do with one another and while they have the potential to influence each other in productive ways, are not identical, and when we try to talk about them as if they are, then we are forced to choose one as the thing with which we “really” identify.

What I think, though, is that this is stupid.  It’s like this: a juicy pork chop has absolutely nothing in common with an apple.  One is an animal, and one is a fruit.  You don’t prepare them in the same way.  Indeed, if you eat one of them raw it can give you horrible food poisoning, whereas if you eat the other, it, according to my mother, keeps the doctor away.  One is savory and the other is sweet (well, or tart, but you get what I’m saying).  But so with all of those differences, one could say that one is “either” a pork person “or” an apple person, assuming that they stand in binary opposition to one another.  Except for that if you do that then what about pork chops with apple sauce?

 

Just because two things seemingly have nothing in common, it doesn’t mean that they don’t taste delicious together or that they are diametrically opposed.  And, frankly, choosing between the two, as if one can’t be committed to both and enjoy both equally – if in different ways – just doesn’t make sense to me.  It’s unlikely that one would ever sit down to a meal of pork chops and apple sauce and force everybody around the table to talk about which one was the more fulfilling to them.  Nor would they say, “what made you choose that item on the menu – the apple sauce or the pork chop?”  So why do we do that with our jobs?

What I would answer, for myself, in response to Dame Eleanor’s post is this:

Teaching is the most immediately fulfilling part of my job.  Teaching provides instant, or at least reasonably prompt, gratification.  When I teach a class that goes very well, I know it pretty much while it’s happening.  When I transform a student’s way of thinking about something, they do things like send me emails or give me presents at the end of the semester, or they keep in touch and tell me what an impact I made on their lives as they go on to bigger and better things.  The great thing about designing a new course syllabus is that you can do so in a very short period of time, and you feel like you accomplished something.  There is something immediately satisfying about tweaking the assignments that you give to students, and when you get their papers back from those assignments, you see the results of your labor.  Additionally, after a day of teaching I feel physically tired, because I have been up and moving around and interacting with so many other people.  That feels like work, and things that feel like work also do feel important when we do them – because if they weren’t, why would we do them?

With all of that being said, I do find a great deal of long-term fulfillment in the research that I do, but it isn’t as immediately gratifying.  “Thinking” doesn’t feel like work to me.  Nor does reading, or even really writing.  Solving particular problems in a scholarly piece does feel like work, as does revising, as does compiling a bibliography.  But because those activities don’t have an immediate impact on anyone, including me, they don’t seem terribly significant.  I guess what I would say is that what feels like work about research doesn’t seem important to me, because really it’s just a means to an end.  In contrast, what is meaningful and important about research for me is the ideas - the thinking, the reading, the writing, and then ultimately, way far down the road, when I feel like my work has an impact on my field.  But all of that has a very, very long-timeline, and it can all feel very abstract.  So this isn’t to say that it’s less important than teaching – I don’t think that it is – but I do think that it is differently important.

I guess to torture my pork chops and applesauce analogy even further, I’d say that research for me is like a six-hour pork roast.  It takes forever, and it’s kind of a pain to make, and if you’re starving it is not the thing that you’re going to bother preparing.  But once you’ve done it, you taste the delicious goodness and you see how all of the time and effort you put into it was valuable.  In contrast, teaching for me is like an apple.  If you need a snack, you just take a bite.  If you want to get a little more creative, maybe you make apple sauce or a pie or strudel or something.  But at the end of the day, pretty much nothing you’re going to do with an apple is going to take six hours, and at the end of the day, the possibilities of an apple are pretty immediate.

So my question is why do we set it up that we’re supposed to identify with either teaching or research?  Why do we set it up that we have to reject a major part of what our jobs entail, if not in practice than in spirit?  Why don’t the words “professor” or “scholar” encompass both teaching and research?  Why do we limit ourselves in these ways – I’d say unnecessarily?

 

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On Reading and Discovery

Don’t get me wrong: my mother read to me when I was a kid.  As did my grandmother.  As did my father.  As I’m sure as did some other people, too.

But while it is true that I had adults reading to me, the reality is that from the time that I could read (and, in fact, even before I could read), I was the master of my destiny when it came to most of the books that were on my reading agenda.  (My mother tells a story about me throwing a massive tantrum in the public library when I was 4 or 5 – and I couldn’t read then, as far as I recall – because I *refused* to believe that there was a three-book – or whatever it was – limit on the number of books I could check out because I was not yet 7 or whatever the cut-off age was.  And apparently I tried to convince the librarian that no, really, I *needed* more books to get through the week!  NEEDED THEM!!!!!  In spite of my impassioned and well-reasoned pleas, apparently that meanie librarian did not relent, and I was devastated.)

And so when I think about reading for fun, for pleasure, part of that for me is about book selection.  (Which is exactly why I think that book clubs take all of the fun out of reading.  Why in god’s name would I want to let some dummy pick the next book I read?  I am a lady with a reading agenda of my own, thanks.)  It’s about going where the winds take me.  It’s about picking up a book on a whim and seeing where it takes me.  (I am a person who goes to the library and scans the  shelves to see what jumps out at me.  I am a person who goes to a used bookstore with a vague idea, but who will, again, buy the books that “speak” to me, regardless of whether they were what I’d intended or hoped to buy.)  And it’s also, at least to some extent, about having total freedom.  I am not a person who typically reads books based on reviews (not even when I’m wearing my professor hat), and I’m not one to rely on other people’s recommendations for books to read (though sometimes I do end up reading books people have recommended to me).  It is the case that people have even given me books to read, and I still don’t read them – or I don’t read them until years later.  It is also the case that I have bought books that I “should” read, and there they sit, collecting dust on my shelf, until which time as I am moved to read them.

Now, part of this attitude to reading that I have is that none of those people who read to me really had much of a clue about or investment in what a kid “should” be reading at any given point in time.  And nobody they knew had much of a clue about that either.  So, for example, I never read “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” until I had a Ph.D.  At the same time, I read a fair number of “the classics” (Jane Eyre, Huck Finn, Gulliver’s Travels, Little Women, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and others) before I was in high school.  I never read the Sweet Valley High books as an adolescent, even though those were the norm for girls my age, but I was familiar with the entire Judith Krantz oeuvre before I was 16.  (I read I’ll Take Manhattan – my first Krantz – at age freaking twelve!!!!  Really, somebody should have paid better attention to what I was doing when my nose was buried in a book.  The most my mother ever said was that I should be *doing something* instead of reading – go play! clean your room!  go outside!  But it wasn’t like she was directing me to appropriate reading material – in fact, most of the time she was just directing me not to read.  Which made reading transgressive.  And, of course, what is more fun than transgression?)

In the past 9 months or so, I have read the following, that I recall off the top of my head, which were not on a syllabus of mine:

The Marriage Plot – Eugenides

A series, The Masters of the Shadowlands - by Cherise Sinclair (smut)

A Very Close Conspiracy: Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf -Jane Dunn

The 50 Shades of Grey Trilogy (JUST DON’T!!!! I WAS IN A HORRIBLE FLIGHT DELAY HELL AND MADE POOR CHOICES!)

The Memoirs of a Survivor - Doris Lessing

The Secret Diary of a Call Girlanonymous (also smut, though smart smut)

The Shadows of the WindCarlos Ruiz Zafon

Juliet, NakedNick Hornby

Last Chance Saloon – Marian Keyes

 

And I’m in the middle of:

The Autograph Man - Zadie Smith

Rough Magic: A Biography of Sylvia Plath – Paul Alexander

 

What I hope you notice about this list, though I fear I’m leaving some stuff off, is that there isn’t some agenda that dictates pleasure-reading for me.  It’s mostly fiction, but I do have a penchant for biography every now and again.  While some of it is “worthwhile” reading, I am strongly attracted to crappy smut.  But I never read something outside of “work” reading because I think it’s going to make me a better person.  (Though, to be fair, a few of those selections do actually do double-duty as work-related, but the point is, I didn’t read them because I had to read them right then.)  One book takes me to another book and then to another.  It’s also worth noting that I don’t tend to read any of this sort of stuff as “bedtime story” reading.  I tend, instead, to re-read for that purpose (because otherwise I end up staying up all night to find out what happens next), which means that I am currently nearing the end of my umpteenth go-around with the Harry Potter series.

But anyway, what is my point in this post?  My point is this: For a good long while now, I have been feeling sad for children of people I know, because the people I know introduce their children to books that they should have the opportunity to discover on their own.  There is, for example, something really and truly sad to me about a kid having Harry Potter read to them, at five years old, as opposed to sneaking to read it under the covers when they are supposed to be asleep when they are, like, nine.  When I was 6 or 7, my favorite book was Snowbound with Betsy, not because it was the best book in the world, or because my mom read it to me.  It was my favorite because I picked it, and because I somehow procured a flashlight so as to read after my mom had read what was supposed to be my bedtime story.  Joy in reading is about the freedom to roam.  You might like a book that you’re assigned, but the fact of the matter is that liking a book you’re assigned is radically different from loving a book that you discovered.

Now, on the one hand I don’t blame my parent-friends.  They want to read stuff to their kids that they themselves enjoy.  They don’t want to read something like this for like 7 years running (which is what I insisted on for bedtime reading for, seriously, that long).  And also, they want to give their kids a certain kind of cultural capital, and they also want to do what’s best for their kids, in terms of challenging them.

But.  On the other hand.  If I value anything about reading, I value the ways in which it allows us to explore, the ways in which it allows us to find ourselvesthrough that exploration.  And you know what?  If your mom or dad is reading it to you, or shoving it into your hands, you’re not exploring.  And the only self you might find is the self that they want you to be.  Maybe better than reading Harry Potter to your kids at age five is to let them find Harry Potter on their own.  Maybe better than asking your friends on Facebook for book recommendations for your three year old who “wants more complicated stories” is to let your kid find their own more complicated stories.

Again, I had loving parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles who read to me.  But more than anything I was left to my own readerly devices.  And that gave me a mind of my own.  And I wasn’t deprived of the joy of discovery.  And that matters, if what you want is a kid who loves to read.

 

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I’ve been thinking a lot over the past couple of weeks, as I’ve embarked on the massive reading load for AST, of my experience in my Ph.D. program.  See, it turns out, the post-traumatic left-overs that I’d buried in my subconscious during my relatively idyllic time on the tenure-track and, now, post-tenure life, are resurfacing.  But just because you bury your traumas does not, in fact, mean that you’ve dealt with them.  It turns out.

Here’s the thing.  I know that some people have (comparatively) warm and fuzzy experiences in pursuing the Ph.D., experiences that are all about pursuing ideas intensely and about fulfilling their dreams of doing that and that those people don’t view the experience of a Ph.D. program as anything other than positive.  Well, or there’s an urban legend out there that those people exist.  I don’t actually know those people.  (This is not to say that those urban legend people might not exist, and if they do, didn’t or don’t encounter intellectual roadblocks or whatever, but basically I’ve heard tell that some people aren’t totally fried into crispy ash during graduate school only then to emerge phoenix-like in a tenure-track position from that ash.)

But my experience, well, it was more of the crispy-ash/phoenix-like-return-to-life variety.  I don’t actually say that to cancel out what I gained from being fried into nothingness – I actually gained a lot, I think – but it also was… well, I think I’m only realizing right now how fucked up it all was.  And, well, I guess, is.

My experience in my Ph.D. program was definitely influenced by two major contributing factors: a) I was a first-generation college student; b) I went to a pretty mediocre regional state university for undergrad (pretty much as a result of being in the first generation in my family to go to college).  So I showed up to my Ph.D. program (admittedly having gotten an M.A. at a decent – though not super – public R1) in many ways clueless.  My Ph.D. program was a small one, at a private university in the Northeast.  While it is not as highly ranked as many programs, it did (does?) have a better tenure-track placement rate than #1-ranking Harvard.  There were, if I recall correctly, 7 people admitted in the year that I was admitted, all with full funding, with no expectation of teaching or TA-ing in the first year, and with a very light teaching load for the remaining years (1/1 to 2/1 – with a TA gig for the second in the years that it was 2/1 – if I recall correctly).  In other words, I was sort of a Cinderella, in terms of where I ended up from where I started.

Now, the full funding for all people meant that my department did not have a snake-pit-like atmosphere, as my peers and I weren’t actually competing for resources.  However, the atmosphere was intensely competitive.  Intensely.  Part of that had to do with the expectations of the faculty.  Part of that had to do with the fact that for the most part my peers had either one or both of the following characteristics: 1) an Ivy or Elite SLAC pedigree; 2) one or both parents who were professors.  Even among the few who had neither of those things going for them, as far as I’m aware, I was the one and only first generation college student in the bunch.

So, imagine me, showing up to this Ph.D. program, a very selective one, with a cohort filled with people with a kind of background that I had no clue even existed until I got there.  Oh, and did I mention that I got in off the wait list?  Oh, yes, I did.  I spent the first semester just trying to keep my head above water.  Trying to catch up.  Trying to figure out how to talk the way that other people talked.  Trying to demonstrate that I was a person.  Like, seriously, I didn’t even know if I existed as a person in that context.  By the end of the semester I’d gotten my sea legs, but I still didn’t have much of a clue.

At the end of that first year, I got my evaluation.  (We’d get an evaluation letter at the end of each academic year, something that the faculty apparently arrived at in a meeting where they talked about us behind our backs and then the DGS would send us a letter.)

On the plus side, I was “a pleasure to have in class.”  Because I’m Miss-Fucking-Congeniality or something.  I also made “bold claims.”  (That may have been a criticism, but at the time I saw it as a good thing.)

On the negative side, my “ideas and execution were lacking in sophistication.”  Ouch.

So that was what my professors thought of me.  As far as I can tell, my peers probably were even more critical.  Because they came from highly competitive undergrad programs, or they had tons of background because of their parents’ careers, or whatever, but the point is, my peers probably thought I was a joke.

This was a different world from my experiences both in undergrad and in my M.A. program.  In both of those contexts, I was a bit of a big fish in a small pond.  I was that sort of student as an undergrad who would get no comments on her paper other than an exclamation point next to some amazing paragraph and an A and “Amazing!” as a comment.  Note: I have some of those papers, and looking back at them, there were TONS of things they could have criticized me for doing.  But they didn’t.  Because (and I know this now because I’m a teacher) they probably were so excited to get what I gave them that they didn’t have the energy to push me further.  (Also note, though, that this wasn’t the case for all of my undergrad instructors, just for the vast majority of them.  I can’t tell you how grateful I remain to my undergrad instructors who did push me further than that.  Even if I wasn’t so grateful to them at the time.  And those exceptional instructors of mine totally inform my teaching now.)  And in my M.A. program, I rose to the top as a person who wasn’t just getting an M.A. for kicks, and I quickly earned the respect of my professors and peers.  In other words, I was entirely unprepared for people who wouldn’t think that the sun rose and set upon my brilliant pronouncements.

My life during coursework during my Ph.D. program – and even after while I did comps and worked on my dissertation – was one of constantly feeling like I had to anticipate a rebuttal, anticipate somebody cutting me down.  I learned to read competitively, to think of reading as something that I had to do better than everybody else.  I learned to try to one-up people in discussions, and to try to cut people down while making it seem like I was engaging with their ideas.  I learned to look at a conversation about literature as a battle to be won rather than as a forum for collaboration.

On the one hand, this was good training.  I am well equipped to deal with that asshole who asks a combative question at a conference, to slice through a ridiculous claim made at a curriculum committee meeting while seeming to be “collegial.”  Hell, I’m even well trained to deal with that student who tries to dominate the class discussion with bullshit, or to redirect a conversation in a department meeting when nothing is being accomplished.  I am not at all saying that I don’t appreciate the skills that I acquired in the environment of my Ph.D. program, because I really do.

That said, the thing that was so great for me about moving into this job was partly that my environment now is not at all that environment.  Upon arriving here, I learned to read for pleasure again.  I learned that you don’t always have to be prepping for a fight.  I learned that, sometimes, the work that I do really is about collaboration rather than about confrontation.

But what I’ve found in preparing for AST is that I’m reading like it’s a competition.  I’m reading like people are going to try to cut me down.  I’m reading like the point of the whole thing is to be “the best” and to prove that I’m not just “a pleasure to have in class.”  I’m reading to impress, and, though it’s not the same thing, I’m reading to shut other people down.  And I’m questioning whether my current environment has made me “lazy,” while before I’d just thought it made me “happy.”  And there is a huge part of me that really hates all of the above.  There’s a huge part of me that thinks this is neurosis.  (That last statement may have something to do with the novel that I’m reading so compulsively, though.)

Here’s the thing: it is a luxury to return to this sort of compulsive, obsessive reading.  It’s showing me all the things I haven’t paid attention to in this novel, and it’s making me excited about the work that I will contribute to the scholarly conversation.  Seriously: if I pursued every idea that I’ve had over the past couple of weeks, it would be 10 years of articles.  It’s amazing.  But I hate that all of those ideas come out of a feeling of inadequacy and fear, or competitiveness and spite.  I hate that I don’t have those sorts of ideas when I’m comfortable and happy.  (Note: I always tell my students that if they feel comfortable then they aren’t thinking or really engaging, and I do believe that’s true with them, so why would I think I’m exempt?)

But I guess the good thing out of all of this is that I don’t actually think that what I’m doing right now is “healthy” or “normative” or “right.”  I’m seeing it as a process, rather than as “reality” or “the way things are or have to be.”

Summation: critical thinking is a motherfucker and it will fuck your shit up.

 

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