Friday, December 30, 2016

2016 turns around. Maybe.

Here's a (totally not) surprising thing: the moment one part of my writing life starts going better, all of it goes better. Quite suddenly I want to WRITE ALL THE THINGS!

Because just as I think I'm seeing my way forward with the Essay of Doom, I've also been working on my MLA paper. This is something I've never before done, not in my entire professional life: worked on two substantive but completely unrelated writing projects all but simultaneously. Today is the third day in which I've spent at least a couple of hours plugging away at both, and feeling relatively happy and engrossed by both.

And then as I was putting away the dishes, I realized that I was writing a new blog post in my head--not the one I've had backed up for about a month, but an entirely new one.

Still: priorities. Right now I need to harness this momentum for the stuff I (more or less) get paid to do. But I'm looking forward to returning to substantive blogging soon.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Merry Christmas from my psychomachia

Apologies for my absence of late, but my writing life has not been getting better.

Oh, I got an extension on that essay, and I scrapped 70% of my existing draft to refocus on the parts that seemed to have the most potential. It's the right move, but it still feels like performing surgery, on my own brain, without anesthesia. I have some theories about why this particular essay has been so hard, but difficulty writing one thing tends to affect my ability to write anything else (which does not bode well for the MLA paper that I have yet to write, but that's another story).

So I'm not dead, nor have I abandoned this blog; I just don't have the head-space for any writing other than the writing that's ruining my life.

But hey! I'm in California for Christmas, so at least there are tamales and margaritas to cheer me up. Hope it's well with you, too. I'll be back when I can.

Friday, December 09, 2016

I may never see seven a.m. again

My final 9 a.m. class met today, and you'll be sorry to hear that I missed my very last opportunity to be late.

Out of forty-three 9 a.m. classes, I was truly late only once (by six minutes, thanks to an epic traffic disaster) and overslept once (by half an hour) but still made it in time. Otherwise I think I was technically late one other time (by a minute). But I was in fear of being late ALL THE TIME. I was also grumpy all the time, though perhaps that's a native condition.

Next semester I'm teaching three classes, but I'm back to my preferred late-afternoon/evening schedule. Praise God.

[Still in despair about that essay, though I've been logging lots of writing/revising time. More when I'm less self-hating.]

Monday, November 28, 2016

Bail and row

I'm finally at the point in my essay where I could finish it in a week, if I could just find the time. This is the part of the writing process that I like the best, the only one where I'm so consumed by my work that I don't even want to click over to email and Facebook. It's not that this stage is easy, and I may still spend hours revising a single paragraph--but at this point something about the experience has shifted. You could say that I'm still bailing out the lifeboat, but no longer afraid of drowning.

The problem is that I can't bail fast enough when it's the last two weeks of the semester. Today I received 45 essays. Tomorrow I have an M.A. defense. And I'm behind in writing class observation reports for a couple of colleagues and reference letters for a couple of students applying to Ph.D. programs. I also haven't started reading the book or article manuscripts that I agreed to review and have been sitting on for weeks.

That doesn't make for an unusually burdensome last two weeks of the term; in fact, it's not impossible that I could find two hours a day to write, even in the midst of the above. But I'm at the point where I need more than two hours a day. For most of my writing process, two hours a day would be amazing; in fact, 80% of the time I probably can't write for more than three hours at a stretch. But now I'm at the place where I can, and where it feels not just possible, but necessary: the shoreline is in sight, and though the countervailing currents are strong, my adrenaline is pumping. I can bail and row simultaneously!

Or I could, if only someone weren't constantly borrowing both oar and bucket. Instead, I may get swept out to sea.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Teaching is political. Even when it's not.

It's been a week, and I'm still grappling not just with anxiety but actual grief at the outcome of the election. But if there's an upside--and it's my own special form of negative capability to exist simultaneously in optimism and despair--it's the sense of feeling responsible, in a new way, for the causes that I care about.

I've always donated to charities that protect the vulnerable. But like most people I know, this week has inspired me to give more--and to give it in the form of recurring monthly donations--to organizations ranging from the ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center to my local foodbank. And I've always taken an interest in state and local politics, but that interest has mostly taken the form of voting and occasionally-but-rarely calling or writing my elected representatives. Now I'm calling their offices about everything. Tomorrow I'm attending a community meeting with the new county prosecutor (a/k/a the guy who replaced the guy who was voted out over Tamir Rice). And you'd better believe I'll be looking to volunteer for the Democratic campaigns for governor and senator in 2018.

But my greatest contribution will probably always be at my job, because my classrooms are much more diverse than my social circle and I spend much more time with my students than I spend with my neighbors. My classes reflect "the real America," if by that we mean all classes but the top, with veterans sitting next to immigrants sitting next to kids who've barely been outside the city, much less the state.

Does the election mean I'll teach my students differently? No. But yes.

I never talk about politics in the classroom. That won't change. But I've already started to make small changes around the edges, making explicit statements in my syllabi and policy documents about nondiscrimination, valuing and welcoming diverse viewpoints, and that kind of thing. I spend a lot more time making myself available to students and being proactive when I sense something is going on that's affecting their schoolwork. (And then there are the damn stickers.)

I'm also more mindful about inclusion: if humanly possible, I include writers of color on the syllabus. If not, I include texts that at least engage with issues of race, nationality, gender, and class. That's not some multi-culti sop: it's a way to highlight a more complex view of the past than many students (heck, many Americans) are familiar with. They're surprised that Medieval and Renaissance Europeans knew about Islam, that Europeans traveled to the Middle East, that there were sub-Saharan Africans in London. They're interested to learn that homosexual acts were rarely punished in early modern England, or how class conflicts expressed themselves.

But these days I'm thinking about what more I can do, inside the classroom and out. Would a class on early modern encounters with Islam make enrollment? What can I do at the curricular or advisement level? What kind of outreach can we do into local schools and the community?

I don't know. Maybe it's just an excuse--retreating into work rather than increasing my engagement with the world--but for now it's what I've got and what I know how to do.

Saturday, November 05, 2016

Choosing the commuter school

From whatever age I first started thinking about colleges, I assumed that I would attend a residential one. That's what a real college was.

I don't know where I got this idea. My parents were first-generation college students, and though my mother did live in the dorms--she grew up in the middle of the desert, so residency was the only option--my father lived at home and commuted to the local Cal State. Almost none of my aunts and uncles had a traditional residential experience, either; when I was a child, some of them were either returning to college or still finishing up their long-deferred degrees.

Still, I imagine my parents' upward mobility had something to do with my assumptions, as did the larger milieu of my peers: I knew of people who lived at home while commuting to the U.W. (about a 30-minute drive, if traffic was good), but everyone I was friends with lived on or near campus. We all went away to college, even if "away" just meant across the bridge to Seattle.

The only person I remember explicitly touting the benefits of residential education was my beloved high school English teacher, who mentioned it in the context of the monomyth, or hero's journey. As I recall, while describing the importance of departure to the hero's growth and initiation, she mentioned that--ideally--college provided a modern equivalent, and that's why it was better to go away if one could: to get full separation from one's origins and focus exclusively on intellectual and personal growth.

I did my Ph.D. where I went to college, a place where "living off campus" was presented as undermining the very foundations of undergraduate life--even though it usually meant living a couple of blocks away, in a university-owned apartment building. But since getting my degree I've taught exclusively at public colleges and universities with plenty of commuter students; at my current job, they're the majority. And I love those students and the energy they bring: it turns out that just as I prefer living in a city, I enjoy teaching in one. Students don't show up to my classes in pyjamas; they're more likely to show up in a uniform or work clothes. They have a focus, drive, and sense of responsibility that's not quite the same as, but not really so different from, what I experienced with students at my more elite alma mater.

I like my job and I've never specifically wanted to teach at a more residential institution. Still, I guess a tiny corner of my brain has continued to assume that, on balance, a residential college experience was better for students. So over the years I've considered it good news when I learned that my employer was building more campus housing, or that a larger percentage of the student body was residential, or whatever.

Lately, though, I've been wondering. Because I see a lot of transfer students, I hear bits and pieces about why they transferred and where else they attended. And in recent years, I've had several students mention, specifically, how much they disliked living on campus at this or that big state university or small private college. Some criticize the party or sports culture, or a remote location; others describe the homogeneity of the student population, or the fact that their peers seemed lazy or bored or entitled. More than one student seemed surprised that no one seemed to work or even want a job.

And this is something that we kinda know about residential college life, but don't always acknowledge: the culture of a place can be toxic or just a bad fit, and when you're in an enclosed, self-contained space--whether it's a small liberal arts college or a big land-grant university--it can be hard to escape the local mores or to find your people. (I'm reminded of a recent book arguing that first-generation college students often have worse educational outcomes at moderately-selective schools than less-selective ones.) But I wonder whether it's not just that some residential colleges foster bad peer-group behavior or are a bad fit for particular students. To say that would still be to imply that, when done right, the residential experience is always better.

Increasingly, I'm not so sure. I'm beginning to suspect that there may be personality types that prefer a college experience that is enmeshed within a fuller, larger life. I'm struck, for example, by the number of students I have--and I mean traditionally college-aged students, without dependents--who not only work multiple jobs but are also double-majoring or carrying multiple minors and who say, cheerfully, that they prefer to be busy. If I'd only heard this once or twice, I'd have assumed that my students were just putting a good face on necessity; I've certainly seen students suffer when they have too many responsibilities or a work schedule that's out of their control. But after hearing it enough, and from students who are successful rather than struggling, I think it's worth taking them seriously.

My students have initiative in spades. Some of them are here because they wanted to get the hell out of a rural or suburban community; they moved downtown, found apartments and jobs, and got themselves enrolled--with varying degrees of parental involvement. At least two of my current students moved here alone from out of state. Even those living with their parents are often more independent than their peers at residential campuses: they have jobs, pay many of their own bills, and can navigate a major city, nevermind an exasperating institutional bureaucracy, on their own.

One can see all these things as compensatory benefits: as the upside of not being "able" not to work or not to live at home. But what if we saw them as goods in themselves? What if we saw commuter schools not as fallbacks, or as the best options under certain circumstances, but as actively attractive to a busy, energetic, can-do student population?

Most of us believe that our students are our institution's greatest asset. Maybe their choices tell us how we should value ourselves, too.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Writing as pure pleasure

One of the things that blogging provides me is reassurance that I can still craft a decent bit of prose, take pleasure in my writing, and see something through from start to finish.

I start to doubt this with my academic writing from time to time, especially when, as now, it's been a long time since I finished up a polished piece of writing: it's been two years since I last submitted a final draft of an article and longer since I sat down and wrote a new essay from start to reviewer-ready finish.

I've done plenty of writing since then, of course; in addition to bits and bobs for my edition, I've written two entirely new book chapters and some unrelated conference papers. But although all are coherent and satisfactory for what they are, they still reflect preliminary work. I can't say I'm proud of them. Their ideas are bolted together in ways that are basically functional and maybe technically up to code--but I wouldn't want a building inspector looking too closely at any of it.

As a result, I've been starting to worry that I've lost whatever style or elegance my writing used to have. Maybe, I fear, I've gotten better at the idea part of this game at the expense of the craft.

Hopefully this fear will be resolved once I finish the essay that has taken over my life these past two months (and which is due by the end of the semester!). But my writing personality being what it is and academia being what it is--a place of infinite deferral and where all projects seem endless--I don't expect any sense of relief to last long. Even if I'm tremendously pleased with this essay, there will always be another in which I'm mired for months or years.

A blog post, though, rarely takes me more than a few days. I fret over the sentence rhythms and the paragraphs, spending more time than I often should--but at the same time, I've got a life and other things to do, so the perfect never becomes the enemy of the good. It's writing as almost pure pleasure, and I need that as much now as I ever did.

Saturday, October 08, 2016

Asymmetrical relationships

I've always been interested in the emotional attachments we develop in this profession--attachments to people we know, people we don't know, and people we'll never know. For the most part I'm not talking about those we would identify as friends; professional friendships, like all friendships, may have their ups and downs and misunderstandings, but they're basically mutual: both people have roughly the same stakes in and understanding of the relationship.

The kind of attachments I'm interested in are the asymmetrical ones. Whatever your actual relationship to the person in question, the psychic real estate they occupy is disproportionate. Mentors, grad school professors, and dissertation directors are one obvious category, and in years past I've written a lot about those. Colleagues are another. I admit, to my chagrin, that I've been known to conjure up much more elaborate relationships--she hates me! he resents me! what if I accidentally offended her and we can never work together again?--than there is any evidence for in the phenomenal world.

But lately I've been thinking about the relationships we have not with our seniors or peers, but with those who are, in at least a limited or temporary sense, our juniors. I'm thinking about the people I've written fellowship or tenure letters for, or the awesome job candidates we didn't hire, or scholars whose work I've recommended for publication. Occasionally these are indeed friends, but the act of reading and thinking about someone else's work and qualifications is an intense and intimate thing, quite unlike the ordinary business of friendship.

There are people who have never met me whose careers I now follow with attention, as well as people who do know me but who probably have no idea how deeply I've thought about their work or how invested in their success I've become. The degree of my investment varies, ranging from sunny goodwill to a more aggressively sororal or maternal advocacy, but it always strikes me as a little peculiar and a little out of proportion. I don't know these people! But I believe in them.

And of course, feeling this intense attachment to people I don't really know has made me reflect on how others might feel about me. With rare exceptions, I don't know the names of any of the reviewers who have taken the time to give me detailed and encouraging feedback on my work--and though I do know the names of those who have written me job or fellowship or tenure letters, in those cases I don't have access to the letters themselves. So my experience of those relationships involves a certain amount of distance: I may feel grateful and indebted, but either I don't have a specific person to tie those feelings to or I don't have a clear sense of exactly what opinions and evaluations I'm feeling grateful for.

So I've never thought too hard about who might have what investments in me: I've imagined my referees as just doing their jobs in a dispassionate or dutiful way. But lately I've been wondering, and every once in a while my antennae will twitch: maybe someone I've always suspected was a reviewer on that essay of mine makes a point of introducing herself at a conference, or someone whose work I admire but have never met starts following me on Twitter. These might just be people who like other things I've written, or who've noticed that our social circles overlap (or who read my blog). But I wonder, sometimes: do we have another kind of relationship? Do I mean something to him or her that's not apparent?

It's disorienting and a little vertiginous to think about all the unacknowledged and asymmetrical relationships we might be a part of. But there's also something nice about it: I like the idea that one of the sustaining forces of the profession might be an invisible web made up of attachments like my own--investments to the work and careers of others that we don't cop to or talk about, but feel deeply all the same.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Collaborating with myself

So it seems I'm going back to the beginning. I've been asked to write an essay whose topic overlaps with the subject of my first book--and though I suppose I could hit 8,000 words by writing "see my book" 2,666 times, I've decided not to go that route. Instead, I've been re-reading notes I made in the earliest stages of my dissertation research, reconsidering texts I decided not to write about, and reopening debates I thought I'd slammed shut.

Sure, there's new stuff to consider: scholarship that's been done in the intervening years, primary texts that were never on my radar screen. But the easiest point of entry is through work I've already done (even if I don't remember it). I have a file folder of notes from the summer I spent reading through the rare books library almost at random, and a stack of books that I bought in the course of my research, filled with sticky flags and marginalia, but at this point never expected to open again.

Even the books I didn't buy are somehow finding me, as I noted on Twitter:

I know that we're never "done" with the subjects we write about and that the nature of scholarly publishing means we're only recognized as authorities on topics once we've moved on to new ones. But though I tend to think of my publications as external hard drives--off-site storage for everything I once knew or thought about a particular topic--that's not quite true. A fuller record emerges in the careful longhand notes I took on pages torn from legal pads, in the fights I pick in the margins of books, and in the queries that appear in ancient brainstorming documents that still live in my computer.

Encountering some of this is embarrassing. The margins of the dissertation that I last read in 2001 show me trying, desperately, to believe that the author hadn't said everything there was to say about a particular text. So "duh," "no it doesn't!" and "this can't be true" make regular appearances. I also take it upon myself to correct the author's typos.

But the majority of these encounters are pleasurable. I'm delighted to find I took detailed notes on things I no longer remember reading, and some underlined and starred passages that I'd forgotten strike me as so provocative or true that they're like a little hit of the old drug, jolting me with some of the same excitement I felt working on this material the first time around. (But minus the agony, tedium, and self-doubt; whether this means that the drug I was taking in grad school was purer and hence more dangerous, or cut with innumerable dubious substances, I leave you to decide.)

Chiefly, though, re-reading my notes helps me to see the questions I haven't settled and the issues I still want to explore. There's one fight I chose not to have that maybe I do want to have. There's a text I excluded that now feels compelling. Sometimes I think of my first book as a decade-long struggle to chisel out, ever more finely, ideas that were already there from the beginning. But going back to these notes reminds me that I haven't actually been thinking the same thoughts for fifteen years. Even if it's true that I chose the best ones, some of the scraps that I left on the floor aren't half bad.

This essay isn't going to be revolutionary, and neither will it come as a surprise to anyone who knows my book. But I'm more interested in extending that work than I thought I was. I'm also enjoying this opportunity to collaborate with my earlier self, the one who didn't yet know all the answers.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Compulsory affect

I'm not one for bumper stickers or slogans. As a child of the '80s I did once have a number of buttons festooning jacket and backpack, but they were never a means of aligning myself with this cause or that. In fact, the one bumper sticker I really wanted to put on the family automobile, circa 1992, was a vintage one reading "The Nation Needs Nixon." That probably tells you everything you need to know about how I felt then, and still do feel, about people who think their politics need to be legible to every person they meet.

For this reason, I tend to stay away from social media on days like today. The constant demand for--and policing of--expressions of joy, outrage, or mourning is my least favorite thing about Facebook and Twitter. I mean, yeah: I may be shocked and saddened about something that happened, but if all I have to say is "oh no" or "can't believe the news," how is that useful? And though I do re-post opinion pieces that I find interesting or well-expressed, I try to stay away from mere venting or emoting ("how can people take this seriously??" or "SO HAPPY about the Supreme Court decision!").

Partly it's that I wish to avoid banality, and partly it's that I don't want to be reducible to a position or a set of beliefs. But it's also that I'm uncomfortable with the idea that I might be seen as performing my politics in a self-congratulatory way or in order to get credit for thinking the right thoughts. Most of my friends know my politics, more or less, and most share them. It's neither interesting nor brave for me to declare on Facebook how personally outraged I am by Donald Trump's latest racist remarks.

This is a long way of saying that I never thought I'd be the kind of professor with little stickers on her office door identifying her as down with this cause or that group. But here we are: a couple of weeks ago I found myself adding to my collage of images--portraits of John Donne and Queen Elizabeth, snapshots of the Globe, and images of Renaissance tapestries--a rainbow flag with "safe space" written on it and a #blacklivesmatter decal.

Because if my support for members of the LGBT community and people of color is something I can take for granted among my peers--to such a degree that sporting a button or bumper sticker would strike me as asking for a pat on my straight, white, head--this is not the case with my students. Moreover, my students do not necessarily themselves belong to networks where those positions are taken for granted.

I'm not sure whether I'd display such decals if I taught at a lefty liberal arts college, but I don't. I teach at an urban university whose population is overwhelmingly first-generation, 27% of whom are minorities (a number that does not include our many students of Middle Eastern descent). Like Dean Dad's students, a lot of them don't have the time to be political. Most of them have never heard the term "trigger warning" or know what people mean when they talk about "preferred gender pronouns." This doesn't mean that they're tougher than other students--less likely to find certain kinds of content upsetting or to be questioning their gender or sexuality--just that they're not in a place where they regularly encounter those debates.

And while for some people my being a humanities professor makes my liberalism axiomatic, what my students probably see is a middle-aged, married white lady who teaches really old poems. Why would they assume that I have any interest in the experiences of racial minorities or any familiarity with queer or transgender people? In that context, it seems possible those stickers might signal something a few students would value knowing.

I'm still not sure how comfortable I feel about this, and I have some concerns about misinterpretation. But for now I'm going with it. I'm also going to try to feel more generous about those who relentlessly perform their politics on Facebook. After all, I don't know their motives or audience any more than they know mine.

Saturday, September 03, 2016

Scheduled up, scheduled out

My teaching schedule is the worst I've had in a decade.

I was prepared to suck up the MWF part--it is, after all, my turn to suck it up--and with two classes scheduled back-to-back in the mid and late afternoon it seemed like it might be okay. But then one of my classes didn't make, and the only reasonable class I could swap into was at 9 a.m. And if a three-day-a-week 9 a.m. class is pretty bad, a three-day-a-week 9 a.m. class followed by MORE THAN FOUR AND A HALF HOURS OF DEAD TIME is just about the worst thing I can imagine.

Actually, scratch that: the worst thing I can imagine is all of the above at an institution that has a Tuesday/Thursday common hour--a period when no classes are scheduled but alllll meetings for university business are. Meaning that, when you have a MWF schedule, you can expect to be on campus four or five days out of five.*

Needless to say, I'm disgruntled.**

But both because there's no help for it and because I find a certain amount of structure salutary, I've decided that the only solution is to schedule my work-week within an inch of its life. Last semester, when I was traveling every week and doing a graduate seminar's worth of reading on top of my regular job, I kept my shit together by laying out a clear schedule for exactly what happened when, Monday through Friday. (Then I returned on Saturday, collapsed, and did nothing for a day and a half.)

This semester won't demand that kind of scheduling, but I think it needs it: I've got a few too many plates spinning in my writing life and I've never been great at keeping multiple projects going simultaneously. Moreover, though I have a couple of hard deadlines, most of my projects are either long-term and ongoing, things no one else is checking up on, or both.

So I have a two-part plan. Because my natural preference is to focus intensively on just one thing at a time--especially if that thing is writing, reading, or grading--I need a schedule that designates and protects discrete chunks of time rather than just hoping they happen. This means corralling my shorter or more interruptible tasks into my less-productive on-campus hours (and using my least productive hours to run errands and the like).

The Schedule

Monday / Wednesday / Friday
During that huge chunk of time--almost fourteen hours!--I do all my course reading and prep (luckily, these are relatively low-prep classes) and handle administrivia. I also work on the edition for an hour or two each day.

When I get home at 5, I take advantage of the fact that I'm brain-dead but upright and go to the gym.

After any meetings, I work at home, reading/researching if I need it, writing if I don't.

After any meetings, I go to the art museum library and write for four or five hours.

On weeks when papers are due, I can also squeeze in 3-4 hours of focused grading time on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Absolutely nothing related to teaching. Ideally I'll write/read for two or three hours in a low-key way, with the rest as leisure.

No work of any sort until 2 or 3 (we go to Mass, have brunch, read the Times). After that I might write or read for a couple of hours--or I might just take the whole day off.

One of the goals is to make weekends low-key and pleasurable, working only when and if I feel like it, on things that are sustaining--rather than feeling as if there's always something I ought to be doing.

The Log

In addition to this schedule, I've started to keep a work diary for my writing/scholarship, logging, each day, roughly how many hours I spend doing what on which projects. Again, the aim isn't to feel guilty, but the opposite: to notice and appreciate progress over time (especially on long-term projects, or projects without deadlines, or those, like the edition, where it's tough to see forward momentum because it doesn't manifest itself in word or page counts). I also hope this will be an effective way for me to remember to keep checking in on all my different projects rather than working on just one--until a deadline approaches and I panic and have to drop it for six weeks to finish something else.

This kind of itemization might stress some people out, but in the past I've found it tremendously reassuring to be able to point to concrete accomplishments--that I spent six hours proofreading textual notes, or wrote 1,500 new words, or read eight articles, or whatever. Armed with that evidence, I can feel justified in taking a day or two off. Without it, I tend to have only the haziest sense of what I've done, and it never feels like enough.


I'll let you know how it goes. So far, the only thing that's proving hard is the part where I get up at 7 a.m. three days a week. That part is going very poorly indeed.

*And seriously, this is moronic. At my previous job, the English department set a Wednesday period aside for all department and committee meetings, on the principle that MWF faculty shouldn't have to come in for a fourth day when TTh faculty could just come in for a third.

**And yes, yes, I know: most jobs in the world are five days a week and nine to five and blah blah--but as one friend put it, academic labor is so intense, inflexible, and all-consuming that one of the compensations is the ability to schedule at least some of it as we like. So yeah, you get to sleep until 9. . . in exchange for teaching night classes. You get a four day weekend. . . but more than half of it is spent grading. (As the joke goes, you get to choose which sixty hours a week you want to work.)

Saturday, August 27, 2016

An obsession in search of a medium

Downloading my blog is irksome, fascinating, and monotonous all at once: I've already hit 700 pages and am just at the halfway point.

It's an extraordinary thing, reading hundreds of thousands of your own more-or-less polished, more-or-less public words, all ruminating on basically the same set of topics over the years. As with my journals, I'm surprised both by how much I haven't changed--so many posts I'd forgotten about could have been written last week--and by how much I have.

But let's be honest: most of what's changed has to do with specific, discrete skills I've learned (I no longer fret over how to teach a certain kind of class or am puzzled by a particular professional conundrum) or with my having aged into different roles with students and colleagues alike. The existential stuff, the habits of thought, the kinds of things I'm interested in and worry about--those are all pretty consistent.

In some ways that's comforting: it's proof that I have a core self, an identity, or at least a set of obsessions that pass for a personality. But there are some continuities that are less comfortable, some obsessions I'm surprised to discover I haven't outgrown. Whatever narratives I may tell about myself these days, there are still some tattered personal myths I haven't fully replaced, whose ghostly presence is my only explanation for the disproportionate emotional reactions that certain tasks, conflicts, or ambitions elicit.

But the more interesting thoughts this process has stimulated aren't to do with me as a person, but rather with the kind of writing that this blog represents. Most of my older and original reasons for blogging no longer obtain--or the the needs they represent are ones now better met in other spaces. Facebook has absorbed probably 50% of what I used to blog about.

But I'm still blogging, even though most of my favorite bloggers and blog-readers have moved on to other media. Some are their hilarious, thoughtful, or political selves exclusively on Facebook and Twitter. Others occasionally write first-person essays or advice pieces for the Chronicle or IHE. Others do public writing for the LARB, The Atlantic online, institutional blogs, or print publications. Sometimes I think that if I were serious about writing nonacademic prose, that's what I'd be doing, too.

And yet, none of those seems the right fit for the writing I still feel compelled to do here. This blog isn't confessional, or a record of my daily minutiae. It isn't advice-oriented and doesn't (usually) pretend to great knowledge. I rarely talk about the details of my research or try to use my disciplinary training to talk about contemporary events or bring a neglected historical or literary artifact to public attention.

Rather, what continues to fascinate me, the kind of writing for which I've found no other outlet, is the project of understanding and describing the emotional and psychological realities of the profession as I experience it. What does it mean to be an academic at this cultural moment? Who are we? And what does it feel like to write, to experience rejection, to change jobs, to cathect onto particular mentors, colleagues, students?

I don't know for how long I'll continue to blog; it's melancholy being part of a dying or superseded medium when most of the party is happening elsewhere. But since there's no evidence to suggest that I outgrow my obsessions, I'm unlikely to stop until I find a better space in which to pursue them.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Watching the forest grow

Because we're cramming an entire summer's worth of travel into the four weeks before classes start--not really our idea! it's what happens when you have family on both coasts!--I've had little time to write, whether here or elsewhere. One of the few tasks I've managed has been starting the long and tedious process of downloading my eleven-plus years of blog posts into a Word document. Since CTRL-C / CTRL-V doesn't require a lot of brainpower, it's ideal for the 30 or 45 minutes I have free before dinner or while waiting in an airport lounge with screaming children and MSNBC blaring over my shoulder.

I haven't been reading the posts carefully, but I've been reading them. And as with my grad school journals, you'd better believe I Have Thoughts about it all. Without the time to elaborate on those thoughts, though, I'll leave you with this ten-year-old description of my strengths and weaknesses as a writer (specifically, the fact that I'm a better reviser than generator of ideas). It remains as true today as it was then:

I'm a craftsman, not an artist. I'm fine with that. But here's where the analogy breaks down: do we ask the master woodworker to go out and create wood? To grow the trees, harvest them, and make lumber before he gets down to making his fancy lintels or whatever? That's what I feel I'm doing when I start writing--growing the fucking trees. And it's usually about as much fun as watching the forest grow.

Monday, August 08, 2016

First jobs meme

Folks around the academic social media circuit have been doing the #firstsevenjobs meme, with interesting results. I've been reluctant to participate, since my list initially struck me as pretty boring, and I'm sensitive to the class-based critique that Kirsty Rolf and Sarah Werner have made: for so many academics, their early jobs look. . . well, a lot like what they do now.

But although all of my jobs qualify as white- or pink-collar, and several have some connection to what I do now, as I started toting them up in my head I realized that I was well past seven before I got to my teaching gigs. And they're all relatively substantive: things I did either full-time, or for multiple years, or both.

So herewith my list, with some annotations:

1. Babysitting - off and on for maybe four years (middle school and high school)

2. Page, local public library - part time for two years (high school)

3. Receptionist - full time for one summer (high school)

4. Page, rare books library - part time for two years (college work-study job)

5. Mail-room clerk, insurance company - full-time for one summer (college)

6. Acquisitions department intern, university press - full time for one summer; part time for two years (college work-study job)

7. Data entry, HMO - full time for one summer (college)

8. Legal assistant, two corporate law firms - full time for two years (post-college)

9. Editorial department intern, university press - part time for three years (grad school)

10. Legal temp, a third law firm - full time for one summer (grad school)

11. Editorial assistant, non-university academic press - part time for two years (grad school)

Looking at this list, a few things stand out. First, I've never worked in retail, in a restaurant, or really anything that might be considered service-industry. And with the possible exception of babysitting, I've never worked a job that was physical in any meaningful way (eight hours of data entry might be exhausting, but it's not mowing lawns, loading trucks, or working at a canning factory). But although I would never claim financial hardship--or working-class credentials--I worked for pay throughout college and grad school even while I was also TA-ing or teaching my own classes. I needed the money and I needed these jobs. I was also relatively adept at finding new ones.

And although libraries and publishing companies seem like obvious jobs for a bookish individual, they weren't really preparation for what I do now--or no more so than any other job (arguably, service-industry jobs are just as good a preparation for teaching, dealing with administrators, and the rest). The rare books library was a terrific environment. . . but most of what I did just required organizational skills and a high tolerance for repetitive tasks. Ditto for two of my three publishing jobs.

What having so many clerical jobs really did is prepare me for the significant chunk of a tenure-track job that grad school doesn't, which is to say the endless paperwork, bureaucracy, and administrivia. I do not miss deadlines, I run a good meeting, my paperwork is always in order, and I'm on top of all the details. I also know how to work with others and (especially!) how to value support staff: at my law firm jobs, I learned quickly that nothing got done without the secretaries and the folks in Word Processing and Duplication. Because I built good relationships with them, when I had an impossible rush job, it got done. This was not the case for the arrogant, the high-handed, or the yellers.

So I feel okay about my jobs. My work experience isn't that wide-ranging, and it doesn't look good on Twitter or lend itself to particularly colorful stories. But it gave me a sense of competence and mastery that eluded me for a long time in my studies. Even today, most of my self-worth comes from the tangible, practical parts of my job--meeting deadlines, designing a helpful rubric, knowing my colleagues consider me reliable--and those are things that, in one way or another, I learned or perfected through my nonacademic jobs.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

The London season

I'm halfway through a two-week trip to England, and as I make plans--or intend and then fail to make plans--with the dozens of friends who are also here for a few weeks, it occurs to me that academics live out a less-glamorous but equally peripatetic version of the lives of the wealthy of previous centuries.

Like the Englishmen and women who descended on London en masse for "the season" and then moved on to Bath or Brighton before returning to their country homes; like early-twentieth century Americans who were similarly assured of finding friends and neighbors when they decamped to Palm Beach in March; or the rich of many nations who were never more than a couple of degrees of separation from the other passengers on the luxury ocean-liners chugging back and forth across the Atlantic, so we wind up moving around the globe more or less in tandem with people more or less like ourselves.

Conferences, of course, are one version of this, and they too have a season (I've sometimes done three conferences in three cities in three months, seeing basically the same people at every stop), but taken individually they're most akin to the ocean-liner experience: you're thrown together with all these people you know--and almost no one you couldn't--in a confined space for a set number of days. Visiting archives or rare book libraries is another version: I never know exactly who I'm going to see, but I always run into a friend who turns out to be a long- or short-term fellow, or who's just in town for spring break. This past week, I ran into several people at the British Library whom I'd last seen at the Folger. I didn't know they'd be at either place, but it's not really a surprise. There's a circuit.

But for those of us who study the history or literature of Great Britain, London is a special case, as I'm sure Paris, Berlin, and Rome are for those in other fields. At this age and stage of my career, I assume that pretty much everyone I know will be in London every couple of years: for a conference, to work in the archives, or at the front or back end of travels elsewhere. And the academic calendar being what it is, those trips usually happen in June and July, so we're all here at the same time. These days I come an average of every other year, usually for 10-15 days, but I have friends whose research or personal lives require a full annual decampment and who settle in for two or three months every summer.

It's delightful, and nothing that I could have predicted twenty years ago, when as a college student I made my first trip to England. Even ten or twelve years ago, when as a grad student or first-year faculty member I scraped together enough cash for a plane ticket and a week in the UCL dorms to hit a conference or squeeze in five days at the BL, I saw myself as traveling to do my own thing, making a strategic strike, furthering my research or my career--not functioning as part of a larger community. Now, though, it feels natural, expected, tribal. I come both because I need to, and because my people are here.

But as that phrasing suggests, there's something insular about it, too--that we do what others of our class-loosely-defined also do, that we expect to know people wherever we go (because we go to the kinds of places that our kind of people go). As screwball comedies teach us, it's always possible that the handsome gentleman you met on the Queen Mary or at the Breakers is a grifter, but more likely than not he knows the aunt of your neighbor back in Philadelphia and she can vouch for whether he'd be a good match for your unmarried daughter or the pretty widow who dines at the captain's table. Even the new faces are already, in some sense, known.

Still. When the academic job market flings us so far asunder and we're perpetually trying to build up new networks--and bloom where we're planted and all that jazz--there's something comforting about having a tribe and having a center and being so easily fitted into the social order. Back home we need to connect to our communities in a larger and deeper way, and it takes time and effort. Here in the tribal bubble, it's easy.

Except I'm still not sure I'm getting invitations to the right balls.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

The cohort problem

We go through most events in life on the same time-table as our peers. Some of this is about biological development--what the human body and brain are capable of when--and some of it is about the way we're socialized, but we experience most major milestones at roughly the same time and in roughly the same sequence as our peers.

Because if we don't, we find new peers.

Finding new peers isn't about shunning those who aren't like us (though, okay: sometimes we do reject a particular life narrative), but about the fact that we depend upon others to help us understand and navigate our lives. We need the example and support of those who have made similar choices or have had similar bad or good luck. If you have kids early, you're going to need other parent-friends no matter how much you may cherish your old ones. And if you remain single or childless long past the majority of your peers, you're likewise going to need at least a few friends who can see the world through similar eyes.

Because it's not just about knowing people who have experienced the same thing (whatever that thing may be). It's about knowing people likely to have had the full range of emotions that go along with it: the fears, anxieties, and expectations; the way the rest of your life gets reshuffled and redefined around that event. Because just as there are things that people who have been bereaved can't talk about with people who haven't--no matter how well-intentioned--there are things that I can't say to my parent-friends about being childless, or to my single friends about being married, or my nonacademic friends about being an academic. Or rather: I can say some things about those topics, maybe even a lot, but I can't say everything, or expect the same level of immediate understanding, advice, or mutual interest that happens when I'm talking to someone who's been there and is equally as invested in figuring out What It All Means.

Grad school is an obvious example of a peer-group reshuffle: When I was twenty-five and twenty-eight and thirty, I felt as if I'd stepped off the conveyor belt that was delivering my college friends to their destinies: they were buying cars and houses and getting married and advancing in their careers when I didn't have so much as a cat (and the most expensive thing I owned was an aging laptop). But grad school gave me a new set of peers and a new narrative, a sense of what follows what, and people I could talk to about all of this--including our collective sense of having been left behind by adulthood.

But such shuffles aren't necessarily permanent. Indeed, the big discovery of my thirties and forties has that both "cohort" and "life stage" are less rigid than they'd seemed. In high school and even in college it's a big fucking deal to do anything even a year or two before or after everyone else. But now, at age 41, I'm in roughly the same place as most of my age peers--whether I met them in high school or college, grad school or after: most of us are married and with mortgages; most of us have had some career successes and some career failures; and most of us have suffered at least one major loss. Those things didn't all come at the same time or in the same sequence, but in their outlines our lives look more similar than different.

Because even if the parameters expand, age remains central to how we define our cohort. Not everyone who's forty is my professional peer (some entered graduate school much later or advanced much more rapidly than I), and my cohort includes people half a dozen years older or half a dozen years younger. But I still have a very real sense that my cohort encompasses people of roughly my age and roughly my professional stage, because the two intersect.

But the problem with bonding so strongly with those of our cohort is that the next life or career stage remains perpetually mysterious and difficult to imagine. This is why we sometimes reshuffle our peer groups--to find a narrative that fits better or has greater explanatory power--and it's the reason for many midlife or midcareer crises: not so much the inability to see what's next (at a certain point, we know the major likely moves) as the inability to know how we'll feel about or be able to live inside those events when they come.

Sometimes when I feel angsty about the future I have to remind myself that people have actually done this before. People I know! Whom I see at work or at conferences, some of whom I even know well enough to gossip and get drunk with. Nothing my peers and I are going through is completely new (though the conditions of the profession may have made certain things easier or harder). But I don't generally have deeper and more existential conversations with those I feel are in a cohort above mine; the sense that we're at different life stages and that such conversations couldn't possibly be reciprocal is hard for me to overcome.

Which isn’t to say that I don’t value knowing that my seniors have gone through whatever I'm currently confronting. In my early years in the profession I'd feel a sort of electric shock whenever someone a decade ahead of me would say something kind and off-hand--and I'd suddenly realize that, holy shit! She gets it. She was here. (And she survived.)

I hope I do the same with my juniors, but I also realize that I, too, am not exactly who they need. I may think I understand what they're going through, and maybe I even do (though the temptation of the senior party is always to assume that nothing's changed and that our experiences remain exactly relevant), but they're at earlier professional and life stages. What they need, most of all, is the support of their peers. And I'm not that.

Or at least not yet. Cohorts don't retain their boundaries; both our seniors and our juniors may someday be our peers.

And then, perhaps, all will be known.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Bludgeoned into meaning

Not so long ago, a scholar I admire asked where I was in my book project. I made a face and said something about its still being early days: I had two decent chapter drafts, one messy chapter draft, and one REALLY messy chapter draft. I paused, surprised. "So I guess it's about half drafted."

Put like that, it sounds like I'm well on my way. Put like that, I could have a complete draft in eighteen months.

Of course, I wrote the first draft of my first book (a/k/a "my dissertation") in three and a half years, and it still took another six or seven to revise. Drafts are drafts, no matter how tidy or how smoothly they read. At the moment, only one of my chapters has a big take-away; the others have local arguments and interesting bits sprinkled throughout, but they don't amount to a larger whole. And getting to that point will be neither easy nor speedy.

Still. I'm a better reviser than I am a writer, and having matter to work with, however shapeless and unformed, is always a comfort. The idea that I might have all the pieces, relatively soon, is itself exciting and an incentive to keep going.

If each of us has some underlying writerly neurosis, something that drives all our decompensatory behaviors (procrastination, avoidance, despair), mine is the fear of stalling out: not moving forward, not having ideas, literally not being able to fill the page. Even at this stage in my career, I'm never convinced that I have enough to fill a ten-page conference paper, much less a 20-page essay or a 40-page chapter. But once I've made length, pages swollen with my shapeless blather, the anxiety lifts. Experience tells me I can always take a formless mass and bludgeon it into meaning. I can always gut it out. Maybe it'll take longer than I want and parts will be excruciating, but I know I can do it.

I don't want to speak too soon, because I do, after all, only have drafts of four chapters, two of which have large passages of incoherence. I don't really know what my remaining two chapters are going to be about, beyond a gimmicky gambit or two. And I have other major writing deadlines that will take my focus away from the book. But I drafted two not-totally-shitty chapters this year by working with only intermittent focus and averaging only some 1,000 words a week. Shooting for a complete draft by the end of 2017 (and settling for 2018) seems reasonable.

More importantly, I'm starting to see Book Two as something other than an amorphous project in which I'll be flailing about for a decade. It may still take a decade, but a ten-year project with discrete stages and goals is a whole 'nother thing, a thing I can get my head around.

Gut. It. Out.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Hitting me where I live

The last time I checked my campus mail, I found a card-sized envelope of high-quality paper bearing the return address of an English department to which I have no meaningful connection. It turned out to be a thank-you note: the Director of Graduate Studies was writing about a former student of mine, someone for whom I'd written a recommendation letter and who will be starting their PhD program in the fall.

I don't know about you, but I've never received anything like this. And I was impressed: the point of the note, obviously, wasn't so much to thank me for past services as to build a relationship for the future. It was typed and lightly personalized (naming my student and a few specifics about what s/he would be doing), but most of it was well-written promotional material consisting of a quick overview of the intellectual and pedagogical training that students receive and the financial and other resources available to them. It concluded with the hope that I might recommend them to other students I thought would be a good match.

And I gotta say: that is one savvy DGS. I'd already felt good about the program and the fact that my student had landed well, but the note succeeded in generating a deeper and more personal kind of warmth. Its underlying message wasn't "Student X is awesome! We're so glad s/he is coming!" but "we bet you have more great students and we'd love to hear about them, too."

That hits me where I live. Though I've never felt any personal anxiety about being judged negatively based on the institutions where I teach--I have enough professional and social capital that I figure anyone who dismisses me based on assumptions about my institution isn't just a snob, but an actual idiot--I know that the credit people extend to me isn't always extended to my students.

It's rare for anyone to express their snobbery to my face, but I hear their dismissals clearly enough. When someone I know socially asks, "so what's it like, teaching at [institution]?" I hear all the local prejudices against public institutions, or commuter schools, or schools with a large minority population. And when they say, "You know, [school] has really come a long way in the past twenty years!" I hear, "but I still wouldn't send my kids there." It's different with professional acquaintances, but when they bitch about the incompetence of their own students or their disinterest in teaching certain kinds of classes, what I hear is that they don't value and wouldn't respect mine.

Sometimes, I'm sure, I'm being too thin-skinned and hearing judgments that aren't there. But I adore my students and I believe in them--and I hear the way they sometimes put themselves down for where they go to school. So I have a default defensiveness, a chip on my shoulder on their behalf. When I write a recommendation letter, then, I worry that my praise is being filtered or discounted. I imagine the admissions committee saying, in effect: sure, she says this student is phenomenal, but what's her point of comparison?

So when the DGS of a strong program asks me to send them more applicants, what I hear isn't just that the department was impressed by this one student, but that it believes, as I do, that talent is widely distributed and that some students who start out behind can make up for lost time, outstripping their more privileged peers. I hear that it trusts my judgment and would take future applicants seriously, even ones who might be a little rougher around the edges.

That note probably cost the department a buck-fifty in postage and paper, and maybe sixty seconds of the DGS's time. But damned if I won't be keeping them in mind for every future student whose grad school ambitions I believe in.

Saturday, June 25, 2016


It's been almost six weeks since the end of the school year and I still haven't recovered.

To be fair, there's been a lot going on. We moved the same weekend as graduation; immediately afterwards we had houseguests; immediately after that we went out of town. Since then, I've been out of town twice more. It's also been a rather tough year. Though the big picture has been great, the weekly and the monthly reality has been harder: multiple moves, a new job, a death in the family, constant travel.

Still, while acknowledging that there have been some external stressors, my exhaustion still seems disproportionate. It's late June, and all the hard stuff is past. I now have time. I'm back on a regular sleep and exercise schedule. But every task still feels overwhelming. For months I'd put off getting a new driver's license and transferring my car's title and registration because I just couldn't deal--and when I finally managed to block out two days to run back and forth between the DMV, the title office, and the state inspection facility, I then needed another couple of days afterwards to recover.

This doesn't strike me as normal. I mean, sure: bureaucracy sucks, and we've all felt our will to live leech out of us as we sit around waiting for the plumber to show up or spend hours driving from strip mall to strip mall on fourteen separate errands. But I feel enervated in a more profound and existential way these days. I love our new house, but just contemplating what still needs to be done wears me out. I've barely been able to make plans for any of the trips I've taken, even though there have been friends in each city that I've wanted to see. I feel behind in everything and eager to do nothing.

Is this middle age? Or am I actually the laziest person alive? (I know I'm not the busiest--most of my friends are working moms, so I'm not even a contender in the work/life sweepstakes.) I keep thinking that I'll recover with another good night's sleep, or after crossing a particularly troublesome task off the to-do list.

But it keeps. Not. Happening.

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

Give 'em hell, Hill


Ezra Klein has a terrific piece asking why it's been so hard for us to recognize that Hillary is actually a phenomenal politician--phenomenal because she's not great at retail politics. She's not a spell-binding speech-giver, or especially charismatic, but she keeps winning anyway.

His argument is that she's pursued a characteristically female strategy of working behind the scenes over the long term. Her detractors, he says, are right that she's an insider, with the support of "the establishment," but they're wrong about what this means or how she got that support:

She won the Democratic primary by spending years slowly, assiduously, building relationships with the entire Democratic Party. She relied on a more traditionally female approach to leadership: creating coalitions, finding common ground, and winning over allies. Today, 523 governors and members of Congress have endorsed Clinton; 13 have endorsed Sanders.

This work is a grind--it's not big speeches, it doesn't come with wide applause, and it requires an emotional toughness most human beings can't summon.

But Clinton is arguably better at that than anyone in American politics today. In 2000, she won a Senate seat that meant serving amidst Republicans who had destroyed her health care bill and sought to impeach her husband. And she kept her head down, found common ground, and won them over.

[. . . .]

And Clinton isn't just better--she's relentless. After losing to Barack Obama, she rebuilt those relationships, campaigning hard for him in the general, serving as his secretary of state, reaching out to longtime allies who had crushed her campaign by endorsing him over her.

This really sums up what I love about Hillary--not why I support her policies, which I do generally though not unreservedly, but why I have the kind of irrational love that supposedly no one feels for her. She reminds me of every female mentor I've ever had. She reminds me of all the women I know in business and academia and the arts who just keep plugging away, getting shit done, but who are rarely anointed "stars" even if they become partner, make tenure, write a best-selling novel.

And though I would never in a million years compare myself to Clinton--I don't have half, not a quarter of her toughness--I can't help but think that my previous post is partly about gender. I do know women who emerge from college or grad school fully poised and confident and (seemingly) without a doubt about their intellectual or scholarly authority. But I know fewer of them than I know men, and it's characteristically female to believe that one shouldn't yet do something--ask for a promotion, claim expertise--until she is really, REALLY sure that no one will doubt her credentials.

So yeah. I understand why people might not support Clinton. I understand why people might not like her. But I look at her and I see every talented, relentless, over-qualified woman who has, objectively speaking, achieved a lot, and who would never actually complain--but who still isn't considered as smart, promising, likeable as the charismatic male blowhard sitting next to her. Whose books don't get the same kind of reviews, who doesn't get invited onto the talk shows, who somehow (no one knows why!) just doesn't generate the same buzz or excitement.

Fuck. That. #ImWithHer

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

2 legit 2 quit

It's finally happened: most days, I mostly don't feel like a fraud!

Or to put it more positively: I feel, increasingly, like a legitimate Knower of Things.

I wouldn't say that this is the end of Impostor Syndrome, exactly; I'm still painfully aware of how clumsy my language skills are and how little I know about various things that are, technically, within my specialty (the Continental Renaissance! Most of the sixteenth century! Playwrights who aren't Shakespeare, Marlowe, or Jonson!). But I feel, finally, that I know enough about some things that all the stuff I don't know isn't totally discrediting.

This sense of legitimacy has been a long time coming. I submitted my dissertation eleven years ago and I've just finished my tenth year as tenured or tenure-line faculty. I've felt comfortable in the classroom for a very long while. But as a scholar I've tended to feel, at best, just minimally competent--in possession of exactly enough knowledge to write a given conference paper or article, without a datum to spare.

There are probably a couple of reasons it's taken so long. First, my first book covered 100 years and six authors (and focused almost entirely on noncanonical texts), so I really did know only a small slice about each of the authors/historical moments in which I was ostensibly an expert. And then, at just the point that I started to feel comfortable with my mastery of that material--as well as more canonical figures like Shakespeare--I started working on my second book, which immediately required lengthy detours into totally new areas (Patristics, the Middle Ages, liturgical history). So my sense of the shallowness and insufficiency of my learning is partly a side-effect of trying to be conversant in a lot of different things.

But some people emerge from grad school--heck, even from college--with a blithe confidence in their learning and the ability to speak glibly and persuasively about any manner of subjects. My own graduate program privileged both broad training and an easy, learned manner; the fact that I didn't have the latter (whether through introversion, modesty, or a slow brain) means I've always over-valued this kind of performance of intelligence. Doesn't it stand to reason that those who can speak learnedly are drawing on deeper reserves of learning than those who can't?

This past year, though, I've started to feel that my reserves are deeper than I thought. Say that a student asks an oddball or sidebar question--maybe it's a biographical or historical detail she saw in a footnote; maybe it's a big-picture question about the culture and its values. In the past, even when I knew a bit about the subject in question, I'd answer briefly and move on. These days I have to struggle not to share all the cool stuff I know about how early moderns read a particular biblical passage or what current scholarship thinks about some event in Milton's early life. Since such a digression usually isn't directly relevant to whatever we're doing in class, I rarely allow myself more than sixty seconds--but even sixty seconds of sharing freaky factoids reminds me of my own professors and how impressed I was by similar shows of seeming erudition.

And it's not just in the classroom: the conference Q&A feels less terrifying than it used to, and I find myself more frequently offering advice, asking questions, and generally presuming that I have something to contribute to my peers and seniors. Maybe this is the long-deferred payoff of learning a small-to-moderate amount about a shit-ton of things, or maybe it's the confidence that comes with middle age and having enough professional credibility that I figure there's a greater-than-even chance that people will take me seriously.

Whatever the cause, feeling legitimate is a great thing. But there's a downside: believing that you know stuff and that people want to hear about it dramatically raises your odds of turning into a pontificating, digressive bore.

So for now I'll stick to fascinating/boring people for just sixty seconds at a time.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Personality transplant

Changing jobs has made me think harder about a phenomenon I've long been curious about: the way departments (or academic divisions or entire institutions) develop distinct personalities.

That they have such personalities I take as a given, though both the recognition of a particular place's personality and any description of it are bound to be subjective and imperfect. For one thing, we all tend to read the networks to which we belong as normative.

It wasn't until a few years into my first job--after I'd made friends at other places and met their colleagues--that I began to see that, relative to those other departments, my own was more X or less Y, and that my colleagues, on the whole, tended to hold these values and not those. The exact descriptors aren't important, but I'm sure you can supply your own, both for places you've worked or places you know well. Some departments give off a general sense of being cynical, friendly, downtrodden, agreeable, competitive, scatterbrained, efficient, political, argumentative, optimistic, and so on.

But even once I'd started noticing that one department, say, seemed full of awkward introverts while another was cheery and gregarious, I understood this personality to be primarily about hiring (and secondarily about a process of acculturation that reinforced whatever the department's dominant traits might be): a friendly department might subtly preference candidates with certain signs of warmth and energy, and a place where everyone thought of herself as an up-and-comer might hire people who performed ambition in similar ways. And if enough people in a department embodied certain traits or shared certain values, those would get communicated more widely even to those who might not, in other contexts, really be that thing.

I still believe that's an important part of the story. But it's not the whole of it.

The thing is, a department's personality is dynamic and relational, formed by the way individual temperaments and communication styles collide and collaborate--and how they, together, respond to external circumstances. So, yes: you can get a sense of a place by meeting its individual members and noticing that they tend to be warm, or flaky, or self-important, or whatever. But its personality really emerges in its decision-making processes. How do things get done, and for what reasons, and by whom? Who has a voice, and what kind of assumptions and attitudes are on display?

The distinctiveness of those things is a lot harder to gain perspective on when you're living inside a place. I've written before about toxic departments and the way they remold a person's sense of self, but it's not just toxic workplaces that create their own reality. I suspect most departments do, just as most families do. And in the same way that it's easier to see the collective personality of your in-laws than it is to see what's unusual about your own family, it's easier to get a read on a department once you have a) a sense of what it means to be a member of a department, but b) some separation from the department in question.

So yeah: moving at midcareer makes some things extremely obvious. On the one hand, the personality of your new department is likely to be clearer than your old department's was--but at the same time, experiencing a new place inevitably brings the personality of the former into sharper focus.

But being plunked down into a place where the things you took to be normative suddenly aren't also suggests another explanation for how departments acquire personalities. It's not just about hiring, or even about how specific personalities interact with one another. It's about things that happened before you got there and that involved people you'll never meet. It might have to do with a department chair who retired a decade ago, or with a particular institutional crisis or success. Or it's about dynamics beyond the department: the stability of the upper administration; the political climate in your state.

And this raises the question of how long a particular personality persists. Let's say that a given set of attitudes and behaviors are the result of external circumstances, whether good or bad: an inspiring chair and lots of resources; an upper administration with a siege mentality. When those circumstances change, how quickly do the learned responses of a department change? As in a family, there's not a lot of turnover, and early habits can become ingrained. If the senior and mid-career faculty came up under a particular regime, they might still communicate their attitudes to those hired much later.

So who shapes a place's personality? All of us. None of us. But that doesn't mean we're off the hook.

Thursday, May 05, 2016

Knowing better

You know what's vexing about being mid-career at a new institution?

You already know everything, and you have all the impatience and world-weariness that come with being at mid-career--but no one else knows that you know everything! And you kinda don't! A new institution means rules and procedures that you don't fully understand (ranging from basic chain-of-command issues to the longer history of why things get done X way), not to mention unknown people and personalities, so when you see something that strikes you as problematic, it's hard to know when interjecting an opinion would bring some much-needed outside perspective. . . and when you should shut your damn mouth.

This is an even bigger problem if you're me, and have a fundamental conviction that your way of doing things is always the best, most reasonable, and most efficient one.

I mean, let's be honest: it probably is. But in order to convince people of that, you still have to understand the terms of debate, the personalities, and all the rest. And I don't know those things. So instead of seeming like the patient, reasonable one (another fundamental conviction that I hold about myself), I fear I come across as simultaneously intemperate and patronizing.

And sometimes I find myself at big, college-wide meetings where someone is being That Guy--perseverating, bloviating, whatever--and I look sideways at my neighbor, a total stranger, and he looks sideways at me, and we both exchange an omigod eyeroll and it feels all nice and familiar--and then suddenly I realize I have no idea what we're actually bonding over. Is it That Guy? Is my neighbor signalling that, holy hell, there's Fred being Fred again? Or is he rolling his eyes at the particular issue under discussion, which is a total non-starter that some idiot or other raises at every meeting?

I have no idea! I just have reflexive mid-career snark spilling out of me!

I suppose there are virtues, though. Being a midcareer newbie means you have certain kinds of cynicism, but lack others. I've been to enough meetings and met enough academics that I know all the types and behaviors--the irrelevant stand-taker who cares more about students (or adjuncts or, God help us, Palestine) than all the rest of you; the perseverator; the committee chair who can't keep to an agenda; the person obsessed with Robert's Rules of Order. Those things are pretty much the same from one place to the next. But when you don't know all the personalities and their backstories and prior conflicts, and you have no idea what proposals have been shot down before, you may have more optimism and a greater willingness to believe that things can be done differently.

Because, of course: you know better than everyone.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Another country

Since at least 9/11, scholars of the Renaissance and Reformation have drawn connections between the martyrological obsessions of the period we study and the one in which we now live. In fact, at this point, I rarely think about the possible similarities between the scaffold speeches of Marian martyrs or Elizabethan recusants, on the one hand, and jihadi videos on the other--or between Catholic exhortations to martyrdom during the Oath of Allegiance controversy and ISIS's recruitment materials. If this kind of grisly, exculpatory self-fashioning ever seemed anomalous to me, it hasn't for a long time.

But while researching at the Folger over spring break I came across a bit of religious polemic that evoked a scenario that did feel new to me, in an Early Modern context--but rather more familiar in our own. And that's a parent's fear that his child has come under the sway of a foreign religious fanatic.

John Niccols Pilgrimage (1581) opens as a dialogue between a father and his grown son, the latter languishing in an ecstasy of melancholy. The son, Trisander, declares that nothing can ease his grief but his father's permission to go abroad "for three or foure yeares space." His father is instantly alarmed, the more so by Trisander's vague reasons for his dolor. He has, he says, "a desire. . . to goe to strange Countries, to veiw those things which are not to be seene" in England, and to study foreign languages. His father replies that Trisander doesn't need to go abroad--he can learn languages at home! In fact, he'll hire private tutors for him! Indeed, whatever Trisander wants, his doting dad promises to give him: leisure to hunt and hawk? Done!

But Trisander demurs, describing the beauties of Italy and his longing to see that country in person. His father is even more suspicious: "You talke of Italie. . . as though you had bin there: but in Italie you were never... tell me therfore whom thou harde to prase Italie so much?" After Trisander identifies the man, his father keeps pressing him: was it just the one gentleman Trisander spoke to. . . ? And does Trisander happen to know his religion. . . ?

But at just the point where it seems that his father has identified the real reason behind Trisander's request, the work lurches into another mode. Trisander declares that the gentleman in question has professed his belief that the Pope is the antichrist, that salvation comes not by works, and that all of religion is contained in the scriptures. His father, now as satisfied as before he was suspicious, bestows "three hundreth pounds in gold" upon Trisander, swings into a long, Polonius-like lecture on how his son may best comport himself overseas, and hands him off to his mother. The rest of the work moves from dialogue to dialogue as Trisander bids his family adieu and ships out for the Continent; its chief purpose seems to be peddling the most shopworn of anti-Catholic polemic.

Still, for a moment there, at the beginning, the dialogue felt fresh and unpredictable. And for all its inelegance and lack of nuance--Nicholls's writing is as thudding as his religious politics--the opening scenario had, if not the ring of truth, then at least the ring of plausibility. If the confrontation between father and son weren't drawing upon real contemporary fears and anxieties, the rest of the polemic wouldn't work.

And that, I suppose, is why I read early modern prose: for the window it provides onto daily life and the lived experience of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It's not that nonfictional prose is a transparent medium or that it should be taken at face value (did early modern Protestants really believe that all priests were having sex either with each other or with the nuns they confessed? probably no more than we today believe our lawyer jokes), but it still gives us a rare kind of access to the culture.

Reading unfamiliar genres and encountering debates and topical references that may be half or even entirely obscure is to feel both the closeness and the irreducible strangeness of the past: on the one hand, here it is! a pamphlet that someone paid money for, held in his hand, maybe read aloud. On the other, what did it mean to him? Why did he buy it? And what the hell is it even about? High literature is easier to read, not least because it trails after it centuries of familiarization, but it lacks the same intimacy, that sense of being there in the moment with all its unknowns.

Because it's not really historical information that I want, even when I can get it. The work's introduction makes clear that it was written from the Tower and is (ostensibly) based on Nicholls's own experiences in the English Seminary at Rome, and the DNB fills out the portrait somewhat. But the work isn't better or more believable if you know that Nicholls traveled to Rome and "voluntarily surrendered himself to the Inquisition" at age twenty-two or twenty-three, or that he was a serial apostate. What I want--or rather, what I didn't know that I wanted until I had it--is the sense that parents, or some parents, worried over their childrens' possible apostacy, and what they were reading and who they were hanging out with, and whether they were more or less devout than their elders.

Possibly this is something I could have learned from a work of historiography. But it wouldn't have been as real, somehow, as encountering that paranoia first-hand, in this ephemeral, intemperate, and yet still somehow reticent text.

Sunday, April 03, 2016

Enemies are bad for business

For some time now I've been thinking about how we acquire or defuse professional enemies. I've been fortunate to have very few (that I know of!), but I also think I'm pretty good at avoiding the near-occasion of enmity. I can sometimes be thin-skinned about my work or peremptory about that of others--someone who believed in humoral theory would say I'm choleric, which means I'm overly prone to snark and snap judgments--but I've trained myself to slow down and walk back any initial negative assumptions. Everyone acts or speaks carelessly at times, and when in doubt I chalk up most weird academic behavior and seeming slights to social awkwardness.

Because: even if the slights are real, there's no benefit to holding onto them. We all need a wide and varied network and access to lots of different brains. Enemies are bad for business.

So I was surprised to learn that someone I'd met and liked, and whose work I found interesting, seemed to want to burn that bridge--that is, seemed to be on an aggressive crusade against some things I've written in order to clear space for their own work. That's a known phenomenon in the world, I guess, but it strikes me as very grad-student-y: I remember righteously lambasting prior scholars in my dissertation, as a way of helping myself to believe in my own ideas. . . but pretty much all of that dropped out by the final draft, and certainly before the thing became a book. Moreover, though I don't mind someone disliking my work, I actually don't see major points of conflict here. At most, I think our interests are complementary or adjacent--and in some ways I'm not even sure we're talking about the same thing.

Obviously, this behavior doesn't make the other person my "enemy," and it's not something I'd hold a grudge over. But it puzzles me that someone would take an antagonistic approach rather than a more temperate one. I've met plenty of people whose work overlaps with mine, but usually after half an hour of freaking out, I realize that we're not really doing the same thing, and we're certainly not in competition. In a best-case scenario, we're working in effective, if not literal, collaboration. I want to keep on good terms with those people.

And even when I think another critic is totally wrong, the stakes of that wrongness just aren't that high: we're not talking about getting a digit wrong on the nuclear codes. Generally, even if I disagree about a conclusion or a method, there's still interesting research or local observations I can praise and build on--or at a minimum I can say that the other person's work has drawn attention to a topic that I also believe deserves attention. And because our scholarly world is small and none of us is getting fame or glory out of doing this work, we learn to disagree in ways that preserve friendly, or at least cordial, social relations. (A swift "So-and-so's fine article on X nevertheless leaves Y startlingly unaddressed" is typical of the way this game gets played.)

So who knows what this is about. But it's a strange feeling, being someone else's straw man.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Historicist ≠ historian

I'm now more than halfway through my Folger seminar, and though, as noted, it's kicking my ass, it's also been terrific. This particular seminar skews young, with faculty accounting for only two of the ten participants (or, as I prefer to call them, "seminarians"), but it's an energetic and exciting group, well-balanced in terms of disciplinary background: five historians, four literature scholars, one philosopher. And even within those groups there's a lot of diversity: we range from the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries, working on different genres and kinds of documents, with a gender historian, an archivist, and a musicologist in the mix.

It's surprising how rarely I see the thought processes of people in different disciplines, even those in closely allied fields. I read a lot of historiography, but I read it in the service of my own work. This means that I focus on the bigger-picture stuff rather than dwelling on, say, how the data were collected or what the author's methods or assumptions might be. (And of course, any published work, to the extent that it foregrounds a narrative or an argument, at least partly obscures the process of its research. If you're not trained in the relevant field, it's easy not to think about how the sausage gets made.)

Now, this exposure doesn't mean that I'm going to start crunching the data in baptismal records or churchwardens' reports or whatever. I hope now, as I always have, that some of my work might be useful to historians, but even when I think I've made a minor historical discovery (as in this essay), it's always done in pursuit of a literary argument. And since I'm not writing for historians, I can't predict which parts they'll find interesting.

Still, having a better sense of how historians attack a particular problem and becoming more conversant in their disciplinary debates has been tremendously useful. And thinking harder about someone else's disciplinary norms has made me more conscious of my own--of what we mean by literary scholarship: how we mount arguments, what counts as evidence, and what the payoff should be.

As for the benefits of this seminar for my own work--well, I'm early enough in this book project that I can't yet fully ascertain how it will influence its shape, though I have faith that it will: most of the things we learn disappear soon afterwards, or seem to, with only the occasional fact or detail surfacing as needed. In reality, the process of learning continues, like a subterranean stream moving steadily beneath the surface. I have a hard time pinpointing what I "learned" in many of my graduate seminars beyond the specific texts I read or the papers I wrote. But they produced habits of thought, assumptions, value systems--what kind of things are worth looking at, what kind of questions are worth asking--that shape my scholarly method today.

It's a different experience, though, than the last faculty research seminar I participated in, which came toward the end of my first book project. In that case, when a particular discussion reoriented my thinking, I knew it as it was happening, and each time it felt like a bomb going off. This time I'm just accreting small revelations and minute changes to my thinking, which are like brief flashes of light at the edge of my field of vision. What do they signal? Are they important? Will they add up to something?

That's as time will try.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Meeting minima

I've been reviewing more article manuscripts lately, which means I've been thinking harder about the intricacies of "fit."

We all know that some work just isn't right for a particular venue, though some instances of bad fit are easier to discern than others (no one, surely, would submit an essay on Ben Jonson to American Literature). I had one essay that I thought was a good fit for a particular journal that didn't even make it to peer review, and my book manuscript was summarily rejected by as many presses as were interested in it.

I was bad at predicting those outcomes, but I wasn't upset by them: I trust editors to know their audience and their market and to have a better feel for how my work aligns with their areas of strength. As an external reviewer, though, it's a little harder. There are some journals that I know intimately and where I have no difficulty discerning whether a submission fits--or, more to the point, where I know exactly the kind of suggestions for a conditional acceptance, or a revise-and-resubmit, that will help the essay pass muster. But other journals I just don't know as well. I may have a general sense that a given journal is, let's say, a B/B+ venue--perfectly credible, but not a brass-ring achievement--but what does that actually mean, in terms of the minimum standard for a given submission?

I consider argumentative and organizational clarity to be essential, no matter how modest or ambitious the claim, and every essay needs some degree of critical framing. But if the author is making only a small intervention, or is raising an interesting historical context without doing much with it--well, obviously that's not enough for a top-tier journal. But is it enough for Journal X?

Or to put it more finely: if I think the claim is a little lackluster and I push for more, am I doing a service--encouraging deeper thinking and helping to maintain high standards--or am I placing a burden on both author and journal--depriving, let's say, a grad student of a line on her vita that would materially help her on the job market and a journal that might be struggling for submissions of a basically solid if minor contribution?

In practice, a lot of this gets sorted out before an essay ever makes its way to an external reviewer: editors filter out the completely unacceptable; good advisors direct their students to journals they think are a reasonable match for their work; authors have a vested interest in knowing their venue and getting the fit right. I've never had an essay that I truly thought could have gone either way.

But I still worry about this each time I'm asked to read an essay by a journal that I don't have a good feel for, and I struggle to articulate exactly what should count as "good enough" for most journals in the big, broad middle.

Maybe, like obscenity, we just know it when we see it.

Wednesday, March 02, 2016

Promissory note

In case you're wondering where I've been:

1) death in the family

2) buying a house

3) getting my ass kicked by my Folger seminar

That's one week's readings. Double-sided.

So I've got lots to say but no time to say it. Soon, though. I hope.

Friday, February 19, 2016


As it turns out, there are still birthdays after forty.

But not to worry. Young Flavia's got it all under control.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Roads not taken

Although I'm a hopeless looker-backward and easily prone to nostalgia, I'm not much one for regret. Sure, I might regret that I said X or Y and hurt someone's feeling--I do regret that kind of thing, rather often--but I've never regretted a life choice and rarely even dwell on the alternate paths that once seemed open.

Lately, there have been a few exceptions.


Earlier this winter I spent a weekend working with a colleague in a city and a state I'd never visited. At some point over the weekend I remembered--suddenly, and with force--that I'd applied to the law school at the neighboring university. In fact, I was accepted, and even offered a scholarship to do a combined J.D. and M.A. in English. Both the law school and the English department are terrific, and at some point the joint degree had seemed like an elegant solution: I could continue my literary studies while also doing something more practical.

But it also hadn't felt like a real place to me. I'd thought that I could see myself in law school--I had other friends at other programs--but I hadn't gotten into the three or four more prestigious and more proximate programs I'd applied to. An M.A. at my alma mater, though; that I could visualize. And I figured law school would still be waiting if I wanted it. (And as it turns out, I didn't.)

I've never forgotten that I applied to law school, but I tend to think of my applications as a bit of unserious casting about: the kind of thing you do when you're twenty-three and don't have any better ideas. Being in the actual city of that actual university reminded me that I really might have gone. I usually forget the phone conversations I had with current students tasked with recruiting me, or the time spent debating the pros and cons with friends and family. Had I made a different choice (I thought, as we drove around), I could have had a whole relationship with this city, and a whole set of memories and friendships connected to it and the surrounding landscape. I could, even now, be a lawyer.

Or an ex-lawyer.


A university where I was once a finalist for a job has been going through a convulsive and seemingly unending series of scandals. My on-campus interview had been a mixed experience: it was clear that the institution was unhealthy and that the faculty felt alternately besieged and depressed, but everyone in the English department was lovely and the location was deeply attractive. I was trepidatious, but I would have taken the job.

I didn't get it, though. In mid-March I got an unexpected call from RU, which had not interviewed me at MLA, inviting me to do a phone interview, which was followed by a fly-out. RU was such a great fit that for years I'd been grateful I didn't get that earlier job. . . but again, it's not something I've spent much time thinking about.

The recent scandal, though, has made me feel just how near a miss that was. The stories in the press have featured shots of the campus, which have conjured up vivid sensory memories of walking around on a blustery January day, eating in the student union, and being escorted back and forth to interviews. None of the faculty being quoted are people I met, but reading their words made the names of those I did meet pop back into my head. And I saw anew how hangdog or anhedonic they seemed when discussing the place.

At the time, I'd figured I could write my way out if I wasn't happy. But knowing what I know now about my professional savvy in my first few years on the tenure track (and what I know about the job market), I'm skeptical that I would have.

After all, the person they hired instead of me is still there.


Maybe thinking about alternate paths is something one does more as one gets older, but it's also striking that neither of these is a positive vision, or even a misty "oh, what might have been!" Each is, to a different degree, a "holy shit! thank God I didn't do THAT."

And in neither case is the near-miss something on which I can congratulate myself: I just couldn't see myself at that law school, so I went with what felt like the easier option; I had a bad feeling about that job, but the decision not to take it wasn't mine.

Maybe that, too, is a sign of middle age: the grateful but somewhat abashed realization that dumb luck accounts for as much of our lives as reasoned decisions.