Sunday, August 30, 2015

Bit by bit

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

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

And it did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Pigeonholed

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

I'm ready! Mostly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Putting down roots

So that whole continuing-to-make-friends-past-thirty thing sounds great. And it is great! Except when you have to goddamn do it.

We're now basically settled in Punchline Rustbelt City. A few pictures are left to be hung, a few boxes need to be taken to Goodwill, and a few corners remain de facto refugee camps for objects we don't know what to do with--but things are shaping up. My orientation is next week and classes begin the week after that.

Which means I'm turning my attention to the problem of meeting people.

Oh, it's not as bad as it might be, or as bad as it's been in the past: I have a partner, so I don't have to do my exploring alone; I already know, and am looking forward to getting to know better, most of my departmental colleagues and most of the Renaissance lit specialists who teach at nearby institutions. There are even a handful of people in town I'd call friends. But that's not a very deep bench, and most of those friendships aren't close. I need people to go out drinking with. I need people to confide in. And I need people who know stuff: people who can hook me up with a hairdresser or a tailor--but also with all the things I don't yet know about or should be doing in this town.

When a friend of mine moved to Hong Kong--in her thirties, single, knowing no one--someone told her that when you're new in town, you should accept every invitation and pursue every offer you get for the first two months. Turn down nothing. Follow-up via email. Make yourself visible. There's plenty of time to be choosy later.

So I'm trying a version of that, and also trying to diversify my network beyond academics; if we're to be here for the foreseeable future, we want to try to be good burghers--members of the art museum, season ticket holders to the orchestra, and all that jazz.

So far, I have two strategies for breaking into the larger social world: my alumni organization and the church we attended during my sabbatical year. I suspect the former will prove easier than the latter: it's a good mix of transplants and returned natives, but in any case people who have a wider vision of the world and are eager both to meet new people and to introduce them to the city. The parish seems a little trickier, and also a little more. . . parochial. The vibe is warm and everyone seems to know each other, but my sense is that's because they all went to the local Catholic schools or have kids in them.

(Our elder cat shares a name with one of the Catholic boys' high schools, a basketball powerhouse, but that probably doesn't count as an "in.")

But we'll see. All organizations need volunteers and people who show up, and I can (probably) do that.

After that, though, I'm out of ideas. So if you have a patented 30-day strategy for putting down roots and meeting besties, I'm all ears.

Saturday, August 08, 2015

Life's work

Though I'm up to my neck in boxes, our move is now mostly complete--which means I'm finding a few hours here and there to do something other than strategize about what goes where. So last week over breakfast I found myself reading every word of the obituary of a man I'd never heard of, Howard W. Jones, Jr.

Jones, whom the NYT describes as "a pioneer in reproductive medicine," seems to have been best-known for his work on in-vitro fertilization, though his career involved numerous cutting-edge and/or controversial procedures. He treated Henrietta Lacks, the African American woman whose cancer cells, taken without her knowledge, facilitated a number of medical breakthroughs; he opened the first sex-change clinic in America; and he pioneered sex-reassignment surgery for infants with ambiguous genitalia.

Some of these procedures are now celebrated and some condemned, but since this isn't my area of expertise and since all I know about Jones is what I read in his obituary, assessing his contributions to medicine isn't my goal here. Instead--as someone who just turned forty, who's changing jobs, and who shares a profession with her spouse--I'm interested in the unusual shape and length of Jones's career, and how fully that career seems to have been shared with his wife, Georgeanna.

So, first off: Jones died at 104. The Times mentions that he was 71 when the first baby conceived through in-vitro fertilization was born, which doesn't sound so terribly old to make a major medical breakthrough--but it turns out that reproductive medicine was essentially a second career for Jones after he hit Johns Hopkins' mandatory retirement age of 65. (A few weeks ago I commented that academics tend to keep working past a normal retirement age. . . but I was thinking of septagenarians and octogenarians. Dr. Jones kept working for almost four decades after his original retirement.)

Secondly, his new career seems not only to have involved his spouse, but quite possibly to have been inspired by her. (The Times doesn't quite say this, but it describes Georgeanna Jones as "one of the nation's first reproductive endocrinologists," and notes how new the field of endocrinology was when she chose it as a specialty in the 1930s. I'd like to know more about this, and about Georgeanna's own career during the decades that Howard was at Hopkins.) Together they founded the Jones Institute for Reproductive Medicine at Eastern Virginia Medical School, and, in the words of the Times, their "long professional partnership. . . was so close, they shared a desk."

But this is the detail that got me, and it's where the obituary ends:

Well into his last years Dr. Jones continued to go to his office at the Jones Institute to read and write and to attend lectures, though he stopped working with patients in the early 1990s, when his wife contracted Alzheimer’s disease.

"When she stopped seeing patients, I decided to stop, too," he said. "Without her, it wasn’t fun anymore."

I love this. I don't know what Jones was like as a doctor, and I don't know how to evaluate his contributions to medicine. But he seems like someone who truly saw his work as a calling, who was eager to keep learning until the end of his life, and whose marriage was inextricable from his work.

That's not for everyone. But if there's a sign-up sheet, put my name down.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

The view from here

In case you're wondering what I've been up to:


Given the vast suckage of time, energy, and will to live that every move involves, this one has actually gone pretty smoothly. Our local real estate market is both flat and cheap, but we got a strong offer (breaking six figures!) within three weeks. And since our buyers are taking advantage of several first-time home-buyer programs, they wanted a slow, leisurely close--and so did we. As of a week ago, we were still holding dinner parties and hosting overnight guests.

But all good things must come to a screeching halt, and the last week kinda sucked. Moreover, the suck has a long tail: since we can't quite afford (and didn't want) to buy a new home immediately, our move will be a multi-stage affair. About 70% of what we're moving is going into storage for a year (that's what you see above) and the rest is going to our existing apartment, which will then need some serious purging and rearranging. Some of the inferior and temporary furnishing there will remain, but we're swapping in a few clearly superior items, like our bed and our dining room set.

And then there's my campus office, which includes my entire scholarly book collection and which will require a dedicated campus-to-campus trip without passing go--or, more to the point, without lugging everything first up and then down four flights of apartment-building stairs.

But that's okay! Once it's all done, it's done.

At least until next year.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

One is silver and the other gold

As I move out of the region where I've lived for the past nine years, an old friend is moving back in. Evey was my first friend in Cha-Cha City. We moved here at the same time, both starting tenure-track jobs, both in long-distance relationships. Her best friend from grad school was a reader of my blog, and she set us up. She thought we might like each other.

And oh, we did.

But after a few years, Evey got a job at her partner's institution. We kept in touch and managed to see each other almost once a year, but getting together was tricky: we lived a long day's drive apart, in places that neither of us had any other reason to visit. Then this spring Evey and her spouse got offered jobs at a university an hour away. Last week we had dinner with them; this week, she's having dinner with us.

This has all been a little disorienting. On the one hand, I'm sad to be moving just as she's returning. But we'll still be much closer than we've been for ages, and we'll each have reason to pass through the other's city multiple times a year. I never expected to have that kind of proximity again.

I've written before about how tough academia is on friendships: though other highly-educated professionals may move for work and may live far from family, it's rare for them to move to a place where they know literally no one--and rarer to do it past 30, and rarer still to keep doing it. Moreover, academics tend to move to communities that don't have a lot of transplants, where the natives have deep roots, and where it's hard to form friendships with people who aren't themselves transplants.

I hate that my first in-town best friend moved away, and that I'm now moving away from my second. I hate that one of my favorite colleagues left, and that I'm leaving two or three others. It took almost nine years to build the social circle I wanted here.

But maybe grumbling about all the friends I'm leaving--or who left me first--is the wrong way to think about it. Had I not moved to a random city where I knew no one, I'd never have met most of these people in the first place. And if I weren't moving to Cosimo's city and hadn't already been living there part-time, I wouldn't have the few burgeoning friendships I have there, or whatever other friendships I may later develop.

A few years ago everyone I knew was buzzing about this article on the difficulty of making new friends past a certain age. The argument is that at some point in our thirties we're all so busy, and have such well-established lives and routines, that even when we really hit it off with someone new it's hard to escalate to the kind of intimacy we might have developed in our twenties, when our lives were less structured.

The argument makes sense, and I'd be lying if I said there were no people I saw as missed friend opportunities--but that's always been true. More to the point, I'm a forty-year-old introvert who's never stopped developing close friendships, perhaps because the vagaries of the academic job market have forced me to it. And mostly I've made friends with other academics: other transplants, other people with shallow roots. When everyone lives hours from their closest friends, they're definitely still in the market for new ones.

In some ways, then, academia might be said to foster the building of new friendships well into adulthood. In addition to having very little control over where the job market sends us, we're constantly meeting interesting new people at conferences. And conferences are basically incubators for intense interpersonal connections. Like sleep-away camp or like a college dorm, conferences pluck us out of everyday life, deposit us into a closed and artificial environment, and leave us there, face to face, for 16 or more hours a day.

Every conference I come away having fallen a little in love with at least one new person--or having deepened and reaffirmed my existing love for two or three people whom I see only at conferences, but whom I inevitably wind up talking to late into the night, or over a long lunch or coffee break. And as at camp, intimacy comes fast.

So though I'm still mourning the people I'm leaving behind, I'm going to try to have a better attitude about academia and what it does to friendships.

After all: it's how I met all you lovelies, now isn't it?

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Reading in tongues

Since my Italian tutor is away this summer, I've been working my way through a collection of short stories, a few pages a day. At the same time, my research has taken a turn that means much of the scholarship I need is in French. So I've been reading an article here, skimming a book there. Eventually, I also have to read a long scholarly essay in Italian. (It's been sitting in a file drawer for two years. I like to think I'm working up to it.)

This is a pleasant turn of events. Though my research has certainly required foreign-language knowledge before now, studying the literature of seventeenth-century England means that I don't need it that often, and certainly not to the degree that an historian or a comparativist of my period might. Ninety-five percent of the time, when I call upon my French or Latin or Italian "skills," I'm just double-checking someone else's translation. That's important to be able to do--to see where a translation is imprecise or where there might be a pun or ambiguity in the original--but it's not high-level stuff.

Reading scholarship in a foreign language is more complex. On the one hand, interpretative nuance can be hard for someone of my skill level to follow. On the other hand, it's still a deeply familiar genre and the usual rules of scholarly due diligence apply: I skim to find the key ideas and the major claims, slowing down only when something seems truly interesting or immediately relevant. And as with the English-language scholarship I dredge up, at least 50% of it isn't that relevant.

This also doesn't require anything close to fluency, but it's still gratifying to feel that a whole new area of knowledge is opening up. I've always wanted to read Dante in the original, and maybe I will someday--but I can read Dante in translation. A scholarly article on some minor motif in medieval romance? No one's translating that shit.

Maybe my third or fourth book will involve a direct engagement with Continental literature, and maybe I'll eventually have a fuller appreciation of stylistic, syntactic, and poetic virtuosity in a language other than my own. But for now, having a working sense of the wider scholarly conversation feels like achievement enough.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Shall never see so much, nor live so long

Yesterday one of my professors from graduate school died. Though she didn't work in my field and we hadn't kept in touch--I think I ran into her at an MLA reception or two--she was a major part of my graduate experience.

Linda was the department chair when I began my program, and had been instrumental in implementing a number of changes for the better before I arrived; she taught the teaching practicum the year I took it; she taught a creative writing class for which I was a tutor; she was the outside-field member of my dissertation committee; she was the job-placement officer when I was first on the market. And through it all she was a singularly humane and generous presence, maternal in both her kindness and her brisk efficiency.

But it wasn't just a fluke, or a peculiarity of timing, that led to her large role in my life; she was committed to graduate education throughout her career. Facebook friends who went through the program a decade before and those who went through it a decade after all seem to have had identical experiences. And in lieu of flowers, she asked that a fund be established to support graduate student research and conference travel.

Though Linda's death was untimely, it's still a reminder that we're all aging, and that none of my mentors is as young as I persist in imagining. I suppose it's normal to only become aware of others' aging as you become aware of your own; when I was young, no one seemed to age. Grown-ups existed in some timeless bubble called "adulthood," and 35 and 55 looked much the same to me. But aging may also be more apparent in academia than in many other professions.

Academics often keep working long past a "normal" retirement age; dissertators in their twenties may work with men and women in their seventies, and there's a healthy sprinkling of septuagenarians and octogenarians at most conferences. Academia is also a profession where age is still respected; the young want to talk to their elders and get their advice and approval, and a wizened and white-haired gentleman may generate rock-star-level enthusiasm when he walks into a room.

Equally as importantly, we see many of our colleagues only at conferences and thus only once a year--or once every few years--which makes aging more apparent. I'm continually struck by how suddenly old this person or that person looks, especially the junior faculty I became attached to when first going to conferences as a grad student. They struck me then as cool older siblings: successful, but also zany, funny, and kind. Most of them are still those things, but they aren't young any more. They're fiftyish, and I'm older than many of them were then.

And the people who were then in the prime of their careers are now retiring. Or dying. Or I hear about health scares big and small. They may still be rock stars or dedicated teachers and colleagues, but I recognize them as mortal and fragile in a way that I didn't when I was twenty-eight, when the only fragility I could perceive was my own.

R.I.P., Linda. May we all give as generously to our colleagues and students as you did; and may we all take the time to remember and thank our mentors while we can.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Singing the hours

I spent two days last week on a silent retreat at a Trappist monastery. I didn't have a reason for this, particularly; I'd been mildly curious about about the place since meeting one of the monks--and now that I'm working on a portion of Book Two that involves monasticism's afterlife in Protestant England, it seemed like the right time to check it out.

It was an interesting experience on a lot of levels. I hadn't expected any direct scholarly benefits, but there were several. Not only did I find a number of books I needed at the abbey bookstore, but wandering around in silence for a couple of days and trying to keep my mind blank caused some new and unexpected ideas to surface.

But there were more oblique benefits, too. I've always believed that being in certain places or making your body do certain things can make the past more present, and walking 3/4 of a mile back and forth through the fields to the abbey or getting up in the middle of the night to attend prayers did render more real the experiences of early modern worshipers. And it's one thing to "know" what a chantry is, and another to see one in action.

Because yes: on the spur of the moment I decided to forego some of my earlier plans and commit myself to attending the full cycle of the liturgy of the hours--meaning that at 2.25, 6, and 11.15 in the morning, and at 4.30 and 6.40 in the evening, I was at the abbey. Each service we sang a portion of the book of psalms. Over the course of a week, the monks get through all 150 psalms. Then they start over again.

I could say a lot more about that experience, but for the purposes of this blog what interests me is the routinizing of the transcendent--that is, the bringing down to earth, and making a part of everyday life, an experience that might otherwise get aestheticized or mystified into something inapproachable, something too perfect and beautiful for normal people to share. That strikes me as something we wrestle with as academics, too, especially those of us who teach and write about Great Works of Literary Genius.

Because on the one hand, the psalms are terrific poetry, sung in a melancholy and evocative plainsong chant (and the idea of a group of people interrupting their workday at regular intervals to sing poems together is bound to warm the heart of any literature professor). But on the other hand, the liturgy of the hours isn't a performance or a commodity. Though lay-people were present at the services I attended, the liturgy isn't done for an audience. Perfection isn't the goal. Sometimes a monk with a terrible voice led the singing, because it was his turn. Sometimes one would get up and leave in the middle of the service. And always they were there in their everyday clothes and ugly, sensible shoes, rustling their psalters and prayerbooks, clearing their throats, sneezing.

The message that I take away is the importance of letting the sublime into the everyday; the psalms become a part of the round of work and rest until by repetition they're absorbed and almost embodied in each monk. The liturgy of the hours, despite its odd, old-fashioned formality, is the opposite of what happens in most churches for the major solemnities, when the goal seems to be great seriousness and high drama: professional musicians, fancy vestments, elaborate floral arrangements, signs that This Is a Big Deal--but a Big Deal that takes place in an aesthetic and spiritual realm alien to ordinary experience.

I'm as susceptible to aesthetics as anyone, and prone to wanting everything to be just so. But participating in the liturgy of the hours as just another sleepy, ill-dressed layperson reminded me of what happens in our classrooms or alone in our studies. Though we write and think about literature for a living, our lives are mostly not about glorious aesthetic or intellectual triumphs or transcendent moments of illumination. Our lives involve worrying over one little bit of one little poem; writing and rewriting a single paragraph; teaching the same text over and over again. Now and then we do have a true, original insight; craft a perfect sentence; teach an amazing class. But in between there's a lot of plugging away, a lot of days when the spirit is most definitely not with us.

Except that it is, then, too.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Teaching without teaching

I've been thinking about what we learn from our advisors, and how: the doctoral candidate may design the topic and do the work, but the resulting dissertation is often recognizably "the kind of thing X's students do."

In a limited way, this is just about specialization or methodology: you work with Advisor A if you want to do book history; Advisor B if you're interested in Lacan and gender; Advisor C if your project is on political theology. Grad students may come to their program knowing they want to work on a given subject with a given supervisor, or they're exposed to those topics and methods during their coursework, or they're gently or not-so-gently steered toward a particular approach by the questions their advisors ask or their suggestions for further reading.

But so much of what a scholar does or is known for can't be taught directly. If your advisor is a masterful prose stylist--or has a knack for exciting archival discoveries--or is a brilliant close-reader--or has built a new theoretical paradigm--well, how exactly does one teach that?

When I was deciding whom to work with, I was deciding between two people. I chose my advisor over the other logical choice purely because of what I perceived to be our temperamental or work-style compatibility. Otherwise, I thought the two were pretty equivalent: I'd taken classes from both; both worked on the kinds of things I was interested in; both were smart and well-regarded. I had no sense that their approaches or emphases might differ, or that that would matter.

I don't know, actually, that my dissertation would have looked much different if I'd worked with my other possibility, though I can now see clear differences between the kind of work both do and it seems obvious that I made the better choice. (But then we're back where we started: did I make the right choice because my work was always a better fit for my advisor's interests. . . or does it just seem that way because the work I produced emerged under her supervision?)

But though the overlap in our field of interest is significant, I haven't, in the past, thought much about what I might have learned from my advisor about research, writing, and thinking. Partly this is because we had a very hands-off relationship, but it's also because advisors usually don't teach us the most important things in any explicit way.

Still, I think there's one major lesson my advisor taught me. She communicated it in many ways over the years, but the first and most obvious instance happened at the lowest point in our relationship.

I had just submitted a draft of my first chapter and was meeting with my full committee to discuss it. My advisor and I had met one-on-one a few days earlier, and between that meeting and this I was pretty sure she'd written me off. She said almost nothing, letting the other two members of my committee do the heavy lifting. My draft wasn't great, but they tried to be encouraging, asking questions and making an effort to help me reframe the central text I was analyzing.

Finally, I said, "look: I know this draft isn't going anywhere. But I have this--I don't know, feeling--that this text is really doing XYZ. But that's totally unprovable, and ridiculous, and I know I can't argue it, so I'm stuck."

My other committee members gave no sign that this was any more or less interesting than anything else I'd said, but my advisor reacted as if I'd set off firecrackers in her office.

"YES!" She said. "That! Write that."

It would be wrong to describe this as a major turning point; I left the meeting feeling marginally better, but I still didn't know how I could possibly do the thing I vaguely wanted to do--and that particular chapter gave me trouble well into the revisions for my book manuscript. But in retrospect, I see my advisor as imparting two related lessons:

First, have faith in your own weird hunches, even if you don't yet have good evidence for them--and even if you can't articulate, in words, why the thing you think might be interesting actually is interesting. Not all of them will pan out, but they are, truly, your only hope for originality.

Second, don't be afraid to make a big claim. "Big" doesn't mean world-changing or paradigm-shifting, but something whose stakes are obvious and up front. We tell our students that a good argument should be contestable, and the same principle applies to scholarship: an air-tight case isn't exciting. One that says "okay. . . but what if we looked at it this way?" is.

My advisor and I are very different, and I've never expected to have anything like her career. Still, from this distance, I'm pretty sure that she's responsible for whatever argumentative and intellectual fearlessness I've acquired.

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

The companion to the introduction to the handbook

In the past six months, I've been asked to contribute to two different "companions to," or "handbooks of," or whatever the generic term is for those big compendia of not-quite-full-fledged-scholarly essays. This makes a total of three solicitations in two years.

I don't think this is because I'm particularly awesome or a recognized expert in much of anything (though it probably helps that I work on obscurer material). I think it's because suddenly these books are everywhere.

What I don't understand is why. Who buys these things? And for what purpose? And--most puzzlingly--who buys more than one on a given author or topic?

Now, I've always liked the Cambridge Companions, which I take to be the grandes dames of this particular genre. Earlier in my career I picked up one or two a year (on sale, at conferences) for authors I figured I was likely to teach but unlikely to ever research; my campus office contains volumes on figures like Chaucer, Marlowe, and Jonson. I've also taught essays from the volumes on authors I do research, as a way of introducing advanced undergrads or M.A. students to some of the relevant contexts. This spring I required my grad students to buy the Cambridge Companion to Donne, and I've sometimes done the same with the Milton volume.

I understand what those essays are, or at least what they're supposed to be: they're somewhere between undergraduate lectures and works of scholarship in their own right. They allow a nonspecialist or a beginning scholar to orient herself and get a handle on the issues that matter. Done well, such essays meet an important need.

But I don't know how the market can support very many volumes like this, and as they've proliferated I've had a harder time understanding how each series is positioning itself or whom it imagines its readers to be. The volumes with 40 short essays and lower price points are presumably intended for course adoption; the huge $200 hardbacks with vastly longer essays are instead intended for. . . library purchases? Or for scholars who for some reason would rather read those essays than browse the MLA database?

The three solicitations I've received have varied in targeted length (from a low of 3,000 words to a high of 9,000), but the editors have all stressed that they want "original scholarship" rather than just digests or summaries of the state of the field. The best essays I've read in this genre truly do that. (Though for teaching/course prep, I also appreciate essays where a leading light in the field distills, in an accessible way, the kinds of arguments she's made over the course of her career.)

But the more these kinds of books proliferate, the tougher that becomes. If you had something truly new to say about some relatively broad or standard topic (like, I don't know, the Jonsonian masque, or Milton's early sonnets, or Donne's attitude toward death) . . . would you be publishing it in this particular venue?

Moreover, the more there are, the harder it will be to get originality--or the handful of big names an editor presumably wants to lend luster to the project. I'm also not sure how valuable such a line is on one's vita, or how valuable it will remain: the "companion" essay may eventually become the encyclopedia entry of years past.

For the record, I accepted two of the offers and declined the third. They differ in topic and format, but both build on the kinds of things I've published elsewhere while involving enough new work for me to feel genuinely interested in the task. And yeah, okay: I was flattered to be asked.

But two feels about right. I probably won't be accepting another any time soon.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Loosey-goosey

So that talk I gave last week had me spazzing out the way very few talks have ever made me spazz out. For at least ten days prior I did nothing but work on that paper: sleeping poorly, oppressed with an always-incipient but never-quite-present migraine (the symptoms of which vanished the second my talk was over).

This was only partly due to the stakes of the performance itself. Yes, it was a semi-plenary before an audience of unknown size, all specialists, and I sometimes feel myself to be only a fake Miltonist. (And Miltonists--I say it with love--have a reputation as hectoring pedants.) The real problem was that this was entirely new work, work that no one had seen or heard a word of two weeks before my talk. Including myself.

And that's not the way I write conference papers. Like most people, I'll certainly use a conference as an excuse to get cracking on a new project, and it's not uncommon for my abstracts--written 6-9 months in advance--to be a tissue of fictions and suppositions. But by the time the conference itself rolls around I've usually been working on the article or chapter for a few months; I just carve my paper out of that much larger body of work. Sometimes the carving is easier and sometimes it's harder, but it's never THAT hard. By that point both my writing and my argumentation are pretty polished, and I feel secure that I have some larger grounding in the material.

But a conference paper that's exactly coextensive with my research on the subject--where I basically haven't had a thought or read a work that isn't mentioned in the paper--that was a new experience. I was deathly afraid I'd be asked to expand on ideas I literally could not expand on, or talk about texts I've never considered. (I always have a version of this fear, but it was particularly acute this time.)

But it went fine. It went better than fine. In fact, some of the reasons it went well may have been directly related to how quickly I wrote the paper and how rough some of its edges were: it was talky and (I think) entertaining, with a strong argument but also a lot of open-ended and speculative bits; this facilitated what was, hands-down, the most genuinely useful Q&A I've ever participated in. Partly this was due to my presenting before true specialists, but being at an early stage also meant I was fully open to suggestions and interested in considering my topic from fresh angles.

Now the advantages of presenting early work are probably obvious to every single one of my readers; I'm on the rigid end of the spectrum when it comes to sharing material I haven't perfected or generating ideas on the fly. But for me it was a bit of a revelation.

But here's the really good news: for the first time ever, I'm starting the summer with a working draft of my new chapter.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Ten years

As of today, I've been blogging for ten years, nine of them in this space. I've now been blogging for longer than I've done anything in my adult life: I started blogging before I finished my dissertation, before I started teaching full-time, before I moved to this city, before I met my spouse.

(I mean, okay: I guess I've done a few things for longer, like being a legal drinker and a contact-lens-wearer and a short-hair-sporter, but not much of substance.)

Every time this anniversary rolls around, I wonder whether I have it in me to keep going--whether I have enough to say, enough time, enough that could possibly interest whoever still reads blogs these days; the retirements of Tenured Radical and Dr. Crazy have only made that question more urgent. But though I'm not sure I've totally settled into a post-tenure blogging identity, every time I have a two-week dry spell and am convinced I've sputtered out at last, I think of three things I want to write about. So I keep going.

As many of you know, my current book project is about nostalgia. A friend to whom I recently described the project asked how I felt about nostalgia, personally--whether I was pro- or anti-, more for nostalgia or more for progress--and though it's a reasonable question, it caught me up short. Anyone who's been reading me for more than a month knows I'm obsessively interested in how we negotiate our relationship with the past; I'd freely describe myself as susceptible to nostalgia (probably unusually susceptible). But I'm also generally optimistic and forward-looking, unafraid of change, and I dislike what I perceive as sentimental or naive nostalgia at least as much as I dislike sentimental and naive futurism and the cult of innovation.

I suppose I see nostalgia as the byproduct of progress: for me it's not about wanting to roll back the clock or thinking things were better in the past, but about acknowledging the sense of loss that accompanies even positive change. Nostalgia is the cost of moving on, of growing up, of living inside of time.

All of which is to say: for as long as I keep blogging and as many new subjects as I take on, I'll probably still be looking backwards. No doubt I'll be talking about grad school and my experiences as a junior scholar when I'm sixty, as I try to find the continuities and figure out what holds a professional life together.

You've been warned.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Interruption in blog service

Appearances to the contrary, I haven't fallen off the face of the earth; it's just that the end of the semester coincided with our putting our house on the market and my needing to generate 5,000 moderately compelling and entertaining words.

But I've got at least three posts queued up, so after some Toronto and some Milton and some Stratford and some Shakespeare, I'll be back.

Friday, May 08, 2015

The sincerest form of you-know-what

This semester I had a new experience: an M.A. student whose proposed project made me say, "Damn! I want to write that!"

I've had students write good papers before, of course; one or two I've even thought might be publishable. But this is the first time I've read a prospectus and thought, yeah! I've been noticing that, too! and this is totally the kind of work I might do and seriously: this has never been written about? because this needs to be written about.

As new as this experience is for me, it must be relatively common for others, especially those who work with doctoral students. Teaching always means seeding the ground a bit, training students to do the kind of work--focus on the issues, ask the questions, pursue the methodologies--that we find interesting. Combine that with very smart students and students engaged in long-term projects, and it makes sense that the intellectual current would flow both ways. Still, the ethical issues can get murky.

In my case, it's no big deal: my student's topic is a cool one, and something I might be interested in keeping on a back burner, but it's not meaningfully related to anything I'm doing right now and my front burners are full up. If my student delivers on the promise of the prospectus, then cool: I'll recommend transforming it into a thesis and/or a journal submission. If not (or if the student eventually writes a thesis on some other subject), then the ground is clear for me to work on this topic someday.

Other cases are more complicated. I have friends who've felt an uncomfortable frisson of recognition when reading the latest book of a former mentor. None of my friends were or felt themselves to have been robbed--but when a senior scholar produces work that arguably overlaps with or grows out of the work their students or juniors were working on years ago. . . well, I'm not sure who owes what to whom, but I'm pretty sure a gracious mention in the acknowledgments is a minimum.