Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Being lucky

When I was last in Quaint Smallish City, George Washington Boyfriend and I got into a conversation about Theo, a grad school friend who just started a job at Very Important U. We were having that conversation that we sometimes have about people whose work we don't really know, which is to say, the "okay--so is he really that smart, or is he just full of shit?" conversation (which is second in popularity only to the "so, who do we know who's next going to explode into professional flames, and how are they going to do it?" conversation).

Because the thing is that we both like Theo, and we're convinced that he's damn smart . . . but the job he got is a little unexpected. His Ph.D. is in English, but his job is in an entirely different department, in a discipline where he has no meaningful background or experience (but where GWB does). As an analogy: imagine a grad student in medieval literature whose dissertation concerned texts written in Latin--but who got hired by a Classics department. Sure, that individual might know Latin, but she's not trained as a Classicist, doesn't know the history or literature of the field completely, and certainly isn't up on the scholarship.

So, aside from Theo's smarts, his degrees and fellowships, and the fact that his dissertation does, sorta, just barely, qualify him for a position in this particular department--how did he get it? Yes, he's absolutely charming and supremely self-confident. . . but as we kept talking, it struck me: Theo's just lucky.

And what I mean isn't that he was in the right place at the right time with the right hiring committee (although that's surely true), or even that he was lucky enough to have certain gifts--an infectious laugh, an extremely nimble brain--that helped him to this job; rather, he's one of those people who strike one as constitutionally lucky, as always falling ass-backwards into good fortune.

But "luck" can be as much a matter of personality and outlook as it is of the gods choosing to smile upon one. What it is, I think, is being open to so many different opportunities that you're never fully tied to any one future--a future that might, after all, fail to arrive.

Theo, for example, was pretty happy in grad school, but he wasn't committed to staying in academia; he had a lot of friends, he knew how to have a good time, and he always said that he'd never take a professorial job in a remote location just to have a job; he had other interests. While living in the big city he started writing genre fiction on a lark and wound up with an agent who loved his stuff; last I heard, she was shopping it around to publishing houses. (Theo also, I suspect, had another, marginally legal job on the side.) Had he not gotten this position--which was his only offer in two years on the market--I wouldn't have been at all surprised to have heard that he'd wound up in Hollywood, or as a party promoter, or writing travel articles for some glossy, five-dollar magazine.

Maybe that's romanticizing Theo too much, but what I'm trying to convey is that he's someone who appears never to fail simply because he's got so much going on that you scarcely notice when something falls through for him. With some people this is mostly an act--a calculated performance of brilliance and vivacity and indifference to misfortune--but that's not how Theo is; he gets glum, he gets disappointed. But through it all there's a sense of possibility about him, of constant motion. He also, I think, knows himself extremely well. Academia? Appealing, and something he's good at--but not something he'd sacrifice all other aspects of his life for. What would he do instead? Something. Anything.

I've always understood the expression "creating your own luck" to mean, simply, not believing in luck--in going out and making things happen for yourself. But I think that people like Theo do create their own luck by keeping themselves open to other possibilities even while diligently pursuing one or two primary paths; by not restricting themselves to a single possible future or defining success too narrowly.

Can we all create our own luck? I'm not so sure. Some people have lots of talents and interests, and some direct all their passion into just one or two. Life circumstances--financial, familial, or otherwise--can also severely restrict a person's ability to pursue such lucky chances as may arise.

All the same, there are lessons here, I think.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Book lust

For at least a year and a half now I've been coveting one particular book: it's a first-edition of a seventeenth-century work, it's in very good shape, and it's under $1000.00.

Now, I don't have $1000.00. In fact, I have many many thousands of negative dollars on my credit cards. But my expenses should stabilize by summertime and I'm hoping that, perhaps, by year's end I could be in a position to buy this thing.

The question is, though--is it worth the money?

First, there's the fact that $1000.00 is an incredible price for a work that's nearly 400 years old. It's also bound in calfskin, and it's a pretty sizable text. Its price alone is neither here nor there--but my eye is always caught by a bargain.

More importantly, this is a text that I (and about three other people) consider both fascinating and important, and that I intend to start working on in the not-too-distant-future. I'd love to have an original copy to work from, just for the coolness factor alone, but I also sort of need an original copy: my interest is specifically in that first edition, but the author revised and expanded the work many times before his death; most modern editions are therefore conflated (and usually incomplete) texts. The one scholarly edition is a) out of print (and the one time I saw it on ABE it was fully $500), and b) also, necessarily, a conflated text. It's possible to find all the first edition readings from it, but impossible to get a real sense of the edition as a whole.

Maybe I could write off the purchase on my taxes, as a business expense?

Maybe the book might be considered an investment? It's not, obviously, a really hot item right now, but I can imagine that in 10 or 20 years its value could more than double.

Cons (in addition to the expense):
The first edition is available in most of the major rare books libraries, which is where I've looked at it previously. There aren't any such collections near me, but this could make for a good summer fellowship proposal.

I just discovered that there's a facsimile copy of the first edition for sale on ABE. It's $300, so a third of the price of the original (but without the coolness, the possible investment value, etc.).

Other possibly relevant factors:
I haven't yet seen this copy, but it's in a location where I have friends and occasionally visit, so I wouldn't be buying it sight-unseen.

The book is also being sold by a bookseller who, it turns out, one of my colleagues is quite friendly with. I doubt that that would affect the price, but a personal connection is never a bad thing.

I can't use my start-up funds to purchase books, but there IS an internal grant that I could apply for that might conceivably fund part or all of the purchase.

So, I dunno. Any thoughts?

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Setting the tone

Tenured Radical has a nice reflection on the decisions that go into planning the first day of classes, and what it means to get the semester "off on the right foot." This is something that I've been thinking about, too--what's the proper tone to establish on Day One?

Not every first day is a great one, of course and I doubt that most students arrive at their first class session with especially high expectations; it's the day to meet the teach and get the syllabus. For that matter, I doubt that most students could actually tell you, a month later, whatever it was that they did on that first day. But setting the tone isn't about what our students consciously learn; on some level, it's not even about our students so much as it's about us and how we present ourselves, to ourselves, as teachers.

So how did I set the tone in my new classes?

First and foremost, I ran every single one of my three classes for the full hour and a half; I always teach a "real" class on the first day. Partly, this is about communicating to my students that they're going to be working in my class, and that the work begins on day one; I'm also curious to see what they can do right out of the gate. But running a full class on the first day of the semester is also about getting myself back into the groove, flexing those teaching muscles, and fitting that persona back on. It's about getting the feel for a new classroom and figuring out how the space works.

To further communicate my seriousness, I also gave the necessary warnings: if war literature isn't your thing, take a different section; if you're not an English major and don't have a genuine interest in this material, take something else for your Gen Ed requirement. Don't even think about relying on SparkNotes instead of the actual texts. Be prepared to put in two hours, sometimes, to get through twenty pages.

But the hard-ass bit is only half of my first-day routine. The other half is about conveying how totally awesome I am, and how awesome the class will be, too. This was easy in my war class, since nothing sets the tone better than passing out a story with the word "fuck" in the first sentence (and saying it and making one's students say it multiple times), and then presenting the class with the post-punk stylings of the Talking Heads. It's not quite as easy in my other classes (ooh! scansion for 45 minutes!)--but enough willed enthusiasm and manic goofiness can cajole any class along.

And finally, let's not forget the role that costumes play in Setting the Tone. Did any of you have parents who took photos of you on your first day of school? In my parents' photo album there are several photos of me from my elementary school years--stationed in front of the house, bow in hair, lunchbox in hand.

I took a back-to-school picture of my own last night, as I was trying to decide on something to wear today that would a) give the illusion of energy and competance, while b) not involving either of the two suits whose parts are currently languishing at the drycleaner until I can afford to liberate them:

[Image redacted]

Yeah. The outfit, the please-love-me! routine. . . the more I think about it, the more convinced I am that the first day of classes is like a first date.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

One thing you didn't know about Flavia (not quite a meme)

I love--totally, totally love--war literature. All genres, all periods. War movies, too, whether they involve the battlefield or the homefront.

And this semester I'm teaching a course that involves nothing but war literature (and which I've given this title).

Damn. I'm such a boy.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Bad things/Good things: new semester edition

Bad Things:
Winter has finally arrived here, and it's damn cold.

I start teaching next week and I'm totally unprepared for my one new class (and not really on fire about my two repeats).

Two of my classes are in a different building than my department's--and a long, cold walk away.

I'm excessively broke. My car had to go into the shop (I backed into a post in the dark and got a big dent); I'm going to far more conferences this spring than my department will pay for; I'm still dealing with having had no income for four months and the debt I racked up then.

Relationship? Still long-distance.

I just got put on my first campus-wide committee, which appears to be populated mostly by people who aren't interested in/able to make this project everything it should be. I sense I'm already a pain in the committee chair's ass (my department chair intimated that this was exactly why she wanted me on the committee, but still).

I didn't get half of the things done over break that I intended to get done.
Good Things:
It stays light 15-20 minutes later here than it did in either of the previous two cities I lived in--even now, in the dead of winter, the streetlights don't turn on until nearly 5.30 p.m.

So far there are 66 students registered for my three classes. Given that 20% of my registered students last semester didn't show up/dropped/withdrew, this probably means that I'll wind up with a figure well under 60.

I got the fall upper-division class I was lobbying for.

When I got my car out of the shop I found that the mechanics had completely cleaned the inside of the car as well--vaccuumed, buffed and polished the dash and door panels, everything.

I now have a friend to drink and go out with in New City.

My early modern reading group has actually come together and it seems like it will be a great group of people. (We meet for the first time in a couple of weeks.)

Yesterday I solved a conceptual problem with my current chapter--something that was preventing two different arguments from becoming a single, more interesting one.

Over break I received some good publication news about two new projects, neither related to my dissertation.
So on balance? I'll probably make it to May. But it wouldn't hurt if spring decided that it wanted to come early.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Executive Vice President of Close Reading

In catching up with grad school and conference friends this winter--whether over email or in person at the MLA--I've mentioned several times how unremarkable, how easy, I've found the transition into a tenure-track job to be.

And in most ways this is entirely true. Unlike some of my friends who are also in their first year on the tenure-track, I've been moving away from grad school for a long time now. I left Grad School City at the end of my fourth year, and consequently wasn't around campus for most of the last two years that I was enrolled (my fifth year I was on fellowship and my sixth I commuted in just twice a week to teach one class). I also had a part-time office job for all six years, working an average of 14 hours a week, and I consider this to have been good preparation for all the paperwork and administrative nonsense that comes with a t-t job. And then last year I was a full-time lecturer teaching a 3-4 load, which means that I got used to teaching--and to thinking of myself as a teacher--in a hurry.

So, as I say, it makes sense that this transition is easier for me than for people who went on the market early, with little teaching experience, and got jobs straight away; it also makes sense that I'm happier and more comfortable in this new role than those people who really, really liked grad school. In case it isn't clear yet, I wasn't one of those people. In theory, grad school was great, and in theory I liked everything I was doing--being around smart, fun people, taking interesting classes, etc. I was well-trained, I liked my teaching and my research, and I received more or less adequate support. But in practice? I was unhappy on nearly a daily basis. (Grad School, I'm sorry: it wasn't you. It was me.)

But if the transition has been easy, it's still been a transition, and in no way more shockingly than this: suddenly, I'm important. I'm in charge of things. I matter.

That's something that grad school and even visiting positions don't fully prepare one for. One minute, you're being infantilized by your institution, left in the dark about the workings of the department, and given minimal control over your teaching. The next, you're on committees, you're being asked for your input on a thousand things, and you're the most important person (at least for three hours a week) in the lives of your 40 or 60 or 80 students.

One minute, you're convinced you'll never get a job, that your research is crap, that you'll be eating ramen for dinner for the rest of your life (and still be in debt)--and when you say you're a student, people look at 30-year-old you with pity. The next minute, you have a good retirement plan, a doctor with a plush suburban office, and your realtor and mechanic consider you a person of status (after all, you're "a professor at the university!").

In other words, at age 30 or 35 or whenever you get the damn job, it's as if you suddenly vault from a decade of being 23 (entry-level job, little direction, little control) into having the sort of life that most of your friends have. If we'd gone into law or business, by now we'd be managers or partners or Vice Presidents of Whatever. We'd have long since grown accustomed to being in charge, being taken seriously, and being confident in our decisions.

But in my experience, these aren't things we're really prepared for in grad school. Sure, we build skills, becoming better and more assured teachers, researchers, and presenters, and most of us do come to feel in our later years that we have at least a toehold in the profession. But there's still a big psychological gulf between being a sixth- or seventh-year graduate student, however accomplished--or even a Ph.D. in a nice visiting position or a multi-year lecturer--and being made to feel an essential part of one's department and institution.

It is, as I say, more a psychological adjustment than a real one, but let's be honest: it's not only psychological. Our profession treats us differently once we have a "real" job. I've been at Regional U for four and a half months, in which time nothing new of mine has come out in print and I've presented at no conferences. I'm not at a big-name school. And yet in those four months, four different publishers or publications have contacted me to review manuscripts or to write book reviews for them. Call me cynical, but I'm disinclined to believe that more than one of them would have contacted me had I still been a lecturer.

So although it's probably no great surprise why I'm happy in my new position--happier than I've been for at least eight years--I'm also angry that it's taken this long for me even to start to feel like an adult again. Or to be treated like an adult. I'm not sure where to direct that anger, but there it is.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

More on networking: an anecdote

I just received an email today from a scholar I admire and whom I met for the second time at the MLA. Apparently he looked me up, post-MLA, and discovered that I'd published something that overlaps significantly with his own work--and he was contacting me to apologize for not having known about my article and therefore not citing it in his just-published book. He would, he said, go to the library and read it this afternoon.

Now, in point of fact, we were on a panel together a few years ago, presenting papers on exactly this material. He was very complimentary about my paper at the time, and we emailed for a few weeks afterwards to exchange papers and discuss our projects in a small way; he was nice enough to send me a draft version of one chapter of his book, and I mentioned that I had just had an article on this material accepted in [Journal].

This was all very flattering, and although I wasn't able to attend the next few conferences where we might have run into each other, I was pleased to have made what seemed an important connection. I thought, "well, he knows who I am. And of course he reads [Journal]. He'll see my article and I'll run into him again sooner or later." What I did not do (and here's this week's networking lesson, kids!) was ever contact him again to check up on his book's progress--even though I was excited about it and frequently wondered how close it was to publication--or to toot my own horn when my article came out. It never occurred to me that that either of those things would be welcome or appropriate.

And so yes, you guessed it: when I went up to him at MLA to reintroduce myself and tell him how much I'd enjoyed his paper and how delighted I was to hear that his book had just come out. . . he obviously had no idea who I was.

Oddly, I'm not especially vexed by this (although I would have loved to have been cited in his book, and one does prefer to believe that one is, well, memorable). In fact, what strikes me most is how generous this scholar was to me on both occasions: after our first meeting he took the time to contact unimportant, grad-student me, and when he did, he did more than simply ask for a copy of my paper. And after our second meeting, even without remembering who I was, what I worked on, or how we'd met (and even though most of our conversation was just chit-chat over a meal with a bunch of other people), he took the time to look me up and contact me again. It's a rather inspiring model for how to be a member of the profession, and one that I hope I'll emulate when I become a more established scholar myself.

That being said--I hope I'll also do a better job of remembering someone's name, face, and physical existence.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Repeat customers

In taking a look at my class rosters for the spring I've been pleased by how many of my students from last semester are taking classes with me again--and especially by how good all my returning students are! I'm especially excited about my Shakespeare class, where I'll have six of the eight best students from my fall Brit Lit class. By "best students" I don't necessarily mean that they got the highest grades in the class, although most of them did do very well; rather, they're smart, eager, and mostly very participatory. Even the one kid who didn't do at all well is bright--just not particularly hard-working.

So this is all nice and affirming in the same way that my evaluations were (more on them later, but they were damn good--and this surprised me, given how low the average grades I gave were and how tough I know even my best students thought me).

But there's a problem: one of the eight or nine repeat students I'm going to have this semester is, literally, a repeat student: she's retaking the same class that she took with me in the fall, presumably in the hope of getting a better grade than a D. Although I don't fully understand why she's retaking this class with me--there's another section being taught this semester, at a convenient time, and by an instructor who isn't exactly know for being demanding--I certainly don't mind having this student again; she's pleasant and quiet and maybe studying this material for a second time is what she needs in order to understand it.

Oh no, the problem here is my own vanity. I'm using exactly the same syllabus this term that I used last term. And although I don't do precisely the same thing with each text from semester to semester, overall I do tend to raise the same questions, look at the same passages, and do the same assignments. And, most embarrassingly, I tend to make the same jokes. And those seemingly spontaneous, colloquial riffs and rephrasings that always go over so well? Not always so spontaneous.

Do you think she'll notice? Or do I need to invent a whole new shtick?

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Chicken, egg

Six months ago, before I started writing this chapter, I read one of the few works of literary criticism that deals with the material I'm examining. It's a well-known book now some decades old, and I read it then with the belief that I was doing my due diligence, getting a handle on what had already been done, grappling with a major critic, etc. I underlined it, argued out loud with its author, and talked about it with George Washington Boyfriend (who, to my chagrin, had read it long ago and even cites it several times in his own book. . . and you may recall that he and I are not exactly in the same field). When I finished the book, I thought, "Well, good. [The author] doesn't really talk about the things I'm interested in, and his approach is totally wrong anyway. I'll just deal with him in a tidy few sentences somewhere and a couple of footnotes."

Fast-forward to the present, when I've got a messy 50-page draft that hasn't quite found its argument (or that has, rather, found three or four arguments, none clearly related to the others). Now that I'm here, it turns out that one of the things I'm interested in is dealt with by that book that I read six months ago, and while I still suspect that its author is wrong. . . I can't quite remember. I have no idea where he says the things that might be similar to what I'm saying. I can no longer even articulate precisely what I thought the book's weaknesses were.

In other words, I didn't take any notes when I was reading.

Argh! Why do I do this? I take very detailed notes when I read library (and especially ILL) books, but when I own the thing, I often figure that there's no need to do so. I flag pages and underline passages and sometimes write cue words or brief commentary in the margins, but that's it. Now I'm going to have to go back and skim the book carefully, taking notes along the way, and thinking through more seriously how my own work relates to that of this prior critic.

But I'm not sure that having taken notes at the time (which, memo to self: you must always do in the future) would have helped with anything other than finding the relevant passages or chapters--I'd still have to re-read and rethink them, and I'd probably want to re-read a larger portion of the book as well, just be sure that there wasn't something else that I had neglected at the time, thinking it irrelevant, that now mattered terribly much.

It may be that my ability to retain and remember complex arguments is poor; after all, if I could remember them, surely when I acquired new knowledge a lightbulb would go off in my head and I would exclaim, "oh! now I understand exactly what that guy was saying in that article I read last year!" Instead, I have to re-read everything in the hopes that such lightbulbs--if they exist--might, perhaps, switch on. When I was writing my dissertation I reskimmed every single article I'd photocopied, many times, just to make sure that I hadn't missed something (or to find that elusive article responsible for something I thought I'd read, but couldn't for the life of me remember where).

Or perhaps re-reading is as essential for works of criticism as for works of literature: you read something that gets you writing, then you go back and find something new and respond to it, and then you go back again, and find still more. Maybe that's what the scholarly dialogue is all about.

Maybe. But I still wish that I had a better memory. Or, failing that, better notes.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Theatre for a New Audience's Merchant of Venice

As I mentioned in my previous post, Jonesy and I went to see a production of The Merchant of Venice this past weekend: Theatre for a New Audience is doing both Merchant and The Jew of Malta in rotating repertory with the same cast (but different directors), starring F. Murray Abraham as both Shylock and Barabas. Ever since I learned of this last summer I've been obsessed with the idea of seeing the paired productions, and, luckily for me, Merchant entered previews just before I left New York. (Unluckily, though, Malta doesn't start its previews until next week. I may have to go ahead and buy tickets and fly in some weekend just for the show.)

Merchant is directed by Darko Tresnjak, whose eccentric production of Two Noble Kinsmen Jonesy and I had seen at the Public a few years ago. I don't really know 2NK (or, as I insisted on calling it--this was at the same time that the sequel to The Fast and the Furious was out in movie theatres--2 Noble, 2 Furious, 2 Kinsmen), so that production didn't affect my perception of the play one way or the other. But last winter George Washington Boyfriend and I saw Tresnjak's staging of All's Well That Ends Well, also produced by TFANA, and that just blew us both away. As I blogged at the time, I had never considered All's Well psychologically believable, or even really all that interesting except in academic terms, but Tresnjak's production was gorgeous, compelling, and entirely believable; I left the theatre feeling that I had learned and experienced something new--and that's my standard for a truly good work of art in any medium.

His Merchant is almost as good. Staged in contemporary dress and with a minimalist set that suggests a sleek Financial District office tower (textured glass panels lit by blue-green lights, with a glassed-in corridor to the rear permitting entrances from the wings), the only props for most of the play are three chest-high tables with three iBooks open away from the audience. The Venetians, then, are bankers and bond traders, forever punching each other on the shoulder and fiddling with their Blackberries. Their fratty glad-handing and casual viciousness might owe just a wee bit too much to David Mamet, but in general it struck me as a fresh and very smart reimagining of the play's world. As Jonesy observed, their ethos is all about bros before hos.

The production itself is as in love with high-tech props as the Venetians are--Portia's servant Balthazar, played as an officious gay man in expensive sneakers, is always stalking around talking into a headset, and one of Portia's suitors, a Mohawk-less Mr. T wannabe, arrives after having apparently parachuted out of a helicoper--but to my mind all of them work, and some of them illuminate the text in really nice ways. Shylock's conversation with Tubal in 3.1 is conducted via cell phone, and Tubal keeps dropping off; each time he does, Shylock works himself up into more and more of a state imagining what might follow. (The use of the iBooks in place of the caskets, however, didn't do anything for me.)

But the production's real strengths are in its inspired interpretations of some of the play's most difficult scenes. When I teach Merchant, we always spend a lot of class time trying to figure out what Shylock's intentions might be when he first proposes the "merry bond"--and how Antonio interprets or understands that offer. But I don't think I've ever encountered this particular reading: in Tresnjak's production, Shylock has told Antonio that he'll offer him the loan at no interest--and isn't that kind of him? He and Antonio shake hands as Shylock talks of going with him to the notary, but as they're shaking, Shylock tightens his grip so Antonio can't pull free. He looks him in the eyes, smiles ever so slightly, and then announces the real terms of the bond.

Antonio jerks his hand out of Shylock's, shoves him back, and seems about to punch him--but recovers himself enough just to spit back, "Content, in faith. I'll seal to such a bond,/And say there is much kindness in the Jew." In other words, the bond is all about showing who has the bigger dick.

I also liked the interpretation of the courtroom scene. In this production, Portia is winging it the whole time, very quickly aware that she's in over her head. Even when she tells Shylock that he can't take any blood with that pound of flesh--or that if he kills Antonio, he'll be guilty of murdering a citizen--she doesn't seem convinced that she's got Shylock cornered. . . and even when Shylock realizes that he is cornered, legally, he's still got the knife in his hand and up until practically the last moment seems prepared to kill Antonio out of sheer spite.

Once Portia realizes that she's won, she's briefly exultant--but she's not in control for very long; Antonio, the Duke, and the jeering spectators take over. Antonio insists that Shylock convert, and, his hands newly freed, tears off Shylock's yarmulke. As the scene ends, Portia looks sick and stunned, alone over on one corner of the stage as the men are all heartily congratulating each other. Unnoticed, she picks up the yarmulke, fingers it for a moment--and, when interrupted, hastily sticks it in her pocket. At the very end of the play, when Portia removes the letter for Antonio, the yarmulke falls out, and this time only Jessica sees it.

There's more to say--among other things, about how well the stiff, impeccably-suited Antonio shows the vicious and soul-shriveling effects of the closet (appropriate, in this the year of Mark Foley and Ted Haggard), and about the awesomeness of the exchange between Jessica and Lorenzo at the opening of 5.1--but I'll end by simply saying that anyone in or near New York, and especially anyone who teaches Shakespeare, should make seeing this production a priority.

(Because really: even if it does nothing else, the play will forever erase from your mind the image of Al Pacino as Shylock--and isn't that alone worth the ticket price?)

Monday, January 08, 2007

Return of the not-at-all-native

I leave Manhattan tomorrow to return to New City for the last two weeks of my break, and I'm ready for it--I miss my own space and my own things. But being back here has been good for my soul, as has been seeing so many of the people I care about. It's been especially nice to have spent these past 10 days house-sitting (rather than crashing on someone's couch or spare bed); having a space to myself has enabled me to feel not like a guest or a visitor, but almost as though I never left.

George Washington Boyfriend was here with me over New Year's and we party-hopped from a dinner way the hell downtown at Lulu and Mr. Lulu's--where hipsters in skinny black suits and dirty hair noshed on crab cakes with surgeons--to way the hell uptown to my old neighborhood, where Bert's friend was throwing a party; as the new year turned, chihuahuas named after luxury-goods conglomerates vied with Perrier Jouet for our attention. (And as proof of how totally not old we are: we didn't get home until after 3 a.m. Who's turning 32 next month, I ask you?)

Some sixteen hours later we were recovered enough to rejoin Lulu and Bert for dinner and drinks at my favorite cocktail joint, and then the next day we met up with Tiruncula at the Cooper-Hewitt museum to check out the design triennial and get some lunch.

After GWB left, my days grew more irregular--I'd wake up late, fuck around on the internet, work for a few hours in a bagel shop, and then go out most evenings. I lunched with my editors at the publishing house I worked for most recently; had coffee and an excellent blogger meet-up with Ianqui (who's got a sly sense of humor that I very much enjoyed); grabbed drinks with Lorraine, my friend who works for the Yankees; and spent far too many nights with Bert at the gay bar where he is, apparently, Norm. I also had a lovely dinner with Jonesy, followed by Theatre for a New Audience's terrific production of Merchant of Venice (which I think merits its own post, and is likely to get it).

So all in all, a lovely time. . . and the work end of things wasn't so bad, either.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Networking: You Never Know

Dr. Crazy put up a post several days ago about the importance of networking for junior scholars that generated a great discussion. Crazy was arguing that graduate students (and to a lesser degree junior faculty) are really shooting themselves in the foot if they don't learn how to socialize and network at conferences. It's a point that I entirely agree with--you can build a career on the sheer brilliance of your work, no question, but given how long it takes to get anything into print, and what a limited number of conferences most junior scholars can afford to present at, the sheer-brilliance approach can mean that your career takes an awfully long time to get going if you aren't also getting out there and meeting people.

Many of Crazy's commentors expressed anxiety about the need to be social, if one is an introvert, or disgust at the fakery of so much conference schmoozing. I understand that perspective, too, but I think that's the wrong way to think about professional networking. It's not, ultimately, about kissing up to someone important (even someone whose work you genuinely admire), nor is it about calculating who might be a "useful" person for you to know. To me, it's about getting to know people, pure and simple: making connections, making friends, learning more about the shape of your own field. And knowing people means that you will, eventually, know "useful" people--but it also means that you'll know interesting people, and fun people. . . and who doesn't want more of that in their life?

I'm not an extrovert, and I have a fair amount of social anxiety and a definite imposter complex. But I love going to conferences and I love meeting people. No, scratch that: I don't love meeting people--the awkwardness of initiating conversation and trying to figure out if the other person has any interest in talking to me--but I love knowing people. In my personal life I've always been a good keeper of friendships: I'm in touch with a large number of people from the previous stages of my life, and being in touch with them, and having them as a resource, really matters to me. And as far as I'm concerned, professional networking is a version of the same thing.

Sure, networking is more focused in its intentions than merely hanging out with one's friends, but that doesn't make it crassly utilitarian. I may say to myself, "Self, you really need to increase your visibility in Sub-Subspeciality A." But I don't go and find all the Important People in that field and try to finangle a meeting--I just go to a conference, give a paper, and make sure to talk to a reasonable number of people while I'm there. If there's someone whose work I admire, I make it a special point to meet them--but otherwise I just talk to whomever I run into, whether grad students, emeritus professors, journal editors, whatever. I don't work the room, but I don't stay in one place for an hour, either.

My philosophy is, simply: You Never Know. You never know who might be working on a project similar to yours--or know someone who is. You never know who might be on a hiring committee next year. You never know who might, in a year, or two, be putting together a panel and think of you for it. But you also never know who has a great piece of gossip, who can do a wicked impersonation of Famous Blowhard, or who knows the best bar or Ethiopian restaurant in town. In most cases, there's no immediate payoff to meeting someone, and when there is, it's usually more about luck than anything else. . . but that's not the point of meeting people. And unless you put yourself in the way of luck, on a regular basis, it's not going to know where to find you.

When I left one of my law firm jobs, back in the day, I made off with my desktop Rolodex. I don't use it in any meaningful way any more, but I do think of myself as having a mental Rolodex that I update and consult all the time: "Oh--you're moving to X City? I have a friend there you should totally meet"; "You're thinking about switching jobs? Well I know someone who made a similar move a couple of years ago. . ." Whirr! Whirr! Who do I know who. . . ? Is there anyone I can contact about. . . ?

Most of my professional friends and acquaintances are not friends in the sense that my "real" friends are. But just as my friends and I are continually offering each other advice, generating ideas, and expanding the number of our connections--and just as that activity is neither entirely selfish nor entirely disinterested--so it is with professional friends. Knowing people is good for you, absolutely. . . but knowing YOU is also good for THEM.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Approval sought, approval granted

Taking the very good advice of my commentors--especially Horace, Tenured Radical and Tony Grafton--I emailed my dissertation director yesterday and quite enjoyed it. Typing that chatty, cheerful, and occasionally slightly cheeky note I almost persuaded myself that its tone reflected the actual nature of our relationship. And if there's little historic truth to that particular fiction, at least it's a hopeful way of thinking about the future.

She wrote back within 12 hours, with typical brevity, but at enough length to tell me how nice it was to receive my "upbeat and grown-up" (!) message, mention one work she's now completing, and say that I should certainly let her know if there was anything I wanted her to read in the future.

So--what more could I ask for, and reasonably hope to get?