Saturday, March 26, 2011

Postcard from Iowa City

just before my first lecture
by J J Cohen

This is one of those postcards that when you glance at its postmark you realize that its sender waited until returning home before dropping the thing in the mail.

I've just returned from the University of Iowa, where I did a three day stint as Ida Beam Visiting Distinguished Professor. Though I was sponsored by multiple departments (English, History, Religion, Classics and Women's Studies as I recall), I owe the residency to the amazing Kathy Lavezzo. She nominated me, put together my itinerary, and took extremely good care of me during my visit. She even remembered what drink I like (old fashioneds made with Knob Creek), and compelled me to try a new one (the Bloody Orange, in the picture below). She put me together with an awesome group of graduate students. Among the many who took me to meals, conveyed me to and from the airport, and suffered through my bad jokes, I'm especially thankful to Erin Mann, Michael Sarabia, Tom Blake, Stephanie Norris and Travis Johnson. All five are astoundingly good, as well as good hearted. What a smart, lively, fun group of graduate students study at the U of I. I also got to see some favorite medievalists (Claire Sponsler, Connie Berman, Michael Moore), as well as to meet Jon Wilcox and many others. AND by teaching an undergraduate class on The King of Tars and race, I had the chance to get to know some undergraduates ... and they helped me to realize what a complicated text Tars is. I'd avoided teaching it previously because I'd always worried that the text had been allowed to stand in for medieval race itself, but teaching the thing made me realize that it is not nearly as reductive as the skin color dynamics and transforming blob baby at quick glance suggest.

a very manly drink
The residency should have been exhausting. Its four lectures in three days gave me the chance to present on every piece of my current research (intermediating monsters; stone's vibrant materiality; the complexities of medieval race; Christian and Jewish neighboring). Though I slept well each night when I finally made it to bed, I was always buoyed by the enthusiasm of those around me. It's possible I nodded off to sleep for ten minutes while listening to my iPod on the small plane from Cedar Rapids to Chicago, but that's about the only time I felt tired. Actually, quite the opposite: the visit was so intellectually and socially stimulating that I've come away from it energized. I also very much liked Iowa City, with its array of coffee shops, good restaurants, and book stores. I've been fortunate in that I've been giving many papers at many different universities lately; this was among my favorites.

The spouse is running a meeting in Palo Alto right now, so while I was gone each kid spent two nights at a different friend's house (Wendy returns via red-eye tomorrow morning). We've never had separate trips at the same time like this, and were a bit stressed about this situation, especially given our mutual distance from Alex and Katherine. We'd tried to get someone to stay with K&A while we were both traveling, thinking that would minimize the chance of a problem. Even though that fell through, each kid enjoyed their time with their different families -- and we feel fortunate to have friends who could take in our temporary orphans. K & A returned home together Friday afternoon, knowing that I was due to arrive from National Airport around seven. When my plane was delayed in Chicago due to a mechanical issue I frantically called Alex, who had been watching his younger sister since picking her up from school that afternoon. It was clear that he had everything under control. When I finally did get home around nine, she was sound asleep in her bed and he was watching a movie. He'd even ordered pizza for the two of them. He's quite a grown-up thirteen year old. Sometimes.

So, a good trip. I'd worried too much about my ability to be entertaining for that long (mostly I just gave up on that ambition and resorted to making funny noises with my arm pits when the conversation lulled). I'd worried about K & A taking care of themselves both with friends and by themselves on Friday afternoon and evening (I need to have more faith). And, to top things off, I've convinced them both to make french toast with me tomorrow morning to welcome home their mom. Now if only I could get a decent Bloody Orange here in DC ...


Eileen Joy said...

The students and faculty were lucky to have you there for such an extended period of time, and to hear about *multiple* projects. That doesn't happen often. It's such a great Fellowship on Iowa's part.

klavezzo said...

Jeffrey, you definitely left your mark in the heartland, where everyone involved in the visit relished your warmth, integrity and intellectual mission. We hope to see you again in IC in the fall, spring or summer (not that IC doesn't have its charms in the winter).