Archives for category: teaching

It took them long enough – I submitted on 1 August 2014 and didn’t get any response until 25 March 2015, which is almost eight months – but PMLA finally made a decision on my submission, “Arthur Hailey as Richard Nixon. Workplace Safety in Airport.”

They said no, but their reader reports were, by leaps and bounds, better than any reports I’ve ever received. The “reject” reports said nicer things than the reports I’ve had that say “publish.” It’s certainly the first time I felt better after reading the reasons for rejection.

On the one hand, that feeling comes from the praise they embed in the rejection (more on that soon enough). But what really makes the reader reports good is that it’s clear they read my shit carefully and then wrote a clear and considered set of critiques.

First of all, there’s nothing worth quoting out of the positive, “publish” response. It makes a few suggestions about re-organization and further contextualization (which I did before I sent a revised version to another journal). When you can just pass over the report that thinks you’re just fine in favour of the reports that aren’t convinced of your overall greatness, you know you’re onto something.

From the negative pile, there’s the nice bit, “The section on the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization is especially well developed and includes some useful sources. Finally, I think the writer does well to reflect on Hailey’s status as a best-selling, mass-market author and the place of his works in popular literature.” That’s a decent enough series of attaboys.

But the tie-breaking reader has some real gems that made me feel like I got rejected for good reasons: “This is a brisk, intelligent essay, and it has at its heart some very important “crux” issues….I learned a lot from this essay, and I came away pretty convinced on the third front — that there was a certain kind of ideological alignment or compatibility between Hailey and, if not Nixon (too large a figure to encapsulate this specific a commitment), at least a “Nixonian” approach to labor and, perhaps, workplace safety. The essay does a fine job reading the representations of labor, managerial stress, and well-being in Hailey’s fiction, and its political context is important and nicely sketched.” At this point in my first reading of the report, I double-checked that it indeed said, “reject.” But it did.

I particularly like the way in which my admittedly thin contextualization of the PATCO stuff gives the reviewer pause:

I think the economic and political historicizing of this essay is still a bit thin as well, in that the author works too much from inside-out: from PATCO to the debates over air traffic control and workplace safety, but without any broad scale contextualization of where capitalism or federalism are in the moment he or she is describing. Don’t get me wrong: the author has persuaded me the argument could be made. But to make a more convincing case about “hegemonic” thinking in the polity as a whole, one just would need a fuller sense of the moment, politically and ideologically

When I got to the “don’t get me wrong” part, I almost died of pleasure. I’d like to think it’s the briskness of my prose that carried this reader along, convincing her/him that I was on the right track. Maybe it was even the force of my rhetoric, limited as it was by my thin contextualization. But it’s plain that the reader liked but didn’t love the submission. For once I wish the readers weren’t anonymous so that I could thank them. I even like that it was just a rejection, and not a ticket for the revise-and-resubmit treadmill. I can’t name them, but at the very least these anonymous readers must be encouraged.

I really wish I’d have given up on an academic position much sooner. When I tell people about my job now, I always say, “If I’d known I’d have liked this job so much, I’d have looked for it much sooner.” A while back someone I follow on twitter approvingly linked to “No End in Sight: Academic Research and “Time Off”” In it, Amanda Ann Klein writes about her search for a job “that might actually pay me a salary commensurate with my rank and experience,” which is what I went through for five years as a trailing spouse. It made me an increasingly miserable and unlikable person. Then she did something that I cannot praise enough:

What happens when a professor no longer has any incentive to work at the breakneck pace at which she has been encouraged to work since she first embarked upon that great and arduous journey towards a career in academia?

Nothing. Nothing happens. And, dear reader, it is glorious.

I had much the same experience in “leaving” academia. I still work in a university, but I’m professional staff. I work with international ESL students, mostly from science and engineering, to help them improve their writing. And I get paid a lot of money. Like a fuckton of money: twice as much as I have ever made in my life (which doesn’t say much for my previous earning capacity but then again it’s still more than a tenured professor makes at a state university in the US, so small victory there). I make this wonderful amount of HEW8-rank money for working all of four days a week. I work 9 to 5 and when I get home my time is my own. Monday through Thursday I read or watch movies or surf online. On Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, unless I have a soccer game, and when I’m not running errands, I do research during the day.

I get a lot done. Since March I’ve signed a contract for The Imaginary Geography of Hollywood Cinema, 1960-2000, returned proofs for two articles within 24 hours, finished/revised seven articles and one book chapter, finished the data-accumulation and written a two-page version of a book proposal about spy novels and clandestine geography that I will do after the imaginary geography book. I’ve also gone to two film conferences (one in town, one in Tasmania) because I make enough money as a not-contract-lecturer-without-institutional-support-of-any-kind to pay my own way to a conference. I did share a room with a postgrad to save money, but that’s more out of habit than anything else. I’ve also invited tp participate (travel and hotel paid for!) in the National Tertiary Education Union’s Insecure Work Conference. I got picked (and funded) because of my experience as an adjunct and, now, as a “soft-money”-funded professional staff member. It should be a combination of fury-inducing confrontations with the status quo and inspiring discussion of how the union can deal with it practically.

What I find most wonderful about this situation is that I do what I want to do because I want to do it. When we moved to New Zealand in 2008, I thought I just wanted to teach. But I found, in between hustling for tutor and lecturer gig and getting blacklisted by the PVC Arts that I kind of liked to do research. And that there wasn’t much that looked like mine. And that when I wrote about what I wanted to write about, I could write like a person rather than a research-unit-producing-staff-member.

So this is a rare happy story in the “adventures in academic publishing” category. I dusted off this draft because one of the editors I’m working with 1) praised my ability to turn around requested revisions quickly and 2) then asked for a very fast turnaround. When I felt OK with that, I knew that something was amiss, but in a positive sense.

I recently applied for a job in an academic department. I didn’t really want the job, but I wanted to know – I might even say needed to know – if I could least make the long list, the short list, or even the interview stage. I’ve stopped applying for academic jobs not only because I have a job that I really love, but also because I grew weary of writing carefully tailored cover letters. What I have grown even more weary of is the endless “will you be one of my referee?” emails. But I found referees on three continents to support this application and sent in the materials with a fair bit of confidence.

Needless to say, I didn’t even make the long list.

As I read the rejection letter, something one of my referees mentioned during one of our email exchanges immediately came to mind. This referee wrote, and I paraphrase, “you’d be a good hire, but they’re going to hire an Important Department Member’s former student, who is currently “stuck” teaching at a university in a sub-optimal location.”

Something Jonathan Wilson recently wrote about match-fixing in cricket seems to speak to inside-track, specially-written job description success in the academic job market. Wilson first tells a story about the press box in Romania greeting the news of Chelsea scoring two late goals to snatch a victory with the immediate response, “Fixed!” Then he tells a story about a cricketer he knows:

The former Test player told me about his greatest performance for his country. With the opposition chasing a gettable target in the fourth innings, he’d taken three quick wickets in the final session to help secure a narrow victory. He spoke of his pride, of the thought that whatever else happened, he’d helped his country win a memorable victory. Now, he says, he looks back and wonders. Was it genuine?

Why did that player hit the ball in the air from that delivery? And why had that other player missed that straight one to be lbw? The greatest hour of his professional life, he said, had been ruined by doubt, because now he wondered whether he had actually taken those wickets, or whether they had been ordered by some bookmaker on the other end of a phone.

That is terrible. It’s like finding out that the wife you thought loved you is being paid to stick around, like finding out that the friends who laugh at your jokes are actually resentful extras, like finding out that the glowing review for your new book was actually written by your agent’s best mate. It’s like realising you’re Truman Burbank. I can’t even begin to quantify how that must feel, to strive for years at a skill, to work and practise and hone and refine and then to produce under pressure at a key moment, and not to know whether you deserve the congratulations.

That former Test player had lost his faith in sport, and perhaps even a little in life. Those Romanian journalists were so browbeaten by the regular scandals of the game in their country at the time that they preferred to meet all sport with a carapace of scorn than believe a good team could score two late goals against a less good team.

And that is, in a nutshell, how academia has not changed. What used to be an old boys club is just a more diverse club. Or at least that’s a way to look at how the limited number of good jobs get distributed within the realm of possibility. I guess that counts as an improvement?

It’s kind of amusing that Tywin Lannister is always cutting up animals in Game of Thrones. There’s the deer-butchering:

and the fishing scene (cut) from season 3:

This is why we get those pedantic scenes of Maester Luwin quizzing Bran about what’s on whose sigil. When it comes to teaching, I hate and love such moments – they’re surface-level touches that, thankfully, reward careful reading of the literal contents of the mise en scene. I love literal engagements with the text – what else is mapping the narrative locations of films but an avowedly literal approach. But I don’t know what to do with these scenes beyond the surface-level. Yes yes there’s the metaphor of butchery and blood on hands and so on and so on – but that’s all on the surface level. It certainly fills in the fictional world, but I don’t know just how much deeper it makes it.

On the other hand, something like Ballad of a Soldier (1959, Grigory Chukhray) throws out images that have somewhat obvious surface-level readings that, on further inspection and contemplation, take us to more interesting places.

There’s a wonderful continuous shot of Alyosha getting chased by a tank that does a now-standard flip (Danny Boyle uses a similar shot at the end of Trainspotting when Renton leaves with the money).


The obvious disorientation and unsettling of the world emerges from the imagery, but I’d also note the grand absurdity of the scene. A man, on foot, chased by a tank. The tracks that criss-cross the field add to the disorientation, but also act to pull our vision away, however briefly, and in the upside-down framing, this creates something like a fog of war. It’s hard to believe that there’s a tank chasing a soldier on foot – and it is that very incongruity that helps Alyosha to escape. Our difficulty in making sense of the situation and the imagery exists within the narrative world as well.

My favourite image in the film comes when Alyosha is trying to find a ride back to his home town, where he wants to help to fix the roof of the house his mother lives in. Here he is flagging down a ride:


It may be that I’m more inclined to prefer Soviet cinema to US television, but this image equals the Game of Thrones bits above in its obviousness, but seems to signify much more. Alyosha echoes the power poles. Sure thing. Then again, Ballad of a Soldier takes place during WWII, The Great Patriotic War. That is to say, Alyosha as a member of the military, paired with rural electrification embodies things that are Great and Patriotic. The great works of physical infrastructure – one of the modernization plans – and the great works of human “infrastructure” (structures, I guess) are in concert, building, connecting, and preserving the Soviet Union.

I’m willing to be convinced otherwise – and maybe I’m stacking the deck in my favour by picking an historical example – but to my eyes, this obvious surface-level imagery generates a more complex and interesting reading of the film.

(The USSR’s modernization/industrialization projects weren’t too far behind the US’s: In the US the Rural Electrification Administration was a New Deal deal, established in 1935. It’s not that long ago: both my paternal grandparetns grew up on a non-electrified farms in north central Wisconsin. This post featured a lot of “buts”, I know.)

In back to back screenings for the Introduction to Film and Television Studies course I’m convening, the students have done something really strange and wondrous.

Last week, after four weeks of nonstop chattering during the screening, they were almost completely silent during The Informant!. Maybe it was the presence of a Movie Star in a film they hadn’t seen. At the end of the film, probably a dozen students applauded. In twelve years of university teaching I’ve never heard applause at the end of a screening.

This week, the first part of the screening was the first episode of The Wire (2002). They were really quiet again. Then, because we had another hour scheduled, I ran one segment from the post-Money in the Bank Raw.

At first, there was a wave of snickering and visible eye-rolling. But as the segment went on, they got quieter and quieter. When the segment ended, with Punk half-dead on the floor behind the announce table, with Lesnar and Heyman hemming him in to the centre-rear of the frame, I hit stop. A chorus of “awwws” from the crowd followed. They wanted to keep watching. That, dear reader, is a money promo in action.

First: a “they must be encouraged”. I have nothing but good things to say about Rex Butler, who was nice enough to give me the rundown on why my postdoc application was turned down. Our postdoc postmortem meeting was the first time we’d said more than hello to each other – not the best foot to get off on. But he clearly showed a great deal of consideration my feelings, to the point that I started to feel like I ought to give him a tissue. For that decency and humanity he has my admiration and respect. If more members of panels fronted up so well, I’d be less filled with rage.

I find it much more difficult to be philosophical about the culture of institutional bullshit Rex had to take the bullet for.

In the end, he admitted, it came down to two main problems: my project’s scope and my cv. The panel wondered if I could deliver on what I promised – a spatial history of Hollywood films from 1927 to 2000. I didn’t have to say anything, because Rex followed his description of the “this project is Too Big” concern with the admission, “then again, if you had proposed a smaller, more manageable project, they would have said that it was too limited.” We’re encouraged, damn near required, to Think Big, to go for Major Paradigm-Shifting Research. But that demand means it’s easy to manufacture a reason to say no to funding. I’m being asked to swallow that “a research monograph with maps” is too grand a project for a three-year postdoc. Perhaps the very clear narrowing of perspective – Top 20 Box Office, Oscar Winners – escaped their notice. Perhaps I was too optimistic that clearly stating that I will be taking a Distant Reading approach – identified by name in the project description and in the bibliography they asked for – would make it clear that I would not be doing close readings of every fucking movie since 1927.

Perhaps the panel’s lack of confidence emerged from the second concern. Rex, to his credit, admitted that “your cv isn’t something you can do much about in the next nine months.” I was up against, in Rex’s words, “senior lecturer-level cvs.” I’ve been a little busy doing the teaching that has enabled continuing academic staff to do their research to build up a senior lecturer-level cv. In fact, I taught more classes over five years at University of Canterbury than my senior lecturer wife – and that includes a year when I was blacklisted by the now-departed PVC-Arts. When “senior lecturer” is the new baseline for a postdoc, the system doesn’t need fuckers like me.

So after talking it over with my wife, I’m chucking it in after 2014. I would like to have a full-time job by the time I’m 40, and there ain’t one to be had in academia.

At University of Canterbury, the CINE teaching of a tiny department needed to cover a fair bit of ground: 1) film form 2) the lecturer’s usual critical take on things 3) film history and 4) cinema outside the English-speaking world. That made putting together lectures, for me, a fun game. Having Alice in Videoland around was a plus.

Now that I’m at University of Queensland, the new game is to bring television into the lectures. We stopped cable after the 2004 election, and I pretty much quit watching television, even when it was available online. Except, of course, for football: Telemundo was on throughout the 2006 World Cup. Once we moved to New Zealand, the only TV I watched was during visits to Mark Maguire’s place during the 2010 World Cup (and the ill-fated Ireland-Russia Euro qualifier that preceded our flat tyre on the way to the airport).

I’m sure I’ll get into the swing of television as part of the lecture after the first couple weeks – my simple plan is to ask all the tutors for their ideas, which I will steal – but my immediate instinct was to use a non-English language film, rather than TV, when I needed a short clip for the general first-meeting lecture. Thus, Banlieue 13: Ultimatum’s completely bonkers fight sequence choreographed around a weaponized 200 million-Euro Van Gogh painting gives me a chance to talk about “French-ness” in a pretty clear way. I cannot conceive of a Hollywood film doing the same thing; the fight is only possible in a French movie.

Screen shot 2013-07-17 at 2.21.57 PM

Every so often I come across a student essay that has one of those “I bet you don’t even read our essays” sentences that I do, in fact, read. I have never been averse to this very approach, something I was reminded of today, when I dusted off a piece of research. I distinctly recall Cecelia Tichi insisting that I identify the critics I used. Hence, no more “Catherine Jurca“, but instead, “literary critic Catherine Jurca“. This demand led to sentences like this one: “As non-scumbag suburban planners like Peter Calthorpe, Renee Chow, and Barrie Greenbie note, a horizontal-to-vertical  ratio of approximately four to one generates a comforting sense of enclosure.”

In the five years I’ve been at University of Canterbury, the gender breakdown of the classes I’ve taught in the College of Arts has moved toward a near 75% female 25% male split (the College of Engineering is the opposite). In my last semester of tutoring Shakespeare, forty-three of my forty-seven students were female. This trend is pretty much worldwide, and it’s not just the Arts. This trend appears in US universities quite clearly, in UK universities such that even if every dude were accepted there would be more women, in Australian universities, and in New Zealand’s two major universities women make up 56% of the students. All of which makes the “good news” of women holding just over 22% of senior positions in NZ universities a bummer. But it’s good to see that University of Canterbury has started to pull away from the Old Boys world – a near-20% increase in the number of senior academic positions held by women.

I haven’t been able to locate any decent numbers for the percentage of female students at UC (in the College of Arts, in spite of my anecdotal sense that 75% of our students are female, the split in the top award for CoA, Arts Scholars, is 50-50), but when graduation season rolled around, the university’s front page offered some insight. The four grads represented (from left to right) Commerce, Arts, Education, and STEM (If you mouse over the picture, a little blurb appears, noting their degree). The news story has a shot of the researcher and the scholarship notice features a recognizable person (redded-up as per the university’s “visual branding”) as well.

Screen shot 2013-01-31 at 9.34.44 AM

It’s not just that the students are female, which is both representative and encouraging, it’s that you can see their faces. They’re people you might meet on campus – and the mouse-overs give you a sense of their story. By way of contrast, University of Auckland’s main page rotates three images, and there are no people:

Screen shot 2013-02-18 at 10.01.27 AMUniversity of Otago has an extensive catalog of images, perhaps two-thirds of which have recognizable human faces. But there are also shots like this one:

Screen shot 2013-02-18 at 10.01.40 AM

It’s good to see that UC, which needs to increase its student numbers in the face of the money challenges it has, is doing so in a quite human way that embraces the fact that we have so many women enrolled. That it’s doing so in a way that visually distinguishes it in terms of people is also encouraging. Auckland’s a great school, but its website makes it look like a consulting firm. Otago is a great school, but its website alternates between adventure tourism and academia. Neither is wrong, but give me UC’s approach. Except, I must admit, the truly terrible blurb for the “News” feature on that screengrab. The “research finds similarities and differences” reminds me of nothing so much as this: <iframe width=”420″ height=”315″ src=”; frameborder=”0″ allowfullscreen>

Contagion’s film-closing montage of the progress of a virus from bat to pig to Gwyneth Paltrow is one of those please-teach-me-in-101 moments, but I’d probably go with a different montage if I were to teach the film. Steven Soderberg and Stephen Mirrione’s global supply chain sequence compresses time and space by honing in on shipping containers,

Contagion global supply chain

and since to live in Christchurch is to know shipping containers quite intimately, I’d probably use the shipping container bit to talk up montage (this is next to Alice’s):


Tom Conley’s Cartographic Cinema pays close attention to maps that appear on screen, and the maps in Contagion create a set of boundaries not unlike the world represented in this Risk advert that obscures New Zealand completely and leaves about twenty percent of Australia peeking out:


Adding to the work of the montages in establishing a globalized world, maps fill the edges of Contagion’s mise en scene with reminders that the danger is expanding to every corner. Contagion bases a fair amount of its scariness on the way in which the virus hits the developed world – and its hypermobility – so hard. But that’s not to say that the virus spreads over the entire globe.

Contagion map outbreak 1

Contagion outbreak 5

Contagion outbreak 4

Contagion map outbreak 2

Contagion map outbreak 3

In all of the outbreak map appearances, New Zealand doesn’t even appear, protected by oceans, distance, and a tendency to forget that almost five million of us live down here. However, I see a large swath of red covers southeast Australia. Who’s the lucky country now?