17 March 2011


At some point in my graduate career I stopped practicing and started being. It's like the moment during my best off-road 10K race that I realized I had stopped trying to be a runner and started being one. I might be a 10-minute miler, but I run nonetheless. I'm faster than some, slower than most, but I'm out there running.

Exciting news that might be old news by now: We'll start our lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, very soon. I've accepted a position as Associate Director of Composition at NC State. I love paperwork and peoplework, so any job in administration suits me well. I always thought I'd go in to some kind of management, and I'm hoping my management background will pay off. I'm very much a MBWAL adherent (Management By Walking Around and Listening. Google it. It's a real term).  It's no wonder I'm pulled to qual.

It also occurred to me that with this shift in title I'll have to refocus this blogspace. I'll no longer be dissertating after March 31st. Scholarship can be a verb, too, right? I'm scholarshipping right now. Not as irritatingly wrong as dissertating. This title needs thought.

What am I excited about right now? A new locale, a new career, new new new, paddling my kayak, cleaning my house, defending my dissertation (since it's work I still believe in and am excited to talk about), getting outside during Tennessee's best season. Spring is only about two weeks long here, but it's a glorious two weeks.

11 February 2011

Back and Better

I had taken a hiatus from the blog while job searching. I'm happy to report that I've returned: employed and in revision of the diss.

I'll update more properly soon.

31 August 2010

One inch

That's how tall the draft of my dissertation measures. Funny how so much work and so many opportunities can be tied to one inch.

I've been watching a lot of films to balance out the hardcore attention to detail I've had to maintain. Now, I will tell you which ones were good, which ones were terrible, and which ones were simply tolerable.

I'll start with the bad ones:

1. 500 Days of Summer: I've already gotten flak about this one. I really hated it. Actively. I found myself actively disliking this film from the first, self-referential scene. What didn't I like about it? Everything. More specifically: Zooey Deschanel, the uber-indie feel, the hypersaturation of hipster culture, the temporal bounds. I like Joseph Gordon Levitt, but this film lost me at: "The Smiths? I love The Smiths." Like Juno and any film with Michael Cera, this film was obsolete by the time it hit DVD. And someone needs to teach Zooey to emote.

2. Amelia: Good story. Terrible acting. Hillary Swank is a talent, for sure, but this film pushes her to vamp up her prairie accent, make much ado about everything, and cut a figure as the scrappy-but-still-elegant pioneer. Richard Gere is a terrible actor, all the time, but Swank doesn't have to be. This film could have been so much more without the melodrama. I wonder what it is about period pieces that cues actors to tap into their stage voices?

3. Gentleman Broncos: Another film from Jared Hess, the guy responsible for Nacho Libre and Napoleon Dynamite. I had high hopes for this movie, as I enjoyed Hess's past work. However, the awkwardness that makes NL and ND endearing makes Gentlemen Broncos simply uncomfortable. It seems as if American filmmakers have hit on this genre of teen films that relies on the site gag and crude jokes. Teen films have always hit these notes harder than other genres, but it does seem that, recently, they've been responsible for setting the bar for crude language and behavior. I'm no prude, but films like GB go a long way to dashing my hopes for American cinematic culture.

And move to The Good Ones
1. Creation: Focusing on the tense relationship between Darwin and his faithful and religious wife, this film, despite its Rotten Tomatoes rating, presented a complex look at a marriage forced to consider its foundation. Haunted by the death of his child--for which he blames himself--Charles works out his theory of evolution as he also deals with the provenance and resting place of his child's soul. A deeply felt, if not pathos-heavy, film with some insight into the background of a foundational scientific text.

2. Mother: A Korean film, Mother relies heavily on attention to detail and surprise endings. Do-joon is 27, oddly childlike, and lives with his mother. Their relationship relies on both physical intimacy and deep emotional entanglement to develop the backdrop for Do-joon's undoing. We follow as he is accused of the murder of a young woman and as his mother, who is viciously devoted to her son, works behind the scenes to protect her child, who she assumes couldn't commit such a violent act. At times grisly and uncomfortable, Mother holds up for question the bounds of maternal commitment. Never think that you know who killed that girl, because the ending will surprise you.

Before finishing with the Better-Than-Good One
Let the Right One In: I had postponed seeing this Swedish vampire film because it came out amid the Twilight hype. I was OVER vampires. However, in its subtlety and grace, this film crafts a story where the vampircism is backgrounded in favor of the human (and otherwise) relationships as they develop. With rich yet stark cinematography, Let the Right One In returns the genre to its roots: it subverts gore and sexuality to highlight visceral need and fulfillment (including psychological need in the face of loneliness, and who hasn't experienced that?). The trope of the unaged child is well rendered, and what blood there is, is presented with style.

Sadly, I've watched only one Better-Than-Good film recently. I have high hopes for The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. (It's sitting on my kitchen table.)

23 August 2010

The Life of the Body

I spend so much time worrying about the life of my mind: reading, writing, making godforsaken (but really helpful) charts, making sure I know who said what about whom and when. "Chain-linked" citations are impressive but can be unethical, writes Bud Goodall, yet my field still swoons when someone pulls a 12-name list of authors out of their back pocket. TaDA!

This post isn't really about the constraints of the discipline or how I see the concept of expertise at work in my life. It's about my back. And my legs. And sometimes even my head (but only the muscles and connectives that attach it to my neck).

Academics--especially those in training--boast impressive injury and illness rap sheets. I have friends with sciatica, migraines, ulcers, carpal tunnel syndrome, and less-serious-but-still-painful soreness and stiffness. I know people who are forever battling colds and the flu, hacking their way to a PhD, hobbling their way up and down Hodges library stacks, bent double like little old women carrying too many baskets of home-baked cookies. (The cookies were too much, right? I over-modify.) Until two years ago, I was an academic invalid too: stomach illnesses (which you can read about on this blog somewhere); a weak core from sitting too long at the computer (that one left me with lockjaw and legally blind for about two weeks. Yes, blind.); numbness in my hands from my keyboard position (wiggling the fingers every five minutes = strange looks from other lab users); and a host of sinus infections, eye infections, lung infections, and common colds. I was sick all the time, and my steady diet of processed food (Velveeta grilled cheese sandwiches were a staple), bargain-basement energy drinks, little to no exercise, and too much clicky clicky typing set me up to fail. Though I was committed 100 percent to working on my life of the mind, I wasn't giving myself a hospitable environment in which to do it.

The revolution was less of a bang, more of a whimper. I gradually switched to a diet comprised almost entirely of clean foods, started exercising with purpose, blocked out a least eight hours of sleep a night, and scheduled weekends off. That's right. I don't work on Saturdays at all, and I work on Sundays only when it's dire. Over the course of the last four years, I've steadily improved that plan, and this year, I've had only one serious illness--a terribly timed stomach flu--and a tangle with some antibiotics for a lingering stomach infection. In comparison, in 2006, I battled pneumonia for 6 weeks at at time 3 different times. (That's more than 4 months of being sick with pneumonia.) I sleep more soundly, I've dropped about 50 pounds, and I'm generally happier. In part, this change is attributed to the higher quality of food I'm consuming and because I block out time to exercise at least once a day, usually twice. However, I've also grown to realize that my time away from my work is just as important. I try to NOT work at home, so that all I have to do when I get home is relax. Work is for work. Home is for home things like watching films, snuggling, napping, and reading for pleasure. (I mention this point because many academics I know work from home, and I'm not saying that compartmentalizing tasks this way works for everyone, but it works for me.)

I guess it's safe to say that, while I value the life of my mind, I'm more interested in maintaining a healthy, sustainable life for my body so we can co-exist in peace. Without migraines.

20 August 2010

A Subtle Shift

It's the end of the first week of my last year as a graduate student.

For me, happy = busy. Good news for my satisfaction, but bad news for my blog. I haven't posted in two weeks (or more?), and I've felt a distinct lack (Freud laffs) of self-reflection and joy in writing.

Not that I haven't been writing. Oh I have: a syllabus (from scratch; I refused to copy/paste this time around), paper assignments, rubrics, scads of emails, and the rough beginning to one class assignment for a course I am taking. Hello, fall. And while I miss the unstructured days of summer, I welcome the organization forced by taking a class and teaching a class. I welcome side projects and brain breaks from the revision of the dissertation. By the way, I haven't started revising the dissertation yet.

Here's where I think my background in creative writing will pay off. I'm okay letting projects chill out. I'm fine with giving two weeks away to other projects while I gain both perspective on the diss and acquire new reading knowledge. But while this break is nice and necessary, my schedule has me revising come Monday. I'm excited to read what I've written. I've already forgotten.

Is is surprising that I can write something substantive and forget it? Maybe it's a feeling akin to how creative writers describe "inspiration." God breathes, right? But here, I find that another part of my brain operates while I write. Sharon Olds once described the feeling to me like this: "I was sitting at my desk, holding my pen, when a poem flew in through the window and landed on it. I'm excited to share that poem with you today!" While only part of the diss came in through the window--I fought hard for entire passages and one entire chapter--I am thankful for the parts that came to me like moving water. (I usually abhor metaphor in self-reflection, but sometimes I can see it working well.) I will never be one to deride the epistemological function of writing. I live that mess.

Here's what's different this year: After my summer spent writing, after feeling professionalized in out-of-department courses, and after much interaction with major professors in my discipline, I realized this week, the first week of my last year as a grad student, that I don't feel like a grad student anymore. I feel like a scholar and colleague, which is maybe premature, but as I taught my first upper-division course yesterday, I realized that I am where I need to be. The students seemed comfortable. I felt comfortable. I am able to use my reading knowledge and experience as a writer. And while I, like many advocacy-minded scholars, often question the relevancy of what I do to the broad struggles and suffering of the world as it is lived, on the ground, I celebrated this moment of coming into my own. It was a small non-event, in a rudimentary classroom in the education complex, and it was subtle, only I knew it had happened, but it was there. And I danced all the way back to McClung Tower.

28 July 2010

Stuck: So here are some movies

I'm stuck on my intro. It's all a'jumble.

Priming the pump (but my pump primes backward. Come on, SK fans. Give that some love.) with some blogginess.

We signed up for Blockbuster's unlimited $30/month movie rental. It's pretty rad. You can get two movies out at a time, but only from the same store. That's a drag, but we've watched scores of movies in the last three weeks. I usually have no attention span for films, but they're growing on me.

So here's a slice of what we've been watching. First, the thumbs-down films.

Very Bad Films

Hot-Tub Time Machine: This film came recommended by people who I consider to be very discriminating. First, context: I hated Knocked Up, 40-Year Old Virgin, and The Hangover. When a film is described as "[one lame film] Meets [another lame film]!" I always worry. In this case, The Hangover Meets Back to the Future provided predictable 12-year-old-boy humor. Despite my love for John Cusack--and I even love the new bloated John--I hated HTTM. I like comedy, for sure, but I like my comedy less obvious. The back of the case said, "Wildly inappropriate!" To me, events don't have to be about pooping, sex, or uncomfortable social situations to be funny. I found it boring in its mass appeal. (First clothes go 80s, now film?) This opinion may make me sound horribly stodgy or prudish, but that's the way I roll.

Worth a Look

BBC's Life Series: I love documentaries. I love nature. But this series (narrated on DVD by Oprah Winfrey) tends to drag. It's fine for a go-through while on the treadmill or grading or doing something else, but the narrative isn't enough to keep it super interesting. I had high standards for Life, since Blue Planet was riveting, but Life often recycles footage, making for a pretty lackluster experience. For example, the same 15-minute vignette about the Ibex's stunning agility in the Mammals section shows up in the Predators section and later in the Biosphere/Life section. I get that providing this much quality footage costs a lot of time and energy--and the footage is stunning--but I also grew bored. I never get bored with documentaries. For what it's worth, the section on fish was really amazing. Watch Life once for the rich visuals, and then call it a day.

The Damned United: I like sports movies, as long as they aren't solely sports movies and as long as they don't play on reduced and/or trite ideologies. (I really hated Varsity Blues and Remember the Titans for their simplified plots.) The Damned United tells the true story of Brian Clough, who coached Leeds United (soccer) for 44 days in 1974. If you were into the World Cup, or any part of soccer history, you'll like the intricacies of this film. It does require a fair amount of knowledge about soccer to fully appreciate, but the acting alone makes up for the price of admission. Clough presents a coach who's easily to dislike but who also brings a sense of ethics to a club short on it. The narrative is complicated by the political imperative for these small English villages to present public images of themselves and, as such, becomes a story much larger than one man's desire to coach a particular team.

Knowing: I was on the fence about watching this film. Sci-fi can go horribly, horribly wrong so quickly, and Nick Cage tends to make films go horribly, horribly wrong. I was pleasantly surprised to find that Knowing offered a plot line less predictable than most sci-fi out there, with characters more developed than most. (I'm looking at you, Moon.) On the surface, it offered a pretty enjoyable story about numerology, foretelling, and the destruction of the human race. Underneath, Knowing, at the title suggests, threw into question exactly what we can know and the effects of action on this knowing. Cage's lack of animation actually supported his role as an astrophysicist, so kudos for that choice. (Much like Keanu's lack of inflection in The Matrix, this inability to act didn't detract from the character as it might in other roles.) Though I didn't like the trite, everyone-embrace-the-end-of-the-world-so-we-can-go-to-Heaven ending, I do like that no deus ex machina showed up to save the day. (I'm looking at you, 2012.)

Quite Good, Actually

Whip It:
Any film described as "brimming with girl power" usually gets put back on the shelf; however, Drew Barrymore's directorial debut is really, really good. It doesn't pander, and it doesn't cast women as 1) helpless waifs; 2) man-hating bitches; or 3) waifs-turned-man-hating-bitches. While Roller Derby, as a sport, interests me somewhat (a colleague used to be a Roller Derby Girl and assures me that I should definitely do it), its overwhelming popularity and embrace by the hipster community has pretty much turned me against most major iterations. As much as I disliked Ellen Page in Juno--and I think I am one of four people who hated that film--I found her to be captivating in Whip It. With a cast that includes Daniel Stern, Juliette Lewis, and Jimmy Fallon, the relationships between the Roller Girls (the "Hurl Scouts"), Bliss (Page), Pash (the best friend), and Bliss's parents becomes a tableau for examining self-knowledge in a very visceral way. Rent it NOW. You'll laugh, and, if it's possible, feel a little nostalgic for high school.

Who Killed the Electric Car?: I've been waiting two years to see this film, and I'm glad our Blockbuster carries it. It documents the story of the EV1, an electric car produced by GM in the 1990s in response to California's strict no-emissions laws. The EV1 was fully electric, could be fitted with a battery to get 300 miles before it needed charged, and could outperform many gasoline cars in terms of speed and handling. So where is it? GM recalled the EV1--which you could only lease--and crushed them all. The only ones out there live in automobile museums, and those have been deconstructed so they don't run. The film cites a number of major players in the revocation of the electric car (which, had the technology continued to advance, would have likely given us wide-consumer access to fully electric vehicles by now). Culprits include the government (a $100,000 tax credit for SUVS, or a $4,000 tax credit for electric cars), big oil (GM's general manager in cahoots with Saudi Arabia? Okay!), state governmental bodies (California dropped the ball and the rest of the country pays), and consumers (who feel "uncomfortable" with an electric car but safe in a Hummer). An interesting historical tid-bit: With the move away from the electric car in the 1990s, we saw the rise of these idiotic giant vehicles like the Hummer and International's version of a consumer "SUV" that can haul 6 tons. That's right: 6 tons. If you're interested in alternative energy, and why we haven't yet gotten there, you should pick up Who Killed the Electric Car.

23 July 2010

On Inaction

I'm happiest when I make quantifiable progress: So many pages written, so many miles covered (by foot or by bike), so many cats herded. That's why I think this reading phase bogs me down. I feel. so. inactive.

For my diss writing process, I started in the middle and spiraled out, writing the six core case study chapters before much of the intro or implications sections. I did this in part because I find the case study chapters to be more fun and in part because I knew I could knock them out and gain momentum. And I did. I'm something like 170 pages in. Good for me. That was hard work.

Because I've had a few classes in qualitative methods and read a slew of case studies, I felt comfortable writing those case study chapters with my four major domains in place (pedagogies, articulations of class, being of use, and connection to the land; they've since been absorbed into two major categories, but that's not important here). I have around 20ish pages of an intro and rough lit review and a couple, literally two, pages of implications (which are pretty sketch and are throwaway, I think).

So now that I feel the core of my diss is written, I'm compelled to review my literature (that I've been reading pretty steadily since January, by the way) and start note-taking to knock out that full intro and lit review, before moving on to the "implications" section where I talk about similarities between cases, meaningful differences, the application to the field, and blah blah blah. What that review of the lit review is forcing me to do is slowly read, slowly note, slowly absorb a LOT of different ideas. I'm wired for movement. This week has felt frustrating and wasted, though I know it can't be. I have 88 pages of notes. I didn't just sit around. I did something. But I have a hard time convincing myself that I've done anything that counts, since none of this prep work gets me quantifiably closer to my goal.

I know, it's faulty thinking and thinking that might rush me through a very important part of my project, which is why I'm writing about it. I hear about scholars who could dwell forever in the research phase, only to put off the writing phase. I'm the opposite. Give me 50 pages to write over 50 pages to read any day of the week and twice on Sundays. I enjoy reading, but I get impatient. I am proud to say that I am working on skills and patience necessary for the future, so this sitting still and just reading is good practice.