Monday, April 28, 2008

Are Cars Made for Men?

Now anyone who knows me knows that I rarely attribute all the things wrong in my life to men. However, this weekend while driving to Lancaster, this question occurred to me: are cars made for men? All of you must have heard the stereotype of the bad woman driver. What if there is a scientific reason for that?

I find that when a traffic light changes from red to green, I go a split second later than other cars. I also do not get up to speed very fast. And I drive much better with a certain pair of shoes than with others. Then it occurred to me: I do all these things because I lift my foot off the gas to apply the brake and vice-versa. Gregg never has to do that: he simply swivels his foot from gas to brake and back. But in spite of having exceptionally large feet as evidenced by my size 8 ½ shoes, I cannot get enough traction by simply swiveling from one to the other.

Is this a problem for other women or am I just a horrible driver?

Things I Learnt About Myself on My Drive:

1) I HATE following someone – in this case, it was Gregg driving a U-Haul with our second car trailing it. I feel like I have to watch that car and everything around me at the same time
2) I do not know how to make a 3-point turn – mine was a 4.5 turn. Back up, turn, back up, turn, back…turn now.
3) I LOVE listening to music while driving. I tend to get happy and sad according to what I am listening to.
4) I do not like people passing me too much – do it enough and I will cut people off.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Moving and Books

Gregg and I are driving up to Lancaster this weekend to collect the keys to our new apartment there. We are also taking a U-Haul with us but it is a small one with most of the really big furniture. Since we still have to live in Farmville till exams end on the 8th of May, we are leaving most of our books and a lot of the kitchen equipment here.

This got me thinking about books. Gregg and I have an unseemly number of books. We divided our books into ones we have to sell and ones we will keep. We have about 165 books that we have to sell. This number is down from 250 which we had when we moved here - we have been selling them on We also have over 400 books which we are keeping. This brings up the question of storage. How many bookshelves should we buy and where do we put them? We do not have space for a library. Is it OK to put bookshelves in the bedrooms, living room, den etc? My only problem with that is that there seems to be little separation in our lives. Most people have a work space and then a space for relaxation. I see the books as symbolic of the lack of separation between home and work lives which academics constantly face. Anyway, at this rate, we will need to buy bookshelves for the kitchen and bathrooms as well.

Gregg will be driving a U-Haul and I will be following him in our car. This is my first 7-hour drive by myself on the highway and I am nervous. Merging onto and off highways is not my strong suit!!!!! Wait for a blog about this experience.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Faculty as Personal Assistants

This is crunch time for students and faculty. For students, it is time to hand in papers and start preparing for exams. For faculty, this is GRADING time – grading, grading and more grading. (I have 95 papers which I got yesterday and 95 exams coming my way). On top of that, it is time to meet with panicking students who have just realized that their poor work throughout the semester may actually impact their final grade – surprise!!!

Teaching at a very small college exacerbates these problems. Today’s students are used to having instant access to faculty members and this is especially true when the school itself encourages this behavior and demands that faculty make themselves available to the students at all times. I thought I would share an example of the demands that students can make on their teachers under these circumstances. Here is an email I received from a student regarding his final paper:

Prof. Bagchi,
Here is my paper that is due today. I am sorry that I cannot have it printed and given to you, but I do not have a printer, nor does anybody on my hall have one. You have to format it because I do not have microsoft word anymore, so the font has to be changed and spell check needs to be performed. Thanks.

I think it was the need to perform spell check part that put this email over the top. To say nothing of the fact that this school has a large number of computer labs where you can print your paper.

Any thoughts? How would you respond to this student?

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Student Evaluations: The Teacher-Tenure Conundrum

This being the end of the semester, there is a lot going on. Papers, exams and of course, student evaluations. This is the one time in the semester that I wonder, am I supposed to be a teacher or a job-seeker? Should I have played it safe all year, granting the students’ every wish and/or being an entertainer rather than an instructor? Or is it more important that they look back on my class as a learning experience (though difficult) even if it means that they give me bad evaluations now?

As all of you know, good student evaluations are essential for tenure. This is especially true for small colleges and for Millersville University where I will be teaching next year. Small colleges give the same importance to student evaluations that large research institutions give to publications. This leads to a sort of tyranny of the students. Teachers, the ones without tenure anyway, feel like the students should like them and like their classes. Pleasing the students takes the upper hand. The problem is that students often like a class when it is “fun.” And not only do I find it difficult to make Plato or the Presidency “fun” but I actually hate doing it. I feel like I am cheapening the material and playing the fool – maybe a Shakespearean “wise fool” but a fool nonetheless. A professor is supposed to teach, not entertain.

The other problem with student evaluations is grades. Students who get good grades tend to be the ones that like the class (they also tend to be the ones that work hard and listen and come to class) while those who get lower grades tend to dislike it. Now I have become a much easier grader in the past year but I am still not at a B average and therefore, you can imagine the comments I am prone to getting.

This is why I hate evaluations. I never get terrible ones but they are never glowing. Rather, I get a few students (very few) who will love the class (I even had 2 students change their majors to PT) but the rest just seem to tolerate it. And this bothers me. I am not trying to be nice or generous in class, I am trying to teach. I want them to learn. Which means I want students to be actively engaged with the material, to know, to be curious, to analyze, to discuss. Yet, most students seem to feel that a class should not be demanding; they do not want to be held to a higher standard. And this clearly impacts the evaluations.

Am I wrong? Should classes be fun? Should this be my goal? More importantly, to what extent can you combine fun with teaching and learning? What do you do to achieve this?

As I see it, there are a few ways in which people can respond to this post:
a. I am wrong and the material can be made fun, exciting and accessible while students are held to high standards.
b. Professors should be professors. They should teach as they think best without worrying about the impact on their evaluations. They should be professors, not a used car salesman.
c. Evaluations are not the be-all, end-all of tenure and therefore, teaching considerations should be balanced with tenure considerations.

What do you think? Any suggestions or thoughts on this conundrum?

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Inflation Again

Here is an account of how food inflation has hit the U.S.

What is sad is that this hits small business owners as hard as it hits consumers. I love the small bagel shops or coffee shops - their atmosphere is so friendly and comfortable to work and socialize in. But they are having to explain their prices increases to their customers and sometimes, these price increases hurts their sales. I, for one, have stopped studying at coffee shops (this is partially because I only drink one cup of coffee a day now) and we almost never go out and get bagels for breakfast anymore.

Monday, April 14, 2008


I read this article on CNN on worldwide inflation today and it triggered a mixed response. I have been reading about and fuming over high food prices for weeks. Yet, this article makes me feel ashamed of my attitude thus far. While the article acknowledges rising food prices in the United States, most of it focuses on countries like Haiti, Bangladesh and Egypt. Due to their already low standards of living and high poverty rates, the impact of rising food prices in these countries dwarves any of the repercussions I have faced. In fact, what exactly have I “faced”? While I try to cut grocery bills, I have not sacrificed anything of import. After all, I still not only eat ample meals but also dessert (apple pie or cake) every night. People in these countries cannot afford staples leading to food riots. They can afford neither bread nor rice (nor cake).

I am not saying that I will not be upset about inflation again in a few days. All I am saying is that this article gave me a little perspective - no matter how bad things are, we are still lucky. A lot of people have it a lot worse.

Friday, April 11, 2008

What are Your Vices?

The biggest changes in one’s life can be the ones that people make to their own lives and characters. These are the most difficult changes to make and therefore, even the smallest one can seem more significant than an external life-event. For instance, when I was much younger, I used to bite my nails a lot (I still do it but only when I am nervous). Changing that (and I have not fully succeeded obviously) was extremely difficult – and therefore, seemed like a major accomplishment!! Anyway, this post was triggered by a very funny article by P.J. O’Rourke in The Weekly Standard. Here it is:

It is also available on Arts and Letters Daily ( if you cannot get it from the link above.

The article has a funny take on the Vatican’s recently announced new list of Seven Deadly Sins. The old sins (Pride, Envy, Gluttony, Lust, Anger, Greed and Sloth) still exist but the modern world now has seven, more modern sins:
· Drug abuse,
· Morally debatable experimentation
· Environmental pollution
· Causing poverty
· Social inequality and injustice
· Genetic manipulation
· Accumulating excessive wealth

My take is similar to that of O’Rourke – these new sins do not carry quite the same amount of moral weight with me which the past sins did. As this blog is meant to explain, I feel quite sin-free by the new standards and much more sinful by the old standards. Let me explain why:

· I have never “abused” anything – even drugs.
· I am pretty sure that I have not engaged in “morally debatable experimentation.”
· About environmental pollution, I order plastic, not paper at the grocery store. Am I going to hell?
· Pretty sure I have not caused anyone to be poor. I have never failed to pay anyone what I owe them (except credit card companies). Though if you believe that every legal immigrant takes a job which a U.S. citizen needs, then maybe I have “caused poverty”!!!
· Social inequality and injustice – I do not think I am propagating this.
· Genetic manipulation – no.
· No one can accuse me of accumulating excessive wealth – even with a modest definition of “excessive”.

Yet, I find a lot of the “old” vices in me – and more besides. Here are some that concern me most:

1. Sloth: While procrastination is not necessarily sloth, it can come close. When you have things to do and refuse to do them because you do not want to, what is it but sloth? Unfortunately, I am neither great at relaxing nor at working and am forever stuck in the middle of the two. Plus, I never exercise even when I know I should.
2. Gluttony: As most of you know, I do not care what I eat. I eat what I want. It is not quantity but the type of food that makes me a glutton. While I have been better about eating vegetables in the year since Gregg and I got married, I still eat apple pie or cake for dinner and sometimes as snacks.
3. Pride: I do not think I am a proud person – I do not think that what I do can change the world. But I can be competitive sometimes and what can that come from but pride?
4. Weak: I am very immature when dealing with people. My desire to be liked often prevents me from saying what I think. Plus, I am terrified that I will hurt someone’s feelings. This is a peculiar trait for a person like me who is usually so blunt to people she knows. It also makes me a total pushover sometimes.
5. Lack of Acceptance and Control Freak: I am a control freak about everything and worse, I cannot accept that I may lack control over certain aspects of life. Therefore, I stress about everything whether I can control it or not. Thus, my job search was an absolutely awful time of my life. I wish I could learn acceptance.

These are the aspects of my character I wish to change. Anyone want to share what they want to change about themselves?

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Why Do I Like Blogging So Much?

The easy non-analytical answer is: it wastes time. It is a distraction from all the things I should be doing. So, instead of looking for dishes to wash or making unnecessary grocery store runs, I blog. Blogging is simply a good reason not to work on my dissertation!!!

But of course like all academics I want to analyze this answer. So here goes:

Anyone who knows me, knows I love reading fiction even at the busiest times of the year. But I do not read fiction simply for the joy of reading. I read it because it makes me feel good about myself. Reading political theory takes time; reading fiction reminds me that I am still a fast reader. I can read!! I am not simply plodding through, I am making progress!!! It makes me feel like I have achieved something in the day.

Writing can be worse than reading. I feel more reluctant to write than to read – partially because reading is passive and writing is not. I know some of you must have felt the need to tweak a sentence or a paragraph for minutes on end or gotten so frustrated at not getting your point across that you abandoned the endeavor for the day.

Things get worse when you are teaching full-time. With 95 students this semester, I have been feeling the impact of teaching on my dissertation. Try writing at the end of a 9am-5pm day of teaching and what seemed daunting is now impossible. The busy work associated with teaching makes things worse. Answering emails, keeping track of attendance, meetings – they all have to be done and seem easier to get through than writing after a long day of teaching.

But now, I have the blog and it presents some advantages. At least blogging is writing – not academic writing maybe but some variation of writing. Just like reading fiction is not as productive as reading PT but better than pottering around the house, writing a blog may not be the same as writing my dissertation but it is better than not writing at all. Or spending time emailing students.

To be fair, there are other reasons. I look forward to my friends’ blog and so I want to write one too. I also like sharing thoughts and events in my life with friends and family scattered throughout the country. But ultimately, the one which comes to my mind is that it means I am writing – maybe not my dissertation but something. Delusion though this may be, this is the one important reason that jumps out at me. I am writing!!

Monday, April 7, 2008

The Difference an “I” Can Make

The biggest changes in my life in the past 2 months have both concerned small cards – one is the driving license and the other is the green card. Both have been liberating experiences – one in a rather juvenile way, the other in a more grown-up “thank goodness I can stay and work anywhere I want” kind of way.

Anyway, this story is a gripe about the green card. The interview was a surreal experience in itself – when Gregg and I passed it, I felt as if the U.S. government had put a “This is a viable marriage” stamp on our application. Then I received a letter welcoming me to the United States. On that letter, I noticed that they had my name listed as “Nivedita I. Bagchi.” I called the number listed immediately to inform them that I have no middle name and therefore, the name listed is wrong. The lady gave me another number to call. I called that one only to be told that this was the wrong number and to be given another number. I called the third number but was told to call back the next day.

I called back the next day but the woman said that my green card (with the wrong name) was already in production. Therefore, no changes could be made to it until after I received it. She told that after I received the green card, I should fill out form I-190 (or something like that), and send them the card, a copy of our entire application, a birth certificate and all forms we have ever received from the U.S. government. Then she said, “And we will decide whether it is our fault or not. If it is determined that it is our fault, you do not have to pay the $300 for a name change.” But then things got worse. I asked how long it would take for me to receive a new card and she said (in a very irritated tone), “I don’t know…no more than 6 months to a year.” Which means that I will have to go to Philadelphia to get another stamp in my passport before this is over. Maybe by the time I get the corrected card, it will have expired (it expires in 2 years) and I will have to apply for a new one anyway.

Don’t get me wrong, I could not be more delighted that I got the green card. It confers an amount of freedom that is difficult for U.S. citizens to understand because they never have to think about it. They do not have restrictions on where or how many hours they work or when they can leave the country. Not having to think of this anymore makes me very happy. And I am thankful for being given the privilege. I just hate the bureaucracy and red tape. And I hate having to do all this paperwork again because of one silly errant “I” in my name.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Focusing on the Present

Speaking of transition and change, I find myself sympathizing more and more with the seniors in my classes these days. They are looking forward to a big change – graduation!!! For most of them, their grades this semester will be immaterial to their future (assuming they pass their courses of course). They have either been admitted into graduate school or already found jobs. So what is their incentive to work hard now? How do they concentrate when part of their psyche has already moved on to the next phase of their lives?

I am having the same problem with applying myself to the remainder of this semester. I already have a job elsewhere so my evaluations from this semester are not crucial. We are moving in about a month so I cannot even motivate myself to clean the house. My motivation is at an all-time low. The thought of grading 95 papers and 95 exams between April 18th and May 10th is enervating. So, how do I keep going till the end of the semester?

I have found that a couple of things which force me to do my job. First, the thought of walking into a class, facing 25 students and having nothing to say to them is horrifying. That alone forces me to prepare. Second, my desire that they know some basic facts about American Government and Indian history makes me prepare. After all, if I am to challenge them, I have to be prepared. And, ultimately, even if I hate the thought of all the grading I have to do, I want to give them enough information where I can feel joy at some of the great papers and have a legitimate reason to be upset at the mediocre ones.

Having said that, let me say that I am sympathetic to anyone who is unable to concentrate on the present because they are looking forward to the future. Whether you are looking forward to the summer, to a new job or to a vacation, the future can sometimes overshadow the present. Buddha said, “Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.” Congratulations to anyone who can achieve this – it is much more difficult than it sounds.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

An Age of Transition

These are troubled times. We are inundated with bad news every day. The economy is in the doldrums, there is sectional, ethnic and religious violence in many different parts of the world, there is the threat of global warming. People are wondering, how long will this continue? Is this a short-term or a long-term situation? Are we in an age of transition? If so, a transition to what? It is difficult to tell.

Yet, hope springs eternal. The majority of Americans believe that the economy will be better next year. We are looking forward to the November elections. Electing a new president is always an act of hope and faith. If nothing else, people are looking forward to their stimulus checks. It is this hopefulness that gives us the power to withstand the troubled times.

Change always brings with it both hope and fear. This tension between hope and fear dominate my personal life as well. In the next month, Gregg and I will be moving to Lancaster, PA. In August, I start a new job – a tenure-track job at Millersville University. It is a new city, a new job and a new apartment in a place where I know no one but Gregg. Yet, a tenure-track job is something I have looked forward to since I started graduate school. It is both exhilarating and frightening. Can I balance research and teaching? Work with a personal life? Friends and family?

This blog is about transitions. Not simply the transition to a tenure-track job or to Lancaster. Life is about transitions. Even in the most settled life, there is always something new. And while transitions can be unsettling, they can also be exciting. And I hope to capture the excitement and tensions of (my) life in this blog.