Last week when introducing David Fleming I shared a tale about how his article on the progymnasmata saved my ass, and the ass of my revisions to the textbook. My testimony ended with a quip about how his article, as a way of convincing my editor to keep the changes I'd labored over, was even more formidable than my co-author's emails. Audience members who know my co-author appreciated the comparison. Some nodded gravely; others laughed; one shouted, "that's hard to believe!"
It's almost as if my co-author caught word of my remark and took it as a dare. Today we received an email from our editor informing us that we would need to cut 44 pages from the final four chapters and that we had a week to decide where to cut. Let's just say my co-author's reply ripped a new seam into the word formidable, leaving me to rethink my little comparison.
After two awesome brunch events today, I just got around to reading the Sunday Times, and the front page section left me a feeling a little sad. Such a response to the Sunday Times is not really surprising. What is surprising is that a national paper left me feeling sad about my own university. The U of Illinois appears in two A-section articles, one about Max Levchin, the creator of Paypal, who graduated from here in 1997, and who was recently made a very, very rich young man when ebay bought his company. The other one focuses on the University's decision to reverse the Illiniwek ban for the Homecoming parade.
To be honest, I was sad about the Levchin story even before I got to the part where they mentioned his degree, and I was sad about the other story long before it hit the Times (okay, about 48-hours before; this was a last-minute decision). While the news that Levchin was a state-school grad heartened me a little, his own hollowed-out notion of success left me feeling a little dead inside.
Those of you who saw the article know that it's really about Levchin's aimless ambition. How a follow-up venture will feel like a failure to him unless it yields more than Paypal's 1.54 billion. How he claims to take "'a perverse pleasure in seeing if [he] could make someone cry.'" How he would "'probably think about slitting [his] wrists'" if he couldn't start businesses. How he growls when a rival company's name is mentioned. And yet none of this ambition is really all that directed; the article quotes him as saying "I knew I wanted to be a C.E.O, I just didn't know the C.E.O. of what."
That kind of roving and empty urge to conquer feels structurally very similar to the photo of students bearing "Chief Forever" signs in the parade article a few pages later. The people quoted in the article seem to bobble their heads and contradict themselves--what do you expect when the University is not itself solid on the issue? One senior says "'To me it is a very honorable and loyal symbol . . . I love the chief and I wish it was still here, but I also understand how it can be offensive. Now I want to know, is he around or not around? What's the decision?"
Even worse than the University's turnabout is the student newspaper's decision not to publish an editorial on the chancellor's decision about the rule reversal. Daily Illini staff would also not comment to the Times. What?! Sadly, I don't think such lack of engagement is limited to student newspapers, but is pretty widespread on this campus and perhaps others.
Backing away from real, hard issues signifies a refusal to get people to really think about what is right and what is wrong and fails to develop tools that might help to determine one's values and formulate ethical stances. Such refusal might be one contributor to the lostness of someone like Levchin.
I have a new cake recipe that I like to call "virtue cake." It's a Chicago Diner recipe and is (therefore) totally vegan. Instead of crisco, the chocolate mousse icing mixes tofu with melted chocolate chips and a spot of maple syrup, and the cake has whole wheat flour, cocoa, soy margarine, and lots of maple syrup. And it is spectacular.
Last night I made the cake sans icing (no tofu in the house), and today I brought a giant hunk of it to share with colleagues Cara and Ned to chase our bagged lunches while we brainstormed all things Lincoln. I mean, come on. Collaborative grant proposals? Abe Lincoln? Vegan cake? The virtue in the room almost blew off the door.
Today, David Gunkel, a friend and collaborator, came to town. He has a regular guest-star gig in the grad seminar of a cross-campus colleague, and whenever he's here we grab lunch or drinks. It's always fun to catch up; we tend to just grouse about whatever is on our minds. He's up for promotion to full this year, for example, and I have a sabbatical coming up in the spring. Not much to grouse about, we realized. So we talked about our dogs and our spouses and his kid, about mentoring and collaborating and guest-speaking. We talked about the panic that sets in when finishing a book, about institutional quirkiness, about planned research, about wtf has happened to make Champaign's restaurant scene so much better. We ate sushi and salad with roasted beets. Nice and mellow.
And Thursday is David Fleming day. He's slated to meet with the rhetoric reading group and to present at the Writing Studies colloquium. I'll be at both events--moderating the former, introducing him at the latter. David F. is one of those people I can't believe I haven't gotten to meet yet. I'm quite fond of his work in classical rhetoric, though, and am excited to engage with him on two of his other research areas: rhetoric and cities, and local composition history.
I know we're asking a lot of him, but even so, I still wish he could bring a certain new colleague of his with him from Massachusetts.
Schlumping on the couch next to a sleeping whippet watching baseball in the dark with my honey while noodling on the laptop. Occasionally I even make overtures to work--e.g., logging on to open a manuscript I'm supposed to be reviewing, emailing with advisees.
You know what comes close? Sharing apple pie at my desk with foodie-advisee, who went to the orchard and baked over the weekend. Yum.
For the first time in ages, I have nothing on my calendar today. Once I saw a 'free' day materializing, I protected it, like a warrior. And so I am going to spend all day long working on various parts of my book, identifying ends that need to be wrapped up, searching out those niggly "xx"s (the sign I and many others use to mark rough patches); writing some concluding sentences on ecology; finishing footnotes; dreaming about an epilogue on Austin (J.L Austin, not Gilbert Austin, though I've got something simmering on the backburner about Gil); revisiting the science chapter.