Thursday, April 30, 2015

Writing the boring way

A couple of weeks ago the NYT Sunday Review published an essay that I've been clinging to as summer creeps slowly into view. Mary Mann's "The Other Side of Boredom" makes the case that boredom--in her case, a do-nothing job that left her surfing the internet for hours--can be a spur to creativity. She's not just talking about being at leisure, but actual boredom: that restless but thwarted desire to be doing something more meaningful.

Mann's argument is that boredom forces us into creativity, either as an escape from the tedium (I'm thinking about anything but this hellish airport lounge, this interminable flight delay, and these awful people around me) or as a way of transforming it (I'm making up stories about my fellow travelers--or perhaps even getting to know them). As Mann says, "Sometimes boredom serves as empty ground on which to build new ideas, while other times it acts as a guide to our true desires. You have to wait and see; above all, boredom is the master of the long con."

This seems right to me. But then, boredom is an essential part of my writing process.

One kind of boredom is the boredom of procrastination--a boredom that I seem to need to generate in order to push it aside. Even when I've cleared my entire calendar, I can never get down to writing immediately. I plan to start on a Monday, but I just get out my notes and look at them for ten minutes. On Tuesday I fuck around on the internet for most of the day. Wednesday I might write a paragraph, but otherwise continue to do anything in the world but write. At some point, though, I'm so bored and disgusted with all my strategies of avoidance that the only option is to plant ass in chair.

That's when the second kind of boredom sets in. As I've written before, my first (and often my second) drafts are hideous and awful and painful to write. If the first kind of boredom leads to a self-loathing that leads to writing, the second is a boredom of gritted teeth and the determination not to dissolve into a pool of self-loathing. I can avoid that by pounding out my daily 1,000 words.

Then, for a while, there's no boredom. As my ideas emerge and my paragraphs seem increasingly like they might have been written by a human and a native speaker of English, I find myself more or less engrossed and more or less convinced that actual thoughts are being thunk.

Inevitably, though, there's a third kind of boredom that sets in late in the process, when I feel done but something isn't quite working or I've gotten suggestions for revision that I don't know how to implement. The boredom here is the boredom of over-familiarity, the inability to think of the piece in a new or fresh way.

This, I think, is the kind of boredom that F. Scott Fitzgerald is talking about in a line that Mann quotes: "you've got to go by or past or through boredom, as through a filter, before the clear product emerges." Forcing myself to really pay attention, or revisit old and seemingly settled ideas, is a struggle, but coming out the other side is exhilarating.

So I'm eager for summer. I need to get my boredom on.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Moving backward to move ahead: should you ever give up tenure?

In response to my previous post, Nik asked what I thought about the wisdom of giving up tenure in order to be more mobile at midcareer, or, in her words, "moving backwards to move ahead." I responded in the comments, but since this is something I've rarely seen discussed (and since I know only a handful of people who have done it), I thought it might be worth a post in its own right.

Unlike some of Nik's mentors, I don't think it's crazy to consider giving up tenure for the right job, but whether it's worth it depends on a lot of factors, some of which can't be assessed when you're just scanning the job ads. For me, giving up tenure would only be worth it for a markedly better job--whether that meant prestige, pay, or a significant improvement in my domestic/geographic circumstances. Even then, the exact terms of the offer would be crucial.

I actually did apply to three assistant-level jobs after getting tenure: one a modest step up in prestige, the others basically lateral moves; all in the same geographic region as my spouse. I was privately doubtful whether any could make me an offer I'd accept, but since there's no sense worrying about offers you haven't received, I threw out some applications (saying, in the first paragraph of my job letter, "although I received tenure in 2012, for the opportunity to join such a talented faculty I'd be happy to negotiate an appropriate tenure schedule"). Two gave me MLA interviews.

Once you get to the interview stage, it's worth starting to think about your non-negotiables. Some departments can hire you with tenure, even if the job wasn't listed that way, and if you get a fly-back you can sound out the situation then (but don't try it at the convention interview). Many departments, though, can't--I mean, legally, CANNOT.

If you get an offer that doesn't come with tenure, here are the factors I'd weigh in making a decision:

1. Do you have to give up rank as well as tenure? This matters. First off, if you get hired as an associate, nothing looks funny on your C.V.--but more importantly, getting hired as an associate is a sign that the institution regards you as already qualified for that rank.

2. What's the tenure timeline? Some departments can't hire you with tenure but will put you up for tenure immediately upon arrival. Again, this is a declaration that the department has already approved you for tenure (sometimes literally--one friend was told that the department's vote to hire constituted its approval of his tenure case).

3. Can you go up for tenure more than once? Often a faculty member has to go up within a certain number of years, but can do so earlier. If you go up immediately and something weird happens at the college or university level, do you get a do-over?

4. How close are you to meeting the tenure standard? Whether your title is assistant or associate, if you've already met the tenure standard, you're in good shape (at least if research is a primary criterion; teaching and service may be more of an unknown quantity).

5. Will you have the resources to meet the tenure standard? If your prospective employer expects much more for tenure than you've already produced, you want to make sure you'll have enough time and support (research funds, course releases) to get it done.

6. How will giving up tenure affect your progress toward full? If you're several years past tenure, it's worth knowing if any of what you've already produced will count toward full, or if everything before you get tenure at the new department essentially disappears and you have to start from scratch.

7. Everything else: salary, location, reputation, the "feel" of the place. All the stuff you normally consider will obviously be relevant in deciding if giving up tenure is worth it on the terms you're offered.

Readers: what considerations am I forgetting? And what have you seen with those who gave up tenure in order to move--smooth sailing? cautionary tales?

Inquiring minds want to know.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Mobility and the future of the humanities

I suspect I'll have more to say about midcareer mobility in the coming years, but from chatting with some friends and colleagues over the past few weeks, it's clear that it's the fear of no future mobility, of a lack of options, that gets most of us--even if we're not looking; even if we're pretty happy where we are.

There are a lot of reasons for this, but one I've been chewing over is the legibility of a new job: in part because mobility is so constricted and jobs are so few, moving between tenure-track jobs is a visible sign of success. (Assuming, of course, that it isn't the result of a tenure denial.) And though no one can make it through graduate school and junior professordom without being internally motivated, our lives up through tenure still involve a lot of external validation.

Getting a job is a big deal. Getting tenure is a big deal. Getting a book published is a big deal. But after that the achievement curve starts to flatten out and there are fewer truly new things to do. As the saying goes, the reward for winning the pie-eating contest is more pie.

Now, I like pie--which is to say, I'm reasonably content with the thought of what lies ahead. I'm immersed in my next book project and looking forward to being able to play a bigger role in certain things at the departmental and college level. But if my career is a narrative, it's entering a pretty boring phase. It'll be years and years before my next book is done, and even when it is, it's not going to be as big of a deal as my first book. Not because it won't be better; I hope it will be better. But it's not going to be a public accomplishment in the same way, something that inspires a flood of congratulatory emails from high school and college friends, distant relatives, and people I sometimes hung out with in grad school.

So I think some of the anxiety about mid-career mobility is about what it would mean not to have much visible change for the rest of your life, and not to have any markers, legible to others, of how well you're doing. If you're already at a top school, well, maybe that's okay: your mom is proud that you teach at Stanford; your peers respect your first book; it's all good.*

But if you have even the least sense that your institutional affiliation doesn't quite signify to others what you're about, it may be a different story. None of us, wherever we teach, is going to get big public accolades for our research; if we're lucky, a few hundred people read what we write (and a few dozen know how to value it). But it's easy to fear, if you're at Middling State U., that even fewer people will pick up your work to begin with. Moreover, if Middling State doesn't particularly reward or recognize research, it may feel like no one knows or cares what you're up to. And at a certain career stage, a new job may feel like the only truly legible sign of success.

(Now sure: you can say that we should all be completely internally motivated; that no one does specialized research for fame and fortune; that even those at prestigious research institutions are speaking, primarily, to a handful of specialists outside their university walls. But it's undeniable that some institutions provide more recognition, and more material compensation, for research than others.)

Personally, I have it pretty good. I can probably do the kind of work I wish to do at either my current or future employer. But the long-term consequences for humanities research, faculty life satisfaction, and even institutional prestige are unclear in an era where virtually everyone teaching at the college level has been trained as a serious researcher but employment prospects and mobility are sharply limited.

One possibility is pure waste: all that work that could have been done doesn't get done, because the scholars who would have done it don't get jobs or don't get jobs that adequately support their research. Another is a radical reassessment of the academic hierarchy: if an increasing number of people making careers at 3/3 and 4/4 institutions (or as adjuncts or independent scholars) produce work that's just as good as that produced by some of their peers at R1s, do we reevaluate what it means to have a "research" job? A third possibility, I guess, is a bunch of frustrated and unhappy people.

Maybe things will become clearer as the next decade or two play themselves out in the life of the academy. But in the meanwhile, a lot of people will be dreaming about their next move.

*I mean, except for the work itself, which may still cause you plenty of anguish, self-doubt, etc. But that's to be expected.

Thursday, April 16, 2015


After an extra-long stay on the west coast to celebrate my one and only brother's wedding, I'm finally returned and recovered from #shakeass15. This was my seventh SAA in nine years, and maybe it's time to give in and admit that, drama scholar or no, this really is my conference now.

This was the first year that I organized and ran a seminar of my own (a rather wee one, as it turned out, but with great papers and participants), and probably the second at which it seemed fully half of the seminars were run by friends, or at least friends-of-friends, or, anyway: people I know well enough to talk to for five minutes at the bar.

When I was at an earlier stage of my career, I think I longed for this moment as a sign that I'd "made" it, that I was some kind of an insider. And for at least a couple of hours on Thursday, it did feel that way: at the opening reception, after 10 hours of travel, not enough to eat, and (just possibly) more wine than I'd realized, I was possessed of the delusion that either I knew everyone or everyone knew me. This was a terrific feeling, and led to my crashing a lot of conversations: I'd see a knot of four or five people, recognize one of them, and decide that the whole group probably knew who I was and would be thrilled if I barged into their conversation. When the expected enthusiastic welcome wasn't forthcoming, I'd think, geez, those are some weird, uptight people--and move along to the next bunch.

As a strategy to overcome the social-awkwardness-that-reads-as-unfriendliness at academic conferences, this may not have been the worst approach: without the anxious, inhibiting voice in my head persuading me that I was the weird, rude one, I was free to be . . . well, a little weird and a little rude. But also charming and friendly! (I'm pretty sure!)

Looking back on the reception from the following day's luncheon, it was clear that I didn't know half the attendees. (Using a generous definition of "know," it's conceivable that I knew one-quarter.) And the people I don't know aren't just grad students or scholars emeriti: they're often people my own age, at my career stage, doing interesting and important work; we just haven't met yet.

This is, I think, the real sweet spot: being only two or three degrees of separation from everyone, but never feeling that one has reached the end or exhausted all the possible SAAs within any given SAA.

But no matter how many sub-conferences any conference contains, Ima try to crash every one of them.