Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Writing as discovery

For my sins, I read David Brooks's column as many times a week as it appears (and for Cosimo's sins, I often read them aloud). Usually they're not worth the energy of mocking publicly, but today is an exception, because today's column opens with Brooks telling us how to write. Worse, he's telling us how he tells his students to write:

I tell college students that by the time they sit down at the keyboard to write their essays, they should be at least 80 percent done. That's because "writing" is mostly gathering and structuring ideas.

Obscured within this idiotic and irresponsible statement are two important ideas. The first is the useful reminder that "writing" involves an awful lot of thinking (and reading and researching) that goes on apart from the time spent at the computer or with pen in hand. The second is that the structure of a piece of writing is as important as the ideas it expresses.

But for most people, writing, developing ideas, and deciding on structure are mutually constitutive and not easily separable into distinct stages. Brooks seems to believe he's giving his students the same advice as John McPhee, whose elaborate and idiosyncratic approach to structure is the subject of a long New Yorker essay from last winter. But even a casual read reveals that McPhee does a tremendous amount of writing even as he's still figuring out an article's structure. Personally, I know writers who do extensive preliminary outlining and who spend days or weeks ordering their ideas in their heads and on notecards (or dry-erase boards, or whatever), but only a small number then find the subsequent writing an efficient and straightforward process. If this is true of Brooks, then that's terrific--but it isn't really what McPhee describes and it certainly isn't true of most writers. Indeed, I've found that for less-experienced writers, a preliminary outline often winds up foreclosing possibilities: students are anxious when their ideas start to go in directions that don't fit the script, and so they decline to pursue those ideas--or they keep them, but in a structure that no longer makes any sense.

Because I actually teach students writing semester in and semester out, and because I know how inclined they are to cling for dear life to whatever pronouncements previous instructors have made or whatever frameworks they've provided (DIE, FIVE-PARAGRAPH ESSAY, DIE), I don't say stupid shit like, "80 percent of your writing happens before you write" or "writing is just structuring ideas." Writing is how most of us have ideas, not simply the end result of them.

For my part, I teach students that structure is vitally important, but that the right structure isn't always apparent until later. It might make sense to start with an outline, but whether or not they start with one, they should take a hard look at the structure of their essay once it seems done and see what might need rearranging or reconsidering. (I tell them that I often outline my own essays only after I've written a good, coherent draft, in order to better see what the component parts are and to understand the larger logic at work; it's a way of stepping back to see the big picture.)

Writing is hard. Teaching writing is harder. But everyone who does both knows that there isn't a single right way to write--the right way is the way that works for you. We benefit from hearing about other people's processes and strategies and trying them on to see which might be helpful, but no method should be presented as definitive. John McPhee doesn't do that in his essay, and I'd thank David Brooks not to do it either.

And with that rant, I close out 2013. Catch ya on the flip side.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Irons in the fire

Among the things I planned to accomplish in the first semester of my sabbatical was a draft of one chapter of my second book. That could still happen--RU's classes don't resume until the 27th, and according to the Flavian Calendar I have until then to complete all tasks assigned to the fall semester--but right now I'm finding myself doing both more and less than focusing on that particular chapter.

In the past two weeks, I've done the following:

Continued working my way through Donne's sermons

Re-read old notes on Donne's polemical prose

Read a couple of articles on Izaak Walton's Compleat Angler

Read a couple of articles on early modern science and manuscript culture

Made some revisions to an essay on Merchant of Venice

Thought about Foxe's Acts and Monuments

Thought about All's Well that Ends Well and Jacob and Esau

Looked through some notes on Browne's Religio Medici

Read the first book of Bede's Ecclesiastical History

In case it's not clear, most of those things aren't related to one another. I find myself working on five or six discrete projects, but none in a sustained way. It's possible that this is just procrastination from the primary task I intended to focus on--that Donne chapter--but I'm also finding, for the first time in my life, that I'm enjoying doing a million things at once.

As I've mentioned before, I prefer to be a monotasker, especially when it comes to my scholarship: I like to focus on a single project until it's done (or, at any rate, until I reach some logical or necessary stopping point). Short-term projects can interrupt, but when they do, I focus on that project until it's done, and then return to Project A. The idea of having a whole bunch of half-written articles--or conference papers that I hadn't yet developed into articles, or extensive research that hadn't even graduated to the point of being a conference paper--has always seemed about as appealing as having a bunch of cars up on blocks on my front lawn.

But here I am, having fun. I'm not sure if this is just the result of being on sabbatical and having more freedom to dabble and draw connections across disparate texts and subfields (because it turns out? most of the things I've been doing secretly DO relate to each other!) or if this, too, is a way my temperament has been shaped and changed by academia. Scholarly time is slow and long, and maybe if we're to be sustained by this life--after the monomaniacal focus on What Comes Next that determines one's progress through grad school and tenure--we need lots of disparate projects, pleasures, distractions.

I'm just theorizing, and who knows whether I'll continue to feel this way. But it's good to realize that the world won't stop spinning if I take my eye off it, and to know that I'll probably even finish most of the projects I've started. . . eventually.

Friday, December 27, 2013

College as a luxury good (now half price!)

Over Christmas there was an interesting article in the Times about tuition pricing at private colleges--specifically, whether lowering the sticker price actually makes a college more appealing to its prospective applicants, or whether it makes more sense to retain a high official price (say, $35-45K) that in practice almost no one pays. It's an especially interesting read today, as we're bombarded with ads for after-Christmas sales promising us deep, deep discounts on goods that otherwise pass themselves off as luxury items.

Since I've only taught at public institutions and I don't have college-bound children, I haven't thought much about private-college pricing; I know it's high, obviously, and I've read that even those high prices don't fully cover costs, but I did not know that very few students actually pay sticker price, especially at less-selective colleges. According to David L. Warren, of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, "About a quarter of students at independent colleges are full-pay, and at institutions with small endowments and small name recognition, it's single-digit" [as the article makes clear elsewhere "single digit" refers to the actual number of students--not the percentage of students--paying full tuition]. Financial aid at such schools is definitely not limited to students with financial need, or even those of exceptional academic achievement. In other words, the price tag at many schools is a made-up number designed to convince parents and students that a college with only a very local reputation is actually extremely selective and prestigious.

I get some of this logic; growing up, I had a friend whose dad owned an antique shop. Whenever he had trouble selling an item, he raised its price. It's easy to see why people would assume that the no-name private school that charges Ivy League rates must be providing a high-quality product; and if that's their assumption, of course they'd thrill to any discount. According to the article, a majority of the prospective families surveyed by Roger Williams University in Rhode Island reported being more interested in a college that officially charged $36,000/year but offered students an average of $13,000 in aid rather than one that charged $23,000/year.

But although everyone loves a deal, not all discounts on artificially marked-up products are equally appealing; you first have to believe in the product's intrinsic value before you care about how good a deal you're getting. If I find something I love at T. J. Maxx or Nordstrom Rack and I pay a quarter of the (alleged) retail price, then sure, I'll crow about the deal. But I care more about finding something I like, at a price I can pay, rather than any specific savings. And if even your state's most selective, public flagship university is cheaper than a small private college, it seems harder to assert that there's an easy correlation between price and value.

I also wonder how off-putting a high official price tag might be: do all your prospective students and their families know that aid is available, and how much? $23,000/year may already be too high a price tag for many students, but I imagine there are families that figure they could swing that cost, with loans and work-study, who wouldn't pursue an application at a school they believed to cost $36,000. Put another way, I'm probably not going to go into the Hermès store, on the assumption that I'd never be able to afford anything there--even on sale.

But maybe that's the point: a certain kind of college wants the kind of student who will nose around the the Hermès store, hoping for a luxury good at a discount price, rather than the one who's content buying something put out by the Macy's store brand.

Readers: do you have any experience with artificial pricing in the college market--or any thoughts about how it works and whom it appeals to?

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

I prefer to drink my Christmas tree

May your days be merry and bright--and may all your drinks be juniper-based.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Outsiders and natives

RU is auditioning provosts. Since I'm away from campus, I can't attend the auditions in person--but since I'm on sabbatical, I actually have the time to read through the finalists' vitae and application materials and watch the videos of their Town Hall meetings.

And I have. Watched them all.

(Listen. It's cold and it's snowy and the cats sleep a lot.)

Obviously, I'm not privy to the real meetings and interviews, and so much of what one sees in a Town-Hall style interview depends on not-strictly-relevant performance skills. I've dutifully given my feedback to the search committee, but I don't imagine that I see the full picture or that I'm the best judge. That said, watching all four of the finalists in short succession and hearing them talk about their various initiatives or the way their current institutions have handled such things as Gen Ed requirements, accreditation, or assessment, has clarified why it's valuable to hire from the outside--and why administrative turnover isn't necessarily a bad thing.

Now, anyone who's worked in a college or university knows why it's frequently a bad thing. There's a type of upper-administrator who parachutes in only to be airlifted back out a few years later; he arrives talking about "vision" and "mission," excites the trustees, starts an institute or erects a few buildings, and then--C.V. sufficiently enriched--moves on to the next job. These are what a friend refers to as "tourists at the top": people with only the shallowest interest in or understanding of their new institution, how it works, and what it might really need.

But it's certainly possible to hire a smart and talented outsider: someone who's genuinely interested in and attentive to the needs of the place that hires him, and who intends to stay long enough to see whether his ideas pan out. He needn't stay forever (there are problems with that, too), but he doesn't see himself as just passing through.

The bigger problem, it seems to me, is not that administrators parachute in from outside, but that so few of the other people charged with helping the university run come from outside. Unless you're at an R1, most of your tenure-line faculty and lower administrators have probably spent the bulk of their careers at your institution. That's not a bad thing--it means stability, institutional memory, and a shared understanding of the college's identity and mission--but it limits their hands-on experience with systems other than their own. RU rarely hires at the associate or full level, and though most members of my department have worked elsewhere (either on the tenure track or off), it's not usually for very long. That means little if any service on university-wide committees, and certainly no longitudinal perspective on how certain approaches, policies, or curricula might have played out elsewhere.

Sure, we all have friends who teach elsewhere. And sure, we all do research when a change is proposed: what's the norm for colleges or departments like ours? How have other institutions handled these challenges? That goes a long way. But when all your upper administrators come from outside and very few of your lower-administrators (or committee chairs, task force members, faculty senators, and so on) do, there's likely to be friction or suspicion.

When someone parachutes in and starts talking to the natives? Both parties are quick to declare the other the ignoramus.

Monday, December 09, 2013

Students value what they're told is valuable

The first semester of my Italian class ended on Friday (and my missing group member reappeared! mirabile dictu!). In the grand tradition of intro classes everywhere, it was a bit of a party, spent watching each others' more or less inspired and more or less ridiculous presentations and chomping on homemade sweets.

Two of my classmates are graduating in December and therefore not continuing with us next semester; we congratulated them and wished them luck. Then our instructor started nudging those who aren't graduating but who hadn't signed up for the spring course on why they weren't registered. There were three or four of them, and though their exact reasons for not continuing varied, the gist in all cases was that they didn't need another semester. Most of them had never intended to take the spring course and none seemed to be reconsidering.

Now, I'm not going to beat up on these particular students for their approach to language study, even though it's hard for me to imagine what use a single semester of a foreign language could be to anyone. This is a commuter campus which serves mostly first-generation college students. Some are just doing what they have to do to earn a degree that they hope will improve their and their family's financial and social circumstances. And if they're not planning on working abroad or in international business, it can be hard to imagine a reason for advanced language study. I know these students have enjoyed the class: many of the non-continuers have been vocal in their appreciation for la professoressa. It's just not. . . relevant, you know? And they're trying to get through college efficiently and graduate sooner rather than later, and if they're not required to take another semester, why spend the time and money?

What strikes me, when I hear these explanations, is that they so closely replicate the arguments made by boards of trustees or local and state politicians. Foreign language study--or the arts, the humanities or even the social sciences--are nice for those who have the leisure for them, but our students need JOBS! And PRACTICAL SKILLS! (Note the classism masquerading as concern.) As a result, the messages are conflicting and incoherent: every institution these days claims to be preparing its students to be global citizens, but they're gutting foreign language requirements. If I'm reading the Gen Ed documents for this institution correctly, a student who has taken two years of a single foreign language in high school does not need to study a foreign language in college; all others need one year of college-level instruction. RU's foreign language expectations set a somewhat higher bar, but not by a lot.

So it's no good wondering why students "don't want" to take X or Y. When you structure your curriculum so it devalues something, you shouldn't be surprised when students don't seem to value it. Sure, student have their own passions and are capable of being set afire by this or that subject and changing their entire course of study as a result--but that subject has to exist and be visible on your campus (hardly the case when there are six or eight tenure-line faculty in the entire Modern Languages department and most of a students' peers aren't studying a foreign language). And students need to have a sense of the worth and desirability of a subject or a skill, and that usually comes from somewhere outside of them.

I don't actually think that first-generation college students (or minority college students, or working-class college students, or however you prefer to define the non-elite) are any more focused on the bottom line than supposedly traditional college students. It's just that the bottom line differs by student population: in some populations, it's considered uncool or embarrassingly ignorant not to have some familiarity with foreign cultures--or the fine arts, or whatever. It's not magic and it's not a mystery: whatever life students can envision themselves inhabiting, they'll take the courses they think they need to get there.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Two out of three ain't bad

Another authentic college experience I've had this semester: working on a major group project and having one member promptly disappear from the face of the earth.

Interstellar email also appears to be unreliable.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The sorrows of peer-review

Peer-review is often referred to as the "gold standard" of scholarly publishing: a rigorous vetting process that ensures the quality of the research that makes its way into print. And although the system isn't fail-proof--crap can make its way into top journals and every couple of years there's an actual scandal involving falsified data or obviously tendentious analysis--I do believe that, in the long run, the traditional double-blind review system mostly works.

But "in the long run" is a pretty big caveat, and I know no one who hasn't beaten her head against the wall of peer-review at least a few times. There are genuine horror stories of reviewers who make it their mission to block any work that challenges their own or that uses a theoretical model they disdain, but mostly there's just pettiness and obtuseness: reviewers who on some level can't "hear" arguments that don't match their own.

Indeed, although the publishing world has been good enough to me over the years, I've encountered as many obstructionist reviewers as generous ones, starting with my very first submission. As a grad student, I submitted one of my dissertation chapters to a top journal and got back a thirteen-page, single-spaced review. It was clear that the reviewer had taken a strong dislike to me, and hostility oozed from every sentence. He appealed continually to what "everyone knew" about the subject, sometimes going so far as to say, of actual, documented facts "this hardly seems likely." In one especially bizarre paragraph, he took it upon himself to lecture me on the Vietnam War and U.S. policy in Central America in the 1980s. (My essay was on Milton.)

Compared to later negative reviewers I've encountered, however, this one was easily sidelined: the journal editor told me to read the review carefully, make "whatever revisions you think necessary," and send it back. It went out to a second reviewer from a similar school of thought, but this time a professionally and intellectually generous one; I later met him at a conference, and as he shook my hand and introduced himself, he said, "I don't know if you could tell from my review, but I disagreed with pretty much every other sentence of your essay." He smiled, told me that it was a provocative and worthwhile argument, and added, "and boy, can you write."

You could say that this taught me to have faith in the system, and I do, but it's been tested routinely by both my own and others' subsequent experiences. The problem isn't so much with the bad behavior that anonymous review sometimes permits or with the way a single person can block good work for personal reasons. Those are problems, to be sure, but there are plenty of venues out there, and plenty of readers; good work will generally get published eventually, and the real test is its afterlife: how often it gets read and cited and grappled with once it's out there in the world.

No, the real problem lies with "eventually": scholarly time is always inefficient and unpredictable--it's hard to know whether the article you're writing will take six months or two years--but when your work is in your hands, at least you have some understanding of why it's taking so long and what comes next. This isn't true of peer review, which might as well be a black box: even the reports and the editorial decisions, once you get them, are not always self-interpreting. This is especially hard on junior scholars, who are always on a clock; they need that vita line ASAP because they're going on the job market, or they're approaching their third-year or their tenure review. Under those circumstances, even the usual delays--a reviewer takes six months instead of the promised four; a journal requires a second round of revisions--can be nerve-wracking, and the more capricious and unreasonable responses can damage careers.

There's not a solution here that I'm aware of; I don't believe that open-source peer review is a better answer--on the whole, I think it's likely to produce more conservative and crowd-pleasing rather than more innovative work--and I certainly don't advocate for the end of peer-review, but there are problems here that affect junior scholars disproportionately (although not exclusively: I've heard well-published full professors mention having written pieces that got savaged so badly they'd never had the heart to send them out again). I suppose one solution is, "submit early and often," but that too is hard on junior scholars, who tend to be focused on the One Big Thing that is their dissertation/first book and can't as easily work up little side articles.

Readers, what do you think? Are there ways to make the peer review process work more equitably and efficiently (beyond being an ethical and responsible reviewer oneself)--or do you have words of wisdom to give to grad students or recent PhDs stuck in peer-review hell?

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The wages of casualization, part 2

For anyone who hasn't seen it yet, Slate's L. V. Anderson went to Pittsburgh and learned more about the life and death of Margaret Mary Vojtko.

As some of us speculated in the comments to my post about the original Post-Gazette op-ed, there does indeed turn out to be more to Vojtko's story than made it into that editorial; Vojtko actually had dozens of people who tried to help her, and many of her problems weren't directly related to her employment conditions. But if Duquesne isn't the cartoon villain some readers wished to see, Anderson doesn't back away from holding them and higher education accountable for the end results of academic casualization. It's a thoughtful, compassionate, and balanced piece of journalism, and well worth reading in full.

Vojtko's story wouldn't have gotten covered if Duquesne hadn't appeared uniquely coldhearted and evil, but I never assumed that it was (though as a Catholic, I remain outraged at the institution's claim that labor unions violate its religious identity); I don't think most academics did. The fact that Duquesne isn't an outlier is the real scandal.

Friday, November 15, 2013

What's a professional society for?

I belong to a half-dozen professional organizations, and if you'd have asked me why, last week I'd have said something vague about their advocacy for scholars and the importance of paying it forward. But yesterday the Renaissance Society of America showed me what a professional organization can actually do for its members and how it might respond creatively to inequities in the academy--even those over which it has no immediate control. Effective immediately, the RSA is offering free access to Early English Books Online to all its members.

To understand the significance of that move, you have to understand, first, that EEBO is the single most important database for those of us who work with printed texts published in England (or published abroad for the English market) from 1475 to 1700. EEBO is a collection of complete facsimile images for 125,000 different books. It is, in essence, an online rare books library, but also a fully-searchable one: it's now possible to run searches to see, for example, how often and in what context a particular historical figure gets mentioned in print over the course of a given decade. Equally as importantly, it's made extremely rare books--some of which survive in only a single copy--available anywhere in the world to anyone with a subscription. There are still many reasons we need rare books libraries and physical books, but EEBO makes everything a hundred times easier, whether it's something as trivial as double-checking the page numbers for a quotation or as significant as comparing two books held in different locations.

Or rather--EEBO makes everything a hundred times easier for those who have access to it. Because the second thing to know about EEBO is that subscriptions are prohibitively expensive. Most research universities subscribe, but the majority of colleges and universities do not (and subscriptions are not available to independent scholars or other private citizens). Several years ago RU looked into the possibility of getting a joint subscription with several other masters-granting universities, but as I recall our portion alone would have run somewhere in the neighborhood of $20,000-$30,000.

So most of us don't have legitimate access to EEBO, though pirated subscriptions are relatively common; in the seven and a half years that I've been at RU, I've had access, at one point or another, through three different friends' university accounts. My conscience doesn't twinge much about that, but since I'd never give someone else's login to a student, I can't use it in the classroom or incorporate it into research assignments. That's a huge loss.

Enter RSA. A few months ago they sent around a survey asking how much we'd be willing to pay per year for access to EEBO--on top of our membership dues--if the organization could get a good group rate. I filled out the survey, but didn't expect much to happen; the price points they mentioned were high, and I told them frankly that although I'd prefer to be an ethical user, since pirated access was so readily available I probably wouldn't be willing to pay more than an additional $50.

Then I forgot about it until yesterday, when I got an email informing me that, as a result of the survey and their internal research, the RSA had concluded that EEBO was so vital it should be funded out of the organization's endowment and be free to all members.


Let me be honest here: I'd never previously given much of a shit about RSA. I always paid my dues because I have a good job and because I believe in being a good citizen, but I could never muster up much enthusiasm for the organization. It's a huge umbrella society whose members come from a range of disciplines and work in at least a half-dozen languages on material that spans nearly 500 years; its conferences are thus even less targeted toward my interests than the MLA. (I have more in common with a James Joyce scholar than I do with someone who works on Florentine numismatics or Dutch landscape paintings.) It's the smaller professional societies that I've cared about the most: the ones getting by on a shoestring budget, the ones whose founding members are still alive, the ones I feel need me, and need younger scholars, and are working toward goals I share.

But the RSA has really impressed me with this. I'm not surprised to learn that a major organization can wield more clout than a smaller one, but I am surprised to find that it can be just as driven by and just as responsive to its members' needs. According to the email I received, this new benefit is the direct result of a single member's query about whether a group subscription to EEBO might be possible--and in the same email, the RSA urged us to keep bringing forward ideas about other resources or benefits they might investigate making available to all.

It's easy to think that the big professional societies are hidebound, slow-moving beasts that are irrelevant to the lives of most scholars, existing chiefly to confirm the importance of those who've already arrived. But the RSA has proved that professional organizations can be vital and relevant even to the most junior and the most professionally marginalized people in the field, those who need to see some benefit if they're going to shell out $50 or $75 or $100 a year. My hat's off to them.

So if you're an Early Modernist, please think about joining or renewing your RSA membership. And if you're an academic in another field or discipline, talk to your own professional societies about what they're doing to provide equal access to whichever resources you consider most crucial, whether those be databases or conference travel funds for grad students and contingent faculty.

Sometimes, apparently, all it takes is asking.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Intimate friendships

Whatever ambivalence I felt about the Grad School City portion of my recent trip, I felt none whatsoever about my housing arrangements: I spent three nights with my college roommate and her family and three nights with another college friend and his husband. This arrangement was originated by necessity--half-pay means no money for a hotel room!--and I had some trepidation about burdening busy people in the middle of the work-week. But it was terrific to have that time with them, and to be, however, briefly, a part of their regular lives.

As I've aged, this has become increasingly rare: actually seeing how my friends live. Sure, I have friends whom I meet for drinks every week; friends whose houses I dine at regularly; and I've even rented a vacation house with several friends for a weekend. But that's not the same thing.

When I was in my twenties, I was enmeshed in my friends' lives in ways that went beyond our constant phone calls. We actually lived with each other, even after college, and even after most of us had gotten our own apartments. If we lived in different cities, we'd visit each other for long weekends--and if we lived in the same city, we'd crash at each others' places when it got too late to go home for the night. We'd sleep in the same room, use the same bathroom, make breakfast together. Or we'd hang out at each others' places for hours as afternoon turned into evening, watching bad t.v., reading magazines, drinking a bottle of wine and doing our makeup as we tried to decide what to do with the night.

Now we're busier, with work and other things. Almost all of us are partnered and half of us have kids, and spending large blocks of time together is a trickier proposition. Even when Cosimo and I stay overnight with friends, it's usually just one night (if we're traveling), or there's some event we're all going to (reunion, sporting event), so the rhythms aren't those of real life.

But over the past year, I've stayed for two or three nights, just by myself, with four or five different friends (and their partners and kids, if they have 'em), some of whom I'd never before seen in pyjamas, or whose kitchens I've never experienced flooded with early-morning sunlight.

It's been a treat. The greatest luxury is simply that of time: all those hours in which to have the kinds of conversations that emerge only over a day or two of doing other things--fixing meals, taking the dog for a walk, running errands--and that wouldn't necessarily come out over a 45-minute phone call or a hasty lunch. But there's also the special intimacy that comes from witnessing someone's daily routines with her partner or her child or her pets, from seeing the corner of her kitchen table where she pays her bills, or learning how her coffee maker works. I like that intimacy, and I miss it. But I'm glad to have gotten a fresh taste with a few friends this past week.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Rewriting the past

I'm just back from a week of research at the rare books library at my alma mater, which was a complicated experience. The research end of things was great: I put in six to eight hours every day, got through a ton of material, and feel I now have a firmer grasp on some of the background material for my second book project.

When nonspecialists ask me about my research, I usually say that it's about how we deal with the past: how people find a language to describe experiences or identities that the culture doesn't recognize; how they narrate events that even they may not understand; how they reimagine the past to cope with traumatic change. That's the big take-away and what animates both of my book projects (and no one wants to hear me talk about Early Modern religious prose for longer than it takes me to say "Early Modern religious prose").

But as I spent my week thinking about the ways sixteenth and seventeenth century ecclesiastical histories narrate the past to bring it into alignment with the present, I had a disorienting sense of going through a similar process myself.

The thing is, I don't know what my relationship to my alma mater or its city is anymore, or why I keep going back. It's surely not a city I'd think to visit if I didn't have any prior relationship to it, but given that I know the rare books library inside and out (literally, since it was one of my work-study jobs in college) and it's the major collection closest to my home, it makes sense to regard it as my default rare books library. I also have lots of friends who live or work in Grad School City or its immediate environs, as well as a deep attachment to many of the city's shops, restaurants, museums, and theatres.

But although I like going back and I'm always eager for an excuse to visit, I'm not really sure why. I was unhappy almost the entire time I lived in that city in grad school and I fled after my fourth year. (Indeed, I was so unhappy, so early, that I started saving money in my second year because I needed to believe that I'd be able to leave.) And although I say that I loved my college experience, the reality is more complex. I loved my friends, my classes, my extra-curricular activities. I believe that who I am today is profoundly shaped by that institution. But on an actual, day-to-day basis? I was anxious and stressed and often mildly depressed.

So being back is strange, although it's not as fraught these days as it was several years back, when I had a month-long research fellowship and felt I was continually running into all my past selves. Once in a while, though, I was still taken by surprise. Looking for street parking one morning I got caught in a long loop of one-way streets and found myself a couple of miles from campus alongside a building that a guy from my cohort had briefly inhabited. All at once I was thrust back to September 1999: he'd thrown a party there, that first month of grad school. There was nothing remarkable about the party; we'd only just met one another, and the ten or twelve of us sat around in a circle chatting and drinking wine out of plastic cups. I remember it as a pleasant evening. But seeing that building I felt, hard in my gut, what the rest of that year was like, and the year after.

Flashbacks like that happened a few times. More bizarre were the actual live people I stumbled across whom I'd known in grad school but had no reason to suspect were in Gradschoolandia these days--like the guy whose voice I heard from another room of a coffee shop and instantly recognized, or the woman I saw from across the library, still wearing a coat I remembered. I didn't love either of them and I don't think they loved me, and seeing them, similarly, returned me to the reasons I'd been dying to leave that town in the first place: so small, so insular, so hard to escape. What were they doing there?

For that matter, what was I doing there? Why do we all keep coming back?

I think, sometimes, that it's because I can't quite get my head around the fact that I was so unhappy somewhere I should have been happy. I don't really understand who I was in grad school, or what it says about who I am now. That's old news to long-time readers of this blog--or anyone who has perused the vast archive of posts tagged "grad school trauma." But on this visit, in an unexpected twist, I wound up talking about some of these things with my dissertation director.

We had lunch one afternoon, which was the first time we'd seen each other in perhaps three years. It was lovely from start to finish. At some point she mentioned that she was proud of my successes, and added that she was especially proud because I'd managed them without--she suspected--having gotten much support from her in the early years. I said that I wasn't going to disagree with that statement. . . but that I understood, now that I advised undergrad and M.A. theses, how complicated the advising relationship was and how prone to mismatches or misunderstandings due to different emotional and personal styles. I added that I felt I'd been a very different person in grad school, radically different not only from who I am now, but not much like who I was before grad school, either: that I saw myself as a mostly optimistic and self-assured person who for some reason had been a disaster of insecurity and timidity for most of six years.

She, in turn, did not dispute that statement. But we wound up having a nice conversation about how hard it is to predict future results--our own or anyone else's--and how interesting it is to watch and see how life turns out.

The past is a problem that can't be solved. But it can be reintegrated, renarrated, and reimagined.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Literary poseurs, junior division

Sunday's Times featured another installment in their ongoing series, "parenting strategies of the anxious and overeducated," but one in which I took a greater-than-average interest. "A Library of Classics, Edited for the Teething Set," describes the apparent publishing-world trend of converting classic works of literature--Moby-Dick, Anna Karenina, Pride and Prejudice, and Les Miserables are some of the titles mentioned--into those chunky, brightly-colored, eight-or-ten-page board books intended for preverbal children. The thinking seems to be that if you're the kind of parent eager to bestow every possible cognitive and cultural advantage on your child (by exposing her to classical music in the womb, teaching her a second language from birth), then surely you wouldn't want to omit Great Literature!

None of the regular ol' board books I've encountered in my friends' homes has much of a plot, but apparently neither do the "classic" works described in the article (which is just as well, since that the stories Tolstoy and Hugo tell aren't the most toddler-friendly). Instead, they seem to feature the simple images and terse, vocabulary-building sentences typical of the genre. The Moby-Dick book sounds like it's mostly a collection of pictures of whales and ships and some nautical terms.

Several of the people quoted in the article express skepticism about the project, but ultimately shrug their shoulders: the books do no harm, so if parents want to spend a bunch of extra money and flatter themselves that they're exposing their children to High Culture--well, whatever. They're still reading to their children and spending time with them.

I suppose that's the right take on the matter, but I roll my eyes a little harder than the author of the article. Because you know what? If you care so much about great literature, you could just read bits of Melville or Austen to your child. They're beautiful writers, well worth reading aloud. And if any special reading you do with your kid at eighteen months is capable of having an unusual impact on her eventual aesthetic sensibility or verbal facility, it's exposing her to complex syntax, unusual diction, and a variety of sentence rhythms.*

Moreover, if you expect your child someday to be a reader--or a lover of classical music, or speaker of foreign languages, or whatever else you're shooting for--your best bet is to do those things yourself. Really and truly, and not because you think it will give her an edge in Ivy League admissions. Do them because you already like them, or because you want to try them out to see if you like them. Now's the time for you to learn more about classical music: buy real albums, not Baby Mozart. Now's the time to start learning a foreign language, rather than just outsourcing the task to the au pair. And if you urgently want your kid to read the classics, well, you could start by reading some poetry aloud to her. Or some passages from Faulkner, or the King James Bible, or whatever you find appealing.

(It's ridiculous, by the way, that the only reading aloud most adults do is to their kids. If you're a reader, read aloud now and then, to yourself or your spouse or a friend.)

So, no: there's no harm in these board books; if I had a kid and someone gave me one, I'm sure I'd think it was adorable. It's not inconceivable that I might buy one for a friend. Just don't fool yourself that it's doing anything more for your child than any other board book--or that it's any kind of evidence of your literary taste or sophistication.

N.B. I'm not saying that parents should be reading the classics aloud to their 18-month-olds; I'm just saying it's a more plausible route to the kind of advantage the parents featured in the article seem to be looking for.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Deselecting for the library of the future

The library at RU is in the early stages of a significant renovation, and right now we're in the midst of the "deselection" process--a/k/a "weeding" a/k/a "getting rid of books."

Aspects of this have been handled badly--I'll leave it to you to imagine how--but the reality is that our collections haven't been weeded in decades, and they're overdue. In many fields it's actually irresponsible to keep older material on the shelves (older = outdated, superseded, erroneous), and although that isn't true in the humanities, there are still plenty of titles that should go; there's usually no reason to keep a whole bunch of random, midcentury editions of the works of a given Renaissance poet if we also have more recent editions that are more rigorously edited and with better scholarly apparatus.

Faculty are being given the chance to review the list of deselected titles in their disciplines (and any other areas of interest), and click a button to recommend those we should keep; to the best of my understanding, everything we recommend keeping will be kept.

This sounds great, and it's certainly better than the alternative, but it's proven unexpectedly challenging. To start, there are 8,500 titles on the deselection list in English/American literature alone, and there are other disciplines I want to look at after that. In order to make headway, I've chosen to focus only on titles in my subfield--someone else can worry about James Joyce and Frances Burney--which means I'm able to get through 500-1000 titles at a go before my eyes glaze over.

Even within my subfield, though, I'm struggling with the task. Right now I'm the only faculty member in a field that spans 130 years, give or take, and that includes maybe a hundred significant authors working in a range of genres. I haven't read most of their primary works, much less the scholarship on those works. I have no idea which edition of George Chapman is authoritative, or whether an older edition might have virtues not replicated by a newer one. I don't know whether a 1965 book on Herbert is regarded as foundational. . . or a bit of belletristic bloviating. Even in the case of Milton and Donne scholarship, I know some works that I'd lie across the train-tracks to save, but certainly not all of them. That title. . . it rings a bell. . . but why? Is it actually important, or just a spine that sat in an eye-catching spot in the bookstacks in grad school?

Age isn't a clear-cut guide, and neither is press; if I have a high opinion of something by a given scholar, I usually vote to keep anything else he wrote, but the fact that I've never heard of a dude doesn't mean much, especially in subspecializations far from my own. Titles can often be a clue ("Shakespeare: A Study in Genius" and "12 Moral Archetypes in Renaissance Lyric" can almost certainly be tossed to everyone's benefit), but not always. I'm erring on the side of saving books, of course, but it's vexing to think that I'm probably keeping a certain amount of crap, including crap that may eventually make its way into my students' papers.

The real problem is that I don't know what my future colleagues will want, or my future students; hell, beyond the next two or three years, I can't even predict my own scholarly trajectory with assurance. A library collection can't just be targeted to its present users' near-term needs, and in ordering books for the library over the past eight years I've always ordered widely, focusing on topics and subjects that I know to be important even when I can't imagine needing those books myself. Even if no one at RU ever needs the book, it's available through inter-library loan, and so serves an even larger community (and performs a minor bit of advertising: whenever I get a book from ILL, I note where it's from, and I have a distinctly positive impression of certain small-college libraries as a result).

There are subject areas that currently have no specialists to review them. RU has no Germanists, and no tenure-line Italianists. Our history department is strong, but with some big period and area gaps. English is hiring for two positions this year--will we wind up getting rid of books those new hires might have fought for?

I know this needs to be done. I'm glad I can participate. But it's anxiety-producing all the same.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

From beyond the grave

Last night I had the weirdest and most Early Modern dream I've ever had or expect to have. Not only was I John Donne--or at least inhabiting his body, more on which in a moment--but I was dying, dramatically, and trying to get home before I did. Most of the dream was about the slow and painful carriage ride home.

As Donne got out of the carriage and met some unspecified family members, he swooned, and I--apparently his soul or consciousness, not the physical man--watched all of this dispassionately, feeling very fresh and young indeed, and wondering idly what would happen to me when he died. Clearly I would survive this. Maybe I'd enter another body? Maybe I'd just sit out there as an untethered consciousness? The only thing that troubled me was whether I'd remember being attached to the body and perspective of this particular man, or would have to start fresh.

Whether this is an argument for or against my particular career path, I leave you to decide.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

No one has the advisor relationship they want

Last weekend I was hanging out with some other recently-tenured friends when the conversation turned to grad school and our relationships with our respective dissertation directors. We're all in different fields, went through different programs, and the nature of our advisor relationships were also quite different. But the conversation made me think, not for the first time, that dissertation directors trail only one's family of origin and certain romantic partners in their emotional and psychological impact. And as in those cases, an advisor's importance has less to do with what they actually do or don't do (i.e., whether they're objectively cruel, thoughtless, or neglectful) than with the fact that they're intimately involved in our lives at a crucial and difficult stage.

At this distance, I feel confident in saying that no one has the relationship she wants with her advisor while a grad student, just as virtually no one has the relationship she wants with her parents while a teenager; the problem is that you're not yet the person you want to be--whoever that is--and you're radically dependent on someone else. This complicates even the best relationships.

But here's the thing: unlike one's parents, the only purpose of an advisor is to get you to the point where you don't need him or her--where you know, experientially, that you can write a persuasive chapter, a publishable article, a dissertation, a book. And any advisor who helps you get there is a good advisor.

Now, don't get me wrong: there are certainly better and worse advisor relationships. Some are objectively bad (an advisor who doesn't read your work, belittles it, steals your ideas, makes sexual advances) and some are just bad-for-the-individual (a personality mismatch). And a bad relationship can do real damage. But few advisor relationships are so good that the advisee is never anxious, embarrassed, playing the suppliant, or terrified of letting his or her advisor down. And everyone has to learn, sooner or later, to trust herself and her own intuition, to find other mentors and collaborators, to do work without the (literal or figurative) voice of her advisor in her ear.

Accordingly, there are "good" advisor relationships that don't serve the advisee well: a close relationship isn't helpful if you depend too much, or for too long, on your advisor's advice or approval.

These days, I'm happy with where my relationship with my advisor is at, and I don't think much about its past. But if there's a bigger lesson here, it's that one can't escape the need for external sources of approval, especially in one's early years (as a child, as a scholar), and it's normal to cathect on those individuals or imbue those relationships with all kinds of magical thinking. But one is happier the more internally-motivated one becomes. Mostly, this just comes with time. But it's never too early or too late to try to separate one's sense of self from extrinsic sources.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

The many stages of self-loathing--I mean, writing

I'm closing in on the final version of a short commissioned essay. Because it's so short and I've been working on it without interruption for a month or so, I've had the opportunity to think about the discrete stages of my writing process.

The big picture isn't a surprise: I've always maintained that I hate writing and love rewriting, and that remains true. But starting and finishing a project in such a short period of time has revealed to me that there are actually many intermediate stages in my process, rather than just writing/rewriting.

The major stages look something like this:

Stage One: I hate every minute I'm at my computer and have to resort to all kinds of tricks to make myself stay there.

In this stage, I'm mostly just trying to conquer the fear of the blank screen and convince myself I have enough matter to write about. I throw everything I can think of into my document: block quotes I intend to analyze, bits and bobs of thoughts and topics; half a paragraph on this, half a paragraph on that.

Stage Two: At this point, I no longer hate every minute I spend writing, and occasionally have passing moments of pleasure or insight--but it still requires an act of will to get through a few hours/pages a day.

This is the stage where I start to rough out my ideas and expand on the bits and bobs from Stage One--but, at least initially, it's without much effort to connect those ideas or fit them into a larger argument.

Stage Three: I can't stop working on the project. I resent having to eat or go to bed, and feel dazed and unable to hold normal conversations when I stop working.

This is the stage where I really try to force everything into order and coherence, to build an overarching argument, to make everything line up, and to sound good. This stage is still a struggle--but if there's a part of writing that makes me happy, it's this part.

Stage Four: Wait, I'm not done yet?

After Stage Three, there's inevitably still tinkering and fussing, the sense that things aren't quite right, that a turn of phrase sounds wrong, that the argument isn't set up as effectively as it could be, etc. This stage can be pleasurable--it's immensely satisfying when a problem gets solved, or there's a paragraph (or even several pages!) that I'm totally happy with, but it's frustrating when it drags on too long.

(And of course, every stage does drag on too long. Always.)


How about you? What's your writing process like?

Thursday, October 03, 2013

Getting your money's worth

So the university where I'm taking my Italian class has screwed up my registration status, and hence my billing, and hence pretty much everything else. Which means I'm getting what for many students is the Authentic College Experience.

As the spouse of an employee, I qualify for free tuition, but it turns out that only in-state tuition gets reimbursed (which we weren't told) and Registration classified me as a non-resident (which we also weren't told). Although my specific circumstances are unusual, the results weren't: my account kept showing a balance due; Human Resources kept telling us to ignore it; and then a massive late-payment fee got added. Whereupon I contacted Treasury Services, which told me it wasn't their problem; whereupon I contacted Registration, which gave me an eight-page form to petition for immediate residency. It will take at least a week to scrounge up all the necessary attachments, and even then there's no guarantee the petition will be approved.

Although I've heard a lot from my advisees at RU about their problems with the Financial Aid and Registration offices, being in the midst of it is a real education. I've never heard of an institution that lets students register and attend classes without first having squared away their financial obligations. If I'm getting stressed out, when I only owe seven-hundred-odd dollars and spend every hour I'm not on campus sitting on my ass at home, I can only imagine how stressful it would be to discover, mid-semester, that I owed thousands--while also taking a full courseload, holding down a job, and providing at least emotional and practical support to various family members, as the vast majority of students at this urban, commuter campus do.

I'm married to an employee of nine years, who's friends with the union president and who knows people in the Registration office. Our ability to navigate the system is pretty high--and, worst comes to worst, we could find the money if we had to. In college, my parents handled the money end of things, and though they made some real financial sacrifices (and I had a work-study job during the school year and worked full-time every summer), I never saw a bill or worried about paying it. Most students in America have no such advantages.

I'm not going to pretend I'm now like those students; I'm less like them than ever. But being enmeshed in the same bureaucracy and sharing a milder form of the same financial stress does forge a deeper sense of identification. Spending all those hours staring at the price-tag attached to my coursework also makes it hard not to start calculating whether my class is "worth" any of those figures.

Now, I know that tuition bears no direct relationship to faculty salaries. In fact, even the out-of-state figure for my one class is lower than the going rate for adjunct instruction. But when it's your own money we're talking about, and your resources are already stretched thin, making cost-benefit analyses and comparisons is unavoidable. The question isn't, "is this class well-taught?" Or, "is the subject worthwhile in itself?" Or, "does the professor deserve a fair wage?" The question is, "can I afford it?" Or, "is the knowledge I gain worth having no money if my car breaks down this month?" Or, "is this class six times the value I'd get from buying Rosetta Stone instead?"

It's never been mysterious to me why students and their parents care about the bottom line or the return on investment, or why they might choose majors that seem to track them directly into a job. But the immediacy of their anxiety has felt foreign to me: just wait and see! Explore different majors! The long-term payoff is worth it!

But when you're living close to the edge and every gamble means something else you can't afford, short-term decisions may be the only ones you can make.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Picking cotton

Tomorrow is our second wedding anniversary. According to some entirely unreliable source and some totally bogus tradition, that makes it our cotton anniversary. Although cotton lacks some of the whatsit of the gold, silver or diamond anniversaries--and dudes, you'd better believe that if we make it to our sixtieth anniversary, this nonagenarian and centenarian will be rocking the bling--it's not actually that hard to come up with gift ideas involving cotton. There are plenty of options. It's just that they all suck.

Blah blah, shirts, blah blah, sheets. Blah blah, towels. I'm trying to think big here, people! A bale of cotton? A cotton gin? The collected works of Cotton Mather?

Help a girl out. What's the awesomest cotton-themed gift you can imagine?

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Making mystics out of cheeses

The September 16th issue of the The New Yorker contains a wonderful collection of entries from a journal Flannery O'Connor kept in 1946, while at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. They're prayers to God, funny, lovely, and peculiar little things that address an enduring artistic problem: success depends upon ambition, drive, and egotism--but also upon real self-knowledge and humility.

The link requires subscriber log-in, but here's a taste:

Dear God, I cannot love Thee the way I want to. You are the slim crescent of a moon that I see and my self is the earth's shadow that keeps me from seeing all the moon. The crescent is very beautiful and perhaps that is all one like I am should or could see; but what I am afraid of, dear God, is that my self shadow will grow so large that it blocks the whole moon, and that I will judge myself by the shadow that is nothing.

[. . . .]

[A]ll my requests seem to melt down to one for grace--that supernatural grace that does what ever it does. My mind is in a little box, dear God, down inside other boxes inside other boxes and on and on. There is very little air in my box. Dear God, please give me as much air as it is not presumptuous to ask for. Please let some light shine out of the things around me so that I can. . . .Oh dear God I want to write a novel, a good novel.

[. . . .]

What I am asking for is really very ridiculous. Oh Lord, I am saying, at present I am a cheese, make me a mystic, immediately. But then God can do that--make a mystic out of cheeses.

I love all of this, but especially the first and last metaphors: an artist needs to be careful not to mistake her own massive shadow for substance, or to let it obscure what she's trying to communicate. But sometimes an artist--like God--can take a piece of cheese and turn it into a mystic.

Sunday, September 22, 2013


A year and a half from my fortieth birthday, it occurs to me that I have no idea what it means to be middle-aged. The term itself is part of the problem, suggestive as it is of being stuck in a place that's neither here nor there: not youth, not early-career, not the beginning of anything--but not the culmination or fulfillment of anything, either.

This is not how I regard my actual fortysomething and fiftysomething friends, all of whom lead the kind of rich and interesting lives that I'd be lucky to emulate. But I haven't thought much about how they got to where they are--and, more importantly, I've never had any vision for what I wanted my life to look like at that age.

Maybe popular culture is to blame, with its scarcity of interesting midlife characters (unless you're a parent or having a midlife crisis, there's not much place for you on stage or screen), or maybe it's academia, with its prolonged deferral of adulthood; I'm only just now at the place of personal and professional stability that most of my nonacademic friends reached five or ten years ago. But mostly, I think it's that the interesting things that happen in midlife are less dramatic, less external, and less predictable than those that occur in one's younger years.

Up to age 30 or 35, there tend to be clear paths to follow or clear milestones of achievement. These vary somewhat by profession, peer group, and domestic choices, but one generally knows both what the "expected" next step is (get married, buy a home, have kids, make partner) and what one's own desired next step is (get divorced! move abroad! go back to school!). I was always impatient to be a grown-up, eager to be 18 and 25 and 30. I knew the kind of person I wanted to be and the kind of life I wanted to lead, at least in general ways.

But now I. . . don't know. I don't fear turning 40. I just have no idea what it means to be a fortysomething woman, or how I want to be a fortysomething (and eventually fiftysomething) woman. I don't have the kind of hard goals I've had for every other stage of my life. I mean, living in the same place as my spouse is still something I'm striving for, but otherwise it's more of the same: I want to keep doing the stuff I like and find meaningful, and discover more such activities.

When your life has been goal-driven for so long, with every goal the plausible and satisfying end of one particular storyline, this approach feels vague and aimless. What's the point? What's the payoff? Who benefits from my learning Italian, or resuming music lessons, or remodeling my kitchen?

At the same time, there's something freeing about realizing there's no script and nothing I have to do. God willing, I've got, like, decades and decades to figure it out. I don't yet know how to exist in the world as someone who's not a young woman, or a junior scholar, or any of the other things I've been for a long long time. I never imagined myself as middle-aged. But now that I'm starting to, it feels like a gift.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The wages of casualization

I'd been thinking of writing a post about what it feels like to be back in the classroom as a student after more than a decade at the front of the room, but I wasn't sure I had much to say. Then I read this horrific article about the death of an impoverished adjunct just weeks after she was fired from Duquesne's French department, and it clarified some of the uneasiness I've been feeling about my Italian class.

My class itself is great, and my Italian professor everything you'd want from a beginning-language instructor. But like Margaret Mary Vojtko, the Duquesne adjunct, la professoressa is contingent faculty. And like Vojtko, she's older than we--by which I guess I mean "I"--typically imagine adjuncts to be. At first I assumed my instructor to be in her early 40s: she's fit and attractive, with long hair and a stylish, youthful wardrobe. In reality, she must be at least 50. She's also a single mom with two kids.

And for all the hand-wringing and fulminating I've done about the casualization of academic labor over the years, I have to admit that I've rarely thought about adjuncts as men and women in their 50s, 60s, or (in the case of Vojtko) 80s. I've never thought about anyone being an adjunct until retirement--or at least not in the absence of any other career, or without a partner's income, pension, or benefits. Vojtko didn't have health coverage even when she was working at Duquesne, and she sure didn't have any afterwards.

In other words, though I've always seen casualization as a scandal and a tragedy--the fact that talented, highly-trained people who love their work get exploited because of that love--and I've always recognized that there are major financial, opportunity, and emotional costs to remaining in that kind of abusive relationship with academia--

Well, I guess I've still always imagined the adjunct as someone who could leave. Someone who might leave with real scars, but who was still talented enough and young enough to build a life doing something else.

Vojtko's story might be unusual in 2013, but if current trends continue, it won't be in 2033.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013


For readers curious how Flavia is spending her sweet sweet sabbatical year, I'm here to assure you that it's not just about arising late, debating which exotic shade to paint my toenails, and getting quietly blitzed on gin. (I do all those things in a regular semester.)

Mainly, I'm trying to arrive at a negotiated settlement with Time. If life during an ordinary semester means doing battle with clock and calendar--trying to fit everything into an already jam-packed schedule--life on leave involves a different kind of struggle: the effort to impose a schedule on endless days during which no one particularly cares where I am or what I do. (Except for the cats, whose only requirements are that I hang around and produce body heat and feed them once a day.)

If you're lucky enough to have a year or semester "off," how do you ensure that you're using it well? And at a more basic level, how do you fill each day in a way that allows you to go to bed without a gut full of guilt and self-loathing?

I've known since grad school that maximal free time does not make me maximally productive. When I was teaching, I wrote an average of two dissertation chapters a year (usually one during the academic year and one during the summer). But the year I was on fellowship and relieved of my teaching duties, I wrote exactly one new chapter. Now, I wasn't loafing around; in addition to research for my new chapter, I got two articles based on earlier chapters accepted for publication, I went to a couple of conferences, and I continued working two full days a week at my publishing job. But though I may not have done any less scholarly work that year than the previous one, it's impossible to argue that I did more.

A tenure-line job ties up my time as grad school never could, and it's much harder to get work done during the academic term. Still, my progress during summers and my pre-tenure leave suggests that when I have no obligations other than writing and research, I do not get a strictly proportionate amount of work done (which is to say, I don't fill up my normal 40- or 60- or whatever hour work weeks with scholarship). That's not something I fret about, particularly: people in intellectual and creative fields need time to recharge, to read widely, and to pursue tangential interests; if I succeeded in spending even 25 hours a week, every week, for an entire year, reading and writing within my field, I'd consider my sabbatical a screaming success.

The problem, then, is how to get those hours in, how to make them feel worthwhile, and what to do with all the other hours in a day.

So for now, this is how I'm getting through the days and weeks with a reasonable sense of purpose: I'm taking Italian classes Monday-Wednesday-Friday, which also involves a commute. Initially I was worried about all the extra time this would suck up (just going to class takes approximately three and a half hours each day we meet), but in fact it's turning out to be exactly the structure I need: three days a week, I have to get up and get out of the house at a halfway normal hour, put on something other than yoga pants, and pay some attention to my hair and makeup. I take the light rail downtown and have a pleasant walk to campus. That's also my exercise for the day, which amounts to about two and a half miles total, between getting to my neighborhood rail stop and the walk to and from campus.

I walk up one of the city's grand old nineteenth-century boulevards, lined with beaux-arts buildings, past the theatre district, restaurant row, a sports stadium, and a public library that looks like the NYPL's younger sister. I know from experience that parts of that walk are deserted and even ominous at night or on the weekends, but at lunchtime on a weekday the street is filled with office workers, tourists, and sports fans. It's nice to participate in the regular, workaday rhythms, nice to have some human interactions, and nice to see more of the city and its citizens.

I get home at 3.30, which still gives me plenty of time to work if I want to--and on the days I don't have class, I have wonderful long blocks of time to immerse myself in my work; blocks I wouldn't value or get excited about if every day were similarly open and unplanned.

It's been working well so far, but up to now I've been working on deadline for a few discrete projects--proofreading and indexing my book, writing a short commissioned article, that sort of thing--which has helped my sense of focus. Starting the second week in October, though, it'll just be me and Book Two, which remains a vast, amorphous, and somewhat intimidating project. I'll report back then.


Readers: how have you dealt with unstructured time or made the most of any research fellowships or leaves?

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Lessons from the Woodman

I saw Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine a few days ago. I liked it less than some people and more than others, but I'm not interested in talking about the movie. What I want to talk about is the fact that Allen has made a movie a year since 1966.

Sure, lots of those movies are forgettable. And sure, at this point in his career, Allen can get movies made that no one else working within his time and budget constraints could. But my point is this: he just keeps moving.

And as I contemplate the long and as-yet-undifferentiated vista of my mid-career, that seems like a worthwhile model. Most people can't put out whatever the academic equivalent of a movie a year is (a book every five? a conference paper every three months?), and I'm not advocating a focus on numbers in any case. But the way to have a lot of hits is not to fear a few misses. And the way not to fear a few misses is to already be engrossed by the next project.

It's weird that our creations only enter the world once we're decisively done with them; the book that I spent 10 years of my life writing is now the work of a past self, and it's hard not to feel some anticipatory defensiveness about any negative reactions ("hey! that's an idea I came up with in grad school! why you gotta be so mean?"). But hopefully this means that my energies will be elsewhere by the time the reviews come out: I've got a year of conference-going and new-work producing ahead of me.

Just keep moving.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Job market conspiracy theories

With a couple of weeks before this year's job market kicks into high gear, I thought I'd tackle the bogey-man know as the "inside candidate." If you've spent any time on the academic job wikis, you've seen this come up over and over: "I heard there's an inside candidate for this job. Does anyone know if that's true???"

Some wiki users have taken to ridiculing these queries; last year, one poster announced a new drinking game that involved doing a shot every time someone invoked the inside candidate theory. But I get where the paranoia comes from. The job market is so bad, and so out of a candidate's control, that it's not unreasonable to worry that everyone else knows something you don't--that there's some edge you ought to have or some secret to how the game is played. And since gossip is a kind of professional currency, rumors are perpetually presented as fact. ("Oh, you didn't know? Cornell has been trying to hire so-and-so for years. That isn't a real job listing; they're just dangling him another offer.")

But speculation about inside candidates isn't just pointless; it's also based on a misunderstanding of how searches work, what departments prioritize, and even what it means to be an inside candidate. So let me tell you what I've seen--and I'd be grateful to any readers who wanted to share their own experiences.

1. First off, yes: sometimes job ads are indeed written with one specific person in mind.

But here's the big caveat: most of the time this happens at the tenured level: a department is trying to recruit one specific, high-profile scholar, usually to advise doctoral students.

2. At the junior level the search is pretty much always a "real search"--even if the department is hoping to be able to hire a specific person.


If the department wants the line, they want the line for real, curricular reasons. Most departments are not so flush with cash that they just dreamed up a line for one specific person--and will cancel the search if she isn't available.

Relatedly, mounting a national search costs thousands of dollars and untold hours of a search committee's time. If they could hire a specific person through some other mechanism (and were sure she'd accept), they would.

3. People who look like inside candidates are not necessarily so. I've seen people on the wikis getting feverish about the presence of a VAP or lecturer in the relevant subfield when that individual is probably not competitive for that particular job in a national search. (Don't hate, I'm just breaking it down: if alllll the TT faculty have degrees from top-20 programs, the lecturer with a degree from the underfunded local uni is probably not someone they requested a line specifically to keep.)

4. A real inside candidate may still not be offered the job: maybe not everyone is equally sold on her, or maybe the department is divided about what sub-specialization it prefers. Or maybe another candidate just blows her out of the water.

5. A real inside candidate is almost certainly mounting her own national search. She may get a better offer. . . or she may not love the department that's trying to keep her as much as it loves her.

6. Finally, if there are far fewer inside candidates than scrutinizing a department's webpage or listening to gossip would have you believe, there are also inside candidates you don't and can't know about. There's no way for an applicant in romance languages to know that the university has made retaining a star faculty member in anthropology a priority--and his spouse is a French scholar. And there are plenty of candidates who aren't "inside" in any meaningful way, but who are for some reason already on the radar screen of the hiring committee and have some degree of advantage.

In almost a decade, I've only seen or heard of ONE junior-level search that "wasn't a real search." (Without going into too much detail, it was an ad for a job that someone was already holding: a catastrophic administrative failure had put an assistant professor's contract renewal in legal jeopardy, and to ensure the line the job had to be listed as if it were open.) In all other cases, even when there's a real inside candidate, the job goes to her much less than 50% of the time. And the department is almost always sincerely committed to finding the best person for the position.

So yes: if you have credible information that there's an inside candidate, it makes sense not to set your heart on a given job. But that's always good advice: even in the best-case scenario, where you're one of three equally talented and appealing candidates to get a flyback, your odds are still just 1 in 3.

Readers: will you back me up--or does your experience diverge from mine?

Friday, August 23, 2013

Payback time in the footnotes

Proofreading my notes and bibliography and thinking about what I cut or added at the last minute has made me wonder how often the notes in scholarly works are actually a stage (however surreptitious) for personal rather than purely academic in-fighting.

That is, who adds citations just to suck up, curry favor, or show off? And who eliminates citations on the basis of personal grievances?

I will take confessions, dark suspicions, and irresponsible gossip in the comments.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Living through books

As of today, our household has both internet and New York Times delivery. The sabbatical can commence!

Being without internet is a hindrance to research (and not only because it's a hindrance to procrastination-from-research, itself a crucial feature of my every scholarly endeavor), but it turns out to be conducive to reviewing page proofs and indexing one's book. So that's what I've been doing here in our newly set-up office in front of a new window with a new view: re-reading these old old words.

One of my professors once talked about the ways we live with long books, reading them in time with our own lives so the two narratives get tangled up. She mentioned that, for her, Tristram Shandy was inseparable from the spring her sister was dying of cancer.

We've all had a version of that experience, I think--with certain books as with certain albums or songs, which become imprinted with a particular moment or stage of life. Sometimes a later experience overwrites an earlier one and sometimes several can co-exist; many of the texts I teach are a palimpsest of memories of places and spaces and thoughts. (But mostly spaces.)

None of those text-based memories compares to reading my own prose, however, all 90,000-odd words of it, written and rewritten over ten years, as a grad student and a lecturer and a junior professor, at different desks and tables in five different states. There are sentences I vividly recall writing in a lawn chair in my parents' backyard, in a hotel room in Saratoga Springs, on sofas I no longer own and in the apartments of people I no longer date. There are parts of this book that I know in the careless but profound way that I know my own skin.

And there are parts I don't remember writing. Usually those are the more recent bits: portions of the introduction, or sentences here and there linking a local claim to a larger argument. Some of them feel merely functional--a bolt, a screw, a hasty paint job or a well-positioned piece of duct tape. Others strike me as frightfully clever. But they don't feel like anything I wrote.

Actually, in some ways, none of it feels like anything I wrote. I'm not that person with the green sofa or the white one, the person in that city with those shoes, the person who felt those things or thought those thoughts.

I'm glad to have those selves captured and bound up in this book. But once I'm done, I may never read it again.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Technical difficulties

Hola fans and loved ones, and apologies for the interruption in service. We've been moving households, and while I have many fascinating things to say about that--and so much more--we still don't have internet service here in Punchline Rust Belt City. And if you think I'm capable of typing anything longer than this on my phone and not pitching it and self out the window, you are sadly mistaken.

So Imagonna yell at a few more customer service reps and make sixteen more trips to Target, and maybe when I get done the modem light will no longer be blinking an ominous red.

Just don't go and do anything too interesting while I'm away.

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Even the troublemakers grow up

This weekend is my 20th high school reunion. Having been pleasantly surprised by my 10th, I was planning on going--but for various reasons I can't. Still, I've been enjoying the Facebook page set up for the reunion and the photos and reminiscences of my classmates. I've also reconnected, in small but meaningful ways, with a few people I hadn't thought about in years.

One of them is a woman I'll call Britomart, a name that approximates her unusual given name. Like her warrior-woman namesake, Britomart came armed for combat. I only had a few classes with her, but I recall her getting into fierce arguments with every teacher we shared. At the same time--at least with her peers--she was warm-hearted, generous, and a real straight-shooter. On our Facebook page another classmate mentioned that in the fourth grade, when she and her best friend were fighting and weren't speaking to one another, Britomart hauled them into the girls' room, yelled at them, and forced them to talk and make up. I didn't go to the same elementary school, but that sounds like the Britomart I knew as a teenager.

I liked Britomart and admired her no-bullshit attitude, but her conflicts with teachers made me uneasy. For one thing, they never seemed to be about anything: some minor change or perceived change in policy or due dates, maybe, or a question on a quiz she perceived as unfair. I can still see the way she'd cross her arms, screw up her face, and bark out an angry objection, halting the class for a tense minute or two. It was particularly uncomfortable in the English classes we shared with my favorite English teacher, an equally fierce but birdlike little woman nearing retirement. I took five or six classes with this teacher and I adored her. She was also spectacularly good to me.

Even at that age, I understood that my teacher felt threatened and disrespected by Britomart, and it troubled me that these two people, each of whom I considered good-hearted and clear-eyed, seemed to hate one other. I didn't know what Britomart's deal was or why she had such a chip on her shoulder, but I also felt that my teacher should have been able to see Britomart's good side. (And maybe she did; but what I saw and felt was the tension between them.)

Being back in touch with Britomart, now that I'm a teacher myself, has made me think harder about those ancient battles. On the one hand, I know what it feels like to be the person whose authority is being challenged, and I recognize myself, proleptically, in my teacher's sharp-tongued reassertions of control. I know how it feels to always have one antenna out, tuned to that problem kid in the corner, forever expecting and dreading that he's going to speak up again and derail the class. But I also knew and liked Britomart then, and I know what she's become: well-grounded and successful, with a family and an emotionally demanding job in the caring professions. Whatever anger she was carrying around then seems to be long gone.

I'm sorry I won't be seeing her this weekend, but I hope I'll remember her the next time I'm tempted to write off a mouthy troublemaker as all problem and no possibility.


And just in case you've forgotten what 1993 looked like, let me remind you:

Tuesday, August 06, 2013


Finally! Somebody validates my every emotional response to everything!

Mark Epstein, writing in the Sunday NYT:
Trauma is not just the result of major disasters. It does not happen to only some people. An undercurrent of trauma runs through ordinary life, shot through as it is with the poignancy of impermanence. I like to say that if we are not suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, we are suffering from pre-traumatic stress disorder.
Every part of this seems right to me: that we bear the marks of past losses and disappointments, however seemingly minor (one-off rejections or misunderstandings or fights that get patched up); that we're also shaped by our anticipated losses; and that, as Epstein goes on to say, "closure," and the desire to impose a timetable upon grief (or even just mild melancholy or nostalgia) are bullshit.

As Epstein writes,
My mother's knee-jerk reaction, "Shouldn’t I be over this by now?" is very common. There is a rush to normal in many of us that closes us off, not only to the depth of our own suffering but also, as a consequence, to the suffering of others.

When disasters strike we may have an immediate empathic response, but underneath we are often conditioned to believe that "normal" is where we all should be.
It's a pity that the word "trauma" is so linked in most people's minds to major disasters. We may be willing to apply the term to private, undramatic sorrows, like the peaceful death of a sick family member--but the death of a pet? the end of a three-month relationship? a negative encounter with your boss? Surely those are the upsetting events of an hour or a week or a month. But trauma only means wound, and those come in all sizes. It's not easy to know in advance what will leave a scar or ache every time the weather turns damp.

But although the past marks us, often permanently, being marked by the past is perfectly compatible with moving on. Sometimes life's traumas leave us in howling, incoherent grief, but not always. Not even usually. And even when they do, that stage passes. But the wound remains, throbbing a bit, tender to the touch, but capable of being forgotten.

Until, suddenly, it isn't.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Loving the low-cachet city

Though I've never been to Detroit, Frank Bruni's column yesterday ("Detroit: A Love Song") resonated with me. I live in a small and unglamorous Rust Belt city and will be spending my sabbatical in a large and unglamorous one (a place that exists, in the mind of most Northeasterners, mainly as a punchline). Both are terrific cities with lots to love, but increasingly I love the fact that they're cities that aren't all about themselves.

As Bruni writes,

The people there don't tether their identities to the luster or mythology of their surroundings. Their self-image isn't tied to their ZIP codes.

[. . . . ]

[I]f you inhabit the gilded precincts favored by those of us who fancy ourselves power brokers or opinion makers or players of one kind or another, it's a remarkable thing--and a welcome one.

The political operative in Washington, the financial whiz or magazine editor in New York, the studio executive in Los Angeles, the Internet impresario in Seattle or San Francisco: all are creatures not just of a profession but of a profession that blooms and struts in a given self-regarding place. Many have egos nourished by that terrain, which feeds a hyperawareness of status, a persistent jockeying for position.

Now, I grew up in Seattle and spent six years in Manhattan, and I love a world-class city at least as much as the next person. If I got a job offer in one of those places--or in Chicago or San Francisco, Boston or Austin--I probably wouldn't turn it down. But I find the geographically limited worldview of my creative-class peers both tedious and sad.

Certainly, there are industries that are centered around a single region, and it makes sense--it may even be necessary--for many people to live in-or-around D.C., L.A., or New York. But deriving your sense of hipness or glamor or self-consequence from where you live (or once lived) strikes me as a tragic kind of overcompensation. And I've got no time for transplants who can't forgive their current location for not being New York or San Francisco. Each of those cities? There's exactly one of. Move back, or get over it.

I wouldn't have moved here if I hadn't gotten this job, but I'd be thrilled to be here for another decade. Indeed, the fact that it's not hip and not a place that people move to means there's no anxiety about keeping up (cool new bars or restaurants open at the rate of about one per year) and no unusual cachet to doing so (at almost any venue you're equally as likely to run into your dentist, your tattoo artist, and some random meathead from your gym).

It's not that there's no tribal signalling of one's hipness and aesthetic and intellectual sensibility here, but it's not foregrounded in the same way. And thank goodness.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Against potential

I want to go on record as hating "potential." And "promise," too--promise is a real bastard.

Now, I assess potential all the time: in the classroom, in recommendation letters, and in job interviews. I don't expect this to stop soon. But potential is always a projection, and the younger or more junior a person is the easier it is to read him through the lens of your own experiences and biases. This student reminds me of that other student! So, she'll probably turn out the way that one did. This job candidate got his degree from Program X! So, he's probably about as strong as their other grads.

Or: I've never seen a person like this succeed. So I won't believe it until I see it.

I make such judgments when I have to, but I'm wary of them. I'm wary even though, as an Ivy-degreed white lady, the promise game has long been rigged in my favor. As far back as I can remember, I hated being evaluated by my potential. I wanted to have done something, not to be judged capable of doing it eventually. And I was terrified that those judging me were wrong: that their assessments were based on something trivial, some one smart thing I had said or done, or some superficial resemblance between me and a prior success. It was nice to be thought well of. But I never really believed it.

(Which may, incidentally, have something to do with my predilection for uncomforting or unkind authority figures.)

So I never understood the grousing in certain quarters about grad students becoming "too professionalized," and I never understood those who were sorry to trade their graduate institution affiliation on their name-badge for that of the less-elite institution that had hired them. To me, "professionalization" was a relief: I could stop worrying about whether I sounded like an idiot in my graduate seminars, or whether I was sufficiently praised and petted, and by whom, and what it all meant--instead, I had concrete goals like attending conferences and publishing articles. And as for my name badge? I hated worrying that people were only talking to me because they thought I was junior faculty at my alma mater. The place that hired me as a lecturer, and then the place that hired me as an assistant professor? Dude, I got those jobs.

Indeed, the best thing about my current career stage may be my confidence that any judgements about my "potential" are now--for the most part--grounded in what I've actually done.

I don't presume that my specific neuroses are widely shared, and I know that many people of my class and background are at least a little sad that they no longer live in a world of limitless options (now I'll never live in a yurt! now I'll never play saxophone on the streets of Paris!). But on the whole, even the most golden of former golden boys and girls seem happier and more grounded as adults than they were as students.

And in any case, we're past that now, all of us: past the stage where our futures are being constructed out of whole cloth by our elders: those people who thought they could predict who, at age eighteen or twenty-two--or who among a group of unpublished, inexperienced ABDs--would go on to stardom.

Well, most of us are past that.

Some people, it seems, still do get described chiefly in terms of their potential or promise, even many years into their career (and/or absent much experience or success in it). And some people get to be The Next Big Thing year after year, or are regarded as up-and-comers for decades.

If I dislike the rhetoric of potential when applied to those who are nothing but potential, I especially dislike it when applied to those who really should have delivered on it by now.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

I may not have the inside track, but I know where it is

After suffering no more than the usual commercial-travel-related indignities, I'm now back in my native land. And I gotta say: despite the punishing heat, the miserable Tube, and the more-irritating-than-you'd-think absence of trash cans wherever a trash can might be desirable (yes, I know--and I DO blame the motherfucking IRA), it was an awesome trip. This was my fourth research trip to London in ten years, but it's been five years since the last one--and though I was using some of the same collections and even some of the same manuscripts, I might as well have been a completely different person.

For one thing, this is the first trip I've made to London that hasn't involved staying in a dorm room. Now, I may be hanging my hat in the UCL dorms in years to come, since only flukey good luck got me and Cosimo a pair of generous travel grants that allowed us to pool our resources and rent a beautiful flat in Notting Hill. But it was a major step up, and one that brought home to me my increasing. . . something. Age? Professional stability? Bourgeoisitude? Whatever you want to call it, I felt it.

Indeed, more than a research trip, this felt like an extremely long conference--ON METHAMPHETAMINES. I'm not sure that I got a full night's sleep more than once in two weeks, what with running from intellectual to social stimulation all day, every day: when I wasn't in the archives or working at home, I was having lunch, dinner, or drinks with friends and colleagues. I covered more of the city than I have in any prior trip; went out of town a few times; saw a bunch of theatre and a bunch of art; and somehow wound up dining in two Oxford colleges and two London clubs.

Now, I've usually had a few friends to meet up with in London, some who lived there and some who were there researching, and days in the archive are always exhausting. But usually I had a decent amount of downtime: time to read a few chapters of a novel every night, time to catch up on my sleep. This year, after five away, it was like everything was multiplied by five: five times as many people to see, five times as many things to do.

I don't say this either to brag about how glamorous my life is (because it isn't, particularly), or to complain about the burdens of, like, knowing people and doing things (because here's the world's tiniest violin). I'm just marveling, as I suppose I never cease to do, at how quickly things change and how surprising it feels not to be quite the person that you were before.