>Guest Post: On the Medieval Academy’s meeting in Tempe, Arizona

>Now that I’m back from my brief Midwestern vacation, it’s time to get serious again. And for starters, I have a guest post from my friend The General on why she won’t be going to the Medieval Academy of America’s annual meeting in Tempe, Arizona, in April, and why she’s not renewing her membership.

But first, let me give a little background for my non-medievalist/non-academic readers who might want or need it. In May, Jeffrey Cohen at In the Middle started the discussion of whether or not the MAA should move the meeting out of Arizona. That post garnered 74 comments and ultimately led to an open letter to the MAA urging them to cancel or move the meeting, signed by 170 people. That letter, plus discussions elsewhere, spurred the MAA to poll its members by e-mail and a web-based poll. On August 3, the MAA executive committee came to its final decision to keep the meeting in Tempe, and sent to the membership an e-mail letter announcing that decision. Karl Steel at In the Middle posted the letter here. And Inside Higher Ed followed up with a story.

That’s the background. In response, The General wrote a letter to the Medieval Academy which she also posted as a note on Facebook and asked me to post here. It’s still in the form of an address to the Medieval Academy, but it’s been slightly edited since she sent it off to them. And although she’s happy to have her name attached to it, I decided to keep in the spirit of this blog and use her pseudonym.

So, without further ado, below is what The General had to say to the Medieval Academy.

**********

Dear Medieval Academy,

I just read your recent announcement about your decision to proceed with the 2011 meeting in Arizona. I am deeply disappointed and rather stunned at your decision. As one of the few medievalists of color in the profession and on your membership roster, your decision means that anyone of color (or any shade other than white) will be under surveillance, put in the category of second-class citizen, and generally thought of as a person of suspicion if they even attend the Arizona meeting. As someone who has served for several years on a board of directors that managed a revenue stream of 70 million dollars, I understand the directive of fiduciary responsibility quite well. But I also would like to point out that your choice means that you have chosen monetary gain over human value for your organization. You have decided that diversity and encouraging students and faculty of color to go into Medieval Studies is not a core value of the Academy. Rather, the fiduciary bottom line of the endowment is more important.

Your letter states that you feel that you were not in a position to make a “collective political statement” for the entire group, but yet you have. Your decision means that a minority of your membership will be excluded, treated as alien others, and asked to constantly carry “papers” during their trip. You are asking me and every other member with a skin shade not deemed “American” or an accent not considered “standard” to accept this treatment and see it as just another political issue. When were basic civil rights a partisan political issue rather than an ethical and moral one? It would be one thing if you wanted not to hold a meeting in a state or location because it had voted Democrat or Republican; that would be a partisan “collective political statement.” But you are asking me and any person of color to walk into a state and pretend that being a second-class citizen is fine. When did basic civil rights become a partisan political statement? I was under the impression that all the members of the Medieval Academy believed in civil rights. Or had I and other members been wrong? Is the Medieval Academy still an ivory tower institution that excludes, women, people of color, and the disabled? Is the Academy not interested in supporting their members and equity? For me, these were the issues at stake in your decision. And your answer to these questions were shattering.

Your decision and letter tells me that I should find it acceptable to come to a professional academic meeting and wear a figurative star on my lapel and have my papers potentially checked at every turn. What you are saying to me and every scholar (domestic and international) of color is that discrimination is fine, that equitable treatment in our field is not a priority or an inalienable right. This is the very opposite of community building. You say in your letter that it is about the work that people have done, yet the meeting’s presence in Arizona is going to overshadow the work. I would be queasy discussing Lateran IV’s restrictions and injunctions against Jews and Saracens in a state that is enacting their own version of these laws. The conference will not be an exercise in political free speech; rather it will condone the behaviors that put members of the academy under scrutiny.

Several blog comments discussing this decision have said it would be OK to have the meeting and just organize for political action. I completely disagree because this is not “just” a political issue; you are asking people to be comfortable with other members of the Academy being stopped, asked for papers, possibly arrested, and held for questioning. You are asking that our personal rights be assaulted, abused, and trampled on all to attend a professional meeting.

You are asking too much and therefore I plan to boycott the Medieval Academy and encourage anyone else to do likewise. I do not want to be part of an organization that feels it is acceptable for me to be discriminated against.

Sincerely,
The General

>When dissertation directors have too much power

>Sorry for the long silence. Crazy holiday travel schedule + frantically getting ready for the semester + stupidly becoming addicted to TimeWasteBook = a blogger’s absence.

Anyway, I’m back in Rust Belt, enjoying the peace and quiet caused by a snowy weekend before the semester begins. So while Bullock makes us a new TV/Entertainment stand in his workshop, I’m catching up with all things electronic. Heck, even Pippi’s quiet and mellow. She’s dozing on the window seat that Bullock made for, occasionally looking up to watch the snow fall. Soon we’ll be out there shoveling again, but for now I have time to write a SUBSTANTIVE post. Really!

So while I was at MLA, having a good time on my part since I was neither being interviewed nor giving a paper, I was also feeling great sympathy for all those people on the market — including the 14 we were interviewing — and picking up on the crazy-stress vibe in the main conference hotels. (Btw, do you ever get the feeling that *everyone* is staring at you when you walk into those lobbies? Maybe they are, since everyone is looking for the people they’re meeting, but it makes me feel really weird.) I was also hearing everyone’s stories — successes, disappointments, frustrations, and triumphs — as well as the stories they’d heard. And one of those is what inspired the title of this post.

A friend and I were talking about whether our respective hiring committees were afraid of ABDs not finishing in time, and if we tended to prefer people with the PhD in hand or a set defense date, or whatever. And that brought up a story of a friend of this friend, whose dissertation director wouldn’t let the person file his dissertation, year after year, for about three years running. And so the person kept going out on the market as an ABD and not getting many bites and not getting a job. When the director finally let the person file, he got an embarrassment of riches in the interview department, more than one campus visit, and a job. (There were, of course, a couple of articles published in there, too.)

According to my friend — or according to her friend, the one who was prevented from filing — the reason the director wouldn’t let his student file wasn’t because the diss wasn’t finished or wasn’t good enough to be a diss. Rather, it was because it wasn’t good enough to be a book. He thought he was doing his student a favor, getting him to shape it into a book while still a student, rather than once the tenure clock started running. I have to say that when I was a grad student, I kind of thought that way, too, and so did some of my friends, especially those of us who had one or more years of dissertation fellowship. But now I think that’s messed up.

Here’s why. A graduate student on fellowship or working an assistantship makes peanuts. An assistant professor, even at the most poorly paying school, makes a lot more. But it’s not just about a couple of years of higher salary. A graduate student making peanuts isn’t paying off her credit card bills; she’s accruing interest on them. A graduate student isn’t contributing to her retirement account, and so is not only losing that year’s contributions, but also the earnings it accrues (okay, okay, let’s leave aside the tens of thousands of dollars my TIAA-CREF account lost this particular year). Add just those two things together and the financial difference is exponentially greater than just the amount of salary difference. Then there’s the fact that if you’re a professor getting any kind of raise or merit pay or cost of living adjustment — or even summer school pay — it’s likely based on your base pay. A graduate student is losing out on years of having that base pay and having it increase each year. The graduate student is likely also not saving for a down-payment on a house, saving for her kid’s college fund, or, for that matter, saving at all. Such investments and savings also (ideally) accrue value over time (again, let’s leave aside the current financial and real estate markets for the moment).

But it’s not just about money. There’s social and professional status and general self respect involved, too. I can’t begin to explain what a difference it made to my sense of authority in the classroom just to be a lecturer with a Ph.D. versus a grad student in my own grad program. Faculty treated me differently — I got invited to the secret faculty party! — and so did the students. Teaching upper division courses rather than lower div ones also went a long way to making me feel like I had some real expertise and authority in my subject. And even before I got the tenure track job, my family felt like they could stop worrying about me for once — I was finally no longer a student. It even influenced my personal life; you get a better reaction from strangers when you say “I teach at such and such a place” than you do when you say “I’m a Ph.D. student at such and such a place.”

And there’s still more that’s problematic about the dissertation director who expects a finished book rather than a dissertation, and its a problem that affects more than his individual student. First of all, a circumstance like this is an abuse of power. While it’s different in degree from the spouse who won’t let his partner have her own life, it’s not that different in kind. And the student in such cases likely acts like the abused spoused: she internalizes the “it’s for your own good” justification; she can’t bring herself to leave and start all over again (whether that means something as drastic as leaving academia or just switching advisors); and she probably tells herself that she’s partly/mostly to blame – if only she’d just write a better book. I’ve seen people who had such directors still have doubts about themselves and their work years later and it affects their productivity.

But more troubling — or perhaps just troubling on a greater scale — is the impact such expectations have on the discipline and academia in general. If dissertaton directors keep expecting more of the dissertation, hiring committees can expect more of applicants — perhaps a book contract from an ABD. And if hiring committees are expecting more, T&P committees will expect yet more — it’s two books for tenure at some places now. It’s utter madness. I know some of the directors doing this are probably justifying by thinking that they’re only preparing their charges for these increasing expectations. But isn’t it a mutually supporting system? If those of us on hiring committees see these superhuman grad students with book deals, aren’t we going to expect more of our applicants, consciously or unconsciously? So it doesn’t stop only with those of us on that end of things — the dissertation directors have to stop having such high expectations, too. I don’t think a dissertation that’s just a dissertation and one article is too much to ask of a student, or too little to make them look ready for the profession (and, in fact, I think the craft of the journal article is one that needs to be taught more explicitly in graduate school — but that’s a post for another day). But keeping your student from graduating because his dissertation isn’t yet a book is damaging to both the student and the profession.

Let me close with two quick case studies. One is me. The other is someone who graduated from college at the same time I did — indeed, from the very same college. I took three years off from school before going back for the Ph.D., and she went straight to grad school, so you’d think that this other person and I would be about 3 years apart in our “academic age,” wouldn’t you? But no, I just got tenure last year and she’s a full professor now. I think she may even have an endowed chair. Of course, there are a lot of differences between the two of us that accounts for part of this (for one, she’s a workaholic, which she herself admits). But a big chunk of that difference is that she actually finished the Ph.D. in 5 years — even doing field work for part of it — because she had a director who thought of a dissertation as a dissertation. My once-peer wrote a 150 page dissertation (in a “wordy” field – not a math or hard science). I wrote a 450 page behemoth for a director who didn’t exactly expect a finished book — and certainly didn’t keep me from graduating (I did a lot of that myself) — but did have pretty high expectations, and often referred to the thing as a book. Though to be fair, he often said things like “this is something you’ll want to think about more when you turn this into a book.” So I didn’t have the kind of director I’m troubled by in this post. But I also didn’t have the kind that my one time peer did. And I think that’s made a lot of difference in our career and life trajectories.

The profession as a whole — and especially those fields where we write books — needs actively to rethink what we expect of Ph.D. students, because the state of the market right now and in the future is likely to drive us all into more insane expectations if we don’t start setting some reasonable limits now.

>Vexed, terribly vexed (on mergers, libraries, and mismanagement)

>As of this semester, graduate students at RBU have had their library borrowing reduced to the undergraduate length of 4 weeks, where they previously could check books out for 16 weeks with one online renewal (making a whole academic year). Yes, that’s right — someone writing a thesis or a seminar paper on a literary text for which the scholarly edition is a library-bound, out-of-print behemoth can only have it for an initial period for 4 weeks. Now, they can renew it four times online, but then they have to remember to do that, because once it’s overdue, they have to bring it in. And they have to return it after 4 renewals and re-check it out if they still need it.

And why was this idiotic change made? The librarians told the grad students that it was because that’s the way the medical library does it — the one belonging to the med school with which we merged two years ago. (Books? What are books? Doesn’t everyone use journals, and mostly electronic copies of them?) And for some strange reason, all of our units and campus have to do things in exactly the same way — even if there’s no savings of time or money, even if there’s a great loss of time in switching over.

The library issue sounds like a little thing, I know, but it’s been one thing after another for the last two years, especially in the last year, and it starts to add up. This is typical of the way things go around here. Everything has to change to the way the med school does it (because the med school’s former president is now the university’s president), even if it makes absolutely no sensefor anyone else or significant portions of the rest of the university (which, btw, is a heck of a lot bigger!). And no one bothers to find out that they way they do things isn’t some obvious, universally applicable, common sense way, but rather a practice with a history and culture tied to medicine and medical schools and at best alien to the rest of us, and at worst actually a problem for the way we need to work. Next thing you know we’ll all have to wear lab coats of different lengths signifying our status. Don’t laugh. I wouldn’t be surprised.

>Say what? Or, the tiresome tussle of linguistics vs. literature

>So. About that blog post that annoyed me…

Way back in the ancient time of June 17, Mark Liberman at Language Log wrote a post in which he said the following:

In fact, in my (admittedly limited) experience, English departments are among the last places on campus where you’re likely to find any indication of interest in any form of linguistic analysis whatever.

I’d be very happy to find that I’m wrong about this.

Mark Liberman, you are wrong about this. There, happy?

The problem with Liberman’s broad generalization (aside from being a broad generalization — not usually a persuasive move in argumentative writing), is that he then proceeds to back up his claim with the example of the Yale English department and what he could find on their web site.

OK, before I go further, can I just announce to the world at large that using Yale (or Harvard, or Stanford, or Oberlin, or any other elite school) as a stand-in for academia at large is poor evidence, no matter what the subject of your argument is. American higher education has a plethora of institutional types with an equally diverse set of missions, funding sources, student bodies, faculties, curricula, and organizational structures. And we do not all even aspire to be or model ourselves on the elite private universities and colleges. Heck, institutions like Yale aren’t even in the majority of types of institutions in the country, let alone anything like an average model.

But back to the people-in-English-don’t-care-about-linguistics thing. I’d reckon that in the majority of 4 year colleges and universities in the country, the linguists are actually IN the English department. Again, Yale is a poor example, because it’s elite and wealthy enough to support an entire linguistics department. Oh, and look, Prof. Roberta Frank, renowned Anglo-Saxonist has a dual appointment in Linguistics and in English at Yale. Liberman didn’t mention that, for some reason (although a lone medievalist commenter did). But I’ll come back to the medieval angle in a minute.

Most places, however, aren’t as lucky as Yale to have a well-staffed and independent linguistics department. At my own university, most of the linguists are in my department — including people who don’t necessarily work on specifically *English*-related issues — and some are in the foreign language department (yes, we just have one — they’re all lumped together). So actually, our English department is either the first or the second place on campus where you’d find people interested in linguistic analysis, depending on where you decided to start your search.

And it’s not just the people who are identified as “linguists” and specialists in linguistic fields who are interested in linguistic analysis. Hello! {Raises hand} Medievalist here! I teach Old English and Middle English, both of which are cross-listed with Linguistics, and the students in there are a mix of English majors, linguistics majors, various foreign language majors, and English graduate students. We use the IPA and talk about all sorts of heady linguistic goodness like phonology, morphology, syntax, and the like. And I bet this year’s crop in particular will never forget the genitive of time in part because it was a recurring obsession of mine across Old and Middle English, and at the end of the latter, I came into class one day and triumphantly announced that the final scene of No Country For Old Men featured an American example of it. (You should’ve seen how giddy I was about it.) See, medievalists have always needed a knowledge of and interest in linguistic analysis, and always will, including those of us who are interested in all sorts of other theoretical developments in the field. Are we not part of the English department?

What’s more, our English major here at RBU requires an intro to linguistics class. Why is that? Aside from all the good, sound reasons that the study of literature may have something to do with the study of language, many of our English majors are also Education majors, and the state requires language arts and English teachers in the public schools to have had an intro to linguistics class. I bet that’s true in a lot of states. Our MA then requires history of the English language, again because we feel that a knowledge of language enhances the study of literature. Cuz, you know, literature is made of language. (I know! Whoda thunk it?!)

But where Liberman’s post really, really gets my goat — or rather, the writing teacher goat in me — is the way he uses Yale as his example. After noting that “transformational grammar” doesn’t appear on their web page, he adds:

also among the missing are phoneme, vowel, consonant, Lakoff, Whorf, “noun phrase”, transitive, adverb, iamb, trochee, dactyl, pentameter, hexameter, and metrical.

(To make it clear that Google has actually indexed some text there, post-colonial occurs 22 times.)

Oh for goodness sake. Why would most of those terms appear on the freakin’ web page of the department? Take out “Lakoff” and “Whorf” and the remaining words are all terms that have come up in my classes — including many of my “purely” literature classes — but they don’t appear in any of my course descriptions because they’re all too specific. I even have one forthcoming article on historical linguistics issues that involves both prosody and phonology, but none of Liberman’s words are in its title.

But the parenthetical claim makes it clear what the real subject of Liberman’s complaint is: you English lit people pay too much attention to the post-colonial. Oy. Are we really still fighting the culture wars? Really? Look, you can care about *both* the political forces that shape literature *and* the linguistic ones that do. They are not mutually exclusive. And in terms of the logic, Liberman’s complaint is problematic: “post-colonial” is a much bigger category than “adverb.” It’s also a theoretical approach that would apply to a multitude of literature courses in a way that “hexameter” wouldn’t. I bet the verse writing courses that Yale offers (intro and advanced) include discussion of iambs, trochees, etc. And the description of the “Renaissance Lyric” course says it will focus on “poetic forms.” I bet meter has something to do with that course, too. (Oh, and if you search “verse” on the site, it comes up 19 times.)

In the comments to Liberman’s post, only one medievalist speaks up, as I recall. And one person from a regional comprehensive points out that linguistics is within their English department. And I don’t think Liberman responded to either of them.

So as an English department medievalist at a regional comprehensive, who teaches linguistics courses and linguistic issues, I felt I had to pipe up on behalf of my many identities: Hey, what about us?

>Help! I don’t want to be grad director any more

>Oy.

One of the reasons I haven’t posted much of late is that I’ve been running around like the proverbial acephalous farm fowl trying to deal with one graduate student related thing from another. Some of it’s routine but nevertheless time consuming and potentially stress-inducing, and some of it is all about dealing with grad student nightmare situations. Here’s a quick run-down that gives you a sense of my last two weeks without, I hope, revealing any sensitive particulars.

  • I scared one of our part-timers away from our program. I feel completely responsible for this since a) I’m the grad director, and b) the only two classes he’s taking are my classes. The real problem, I think, is that the two classes are not literature classes (one’s research methods, the other’s Old English), so he based his conclusion that “graduate study in English is not for me” on rather idiosyncratic courses. I feel really guilty about this. Of *course* in the research class I’ve been talking about the why’s and how’s of academic research 24/7, but I’ve also told them more than once that the teaching/research balance is different at different kinds of institutions. But this particular student dropped out because he wants to teach more than do research. Argh! I tried to talk him out of it, to no avail.
  • Another student stopped coming to his classes and has also decided to withdraw from the program, which is probably the right decision for him. But the problem is he thinks he can go on being a TA for the rest of the semester and collecting his stipend check. Theoretically, I think he’s right, and if we saw TAs as employees and treated them as such with all the attendant legal rights, that would be the case: he’d do his job and we’d pay him for it. But our university, like most, sees a TAship as financial aid, for which only full time students are eligible.
  • The withdrawal of the student above leaves me with an unfilled TAship for next semester, which will mean the College will suck the line back up into itself, giving us one fewer TA line for next year.
  • Another student has decided to leave the literature concentration for the other concentration we offer. That’s fine — at least he’s still “ours” in the larger sense, since all of our students get MAs in English. But the problem is that program is less flexible in its course sequence, so he has to take next semester off and restart in the fall. So I have his TAship to fill in the meantime or lose it, as well. (He’ll get a different one next year, vacated by a graduating person.)
  • It’s Ph.D. program application time and a few of our “good for us but not stellar” students have delusions of grandeur. I tried as best as I could to get them to apply to fewer extremely competitive programs and more programs with higher acceptance rates. They have no idea of their worth in this market. I think I’m being so gentle with their fragile egos that they don’t get it and they’ll just end up disappointed. And some of them are so freakin’ arrogant without reason and they have no idea how they’re coming across. I cringe to think of how their personal statements read. They have no clue and it’s making me tear my hair out.
  • And those are the ones who tell me what they’re up to. Half the time our students do this all behind the scenes and I never know where they’re applying and/or getting in. And who knows what they’re putting in their personal statements. I’m going to run a personal statement workshop ASAP just to get them to let us see the damn things. I mean, how can I help shape the reputation of our program if some of our graduate students are doing god knows what.
  • And all of our students think they’re shoo-ins for the local flagship. Um. As if. It happens to be a top tier program with about a 1 in 10 acceptance rate, and in recent memory not a single one of our applicants, even our best students, have gotten in there. The phrase “familiarity breeds contempt” comes to mind. But they think because they’re residents of the state that makes a difference, or because they took undergrad classes there (not, mind you, finished a degree there) they have an edge. I can’t get it through their heads that state universities can be as competitive and selective at the graduate level as an Ivy League and none of that stuff matters. Indeed, some of them would prefer students from elsewhere than from their own state because it adds to their prestige. I think I may just ban students from applying there. OK, I can’t do that. But I might tell them the above.
  • Which reminds me: our undergraduates don’t understand that even *our* program is somewhat selective. This is because at the undergraduate level we’re an open enrollment university, so all of the problems in the above bullets and here are the result of many students never having had to apply anywhere selective before and not knowing anything about the process other than maybe what they see in movies or on TV. (A number of our MA students were our BA students.) So sometimes tears, anger, resentment, and pleading are involved when someone is rejected. And often I have to deal with it in person!
  • And then there’s the MA exam. I hate it. I hate dealing with it; I hate its format; I hate its reading list. But mostly I hate dealing with the students who complain the loudest about it, because they are always the ones who don’t get what it’s for and don’t prepare well and don’t do well. And there’s really no excuse for not preparing well now or not getting it, because now almost all of our students have gone through my research methods class, where I also spend time on the culture of graduate school, and have them read all sorts of stuff about what typical MA/Ph.D. programs are like, and how most include some sort of comprehensive exam. I talk about how to prepare for it, including working in study groups and using the range of skills and expertise of their peers. And I talk about how to make it professionally useful beyond the instrumentalist goal of doing well on the exam. And I talk about how independent work is expected of graduate students and the exam represents part of that independent work. And still I get students who fear and doubt their ability to read something “hard” on their own (and so they skip much of the medieval and early modern part of the list and then claim they are “blindsided” by having to answer a question on those texts). Or they complain that they didn’t have a chance to write on a bunch of the texts on the list, so they couldn’t show off what they know (uh, you’re supposed to know the whole list!). Or else they ask what was the use of their having read those other texts? And they complain that the list is too long, when it’s actually shorter than the other “comprehensive” lists out there, and only longer than those exams that change the key texts every year.
  • And my colleagues aren’t any less troublesome. Last year when I started a discussion about revising the exam they successfully put me off with misdirection. (Because I am so easy to manipulate. I’m an idiot sometimes.) But not this time! This time I found the history of the last discussion, when the exam was fully revised 5 years ago, and in it the faculty agreed — they voted on this! — to revise the exam at least every five years or when new literature faculty were hired. Ha! It’s been five years *and* they’ve hired me and Milton, and both of our areas are underrepresented on the list. And I’ve got bits and pieces of 5 years worth of data for assessment — questions written and answered — to determine if this exam is doing what we think it should. So ha! We ARE going to have this discussion whether my colleagues like it or not.
  • And then there’s the horrible way we exploit our TAs which I want to do something about, if not with more money, then with reduced or better managed workload, but I need the help of our composition people, and the chair, and we need to fight it out with the dean of the grad school for the money to do what we want to do. And given the desires of the current administration we might face tremendous resistance, which the composition people and the chair know full well, so they’re not exactly eager to get cracking on it. It’s all so wearying. Meanwhile, the students look me in the eye and say things like, “I can’t afford internet at home, since I can’t live on my TA stipend, so I couldn’t complete this assignment.” I have no idea how to respond to that. We actually do have a hardship fund in the department, and I tell them about that. But then what? It’s not like I pulled a bait and switch on them — the stipend amount is advertised and I tell them what it is in their acceptance letter. Like most things in this profession, it assumes the person holding it is young and single or, if they have a family, there’s someone else taking care of them. And yeah, it sucks. Big time. I know that. But I don’t control that. I’m trying to do something about it, but it probably won’t result in more money. There just isn’t much of that to go around, especially not to the humanities and the grad programs. Our priorities are not the university’s priorities. But I think grad students, since they deal mostly with their department, assume that the department controls all of the things that affect the students’ lives. I know I assumed that.
  • Of course, it doesn’t help that I’m not yet tenured. I’m a little tentative when faced with dealing with administrators. That’s why I need the help of my senior colleagues to do what I want to try to do, and they’re all a little more weary of trying, with good reason. It’s really discouraging.
  • And if one more of the non-traditional students condescends to me and acts like they have some kind of seniority over me (most of them are my age or, at most, 2-3 years older; leaving aside the fact that I’m a decade and a half older in academic years), or tells me I just don’t know what their life is like I will freaking scream! The women are the worst. I swear next time it happens I’m going to say, “Oh, I don’t know what it’s like to be treated like I don’t matter and don’t have expertise or experience or authority? Really? Because I thought that’s exactly how you’re treating me right now!”
  • And finally, I had a small-group implosion in one of my classes this week. I blame them somewhat for not being grown ups and dealing with it, but I also blame myself. I stupidly assigned the non-traditional-student, pulling-herself-out-of poverty, single-mom-of-pre-schoool-aged-kids and one of the straight-out-of-college, 20-something-bachelor guys to a group together. Recipe for disaster. He didn’t understand the limits on her time. She wielded them like a sledge-hammer over him. They’re both bad communicators; he’s the shy, quiet, studious guy who prefers to avoid confrontation than to solve problems and she’s the fierce type who makes everything into a confrontation and bullies her way through life. Good one, Dr. V. I’m an idiot.

I’m exhausted. This really does take up the course release I get and then some. (God, imagine if we still had our Ph.D. program!) I’m staying on next year for sure, and maybe 2009-10, but then I’m applying for sabbatical for the next year, and so that might be a good time to put someone else in my place, and not just for the year.

>A Virago rant: the latest children’s book controversy

>Have you seen this article in the NYT about the latest controversy over a Newberry-winning children’s book? (Note: subscription required to read link.) The book is The Higher Power of Lucky and children’s librarians and bookstore buyers are all in a tizzy because, in a book aimed at 9-12 year-olds, the word “scrotum” appears on the first page.

Oh, no, not scrotum! Not the technical, latinate word for a part of the body! Next thing you know, they’ll be teaching kids words like clavicle and femur! The horror!

And get this — here’s the context:

The book’s heroine, a scrappy 10-year-old orphan named Lucky Trimble, hears the word through a hole in a wall when another character says he saw a rattlesnake bite his dog, Roy, on the scrotum.

“Scrotum sounded to Lucky like something green that comes up when you have the flu and cough too much,” the book continues. “It sounded medical and secret, but also important.”

“Medical and secret, but also important” — exactly! It is medical, and it is important, and it’s because of the easily shocked sensibilities of people like these school librarians that it’s still very much something that sounds “secret.” Oh, the irony. And it’s not even a human scrotum; it’s a dog’s scrotum. (Honestly, people should be more upset that these fictional characters are not neutering their fictional dog. Do they want to see more fictional puppies end up in the fictional pound?) So forget its connection to human sexuality — they’re worried about kids knowing about dog body parts? Or are they making misreadings that tell us more about them than about kids’ potential reactions (see below).

And seriously, age 9-12 is when kids are supposed to be learning about these things, because by the end of that period they’ll be going though puberty and needing sex education. Heck, when I was 10, my mom took me to the library, got me a stack of sex ed books for children and adolescents, and I read away, learning all about the scrotum, the penis, the vagina, ovaries, fallopian tubes, and all sorts of other “shocking” body parts and their medical names.

But this book depicts a kid using the proper name for a dog’s body parts and school librarians faint across the nation and refuse to stock it in their libraries. Good lord.

But here’s the part of the article that had me laughing out loud at the way in which a school librarian can live up to the stereotypes of her profession:

Ms. Nilsson, reached at Sunnyside Elementary School in Durango, Colo., said she had heard from dozens of librarians who agreed with her stance. “I don’t want to start an issue about censorship,” she said. “But you won’t find men’s genitalia in quality literature.”

“At least not for children,” she added.

Good thing she added that “at least not for children,” because I was about to write to her and suggest she read some Chaucer and Shakespeare. But I still have half a mind to send her a friendly, non-threatening e-mail or letter that points out that it’s not men’s genitalia being depicted. If it were, that might indeed be kind of weird and creepy for little kids. But it’s a dog’s scrotum. And what better way to learn about body parts than through the non-threatening figure of a dog? I mean, for pete’s sake, there were scrotum galore on the Westminster dog show last week.

And what about the boys? Are Ms. Nilsson and the other librarians quoted in the article assuming that only girls will read a book about a girl? Because I’m pretty sure the boys have noticed that they have a scrotum, even if they don’t know what to call it as the boy with the dog Roy does.

So clearly the librarians are only worried that little girls might make the connection between a dog’s scrotum and a man’s. God forbid we don’t keep the sexes complete mysteries to each other for as long as possible. Because, see, if they’re mysteries, the kids won’t think about it all. No, they won’t think that such mysteries sound “secret, but also important” and then want to find out all they can in their own ways.

I don’t know why I’m so worked up about this. Maybe it’s because I grew up in a household where you used the proper words for things, not silly euphemisms. Or maybe it’s because I met men in college who thought women didn’t fart because they’d been so sheltered. Or maybe it’s because I know children’s librarians who are actually really cool and I hate it when people live up to stereotypes and make my friends look bad by association. I don’t know what it is, but this really bugged me.