The “Advanced Organizer”

here are some things I was thinking during today’s monthly herding of faculty into a room:

  •  i should have grabbed a muffin before sitting down.
  •  people have such unlikely wave gestures and some do *not* match the wo/man.
  •  so that’s what a restrained collective gasp sounds like.
  •  don’t look up, don’t look up, don’t look up…
  •  i blame the accidental decaf for stifling my ability to be appalled.
  •  did every generation not learn the “pointing is rude” rule? 
  •  finger snaps seem to come out of nowhere; i’m never prepared for them.
  •  why are there three empty rows in front of me? aka: no cover for texting in plain sight.
  •  don’t get caught texting. please don’t get caught texting.
  •  people who haven’t gone through tenure really don’t understand tenure and probably shouldn’t use tenure as a throwaway noun.
  •  what fool am i to donate two hours to these shenanigans?
  • if this were a tv show, who would play _____ and who would play _____? oh, and there would definitely be dire straits montage.
  •  that’s the second time i’ve heard or read the phrase “advanced organizer” in the span of two days.
  •  damn, i am lucky L is my friend. ok, glad i stayed.
  •  no “short” story ever began with “One day in the summer of 1978…”
  •  is it noon yet?

and then it was noon.

time…

…is a funny thing. Not “haha” funny, more like “ain’t that a damn shame” kind of funny… The kind that leads one to drink or cry rather than belly laugh or giggle (and if one is belly laughing or giggling, it is often accompanied by the drinking and the crying). So funny in fact that I am starting to wish I was still pre-tenure, ever longing am I for the sort of busy-ness that I had grown accustomed to

And then someone tweeted this…

Outside New York, a high place where with one glance you take in the houses where eight million human beings live./

The giant city over there is a long flimmery drift, a spiral galaxy seen from the side.

— Tomas Transtromer, trans. Robert Bly

…and I received a reminder of this in my email…

THE LAKE ISLE OF INNISFREE

By William Butler Yeats

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow, 
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a-glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements gray,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

1892

… and all is really quite well. Having retreated momentarily to my mental Innisfree, summoning my muster to see anew, ’tis only a meeting that stands in the way between me and what I hope will be at least a monthly “spontaneous” department happy hour — that seems right: following each department meeting, the secret society gathers around libations in the cloak room. Or, the copy room. Whatever’s handy. (hear me, e?)

 

tragic flaw

We all have them, those personality traits or characteristics that we can’t shake no matter how many self-help books we read, conversations we have with friends, meditation retreats we attend… For some, the trait is being too closed off, putting up boundaries for fear of being disappointed or hurt or angered. For others, the opposite is true — those whose hearts leap out at the first sign of another human being, less than desperate for human contact, so willing to give kindness to friends and strangers alike. I have friends who fit both of these categories, and others for whom saying yes or no is near impossible; still others whose ability to listen to a story of yours was predicated upon the opportunity to top it somehow (Ok, I’m not friends with any of the latter any more.).

I used to think my tragic flaw was procrastination. Last minute is when I did (and still do) everything, it seems. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that I working until the very possible moment, working on multiple projects at once — because, while saying “no” is not a problem for me, I can’t quite pass on something that feels right and true and what a friend calls “soul-giving” — and more often than not, working past whatever deadline has been determined. (It doesn’t help to have an overdeveloped sense of how made up everything is… thereby making deadlines seem even more arbitrary than they already are — yet all too real in their made up arbitrariness.) But in this past week, while mired in the aforementioned book deadlines and conference proposal deadlines and grant deadlines and teaching and meetings and email responses and the re-revving up of the reference letter requests and, and, and… an all too simple thought occurred to me. My tragic flaw isn’t waiting until the last minute, nor is it taking on too many projects (for which I only have myself and my very persuasive, overachieving friends to blame — you know who you are…) — no the problem is perplexingly simple: while I have learned to collaborate well, I have not learned to delegate.

Being a “boss” was never a role that appealed to me. It was a different spirit of a university that drew me in, initially. Anne Carson, in describing John Henry Newman’s view, notes that

This gives one great pause — the pursuit of a “useless” existence, and all the trappings that come with claiming such a pursuit, such as accusations of elitism and myopia in the face of a world so burdened in many corners with the mere struggle of survival. But “useless” in Carson and Newman’s estimation is not without purpose; it is without predetermined use.

In this spirit, collaboration exists not only with others, but with the words and ideas of others as well — the “getting lost with abandon” nature of falling into a text or conversation — the full embrace of how artist Tacita Dean describes the experience of reading Sebald:

“He takes you down these poetic cul-de-sacs. And you don’t care that you’re being led nowhere, of course, because you learn so much on the way.”

Is that what a university is for? To be a space where education can be lived, at least in corners and whispers (if not completely out loud), free from agenda or tethers? (I know, I know, I hear it… the preachy-bordering-on-whiny; bear with me.) In her essay, which is titled “The Idea of a University (after John Henry Newman),” Anne Carson continues her simultaneous explication and wondering about knowledge and universities, and because I like her way with words so much I will simply reproduce them here:

In its most beautiful sense, a university setting can be one that nurtures inquiry for the sake of inquiry — a place that embraces, for instance, an ethos of research that is inherently collaborative, collective, and participatory.

But ever at the ready are those elements of the “institutional apparatus” that do not merely maintain but also earnestly endorse the status quo — and it is surprising how much paperwork the status quo requires!

Instead of sitting for hours upon days with transcripts or field notes or revisiting video or in the company of curious adolescents (who never fail to remind us old adults about the true nature of humility), I find my days increasingly taken up instead with decisions about topics too mundane to describe even obliquely. These are the times that try muggles’ souls. Suffice it to say that if someone approached me with an offer to become a painter’s assistant in a seaside Maine town or work in a hat shop along the Seine, I would leave in an instant.

Delegation, it seems to me, requires a certain degree of detachment wherein the task supersedes the person as the valued object. Is there a way to delegate humanely? And do shipbuilders or surgeons even worry about such things? And is not this worry about delegation merely a manifestation of a “use”-driven agenda rearing its ugly head? What does it matter whether the way our department assesses students’ [insert learning objective here] matches or meets the expectations determined by [insert state agency here]? (Would it be terribly wrong if I filled in all of the boxes on all of the grids with a simple “Trust us, it’s good.”?) Wherein delegation so often, but not always, is in service of running a more efficient machine — Sebald’s own words come through here:


For a response — of the sort in which a weary traveler’s nod at a passing delivery boy is done so in recognition of the doing that must be done in the moment in which it is — I turn a final time to Carson’s essay:

An earlier draft of this post once ended with a worry about how one achieves the ability to delegate. But then I took a walk, sat in the company of people who soothe my soul, took another walk, and had yet more conversations with friends and texts (which have become like friends, themselves) and have arrived at the conclusion that I’m going to continue collaborating, learn to delegate in service of that collaboration, and that it may be quite all right to remain inadequate when it comes to complying with the status quo.

In fact, I’d think it rather tragic if this flaw were to, say, suddenly disapparate

first days of school

Each August, before the start of the coming school year, while my parents were busy reminding my siblings and me about the importance of doing well in school and making sure each of us was equipped with the necessary accoutrements to face the coming onslaught of new subjects and homework and a surefire method for covering books with brown paper shopping bags, my mind was fixated on notebooks. It must be that the organization of one’s class notes is drilled into children’s minds from an early age because it was the decision that caused me the most anxiety. One multi-subject notebook? Several single-subject notebooks? Loose leaf paper that could be inserted into a neatly organized binder, ready with tabs for each subject? Different colors or the same? Spiral or composition style? I remained unsettled in this annual mental juggernaut for as long as I was allowed, ultimately making the decision at various points throughout my life to try out all of the above configurations. The only decision that has remained consistent for most of my post-pre-teen years is the commitment to college-ruled rather than wide-ruled paper; all bets are off, of course, on the occasions when I choose no rule at all.

This past week, many children in the northeast and many other parts of the country returned to school. They joined their counterparts in warmer climates who were entering their second month of the new year. Following my anxiety-ridden post earlier this week, I was launched into a schedule that unwittingly became a repetitive chorus of 12-14 hour days. Meetings blended into more meetings — in offices, the hallway, impromptu caucusing on the way into and out of the bathroom; and students with whom I hadn’t spoken in a long while aired their welcomes peppered with grievances, while incoming students wove anxiety and confusion into their enthusiasm. Orientation was a blur and I’m not entirely sure what I said or did, other than that I forgot to include more than a few pieces of crucial information. But what is really crucial? What are these men and women doing in a graduate program? How is it that they find themselves here, or there, that is, in that not-too-warm room while the air conditioning unit hanging out of the window high above the room whirred and occasionally grunted as my colleagues and I performed our annual ritual of autobiographical storytelling.

Suddenly, it was my turn. And my only thought, as the fifty new faces focused on me, was that exactly one year ago I had been on my way from Tasmania to Sydney. No, that wouldn’t do. I am [insert my name here], I started to say. And I teach [these courses] and my research is [about this]. And then, as I had done in the beginning of the hourlong program orientation, I welcomed them, and reassured them about their decision to enroll in our program. It was the latter that they needed to hear.

This week was also marked by the news coverage of the Democratic National Convention, as nearly everyone is jabbering about Bill Clinton’s stemwinder. I say that word now with a false ease; until the surplus of speech-related commentaries that saturated every media space following his DNC moment, I really had never heard it before. Or perhaps it’s fair to say that I had never taken notice of the word. (Who can really say for sure that they have never heard of a word, for we hear much of which we take little notice.) Is it really surprising that our former president lingered on the stage, in his inimitable way of captivating a crowd while explaining policy tedium, for near fifty minutes?

A report claims that Clinton admitted to Sandra Fluke, after he congratulated her for her speech, that he was nervous before taking the stage for his. “Sir. Please.” she is quoted as saying in response. But I can believe it.

This strange phase of reentry is overwhelmingly marked by what it is not and what it is missing: slowness, stillness, solitude, silence. These are not my words. That is to say that while I had felt a renewed kinship to these words throughout the past year, I had not said them out loud, all together, to anyone. They were shared with me by a colleague who I saw in the hallway after we had each finished teaching our first class. Both of us had also just finished a year of sabbatical. In the screaming mess of details and minutiae that was swirling around us, particularly at the beginning of the academic year, those twenty minutes in the hallway felt like what I imagine the experience of floating to be: time suspended, an unfettered sensation, yet not all together away from this earth, but temporarily free from the leaden feet we wear to keep ourselves tethered.

She said it out loud: nervous. She was nervous. I was nervous. About expectations, about holding on to what felt so natural for the past year, about finding a way to fit in without becoming the versions of ourselves that were so of this world… in which, somehow, the details not only mattered, but became all consuming, or worse: character defining. To live and work without giving in to the quotidian urgencies that insist on churning out products — forms, email responses, and more. [deleted: some thoughts that bordered too much on whining. That is a definite don’t for this space.]

Much was made of the fact that Clinton ad-libbed many parts of the address delivered to the convention delegates in Charlotte, North Carolina — speaking nearly 5200 words while his prepared remarks were only around 2900 words. He fulfilled his role, his obligations, his expectations… his way. Of course he was experiencing some nerves beforehand. He has the tricky role — or is it fortunate irony? unfortunate challenge? — of being seen as both establishment and maverick.

Slippage into the expected is all too easy.

This year, prepared with a stock of 6×8 lined notebooks and the soliloquy of a stemwinder I’ve been narrating for myself as a form of accidental therapy to treat the previous years of academic pathology, I’m going to remind myself to go off-prompter more than occasionally. I suspect it’s the only way I’ll survive.

Where’s my shoe horn?

August 31st. The last day of the last full month of sabbatical. The automated sabbatical message will terminate in a few minutes. And I have learned two things in the past 72 hours:

1) there is no “easing in” from sabbatical to post-sabbatical

2) there is no “easing in” from sabbatical to post-sabbatical

And a bonus realization: tenure is finally sinking in, with all of its glory (read: ha!) and craziness and inexplicable expectations.

Good night changing time zones.
Good night long email respites,
summer uniforms, and movie marathons;
Good night wandering walks, nation hopping,
mismatched socks.
Good night open calendars.
Good night, sweet full blue moon.

Hello new year.

preparing to cross an ocean

Can I get away with just one carry-on? This is the first question I asked myself as I finally began to prepare for an extended stay overseas that begins next week. Extended as in 3 months. Extended as including traversing various terrains, climates, situations all requiring slightly different clothing, accoutrements and gadgetry. But the sheer hassle of international travel and my bad luck with checked luggage pushes me to consider this option. Which, as predicted, was quickly dismissed not only for its non-viability but also for the inevitable moments of “Oh [insert appropriate expletive and/or harsh sounding word of choice]!” up realizing I had forgotten something essential and the potential gentle jeering from my dear friends who are already singing a chorus of “One bag, are you crazy?” They are, of course, right. (Right?)

One correction before I go on: it would be inaccurate to say that I am just now preparing for this sojourn. Indeed I began planning the logistics well in advance: confirming housing and research contacts and making a plan for what it is that I would do while spending this time away from either homebase in the States. And in actuality, the nuggets of this idea took root a few years before as relationships began to be cultivated and the realization that, save my initial four years on this lovely earth, I had not yet lived outside of these contiguous states. This was an epiphany born of more than mere wanderlust (which is really never mere at all); this was more so a long-occurring, deep-seated curiosity that had not made the leap from the wishlist to the cart for checkout.

So what does one take? What are the essentials? How does on prepare to live and walk along the same streetsonce traveled by Darwin, Yeats, and Woolf? Extra socks and comfy shoes? I’ve perused repeatedly several websites the offer advice on how to pack as well as what to pack. A couple of favorites:

Packing for a year abroad (via Academichic)

Packing smart and traveling light (via Rick Steves) — perhaps not for the extended stay, but definitely good advice (if somewhat paranoid) for the shorter trips.

But these are mainly helpful in thinking through what I’ll need to wear or have access to on a regular basis — which reminds me that I’ve run out of contact lens cleaning solution. And shampoo. Why is there always such nervousness about hair care and travel? Nevermind, I just answered my own question — I am laughing as I recall a recent trip to New Orleans whereupon landing I experienced a state of awkward hair frizz unlike any I had been victim of til then. So traumatized was I that when a colleague from a different institution whom I don’t know too well inquired politely, rhetorically, “How’s it going?”, I responded without filter and with reckless abandon, “I’m in search of hair product! I’ll be better when I find some.” Oh my… (And, in case you’re interested, after some consultation with myself and my occasional travel companion, I’ve opted to take basic toiletries with the plan to replenish items I don’t already own while on terra noveau as another aspect of visiting like a local.)

Where does one pack sense of familiarity? Comfort? How does one make space in a suitcase, backpack, or laptop bag for peace of mind and easy access to people, places, and things. No, this is not pending homesickness – a concept with which I have never been familiar, much to the chagrin, I suspect, of my parents. These are, in fact, the indicators of rootedness in a context, communities, and networks that have been formed and nurtured over time. In seven years one is bound to put down roots, and those roots become intertwined with one’s sense of self, work, and purpose, even with one’s way of being. Sure I’ve been “away” on sabbatical, but I’ve had the great luxury of being able to enter and leave the Apple as the occasion demanded — for meetings, for fieldwork, doctors appointments, and of course to commune with friends.

For the next few months, however, there will be an ocean between us. Such a phrasing is unintentionally sentimental, yet the sentiment feels oddly correct for the occasion. An uneasy acceptance of impending events, measured excitement, cautious enthusiasm — all euphemisms for feeling anxious. (Has someone written Zen and the art of traveling abroadThe Sabbatical Edition yet?) My anxieties rest primarily on the hope that I’m not leave people flat-footed, specifically those for whom I feel a sense of responsibility — students, my research teams, the young people with whom we work. And thus with responsibility exists… well, no sense in repeating myself.

This post may have gone on longer, but the throbbing pain pulsating throughout my left arm as a result of vaccinations (in prep for a few side excursions that are on the agenda) is begging me to stop. So I will.

humility of writing

the atlantic was chock full of writerly articles today and two in particular caught my eye. the first poses an important question that many of us who must write — either because our work requires it or because we have pursued work that allows us (pushes us?) to write — have asked ourselves more than once: When does a writer become a writer?

In it, Betsy Morais recounts the experiences of various writers, both contemporary and historical mainstays, to muse about when it is that one who writes can and does declare herself a writer. What does it mean to continue in one’s current form of non-writing employment after one has “made it” with writing, presumably after something is published and has earned revenue? She begins her piece with the story of Alexis Jenni, a French high-school biology teacher who, at the age of 48, recently won the Prix Goncourt and in so doing joined the ranks of previous winners such as Marcel Proust and Simone de Beauvoir. After surveying the rise to fame of other writers, including T.S. Eliot who continued to work his day job after becoming financially stable through his published writing, she concludes her piece with wise musings about the affordances and constraints of “making it” as a writer:

And in spite of the anxious determination of those who work to write, or the casual persistence of the Sunday writers, there is something “very liberating” in having yet to be discovered, Von Arbin Ahlander remarked. “Okay, you haven’t gotten recognition. But at the same time, you don’t have expectations.”

While reading this piece, another title caught my eye under the inset and customized menu that floated in the middle of the webpage: Famous Author’s Harshest Rejection Letters. I swear this isn’t schadenfreud, but I admit to a feeling of delighted solidarity when, while looking through the embedded slideshow of some of these rejection letters, I saw letters received by Gertrude Stein, Vladimir Nabakov, and Jack Kerouac. About a manuscript submitted by Ursula Le Guin, the editor had written “The book is so endlessly complicated by details of reference and information, the interim legends become so much of a nuisance despite their relevance, that the very action of the story seems to be to become hopelessly bogged down and the book, eventually, unreadable.” Is it wrong, too, to aspire to have all future rejections that come my way to be on the basis of my “endlessly complicated” narrative and abundance of “reference and information”? I would especially take those over these two choice excerpts from reviews of an article of mine that was summarily rejected by a special issue of a journal for which I was invited to submit a piece. I did so reluctantly and only because at the time (two and half years ago) I was still trying to fit into one definition of the field to which I and my program colleagues purportedly belong. Hint: it’s not anthropology.

Review 1 excerpt:
“The language is very very difficult to follow. I think this is a very interesting opinion article; would make a great piece, with photos, for something like the Sunday New York Times Magazine.”

Review 2 excerpt:
“As is, though, the article includes the current thinking and analysis of a thoughtful individual, but one that is limited to telling a story and interpreting events that occurred in a workshop.”
This reviewer also had something to say about my writing, suggesting that the piece might be rewritten and “framed for teacher educators who may be less familiar or comfortable with some of the rhetoric employed” [and then cited the 2nd sentence of the submitted manuscript.]

Admittedly, the piece, which was later published in another journal, did benefit from revision and additional space — 8000 words instead of the original 4500 word limit — and even now, going back to these reviews, which I had initially met with laughter that was saturated in the delirium of my penultimate pre-tenure year, I see the value in having work read by non-kindred spirits. Rejections are humbling, but just as important as these lessons in humility, it seems, are spaces in which writing kindreds can bring out that which may remain hidden or unspoken. So in a continued spirit of gratitude, I am thankful for the critical reviews of strangers, the encouraging insights of critical friends, and the seemingly endless patience of true friends and colleagues in conversation with whom thinking, musings, ruminations and writing are made ever better.