Monday, May 28, 2007

Nostalgia for times gone by, even craptastic ones

In the past week or so, some of the academic technology bloggers I read attended Faculty Academy at the University of Mary Washington. UMW, or as I know it, Mary Washington College, was where I spent my first semester of college. And since I recently (quietly) marked the 10th anniversary of my graduation from college, I've been feeling kind of sentimental about my college years.

(photo by Cyprien Lomas, used under a Creative Commons license)

My time at Mary Washington College was not a happy one. Let me count the reasons:
  • I wasn't ready to go away to college, especially not 3,000+ miles from home.
  • Three of us first-year students were crammed into a room built for two students.
  • One of those roommates was the least hygenic and most asocial person with whom I've had to share space.
  • Race issues. Good god, were there ever unacknowledged race issues. I had wanted to be in an entirely different environment than my inner-city high school in Southern California. I wanted a college with a smaller student body and a lovely landscape. Mary Washington's brick buildings, deciduous trees, and rolling landscape fit the bill, and Fredericksburg seemed charming when I breezed through it as a prospective student. Instead of idyllic college life, however, I found myself in the middle of a lot of evangelical students and a bunch of white people who had clearly never thought at all about race. WTF was I thinking, attending college in the South?
  • The food and housing sucked. Big time. As in, had I been litigious, I totally could have sued.
At another recent conference, I met someone who had attended Mary Washington at the same time I had and who had stuck around as a staff member. She said the atmosphere on campus had improved a lot and that my experience as a student had not been her experience. Of course, a student from Virginia (which I'm assuming she was, since most students there were) is going to have a different experience than a student from Southern California. I dearly hope that the smothering religiosity (prayers at public gatherings) and unspoken (by whites) black-white racial tension has resolved itself in the intervening 14 years.

My time at Mary Washington was marked, fortunately, by my discovery of poetry, and particularly American poetry. I read a lot of of the Southern poets, wrote a paper on Allen Tate's Ode to the Confederate Dead. Despite the poetry course, the curriculum that semester failed to challenge me, and so I spent a lot of my time wandering Fredericksburg, meditating on the worn stone slave auction block on a street corner, the Civil War and Revolutionary-era cemeteries, the Sunken Road that played such a pivotal role in the first battle of Fredericksburg. I rode my bike along the old VEPCO canals, trying to avoid what my geology professor dubbed the "sociopaths" who hung out under the overpasses. Once my roommate and I were pursued, on bike, by one such sociopath, almost right to the door of the college police station. (To this day, I have far more fear of strange white men than of young men of color. I'll cross the street to avoid a redneck-looking fellow, but not someone who appears to be a gang member.) It was a dark time in my life, and I wrote a lot of poetry, which was good for me.

And despite the darkness, I still feel a strange nostalgia for that time. I'm realizing it has less to do with Mary Washington and more to do with youthful energy (physical and intellectual) and the vast amounts of time--time alone and unsupervised by anyone--that I now largely lack in my life because of my responsibilities as a mother, wife, and employee.

Don't get me wrong--I love Mr. Trillwing and Lucas and wouldn't trade them for a lifetime of intellectual exploration, creative production, and personal reflection--but I miss that vigor, overshadowed though it was by various darknesses. And my post from yesterday on middle landscapes is a reflection of that, of finding a balance in my life so that I don't totally subsume my solitary, creative and intellectual time into my new life as a mother and full-time worker.

Scholarship and the New Media

(cross-posted at BlogHer)

NOTE: Interesting discussion about anonymity in the comments of this post. I'd love to hear others' opinions on the issue, especially bloggers who have "come out" in some venues but not on their blog itself. (Note that this is my situation. Google "trillwing" or "The Clutter Museum" and you'll get my real name, but you won't find my real name on this blog. It's a thin, sad little veil of pseudonymity, but it's what I'm comfortable with.) Anyway, comments and debate are welcome! If popular consensus is I should remove the link between a particular blogger's pseudonym and real name, I will, but I'm not yet convinced it's necessary.

Does academic blogging actually broaden the public sphere and democratize intellectual discourse?

That was one of the many questions raised at a panel discussion last Wednesday at UC Davis. Panelists included Tedra Osell of Bitch Ph.D., Scott Eric Kaufman of Acephalous and The Valve, and Brad DeLong of Grasping Reality with Both Hands. The topic? Scholarship and the New Media, with a special focus on history. I'd like to share some of the highlights of the talk.

Kaufman explained that The Valve has less do with literary theory and practice than with forging a sense of scholarly community with its own code of ethics and sensibility. He and others wanted to see an online forum where humanities scholars could discuss shared interests and concerns unhindered by the bureaucracy and politics of the average university department.

In the parts of the academic blogosphere I frequent--mostly blogs written by women, since that's my beat here at BlogHer--few writers discuss their work directly because it would compromise their anonymity. It was interesting, then, to hear Kaufman talk about how much support he has received for his work when he discusses it online. He even offered to share a manuscript with those who would be willing to read it, and he had 66 people offer to comment on it. The response, he says, was "interdisciplinary in the best sense of the word" and an indication of the birth of a new kind of intellectual culture. At the same time, he said of sharing his work, it "can seem like the worst-ever dissertation defense, going up against the entire university, all of whom have a quibble with something you're saying."

Osell countered that Kaufman "had it backwards. I have a really utopian view," she said, "of what blogging and the web can really accomplish. One of the things I love about online communities and blogging and commenting is that it recreates what can happen in an online seminar, only on a much bigger scale."

She continued: "Despite the fact that everyone pisses me off, I still have an optimistic view of being online as a way of creating a public sphere. Does it get realized? No. Does everyone have access to a computer? No. Does everyone have time? No." But there are, she said, agreeing with Kaufman, signs that academics have created, at least among themselves, an "enabling fiction" of a truly democratic public sphere. She historicized her discussion of pseudonymous academic blogging by discussing 18th-century essay periodicals, which were also published pseudonymously. (She writes about the connections between these periodicals and blogging in her article Where Are the Women?
Pseudonymity and the Public Sphere, Then and Now

DeLong went even further back in history, back to Emperor Frederick II and his founding of the University of Naples Frederick II. In so doing, he set up scholarly communication in 13th-century Naples. DeLong also discussed Machiavelli, who, when he was banished to the Florentine countryside, spent four hours a day reading from the books which, three generations after Gutenberg, were becoming more readily available and serving as a conduit of scholarly conversation.

But books in themselves aren't enough, DeLong said. So "we go on our rounds" through classes, working with our advisers, departmental meetings, disciplinary conferences, going to the library, etc. But we still want more channels of scholarly communication.

DeLong told the story of a professor of economics who gets a phone call at 3 a.m. The caller says, "I want to dispute your calculation of the weight of the 12th-century Scottish ox." Three possible responses from the professor: 1) Does this guy know what time it is? 2) Doesn't this guy know who I am? 3) Finally, here's someone I can talk to.

But, DeLong points out, the caller isn't next door, isn't in the department. Thanks to the Internet, such conversations have become broader, geographically and disciplinarily.

UC Davis history professor Ari Kelman commented on the session. He pointed out that there's an article of faith among most of the academic bloggers he reads: humanities scholars and social scientists are in the midst of a crisis. We communicate our ideas in a way that no one can understand except for our very closest colleagues. He pointed out that many in the (largely history department) audience may not accept that premise, but added, "I invite you to read the books that cross my threshold for review or the journals we're supposed to be reading--or, at your very great peril, go to a conferece and actually attend the sessions." Exceptions to this mediocrity, he argued, are rare.

Kelman said the panelists seemed to agree, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, that academic blogging may be a cure for this failure to communicate in a way the public understands. It's "a piece of conventional wisdom in the blogosphere: We are undergoing another structural transformation of the public sphere. Academic blogging democratizes scholarly discourse. It invites more people into the coffeehouse."

He continued: "There is something remarkable about being able to share one's ideas with a potentially massive audience of interested readers." The members of this audience need not be credentialed, though blog readers tend to be white, very well educated, and certainly affluent enough to be able to afford both a computer an internet access.

Perhaps even of greater value than a blog's large audience, Kelman said, is the reciprocal relationship between blogger and reader. And "this conversation takes place in seconds instead of the glacial pace of academic publishing." very quickly, he pointed out, someone can say, "You nitwit, you haven't read my book!" Kelman added wryly, "You don't need to wait for the review."

In the end, however, Kelman said he was unconvinced. "The energy that goes into blogging isn't rewarded--yet, at least--in a university setting. It may make your writing better, raise your profile, refine your ideas. But I don't yet know if the cost-benefit analysis works out. I don't know if blogging actually makes for better writing and better thinking."

Overall, it was an interesting discussion, and one that gets continued every day, in venues large and small, online and off. I, of course, tend to be on the side of the panelists: blogging is a way of fabricating a new public sphere for intellectual discussion, and one need not pay university tuition or have a Ph.D. to participate. Yay for that.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Middle landscapes: deciding to go green

I, like many of us, inhabit a middle landscape--or, rather, multiple middle landscapes. They're literal and metaphorical, lived and hoped-for.

"Middle landscape" has been used in many forms--for example, to refer to suburbs as a midpoint between urban and rural living, but most famously, in my field at least, in reference to the pastoral farmland favored by Thomas Jefferson as the place where American character would be forged. It was in the transformation of the land from "wild" frontier to farm that American folk culture was to be cultivated. If frontier settlers were barbaric and urban denizens were genteel to the point of corruption or foppishness, then the middle landscape was the place where real Americans lived. The suburbs can also serve as a middle landscape politically, buffering as they do "blue" urban areas from "red" rural lands.

My literal middle landscape

I live in two versions of the literal middle landscape: in a suburban tract from the 1970s as well as a few blocks from some of the richest farm soil in the world. The result is a suburban landscape where in addition to the usual crows and pigeons, you may see wild turkeys and barn owls, magpies and scrub jays. Walking to the bus once, I saw a quail on a neighbor's roof, just above the native poppies of the home next door. Increasingly, suburbanites in my neck of the woods are replacing groomed green lawns with xeriscaping and/or native plants, and they're cultivating their backyards with fruit trees, tomatoes, peppers, and other vegetables. The local paper just offered free giant pumpkin seeds to anyone who boasts the 800 square feet needed by a single vine. To date, they've had 500 requests for the seeds.

We're seeing here that suburbanites--renters and owners alike--with leisure time and a little extra cash for gardening tools and supplies are trying to green the suburbs. We buy organic compost at the local Ace hardware. We acquire organic tomato plants and herbs at the farmer's market. And we mulch and water and generally nurture our plants until we harvest that one prize tomato or the bumper crop of zucchini--or, apparently, a 300-pound pumpkin.

A neighbor of mine runs a biodiesel fueling station from his garage. It appears there's a co-op of people who purchase the biodiesel in bulk and then divide it among themselves. The community half a block from mine has solar panels on just about every rooftop, as well as communal gardens, orchards, and vineyards. And people in my town bicycle a lot. We're the only city in America to be awarded platinum status by the folks who keep track of community bicycling.

My point is that, if you have the resources, it's getting easier to be green. Whether that means growing your own food, buying organic, buying local food, driving less, or bicycling more. And I'm trying, really trying, to live greener. I use fewer cleaning chemicals in the house and spray pesticides only when the roaches and ants are literally at my door.

(photo by Yorkie, used under a Creative Commons license)

My metaphorical middle landscapes

I inhabit as well, though, several metaphorical middle landscapes. Consider my vocational and intellectual landscapes. Ask any Ph.D. who works in an academically-oriented staff job (e.g. a faculty technology pedagogy specialist like me) if she fits in with either staff or faculty. I don't. I hide my Ph.D. from the staff and trot it out for the faculty so that I can have street cred with both groups. I'm in the middle ground shared, at my institution, by the such groups as the teaching resources center professional staff, the career center staff, instructional coordinators, and others who hold Ph.D.s but don't teach or publish a lot of research. It's a strange landscape, one that we have to forge anew each day as we negotiate the assumptions of both faculty and staff about who we are and what we do. There's a notable look of relief, for example, when I mention during my workshops (as I usually try to do in a kind of casual way), that I've taught at my institution and have a Ph.D. I'm not, thank god, I can see the faculty thinking, just another trainer forcing them to use the latest software mandated by the university for turning in their grades. By the same token, I need to be able to chat with the staff in my office about their donkeys (there are at least three people in my small building who own donkeys), their Weight Watchers weigh-ins, their stomach stapling surgeries, and much-missed 1980s television dramas. And I like to negotiate this territory, even though it can be a challenge.

It's that old thing Jesus said about walking a couple miles in someone else's shoes. Nobody else's shoes fit me, however. So instead I'm walking, back and forth every day, through this landscape inhabited by people like me, the academically resilient, the scholarly damned.

And so what do I do? How do I keep the alive the life of the mind without tossing my lot entirely in with the faculty? I read a lot. I write. But not as much as the faculty and more, it seems, than the average staff member. It's hardest to keep up (as you may have noticed from my light posting) with the writing, whether it be informally on this blog or more formally with my ongoing (albeit intermittent) research. Throw in motherhood, and it seems any hope of being productive goes into the compost pile.

My solution has been to think green in my intellectual life as well as my physical one. I try to do those things that keep me healthy, that require or allow me to live thoughtfully and conscientiously. I went into these new intellectual woods to live deliberately--only they aren't woods at all. I'm surprised to find this landscape I'm crossing is rich, loamy soil I've been developing during my entire life. Mix together artistic endeavor, intellectual accomplishment, an urban youth, naturalist tendencies, motherhood, marriage, and the entire history of this land--this California--and you get some fertile ground indeed, a pastoral landscape where I'm continuing to forge my own character as I head, next week, into my thirty-second year.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

No carrion for me, please

Odd result for a vegetarian, n'est-ce pas?

Your Power Bird is a Vulture

You are always changing your life and the lives of those around you.
You aren't afraid to move on from what holds you back.
Energetic and powerful, you have a nearly unlimited capacity for success.
You know how to "go with the flow" and take advantage of what is given to you.

(As seen at Dr. Brazen Hussy's.)

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

New project: Green West Magazine

Because I don't already have enough to do, I'm collaborating with a friend of mine on a new venture, Green West Magazine. There's not much content up on the site at the moment, but I encourage you to check it out because I spent many, many hours developing some mad CSS skillz in order to build the site. (It's best viewed in Firefox, by the way.)

We're not exactly sure where the site will go, but in the best case scenario, we'll build up a nice readership over the next year or so and maybe make enough ad revenue to buy ourselves a few books. :)

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

The Duclod Man

I found fascinating this story in The Advocate about someone who has been sending odd letters to bisexual students at my alma mater. In it, Sarah Aswell uses all her internet prowess to discover the identity of the letters' sender. It sounds like something I'd do--develop such an obsession, a quest for answers. Here's an excerpt. (It's a long article. Be sure to read the rest of it.)

As early as 1992, students at Grinnell College, a small liberal arts school in Iowa, began receiving strange, anonymous letters in the mail. The letters contained homemade greeting cards with crudely drawn pictures—men crawling on the ground, toilets and trash cans, twin closet doors—and jokes that didn’t make any sense. Q: What would a duclod like about the land of the giants? A: Standing in two closets without touching either knob.

In one mysterious letter the sender defined the made-up word duclod as the fusion of two words, dual and closeted, meaning a person who hides his or her sexuality from both gay and straight people. Another letter described the duclod as “bisexual, homophobic, heterophobic, confused.”

The letters were always sent in groups, from four to seven cards reported at a time. They were always postmarked from different, seemingly random parts of the country and always sent during school breaks. Mostly, the letters targeted gay and bisexual seniors. Sometimes they were sent to the student’s school address; sometimes home, possibly in an effort to out the student to his or her parents.

That’s all anyone knew for 14 years.

From The Onion News Network: Panda Angst

Panda Demands Abortion

Monday, May 07, 2007


(via She Blinded Me With Science!)

Carrion perfume, anyone?

I'm soooo enjoying the corpse flower cam at my university. The flower opened suddenly today. I didn't get a chance to go see it, but maybe I'll go tonight after putting Lucas to sleep--the greenhouse is open until 10 p.m., and there's a friggin' party going on there. The greenhouse curator has been talking to people for hours. It's fun.

Of course, the campus has two of these titan arum, and it seems one of them blooms every year or two. Good times!