Sunday, June 26, 2016

Hitting me where I live

The last time I checked my campus mail, I found a card-sized envelope of high-quality paper bearing the return address of an English department to which I have no meaningful connection. It turned out to be a thank-you note: the Director of Graduate Studies was writing about a former student of mine, someone for whom I'd written a recommendation letter and who will be starting their PhD program in the fall.

I don't know about you, but I've never received anything like this. And I was impressed: the point of the note, obviously, wasn't so much to thank me for past services as to build a relationship for the future. It was typed and lightly personalized (naming my student and a few specifics about what s/he would be doing), but most of it was well-written promotional material consisting of a quick overview of the intellectual and pedagogical training that students receive and the financial and other resources available to them. It concluded with the hope that I might recommend them to other students I thought would be a good match.

And I gotta say: that is one savvy DGS. I'd already felt good about the program and the fact that my student had landed well, but the note succeeded in generating a deeper and more personal kind of warmth. Its underlying message wasn't "Student X is awesome! We're so glad s/he is coming!" but "we bet you have more great students and we'd love to hear about them, too."

That hits me where I live. Though I've never felt any personal anxiety about being judged negatively based on the institutions where I teach--I have enough professional and social capital that I figure anyone who dismisses me based on assumptions about my institution isn't just a snob, but an actual idiot--I know that the credit people extend to me isn't always extended to my students.

It's rare for anyone to express their snobbery to my face, but I hear their dismissals clearly enough. When someone I know socially asks, "so what's it like, teaching at [institution]?" I hear all the local prejudices against public institutions, or commuter schools, or schools with a large minority population. And when they say, "You know, [school] has really come a long way in the past twenty years!" I hear, "but I still wouldn't send my kids there." It's different with professional acquaintances, but when they bitch about the incompetence of their own students or their disinterest in teaching certain kinds of classes, what I hear is that they don't value and wouldn't respect mine.

Sometimes, I'm sure, I'm being too thin-skinned and hearing judgments that aren't there. But I adore my students and I believe in them--and I hear the way they sometimes put themselves down for where they go to school. So I have a default defensiveness, a chip on my shoulder on their behalf. When I write a recommendation letter, then, I worry that my praise is being filtered or discounted. I imagine the admissions committee saying, in effect: sure, she says this student is phenomenal, but what's her point of comparison?

So when the DGS of a strong program asks me to send them more applicants, what I hear isn't just that the department was impressed by this one student, but that it believes, as I do, that talent is widely distributed and that some students who start out behind can make up for lost time, outstripping their more privileged peers. I hear that it trusts my judgment and would take future applicants seriously, even ones who might be a little rougher around the edges.

That note probably cost the department a buck-fifty in postage and paper, and maybe sixty seconds of the DGS's time. But damned if I won't be keeping them in mind for every future student whose grad school ambitions I believe in.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Exhaustion

It's been almost six weeks since the end of the school year and I still haven't recovered.

To be fair, there's been a lot going on. We moved the same weekend as graduation; immediately afterwards we had houseguests; immediately after that we went out of town. Since then, I've been out of town twice more. It's also been a rather tough year. Though the big picture has been great, the weekly and the monthly reality has been harder: multiple moves, a new job, a death in the family, constant travel.

Still, while acknowledging that there have been some external stressors, my exhaustion still seems disproportionate. It's late June, and all the hard stuff is past. I now have time. I'm back on a regular sleep and exercise schedule. But every task still feels overwhelming. For months I'd put off getting a new driver's license and transferring my car's title and registration because I just couldn't deal--and when I finally managed to block out two days to run back and forth between the DMV, the title office, and the state inspection facility, I then needed another couple of days afterwards to recover.

This doesn't strike me as normal. I mean, sure: bureaucracy sucks, and we've all felt our will to live leech out of us as we sit around waiting for the plumber to show up or spend hours driving from strip mall to strip mall on fourteen separate errands. But I feel enervated in a more profound and existential way these days. I love our new house, but just contemplating what still needs to be done wears me out. I've barely been able to make plans for any of the trips I've taken, even though there have been friends in each city that I've wanted to see. I feel behind in everything and eager to do nothing.

Is this middle age? Or am I actually the laziest person alive? (I know I'm not the busiest--most of my friends are working moms, so I'm not even a contender in the work/life sweepstakes.) I keep thinking that I'll recover with another good night's sleep, or after crossing a particularly troublesome task off the to-do list.

But it keeps. Not. Happening.

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

Give 'em hell, Hill

THIS LADY.

Ezra Klein has a terrific piece asking why it's been so hard for us to recognize that Hillary is actually a phenomenal politician--phenomenal because she's not great at retail politics. She's not a spell-binding speech-giver, or especially charismatic, but she keeps winning anyway.

His argument is that she's pursued a characteristically female strategy of working behind the scenes over the long term. Her detractors, he says, are right that she's an insider, with the support of "the establishment," but they're wrong about what this means or how she got that support:

She won the Democratic primary by spending years slowly, assiduously, building relationships with the entire Democratic Party. She relied on a more traditionally female approach to leadership: creating coalitions, finding common ground, and winning over allies. Today, 523 governors and members of Congress have endorsed Clinton; 13 have endorsed Sanders.

This work is a grind--it's not big speeches, it doesn't come with wide applause, and it requires an emotional toughness most human beings can't summon.

But Clinton is arguably better at that than anyone in American politics today. In 2000, she won a Senate seat that meant serving amidst Republicans who had destroyed her health care bill and sought to impeach her husband. And she kept her head down, found common ground, and won them over.

[. . . .]

And Clinton isn't just better--she's relentless. After losing to Barack Obama, she rebuilt those relationships, campaigning hard for him in the general, serving as his secretary of state, reaching out to longtime allies who had crushed her campaign by endorsing him over her.

This really sums up what I love about Hillary--not why I support her policies, which I do generally though not unreservedly, but why I have the kind of irrational love that supposedly no one feels for her. She reminds me of every female mentor I've ever had. She reminds me of all the women I know in business and academia and the arts who just keep plugging away, getting shit done, but who are rarely anointed "stars" even if they become partner, make tenure, write a best-selling novel.

And though I would never in a million years compare myself to Clinton--I don't have half, not a quarter of her toughness--I can't help but think that my previous post is partly about gender. I do know women who emerge from college or grad school fully poised and confident and (seemingly) without a doubt about their intellectual or scholarly authority. But I know fewer of them than I know men, and it's characteristically female to believe that one shouldn't yet do something--ask for a promotion, claim expertise--until she is really, REALLY sure that no one will doubt her credentials.

So yeah. I understand why people might not support Clinton. I understand why people might not like her. But I look at her and I see every talented, relentless, over-qualified woman who has, objectively speaking, achieved a lot, and who would never actually complain--but who still isn't considered as smart, promising, likeable as the charismatic male blowhard sitting next to her. Whose books don't get the same kind of reviews, who doesn't get invited onto the talk shows, who somehow (no one knows why!) just doesn't generate the same buzz or excitement.

Fuck. That. #ImWithHer

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

2 legit 2 quit

It's finally happened: most days, I mostly don't feel like a fraud!

Or to put it more positively: I feel, increasingly, like a legitimate Knower of Things.

I wouldn't say that this is the end of Impostor Syndrome, exactly; I'm still painfully aware of how clumsy my language skills are and how little I know about various things that are, technically, within my specialty (the Continental Renaissance! Most of the sixteenth century! Playwrights who aren't Shakespeare, Marlowe, or Jonson!). But I feel, finally, that I know enough about some things that all the stuff I don't know isn't totally discrediting.

This sense of legitimacy has been a long time coming. I submitted my dissertation eleven years ago and I've just finished my tenth year as tenured or tenure-line faculty. I've felt comfortable in the classroom for a very long while. But as a scholar I've tended to feel, at best, just minimally competent--in possession of exactly enough knowledge to write a given conference paper or article, without a datum to spare.

There are probably a couple of reasons it's taken so long. First, my first book covered 100 years and six authors (and focused almost entirely on noncanonical texts), so I really did know only a small slice about each of the authors/historical moments in which I was ostensibly an expert. And then, at just the point that I started to feel comfortable with my mastery of that material--as well as more canonical figures like Shakespeare--I started working on my second book, which immediately required lengthy detours into totally new areas (Patristics, the Middle Ages, liturgical history). So my sense of the shallowness and insufficiency of my learning is partly a side-effect of trying to be conversant in a lot of different things.

But some people emerge from grad school--heck, even from college--with a blithe confidence in their learning and the ability to speak glibly and persuasively about any manner of subjects. My own graduate program privileged both broad training and an easy, learned manner; the fact that I didn't have the latter (whether through introversion, modesty, or a slow brain) means I've always over-valued this kind of performance of intelligence. Doesn't it stand to reason that those who can speak learnedly are drawing on deeper reserves of learning than those who can't?

This past year, though, I've started to feel that my reserves are deeper than I thought. Say that a student asks an oddball or sidebar question--maybe it's a biographical or historical detail she saw in a footnote; maybe it's a big-picture question about the culture and its values. In the past, even when I knew a bit about the subject in question, I'd answer briefly and move on. These days I have to struggle not to share all the cool stuff I know about how early moderns read a particular biblical passage or what current scholarship thinks about some event in Milton's early life. Since such a digression usually isn't directly relevant to whatever we're doing in class, I rarely allow myself more than sixty seconds--but even sixty seconds of sharing freaky factoids reminds me of my own professors and how impressed I was by similar shows of seeming erudition.

And it's not just in the classroom: the conference Q&A feels less terrifying than it used to, and I find myself more frequently offering advice, asking questions, and generally presuming that I have something to contribute to my peers and seniors. Maybe this is the long-deferred payoff of learning a small-to-moderate amount about a shit-ton of things, or maybe it's the confidence that comes with middle age and having enough professional credibility that I figure there's a greater-than-even chance that people will take me seriously.

Whatever the cause, feeling legitimate is a great thing. But there's a downside: believing that you know stuff and that people want to hear about it dramatically raises your odds of turning into a pontificating, digressive bore.

So for now I'll stick to fascinating/boring people for just sixty seconds at a time.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Personality transplant

Changing jobs has made me think harder about a phenomenon I've long been curious about: the way departments (or academic divisions or entire institutions) develop distinct personalities.

That they have such personalities I take as a given, though both the recognition of a particular place's personality and any description of it are bound to be subjective and imperfect. For one thing, we all tend to read the networks to which we belong as normative.

It wasn't until a few years into my first job--after I'd made friends at other places and met their colleagues--that I began to see that, relative to those other departments, my own was more X or less Y, and that my colleagues, on the whole, tended to hold these values and not those. The exact descriptors aren't important, but I'm sure you can supply your own, both for places you've worked or places you know well. Some departments give off a general sense of being cynical, friendly, downtrodden, agreeable, competitive, scatterbrained, efficient, political, argumentative, optimistic, and so on.

But even once I'd started noticing that one department, say, seemed full of awkward introverts while another was cheery and gregarious, I understood this personality to be primarily about hiring (and secondarily about a process of acculturation that reinforced whatever the department's dominant traits might be): a friendly department might subtly preference candidates with certain signs of warmth and energy, and a place where everyone thought of herself as an up-and-comer might hire people who performed ambition in similar ways. And if enough people in a department embodied certain traits or shared certain values, those would get communicated more widely even to those who might not, in other contexts, really be that thing.

I still believe that's an important part of the story. But it's not the whole of it.

The thing is, a department's personality is dynamic and relational, formed by the way individual temperaments and communication styles collide and collaborate--and how they, together, respond to external circumstances. So, yes: you can get a sense of a place by meeting its individual members and noticing that they tend to be warm, or flaky, or self-important, or whatever. But its personality really emerges in its decision-making processes. How do things get done, and for what reasons, and by whom? Who has a voice, and what kind of assumptions and attitudes are on display?

The distinctiveness of those things is a lot harder to gain perspective on when you're living inside a place. I've written before about toxic departments and the way they remold a person's sense of self, but it's not just toxic workplaces that create their own reality. I suspect most departments do, just as most families do. And in the same way that it's easier to see the collective personality of your in-laws than it is to see what's unusual about your own family, it's easier to get a read on a department once you have a) a sense of what it means to be a member of a department, but b) some separation from the department in question.

So yeah: moving at midcareer makes some things extremely obvious. On the one hand, the personality of your new department is likely to be clearer than your old department's was--but at the same time, experiencing a new place inevitably brings the personality of the former into sharper focus.

But being plunked down into a place where the things you took to be normative suddenly aren't also suggests another explanation for how departments acquire personalities. It's not just about hiring, or even about how specific personalities interact with one another. It's about things that happened before you got there and that involved people you'll never meet. It might have to do with a department chair who retired a decade ago, or with a particular institutional crisis or success. Or it's about dynamics beyond the department: the stability of the upper administration; the political climate in your state.

And this raises the question of how long a particular personality persists. Let's say that a given set of attitudes and behaviors are the result of external circumstances, whether good or bad: an inspiring chair and lots of resources; an upper administration with a siege mentality. When those circumstances change, how quickly do the learned responses of a department change? As in a family, there's not a lot of turnover, and early habits can become ingrained. If the senior and mid-career faculty came up under a particular regime, they might still communicate their attitudes to those hired much later.

So who shapes a place's personality? All of us. None of us. But that doesn't mean we're off the hook.

Thursday, May 05, 2016

Knowing better

You know what's vexing about being mid-career at a new institution?

You already know everything, and you have all the impatience and world-weariness that come with being at mid-career--but no one else knows that you know everything! And you kinda don't! A new institution means rules and procedures that you don't fully understand (ranging from basic chain-of-command issues to the longer history of why things get done X way), not to mention unknown people and personalities, so when you see something that strikes you as problematic, it's hard to know when interjecting an opinion would bring some much-needed outside perspective. . . and when you should shut your damn mouth.

This is an even bigger problem if you're me, and have a fundamental conviction that your way of doing things is always the best, most reasonable, and most efficient one.

I mean, let's be honest: it probably is. But in order to convince people of that, you still have to understand the terms of debate, the personalities, and all the rest. And I don't know those things. So instead of seeming like the patient, reasonable one (another fundamental conviction that I hold about myself), I fear I come across as simultaneously intemperate and patronizing.

And sometimes I find myself at big, college-wide meetings where someone is being That Guy--perseverating, bloviating, whatever--and I look sideways at my neighbor, a total stranger, and he looks sideways at me, and we both exchange an omigod eyeroll and it feels all nice and familiar--and then suddenly I realize I have no idea what we're actually bonding over. Is it That Guy? Is my neighbor signalling that, holy hell, there's Fred being Fred again? Or is he rolling his eyes at the particular issue under discussion, which is a total non-starter that some idiot or other raises at every meeting?

I have no idea! I just have reflexive mid-career snark spilling out of me!

I suppose there are virtues, though. Being a midcareer newbie means you have certain kinds of cynicism, but lack others. I've been to enough meetings and met enough academics that I know all the types and behaviors--the irrelevant stand-taker who cares more about students (or adjuncts or, God help us, Palestine) than all the rest of you; the perseverator; the committee chair who can't keep to an agenda; the person obsessed with Robert's Rules of Order. Those things are pretty much the same from one place to the next. But when you don't know all the personalities and their backstories and prior conflicts, and you have no idea what proposals have been shot down before, you may have more optimism and a greater willingness to believe that things can be done differently.

Because, of course: you know better than everyone.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Another country

Since at least 9/11, scholars of the Renaissance and Reformation have drawn connections between the martyrological obsessions of the period we study and the one in which we now live. In fact, at this point, I rarely think about the possible similarities between the scaffold speeches of Marian martyrs or Elizabethan recusants, on the one hand, and jihadi videos on the other--or between Catholic exhortations to martyrdom during the Oath of Allegiance controversy and ISIS's recruitment materials. If this kind of grisly, exculpatory self-fashioning ever seemed anomalous to me, it hasn't for a long time.

But while researching at the Folger over spring break I came across a bit of religious polemic that evoked a scenario that did feel new to me, in an Early Modern context--but rather more familiar in our own. And that's a parent's fear that his child has come under the sway of a foreign religious fanatic.

John Niccols Pilgrimage (1581) opens as a dialogue between a father and his grown son, the latter languishing in an ecstasy of melancholy. The son, Trisander, declares that nothing can ease his grief but his father's permission to go abroad "for three or foure yeares space." His father is instantly alarmed, the more so by Trisander's vague reasons for his dolor. He has, he says, "a desire. . . to goe to strange Countries, to veiw those things which are not to be seene" in England, and to study foreign languages. His father replies that Trisander doesn't need to go abroad--he can learn languages at home! In fact, he'll hire private tutors for him! Indeed, whatever Trisander wants, his doting dad promises to give him: leisure to hunt and hawk? Done!

But Trisander demurs, describing the beauties of Italy and his longing to see that country in person. His father is even more suspicious: "You talke of Italie. . . as though you had bin there: but in Italie you were never... tell me therfore whom thou harde to prase Italie so much?" After Trisander identifies the man, his father keeps pressing him: was it just the one gentleman Trisander spoke to. . . ? And does Trisander happen to know his religion. . . ?

But at just the point where it seems that his father has identified the real reason behind Trisander's request, the work lurches into another mode. Trisander declares that the gentleman in question has professed his belief that the Pope is the antichrist, that salvation comes not by works, and that all of religion is contained in the scriptures. His father, now as satisfied as before he was suspicious, bestows "three hundreth pounds in gold" upon Trisander, swings into a long, Polonius-like lecture on how his son may best comport himself overseas, and hands him off to his mother. The rest of the work moves from dialogue to dialogue as Trisander bids his family adieu and ships out for the Continent; its chief purpose seems to be peddling the most shopworn of anti-Catholic polemic.

Still, for a moment there, at the beginning, the dialogue felt fresh and unpredictable. And for all its inelegance and lack of nuance--Nicholls's writing is as thudding as his religious politics--the opening scenario had, if not the ring of truth, then at least the ring of plausibility. If the confrontation between father and son weren't drawing upon real contemporary fears and anxieties, the rest of the polemic wouldn't work.

And that, I suppose, is why I read early modern prose: for the window it provides onto daily life and the lived experience of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It's not that nonfictional prose is a transparent medium or that it should be taken at face value (did early modern Protestants really believe that all priests were having sex either with each other or with the nuns they confessed? probably no more than we today believe our lawyer jokes), but it still gives us a rare kind of access to the culture.

Reading unfamiliar genres and encountering debates and topical references that may be half or even entirely obscure is to feel both the closeness and the irreducible strangeness of the past: on the one hand, here it is! a pamphlet that someone paid money for, held in his hand, maybe read aloud. On the other, what did it mean to him? Why did he buy it? And what the hell is it even about? High literature is easier to read, not least because it trails after it centuries of familiarization, but it lacks the same intimacy, that sense of being there in the moment with all its unknowns.

Because it's not really historical information that I want, even when I can get it. The work's introduction makes clear that it was written from the Tower and is (ostensibly) based on Nicholls's own experiences in the English Seminary at Rome, and the DNB fills out the portrait somewhat. But the work isn't better or more believable if you know that Nicholls traveled to Rome and "voluntarily surrendered himself to the Inquisition" at age twenty-two or twenty-three, or that he was a serial apostate. What I want--or rather, what I didn't know that I wanted until I had it--is the sense that parents, or some parents, worried over their childrens' possible apostacy, and what they were reading and who they were hanging out with, and whether they were more or less devout than their elders.

Possibly this is something I could have learned from a work of historiography. But it wouldn't have been as real, somehow, as encountering that paranoia first-hand, in this ephemeral, intemperate, and yet still somehow reticent text.

Sunday, April 03, 2016

Enemies are bad for business

For some time now I've been thinking about how we acquire or defuse professional enemies. I've been fortunate to have very few (that I know of!), but I also think I'm pretty good at avoiding the near-occasion of enmity. I can sometimes be thin-skinned about my work or peremptory about that of others--someone who believed in humoral theory would say I'm choleric, which means I'm overly prone to snark and snap judgments--but I've trained myself to slow down and walk back any initial negative assumptions. Everyone acts or speaks carelessly at times, and when in doubt I chalk up most weird academic behavior and seeming slights to social awkwardness.

Because: even if the slights are real, there's no benefit to holding onto them. We all need a wide and varied network and access to lots of different brains. Enemies are bad for business.

So I was surprised to learn that someone I'd met and liked, and whose work I found interesting, seemed to want to burn that bridge--that is, seemed to be on an aggressive crusade against some things I've written in order to clear space for their own work. That's a known phenomenon in the world, I guess, but it strikes me as very grad-student-y: I remember righteously lambasting prior scholars in my dissertation, as a way of helping myself to believe in my own ideas. . . but pretty much all of that dropped out by the final draft, and certainly before the thing became a book. Moreover, though I don't mind someone disliking my work, I actually don't see major points of conflict here. At most, I think our interests are complementary or adjacent--and in some ways I'm not even sure we're talking about the same thing.

Obviously, this behavior doesn't make the other person my "enemy," and it's not something I'd hold a grudge over. But it puzzles me that someone would take an antagonistic approach rather than a more temperate one. I've met plenty of people whose work overlaps with mine, but usually after half an hour of freaking out, I realize that we're not really doing the same thing, and we're certainly not in competition. In a best-case scenario, we're working in effective, if not literal, collaboration. I want to keep on good terms with those people.

And even when I think another critic is totally wrong, the stakes of that wrongness just aren't that high: we're not talking about getting a digit wrong on the nuclear codes. Generally, even if I disagree about a conclusion or a method, there's still interesting research or local observations I can praise and build on--or at a minimum I can say that the other person's work has drawn attention to a topic that I also believe deserves attention. And because our scholarly world is small and none of us is getting fame or glory out of doing this work, we learn to disagree in ways that preserve friendly, or at least cordial, social relations. (A swift "So-and-so's fine article on X nevertheless leaves Y startlingly unaddressed" is typical of the way this game gets played.)

So who knows what this is about. But it's a strange feeling, being someone else's straw man.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Historicist ≠ historian

I'm now more than halfway through my Folger seminar, and though, as noted, it's kicking my ass, it's also been terrific. This particular seminar skews young, with faculty accounting for only two of the ten participants (or, as I prefer to call them, "seminarians"), but it's an energetic and exciting group, well-balanced in terms of disciplinary background: five historians, four literature scholars, one philosopher. And even within those groups there's a lot of diversity: we range from the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries, working on different genres and kinds of documents, with a gender historian, an archivist, and a musicologist in the mix.

It's surprising how rarely I see the thought processes of people in different disciplines, even those in closely allied fields. I read a lot of historiography, but I read it in the service of my own work. This means that I focus on the bigger-picture stuff rather than dwelling on, say, how the data were collected or what the author's methods or assumptions might be. (And of course, any published work, to the extent that it foregrounds a narrative or an argument, at least partly obscures the process of its research. If you're not trained in the relevant field, it's easy not to think about how the sausage gets made.)

Now, this exposure doesn't mean that I'm going to start crunching the data in baptismal records or churchwardens' reports or whatever. I hope now, as I always have, that some of my work might be useful to historians, but even when I think I've made a minor historical discovery (as in this essay), it's always done in pursuit of a literary argument. And since I'm not writing for historians, I can't predict which parts they'll find interesting.

Still, having a better sense of how historians attack a particular problem and becoming more conversant in their disciplinary debates has been tremendously useful. And thinking harder about someone else's disciplinary norms has made me more conscious of my own--of what we mean by literary scholarship: how we mount arguments, what counts as evidence, and what the payoff should be.

As for the benefits of this seminar for my own work--well, I'm early enough in this book project that I can't yet fully ascertain how it will influence its shape, though I have faith that it will: most of the things we learn disappear soon afterwards, or seem to, with only the occasional fact or detail surfacing as needed. In reality, the process of learning continues, like a subterranean stream moving steadily beneath the surface. I have a hard time pinpointing what I "learned" in many of my graduate seminars beyond the specific texts I read or the papers I wrote. But they produced habits of thought, assumptions, value systems--what kind of things are worth looking at, what kind of questions are worth asking--that shape my scholarly method today.

It's a different experience, though, than the last faculty research seminar I participated in, which came toward the end of my first book project. In that case, when a particular discussion reoriented my thinking, I knew it as it was happening, and each time it felt like a bomb going off. This time I'm just accreting small revelations and minute changes to my thinking, which are like brief flashes of light at the edge of my field of vision. What do they signal? Are they important? Will they add up to something?

That's as time will try.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Meeting minima

I've been reviewing more article manuscripts lately, which means I've been thinking harder about the intricacies of "fit."

We all know that some work just isn't right for a particular venue, though some instances of bad fit are easier to discern than others (no one, surely, would submit an essay on Ben Jonson to American Literature). I had one essay that I thought was a good fit for a particular journal that didn't even make it to peer review, and my book manuscript was summarily rejected by as many presses as were interested in it.

I was bad at predicting those outcomes, but I wasn't upset by them: I trust editors to know their audience and their market and to have a better feel for how my work aligns with their areas of strength. As an external reviewer, though, it's a little harder. There are some journals that I know intimately and where I have no difficulty discerning whether a submission fits--or, more to the point, where I know exactly the kind of suggestions for a conditional acceptance, or a revise-and-resubmit, that will help the essay pass muster. But other journals I just don't know as well. I may have a general sense that a given journal is, let's say, a B/B+ venue--perfectly credible, but not a brass-ring achievement--but what does that actually mean, in terms of the minimum standard for a given submission?

I consider argumentative and organizational clarity to be essential, no matter how modest or ambitious the claim, and every essay needs some degree of critical framing. But if the author is making only a small intervention, or is raising an interesting historical context without doing much with it--well, obviously that's not enough for a top-tier journal. But is it enough for Journal X?

Or to put it more finely: if I think the claim is a little lackluster and I push for more, am I doing a service--encouraging deeper thinking and helping to maintain high standards--or am I placing a burden on both author and journal--depriving, let's say, a grad student of a line on her vita that would materially help her on the job market and a journal that might be struggling for submissions of a basically solid if minor contribution?

In practice, a lot of this gets sorted out before an essay ever makes its way to an external reviewer: editors filter out the completely unacceptable; good advisors direct their students to journals they think are a reasonable match for their work; authors have a vested interest in knowing their venue and getting the fit right. I've never had an essay that I truly thought could have gone either way.

But I still worry about this each time I'm asked to read an essay by a journal that I don't have a good feel for, and I struggle to articulate exactly what should count as "good enough" for most journals in the big, broad middle.

Maybe, like obscenity, we just know it when we see it.

Wednesday, March 02, 2016

Promissory note

In case you're wondering where I've been:

1) death in the family

2) buying a house

3) getting my ass kicked by my Folger seminar


That's one week's readings. Double-sided.

So I've got lots to say but no time to say it. Soon, though. I hope.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Forty-one.

As it turns out, there are still birthdays after forty.


But not to worry. Young Flavia's got it all under control.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Roads not taken

Although I'm a hopeless looker-backward and easily prone to nostalgia, I'm not much one for regret. Sure, I might regret that I said X or Y and hurt someone's feeling--I do regret that kind of thing, rather often--but I've never regretted a life choice and rarely even dwell on the alternate paths that once seemed open.

Lately, there have been a few exceptions.

1.

Earlier this winter I spent a weekend working with a colleague in a city and a state I'd never visited. At some point over the weekend I remembered--suddenly, and with force--that I'd applied to the law school at the neighboring university. In fact, I was accepted, and even offered a scholarship to do a combined J.D. and M.A. in English. Both the law school and the English department are terrific, and at some point the joint degree had seemed like an elegant solution: I could continue my literary studies while also doing something more practical.

But it also hadn't felt like a real place to me. I'd thought that I could see myself in law school--I had other friends at other programs--but I hadn't gotten into the three or four more prestigious and more proximate programs I'd applied to. An M.A. at my alma mater, though; that I could visualize. And I figured law school would still be waiting if I wanted it. (And as it turns out, I didn't.)

I've never forgotten that I applied to law school, but I tend to think of my applications as a bit of unserious casting about: the kind of thing you do when you're twenty-three and don't have any better ideas. Being in the actual city of that actual university reminded me that I really might have gone. I usually forget the phone conversations I had with current students tasked with recruiting me, or the time spent debating the pros and cons with friends and family. Had I made a different choice (I thought, as we drove around), I could have had a whole relationship with this city, and a whole set of memories and friendships connected to it and the surrounding landscape. I could, even now, be a lawyer.

Or an ex-lawyer.

2.

A university where I was once a finalist for a job has been going through a convulsive and seemingly unending series of scandals. My on-campus interview had been a mixed experience: it was clear that the institution was unhealthy and that the faculty felt alternately besieged and depressed, but everyone in the English department was lovely and the location was deeply attractive. I was trepidatious, but I would have taken the job.

I didn't get it, though. In mid-March I got an unexpected call from RU, which had not interviewed me at MLA, inviting me to do a phone interview, which was followed by a fly-out. RU was such a great fit that for years I'd been grateful I didn't get that earlier job. . . but again, it's not something I've spent much time thinking about.

The recent scandal, though, has made me feel just how near a miss that was. The stories in the press have featured shots of the campus, which have conjured up vivid sensory memories of walking around on a blustery January day, eating in the student union, and being escorted back and forth to interviews. None of the faculty being quoted are people I met, but reading their words made the names of those I did meet pop back into my head. And I saw anew how hangdog or anhedonic they seemed when discussing the place.

At the time, I'd figured I could write my way out if I wasn't happy. But knowing what I know now about my professional savvy in my first few years on the tenure track (and what I know about the job market), I'm skeptical that I would have.

After all, the person they hired instead of me is still there.

*

Maybe thinking about alternate paths is something one does more as one gets older, but it's also striking that neither of these is a positive vision, or even a misty "oh, what might have been!" Each is, to a different degree, a "holy shit! thank God I didn't do THAT."

And in neither case is the near-miss something on which I can congratulate myself: I just couldn't see myself at that law school, so I went with what felt like the easier option; I had a bad feeling about that job, but the decision not to take it wasn't mine.

Maybe that, too, is a sign of middle age: the grateful but somewhat abashed realization that dumb luck accounts for as much of our lives as reasoned decisions.

Sunday, February 07, 2016

No exchanges

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, January 29, 2016

Jet-set

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

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

I am, you see, looking for New Things.

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

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

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

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

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