Friday, June 26, 2015

Shall never see so much, nor live so long

Yesterday one of my professors from graduate school died. Though she didn't work in my field and we hadn't kept in touch--I think I ran into her at an MLA reception or two--she was a major part of my graduate experience.

Linda was the department chair when I began my program, and had been instrumental in implementing a number of changes for the better before I arrived; she taught the teaching practicum the year I took it; she taught a creative writing class for which I was a tutor; she was the outside-field member of my dissertation committee; she was the job-placement officer when I was first on the market. And through it all she was a singularly humane and generous presence, maternal in both her kindness and her brisk efficiency.

But it wasn't just a fluke, or a peculiarity of timing, that led to her large role in my life; she was committed to graduate education throughout her career. Facebook friends who went through the program a decade before and those who went through it a decade after all seem to have had identical experiences. And in lieu of flowers, she asked that a fund be established to support graduate student research and conference travel.

Though Linda's death was untimely, it's still a reminder that we're all aging, and that none of my mentors is as young as I persist in imagining. I suppose it's normal to only become aware of others' aging as you become aware of your own; when I was young, no one seemed to age. Grown-ups existed in some timeless bubble called "adulthood," and 35 and 55 looked much the same to me. But aging may also be more apparent in academia than in many other professions.

Academics often keep working long past a "normal" retirement age; dissertators in their twenties may work with men and women in their seventies, and there's a healthy sprinkling of septuagenarians and octogenarians at most conferences. Academia is also a profession where age is still respected; the young want to talk to their elders and get their advice and approval, and a wizened and white-haired gentleman may generate rock-star-level enthusiasm when he walks into a room.

Equally as importantly, we see many of our colleagues only at conferences and thus only once a year--or once every few years--which makes aging more apparent. I'm continually struck by how suddenly old this person or that person looks, especially the junior faculty I became attached to when first going to conferences as a grad student. They struck me then as cool older siblings: successful, but also zany, funny, and kind. Most of them are still those things, but they aren't young any more. They're fiftyish, and I'm older than many of them were then.

And the people who were then in the prime of their careers are now retiring. Or dying. Or I hear about health scares big and small. They may still be rock stars or dedicated teachers and colleagues, but I recognize them as mortal and fragile in a way that I didn't when I was twenty-eight, when the only fragility I could perceive was my own.

R.I.P., Linda. May we all give as generously to our colleagues and students as you did; and may we all take the time to remember and thank our mentors while we can.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Singing the hours

I spent two days last week on a silent retreat at a Trappist monastery. I didn't have a reason for this, particularly; I'd been mildly curious about about the place since meeting one of the monks--and now that I'm working on a portion of Book Two that involves monasticism's afterlife in Protestant England, it seemed like the right time to check it out.

It was an interesting experience on a lot of levels. I hadn't expected any direct scholarly benefits, but there were several. Not only did I find a number of books I needed at the abbey bookstore, but wandering around in silence for a couple of days and trying to keep my mind blank caused some new and unexpected ideas to surface.

But there were more oblique benefits, too. I've always believed that being in certain places or making your body do certain things can make the past more present, and walking 3/4 of a mile back and forth through the fields to the abbey or getting up in the middle of the night to attend prayers did render more real the experiences of early modern worshipers. And it's one thing to "know" what a chantry is, and another to see one in action.

Because yes: on the spur of the moment I decided to forego some of my earlier plans and commit myself to attending the full cycle of the liturgy of the hours--meaning that at 2.25, 6, and 11.15 in the morning, and at 4.30 and 6.40 in the evening, I was at the abbey. Each service we sang a portion of the book of psalms. Over the course of a week, the monks get through all 150 psalms. Then they start over again.

I could say a lot more about that experience, but for the purposes of this blog what interests me is the routinizing of the transcendent--that is, the bringing down to earth, and making a part of everyday life, an experience that might otherwise get aestheticized or mystified into something inapproachable, something too perfect and beautiful for normal people to share. That strikes me as something we wrestle with as academics, too, especially those of us who teach and write about Great Works of Literary Genius.

Because on the one hand, the psalms are terrific poetry, sung in a melancholy and evocative plainsong chant (and the idea of a group of people interrupting their workday at regular intervals to sing poems together is bound to warm the heart of any literature professor). But on the other hand, the liturgy of the hours isn't a performance or a commodity. Though lay-people were present at the services I attended, the liturgy isn't done for an audience. Perfection isn't the goal. Sometimes a monk with a terrible voice led the singing, because it was his turn. Sometimes one would get up and leave in the middle of the service. And always they were there in their everyday clothes and ugly, sensible shoes, rustling their psalters and prayerbooks, clearing their throats, sneezing.

The message that I take away is the importance of letting the sublime into the everyday; the psalms become a part of the round of work and rest until by repetition they're absorbed and almost embodied in each monk. The liturgy of the hours, despite its odd, old-fashioned formality, is the opposite of what happens in most churches for the major solemnities, when the goal seems to be great seriousness and high drama: professional musicians, fancy vestments, elaborate floral arrangements, signs that This Is a Big Deal--but a Big Deal that takes place in an aesthetic and spiritual realm alien to ordinary experience.

I'm as susceptible to aesthetics as anyone, and prone to wanting everything to be just so. But participating in the liturgy of the hours as just another sleepy, ill-dressed layperson reminded me of what happens in our classrooms or alone in our studies. Though we write and think about literature for a living, our lives are mostly not about glorious aesthetic or intellectual triumphs or transcendent moments of illumination. Our lives involve worrying over one little bit of one little poem; writing and rewriting a single paragraph; teaching the same text over and over again. Now and then we do have a true, original insight; craft a perfect sentence; teach an amazing class. But in between there's a lot of plugging away, a lot of days when the spirit is most definitely not with us.

Except that it is, then, too.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Teaching without teaching

I've been thinking about what we learn from our advisors, and how: the doctoral candidate may design the topic and do the work, but the resulting dissertation is often recognizably "the kind of thing X's students do."

In a limited way, this is just about specialization or methodology: you work with Advisor A if you want to do book history; Advisor B if you're interested in Lacan and gender; Advisor C if your project is on political theology. Grad students may come to their program knowing they want to work on a given subject with a given supervisor, or they're exposed to those topics and methods during their coursework, or they're gently or not-so-gently steered toward a particular approach by the questions their advisors ask or their suggestions for further reading.

But so much of what a scholar does or is known for can't be taught directly. If your advisor is a masterful prose stylist--or has a knack for exciting archival discoveries--or is a brilliant close-reader--or has built a new theoretical paradigm--well, how exactly does one teach that?

When I was deciding whom to work with, I was deciding between two people. I chose my advisor over the other logical choice purely because of what I perceived to be our temperamental or work-style compatibility. Otherwise, I thought the two were pretty equivalent: I'd taken classes from both; both worked on the kinds of things I was interested in; both were smart and well-regarded. I had no sense that their approaches or emphases might differ, or that that would matter.

I don't know, actually, that my dissertation would have looked much different if I'd worked with my other possibility, though I can now see clear differences between the kind of work both do and it seems obvious that I made the better choice. (But then we're back where we started: did I make the right choice because my work was always a better fit for my advisor's interests. . . or does it just seem that way because the work I produced emerged under her supervision?)

But though the overlap in our field of interest is significant, I haven't, in the past, thought much about what I might have learned from my advisor about research, writing, and thinking. Partly this is because we had a very hands-off relationship, but it's also because advisors usually don't teach us the most important things in any explicit way.

Still, I think there's one major lesson my advisor taught me. She communicated it in many ways over the years, but the first and most obvious instance happened at the lowest point in our relationship.

I had just submitted a draft of my first chapter and was meeting with my full committee to discuss it. My advisor and I had met one-on-one a few days earlier, and between that meeting and this I was pretty sure she'd written me off. She said almost nothing, letting the other two members of my committee do the heavy lifting. My draft wasn't great, but they tried to be encouraging, asking questions and making an effort to help me reframe the central text I was analyzing.

Finally, I said, "look: I know this draft isn't going anywhere. But I have this--I don't know, feeling--that this text is really doing XYZ. But that's totally unprovable, and ridiculous, and I know I can't argue it, so I'm stuck."

My other committee members gave no sign that this was any more or less interesting than anything else I'd said, but my advisor reacted as if I'd set off firecrackers in her office.

"YES!" She said. "That! Write that."

It would be wrong to describe this as a major turning point; I left the meeting feeling marginally better, but I still didn't know how I could possibly do the thing I vaguely wanted to do--and that particular chapter gave me trouble well into the revisions for my book manuscript. But in retrospect, I see my advisor as imparting two related lessons:

First, have faith in your own weird hunches, even if you don't yet have good evidence for them--and even if you can't articulate, in words, why the thing you think might be interesting actually is interesting. Not all of them will pan out, but they are, truly, your only hope for originality.

Second, don't be afraid to make a big claim. "Big" doesn't mean world-changing or paradigm-shifting, but something whose stakes are obvious and up front. We tell our students that a good argument should be contestable, and the same principle applies to scholarship: an air-tight case isn't exciting. One that says "okay. . . but what if we looked at it this way?" is.

My advisor and I are very different, and I've never expected to have anything like her career. Still, from this distance, I'm pretty sure that she's responsible for whatever argumentative and intellectual fearlessness I've acquired.

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

The companion to the introduction to the handbook

In the past six months, I've been asked to contribute to two different "companions to," or "handbooks of," or whatever the generic term is for those big compendia of not-quite-full-fledged-scholarly essays. This makes a total of three solicitations in two years.

I don't think this is because I'm particularly awesome or a recognized expert in much of anything (though it probably helps that I work on obscurer material). I think it's because suddenly these books are everywhere.

What I don't understand is why. Who buys these things? And for what purpose? And--most puzzlingly--who buys more than one on a given author or topic?

Now, I've always liked the Cambridge Companions, which I take to be the grandes dames of this particular genre. Earlier in my career I picked up one or two a year (on sale, at conferences) for authors I figured I was likely to teach but unlikely to ever research; my campus office contains volumes on figures like Chaucer, Marlowe, and Jonson. I've also taught essays from the volumes on authors I do research, as a way of introducing advanced undergrads or M.A. students to some of the relevant contexts. This spring I required my grad students to buy the Cambridge Companion to Donne, and I've sometimes done the same with the Milton volume.

I understand what those essays are, or at least what they're supposed to be: they're somewhere between undergraduate lectures and works of scholarship in their own right. They allow a nonspecialist or a beginning scholar to orient herself and get a handle on the issues that matter. Done well, such essays meet an important need.

But I don't know how the market can support very many volumes like this, and as they've proliferated I've had a harder time understanding how each series is positioning itself or whom it imagines its readers to be. The volumes with 40 short essays and lower price points are presumably intended for course adoption; the huge $200 hardbacks with vastly longer essays are instead intended for. . . library purchases? Or for scholars who for some reason would rather read those essays than browse the MLA database?

The three solicitations I've received have varied in targeted length (from a low of 3,000 words to a high of 9,000), but the editors have all stressed that they want "original scholarship" rather than just digests or summaries of the state of the field. The best essays I've read in this genre truly do that. (Though for teaching/course prep, I also appreciate essays where a leading light in the field distills, in an accessible way, the kinds of arguments she's made over the course of her career.)

But the more these kinds of books proliferate, the tougher that becomes. If you had something truly new to say about some relatively broad or standard topic (like, I don't know, the Jonsonian masque, or Milton's early sonnets, or Donne's attitude toward death) . . . would you be publishing it in this particular venue?

Moreover, the more there are, the harder it will be to get originality--or the handful of big names an editor presumably wants to lend luster to the project. I'm also not sure how valuable such a line is on one's vita, or how valuable it will remain: the "companion" essay may eventually become the encyclopedia entry of years past.

For the record, I accepted two of the offers and declined the third. They differ in topic and format, but both build on the kinds of things I've published elsewhere while involving enough new work for me to feel genuinely interested in the task. And yeah, okay: I was flattered to be asked.

But two feels about right. I probably won't be accepting another any time soon.

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.)