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?