Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The pleasures of the private

Last Sunday's Styles section featured an article arguing that the last taboo of Facebook is the unhappy marriage. Although the article dealt with some genuine, practical problems faced by those in struggling relationships (the pressure to make everything seem perfect; the difficulty of knowing how to announce a split), I was surprised by the number of those quoted who seemed to think that the fact that most people don't admit to relationship problems on Facebook is itself a problem. Someday, these commenters imply, we'll all be so open and enlightened that we won't fear judgment--and can finally get the help we need by crowdsourcing advice on how to improve our marriages.

And yeah, I know: it's the Styles section. Most normal people don't think that literally everything needs to be shared or that it's pathological to consider one's marriage a private affair. But I was struck that there was no acknowledgment that those in distress might be turning to real, live, in-person friends for advice--or that those friends might be more valuable than several hundred virtual ones.

In my own travels through the academic internet, I often find myself wondering something similar: where are your real friends? Why are you posting for 500 people what should be a three-to-five-person bitch session over drinks? I'm not talking about catastrophic oversharing, or the merely mundane; I'm talking about posts that fall into that catch-all category, "unprofessional," which includes everything from the possibly-legally-actionable to the merely tacky. You know: using Facebook to snark about your department chair or other easily-identifiable colleagues; mocking your students; complaining about what a shithole town you're forced to live in.

Partly this is a matter of tone and frequency (occasional complaints or complaints that are more self-deprecating than self-righteous are different from relentless negativity)--but it's also true that what we deem "unprofessional" reflects changing social-media norms. People used to indulge in more unfiltered venting than they do now, at least in my corner of the internet; I'll freely admit that in my first years of blogging I said a number of ill-advised things, both because it seemed improbable that my words could reach or matter to anyone who knew me in real life and because, as a new Ph.D., I didn't yet understand myself as having structural power or obligations.

No one who's been paying attention trusts to anonymity or privacy settings any more; we all know how easily someone can take a screen-shot or forward a link. Some people rage about this change in norms, believing they should have an unrestricted right to "blow off steam." But the fact we're now more aware that nothing is private on the internet isn't really an encumbrance, but a useful delineation of boundaries. An enthusiastic embrace of social media can coexist with the pleasures of the private. And I'm grateful to social media for reminding me of the value of analog friendships.

There's a difference between calling up five different friends to share good news and broadcasting that news to 500 people. Both are satisfying, and it's awesome to be able to speedily disseminate news of your successes. But there are people with whom you want to be able to share all the details--and who are eager to hear about them. Similarly, bitching in general terms about an annoying student or asshole colleague is a kind of relief, but bitching AT LENGTH with a trusted friend over a bottle of wine is much more cathartic (and much less likely to get you in trouble or to make you look like a jerk to the 450 people who are silently judging you).

So, sure: crowdsource whatchagotta. Broadcast your awesome news or your hilarious observation. But think twice about what's really fit for a mass audience--and make some phone dates, have a friend over, open up the Gmail. Our real friends want more of the story than we can tell over social media anyway.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Like a refiner's fire

It's been a strange advent season. Handel's Messiah gets a lot of airplay in our household, and hearing those lyrics taken from Isaiah and Malachi and Job while obsessively reading coverage of the non-indictments in Ferguson and Staten Island; the release of the CIA torture reports; the exoneration of Mubarek; and the executions, massacres, and rapes perpetrated by ISIS has brought home to me why people in every age have been prone to fantasies of divine intervention and restituiton.

Sometimes that intervention is imagined as compassionate healing and sometimes as wrathful purgation, but our broken world seems to need more than what ordinary human beings can provide. Of course, all the believers I admire--like all the atheists I admire--know that sitting around waiting for a solution from the outside is an abdication of our responsibility to our fellow creatures. Peace and justice don't descend from on high; they're entrusted to us.

It's Christmas, and we all deserve a few days off (speaking for myself, I'll be eating tamales and drinking margaritas). But I hope that all who celebrate it--whether we believe in a literal messiah or not--remember that his work is everyone's work.

Monday, December 22, 2014

But no one would dare fail the Log Lady

We've been watching Twin Peaks--Cosimo for the first time, me for the first time since the early 1990s--while the grading rolls in for the semester.

And seriously, I think Lynch might've taken every Log Lady introduction straight from a pile of the worst freshman comp essays you've ever read:

Maybe I can put this to good use in the future by imagining every dreary studentism I encounter as coming from her mouth.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Why do anything?

I've never understood what people mean by a "hobby."

When I was a kid I did kid things, and when I got older I had activities--playing the flute, working on the literary magazine, competing in Quiz Bowl--but I wouldn't have called them hobbies; they were too structured and too connected to some plausible end, whether educational or professional. (I also did things just for fun, but they weren't explicable or sustained enough to be called hobbies: why did I write letters to friends under various fictional personae? Or dress up in weird outfits and wander around town in them?)

But I don't recall anyone asking me about my hobbies in high school or college, or if they did, I told them about what I did--either my classes or my extracurriculars--or what I liked: I managed the marching band and I wrote short stories and I was reading my way through Evelyn Waugh.

After college, though, people were always asking me about my hobbies. At that point I had even less to say: I was working 50 or 60 hours a week, and though I had lots of enthusiasms, I had virtually no recognizable hobbies. I didn't work out, bake, sing with a choir, knit, or paint watercolors. I didn't have pets and I didn't have the money to travel. I went to museums and movies and I read and I wrote--but I didn't feel knowledgeable enough about anything to claim that I was "into" film, or an art nerd, or whatever. And it seemed just too sad and delusional to declare myself "a writer."

So when someone asked me about my hobbies, the best I could come up with was, "I read." And the conversation usually ended there.

Looking back, I think part of what I resisted about hobby-talk was the implication that "hobbies" constituted a distinct category (unrelated to one's job or schooling, but more than just goofing off; serious and sustained, but also fun). I also resented what I felt was a cheap attempt to relate to me through whatever I did in my spare time--as if I'd automatically have something in common with someone else, just because we both played tennis.

At the same time, I think I bought into the idea that what one does in one's free time should be legible in some way, or directed toward some end. I didn't talk about most of the things I did, because they didn't add up to an identity or an expertise. And though I often thought about resuming flute lessons or French classes, I couldn't really see the point. Then I'd. . . what? Read Le Monde every day? Join a community orchestra? Why?

These days I feel differently. When asked why I'm studying Italian, I shrug. Sometimes I say I want to read Dante and Petrarch in the original. Sometimes I say that Cosimo and I hope to spend summers in Italy, once we're living together full-time. Sometimes I mention being half-Italian, and now a citizen. But those explanations are afterthoughts, attempts to imagine a reason rather than reasons in themselves. It's too late for me to be a fluent speaker; I have no plans for comparative work in the Italian Renaissance; neither travel nor research requires that I speak or read the language better than I do.

But really: why do anything?

If I once felt that there was no point in doing something if there wasn't a clear goal or outcome, I now find the lack of a point freeing. You do something. It's interesting enough to keep doing. And it leads to something else, or it doesn't. The doing is its own reward.

I don't think I'm the only one to have arrived at this realization as I enter early middle age: in the past few years a surprising number of my friends have suddenly picked up old passions or begun new ones; I know people who have resumed writing poetry or taking piano lessons, or who are studying photography or taking up mountain-climbing. Not to be experts, not to change career paths. Just because.

The thing is, we're all going to die. Nothing we do matters: having kids, not having kids; being successful at work or not; spending the weekend doing this or doing that. Or it all matters. Whichever. It amounts to the same thing.

But I still refuse to call anything I do a hobby.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

What's a "good" press?

So far my book has received two reviews, neither in a scholarly journal. Luckily, they're both good. But though I won't start patting myself on the back until I've seen something positive in a field-specific journal, in some ways these two reviews may be a bigger deal. That's because one of the journals is Choice, a publication of the American Library Association, which makes recommendations to acquisitions librarians, and the other is the TLS, which is--well--the TLS. Both review only a selected number of academic titles and both reach an audience that isn't limited to in-field specialists.

Now, I have zero expectation that my book is going to be some kind of crossover hit; I was mildly surprised that the Choice reviewer deemed it accessible to undergraduates and that the TLS apparently thinks it might interest a general reader. But whether the book is actually interesting or accessible to those groups doesn't really matter, because they're not the ones who are going to be buying my book or talking about it.

Rather, in the weird, slow, indirect economy of academic publishing, attention in non-scholarly venues translates into attention within the scholarly community: if more academic librarians order it, then it's on more shelves waiting for more scholars to stumble across it; if the TLS reviews it, Renaissance scholars who might otherwise think my book sounds like a total snoozefest--and who might not even read a review in RQ--might notice that there's a chapter or two that's relevant to their own research.

The benefits of this kind of virtuous cycle are pretty obvious: more publicity means more sales, more sales means more publicity, and both keep my press happy and make them more likely to put the book out in paperback. What's less obvious, I think, is that getting good publicity is neither totally accidental nor solely attributable to my own awesomeness. It's one of the dividends of publishing with a good press.

So let's talk about the nitty-gritty of why it matters who you publish with. Everyone will tell you that you should publish with the best press you can, though what counts as "the best" depends on your discipline, your department, and how alarmingly your tenure clock is ticking. But the reasons people give for seeking out a better press sometimes sound like nothing more than name-brand snobbery: if you publish with Press A, people will think your book is more consequential simply because it's published by Press A.

And yeah, that's real thing in the world. Plenty of readers (and search committees, and tenure review boards) use the perceived prestige of a press as a lazy vetting mechanism, outsourcing decisions about a book's worth to whoever approved it for publication in the first place. However, a truly good press isn't just a designer label. A good press works hard to promote your book--and some mid-tier presses are better at this than the big 'uns.

Here are a few of the ways to gauge how hard a press works for its authors:

  1. The size of their print runs. Academic monographs (and edited collections) have laughably small print runs relative to trade books, since most of their sales are to libraries rather than individuals; the low end is about 200 or 250 and the high end is maybe 750. Still, that's a difference of 200%.

  2. The time and money they put into design. It's not rocket science, but a more attractive cover and (especially!) more reader-friendly page-design is more likely to attract readers.

  3. The price point. As with a handsome design, cheaper books are an easier sell.

  4. The publicity budget. How many review copies do they send out, and to what kind of journals? Do they submit books for consideration for prizes? At how many conferences does the press have a table?

If you're an aspiring academic author, you've probably thought about some of these things: you know which presses publish work you admire, which produce consistently attractive books, and which show up at the major conferences. You may also have asked friends and acquaintances about their experiences publishing with X or with Y. But other things are harder to get a feel for from the outside (or even from the inside: most authors don't know what their initial print run is, or how their press compares in terms of its marketing and publicity strategies). Here are a few ways to do it:

  1. WorldCat, which allows you to search for how many libraries hold a given title worldwide, is the easiest way to get a sense of how successful a book has been, how big its print run was, or how vigorously its press has promoted it. Find a bunch of books from a few different presses, all published 4-5 years ago, and then see how the different presses compare. You'll be surprised: some presses are consistently under 200, others around 500.

  2. Skim reviews and review journals to see which presses are best represented, especially in journals that don't do a lot of reviews or that are geared toward a general audience. This will give you a sense of which presses send out a lot of review copies or have a relationship with those publications. (You can also do this with individual titles--find a few books you think are equally strong, published around the same time, by different presses, and see how many reviews each got, and where.)

  3. Look at which presses win prizes in your subfield (not, like, the MLA first-book prize, but the smaller prizes). Over the past 10 or 15 years, are there presses that seem to clean up?

Bear in mind that there can be a lot of volatility in this kind of data: a book's topic matters; reviewer availability matters; big hits will skew your results; and more recent books are harder to get a handle on. The above strategies are no way to make a judgement about the worth of any individual title. But if you track enough titles by a few different presses, you'll start to get a sense of their business and marketing strategies.

(You can probably tell that I used to work in academic publishing by the strong sporting interest I retain in all its behind-the-scenes aspects.)

Finally, ask your published friends specific questions about how their books got marketed. I can tell you that when my press asked me where they should send review copies, I came up with a list of maybe twenty journals, including a few long shots. I thought that was pretty comprehensive. Their final list? Forty-seven.


Readers who have published academic books: would you add anything for aspiring authors--things you'd wish you'd known about the publishing world, or about the strengths of different kinds of presses?

And readers who are seeking publishers: do you have questions for me or my readers?

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Burning my lesson plans

Apart from the grading, my semester is now over. It was a reasonably good one, but I'm left feeling vaguely disgruntled. This is my tenth year of full-time college teaching, and my ninth at RU. I'm not tired of my classes--I have enough opportunity to design new ones and find the old ones consistently interesting--but I think I'm tired of my teaching.

Most teachers have their go-to teaching strategies. Maybe you're the kind of person who has students work in groups, analyzing particular passages or concepts and then comparing and debating their findings. Maybe you have students free-write for five minutes at the start of class and then build discussion from there. Maybe you do a lot of collective close-reading. Maybe you draw elaborate charts on the board. Maybe you begin every class with a student presentation.

I've done almost all of those things, at one point or another, but there are some techniques that just feel right--for me, for the subject matter, for the size and level of the class--and that I rely on more heavily than others. Sometimes, at the end of a semester, I realize that 80% of my class meetings for a given course had roughly the same format. Sometimes my students even comment on it.

And I've found myself wondering: why do I teach the way I teach? Partly it's that Strategy X feels right and produces the kinds of results I value, but some of it is that I've gotten in the habit of teaching certain texts certain ways. Over the past decade I've hammered out sturdy, reliable lesson plans for the works I teach semester in and semester out. Sure, I adapt them when I'm teaching at different levels, but the methods are mostly the same. If I did group work on this part of a text in the past, then I do it the next time. If I did a collective brainstorming-and-mapping-out-major-ideas-on-the-board, then I do that again. If I usually work with scenes A, C, and F, then those are the one I focus on the next time I teach the play.

It makes sense to stick with what's worked in the past; it's hard-won knowledge, for one thing, and there aren't enough hours in the week to reinvent the wheel. Still, I'm feeling itchy and bored, wishing I could just burn all my lesson plans and start over with the energy, enthusiasm, and fear of ten years ago.

I won't; I can't. I have one class this spring that I am redesigning from the ground up (I taught it several years ago and it was Not Good), and that's where my energy needs to go. My other two classes are trusty warhorses. Until I can afford to replace them, I guess I have to keep sending them into the field.


Readers, how do you deal with pedagogical burn-out--or how often do you revamp your classes or otherwise keep things interesting?

Sunday, November 30, 2014

The two-body problem affects more than two bodies

When we talk about the two-body problem, we talk, mostly, about that nuclear relationship and what it suffers as a result of two jobs in two locations: the time, expense, and hassle of commuting; the deferral of child-bearing (or the exponential explosion that is the three body problem); and the general emotional strain on the partnership.

What gets less discussed--I'd say never discussed, but I guess I haven't read every last thing on the internet--is the strain on all the other relationships to which either partner is a party. Since we've just concluded one major holiday and are fast approaching another, let's talk first about how a long-distance relationship complicates familial relationships.

Now, as long-distance relationships go, Cosimo and I have it pretty easy: we don't have kids, we're close enough to see each other every weekend, and both our families are happy, healthy, and financially stable. Still, we want to see each of our families at least twice and ideally three times a year, and since each lives a full day's journey away, there's no such thing as a weekend trip.

Many couples these days live far from either partner's family, and face logistical problems (or familial conflict) as a result. But when a couple lives apart at least half-time, the logistical and familial issues can be close to unworkable. If the couple doesn't even see each other often enough, it's hard to sacrifice their already-limited time together. If one or both partners are spending significant hours on the road or in airports just to maintain their relationship, they may resent the idea of spending even more time traveling. And if they have a primary home that one partner doesn't live in full time, it's hard to give up holiday or vacation time there.

Friendships present a similar problem. It should be easier to maintain independent friendships in a long-distance relationship--no need to make excuses for going out with the girls/guys; for seeing that friend your partner can't stand; or for seeing one-on-one that friend your partner would be hurt not to be seeing as well--but in practice friendships often get sacrificed: the partner who commutes has little enough time to attend to all his or her work obligations (and keep doctor's appointments and sit at home waiting for the cable guy) between packing and travel days, and both partners may be jealous of their weekend time together and socialize less than they otherwise might.

So far, the best solution we've come up with is to pile everyone in the same place as often as possible: each of the last four years, we've had an Autumn Weekend of the Parents, where both sets come to visit us (helps that our parents get along!), and we're devoted to the dinner party (such an efficient way to see multiple friends over multiple hours) and the occasional weekend get-away with a gaggle of our beloveds.

It's still not enough. It's never enough. (But better, I suppose, than the opposite problem.)

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Happy Thanksgiving!

There's snow on the ground. Someone is making pies in the kitchen. The Godfather is playing. Family came to us this year. AND WE'RE NOT TRAVELING ANYWHERE.

Hope yours is equally good!

Monday, November 24, 2014

The recursive clanking of memory

A few weeks ago, Daphne Merkin had an essay in the Sunday Times called "Making My Therapist Laugh." It's about finally letting go of the desire to entertain and amuse her therapist, but in reflecting on what therapy should provide the analysand, she hits on a longstanding interest of this blog:

therapy allows for. . . the repetitive nature of a person's inner life, the constant regurgitation of ancient grievances and conflicts. In ordinary, above-the-surface life, we're endlessly exhorted to move forward and not hang back, when the truth is that the psyche is not such an efficient piece of machinery and is marked by recursive clankings as much as anything else.

As my readers know, I don't believe in being "over" things. I don't believe in "moving on"--if by that we mean declaring ourselves to have been left unscarred, unmarked, or, in some facile way, "better off" now that a catastrophe has receded into the past. Nothing that has ever mattered to me is gone, and no crisis or shattering change is ever fully in the past (although my relationship to those people and events is often quite different after years of reflection, reframing, and reconsideration). Healing is not the same thing as never having been wounded.

Last week a close friend suffered a terrible loss. It's not my story to tell, so I won't tell it, but I was struck by how shell-shocked the rest of us seemed by the news, how continually on the verge of tears and in need of companionship and conversation. Yes, we all love our friend and were trying to figure out ways to help, but I think her loss also ripped a hole in our own sense of security, our narratives of healing and progress, reminding us of our own losses and the way that sorrow stops time and exists outside of it.

That's the central conflict: time is linear and craves resolution while our inner lives are brooding and recalcitrant, slow to heal and slow to change. Last week I was also teaching The Winter's Tale, which may be my favorite Shakespeare play. Like all the romances, it's an improbable fairy tale that somehow also manages to render loss and recovery with real emotional truth: the central character loses everything, believes he can reacquire it quickly--and then spends the next fifteen years in grief and self-recrimination. Eventually, he gets some of what he hoped for, but not on the terms he expected.

That's the kind of happy ending we actually get in life: not what we wanted, but even more dear when it comes. Recognizing it, though, requires remaining in touch with all we've lost and hoped for in the past.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Lake effect snow, explained

When the rest of the country hears the term "lake effect snow," I think they understand it to mean "if you live near a Great Lake, you get a shit-ton of snow for some, like, complicated meteorological reason." And then Buffalo gets a shit-ton of snow, and the national newscasters earnestly explain the science (cold mass of air moving over a warmer body of water, blah blah), and that seems to confirm it. Great Lakes = lots of snow.

But that's not the relevant fact about lake effect snow. Lake effect snow, as Cosimo says is "guerrilla snow." If most snowstorms advance like a conventional army, cutting a wide swath of destruction--worse in some places, to be sure, but leaving nothing in the region unaffected--lake effect snow comes out of nowhere and then vanishes into nowhere, targeting areas completely randomly and unpredictably.

The photos from Buffalo are jaw-dropping. But no one's showing you photos that illustrate that while some communities in or adjacent to Buffalo got several feet of snow, many of their immediate neighbors got just a few inches.

I live an hour east of Buffalo, and the portion of the Thruway that runs just 15 miles south of me has been closed for days. Reasonably enough, I've been fielding emails from family and friends wondering how many feet of snow we're under.

Let me show you (and bear in mind, this is four days' worth of accumulation):

For reference, this is Depew, less than an hour away:

(Photo credit: Derek Gee, The Buffalo News, via AP)

I'm grateful not to have been clobbered as Buffalo was, but the real menace of lake effect snow isn't the volume so much as the unpredictability. When you're driving somewhere, you can't get ahead of a storm or wait it out because you never know exactly where it's coming from.

This is what highway driving is like when you're in a region where "possible scattered lake effect storms" are predicted: dry as a bone, dry as a bone, dry as a bone, dry as a bone, WHITEOUT.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

In praise of half-assery

The good news: I haven't bailed on my Italian class yet.

The bad news: I continue to be doing a pretty half-assed job, since doing a full-assed job--assuming that's better than a half-assed one, which I guess depends on how you feel about asses--would require way more prep time than I have available. (My instructor is great, but I think she hasn't fully thought through the fact that, in a conversation-based class, the fewer students there are, the more homework we each have to do.)

But you know, whatever. So my presentation winds up being seven minutes rather than fifteen, and my PowerPoint is merely functional--and in rushing to get it done after a department meeting I didn't have time to double-check and correct the past participles of a few irregular verbs or think about which constructions might take the subjunctive. I'm still spending an average of 12 hours a week reading, writing, and speaking Italian.

Ta-Nehisi Coates's essay about what it feels like to haul oneself through language study as an adult and embrace one's own ineptitude captures some of what I'm feeling, though our experiences aren't exactly equivalent (on the one hand, Italian isn't my first foreign language; on the other, I'll probably never have the chance for the kind of immersive study he's done both in Paris and at Middlebury).

What's hardest for me is just letting myself be a crappy student, and being okay with it. As I've written before, it's not that I was a star student in college or grad school, but I desperately feared being a bad one. Appearing stupid, not being thought capable--those were among the most shameful things I could imagine.

Teaching has taught me a few things. One is that showing up actually does matter. And doing the work--even late, even badly--is better than not doing it. It means learning is still happening or at least has the potential to happen. (Officially, I don't accept papers later than about a week, but in practice I usually tell students to just turn in something: I can give them a 50 rather than a zero, and doing some version of the same assignment as everyone else means they're still in the game.)

Another is that the work I do or don't do isn't just about me: the classroom is a community that I'm either contributing to or abdicating responsibility for. When I failed to talk much in a particular college or grad school class, I felt self-conscious, but it never occurred to me that by not talking I was taking something away from others. Now, though--when I consider skipping Italian because I'm badly prepared and already running late--I realize that not only would I be cheating myself of the opportunity to learn something, but I'd also be cheating my classmates of the work I'd already done (and putting a huge burden on them to boot: one absent student out of four = 25% more airtime to fill!).

So, fine. I'm a crappy student right now because being a crappy student is all I have time to be. But being a crappy student is better than not being a student at all.

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Teaching academic prose

This semester, in my senior capstone, I've been having my students choose most of the scholarship we read. We spent a few weeks reading and collectively working through essays that I'd assigned, but then they were loosed upon the MLA database to find their own.

It's been working well--better than some of my past strategies for acquainting undergraduates with academic prose--and I'll be reprising it for future classes. Still, I've noticed something curious: 80% of the articles my students have chosen have come from the same journal. Since I gave them a list of 10 possible journals, the reliability of this one isn't an issue; it's a solid publication, if not the most high-powered. If you'd asked me to rank those ten journals, back in August, I'd have placed it at maybe #8 or #9.

Having now read a whole slew of recent articles from that journal, I can't say I'd change its ranking--but I do have a new appreciation for what it does well.

First, it publishes shorter pieces, on the order of 15 printed pages of text, not counting notes, and they're usually well-structured and tightly argued. (I suspect the relative brevity of its articles is part of what attracts my students to this journal.) Second, its articles are surprisingly good models for advanced undergraduate and M.A. students: they demonstrate mastery of existing criticism; familiarity with the author's larger body of work (and/or the work's genre and/or its time period); facility in close reading; the ability to apply a useful theoretical framework where called for. And they generally do all those things both efficiently and explicitly, with every movement clearly signposted.

Indeed, reading this group of articles made me reflect on how tough scholarly articles can be for undergraduates and even many M.A. students, and how quickly they get lost in the weeds: they just can't figure out why the author is suddenly spending 10 pages talking about some minor historical event or track the way she's positioning herself within an existing critical tradition. That's not necessarily the author's fault, or at least not in the kind of articles I usually select; it's just that scholars write for other specialists and assume lots of prior knowledge. And over the course of a longer essay the big-picture argument and how its component pieces fit together can be harder to see.

But although I liked a lot of things about the articles my students found, even the most interesting and persuasive usually came up short. The best way I can describe it is to say that they lacked the final "turn": the explanation for why all this matters in some bigger way. In several cases I could see quite clearly what that turn might be--the dots were all in place, waiting to be connected--but the author declined to do so.

From a pedagogical perspective this isn't a crushing weakness, since it's an opportunity to talk about what more an author might have done to improve an already good piece of writing. And in the future, I can open the semester with essays from this particular journal as a way of introducing my students to the kinds of moves that academic prose makes before progressing to more sophisticated examples.

But I admit I find it odd that this journal publishes work that is so good in so many ways while mostly failing to rise to the next level. Maybe it's about length--a short essay can do a lot of things well, but it's not usually the place for a big claim--or maybe it's about the journal's place in the food chain: it gets tidy little essays that the authors either never wished to be bigger or that they tried and failed to get published elsewhere.

It's nice knowing that there are venues that publish modest but reliably good work, and a useful reminder that not every contribution to scholarship needs to rock the foundations.

Still, in the future, I'm imposing some quotas.

Friday, October 31, 2014

This is just to say

Back in September, everyone was freaking the fuck out over the MLA Job List--so few jobs! OMG! Apocalypse!

At the time I said--on a million Facebook and Twitter threads--that it was too early to tell, that jobs post later now, that initially things looked equally bad last year, that the jobs that had appeared were good ones.

Now it's October 31st, and I gotta admit: at least in Early Modern, it is that bad. As of today there are thirty-two tenure-track jobs with pre-MLA deadlines (a number that includes a few jobs at the associate or full levels and a few jobs overseas). Each of the last three years, in descending order, the number of pre-MLA tenure-line openings was 47, 41, and 49. Those weren't good numbers, but the market appeared to have stabilized at "pretty fucking bleak."

But unless this year is a fluke or institutions are shifting toward spring listings, we might say, with Satan, "in the lowest deep a lower deep/Still threatning to devour me opens wide."


Language and lit peeps: are you seeing similar things in your subfields?

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Flying on one engine

We've reached the point in the semester where everything is rapidly falling apart. Somehow I held it together through midterm, but it's been carnage since then. Most days it's a question of which disasters I'll avert and which I just have to let happen.

At the top of my disaster to-do list are grading and my Italian homework. But a few weeks ago I reached the point that I hit with any new obligation where I consider just cutting and running. Every Monday and Wednesday I toyed with the idea of skipping class, and then wondered whether I shouldn't drop the course entirely.

For as long as I can remember, that's been my first response to stress: a desire to shut down all nonessential operations. I fight this desire, usually, and usually it's worth it. Sooner or later things calm down and it's harder to start things back up than it is to keep them running. By now I know, too, that the point at which I'm tempted to abandon ship is often the point at which I'm starting to make real progress.

My students don't necessarily have that knowledge yet. Last week, on a day when my freshmen had a paper due (their second or their fourth, depending on how you count), six of my twenty-two students were absent. Most eventually contacted me and I gave extensions where I could, but the schedule for the next two weeks is punishing; there's no real way around it.

I feel for them. In recent weeks my Italian instructor has been doubling our homework; for some class meetings, I've spent four or five hours preparing. Last night (after teaching until 9.15 and getting home at 10) I managed to get through my homework in two hours--though whether that's because my comprehension is improving or because I was cutting corners, I don't know. Then today my instructor got sick and cancelled class. It's a brief reprieve, but I need it.

I can't eliminate any of my students' paper assignments, but I hope I can help them steer through this rough patch.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Back & better than ever

This semester, for the first time in a number of years, I put Merchant of Venice back on the syllabus for my Shakespeare class. Now, I love the play, but I'd taken it out for a bunch of pedagogical reasons that boiled down to my feeling I didn't have enough time to deal with all the issues it raised.

This time I moved it later in the syllabus and I decided I was going to give it three class periods instead of two. Those were both excellent ideas: for the first time, I can say my classes on that play rocked: there was close to 100% student involvement and I overheard a few students excitedly agreeing that this was their favorite play so far.

But as important as my course-design improvements surely were, I also think that I brought some new thing to the class myself.

First is simply freshness.

I almost literally cannot re-read every play every year (even beyond the fact that I often don't have the time to do so): my eye skips down the page; my mind disengages; I know the words so well I can't absorb what they mean. So I don't re-read every play every time I teach it, and I don't feel bad about that. Still, it's undeniable that reading something for the first time in a while means I usually teach it better. At a minimum, the time away means I'm more excited by the text. Usually, it also means I've had a few new thoughts about it.

Second is the fact that in the intervening years I've written an article on the play.

I've long since gotten over any sense of fraudulence as a teacher of Shakespeare: I know the period well; I've taught Shakespeare every semester for nine years; I've been attending to Shakespearean scholarship for nearly as long. But even though my teaching frequently draws upon books I've read or conference papers I've heard, there's a difference when the material is something I'm grappling with, too, or about which I have intellectual investments.

And since my research touched on exactly the things my students most wanted to know, the anxieties, discomforts, and presumptions they brought to the play didn't sideline the text. Not only do I now know rather a lot about Jews in early modern Europe, the various contradictory fantasies about Jews held by Renaissance Christians, and how scholars over the past 30 years have used that information to interpret the play--but I can distill that information efficiently so it fuels a real discussion about what Shakespeare wrote.


And that, my friends, is why research isn't inimical to teaching. And why everyone needs a damn sabbatical now and again.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Ghouls, rated

Halloween season seems like the right time to reflect on how much I hate the supernatural, especially in its spooky and/or undead varieties.

Here's a handy guide, to help you remember:

Zombies: I will never, ever--not if I live to be 200 years old--watch a movie or read a book involving zombies. I lose brain cells every time someone uses the word "zombie" in a sentence.

Werewolves: Hard to imagine they could be interesting, but the possibility isn't zero.

Vampires: As much as I hate virtually everything that has been written and/or filmed about vampires, I remain hopeful that they could be interesting.

Witches (sorcerers, warlocks, etc.): interesting maybe one time out of twenty.

Ghosts: I'm more interested in ghosts than not.


I think the message here is: I'm interested in human beings. The further one gets from the human, the less interested I am.

How do the rest of you feel about supernatural characters, narratives, or tropes?

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Academic jobs as arts jobs

Because I'm buried in essays and exams after spending my fall break cavorting in New England, I bring you someone else's thoughts on positioning oneself for an academic job. (Because hey: man and woman is one flesh, right?)

The most useful point, I think, is the central one: that these days tenure-track jobs are most analogous to arts jobs--which is to say, the odds of success are about as likely for recent PhDs as they are for aspiring actors, novelists, and concert pianists. That's not exactly a comforting comparison, but one that illuminates why the relationship between talent and success is so imperfect.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Tailoring the job letter

Another Graduate Student asked me to talk about my experience on a hiring committee, and especially about the degree to which a candidate should tailor her application materials to each institution.

Other committee members may feel differently, but I think it's absurd to expect first-round applicants to do a significant amount of tailoring. First, it's inhumane: an applicant has other demands on her time, and researching every department in depth, imagining their possible needs and desires, and reworking the already-difficult genre of the job letter 25 or 30 times is not only labor-intensive, but psychologically exhausting--insofar as it requires vividly imagining each place and how one might make a life there.

Second, it's almost certainly time wasted.

Here's the thing: your job letter is, simultaneously, the most important document you'll produce in your job search and a hard document with which to really distinguish yourself. I've read a few catastrophically bad letters from people who genuinely didn't know the conventions of the genre, and a slightly larger but still small number with enough errors or awkwardnesses that it was impossible to take the applicants seriously. But after weeding out the bad letters, the rest sat somewhere on a spectrum from adequate to quite nice; at that point, what mattered most was what the candidates had done and how well they fit our position--not whether their every paragraph was a thing of fire and music.

This, I hope, is good news: your letter just has to get the job done. You don't need to write the world's most eloquent, original letter (in fact, in this context, originality is a bad thing; if someone asks you for a sonnet, you will not be rewarded for your exciting new verse form). You do need to be clear, succinct, and aware of your audience, and your writing should not contain elementary errors. But the conventions are there for a reason: they allow a committee with hundreds of applications to size up each one swiftly, and on more or less the same terms.

Obviously, you shouldn't send exactly the same job letter to every institution, but it's most useful to think in terms of general types of schools. You'll want a few different sentences or even different paragraphs that you can swap in and out depending on a particular department's teaching expectations, and you might emend your wording slightly here and there for similar reasons (e.g., "I would be eager to join [such a distinguished faculty] [a department of committed teacher-scholars] [an institution so dedicated to student success]").

But that kind of semi-generic tailoring should cover most things.* Personally, all I want is evidence that the candidate has read the job ad and has a sense of the kind of school we are (e.g., if the ad mentions comp, your letter should not speak exclusively about the graduate and upper-division courses you're interested in designing). It's probably useful to spend 20 minutes on each hiring department's webpage to flesh out what the job ad tells you--but I wouldn't recommend more than that.

Here's what's definitely labor wasted: showing that you have a detailed knowledge of the ins and outs of our curriculum.

Every department has oddities in its curriculum and its requirements, and it's hard to master them from the outside; it can also be hard to tell, from looking at online course listings, which courses are weirdo one-offs, which are regarded by a particular faculty member as his exclusive property, or which are holdovers from a different era. You don't need to reference our existing course numbers or titles. Just say what kind of courses you've taught or are prepared to teach: surveys, comp, single-author courses A and B, topical courses C and D, and what upper-division or grad classes you might design in the future. With minor adjustments, those things translate into most curricula.

I also think it's generally wasted labor for your letter to name-check existing faculty unless they work in your immediate field or their scholarship really does seem to be in productive conversation with your own; it's worth having a sense of the general profile of any department to which you're applying, but listing a bunch of names is not necessary.

Statements of affinity are nice--that is, remarks about your connection to the region or your interest in the institution's mission ("as a first-generation college student..."; "as a long-time admirer of the Jesuit humanist model of education..."). For my part, I'd say those are agreeable statements to encounter, and I usually remembered them for candidates who got a convention or campus visit, but I don't think they prompted me to give an application a second look if it wasn't strong to begin with. That may be different at other institutions.

As for your vita, it shouldn't require tailoring. As long as it's clearly laid out and easy to read, the committee can find whatever they're looking for. (But seriously, make sure it's clearly laid out.) Think of your vita and your job letter as being in conversation with each other: one allows you to list everything you've ever done; the other gives you a chance to narrate, explain, and reflect on the highlights. Resist the temptation to let either do the other's job.

To sum up: a good letter and an attractive, readable vita are worth laboring over. But there's no need to reinvent them each time. A good letter is a flexible document that you can emend around the edges without--hopefully--driving yourself crazy.


Readers who have served on hiring committees: are my reactions idiosyncratic (or particular to the kind of institution I'm at), or do you generally agree?

*I'm speaking throughout of the differences among four-year institutions, since those are the institutions I know; if I have readers who want to talk about the differences between application letters for four-year and two-year colleges, have at it in comments.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The sorrows of peer-review: now less sorrowful

At long and painful last, that article I wouldn't shut up about has been accepted. As I've mentioned, this is the most difficult experience I've had getting something published. Some of that is just the random luck of the draw, but there may also be specific reasons this was such a tough sell.

First, it's on Shakespeare, on a hyper-canonical play, and it deals with some touchy political material. This means, on the one hand, that there are more people in the world with investments in the material than is usually true for the texts I write about, which perhaps makes pushback more likely. On the other hand, since it isn't my primary area of specialization, it's possible that I initially framed my argument in ways that struck others as naive--or that were only aslant or adjacent to the important existing critical conversations.

I do think that earlier versions of my essay were worthwhile and publishable--and that a few of the objections I got were unreasonable, not to say batshit crazy--but my last round of revisions really did lead to a mini-breakthrough, allowing me to synthesize two strands of argumentation whose relationship I had never previously been able to articulate. And doing that led me to a major realization about the argument of my second book.

So though I'm on record as hating the cult of "it was all worth it" and "now I'm so much better off," what with their haste to deny the lived reality of suffering and suckitude, it's also hard to regret that things turned out this way. That, I guess, is a larger motto for this blog: insisting on the shittiness of the past doesn't mean wallowing in that past--or denying its utility. Sucky things can make you stronger (and lead to non-sucky things), but they still suck.

(That's why you read my blog, right? For these philosophical gems?)

Anyway, as reminder and reality check for Older Flavia, when she's agonizing over the long gestation period of some future project, I thought I'd detail the timeline of this one--an article of not even 10,000 words--from conception to acceptance.

Spring 2010
Notice a Thing
Run a quick MLA database search
See that someone Noticed my Thing 40 years ago and wrote a few paragraphs about it.
Boo: I'm not the first! But yay: no one's done anything interesting with it!

Fall 2010
Accepted to a relevant-sounding SAA seminar
Spend a week doing enough research to write a 500-word abstract

February 2011
Spend four weeks doing increasingly desperate research into increasingly esoteric fields
Cobble together 3,000 words for a speculative seminar paper

April 2011
Receive a lot of enthusiastic seminar feedback
Someone I know slightly buttonholes me and tells me to publish it immediately.
GAAAAAAH. Like hell.

February 2012
Admitted to a very different SAA seminar
Intend to do a ton of new research; instead just write a new introduction and conclusion.
Decide this framing opens up the topic more fruitfully

Summer 2012
Do my literary-critical due diligence
Email strangers begging for evidence of what I feeeeeel to be true
Spend six weeks writing
Submit resulting essay to a journal

Fall 2012
Receive two readers' reports: split decision
Journal requests a revise-and-resubmit

Winter 2012-13

Spring 2013
Submit to a different journal

Summer 2013
Another split decision, but this time with a very encouraging editor
Revise lightly and resubmit

Fall 2013
Unhappy reader still unhappy
New third reader has useful and targeted suggestions
Ambiguous communication from editor suggests he wants another revise-and-resubmit

December 2013
Do a shit-ton of new historical research
Majorly restructure essay
Oops: turns out that ambiguous communication was a rejection!

January 2014
Decide new version suits a journal I hadn't considered before
Desk-reject within two weeks (guess I was wrong)

February 2014
Submit to a fourth journal

April 2014
Receive two exceptionally helpful reports
Find self--nevertheless--demoralized by another R&R

April, May & June 2014
Avoid working on essay
Weep whenever I think about it

July & August 2014
Revise with excruciating pain
Send revisions to a friend
Receive new & different set of ideas for revision
Weep some more
Realize two of his suggestions might solve my most intractable problem
Revise some more

September 2014
. . . .
. . . .
. . . .
. . . .
Wait, that's it?

Astonishing how something can be such a relief, and so anticlimactic, at the same time.

Friday, September 26, 2014

The humanities post-doc

In the comments to a previous post, Random Grad Student asked for my thoughts about the humanities post-doc: "its place, how to get one, [and] how search committees at different institutions view them when you're applying to a tenure-track job."

I admit that I have little experience with these. They were starting to proliferate when I was first on the market ten years ago, and I now know a number of people who have held one--but though I recall investigating a few, I never seriously considered applying. It may just have been that none of the topic-based post-docs fit me that first year (and my second year I was in a good renewable lectureship, so I didn't look at anything non-TT). But I think it mostly struck me as pointless work, on the front end, while one was also applying to tenure-track jobs.

(I still think this; I understand why post-doc applications are due early, but since every job placement officer I've ever met considers a post-doc inferior to a tenure-track job, it might be more sensible for them to list in the spring, along with VAP and other non-TT jobs.)

So with that proof that I don't really know what I'm talking about, I'll say what I do know and have seen, and hopefully my readers will pitch in more knowledgeably.

1. How To Get One: no clue. (Readers?)

2. How Search Committees View Them: I don't think that, at my own institution, we particularly distinguish between post-docs and VAP or other full-time non-TT employment. We're looking to hire people who have a couple of solid publications and some directly relevant teaching experience, so if a post-doc gives you whichever of those you need, that's great--but there are other means to that end. Indeed, for our purposes, a fancy post-doc might not help a candidate coming from a fancy institution if his weakness is precisely his lack of bread-and-butter teaching experience.

Research institutions might feel differently, but my sense is that even they aren't specifically excited about a fancy post-doc unless

a) it's the most fancy (by which I basically mean the Harvard Society of Fellows)


b) it gives you something you don't already have on your vita

Again, this is just my impression, but while there are lots of reasons for a candidate himself to value the opportunities provided by a fancy post-doc--research time, new professional connections--I don't think that, simply as a line on the vita, it adds much to a candidate whose degree is from an elite program. But for a candidate whose degree is from a second-tier institution, then that Mellon-funded post-doc likely does act as an important additional accreditation.

None of this is to malign the post-doc; it's a nice line for anyone to have, and preferable to continuing to teach at your grad institution (and certainly better than taking a VAP with a heavy teaching load or adjuncting). And used well, it can help you add other things to your vita and application materials.

But my feeling is that it's a shiny consolation prize for those who weren't able to find (or weren't looking for) a TT job the previous year.

As always, readers, I trust you to tell me how I'm wrong.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Four on the floor

So I'm taking that conversational Italian class after all. The catalogue description says it's open to anyone who has completed at least a semester of college-level Italian, but it's clearly imagined as serving Italian minors who want more speaking practice (and who are taking the course alongside a grammar or literature class).

For the first two meetings there were seven of us plus the instructor, and I was happy to note that my skills placed me roughly in the middle: there were a couple of minors who were better than everyone else, but there were also people who had only taken a couple of years of high school Italian or whose first exposure to the language was a semester or summer in Italy. Some had great accents and were prompt with basic constructions, but had limited vocabularies and didn't know much complex grammar; others were terrible, awkward speakers who--it soon transpired--actually knew a tremendous amount.

Then three people dropped. And with just four of us. . . well, my oral and reading comprehension are on a par with my classmates', but my verbal fluency is probably the weakest of anyone's. Extemporaneous speech has never been my strength, and even in English I'm prone to blurt and babble. But at least in my native tongue it's only the content that's insane. In Italian my mouth will just randomly produce the wrong phoneme or scramble a verb tense beyond all recognition. I make an ass of myself twice a week. It's awesome.

But this isn't really a post about that. It's a post about the four-person class, which this semester I also have the pleasure of teaching.

It's possible, I suppose, that a four-person class could be terrific, but it strikes me as a uniquely bad number: just big enough to be run as a regular class, but not big enough for it to work. Individual tutorials would be easier, since those can be adapted and adjusted to each student's needs and abilities. With four people, though, each student bears somewhere between three and ten times the responsibility that she would in an ordinary class--and unless all four are at the very top of their game, there are going to be problems. In my own seminar I find myself lecturing more than I do with a class of thirty, simply because I need to give my students a break.

The only upside is that I've been learning from my Italian instructor. Although our classes are very different, she's clearly having some of the same struggles, and handling them better. She's been mixing things up, trying different strategies, looking for what works.

Whenever she figures it out, I'll have it made.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Job season round-up

Since the MLA's Job Information List went live last week--and since I apparently have nothing new or interesting to say just now--I thought I'd collect in one handy location my musings and bits of advice from years past:

Why you should stop freaking out already about whether a particular job has an inside candidate.

How to be competitive for a "middle-class job"--that is, the kind of place that values teaching and research about equally. (Somewhat related: ways of parsing the differences among institutions, beyond looking at teaching load.)

What not to sweat about the conference interview.

A peek (or two, or three) into how the job search feels to those inside a hiring department or committee.

And just for fun: why the job list still fascinates and unsettles me, every damn year, whether I'm applying or not.


Looking through the posts I've tagged as "The Academic Job Market," I see they provide less concrete advice than I'd thought. Other bloggers have covered a lot of this ground before (last year, Notorious Ph.D. wrote a series of posts about the component parts of the job search, and the year before, Bardiac did the same)--but if there are any topics my readership would like to see me tackle, leave a note in the comments and I'll see what I can do.

Good luck out there, kids. We're pulling for you.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

PSA, maybe

So, that problem of needing access to scholarly databases to which your institution doesn't subscribe? I may have found a solution.

Register as a nondegree or nonmatriculated student at whichever local institution does subscribe. Obviously, not all universities permit students in this category--I imagine you can't be a nondegree student at Princeton--but plenty of places whose mission involves the surrounding community have programs that allow random citizens to take a class now and then on either a credit or audit basis. And in my experience at two institutions in two states (Cosimo's public R2 and now a private R1), all you have to do is fill out a quick web form, wait a day or two for approval, and then you get a student ID number and login.

And that gives you library web access.

Now, I can't promise that every institution would give you library access without your actually enrolling in a course--or that such access would last for longer than a semester or two--but in both the places where I've been a nondegree student, web access to everything was immediate, and not a function of being enrolled or paying one red cent.

I leave it to the enterprising among you to conduct further research.

Sunday, September 07, 2014


I spent my Friday night writing a model close-reading essay for my Milton students. This is the kind of thing I always think about doing, but almost never do--just because it's labor-intensive and annoying and because I spend enough time on class prep as it is.

Since virtually all my classes require some understanding of the terms and techniques of formal poetics, the close-reading essay is one of my staples. In Shakespeare I have my students close-read a speech in verse, and in my other classes I usually have them do a sonnet. Since my own college teachers did a piss-poor job of teaching poetics, I've spent a lot of time thinking about the basic toolkit students need to understand and analyze a poem. And I gotta say: I love doing it. Even after years of assigning some version of this essay, I'm still not tired of it.

But not being tired of it isn't the same thing as saying I've done everything possible to prepare my students for the task.

Sure, we do a lot of close-reading in class, and I try to be explicit about how our work might translate into a thesis or how we might organize all our observations into a coherent argument. And I've revised my assignment sheet a number of times to include a detailed breakdown of the whole process. But as for an actual model. . . eh. A couple of times I retyped one of my own undergraduate essays to share, and often I kicked myself for not having been foresighted enough to ask a student from a previous class whether I had permission to distribute copies of her paper. But I could never fathom finding the time to produce five relatively polished new pages of my own.

But this week I decided it was time. Maybe being on sabbatical last year left me with secret reserves of pedagogical energy, or maybe it's just that I've taught for long enough that the basics of class prep don't suck up as much time as they used to. In any case, I sat down and banged out a four-page close-reading of Sonnet 7 in a little under four hours. (I ask that my students' papers be 4-6 pages--and true to the undergraduate spirit, I decided there was no benefit to my doing more than the minimum.)

And you know what? It was fun. Maybe not the funnest thing I could have done on a Friday night, but it wasn't bad. I don't think it gave me any new insights into the assignment itself or how I might do things differently in the classroom, since I've been tinkering with those things for years. But it did produce one or two new thoughts about a poem I thought I knew upside-down--and there's ultimately no substitute for showing students how a thing is done, even when you believe that your instructions are perfectly aligned with both the process and the end product you desire.

Also? I won't have to do this again for years.


Readers, when have you gotten into the trenches and done an assignment alongside your students? Did it change your teaching or the nature of your assignment?

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Back to school x 3

x 1: Last week was the first week of classes at RU. Imagine all the usual chaos (and some delight).

x 2: Last week was also the first week of classes at my future employer. My email address has been added to the department's distribution list, so I've already been sent dozens of messages, including two or three requiring detailed replies. I guess it's good to have a year to get up to speed, but--TWICE the administrative email! TWO sets of institutional drama!

x 3: I was hoping to take an Italian class at the local R1. But they don't start classes until Wednesday. And the instructor has been flakey about getting back to me. And my registration code doesn't work. And I don't know where the classroom is, or how to get parking privileges--and if I have to waste one more afternoon navigating yet another institution's bureaucracy, I just may lose my shit.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Crowdfunding is what happens when real funding dries up

Crowdfunding is great. Except as a substitute for all the other ways that people used to make or raise money: through jobs, a living wage, a social safety net, or established charities and arts organizations.

A year or two ago, a fiftysomething INRU staff member who used to work in the English department mentioned on Facebook that he'd been laid off by the university after decades of employment. He was a deeply beloved figure, someone who knew every undergraduate and grad student by name; each May, his bulletin board was crowded with thank-you notes and photos of that year's be-gowned, be-capped graduates. When he mentioned his firing, dozens of people wrote on his wall to express outrage and sympathy.

I still see his posts in my feed occasionally, but if he said anything more about his employment situation, I hadn't noticed. Then, earlier this week, he shared a post by his wife. It turns out she was also a long-time university employee who'd been laid off the year before he was. She'd managed to find a part-time minimum-wage job, but he was still looking. She indicated that they'd been struggling but managing--until their landlord announced he was selling their home and they suddenly had to come up with several thousand dollars for a security deposit, first and last month's rent, and a moving van. Evidently embarrassed, she set up a crowd-funded account to see if they could raise the money.

They met their goal in a few days, mostly via lots of small gifts from former students and coworkers who apparently cherished their memories as much as I did mine.

Still, I've been distressed by this ever since. I'm glad to have been able to help, as I'm glad to have been able to donate to various friends and friends-of-friends when they wanted to mount an experimental play, or cover printing costs for a graphic novel, or provide winter-weather supplies for the homeless. I'm pleased to have a small stake in worthwhile projects, and at this point in my financial life it's easy enough to kick in $50 here and there.

But it only works, really, as a one-off: you can't keep tapping your entire social network in the way an established nonprofit can ask donors to commit to annual gifts or automatic monthly deductions. Or I suppose you can, but you'd probably see diminishing returns: the loose and diffuse friendships fostered by social media aren't built for it. There are plenty of people I haven't seen in 15 years whom I feel warmly toward--but not so warmly that I'd appreciate repeated attempts to leverage my affection into a cash donation.

That doesn't mean I don't care; it just means that each of us has limited means, and when push comes to shove it's usually our family members and closest friends who have most claim to our financial and emotional assistance. The awfulness of the crowdfunded emergency bailout is that it reminds us how insufficient both our resources and our goodwill are.

I hope my old friend and his wife will be okay from here on out, but what if they're not? What if there's another emergency--or what if nothing's an "emergency," but they simply can't get by any more? And what about all the other people I don't know, with fewer friends and family to call upon, but equivalent needs?

Monday, August 25, 2014

Writing when no one's reading

So about those journals. The first and most necessary surprise--necessary in the sense of allowing me to keep reading the damn things--is that they weren't nearly as cringe-inducing as I'd feared.

To be sure, there are lots of things I'm glad to have grown out of: endless fretting and insecurity, for one, and a species of boy-craziness I'd mostly forgotten about. I remembered mooning after various guys and obsessing over ones who didn't work out, but I did not remember commenting on the attractiveness of just about every man I met, or how many crushes-from-afar I apparently had. (Who's this cute Art & Architecture student I mention a dozen times? Or that barista I kept running into? Or the guy a friend dubbed "Taller Tom Cruise"? Not a clue.) I also forgot how sexually frank my journals were. Notional future children, I'm sorry for grossing you out.

But although I often wanted to tell Younger Flavia "snap out of it!" or "honey, he is not into you," that phase of my life is far enough away that I can regard my youthful silliness with more tolerance than I probably could have even five years ago.

What most interests me is the rich social world these journals conjure up. I'd forgotten just how enmeshed my life was with those of my friends--including friends who lived hundreds of miles away. My journals are full of references to two-hour phone calls or lengthy email exchanges or weekend visits, and I summarize in newsy detail all my friends' goings-ons: what they liked and hated about their jobs, their roommates, their significant others. I talk about which movies I saw with whom and what we said afterwards, and where we went and who we met up with--and why I really can't stand so-and-so's boyfriend. Young Flavia is often very funny, and good at characterizing people through a single quotation or brief anecdote that recalls them perfectly.

It's sad, in a way, how thoroughly that world has disappeared. In the endless catalogue I give of dance clubs and dive bars, coffee shops and restaurants, at least half are gone and another quarter I can't visualize or place geographically. More importantly, though I still have most of the friends I had then, we now have partners and kids and busy lives; I'm lucky to see or talk to many of them two or three times a year. Here they all are, though, living on the page not only in summary and paraphrase, but often in their own words: their insights, jokes and apt turns of phrase.

I'm also struck by how seriously my journals take the task of figuring myself out. Amidst all the mooning and insecurity, there's a lot of self-inquiry: why do I feel this way? What does this mean? Would I be happier doing something differently? I quote the things my friends say about me, turning over their assessments and agreeing or disagreeing, wondering if they're right. And I refer back, continually, to events that happened years earlier, sometimes consulting prior journals for reference.

Reading through several years at once makes growth more evident. Young Flavia's oscillations between madcap enthusiasm and weepy doubt become less extreme, and she's more inclined to be generous to others. I note with appreciation the friends who don't let me avoid difficult subjects or who make me admit when I'm mad at them--and I comment with pleasure when I succeed in raising a touchy issue myself.

There's a lot to miss about what I find in those journals. The close friendships and the apparently boundless free time are the most obvious, but I'm realizing that I also miss keeping a journal. Those notebooks didn't record everything, and towards the end they're especially spotty. But I'm sad, now, that the subsequent ten years have no comparable record. Reading about my early-grad-school lunacy reminded me of parts of the crushing grief of my big break-up seven years ago--but I have no record of the latter.

Naturally, I record bits and pieces of my life on social media and on this blog, and it has always been my goal to keep my blogging emotionally honest--not to paper over disappointments, anger, and frustration--but there's a lot that I can't say (whether due to professional discretion, personal discretion, or FERPA). For that matter, there's a lot I don't want to say in this format.

Indeed, in the era of social media and "don't say it if you don't want someone to see it," those journals feel vaguely illicit. I found myself grimacing occasionally at just how much I revealed about others' lives: their words, their actions, and my own occasionally nasty gossip or speculation. Though these notebooks exist in only a single hard copy, which no one else has access to, I've so internalized a sense of what I can't write about electronically that I almost can't believe I wrote such things at all.

I value my public writing, and I have no desire for it to be more rawly confessional. But I think I'm going to try keeping a journal again. The entries won't be as epic or as searching as they used to be, I'm sure--but I'm curious what I might have to say to myself when no one else is listening.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Getting out of grad school alive

I started grad school fifteen years ago next month, and the other night, as I was falling asleep, I had a vivid recollection of the apartment I lived in for my first four years and what falling asleep there had been like. It was a narrow studio, longer than it was deep, with my bed only a few yards from the front door. Under the door, even in the dark, a bright strip of light from the hallway shone in. Every second or third night I'd be unable to fall asleep, convinced that the framed poster that hung over the head of my bed was going to crash down in the middle of the night. So I'd take it down and hang it back up in the morning.

I've been trying to figure out what I've done in the past fifteen years, and finding the list wanting--professionally I'm perfectly on schedule, if that's the right word, but haven't done anything grand--but then I went back to the journals I kept in grad school. I kept a journal for a dozen years, from roughly ages 17 to 29, but haven't so much as laid hands or eyes on them in a decade. They lived in a sealed-up cardboard box, which I moved from place to place and then shoved in the back of a closet. Until now, I'd never had the nerve to re-read them. I knew what was in them, basically, and didn't want to revisit it.

But yesterday I did, and the experience was. . . surprising. I'll say more about that in another post, but reading the ones from my first two years of grad school make it clear that I was a lunatic. I remember with some clarity how depressed I was, and some of the reasons why, but that's not the same as reading entry after entry about walking home from class crying, about weeping at this party or that party, about my increasingly elaborate and paranoid social fears. No wonder I slept badly.

It's hard to believe how late I stayed up, how little I slept, and how much I drank. In retrospect it's clear that most of my friends were lunatics, too--even the ones who weren't literally alcoholics or addicted to drugs were in crazy, anguished places. My journals are full of worries about this friend who seems to have lost a quarter of her body weight, and that friend who's having an affair, or the other who's picking up strangers in bars. And I recount, drily, the story about this one falling over backwards in his chair or another passing out face-down on the table.

So though I was going to come up with a list of what I've done in the past fifteen years to make me feel accomplished and cheerful and whatnot (M.A.! Ph.D! Tenure-track job! Articles! Tenure! Book!), I have to say, I'm just glad we all survived.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

To toss into the dumpster at first light

In my twenties, I finished every novel I started--even those I was sure I hated by page 50. Partly this was about how much leisure time I had, in those days of fewer obligations (and a job that did not involve hundreds of pages of reading a week). I think, though, it was also about my distrust of myself as a reader: reading was important to the identity I'd constructed, and since most the novels I read were "classics," or influential, or somehow of the moment, I felt I couldn't just say "yuck," and set one aside. There were books I read all the way through only to throw across the room or toss in the trash, but I finished them. I needed to finish them in order to know that I disliked them, and to be able to formulate a reason why.

These days I have no such scruples. I try to make it to page 100 before setting anything aside, but life is too short to read crappy books--even well-reviewed crappy books, even books I've paid good money for, even books I expected to like. With this policy in place, it's rare that I read anything all the way through that elicits a sentiment worse than a "meh." But friends, I have now--for the first time in maybe a decade--finished a book that I want out of my house immediately. It cannot remain on my shelves. I can't bear even the sight of its spine from across the room. That book is Joshua Ferris's To Rise Again at a Decent Hour.

Now, it would be unfair to call this a bad book; it's well-crafted and people I respect liked it a lot. But somewhere between pages 100 and 337 it went from "has its charms, but not really doing it for me" to "OMG THIS IS EVERYTHING I HATE ABOUT EVERYTHING." I could say the problem was that I found nothing emotionally true or interesting about the characters. I could say there wasn't much of a plot. But the thing I really can't forgive this novel is its vague, sentimental treatment of religion (or the spiritual, or the existential, or whatever--they're all kind of mushed together in a lukewarm soup).

You know how some people are all, "I wish I could believe in God! I think religious people are, like, so lucky. I mean, even if they doubt or whatever? They still have this thing to fall back on--a community, a history. Something that gives life meaning. And sometimes, in religious spaces, I feel at home; I really do. I just don't, you know: believe."

This is a book about that guy. And the book has no perspective on belief or unbelief that is any more nuanced or interesting than his.


Readers: what was the last book you tossed aside lightly--or threw with great force? And why?

Sunday, August 17, 2014

In a fight to the death, my odds may not be good

Last week I finally got The Article of Eternal Return off my desk and back to the journal that had it most recently. That means that pretty much the only writing I got done this summer was an R&R of an essay that was already pretty polished--and perhaps 2/3 of which I left intact. I did some reorganization and made some major changes to the conceptual framework, but nothing that should have taken me two months.

Worse, I did nothing but work on that essay. I mean, sure: I went to the gym, and I ate and I slept and I faffed around on the internet. Maybe once a week I saw a friend or went to a movie. But I let the yard turn into a jungle and I put off errands for weeks at a time (taking 60 minutes to go to Target was way too much of a time commitment!); even running a load of laundry felt like an imposition.

There are always binge weeks here and there in the life of a project where I eat, drink, and dream whatever I'm working on--but usually they're pleasurable periods of mania when everything seems to be going right and all I want to be doing is writing. It doesn't feel grindingly painful. And it doesn't last for six weeks straight.

This tells me it was probably a mistake. Not the actual work I did, but my decision to gut it out until it was done. I'm in a dark psychological space with this piece, and probably the sane thing would have been to take a break, set it aside, and work on something I felt invigorated by and that might give me some renewed confidence. (In other words: what my advisor made me do with my first chapter.) But I don't know how to do that. I only know how to bite down hard, hold on, and not let go.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Poor closers

With every round of revisions I make to this essay, I'm convinced I'm finally ready to write my conclusion. Everything else is falling into place. About a week ago I felt confident enough to scrap my old conclusion, which I'd been hanging onto in the hope that some portion of it might still work. Since then, I've occasionally started drafting something that seemed like it might be a note I could end on. So I write half a paragraph, and then I lose enthusiasm and leave it stranded there amid a bunch of white space.

So far I've got four or five of those maybe-conclusory, half-finished thoughts. They hang out like awkward dudes at a bar: keeping their distance; fiddling with their drinks; making occasional eye-contact and then pretending they didn't; never getting up the nerve to start a conversation.

I can't blame them. I'm not really interested in them either. So I ignore them, tinkering with the few places that still need work in the rest of the essay--a bit of framing here, a little historical background there. If I'm still not feeling it once that's done, maybe I'll fix my footnotes.

Eventually I'll know how I want this to end, who I want to go home with. Another guy will show up at the bar, and that'll be it. But that time is not yet.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

The world cannot support that many ballerinas

Today's NYT Home section features what I can only describe as the schadenfreudelicious story of an "academic of independent means" whose attempts to turn her Connecticut home into an arts retreat have run into trouble. Many of the problems are practical ones--the neighbors are protesting that her institute is a bad fit for a residential area; she hasn't yet come up with a way of marketing her program--but though there's a real story here, the "delusional dilettante" aspects are the juiciest.

Who is Michelle Slater, the thirty-nine-year-old founder of The Mayapple Center for the Arts and Humanitites? So glad you asked!

Home-schooled until the age of 14, when her mother, Euphemia Brock Slater, a Mayflower descendant, died of complications of rheumatic fever, Ms. Slater has been on the move ever since, accruing degrees and experiences in the manner of a Henry James heroine: boarding school at Interlochen, the fine arts academy in Michigan. . . undergraduate work at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and the University of Colorado. . . graduate work at Dartmouth, Johns Hopkins and the Sorbonne; and various grand tours through Europe, India, and the United States.

Slater has real academic credentials, though nothing grander than you'd find on the average vita for the average job applicant these days. In addition to playing the cello, she "has a doctorate in German and Romance languages, as well as two master's degrees, has written articles on Derrida, run study-abroad programs, been a Woodrow Wilson fellow and taught French."

More notable is the passion she's put into her home. A self-described "recovering perfectionist,"

[Slater] chose each stone in the multicolored slate roof [by] traveling to a quarry in Vermont to find just the right mix of yellow, purple, blue and black Welsh slate. For her front and back doors, she looked at French and Italian Renaissance motifs. . . Inspired by the interiors of the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia, her dining room has been hand-painted in "a quasi-Fabergé look," as she put it, with colors drawn from her Versace Russian Dream china pattern. . . . [On the grounds] she laid in a vegetable garden, an Amish chicken coop and a clutch of bee hives. She thought hard about the Transcendentalists: What would Emerson do?

Um, maybe not paint his dining room in a way that evoked either the Hermitage or Versace? I'm also pretty sure that Emerson would not have designed a logo for his institute "inspired. . . by the color of [his] favorite Hermès scarf."

Though the article is most interested in Slater's biography and the work she's done on the estate, buried in the middle are a few more substantive paragraphs about how competitive and diverse the "artists' retreats" market is these days; some of Slater's problems come down to not doing enough research or hiring the right people to help her navigate her options. For instance, she lined up faculty to give seminars on various topics but gave less attention to participants. Slater imagines her program as appealing to scholars and artists, but it's hard to see what would be in it for them; from the way the program is described, it seems better geared toward artsy laypeople. In the end that's who she wound up with: unable to find enough artists willing to pay $1,200/week, she resorted to inviting friends and friends-of-friends in order to have some bodies populating the classes.

That, I think, is the real story: Slater is trying to build something for which there's no pre-existing market. Artists and scholars could surely use Slater's money and her enthusiasm (as could plenty of struggling humanities organizations), but they can't use it on her terms. She seems to want to run a salon or be an artistic impresario, and there's nothing wrong with that goal; bringing the right mix of people together to spark collaboration or conversation is a gift, and one that plenty of artists themselves lack. However, it isn't clear that Slater has that gift, or, more crucially, that she has those friends. Having the right network is more important than having money. With the right network, Slater could probably get something off the ground that would actually be useful to artists and scholars.

Running a salon doesn't take a lot of money. But it does require knowing people. No one comes to a dinner party where they don't know the host, at least by reputation--and that applies a hundred times over if you're expecting them to come for a week and to pay for the pleasure.

*Title courtesy of Mad Men's Marie Calvert: "not every little girl gets to do what she wants. The world could not support that many ballerinas."

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The do-nothing vacation

We're just back from Maine, where Cosimo has family, and I'm happy to report that we did . . . nothing, really. I floated in the ocean, I sat on the beach, I read a novel, I wandered up and down the shore looking at pretty rocks. To be sure, I ate and I drank and I socialized, but even that was low-key: just lots of sitting around on the porch or the patio with a beer. And I slept like a rock every night.

Maine flowers, Maine butterflies
(seacoast not pictured)
There aren't a lot of vacations where I do that little. My leisure travel is typically to cities, which involves an active schedule, and though trips to see family often have more downtime, I compensate by bringing work with me. Actually, I pretty much always bring work with me when I travel. That isn't to say that I get a lot of work done, but I can usually carve out an afternoon here and there or at least fit in six focused hours on the plane. More importantly, I always feel like I should be working.

I'm no workaholic, and my "productivity" is only somewhere in the average range for a scholar of my generation; I certainly don't work every single day when I have a chunk of time clear of other obligations. But even when I'm taking a break I find other ways to be busy: I go to the gym or throw myself into home-improvement projects; I go places, do things. Even my leisure-reading tends to be goal-oriented: I should finally read last year's big literary novel! I should get through that pile of magazines! Any kind of recharging is good, and there's no real harm to making my off-days feel productive. But it's a different feeling having nothing that needs doing at any particular time.

It's weird to write that at the end of my sabbatical, which is ostensibly all about such restful recuperation. But though I've had leisurely days and I've done some new thinking, those things have happened interstitially, en route to some obligation or other. Over the past six months I went to five conferences and gave six papers or presentations. Both Cosimo and I were on the job market. We moved back to our house. And I had a bunch of deadlines and suffered a bunch of work-related disappointments. It's been a huge boon to have had the time to do all those things and grapple with all those changes, but it's been only intermittently restful.

A couple of years ago I heard Alice Waters on "Fresh Air." She mentioned that she pays her chefs a twelve-month salary but only expects them to work at Chez Panisse for six months of the year; restaurant life is crazy and the hours are long and burn-out is a real problem. The other six months are for exploration: they can go abroad, visit markets, meet farmers, dine in other restaurants, and sample other people's cooking.

It's a humane understanding of what all workers need, but especially of what creative workers need. Thank God for the summer, for sabbaticals, and the do-nothing vacation.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Letters-to-the-editor idiocy knows no nation

I'm sure that many of my readers, like me, received as an extra punch to the gut the news that the plane shot down over Ukraine was carrying more than 100 HIV/AIDS researchers. This doesn't make the story worse, exactly--298 lives lost is a tragedy, whoever they are, and the geopolitical crisis doesn't care whether they're vacationers, bankers, or scholars. But it's a loss on top of those losses to think of how this affects an urgently important field of research.

(And I bet I'm not the only one who's occasionally looked around the plane en route to a conference and thought, "damn: if this goes down, there goes half of Donne studies.")

So I wasn't surprised, on my flight back to the States yesterday, to see that one of the letters to the editor of the Guardian was also thinking about the relationship of the MH17 crash to the future of scholarship. I was, however, TOTALLY surprised by what he considered the tragedy an occasion to opine on.

Here's the letter in its entirety:

The overall loss of life in the Malaysia Airlines disaster (Report, 18 July) is the primary concern, but a separate issue is raised. Around 100 were scientists going to a conference in Australia. Is it not time to ask why such trips are necessary? The advent of large-screen TVs and rapid transmission of data and the spoken word mean it is no longer necessary to send thousands of people around the world at great expense and at major environmental cost. Now we have lost a very large number of people expert in the science of Aids. What cost will this be to those suffering from the disease?

Dr Simon Harris

Clearly, if there were no academic conferences, the public would be better off.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Men against rape

Waiting at the airport for an overnight flight to London, I find I'm having a hard time thinking of anything but today's NYT cover story about a campus rape and the grievous way the college administration screwed up the investigation. Tenured Radical has a great post on the story, on the newfound attention sexual assault has been receiving, and on what it might take to get colleges to take the matter as seriously as they claim they do.

As for me, I have little to add to what I've said about rape in the past.

Actually, that's not quite true. The one bright spot in the Hobart & William Smith story involves the victim's friend: a man, and, it later turns out, a football player (like the woman's assailants). Although he can't have known her long or well since they were both freshmen and it was the beginning of the school year, after receiving some alarming texts from her he keeps trying to contact her. When he gets no response, he sets out in the middle of the night to try to find her.

We need more men like that. Indeed, the most useful thing about recent research showing that the vast majority of college rapes are perpetrated by serial predators--and that they account for only a small percentage of the male population--will be if it changes the conversation so the average man doesn't feel that he's under suspicion, but can see himself as part of the solution.

Because he has to be.