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.