Wednesday, September 30, 2009
"Oh crap," I thought, "conversion alert! That, or s/he's going to object to something I said in class."
Not at all. "God wants me to tell you that he really loves you, but there is a dark presence following you." S/he shook his/her head, trying to find the right words.
"A dark presence?" I asked.
"Yes," s/he said, "like something bad is going to happen."
This student was sincerely worried. So much so that I couldn't even think of anything glib or even reassuring to say. I couldn't admit to being a non-believer because s/he seemed so disturbed by this vision.
Instead, I wanted to know how s/he was experiencing this event. "Do you see something? Maybe a cloud?"
The student struggled for words. "It's like...it's a presence, a bad presence...I don't know. I don't have the words for it." S/he looked straight at me, "God just wants you to know that he really loves you and that you should pray. You should say the rosary." The student reached into his/her pocket and pulled out his/her own. S/he held it out to me, "here, take mine if you need it."
I blinked and looked at the rosary. "That's OK," I said. "I have my own." (I didn't say that it was plastic and pink and purchased at a gift shop at the Amtrak station. That seemed profoundly disrespectful.)
I told the student that s/he was very sweet to be so concerned. I thanked the student sincerely and promised to pray. I honestly meant it, too. Then we went our separate ways.
Now, I know in reading this, many people will think "whoa! Yipes!" Atheist that I am, I still cannot bring myself to think something derogatory or sarcastic or at all negative about this encounter. The student seemed very affected by this vision that s/he had. I respect that. Down to my very guts I respect that; but I have no idea what to do with this information. I have no ideological box in which to put it.
The scientific side of my mind wonders if this is a mental illness. The anthropological side of my mind wonders how the student is experiencing this, what the student sees, how the student fits this into his/her own cosmology, what his/her own cosmology involves. The part of me that is in Jungian analysis tries to discern the the archetypes in this, and relate it to the cloud of past abuse and melancholia that actually is following me, then make a story from it. That same part wonders about this student's archetypes and how they affect the way s/he functions in the world. The teacher in me wondered what my responsibilities toward this student might be. How should I react as a teacher?*
I confess that I did tell my chair what happened, mostly because I didn't quite know how to react. That's the reason that I'm writing about it here, despite my uneasiness in talking about it at all. I do know that the very wrong reaction is sarcasm and cynicism; and I'm actually surprised at myself by the absence of both of those in my response since sarcasm and cynicism are my default.
As an individual, the encounter felt like I had walked into a different world. I live in a world in which I search for facts and understanding. There is no spiritual mystery. This student lives in a world in which there are mysteries. At no point did this student seem to assume that I don't believe in a god. In fact, the student seemed to presume that I was Catholic. The student didn't seem to want to bludgeon me with religion, which is the way that I've experienced most religious people -- they want to assert a moral authority that I don't recognize. Instead, this student just seemed very concerned about my welfare.
This student lives in a different cosmology from my own, in one in which people have visions, and in which malevolent spirits can exert force upon the material world. For a moment, I felt as if I had entered his world, alien to mine. It was jarring.
I still have no idea what to do with this encounter.
*I actually feel a little uneasy blogging about it, as if I'm violating privacy. I will delete if the consensus is that it is a violation.
Saturday, September 26, 2009
This is my office gargoyle*:
Wednesday, September 23, 2009
Meanwhile, I shall share with you some more examples of the Obamamania kitsch. The Gentleman Caller came to visit weekend before last (again, wow!), and I went to pick him up at the airport (where we engaged in Hollywood movie levels of PDA). While waiting for his plane to arrive, I wandered around the airport and discovered a shop that sold all sorts of "patriotic" paraphernalia. Needless to say, I was in kitsch heaven!
First Pooch Bo has become quite the popular plush item. Here we have him in a box decorated with images of Himself happily wagging his tail on the White House lawn:
This is a slightly larger, free-range Bo:
This version creeps me out with those big eyes that remind me of those old pictures. You know, the ones with waifish children and animals, usually in the rain, staring dolefully out of the image with freakishly large eyes on the verge of tears? I hated those.:
In the Smithsonian gift shop, I found similar plush animals representing zoo residents, so this may be some sort of new trend. Were I a child, I would either feel tremendous sympathy for the toy, to the point of tears in the store (I was a depressive even at age 4), or I would have avoided it and refused to go into that shop.
There seems to be more creepiness seeping into some of the other Obamamania items. In this picture, you have the magnetic dress-up Obama in the foreground. That isn't so bad, if you don't mind having the Commander-in-Chief and Leader-of-the-Free-World staring back at you in his skivvies when you go to the fridge for your morning juice. That should be Michelle's private domain, don't you think?
What is creepy is the package of nuts next to the Magnetic Obama. It says something to the effect of "Nuts for Obama.":
You know how you sometimes glance at something, and the signals from your eyes to your brain misfire, so you only register parts of what you saw and the parts that you register give you a weirdly different message? Well, on first glance, I thought that the bag said "Obama's Nuts." I truly apologize, Mr. President.
Of course the store had bobble-heads. Both the president and the First Lady:
The President Obama bobble-head is about as dignified as a bobble-head can be; but that Michelle Obama bobble-head is downright creepy, even for a bobble-head. That smile is about a millimeter away from evil-clown territory.
As with the Douglass and Tubman actions figures, I have to ask, "why is the guy serious and the woman grinning?" Not smiling, mind you, but grinning. I ask that especially in both of these cases because both Harriet Tubman and Michelle Obama were and are just as -- if not more -- badass as their male counterparts. Is the smile supposed to make them more appropriately feminine and non-threatening? Indeed, wasn't the hideous Hillary Clinton nutcracker also grinning?
To be fair, the Bill Clinton corkscrew also grinned, but that item didn't have the same sexist subtext as the Hilary nutcracker. Also to be fair, the First Lady does have to grin and nod quite a bit -- much like the bobble-head. Still, in the end, these three women are not at all the grin-and-not types.
Note also the "Nope" t-shirt in the background. The shop was relatively equal opportunity, as we can see in this:Yes, that is an Obama-in-the-Box. Not only does the doll wear a full-blown evil-clown grin, but the box depicts Obama in the very pose that Nixon struck as he left office in shame. That last detail is disturbing. Maybe I'm making a leap here, but the reference to Nixon and the proceeding for his impeachment also calls to mind the Clinton impeachment. The unearned vitriol now being spewed against Obama, reviving the careers of the hate-mongers who appeared during Clinton's administration, and the efforts to somehow connect Obama to corruption, cause me to wonder what the makers of this toy are trying to say. Do they think Obama should be impeached for something? Or do they simply want to tie up this administration with an impeachment much as was done during Clinton's administration?
Yeah, I know, it's just a toy. Still, I can believe that the makers of the bobble-heads and the Obama action figures (which were also there) and the beanie babies and so forth are just trying to make a buck off of Obama supporters; but this is clearly designed for Obama-haters. Most of the Obamamania kitsch that I've covered has been in fun, if sometimes in poor taste (literally, in the case of the Safeway cookies), and always to make a buck. Now, I suppose we shall see the opposition's take. Poor taste will probably take on whole new dimensions there.
Saturday, September 19, 2009
The Gentleman Caller called last weekend, but I won't elaborate on that other than to say "wow!" He's fantastic!
Meanwhile, I've reached the prickly point of the semester in teaching, and this is one of my posts in which I am writing my way through my frustration.
The week of meetings left me in a nasty mood, wondering what I am doing in this profession in which the attainment of a doctoral degree, publications, experience, and genuine professional status automatically makes you suspect in the eyes of the rest of the world. I try to remind myself that every profession has its own indignities and frustrations, and plow through to the end of the week. Once the semester starts, I remember why I do this teaching thing; and the majority of my students, at least in the African American history classes, are genuinely enthusiastic about learning the subject.
Then, odd things began to crop up that have very little to do with the subject itself. These are the odd things that force me to define my boundaries, but also make me wonder at what exactly is going on with students amid some of the details of acquiring their education. I also wonder if there is actually any solution to these problems, or if this falls under the "you can lead a horse to water" heading.
Some of these quirks are new. For instance, in past years, the fall semester began after Labor Day. Not so this year, when we began the week before Labor Day. Nonetheless, hoards of students showed up the Tuesday after Labor Day wanting to sign up for a full schedule of classes. "But I didn't know!" they all said. I felt so badly for those poor people working in advising and registration!
Since students are still allowed to adjust their schedules and therefore sign up for classes through the second week, new students began cropping up in the classes that late, each requiring an orientation to the class requirements and each expecting to make up the work from the missed classes.
This year, we have another added issue. We have far exceeded enrollments of past semesters, which is, in the long run, a good thing; and, many classes are already overloaded. This means that many instructors -- myself included -- get to hear what I loosely refer to as "life stories." We have received many an e-mail that goes something to the effect of, "I absolutely HAVE to have your class to graduate this semester! I KNOW the semester has already started. I know that your class is already full, but I need your signature to get into it. I promise that I will work very hard..." and so on and so forth. Some even throw in references to work and children and various other responsibilities, which is the reason that I call them "life stories."
I do feel badly for them, and have let many in because we all need a break now and then; but, 40 students in an online class is ten short of two full classes. That's a lot of work! I'm hoping that the administration approves more sections next semester, if this is the trend. Things being as they are, however, I think they will just raise the cap on classes. Forty-student classes, especially if they are online, are cheaper than employing even adjuncts.
In addition to these new students, I begin to hear the stories that I really don't quite know what to do with. The majority of these have to do with acquiring the textbook. To be more accurate, these have to do with failure to acquire the textbook because of the cost.
Our state has asked that we assign inexpensive textbooks. Yes, the legislature actually sat down, debated, and passed a resolution of some sort. Our tax dollars at work, right there! Anyone who has had to deal with textbooks in any way knows that "inexpensive" is a relative term, since even used textbooks can go for nearly $100.
I tend to allow students to use any edition in order to purchase used editions, since most are only in the 2nd or 3rd and not too out of date; but that also means that, even used, the books are still quite pricey. For this same reason, we are discouraged from assigning anything extra. I try to scan or download articles, book chapters, and documents to give them something more on particular subjects. Meanwhile, we have a Social Sciences computer center that keeps copies of the textbooks there for students to use. Yet, students are still not getting the books for several weeks because of the price of the book, or the price of faster shipping from internet purchases, and because they don't have the time to go to the computer center because of their work/school/family schedules.
I hear about all of this because I have them take online quizzes to ensure that they, in fact, do read the textbook. (Seriously, I have learned that there must be a tangible reward for these students to do anything. It's more a question of time-management rather than laziness. If they are going to spend their time on something, it better have a clear-cut, immediately observable result.) The quizzes are all due on the day that we cover that material in class. I don't allow make-up quizzes because they have over a week to do the quiz on their own time and with their open book before the software shuts them out. Still, here we are, headed into the fourth week of classes,, and I have requests right and left that I allow make-up quizzes because the students are still in the process of getting books. Some don't even have computers at home.
Here is the dilemma that makes me so prickly every year: at what point should this stop being my problem? Setting up make up quizzes for those who can't get the book until later -- when they get paid, or when the book arrives after the free shipping period -- takes a lot of extra, potentially open-ended, time. It also isn't fair to those who are able -- for whatever reason -- to get the text and quizzes done on time. I don't want to privilege those with the resources; but, at the same time, what else can I do to ensure that the class goes as it should and that they learn what they should in the necessary order to comprehend the material?
Which brings me once again to the different ways that I and my students see education. They see the requirements of the course as a series of hoops through which to jump, at the end of which they receive a grade. The accumulation of these grades, of jumping through the hoops of each class, leads to the degree.
I'm reminded of that every time I see an ad or spam in my inbox inviting me to apply to a for-profit college. They don't say "get the best education that you can." They say, "get the most convenient education that you can," or, "We make our hoops more convenient for your busy life." I understand that convenience is a valid concern, especially in the absolute need for a college education; but actual education (which is not necessarily as quantifiable as many would like) must take place for that degree to mean anything. Actual education is a process that requires full engagement from the beginning of the class. I'm not sure that many of my students understand that -- at least at this point in the semester.
To them, not having the textbook in the first month of classes should not be a problem as long as I am "compassionate" or "understanding" and let them take the quizzes when they can before the end of the semester. The students see the quizzes as serving the goal of fulfilling requirements for the numerical grade. As long as all tasks are done before that numerical grade must be reported, then what's the problem? Just as with the Outcomes Assessment borg at our school, the end number is all that matters. Actually learning new information and ways of looking at the world is just a cherry on the top of the sundae, not the sundae itself.
I, on the other hand, see the quizzes as serving the goal of being prepared for class. You must read chapter 1 before chapter 2 in order to understand the progression of events between chapters 1 and 2. You must read the chapter on English colonization in order to understand and ask smart questions in the class covering English colonization. You should understand English colonization in order to understand the issues that led to the American Revolution, and so on and so forth. History does require some accumulation of knowledge for comprehension, not just gathering information to sort out for an answer on the mid-term. I try to explain this to them, regularly. They look at me as if to say, "how is that my problem? I just need to pass this class."
The main problem here, then, is their utilitarian approach to getting a grade in the class as it bumps up against my understanding that the grade should reflect an understanding of material, not a task completed. Both encompass the issue of acquiring a textbook in a timely manner. In the process, I am trying to weigh their economic issues with my desire not to have to teach 150 individual classes to 150 individual students with 150 individual situations. I become prickly because, at some point, I have to say, "the fact that you cannot get the book, cannot get to the computer center, and cannot get your work in on time is not my problem." I don't want to be put in that position because it makes me feel like such a bitchy failure as a teacher for even thinking it.
In other words, I am struggling to find an appropriate way to respond to this issue. I understand the drive to improve oneself in the face of limited resources. I want to show some empathy for that. Yet, part of the responsibility of attending college includes acquiring the required books and supplies -- or at least access to them in order to meet the requirements of the course in the manner prescribed by the teacher.
I think that last sentence is my answer.
Monday, September 07, 2009
Right now, a generalized sense of anxiety has the words blocked. The anxiety is not over anything in particular or really anything that has anything to do with me right now. After a week of demoralizing meetings, school started and I felt much better to be actually teaching. Sure, our college fired the highest level administrator that we have. In reading the comments on the news articles on the subject, I am once again struck by the amount of resentment and hostility directed toward college professors, particularly by the business-modelling educrats. Of course, this last is not new, and neither it nor the firing actually affect my day-to-day life.
Then, just as Historiann pointed out an article about the University of Illinois' attempts to create an educational sweatshop, our distance learning program asked another history professor and I to create and provide content for online class so that they can get adjuncts to take over the teaching. They want to exploit our intellectual property and labor with little compensation (and no royalties) for the end product, then turn around and exploit the adjuncts' labor by essentially turning them into underpaid t.a.s, all to cram in more online classes with students who have real anxieties. It's sort of a Wal-mart model of education. I don't know how that will go or if I can even refuse to do it or anything like that. Still, that shouldn't be affecting me like this.
The main point of anxiety for me right now, right this very second, is a paper proposal. Two hundred fifty words should not be so difficult. All I have to say is "this is what my paper is about, this is how it fits with your conference theme, please accept it." Why is that so difficult? Why do I feel like my head hits a wall every time I sit down to write it? Why can't I just do it?
Why? Because, me being me, I have to take this tiny little paper proposal and blow it up into a symbol of my whole future career, my future life, and my entire ability as a historian, past, present, or future. My ability to put these 250 words on the page has become an emblem of my self-worth, and my inability a revelation of my fraudulence. If I can't do these 250 words, then I am a loser, a joke, unworthy of my job, my doctoral degree, or love from anyone, anywhere, at anytime. My whole life rides on these 250 words!
You can see why I cannot access any words.
I get these stupid attacks when things seem to matter. I can write and write and write, as I did earlier in the summer, when the product doesn't matter. When it does: performance anxiety. I get bogged down in the little details. How should I begin? How does a paper proposal start? First person, third person, passive voice to avoid all persons? How to say what I mean?
Where are the perfect words -- and they HAVE to be PERFECT -- to say that writing a biography of Frederick Douglass from the perspective of the women who influenced him is novel and revolutionary (well, maybe "revolutionary" goes a bit too far)? How to say that, in focusing on the women, I can question the ways that this "woman's rights man" understood gender and gender roles in both his private and public lives, with particular emphasis on the intersection of the two? How to say that, in focusing on the women, I can explore the ways that these individual women within the institutions of slavery, marriage, and political activism used their relationship with the most famous black man of the 19th century to define themselves and their understanding of these institutions? Should I just limit this paper to the abolitionist women (which might be the better way to go)?
Can I say that I want to attempt a feminist biography of Douglass? Is a feminist biography of a man possible, even if that man was for women's rights? What might a feminist biography in general look like? I mean, I keep tossing around this concept of "feminist biography," but what the heck do I mean? Should I just let that concept go?
If I write a biography of Douglass from this unique perspective of the women in his life, is that a feminist biography? Can it be a feminist biography if all of these women will be defined by their relationship to Douglass? Did they define themselves in that way? If not, how did they define themselves, and what function did Douglass serve in their lives? If so, then what did they gain from that -- or lose? What is important about their lives both through their association with Douglass and separate from Douglass? Is this a feminist biography, or a biography of a series of relationships that can illuminate the intersection of race, gender, sex (as in both sexual scandal and miscegenation), power, and political activism in the 19th century?
Yes, I think that last is the best way to go: "a biography of a series of relationships with women that can" and blah blah blah and how a gendered analysis of Douglass's life might allow for greater understanding and so on and so forth.
Perhaps now would be the time to stop free writing in public as a sorry excuse for a blog post and go write the damn thing!
ETA: Shitty first draft accomplished! Before noon!