Category Archives: Academia

Notes from Albuquerque

four horseman of the western statueEvery time I visit this city, it finds new ways to surprise me. There is no planning for contingency here. Last week, I returned to Albuquerque for the 40th annual Southwest Popular/American Culture Association Conference to present a paper (animal studies, rats, Paris, Ratatouille, and so on) alongside a broad, interdisciplinary spectrum of scholars.

There was an eco-feminist reading of Hey Arnold! There was a close reading of Nick White and Paulo Bacigalupi’s portrayal of toxic water (in the context of the crisis in Flint, Michigan). There was a critical assessment of whether or not altering National Parks iconography is a useful political strategy against selling public lands to corporate interests. This conference is my  favorite, more than the national PCA conference and even AWP (where everyone is trying to hide how stressed-out they are). Maybe it’s the Breaking Bad T-shirts in the hotel lobby, or the actual meth dealers just down the street on Central Avenue, but for whatever reason, this particular conference allows scholars, an otherwise overly serious bunch, to take themselves just a little less seriously.

I’ve missed the high desert, the southwestern aesthetics, the tan and adobe architecture. I’ve missed the sunlight and the dryness. But this is Albuquerque, a city of endless surprise. So I should have expected that the restaurant a friend and I taxied to would be closed in the middle of a snow storm, forcing us to walk down Central Avenue looking for an emergency alternative. Right now, nearly every place that I have known is covered in snow: Flagstaff, Lincoln, Moscow, Spokane, and for a while even Albuquerque, New Mexico.

I neurotically plan for contingencies at every step, but it’s good to know that the unexpected isn’t always bad. For me, it takes an effort to relax and take things less seriously. Shout-laughing at the high desert snow while looking for an Italian restaurant in the wind and snow with one of my best friends reminds me that some of the most productive, engaging experiences are surprises, without prediction and against planning.

The stakes are high, for interdisciplinary academic work that actually makes a difference. Back home at the University of Idaho, there are two interdisciplinary efforts to address climate change, first an ecocriticism reading group and second an emerging collaboration between the humanities and sciences to communicate accurate climate science to local communities. This weekend, I realized that not only is pop culture necessary to communicating serious climate science, but framing it all as a doom-and-gloom apocalypse is also counter-productive. The most important part of the countless post-apocalyptic films and novels that have come out in the last five years is that, one way or another, people express survival in terms of art. Despite zombies, drought, or plagues, characters always make room for culture, whatever that culture is, no matter how subtle its recreation and preservation is.

Image result for alt national parksPopular culture studies finds a comfortable home in Albuquerque. This academic field, like the city itself, resists expectations. It forces people to recognize that grave concerns and lightheartedness can coincide.

This conference is an (expensive and limited) opportunity for scholars to “make sense of the things they love.” It’s a space to recognize the ambiguity inherent in everything we interact with: TV, movies, comics, music, genre. All of it has a radical potential to shape the way people see themselves and the world around them. It’s not that pop culture is sacred, but that it has the potential, like the most radical aspects of the world itself, to surprise us.

 

 

-jk

Another Summer, Another Syllabus

WorkingThis fall will be my third year teaching first-year composition at the college level, and my fifth time drafting my syllabus from scratch. Some instructors keep a syllabus, but so far, I’ve opted to rebuild and try something new. Fifth time’s the charm, or maybe not.

Each time I teach an introductory writing class, I have made significant changes to the syllabus, the assignments, the readings. I change the amount of points that participation is worth, because I am still redefining what qualifies as sufficient participation. Should I have more shorter assignments or just a few really long essays? How can I get students to read what is required? I’ve never believed in reading quizzes, but this year I may try them out.

I am returning to some of the standard readings I’ve used from my first semester in Nebraska, way back in Fall, 2016, during simpler, less stupid times. I will still assign Stephen King’s “What Writing Is” and show Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “The Danger of a Single Story.” But I’m also adding new readings, like Tiffany Midge’s essay “Bury My Heart at Chuck E. Cheese’s” and Joy Castro’s essays “Grip” and “Getting Grip.”

Every semester is a tri-weekly exercise in trial and error, and to a degree I regret doing this to my students. I have been in classes where professors try new things and talked excitedly about their brand new syllabus, and now, after three years on the other side of the classroom, I wonder if I shouldn’t just repeat what is familiar, but I know that repeating even the most familiar trials will still result in plenty of errors. Every class is different, and within those classes are unpredictable factors.

Students might hate what I assign. They might not. Conversely, I might hate teaching something they end up loving. It’s rare that we’re all in agreement. The question is how can I teach them this lesson–that speakers struggle to connect with their audiences in the most ideal circumstances–without simply telling them it’s the case. Teaching is like writing in that showing is preferred over telling, but just like writing too, honesty is the best policy.

So, this year, I will write at the top of my syllabus “Please anticipate technical difficulties.” Extra credit to students who pay enough attention to notice it.

-jk

On Not Going to AWP

Lit Mag ShelfThis year, I will not be attending the AWP conference in Tampa. I will not receive a tote bag, nor will I peruse the book fair and return with conference swag like pins or bookmarks or back copies of cool literary magazines. I will not hear any talented writers read their work, nor will I go to a poetry slam or watch creative writing professors dance awkwardly, nor will I hit up any local bars and wake up too hungover to attend the panel I’m supposed to present at, and when I don’t have time, I certainly won’t visit the many tourist attractions and restaurants that probably exist somewhere in Tampa, possibly.

Academic conferences are big and expensive and time-consuming. This is not to say that they aren’t beneficial, but conferences can be stressful. I know that I’ll be missing out on the best that AWP has to offer. I’ve only been to one AWP conference, way back in 2015, which was intellectually fruitful. Two years after that, I went to regional and national Popular Culture Association conferences. I’ve had plenty of good experiences at conferences. I’ve been introduced to new books, new authors, and some new ideas. But as an institution, and worse, an expectation, conferences are unruly and cumbersome.

(I might be the only remaining academic of my generation who attends conferences only for the panels. I admit it; I’m a nerd. But I don’t want to spend a few hundred dollars just to drink and eat in another city. I don’t know how to be anything short of earnest about it. That’s just who I am).

I won’t be able to meet the editors of journals who have accepted and published my work, or who have rejected it, to see what they have published. To get to know the journals I want to see my work in somewhere. I won’t be able to see friends and colleagues in creative writing I haven’t seen in a long time.

All academic conferences have the same issues. If the amount of money it took to give every attendee a tote bag went to making conferences more accessible or less expensive, or if conferences could find ways to include people without the carbon emissions of travel,  they could become less unruly, less cumbersome. What we get from conferences, most importantly, should not be exclusively available at them.

Instead of going this year, I’m setting my sights on next year’s AWP, which will be in Portland, Oregon, a short trip from Moscow, Idaho. I know more people in Portland; I can visit more friends and family between as many panels as possible. Traveling to Portland from Moscow will be less costly, less polluting, and if nothing else, by then I’ll have forgotten about my conference-induced stress.

-jk

28 Unexcused Absences Later

nigh

He skipped class for few days when flu season started, just to stay healthy, and a few days turned into watching every episode of Seinfeld. Ten weeks, when he finally left his dorm room after realizing his roommate hadn’t returned in weeks, he found that campus was dead empty. Garbage cans were upturned and trash was everywhere, and it wasn’t even football season. Posters were stapled to the bulletin boards encouraging students to get flu shots, and next to those were more recent-looking posters calling for military intervention in the university, only some of which were from Turning Point USA.

In the cafeteria, he heard rustling among the tables, the weeks-old bowls of cereal on the floor and ominously empty orange juice bottles. Another student hobbled out of the corner, limbs stiff, eyes glazed over. This student was wrapped in several layers of winter clothes, but still she was pale and had a terrible cough. He recognized all the symptoms: it was the flu. The infected student hobbled toward him asking for vitamin C, so he fled the cafeteria and went to find his 8:30 AM class.

He ran to his classroom, which was deserted except for a few stray backpacks and a desperate warning to get out scribbled on the whiteboard in red dry erase marker. Desks were upturned and a misplaced syllabus was on the floor. He picked it up and wondered if his professor would still give him a D even after missing 28 days of class.

A stack of in-class writing he found next to the computer detailed the gradual collapse of the university as the flu spread across campus. The President ran away as a faction of armed deans staged a coup to protect themselves from the infected. The football coaches drove off, and the business administration faculty barricaded themselves in their offices, armed with the elephant guns that all business administration professors are required to have at all times to protect themselves from the critical theorists. Chaos reigned: the tenured preyed on the adjuncts, the biological science majors feasted on the humanities students, and a rogue band of pre-med students took to finding a cure. They were holed up in the math building, the last place anybody would look for survivors, where they intended to make a break for it as soon as they had enough hand sanitizer.

The student stood in his classroom and wished he had skipped class again today. He started to feel a little chill, too, and his throat was starting to get sore. He went out looking for the surviving pre-med students, to see if they had any OJ or chicken noodle soup. He didn’t even realize he was coughing when he left the building.

-jk

Recipes for Grad Students: The Office Hour Banana Smoothie in a Used Salsa Jar

smoothieLet’s say you’re a grad student who teaches in the morning and takes classes at night. What do you do for lunch between those times? You have grading to do and office hours to keep and assignments to write. Going home for lunch is an option, for those who have time or enjoy skipping homework assignments. A useful alternative is a smoothie: easy to make, easy to eat, and usually easy to digest, all in the relative comfort of a small graduate office while you work on job applications during your office hours.

The recipe is simple:

1 banana

1/4 cup milk

1/4 cup yogurt

2-3 Tablespoons peanut butter

1/4 cup granola

1 Tablespoon honey

A dash of cinnamon

Mix all ingredients in a blender or mash them in a bowl with a potato masher if your blender is broken again or as stress relief. Make sure to blend thoroughly, as the peanut butter will make the smoothie more pudding-like in texture.

Presentation matters; just watch any show on the Food Network for five minutes. If you find yourself in need of a stylish smoothie container, just remember that, as a grad student, chances are you have an empty salsa jar somewhere in the back of you fridge (just admit it, you know you do). It’s trendy to put cocktails in Mason jars, but a smoothie in a salsa jar is ahead of its time. The plus is that nobody will think to steal your lunch from the grad lounge refrigerator, especially not when they open a salsa jar to the smell of bananas.

If your students catch you drinking from a salsa jar, they might think twice about asking for an extension, so really, this recipe is a win-win, assuming that phrase means two wins for you and you alone. Enjoy your smoothie, and enjoy your office hours.

-jk

Teacher Sweat Solutions, Ltd.

shirt stainIf you’re a first-time college instructor, you may have heard this piece of encouraging advice on your first day: “Don’t sweat it!” Well, studies have shown that this is physiologically impossible. In fact, the classroom setting is designed specifically to create more sweat among teachers through a combination of lights, stress, and projectors to overheat the exact spot a teacher teaches in, and nowhere else. As a result, within minutes of teaching, teachers are inevitably drenched in a thin layer of sweat they know their students can see, even those students who spend entire classes with their eyes directed into their phone screens.

We here at Teacher Sweat Solutions, Ltd., would like to offer you, a first-time sweaty teacher, a variety of solutions to alleviate what scientists and Rick who always shows up late to meetings have dubbed “frequent sweating issues.”

  1. To reduce the visibility of FSI, consider wearing only black clothes. This will make sweat stains visible only to the first two rows of students.
  2. Strategically reduce the heat in the classroom. Recent studies cited offhandedly by Rick that might have come from NPR but he can’t remember where suggest that body temperature increases the more teachers realize just how many of their students are judging them for mumbling or for saying “um” or for being a humanities professor who sometimes uses critical thinking. Consider turning down the heat and cranking up the AC. Your students can cope with it.
  3. Be careful with your layers. Wear a really tight undershirt and a really loose top over that, so that your undershirt can become a towel that almost never comes into contact with the rest of your clothes. No sweat stains! However, this solution only works if you do not move during the entire class period.
  4. Head sweat is a growing concern these days. Just ask Rick, who pointed out to you in the meeting he was late to that you look uncomfortably sweaty and offered you a tissue. Consider wearing a beanie or a bandana while teaching to mop up the sweat. Longer hair can also catch sweat, but be sure to wash it regularly.
  5. If all else fails, teach online classes only. This will make it impossible for your students to see the sweat you produce typing emails explaining to them that the answers to their questions are in the syllabus.

Teaching is a risky career fraught with pitfalls and existential anxiety, and not just because tuition waivers are about to be taxed pointlessly while professors are scrutinized by petty, ideologically driven politicians. We can’t help with that, but we can at least help you reduce the visibility of your sweat while you anxiously watch the news unfold during your in-class free writes. We can’t reduce your stress, but we can help you deny that it’s there, like you do with the rest of your problems, Rick.

-jk

Fall in Another City

Campus 2.jpgI’m still getting to know Moscow, Idaho. I’ve only been here since August, but it takes me a while to reconfigure myself to new surroundings. I adapt slowly and cling to what is familiar: campus aesthetics, coffee shops, quiet mornings for writing.

The last time I moved, I went from Flagstaff, Arizona, to Lincoln, Nebraska, and it took me about a year to adjust. It took me a year to feel grounded in the place, in the people, like I wasn’t a transplant from the Southwest to the Midwest. Now that I live in the Pacific Northwest, I feel like a double transplant in yet another variation on the west, a west that I want to write down in the long, laborious tradition of writing about places. Do I need to be a tourist or a resident? I’ve gone from deserts to plains to this stranger place called the Palouse, a valley of vast wheat fields and pine trees.

I am not, yet, a tumbleweed, a person with “roaming proclivities.” But I still feel detached from so many places, so up-in-the-air right now. I wish I had spent more than two years with my friends in Nebraska before uprooting myself again. I wonder how long I’ll be in Idaho before I’m again uprooted.

I am still very much a westerner, but after only two moves, I feel scattered. I vote in Arizona, I made strong connections in Nebraska, and now I’m a writer in Idaho. The one constant has been the university as a setting, like a monastic system in which I orient myself toward the library, the English building, and the nearest coffee shop. Campuses are large and sometimes quiet. This is true of Flagstaff, Lincoln, and now Moscow. I like old campuses, brick buildings, planned and structured squares of nature for viewing purposes. In other words, the constant for me is finding places to work, the one thing I hope I am never uprooted from. If and when I move again, I hope there is a quiet campus wherever I go.

 

-jk