Thursday, April 30, 2009
I'm going down...all the way
What really shocked me, though, happened in my (communally shared, cramped, and ultimately decaying) office, at my lonely desk, when I was forced to slog through student papers and exams. I thought that I would be able to coolly detach myself from the act of grading. After all, I was (I figured) only dealing with questions and answers, theories, ideas...wasn't I? I wasn't actually rendering judgment on them on their worth as people. And I had the added benefit of having an extremely rotten mind for putting names together with faces (am I mentally deficient? just had too much fun in high school? I dunno), so I couldn't really figure out, in the majority of cases, whose work I was evaluating. The anonymity, I believed, would help.
Somehow, in spite of knowing I was evaluating ideas and not people, in spite of not being able to tell which person wrote down those ideas, I felt very much involved in the plight of the (oft-anonymous) students anyway. Sifting through stacks of paper, red (or the more student-friendly green) pen in hand, I still found myself rooting for students, cheering their accomplishments, feeling insanely proud when someone got a key point, suffering a meltdown when the point (whatever it may be) was irrevocably lost in a haze of illogic, suffering akin to the sensation of parental failure when someone obviously didn't care. Frankly, I wasn't expecting this level of emotional investment.
Moreover, I wasn't expecting the resulting student reactions. Those who earned As were unnervingly nonchalant about them. Likewise, and even more unexpectedly, those who earned Cs were similarly nonchalant. The realm of student expectation was so strange to me. About the only people who really seemed to care, out of that first group of students, were those who earned A-s...those acted as if I was exercising some vast, personal vendetta against them because I mysteriously didn't want them to get into Harvard Law or something like that.
And although there is a bunch of negatives about the actual grading process (it's isolating, tedious, mind-numbing, repetitive, the papers blur together, your eyeballs hurt, your back starts to give out, you envy everyone who gets to work outside), it's this emotional state that's the worst.
It's also why I try not to do it anymore.
Nowadays (or, as the comp student likes to say, "In our modern society today..."), I just hold conferences. Rather than me rendering solitary judgment, the student comes in, and we read, talk ideas, plot organization, and suggest revision strategies. It actually takes more time, but for most students, we get to have a conversation. Students seem to prefer it, and for me, it turns an isolating, pain-inducing desk session into an interactive student-centered learning opportunity (how's that for educat-speak?).
However, there's still a problem...the students still ultimately have to turn in revisions, and I still ultimately have to grade them. I only have to experience the roller-coaster that is grading one time a semester, but that one time involves everything each student has written...and therefore is a real doozy.
That's where I am now...in the middle of grading hell. One class is down, and I'm in the middle of a second. I hope to get class 2 finished after lunch, maybe get class 3 done before bedtime. Friday will be class 4 and any stragglers. Then I will be done...both in terms of workload and of leftover mental sanity.
When I'm grading, other things, the regular small activities, tend to increase in importance and interest. I must, must regularly check all e-mail, Twitter, Facebook, Reader pages for updates...I can't fall behind! I need hot tea; coffee provides too steep of a kick, and tea has the added benefit of taking just long enough for me to go ahead and stay in the kitchen, away from those pesky portfolios. Lunch moves away from a quick sandwich, or maybe leftover something-or-another, and takes on epic proportions, both in preparation and consumption; today, for instance, I plan to cook a nice chateau brion, accompanied with rosemary-chive-goat cheese-black truffle mashed potatoes and cedar-wood grilled asparagus in a freshly made bernaise sauce. Then, of course, there's always writing this damn blog entry.
All to avoid going back to grading, you see. Because I want it all. I want large breaks from the tyranny of having to apply judgment, but I also want all said judgment over with. I want to do experience all the aspects of learning save the detection and determination of whether or not any actual learning actually happened. I want the teaching experience to be limited to just the adulation, the admirers, the illegal cash gratuities, the wine and champagne, the admiring students throwing garlands of freshly picked roses.
Of course, that will never happen. That, my friends, is why they call this grading hell.
Monday, April 27, 2009
sanity and reunions, part two
The main reason I planned to go was because I convinced a friend from California to come to the reunion, and frankly, I had no real idea how else I'd be able to get together with him and hang out. I really like Mr. California, and I often wonder what he's up to. I hung out with Mr. Cali quite a bit in Jax. We even played briefly in a band. And, as he likes to say, we have lots of bribery material on each other.
But it goes beyond just hanging with a friend. While I would never say I acted perfectly around him, he is one of the people that I don't feel ashamed of my behavior around. Thinking about the high school reunion has brought this unpleasant truth to the surface: I don't really like who I was in high school.
True, I did achieve a certain level of popularity. I also had bitchin' hair. However, I was socially awkward. While I put on the "I don't care what you think" appearance quite regularly, the fact was, I really cared a lot. Even worse, I really had no clue how to get people to like me by just being myself. So I acted (alternately) strange, distant, eccentric, aloof, ass-ish, deep, intellectual, scumbag...you fill in the adverb. The result of this was that I had a few really good friends, a bunch of people who thought I was an amusing freak but whom I never let know me, a number of friends/coworkers who saw the dictator side of my personality, many people I liked but who thought me inconsequential (potential relationships mostly fit into this category), and so forth.
Not Mr. CA. We were always pretty open around each other. We never held back. Neither of us would allow the other to play games.
This is why I was looking forward to hanging with him during the reunion. It would be fun to get the comedy duo back together. But more than that, I knew that I would have at least one anchor to the real themikedubose, someone who had as much disdain for appearance games as I, someone to keep me honest.
Unfortunately, wouldn't you know, he can't make it to Jax until after the reunion. I've been trying to see if any of my other friends (those who actually know me) are going. So far, I'm having a hard time getting any real confirmation. One friend, I didn't realize, graduated the year after me. A few can't afford it. I've lost contact info for a bunch of others. So if I go to the reunion, I have no clue who else will be there, which makes it scary.
Also, the reunion itself scares me. The brochure I have has the day one welcome party at some place called "Maverick's Rock & Honkey Tonk"...which doesn't sound an appealing venue in the lest. Day two has a buffet dinner/dance, with a DJ playing 80s music...I hated the decade's popular music back then, and time has been less than kind to it. Plus, this night requires "cocktail attire," whatever that is. Damnit, I lent my tuxedo out. Also, the whole shindig costs $100, and that doesn't even include the bar. I do get a photo name tag, however!
Simply put, this does not look good.
Right now, I'm leaning towards just setting up shop in some bar and holding an alternate protest reunion.
Thursday, April 23, 2009
NO part 2: on marketing, conferences, and incompatibility
I wish those teachers would've added "your mileage may vary."
Don't get me wrong. I still love going to conferences. I still love presenting, hearing other presentations, getting the chance to be a scholar. Conferences, though, have never really been the mystery wonderland of academia others make them out to be.
The problem is, I suspect, one of marketing.
My best two conference presentations were the two that were explicitly organized around a specific theme. When I presented at the American Studies Association, I was on a panel about comics, so everyone there wanted to hear and learn about comics. It was cool, keeping in mind I see problems being marketed as a comics scholar. The second one was something about medicine and popular culture at the North East MLA. I got great feedback, but my paper was on House, M. D....and who doesn't like talking about hit television?
But the rest of the time, I end up being the "which one of these things is unlike the others?" presentation. As a result, I normally don't get many good questions. If I don't visibly fit in, if I'm the oddball, then how will any good questions come? Who will be impressed/interested/curious?
And yes, I know that being an academic oddball is ultimately down to my own choices, but every academic ultimately has to answer the question: do you want to be a small player in a big field, or do you want to be an innovator yet have no peers? This is something I've been working on since starting my Ph.D.; I initially was going to study Twain as post-traumatic stress syndrome literature (thus becoming one of a million Twain scholars) before settling on deconstructing definitions of the mainstream in 1980s popular culture (a field that has, as far as I can tell, only me). However, I'm still not 100% sure where I want to be.
So, for my New Orleans conference, I honestly tried to present with marketing in mind. I submitted what I thought was a nice topic with wide appeal, involving New Orleans, football, race, and Katrina. I applied to the television area, which I assumed would be fairly mainstream. However, I was on a panel with one presentation analyzing some HBO drama about a psychiatrist and an analysis of the nineties sitcom Wings...so right away, I didn't fit in in spite of my attempts to market my presentation. However, as there were utterly no commonalities between any of the papers, ultimately, no one fit in...so I guess that's something.
Then I had A/V difficulties. I assembled my first powerpoint for a presentation ever. I made multiple copies (on flash drive, on cd, mailed to 3 different e-mail accounts). There was no computer. Luckily, I had my dvd and knew the exact times of my clips. However, the panelist closest to the dvd player could not, for some reason, fast forward to my second clip for me; I had to bring my presentation to a screeching halt to get to it. So much for flow.
Nonetheless, I thought I did a good job on my presentation. I spoke rather than read. I had neat clips. I was on time. But then there was the Q/A session. I got one good question, but I got one person who blatantly attacked my premise on the grounds that how can sports broadcast do anything other than cover sports? He obviously didn't like or hear anything I had to say. Sigh.
So academically, it wasn't the most smashing success I've had, and ultimately, my attempts to market myself made utterly no difference whatsoever. However, how upset can you really be when you still get to hang out with long-dispersed friends in New Orleans?
Tuesday, April 21, 2009
Y'know, I expect certain distractions when I work in my office. I expect to have my colleagues dropping by to complain about their day. I expect to get annoying e-mails. I expect to have homicidal maniacs run through the hallway carrying axes. I expect to battle the infestation of wallabees.
But Bonnie Tyler? Damn. I need a raise.
trapped in the gutters
So I was never really a comic guy. I had no preconceptions of the medium, of the quality of the texts, of the limits of the form, because I really had no earthly idea what they could do.
I never even considered comics in high school...they would've distracted from my horror novel phase. College was no better, particularly as I was in an English department. Don't get me wrong, though...this had nothing to do with prejudice. I was all about breaking literary boundaries (I did in fact write a Freudian analysis of a Bugs Bunny cartoon), but again, comics were too far off my radar to hold the level of a preconception which needed to be shattered
Trust me, though, I had a lot of preconceptions at this point. Fortunately, I left my hometown in order to get my Ph.D., and in addition to changing my physical location, I also decided to revisit and actively undermine most of those preconceptions. As I was going to be teaching popular culture, I decided that I needed to know more about that popular culture. So I began a program of total immersion: I saw more movies, I started watching a few of the Star Treks, and some friends introduced me to wrestling.
Somewhere within my second year, a professor offered a class on comic book culture, and I took it out of the same spirit of exploration and boundary-stretching. Not only did I get to read a bunch of enormously important texts for the first time (including Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns) and wrote a paper which would eventually become part of the dissertation, I also became a fan of the medium. I found favorite writers. I developed the expensive habit of my own comic pull list. In many ways, I started to make up for lost comics time.
Comics did (and still do) fascinate me. There are several reasons for this. Not only are they a relatively open field for me personally (I had, after all, few preconceptions to overcome), graphic fiction still has the feel of a medium on the edge. While comics have been around for ages, and superhero fiction specifically has been around since the thirties, comics really only came of age in the eighties. There are still numerous possibilities for innovation within the medium, and it still harbors writers (such as Warren Ellis and Brian Micheal Bendis) who could never really work as well in a different, more established tradition.
But then there's the quandary of the comic-obsessed academic. As there's still room for cutting edge fiction within comics, there's likewise room for cutting edge interpretation. There's the growing role of comics in determining the timbre of our popular culture as a whole (as movies and television is increasingly either based off or inspired by comics). Comics is, in short, a medium which should be very attractive to academics, to scholars looking for mediums to make their own. And indeed, there's lots of exciting scholarship coming out of comics studies.
However, comics also bring their own baggage. Up to the late eighties, most comics were, frankly speaking, really awful. In my research, I've found myself stuck reading 50s Captain Americas, 60s Thors, and 70s Avengers...and they were all painful to read. They were, for the most part, the type of fiction obviously written as a "product" rather than a serious endeavor. Worse still, lots of it was written as "dumbed down" children's literature...simple plots, unrealistic dialog, and the utter and complete lack of complexity, moral, ethical, or otherwise.
Unfortunately, I am wiling to bet dollars to donuts that most people have the latter impression of comics rather than the former. Many people still must think of comics as being simple, and therefore, comic scholarship as inconsequential. Do serious scholars study comics? I imagine that many (including a sizeable chunk of the intellectual "powers that be") would say the answer is obviously "no."
This is something with which I really struggle. I love comics. Moreover, I love writing about comics; I've done it many times, and I think I've done it rather well. But do I keep doing it? Do I try to become a big name in an unrespected field that I nonetheless love? Or do I try to avoid typecasting as a frivolous scholar?
It's not just comics that bring up these thoughts. I wrote my dissertation (and am writing my book) on eighties culture, so I've also been wondering if I really in fact want to market myself as an eighties scholar...there are few jobs for someone with that label. But comics...well, have you heard the quote "just when I thought I was out, they drag me back in?"
So how does this tie into today's weird mood? Well, that requires a history lesson.
When I was taking that comics class, I wrote a paper about the aforementioned Watchmen and Dark Knight. A few months later, a fellow grad student saw me in the library. When he told me that him and the professor of that comics class were putting together an anthology, he suggested that I contribute something on comics in the eighties. I protested, saying that I didn't really have the time...moreover, I didn't really know anything about comics in the eighties. He gave me a list.
This of course meant many hours plowing through back issue after back issue of many different titles. Eventually, I found a neat bit I could write about Captain America, plowed through the article, stitched it with that comics class paper, submitted it for the anthology, and made it the basis to one of my dissertation chapters.
Then the anthology died. Undeterred (I had, after all, spent a lot of time on this article and wanted to milk it for all it was worth), I submitted it to The Journal of Popular Culture, and they accepted it...my first academic journal publication!
Unfortunately, the journal had (at that time) a pretty intense backlog of accepted work. It took over four years for my article to actually see print. I got to present it at the American Studies Association's conference (which allowed me to meet both Lawrence Levine and Janice Radway), but then, I put it out of my mind.
In the meantime, I concentrated on finding a job, and only really thought about comics as my own fun bit of culture. While they were amongst the things to go when money got tightest during the adjunct period, one of my first acts upon getting my current job was to hit a comic store. I wasn't, however, thinking of them as a subject of scholarship.
Then the Journal of Popular Culture article on Captain America came out--a nice line on the vitae! Within a month, though, I was contacted by a guy who was putting together an anthology on the good Cap, and was I interested? Again, when I tried to beg off (I had no time to write, hadn't read it in years, still didn't know much, and had no ideas), he gave me a list of ideas...and there I was, writing about Captain America again.
It took me a while to write, but the article came out really well. I ended up focusing on Cap's popular fiction appearances (another medium I can teach) and the version of masculinity they portray (another theoretical angle I can teach), so it was all a good thing, and I can use it to make several career-based arguments. The anthology, Captain America and the Struggle of the Superhero, recently came out, so that's another neat vitae line.
I currently have no superhero stuff in the cue, but the medium is still forcing its way into my head. I recently had an article on House, M. D. accepted by Television & New Media which looked at the show's protagonist as a (wait for it...) superhero...and, of course, involved superhero fiction analysis as my critical theory (which allowed me to cite myself, something I wholeheartedly recommend). I get to revise the dissertation/book chapter on Cap this summer...that is, if my brain does not implode before I get to that stage of the process. And who knows where else comics will rear their ugly head?
And this is where I'm torn. I dearly love graphic fiction. I regularly read a number of titles. My favorite current writer (Warren Ellis) works in the world of comics. If pressed, I would say my favorite work of fiction period is Sandman. I don't see comics ever going away for me. And I would love to present more comics stuff, research more comics stuff, write more comics stuff.
Do I dare do this, though? How much attention should I pay to the stereotypes? Do I suppress my academic urges and write about more marketable stuff? Or do I follow my muse, even if it leads to academic ghettoization? It's not selling out, because I do also love the stuff currently in my head and on-deck circle...but what happens when my biggest ideas are ones that might work against me? Will I be labeled as a "comics scholar?" And will that ever be anything other than limiting to my career?
The world of comics is one of panels, borders, word balloons, and gutters. Even in the wildest, most cutting edge comics, there is still, in the end, a sense of order in the medium in spite of experimental artwork and narrative. There are definitive lines even when there are competing visions.
I know that. I get that. Sometimes, though, I wish my intellectual relationship to comics was as clearly defined.
Thursday, April 16, 2009
sanity and reunions, part one
It's not that I hated everyone with whom I went to school. Far from it, but out of the 5-10 people I really would like to see, the majority of them still live in our hometown, and I've run into most of them during my brief stays. While it would be great to see them all at once, the thought of "enforced nostalgia" which will inevitably accompany the formal reunion makes me itch, frankly. And if I wanted to see all my old friends, I'd rather just plan an extended trip back down there and make some phone calls.
However, a friend of mine who moved to California (and developed a rather nasty habit of saying the word "dude" repeatedly) is coming, and since I have very little chance of making it out to the left coast anytime soon, I have agreed to go to this nightmarish reunion. In order to make the whole shindig more notable, I have suggested a number of tasks to occupy our time at the ceremony. Round one involves coming up with and then betting on over/unders for the:
- number of people who scare us
- number of people who show us photos of their kids
- number of people astounded we don't have kids
- number of people who tell us children are the greatest blessing in life
- number of people who will talk to us now but wouldn't in HS
- number of people we really don't want to see
- number of people who look disappointed when they find out I'm a leftist
- number of people who don't understand why I would want to be a teacher (and, as a result, I'm thinking of just introducing myself as a media scholar)
- incidents of homophobic rants
- amount of times we hear Bon Jovi, hair metal, or Prince
- amount of subsequent dancing to said crap music
- number of people who have aged 20 years more than expected
- general level of smugness
- number of people who've never actually left our hometown
- amount of times we resist the urge to punch someone
- number of minutes until we are overcome with the urge to blow the joint and just hit a dark dive bar
Anyone have any further suggestions? I feel I'll need all the distractions I can get.
Tuesday, April 14, 2009
NO part 1: two incidents I like
- When I was checking into the conference, I was recognized. I went to the registration desk and said "Hi, my name's DuBose, first name..."
The guy running the "A-D" section looked up, excitement splashed across his face. "Mike?"
"Oh, hey. It's great to meet you!"
(was he really talking to me?)
"I saw you give a talk in Hartford, and I use some of your ideas."
This floored me...mostly because it took me a few seconds to remember when the hell I was in Hartford. "Was that for the American Studies Association," I asked.
"Yeah. You presented on Captain America. There was also some guy who did something on Batman."
This is when I was sure that the Hadron Collider must've ripped a hole into the space/time fabric and sucked both me and this guy into this world from totally distinct and different dimensions...because I presented with two very big scholars in the field on this panel (the late Lawrence Levine and Janice Radway)...and I'm the one he remembered? Not to mention this was in 2003.
But he seemed like a nice guy, so we talked for a few minutes. Eventually, we exchanged business cards (which took the form of a nice ceremony that pretty much inverted the scene in American Psycho...we were comparing how cheap were our respective cards), and I hope to have some conversations with him in the future.
The whole incident was pretty surreal, though, and it was the first time anyone's ever talked to me out of the blue who was a fan of anything I've done. You can bet that this a story I'll be repeating widely and often.
- We spent a lot of our night time in two bars. While me, the spousal unit, and two friends were on the road, another friend (still in NO) called us to tell us that the bartender of Molly's on Toulouse told him "You're not really tourists...you're more like travellers."
I like that.