Miscellaneous career thoughts 

Thought the first: Last night I went to a dinner with a bunch of people from my department (mostly grad students), and ended up talking with one of them about Victorian poetry and the weird, seductive appeal of poets like Algernon Charles Swinburne.* "Well," I said, "I'm glad someone else likes Swinburne — although I have to admit that half the time I can't pay attention to what his poems actually say because the meters are so strong that all I hear is DUM da da DUM da DUM da da DUM and not the words themselves." My dinner companion replied that that didn't happen to him when he read Swinburne, but that he didn't have much of an ear for prosody. Which got me wondering: I've always been able to "hear" poetic rhythms very clearly; I've even been told that I'm good at scanning Latin and Greek verse. But apart from teaching Intro to Poetry, what can one do with a highly-developed metrical "ear"? It's something of a talent, but not a terribly useful one. I sometimes fantasize about becoming a professional librettist, but I'm realistic enough to know that I won't put food on the table that way. (If any of you readers know of a practical application for mad prosodic skills, send me an e-mail, won't you?)

Thought the second: I've been in career-change mode so long that I'm starting to want to offer career advice to my students. One of them is terrific at giving meticulous, detailed feedback on her classmates' rough drafts; I watch her at it and think, She'd make a great editor. Another wrote an intriguing paper about little interpersonal rituals among pedestrians on campus, and I wanted to ask him if he'd considered anthropology. Another did so well with an in-class process-analysis piece that I immediately pictured her as a future technical writer. I look around the room and see budding sportscasters and musicians and journalists and movie critics. It makes me happy, but I also wonder if I'm living vicariously through them, or projecting my own career indecision onto them, or something. Would that I could see my own future as clearly.

* Speaking of Swinburne, I just discovered that Yale's Beinecke Library has put a small selection of pages from his manuscripts online. My inner scholar is very pleased to be able to look at an in-progress draft of the famous "Before the beginning of years..." chorus from Atalanta in Calydon. "And the high gods took in hand / Fire, and the falling tears, / And a measure of sliding sand / From under the feet of the years" — yeah. And I also think it's very cool to know that the lines "Time, with a gift of tears; / Grief, with a glass that ran" were originally, and more predictably, written with Time as the one with the running hourglass and Grief as the one with the gift of tears, and that Swinburne revised them to give the figures each other's attributes.


A plastic-sack view of higher education 

(Disclaimer: I am not an economist or a political scientist. Metaphors, some of them mixed, ahead. You've been forewarned.)

So I was at the grocery store doing my weekend grocery shopping, and as I handed the checkout guy the two cloth totebags I always bring (because if you go to the grocery store on the bus, as I do, it's easier to haul groceries in a couple of sturdy capacious bags that can be slung over the shoulders), I wondered for the umpteenth time why grocery baggers do such a haphazard job of arranging the groceries. Heavy items all grouped in one bag instead of distributed; crushable items like fruit and eggs underneath big cans of tomatoes; frozen things not placed next to each other, to keep them colder, but instead scattered throughout. I was reminded of an article I'd seen linked on Arts & Letters Daily about the vanishing art of grocery bagging — it's on the Wall Street Journal site, which requires a subscription, but it's also posted here. And I reflected, as I rearranged the groceries while sitting on the bus, on possible explanations for the haphazard bagging. To wit:

1) Market forces have dictated the replacement of the sturdy paper bag by the cheaper plastic bag, in which grocery items tend to roll around no matter how carefully packed, so careful packing is no longer an important skill and not really a matter of concern (the WSJ's explanation); or
2) The baggers at the grocery store probably have to bag as quickly as possible, since their low-paying jobs depend on their moving things along — especially in the case of the checkout clerks who have to do their own bagging; or possibly
3) The big supermarket, located in a strip mall outside any area where people actually live, is designed for those who do their shopping by car, and who therefore only have to carry the bags to the parking lot and then up their driveways into the house. Why should they care about how the bags are packed, or that fourteen items get thrown all anyhow into half a dozen bags? And then there's always the "O tempora, o mores!" explanation, namely
4) There used to be a golden age during which all grocery stores were idyllic small businesses where employees cared about the quality of their work, and packed groceries considerately for the benefit of the housewives in curlers who stopped in to buy a dozen eggs and some bacon and a loaf of bread, but now that time is irrevocably gone — no doubt due to the evil, awful 1960s and the concomitant decline in American culture. Oh, and multiculturalism and feminism are probably responsible in some ill-defined but vehemently asserted way. [Can you tell I'm sick to death of the culture wars and the "woe! alas! Students don't read Shakespeare anymore! We're going to hell in a handbasket and it's all the left's fault!" rhetoric?]

Okay, #4 is a parody. But as I was amusing myself by aligning theories of the Decline and Fall of the Art of Grocery Bagging with various sides of the political spectrum (the free-market right and the liberal and green left, together with the hand-wringing cultural conservative right as exemplified by #4), I started thinking about how arguments about the decline of higher education in the United States make some of the same moves. There are the wistful evocations of a brief halcyon period when it was easy to get a tenure-track position in a peaceful little New England college town (and buy groceries at the mom-and-pop store). There are the explanations of the increasing reliance on contingent faculty as a function of increasing pressures toward cost-cutting and "efficiency." There are the readings of Ph.D.s as the "waste products" of a system that cranks out the cheapest possible labor for undergraduate teaching. And so on. We're all a bunch of plastic bags dancing in the wind, like in that scene in American Beauty, only without the beauty.

And then I read Jon's post about a stark teaching dilemma that a lot of us face: spend unpaid extra time giving the students the instruction they need, or do less and feel like one is shortchanging their education? As Jon puts it, "It's like, either I knowingly sell my students short. Or I use up my own time." Which was exactly what I was thinking during my last round of grading: if I let myself engage intellectually with my students' writing, it takes an ungodly amount of time, and if I keep to schedule, I have to turn myself into a grading automaton. Because I want to have something resembling a life, I often end up going the faster, more disengaged route. Burnout is rapidly setting in, and I've only got three sections; if I had a 5/5 courseload, or had to spend all my spare time commuting from one campus to another, like a lot of adjuncts do, I'd most definitely be shortchanging the students.

So now, given the corporatization of the university, I'm leaning toward something like explanation 2. If the number of customers served matters more than the quality of the service, you'll bag faster and not spend the time assembling the cereal boxes into a foundation for the glass jars and the bread. If you have 100 students, you'll spend less time talking to them and giving them feedback. You can engage in nostalgia for the golden age of bagging, or of the university, if you like — but I don't see that working as a strategy for change, and I'm not holding my breath waiting for that era to return, if it even really existed in the first place.

Side note: Sloppy bagging is one of my mother's pet peeves, and I remember her repacking the groceries even when I was a child. So it's entirely possible that all of this is about me becoming my mother as I grow older. Oh dear.


A variant on the desert island list 

Via Making Contact comes the question: which books would you grab if the stormtroopers were marching into your town? I like this question because it encourages one to think not of a specific number of books, but of however many will fit into a backpack. And of which books one not only likes best, but would want to save from ruin. Here's my list (sorry, no photo):

John Ashbery, Houseboat Days and Shadow Train
Jane Austen, Emma
Roland Barthes, A Lover's Discourse
Elizabeth Bishop, Collected Poems
Jorge Luis Borges, Labyrinths
My mid-17th-century edition of George Herbert's The Temple (given to me by my great-aunt, who got it in a used bookshop during the 1950s for $5; it's decrepit and missing its title page, but I'll be damned if I let it fall into unfriendly hands!)
George Puttenham, The Arte of English Poesie (in the small paperback edition from Kent State)
Wallace Stevens, Collected Poems
Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway

I wish I could fit my Riverside Shakespeare into the stack, but I don't think I could. (I might still be able to pack my battered paperback editions of Antony and Cleopatra and The Winter's Tale as a compromise.) Now I'm distraught about the books I'd have to leave behind. Maybe there's still room for my selected Auden, my selected Merrill, or some Calvino (the poster at Everything Burns who nominated Invisible Cities reminded me of how much I love that book)? Sidney (I'd want to reread Astrophil and Stella)? Montaigne's essays? The Decameron? I'd probably strain my back, but then again, if the stormtroopers really were on their way, I'd need the weight-training for when I joined the resistance.

On a somewhat related note, Zadie Smith writes about E. M. Forster for the Guardian, and asks why, when we grow up to be "serious" readers, we become suspicious of our subjective affective responses to the novel:
There is something about love that does not sit well with the literary academy. We are aware that there is an emotive response for which the novel explicitly applies that is not properly requested by an atom or a rock formation or a chemical compound. Sensing the anomalous nature of this emotive quality within the university, we have resolved not to speak of it much. We recall the strategies by which FR Leavis secured the novel's status within the academy, treating the novel with circumspection; as if it were not quite a novel, but rather a piece of social history, or an example of moral philosophy, or a mission statement, or a piece of public policy. It did not matter, really, as long as the novel was seen to be treated rigorously and made relevant. Like Leavis, we are not quite sure that the novel as novel will do. An admission of love, in this context, would only be seen as weakness. ... Nietzsche would have considered us pathologically Christian in our literary habits. Oh yes, my generation liked to be in some pain when they read. The harder it was, the more good we believed it was doing us.
She also has interesting things to say about Forster; I had some initial reservations about her focus on the ethics of the novel, but it's well worth reading. Forster... maybe I could fit Howards End into the book-sack as I'm running from the flames?