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.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Interruption in blog service

Appearances to the contrary, I haven't fallen off the face of the earth; it's just that the end of the semester coincided with our putting our house on the market and my needing to generate 5,000 moderately compelling and entertaining words.

But I've got at least three posts queued up, so after some Toronto and some Milton and some Stratford and some Shakespeare, I'll be back.

Friday, May 08, 2015

The sincerest form of you-know-what

This semester I had a new experience: an M.A. student whose proposed project made me say, "Damn! I want to write that!"

I've had students write good papers before, of course; one or two I've even thought might be publishable. But this is the first time I've read a prospectus and thought, yeah! I've been noticing that, too! and this is totally the kind of work I might do and seriously: this has never been written about? because this needs to be written about.

As new as this experience is for me, it must be relatively common for others, especially those who work with doctoral students. Teaching always means seeding the ground a bit, training students to do the kind of work--focus on the issues, ask the questions, pursue the methodologies--that we find interesting. Combine that with very smart students and students engaged in long-term projects, and it makes sense that the intellectual current would flow both ways. Still, the ethical issues can get murky.

In my case, it's no big deal: my student's topic is a cool one, and something I might be interested in keeping on a back burner, but it's not meaningfully related to anything I'm doing right now and my front burners are full up. If my student delivers on the promise of the prospectus, then cool: I'll recommend transforming it into a thesis and/or a journal submission. If not (or if the student eventually writes a thesis on some other subject), then the ground is clear for me to work on this topic someday.

Other cases are more complicated. I have friends who've felt an uncomfortable frisson of recognition when reading the latest book of a former mentor. None of my friends were or felt themselves to have been robbed--but when a senior scholar produces work that arguably overlaps with or grows out of the work their students or juniors were working on years ago. . . well, I'm not sure who owes what to whom, but I'm pretty sure a gracious mention in the acknowledgments is a minimum.