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.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

The big picture

I'm on record, on this blog, as not being much of a systematizer or theorizer. I've never been a top-down thinker, and neither have I had much of a knack for synthesis.

I've had mixed feelings about that. On the one hand, I know myself to be a good detail person. I'm a patient accumulator of data, a subtle close-reader, a relentless reviser, and someone who's content to fuss with something she thinks might be important--though she can't say why!--until its significance gradually comes into focus. But on the other hand, I'm not a quick study. I don't speak well or persuasively off the cuff, and I have a hard time framing or even understanding the larger significance of my work. Those aren't merely superficial skills (although in some people they are); they speak to intellectual agility and intellectual depth.

So I've spent a lot of time both envying and deriding people who are systematizers. I've been impatient with theorizers for being bad on the details and suspicious of theory itself for being too totalizing.

It comes, therefore, as a bit of a shock that all I seem to want to read right now are some major systematizers. I'm happily splashing around in Freud and Weber and Nietzsche, Lacan and Derrida and Jameson.

I'm not sure what this is about. Maybe it's about filling in some gaps in my education, or taking my studies in a new direction. Maybe it's about searching for a new and better language for my own ideas. But I do think it has to do with my nearly being done with the work I began in grad school, the project that was once my dissertation and is now a very different book. I'm a much better thinker now, and a better synthesizer. Along the way, it's become clearer to me that the point--the utility--of a particular theoretical model doesn't depend on its being right in all its details, applying to every situation, or answering every question.

Also? I'm having MY MIND BLOWN. On, like, a daily basis. And maybe that's its own justification.