Friday, May 29, 2009

Friday Five: A Random Assortment

1. My back hurts. It has hurt since Sunday. I'm not quite sure what I did. I was at a barbecue on Sunday, sitting at a picnic table, and when I got up, I noticed that I was stiff and sore. The pain got progressively worse through yesterday, and has felt a little better today. Walking helps, driving hurts. I'm beginning to think that maybe I ought to go to the doctor, but I'm trying to avoid that. Mostly because if I go to the doctor, I'll have to get on a scale, and I really don't want to find out the truth about my weight. Not right now.

2. Other than some M&Ms yesterday, I've been much better about my eating this week. I packed salads and yogurt for my lunches. And today, instead of going to the coffee shop for a chai latte and a pastry, I went to the dog park for a walk and picked up peaches at the grocery store. Of course, the margaritas I drank with dinner tonight probably didn't do me any favors.

3. Summer television is a vast wasteland. Not that I'm not watching the junk anyway. Last night, I watched part of "So You Think You Can Dance." There are a lot of delusional people in the world. Delusional, shameless people. And I'm still watching "The Fashion Show" even though it becomes more of a trainwreck every week. And not even a fabulous, campy, tranny wreck. It's just bad.

4. I think Rowen has allergies. She used to have problems with allergies when we lived in Austin, but she seemed to be doing fine in Madison. But lately, whenever we go to the park or for a hike, she gets a hacking cough and the sneezes. And one morning, she was wheezing and panting at home. Her energy level seems fine, so I don't think she's sick.

5. I finally gave up on growing herbs from seed. After weeks and weeks of watering dirt, I bought some pre-grown herbs at the farmer's market and repotted them. And now I'm an herb junkie---throwing herbs into everything and anything, in random combinations. I've had the plants for a week and haven't killed them yet. I might pick up a couple more this weekend.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

One Down

I finished my first week as a teaching assistant for Africa: An Introductory Survey. So far, I think everything has gone better than I had expected. I've had a few students who think that the world revolves around them, the stars align according to their will, and so on. One student---for whom I was already making a concession because he had scheduled a family trip in the middle of the course (a four-week course)---was unhappy because I was docking his participation points because he "forgot" when his discussion session was. Some others have scheduled classes that overlap with the final week of this one and seem baffled that we want them to attend this class (and don't seem to have any sense of how insulting it is to be told that they need to miss this class so they can attend a different one). But these students are the rare exceptions. For the most part, the students seem perceptive and engaged, even those who are by their own admission only taking the class to fulfill a requirement. We've have limited discussion this week, but what we've had has been lively. A couple of the sections required a little more prodding to go deeper with their discussion, but everyone seems to be trying. And after every lecture, I have students coming up to me with questions and e-mailing questions.

And I'm enjoying being in front of the class and leading the discussions. I'm feeling a little more confident about my own knowledge of Africa. Most of the lecture material has been stuff that I know, although some of it I had forgotten that I knew. And I'm reassured that even the professor who is teaching the course struggles with some of the subject material. In the discussions, I feel like I have knowledge and ideas that I can share with the students to expand on the lecture material, although I'm still trying to figure out how to help them intuit more of the answers rather than directing them to the answers. And how to correct them when they get off course without discouraging them.

This term is a bit intense. I have two books to read in the next couple of days---one that we'll be discussing next week and one that I need to write a reading guide for---plus putting together a map quiz and starting to write the midterm exam. I've been completely exhausted when I get home each afternoon, although that's partly because I'm dealing with a bad back and thus taking vast amounts of ibuprofen. But two and a half hours of lecture plus a discussion section each day is also tiring.

I'm still dreading the grading---my least favorite part of teaching. And putting together my own lecture in a couple of weeks is a bit daunting. But I think I just might like this gig.

Monday, May 25, 2009

On the Pile

* Charm City by Laura Lippman. One of my pet peeves with mystery novels is the undeserved ending---when the author throws in a twist ending that has no relation to the rest of the novel: no foreshadowing, no buried clues, no thread to follow back through the story. An ending that makes the reader go, "What?!" rather than "Ooooh." Lippman rather precariously walks that line between "Ooooh" and "What?!" The clues are there, and the heroine helpfully traces the thread back through the plot---usually just before she gets her ass kicked by the bad guy. But the convolutions required to trace that thread can induce more groans than "ahas." That said, Lippman does what I want a mystery writer to do: gradually builds the suspense and pace of the story until I can't put the book down and then gives me an ending that is both surprising and satisfying. In this case, however, Lippman succeeds more with the B-story than the main story, and I was more interested in the origins of the various elements of Tess Monaghan's life that show up in later books than in the central mystery of this book. Worth reading if you enjoy Lippman's more recent work and want to get the background, but I wouldn't recommend it as a stand-alone read.

* Consuming Passions by Judith Williamson. Well, I sort of finished this one . . . if by "finished" you mean that I read the introduction and conclusion and then skimmed enough of the content to decide that it wouldn't be particularly useful for my prelims. Williamson uses a textual analysis approach to examine how media package "passion"---both as sex and as individual desires---for mass consumption. Yet despite her early attempts to take a broad definition of "passion," Williamson focuses on passion in terms of the sexualized female as consumer and, more often, object of consumption. Williamson also claims to approach the media-as-texts from the consumer's point of view, but she then inserts herself as the sole point of view, failing to see that she's recreating the same problematic as the media: an essentialized idea of the "female" experience. In general, I thought her analyses were superficial and overdetermined. But I'll give her the benefit of time---perhaps her analyses were more provocative and original when the book was published more than 20 years ago.

Still Reading
* The Social Construction of Reality by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann

* The End of Overeating by David Kessler

Now Reading
* Teaching First-Year College Students by Bette Erickson, Calvin Peters, and Diane Strommer. My initial impression is that this book is a good overview for someone who has no background in pedagogy or education theory. The first third of the book reviews theories of learning styles and cognitive development. So far, however, the conversation is largely theoretical; the authors haven't given much practical advice for how to structure a class to address these concerns. They keep promising that practical advice, though, so I'll remain cautiously optimistic. I'm also a bit turned off by the authors' attitude that everyone but the student is responsible for the student's learning. In the introduction, the authors' blame student failure on high school teachers, college professors, the education system as a whole . . . but they have yet to acknowledge that part of the college experience is transitioning into adulthood, which includes taking responsibility for one's own goals, decisions, actions, and outcomes.

* Netherland by Joseph O'Neill. I am loving---LOVING---this novel. O'Neill writes in a nice cantor that moves the story along at a pleasant pace despite the narrator's propensity toward long ruminations on his marriage, his relationship with his mother, his depression, post-9/11 NYC, and the game of cricket.

* Understanding Contemporary Africa, edited by April and Donald Gordon. So far, a decent primer on the history and major issues of Africa. And I'm mildly reassured by the familiarity of the material; maybe I'm not completely unqualified to be the TA for an Africa survey class.

On Deck
In addition to the books remaining from last week . . .

* Book Thief by Markus Zusak. I've read many, many positive reviews of this book, so I'm fully prepared to be disappointed.

* The Spirit of Development by Erica Bornstein and Tensions of Empire, edited by Frederick Cooper and Ann Stoler. Both for prelims.

Added to the Pile
* American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld

* The Master and Margarita by Bulgakov. Because I promised Charitie that I would read this.

Wish List
* Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith. I'm 177 out of 184 on the library request list.

* The Scenic Route by Binnie Kirshenbaum

* Fairy Tales: A New History by Ruth Bottigheimer

* Red Riding Hood for All Ages by Sandra Beckett

* Ethnicity, Inc. by John and Jean Comaroff

Friday, May 22, 2009

Friday Five: Summer Plans

1. Work: On Tuesday, I start a four-week gig as a teaching assistant for an introductory survey course on Africa. I fought for the job---my adviser was very reluctant to hire me---and now I'm wondering what I've gotten myself into. I've never taught at the college level, and I'm not sure I really have the breadth of knowledge to be teaching a survey course on Africa. I tried out some quiz sites to help the students prepare for a map test, and I failed miserably on the practice quizzes!

I'll also still be working part-time as the publications assistant for the African Studies program, but until we get the manuscripts for new journal issues, I really don't have much work to do there.

I'm also going to try to pick up a little proofreading work. I miss editing. I enjoy every part of it---proofreading, copyediting, development, acquisitions. And I actually feel competent at editing. I think it would be nice to have one thing in my life that I feel competent at doing.

2. Home: I've been in my condo for more than two years, and I have yet to hang a single picture. C. and I (well, mostly C.) painted the living room and back hall; and my father and I put up a ceiling fan in the bedroom. But other than that, I really haven't done much to the place. So this summer I'd like to get some stuff up on the walls, repaint the nasty bookcase in the living room, and paint the bedroom. Maybe if I'm feeling really ambitious, I'll get around to making a headboard for my bed.

Part of my delay on decorating is that what I actually want is a built-in bookcase along one of the walls in my living room, but I don't have the skills to build it nor the money to pay someone else to do it. And rather than coming up with an alternative, I keep dragging my feet on decorating.

3. Sailing: I'm just waiting for my next paycheck so I can pay the membership fee.

4. Prelims and Proposals: I still have two literature reviews and a prospectus to write. I have a lot of reading to do for both of the lit reviews, but I think I'll enjoy writing them. One is on the construction of social problems in African media; the other is on the Western "Helper" in southeastern Africa.

I'm not looking forward to revising my proposals.

5. Running: For both physical and mental health reasons, I need to get back to running. Getting through the first couple of weeks is the hardest part---getting back into the rhythm, building up some endurance, pushing through those first killer miles. And every time I start and stop, getting started again is even harder.

But I'm putting it out there: My goal is to run a 10K by the end of the summer. Y'all have to keep me honest now!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Market Day

A small farmers' market runs out of the parking lot of the mall across the street from me on Wednesdays and Saturdays. So this morning, I got myself up and dressed a little earlier than usual to get some fresh veggies. The Wednesday market is small---only about a dozen stands---and this morning, most of the vendors were selling flowers. The veggie selection was slim. But I did get some mixed baby lettuce, green onions, tomatoes, and asparagus. I also picked up a couple of sticky buns and a mini sour cream poundcake. Yummy! I used some of the lettuce, onions, and tomatoes---along with some canned beans I had in the pantry---to make a salad for lunch. And then I used some of the asparagus to make a very delish pasta with goat cheese, lemon, and tarragon for dinner. I went a little too heavy-handed with the cheese, but the lemon gave the pasta a nice, fresh tang. The recipe is from my new favorite site: Smitten Kitchen. My camera takes terrible food photos, so you'll have to go to SM for a pic. I've made a couple of the other recipes from SM, and so far everything has been great.

After the market---and one of the sticky buns for breakfast---I went back to sleep. I went to bed fairly early last night, and my bed didn't show the usual signs of a restless night, but I was exhausted this morning. I do remember having a couple of vivid anxiety dreams, including one in which my sister and her best friend were telling me how stupid I am.

Continuing my languid theme for the day, I spent the afternoon on the Terrace with K., splitting a pitcher of Spotted Cow and contemplating what we would do if we quit grad school. A bunch of sailboats were out on the water; I'm anxious to get started on my lessons!

Monday, May 18, 2009

On the Pile

Now Reading
* Charm City by Laura Lippman. I started reading Lippman a few years ago and got hooked on her Baltimore-based mysteries. Now I'm going back to her earlier books and the start of the Tess Monaghan series. Charm City is the second in the series, and I can start to see some real progression in Lippman's writing. Not sure if she just became more skilled and confident or if her publisher hooked her up with a better editor, but the first book in the series---Baltimore Blues---was sort of dreadful. Charm City is getting better, if still a bit overwrought and redundant. I also have Lippman's latest book---Life Sentences (not in the Tess Monaghan series)---on deck.

* The Social Construction of Reality by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann. According to the reviewers who read my various grant proposals, I have a great topic (voluntourism) but a weak theory (exchange). And unfortunately, I think I have to agree that my theory is a poor fit for my research questions. So I'm in search of a new theory and think (hope?) that constructivism might be a better fit.

* The End of Overeating by David Kessler. My weight has gotten completely out of control this past year. The pants that I swore would be the highest size I would wear are starting to get tight. I'm embarrased by my appearance. And I can feel how the weight is weighing on me: I get tired and out of breath easily; I can't stand for more than a few minutes before my feet get sore. And much of the problem is my overeating, which has escalated this past year as I've turned to food to cope with the increasing stress and frustration of grad school. So I thought I'd give this book a try. Kessler, a former FDA commissioner and respected public health advocate, seems more credible than most diet gurus. But so far I haven't found any great insight: The food industry manipulates the levels of salt, sugar, and fat in the food to make it more palatable so that we'll want to eat more. Well, duh.

On Deck
* Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; King Leopold's Ghost by Adam Hochschild; Nuer Dilemmas by Sharon Hutchinson; and Understanding Contemporary Africa by April and Donald Gordon. I'm the teaching assistant for an African survey class this summer, and these are the course texts. A lot of reading for a four-week course.

* Regarding the Pain of Others by Susan Sontag. I've been trying to read this since about September, but I keep putting it aside for more urgent readings. It's only 126 pages; maybe I can finally finish it now.

* Life Sentences by Laura Lippman.

* Tools for Teaching by Barbara Gross Davis and Teaching First-Year College Students by Bette Erickson, Calvin Peters, and Diane Strommer. My co-advisor recommended these to help me survive my first time as a teaching assistant.

Added to the Pile
In addition to a long list of books on media theory and African media, I checked out a pile of books from the public library:

* Deaf Sentence by David Lodge. My favorite satirist of academia.

* Gang Leader for a Day by Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh.

* A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories by Flannery O'Conner. I somehow never read O'Conner in school, and all the press around her new biography has made me feel like I should really fill that gap.

* The Stories of John Cheever by John Cheever. Ditto.

* Netherland by Joseph O'Neill.

* Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth by Margaret Atwood. Proving that I'll read anything Atwood writes, even if it is on financial systems.

* Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn.

And I have issues 18-24 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 8.

Wish List
Because I can never have enough books . . . .

*Dying Inside by Robert Silverberg.

* Once a Runner by John Parker

* The Fortune of the Rougons by Emile Zola. One of my summer projects is to read the Rougon-Macquart cycle. Unfortunately, neither the university library nor the public library has all the books in the cycle.

* Voluntary Madness by Norah Vincent. I'm 16th out of 19 requests for this book at the library.

* Script and Scribble: The Rise and Fall of Handwriting by Kitty Burns Florey. I've already read---and loved---Florey's history of sentence diagramming. So of course I'm psyched for her treatment of penmanship.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Friday Five: The Resurrection

1. So I've been thinking about resurrecting this blog. Although I have no idea what I'll post about, and I'm fairly certain I've lost my measly few readers (not that any of you are measly, just the number of you). But I miss having a more substantial outlet than Facebook for my random thoughts, musings, rants, and reviews.

2. On that note: I'm embarrassed to admit that I'm watching The Fashion Show. It's Bravo's half-hearted attempt to steal back some of the Project Runway audience now that PR has defected to Lifetime, where it is truly doomed to a sad, painful death. I'll be interested to see which is the bigger trainwreck. Right now, TFS has set a high trainwreck bar. Not only is the show a second-rate knockoff, but even the contestants are cheap imitators. I can almost hear the casting sessions: "Fabulous, large gay guy: Check. Christian Siriano wannabe: Check. Vapid blonde who thinks she's edgy: Check. Dowdy geek who turns out to be a fashion maven: Check."

3. But I'll need something to fill my time this summer. I'm staying in Madison this year, which I'm sort of happy about, sort of not. I'm glad to have a few months "off" (I'll be TAing for a month, then working parttime while I write proposals and preliminary exams, so not totally slacking), but I already feel like I'm losing momentum to finish this degree. A couple months of downtime could be deadly to my hopes of actually getting the doctorate. Or some downtime---reading, sailing, hiking, drinking way too much beer---might be just what I need to re-energize.

4. In any case, I'm done with this term. Sort of. I took an Incomplete for an independent study because I ran out of time and energy to get the paper done. More the latter. This term has been a huge struggle: not getting along with my advisor, being rejected for all my grant proposals, barely getting by in Swahili, not being excited about any of my coursework, and becoming increasingly tired of the grad lifestyle of never enough time or money. And trying to imagine another three or four years of this before I (maybe) get a faculty position and can finally settle into some sort of a normal, adult life.

5. I'm going this afternoon to Ground School for the University's sailing club. About a million years ago, when I lived in Northern VA, I sailed on the Potomac in the summers. I'm looking forward to getting back to it.