If you see a whole thing - it seems that it's always beautiful. Planets, lives... But up close a world's all dirt and rocks. And day to day, life's a hard job, you get tired, you lose the pattern. - Ursula K. LeGuin

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Back In The Fray

The first week of classes is over and I must say it felt like a long one. The really good news is that someone has dropped a bit of funding into my lap. My university has a faculty training grant that supports research directly related to my area. The grant was written the year before I came to SouthLite so I was not able to be included. However this year there is some extra money so they were looking for a junior faculty member (this is the last year I can claim that title) to fund and found me.

What does it mean, you ask? I will have 30% of my salary funded this year; 15-20 hours of an RA to help me with grants; and access to statistical and grant/paper writing consultants. Basically whatever help I need getting grants written and out (short of writing them for me) will be supported by this program. Pretty cool, eh? The salary funding means I will only have to teach one course next semester.

I also get an RA from my department because I'm still junior faculty. On top of that I have 2 undergraduate research assistant this semester from internal grants that the students and I wrote last year (our university has a really great program for funding undergraduate research, which is one of the things I love about being here). So I have A LOT of paid help from students this year. This is great but also not-so-great as it means a lot of training and supervision on my part. There is a real trade-off when working with students and it can be hard to find the right balance. Next week starts the meetings with my various student teams so I'll have a better sense of how the balance will work this semester.

I'm teaching two classes this semester: one undergraduate and one doctoral. I was really excited about the undergraduate class over the summer but after the first week I'm beginning to have some doubts. I taught it last year for the first time and it took a lot of prep time. This year I've changed it a bit but mostly to make it easier on me. It also happens that my department is also offering the same course (an elective) online. As I watched the numbers over the summer, it seemed the online course was filling up and my course was at a nice reasonable size (about two thirds full). My theory was that the students who were just looking for an easy elective were opting for the online course (most students feel they are easier; this is not always the case but I fear it is in my department). This idea made me very happy because I teach the course with a very strong feminist bent (it is cross-listed with the Women & Gender Studies program) and people looking for an easy elective often don't mix well with the students who are taking it because they know it is a feminist course.

What did I find when I started teaching this week? Well to start the numbers jumped to almost maximum a day or two before the class started. This seems to be going on all over the university as we are getting a record number of late enrollments and new students are searching for any open course. It also seems that due to cut-backs other courses are closing at the last minute and students need to fill their schedules. This is not a course that is well-suited for a gap-fill. Throughout the week, students have been adding and dropping like crazy. We are also stuck in a room that is way to small so I literally feel like they are on top of me and each other. I now have 36 students, half of whom I believe are deadweight; a quarter who are conscientious students but have never been introduced to anything remotely feminist; and a quarter who are totally psyched about the course and bring strong feminist analytic abilities. To pull the class off successfully I'm going to have to keep the feminists excited and challenged; excite the conscientious without scaring them; and get at least half of the deadweight interested enough that they'll at least complete the work and engage in discussion. But what of the other half, you ask? I'm hoping one or two drop (or get dropped from excessive absence) and the rest sleep.

Mmmm. I just reread the above paragraph and realize it sounds way more pessimistic and bitter than I really feel. I do love this course and I think it will be a great experience for both me and the students but I am disappointed that what I thought was going to be an easy and fun class for me, is now going to be a major challenge. Of course students have a right to take whatever elective interests them but I hate when they take it because it fills a gap and they think it will be easy ("its about women and I'm a woman so..."). My department is struggling to move from a last chance major ("I couldn't cut it in X or Y major and this major will help me graduate the fastest") and while we're making some strides it is still prevalent.

My doctoral class is a methods class--which is really a strength for me. Teaching research methods is something I enjoy and it comes fairly easy. I co-taught this course 2 years ago with a colleague. It is really his course but he is overfunded this year, so I got to drop my large graduate intro class for this very small (8 students) methods course--major win. They're a fun and chatty group from diverse fields and I have nothing but positive expectations.

This week also brought our first faculty meeting (during which I strongly objected to something that the department chair had proposed--probably NOT the smartest thing to do the week before I put my packet in for tenure review--but it really needed an objection and everyone else was acting like they were asleep) and grading of the written half of comprehensive exams. Yesterday we did one of the oral exams for a student that has been part of my research team--she did very well and will be defending her proposal within a month--so I was very happy. I have two more oral exams in the next two weeks.

It is going to be a very busy semester.

Monday, August 24, 2009

An Anniversary--Of Sorts

Angel left today for school. As I walked to the university I realized that its been a year since I first let him go. The letting go was much easier (yeah...massive understatement) this time. I actually found it amusing when he said "I'll see you at Christmas. It will be fun."

So on the one hand I'm glad he's gone. Life is much less complicated without him here and its painful to watch how unhappy he is being home. On the other hand I feel bad being happy that he's gone.

Tomorrow is my first day of teaching, which will mark the beginning of my 4th year of teaching at my university. I'm excited to meet my students but sad to see the summer gone.

Sometimes there are no easy answers.

Sunday, August 23, 2009


I spent this weekend at a training workshop. Years ago I used to conduct training workshops (totally different content but the process is pretty much the same) for 2-3 days at a shot. It was exhausting and I grew to hate it. This time I was a participant.

I'm training to be a doula. We have a local program that supplies the doula training for free if you do your first three (certification) births with a teen mom. I will be paired with a teen mom and attend childbirth classes with her (as part of a mentoring program) and then I will be her doula. Having a doula has a number of health benefits for both mothers and babies including shorter births; fewer cesareans, and greater likelihood of breastfeeding. The program has had tremendous success with the teens. I don't see myself ever charging for my services but would like to continue as a doula to teen and low-income mothers.

There were 23 of us attending the training--including Pumpkin and three of my students. It was a great group of women with a variety of motives for being there but all committed to the idea of helping women birth. Unfortunately I was not enamored of the training itself or the trainer. I feel the former was directly related to the latter. I also think I'm probably overly critical from my years of being a trainer. However I did learn important information that will be invaluable once I am called to duty.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Things I'm Enjoying: A List (Of Sorts)

Finding books via the blogosphere: The other day I followed this link that led me to a very interesting post on what is considered "mind-blowing" in sci fi and who "gets" to blow our minds. But more importantly, the comment section became a list of mind-blowing sci fi by women. I now have an even longer to-read list than when the summer started. It also provides a link to another post on mind-blowing sci fi by people of color. You may notice that my blogroll now includes a section on Reading Blogs--where you'll find the aforementioned blog prominently listed. The other blog that is listed under this new category is Leaning Towards The Sun. Check out this post on The Schomburg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers and the subsequent link to Beacon's Black Women Writers' Series.
Finding my loved ones writing blogs: Even more mind-blowing then the post on Leaning Towards The Sun, was my eventual realization that the blog is authored by someone very near and dear to my heart--DeeDee. She has just started this amazing blog on books and container gardening so hop on over and give her some bloggy love.
Update: Just as I finished posting b came home and told me a friend of ours has just started a blog. So send some more bloggy love over to Anna.
Netflix: Ok so I know I am sooooo late to the Netflix game but no one ever told me that you have instant access to movies and shows. I thought it consisted only of mailing and receiving DVDs. b and I started a trial subscription and liked it so much we were able to drop cable altogether (and increase our bandwidth and are still paying less each month). We prefer watching shows and movies on our laptops and have primarily been relying on hulu and iTunes but this has definitely put us over the edge. Last night I watched Deliver Us From Evil. A great documentary but very painful.
My colleagues: We've all been back in the office this week preparing for classes and hanging out. They are a great group and I enjoy spending time with them. I know once classes actually start we'll be on different schedules and crazed so the group dynamic will not be as merry.
Stealing time to snuggle b in the morning: Waking up late and slow and stealing some extra snuggles is the best way to start the day. Unfortunately I know this too will be ending soon as faculty meetings and other work-related responsibilities descend.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Dojo

I went to the dojo tonight for the first time in almost 3 weeks. I have been doing workouts at home and in hotel gyms so I wasn't completely out-of-shape but there is something to martial arts that is unique and I was out of martial arts shape.

I've been studying martial arts for 28 years now. It is a part of me in a way that few things--other than motherhood and academia--are a part of me. Yet I still feel a bit of a love-hate relationship with it. My early martial arts years were attached to my ex-husband. I met him by attending his dojo and it became my world for a very long time. In that dojo you couldn't disappear for 3 weeks. Attendance was expected and if you didn't live up to expectations you paid the price in guilt. Of course for me, once we were living together and then eventually married, not going to class was never an option unless I was very sick. In those years I lived martial arts 24/7.

This changed a bit once we had Angel. My Ex stayed home with Angel during the day and took him to the dojo in the evening. I would meet them at the dojo after work and most of the time I was "sent home" because Angel was too disruptive for class. This felt very much like a betrayal to me. While I didn't want to subject my child to being someplace that wasn't well suited for his needs, I also didn't see how suddenly my training was disposable. My sister, Amy, who also studied with us often filled in the gaps. She would watch Angel for me so I could train for a bit. We'd often swap care of him in the middle of class. Of course as Angel grew it became easier for him to be in class with me but my training was never the same.

When I left my Ex I lost the dojo. For a while I continued to go to one class a week but even that became uncomfortable. I worked out on my own but after a few years--and my dissertation--this dwindled down to be almost non-existent. Upon moving to SouthLite I decided to see what the martial arts community held and I found our current dojo. I enjoy it most of the time. It is small and close-knit without a lot of ego or MMA-nonsense. But it is also frustrating to me. Part of that is inevitable because it is a different style and I didn't really want to change styles. But part of it is because it isn't as "serious" as my last dojo. I suppose this means it is ok for me to miss 3 weeks--and I think that's healthy--but it also means that classes don't get the same thought and preparation put into them that seems natural to me.

I have deliberately kept my teaching at this dojo to a minimum. I feel I spend most of my life teaching and mentoring students at work and, while I enjoy it, I don't want to feel that obligation in my "hobby." However without it I find myself in a quasi-status--I'm not a teacher but more than a student.

I'm not really sure where this post is going other than to express my many ambivalent feelings towards martial arts in general and what it is like to live life post-dojo. To me a dojo has always been a family--both literally and figuratively--and this feels like being adopted into a new family. You're part of it but not 100%.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Last Chance

It is "the week before" this week. The week before classes start. The week all good faculty come home to roost. The week of meetings and orientations. This week is not a week I particularly enjoy. I will enjoy next week--when I'm actually in front of a class--more but really I like it when we're a week or two into a semester and I start to feel the groove.

b and I managed to have one last summer fling this weekend. We woke up early (well early for us) Friday morning and drove over 4 hours to the coast. It started raining and then pouring about halfway there but shortly after reaching our destination the skies cleared.

We packed our boats and started paddling.

We reached a pier that is fairly well hidden.

We tied our boats to the pier, unloaded and carried our gear to the beach.

We set-up our tent and then b cooked us a lovely dinner (linguini w/ broccoli in a red sauce) while I drank a very cold Guinness. The beach was ours all night and for most of the next day. It seems the sea turtles hatch their young this time of year and no vehicles are allowed on the beach. We had a few people come by boat but they didn't stay long. We swam and lounged and swatted at flies (15 kills - most of the b's).

There was a small shelter with two picnic tables but b set up a tarp so we could lie in the sand and enjoy the shade.

Dinner the second night was salmon with green beans and yellow rice. Cocktails were whiskey and tequila. Dessert was Hershey's chocolate bars (dark chocolate for me). The next morning, after breakfast, we started the paddle/drive back to reality.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

RBOC: Glad To Be Home Edition

  • Just got home from 3 days of NIH grant reviewing. I really don't think I'm cut out for this part of the job. I'm a process person. I need time to think and think deeply before I ask questions or give my opinions. I do well on the grants I'm assigned to review but I don't do well looking at a grant for 5 minutes while listening to 3 abbreviated critiques.
  • I'm not really sure how anyone gets funded, and although I've been funded in the past, being part of the review process reminds me just how much it relys on chance.
  • We finished early today but my flight wasn't until 5 pm. So I hung out in a hotel room and tried to relax.
  • b had a difficult couple of days while I was gone.
  • Angel is UpNorth visiting his dad. He called me while I was away to "chat," a sure sign he's not happy.
  • My flight was fine but there were a lot of cancellations, delays and overbooking around me. What has become of the airline industry?
  • b was working when I left for this trip so I borrowed Angel's car to get to the airport. I MUCH prefer being picked up. There is something very lonely about arriving home with no one to greet you.
  • When I got to the parking lot Angel's car wouldn't start. b had to come and jump start it.
  • He got the car started but in the process the car door got locked...with the car running and the only other key UpNorth with Angel.
  • b was not happy.
  • He managed to get it open before Triple A showed up.
  • We went out for a lovely dinner at our favorite neighborhood restaurant.
  • I feel like I haven't slept in 4 days.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Living In A Black And White World

Angel came home for a night. He leaves today to visit his dad before starting back at school. He's been with his friends for the past two weeks and is rejuvenated by the experience. He told me that he and his friends watched Fistful of Quarters. They really enjoyed it. He then proceeded to tell me the entire plot. If you haven't seen the film, it is about two grown men who are battling over bragging rights for highest score on Donkey Kong. It seems there are official rules and policies and committees that sanction the highest score. This documentary paints one of the men as good and the other as evil as well as highlights corruption in the gaming world. Angel and his friends ended up hating the evil man and fantasizing about visiting the restaurant he owns in Florida just to heckle and annoy him. Angel was aware that editing of a film can skew the story but had several reasons why he was sure this was not the case with this film.

I also heard the story of an RA who was unfairly monitoring one of his friends and accusing him of dorm violations that were innocuous (having candles burning in the room) and ratting on him to the powers-that-be without first approaching his friend to discuss said violations. Angel knew this RA in other circumstances and thought him a stand-up guy but now has lost complete respect for him. Of course the violations are all true and shortly after he told me this story he proceeded to describe how he and his new roommate have designed their room for optimal beer hiding.

I believe it is a developmental phenomenon that during your late teens-early twenties it is almost impossible to see shades of gray. Perhaps it is a sort of temporary color blindness. I'm not sure why it is necessary but it certainly makes sense that this is the age we send people to fight in wars. I find the same tendencies in Pumpkin and I remember being that way myself, so it is not gender-specific. This is not to say that they are incapable of seeing shades and texture, but rather that they are initially drawn to the black and white view. And while some people never outgrow the stage, I believe for most it ends by 25.

As a teacher I've seen it in both undergraduate and masters' level classes. It creates a challenge for introducing subjects such as gender, race, and class and how they intersect with my field. Most students want the easy answer. Most want to believe that it is all a matter of individual choice. Challenging them and pushing them to see situations from other perspectives is challenging for me. Using a socratic approach can help but you have to be really skilled not to let the argument boil down into dichotomies. However there are usually older students in both my graduate and undergraduate classes and this can help pull a more balanced discussion. But am I reaching the others? I don't really know.

As a parent it is even more challenging especially in the case of Angel, where I feel the relationship is already a little fragile. I've taken to injecting a possible alternative scenario once or at the most twice in a conversation and then letting it go. I feel its my duty as his mother to point out the shades of gray but I can't make him see them. If I try I believe I'll force him deeper into his black or white stance. And I remember all to well the anger I felt when told I was "going through a phase," so that approach is definitely out. Maybe one day he will recognize it and laugh about it with me as I have recently done with my mother.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Reviewing: Grading In Disguise

I'm in the middle of reviewing hell. I currently have 6 grant and 4 paper reviews due in the next two weeks. The grant proposals are large and dense--some are beautifully written and others haven't a clue. I read them several times over; scrawl notes in the margins; write short cryptic comments that highlight strengths and weaknesses on a number of dimensions; and then I assign each grant a number.

The papers cover a wide range of topics--all tangentially related to my current field or a field I once knew something about. Some are very poorly written; others simply lack the ability to convey an interesting story. I read them several times over; underline key statements; scrawl notes in the margins; write a page or so of feedback designed to help the writer find hir story; and then I assign a judgment--pass/fail.

How is this NOT grading?

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Pumpkin Turns 21

Today is Pumpkin's birthday. She is 21 and legal. This is such a big deal for the younger crowd. Angel has been counting the days since he turned 18 and he still has over a year to go. It insults his sense of self that he is not allowed to order a beer in a bar. Personally I agree. In my day it was 18. At 18 you were allowed to vote, drink, marry and serve in the army. Today at 18 you can do all but drink. If the age limit in fact deterred DUIs I would agree with it, but it doesn't so I find it a stupid law. Worse, it seems to create this expectation that one MUST go out and get falling down drunk on the night you turn 21. I don't like falling down drunk. I don't like to do it and I don't like to see it. Perhaps the same thing was done back in my day, but by the time I turned 18 I had given up drinking (no worries, I rediscovered it in my mid-30s).

But today is Pumpkin's day. Last night she went out with friends and at midnight was able to buy herself a drink. It seems many people bought her drinks. This morning she and her boyfriend, BigB, came over for a birthday breakfast. Pumpkin was a little worse for the wear but BigB was not looking good at all. I made them raspberry pancakes and scrambled eggs. Unfortunately b--who is the breakfast guru--had to work, so the cooking was left up to me. Everything tasted lovely but the eggs did not sit well with BigB.

After breakfast they ran out (in the pouring rain) for Pumpkin's spa appointment. A spa day was BigB's birthday present to Pumpkin--because he's an excellent boyfriend--so she will spend the afternoon being pampered and fussed over. We'll be meeting up with them later tonight. Our plan is to take them to an upscale bar or two and show them the other way to drink--the kind that doesn't involve flavored shots or ping pong balls.

Tomorrow they leave for 3 weeks in Europe. This is Pumpkin's graduation present to herself. Neither have even been to Europe and they've never traveled together on an extended vacation. I believe they'll learn a lot--about themselves and their relationship.

Pumpkin came into my life when I really needed her. I needed a surrogate adult child that actually enjoyed being around me and wanted to hear what I had to say. I needed a child who could allow herself to be affectionate and express her feelings. She needed a mother-figure who was willing to put her first; who could see how special she is and love her unconditionally. We stumble over how to introduce each other; how to explain our relationship to others. I think the closest explanation is that we have emotionally adopted each other.

I'm proud of her--her maturity and her accomplishments--and I am awed by her spirit and her passion. Whatever we are to each other I hope it continues for the rest of my life.