2012: The Year in Madness

Oh, thank god there wasn't a total blackout from December 23-25, 2012 due to "an alignment of the universe." If that had happened, I would have to kill a LOT of people.

Oh, thank god there wasn’t a total blackout from December 23-25, 2012 due to “an alignment of the universe.” If that had happened, I would have had to kill a LOT of people.

This blog was born halfway through 2012, but I’m happy to offer an idiosyncratic survey of the entire year in Madness, by way of my Laptop, which is currently ensconced in a sleepy little town on the shores of Lake Michigan, where Ruby and I, along with the Woman Formerly Known as Goose, are planning to ring in 2013 in low-key style.

Before we get to the survey, though, raise your hand if, like me, you feel slightly creeped out by the idea of a year that ends in thirteen. Shouldn’t we be feeling superstitious about this? Historians, please weigh in on whether years that end in thirteen tend to suck more than other years. My research assistant Wik E. Pedia suggests that 1913 was heavy on wars and revolutions, though I suppose we might be grateful for the invention of stainless steel, which occurred in August of that year. As for 1813, well, it turns out that the (obviously misnamed) War of 1812 was still being hotly contested, but Pride and Prejudice was published, so the year couldn’t have been entirely bad. Still, let the record show that I have reservations about the coming year, based strictly on a previously undiagnosed case of traiskaidekaphobia.

So: The Year in Madness.

Mad Words: Time magazine published a long list of words that should be banished in 2013 (among them are amazeballs and zombie apocalypse, with which I wholeheartedly agree, but where oh where is double down, a phrase that totes [also on Time‘s list, but I ain’t giving it up] annoys me as one of the poorest substitutions for thought I have ever encountered). Because I am a glass half full kind of gal, I offer in reply to Time a short list of expressions I shall always be grateful to dear old 2012 for producing:

Yes, thank you, Congressman Todd Akin and Commonwealth of Virginia, for finally putting the GOP’s maniacal determination to control women’s bodies in terms that galvanized attention and motivated large numbers of people to wake up and vote against extreme right-wing candidates. Which, I’m pretty sure, contributed to the next Mad item in my survey.

Madness Averted: On November 6, a majority of American voters sensibly chose not to let this guy add the White House to his long list of homes:

Mitt Romney at a gas station in La Jolla, CA. Via

Mitt Romney at a gas station in La Jolla, CA, 11/19/12. Via.

Need I say more?

Madness Goes Public: Call it the prequel to the item above, my favorite political moment of the year was definitely Clint Eastwood’s speech at the Republican national convention. I predicted that Romney would lose and that this moment would be “blamed for thwarting Romney’s momentum by crystalizing for voters the race and class resentments that are the heart and soul of today’s Republican party.” I think I was right. Thank you, Mr. Eastwood, you grumpy old man of the year.

Clint Eastwood at the Republican National Convention, 8/30/12

Clint Eastwood at the Republican National Convention, 8/30/12

Mad Feats: Let us not forget that 2012 was the year in which a dude hurtled 24 miles through space at speeds as fast as 834 mph on his way to setting records in altitude for a manned balloon flight and parachute jump and the greatest free fall velocity. Uh, wow. I bought a treadmill. Does that count?

Mad Surprises: Marriage equality wins on the ballot in not one, not two, but THREE states in the November election, including the great state of Turtle Country. Wow. Just wow. But don’t order those toaster ovens yet. WFKG and I have still not committed to getting married. Stay tuned.

Mad Satisfaction: Who are the two most popular politicians in the final NBC-Wall Street Journal poll of 2012? Why, Bill and Hillary Clinton, of course, and if you are surprised by that news, you haven’t been paying attention. Also, Nate Silver is smarter than you are, but it’s okay — He’s smarter than everybody. Deal with it.

Mad Losses: Death had a big year in 2012, as it generally does. We note with sorrow the number of sheroes who left the building this year and console ourselves by imagining that the afterlife, whatever it may be, has a number of glorious new contributors to its word/soundscape: Nora Ephron, Whitney Houston, Etta James, Jenni Rivera, Adrienne Rich, Donna Summer, Chavela Vargas. Also, Sally Ride, a lesbian who orbited the earth. Speaking of astronauts, Neil Armstrong, a man who walked on the moon, died this year, too. Finally, Larry Hagman was not a woman, an astronaut, a poet, or a singer, but we worry what will become of the spectacularly cheesy new remake of Dallas without him, and so we mourn his passing, too.

Madness in School: In June, University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan abruptly resigned over a “philosophical difference of opinion” with the university’s governing board. The disagreement appeared to be over the pace of change happening at the academical village founded by Thomas Jefferson, particularly with regard to online education. Two weeks later Sullivan was reinstated after a tidal wave of protest and negative publicity both on campus and off. Two weeks after Sullivan’s reinstatement, UVA announced it was joining a group of 12 institutions planning “to open their courses to the world, free of charge, through an online platform created by the start-up company Coursera.”  And so the brave incrementalist so staunchly defended by the apostles of shared governance and the academic community of trust turns out to be just one of the herd, her voice blending into the soothing chorus of MOOC, MOOC, MOOC. What can that mean? Where will it lead? Heck if I know, kids. I hate what UVA’s board did in booting Sullivan and am tickled pink she got her job back. MOOC’s are the big story in higher ed this year, but I have to confess I am among the foot-draggers, the nay-sayers, and the worry-warts who fear that we may be putting the final nails in our own coffins by jumping on this particular bandwagon. Some days, I walk across my lovely campus and wonder, Which of us will be asked to turn off the lights in the last of these red brick buildings? Who will we be when the last of the turtles has lost its shell?

Madness in School, Part II: December 14: A guy, a rifle, and 26 corpses. (27 if you count the shooter’s mother, killed at the home they shared before the shootings at the school; 28 if you count the shooter’s fatal self-inflicted wound.) God, where will it end?

Lord, even an idiosyncratic year-end survey is exhausting! And at times depressing. I’ll stop here and try to do a follow-up post focused on the year in artsy-fartsiness, because that’s the kind of thing folks expect from an English prof spouting off on the Interwebz. Meantime, feel free to weigh in with your picks for the Maddest Moments of 2012. Tell me what I missed, Madpeople at your Laptops!

What I Could Do

Photo Credit: The Madwoman, 12/16/12

Photo Credit: The Madwoman, 12/16/12

Dear Students,

You are not six and seven year olds, saucer-eyed, cherubic, believers in Santa Claus. And I am not a 27 year old over the moon with her first job. Or a principal who would dress up in goofy costumes to help students connect with the fun of learning. No. You are in your twenties, and I wear slacks and sensible shoes without worrying too much about whether that will help you wrap your minds around the ambiguities and instabilities of gender.

We will meet this afternoon for your final exam. It is the Monday after a mass killing in which twenty children lost their lives. It is eight days before Christmas. Early in our semester’s study of theories of literature and sexuality, we read a brief excerpt from Eve Sedgwick’s Tendencies, a chunk from the introduction usually referred to as “Christmas Effects.” In it, Sedgwick comes at the question, “What’s queer?” by examining the ideological force of heteronormativity. To help explain what she means, Sedgwick begins with a riff on “the depressing thing about the Christmas season” as a moment when all our institutions speak with one voice and seem to be saying the same thing. The languages of church, state, commerce, and media are all lined up in what she terms “the Christmas phalanx.” Among the examples Sedgwick cites to prove the tautological and coercively normalizing force of the holiday is this one:

[A]d-swollen magazines have oozing turkeys on the cover, while for the news industry every question turns into the Christmas question — Will hostages be free for Christmas? What did that flash flood or mass murder (umpty-ump people killed and maimed) do to those families’ Christmas?

You loved this piece when we read it earlier in the semester. Sedgwick’s playful yet probing analysis of the tyranny of Christmas helped you see the point that queer is a way of describing more ragged and less depressing moments/spaces when everything emphatically does not mean the same thing, when things don’t line up neatly and march in lock step. Queer, says Sedgwick, is “the open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning when the constituent elements of anyone’s gender, of anyone’s sexuality aren’t made (or can’t be made) to signify monolithically.”

I asked you to review these few marvelous paragraphs in preparation for today’s final. I promised to bring holiday cookies to the exam, a double batch of my favorite cookies from my own Christmas-effected childhood. I stayed up late last night, making the cookies and not getting through all the papers I had hoped to have graded by this afternoon. As I delicately rolled the buttery dough into little balls and lined them up on my battered cookie sheets, I thought of you, and all the work we have done together this term in the unlocked classroom of a wide open building. I thought of the umpty-ump people killed and maimed and wondered, not for the first time, if I would be brave and selfless enough to take a bullet for you, my students.

I cannot answer that question. No one can, in the abstract, know the answer to that question. One can only hope that in a moment of crisis one would be decent. And clever. I am reading your papers, slowly and with care. I marvel at your effort. I see the kindness in your faces. Try not to lose that, ever. I made you cookies. It’s what I could do. Yes, Eve, it is a depressing season. Let’s have a cookie and ride it out together.

In peace,

Your Teacher

Saving the Humanities, Gangnam Style

So, this was on Glee Thursday night:

Which made me think it’s high time we commissioned some time use studies to see just how much time has been spent across the dying globe watching or producing “Gangnam Style” covers and parodies in the past four months. Seriously, people, I’m pretty sure the Bureau of Labor Statistics is going to need to put a new slice in its pie chart to account for this astonishing phenomenon in its 2012 survey of lies people tell about how they spend their leisure time. (Eighteen minutes a day each for reading and exercise seems refreshingly honest, but 26 minutes for farting around at the computer? Gimme a break.)

The slice for “Watching or producing Gangnam Style covers and parodies” should of course be pink, in keeping with the insanely kitschy style of the original by South Korean rapper PSY. (Go on. Click on that link. We’ll wait. For the entire 4 minutes and 13 seconds if we have to. This is work time for you, darlings: cultural studies.)

Now that you’ve seen the original, go destroy a few brain cells do a careful study of a few parodies, including this excellent one produced in the QTU library (featuring a turtle, a marching band, and the dean of the libraries!) or this diabolically witty one called “Mitt Romney Style.” I’m reasonably certain it explains why Obama won the election.

You are probably wondering at this point how in the name of Judy Garland I managed not to convince GayProf, Historiann, and Tenured Radical to do a Gangnam Style parody on the beach in San Juan a couple of weeks ago. I apologize to each and every one of you for squandering this exceptional opportunity to bring Western civilization to a crashing, cheesy, glorious end. As you can tell from the photo at the bottom of this post, three out of four of us were scantily clad and sporting huge sunglasses in San Juan. GayProf no doubt had plenty of extra tiaras and knee-high red boots in his suitcase(s). The Woman Formerly Known as Goose was there with a camera, more than ready to point, shoot, and tell people where to go. (Oh, wait, she did that.) It would have been the parody to end all parodies. It would have made “Call Me Maybe” a minor footnote in the history of virality. It would have made “Academic Tim Gunn” look totally five minutes ago. It would have made “Texts From Hillary” — Wait, no, some things are sacred, aren’t they?

Just so we’re clear: I totally heart “Gangnam Style” and its thousands upon thousands of goofy imitations. I’m fascinated by the phenomenon — as is no less a thinker than Zizek, by the way, so don’t judge, biatches. (Again, click on that last link: You need to see a nose-pulling Zizek explain how Gangnam Style is destroying Justin Bieber.) I can’t wait to read the dozens of dissertations and special issues it is sure to spawn. I predict the academic job crisis will end when armies of PhDs are hired to staff the departments of Gangnam Studies that will spring up when entrepreneurial deans of colleges of arts and entertainment sciences throughout the land realize that this is a sure-fire way to prove they are cool culturally relevant. Yes, darlings, “Gangnam Style” is the cure for what ails us in the age of Excellence Without Money (™RW Enterprises, LLC). Who are we to argue with 861 million views? Who among us has not longed to ride an invisible horse? (Looking at you, cowgirl.) You want Massive, dudes? I’ll give you Massive.

Sometimes, kids, you have to destroy the discipline in order to save it. Let’s do it, Gangnam Style. Don’t forget your sunglasses.

Op op op op oppan Gangnam Style.

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.

Mad Glances

Pedestrian tunnel in Terminal 1, O’Hare International Airport, 9/21/12.
Photo Credit: The Madwoman

Not to worry, darlings. I’m not dead and I haven’t been fired for nursing while teaching. (Of course, if I’d been nursing while teaching, you’d have heard about it — through the Vatican’s Miracle Investigation Unit.) Just busy. I was in the space-agey tunnel in O’Hare’s Terminal 1 on Friday returning from a whirlwind trip to Nebraska for a big-wiggish lecture I was invited to give on my old pal Willa Cather. Hey, it even made the newspaper, though I can’t say the earnest young reporter caught all the nuances of my analysis of Cather’s late life and early afterlife within the context of the post-WWII Lavender Scare. As I said when I posted the article to the Book of Faces, “If you tell a kid reporter that Willa Cather was ‘a tough broad,’ it’s going to show up in the paper the next morning. You were a kid reporter once. You know these things.” So true.

Anyhoo, I seem to be getting quoted in lots of newspapers lately. Because I have the good fortune to know a lot of tough and wonderful broads. Yes, I am a lucky woman. Some day I will get around to blogging the extraordinary news of a possible new photograph of Emily Dickinson and the searing yet brave story of my former teacher Susan Gubar’s experience of ovarian cancer. In the meantime, you follow those links like the dutiful little do-bees I know you are. You need to know these things.

Also: Mitt Romney will never be president, but he looks to have a solid future as a figure of speech. Historiann explains.

Speaking of tough broads, the Woman Formerly Known as Goose is taking me to see Madonna tonight. Because there’s more to life than rock and roll (but happy birthday, Boss). And apparently there’s more to life than course prep. Later, lovelies. I’ve got to go tone up my biceps to get ready for this evening. Wouldn’t want to disappoint the buffest middle-aged babe in show business. Peace out, material people.

Photo Credit: Chad Batka, New York Times

My Theory Workbook

Or, a Brief Back-to-School Post on Retro Pedagogy

Undine had a useful post last week on tech tools for teachers. I read it, scratched my head over all the cool things I could and should be doing, then sat down to work on my syllabus — and ended up going in the opposite direction.

See that little quip over there in the sidebar about being a non-geek? Right under the pale imitation of an Alison Bechdel caricature? Quip, yes. Exaggeration, no. I blog, I tweet, I have a house and backpack full of Apple devices, but at heart I am a Luddite. And in the classroom, well, when I’m not teaching my blogging class, which I’m not this term, my instincts are strictly nineteenth century. I’ve dabbled in PowerPoint and been forced to make at least limited use of the odious Blackboard, but I’ve never been convinced any of these bells and whistles improved my teaching or, more importantly, my students’ learning. There, I said it.

Oh, boy. Why am I afraid that my good friends over at ProfHacker are never going to link to me again? George, Jason, love ya, dudes! Don’t give up on an old broad yet!

Here’s the thing. I’m teaching a new course this semester, a 400-level course called “Theories of Sexuality and Literature.” I’ve got 25 students, and I’m really, really committed to two important goals: 1. Getting the students to work together and take ownership of the course on a daily basis and 2. helping them overcome their anxieties about THEORY by having them write something about it for pretty much every class meeting. Thus was born the idea of “My Theory Workbook.”

I borrowed the idea from Kate Bornstein’s smart, funny, highly teachable My Gender Workbook, which I have found to be indispensable in helping students navigate the topsy-turviness of postmodern gender without losing their precious little minds. Bornstein is a popularizer, but she writes about complicated ideas in an accessible and often entertaining way without sacrificing all the nuance and complexity. That’s what I’ll be aiming to do in teaching this course, and it’s kind of what I hope my students will reach for, too. The “theory workbook” is a key strategy toward achieving those lofty goals. Here’s how I explained it on the syllabus:

Sex/Lit Theory Workbook: 25% of final grade, due daily and collected as scheduled. Get a file folder. Mark it, “My Sex/Lit Theory Workbook.” Bring it to class with you every day. You should have a new typed entry for each class, focused on the day’s reading. Sometimes I’ll give you a prompt to respond to. Sometimes I won’t. Your entry should focus on identifying key words, major concepts, and important moments in the argument. Identify points that confused you or excited you. Form a question you’d like to discuss in class. Come up with an example to which you think the concept might be usefully applied. We’ll begin class with small-group discussions of the day’s entries, which is why you need to print out your workbooks and bring them to class. I’ll collect them every 2-3 weeks throughout the semester.

The workbook, in addition to helping to frame and focus daily discussion, will also give students a space for launching ideas they might decide to develop into papers. It will also help them to prepare for the final exam, which will be an oral exercise focused on terms, concepts, and major figures. The class will generate a list of 25 terms. On the day of the exam, each student will pick a topic out of a hat and present on it for about 4 minutes. (A number of my colleagues, including the Woman Formerly Known as Goose, have been doing oral finals in the past few years, so students aren’t as terrified by this idea as you might suppose. Also, they truly will be preparing for it throughout the semester, as we build that assignment into our conversations all along the way.)

So, I thought about doing “My Theory Workbook” as a class blog or through discussion board, but I felt that the blog would be unwieldy with 25 students and that the discussion board probably wouldn’t work in the way I wanted it to. Perhaps it’s my lack of creativity or dedication, but in my experience discussion board feels like busy work. Students tend to post perfunctory comments to fulfill requirements, and the exercise usually doesn’t elevate class discussion or even get connected to it unless the instructor goes out of her way to bring it up. When I polled my students on their druthers, they unanimously preferred the idea of producing dead-tree workbooks and bringing them to class every day to posting to discussion board. They all said they were bored by discussion board. (OK, yeah, not a scientific poll, and it’s possible I predisposed them to answer that way with some snarky comment about discussion board, but still.)

Feel free to tell me I’ve forfeited my place in the Cool Kids Club. (Please, honey, I figured that out in the last century and am 100% over it!) Or, feel free to share with us the ten thousand ways in which you have successfully incorporated discussion board into your teaching. I would love for this gizmo to work in a way that made my life as a teacher easier and made my students brilliant, collaborative, and gainfully employable! I promise I am persuadable. In the meantime, I will let you know how my experiment in dead-tree pedagogy goes. My prediction is that the kids will do well with it and that I will have to be hospitalized by the tenth week of the semester from the ordeal of trying to keep up with what I’ve committed to do. Reading day, class! Teacher’s in the loony bin! Yippeeeee!

Peace out, pedagogues. May all your darlings be adorable and educable. And if all else fails, remember the Madwoman’s #1 Rule for Success in the Classroom: Wear Something Shiny!

Madwomen in the City

Image

Karen Ball as Emily Dickinson in Emily & Sue: A Love Story in 5 Scenes and 4 Seizures, Fresh Fruit Festival, NYC. Photo by Martha Nell Smith, 7/26/12.

Road trip! The woman known on Roxie’s World  as Goose has spent her career studying the complex, intimate, generative relationship between Emily Dickinson and her sister-in-law Susan Huntington Dickinson. (See, for example, this co-edited collection of letters beloved by Sisters of Sappho everywhere.) So, when you need an English prof to supply some steamy historical context for a cool, queer, one-woman play that dramatizes Dickinson’s passion for the girl next door, Goose is the gal you call to be the scholar on your talk-back. The play, Emily & Sue: A Love Story in 5 Scenes and 4 Seizures, was written by Carolyn Gage and Merry Gangemi and ran for two nights at New York’s Fresh Fruit Festival. Karen Ball plays Dickinson as the fierce, even volcanic, poet who said of the woman who inspired and edited her, “With the exception of Shakespeare you have told me of more knowledge than any one living.” The 30-minute monologue, which is composed entirely out of lines from Dickinson’s poems and letters, pushes hard against the myths of Dickinson as a dotty, white-clad, virgin recluse. Ball wears black for the role, and her dancer’s clothes call attention to the strong corporeality of a sexy woman who dreams of spending “Wild Nights” moored in the port of her beloved’s body. Her voice is strong and commanding, even in expressing the pain and vulnerability Dickinson at times experienced in relation to Sue. The seizures in the play’s title refer to the claim in Lyndall Gordon’s Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family’s Feuds that Dickinson may have suffered from epilepsy. The claim has been controversial in Dickinson studies. The play hedges its bets on this point by projecting the seizures as jumpy videos on a screen at the rear of the stage. The “seizures” thus come across as metaphors for moments of heightened or fractured consciousness, when the poet’s brain crackles with perception. (One such moment is captured in the photo above.)

The Dickinson striding and prowling the stage in Emily & Sue is the Dickinson brought into public consciousness by a line of painstaking biographical and textual scholarship focused on sex and gender that goes all the way back to Rebecca Patterson’s The Riddle of Emily Dickinson, published in 1951. It’s good to see that forceful, fascinating figure brought to life in a taut production that does justice to both the intensity and the complexity of a relationship that endured for close to forty years. If Emily & Sue comes to your neck of the woods, you should see it. It will banish the timid ghost of the gingerbread-bearing Belle of Amherst from your memory banks forever.

And remind you that, before she had a Laptop, The Madwoman perhaps made do with a quill pen for recording her dazzling, divine sense.

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