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.