Monday, December 27, 2010

Getting It Published, Part 3

(For previous installments see here and here.)

Just before the holidays, I heard back from the publisher to whom I'd sent my book manuscript back in August. The response was, on balance, about what I'd expected: revise and resubmit. I'd known that the manuscript still needed another full round of revisions, and though I'd been hoping that I might get a contract first--with publication contingent on approval of those revisions--I'm not disappointed by this result.

Partly, that's because I got an amazing outside reviewer: someone supportive of my project who wrote a detailed, thoughtful, and entirely constructive report. I've known people who have gone through reviewer hell (one of my friends had her manuscript sent to the same vindictive, territory-policing reviewer by not one, but two different presses), and though I didn't specifically fear that, I did fear winding up with a reviewer who simply didn't get my project or approach. Instead, I got someone both generous and rigorous, 90% of whose criticisms strike me as 100% right.

(And. . . it's a little amazing to have someone you don't know reflect back your own vision of your project; it's all the more amazing when it's a project you've been wrestling with for so long and in so many different forms that you no longer fully trust your own perceptions.)

But let's be honest: partly, I'm able to be so sanguine because I don't need this book contract before I go up for tenure. (RU requires a book or four scholarly articles, and I have five articles and a book contract for a significant scholarly edition.) That's a necessary caveat. Only because I don't have tenure pressure do I have the luxury of being able to see how positive this R&R request is. I can stick with a top-tier press rather than having to rush the manuscript, as-is, to a publisher somewhere a notch or two down the food chain. And if this press ultimately rejects the revised manuscript, I have another equally good press to send it to. And if that second press rejects it, the next tier of publishers is still perfectly well-respected.

I have time. And I have renewed faith in this project. God bless you, anonymous reviewer. And God bless you, SPRING RESEARCH LEAVE.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Peace, goodwill, &c.

In the words of one of my oldest friends (inscribed on the back of her family holiday card): "Wishing you a Merry Christmas, a Happy New Year. . . and most importantly, a Satisfactory Saturnalia!"

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

For the record

I loathe Sophia Coppola's movies, although I've seen almost all of them; I keep thinking that there must be more to them, or that I was just in an ungenerous mood when I watched the previous one. And without fail, I walk out of the theatre full of rage at what narcissistic, self-indulgent nothings they are. (Though gorgeously shot and composed, I grant you.)

A. O. Scott's fawning review of Somewhere does nothing to convince me it's any different:
The opening shot of "Somewhere". . . prepares you for what is to follow in a characteristically oblique and subtle manner. A black Ferrari circulates on an otherwise empty desert speedway, driving in and out of the stationary camera's range as the noise of its engine oscillates between a distant whine and a full-throated roar.

The car completes a few more laps than would be necessary if the point of the scene were traditionally expository--if all Ms. Coppola wanted to convey was the fact that somebody (we don't yet know who) was driving around in a circle. . . .

[This is] a film that never raises its voice. . . but that nonetheless has the power to refresh your perceptions and deepen your sympathies. As it proceeds from one careful, watchful, slow shot to the next, a sad and affecting story emerges, about a father's loneliness and a daughter's devotion. But the experience of watching "Somewhere". . . is like reading a poem.
OH MY GOD. Kill me now.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Bonny and blithe, good and gay

Though the number of junior officers and returning young veterans I've known over the past decade had already convinced me that the repeal of DADT will be no big whoop among the actual members of our actual military, this video is a nice reminder of one reason why:

Gay culture is everyone's culture now.

Monday, December 20, 2010

The familiar, the unfamiliar, and the not-unfamiliar-enough

This past semester was the fourth time I've taught all of Dunne's Songs and Sonnets, so it's no longer a fluke: my students don't love Dunne's love poetry. They find him, it seems, cheesy and sexist, like some overeducated fast-talking dude in a bar who's charming in small doses but who grows increasingly wearisome as the drinks peter out.

Now, Dunne is those things. But so convinced have I been that my students would be dazzled by his poetry and seduced by his personae, that I keep thinking it's a bold move to assign an article about his misogyny, to point out some of the really disturbing undercurrents in his verse.

Dude, my students don't need that. They're not sold on that dashing-rake stuff to begin with.

By contrast, and rather to my surprise, my grad students this past semester loved Dunne's religious works--and not just the poems, but the Devotions, the sermons, and some excerpts from his controversial prose. They found his depictions of God, and the afterlife, and the relationship between the soul and the body endlessly complicated and fascinating.

The explanation, I think, is that Early Modern religiosity is strange and unfamiliar to my students, but love lyrics and gambits to get women into bed aren't. The idea of a Christianity that's rich and intellectual, challenging and playful, is either totally unlike the Christianity they've encountered before (in the case of the irreligious and the atheists) or a fuller and more beautiful expression of ideas they share or would like to share (in the case of the students of faith).

And as someone who works on religion and literature, I'm delighted by this second response. But I'm bothered by the first one, in part because it seems predicated on a disinterest in or inability to historicize, or to make fine distinctions between then and now. No one is saying that Dunne's misogyny doesn't exist, or that it's model for how to pick up chicks today. But can we talk about it in its actual context? Or as a particular response to the Petrarchan tradition? Or, hell: just in formal terms?

Or maybe I'm just surprised, or have taken it too much as an article of faith that everyone finds Dunne irresistible. For most of the twentieth century, Dunne was central to how we understood and how we taught poetry--the perfect New Critical example of everything that poetry was and should be. Maybe that wheel has turned.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Survivor guilt

However it may have read, my previous post was intended as a comment about how generally happy I am--despite my native tendency toward irritation and dissatisfaction. It sometimes still feels miraculous that I got here, and by "here" I don't really mean a tenure-track job; I mean that I never fully imagined (although I thought I did, all the time) what my life would be like after grad school, or what I'd be like.

Long-time readers know how awful I found my grad school existence. But as of this month, it's been five years since I got my Ph.D. In August, I'll have been a full-time college professor for as long as I was a grad student. In October, I'll be going up for tenure. And so I guess it's time to say: yes, it was worth it.

Is it worth it only because I got a tenure-track job? I think not, and although I still have a lot of cynicism about grad school, the job market, and our possibly-dying profession, I don't feel much survivor guilt any more. I may not "deserve" an academic job any more than plenty of people who never got one, but five and six and seven years later, everyone I know who left grad school or the academy is doing fine: they're writers and journalists and arts-agency advocates; they live in cities they love; they're surrounded by smart friends and colleagues.

And maybe that's not what everyone wanted out of grad school, but it's why I went: I applied for an M.A. because I wanted to know more about literature and literary history--and because I thought the degree would help me get a job in a quasi-literary or artistic field. And I stayed for the Ph.D. because they let me. Along the way, I got professionalized and I came to love my teaching and my research, but the more important things I gained were the real things I'd wanted all along: new ways of thinking, new ways of being, and a life full of smart, interesting people.

I spent a lot of time in my twenties wanting to be "a person who": a person who did thus and such, or a person who seemed this or that. It's a particular life that I wanted, more than a specific job, and to my surprise, I pretty much have it. (As the Pet Shop Boys say, "I never thought that I would get to be/The creature that I always meant to be".)

Academia isn't the only profession that would have let me have this kind of life, but it seems, increasingly, like one of relatively few. Cosimo and I have been rewatching the first two seasons of Mad Men, and it's struck us that the real fantasy of the show doesn't center on the characters' handsome clothes and glamorous lifestyles, but rather on their relationship to their work: these are middle-class characters, none with advanced (or in some cases even college) degrees, whose work is creative and satisfying, providing them with their primary sense of identity and self-worth.

And for how many professions, or for how many people in those professions, is that true? Even people who work long hours in high-status fields like medicine or law tend to locate their sense of self elsewhere: they're locavores, world travelers, amateur photographers, or rehabbers of crumbling Brooklyn brownstones.

I don't feel guilty that I got an academic job. But I lucked into a profession that, for all its frustrations, is enormously rewarding; it bleeds into everything I do and am, in my leisure as well as my work hours. I wish that were true for more people.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

The five-pound problem

Recently, mid-complaint about some aspect of my job, I found myself saying, "I mean, this is a good job. But if only I had a few more students at the high end--not even very many! Just one or two more per class. Or if the teaching load were just a little bit lighter--2/3 instead of 3/3, say, or even if it stayed 3/3 but I only had to teach one section of composition every fourth semester, instead of every other semester. Then, I'd be totally happy."

And I realized: this is the professional equivalent of being convinced that, if you could just lose five pounds, then your life would be perfect.

On the one hand, the person who believes she needs to lose five pounds really does feel dissatisfied with herself. On the other hand, if it's really just five pounds? Dude, your life is pretty fucking good.

Monday, December 06, 2010

New project

This weekend I started doing research for a new article-length project. It's an idea that's been buzzing around in my head for a while, but I finally decided to get off my ass and write a conference paper proposal as a preliminary step.

And man, even getting to the place where I could write a persuasive 300-word abstract was hard. The project falls within my general field of study, but the primary text is in a genre I've never worked with and the research I need to do involves several disciplines in which I have no training. The process gave me renewed sympathy for my graduate students--and how hard it is, at the outset, even to find the right resources or know which questions to ask.

But of course, that's what makes it exhilarating, too: all this new knowledge! So much stuff to learn!

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Oversharing, overcaring

Like most college instructors, I'm often told much more about my students' personal lives than I have any desire to know. Over the past several years I've had students tell me about girlfriends with unplanned pregnancies, fiancés with PTSD and assault charges, siblings who committed suicide, and spouses caught molesting their own children.

Rarely do the more appalling stories seem intended as pleas for sympathy; they're mentioned matter-of-factly, by students apologizing for having missed a class, or they come out at the end of the semester as part of an awkward apology for not having done better in the course.

And I'm caught, always, between two impulses: first, immense compassion. But second, deep discomfort that I've been made a party to my students' very private private lives.

My standard response is a brief, tone-neutral expression of sympathy: "I'm sorry to hear about your loss" or "I understand it can be hard to do your best work when you're facing a personal crisis." And I sign off "best wishes." I will occasionally extend deadlines, but I don't grade more generously or change my policies. In the case of on-going crises, I'll add a boilerplate bit about how it's okay to choose to attend to one's personal life over one's schoolwork, and how sometimes that's the smartest decision--followed by advice about dropping the class or how easily-explained a single semester of low grades will be to a grad school or future employer.

I consider this, basically, my minimal obligation as a teacher and a human being. But more than half the time I'll get students who respond with a rush of gratitude for my kindness, telling me (for example) that I was the only one of their five professors to respond to their email about their grandmother's death. (I'll look back at my two-sentence email, and think, "this is kindness?")

Still, I understand where this kind of studently oversharing comes from: they're in crisis and they're not thinking about which details (like the blow-by-blow of their girlfriend's doctors appointments) might be better elided. I don't love being the recipient of those details, but I realize that in such cases I'm really only a bystander, getting splashed by the effluvia of my students' messy and complicated lives.

The kind of oversharing for which I have much less patience is the kind that imagines the student's personal hardship--however minor--as both inherently deserving of sympathy and something for which they need permission. I have students who catch me on the way into class, with 60 seconds before the start of the period, who want to tell me about how sick they're feeling and ask whether it's "okay" if they leave early or don't attend at all. Will it count as an absence? Will it affect their participation grade?

I tell them brusquely that if they're not feeling well, they should go home. But yes, it will be an absence.

Then they ask if it will be an absence if they stay for half the class, or if it's okay if they have to put their heads down for a while, because they haven't been getting enough sleep lately--and then they want to launch into some complicated backstory about their roommate, or their math exam, or how no one at the health center knows what's wrong with them.

I want to shake them and say, stop talking! do what you need to do! I don't control your life, and I don't need a note from your doctor or mother, your bank teller or barista.

It's exhausting, is what it is, managing all these personal lives in addition to my own.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Time for details

(Or: an academic, blogospheric romance)

I haven't written much about Cosimo over the past couple of years, other than to note that he exists. Although this blog is more personal than it is academic (in the sense of focusing on a specific area of research or opining about Pressing Issues in Academe), it's my general policy to touch only rather lightly on the details of my personal life, especially those that don't have to do with my professional life.

As it happens, though, the two intersect here.

Cosimo and I first met several years ago, at a dinner stage-managed by a mutual friend at an academic conference. We wound up seated next to each other, and I took an instant dislike to him: he struck me as overbearing, loud, and just too much of a guy.

After the conference, I wrote a brief, eye-roll-y blog post about something he'd done that I'd found professionally objectionable. I couched it in general terms--I'd met this ridiculous person, who'd done this ridiculous thing--and my readers and I chattered back and forth in the comments for a few days about how very, very loserish that behavior was. Then I forgot about it.

Over the next year I ran into Cosimo a few more times at conferences, and eventually decided that he was okay: he was loud, yes, but also rather funny--without being one of those guys who has to be the funniest person in the room. And he seemed generous and supportive of his colleagues. We emailed a couple of times about professional matters and I assigned him to an outer circle among my work-friends.

Time passed. At some point I noticed that I had a new blog reader whose comments stood out in a variety of ways: thoughtful, funny, and rather more personal in tone than I'd have expected from someone I didn't know. From my site stats I traced him to an IP address at Cosimo's university.

I wondered if the new reader could be he, and I wondered if I should be uncomfortable if he were; I didn't know Cosimo well, and I'd been blogging about relatively personal topics recently. (And then, as now, I had no illusions that anyone who knew me in real life wouldn't immediately recognize me from my blog.) But I read back through my last dozen posts and figured, fuck it: I wasn't ashamed of anything.

That is, until I saw that he'd been going through my archives. And that he'd read that post. Three times.

Well, what's a girl to do?

This girl emailed him and apologized. And then took down the post.

We got into more frequent email contact after that, but still only in a friendly way: I'd been in a long-term relationship when I'd first met him, and by that point was dating someone else, and I still hadn't entirely shaken my negative first impression of Cosimo. Obviously, he was a decent (and, uh, gracious and forgiving) guy. . . but he was still kinda annoying, right? At least in person? I was pretty sure he must still be annoying.

Of course, I hadn't actually seen him in person for a long while. Then we went out for dinner one weekend when he was passing through town--and I had an astonishingly good time. And then there was a conference, and another conference. And by that point my latest relationship had ended.

We started talking on the phone, almost daily, sometimes for three or four hours at a stretch; I couldn't remember when I'd last been that excited to be getting to know someone, or that eager to do so. After a month I went to visit him.

And the rest, as they say, is unwritten blogospheric history.

Monday, November 15, 2010

No time for details

But nevertheless: Cosimo and I got engaged last weekend. In Union Square Park, in the benevolent shadows of Barnes & Noble and DSW.

I suppose I'm okay with the term fiancé/e (especially when pronounced with the comic upper-crusty accent on the "AN"). But I'm utterly opposed to "wife." Henceforth, I shall be lobbying for "spouse" as the all-purpose, gender- and sexual-orientation-neutral title of the future.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Hither and yon

Your faithful blogger will be out of town for each of the next three weekends: today begins a long weekend in NYC for some theatah, some friends, and many an overpriced cocktail; next weekend is the Big Football Game; and then, of course, it's Thanksgiving.

Hoping to squeeze in a post here and there--but if not, chalk it up to my fabulous, jet-set lifestyle.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

College admissions blues

The other day I interviewed a local high school student who's applying to Instant Name Recognition U. This is only my second year as an alumni interviewer and she was only my second interviewee, but each time I've scheduled a meeting I've had some anticipatory misgivings.

I'll be frank: teaching at Regional U makes me feel differently about my alma mater. Now, I don't accept the claim that the Ivy League is a bastion of snobbery and privilege; for one, there's plenty of school-related snobbery to go around (where I grew up, it was an article of faith that people who went to the University of Washington were much smarter than people who went to Washington State), and for another, the Ivies and similar schools are actually incredibly economically diverse--much more so than the pricey St. Whoevers or Private Basketball/Football Unis that criss-cross this great nation.

But when one believes, as I do, in the mission of a place like RU, it's hard not to feel conflicted. I love my alma mater. But I also love my students. I see the differences between the two institutions pretty clearly, and I doubt that RU is even a safety school for most of the INRU applicants from this region. That makes me feel defensive and protective of my students--as if, somehow, they were the ones being judged.

The kid I interviewed last year did nothing to dispel this feeling. He showed up in a suit and tie, with a copy of his mile-long resume, and spoke like a frequent attender of "junior leadership" conferences. He was smart and personable and socially-conscious, but he didn't seem much like my students.

He didn't seem much like an INRU student, either, and he didn't get in, but the experience made me feel that much more ambivalent about going to interview my second candidate last week.

She was totally different. Charming and gawky and confident and nervous, she too had a long resume, but she had more than a resume. She didn't have a prefabricated bit to give me, but as she talked it became clear how boundlessly curious she was, and what a passion she had for breaking things apart and creating new syntheses--how studying physics transformed the way she thought about everything from sailing to singing, and how the quantitative gave her a means to understand the qualitative. She reminded me of so many of the students I knew or taught at INRU.

Curiously enough, she also reminded me of the students I teach at RU, or at least some of them: all earnestness and potential, ready to be set afire by a new subject or idea. They may not all be starting out with the same cultural capital as she, but they're not, actually, so very different.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Special collections

I've decided to start my own rare books library. A very small rare books library, mind, or a very special special collection.

But let me back up. On Saturday I took my grad students to the rare books and special collections room at the nearby University of Research (UR). Arranging the visit had been a bit of a production--the room isn't open late enough on weeknights for us to go during our regular class period; some of my students live 20 miles away; I hadn't previously met the librarians; I was worried about parking on the day of a home sporting event--but in the end it worked out marvelously.

I'd originally asked the librarian to pull only printed books from the seventeenth century, but after assigning my students a few chapters from Andrew Pettegree's The Book in the Renaissance I'd regretted not poking around to see whether the library had any medieval manuscripts. When I mentioned this to the librarian, he nodded. . . and in fifteen minutes returned with a cart of books of hours, incunabula, a Torah scroll, and stones with Sumerian and Babylonian inscriptions.

And then he left us alone, saying only, "be gentle." So we hung out in the richly-appointed seminar room, passing everything around from hand to hand--my students exclaiming at the feel of vellum versus parchment versus paper, and squinting up close to try to determine whether the red letters in the incunabula were printed that way, or hand-rubricated.

It's probably the best time I've ever had in a rare books room, but it inspired two conflicting emotions in me. First, excitement: it's not a large collection and its pre-1700 holdings are pretty thin, but it's perfect for pedagogical purposes; I'm determined to use it for every upper-division or grad class I teach from here on out. Lots of students at much fancier and better-funded schools don't have access to this kind of material, and it's a way to make up for my institution's more limited resources.

But at the same time, going to the collection reminded me of those more limited resources. The UR collection is itself pretty small (they have no early Shakespeare or Milton, for example) and, because it's half an hour away, hard to use in a casual way; I can't schedule multiple class meetings there, for the purpose of looking at just a book or two each time, and I can't use it for my lower-division classes even if they're small.

Thus, my plan: I'm going to build up my own rare books library.

I already have one lovely seventeenth-century book, a small folio, and I've been thinking about purchasing another, a duodecimo. Both are either necessary for or relevant to my research, but they would also be great show-and-tell specimens. I've purchased several books in facsimile for teaching purposes, and I plan on buying more--but they're not the same as originals.

So what more can I buy, cheaply? Well, ABE is selling individual leaves from a King James Bible for $60, and I imagine I could find other interesting leaves for similar prices. There's also a surprising number of intact seventeenth century books available, some for as little as $75, if content isn't important. And if all I want to talk about is bibliographic stuff--title pages or gatherings or watermarks or whatever--maybe content isn't important.

Or, you know: I could just add a PayPal button to this blog and solicit y'all's donations. Copies of Dunne's 1633 Poems are going for as little as $33,000!

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Assignments for grad students

As my second semester teaching M.A. students starts to wind down, I've been thinking about the skills that I want M.A. students to have and the assignments that best develop or refine those skills--and I'm interested in hearing my readers' thoughts as well.

Personally, I'm not a believer in the 25-page term paper. I suppose a doctoral program could argue that 25-30pp. approximates the length of an article or a dissertation chapter, and thus it's important for students to master projects of that size. But a) RU is not a doctoral institution, and b) I was myself a doctoral student, and most of my own seminar papers were utter, flailing, blithering crap. Producing three 25-page papers, in less than a month, on subjects that I knew little about (in one semester: Keats, Spenser, and the respective attitudes toward culture of T. H. Huxley and Matthew Arnold) did NOTHING to prepare me for the much longer and more intensive process of researching and writing my first dissertation chapter.

So although there's virtue in learning how to write a paper of that length (and I definitely think M.A. students should write a couple of them during their time in the program), they have to be built up to. In each of the two M.A. classes I've taught, then, I've described our final paper as "15+ pages." More importantly, I've tried to devise shorter written assignments that prepare them for that final paper.

In my Milton class, my first assignment was a conventional close-reading essay; I wanted to get a look at my students' writing and interpretative skills, for one, but I also wanted to make sure that they were comfortable analyzing poetry and using the technical vocabulary of poetic analysis.

In my Dunne class this semester, I came up with what I think a much better version of a close-reading assignment--which was to have each student produce an "edition" of one of Dunne's poems based on the manuscript and early printed editions (a selection of which are available here). In making their editions, each student had to establish a copy text, provide a textual apparatus with variants, and then write a narrative explanation and analysis that justified, in literary terms, the choices she'd made.

It required a lot of preliminary work, but in the end produced better results. I think the interpretative work felt easier to my students (because the stuff they were focusing on was more obvious and more seemingly pragmatic: why prefer this word to that word? why leave the comma in or take it out? does spelling change the meaning in this case?), while actually demanding much more of them. We talked a lot about how manuscripts circulated in the Early Modern period and how they made it into print; whether and to whom authorial intention matters; and what editors do and where the texts in their Norton or Penguin editions come from.

The second paper I assigned in both classes was more straightforward, but no less practical: find an article or book chapter in a reputable scholarly source, and then write a short essay that engages with it--summarizing, critiquing, noting any theoretical biases or omissions or areas for further study.

My feeling is: if students can close read and if they can deal with secondary sources in a critical, responsible way, then they can write a longer work of scholarship--whether it's 15 pages or 25. But isolating and focusing on those skills matters.


From your experiences as teachers or students, what kinds of skills do you think are most important for grad students to work on--and what kinds of assignments have you found that do the trick?

Sunday, October 31, 2010

When I wrote the ninety-five, haters straight up assailed 'em

For the past few months my parish has had a deacon serving alongside our regular priest; he's just here on temporary assignment, learning the ropes as he awaits his ordination to the priesthood in the spring. He seems like a nice guy--smart, a good homilist, and with a gentle, approachable manner--but I couldn't help wondering what his deal was: he's in his late forties, and wears what appears to be a wedding ring. I'd speculated that maybe he was a widower, or possibly a married Episcopalian priest who was converting. However, in my experience, priest-converts from the C of E tend to be a little scary and fanatical (running toward Rome as an escape from teh gays and teh wimmins they believe are taking over the Anglican communion). He definitely didn't fit that profile.

So it was rather wonderful to learn today, on Ninety-Five Theses Day, that our deacon is actually a history professor at a local college and a former Methodist minister--whose conversion to Catholicism twelve years ago coincided with completing his dissertation on Reformation Christianity.

Gotta watch out when you study religious history. It does that shit.

(Yeah, I know: I posted this video two years ago. But I love it so.)

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Polyglot dreams

I spent last weekend in Toronto, crashing a conference that several friends were presenting at. It wasn't a huge conference, but it was an international one--and unlike most international conferences I've attended, it was multilingual: approximately one third of the panels were in French and the rest in English.

This fact barely registered on me when I first skimmed the program, and since the panels were segregated by language I didn't expect to have much interaction with the francophone attendees. Whatever, I thought. It's Canada. I guess that's what they do.

But in fact, all the conference-goers took coffee and cookies in the same entrance hall and we all attended the same plenary talks, and when people squeezed past or apologized for bumping into me they were as likely to say "merci!" or "pardon!" as "thanks" or "excuse me." The chair introducing one of the plenary speakers gave his opening remarks half in French and half in English (not translating: just switching languages midway through), and one speaker on a plenary panel did something similar, occasionally switching to French for a few sentences for emphasis.

It was a disorienting, strange, and rather wonderful experience, and one I'm pretty sure I've never had before. Whether at home or abroad, I'm used to being in a place where one language is the dominant one, and the other language or languages are used for private or domestic conversations: tourists talking to each other, immigrant parents murmuring to their children. But being somewhere that two languages were treated equally, and where no need for translation was assumed, was something new.

Now, I know that the politics of language are touchy in Canada, and that it's not a perfect bilingual paradise. Nevertheless, as foreign language departments are being eliminated in this country, it's hard not to look with longing toward a neighbor country that seems, at least from the outside, to be valuing language study in a way we do not.

And I should 'fess up: although I work in a period and on authors who are ferociously multilingual--and although my grad program required three foreign languages--French is the only foreign language I have any real claim to being able to speak or understand; I took it throughout high school and for a couple of years in college, but since I don't need it for my work, it's atrophied terribly. I have adequate reading knowledge of Italian, can work v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y through Latin (albeit with lots of errors), and a year's worth of ancient Greek in college left me with the ability to pronounce ANY WORD I SEE that's written in Greek characters (although I can no longer understand a line of it, if ever I could).

I have colleagues and friends with a serious command of multiple languages, and I wish I were among them. As it is, I sometimes think that I and many more academics than are willing to admit it are the PhD-holding equivalent of the kids who flounder through a year of college-level foreign language study, fulfill their requirement, and call it a day.

Friday, October 22, 2010

What can be coaxed out of the surfeit of language

My graduate class this semester is centered on the writer whose name I'll render here as John Dunne. Although we're not focused on him or on poetry exclusively, at least 75% of our primary texts are in verse, and non-narrative verse to boot. This has presented some pedagogical challenges.

Over the years (probably in part because my own undergraduate education in poetry was so patchy, not to say piss-poor) I've become somewhat of a poetry evangelist. I teach scansion and metrics in all my literature courses, and have developed lesson plans, handouts, and short assignments to give undergraduates a basic tool-kit for talking about and understanding formal verse. Still, I'd never before taught a course that was primarily non-narrative poetry, and I definitely hadn't taught such a course to graduate students. When I teach lyric poetry in an undergraduate class, I assign a bunch of poems but often spend most of each class period working through just one or two, modeling how we analyze and make meaning out of verse. But did I really want to spend a graduate seminar doing that kind of close reading? Every week?

The answer, kinda, is "yes."

I've assigned a lot of secondary readings, of course, many of them focused on larger issues to do with Early Modern reading practices, editorial theory, and history of the book, so we're not just close-reading poems. But it turns out, first, that my M.A. students don't necessarily have any more experience or innate comfort with poetry than my undergrads, and, second, that it's hard to talk about poetry in general terms without first getting down into the nitty gritty of the verse.

Last week, for example, in our three-hour class we spent at least two hours working through just two poems, an elegy and a satire. With long poems especially, I sometimes refer to this process as a "forced march": we take a few lines at a time, lingering to talk about this image, that rhyme, or untangle a particularly knotty bit of syntax. It's slow and deliberate, and with undergraduates I sometimes worry that I'm losing or boring them. But this particular class was lovely. I hadn't picked out the poems myself--I'd had my students choose them--so I didn't have a lesson plan, and it felt like a process of discovery for me as much as for them. I freely confessed when I didn't understand what a given part was doing, and then made them work it out, explaining how a particular metaphor or grammatical construction was really operating, or what the possibilities were and how each one changed the meaning of the whole.

Part of what I'm trying to do, of course, is convey why I love this material, and the ways in which real scholarship is at least as playful as it is earnest. So when I start to get punchy at 8.30 at night, or feel a tangent coming on, I don't always stop myself. At one point, upon realizing that a student was trying--overly-delicately--to suggest that a particular metaphor referred to sexual intercourse, I exclaimed, "Oh! You mean the word 'sheathe'? You think he means, like, penis-in-vagina sheathing? No, for once, it's just soul-in-body sheathing." [Looking around the room.] Hey! You guys all know that, right? That 'vagina' means 'sheath'?" Later, I somehow wound up suggesting that Ovid, Jonson and Dunne were good candidates for the game fuck-marry-kill (and then had to explain that game, when it turned out only one of my students knew what I was talking about and was laughing too hard to do it for me.)

Now, if talking about penises and vaginas and the fuckability of long-dead poets is what I'm remembered for, maybe they should take my Ph.D. away from me right now. But I like to think that I'm operating, in however impoverished a way, in the tradition of my betters. Among the many tributes to the late Frank Kermode in the London Review of Books, my favorite was that written by his former student, Jacqueline Rose. Here's the part that I've been thinking of as I teach Dunne:
What is it about a literary work that enables it to persist over time? Most obviously perhaps, the "classic" in [Kermode's] definition was a text whose plurality of meaning. . . kept it alive. It is because no reader can exhaust the meaning of such a text, because any one reading cannot but select and forget. . . that it will continuously be reinvented. A classic is a work that is "patient of reinterpretation". . . . [A] work. . . survive[s] by means of what [can] be coaxed out of the surfeit of its language.
If cracking bawdy jokes leads one of my students to coax something more out of a poem than she would have otherwise, then I defend the practice utterly.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Smart kids = boys

What I liked best about The Social Network (a/k/a "the Facebook movie") was its vivid portrait of smart kids creating and tackling an intellectual challenge: the energy, the enthusiasm, and the sheer geekiness of it all. In some ways, the movie felt like a response to my plea, last month, for more cinematic depictions of the life of the mind. I'm not a computer programmer or an entrepreneur, but I have been a college student, and the movie captured what it's like to be a nerdy obsessive surrounded by other obsessives. The scene near the beginning where Zuckerberg creates "Facemash" in a late-night blitz while his friends egg him on, as well as the later coding competition where a bunch of students at computers throw back shots of alcohol after every line of code written, both felt perfect to me. They reminded me of my own college experience (minus the coding and company-founding parts).

But the movie's authenticity only goes so far. As several commenters have noted, women, with the exception of the girlfriend who dumps Zuckerberg before the opening credits, exist in the movie only as groupies or psycho-sluts. I don't have a problem with the presence of a few two-dimensional floozies or even some gratuitous--and, I'm pretty sure, wildly inaccurate--scenes set at parties in Harvard's final clubs where the women strip to their underwear and make out with each other for the delectation of the male partiers. I mean, those scenes are lame, but whatever: women occasionally do that shit, and probably sometimes even at Harvard.

What I have a problem with is that there are no other women. Maybe it's too much to expect a Hollywood movie to show women who are as rumpled and nerdy as many of the men (although last time I checked, on actual college campuses unwashed hair and sweatpants know no gender). But surely there could be a cute smart girl or two? A pretty female coder? A Facebook employee who's not just a jailbait intern-groupie?

I didn't go to Harvard, so I could be totally wrong here, but in my years at Harvard-but-for-the-architecture, there were lots of smart women. Some of them were damn hot, too, and went to frat parties and may have worn spiky heels and low-cut blouses and tons of eyeliner. . . one night a week. But the rest of the time they were wearing jeans and glasses and setting the curve in their organic chemistry classes. Or staying up until two a.m. every night editing the school paper.

I'm mostly inured to the crappy depictions of women in movies; I say little hand-wavy things like, "well, the female characters are sappy and sucky--but it's still a great film." But perhaps because I've been thinking about depictions of the intellectual life in movies, or perhaps because I went to not-Harvard and felt that I recognized so much of the intellectual culture and nerd-energy of The Social Network, the portrayal of women in this movie (a movie that I mostly liked) really pissed me off.

Or maybe it's just that my college roommate got married last weekend, and in the days preceding my going to see Sorkin's movie I'd been thinking fond thoughts about her and the five other women I lived with freshman year. So since this is my goddamn blog, I'm going to tell you about those five women. None of them is a Mark Zuckerberg, but they all had obsessions, talents, and flashes of inspiration--not to mention feverish all-nighters or all-weekenders where they put together major projects--that are basically consonant with the way the movie depicts him and his exclusively male friends.

My roommates majored in Economics, Anthropology, French, Biology, and Physics & Philosophy (a double major). One went on to get an M.A. as a Fulbright Scholar and to work first in consulting, then for a famine relief organization, and is now the department head at a major British corporation. Another went to library science school and then became the director of a public library--where she's recently received some unsought national attention as a defender of the First Amendment. The third got both American and French law degrees and practiced law in France before becoming a jazz songwriter and vocalist, based in New York; she has a couple of albums out now. The fourth is a labor activist, and her work on behalf of illegal immigrant sweatshop workers was recently featured on PBS. The fifth got a Ph.D. in physics and is now on the tenure track at our alma mater. They were--and are--smart, fun, and hilarious.

And I can't help but ask: where are their undergraduate selves in movies about college life? Where are their adult selves, for that matter?

Saturday, October 16, 2010

As the gourd turns

Last weekend Cosimo and I dragged a couple of squash and a pumpkin home from Maine. So you know I ain't lying when I say,

"It's fall, fuckfaces. You're either ready to reap this freaky-assed harvest or you're not."

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Death by paper

Apologies for going AWOL; a perfect storm of out-of-town guests, an out-of-town trip of my own, and the collation of fifty bazillion documents for my reappointment file conspired to keep me away from all you lovelies.

Regional U has both a three-year and a five-year review, the latter preparatory to going up for tenure in year six. The idea is to be able to make any last-minute interventions if the candidate isn't quite on track for tenure--or just put together a crappy file. It's a procedure that I heartily support, though it's also a pain in the ass: one three-ring binder constitutes a teaching portfolio, with tables of evaluation scores and grade ranges, sample syllabi and assignments, class observation write-ups, a statement of teaching philosophy, and anything else notable. The other binder holds copies of all the candidate's publications, fellowship award letters, book contracts (and/or correspondence related to same), along with a C.V., the past four years' annual reports, and narrative statements about research and service.

Basically, the application is an extremely long, heavily annotated C.V., with exhibits.

But although I was cursing the process for most of the long weekend that I spent revising and re-revising my tables of contents, printing out endless PDFs, and running back and forth to Staples to buy exhibit tabs and document sleeves, it's nice to have a tangible reminder of all the things we do that seem to melt into air: classes taught, papers given, thoughts thunk.

I found this to be especially true for my teaching. I have a C.V., after all, to remind me of everything I've published, and offprints stashed here and there. But tabulating all my evaluation scores and grade ranges, and deciding which assignments and handouts to include as representative samples of how I teach--that mysterious thing that we're always doing and thinking about without fully understanding--made me realize, with a start, that I actually do have a teaching profile and philosophy. There are things that I've decided to value and emphasize, across all my classes, without really knowing or planning it.

Better still, I like the teacher who emerges from these documents. She seems kinda awesome. Awesomer, in fact, than I am. (But maybe she'd be my friend?)

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Job List open thread

So dudes: this year's JIL. What's going on in your fields?

I can tell you there are damn few Renaissance jobs, and though I don't have much personally at stake (I know almost no one who's going on the market, and none of them are first-timers), it's a field that hires pretty reliably at all levels.

On the other hand, CHECK OUT those eighteenth-century jobs! I thought there were a lot last year, at least relative to the total number, but this year is outta control. I wonder whether we're finally seeing a generational change, and how that might reshape the field.

But I'm curious how the view looks from where you sit.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The life of the mind, dramatized!

Over the weekend Cosimo and I went to see Agora, a movie set in fourth-century Alexandria and focusing on the female scientist and philosopher Hypatia. (The movie has had only limited theatrical release, but it's available next month on DVD.) The cinematography was stunning and the story potentially compelling, but in the end I found it disappointing: the narrative dragged, the Christians were cartoonish bad-guys--who nevertheless seemed more obsessed with defending geocentrism than debunking pagan gods--and there were countless missed opportunities to depict the movie's political and intellectual conflicts with more nuance.

Still, I was interested in the way the movie tried to dramatize the intellectual life. The filmmakers clearly didn't know how to portray Hypatia as a teacher: we see her instructing a group of young men on a few occasions, but they're awkward, flat scenes, and it's not clear that the men are there for any reason other than the hot pants (hot togas?) that Hypatia gives them. The scenes involving her intellectual investigations are a bit better, particularly toward the end; I liked the fact that the movie didn't shy away from some basic geometry or from a coherent explanation of the Ptolomaic universe and why it was so hard to escape that model.

It got me thinking about how hard it is to dramatize what we do, by which I mean, what we actually do, as teachers and researchers. There are plenty of compelling movies about teachers, though those movies tend to equate "good teaching" with having a charismatic classroom presence and endless amounts of compassion. But being a good teacher doesn't have much to do with the teacher's personality, and most of learning doesn't happen in the classroom. It happens inside students' heads, over a long period of time, in unpredictable and entirely undramatic ways. Movies can only hint at this, by showing us what we take to be external signs of those internal changes: the students start showing up for class and stop acting out. They speak excitedly and articulately. They pass tests and they win awards.

It's even harder to dramatize scholarship. The only even halfway successful movie examples I can think of feature research-as-detective-story: the scholar discovers new documents in an archive, or an attic, or some long-neglected record-books (possibly while receiving obscure threats from people in high places) and eventually OVERTURNS EVERYTHING WE THOUGHT WE KNEW.

Now, plenty of us work in archives on a regular basis. But even on the rare occasion that we turn up a shocking! new! fact! (that this writer was a secret homosexual or that that nobleman's poems were actually written by his sister), the discovery itself isn't the real work. We still have to spend countless hours working at home or in shabby libraries, reading crappy monographs and badly-photocopied articles, and cajoling the ILL librarian to order us just one more book after we've been blocked from the system. We write draft after draft, do more research, get some feedback, and revise. After a year or two or three, we might produce a 40-page journal article.

If it's good, that journal article will be referenced and wrestled with for thirty years. If it's really good, it could totally transform the shape of our field. But even if the response to a given work of scholarship is dramatic, there's not much dramatic about the process by which it gets researched and written. (Which isn't to say that it's not enthralling, at least sometimes, for the scholar herself; it just doesn't make for good cinema.)

But maybe I've just been watching the wrong movies. What are your votes for films that come closest to conveying what it is that we actually do, as teachers and scholars?

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Welcome to the corporate academy, Times readers

Today's New York Times contains an Op-Ed entitled "Ditch Your Laptop, Dump Your Boyfriend." Its subtitle: "Advice for freshmen from the people who actually grade their papers and lead their class discussions."

Who are the six contributors who actually do such things?

Grad students, every one of them.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Too long/not long enough

You know how you know that you've really and truly left graduate school behind?

When you encounter dissertators from your alma mater, who are working in your exact subfield, and you've never heard of them.

Or when you saunter over to your grad program's webpage, and recognize only two or three students' names, vaguely--and they're all 6th or 7th years.

Or when a departing staff member posts dozens of pictures from his goodbye party to Facebook, and the only people you can identify are a couple of senior faculty. (Those others: are they grad students? Staff? Junior faculty? Who the hell knows?)

But that shudder that runs through you upon seeing photos of the department lounge, looking exactly as you remember it--down to the ectomorphic grad student checking his email while balancing a bag of books on his lap?

That's a sign that it hasn't been quite long enough.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

You are all beautiful people and I love every single one of you

Last winter, I applied for a research leave for spring 2011. It was denied. Over the summer, I applied again. I got it.

So from approximately December 15th to August 20th--eight months, bitchez!--I'll be drawing a salary just to read and to write and to think.

Oh, I have such plans. But for now, I'm just really fucking psyched.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Research needs

Buried in yesterday's New York Times story about the discovery that the late civil rights photographer Ernest Withers was an FBI informant was an equally interesting story about journalism, and about research more generally. The NYT credited the Memphis Commercial Appeal with breaking the story, and mentions that it was the result of a two-year investigation. Reading the NYT article carefully, it appears that the discovery that Withers was an informant was purely accidental--an FBI clerk apparently failed to redact his name on a few documents--which leads me to assume that the original focus of the Commercial Appeal's investigation wasn't Withers at all.

Stories like this one require serious journalists, working for papers that are interested in issues that may seem only "local" or "regional," and that are willing to pay them for years-long investigations not knowing for sure what they'll turn up. And of course, academia needs this, too: this is why scholars need time (and money), sometimes for many years, sometimes working on seemingly minor issues and without much to show for it. Yes, of course: we should expect them to be able to provide some kind of accounting for their time and efforts. But you can't make new discoveries--or come up with new ideas or interpretations--by fiat or on a schedule. You hire trained professionals, you let them make a case for their projects, and then you trust them.

Monday, September 13, 2010

What's a "good job"?

Job market season is upon us, and though the number of tenure-track jobs isn't likely to be much greater this year than last--and thus everyone going out for the first time knows that a "good job" is, basically, one with a salary and benefits--I thought I'd take a post to talk about the real differences among academic jobs in the hopes that this might be useful to the grad students and job candidates out there.

They way we talk about jobs at different kinds of institutions is a peeve of mine, and it tends to be worse in graduate programs. This is true not because (or not only because) faculty at top graduate programs have drunk the Kool-Aid of believing that the only "good" jobs are jobs just like theirs, but simply because faculty know what they know. How many faculty at top programs have been on the tenure-track at more than one previous institution? Not many. And even if a significant minority did their undergraduate work at other kinds of institutions--liberal arts colleges, less selective state schools--they haven't taught there and their sense of the lives of their undergraduate professors is probably not particularly well-informed.

My own grad program did a good job of encouraging us to apply for all kinds of jobs, and the faculty clearly tried to emphasize the satisfactions that might come from teaching at a non-top-tier or non-research institution, but they equally clearly didn't know what they were talking about. They talked about how "rewarding" some recent PhDs found doing more teaching, to less culturally-privileged populations, to be--and how they'd come to realize that their real passion was teaching, not research. Or they said things like, "there's some really exciting pedagogical research coming out of community colleges these days"; the implication being that, in order to keep doing research at a less-prestigious, more teaching-heavy institution, you'd have to make teaching the subject of your research.

Now, I'm not knocking the joys of teaching or the worth of pedagogical scholarship; I believe strongly in both. But my grad school professors presented them as consolation prizes: the things you might wind up with--and eventually be rather happy with!--when you were foiled in your attempts to pursue a serious research agenda in the field you trained in.

So lemme tell ya: your grad school professors (if they're anything like mine were) are wrong. And the way that we, as a profession, tend to talk about academic jobs is wrong.

We typically divide jobs into categories based on the amount and nature of the teaching they require. Sometimes we pretend there are just two kinds of jobs, at "research" or "teaching" institutions, but more often we break those categories down a bit more finely by talking about teaching load: 2-2 or 2-3, 3-3, 4-4, or higher. Those are useful distinctions, to be sure, but they have limits. How many preps? How big are the classes? How much repetition is there, year-to-year? And if you're at a research institution, how many dissertations, dissertation committees, orals committees, or independent studies will you be responsible for--and how much "teaching time" does that amount to beyond your official teaching load?

I had no clue, prior to starting a tenure-track gig and seeing my friends wind up in various tenure-track gigs, that you could have a 2-2 teaching load and still be responsible for grading 100 students a semester (because you teach a lecture class, but don't have a TA). I had no clue how much work serving on M.A. or doctoral thesis committees could be--and how often it might be on a topic about which you knew precious little and had less interest.

But more importantly, I hadn't thought about the ways that teaching--or at least, teaching anything outside of my immediate specialty, and to advanced students--could enrich my scholarly life. Now, I was never one of those people who wanted to go straight from grad school to teaching graduate students myself, and nothing sounded less fun than designing an esoteric grad class or senior seminar around my own pet specialty. But although I was looking forward to teaching Shakespeare and Chaucer and the occasional twentieth century novel, I thought of that as a perk of the job rather than something related to my scholarship.

In fact, however, teaching a Shakespeare survey for ten consecutive semesters means I'm now as much an expert on his plays (though less so on Shakespearean scholarship, of course) as many a person who wrote a dissertation on Shakespeare. This affects the way I read Milton and other seventeenth century writers profoundly--and as of this fall, I'm actually starting a small project on Merchant of Venice.

Now, if I'd been hired as a Miltonist, in a big department with lots of other Renaissance scholars, that would certainly have had its benefits. But I likely would never have been asked to teach a Shakespeare survey, and I wouldn't have been let near non-Shakespearean Renaissance drama (especially not when I hadn't previously read almost half of the plays I put on the syllabus). My teaching has been hugely important to my scholarly life.

There's also the argument that teaching a certain number of repeat classes, semester after semester, frees up more time and mental energy for research than continually devising funky new ones. Personally, I get bored and depressed if I don't have one new or newish class a semester that requires me to stretch intellectually--but I don't think I typically spend any more time on my teaching, with my 3-3 load, than most people with a 2-2 load. (And in my first two years, I probably spent less time on teaching than those friends who were scrambling to devise cool new graduate or senior seminars every semester.) I know plenty of people with serious research agendas who teach at schools with 4-4 loads or higher.

And that, of course, is just about the teaching: what's the expected service load? And is it real, useful service--or endless bullshit committee meetings? What's the culture of the place like, and your colleagues? How might the location of the institution affect your personal, family, and even intellectual life? (Are there other colleges and universities in the area? Major libraries? A good arts scene? And don't discount the importance of an airport: when I was on the market, I used to say that I didn't care what region of the country I wound up in, as long as I could live in either a decent-sized city or a funky college town, within 30 minutes of a good airport.)

The trouble is, you often don't know until you start a job what its real strengths and virtues are. But that's the good thing, too: the rise of contingent labor notwithstanding, there are a lot of good jobs out there--and most of them don't look anything like what we were told we should want.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Snapshot of a profession

This semester, unlike last semester, the students in my M.A. seminar better reflect RU's traditional graduate student population. Whereas in my class last spring only three of my sixteen students were public-school teachers, of the nineteen students who showed up for the first meeting of my new grad class, only three or four weren't teachers.

However, no more than half of the teachers are employed full-time in their own classrooms (which probably explains why some of them are in grad school in the first place). As we went around the room doing introductions, I heard about students who, though certified, had been unable to find jobs; students whose teaching positions had been eliminated; students who had been relieved finally to find jobs as "permament subs"; and one student who, though he was downsized the year before getting tenure, counted himself lucky to have found another job right away--albeit at a high school 45 minutes from his home.

Unions aren't perfect. The public schools aren't perfect, and neither are their systems of promotion and reward. But this Labor Day I'm hoping for secure jobs for more of the many talented, dedicated teachers I know.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Back at it

Having done scandalously little course-prep over the summer (including for my new M.A.-level class, on a topic about which I don't know nearly enough), the lead-up to and first few days of classes promised to be a challenge.

In the event, it was more dire than I expected, seeing as a) I came down with a bad cold on the first day of classes, which b) coincided with a freak heat wave. Nothing like teaching in an un-airconditioned classroom, with the sun streaming in the windows, in 90-degree heat and business attire! And nothing like trying to game-plan a graduate syllabus with a pounding headache and steadily dripping nose.

But I doped myself up, got as much sleep as I could, managed to find something to wear for the second day of classes that was, simultaneously: minimally professional (probably actually a little too dressy/sexy, but whatev; ain't nothing sexy when the wearer is hacking up a lung), extremely lightweight, and incapable of showing sweat stains.

So I survived. And I think my classes will actually be pretty great. But the best part of the week was that--not having taught a Monday/Wednesday schedule in years--I forgot Labor Day existed. Unexpected six-day weekend!

How's it with you-all?

Sunday, August 29, 2010


As the last hurrah of summer, Cosimo and I spent a couple of days at the Stratford Shakespeare festival. Since I'm not really a Shakespearian and I wasn't a drama geek in high school or college (I was a band geek, which is totally different), I've never before seen the phenomenon of the summertime Shakespeare festival up close and personal, and my exposure to the mass-market Shakespeare Industry has likewise been relatively limited.

It was equal parts delightful and slightly depressing.

The delightful parts had to do with what happens when a small, largely rural community gives itself over to live theatre for almost half the year: how it makes it happen, where it makes it happen, and the sweet, wacky, unpretentiousness of the endeavor. Stratford has a handsome historic downtown of four or five blocks, perched prettily on a river (the Avon, natch, and filled with swans, double natch). But it's encircled by aging strip malls that are in turn surrounded by cornfields, and some of the incongruity of the festival's location was summed up by the sign that ushered us into town:

("Welcome to Stratford: home of the Stratford Festival and the Ontario Pork Congress")

The theatre in which we saw our first play, a production of The Winter's Tale, felt similarly improvised: it was the repurposed Stratford Kiwanis Club, adjacent to the Stratford Lawn Bowling Association (whose bowlers were quite active the two days we were there). But although I was dubious about the space, based on the building's unhandsome exterior and lobby, the theatre was smartly designed, with not a bad seat in the house--and, more importantly, the production itself was fantastic.

In fact, the best parts of the festival were the most amateurish, in the best sense of that word: though the actors were all professionals, there was a palpable sense that they and the audience (even the annoying lady with the dyed-red hair in the row behind us, who was loudly showing off her Shakespearian expertise before the show and during intermission) were there out of love for the plays, for Shakespeare, and for live theatre. And if you have to be a tourist in a tourist town, it's pleasant for it to be one with three bookstores on the main drag, where you can saunter to a tasty post-show dinner at midnight, and where all the other tourists also have rolled-up programs popped beneath their arms.

But the less amateurish stuff was less agreeable. The mainstage production--the one in the fancy theatre, with the big-name star, and with lots of special effects--was dreadful. I don't mind an expensive spectacular that's calculated to appeal to people less familiar with the play, as long as the play itself is done reasonably well. But I do mind when a couple of actors in major roles phone in terrible performances (messing up cues, delivering their lines as if they were in a language they didn't actually understand, mugging rather than acting) and most of the rest of the cast is so wooden and lifeless it's hard to believe they are professionals. I'd have said that productions like the second one we saw were why some people hate Shakespeare. . . except that the audience around us plainly loved it.

But that's what funds the smaller productions, I guess: the fact that there wasn't a vacant seat even at a midweek matinee in a theatre that seats almost 2,000; that charter buses disgorged tourists all day long; and that the gift shop had lines longer than those for the ladies' restrooms. And if that's the bargain, I'll take it.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

What fun is not

Among the things that fun is not:
Giving your cat antibiotic eyedrops twice a day for a week;
concurrent with
Giving you cat anti-inflammatory eyedrops twice a day for two weeks;
followed by
Giving your cat a topical de-wormer;
concurrent with
Giving your cat two antibiotic pills a day for ten days;
partly concurrent with
Giving your cat two droppers of liquid antibiotic twice a day for two weeks;
with all of the above periodically interrupted by
Wrangling your cat to and from the vet to have cultures taken from eye, eyelid, and throat;
Being forced to look at a GROSSLY INFECTED and HUGELY MAGNIFIED cat eye on a computer monitor.

On the positive side, my idea of fun has now so seriously deteriorated that not doing all of the above feels like a party.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Lazy, hazy, &c.

I haven't been doing much since sending off my book manuscript. I should be working on my scholarly edition--but I failed to transfer the digital images of the text I'm transcribing from my desktop to my laptop. And I should be working on my syllabi, but the one that needs the most work requires access to books in my campus office. And I myself am in Cosimolandia: I've been here for five weeks, and I need to remain here a while longer to get a final appointment with the vet who's been treating one of my cats. (Long story, but he'll be fine.)

So with no easy or sensible way to retrieve the necessary items until the week before classes start--and knowing that I'd be plunged into course-prep mania during that week regardless of what I did now--I decided to enjoy the intervening 15 or 16 days. I've been working my way through the bag of books I brought with me, most of which qualify in some vague way as scholarly or intellectual, but none of which are relevant to my own projects. I've been catching up on back issues of The New Yorker and the LRB, hanging out with my cats and with Cosimo, going to the gym, watching the final seasons of The Wire on DVD, and periodically going out to a baseball game, a movie, or a museum.

It's pretty nice, I gotta say. And when I return home, Cosimo comes with me: he's on sabbatical in the fall and will be spending it in Cha-Cha City. So although this summertime indolence can't last much longer, the domestic pleasures will, I imagine, continue.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Professional query

Various senior scholar-type people have occasionally told me, "Oh, you should really ask [random established senior scholar I've never met] to take a look at your book manuscript. It's probably right up her alley."

I've never been sure whether this is intended as advice, exactly, or how to implement that advice if it is; sometimes there's an appended "you can mention my name," but more often it seems like well-intentioned free-associating: huh! you work on this stuff! it sounds like that stuff that so-and-so works on!

So tell me, O internets: is this something that people actually do--contact established scholars they don't know and ask them to read a goddamn 220-page manuscript? I'm having a hard enough time working up the nerve to ask people I sorta know, and who have been kind in the past, to do such a thing.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Out-of-field learning

Some of the reading and rereading I've been doing this summer has made me think about a class I took in college--one I've long regarded as the most influential of the courses I took outside of my major.

Spring semester of my senior year I took a history class (cross-listed with at least two other departments) entitled "20th-Century European Intellectual and Cultural History." It was taught by a brand-new assistant professor, and it was even more overloaded than that mouthful of a title suggests: running from about 1880 to about 1980, focusing primarily on France and Germany but also their influence on British and American culture, the course included philosophy, poetry, political theory, a couple of novels--as well as optional weekly movie screenings (M, Metropolis, Triumph of the Will), slide shows (of art, architecture, furniture), and so much more. It started with Nietzsche, Freud, and Baudelaire, and ended with Arendt and Cixous.

I took some amazing literature classes, of course, and they, along with a couple of classes in Early Modern history, led directly to my eventual chosen profession and my subfield within that profession. But I think about or draw upon the things I learned in 20CEICH probably nearly every week, though it's not in any obvious way related to anything I work on. Only one other out-of-field course I took in college even comes close to it in terms of its influence (Post-War American Political History, if you wanna know).

I have a couple of theories as to why this class or these two classes proved so intellectually important to me. But first, I'm curious: what are the most influential classes you took in college, outside your major field(s) of study, and what has made them so enduringly important?

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Getting It Published, Part 2

Yesterday I sent my manuscript off to the publisher who expressed interest in it. Assuming they send the thing out for review, I'll likely have several months where, for the first time in what feels like a bazillion years, I don't need to be actively working on or thinking about my book (or feeling guilty for not doing so).

In the interim, I'll be sending the manuscript to my dissertation director, who hasn't seen it since it was a dissertation; I'll probably also send a copy to another mentor, and I'm already thinking about who among my friends and associates I can persuade to read a chapter or two at a later date. But mostly, I'm looking forward to doing some serious work on my scholarly edition and starting a new article-length project.

But since I'm sure I have a number of readers who are grad students, recent PhDs, or others wondering how the hell to wrest their dissertation into something like a book, I thought I'd break down my own process and timeline.


My dissertation consisted of four chapters, each one on a different author, and a short introduction. When I finished, I knew I wanted the book to have a new first chapter on a fifth author, and I thought it might make sense to add a new final chapter on a sixth. I also knew I'd eventually have to write a new introduction and revise the existing chapters to a greater or lesser degree.

That's actually pretty close to what I wound up doing, but it took much longer than I expected. If you'd have asked me, back in September 2005, how long all the above would take--the researching, writing, and revising, while also adjusting to a full-time faculty job--I'd have guessed two or three years. And I'd have thought of that timeline as a sane and generous one.

In the end, it took me five years.

A lot of stuff happened in the first couple of years. I started a full-time lectureship, which involved commuting a hellacious distance and teaching 3/4 for a total of four new preps (after never previously having taught more than one seminar-sized class per semester). I went on the job market for a second time. I moved to a new city to take a tenure-track job. I had to adjust to another new department and set of students. And I went through the catastrophic end of a long-term relationship.

But it's not as if those things prevented me from finishing my book sooner; they're just the stuff that happens in a junior scholar's life, and though I wasn't working especially vigorously on the book for while, I was still working: I wrote a rough draft of my new first chapter just a year after finishing my dissertation; I published several articles (some from or related to the book, some not); I got a couple of short-term research fellowships; I got recruited to co-edit a scholarly edition (based on the work in one of my chapters); I gave a couple of invited talks; and I did the usual conference-paper thing.

However, it wasn't until last summer that the project really came into focus for me--and it's taken me 15 months of pretty steady labor since then just to revise my five chapters and write a new introduction and a coda (the subject of the intended sixth chapter having turned out to be so entirely dull, from a literary perspective, that he got demoted).

Basically, it took me four or five years to grow enough as a scholar to write this book. My dissertation and my book share most of the same raw material: the authors, the texts, and even most of my close-readings remain the same. But the book conceives of that material and presents it in a totally different way, with a larger argument that progresses and develops through each chapter, rather than each chapter being, in effect, a separate case study. There's a reason now for this to be a book rather than five articles.


So although I think Bill Germano's From Dissertation to Book is in almost every way an excellent guide to the process, I have to take issue with his claim that a new PhD should be able to complete a course of "major" revisions in a year and "minor" (cosmetic) revisions in three months. I don't know anyone who has made major revisions in anywhere close to a single year--and that includes people who wound up with fancy-pants post-docs that gave them two years of uninterrupted research time immediately after finishing their dissertations.

Sometimes, you have to live with a project for a long time before you realize what it's about. Sometimes you have to set it aside. And there's a reason why we get six years before tenure.

Readers: what have your dissertation-to-book experiences been? And what revision advice would you give recent PhDs?

Friday, July 30, 2010

Just don't make me read Dryden

In job-market parlance my specialty is "seventeenth-century, non-dramatic." Like most people, though, my core competence is more like 50 years: I started with the English Civil War and worked backwards, rather successfully, and forward less successfully. Now I'm trying to learn me something about the Restoration--a period for which I've long had a reflexive dislike.

What I learned today: Nell Gwyn's nickname for the eventual James II was "dismal Jimmy."

I like it more already.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Facebook, savior of democracy!

Allegedly, the internet is speeding up the rate at which Americans are retreating into self-validating communities of the like-minded: if you want, you can get all your news from right-wing or left-wing sources, and never encounter a serious challenge to that perspective.

But Facebook is, in many ways, an exception to that. That's both incredibly annoying and sometimes enlightening.

Most people now have hundreds of "friends" from various stages of their lives. Personally, I rarely reject a friend request if it's from someone I actually know or once knew, but I "hide" people all the time because I'm uninterested in the minutiae of their lives and the stupid Facebook games they play or gifts they receive. I pitch my status updates and my links to an audience that I envision as being much like my blog audience: my academic friends, my college friends, and other people with similar interests and similar senses of humor. As for the rest, if they're baffled, uninterested, or annoyed--well, fuck 'em.

But at the same time that I am, in a sense, restricting my social world, I find it fascinating to have access to so many different communities. A lot of the women I went to high school with are now full-time moms, and though I was close to exactly none of them, even 17 years ago, they've friended me en masse. Some of them turn out to be funny and interesting, and I'm pleased to have made their reacquaintance. Others, though, post nonstop nonsense all day long: So-and-So is happy to have the kids out of the house for two hours! So-and-so is making her special gravy! So-and-so's poor hubby has to work late again! So-and-so is washing a very muddy puppy!

I hide such people, of course, but sometimes I go to their pages anyway just to see what their lives look like and what kind of communities they're participating in. It's interesting to see how the mommies encourage and sympathize and advise one another, just as it's interesting to see how my born-again teen-age cousin communicates with her friends, rhapsodizes about the hottness of a Christian pop star, or talks about God's blessings in her life.

Other people I don't hide, though I tend not to participate in the conversations they start. I was recently friended by a guy I knew in high school but whom I haven't seen or had contact with since we graduated. He's someone I've thought about occasionally, though, because he was the first in a string of argumentative, conservative men with whom I've developed rather warm friendships over the years. He went to the Citadel, joined the Army, got a J.D., and is now a JAG officer. I'm not about to get into a political argument with him on Facebook, in part because that seems like poor manners--hey there! we haven't spoken in almost two decades! thanks for friending me! But dude, you are so wrong about the financial reform bill!--but I'm pleased to be in minimal touch and interested in seeing who his friends are and how he interacts with them.

I guess it's this: there are a lot of people out there whom I have no desire to be friends with (including some people I'm friends with on Facebook). But I'm not uninterested in the lives they lead and the communities they're a part of. And getting bulletins from all these semi-random people in barely-overlapping social worlds has to be broadening.

But I'm sure as shit not going to stop using the "hide" function.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Good Enough

Probably the single most important advance I've made as a writer and a scholar, over the past several years, is learning how to say "good enough."

That doesn't come naturally to me, and it probably doesn't come naturally to most people who were high-achieving youngsters or who have achieved any kind of success in reasonably competitive fields: you succeed by being THE BEST. Or at least, ONE OF THE BEST. As a poster that hung in one of my high school classrooms proclaimed, "Good enough, isn't."

But what I mean by "good enough" is closer to "good enough for now": the best version I can produce at the moment, without more thought or time or outside feedback. Good enough to move on to another part of the project; good enough to give to a friend for comments; good enough for the conference-paper version; good enough to submit to a journal and see what they say.

It's about having perspective, basically: remembering that every project has a lot of stages, that sometimes one is too close to see what's working and what's not, and--most importantly--that nothing, ever, will actually be perfect.

I'm not sure that one can make this process, this willingness to say "good enough," happen by force of will, though. When I was in grad school, I really didn't know what good enough was. I didn't know at what stage it was appropriate to show my drafts to my advisor--at what point the bones, the exciting part, would be evident to someone else. So I tried to make everything I showed her perfect. Sometimes it was, in the sense that she loved it and had no suggestions for changes. Sometimes it wasn't, and I'd wasted an awful lot of time writing a chapter that read beautifully from sentence to glorious sentence . . . only to have to scrap it all because the argument wasn't working.

Maybe it's that I'm more confident in my ideas now, so I'm more willing to put my work out there in a preliminary way without every sentence being perfect or every connection being made fully. Or maybe it's that, in the absence of a dissertation director and a ticking job market clock, I need something else to ensure forward momentum--and sending stuff out when it's good enough and soliciting some kind of engagement is a way of doing it.

All of this is to say that I'm finishing up the revisions to the fifth chapter of my book. It was the weakest chapter of my dissertation and it's still the weakest chapter of my book. But it now connects, clearly, to the rest of the project, and it moves smoothly and efficiently. Chapter 5 doesn't need to be perfect for me to send the manuscript out for review. It need only be good enough.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Students emeriti

Earlier this summer I went out for drinks with a former student. She took three classes with me in as many semesters, right after I started teaching at RU, but it's been a few years since she graduated. We'd gone out for lunch or dinner a few times before, and we're Facebook friends, but this was the first occasion where I felt our relationship shifting into something new and leaving behind the last vestiges of the professor/student or mentor/mentee dynamic.

What this new relationship is, though, I don't quite know.

She's not looking for explicit advice or guidance anymore, but it's not yet and perhaps never will be a relationship of equals. There's the age difference, of course, but I have friends scarcely older than she is (she's 27). It's more that we're at different life stages and it's hard for me to see those stages converging.

I function for her, I think, as a cool young aunt might: she talks about the books she's been reading (she's working her way through Nabokov) and the movies she's seen (she just saw Apocalypse Now, after having seen On the Waterfront, and didn't get quite the Brando she was expecting). She talks about her job and her partner's job, and their dog. She tells the occasional humorous story about getting drunk with her girlfriends. But although she asks about RU and what I'm teaching, she doesn't ask much about my life, and when I volunteer small details she doesn't follow up.

But who knows how this friendship might grow and change, and it still offers me a lot. It reminds me that there are a lot of smart young people out there, and that they're not always the ones who were at the head of the class (she was among my better students at RU, academically, but not among my very best). It reminds me what rich lives people can lead, whatever they wind up doing. And it reminds me, too, of the impact one or two people can have on an entire peer group.

My former student has two close friends from RU (both of them also my former students). One went on to get an M.A. in English from a nearby institution, and then last year moved across the country to start a Ph.D. program--in a city, state, and region she'd never been to before. One of their mutual friends visited, loved the area, and decided to move there himself; my former student and her partner are now seriously considering the region as well. As for my student's other close friend, she pulled up stakes to go to Southeast Asia for a year, working for an aid organization and teaching English. Some of their mutual friends, including one who had never been on a plane before, scraped together the cash to go visit and are now dreaming up future travel plans, to increasingly exotic locations.

Among my own college friends, it wasn't unusual to move across the country (lots of us had moved across the country to start college). And although I didn't know as many people who moved abroad, it felt possible. For most of my students, though--a lot of whom come from small towns and have never traveled outside the region or sometimes the state--I don't think it seems as possible. It helps to have a friend do it first. And even for those who choose to remain close to home, certain kinds of careers and certain kinds of lives just aren't visible unless you already know they exist.

Maybe my former student enjoys hanging out with me, in part, because I provide her with a window onto a certain kind of life or a certain set of possibilities. But she definitely does that for me.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Fundamentalism isn't fundamental

One of the books I've been reading for fun this summer is Karen Armstrong's The Case for God. I haven't read any of Armstrong's other books, but this one is great--a defense of religion that's quite unlike most defenses of religion, including those from the left. For one thing, Armstrong is ridiculously learned, which means that her book ranges confidently through Eastern and Western religions, and their historical developments and intersections. Her essential claim is that all religions (though the Abrahamic faiths are her primary focus) are at their core not about theology, or accepting a specific set of beliefs, but about the attempt to apprehend the unknowable and to live a life that reflects that attempt. In less skilled hands this might boil down to a vague, just-be-nice-to-others-and-go-to-yoga form of spirituality, but Armstrong's book is so deeply rooted in the particulars of different faith traditions that this doesn't happen.

From my perspective, the most important point Armstrong makes is that fundamentalism--taking sacred texts literally--is a quite recent development, and one that emerges out of a desire to hitch religion to scientific rationalism. As such, fundamentalism isn't about going "back to basics" at all: it's an active rejection of the richer and more complicated reading practices (and, Armstrong would argue, of the religious experiences) of centuries of believers. This impoverished understanding of religion also underlies the more dogmatic and crusading of today's atheists, who assume that fundamentalists are, as they claim to be, the only authentic exemplars of religious belief.

There are things to quibble with in Armstrong's book, which is, in its mild-mannered way, polemical and somewhat partial. But it's a refreshing and invigorating read for those who care about religion and the varieties of religious experience.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Getting It Published, Part 1

(I said I'd be blogging the book publication process, so here goes. Abundant minutiae ahead.)

Three weeks ago, I sent a book proposal and a couple of sample chapters to three university presses. They were three of my top four choices, which I consider basically equally desirable; I'd decided to hold the fourth in reserve.

To my surprise, I heard back from two of them within days: first, a nice, personalized rejection email from one press (I used to work in academic publishing, and I wrote a lot of rejection letters, so I have a pretty good sense of how to read their relative degrees of niceness), and an expression of interest from the second: they'd like to see the full manuscript when it's ready.

I still haven't heard from the third publisher, which was originally my favorite of the three. This may mean that they've sent a rejection letter by post to my campus address, or it may simply mean that they've got a bit of a backlog.

In any case, I'm not inclined to wait around to hear back from them; I've told the press that expressed interest that I'll be sending the manuscript within the next few weeks, and I've exchanged some pleasant, chatty emails with the head literature editor. I'm impressed by their efficiency and friendliness, and they publish top-notch books. I'd be thrilled to have them publish me.

But at the same time, I'm not assuming they'll publish me: the reviewers could hate it, and I might have to send the thing out to multiple additional presses. I figure I'll get useful feedback one way or the other, though, and that any forward momentum is good, even if the process winds up being a long one.

Monday, July 05, 2010

The best of all possible worlds keeps getting better

I've been musing off and on about a study I read about in the Times a few weeks ago that shows that most Americans grow happier as they age--with a particularly marked rise in happiness after age 50, continuing through the 80s. "[T]ales of midlife crisis," a follow-up article notes, "are the equivalent of urban myths. The most anxiety-ridden years are the 20s and early 30s."

On the one hand, this certainly jibes with my own experience. I was impatient to become an adult, delighted to turn thirty, and have experienced each successive stage of my life as better than the last. My parents, who are 71 and 63, seem like they've never been happier--and it's not just being retired. As far back as I've been paying attention, they seem to have been continually growing as people and taking active pleasure in every change.

But on the other hand, I wonder how much of midlife happiness is dependent on circumstances and personality. Most people become more stable and more secure as they age, and by fifty most people are probably coming to accept where they are and what they've done with their lives. But what about those people who haven't achieved stability, or who are going through negative life events at midlife (divorce, illness, the death of a loved one)? I assume they would not rate themselves as happier, although perhaps they're happier than if those events had occurred in their younger years. I also have a hard time believing that people who, in their thirties, are prone to extreme regret and self-recrimination dispense with those tendencies as they age.

Temperament surely affects happiness, as do the kinds of models or expectations one has for adulthood. The Times article mentioned that it's hard for people in a youth-worshiping culture to get their heads around the idea that middle-aged and older adults are happier than people in their 20s. But I think it's less that we valorize youth than that we disparage adulthood. As popularly conceived, adulthood is a time to Get Serious, Take Responsibility, and Settle Down; a time when (the fear seems to be) one or two decisions will irreversibly determine The Rest of Your Life. You'll wake up one day, married with two kids and a mortgage, and that's all she wrote. (Historiann had a great post a while back about how this vision of adulthood--as a deeply unfun and entirely mandatory experience--seems to underlie the hooliganish partying that takes place on some college campuses.)

I suppose I'm lucky that my parents continually told me and my brother not only that life gets better as one gets older, but that no decision is make-or-break. Whatever opportunities my various family members might have wished were open to them, or whatever twists and turns their lives may have taken, their self-narratives have always been positive ones, emphasizing the pleasures and the non-quantifiable benefits that come from lives that don't follow a single smooth path.

My dad used to talk about this a lot, when I was in my early 20s and anxious about my future. A first-generation college student, he didn't succeed at his first major (engineering), so had to find another one (geology). After college, instead of starting a career in that field, he became a naval officer. He spent three years on an aircraft carrier, in the early days of the Vietnam War, then moved into the reserves (where he remained for 20 years). He started grad school in geology, but dropped out. He met my mother. Moved to a new state. Got an MBA. Worked for a mining company, but didn't like it. Moved to another state. Went to work for a government agency. Had two kids. After fifteen years with the government, he quit to join my uncle's home-building company. That didn't work out, so after a year he resumed his government job, initially at a lower GS level.

Some people, I imagine, would experience some of these decisions as mistakes, or at least as sources of regret. My dad may have felt that way about some of them back when they happened, but the lesson he and my mom imparted to us was: things work out. When you have an opportunity, you should take it. No decisions are wrong decisions if they were made for good reasons at the time.

Based on the study the Times reports on, lots of older people must feel similarly. But we younger folk--and especially much younger folk, like our students--either aren't told such things, or don't believe them. Maybe there's no way to believe that it will all work out (and that it's okay to major in philosophy rather than accounting) until you've seen it happen. But I sure do wish we'd stop feeding young adults that "best years of your life" bullshit.