Sunday, July 20, 2014

Letters-to-the-editor idiocy knows no nation

I'm sure that many of my readers, like me, received as an extra punch to the gut the news that the plane shot down over Ukraine was carrying more than 100 HIV/AIDS researchers. This doesn't make the story worse, exactly--298 lives lost is a tragedy, whoever they are, and the geopolitical crisis doesn't care whether they're vacationers, bankers, or scholars. But it's a loss on top of those losses to think of how this affects an urgently important field of research.

(And I bet I'm not the only one who's occasionally looked around the plane en route to a conference and thought, "damn: if this goes down, there goes half of Donne studies.")

So I wasn't surprised, on my flight back to the States yesterday, to see that one of the letters to the editor of the Guardian was also thinking about the relationship of the MH17 crash to the future of scholarship. I was, however, TOTALLY surprised by what he considered the tragedy an occasion to opine on.

Here's the letter in its entirety:

The overall loss of life in the Malaysia Airlines disaster (Report, 18 July) is the primary concern, but a separate issue is raised. Around 100 were scientists going to a conference in Australia. Is it not time to ask why such trips are necessary? The advent of large-screen TVs and rapid transmission of data and the spoken word mean it is no longer necessary to send thousands of people around the world at great expense and at major environmental cost. Now we have lost a very large number of people expert in the science of Aids. What cost will this be to those suffering from the disease?

Dr Simon Harris
Wrexham

Clearly, if there were no academic conferences, the public would be better off.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Men against rape

Waiting at the airport for an overnight flight to London, I find I'm having a hard time thinking of anything but today's NYT cover story about a campus rape and the grievous way the college administration screwed up the investigation. Tenured Radical has a great post on the story, on the newfound attention sexual assault has been receiving, and on what it might take to get colleges to take the matter as seriously as they claim they do.

As for me, I have little to add to what I've said about rape in the past.

Actually, that's not quite true. The one bright spot in the Hobart & William Smith story involves the victim's friend: a man, and, it later turns out, a football player (like the woman's assailants). Although he can't have known her long or well since they were both freshmen and it was the beginning of the school year, after receiving some alarming texts from her he keeps trying to contact her. When he gets no response, he sets out in the middle of the night to try to find her.

We need more men like that. Indeed, the most useful thing about recent research showing that the vast majority of college rapes are perpetrated by serial predators--and that they account for only a small percentage of the male population--will be if it changes the conversation so the average man doesn't feel that he's under suspicion, but can see himself as part of the solution.

Because he has to be.

Friday, July 11, 2014

High risk, high reward?

I haven't had much to blog about while consumed with article revisions (it took weeks, but I'm finally at the point where the work is interesting again), but two items from last Sunday's Times have been rattling about in my head for days.

The first is a piece from the Sunday Review that gained some traction on social media: "The Secret of Effective Motivation." It summarizes a study of more than 11,000 cadets at West Point that sought to determine what kind of motivation is most likely to lead to success--in this case, both in school and then over the course of a career as an Army officer. Unsurprisingly, the study found that internal motivation (doing something because you care about the thing itself) is much more likely to lead to external markers of success (better grades, a better job, a promotion, a raise) than "instrumental" motivation (doing something because you desire those external signifiers).

What is surprising is that the study found that strong instrumental motives are damaging to the likelihood of success even when they're accompanied by strong internal motives. Whereas you'd think that the two in combination would be the most effective spur to achievement, apparently that isn't true. Or (to put it in my own pejorative terms), if you sully the purity of your love for something by also desiring success, you've ruined your chance at it.

Now, I understand that this is a short, general-audience summary of the research in question, and I'm sure plenty got left out or had to be generalized. I'm also sure that there are differences across fields. But I'm left with a lot of questions: is the desire to earn a living or have a secure job "instrumental"? Is hoping to get tenure or move to a job with better pay or a better quality of life? Or is it only instrumental if you're focused on issues of status or prestige--on how something will make you look?

Just about anyone who's gotten a Ph.D. has to have been strongly internally motivated; you don't spend five to ten years writing a dissertation and foregoing other opportunities if you don't care intensely about your work. But most of us, absent a stable employment situation or a supportive academic community, would not keep doing our research. I wouldn't. Is the measure of whether your motivation is "internal" whether you'd keep doing something without external rewards?

When I look at my own motives, I find it surprisingly hard to tell which are internal and which are instrumental. Take this article that I'm revising for the third or fourth time now: on the one hand, I wouldn't be trying to incorporate my latest reviewer's suggestions if I didn't genuinely think they were smart, compatible with my own goals, and likely to make an already strong article even stronger. I could just take the thing elsewhere. Indeed, I could have the thing on my C.V. this second if I were to sign the contract sitting not three feet from me to have the essay included in an edited collection. (Long story, but the editors of the collection know the score.)

On the other hand, I'd be lying if I said I was continuing to work on this fucker purely because I wanted what's best for my argument. I also want this journal, or one of its caliber, on my C.V.

*

The second item I've been turning over in my head also deals with ambition and motivation. It's just a few brief lines from an article on Richard Linklater's new movie, Boyhood, which he shot over the course of twelve years, following its young star as he grew up in real time. The article talks about the unusual career choices that both Linklater and Ethan Hawke (another of the movie's leads) have made, and the odd coincidence that both men had fathers who worked as risk assessors for insurance companies.

According to Hawke, his dad tried to talk him out of an acting career based on the low statistical probability of success:

"It wasn't as if he didn't think I was talented or something," Mr. Hawke said. "He's just an actuary, and the actuarial tables were not good. I remember him saying the statistical chances of being an Eastwood were just so small."

But Mr. Hawke studied the careers of actors he admired and deduced that they had taken big risks, not avoided them. "My dad and I talked about how if the goal is a lifelong profession in the performing arts, then the actuarial tables of not taking chances are actually much worse."

This, I love. It's not really any more comforting than the other article, but it's framed in a more helpful way. When you're in a risky profession--as academics are, at least in grad school and early in their careers--you have a better likelihood of success if you're doing work you really care about, and if you're doing it boldly and the way you believe it needs to be done.

I hope that's what I'm doing with this article. I hope the reason it's getting more pushback than anything I've written is that it's interesting and important work--and I hope it's worth the cost of waiting to see it in a better venue (if and when it appears in one).

But of course I don't know that to be true. I might actually be wasting my time doing something "safe" (endlessly revising this one piece rather than going on to new things) while imagining myself as boldly taking risks.

Unfortunately, the actuarial tables have nothing to say about that.

Saturday, July 05, 2014

Two demented people

Seen around Facebook: "How We End up Marrying the Wrong People." I have some quibbles with the title--the piece is as much about how relationships work as why they don't--and I find its use of the first-person plural both wearying and a little odd, especially given its lack of a byline.* Nevertheless, it speaks to a lot of things I believe about relationships.

Here's a taste:

All of us are crazy in very particular ways. We're distinctively neurotic, unbalanced and immature. . . . A good partnership is not so much one between two healthy people (there aren't many of these on the planet), it's one between two demented people who have had the skill or luck to find a non-threatening conscious accommodation between their relative insanities.

Or as one of the smartest observers of relationships I know once said, "The choice of a partner is the choice of which incompatibilities you're willing to live with for the rest of your life."**

We believe we seek happiness in love, but it's not quite as simple. What at times it seems we actually seek is familiarity.

Human beings aren't good at sorting signal from noise, or identifying which part of a person or relationship is triggering which reaction. I may respond positively to a relationship that feels comfortingly like an old one, without seeing what else is wrapped up in that feeling--or I may react negatively to someone who reminds me of someone else, even if the thing triggering that feeling is unrelated to whatever bad experience I previously had.

We imagine that marriage is a guarantor of the happiness we're enjoying with someone. It will make permanent what might otherwise be fleeting. It will help us to bottle our joy. . . . [But] getting married has no power to keep a relationship at this beautiful stage. . . .In fact, marriage will decisively move the relationship on to another, very different moment: to a suburban house, a long commute, two small children. The only ingredient in common is the partner. And that might have been the wrong ingredient to bottle.

I've got nothing to add to that one except to say that I don't see as much of this as I used to--which is to say, I know fewer catastrophically mismatched couples and fewer people who rush impulsively into long-term commitments. I don't love each and every partner of my each and every friend--occasionally I even prefer one of their exes--but most the people I know are now in relationships that work, where their partnership feels well-balanced. Often this is because the bad matches have broken up or gotten divorced, but in other cases they've gone through years of growth, with or without therapy.

Most people get smarter about relationships as they age, learn more about themselves, and learn more about other people. Or put another way: they get better at recognizing their own dementedness, and seeking out a complementary form of crazy in someone else.


------
*Once I clicked on the website I realized I'd dimly heard of the organization behind it, The School of Life (which I'm pretty sure is pronounced The School of Life).

**I think this is a paraphrase of something in John Gottman's outstanding, if cheesily titled, Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Queer Catholics

In my continuing efforts to blog about things that none of my readers care about, today I bring you my thoughts on a 75-page document recently issued by the Vatican, The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization

Wait, come back! It's all about gender and sexuality and stuff!

Last fall, Pope Francis announced that he was convening an extraordinary meeting of the synod of bishops to consider the state of marriage and family life. Francis asked every diocese in the world to study the issue, survey the laity, and weigh in on where Catholics stand on various issues affecting family life. (I participated in my diocese's survey, which I'll say more about below.) The resulting document, known as an "instrumentum laboris," or "working instrument," contains a preliminary report on those findings, and it's meant to be the starting point for the work of the synod, whose first meeting will be in October.

Francis's initial announcement of the synod got some coverage in the mainstream press--in part because of the short timeline and in part because of the sweeping scope of the project: this is the first time that ordinary Catholics have been asked for their feedback. There has been speculation, at least in the American press, that the conference might be the occasion for major changes in the church's positions on such things as divorce, birth control, and same-sex marriage. But despite that initial coverage, as far as I can tell, last week's release of the instrumentum has received zero attention outside of Catholic circles (that last link is to Rocco Palmo, always the best source for news on the global church).

I'm not an expert Vatican-watcher and there are a lot of basic things I don't know about the synod or its mandate. And though I've read the instrumentum, at times I have trouble deciphering its "voice"--that is, whether a statement is merely descriptive (this is what the church has said on this subject in recent decades) or prescriptive (this is the church's teaching, which is not up for debate). Nevertheless, some things are pretty obvious. Issues surrounding divorce and remarriage get more attention in the document than any of the other subjects that preoccupy American and European Catholics, which leads me to suspect that there could be some real changes there. I also believe that changes around the edges of birth-control policies are likely, and though I'd be surprised to see major changes on same-sex marriage, I wouldn't rule out the possibility of some conciliatory gestures (for example, the document spends some time discussing how to welcome same-sex couples who wish to raise their children Catholic).

But really, what will strike any Western reader of the document is all the other problems facing families that the bishops are interested in--and the global perspective that those concerns reflect. Serious attention is given to domestic violence, incest, human trafficking, polygamy, poverty, and families separated by political unrest or forced migration. The other thing that will strike readers is how generous and compassionate the document can be toward both families and individuals. It waxes indignant about the ostracism and shame some people (single mothers, victims of abuse) are subjected to, and it's critical of clerics who don't fulfill their pastoral duties. The influence of Francis is clear in such moments.

There are less generous moments sprinkled throughout, though, and while I imagine that some of the oscillation between more compassionate and more condemnatory language reflects the conflicts and compromises inherent in a preliminary document written by a 15-person team, it's still a little disappointing. I'm also disappointed, though not surprised, that the instrumentum's discussion of the laity's attitudes is mostly couched in terms of what they "understand" about the church's teachings. Although each diocese apparently had some leeway in how it surveyed its laity, the form I got was focused on its respondents' level of engagement in Catholic life and familiarity with church teachings. And, dudes: I understand, with great clarity, the intricacies of the church's teachings on homosexuality. I've heard the best and most compelling arguments for natural family planning. That's not the same thing as agreeing with those teachings. What I wanted and did not get was a chance to say, "yes, I'm a Catholic who has received all the sacraments, who attends mass weekly and volunteers at her parish, and I don't agree with you on X or Y."

Most surprising to me is the document's near obsession with what it calls "the ideology of gender theory" (12)--a term that comes up at least half a dozen times. Although the bishops barely define it (and it's not clear that their familiarity with gender theory is at anything closer than third or fourth hand), they're plainly troubled by the idea that gender might be disconnected from biological sexuality. Throughout, there's an essentialist attitude toward gender and sexuality, and a suspicion of anything that might be considered non-normative.

And. . . it's at this point that I say, OH, COME ON! The Catholic Church has been celebrating non-normative sexualities for centuries. We're talking about an institution that has a celibate priesthood and celibate male and female religious. We're talking about a religious tradition that involves ecstatic, eroticized mysticism, that uses sexualized language to talk about everything from the Creation, the Incarnation, and the Eucharist to prayer and the operations of the Holy Spirit. I mean, I'm not calling the church freaky, but its attitudes toward sexuality are rich, interesting, and go beyond either the procreative or the ascetic.

Cosimo has remarked that female religious (whom he knew from childhood, thanks to his beloved aunt, a Sister of St. Joseph) were his first introduction to queer women: not because of anything he knew or presumed about their sexual orientation, but because of the palpable otherness of a community of women who lived entirely outside of the imperatives of heterosexuality. Indeed, celibacy is about as counter-cultural as you can get in the modern age.

I understand that the mandate of the synod is to deal with the changing shape of the family, not with vowed celibates or those leading a single life; I also have no desire to return to the centuries in which the church valorized celibacy and slighted marriage and procreation. But there's something exasperating about the refusal to consider love, marriage, and family life within the larger and more radical context of the church's history and teachings. As many people before me have pointed out, Jesus himself shows no interest in the traditional family. Not only was his own family nontraditional (and non-procreative), he himself never married and repeatedly tells his followers that to proclaim his kingdom they need to leave their families behind--not even pausing to bury their dead.

According to the instrumentum laboris, many bishops are calling for "theological study in dialogue with the human sciences" to better understand sexual orientation, homosexuality, and the differences between the sexes (52). I'm glad of that, and I think it's a hopeful sign. But I'd like for them also to wrestle with--or simply acknowledge!--the non-normative and non-procreative forms of gender, sexuality, and eroticism that have always been central to the Catholic tradition.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Bog, slog, slough

As it turns out, it's hard to bring any energy or enthusiasm to one's third R&R on the same essay.

I believe in the suggestions enough to want to implement them--but at this point in the life of the piece, I'm pretty much done having new thoughts. It's also hard to believe that any change will increase the likelihood of success.

Gah.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Manatees looking for mentos

We've been rewatching the early seasons of 30 Rock--and I'm struck, as I wasn't the first time around, by what the show gets right about mentorship.

On the one hand, the relationship between Jack and Liz is a wish-fulfillment, fantasy version of the mentor-mentee relationship: out of nowhere, this powerful, senior person elects you to be his mentee! He's seen your potential, and now he wants to lavish you with attention and give you the benefit of his years of experience.

And that part--well, if you're waiting for that kind of mentor, you'll be waiting a long time.

But the show is right that mentors find you more often than the other way around. Unless the mentor relationship occurs within a formalized workplace program, it happens pretty much solely at the senior person's discretion. Sure, you can take some initiative in getting a potential mentor's attention, but as 30 Rock demonstrates, the mentor's own investments and fantasies are as important as you, your potential, and whatever you actually need. Someone who wants to mentor you is almost certainly someone who likes to think of himself as a mentor. Jack has so much enthusiasm for mentoring it's like he's selling patent medicine.


What follows from that is that a mentor's investments in you (or in your shared workplace or profession) may not always overlap perfectly with what you need from them. When Jack sticks to "leadership" issues, he's got something to offer. But when he starts pitching ideas for the show, he's just another suit who thinks he's got a creative side. So if you're lucky enough to have someone who decides they want to mentor you, think about what you actually need from them, and be attentive to whatever else might be motivating their advice. Usually it's pretty benign--your mentor sees some part of himself in you; he wants to help build up the department you share; he regrets some mistakes he made with his own first book--but it's never purely about you.

The corollary, though, is that a mentor doesn't have to be perfect, or be able to help you in all areas of your professional life--and if his politics or personal life (or even his field of study or theoretical or methodological approach) are totally alien to you, so what? A mentor only needs to be smart and helpful in one area to be a good mentor.

And who knows? Maybe you'll find someone who'll be Michelle Pfeiffer to your angry black kid who learns that poetry is just another way to rap.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Mail from the great beyond gets misdirected, too

Last night I dreamed I was writing an article proving that the book Polonius hands Ophelia in 3.1 (when he sends her to confront Hamlet) is Lewis Bayly's "The Practice of Piety."

This was such a weirdly specific dream, about texts I've never worked on--I haven't even taught Hamlet in three or four years and I'm pretty sure I've never read Bayly--that I awoke wondering if there might actually be something to this: could my subconscious mind have produced something totally brilliant? Or maybe even received some kind of supernatural transmission??

Alas, a quick database search revealed that Bayly's book was probably first published in 1611, at least a decade too late.

Still, now that I know my subconscious can produce plausible-sounding scholarly arguments, I'm pissed it hasn't been helping me with my actual work all these years.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Clumsy incompetence is just part of my process

I remember how hard it was to write my first dissertation chapter--and, worse, how incomprehensible it seemed that it should be so hard: I'd read hundreds of academic book chapters! I'd written a dozen 20-page seminar papers! I knew what a chapter-length scholarly argument looked like, and I could confidently tell you which ones were stronger and which ones were weaker, and why. I knew all the kinds of moves a book chapter might make. But I couldn't apply that knowledge to my own writing.

To say that my advisor wasn't helpful in navigating that particular psychodrama would be an understatement; our relationship came close to collapsing over that chapter. But after I'd produced a draft that was firing on a few of its cylinders, she gave me some of the most useful writing advice I've ever received: It's time to move on, she said. Start your second chapter. You can return to this one later.

I didn't like that advice. I'd been living inside that chapter for a long time, and I couldn't bear the idea of leaving it messy and half-formed, especially when it finally seemed to be getting somewhere. But I did as she said. And for whatever reason, my second chapter just came: it wound up being the longest and maybe the meatiest of my dissertation chapters, but the easiest of the four to write. My remaining chapters were still a frustrating, difficult slog, but neither was as hard as the first. The difference, I think, was that while I was still struggling with ideas, argument, and organization, once I'd written one good chapter, the form itself no longer felt like an obstacle. I'd made it my own.

The experience taught me that the point of writing a dissertation chapter is, on some level, to learn how to write a dissertation chapter. And you don't learn by tinkering endlessly with the same chapter--you learn by writing other chapters. The same is true for every literary form I can think of, from the tweet to the novel. (Most "first novels," after all, aren't the first novel the author wrote, but the first one she got published.) Reading a lot of works in a given genre is crucial, but you only learn how to inhabit a form by inhabiting it. Repeatedly.

But though I tell my students the kind of things I've just said here--that the point of writing a research paper is to learn how to write a research paper; that you can't master a form without first doing it badly--that doesn't mean I've fully learned my own lessons.

Recently, I was invited to write something on spec for a general-interest publication. It was a topic comfortably within my wheelhouse, for a publication I've subscribed to for years. I was excited by the opportunity and thought I could probably do a pretty good job. But I'm telling you: it was the hardest thing I've written in ages--maybe the hardest thing I've written since that first dissertation chapter. As with my dissertation, the problem was mostly one of form (or, more accurately, with negotiating the relationship between self and form). I didn't know who I was writing as, or to whom, or why. The editors were kind enough to read two significantly different versions of my essay over a couple of months, but in the end decided it wasn't the right fit for them.

That was disappointing, but still useful. Useful as a reminder that when I assign my M.A. students to write a 750-word book review, no matter how many they've read, most are not quite going to get it on the first go-round. Useful because though I frequently tell others that writing isn't magic, I'm prey to the same belief that, if I can't do something the first time, I probably don't have the ability to do it at all. And useful because now I guess I have something new to work on.

Saturday, June 07, 2014

Worse than the two-body problem is the two-home problem

We're in the midst of moving selves, cats, and a goodly number of our possessions from Punchline Rustbelt City to Other Rustbelt City. It's not a bad move, as moves go: we're keeping this apartment for next year, so it's just a matter of schlepping a couple of carloads and a vanload back to our house (and then unpacking everything we stored in the attic while the renters were there). And I'm dying to be back home for the summer.

But three of the last four summers have involved some kind of move, most of them logistically complicated ones: 2011 involved moving among four different residences, and last year it was three. In addition to the endless U-Haul and packing-tape drama, each move has involved new decisions about which items to consolidate in one location, to buy in duplicate, or to purge.

And in approximately twelve months we'll be moving again, for the most complicated, expensive, and stressful move of all. (Another three-corner move, but this time with a house to sell and another to buy--and an apartment, a storage unit, and infinite unknowns about timing and money.)

It's too exhausting even to contemplate. Time to pour some wine and watch the cats play with the bubble wrap.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

But I DID go to school in New England!

L. V. Anderson has an article in Slate whose title pretty much sums up its content: "People Still Say They 'Went to College in Boston,' Meaning Harvard? Please Stop Doing This."

It's an article of interest to maybe 5% of the entire internet, but since I'm part of that 5%, I'll take the bait. Do I do this now? Of course not. But when I was 18 to 24 I did it plenty of times. If I was back home working a temp job for the summer or making small talk with a hairdresser or dental hygienist, then sure. I'd say I go to school "back east" or "in New England."

Anderson gives passing attention to the explanation that I'd have given for why I did this--that announcing your fancy-pants affiliation derails conversation, leads to awkwardness, and so forth--but she concludes that "it is not your job to anticipate and preemptively manage another person's emotional response to your biography. If you tell people you went to Harvard and they respond by freaking out, that reflects poorly on them." On the other hand, if you "withhold" the name of your college from someone else,

that reflects poorly on you--it implies that, on some level, you buy into the overblown mythos of Harvard and the presumption of Ivy League superiority. To fear the effects of the word "Harvard" is to take Harvard way too seriously. Once you understand that Harvard is just a college, and that getting into Harvard probably had more to do with your socioeconomic background and the luck of the draw. . . the cagey "college in Boston" response starts to sound very, very silly.

Now, if we're talking about recent college grads talking to other recent college grads--friends of friends at a party, new co-workers, whatever--and hiding the name of their alma mater, then I'd agree: it's douchey and patronizing to think that you're somehow protecting other people's self-esteem by not mentioning the name of a school you presume they didn't get into. But Anderson misunderstands the context in which most of this coyness occurs, or the kind of awkwardness that this evasiveness is meant to forestall. Most undergrads at fancy schools (like most PhDs) have had the experience of saying something neutral that mentions their educational background--only to receive some weird, sarcastic, and/or hostile response along the lines of, "Oooooh. Can I touch you?" or mock bows or genuflections. If that happens a few times (that is, if you get responses that assume you're bragging or are stuck-up just for answering a question truthfully) then you learn to avoid bringing it up if it's not strictly necessary.

Moreover, most people who are cagey about where they went to college know perfectly well that the rest of the world doesn't actually care where they went to school, even when it's asked as a direct question. Most people who ask the question are just making small talk and looking for a casual opportunity for connection. If all your aunt's friend from church really wants to know is whether you're an Oregon or Oregon State fan--or if you might have gone to the same school as her kid or her sister or her nephew--then saying you went to some far-away school with a fancy name changes the conversation she thought she were having.

Most of the time, when I said "back east," my interlocutors didn't ask "where?" They said, "oh wow, that's far." Or, "do you have family there, too?" Or "how do you like it? I hear it snows a lot." They were just making chit-chat, and I'd given them an answer that kept the conversation on that level. (And if they actually asked, "but what school?" I'd tell them.)

Reading Anderson's essay, though, made me realize that it's been a long time since I gave an evasive answer to a question about my educational background. Some of that is just pragmatic: I'm old enough that "where did you go to college?" is no longer the first (or second, or third) thing people ask. And I live in the East, and most of the people I meet are interested in higher education.

But most importantly: I'M A COLLEGE PROFESSOR. I HAVE A PH.D. If people are going to act weird about something in my educational history, it's my having a Ph.D. in English ("Oh, boy. So I guess I have to watch my grammar around you!")

Maybe the other thing that's changed is where I live and where I work. When someone in Cha-Cha City asks me what I do, and then asks me where I went to school, I'm pleased by both parts of the equation. I like my city and I like my job, and it's good for my neighbors to know that RU has highly-trained and well-credentialed faculty who are thrilled to be there. It reflects well on the community and the state university system. (And if they're the ones inclined to be snobbish--about where I teach, or about public colleges in general--then I'm happy enough to unsettle their presumptions.)

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Not magic

By now you've probably all read the NYT Magazine piece on the University of Texas's efforts to increase retention among their poorer and first-generation students--but if you haven't, go read it now. Although some of UT's strategies involve additional academic support (in the form of smaller section sizes, peer mentors, and access to tutoring), the most mind-blowing part of the article is the evidence that even incredibly small interventions can have statistically significant results.

Several slightly different studies, conducted at different colleges and universities, show that just 30 minutes, at the beginning of a student's college career, can be enough to keep at-risk students enrolled. In one series of studies, students were assigned to read letters from current upperclassmen that described their own feelings of not belonging in their freshman year--and then how they settled in and eventually realized that everyone feels that way. In another series of studies, students were assigned a short article that laid out the scientific evidence against a static theory of intelligence (i.e., arguing that practice is more important than initial aptitude). In both cases, the students were asked to read the essay and then summarize it in their own words, as if conveying it to another incoming student. Even without any follow-up or any further interventions, their drop-out rates plummeted--sometimes by more than 50%.

(Interestingly, there was no effect on students from more prosperous backgrounds. The theory is that although all students can suffer from feelings of not belonging--or can have their confidence shaken by an early academic failure--wealthier students are more likely to know or to hear from family members that this is normal and will pass. Students without that kind of support are in greater danger of assuming they really don't belong in college.)

What I love about this is that we're not talking about heroic interventions and we're not imagining teachers as magical saviors. These are students who are perfectly capable of succeeding but who benefit from a little more affirmation that they can succeed; they still have to bust ass and live through some self-doubt and some rough patches. I also like the fact that it validates what I've come to do in my own classes, which is to emphasize that everything I teach involves learned (and learnable) skills. I frequently say things like, "understanding poetry isn't magic" and "no one is born knowing how to write a literary-critical essay."

But here's the thing: I didn't develop this approach as a specific response to the RU student population; I started saying similar things when I was teaching students at my Ivy alma mater. Whether it's first-generation college students or tightly-wound overachievers, most students benefit from being told, explicitly, that a grade on an assignment is not a verdict on their overall performance, their potential, or their worth as a person--but just a measure of how close they are to mastering a single discrete task.

I do a little more of this now than I used to, but frankly, I wish someone had told me these things in college. I wasn't taught poetry well. I wasn't told what component skills went into writing an essay. And after a year or so I assumed I'd just found my level in the B+/A- range: that's just who I was and how smart I was, and it probably wasn't going to change.

The thing is, as a teacher, you never know who most needs a word of encouragement or affirmation. You don't know each student's background, you don't know their mental state. And if every little helps. . . well, it's easy enough to offer.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Ars longa, legere brevis*

With a couple of weeks of breathing room between deadlines, I've decided to turn my energies to the stack of academic books I purchased at conferences over the past year. They're all in my subfield, but none is urgently related to anything I'm working on, so this has the benefit of feeling both virtuous (hey, I'm working! This is totally work!) and a bit decadent (I'm reading for fun! I don't have to read any of this!). So far I've finished two of your basic 200-page monographs and started a third, and I'm partway through a 600-page brick of a book, which I decided to tackle a chapter a day. It's been lovely. Even more lovely is that many of these books are by friends or friendly acquaintances.

But the fact that I know some of these authors and that I just published my own book has made me reflect uncomfortably on how I read. As I've mentioned before, a lot of my scholarly reading these days gets done in a search-and-destroy, slash-and-burn kind of way: I power through a book in a day or two, extracting the gist and the ideas most useful for my own work, skimming the chapters on less-relevant topics, and then moving on to the next one. It's like bolting a meal rather than savoring it: it gets the job done, energy- and nutrition-wise, but it doesn't do the food or the cook justice.

That's not quite how I'm reading these books--there's no point in rushing through books I don't urgently need to read in the first place--but it would be incorrect to say that I'm reading them as slowly or as carefully as they deserve. I'm reading them moderately briskly, with time to linger over cool things here and there, but with the expectation that I'll be coming back to the best ones in the future and don't need to digest everything now.

That's true enough; a good book is a long-term resource, which is why I buy so many. But the fact that I spent ten years writing my own 200-page monograph nags at me when I buzz through someone else's over just a day or two. If if I needed anything to make me feel even more keenly the triviality, the disposabilty of my own work, it's how speedily I read someone else's.

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* I know! The bad Latin, it burns.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Pardoner syndrome

Academics and other high-achievers are familiar with "imposter syndrome": the conviction that one doesn't really deserve to be where one is (and sooner or later will be found out). A lot has been written about this phenomenon and its problems--and occasionally its unexpected upsides. Imposter syndrome may keep someone from fully recognizing her own strengths, acting authoritatively, or taking risks. On the other hand, it can sometimes act as a spur to excellence (inspiring her to become the person others believe she already is) or serve as a healthy check on arrogance.

I'm interested, though, in the more vicious sibling of imposter syndrome, which I call "pardoner syndrome." A long time ago, I had a professor whose reading of Chaucer's Pardoner stuck with me. The Pardoner, of course, is the guy who sells pardons--years off your time in purgatory--and other weird miracles associated with the religious relics he carries around with him. In the course of his prologue and tale, Chaucer's Pardoner tells all the other pilgrims what a stupendous charlatan he is and how he goes from town to town, fooling the rubes with his fake relics (pigs' bones instead of saints' bones; a magic mitten) and sermons that prick their guilty consciences until they fill his purse with gold.

It's a mesmerizing performance. Then, at the end of it all, the Pardoner invites his fellow pilgrims to come up and buy his pardons and kiss his relics. The outraged Host tells the Pardoner he's gonna make him kiss his relics (if you know what I mean!), and is only barely prevented from beating the Pardoner up.

A question readers often ask is, why the fuck does the Pardoner do this? Why, after letting his audience in on all his tricks, does he then treat them like just another bunch of dupes?

My Chaucer professor argued that the Pardoner is in the theological condition of despair--he knows the way to salvation but believes he's too wicked for God to forgive--and that although he's contemptuous of his listeners, his whole performance is one of self-loathing. On some level, he wants his audience to see through him. If he can fool them, great: he'll feel briefly superior and briefly better about himself (and he'll keep raking in the cash). But what he's actually looking for is someone to thrash his ass.

I'm not a Chaucerian so I don't know if this is an eccentric reading or a common one, but it strikes me as having real psychological truth behind it. If it's not what Chaucer intended with his character, it's still a recognizable phenomenon in the world. If an imposter complex involves, let's say, believing that you were an admissions mistake at your fancy college and fearing being found out, a pardoner complex involves repressing the full knowledge of that fear and transforming it into arrogance. So maybe you half-ass all your schoolwork and act like a dick to your peers and professors, as if daring them to call your bluff and fail you (as you secretly believe you deserve).

The pardoner is someone who half buys his own bullshit--and who desperately needs for others to buy it--but who's just barely holding things together. Rather than doing something to help compensate for his anxieties and insecurities, he decompensates by underpreparing, being a jerk, picking fights, as if to force his own worst outcome. We talk about criminals who "want" to get caught, for example, or certain emotionally abusive partners whose own self-loathing means they're both desperate for love and contemptuous of anyone who thinks they deserve it.

I'm not sure I've ever seen pardoner syndrome in action in the workplace, though I'm sure it exists. Actual frauds and con men are probably more often sociopaths than victims of pardoner syndrome (and from the outside it can be hard to tell the difference between pardoner syndrome and blazingly clueless overconfidence), but there must be people who, for example, go up for a promotion with an embarrassing lack of credentials, or give a major presentation before a client while woefully underprepared, who fall into the category of half-seeking their own comeuppance.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Scrubbed

Many years ago I had a terrific student. It was my first semester of college teaching and I got attached. We remained friendly after the class ended, but we didn't keep in touch after she graduated.

One idle evening, several years later, I ran a web search on her. I found her instantly: a year or two earlier she'd made all the papers in the city in which she was then living--and the campus newspaper at the institution she was then attending--for a truly bizarre incident. I won't detail it except to say that if it even crossed your mind that someone might do this thing, it would be as a fraternity prank. A really stupid, totally illegal fraternity prank.

Anyway, the story was that she'd been heading home from a university reception when her one or two drinks interacted badly with some painkillers she was on for a sports injury, and she spontaneously did this wacko thing (of which she has no memory).

By the time I read the account, there had been a hearing at which she'd been sentenced to community service; luckily, no one had gotten hurt and there had been no property damage, and since she had a totally clean record and dozens of people had testified that her behavior was inconsistent with anything she'd ever done in her entire life, the judge was lenient. Still, it was All. Over. The. Internet.

Ouch! I thought, reading it, and quickly closed my browser. I was glad she'd gotten off lightly, but very sorry this was my first encounter with her later life. I still hoped she'd go on to great things, but for whatever reason it never occurred to me to Google her again.

Until today.

Thinking she was probably in the field for which she'd been working on a graduate degree, I plugged in her first and last name and the name of the school where the incident had occurred. I figured I'd turn up a workplace bio.

And. . . sure enough! A bio! The first link! I clicked on it and found a very thorough two-paragraph biography. I was happy that it suggested she was doing well.

But something about the bio seemed wrong--it didn't read like the kind of thing an employer would put up. I noticed the site was run by WordPress and figured it must be a personal blog, so I clicked "home." But that was it: there was only an "about" page. No blog. Then I looked closer at the URL: it was her first and last name plus the name of her graduate school (e.g., lucysmithvanderbilt.wordpress.com). Weird! Why would she identify herself that way? Then I went back to the full roster of Google hits and saw that there was a lucysmithvanderbilt.blogspot.com, a lucysmithvanderbilt.typepad.com, and on and on and on for a couple of pages of hits.

The bios vary slightly in their wording, so the casual observer might not immediately realize that they're serving the same purpose--that purpose being to hide, or at least help neutralize, the effect of all those older links about her, uh, youthful escapade.

I don't blame her for this; everyone deserves to be able to live down a bad decision or two. But it's still an eerie thing to encounter when looking for a real trace of a real person--dummy site after dummy site after dummy site.