Friday, May 29, 2015


So that talk I gave last week had me spazzing out the way very few talks have ever made me spazz out. For at least ten days prior I did nothing but work on that paper: sleeping poorly, oppressed with an always-incipient but never-quite-present migraine (the symptoms of which vanished the second my talk was over).

This was only partly due to the stakes of the performance itself. Yes, it was a semi-plenary before an audience of unknown size, all specialists, and I sometimes feel myself to be only a fake Miltonist. (And Miltonists--I say it with love--have a reputation as hectoring pedants.) The real problem was that this was entirely new work, work that no one had seen or heard a word of two weeks before my talk. Including myself.

And that's not the way I write conference papers. Like most people, I'll certainly use a conference as an excuse to get cracking on a new project, and it's not uncommon for my abstracts--written 6-9 months in advance--to be a tissue of fictions and suppositions. But by the time the conference itself rolls around I've usually been working on the article or chapter for a few months; I just carve my paper out of that much larger body of work. Sometimes the carving is easier and sometimes it's harder, but it's never THAT hard. By that point both my writing and my argumentation are pretty polished, and I feel secure that I have some larger grounding in the material.

But a conference paper that's exactly coextensive with my research on the subject--where I basically haven't had a thought or read a work that isn't mentioned in the paper--that was a new experience. I was deathly afraid I'd be asked to expand on ideas I literally could not expand on, or talk about texts I've never considered. (I always have a version of this fear, but it was particularly acute this time.)

But it went fine. It went better than fine. In fact, some of the reasons it went well may have been directly related to how quickly I wrote the paper and how rough some of its edges were: it was talky and (I think) entertaining, with a strong argument but also a lot of open-ended and speculative bits; this facilitated what was, hands-down, the most genuinely useful Q&A I've ever participated in. Partly this was due to my presenting before true specialists, but being at an early stage also meant I was fully open to suggestions and interested in considering my topic from fresh angles.

Now the advantages of presenting early work are probably obvious to every single one of my readers; I'm on the rigid end of the spectrum when it comes to sharing material I haven't perfected or generating ideas on the fly. But for me it was a bit of a revelation.

But here's the really good news: for the first time ever, I'm starting the summer with a working draft of my new chapter.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Ten years

As of today, I've been blogging for ten years, nine of them in this space. I've now been blogging for longer than I've done anything in my adult life: I started blogging before I finished my dissertation, before I started teaching full-time, before I moved to this city, before I met my spouse.

(I mean, okay: I guess I've done a few things for longer, like being a legal drinker and a contact-lens-wearer and a short-hair-sporter, but not much of substance.)

Every time this anniversary rolls around, I wonder whether I have it in me to keep going--whether I have enough to say, enough time, enough that could possibly interest whoever still reads blogs these days; the retirements of Tenured Radical and Dr. Crazy have only made that question more urgent. But though I'm not sure I've totally settled into a post-tenure blogging identity, every time I have a two-week dry spell and am convinced I've sputtered out at last, I think of three things I want to write about. So I keep going.

As many of you know, my current book project is about nostalgia. A friend to whom I recently described the project asked how I felt about nostalgia, personally--whether I was pro- or anti-, more for nostalgia or more for progress--and though it's a reasonable question, it caught me up short. Anyone who's been reading me for more than a month knows I'm obsessively interested in how we negotiate our relationship with the past; I'd freely describe myself as susceptible to nostalgia (probably unusually susceptible). But I'm also generally optimistic and forward-looking, unafraid of change, and I dislike what I perceive as sentimental or naive nostalgia at least as much as I dislike sentimental and naive futurism and the cult of innovation.

I suppose I see nostalgia as the byproduct of progress: for me it's not about wanting to roll back the clock or thinking things were better in the past, but about acknowledging the sense of loss that accompanies even positive change. Nostalgia is the cost of moving on, of growing up, of living inside of time.

All of which is to say: for as long as I keep blogging and as many new subjects as I take on, I'll probably still be looking backwards. No doubt I'll be talking about grad school and my experiences as a junior scholar when I'm sixty, as I try to find the continuities and figure out what holds a professional life together.

You've been warned.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Interruption in blog service

Appearances to the contrary, I haven't fallen off the face of the earth; it's just that the end of the semester coincided with our putting our house on the market and my needing to generate 5,000 moderately compelling and entertaining words.

But I've got at least three posts queued up, so after some Toronto and some Milton and some Stratford and some Shakespeare, I'll be back.

Friday, May 08, 2015

The sincerest form of you-know-what

This semester I had a new experience: an M.A. student whose proposed project made me say, "Damn! I want to write that!"

I've had students write good papers before, of course; one or two I've even thought might be publishable. But this is the first time I've read a prospectus and thought, yeah! I've been noticing that, too! and this is totally the kind of work I might do and seriously: this has never been written about? because this needs to be written about.

As new as this experience is for me, it must be relatively common for others, especially those who work with doctoral students. Teaching always means seeding the ground a bit, training students to do the kind of work--focus on the issues, ask the questions, pursue the methodologies--that we find interesting. Combine that with very smart students and students engaged in long-term projects, and it makes sense that the intellectual current would flow both ways. Still, the ethical issues can get murky.

In my case, it's no big deal: my student's topic is a cool one, and something I might be interested in keeping on a back burner, but it's not meaningfully related to anything I'm doing right now and my front burners are full up. If my student delivers on the promise of the prospectus, then cool: I'll recommend transforming it into a thesis and/or a journal submission. If not (or if the student eventually writes a thesis on some other subject), then the ground is clear for me to work on this topic someday.

Other cases are more complicated. I have friends who've felt an uncomfortable frisson of recognition when reading the latest book of a former mentor. None of my friends were or felt themselves to have been robbed--but when a senior scholar produces work that arguably overlaps with or grows out of the work their students or juniors were working on years ago. . . well, I'm not sure who owes what to whom, but I'm pretty sure a gracious mention in the acknowledgments is a minimum.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Writing the boring way

A couple of weeks ago the NYT Sunday Review published an essay that I've been clinging to as summer creeps slowly into view. Mary Mann's "The Other Side of Boredom" makes the case that boredom--in her case, a do-nothing job that left her surfing the internet for hours--can be a spur to creativity. She's not just talking about being at leisure, but actual boredom: that restless but thwarted desire to be doing something more meaningful.

Mann's argument is that boredom forces us into creativity, either as an escape from the tedium (I'm thinking about anything but this hellish airport lounge, this interminable flight delay, and these awful people around me) or as a way of transforming it (I'm making up stories about my fellow travelers--or perhaps even getting to know them). As Mann says, "Sometimes boredom serves as empty ground on which to build new ideas, while other times it acts as a guide to our true desires. You have to wait and see; above all, boredom is the master of the long con."

This seems right to me. But then, boredom is an essential part of my writing process.

One kind of boredom is the boredom of procrastination--a boredom that I seem to need to generate in order to push it aside. Even when I've cleared my entire calendar, I can never get down to writing immediately. I plan to start on a Monday, but I just get out my notes and look at them for ten minutes. On Tuesday I fuck around on the internet for most of the day. Wednesday I might write a paragraph, but otherwise continue to do anything in the world but write. At some point, though, I'm so bored and disgusted with all my strategies of avoidance that the only option is to plant ass in chair.

That's when the second kind of boredom sets in. As I've written before, my first (and often my second) drafts are hideous and awful and painful to write. If the first kind of boredom leads to a self-loathing that leads to writing, the second is a boredom of gritted teeth and the determination not to dissolve into a pool of self-loathing. I can avoid that by pounding out my daily 1,000 words.

Then, for a while, there's no boredom. As my ideas emerge and my paragraphs seem increasingly like they might have been written by a human and a native speaker of English, I find myself more or less engrossed and more or less convinced that actual thoughts are being thunk.

Inevitably, though, there's a third kind of boredom that sets in late in the process, when I feel done but something isn't quite working or I've gotten suggestions for revision that I don't know how to implement. The boredom here is the boredom of over-familiarity, the inability to think of the piece in a new or fresh way.

This, I think, is the kind of boredom that F. Scott Fitzgerald is talking about in a line that Mann quotes: "you've got to go by or past or through boredom, as through a filter, before the clear product emerges." Forcing myself to really pay attention, or revisit old and seemingly settled ideas, is a struggle, but coming out the other side is exhilarating.

So I'm eager for summer. I need to get my boredom on.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Moving backward to move ahead: should you ever give up tenure?

In response to my previous post, Nik asked what I thought about the wisdom of giving up tenure in order to be more mobile at midcareer, or, in her words, "moving backwards to move ahead." I responded in the comments, but since this is something I've rarely seen discussed (and since I know only a handful of people who have done it), I thought it might be worth a post in its own right.

Unlike some of Nik's mentors, I don't think it's crazy to consider giving up tenure for the right job, but whether it's worth it depends on a lot of factors, some of which can't be assessed when you're just scanning the job ads. For me, giving up tenure would only be worth it for a markedly better job--whether that meant prestige, pay, or a significant improvement in my domestic/geographic circumstances. Even then, the exact terms of the offer would be crucial.

I actually did apply to three assistant-level jobs after getting tenure: one a modest step up in prestige, the others basically lateral moves; all in the same geographic region as my spouse. I was privately doubtful whether any could make me an offer I'd accept, but since there's no sense worrying about offers you haven't received, I threw out some applications (saying, in the first paragraph of my job letter, "although I received tenure in 2012, for the opportunity to join such a talented faculty I'd be happy to negotiate an appropriate tenure schedule"). Two gave me MLA interviews.

Once you get to the interview stage, it's worth starting to think about your non-negotiables. Some departments can hire you with tenure, even if the job wasn't listed that way, and if you get a fly-back you can sound out the situation then (but don't try it at the convention interview). Many departments, though, can't--I mean, legally, CANNOT.

If you get an offer that doesn't come with tenure, here are the factors I'd weigh in making a decision:

1. Do you have to give up rank as well as tenure? This matters. First off, if you get hired as an associate, nothing looks funny on your C.V.--but more importantly, getting hired as an associate is a sign that the institution regards you as already qualified for that rank.

2. What's the tenure timeline? Some departments can't hire you with tenure but will put you up for tenure immediately upon arrival. Again, this is a declaration that the department has already approved you for tenure (sometimes literally--one friend was told that the department's vote to hire constituted its approval of his tenure case).

3. Can you go up for tenure more than once? Often a faculty member has to go up within a certain number of years, but can do so earlier. If you go up immediately and something weird happens at the college or university level, do you get a do-over?

4. How close are you to meeting the tenure standard? Whether your title is assistant or associate, if you've already met the tenure standard, you're in good shape (at least if research is a primary criterion; teaching and service may be more of an unknown quantity).

5. Will you have the resources to meet the tenure standard? If your prospective employer expects much more for tenure than you've already produced, you want to make sure you'll have enough time and support (research funds, course releases) to get it done.

6. How will giving up tenure affect your progress toward full? If you're several years past tenure, it's worth knowing if any of what you've already produced will count toward full, or if everything before you get tenure at the new department essentially disappears and you have to start from scratch.

7. Everything else: salary, location, reputation, the "feel" of the place. All the stuff you normally consider will obviously be relevant in deciding if giving up tenure is worth it on the terms you're offered.

Readers: what considerations am I forgetting? And what have you seen with those who gave up tenure in order to move--smooth sailing? cautionary tales?

Inquiring minds want to know.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Mobility and the future of the humanities

I suspect I'll have more to say about midcareer mobility in the coming years, but from chatting with some friends and colleagues over the past few weeks, it's clear that it's the fear of no future mobility, of a lack of options, that gets most of us--even if we're not looking; even if we're pretty happy where we are.

There are a lot of reasons for this, but one I've been chewing over is the legibility of a new job: in part because mobility is so constricted and jobs are so few, moving between tenure-track jobs is a visible sign of success. (Assuming, of course, that it isn't the result of a tenure denial.) And though no one can make it through graduate school and junior professordom without being internally motivated, our lives up through tenure still involve a lot of external validation.

Getting a job is a big deal. Getting tenure is a big deal. Getting a book published is a big deal. But after that the achievement curve starts to flatten out and there are fewer truly new things to do. As the saying goes, the reward for winning the pie-eating contest is more pie.

Now, I like pie--which is to say, I'm reasonably content with the thought of what lies ahead. I'm immersed in my next book project and looking forward to being able to play a bigger role in certain things at the departmental and college level. But if my career is a narrative, it's entering a pretty boring phase. It'll be years and years before my next book is done, and even when it is, it's not going to be as big of a deal as my first book. Not because it won't be better; I hope it will be better. But it's not going to be a public accomplishment in the same way, something that inspires a flood of congratulatory emails from high school and college friends, distant relatives, and people I sometimes hung out with in grad school.

So I think some of the anxiety about mid-career mobility is about what it would mean not to have much visible change for the rest of your life, and not to have any markers, legible to others, of how well you're doing. If you're already at a top school, well, maybe that's okay: your mom is proud that you teach at Stanford; your peers respect your first book; it's all good.*

But if you have even the least sense that your institutional affiliation doesn't quite signify to others what you're about, it may be a different story. None of us, wherever we teach, is going to get big public accolades for our research; if we're lucky, a few hundred people read what we write (and a few dozen know how to value it). But it's easy to fear, if you're at Middling State U., that even fewer people will pick up your work to begin with. Moreover, if Middling State doesn't particularly reward or recognize research, it may feel like no one knows or cares what you're up to. And at a certain career stage, a new job may feel like the only truly legible sign of success.

(Now sure: you can say that we should all be completely internally motivated; that no one does specialized research for fame and fortune; that even those at prestigious research institutions are speaking, primarily, to a handful of specialists outside their university walls. But it's undeniable that some institutions provide more recognition, and more material compensation, for research than others.)

Personally, I have it pretty good. I can probably do the kind of work I wish to do at either my current or future employer. But the long-term consequences for humanities research, faculty life satisfaction, and even institutional prestige are unclear in an era where virtually everyone teaching at the college level has been trained as a serious researcher but employment prospects and mobility are sharply limited.

One possibility is pure waste: all that work that could have been done doesn't get done, because the scholars who would have done it don't get jobs or don't get jobs that adequately support their research. Another is a radical reassessment of the academic hierarchy: if an increasing number of people making careers at 3/3 and 4/4 institutions (or as adjuncts or independent scholars) produce work that's just as good as that produced by some of their peers at R1s, do we reevaluate what it means to have a "research" job? A third possibility, I guess, is a bunch of frustrated and unhappy people.

Maybe things will become clearer as the next decade or two play themselves out in the life of the academy. But in the meanwhile, a lot of people will be dreaming about their next move.

*I mean, except for the work itself, which may still cause you plenty of anguish, self-doubt, etc. But that's to be expected.

Thursday, April 16, 2015


After an extra-long stay on the west coast to celebrate my one and only brother's wedding, I'm finally returned and recovered from #shakeass15. This was my seventh SAA in nine years, and maybe it's time to give in and admit that, drama scholar or no, this really is my conference now.

This was the first year that I organized and ran a seminar of my own (a rather wee one, as it turned out, but with great papers and participants), and probably the second at which it seemed fully half of the seminars were run by friends, or at least friends-of-friends, or, anyway: people I know well enough to talk to for five minutes at the bar.

When I was at an earlier stage of my career, I think I longed for this moment as a sign that I'd "made" it, that I was some kind of an insider. And for at least a couple of hours on Thursday, it did feel that way: at the opening reception, after 10 hours of travel, not enough to eat, and (just possibly) more wine than I'd realized, I was possessed of the delusion that either I knew everyone or everyone knew me. This was a terrific feeling, and led to my crashing a lot of conversations: I'd see a knot of four or five people, recognize one of them, and decide that the whole group probably knew who I was and would be thrilled if I barged into their conversation. When the expected enthusiastic welcome wasn't forthcoming, I'd think, geez, those are some weird, uptight people--and move along to the next bunch.

As a strategy to overcome the social-awkwardness-that-reads-as-unfriendliness at academic conferences, this may not have been the worst approach: without the anxious, inhibiting voice in my head persuading me that I was the weird, rude one, I was free to be . . . well, a little weird and a little rude. But also charming and friendly! (I'm pretty sure!)

Looking back on the reception from the following day's luncheon, it was clear that I didn't know half the attendees. (Using a generous definition of "know," it's conceivable that I knew one-quarter.) And the people I don't know aren't just grad students or scholars emeriti: they're often people my own age, at my career stage, doing interesting and important work; we just haven't met yet.

This is, I think, the real sweet spot: being only two or three degrees of separation from everyone, but never feeling that one has reached the end or exhausted all the possible SAAs within any given SAA.

But no matter how many sub-conferences any conference contains, Ima try to crash every one of them.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015


So yeah: a lot of people are interested in moving jobs some day. There's nothing wrong with that. But here's a tip: when someone you barely know asks you--just conversationally--how you like your job at X, your response should not be, "it's a good first job."

Maybe you've absorbed the snobbery of your grad school cohort; maybe you're afraid of your interlocutor's condescension or pity. But I swear to God: I'm not even a job-seeker, and when I hear that I still want to punch you in the face.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Mid-career mobility

In my last post I mentioned one of the ways that the precarious job market affects even tenured and tenure-line faculty; in this post I want to talk about another: mid-career mobility.

Just as many of us were told that there are always jobs for good people or that we'd be fine as long as we went on the market with a couple of publications, many of us were also told that there was such a thing as a first job: that if we weren't happy somewhere (or were perfectly happy for a time, but later wanted new opportunities), we'd be able to move if we were working hard and publishing well. At least, I was told this, and the careers of my grad school professors seemed to bear it out: although a few of the senior faculty were still on their first job, most of them--and usually the most accomplished--were on their third or fourth or fifth.

Now, I'm not expecting the plight of those seeking a second tenure-track job to wring tears from the eyes of those still a long way from that kind of stability. But this affects them, too: the scarcity of jobs means that most grad students and recent PhDs are advised to take any job they get offered--and then "write their way out." Obviously, it's foolish to turn down a decent job in the hope of a better one, but what about the job that sets a candidate's Spidey-sense a-tingle or that seems like it might be unworkable for a single person or a dual-career couple or a minority or LGBT applicant? What is the likelihood of moving elsewhere?

I don't have an answer to that. I do know at least a dozen people who moved before tenure, which leads me to believe that the odds of such a move are decent--but of course the nature of the game is that those who are on the market don't usually advertise it.

The mid-career move is even more of an open question. Just as the contracting job market means many tenure-line jobs are themselves worse than they used to be--fewer TT faculty means a heavier service burden on those who remain, which frequently comes alongside higher course caps and increased teaching loads--it also means mid-career moves are harder to pull off. The two together can lead to the kind of post-tenure malaise that Notorious Ph.D. has blogged about.

I haven't seen many mid-career moves, though it's possible that I'm just too early in my career. Maybe they too are a casualty of the job market, or maybe they're in a temporary lull--or maybe they were never as common as the careers of my grad school professors led me to believe.

Although lots of people at midlife and in midcareer experience some kind of a slump or wonder whether they can bear to be doing the same thing for another 20 or 25 years, most highly-educated professionals can at least move companies or cities, if their specific working conditions are displeasing. In academia, this is rarely possible.

And I think it's the possibility, more than the reality, that matters. I've never yet taken a job that I was eager to leave or one in which I didn't think I could be happy long-term. But I've also never wished to believe that any job was my last job; it's useful to believe that other opportunities lie ahead--and that in a hazy ten years or so, or after the next book or the next, I might make another move.

Whether such an opportunity actually presents itself is less important.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

The long goodbye

As you good people are all aware, a year ago I accepted a job at Cosimo's institution--starting, for sabbatical-repayment reasons, in August 2015. But even once I start that job, almost 18 months after acceptance, I won't have fully left my current one. Instead, I'm taking an unpaid leave.

This is partly a pragmatic decision; if the Steven Salaita case has taught academics anything, it's the wisdom of disaster insurance. My own inflammatory opinions are mostly confined to long-dead literary figures and are unlikely to piss off any trustees or Boards of Whatever.* Still, flukey things happen, and in a field with extreme employment precarity, it's better to be on the safe side.

But taking a leave is also about keeping my options open and making sure the move is the right one. In addition to being able to live with my spouse, my new job offers me several things that my current one doesn't, and I'm very much looking forward to those things. But my current job, in turn, has strengths that my new one does not.

This slo-mo, not-quite-letting-go is pretty standard in academia; I know lots of people who have taken leaves rather than resigning outright--some of whom eventually returned, most of whom did not. Still, it probably seems bizarre to people in other industries, and it feels a bit bizarre to me, too. In most areas of life, I'm the kind of person who wants to lock decisions down. I hate endless dithering and lack of closure (which is why so many meetings run by academics drive me insane).

But in most industries, the consequences of an employment slip-up or a bad decision aren't grievous; you just move to a third job or return to your previous employer. When my dad decided to return, after a year of working for my uncle, to the government job he'd held for more than a decade, he could do it. He was docked a GS rank (which he later regained), but he could do it.

Academia is different, and it's only gotten worse. Though I don't have many qualms about the broader effects of my delayed start at one job and delayed resignation from another (it's unlikely that my department would be able to replace me immediately, so I'm not "keeping" a position from a needy job-seeker) I don't have none; the security that allows me to try on a new job risk-free is exactly what's unavailable to most academics today.

However, it's that broader lack of security that makes those of us who have it cling to it. Jobs are so scarce that any screw-up, whether personal or institutional, can have devastating consequences, and no one is immune. These days it's not uncommon for junior faculty in very prestigious positions to have had only that one offer, after years on the market, and to have been a minute away from leaving the profession. Even extremely talented people who get denied tenure often can't find another job, and those who leave the tenure track can rarely get back on it.

I'm thankful that both institutions have been flexible enough to let me make a decision I'm comfortable with, in a way I'm comfortable with, and no larger good would be served by my hastening to closure. But the security from which I make that decision is a privilege. I wish there were more of it to go around.

*Since you asked: the Romantic poetics are goddamn whiny, navel-gazing tree-huggers! (Except Byron; Byron's all right.)

Sunday, March 15, 2015


One of the difficult things about the early stages of one's career is never being sure how much you should be doing, what's normal, what's possible. This is one--though certainly not the only!--reason that academics feel they're never working hard enough and are haunted by vague feelings of guilt and idleness and shame.

In my experience, those feelings lessen after a while: you learn the rhythms of your job and your life, when you work best, what's normal and possible for you--and also you clear certain hurdles (reappointment, tenure, book publication, whatever). Now that I'm nearly a decade post-degree, I can also better identify the outliers.

In grad school, this is almost impossible. You don't know if the person who completes all his seminar papers early and his dissertation in five years is brilliant, disciplined, facile--or just really well prepared for graduate work. And your job-market competitor who has three articles to your one may have many more publications by percentage--but only two more publications, numerically. It's hard to know how to read that kind of data.

Things are a little clearer now. That person who already has fifteen articles when even her more serious peers have half that? Who has a third book out before most people have a second? She's working at a totally different level. And that's a relief to know. If I assumed her to be the norm, I might feel shitty about myself. But understanding her to be the scholarly equivalent of a fashion model--exceptional, admirable, even aspirational in some respects, but not a standard any sane person would expect me to meet--frees me to feel good about what I can do.

Although the conditions of one's employment certainly affect what's possible, there are outliers up and down the academic food chain. Any job that has some research expectations and gives research some time and some support is going to see a wide range of outcomes. Moreover, there are people at middling institutions who are outliers not just for that institution or their professional circumstances, but for their career cohort. I know people at institutions like my own who are dramatically outpublishing their peers with fancier jobs.

And here's where I say something a little controversial: while acknowledging both that professional circumstances shape what's possible and that most people's productivity ebbs and flows over the course of a career, I think that, on average, we work at the rates we work at. I do not seriously believe that if I had an R1 job my output would look materially different. Maybe I'd publish an additional article every two or three years or my books would come out slightly faster, but I don't believe the fundamental pace of my thinking and writing would change.

I like to believe that I would do just fine at a fancier job, but I have no illusions that suddenly I'd be able to publish a book every five years; even the outliers at R1s are lucky to do that, and if I'm not an outlier at my current institution, there's no reason to think I would be at another.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Now this is touching the future

Apparently I've been at this job long enough that not only are my former students marrying other former students, but they're opening their own cocktail bars.

Cha-Cha City has a modest wealth of appealing bars and restaurants, but not so many that there aren't dead spots in the week--nights when it seems like everything is either closed or shuts up early--and what with family schedules and teaching nights, my colleagues and I have struggled to find an appealing midweek standby. So we gave our old student's new place a whirl: to support an alum, try something different, and maybe add it to the rotation.

And oh, it's added. This bar is one straight-up, nerd-cool, English-major fantasy.

Every bar should  have a rolling library ladder

I don't know what other professors fantasize about their students doing with their lives; I mostly just want mine to be happy and secure members of the middle class (who hopefully still derive pleasure from books and movies and plays). But if I had a self-serving fantasy, one that made me feel good about myself and my proximity to talent, it wouldn't be for my students to go on to get PhDs themselves or write critically-acclaimed novels or work for the New York Times or get elected to the Senate. It would be for them to do something very much like this.

One of the pleasures of teaching at a regional institution is contributing to that region in a sustained and multi-layered way. My students teach in the urban and suburban school districts. They fix up old houses, work at local nonprofits, open their own businesses. Those are their achievements, not mine--but they benefit me. They make the place I live better. They enmesh me in a meaningful network of connections.

I may not be from here, or staying here, or have roots much of anywhere. But part of putting down roots in a place is knowing and supporting those who do.

Friday, March 06, 2015

Nothing perishes

So maybe the first thing to say about turning 40 is that I got a tattoo.

Not, like, across my forehead--but not tiny and not in a super-discreet location: capable of being concealed by professional wear (and in my currently northerly clime for up to seven months of the year regardless of what I'm wearing), but otherwise pretty visible. That was kind of the point.

I didn't get the tattoo for my fortieth, exactly; I'd been contemplating it for more than a year and my birthday just provided a convenient milestone. Still, getting a tattoo at all, and getting this one in particular, is intimately connected to my sense of aging and my desire to keep faith with my past selves as I move on to whatever I do move on to.

Anyone who's been reading this blog for any length of time will recognize that making sense of the past and unraveling the relationship between history and identity--whether personal or collective--is my only real interest, the thing that drives pretty much everything I do; indeed, twenty-five years' worth of journals and letters show that this is far from a recent obsession. (If I'm constant in anything, it may be in my search for continuity and my fear of finding it wanting.)

So I guess my tattoo is another reminder of who I am and what I value, a way of both staking myself to a moment in time and acknowledging the unknown. I'm not afraid to see the image change as my body also changes.

That, too, is kind of the point.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Watch this space

In theory I have a million things to say about the liminal moment in which I find myself: 40th birthday just past, a variety of 10-year anniversaries on the horizon, and a big professional move in the works. I'm busy enough and happy enough, and I've even had the time to write. It's just that my brain feels like it's gone silent.

Ordinarily, I move through life talking to myself. In the shower, I'll go into a spiel about a text I'm teaching. On my drive to work, I'll start composing a blog post. Sitting in my office, I'll hold an imaginary conversation with a friend. At the gym, I'll summarize, under my breath, an article I just read, as if talking to a colleague or a hiring committee. It's not about anxiety. My brain is busy, always, with hypothetical Facebook and Twitter posts, emails to friends, arguments with people I no longer speak to, tricky bits of scholarly prose, descriptions of what I did last weekend. In a very real way, I don't experience my life except through language.

But lately that chatter isn't there. I'm still writing to-do lists and lesson plans, taking notes toward my next book, and cursing aloud when someone cuts me off in the parking lot. But there's not the usual verbal processing of whatever I'm thinking and feeling. I'm not bored or impatient, but it's very. . . quiet. I have the sense that I'm waiting for something: a reply from the oracle, a transmission from outer space; something.

Until then, though, it may be as quiet around here as it is in my head.