20 January 2013
I get very nostalgic over all that, too, believe it or not; my first strong connection to an online community was on DALnet, one of the then-big IRC servers, in the mid to late 90s. That's not even old-school by the really old-school people's standards, but it puts me ahead of virtually anyone I know today. Mostly I hung out in a channel called #philosophicus, which started, I gathered, mostly to talk shit about the pretentious tools in #philosophy (and #religion and #poetry and on and on). To say: it was kind of a trolling room. I've never been much of a troll, myself, but more because I'm never quick enough with biting sarcasm than because I'm morally better than that. I've certainly appreciated a lot of viciousness from the sidelines, anyway. Beyond providing an arena for picking on the weak, though, #philosophicus was also one of the most interesting places I found to hang out online. The participants were all well-read, independent thinkers; they were creative and witty; many were making music and/or art that was actually pretty good. They tended not to judge each other for getting drunk or for having shitty relationships. They were intrigued by what the technology could do, even in that all-text, basic format, from the way it created a sense of place out of shared topics and inside jokes to what happens when you feed poetry or art (not necessarily of the dog-licking-woman's-tits variety) through to an audience line by line. They took up the possibilities of packaging and interruption that digitized discourse both offers and on which it relies, and played with them.
None of that batch of people were hackers, that I know of. I knew a few in that age, but none very well, and I definitely wasn't hanging out on the hacker boards. Among my humanities colleagues today, I'm so internetty I might as well dissolve into pure jQuery, but compared to real computer people, I've always been an amateur. I'll argue, though, that the pre-commercial internet was largely fueled by the mindset we associate with hackers: a creative, daring, group-oriented but contentious and maybe antisocial attitude. A desire to break things that seemed to beg to be broken. A sense that breaking things was a legitimate end in itself, and the resultant fixing innovations after that fact nice side effects. Sometimes very nice, but side effects, all the same.
The other day, I mentioned to a friend that I maintain a nearly perfect (so far as I can tell) bifurcation of my online footprint. There's the me of Facebook and my personal website, which is all out there for potential hiring committees to find, and only for that reason. That's an openly political face, very concerned with teaching and higher ed issues, a reader and a writer. And these things all are me, for sure, but they're a consciously selected set of the things I am. The me of Twitter and this blog and various other venues online is a lot messier. More personal, angrier, more depressed, more vulnerable. Much more idealistic, though, too, and happier about the things I do let myself get happy about. Lots more nonacademic interests, too. Bitchier and surlier and more cryptic, and very amused when people don't get things. And I think more interesting as a result of all that, but, of course, likely distressing to the people who are surprised when they find that, yes, the internet is horrible. Distressing, maybe incomprehensible, almost certainly off-putting. Hence the bifurcation, because ye gawds I need a job, and the jobs in university teaching are in the hands of people who don't get the internet, at least not as I know it. Actually, I think even IT jobs these days are often under people like that -- certainly, I had that impression when I was looking for an alternate web job. Young whipper-snappers, seriously. And not that I'm that old! But I might be internet-old.
I mentioned to this same friend that my onlineness and my being as a poet have almost no overlap; as much time as I spend online, I hardly spend any of it looking up other poets' work or anything. There are almost no other poets on my Twitter stream. I've never found an online writing forum, in any format, that interested me at all -- but, truthfully, I haven't spent a lot of time looking, either. The few I've run across seemed dominated by amateurs, and amateurs of the type who'll never be anything else, people who want attention, especially publishers' attention, more than they want to learn to write better, and I'm not nearly so generous as to enjoy dumping my time and energy into people who don't even actually want to be better writers.
When I first got on Twitter, I looked up a few publishing poets and started following their streams; they're almost all gone, now, though. They were without exception bland. Bland, pleasant, right-minded people, saying good things about the students they were teaching and raising the banners of appropriately lefty causes -- and I'm on board with that, but it doesn't make for interesting reading. The friend with whom I was talking about sent me to this interview between some blogger and some poet, neither familiar to me. The blogger asks the poet why poetry isn't bigger on Twitter, and while the poet has a few interesting things to say, he doesn't answer that, particularly; the blogger, meanwhile, strikes me as the dopey, wide-eyed, perpetual naif that my old IRC compatriots wouldn't even bother trolling. Supposedly, he's been at that blog since 03, but maybe he manages to be not internet-old in the way that I just am internet-old.
Anyway, I think there's something to this, because the fragmentary, text-loosened-from-author, voice-oriented, momentary quality Twitter imparts to its scene is, yes, decidedly poetry-friendly. And yet: not much poetry out there, almost none connected to people who self-identify as poets. The poet in that interview mentions a few worth following, and several are ones I've picked up and dropped, with one (@dogsdoingthings) I do follow. Christian Bok, I found both boring and bizarrely stilted in his online mannerisms, for example. The Seattle poet who got interviewed, Greg Bem -- his whole feed appears to be about tweeting; disingenuously meta. I follow a lot of webcomics artists who say reliably interesting things about what they're reading, what they're working on, and general life things like where they're hanging out and what movies they're watching; I also follow a lot of people associated with "weird Twitter," which is about as close a phenomenon as today's web appears to offer to what I knew in the 90s. Cryptic, wry, sometimes gross, sometimes affecting, funny. (The fact that the interviewer doesn't seem to be aware of weird Twitter is the biggest flag that he doesn't know the platform all that well; the weird Twitter people were all making fun of the rest of the web for having named them "weird Twitter" about a year ago.) Actual poets seem to do almost none of this.
The last poetry event I went to around here was a reading at a grad student's house, now close to two years ago, at which I was one of the readers. I probably wrote about it here at the time, because it clarified for me why I fit in so badly with normative poet culture -- everyone's very polite, nobody's transgressive, nobody has strong opinions; nobody's even particularly funny. I'd be a bull in that china shop, except for being, you know, a chick. Elephant cow in that china shop? Flailing, poisonous naga? Something along those lines. Poets' presences online take pretty much the same form; even my own professional online face, though relatively opinionated and contentious, doesn't touch the real thing. Of course, as a grouchy cynic, I'm unconvinced that the many bland, pleasant poets I've met even have anything else going on under their public personae, because their poetry is just as polite and risk-averse. But I think that points to why there isn't more poetry on Twitter: 21st-c. poetry is institutionalized and professional, and as a result, sanitized, and Twitter doesn't have much to do with any of that. Aggressive marketers who use Facebook as a successful advertising channel can't get Twitter to work that way; it's more anonymous, less invested in geographic localism, and much more unpredictable. Post a coupon on Facebook, and every time someone likes it, they advertise for you; post it to Twitter, and people might very well use it, but you only become visible when people retweet it or mention you, and a lot more of that will be critical or purely trollish stuff than the sycophantry of Facebook's one-click Like button.
The few poets I know who have taken much of an interest in online activities work more or less from that marketing angle. And then I see the ones who broadcast how much their students like them, and what inspirational line they read that day, and so on, whose work itself isn't much to get excited over. The poets I know who are writing really great stuff tend not to be very internetty. As independent and creative as they are, they're also mostly fairly privileged people; they have connections in academia and the arts, and they don't need to poke through the net in search of strangers with their interests. Reaching out electronically wouldn't occur to them, and if they tried, they'd find, to their surprise and dismay, that the internet is, well, kind of horrible. I've always had to do that -- demographically, there's no way I should have ended up a poet, certainly not a somewhat experimental poet who'd rather make art than politics, at the end of the day, even as much as I do care about politics. Poetry in our moment is thin-skinned, but fairly well protected and comfortable in that thin skin, cozied up wrapped in a chenille throw, sitting on a battered but elegant couch from the 1930s, drinking tea with the other, significantly less pretty, institutionalized humanities. And don't think for a second I don't covet that position -- but I'm working toward it from a different angle than most my colleagues. From my mother's basement, in fact, which was where I first got online, smelling like Noxzema and building my d10s and d20s into little multihued towers by my keyboard.
18 November 2012
Last week, the chair of English at Lost Lambs State College met with the adjuncts to talk about whatever concerns or wishes we had. Truly, without any exaggeration, I feel lucky that people talk to me and that I get paid at all; I'm hardly in the business of making greater demands, from where I am. We did, however, raise the possibility of getting me my own desk, and soon, even, which would certainly make me feel instantly more real. The chair also mentioned the need for those of us who want not to be adjuncts forever to publish. How can the department encourage that? The real answer, of course, is to give us smaller classes with better students for more money, but that's well out of their hands. This morning, though, I thought that it would be wonderful if we got chances to present ongoing work. It's a teaching school, not a research-oriented university, and I don't have the sense that the professoriate even does much of that; I don't know of but one other adjunct who's interested in scholarly work. It might not be an appropriate or fruitful wish, then, but I may run it up the proverbial flagpole.
I also realized this morning that I put in a 40-45-hour work week _before I even start grading papers_. Web Job made me more conscious of how much time I spend on different tasks (because I had to track it there), and my week breaks down about like this:
* 12 hours actually in the classroom
* 2-3 hours per class on email, at least; call that 10 hours total
* 2+ hours each week, per class; for 3 preps, that's 6 more hours
* 12-15 hours each week on job applications; while my materials are fairly well written by now, I still have to go through schools' and departments' websites to see who's teaching there, what classes they offer, how they describe their mission, and so on to tweak my letter and whatever else-- a bunch this year have asked applicants to write responses to their mission statements, even, which take a couple hours each and are pretty un-reusable
After that, I still have to find time and, scantier, energy, to grade. One essay takes me about half an hour; that's slow, but it's always been the best I can manage. Much less for a lit class, because I don't feel bound to mark their multitudinous errors--I get to write a number and a stern "VISIT THE WRITING LAB" and be done. With composition, though, the job is all in dealing with those kinds of problems. So. Half an hour for every paper. I give a fair number of homework assignments, too, which go faster, but it loads me up with another 50+ pages of student writing every week, that, again, wouldn't be an issue in lit or CW classes. (My poetry kids do plenty of writing, but it's nowhere near as involved to grade.)
And I have to get through all that before I touch my own work. I think _Magpie_'s been sitting at roughly half-done for an unconscionable three years now; I have this rad new paper on artifactual poetics, a term/critical framework I'm inventing, which I just did at MSA, plus the Millay one from last year, and without some kind of intervention, both will likely languish as well. (Hence my interest in opportunities to present work locally: as Spicer said about his poetry, the work itself doesn't necessarily need an audience, but I find that I write more and better when I have one.) The time just isn't there.
No wonder, then, that I'm "horribly behind on grading." I feel like I'm spending too much time screwing around on the internet and sleeping, but I'm probably spending less time than I think, and no more time than a normal person does, on my chosen non-work activities. I do over 40 hours just to keep on top of the things I must do to get through each individual day, for shy of $500 each week, and grading is essentially unpaid overtime.
The chair is right; people in my position need to publish. How one makes that happen, in my position, however, remains a mystery.
14 November 2012
Teaching this semester, I'm watching these models play out in my students, just right down the line. My private school students are W O N D E R F U L, in the way Vivienne Eliot wrote it in the margin of that famous draft of The Wasteland. They're smart, they're interesting and interested, they like school, we have great conversations -- and they're easier to teach. They don't miss much class, and when they do, they tell me (which I don't really care about, but I know some teachers do) and they do the assigned reading and homework on their own, so they're still up to speed when they get back (about that, I care very much). I have them taking on some fairly heady stuff, for a freshman writing class, and they're writing genuinely cool critiques of Thomas Hobbes and Plato and so on, and rising well to the challenge of doing independent literary criticism, which is what I did with most my full-length essays for that class. I come in on peer review days and they're already sitting in their groups, talking about each others' papers and offering to help each other more outside of class. They fairly regularly get curious about the pieces we read and look up the authors online on their own, and they've taught me a few things -- not just about the authors, but interests they have, things like military history, that have been relevant to discussions. And let me tell you, in case you don't know: when a teacher's students tell her stuff she doesn't know herself, that is CHRISTMAS. Just all over the place. We love that.
There are a lot of other things I like about that school -- it has incredible instructional support, from a writing center that even my top students rave about (I made them all go for their first paper) to library instruction people who worked with me to create a cool multi-stage scavenger hunt thing. I don't see the full-time faculty much, but in the little contact I've had with them, they seem really, really happy. I'm getting to bring out all my interests in religion and secularism in the 20th century without sounding like a weirdo, because I'm right there at that hinge, a contemporary Catholic university. The students are the real gems, though -- and they act just like they come from these better primary/secondary educational systems.
My state school kids, meanwhile. . . oy to several kinds of vey. Halfway through the semester, they were still struggling to look at the schedule and figure out what they were supposed to do for each day. I put all my readings on our online platform, and they're supposed to print them out; I don't think I've yet had a day when even half my composition students have done so. My poetry workshop students have some online readings, too, which, again, they generally don't bring, and several of them appear never to have bothered to buy the books. I get homework from about 2/3 of them, in both classes -- not always the same 2/3, but about that proportion. And my homework isn't hard! In poetry writing, it's generally to write a poem through some constraint, like using only concrete words or trying out a dramatic monologue, etc. In composition, it's either to talk about one's personal experiences or to respond to a reading. Even the students who turn these in don't do a great job with them; I think next semester, for the first time, I'm going to have to institute minimum word counts for homework, because a lot of what I get doesn't even make 100 words, which isn't very useful practice. I reserved library labs for us to do one day of in-class research per paper this semester, and on the third of these, I forgot to explicitly remind students to go to the library. Five of them made it over, out of 24. The rest apparently sat in our regular classroom for 25 minutes, wondering what the schedule meant by "Research practicum" (which they should have seen twice before!), and not checking the online calendar that told them what lab to go to.
I've had several students in that composition section write essays that were really far off the assignments, too. The first essay asks them to choose and defend some act of public dissent, and I got a number of essays writing about some issue, without any act of dissent associated. About half of those didn't even take a stand on the issue, just reported on its two sides. The next essay has often been one of my most successful: students select some dynamic of fear between people and discuss some act the feared people could do to ameliorate that. It's based on a story Brent Staples tells in his autobiography about going to grad school in Chicago and discovering that white people out at night were scared of him; first he whistles classical and pop tunes and literally goes out of his way to make them feel comfortable, doing things like taking an extra lap around a block so he wouldn't seem like he was following them into a building's lobby, and then he gets kind of aggro and starts playing what he calls "scatter the pigeons" -- intentionally walking between couples, crossing the street and watching people cross over to the other side to avoid him, etc. Students write about things like how men who want to help women who are broken down on the side of the road can make it clear that they're not attackers, how police could reach out to inner city residents to get better trust and cooperation, why gay people should go into TV and movie writing/production so they can ensure we get better LBGT representation in our media, and so on. This time, I got one report on social anxiety disorder. I got one on women's families bullying them in traditional societies. I have to have them doing research for all four papers, and I've gotten a lot of papers on topics that just can't be researched -- fear of beautiful women, for example. They're not getting that for a research assignment, you need a topic that you can research, or that for an argumentative assignment, you need an argumentative thesis, or that for a paper in a particular topic area, you need a topic within that area. Worse, they get to revise their essays to improve their grades, as long as they do it within two weeks -- but almost no one has taken advantage of that. One got a C- on a paper, and laughed and showed it to the friend sitting next to her.
In poetry, 3/4 through the semester, we're still getting poems in for workshop without a single concrete word in them, poems with sloppy typos and basic grammar errors. The students are extremely lackluster in discussion; some of that comes from shyness, but a lot of it is people genuinely not getting things even well enough to ask questions. I even have bona fide attitude problems, and I've never had attitude problems in any class, definitely not in creative writing. But I have one student who comes in late about one day out of every three, three who've missed so much class that if I were free to design my own attendance policy, they'd have failed weeks ago, and one who. . . oh, god, where even to begin with her. She's very, very ESL, and that certainly contributes to her issues, but she's also lazy and -- I don't even know; cheap, although that makes no sense. Students have to bring in copies of their poems to distribute for discussion, and for her first one, she somehow decided there were fewer people in the class than there are and didn't bring enough. I asked her to email her poem to everyone, which is already making an exception from my policy, and two days later, she emailed me to ask me to scan her poem in and send it to everyone myself. I almost never get actually angry at students these days, but that did set me off. Laziness and letting other students down, interfering with their opportunities to build their grades, are about the only stupid behaviors that really bother me. She kept trying to argue with me ("I thought professors have offices where you can scan things" -- dunno where! not in English, and definitely not over the weekend when I'm not even checking my email). I had a couple other fuckups, one person forgetting her poem was due and one being sick and making no effort to get anything to us, so I sent out an irate but excruciatingly clear email reiterating the syllabus' policy on how and when to distribute work. For that first student's next poem. . . she didn't bring any copies in at all. Students told me she emailed it to them, at least to some of them, but I didn't get it, so for the first time in my career, I flat-out denied a student time in the workshop and the points that go along with it.
All to say, these students show every sign of coming from one of the extremely limiting educational environments Anyon describes. They wait for specific directives from authority figures to do anything, and they run into real trouble when assignments require independent decision-making or lateral thinking. They're either constantly anxious or dangerously unconcerned, and personally disempowered in either case. Other than the one arguing with me about whether or not I had a scanner in my office, they don't complain much, but I think that's a symptom more of atrophied initiative than of satisfaction. Their skills and attitudes match them to relatively low-end jobs, even for being eventual college grads. And while they're there, woo, they're tough to teach.
Meanwhile, the institutional setting doesn't do a lot to help me or the students. 25 is way too many in a composition class -- just way too many. My private university caps theirs at 17, and I only had 15 in each class at the start of the semester. I've always been a slow grader, and with 3 preps at 2 different schools, with 2 different electronic teaching platforms, plus the job market, plus being really damn tired every weekend, I'm horribly behind on grading. And, of course, the state school students' papers need a lot more help/take a lot more time to deal with -- full of grammatical errors and usage problems that will keep them out of any decent job, ever, if they don't fix them. Yet, I'm supposed to have them do research essays through the whole semester. My sense of the writing lab there is that it's impersonal and a bit chaotic and unreliable, which is kind of how everything on that campus goes. The composition program didn't get their act together to get me listed as teaching for them, and I didn't start to get paid for that class til halfway through October. HR gave my address from 4 years ago to my insurance, for no reason I can perceive, and I have yet to get that sorted out, because they can't find where they even have that old address to correct it; especially mysteriously, the dental and vision people got my correct address. IT made a mistake in setting up my accounts, and it was more than two weeks before I could even log in to check my own rosters. My composition students didn't know that final exams worked on a campuswide set schedule until I told them last week; one of them asked me whom to talk to to change her major to early childhood development, because she said her advisor was misinforming her (all I could tell her was to look for the department/program chair's name online). On and on.
The college requires undergrads to take two writing-intensive courses, and creative writing workshops fulfill that; I'm pretty sure at least half my students are there to get that credit, and not because they have any indwelling interest in poetry, or even in writing expressively. They don't hate poetry, at least, but they aren't readers and they don't have the instinct or the preparation for working closely with language. For composition, I don't know what to do; they're unhappy, lost lambs, and I think they're just going to stay that way, because my 3 hours a week with them can't overcome the deficit of having learned a totally fucked up approach to school through the last 12 years of their lives. If I teach another CW workshop, though, I think I need to redesign it from zero. Letting students turn in whatever they want to for workshop seems not to be working; it's not an invitation to self-actualization for these students, just a void they don't know how to fill. I may go to specific assignments for workshopping, then, or maybe try something like saying that each poem they turn in has to use techniques from what we're reading. I got out n + 7 today, for one of our really, really boring, cliche after cliche student poems (we've had several), and some of them seemed to perk up at that, so I may incorporate those procedural things and do them early on. They didn't do much for me, and so I've never taught them, but I suspect by the time I got to Oulipo and exquisite corpses and so on, I had a well-developed sense of language as a medium, and I didn't need tricks to get myself out of my habits. I do have habits, and I did then, but not in this nearly impermeable way. I realized I had habits, and I stuck to my guns on some of them and hated myself for others, but I got the basic notion that there were a lot of ways to do poetry, and trying out new ones was generally a good thing to do. Most my state college students, in both classes, don't have much of an apparatus for self-critique, and, again, 3/4 through the semester, I'm not seeing them developing anything there. For the class to be useful to them and less hair-tearing for me, I think I have to give up on treating them as writers, and treat them more as students.
I'm not currently scheduled to do another workshop in the spring, and we all hope I get a tenure-track position somewhere so that next year I won't even be here. I may get on at a school with similar demographics (I first typed, "demotraphics") and similar institutional structures, though, and in any of those cases, I could end up dealing with the same kinds of messes. So I need a plan. Like many pedagogical changes I've made, a more structured poetry workshop that links creative assignments more directly to our reading would probably benefit better students as well as the ones that struggle, too, because those students will take those directives and run with them. The whole Oulippian thing is about constraints being productive, after all, and they're so right about that. Smart, talented young poets turn directions into interesting creative challenges, where less well-prepared students receive them as a lifeline. I just wish I could have thought of this in the context of having a bunch of those smart, talented young poets in a workshop and trying to figure out how to make an introductory class worth their while, instead of the kind of class that keeps me up late at night wondering what on earth I can do to get them to keep their heads above the academic waters.
26 September 2012
I don't know what bucks need to stop or where they're even getting passed around. I don't know whether this is a problem between the program secretaries or the deans' offices or what. I went to the campus human resources office today in person, and the person there who seemed to be in charge noted down what the situation was. She made it sound like the holdup might actually be with composition, or with the dean to whom they belong, rather than with English -- but I don't have any way to tell, really. I'm supposed to go back over tomorrow after I teach and see what she's been able to figure out and/or make happen.
In the meantime, as a result of my lapsed insurance, I'm officially off my meds. A few months ago, I went on Lexapro, and let me tell you, I'm going to end up as a Lexapro evangelist. During I think my third and fourth years as a PhD student, I got on Prozac, but it was never the right treatment for me. It took the worst of the edge off of my most dangerous moods, but that was about all, and it kept me really foggy. I didn't write much but emails the entire time I was on it. I asked my psychiatrist at the time about trying something else a few times, but for whatever reason (nothing he shared with me), he never went for that. It may have been because I wasn't insured then, and Prozac may have been the only SSRI available for cheap. Whatever the case, I eventually discontinued it because the side effects vastly outweighed the benefits. Lexapro has been an altogether different story -- I should have been taking this stuff years and years ago. I can't even tell you the difference it's made, and without screwing me up at all. And now, thanks to this administrative fuckup and extended inaction, well, I'm participating in an involuntary study on the effects of discontinuing antidepressant therapy.
I wasn't even sure how well it was working precisely because I didn't notice any new problems. I could tell when I missed a couple pills on Prozac, not so much because I'd feel significantly worse, but because I'd get sharper for a bit; I could definitely tell the difference in that same arena when I went off of it for good. I've been feeling massively, massively better lately, but I didn't know how much of that was the medication and how much of it was due to changes in my circumstances, most notably getting out of a poisonous and stultifying work situation and coming back to teaching. Ok, guys, let me say right out here, it is the fucking drugs. I ran out on Saturday, and yesterday, I was definitely irritable and short-tempered all day, for no specific reason. Today, I'm feeling fragile and overwhelmed and vulnerable and really, really sad, plus irritable (!), despite having had an outstanding teaching day and gotten a bunch of super cool stuff in my email this morning. This stuff unarguably provides a scaffolding, or maybe a stepladder, that makes it possible for me to live a saner, more satisfying life than I can without it.
The irony that I'm caught at the moment between having to deal with frustrating, disempowering, somewhat mystifying administrative problems -- always very, very hard for me to cope with -- and losing access to something that's been making me tremendously calmer, stronger, and more capable isn't lost on me.
I'm using some florid language here, but the situation merits it. You see these lists of symptoms in ads and the occasional PSA -- feelings of helplessness, excessive anxiety, confusion, labile moods -- but you don't know you have them, really, until you get free of them and then they come back. It's like an inverse of that Harison Bergeron moment when he tears off his shackles and weights and the prima ballerina's, and they do this leap up toward the stage lights; I feel as though here in official middle age, someone politely lifted all this heavy, ugly, clanky junk off of me, and I stood up into the stunning realization that I'm not a midget with two bum legs. I don't have to feel as bad as I usually have about things; I don't have to take things as hard as I have; I don't have to be fearful about things that really do scare the crap out of me, like going to a housewarming party or paying rent. (Yes. Even when I can pay it on time, paying rent puts me into a state of severe anxiety, which I didn't even know was a state of severe anxiety until I started to get some relief from it.)
It's an uncomfortable thing to think about, too, though. It's embarrassing and it makes me angry without there being any reasonable target for my anger that I've lived a life doing a lot of very dysfunctional things, and I didn't have to. I would have gotten out of some terrible relationships a lot more quickly. I would have managed other crises better. I would have finished my PhD sooner, and I might have been able to finish my undergrad degree at a good school, rather than freaking out, crumbling, and moving home my freshman year. My grades would have been better; my credit would be better; I'd probably have happy memories of at least some major piece of my life, when, to be honest, happy memories constitute a vanishingly small proportion of what I have to show for myself here at 34 years old. It's incredible to think that these things might not have to be this way in the future, but still difficult to get a handle on the fact that they didn't have to be this way all along.
In addition, all this means facing how severe my troubles are, and that's not pleasant. I really am fragile. I'm volatile, in the chemical senses: likely to explode and likely to evaporate. Without the aid of this drug, I have a genuine disability, one that sits poorly with the ambitious, articulate, capable person I'd like to be. Barring fuckups like the one I'm stuck in right now, of course, the drug exists and I can get it and get myself closer to my ideal, but I still have to grapple with the existence of untreated me, and I have to say, I don't like that. Plus, I have strong evidence now that this particular medication does a lot of good for me, but I have no idea how I'll ever know whether I'm well enough. I didn't know how bad off I was, and I've been living under that ignorance for decades. What I get out of the dose I've been on -- is that what people are supposed to feel like? Is there more I should be trying to get out of myself? The psychiatrist I started seeing who prescribed the Lexapro seems dynamite, but still, I need to be able to report accurately to him whether I'm satisfied with how I'm doing, and I don't have a measure by which to gauge that.
Who has two thumbs and is living proof that intelligent design is a load of horseshit? This girl. Right here. Screw you and all your watchmaker gods.
25 September 2012
11 September 2012
Wait, no, first, I got my first set of papers from students at the little private school today -- a short first-person reflection on previous experiences writing and getting feedback -- and they're amazing. On a cursory read-through, the worst couple are better than what I'm used to getting from good students at state schools. It'll probably make me an even slower grader for said state school kids, because I'll be more aware of how terrible their writing is by contrast. Or, with better luck/attitude, maybe it'll make me better because some of my grading work will be less onerous. One can always hope.
I should be finishing up some papers for said state school students tonight, but I'm having a hell of a time concentrating. Hence the forthcoming whining. I'm still waiting for my fixed contract and its attendant restored access to insurance, and I now think I probably need two minor surgeries. The first problem was that I think I have uterine fibroids (or fibroid, singular; whatever). I've probably had it/them developing for a year or more, but only recently put the symptoms together. Something's awry, anyway, and needs to be dealt with. Then, this week, I think I've figured out that I have a salivary gland stone. I didn't even know such things existed, but I guess your body can grow mineralized concretions in all sorts of inconvenient places, and I'm pretty sure I'm suffering from one that's gotten large enough to block a salivary duct. The lower half of my face is puffy and swollen, especially my poor lower lip, the whole inside of my mouth is irritated, and I have a sore spot on the underside of my jaw. I also have a visible lump on the inside of my lower jaw, which has been there for years and which I had thought was just my jawbone being asymmetrical. I have a lot of minor asymmetries -- my shoulders are completely different shapes from one another and so are my hips, for example. But I think this lump is bigger than it used to be, so I'm betting that I've either got a slow-growing tumor (uh) or I've been having calcium precipitate out of my spit for who knows how long and it finally got to be a problem. Great timing, huh? Two weeks ago, I had insurance. Some time in the next week or two, I should have insurance again. But at the moment, I have this mysterious, distracting, painful thing wrong with my face and I can't do anything about it but take ibuprofen.
If this place was intelligently designed, first, people's saliva wouldn't cause them health hazards. If we couldn't get away from that, human anatomy would be set up so I could just go in with a steak knife and pop the thing out myself. That's right: my minor face malady is proof that there is no God. Or, fine, it's proof against Creationism, but that doesn't make for nearly as good a melodramatic self-parody.
I have some thoughts about race and the role I see a US president as taking and Obama, but heaven knows if I'll ever get them typed up here. I'm only on here at all because after my long day (3 Tues/Thurs classes; 2 at one school & one at the other), the sore mouth/face thing is too much. Having pouted and vented here, I'm going to slog myself off to a shower & bed, and plan to finish these papers in the morning. If tonight goes like last night did, I won't be sleeping very deeply anyway.
04 September 2012
So teaching wears me out, and on a day when any other one thing is off -- blood sugar/electrolyte imbalance, some other stressor, blowout from a hurricane moving over us, bad end of my hormonal cycle -- I can just about guarantee that I'll lose the day. Usually I have about a day's warning, especially if it's weather-related, but I almost never notice said warning, because it just consists of me being tired and moody, and I'm tired and moody all the damn time. There's a particular tired moodiness I can recognize as migraine leadup, but almost always only in hindsight. I get auras, but I get similar symptoms any time I eat poorly, and I don't end up migrained every time I try to do a full day on milk and two pop tarts. If I slowed down, a lot, and watched for these fairly subtle, but distinct signs, and if I then acted on them, I could probably cut down my lost days. . . but I'd have to slow down in the first place, which wouldn't be an option even if I had the chillest, mellowest classroom manner imaginable. Four classes, my own writing, and, starting in a couple weeks, job applications. End of that wishful discussion.
Today was a bad day to lose, though. It wasn't even nearly the whole day; I went down around 5ish and I'm already back up, which is about as short as one of these has ever been for me, but it was an inopportune 5 hours to spend nauseated & with half my head in searing pain. State College has somehow screwed up my various IT accounts, and today was the day I really, really needed to be able to go sit on someone until they fixed them. I can get into my email, but I can't get into the course management platform, which I've planned to use heavily for both my classes there, and I can't get into the separate grading/rosters/etc. system. I haven't yet been able to print out my own rosters for that school, and we're more than a week into the semester there. Someone somewhere in the administrative chain also screwed up my contract, only listing one of my classes there instead of two; I have no idea whether that's related to my computer troubles or not, but even if not, it's another problem I need to deal with pretty much the second my revised contract shows up. I can't get the process to switch my insurance over started until that's fixed. I need to be reading the lengthy article I assigned for comp tomorrow, building three different classes' websites (or at the least, the one website not dependent on State College), updating a couple handouts I'm getting back out after years of not teaching this kind of class. . . and I'm mush. Tweeting an inane play-by-play of the DNC is about as much as I can handle at the moment.
I'll hope to get up early, never my strong suit, and deal with the computer problems then, but I'm worried about the semester. The last time I had a 4/4 load, the only other thing I got done the entire year was applying to PhD programs, in total I think five of them. I only had two preps at one school that year; this is three preps at two schools. On the other hand, I have better work habits these days and I'm not mired in a very disorienting, destructive relationship, as I was that year. (As well as some time before and after it, but that's a whole other unwinnable ballgame.) Out two days my first week is a rough start, no matter how I look at it, though. Hopefully I'll adjust and get up to speed. Hopefully. No way to tell yet.
And I swear, I'd take $35k and 3 classes/semester and be pretty glad for it. That job doesn't exist, though. You can starve as an adjunct or you can make what I consider excellent money, around $50k, as a real professor. Most of us, of course, starve as adjuncts. I was telling a non-teaching friend today about some batty shenanigans my students are already up to ("oh, we were supposed to do that homework assignment?" why, yes, yes you were), and she said something about students from hell, but that's just par for the course. They're dumb in bizarre ways, they miss class, they're forgetful, they're disorganized, they're sometimes outright dodgy -- but none of that is anything to get upset over. The combination of their ages and the structural features of institutions of higher education fairly well guarantee the pattern. I'm happy with the initial vibes and levels of participation from all my classes, and continue to be blown away by how good the working environment is at Private University. A librarian there and I met the other day and had basically the raddest conversation ever about library instruction. Both those classes had a few talky people even on the first day, some volunteering ideas for discussion and some asking smart, useful questions about how the semester will go. That's what you pray for, pretty much.
I got home from my long, tiring, but good day, ready to crash out for a couple hours, then call IT and drive back to campus if necessary, and by the time I had gotten out a snack, I was already bad enough that I couldn't eat it. My emotional reactivity gets me in trouble, but I feel like that's part of me, and as such, I'm pretty ok being stuck with it; this physical frailty thing is just a load of bullshit I don't want. I can't be one of these noble people who have physical disabilities and say it makes them stronger. Migraines don't make me stronger, at all; they haven't even made me better at time management or better at taking care of myself. They may have made me more sympathetic to people who have problems that get in the way of their success, but I'd hope I would have been sympathetic to those situations without having to lose days of my life lying in bed uselessly. Maybe it has to be a more serious disability to trigger nobility -- all I get out of this is frustration and irritation and embarrassment. Sorry, I can't come to your cool grownups' skate party because. . . I have a headache. Sorry, I still don't have our course website built because. . . I got a headache. Sorry, I can't have a fun shopping day, not even because I'm too broke but because. . . headache. It's true and yet utterly unpersuasive.
There are medications that can alleviate migraines; I finally had someone offer me a prescription right before my UB insurance ran out a few years ago, and they're jawdroppingly expensive without insurance, even for the generic versions, so I never followed up on that. Plus, you have to take them during the leadup, as a migraine's setting in, for them to arrest the chemical cascade and do much good. And they can cause strokes and heart attacks, though fortunately not in most people. There's an interesting implantable device physicians are using in other countries, basically a pacemaker for the vagus nerve, that sounds like it's pretty effective, but it's not available here yet, and, as draconian as our FDA is (overall, a good thing, I think), it won't be for a while. I may see about getting on one of the pills once my insurance transfers, but from what I read, migraine sufferers are fairly well out of luck on anything like a cure.
So send calm, effective vibes if you have any to spare. I need to operate at better than maximal natural efficiency to get through this year intact.
31 August 2012
24 August 2012
And while I'm worried about money -- I'm giving up about a third of my income and will be working way more hours -- I'm really glad to be coming back to teaching. First and foremost because I have a poetry workshop. The main thing I'm supposed to be doing with myself, at least as far as my training and stated career goals go, and I haven't gotten to do it since I lived in Louisiana, now seven years ago. I'm doing a syllabus I wrote up a year or two ago when I reviewed a (thoroughly terrible) textbook-in-progress for Penguin; they wanted to look at how people were using some of their competitors' main textbooks, so I did up a syllabus using Snodgrass' wonderful De/Compositions and Strand and Boland's The Making of a Poem, which is a pretty interesting take on the poetry textbook. It's organized according to forms, with kind of a historical progression in, e.g., the sonnet, within each form. Some of its "forms" are more "types of poems" than structures per se, but it has a lot of good work in it and short, pithy overviews that give a little background on what you're reading. De/Compositions is my absolute favorite book for learning poetry. I use it in lit classes and workshops both. Snodgrass (who, as W.D., goes by "D," hence "De" Compositions) takes all these really great poems by authors from Shakespeare to Dickinson to Creeley, and then writes terrible versions of them. It's hilarious. I've given copies to a couple people as xmas/birthday gifts, because if you even basically get language, every de/composed poem is like this gloriously scandalous joke. I love it, students love it, they learn lots, win all around. Have all my exercises for that set up, portfolio designed, etc. I think I'm going to organize an end-of-semester reading for them, like my undergrad teachers did for us. Probably at some area cafe or other -- I think the Buff State campus is short on cool spaces, but it's right downtown.
And: you guys I'm gonna be a poetry teacher again!
In addition to that, I have two sections of Niagara's first-year writing course, a single semester composition course with a research component. The director there is super, super cool -- I've never met someone who was this involved and also this respectful of his teaching force. He leaves the field wide open as far as content, so some people do current events, some do thematic classes, some even do literature. I jumped right the fuck fast at that, especially since I already had a syllabus ready to go that I'm excited about teaching. It's one I wrote up for a postdoc (which I obviously didn't get, but hey) where they wanted a one-semester, writing-intensive intro to the humanities. My concept has the high-drama title of Writing in Obliterated Times; the idea, basically, is that for most of human history, we've operated on a mythic notion of devastation, where it's something we expect to get over and recover from -- restoration to a golden age, promised land, etc. Today, we have wildly destabilized situations that are just ongoing realities from which we aren't going to recover, including some positive things, like the erosion of restrictive gender norms, and plenty of negative ones, like AIDS and climate change and the fact that apparently America is no longer capable of going three weeks without a multi-fatality public shooting. This course explores what tools literature gives us for dealing with these kinds of things that other realms of knowledge and inquiry don't. In the first unit, we're going to read some foundational philosophical texts -- Plato, Locke, Hobbes, Ignatius -- and the students have to write an essay critiquing one of these, arguing for why it doesn't address a problem we have today. The rest the class, we read thoroughly awesome literature, including Christopher Durang, Marianne Moore, e.e. cummings, Araki Yasusada (fake Hiroshima poet/Kent Johnson hoax) -- it is going to be a blast. I don't really know how the students will take to it, but I hope well.
Niagara students generally are a mystery to me. Some of the people who teach in the program had really good things to say about them, and some of them talked like they were about midway between UB students and community college kids. I'm sold on the institution, though -- the level and quality of instructional support and coordination across units is spectacular. The library instruction person is going to meet with me to design some assignments tailored to my class that will help prepare students for the kinds of work they do in later classes. She and the head of the writing center will come in to your classroom and teach citation for you, referring to university-wide curricular expectations and campus-specific resources, things I don't begin to know, myself. All these entities are doing interesting studies on who uses their resources, what for, and what they get out of it. I'm going to require all my students to go to the writing center for their first essay and write about their experiences, and the writing center person wants to get copies of those for her programmatic research. And yet, even with all this involvement and shockingly functional infrastructure, instructors' pedagogy is still pretty much up to them. This never happens! You either get a program that pays attention to you, but wants everything standardized, or one that leaves you to your own devices but also leaves you out in the cold. At best. Often, especially at larger schools, you have to fit your teaching to programmatic requirements, and they come after you if you don't, but you don't get great resources back to support you in doing so. From what I hear, UB has pretty much adopted that model. LSU was definitely like that -- and the director there was awesome, too, but he was stuck running an outsized program with appallingly short resources. You have to standardize things just to make them manageable, and all the person-hours you have still aren't enough to do more than check up on people and reprimand them if they deviate.
Buffalo State seems to have very good people helming its comp program (which is one of these that have calved off of English entirely, forming part of a multidisciplinary college gen ed/foundations program), but it does have a number of specific requirements for syllabi. We're required to have a significant part of students' grades come from formal essays (fine), reflective writing (sure; I do this with substantial cover letters that accompany each essay, though I haven't previously graded them separately), and in-class timed essay exams. WHAT. Timed writings, oy and a half. I hated those things as an undergrad and I've remained firmly opposed to them as a teacher -- it's such an arbitrary, artificial, unhelpful thing to ask a student to do for a grade. Nowhere outside a college campus will you ever be in a situation where it's like, write a project proposal in the next 50 minutes! And. . . go! I thought everybody had pretty well moved away from them, but apparently one of the major complaints the comp program at Buff State gets from faculty is that students can't write on command and do decent essay exams. If it's a thing they're going to have to do, it's definitely incumbent on me to try to help them get better at it, but, ugh, I just hate to have to be part of that. Hate to have to inflict it on my students
We also have to provide rubrics for each major assignment, something I've never done or wanted to do. I'm sure the justifications are about keeping comp teachers accountable, which is fine, and, again, with a program this large, you have to do these standardizing things, and possibly about giving students targeted feedback instead of just a number at the top of the first page of their papers. So, at least they get 4 or 5 numbers in different areas. That's never been a problem for me, though, because I write all over their papers and give them 2-3 main points to consider (positive and negative both) at the end with their grade. The number doesn't tell them anything anyway, and I can tell you from experience, describing a student's paper back at her and/or giving her a couple main issues to work on motivates advanced students and the clueless, whatever grade you give them. But for this class, I'll have to develop rubrics in the first place, bleh, paperwork, and then grade with them, and I'm pretty sure that's going to reduce my students' grades overall. Usually I write all my comments on everyone's papers and then line them up from best to worst and give each one points on a loose curve -- partly based on my accumulated sense of what's a great paper vs. what's a terrible one, and partly on how that particular class responded to that particular assignment. Here, I'll end up bound to count off separately for formatting, grammar, organization, argument, use of sources, and whatever else, and I'll just bet it's going to be hard for me to justify As or even a lot of Bs under those conditions. Not thrilled about that.
Plus, get this, the state college here, not an elite institution by any measure, has students do research throughout comp II, which is what I'm teaching. This is a profound paradigm shift vs. what I'm used to, where their comp training leads toward a research unit/term paper at the end of the semester. I'm going to have a room full (full -- 25 students) of state college kids, some of them CLEPped in freshmen struggling with the whole transition to college, some sophomores or possibly even farther along, some likely ESL, mostly weak writers (even in honors sections at UB, they come in pretty bad at writing; I anticipate fairly underdeveloped skills here), and they're going to have to do serious research for every paper. While trying to get a handle on what paragraphs are really for and how to combine sentences/ideas clearly and intelligently. And having to spend a chunk of in-class time doing timed writings, and having to grapple with substantial, challenging central readings. Starting next year, the program is adding an oral/presentations component to this course, too -- it's a lot to ask of students. It's a challenging class to design, and it's going to be an ongoing mountain of grading. I feel for them more than for myself, though. I would sure not like to be Jeannie State College, coming from urban Buffalo public schools (which are good, for their setting, but still), dropped into a large, anonymous public university, and the one class I have where I can get to know a few people has me doing all these very different and legitimately difficult things.
Plus, for me, this second class at Buff State gets me insurance. Every time I'm marking unclear antecedents and run-ons, I can think, yes, but this is my insurance class. I just got put on a pill that would cost over $150/month without insurance, and I may be looking at minor surgery in the nearish future, so that's a pretty crucial thing. My students will have to be satisfied with primarily delayed benefits for struggling through -- so much of what you "learn" in classes like composition doesn't sink in for a year or two, and doesn't become a comfortable habit until you use it for another year or two running.
It's a varied slate, anyway. Three completely different preps at two schools. Three grading-heavy classes and one nuttiness-heavy one (I love poetry kids, but they are crazy). While trying to do at least some of my own work -- I have a talk at MSA again this year, and it would be nice to, uh, write a poem sometime? -- and hitting the tenure-track market again, 10-15 hours/week just for that. People with normal jobs that pay twice as much, as mine did, don't do a third this much work. They don't have to be this resourceful, don't have to coordinate against competing pressures like this, don't have to put in this many hours, period, and they definitely don't have to do it all on a pretty self-managed, independent schedule. I do enjoy it, and even in the depths of awful grading, I can usually still claw my way toward remembering that I'm helping people who need it, which does a lot for my morale, but cripes it's a lot of work. And you do sometimes have genuinely obnoxious students who don't appreciate anything you do; one or two can ruin an entire semester. Not that I needed to grow the chip on my shoulder any, but damn. Adjuncting is such a racket. Teaching anything more than a 2/3 load is, truly. We ought to get more support and way more money for this, and definitely more respect. When the head of my now-previous office first talked to me about leaving, before she even had me in to see her, she'd already gotten permission from the dean to offer me money to keep freelancing for them. "How much free time will you have while you're teaching?" Less than you do on your worst week, how does that sound?
T-minus 60 hours and counting, anyway. Then it'll be back into the trenches and I'll look forward to breathing again in late December.
21 July 2012
Most of what I've learned in the past five years, in and out of school, can be summarized by the statement that Walt Disney was full of shit.