I have been attending and presenting research at the Popular Culture Association conference since 1985, a total of eighteen times. This afternoon, I will make it nineteen. It is far and away my very favorite conference, the one that has done the most over the years to support and encourage me as a scholar. Later I will post my pet peeves, but I will start with a love letter to this giant, diverse, crazy-in-a-good-way organization.
1. It's two! Two! Two conferences in one! The full name of the conference is the Popular Culture Association American Culture Association Conference. The two organizations were formed separately a few years apart, and publish two distinct journals, but have sponsored a joint conference since 1979. Recently, their governing boards merged. Briefly, PCA represents folks with an interest in popular culture anywhere in the world, while the ACA has an Americanist focus and may include elite as well as mainstream cultural products and activities.
2. Variety. No matter what aspect of culture you study, you will find kindred spirits here. Topics of interest are sorted by area, each chaired by one or two scholars who issue the calls for papers and organize the submissions into conference sessions. Don't see an area that quite fits? If you can find enough people for a session, you can start an area. I mostly attend sessions in my "home" area -- Fashion, Style, Consumption and Design -- but also drop in to see what's going on in other areas of interest, whether professional (aging and Culture) or personal (Beer Culture). Imagine a four-day-long 50-ring circus.
3. Inclusion. Are you an undergraduate or graduate student? A professor or a middle school teacher? A museum curator or a private collector? A passionate hobbyist or fan? All are welcome to share their knowledge and insights. (Although undergraduates must be sponsored by a teacher, something I will discuss more in my quibbles post.) I have heard amazing presentations and terrible ones from folks from all walks of life and levels of expertise. The PCA/ACA does not decide in advance that some credentials or affiliations are worth more than others. To paraphrase the explanation I heard directly from PCA founder Ray Browne, if some professor wants to come here and stink up the place with a half-assed paper, that's on him, not us.
4. Movie night! The Science Fiction and Fantasy area hosts a fundraiser on Friday night that is open to everyone. It's a free movie and a raffle or other kind of contest, with great prizes. I may be biased,because my son won the grand prize several years ago, but it is one of my favorite events, and pure PCA/ACA.
5. Location, location, location! As a gigantic (thousands of attendees) conference, PCA/ACA tends to take place in great, pop culture-rich cities, and take advantage of their unique opportunities. Think vampire culture events and jazz in New Orleans, for example. This makes this conference the perfect trip to bring along the family or significant other. They can attend as a guest for a very reasonable registration fee, or enjoy the location on their own.
Getting dressed has been an easy routine for years. I pick my shoes first, based on the weather and how much walking is involved in my day. If I am working at home, it's bare feet or slippers. Then I pick my jeans or capris (again, it depends on the weather and if it's a campus day or a home day). A solid color T-shirt. Sometimes the shirt is sleeveless, and the neckline varies. If I am going away from home, I might add a scarf. I always wear earrings. I rarely wear a skirt or dress once the temperature falls below 60 degrees, and I never wear jeans once the mercury is above 80.
I will admit to not being much of a fashionista. I would rather spend my time and energy (and money, which I earn with my time and energy) on a few things I can wear 90% of the time than on many items I seldom wear. The 10% items in my wardrobe are special, and I enjoy the rare occasions when I pull them out.
When I travel, I pack light. For a week at my favorite retreat, Star Island, I take a pair of capris, a multicolored skirt, seven T-shirts, and a sweater for chilly mornings and evening. Here's my wardrobe, which doubles as a calendar as I move through the week. I got there on a Saturday. Can you tell what day I took this photo?
We have already established that I hate grade, and why I hate it. Here's my second devious approach to grading.
Devious solution #2. I give letter grades based on the quality of the work and use the pluses and minuses to indicate effort or engagement. In courses based on a single final project, such as our senior capstone, the letter grade is based solely on the quality of the final product. Drafts are only graded complete, complete/late, or incomplete. A student who writes an outstanding paper but does not meet the expectations for class participation, peer editing, or on-time drafts gets an A-. The student who writes a very good paper and exceeds the engagement expectations gets a B+. Only in extremely egregious instances have I lowered a letter grade — at most, one or two students per semester.
The semester is 117 days long, including graduation and weekends. I always do some work on weekends, and when I am sick, and when I am traveling. That's the life of a college professor, at least this one. Some colleagues dislike answering emails at random times; I prefer it. Beyond the mundane tasks, there's the reality that teaching a course on “Fashion and Consumer Culture”, or “Diversity in American Culture”, or “Religion in American Life” means that I am almost always “on”, paying attention to everyday life in a way that I might not if I taught something else.
Today is my first day of classes after spring break. It is Day #62 of the semester, which means the halfway point slipped by me unnoticed. That makes me sad; I had intended to pay close attention to this last semester before retirement, but instead I found myself falling into old habits. Despite my best efforts, I am far more likely to skate along on the surface of life than pause to reflect on it.
That's a dangerous metaphor, I know. Pause too long on the surface, and I might find myself plunging into icy depths. It's happened, and I disliked it. An interview for the department newsletter included the question “What will you miss the most about UM?” Thankfully, it was an email interview; I had to take a break until I stopped crying.
Finally, I typed this:
I'm going to miss being part of it. I'm not looking forward to coming to campus and having that feeling I had when I visited my old high school on my first Thanksgiving break from college.
For the next 55 days I may still skate along, but if you see me pause, lost in thought, now you'll know why. And I promise to try a bit harder to translate those moments into words.
If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a million times. I love teaching; I hate grading. Over the years, I have devised ways to pare down the task or eliminate it altogether. “Devise” is the perfect word choice, since many of these are actually quite devious. But at this point, three months from retirement, what can they do to me? I am ready to share my secrets.
My quibbles with grading are numerous, but boil down to two issues. The first is that in my courses, students do not take the kinds of tests where a numerical score or letter grade is meaningful. Decades ago, I taught design courses. as I shifted more into cultural studies, I assigned research papers, multimedia projects, portfolios, and reflective journals. When I give the rare exam, it’s essay, not short-answer, true/false, or multiple choice tests. I will happily write a detailed written evaluation of a student's work, but translating that into a number or a letter (which is then turned into a number when their GPA is calculated) is beyond irritating.
The second problem with grading is that, in my opinion, most students are too focused on grades as a proxy for learning. It seemed no matter what I did, after an exam or project, I was more likely to be asked "what can I do to raise this to an A", than any other question. This only got worse in 1999, when the University of Maryland adopted plus/minus grading, supposedly to curb grade inflation. (Ha ha ha!). At first all letter grades in the same range (B-, B, B+) had the same point value. Eventually, the policy was changed so that they were weighted differently. This resulted in a lot frenzied calculations when grades came out, like this one from the UM Reddit forum:
If anyone can answer this it"ll be really helpful, I came away with two A-, two b flats and an A. It comes down to a 3.48 overall if the deans list is 3.5 did i not make it?
This would be followed by an email to all of the instructors, in search of relief so that the student could make Dean's List/keep their athletic eligibility/get into med school. They all have reasons. At first I tried just incorporating them into my existing grading scheme. The result was that every student who got a B+ or C+ came knocking on my door for a few more points so they get a higher letter grade. So would a few others whose GPAs came up a fraction short of some cutoff. At the end of the fall semester, I even had students who emailed me ON CHRISTMAS EVE to lobby for a higher grade.
Devious solution #1. I stopped giving plus grades. If a student fell into the plus range, they would either be given the higher minus grade, or the lower flat grade, depending on how their work compared to others in those ranges. I only did this for a couple of semesters, until I came up with Devious solution #2. (coming soon...)
You may be forgiven if you are an American who has never heard of Shah Rukh Khan. We live in a bubble, and we discover every day how very small,and insulated it is. In late September, 2015, I watched an Indian film (Khabi Khushi Khabie Gham, which has just left Netflix) that opened a door into a world outside that bubble. Another democracy, also troubled with tribal divisions and economic challenges, and also blessed with rich cultural diversity and a history many times longer than our own.
There is one actor who represents Indian cinema today and that is Shah Rukh Khan. Mercurial and multifaceted, he has been the face of India for nearly twenty-five years. The paradox is that as a Muslim, he is also not a "typical" Indian, in the same way that Denzel Washington is not a "typical" American. (And, yes, as a professor of American Studies I know how complicated and contradictory that statement is) In the last year and a half I have learned about India through his films. I have seen all of them.
So here is my ode of thanks to Shah Rukh Khan, whose work has made my life bearable through unbearable times
Thank you for Om Shanti Om and Rab Ne Bana di Jodi, which gave me glimpses into the history of Hindi film.
Thank you for Ra.One, that showed that western mythology isn't the only basis for storytelling.
Thank you for Chak De! India and Swades, that showed us that national pride can be constructive.
Thank you for Devdas and Fan; world-class acting that transcends national boundaries.
Thank you for Yes, Boss and Om Shanti Om, when all the soul needs is a smile and a happy ending.
Thank you for Raees and Ram Jaane, because sometimes sad endings are inevitable.
Thank you for never, ever "phoning it in", no matter how stupid the plot or how inane the dialogue. Your energy is an inspiration.
Thank you, most of all for "My name is Khan", for so many reasons. A film for our time. Our sad, terrible times.
It's everywhere, it seems. In my Fashion and Consumer Culture class, it comes up in discussions of social media use. In political discussions, it comes up when we talk about voting behavior. On Facebook, it takes the form of a steady stream of articles attacking Baby Boomers or Gen X or Millennials for their horrible attitudes or heinous deeds. Only the Greatest Generation seems exempt from criticism -- unless they voted for Donald Trump or send you an ugly sweater.
I have spent enough time studying these generational labels and stereotypes to find this generational warfare not only contrived, but as irritating as hell.
No generation is a monolith. We must consider two things. First, the ways in which "generation" intersects with race, gender, dis/ability, sexual orientation, class and other facets of identity.
Second, we should not ignore who creates, broadcasts, and uses these generational stereotypes, and for what purposes. They were marketing terms before they were identities. That is how consumer culture works. Once a stereotype permeates popular culture, it can be used by individuals to construct their own identities, or to "other" vast sections of the population. It can also be used not only to sell things, but to promote political agendas.
How is generational resentment any different from convincing people that Black people took your spot at the university, or that immigrants stole your job?
Last April, Indian superstar actor Shah Rukh Khan released a film called "Fan". It cost a pile of money to make, and didn't do too well at the box office. Reviews were mixed. People who expected another masala entertainer, or a passionate love story, or a fast-paced action movie (all of which Khan has done, and done spectacularly) were not sure what to make of this dark, even creepy story about a fan so obsessed with his superstar lookalike that he tries to destroy him. Haters in the comment sections called it a flop and declared that the fifty-year old actor was now a has been.
I saw "Fan" five times in two weeks. Twice by myself, then one time each with three different friends, all new to Hindi cinema. They were blown away by the story and by Khan's performance. Shah Rukh Khan plays both parts, aided by top-notch special effects and his own physical ability to embody a twenty-five-year-old's energy in his own battered but still very fit frame. There were even people who walked out of theaters singing the praises of "that guy who plays Gaurav", not realizing it was Khan.
A year later, "Fan" still fascinates me. I own it now, in fact. Shah Rukh Khan occasionally refers to it in interviews in a sad, self-deprecating way, as if it were his own personal Edsel. I hope he is kidding. I hope he knows that, box office be damned, it was a risk worth taking. “Fan” is that odd kid from high school that you can’t get out of your mind. And then you meet him thirty years later and he’s so interesting and so attractive that you kick yourself for not hanging out more with him when he was fifteen.
"Fan" may be underappreciated now, but it will be remembered among Shah Rukh Khan's very best works, and certainly as one of his most interesting.
From my 1976 Journal
From early September:
And here's the thing: the terror, the fear of being unprepared never completely went away. I still have stage fright before every class, even just a little bit. I still have the same dream the night before the first day of classes -- I am late for my flight and discover I left something at home, and go back to get it, making me even later.
So it's hard not to laugh at the inauspicious start to my "last first day": I realized after Jim dropped me off at the Bagel Place that I had left my office keys and ID at home. Since I need them to not only open my office door, but to access my classroom and ride the university shuttle, this was not good. Happily, my luck changed; I found a taxi quickly and was able -- for a price -- go home and get the keys and get back to campus before my first meeting.
I had debated whether or not to let my students in on the significance of this semester, but finally decided what the hell. I informed my 12:30 class that this was my last first day, and gave some special love to my 3:30 class -- my last first class ever. I wish I could say I savored the entire day, as planned, but the truth is that it was a good day, but I am glad it's over. Pneumonia takes the starch out of you, big time. I could not help but notice how easy and comfortable I felt, with only a little bit of first day adrenaline.
And no midnight cockroach massacre in the kitchen this time.
Packing list for the coming year
For the journey ahead
I will need supplies.
clean dry socks to prevent blisters
a cozy hat to keep my head warm
layers for cold days and hot.
A good supply of trail mix
some crunchy, salty bits
soothing coconut flakes.
And of course, some company
chatty and quiet
urgent and calm.
A marching song
One step and then another.
Hoping for fresh water every few miles.
My Gender Mystique blog focuses on my work on clothing, sex, and gender. That's not all I do, so this blog is about everything else.