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?