Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The music says nothing to me about my life

Although my musical tastes are never cutting-edge, I'm even less adventurous when I'm working. I like to have music on in the background when I'm writing--but the key word is background: nothing that moves from loud to soft extremes; nothing too lyrically complicated; nothing that draws too much attention to itself. But it also has to be something that I genuinely enjoy. Because here's the thing: when I'm in the middle of a writing project, I can listen to the same three-to-five albums, by the same artist, for hours every day, for weeks straight. It's some combination of superstition, hypnotism, and OCD.

For at least the past five years, my standbys have been Bill Evans (better for fall and winter) and Stereolab (spring and summer). But this week something made me drag out my collection of Smiths CDs. The Smiths, you understand, were probably my favorite band from about the ages of 16 to 22. I rarely listen to them any more--but it turns out that although I used to have an intense emotional relationship to their music, it's now. . . backgroundish. I know every word and guitar riff so thoroughly that they give me pleasure without requiring much attention. (And as my college roommate--not a fan--pointed out long ago, there isn't really a lot of musical range there.)

And so, just like that, I've expanded my work-music repertory by 50%.

What do you listen to as you work--or do you?

Tuesday, April 29, 2014


Another week, another plagiarism scandal. This one is more complicated than most, but the part that interests me isn't the scandal itself--the plagiarism and the weird institutional response--but the story lurking behind those stories. Briefly: an external reviewer on a tenure case received, from an anonymous source, a long list of allegedly plagiarized passages from a book by the professor under review. He or she then conveyed this information to the in-house tenure review committee.

This is where the scandal begins, but if you want that part of the story, you can Google it. Because I went to grad school with one of the central figures, I'm not going to link, and for the purposes of this blog I'm agnostic about whether the plagiarism was inadvertent or deliberate and what punishment it may have merited. What I'm interested in is this anonymous correspondent, who managed to identify almost three dozen short passages lifted without attribution from numerous different sources. Moreover, since all the passages involve background material rather than substantive arguments, they would have been hard even for specialists to identify. The only people who would seem capable of having immediately recognized the material would be the authors themselves--but anyone who had discovered himself to have been plagiarized would have had no reason to remain anonymous: he could have contacted the author or her publisher. Indeed, that's what the average concerned reader would have done.

Instead, we have someone who wanted to remain anonymous; who had reason to think the book contained plagiarized material; and who was willing to spend whole days or weeks ferreting it out. Tracking down plagiarized material is an outrageous pain in the ass, even when it's a five-page undergraduate paper on Macbeth that borrows exclusively from internet sources. Tracking down plagiarism from printed material, across the breadth of a 200-page book? That's a whole 'nother ball of wax.

Whoever was willing to put in that kind of time--and to do the necessary sleuthing to identify at least one of the author's external reviewers (usually confidential information)--is a personal enemy. Whether it's a deserved or undeserved enemy, I can't say, but it's someone motivated by something more than the usual professional jealousies or resentments. It's someone fueled by rage.

Assuming the tipster is a professional enemy (rather than, say, an enraged ex-lover), it's a cautionary tale without a clear moral: obviously, one should not plagiarize, and obviously one should not make a habit of pissing people off in such a way that they become enemies. But it isn't the case that only assholes acquire enemies. Someone's capacity to attract enemies is sometimes only a function of being successful or high-profile or privileged in some way that garners envy and resentment. An enemy's fury may have very little to do with one's own behavior.

That said, there are ways to decrease the likelihood of making enemies. First, there's the obvious: don't be a jerk. Don't be nasty, don't use other people for your advancement, and avoid behavior that's unprofessional or that leaves other people cleaning up your messes. (And if that happens despite your good intentions, apologize!) But being friendly and gracious and interested in others--especially if you occupy a high perch in the profession--is also a generally smart move. And try to avoid feelings of rivalry or jealousy yourself, because sometimes your own competitiveness interpellates the other person as a rival.

Personally, I tend to assume that I'm not important enough for anyone to truly dislike--I mean, seriously! what do I have that's worth envying or resenting?--but I know that that's not true (there's at least one person foolish enough to say nasty things about me to our mutual friends), and that thinking that way is a species of the problem I discussed in this post, of only being oriented upward toward one's seniors and "betters," rather than thinking about how one treats or appears to those with less standing.

One can't eliminate the possibility of making enemies though no fault of one's own, and in rare instances enmity can actually help the profession: I have a friend (in a different discipline and at a different institution) who was so enraged by a colleague's bad behavior with students and faculty alike that she started poking around in his vita. In relatively short order she learned not only that he had never completed the PhD he claimed, but that he'd never even been enrolled in a PhD program. His asshattery earned him an enemy who successfully purged a fraud from the profession.

I try to squelch my own feelings of envy and rivalry, and I certainly don't hate anyone enough to do what this anonymous tipster did in the way he or she did it. Still, I can at least imagine a scenario in which I might act similarly. For me the offenses would have to be really outrageous, and they'd have to combine the personal with the professional. Let's say a junior professor whom I considered a major phony had also sexually harassed a friend of mine, and she eventually had a nervous breakdown and dropped out of the academy. If he was up for tenure and I knew enough about his work to know I could probably find proof of fraudulence? Yeah, I might do it. But that's a pretty high threshold: his merely being a fraud or merely being a shitty human being wouldn't be enough on its own.

I get outraged easily, but I'm not good at holding on to anger. If someone else has behaved badly--well, usually I'm content to wait for the whirlygig of time to do his thing.

Because this post is not about the specifics of the plagiarism case itself, please do not use the comments to weigh in on the plagiarist's behavior or the response of her university. Any such comments will get deleted.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Best news I've had all week

Today I got an email from Sallie Mae telling me that one of my student loan payments has been reduced by $3.61 a month--bringing my monthly total to just $453.13!

But the really good news is that I've only got twelve years of repayment left.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014


Louis Menand has an essay on Paul de Man, occasioned by the new de Man biography, in the March 24th issue of The New Yorker. It's a juicy overview of de Man's career that manages to disentangle the unsavory life from the literary and theoretical movements in which de Man participated; it's also a useful corrective to the dismissive and eye-rolling ways "literary theory" gets caricatured by journalists and nonspecialists.

Here are the article's first two paragraphs:

The idea that there is literature, and then there is something that professors do with literature called "theory," is a little strange. To think about literature is to think theoretically. If you believe that literature is different from other kinds of writing. . . if you have ideas about what's relevant and what isn't for understanding it. . . and you have standards for judging whether it's great or not so great ([e.g.] a pleasing style or a displeasing politics), then you have a theory of literature. You can't make much sense of it without one.

It's the job of people in literature departments to think about these questions, to debate them, and to disseminate their views. This is not arid academicism. . . . [It's] part of an inquiry into the role of art in human life, the effort to figure out why we make this stuff, what it means, and why we care so much about it. If this is not the most important thing in the world to understand, it is certainly not the least.

I've blogged about this before, but my own training in literary theory was pretty close to nonexistent. I did not take a theory course in college or grad school, and though I was assigned a small amount of theory among the secondary readings in a few of my graduate seminars, we barely discussed them. Theorists must have come up in class discussion from time to time, but no one held forth about Butler this or Foucault that. I had the nagging sense that I should know theory better, but it was like never having studied statistics: faintly embarrassing and probably something I should correct, but not anything I needed on a daily basis.

(When asked, I described my own theoretical approach as "close-reading, I guess" or "historicist, but not really New Historicist." I knew those weren't good answers, but when you work on religious prose, no one expects a better one.)

A couple of years after getting my Ph.D., I got serious about teaching myself theory. I read a lot over the course of several years, from general introductions and readers to articles and maybe a dozen book-length works. I wasn't prepared for what I discovered. First, my mind was blown. Like, daily. And I couldn't figure out how anything this urgent and interesting had gotten a reputation for irrelevance and impenetrability.

But second, and almost as surprisingly, I realized that I. . . kinda knew this stuff already. I was using much of it in my work. I hadn't had a name for what I was doing and I couldn't talk about it in detail or trace its conceptual lineage, but my methods and assumptions about how texts work (and the relationship between texts and their authors or between texts and their historical periods) were indebted to a number of very specific figures and movements. Presumably, this is because my own teachers were so deeply steeped in theory that they just hadn't bothered to talk about it.

On the one hand, it was a great relief to realize that "theory" wasn't some mysterious or alien field of knowledge. But I was pissed that no one had made explicit to me that what we'd been doing in the classroom all those years wasn't just reading stuff and talking about it more or less as people had done since the beginning of time. As Menand says, any way of reading a text that isn't totally naive--indeed, the very criteria for deciding which texts are worth reading in the first place--involves a theory of literature. And all such approaches have a history, and are indebted to their time and place and the values of their age.

I'm still not a particularly "theoretical" scholar, if by that you mean someone who can talk at length about the influence of this dude or that on her work. I would be reluctant to teach an intro theory course. But I teach bits and pieces of theory in many of my classes--and you'd better believe that I let my students know that the ways we think about and value works of art aren't any more static or timeless than the ways we think about or value human beings or the ways we organize our societies.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Younger than that now

I'm just back from #shakeass14--my fourth and final conference of the term, which is at least two too many--and as usual I'm filled with many feelings. Though I still don't quite feel that SAA is "my" conference (not being a drama scholar and all), it's the one where I feel most in touch with my corner of the profession, for good and for ill.

That's not so much about the work being presented, but about the size and the nature of the conference and to some degree its timing: it happens in April, after all the job market gossip is out. Even with its recent growth, the conference remains small enough to fit in one hotel and large enough that it seems everyone I know is there. Most importantly, it's a conference that remains welcoming to very junior people and those on the margins of the profession; its seminar format, where works-in-progress are precirculated and everyone gives feedback to everyone (grad students to very senior scholars and vice-versa) is a large part of this. SAA is kind of like Twitter: it's not that there's no hierarchy (or no jackassery), but it creates a space for conversations and friendships that set age, rank, and status aside.

For that reason, I was disappointed that the official conference made some missteps; not only did the programming skew toward older participants, but there were a number of unprofessional, self-indulgent, and/or ungenerous statements made by senior people speaking publicly at various podiums (I witnessed two and heard about two others). That still amounts to only a small proportion of the conference, but it's not a good tone to set. One person is an anomaly. Multiple people getting prime airtime feels like an endorsement.

But if the tone of the conference struck me as less welcoming to The Yoots than it might have been, I myself spent more time with grad students or recent PhDs than I have since I was one myself. This wasn't, like, a project on my part; there just happened to be a critical mass of interesting younger people around--some of whom I'd met at previous conferences or on social media while others were the friends, acquaintances, or grad students of my friends. And they were at the bar and I was at the bar and whether any of us now remembers our conversations clearly, it was still a good time.

Hanging out with fun people is its own reward, but for anyone concerned about the larger profession, talking to grad students and recent PhDs should also feel essential. Our juniors aren't just our future, but our present: the kind of work they're doing is a good index of what the discipline values (and this is true whether they're writing "safe" dissertations or balls-to-the-wall dissertations), and the forms of professionalization and pedagogical training they receive are also worth our knowing and understanding if we hope to hire them. The knowledge-transfer needs to work both ways.

I genuinely believe that most mid-career types want to know, or at least are open to knowing, their juniors. Some don't make much of an effort and others don't know how (whenever I feel slighted, I ask myself: is it possible this person is just deeply socially inept? usually the answer is yes), which is why conferences that foster conversations across rank are so important. But of course, there are scholars, at all career stages, who think the only people worth meeting are those senior to them. And those people suck.

The thing is, the profession is hard on everyone these days. Anyone hired in the past couple of decades either has his own scars or has seen up close and personal those of some dear friends. If you've gone through a hazing process yourself, I don't see how it's possible not to relate to those behind you--and to want to make it easier on them where you can. But as the culture of hazing teaches us, there are those who, once they've made it, buy into its logic, cling to whatever limited status they've achieved, and demand even more obeisance from their juniors than was demanded of them.

Luckily, at the SAA there's an easy way to exorcize such people from one's conference experience: just go to the dance. Those obsessed with status are generally not to be found playing air guitar.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Partner hiring, qu'est-ce que c'est?

Ever since this post, I've been planning on outlining what commenter TG referred to as "the doctrine and discipline of partner hiring." But though you'd think that after the successful resolution of my own two-body problem I'd have lots to say on the subject, the reality is that there's no single thing that we mean when we talk about partner hiring.

Consider, for example, these different scenarios:

One partner, upon being offered an entry-level tenure-track job, negotiates a non-tenure track job for the other

Someone already in a TT job negotiates a non-TT job for his or her partner

One partner is already in a TT job and the department creates a TT line for his or her partner

Two partners apply and get hired for two TT jobs in the same department at the same time

Two partners get recruited and hired for two TT jobs together

One partner, upon being recruited for a senior position, is offered a second TT position for his or her partner.

One partner, already in a TT job, gets an outside offer, and makes a TT job for his or her partner a condition of staying

One partner is already in a TT job, the department runs a search for a TT position in the other partner's field, and that partner gets hired after a national search

One partner is already in a TT job, the department has an opening in the other partner's field, and hires the other partner without a national search

All of those are situations that get described as "partner hiring," but they're quite different. Generally, when I talk about partner hiring, I mean situations where each partner ends up in a tenure-line job at the same institution--both because I presume that, all other things being equal, most couples would prefer that scenario, and because it's the filling or creating of TT lines that causes the most trouble and potential conflict.

However, even with that limitation, there are still so many variables that I'm not sure it's even possible to talk about "being in favor of" or "being opposed to" partner hiring in general.

Since I'm part of an academic couple and I know many others, I've always previously said that I support partner hiring. But when I say that, I'm taking as a given that both partners are accomplished and desirable hires, and more than competitive within the pool of other applicants (or relative to other recent hires); I'm also assuming that no one is forcing anything on a hiring department--that, if there wasn't a national search, there was at least a consensus that hiring the partner was a smart pick-up. That reflects the scenarios I know best: situations where both partners are on the tenure track at peer institutions, producing work basically equivalent in quantity and quality, but for whom finding jobs at the same place remains elusive.

Those who dislike the idea of partner hires often have a very different scenario in mind, sometimes equally born of unfortunate personal experience: a less-qualified partner gets hired, without full departmental consultation, sometimes as the result of one or two people throwing their weight around, and sometimes in ways that reinforce traditional power structures (senior man gets his 25-year-old girlfriend hired; straight people get privileged over queers; chair or dean makes an executive decision).

I'd venture to say that, phrased that way, almost of us are in favor of a good opportunity hire who's committed to the institution because it's where his or her partner works and against an underqualified hire that's forced upon a department--and if those distinctions are more than matters of perception, they come down partly to institutional type and culture. A less-healthy institution is more likely to do partner hiring badly (because the culture is an imperial one, or where certain kinds of people get valued more than others), and a more healthy one is more likely to do it well or at least in ways that don't piss other faculty off.

If I could propose a few general rules, though, these would be they:

1. Any secondarily-hired partner should be competitive within the department's usual pool of applicants. It's foolish to say that he or she must be the most qualified person (since the idea that one can rank candidates in some absolute and objective way is usually a fiction), but he or she should do more than meet minima.

2. The decision to hire should be made in a way that has widespread departmental support, whatever that might mean in a given context.

3. If hiring a partner means creating a new line, it shouldn't compromise existing hiring goals (e.g., hiring another Americanist shouldn't mean foregoing the medievalist a department has been requesting for three years)

4. No preference should be given to straight couples over gay ones

5. After hiring, the partners are expected to function as independent agents, getting no preferential treatment and each doing his or her fair share of service. (The exception would be cases where two partners are hired to share one line.)

None of this, however, makes actually attaining a partner hire any easier, and it's harder the earlier one is in one's career and the less leverage one has--I know virtually no one, for example, who upon being offered an entry-level tenure-track job was able to negotiate a second TT job for his or her partner. And none of this protects a department against disaster scenarios like a messy divorce.

The real problem, for everyone, is that partner hiring is no one thing, and it's hard to make a general rule or take other people's experiences as either a model or a warning.


Readers, what would you add to my list? Or do you have any advice either for those trying to solve the two-body problem or departments considering helping them?