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.

Friday, July 11, 2014

High risk, high reward?

I haven't had much to blog about while consumed with article revisions (it took weeks, but I'm finally at the point where the work is interesting again), but two items from last Sunday's Times have been rattling about in my head for days.

The first is a piece from the Sunday Review that gained some traction on social media: "The Secret of Effective Motivation." It summarizes a study of more than 11,000 cadets at West Point that sought to determine what kind of motivation is most likely to lead to success--in this case, both in school and then over the course of a career as an Army officer. Unsurprisingly, the study found that internal motivation (doing something because you care about the thing itself) is much more likely to lead to external markers of success (better grades, a better job, a promotion, a raise) than "instrumental" motivation (doing something because you desire those external signifiers).

What is surprising is that the study found that strong instrumental motives are damaging to the likelihood of success even when they're accompanied by strong internal motives. Whereas you'd think that the two in combination would be the most effective spur to achievement, apparently that isn't true. Or (to put it in my own pejorative terms), if you sully the purity of your love for something by also desiring success, you've ruined your chance at it.

Now, I understand that this is a short, general-audience summary of the research in question, and I'm sure plenty got left out or had to be generalized. I'm also sure that there are differences across fields. But I'm left with a lot of questions: is the desire to earn a living or have a secure job "instrumental"? Is hoping to get tenure or move to a job with better pay or a better quality of life? Or is it only instrumental if you're focused on issues of status or prestige--on how something will make you look?

Just about anyone who's gotten a Ph.D. has to have been strongly internally motivated; you don't spend five to ten years writing a dissertation and foregoing other opportunities if you don't care intensely about your work. But most of us, absent a stable employment situation or a supportive academic community, would not keep doing our research. I wouldn't. Is the measure of whether your motivation is "internal" whether you'd keep doing something without external rewards?

When I look at my own motives, I find it surprisingly hard to tell which are internal and which are instrumental. Take this article that I'm revising for the third or fourth time now: on the one hand, I wouldn't be trying to incorporate my latest reviewer's suggestions if I didn't genuinely think they were smart, compatible with my own goals, and likely to make an already strong article even stronger. I could just take the thing elsewhere. Indeed, I could have the thing on my C.V. this second if I were to sign the contract sitting not three feet from me to have the essay included in an edited collection. (Long story, but the editors of the collection know the score.)

On the other hand, I'd be lying if I said I was continuing to work on this fucker purely because I wanted what's best for my argument. I also want this journal, or one of its caliber, on my C.V.


The second item I've been turning over in my head also deals with ambition and motivation. It's just a few brief lines from an article on Richard Linklater's new movie, Boyhood, which he shot over the course of twelve years, following its young star as he grew up in real time. The article talks about the unusual career choices that both Linklater and Ethan Hawke (another of the movie's leads) have made, and the odd coincidence that both men had fathers who worked as risk assessors for insurance companies.

According to Hawke, his dad tried to talk him out of an acting career based on the low statistical probability of success:

"It wasn't as if he didn't think I was talented or something," Mr. Hawke said. "He's just an actuary, and the actuarial tables were not good. I remember him saying the statistical chances of being an Eastwood were just so small."

But Mr. Hawke studied the careers of actors he admired and deduced that they had taken big risks, not avoided them. "My dad and I talked about how if the goal is a lifelong profession in the performing arts, then the actuarial tables of not taking chances are actually much worse."

This, I love. It's not really any more comforting than the other article, but it's framed in a more helpful way. When you're in a risky profession--as academics are, at least in grad school and early in their careers--you have a better likelihood of success if you're doing work you really care about, and if you're doing it boldly and the way you believe it needs to be done.

I hope that's what I'm doing with this article. I hope the reason it's getting more pushback than anything I've written is that it's interesting and important work--and I hope it's worth the cost of waiting to see it in a better venue (if and when it appears in one).

But of course I don't know that to be true. I might actually be wasting my time doing something "safe" (endlessly revising this one piece rather than going on to new things) while imagining myself as boldly taking risks.

Unfortunately, the actuarial tables have nothing to say about that.

Saturday, July 05, 2014

Two demented people

Seen around Facebook: "How We End up Marrying the Wrong People." I have some quibbles with the title--the piece is as much about how relationships work as why they don't--and I find its use of the first-person plural both wearying and a little odd, especially given its lack of a byline.* Nevertheless, it speaks to a lot of things I believe about relationships.

Here's a taste:

All of us are crazy in very particular ways. We're distinctively neurotic, unbalanced and immature. . . . A good partnership is not so much one between two healthy people (there aren't many of these on the planet), it's one between two demented people who have had the skill or luck to find a non-threatening conscious accommodation between their relative insanities.

Or as one of the smartest observers of relationships I know once said, "The choice of a partner is the choice of which incompatibilities you're willing to live with for the rest of your life."**

We believe we seek happiness in love, but it's not quite as simple. What at times it seems we actually seek is familiarity.

Human beings aren't good at sorting signal from noise, or identifying which part of a person or relationship is triggering which reaction. I may respond positively to a relationship that feels comfortingly like an old one, without seeing what else is wrapped up in that feeling--or I may react negatively to someone who reminds me of someone else, even if the thing triggering that feeling is unrelated to whatever bad experience I previously had.

We imagine that marriage is a guarantor of the happiness we're enjoying with someone. It will make permanent what might otherwise be fleeting. It will help us to bottle our joy. . . . [But] getting married has no power to keep a relationship at this beautiful stage. . . .In fact, marriage will decisively move the relationship on to another, very different moment: to a suburban house, a long commute, two small children. The only ingredient in common is the partner. And that might have been the wrong ingredient to bottle.

I've got nothing to add to that one except to say that I don't see as much of this as I used to--which is to say, I know fewer catastrophically mismatched couples and fewer people who rush impulsively into long-term commitments. I don't love each and every partner of my each and every friend--occasionally I even prefer one of their exes--but most the people I know are now in relationships that work, where their partnership feels well-balanced. Often this is because the bad matches have broken up or gotten divorced, but in other cases they've gone through years of growth, with or without therapy.

Most people get smarter about relationships as they age, learn more about themselves, and learn more about other people. Or put another way: they get better at recognizing their own dementedness, and seeking out a complementary form of crazy in someone else.

*Once I clicked on the website I realized I'd dimly heard of the organization behind it, The School of Life (which I'm pretty sure is pronounced The School of Life).

**I think this is a paraphrase of something in John Gottman's outstanding, if cheesily titled, Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.