Our Hopes and Expectations

I like to think of myself as a cynical idealist: somebody who’s grounded in reality but who’s always looking for hope.

But if you believe academic Twitter these days, our profession as teachers and scholars is completely and utterly fucked.

The humanities? Disrespected. Labor issues within the university? A gaping head wound that the powers that be have refused to address. The academic publishing industry is a boondoggle and, best of all, there’s almost no chance that I’ll be able to land a tenure-track job.

And that’s all true.

But I balance that, in my cynically idealistic head, with the emails I’ve received from a few of my former students in the last few days, students who have taken some of the work we did in my Literature, Medicine, and Culture class this past fall and created something more. They’re going to conferences, applying for internships, looking at scholarships, in an effort to build on conversations we had in class, that they furthered in their own writing.

I am so freaking proud of them all.

Sometimes you just have those classes where the mojo is just good, where the planets or the goddesses align and going to class is a pleasure, plain and simple. My group this fall was just such a one.

For me, what makes that even more remarkable is that there were some major potential roadblocks in place: a class much larger than what I’m used to teaching, full of students from the sciences; my belief going in that I suck at teaching literature; and, oh yes: I was preparing to take my comprehensive exams. All these things together had me nervous before the term even began.

But then a funny thing happened: together, we made it work.

Continue reading “Our Hopes and Expectations”

Thanks Be To Rhetorica

As strange as the past year has been, I’ve much in the academic realm for which to thank the goddess Rhetorica.

To wit:

  • My cohort. We’ve always been good, but this semester’s made me realize how lucky we are to have each other: we’re a strong triad, each arm strong in her own way. They keep me sane, and I can only hope that I return the favor every once and a while.
  • My dissertation director, she who says “I know you can do this” first and then asks smart, productive questions that make the project that much more complex and entertaining. She makes my work kinetic; sees the potential and pushes me towards it. And I haven’t even started on the dis, yet.
  • My visual rhetoric prof, who covered for me with my colleagues when I slept through a class. Who admonished me kindly for not taking care of myself (true) and overcommitting (guilty) and gave me strict but loving advice about my conference-ing next year: go to only two in your third year, she said, and she’s right. That said:
  • Bloody academic conferences, all seven of you fuckers. There’s a whole post in this, but suffice it to say I’ve met the right people in the weirdest places and my reading list for the break is so very long because of them. And my research’s the stronger for it, too–if not my schoolwork.
  • Tumblr, that timesuck/project generator. It’s about 60-40 timesuck, but those moments of research gold make the hours of scrolling worthwhile.
  • Those who’ve been willing to participate in one of my projects. You know who you are. Please know that your input is invaluable, and I’m so grateful for your willingness to play along.
  • That academic at PCA/ACA who argued with me at my panel back in April. As much as you annoyed me at the time–as inexplicable as I found your position–the nettle of your comments settled into my skin and informed my work in the second half of the year. You pushed me in a way I didn’t dig at the time–ok, you kinda pissed me off–but you forced me to think more carefully and approach my research from a different angle. And my work’s more effective and persuasive because of that. So I say sincerely: thanks. Though I think you’d still take issue with what I’m arguing. Oh! And something your partner said, he who was on my panel, inspired my latest fandom-related project. So give him a thanks from me, too.

Real Ugly Like


I am caught up this week in the final, insistant rush that the end of each semester brings, each with its own particular kind of hysteria. This term, the due dates for my final projects are nicely spread out, which is allowing me [in theory] to give myself over to each of them in turn. It’s kind of nice, actually.

Though as Friday’s deadline–the first of two–begins to loom, I’m trying to shake free of the niceness and push myself more aggressively into the Cult of Done, so I can move quickly to the next project, which is due next Wednesday.

And then, of course, my students’ work lies in wait at the end of the tunnel, waiting for assessments that are due next Friday.

So another week or so of this, of this semester, of this first year of a PhD program. And then summer vacation!

But until then, I think I’ll stick to more immediate terms: today, tomorrow, and the next. Otherwise? Things might be looking real ugly-like.

Always Already Possessed

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Writing is a physical thing, for me. The closest thing I get to an aerobic workout.

I spend a lot of time flailing, when I write; gesturing and pointing and dancing along to whatever music I’m listening to, whatever music is stuck in my head.

I talk back, I talk to, I talk out.

I bite my lip a lot.

Try to avoid seeing myself in the screen.

Look away and type. Close my eyes and type. Think faster than I can type.

When it’s too fast, when I can’t catch up, I write things down on paper, shove the pencil across the page and sketch and suggest and get closer than I can on the screen, sometimes.

I shift in my chair. I pet the cats when they hop up, hold the little cat in my lap and poke at the keys with one hand.

I sing.

I watch the screen for signs of email or Facebook or anything that gives me an excuse not to write, right then.

I flip between my story and my paper and my exam–between I want to do, what I am doing, what should already be done.

I curse, when I have to. Cajole the words to come, sometimes. Try to hold them at bay, at others.

I spend a lot of time unconscious, when I write.

My friend asked: “How can you not see this, in this piece? What I see? Didn’t you write it?”

And I said yes, of course I did, but I wasn’t conscious, at the time. Not in the same way.

And that’s when it’s easy to write, times like that, when it’s necessary, when it’s not me. When the text just comes and I have to get out of the way and transcribe, just type, just let the letters form on their own, without me.

It’s awesome, sometimes, and scary. Writing like that. Like muscle memory. An autonomic function that just is. Just does.

So someone watching me write? Might think I was possessed, a little. And they’d be right.

And sometimes I feel as though school–the first 12 years of it, at least–was designed to exorcise those demons, to drive them out and pour clarity, obedience, respect down my throat, into their place.

And those things rested easier, I guess, gave me less of a hard time than the demons that drive my writing did. But wow, was I boring, and shit, was I unhappy, and I think I’ll take possession over that, everytime.

I’m Sorry, Dave. I’m Afraid I Can’t Give You That “A.”


So my students are working on compare/contrast essays right now. What I’m asking them to do is freaking difficult: find two articles related to their [self-selected] research topic that address the same issue and craft a four-page compare/contrast essay in which they put the two pieces into conversation with each other.

The research part, as usual, is what’s kicked many of them in the ass. And that’s as it should be. Research is HARD. Ok, doing research that uncovers material you can actually use is hard; finding irrelevant crap is easy.

What’s struck me this time is how many students are obsessed with avoiding “bias.” For them, though, “bias” seems to mean having any sort of opinion at all, which, as I try to explain to them, is not humanly possible. There’s a difference, I say, I preach, I suggest, between expressing an uninformed opinion that’s not based on any sort of evidence and in asserting a position in such a way as to ignore any other takes on that issue. In selecting data, in conducting a close reading, in analyzing a text, I tell them, you ARE taking a stance, presenting an argument, but that doesn’t mean that you are biased.

I guess I’m wondering: where does this idea come from, this notion that bias is bad, that “unbiased” is a legitimate and desirable state of being? I’m reminded of a comment that Mike W. Barr made in one of his letter columns in his comic, The Outsiders: “A writer who doesn’t have opinons isn’t writing stories, he’s making pablum” ( The Outsiders 4,  Feb., 1986).

Now, granted, Outsiders is a comic and not a newspaper article or research paper, but Barr’s point cuts to the heart of the issue here: writing is done by people. Period. Not by HAL 9000 or Gerty or Jarvis, but by people. Articles like this one, coupled with my students’ attitude towards bias, suggest that there’s a real desire among some in our society to eliminate the tempramental human from the act of writing. To flatten and silence and eliminate all the noise from “academic” texts, all in the name of the great Straw Man: clarity.

Which is complete and utter bollocks.

But it may explain why there’s a market for a computer program that can grade–not assess, or comment on, or respond to, but grade–writing, especially student writing, which is, in my experience, often the most messily and awesomely human of them all.

What Inspiration Looks Like

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I’m never more productive as a fic writer than when I have other crap that I should be doing: papers to write, student work to comment on, emails to respond to, reading to complete for the coming week. Ho hum.

Something about resistance, about pushing futilely back at what will have to get done, eventually, is really freakin’ inspirational. It’s no mystery as to why I started writing Supernatural fic over Thanksgiving break, or why my Cas/Dean series was born during a period when I was supposed to be prepping papers for two conferences, or why inspiration for my new series has popped up, helpfully, during spring break.

And yet, I can’t neatly separate these two worlds, ’cause they all live in the space in my head, I guess. For example, reading rhetorical theory in concert with writing “Take A Look At Me Now” meant that Cyril Welch’s notion of what “good” writing does—it reflects “what is” and writes towards “what could be”—ended up in Sammy’s mouth; in a very different context, mind you, but still. It wasn’t conscious, which is what I find weird or interesting, I guess. How much of me—or whatever’s rattling around in my brain at a given moment—ends up in my fic.

It’s kind of awesome, actually; writing towards a mirror, like that. Maybe it’s like Lacan says: the image of the other is the figure of desire, the manifestation of what is not us and what we cannot have, but what we spend our lives trying to reach, obtain, make part of ourselves. We want what others tell us we should want, too; our sense of what we should desire is shaped by those around us: our parents, our culture, our peers. So somewhere in my negotiations with the mirror, my attempts to make material something that isn’t me—something I desire, fine, ok [jesus, can you blame me? sheesh.]—some part of me springs into being, or comes into focus.

And wow, does that sound overly earnest and self-absorbed. But it is Lacan, after all. I think that’s like, required.

Taking Pleasure In The Here and Now

The space from which I write, or: how I spent my spring break.

I’m working on a paper for school in which I’m tangling with two scholars’ notions of “good” writing, or what elements or actions or characteristics of writing should be valued, and why.

Tripping through their definitions, their contradictions, their idealism has gotten me wondering, again, about how writing–good or otherwise–can be taught.

Indeed, the more experience that I have in teaching writing, the more I am convinced that writing can’t be taught. Not in a single course, or semester, or even a school year. Rather, I think writing is an accumulation, a collection of ideas or imprints or gestures that build up in the mind over time like shells on the shore that get honed by the waves and bleached by the sun and experience, uncovered and buried and swept away as needed. Refashioned, again and again, piece by piece, instructor by instructor, book by book, blog post by blog post.

Writing defies testing, defies concretization. Deconstruction teaches us that meaning is not fixed; that the world is text; that the writer cannot hope to master language and its infinities of meanings, only to tangle, to temporarily tame, the words with which we are surrounded. So why do we pretend that writing is an act, a series of performative moves, even, that can be “taught” as if they were a universal constant? As if there were agreement over the unstickiness of language and meaning? As if we can even agree over what we mean by “writing.”

People ask me: how did you learn how to write? And I say: I read. Which some writers think is a total fucking copout, a justification for NOT writing. An excuse for why you haven’t written. Okay, I can see that. Maybe it is, sometimes.

I can speak only for myself, then: reading taught me how to write. But it was up to me to actually, you know, write. To do something with that knowledge. Intellectually understanding how words can fit together, what they can do in certain combinations, is all well and good, was all well and good, for me. Even got me to a point where I could “teach” other people how to write. Like painting a wall, or something; where to put the masking tape, how to position the ladder, what kind of brush to use and when.

But it wasn’t until I started writing regularly, for myself and not simply in response to [or in order to resist] an academic assignment or prompt that I started to do writing rather than just talk about it, teach it, dissect it.

So maybe it’s not fair to say that it’s the experience of teaching writing that’s made me question if and how “writing” can be taught. Maybe it’s being a writer. And I don’t ascribe to the romantic Platonic notion of writing being some super-secret gift from the Almighty or something.

But.

But writing isn’t math. It can’t be boiled down to formulas or prescriptions or balanced equations, no matter how often I tell my students that one can figure out what makes a piece work or what undermines its effectiveness. There’s no magic bullet for writing, period. Probably for a lot of other shit, too, but writing’s the only thing I know anything about.

So I don’t acribe any mystical powers to myself, ok? But still, I’m a “good” writer. A distinct one. One with a distinctive voice, anyway, in a couple of different genres. But how did that happen? Where did it come from? And not all of my readers dig the way that I write, the way that my characters–including my academic self–sound; but, by now, I’ve had positive responses from a wide enough variety of readers to buy into my own hype, a little. Temporarily, at least.

My composition theory professor once asked us–aspiring composition teachers all–if we thought that one had to be a “good” writer in order to effectively teach writing. Though she did not say it then–let us argue it out amongst ourselves instead–her answer? Is yes. It was part of the reason that she encouraged me to teach composition: because she thought I was a “good” writer.

I suppose what I’m getting at is that I don’t understand, yet, how that is supposed to translate into the classroom. For the most part, I don’t introduce my students to my writing; this piece, this term, being the rare exception. The only writing of mine to which they are regularly exposed are my comments on their own work. And especially given what I do write, both as a scholar and as a fan, I’m reluctant to even talk about my own writing too much to my kids. If they ask, I’ll tell; otherwise, I’m still squidgy about talking about slash fic with freshmen who are an awesome combination of world-weary and wide-eyed innocents, sometimes.

And yet, as a new-old friend said to me recently: I read your writing because otherwise, how will I know you? Which, exactly. I would agree. So since my students don’t read my writing–nor am I arguing that they should, I don’t think–how does me as a writer get translated into me as an instructor?

Whatever sustained joy I find in writing is newly grown; barely nine months old, yet. And I know, as I ask my students to write multiple drafts, to revise, to talk with others about their writing, that, for many of them–like me–these are motions to be gone through, rhetorical moves to be performed, but, for the moment, they find no value in them, other than they must be done. I’ve been in school–even just graduate school–for a loooong time. I’ve written a lot of shit. Some of it good, some meh, some of it I even liked. But I didn’t have a “writing process”–revise: I didn’t have a stack of writing processes from which to choose–until I started writing for myself. Until I started writing fan fic.

Some would argue, I think, that I am able to craft said processes because I’ve been “trained” in the Writing As A Process model. That the instruction I offer my kids might not be useful to them now, but it will be “in the future.” At some point. Maybe.

But I would say: that’s not good enough. I want to teach them something they can take pleasure in now, that they can have fun with now, that they can re-make for their own purposes now, not in some distant pretend future which may or may not come to pass. Why can’t writing be good to them, for them, in the moment? Because if Godot ain’t coming today, who’s to say that he’ll come on any other tomorrow?

Writing, now, brings me so much joy that I get a little stupid about it, sometimes. As evidenced by this post, perhaps, if given the chance, I will go on and on about my processes, the different ways in which my stories came to be, how I fought them, how they seduced me back to the keyboard, etc.  Because, to me, it’s a freaking miracle. It’s like the baby Jesus springing to life on the screen sometimes; that is, when I look up after an hour and there’s a little fic there, done, completed by me, apparently, it’s like, wow. Where in the hell did that come from?

I used to be really weird about reading my own writing. As in, I wouldn’t, once it was turned in. I’d read any comments that I received, but I’d never look back over the piece as a whole. But now? I read all my stuff multiple times, once it’s “done.” The fic especially, but even my academic pieces. Ok, my papers, I still don’t really read carefully until after I’ve gotten them back from the prof, but my presentations? My research? Hell yeah, I read that stuff. Because I’m good with it, I’m ok with what’s on the page. I take some pleasure in seeing how it works, what didn’t, and why. I genuinely like writing, damn it.

So I want to find a way to bring that into my classroom, that love of practice. But I practice writing, for the most part, on my own terms. Because I want to. Because I enjoy it. My kids, however, aren’t in the same boat, so it’s not as simple, I don’t think, as bringing my practices themselves into the classroom.

Still, I have to acknowledge that, as Della Pollock suggests in her essay “Performing Writing,” “performance, as practice…is never fully in control of its effects” (80). And what is teaching, ultimately, if not a performance? So no matter how much energy I devote to puzzling my way out of this rhetorical paper bag, I cannot claim full control over the effects of my teaching, of my time in the classroom. And that’s ok. I’ve accepted that.

But still. I want my kids–if not all, at least some–to one day [stupid future!] find the love and joy and pleasure in writing that I have, finally, after all these years. I don’t want to create clones of myself–I’m a goddamn mess!–but I do want to open as many door as I can for them, give them as many chances to monkey around in my classroom while they can. And as wishing cannot make it so, I’ve no choice but to keep playing around, to keep testing, rearranging, revising, rewriting in my classes as I do on the page, on the screen.

So for all that angst about “how can we teach writing?,” I end up writing myself back into this job, this calling, into those awesome five hours a week I get to spend in the classroom with my students. There are some traps, I suppose, from which we do not wish to escape.

Freedom’s just another word for liberal dogmatic thought

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You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

Earlier this week, President Obama called once again for all American children to have the opportunity to attend college. This isn’t a new idea for him; it’s one he’s touted in some form since his 2008 campaign, but one to which he’s returned repeatedly since last month’s State of the Union address.

For Obama–for a hell of a lot of other people–education offers freedom.

Unfortunately, in the world where Rick Santorum spins, a world where other people’s sex lives pose a clear and present danger to his own, freedom = slavery to “liberal” ideology, to thoughts that are critical of this country, her leaders, her practices. In a speech in Michigan on Friday, Santorum told an enthusiastic [geriatric] audience that:

President Obama once said that he wants everyone in America to go to college. What a snob. There are good, decent men and women who work hard every day and put their skills to the test that aren’t taught by some liberal college professor. That’s why [Obama] wants you to go to college. He wants to remake you in his image. I want to create jobs so people can remake their children into their image, not his.

Yes, that’s right: America needs some of its children not to go to college so that those children can “work hard every day”–which, apparently, people with college degrees–people like Santorum!–do not do. Yup. We just sit around not fixing shit and watching the world go to hell as we stare at our degrees and drink pinot and sing the Marseilles. Man, Rick: you nailed it.

But let’s be clear: for the Vest, giving all Americans–read: black, white, latino, asian, rich, poor, southern, northern, first-generation, seventh generation, christian, muslim, atheist, jew, woman, man, gay, hetero, transgender, bi–the same chance to access higher education is akin to packing these young minds into the rhetorical Amistad and shipping them off to Marxistville. Learning = indoctrination in what Santorum sees as multicultural bullshit, gender equality, and the notion that no idea should be swallowed hook, line, and sinker without critical reflection and inquiry.

You fear ideas, man? You fear exposure to ideas? What does that say about the strength of your own convictions? Oh, that’s right: we’re not talking about what you believe–for you, it’s a given that those ideas are “correct,” grounded in your god’s law or whatever. For you, any idea that doesn’t match your Opus Dei-inscribed view of life, the universe, and everything is “liberal” and therefore dangerous and wrong.

Right.

Also, Rick, my love, you have a very strange understanding of how “teaching” works. I can assure you, as one of those “liberal” professors for whom you express so much contempt, that exposing my students to ideas, to perspectives that are unlike their own, does not automatically cause them to adopt those ideas. Far from it. Students are not obedient little sponges, darlin’–they come in just as resistant, just as married to the ideas they consider their own as any adult. If anything, I think, they are a weird paradox at 18, 19 years old: on the one hand, they’re open and pliant and more receptive to experience than ever before. But on the other, they recognize that openness, this newfound desire to be more than they are and they resist that, push back against their own wills with everything they’ve got; not all the time, not in every instance, but often enough so that their own identity–the one they’ve spend their adolescence and late teen years constructing carefully, so carefully–is not corrupted.

They’re smart, Rick; they’re so much fucking smarter than you give them credit for. And yeah, sometimes they change their minds but they’re the ones that do the changing, not me or any of my colleagues [not all of whom are the liberal bastions of idiomatic thought you seem to imagine].

And that’s what you’re really afraid of, isn’t it, Rick? Of your kids changing their own minds. Having thoughts that you didn’t plant in there with the spade of the Bible. It’s called growing up, man: it’s called becoming a human being. It has less to do with what job the kids end up getting, whether they’re on Wall Street or own a business on Main Street or care for kids with cancer or create their own comic series. It has much more to do with the way that the kids see the world, the epistemology that they fashion for themselves to help them make sense of their own existence and I know I’ve lost you now, baby, because I used the word “epistemology” and if you’re not careful, I’ll point right back to Foucault and that would REALLY piss you off, wouldn’t it, me citing the ideas of a gay French dude, right?

So, Rick, let me bring it back to a place that maybe you can understand, one where you won’t be smelling poppers and dreaming of Donna Summer as you read my text. I used to work for an amazing woman, a university president [stay with me, Vest: take a deep breath] who didn’t just believe that, as our university’s slogan said, “Education Offers Freedom,” she embodied this ideal. Both of her parents and her grandparents: all college graduates. Her parents: both teachers who moved from Chicago back to the South in the 1950s, going back to their family’s roots–to the roots of slavery–to teach those who hadn’t gotten out, not yet. She and her husband: both teachers early in their careers. She: president of a for-profit university [hey, you like that idea, right?] with an on-campus presence that encouraged students, faculty, and staff alike to come to her with concerns, questions, comments. She embodied the potential of education in her DNA, in her everyday actions, and in the genuine love and concern she felt for all of the students, even those she met only in passing, or only on graduation day when she handed them their diploma.

Rick, this woman’s life illustrates the truth of the axiom that education can offer freedom: from poverty, from circumstance, from history, and yes, from ignorance, from fear, from derision. But the key word here is CAN; education isn’t a magic bullet, it’s not the universal means of escape from the dominant ideology. It’s a tool, man, a tool to which all those who want it should have access. This is what the President means when he says that everyone should be able to go to college: everyone should have the chance to see if education is the key to their lock, an answer–never the only answer–to some of their questions.

Your fear precedes you, sir. Your desire to consign others to ignorance all in the name of “freedom” is repugnant and will only hasten your obsolesce as a political and cultural force.