A Love Letter to My New Job

Or, A Labor Day Post Quite Different from Last Year’s

Labor Day reflections. Western Maryland 4-H Education Center. Photo Credit: The Madwoman, 8/31/14.

Labor Day reflections. Western Maryland 4-H Education Center. Photo Credit: The Madwoman, 8/31/14.

The summer of 2014 has been long and strange for me and horrifying for much of the world. I’m not sorry to see it end. Within a 17-day period in July, I started a new job, lost a beloved and relatively young (six and a half years old) dog, and lost my mother, who was not young and hadn’t been in good health for a long time, but still. And when I say that I lost them, I don’t mean I misplaced them. I mean that my dog and my mother died, within eight days of one another — while I was still trying to sort out the best places to park and pee in my new job. Why, yes, as a matter of fact, it did suck.

I don’t want to blog about the dying, though. I hope you won’t mind. I’ve done plenty of sharing on Facebook, and maybe some day I’ll find a way to blog about the powerful ways in which these two deaths, so proximate to one another in time, are linked in my heart-mind. For now, I’d like to blog about the happy part of my long, strange summer, the part that went beautifully when so much else was so achingly out of joint — the start of the aforementioned new job.

Classes begin tomorrow at Queer the Turtle U, but I’ve just gone through one of the busiest weeks of the year in my new position as executive director of an academic residential community that is home to close to 2,000 academically talented freshmen and sophomores. This past Wednesday, we welcomed our new cohort of 977 freshmen to campus with a convocation ceremony that featured some first-rate a cappella singing, the university president, and yours truly in the role of inspirational speaker, though I have a hunch our young scholars will forever remember me as the Lady in the Awesome Red Jacket Who Inadvertently Made Them All Think About Sex at the Same Time. (Long story. Brief occupational lesson: Never forget that eighteen-year-olds are always this close to thinking about sex. Speak with caution. And laugh along with them when you push them over the edge.) On Thursday, we sent them all out at ten minutes past the butt crack of dawn to do service projects at thirty sites throughout Maryland and Washington, D.C., a logistical operation on par with the invasion of Normandy as far as I am concerned. On Friday, we worked quietly in our offices while caffeinating heavily and patting ourselves on the backs that not a single teenager had been maimed or killed on Service Day. Some of us stayed late to hang out at a burrito slam (is that a thing now?) being hosted by four of our programs. On Saturday, I pulled my sleeping bag out of mothballs, gave a quick kiss to the Person to Whom I Am Legally Married, and headed off to a 4-H camp (see photo above) in the part of Maryland that is really West Virginia to spend the weekend with students and faculty in another of our programs who prefer to do their getting acquainted in the company of snakes, mice, and salamanders. In this instance, tacos were slammed. (Long story. Brief occupational lesson: The new job involves lots of social eating. Someone is headed back to her Lifestyle Adjustment Program soon for a quick refresher course before the buttons on that red jacket start popping off.) I drove home this morning, exhausted, stiff as a board from two nights on a flimsy mattress in a rustic cabin, grinning like a fool. Labor Day? I chuckled to myself. In this case, I think we should call it Labor of Love Day.

Go ahead. Roll your eyes. Feel cynical or superior. Or click back to that Word document of the syllabus you’ve been working at in a desultory way for the better part of the weekend. Or stick around for a minute or two and listen to an academic talk about something other than fear and loathing of everything currently happening in higher education. Don’t worry. I haven’t lost sight of the fact that there is plenty to fear and loathe. That’s just not my focus here.

I’m an academic, and I am having fun at work. There. I said it. I know I’m still in the honeymoon phase of this new gig and that one day I’ll wake up and there will be reports to write instead of inspirational speeches and meetings that will make me wish I had food poisoning to get out of attending. I am also acutely aware of how fortunate I am to be in a big honking R-1 school chockablock with cool programs that need people to run them. Still, I don’t think my situation is all that unusual. Most schools have similar opportunities for mid-career course adjustments that can ease the dread so many faculty members feel this time of year. My advice to those for whom the dread is starting to feel unbearable? Look around you. Keep your ears open for opportunities. Put out feelers. Be open to possibilities that might seem unusual.  Unusual could easily turn out to be just right. That’s what happened in my case. I’d never been involved in a living-learning program. It wouldn’t have occurred to me to apply for my current position if I hadn’t been actively exploring what I might do once I stepped down from twelve years of running a small academic program. I was prepared to head back “home” to the English department full time and focus on getting promoted, but when this opportunity came up something told me I ought to pursue it. I was surprised by what my gut was telling me to do, but my gut has never steered me wrong. I listened to it. I’m glad I did. I love the energy and excitement of my new office as well as the commitment to working together to make great things happen for undergraduate students in their first two years.

I’m an academic, and I am having fun at work. Are you? If you aren’t, look around you. Maybe the best job you’ll ever have is right there on your own campus. Don’t just stand on the dock feeling surly or sad. Dive in — Summer may be over, but the water is still fine!

This post is dedicated to my dear pal Lisa, who lives on the water, recently became a dean, and is also in mad love with her new job. Lisa, my friend, you make me regret every No Dean Left Behind joke I ever made. If higher ed is in your capable hands, we might avoid the apocalypse after all.

The Madwoman in the Basement

Here’s a song that expresses how I feel about returning to this space after the longest hiatus I’ve ever taken in the course of my accidental 8-year career as a blogger. Give it a click, dearly beloved if sorely neglected Madpeople at Your Laptops. It’s very pretty in a shoo-boppy kind of way, and it is, of course, entirely about you:

So, yes, it has been a mighty long time. I wish I could say I followed up that last post with an extended honeymoon in Europe with the Woman Formerly Known as Goose and Never to Be Referred to as My Wife. (Don’t worry — I’ll stick with WFKG as the abbreviated nom de blog for the person to whom I am legally married. She likes sounding like a radio station.) Not surprisingly, our impulsive mid-semester nuptials were followed not by an exotic trip but by the long grind of wrapping up an academic year, a busy, fraught period made especially so for me this year because I was preparing to step down from an administrative position I had held for twelve years and, as it turned out, getting ready to move into a new and substantially bigger administrative position. I start the new job on July 1, but I’m already up to my eyeballs in transition work. The long, languorous summer of 2014 has suddenly turned into a frenetic season of enormous changes at the last minute.

I’m excited but still not sure how to blog about most of what is happening, so let’s just talk about the basement, okay? I’ll figure out the other stuff later and get back to you. In less than three months. I swear.

My study is in the basement. It is a ridiculously large study, because it is the space underneath the great room we added to our humble red brick cape cod during the We Must Be Crazy Renovation of 2003-04. If the first-floor room is a great room, I’ve always thought the basement space should be called the fabulous room. It’s everything you don’t expect a basement to be: light and open and vertically spacious enough that a tall girl can do sun salutes without worrying that she’ll scrape the ceiling with her finger nails. It can be chilly, but we have a cute little Norwegian stove that can produce an astonishing amount of heat when necessary. Sliding glass doors open out onto a patio, which leads out into what fancier people would call the garden and what the neighborhood deer refer to as the hosta bar.

I love my study, but the truth is I’ve neglected it a lot in the last few years. With two different offices on campus (one in my department and one in the program I directed), I didn’t get to spend much time there. The shelves were lined with books I hadn’t looked at since grad school, and every available surface was slowly covered up with stacks of files and papers and memos that I was too lazy to file and for one reason or another reluctant to throw away. Paperless office? Ha! Not mine, kids.

Anyhoo, among the enormous changes occurring this summer are moving out of both of my current campus offices and moving into a third. As I contemplated the logistical challenges of this professional relocation project, I realized the first step in the chain reaction had to be a come-to-Jesus moment with regard to the mess in the basement. My new position completely releases me from teaching in the English department, so the first step was to do some serious culling of those files and figure out where in the hell to put them. I also wanted to clear out shelf space, because I’ve got this nutty idea that the life I’m about to begin is somehow going to afford me time and mental space for working on a book. (I know, I know — but a girl is entitled to the delusions born of a fresh start, isn’t she? Besides, as you may recall, I want to be promoted.)

The home office is by definition a hybrid space, so personal documents and records were a major focus of my reorganizational efforts. After careful consultation with a U.S. government list of tips for managing household records, I convinced myself I could live without bank statements going all the way back to 1999, so I filled two grocery bags with financial stuff and old utility bills and carted them off for shredding. I was rewarded with a large, entirely empty drawer that won’t promptly be refilled with new bank statements because I have finally gone paperless on that front. My personal and professional lives are far less paper-centric than they used to be, so my hope is that the Epic Culling of 2014 will never have to be repeated. (Another delusion? Perhaps, especially if you know that a number of the culled files went into a secret cabinet in a remote, damp corner of the basement. Oh, dear.)

The home office also contains familial archives, which in my case are boxes of photos and other scraps that fell into my lap when we moved my mother into assisted living a couple of years ago. Once I had gotten a handle on the mess in the basement, I let myself dip into that archive, thinking I might find an image suitable for Father’s Day, which is when I intended to publish this post. (So, all this optimism, and I’m still the world’s slowest blogger!) What I unearthed was a lovely, new-to-me photo of my long dead father, looking to be about four years old, intently sipping a Coke with his older sister and my beloved grandmother Jane:

Probably southern Indiana, c. 1934.

Le père de la folle, drinking a Coke, probably in southern Indiana, c. 1935.

I adore this picture, mostly because one of my favorite things about visiting my grandparents when I was a kid was that the basement stairs were always lined with cartons of Coke in glass bottles. It’s nice to see that the penchant for sugary beverages was deeply rooted in family history.

Why do I bore you with the mundane details of my tossing out and burrowing down and looking back and moving forward? It’s a way, I suppose, of explaining the recent silence here without divulging the details of months that have been stressful, challenging, and in some ways momentous. Cliche as it sounds, facing the mess in the basement was an important part of ending one chapter in my professional life and preparing to begin another. Going through all that paper was an opportunity to reflect on what the last decade or so has been and meant — the students I’ve known, the books I’ve taught, the meetings (oh, lord, the meetings!) I’ve attended, the plans I’ve made and in some cases unmade. The taking stock felt good. It was a way of honoring the recent past, but it was also a way of letting it go. That felt good, too, liberating even. I step into my delightfully uncluttered study now and feel energized rather than overwhelmed.

Clean up, let go, move on: One office down, two more to go. How are your summers going, Madpeople? I hope you’ll stop by to say hello to me, though it’s been such a mighty long time. Shoo-bop, shoo-bop, my baby. Throw something out today. I promise you’ll feel better.

Advice for (Virtual and Actual) Life: Don’t Be a Butthead

Don't Be a Butthead

Profiles in Science from the National Library of Medicine. Poster for a 1998 anti-tobacco campaign by the Centers for Disease Control. Original Repository: The History of Medicine Division. Prints and Photographs Collection.

That’s not the kind of butthead I had in mind, but, well, if the shoe fits, don’t smoke it. Or something.

Anyhoo, yours truly was on a little panel Monday morning at QTU focused on online professionalism for grad students. The panel included poet Josh Weiner, digital wunderkind Matt Kirschenbaum, and digital wunderkind-in-training Amanda Visconti, whose fabulous blog post of the remarks she made you should totes go read, soon and carefully. (Great links! Sound advice! Pithy wisdom on the magic of blogging!) The audience was lit critters, but the issues and advice are relevant to all job seekers in the age of social media, so I figured I’d share my own comments and links here. Feel free to weigh in with your insights, questions, and pithy wisdom. The un- and under-employed are eager to hear from you!

One of the questions put to the panel by organizer (and blogger) Rachel Vorona was, What does online professionalism mean, especially for graduate students? That’s where I decided to begin my reflections.

* * *

What does online professionalism mean, especially for grad students? Pretty much what it means for anybody else:

Don’t be a butthead.

Don’t tweet naked selfies. Don’t provoke flame wars with senior scholars in your field. Don’t brag about grading drunk on Facebook. Don’t blog as a dog or, worse, a dead dog, until you have tenure or, better still, are a full professor.

Here is a good local example of why online professionalism is important for aspiring academics. Recently adopted changes to Queer the Turtle U’s guidelines on search and selection have this to say about use of the Internet and social media in the hiring process:

a. The Internet and social media may be used to recruit and vet applicants for employment.

b. Information pertaining to personal characteristics or traits that are not job-related, such as race, religious affiliation, and personal appearance, should not be considered in the hiring process.

c. The use of the Internet and/or social media should be consistently and fairly applied to all candidates at the same stage.

d. The use of the Internet and/or social media should not be the only means of vetting applicants.

e. Search Committees should not use information found through Internet searches and/or social media unless the information is verified and related to the essential functions of the specific job.

I love point d. in particular. Oh, crap, you mean we have to keep reading all these recommendations and writing samples after all? The Google can’t do it all for us? The guidelines are an admirable attempt to acknowledge that we live in the twenty-first rather than the nineteenth century, but the problem of course is that you can’t un-ring a bell. Once a search committee member has seen the photo of you tongue-kissing Testudo or read your agonizing blog post about what an intellectual fraud you are, he or she is almost certain to reassess your candidacy, even if only unconsciously and silently. You can take comfort in knowing that all of your competitors on the job market are as vulnerable as you are to such scrutiny, but the bottom line is that you need to exercise good judgment in your online behavior and do what you can to assure that your digital footprint bolsters your chances of gainful employment rather than undermining them. That doesn’t mean you should live in a state of digital paranoia or desperately cultivate and promote unrealistic images of yourself as a saint or a superstar. It just means you should assume that everything you put up online will be permanently and universally accessible. Nothing ever really disappears, so make sure you won’t mind having it follow you around forever. (You can try to delete yourself from the Internet, but is that a realistic option for someone aspiring to work and live in the world? I don’t think so, sweeties.)

How might blogging fit into your efforts to build a professional online presence? That’s a great question, but I’m not sure it’s one that a former dog blogger is equipped to answer. A year and a half ago, I put down the dog, as it were, and started blogging as a Madwoman, but The Madwoman with a Laptop is still not an “academic blog” if by that we mean a blog primarily aimed at developing and promoting my scholarly work. Nonetheless, I do blog regularly on academic professional issues, and blogging has become an important part of my academic profile. I’ve published articles on the subject, given lots of talks at conferences, teach a class called “Writing for the Blogosphere,” and now list my blogs on my CV under the category of creative nonfiction. (That feels right to me, though the question of whether it fits and how it counts is something we might take up later.) My most widely viewed post ever was one I published this Labor Day called “Take This Job and Shove It.” It focused on assistant professors resigning from tenure-track positions, a trend we are seeing increasingly, unfortunately, among women and faculty of color. I’ve written a lot on the so-called funding crisis in higher education and on the pressure on universities to produce Excellence Without Money in the age of helicopter parents and neoliberal austerity.

So, why should you blog? I peeked ahead to Amanda’s presentation and note that she describes blogging as magic. She’s right. I think it’s also, ideally, just about the most fun you can have while staring at a screen. What thrilled me about blogging was that it helped me to re-establish a regular practice of writing something other than the dull reports and soulless e-mails I had to crank out in my administrative work. I enjoyed the informality and the creativity of blogging. I delighted in being able to compose multimedia texts without having to know anything more technical than how to flip open a laptop. As the blog grew, I loved the sense of connection to a live and responsive audience. Every post felt like an adventure and an experiment. If it was labor, it was a labor of love. Nearly eight years later, I still feel considerable love for blogging and can recommend it to scholars at any stage in their career as a writing practice that encourages the disciplines of clarity and concision and affords the pleasures of thinking out loud in public. Light-hearted as it often is, my blogging is always informed by what I’ve learned in my life as a scholar and teacher. I view blogging and other social media as tools of outreach and education, means of engaging in public pedagogy, of translating our work into terms that a broader public can understand and, I hope, support. David Palumbo-Liu wrote recently in the Boston Review of the profound effects that changes in communications technologies and the information landscape have had on the concept of the public intellectual. His comments resonate with what I strive to do as a scholar blogger, and I think they would be useful to anyone interested in engaging in public conversations. He writes:

What is called for are public intellectuals who exert critical intelligence in synthesizing multiple sources of information and knowledge and presenting their opinions for debate, not simply for consumption. A public intellectual today would thus not simply be one filter alongside others, an arbiter of opinion and supplier of diversity. Instead, today’s public intellectual is a provocateur who also provides a compelling reason to think differently.

Nonetheless, I have to admit that in the last couple of years I have come to feel a little burdened by the labor part of my labor of love. Blogging is work, and it is work that is devalued if not wholly disregarded in the academic reward system. That is something worth thinking about very seriously if you are in the early stages of your career and trying to figure out how to spend your time and energy and balance your various commitments. I’m fortunate to be in a department that let me start teaching courses on online writing and culture when I decided it was time to make my hobby part of my work life. With the security of tenure, I was able to re-tool myself as something of a digital humanist. It is worth noting, however, that, although my hilarious – and entirely fictional — Xtranormal cartoon “I Want to Be Promoted,” in which an associate professor meets with her department chair to discuss her desire to go up for full partly on the basis of her blog, has gotten more than 11,000 hits on YouTube, I am still, three years later, an associate professor and expect to remain so unless and until I produce that second scholarly monograph, which is still the standard for promotion in humanities departments at R1 universities.

Thus, though I cling stubbornly to the kind of idealism Palumbo-Liu expresses about the vital work of the public intellectual in our changed information ecosystem, I also share the ambivalence articulated so eloquently in Mimi Nguyen’s trenchant “Against Efficiency Machines,” which I urge all of you to read in its entirety. (She published it in September on her blog, Thread and Circuits.) Nguyen is absolutely right that blogging, tweeting, and other modes of online communicating have been sucked up into the maw of the neoliberal university, with its insatiable demands for “flexible subjects, immaterial labor, round-the-clock consumption, and the commodification of the self.” We are expected to prove our public relevance, encouraged to cultivate and “enjoin our personal brands to the university while being capable of working more for less compensation, or the same — or none at all.” Nguyen’s closing words feel hauntingly relevant to the kind of conversation we are having here today:

Professionalization comes at a cost, including that of your own uncompensated labor. And, you might not distinguish yourself after all, but instead become just another click in a continuous feed.

I pass those somber words along to you by way of a conclusion and hope that we’ll have a more upbeat conversation during discussion. I’m a glass half full kind of gal, but these are times that test even the most cock-eyed optimists.

* * *

The conversation that followed was indeed upbeat and lively, with Kirschenbaum insisting that building a professional digital presence should be as much a part of academic career prep today as putting together a CV, while Weiner extolled the virtues of writing within the 140-character limit of Twitter and Visconti focused on blogging and tweeting as ways of workshopping ideas and building connections. (The whole convo is Storified here if you’d like to follow along, thanks to Kathryn Kaczmarek. I’m not sure I’ve ever been Storified before!)  I hope the audience of aspiring English profs found it informative and maybe a little provocative. Mind your digital footprints, kids. Don’t leave a mess behind you. Build something you’d be thrilled to have the world see. Because, you know, the world may well be watching.

Random Bullets of Holy Crap It’s October?

  • How to Lose the Interwebz: Follow up your most ridiculously popular post ever (thank you, Twitters!) with a solid month of the blogging equivalent of this! And watch your hits go from the stratosphere to the toilet in 3-2-1-boy, that didn’t take long, did it? Sorry, readers, we were busy. Love you, mean it!

take this job & shove it weekly stats

  • Counting the Ways: The federal government is shut down over a hissy fit, George W. Bush is posting kitten and baby photos on Instagram, Carrie Mathison is off her meds again, and you think there are only Twelve Signs America Is Insane? Gee, and I thought I was an optimist. But, srsly, Justin Bieber made $55 million in 2012? What am I doing wrong?
  • Academia Kills: Yes, I read the unbearably sad “Death of an Adjunct” column published by Daniel Kavolik in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in mid-September. The titular adjunct was Margaret Mary Vojtko, who had taught French at Duquesne for 25 years without job security or health benefits and died in poverty after a heart attack at the age of 83. Reaction to the column was swift, as the piece went viral in the unhappy, increasingly adjunctified world of higher ed. Good lord, people, how do we bear to look at ourselves in the mirror?
  • Academia Chokes, Mid-Stream: Tenured Radical examines the misery of the middle ranks of academe in a post that did not make me cry or squirm or feel the least bit ashamed or defensive everyone should read. It’s called “The Associate Professor Blues.” Which, at least in my head, sounds a lot like this. Deep in the heart of my second decade as an associate professor, I have nothing to say on this subject that I didn’t say in my epic Xtranormal cartoon of 2010, “I Want to be Promoted.” Close your office door and watch it. I promise it won’t make you cry or squirm or feel the least bit ashamed or defensive.
  • Because I Always Thought Christopher Robin Was Kind of a Jerk: Read this McSweeney’s piece (by Rachel Klein) on how residents of the Hundred Acre Wood react to a barrage of out-of-the-blue friend requests from the Boy Who Went Away all those years ago. It’s pitch perfect. Especially if you always thought Eeyore was the best judge of character in the forest and the animal most likely to embrace new communications technologies.
  • Because I Never Thought Obamacare Had Anything to Do with ME: I set off a bit of a poop storm on my own Facebook wall yesterday when I declared I was angry to discover that the Affordable Care Act was going to force me to purchase prescription drug coverage. I’ve always had access to such coverage and not purchased it because I am a) healthy, b) cheap, and c) convinced that the pharmaceutical industry is going to destroy human life through overuse of antibiotics. I appreciate the need for such coverage, especially for folks with chronic conditions requiring life-sustaining medications, and I accept the argument that those blessed, as I am, with ridiculously good health, should buy into the pool to help offset the costs of those who will rely on the coverage more. Still, it ticked me off to realize that the ACA was going to compel me to buy something I had rationally decided I did not want. It felt like a violation of my consumer sovereignty, which, in the United States of Walmart and Starbucks, is the only form of sovereignty that matters. That is the problem, as one of my Facebook pals pointed out, with having stuck with a market-based model for health-insurance reform rather than moving to a public, single-payer model. I have never objected to paying taxes to help educate other people’s children or to build hospitals I hope never to use. I view paying taxes as part of my duties as a citizen — an exercise of my political sovereignty, a contribution to the public good that I am happy to make. The market model, by contrast, taps into my inner Ayn Rand, as another of my FB friends teased, making me feel not altruistic and publicly good, but selfish, niggardly, and privately robbed. Look, I will get the coverage and sincerely hope that the ACA proves to be the most wildly popular act of the federal government since the repeal of Prohibition. My point in confessing a momentary, knee-jerk reaction against the law’s impact on my own associate professor’s wallet is that I think it is a small but good example of why, for now at least, the ACA stokes ambivalence at best and fuels apoplexy at worst. It is a law no one can truly love. It is proof of how little we are willing to invest these days in common sense and public goods. It is a law that might have improved the life and death of Margaret Mary Vojtko, but only marginally so. She deserved better from us, but, well, so does nearly everyone.

Happy October, darlings. May it be the best month money can buy.

Swimming and/as Schmoozing

From the balcony of the Caribe Hilton, San Juan, PR. Photo Credit: The Madwoman, 11/16/12.

I won’t lie. I haven’t attended a whole lot of sessions here at the American Studies Association annual meeting in San Juan. The time has felt rewarding and rejuvenating, both professionally and personally, but most of the benefits have come from informal contacts and serendipitous conversations that occurred outside the formal structure of the conference. Should I feel bad about having a significant discussion about  the state of my career with a senior colleague in my own department while bobbing around in the emerald green waters of the Caribbean? Or about spending 45 minutes chatting with someone whose work I’ve long admired while standing at a poolside bar wrapped in a towel? Should I feel less bad if the upshot of the conversation was an invitation to speak at a conference I am hosting in the spring? Oh, and if I extracted the promise of a syllabus for a course similar to the one I’ll be teaching next semester?

Actually, I don’t feel bad at all about how I’ve spent my time here. I offer these reflections in response to a post by Tenured Radical addressing a reader’s queries about academic conferences in suspiciously beautiful places. I”ve attended a few sessions, participated in one — with TR, Historiann, GayProf, and our fearless moderator, the Woman Formerly Known as Goose — and hit as many parties as time and stamina allowed. I am a firm believer in the value of live, person-to-person contact and in getting out of one’s usual routines and habitat as a way of shaking things up. I doubt seriously I would have had quite the same candid exchange with my own colleague over coffee back in Turtle Country. Further, our session on blogging as public pedagogy was lively and well-attended. It sparked a conversation that continued for many of us for the rest of the conference. I suspect it will continue by several means for a long time to come, and if WFKG has her way it will likely lead to a collection of essays on the session theme. Stay tuned, darlings, because WFKG can be very persuasive.

Yes, I had to do some rearranging of life and work in order to be here, and it does mean I am about to be hurled into Thanksgiving week a little further behind than I’d like to be. Still, the journey and the work have been worthwhile, if only because I finally got to meet GayProf and Historiann in the flesh and discovered that they are as delightful and charming in person as they are on screen. I was taken aback that Historiann did not ride in on a horse and GayProf seems not to have flown in on an invisible plane, but I suppose they might have been a little surprised that I was neither a dead dog nor an actual madwoman. I did bring a laptop, though, so perhaps that took the edge off their disappointment.

Conferences are good, and the work at conferences occurs in a variety of ways and locations.

Which is why, my pretties, if you’re still in San Juan, you may find me bobbing around in the emerald green waters of the Caribbean along about noon today. (Our flight doesn’t leave until this evening.) Stop by for a chat. It might be professionally advantageous to both of us.


(Photo of Indian River Bridge by Jason Rudy. Photoshopping of Ruby on bridge by the Madwoman, with an able assist by Kiwiboy, Photoshop tutor extraordinaire, 8/19/12.)

Classes start next week at QTU, so we’re getting in some last-minute fun, sun, ice cream, and Photoshop lessons at a quiet town on the Delaware shore. We’ve kept half an ear tuned into what’s happening back in the real (and stunningly dysfunctional) world, which is why we can tell you that you really ought to go watch this Onion video on Tampa’s gay prostitutes gearing up for an onslaught of closeted gay Republicans coming to town for next week’s Akin-free convention. Srsly. Go watch it. It had four PhDs and a 12-year-old boy laughing so hard they nearly forgot for a moment that the party of homophobes, misogynists, and starve-the-beasters might actually run the country come November. Was I just musing here the other day about whether our political discourse could sink any lower? Why, yes, I believe I was.

Dear Universe: That was a rhetorical question. There was no need to supply dramatic evidence that the party of Lincoln had gone so completely off its rocker that it would bring the term “legitimate rape” into the political lexicon. Please stop — or I’ll have to run over to the old blog and pick up my laser-shooting vajayjay just to keep from going truly insane. Yours sincerely, The Madwoman.

Oh, and in case you need some guidance on how to tell whether your rape was legitimate or illegitimate — and, really, who doesn’t? — here is an informative and catchy tune to help you out. Click. Sing. You’ll feel better.

The Akins debacle has inspired Kate Harding to realize not only that abortion should be illegal in all circumstances but that American women should each have at least ten children to ensure that we are not depriving the country of the best and brightest. “Martin Luther King, Jr., was the second of three children,” Harding points out. “If his parents had stopped at one, who would have led the civil rights movement? International superstar Madonna is the third of six children. Had her parents decided to quit after two, we would live in a world without ‘Like a Virgin.’ Can you even imagine?”

Indeed, as the third of four children and a survivor of the disco years, I cannot! Wimmin, if your lady parts are still functioning, hop to! America cannot afford for you not to have as many children as you are physically capable of producing! You might have within you the seeds of the next Marie Curie! Or Kim Kardashian! Or Todd Akin! Get those buns in the oven before it’s too late!

If, on the other hand, you are not planning to fulfill your biological duty to the nation and plan to waste your time and love on really bad dogs, here’s a funny Tumblr devoted to Dogshaming. It’s pictures of dogs next to signs identifying their bad actions. For example: “I pooped by the elliptical machine.” “I ate a Herman Melville novel.”  If we were to submit one for Ms. Ruby this week, instead of “I went flying over the Indian River Bridge in my human’s blue goggles,” it would most likely say, “I went on vacation and forgot that tinkling is an outdoor activity.” Alas.

And if, on the other other hand, an orgy of syllabus-writing and other forms of back-to-school craziness have you rethinking your career plans, by all means go read this piece on leaving academe by Terran Lane. It clearly and succinctly maps out how changes on campus — e.g., centralization of authority and decrease of autonomy, budgetary contraints and pressure to raise money, poor incentives to do exploratory research outside one’s own speciality — have made higher education a far less appealing place to work in recent years. Reading it, I thought if I were a software engineer instead of an English prof who needed help from a 12-year-old to create an image of my dog flying over a bridge in a pair of swim goggles I might head for the exits, too. Hey, Google, got any jobs for a 50-something feminazi with limited no tech skill and a library full of queer theory? No? Well, thanks for your consideration.

Sigh. Looks like I’ll have to finish that syllabus after all. Later, darlings. Today, I’ve got a wave to catch. Peace out.

My Self Is Not a Tennis Shoe

Raise your hand if you’re an academic stuck in a mid-career funk, actively, perhaps even desperately, seeking ways to recover your professional mojo. (Don’t be shy. This is a brand new blog, so hardly anyone is here yet. No one will see what you do. Trust me.)

Now, raise your hand if the idea of rebranding yourself feels like the answer to your prayers.

No? Raise your hand if the idea of rebranding yourself brings a mild burning sensation to the back of your throat. Ah, yep — There are the hands. I knew someone was here!

No disrespect to Kerry Ann Rockquemore, whose series of columns on “Finding Your Mid-Career Mojo” at Inside Higher Ed is actually full of insight and useful advice for those who feel stalled at the middle rank, in the middle of life and career. You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me?

You may well be talkin’ to this longtime associate prof, and I appreciate the exhortations to map my mentoring networks, identify my needs, and strategize ways to get my needs met, even if such suggestions focus my attention less on potential mentors than on potential therapists. Po-TAY-toh, po-TAH-toh, I suppose, eh?

Why, though, do I reflexively recoil from the assertion that jumpstarting a stalled career is fundamentally a matter of rebranding yourself? Why does such an idea make me want to shout from the nearest rooftop the line that I have used as the title for this post? Dammit, my self is not a tennis shoe, and I don’t think my career funk — if I am in one — will be dispelled by the academic equivalent of a new slogan.

Before someone calls me out on this, I will acknowledge that there is considerable irony in my revulsion from the notion of rebranding, given that I have spent more than a decade building and, yes, marketing an academic program and caring a lot about the program’s public identity or, yes, brand. I will also sheepishly admit that, just yesterday, I spent a considerable amount of time publicly rebranding myself in my social networks in connection with the launch of this blog. As I put down the dog, as it were, and put on The Madwoman, I redid my profiles on Facebook but especially on Twitter not only to call attention to the new blog but also to professionalize my online identity. I even joked on Twitter that I had finally figured out that madness is a clearer path to career advancement in the humanities than impersonating a dead dog, which I mention in order to underscore how much these questions have been on my mind as I have ended one online writing project and launched another.

Why, then, do I resist seeing rebranding as a solution to the challenges of mid-career slumps, funks, and stalls? It could simply be that I am reluctant, in this rare instance, to call a spade a spade. Denial aside, though, my resistance is also rooted in a desire for other ways of naming and framing our selves and our work lives. It would be naive to pretend that higher education is not a business these days, but I recall how thrilled we all were, five minutes ago, when the leadership crisis at the University of Virginia reminded us of the noble ideals and purposes that led most of us to choose careers in our various academical villages. We were reminded that such places are not corporations but communities of trust and that we all have a stake and a say in running them. I doubt that I’m alone in being slightly disappointed to see UVA President Teresa Sullivan claiming that the university’s just announced deal with Coursera, a start-up company aiming to open up university courses to the world, for free, “will in no way diminish the value of a UVA degree, but rather enhance our brand and allow others to experience the learning environment of [Thomas] Jefferson’s Academical Village” (emphasis added).

Talk of enhancing the brand may be Sullivan’s polite way of needling her nemesis, UVA Rector Helen Dragas, who tried to fire the president for moving too slowly in the direction of online education, but such talk is disheartening for what it reveals about university values and priorities. Universities overly focused on enhancing and protecting their brands can end up acting in ways that are profoundly — even catastrophically — damaging to the institutions as communities of trust. Excessive preoccupation with brand maintenance can cloud judgment and make smart, decent people do stupid, indecent things. I’m pretty sure, for example, that’s what happened to this guy, in this case.

So, if you’re in need of a mid-career pick-me-up — and, really, who isn’t? — , don’t think of it as rebranding yourself. Think of it as a recommitment, maybe even a reinvention. Go Mad if you have to and just do it if you dare, but bear in mind that your self is not a tennis shoe. And neither is your soul.

(Photo Credit: “Converse” by Flickr user Ian Ransley. Some rights reserved.)

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