Friday, April 2, 2010

April 2

This has been yet another annoying week. It has not been nearly as bad as the previous one, mercifully enough, but it has been annoying nonetheless.

First, there was a long, ranting e-mail message from Brendan Cohen on Monday. He denounced me for repaying everything he had supposedly done for me with sheer ingratitude. He even had the nerve to blame me for how badly his talk at Charles went! He said that if only I had told him what was in Briggs’s new book, he could have adjusted his presentation accordingly. How pathetic! I just deleted the message without bothering to reply to it. I also deleted him from my list of e-mail contact list since I have no reason to contact him again.

Second, Michael has been openly hostile to me ever since Brendan’s ill-fated presentation. “So that was the best of Barstow?” he asked sarcastically the first time I saw him afterward. And whenever he’s seen me since then, he asks, “And how’s our boy from Barstow doing?” I’m not sure if he means Cohen or me. Once he said, “Jeez! You really didn’t have much of an education there at Barstow, did you? You were quite lucky to get in to Charles, weren’t you?” I couldn’t really respond in kind by disparaging where he had done his undergraduate work since he had done it right here at Charles. Michael’s open hostility is an ominous sign. It shows that he doesn’t see me as important enough to bother with being polite to.

Third, this African-American student (whose name I am not mentioning) is really proving to be something of a trial. Let me explain. During his lecture section this past Tuesday, Briggs reminded the undergrads that the 5-10 page critical book review they were to write for his course was due in two weeks and gave dire warnings about how papers would be marked down by one letter grade for each day late. He then reminded them that the list they were to choose a book from to review was on the syllabus. “And remember,” Briggs thundered, “I want analysis, not description. Don’t tell me what the book said. I’ve read it already myself. Tell me why the book’s argument is right or wrong. And I’ll give you a little hint: it’s probably wrong! Except, of course, for my book.” I knew that Briggs was joking, but I think the students (the third of them or so that were there) took him seriously.

Anyway, this one African-American male student comes to my office hours that same afternoon all in a stew over the critical book review, saying that he’s never written one before and demanding to know how he’s supposed to read an entire book and write a paper about it all in just two weeks. I reminded him that this requirement and its due date were listed on the syllabus he received at the beginning of the semester, and that he should have selected a book to review long before now. He responded angrily, declaring that my saying this implied that he was somehow an inferior student because he was black. I calmed him down by saying that he surely wasn’t the only one who hadn’t begun this project yet; procrastination was an equal opportunity problem among students.

He asked me what book he should choose and what he should say about it. This was up to him, I responded. He kept asking what sort of arguments Briggs would like to hear about the different books on the list. I replied that I doubted Briggs would be reading many of these reviews, if any; I was the one who graded them. So then, of course, he wanted to know what I wanted him to say. Finally, I told him that a good way to start thinking of what to say about a book was to see what others had said about it in previously published reviews. This idea appealed to him and he finally went away—after taking up over 45 minutes of my time!

But just as he left, in walked the week’s fourth annoyance: Shivvy. At first she railed against me for having treated such an obvious loser as the person who just left with such kid gloves, making her wait so long to see me in the process. “You wouldn’t have treated him so gently if he’d been white! Admit it!” she said. I told her to lower her voice before the black student or anybody else overheard her uttering something so provocative. She just doesn’t know any limits.

“Well actually, Mr. Vining,” she said with mock respect, “I came here to talk about the book review myself. What with that interesting presentation we had last week by that gentleman from Cal State Barstow (I think you know who I mean?)I thought I might do one on the Briggs book myself.” Briggs had indeed put his previous book on the list for students to choose from.

I told her that she was free to choose that or any other book on the list to review. “Yes, I’m aware of that, Mr. Vining,” she responded. “What I came to ask you is this: could I borrow that senior thesis you wrote last year, and also the paper you did for Professor Saltz at Harvard last semester? It would really help me organize my thoughts if I could.”

At first I said no, but she finally talked me into it with the argument that she really missed our intellectual intercourse (“as well as other types”) from last semester, and that if I really wanted her to believe that I hadn’t thrown her over but was serious about getting back with her at the end of the semester, I wouldn’t deny her this small request. We agreed that she would come over to my apartment on Thursday evening to pick up the two papers to save her the trouble of printing them out if I e-mailed them to her.

She looked at her watch. “Only ten minutes!” she said. “You were very efficient with me, Mr. Vining.” I let this pass without comment. She made as if to leave, but then said (in a way I was certain afterward she had rehearsed), “Oh, by the way: I went to see Professor Briggs about the midterm you gave me the “B+” on. He’s agreed to raise it to an “A-.”

This really pissed me off. “Why?” I practically shouted.

Shivvy shrugged. “You’ll just have to ask him, I guess. But don’t feel bad. This was the first time you've graded anything. It’s understandable that you made a mistake. I don’t hold it against you.”

And this leads me to the week’s fifth annoyance: Briggs. As soon as she had left, I called him up and asked if it was true that he had raised her grade. He said it was. I asked him why.

“This is the young lady,” he responded, “whom you had to put your relationship with on hold this semester to avoid a conflict of interest, right?”

After I confirmed this, he said, “Look, Jonathan. She explained to me that you were unhappy about her going out with other guys, and that this might have affected your judgment in grading her exam. She just thought it should be read by someone she had not been personally involved with. So I read it myself and had to agree that maybe your personal feelings about her didn’t allow you to appreciate the merit in what she had written.”

I told him how I had graded all the exams blind, without knowing who had written them. “There’s no point in arguing about this, Jonathan. I’m the one who’s ultimately responsible for the grades in this class. Although I agreed with your judgment in all the other cases where students appealed to me, I didn’t in this one case.

“I can understand why you might be so upset by this girl,” he continued. “She’s very, very charming. But the semester will soon be over, and you’ll have the opportunity to win her back, okay? And with that, I’m afraid I have to go.”

What a bitch! She just made that entire story up! I confronted her about it when she came over to borrow my senior thesis and paper for Saltz. She just acted as if it was all a big joke. “Are you jealous?” she kept asking—while looking all around the room for evidence of a female presence (all she found was another one of her own damn scrunchies).

When I asked her to please be serious, she responded, “Well, how else do you explain your giving me a “B+”? It had to be for some personal reason since it clearly wasn’t what I deserved.”

We argued inconclusively for awhile until she declared that it was all a misunderstanding and that she was ready to kiss and make up. I said I wanted to do that too—when the semester ended next month.

After denouncing me as a “fucking bore,” she got up to leave. But just before she went out the door, I asked her whether she was really going out with other guys.

“Oh, Mr. Vining!” she responded. “Such a personal question! How unprofessional of you to ask it!” And then she left.

God, what a bitch! But I have to admit: I admire her for her sheer brazenness with Briggs. And I really am looking forward to the end of the semester.

1 comment:

  1. Dear J.V.

    First, I am sorry to start with a downer: this 'novel' sucks.
    You cleverly posted a link on a college board and, at first read, you succeed in giving verisimilitude to the postulate of a first-year grad student (a position I am familiar with) more or less struggling in the academic world. But, with each entry comes another turn of events that is so, so, so, cliché.
    The issue is, you use nicely some topoi of grad life, like grading problems, TA rivalries, tenure intrigues, etc., but you use ALL of them! The star prof bangs the grad-star-disdained waitress girlfriend, the hero's gf takes the class he's TAing... and, above all, what this latest entry foreshadows (oh so gaudily!), the karma backlash of racism. """OMG! Danielle was right! I am in fact a racist for thinking she could have been a racist and now I am called a racist but really I'm not!"" SHOCKER!
    Come on! My only hope is that Briggs does not bang Shivvy (wtf with the names btw? really, it undermines the 'serious' and doesn't bring out any humor... just awkwardness) as well and have her (tacky tacky tacky "tiny detail") scrunchies fell out of his pocket or something like that.
    On another note, frankly your main character is a sham. You make him a self-conscious Rastignac who's ready for the world, bites the hand that raised him, and aspires, nay, requires fame, glorious academic fame. All (ALL) the apartés destined to "biographers" and so on are weak and illogical: if he has such a reflexive approach to what he's writing, why doesn't he go back and put things in perspective, since things themselves fall into place perfectly, the abused gf becoming the cheater, the neorad escaping to neolib haven, the racial grading strategy parallel... Constantly, your hero claims to intelligence, incoming stardom or neo-rad purity are rebuked by stupid things even random commenters pointed out. I'm sure you wrote some of them on purpose, preparing the final judgment/unraveling when the hero will be exposed as a fool. But, and again, I am sorry to say it, it's all see-through. Therefore one the one hand you lose the (interesting) verisimilitude and on the other, your subtle 'tragic irony'falls flat even before the plot profits of it.
    The prose is mediocre, sort of serving the 'diary' purpose, but not exactly what I expected from the next Chomsky (I guess?).

    To conclude, I shoud and want to say that I never ever comment on blogs or stuff online. The percentage of moronic and shallow comments infuriates me and I steer clear. But here I spent maybe 1/2h commenting and as much reading so I think I am not completely dismissive of your writing endeavor. Some of the situations and characters reminded me of real counterparts, and it is clear you know how to write legible, balanced English. But I urge you (humbly, after all) to reconsider your approach of fiction, as this is currently a hasty patchwork of all the oddities you encountered or heard of fro the Academia. And to strenghten your argument and your main characters, you should keep off this 'diary' format, which dilutes every interesting issue you raise (race, sex, career (tenure, grade, TA-prof relations, administration, conferences)), and passes them off as mere anecdotes of a strikingly obnoxious, self-centered, servile random grad student.

    I would not mind if you removed this comment from the blog, but I would very much hope that you'll keep it somewhere for yourself to reflect on your writings to come. And the good lit references you cite elsewhere should help you too! I found none of the humor you seem to like in 19th century novelists. Have you read David Lodge and William Boyd? It's not as great as Rabelais (I should know, I'm French), but it's worth studying considering your aspirations and themes.



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