Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Literary poseurs, junior division

Sunday's Times featured another installment in their ongoing series, "parenting strategies of the anxious and overeducated," but one in which I took a greater-than-average interest. "A Library of Classics, Edited for the Teething Set," describes the apparent publishing-world trend of converting classic works of literature--Moby-Dick, Anna Karenina, Pride and Prejudice, and Les Miserables are some of the titles mentioned--into those chunky, brightly-colored, eight-or-ten-page board books intended for preverbal children. The thinking seems to be that if you're the kind of parent eager to bestow every possible cognitive and cultural advantage on your child (by exposing her to classical music in the womb, teaching her a second language from birth), then surely you wouldn't want to omit Great Literature!

None of the regular ol' board books I've encountered in my friends' homes has much of a plot, but apparently neither do the "classic" works described in the article (which is just as well, since that the stories Tolstoy and Hugo tell aren't the most toddler-friendly). Instead, they seem to feature the simple images and terse, vocabulary-building sentences typical of the genre. The Moby-Dick book sounds like it's mostly a collection of pictures of whales and ships and some nautical terms.

Several of the people quoted in the article express skepticism about the project, but ultimately shrug their shoulders: the books do no harm, so if parents want to spend a bunch of extra money and flatter themselves that they're exposing their children to High Culture--well, whatever. They're still reading to their children and spending time with them.

I suppose that's the right take on the matter, but I roll my eyes a little harder than the author of the article. Because you know what? If you care so much about great literature, you could just read bits of Melville or Austen to your child. They're beautiful writers, well worth reading aloud. And if any special reading you do with your kid at eighteen months is capable of having an unusual impact on her eventual aesthetic sensibility or verbal facility, it's exposing her to complex syntax, unusual diction, and a variety of sentence rhythms.*

Moreover, if you expect your child someday to be a reader--or a lover of classical music, or speaker of foreign languages, or whatever else you're shooting for--your best bet is to do those things yourself. Really and truly, and not because you think it will give her an edge in Ivy League admissions. Do them because you already like them, or because you want to try them out to see if you like them. Now's the time for you to learn more about classical music: buy real albums, not Baby Mozart. Now's the time to start learning a foreign language, rather than just outsourcing the task to the au pair. And if you urgently want your kid to read the classics, well, you could start by reading some poetry aloud to her. Or some passages from Faulkner, or the King James Bible, or whatever you find appealing.

(It's ridiculous, by the way, that the only reading aloud most adults do is to their kids. If you're a reader, read aloud now and then, to yourself or your spouse or a friend.)

So, no: there's no harm in these board books; if I had a kid and someone gave me one, I'm sure I'd think it was adorable. It's not inconceivable that I might buy one for a friend. Just don't fool yourself that it's doing anything more for your child than any other board book--or that it's any kind of evidence of your literary taste or sophistication.

N.B. I'm not saying that parents should be reading the classics aloud to their 18-month-olds; I'm just saying it's a more plausible route to the kind of advantage the parents featured in the article seem to be looking for.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Deselecting for the library of the future

The library at RU is in the early stages of a significant renovation, and right now we're in the midst of the "deselection" process--a/k/a "weeding" a/k/a "getting rid of books."

Aspects of this have been handled badly--I'll leave it to you to imagine how--but the reality is that our collections haven't been weeded in decades, and they're overdue. In many fields it's actually irresponsible to keep older material on the shelves (older = outdated, superseded, erroneous), and although that isn't true in the humanities, there are still plenty of titles that should go; there's usually no reason to keep a whole bunch of random, midcentury editions of the works of a given Renaissance poet if we also have more recent editions that are more rigorously edited and with better scholarly apparatus.

Faculty are being given the chance to review the list of deselected titles in their disciplines (and any other areas of interest), and click a button to recommend those we should keep; to the best of my understanding, everything we recommend keeping will be kept.

This sounds great, and it's certainly better than the alternative, but it's proven unexpectedly challenging. To start, there are 8,500 titles on the deselection list in English/American literature alone, and there are other disciplines I want to look at after that. In order to make headway, I've chosen to focus only on titles in my subfield--someone else can worry about James Joyce and Frances Burney--which means I'm able to get through 500-1000 titles at a go before my eyes glaze over.

Even within my subfield, though, I'm struggling with the task. Right now I'm the only faculty member in a field that spans 130 years, give or take, and that includes maybe a hundred significant authors working in a range of genres. I haven't read most of their primary works, much less the scholarship on those works. I have no idea which edition of George Chapman is authoritative, or whether an older edition might have virtues not replicated by a newer one. I don't know whether a 1965 book on Herbert is regarded as foundational. . . or a bit of belletristic bloviating. Even in the case of Milton and Donne scholarship, I know some works that I'd lie across the train-tracks to save, but certainly not all of them. That title. . . it rings a bell. . . but why? Is it actually important, or just a spine that sat in an eye-catching spot in the bookstacks in grad school?

Age isn't a clear-cut guide, and neither is press; if I have a high opinion of something by a given scholar, I usually vote to keep anything else he wrote, but the fact that I've never heard of a dude doesn't mean much, especially in subspecializations far from my own. Titles can often be a clue ("Shakespeare: A Study in Genius" and "12 Moral Archetypes in Renaissance Lyric" can almost certainly be tossed to everyone's benefit), but not always. I'm erring on the side of saving books, of course, but it's vexing to think that I'm probably keeping a certain amount of crap, including crap that may eventually make its way into my students' papers.

The real problem is that I don't know what my future colleagues will want, or my future students; hell, beyond the next two or three years, I can't even predict my own scholarly trajectory with assurance. A library collection can't just be targeted to its present users' near-term needs, and in ordering books for the library over the past eight years I've always ordered widely, focusing on topics and subjects that I know to be important even when I can't imagine needing those books myself. Even if no one at RU ever needs the book, it's available through inter-library loan, and so serves an even larger community (and performs a minor bit of advertising: whenever I get a book from ILL, I note where it's from, and I have a distinctly positive impression of certain small-college libraries as a result).

There are subject areas that currently have no specialists to review them. RU has no Germanists, and no tenure-line Italianists. Our history department is strong, but with some big period and area gaps. English is hiring for two positions this year--will we wind up getting rid of books those new hires might have fought for?

I know this needs to be done. I'm glad I can participate. But it's anxiety-producing all the same.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

From beyond the grave

Last night I had the weirdest and most Early Modern dream I've ever had or expect to have. Not only was I John Donne--or at least inhabiting his body, more on which in a moment--but I was dying, dramatically, and trying to get home before I did. Most of the dream was about the slow and painful carriage ride home.

As Donne got out of the carriage and met some unspecified family members, he swooned, and I--apparently his soul or consciousness, not the physical man--watched all of this dispassionately, feeling very fresh and young indeed, and wondering idly what would happen to me when he died. Clearly I would survive this. Maybe I'd enter another body? Maybe I'd just sit out there as an untethered consciousness? The only thing that troubled me was whether I'd remember being attached to the body and perspective of this particular man, or would have to start fresh.

Whether this is an argument for or against my particular career path, I leave you to decide.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

No one has the advisor relationship they want

Last weekend I was hanging out with some other recently-tenured friends when the conversation turned to grad school and our relationships with our respective dissertation directors. We're all in different fields, went through different programs, and the nature of our advisor relationships were also quite different. But the conversation made me think, not for the first time, that dissertation directors trail only one's family of origin and certain romantic partners in their emotional and psychological impact. And as in those cases, an advisor's importance has less to do with what they actually do or don't do (i.e., whether they're objectively cruel, thoughtless, or neglectful) than with the fact that they're intimately involved in our lives at a crucial and difficult stage.

At this distance, I feel confident in saying that no one has the relationship she wants with her advisor while a grad student, just as virtually no one has the relationship she wants with her parents while a teenager; the problem is that you're not yet the person you want to be--whoever that is--and you're radically dependent on someone else. This complicates even the best relationships.

But here's the thing: unlike one's parents, the only purpose of an advisor is to get you to the point where you don't need him or her--where you know, experientially, that you can write a persuasive chapter, a publishable article, a dissertation, a book. And any advisor who helps you get there is a good advisor.

Now, don't get me wrong: there are certainly better and worse advisor relationships. Some are objectively bad (an advisor who doesn't read your work, belittles it, steals your ideas, makes sexual advances) and some are just bad-for-the-individual (a personality mismatch). And a bad relationship can do real damage. But few advisor relationships are so good that the advisee is never anxious, embarrassed, playing the suppliant, or terrified of letting his or her advisor down. And everyone has to learn, sooner or later, to trust herself and her own intuition, to find other mentors and collaborators, to do work without the (literal or figurative) voice of her advisor in her ear.

Accordingly, there are "good" advisor relationships that don't serve the advisee well: a close relationship isn't helpful if you depend too much, or for too long, on your advisor's advice or approval.

These days, I'm happy with where my relationship with my advisor is at, and I don't think much about its past. But if there's a bigger lesson here, it's that one can't escape the need for external sources of approval, especially in one's early years (as a child, as a scholar), and it's normal to cathect on those individuals or imbue those relationships with all kinds of magical thinking. But one is happier the more internally-motivated one becomes. Mostly, this just comes with time. But it's never too early or too late to try to separate one's sense of self from extrinsic sources.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

The many stages of self-loathing--I mean, writing

I'm closing in on the final version of a short commissioned essay. Because it's so short and I've been working on it without interruption for a month or so, I've had the opportunity to think about the discrete stages of my writing process.

The big picture isn't a surprise: I've always maintained that I hate writing and love rewriting, and that remains true. But starting and finishing a project in such a short period of time has revealed to me that there are actually many intermediate stages in my process, rather than just writing/rewriting.

The major stages look something like this:

Stage One: I hate every minute I'm at my computer and have to resort to all kinds of tricks to make myself stay there.

In this stage, I'm mostly just trying to conquer the fear of the blank screen and convince myself I have enough matter to write about. I throw everything I can think of into my document: block quotes I intend to analyze, bits and bobs of thoughts and topics; half a paragraph on this, half a paragraph on that.

Stage Two: At this point, I no longer hate every minute I spend writing, and occasionally have passing moments of pleasure or insight--but it still requires an act of will to get through a few hours/pages a day.

This is the stage where I start to rough out my ideas and expand on the bits and bobs from Stage One--but, at least initially, it's without much effort to connect those ideas or fit them into a larger argument.

Stage Three: I can't stop working on the project. I resent having to eat or go to bed, and feel dazed and unable to hold normal conversations when I stop working.

This is the stage where I really try to force everything into order and coherence, to build an overarching argument, to make everything line up, and to sound good. This stage is still a struggle--but if there's a part of writing that makes me happy, it's this part.

Stage Four: Wait, I'm not done yet?

After Stage Three, there's inevitably still tinkering and fussing, the sense that things aren't quite right, that a turn of phrase sounds wrong, that the argument isn't set up as effectively as it could be, etc. This stage can be pleasurable--it's immensely satisfying when a problem gets solved, or there's a paragraph (or even several pages!) that I'm totally happy with, but it's frustrating when it drags on too long.

(And of course, every stage does drag on too long. Always.)


How about you? What's your writing process like?

Thursday, October 03, 2013

Getting your money's worth

So the university where I'm taking my Italian class has screwed up my registration status, and hence my billing, and hence pretty much everything else. Which means I'm getting what for many students is the Authentic College Experience.

As the spouse of an employee, I qualify for free tuition, but it turns out that only in-state tuition gets reimbursed (which we weren't told) and Registration classified me as a non-resident (which we also weren't told). Although my specific circumstances are unusual, the results weren't: my account kept showing a balance due; Human Resources kept telling us to ignore it; and then a massive late-payment fee got added. Whereupon I contacted Treasury Services, which told me it wasn't their problem; whereupon I contacted Registration, which gave me an eight-page form to petition for immediate residency. It will take at least a week to scrounge up all the necessary attachments, and even then there's no guarantee the petition will be approved.

Although I've heard a lot from my advisees at RU about their problems with the Financial Aid and Registration offices, being in the midst of it is a real education. I've never heard of an institution that lets students register and attend classes without first having squared away their financial obligations. If I'm getting stressed out, when I only owe seven-hundred-odd dollars and spend every hour I'm not on campus sitting on my ass at home, I can only imagine how stressful it would be to discover, mid-semester, that I owed thousands--while also taking a full courseload, holding down a job, and providing at least emotional and practical support to various family members, as the vast majority of students at this urban, commuter campus do.

I'm married to an employee of nine years, who's friends with the union president and who knows people in the Registration office. Our ability to navigate the system is pretty high--and, worst comes to worst, we could find the money if we had to. In college, my parents handled the money end of things, and though they made some real financial sacrifices (and I had a work-study job during the school year and worked full-time every summer), I never saw a bill or worried about paying it. Most students in America have no such advantages.

I'm not going to pretend I'm now like those students; I'm less like them than ever. But being enmeshed in the same bureaucracy and sharing a milder form of the same financial stress does forge a deeper sense of identification. Spending all those hours staring at the price-tag attached to my coursework also makes it hard not to start calculating whether my class is "worth" any of those figures.

Now, I know that tuition bears no direct relationship to faculty salaries. In fact, even the out-of-state figure for my one class is lower than the going rate for adjunct instruction. But when it's your own money we're talking about, and your resources are already stretched thin, making cost-benefit analyses and comparisons is unavoidable. The question isn't, "is this class well-taught?" Or, "is the subject worthwhile in itself?" Or, "does the professor deserve a fair wage?" The question is, "can I afford it?" Or, "is the knowledge I gain worth having no money if my car breaks down this month?" Or, "is this class six times the value I'd get from buying Rosetta Stone instead?"

It's never been mysterious to me why students and their parents care about the bottom line or the return on investment, or why they might choose majors that seem to track them directly into a job. But the immediacy of their anxiety has felt foreign to me: just wait and see! Explore different majors! The long-term payoff is worth it!

But when you're living close to the edge and every gamble means something else you can't afford, short-term decisions may be the only ones you can make.