Thursday, December 31, 2015

Writing without a net

As I mentioned yesterday, my Milton chapter is getting out of control:

Based on what I have left to cover, I'd estimate this chapter will ultimately hit 30,000 words. For comparison, my entire first book was 92,000 words.

This is, frankly, never a problem I've had before. Though I know people who can sit down and produce 70 pages practically at a sitting, I usually have the opposite problem: I run short. When I'm writing to deadline, my first fear is always that I won't make length, that I won't have enough to say--and though that's never a problem in the end, I accrete text only slowly, cutting as I expand. (And I can cut like nobody's business, transforming a 50-page chapter into a 10-page conference paper in a matter of hours.)

So I'm not really sure what this means: that I'm traveling down too many scenic by-roads (which I'll eventually cut or spin off as separate articles)? That I'm going to have two really meaty and awesome chapters? Or that the project is becoming something other than what I thought it was--which is to say, an entire book on Milton?

Any of these things seems possible, but I really don't want to be writing a book on Milton right now. I've always assumed that I might write a Milton book someday, but this book's organizing principle collapses if I'm only looking at one writer. It's supposed to be Larger Historical Phenomenon, Broken Down into Some Subphenomena, in a Bunch of Writers. If it's a Milton-only book, it becomes, basically, One Subphenomenon in One Writer.

Sure, the topic could be reoriented to fit a Milton-only approach. . . but right now I think the only way to do that would involve abandoning the bigger questions that most animate me, the ones that made me want to write this book in the first place.

So I'm not sure what's happening here, or what I'm doing, or whether it won't all collapse into flames in the end.

This is the "fun" part, yes?

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Writing by appointment

It's surprising how much I'm still learning about my writing process, ten years past degree and sixteen years into my regular production of academic prose.

Through all those years, I've been a dedicated writer-at-home. I go through periods where I enjoy revising in coffee shops, and I can read and take notes almost anywhere, but I've never composed anything of any length outside of my own home (or a proxy for my own home, such as a boyfriend's apartment or my parents' house). Half my dissertation was written on the bed that amounted to the primary piece of furniture in my studio apartment.

So over the summer, when a friend mentioned that she'd found tandem-writing dates really helpful--afternoons where she met a colleague at a coffee shop to write together for a few hours--and asked whether I'd ever done that, I said no. It had never occurred to me that this was a thing that people did, and I couldn't see what it might add to my writing life.

Unlike my friend, I don't have small children, and I've never experienced the downsides of working at home that some people do. Sure, I can fall prey to procrastination and avoidance, but that doesn't seem affected by location; in fact, for me, getting out the door to a library or coffee shop is often a bigger hurdle than sitting down to write at home, and more subject to deferral (because I haven't yet eaten, or the place is closing soon, or it gets too crowded around this time, or hosts an open-mic night, or whatever).

And as the semester started, I was indeed writing very well at home--carving out a few afternoons a week and making steady progress. But it turned out that two of my local friends were doing the tandem-writing thing; both on leave and both trying to finish up their first books, they'd gotten into the habit of meeting once a week for five or six hours.

They invited me to join them, and I did, mostly to be sociable. We'd meet in the airy, calm library at the art museum, write for an hour or two, have lunch in the museum cafe, and then write for another two or three hours. It was a nice routine, and I was getting good work done--not always the solid five hours I'd intended, but usually at least three. I didn't consider the work I did there superior to the work I was doing at home, but I enjoyed both the location and the company.

But as the semester wore on, that thing happened that always happens, where suddenly I was no longer able to find time to write at home. Around the middle of October the grading started to pile up, as did the letters of recommendation--and then I had a conference or two to attend, not to mention committee work and life outside of work.

Still, most Wednesdays I managed to meet my friends to write at the museum. Sometimes it felt frivolous or irresponsible to block out a whole day for writing smack in the middle of a week of student conferences and essays and books I'd never taught before--but it was an appointment, so I kept it, and I kept writing.

Three to five hours of writing per week isn't an impressive amount, but I have to admit it's probably more than I've ever managed in the second half of a teaching semester. And doing any writing meant my head remained in the project. So when the fog of the semester finally lifted last week--grades submitted, Christmas cards out, house cleaned--it was easy to jump right back into the chapter. I hope to use winter break to get it in good enough shape that I can start drafting a new chapter in January.

Which I'll do, of course, with the aid of a weekly writing date.

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Book reviews: what I know now

I just submitted the first book review I've written in years, and certainly the first since my own book and those of my friends started accumulating reviews.

It's a different experience. First, I'm more aware that writing reviews both is and is not something I have to do. On the one hand, it adds nothing of value to my C.V., and time spent reviewing is time I could spend elsewhere. On the other hand, it's an important service, and if I accept a review it's an obligation like writing a recommendation letter or reviewing a manuscript: something I just have to hunker down and do--as much for myself as for the sake of the author and journal.

(The reason it had been so long is that one of my last reviews was a terrible experience, and entirely through my own fault: I shouldn't have accepted the assignment or agreed to the deadline I did, and it became a months-long saga of guilt and resentment. I hated every minute I spent both writing and not writing that review, and probably burned a professional bridge in the process. Part of the reason I accepted this review was to reset my attitude.)

Here's what I've learned:

1. As a reviewer, your name will be attached to this book for as long as the Internet lasts

When I reviewed books in the past, I figured the author would probably come across it, but I never thought of myself as writing for her--I was writing for new readers! But authors get copies of their reviews from their publishers, and some even (ahem) Google their books periodically to see what kind of notices they're getting. I can assure you that I know the name of every person who has reviewed my book.

That doesn't mean you can't give an honest review--if you can't do that, you should decline the assignment--but I think a lot harder now about a) what truly counts as constructive criticism for the author, and b) what a casual reader might need or want.

2. Most people don't read a standard 750-word review very carefully

This is a corollary to the above. Unless I'm the author or she's a friend of mine, I just want to know the basics of what the book is about and whether it might be worth picking up a copy.

3. Most reviews aren't things of great beauty, and that's fine

A book review in a scholarly journal is meant to be a functional thing. It summarizes, it contextualizes, it offers an opinion about what's worthwhile or original.

For me, the task of writing a review used to feel paralyzing: it seemed impossible to write interesting prose while also conveying the author's argument accurately. I was terrified that I wasn't qualified enough to write the review, or that I'd misrepresent it or get some major details wrong. Now I know that lots of reviews do get things wrong, or at least askew, while some of the most useful ones read like an awkward pastiche of the author's own words.

4. Most books don't get a lot of reviews

Scholarly books aren't like trade books. There aren't a lot of venues that review them, and many publishers send out only a handful of review copies. So if you're an expert, and you're solicited to review a book and decline, it's possible no one else will review it for that journal. That's not necessarily a reason to accept--your time is valuable--but being a member of the scholarly community does come with obligations.

5. A review is a service

You do the best job you can. You bring to bear your expertise, and you try to be fair, but the review isn't about you. If you're using a 750-word review to show off your superior knowledge, or your prose style, or your witty put-downs, you're doing it wrong.


The review I just completed was for a book on the fringes of my area of expertise, but its subject is something I'm genuinely interested in (and that turned out to be more immediately relevant to my second book than I expected). It also felt like it was time for me to get back into the reviewing game. So I approached this assignment the way I'd approach a recommendation letter: I blocked out time to read the book, well before the deadline, and then I blocked out about 48 hours to write the review. I didn't dilly-dally, I just wrote it.

I could have done some things differently, and I likely could have done some things better--but it's not worth overthinking. More importantly, the process was enjoyable enough that I'll probably do it again the next time I'm asked.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

A work too hard for the teeth of time

Ten or twelve years ago, when I was working on the third chapter of my dissertation, I found a thread, pulled it--and wound up with a heap of flax so huge I'm spinning it still.

It's not something I found on my own, however. I stumbled upon work that someone on the scholarly margins had done fifty years earlier and that had lain neglected since then. My discovery wasn't due to any great perceptiveness on my part; I just happened to come across my predecessor's work when I was searching for a way into a text that had resisted all other approaches, and I happened to have been trained in the right methods and habits of thought to see the opportunities that his work opened up.

Briefly, this is what I discovered: in 1953, Jean-Jacques Denonain, a Frenchman or maybe a pied-noir, produced a scholarly edition of Thomas Browne's Religio Medici (the title means "a doctor's religion" and the work is a long, strange, beautiful essay that might be summarized as a meditation on the relationship between faith and reason). Denonain collated all the known manuscripts and the major printed editions and presented the text in a simple genetic format that showed the work's development over seven or eight years of composition and expansion.

 Denonain's presentation of the text and its development (Part II, section 5)
Thomas Browne, Religio Medici, ed. Jean-Jacques Denonain (Cambridge: Cambridge U.P., 1953)

No one else had done this, so it would have been honorable work regardless--but Denonain's big revelation was that one of the surviving manuscripts appeared to represent an earlier and significantly different version of the text than the one that had been familiar for centuries.* But although his edition was published by Cambridge University Press and received at least one laudatory contemporary review, almost none of the subsequent scholarship on the Religio built on Denonain's work.

Several years later he published a complete transcription of just that early manuscript. However, it was in an obscure, French-language venue; after a few nice reviews, it all but disappears from the scholarly record. In the intervening years no one but Denonain seems to have looked carefully at this earlier version and no one wrote a word about it.

Denonain's transcription of the manuscript held by Pembroke College, Oxford (pub. 1958)

A decade after first presenting my work on the Religio and years after my first publications building on Denonain's work, I'm co-editing a new scholarly edition, my chief contribution to which is my deep familiarity with the peculiar early version that so fascinated Denonain. Indeed, with his (presumptive) death, it's neither vainglorious nor particularly impressive to say that I'm probably the world's leading expert on that manuscript. But though I frequently go back to work with the text in person and have high-resolution digital images of every page, I still keep returning to Denonain's editions and transcription, wondering what more he knew and saw and what he would think about what I've done.

In a sense, he's my ghostly collaborator: the only person who knows this text as well as I do, with whom I feel myself to be in conversation almost daily--but whom I'll never meet and about whom I know almost nothing.

A sense of intense connection with the dead goes with the territory when you work with old documents, but generally, when we discover the work of a previously unknown scholar, we can place him in a coherent intellectual tradition, tracing his genealogy forward and backwards and recognizing a chain of influence: we not only know which school or methodology a particular critic belonged to, but we know who trained him and whom he trained in return. With Denonain, I don't even have a birth or death date.

All I know is that he taught at the University of Algiers through the 1950s but by 1974 was teaching at the University of Toulouse - Le Mirail, which Google tells me was then a new university, one that emerged in the aftermath of '68. In addition to his editions, he published a book on Browne in French, and most of his other scholarship--a book on the metaphysical poets and a handful of articles on the likes of Marlowe and Bacon--is also in French. But he writes confident, idiomatic English and evidently had a deep familiarity with early modern English paleography and manuscript culture. It's conceivable that he was trained in the U.K., but if so, I have no idea where or by whom.

It's sometimes been hard, then, to escape the sense that I'm the only one who hears him, that he was conjured up like a genie or a ghost, to impart a message to me and me alone. I suppose there's comfort in this proof that scholarship really can last--that it can disappear like the river Arethusa only to reappear later in a different place--and that some of what we write might be, as Browne says of the Bible, "a work too hard for the teeth of time."

I realize it's condescending to assume that a Frenchman in Algeria who specialized in English Renaissance prose was necessarily an isolated figure; like me, Denonain must have had collaborators and colleagues, people whom he talked with and grooved on and who spurred him onward. But I'm still lonely for him, in both of the directions that preposition implies.

 *A second manuscript (BL Lansdowne 489) also comes from this stage of composition, but it's only a fragmentary copy.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Advice: promoting an applicant

So I find myself in the in-many-ways-enviable position of recommending a terrific student for admission to doctoral programs. This is a student whose application I feel good about in every way, including the whole what-if-there-isn't-a-job-at-the-other-end part (among other things, the student is older, with lots of work and life experience).

And it turns out that, at one of the programs to which s/he is applying, I have a valuable contact: an eminent senior scholar whom my student would be very interested in working with. I'm aware that reaching out to such people on behalf of one's students is A Thing One Does, and it's something I want to do for my student. . . but I'm feeling a bit stumped by the genre, especially given the nature of my own relationship with Eminent Senior Scholar.

If this were truly a friend, I'd probably just drop him or her a brief note saying, "Hey, I have this once-in-a-lifetime student who's applying to your program to work in your field, and I think you'll find them as impressive as I do. I'd love it if you could keep an eye out for their application."

But this scholar and I are only friendly in the been-on-some-panels-together kind of way. S/he has been extraordinarily warm and gracious to me, but we're not close. I'm also a bit of a fangirl, and s/he is the kind of person likely to review my book--or my next book, or write a letter for my promotion file--and that's making me really overthink the degree of familiarity I can assume or the tone I should take.

Obviously, I'm writing a letter for my student's application that will go into detail about all the wonderful, extraordinary things s/he has done and why the program should admit immediately if not sooner. . . but should I recapitulate some of that information? How much?

Friends, if you've either written or received emails of this sort, I'd appreciate all the advice you can give me about this genre: length, content, tone. I want to help my student put the best possible foot forward (and avoid looking like a freaky weirdo myself).

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Former things have not been forgotten*

A grad school friend died on Monday. He was 42, and the kindest and most generous person I may ever meet.

Yesterday my Facebook feed and my instant-messenger account started filling up with queries and reminiscences, and it's clear that everyone who knew Brett felt the way I did. Though he and I had remained in touch, exchanging a couple of email messages a year and grabbing a private meal whenever we wound up at the same conference, I can't claim that we were especially close; I just felt that we were, because everyone felt that way about Brett. People who hadn't seen or talked to him in a decade confessed to having spent yesterday afternoon hiding in their campus offices and crying.

Those of us who knew him have been trading a lot of stories, and the ones I've heard have made me laugh and briefly recaptured his presence. I don't think they'd do much to conjure it up for anyone else, though, and that's because presence was precisely Brett's genius, his charism: he was there, fully there, with everyone, whether it was a student, an old friend, or someone he had just met over a conference cheese plate.

This was an extraordinary thing to experience even at this age, but it was almost unfathomable when we were students. It meant that Brett stood outside the ordinary economy of grad school, with its competitions and anxieties and constant sizings-up, so grounded and comfortable in himself that he was endlessly open, endlessly welcoming. As one friend wrote about that period, Brett "was open and kind well before he had the professional standing that makes being like that easy." He knew everyone and he made everyone feel known.

And there's no substitute for, no way to hold onto that gift once it's gone. Brett would have been an active and devoted teacher into his eighties, and the kind of person who still produced a little thrill in each new student, scholar, or poet when he took an interest in them. (And he would have, all of them.)

I'd known that Brett had been diagnosed with cancer, but the last time we'd exchanged messages, in April, he seemed to have turned a corner. A couple of months ago, though, I started to hear rumors that things were not going well--and, without inquiring, I sent him a chatty catch-up message that also managed to say a version of the things I've said here.

I didn't hear back, and there's no reason I should have. I wasn't a close friend, and we never responded that quickly to each other's messages anyway. But I'm glad I sent it, and I hope he received it--or that, at any rate, he knew how thoroughly and completely he was beloved.

And if I don't have the talent or the temperament to be a Brett in other people's lives, at least I hope to do that: to show those I care about that I do, every day that I can.

*Title after Isaiah and this extraordinary poem.

Saturday, November 07, 2015

Always ask

At actually-not-so-very-long-last, the Article of Eternal Return is in print. (PDF here, courtesy of Modern Philology and the University of Chicago Press).

As I documented in excruciating detail along the way, this article had a hell of a time getting through peer review (though, yes: it became a better, stronger, and more nuanced piece as a result)--but getting it into print was surprisingly fast; faster, indeed, than I had any right to expect. That's what this post is about.

During the two solid years that I was trying to get this article accepted, it was also kinda-sorta promised to an edited collected that had grown out of an SAA seminar where I'd presented an earlier version. I'd been up front with the editors about my need to seek a higher-profile venue, and had initially declined to participate. But they were kind and laid-back, urging me to wait and see where it got accepted and what that journal's republication policies were.

This was great, until it became embarrassing: as their book proposal moved forward, and then got a contract, and deadlines started accumulating, I kept having to say, to every email, that I actually still didn't have the article placed--so I was going to withdraw! And I was so sorry! But I just couldn't leave them hanging! And time after time, they kept insisting that it wasn't a big deal and I didn't have to make a decision yet.

In the summer of 2014, things looked like they were finally coming to a head: I'd returned a new version in response to my latest R&R, but I felt grim and defeated and didn't have much hope of acceptance. At the same time, I had a contributor's contract that I hadn't signed (and a second one, which the press sent when I didn't return the first) and a looming submission deadline if I was to participate in the collection. I felt like an asshole, and a failure, and like the universe was telling me to get the fuck over myself.

And then. . . my essay was accepted!

Except. I couldn't very well respond to an acceptance email with an immediate "thanks!!! that's awesome! Also, hey: can I republish it? Like, immediately? Like maybe before it even comes out in print with you guys?" At the same time, I couldn't bring myself to email the collection's editors, either, and tell them whatever I'd have to tell them.

So I spent about a month just not dealing.

But once I'd screwed up the courage to send the necessary emails, the degree to which everyone worked to accommodate me was astonishing. Although the journal requires first publication of everything to which they hold copyright and has a nearly three-year publication backlog, they worked some magic and slated my essay for publication just 11 months later, sent me all the permissions forms, and told me what information I needed to get from the book publisher. In turn, the editors of the collection talked to their publisher on my behalf, my contributor's contract got rewritten, and an appropriate acknowledgment drafted.

Somehow, then, the essay is in print just over three years after I first sent it out, in a journal I couldn't be happier with. And it will be republished almost immediately.

I don't exactly know why everyone was so helpful and so willing to work with me and my ridiculous situation, though I hope that ultimately everyone benefited: that the editors of the collection thought the essay was good enough to wait for (and that being flexible didn't harm them one way or the other), and that the journal was also excited by the work and/or simply saw an advantage to having it immediately republished with an acknowledgment of their priority.

In any case, my takeaway is that you should always ask. You're not being a diva or a special snowflake if you frame your request politely, acknowledge how big a favor you're asking, and are prepared to hear "no." There may be more generosity and helpfulness out there than you expect.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

ProQuest: Not "empowering researchers," not for one minute*

Why, it seems like just yesterday that I was praising the Renaissance Society of America for providing access to the most important database for scholars of Early Modern England.

And in fact, it was almost yesterday--just under two years ago.

Today I learned that, despite the RSA's pioneering leadership and concern for the needs of scholars at under-resourced institutions (or those working without any institutional affiliation at all), ProQuest has decided to terminate the relationship with the RSA because it's concerned that it might--potentially, down the line--lose revenue as a result.

Here's the full text of the letter from the RSA's Executive Committee to its membership:

Dear RSA members,

The RSA Executive Committee regrets to announce that ProQuest has canceled our subscription to the Early English Books Online database (EEBO). The basis for the cancellation is that our members make such heavy use of the subscription, this is reducing ProQuest's potential revenue from library-based subscriptions. We are the only scholarly society that has a subscription to EEBO, and ProQuest is not willing to add more society-based subscriptions or to continue the RSA subscription. We hoped that our special arrangement, which lasted two years, would open the door to making more such arrangements possible, to serve the needs of students and scholars. But ProQuest has decided for the moment not to include any learned societies as subscribers. Our subscription will end a few days from now, on October 31. We realize this is very late notice, but the RSA staff have been engaged in discussions with ProQuest for some weeks, in the hope of negotiating a renewal. If they change their mind, we will be the first to re-subscribe.

Sincerely yours,

The RSA Executive Committee
Carla Zecher, Joseph Connors, James Grubb, Edward Muir, Pamela Smith

As the outrage on Twitter makes clear, this is an absurd concern. Most of us would love to have institutional subscriptions to EEBO, so that our students (undergraduate, M.A., and Ph.D.) could do their own research. The RSA's group subscription is no threat to that possibility; what is a threat is ProQuest's prohibitive subscription fees. Nowhere I've worked, apart from my doctoral institution, has had a subscription--and we've tried to get an institutional subscription in the past; several departments and the library were in full support, but it just wasn't financially feasible.

Until the RSA made EEBO access a perk of membership, I just used the login of a friend at a richer institution. And that's what I'll be doing, again, as will thousands of others. ProQuest will lose its revenue from the RSA and gain no additional institutional subscriptions.

If you want to tell ProQuest how you feel about this craven, mercenary move--well, I can't stop you. Twitter handle: @ProQuest

*Thus saith ProQuest's Twitter bio

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Differently smart

In high school, I was pretty sure there was only one kind of smart.

I mean, yes: I knew that people might be smart in different areas--a whiz at math wasn't always a great writer--but I still saw intelligence as a thing that one either had or did not have, or that one had to a greater or a lesser degree. In other words, I didn't have much of a "growth mindset." At most I had an "if I work really hard, I probably won't fail" mindset.

Even in college I tended to see my peers as belonging to one of basically three categories:
  1. REALLY smart (and therefore terrifying)
  2. normal
  3. pretentious poseur who's probably faking it.
In my first two years of grad school I further reduced the categories: everyone was either terrifying or a poseur.

Gradually, though, I started to realize that not everyone who was intimidatingly learned or articulate in seminar was equally good at other things. At first I could only flip the binary around (so-and-so must not really be smart at all!), but eventually I was able to accommodate the idea that people simply have different strengths. Some of my peers were miles ahead of me in certain areas, but that didn't mean I was doomed. On the other hand, the one or two things I turned out to be good at--even unusually good at--were hardly some secret key to success.

Maybe this is obvious to normal people. But the idea that being good at one thing doesn't make a person smart in some absolute and holistic way is still something I struggle with. I admire, excessively, those who have talents I don't--especially if they're ones I wish I had and feel self-conscious for not having--and then am sometimes confused and disappointed when they turn out not to be as good at things I consider easy and basic.

And when it comes to rarer and more extraordinary gifts, I'm often very slow to recognize them. It's easy to identify the good writer, the spell-binding speaker, and the person who seems to have read three hundred years' of scholarship in five languages; it's harder to identify those with a special knack for helping other people grow and make intellectual connections: the person able to completely restructure and revitalize a major, identify and nurture pathbreaking new work as a journal editor, or who can, in five minutes' conversation, transform your understanding of your own project for ever.

But though I resist it, I suppose it's comforting, too: if most people aren't good at everything, that means there are more cookies to go around.

And if there's one thing I believe in, it's more cookies.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

My friend, the author

Lately I've been having the same experience over and over--the surprising disorientation of reading terrific work by people whom I previously knew only socially. And each time I'm surprised to be surprised: these are friends! People I know are smart! People with whom I've discussed projects and presses and publication strategies. And yet the experience of reading their work is both strangely estranging and a bit like falling in love.

It is, I imagine, similar to the experience a child has upon realizing that her mom or dad isn't just her mom or dad, but is also a trial lawyer or VP for marketing, and thus has another life totally unlike the one the child sees and knows.

Maybe this response is unique to me--the result of not having had friends in grad school with whom I exchanged work, or of being in a niche sub-field. But I suspect it isn't, or isn't totally: our academic friends, the people we hang out with at the conference hotel bar or have over for dinner, are friends. We like them because we like them. Knowing what a person's vita looks like and complaining about work and swapping professional advice isn't the same thing as reading her prose. Even hearing a person deliver a conference paper isn't the same as reading the eventual article: the ideas may be the same, but even the strongest conference paper doesn't fully convey the writer's voice or the way her mind expresses itself in the silence of the printed page.

It would be going too far to say that reading a friend's work is like encountering a totally different person, but it's a bit like encountering your awesome friend's awesome sister: there's clearly a continuity between them, and as time goes on it will become impossible to think of the one without the other--but at first blush all you can see are the differences: this one has pink hair and used to be a professional archer; that one works for the State Department and collects netsuke.

(The opposite experience--finally meeting the real, live person who wrote a book or essay you admire--can also be disorienting, but it's somehow more expected. We know, at least intellectually, that an author is something other than the human being who walks around bearing that name, just as we know that the person we see on the screen would not be the person we'd meet in the street.)

As for discovering that someone I thought was awesome in person is actually a crappy or pedestrian writer. . . frankly, I've never had that experience. There are certainly people in the world who are smart and hilarious in person but who write abysmally flat prose--a phenomenon I truly didn't understand when I first encountered it in high school--but literary studies probably selects for those who are better than average at matching writing voice to personality; I know I select for it among my friends.

But if this is a surprise, it's unquestionably a pleasurable one. So friends-whose-work-I've-just-read: it's not that I didn't expect your work to be smart! I just didn't expect it to be smart like this.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Who gets hired when: the Chronicle is ON IT!*

Earlier this week the Chronicle published the first analysis of data from the 2013-2014 job market and made its JobTracker tool fully accessible and searchable (well, mostly: it's in beta, and I've run into a number of bugs and error messages). The data the authors have crunched so far are in the service of answering the question of whether waiting pays off, or, to put it more negatively, for how long one remains marketable post-PhD.

Since I'm in English literature, those figures interested me the most--and they suggest that hiring now is much the same as it was when I was first on the market ten years ago: just under 50% of the jobs went to those who were either ABD (usually, about to defend) or within one year of their degree conferral; almost 80% of the jobs went to those who were no more than three years post-degree.

A lot of caveats apply to the data the Chronicle team has assembled, some of which they acknowledge--the JobTracker, so far, contains only one year's worth of data, so it's hardly predicative--and some of which they don't: although only 2% of the positions listed in English literature in 2013 went to candidates whose degrees were eight years old, it's impossible to know how many candidates with eight-year-old PhDs were still in the applicant pool; a lot have surely left academia, so perhaps, percentage-wise, the remainder are doing quite well.

Moreover, in my discipline, they have data for only 73% of the job listings--which is a lot, but it's hard to say whether the other 27% might change the picture significantly. For instance, the position I'm currently holding is one of the "unknowns," presumably because I negotiated a year's delay and wasn't at this job when the data were collected. As it happens, since my degree was conferred in December 2005, I would have been another person in the "eight years post-degree" column. . . but as someone who got her first tenure-track job within a year of degree, I'm hardly proof of the proposition that waiting pays off.

And that's the other thing that the data don't reveal (although anyone interested could drill down and collect the information for herself): how many of the people three or four or five years post-degree who got jobs as assistant professors in 2013-14 are actually on their first tenure-track job and how many are on their second. The conventional wisdom is that it's easiest to switch TT jobs when you're between two and four years in, and at my previous job that did seem to be the sweet spot. Of the dozen or so TT hires we made in my time there, most were within three years of their PhD (though I believe we hired none who were ABD and none who hadn't had at least a year as a full-time lecturer or VAP), and several were lateral hires, with two years on the TT elsewhere.

There are other ways to crunch the data than age-of-degree: with a little hunting, you can see how many of the successful candidates in 2013-14 came from which schools (click on the school itself, and you'll see not just whom they hired, but which of their graduates got which jobs). Again, for a single year, this isn't proof of much, and you still have to disaggregate those just finding a first job from those on their second (or third); you also have no way of knowing how many of their students were on the market that year: a department might have, in absolute terms, a large number of successful candidates for 2013-14, while not having a particularly strong placement record overall.

Still, though the data are incomplete and imperfect, this is a terrific resource. I await next year's data, and the year after that, and I look forward to the day when we can claim to have a clearer picture of the trends.

*I mean that sincerely, though often I don't. (For reference, see here.)

Saturday, October 03, 2015

As order longs for chaos

We're a bit obsessed, in my household, with Dahlia Lithwick's "Muppet Theory": her tongue-in-cheek (but totally convincing!) assertion that the world can be divided into two kinds of people: Chaos Muppets and Order Muppets. Here's Lithwick's initial distinction:

Chaos Muppets are out-of-control, emotional, volatile. They tend toward the blue and fuzzy. They make their way through life in a swirling maelstrom of food crumbs, small flaming objects, and the letter C. Cookie Monster, Ernie, Grover, Gonzo, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and--paradigmatically--Animal, are all Chaos Muppets. Zelda Fitzgerald was a Chaos Muppet. So, I must tell you, is Justice Stephen Breyer.

Order Muppets--and I'm thinking about Bert, Scooter, Sam the Eagle, Kermit the Frog, and the blue guy who is perennially harrassed by Grover at restaurants...--tend to be neurotic, highly regimented, averse to surprises and may sport monstrously large eyebrows. They sometimes resent the responsibility of the world weighing on their felt shoulders, but they secretly revel in the knowledge that they keep the show running. Your first grade teacher was probably an Order Muppet. So is Chief Justice John Roberts. It's not that any one type of Muppet is inherently better than the other. . . . It's simply the case that the key to a happy marriage, a well-functioning family, and a productive place of work lies in carefully calibrating the ratio of Chaos Muppets to Order Muppets within any closed system.

(But really, if you haven't read the whole essay, you should do it now.)

There's no doubt that I'm an Order Muppet and Cosimo is a Chaos Muppet, but upon first reading Lithwick's article I did feel a bit of a pang when I realized that Miss Piggy--whom I adored so much as a child that I dressed up as her for two Halloweens in a row--was a Chaos Muppet and thus Not My Type At All. But since part of Lithwick's theory is that Order Muppets tend to pair off with Chaos Muppets, I rationalized my enthusiasm as just an early sign of my life-long attraction to Chaos Muppets.

Recently, though, we bought a few DVDs of the original Muppet Show. After watching some episodes and finding my love for Piggy undiminished, I came up with a new theory: just as Tolstoy, according to Isaiah Berlin, was a fox who wanted to be a hedgehog, so am I a Kermit who longs to be a Piggy.

So glad I could clear that up.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Joining the conversation

Recently, after drafting most of my Milton chapter, I decided it was time to sit down and read some criticism.

It's not that I'd done no prior research; I'd made certain that no one else was arguing the kinds of things I was planning on arguing, and I'd spent a couple of months doing what you might call background research. But I hadn't bothered to read much contemporary criticism, because--why would I? I knew the texts, I had a general sense of how they'd been read and discussed over the years, and no one was doing what I was doing, anyway.

But after writing 9,000 loose and drafty words, I'd run out of gas and was at a loss for how to frame my argument in a way that was more interesting and consequential than "betcha never thought John Milton was doing THIS, now didja!"

So I took a week to read all the articles and book chapters I'd ordered through ILL--and then order a dozen more--and though it's true that none of them were interested in what I was interested in, seeing the passages and problems that preoccupied others let me reformulate my ideas so my observations were addressing the same concerns. Reading the scholarship allowed me to enter the conversation, as we say, rather than just sitting in a corner and shouting, "hey! I found a thing!"

My impression is that most people read the scholarship first, but that. . . doesn't really work for me. In grad school I had a hard time seeing past prior criticism--I'd fall in love with one particular reading and be unable to recognize what avenues might still be open or what I could add--and although I don't usually have that problem today, when I'm in the very early stages of a project I'm still prone to either falling in love with a given approach or dismissing it out of hand ("Why am I reading this? it has NOTHING to do with ANYTHING!").

Basically, I don't think I'm a very careful or receptive reader when I'm protecting the fragile little seedling of my own idea. It's only after it's grown a bit and I'm sure there's something there that I can take on board and appreciate the work that other people have done--including seeing the ways that approaches and interests that seem very different from my own are actually things I can build on.


So this is all well and good, and a useful thing to know or to keep rediscovering about my own process. But it makes teaching scholarly writing hard, especially at the senior-capstone and M.A. level. Though I give my students a lot of literary criticism and I think I've gotten good at teaching them how to parse it and recognize its representative moves, I don't know how to teach them to have ideas independent of that criticism. I encourage them to find the limitations of even the best pieces and the areas available for future study, but it's only the rare students that can do this in a nuanced way, and even they often feel the burden of trying to say something original when they know how little they know and how belated and junior they are.

I wish it were responsible to say (and that the semester gave me enough time to say), "just write down your crazy ideas! make an argument! read the criticism later!" But they don't have that luxury, and I don't know how to teach them to do what I couldn't do, at their stage, either.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Being "independent"

In the course of meeting with my students this semester, I'm also learning a lot about their lives outside of the classroom. This isn't because I ask--I chat about their classes, their academic interests, their career ambitions--but it tends to come up: a student's job, a student's second job, how their finances affected their choice of college.

And I'm reminded of one of the students from my Italian class two years ago; we were often partnered, and became friendsly. She was twenty years old and working thirty hours a week while also a full-time student. She had a scholarship that covered about half of her tuition, but she paid everything else herself, from registration fees to textbooks to car insurance.

She lived at home, though, and only contributed toward groceries and utilities. She kept talking about how embarrassing this was, and how she had to move out and start being more independent.

"I don't know," I said, thinking about all the twenty-year-olds who go to private colleges and live on campus while their parents pay tuition, room and board (and sometimes other expenses, long past college). "You sound pretty independent to me!"

She shook her head. "Until last month I was still on their cell-phone plan. At twenty years old! GOD."

I don't know what her relationship with her parents was like, and she may indeed have needed more psychological separation than she had. But it strikes me that while the economic and educational elite may talk about raising independent children, they don't mean it quite so literally.

Friday, September 11, 2015

More like mid-career MAGNIFICENCE

A friend who's also a savvy and pro-active department chair recently set up a fund to encourage associate professors to keep building their careers beyond whatever competencies helped them get tenure. Monies wouldn't be awarded just to go to a conference or deliver a paper; the idea was to encourage faculty to think about what else they might like to do: invite speakers to campus, organize a symposium, participate in a summer seminar or master class.

When I heard about this, I thought, now that's a guy who knows what it is to be an associate professor.

Moving jobs means I haven't yet succumbed to mid-career malaise. Since everything is new--all the applications, all the processes, all the funding sources--I've also been more attuned to new opportunities; right now my brain is whirring with professional-development ideas. Still, I can see and even feel how easy it is to get into a groove that becomes a rut, doing what's worked before, and no longer bothering to try new things, especially if they've been discouraged or denied in the past. So when my friend mentioned that applications to this new fund had been underwhelming, I kinda got it.

But for those of us who aren't in a rut and don't want to be, I'm interested in thinking through what it means to be at mid-career, and how we can conceive of this as a distinct stage with new goals and opportunities. Because the reality for most of us is that there aren't that many truly new things to do. To get tenure, most people have been publishing, going to conferences, applying for grants and fellowships, and doing some amount of professional service. Maybe you haven't yet published in that journal, so it remains a goal, or you got a small fellowship and now are hoping for a big one. But the game remains the same.

For me, then, the easiest way to conceive of mid-career as a distinct stage is by connecting it to Erik Erikson's stages of psychosocial development (which Cosimo is obsessed with). After stages that are mostly about finding oneself and developing a sense of mastery and security comes the midlife stage, which, according to Erikson, should be marked by "generativity" rather than "stagnation." By "generativity" he doesn't mean an individual's personal productivity, but her contribution to her profession and society at large.

I like that. And in thinking about what the next level entails and what I want to achieve on my way to full professor, I'm trying to look outward more than inward, focusing on making connections and expanding my range rather than obsessing over my C.V. and what might be missing or look good there. If before I was pleased to get a request to review a book because hey! free book! line on the vita! And someone knows I exist!, I'm trying now to think about where I can be a useful reviewer, and hopefully a generous one. Being at mid-career means having obligations to others, but feeling good about them: I want to give professional acquaintances feedback on their book proposals, to write tenure and job-market letters, and put in a good word for them with someone more senior.

Now, I still feel a certain amount of keeping-up-with-the-Joneses, and I'd be lying if I said I didn't have things I was still eager to get on my C.V. or wasn't haunted by a sense that if Book Two isn't done by X date I'll have fallen behind. But being at midcareer means I know that none of those things is urgent; that for now my career is what it is; and that nothing much rides on whether I do A a year earlier or later--or change my mind and do B.

Still, if I had access to those mid-career faculty funds, I have about six things I'd spend that money on toot-sweet.

Saturday, September 05, 2015

Meet the new teacher, same as the old teacher

The second week of classes just ended, and so far the transition, at least in terms of teaching, has been ridiculously easy.

Partly this is because both my classes are ones I've taught before: British Literature I and a 300-level elective, Sex & Gender in the Renaissance. Neither course is quite the same as the versions I've taught elsewhere--each fulfills different curricular and general-education functions--but they're close enough.

More important is that, unlike the previous times I was new faculty, I now have a decade's worth of full-time teaching experience. I've dealt with front-row blurters; students who never bring their books to class; brilliant kids who want to hold forth on tangential issues. Those things don't phase me. I also know how much lead time to give before due-dates, why I might want to use an online gradebook, which policies need spelling out, and what isn't worth class time.

(I'm sure there are still student populations that could surprise me or that would require new skills; I'm used to a mix of abilities but a lot of eagerness and raw potential--students ready to be excited by Chaucer if I'm excited and show them some ways in. I'm not used to sullenness or complacency or entitlement, or students who are there just for the social aspects of college. Nor do I have experience teaching a room full of uniformly elite students. A different baseline in student preparation or attitude would require an adjustment in my teaching persona and the kind of scaffolding that gets us from A to B.)

And. . . did you notice the part where I said "both my classes"? This is the first time I've taught just two--and I'm doing it again next semester, and the next! (The teaching load is 2-3, but I got a course release for my first year.) I found 3-3 perfectly manageable, especially with so many repeat preps, but two is delightful--and really helpful when I'm still spending hours a week on the phone and internet, changing my insurance, health plan, and various registrations; finding new doctors and hairdressers and gyms and tailors.

It also means that having an Honors section of Brit Lit I (six students doing additional readings, writing longer papers, and holding additional meetings) and a grad section of sex & gender (ditto, basically) feels fun rather than burdensome. And that I have time to do other things that make me a better teacher, like require that every student come to my office hours in the first month of class.

The transition to a much bigger school (but a smaller tenure-line faculty, proportionately) is something I'm still getting my head around, and whose differences I'm not sure I fully recognize. More on that, I'm sure, in due time.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Bit by bit

In many ways this summer has felt like a wash. Though I started out strong, with a 5,000-word paper I could pour directly into a new chapter, until a few weeks ago those were the only words I'd contributed toward the book; selling the house and moving sucked up everything in its path.

I didn't do nothing, though. As those who follow me on social media know all too well, this summer I re-read The Faerie Queene--a/k/a the longest poem in the English language--for the first time since grad school. So's not to get overwhelmed, I set myself the pace of a canto a day, or an average of 500 lines (and maybe 30 minutes of leisurely reading). With a catch-up day or two per week, I figured the whole thing would take three months.

And it did.

Now, my original plan had been to read the poem while writing my Milton chapter, but that didn't happen. Some weeks the three to five hours I spent reading Spenser were the sum total of my scholarly activity.

As it turns out, though, that was enough to keep my head in my book project, and when I found myself with a little extra time I consolidated my notes, ran EEBO searches, read around in medieval romance and the writings of the early church, and chatted on Twitter with actual Spenserians.

Periodically, I started to freak out about how little writing I was doing--but there wasn't really TIME to freak out; another stupid thing would come up that we had to track down our realtor or lawyer to resolve, or we'd run out of boxes and packing tape.

By the time we got settled in our apartment, there were only two weeks of summer left (and an office still to set up, syllabi to write, and endless orientation activities to undergo). But thinking about Spenser had led to some ideas about Milton, and I was itching to start drafting. One night I decided I could probably squeeze out 500 words before bedtime.

I did. And then I wrote another 500 the next day, and 500 the next. And then, okay: a few days of bullshit intervened--but 500 words is so small and low-stakes that it was easy to fall back into the habit whenever I needed a break from yelling at Blackboard.

The idea of chipping away at a big project by doing just a little bit each day is hardly ground-breaking, but the philosophy of "write you book in fifteen minutes a day!" has never worked for me in the past. When I'm writing, I write steadily, but I write best when it's for a few hours a day, for a few weeks or months--after which there's a rest, and a pause.

But this summer didn't enable the sustained writing I was almost ready to do, and now that I am ready I don't have the time. So I'm going to experiment with how I can keep writing under those circumstances.

A part of me, if I'm honest, is scared of this new book project, and of the possibility that I'll stall out or let it slip away from me. You'd think that having published one book would demystify the process and make the second one feel doable, and in some ways it does--but life is more complicated now, with more obligations and less external structure, and I fear being the person who just. . . doesn't . . . finish.

So for now I'm taking comfort in what even the very low bar of a-canto-a-day let me achieve: I read some things, I thought some thoughts, and--most importantly--I was still in the game, in a minimal way, every day.

Sunday, August 23, 2015


I've oriented. I've retreated. And I've moved the contents of twenty boxes of books onto my office shelves, pounded a bunch of holes in the walls, and taped little postcards of monarchs and manuscripts to my door.

I'm ready! Mostly.

It's a weird thing, starting my third full-time teaching job on what is more or less the tenth anniversary of completing my dissertation. All three jobs have been at public universities whose student body skews first-generation, with a lot of transfer students, a lot of commuters, and a lot of students with busy and complicated lives.

I like teaching this student population, and I liked it almost from the moment I started that first job--though I had no prior experience with it and there's no reason anyone looking at my job-market materials would have thought I'd be any good at it (and plenty of reasons to assume I'd be bad at it). I had three degrees from the same Ivy. I'd written a dissertation on minor, esoteric material. I didn't have much teaching experience. I couldn't even claim to be a first-gen kid myself.

I guess what I'm saying is: it's impossible to guess what a job candidate will be good at if he or she hasn't done it yet.

That doesn't mean that every teacher will be good with every student population, given enough time, nor does it mean that search committees should take a candidate's abilities on faith (if I were interviewing 30-year-old Flavia for 40-year-old Flavia's job, she probably would not be at the top of my list).

But both search committees and candidates can have failures of imagination. Looking back at my two initial runs at the job market, I remember not being able to envision myself in the more elite places--but I knew those were the jobs I was supposed to want, and I was duly disappointed when I didn't get interviews with them. However, at that stage I truly had no interest in designing specialized upper-division seminars or working with doctoral students; what excited me was the idea of teaching the Brit Lit I survey to both majors and non-majors. The most gratifying part of teaching, for me, was the demystification: figuring out how to break down a high-level task down into its component skills or giving students avenues into genres (like poetry) or authors (like Milton) who previously seemed intimidating or irrelevant.

I'm sure those skills would have come in handy anywhere I wound up. But they were an especially good match for the places I did wind up--places I didn't fully know existed, and whose specific pleasures I certainly couldn't have imagined.

I don't know if our prior jobs track us for our future ones. But I'm pretty sure the way I used to get read isn't how I get read now.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Putting down roots

So that whole continuing-to-make-friends-past-thirty thing sounds great. And it is great! Except when you have to goddamn do it.

We're now basically settled in Punchline Rustbelt City. A few pictures are left to be hung, a few boxes need to be taken to Goodwill, and a few corners remain de facto refugee camps for objects we don't know what to do with--but things are shaping up. My orientation is next week and classes begin the week after that.

Which means I'm turning my attention to the problem of meeting people.

Oh, it's not as bad as it might be, or as bad as it's been in the past: I have a partner, so I don't have to do my exploring alone; I already know, and am looking forward to getting to know better, most of my departmental colleagues and most of the Renaissance lit specialists who teach at nearby institutions. There are even a handful of people in town I'd call friends. But that's not a very deep bench, and most of those friendships aren't close. I need people to go out drinking with. I need people to confide in. And I need people who know stuff: people who can hook me up with a hairdresser or a tailor--but also with all the things I don't yet know about or should be doing in this town.

When a friend of mine moved to Hong Kong--in her thirties, single, knowing no one--someone told her that when you're new in town, you should accept every invitation and pursue every offer you get for the first two months. Turn down nothing. Follow-up via email. Make yourself visible. There's plenty of time to be choosy later.

So I'm trying a version of that, and also trying to diversify my network beyond academics; if we're to be here for the foreseeable future, we want to try to be good burghers--members of the art museum, season ticket holders to the orchestra, and all that jazz.

So far, I have two strategies for breaking into the larger social world: my alumni organization and the church we attended during my sabbatical year. I suspect the former will prove easier than the latter: it's a good mix of transplants and returned natives, but in any case people who have a wider vision of the world and are eager both to meet new people and to introduce them to the city. The parish seems a little trickier, and also a little more. . . parochial. The vibe is warm and everyone seems to know each other, but my sense is that's because they all went to the local Catholic schools or have kids in them.

(Our elder cat shares a name with one of the Catholic boys' high schools, a basketball powerhouse, but that probably doesn't count as an "in.")

But we'll see. All organizations need volunteers and people who show up, and I can (probably) do that.

After that, though, I'm out of ideas. So if you have a patented 30-day strategy for putting down roots and meeting besties, I'm all ears.

Saturday, August 08, 2015

Life's work

Though I'm up to my neck in boxes, our move is now mostly complete--which means I'm finding a few hours here and there to do something other than strategize about what goes where. So last week over breakfast I found myself reading every word of the obituary of a man I'd never heard of, Howard W. Jones, Jr.

Jones, whom the NYT describes as "a pioneer in reproductive medicine," seems to have been best-known for his work on in-vitro fertilization, though his career involved numerous cutting-edge and/or controversial procedures. He treated Henrietta Lacks, the African American woman whose cancer cells, taken without her knowledge, facilitated a number of medical breakthroughs; he opened the first sex-change clinic in America; and he pioneered sex-reassignment surgery for infants with ambiguous genitalia.

Some of these procedures are now celebrated and some condemned, but since this isn't my area of expertise and since all I know about Jones is what I read in his obituary, assessing his contributions to medicine isn't my goal here. Instead--as someone who just turned forty, who's changing jobs, and who shares a profession with her spouse--I'm interested in the unusual shape and length of Jones's career, and how fully that career seems to have been shared with his wife, Georgeanna.

So, first off: Jones died at 104. The Times mentions that he was 71 when the first baby conceived through in-vitro fertilization was born, which doesn't sound so terribly old to make a major medical breakthrough--but it turns out that reproductive medicine was essentially a second career for Jones after he hit Johns Hopkins' mandatory retirement age of 65. (A few weeks ago I commented that academics tend to keep working past a normal retirement age. . . but I was thinking of septagenarians and octogenarians. Dr. Jones kept working for almost four decades after his original retirement.)

Secondly, his new career seems not only to have involved his spouse, but quite possibly to have been inspired by her. (The Times doesn't quite say this, but it describes Georgeanna Jones as "one of the nation's first reproductive endocrinologists," and notes how new the field of endocrinology was when she chose it as a specialty in the 1930s. I'd like to know more about this, and about Georgeanna's own career during the decades that Howard was at Hopkins.) Together they founded the Jones Institute for Reproductive Medicine at Eastern Virginia Medical School, and, in the words of the Times, their "long professional partnership. . . was so close, they shared a desk."

But this is the detail that got me, and it's where the obituary ends:

Well into his last years Dr. Jones continued to go to his office at the Jones Institute to read and write and to attend lectures, though he stopped working with patients in the early 1990s, when his wife contracted Alzheimer’s disease.

"When she stopped seeing patients, I decided to stop, too," he said. "Without her, it wasn’t fun anymore."

I love this. I don't know what Jones was like as a doctor, and I don't know how to evaluate his contributions to medicine. But he seems like someone who truly saw his work as a calling, who was eager to keep learning until the end of his life, and whose marriage was inextricable from his work.

That's not for everyone. But if there's a sign-up sheet, put my name down.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

The view from here

In case you're wondering what I've been up to:

Given the vast suckage of time, energy, and will to live that every move involves, this one has actually gone pretty smoothly. Our local real estate market is both flat and cheap, but we got a strong offer (breaking six figures!) within three weeks. And since our buyers are taking advantage of several first-time home-buyer programs, they wanted a slow, leisurely close--and so did we. As of a week ago, we were still holding dinner parties and hosting overnight guests.

But all good things must come to a screeching halt, and the last week kinda sucked. Moreover, the suck has a long tail: since we can't quite afford (and didn't want) to buy a new home immediately, our move will be a multi-stage affair. About 70% of what we're moving is going into storage for a year (that's what you see above) and the rest is going to our existing apartment, which will then need some serious purging and rearranging. Some of the inferior and temporary furnishing there will remain, but we're swapping in a few clearly superior items, like our bed and our dining room set.

And then there's my campus office, which includes my entire scholarly book collection and which will require a dedicated campus-to-campus trip without passing go--or, more to the point, without lugging everything first up and then down four flights of apartment-building stairs.

But that's okay! Once it's all done, it's done.

At least until next year.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

One is silver and the other gold

As I move out of the region where I've lived for the past nine years, an old friend is moving back in. Evey was my first friend in Cha-Cha City. We moved here at the same time, both starting tenure-track jobs, both in long-distance relationships. Her best friend from grad school was a reader of my blog, and she set us up. She thought we might like each other.

And oh, we did.

But after a few years, Evey got a job at her partner's institution. We kept in touch and managed to see each other almost once a year, but getting together was tricky: we lived a long day's drive apart, in places that neither of us had any other reason to visit. Then this spring Evey and her spouse got offered jobs at a university an hour away. Last week we had dinner with them; this week, she's having dinner with us.

This has all been a little disorienting. On the one hand, I'm sad to be moving just as she's returning. But we'll still be much closer than we've been for ages, and we'll each have reason to pass through the other's city multiple times a year. I never expected to have that kind of proximity again.

I've written before about how tough academia is on friendships: though other highly-educated professionals may move for work and may live far from family, it's rare for them to move to a place where they know literally no one--and rarer to do it past 30, and rarer still to keep doing it. Moreover, academics tend to move to communities that don't have a lot of transplants, where the natives have deep roots, and where it's hard to form friendships with people who aren't themselves transplants.

I hate that my first in-town best friend moved away, and that I'm now moving away from my second. I hate that one of my favorite colleagues left, and that I'm leaving two or three others. It took almost nine years to build the social circle I wanted here.

But maybe grumbling about all the friends I'm leaving--or who left me first--is the wrong way to think about it. Had I not moved to a random city where I knew no one, I'd never have met most of these people in the first place. And if I weren't moving to Cosimo's city and hadn't already been living there part-time, I wouldn't have the few burgeoning friendships I have there, or whatever other friendships I may later develop.

A few years ago everyone I knew was buzzing about this article on the difficulty of making new friends past a certain age. The argument is that at some point in our thirties we're all so busy, and have such well-established lives and routines, that even when we really hit it off with someone new it's hard to escalate to the kind of intimacy we might have developed in our twenties, when our lives were less structured.

The argument makes sense, and I'd be lying if I said there were no people I saw as missed friend opportunities--but that's always been true. More to the point, I'm a forty-year-old introvert who's never stopped developing close friendships, perhaps because the vagaries of the academic job market have forced me to it. And mostly I've made friends with other academics: other transplants, other people with shallow roots. When everyone lives hours from their closest friends, they're definitely still in the market for new ones.

In some ways, then, academia might be said to foster the building of new friendships well into adulthood. In addition to having very little control over where the job market sends us, we're constantly meeting interesting new people at conferences. And conferences are basically incubators for intense interpersonal connections. Like sleep-away camp or like a college dorm, conferences pluck us out of everyday life, deposit us into a closed and artificial environment, and leave us there, face to face, for 16 or more hours a day.

Every conference I come away having fallen a little in love with at least one new person--or having deepened and reaffirmed my existing love for two or three people whom I see only at conferences, but whom I inevitably wind up talking to late into the night, or over a long lunch or coffee break. And as at camp, intimacy comes fast.

So though I'm still mourning the people I'm leaving behind, I'm going to try to have a better attitude about academia and what it does to friendships.

After all: it's how I met all you lovelies, now isn't it?

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Reading in tongues

Since my Italian tutor is away this summer, I've been working my way through a collection of short stories, a few pages a day. At the same time, my research has taken a turn that means much of the scholarship I need is in French. So I've been reading an article here, skimming a book there. Eventually, I also have to read a long scholarly essay in Italian. (It's been sitting in a file drawer for two years. I like to think I'm working up to it.)

This is a pleasant turn of events. Though my research has certainly required foreign-language knowledge before now, studying the literature of seventeenth-century England means that I don't need it that often, and certainly not to the degree that an historian or a comparativist of my period might. Ninety-five percent of the time, when I call upon my French or Latin or Italian "skills," I'm just double-checking someone else's translation. That's important to be able to do--to see where a translation is imprecise or where there might be a pun or ambiguity in the original--but it's not high-level stuff.

Reading scholarship in a foreign language is more complex. On the one hand, interpretative nuance can be hard for someone of my skill level to follow. On the other hand, it's still a deeply familiar genre and the usual rules of scholarly due diligence apply: I skim to find the key ideas and the major claims, slowing down only when something seems truly interesting or immediately relevant. And as with the English-language scholarship I dredge up, at least 50% of it isn't that relevant.

This also doesn't require anything close to fluency, but it's still gratifying to feel that a whole new area of knowledge is opening up. I've always wanted to read Dante in the original, and maybe I will someday--but I can read Dante in translation. A scholarly article on some minor motif in medieval romance? No one's translating that shit.

Maybe my third or fourth book will involve a direct engagement with Continental literature, and maybe I'll eventually have a fuller appreciation of stylistic, syntactic, and poetic virtuosity in a language other than my own. But for now, having a working sense of the wider scholarly conversation feels like achievement enough.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Shall never see so much, nor live so long

Yesterday one of my professors from graduate school died. Though she didn't work in my field and we hadn't kept in touch--I think I ran into her at an MLA reception or two--she was a major part of my graduate experience.

Linda was the department chair when I began my program, and had been instrumental in implementing a number of changes for the better before I arrived; she taught the teaching practicum the year I took it; she taught a creative writing class for which I was a tutor; she was the outside-field member of my dissertation committee; she was the job-placement officer when I was first on the market. And through it all she was a singularly humane and generous presence, maternal in both her kindness and her brisk efficiency.

But it wasn't just a fluke, or a peculiarity of timing, that led to her large role in my life; she was committed to graduate education throughout her career. Facebook friends who went through the program a decade before and those who went through it a decade after all seem to have had identical experiences. And in lieu of flowers, she asked that a fund be established to support graduate student research and conference travel.

Though Linda's death was untimely, it's still a reminder that we're all aging, and that none of my mentors is as young as I persist in imagining. I suppose it's normal to only become aware of others' aging as you become aware of your own; when I was young, no one seemed to age. Grown-ups existed in some timeless bubble called "adulthood," and 35 and 55 looked much the same to me. But aging may also be more apparent in academia than in many other professions.

Academics often keep working long past a "normal" retirement age; dissertators in their twenties may work with men and women in their seventies, and there's a healthy sprinkling of septuagenarians and octogenarians at most conferences. Academia is also a profession where age is still respected; the young want to talk to their elders and get their advice and approval, and a wizened and white-haired gentleman may generate rock-star-level enthusiasm when he walks into a room.

Equally as importantly, we see many of our colleagues only at conferences and thus only once a year--or once every few years--which makes aging more apparent. I'm continually struck by how suddenly old this person or that person looks, especially the junior faculty I became attached to when first going to conferences as a grad student. They struck me then as cool older siblings: successful, but also zany, funny, and kind. Most of them are still those things, but they aren't young any more. They're fiftyish, and I'm older than many of them were then.

And the people who were then in the prime of their careers are now retiring. Or dying. Or I hear about health scares big and small. They may still be rock stars or dedicated teachers and colleagues, but I recognize them as mortal and fragile in a way that I didn't when I was twenty-eight, when the only fragility I could perceive was my own.

R.I.P., Linda. May we all give as generously to our colleagues and students as you did; and may we all take the time to remember and thank our mentors while we can.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Singing the hours

I spent two days last week on a silent retreat at a Trappist monastery. I didn't have a reason for this, particularly; I'd been mildly curious about about the place since meeting one of the monks--and now that I'm working on a portion of Book Two that involves monasticism's afterlife in Protestant England, it seemed like the right time to check it out.

It was an interesting experience on a lot of levels. I hadn't expected any direct scholarly benefits, but there were several. Not only did I find a number of books I needed at the abbey bookstore, but wandering around in silence for a couple of days and trying to keep my mind blank caused some new and unexpected ideas to surface.

But there were more oblique benefits, too. I've always believed that being in certain places or making your body do certain things can make the past more present, and walking 3/4 of a mile back and forth through the fields to the abbey or getting up in the middle of the night to attend prayers did render more real the experiences of early modern worshipers. And it's one thing to "know" what a chantry is, and another to see one in action.

Because yes: on the spur of the moment I decided to forego some of my earlier plans and commit myself to attending the full cycle of the liturgy of the hours--meaning that at 2.25, 6, and 11.15 in the morning, and at 4.30 and 6.40 in the evening, I was at the abbey. Each service we sang a portion of the book of psalms. Over the course of a week, the monks get through all 150 psalms. Then they start over again.

I could say a lot more about that experience, but for the purposes of this blog what interests me is the routinizing of the transcendent--that is, the bringing down to earth, and making a part of everyday life, an experience that might otherwise get aestheticized or mystified into something inapproachable, something too perfect and beautiful for normal people to share. That strikes me as something we wrestle with as academics, too, especially those of us who teach and write about Great Works of Literary Genius.

Because on the one hand, the psalms are terrific poetry, sung in a melancholy and evocative plainsong chant (and the idea of a group of people interrupting their workday at regular intervals to sing poems together is bound to warm the heart of any literature professor). But on the other hand, the liturgy of the hours isn't a performance or a commodity. Though lay-people were present at the services I attended, the liturgy isn't done for an audience. Perfection isn't the goal. Sometimes a monk with a terrible voice led the singing, because it was his turn. Sometimes one would get up and leave in the middle of the service. And always they were there in their everyday clothes and ugly, sensible shoes, rustling their psalters and prayerbooks, clearing their throats, sneezing.

The message that I take away is the importance of letting the sublime into the everyday; the psalms become a part of the round of work and rest until by repetition they're absorbed and almost embodied in each monk. The liturgy of the hours, despite its odd, old-fashioned formality, is the opposite of what happens in most churches for the major solemnities, when the goal seems to be great seriousness and high drama: professional musicians, fancy vestments, elaborate floral arrangements, signs that This Is a Big Deal--but a Big Deal that takes place in an aesthetic and spiritual realm alien to ordinary experience.

I'm as susceptible to aesthetics as anyone, and prone to wanting everything to be just so. But participating in the liturgy of the hours as just another sleepy, ill-dressed layperson reminded me of what happens in our classrooms or alone in our studies. Though we write and think about literature for a living, our lives are mostly not about glorious aesthetic or intellectual triumphs or transcendent moments of illumination. Our lives involve worrying over one little bit of one little poem; writing and rewriting a single paragraph; teaching the same text over and over again. Now and then we do have a true, original insight; craft a perfect sentence; teach an amazing class. But in between there's a lot of plugging away, a lot of days when the spirit is most definitely not with us.

Except that it is, then, too.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Teaching without teaching

I've been thinking about what we learn from our advisors, and how: the doctoral candidate may design the topic and do the work, but the resulting dissertation is often recognizably "the kind of thing X's students do."

In a limited way, this is just about specialization or methodology: you work with Advisor A if you want to do book history; Advisor B if you're interested in Lacan and gender; Advisor C if your project is on political theology. Grad students may come to their program knowing they want to work on a given subject with a given supervisor, or they're exposed to those topics and methods during their coursework, or they're gently or not-so-gently steered toward a particular approach by the questions their advisors ask or their suggestions for further reading.

But so much of what a scholar does or is known for can't be taught directly. If your advisor is a masterful prose stylist--or has a knack for exciting archival discoveries--or is a brilliant close-reader--or has built a new theoretical paradigm--well, how exactly does one teach that?

When I was deciding whom to work with, I was deciding between two people. I chose my advisor over the other logical choice purely because of what I perceived to be our temperamental or work-style compatibility. Otherwise, I thought the two were pretty equivalent: I'd taken classes from both; both worked on the kinds of things I was interested in; both were smart and well-regarded. I had no sense that their approaches or emphases might differ, or that that would matter.

I don't know, actually, that my dissertation would have looked much different if I'd worked with my other possibility, though I can now see clear differences between the kind of work both do and it seems obvious that I made the better choice. (But then we're back where we started: did I make the right choice because my work was always a better fit for my advisor's interests. . . or does it just seem that way because the work I produced emerged under her supervision?)

But though the overlap in our field of interest is significant, I haven't, in the past, thought much about what I might have learned from my advisor about research, writing, and thinking. Partly this is because we had a very hands-off relationship, but it's also because advisors usually don't teach us the most important things in any explicit way.

Still, I think there's one major lesson my advisor taught me. She communicated it in many ways over the years, but the first and most obvious instance happened at the lowest point in our relationship.

I had just submitted a draft of my first chapter and was meeting with my full committee to discuss it. My advisor and I had met one-on-one a few days earlier, and between that meeting and this I was pretty sure she'd written me off. She said almost nothing, letting the other two members of my committee do the heavy lifting. My draft wasn't great, but they tried to be encouraging, asking questions and making an effort to help me reframe the central text I was analyzing.

Finally, I said, "look: I know this draft isn't going anywhere. But I have this--I don't know, feeling--that this text is really doing XYZ. But that's totally unprovable, and ridiculous, and I know I can't argue it, so I'm stuck."

My other committee members gave no sign that this was any more or less interesting than anything else I'd said, but my advisor reacted as if I'd set off firecrackers in her office.

"YES!" She said. "That! Write that."

It would be wrong to describe this as a major turning point; I left the meeting feeling marginally better, but I still didn't know how I could possibly do the thing I vaguely wanted to do--and that particular chapter gave me trouble well into the revisions for my book manuscript. But in retrospect, I see my advisor as imparting two related lessons:

First, have faith in your own weird hunches, even if you don't yet have good evidence for them--and even if you can't articulate, in words, why the thing you think might be interesting actually is interesting. Not all of them will pan out, but they are, truly, your only hope for originality.

Second, don't be afraid to make a big claim. "Big" doesn't mean world-changing or paradigm-shifting, but something whose stakes are obvious and up front. We tell our students that a good argument should be contestable, and the same principle applies to scholarship: an air-tight case isn't exciting. One that says "okay. . . but what if we looked at it this way?" is.

My advisor and I are very different, and I've never expected to have anything like her career. Still, from this distance, I'm pretty sure that she's responsible for whatever argumentative and intellectual fearlessness I've acquired.

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

The companion to the introduction to the handbook

In the past six months, I've been asked to contribute to two different "companions to," or "handbooks of," or whatever the generic term is for those big compendia of not-quite-full-fledged-scholarly essays. This makes a total of three solicitations in two years.

I don't think this is because I'm particularly awesome or a recognized expert in much of anything (though it probably helps that I work on obscurer material). I think it's because suddenly these books are everywhere.

What I don't understand is why. Who buys these things? And for what purpose? And--most puzzlingly--who buys more than one on a given author or topic?

Now, I've always liked the Cambridge Companions, which I take to be the grandes dames of this particular genre. Earlier in my career I picked up one or two a year (on sale, at conferences) for authors I figured I was likely to teach but unlikely to ever research; my campus office contains volumes on figures like Chaucer, Marlowe, and Jonson. I've also taught essays from the volumes on authors I do research, as a way of introducing advanced undergrads or M.A. students to some of the relevant contexts. This spring I required my grad students to buy the Cambridge Companion to Donne, and I've sometimes done the same with the Milton volume.

I understand what those essays are, or at least what they're supposed to be: they're somewhere between undergraduate lectures and works of scholarship in their own right. They allow a nonspecialist or a beginning scholar to orient herself and get a handle on the issues that matter. Done well, such essays meet an important need.

But I don't know how the market can support very many volumes like this, and as they've proliferated I've had a harder time understanding how each series is positioning itself or whom it imagines its readers to be. The volumes with 40 short essays and lower price points are presumably intended for course adoption; the huge $200 hardbacks with vastly longer essays are instead intended for. . . library purchases? Or for scholars who for some reason would rather read those essays than browse the MLA database?

The three solicitations I've received have varied in targeted length (from a low of 3,000 words to a high of 9,000), but the editors have all stressed that they want "original scholarship" rather than just digests or summaries of the state of the field. The best essays I've read in this genre truly do that. (Though for teaching/course prep, I also appreciate essays where a leading light in the field distills, in an accessible way, the kinds of arguments she's made over the course of her career.)

But the more these kinds of books proliferate, the tougher that becomes. If you had something truly new to say about some relatively broad or standard topic (like, I don't know, the Jonsonian masque, or Milton's early sonnets, or Donne's attitude toward death) . . . would you be publishing it in this particular venue?

Moreover, the more there are, the harder it will be to get originality--or the handful of big names an editor presumably wants to lend luster to the project. I'm also not sure how valuable such a line is on one's vita, or how valuable it will remain: the "companion" essay may eventually become the encyclopedia entry of years past.

For the record, I accepted two of the offers and declined the third. They differ in topic and format, but both build on the kinds of things I've published elsewhere while involving enough new work for me to feel genuinely interested in the task. And yeah, okay: I was flattered to be asked.

But two feels about right. I probably won't be accepting another any time soon.

Friday, May 29, 2015


So that talk I gave last week had me spazzing out the way very few talks have ever made me spazz out. For at least ten days prior I did nothing but work on that paper: sleeping poorly, oppressed with an always-incipient but never-quite-present migraine (the symptoms of which vanished the second my talk was over).

This was only partly due to the stakes of the performance itself. Yes, it was a semi-plenary before an audience of unknown size, all specialists, and I sometimes feel myself to be only a fake Miltonist. (And Miltonists--I say it with love--have a reputation as hectoring pedants.) The real problem was that this was entirely new work, work that no one had seen or heard a word of two weeks before my talk. Including myself.

And that's not the way I write conference papers. Like most people, I'll certainly use a conference as an excuse to get cracking on a new project, and it's not uncommon for my abstracts--written 6-9 months in advance--to be a tissue of fictions and suppositions. But by the time the conference itself rolls around I've usually been working on the article or chapter for a few months; I just carve my paper out of that much larger body of work. Sometimes the carving is easier and sometimes it's harder, but it's never THAT hard. By that point both my writing and my argumentation are pretty polished, and I feel secure that I have some larger grounding in the material.

But a conference paper that's exactly coextensive with my research on the subject--where I basically haven't had a thought or read a work that isn't mentioned in the paper--that was a new experience. I was deathly afraid I'd be asked to expand on ideas I literally could not expand on, or talk about texts I've never considered. (I always have a version of this fear, but it was particularly acute this time.)

But it went fine. It went better than fine. In fact, some of the reasons it went well may have been directly related to how quickly I wrote the paper and how rough some of its edges were: it was talky and (I think) entertaining, with a strong argument but also a lot of open-ended and speculative bits; this facilitated what was, hands-down, the most genuinely useful Q&A I've ever participated in. Partly this was due to my presenting before true specialists, but being at an early stage also meant I was fully open to suggestions and interested in considering my topic from fresh angles.

Now the advantages of presenting early work are probably obvious to every single one of my readers; I'm on the rigid end of the spectrum when it comes to sharing material I haven't perfected or generating ideas on the fly. But for me it was a bit of a revelation.

But here's the really good news: for the first time ever, I'm starting the summer with a working draft of my new chapter.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Ten years

As of today, I've been blogging for ten years, nine of them in this space. I've now been blogging for longer than I've done anything in my adult life: I started blogging before I finished my dissertation, before I started teaching full-time, before I moved to this city, before I met my spouse.

(I mean, okay: I guess I've done a few things for longer, like being a legal drinker and a contact-lens-wearer and a short-hair-sporter, but not much of substance.)

Every time this anniversary rolls around, I wonder whether I have it in me to keep going--whether I have enough to say, enough time, enough that could possibly interest whoever still reads blogs these days; the retirements of Tenured Radical and Dr. Crazy have only made that question more urgent. But though I'm not sure I've totally settled into a post-tenure blogging identity, every time I have a two-week dry spell and am convinced I've sputtered out at last, I think of three things I want to write about. So I keep going.

As many of you know, my current book project is about nostalgia. A friend to whom I recently described the project asked how I felt about nostalgia, personally--whether I was pro- or anti-, more for nostalgia or more for progress--and though it's a reasonable question, it caught me up short. Anyone who's been reading me for more than a month knows I'm obsessively interested in how we negotiate our relationship with the past; I'd freely describe myself as susceptible to nostalgia (probably unusually susceptible). But I'm also generally optimistic and forward-looking, unafraid of change, and I dislike what I perceive as sentimental or naive nostalgia at least as much as I dislike sentimental and naive futurism and the cult of innovation.

I suppose I see nostalgia as the byproduct of progress: for me it's not about wanting to roll back the clock or thinking things were better in the past, but about acknowledging the sense of loss that accompanies even positive change. Nostalgia is the cost of moving on, of growing up, of living inside of time.

All of which is to say: for as long as I keep blogging and as many new subjects as I take on, I'll probably still be looking backwards. No doubt I'll be talking about grad school and my experiences as a junior scholar when I'm sixty, as I try to find the continuities and figure out what holds a professional life together.

You've been warned.