Monday, January 01, 2018

New Year's Meme

(Eleventh in a series)

1. What did you do in 2017 that you'd never done before?
*Became Director of Undergraduate Studies
*Lived in D.C. for a month
*Started studying German
*Finished two articles
*Added all my elected representatives to speed-dial

2. Did anyone close to you give birth?
Yes. One friend had a greatly longed for, but complicated and high-risk birth (the baby is still in the NICU, but doing well)

3. Did anyone close to you die?

4. What countries did you visit?
None--but I spent some quality time in Our Nation's Capital!

5. What would you like to have in 2018 that you lacked in 2017?
Some direction in my nonacademic writing life. Whether the blog survives remains to be seen, but I'm still figuring out the other stuff.

6. What was your biggest achievement of the year?
I don't know if it's an "achievement," but hot damn, do I love being DUS. I really like fixing things, and advising students--especially transfers and returning students--is consistently rewarding.

(I also like the systems building/efficiency stuff, like revising our curriculum.)

7. What was your biggest failure?
At this particular moment, I feel pretty good about my work life. But as always, I feel keenly my failures of charity and compassion, and the ways I give into envy. And there were at least as many of those this year as any.

8. Did you suffer illness or injury?
A bit, which is unusual for me. I spent a couple of months last spring working with a physical therapist for a back/leg thing; I had some kind of strange eye issue in the fall (extreme dryness and irritation); and I had a couple of very brief but pretty nasty stomach bugs. Welcome to middle age, I guess?

9. What was the best thing you bought?
I'm very happy with my new glasses--the first pair I've had that I've been pleased to wear in public, at least occasionally.

10. Whose behavior merited celebration?
I'm inspired by the number of people I know who have committed themselves to charity work, political action, and community engagement this year.

11. Whose behavior made you appalled and depressed?
That list is very long. But worse than our president would be his craven enablers and apologists.

12. Where did most of your money go?
Books, clothes, meals, events. The usual.

13. Compared to this time last year, are you: a) happier or sadder? b) thinner or fatter? c) richer or poorer?
a) Tough call. It's been a grim year in a lot of ways, but it's also been full of family and friends and that's improved my overall happiness level.
b) I think slightly fatter. But as long as my clothes fit, I'm content.
c) Slightly richer.

14. What do you wish you'd done more of?
Written on this-here blog. Or otherwise in a non-academic vein.

15. What do you wish you'd done less of?
Spiraled in and out of writing hysteria. It's actually been a very good and productive writing year, but that's only made me more aware of the emotional patterns I cycle through as I write, and they're. . . not super-functional.

16. What was the best book you read?
At the start: Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer. At the end, Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts.

17. What was your favorite film of the year?
Honestly? Wonder Woman.

18. What was your favorite album of the year?
Oh, crap. Did I even, consciously, hear a new album this year?

19. What was the best play you saw?
Best new play: Straight White Men (Steppenwolf)

Best revival: Uncle Vanya (Goodman)

(It was a pretty great weekend in Chicago!)

20. What kept you sane?
As usual, all the people in my life.

21. Tell us a valuable life lesson you learned in 2017.
Be with those you love, whenever and however you can. Tempus fugit.

Monday, November 06, 2017

Knowing what you did

Among the issues raised by Harvey Weinstein and #MeToo, here's one I haven't seen discussed:

If you are, yourself, a serial harasser . . . how are you feeling right now?

First of all, do you know yourself--however dimly or with whatever caveats and attempts at exculpation--to be a harasser? And if you do, does that knowledge come with any fear or regret? Are you apologizing? Lawyering up?

Maybe the bad conscience of the abuser isn't the biggest issue here, but I do wonder. Because while there are certainly irredeemable predators, I suspect that not all harassers are, or would have been, absent a culture that encouraged or permitted them. I'd like to believe that there are some harassers out there who are capable of recognizing their behavior as unwanted and destructive, and who might feel, at this moment, some shame and remorse.

Last week The New York Times had an article that seems to hint at this possibility. It's a summary of research on non-criminal rapists--that is, men who have never been charged and who have no other criminal record, but who will privately admit to researchers that they've had nonconsensual sex. The most interesting part, to me, is that there appear to be some men who have nonconsensual sex once or twice, while others become serial predators. Although the reasons are far from clear, part of the explanation seems to be where the individual falls on the narcissism-empathy continuum. It doesn't surprise me that repeat offenders score high for narcissism, but the suggestion that some men might be predatory when young, or under the influence of toxic peers or alcohol or whatever, and grow out of it, is simultaneously proof of the power of rape culture and the possibility of its end.

In wondering about the emotional lives of abusers I don't want to perpetuate the practice of focusing on them rather than their victims (they're so important! and have so much to lose!). I've experienced harassment and things that fall at least generally into the category of assault, and I've heard much worse stories because I'm a woman who knows women. Indeed, living through this cultural moment has made me re-confront just how many things my friends and I talked about without really talking about them, the stuff we wrote off as bad dates or misunderstandings rather than as predatory; the workplaces where maybe no one was harassed, but where fraternization was encouraged and interactions were sexualized; all the things, in short, that we let into our consciousness only obliquely. (One friend, upon being asked whatever happened with that guy on that date, took a drag on her cigarette, stared off into space for a while, and then said, finally, "I don't know. But yo, that shit was not consensual.")

So I hope that serial harassers are feeling fear in this moment. I hope they hear hoofbeats and I hope they know what they did. I also hope that as many of them as possible face real-world consequences. But punishment alone isn't enough, nor is it going to change the culture as much as it needs to be changed. If we truly want abusers to know what they did--and on some level I think that's the desire of every victim of every wrong--we have to believe that they might be capable of repentance, too.

Monday, August 28, 2017


Just poking my head up to say that I'm not dead--and might conceivably post again in the future! But it looks to be a busy semester.

Here are the haps:

1) I'm rotating in as Director of Undergraduate Studies, and at just the moment when the department is talking about overhauling a curriculum that hasn't been substantially changed since the 1960s (though it's been patched so many times that duct-tape is now a structural element). If there's one kind of service I care about, it's curriculum, and having already been through one complete renovation at one institution I guess I have some relevant skills and perspective. But it was a heavy lift then, when I was just a committee member, and it will be an even heavier one now.

2) I'm taking first-year German. I'd like to keep studying Italian, but we don't offer anything past the 200-level. And since my scholarship has been taking increasingly lengthy detours into Patristics (and shorter ones into the Continental Reformation), German seems like a language I ought to know my way around. Of course, this will bring to five the number of languages I've studied at the college level . . . while the number I can truly speak or read with ease & speed remains somewhere just slightly above zero.

3) I have a fun new class. But it's a class most of whose texts I've never taught before (and some of them are novels! And LOOOONG).

4) My scholarship may be more engrossing now than it's ever been.

5) I've finally started on that non-academic writing project. What it is exactly I don't know--a series of essays? a book?--but I'm trying to commit to at least 90 minutes or 500 words a week. That's not grand, but it might be doable. However, it occupies some of the same headspace that this blog has historically occupied.

6) Well, you know: THE WORLD. I try to keep my broody hysteria to myself, but it still takes up energy.

I miss y'all, though. I'm a crappy tweeter, but sometimes I do tweet. Hit me up there, if you like.

Friday, August 04, 2017

Being rather than becoming

A strange thing is happening to me at midcareer: I find myself increasingly worried that I've lost something I once had or was good at: my writing isn't as lively; I'm not as creative; whatever was once interesting about me has vanished.

Objectively, I know that this is ridiculous. I mean, sure: it's possible for a human person to stall or lose her edge, but it's more likely that this is just an exciting new port of call for my personal cruise ship of anxiety and insecurity. When I was younger, I feared not being smart enough, not having interesting ideas, not being able to turn my vague intuition to some kind of account. These days, though I still start in an incoherent muddle, I feel pretty confident that my hunches will pan out and that I can complete any project once begun. Some of the work I've done in recent years is clearly superior to my first book, and on good days I dare to believe that I've hit some kind of scholarly stride.

And yet, alongside this sense of relative contentment is the nagging suspicion that while some things might be better, surely they've come at the cost of other things. I keep feeling that my writing has lost whatever distinctive voice it once had, and wondering whether the better ideas have displaced the better writing. And then I worry that even my greater contentment with my work and the number of projects I'm immersed in might themselves be signs of how boring I've become, with work crowding out the other things--I'm pretty sure there were other things!--that once made me an interesting person.

I mean, I never labored under the delusion that I was cool, in the way that matters to twenty- and thirty-somethings, and the invisibility that some middle-aged women complain about is more a relief than a loss. But I suppose I'm not free of the vanity of wishing to believe that I am, in whatever minor way, an interesting person. And now I've . . . lost that belief in my own fascinatingness. I'm just an academic. I write, I go to the gym, and sometimes I buy pretty things and make fancy drinks. Occasionally I read a novel or see a movie.

In almost every detectable way, this life is better than the one I had at thirty or even thirty-five. I know I was not happier writing those lively and eccentric sentences, much less wondering where my career or personal life was going to go. But apparently I need to feel a little lost and inadequate at every stage--so now I'm feeling nostalgic for my own earlier lostness and inadequacy.

Worst. Midlife. Crisis. EVER.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

The ShaxCath meme

The Internet has been watching the new TNT show "Will" so I don't have to--and pretty much everyone has remarked on how committed the creators are to the idea that Shakespeare was a secret Catholic in an age when it was dangerous to be so. This is a theory that has been around for a long time, but until recently it wasn't an idea that the average Shakespeare reader had encountered. Now, though, it's the kind of thing I get asked occasionally: is it true that Shakespeare was Catholic?

I have some theories about why.

The obvious explanation is that a dozen years ago two pop-Shakespeare books made this claim: Stephen Greenblatt's Will in the World (2004) and Clare Asquith's Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare (2005). They're very different books, but the evidence both present is pretty thin. Still, their interest in religion doesn't come out of nowhere; literary scholarship as a whole is much more interested in religion now than it was even in the 1990s.

But not every scholarly trend makes it into the pop-culture mainstream, nor does every idea in a Shakespeare biography strike a chord, and this one has.

So here's my theory: the Shakespeare-as-Catholic meme appeals to a whole bunch of different American constituencies (I have no idea how well it plays in Britain, or if it's even a thing there). It has some of the same conspiracy-theory appeal as the "authorship controversy," but it also figures Shakespeare as an outsider, as somehow marginal, and there's nothing Americans love more than that story. Those who feel ambivalent about the category of dead white male can build a case for a Shakespeare who's naturally sympathetic to other outsiders (women, Jews, racial and sexual minorities), while all readers can see in him a version of our collective immigrant ancestors: torn between old world and new, needing to assimilate while still hanging on to their faith or culture at home.

And among those immigrant ancestors, let's not forget just how many of them were ethnic Catholics who left Catholic or culturally-Catholic descendants. Some of those descendants are already invested in a persecutory narrative ("Don't you know the Irish in America were like slaves??"), while others are simply nostalgic for the separate tribal identity of their parents' and grandparents' days. I imagine, though, that a version of this appeal might work for non-Catholic Christians (again, whether because of a persecutory fantasy or a more benign nostalgia), as well as for elite, well-educated conservatives of that peculiar Ivy-League type, drawn to Catholicism, at least intellectually and aesthetically, as a symbol of reactionary traditionalism.

In other words, ShaxCath has something for everyone: left and right, populist and elite.


I don't have a problem with the ShaxCath meme, particularly, though I'm not deeply interested in it. This might seem odd, since I work on religion and literature and I've written about Shakespeare (and I'm Catholic), but biography isn't really what most literary scholars do. Nor is religion on a yes/no binary model how the field thinks about the subject these days: I'm a lot more interested in religion as cultural practice and lived experience. It's pretty clear that in the Early Modern period religious identity was a vexed and unstable thing, formed of many component parts; there's what you call yourself, and there's how others see you, and then there's what you actually do in the world.

That's likewise true to the American experience. So if I were trying to sell America on a Shakespeare-and-religion story, it'd be that one.

Thursday, June 08, 2017

Second verse, same as the first

This morning I awakened from a dream about my book. Not the one I'm writing; the one I already wrote.

I was meeting with the editor of an academic press. It's unclear what I'd been led to believe the meeting was about, but I was surprised to learn that this particular press now owned the rights to my book--so they'd commissioned an external reviewer to report on its merits. And the reviewer didn't like my book AT ALL.

The editor told me that, under the circumstances, the press couldn't keep me on, so they'd be putting this particular "property" (her words) out for bids.

I was annoyed, but also anxious, telling the editor that I was sure it would land okay--after all, it'd been published with a good press to begin with! And it had gotten mostly nice reviews!--but she just smiled briefly, looked at her watch, and returned to her computer. After a few moments I got up and left.


And dudes, I'm kinda embarrassed for my subconscious. My book came out three years ago; I've got a whole new set of anxieties. Time to stop going back to the fucking well.

Monday, June 05, 2017

In residence

Hello from Planet Residential Fellowship! Among the things I'd forgotten since my last one is that time itself operates differently here.

Leaving behind the endless minutiae of my regular life means I gain approximately ten extra hours a day. And yet, any time spent at the library goes incredibly quickly; it's lunch time, then it's tea-time, then it's closing time--and I haven't opened my web browser once.

It's a magical, binary space where only work and relaxation exist, where I can work more, and with greater focus--and go out more. If I wanted to, I could make plans three nights a week and take the weekends off. Partly it's that researching doesn't tire me the way teaching does; I can go from six or eight intense hours in the library to schmoozing at a big social event. Partly it's having no other obligations competing for my time and energy. And partly it's just the sleep-away camp vibe, especially here, in a library where everyone is in some sense a colleague and a city where something like 10% of our friends from previous life stages seem to live.

I know it won't last forever. Sooner or later I'll have to stop gulping down everything I read--taking detailed notes about the what--and begin to process and synthesize, putting these ephemeral sixteenth and seventeenth-century works in the service of an argument about LITRAHCHAH.

But for now, it's like having previously unidentified superpowers.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Twelve years

This past weekend was my twelve-year blogiversary. I'm not posting much these days, and a month ago I was considering just shutting the whole thing down. In the end I decided to let it limp along; if you know anything about me by now, it's that I'm bad at letting go.

Partly it's that I'm not processing as deeply or urgently any more, and I don't need this space to figure things out in the way I used to. But it's also about the form: blogging simply feels less fun now, in the same way that email came to feel before it. I'm not sure I'm doing it well--it takes longer and I'm less happy with what I produce--which may be a sign that whatever I may still have to say requires a different medium.

As it happens, this weekend was also my twenty-year college reunion, so I had further occasion to think about what it means to be at midlife and midcareer and starting to feel restless. I've written before about midcareer malaise and the way it's exacerbated by a profession with almost no mobility, but in talking with my classmates, I realized that a lot of them feel similarly. Yes, my peers in law or high-tech usually could move across the country--or just to a different employer within the same region--and some did a lot of that in their twenties and thirties. But in their forties, most are not doing anything of the kind. Maybe they've made partner or ensconced themselves within a comfortable practice, or they're reluctant to uproot their kids from a particular neighborhood or school district; maybe their spouse has an amazing job or a chronic illness. At some point, things start to feel pretty good. And the opportunity costs are harder to rationalize.

But although no one I talked to was expecting to make a big change any time soon, almost no one was comfortable with the idea that there wasn't an obvious next step--or certain they'd be content if their career turned out to be doing a version of what they were doing now for the next ten or twenty years.

And, sure: what fucking privilege we all have to be worried that maybe we won't be totally happy doing this basically agreeable thing forever. But sometimes it's comforting to realize that one is just a type, a part of a class, with a totally banal set of fears and anxieties. (It's like when I finally confessed to a couple of friends that I'd been starting to worry that having a mental blip here or there might be a sign of early-onset dementia and every single one widened her eyes and said OH MY GOD ME TOO.)

So I'm going to chill out for a bit about whatever might be around the next corner, either in my larger career or in my writing life. Thursday I head to D.C. for a month, and in addition to the stuff I'm on fellowship to do, I'm also planning to dedicate a couple of hours a week to a new writing venture. Maybe I'll even write more here, too.

See you in June.

Monday, May 08, 2017

Like a Fitbit for my writing life

It's finals week, which means it's assessment time in both my classes and my work life.

You may recall that I had the bright idea, back at the start of the school year, of keeping a work diary. This I faithfully did: every day that I performed some scholarly writing or research task, I tabulated the time spent. Then each week I recorded the total.

I included the boring but necessary stuff that those of us without research assistants have to do ourselves, like schlep to the library to pick up ILL books, photocopy chapters from ILL books once they've been recalled, and run time-consuming EEBO searches to get a sense of the relative frequency of references to X or Y. After some internal debate, I decided to include time spent on fellowship applications, on the grounds that those required me to refine and rearticulate my book project in important ways, as well as conduct some preliminary research into the holdings of the relevant libraries. But I did not include reading for courses when the texts overlapped with my current research topics, nor did I include reviewing article or book manuscripts that did likewise.

So it's a little subjective, I guess, and there's no way to be precise; although I spent two years working in a law firm, the idea of measuring everything to within a tenth of an hour would have made me throw myself out a window. Therefore, I recorded nothing that took less than half an hour. Sometimes I rounded up; at other times I forgot to check the clock (or got interrupted a bunch) and so recorded my impression of how much time I'd actually spent working.

Still, with those caveats, I'm pretty happy with the results: over the fall semester my average was 12 hours/week and this spring it was just under 11.7 hours/week.

My weekly goal had been 10hrs/week, but I honestly had no idea if that was sustainable over the long haul; there have always been periods during term-time where I'm writing like a fiend, but also weeks where I do nothing. If I had to guess, I'd say that most previous semesters my average has been, at best, maybe 8 hours/week.

What this purely private form of accountability ensured was that I never forgot about my writing goals for long, and keeping a daily log made me attentive to the moments I might not otherwise have recognized as having research potential: if I had downtime during my office hours, I could print and read an article (rather than surfing the internet)--and, often, my deciding that I could commit to 30 minutes of writing or research led to my spending 60 or 90 instead.

I don't imagine that such a diary would be equally motivating for everyone; I'm a systematizer who takes pleasure in routine, who responds well to things that seem measurable, and who delights in that which can be tracked, logged, or otherwise slotted into its proper place. When it comes to exercise, I'm not inspired by grand goals, nor do I care about being able to increase the intensity of my workouts, or their length, or whatever. But I care VERY MUCH about sticking to my three days a week and about logging the stats into my fitness app.

The diary is a similar means to an end. Twelve hours a week sounds like a respectable number, but the figure itself doesn't matter; there's nothing magical about that number, just as there's nothing magical about my going to the gym three days a week and shooting to hit 70,000 steps. If the latter measures don't mean I'm ready to run a half-marathon, the former doesn't mean I'm cranking out the pages (much less that they're good pages!). Perhaps I do less in twelve hours than others do in six. But if the chief lesson that I take from being slow is that I have to put in the goddamn hours, then I need to find ways to put them in.


And this steady training has been good for me: I'm closing in on a draft of what I hope to be the second major publication from my book project, an essay that has required heroic/desperate amounts of research into fields I'm basically unqualified to write about (and only some of whose scholarship is in languages that I can read). At the same time that I intend to finalize that manuscript and send it out for review, I'll be in residence at the Folger Shakespeare Library on a month-long fellowship to research a different chapter of the book.

I'm unaccustomed to spending 6-8 hours a day, 5 or 6 days a week researching and writing, but that's the plan for June. And if my work diary has taught me one thing, it's the power of averages: no matter how my July and August shake out, I'm thinking my summer numbers are going to look pretty damn good.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Distraction is the devil's work

On my drive home from work the other week I heard an interview with the author of Deep Work, which makes the case for work environments that allow us sustained time to focus solely on one task--periods where no one can interrupt and where we eliminate all distractions and temptations, especially electronic ones.

Now, those of us who write and think for (a portion of) our living know that it's important to have periods of immersion, but I confess that in recent years I haven't considered all distractions as equally harmful. If I set aside three or four hours to write, what's the harm, when I'm stuck on a sentence, in clicking over to Facebook for two minutes now and again? Surely that's not the same as being called away to a meeting! But the book's author, Cal Newport, claims that even brief distractions leave a "residue" that it takes 20 minutes to fully wipe away. Accordingly, he argues that 90 minutes, distraction-free, is the minimum required for "deep work."

I'm not sure that I'm convinced by those exact figures, but hearing Newport did inspire me to address my distraction-creep. I always intend to get X amount of work done (read a book of Paradise Lost, grade three papers) before a break to check my phone or the internet, but even though I'm pretty good at not allowing myself to get sucked into serious distraction, over the past year I've definitely felt my hands to be increasingly itchy for quick hits of email or social media.

So the week after hearing Newport, I challenged myself, when I had writing time set aside, to write for 90 or 120 uninterrupted minutes with no distractors (other than cats, or hunger, or the bathroom). It was blissful. Once or twice I went way past the mark because I just wasn't ready to stop.

And since I'm teaching a senior seminar on Early Modern ideas about the afterlife, I somehow also found myself thinking about the rhetoric of demonic temptation and whether it might bring anything useful to the way we talk about distraction. Now, I'm comfortable using the discourse of "sin" for the variety of ways that we fail or harm other people, and seeing our shortcoming as a result of our fallen condition has likewise always resonated for me--but the devil most emphatically has not. I'm not interested in the devil, just as I'm not interested in fairies or vampires or zombies. To the extent that I've thought about the psychological work that believing in a devil does, I guess I've always assumed it to be purely fear-mongery: stay vigilant! Because the devil wants your sooooouul.

But what with the class and my attempts to resist distracting urges, I wondered what it would feel like to reframe the desire to check my phone in the middle of a grading or writing session as a temptation sent by the devil. Presumably, there are people all over the world who see things in this light, just as there were in ages past. So when I was tempted to reach for my phone, instead of thinking, "aw, what's the harm? it's just for a minute or two," I told myself, "nothing new has happened in the past 20 minutes. You don't even want to do this. This is the devil trying to distract you."

And instead of feeling paranoid about my vulnerability to malign influences, I felt how true it was that this was a stupid distraction and one that I could resist--because it wasn't, after all, coming from me! I had a better self, one who was actually happier not checking Facebook every 15 minutes!

So there you have it: how the devil made me a better writer, no soul-selling required.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Always anticipating until it's over

It's that time of year when I keep expecting--at any moment!--to feel on the downward slope, where either the course prep and grading will have genuinely eased up or where I'll have crossed enough psychological thresholds (each class is now on its final text! I've passed out the last assignment sheet!) that I know the end is in sight even if nothing in my daily life has changed.

But just as I cross one big thing off my list, I'm reminded of another: peer teaching observations to write up. Essays to score for undergraduate assessment. My annual faculty report. An M.A. thesis from a student whose committee I'd forgotten I was on. An emergency three-hour meeting of that committee that hasn't met all semester. You know how it is.

Still, one of these days it really will be true: stuff will get crossed off the list and nothing new will get added. I'll submit grades, put an "away" message on my email, and for a week or two I'll luxuriate in a sense of satisfied completion.

In this way, my teaching and institutional obligations are unlike the rest of my scholarly life, where I'm rarely able to rest in a sense of achievement. This isn't about my being particularly disgruntled or hard on myself, but about the fact that even the biggest academic achievements tend to happen in endless increments.

I mean, let's say you're hard at work on an article for six months, a year, or two. When do you get to revel in its completion? When you send it out for review? When it finally gets accepted? When the last revisions are in? Or two years later when it actually sees print? By then I'm usually over it--and unsure if anyone has or will ever read it. (I may get nice notes later on, confirming that people have read it, but by then it truly doesn't feel like my work anymore.) The same is true for tenure: there are so goddamn many levels of approval that to celebrate before the last one is premature. . . but when the last one arrives there's no surprise and no suspense left to lift.

It's as if everything is incredibly far off on the horizon until the moment it's in the rear-view mirror.

The past six months have given me a lot of professional validation in a lot of forms. I don't want to make too much of any one, and I haven't publicized many of them for this reason; I'm at a comfortable enough place, professionally, where that feels tacky. Not only do I get more external validation now than I used to, but most of it's based on stuff I did a year or two or five ago, and I try to look forward rather than patting myself on the back for what's done.

But I suppose recognition, in our field, is always mis-timed and never feels earned (or maybe that's just me): either it comes for work that's past, and thus doesn't assuage my fear that I'll never do anything as good again--or it comes because I've succeeded in getting someone excited about work I haven't yet done, which likewise feeds my anxiety about not succeeding and not finishing.

And that's a stupid way to live. So I'm trying to find ways of celebrating, or at least marking the moment and pausing to feel good, when nice things come along.

I'll let you know how it goes.

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

Lifetime employment, for now

On Monday I was notified that the Board of Trustees had approved my tenure. So I have job security again. Or at least until the state decides to abolish tenure.

I know: I never exactly mentioned that I had to give up tenure to take this job. It's not something I was particularly happy about, and it's one of the reasons I negotiated an unpaid leave from my previous college. As I've written before, the casualization crisis means that even the luckiest among us can be convinced of our precarity (an experience that does not, alas, always translate into solidarity with those who are truly precarious), and I'd had some paranoid idea that someone might just decide it was cheaper to get rid of me.

This is, of course, a thing that has happened in the world--but after a couple of months I felt confident that it probably wasn't going to happen here, or to me. The vast machinery of a unionized, public university, with its predictable policies and procedures, was one reassurance. I also noticed that administrators, when they met me, either already knew who I was or seemed unusually pleased to be told. And I had to remind myself: right! I was a good hire! Everyone's happy here!

I mean, I didn't feel that way at every second. But it was good to feel that way sometimes.


So what's it like, going through tenure again? On the one hand, the external review process gave me very little anxiety. I knew I had a strong research profile, if only because I'd had four more years in which to build it up. But everything institution-specific was stressful, not because my university doesn't have clear guidelines, but because they were entirely new. Ordinarily, one goes through a third- and fifth-year review, so by tenure-time the genre of the dossier is deeply familiar. But I hadn't gone through those reviews at this institution. I was also the first person in living memory to arrive with so many years of prior service, so my file didn't look like anyone else's. Moreover, I had virtually no track record of service at my new institution and very little teaching. So I remained apprehensive that some committee at some level would decide I needed more seasoning--or that I'd violated a hugely important requirement in having sixteen tabs in my binder rather than the regulation fourteen.

But it wasn't all bad. In addition to the compensations that came with my hiring (the fact that I'd kept rank and gotten a good raise and start-up package), there were a few pleasures to go along with the tedium of snapping in and out tab dividers and protective sleeves. I do like thinking about what animates my pedagogy and my research, and I kinda like assembling information into a clear and digestible format. And because my new employer cares a lot more about quantifying research quality and impact--which means I had to hunt down every last citation or review of my work--I wound up with a delightful document that enumerates my book's reviews and quotes the single best sentence, phrase, or in some cases, isolated words, from each one. Tendentious? Yes. The best I will ever feel about myself? Just possibly.

Even more surprising was how enjoyable the external review process felt. I don't have access to the recommendation letters, of course, but because the reviewers get mentioned and quoted in small, glowing snippets in the recommendations made by my departmental and college committees, I do have their names (and a few of their nicest words). It's moving to think that these six people, half of whom I've never met but all of whose work is essential to my own, were willing to sit down and read just about everything I've ever written. And for what? A token honorarium. There's a lot more generosity out there than we sometime remember, and I'm grateful for it.


So on balance it was okay. But I sure as hell better not have to do it a third time.

Saturday, March 04, 2017

Curricular creativity

One of the unexpected benefits of moving jobs is the way a new curriculum has jumpstarted my pedagogy--and not just my pedagogy, but so much else about my intellectual life.

I say this not because the curriculum at my new job is better--in fact, our undergraduate major is a mess--but simply because it's different. I'm a person who likes figuring out systems and making them work, and though the full curriculum will need to wait a year or two before benefiting from my Always Being Right About Everything, each new course still presents satisfying opportunities to design a new system: what are the goals? what are the component skills? and how can we best get there?

Some of the new opportunities are modest. Here, the British Literature survey is at the 300-level, carries pre-reqs, and is made up almost entirely of majors and minors. I teach mostly the same texts, but I can do different things--indeed, feel compelled to do different things--than when I was teaching a 200-level class that carried general-education credit and was only optional for majors. Now I teach longer selections from fewer works and I think harder about what it means for this to be, usually, the only exposure our majors have to early British literature. (As well as for me to be its primary representative: next year will be the third year in a row where I'm the only one teaching the class.)

Other classes are entirely new to me. I used to teach a one-semester class called Introduction to Literary Analysis, which I loved. Here there are, in effect, three introductory classes: Intro to Poetry, Intro to Drama, and Intro to Fiction. They're required for majors and minors but also carry writing-across-the-curriculum credit and other gen eds for nonmajors. Leaving aside what I think of this from a whole-curriculum perspective, Introduction to Poetry has turned out to be a dream class. I'd already spent years turning myself into a teacher of poetics and it's now a matter of course for me to do at least a quick review of metrics in every class I teach. So to have an entire semester to ensure that students can talk about form? Where I can evangelize for poetry? And where I can deepen my own sense of how poetry works at just the moment--midway through the draft of a book manuscript that focuses almost entirely on works in verse--that I need it most? HEAVENLY.

Next year I've signed up for two other classes that will be new to me: something called Canonicity (required for education certification students) and the introductory theory class for M.A. students. The theory class is going to kick my ass, but I also expect it to help banish the last of my theory-insecurity in the way that teaching poetics banished the ghosts of my own crappy training in poetry. Canonicity will give me the leisure to talk more about things I usually only talk about in passing--how works fall in and out of fashion, and what's at stake in those changes--and to teach a few works I love but that are either outside my area of expertise or for which there's not a place in the ordinary round of my teaching.

Are there things I find frustrating about my teaching opportunities? Sure. Among other things, I'm sad that I no longer teach Shakespeare except for a play here and there. But the fact that I taught Shakespeare all the time at my previous job was a surprising gift--and after nine years I'd probably gotten about as much personal and professional benefit as I could get from teaching at the survey level anyway. I don't need to keep teaching Shakespeare. Instead, for the second year in a row, I'm teaching a senior capstone where we read Dante alongside Milton alongside excerpts from patristic and biblical literature. That's new, it's fun, and it's useful.

All of us sometimes wish our teaching lives were different: that we taught fewer classes, or more varied ones--or more repeat ones, in some cases. That we had more in-field colleagues, or fewer (if they're hogging the classes we want to teach). That we had more resources, or a slightly different student make-up, or a curriculum that better prepared them. But for now I'd rather focus on the opportunities within those constraints.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

A place for everything means a damn lot of places

Because I'm now an old person, I spent my birthday cash on some incredibly practical, incredibly unsexy items that nevertheless sent me down some strange nostalgic by-roads. You see, I bought two more bookcases and a second 4-drawer filing cabinet to match the existing ones in my home office.

The original items have been with me a long time. When I graduated from college and moved into my first apartment, my parents took me to Ikea and bought me two full-sized bookcases (and a bed, but that's long since gone the way of all particle board), which remained my homes' most distinguishing feature for years. Initially I labored to fill their shelves. Later, in another studio apartment in another state, my expanding book collection testified to my status as a grad student. I bought two matching half-sized bookcases, wedging one in front of a radiator because I was out of wall space. That's also how my filing cabinet--a previous birthday splurge, which I guess means I've always been old--wound up next to the fridge.

Eventually the lot of us moved to yet another studio apartment, the former living room of a formerly grand Harlem brownstone. An elaborate Victorian fireplace sat in the center of the longest wall and my four bookshelves fit perfectly to either side. Around this time I ran out of space and started shelving books horizontally. Then I got my first job and the bookshelves and I moved upstate--and the acquisition of a campus office helped relieve their burden. Once again they fit perfectly along my living room's longest wall, and from the street below I could look up and see nothing but books. It was pretty much exactly what I'd fantasized about at twenty-two.

Even a space alien could tell you this apartment belonged to a grad student

By the time we bought our first house those Ikea shelves no longer seemed nice enough to serve as our display bookcases, so we bought others, and I squeezed the old ones into my tiny home office. Now, in another house in a third state, the original four fit comfortably enough that I need new ones to fill out the room. They aren't the handsomest things, but they're big and sturdy and unobtrusive, and every time I plunk down on the floor to reorganize my bookshelves or sort my files I remember all the other times I've done the same and how consequential it felt.

I still love my books; there's a reason they're the focal point of our living room and that we removed the enormous bracket the previous owners had installed for a flat-screen t.v. And I still have an evangelical conviction that life is better when all papers are filed away tidily and ready to be retrieved at an instant's notice. But if those things remain bound up with my sense of self, they're no longer a pledge to the future--a willing of that self in to being--in the way they once were. Every new book used to feel like a statement about myself, and I can still see the angle of the late-afternoon sunlight in that first apartment as I sat on the edge of my bed and inscribed my name inside each volume, just as I remember staying up until 2 a.m. with folders and tabs strewn across my grad school apartment as I imposed order upon the miscellaneous papers that until then I'd been hauling around in file boxes and milk crates.

I don't wish to go back to a time when everything signified so very deeply, but I enjoy thinking about how continuous this self is with my younger one.

What I'll enjoy much less is moving all this crap the next time around.

Sunday, February 19, 2017


Today I learned the answer to life, the universe, and everything.

But I won't spoil it for the rest of you.