the Mammal Chronicles: April 2006

when it comes right down to it, ya lactate or ya don't.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

the grind

It saddens me a bit that I am so caught up in the bureaucratic grind of academic life. After all, here I am teaching at a university! How fabulous is that? Or at least it should be -- if I want to change the world (or at least a few hearts), where better to do it from? It should be a huge opportunity. But instead I slave over my reappointment and tenure file, grumble over the inequities of "market compression" on professor salaries, listen to my friend's horror stories about the University auditor accusing her of trying to make a profit off her students by sending them to an off campus copy shop to buy their course readers, slog through various meetings, and labor over other mundanities that take up much time and emotional energy.

The other day I stumbled on an ad in the latest issue of the Utne Reader -- a magazine I've loved since college (undergrad college, as a student, if it needs clarification, since it seems I've been in some sort of college my entire adult life) but for some reason haven't subscribed to in years. I'm not sure why. The magazine rarely disappoints and there are some issues so dear to me that I've held onto them since the late early 90s and still re-read when I need to be inspired or restored (All Shopped Out, Sept/Oct 1989 and Salons: Reviving Conversation, Mar/Apr 1991). Recently I got a cut-rate deal on it and started reading and subscribing anew. In the latest issue, there was an ad for a site called Zaadz. It was an intriguing ad: a bunch of photos of folks overlaid with the words "Zaadz: We're changing the world." Ever idealistic and hopeful, I bit.

Turns out it is kind of a MySpace clone but for the ever idealistic and hopeful crowd, the type of person who reads Utne I suppose. There's nothing extraordinary about the site itself: profiles, blogs, discussion boards -- that sort of thing. In fact, it could use quite a few other tools. Where are the chatrooms, for example? But people really pour their hearts out in their profiles. This isn't the teen-dense atmosphere of MySpace with its oppressively soundfile-laden profiles and adulatory altars to the cast of the O.C. These are people seeking nothing short of spiritual enlightenment or eco-revolution...or something. O.k., yes, there's your usual sprinkling of MLM-pushers and people who just want another person to add to their "friends" list, but overall the sincerity level seems pretty high. Misguided? Sure, some of them, sometimes, but aren't we all?

I need an injection of their idealism and hope, a reminder that I once wanted to change the world, and somewhere down deep still do.

There are still hints of it in my teaching -- my department at its idealistic heart is about changing students' lives and opening them up to a world of ideas beyond the career-track mentality of a Polytechnic. Service-learning, when I can get it to work and not fall down under the strain of the extra effort it requires, is an amazing pedagogy. The Downtown Arts Center I serve on the board of has great potential, even if I'm not fond of the fact that part of the effort requires organizing fundraisers for rich people.

I need to shake off the bureaucracy, reawaken the dream, give it a strong cuppa truckstop joe. And hashbowns. Every dream needs hashbrowns.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Tenure Schmenure

So the University Tenure Police reviewed my yearly request for reappointment (I don't go up for actual tenure for another couple years) and in a succinct three sentence letter requested that in the next year I "increase the scholarly level of activity."

Why am I upset about this? Let's give you a little context:

During the year in question, I had a peer-reviewed article published, a book chapter, two encyclopedia entries forthcoming, another co-authored article under review, and a book translated into Polish (granted it's a small book and it wasn't academic in nature, but still, add that to the other stuff and it's not a bad little pile). At a research university, this might not be alot, but I teach nine courses a year.

A little more context: A colleague of mine only had a book review published. Her letter said nothing about increasing her "scholarly level of activity." Why? I asked someone "in the know" about that and their response was that while they couldn't give details about specific cases, they could speak about, ahem, hypothetical cases, and in this hypothetical case a book review was an improvement over the year before. Apparently, if an issue was raised the previous year and you improved, you couldn't raise it again. In my case, however, they hadn't raised it the previous year, so they could ask me to improve over an article, a chapter, two encyclopedia entries, and a book translated into Polish.

It all makes loads of sense.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Early Harvest

My husband recently pointed out to me that I don't focus enough on what I have. A friend noted that I've been this way ever since she's known me -- always looking toward that next thing, whatever it may be. I suppose I already knew this about myself, but sometimes you just need gentle reminder.

I'm very goal-oriented. And goals, lauded though they may be, tend to undermine contentment. I thought perhaps I should set contentment itself as my next goal, but contentment, oddly enough, doesn't work too well that way. How would you know when you had gotten there? So instead of reaching longingly toward it, I'm going to focus instead on a few things that make me content and hope that I can just settle nicely into them like a comfy chair:

I work on a beautiful campus. It is surrounded by rolling green hills, farm land and horses. That's not quite right -- it is actually surrounded by fairly dense urban development, but because it is an Ag school and because the original land bequest to the state stipulated that the university must maintain the Arabian horse breeding program of the former landowner, even while urban sprawl has overtaken the surrounding area, the campus itself still seems rural. The heart of campus, where most of the offices and classrooms are, is thus surrounded by unspoiled orchards and grazing pastures. So I travel the freeway from my house over a hill into a little valley of loveliness. Near the dorms there is a duck pond and as I walk from my car to my office in springtime, I might come upon a family of ducklings off for a morning stroll with mom (yes, those are real photos of ducks on campus that I took just the other morning).

I have long weekends. Oh sure, I often have to work through them doing grading, class prep and the like, but it is work I get to do at home. I don't often have to go into campus on fridays or mondays, so after working a while in the morning I can take a break to go out into our backyard and pull weeds, plant vegetables and herbs, and feel our dog daisy lick the small of my back while I kneel down in the dirt wearing a silly garden hat and apron. There is something incomparably satisfying about rooting around in the dirt. In almost no other circumstance can I lose myself so completely, push out all my worries and preoccupations, and, afterward, feel both energized and tired at the same time.

I am a mammal. I lie in bed on my side like a contented sow with my little piglet nursing at my side as I stroke her soft wisps of hair. My husband curls up behind me. I sigh, and close my eyes.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Smells Like Storyteller Spirit

Yesterday was a good day. Long, but good.

In the morning I headed off for the university Downtown Arts Center at ten -- ten was when I was supposed to be there to check in but, well, I live half a mile from there and it seemed a bit of overkill that I needed to be there an hour before the event started at eleven. After all, all I needed to do was set up our table with bookmarks and rubberstamps in readiness for the rest of my group to arrive.

The event was a literacy fair for local families. I'm on the Arts Center board and I'm part of a local storytelling group, so I recruited the latter to attend the event, tell stories, do some facepainting and help kids make bookmarks. I'm part of a storytelling group, but really I don't tell many stories. Mostly I'm a booster. Storytellers are good people. I learned how much, again, yesterday.

I arrived at a couple minutes past ten -- that's how close I live -- and by the time I got there two of the storytellers had not only arrived but had already set up our area: The storyteller who said she'd bring facepainting supplies had set up a table draped with a colorful cloth and surrounded by half a dozen kid's stools. Laid out on the table were dozens of colors of what could only be described as professional-grade face paints (who knew there was such a thing?). Draped on the theater door was a banner she'd made that said "Once Upon A Time" in appliqued script. In the theater itself were an assortment of props: rainsticks, frame drums, dragons large and small, finger puppet princesses and life-size dancing snakes. The other storyeller had decorated our other table with a two and a half foot bookworm reading atop a stack of wooden books. On the floor, the frog prince was perched on a velvet pillow. As I arrived, the storyteller and her husband were rolling in a massive chest she'd created that was shaped like a book. It was big enough for an adult or a couple of children to comfortably lounge on. A bit later our other two storytellers arrived with yarn for bookmark tassels and a couple dozen tomato plants from their garden in little pots (each child would receive one upon saying the 'magic' word when he told a story about a farmer).

Storytelling draws a different sort of artist, and they're not always understood. In the morning as we set up, the local school district set up a table nearby. One of the storytellers, known for her over-the-top style and getting amped up for the event, waved both her hands at them and said "Hi-eeeeee!" in a high-pitched squeal. The teachers sort of gave her a blank stare. I laughed and told her, "Storytellers scare normal adults."

They all worked, hard, all day for not a penny in return. They even had to buy their own lunch (the center provided snacks, but face-paintin' and storytellin' can make folks pow'rful hungry).

Afterward, another one of the storytellers told me that during one of the performances she brought a couple of kids up to sit on that big book and tell their own stories. "I have a story," said one child, "but it's sad." "Well," the storyteller responded, "in life there are happy stories and sad stories." Thus encouraged, the child went on to tell about how his cousin had killed his other cousin and was now in prison. "I told him I was sorry he had to go through that," the storyteller told me, "I hope I handled that alright." I assured her she handled it fine, and told her that while it was disheartening to hear a child tell a story like that, it did tell us that the event was reaching the kind of audience we had hoped it would -- ie, not privileged suburban kids with lots of cultural resources already at their disposal.

I got home a little after 4pm and had a couple hours to rest and recharge before going out for the evening with my husband. We went to see Ladysmith Black Mambazo, one of the official arts events my department sends our students to each quarter. They were amazing. They kicked as high as Rockettes, but their dancing was pleasing in a way rote synchronization is not: they danced in unison, of a sort, but each varied the movements to greater and lesser degrees, adding flourishes that reflected their individual personalities. Something about the deep rhythmic resonance of their voices, I told Sly, made me feel like I was outside listening to the songs of frogs croaking and crickets chirping on a hot summer night, the hummmmm hummmm hummmmmm of insects in the air.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Greener Grass

I woke up this morning thinking about North Carolina -- not the state, the institution, though part of the appeal of the institution is certainly the state with its cultural riches, natural beauty, and oh, those real estate prices.

A side note: I'm mildly obsessed with real estate and always have been. For years, my number one goal, which always seemed impossible, was to own a house. Now I have one, and it's really quite lovely, but being in California you can't help but imagine how your standard of living could increase if you cashed out and bought a house in some other locale with the profits. Recently, one of my favorite houses in the neighborhood went up for sale:

It's hard to see in the photo, but it is a two story spanish style with balcony off the second floor bedroom in front and a deck off the second floor in the back. It has a pool, which I'd actually prefer it didn't because yard in back suits our purposes more with a dog, but it also has a lovely, large front yard (a corner lot) with a fountain, lavender bushes and hedges. How lovely to drink coffee in the morning on that balcony! It's also a good 150,000 more than our house and our house is all we can afford.

But I digress.

But the most appealling thing about North Carolina was that the job I didn't get there was in my (rarified) discipline in my (even more rarified) specialty. Currently I teach in a program where, as my earlier post notes, I often teach outside the bounds of my subject area, and I also usually only teach first and second year students. This would have been undergraduate and graduate students. Mine is a wonderful job in many respects, don't get me wrong. We do a lot of fairly innovative things, my students are often wonderful, and for someone with said rarified degree (read: largely unwanted by the bulk of academia), it is not only a job but the coveted tenure-track job. It is hard to get one of those even with a more standard degree. Sometimes I think I need to slap myself for not being more grateful.

Perhaps I'm thinking about that North Carolina job again because this quarter I am teaching a variable subject upper division seminar in a sister department -- in other words, I get to teach whatever I want in this class and no surprise here: I'm teaching what I love and what I was trained to do. It's exciting. Not only that, for reasons I'll not go into here (for it would require another digression) I have a course release this quarter which means I'm teaching two classes instead of my usual three. This is much more what the load would be like if I were at a research university. Two classes are perfect -- it's enough time to really focus on class prep and on my students without getting burned out and frazzled. I even have time, on occasion, to think of other things (note: blogging).

But it's not only folks at research universities I'm jealous of, it's folks in said sister department. The normal load for my friends in that department is two instead of three every quarter. Why? Because they supposedly have a major which requires a lot of advising so they are allowed a course release every quarter. In truth, while they have students at their door more often than I, they're not required to be in their office any more hours a week than I am and I would love to have more students at my door. The poor students who do come to me get so much attention they don't know what to do with themselves.

Sigh. So that's my lot. Not a bad one by all counts, and, this morning anyway, riddled with jealousy. But I do have my class to look forward today, so not all is bad.

Folklore rules.

Monday, April 03, 2006

What to do when you're in hell.

I'm reading Dante's Inferno for the fourth time in as many years. That's how long I've been teaching at my IHE. It's far from my choice of instructional materials: In my department, the curriculum is 60% collaborative and I'm required to teach from the same major texts for certain courses and for this one, they're Inferno and Lear. I don't mind Lear so much even though Shakespeare's not really my thing: Lear has its roots in proto-Cinderella, so there's lots for a folklorist to play with. Yes, there's tons-o-myth in Inferno, but c'mon, hell -- lots and lots of hell.

My worst teaching comes when I'm just trying to fill the 110 minute class period. Our departmental modus operandi is discussion/activity-based teaching, so it means I have to find some activity that will fill that void rather than lecture. Sometimes, I'll admit, it's an activity that has filling time as its primary pedagogical underpinning rather than some cleverly worked lesson. Sometimes I'm better than that -- at least I try to be. It can be difficult though when the courses you teach aren't really in your area of expertise (or interest). I did a little better with Dante this time I think.

I have my students fill out little info cards at the beginning of each quarter: contact info, major, that sort of thing. For no reason I can really think of, this quarter I also had them put down (on an index card mind you) their "fondest hopes and dreams." It was a whim more than anything, but serendipitously it dovetailed nicely into Inferno. It occurred to me as I was re-reading Cantos 1 - 6 that each obstacle the Pilgrim faced or punishment he witnessed was something keeping him from his fondest hopes and dreams, namely, God and heaven. Accordingly, I gave the students the following questions to anwer:

A Personal Inferno:

Recall the hopes and dreams you put on your index card. These will be the destination you seek as a modern-day Dante the Pilgrim.

Canto One:

If the Leopard, the Lion and the Wolf are three sins keeping the Pilgrim from his goal, what weaknesses would your Leopard, Lion and Wolf represent?

If Virgil is Dante’s guide because he is also a poet that Dante looks up to, his role model, who would be your guide through the hell you must survive in order to reach your dream?

Canto Two:

Dante feels unworthy of taking on this journey. What makes you feel unworthy of achieving your dream? Why are you worthy?

Canto Three:

The sinners in Canto Three are damned because they failed to take action. What action that could take you closer to your dream have you failed to take? What punishment would be appropriate for this sin?

Canto Four:

The people in Limbo are those who were good, even extraordinary, people who had one downfall: they did not know the true God. What well-intentioned people would populate your limbo and what would be the characteristic that kept them from attaining the dream you hold?

Canto Five:

The sinners of this circle of hell were lustful in life. Uncontrolled passions of the flesh are seen as incompatible with spiritual growth. What passion is incompatible with your dream? What punishment would be appropriate for this sin in your version of Canto Five?

Canto Six:

The sinners in Canto Six are the gluttons. Appropriately, this section of hell is guarded by a dog with three heads (and thus three mouths). What sort of appetite would keep you from your goal? Who would guard those guilty of this appetite? What would the appropriate punishment be?

After they'd individually answered these questions, they got into small groups to share their answers. Each group then chose one version to dramatize. They'll come back next class to share their skits. We'll see how it goes.

The class after that I decided to show them L'Inferno: a 1911 Italian silent film version with new music by Tangerine Dream. I'm going to ask them to bring in blankets and pillows so we can disrupt the "classroomness" of the environment and really get into watching the film. I'll bring cupcakes and popcorn to complete the movie night feeling. My husband Sly thinks the movie stinks and can't believe I'm making them sit through it. I'll admit it started to veer dangerously close to the "filling time" un-pedagogy, but I think it will work. I'll start with the concept that art begets art: Just as Dante drew inspiration from classical mythology, the filmmakers began with Dante and the musicians began with the film. They'll be asked to evaluate the film and the music as two separate artistic visions of Inferno. I'll follow it up with a clip from the South Park movie wherein Kenny goes to hell. Then for the subsequent class I'll ask them to write a creative interpretation of Inferno and to bring in/create images and music that they would use to represent hell.

Frankly though, I think the pillows, blankets, popcorn and cupcakes are just as important and aren't just filling time: Sometimes I think an important part of what I teach them is that education is engaging and fun, and that it's part of my job to create an environment where they enjoy each other's company rather than sitting numbly in chairs with walls of life and responsibility separating them from each other.

Sometimes I do just fill time, but cupcakes? That's something else entirely.