Sunday, January 27, 2013

Rearranging the deck chairs

This past week I finished revising an article for resubmission: adding an explanatory or background paragraph here, bulking up my evidence there, moving some material from the text to the footnotes and vice versa. During that same week, I was also working on the bibliography for my book, which meant extracting all the citations from my footnotes, reformatting them, and sorting them into a list whose only logic is alphabetical.

These feel like totally antithetical processes. The one involves creating an effective, coherent, and convincing structure for my argument--using lots of component parts to help build something of my own. The other is a kind of disassembly: taking the blocks that helped me build my book, distilling those blocks down to a bunch of titles, and dispersing those titles so that their significance--their linkages and connections--are no longer apparent.

Doing both these things at once was strangely illuminating, for the reasons suggested in the paragraph above. Most of my writing life involves trying to make something: a convincing something, a seemingly-organic something, whose fraught and messy origins aren't apparent. I don't want the seams to show, I want to give the impression of ease and inevitability. And that, of course, is goddamn lot of work.

But once a writing project is done, it's easy to forget that it isn't obvious and inevitable, and it's easy to forget the other possibilities inherent in the material. Creating my bibliography reminded me of some of those roads not taken, and also reminded me that all those other works have an independent existence. In some cases, I was surprised to discover that I'd cited four or five articles by the same author (articles on totally different subjects, in totally different chapters, and which I'd discovered separately and never considered as products of the same brain). And I was surprised to see who wound up next to whom, in the inexorable logic of alphabetical order. Seeing all those works, freed from the context in which I'd put them, made me imagine all kinds of new connections and new conversations.


As it happens, I'm also beginning the slow process of tagging all my old blog posts, in the hopes of bringing those into more productive conversation with each other as well. I'm as big a fan of chronology as I am of the alphabet, but after eight years I'm losing track of what's where. It's time to start moving the furniture around.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013


I've been working on the syllabus for my graduate Milton class for ages. It really shouldn't take this long: I've taught five Milton courses at either the advanced undergrad or grad level over the past seven years, and I always teach more or less the same primary texts, always in a roughly chronological fashion. So what's so hard?

Part of what's hard is that I keep switching textbooks, and that means figuring out what is and isn't in each one. Some have more useful supporting materials than others, and none has exactly the same excerpts from the prose works. Moreover, a new text--without my pre-existing flags and annotations--means I spend hours trying to find the things I want.

It's also hard to pick the right secondary sources and the right number of them; I still don't have a feel for how much (and what kind) of critical reading is reasonable to expect of M.A. students. My Milton grad class three years ago was amazing, and I could've given them even more secondary readings than I did--so my impulse is to up the workload slightly from last time (as well as to replace several articles that turned out to be duds). On the other hand, my Donne grad class the following semester was much weaker and had a difficult time not only with dense critical readings but even with some of the primary texts. Since this will be only my third M.A.-level class, it's hard to know whether my first or my second was the more typical.

It's awesome having a well-designed course that's pretty much ready to go whenever I teach it. It's also awesome to design a new course from scratch. Even redesigning an old course can be intellectually stimulating. But this kind of rejiggering-without-real-redesign? Just a drag, man.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Getting It Published: Part 10

It looks like I'll be ending this series with a nice round number, for as those who follow my every move on social media already know, my book has been awarded a contract.

As I mentioned in my previous post in the series, this wasn't a foregone conclusion. I got a great report from the reader solicited by Press #2, but in addition to having mixed reviews from Press #1 (one recommending publication, one very much against it), the editor at Press #1 wouldn't share the names of her reviewers with the editor at Press #2. This left me with a total of five reviews from three people--two of them unknown--over the course of two years and three stages of revision.

That makes for a complex narrative, and one with lots of things that might raise doubts for those not already sold on the project. So when I met with my editor at MLA, he asked that I write up a careful explanation of the process and of the revisions I'd already made, as well as detailing the revisions I planned to make in response to the final report. Oh: and if I wanted to make the January meetings of the relevant boards? It'd have to be done in two days.

Well of course I wanted to make the January meetings! So I spent the Monday after MLA trying to compose a persuasive narrative--one that was sufficiently detailed without being hopelessly confusing to someone who'd never heard the story before. (Needless to say, it took me something like ten hours to craft 1,000 words.)

Later that week, he presented the project to the press's internal publications board (presumably, the acquisitions editors, the editor-in-chief, the director of marketing, etc.). They approved it. The next week, it went to the press's faculty review board (made up of faculty from various disciplines at the university that houses the press). They also approved it, unanimously.

And. . . that's it! I have until May to submit the final manuscript, though I hope to have it done before then. And after that, I'll probably write a few posts in a new series about the process from final manuscript to bound covers.


So what have I learned? Mainly, I've learned experientially what I already knew intellectually, which is that this is just a damn long process. It's been ten years--to the month--since I submitted the first shitty draft of the first shitty chapter of my dissertation, and it's been almost two and a half years since I sent the first version of the book manuscript out for review. If everything moves swiftly from here on out, the book will be in print in about a year.

This means a few things. First, as they told us in grad school, when choosing a dissertation topic, you really do want to choose something that you think you could stand to be working on for a decade. (Not that you can totally know that in advance, and not that your understanding of what your topic is won't shift and evolve, but it's best to think of your project as a very long-term one. Longer even than grad school.)

Second, if you get a job where tenure rides on having a book contract, send the manuscript out as soon as you can. Admittedly, that's a bit of a catch-22: some projects just take a while to gestate and to turn into something other than the dissertation; rushing the manuscript out may also not result in success, especially if you're hired by a department that only counts toward tenure books that are published by certain select presses. Still, within whatever parameters make sense in your particular case, move with all deliberate speed.

Third, your first book is only your first book. There's life beyond it. If you no longer care about the dissertation project and don't need a book for tenure (or to get a first job), move on. And if you do believe in that project, work steadily toward its completion while starting to think beyond it. A good spur toward finishing one project is being excited by the one after it.


The full series, for those tuning in late:
  1. I send out book proposals, get responses.
  2. I send off the manuscript (and explain why getting from the dissertation to the MS took so damn long).
  3. Press #1 sends me my first reader's report and asks me to revise & resubmit.
  4. I revise, I resubmit, I feel DONE.
  5. Apparently, the reviewer likes it! Press #1 immediately solicits a second reviewer.
  6. I get both reviews. The first reviewer is happy. The second hates the project.
  7. I revise again, reviewer 2 still hates the project, Press #1 rejects it.
  8. Press #2 expresses interest (and so does Press #3!)
  9. The reader for Press #2 warmly recommends publication.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Convention interviews: don't overthink it

Since the portion of my last post that discusses MLA interviews from the perspective of a hiring committee seems to have sparked a lot of interest among those currently on the market, I've been thinking about whether I have more to say that doesn't merely duplicate the excellent series Bardiac has been running (see especially here, here, here, here and here). Now that first-round interviews are over, I guess my greatest piece of additional advice is: don't overthink it.

If you were polite and professional, and if you communicated your research interests and teaching experience effectively, you did your part. If someone on the committee looked bored or disengaged, it might be that he had a pet interest you weren't speaking to--and you can't have known or have changed that. But it could also mean that you had already sold yourself effectively enough that in the midst of a long day he just zoned out. Either way, it's not worth worrying about.

The thing is, in order to get an MLA interview, a candidate has to be very strong on paper. (Which isn't to say that there aren't strong candidates who don't get interviewed, because of course there are. However, most departments have a coherent standard for who makes that cut.) In the MLA interview, we're trying to go beyond what's on paper, to see if a candidate can speak engagingly and persuasively about both research and teaching. We mostly ask soft-ball questions that encourage candidates to say more about and reflect more deeply on those subjects, to prove what they know and what they've done; we're not trying to catch anybody out, just to see how they think.

But as I mentioned in my last post, it's amazing how much even those relatively casual conversations reveal. Our top and bottom third were immediately apparent. There were also a few surprises: some people I was totally in love with from their applications were duds in person. Others about whom I was rather dubious did stunningly well. This didn't happen often, but enough to make me humble about what an application alone can predict.

At the end of each day of interviews, we ranked the candidates, talking through and writing up the reasons for our rankings. At the end of all the interviews, we re-ranked them. (We were surprisingly unanimous about most of them, with most of the variation coming in our rankings of the candidates who fell into the middle third). When we got back to campus we typed up a list of our rankings, with a brief explanation next to each candidate, and sent it to the Dean and to Human Resources, who will give us approval to bring candidates to campus. Other departments and institutions have slightly different practices, but usually the rankings are made very soon after the interviews are over and don't change unless the department needs to go much beyond its top five.

All of this means that, if you're a candidate, there's really nothing you can do right now but wait. You can send thank-you emails or cards, you can ask the chair about the status of the search if you haven't heard by a given deadline, but none of what you do now matters. You will not improve your chances by sending a thank-you note, or hurt them by not sending one. And unless you're barraging the chair with emails demanding to know what's going on???, a polite query every two weeks will not make anyone think badly of you.

If you don't hear back for a long time, there are a couple of possibilities. One is that there are internal problems: the department is divided about the search for some reason, or the funding for the line has been imperiled, or something of that nature. The second is that you're not one of the top two or three candidates, but the committee doesn't want you to think you're out of the running. Ideally, a committee will tell you as much, but not often. (I appreciated the search chair, back in the day, who told me they only had funding to bring two candidates to campus initially, but they hoped I was willing to be kept on a list of alternates; I have no way of knowing whether I was their third choice or their eighth, but it was nice to know what was going on and to feel they still regarded me as desirable.)

Above all, it's almost never personal. We had amazing applicants whom we declined to interview because their specializations weren't quite the right fit. We had people we interviewed who are lower-ranked simply because they overlap too much with our current faculty, and hence wouldn't bring as much that's new and necessary. And though my department is often lucky enough to hire one of our top three candidates, we've also gone to numbers four and five and six (who sometimes turn out to give better campus visits than their more highly-ranked competitors did). We've never yet regretted a hire, regardless of how they were ranked initially.

It's a messy, inefficient, and stressful process, and candidates have it hard. I wish I could tell you that everyone doing good work will eventually get a job--but we all know that's not true. On the other hand, not getting a job (or not getting a job this season, or not getting the job you wanted), is absolutely not a sign that you did anything wrong, or that you could have done anything differently. Don't worry about what happened in that interview room. Spend the next few weeks being good to yourself. You're more than the sum of your interviews.

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

MLA 2013

I've now returned from MLA and recovered from MLA, and I'm here to tell you that I ain't as young as I used to be. Two years ago, I wrote that whereas MLA had once been a whirl of excitement and novelty, an opportunity to figure out my place in the profession, it's now, increasingly, about my obligations to the profession. Since I was on a hiring committee this year, I was literally obliged to go and to sit in a hotel suite for fourteen interviews over two days--but when I speak of my professional obligations I mean something more expansive than that task, as well as something a bit more rewarding than "fourteen interviews over two days" might suggest.

I'll start with the interviews. The days were indeed long, and they left me more fatigued at the end than I'd expected--but not only is it genuinely fun to meet talented young scholars (and to learn about a field totally outside my own), I also appreciated the opportunity to think about how the conditions of those interviews reflect on us as a department and a profession. I won't claim that our team provided a perfect interview experience--two of us were on a hiring committee for the first time and the third was only doing it for the second--and small things did go awry, especially on the first day. Room service arrived with coffee in the middle of one interview; hotel phones and cell phones went off in the middle of others; there were minor mishaps to do with elevators and room numbers and missed calls.

But I think we were all aware of how stressful the interview experience is for candidates and how disproportionately horrible even a mediocre one can feel; we've all had dispiriting interviews, or interviews where the committee seemed bored or hostile, or where small rudenesses--like not knowing what to do with a candidate's coat or not having a clean cup in which to offer her water--came to feel emblematic of such boredom or hostility. So we tried to be foresighted about a candidate's needs, and we also worked hard to be warm and affirmative throughout by smiling, nodding, asking follow-up questions, and otherwise communicating our engagement. Yeah, it's a long day, and no, not everyone is equally compelling. But though we may not in that moment be able to change the hiring practices of academia, we can make a job candidate feel valued and worth listening to.

(And for any grad students or recent PhDs who may be reading: most of the little stuff really doesn't matter. We don't care if you wear a skirt and nice sweater rather than a suit. We don't care if you flub one question. Having the phone ring or room service arrive while you're talking doesn't actually detract from your awesomeness if we think you're awesome. It's okay to fumble around a bit if you eventually arrive at a strong answer. And I can think of only one candidate for whom we really needed the whole interview to make a judgment call; in every other case, the strongest and weakest candidates were apparent very quickly. On the other hand, interviews really do show things that aren't apparent on paper.)

When I wasn't in an interview suite, I was eating or drinking or otherwise hanging out. I did meet with my editor and I did make it to a couple of panels, but most of what I did amounted to socializing: at coffee shops, bars, restaurants, or receptions; in hotel lobbies, at the book exhibit, on the elevator, or walking the endless mall that connected the conference center to the various hotels. Some of the people I was most thrilled to see I chatted with for just five minutes, and even those with whom I spent a full hour or two I wished I'd had more time with.

I also spent a decent amount of time hanging out with grad students or contingent faculty friends who were interviewing, and I tried to buy every single one of them a drink. Maybe next year I'll expand this policy to any random younger person I see at the bar who seems in need of bourbon. One of the best things about blogging and social media are the friendships I've developed with people outside my immediate age/field cohort, but as I get more remote from my own grad student and contingent faculty days, I worry about losing touch with what the profession looks like from that perspective. And lacking my own doctoral students, I may also have a lot of frustrated older-sister energy to expend. (In other words: grad students! Hit me up for a drink and tell me about your dissertation.)

Many people talk about conferences as an opportunity to rejuvenate and reconnect with their discipline and their subfield: it's what keeps them engaged and up-to-date. Usually this statement is understood to refer to the scholarly work of the conference, but I think it's equally true for the social work of a conference. I need to spend a certain amount of time in bars with friends and acquaintances to know what's really going on with them and with the profession. I guess you could call this gossip, and some of it is--who got tenure or a book contract, who moved jobs, what horrible administrative initiative is happening where--but it's also a vital way of keeping in touch with the field in all its facets.

Conferences take more out of me than they used to, when all I was doing was making new friends and figuring out who I was. But they're equally as important--which is why I'm still at the damn bar at one in the morning, and in an interview suite at ten.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Hacking away at the groves of academe

I've written a lot over the years about the stressors and outside obligations my students face, some of them quite terrible and occasionally tragic. This past semester another couple of situations arose for two of my students--events so stressful and distracting that I can't imagine remaining enrolled or being able to complete the required work, though both these students did.

Every time I'm made privy to this stuff, especially when it's drama that involves a student's family of origin, I wonder why I see so much more of this at RU than I did as either a student or a teacher at my alma mater. I've long had two theories: the first is that I genuinely have a more diverse student population now: some of my students are putting themselves through college, working either full or part-time; some of my students have kids; some of my students are married. Nearly every semester I have a student or two who are veterans, and it's not uncommon to have a student with at least partial responsibility for a sick parent or a developmentally disabled sibling. A sizable minority of my students, then, are simply juggling more outside demands than your basic Ivy League undergraduate.

My second theory is that I just didn't know what was going on with my classmates and with my students when I was at INRU: my classmates would have been unlikely to share their personal difficulties with me, and as a grad student I never taught more than 18 undergraduates a semester (usually as a once-a-week TA), so there wasn't as much opportunity or necessity for them to confide in me. These days, by contrast, I teach at least 60 students a semester and have up to 40 advisees, so there's necessarily more reason and more opportunity for me to hear what they're going through.

Both these theories seem correct, and together they provide much of the explanation for the difference (Ivy League students probably do have fewer real-world distractions, but they don't have none--and some of their problems are every bit as serious as those faced by the students I teach now). However, I'm coming to realize that there's a third explanation that has to do with familial assumptions about what college and the college experience are meant to be.

Most of my students, even those who come straight from high school, who live in the dorms, and whose parents are footing the bill, are not understood by their families as being off in protected space of intellectual development where schoolwork and self-discovery take precedence. Many of their parents expect them to come home for every family friend's funeral, every cousin's first communion, or to help out with various family matters like helping them move households or doing emergency babysitting. This is more true when the family lives nearby, but I see versions of it even when the family lives several hours away.

I really didn't understand this at first: so your aunt's second husband's mother died. . . and your parents are coming by to pick you up tonight, and you'll have to miss a week of school for the wake and the funeral? What? Often the student didn't seem to want to go, or to be deeply affected by the death (or eager to do whatever else the family obligation may have been)--and I just couldn't figure out why their parents would think it was appropriate to demand their presence or participation at the expense of their schoolwork.

But I've come to see that there's a fundamental difference in the way that some of my students and especially my students' families understand the college experience, relative to how INRU students and their parents understand it. I suppose you could call this difference one of "class," but that's not really a useful descriptor, since it doesn't fully correlate with income or with whether one's parents went to college or not; the working-class kid from Charlestown who gets into Harvard may well have supportive parents who understand the nature of that opportunity, and who want to protect him from outside distractions. And on the flip side, many of the kids I see with especially demanding families are economically stable, second-gen college students.

Moreover, I don't think this is just about how expensive and prestigious INRU is compared with RU; many not-especially-selective colleges also cultivate a real sense of their community's specialness and separateness. What it boils down to is this: at some institutions and among some families, there's a kind of collective agreement their students live in the magical Groves of Academe, a charmed space, a space outside of time. And though that's almost always more the fantasy than the reality, the fantasy is still productive. At a regional state school like RU, however, attitudes are mixed. There are indeed students and parents who take the above view of the college experience--but there are many who don't, who see the degree as a means to an end and their coursework as something more like a part-time job, to be fitted in around everything else.

I wish all of my students were able to devote themselves full-time, for four years, to a process of education and self-discovery, but I'm not sitting here criticizing those who don't or can't. For one thing, I have students with messy, complicated lives who are still doing great things intellectually. And for another, the idea of college as a charmed space outside of time isn't always positive: it can actually produce or protect the irresponsibility and hooliganism seen at party schools, but not only at party schools. The insularity and self-containment of many colleges does not actually make them better or more productive learning environments.

I wouldn't want to lose the many wonderful students I have whose lives just happen to be really complicated; they bring a lot to the classroom and the classroom, I hope, brings a lot to them. But I do wish that all my students had families who really valued and respected the work they were doing--even if they still occasionally needed to drag them out of class or take up time that would otherwise be devoted to their schoolwork.

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

New Year's Meme

(Sixth [!] in a series. See also New Year's Day 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2012.)

1. What did you do in 2012 that you'd never done before?
*Got tenure
*Spent more than a month living abroad independently (i.e., not with a host family)
*Gave up on even the pretense of pseudonymity
*Got a second positive reader's report on my book MS

2. Did you keep your 2012 resolutions, and will you make more this year?
This meme is apparently what I now do instead of making resolutions.

3. Did anyone close to you give birth?
Yes: a college friend had her third (!), and two of my colleagues each had their first.

4. Did anyone close to you die?
My spouse's beloved aunt, whom I wish I'd had a chance to know better.

5. What countries did you visit?
Italy, The Netherlands, and Canada

6. What would you like to have in 2013 that you lacked in 2012?
I'd like finally to be done with this book. I'd also like to live full-time with my spouse (at least for the second half of the year).

7. What was your biggest achievement of the year?
The obvious one to cite would be getting tenure--though the process wasn't especially fraught or difficult. Instead, I think that starting to come to terms with really being an adult--an established professional, a bourgeois, and approaching middle-age--is the year's greatest achievement, albeit one that's still very much in process.

8. What was your biggest failure?
Not getting a book contract with the press I'd been working with for two years. That's not my failure, exactly, but at the time it felt that way.

9. Did you suffer illness or injury?
No, though the migraines I mentioned last year are making slightly more frequent appearances, much to my displeasure.

10. What was the best thing you bought?
Our five weeks in Rome

11. Whose behavior merited celebration?
My spouse's. He's now in his second year of commuting back and forth to our home every weekend. It's not my place to talk about how hard that is on him, but it's hard.

12. Whose behavior made you appalled and depressed?
Dude, 2012 was an election year. Pretty much everyone in public life--elected officials, would-be elected officials, pundits, random bloggers--pissed me off at one point or another.

13. Where did most of your money go?
Books, clothes, travel, theater, booze

14. Compared to this time last year, are you: a) happier or sadder? b) thinner or fatter? c) richer or poorer?
a) Happier (tenure will do that to a girl!)
b) Maybe three pounds heavier (enough to notice in some clothes, not enough to do anything about)
c) Slightly richer (now that my car is finally paid off and I got a modest raise with tenure).

15. What do you wish you'd done more of?
Worked on my Shakespeare article; made headway on my edition

16. What do you wish you'd done less of?
Fucked around on the internet

17. Did you fall in love in 2012?
Every day

18. What was the best new book you read?
In 2012 I started to get my leisure-reading mojo back, and I read several good ones. But the best was Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl.

19. What was your favorite film of the year?
Early: The Artist
Late: The Master.

20. What kept you sane?
My spouse, my cats, my colleagues, my students

21. Tell us a valuable life lesson you learned in 2012.
Life's hard on everyone, and usually more than outsiders know. So be kind.

Happy 2013, all!