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Wednesday, January 07, 2004

I do this, I do that

During the holidays I began to think seriously about this blogging phenomenon, and whether in fact I have the time to do it responsibly.  I originally thought of this website as a public place to store my academic and generalist essays, and make them accessible to Internet readers-- not really as a daily journal or a site for news and notices (that’s one reason why we never adopted Moveable Type or permalinks).  Over the past year, especially during the runup to the war in Iraq, I posted links to all kinds of essays, especially the work of Ian Williams, since I’m a charter member of his fan club.  But I’m not sure I can do this kind of thing on a regular basis, in all honesty.  Here’s why.

Ordinary professional life

Over the past ten years I’ve been asked more times than I can count (though usually politely) just how the hell I have the time to do X.  Some people have assumed that I have one of those special named-chair deals where I teach courses only once during each sunspot cycle; other people assume that I hide myself away in carrels and coffeehouses, scribbling madly while my colleagues are busy running the department; still others assume that I have a phalanx of babysitters and nannies raising my children while I do the dirty work of writing about them.

The truth is that most of my life is spent in tasks so utterly mundane and banal that it would require new developments in narrative theory simply to try to relate them.  This year I’m chairing the English department’s tenure and promotion committee, and we’ve had ten-- count ‘em, ten-- cases to adjudicate.  I can say nothing about any of them except the obvious, namely, that this kind of work is excruciatingly difficult and time-consuming.  I also sit on the advisory board of Penn State’s Institute for the Arts and Humanities, whose fall-semester workload-- judging submissions and proposals for released time, graduate student research support, team-taught courses, and so forth-- entailed three or four meetings and a mess of reading material that arrives in my mailbox in large manila envelopes.  I also serve on the advisory board of Penn State’s Rock Ethics Institute (an ethics institute founded by people named Rock, natch) and on the college’s Research and Graduate Studies Office committee.  And last but not least, I chair the department’s Strategic Planning Committee.  All in all, this means I’m in for more meetings this year than any three employees in Dilbert’s office.  But then again, it’s important (if invisible) work, and part of the ordinary machinery of campus citizenship.  I’ll be quite happy to rotate off three of those committees in May, I assure you, but still, I consider them to be part of my ordinary professional life.

I also serve on the Modern Language Association‘s Executive Council, which means, among other things, that I’m a trustee of the MLA with a fiduciary duty toward the organization (there’s a whole handbook on what this means for nonprofit organizations, and my copy is right here in my home office)-- and that I go to two-day EC meetings three times a year, in February, May, and October.  The October meeting is actually four full days for me, because I was elected to the EC by way of the Delegate Assembly:  I am, so to speak, the People’s Candidate (and the people, united, will never be defeated, as you surely know), but it also means that I serve on the Delegate Assembly Organizing Committee for my entire term (2002-2005) though I only have a DAOC vote in 2003 and 2004 (for reasons much too boring to explain), and the DAOC meets in October too.

This term I’m teaching an undergraduate survey, African American Novel II (I’m going to start with Zora Neale Hurston and end up with Colson Whitehead), and a graduate seminar entitled “What Was Cultural Studies?” (I’m going to start with Raymond Williams and end up with Thomas Frank).  The undergraduate course meets MWF, so I expect I’ll be kept busy on that front, and though I’ve taught the graduate seminar before (in 2003, for the very first time, actually), I find that seminars usually require about three times as much prep time as surveys.  But I’m looking forward to these courses.  Compared to all that committee work, teaching is the fun stuff.  It’s always intellectually challenging and it’s occasionally vexing or terrifying, but when it goes really well, there’s no question-- it’s truly a pleasure.

I have a couple of essays forthcoming in the spring, I think (depending on other people’s production schedules)-- one from The Common Review on Western Civ courses, one on Colson Whitehead in a collection from the Dalkey Archive Press, one on Christianity and disability (a solicited reply to an essay by Stanley Hauerwas), and an essay on Stanley Fish and the strange fate of 1970s reader-response criticism (in a collection edited by Gary Olson and Lynn Worsham).  I also have a couple of stray things in the hopper, like the seven 1000-word entries I wrote on (in alphabetical order) disability, empiricism, experience, materialism, objectivity, pragmatism, and relativism for a project called New Keywords and edited by Tony Bennett, Larry Grossberg, and Meaghan Morris.  Those entries turned out to be some of the most difficult things I’ve done in the past few years.  But my biggest item for 2004, I hope, will be the publication (finally! after a couple of years of my dithering and dallying!) of a volume I’ve edited for Blackwell, titled The Aesthetics of Cultural Studies.  The contributors are John Frow, Rita Felski, Jane Juffer, Jonathan Sterne, David Sanjek, David Shumway, Barry Faulk, Irene Kacandes, Steve Rubio, and Laura Kipnis-- and the cover will be fabulous, too.  So there’s always that to look forward to.  Don’t forget to deluge Blackwell with requests for course copies.

I also have to write two talks this semester and finish one essay and one encyclopedia entry.  And then this summer I can get down to some real work.

Ordinary personal life

On weekends I take Jamie swimming at the local gym after he’s watched all his morning shows on PBS Kids.  He’s gotten immeasurably better at swimming in the past year: when I joined this gym (for its pool, with Jamie in mind) he started off needing a flotation belt and he was skittish about jumping into the deep end (he was 11).  Now he swims unaided (albeit in an unorthodox, sea-lion-ish fashion) all around the pool with great ?Šlan.  Janet and I trade off the weekday duties-- dropping him off to school, picking him up from afterschool, doing his homework with him, getting him ready for bed, etc.-- but he seems to have assigned to me, exclusively, the delightful task of reading chunks of the Harry Potter series to him before he goes to sleep.  We’re already more than halfway through Goblet of Fire, the fourth book of the five, and he gets it, he really really gets it.  Also he thinks he should be the one who takes Hermione to the Yule Ball.

The past few days have been full of petty tasks.  I’ve wanted to post a new year’s announcement of some kind, and every time I think I have an hour to myself, something comes up.  One day it was balancing the checkbook, then hunting around the house trying to find a new check register when I realized we’d run out, then consulting with Janet about ordering new checks because the last stash I ordered turned out to be aesthetically hideous (by all accounts, including mine), and then spending half an hour running down a spurious late fee charged by some credit card company.  Then there were the innumerable nickel-and-dime details concerning the immediate family task at hand, namely, getting Nick ready to go to Champaign, Illinois to visit childhood friends and build his own computer (don’t bother asking about that one, but I will complain aloud that this little venture has accounted for some negotiating over and troubleshooting with online transactions, purchasing of Greyhound tickets, explaining to said credit card company why the merchandise isn’t being shipped to our house, and so on).  Then there was Nick registering online for a couple of courses at Penn State during his year off from school while fitfully submitting applications to colleges and getting yelled at by parents who take application deadlines more seriously than he.  Today my favorite time-consuming activities were: (a) trying to register for two spring conferences at which I’m a keynote presenter, for goodness’ sake, and discovering that I completely forgot to renew my MLA membership last fall and have to do it right now (hmm-- could this have something to do with the fact that I bypassed the convention itself this year?) in order to register for the disability studies conference at Emory in March; (b) trying to fix the wristband of my new watch with tiny little German tools; and (c) trying to access Penn State’s inaccessible online final exam schedule so that I can complete my syllabus so that I can respond to my department’s request for a copy of my syllabus.  All of this while recovering physically from having played three consecutive one-hour games of ice hockey on Sunday night-- and recovering emotionally from having a wide-open backhand shot from ten feet out in the third game, on a rebound, with the score tied and two minutes left, and snapping it between the goalie’s legs only to have him get a skate on it right at the goal line.  I’d played sluggishly in game one but decently in game two, and desperately wanted to contribute in game three.  I didn’t, and we wound up 3-3.

What’s with the hockey, anyway?

Yes, it takes a lot of time to play two concurrent 40-game seasons during the academic year, even if the games are only an hour long.  But as you might imagine, it’s a wonderful break from matters academic (I don’t know of any other faculty members who play), quite apart from being a thrilling and demanding game in and of itself.  I played the game in childhood through college, but gave it up after getting mononucleosis and learning to play drums in 1979, my sophomore year (though the mono had no causal relation to the drums).  In my second season at Columbia I rang up four hat tricks in four consecutive games, but we were a club sport playing in the New York-area Metro League-- a very casual team by any measure.  (At the time of my little streak I think we had eight regular players.) Anyway, when I left New York for graduate school I left my equipment and sticks with a friend, and didn’t even skate again for years.  But then I started playing four years ago and quickly realized that it was not only an avenue to good clean fun and general mental health, but also the kind of game-- unlike softball or racquetball, the usual faculty pastimes-- that would require me to stay in good cardiovascular shape in order to play at a reasonably competitive level.  So when hockey is going well, it means that everything else must be going well, and that I’m not overloaded with work from 9 am to 9 pm every day.  But when every last second of my day is accounted for and I have no time to work out, then everything suffers-- I get crabby and then I start missing backhands from ten feet out and then I get crabby. . . .  So hockey, too, takes priority over blogging for me.

I’m an academic advisor to four of the Penn State Icers, actually-- this means I meet with them anywhere from once to four times a semester and keep track of their academic records-- and I get two free tickets to any home game I want, if I give the hockey office 24 hours notice.  I go to about three or four games a year, and I take Jamie when I go to Saturday afternoon games; this past November we said hello to one of my advisees as he left the ice after the second period, and he invited Jamie down to the locker room to say hello to all the players.  Jamie responded with hand-rubbing glee, and promptly introduced himself to everyone.  He was a little confused at first, because he’d been in every other locker room in the rink (he sometimes comes along to my Saturday early-morning games) save for the Icers’, but he loved it and came back a second time for more VIP treatment.

And in the time it’s taken me to write this, Janet’s come back from picking up Jamie from the Y, and I have to help with dinner before we see Nick off to the Greyhound station.  It’s really not at all clear that I have time for substantial blogging this spring.  But we’ll see.

Updated (with handy hyperlinks) from yesterday evening.

Posted by Michael on 01/07 at 04:18 AM
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