Sunday, February 07, 2016

No exchanges

At the gym the other day I read Jhumpa Lahiri's "Teach Yourself Italian," an essay about her decades' long obsession with Italian and her intermittent attempts to master it. Since I've been studying Italian for a few years myself--and periodically wondering how serious I am and what the next stage of my studies might be--Lahiri's essay had an obvious appeal. I also liked the way she used her struggles with Italian to reflect on her struggles with English, a language her own mother never mastered and that for Lahiri was always fraught with the possibility of failure.

And yet. . . the essay just wasn't very good. It gestured toward interesting ideas, but the language was flat and unsubtle. It didn't sound like Lahiri or like The New Yorker.

But since I had another 30 minutes on the elliptical machine, I kept reading. Lahiri narrated her move to Italy with her family and her decision to start keeping a journal in Italian. At first her writing was comically bad, but she found it freeing to write without regard for errors. Gradually, it got better. And then abruptly, in the middle of a paragraph, Lahiri declared, "If I mention that I'm writing in a new language these days, many people react negatively. In the United States, some advise me not to do it. They say they don't want to read me translated from a foreign tongue."

Wha--? An idea occurred to me. I glanced down to the end of the article: "translated, from the Italian, by Ann Goldstein."

So that's why its prose was so unlovely, so un-Lahiri.

And then I read this, and something pinged in my head:

I became a writer in English. And then, rather precipitously, I became a famous writer. I received a prize that I was sure I did not deserve, that seemed to me a mistake. Although it was an honor, I remained suspicious of it. I couldn't connect myself to that recognition, and yet it changed my life. Since then, I've been considered a successful author, so I've stopped feeling like an unknown, almost anonymous apprentice. All my writing comes from a place where I feel invisible, inaccessible. But a year after my first book was published I lost my anonymity.

By writing in Italian, I think I am escaping both my failures with regard to English and my success. Italian offers me a very different literary path. As a writer I can demolish myself, I can reconstruct myself. I can join words together and work on sentences without ever being considered an expert. I'm bound to fail when I write in Italian, but, unlike my sense of failure in the past, this doesn't torment or grieve me.

What this sounds like, to me, is a phenomenon I've been interested in for a while now: the brilliantly talented (or even just averagely gifted) person who dismisses and downgrades her talents precisely because they seem to her so easy, or so undeserved--and then, surprisingly often, decides she might have equal success doing something else.

Think about the professional athlete who walks away from one sport to pick up another he hasn't played since high school. Or the singer who desperately wants to be an actor (or vice versa) and is perplexed when success doesn't follow. In some cases, the model-who-thinks-she-can-be-an-actor-can-be-a-singer may just be arrogantly self-confident, living inside a bubble of fame--but in other cases, the kind I'm interested in, the talented person really does have a conflicted relationship to his or her talent and believes that he or she would be happier, in some way, doing something else.

That's something I have real sympathy for. I'm not sure I have any remarkable talents myself, but I'm certainly better at some things than others (and not necessarily the things I would have chosen). I wish I were a good fiction writer, but I'm not. If I were to quit my job tomorrow and spend the next ten years working on a novel. . . well, I could do that, but there's no evidence to suggest I'd succeed. The fact that I'm a pretty good scholar with a pretty good prose style--and that I've been complimented on and rewarded for those things--does not mean I'd be equally valuable as some other kind of writer.

I believe in doing new things, and I'm all for self-exploration and self-expansion. If Italian has given Lahiri a way to write that doesn't trigger the kind of anxiety and self-doubt she felt in English, that's terrific, and I wish her well. But though she writes better Italian than I ever will, it's in English that she has a notable talent (and others rarely wish to finance our journeys of self-discovery). It's Lahiri's right to give that up and to move on to new things. But we admire--reward--pay for--the rarer skills.

"Gifts" are gifts precisely because they're not chosen.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Jet-set

Starting next Friday, I'll be traveling to D.C. every weekend to participate in a 10-week research seminar at the Folger Shakespeare Library. I was lucky to be admitted to the seminar; even luckier that my institution was willing to cover most of my costs; and luckiest that this is a semester where I can (probably, but we'll see) swing the time commitment.

I've had my eye on this seminar since it was first announced more than a year ago, and it's a good fit for my second book project. But I was also eager to participate for reasons that are maybe both more nebulous and more urgent than the exact topic of this exact seminar.

I am, you see, looking for New Things.

I've written before about the problem of maintaining a sense of momentum at midcareer. Most of us, I imagine, still get excited about new courses and new research projects, but after the mountainous landscape of one's early career, the vista that lies ahead--stretching into the next ten or twenty years--can seem pretty flat. That's not a bad thing, exactly, but I've always been the kind of person who needs a prize on which to keep her eyes.

So this seminar is a way of doing something new, of keeping things interesting. The last time I did something of this sort--an intensive week-long symposium that I referred to on-blog as The Institute for Advanced Flavia Studies--it turned out to be a pretty crucial bit of professional development. I gained a new conceptual framework for my first book and I made some terrific friends.

But I'm not looking for that, specifically. I'm just looking for something to throw myself into for a time--the kind of opportunity that seemed to grow on trees in graduate school but that has been harder to find (or to find the time for) since then. As unhappy as I was in grad school, I can't say I wasn't constantly doing New Things. I took courses just because they sounded interesting; signed up for summer language classes; went to speakers series organized around a particular theme; took week-long master classes in things like editorial theory and paleography. Many of these didn't start out as relevant to my work. . . but because my mind is obsessively centripetal, they tended to wind up that way.

So I've been monitoring the Folger's seminar listings for a while now, just as I've also been keeping tabs on what summer programs are being offered by the NEH and Rare Book School, and which language institutes have programs when, and where, and of what cost and duration.

I can't do everything. I don't even want to do everything. But I do need to do something, at least every couple of years. And this year, that something involves a roll-aboard suitcase, TSA pre-check, and getting up earlier, every Friday, than God himself intended.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Course design and creativity

After five frenzied days, I think I have both of my syllabi written.

Let's hope so, since classes start tomorrow.

All these years later, I'm still surprised by what intense, creative labor course design can be. Whenever I'm building one from scratch, I find myself convinced there must be some perfect, Platonic version out there--a combination of readings, a sequence of assignments--that will allow the topic to bloom forth, revealing its fullest meaning and potential. (And not finding that perfect form means the class will suck and fail and EVERYTHING WILL BE RUINED.)

It's delusional, I know--but sometimes, after spending a day writing and rewriting the two or three blurby little paragraphs that lay out the purpose and the big ideas of the class, I realize why I do it. Suddenly, there it is: the whole argument, the whole thing I believe, the theory I want to test that might help me make this class more than just "an exploration of X topic."

And that kind of revelation, whether or not it's connected to anything I've thought or written before, or anything I expect to write in the future, is the same high I get from writing, from research, from the kinds of discovery and meaning-making that happen when I'm alone in a little room all by myself.

*

Still, as creatively satisfying as course design is, I'm on guard against spending too much time on it; that's why I waited until Thursday, when we'd returned from our latest travels, to start working on my syllabi. Obviously, I'd already ordered the books, and I'd started thinking about the supplemental readings, but I was deliberately not letting my mind fully turn to the topic.

And it strikes me that deferring this work may be a version of "the power of procrastination" that Adam Grant writes about in this weekend's NYT. As Grant notes,

Our first ideas. . . are usually our most conventional. . . . When you procrastinate, you're more likely to let your mind wander. That gives you a better chance of stumbling onto the unusual and spotting unexpected patterns. Nearly a century ago, the psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik found that people had a better memory for incomplete tasks than for complete ones. When we finish a project, we file it away. But when it’s in limbo, it stays active in our minds.

According to Grant (and the research a former student of his has done on the subject), this can be taken too far--when you're really panicked or pressed for time, you're likely to grasp at straws and throw together anything that will work--but a certain amount of procrastination, and a certain amount of time pressure, really does stimulate creativity.

In my case, I wasn't actually procrastinating writing my syllabi. I just had other things to do first, and I'm enough of a monomaniac that I can't simultaneously develop a new class and focus on my own writing. My natural preference is to focus on just one thing at a time, and the more creative the labor involved, the harder I find it to switch between projects.

But in the real world, we can't focus on just one task at a time--and though I get overwhelmed easily, I also get grumpy and bored when I don't have enough going on. So I've taught myself to manage multiple projects by parceling out my time in portions large enough to feel I can achieve some degree of immersion: four uninterrupted hours; a day; a week. Here is where I work on A! And there is where I turn to B!

Because I have pots going on multiple burners throughout, I'd like to think that some of the benefits that Grant ascribes to procrastination still accrue: even while I was working on my Milton chapter or the textual notes for my edition, I knew syllabi-writing was on the horizon. And occasionally, when stuck on a sentence in my chapter, I'd take five minutes to sketch out the reading schedule for my senior capstone, or I'd toggle over to the internet to see if there was an online version of one of my supplemental texts. So a corner of my brain was still ticking.

Greater productively through procrastination. I'd said it before, and I'll say it again.

Friday, January 01, 2016

New Year's Meme

(Ninth in a series)

1. What did you do in 2015 that you'd never done before?
*Got a tattoo
*Sold a house
*Left a job I loved
*Watched a family member enter a final illness

2. Did anyone close to you give birth?
Yes: one friend had her first and another her second.

3. Did anyone close to you die?
This was a year for facing mortality. A grad school friend and a grad school professor both died, and (like last year) another friend lost an infant daughter. And the early months of 2016 will bring another death.

4. What countries did you visit?
Only Canada (a couple of times).

5. What would you like to have in 2016 that you lacked in 2015?
More leisure travel. Less death.

6. What was your biggest achievement of the year?
In terms of effort, selling our house and getting all our possessions in the same state, if not under the same roof (much of it is still in storage).

In terms of satisfaction, throwing ourselves into a new city and a new social scene. I'm surprised how many people I already know, and how optimistic I'm feeling about this place.

7. What was your biggest failure?
I could have been more patient and generous with various people whom I knew to be under stress. Actually, I could just be more patient and generous, full stop.

8. Did you suffer illness or injury?
Nothing serious.

9. What was the best thing you bought?
My mink coat. (Yes, I bought a mink coat. It's vintage, it's full-length, and it's ridiculous. And I'm wearing it evvvvvverywhere.)

10. Whose behavior merited celebration?
All of Cosimo's extended family.

11. Whose behavior made you appalled and depressed?
I think this blog is too public for me to specify!

12. Where did most of your money go?
Getting the house ready to sell and then moving drained our bank account. But most of my moving expenses were eventually reimbursed, and we made money on the sale, so all's well that ends well.

13. Compared to this time last year, are you: a) happier or sadder? b) thinner or fatter? c) richer or poorer?
a) About the same
b) All my clothes fit, so who's counting?
c) Richer: my new job came with a nice raise, and (for the moment) we don't have a mortgage

14. What do you wish you'd done more of?
Blogged, for one.

15. What do you wish you'd done less of?
Contemplated mortality.

16. What was the best book you read?
Either Richard Price's Lush Life or Giuseppe di Lampedusa's Il Gattopardo (in English, alas. Someday in Italian!)

17. What was your favorite film of the year?
Birdman

18. What was your favorite album of the year?
Adele, 25

19. What was the best play you saw?
Best new play: King Charles III (Broadway)

Best revival: Pericles (Stratford Festival)

20. What kept you sane?
Living with my spouse full time. Making progress on the book. Getting out & about in the city.

21. Tell us a valuable life lesson you learned in 2015.
I don't know about "lessons." But I know that I am not resigned.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Writing without a net

As I mentioned yesterday, my Milton chapter is getting out of control:



Based on what I have left to cover, I'd estimate this chapter will ultimately hit 30,000 words. For comparison, my entire first book was 92,000 words.

This is, frankly, never a problem I've had before. Though I know people who can sit down and produce 70 pages practically at a sitting, I usually have the opposite problem: I run short. When I'm writing to deadline, my first fear is always that I won't make length, that I won't have enough to say--and though that's never a problem in the end, I accrete text only slowly, cutting as I expand. (And I can cut like nobody's business, transforming a 50-page chapter into a 10-page conference paper in a matter of hours.)

So I'm not really sure what this means: that I'm traveling down too many scenic by-roads (which I'll eventually cut or spin off as separate articles)? That I'm going to have two really meaty and awesome chapters? Or that the project is becoming something other than what I thought it was--which is to say, an entire book on Milton?

Any of these things seems possible, but I really don't want to be writing a book on Milton right now. I've always assumed that I might write a Milton book someday, but this book's organizing principle collapses if I'm only looking at one writer. It's supposed to be Larger Historical Phenomenon, Broken Down into Some Subphenomena, in a Bunch of Writers. If it's a Milton-only book, it becomes, basically, One Subphenomenon in One Writer.

Sure, the topic could be reoriented to fit a Milton-only approach. . . but right now I think the only way to do that would involve abandoning the bigger questions that most animate me, the ones that made me want to write this book in the first place.

So I'm not sure what's happening here, or what I'm doing, or whether it won't all collapse into flames in the end.

This is the "fun" part, yes?

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Writing by appointment

It's surprising how much I'm still learning about my writing process, ten years past degree and sixteen years into my regular production of academic prose.

Through all those years, I've been a dedicated writer-at-home. I go through periods where I enjoy revising in coffee shops, and I can read and take notes almost anywhere, but I've never composed anything of any length outside of my own home (or a proxy for my own home, such as a boyfriend's apartment or my parents' house). Half my dissertation was written on the bed that amounted to the primary piece of furniture in my studio apartment.

So over the summer, when a friend mentioned that she'd found tandem-writing dates really helpful--afternoons where she met a colleague at a coffee shop to write together for a few hours--and asked whether I'd ever done that, I said no. It had never occurred to me that this was a thing that people did, and I couldn't see what it might add to my writing life.

Unlike my friend, I don't have small children, and I've never experienced the downsides of working at home that some people do. Sure, I can fall prey to procrastination and avoidance, but that doesn't seem affected by location; in fact, for me, getting out the door to a library or coffee shop is often a bigger hurdle than sitting down to write at home, and more subject to deferral (because I haven't yet eaten, or the place is closing soon, or it gets too crowded around this time, or hosts an open-mic night, or whatever).

And as the semester started, I was indeed writing very well at home--carving out a few afternoons a week and making steady progress. But it turned out that two of my local friends were doing the tandem-writing thing; both on leave and both trying to finish up their first books, they'd gotten into the habit of meeting once a week for five or six hours.

They invited me to join them, and I did, mostly to be sociable. We'd meet in the airy, calm library at the art museum, write for an hour or two, have lunch in the museum cafe, and then write for another two or three hours. It was a nice routine, and I was getting good work done--not always the solid five hours I'd intended, but usually at least three. I didn't consider the work I did there superior to the work I was doing at home, but I enjoyed both the location and the company.

But as the semester wore on, that thing happened that always happens, where suddenly I was no longer able to find time to write at home. Around the middle of October the grading started to pile up, as did the letters of recommendation--and then I had a conference or two to attend, not to mention committee work and life outside of work.

Still, most Wednesdays I managed to meet my friends to write at the museum. Sometimes it felt frivolous or irresponsible to block out a whole day for writing smack in the middle of a week of student conferences and essays and books I'd never taught before--but it was an appointment, so I kept it, and I kept writing.

Three to five hours of writing per week isn't an impressive amount, but I have to admit it's probably more than I've ever managed in the second half of a teaching semester. And doing any writing meant my head remained in the project. So when the fog of the semester finally lifted last week--grades submitted, Christmas cards out, house cleaned--it was easy to jump right back into the chapter. I hope to use winter break to get it in good enough shape that I can start drafting a new chapter in January.

Which I'll do, of course, with the aid of a weekly writing date.

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Book reviews: what I know now

I just submitted the first book review I've written in years, and certainly the first since my own book and those of my friends started accumulating reviews.

It's a different experience. First, I'm more aware that writing reviews both is and is not something I have to do. On the one hand, it adds nothing of value to my C.V., and time spent reviewing is time I could spend elsewhere. On the other hand, it's an important service, and if I accept a review it's an obligation like writing a recommendation letter or reviewing a manuscript: something I just have to hunker down and do--as much for myself as for the sake of the author and journal.

(The reason it had been so long is that one of my last reviews was a terrible experience, and entirely through my own fault: I shouldn't have accepted the assignment or agreed to the deadline I did, and it became a months-long saga of guilt and resentment. I hated every minute I spent both writing and not writing that review, and probably burned a professional bridge in the process. Part of the reason I accepted this review was to reset my attitude.)

Here's what I've learned:

1. As a reviewer, your name will be attached to this book for as long as the Internet lasts

When I reviewed books in the past, I figured the author would probably come across it, but I never thought of myself as writing for her--I was writing for new readers! But authors get copies of their reviews from their publishers, and some even (ahem) Google their books periodically to see what kind of notices they're getting. I can assure you that I know the name of every person who has reviewed my book.

That doesn't mean you can't give an honest review--if you can't do that, you should decline the assignment--but I think a lot harder now about a) what truly counts as constructive criticism for the author, and b) what a casual reader might need or want.

2. Most people don't read a standard 750-word review very carefully

This is a corollary to the above. Unless I'm the author or she's a friend of mine, I just want to know the basics of what the book is about and whether it might be worth picking up a copy.

3. Most reviews aren't things of great beauty, and that's fine

A book review in a scholarly journal is meant to be a functional thing. It summarizes, it contextualizes, it offers an opinion about what's worthwhile or original.

For me, the task of writing a review used to feel paralyzing: it seemed impossible to write interesting prose while also conveying the author's argument accurately. I was terrified that I wasn't qualified enough to write the review, or that I'd misrepresent it or get some major details wrong. Now I know that lots of reviews do get things wrong, or at least askew, while some of the most useful ones read like an awkward pastiche of the author's own words.

4. Most books don't get a lot of reviews

Scholarly books aren't like trade books. There aren't a lot of venues that review them, and many publishers send out only a handful of review copies. So if you're an expert, and you're solicited to review a book and decline, it's possible no one else will review it for that journal. That's not necessarily a reason to accept--your time is valuable--but being a member of the scholarly community does come with obligations.

5. A review is a service

You do the best job you can. You bring to bear your expertise, and you try to be fair, but the review isn't about you. If you're using a 750-word review to show off your superior knowledge, or your prose style, or your witty put-downs, you're doing it wrong.

*

The review I just completed was for a book on the fringes of my area of expertise, but its subject is something I'm genuinely interested in (and that turned out to be more immediately relevant to my second book than I expected). It also felt like it was time for me to get back into the reviewing game. So I approached this assignment the way I'd approach a recommendation letter: I blocked out time to read the book, well before the deadline, and then I blocked out about 48 hours to write the review. I didn't dilly-dally, I just wrote it.

I could have done some things differently, and I likely could have done some things better--but it's not worth overthinking. More importantly, the process was enjoyable enough that I'll probably do it again the next time I'm asked.

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 might be 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; after a few nice reviews, it all but disappears from the scholarly record. In the intervening years no one but Denonain seems to have looked carefully at this earlier version and no one wrote 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 on that manuscript. But though I frequently go back to work with the text 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 previously unknown 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 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.)