Thursday, November 27, 2014

Happy Thanksgiving!

There's snow on the ground. Someone is making pies in the kitchen. The Godfather is playing. Family came to us this year. AND WE'RE NOT TRAVELING ANYWHERE.

Hope yours is equally good!

Monday, November 24, 2014

The recursive clanking of memory

A few weeks ago, Daphne Merkin had an essay in the Sunday Times called "Making My Therapist Laugh." It's about finally letting go of the desire to entertain and amuse her therapist, but in reflecting on what therapy should provide the analysand, she hits on a longstanding interest of this blog:

therapy allows for. . . the repetitive nature of a person's inner life, the constant regurgitation of ancient grievances and conflicts. In ordinary, above-the-surface life, we're endlessly exhorted to move forward and not hang back, when the truth is that the psyche is not such an efficient piece of machinery and is marked by recursive clankings as much as anything else.

As my readers know, I don't believe in being "over" things. I don't believe in "moving on"--if by that we mean declaring ourselves to have been left unscarred, unmarked, or, in some facile way, "better off" now that a catastrophe has receded into the past. Nothing that has ever mattered to me is gone, and no crisis or shattering change is ever fully in the past (although my relationship to those people and events is often quite different after years of reflection, reframing, and reconsideration). Healing is not the same thing as never having been wounded.

Last week a close friend suffered a terrible loss. It's not my story to tell, so I won't tell it, but I was struck by how shell-shocked the rest of us seemed by the news, how continually on the verge of tears and in need of companionship and conversation. Yes, we all love our friend and were trying to figure out ways to help, but I think her loss also ripped a hole in our own sense of security, our narratives of healing and progress, reminding us of our own losses and the way that sorrow stops time and exists outside of it.

That's the central conflict: time is linear and craves resolution while our inner lives are brooding and recalcitrant, slow to heal and slow to change. Last week I was also teaching The Winter's Tale, which may be my favorite Shakespeare play. Like all the romances, it's an improbable fairy tale that somehow also manages to render loss and recovery with real emotional truth: the central character loses everything, believes he can reacquire it quickly--and then spends the next fifteen years in grief and self-recrimination. Eventually, he gets some of what he hoped for, but not on the terms he expected.

That's the kind of happy ending we actually get in life: not what we wanted, but even more dear when it comes. Recognizing it, though, requires remaining in touch with all we've lost and hoped for in the past.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Lake effect snow, explained

When the rest of the country hears the term "lake effect snow," I think they understand it to mean "if you live near a Great Lake, you get a shit-ton of snow for some, like, complicated meteorological reason." And then Buffalo gets a shit-ton of snow, and the national newscasters earnestly explain the science (cold mass of air moving over a warmer body of water, blah blah), and that seems to confirm it. Great Lakes = lots of snow.

But that's not the relevant fact about lake effect snow. Lake effect snow, as Cosimo says is "guerrilla snow." If most snowstorms advance like a conventional army, cutting a wide swath of destruction--worse in some places, to be sure, but leaving nothing in the region unaffected--lake effect snow comes out of nowhere and then vanishes into nowhere, targeting areas completely randomly and unpredictably.

The photos from Buffalo are jaw-dropping. But no one's showing you photos that illustrate that while some communities in or adjacent to Buffalo got several feet of snow, many of their immediate neighbors got just a few inches.

I live an hour east of Buffalo, and the portion of the Thruway that runs just 15 miles south of me has been closed for days. Reasonably enough, I've been fielding emails from family and friends wondering how many feet of snow we're under.

Let me show you (and bear in mind, this is four days' worth of accumulation):

For reference, this is Depew, less than an hour away:

(Photo credit: Derek Gee, The Buffalo News, via AP)

I'm grateful not to have been clobbered as Buffalo was, but the real menace of lake effect snow isn't the volume so much as the unpredictability. When you're driving somewhere, you can't get ahead of a storm or wait it out because you never know exactly where it's coming from.

This is what highway driving is like when you're in a region where "possible scattered lake effect storms" are predicted: dry as a bone, dry as a bone, dry as a bone, dry as a bone, WHITEOUT.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

In praise of half-assery

The good news: I haven't bailed on my Italian class yet.

The bad news: I continue to be doing a pretty half-assed job, since doing a full-assed job--assuming that's better than a half-assed one, which I guess depends on how you feel about asses--would require way more prep time than I have available. (My instructor is great, but I think she hasn't fully thought through the fact that, in a conversation-based class, the fewer students there are, the more homework we each have to do.)

But you know, whatever. So my presentation winds up being seven minutes rather than fifteen, and my PowerPoint is merely functional--and in rushing to get it done after a department meeting I didn't have time to double-check and correct the past participles of a few irregular verbs or think about which constructions might take the subjunctive. I'm still spending an average of 12 hours a week reading, writing, and speaking Italian.

Ta-Nehisi Coates's essay about what it feels like to haul oneself through language study as an adult and embrace one's own ineptitude captures some of what I'm feeling, though our experiences aren't exactly equivalent (on the one hand, Italian isn't my first foreign language; on the other, I'll probably never have the chance for the kind of immersive study he's done both in Paris and at Middlebury).

What's hardest for me is just letting myself be a crappy student, and being okay with it. As I've written before, it's not that I was a star student in college or grad school, but I desperately feared being a bad one. Appearing stupid, not being thought capable--those were among the most shameful things I could imagine.

Teaching has taught me a few things. One is that showing up actually does matter. And doing the work--even late, even badly--is better than not doing it. It means learning is still happening or at least has the potential to happen. (Officially, I don't accept papers later than about a week, but in practice I usually tell students to just turn in something: I can give them a 50 rather than a zero, and doing some version of the same assignment as everyone else means they're still in the game.)

Another is that the work I do or don't do isn't just about me: the classroom is a community that I'm either contributing to or abdicating responsibility for. When I failed to talk much in a particular college or grad school class, I felt self-conscious, but it never occurred to me that by not talking I was taking something away from others. Now, though--when I consider skipping Italian because I'm badly prepared and already running late--I realize that not only would I be cheating myself of the opportunity to learn something, but I'd also be cheating my classmates of the work I'd already done (and putting a huge burden on them to boot: one absent student out of four = 25% more airtime to fill!).

So, fine. I'm a crappy student right now because being a crappy student is all I have time to be. But being a crappy student is better than not being a student at all.

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Teaching academic prose

This semester, in my senior capstone, I've been having my students choose most of the scholarship we read. We spent a few weeks reading and collectively working through essays that I'd assigned, but then they were loosed upon the MLA database to find their own.

It's been working well--better than some of my past strategies for acquainting undergraduates with academic prose--and I'll be reprising it for future classes. Still, I've noticed something curious: 80% of the articles my students have chosen have come from the same journal. Since I gave them a list of 10 possible journals, the reliability of this one isn't an issue; it's a solid publication, if not the most high-powered. If you'd asked me to rank those ten journals, back in August, I'd have placed it at maybe #8 or #9.

Having now read a whole slew of recent articles from that journal, I can't say I'd change its ranking--but I do have a new appreciation for what it does well.

First, it publishes shorter pieces, on the order of 15 printed pages of text, not counting notes, and they're usually well-structured and tightly argued. (I suspect the relative brevity of its articles is part of what attracts my students to this journal.) Second, its articles are surprisingly good models for advanced undergraduate and M.A. students: they demonstrate mastery of existing criticism; familiarity with the author's larger body of work (and/or the work's genre and/or its time period); facility in close reading; the ability to apply a useful theoretical framework where called for. And they generally do all those things both efficiently and explicitly, with every movement clearly signposted.

Indeed, reading this group of articles made me reflect on how tough scholarly articles can be for undergraduates and even many M.A. students, and how quickly they get lost in the weeds: they just can't figure out why the author is suddenly spending 10 pages talking about some minor historical event or track the way she's positioning herself within an existing critical tradition. That's not necessarily the author's fault, or at least not in the kind of articles I usually select; it's just that scholars write for other specialists and assume lots of prior knowledge. And over the course of a longer essay the big-picture argument and how its component pieces fit together can be harder to see.

But although I liked a lot of things about the articles my students found, even the most interesting and persuasive usually came up short. The best way I can describe it is to say that they lacked the final "turn": the explanation for why all this matters in some bigger way. In several cases I could see quite clearly what that turn might be--the dots were all in place, waiting to be connected--but the author declined to do so.

From a pedagogical perspective this isn't a crushing weakness, since it's an opportunity to talk about what more an author might have done to improve an already good piece of writing. And in the future, I can open the semester with essays from this particular journal as a way of introducing my students to the kinds of moves that academic prose makes before progressing to more sophisticated examples.

But I admit I find it odd that this journal publishes work that is so good in so many ways while mostly failing to rise to the next level. Maybe it's about length--a short essay can do a lot of things well, but it's not usually the place for a big claim--or maybe it's about the journal's place in the food chain: it gets tidy little essays that the authors either never wished to be bigger or that they tried and failed to get published elsewhere.

It's nice knowing that there are venues that publish modest but reliably good work, and a useful reminder that not every contribution to scholarship needs to rock the foundations.

Still, in the future, I'm imposing some quotas.

Friday, October 31, 2014

This is just to say

Back in September, everyone was freaking the fuck out over the MLA Job List--so few jobs! OMG! Apocalypse!

At the time I said--on a million Facebook and Twitter threads--that it was too early to tell, that jobs post later now, that initially things looked equally bad last year, that the jobs that had appeared were good ones.

Now it's October 31st, and I gotta admit: at least in Early Modern, it is that bad. As of today there are thirty-two tenure-track jobs with pre-MLA deadlines (a number that includes a few jobs at the associate or full levels and a few jobs overseas). Each of the last three years, in descending order, the number of pre-MLA tenure-line openings was 47, 41, and 49. Those weren't good numbers, but the market appeared to have stabilized at "pretty fucking bleak."

But unless this year is a fluke or institutions are shifting toward spring listings, we might say, with Satan, "in the lowest deep a lower deep/Still threatning to devour me opens wide."


Language and lit peeps: are you seeing similar things in your subfields?

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Flying on one engine

We've reached the point in the semester where everything is rapidly falling apart. Somehow I held it together through midterm, but it's been carnage since then. Most days it's a question of which disasters I'll avert and which I just have to let happen.

At the top of my disaster to-do list are grading and my Italian homework. But a few weeks ago I reached the point that I hit with any new obligation where I consider just cutting and running. Every Monday and Wednesday I toyed with the idea of skipping class, and then wondered whether I shouldn't drop the course entirely.

For as long as I can remember, that's been my first response to stress: a desire to shut down all nonessential operations. I fight this desire, usually, and usually it's worth it. Sooner or later things calm down and it's harder to start things back up than it is to keep them running. By now I know, too, that the point at which I'm tempted to abandon ship is often the point at which I'm starting to make real progress.

My students don't necessarily have that knowledge yet. Last week, on a day when my freshmen had a paper due (their second or their fourth, depending on how you count), six of my twenty-two students were absent. Most eventually contacted me and I gave extensions where I could, but the schedule for the next two weeks is punishing; there's no real way around it.

I feel for them. In recent weeks my Italian instructor has been doubling our homework; for some class meetings, I've spent four or five hours preparing. Last night (after teaching until 9.15 and getting home at 10) I managed to get through my homework in two hours--though whether that's because my comprehension is improving or because I was cutting corners, I don't know. Then today my instructor got sick and cancelled class. It's a brief reprieve, but I need it.

I can't eliminate any of my students' paper assignments, but I hope I can help them steer through this rough patch.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Back & better than ever

This semester, for the first time in a number of years, I put Merchant of Venice back on the syllabus for my Shakespeare class. Now, I love the play, but I'd taken it out for a bunch of pedagogical reasons that boiled down to my feeling I didn't have enough time to deal with all the issues it raised.

This time I moved it later in the syllabus and I decided I was going to give it three class periods instead of two. Those were both excellent ideas: for the first time, I can say my classes on that play rocked: there was close to 100% student involvement and I overheard a few students excitedly agreeing that this was their favorite play so far.

But as important as my course-design improvements surely were, I also think that I brought some new thing to the class myself.

First is simply freshness.

I almost literally cannot re-read every play every year (even beyond the fact that I often don't have the time to do so): my eye skips down the page; my mind disengages; I know the words so well I can't absorb what they mean. So I don't re-read every play every time I teach it, and I don't feel bad about that. Still, it's undeniable that reading something for the first time in a while means I usually teach it better. At a minimum, the time away means I'm more excited by the text. Usually, it also means I've had a few new thoughts about it.

Second is the fact that in the intervening years I've written an article on the play.

I've long since gotten over any sense of fraudulence as a teacher of Shakespeare: I know the period well; I've taught Shakespeare every semester for nine years; I've been attending to Shakespearean scholarship for nearly as long. But even though my teaching frequently draws upon books I've read or conference papers I've heard, there's a difference when the material is something I'm grappling with, too, or about which I have intellectual investments.

And since my research touched on exactly the things my students most wanted to know, the anxieties, discomforts, and presumptions they brought to the play didn't sideline the text. Not only do I now know rather a lot about Jews in early modern Europe, the various contradictory fantasies about Jews held by Renaissance Christians, and how scholars over the past 30 years have used that information to interpret the play--but I can distill that information efficiently so it fuels a real discussion about what Shakespeare wrote.


And that, my friends, is why research isn't inimical to teaching. And why everyone needs a damn sabbatical now and again.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Ghouls, rated

Halloween season seems like the right time to reflect on how much I hate the supernatural, especially in its spooky and/or undead varieties.

Here's a handy guide, to help you remember:

Zombies: I will never, ever--not if I live to be 200 years old--watch a movie or read a book involving zombies. I lose brain cells every time someone uses the word "zombie" in a sentence.

Werewolves: Hard to imagine they could be interesting, but the possibility isn't zero.

Vampires: As much as I hate virtually everything that has been written and/or filmed about vampires, I remain hopeful that they could be interesting.

Witches (sorcerers, warlocks, etc.): interesting maybe one time out of twenty.

Ghosts: I'm more interested in ghosts than not.


I think the message here is: I'm interested in human beings. The further one gets from the human, the less interested I am.

How do the rest of you feel about supernatural characters, narratives, or tropes?

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Academic jobs as arts jobs

Because I'm buried in essays and exams after spending my fall break cavorting in New England, I bring you someone else's thoughts on positioning oneself for an academic job. (Because hey: man and woman is one flesh, right?)

The most useful point, I think, is the central one: that these days tenure-track jobs are most analogous to arts jobs--which is to say, the odds of success are about as likely for recent PhDs as they are for aspiring actors, novelists, and concert pianists. That's not exactly a comforting comparison, but one that illuminates why the relationship between talent and success is so imperfect.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Tailoring the job letter

Another Graduate Student asked me to talk about my experience on a hiring committee, and especially about the degree to which a candidate should tailor her application materials to each institution.

Other committee members may feel differently, but I think it's absurd to expect first-round applicants to do a significant amount of tailoring. First, it's inhumane: an applicant has other demands on her time, and researching every department in depth, imagining their possible needs and desires, and reworking the already-difficult genre of the job letter 25 or 30 times is not only labor-intensive, but psychologically exhausting--insofar as it requires vividly imagining each place and how one might make a life there.

Second, it's almost certainly time wasted.

Here's the thing: your job letter is, simultaneously, the most important document you'll produce in your job search and a hard document with which to really distinguish yourself. I've read a few catastrophically bad letters from people who genuinely didn't know the conventions of the genre, and a slightly larger but still small number with enough errors or awkwardnesses that it was impossible to take the applicants seriously. But after weeding out the bad letters, the rest sat somewhere on a spectrum from adequate to quite nice; at that point, what mattered most was what the candidates had done and how well they fit our position--not whether their every paragraph was a thing of fire and music.

This, I hope, is good news: your letter just has to get the job done. You don't need to write the world's most eloquent, original letter (in fact, in this context, originality is a bad thing; if someone asks you for a sonnet, you will not be rewarded for your exciting new verse form). You do need to be clear, succinct, and aware of your audience, and your writing should not contain elementary errors. But the conventions are there for a reason: they allow a committee with hundreds of applications to size up each one swiftly, and on more or less the same terms.

Obviously, you shouldn't send exactly the same job letter to every institution, but it's most useful to think in terms of general types of schools. You'll want a few different sentences or even different paragraphs that you can swap in and out depending on a particular department's teaching expectations, and you might emend your wording slightly here and there for similar reasons (e.g., "I would be eager to join [such a distinguished faculty] [a department of committed teacher-scholars] [an institution so dedicated to student success]").

But that kind of semi-generic tailoring should cover most things.* Personally, all I want is evidence that the candidate has read the job ad and has a sense of the kind of school we are (e.g., if the ad mentions comp, your letter should not speak exclusively about the graduate and upper-division courses you're interested in designing). It's probably useful to spend 20 minutes on each hiring department's webpage to flesh out what the job ad tells you--but I wouldn't recommend more than that.

Here's what's definitely labor wasted: showing that you have a detailed knowledge of the ins and outs of our curriculum.

Every department has oddities in its curriculum and its requirements, and it's hard to master them from the outside; it can also be hard to tell, from looking at online course listings, which courses are weirdo one-offs, which are regarded by a particular faculty member as his exclusive property, or which are holdovers from a different era. You don't need to reference our existing course numbers or titles. Just say what kind of courses you've taught or are prepared to teach: surveys, comp, single-author courses A and B, topical courses C and D, and what upper-division or grad classes you might design in the future. With minor adjustments, those things translate into most curricula.

I also think it's generally wasted labor for your letter to name-check existing faculty unless they work in your immediate field or their scholarship really does seem to be in productive conversation with your own; it's worth having a sense of the general profile of any department to which you're applying, but listing a bunch of names is not necessary.

Statements of affinity are nice--that is, remarks about your connection to the region or your interest in the institution's mission ("as a first-generation college student..."; "as a long-time admirer of the Jesuit humanist model of education..."). For my part, I'd say those are agreeable statements to encounter, and I usually remembered them for candidates who got a convention or campus visit, but I don't think they prompted me to give an application a second look if it wasn't strong to begin with. That may be different at other institutions.

As for your vita, it shouldn't require tailoring. As long as it's clearly laid out and easy to read, the committee can find whatever they're looking for. (But seriously, make sure it's clearly laid out.) Think of your vita and your job letter as being in conversation with each other: one allows you to list everything you've ever done; the other gives you a chance to narrate, explain, and reflect on the highlights. Resist the temptation to let either do the other's job.

To sum up: a good letter and an attractive, readable vita are worth laboring over. But there's no need to reinvent them each time. A good letter is a flexible document that you can emend around the edges without--hopefully--driving yourself crazy.


Readers who have served on hiring committees: are my reactions idiosyncratic (or particular to the kind of institution I'm at), or do you generally agree?

*I'm speaking throughout of the differences among four-year institutions, since those are the institutions I know; if I have readers who want to talk about the differences between application letters for four-year and two-year colleges, have at it in comments.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The sorrows of peer-review: now less sorrowful

At long and painful last, that article I wouldn't shut up about has been accepted. As I've mentioned, this is the most difficult experience I've had getting something published. Some of that is just the random luck of the draw, but there may also be specific reasons this was such a tough sell.

First, it's on Shakespeare, on a hyper-canonical play, and it deals with some touchy political material. This means, on the one hand, that there are more people in the world with investments in the material than is usually true for the texts I write about, which perhaps makes pushback more likely. On the other hand, since it isn't my primary area of specialization, it's possible that I initially framed my argument in ways that struck others as naive--or that were only aslant or adjacent to the important existing critical conversations.

I do think that earlier versions of my essay were worthwhile and publishable--and that a few of the objections I got were unreasonable, not to say batshit crazy--but my last round of revisions really did lead to a mini-breakthrough, allowing me to synthesize two strands of argumentation whose relationship I had never previously been able to articulate. And doing that led me to a major realization about the argument of my second book.

So though I'm on record as hating the cult of "it was all worth it" and "now I'm so much better off," what with their haste to deny the lived reality of suffering and suckitude, it's also hard to regret that things turned out this way. That, I guess, is a larger motto for this blog: insisting on the shittiness of the past doesn't mean wallowing in that past--or denying its utility. Sucky things can make you stronger (and lead to non-sucky things), but they still suck.

(That's why you read my blog, right? For these philosophical gems?)

Anyway, as reminder and reality check for Older Flavia, when she's agonizing over the long gestation period of some future project, I thought I'd detail the timeline of this one--an article of not even 10,000 words--from conception to acceptance.

Spring 2010
Notice a Thing
Run a quick MLA database search
See that someone Noticed my Thing 40 years ago and wrote a few paragraphs about it.
Boo: I'm not the first! But yay: no one's done anything interesting with it!

Fall 2010
Accepted to a relevant-sounding SAA seminar
Spend a week doing enough research to write a 500-word abstract

February 2011
Spend four weeks doing increasingly desperate research into increasingly esoteric fields
Cobble together 3,000 words for a speculative seminar paper

April 2011
Receive a lot of enthusiastic seminar feedback
Someone I know slightly buttonholes me and tells me to publish it immediately.
GAAAAAAH. Like hell.

February 2012
Admitted to a very different SAA seminar
Intend to do a ton of new research; instead just write a new introduction and conclusion.
Decide this framing opens up the topic more fruitfully

Summer 2012
Do my literary-critical due diligence
Email strangers begging for evidence of what I feeeeeel to be true
Spend six weeks writing
Submit resulting essay to a journal

Fall 2012
Receive two readers' reports: split decision
Journal requests a revise-and-resubmit

Winter 2012-13

Spring 2013
Submit to a different journal

Summer 2013
Another split decision, but this time with a very encouraging editor
Revise lightly and resubmit

Fall 2013
Unhappy reader still unhappy
New third reader has useful and targeted suggestions
Ambiguous communication from editor suggests he wants another revise-and-resubmit

December 2013
Do a shit-ton of new historical research
Majorly restructure essay
Oops: turns out that ambiguous communication was a rejection!

January 2014
Decide new version suits a journal I hadn't considered before
Desk-reject within two weeks (guess I was wrong)

February 2014
Submit to a fourth journal

April 2014
Receive two exceptionally helpful reports
Find self--nevertheless--demoralized by another R&R

April, May & June 2014
Avoid working on essay
Weep whenever I think about it

July & August 2014
Revise with excruciating pain
Send revisions to a friend
Receive new & different set of ideas for revision
Weep some more
Realize two of his suggestions might solve my most intractable problem
Revise some more

September 2014
. . . .
. . . .
. . . .
. . . .
Wait, that's it?

Astonishing how something can be such a relief, and so anticlimactic, at the same time.

Friday, September 26, 2014

The humanities post-doc

In the comments to a previous post, Random Grad Student asked for my thoughts about the humanities post-doc: "its place, how to get one, [and] how search committees at different institutions view them when you're applying to a tenure-track job."

I admit that I have little experience with these. They were starting to proliferate when I was first on the market ten years ago, and I now know a number of people who have held one--but though I recall investigating a few, I never seriously considered applying. It may just have been that none of the topic-based post-docs fit me that first year (and my second year I was in a good renewable lectureship, so I didn't look at anything non-TT). But I think it mostly struck me as pointless work, on the front end, while one was also applying to tenure-track jobs.

(I still think this; I understand why post-doc applications are due early, but since every job placement officer I've ever met considers a post-doc inferior to a tenure-track job, it might be more sensible for them to list in the spring, along with VAP and other non-TT jobs.)

So with that proof that I don't really know what I'm talking about, I'll say what I do know and have seen, and hopefully my readers will pitch in more knowledgeably.

1. How To Get One: no clue. (Readers?)

2. How Search Committees View Them: I don't think that, at my own institution, we particularly distinguish between post-docs and VAP or other full-time non-TT employment. We're looking to hire people who have a couple of solid publications and some directly relevant teaching experience, so if a post-doc gives you whichever of those you need, that's great--but there are other means to that end. Indeed, for our purposes, a fancy post-doc might not help a candidate coming from a fancy institution if his weakness is precisely his lack of bread-and-butter teaching experience.

Research institutions might feel differently, but my sense is that even they aren't specifically excited about a fancy post-doc unless

a) it's the most fancy (by which I basically mean the Harvard Society of Fellows)


b) it gives you something you don't already have on your vita

Again, this is just my impression, but while there are lots of reasons for a candidate himself to value the opportunities provided by a fancy post-doc--research time, new professional connections--I don't think that, simply as a line on the vita, it adds much to a candidate whose degree is from an elite program. But for a candidate whose degree is from a second-tier institution, then that Mellon-funded post-doc likely does act as an important additional accreditation.

None of this is to malign the post-doc; it's a nice line for anyone to have, and preferable to continuing to teach at your grad institution (and certainly better than taking a VAP with a heavy teaching load or adjuncting). And used well, it can help you add other things to your vita and application materials.

But my feeling is that it's a shiny consolation prize for those who weren't able to find (or weren't looking for) a TT job the previous year.

As always, readers, I trust you to tell me how I'm wrong.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Four on the floor

So I'm taking that conversational Italian class after all. The catalogue description says it's open to anyone who has completed at least a semester of college-level Italian, but it's clearly imagined as serving Italian minors who want more speaking practice (and who are taking the course alongside a grammar or literature class).

For the first two meetings there were seven of us plus the instructor, and I was happy to note that my skills placed me roughly in the middle: there were a couple of minors who were better than everyone else, but there were also people who had only taken a couple of years of high school Italian or whose first exposure to the language was a semester or summer in Italy. Some had great accents and were prompt with basic constructions, but had limited vocabularies and didn't know much complex grammar; others were terrible, awkward speakers who--it soon transpired--actually knew a tremendous amount.

Then three people dropped. And with just four of us. . . well, my oral and reading comprehension are on a par with my classmates', but my verbal fluency is probably the weakest of anyone's. Extemporaneous speech has never been my strength, and even in English I'm prone to blurt and babble. But at least in my native tongue it's only the content that's insane. In Italian my mouth will just randomly produce the wrong phoneme or scramble a verb tense beyond all recognition. I make an ass of myself twice a week. It's awesome.

But this isn't really a post about that. It's a post about the four-person class, which this semester I also have the pleasure of teaching.

It's possible, I suppose, that a four-person class could be terrific, but it strikes me as a uniquely bad number: just big enough to be run as a regular class, but not big enough for it to work. Individual tutorials would be easier, since those can be adapted and adjusted to each student's needs and abilities. With four people, though, each student bears somewhere between three and ten times the responsibility that she would in an ordinary class--and unless all four are at the very top of their game, there are going to be problems. In my own seminar I find myself lecturing more than I do with a class of thirty, simply because I need to give my students a break.

The only upside is that I've been learning from my Italian instructor. Although our classes are very different, she's clearly having some of the same struggles, and handling them better. She's been mixing things up, trying different strategies, looking for what works.

Whenever she figures it out, I'll have it made.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Job season round-up

Since the MLA's Job Information List went live last week--and since I apparently have nothing new or interesting to say just now--I thought I'd collect in one handy location my musings and bits of advice from years past:

Why you should stop freaking out already about whether a particular job has an inside candidate.

How to be competitive for a "middle-class job"--that is, the kind of place that values teaching and research about equally. (Somewhat related: ways of parsing the differences among institutions, beyond looking at teaching load.)

What not to sweat about the conference interview.

A peek (or two, or three) into how the job search feels to those inside a hiring department or committee.

And just for fun: why the job list still fascinates and unsettles me, every damn year, whether I'm applying or not.


Looking through the posts I've tagged as "The Academic Job Market," I see they provide less concrete advice than I'd thought. Other bloggers have covered a lot of this ground before (last year, Notorious Ph.D. wrote a series of posts about the component parts of the job search, and the year before, Bardiac did the same)--but if there are any topics my readership would like to see me tackle, leave a note in the comments and I'll see what I can do.

Good luck out there, kids. We're pulling for you.