Saturday, January 14, 2017

For reference

In college I thought I had a lot of books, and it's true that I had more books in my dorm room than most people: I'd brought most of my personal library with me when I moved across the country. But what was really remarkable about my library was how many reference books I owned, a collection that continued to grow for years until suddenly it didn't.

I started college with The Oxford Companion to English Literature, Benét's Reader's Encyclopedia, at least two dictionaries of quotations and three dictionaries of etymology. I had atlases and almanacs and style manuals, not to mention the NYPL Desk Reference, which I consulted so often that my roommate would cry, "here comes the nipple!" whenever I took it from the shelf. Over the next four years I added to this collection. I discovered The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics at a used bookstore and figured I might need it. I bought Random House's Historical Dictionary of American Slang because I knew I'd need it.

At some point I became obsessed with the idea of getting the complete 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary--nevermind that I lived in studio apartments until I was past thirty. When I was working my law firm job I considered saving up $1,000 to buy it new. Once I started grad school I looked longingly at the used sets that would occasionally pop up in local bookstores. Eventually I compromised and bought a 20-year-old "compact" version--the kind with the magnifying glass--which I lugged home through the rain, more than a mile across town, so eager was I to have it in my possession.

And I used these books all the time. My first year of grad school one of my professors gave us a assignment that consisted of a long list of terms, titles, and names from the period, none of which we'd discussed, and set us loose to identify them and their relevance. This was in 1999. Google didn't exist, Wikipedia didn't exist, and I didn't have internet in my apartment anyway. I was able to sketch out at least preliminary identifications for some 70% of the entries from my reference books. (Most of the others I got from the library's Dictionary of National Biography, which I loved so much that I immediately wanted to buy my own set; alas, the cost was prohibitive.)

But at some point I stopped using many of these books. I had online access to the OED, which was faster and more current. I had Google and Wikipedia for when I wanted to know the population of St. Louis, or what year Charlemagne died, or why a quotation sounded so familiar. And I had real books--my growing scholarly library--for the more precise and detailed things I needed to know about the authors and texts in which I was slowly becoming an expert. During my past two moves I donated or discarded many of the reference books I once had, and the ones I've kept I don't use very often.

The exceptions are those books on subjects that my work touches on but that lie outside my field of immediate expertise. I no longer need The Oxford Companion to English Literature, but I sure do need their companions to the Bible and Classical literature. I need my encyclopedias of music and church history. Those are subjects in which I'm still a beginner (and often don't have better ideas about where to start when I need to brush up quick), but about which I need more than just fun factoids or whatever crap the internet might turn up.

But I guess it's not true that I have fewer reference books within my field than I used to; they're just different. Where once I prized encyclopedias and dictionaries and manuals, I now own concordances and variora, biographies and Complete Works. All the books in my campus office, all the books in my home office, indeed any book I wouldn't read at the beach or on the elliptical is, in some sense, a reference book.

But I still kinda want that 20-volume OED.

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Teachers shouldn't bury their students

The first thing I read this morning was an obituary for a student I last saw two weeks ago, at our final exam. He'd been in both my classes, and he was terrific: smart, lively, generous. I can't claim to have known him outside of class. But it turns out that's a pretty intimate way of knowing someone.

I know lots of things about my students' lives, though it's a collection of details rather than individual portraits. I know this one has a boyfriend deployed overseas, that one works nights at the casino, another has a sick parent. Even when I learn quite terrible things--a best friend's suicide, a sibling killed in a domestic violence dispute--they tend to come in isolation. I learn what I do because the student is both in crisis and trying to keep it together. So we work out how I can help on the scholastic end, but after ensuring that she has appropriate support, I don't get or ask for more details.

But you can know someone without knowing what we normally think of as "personal" information. When it comes to factual data, this is close to the sum of what I knew about my student: where he worked, where he started college, and the kinds of books he read in his spare time. I knew that he'd just gotten married and that he was in a band. Our one-on-one contact might have added up to sixty minutes. That's more personal contact than I have with some students, but it doesn't amount to intimacy.

On the other hand, over the course of three and half months I read more than 30 pages of his prose. We spent upwards of 80 classroom hours together--nevermind the hours I spent reading and thinking about his work outside of the classroom. In a limited but very real way, I know his mind, personality, and habits of thought. I could tell you about his intellectual obsessions and his writerly quirks. I've thought about his classroom presence: how he takes up space both physically and verbally. I know his laugh and I could recognize him by his gait when he was still far down the hall.

In this he isn't so exceptional. Not all students take up this much psychic real estate, but a surprising number do. Running through my mental attendance list, I can conjure up similar feelings of attachment and investment for at least half my students, maybe more.

We talk about how large teachers loom for students, the ways they imprint upon us and absorb our quirks, habits, and obsessions. But the arrow doesn't just go one way.

Rest in peace.

Sunday, January 01, 2017

New Year's Meme

New Year's Meme
(Tenth [!] in a series)

1. What did you do in 2015 that you'd never done before?
*Watched a family member die
*Participated in a semester-long research seminar at the Folger
*Bought a second house (sequentially, not concurrently)
*Resolved (maybe) to do some substantive nonacademic writing
*Fell off the blogging horse as I've never fallen before

2. Did anyone close to you give birth?
Yes. My oldest friend had her first (but births are slowing down now that I've hit 40).

3. Did anyone close to you die?
Yes. My mother-in-law.

4. What countries did you visit?

5. What would you like to have in 2017 that you lacked in 2016?
More time at home. In 2016 one or both of us was out of town for 30 weekends out of 52.

6. What was your biggest achievement of the year?
Very little of what I did in 2016 feels like "an achievement," but moving/painting/setting up the house took a lot of effort. So did flying back and forth to D.C. for a semester. So did grieving and supporting the bereaved.

7. What was your biggest failure?
Not finishing the Essay of Doom on time. That itself isn't the biggest deal in the world, but this has been a really tough writing slump psychologically. As my inability to write anything of substance here for two months indicates.

8. Did you suffer illness or injury?
Nope. I think I had exactly one full-blown cold. Which is remarkable, given the upheaval of this past year.

9. What was the best thing you bought?
This house.

10. Whose behavior merited celebration?
On the national level, Hillary Rodham Clinton. Especially post-election.

11. Whose behavior made you appalled and depressed?
Donald J. Trump.

12. Where did most of your money go?
On a household level: buying a 100-year-old house and the inevitable repairs, improvements, and new furnishings.

On a personal level: I sure wish I knew!

13. Compared to this time last year, are you: a) happier or sadder? b) thinner or fatter? c) richer or poorer?
a) Sadder. I'm feeling grim about the election, and the past 18 months have involved too many deaths.
b) A bit thinner, but not so's anyone would notice.
c) Poorer in terms of bank balance. About the same in terms of income.

14. What do you wish you'd done more of?
Entertained. We hosted Thanksgiving for our families and a department potluck, both of which were terrific--but I'd like to do much more of that.

15. What do you wish you'd done less of?
Grieved. Felt helpless.

16. What was the best book you read?
Helen McDonald's H Is for Hawk

17. What was your favorite film of the year?

18. What was your favorite album of the year?
Prince, 1999 (I will be listening to Prince until the day I die)

19. What was the best play you saw?
Best new play: Hamilton (Broadway)

Best revival: Love's Labor's Lost (Great Lakes)

20. What kept you sane?
Our house. I'm thrilled to be out of an apartment, for one--but holy shit do I love this house.

21. Tell us a valuable life lesson you learned in 2016.
We broke it, we bought it, and now it's up to us to fix it.