Burn Your Textbook

I’m having a lot of trouble with the cultural politics of my “Introduction to Japanese Culture” class.

On Tuesday I tried to give a nice and pleasant lecture on Zen Buddhism in the Muromachi period and ended up channeling the unquiet ghost of Karl Marx during a discussion of how the cultural production of the elite is glorified as a means of social and political control.

It’s been really difficult for me not to do this. I feel the same way about Zen that I feel about eugenics, which is that we need to apply the same level of critical thinking to the concept of “restful meditation” that we do to the concept of “healthy babies,” especially given that the ideological systems connected to these concepts were used to justify and facilitate two of the major genocides of the twentieth century.

I’m going to try to do better in today’s class, but I still feel weird about it, like, Hello children, let me sell you lies.

2020 Writing Log, Part Five

– I did more admin work relating to the publication of my book. I should be able to review the proofs during the first two weeks of March. If all goes well, the book will be out for its scheduled release date in May.

– I also did some admin work to help get an essay I wrote about Twilight Princess back in 2017 digitized and in academic databases. The journal it was published in has a relatively small circulation, but the current editor is doing a lot of good work to promote it and get it out into the world.

– I posted Chapter 27 of Malice on AO3 (and Chapter 25 on FFN). I also wrote a rough outline of the current story arc. I’ve always known how I’d like the story to end, but getting there is going to be an adventure.

– I finished replying to comments on AO3. People are so incredibly smart and kind on that site, and it fills me with positive energy to correspond with everyone who has left comments on my stories. Now that I’ve responded to the comments on my own fic, it’s time to start leaving comments on other people’s stories.

– I wrote the first five stories for my chapbook of creepypasta short fiction, which I’ve decided to call “It Never Happened.” I’d like this chapbook to be the same length as Ghost Stories (primarily to minimize the cost of printing and postage), so I think it might only have thirteen to fifteen stories. I have enough ideas and drafts to fill a third chapbook, but I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.

– I submitted an application and an art portfolio to an upcoming zine about Skyward Sword called The Path of the Goddess. I think the chances of me being accepted to participate in the zine are probably quite low, but it doesn’t hurt to try!

As I predicted, I’ve had to put a lot of time and emotional energy into teaching this semester, and I just started apartment hunting in Philadelphia. It’s therefore been very important to me to sit down every morning and, before anything, spend at least half an hour writing. I love doing this, but I had to make a firm decision to commit to doing it. I know there are other things I “should” be doing with the best hour of my day in order to be more “productive” at my actual paying job, but fuck that place.

Pokémon Sword and Shield

I started playing Pokémon Sword on December 4, and I beat the game last night. It took a little more than 42 hours, which is the result of me playing about half an hour a day for the past two and a half months.

I feel like I spent most of my time with Pokémon Sword goofing off in the Wild Area, dressing my character in ridiculous outfits, and figuring out to make truly bizarre unique league cards. I really enjoyed myself.

What I appreciate about this generation of Pokémon games is that, partially thanks to the open-world style Wild Area, the player can create a diverse and balanced team from the start, which means that you can set up your team within two or three hours and then not have to worry about level grinding or otherwise catching up under-leveled pokémon. All the creatures on my team were at level 70 at the end of the game, and they’d all been with me since the first gym battle. I caught 225 species of pokémon without really trying, but it was just for fun.

Compared to previous generations, Pokémon Sword and Shield don’t have much of an overarching story, but I love the location and the characters. I played about half of the game in handheld mode and the other half on my television. I’ve always wanted to play a Pokémon game in widescreen high definition, and this was everything I ever dreamed of. Each of the towns and cities is gorgeous, and the big stadium battles are phenomenal. The major characters have all sorts of interesting microexpressions and small animation flourishes that help you get a sense of their personalities, and their designs are attractive and eye-catching.

It will probably not surprise anyone that I have a crush on Chairman Rose, who tries very hard to be evil but comes off as goofy and adorable. Early on in the game, Rose shows up “incognito” to have lunch with your character at a fancy restaurant in one of the most fantastically Eurotrash outfits I have ever had the pleasure to behold. I was so inspired by his ridiculous combination of sportswear and beachwear that I spent the entire game hyper-focused on earning money so that I could buy clothes and achieve the same glorious antithesis of style.

By the time the player has their final showdown against Rose in the creepy ambient glow of shattered test tubes with a “One-Winged Angel” style choral piece as the BGM, my character was a complete and utter eyesore. I hope Rose was proud of me.

I had a lot of fun with Pokémon Sword. I recently saw – on Twitter, I think? – someone say that there are three main genres of video games: Men With Guns, It’s About Depression, and Nintendo. I totally get that, and I appreciate that Pokémon Sword and Shield are strong “Nintendo” games in the sense that they don’t take themselves too seriously and allow you to play them in whatever way you like. I’m not super-invested in the DLC, but I think it might be nice to return to the Galar region when new content is available this summer.

2020 Writing Log, Part Four

– I posted Chapter 26 of Malice on AO3. This chapter was supposed to be twice as long, but I decided to split it into two chapters for ease of editing and serialization. I’m beginning to realize that a decently edited chapter of roughly 1,500 words is a good weekly goal for me.

– I edited Chapter 24, which I posted on FFN, and Chapter 25, which I queued for this coming weekend. I edited both chapters so extensively that it was almost line editing, and I added a bit of extra material as well. Neither chapter felt particularly rough when I initially posted it, but it’s amazing what you start to notice once you’ve put some distance between yourself and your story. The people who read these chapters on AO3 when they’re first posted are saints, and I’m infinitely grateful to them for their support.

– I’m still replying to my month-long backlog of comments on AO3. I’m really enjoying myself, but it’s hard to resist the temptation to write a complete four-paragraph essay in response to everyone letting them know how insightful they are and how much I respect and appreciate their comments.

– I started work on my second set of original short stories. More specifically, I edited all my notes into separate documents and gave each story a title. I also decided on the story order. I think it was Ariel Gore (a prolific anthology editor and contributor) who said that it’s the last story in a collection that gets the most casual attention and therefore has to be short and impactful, so I’ve tried to keep that in mind. I’m going to start writing the actual stories this week, and I’m looking forward to it. In all honesty, I’ve been looking forward to this for the past year, but I haven’t been able to find the time. One of the nice things about deciding to leave my current job is that it’s become much easier to carve an hour out of the day to write without feeling like a complete professional failure.

There are a few academic writing projects that I should have been working on this week, but I did! Not! Do! Any of them! I’m actually thinking of dropping two of these projects because… It’s not that I no longer care, but rather that I’m no longer interested in the unnecessary violence of formal peer review, especially not regarding a piece of writing that I won’t be compensated for and that will only be read by maybe a few dozen people. I no longer have to worry about building a CV, so I may as well concentrate my time and energy on a smaller number of academic writing projects that might actually benefit someone (including myself).

Instead of chipping away at academic articles and committee reports, I’ve been putting a lot of time, attention, and TLC into my classes, which are going extremely well this semester. I knew this would be the case, but it still managed to surprise me how much easier it’s become to teach and advise students now that I can treat teaching like a full-time job instead of a guilty pleasure relegated to the last item on my “To Do” list.

Neoliberalism in Higher Education and the Two-Body Problem

In January I notified my department at George Mason University that Spring 2020 would be my last semester at the school. I had been having difficulty with the university for the past two years, and I ultimately decided that it was not healthy or sustainable for me to continue working there.

Even though it’s far from perfect, I still have a lot of respect and admiration for the American university system, and I value every single day that I was able to work with my students, who are a brilliant generation of young people who give me hope for the future.

That being said, I think it’s fair to admit that I’ve had a lot of trouble adjusting to the institutional culture of George Mason University, which requires extraordinary work and commitment from its faculty without providing any resources to facilitate productivity. Because this trend toward neoliberalism – which emphasizes individual responsibility within an institutional structure – is far from uncommon in academia, I’d like to write about my experiences with the hope that my story might benefit someone else.

In retrospect, I think a lot of the trouble I experienced stems from the fact that it was impossible for me to live close to campus.

I’m married, and my partner is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. George Mason is in Fairfax, which is one of the Virginia suburbs of Washington DC. My partner is more comfortable with driving than I am, so we decided to live together in DC, where we share a modest one-bedroom apartment in a rent-controlled building in a neighborhood by the National Zoo.

I commute to Fairfax (which is about an hour away from DC), and my partner commutes to Philadelphia (which is about two hours and fifteen minutes away from DC). It’s possible for both of us to use public transportation, but it’s expensive and adds at least an hour to our respective travel times. We therefore share a car, which I use on Tuesdays and Thursdays and my partner uses on Mondays and Wednesdays.

This is not an ideal situation, obviously, but it’s far from uncommon. In fact, it’s so pervasive in academia that it’s referred to as the “two body problem” (here’s the Wikipedia entry). To summarize, most universities in the United States aren’t located in major cities; so, if someone gets a job at a university, it’s unlikely that their spouse will be able to find the same sort of job in their field close to campus that they could in a city. There is a gendered component to this, of course. If the professor is male, it’s easier for them to convince their non-academic spouse that it’s reasonable to leave their job in order to accept a lower-paying or “work from home” position near the university.

This problem is also gendered in that people who aren’t male are expected to perform more emotional labor and make more personal sacrifices as a matter of course. If a man isn’t physically present on campus because he lives far away, he is “making the best of a less-than-ideal situation.” If someone who isn’t male isn’t physically present on campus because they live far away, they are “selfish” and “not taking their job seriously enough.”

I’m openly nonbinary and use they/them pronouns, but I present (mostly) as female at work in order to avoid unnecessary discrimination (which can be a serious issue, especially at a notably conservative school like GMU). As you might imagine, then, I’ve been on the receiving end of numerous comments from my department chair that I’m “selfish” and “not taking my job seriously enough” because I can’t come to campus on Mondays and Wednesdays without enough advance notice to allow my partner to get Amtrak tickets to and from Philadelphia (and, if necessary, a hotel room). Amtrak being what it is, tickets aren’t always available, and a one-way ticket can cost well over $100. My partner and I do what we can, but we can’t afford to pay hundreds of dollars so that I can drive more than two hours to attend a twenty-minute meeting on campus.

I should add that my partner, who is cisgender and male, is never asked to come to meetings on campus when he’s not scheduled to be there. He is “making the best of a less-than-ideal situation,” after all.

Both my partner and I understand that my situation would be better if we were to live closer to GMU, especially because of the gendered double standard. My partner is a good and decent person, and he’s expressed willingness to spend even more time on the road so that I’m able to spend more time on campus – even though he receives a substantially higher salary than I do.

Unfortunately, Fairfax is one of the most expensive places to live in the United States. For various reasons relating to class and privilege, real estate prices in and around Fairfax are astronomical. There are relatively few apartment buildings, and those that do exist have prices comparable with those in Washington DC, which is one of the most expensive cities in the world.

For these reasons, George Mason University is a commuter school, a fact that’s openly acknowledged in written profiles of the university. Not only do the majority of students commute, but many faculty and staff do as well. GMU is a public school, and we’re all paid public school salaries – and, given GMU’s relative lack of prestige, our salaries are on the low end, generally lower than the salaries of faculty and staff of the same rank at the University of Virginia.

GMU has been attempting to promote on-campus engagement by building dorms (that are still quite expensive) and providing a block of single-family homes close to campus that are temporarily available to new faculty members. What happened with the faculty housing, however, is that everyone who moved into these houses couldn’t afford to move out, because of course they couldn’t. The university allowed them to stay, and there’s no longer any subsidized university housing for new faculty.

I know this because, during my first two years at GMU, I set up meetings with various people in the university administration to try to find a solution that would allow me to live closer to campus.

What I was told, over and over again, was to separate from my spouse. That way, I could live in one of the undergraduate dorms. With the undergraduates, what fun! I could only stay in the dorms for nine months out of the year, but I could always travel and do research for the other three. I study Japan, right? So I could get a new research grant every year to spend the summer in Japan. For holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas, when students aren’t allowed to be in residence on campus, I could travel and get an Airbnb next to the library of a major university. Think of the research opportunities!

I was shocked the first time a senior colleague suggested this, but it kept happening. I set up formal meetings with about a dozen people to ask how I could be closer to campus, but I stopped trying when it became clear that such meetings accomplished nothing more than making me extremely frustrated. I also kept an eye on local real estate and apartment listings (which became something of a guilty hobby), but I never saw anything that was the right combination of not out of my price range, not abjectly miserable, and not already taken by the time I could schedule a viewing.

As a result, I remained in DC and continued to commute to campus on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and I put a lot of effort into being able to make it to campus for events or meetings for which I had been given sufficient prior notice.

Because George Mason University is a commuter school, I’m far from the only person who isn’t on campus every day. In fact, the corridor that contains most of the faculty offices for my department is always lined with closed doors and very quiet. Almost all of the department mailboxes are overflowing, since very few people check their mail more than once or twice a month.

As a result, when I first came to GMU, no one invited me to have coffee with them. No one invited me out to lunch, and no one invited me to a house party. I sent friend requests on various social media platforms to other people in my department, but they never responded. There were very friendly campus cultures at University of Pennsylvania (where I went to grad school), Haverford College (where I first started teaching), and University of Notre Dame (where I was a visiting professor), so I was a bit put off by this chilliness. I was actually more than a little hurt, to be honest, but I realized that this was just part of being a faculty member at a commuter school.

I was gradually able to become friendly with a few people, but I ended up becoming much closer to many of my students than I ever was with most of my colleagues. Based on various interactions I’ve seen over the past five years, I don’t think many of my colleagues are particularly close to one another.

This isn’t the worst situation in the world, and I’m sure that other people have had to deal with more difficult circumstances. I’m an adult, and I can perform well at my job even despite a lengthy commute. After all, it’s not the commute itself that’s the problem – it’s the unreasonable expectation that I behave as if I lived in the same (exorbitantly expensive) neighborhood as George Mason University.

Because it was extremely difficult for me to live close to the university, I was never able to establish a strong physical presence on campus. People in positions of power – especially my department chair – accused me of being uninvolved and uninvested in “the intellectual life of the department,” and I wasn’t able to cultivate a close relationship with a tenured senior colleague who might have been willing to sit down with the department chair in a friendly meeting and help him tone down these sorts of accusations.

And again, just to emphasize the point that there is a gendered double standard at play, I want to repeat that my male partner spends less time on campus than I do and has never had to deal with any of this.

You might be reading this essay and thinking, “I don’t know what this person is complaining about; I was successful at my university while facing even greater hardships.” If that’s the case, that’s wonderful, but I can guarantee that you were successful because someone, at some point, saw you struggling and either helped you out or let the small things slide.

Or it could be the case that there was never any need for anyone to assist you or forgive you because you were always exactly where you were supposed to be and always did everything perfectly. If that’s the case, you are in the .001% of human beings, and you deserve to be proud of your accomplishments.

Still, you have to ask yourself about the necessity of everything being perfect all the time. For example, does your car have to be in the top .001% of cars, or is it enough that it has good gas mileage and gets you where you’re going without breaking down? Does the sandwich you ate for lunch have to be in the top .001% of sandwiches, or is it enough that it was healthy and satisfying? Does the person who delivers your mail have to be in the top .001% of postal carriers, or is it enough that your mail arrives undamaged and on time every day?

What I’m trying to suggest is that, even though perfection is wonderful, it’s not strictly necessary.

So if you have a professor who – like many professors – lives far away from the university and can’t come to campus at a moment’s notice, that’s not ideal, but isn’t it enough that they show up when they’re supposed to and do their job well?

Sometimes it’s reasonable to expect excellence, of course. If you’re going to make that demand, however, you have to be willing to expend the necessary resources. In my case specifically, if my university truly expected me to be physically present on campus and highly engaged in campus life, there should have been someone at some point who offered to make this possible, especially when I reached out to multiple people to ask for help.

It should go without saying that I would have preferred to live close to campus, ideally without having to separate from my partner – or without having to live in student dorms or a low-budget student apartment for the rest of my life. Because George Mason University is a commuter school, there was never that much happening on campus, but I enjoyed the events and lectures and performances I was able to attend, and I genuinely would have liked to feel as if I were part of a larger university community. Unfortunately, this was not possible due to concrete limitations of resources, especially time and money.

What hurt more than not having access to a supportive community, however, was constantly being made to feel as if this was because I was a lazy and irresponsible person who was not willing to make the necessary sacrifices and commitments. The people involved in this sort of mean-spirited bullying are specific individuals who should have known better yet made the decision to be cruel instead of kind. That being said, the institutional culture at George Mason University not only enables but actively promotes this sort of toxic behavior, and that’s a much more serious problem than the pettiness of a few grumpy old professors.

When I talk about neoliberalism in higher education, this is what I’m talking about – institutional cultures that promote the interests of the university-as-corporation by keeping workers in a constant state of economic and emotional precarity. Employees will work harder if they’re constantly being made to feel that their labor is never sufficient; and, when the stress causes them to pass their maximum point of productivity, they can easily be replaced by younger and fresher workers who can be hired at lower salaries. The same goes for students as well, in that students who drop out can be replaced by students who come in already paying a higher base tuition.

This is not healthy, and it’s not sustainable.

For me personally, it wasn’t healthy or sustainable to continue commuting, and it was unreasonable to expect that I would separate from my spouse in order to be more “productive.” In addition, it wasn’t healthy or sustainable to continue making enormous sacrifices of money and time only to be accused of “laziness” by senior colleagues. I like to think I did good work – and every metric used to evaluate me supported this – but developing a serious anxiety disorder because I was never “good enough” was also not sustainable, especially when this negative assessment was directly connected to factors completely beyond my control.

It’s a fair question – Why should the evaluation of someone’s professional performance be dependent on something as notoriously difficult to control as the real estate market?

I think it’s an even more critical question to ask why the evaluation of someone’s professional performance should be dependent on the privilege they bring with them to the position, especially in terms of wealth, mobility, and gender.

This post is the first half of a longer essay. In the second half, I’m going to elaborate more on how the neoliberal emphasis on “individual responsibility” creates serious problems when combined with a systematic denial of basic resources.

2020 Writing Log, Part Three

I was at an academic conference last weekend, so I had to hit the ground running for the second week of classes. I’m teaching two entirely new classes this semester, and both of them require a lot of prep work. I’m doing my best to stay on top of my writing, but I’m afraid the next three months are going to involve making a lot of slideshows and handouts, not to mention keeping up with grading and emails. This is what I managed to accomplish during the week…

– The co-editors of the academic essay collection of JRPGs I mentioned in an earlier writing log told me that my abstract about the influence of Studio Ghibli on the Zelda series isn’t a good fit, so I submitted another abstract based on their suggestions. The new abstract is for a paper titled “Empowered Androgyny and Queer Masculinity in The Legend of Zelda.” I’m excited about this project, and I’ve already started putting together a bibliography and an outline for the paper.

– I’m also plugging away at a few other academic publications, including an article on Hiromi Kawakami and a lengthy book review.

– I submitted the final drafts of my story and comic script to a fanzine about Ganondorf.

– I posted Chapter 25 of Malice on AO3. This is the halfway mark of the novel, and I’m very happy to be here! At this point I probably need to take a short break to do some research and rework my initial outline as I prepare to write the second half of the story.

– I’ve been editing Chapter 23 ever since I posted it, and I think it’s finally in a decent place. I therefore posted the chapter on FFN, which is where I put chapters when I’m sick of looking at them.

– I’ve been doing my best to respond to comments on AO3. I’m lucky to have found a number of very smart readers, and I love responding to their thoughts, but I can only be so clever on any given day. I got through about two dozen comments this past week, and I really enjoyed myself.

– This required a lot of phone calls, in-person meetings, and paperwork, but I managed consolidate all of my debt under a larger loan with a low interest rate. If you don’t know what effect not having to worry about debt has on writing, then you’ve probably never experienced economic precarity. And that’s great, but you’re going to have to take my word for it that this is a major step forward in my creative life.

– Speaking of money! Sticker Mule was having a big sale at the end of January, so I made vinyl stickers of two of my recent drawings. I’m doing my best to keep up a consistent art practice despite an intense work schedule, and it helps to complete small projects like this, even if it’s just a hobby.

Algorithmic Time

The 2010s Broke Our Sense Of Time
https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/katherinemiller/the-2010s-have-broken-our-sense-of-time

How did everything get so jumbled? Stories about our phones, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and the rest often concern Nazis, grifters, scammers, plagiarists, the aesthetes who reject that online life, the famous, the infamous, people who are making a buck, and anyone else who pushes the logic and limits already in place. But what about the rest of us?

The 2000s were a bad decade, full of terrorism, financial ruin, and war. The 2010s were different, somehow more disorienting, full of molten anxiety, racism, and moral horror shows. Maybe this is a reason for the disorientation: Life had run on a certain rhythm of time and logic, and then at a hundred different entry points, that rhythm and that logic shifted a little, sped up, slowed down, or disappeared, until you could barely remember what time it was.

The writer isn’t wrong, but holy hell do all of the flashing GIF images make this article difficult to read. I understand that this is (probably?) the result of an intentional artistic decision to create a format that mimics the experience of having your attention constantly divided between multiple competing demands online, but it works a little too well. The essay is about how having our lives mediated through social media disrupts our memory; and, lo and behold, I can barely remember what I read.

All that being said, I’m planning to cut and paste the text into a document to study later, as what the author is describing mirrors my experience of the past four years almost perfectly.