Reasons Why I Blog: An Examination

It’s been a year since I’ve started blogging. It seems like as good a time as any to look back over the year and reflect on how blogging has changed me. 

Yes, you read that right, it has changed me. I am more engaged, more reflective, and, perhaps, more militant, in my own small way. I don’t just read about issues on higher education, I think about them in order to write about them here. When I teach (or, more accurately, after I teach), I am forced to reflect a little more carefully about what I am doing and why, because I need something to write about.

I am more connected to the larger community of academics. I write, people read, share, and respond. I know I have not only an audience, but a community of people who read and who I read. We have conversations, and maybe one day will meet face-to-face. Until then, I know more people than I ever did as a traditional academic.

And I know I am having an impact. I figured that between the four institutions I have taught at, I have reached approximately 1100 students (keep in mind, while I was doing my PhD, I only had one class; my other experiences were closer to full-time, but with writing intensive classes with lower caps). At least that many people have read my top post, How Higher Ed Makes Most Things Meaningless, especially considering that it was featured on both Inside Higher Education and Ed Leader News. Imagine my delight to find out that no less a figure than Henry Adams of The Academic Bait and Switch  fame on the Chronicle and that he linked to my post in the comments of another Chronicle piece (which I can’t find right now). More people than I have ever taught have read that one post. More people than who have seen me speak at a conference. More people than who have read any of my academic essays.

But it is all of the people I have met outside of academia, those who are passionate about topics, rejecting the status quo of education at all levels, caring deeply about meaningful change. For me, blogging has opened my eyes to the world outside of academia. Does that sound like a sheltered academic statement? Indeed, it is. There is a degree of willful ignorance that an academic needs to have in order to survive the demands of living the academic life in higher education. The best thing that has ever happened to me is that I was unemployed for a time; I was forced to see thing differently and to do things differently. I saw others letting go and being successful, and it has empowered me let go.

Blogging has also, admittedly, fueled the more negative aspects of my personality, manifesting itself specifically as an obsessions with my blog’s stats. Lurking deep beneath my desire to be an academic is a need for validation, and the stats are one way that I can feel that sense of validation now that I am off the tenure-track. I see sites that do better than I do; College Misery gets the same amount of traffic a week as I do a month, if I’m lucky. Then again, misery loves company, and I’m not sure what thoughtful writing on the current state of higher education as well as teaching attracts. Less hits, apparently. Which is also depressing.

Wait, I’m celebrating here. I’m not perfect, and I still have some things I need to work on.

I’d really like to thank a few people: Mary Churchill who has been so supportive and inspiring me with her great work at University of Venus and Old School/New School; @ToughLoveForX who I have no idea how I “met”, but I am amazed at how connected this retired printer is, especially in the world of education; @comPOSTIONblog for founding #FYCchat with me; Worst Prof Ever for just generally kicking ass and doing and saying all the things I’m still not quite ready to; and all of the people who have come here, read my posts, commented, followed me on Twitter, shared my writing, and encouraged me to keep writing.

My goal for the next year? Get big enough to attract trolls. 🙂 I’m only half-joking.

Guest Post: A Different Kind Of Trailing Spouse

This is my first guest post here at CollegeReadyWriting! This is by Heather Scarano (@HeatherScarano on Twitter), a wife, mother, professor, and wife of a college baseball coach. She blogs over at http://nobluffing.com/. I like her writing, and as a fellow trailing spouse, I wanted to share the similar and yet different kinds of challenges she faces. 
Enjoy.
There is something about the fragrance of February that I love.  A walk outside this time of year invigorates the body and encourages the soul. The freshness in the air and the smell of moist earth and wet grass are glad reminders that Spring is near. But there is something else about February that makes me happy: it marks the beginning of baseball season. 
As a college baseball coach’s wife, I look forward to February, when at last the hours, months, even years of preparation are tested in nine-inning contests of skill, speed and strategy. 
Being a coach’s wife has its benefits. I have front-row seats at the games, which I enjoy watching with my two young sons.  Each new season I am introduced to a new group of guys and have the privilege of getting to know them and their families.  I also travel to tournaments and tag along on Spring break trips to warmer, beachier places. 
Whenever our family has moved to a new college or university, we’ve found instant friendships within the institution’s athletic department.  And we have never suffered from being unknown in a new community. 
But being the wife of a coach isn’t eternally pleasant.  We move a lot.  And to places I’d frankly rather not be.  Baseball coaches and their families do not live only in sunny places like Florida, Texas or Southern California.  They live in the rural Midwest, too. 
And now that I am working at the same college as my husband, as a coordinator of a writing center and instructor of developmental English, I’m learning that the label “coach’s wife” isn’t always useful.
It is one thing when you’re not working in higher education to brush off a comment like, “So, have you always been a cleat chaser?” as immature and unenlightened, but it’s an entirely different thing when you are facing these stereotypes while at the same time trying to establish credibility in your first year of teaching.
For the record, I am not a cleat chaser.  Joe and I met during his last semester of his fifth year of college, and we did not go to school together.  The only baseball I ever saw Joe play was as an outfielder for the church softball team.  While we were dating and newly married, he worked as a landscaper, limo driver, newspaper delivery boy and Starbucks barista.  I never imagined he’d be a college baseball coach. 
I’ve also had to deal with people who suspect or infer that I am in my current position – that I got my job — because of my husband.  Maybe I ought to get around to hanging up that diploma of mine.
I’m discovering that there are other challenges as well.  For example, what do I do when two baseball players in my introduction to composition course do not complete their first writing assignment?  Do I tell their coach, who will undoubtedly chew them out, or do I handle it on my own?
One night last week, at the end of a long day and after the kids were in bed, Joe and I were sitting together on the couch.  I was venting my frustrations about the lack of motivation I was beginning to see in some of my students.  Without thinking about the possible consequences, I mentioned to Joe that his baseball players were two of several students who did not hand in the paragraph that I’d assigned.
Encouraging academic achievement and cultivating attitudes of respect are priorities for my husband.  I should’ve known what would happen next.
Later the following day Joe told me, “I buried those guys.  I embarrassed them in front of the entire team.  I asked them if they thought they should be on scholarship if they can’t complete simple assignments.”
Oops.  I wasn’t trying to get my students in trouble.  Now I felt like a tattletale.  
There are other issues I will need to figure out, too.
With the first home doubleheader of the season just days away, I’m wondering what to do if one of my baseball-player students hits a homerun, or makes a diving play at third base?
Do I stand up, yell and slap my little boys high-five, as I normally would?   Or, would it be better for me to tone it down a bit – stay seated, clap quietly and smile?  How do I transition from teacher, to coach’s wife, and back to teacher again while still maintaining boundaries and some semblance of respectability? 
Or, what if one of my students sees me in my yoga pants, or chasing my wild, two-and-a-half-year old up and down the hallways of the hotel when we are in Florida next month on Spring Break?  Will he still be able to take me seriously at 8 a.m. the next time we have class?
Despite these conundrums, I am enjoying my new career in academia.  It is not the career I envisioned for myself (I was thinking more along the lines of award-winning international journalist, read: Christiane Amanpour) but now that I’m here, I think I’m finding my niche.
Joe is in his seventh year working with college students, and I am now beginning to share his passion for these burgeoning adults.  The college years are a brief but transformative time, and as their tutor and mentor, I have a big role to play in my students’ personal development.
As an English instructor, my job is extremely meaningful.  What could be more valuable than helping students become better communicators, especially in this socially-networked, hyper-communicative world in which we now live?
I could also see my role developing into a faculty advocate for student-athletes.  What many academics fail to see, I fear, is that student-athletes may be some of the most disciplined, hard-working students of all.  The average college student does not get up for 6 a.m. workouts or spend hours in the afternoon at the gym or on the field for practice.  When the other students are at home for the semester break, at the beach for spring break, or in their beds on a snow day – the student-athletes are on campus, practicing or playing games. 
I have a mission, and it is not at all different from my husband’s — to help develop young adults into responsible, respectful, capable human beings.  Our goals are the same, though admittedly we use different means (and tactics) to get there.
Still, there is one thing that we can always agree on: February is an awesome month.  Just like the scents of the season, the sounds are hopeful, too — the trickle of melting snow dripping from roof gutters and sloshing down streets, and the cheerful songs of returning robins and sparrows as they titter in the trees. Add to these the ping of a metal bat connecting with a leather-covered, cork ball, and the thump of an 88 MPH fastball meeting the catcher’s mitt, and the ambiance of approaching Spring is complete.

“Pump Up The Volume”: Lessons about Social Media, Education, and Change

In an interesting coincidence, my post for the University of Venus about why people in higher education should blog (agency and action, people!) came out on the same day that the now-former president of Egypt finally stepped down, a product of a revolution fueled by social media. So while I read comments (ok, one comment) on the post about how futile it was to write about our anger and dissatisfaction, a dictator was brought down by that same seemingly futile anger and dissatisfaction. 
But the comment does bring up a good question: who is really listening? I would argue that if your feelings and perspective are shared by others, then you are speaking to while simultaneously creating a community, and leaving an archive that can be found and read by those who might not even know that such a community even exists. But really, at the end of the day, there is something, as I wrote, really empowering about finding your voice and finally using it honestly and authentically, even if your audience is potentially non-existent. Because you never know what could happen.

The movie Pump Up The Volume came out when I was 12 or 13 years old. It starred Christian Slater, who, at that time, was my super-dreamy dreamboat. And in this movie, more so than say Heathers, he pulled off being both rebellious and insecure, which is like candy to a 13-year-old’s fantasy life (that metaphor made no sense). Slater plays quiet, insecure Mark Hunter, a new student at a large high Arizona high school. But at night, he becomes Hard Harry, broadcasting an illegal radio show using the ham radio his parents bought him so he could theoretically talk to his old friends back on the East Coast. As Hard Harry, he behaves outrageously and says outrageous (but truthful) things, things that “the man” doesn’t want to hear (and plays awesome music; this movie was my introduction to Leonard Cohen). Mark doesn’t have an audience; he broadcasts his show for no one but himself and a theoretical audience of his peers. 

It should be noted that the movie opens with a Billy Idol wanna-be being thrown out of school, along with a couple of other rough looking teens and Hispanics. That same Billy Idol wanna-be is sitting in a field at night and happens to come across the Hard Harry Show. The news of the illicit show and shock jock (Howard Stern wasn’t yet in syndication, so I don’t even know if the term existed yet) spread like wildfire across the school (the term now would be “going viral”), with students passing around tapes of the show they made themselves. It was bedlam at the school, and soon he was Public Enemy Number One, especially after Hard Harry didn’t dissuade a student from committing suicide.
The movie ends with the FCC coming in and shutting down the “illegal” broadcasts (he didn’t have a license; which is as laughable as the EPA being the reason that the Ghostbusters were shut down). But before that happens, a sympathetic teacher, informed by questions Hard Harry was asking, uncovers the corruption and fraud going on in the high school; those students who were expelled in the opening scenes were removed because of their low tests scores but the school was still drawing state money for them. It should also be noted that Hard Harry’s father was a big-wig working for the school district who was also completely ignorant of the fraud going on under his watch. It was, in fact, the angry and lonely rants of a young teen boy that brought down the system that was failing the students.  After we fade to black, we hear a tentative female voice asking, “Is anyone out there listening?” and she is joined by a number of other young voices, broadcasting themselves, inspired by Hard Harry and the impact he had on his community. 
Now, we have blogs, YouTube, Twitter, facebook, and any number of other means of adding our voice, creating community, and affecting change. And, twenty (gulp, really, this movie is 20 years old) years later, many of the issues the movie addresses, albeit sometimes subtly, have been exploded: focus on test scores, unequal educational opportunities based on race, general fiscal corruption, and the dangers of a powerful and misguided bureaucracy. What goes viral nowadays has more to do with gross-out humor (which Hard Harry did a lot of) and pop culture. But, as we see in Egypt, there is the great potential for ordinary people using their voices for real change. I think Pump Up The Volume can teach us, ahem, volumes about the power of individuals using their voice to create change, especially in education. 
To co-opt the expression from Hard Harry: Blog Hard, everyone, Blog Hard. 

My (Virtual) Experience at MLA ’11

I didn’t go to the MLA this year, at least not in person. There are a number of reasons: I’m not on a job search, I wasn’t presenting, I spent Christmas at home in Canada with my family instead, I couldn’t really afford it because we have just bought a house and moved immediately before the holidays, etc. But the truth is, I didn’t even submit an abstract to be on any panels; each previous year, I submitted PILES of abstracts and my rate of acceptance is dismally low. And when the abstracts were due, I thought I was kissing my academic career goodbye (I’m pretty sure I’ve kissed any hope of the tenure-track goodbye, but anyway). All of this to say, I wasn’t planning on having anything to do with the MLA this year, or perhaps any year after this (unless by some miracle, it comes to Kentucky, which I doubt). 

I don’t like the MLA. In fact, I don’t really much like academic conferences at all, big or small, despite my writing to the contrary. And I don’t like them for reasons that are unique; I am completely incapable of interacting normally with my fellow academics. I get so nervous that I end up blubbering and babbling and gushing and sticking my foot in my mouth. I act overly-familiar or too distant. I don’t know how to make “friends” and I never really know anyone and no one really knows me. I work in a weird field (Haitian-Canadian/Caribbean-Canadian writing, among other things) and teach in a completely different area (composition). I’m usually a very social person who is at ease in groups of strangers. But when those strangers are my intellectual “superiors,” I turn into a mess. 
When #MLA11 turned up in my Twitter timeline, I was sucked in. I followed along and got involved in the discussions about Digital Humanities and how technology is changing the profession (#openprof and #newtools). I asked questions that I may have been too shy or blubbery to ask otherwise (seriously, 140 characters is a blessing for me). I read blog posts about other presentations (a big, big thank you to Dr. Davis of Teaching College English for being such a diligent blogger). I learned a lot, was challenged and I think was able to pose some challenging questions in return, especially in regards to those of us off the tenure-track. I made new “friends,” got some new followers, and basically got over myself through the semi-anonymity of the web; you can’t see my blush online. 
Now, I want to meet all of these fabulous people I follow on Twitter or whose blogs I read. I want to have my own discussion group/panel (maybe about using social media to improve our teaching/creating PLN in higher education – #FYCchat plug!).  I want to go to Seattle next January and, for the first time, enjoy an MLA conference because I don’t feel intimidated or like I don’t belong. I’m sure I’ll still stick my foot in my mouth or ramble on too long with someone I’ve greatly admired from afar. But, hey, I’m looking forward to it now. 
So thank you MLA Convention for having Wi-Fi and to that handful of Tweeters and bloggers. You reached at least one person and convinced them to join the party next year. 

An Admission: I am not a Geek

Out in the bloggesphere (I have no idea how to spell this and spellcheck is wholly unhelpful), there was a minor scandal in regards to Patton Oswalt’s call for Geek Culture to die because it doesn’t really mean anything anymore. The responses came fast and furious, but what stuck out to me through it all was that I really am not a Geek.

I’ve always considered myself a Geek. I was good in school, not tremendously popular, loved Star Wars, Monty Python, science fiction, Star Trek: TNG, played in the school band, and was on the debate team. I had a wide-eyed naiveté and immaturity that was increasingly socially awkward the further along in high school I got (seriously, what 15-year-old goes and sees Aladdin eight times in the theater?). Thankfully, I had a wonderful group of friends with whom I could “geek out” with. We wrote our own Star Trek: TNG scripts (fan fic, as it would be called now), had Monty Python movie marathons (with no booze or drugs) on Saturday nights, and generally did geeky, good kid things while many of our peers were out drinking at whoever’s parents were out of town/didn’t care.

But.

We weren’t the geekiest kids in high school. We didn’t play D&D, we weren’t a part of the stock market club, nor were we complete social outcasts (one of our core group went on to be senior class president). And while I was in the band, I wasn’t really a band geek, a la “This one time, at band camp…” I didn’t know how to speak Klingon, didn’t know what Middle Earth was (seriously), and was generally wary of those who, you know, seemed a little too invested in these things.

There was one area where I totally geeked out: swimming. My friends at school tolerated it, but I was obsessed with swimming. I never noticed my friends’ eyes glazing over while I talked about the sport. But I was even too much of a swimming geek for my teammates; my passion for the sport far outstripped my talent, and so I was that girl who killed herself swimming for no seemingly good reason. Because of my lack of talent, I was essentially bullied all through my tweens and early teens. I outlasted those naysayers, and once I was one of the team leaders, I tired to make sure that everyone felt welcome on the team; if you loved to swim, then you were embraced.

Hang in there. This gets back to teaching and higher ed.

So although I always considered myself a geek, I am quite happy to shed the title, if only because of the smug, self-satisfied, and, dare I say, elitist attitude of some of the responses to the essay calling for the death of geek culture. They, those who are outside, late to the party, wanna-be geeks, will never understand or could possibly ever call themselves real geeks. We, long-time, long-suffering, all-knowing geeks, will never bow to the mass media co-option of geek culture. And I agree that as long as there are weird (read: different), slightly obsessive, socially awkward teens, there will be geeks. To claim ownership, exclusivity, and superiority, however, is exactly the thing I hate about “geeks.”

And it is exactly that “geekiness” which can make academics insufferable and terrible teachers. Let’s face it, most professors are geeks in the sense that they are obsessed with their academic interest, which are typically highly specialized and often obscure. You’d have to be obsessed to get through a dissertation and then the demands of the tenure-track. This obsession can go one of two ways: the passion can infuse their teaching or the obsession can fuel a feeling of superiority caused by the idea that you are a persecuted geek whom no one could possibly understand or appreciate. But, let’s face it, the obsession also makes them excellent academics.

In part because of my own history of being bullied and not letting it destroy my passion, I am the type of teacher who wants to share their passion in the classroom. I geek out about teaching. I geek out about helping students become better writers. I geek out at the opportunity to teach students about literature. I geek out when I get to turn students on to “reading” again. And God forbid anyone ask me about my current research interest, Dany Laferrière.

But, it would seem, I am not a geek about it, which makes me a great teacher, but a poor academic.

Teaching Writing and Editing Writers

My students’ blog assignment has put in a strange position, caught somewhere between their teacher and their editor. My original “training” was as a professional writer, and part of that training was learning how to edit. I edited our program’s newspaper. I’ve worked as an editor before. I’ve edited a book. I can’t say I ever enjoyed that work, nor that I was any good at it. So it wasn’t with much heartbreak that I gave up heavily editing my students’ work when I became a teacher. 

But now that I am the administrator for the blog my students are contributing to, I have an old, familiar urge to edit. The missing (or extra) comma. The sentence fragment. The misused word. All of it. I just want to go in a fix it. Or, going further, fiddling with a sentence here or there to improve it. Or cut a word or sentence that doesn’t work or fit. I know better, and I have promised myself and my students that, outside of formatting, I wouldn’t change their work.
Before you get upset about my impulse to “improve” the students’ writings, know that that is the role of the editor. When I worked as a paid intern for an online newspaper, I was shocked and devastated when I got my first writing assignment back from the editor completely marked up and changed. This was the first time I had really had my writing critiqued in this way. I dutifully made the changes, recognized that the writing was better (but at that point, I also thought what I had written was fine, too), and tried to grow some thicker skin. 
The editor is a thankless job, because the byline always goes to the author. But what I try to make my students realize is that most works of writing they read are the result of a long process that often involves a lot of people. While we do peer review and revise drafts of our essays, I can’t get the students to really edit their own or even their peers’ work. Part of it has to do with the idea of plagiarism; these kids have been taught to only submit their own, original work, lest they face some very severe consequences. But why can’t or won’t they collaborate in order to make their writing better? Is it because I haven’t provided a model for them to follow?
And, what is my role in the collaboration? Where is the balance between coaching my students to improve and actually getting in there doing the dirty work of revising and improving a students’ writing. And would I be doing it for them or with them? This blogging assignment has forced me to think about how much work I still have to do in figuring out how to best help my students become better writers.

Arts Education, Following your Dreams, and Higher Education (Part III)

Opening for Ben Folds on his current tour is the group Lady Danville (I’m pretty sure the “New Song” video was taken at the Chicago show I attended). They are, to me, amazing. Three young dudes making great music? Yes, please. I went up front to buy their CD and there was one of the members of the band, selling their stuff. Even though I’m pretty sure I have at least ten years on him, I gushed like a school girl: You guys were awesome. So great (giggle, blush – ugh). Funny thing was, he was as excited and giddy as I was: You really liked it? Thanks! That’s so great! Thanks! 


Art and academia are often seen as being very isolated and isolating professions. For many artists, you spend hours or days or years locked up in a room somewhere, by yourself, creating. Academics spend the same amount of time, apparently, in libraries, archives, offices, labs, out in the field, again, by themselves. But of course, that’s completely false. At one point or another, the artist emerges and shares their art. So, too, with the academic. 


But that art is often rarely created in complete isolation. That’s we have schools, movements, collectives, troupes, and other ways that artists support and work with each other. While in Chicago, I also met a young woman who had left her small town in rural West Virginia to pursue her dream of becoming an artist. She was working with a bunch of artists whom she had met in art school and they were working and supporting each other in order to create art and make a living. She was living her dream and loving it. 


I come home and I read about how reference letters in academia for women that talk about collaboration are held against the candidate. “We found that being communal is not valued in academia,” it read. When I told my husband about the findings, he was completely unsurprised. Communal, he said, isn’t as important as being independent and self-motivated. My fellow University of Venus bloggers (ok, she’s one of the founders), Mary Churchill, tweeted “grad training is currently creating insecurity, arrogance, and depression rather than collaboration.” Why are we recreating the worst stereotypes of the solitary, tortured artist, when the artists themselves long ago rejected that model?


If anything, academics should be learning from artists who look to collaborate and share their work with the widest possible audience. We should be open and honest about how challenging the life of the mind can be, but also how rewarding it can be, much like choosing to become an actor, musician, or painter. There are still academics out there who want to share with their students and colleagues. (For two examples, check out here and here). After reading these tributes to being a teacher and academic, can you imagine either of the two writers doing anything other than what they currently do? I can’t, and I can’t imagine it for myself, either.


We cannot give up hope in higher education, in some form or another. And to survive, we’re going to have to start working, and I mean really working, together. Things are going to have to change. 


Let’s go. Who is with me? 

Arts Education, Following your Dreams, and Higher Education (Part II)

As I said in my previous post, Almost Famous is one of my favorite movies; another would be The Muppet Movie. I grew up with Jim Henson. Sesame Street was my favorite show. The Muppet Show used to reduce me to hysterical laughing. Fraggle Rock was a Sunday night ritual (it aired on Sunday evenings in Canada on CBC). I was completely mystified and fascinated by The Storyteller. I still remember where I was where I heard that Jim Henson had died (in my friends’ ecology classroom in grade seven during lunch period; they were working on projects and their teacher had the radio on). When asked the questions, who would have lunch with, dead or alive, I always answer Jim Henson. 

When I found out that a special exhibit of Jim Henson’s works was going to be in Chicago at the same time I was there for a conference, I knew I had to go. The morning before my panels, I was on the bus heading out to the museum. Once again, tears welled up in my eyes the moment I saw Kermit sitting there to greet me. I was further overwhelmed with emotion as I watched parents and children, generations really, enjoy and interact with the exhibit, which included pieces and clips from as far back as Henson’s commercials produced for the Washington, D.C. market. 
I was struck by a number of things in the exhibit. One was how determined Jim Henson was to get into television. He would do whatever it took, including taking up puppetry. Contrary to popular belief, puppetry was not Henson’s first passion; it was one that he picked up out of necessity and then fell madly in love with. He was open; art, puppets, commercials, late-night tv, children’s shows, whatever it took. And once he had made it, he pushed himself and those around him to new creative heights. 
That is the other element that really struck me; how much collaboration took place within the Henson family. Henson was someone who had a very unique perspective, could be difficult to work with (what creative person isn’t?) but ultimately he inspired and helped everyone around him become more than they perhaps ever thought they could be. Without Jim Henson, Sesame Street may have only been an interesting footnote in the history of television. Instead, it has gone on to educate and entertain generations of children. 
I picked up the book Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street while at the museum. The book opens at Jim Henson’s funeral and it shows the impact that his life (and death) on the group of people who worked in their way to create Sesame Street. Time and time again, the people who were involved in the show had little to no interest in children’s television.  But, there they ended up, working together to create television history. For Jim Henson, it wasn’t just about being creative and innovative, it was about helping as many people as possible achieve their dreams, too.
I’m also reading Kermit Culture, an academic collection of essays that deal with The Muppet Show. In the first essay, Ben Underwood discusses how Henson manages to turn the viewer into a Muppet when they watch the show, bringing them in on the joke, in on the collective experience that was The Muppet Show. Television is a blend of a collective and solitary experience. When Henson was growing up, television was rare and so the entire neighborhood would gather in the living room of the one house that owned one, turned viewing into an experience similar to live theater or performance. Today, with hundreds of channels and multiple TVs per household, this is not a very common experience. But the performers and audience have always been cut off from each other. Jim Henson managed to bridge that gap. 
Jim Henson changed the face of TV with a bunch of puppets. His legacy isn’t just the people who worked most directly with him, but the millions of us whom he welcomed into his world, changing us into Muppets. The best dreams, Kermit once said, are the ones we share. Shouldn’t we, in higher education, be aspiring to the same things? 

Conferences? Yes, Please!

This weekend, I was in Chicago for the Midwest Modern Languages’ annual convention.  I organized and chaired the section on Canadian Literature (my original academic love).  We had two panels of three presenters each. Four of the six were graduate students, another a recent PhD, and one final panelist from the U.K.

It was, in theory, everything that is wrong with the academic conference. There was only one other person in the room to hear our presentations, other than those presenting. Everyone read from their papers. Chicago is an expensive city and most of us were paying for the conference out of pocket (I, thankfully, had some departmental support). 
It was fantastic. 
For an academic like me, a conference like this is a professional lifesaver. I don’t work with or really know anyone close by who is interested in Canadian Literature. And because I am so far removed from people doing work in the field, as well as starting to work in a different area (Caribbean literature), it is hard for me to keep on top of the latest developments. It was wonderful to talk about Canadian literature with others who are as passionate and knowledgeable as I am, if not more so. These scholars are doing really great, even groundbreaking, work that will broaden our understanding of parts of Canadian literature. 
It was also great to meet members of the next generation of scholars. It is really easy to get jaded given how tight the job market is and how unforgiving being on the tenure-track. Who wants to be a professor, who wants to get a PhD? People like the ones I met with in Chicago; passionate, brilliant, motivated, and  each one with important things to contribute to the field of Canadian literature. 
And I don’t want to just interact with these academics online; call me old-school, but nothing beats the energy of a face-to-face encounter and exchange. It was a really great graduate seminar. We discussed our papers, what’s going on in Canadian literature and universities, as well as our general ideas about academia and the direction of universities more generally. We represented the Anglo university systems: Canada, US, and U.K. I got to hear about the impact of the recent government cuts from a person directly affected by them (she was told not to hold her breath). One of the presenters called out how we view and form knowledge, questioning the silos education still force us into (she made her department create a new comprehensive exam: North-American literature). We talked about digital humanities and open-source journals (they are all creating and editing new open-sourced journals, funding by the Canadian government). 
But outside of the conference, I was refreshed intellectually as well. Chicago is a wonderful city, full of cultural and arts events. I was able to leave all of my work (and family) behind for three days and just think. I didn’t even bring my laptop. I bought a book, for fun, and spent one night reading. It happens less than you’d expect. I tried Alligator hot-dogs and enjoyed all-you-can-eat sushi. I met a young woman from a small town not too far from here who is now in Chicago trying to make it as an artist and start a web comic. I saw a concert and a Jim Henson exhibit, both which inspired me, and I will be blogging about it later this week. 
It never would have happened had I stayed at home. I might only go to one conference a year (probably this one again), but it’s worth every penny out of my pocket.