Adventures in Grading

It’s that time of the year again, when red pens run freely and the coffee mugs get bigger.  Surely the end of the semester is the grading salt mines for everyone.  It’s my first time grading papers and long-form exams instead of multiple-choice scantron tests, and the amount of work that goes into them is vastly different.  The challenge of multiple-choice exams is all front loaded: you put in an immense amount of work writing clear, concise questions that are challenging but not impossible, and that don’t play “gotcha” with students.  (Or at least, they shouldn’t.)  When the tests come back, you’ve got an answer key, grading flies by, and there you are.  The challenge of long-form exams is back loaded: you put some terms and questions out, and then spend your time deciphering student handwriting along with student answers, trying to pan for gold in the form of recognisable answers that address the topic at hand.  It’s a different kind of labour.  Papers are another kind — for me, the challenge of papers has been seeing how few students understand how English grammar works, for one, and for two, seeing how few students understand how to structure and present a coherent, strong argument.  My university is no slouch in the humanities and is a competitive school.  I’m dismayed by some of the papers I’ve received grading for an upper level class, frankly.  I’ve had students completely incapable of reading the paper assignment in the syllabus, hearing the discussion of the paper assignment in class on multiple occasions, and consequently, hand in something completely unrelated to the task assigned to them — and poorly executed at that!  It’s so incredibly frustrating.  And some of the examinations make me wonder just what classroom students have been in for the past semester, because based on their answers, it certainly wasn’t mine!

The stages of grading, as illustrated by Jorge Cham of PHD Comics.

The stages of grading, as illustrated by Jorge Cham of PHD Comics.

But the thing that’s bothered me today is the question of language.  Specifically, how do you grade a student who uses derogatory language in their examinations and papers?  I haven’t had a slew of these, but one was enough, frankly.  In a classroom headed up by a professor who is visually impaired and assisted by a TA with visible mobility aids (fabulously floral print mobility aids, may I add), the student repeatedly used “cripples/crippled” to refer to people with disabilities in their exam.  It’s pretty elementary that you don’t call us folks with sticks or chairs cripples to our faces, or at least, I hope it is.  But apparently, referring to people that way in an exam is okey-dokey.  I’m flabbergasted.  And frankly, it was hard to grade the rest of her exam fairly.  Maybe I’m too sensitive, considering it’s a derogatory term people use for me.  But if she had been writing about Jews and called us kikes, I’d have my hackles just as far up.  Or called African-Americans negros.  (Perhaps more for that one.)  It’s wildly inappropriate, and it stuns me that a student thinks it’s a good way to refer to someone who can’t climb stairs unassisted (like yours truly) in a formal writing situation like a final exam.  Doubly so when said cripple is going to be grading it!

I recognise that students are often young adults, frequently very young.  I teach at a private Catholic university.  Some of these students are incredibly sheltered young people.  Their exposure to the world beyond their hometowns and home parishes can be limited.  And I also recognise that part of our job as educators is to bring them into greater awareness of that wider world, not just through the materials we teach but in the way we teach.  It seems to me that language needs to be a teachable moment every time it wanders off into poisonous pastures.  You wouldn’t let a horse graze in a field of nightshade if you knew that was what it was eating.  You’d get it out of that field and put it in a safe pasture.  But you’d also inform the horse’s owner that the field they’d put their horse in was dangerous!  The tendency to shut down language usage or to ignore the matter until it arises — and by then, it has done its damage in your classroom — is the same as just leading the horse away and dropping the lead once the belladonna was no longer underfoot.  It’s not enough to just shut this stuff down.  We have to be proactive about it so that classroom discussions and written assignments are spaces in which students wrestle with difficult ideas and concepts in the clearest, most accurate way possible.  Classrooms are already challenging environments.  They need to be spaces where doing hard thinking and asking hard questions are as safe and supported as possible.  One of those ways is by dealing with language before it crops up and puts vulnerable people at a disadvantage.

a handful of buttons saying "social justice warrior," "social justice cleric," "social justice bard," "social justice ranger," "social justice rogue," and "social justice wizard."

I’m a Social Justice Cleric, really. I’m always the cleric.

This is another one of those moments where I’m a bleeding heart liberal pinko commie whatever.  I recognise this.  But having felt the punch of being called ethnic slurs in a classroom and the double indignity of having a professor do nothing about it, I know what this minefield is like.  Seeing “cripples” in the exam today brought me right back to it, being 20 years old and getting called a Christ Killer in the middle of a presentation on Jews in the Civil War, and feeling utterly powerless and silenced in the face of this big, imposing fraternity brother who had just shouted it at me.  How much worse would it have been if this student had used “cripples” in a classroom discussion with students with disabilities present?  How marginalised and silenced would they have felt?  How can students feel able to contribute when the language their classmates use tell them their voices are worthless and they themselves are unequal participants in the classroom, unwanted and unheard?

I’m in charge of discussion sections next term.  I think one of the first things that I will be doing is talking about language in the classroom.  I’m a big believer in setting standards, communicating them clearly, and letting students rise to them or face clearly articulated consequences.  A zero-tolerance policy on derogatory language is one of those standards for me — after that discussion, if you use language like that and it’s not a direct quote from materials we’re handling, you’re out the door and you get a big old zero for that day’s participation.  Consequences escalate from there.  And if this means it’s the first time that a student learns that “cripple” or “gypsy” or “jap” or “tranny” is a slur, then it’s high time they learned.  Everyone needs to be on an equitable playing field in a classroom, doubly so in a discussion section.  And that means making sure no-one is told by virtue of their immutable characteristics alone that they’re unwelcome on that field.  I’ve been there.  If I can prevent it, none of my students are going to stand in my same place of 10 years ago while they’re in my classroom.  The lesson that privileged folks have the right and ability to call you derogatory names and will face no consequences for it is not a lesson that should be happening in the academy today.  Period.  And privileged students need to learn that their words, choices, and actions have consequences.  Those consequences aren’t unforgivable, more than likely, and I’m hard-pressed to say if I’d fail a student for language.  Perhaps I would, if it was egregious enough.  But I believe in teachable moments, and that education is more than a grade — it’s about learning how to move through and interpret the world with grace, wisdom, and understanding. Those are things that can’t be graded, but must be taught.

However, I’m still marking down for improper comma usage and inability to cite correctly.  Some things are just untenable, after all.

Long time, no see.

I am terrible at blogging.

I’m great at twitter engagement, and at keeping up with email, and at staying on top of journals (mostly).  I’m a pretty organised grad student, which I think is necessary, but I am dreadful at blogging.  Some of this is the realities of living with chronic illness: I have a smaller reserve of energy than healthy, able-bodied people, and since my diagnosis is new to this semester, trying to balance all facets of my life with my precarious health often means non-critical tasks hit the bottom of the priority list.  Currently, that’s meant this blog and some household tasks.  And while my husband will do the household tasks, he can’t write my blog for me.  Alas.

It’s the end of semester here in DC.  Today was the last day of classes, and finals week now begins.  I’m balancing the demands of TAing — grading, managing student concerns, grading, proctoring exams, did I mention grading? — with being in the last gasps of the classwork phase of the PhD, which means producing papers of my own.  I gave my first formal lecture this past week, and did it on a severely dislocated ankle to boot.  It’s tough.  But I’ve realised a few small things that I thought worth sharing.

Students will surprise you — in the good ways and the bad.  This should be no surprise to seasoned veterans of the classroom, but for me, it was very much a revelation.  My previous TA experience was in a giant 80-student lecture section.  This semester has been in a small, 20-student seminar.  It’s been a far more intimate setting, and I’ve been able to build relationships with students that have been rewarding.  Students come to me for advice, they want to talk about the class topics (Buddhism in China and Japan, for the record), they’re really engaged with the class and with ways to maximise their success.  Being willing to talk and being accessible over email has meant students have been open when they’re having troubles, and opens the channels for good feedback.  I’ve had more emails from students complimenting me on my lecture this week as well thanking me for TAing the class and being supportive of them.  I’ve had emails from students telling me where they were hitting roadblocks with their final paper and looking for advice.  When I’ve demonstrated a willingness to be flexible, they have responded with excellence.  In my previous MA program, which was student-directed and largely unstructured, our advisors often said that when you let students set the bar for what mastery and rigor means, they will always go further than you would.  I think that’s true.

But of course, it’s not all sunshine and roses.  I had a student blatantly cheat this semester, the first time I’ve ever dealt with it.  The accusations about the incident were unpleasant, and at one point, the student insinuated that I was too sensitive and I was exaggerating the problem.  Another student went to the lead instructor with complaints that my failure to mark the letter grade on her exam with the points earned meant I was sabotaging her and out to get her.  Students are under incredible stress, especially at a competitive school like mine.  Often, they rise and shine.  And sometimes, they stumble and fall, trying to drag anyone around them down with them.  The importance of being believed and supported by my lead instructor, of us being a unified front, cannot be overstated in these instances.  I’ve been really lucky here and I’ve learned the value of having a good mentor, too.

Students are under more pressure than I was when I was in undergrad.  I really think this one is a consequence of the economy, really.  The cost of college has gone up, family incomes have stagnated, and college degrees are treated like some kind of magic talisman to make gainful employment appear after graduation, as if doing everything “right” will make the job happen, no matter the odds.  This seems especially true with students who are first generation college students.  I’ve had students who are trying not to crumble under the pressure, spread way too thin with classes, jobs, internships, student organisations, all a bid to make sure they have the “right” credentials when they graduate.  The Chinese students in particular are grade driven in a way I have rarely seen.  I cannot tell you the amount of emails I’ve received from my Chinese students, agonising over how to get their A- up to an A, how many points one absence will cost them, what they can do to get from an unacceptable 93 to the coveted 94.  Their anxiety is palpable.  And it doesn’t matter what I tell them, how many times I assure them that an A- is really quite good for an upper level class like this one.  It’s all about that perfect score, no matter what it takes to get there.

Clearly stating expectations is crucial for getting consistent quality.  I knew this one going in, but it’s more obvious to me than ever before.  Communicating what you expect and how you expect it done helps students do what it takes to get the grades they’re willing to work for.  I’m also really convinced of the merits of assigning a style guide as an assigned text in the syllabus.  Turabian was mine when I started grad school way back in 2007, required for my intro class.  It was a godsend.  Having only skimmed the papers I need to grade this weekend and all the inconsistencies in style, formality, formatting, and presentation, assigning a style guide and expecting its use might’ve made my life for the next 48 hours that much easier.  Students don’t always know how to write, even at the 300 level.  If the writing buck has been passed along to you, you’ve got to double down and make it stop at your desk.  It sucks, but it’s easier to insist on a style guide then deal with students flailing around when you mark down their writing.

In the same vein, having clearly stated policies for stuff like makeup tests, extra credit, and all those sorts of fiddly things makes for such an easier semester.  Even if students zone out in the “let’s go over the syllabus” section of the first class, at least you have a consistent reference that is implicitly agreed upon by your students.  Unstated policies are easy to argue about, after all.

What things have you learned about teaching this year?

“Death Becomes Her” and Other October Musings

Anyone who knows me in any capacity should recognise the amount of envious glee I feel at the announcement of the Met’s latest special exhibit: “Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire“.

I adore 19th century mourning.  The material history associated with it, the impact on social mores and customs, the preoccupation with death it engendered, and the sheer visual impact of it sets my little gothy heart all a-flutter.  I doubt I’ll have the funds to make it up to New York in time — the exhibit opens the day before my wedding and closes right as spring semester kicks up — but it is a thing of glory.

I mean, look at these clothes:

Mourning ensemble, 1870-72; The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Mourning dress, cira 1903; The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Mourning dress, 1867; The Metropolitan Museum of Art

American mourning dress, circa 1845; the Metropolitan Museum of Art

American mourning dress, circa 1848; the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Just look at the quality of that silk and the delicate mesh mitts!

Mourning parasol, 1895-1900; the Metropolitan Museum of Art

In a related vein of all things somewhat macabre, I was alerted to a fascinating article about Cross Bones Graveyard in London.  Originally an unconsecrated burying yard for the prostitutes that characterised London’s South Bank in 16th century, it has taken on a social dimension as a place amidst its gleaming upscale surroundings to remember the forgotten, outcast dead.

In death, the liminal sex workers of London have come to occupy a larger space than they ever did in life.  It’s absolutely worth a read as we move into the Halloween season.

Halloween, and its associated liturgical holidays of All Saints Day and All Souls, have historically been about affirming the place of the dead in community — both as members of the heavenly church and as remembered former members of the church militant here on earth.  New Orleans has a vibrant tradition surrounding All Saints Day — La Toussaint as it was brought over from France — and much of it reflects the collision between cultures that happened in the Crescent City.  White-washing family tombs, cleaning away debris and dirt, lighting candles, decorating the tombs, and sharing a meal amongst them all characterise the day.

The dead loom large in New Orleans, but never so much as in October.  It’s impossible to ignore the cemeteries of New Orleans, which is the thing I’ve liked most about them.  Unlike the manicured memorial parks that are increasingly popular around the country, the cemeteries of New Orleans remain visible and retain their dignity, etched into the landscape and staking the claims of the dead among the still living.

David Grunfeld; The Times-Picayune archive

The Syllabus: Roadmap or Contract?

In my various orientation meetings about being a Teaching Assistant/Teaching Fellow (a grad student instructor rather than just an assistant to an instructor) at my university, we’ve covered the importance of the syllabus more times than I care to count.  Faculty explained to us critical elements such as laying out grading procedures and rubrics so that students feel grading is as fair as it can be, and the importance of setting the tone for your classroom with policies on technology use, absences, and other things important for the class but not found in the university handbook.  The syllabus, it was explained over and over again, is a roadmap to the class, letting students know what to reasonably expect from the class and giving them a sense of what’s expected from them.  It should give important dates for major papers, exams, and importantly, list the books they need to buy and when they need to do readings/assignments.  It gives an expectation of the shape of the class — what we intend to do and how we intend to do it, as partners in an effort to understand and interpret the class materials rather than an imposed, unchanging structure of demands.  I like that sense.  It adheres to my personal teaching philosophy and my sense of the humanities of being responsive and context-driven at their best.

The syllabus also provides a way to answer the same five or six questions over and over again.

One of the things my institution does at teaching orientations is bring in a handful of undergrads and have a panel where they talk about what they expect from TAs/instructors, what makes a great TA/instructor, and what things they wished their TAs/instructors knew.  And the thing that surprised me routinely was the assertion that the syllabus should be written in stone, and anything else was unfair to students.  We just didn’t understand the demands on their time and how much changing the syllabus hurt them.  “Don’t ever change the syllabus!” they said over and over.  “Once we put things in our planners, that’s it, we can’t change things.  You don’t understand how busy we are.  We plan going home around our syllabus.”

It was an odd assertion to me.  I remarked on it to my fiancé when I got home that day, then didn’t really bother to think about it much.  I’m not teaching this semester, my relationship to syllabi is as a student, not as an instructor.  I got my syllabi, plugged in all the due dates and assignments into my calendars, and made my general outline for the semester.  No big deal.  When professors have given additional assignments or changed due dates, I’ve shifted plans around and made time to do the things asked of me, despite my class load of 3 800-level seminar courses and the demands of life outside school, to say nothing of research and professional development.  That, to me, is part of the contract of being a student.  You invest your time in your classes, you respond to the classes appropriately, and you do the work as assigned or face the consequences.  You are responsive to the work, the same way you are responsive to the demands made upon you in a job.  Sometimes, you work overtime.  Sometimes, you have light weeks.  That’s the nature of the commitment.  And it’s a mutual one, as the professors are committed to being there with you, working through the same material and handling your problems, concerns, and grading your assignments.

I’ve had professors who have made egregious syllabus changes — I remember clearly a professor in my first MA program who decided to bump up the due date for a major paper three weeks, and announced the change the week before it was due without warning or context.  That was particularly bad, and felt distinctly unfair.  (I dislike the “unfair” claim, but when an instructor makes it harder to complete a major assignment without any justification, that seems a relevant accusation.)  But there was a process for handling it.  A few of us talked to the instructor, and when she didn’t budge, we talked to the academic dean about whether or not this was a thing allowed.  It wasn’t, in fact.  When major papers take the place of final exams, they had to be due during exam week save with dispensation from the college.  The problem was not the change in the syllabus itself.  It was the nature of the change and the fact that the change substantially altered the course and put it in conflict with college policies.

Because that was the thing — the syllabus was a roadmap, and when you’re reasonably anticipating your roadmap takes you to Las Vegas, suddenly discovering at the end of the trip that you actually need to go to Spokane and you need to get there tomorrow means that your map isn’t very good in laying out the pace and distance of the trip.  And while some syllabi are better roadmaps than others, they should reasonably and accurately lay out the route taken and the expectations for how the trip is going to go.  A four day hard drive across the US is very different from a three week lazy roadtrip.  And it’s good teaching to differentiate between the two when it comes to laying out how the class is going to go.  It’s also good teaching (perhaps bare minimum teaching) to make sure your policies and assignments fall in line with institutional guidelines and rules.

This was an issue that cropped up again today when I saw an article on HuffPost College: “Dear Professor, Some of Us Work 40 Hours a Week.”  In it, Fernando Hurtado asserts that because of his intense work schedule that he has taken on in response to the cost of college and student indebtedness, he cannot handle changes to the syllabus.  And because 20% of students work full time in addition to college, professors who value getting paid out of student’s tuition dollars oughtn’t add assignments to the syllabus with less than 24 hour notice because students already work hard enough.  The syllabus, Hurtado suggests, should be locked in stone because of the demands on student time and because professors have no sense of what it means to be a busy student.

As I read it — with some sympathy because I understand the pressure and demands of being a student with a strained schedule where sleep barely fits, but with some derision because he admits that he chooses to work and resists pressure from his parents to rely on his financial aid package instead of stretching himself so thin (to say nothing of his assertion that his tuition pays professor salaries instead of the reality of adjuncting and the relationship between tuition and instructor pay) — I realised this is smack-dab in the middle of the same battle over the concept of the syllabus.  Is the syllabus a roadmap, loose but reasonably clear, inherently flexible and responsive to the needs of the class?  Or is it a contract, locked in stone and unchanging in order to give students the certainty of what is expected from them and when?

The contract seems to stem from the culture of American public schools, where students are chronically overbooked, overtested, overworked, and overobligated.  Having done some work on secondary education in the US and read about the homework and testing loads present in American classrooms, I can see where the student need for the contract model comes from.  With the anticipation that everything is going to be competing for limited resources of time, attention, and rigor, if the syllabus changes then the student is suddenly faced with a scheduling crisis.  There are often not enough hours in the day for public school students who want to attend top colleges to do everything expected of them in addition to sleeping, eating, and socialising.  Couple that chronic anxious overcommitment with the increasingly dominant business model of higher education, and students seem to expect high output for their invested tuition dollars — that is to say, good grades.  (This is not to suggest that all students feel entitled to good grades because they paid tuition.  But it is certainly a current present in the stream.)  Professors are contractors producing a product, and students as consumers of that product are in a contractual relationship to know exactly what they’re getting.  The syllabus becomes like a work agreement rather than an outline of learning outcomes and course themes — you will work this many hours performing these tasks, and no more.  Anything else, any additions without compensation, become unpaid overtime.  And a boss that demands unpaid overtime is cruel, unethical, and oblivious to the realities of work.

I am resistant to this model, admittedly.  Perhaps obviously.  I am resistant to the business model of higher education to begin with, and my sense is that the contract syllabus is part and parcel of the commodification of learning.  Instead of a guide to the reasonable expectations of the class, it has to be locked in stone so that students aren’t expected to do more for a given class than they agreed to at the beginning of the term.  And that’s a troubling development.  It means that the instructor has limited flexibility to address issues that arise in the class or shift assignments in response to student needs or struggles.  In the humanities especially, this strikes me as the worst model of instruction possible.  And yet, at the same time, I don’t know how we respect the intense levels of pressure students are under without agreeing to give them so much work and no more.  Does that respect for their pressure and workloads mean we ignore learning opportunities that arise during the semester and avoid adding sources, ideas, lectures, and events that could deepen their understanding or illuminate ideas they’ve struggled with in the classroom?

I don’t know what the answer is.  But I sense that the contract model of syllabi, especially in larger institutions, is here to stay for the foreseeable future.  And I feel it is quite possibly one of the nails in the coffin of the idea of a liberal arts education.  The humanities don’t thrive in contracts and limitations.  They’re at their best when they’re flexible, responsive, interdisciplinary, and relevant to the world in which students live.  Can we make the humanities do all of those things if we must teach only to the context we imagined for a class in the weeks before the semester started?  Or can we reasonably expect students to meet us halfway as partners in learning, adapting their expectations of the class and writing in their planners in pencil instead of sharpie?

9 Years Out: Hurricane Katrina

It was 9 years ago today that Hurricane Katrina made landfall, going on to kill at least 1833 people in Gulf South and cause $108 billion in damage.  She proved to be one of the deadliest natural disasters in American history and changed New Orleans forever.

You cannot be a person invested in New Orleans and not pause on this day, on this stretch of days, and think back to that August 2005.  I am not a New Orleans native; I was outside the city that summer, ensconced in my parents’ house in Maryland, safely watching horror unfold on the television, sitting numbly next to my father, a sailor who knew New Orleans well, unable to look away.  I was lucky, phenomenally lucky.  I didn’t realise that day what the storm would mean to me years later.  I just remember listening to my father argue with Brian Williams, I remember bristling when people suggested that New Orleans should be abandoned, that it was too expensive to rebuild, too expensive to protect, why did we need a city in a flood plain, anyway?  (Newsflash: nearly every major port city in the US is in a flood plain, and 60% of the cargo leaving or entering the US goes through the New Orleans-Baton Rouge ports.  That’s why we need it.  Ignoring history, ignoring people, focusing solely on dollars, that’s why we need New Orleans and her flood plain.)

As a rule, I avoid disaster tourism.  I think it shows the worst of human nature: our vulture-like tendency to stare at others’ personal horrors and feel relief that it is not us, all the while consuming their sorrow and loss and reducing it to a curiosity instead of a call to moral action.  The HBO show Treme caught the tone of it rightly: As a group of Mardi Gras Indians gather in the rubble of the devastated Lower Ninth Ward to mourn one of their own, who perished in the storm.  And in the middle of a spiritual, rousing moment as they sing Mardi Gras Indian songs in celebration and lament, a tour bus full of Wisconsin tourists pulls up, snapping pictures in clueless, viscerally awful fascination.  The objectification and voyeurism cannot be made more clear.

And yet, two things come out of this: one, New Orleans is a city that runs on tourism and knows it, commodifying her food, heritage, history, and oddities in order to bring those tourists in; two, Katrina looms so large on the landscape that people who know nothing else about New Orleans save jazz, Bourbon Street, and Cajun food not only know about it but want to see what it meant.

When I first went down to New Orleans as an adult, it was December 2008, three years AK — after Katrina.  I was working on the research for my first MA, a decision prompted in many ways by the storm.  I knew my health didn’t permit me to do rescue work or rebuilding, and my financial situation didn’t leave me much room for charity.  But I knew I could do a thing that was critical: preserving the history and culture of New Orleans, documenting it, and sharing it through my academic work as a topic worthy of serious study and engagement.  So I set to work on my first love, the cemeteries of New Orleans.  Yet whenever I mentioned my topic, everyone asked, “What about Katrina?”

So I got in touch with a contact, trying to avoid the Disaster Tourism angle, and asked if they knew some places out on Lake Ponchartrain where the levees had broke.  And I tried not to feel like scum as I snapped pictures, trying to communicate something incommunicable to my audience back up on the East Coast: that the X of the search and rescue teams was a symbol, a monument, a marker of trauma so intense as to be nearly ineffable, an inbreaking of the sacred rendered mundane in spray paint.  It was, in its way, the crucifix of the storm, marking sites of loss, death, martyrdom, and destruction so senseless, so needless that it has taken on proportions unimagined.

A search and rescue mark left on an abandoned house on the shores of Lake Ponchartrain.  Taken December 2008 by author.

A search and rescue mark left on an abandoned house on the shores of Lake Ponchartrain. Taken December 2008 by author.

I don’t flatter myself by imagining my experiences in AK New Orleans are important.  But for me, the storm marks a moment where I made the conscious choice to do academic work that had real world value and meaning.  It marks the moment where academics had to be more than just feasible and fundable.  It made me look at what I was doing and ask, how can I do more than just follow my own bliss?  How can I reflect my values into the world and have a moral response to unimaginable tragedy?  It marked the beginning of my nearly decade-long love affair with a city that’s easy to love and difficult to know.  Katrina changed me, at a distance.  Perhaps that’s what disaster and loss and suffering should do.  It should change us, make us consider how to make our actions reflect the world that needs to be, rather than the world around us.

Nine years out, it’s easy to think this way, especially sitting comfortably in a climate-controlled student union in DC, far and away from the realities of recovery.  It’s easy to trot out data and numbers (78% of the population returned, poverty level of nearly 25%, childhood poverty rate of 41%, increased disparity between rich and poor, lack of affordable housing in the city, etc).  It’s easy to think of this as a continuum of disaster, disease, and death that has plagued New Orleans from her founding to today.  It’s easy to ignore Katrina and her legacy up here.  It’s easy to let it go.  But I can’t.  And as a society, as a country, we cannot. August 29th demands that we stop and think and remember all the human failure that created such unimaginable human loss, and remember how easy it is to let it happen again.  All it takes is apathy.

Remember that all of this happened nine years ago, in the United States of America, the wealthiest country in the history of the world.  Remember that we, as a country, watched this happen to our own people.  Remember that this happened, that these 1800+ lives were lost.  And remember that this, too, is New Orleans.

New Academic Year, A Fresh (Re)Start

I’ve been ignoring this blog, shamefully.  A lot has happened in my life, and the idea of trying to condense it into something to share with the world felt overwhelming.  There’s too much to explain, to paraphrase the Princess Bride, so let me sum up: in the past 18 months, I got engaged, wrote and presented my second MA thesis on bodily piety in medieval fasting mystics and ballet dancers (which goes together better than one might think), watched my fiancé graduate with his MA in medieval studies, returned to ballet classes and had to leave them thanks to a dislocated hip, moved up one state, and as of tomorrow, I’m returning to my PhD Institution in Washington, DC to finish my dissertation on funerary culture in New Orleans.  Whew!  Does it sound like a lot?  Because it felt like a lot, let me tell you!

Coming back to PhD work after doing the distance/research-style degree for my MA is a major shift.  Not only is the level of work higher — and I’m going to need to acquire 2 additional research languages over this academic year — but I have to adjust to being in a different town, making the commute from Maryland into DC twice a week, and keeping up on an academic schedule that doesn’t have a lot of flexibility in it.  Did I also mention that we have a wedding planned for Nov 1?  (We picked the date before we knew I was going back to classwork!)  So I’m struggling in a way unfamiliar to me.  I’m trying to get in the rhythm of classes again, and reading on tight, weekly deadlines.  I’m trying to help support my fiancé as he transitions for the first time in his life from “student” to “working adult,” which is no easy thing with disability added to the equation.  I’m handling ageing parents as an only child, which is a new and scary thing.  And I’m trying to figure out what’s going on with my own health.  One advantage of returning to PhD land is that I’ll have health insurance again for the first time in two years, which means I’ll be able to figure out why my joints dislocate so often.  (You’ve never had an experience like learning exactly which ways to move and twist to pop your shoulder or hip or wrist or ankle or big toe back into joint, nor the crack of pain-relief-horror that comes with it.) 

PhD classes, especially at my institution, seem to run on the assumption that you have an able-bodied spouse at home to make you meals, tend to the household chores, and bring in enough income to support the hidden costs of doctoral training — books, professional association memberships and journals, travel to conferences, travel to archives, professional attire, etc.  And perhaps 40 years ago, when the school was almost all Catholic and the graduate cohorts were almost all men, this might’ve been true.  It’s less true now, and it makes doctoral training all the harder on people like myself who are balancing housework and a disabled partner with the work and extra hours.  I can’t imagine what it’s like for people with children — doubly so for women with children, considering how much of the second shift of housework and childcare seem to always fall to women, no matter how well-intentioned their partners. 

I think, deep down, this is the stuff that makes the academy the ivory tower — the ticket inside the doors as a professional is steep, the likelihood of getting a tenure-track job low, and the intangible costs of putting off starting your career for perhaps as long as a decade, losing out on all that pay and networking and chance to save for retirement, living on shoestrings, compromising on family life, etc.  It’s hard enough for me, but the glass ceiling inside the ivory tower is still present, and it’s even thicker for women who are not white, not straight, not Christian, not part of the dominant class.  It worries me, frequently.  But at the same time, I keep making the choice to do this, over and over again.  That might be the definition of insanity.  I like to think it speaks to my tenacity and my belief in my work. 

So expect more here this semester as I wade through required theology classes, learning Spanish and German to supplement my Latin and French, trying to get my health sorted out, prepare for comprehensive exams, and make ends meet.  And get married!  It’s going to be one heck of a semester.

What’re your big hurdles this semester?  What are you anticipating?  What are you dreading? 

Victorians and the Medieval World

As I’ve done my work in New Orleans and read about the 19th century, I keep running into the Medieval past.  This was surprising to me initially.  With all the emphasis on progress and industrialization going on in 19th century America, why would the Medieval world, with its connotations of darkness and backwardness, have resonance?

In my career prior to Goddard, I was a religious studies scholar, and I primarily worked on American Catholicism.  I was keenly interested in how religion gave immigrants and other minority groups a sense of identity and the psychological bulwark to resist forces of oppression and assimilation.  (These are admittedly still interests of mine, but I’ve come to realise that religion as boundary maintenance is a universal phenomenon, not one limited to the modern period.)  One of the things Catholicism had working for it as an immigrant faith was its emphasis on the continuity of authority and tradition.  The 19th century saw a vast shift in social, political, and economic realities with the emergence of industrialisation, nationalism, and the ongoing development of imperialism in the West.  As these shifts came, the Roman Catholic Church responded in a variety of ways, some better than others, and two features became prominent: ultramontanism and revitalized devotionalism.

The devotional revolution of the 19th century is usually spoken of in terms of Irish response to the Famine of the mid 1840s and the re-emergence of the Catholic Church as a source of identity and stability as Ireland re-formed itself culturally and socially.  However, given the prominence of Irish priests and religious in the Church in English-speaking territories, especially the United States, including priests of other nationalities trained at All Hollow’s in Ireland, it is fair to say that the Irish devotional revolution applies to vast swaths of the Church in the West.  The devotional revolution saw a rise in Marian devotions, as well as novenas and other acts of personal piety.  Many of these echoed in some way the envisioned medieval past, the moment of the Church ascendant, when the whole West was united under one Latin Church.  The Marian devotions in particular harkened back to the emergence of the Marian cult in the High Middle Ages, just after the First Crusade.  As social and cultural factors were in the midst of fast-paced shifts (consider how much happened in the long 12th century), the cult of the Blessed Virgin Mary offered stability and comfort.  It is no wonder it was revitalized in the 19th century and became a highly visible part of the Church.

Ultramontanism is the other factor at play here.  As the Church responded to the challenges of the 19th century, there was an increasing emphasis on the Pope’s authority.  Ultramontanists were those who saw the Church as supreme, rather than moderate lay Catholics who were willing to eschew Catholic traditions in order for Catholics to be able to function in modern, nationalist societies.  (Ultramontanism coming from the phrase “beyond the mountains,” being a reference to the Pope’s position in Rome — beyond the Alps, as far as the rest of Europe was concerned.)  This position put an emphasis on the Church as the only true arbiter of matters of faith and appealed to its long traditions as proof.  This is the movement that gave us the First Vatican Council in the late 1860s with its doctrine of papal infallibility, the height of ultramontanist achievements.  This two-pronged emphasis on tradition and authority saw the revival of neo-Thomistic thought — that is to say, the revival of Thomas Aquinas as the ultimate theologian of the Church.  This theology began to ask questions like, “What would Thomas Aquinas have thought about railroads?  What would Thomas Aquinas have thought about factories?”  These questions were intended to interpret the modern world according to timeless theological principles: those of the Middle Ages.

In this appeal to neo-Thomistic thought and traditional authority, the 19th century Church appealed, essentially, to its medieval past.  It placed itself squarely in the tradition of the medieval Church, and utilised elements like neo-Gothic architecture and a revitalization of the university movements of the High Middle Ages to create Catholic universities.  (I should know, I attended one that was founded, neo-Gothic buildings and all, in 1887.)  It created Catholic churches across the United States that drew from the great cathedrals of Europe.  It appealed to the medieval past, to a vision of order and spiritual authority that trickled down from God to the Pope to anointed kings, all in proper order, as if the Protestant Reformation and the push towards nationalism and democracy had never occurred.  The medieval past to which the Church appealed was largely a fabricated one, but it was an orderly fabrication — the same one to which the emergent Antiquarian movement appealed.  Just like the Church, the Antiquarians saw value in the orderly medieval past where the social bonds between lord and vassal, between Church and faithful were intact and governed by a spiritual awareness of duty and obligation, a sharp contrast to the mercenary, alienating industrial present of the 19th century.  It pitted green country and Robin Hood’s Sherwood Forest against the black smoke of factories and the squalor of urban slums.  It appealed to the satisfying ideas of chivalry and nobility against capitalism and greed.  Hand-in-hand, the Catholic Church and the Antiquarians created a Victorian vision of the medieval world that said more about the 19th century than it did about the 12th.

The medieval world for the Victorians represented something orderly.  It represented a more spiritual, more pure age in which authority was God-given and unquestioned — as if the Anarchy never happened — and everyone knew their social duty and performed it. It represented a sort of pastoralism, as well as a world in which faith was unquestioned and piety an unqualified good.  For the Church, it was a time of imagined unlimited, unchallenged authority, and a time in which heads of state were loyal subjects to God’s will.  For immigrants, strangers in a strange land, this vision of the Church’s medieval grandeur placed them safely within a tradition that had greater meaning an authority than the strange country with odd laws and untrustworthy institutions in which they found themselves.  The Church was rock solid, enduring, and safe.  It would come to their rescue like knights in shining armour.  Or so the images seem to suggest.

I saw a great many of these images in New Orleans, which should come as no surprise, given how Catholic of a city New Orleans is, and its named association with one of the great medieval cities of France, Orléans.  In the windows of St Louis Cathedral, I saw beautiful 19th century stained glass depicting not, as is most common, a plethora of saints chosen by donors, but rather, the complete visual history of the life of St Louis IX, complete with scenes of him on the Eighth Crusade.

The stained glass depiction of knights carrying the coffin of St Louis IX of France, draped with a cloth bearing the red Crusader’s cross.

The medieval past sits out in the open in New Orleans, and all through 19th century America.  It is fascinating, and speaks to not only the 19th century vision of the Middle Ages, but as well, the vision of the Middle Ages that the period itself left us to interpret and find meaningful.  I’m still teasing out this idea, but I suspect it will keep taking me backwards, into the foundational places in which the medieval world gave birth to the modern one.