An Overly Specialized Listsicle

Like any good hipster, I was a hipster before they were a thing, and I was into listsicles before they were cool* — see, for instance, my Top Ten Dreams of 2004, and my Enemies List of 2005.** So, even though I haven’t dabbled in this noble oeuvre since the mid-aughts (and, correspondingly, my mid-twenties, ha!), I thought I would take a break from civilly discussing why everybody hates me, and revive the Overly Specialized Listsicle and make it even more specialized. So, without further ado, here are:

Top Ten German Books I Like To Teach Skeptical Undergraduates

1. Feuchtgebiete (eng: Wetlands), Charlotte Roche. Roche’s shock-porn debut novel — aka Fifty Shades of Gross, which centers on the fallout of a sexually-experimental 18-year-old schoolgirl’s anus-shaving accident — is so obscene that I recommend having students sign a release before you assign it, attesting that they are 1) 18 years of age or older, and b) aware in advance of how obscene the book is. This is especially important if you teach where there is a culture of prudery viz. talking about sex, and it has the added bonus of making your students think that whatever you’re about to hand out is exciting, being too hot for the classroom and all. I taught a course during my final year at OSU called “Sex and/or the City,” where I had students sign such a form on the first day. Imagine students’ disappointment when the first thing I sent them home with was…

2. The Nibelungenlied, anonymous. Since I am a normal person, I neither teach nor can really read Mittelhochdeutsch, so this is for courses in translation only. Nowadays, we know the Nibelungenlied (Song of the Nibelungs) primarily through its operatic incarnations, specifically Wagner’s Ring Cycle—or, in my case, the Elmer Fudd version thereof (“Kill the wabbit/Kill the wabbit/Kill the wabbit!”). But the story of Siegfried (dragon-slayer), Brünnhilde (superhuman strength), Kriemhild (fairest maiden in the land), and Gunther and Hagen (murderers) actually dates back at least to the thirteenth Century, when the Nibelungenlied appeared in print. Today everything is “epic,” but the Nibelungenlied is an actual epic — a marvelously long (or, if you ask my students, “torturously long”) poem that tantalizes us with, as per its introductory stanza, wonders many told/Of heroes rich in glory,/of trials manifold, not to mention the requisite “weeping and woe.”

3. Die Klavierspielerin (The Piano Teacher), Elfride Jelinek. Ostensibly, Nobel prize winners take home the big Smorgasbord for their lifelong body of work, but everyone knows that it’s usually for one book (Beloved, The Tin Drum, etc). Jelinek won the Prize in 2004 and everyone knows it’s for Die Klavierspielerin, which is an un-put-downable story of a psychologically terrorized (and terrorizing) young woman, her sexual predilections, her cutting, and her awful relationship with her mother (which may or may not be the direct cause of the aforementioned). Many students have experience with both self-harm and abusive parents, so although I personally despise the phrase “trigger warning,” it is advisable to discuss the more upsetting themes of this book before you hand it out, and be sensitive to those students who may identify with it in all of the most painful ways.

4. Jakob von Gunten, Robert Walser. The best thing about Walser’s masterpiece (which is about a boarding school for butlers where no classes are held, and students don’t graduate so much as they benignly stop showing up) is that the language is crisp and direct enough that you can assign it in German to third-year or bridge-course students and have a perfectly great discussion about its predominant themes. If you assign it in translation, then you’ll be stuck (or delighted) talking about Walser’s language of eternal self-negation, and that can make students’ heads a little explodey, but it’s usually worth it.

5. Die Marquise von O and/or Michael Kohlhaas, Heinrich von Kleist. Self-explanatory (or, at any rate, you can see these extremely lengthy explanations from the past).

6. Manifest der kommunistischen Partei, Karl Marx (excerpts only). Because every college professor must indoctrinate her students into Marxism or she’ll be cast out of the Club. No, seriously though, today Marx is a curse word, in which I mean it’s bandied about on the 24-hour news cycle like an actual curse, back and forth between talking heads until it sticks to someone and brands them as an inveterate Pinko America-hater forever. Students will be delighted and/or aghast to realize that many of Marx’s descriptions of capital and alienated labor apply to their jobs at Sunglass Hut today — and they don’t have to advocate full armed revolution to be mindful of who controls the Produktionsmittel.

7. Geschlecht und Character (Sex and Character), Otto Weininger, if only to watch their eyes pop out of their heads at its inappropriateness.

8. Der Proceß (The Trial), Franz Kafka. I have read this book so many times, and spent so much time thinking about it and over-thinking it and over-specializing about it, that it is nothing less than pure unadulterated joy to watch students read it for the first time — even if they hate it. Enough always like it (or at any rate waaaay identify with Josef K for some angsty reason or another) to make any time I’ve ever taught it more than worthwhile. Some students are simply proud of themselves for getting through it, because it is a difficult text. In German I wouldn’t teach it except in the most advanced classes.

9. Die Physiker (The Physicists), Friedrich Dürrenmatt. This one is an absolute gem for advanced-beginning German language classes: Do a dramatic reading! Assign roles! Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse! Give extra credit for props and convincing emoting. Show up to class in a beret, sunglasses and turtleneck, and proclaim: DAS THEATER!!!!! The students who get really into it will learn a lot about the Cold War and German compound nouns. The ones who don’t get into it? Well, you’ll enjoy forcing them to pretend to be enthusiastic for DAS THEATER!

10. Faust, Motherfuckers! Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Yes, it’s a cliche, but there’s a reason for that. The story of Faust (a.k.a. “Faustus” or “Dr. Faustus”), unsatisfied genius who makes a deal with the Devil in exchange for untold glory and might, had been written many times over by the time Goethe got his mitts on it in 1797, but what he did with it was nothing short of astounding. Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus kept him second fiddle to Shakespeare—but Goethe’s Faust: A Tragedy made him “the German Shakespeare,” and singlehandedly made German not just an acceptable literary language, but a triumphant one. Why? Well, Faust has everything: a dog that (spoiler alert!) is really Mephistopheles; an old man who magicks himself young; a young woman who has that old man’s baby and then (spoiler alert!) drowns it in a pond; drinking, more magic, witches, and Walpurgisnacht (a Bacchanal in the mountains), rendered in virtuosic, hypnotic, acrobatic verse that expresses everything from terrifying might to deepest sadness, all while rhyming. In German. If you are only going to read one work of German literature in your entire life, then please, for the love of every deity referenced in this magnificent dramatic poem, make it motherfucking Faust.

*Part of this statement is a lie. Maybe all of it. You decide.

**For an extra and unintended dose of heartbreak, look how joyously, unmitigatedly excited I am about starting my PhD back then. It really tears me up to read that, but also makes me kind of want to cheer then-me on, wistfully: You GO with your naive self, Schuman.

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Please like me, please.

(aka, the subtext of everything I ever write! Ha.)

The day “Thesis Hatement” came out (April 5, 2013 — which I only remember because it’s my sister-in-law’s anniversary, and her wedding in San Diego was amazing, Lafayette Hotel pool FTW!), my brother called me and said: “You need to make a Facebook ‘author’ page now. Now!” I believe I answered: “EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP.”

Well, Ben, it only took fifteen months, but I finally listened to you. So, my dearest readers, I’m not sure what I’ll put on there (links back to here! Links to Slate, which I also link to here! EXCLUSIVE original content that’s awesome!), but I hope you might consider “liking” me (and then unfollowing/hiding, like I do with all of my friends’ pet things — JUST KIDDING FRIENDS I LOVE YOU!).

As some of you know, a few months ago my habit of accepting friend requests from strangers on my personal account caught up with me, and I found out the hard way that a lot of my “friends” had Friended me just to have an all-access pass to Mean Town. I was getting 5, sometimes 10 reqs from strangers a day (especially when a viral article came out), and it got to the point that my entire FB feed was strangers, and I was like, you know what? I miss my high-school friends’ baby pics and inspirational quote-photos. Bring those back. It took getting quasi-stalked by an irate Slovene Zizek superfan to get me to change my Facebook name to a nickname, and instate a policy of not accepting Friend requests from anyone I don’t actually know. Plus, I’m pretty sure my high school crush is sick of getting bombarded by links to my own work. So — now, if you want to be bombarded by links to my own work, you can “like” my Official Author Persona Page Thingy. My FB friends are now solely my actual friends, and will be henceforth duly spared from a single link about academic bullshit and me-bullshit ever again.

Yet another splintering of my personalities — sort of like Horcruxes, but for nice people.

In conclusion: please like me. I like you! The end.

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A Brief Interlude from my Other/Real Self

The last thing I want to do is give any more clicks to one of the least-important pieces of educational journalism to be published in the past year–so I won’t. But I would like to talk about it a little bit, because it contained this somewhat jarring description of my online persona:

In the humanities, Rebecca Schuman has become a voice for the university’s dispossessed. More often than not, Schuman uses her platform at Slate and elsewhere to throw out the whole university baby with the bathwater of adjunct labor. Schuman herself, it’s worth pointing out, is a product of a broken system. A prestige-obsessed research culture indoctrinated her and others like her into believing that the tenure-track R1 job is the only path to a good life. Then, after years of humiliating rejection in a terrible academic job market, Schuman, as she retells it, is relegated, with so many part-time faculty members (myself included), to a row in the adjunct galley, keeping the ship of academe afloat—while being treated (as the Emory English professor and Chronicle columnist Marc Bousquet so floridly puts it) as the “indigestible remainder” of a system that thrives on exploitation.

Oof. All right. I’ll tell you one thing: Being described like this in a publication that regularly prints my own work and claims to like me is many times more humiliating than the job market in German — which rejects the vast majority of its entrants, impersonally and often with immense regret. (I’d also, if I had time, provide ocular proof of the 90/10 teaching college/R1 ratio of my job apps.)

My other quibble with this is the “more often than not.” I’m actually in the process of getting a word cloud of my Slate corpus done to prove that my work is, again, 90% about things that almost all academics agree with (sexual assault is a huge problem! Adjuncts need better pay! Cruise-taking provosts are, in Jean-Ralphio Sapperstein sing-song, the wooooorst! Colleges shuttering departments but building climbing walls can go fuck themselves! Violating a professor’s academic freedom is not OK! Business degrees that never end are weird! The Digital Humanities is a thing! Paper mills are dodgy!). It’s not my fault that what people choose to focus on is the stuff that pisses them off. I mean, I do that too! We all do that. That’s what the Internet is for. Anyway.

The piece goes on to argue that:

In response [to growing discontent with the labor status quo...I think?], we’re turning to venomous bloggers who, outside academic disciplines, can’t be held accountable to academic standards of civility, and who, being individual guns for hire, don’t speak to the needs of the profession so much as they serve the needs of their editors. Indeed, it warrants repeating that many of the dispossessed no longer see themselves as belonging to a profession—hence they don’t feel obliged to speak courteously, think honestly, or work for the common good.

I resemble that remark! OK, seriously: I read this description, and I think: This Rebecca Schuman person sounds awful. Who would ever listen to her?

And it gets better. I should never, ever, ever read the comments for articles like these (or any), but my friend Marc Bousquet linked me to what I thought was his blogged or otherwise non-commented reaction, and that brought me to a comment thread that basically consisted of my friends, arguing with my enemies, about a me who faded further and further into the background. I barely recognized myself in the author’s original characterization, so you can imagine what I thought when I saw this:

Please spare us the nonsense that [Rebecca is] some champion of academic labor. She demeans grad students. She demeans academic research. She hates tenure track faculty – tenured and non. She degrades the work they do and the institutions they work for. And yet she proclaims, over and over again, that she’s really our advocate.

So, this is what I want to talk about. Not with vitriol, not with defensiveness — just a quiet discussion between friends.

Okay. First. I have never meant to demean anyone’s research. When I called my own work “bat-shit” in Slate over a year ago, that was so that I didn’t look like a complete dick linking out to it (hint: this failed. But, on the other hand, if I hadn’t linked to proof of a strong publication record, all I would have gotten is well she probably can’t do anything so that’s why she’s so dumb etc etc).

I don’t have a problem with academic writing per se: I have a problem with the paywalls, the turnaround, the gatekeeping, the deliberate inaccessibility of it to the greater public. I also don’t agree with the current expectations of academic publishing, which none other than Mr. Higgs-Boson himself has said make innovation almost impossible. There is simply too much writing expected of scholars in all disciplines. Publish or perish has become an absurd caricature of itself (plus, it’s often “publish and perish” anyway). This is my unvarnished, persona-free, real and true opinion, and if you want to know more about it, here’s an idea: fucking email me with your real name and have a conversation like a human. I’m very easy to contact.

All right, second. APB to the dozens of ladder faculty I call my friends (and vice versa): Did you know that I hate you? I didn’t. Forgive me!

All right, now on to demeaning graduate students. This is a particularly upsetting accusation, and I will tell you why. When I am not taking provocative stances as a writer for a publication that champions contradictory points of view, I am something called a “dissertation coach.” I work under another name (though not in secret; simply to keep my personae separate) for a wonderful company that saves careers and (sometimes, no exaggeration) saves lives.

My Not-Secret Other Life

As a dissertation coach, I am part therapist, part project manager, all friend. I listen to my clients’ honest, forthright descriptions of their struggles: With advisers distant or micro-managerial, with deadlines near and far, with years-long blockages, with projects fraught with joy and disappointment, with relationships with academe healthy and toxic, with dissertations that need to get done. I speak with each client for an hour a week over Skype, and during the first half of that hour, they are more honest with me about their fears, challenges, triumphs and issues than they are with their advisors, with their friends — often even with their spouses (as anyone who is both married and in possession of a doctorate knows, at some point all spouses just do not want to hear it anymore).

I talk my clients through their problems, and I suggest compassionate, real ways in which they can re-orient their relationship to their work, so that it is not a source of dread or fear, but a source of pleasure and fun. I help them to see the strength inside them that was always there, or to fake it until they make it. I show them that no matter what happens after graduate school, they can finish and move on with their lives. I teach them to be kind to themselves — and promise (always correctly) that better work comes out of self-compassion and kindness.

For the second half of the call, it’s drill-sergeant mode. I have them list the work they have to do and its deadlines, and I determine the pace they need — and then  schedule their work  in finite, accomplish-able tasks, which they check off or cross out at the end of every day on a document we both share and edit. On this document they also write me little notes about how their work is going (or isn’t), and I wish them luck and troubleshoot their queries between coaching sessions.

In short, my coaching practice (currently at capacity, I’ll have you know!) allows me to use both my triumphs and defeats in academia to help people. The people I help come to me desperate and broken, and I help them fix themselves. I have watched people self-repair before my eyes. It is the proudest accomplishment of my life.

Yes, I criticize academia quite robustly in my writer persona — because academia, as a system, needs somebody to do it who, yes, is not beholden to its conventions and thus can speak with honesty. I know that I do not speak for everyone. I have never meant to, nor even tried to. I do not expect everyone to like me or agree with me. But to say that what I do demeans graduate students is both hurtful and false. In reality, I spend a great portion of my day helping graduate students — more, a great deal more, than any sycophantic hit-piece or circular, sniping comment thread ever will.

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Too Hot for my Ancestral Homeland!

H/t to my friend and philosopher extraordinaire, Anna Alexandrova, who, whilst dutifully checking the latest on the most important website in the world (this one) from her dad’s house, noticed that I’ve been BLOCKED IN RUSSIA. Those of you who speak (or, like me, can allegedly and laboriously read) Russian will enjoy this:

bannedinrussia

So, I wonder why. I mean, perhaps the Russians can see into my soul, or eavesdrop on my private conversations, so they know that I support Ukraine, and have referred to the economic system of post-Soviet Russia as “an oligarchic empire of blood-thirsty hyper-capitalist thugs” on multiple occasions. Perhaps it’s because I use Putin as my punchline to “if your leader has been ‘elected’ for a longer time than most of my students have been alive, then you live in an oppressive regime” joke. Of course, I haven’t put any of this on my blog–though now that I know the Russians are after me, why hold back? Russian Federation, I officially put you on my list. How’s THAT for comeuppance?!?

Dear Russia,

I don’t know whether to say “fuck you” or “thank you.” If it hadn’t been for your pogroms back during the turn of the 20th Century, my Bumpa never would have had to flee your country on foot and emigrate to the United States as a child, and there would be no Schuman family. So, great?

Sincerely,

Rebecca Schuman, eighth-Russian, half-Jew, all-censored

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Germans Get Naked; Kafka Goes to B-School

Two articles new on Slate today, both about subjects near and dear to my heart.

First off, yet another thing I adore about Germans: Their blasé attitude toward beach nudity. FKK FTW! Sure, my own skin may burst into flame upon contact with direct sunlight, but that doesn’t stop me from being pro-skinnydip ON PRINCIPLE. More “clothing optional,” less prudery, Amis!

Then, a trend piece on a fascinating new idea for business school: Not a terminal MBA, but an interminable one. An MBA that never ends. Business classes to which you “subscribe” for the rest of your synergistic days. Yes, I got in a good Kafka reference — what am I, a farmer?

These two articles — like the vast bulk of what I write — have nothing to do with, and are not interested in, bashing academia. People (by which I mean “trolls”) often forget (by which I mean “ignore”) that the vast bulk of the Schoeuvre consists of good-natured trend pieces like this. Sometimes they don’t get the virality because they don’t piss anyone off (sometimes, like the naked-beach one, they do well simply b/c they are about nudity, or German grocery stores, which we have all established that everybody loves). I hate to provide so many living reminders of the rather banal fact that I largely earn my living as a legitimate culture journalist, but here you go.

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