Good Friday’s not complete without a heaping helping of guilt

April 22, 2011 § 2 Comments

I feel awful.

I have broken down twice today over the phone–once to Robert and the other time to my mom. So, what’s got this girl so gloomy?

I hate saying no to people I love.

Recently, V and I offered some words of hard-won wisdom to a fellow graduate student…and V said something that I’ve never managed to properly accept. She told him not to get so caught up in the stress of the project that he refuses to allow himself some social time. And as a married man, this is important advice to receive.

I have trouble with this particular piece of advice because I feel like I so royally fucked up that now I’m being punished for it. And part of the punishment is not hanging out with friends and family. Telling people no.

We received an invitation to dinner at a couple of friends’ house for Easter dinner (since we’ll be celebrating early with Robert’s family tomorrow…and not seeing my family at all…since March 12th). I haven’t seen these friends since February. I nearly burst into tears when I received the texted invitation. And I did burst into tears when I called Robert to talk to him about it.

I’m fairly certain I won’t be able to go because dinner is going to take a great deal of time tomorrow evening.

I feel like a horrible friend, a horrible daughter, and a horrible daughter-in-law. Not to mention the world’s worst sister–I haven’t seen my sister, who literally lives right around the corner from us, since March 12th. It makes me sick to my stomach to realize what all I am having to sacrifice in order to repay for my dilly-dallying last year.

Take it from A.Hab., future and present grad students: set yourself up for success. Get started as early as you legitimately can so that you are able to equally divide your time between research/writing and a social life. The alternative is not pleasant. Truly.

From the Other Side of the Desk: student evaluations and annual reviews

April 6, 2011 § 14 Comments

I have really hesitated to write this post because I fully intend to criticize that most sacred of qualitative measure: the student evaluations.

If you are unfamiliar with student evaluations, allow me to educate you. A student evaluation is a form typically consisting of two parts. The first portion is commonly a Scantron sheet where students will rate elements of the classroom experience: the professor’s knowledge base, the clarity of the professor’s voice, the level of preparation required for this course. The second portion is ofttimes optional and can come in the form of a short-answer questionnaire where the students will “honestly” respond to questions specifically directed to that course. (For instance, there is a questionnaire for the composition classes as well as for the literature classes.) Students complete these forms on the last day of class meeting, and they typically take anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes to complete. While the students evaluate their professor and overall classroom experience, the professor is proctoring someone else’s evaluations–no professor remains in his or her own classroom during this time. It is less intimidating to the students this way and encourages them to be more honest in their responses.

The evaluations are sent off to a school somewhere else in the country (ours are sent somewhere to the West…I think) where the Scantrons are scored and averages on a scale of 0-5 are mathematically figured. The reports return to the home university and are submitted to the appropriate professors typically around mid-semester of the following term. Sure, it’s too late now to really implement any changes or recommendations stated within the evaluations, but at least the students’ responses are kept anonymous, grades for that class have already been reported, and the professor likely won’t remember a specific student’s handwriting any more.

Although many professors wish this is where the evaluations might end, on their own desks to be used at their own discretion, this is typically not the evaluations’ final resting place. In many instances, particularly when it comes to junior colleagues and graduate students, student evaluations are normally requested to appear in a teaching portfolio for an annual review. (I believe this is also true for many jobs on the academic market. Potential employers would like to see the evaluations from previous students in order to glean an idea of the caliber teacher they might hire.) And this, my friends, is where I struggle with the usefulness of student evaluations.

Take calendar year 2010, for instance. I had three back-to-back-to-back tricky semesters. I had students who were highly combative, accusatory, and presumptive. I often felt nervous, panicked, and unconfident. I spent office hours dreading the footsteps echoing down the hallway, silently willing those footsteps not to be for me. This came to a head last semester when my office hours were after dark and a couple of my more combative students had spent the majority of the course shooting daggers at me. What had I done? Well, given them a quiz on a day they hadn’t read, of course. Or returned a paper with a lower grade than the student believed s/he deserved. Certainly worthy of a threatening glare. Because it’s entirely my fault a student did not achieve to his or her ability. Absolutely. Bad Mrs. H.

Because 2010 was so terrible, I refused to read my evaluations. Normally, I read my evaluations once the following semester has ended. Because we receive our evaluations in the middle of a semester, I never find it appropriate to read horrible comments and destroy my otherwise unwitting confidence. Normally, I read evaluations from Spring after Summer semester had ended. This way, I don’t waste my time midway through a semester with languishing energy and enthusiasm. 2010 was so truly awful that there has been little reason for me to read the evaluations from that year. And last Monday, during my annual review, my assumptions were confirmed. My students claimed that I was enthusiastic (a comment I always receive on evaluations), but they were unhappy with the blogs and quizzes. They believed the blogs were a waste of time and did not actually help their grade in the first place. So, students had little incentive to complete the blogs. This was a large portion of my annual review–and I just sat there, frozen into stunned silence, unable or unwilling to defend myself. I realize now what I should have said, but what’s the point?

Student evaluations have been infused with this sort of ethos that implies immediate expertise. Because Student A took Mrs. H’s World Lit. II class, Student A is an expert and is capable of evaluating his teacher.

It seems to me that in other professions where evaluations are considered during annual reviews, those evaluations are conducted by other professional peers/colleagues or (even better yet) by administrators. To be evaluated by someone who has absolutely no training in this field and little consideration for the relevance of the course, is laughable. Absurd. Of course my students didn’t want to do extra work. They would prefer to do no work. They would prefer to watch movies based on the books we’re reading. They would prefer not to have to read these books. They would prefer not to come to class at all. (I realize I’m generalizing–there are a few literature students out there who see the value in these courses, but rest assured that those students are few and far between. And their voices do not get heard nearly as well as the others’.) Judging from the recommendations of my annual review (and, mind, I still have not read the evaluations–why would I? my semester is going really well so far), I would guess that my students had absolutely no understanding for the concept of teaching and writing pedagogies as they apply to a literature classroom. When I discuss my methods with others, entirely devoid of student evaluations, I am met with encouragement and often words of support. When I discussed my methods with my reviewer, I was met with phrases like “I’m not sure this accomplishes your pedagogy as well as you think it does.” Really? Did my students who wrote the evaluations read every single student’s paper like I did? How could they properly assess just how well these methods have worked in my classroom? From my perspective, they were a stroke of genius (one likely never to be repeated–I have a feeling we’re all given one stroke of genius in our lifetimes…well, the normal people…the geniuses of course are granted more). But what do my untrained, 20-year-old students know about my methods? Those who care to ask me know a great deal more than those who do not care.

And, from my perspective at least, the number of students who do not care far outweigh the students who do. Yet both categories are encouraged to evaluate and assess me. I find it stunning that their assessments are taken seriously in the first place.

My conclusion is this: student evaluations should be kept to the absolute most basic of functions, and that should be to evaluate the course curriculum. Let the teaching professionals evaluate their junior colleagues. Leave the real evaluations and assessments to the professionals.

When you’re in the shit

March 29, 2011 § 4 Comments

My mom has this saying. “When your head is so far up your own ass, then all you can hear, see, smell, taste and breathe is shit.”

I’ll admit, it’s a little funny to hear my mom say words like “ass” and “shit.” “Shit” is her favorite curse word; at least, it’s her favorite one to say. She says it like it’s poisonous, like you can die from hearing it, like you can really curse someone by saying it.

It’s the “t” that does it. She pronounces that “t” with a spitting sound. It tastes bad in her mouth, and she wants it to sting your ear.

When Mom says, “shit,” she means it.

The first time I heard my mom say “shit” was when I was in ninth grade. I was a violinist in my high school orchestra. And not even the good orchestra. The average one. The one that you got into when you failed your audition in eighth grade to get into the elite orchestra in ninth grade. I was first-chair first violinist. I wasn’t even first-chair first in middle school, but I was in the honors orchestra in middle school. My director, a potential pedophile with a drinking problem (he always got just a little too touchy-feely, although he never touched my “bikini zone”…I just didn’t like my shoulders being rubbed by him when he passed by), told me on the first day of high school in this average orchestra, “Amanda, I want you to be first-chair first because you’re the most skilled one in here.” Why didn’t I get into the honors orchestra, then? I asked, utterly bewildered by my separation from my best friends who would have third period orchestra instead of first. “Because,” he softened, “I need you in here. In honors orchestra” (he said it like it was an insult, with a sneer) “you would have easily been in third chair first-violin or even second-chair second-violin. But in here? In here, you’re our leader.”

We had this conversation in front of my classmates. They hated me. I hated him.

After our first recital of the semester, a Christmas medley sometime between Thanksgiving break and Christmas vacation, my mom was visibly shaking. I was in tears, utterly embarrassed. I found my dad and sister in the auditorium. Mom had already stormed the stage. I begged my dad to explain to me how could it have been that bad? It was Christmas music! I’ve played all those pieces before! Every year! He smiled at me and gave me a hug and squeezed my shoulder. (I didn’t mind when my dad squeezed my shoulder. It didn’t feel creepy.) Mom returned from the stage, took my violin and music from me, and marched her family to the car. We didn’t speak until we got home.

“That was horrible! I can’t believe he would let those kids play such shit!” It hurt my ear. It literally hurt my ear. I cringed. My mom was angry. Not at me. Not at my sister. Not at my father. She was angry at my music director. Because we played so terribly. “I didn’t even recognize half those songs! Did you?” It wasn’t a question. She kept going. “I even had to look at the program just to see what songs they were playing!”

They’re pieces, I murmured under my breath. She couldn’t hear me. I didn’t want her to. But they really are called “pieces” in orchestra. “Songs” have words and are sung. My second orchestra director, from seventh to eighth grade, drilled that tidbit into my head pretty well.

“I can’t believe he had the audacity to tell me that that shit wasn’t shit!” She had said it three times now. She was really mad.

We sat down in the living room, the four of us, and Mom explained why she was so angry and why she was choosing to vent her anger in the form of this vile word. “Amanda, I want you to understand that I am not angry with you. This is not your fault. This is the fault of a man who is very very little, who takes his own frustrations at being denied tenure at your high school out on his students. Your director embarrassed himself, you, and all of your classmates.” (I didn’t even know you could have been denied tenure in high school. There was something wrong with this man. We would come to find out later that the school board generally wanted him fired, but he was best friends with the superintendent and that wasn’t going to happen. He directed orchestras at my high school as well as at our rival high school. My second cousin attended my rival high school three years earlier, and she was in his orchestra. She loved him. They won competitions. She learned how to play well. He chose that school over ours. It was obvious, especially on Spirit Day–he wore their colors instead of ours.)

The next day in orchestra, we didn’t play. We sat around and talked. We sat around and talked a lot in that class. My director was hungover. I had never seen a hangover enacted in person before, but I knew what it was immediately. He wouldn’t let us talk too loudly, and he turned the lights down low. He said he had migraines. He invited questions and comments about the previous night’s recital. I raised my hand, bubbling over with the anger my mother had felt the night before. I don’t understand what happened last night. We are all really embarrassed. Recitals are supposed to be a chance for the kids to show their parents what they’ve learned! He cut me off at the beginning of my diatribe. “That’s not what recitals are for, Amanda. They’re just a requirement for the school calendar.” I didn’t understand. Of course recitals are to display the collective talents of the group after a semester of work. What on Earth else could they have been for?

That was the first time Mom said the word “shit” within my earshot. Since then, she whips it out only for special occasions. It’s much more powerful that way. I love my mom and her deliberate word choice.

“When your head is so far up your own ass, then all you can hear, see, smell, taste and breathe is shit.”

As you may have noticed, friends, my head is way up my own ass. Shit is all around me. My interactions with authority figures are tinged with negativity. Shit. My interactions with students are tinged with negativity. Shit. My interactions with that reflection in the mirror are tinged with negativity. Shit.

Shit, shit, shit.

The worst part is spewing this shit upon you all, my poor, unwitting friends. Except, utterly undeservedly, you guys have been the most amazing support for me. And I want you to know that even though my world is shit right now, I do notice the relief from that shit that you all offer me. And I deeply appreciate it.

In the meantime, I am going to try to surgically extract my head from my ass and focus my energies on seeing through the shit.

Not really in the mood…

March 27, 2011 § 5 Comments

…damn Post a Day in 2011 challenge. I am not really in the mood to post. If I weren’t participating in the post a day challenge, I wouldn’t post today. I am currently feeling pretty down and just generally dejected with myself. I can point to a myriad of reasons why I’m not a big fan of A.Hab. at the moment…but I honestly don’t feel like airing that in great detail on the blog.

So, I’m going to let this just be a rather short, rather crappy little post. My sincerest apologies to my faithful readers. I’ll try to do better tomorrow.

Learning to say “no”…like you mean it

March 19, 2011 § 7 Comments

It’s Tuesday, March 15th, and I let my phone ring until the caller leaves a message. I don’t recognize the number, and I’m in “the zone” with my chapter. If it’s important, they’ll say so.

“Hey Amanda, it’s M. Listen, I’m going to be out of town on Saturday the 19th for the day, and I was wondering if you and Robert would be able to watch Penelope for me. Give me a call back as soon as you can and let me know. Thanks.”

As I listen to the message (twice), my insides twist up. I don’t want to call M back because I know I will have to deliver a disappointing response. I like M, I really do. He’s a funny guy and really kind. I love Penelope, his Boston terrier (who is no longer a pup but who I’ll always see as an itty-bitty baby, like when I first met her). I know Penny and Milton enjoy each other’s company, and I’m anxious for her to meet Annie. (I figure the more exposure Annie gets to dogs of all sizes, the better socialized she’ll be.) But this is not a good time. In fact, it’s really a rather bad time for us to be watching one more dog.

I take a deep breath and call M back.

“Hey! Did you get my message?” he asks happily, unsuspecting the rejection he’s about to receive.

I try to let him down easy.

“Yeah…about that, M…I just don’t think we can do it this weekend.”

Think??? I chastise myself. Never say think when you know! Lord knows that causes enough confusion!

There’s silence on his side of the phone. My brain frantically tries to rewrite a script, excising all instances of the word “think.”

“It’s just that…well,” I stammer. “My director wants a new chapter draft on Tuesday after break, and I was out of town this past weekend, so I’m really trying to use this coming weekend to make up for the lack of work I did.”

He’s still silent, so I just keep rambling, my tone reaching a higher octave, and…laughing? Why was I laughing?

“Heh, you know…to be honest, I haven’t even written it yet!”

LIAR! I shout internally. J’accuse! You have too written on it! Why are you lying to him??

Finally, he speaks.

“So, you’re graduating this May?” The light-hearted tone that I’ve come to characterize with M has entirely left his voice.

Shit. It dawns on me: I was probably his last or only option. Shit, shit, shit!

“No,” I titter.

Seriously, am I tittering??

I clear my throat. “No. I’m graduating in August.”

“Oh.” It’s such a pregnant “oh”…so filled with meaning…and is that judgment I hear? Or am I projecting judgment onto him from my own guilt?

Oh, God, I hate this!

“Yeah…but this weekend is really bad for us. It’s not Penny, of course–we adore her! It’s just that Annie is potty-trained and all, but sometimes she still has accidents if we don’t get to her fast enough. And because I’m writing all the time, Robert’s really been in charge of taking care of the animals…and I just can’t ask him to keep an eye on Annie and watch Milton and Penny, too. I am so sorry.”

I think I overemphasized the “so”…he’ll think it’s not sincere…. Shit.

“Oh, that’s okay.”

We chat for a few more minutes about his plan for Saturday–a day-trip, really; he’d be home before dark, so Penny wouldn’t become an overnight guest–until I just can’t stand to be on the phone with this awkwardness any more. I make up an excuse, and we hang up.

My insides are twisted and knotted, and I feel a little like I could throw up. All I did was say “no” to someone, and you’d think I suddenly became Pontius Pilate and delivered him a death sentence.

Fast forward to last night….

“Oh, baby, I forgot to tell you. Mom texted me and has invited us over for a steak dinner tomorrow night. I didn’t respond yet because I wanted to talk to you about it first.” Robert is so considerate to wait to talk to me first, even when making plans with his mom.

But then my insides twist up again.

Robert reads the expression on my face and immediately reverts into what is quickly becoming a stand-by response in our house: reassure Amanda before she has a chance to freak out that she is in no way expected to be social right now.

“I can’t,” is all I can muster out.

“That’s okay! We don’t have to go,” Robert reassures me, kissing me on the forehead.

Wait! My insides are suddenly twisting into more violent contortions. That’s not what I want!

“No, no.” I shake my head. “No, you should go. I don’t want your mom to think that we’re avoiding them or that we’re only making time for my family [i.e. the BBQ we attended last weekend]. Someone should go as the ambassador for this branch of the Habs!”

Robert agrees, and you would think that would be the end of it. Oh no, self-inflicted mental torture is one of my specialities.

A few hours later, we’re lying in bed, starting to fall asleep, and I conclude our day with, “I just don’t want to be bad daughter-in-law. I already feel like a terrible wife. I don’t want your mom or dad to hate me or think that I don’t like seeing them. I feel awful.”

All Robert can do is squeeze my hand, remind me that I’m not any of those things or in danger of any of those things, and wish me good night. I fall asleep soon after he does.

On Wednesday, after I had to let M down about dog-sitting for him, V and I met at the coffee shop to work. I told her about my encounter and subsequent guilt. Her succinct response was perfect: “You and I will just have to learn to embrace saying no right now.”

That’s it!

Although I wouldn’t quite go so far as to say that I’m a people-pleaser, I do want everyone to generally be happy (at least with me and what I’m doing). [On second thought, that might be exactly what people-pleasing is….] I want to be seen as someone who has her ducks all in a row and can hold everything together effortlessly. I don’t want anyone to have a reason to judge me. I want to be the kind of person that I see in other people.

But what writing this dissertation has taught me is that I absolutely must become comfortable with the exposure of my flaws and shortcomings. Sure, I can sit here and rattle them off to you fine folks–I myself am well aware of the precise ways in which I fail so spectacularly. But that doesn’t mean I want other people to be likewise aware. It is much better for me if I feel that others look at me and think, “Amanda’s all right. She’s doing just fine.” I don’t know what I’m afraid of if they were to see the truth in my failings, but it is a fear I’m coming to grips with now.

While I write this dissertation, I have had to prioritize.

Dissertation over teaching. Done.
Dissertation over weight loss. Done.
Dissertation over social life. Done.
Dissertation over romance. Sigh.
Dissertation over family. Ugh.
Dissertation over ALL. Sob.

And we can see the degeneration–I am getting to a place of utter and bitter resentment toward this project. I want to prioritize my life in other ways. But I lived that way last year, with my dissertation taking the priority I believed it should have taken…and my progress suffered.

These next few months, on the road to graduation, I am learning to say “no.” And I have to at least sound like I mean it, even if on the inside I’m cringing, wrestling with guilt, and begging for forgiveness.

(For the record, though, I have a pretty good start on this chapter. I’m sneaking on 20 pages, and should hit around 35 by Monday, if all goes according to plan. And then the grading marathon will begin!)

You know you’ve hit a low point when…

March 18, 2011 § 25 Comments

…when you wanted to spend money on new capris, realized you couldn’t fit in any of the sizes you’re willing to house in your closet, went home utterly dejected, and decided to spend the new clothing money instead on an online membership for Weight Watchers.

Am I ready for this? No. I don’t feel like counting points and working on my diet. God knows I barely have the wherewithal to remember to eat in the first place, let alone counting points when attempting to remember to eat.

Do I have to do this? Yes. It’s bad. I didn’t keep to my original plan to lose weight (I would be almost 30 pounds lighter than I am right now), and now I’m feeling kind of like I want to be sick. I feel so gross.

Will I be successful with Weight Watchers? Considering this will be my fifth time to join, yes. I always lose weight on Weight Watchers. I am incredibly successful on this program. The problem is that I never stick it out long enough to get to the maintenance phase. I typically get about a week or so away from maintenance (which means I’d be rather close to my goal weight), and then I just stop doing the program entirely. So I never learn how to maintain the new weight I’ve reached.

So there you go. A.Hab. feels like a big fat cow (and doesn’t really want to be comforted at the moment, but thank you in advance for any and all kind sentiments), and she desperately needs to make a change, no matter how inconvenient that is for her right now.

Edit: Before anyone asks or offers recommendations, I thought I should catalogue the programs I’ve already attempted and when and to what success:

1. Weight Watchers: the first time was in tenth grade and I lost all the weight I intended to lose; the second time was a couple years later when I started college, but I was unable to cook my own meals so I quickly failed; the third time was another year or so later when I moved to an apartment-style dorm and could cook my own meals, I did lose weight but failed to keep it off; the fourth time was at the beginning of graduate school, and I lost a great deal of weight because I was also starting a personal training program, but again, I gained it all back plus a great deal more.

2. Atkins: of course, like everyone on the planet who tries this or other low-carb programs, I was immediately successful. I was on this in between the second and third tries with Weight Watchers. I was kind of a bitch on it, though. Turns out that my niceness comes from carbs. Big FAIL for low-carb programs.

3. Jenny Craig: I was on this after the fourth time with Weight Watchers fell through. I was successful with this as well, and I was keeping up with an exercise program. It was during my time on this program, though, that my L5/S1 disk herniated, so my exercising came to a screeching halt once the pain was agonizing. I found myself lying to my over-the-phone consultant about my weight loss. I wasted a lot of my parents’ money buying food that I never ate.

4. Counting calories/low-fat: in the interim between programs I’m almost always doing some form of this or other…until I become utterly dejected and depressed. I am less successful on these sort of home-grown programs (the kinds where you’re accountable really only to yourself and the expanding gut in the mirror). Technically this is what I’m supposed to be doing right now. But once I fell into a good routine and started to lose weight consistently (averaging between 1.5-2 pounds a week) last year, I eventually stopped because I grew bored with the foods I normally ate.

Since the time that I was 15 and a half, I have always been on some weight loss program or other, which is quickly coming upon half of my lifetime with my 30th birthday approaching in September. I started too early. When I was 15 and a half (and starting Weight Watchers), I weighed 126. I remember that number because it horrified me so much. Now, I weigh 247. And I want to hide in the darkness of my bedroom and never see the light of day again. Or so much as a morsel of food. I will never see the 120s again, and I don’t want to. I was adorable at that size, but I was still growing my breasts and hips. Now that I have them, I’d like for them to still look womanly…just not…grotesque. Google search images for the “Hottentot Venus,” and you’ll get a general idea as to what I look like right now. This woman was paraded around in Europe as an example of a typical exotic African woman. Today…well, I can barely look at myself in the mirror without seeing her reflected back at me. It makes me want to be ill. Seriously ill.

Before I weighed 126, I hated my body too. I compared myself to the other skinny girls in my ballet classes and at school. In fourth grade, when we were seated around the floor in a circle to watch a movie, my friends and I would lay our bony, undeveloped forearms upon one another’s, and I would rejoice to myself when I discovered that I had the skinniest wrists in class. (The same was true for boniest ankles, most observable collar bones, and most prominent hips.) I was not beautiful then either. But I wasn’t looking for beautiful. I was looking for skinniest. Skinniest meant best. And then I hit puberty and all that Sicilian genetic coding kicked in, and I grew breasts and hips. When I was in sixth grade, I weighed 101 for the first time, and came downstairs after a shower in tears, begging my mom to explain to me what this pouch was on top of my abdomen. She calmly said, “That’s just your body growing into adolescence, Amanda. You can’t have a period without it.” I got my first period a year later. And I hated my body from the time it weighed 101 pounds and had a teensy little pouch over the abdomen all the way up to the moment I am writing this post.

I have never loved my body, not even when I was young, undeveloped, and skinny.

Daily I wonder and worry that I might have a mental disorder that will prevent me from ever seeing my body as beautiful and worthy of self-love. Will I ever be a weight that will be “good enough”? Or have I already destroyed my sense of physical self from the tender age of eight (the age I first began dancing and comparing my body to the other girls’)? Am I doomed? If I am doomed to always hate my body…then what is the value in losing all this weight in the first place? Sure, I want to get to a weight where the doctors will stop telling me how obese and disgusting I am (my word, not theirs…they say “dangerously overweight” and “borderline for major diseases”). But once I reach that weight, then what?

Ah, these are the thoughts of an A.Hab. driven crazy. Turns out her white whale isn’t a dissertation, friends. It’s actually aligning the image that Robert must have of her with the image she sees reflected in that horrible, horrible glass.

I celebrate myself and sing myself

February 7, 2011 § 10 Comments

Tomorrow, we will be covering the first 25 sections of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” As I reread those sections tonight to lesson plan, I remembered a line that has never failed to evoke a tear from my eye, a prickle in my nose.

from Section 13

“My tread scares the wood-drake and wood-duck on my distant and day-long ramble,
They rise together, they slowly circle around.

I believe in those wing’d purposes,
And acknowledge red, yellow, white, playing within me,
And consider green and violet and the tufted crown intentional,
And do not call the tortoise unworthy because she is not something else,
And the jay in the woods never studied the gamut, yet trills pretty well to me,
And the look of the bay mare shames silliness out of me.”

The poet (the poet who is himself and herself and all of us all together) describes traipsing through the country, disturbing the country and the animals within it. He (I’m choosing a pronoun here) imagines those disturbed animals flying away, passing judgment on him (the bay mare in particular), but he does not (cannot?) pass judgment on them.

I love the line I emphasized here. This is the line that has always grabbed my heart and given a good tug. Here, the poet promises (and admonishes those who do not follow this advice) not to pass judgment on the tortoise when she is not a bird and full of fluttering colors. He goes so far as to say that he will not call her “unworthy.” “Unworthy” is such a loaded word, full of the most painful implications. “Unworthy” of what? Consideration? Life? A line in a poem? Being seen? Being appreciated? Being loved?

I am that (un)worthy tortoise. I see myself as that tortoise. I spend too much time telling myself that I am not worthy because I am not something else. (Better, thinner, stronger, prettier, kinder, smarter, funnier, more loving.) But what we are asked to do here is two-fold. First and most obviously, we should not pass judgment on something because it is not something else. (“Damn you, chair, I hate you because you are not a horse!” Ridiculous, yes?) The second is that we should not pass judgment on ourselves or each other because we are not something else. If we are tortoises, we will never be hares. If we are hares, we will never be dragons. If we are dragons, we will never be the sky. At the end of it all, we had better love and let love (or live, depending on your mood, of course), because otherwise we sure have wasted a precious lot of time.

So, here’s a promise, to Amanda from Amanda: I will not call you unworthy because you are not something else.

Whitman also reminds us in Section 20:

“I exist as I am, that is enough,
If no other in the world be aware I sit content,
And if each and all be aware I sit content.”

Isn’t it enough to just exist? It shines all new meaning on Descartes’ “cogito ergo sum” (“I think therefore I am”), doesn’t it? Let us all alone to think and exist, and let us all alone to be content in that existence.

Also, before I go, I found an audio recording of Lucille Clifton reading Section 3 online, and I plan to share it with my students tomorrow morning. For those of you who might be intrigued by the prospect of this reading (and believe me, you really ought to be), then please follow the link, press play, and read along (Section 3 is reproduced on the website): http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/20277.

Undoing the damage done: learning how to write outside of Academia

February 1, 2011 § 6 Comments

Fairly fresh to blogging in the beginning of December 2010, I came upon the blog of a bright, hilarious young mother who challenged me (well, not me personally) in ways I never before expected to be challenged. I happened upon this blog when I was just coming to grips with what it meant to own the words “I don’t want to teach anymore.” The blog that was featured was Tori Nelson’s “The Ramblings“, and especially the post “War of (BIG) Words / Battle of Smahrt.” What Tori did in this post was something remarkable. Without meaning to, she held a mirror up to my own speech and writing patterns. In fact, I found myself on the side of pretentious speech, attempting to win the so-called Battle of Smahrt. But, Tori so wisely concludes:

“Do not feel trapped by these word-twisting, outsmart-ing whackos because, in the end, whatever you say can be said one hundred different ways, most of them better. But you say what you say the way in which you say it…. small words and all.”

I think we might even be able to play with her quote here a little (and only do minor damage by mangling the meaning…hope you don’t mind, Tori), and we can even apply it to the word-twisting, outsmart-ing, whackos themselves. In short: You pretentious linguistic snobbish pig-dogs, stop hiding behind those massively inappropriate and unnecessary words. Your meaning is all the more clear, your message all the more endearing, when you appeal to the broader audience who, by the way, is not mentally incapable of translating your words. You simply look verbally foolish.

The “you” in the above paragraph really stands in for “Mrs. H.” You see, as a graduate student I learned how to write. The right way. I learned how to verbalize my rhetorical arguments with such vigor and force of vocabulary as to purposefully leave my adversaries’ heads a-swimming. I was trained to dominate linguistically. Professors expected judgment, so-called “rhetorical discernment,” wherein I would exercise my intelligence and deem this argument worthy or that one dreck. Scholarly writing, it was demonstrated to me, is a style devoid of humor and “plain speech.” Unless you have “made it” and are a tenure-track professor at a top-notch university and constantly published. Unless you, like Stephen Greenblatt, have a veritable nine rings of an entourage, the degrees of which determine how intelligent you perceive the individual yes-man to be. (Oh, and yes. I have seen Dr. Greenblatt, premier Shakespearean scholar extraordinaire, at a conference…which is to say I have seen the cloud of people surrounding him all jockeying for a better position within the entourage. Those physically closest to Dr. Greenblatt are his intellectual near-equals; those further out are mere sycophants.) Only if you are Stephen Greenblatt or someone of his ilk do you even conceive of breaking the rules of Good Academic Writing. A young Master’s student who chooses to emulate his easy-breezy, personal style in the introduction of her thesis may be told at her thesis defense that such a choice was “interesting.” And that is not a compliment. For example.

And here I am facing the reality that I might not want to be an academic when I grow up. I might not want to emulate Stephen Greenblatt or Lisa Jardine or Valerie Traub. Sure, I admire the mess out of them. But I do not want to be them when I grow up. (And, ladies and gentlemen, I am near-grown.)

So, where does this leave me?

This leaves me trying out a new voice. Writing with a different purpose, a different edge. Finding a new audience. Hell, enjoying writing at all. I gather great inspiration from Tori’s blog in entries like “I still write.” (Tori’s honest look at herself as a writer, in response to a sort of call-to-arms issued by Kathryn McCullough…mentioned below.) And, also by Tori, “Man Van & The Hip Husband Demographic,” which is a hysterical analysis of recent ad campaigns. Tori represents to me the writer that I could have been had my humorous, creative voice not been so sufficiently stifled. Of course, I am really kidding myself if I have the gall to claim that I was ever as humorous as she is…but who’s to say I might not have developed more in this direction than in the academic one? Tori inspires me to try new things. To loosen up. To play with words and laugh. To invite my readers to laugh with me. I don’t believe I have accomplished this yet, and I am not so arrogant to believe it will happen overnight. After all, it took six years to become the proper scholarly writer that I sort of am. But there is an obvious unease in my academic writing; it is clunky…like a child plodding around in her father’s loafers. Maybe it will be easier to shuck this writing style that drapes over me in an embarrassingly pretentious way.

And then there’s Kathryn McCullough’s blog “reinventing the event horizon (notes from the edge).” In her current life, she lives in Haiti with her partner Sara, and she writes beautifully descriptive and informative posts about Haiti’s current struggle to right itself (if it ever was before aright); one of her most moving posts was one that left me shaking in my boots: “An Event Horizon for Haiti? Baby Doc’s Mind-Bending Return From Exile.” In this post Kathy not only informs her readers of the frightening and tumultuous political upheaval poor Haiti is now enduring, but she also makes this specific, singular experience relevant to the rest of us. What I love about Kathy’s writing style is that she is the perfect example of someone who has been where I am now, too. In her past life, she was an instructor of college composition; and, in fact, our universities are in the same football conference. Kathy is the kind of woman who not only taught strong writing to college students, but she demonstrates it in her own blog. She does not write in the voice of the pretentious, over-educated, Ivory Tower elite. She writes in a way that is engaging and interesting…and isn’t that the purpose of writing? In fact, Kathy devotes some time in her blog to exploring what it is to be a writer; when Tori wrote the post “I still write,” she responded to the questions that Kathy asks at the close of her blog post “Fear and Trembling in the New Year: A Writer’s Confession.” Thank goodness for Tori’s blog because it also introduced me to Kathy’s–I was doubly-blessed this day to encounter both of these women’s writing styles. She follows up this post with another that explores how writers defeat themselves with what she terms the “Writing Neurotic”–the part of us that sabotages our work before we’ve even had the chance to begin. This post is titled “Confessions of a Desperate, Writing Neurotic.” To give an example of Kathy’s Writing Neurotic (and I hope you don’t mind my reposting, Kathy), she bravely shared with her readers a piece of her personal brainstorming:

“When I have tried to journal recently I’m always bothered by the notebook I’m writing in—I know that sounds crazy—and surely it’s a mere excuse—but I truly believe I should be keeping my entries in another format—

Perhaps, typing them on my computer—if the paper is lined, perhaps, it should be unlined—if it’s plain—perhaps, it should be graph paper. If I write in blue ink, probably, it should have been black or green or gray—any other color than the one I’m using.”

And so she continues, finding fault with nearly everything she is using as a tool for expressing her thoughts on paper or in digital format. Finally, she concludes,

“Most everything about writing feels wrong—doing it—not doing it—doing it in the morning, in the evening, in the afternoon—equally problematic.

[…]

But I try to tell myself it doesn’t matter. It’s better to get it wrong than not to have gotten it at all.”

The perfect conclusion to the conundrum. It is better to get it wrong than not to even try to get it at all. My father used to tell me, “You might fail if you try, but you will absolutely fail if you don’t try.” Also true.

What does all of this have with “undoing the damage done”? Well, you see, whether intentionally on the part of my graduate school professors or not, I learned that some writing styles are better than others. That if you write in a relaxed, easy, loose, humorous way, then you are simply not taking your work seriously. And, as my immature early-20-something brain took it the next step further, if you are not taking your work seriously, then you are not taking your intelligence seriously. Whether or not it was said, I heard, “You must wear your education on your sleeve. Demonstrate to everyone that you are smart, you are educated, you are a budding scholar.”

Well you know what? Nobody cares. When I went home for Thanksgiving and Christmas the years between 2004 and 2010, none of my family members were impressed that I could elucidate on the valorous wordplay of Marlowe over Middleton. They wanted to know if I was close to graduation. If I was dating anyone. How teaching was going.

The training I have received to be a master of Academese (our very own language, really, replete with buzz words like “agency” and “gender” and “sophistry”) has served me to excel in my program, to be sure. But I am not comfortable with this language. Although immersed in the culture, I do not speak with the effortlessness of an Academic Native to the Ivory Tower. I have a funny accent, slow vocabulary recall, imprecise word choice. When I return to my natural home, however, my speech is tinted with an exotic tinge that smacks of long-term exposure to Academia. I struggle to communicate with my family while I speak a disjointed version of Academlish–occasionally I manage to piece together a coherent sentence in plain English but too often Academese breaks through and distorts my meaning.

I do not believe that all Academics have this problem. In fact, I know of several off the top of my head who are fully capable in their bilingual expertise, flowing easily from English to Academese with little effort.

I do believe, however, that as an Academic-in-training who does not intend to pursue her scholarship, I must relearn the proper method of communicating outside of the Ivory Tower. Maybe then my thoughts will be taken all the more seriously and less like elitism.

Lightbulb: Overeating

December 21, 2010 § 6 Comments

**Please note: I have been intensely aware that my latest blog posts have been extremely…vague…personal…thematically unhappy in general. I’m sorry. I know that it’s not fun to read a person’s blog that is consistently dark and dreary–the more fun blogs are those that can at least elicit a smile or a laugh from the reader. I think, though, that this is indicative of my current head space. I want to go back to the light and happy version of A.Hab., but I need to work through this first. Thanks for understanding and for still reading.**

Last week, I was called a perfectionist (or, rather, she said that she sensed “perfectionist-like tendencies”) by a friend. It wasn’t said in a cruel or judgmental way. Truthfully, she said it in more of a sympathetic, concerned way. I laughed it off initially and just said that yes, in fact I’m a Virgo, and that’s just how we are. But that doesn’t mean that her words didn’t stick and echo many days later. Over these past several days, I’ve been considering in what ways my perfectionism has manifested in my life. These are not in the order of importance. They are just in the order that they sprang to mind.

Academic: I’m working on four projects right now (finishing biography entries for an encyclopedia helmed by one of my professors, writing a dissertation, reading a book and writing its scholarly peer review for a prestigious journal, and lesson-planning a class of texts I’ve never taught before). I have this compulsion to do everything RIGHT. Perfectly right. As in, there is no room for error, no room for improvement, no room for CRITICISM right. The problem there is that I’d rather give up and watch television all day than actually work because the fear of failure is so unbelievably crippling.
Marriage: I want to be the very best wife in the whole world for Robert. Not because I worry about him judging me, but because I judge myself extremely harshly. Has Robert cooked dinner four nights out of this week and I’ve only cooked once? Bad wife. Am I falling behind on my laundry chores? Not dusting regularly? Or vacuuming regularly? Do I ask him to take the puppy out when I just don’t feel like getting up again? Bad wife. Do I forget about his allergies when I make dinner plans? Bad wife. Do I forget to check on how he’s feeling when he’s not well? Bad wife. Do I fall just short of loving him as much as he deserves to be loved? You guessed it. Bad wife.
Career: I know that I should do what I love to do, but what happens when I don’t know what I love? How will people judge me for my indecision? How will they judge me for the choice I ultimately come to? What if I make the wrong choice again and have to change career paths later on? Have I failed because I can’t seem to find myself in love with the career I should be in love with?

But I’m not interested in answering all of those questions right now. Today’s entry is about compulsive overeating.

One of the things that popped into my mind when I was meditating on my perfectionism was my weight.

Most perfectionists are twig-like anorexics, I thought. The phrase you hear over and over again on talk shows is that a perfectionist refused to eat because s/he wanted to exert the only control available: over what is put in the body. I don’t have that problem.

So then I started meditating over it a little bit more. And please know, this is not an attempt to create excuses for myself. Rather, it’s an attempt to explain where the hell I went wrong when I was growing up. I do not come from an obese family. I don’t come from a stick-figure family, either, but it’s not like every member of my family is significantly overweight. (For those who have never seen me, I’m 100 pounds overweight, according to the target BMI for someone my height. Those who have seen me consistently refuse to believe that I have 100 pounds to lose. They’re really sweet friends that I have.) I do not consider 10-15 pounds significantly overweight. 100 pounds? That’s a big ol’ problem. Pun fully intended.

Anyway, so I was trying to figure out how I can be a perfectionist in all other areas of my life…to the point where it’s fairly obvious to those around me…and yet not be a perfectionist with my weight. It didn’t seem to add up. Until I realized something tonight:

If a perfectionist seeks to control everything that goes into her body and her weight, then I am doing a perfect job of gaining weight.

I’ve always been amazing at self-sabotage, but this weight loss thing has always been my specialty in terms of self-sabotage. Sure, I’ll get started on the right foot: gym membership put to good use, personal trainer put to good use, eating habits reworked. I’ll lose weight, start feeling really good about myself and more energetic (maybe even sleep better), and then I’ll decide I’m not doing it well enough…and then it’s a slippery slope back down to where I was before I started attempting to “gain control.”

Turns out I have always had extreme control over myself. It’s just not been put to the best use.

So now, the question is this: now that I’ve figured out my problem, what the hell do I do about it? I mean, I’ve attempted to lose weight ever since I was 16 years old in tenth grade. (Which is ironic because looking back at those pictures, I was adorable. Poor girl had no idea what she looked like. And now? Ugh. It’s a shame, I think.) My point is that I know the ropes quite well. I know how to lose weight. Fewer calories in, more calories out. It matters what kind of sugars you ingest. It matters what kind of calories you ingest. Just because something is labeled as 100 calories does not necessarily make it a good decision. Cardio is the only way to lose belly fat, and strength training is the only way to maintain skin elasticity.

I’ve got all that down pat. I can give amazing advice to those who are seeking health tips. The irony, of course, is that the advice is coming from someone 100 pounds overweight. Such ethos, right? Heh.

So, aside from how to lose weight…what on Earth do I do about the perfection issue? Because I have a really bad feeling that if I can’t tackle that beast, then I’ll never tackle my weight.

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