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Occasionally – and by “occasionally,” I mean “all the danged time” – Blackboard is given to experiencing what it tells me are “unexpected internal errors”. Sometimes – and by “sometimes,” I mean “often. Quite often.” – this happens during finals week / end-of-semester grades. And sometimes – and by “sometimes,” I mean “this time” – this means that what would have been thirty minutes of concerted, impassioned grading becomes thirty minutes of blogging. Or thereabouts.

Today is the first day of summer, but you wouldn’t know it to look at it. It’s acting more like a smack-dab-in-the-middle-of-March kind of day: gray, anonymous, without particularities like “hot” or “cold” or “sunny” or “rainy”. A day of mere subsistence. And it’s been a day of grading for me, of reflecting upon the past semester and all the coulda/shoulda/woulda/’s that go with such reflection. Emails composed to my students became, in the middle of that reflection, suddenly careful; “Here’s your paper. Have a nice summer.” turned into “Thanks so much for being a part of this course, and for your thoughtful contributions to our discussions. I’m truly pleased with the effort I saw in your final paper, and I hope you are likewise proud of what you accomplished this semester.” Things like that. I suddenly wished I could give them all A’s, because I suddenly saw so many things – albeit, every time, different things – which I wanted to acknowledge with some kind of reward. But that’s not the way this system works, and sometimes it’s all you can do to add an extra minute to the email that seals the deal and effectively voids your formal intrusion into their life. Fair enough.

In the middle of grading, an email from a former student brought me back to my senses, and to my blogging. I think I started this blog on a day like today, and even though I’ve been under-committed and over-neglectful, I’m glad it’s here, like the bit of greenish-brownish space between The Cut and this morose slab of cement called my building, the space that this university tries to gussy up as a “Wildlife Refuge”. Wild it is not, but a refuge, yes, perhaps. There are birds there, and daisies, and dandelions, and things that are usually, on a college campus, ushered out, or else summarily handled with a bottle of toxic chemicals.

“Late one afternoon in the early spring he sat alone in his office. A pile of freshman themes lay on his desk; he held one of the papers in his hand, but he was not looking at it. As he had been doing frequently of late, he gazed out the window upon that part of campus he could see from his office. The day was bright, and the shadow cast by Jesse Hall had crept, while he watched, nearly up to the base of the five columns that stood in powerful, isolate grace in the center of the rectangular quad … the marble columns were brilliantly white; soon the shadow would creep upon them, Stoner thought, and the bases darken, and the darkness would creep up, slowly and then more rapidly, until …” (John Edward Williams, Stoner, 182).

It’s not that I’ve been reading Williams’ 1965 novel Stoner again, but when I first did (years ago, in a course which poetically called itself “The Rise and Fall of the American University”), I remember being sympathetically unnerved by the image of the aging professor and the stack of papers before him(her). This cliché, it seemed, would be my story. And even though I, at times, approach a stack of essays with a similarly dour expression, I have dismissed more histrionic terms for this feeling (“abhor,” “loathe,” “repugnant”) from my vocabulary. Maybe that’s the product of, this past semester, getting to teach my first upper-level lit. class. Maybe it’s the product of feeling that I managed to turn a whole class of undergraduate humanities-types on to Tess Slesinger’s beautiful, odd, and wholly under-appreciated 1934 novel, The Unpossessed.

Take that, Steinbeck! In your face, Hemingway! Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Trilling – both Trillings! Yeah!

Let the summer commence.

The concord grape vine that has given me much juice and jelly in the past few weeks ... and a poem for September. Late September by Charles Simic
The mail truck goes down the coast Carrying a single letter. At the end of a long pier The bored seagull lifts a leg now and then And forgets to put it down. There is a menace in the air Of tragedies in the making. Last night you thought you heard television In the house next door. You were sure it was some new Horror they were reporting, So you went out to find out. Barefoot, wearing just shorts. It was only the sea sounding weary After so many lifetimes Of pretending to be rushing off somewhere And never getting anywhere. This morning, it felt like Sunday. The heavens did their part By casting no shadow along the boardwalk Or the row of vacant cottages, Among them a small church With a dozen gray tombstones huddled close As if they, too, had the shivers.

22+ years of schooling have hopelessly wedded me to the idea that the year begins in September (ergh, late August — depending if you’re on quarters or semesters). While this may put me at odds with Pope Gregory XIII’s more accepted — though surely pesky — method of keeping date and time, it has resigned me to the idea that fall serves as a point of origin and genesis: from fall, comes everything.

So, today marks our first day of school, and though the aesthetics of the place speak more to death than birth — piles of dead leaves beginning to accrue on the cut, a flattened brown square in the grass where once an orientation tent stood — I cannot ignore that old familiar feeling. Tomorrow they’ll have names and absences and poor scores on quizzes, but today my students are anonymous, fresh-faced, and inspiring. Today they leave me with hope and anticipation. And there’s newness to be found elsewhere: we here in the English department recently moved into our new digs, a row of subterranean offices in a building actually dedicated to engineering and engineers, where Pergo floors try to be hardwood and cinder block walls try to um, not be cinder block. Or at least they’ve been finished and painted tan, which helps a little. And the carpet still smells like new, stinky carpet.

I remember a collection of “first days of school” from my youth, mostly thanks to my mother who always insisted on snapping my picture in the same position — next to the front door, backback (later, book bag, then stylish messenger-like satchel) over one shoulder, standing next to some potted pansies. Then as now, I get ticklish at the idea of starting over again, at the prospect of “this year will be different,” because, in fact, it always is.

I begin my comp. exams in four days; my band’s first CD comes out in two weeks; everything happens in the fall and it’s already happening. Here’s to a new year.

They should’ve given me Main Street. It was Babbitt, instead, that they assigned, but it should have been Main Street, with its domestic drudgery and double-crossing and female anxiety. So Main Street didn’t make it on to my exams list, but I read it anyway, unable to resist the clear serendipity of the occasion when I picked up a musty 1948 edition of it in a used book store in Hobe Sound, FL where a bedraggled, strangely docile orange cat fell asleep on the pile of books I had intended to buy. And did buy, including Main Street, after removing the cat and offering him a comparable stack of uncomfortable-seeming books, upon which he immediately, again, fell asleep.

I don’t know now how to properly enact a reading of Main Street, though, without the help of two texts which have proved indispensable to my understanding of it: Lauren Berlant’s The Female Complaint — itself responsible for many an energetic scribbling in the margins of my copy of Lewis’ novel — and, less directly, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps [Ward]’s The Story of Avis. From Phelps/Avis, I was able to keep in mind that the story Lewis tells of his protagonist, Carol, in Main Street is but one version of a tale all-too-familiar to its time. And from Berlant, I was able to see that someone — either Berlant or Lewis — had got that tale wrong in this particular instance. One might say (indeed, I’ll say it) that Main Street is wholly built on the notion of The Female Complaint, the idea which Berlant succinctly puts as this: “women live for love, and love is the gift which keeps on taking” (1). But building a narrative on this idea, and representing it, are two different projects.

Lewis’ Carol is, I think, an unfortunately sympathetic character — unfortunate for her very ability to make us readers feel sympathy for her since she is, quite unfortunately, doomed to one of a very small array of eventualities. On one level (the most immediate and obvious one), her complaint is the standard Female Complaint, the one which encourages our most facile, and least compelling, kind of sympathy for her. After first asking the question “What do we want?” with a “we” that includes “ten million women, young married women,” “business women,” “grandmothers,” “wives of underpaid miners,”and  “farmwives,” she is eventually bullied into a half-hearted response that comes in the form of “I”: “I want … to curl on the hearth with someone I love” (202-203). And this is the female complaint, sure enough, the desire for romantic love that mirrors everything women have been led to believe constituted such an experience, but it is not really Carol’s complaint in this passage, or in this novel — it is not really the female complaint at all. I would call it, instead, a kind of female ideology, an ideology of distraction, a consciousness of pre-programmed complaint against which Carol unceasingly struggles in Lewis’ narrative, yet stares aghast at the willingness of the women around her to happily wear its colors.

Carol’s real complaint, the one that most women sense but grant only veiled articulation through a more classic line of female grievances, is for work. And this complaint is at once precisely female — women desire access to compensated labor, and style this desire in the terms of agency and “freedom” they believe are associated with such an ability — and at the same time morosely human. For while Carol describes the “discontent in women with eight children and one more coming – always one more coming! And you find it in stenographers and wives who scrub, just as much as in girl college-graduates who wonder how they can escape their kind parents,” she likewise notes that “all of us want the same things — we’re all together, the industrial workers and the women and the farmers and the negro races and the Asiatic colonies” (202) in a speech that expresses the deep human resonance of this need in a way that does not disassociate, but rather includes, women. So the female complaint is for work (Step 1) and the larger human complaint is for fully conscious life that comes from non-alienated work (Step 2). Or, women want what men already have (evolution), and men want something better (revolution). Both of these desires express disassociation and alienation: women like Carol believe that work is an opportunity, a chance to choose your own route through the world instead of blithely washing the dishes that get handed to you; similarly, the larger “industrial cry” articulated by Carol in her speech to Guy Pollock pivots on the notion of becoming conscious of, and responsible for, the work you perform, the money you make and spend, the actions you take. In short, women, and men, get sick of being told what to do — but they do it anyway. Such is the power of ideology, be it a bit different for women than for men. “They [people] don’t know what they miss. And anybody can endure anything. Look at men in mines and in prisons” (284) Carol tells Percy Bresnahan. Bresnahan responds by saying “Humph … my humble (not too humble!) opinion is that you like to be different. You like to think you’re peculiar” (284). And, of course, he’s correct in saying so.

For Carol — as for Avis in Phelps’ The Story of Avis — the project of being “peculiar” is synonymous with that of resisting the forces of ideology. Difference itself is the thing, the quality that both encourages and discourages the struggle for “conscious life,” since it is only when you are painfully aware of your own difference that you feel conscious of your detachment from larger forces.

I’ve gotten going too quick here, and so will have to return to Avis — and Berlant, and everyone else who enters into this conversation — at a later date. For time being, though, a quick expression of love: I loved Main Street, not wanting to, not expecting to, not even being required to. But I loved it. It was painful and harsh and cutting and, in spite of all this, did not manage to ruin my week. 

One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” A hallmark utterance of any feminist — or, if I may be so optimistic as to suggest, any liberal arts — education. Simone de Beauvoir was talking, of course, about the age-old conundrum of nature and its evil sister, nurture, and her words have become cemented in gender studies curricula. Not so, however, in other fields of study.

I’ve been on a steady, aggressive, Sherman-esque march through the works of critics who have turned their attention to women in 19th century America (slashing and burning all the way), and have learned more than a few things that have nothing to do with 19th century American literature, or 19th century American women, or anything in between. Chief among these new insights is the fact that I, a critic through-and-through, have been far too lost to theory to remember what it’s like to read criticism … but more on that another time. Also among the scraps of knowledge gained has been the dawning realization that the nature/nurture debate — so central to feminist criticism for so long — has been overlooked elsewhere. And by elsewhere, I mean literary studies, and I mean literary critics, and I even mean feminist literary critics.

This leads me to Amy Kaplan’s 1988 (ergh, 22 years old and counting: remember when it was still cool to talk about women in the academy? ) The Social Construction of American Realism, and to her observation that “the genre of the novel was not shaped primarily by men, [] women have from its inception participated in its formation and development” (71). From its inception … that’s the part that sets my hackles a’quivering most of all. A novel, it appears, does not become a novel, but rather is born, a novel.

There are more than a couple problems with this statement of Kaplan’s. First and foremost, however, is one that any good historical materialist — and this ought to include Kaplan, whose project admits three lines of inquiry (“social change,” “class difference,” and “mass culture” [8]) that ought to qualify her as such — should notice right-off. And that problem is itself the problem, and the potency, of ideology. Kaplan, in her eagerness to say something, anything, which departs from the humdrum “party line” of feminist critics working in this era (she mimics this precise method of critique when she says that “to achieve an autonomous voice, women writers must therefore wrestle with the power of male influence and seek female predecessors who contribute to their own submerged countertradition” [71]), seems to forget ideology all together. Or, even more to the point, she seems to forget that literature itself, a facet of culture, is a necessarily ideological form. In Kaplan’s eyes, the novel, being of woman born, becomes a timeless vessel, an anti-historical form by which we are, paradoxically, supposed to locate the history of culture, and of women, and of women’s culture, etc. All this after 70+ pages of discussion which doggedly looks at novels as “products of their time” (I mean, really: she even suggests that we go easy on Trilling and Chase, poor chaps, and attempt to understand them in the “context of their time”[4]). Time, then, is a necessary consideration in the project of interpretation (criticism) except when the object of interpretation itself is atemporal (the novel) … ?

So, yes, fine, the novel is a primarily female invention, and thus a primarily female form of narrative and cultural expression, because a whole lot of females interested themselves in the writing of novels way-back-when, and whole lot more females interested themselves in reading novels.  And females, as history shows us time and time again, have been thoroughly immune to interpolation and, thus, blessedly un-ideological creatures, with free reign over their participative capacities for superstructural production.

Sorry: I do love to over-indulge my cynical tendencies.

Kaplan forgets that novels, realist novels most of all, are social/historical objects in themselves, shaped by the ideological forces of a society that has been built for, and by, men. Thus, even if 19th century women are kick-ass novel writers and kick-ass novel readers, they cannot escape a process of transmission that occurs when a cultural object is created, a process of communication by which the standards “of its time” are encapsulated in the object itself, not to mention the object’s author. I know Kaplan knows this, and I understand her eagerness to get to the place where she can put Edith Wharton on a well-deserved pedestal and say, “Look, everyone, it’s the mother of the realist novel!” But her eagerness comes at the expense of technique in this book. And while I generally enjoyed The Social Construction of American Realism — much more so than many a work of criticism I left smoldering behind me on my march — it made me nervous and uncertain about method even while it made me excited about application. In the end, I hope that Kaplan, and critics like her, have since come to remember that the processes of ideological progress and fluctuation that spur our need to consider objects, and people, not so much as products born, but as evolved, “of their time”.

teacher-doris-day3A recent, fabulously ire-inducing Chronicle article wants to tell us graduate student folk to  stop all our bellyachin’ about such nuisances as depleted job markets, disappearing job security, and the future of stable university education. Instead, Mr. Douglas W. Texter informs us, we should forget our woes and trot off to “Florida to bask in the sun and drink with Gore Vidal at the Key West Literary Seminar,” like, apparently, he does on his $100,000-per-year adjunct instructor income.

The rise of adjunct instruction in the American university is, of course, one of many disastrous and tragic trends offered by late-capitalist society. But the tragedy is often placed on the shoulders of the adjunct instructors themselves, who more often than not fit not Mr. Texter’s profile, but this one: underpaid; overworked; no job security; no contractual retention; no retirement; no benefits; no respect; no future. If Mr. Texter has managed to escape such circumstances and rake in for himself a cool hundred-thou by virtue of his entrepreneurial spirit and innate go-getted-ness, well, good for freaking him. But one can’t help but wonder how many dang classes — that is to say, how many dang students — Mr. Texter is teaching every semester to maintain (ahem . . . I mean achieve) this income arrangement. Suddenly, it seems, the tragedy switches shoulders, and now it’s the students who must, inevitably, suffer at the hands of an instructor who, though probably well-trained and capable of performing better, has nary a moment to learn their names while running from class to class in search of his otherwise tenure-track comparable salary.

I know; I watch it happen all the time. Mr. Texter might have been in a meeting I attended Thursday afternoon for instructors in the First-Year English Program. He might just have been the guy who stood up, peeling his ill-fitting blazer (no doubt a Target find) off his husky shoulders and bravely telling us how he is proud to be the hardest working member of the First Year English-Program because, while we, his colleagues, are engaged in providing thoughtful student feedback and designing truly useful, interactive daily seminars, he’s flying between three local universities to serve as an adjunct instructor. And he’s stinkin’ proud of it, too. He’s earning more money (dontcha know: more money always comes to those who work the hardest?), he’s built a larger network of professional assocations and he, um, er, is sort of failing his graduate classes. But nevermind that.

The issue here is, of course, the tragedy of the adjunct instructor in any given humanities department at any given university these days. But, even more, it is the tragedy of mismanagement and greed. Students pay A LOT for university education these days — so much that entry-level salaries can’t, and shouldn’t, even dream of keeping up (another recent Chronicle article spells this one out as well). But where’s the money going? If humanities departments are turning to cheap, adjunct labor with no-frills and no-gimicks (read: no benefits, and no chance of career certainty), they’re saving universities money at unprecedented rates.

Let’s look at that equation again: university tuition increases at a rate of y while the expenses of humanities departments fall at a rate of x and universities call the total sum fiscal crisis. Now, I’m no math major, but HUH?

Thus, while I’m glad to see Mr. Texter sittin’ pretty (and happy!) with his decision to aid the mindless pillaging of student tuition dollars, I’m concerned, to say the least, for his students. And for future generations of customers in what we can conceivably label — aside from war — as America’s last industry.

im-not-a-blogger2So says my Media Studies professor. 1 in 20 Americans (and now I realize I’ve lost the pertinent citation to corroborate this figure in any way, shape, or form) has, at one point or another, begun a blog. The blogosphere doubles in size every 5.5 months; peak posting hours are between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m EST … I could go on here, rattling off a few more statistics to remind us all of the looming futility of this particular brand of public sphere participation. But I think I’ll just blog instead.

This begs immediate comparison to another statistic: > 50%. That’s a number which, according to my Working Class Studies professors, reflects the number of people worldwide who have ever made a phone call. And it’s one that leaves me feeling comparatively privileged, whiny, and downright high-tech despite the distinct tone of lament communicated in the paragraph above. Not that I fancy myself a blogger (’cause I don’t) but I can’t avoid falling into that first statistic (’cause I do) and feeling somewhat disconcerted by the second (’cause I really, really do).

And, finally, one more for you: 2 out of every 3. That’s the number of my 101 students this semester — according to a Monday morning show-of-hands — that own an iPod. An unsettling (to put it lightly) figure for a gal like myself, trying to keep the dimly lit flame of live music a’sputtering in the Pittsburgh scene. 2 out of 3 of my students own an iPod, but 1 out of 25 of my students have seen a live music show since they moved to Pittsburgh (most of them are freshmen, so I’ll cut them a little slack … but even so! That’s 5 months already!). And how, you might wonder, might I begin to feign an overall connection between all these statistics? Like this: we live in an individualized — and increasingly custom-fitting — culture. Blogs are part of it, so are iPods, and anything else that gives us the illusion of singularity and loneliness in a world that is anything but. Those who talk about the democratizing effects of the internet (Microsoft … I’m looking at you) need to take a moment to consider the image 100 internet-users in a room together: silent, forward-facing, entranced by a glowing computer screen and not by the slightest whiff of humanity from the person sitting next to them. I see it everyday on the campus where I work, in the coffee shops I frequent (“My iPod means I don’t have to listen to your inoffensive, populace-pleasing jazz!”), and it throws that second statistic back in my face again: less than half. Less than half of the world gives a shit about the Facebook pictures you added over the weekend.

I may be some class of a blogger, but I’m no Facebooker. And I still like music out loud.


I am (quite noticeably, I’m sure), new at this, but my ever-growing list of Summer Goals ’08 includes getting myself somehow inserted in the techno-speak-osphere. (Other goals include: compulsorily consuming 40s in the park in lieu of summer employment, starting another band or two, and finding a way to not look like a full-fledged goon in the green satin bridesmaid dress I’ll be donning come Labor Day Weekend). Everyone I know and/or respect — respect not being a necessary condition of knowing — seems to have a blog anyway. All the cool kids are doing it. Wocka wocka wocka.

So here goes.