Academia

Blacksburg

Of which one cannot speak, one must thereof be silent.

I don’t know what else I feel I can say. It’s the shocking global numb; the instant inadequacy of words.

NYCEA New Paltz

On Friday afternoon, I served as chair and respondent for a panel on “The Evolution of the Classical Imagination” at the New York College English Association conference on “Evolution and Revolution” at SUNY New Paltz. Each of the presenters offered a perspective on an Augustan poet — Horace, Ovid, Virgil — and how that poet might help us understand the complexities of contemporary military service.

The panelists were undergraduates presenting at a graduate conference, and they were absolutely amazing: poised, confident, insightful, professional. As several auditors noted, had the presenters not been in Cadet grey, everyone would have assumed they were graduate students.

Cadets at SUNY New Paltz

After the Friday presentations, we went to the keynote presentation by Ed Sanders, founder of The Fugs and biographer of Allen Ginsberg, wherein there was much hectoring of anyone who didn’t subscribe to the ideological certainties of the academic left, and wherein many of the clichés and platitudes of the academic left were cheered and applauded. It made me cringe a little: I know that I’m far more liberal than most of the Cadets in my classes, but in the keynote, Sanders came across almost as a comedic caricature of smug, self-indulgent would-be left radicalism, and the rest of the audience seemed all too happy to agree that every problem in the world — the environment, genocide, consumerism, war, intolerance, corruption, poverty — would be solved if more people just agreed with the left-good, Bush-bad bromides Sanders offered.

It didn’t faze the Cadets, and in fact, they went down after the keynote and waited in line to talk to him and shake his hand. That was a side of Cadet life I hadn’t yet seen, but it was in full evidence throughout the conference: these students are absolutely remarkable in their social facility, and with their forthrightness, curiosity, and directness, they charmed everyone they met.

Spies Wanted

I’ve been going through this year’s CCCC program, and there are way too many things that I really want to go to: sixteen panels, two SIGs, one workshop, and one caucus. And that doesn’t even include the panels whose times interfere with one another.

Which is the reason for this post. With my scholarly interests, there’s no way I can not go and see session C.26 on “Textual Transgressions Online: Plagiarism and Fraud in Weblogs and Wikis,” but my colleagues (two Majors and a Lieutenant Colonel) are presenting at the same time at session C.11 on “The Role of Discourse Communities in the Composition Classroom at the United States Military Academy,” which — while I can easily ask them about their presentations — I’d be curious to hear what sort of questions get asked, given the preconceptions many academics have about the military. And I’d be even more curious to hear what Daisy Miller has to say about our Cadets at session C.14, as would my colleagues. (Why would the two panels that deal with my specific institution be scheduled at the same time?)

So if you have any interest in either of the latter two panels, I’d be grateful to hear whatever impressions you might have of them in a couple months. I’m very much looking forward to (once again) posting my notes and impressions of the sessions I’m able to attend.

Of Possible Librarian Interest

The new issue of Kairos is out, and it’s a good one. Of particular interest to some of my librarian peers, for whom I have much respect and whose scholarship I wish my discipline would more fully engage in conversation, might be James Purdy and Joyce Walker’s remarkable and compelling essay, “Digital Breadcrumbs: Case Studies of Online Research.”

Good stuff from my perspective, and I’m curious to hear what those respected expert peers might say.

For Daniel

My friend Daniel, in his military career, spent two nights in an Israeli prison for attempting to buy guns on the black market, as he’d been tasked to do by his Special Forces unit.

There are other things, worse things, that happened to Daniel beyond the weapons market. And as much as I like this poem that makes me think about him, it isn’t so good in the middle part: it hectors, Daniel would have said. That stuff about the American death, blue uniforms, barrels, hands: too easy, facile, and the title as well. Cheap, almost.

The Al Harishma Weapons Market

At midnight, steel shutters
slide down tight. Feral cats slink
in the periphery of the streetlamp’s
dim cone of light. Inside, like a musician
swaddling a silver-plated trumpet,
Akbar wraps an AK-47 in cloth.
Grease guns, pistols, RPGs —
he slides them all under the countertop.
Black marketeer or insurgent —
an American death puts food on the table,
more cash than most men earn in an entire year.
He won’t let himself think of his childhood friends —
those who wear the blue uniforms
which bring death, dying from barrels
he may have oiled in his own hands.
Akbar stirs the chai,
then carries his sleeping four-year-old,
Habib, to bed under glow-in-the-dark
stars arranged on the ceiling. Late at night
when gunfire frightens them both,
Habib cries for his father, who tells him
It’s just the drums, a new music,
and the tracery of lights in the sky
he retraces on the ceiling, showing the boy
how each bright star travels
from this dark place, to the other.

And then there’s that ending, with the stars. That wasn’t Daniel’s ending, but I want to hope that maybe it was his sister’s. He worried about her, about her boyfriends, about their parents. Worried about whether she was pregnant.

Daniel never caught a break. He ate a bullet in a New Mexico hotel room.

[Edited after the fact: the poem is by former Sergeant Brian Turner, from his exceptional collection, Here, Bullet.]

Top Rhet/Comp Schools?

A military colleague asked me today for advice about doctoral programs in composition and rhetoric. This colleague has a M.A. in English and several years of experience teaching and administrating writing courses, and is thinking about taking early retirement from the military and wondering where to go and what factors to consider. Of course it depends what areas you’re interested in, I said, and noted that it’s generally not a good idea to pursue a PhD without full funding from the institution (ideally with a 1/1 load for the TAship and the opportunity to teach and design a variety of courses) and health insurance, and it’s awfully nice (from my experience) to have a TA union, and so on. But programs themselves? Well, there are published and online guides, I know, but my colleague got me thinking, and so I’m curious as to what the proverbial word on the street might be:

What, in your opinion, are the ten best PhD programs in rhetoric and composition?

Of course, the criteria themselves for ‘best’ are open to debate, and again, it depends on what one’s scholarly interests are. I’d certainly expect to see Ohio State, Penn State, Purdue, UT Austin, Michigan State, Carnegie Mellon, and Syracuse at or near the top of a lot of lists, and I’ve got strong feelings about the excellence of other programs as well — Pitt for its unique and compelling cultural studies approach, and UMass and UNH for their deep (and evolving) historical investment in the process approach — so I’ll ask: what do you think? What would your top 10 be, and what would you say their particular areas of excellence are?

Where do you admire?

Holidays, and After

It’s pleasant to be in DC again, blogging from a chair beside the Christmas tree in a family living room on Capitol Hill. Last year I was here as well, but rather less focused on family and the holiday and more focused on making sure my MLA interview suit looked OK, figuring out closest Metro stops for the various conference hotels, and trying to prep myself for all the possible questions interview committees might ask.

It came out pretty well, all things considered. I’m happy where I wound up and feel like I’m doing good things, and the actual interview process itself — if you’re gearing up to do it for the first time this year — was relatively painless. (Though what preceded and succeeded it certainly wasn’t.) And now, spurred by Bitch PhD’s recent (and as always excellent) post, I’m kinda wishing I’d gone to Philadelphia this year just to feel the satisfaction of knowing the interviewing stuff was — for the time being — behind me and being able to actually enjoy the kinds of presentations Bitch PhD talks about. Because, yes, I like the intellectual work and pleasure of being and thinking and learning at academic conferences.

So to you folks traveling to the MLA this year, interviewers and interviewees, presenters and interlocutors, I’m wishing I was there as well, and hope your conference is a good one. Rumor has it that DC is nice this time of year. [Dur. Still thinking about this year in last year’s frame.]

Addendum: Spencer offers an engaging roundup of recent posts about the upcoming event. There seems to be good bit of angst and unhappiness, which I certainly experienced both in the lead-up and in the after-waiting during the job search, and which is both expected and unfortunate. Kind of why I posted this, I guess: because now that I don’t have to be there, I’d enjoy going seeing panels like, for example, the one on “Blogging and the Future of Academia”, or my friend and colleague’s thoroughly interesting-sounding presentation on how (and why) the Army used and distributed certain Edgar Allan Poe stories to the troops during Vietnam.

With any luck, maybe some kind folks will post their post-conference thoughts on presentations and/or how they felt about the interview process.

Goals Public and Private

I’ll be meeting with my supervisor tomorrow — in the military’s terms, my “rater” — to review my goals for my first year as an assistant professor. I’ve looked through the institutional examples and documentation on how to do this stuff, on how best to fill out Department of the Army form 7222-1 and what the expectations are in DPOM 5-3 and such, and I’ve drafted bullet points for what I want to accomplish in terms of teaching, scholarship, service, Cadet development, and faculty development. And there’s one goal I’m not sure I want to add to the mix, and it has to do with this weblog.

Steve Krause, Dennis Jerz, and others have offered plenty of useful insights on the intersection between scholars’ online writings and their professional activities. I don’t list my URL here under any heading on my CV, except as part of the address block, next to my email address, and I don’t feel like it would be appropriate for me to do so. At the same time, I think of the great presentation Clancy did at CCCC analyzing a scholarly weblog conversation, and I think of the fact that weblog discussions have led for me to brief pieces published in JAC and Pedagogy, and I think of the ways I’ve tried to re-imagine the ways that such conversations carry heterogeneous value (affective and otherwise) beyond considerations of what they can be exchanged for. All of these are reasons why I might want to suggest on the DA 7222-1 that writing and conversing with other academics regularly (or, ahem, more regularly than I’ve done lately) here helps me be a better faculty member, and that it’s something that I want to continue.

But that’s a goal I can (and do) easily hold privately, without ceding it to the institution. The thing is, with my abiding interest in the intersection of the information economy, affective labor, and the personal, why should I? If my hope is that I might make a difference, however negligibly slight, in what gets valued at an institution as immensely traditional as mine, why not? One obvious reason, of course, is that such thoughts of difference-making are so superabundant among bloggers that they are deservedly mocked as the internet’s most prominent example of masturbatory vanity as cliché. If figuring things out and working through ideas are viewed as pleasurable activities for academics, then doing so on a weblog will always seem to some to be an act of public onanism, and the desire to somehow to associate it with one’s paid work — well, let’s not even go there.

The Load

I’m feeling the teaching load. I’m 4/4 (for the non-academic readers: four courses in the fall and four in the spring), but with a small student population per class, so one would think that my time-suck here might be comparable to a 3/3 at other institutions. Well, yes, maybe, but not so much: in addition to the familiar committee and service stuff, there’s also the added bureaucracy that comes with this unique institution. Mandatory Web-based anti-terrorism training and suchlike. Being a sponsor or a resource for individual cadets and for clubs and teams. So I’m finding that my time fills up very, very fast, and I’m struggling to find places and times where I can actually do the scholarship that I want to do.

And the scholarship itself isn’t the reward. It isn’t the payoff. My classroom time is the payoff. I love the scholarship, sure, and I think I’ve got some good ideas, and I’m pretty sure I know more about one very skinny and narrowly-focused aspect of my field than anybody else in the field. But the scholarship is what lets me do the teaching. The teaching is the payoff.

I got my job here, at this highly unique and competitive institution, largely because of my scholarship. I enjoy my job here, as I’m sure my recent posts have indicated, largely because of the teaching. I’d made assumptions, myself, about the types of student I’d encounter, and the language many academics might use to describe them (e.g., “thug,” “fascist,” et cetera), but I’ve been pleasantly surprised: in some ways, they’re rather more open-minded than their more “liberal” peers at UMass or Pitt.

Case in point: I’ve recently asked them to write an essay about bias in higher education, and the widespread perception of a problematic liberal bias among college professors, their own included. (Most of their instructors are career Army officers with advanced degrees, but there are some civilians like me, as well.) To start the essay, I thought it would be a good idea to see how they might compare their own ideological perspectives to one another, so I sent them to the politicalcompass.org site. (Yes, it’s got all sorts of well-documented problems, but as a socially comparative instrument, it served my needs quite well: for the purposes of this writing assignment about bias, one’s politics mean nothing except in relation to other peoples’ politics.) Check out the range of (wholly anonymous) responses:

Cartesian graph of our class positions from the politicalcompass.org questionnaire

And we’re generating some good discussion about those responses in class, which is exciting to me. Some cadets, as one might imagine, have expressed dismay that their answers have ideologically aligned them with Ghandi; others, delight. But beyond that, there’s the social aspect to the teaching, and that’s the deeper and darker concern for me. I’m meeting these students as freshmen, as plebes, and I’m feeling swamped by four sections of their opinions, ideas, impressions, and worries — swamped, even, by their diversity of opinion. But the thing that remains unsaid, always, for me, and the thing that they wholly accept, is nothing like the job market worries that the conventional undergraduate bears.

The thing unsaid is that they all know they’re going to Iraq or Afghanistan as soon as they graduate. And to me, that thought is an immense load, but they bear it with that complete equanimity. In part, it’s why they’re here.