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
Revise
Resubmit
Rejection

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
Resubmit
Oops: turns out that ambiguous communication was a rejection!

January 2014
Decide new version suits a journal I hadn't considered before
Submit
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
Resubmit

September 2014
Acceptance!
. . . .
. . . .
. . . .
. . . .
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)

or

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.


Wednesday, September 10, 2014

PSA, maybe

So, that problem of needing access to scholarly databases to which your institution doesn't subscribe? I may have found a solution.

Register as a nondegree or nonmatriculated student at whichever local institution does subscribe. Obviously, not all universities permit students in this category--I imagine you can't be a nondegree student at Princeton--but plenty of places whose mission involves the surrounding community have programs that allow random citizens to take a class now and then on either a credit or audit basis. And in my experience at two institutions in two states (Cosimo's public R2 and now a private R1), all you have to do is fill out a quick web form, wait a day or two for approval, and then you get a student ID number and login.

And that gives you library web access.

Now, I can't promise that every institution would give you library access without your actually enrolling in a course--or that such access would last for longer than a semester or two--but in both the places where I've been a nondegree student, web access to everything was immediate, and not a function of being enrolled or paying one red cent.

I leave it to the enterprising among you to conduct further research.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Modeling

I spent my Friday night writing a model close-reading essay for my Milton students. This is the kind of thing I always think about doing, but almost never do--just because it's labor-intensive and annoying and because I spend enough time on class prep as it is.

Since virtually all my classes require some understanding of the terms and techniques of formal poetics, the close-reading essay is one of my staples. In Shakespeare I have my students close-read a speech in verse, and in my other classes I usually have them do a sonnet. Since my own college teachers did a piss-poor job of teaching poetics, I've spent a lot of time thinking about the basic toolkit students need to understand and analyze a poem. And I gotta say: I love doing it. Even after years of assigning some version of this essay, I'm still not tired of it.

But not being tired of it isn't the same thing as saying I've done everything possible to prepare my students for the task.

Sure, we do a lot of close-reading in class, and I try to be explicit about how our work might translate into a thesis or how we might organize all our observations into a coherent argument. And I've revised my assignment sheet a number of times to include a detailed breakdown of the whole process. But as for an actual model. . . eh. A couple of times I retyped one of my own undergraduate essays to share, and often I kicked myself for not having been foresighted enough to ask a student from a previous class whether I had permission to distribute copies of her paper. But I could never fathom finding the time to produce five relatively polished new pages of my own.

But this week I decided it was time. Maybe being on sabbatical last year left me with secret reserves of pedagogical energy, or maybe it's just that I've taught for long enough that the basics of class prep don't suck up as much time as they used to. In any case, I sat down and banged out a four-page close-reading of Sonnet 7 in a little under four hours. (I ask that my students' papers be 4-6 pages--and true to the undergraduate spirit, I decided there was no benefit to my doing more than the minimum.)

And you know what? It was fun. Maybe not the funnest thing I could have done on a Friday night, but it wasn't bad. I don't think it gave me any new insights into the assignment itself or how I might do things differently in the classroom, since I've been tinkering with those things for years. But it did produce one or two new thoughts about a poem I thought I knew upside-down--and there's ultimately no substitute for showing students how a thing is done, even when you believe that your instructions are perfectly aligned with both the process and the end product you desire.

Also? I won't have to do this again for years.

*

Readers, when have you gotten into the trenches and done an assignment alongside your students? Did it change your teaching or the nature of your assignment?

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Back to school x 3

x 1: Last week was the first week of classes at RU. Imagine all the usual chaos (and some delight).

x 2: Last week was also the first week of classes at my future employer. My email address has been added to the department's distribution list, so I've already been sent dozens of messages, including two or three requiring detailed replies. I guess it's good to have a year to get up to speed, but--TWICE the administrative email! TWO sets of institutional drama!

x 3: I was hoping to take an Italian class at the local R1. But they don't start classes until Wednesday. And the instructor has been flakey about getting back to me. And my registration code doesn't work. And I don't know where the classroom is, or how to get parking privileges--and if I have to waste one more afternoon navigating yet another institution's bureaucracy, I just may lose my shit.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Crowdfunding is what happens when real funding dries up

Crowdfunding is great. Except as a substitute for all the other ways that people used to make or raise money: through jobs, a living wage, a social safety net, or established charities and arts organizations.

A year or two ago, a fiftysomething INRU staff member who used to work in the English department mentioned on Facebook that he'd been laid off by the university after decades of employment. He was a deeply beloved figure, someone who knew every undergraduate and grad student by name; each May, his bulletin board was crowded with thank-you notes and photos of that year's be-gowned, be-capped graduates. When he mentioned his firing, dozens of people wrote on his wall to express outrage and sympathy.

I still see his posts in my feed occasionally, but if he said anything more about his employment situation, I hadn't noticed. Then, earlier this week, he shared a post by his wife. It turns out she was also a long-time university employee who'd been laid off the year before he was. She'd managed to find a part-time minimum-wage job, but he was still looking. She indicated that they'd been struggling but managing--until their landlord announced he was selling their home and they suddenly had to come up with several thousand dollars for a security deposit, first and last month's rent, and a moving van. Evidently embarrassed, she set up a crowd-funded account to see if they could raise the money.

They met their goal in a few days, mostly via lots of small gifts from former students and coworkers who apparently cherished their memories as much as I did mine.

Still, I've been distressed by this ever since. I'm glad to have been able to help, as I'm glad to have been able to donate to various friends and friends-of-friends when they wanted to mount an experimental play, or cover printing costs for a graphic novel, or provide winter-weather supplies for the homeless. I'm pleased to have a small stake in worthwhile projects, and at this point in my financial life it's easy enough to kick in $50 here and there.

But it only works, really, as a one-off: you can't keep tapping your entire social network in the way an established nonprofit can ask donors to commit to annual gifts or automatic monthly deductions. Or I suppose you can, but you'd probably see diminishing returns: the loose and diffuse friendships fostered by social media aren't built for it. There are plenty of people I haven't seen in 15 years whom I feel warmly toward--but not so warmly that I'd appreciate repeated attempts to leverage my affection into a cash donation.

That doesn't mean I don't care; it just means that each of us has limited means, and when push comes to shove it's usually our family members and closest friends who have most claim to our financial and emotional assistance. The awfulness of the crowdfunded emergency bailout is that it reminds us how insufficient both our resources and our goodwill are.

I hope my old friend and his wife will be okay from here on out, but what if they're not? What if there's another emergency--or what if nothing's an "emergency," but they simply can't get by any more? And what about all the other people I don't know, with fewer friends and family to call upon, but equivalent needs?

Monday, August 25, 2014

Writing when no one's reading

So about those journals. The first and most necessary surprise--necessary in the sense of allowing me to keep reading the damn things--is that they weren't nearly as cringe-inducing as I'd feared.

To be sure, there are lots of things I'm glad to have grown out of: endless fretting and insecurity, for one, and a species of boy-craziness I'd mostly forgotten about. I remembered mooning after various guys and obsessing over ones who didn't work out, but I did not remember commenting on the attractiveness of just about every man I met, or how many crushes-from-afar I apparently had. (Who's this cute Art & Architecture student I mention a dozen times? Or that barista I kept running into? Or the guy a friend dubbed "Taller Tom Cruise"? Not a clue.) I also forgot how sexually frank my journals were. Notional future children, I'm sorry for grossing you out.

But although I often wanted to tell Younger Flavia "snap out of it!" or "honey, he is not into you," that phase of my life is far enough away that I can regard my youthful silliness with more tolerance than I probably could have even five years ago.

What most interests me is the rich social world these journals conjure up. I'd forgotten just how enmeshed my life was with those of my friends--including friends who lived hundreds of miles away. My journals are full of references to two-hour phone calls or lengthy email exchanges or weekend visits, and I summarize in newsy detail all my friends' goings-ons: what they liked and hated about their jobs, their roommates, their significant others. I talk about which movies I saw with whom and what we said afterwards, and where we went and who we met up with--and why I really can't stand so-and-so's boyfriend. Young Flavia is often very funny, and good at characterizing people through a single quotation or brief anecdote that recalls them perfectly.

It's sad, in a way, how thoroughly that world has disappeared. In the endless catalogue I give of dance clubs and dive bars, coffee shops and restaurants, at least half are gone and another quarter I can't visualize or place geographically. More importantly, though I still have most of the friends I had then, we now have partners and kids and busy lives; I'm lucky to see or talk to many of them two or three times a year. Here they all are, though, living on the page not only in summary and paraphrase, but often in their own words: their insights, jokes and apt turns of phrase.

I'm also struck by how seriously my journals take the task of figuring myself out. Amidst all the mooning and insecurity, there's a lot of self-inquiry: why do I feel this way? What does this mean? Would I be happier doing something differently? I quote the things my friends say about me, turning over their assessments and agreeing or disagreeing, wondering if they're right. And I refer back, continually, to events that happened years earlier, sometimes consulting prior journals for reference.

Reading through several years at once makes growth more evident. Young Flavia's oscillations between madcap enthusiasm and weepy doubt become less extreme, and she's more inclined to be generous to others. I note with appreciation the friends who don't let me avoid difficult subjects or who make me admit when I'm mad at them--and I comment with pleasure when I succeed in raising a touchy issue myself.

There's a lot to miss about what I find in those journals. The close friendships and the apparently boundless free time are the most obvious, but I'm realizing that I also miss keeping a journal. Those notebooks didn't record everything, and towards the end they're especially spotty. But I'm sad, now, that the subsequent ten years have no comparable record. Reading about my early-grad-school lunacy reminded me of parts of the crushing grief of my big break-up seven years ago--but I have no record of the latter.

Naturally, I record bits and pieces of my life on social media and on this blog, and it has always been my goal to keep my blogging emotionally honest--not to paper over disappointments, anger, and frustration--but there's a lot that I can't say (whether due to professional discretion, personal discretion, or FERPA). For that matter, there's a lot I don't want to say in this format.

Indeed, in the era of social media and "don't say it if you don't want someone to see it," those journals feel vaguely illicit. I found myself grimacing occasionally at just how much I revealed about others' lives: their words, their actions, and my own occasionally nasty gossip or speculation. Though these notebooks exist in only a single hard copy, which no one else has access to, I've so internalized a sense of what I can't write about electronically that I almost can't believe I wrote such things at all.

I value my public writing, and I have no desire for it to be more rawly confessional. But I think I'm going to try keeping a journal again. The entries won't be as epic or as searching as they used to be, I'm sure--but I'm curious what I might have to say to myself when no one else is listening.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Getting out of grad school alive

I started grad school fifteen years ago next month, and the other night, as I was falling asleep, I had a vivid recollection of the apartment I lived in for my first four years and what falling asleep there had been like. It was a narrow studio, longer than it was deep, with my bed only a few yards from the front door. Under the door, even in the dark, a bright strip of light from the hallway shone in. Every second or third night I'd be unable to fall asleep, convinced that the framed poster that hung over the head of my bed was going to crash down in the middle of the night. So I'd take it down and hang it back up in the morning.

I've been trying to figure out what I've done in the past fifteen years, and finding the list wanting--professionally I'm perfectly on schedule, if that's the right word, but haven't done anything grand--but then I went back to the journals I kept in grad school. I kept a journal for a dozen years, from roughly ages 17 to 29, but haven't so much as laid hands or eyes on them in a decade. They lived in a sealed-up cardboard box, which I moved from place to place and then shoved in the back of a closet. Until now, I'd never had the nerve to re-read them. I knew what was in them, basically, and didn't want to revisit it.

But yesterday I did, and the experience was. . . surprising. I'll say more about that in another post, but reading the ones from my first two years of grad school make it clear that I was a lunatic. I remember with some clarity how depressed I was, and some of the reasons why, but that's not the same as reading entry after entry about walking home from class crying, about weeping at this party or that party, about my increasingly elaborate and paranoid social fears. No wonder I slept badly.

It's hard to believe how late I stayed up, how little I slept, and how much I drank. In retrospect it's clear that most of my friends were lunatics, too--even the ones who weren't literally alcoholics or addicted to drugs were in crazy, anguished places. My journals are full of worries about this friend who seems to have lost a quarter of her body weight, and that friend who's having an affair, or the other who's picking up strangers in bars. And I recount, drily, the story about this one falling over backwards in his chair or another passing out face-down on the table.

So though I was going to come up with a list of what I've done in the past fifteen years to make me feel accomplished and cheerful and whatnot (M.A.! Ph.D! Tenure-track job! Articles! Tenure! Book!), I have to say, I'm just glad we all survived.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

To toss into the dumpster at first light

In my twenties, I finished every novel I started--even those I was sure I hated by page 50. Partly this was about how much leisure time I had, in those days of fewer obligations (and a job that did not involve hundreds of pages of reading a week). I think, though, it was also about my distrust of myself as a reader: reading was important to the identity I'd constructed, and since most the novels I read were "classics," or influential, or somehow of the moment, I felt I couldn't just say "yuck," and set one aside. There were books I read all the way through only to throw across the room or toss in the trash, but I finished them. I needed to finish them in order to know that I disliked them, and to be able to formulate a reason why.

These days I have no such scruples. I try to make it to page 100 before setting anything aside, but life is too short to read crappy books--even well-reviewed crappy books, even books I've paid good money for, even books I expected to like. With this policy in place, it's rare that I read anything all the way through that elicits a sentiment worse than a "meh." But friends, I have now--for the first time in maybe a decade--finished a book that I want out of my house immediately. It cannot remain on my shelves. I can't bear even the sight of its spine from across the room. That book is Joshua Ferris's To Rise Again at a Decent Hour.

Now, it would be unfair to call this a bad book; it's well-crafted and people I respect liked it a lot. But somewhere between pages 100 and 337 it went from "has its charms, but not really doing it for me" to "OMG THIS IS EVERYTHING I HATE ABOUT EVERYTHING." I could say the problem was that I found nothing emotionally true or interesting about the characters. I could say there wasn't much of a plot. But the thing I really can't forgive this novel is its vague, sentimental treatment of religion (or the spiritual, or the existential, or whatever--they're all kind of mushed together in a lukewarm soup).

You know how some people are all, "I wish I could believe in God! I think religious people are, like, so lucky. I mean, even if they doubt or whatever? They still have this thing to fall back on--a community, a history. Something that gives life meaning. And sometimes, in religious spaces, I feel at home; I really do. I just don't, you know: believe."

This is a book about that guy. And the book has no perspective on belief or unbelief that is any more nuanced or interesting than his.

*

Readers: what was the last book you tossed aside lightly--or threw with great force? And why?

Sunday, August 17, 2014

In a fight to the death, my odds may not be good

Last week I finally got The Article of Eternal Return off my desk and back to the journal that had it most recently. That means that pretty much the only writing I got done this summer was an R&R of an essay that was already pretty polished--and perhaps 2/3 of which I left intact. I did some reorganization and made some major changes to the conceptual framework, but nothing that should have taken me two months.

Worse, I did nothing but work on that essay. I mean, sure: I went to the gym, and I ate and I slept and I faffed around on the internet. Maybe once a week I saw a friend or went to a movie. But I let the yard turn into a jungle and I put off errands for weeks at a time (taking 60 minutes to go to Target was way too much of a time commitment!); even running a load of laundry felt like an imposition.

There are always binge weeks here and there in the life of a project where I eat, drink, and dream whatever I'm working on--but usually they're pleasurable periods of mania when everything seems to be going right and all I want to be doing is writing. It doesn't feel grindingly painful. And it doesn't last for six weeks straight.

This tells me it was probably a mistake. Not the actual work I did, but my decision to gut it out until it was done. I'm in a dark psychological space with this piece, and probably the sane thing would have been to take a break, set it aside, and work on something I felt invigorated by and that might give me some renewed confidence. (In other words: what my advisor made me do with my first chapter.) But I don't know how to do that. I only know how to bite down hard, hold on, and not let go.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Poor closers

With every round of revisions I make to this essay, I'm convinced I'm finally ready to write my conclusion. Everything else is falling into place. About a week ago I felt confident enough to scrap my old conclusion, which I'd been hanging onto in the hope that some portion of it might still work. Since then, I've occasionally started drafting something that seemed like it might be a note I could end on. So I write half a paragraph, and then I lose enthusiasm and leave it stranded there amid a bunch of white space.

So far I've got four or five of those maybe-conclusory, half-finished thoughts. They hang out like awkward dudes at a bar: keeping their distance; fiddling with their drinks; making occasional eye-contact and then pretending they didn't; never getting up the nerve to start a conversation.

I can't blame them. I'm not really interested in them either. So I ignore them, tinkering with the few places that still need work in the rest of the essay--a bit of framing here, a little historical background there. If I'm still not feeling it once that's done, maybe I'll fix my footnotes.

Eventually I'll know how I want this to end, who I want to go home with. Another guy will show up at the bar, and that'll be it. But that time is not yet.