This morning I walked to campus through the remains of a thick winter fog, the kind of fog where you can barely see the sun as a dull white disc trying to burn through. It was below freezing, and the fog had left a fine layer of frost on everything. The smaller the object, the more noticeable the frost: tree trunks didn’t look much paler than usual, but the ends of branches and the undersides of leaves had turned white, as had the stems of a lot of small red berries growing in clusters on an ornamental tree. (The berries themselves were unfrosted.)

By the time I had a chance to go out again, the sun had come out. I ran into a fellow lecturer on the front steps of the building, and she commented on the fog-frost (or frost-fog). She said that first thing in the morning it was so foggy she couldn’t even see the top of our university’s clock tower. But the frost was gone by the time we compared fog notes.

So I went googling for images of fog-derived frost, or hoar-frost. This morning’s weather looked a little like this, but less frosty; or like this, or (my favorite) this. I like this one as well, even though Collegeville never looks this ethereal.

Upon looking it up, I found that the OED distinguishes hoar-frost from rime, thusly: hoar-frost is "a crystalline deposit of ice formed by the sublimation of water vapour," while rime is "a more amorphous deposit formed by the rapid freezing of supercooled droplets of water when they are brought by air currents into contact with a cold surface." I think this morning’s frost was technically rime, but I like the word hoar-frost better. It has an Old English ring to it (no wonder: the OED’s earliest recorded usage for hoar is dated 900). And for some reason I associate it with the opening stanzas of Keats’s "The Eve of St. Agnes," although on looking that up I realize that I must have misremembered. No hoar-frost there. But Keats knew from winter: I don’t know if any other poet has conveyed the sense of the bone-chilling cold of churches in winter as well as he did with that second stanza and the lines "The sculptur’d dead, on each side, seem to freeze, … and his weak spirit fails / To think how they may ache in icy hoods and mails."

(And one more image: Hoarfrost in Concord, Massachusetts, 1899. From the Concord Free Public Library.)

Retail therapy

I’m coming off of a grading marathon and it’s almost spring break. I need new shoes (specifically, something dressed-up to wear to the Cecilia Bartoli concert, and a nice pair of boots wouldn’t hurt, either). It’s time for a little retail therapy.

I’ve just ordered Jacqueline Fee’s The Sweater Workshop, and I suspect that this book will necessitate a trip to the yarn store once it arrives. I’m also looking longingly at a whole bunch of shoes from Icon. A shoe shop in my immediate vicinity has started carrying them, and I stopped in for a closer look this evening on my way home from the grade-a-thon. They’re really far too expensive for me. But who wouldn’t want some Gustav Klimt sandals? Or some Andy Warhol-esque flats? (Then there are the handbags. Especially this one.)

Suddenly I feel so girly. I think I’ll go re-paint my toenails now.

For my fellow knitters

You are Shetland Wool.
You are Shetland Wool.
You are a traditional sort who can sometimes be a little on the harsh side. Though you look delicate you are tough as nails and prone to intricacies. Despite your acerbic ways you are widely respected and even revered.

What kind of yarn are you?
brought to you by Quizilla

I’m not all that harsh. But I’m glad it didn’t tell me I’m acrylic.

Candy hearts, flowers, and spleen: an irritable Valentine’s Day post

Via About Last Night, here: Make your own custom Valentine candy hearts with the Acme Heart Maker. This is one of the prototypes for the fabulous Church Sign Generator. It’s a testament to my overall peevishness about Valentine’s Day that I came up with the following:


Why the peevishness? Because I have a bad history with Valentine’s Day. Memorable Februaries past have included Valentine’s Days spent alone while in long-distance relationships; Valentine’s Days spent alone, period; a Valentine’s Day date that resulted in a funny story that I still dine out on, but it wasn’t nearly as funny at the time; a Valentine’s Day that coincided with the arrival of two grad-school rejection letters; and one Valentine’s evening spent wandering around Collegeville staying away from my apartment because my then-flatmate and his S.O. were, ahem, celebrating. Lately I’ve just taken to ignoring the 14th as often as possible. (And I’m not the only one. The other day a friend, who gets lot more dates than I do, remarked that she always seems to be alone on Valentine’s Day too. We agreed that Collegeville is not a great place to be single and in your late twenties.) And this February 14th, I’ll have a stack of ungraded papers to distract me. Joy!

But enough of my Valentine’s pity party. In a week I’ll be in a concert hall listening to Cecilia Bartoli singing Salieri and Vivaldi arias, which makes up for some of the February wretchedness. And if I get enough papers graded tonight and tomorrow, some of my single friends and I might have an evening out. And on Sunday or Monday, I’ll go out and buy discounted chocolate to eat while grading the last of the papers.

[Edit: when I wrote this entry, I hadn’t yet seen this definitive post on Valentine’s Day spleen from Paula’s House of Toast. Aw, man, she’s got Baudelaire and everything. I bow in the direction of superior splenetiveness. (Thanks to Dale for the link, and yes, I have indeed always wanted to use the word "splenetive" in a sentence ever since I first encountered it in Act 5, scene 1 of Hamlet.)]

Waiting for reluctant thoughts

I’ve got a bunch of half-drafted posts and further topics to write about, but I think I’m going to go easy on the posting for the next little while. I need some time to quiet down and think. Among other things, I’ve just joined an unofficial poetry workshop comprised of MFA students, former MFA students, and the occasional oddball non-MFA like myself, and it’s making me want to spend more time working on poems. Also, I’ve been feeling kind of lousy recently about assorted aspects of Real Life, and I suspect that I’m not doing myself a big favor by brooding over the current state of academia. It’s time to think about something else.

A few days ago, I was reading the title essay in Nicholson Baker’s The Size of Thoughts: Essays and Other Lumber and this paragraph caught my eye:

All large thoughts are reluctant. I don’t think this is intentional on their part. It follows from the unhasty, liquid pace of human thinking. As an experiment, overturn half a glass of wine onto a newly starched tablecloth. Watch, wholly absorbed, as the borders of the stain search their way outward, plumping up each parched capillary of cotton, threadlet by threadlet, and then traveling on — a soundless, happy explosion, with no moving parts. Thought moves at the velocity of that stain. And since a large thought seems to wish to pierce and acknowledge and even to replenish many more shoots and plumules of one’s experience, some shrunken from long neglect…, its hum of fineness will necessarily be delayed, baffled, and drawn out with numerous interstitial timidities — one pauses, looks up from the page, waits; the eyes move in meditative polygons in their orbits; and then, somehow, more of the thought is released into the soul, the corroborating peal of some new, distant bell. (The Size of Thoughts, 12-13)

So I’m going to spend some time waiting for the slow spread of whatever thoughts are brewing. I’ll be back before long.

Dislodging the vines

Gosh. People are linking to my recent Simpsons post and my visitor traffic has gone way up. Hi, everyone who came here to read about the Bart Simpson Ph.D-taunting scene (including the person who got here by Googling "simpsons bookaccino"). Now I feel like I should be especially clever and witty for your benefit.

But anyway, the sudden upsurge in visitors is the the least of the reasons why I’m happy to see that the Invisible Adjunct is posting again. I’ve missed the conversations about academia on her site. I’ve been following this discussion, about whether adjuncts should be expected to "go the extra mile" in their teaching, with interest [edit: before it started turning into a shouting match between several of the participants, that is]. It’s the perennial question: why do people stay in wretchedly underpaid adjunct jobs, and where do you draw the line between doing right by your students and masochism?

On a related note, I’d also like to give snaps* to Laura at Apt. 11D for her comments on Ph.D. dropout rates:

Here’s another radical idea, why let in all those students in the first place? Why take their money and exploit their cheap labor, if nobody ever expects for them to get a job. It’s wrong, deceitful, immoral, reprehensible, and level eight in Dante’s inferno goes to university presidents who allow this practice to continue.

Amen to that. Maybe we should be asking why graduate students ever finish the Ph.D instead of why they drop out. In my case, it was mostly because my dissertation was nearly done by the time the big career doubts hit. But it’s very easy to think "I don’t know what else is out there, so I won’t look. I’ll stay here because at least I’ll be doing what I was trained for." I’ve thought it myself, even (especially) in the midst of trying to figure out what else to do.

Yesterday I talked with a professor who’s done various crossover-with-the-outside-world projects and who knows a bunch of people who’ve done the same. She gave me a ton of useful information, including the names of several people to call for informational interviews and some professional organizations I didn’t know of. At one point, the conversation turned to the University of Texas’s admirable "Professional Development" program, and why more graduate programs don’t provide at least some degree of exposure to basic workplace skills like managing people and grant-writing and using spreadsheets and the like — the kinds of skills that come in handy even for academics who stay in the fold. (My interlocutor had tried in vain to get the graduate school here to set up workshops of this type.)

Neither of us really had an answer for that question, but I had a sudden, vivid sense of just how insulated the world of academia is from awareness of how things work in other professions. Last week I had to define the phrase "informational interview" for one of my mentors here (a mentor, I hasten to add, who’s extremely supportive of my career change; but like many tenured faculty, he’s spent most of his professional life on the academic track). As one of the commenters on the discussion thread at IA remarks, "most people do not have jobs which neatly mirror their training/education"; why do we go on thinking that we can only do the very narrow kind of work we’ve been trained for, even at starvation wages?

I’m massively oversimplifying the question, I know; for one thing, I’m deeply skeptical of approaches to the academic job crisis that put the burden of reform with the individual job-seeker. But it’s like the university is a room with windows that stay closed. Lovely Gothic arched windows with rippling vines growing over them. But if you try to open the windows even a crack, to let in some air or to let yourself out, people insist that you’ll damage the ivy and the windows won’t open anyway and who are you, trying to open them when they’ve been closed for generations?

*I just re-watched Clueless, which I hadn’t seen in years. Now all that teenager-slang is stuck in my head.


languagehat draws our attention to a newly-coined word, "igry," which means "painfully embarrassed for or uncomfortable about someone else’s incredibly poor social behavior" (see also this Monkeyfilter thread). The concept of shame felt on behalf of another person, who should really be the one feeling the shame (but isn’t), interests me; I’ve been thinking about recently about the contagiousness of emotions. (Emotion has become one of the New Hot Topics among Eng-lit scholars, and people have suddenly started talking about it.) I’ve a mind to write to a former classmate who wrote her dissertation on shame and the Romantics and ask her how often the term "Spanish shame" is used to describe the same phenomenon. By the way, I don’t think cringing or cringy quite covers it: cringing, to me, implies embarrassment at oneself. Igry, as defined above, seems more exclusively to mean embarrassment that isn’t about one’s own self-image and yet is felt keenly as embarrassment. This is an interesting distinction to make, because it raises all kinds of questions about where we locate the boundaries between ourselves and other people. Does igritude imply identification with the blissfully unaware person who induces it? Or is it a way of distancing oneself: at least I’m embarrassed, even if so-and-so isn’t?

And when does the igry feeling drift over into cringing? If, for example, you’re in a public place with a significant other who is throwing a temper tantrum worthy of a five-year-old because the two of you have just missed your train, and you’re wincing in utter mortification at said significant other’s behavior, is it igritude, or is it also personal shame at being seen in public with this igry-making person?* There was an entire show about "cringe moments" on This American Life a few years back, during which Ira Glass concluded that we cringe when we go out of our way to humiliate ourselves. But a lot of the cringe stories told during the show have an igry component as well, especially the segment on the cringe-factor in reality TV — which is really all about the moments that induce the igry response.

Anyway. Lovely instance of what happens when someone names a previously not-quite-named concept. I think I’ll try introducing igry into conversation and see what happens.

*I didn’t make up that example, by the way. Looking back on it (it was almost ten years ago) makes me both igry and cringy. Since then I’ve learned: do not date those who make you igry.

Personal anthology: John Ashbery

Night Life

I thought it was you but I couldn’t tell.
It’s so hard, working with people, you want them all
To like you and be happy, but they get in the way
Of their own predilections, it’s like a stone

Blocking the mouth of a cave. And when you say, come on let’s
Be individuals reveling in our separateness, yet twined
Together at the top by our hair, like branches, then it’s OK
To go down into the garden at night and smoke cigarettes,

Except that nothing cares about the obstacles, the gravity
You had to overcome to reach this admittedly unimpressive
Stage in the chain of delusions leading to your freedom,
Or is that just one more delusion? Yet I like the way

Your hair is cropped, it’s important, the husky fragrance
Breaking out of your voice, when I’ve talked too long
On the phone, addressing the traffic from my balcony
Again, launched far out over the thin ice once it begins to smile.

— John Ashbery, from Shadow Train (Penguin, 1981)

Readers of the earlier incarnation of this blog may recall my having posted Ashbery poems before (including one from this same volume, as I recall), but I wanted to post this one even at the risk of being repetitive. I like it when Ashbery writes love poems, and I like the muddled hopefulness in this one — the idea of two people hashing out, over the telephone, how to both "be individuals reveling in our separateness, yet twined / Together at the top by our hair, like branches." One wants something hopeful to read in the middle of winter, after all; and I, like several

others in the blogosphere, have been feeling the effects of prolonged cold and darkness. This poem isn’t exactly springlike, but I’m fond of it nonetheless.

Blog concepts I wish I’d thought of

I stole this link from BoingBoing, but 5ives (a.k.a. "Merlin’s Lists of Five Things") is hilarious. I’m simultaneously hooting with laughter and coveting the list-of-five idea. I’d post my own ("Five operatic arias I sing in the shower," "Five movie stars I find intensely irritating for no good reason," "Five things I have reportedly said in my sleep," etc.), but that would just look too derivative, and I could never be as funny as, say, "Five fake names for a notional magazine about extreme treadmill exercise". Or "Five fake titles for those tiny booklets sold in the supermarket check-out line". Or especially "Five great reasons to buy a Hummer (TM)".

Aristotelian dilemma (or: academia as addiction)

So it’s already time to apply for another lectureship next year, and I’m guiltily realizing how little alternative-career exploration I’ve gotten done this year. A dilemma has presented itself: apply for teaching next year and keep looking — or at least, tell myself I’ll keep looking — for other work; or, run for the nonacademic hills as fast as possible, even if the job prospects haven’t materialized yet. I greatly admire people like Rana who have done the latter. I’m usually a deeply cautious person, and I’m trying to counteract that tendency. But I also worry about whether I’m overcompensating for it.

Because I am a big ex-classicist nerd, I’m thinking of the passage on courage as the mean between cowardice and rashness from Book 2 of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, especially the part where Aristotle explains that it’s difficult to do the right thing because there are so many more potential wrong courses of action: "it is possible to fail in many ways…, while to succeed is possible only in one way (for which reason also one is easy and the other difficult — to miss the mark easy, to hit it difficult)." If I fall back into the holding pattern I’ve been in this year, am I a coward? If I sever ties with academia and leap into the unknown, am I being stupidly rash? I don’t think this is a case of only one way to succeed, but there is plenty of potential for screwing up by going too far in either direction.

Part of me recognizes that the most sensible course of action — the mean, as it were — would be to apply for the lectureship so that at least I’ll have work lined up next year (that is, if I’m hired, which is not entirely certain) if other plans fall through. Plan A: postdoctoral fellowship; Plan B: look for other work to supplement my part-time job; Plan C: lectureship. But another part of me, which dreads the thought of another year teaching composition, is whispering "Don’t do it! What if you never leave?" Because I can see myself saying "oh, I’ll just stay for another year and keep looking" and then stagnating here unhappily until the department stops offering me work. It’s like trying to stop smoking: you quit, then you think "oh, what the hell, just one more, I’ll just bum it off someone else, I’m not going to buy a whole pack…" and before you know it you’re starting up again.

Still, I quite like my new part-time job so far. I’m looking at obscure seventeenth-century books and getting a crash course in SGML, and both of those things appeal to me a great deal. It feels so much more congenial than teaching that I think I’ll be able to motivate myself to find a plan B before I have to resort to Plan C.

Only I have to decide soon, because there are deadlines looming. Someone please kick me in the pants.