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dear sir or madam

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Ha! Helen DeWitt writes a fantasy of what life would be like if I wasn’t a fully employed and accountable member of the teaching profession:

2008 was supposed to be the year I stopped smoking, stopped drinking, went to the gym every day and finished five books. It didn’t work out that way; one reason is that there were rather a lot of people to deal with who wanted references.


I don’t like to sabotage applicants who are two days from their deadline; unfortunately it’s not easy to know how to notify all the people who are vaguely thinking: ‘I might ask HD for a reference if I decide to go in for X.’ I’m hoping some of these people read the blog; if you do, bear in mind that I won’t be writing references until 2010.

In the snip are a set of rude/unreasonable/inefficient things that people have done in the course of asking her for references. I know them all. In fact, I am pretty sure that almost none of the requests that I’ve gotten in the last year didn’t fulfill at least one of these criteria.

Ah but whatever. DeWitt’s lucky – she seems to be writing for friends and acquaintances. I write for students, and so you have to put up with the shit that they pull or else you’d have rafts and rafts of unemployed advisees, tutees, and graduate students. It’s part of the job, and I guess it’s why I get my what ₤2000 / month (after taxes) to spend on pizza, natural gas, pints of Kronenburg, Montessori tuition, a new hardwood floor in the kitchen to replace the one with holes in it, my sexy pair of jeans, and Underground fare.

The truth is, as often as I say otherwise, I’ll probably teach for ever, even if I didn’t really need to. (Whether I “really need to” now is another, and very complicated, subject. If I ever post on this subject, just stop reading as soon as you can tell – leave a comment saying “I stopped reading once I realized, per your warning” and  I’ll delete it in the morning and we’ll be all good…) I’m not sure that life on the outside, all that unsupervised time, would really be all that helpful and healthful for me. I am learning, quickslow slowquick, to deal with the fact that sometimes I only get an hour or so to work on X or Y, and that’s OK, a full hour is a full hour and better than an empty hour or no hours at all.

It’s a jock thought really. I remember being told in high school that suggested that studies had shown that serious high school athletes, whose afterschool time was largely blocked out with practicing and competing, outperformed peers who filled their extracurricular time with a whole lot of nothing. Get home, get work done, go to bed, repeat. Clarifying, simplifying.

I’ve learned lately – and this is probably just me, so universalize at your own risk – the more athletically I think about things the better I do. Go figure. I should – I will – start running up and down the hills of North London again. Tomorrow, OK???? It’s tempting to email my dad and have him put my cleats in the mail – there’s an adult baseball league here that plays on a shitty mal-designed field over at Finsbury Park, a 15 minute walk from my house. Hmmmm….. I’ve already got my gloves (the good one, the first-baseman’s mitt) here, but I really need the cleats…. Hmmm….

What was I on about? Oh, right, the exteriority of teaching! The blessed exteriority! I am going to start thinking about this word in earnest – a word that doesn’t seem to appear all that much in the corpus of literary criticism but absolutely should! – very soon, and you’ll see what I come up with. But writing the references, leading the seminars, marking the tedious papers – all, as they say, get me out of myself. Which is no mean feat! I’d love to have a less demanding job – CUNY Grad Center, oof! or even a normal post-tenure gig at the sort of place I did my graduate work, god! I thought the place I am at was going to be sort of like that, but boy was I wrong (think liberal arts college, an especially intense one, but with graduate students that overwhelmingly favor me as a writer of letters and editor of PhD application materials etc).

But it’s important enough for me to put this down. Just as on The Wire they talk about good police, I am good teacher. And though I envy DeWitt her year off from letters, since it seems to be important for me to keep straight about everything, it’s worth setting that down in html, once and for all.

Written by adswithoutproducts

February 16, 2009 at 11:16 pm

Posted in academia

3 Responses

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  1. >> If I ever post on this subject

    Please do! I won’t heed that warning one bit.

    Activities which once seemed antagonistic are now, for me, perhaps with age, becoming more and more necessary for each other — it’s almost as though a daily reminder of the antagonism itself is the necessity.

    cities forsaken

    February 17, 2009 at 12:10 am

  2. I believe the relevant phrase from The Wire is “natural po-lice.”

    Adam Kotsko

    February 17, 2009 at 12:21 am

  3. Exactly cities!

    Adam: sometimes it’s “good” sometimes “natural.” But yeah, always poh-leece. I actually had an embarassing conversation about this when teaching it 2 weeks ago. I’m reputed to be a gotoguy on this side of the water for explaining the “regional detail,” as I come from Greater Catholica – of which Baltimore is the southern stronghold, and where I come from (same town as James Gandolfini, actually) is the heart and center. The embarrassing thing was that I was a bit stumped as to whether the good / natural po-lice thing was just Baltimore or a general northeasternism. People kept saying that they had “never heard it in any New York based cop show.” Ugh. I just don’t know. I don’t know if they say it elsewhere! Frustrating!


    February 17, 2009 at 12:25 am

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