Saturday, March 28, 2009

Fan Mail

Last week as I blithely drove to work in the morning, obeying all the rules of traffic, I noticed a car attempting to turn left out of a gas station across four lanes of busy traffic without regard to the cars around him. I honked to let him know I was coming and couldn't slow down (there were cars behind me) and he slammed on his brakes just as he hit my passenger-side fender with a very unsatisfying crunch. Ugh. By the time I got to the gas station (about three minutes later), he was long gone and my car was crumpled in front.

It was annoying (and will cost an annoyingly high amount because we couldn't track down the perpetrator), but I'm fine. Since the other driver stopped as he hit me, the impact was only enough to hurt the exterior of the car.

Two days later, my car is in the shop, I'm going about my life fairly normally, when I return home in the evening and check my mailbox. Imagine me opening the mailbox and letters pouring out like a cliche film montage. Yay- letters! I don't usually get this many letters. People are writing to me!

After I brought the initial bunch inside, my joy was somewhat diminished when I discovered that seven of them were from legal firms offering their services, and three were from chiropractors. But still, they took the time to write to me! Fun! I opened them all.

Despite despising the sleazy ethics involved, I find this hilarious. Only one of the first seven legal letters actually spelled both my names correctly, another one addressed me correctly, but in the body of the letter referred to me alternatively as "Mrs. Johnson" and "Mrs. Jackson" (I am not married, nor is my last name "Johnson" or "Jackson").

My favorite was the letter that resembled a belated birthday card, in a pretty canary yellow envelope. I excitedly tore this open revealing a card bearing photograph of a droopy sunflower in a vase and the cursive letters "Sorry about your accident . . ." I opened the card and inside it read "If you're fine, WONDERFUL! If not, you may need to see a chiropractor." Inside the card were two coupons for $10 off a first visit, plus a second card. This card informed me that it contained a simple test to see if I might need chiropractic services: "Think you don't need to see a chiropractor? Take this simple test to find out!" (In other words, "Think you don't need a chiropractor? Think again- your alignment sucks!")

After careful inspection I discovered that most of the envelopes had minuscule lettering on the back stating "this is an advertisement for services" so I'm guessing there's some sort of state law that allows such blatant solicitation providing the disclaimer is barely visible.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Recommendations Bitch

Here follows a transcript of an e-mail exchange between myself and a student I'll call Junior Birdman:

On 3/27/2009 6:44 PM, junior birdman wrote:

Professor Pamphilia-

I apologize to email you both so late and on a Friday, but I was inquiring this week about Professor Constanza's Honors program next year and was hoping you'd be able to write me a recommendation. They are due Monday, and I completely understand if you cannot find the time. I'm sure with grading our papers along with all of your other classes you're swamped. Please let me know if you are unable to write one so I can know to ask someone else. No matter what, I look forward to class and presenting next week. Thanks and have a great weekend!

-Junior Birdman

My response:

Hi Birdman,

I'm sorry. It is too late for me to write for you.

If I had known about this earlier, I would have been very happy to do so, but I require at least one face-to-face discussion, some materials (transcript, cv), and preferably at least 2 weeks notice before I can write a letter. Also, given that I have not taught you in any classes before English 000, and have not yet graded your first full length paper, I don't feel I know you well enough to write a proper recommendation.

In the future, I will be happy to write letters for you, please just ask me at least 2 weeks in advance, and come see me first.


Here's the deal: our students must have a 3.5 gpa in the major and be nominated by at least two faculty members in order to get in to honors. There's no recommendation involved, normally. But students can get professors to write letters for them if their major gpa is below 3.5 and/or they weren't nominated and they're dying to be in the honors seminar and write a thesis. So JB's chances of getting in to honors were very slim to begin with, since he didn't have a 3.5 or higher.

What's your policy on recommendations? Are you strict or a pushover? How often do you say no?

My policy has changed over the years but generally I tell students asking for serious recommendations (scholarships, grad school etc) that if they didn't receive an A- or higher in my class, it might be a good idea for them to ask someone in whose course they did better, instead. I will, however, write any and all recommendations for study abroad. Other than that, I have a few nitpicky requirements designed to weed out the serious students from the less serious ones:

  1. Students must come meet with me in person to discuss the recommendation
  2. I need at least TWO WEEKS notice.
  3. I need stamped, addressed envelopes, filled-out forms, and a list of deadlines
  4. I need copies of transcript and cv.

At the meeting, I usually ask the student about the thing she's applying for, and- a little tip from my dad, a former professor himself - ask her what she would like me to say about her in my letter.

I figure at this point if the student isn't totally freaked out, if she's come this far and done all I've asked, I owe her a recommendation.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Hawk and Dove

Last week I went to Big City to give my talk, and to see friends and family. It was chilly and grey, but I had a great time. The best part, I think, was staying with my friend A and getting to know each other better. I'm one of those people who finds it fairly easy to meet people, but much more difficult to become good friends. I get shy, and sometimes awkwardly share too much information too soon. Or end up talking too much about myself in an effort to counteract any awkward silences. But this time, I felt like I got to know A a lot better, and by the end of the visit I think we're much better friends. It makes me very happy.

Although I spent 6 years in an adjacent metropolis, and another year in one further north, it's been almost three since I've spent time in a big city. And one of the things I had forgotten about was the sounds pigeons make in the early morning. Not just the "croo, croo" noises, but the obscene sounding "Mmm-HMMM" crescendo, which really sounds like they are rather shamelessly sharing their pigeon intercourse with any and all in the vicinity with ears. It turns out that those noises are actually the sounds they make when they're being territorial with one another ("Get off. It's my airconditioner!"), but it's a very distinctive sound nonetheless, and one I had completely forgotten. So much so, that in the foggy half-wakefulness of the early morning I thought I was hearing an owl hooting, which is sometimes what I hear outside my window at home near dawn.

This led me and A to a discussion of the representation of the owl in her favorite artistic Russian animated film, Hedgehog in the Fog (which I highly recommend). And a few minutes later, lo and behold, a raptor landed on the fire escape opposite her window. "Oh my god, it's an OWL!" we shrieked, softly.

Of course it wasn't an owl (it was a sunny afteroon and the bird didn't have a flat face). But it was definitely a bird of prey, and it was looking down avidly at pigeons and other things scuttling around below. We thought perhaps it was a peregrine falcon, and A took some pictures. The next day, it was back around the same time (5pm-ish), and decided to literally pay us a visit, sitting right outside A's window, looking in at us with a detached curiosity. I swear it raised its right talon in salute, then soared off into the air to hunt. I've since identified it as a red-tailed hawk (my precocious 5 year old cousin showed me pictures of peregrine falcons, and after comparing them to A's photos, he correctly identified it). The city has a few famous RTH couples, including one that nests on the shoulders of a statue of John the Baptist at the cathedral near A's apartment. It's most likely that the hawk who paid us a visit was one of these two birds.

When I returned home to a chilly Southern spring, I noticed there were mourning doves sitting on the porch railing right outside my living room window. I watched one for a couple of minutes, and noticed it flying up to the space between one of the porch columns and the porch roof, right next to the wooden porch swing. There at the top of the column, resting on the Chocolate Vine, was a tiny nest, with another mourning dove brooding on it. I've never had birds nesting so close to the house before. It's fascinating, though now I'm very worried that the neighbor's enterprising cat who frequently hangs out on my porch will devise some way to infiltrate it. But so far, he's oblivious. And the birds don't seem to mind me wandering around on the porch. I think they are safe.

I can't decide whether this is a good or a bad omen: it's lovely to have such beautiful birds making their home close to mine. But they are mourning doves, and their call is both comforting and melancholy. My folklore research has turned up some mixed symbolism. On the one hand, doves represent peace, love, and marriage, as they are associated with Roman Venus and the Christian holy spirit. On the other hand, a mourning dove circling above or tapping at the window signifies sickness or death. Luckily, there has been no circling or tapping. Mourning doves' calls are supposed to indicate an end to drought, and they are supposedly a good omen where love and relationships are concerned, so I'm inclined to see this little dove family in a very favorable light.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

33 and a Snow Day

Yesterday, on my thirty-third birthday, my university cancelled classes because 6 inches of snow fell overnight in the midst of a storm that started out rain, then turned to hail, then to winds (which knocked a tree over my colleague's roof and car) and then to snow. And this snow decided to stick around. Which is really something, down here.

Ordinarily this time of year the daffodils are starting to wake up, the forsythia puts out little yellow star-shaped flowers and the early cherry trees are covered in pink fuzz. Instead I woke up to snow covered bushes, icicles and blinding white. My house, which faces north, doesn't get a lot of light in the main rooms. Yesterday, however, it was searingly bright indoors.

It was actually nice, though I spent the better part of the morning pushing snow off the front walk with a broom (who owns a shovel in the south?), and hacking at the masses of snow and ice on my car. It's funny how everything shuts down here. Honestly, 6 inches shouldn't cause all schools and offices and Borders (yes, Borders!) to close for an entire day. I recently learned that this is because my city has absolutely no budget for snow. The town where I grew up, on the other hand, which is in the so-called "Snowbelt," annually budgets about $5 million for snow removal. So basically we had a snow day because there wasn't any money to pay for workers and equipment to get out and clear things away before everything froze again over night.

I appreciated the free day, though, and enjoyed a nice long birthday walk in a transformed universe. It's been a difficult week for me- first the break-up, then a troubled student advisee passing away unexpectedly (it doesn't seem to have been a complete accident, given that no one has released any information about how or why he died). So I was grateful for an extra day on my own to enjoy the snow and curl up at home with the cat, work and a good book or two. Saffron celebrated her seventh birthday with "vitakitty" chicken breast treats, a couple of bites of smoked salmon, and much cuddling and lap-sitting.

My new ex texted me 'Happy Birthday!', which I guess is less shmucky than forgetting or ignoring, but shmuckier than calling. (It's a fine line of shmuckiness exboyfriends have to tread. How much is too much?). My parents got me a beautiful art deco style watch, which I keep forgetting to look at because I've been without one for over a year. What will I use my phone for now? Making calls? How preposterous. In the evening I went out for drinks with a few loyal, die-hard friends, and even though the swanky-ish downtown bar I wanted to go to was closed for a private party, we found a cozy one with an earnest, waistcoated, pony-tailed bartender near my house to serve as a good substitute.

33 wasn't a particularly exciting birthday, and it wasn't without its share of reflection and sorrow, but it was warm, relaxing, and I was okay most of the time, which I suppose is all I can ask for right now.

Professionally I've got a lot on my plate at the moment- a talk next week at a big research institution in a big city, a review due next month, 2-3 MLA paper/session proposals to submit, a new article for a new anthology to collaborate on, plus the Shakespeare Association meeting next month ("Shakes Ass" as Flavia's blog has christened it), a piece under review at ELH and another one almost ready to send out. I'm excited that my SAA seminar organizers have partnered me with a leading scholar in my field who is also someone I respect and know from previous conferences. And of course there's this book to finish and a few fellowships still to hear from. So at least I know that the first 3 months of 33 will be full of work and opportunity.

I hope 33 surprises me with a little happiness too.