Thursday, December 31, 2009

MLA: Day Three

My last day at MLA was its usual frantic semi-disaster: a sleep-deprived attempt to pack and check out and grab coffee and hit the book exhibit all before my first panel. And so I found myself running up and down escalators in heels, hauling my heavy, post-14-day-vacation luggage after me; going to the usurious hotel ATM to get money for the maid and then leaving her an entire $20 when I couldn't find somewhere to get change; yelling at the book reps who had gone and sold the copy of the display book I'd already put my name in (and paid CASH MONEY for) the previous day--and then, out of time, still not having gotten food or coffee, spending 75 in-panel minutes starving and yawning voluminously.

But! The panels I attended were good, and my own was very good (no credit to me, except insofar as I'm pleased to take credit for knowing smart people who give great paper), and I wrapped it all up with a nice lunch before resubjecting myself to the horrors of SEPTA, NJ Transit, et al.

It was a good MLA, though I confess that I've rarely had a bad one; I'm one of those people who likes the energy and the whole freaky show. It probably also helps that, as dire as the market is this year, I know only a very small number of people who are on it--and they've mostly had promising preliminary news. Fingers crossed for them, and for the rest of you.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

MLA: Day Two

So I finally got my ass to some panels today--one quite good and one less so--and met with my editor. And continued to spend a significant amount of time at the Marriott bar, god bless it and its beautiful, raised-level centrality: perfect for seeing and being seen and catching everyone I wanted to catch.

I also noticed, for the first time, the numerous Purell and hand-wipe dispensers ranged around the conference site. I suppose I'm as germ-phobic as the next person--but these, combined with the generally dire mood of the conference (fewer publishers hawking their wares and desperately fewer jobs on offer), contributed to the feeling of impending apocalypse.

My meeting with my editor was fine; I wasn't prepared to pitch the monograph in any serious way, but since I was meeting with her about my edition anyway, and since she represents a publisher I'd be delighted to have publish my monograph, it seemed to make sense to mock up a few documents and run the project by her. She took my materials and asked smart questions, but said, more or less, what I'd have expected: sounds great, but we'd like to see the full manuscript. Still, it was a pleasurable interview and moved me that much closer to thinking of the book as done.

I also had dinner with close friends from grad school, caught up with colleagues and former colleagues, and spent quality time with my two best conference buddies, one of whom was immediately identified by a third party as my "conference husband." And it's true: Fritz and I aren't in touch much between conferences, but we work on similar stuff and we're on completely the same wavelength when it comes to matters academic and para-academic and academically-social.

And really: as hard as it is that academia tears us apart from our nearest friends and most simpatico colleagues, there's something fantastic about the friendships and collegial relationships that it does foster. There are plenty of professional friends whom I adore, but whom I'm not sure I'd love quite as devotedly if they were in my department, or city, or regular life; the occasionality of our meetings means such friendships are both intense. . . and not called upon to be something they're not.

MLA: Day One

I eased slowly into the MLA experience yesterday. I got up at 11, after 9 hours of sleep (in my defense, I was still on west coast time, and had gotten up hideously early the previous day). Then I went to the hotel gym. Then I took a long shower and went to the book exhibits. There were no panels that I needed to attend, although some friends in different subfields were giving papers that I'd have liked to have attended, if only as a gesture of vague, intellectual support. . . but I didn't. I went back to my hotel room and tried to mock up a short book proposal, of my monograph, to give to the editor of my edition, when I meet with her today.

So apart from the hour that I spent at the book exhibit, I didn't go out in public until 5 p.m., to attend the reception hosted by my graduate department and then the reception and dinner hosted by the Milton Society. And then I repaired back to the new Marriott bar (again: good job on the bar, guys!) to meet up with friends.

The INRU reception was a depressing affair. Some years it gets housed in vaster and more poorly-lit spaces than others, but at least one can count on a full, open bar and an enormous spread of food. Not this year! We got tickets for just one free drink, and there were plates of nice-ish bread, three or four cheeses and a few vegetables. What good is my INRU Ph.D., if not to guarantee me a lavish almost-meal and free booze once a year? I guess this recession thing is for real! Not as many of my friends or cohort-mates attended as in years past, either, though I did get to see one good friend and some faculty I like, and found a nice colleague to hitch a ride over to the Milton dinner with.

Milton dinner highlight: meeting a young post-doc who, after five minutes of chit-chat, said, "So I'm familiar with your work on X, Flavia . . . but what are you working on these days?" (I replied with an only slightly more suave version of, "Hey! Someone I don't know reads what I write? Dude, I love you!") Lowlight: falling asleep continually during the 30-minute keynote address. No, wait: the real lowlight was when my cell phone rang between the keynote and the response, waking me up, and causing me to fumble moronically for the off switch. What idiot MLA buddy calls rather than texts? My idiot MLA buddy, apparently--but one with the good sense to skip that particular dinner. I'll take a page from his book next year.

And so to the bar, and so to bed.

Monday, December 28, 2009

MLA: arrival

Yesterday was a travel day, in which we journeyed across the entire U. S. of A. with frightening amounts of luggage and Christmas gifts--as if, like latter-day magi to lay them at the feet of our academic savior (whomever he or she might be). At the time that I made airline reservations it seemed to make sense to book a nonstop flight into Newark, and then train down to Philly. . . but actually? It totally didn't make sense, and riding Jersey Transit and SEPTA gave me gruesome flashbacks of the year I spent commuting between NYC and Philly. (But on a brighter note: the Trenton station isn't quite as horrible as it used to be. There's a Dunkin' Donuts! And brushed chrome fixtures! It now induces only half as much despair as before.)

And then we got to the hotel and conference center complex itself, which ought to be more familiar and more easily-navigated than it is, given that this is the third MLA Philly has hosted and I've attended in six years. I kept getting lost and going to the former locations of things that have now moved--most crucially, the bar and the book exhibit (which are, naturally, the two most central parts of Flavia's MLA experience). Props on the new bar, Marriott-folk, but no love for making me walk down the long, hushed, Last Year at Marienbad-ish hallway to the conference center . . . and then back, after discovering a cavernous, empty shell where the exhibits were formerly housed.

But I got my drink on, and to bed at a decent hour, so we'll see what today holds.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Merry merry, y'all

Here's the deal: I'm out west at the family homestead. I've submitted all my grades. My brother arrived today and in a few days Cosimo arrives--and I'm ostensibly working on my manuscript whilst shopping and eating and engaging in family togetherness.

So no blogging until MLA. In the meanwhile, take a lesson from young Flavia and don't trust that "Santa" guy for a second.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Academic freedom: Finkin and Post's For the Common Good

I recently read Matthew W. Finkin and Robert C. Post's For the Common Good: Principles of American Academic Freedom for a discussion sponsored by RU's Center for Teaching Awesomeness (h/t Lucky Jane). It was a great read, and one I recommend to anyone interested in the subject; it was a particularly nice counterpoint to Stanley Fish's Save the World on Your Own Time, which we read last winter.

At least for this non-specialist, Finkin and Post's book is a lucid and straightforward approach to the issues surrounding academic freedom. Chapters one and two provide historical background, with the first chapter describing how the concept of academic freedom emerged from conditions in first the medieval European university and then the nineteenth-century German research university. The second chapter details how those ideas got translated into the (significantly different) American context shortly after the turn of the twentieth-century, with the AAUP's 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure.

The remaining chapters outline the four different areas of academic freedom, as they've been codified over the years by the cases brought before the AAUP: freedom of research, freedom in the classroom, freedom of intramural speech and freedom of extramural speech.

Some of my co-discussants found the book anxiety-producing, I think because of its accounts of faculty members who were fired for shockingly minimal cause--and it's true that, even if the AAUP decided in those professors' favor and censured their universities, they were still out of a job, and it's beyond the scope of the book to investigate what happened to them. For me, though, the book felt liberating for the clarity it shed on a subject about which I realized I was tremendously ill-informed; public discussions about academic freedom (and indeed even debates within the professoriate) tend to throw the term around without much precision and without reference to case law; Finkin and Post, who are both legal scholars, attempt to rectify this.

Their central argument is suggested by their book's title: academic freedom is not the personal or individual right of faculty members to research (or teach or speak) as they see fit, but rather the collective right of the professoriate to self-governance: to produce knowledge and to regulate the production of that knowledge in a way that serves the public (42). Academic freedom is thus not the same as the First Amendment right to freedom of expression; it is both more restrictive and (in some ways) more extensive. As they write,

[E]xplicit within First Amendment doctrine [is the idea] that there is an 'equality of status in the field of ideas.' It is clear that this premise is inconsistent with the advancement of knowledge, which requires precisely that ideas be treated unequally, that they be assessed and weighed, accepted and rejected. The kind of individual freedom that underlies the structure of First Amendment rights is for this reason ill-suited to the production of knowledge. (43)

But if academic freedom is thus more limited than simple freedom of expression, at the same time it's an astonishing privilege: most people are not permitted the workplace rights that professors are--to pursue the projects they wish to pursue; to criticize the institutions that employ them; to express political or other sentiments that make those they work with uncomfortable.

Academic freedom, if it is to do the hard work of protecting faculty from the waves of repression that periodically sweep through the American polity, must explain why scholars ought to enjoy freedoms that other members of the public do not possess. . . . Academic freedom [as formulated by the AAUP] is the price the public must pay in return for the social good of advancing knowledge. (44)

But the only way that academics can make the case that this is what they're doing--providing a social good--is if they are indeed governing themselves, and following the norms and conventions of their discipline. In other words, scholars do not have to explain or justify the merits of their work in the terms set by elected officials or boards of governors or taxpayers or parents footing tuition bills (all of whom might be outraged by perceived challenges to their private morality or their personal political views, and who are not, after all, experts in the subject they propose to censure), but they do have to abide by the standards of their own discipline.

There's more, much more, and the restrictions on academic freedom when it comes to behavior in the classroom or when speaking out on institutional or political issues that don't bear immediately on the subject of a professor's research are rather tighter than those surrounding research. But you should read the book for yourselves.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Unacknowledged influences

Most of the influences on our scholarship, teaching, or even departmental citizen-hood are obvious and spring readily to mind: we all have crucial professors from college or grad school, seminal books in our field, and sometimes coaches or bosses or mothers whom we credit, effusively, with shaping aspects of our work ethic or our teaching persona.

But I suspect most of us also have unacknowledged influences: people and works and ideas that spoke to us at one point in time or during one stage of our lives, but that seem crazily or only counterintuitively related to who we are and what we do now.

For me, the most important of those mostly-forgotten influences is Camille Paglia.

I hadn't realized this myself until SEK's posts on Paglia several weeks ago, which made me think, for the first time in any real depth, about the effect she had on me when I was in high school and college.

I was 16 when "Rape and Modern Sex War" was published in the Sunday opinion section of my hometown newspaper, which must have been within weeks of its first publication in New York Newsday in early 1991. I found it electrifying. I loved the way she wrote, and the personality that I perceived to be behind it: smart, aggressive, take-no-prisoners. I couldn't remember ever reading a woman who wrote like that.

When Sex, Art, and American Culture was published the next year, I bought it and read it straight through--even though I didn't understand a great deal of what she was writing about (I had no idea what the culture wars were, or most of what was at stake in them). I went to see her when she came to speak on my college campus in 1994 or 1995, and then bought her second collection of essays, Vamps and Tramps, when it came out around the same time. Somewhere I picked up a cheap hardback of Sexual Personae, and looked forward to the day when I felt I'd be able to understand it (I did finally read it over winter break of my junior year).

But then, around age 22, I stopped reading her. Partly it was that Paglia's moment had passed and partly it was that her writing, as SEK notes, became lazy to the point of embarrassment and self-parody. But mostly I stopped reading or paying attention to her because I had other and more relevant sources for whatever she'd once given me--and since I wasn't reading or rereading her as an adult, it took me a long time to realize that we were largely not on the same side when it came to the culture wars, or feminism, or very much, really.

Still, from ages 16 to 22, I loved her. Partly it was the intoxication of her prose style (and dudes, think about it: I now work on Milton's polemical prose), but it was also that I had never encountered anyone like her: a female public intellectual who wrote and spoke as freely about pop culture as about high culture. I had had smart female teachers, and I must have seen female experts or academics on television, but I'd never seen a woman whom I perceived to be intellectually serious who was also fierce and mouthy and colloquial, or who came from a family background that was outside the usual centers of intellectual power.

I don't know that I needed Camille Paglia to become the academic and the woman and the writer that I am today; other models would have come along, and they did. But I'm grateful to her all the same.


What are your unacknowledged influences?

Friday, December 04, 2009

Curtain up

My least favorite part of every class is the several minutes before it actually begins.

I tend to show up a bit early, to ensure that the room is in order--the chalkboard erased, the portable podium removed, the desks arranged into a semi-circle--and to facilitate the returning of response papers or to get my own materials ready to go. The problem is, one either leaves not enough time or too much time, and when it's the latter I never have any idea what to do with myself.

My students are usually chattering among themselves, or at least clutches of them are, and since my classes are not seminar-style even when they're seminar-size, the room set-up isn't conducive to my making jokes or chit-chat with them even if I were inclined to do so. Instead, I busy myself with my materials, dog-earing pages of my text and writing unnecessary notes on my lesson plan. If I have quite a lot of time to kill, as I sometimes do when I teach back-to-back classes in the same room, with a 15-minute passing period between them, I sit behind my desk, quietly reading. Eventually I plunk myself atop the instructor desk, waiting for the last 30 or 60 seconds to pass, swinging my legs and smiling in what I hope is a genial rather than striken or maniacal way.

I always feel terribly unnatural and terribly self-conscious in those minutes, as if someone had raised the curtain before showtime and caught me out of character, lolling around or doing breathing exercises or reviewing my cues. Because that's the thing: as soon as class begins--as soon as the second hand hits 12--I'm all energy and good humor and animated intensity. I hate revealing that my teaching persona has an on/off switch; ideally, I'd like to stride into the room already in character and launching immediately into action.

But who knows? Maybe there's something useful about breaking that fiction and letting my students see me when I'm just on standby: in costume and stage makeup, but still waiting in the wings and fidgeting with my props.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Extra parents

Cosimo has now met my dissertation director and I've met his. It feels like bringing someone home to meet the parents--except with a less clear script and a less clear sense of what the introduction is meant to accomplish.

When you take a new partner home to meet your actual parents, you're facilitating an introduction of people who might conceivably wind up stuck with each other for decades; even if they see each other only infrequently, the two parties will play a continuing role in each others' imaginative lives for as long as each is associated with you.

The same, presumably, is not true of the advisor/advisee relationship. Yes, my advisor is one of my most important intellectual influences, and yes, Cosimo is in an adjacent subfield and might have had a distant professional interest in meeting her (or she in meeting him). But it wasn't about anyone's intellectual or professional life--or if it was, it was about that weird space in which the intellectual and the emotional overlap and are indistinguishable from each other.

I spend a lot of time in that space. And in it, my advisor is mother, father, and both sets of grandparents.

Friday, November 20, 2009


Cosimo and I are headed to my alma mater to attend this year's Big Football Game. I missed it last year for a conference, but otherwise I've gone every single year since I matriculated; among my friends, it's become a reunion weekend.

The catch: Cosimo is an undergraduate alumnus of that other school: the one we're playing, and the center of all that is evil in this universe.

Luckily, over past games, I have consistently proven myself a model of charity and temperance.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Shakes Invaders

We were about 45 minutes into our three-hour Shakespeare class the other night when the classroom door opened.

I was perched atop the instructor desk in front of the blackboard, my 25 students arranged before me in a semi-circle. We were working through a scene in Troilus and Cressida, and when I heard the door open, slightly behind me, I didn't look over. I was mid-sentence, and figured it was a student slipping in late.

Instead, a young man and young woman walked right into the center of the room and started performing part of the banquet scene from Romeo and Juliet.

We stopped abruptly. Fucking theatre kids, I thought. They must be advertising a production. Assholes. But since I knew the scene, and they'd already started, I figured I'd let them finish--surely they were just going to do the shared sonnet, and would be done in another dozen lines.

But they got to the end, kissed, and kept going.

The door opened again, and a third person came in: the Nurse. She got out a few lines, but when it became clear they weren't going to stop, I stood up.

"Thanks so much," I said sharply. "But you have the wrong semester: we do tragedies in the spring."

For the first second or two, even after I'd stood up, they didn't break character, but showed every sign of wanting to continue.

"You can leave NOW."

They slunk, grinning and only slightly abashed, to the door. As they got there, the woman playing Juliet announced something about this being a senior project--guerrilla Shakespeare, or some such shit.

After they left, my students and I stared at each other, rattled. We confirmed that none of us knew what the hell that had been, and that it hadn't been planned by any of us. One volunteered that she'd seen them doing this around campus--in the student union, and the bookstore.

There was a bit more nervous venting, but finally it seemed time to regroup.

"Okay," I said. "Let's return to the play we're actually reading, which is not Romeo and Juliet." I paused, thinking fast. "But the language you just heard Romeo and Juliet using--that overblown, self-consciously romantic language? That's really the same language Troilus is using in the scene we were just looking at. . . "

From the back of the room one of my students called out, "NICE segue!"

"Yeah," I shot back. "Most important thing I learned in graduate school."

* * * * *

We recovered, more or less, but what strikes me most about the episode is how different my reaction was from that of my students. I was pissed from the moment the actors entered, and although I didn't know what they were doing--and thought one of my own students might have engineered it for some misguided but well-intentioned purpose--I knew they weren't supposed to be there, and that I could get them out. My students, though, were much more shaken; some seemed genuinely upset.

It occurs to me that this is about the power dynamic in the classroom: I'm in charge and I know I'm in charge. My students, in a way that I don't often think about, are not in charge--even in a boisterous class where it can take me a while to get them to quiet down or to hush those having side conversations. Yes, they can tune in or tune out, and get up to go to the bathroom without asking my permission, but they don't feel they have the power to change what happens in that confined space; when something does happen, all they're able to do is watch.

The interruption also made me think about how vulnerable the classroom is. We think we're in a separate and semi-charmed space for those 60 or 90 minutes, but the world can come inside without our permission--whether it's jerky drama students or a medical emergency or a kid with a gun.

I'm still pissed at the actors (I spent almost 24 hours walking around muttering "fucking theatre people" under my breath), but I'm not sorry to have had the chance to think, in a concrete way, about my obligations to those in my charge for a few hours every week.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

I love you. Now scram.

As my previous post suggests, I've been thinking about RU's graduate program lately. Not only is this spring the first time I'll be teaching an all-grad class (rather than a mixed grad/undergrad one), but I've also been writing a heck of a lot of recommendation letters.

I've written before about my ambivalence toward encouraging students to pursue an M.A. in English, but lately my ambivalence is centered, specifically, on the number of very good English majors I see turning around and applying to our own M.A. program.

This is something I absolutely do not encourage. It's not that I think our graduate program is particularly weak; it's uneven, to be sure, in part because it serves a very mixed population. Traditionally, we've served public school teachers seeking the M.A. in order to get their permanent certification, but we're increasingly getting younger students who have different ambitions; many talk about and some even go on to pretty decent Ph.D. programs.

But although recruiting our best recent graduates would seem to strengthen our M.A. program, I don't think that staying at their undergraduate institution is in the interests of those who are considering doctoral work; heck, even from a personal-growth perspective I don't think it's in their interests: go somewhere else! Do something new!

I know that many of our students have strong ties to this area, and either can't leave or can't imagine leaving; I know that sticking with the known--a campus they're comfortable with and professors they like and look up to--has what seems an irresistible logic. But it's not irresistible. It's just easier.

Last year I had a long conversation with a former student who's among the two or three smartest I've taught in my four years here, and the one I'm most confident could handle doctoral work. She said she was considering graduate school, but wasn't sold on it, so I told her to take a few years off and just live life--and, if she decided to apply for an M.A., to do it at a doctoral institution. When she left my office, she seemed relieved and happy that graduate school wasn't the only option for an articulate, intellectually curious person.

A month or so later she was back after having apparently decided (or, ahem: having been advised) that RU's program was really an ideal way to get her feet wet and "try out" graduate school. I wrote her a letter, she got in, and she's back.

Am I thrilled that she'll be taking my M.A. seminars? Yes. Do I think she raises the level of discussion in every class she's in (and provides an important intellectual model for her peers)? You bet. Am I disappointed that she's here? Absolutely.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Spenser/Milton bleg

Next semester I'm teaching an M.A. seminar on Milton, as well as doing an independent study with another M.A. student who has already taken both an undergraduate Milton and a graduate Spenser class--but who wants to reread both authors and get more deeply into the secondary criticism.

Now, I'm a Miltonist, after a fashion, but I usually teach Milton at the undergraduate level--with just a few critical essays or book chapters as supplements. When I teach Spenser it's only a book or two at a time, and I know nothing, absolutely nothing about Spenser criticism, old or new.

So tell me, Renaissance peeps: what criticism (articles or book chapters, or one or two entire books) would you consider essential for M.A. students to read on either author?

Sunday, November 01, 2009

The big time

My work received its first published review the other day (not counting summaries of the "recent work in X Studies" variety), in the form of a review of a collection of essays to which I'm a contributor. The review of the collection as a whole is quite good, as well it should be--it's a damn fine book.

My chapter, however, the reviewer hated. He devotes an enormous paragraph to its crimes against right-thinking and right-reading, and declares it to be the collection's "most disturbing" essay.

I wonder if he'd be equally disturbed by a thank-you note?

Thursday, October 29, 2009

What do we do about the past?

My title comes from an old post by A White Bear, which resonated with me at the time and which has remained with me. I don't know what to do about the past. And I'm obsessed by my own insufficiency in the face of it.

Mind you, I don't consider myself a person who lives in the past; I rarely waste time regretting past actions (sometimes things need to be atoned for, but that's about moving forward rather than getting bogged down in what can't be changed), and I'm not prone to depression. I'm future-directed and tend to have faith that things will eventually, inevitably, get better: my life is Whig history in action!

But although my personal narrative is generally one of progress and improvement, I've never been able to dismiss earlier stages and selves as merely shadowy types prefiguring a glorious and eventual Truth. Neither am I able to shrug and say, "that was then, this is now." I'm baffled--totally baffled--by the fact that one reality ended, and things changed. How can I not be the person that I was then? Or if I am that person, why isn't the present the same as the past?

Much of my writing on this blog has been an attempt to assimilate my experience of graduate school: to make sense of how I got to where I am now, and what role that uniquely horrible period of my life played in getting me here. I feel totally unlike the person I was then, but I was that person, for years and years. Yes, I can talk glibly about lessons learned and how I'm so much better for all of it, but even though I believe that narrative, the lived experience was something more than its role in that story.

I'm equally unable to make sense of my past romantic relationships. I don't understand how it's possible to go from having someone as a central feature of your world to someone who is at best peripheral to it. Again, this isn't about wanting to return to those relationships, or even about nostalgia, exactly; I feel this about my "bad" boyfriends as well as my "good" ones, and about relationships that I ended as well as those that were ended against my wishes. There was this thing, made up of two people. The two people still exist, but the thing does not.

The past has its own weather. And just as when we live in one climate it's hard to remember the feeling of living in another, so it's hard to capture, in the present, what it was to live in the past. We can describe it endlessly, and even accurately, but we can't quite conjure it up. I know how intensely I used to love certain books or movies or songs, and I get a nostalgic thrill when I reencounter them, but I can't feel that original feeling.

I need my past. I'm terrified of losing it. But I can't gain any purchase on it.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

GEMCS 2009

I'm just home from GEMCS, which was unusually small and even-more-than-usually disorganized this year. The first I can blame on Dallas, which seems to have been universally loathed as a conference destination when it hosted the 2008 SAA (almost no one I know who attended that SAA made it to this GEMCS), and the second I can blame on. . . well, I won't blame anyone publicly for the second.

And indeed, Dallas and I did not get off to a good start. The cabdrivers were a combination of hostile, overly-chatty, and incompetent, while the hotel rooms were huge and self-consciously luxe--but evidently designed by someone who had never actually stayed in a hotel room: mine was twice as big as any room I've ever stayed in for a conference (and three times as big as some), with vast acres of unused space. It lacked drawers in the obvious and necessary places, was poorly lit, and the bathroom was missing towel racks and had a shaving/makeup mirror I couldn't see into even when wearing two-and-a-half-inch heels.

Then there was the opening reception, in a beautiful space tremendously hard to get to (the organizers helpfully gave instructions involving first one train and then one bus, which, I'm sorry: ain't happening when half the attendees have barely gotten off a plane and had time to shower by that hour).

But things got better. For one thing, I knew or met people with cars. For another, my paper session was relatively early. For a third--well, it's hard not to have fun at GEMCS. It's a winsome mess of a conference every year, like that college-era boy- or girlfriend you can't stay mad at because they're so much fun (though whether said conference is the one you want to marry is another question).

For the first time I was on a panel entirely with friends, people I'd known in graduate school, though not people I'd known equally well or all of whom work in my period--and that was fantastic, as was spending so much time with them; we'd exchanged work before the conference, so I spent my plane flight reading their chapter and article drafts and we had a work huddle later in the weekend, which was exhilarating in all the ways that one's own work so rarely is.

We also had another grad school friend who'd just gotten a job in the area, and she was determined to get us the hell out of downtown and show us a good time. Said good time involved spending hundreds of dollars at a designer consignment shop, swilling much too much booze, and eating all manner of Things Barbecued and Things Fried--but it was a blast, and proved that there is indeed fun to be had in Dallas.

This is also the second conference I've gone to with Cosimo, who's in an adjacent subfield, and that was lovely too--he's got hilarious, brilliant friends of his own, and it's fun to share them and the conference experience; it also feels satisfyingly efficient to be able to combine work-travel with relationship-travel.

So thanks, GEMCS, for coming through. Maybe even my first-day public display of bitchiness--totally warranted, but not entirely well-considered--will have passed into oblivion before we meet again.

Saturday, October 17, 2009


When I have a very early morning flight--as I did traveling to Western City yesterday and as I will on my return on Monday--I try to sleep as late as possible, packing the night before and taking only the briefest of showers. I do wash my hair, and I dress nicely but comfortably. However, I do not put in my contacts and I do not put on any makeup.

And no matter how well I'm dressed, when I'm wearing my glasses and un-made-up, I get treated completely differently. To some degree this is my intention: I don't want to interact with the world at that hour or in those circumstances, so I'm not wearing my public face. But it's still unnerving. If I accidentally bump into someone, and smilingly apologize? If I make a joke or two with an airline agent or small talk with a TSA employee? Old, young, male, female: everyone I encounter is far less likely to respond, to smile, to engage with me in any way.

I guess this is something I've long intuited, and it's probably influenced, over the years, the way I present myself. But it pisses me off to be reminded of what we value and respond to in others. On an overnight flight to Rome last year, the flight attendant checking my passport made an exaggerated, comic routine out of not being sure whether I was the woman in my photo. And at a conference hotel I once ran into a colleague as I was checking in immediately after getting off a 6 a.m. flight. I said hi, and he (after figuring out who I was) said, "wow, you look really. . . tired."

I was tired, and I know that every one of us sometimes has difficulty recognizing people when they change their appearance or are out of their usual context. But I also know that what we read as "awake" and "rested" involves concealer and mascara.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Random bullets of dear God: isn't it November yet?

Around these parts, we're limping toward the midpoint of the semester. I guess Week Seven always finds me dragging and feeling overwhelmed, but it hits me with new and surprising force each time.

Among the things currently sapping my strength:

  • Grading. 'Nuff said.
  • I'm chairing a major departmental committee. The work isn't monumental (and I've been fortunate in how little service I've been expected to do in previous years), but it's still new work, with the attendant learning curve.
  • Fall. I love fall, but I always get a bit moody and prone to bursting unexpectedly into tears at this time of year.
  • The fabulous progress I made on my manuscript over the summer has not been sustained, and I'm mad at myself for that.
  • After more than two years, I recently got back in touch with my ex-partner. It's been a good, healthy, and even basically banal event--but reintegrating him and parts of our shared past into my present has still taken up a certain amount of psychic space.
  • Recommendation letters. Endless recommendation letters
  • Another one of my local friends is moving away. I've been developing and/or deepening other friendships, of course, but this is a reminder of how transient most members of my social circle really are.
  • I'm traveling each of the next two weekends, most of the way across the country both times.
  • One of those trips is for a conference. For which I have yet to write my paper.
  • I'm not getting enough sleep. I had a brief cold a few weeks ago that left behind a lingering cough that acts up at night--and though I'm now on antibiotics, having two cats isn't conducive to getting an uninterrupted 8.5 hours, either.
  • Did I mention grading?

Damn. October really is a brutal month. How's it with you-all?

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Worked out

I'm a 34-year-old woman who has never belonged to a gym. I've never run regularly or taken a yoga, aerobics, or any other fitness class. I might be the only person of my age, class, and dress size for whom these things are true.

Part of the problem is that I appear fit: I'm slim and I've been within 10 pounds of the same weight since I was 18. I guess I'm moderately active; living alone for 15 years has meant that I'm used to moving my own furniture, lugging bags of groceries around, and installing and uninstalling my 75-pound air-conditioner by myself. I also don't eat much, and I stretch regularly and use free weights occasionally.

But although I've never deceived myself that I was actually in shape, with no connection between how fit I looked and how fit I was, there wasn't much motivation to work out. I thought about joining a gym for a while when I was in my early 20s--I was living in Manhattan and it seemed like A Thing One Did--but there was always something more appealing to spend my money on.

And yet today I'm on the verge of joining a gym. I've had a trial membership at one for the past couple of weeks, and to my surprise, I like it. Turns out that stuff about endorphins? Is totally true!

More importantly, I'm 34, and while I hope that I have another 34 years in me--if not indeed another 50 years--this is the body I'm stuck with. It's not going to get any better.

Maybe there's something to that whole mens sana in corpore sano bit after all.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009


I'm tired of talking about rape. I'm tired of thinking about rape. I'm tired of thinking about rape even when I'm not thinking about rape--as women always are, on some level, when deciding which street to take when they walk home alone after dark.

We talk about rape in my classes; it comes up when you teach early literature. Usually it's just in passing, when discussing, say, the prehistory of Theseus and Hippolyta when we're reading A Midsummer Night's Dream and someone vaguely remembers something about the war with the Amazons. I put the word raptus on the board and explain that this is where rape comes from: taken, plundered, stolen, a spoil of war. What happens in warfare in the ancient world? The conquered people are taken, enslaved. But it means something different for women.

I also talk about rape when I teach composition, which I design largely around contemporary issues. I run hard at those issues, trying to give serious airing to different positions--even positions with which I violently disagree--on topics such as abortion and gay marriage. Officially, we talk about our readings in terms of their rhetorical effectiveness; my students are not allowed to discuss their "feelings," although they can talk about what kinds of readers would and would not be persuaded by a particular argument, and why. But of course, the personal beliefs of some of my students inevitably become clear.

Today was the day that my comp class read a couple of essays on rape and sexual assault. They're a brilliant pair to teach together, as they're rhetorically strong and rhetorically flawed in entirely different ways. But it's exhausting to teach them to eighteen-year-olds. It's exhausting to have to keep one's cool when someone suggests that "girls just need to be more careful" or "one claim of rape, and a guy's life is ruined forever."

"Okay," I say, over and over, "that's a fair point. . . but what's a counterargument?"

I make them do the work, and push them to find the flaws in their assumptions, and sometimes surprising things happen. I had a student come into my office once with a topic proposal for a paper along the lines suggested above: that it wasn't fair that a girl could just call anything rape, when there was no proof, and guys had no defense.

I didn't really know the kid, who'd been a silent and seemingly sullen presence in the classroom. I knew that he was an athlete, and not unhandsome, and I wanted to punch him in the face. But I gathered all my energy together to work with him: what he was really saying was that rape is a terrible thing, right? And it's such a terrible thing that we have to be careful to use the term precisely, because otherwise it could lead to our taking rape less seriously. Right?

He didn't say much of anything, and after struggling for several more minutes I finally said, in my brightest tone, "You see? The problem is that if you're not careful, you're going to sound like an asshole."

I spent the next couple of weeks hating him. He turned in a first draft that infuriated me, although it wasn't as egregiously awful as I'd expected. I put him in a workshop group with three smart, outspoken women, and I gave him a lot of patient but pointed feedback about the things he was overlooking. And to my astonishment, his final draft was quite good. It still wasn't making an argument that I wholly accepted, but he'd clearly done his own thinking about the issues and arrived at a compromise position that showed imaginative empathy for women.

So it's worth it, I guess, but it's still exhausting--and it felt even more exhausting today, the day after I learned of Roman Polanski's arrest and the day after I received an email from campus police reporting the sexual assault of a student, just a block from my office, by three 18-22 year-old men; presumably fellow students.

Even when it's not dark alleys or famous film directors, shit happens to women. My friend Evey and I once came up with the term "ambiguously non-consensual" to describe the kinds of experiences that lots of us have had that don't count as rape (whether clinically or in our own heads), but that are somewhere on the spectrum. The proper term is probably "sexual assault," but that can feel wrong, too. What counts as ambiguously non-consensual? Lots of things. Let's say the man is someone you're dating, or want to date, or have a crush on; let's say it's someone you were prepared to sleep with (or maybe already had), but not that night. Let's say you were asleep at the time, or drunk. Let's say you said no, but didn't physically resist because you were so surprised or confused. Let's say he asked you out subsequently, and acted like nothing had happened, and you tried to make a relationship out of it.

Stuff like that. And when we don't call it sexual assault, it's not just because it's more comforting to believe that we have some control--maybe we messed up, but we can prevent it from happening in the future--but because we forget, often, that in scenarios like these the man actually did do something wrong.

Does he know that he did something wrong? That I'm not so sure about. I'd bet that most assailants of the type I've described above go on to become basically loving husbands and even concerned fathers of daughters. I'd bet they remember the act as mutually enjoyable. They may talk ruefully about their horndog youth, but not with any sense that they mistreated anyone. They wanted sex, and it seemed available. Active consent wasn't something they thought to look for.

Indeed, if there's one thing that the Polanski arrest proves, it's that society doesn't take a woman's consent especially seriously; as Kate Harding notes, the Polanski case is being treated as "merely" statutory, "merely" a matter of the girl being 13 (though she looked 18!). Forget about the fact that he drugged her, and that she still said no, repeatedly, while she was repeated raped and sodomized.

This week I'm reminded--though I never really forget--that we see women and especially young women as things for taking, rapere. And though I'm tired of talking about rape and I'm tired of thinking about rape, I'm even more tired of that.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Journal of the plague year

Is mine the only campus plastered with flyers--rephotocopied so many times that their graphics have disappeared and their smaller-font text is unreadable--urging us to COVER YOUR COUGH, WASH YOUR HANDS, and STAY HOME if we feel sick?

There are four different ones in the ladies' room nearest my classroom.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Advisors are people too

Over the weekend I sent my dissertation director what I think of as my semi-annual email message; since getting a tenure-track job, I've rarely gone more than nine months without dropping her a note. Sometimes it's because I need something; sometimes I want to thank her for something; sometimes I'm giving her a heads-up that I'll be coming through town. And when none of those conditions has applied, it's simply seemed politic to stay in touch: sooner or later I would need something from her.

The subtext of these messages used to be, "look how well I'm doing! how on the ball I am! please be proud of me, or at least remember I exist." It's not that I didn't think she cared about how I was doing, and it's not that I didn't wish to have a genuine relationship with her; the desire for such a relationship may in fact be the primary reason I kept writing. But telling myself that it was strategic to keep in touch made it easier to contact this woman I'd never had a personal relationship with, and who was bound up in so many ways with my generally brutalizing experience of graduate school.

Seeing her one-on-one this past winter and even two summers ago, however, made me feel that we were getting closer to an adult relationship. It's not that I got to know more about her, really, for if there's one thing graduate students make it their business to know, it's every last scrap of gossip about their professors' lives; I've been thinking about my advisor as a person and a personality for a very long time. But that day in January I felt a sudden, intense emotion for her--something more than just admiration and the desperate need for her approval. It's the difference, I guess, between knowing that someone is a complicated person and not caring that they're complicated; at a certain point you realize or decide that someone is in your life, and matters to you in ways that aren't just about you.

So the message I sent was a strange hybrid. The bulk of it still foregrounded the important things that have happened in my professional life (i.e., how amazingly I'm doing, and how deserving of head-patting), but I added a few lines about my personal life and people we know in common before concluding by asking after several specific matters in her life. The combination felt awkward. I'm not sure it's a message I'd want to receive, or would know quite what to do with if I did. But it seemed like a good start.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Speaking of the MLA

Am I a loooser for actually mailing them offprints of the two (two!) articles of mine that have yet to be indexed in the MLA Bibliography?

One of them is more than two years old. And if they ain't indexed in the database, ain't no one going to be able to find them.

Still. I can't help but feel that sending in one's own offprints is Not Quite On.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Textual intimacy

As my end-of-summer post suggested, I've been exchanging work in at least a limited way with a surprising number of friends. It's been pleasurable, but a little weird.

No matter how well you think you know a person--you may have gone to their parties or slept on their couch; gotten drunk or gone shopping together; attended their conference panels or read their published work--there's something different about reading their work-in-progress and having them read yours. It's like having sex with a long-time friend: you thought you couldn't know this person any better, and yet suddenly you have an entirely new kind of relationship, one that's only partly contiguous with your old one.

There's stuff, it turns out, that you didn't know about the other person, and you have to relearn how to interact: where the vulnerabilities are, and what you can say and how you can say it. If I tell a colleague that her chapter is great, but needs A, B, C, and D, will she understand that I actually do think it's great. . . or will she hear only the critique?

The process of getting to know our friends more intimately is richly rewarding, but like all processes it involves the passage of time--some of which time is spent feeling awkward or uncertain or unable to judge how things are going. (And patience, especially during periods of uncertainty, has never been Flavia's strong suit.)

I'm not sure whether it's easier or harder when the person one is getting to know textually/intellectually is the person one is dating. In either case, part of what I find discomfiting is having to acknowledge that I don't know this person fully, as he or she does not fully know me. When Cosimo and I started dating, his book was already under contract and he was making his final revisions; mine wasn't (and isn't) as far along, but at more than 200 pages and representing seven or eight years of my life, it's not a project with an easy point of access. Sure, it can be read. But everything bound up in it and everything behind it--the lived experience--isn't as readily assimilated.

Maybe it's just another version of the problem of aging: when you're 30 or 35 or 40, you've done a lot of things and you have a lot of past. It takes more in order to feel known. That doesn't mean it's not worth it, of course--knowing other people may be the only thing that is worth doing--but it takes a lot of talking and it takes a lot of reading and it takes a lot of time.

Sunday, September 06, 2009


I have a question that is probably unanswerable in its general form, but I'm going to ask it anyway: how do you decide how much background--historical, biographical, scholarly--is necessary or useful in contextualizing your own work?

Each chapter of my manuscript deals with a single author, and as much as I'd like to believe that all my future readers will pore over the eventual book from cover to well-worn cover, lingering over even its index in delight and edification, I'm assuming that most will actually come to it for just the one or two chapters most relevant to their own work.

That being the case, should I be writing for experts on each author, who don't need a lot of rehash? That has mostly been my strategy so far: I sketch out the bare outlines of the background issue in the text, footnote the shit out of it, and move along to apply or reinterpret the few bits that are important to the work I'm doing myself.

For instance,
"Lord Whasisface's two years away from London remain the greatest mystery of his biography. We know X and Y, but there has been disagreement about Z [insert huge footnote]. However, it seems safe to assume that some part of Z occurred, for its imprints are all over his subsequent work."
"Scholars have traditionally read this work as either A or B [insert huge footnote]. A more complicated picture emerges if we look at [whatever the fuck brilliant thing Flavia has discovered]."

Again, I know there's no hard and fast rule for this, but I'm curious as to how the rest of y'all weigh the pros and cons of lingering over background context that, while perhaps interesting in its own right, is widely and even tediously familiar to a portion of your audience--but only skechily known to another, probably smaller portion.


Monday, August 31, 2009

What I did on my summer vacation

Or: wheels within wheels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reviewed one book MS for a publisher

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

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

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

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

Calvin Trillin, Remembering Denny

Richard Russo, Empire Falls

The book for RU's summer reading program

A friend's recently-published novel

François Cusset, French Theory

Eve Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet

Fredric Jameson, Political Unconscious

The Odyssey (audiobook)

The Aeneid (audiobook)

Lolita (audiobook)

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

Productions of Coriolanus and Fences

Evey and her band rocking the farmers' market

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

Attended two weddings

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

Spent a week in New England

Met Cosimo's family, as he met mine

Adopted a second cat

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

Had one of my closest friends move away

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

Monday, August 24, 2009


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

Allow me to introduce Schwartz:

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

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

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Dumb cutie-pixies

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 18, 2009


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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Many are the ways of sucking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 30, 2009

A gift unlooked for

I just discovered that RU's classes begin on August 31st--not August 24th, as I've believed since May.

Holy shit, people! I just found an extra week of summer.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Loss of faith

I've published several articles derived from my dissertation/book manuscript, and although there are things that embarrass me a bit about all of them--especially the brash, pugnacious tone I now recognize as peculiar to the graduate student--I still consider them basically solid pieces of work.

However, there's one whose central argument I no longer fully believe in. It's still a plausible argument, I think, and even a profitably provocative one, but I'm not prepared to go to the stake for it.

The problem is, the material from that article accounts for nearly half of the chapter I'm currently revising. And it's the better half.

I think that the way I'm reframing both the chapter and the book will allow me to moderate and rephrase that particular claim while still retaining nearly all my sub-arguments and local readings, but I'm torn between wanting essentially to keep the damn argument--I wouldn't write that tendentiously now, but I kinda enjoy the confidence behind it--and fearing it will weaken the entire chapter. I'm also not sure what my ethical obligations are: if one changes an argument radically between one published work and another, does one need to acknowlege that fact in the text? In a footnote? Anywhere at all?

I'm sure such losses of faith or changes of heart must be relatively common, especially over the course of a long career working on the same or similar texts and topics. If you've ever had a loss of faith in your earlier claims and have contemplated publicly revising them, what have you done?

Monday, July 20, 2009

Avoidant personality disorder*

Almost every day that I write, I begin by avoiding writing. Some days I'm so successful that I don't write at all, but most days I eventually settle down to it. After I:
-Call or instant-message a friend

-Discover a bunch of magazines or journals that I really have to plow through and get out of my life and my living room

-Look at pictures of shelter cats online and think about adopting a second one


-Browse and fantasize about a summer or leave semester abroad

-Crack open those books from inter-library loan

-Balance my chequebook
Indeed, if I get interrupted in my writing, I sometimes go through this process all over again: I settle down to work and within 60 seconds have lept back up to do something else.

Nevertheless, I am working, and I'm taking comfort in the argument that self-discipline breeds more self-discipline.

Right now I'm revising what was the first chapter of my dissertation and is now the second chapter of my book. I've got a core of basically strong readings that I have to rework to fit my now rather different argument, relate closely to a chapter that previously didn't exist, and strip of the embarrassingly tendentious and unscholarly surrounding verbiage that I was very proud of 4-7 years ago.

So I'm doing my usual plodding series of revisions by hand: 10-15 pages a day of careful, interlineated changes; input onto computer when done; print out new draft; repeat. With each round I know there's stuff I'm missing--I get so wrapped up in one paragraph that I forget what happens two pages later and that I need to set up or lead into in some way--but I figure I'll catch it in the next round. Or the one after that.

Gradually, it sucks less. In the end it might not suck at all. And the process isn't without its pleasures--but it's certainly not as compelling as kittens, apartments in Florence, or even the mysteriously tenacious crud in my bathtub.

*Dude, it's totally in the DSM.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Who do you say that you are?

This here's a question for my Renaissance peeps (and scholars of religion and lit or religious history more generally):

How common is the term "Protestant," when applied to the people we now call Protestants, by the people we now call Protestants?

My sense has been that "Christian" (or something similarly broad and/or vague, like "our church") is usually preferred, and that "Protestant" is more often used by Catholic polemicists than by actual Protestants--but that's just my sense, and although there's been a lot of scholarship challenging "Anglican" and "Puritan" as meaningful descriptive labels, I can't remember reading anything similar about "Protestant."

A preliminary EEBO search reveals that there are actually quite a few positive or neutral usages of the word, even in the sixteenth century. But since it's hard to search for the terms people use if they're NOT using "Protestant," that still doesn't give me a sense of its relative frequency or popularity.

Anyone have any sources or data points--either scholarly or Early Modern--to throw my way?

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Home furnishings

My book manuscript, I have decided, is a piano. And I don't know how to play the piano! But that's only part of the problem.

Several nights ago, I was out for dinner with a friend in the profession whose monograph is at about the same stage as mine.

"I think about my book every day," she said. "It's like a physical presence, like a piece of furniture."

We started talking about what kind of furniture our manuscripts would be, if that's what they were: something hideous? merely functional? twee and filligreed in a house full of midcentury-modern?

"Well," I said. "Mine's been in the corner with a sheet over it for ages. And it's nice there. Doesn't get in my way, and I can forget about it for long periods of time."

"But under that sheet, it's actually, uh. . ." I thought for a minute. "A piano. An upright piano. Nothing fancy, like a grand, but old and rather handsome--maybe something I inherited from a great-aunt?"

"I can't get rid of it. But I don't know how to play it. And it would be pretty just to look at, I guess, and for sentimental value--except that it doesn't really fit in my apartment, and I'd have to organize a whole room around it, and if I'm going to have it, I want to be able to play it, and not just, like, put doilies on it or whatever."

It was one of the more illuminating conversations I've had about my work--or, really, my vision of my career--in a while.


If your book manuscript (or dissertation, or latest research project) were a piece of furniture, what would it be?

Friday, July 10, 2009

Random bullets of coming back from Cali

You'll be gratified to hear that my trip to SoCal was entirely worth my week-long absence from this blog. At least, for me.

Some highlights:

  • I got to see my grandmother, who's very weak, but not in any pain. It was lovely to see how much she's meant to so many people: she's 88 and has hordes of friends and family members trooping in to visit her week after week.
  • Cosimo met my folks. Nothing disastrous happened, at least to my knowledge.
  • I saw my brother, albeit all too briefly, as he was down from SF for a couple of weddings (neither of them his).
  • Attending July 4th fireworks in La Jolla, followed by drinks and a late dinner at a bar overlooking the ocean.
  • Seeing this awesome production of Coriolanus. I'm now officially a Darko Tresnjak groupie.
  • Spending a long day L.A. with Cosimo's brother and his brother's girlfriend, who live on Sunset. We drove around the hills, spent hours on the beach in Santa Monica and Venice, and stopped in at a club where Cosimo's brother--a comedy writer and occasional performer--got some open-mike time.
  • I'm a wee bit tan.
  • I wouldn't mind living in California. But right now I'm damn glad to be teaching in my own state system, and not California's.

Thursday, July 02, 2009


I'm off for a week with the fam, chez my grand-maman.

It'll be pretty much like this:

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

There is no normal life

My summer-session class ends this week. It's been a relatively easy gig, and even a fun one, but it's got me on a strange schedule: I teach Tuesday and Thursday nights from 5.30 to 9.30 p.m. Now, I love a world in which I don't have to leave for the office until after 3 p.m., and teaching for four hours is a breeze when it's my only class (and one whose material I could teach in my sleep). But then I get home at 10 or 10.30, fix dinner, and read or write until 3 a.m.

I'm looking forward to having a more normal schedule for the last seven weeks of the summer, although I guess that "normal" isn't an accurate term: even if I were to spend all my time in the same city, going to bed at a decent hour and following something that looked like a regular routine, a schedule that one has for eight or ten or fourteen weeks is not, by definition, normal.

But is my term-time schedule normal? In the sense that I do it for the greatest number of weeks out of the year, yes--but given that a significant portion of my professional responsibilities, namely, most of my research, writing, and just plain thinking happens when school is not in session, then no: I alternate between one half of my job and the other (or, if you count service as an equivalent third, between two-thirds of my job and the other third).

I don't mind that division, but it leads to a peculiar understanding of time and timing. The belief that there is, or will be, a time for everything encourages deferral--which isn't a problem when it's an article or a syllabus (as long as those things eventually get done), but which has the potential to affect all areas of our lives: we can't clean the house until those papers are graded; can't work on the new book until we're on leave; can't have a baby until tenure.

This kind of deferral isn't unique to academia, of course; people in other professions let the rest of their lives slip when a big deal is closing or a case is going to trial--or simply because they feel they need to wait to do X or Y or Z until they're at a better or more secure place: with more money in the bank, a more stable job, a spouse. But I do think that academia, and especially the pre-tenure years of academia, encourages a continuing series of deferrals, large and small, as one jumps through a continuing series of hoops.

Cosimo, my gentleman friend, is up for tenure in the fall. Last week he submitted his final book manuscript. He's also been teaching summer school (and on a schedule radically incompatible with mine: five days a week, starting at eight a.m.). He's been a model of how to meet one's obligations without using them as an excuse not to do or talk or think about other things. But it's still hard, I think, for both of us--I suspect it's hard for all of us--not to say or believe, "as soon as this is done, I'll have time."

Time for ourselves, for other people, for everything. Not now, no. But soon.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Friends and colleagues

Last weekend was Augie's wedding. As long-time readers may recall, Augie is someone I knew slightly in graduate school who moved to Cha-Cha City the same year I did, for a job at a neighboring university, and who has since become a good friend. We were a couple of cohorts apart and technically in different deparments--but, given our shared background, I expected to see a bunch of people at the wedding whom I knew from grad school. What I didn't expect was to feel such a rush of warmth for them.

This has been happening to me a lot lately--not nostalgia for grad school, which I don't think is a period of my life I'll ever romanticize, but a sense of real affection and esteem for many of the people I knew there. Over the past year or two I've also had several friendships that began at INRU suddenly deepen and become more personal; I'm much better friends, now, with people I knew in grad school than I was while I was actually in grad school.

There are probably several reasons for this. One may be that I don't need the same things from these people now that I did then: during my first four years in the program, while I was actually living in Grad School City, I was terribly lonely and terribly insecure and my cohort was flying apart. I needed close, local friends who had some idea of what I was doing and enduring (academically and otherwise)--and my classmates for various reasons were not those people. These days I'm not lonely and not unduly insecure, and I have a great group of friends and colleagues. I don't need Grad School Friend A or Grad School Friend B to be my bestest friend ever, or my social or intellectual support system. That makes it easier to get to know them at whatever speed and with whatever limitations the relationship might turn out to have.

I got unlucky with my cohort (and possibly with my emotional and psychological makeup), but I don't think it's just me; everyone's happier now. Even when your program isn't cutthroat, as ours was not, grad school means living in a constant state of low-level panic about your abilities and your prospects; under those circumstances, it's hard to be someone you yourself like, much less to be open and generous enough to be a good friend to others.

I had a similar experience in college. Unlike in graduate school, in college I had a great group of friends--with whom I'm still very close--and yet I found INRU a socially and emotionally stressful place. One of my friends called it the "INRU cold shoulder": that experience we all had of walking down the street, seeing someone we knew from section coming toward us, and having a frantic 15-second internal monologue about whether we should say hello. (Will he recognize me? know my name? think he's too cool to talk to me? probably he IS too cool--but I should say hi anyway--well, I'll see if he says hi first--oh, no. . . he didn't.)

And yet, when I ran into exactly those same people in Manhattan, years after we'd graduated from college and years after whatever class we'd had together, we'd stop and talk for 35 minutes: eagerly, enthusiastically, unwilling to let the other person go. I think we missed college--or rather, we missed being so surrounded by smart, interesting people that we'd had the luxury of not bothering to know most of them.

So maybe that's what's happening here, too; it's been long enough for us to miss each other. This August it will be ten years since I started graduate school, six years since I moved out of that city, and three years since I took this job. I've been startled by the number of people from grad school who have recently friended me on Facebook, but perhaps we all want the same thing: to reconnect with those who went through it with us and whom we're abashed to find we never really knew.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Professional beginnings

I've been a reader for as long as I can remember. But although I can't isolate the moment that I knew I wanted to study literature any more than the moment that I knew I wanted to write (which came much earlier), I think I can identify the first time I realized that analyzing literature was a thing one did--and maybe something I had an aptitude for.

It was in ninth-grade English. We were reading a novel whose title and precise plot I no longer remember, but its protagonist was a pre-adolescent boy. I believe he was an orphan, and he might have been a Native American (I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, where we were assigned a lot of books about Native American boys). In one of the chapters the boy befriended, or maybe was just fascinated by, a wild or semi-wild animal; I think it was an unbroken horse. Our teacher asked us to look through the chapter and pick out the adjectives used to describe the horse, and as we called them out she wrote them on the overhead projector.

We had come up with perhaps a half-dozen words and phrases, not yet very far into the chapter, when I looked up, studied the list for a minute, and raised my hand.

"Those words?" I said, tentatively. "I think they don't just describe the horse. They also describe [the protagonist]."

My teacher gave me what may be the purest and most radiant smile of satisfaction I have ever received, as if I'd passed a test she'd set up in the hope but not the expectation that I might have exactly the skills--or talent or moxie--to succeed where others had failed.

The confident warmth of her approval is, in fact, probably why I remember this moment--for as literary insights go, it was not one for the ages. Maybe that's why I got into and persist in this business: in the hope of once again being told that I've gotten it exactly right.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Working: not actually so bad!

After various delays and false starts and irritating side projects to attend to, I returned to my manuscript last week. As I've suggested, I've been fighting a rising sense of panic as that day approached--believing my manuscript to lie in pieces, parts of which I knew to be good, but with lots of work to be done in lots of places and an overall logic that felt as if it were shifting and changing into something I no longer quite grasped.

But I got my ass and a chapter draft to the coffeeshop where I did most of my revising last summer (working at home is hopeless for me unless I'm reading or merely transcribing changes from longhand onto my computer). I bought my coffee and an M&M cookie, found a table ideally situated--my back to the plate-glass windows, not too close to the speakers--and spread out my materials and started reading.

I've been working on this chapter for ages, albeit with large gaps of time in between whiles, and I'd remembered it as being in decent shape but in need of a solid week or two of work. This depressed me, because the chapter after this one is truly a mess, but I felt I had to plow through this one and get it in the best possible shape before moving on.

But as I read and edited in longhand--mostly minor matters of phrasing, with a few new or substantially revised sentences here and there to clarify my argument--I had the experience that I never have.

Hey! I thought. This is fine.

It'll need work later, but it's fine to send to my mentor-type person in the fall. It's probably even fine to send to a press if anyone ever asks for the complete manuscript (once there is a complete manuscript, and a book proposal, and all that jazz). I can move on.

I doubt the rest of my revision process will be as agreeable, but for the moment I feel as though things are under control. I just need to keep getting out of the house and buying my M&M cookies and everything will be fine.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Textual scholarship is bunk

Several weeks ago I picked up an edition of Golding's translation of Ovid at a used bookstore. It was $12, and since I only wanted it for casual reference, I didn't care about having an especially scholarly edition. This looked like a perfectly serviceable transcription.

It is, and I'm happy with it. But I didn't expect its editor to be so aggressive about not having undertaken a more bibliographically ambitious edition. This is from his note on the text:
This present edition is based on the copy of the first edition (1567) now in the Library of the University of Illinois. Its purpose is simply to present the pleasant and delectable work to a reader interested in what must have been one of the favorite books of the young Shakespeare. . . . It is not, then, primarily a textual edition--one scrupulously based on a collation of many copies of the first and later editions, with the laudable purpose of arriving at a text scientifically as pure as possible--purer, in fact, than any Elizabethan ever happened upon. The boy from Stratford, for example, probably not long before 1580, would simply have picked up a copy of the book; it would not have occurred to him to compare it with other copies for variants in phrasing, spelling, punctuation, most of these due to human accidents--to the extra tankard of beer the compositor had at lunch, to the pretty girl who brushed by his window and set his hand a-fumbling among the letters, to failing light or weariness at the end of the day.

Ovid's Metamorphoses: The Arthur Golding Translation, 1567, ed. John Frederick Nims. New York: Macmillan, 1965
Wow. Contempt for textual scholarship just drips from those lines, doesn't it? Oh, those textual scholars, with their "laudable" (by which I mean, sweetly pathetic) devotion to a "scientifically pure" text! They should drink more beer and eye more pretty women and really, you know: live life. Like Shakespeare! And Golding's compositor! (And perhaps Professor Nims himself, who appears from his acknowledgements to have fobbed most of the edition's actual labor off on the English department's secretaries and typists.)

So those of you currently collating and shit? Stop right this minute!

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Unexpected events

Things I did not expect, ex-boyfriend edition:
1. That I would still not be speaking to my ex-partner, two years after the end of our six-year relationship.

2. That scarcely two months after the not-great end of a not-quite year-long relationship, I'd have resumed hanging out and even getting shitfaced drunk with my most recent ex-boyfriend--and that it would be entirely fun and entirely un-weird, and we'd be talking even more frankly than we had when we were together.
I'm not sure which of these two circumstances surprises me more. And while it would be incorrect to say that I find them equally agreeable, taken together they're a pleasant reminder (for apparently I need frequent reminding) that life is rarely what we expect.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Getting my head in the game

Tomorrow is the first of June and, according to decree, the day I return to my book manuscript. In practice this probably won't happen until Wednesday--tomorrow I have a vastly overdue book review to write and Tuesday I start teaching my summer class. But the manuscript WILL NOT BE DENIED.

This is the first summer since I moved here that I'll mostly be staying put--weekend trips and time spent chez my gentleman friend excepted. And although I am teaching a summer course, it's just a five-week Shakespeare class, which should require virtually no prep other than grading. I'm hoping, in fact, that teaching two days a week will allow me to structure my time more efficiently than I've sometimes been able to manage when day after untold day of freedom stretches before me.

So I've got a rough schedule for the whole summer; a day-by-day schedule through early July (with the rest of the summer to be filled in as we see how the first part goes); one long-term scholarly relationship in play and already, amazingly, giving me great feedback (speaking of people with their heads in the game); and another friend or two with whom I intend to exchange more limited parcels of work later in the summer.

I'm ready! Except actually also I'm terrified.

In theory I know all the things I need to do--light revision on these chapters, massive revision on those, new work here and there--but although it only seems possible to attack one problem at a time, moving slowly and steadily through the whole, I worry that the logic of the overall project is shifting and I'm going to lose sight of how it fits together and what makes sense. I'm just not sure how to deal with a project this big and this diverse.

Thoughts? Strategies? Hand-holding and soft cooing reassurances? All are welcome.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Always already late to my own blogiversary

I managed to miss my blogiversary yet again: as of Tuesday, I've been blogging for four years, three of them in this space.

Most of my thoughts about blogging are ones I've had before and don't need to rehash (even if repetition is the soul of Ferule & Fescue). But as I move into my fifth bloggy year, I'm struck by how inextricable my blogging and my professional life now feel. My corner of the blogosphere may be modest, but I've come to know an awful lot of my readers--and I like the way that blogging sometimes creates, but almost always reinforces and deepens my real-world connections.

I guess the term for that is "social networking," but I remain more interested in the social than the networking, and blogging under a pseudonym six or eight times a month in a personal essayish vein isn't exactly the fast lane to fame and influence. Still, it's a pleasure to know people and to think that some of them like knowing and reading me--and if pseudonymity is occasionally an inconvenience, it can also be a pleasure. Yes, it's awkward to worry about retelling a story I've already told on my blog to new acquaintances at conferences--and it's even more awkward to have to announce to someone who has gradually become a friend that, actually? I kinda have this blog? And no, I'm not, like, famous. . . except maybe, a little, to several hundred people.

But pseudonymity means that blogging is officially something I do on the side: I don't get "credit" for the writing I do here; casual acquaintances, arch-enemies, and students can't find this site by Googling me; and I assume or hope that none of my friends feels any obligation to visit. And yet people come wandering by anyway.

At my conference in London last summer, I went to dinner with some fun younger scholars I'd dined or drunk with earlier in the week, but whom I hadn't known before the conference. I was chatting with one of them when he suddenly asked, nonsequiturially, "So what are you doing this summer?"
"Um," I said. "It's mostly over, right? I'm here now and I was in [State Capital that Is also Home to a Major University] for all of June."

"Were you there on a. . . fellowship?"

"Yeah," I said. "At [institution]. Why?"

He smiled. "Then I guess I read your blog."
He and I are friends now--as I'm delighted to be friends with so many of you. Thanks for sticking around, peeps.