December 30, 2010

A Knight's Tale

Slowly but surely, like the brave little toaster that I am, I have been hacking away at that good old Master’s Reading Exam List.  Today’s conquest, a poem that despite even my own amazement I had never read before, is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

After Niapaul’s intolerable novel, I wanted something that I knew I would enjoy and preferably something that I could bang out quickly.  Gawain really fit the bill.  I enjoyed it far more than I thought I would and I have so much to say about it that I’m going to have trouble fitting my reading into a blog-length post, so please bear with me as I digest this. 

First of all, if you haven’t read it, you really should.  There is a version made available by the University of Michigan co-edited by Tolkien (which really made my inner geek squeal) but it is in Middle English which even I find hard to read.  A good modern-English edition is W.A. Neilson’s.  Don’t get me started on the differences between “Old” “Middle” and “Early Modern” English, break-down of the history of the English language on another day, I promise.

Most notable within the poem is a tension between Paganism and Christianity, as presented by the title tension between Sir Gawain (a Christian Knight) and the unnamed-until-the-end Green Knight.  The story is actually a Christmas story; the Green Knight appears in Arthur’s Court while the Court is celebrating Christmas and the challenge the Green Knight offers is a “Christmas game” (verse 13 line 282).  Christmas, the ultimate Christian appropriation of Pagan festivals, thus sets the stage for the poem’s primary contention. 

Green, a color long associated with hills, dales, grass, and in general “that nature stuff” seems a fitting color for the champion of Paganism.  Anyone with a shrewd eye and a background in fantasy literature will spot the Green Knight’s true identity within the poem’s first fit.  When he enters Arthur’s court, he “in height outstripped all earthly men” (verse 7 line 137) and seems to be “half a giant on earth” (verse 7 line 139).  He is clearly not a man of mundane or earthly origins, if he was the anonymous poet wouldn’t have taken such care to wrap his imagery in otherworldly qualities.  In addition, the bargain which the Green Knight offers is that whomever strikes him shall have “a year and a day’s reprieve” (verse 13 line 96-97) before being struck in return.  A year and a day is, traditionally, a fairy bargain.  As if there were any doubt of the Green Knight’s supernaturalness, the issue is clinched when, after Gawain chops his head off in one stroke, Mister Green calmly picks his head off the ground and addresses the court Headless Horseman style reminding Gawain of the bargain they have made before riding out gallantly, head tucked underneath his arm.  It is revealed at the end of the poem after Gawain receives his due punishment that the Green Knight is Bertilak of the High Dessert in service to Morgan Le Fay who lent him magic and sent him on his journey to Arthur’s court to test the Round Table (see verses 98-99).  The Green Knight is definitively a Knight of the Fairies. 

The Green Knight’s challenge comes in a suitably Christian/Pagan number: three.  For three days does Gawain stay at the Green Knight’s court.  Three times is Gawain seduced by the Green Knight’s Lady, and three times does Gawain turn down her advances.  Three times does the Green Knight go hunting and return with his kill.  And, in the end, it is three strikes of the Green Knight’s axe that are given to Gawain as reward/punishment for his deeds.  We all know that Christianity’s big triad is the Father, Son and Holy Ghost and most of us are also aware that this triad was stolen from the Pagan Maiden, Mother and Crone.  Three, then, seems to be a very reasonable number for The Green Knight.

What’s been kicking around in my head is how each day of the hunt relates to each day of Gawain’s seduction.  The first day, the Green Lady comes to Gawain and (like a good psycho stalker) sits on the edge of his bed while he sleeps.  When he wakes, realizing that some crazy chick is watching him, she blushingly yet bluntly spends her morning flirting with him and begging a kiss.  That day, the Green Knight brings home a pile of deer.  The hunting of the doe (or “hart”) is a frequently used image of courtly love.  The lady, wide-eyed and chaste, runs from her knight as he pursues her and eventually slays her with “the bolt of love” (read: slay – little death, orgasm; bolt of love – the knight’s “sword”, distinct phallic imagery).  Of course, Sir Gawain, being a just and true Christian Knight who doesn’t believe in things like sex before marriage or sex with his host’s wife, retrieves from the Lady nothing but a single kiss (which, notably, he then gives to the Green Knight in fulfilling their bargain… there is a whole queer studies reading of this poem that I’m not even going to tinker with).

On the second day, the Knight hunts a boar.  On this day, the Green Lady comes to Gawain and admonishes him for not remembering the lessons of courtesy she had taught him the day before.  She is forward and feisty, and this time gives Gawain two kisses.  The boar, a deadly animal, is also an image we find in medieval paintings and stories.  Medieval bestiaries reported that the boar had no fear of death since his skin was hoary and acted like armor.  He is also the personification of lust, likely because of the large tusks which he uses to gouge his victims (see again: “dart of love”… hey, they didn’t have porn in medieval times, they had to make do with dirty tapestries).  Notable also is the use of the boar in the Psalms of David (80:13) who trounced God’s vineyard and thus became the evil antichrist (for more on medieval boar imagery, see Werness 48-50).  I’m not certain that we could go so far as to say that the Green Lady is the antichrist, but we can call her a harbinger of lust and an aggressive pursuant of the hunt, unafraid of courtly “death”.

On the third day, the Knight hunts a fox.  This third day is Gawain’s “undoing”, as it is on this day that the Green Lady connives him into taking her garter which Gawain then refuses to share with the Green Knight, thus breaking his bargain.  The fox is a familiar metaphor for cunning and trickery, an animal that is known in folklore and popular mythology to connive its victims into its wills and whims.  Certainly this is the Lady’s task for the day.  It is her cunning which finally breaks down Gawain’s resolve, convincing him to accept a gift which he knows he should share but does not.  For this, he receives a single nick of the Green Knight’s axe, a testament to his sins which he returns to the Round Table with.  Despite great temptation, this is the only misdeed which Gawain commits during the poem.

One could argue that since the Green Knight and his Lady are fairy creatures, the Knight’s hunt is some sort of ritual energy transfer between the totem he kills and the Lady.  The Knight’s bargain with Gawain provides the energy for this transfer, a ritualistic link between the Knight himself on the field and Gawain in the castle.  The relationship between this triad (The Knight, The Lady, and Gawain) once again echoes the poem’s cardinal power number, perhaps also fueling the power exchange between the hunted animals and the hunted Gawain.

The end message seems to be that, despite any initial animosity between the Christian Knights and the Fairy Knights, their value system remains compatible.  Gawain’s good behavior is praised by both sides, and his error is scolded then put into perspective by both sides.  Both the Green Knight and the Round Table admit that, despite Gawain’s small indiscretion, in the end he passes the test.  The Round Table Knights have earned the Green Knight’s respect and the Green Knight, in turn, is honored by the Round Table in their vow to forever after wear green baldrics to represent Gawain’s trials and tribulations.  Can the Green Knight and the Knights of the Round Table live in mutual respect?  The anonymous author at least seems to think they can.  Then again, he may have been a Green Knight himself, hence his anonymity.   

Since I lack a snappy ending for this post, I will leave you with Mister Eddie Izzard and the Church of England.  Cheers! 

Works Cited

Anonymous.  Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.  Ed. Betty Radice.  Trans. Brian Stone.  New York: Penguin (1974).  Print.

Werness, Hope B.  The Continuum Encyclopedia of Animal Symbolism in Art.  New York: Continuum International (2006).  Print.

December 28, 2010

The House that Biswas Built

Well… that did it. 

All seasonal holiday cheer I may or may not have previously been overflowing with has promptly vanished.  This week, in another attempt at sneaking up on the Common Reading Exam before it sneaks up on me, I finally managed to conquer V.S. Naipaul’s A House for Mister Biswas. 

Seriously… this is a best-seller?  Praised as one of the leading novels of the twentieth century?  What do people see in this rambling hunk of misery?  To me, the characters were all the same, the events were utterly unexciting, and I was unenthused to read a story that I knew was going to end poorly.  All I could think the entire time was Hamlet IV v; “When Sorrows come they come not single spies, but in battalions”.  The novel consists of calamity upon calamity ushered upon an unsympathetic protagonist who, while perhaps endearing in the book’s first hundred pages, becomes increasingly more grotesque as the events of his life pile upon him.  Why do I care that bad things are happening to this person?  I don’t want to read about characters who I can’t sympathize with.

Sometimes I wonder if it’s a requirement of SERIOUS LITERATURE to be brooding, emo and otherwise utterly miserable.  Is all it takes to write a New York Times Best Seller a little bit of angst and a whole lot of luck?  In speaking with a colleague about this novel, he told me that he really enjoyed it.  It reminded him of real life.  The protagonist, no matter what he did, just couldn’t seem to get ahead.  I said that that was exactly what I didn’t like about the novel.  Why torture myself by reading about this?  Isn’t my own life full of enough bad stuff that I don’t have to read about some fictional character’s bad stuff? 

Don’t get me wrong, without conflict and obstacles a novel is nothing… but if there’s going to be conflict it had best be conflict that I care about solving.  Something that the hero can win.  Something that makes him a bigger, better man.  There is no growing in A House for Mister Biswas.  The action of the book does nothing but to make its primary hero into a jaded, bitter, old man who is taken advantage of by everyone and dies before he can really achieve the only goal he ever has.

In one regard, the story is an allegory about an artist’s life.  Mister Biswas is clearly someone who should have been an artist.  He is only truly happy when his job involves painting, writing, or some other form of creative application.  He finds fulfillment from these things, and the real tragedy is that he simply cannot make them work for him.  Society bends and hones him to its own idea of what he should be.  Whether it is his over-bearing in-laws or the supervisor at his current position, there always seems to be someone available to beat the spark of life from this man and use him to their own ends.

The only truly sensible character in the entire book is Shama Biswas, the protagonist’s wife.  She is a woman who has simple wants, simple desires, and simple needs.  Despite being physically and mentally abused by her husband for countless years, all she ever does is cook for him, balance his accounts, and try to make their life together work.  Mister Biswas never seems to admit to her superior judgment, though by the very end of the book the narrator seems to.  It is fairly clear to me that, without her, Biswas’ entire existence would fall apart at the seams.  He is a man with his head in the clouds, blinded by his one dream (to have his own house, hence the title).  There is something admirable to that, but it requires someone with feet firmly planted to rein him in.  That someone is Shama.  She enjoys balancing accounts, dealing with sums and figures.  When things go wrong in the household, she knows how to fix them.  She knows when more money is needed and when it isn’t.  She is the voice of reason, though one that Biswas continually ignores through the entirety of the book.

I’m debating whether the circular story-telling method that Niapaul employed made things better or worse.  The book’s first scene depicts a dieing Mister Biswas discussing with Shama the massive amounts of debt they have incurred to purchase the second-rate house that the family lives in and how to deal with this debt.  The novel then circles back to Biswas’ birth and picks the story up from there.  I can’t decide whether knowing that Biswas does get his house (though it leaks and creaks and needs work he can’t afford to put into it since he is stuck under a mountain of debt that his widow has absolutely no hope of ever re-paying) made me more or less angry that I was stuck reading about the way he got to this ending.  Many times I threatened to put the book down and never return to it; I knew how it ended anyway, why was I putting myself through this torture?  Somehow, though, I held out hope that it was a feint on Niapul’s part… that something… some little thing… would work for this man.  Of course it did not.  In the end (and during every step to get there) it all fell to pieces, just like Biswas’ house.

I guess the bottom line for me is what I am left wondering after reading so many of these books; why am I reading them?  What makes them any better than any other book ever written?  If it’s not engaging and it tells me nothing about life (other than it’s hard and the good are systematically shat upon until they accept their stations), why is it a New York Times Bestseller?  Because at this rate… I’d almost rather read Twilight.  At least that has a happy ending.

December 24, 2010

The Night Before Christmas

Twas the night before Christmas, what a pain in my ass…
Because I was still grading for my undergrad class.
My red pen was whirring, my comments were shrewd,
(to visiting relatives I might have seemed rude).
My family feted, cooked, drank and made merry,
While I, in my room, grew increasingly wary.
My deadline approached to submit grades I’d given,
I realized how many I’d already scriven.
Not nearly enough (if I worked at this pace),
To finish, on university-time, the great race.
My head in my hands as a fresh migraine bloomed,
This was it, the end, my career was doomed.
When out on the lawn there rose such a clatter,
I sprang from my desk to see what was the matter.
I flung open the curtains and realized right quick,
There he was, big red himself, old saint Nick.
He threw back his head with a laugh jolly bright,
His sleigh filled with presents a marvelous sight.
He looked to his reindeer, then gave me a wink,
(it wasn’t as creepy as you might think).
He smiled and started to leave on his sleigh,
But I opened the window and shouted “Wait, hey!
It’s Christmas!  I’m supposed to be opening gifts!
Not reading some kids’ misinterpreting of Swift!
My family’s singing Christmas tunes in good cheer,
While I’m miserably wading through papers, stuck here!
Is it my fault my final was scheduled late?
That the school cursed me to this gloomy yule fate?
Should I suffer since my students can’t write
On a deadline without putting up fights?
Where’s my Christmas spirit?  Can’t I have some fun?
Does a Professor’s life mean misery in the long-run?
Is Christmas a fiction, shiningly wrought?
A great lie from our parents we’ve always been taught?
Sure, you can go round the whole world in one night,
But you can’t fix my problems, or help solve my plight.
Leave presents, go on, things to open tomorrow,
But I’ll still be here wrapped in my own sorrow.”
Santa was struck dumb, didn’t know what to say
(I mean, I did kinda plan it that way)
He paused and he tried to collect what he thought,
But apparently couldn’t find words that he sought.
He took up his reigns and towards me he sped,
And when he spoke, these are the words that he said:
“All graders, professors and their TAs,
Adjuncts and lecturers, still in a daze,
Semester not over, you can’t quite unnerve it,
Take a Christmas break, for god’s sake, you deserve it!”
He wiggled his nose and I looked to my grading,
And realized the stack of “to do” papers was fading!
Santa had fixed it, he’d graded them all!
It was all I could do not to break down and bawl.
I looked out to thank him, but I was too slow,
He had already taken off into new-falling snow.
But I heard him exclaim, as he drove out of sight,
“Merry Christmas to all!  Put your pens down tonight!”

December 21, 2010

Fangs for the Incite

I am mad.  No, not mad, angry.  No, not angry, seeing red, flames on the side of my face, steam coming out of my ears livid.  What, might you ask, is the cause of this anger?  The source of this towering inferno of rage?

Flash back to yesterday.  I made a trip to my local Barnes and Noble to pick up the next book in my current bedtime reading series (it’s nothing literary, just some awesome urban fantasy writing… I need a very specific kind of book to lull my brain into slumber at the end of a long day).  I rode the escalator up to the fiction section of the store, inhaling the wonderful scent of mass-market paperbacks and coffee (I love LOVE the smell of books).  My mind was idly tapping itself against the actual reading I was doing for the CRE that is creeping up on me faster and faster every day.  I was fairly zoned out of my surroundings, still warming up from my short walk from car to store, excited to peruse the shelves that I was headed for… maybe I would even go look at the Neil Gaimen books and thumb lovingly through them!  Maybe I would take a field trip to the Shakespeare shelf and glance over it to see if there were any new books! 

And that, my friends, is when it happened.  Staring me in the face on one of those “buy these books if you like that book” tables in a display of gothic teenage macabre were stacks and stacks of the Twilight series.  That wouldn’t bother me so much.  After all, they are best sellers (for more info as to why, head on over and read my assessment of the series as a whole).  What really bothered me was the sign on the table.  This sign, in mock-blood-dripping script, read “The books that started it all”.

Woah.  WOAH.  First of all, no.  Secondly, HELL NO.  “Started it all”?  What, the vampire genre?  Because that was John Polidori with The Vampyre in 1819.  Vampires as the subject of the novel?  Bram Stoker, Dracula, 1897.  Vampire as a popular mass-market genre?  Anne Rice, Interview with the Vampire,1976.  Vampire as a book-to-film dark fantasy extravaganza?  Also Anne Rice, Interview, 1994.  Made the vampire story something told in first person PoV by some mortal acquaintance who somehow magically is wrapped up in the otherworldliness of vampires?  Laurell K. Hamilton, Guilty Pleasures, 1993.  Made the vampire the equivalent of a modern rock star oozing sex indiscriminately and conquering mortal women as they have to struggle through their hum-drum lives without becoming a vampire?  Charlaine Harris, All Together Dead, 2001.  This is not even to bring into account the multitudes of vampire films, TV shows, and role playing games that did more for the genre than (arguably) some of these authors did. 

I will say the one thing that Meyer did add to the vampire: safety.  Her vampires may as well be unicorns or some other shiny mythical beast.  They are innately dangerous (as dangerous as any other carnivore) but, as I’ve contended previously, they have been de-fanged.  By being able to survive off of non-human blood (and actively pursuing this lifestyle), the complications of being a vampire are taken away from them.  They need not live with the guilt of death in exchange for their own mortal existences, they can go eat a cow like a normal person.  Not only may they walk in sunlight, but it makes them sparkly!  SPARKLY!  Half of them aren’t even dark and brooding characters!  They are not killers, they are not Satan’s minions, they are no longer creatures of the night. 

If Meyer’s vampires have been de-fanged, they have also been unsexed.  Sex is a vital piece to the vampire and the original vampire stories were no more than thinly veiled euphemisms for intercourse (come on, hard fangs puncturing soft flesh and an exchange of bodily fluids?  Sound familiar?).  Meyer has denied her vampires their very essence and, by doing so, made them into something that is undeniably inhuman, but simultaneously unvampire. 

So yes, she opened the “vampire” reading audience up to individuals who would otherwise never have cracked a vampire novel in their lives.  But what does this really mean?  It is difficult for me to imagine that a Twilight teeny-bopper would ever read and/or enjoy a real vampire story.  Reading Twilight is nothing more than a pale excuse to say “yes, I’m misunderstood and brooding!  Look at me, I’m suuuuch a vampire groupie!”  It’s like wearing black eyeliner and pale makeup because it’s cool; these actions say nothing about the individual and everything about their attentiveness to trends and fads.

Flash back further to a middle-school-aged Danielle.  She is socially trod upon, downcast, and geeky.  She clutches a book to her chest which she reads because it makes her feel better.  The title of the book is Interview with the Vampire.  As if the popular kids didn’t have enough to make fun of her about (she’s not skinny, she doesn’t wear makeup, she has big plastic-rimmed glasses, she doesn’t play sports, she would rather spend an afternoon with Magic cards than at the mall… need I go on?) they see this book.  It stands as a testament to why she will never fit in with the “cool” kids.  Anyone who reads “that vampire stuff” clearly is far too dark and weird to ever fit in.

So it’s not that I’m bitter that kids now-a-days can read a “vampire” novel and have it speak to their coolness as opposed to their awkwardness, but if they’re gonna read one, at least it could be a real one.  I’m not saying they should dive right in to Interview or Anita Blake stuff… but can’t there be some happy middle ground between not-a-vampire-vampire-novels and actual hard-core-blood-sucking?

And really, Barnes and Noble, I’m curious.  What did Meyer start?  Christmas bonuses for your CEOs?  Because surely whatever it was had nothing to do with the genre that she is only vaguely and begrudgingly associated with. 

December 15, 2010

Brain Cardio

Since I’m still a little brain melty from finals, for this entry I took a cue from my favorite fantasy writer (oh please, don’t give me that look, if it’s not apparent at this juncture that I’m a geek, you’ve really got to get your geekdar looked at).  On his twitter feed this past weekend was posted the following prompt:

Write a 5-10 page two character dialogue with no tags or blocking. Dialogue only. Try to evoke character, conflict, and plot with this only. Include: A problem, 2 distinct individuals, a fantasy/sf element. Avoid: long monologues, exposition. Use context, not explanations.

It’s been a long time since I’ve written anything that wasn’t academic or blog-style.  I could definitely use work on my prose writing, and this is the perfect excuse.  Eager to participate in the exercise, I sat myself down and put this together.  I hope you enjoy (especially you, Mister Sanderson).  How do you guys think I did?



“We’re trapped.”


“Like rats.”

“Rats in a cage.”


“Did you remember…”

“…to double-check for an automated heat-sensing trip spell?  Yah.”

“…what about…”

“A semi-intelligent observation construct disguised as regular household items or decorative mantle pieces?  Yes yes.”


“A complex self-triggering ritual that would lock things up behind us the moment we passed its ‘go’ zone?  Yep.”



“Guards.  You know, regular, human, two eyes, carry swords, about as much brains as a tree-stump between the lot of them…”

“…Well… I didn’t see anybody on our way in…”

“Gods, Catherine, how is it that you remember to tie your boot laces in the morning?”

“Hey, you have two eyes too you know.”

“But my job was to pick the lock.  It was your job to get us through any security.”

“But I ran every seeking spell that I could think of!”

“Security includes Guards.”

“Hey, what do you think I am, perfect?  My massive magical abilities have to count for something.”

“Obviously not common sense.”

“I heard that.”

“So… what…. What do we do?”

“You shush for a moment and let me think.  Clearly there hasn’t been anyone here in some time because there was dust on the dais…”

“Or they’re just piss-poor house-keepers… or they’re afraid to clean in and around their items of massive, mythic proportions.”

“Speaking of, you’ve got it, right?”

“Yep, safe and sound.”

“Good.  Okay.  Decoy in place?”

“What do you think I am, an idiot?”

“…I’m not going to answer that.  Think.  Need to think.”

“Why don’t you pace?  It always helps me to think when I pace.”

“Good thought.  Got another?”


“It’s the inner sanctum of the big bad guy lair.  I think they knew enough about basic plot elements to omit ‘windows’ from their master floor plan.  Besides, if they had windows, do you think we would have gone to the trouble to pick, confuse, confound, befuddle and otherwise bamboozle our way in here?  This heist would have been a hell of a lot easier if… oh…”

“Like I said.  Windows.”

“Really high up windows, but windows.”

“If only we had a way to get up there.”

“Basic levitation spell.”

“You can do that?”

“Better living through the arcane arts.”

“Yeah, no kidding.”

“It’ll cost you, but nothing you won’t miss for more than a week.”

“What do you mean by… ow!”

“Sorry, need bits of your hair to bind the spell.”

“Couldn’t you warn me next time?”

“Only if you stop accusing me of lacking things like common sense.”

“Okay, how long are we going to drag that one out for?”

“As long as it takes.  You should be feeling a little…”


“Like that.”

“So how long does this last, and how do I control it?”

“You keep quiet and let me work that voodoo that I do and… oh….”


“It shouldn’t be doing that.”

“Doing what?”



“I know, I know, stay calm, working on it.”

“I can’t feel my feet!”

“Panicking is only going to distract me…”

“My feet… are on the ground… without my body…. How can I run away with no feet?  How can I be a thief if I can’t run away!?”

“Oh please, there are more pivotal body parts you could be missing…”

“I don’t want to be missing any of them!”

“Look, I can’t force a re-assimilation if you’re resisting me so just take a moment, breathe, and find a happy place to be in for a bit.”

“Wait, you need to force my body to take back my own feet!?  But… they’ve been with me my whole life!  What do you mean they could just… vanish one day… and not come back… and the rest of me wouldn’t miss them!?  This is why I hate magic!”

“Hush.  Really.  Hush.”

“…okay… feeling slightly better.”

“I should say you are.”

“How can you be so...? Oh.  Right.  Feet.”

“Going to need some more time to wipe the spell, re-bind it and try this again.”

“Don’t think we’ve got more time, I can hear them at the door already.”

“Well… then… distract them or something.”

“What do you want me to do?”

“I don’t care, as long as you do it fast and let me work.  Need more hair though.”

“Ow!  Quite it!”

“GO!  That door’s gonna open any minute and then, oh and then, we’ve had it.  You, me, prison for the rest of eternity… I hope they chop my head off rather than let me rot in jail.  I’ve always wanted to be a pretty corpse.”

“Decapitation really doesn’t go with that outfit…”

“No, but defenestration will.  And decapitation is preferable to decomposition.  Go!”

“Yes ma’am.”

December 14, 2010

Getting by with a Little Help from my Friends

Finals.  Finals finals finals finals paper finals finals beer finals.

I’m sorry, the brain which you are trying to reach has been reduced to a drooling, sniveling mass by the papers which she is desperately trying to crank out on a reasonable deadline.  Please try your call again later.

To satisfy the blog-o-sphere until she gets her head sewn put back on, please enjoy the following snippets of texts/e-mails/facebook status updates/actual people conversations that have occurred sometime in the last week and a half.

Quote from a student paper: “Pope, who clearly did not take rejection well, indirectly called Lady Mary a lesbian for not wanting to make romantic advantages with his hunchback tubercular self.”

B – “Three cheers for the use of the word ‘tubercular!’

D – “I love the use of ‘make romantic advantages’ … and Pope wasn’t tubercular.”

B – “Oh, right, he was a mutant, but was ‘tuberculosis’ an actual malady of the time?”

D – “The consumption.”

B – “That term always bothers me… makes me think of sin-eaters.”

Dr. J – “Dear Gradfolk,

“Some news on the MA Reading Exam.

“First: it's time to schedule the exam for this spring's graduating class.  The exam takes place over two days, and has traditionally been held on the week immediately following spring break.  Once upon a time it was common for there to be a day between the two halves -- say, Monday and Wednesday.  Recently students have opted for two consecutive days, typically Monday and Tuesday, on the assumption that the one-day break in between isn't long enough to relax or study, and just long enough to prolong the anxiety.

“I suggest, then, that we schedule it for the Monday and Tuesday immediately following the spring break, viz., 21-22 March.  The exam is usually scheduled for 4:00-7:30 both days. If anyone has strong opinions on any of this, let me know; I'll book the room immediately after the winter break.”

D – “I have a strong opinion.

“My strong opinion is as such:


“.....grading almost done, will be in your mailbox by Friday....”

D – “Alright, secular theorist, capital or lower-case ‘g’ when talking about a Judeo-Christian god in the context of a non-secular conversation?”

B – “Judeo-Christian + non-secular = God, no?”

D – “I dunno, I was hoping you would… how often do I, the early modernist Renaissance dramatist, talk about Jesus?”

A – “According to one review, [Pride and Prejudice and Zombies] answers ‘certain puzzling questions: Why were those troops stationed near Hertfordshire?’

D – “So, having finally read the paper, why were those troops stationed near Netherfield?”


D – “Would it be appropriate to entitle this paper ‘Fuck Me, [name of Professor] Bradbury?” 

B – “I think that’s the subtitle of everyone’s paper.”

L – “Procrastination has a different texture when one is supposed to be creating a final exam rather than studying for it”

D – “Okay, so my romantics paper may be 17 pages long, but I have a few huge block quotes in it thanks to needing to quote about 20 lines of ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ in one spot…”

B – “I love block quotes.”

D – “I think I’m beginning to fall for them… like I get that little butterfly swoopy feeling in my stomach when I think about them these days.”

December 8, 2010

Let them Eat Cake

On Wednesdays, I get lunch at the local dive bar with my friend the newly-minted Professor.  This rather odd little mid-week ritual has become some semblance of sanity in our schedules, and has proven to be a still point in the ever-turning world of academia.  Sometimes, we are joined by other friends (professors, students, colleagues, peers, etc.) but usually it is just us two.  The lunch has been affectionately dubbed “Brainy Broad Beers” by yours truly and serves as a time to relax, unwind, talk about the trials and tribulations of our week, papers (ours or students’), PhD applications, conferences, sweet libertine, BPAL, or really anything that we need to get off of our chests.

As the deadlines loom before us, PhD applications have taken up more and more of brainy broad beer time.  Today, we decided to add cupcakes to the mix at our favorite little coffee shop/art supply store (I kid you not say what you want about New Jersey, but its quirks are AWESOME). 

Before I proceed, you must understand.  I love red velvet cake.  I really couldn’t explain why because every time I think about it an uncontrollable urge to drool overcomes my brain.  If given half the chance, I would jump into a red velvet anything just to taste a corner of it.  This little coffee place makes some pretty amazing red velvet cupcakes and those are my standard fare.  Since it is a quirky home-brewed coffee shop, their selection of cakes is always rotating.  Some days, they don’t even have cupcakes.  You really never know what you are going to get when you walk into this place.

On our short treck from dive bar to coffee shop, said Professor and I were talking about (surprise surprise) the big scary imminent future.  It was at this point that I mentioned I was taking everything one day at a time, remembering to breathe, and visualizing positive outcomes… like PhD acceptance letters and red velvet cupcakes.  To this, the Professor replied “…so what you’re really saying is that if they don’t have red velvet cupcakes, we’re screwed…”

We laughed and continued walking.

When we arrived at the coffee shop, my heart stopped when I saw that they had no red velvet cakes on the counter.  Determined to not be a big baby about the situation (it’s just a stupid cupcake, it doesn’t really mean anything), I asked the nice lady taking my coffee order what kinds of cupcakes they did have.  She rattled off a long list then welcomed me to look at the display case in the back where all of them were neatly sitting.  I thanked her and went to look, though in my mind had already somewhat settled on the chocolate cupcake with peanut butter frosting.

As I turned the corner, there, staring me in the face, was a whole shelf full of red velvet cupcakes.  I smiled and relief coursed through me (I can talk the talk but that doesn’t mean that I hold no stock in cupcake premonitions).  I paused, realizing that the chocolate peanut butter cupcake actually sounded better than the red velvet cake.  I always order red velvet cake, why not take a break from tradition?  They had, after all, never had chocolate peanut butter before and red velvet cake seemed to be a staple there… it was time to break old habits.  It was time to take a chance.  It was time for a new cupcake.

Nervous at first as I peeled the wrapper away from the pastry (it seemed rather crusty on top and had little structural integrity), I wondered if I had made the right decision.  Was I betraying my better sensibilities?  I knew that red velvet was good, was I setting myself up for disappointment?  Was my break from the familiar just what I needed, or a horrible way to ensure future calamity?

We paused for a moment to return to our chatter.  I mentioned that I was trying to stop myself from dwelling too much on these applications, especially once they were sent in.  However, despite my best efforts, there was a part of my mind that just couldn’t stop wondering “well, what if you get into all the programs?  Where will you go then?”  My friend the Professor said that the way she deals with that problem is by visualizing bacon.  Hickory-smoked, apple-wood-smoked, maple-glazed…?  “Maple-glazed.”  I said immediately, “Maple-glazed, every time.” 

“Well, when the time comes,” Said my friend the Professor, “I think maple-glazed will make itself apparent.”

I nodded, marveling at her wisdom, and took a hesitant bite of my cupcake.  I lingered over it, trying not to get chocolate all over my white coat.  I had to stop myself from inhaling the rest of the confection.  It was utterly delicious.  Creamy, smooth, with just enough chocolate and peanut butter flavor to balance things out.  I had made the right choice.

November 30, 2010

Holiday FAQ

Ah the holidays.  I love the holidays.  Lots of good food, good smells, everyone’s in a better mood, pretty shiny decorations go up, and things begin to wind down for the winter here in academia-land.

There’s only one problem.  Holidays inevitably mean family, and big parties, and otherwise excuses to see people who you don’t generally talk to the rest of the year.  Normally, this is a welcome (if drama-filled) change from the humdrum.  However.  This year, things are… slightly different.  I’m a little bit stressed out due to everything going on in my life, and I’d rather not have to explain the reasons behind this to every single person who doesn’t usually talk to me more than once every few months.  It’s not that I don’t love you, it’s not that you’re not important to me, it’s just that I’d rather not think about the progression of my life right now.  It’s exciting, yes, but also terrifying and having to dredge that up in front of an audience ad noseum brings me back to my conservatory days.  I’m not afraid to cry hysterically in a roomful of strangers, they beat that out of me at Shakespeare & Company, I’m just trying to slip into a happy numbness for a few months before I really start worrying about my life.

So, loved ones, in lieu of explaining all of this over Christmas Ham and Chanukah Latkes (yes, we do both, don’t ask), I’m writing a list of Frequently Asked Questions right here on the blog that you can read, enjoy, then (if I’ve failed to cover anything to your satisfaction), go ahead and ask me specific things.  That way we can all have a happier holiday season.  You don’t have to awkwardly stand around while I’m falling to bits about potential near-future crises due to “poor life decisions”, and I don’t have to fall to bits about it until rejection/acceptance letters come sometime this Spring. 

Thank you, in advance, for your understanding.

Q: So, what are you up to these days, Danielle?

A: Oh man, I’m super busy.  Work at the studio isn’t slowing down, we’re coming up to grading the last set of papers, my own finals are due, and I have PhD aps that I’m trying desperately to get off my desk.  Also starting to really worry about the Common Reading Exam in March, but that’s only a small percolation because everything else on this list comes before that.

Q: Oh?  Where are you applying?

A: Brown, Tufts, and Columbia. 

Q: Only three programs?  Wow.  What are you applying for?

A: Yea, only three.  There’s only three in the Northeast that really work for me, four in the country if I want to apply to Stanford but I don’t really want to move out to California.  I’m applying for a PhD in Drama (some schools call it “Theatre Studies”), but it basically means the intersection between scholarship and theatre, which is what I study anyway.  I mean, if I don’t get in this round, I could try to find an open-minded English department, but I’d rather be amongst theatre people, you know?  The English-iesh don’t really know what to do with me…

Q: What do you plan on doing with that?

A:  Well, I want to open my own theatre someday and I figure that people will be more willing to give me money to do that if I have letters after my name.  I have some pretty revolutionary ideas about American Shakespeare performance; I want to start a real classical repertory company and link it to a University’s theatre department.  That way, young actors will learn the old-fashioned way; they’ll learn everything about the stage, all facets, and they’ll get a chance to work with more experienced actors which I really think is golden for them.  It’s important to understand the theatre in all its aspects, and I really want to create a generation of “Renaissance Actors”.

I also envision it as a place where scholarship and practicum meet; a sort of Shakespeare Mecca.  We kind of have that here in the states down at the Folger in Washington, but for the most part Shakespeare scholars and Shakespeare actors/directors don’t really talk.  I think there’s a lot to be learned from both sides, and I would like to see it performed that way.  I want to have an open dialogue across this scholarship/practicum rift, see if we can’t heal it up some.  I’m wondering what kind of theatre that will make…

Also, I firmly believe in experimental Shakespeare.  And I don’t mean like “Hamlet on the moon”.  I’m thinking of something pure and classical, yet hip and contemporary.  I’m still working on how all these ideas mesh together though… but I’ll have some time.  It’ll take me six years for the PhD anyway.

Oh, and I want to be a professor.  Because really, it’s the coolest job title ever.  And can you think of anything more fulfilling?  I get to instill a new generation with my ideas about literature and theatre?  Count me IN!

Q: Oh… uhm… you know that’s not really very practical.  Your back-up idea is being a professor?  Do you know what the unemployment rate…

A: For newly-minted PhDs?  Yes, yes I do.  But I can’t shoot for the moon just because I’m frightened of where I’ll land.  It would be stupid to compromise out of fear.  I know I love theatre, I know I love academia, I know a lot of things that I hate doing.  I’m not going back to working in a cube just because someone tells me “no”.

Q: Well… what if you don’t get in?

A: I spend a year conferencing, trying to get published, up my hours at the studio, and try to find a couple sections of something to teach somewhere.  Make my application better, then try again next year.  I mean, really, these programs take two to four people a year.  When you’re talking about the top ten applicants to Columbia or Brown, you’re talking about people who all have 4.0s, who all have perfect GREs, who are all amazing writers.  They don’t reject you because you suck, they reject you because you’re not what they’re looking for that year.  I could get ousted from being offered a spot just because they have another Shakespearean currently working through the program, or someone on the selection committee really wants to work with another applicant.  I mean, for all intents and purposes, they may as well take the top ten applications, pin them to a wall, have a couple beers, and throw darts to see who gets in.  I understand that, and I’m prepared to accept whatever comes.  But if you don’t try, you’ll never know, right?

Q: I guess that makes sense… but won’t you have a ton of debt when this is all through?

A: Not any more than I have now.  These programs are all fully funded.  They would pay me to read books for six years!

Q: Hey, didn’t you want to go study in England?

A: That’s the best part!  You get two fellowship years for these things.  You are required to take one your first year just to acclimate.  Usually, people take the second in their sixth year to write their dissertation, but there’s nothing saying you couldn’t take it in your fourth or fifth.  I could take a fellowship year, then go research in Stratford or at the Bodleian if I needed to… all on the school’s buck.  How awesome is that?

Q: Pretty neat!  When are your due dates?

A: December 15th, January 3rd and January 15th, but I hope to have them all in by January 1st.  Once my finals are in, I can really concentrate on getting the last two banged out.

Q: And when do you find out?

A: They aim to tell you the second week of February, but it’s not like undergrad when there’s a certain day that you get the letter in the mail.  They do expect to hear back from you about your decision by April, so sometime before then.

Q: So what are we drinking to celebrate/commiserate?

A: B. Nektar Vanilla Cinnamon Mead.  And thanks.  I have a feeling that I will need all the calming vibes I can get for a few months…

November 24, 2010

Grading; A Tragi-Comedy in Five Acts

All this happened…. More or less.

Names have been changed to protect the innocent.

Dramatis Personae

Danielle: A lowly (but not inexperienced) grader who writes a fascinating blog that you should really read…. Otherwise known as: yours truly.
Lisa: A recently-minted MA in English who teaches her own class this semester, but has been part of the “academic musketeers” since before her graduation last May.  A frequent sanity-checker on all things academy-related, and someone who graded with Danielle last semester.
Brian: The third musketeer and a colleague of Danielle’s.  Was asked to take Lisa’s place as grader when Lisa graduated and started teaching her own classes.
John: The professor they all grade/graded for.

Act One

Curtain up on a one-bedroom apartment that hasn’t been cleaned in far too long.  Danielle sits glumly in front of her computer with a stack of completed grading by her left hand.  She looks to the stack, looks to the computer’s screen where she has pulled up a spreadsheet of the grades she gave, then sighs.  Despite her best efforts, there is simply nothing she can do about the fact that the papers are really and truly sub-par.  She crunches some numbers and realizes that her chunk of the class, as of now, has a 76% pass rate on this paper.  She thumbs back through the papers listlessly, wondering if there’s any way she can bump a few Ds to Cs.  She wonders about the ethics of such a decision; simply because the class is doing poorly does not mean that she should lower her standards, right?  And it’s not like her standards were so high to begin with… all she needed from a paper to pass it was some sign that the student had an argument, any argument, just something to say about a work read in class.

She asks a good friend who happens to be a high-school teacher what his standard pass rate is.  He tells her 95%.  She feels even worse.  She mentions that the students do have the opportunity to re-write for a better grade.  He says that in that case, 76% is probably just fine.  She feels the need to defend John who she knows for a fact is an amazing professor since he has been her professor on occasion in addition to being her boss.  It’s not his fault that his class can’t write papers.  It’s the… high-school teacher… right… she feels awkward about this argument and ceases to have it.

She steels her reserve and stuffs the finished pile into its manila inter-office envelope to drop in John’s box after she attaches the typed commentaries to the individual papers.

Act Two

Danielle enters the English Department common room with manila envelope of graded papers in one hand and stack of typed commentaries in the other.  She puts both of these down on the long table at which Lisa is already sitting grading her own stack of papers.

Lisa: Hey.
Danielle: Hey.
Lisa: How you doing?
Danielle: Okay…. I can’t shake this feeling though…
Lisa: What’s wrong?
Danielle: This stack of papers was awful.  Well and truly awful.  Worse than we had last semester.  And… I graded them accordingly, but I can’t help but wonder if I was a bit heavy-handed.  My pass rate was 76%.
Lisa: I mean, you may have been.  Even John says that you’re a tougher grader than Brian.  The comments you two give are probably the same, but the letter grade is different… so John admits to swapping the stack around so that you and Brian aren’t always grading the same students’ papers and it all averages out.
Danielle: That’s good, I guess, but I still don’t feel great about it…
Lisa: Well what grades did you give out?
Danielle: A couple Ds… one C minus… the passing grades were mostly B minuses.  I did give out two A’s though.
Lisa: C minus isn’t a failing grade.
Danielle: Really?
Lisa: Yea, since John can’t technically put a C minus in the grading box, he’ll bump it up to a C and the paper will pass.
Danielle: well that makes me feel better I guess, that means my pass rate’s over 80%...
Lisa: Did you give any Fs?
Danielle: No.
Lisa: In that case, you’re fine.  Let’s go get beer.

Act Three

Lisa and Danielle are imbibing in beer and wings at the local college dive bar.  Brian rushes in late, clearly upset, clearly out of breathe.

Brian: You guys would not believe the morning I have had.
Lisa: Order a beer and tell us…
Brian: I have seen and done a lot of things in my time… but today, today was a first.  I nearly got into a fistfight on the highway.
Danielle: How is that possible?
Brian: Apparently some guy thought I cut him off so he drove right in front of me, slammed on his breaks to force me into the shoulder, and got out of his car screaming that he was gonna kick my ass.  But he wasn’t.  Because if someone screams about it, they’re not going to do it and I haven’t slept in forty-eight hours, how was your stack of papers?
Danielle: Uhm… should you nap or something?
Brian: No, I had a five-hour energy before leaving the house.
Danielle: So… mine were
Brian: AWFUL?  No really, AWFUL?
Danielle: Yea… yours too, huh?
Brian: Yea, I gave out five Ds, but you’re a tougher grader than I am so I was wondering how many you failed…
Danielle: Breathes a sigh of relief Actually, about the same. 
Brian: How many As did you give?
Danielle: Two solid As and one A minus.
Brian: I hate to say this, but I have no real As and the ones I did give out I only gave because they were that much better than the rest in the stack…
Lisa: I love my class.  I seriously feel like I have the best students in this school.  None of the papers I got were like the ones we got from John’s kids last semester, and the ones that were bad came from the good students who ran out of time or had friends who committed suicide or something…
Brian and Danielle glare at Lisa for a while.

Act Four

Danielle pokes her head into John’s office while he is on a break between classes.

Danielle: John?
John: Oh, hey, thanks for the papers.
Danielle: Yea, no problem.  You take a look at my PhD writing sample yet?
John: Yes.  It’s great.  I have copious commentary.  My cat messed up my filing system and I completely forgot to bring it to you today.
Danielle: I’m not even going to ask.  Hey, did you also have a look at the grades I gave out?
John: Yes, looks fine to me.  You’re a tougher grader than Brian, so I expected that.
Danielle: I just felt so bad doing it…
John: Sometimes the best you can do is offer the most constructive commentary you can give.  You can’t just pass them because they turned in something that could have been written by monkeys at typewriters.  Here, have another stack of grading.

Act Five

Danielle sits in her room once more tapping a pencil against her desk.  She is trying to blog about her week and realizes that she doesn’t know what the proper stylistic form is for the letter representation of a grade in a sentence.  A or “A”?  And how do you make it plural?  She blogs anyway and hopes that she guessed correctly.