28 August 2006

Doll Parts

I'm just a simple girl
In a high tech digital world
I really try to understand
All the powers that rule this land
They say Miss J's big butt is boss
Kate Moss can't find a job
In a world of post modern zen
What was good now is bad


You look at me
but you're not quite sure
Am I it or could you get more?
You learn cool from magazines
You learn love from Charlie Sheen


Classes start this week, and I have spent the weekend avoiding finishing up the revisions to my syllabi, more out of boredom than revulsion. I managed to lose two twenty dollar bills yesterday someplace along a disparate route of errands, and when I queried the clerk at my bodega today as to whether anyone had returned some lost money, he dryly reported that “When people find money on the floor, they usually don’t tell us about it.” Ya think? It was only as I left the bodega and stood on the corner under an uncomfortably hot sun that I realised the ridiculousness of even inquiring. Now, forty dollars may seem negligible in the larger scheme of things, but this week in particular it is a painful loss; in point of fact more annoying than agonizing, but still depressingly indicative of how close to the bone my financial situation has become. Will I starve? No, of course not (I don’t think). But I better not have to see my doctor ($25 co-pay) or get a flat tire ($$ who knows? $$) before Friday. Perhaps it’s a useful exercise in financial discipline? In any event, this is perhaps more reflective of how absent minded I have been since returning to Cold City that I, in a exceptionally tight week money-wise, would lose a significant percentage of my weekly allowance by happenstance, slipping out of my pocket as my mind was elsewhere.

In point of fact, being mildly depressed, as I have been since my return, is good for the waistline and budget (at least the food budget), since I don’t really eat like a normal person while in residence chez Cold City. What’s my secret, you may ask, envious? A pack of cigs for breakfast, a pack of cigs for lunch, then a healthy sensible dinner! (This dark irony reminds me of Big Sis’s riff on commercials for Xenical, the diet drug whose primary and infamous side effect is fecal incontinence: “I shit my pants, but now I have my life back!”) If it’s fancy dress, than this healthy sensible dinner would include a warm protein, cooked in a skillet, and a salad. If it’s casual, peanut butter and an apple sometimes suits me just fine, maybe some hummus, lettuce out of a bag, and toast. Ah, toast: a bachelorette’s best friend! When I told my nurse about my diet secret, she noted that it was important that I was getting adequate nutrition, to which I replied that that’s what multi-vitamins are for. The look she gave me indicated that might not be quite enough.

Come to think of it, in the year I have lived in the garret, I have never once used the oven: not to bake a pie, warm up pizza, heat a chicken pot pie, nothing! Initially I think this was out of a paranoid concern over the fumes from whatever oven cleaner had been used before my arrival. Now, it is perhaps more related to the fact the cuisine de garret has not one cookie sheet, Dutch oven, ramekin, or brownie pan. I don’t even store things in the oven. It has just sat there, empty, for a year. Back when I was living with Mr. Gordo, we tended to be big eaters, especially around dinnertime. As far as I can tell, Mr. Gordo has not lost that beat, for the other night when I queried him about his supper, he replied he had pasta (gasp!). Pasta is his comfort food, but for me tends to influence my glycemic index too dramatically to be all but an occasional treat (also, terribly fattening! Doesn’t the word fattening seem so quaint, so old fashioned, so innocent? Before insane weight-loss, oops, I mean healthy lifestyles became the American quotidian, I suppose). Perhaps this winter I can start making casseroles and succotashes and pies to help warm up the place (literally, with one radiator). Until then I think I’ll stick to the toaster and skillet set. I have to start saving up for a Le Creuset Dutch oven (once I manage to figure out how to keep my money in my pants).

But I digress! The first days of a class are always full of some excitement, some nervous energy, and some disappointment, as the cold realisation of the presence of class deadweights makes you wonder about the course of the term. But then again, it’s new, it’s fresh, it’s the cyclical rhythms that seem both worn and incredibly redemptive, sort of like Catholic confession. As various bloggers detail their reentry into professional duties, I have turned to think about what all this means, the first class thing, one's syllabus presentation, the tension and stress but also the stage of expectation and most especially the performative aspect of our work. I have increasingly thought of teaching as entertainment, ideally not in an empty vacuous sense but as the struggle to maintain attention and enthusiasm, especially as the semester grinds down to the nubbin between the twelfth and fifteenth weeks, when you hate the sight of each other, loathe your bad students with a passion, and are just counting the seconds until you can run out of the classroom (screaming and pulling off your wig) never to see this particular collection of ungrateful faces ever again (or at the very least until the beginning of the next term)!

We’re not there just quite yet, however. Back to new and fresh! With the entertainment principle so firmly entrenched among students of all ages, being a professor is no longer really about transmitting knowledge, per se, but is more like a multi-media performance given weekly, twice-weekly, or thrice-weekly, depending on how bad one has been in a previous life (Who do you have to sleep with to get out of this show?). As I walk onto the stage that is my classroom, I think of myself as the greatest divas: Liza, Liz, Diana, Divine, Bette, Joan. Pop, Dip, Spin! C’mon, girls, it’s SHOWTIME! I would love to stride in, old school style, with beads and feathers, a nude one-piece beaded maillot with legs up to here and a huge feathered headdress, with full makeup (the eyes, baby!) and backup dancers (what true star doesn’t have backups?), march up to the podium, and start a cute little song and dance, very jazzy, a little disco, very now, about the class, with flashing lights and orchestration by Giorgio Moroder. Of course, our students often react the same way that the pensioners respond to such lavish spectacles chez Vegas: with boredom, ennui, ordering another drink (or four) while distractedly noshing on bacon-wrapped scallops as the floor show proceeds to wear down the wood of the stage, two times an evening.

My hand on the door handle, a peek inside the classroom showing my students waiting, my mind flashes to the introductory sequence of Mommie Dearest, as Joan channeled through Faye Dunaway finally faces the camera after an agonising delay of tracking shots and cuts, AS Joan on the set of The Ice Follies of 1939 (literally eliciting gasps from audiences in 1981 with the power of the verisimilitude): “Let’s GO!” And like Dunaway channeling Joan, we too are consummate professionals: waking early, scrubbing our nails and arms and face (!) with a stiff brush, carefully toning by dunking our head in a bucket of ice and alcohol, and at the studio early. Beauty, perfection, and professionalism: all ephemeral qualities that we must work to achieve and sustain. Being smart is not enough anymore (if indeed it ever was), for we must entertain and cajole as well. So, if one must entertain, let’s give ‘em a SHOW. As I have implied before, I believe teaching is more art than Techne, although one needs both to successfully pull it off, like any true star. And what seems so important (and rightly so) for so many of us is the very appearance of both technocratic ability and artistic position, the classroom version of talent: How do I look?

Aside from Showgirls fantasies of spectacle, our options are increasingly determined by the consumeristic modality of education that is ascendant in North American universities in particular, where judging a book by its cover is almost de rigeur. When I taught at Sadistic College, and at my very laid-back graduate institution before that, it was all-casual, all the time. Jeans, a button-down if you were being formal. Now, I face my students the first day in a suit, and always wear at the very least a pressed shirt to class, with appropriate slacks and shoes. I walk in with a jacket, even if I take it off after a bit. They address me now as Professor Raro, exclusively (No more Oso this and Oso that). Like the star, I want to exert control over my audience using distance channeled through familiarity. Approachable? Yes. Your friend (or worse, employee)? Decidedly no. After all, it is my stage, the spotlight is on me, and I want to make the best of it. The proscenium that separates student from professor is one that occasionally can be crossed (sometimes should be crossed), but as I have taught more, that very line that divides me metaphysically from my students has come, at times, to be like a warm blanket, like protection, like makeup and costume and lights and smoke and mirrors. I play my role, the role of a lifetime (twice a night): lipstick applied, mascara daubed, hair teased, mic checked— opening night perfection, even if by the end of term I resemble Kiki more than Joan or Bette. Put down by critics on the left and the right, academics are some of the hardest working entertainers in the Biz. To paraphrase vaguely Addison DeWitt, we are the original displaced people, we bookish folk. Which is why, on some strange level, we share so much with entertainers in the theatrical and filmic traditions. Maudlin and full of self-pity, we are magnificent.

I may want to play the star in the classroom, but really we are singing for our supper in the end, not vanitas (well, at least some of us, at least some of the time). The modern educator must balance the demands of entertainment (which in the classroom increasingly reflects the values of infotainment) while not getting lost in the act. How to distinguish the dancer from the dance? Poupée de cire, poupée de son? A struggle we work through every term, as values and demarcations become increasingly muddled, even to ourselves. Where does the star turn end and the teaching begin? Or, as I suppose I am implying here, are they really one in the same? And, moreover, is that always already a bad thing?

I’ll let you know how it goes. I have to work on my leg lifts now.


Cats & Dogma said...

Oh, I hear you. And the only way to get the gig down (as opposed to the other way around) is the same way you get to Carnegie Hall--practice, practice, pr...you get the idea.

No one I know thinks it's even remotely surprising that I was once a theatre major, and something of a failed (or perhaps insufficiently courageous) actor.

Yet today, I find myself preparing for class feeling tired and even old, worn out. This is show business indeed, and the show must go on. I'm wearing my best summer suit, my hair is coiffed exquisitely, and the circles under my eyes from too little sleep should soon be dimmed by the brightness of my eyes (or at least by the colored William Blake engravings of today's lesson). I'll take the energy boost for today, because it's that or a windowless office.

As for singing for my supper vs. pure vanity, well, I suppose I merely found a way to sing for my supper that indulges my vanity (though I can make no claims to Faye-Dunaway-level virtuosity, even if I often find myself decrying plagiarism or the like with all the shrill intensity of a rant against wire hangers).

Hilaire said...

I am so tired of the entertainer-expectation. My feeling is, yes, sure, students grow up saturated with entertainment. But I would like them to learn that there are many ways of being in the world, many modes of existence besides entertainment. These can actually be fun or at least very, very compelling in a different way, and learning to negotiate them will open horizons to them, enrich their lives. Approaching things as something other than entertainment - or rethinking the narrow definition of entertainment - will give their lives some texture.

I don't have much an entertainer persoanlity, but I still do it as best I can, notwithstanding those reservations. I realized early on that self-deprecating humour was the way to their hearts and minds, for me. They lurve that.

clampie said...


the academic as an entertainer
the academic as part of the spectacle
the academic as a diva
the academic as a showgirl
the academic as a whore
the academic as a master of ceremony (Joel Grey in Cabaret)
the academic as a TV host
the academic as Charo in the Love Boat
the academic as a stand up comedian
the academic, again, as a whore.

Anonymous said...

Students respect style. In fact the better profs dress, the better the student evals. (I'm not kidding.) Sometimes I think universities should give us a clothing allowance.

Anonymous said...

The advice Miguel A gave Rubén M bears repeating (PR accent necessary...."ya deja de leer tanto pinche email y ponte a 'scribir....")...gather up all your posts and send them to a publisher in NYC, right now! Better, get an agent, imediatamente....!! Mira, you have talent --- the academic cosa gets better; you slog in 20+ years and then you have a house, food, travel, but on the way there, use your amazing talent/penchant for writing...yes, meanwhile, every year, it's a measly 2.5% - 4/5% raise, but then 10 years go by and that begins to mean something. Sell your thing to the New Yorkers and, amazingly, you begin to get royalties (the alternative is to do a textbook; minimally, that pays you a good $7500+ per year)...get invited to do talks and soon you'll be receiving $1000 honoraria and that can add up. This formula works; I offer it up for free and as someone who never thought it could happen fast enough! I don't think the slaves had many options. Maybe that's the point, except that we do if we put in that time. It's more like prison, though I've never been there either. I'm not at Sadistic U or in Ugly Town, to be sure; I've put in 24 years now and truly, it does get better, easier, and everyone finds some way to make the bucks so that we can do what we really want --- teach what we want, administrate as much or as little, fight as much or as little, help others a lot or a little....don't despair. Get an agent and keep writing!!!

GayProf said...

The nice thing about semesters is that they always end. If you don’t like a particular class, you know that your time with them is pretty limited.

As for the costumes, I used to always wear a jacket of some type to teach – until I moved to Texas. With the sizzling heat I ended up entirely dehydrated by the time I walked from office to classroom. Not even TaB revived me. One loses a great deal of authority if you pass out of from heat stroke on the second day of class.

Anonymous said...

I suggest a Monroe number:

"A kiss on the hand may be quite continental, but diamonds are a girl's best friend...DIIAAHHMUUNSS!"

Sfrajett said...

My gay best friend has always said that a good outfit trumps class preparation every time! So if you haven't done the reading for your own class, and it's in an hour, put on an outfit!!! I think this is very sane advice, since we all know style is more important than content anyway. Thanks for making every post you write about teaching into a mini-Las Vegas revue. On second thought, thanks for making every one of your posts a mini- Las Vegas revue.

Flavia said...

I'm going to ignore the substance of this post and focus on the truly crucial issue you raise: the multivitamin! Why, what are they for, if not for those of us who call Triscuits and cheddar cheese a meal? If I were actually to bother to eat well. . . why on earth would I take a multivitamin?