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.