Sunday, November 29, 2015

A work too hard for the teeth of time

Ten or twelve years ago, when I was working on the third chapter of my dissertation, I found a thread, pulled it--and wound up with a heap of flax so huge I'm spinning it still.

It's not something I found on my own, however. I stumbled upon work that someone on the scholarly margins had done fifty years earlier and that had lain neglected since then. My discovery wasn't due to any great perceptiveness on my part; I just happened to come across my predecessor's work when I was searching for a way into a text that had resisted all other approaches, and I happened to have been trained in the right methods and habits of thought to see the opportunities that his work opened up.

Briefly, this is what I discovered: in 1953, Jean-Jacques Denonain, a Frenchman or maybe a pied-noir, produced a scholarly edition of Thomas Browne's Religio Medici (the title means "a doctor's religion" and the work is a long, strange, beautiful essay that's best summarized as a meditation on the relationship between faith and reason). Denonain collated all the known manuscripts and the major printed editions and presented the text in a simple genetic format that showed the work's development over seven or eight years of composition and expansion.

 Denonain's presentation of the text and its development (Part II, section 5)
Thomas Browne, Religio Medici, ed. Jean-Jacques Denonain (Cambridge: Cambridge U.P., 1953)

No one else had done this, so it would have been honorable work regardless--but Denonain's big revelation was that one of the surviving manuscripts appeared to represent an earlier and significantly different version of the text than the one that had been familiar for centuries.* But although his edition was published by Cambridge University Press and received at least one laudatory contemporary review, almost none of the subsequent scholarship on the Religio built on Denonain's work.

Several years later he published a complete transcription of just that early manuscript. However, it was in an obscure, French-language venue and received even less attention. In the intervening years no one but Denonain seemed to have looked carefully at this earlier version and no one had written a word about it.

Denonain's transcription of the manuscript held by Pembroke College, Oxford. Pub. 1958

A decade after first presenting my work on the Religio and years after my first publications building on Denonain's work, I'm co-editing a new scholarly edition, my chief contribution to which is my deep familiarity with the peculiar early version that so fascinated Denonain. Indeed, with his (presumptive) death, it's neither vainglorious nor particularly impressive to say that I'm probably the world's leading expert. But though I frequently go back to work with the manuscript in person and have high-resolution digital images of every page, I still keep returning to Denonain's editions and transcription, wondering what more he knew and saw and what he would think about what I've done.

In a sense, he's my ghostly collaborator: the only person who knows this text as well as I do, with whom I feel myself to be in conversation almost daily--but whom I'll never meet and about whom I know almost nothing.

A sense of intense connection with the dead goes with the territory when you work with old documents, but generally, when we discover the work of a long-dead scholar, we can place him in a coherent intellectual tradition, tracing his genealogy forward and backwards and recognizing a chain of influence: we not only know which school or methodology a particular critic belonged to, but we know who trained him and whom he trained in return. With Denonain, I don't even have a birth or death date.

All I know is that he taught at the University of Algiers through the 1950s but by 1974 was teaching at the University of Toulouse - Le Mirail (which Google tells me was then a new university, one that emerged in the aftermath of '68). In addition to his editions, he published a book on Browne in French, and most of his other scholarship--a book on the metaphysical poets and a handful of articles on the likes of Traherne, Marlowe, and Bacon--is also in French. But he writes confident, idiomatic English and evidently had a deep familiarity with early modern English paleography and manuscript culture. It's conceivable that he was trained in the U.K., but if so, I have no idea where or by whom.

It's sometimes been hard, then, to escape the sense that I'm the only one who hears him, that he was conjured up like a genie or a ghost, to impart a message to me and me alone. I suppose there's comfort in this proof that scholarship really can last--that it can disappear like the river Arethusa only to reappear later in a different place--and that some of what we write might be, as Browne says of the Bible, "a work too hard for the teeth of time."

I realize it's condescending to assume that a Frenchman in Algeria who specialized in English Renaissance prose was necessarily an isolated figure; like me, Denonain must have had collaborators and colleagues, people whom he talked with and grooved on and who spurred him onward. But I'm still lonely for him, in both of the directions that preposition implies.

 *A second manuscript (BL Lansdowne 489) also comes from this stage of composition, but it's only a fragmentary copy.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Advice: promoting an applicant

So I find myself in the in-many-ways-enviable position of recommending a terrific student for admission to doctoral programs. This is a student whose application I feel good about in every way, including the whole what-if-there-isn't-a-job-at-the-other-end part (among other things, the student is older, with lots of work and life experience).

And it turns out that, at one of the programs to which s/he is applying, I have a valuable contact: an eminent senior scholar whom my student would be very interested in working with. I'm aware that reaching out to such people on behalf of one's students is A Thing One Does, and it's something I want to do for my student. . . but I'm feeling a bit stumped by the genre, especially given the nature of my own relationship with Eminent Senior Scholar.

If this were truly a friend, I'd probably just drop him or her a brief note saying, "Hey, I have this once-in-a-lifetime student who's applying to your program to work in your field, and I think you'll find them as impressive as I do. I'd love it if you could keep an eye out for their application."

But this scholar and I are only friendly in the been-on-some-panels-together kind of way. S/he has been extraordinarily warm and gracious to me, but we're not close. I'm also a bit of a fangirl, and s/he is the kind of person likely to review my book--or my next book, or write a letter for my promotion file--and that's making me really overthink the degree of familiarity I can assume or the tone I should take.

Obviously, I'm writing a letter for my student's application that will go into detail about all the wonderful, extraordinary things s/he has done and why the program should admit immediately if not sooner. . . but should I recapitulate some of that information? How much?

Friends, if you've either written or received emails of this sort, I'd appreciate all the advice you can give me about this genre: length, content, tone. I want to help my student put the best possible foot forward (and avoid looking like a freaky weirdo myself).

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Former things have not been forgotten*

A grad school friend died on Monday. He was 42, and the kindest and most generous person I may ever meet.

Yesterday my Facebook feed and my instant-messenger account started filling up with queries and reminiscences, and it's clear that everyone who knew Brett felt the way I did. Though he and I had remained in touch, exchanging a couple of email messages a year and grabbing a private meal whenever we wound up at the same conference, I can't claim that we were especially close; I just felt that we were, because everyone felt that way about Brett. People who hadn't seen or talked to him in a decade confessed to having spent yesterday afternoon hiding in their campus offices and crying.

Those of us who knew him have been trading a lot of stories, and the ones I've heard have made me laugh and briefly recaptured his presence. I don't think they'd do much to conjure it up for anyone else, though, and that's because presence was precisely Brett's genius, his charism: he was there, fully there, with everyone, whether it was a student, an old friend, or someone he had just met over a conference cheese plate.

This was an extraordinary thing to experience even at this age, but it was almost unfathomable when we were students. It meant that Brett stood outside the ordinary economy of grad school, with its competitions and anxieties and constant sizings-up, so grounded and comfortable in himself that he was endlessly open, endlessly welcoming. As one friend wrote about that period, Brett "was open and kind well before he had the professional standing that makes being like that easy." He knew everyone and he made everyone feel known.

And there's no substitute for, no way to hold onto that gift once it's gone. Brett would have been an active and devoted teacher into his eighties, and the kind of person who still produced a little thrill in each new student, scholar, or poet when he took an interest in them. (And he would have, all of them.)

I'd known that Brett had been diagnosed with cancer, but the last time we'd exchanged messages, in April, he seemed to have turned a corner. A couple of months ago, though, I started to hear rumors that things were not going well--and, without inquiring, I sent him a chatty catch-up message that also managed to say a version of the things I've said here.

I didn't hear back, and there's no reason I should have. I wasn't a close friend, and we never responded that quickly to each other's messages anyway. But I'm glad I sent it, and I hope he received it--or that, at any rate, he knew how thoroughly and completely he was beloved.

And if I don't have the talent or the temperament to be a Brett in other people's lives, at least I hope to do that: to show those I care about that I do, every day that I can.

*Title after Isaiah and this extraordinary poem.

Saturday, November 07, 2015

Always ask

At actually-not-so-very-long-last, the Article of Eternal Return is in print. (PDF here, courtesy of Modern Philology and the University of Chicago Press).

As I documented in excruciating detail along the way, this article had a hell of a time getting through peer review (though, yes: it became a better, stronger, and more nuanced piece as a result)--but getting it into print was surprisingly fast; faster, indeed, than I had any right to expect. That's what this post is about.

During the two solid years that I was trying to get this article accepted, it was also kinda-sorta promised to an edited collected that had grown out of an SAA seminar where I'd presented an earlier version. I'd been up front with the editors about my need to seek a higher-profile venue, and had initially declined to participate. But they were kind and laid-back, urging me to wait and see where it got accepted and what that journal's republication policies were.

This was great, until it became embarrassing: as their book proposal moved forward, and then got a contract, and deadlines started accumulating, I kept having to say, to every email, that I actually still didn't have the article placed--so I was going to withdraw! And I was so sorry! But I just couldn't leave them hanging! And time after time, they kept insisting that it wasn't a big deal and I didn't have to make a decision yet.

In the summer of 2014, things looked like they were finally coming to a head: I'd returned a new version in response to my latest R&R, but I felt grim and defeated and didn't have much hope of acceptance. At the same time, I had a contributor's contract that I hadn't signed (and a second one, which the press sent when I didn't return the first) and a looming submission deadline if I was to participate in the collection. I felt like an asshole, and a failure, and like the universe was telling me to get the fuck over myself.

And then. . . my essay was accepted!

Except. I couldn't very well respond to an acceptance email with an immediate "thanks!!! that's awesome! Also, hey: can I republish it? Like, immediately? Like maybe before it even comes out in print with you guys?" At the same time, I couldn't bring myself to email the collection's editors, either, and tell them whatever I'd have to tell them.

So I spent about a month just not dealing.

But once I'd screwed up the courage to send the necessary emails, the degree to which everyone worked to accommodate me was astonishing. Although the journal requires first publication of everything to which they hold copyright and has a nearly three-year publication backlog, they worked some magic and slated my essay for publication just 11 months later, sent me all the permissions forms, and told me what information I needed to get from the book publisher. In turn, the editors of the collection talked to their publisher on my behalf, my contributor's contract got rewritten, and an appropriate acknowledgment drafted.

Somehow, then, the essay is in print just over three years after I first sent it out, in a journal I couldn't be happier with. And it will be republished almost immediately.

I don't exactly know why everyone was so helpful and so willing to work with me and my ridiculous situation, though I hope that ultimately everyone benefited: that the editors of the collection thought the essay was good enough to wait for (and that being flexible didn't harm them one way or the other), and that the journal was also excited by the work and/or simply saw an advantage to having it immediately republished with an acknowledgment of their priority.

In any case, my takeaway is that you should always ask. You're not being a diva or a special snowflake if you frame your request politely, acknowledge how big a favor you're asking, and are prepared to hear "no." There may be more generosity and helpfulness out there than you expect.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

ProQuest: Not "empowering researchers," not for one minute*

Why, it seems like just yesterday that I was praising the Renaissance Society of America for providing access to the most important database for scholars of Early Modern England.

And in fact, it was almost yesterday--just under two years ago.

Today I learned that, despite the RSA's pioneering leadership and concern for the needs of scholars at under-resourced institutions (or those working without any institutional affiliation at all), ProQuest has decided to terminate the relationship with the RSA because it's concerned that it might--potentially, down the line--lose revenue as a result.

Here's the full text of the letter from the RSA's Executive Committee to its membership:

Dear RSA members,

The RSA Executive Committee regrets to announce that ProQuest has canceled our subscription to the Early English Books Online database (EEBO). The basis for the cancellation is that our members make such heavy use of the subscription, this is reducing ProQuest's potential revenue from library-based subscriptions. We are the only scholarly society that has a subscription to EEBO, and ProQuest is not willing to add more society-based subscriptions or to continue the RSA subscription. We hoped that our special arrangement, which lasted two years, would open the door to making more such arrangements possible, to serve the needs of students and scholars. But ProQuest has decided for the moment not to include any learned societies as subscribers. Our subscription will end a few days from now, on October 31. We realize this is very late notice, but the RSA staff have been engaged in discussions with ProQuest for some weeks, in the hope of negotiating a renewal. If they change their mind, we will be the first to re-subscribe.

Sincerely yours,

The RSA Executive Committee
Carla Zecher, Joseph Connors, James Grubb, Edward Muir, Pamela Smith

As the outrage on Twitter makes clear, this is an absurd concern. Most of us would love to have institutional subscriptions to EEBO, so that our students (undergraduate, M.A., and Ph.D.) could do their own research. The RSA's group subscription is no threat to that possibility; what is a threat is ProQuest's prohibitive subscription fees. Nowhere I've worked, apart from my doctoral institution, has had a subscription--and we've tried to get an institutional subscription in the past; several departments and the library were in full support, but it just wasn't financially feasible.

Until the RSA made EEBO access a perk of membership, I just used the login of a friend at a richer institution. And that's what I'll be doing, again, as will thousands of others. ProQuest will lose its revenue from the RSA and gain no additional institutional subscriptions.

If you want to tell ProQuest how you feel about this craven, mercenary move--well, I can't stop you. Twitter handle: @ProQuest

*Thus saith ProQuest's Twitter bio

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Differently smart

In high school, I was pretty sure there was only one kind of smart.

I mean, yes: I knew that people might be smart in different areas--a whiz at math wasn't always a great writer--but I still saw intelligence as a thing that one either had or did not have, or that one had to a greater or a lesser degree. In other words, I didn't have much of a "growth mindset." At most I had an "if I work really hard, I probably won't fail" mindset.

Even in college I tended to see my peers as belonging to one of basically three categories:
  1. REALLY smart (and therefore terrifying)
  2. normal
  3. pretentious poseur who's probably faking it.
In my first two years of grad school I further reduced the categories: everyone was either terrifying or a poseur.

Gradually, though, I started to realize that not everyone who was intimidatingly learned or articulate in seminar was equally good at other things. At first I could only flip the binary around (so-and-so must not really be smart at all!), but eventually I was able to accommodate the idea that people simply have different strengths. Some of my peers were miles ahead of me in certain areas, but that didn't mean I was doomed. On the other hand, the one or two things I turned out to be good at--even unusually good at--were hardly some secret key to success.

Maybe this is obvious to normal people. But the idea that being good at one thing doesn't make a person smart in some absolute and holistic way is still something I struggle with. I admire, excessively, those who have talents I don't--especially if they're ones I wish I had and feel self-conscious for not having--and then am sometimes confused and disappointed when they turn out not to be as good at things I consider easy and basic.

And when it comes to rarer and more extraordinary gifts, I'm often very slow to recognize them. It's easy to identify the good writer, the spell-binding speaker, and the person who seems to have read three hundred years' of scholarship in five languages; it's harder to identify those with a special knack for helping other people grow and make intellectual connections: the person able to completely restructure and revitalize a major, identify and nurture pathbreaking new work as a journal editor, or who can, in five minutes' conversation, transform your understanding of your own project for ever.

But though I resist it, I suppose it's comforting, too: if most people aren't good at everything, that means there are more cookies to go around.

And if there's one thing I believe in, it's more cookies.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

My friend, the author

Lately I've been having the same experience over and over--the surprising disorientation of reading terrific work by people whom I previously knew only socially. And each time I'm surprised to be surprised: these are friends! People I know are smart! People with whom I've discussed projects and presses and publication strategies. And yet the experience of reading their work is both strangely estranging and a bit like falling in love.

It is, I imagine, similar to the experience a child has upon realizing that her mom or dad isn't just her mom or dad, but is also a trial lawyer or VP for marketing, and thus has another life totally unlike the one the child sees and knows.

Maybe this response is unique to me--the result of not having had friends in grad school with whom I exchanged work, or of being in a niche sub-field. But I suspect it isn't, or isn't totally: our academic friends, the people we hang out with at the conference hotel bar or have over for dinner, are friends. We like them because we like them. Knowing what a person's vita looks like and complaining about work and swapping professional advice isn't the same thing as reading her prose. Even hearing a person deliver a conference paper isn't the same as reading the eventual article: the ideas may be the same, but even the strongest conference paper doesn't fully convey the writer's voice or the way her mind expresses itself in the silence of the printed page.

It would be going too far to say that reading a friend's work is like encountering a totally different person, but it's a bit like encountering your awesome friend's awesome sister: there's clearly a continuity between them, and as time goes on it will become impossible to think of the one without the other--but at first blush all you can see are the differences: this one has pink hair and used to be a professional archer; that one works for the State Department and collects netsuke.

(The opposite experience--finally meeting the real, live person who wrote a book or essay you admire--can also be disorienting, but it's somehow more expected. We know, at least intellectually, that an author is something other than the human being who walks around bearing that name, just as we know that the person we see on the screen would not be the person we'd meet in the street.)

As for discovering that someone I thought was awesome in person is actually a crappy or pedestrian writer. . . frankly, I've never had that experience. There are certainly people in the world who are smart and hilarious in person but who write abysmally flat prose--a phenomenon I truly didn't understand when I first encountered it in high school--but literary studies probably selects for those who are better than average at matching writing voice to personality; I know I select for it among my friends.

But if this is a surprise, it's unquestionably a pleasurable one. So friends-whose-work-I've-just-read: it's not that I didn't expect your work to be smart! I just didn't expect it to be smart like this.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Who gets hired when: the Chronicle is ON IT!*

Earlier this week the Chronicle published the first analysis of data from the 2013-2014 job market and made its JobTracker tool fully accessible and searchable (well, mostly: it's in beta, and I've run into a number of bugs and error messages). The data the authors have crunched so far are in the service of answering the question of whether waiting pays off, or, to put it more negatively, for how long one remains marketable post-PhD.

Since I'm in English literature, those figures interested me the most--and they suggest that hiring now is much the same as it was when I was first on the market ten years ago: just under 50% of the jobs went to those who were either ABD (usually, about to defend) or within one year of their degree conferral; almost 80% of the jobs went to those who were no more than three years post-degree.

A lot of caveats apply to the data the Chronicle team has assembled, some of which they acknowledge--the JobTracker, so far, contains only one year's worth of data, so it's hardly predicative--and some of which they don't: although only 2% of the positions listed in English literature in 2013 went to candidates whose degrees were eight years old, it's impossible to know how many candidates with eight-year-old PhDs were still in the applicant pool; a lot have surely left academia, so perhaps, percentage-wise, the remainder are doing quite well.

Moreover, in my discipline, they have data for only 73% of the job listings--which is a lot, but it's hard to say whether the other 27% might change the picture significantly. For instance, the position I'm currently holding is one of the "unknowns," presumably because I negotiated a year's delay and wasn't at this job when the data were collected. As it happens, since my degree was conferred in December 2005, I would have been another person in the "eight years post-degree" column. . . but as someone who got her first tenure-track job within a year of degree, I'm hardly proof of the proposition that waiting pays off.

And that's the other thing that the data don't reveal (although anyone interested could drill down and collect the information for herself): how many of the people three or four or five years post-degree who got jobs as assistant professors in 2013-14 are actually on their first tenure-track job and how many are on their second. The conventional wisdom is that it's easiest to switch TT jobs when you're between two and four years in, and at my previous job that did seem to be the sweet spot. Of the dozen or so TT hires we made in my time there, most were within three years of their PhD (though I believe we hired none who were ABD and none who hadn't had at least a year as a full-time lecturer or VAP), and several were lateral hires, with two years on the TT elsewhere.

There are other ways to crunch the data than age-of-degree: with a little hunting, you can see how many of the successful candidates in 2013-14 came from which schools (click on the school itself, and you'll see not just whom they hired, but which of their graduates got which jobs). Again, for a single year, this isn't proof of much, and you still have to disaggregate those just finding a first job from those on their second (or third); you also have no way of knowing how many of their students were on the market that year: a department might have, in absolute terms, a large number of successful candidates for 2013-14, while not having a particularly strong placement record overall.

Still, though the data are incomplete and imperfect, this is a terrific resource. I await next year's data, and the year after that, and I look forward to the day when we can claim to have a clearer picture of the trends.

*I mean that sincerely, though often I don't. (For reference, see here.)

Saturday, October 03, 2015

As order longs for chaos

We're a bit obsessed, in my household, with Dahlia Lithwick's "Muppet Theory": her tongue-in-cheek (but totally convincing!) assertion that the world can be divided into two kinds of people: Chaos Muppets and Order Muppets. Here's Lithwick's initial distinction:

Chaos Muppets are out-of-control, emotional, volatile. They tend toward the blue and fuzzy. They make their way through life in a swirling maelstrom of food crumbs, small flaming objects, and the letter C. Cookie Monster, Ernie, Grover, Gonzo, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and--paradigmatically--Animal, are all Chaos Muppets. Zelda Fitzgerald was a Chaos Muppet. So, I must tell you, is Justice Stephen Breyer.

Order Muppets--and I'm thinking about Bert, Scooter, Sam the Eagle, Kermit the Frog, and the blue guy who is perennially harrassed by Grover at restaurants...--tend to be neurotic, highly regimented, averse to surprises and may sport monstrously large eyebrows. They sometimes resent the responsibility of the world weighing on their felt shoulders, but they secretly revel in the knowledge that they keep the show running. Your first grade teacher was probably an Order Muppet. So is Chief Justice John Roberts. It's not that any one type of Muppet is inherently better than the other. . . . It's simply the case that the key to a happy marriage, a well-functioning family, and a productive place of work lies in carefully calibrating the ratio of Chaos Muppets to Order Muppets within any closed system.

(But really, if you haven't read the whole essay, you should do it now.)

There's no doubt that I'm an Order Muppet and Cosimo is a Chaos Muppet, but upon first reading Lithwick's article I did feel a bit of a pang when I realized that Miss Piggy--whom I adored so much as a child that I dressed up as her for two Halloweens in a row--was a Chaos Muppet and thus Not My Type At All. But since part of Lithwick's theory is that Order Muppets tend to pair off with Chaos Muppets, I rationalized my enthusiasm as just an early sign of my life-long attraction to Chaos Muppets.

Recently, though, we bought a few DVDs of the original Muppet Show. After watching some episodes and finding my love for Piggy undiminished, I came up with a new theory: just as Tolstoy, according to Isaiah Berlin, was a fox who wanted to be a hedgehog, so am I a Kermit who longs to be a Piggy.

So glad I could clear that up.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Joining the conversation

Recently, after drafting most of my Milton chapter, I decided it was time to sit down and read some criticism.

It's not that I'd done no prior research; I'd made certain that no one else was arguing the kinds of things I was planning on arguing, and I'd spent a couple of months doing what you might call background research. But I hadn't bothered to read much contemporary criticism, because--why would I? I knew the texts, I had a general sense of how they'd been read and discussed over the years, and no one was doing what I was doing, anyway.

But after writing 9,000 loose and drafty words, I'd run out of gas and was at a loss for how to frame my argument in a way that was more interesting and consequential than "betcha never thought John Milton was doing THIS, now didja!"

So I took a week to read all the articles and book chapters I'd ordered through ILL--and then order a dozen more--and though it's true that none of them were interested in what I was interested in, seeing the passages and problems that preoccupied others let me reformulate my ideas so my observations were addressing the same concerns. Reading the scholarship allowed me to enter the conversation, as we say, rather than just sitting in a corner and shouting, "hey! I found a thing!"

My impression is that most people read the scholarship first, but that. . . doesn't really work for me. In grad school I had a hard time seeing past prior criticism--I'd fall in love with one particular reading and be unable to recognize what avenues might still be open or what I could add--and although I don't usually have that problem today, when I'm in the very early stages of a project I'm still prone to either falling in love with a given approach or dismissing it out of hand ("Why am I reading this? it has NOTHING to do with ANYTHING!").

Basically, I don't think I'm a very careful or receptive reader when I'm protecting the fragile little seedling of my own idea. It's only after it's grown a bit and I'm sure there's something there that I can take on board and appreciate the work that other people have done--including seeing the ways that approaches and interests that seem very different from my own are actually things I can build on.


So this is all well and good, and a useful thing to know or to keep rediscovering about my own process. But it makes teaching scholarly writing hard, especially at the senior-capstone and M.A. level. Though I give my students a lot of literary criticism and I think I've gotten good at teaching them how to parse it and recognize its representative moves, I don't know how to teach them to have ideas independent of that criticism. I encourage them to find the limitations of even the best pieces and the areas available for future study, but it's only the rare students that can do this in a nuanced way, and even they often feel the burden of trying to say something original when they know how little they know and how belated and junior they are.

I wish it were responsible to say (and that the semester gave me enough time to say), "just write down your crazy ideas! make an argument! read the criticism later!" But they don't have that luxury, and I don't know how to teach them to do what I couldn't do, at their stage, either.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Being "independent"

In the course of meeting with my students this semester, I'm also learning a lot about their lives outside of the classroom. This isn't because I ask--I chat about their classes, their academic interests, their career ambitions--but it tends to come up: a student's job, a student's second job, how their finances affected their choice of college.

And I'm reminded of one of the students from my Italian class two years ago; we were often partnered, and became friendsly. She was twenty years old and working thirty hours a week while also a full-time student. She had a scholarship that covered about half of her tuition, but she paid everything else herself, from registration fees to textbooks to car insurance.

She lived at home, though, and only contributed toward groceries and utilities. She kept talking about how embarrassing this was, and how she had to move out and start being more independent.

"I don't know," I said, thinking about all the twenty-year-olds who go to private colleges and live on campus while their parents pay tuition, room and board (and sometimes other expenses, long past college). "You sound pretty independent to me!"

She shook her head. "Until last month I was still on their cell-phone plan. At twenty years old! GOD."

I don't know what her relationship with her parents was like, and she may indeed have needed more psychological separation than she had. But it strikes me that while the economic and educational elite may talk about raising independent children, they don't mean it quite so literally.

Friday, September 11, 2015

More like mid-career MAGNIFICENCE

A friend who's also a savvy and pro-active department chair recently set up a fund to encourage associate professors to keep building their careers beyond whatever competencies helped them get tenure. Monies wouldn't be awarded just to go to a conference or deliver a paper; the idea was to encourage faculty to think about what else they might like to do: invite speakers to campus, organize a symposium, participate in a summer seminar or master class.

When I heard about this, I thought, now that's a guy who knows what it is to be an associate professor.

Moving jobs means I haven't yet succumbed to mid-career malaise. Since everything is new--all the applications, all the processes, all the funding sources--I've also been more attuned to new opportunities; right now my brain is whirring with professional-development ideas. Still, I can see and even feel how easy it is to get into a groove that becomes a rut, doing what's worked before, and no longer bothering to try new things, especially if they've been discouraged or denied in the past. So when my friend mentioned that applications to this new fund had been underwhelming, I kinda got it.

But for those of us who aren't in a rut and don't want to be, I'm interested in thinking through what it means to be at mid-career, and how we can conceive of this as a distinct stage with new goals and opportunities. Because the reality for most of us is that there aren't that many truly new things to do. To get tenure, most people have been publishing, going to conferences, applying for grants and fellowships, and doing some amount of professional service. Maybe you haven't yet published in that journal, so it remains a goal, or you got a small fellowship and now are hoping for a big one. But the game remains the same.

For me, then, the easiest way to conceive of mid-career as a distinct stage is by connecting it to Erik Erikson's stages of psychosocial development (which Cosimo is obsessed with). After stages that are mostly about finding oneself and developing a sense of mastery and security comes the midlife stage, which, according to Erikson, should be marked by "generativity" rather than "stagnation." By "generativity" he doesn't mean an individual's personal productivity, but her contribution to her profession and society at large.

I like that. And in thinking about what the next level entails and what I want to achieve on my way to full professor, I'm trying to look outward more than inward, focusing on making connections and expanding my range rather than obsessing over my C.V. and what might be missing or look good there. If before I was pleased to get a request to review a book because hey! free book! line on the vita! And someone knows I exist!, I'm trying now to think about where I can be a useful reviewer, and hopefully a generous one. Being at mid-career means having obligations to others, but feeling good about them: I want to give professional acquaintances feedback on their book proposals, to write tenure and job-market letters, and put in a good word for them with someone more senior.

Now, I still feel a certain amount of keeping-up-with-the-Joneses, and I'd be lying if I said I didn't have things I was still eager to get on my C.V. or wasn't haunted by a sense that if Book Two isn't done by X date I'll have fallen behind. But being at midcareer means I know that none of those things is urgent; that for now my career is what it is; and that nothing much rides on whether I do A a year earlier or later--or change my mind and do B.

Still, if I had access to those mid-career faculty funds, I have about six things I'd spend that money on toot-sweet.

Saturday, September 05, 2015

Meet the new teacher, same as the old teacher

The second week of classes just ended, and so far the transition, at least in terms of teaching, has been ridiculously easy.

Partly this is because both my classes are ones I've taught before: British Literature I and a 300-level elective, Sex & Gender in the Renaissance. Neither course is quite the same as the versions I've taught elsewhere--each fulfills different curricular and general-education functions--but they're close enough.

More important is that, unlike the previous times I was new faculty, I now have a decade's worth of full-time teaching experience. I've dealt with front-row blurters; students who never bring their books to class; brilliant kids who want to hold forth on tangential issues. Those things don't phase me. I also know how much lead time to give before due-dates, why I might want to use an online gradebook, which policies need spelling out, and what isn't worth class time.

(I'm sure there are still student populations that could surprise me or that would require new skills; I'm used to a mix of abilities but a lot of eagerness and raw potential--students ready to be excited by Chaucer if I'm excited and show them some ways in. I'm not used to sullenness or complacency or entitlement, or students who are there just for the social aspects of college. Nor do I have experience teaching a room full of uniformly elite students. A different baseline in student preparation or attitude would require an adjustment in my teaching persona and the kind of scaffolding that gets us from A to B.)

And. . . did you notice the part where I said "both my classes"? This is the first time I've taught just two--and I'm doing it again next semester, and the next! (The teaching load is 2-3, but I got a course release for my first year.) I found 3-3 perfectly manageable, especially with so many repeat preps, but two is delightful--and really helpful when I'm still spending hours a week on the phone and internet, changing my insurance, health plan, and various registrations; finding new doctors and hairdressers and gyms and tailors.

It also means that having an Honors section of Brit Lit I (six students doing additional readings, writing longer papers, and holding additional meetings) and a grad section of sex & gender (ditto, basically) feels fun rather than burdensome. And that I have time to do other things that make me a better teacher, like require that every student come to my office hours in the first month of class.

The transition to a much bigger school (but a smaller tenure-line faculty, proportionately) is something I'm still getting my head around, and whose differences I'm not sure I fully recognize. More on that, I'm sure, in due time.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Bit by bit

In many ways this summer has felt like a wash. Though I started out strong, with a 5,000-word paper I could pour directly into a new chapter, until a few weeks ago those were the only words I'd contributed toward the book; selling the house and moving sucked up everything in its path.

I didn't do nothing, though. As those who follow me on social media know all too well, this summer I re-read The Faerie Queene--a/k/a the longest poem in the English language--for the first time since grad school. So's not to get overwhelmed, I set myself the pace of a canto a day, or an average of 500 lines (and maybe 30 minutes of leisurely reading). With a catch-up day or two per week, I figured the whole thing would take three months.

And it did.

Now, my original plan had been to read the poem while writing my Milton chapter, but that didn't happen. Some weeks the three to five hours I spent reading Spenser were the sum total of my scholarly activity.

As it turns out, though, that was enough to keep my head in my book project, and when I found myself with a little extra time I consolidated my notes, ran EEBO searches, read around in medieval romance and the writings of the early church, and chatted on Twitter with actual Spenserians.

Periodically, I started to freak out about how little writing I was doing--but there wasn't really TIME to freak out; another stupid thing would come up that we had to track down our realtor or lawyer to resolve, or we'd run out of boxes and packing tape.

By the time we got settled in our apartment, there were only two weeks of summer left (and an office still to set up, syllabi to write, and endless orientation activities to undergo). But thinking about Spenser had led to some ideas about Milton, and I was itching to start drafting. One night I decided I could probably squeeze out 500 words before bedtime.

I did. And then I wrote another 500 the next day, and 500 the next. And then, okay: a few days of bullshit intervened--but 500 words is so small and low-stakes that it was easy to fall back into the habit whenever I needed a break from yelling at Blackboard.

The idea of chipping away at a big project by doing just a little bit each day is hardly ground-breaking, but the philosophy of "write you book in fifteen minutes a day!" has never worked for me in the past. When I'm writing, I write steadily, but I write best when it's for a few hours a day, for a few weeks or months--after which there's a rest, and a pause.

But this summer didn't enable the sustained writing I was almost ready to do, and now that I am ready I don't have the time. So I'm going to experiment with how I can keep writing under those circumstances.

A part of me, if I'm honest, is scared of this new book project, and of the possibility that I'll stall out or let it slip away from me. You'd think that having published one book would demystify the process and make the second one feel doable, and in some ways it does--but life is more complicated now, with more obligations and less external structure, and I fear being the person who just. . . doesn't . . . finish.

So for now I'm taking comfort in what even the very low bar of a-canto-a-day let me achieve: I read some things, I thought some thoughts, and--most importantly--I was still in the game, in a minimal way, every day.

Sunday, August 23, 2015


I've oriented. I've retreated. And I've moved the contents of twenty boxes of books onto my office shelves, pounded a bunch of holes in the walls, and taped little postcards of monarchs and manuscripts to my door.

I'm ready! Mostly.

It's a weird thing, starting my third full-time teaching job on what is more or less the tenth anniversary of completing my dissertation. All three jobs have been at public universities whose student body skews first-generation, with a lot of transfer students, a lot of commuters, and a lot of students with busy and complicated lives.

I like teaching this student population, and I liked it almost from the moment I started that first job--though I had no prior experience with it and there's no reason anyone looking at my job-market materials would have thought I'd be any good at it (and plenty of reasons to assume I'd be bad at it). I had three degrees from the same Ivy. I'd written a dissertation on minor, esoteric material. I didn't have much teaching experience. I couldn't even claim to be a first-gen kid myself.

I guess what I'm saying is: it's impossible to guess what a job candidate will be good at if he or she hasn't done it yet.

That doesn't mean that every teacher will be good with every student population, given enough time, nor does it mean that search committees should take a candidate's abilities on faith (if I were interviewing 30-year-old Flavia for 40-year-old Flavia's job, she probably would not be at the top of my list).

But both search committees and candidates can have failures of imagination. Looking back at my two initial runs at the job market, I remember not being able to envision myself in the more elite places--but I knew those were the jobs I was supposed to want, and I was duly disappointed when I didn't get interviews with them. However, at that stage I truly had no interest in designing specialized upper-division seminars or working with doctoral students; what excited me was the idea of teaching the Brit Lit I survey to both majors and non-majors. The most gratifying part of teaching, for me, was the demystification: figuring out how to break down a high-level task down into its component skills or giving students avenues into genres (like poetry) or authors (like Milton) who previously seemed intimidating or irrelevant.

I'm sure those skills would have come in handy anywhere I wound up. But they were an especially good match for the places I did wind up--places I didn't fully know existed, and whose specific pleasures I certainly couldn't have imagined.

I don't know if our prior jobs track us for our future ones. But I'm pretty sure the way I used to get read isn't how I get read now.