Thursday, June 08, 2017

Second verse, same as the first

This morning I awakened from a dream about my book. Not the one I'm writing; the one I already wrote.

I was meeting with the editor of an academic press. It's unclear what I'd been led to believe the meeting was about, but I was surprised to learn that this particular press now owned the rights to my book--so they'd commissioned an external reviewer to report on its merits. And the reviewer didn't like my book AT ALL.

The editor told me that, under the circumstances, the press couldn't keep me on, so they'd be putting this particular "property" (her words) out for bids.

I was annoyed, but also anxious, telling the editor that I was sure it would land okay--after all, it'd been published with a good press to begin with! And it had gotten mostly nice reviews!--but she just smiled briefly, looked at her watch, and returned to her computer. After a few moments I got up and left.

*

And dudes, I'm kinda embarrassed for my subconscious. My book came out three years ago; I've got a whole new set of anxieties. Time to stop going back to the fucking well.

Monday, June 05, 2017

In residence

Hello from Planet Residential Fellowship! Among the things I'd forgotten since my last one is that time itself operates differently here.

Leaving behind the endless minutiae of my regular life means I gain approximately ten extra hours a day. And yet, any time spent at the library goes incredibly quickly; it's lunch time, then it's tea-time, then it's closing time--and I haven't opened my web browser once.

It's a magical, binary space where only work and relaxation exist, where I can work more, and with greater focus--and go out more. If I wanted to, I could make plans three nights a week and take the weekends off. Partly it's that researching doesn't tire me the way teaching does; I can go from six or eight intense hours in the library to schmoozing at a big social event. Partly it's having no other obligations competing for my time and energy. And partly it's just the sleep-away camp vibe, especially here, in a library where everyone is in some sense a colleague and a city where something like 10% of our friends from previous life stages seem to live.

I know it won't last forever. Sooner or later I'll have to stop gulping down everything I read--taking detailed notes about the what--and begin to process and synthesize, putting these ephemeral sixteenth and seventeenth-century works in the service of an argument about LITRAHCHAH.

But for now, it's like having previously unidentified superpowers.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Twelve years

This past weekend was my twelve-year blogiversary. I'm not posting much these days, and a month ago I was considering just shutting the whole thing down. In the end I decided to let it limp along; if you know anything about me by now, it's that I'm bad at letting go.

Partly it's that I'm not processing as deeply or urgently any more, and I don't need this space to figure things out in the way I used to. But it's also about the form: blogging simply feels less fun now, in the same way that email came to feel before it. I'm not sure I'm doing it well--it takes longer and I'm less happy with what I produce--which may be a sign that whatever I may still have to say requires a different medium.

As it happens, this weekend was also my twenty-year college reunion, so I had further occasion to think about what it means to be at midlife and midcareer and starting to feel restless. I've written before about midcareer malaise and the way it's exacerbated by a profession with almost no mobility, but in talking with my classmates, I realized that a lot of them feel similarly. Yes, my peers in law or high-tech usually could move across the country--or just to a different employer within the same region--and some did a lot of that in their twenties and thirties. But in their forties, most are not doing anything of the kind. Maybe they've made partner or ensconced themselves within a comfortable practice, or they're reluctant to uproot their kids from a particular neighborhood or school district; maybe their spouse has an amazing job or a chronic illness. At some point, things start to feel pretty good. And the opportunity costs are harder to rationalize.

But although no one I talked to was expecting to make a big change any time soon, almost no one was comfortable with the idea that there wasn't an obvious next step--or certain they'd be content if their career turned out to be doing a version of what they were doing now for the next ten or twenty years.

And, sure: what fucking privilege we all have to be worried that maybe we won't be totally happy doing this basically agreeable thing forever. But sometimes it's comforting to realize that one is just a type, a part of a class, with a totally banal set of fears and anxieties. (It's like when I finally confessed to a couple of friends that I'd been starting to worry that having a mental blip here or there might be a sign of early-onset dementia and every single one widened her eyes and said OH MY GOD ME TOO.)

So I'm going to chill out for a bit about whatever might be around the next corner, either in my larger career or in my writing life. Thursday I head to D.C. for a month, and in addition to the stuff I'm on fellowship to do, I'm also planning to dedicate a couple of hours a week to a new writing venture. Maybe I'll even write more here, too.

See you in June.

Monday, May 08, 2017

Like a Fitbit for my writing life

It's finals week, which means it's assessment time in both my classes and my work life.

You may recall that I had the bright idea, back at the start of the school year, of keeping a work diary. This I faithfully did: every day that I performed some scholarly writing or research task, I tabulated the time spent. Then each week I recorded the total.

I included the boring but necessary stuff that those of us without research assistants have to do ourselves, like schlep to the library to pick up ILL books, photocopy chapters from ILL books once they've been recalled, and run time-consuming EEBO searches to get a sense of the relative frequency of references to X or Y. After some internal debate, I decided to include time spent on fellowship applications, on the grounds that those required me to refine and rearticulate my book project in important ways, as well as conduct some preliminary research into the holdings of the relevant libraries. But I did not include reading for courses when the texts overlapped with my current research topics, nor did I include reviewing article or book manuscripts that did likewise.

So it's a little subjective, I guess, and there's no way to be precise; although I spent two years working in a law firm, the idea of measuring everything to within a tenth of an hour would have made me throw myself out a window. Therefore, I recorded nothing that took less than half an hour. Sometimes I rounded up; at other times I forgot to check the clock (or got interrupted a bunch) and so recorded my impression of how much time I'd actually spent working.

Still, with those caveats, I'm pretty happy with the results: over the fall semester my average was 12 hours/week and this spring it was just under 11.7 hours/week.

My weekly goal had been 10hrs/week, but I honestly had no idea if that was sustainable over the long haul; there have always been periods during term-time where I'm writing like a fiend, but also weeks where I do nothing. If I had to guess, I'd say that most previous semesters my average has been, at best, maybe 8 hours/week.

What this purely private form of accountability ensured was that I never forgot about my writing goals for long, and keeping a daily log made me attentive to the moments I might not otherwise have recognized as having research potential: if I had downtime during my office hours, I could print and read an article (rather than surfing the internet)--and, often, my deciding that I could commit to 30 minutes of writing or research led to my spending 60 or 90 instead.

I don't imagine that such a diary would be equally motivating for everyone; I'm a systematizer who takes pleasure in routine, who responds well to things that seem measurable, and who delights in that which can be tracked, logged, or otherwise slotted into its proper place. When it comes to exercise, I'm not inspired by grand goals, nor do I care about being able to increase the intensity of my workouts, or their length, or whatever. But I care VERY MUCH about sticking to my three days a week and about logging the stats into my fitness app.

The diary is a similar means to an end. Twelve hours a week sounds like a respectable number, but the figure itself doesn't matter; there's nothing magical about that number, just as there's nothing magical about my going to the gym three days a week and shooting to hit 70,000 steps. If the latter measures don't mean I'm ready to run a half-marathon, the former doesn't mean I'm cranking out the pages (much less that they're good pages!). Perhaps I do less in twelve hours than others do in six. But if the chief lesson that I take from being slow is that I have to put in the goddamn hours, then I need to find ways to put them in.

*

And this steady training has been good for me: I'm closing in on a draft of what I hope to be the second major publication from my book project, an essay that has required heroic/desperate amounts of research into fields I'm basically unqualified to write about (and only some of whose scholarship is in languages that I can read). At the same time that I intend to finalize that manuscript and send it out for review, I'll be in residence at the Folger Shakespeare Library on a month-long fellowship to research a different chapter of the book.

I'm unaccustomed to spending 6-8 hours a day, 5 or 6 days a week researching and writing, but that's the plan for June. And if my work diary has taught me one thing, it's the power of averages: no matter how my July and August shake out, I'm thinking my summer numbers are going to look pretty damn good.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Distraction is the devil's work

On my drive home from work the other week I heard an interview with the author of Deep Work, which makes the case for work environments that allow us sustained time to focus solely on one task--periods where no one can interrupt and where we eliminate all distractions and temptations, especially electronic ones.

Now, those of us who write and think for (a portion of) our living know that it's important to have periods of immersion, but I confess that in recent years I haven't considered all distractions as equally harmful. If I set aside three or four hours to write, what's the harm, when I'm stuck on a sentence, in clicking over to Facebook for two minutes now and again? Surely that's not the same as being called away to a meeting! But the book's author, Cal Newport, claims that even brief distractions leave a "residue" that it takes 20 minutes to fully wipe away. Accordingly, he argues that 90 minutes, distraction-free, is the minimum required for "deep work."

I'm not sure that I'm convinced by those exact figures, but hearing Newport did inspire me to address my distraction-creep. I always intend to get X amount of work done (read a book of Paradise Lost, grade three papers) before a break to check my phone or the internet, but even though I'm pretty good at not allowing myself to get sucked into serious distraction, over the past year I've definitely felt my hands to be increasingly itchy for quick hits of email or social media.

So the week after hearing Newport, I challenged myself, when I had writing time set aside, to write for 90 or 120 uninterrupted minutes with no distractors (other than cats, or hunger, or the bathroom). It was blissful. Once or twice I went way past the mark because I just wasn't ready to stop.

And since I'm teaching a senior seminar on Early Modern ideas about the afterlife, I somehow also found myself thinking about the rhetoric of demonic temptation and whether it might bring anything useful to the way we talk about distraction. Now, I'm comfortable using the discourse of "sin" for the variety of ways that we fail or harm other people, and seeing our shortcoming as a result of our fallen condition has likewise always resonated for me--but the devil most emphatically has not. I'm not interested in the devil, just as I'm not interested in fairies or vampires or zombies. To the extent that I've thought about the psychological work that believing in a devil does, I guess I've always assumed it to be purely fear-mongery: stay vigilant! Because the devil wants your sooooouul.

But what with the class and my attempts to resist distracting urges, I wondered what it would feel like to reframe the desire to check my phone in the middle of a grading or writing session as a temptation sent by the devil. Presumably, there are people all over the world who see things in this light, just as there were in ages past. So when I was tempted to reach for my phone, instead of thinking, "aw, what's the harm? it's just for a minute or two," I told myself, "nothing new has happened in the past 20 minutes. You don't even want to do this. This is the devil trying to distract you."

And instead of feeling paranoid about my vulnerability to malign influences, I felt how true it was that this was a stupid distraction and one that I could resist--because it wasn't, after all, coming from me! I had a better self, one who was actually happier not checking Facebook every 15 minutes!

So there you have it: how the devil made me a better writer, no soul-selling required.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Always anticipating until it's over

It's that time of year when I keep expecting--at any moment!--to feel on the downward slope, where either the course prep and grading will have genuinely eased up or where I'll have crossed enough psychological thresholds (each class is now on its final text! I've passed out the last assignment sheet!) that I know the end is in sight even if nothing in my daily life has changed.

But just as I cross one big thing off my list, I'm reminded of another: peer teaching observations to write up. Essays to score for undergraduate assessment. My annual faculty report. An M.A. thesis from a student whose committee I'd forgotten I was on. An emergency three-hour meeting of that committee that hasn't met all semester. You know how it is.

Still, one of these days it really will be true: stuff will get crossed off the list and nothing new will get added. I'll submit grades, put an "away" message on my email, and for a week or two I'll luxuriate in a sense of satisfied completion.

In this way, my teaching and institutional obligations are unlike the rest of my scholarly life, where I'm rarely able to rest in a sense of achievement. This isn't about my being particularly disgruntled or hard on myself, but about the fact that even the biggest academic achievements tend to happen in endless increments.

I mean, let's say you're hard at work on an article for six months, a year, or two. When do you get to revel in its completion? When you send it out for review? When it finally gets accepted? When the last revisions are in? Or two years later when it actually sees print? By then I'm usually over it--and unsure if anyone has or will ever read it. (I may get nice notes later on, confirming that people have read it, but by then it truly doesn't feel like my work anymore.) The same is true for tenure: there are so goddamn many levels of approval that to celebrate before the last one is premature. . . but when the last one arrives there's no surprise and no suspense left to lift.

It's as if everything is incredibly far off on the horizon until the moment it's in the rear-view mirror.

The past six months have given me a lot of professional validation in a lot of forms. I don't want to make too much of any one, and I haven't publicized many of them for this reason; I'm at a comfortable enough place, professionally, where that feels tacky. Not only do I get more external validation now than I used to, but most of it's based on stuff I did a year or two or five ago, and I try to look forward rather than patting myself on the back for what's done.

But I suppose recognition, in our field, is always mis-timed and never feels earned (or maybe that's just me): either it comes for work that's past, and thus doesn't assuage my fear that I'll never do anything as good again--or it comes because I've succeeded in getting someone excited about work I haven't yet done, which likewise feeds my anxiety about not succeeding and not finishing.

And that's a stupid way to live. So I'm trying to find ways of celebrating, or at least marking the moment and pausing to feel good, when nice things come along.

I'll let you know how it goes.

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

Lifetime employment, for now

On Monday I was notified that the Board of Trustees had approved my tenure. So I have job security again. Or at least until the state decides to abolish tenure.

I know: I never exactly mentioned that I had to give up tenure to take this job. It's not something I was particularly happy about, and it's one of the reasons I negotiated an unpaid leave from my previous college. As I've written before, the casualization crisis means that even the luckiest among us can be convinced of our precarity (an experience that does not, alas, always translate into solidarity with those who are truly precarious), and I'd had some paranoid idea that someone might just decide it was cheaper to get rid of me.

This is, of course, a thing that has happened in the world--but after a couple of months I felt confident that it probably wasn't going to happen here, or to me. The vast machinery of a unionized, public university, with its predictable policies and procedures, was one reassurance. I also noticed that administrators, when they met me, either already knew who I was or seemed unusually pleased to be told. And I had to remind myself: right! I was a good hire! Everyone's happy here!

I mean, I didn't feel that way at every second. But it was good to feel that way sometimes.

*

So what's it like, going through tenure again? On the one hand, the external review process gave me very little anxiety. I knew I had a strong research profile, if only because I'd had four more years in which to build it up. But everything institution-specific was stressful, not because my university doesn't have clear guidelines, but because they were entirely new. Ordinarily, one goes through a third- and fifth-year review, so by tenure-time the genre of the dossier is deeply familiar. But I hadn't gone through those reviews at this institution. I was also the first person in living memory to arrive with so many years of prior service, so my file didn't look like anyone else's. Moreover, I had virtually no track record of service at my new institution and very little teaching. So I remained apprehensive that some committee at some level would decide I needed more seasoning--or that I'd violated a hugely important requirement in having sixteen tabs in my binder rather than the regulation fourteen.

But it wasn't all bad. In addition to the compensations that came with my hiring (the fact that I'd kept rank and gotten a good raise and start-up package), there were a few pleasures to go along with the tedium of snapping in and out tab dividers and protective sleeves. I do like thinking about what animates my pedagogy and my research, and I kinda like assembling information into a clear and digestible format. And because my new employer cares a lot more about quantifying research quality and impact--which means I had to hunt down every last citation or review of my work--I wound up with a delightful document that enumerates my book's reviews and quotes the single best sentence, phrase, or in some cases, isolated words, from each one. Tendentious? Yes. The best I will ever feel about myself? Just possibly.

Even more surprising was how enjoyable the external review process felt. I don't have access to the recommendation letters, of course, but because the reviewers get mentioned and quoted in small, glowing snippets in the recommendations made by my departmental and college committees, I do have their names (and a few of their nicest words). It's moving to think that these six people, half of whom I've never met but all of whose work is essential to my own, were willing to sit down and read just about everything I've ever written. And for what? A token honorarium. There's a lot more generosity out there than we sometime remember, and I'm grateful for it.

*

So on balance it was okay. But I sure as hell better not have to do it a third time.

Saturday, March 04, 2017

Curricular creativity

One of the unexpected benefits of moving jobs is the way a new curriculum has jumpstarted my pedagogy--and not just my pedagogy, but so much else about my intellectual life.

I say this not because the curriculum at my new job is better--in fact, our undergraduate major is a mess--but simply because it's different. I'm a person who likes figuring out systems and making them work, and though the full curriculum will need to wait a year or two before benefiting from my Always Being Right About Everything, each new course still presents satisfying opportunities to design a new system: what are the goals? what are the component skills? and how can we best get there?

Some of the new opportunities are modest. Here, the British Literature survey is at the 300-level, carries pre-reqs, and is made up almost entirely of majors and minors. I teach mostly the same texts, but I can do different things--indeed, feel compelled to do different things--than when I was teaching a 200-level class that carried general-education credit and was only optional for majors. Now I teach longer selections from fewer works and I think harder about what it means for this to be, usually, the only exposure our majors have to early British literature. (As well as for me to be its primary representative: next year will be the third year in a row where I'm the only one teaching the class.)

Other classes are entirely new to me. I used to teach a one-semester class called Introduction to Literary Analysis, which I loved. Here there are, in effect, three introductory classes: Intro to Poetry, Intro to Drama, and Intro to Fiction. They're required for majors and minors but also carry writing-across-the-curriculum credit and other gen eds for nonmajors. Leaving aside what I think of this from a whole-curriculum perspective, Introduction to Poetry has turned out to be a dream class. I'd already spent years turning myself into a teacher of poetics and it's now a matter of course for me to do at least a quick review of metrics in every class I teach. So to have an entire semester to ensure that students can talk about form? Where I can evangelize for poetry? And where I can deepen my own sense of how poetry works at just the moment--midway through the draft of a book manuscript that focuses almost entirely on works in verse--that I need it most? HEAVENLY.

Next year I've signed up for two other classes that will be new to me: something called Canonicity (required for education certification students) and the introductory theory class for M.A. students. The theory class is going to kick my ass, but I also expect it to help banish the last of my theory-insecurity in the way that teaching poetics banished the ghosts of my own crappy training in poetry. Canonicity will give me the leisure to talk more about things I usually only talk about in passing--how works fall in and out of fashion, and what's at stake in those changes--and to teach a few works I love but that are either outside my area of expertise or for which there's not a place in the ordinary round of my teaching.

Are there things I find frustrating about my teaching opportunities? Sure. Among other things, I'm sad that I no longer teach Shakespeare except for a play here and there. But the fact that I taught Shakespeare all the time at my previous job was a surprising gift--and after nine years I'd probably gotten about as much personal and professional benefit as I could get from teaching at the survey level anyway. I don't need to keep teaching Shakespeare. Instead, for the second year in a row, I'm teaching a senior capstone where we read Dante alongside Milton alongside excerpts from patristic and biblical literature. That's new, it's fun, and it's useful.

All of us sometimes wish our teaching lives were different: that we taught fewer classes, or more varied ones--or more repeat ones, in some cases. That we had more in-field colleagues, or fewer (if they're hogging the classes we want to teach). That we had more resources, or a slightly different student make-up, or a curriculum that better prepared them. But for now I'd rather focus on the opportunities within those constraints.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

A place for everything means a damn lot of places

Because I'm now an old person, I spent my birthday cash on some incredibly practical, incredibly unsexy items that nevertheless sent me down some strange nostalgic by-roads. You see, I bought two more bookcases and a second 4-drawer filing cabinet to match the existing ones in my home office.

The original items have been with me a long time. When I graduated from college and moved into my first apartment, my parents took me to Ikea and bought me two full-sized bookcases (and a bed, but that's long since gone the way of all particle board), which remained my homes' most distinguishing feature for years. Initially I labored to fill their shelves. Later, in another studio apartment in another state, my expanding book collection testified to my status as a grad student. I bought two matching half-sized bookcases, wedging one in front of a radiator because I was out of wall space. That's also how my filing cabinet--a previous birthday splurge, which I guess means I've always been old--wound up next to the fridge.

Eventually the lot of us moved to yet another studio apartment, the former living room of a formerly grand Harlem brownstone. An elaborate Victorian fireplace sat in the center of the longest wall and my four bookshelves fit perfectly to either side. Around this time I ran out of space and started shelving books horizontally. Then I got my first job and the bookshelves and I moved upstate--and the acquisition of a campus office helped relieve their burden. Once again they fit perfectly along my living room's longest wall, and from the street below I could look up and see nothing but books. It was pretty much exactly what I'd fantasized about at twenty-two.

Even a space alien could tell you this apartment belonged to a grad student

By the time we bought our first house those Ikea shelves no longer seemed nice enough to serve as our display bookcases, so we bought others, and I squeezed the old ones into my tiny home office. Now, in another house in a third state, the original four fit comfortably enough that I need new ones to fill out the room. They aren't the handsomest things, but they're big and sturdy and unobtrusive, and every time I plunk down on the floor to reorganize my bookshelves or sort my files I remember all the other times I've done the same and how consequential it felt.

I still love my books; there's a reason they're the focal point of our living room and that we removed the enormous bracket the previous owners had installed for a flat-screen t.v. And I still have an evangelical conviction that life is better when all papers are filed away tidily and ready to be retrieved at an instant's notice. But if those things remain bound up with my sense of self, they're no longer a pledge to the future--a willing of that self in to being--in the way they once were. Every new book used to feel like a statement about myself, and I can still see the angle of the late-afternoon sunlight in that first apartment as I sat on the edge of my bed and inscribed my name inside each volume, just as I remember staying up until 2 a.m. with folders and tabs strewn across my grad school apartment as I imposed order upon the miscellaneous papers that until then I'd been hauling around in file boxes and milk crates.

I don't wish to go back to a time when everything signified so very deeply, but I enjoy thinking about how continuous this self is with my younger one.

What I'll enjoy much less is moving all this crap the next time around.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Forty-two.

Today I learned the answer to life, the universe, and everything.

But I won't spoil it for the rest of you.

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

On being slow

I'm finally done with the Essay of Doom (now less doom-filled!), or at least done until I hear otherwise from my editors. I'm happy with it overall; it makes a modestly new argument, linking my older work to some of my newer interests, and it was fun immersing myself in texts I didn't previously know well.

But because I had the brilliant/moronic idea of starting a work diary last semester in order to keep my writing on track, I'm chagrined to report that I know exactly how many hours it took me to write this 8,000-word essay. And it was. . . um, a lot of hours. Like, more than 200 hours. In fact, as of today, it's taken me 233 hours.

Now, it's one thing to know that this essay is virtually the only thing I worked on for four and a half months--after all, it's a teaching semester! sometimes I write almost nothing while I'm teaching!--and another to have a virtual timeclock read-out showing just how much writing I did and how few words I have to show for it.

I've recognized for a while now that I'm not an outlier, or one of the field's super-producers, but I've been perfectly happy imagining myself somewhere in the middle of the pack of my peers. Recently, though, I've been wondering if even that is true. Not so long ago someone praised my work with a counter-argument-anticipating opening I hadn't known that it needed, saying something to the effect of "though her work is not notable for its quantity, every piece is exquisite."

And while half of me was all, "I'm exquisite!" the other half was like, "hold up now." Between that and this blood-from-a-stone essay, you can see why I might be developing a complex.

For the moment, I'm not interested in debating whether any of this is objectively "true"--that is, whether 233 is or is not a lot of hours to spend writing one essay, or whether my overall writing pace is slower than average or my productivity lower. Let's just presume that I am a slow writer, at least in the sense that I find writing slower and more painful than I'd like it to be.

If that's so, then what follows?

First, and most obviously: I need to allow myself more time than I think I'll need. This is the first time in my life that I've really blown a writing deadline (which might be a sign that this was just an unusually tough project for reasons that couldn't be anticipated), but there's nothing that makes me feel shittier than defaulting on my responsibilities.

Second: I need to be deliberative about what I take on. In the past year or two I've suddenly started Having Ideas--by which I mean, ideas for things that aren't my current academic book project--but if even side projects take a lot out of me, I need to be smart about what I commit myself to.

Third, and relatedly: if I do want to do a bunch of different things, and if I'm both slow and bad at juggling them--heck, I can't even keep this blog going when the writing chips are down--I need to figure out a way of making that work. (You may recall that my work diary was originally intended not just to keep me writing during the semester, but to keep me writing on multiple projects simultaneously. That second part didn't happen.)

Other than that, I don't know. I don't yet have a clear strategy for which kinds of projects I want to prioritize, or how to manage a bunch of them, but something has to change.

*

Are you slow? If so, how do you cope? (And if you're not slow, I don't want to hear about it.)

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?
England.

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?
Moonlight

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.

Friday, December 30, 2016

2016 turns around. Maybe.

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

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

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

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