Friday, January 31, 2014

Pop-cultural flotsam

Mark Edmundson's meandering mess of an essay at the Chronicle has attracted a lot of ridicule in the corners where I hang out on the internet, and it is indeed a doozy. Though I'm often impatient with Edmundson's take on the humanities--both his fuzzy celebration of their value and his dour certainty that they're doomed--I respect him as a writer and have usually felt that his heart is in the right place: he values the humanities; I value the humanities; and the fact that he has a national audience probably helps all of us.

But this. . . well, even before I got to the really outrageous part, I was embarrassed for him. It's a self-indulgent and not entirely coherent account of Edmundson's time at Yale and how alienated he felt from both the tweedy profs with their sherry and the undergraduates he regarded as an undifferentiated mass of Skull & Bonesmen headed straight for Wall Street and/or the C.I.A. Edmundson was different--what with his black leather jacket--and so felt some initial sympathy with the rise of theory, which seemed sexy and young and opposed to all that fusty establishmentarianism. But! Over the years he came to see the nothing and the nihilism at the core of theory, and his essay concludes with the sorrowful realization that the tweedy fuddy-duddies had it right all along. But alas, the fuddy-duddies are all dead, and now "[f]ew professors in my field, literature, believe that they can distinguish rigorously between pop-culture flotsam and the works of Milton. Few of them know how to mount an argument that values Wyatt's poetry over a video game."

Um. Say what?

That last quotation is the portion of the essay that has received the most scorn, and rightfully so. Some of Edmundson's defenders claim he's merely being hyperbolic, and though I'm not convinced that he is--wild claims of this sort have been a staple of conservative critiques of the academy* for decades--whether Edmundson literally means that there are legions of literature professors who can't discriminate between the value of Paradise Lost and a video game or whether he means merely that they can't mount a coherent argument for the value of any canonical author, he's wrong.

Most professors know how to argue for the worth of whichever texts are canonical within their particular area of expertise, and most do so explicitly or implicitly one semester after the other. One reason is that we tend to be hired within traditionally-defined subfields ("Victorian Novel," "Modernist Poetry") and tend to be expected to teach bread-and-butter genre or period surveys. This means we do a lot of thinking about what our students need to know and what it would be irresponsible to leave out; we also--and especially if we happen to teach any subject that isn't immediately appealing to students--tend to think about how to make the case for those texts. Believe me: even at the most elite schools, students do not arrive convinced of their need to study Chaucer or Milton.

At less-elite institutions this is doubly true. (I've had students who assume "British Literature"--all of it!--is strange and foreign and totally distinct from any American literature ever.) At RU, Shakespeare is a required course, but I still consider it my job to make the case, actively and every day, for why Shakespeare is worth reading. I do not assume it. Canonical works only remain canonical because new generations of readers continue to fall in love with them and continue to believe in their worth; if your only argument for Shakespeare's canonicity is "because generations have said so," or even, "because I love him," you've lost. And lemme tell you: if I couldn't make the case for Milton, my classes would get cancelled. I only get to teach Milton because I sell him, hard, to students who have frequently never heard of him.

But I want to move away from the question of whether professors still recognize a canon and toward an interrogation of what we're doing when we dismiss some works as "pop cultural flotsam." I'm not sure what Edmundson intended to include in this category, and his vagueness is probably strategic. But as someone who works on an earlier period, I've long noticed that conservative critics who inveigh against the teaching of pop culture, ephemera, women and minority writers (and so on) do not take quite the same position when it comes to very minor writers who happen to be part of the establishment. So, early modern ballads, sermons, and the works of fifth-rate playwrights are so interesting and so worthwhile and even an important work of recovery (because: OUR HERITAGE!), but Mary Wroth and Margaret Cavendish--nevermind Toni Morrison, August Wilson or The Sopranos--aren't important enough or central enough to the culture.

Now, I'm not claiming that this is how Edmundson feels--I don't know his opinions about any of those works or writers--but I'm uncomfortable with any sweeping dismissal of popular culture. The fact is that virtually all serious scholars work on noncanonical texts at least some of the time (I wrote almost an entire book about 'em!), but not all noncanonical texts get sneered at as "flotsam." I can tell you that I've never once had anyone assert the triviality of the material I work on: it's old enough and aligned enough with traditional sources of power (the court, the church) that it reads as serious and important. But I'm not sure it's intrinsically any more or less valuable, as a subject for analysis, than 1950s sit-coms. Part of the question is what one does with the texts in question.

Some uncanonical texts are useful primarily for contextual or historical information (to see the evolution of a particular writer's works; to study the conventions of a genre; to understand the period's attitude toward gender, money, science, religion), but many are aesthetically interesting in their own right to a greater or lesser degree. I teach very few of the noncanonical texts I work on, but I'll assign the occasional sermon or excerpt from an ars moriendi manual, just as some of my colleagues show the occasional clip from a sit-com or bring in a series of midcentury advertisements.

The formal and interpretative skills that scholars bring to Shakespeare or Faulkner can be applied to any aesthetic object, however low or high, serious or pop-cultural, but only the best will keep yielding new meanings. Some of our t.v. shows (and, who knows? maybe even video games) will last or will be rediscovered by future scholars. Some of our "serious" novels and films will not. In the meanwhile, we study and we teach what seems most meaningful, most illuminating, most worthy. Most the time, those are canonical or critically-acclaimed texts. But real humanists know when and how to attend to the flotsam and ephemera.

*H/t Phoebe, who has anatomized the conservative critique of academia in this post and later ones.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Mid-sabbatical update

So, classes began today at RU, which means my sabbatical is really and truly half done. I'd been dreading itemizing my accomplishments--but in looking over what I've actually done, it seems I haven't been a complete slacker.

So, the deets:

Book One
-Acquired cover image & permissions
-Rewrote and approved jacket & catalog copy

Book Two
-Spent a week at a rare books library doing background research
-Read another Donne biography
-Read, re-read, or power-skimmed all of Donne's prose
-Wrote a short commissioned essay on Donne (related to my Donne chapter)
-Drafted an additional 20 terrible rough pages of a Donne chapter
-Significantly revised & resubmitted an article on Shakespeare (which will be the core of my Shakespeare chapter)
-Read Bede's Ecclesiastical History
-Read around in Foxe's Acts & Monuments

Other scholarship
-Read The Compleat Angler in two editions and 8-10 essays on Walton
-Wrote two conference abstracts and had them accepted
-Wrote 2.5 conference papers
-Delivered one conference paper and one invited talk
-Collaborated on an SAA seminar proposal (for 2015)
-Began the background research for my SAA paper (for 2014)
-Did a small amount of work on Browne

Other other
-Completed a semester of college Italian
-Watched a few seasons of 30 Rock and a few seasons of Community
-Read Robert Alter's translation of Genesis
-Read Harbach's Art of Fielding and half of Tartt's Goldfinch
-Mostly kept up with my magazines and reviews
-Somehow still found things to blog about

Many of those accomplishments are pretty small and interstitial--the kinds of things I could fit into an ordinary semester of teaching and service--and I know I frittered away plenty of time. But though I certainly haven't been working 40hrs/week on my research, I've easily done twice or even three times the work I manage in a regular semester, so I'm not going to be too hard on myself. My goal had been to emerge at the end of my sabbatical with three long, strong chapter drafts, and though that's looking increasingly unlikely, I do think I'll have the core of three chapters plus a lot of important background work done--enough, at least, to make me feel that Book Two is well underway, even if years and years of work remain.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014


Over the years, I've known several people stuck in toxic workplaces. By "toxic" I mean something more than merely dysfunctional, dispiriting, or run by assholes. I mean a place that, like an emotionally abusive relationship, erodes a person's sense of self and denies the reality of her experiences. A toxic workplace is one where you're always at fault, always the troublemaker, always the reason for any confusion, misunderstandings, or screw-ups.

Of course, you could actually be a troublemaker--and your friends and family, hearing your woes, may privately wonder whether that's the case or whether you're not at least exacerbating the problem. You may wonder the same thing. But since a toxic workplace is a place of mass delusion (or a conspiracy to support the delusions of a few), it's hard to know for sure.

Toxic workplaces exist in all fields, but I'm starting to wonder whether they're not worse in academia. Limited mobility makes it hard for any individual to get out, which also means that whatever dynamics or patterns of behavior have been established in a given department or division have been building for a very long time. By the time you appear on the scene, a great many people have a great deal invested in beliefs or behaviors that, looked at rationally, don't make a lot sense. Why isn't there a standard tenure and promotion document? Why does your academic unit operate according to some impenetrable patronage model?

One person's toxic workplace isn't always another's, however, and even among those who recognize the madness of a particular institution's culture, some will be able to tolerate it and others won't. So personality plays some role, but it's not the case that the bluntest or roughest-edged people are the most likely to be penalized; what you see as helpful, collaborative, bridge-building efforts may be exactly what those invested in an arcane and untransparent system find threatening.

I don't have first-hand experience with a toxic workplace--endless paperwork is more my jam--but what I've seen several friends go through has made me feel some of the helplessness of those unwillingly enlisted in someone else's delusion.

The particular stories I'm thinking of aren't mine to tell, but since I know some of my internet peeps have gone through similar experiences and lived to tell the tale, I'm wondering: can a toxic workplace get better? Can it be survived with one's integrity? Or is fleeing the only option?

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Being a public intellectual on $10/day

One of the best sessions I attended at MLA was "The Semi-Public Intellectual? Academia, Criticism, and the Internet Age." Organized as a roundtable discussion, the session brought together a half-dozen scholars whose work as writers, critics, bloggers, and editors also addresses nonacademic audiences. Some were previously known to me but most were not, and their individual stories and experiences were fascinating. For the first time in my life, I found myself looking at the clock and longing for more time in a cramped and overcrowded ballroom.

For those of us who live half our lives on the internet, it's not news that there's a tremendous amount of writing talent out there. But this panel convinced me that, in addition to launching food and lifestyle bloggers into multi-million-dollar book-and-movie deals, the internet has also reshaped what it means to be a public intellectual--in part by reshaping the audience for their works. On the one hand, authority on the internet is dispersed, resulting in fewer "star" public intellectuals. On the other hand, the voracious reading habits of an audience willing to read not one but ten movie reviews makes this a golden age for the semi-public intellectual: the academic with both the skills and the desire to reach a larger audience. As several of the panelists noted, there really is an audience interested in what humanities scholars have to offer--who are eager for incisive analyses of politics, art, and pop culture that draw upon our depth and breadth of training.

The decline-and-fall rhetoric in the humanities and in traditional publishing has made this hard to believe: are there really more people writing well, in more places, for more readers? I don't know how to provide quantitative answers, but the anecdotal evidence is strong. To stick with academia: I'm only eight years out of grad school, but virtually all the PhD students I know now have at least a limited public presence on the internet (composing wry or evocative tweets is still public writing), and every third grad student I meet also seems to have a larger sideline as a reviewer, critic, poet, or journalist.

I love that, and not only because I love a grad student with a Plan B. I love that I can follow a random series of links on some friend's Facebook page and wind up reading something astonishingly good by someone whose name I don't know in a venue I'd never heard of. (I love, for that matter, that people I've never met keep reading me.)

But although I'm willing to believe that we're living in a kind of golden age for public writing, the gold we're talking about is strictly theoretical. As one of the panelists remarked about the rapid expansion of his online review, academics are more willing to write for free than journalists. Even if we don't care about the employment prospects for journalists (and I hope we do), this isn't good news. Most academics, after all, teach off the tenure track, so the convoluted proxy payment system that we full-timers enjoy simply doesn't apply. Me, I don't need to make a red cent from anything I publish. My academic writing helped me get a job, get tenure, and receive regular merit raises--and my nonacademic writing, in addition to bringing me great personal joy, has served as what Dr. Cleveland calls "a force multiplier" for my scholarship.

Most writers these days, academic or otherwise, do not have my job security, and as Tim Kreider's piece last fall in the NYT Sunday Review argued, writing for free ultimately devalues that writing--and all the thinking, learning, and training that precedes it. I'd like to believe that good writing is its own reward, but it's a reward that some of us enjoy more than others. (Moreover, I fear that none of us will enjoy it for very long: if we could tell our undergraduate English majors, with a straight face, that they could make money as writers, we might have more of them.)

This isn't the fault of the semi-public intellectual; it's a consequence of the hollowing-out of the middle class, the devaluing of the arts, and the rising cost of living in the kinds of urban centers where writers could once manage at least a modest, middle-class life. As the number of novelists now ensconced in the academy reminds us, even those who earn money from their writing rarely make a living off it.

I don't mean to end on a down note; I was genuinely invigorated by the panel and persuaded by case the panelists made for the appeal, relevance, and health of the humanities within the public sphere. But real health means people can support themselves with their work (or do that work from a place of love while supporting themselves with related work). If academics are to write for a public audience for free, they need secure jobs to underwrite that work. And if academia isn't providing secure jobs for current PhD students, they need an alternate career path that is, in fact, a career path.

Monday, January 06, 2014

The Journey of the Magi

'A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.'
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

--T.S. Eliot


The Elizabethan and Jacobean court celebrated the twelve days of Christmas with banquets every day and entertainments every night. Not having quite the same resources at our disposal, Cosimo and I nevertheless wanted to find a meaningful way to celebrate Epiphany and wind down the Christmas season. So last night we lit the advent wreath for the last time and exchanged cards and a small gift apiece; today, we take down the tree and holiday decorations.

But since Epiphany, "the revelation to the nations," is fundamentally about seeing beyond the circle of one's family, friends and immediate community, I wanted to do something in that spirit as well. Since virtually all of my charitable giving is domestic--and most of it is intensely local, focused on my city, county, and state--for Epiphany, I'm starting a tradition of giving to a charity that focuses on the developing world (on the recommendation of Give Well, I went with Give Directly, which puts money in the hands of the extremely poor in Kenya and Uganda).

Here's hoping your day and your year are full of revelations large and small.

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

New Year's Meme

(Seventh in a series. See also New Year's Day 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013.)

1. What did you do in 2013 that you'd never done before?
*Got a book contract (and completely finished everything to do with Book One)
*Rented out our house
*Started a year of Italian classes
*Set myself a blogging schedule and kept it

2. Did anyone close to you give birth?
Yes: one college friend had her first, another her second, and a post-college friend also had her first. (Can you tell 40 is on the horizon?)

3. Did anyone close to you die?
Our realtor, whom I felt close to despite the brevity of our relationship. She'd worked with us for months finding our house and was just finishing up the credit checks and paperwork for our renters when she died quite suddenly, only a few weeks after her father died.

4. What countries did you visit?
England and Canada

5. What would you like to have in 2014 that you lacked in 2013?
I would really like to spend it living with my spouse, full-time and for the long-term, in our house. But barring that, I'd like for the Article of Eternal Return to STOP RETURNING.

6. What was your biggest achievement of the year?
Getting Book One out of my life (and into everyone else's! Mwahaha!)

7. What was your biggest failure?
I had some disappointments this year, but they were all comparatively minor.

8. Did you suffer illness or injury?
A couple of colds, a couple of migraines, and a minor infection that required too many different courses of antibiotics to knock out completely.

9. What was the best thing you bought?
Uh, a new coffee table? Nothing big or notable is coming to mind.

10. Whose behavior merited celebration?
Pope Francis

11. Whose behavior made you appalled and depressed?
Oh so many people on the internet.

12. Where did most of your money go?
Between repairs/upgrades to the house, renting a bigger apartment for my sabbatical, and two separate moves, housing expenses ate up a ton of cash.

13. Compared to this time last year, are you: a) happier or sadder? b) thinner or fatter? c) richer or poorer?
a) Happier
b) Maybe a touch heavier, but who's to say? I LIVE in my yoga pants these days.
c) Poorer (but only because I'm on sabbatical and at half-pay)

14. What do you wish you'd done more of?
Reached out to old friends. I'm in touch with a lot of people, but there are some friendships I haven't been as active in keeping going as I wish I'd been.

15. What do you wish you'd done less of?
Fretted about the future

16. What was the best new book you read?
I read a number of books I expected to love and didn't (Telegraph Avenue, Bring Up the Bodies, White Teeth). But Ursula Le Guin's Left Hand of Darkness, which I'd never read, made up for all of them.

17. What was your favorite film of the year?
Either Frances Ha or Enough Said

18. What was your favorite album of the year?
Vampire Weekend, Modern Vampires of the City

19. What was the best play you saw?
The Broadway revival of Who's Afraid of Virgina Woolf? was probably the best, but I'm glad we made the trek to Brighton to see the Globe's Henry VI (all three plays in one day).

20. What kept you sane?
Uh, being on sabbatical? That rules.

21. Tell us a valuable life lesson you learned in 2013.
Which of you, by worrying, can add a single hour to his life span?

Wishing everyone a marvelous 2014--may it bring you all you deserve or desire!