Monday, August 31, 2009

What I did on my summer vacation

Or: wheels within wheels

It's a well-know phenomenon: the way that, when you're deeply engrossed in one project, everything you do and read and encounter suddenly seems totally relevant. And indeed, nearly everything I read within my field this summer--no matter how far outside my subfield--got fringed with Post-It flags and incorporated as citations or sometimes entirely new paragraphs within my manuscript.

But as the summer wore on, I kept having that tingly feeling that I was encountering super-important, majorly relevant stuff . . . even when whatever I was reading or watching or doing had no possible connection to my book.

And so perhaps my real project this summer wasn't the book so much as a personally and intellectually coherent life, one in which everything felt connected in meaningful ways (though I'm not sure I can articulate all of them).

Forthwith, then, the stuff what I done this summer:

Writing/research stuff
Revised two MS chapters and began minor/cosmetic changes to two more

Came up with a new title and organizing principle for the book, as well as a new way to frame its topic

Read two recent books and wrote a single book review (vastly late, but whatever)

Reviewed one book MS for a publisher

Read a new book in my field that I was afraid might overlap too much with mine (it doesn't)

Got a contract for an edition I'm co-editing
Other stuff read
Two chapters of Cosimo's book (and he read one of mine in return)

Four chapters of my scholarly LTR's manuscript (and he read some of mine)

A couple of friends' essays- or chapters-in-progress

Calvin Trillin, Remembering Denny

Richard Russo, Empire Falls

The book for RU's summer reading program

A friend's recently-published novel

François Cusset, French Theory

Eve Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet

Fredric Jameson, Political Unconscious

The Odyssey (audiobook)

The Aeneid (audiobook)

Lolita (audiobook)

Months and months' worth of back issues of The New Yorker and Commonweal
Stuff seen
A couple of seasons of The Tudors and one of Mad Men

Productions of Coriolanus and Fences

Evey and her band rocking the farmers' market

(500) Days of Summer, The Hangover, Julie & Julia, Summer Hours, Theodora Goes Wild, The Apartment, Madam Satan, Z
Stuff done
Taught a summer class (and put the money toward my credit card debt)

Attended two weddings

Went to California twice, first to see my grandmother and then for her memorial service

Spent a week in New England

Met Cosimo's family, as he met mine

Adopted a second cat

Ate and drank and ate and drank on deck after sidewalk after patio

Had one of my closest friends move away

Saw old friends in Boston and New York--and ended the summer with a long lovely visit from Bert this past weekend.
My classes start tomorrow. I'm not remotely ready. But boy, was it a glorious summer.

Monday, August 24, 2009


As of last week, I reside in a two-feline household. (As of today, they're still separated, but I think things are improving.)

Allow me to introduce Schwartz:

As a reminder, this is my preexisting cat, Nero.

I think that answers my student's question about what kind of infernal creature I am, don't you?

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Dumb cutie-pixies

I haven't yet seen Julie & Julia, but this passage from David Edelstein's review pretty much sums up my feeling about Nora Ephron's romantic comedies--and, really, romantic comedies in general:
Julie's character doesn't even track. She’s referred to as a "bitch," but all we’ve seen is the patented Ephron adorable klutz. . . . Ephron should make a film about the person she herself is (smart, acid) instead of the cutie-pixie of her dumb fantasies.
I had a version of the same complaint about Zooey Deschanel's character in (500) Days of Summer. I actually quite liked the movie, and I realize that the story is told from the male character's point of view and that Summer is meant to be somewhat inscrutable--but she wasn't a character so much as a collection of quirky habits and odd-ball interests: an indie-rock cutie-pixie, but still a cutie-pixie.

This seems standard in contemporary romantic comedies: even when the movie is focused on a female character--and how often is that, really?--she's seldom very interesting. That a female character might have an internal life is rarely suggested, and if she's assigned as many as two different motives, it's only when the movie needs those motives to conflict in obvious ways to propel the plot forward. By contrast, the male characters may be depicted as neurotics or assholes, but they're interesting neurotics or assholes.

But maybe I'm watching the wrong movies. What recent comedies have you seen that have featured smart, funny, fully-realized female characters? (Please note: "recent" = since Flavia was in high school.)

Tuesday, August 18, 2009


A reader sent me the link to Craig Fehrman's recent essay in College Literature, "Prepreprofessionalism: Rankings, Rewards, and the Graduate Admissions Process" (behind the Project Muse firewall). Fehrman's central argument, based on a couple of years trawling through graduate admissions websites, message boards, and wikis (better you than me, Craig!), is that although much has been written about the professionalization that goes on in graduate school, the process is one that actually begins much earlier.

What Fehrman calls prepreprofessionalism is visible in the applicants, some of them still undergraduates, who already have a focused area of study, a preferred theoretical approach, and an awareness of the job-market exigencies that they believe make such intellectual and rhetorical tailoring attractive to admissions committees (by convincing them that they, the applicants, are focused and motivated and ready to hit the ground running).

Anyone who has met recent graduate-school applicants knows that this is true--and those of us who advise students considering graduate school probably recommend at least some of these behaviors (don't write a statement of purpose that natters on about your love of literature; do show that you're interested in doing work in a particular area and that your interests are a good match for that specific department and faculty). But I'm quite sure I'd never thought about this as part of the professionalization process, and neither had it occurred to me that it could be a bad thing.

To be sure, Fehrman does not assert that it's either good or bad; he works hard to avoid the moralizing that attends most discussions of preprofessionalization (either it signals the death of the life of the mind! or it's the only way these kids will get jobs ever!). But reading his article, which is peppered with excerpted message-board posts from strung-out would-be graduate students obsessed with department rankings and looking for every possible competitive angle, is enough to bring out the curmudgeon in almost any reader: graduate students should be trained broadly! They should be open to changing subfields entirely! (And they should GET OFF MY LAWN!)

I'm generally in favor of professionalizing graduate students--not because I think they're DOOOOMED otherwise, but because I'm impatient with the gauzy, romanticized notion of the humanities that is often presented as the alternative (and also because I support an understanding of our profession as a profession: a creative and rewarding one, to be sure, but one that benefits from generally-accepted standards of evidence, rules of comportment, and the like). And yet, Fehrman's article inspires me to just that kind of guaziness about how things should be--perhaps because his article doesn't, as it couldn't, track what happens to these message-board-posters once they actually get into graduate school: are their interests really that narrow and targeted, and they themselves such hyperprofessionalized automata? I hope not, but I also rather doubt it; nothing rids a person of the belief that she has the key to success faster than graduate school.

But wise readers--especially those of you with more recent experience with graduate school admissions than I--what do you see and what do you think?

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Many are the ways of sucking

Apologies for the unannounced hiatus--I had a couple of posts brewing, but not yet fully thought through, when Cosimo and I left for a week with his extended family in New England.

Our cabin in the Maine woods, less than a quarter-mile from the beach:

(One of my friends in Boston said to Cosimo, upon meeting him and hearing how we'd spent the previous several days, "You took Flavia to nature?" Yes: and nature survived.)

But because it's August and crunch time, I brought work with me: a book manuscript I'm reviewing. I read half the thing the day before we left, in a splendid blaze of productivity, and the other half in dribs and drabs in the car to and from our various destinations.

It's a collection of essays on a topic of immediate interest to me, so the task was worthwhile even though the essays themselves varied widely in quality. Having just read a dozen pre-publication essays, though, I now consider myself in a position to give advice to essay-writers everywhere.

So! Among the things I would strongly recommend you not do, especially if you have any regard for your future reviewer's travel companion, who may not be wholly interested in hearing her exclaim about the iniquities of your essay for miles on end:

  • Refer repeatedly (and in tedious detail) to your article on the same topic published fifteen long years ago, which apparently didn't get the attention you think it deserved.
  • Mention how poorly-received the conference-paper version of your essay was.
  • Spend nearly half your essay on a lit review establishing how appropriate a particular critical approach is to your topic--and how entirely validated that approach has been by major scholars in the field for nigh on 20 years now. Especially do not do this if you subsequently
  • Spend pages and pages patting yourself on the back for the boldness and radicalism of your approach.
  • Change your topic--not just your argument, but your entire topic, including the texts you're looking at and the theoretical approach you're taking--in the middle of your essay.
  • Open with a long and self-congratulatory anecdote that has no real connection to the rest of your essay.
Seriously, dudes. I know we're academics, and thus inherently self-involved--but please try not to appear that way.