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.