Tuesday, August 19, 2014

To toss into the dumpster at first light

In my twenties, I finished every novel I started--even those I was sure I hated by page 50. Partly this was about how much leisure time I had, in those days of fewer obligations (and a job that did not involve hundreds of pages of reading a week). I think, though, it was also about my distrust of myself as a reader: reading was important to the identity I'd constructed, and since most the novels I read were "classics," or influential, or somehow of the moment, I felt I couldn't just say "yuck," and set one aside. There were books I read all the way through only to throw across the room or toss in the trash, but I finished them. I needed to finish them in order to know that I disliked them, and to be able to formulate a reason why.

These days I have no such scruples. I try to make it to page 100 before setting anything aside, but life is too short to read crappy books--even well-reviewed crappy books, even books I've paid good money for, even books I expected to like. With this policy in place, it's rare that I read anything all the way through that elicits a sentiment worse than a "meh." But friends, I have now--for the first time in maybe a decade--finished a book that I want out of my house immediately. It cannot remain on my shelves. I can't bear even the sight of its spine from across the room. That book is Joshua Ferris's To Rise Again at a Decent Hour.

Now, it would be unfair to call this a bad book; it's well-crafted and people I respect liked it a lot. But somewhere between pages 100 and 337 it went from "has its charms, but not really doing it for me" to "OMG THIS IS EVERYTHING I HATE ABOUT EVERYTHING." I could say the problem was that I found nothing emotionally true or interesting about the characters. I could say there wasn't much of a plot. But the thing I really can't forgive this novel is its vague, sentimental treatment of religion (or the spiritual, or the existential, or whatever--they're all kind of mushed together in a lukewarm soup).

You know how some people are all, "I wish I could believe in God! I think religious people are, like, so lucky. I mean, even if they doubt or whatever? They still have this thing to fall back on--a community, a history. Something that gives life meaning. And sometimes, in religious spaces, I feel at home; I really do. I just don't, you know: believe."

This is a book about that guy. And the book has no perspective on belief or unbelief that is any more nuanced or interesting than his.


Readers: what was the last book you tossed aside lightly--or threw with great force? And why?

Sunday, August 17, 2014

In a fight to the death, my odds may not be good

Last week I finally got The Article of Eternal Return off my desk and back to the journal that had it most recently. That means that pretty much the only writing I got done this summer was an R&R of an essay that was already pretty polished--and perhaps 2/3 of which I left intact. I did some reorganization and made some major changes to the conceptual framework, but nothing that should have taken me two months.

Worse, I did nothing but work on that essay. I mean, sure: I went to the gym, and I ate and I slept and I faffed around on the internet. Maybe once a week I saw a friend or went to a movie. But I let the yard turn into a jungle and I put off errands for weeks at a time (taking 60 minutes to go to Target was way too much of a time commitment!); even running a load of laundry felt like an imposition.

There are always binge weeks here and there in the life of a project where I eat, drink, and dream whatever I'm working on--but usually they're pleasurable periods of mania when everything seems to be going right and all I want to be doing is writing. It doesn't feel grindingly painful. And it doesn't last for six weeks straight.

This tells me it was probably a mistake. Not the actual work I did, but my decision to gut it out until it was done. I'm in a dark psychological space with this piece, and probably the sane thing would have been to take a break, set it aside, and work on something I felt invigorated by and that might give me some renewed confidence. (In other words: what my advisor made me do with my first chapter.) But I don't know how to do that. I only know how to bite down hard, hold on, and not let go.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Poor closers

With every round of revisions I make to this essay, I'm convinced I'm finally ready to write my conclusion. Everything else is falling into place. About a week ago I felt confident enough to scrap my old conclusion, which I'd been hanging onto in the hope that some portion of it might still work. Since then, I've occasionally started drafting something that seemed like it might be a note I could end on. So I write half a paragraph, and then I lose enthusiasm and leave it stranded there amid a bunch of white space.

So far I've got four or five of those maybe-conclusory, half-finished thoughts. They hang out like awkward dudes at a bar: keeping their distance; fiddling with their drinks; making occasional eye-contact and then pretending they didn't; never getting up the nerve to start a conversation.

I can't blame them. I'm not really interested in them either. So I ignore them, tinkering with the few places that still need work in the rest of the essay--a bit of framing here, a little historical background there. If I'm still not feeling it once that's done, maybe I'll fix my footnotes.

Eventually I'll know how I want this to end, who I want to go home with. Another guy will show up at the bar, and that'll be it. But that time is not yet.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

The world cannot support that many ballerinas

Today's NYT Home section features what I can only describe as the schadenfreudelicious story of an "academic of independent means" whose attempts to turn her Connecticut home into an arts retreat have run into trouble. Many of the problems are practical ones--the neighbors are protesting that her institute is a bad fit for a residential area; she hasn't yet come up with a way of marketing her program--but though there's a real story here, the "delusional dilettante" aspects are the juiciest.

Who is Michelle Slater, the thirty-nine-year-old founder of The Mayapple Center for the Arts and Humanitites? So glad you asked!

Home-schooled until the age of 14, when her mother, Euphemia Brock Slater, a Mayflower descendant, died of complications of rheumatic fever, Ms. Slater has been on the move ever since, accruing degrees and experiences in the manner of a Henry James heroine: boarding school at Interlochen, the fine arts academy in Michigan. . . undergraduate work at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and the University of Colorado. . . graduate work at Dartmouth, Johns Hopkins and the Sorbonne; and various grand tours through Europe, India, and the United States.

Slater has real academic credentials, though nothing grander than you'd find on the average vita for the average job applicant these days. In addition to playing the cello, she "has a doctorate in German and Romance languages, as well as two master's degrees, has written articles on Derrida, run study-abroad programs, been a Woodrow Wilson fellow and taught French."

More notable is the passion she's put into her home. A self-described "recovering perfectionist,"

[Slater] chose each stone in the multicolored slate roof [by] traveling to a quarry in Vermont to find just the right mix of yellow, purple, blue and black Welsh slate. For her front and back doors, she looked at French and Italian Renaissance motifs. . . Inspired by the interiors of the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia, her dining room has been hand-painted in "a quasi-Fabergé look," as she put it, with colors drawn from her Versace Russian Dream china pattern. . . . [On the grounds] she laid in a vegetable garden, an Amish chicken coop and a clutch of bee hives. She thought hard about the Transcendentalists: What would Emerson do?

Um, maybe not paint his dining room in a way that evoked either the Hermitage or Versace? I'm also pretty sure that Emerson would not have designed a logo for his institute "inspired. . . by the color of [his] favorite Hermès scarf."

Though the article is most interested in Slater's biography and the work she's done on the estate, buried in the middle are a few more substantive paragraphs about how competitive and diverse the "artists' retreats" market is these days; some of Slater's problems come down to not doing enough research or hiring the right people to help her navigate her options. For instance, she lined up faculty to give seminars on various topics but gave less attention to participants. Slater imagines her program as appealing to scholars and artists, but it's hard to see what would be in it for them; from the way the program is described, it seems better geared toward artsy laypeople. In the end that's who she wound up with: unable to find enough artists willing to pay $1,200/week, she resorted to inviting friends and friends-of-friends in order to have some bodies populating the classes.

That, I think, is the real story: Slater is trying to build something for which there's no pre-existing market. Artists and scholars could surely use Slater's money and her enthusiasm (as could plenty of struggling humanities organizations), but they can't use it on her terms. She seems to want to run a salon or be an artistic impresario, and there's nothing wrong with that goal; bringing the right mix of people together to spark collaboration or conversation is a gift, and one that plenty of artists themselves lack. However, it isn't clear that Slater has that gift, or, more crucially, that she has those friends. Having the right network is more important than having money. With the right network, Slater could probably get something off the ground that would actually be useful to artists and scholars.

Running a salon doesn't take a lot of money. But it does require knowing people. No one comes to a dinner party where they don't know the host, at least by reputation--and that applies a hundred times over if you're expecting them to come for a week and to pay for the pleasure.

*Title courtesy of Mad Men's Marie Calvert: "not every little girl gets to do what she wants. The world could not support that many ballerinas."

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The do-nothing vacation

We're just back from Maine, where Cosimo has family, and I'm happy to report that we did . . . nothing, really. I floated in the ocean, I sat on the beach, I read a novel, I wandered up and down the shore looking at pretty rocks. To be sure, I ate and I drank and I socialized, but even that was low-key: just lots of sitting around on the porch or the patio with a beer. And I slept like a rock every night.

Maine flowers, Maine butterflies
(seacoast not pictured)
There aren't a lot of vacations where I do that little. My leisure travel is typically to cities, which involves an active schedule, and though trips to see family often have more downtime, I compensate by bringing work with me. Actually, I pretty much always bring work with me when I travel. That isn't to say that I get a lot of work done, but I can usually carve out an afternoon here and there or at least fit in six focused hours on the plane. More importantly, I always feel like I should be working.

I'm no workaholic, and my "productivity" is only somewhere in the average range for a scholar of my generation; I certainly don't work every single day when I have a chunk of time clear of other obligations. But even when I'm taking a break I find other ways to be busy: I go to the gym or throw myself into home-improvement projects; I go places, do things. Even my leisure-reading tends to be goal-oriented: I should finally read last year's big literary novel! I should get through that pile of magazines! Any kind of recharging is good, and there's no real harm to making my off-days feel productive. But it's a different feeling having nothing that needs doing at any particular time.

It's weird to write that at the end of my sabbatical, which is ostensibly all about such restful recuperation. But though I've had leisurely days and I've done some new thinking, those things have happened interstitially, en route to some obligation or other. Over the past six months I went to five conferences and gave six papers or presentations. Both Cosimo and I were on the job market. We moved back to our house. And I had a bunch of deadlines and suffered a bunch of work-related disappointments. It's been a huge boon to have had the time to do all those things and grapple with all those changes, but it's been only intermittently restful.

A couple of years ago I heard Alice Waters on "Fresh Air." She mentioned that she pays her chefs a twelve-month salary but only expects them to work at Chez Panisse for six months of the year; restaurant life is crazy and the hours are long and burn-out is a real problem. The other six months are for exploration: they can go abroad, visit markets, meet farmers, dine in other restaurants, and sample other people's cooking.

It's a humane understanding of what all workers need, but especially of what creative workers need. Thank God for the summer, for sabbaticals, and the do-nothing vacation.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Letters-to-the-editor idiocy knows no nation

I'm sure that many of my readers, like me, received as an extra punch to the gut the news that the plane shot down over Ukraine was carrying more than 100 HIV/AIDS researchers. This doesn't make the story worse, exactly--298 lives lost is a tragedy, whoever they are, and the geopolitical crisis doesn't care whether they're vacationers, bankers, or scholars. But it's a loss on top of those losses to think of how this affects an urgently important field of research.

(And I bet I'm not the only one who's occasionally looked around the plane en route to a conference and thought, "damn: if this goes down, there goes half of Donne studies.")

So I wasn't surprised, on my flight back to the States yesterday, to see that one of the letters to the editor of the Guardian was also thinking about the relationship of the MH17 crash to the future of scholarship. I was, however, TOTALLY surprised by what he considered the tragedy an occasion to opine on.

Here's the letter in its entirety:

The overall loss of life in the Malaysia Airlines disaster (Report, 18 July) is the primary concern, but a separate issue is raised. Around 100 were scientists going to a conference in Australia. Is it not time to ask why such trips are necessary? The advent of large-screen TVs and rapid transmission of data and the spoken word mean it is no longer necessary to send thousands of people around the world at great expense and at major environmental cost. Now we have lost a very large number of people expert in the science of Aids. What cost will this be to those suffering from the disease?

Dr Simon Harris

Clearly, if there were no academic conferences, the public would be better off.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Men against rape

Waiting at the airport for an overnight flight to London, I find I'm having a hard time thinking of anything but today's NYT cover story about a campus rape and the grievous way the college administration screwed up the investigation. Tenured Radical has a great post on the story, on the newfound attention sexual assault has been receiving, and on what it might take to get colleges to take the matter as seriously as they claim they do.

As for me, I have little to add to what I've said about rape in the past.

Actually, that's not quite true. The one bright spot in the Hobart & William Smith story involves the victim's friend: a man, and, it later turns out, a football player (like the woman's assailants). Although he can't have known her long or well since they were both freshmen and it was the beginning of the school year, after receiving some alarming texts from her he keeps trying to contact her. When he gets no response, he sets out in the middle of the night to try to find her.

We need more men like that. Indeed, the most useful thing about recent research showing that the vast majority of college rapes are perpetrated by serial predators--and that they account for only a small percentage of the male population--will be if it changes the conversation so the average man doesn't feel that he's under suspicion, but can see himself as part of the solution.

Because he has to be.

Friday, July 11, 2014

High risk, high reward?

I haven't had much to blog about while consumed with article revisions (it took weeks, but I'm finally at the point where the work is interesting again), but two items from last Sunday's Times have been rattling about in my head for days.

The first is a piece from the Sunday Review that gained some traction on social media: "The Secret of Effective Motivation." It summarizes a study of more than 11,000 cadets at West Point that sought to determine what kind of motivation is most likely to lead to success--in this case, both in school and then over the course of a career as an Army officer. Unsurprisingly, the study found that internal motivation (doing something because you care about the thing itself) is much more likely to lead to external markers of success (better grades, a better job, a promotion, a raise) than "instrumental" motivation (doing something because you desire those external signifiers).

What is surprising is that the study found that strong instrumental motives are damaging to the likelihood of success even when they're accompanied by strong internal motives. Whereas you'd think that the two in combination would be the most effective spur to achievement, apparently that isn't true. Or (to put it in my own pejorative terms), if you sully the purity of your love for something by also desiring success, you've ruined your chance at it.

Now, I understand that this is a short, general-audience summary of the research in question, and I'm sure plenty got left out or had to be generalized. I'm also sure that there are differences across fields. But I'm left with a lot of questions: is the desire to earn a living or have a secure job "instrumental"? Is hoping to get tenure or move to a job with better pay or a better quality of life? Or is it only instrumental if you're focused on issues of status or prestige--on how something will make you look?

Just about anyone who's gotten a Ph.D. has to have been strongly internally motivated; you don't spend five to ten years writing a dissertation and foregoing other opportunities if you don't care intensely about your work. But most of us, absent a stable employment situation or a supportive academic community, would not keep doing our research. I wouldn't. Is the measure of whether your motivation is "internal" whether you'd keep doing something without external rewards?

When I look at my own motives, I find it surprisingly hard to tell which are internal and which are instrumental. Take this article that I'm revising for the third or fourth time now: on the one hand, I wouldn't be trying to incorporate my latest reviewer's suggestions if I didn't genuinely think they were smart, compatible with my own goals, and likely to make an already strong article even stronger. I could just take the thing elsewhere. Indeed, I could have the thing on my C.V. this second if I were to sign the contract sitting not three feet from me to have the essay included in an edited collection. (Long story, but the editors of the collection know the score.)

On the other hand, I'd be lying if I said I was continuing to work on this fucker purely because I wanted what's best for my argument. I also want this journal, or one of its caliber, on my C.V.


The second item I've been turning over in my head also deals with ambition and motivation. It's just a few brief lines from an article on Richard Linklater's new movie, Boyhood, which he shot over the course of twelve years, following its young star as he grew up in real time. The article talks about the unusual career choices that both Linklater and Ethan Hawke (another of the movie's leads) have made, and the odd coincidence that both men had fathers who worked as risk assessors for insurance companies.

According to Hawke, his dad tried to talk him out of an acting career based on the low statistical probability of success:

"It wasn't as if he didn't think I was talented or something," Mr. Hawke said. "He's just an actuary, and the actuarial tables were not good. I remember him saying the statistical chances of being an Eastwood were just so small."

But Mr. Hawke studied the careers of actors he admired and deduced that they had taken big risks, not avoided them. "My dad and I talked about how if the goal is a lifelong profession in the performing arts, then the actuarial tables of not taking chances are actually much worse."

This, I love. It's not really any more comforting than the other article, but it's framed in a more helpful way. When you're in a risky profession--as academics are, at least in grad school and early in their careers--you have a better likelihood of success if you're doing work you really care about, and if you're doing it boldly and the way you believe it needs to be done.

I hope that's what I'm doing with this article. I hope the reason it's getting more pushback than anything I've written is that it's interesting and important work--and I hope it's worth the cost of waiting to see it in a better venue (if and when it appears in one).

But of course I don't know that to be true. I might actually be wasting my time doing something "safe" (endlessly revising this one piece rather than going on to new things) while imagining myself as boldly taking risks.

Unfortunately, the actuarial tables have nothing to say about that.

Saturday, July 05, 2014

Two demented people

Seen around Facebook: "How We End up Marrying the Wrong People." I have some quibbles with the title--the piece is as much about how relationships work as why they don't--and I find its use of the first-person plural both wearying and a little odd, especially given its lack of a byline.* Nevertheless, it speaks to a lot of things I believe about relationships.

Here's a taste:

All of us are crazy in very particular ways. We're distinctively neurotic, unbalanced and immature. . . . A good partnership is not so much one between two healthy people (there aren't many of these on the planet), it's one between two demented people who have had the skill or luck to find a non-threatening conscious accommodation between their relative insanities.

Or as one of the smartest observers of relationships I know once said, "The choice of a partner is the choice of which incompatibilities you're willing to live with for the rest of your life."**

We believe we seek happiness in love, but it's not quite as simple. What at times it seems we actually seek is familiarity.

Human beings aren't good at sorting signal from noise, or identifying which part of a person or relationship is triggering which reaction. I may respond positively to a relationship that feels comfortingly like an old one, without seeing what else is wrapped up in that feeling--or I may react negatively to someone who reminds me of someone else, even if the thing triggering that feeling is unrelated to whatever bad experience I previously had.

We imagine that marriage is a guarantor of the happiness we're enjoying with someone. It will make permanent what might otherwise be fleeting. It will help us to bottle our joy. . . . [But] getting married has no power to keep a relationship at this beautiful stage. . . .In fact, marriage will decisively move the relationship on to another, very different moment: to a suburban house, a long commute, two small children. The only ingredient in common is the partner. And that might have been the wrong ingredient to bottle.

I've got nothing to add to that one except to say that I don't see as much of this as I used to--which is to say, I know fewer catastrophically mismatched couples and fewer people who rush impulsively into long-term commitments. I don't love each and every partner of my each and every friend--occasionally I even prefer one of their exes--but most the people I know are now in relationships that work, where their partnership feels well-balanced. Often this is because the bad matches have broken up or gotten divorced, but in other cases they've gone through years of growth, with or without therapy.

Most people get smarter about relationships as they age, learn more about themselves, and learn more about other people. Or put another way: they get better at recognizing their own dementedness, and seeking out a complementary form of crazy in someone else.

*Once I clicked on the website I realized I'd dimly heard of the organization behind it, The School of Life (which I'm pretty sure is pronounced The School of Life).

**I think this is a paraphrase of something in John Gottman's outstanding, if cheesily titled, Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Queer Catholics

In my continuing efforts to blog about things that none of my readers care about, today I bring you my thoughts on a 75-page document recently issued by the Vatican, The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization

Wait, come back! It's all about gender and sexuality and stuff!

Last fall, Pope Francis announced that he was convening an extraordinary meeting of the synod of bishops to consider the state of marriage and family life. Francis asked every diocese in the world to study the issue, survey the laity, and weigh in on where Catholics stand on various issues affecting family life. (I participated in my diocese's survey, which I'll say more about below.) The resulting document, known as an "instrumentum laboris," or "working instrument," contains a preliminary report on those findings, and it's meant to be the starting point for the work of the synod, whose first meeting will be in October.

Francis's initial announcement of the synod got some coverage in the mainstream press--in part because of the short timeline and in part because of the sweeping scope of the project: this is the first time that ordinary Catholics have been asked for their feedback. There has been speculation, at least in the American press, that the conference might be the occasion for major changes in the church's positions on such things as divorce, birth control, and same-sex marriage. But despite that initial coverage, as far as I can tell, last week's release of the instrumentum has received zero attention outside of Catholic circles (that last link is to Rocco Palmo, always the best source for news on the global church).

I'm not an expert Vatican-watcher and there are a lot of basic things I don't know about the synod or its mandate. And though I've read the instrumentum, at times I have trouble deciphering its "voice"--that is, whether a statement is merely descriptive (this is what the church has said on this subject in recent decades) or prescriptive (this is the church's teaching, which is not up for debate). Nevertheless, some things are pretty obvious. Issues surrounding divorce and remarriage get more attention in the document than any of the other subjects that preoccupy American and European Catholics, which leads me to suspect that there could be some real changes there. I also believe that changes around the edges of birth-control policies are likely, and though I'd be surprised to see major changes on same-sex marriage, I wouldn't rule out the possibility of some conciliatory gestures (for example, the document spends some time discussing how to welcome same-sex couples who wish to raise their children Catholic).

But really, what will strike any Western reader of the document is all the other problems facing families that the bishops are interested in--and the global perspective that those concerns reflect. Serious attention is given to domestic violence, incest, human trafficking, polygamy, poverty, and families separated by political unrest or forced migration. The other thing that will strike readers is how generous and compassionate the document can be toward both families and individuals. It waxes indignant about the ostracism and shame some people (single mothers, victims of abuse) are subjected to, and it's critical of clerics who don't fulfill their pastoral duties. The influence of Francis is clear in such moments.

There are less generous moments sprinkled throughout, though, and while I imagine that some of the oscillation between more compassionate and more condemnatory language reflects the conflicts and compromises inherent in a preliminary document written by a 15-person team, it's still a little disappointing. I'm also disappointed, though not surprised, that the instrumentum's discussion of the laity's attitudes is mostly couched in terms of what they "understand" about the church's teachings. Although each diocese apparently had some leeway in how it surveyed its laity, the form I got was focused on its respondents' level of engagement in Catholic life and familiarity with church teachings. And, dudes: I understand, with great clarity, the intricacies of the church's teachings on homosexuality. I've heard the best and most compelling arguments for natural family planning. That's not the same thing as agreeing with those teachings. What I wanted and did not get was a chance to say, "yes, I'm a Catholic who has received all the sacraments, who attends mass weekly and volunteers at her parish, and I don't agree with you on X or Y."

Most surprising to me is the document's near obsession with what it calls "the ideology of gender theory" (12)--a term that comes up at least half a dozen times. Although the bishops barely define it (and it's not clear that their familiarity with gender theory is at anything closer than third or fourth hand), they're plainly troubled by the idea that gender might be disconnected from biological sexuality. Throughout, there's an essentialist attitude toward gender and sexuality, and a suspicion of anything that might be considered non-normative.

And. . . it's at this point that I say, OH, COME ON! The Catholic Church has been celebrating non-normative sexualities for centuries. We're talking about an institution that has a celibate priesthood and celibate male and female religious. We're talking about a religious tradition that involves ecstatic, eroticized mysticism, that uses sexualized language to talk about everything from the Creation, the Incarnation, and the Eucharist to prayer and the operations of the Holy Spirit. I mean, I'm not calling the church freaky, but its attitudes toward sexuality are rich, interesting, and go beyond either the procreative or the ascetic.

Cosimo has remarked that female religious (whom he knew from childhood, thanks to his beloved aunt, a Sister of St. Joseph) were his first introduction to queer women: not because of anything he knew or presumed about their sexual orientation, but because of the palpable otherness of a community of women who lived entirely outside of the imperatives of heterosexuality. Indeed, celibacy is about as counter-cultural as you can get in the modern age.

I understand that the mandate of the synod is to deal with the changing shape of the family, not with vowed celibates or those leading a single life; I also have no desire to return to the centuries in which the church valorized celibacy and slighted marriage and procreation. But there's something exasperating about the refusal to consider love, marriage, and family life within the larger and more radical context of the church's history and teachings. As many people before me have pointed out, Jesus himself shows no interest in the traditional family. Not only was his own family nontraditional (and non-procreative), he himself never married and repeatedly tells his followers that to proclaim his kingdom they need to leave their families behind--not even pausing to bury their dead.

According to the instrumentum laboris, many bishops are calling for "theological study in dialogue with the human sciences" to better understand sexual orientation, homosexuality, and the differences between the sexes (52). I'm glad of that, and I think it's a hopeful sign. But I'd like for them also to wrestle with--or simply acknowledge!--the non-normative and non-procreative forms of gender, sexuality, and eroticism that have always been central to the Catholic tradition.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Bog, slog, slough

As it turns out, it's hard to bring any energy or enthusiasm to one's third R&R on the same essay.

I believe in the suggestions enough to want to implement them--but at this point in the life of the piece, I'm pretty much done having new thoughts. It's also hard to believe that any change will increase the likelihood of success.


Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Manatees looking for mentos

We've been rewatching the early seasons of 30 Rock--and I'm struck, as I wasn't the first time around, by what the show gets right about mentorship.

On the one hand, the relationship between Jack and Liz is a wish-fulfillment, fantasy version of the mentor-mentee relationship: out of nowhere, this powerful, senior person elects you to be his mentee! He's seen your potential, and now he wants to lavish you with attention and give you the benefit of his years of experience.

And that part--well, if you're waiting for that kind of mentor, you'll be waiting a long time.

But the show is right that mentors find you more often than the other way around. Unless the mentor relationship occurs within a formalized workplace program, it happens pretty much solely at the senior person's discretion. Sure, you can take some initiative in getting a potential mentor's attention, but as 30 Rock demonstrates, the mentor's own investments and fantasies are as important as you, your potential, and whatever you actually need. Someone who wants to mentor you is almost certainly someone who likes to think of himself as a mentor. Jack has so much enthusiasm for mentoring it's like he's selling patent medicine.

What follows from that is that a mentor's investments in you (or in your shared workplace or profession) may not always overlap perfectly with what you need from them. When Jack sticks to "leadership" issues, he's got something to offer. But when he starts pitching ideas for the show, he's just another suit who thinks he's got a creative side. So if you're lucky enough to have someone who decides they want to mentor you, think about what you actually need from them, and be attentive to whatever else might be motivating their advice. Usually it's pretty benign--your mentor sees some part of himself in you; he wants to help build up the department you share; he regrets some mistakes he made with his own first book--but it's never purely about you.

The corollary, though, is that a mentor doesn't have to be perfect, or be able to help you in all areas of your professional life--and if his politics or personal life (or even his field of study or theoretical or methodological approach) are totally alien to you, so what? A mentor only needs to be smart and helpful in one area to be a good mentor.

And who knows? Maybe you'll find someone who'll be Michelle Pfeiffer to your angry black kid who learns that poetry is just another way to rap.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Mail from the great beyond gets misdirected, too

Last night I dreamed I was writing an article proving that the book Polonius hands Ophelia in 3.1 (when he sends her to confront Hamlet) is Lewis Bayly's "The Practice of Piety."

This was such a weirdly specific dream, about texts I've never worked on--I haven't even taught Hamlet in three or four years and I'm pretty sure I've never read Bayly--that I awoke wondering if there might actually be something to this: could my subconscious mind have produced something totally brilliant? Or maybe even received some kind of supernatural transmission??

Alas, a quick database search revealed that Bayly's book was probably first published in 1611, at least a decade too late.

Still, now that I know my subconscious can produce plausible-sounding scholarly arguments, I'm pissed it hasn't been helping me with my actual work all these years.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Clumsy incompetence is just part of my process

I remember how hard it was to write my first dissertation chapter--and, worse, how incomprehensible it seemed that it should be so hard: I'd read hundreds of academic book chapters! I'd written a dozen 20-page seminar papers! I knew what a chapter-length scholarly argument looked like, and I could confidently tell you which ones were stronger and which ones were weaker, and why. I knew all the kinds of moves a book chapter might make. But I couldn't apply that knowledge to my own writing.

To say that my advisor wasn't helpful in navigating that particular psychodrama would be an understatement; our relationship came close to collapsing over that chapter. But after I'd produced a draft that was firing on a few of its cylinders, she gave me some of the most useful writing advice I've ever received: It's time to move on, she said. Start your second chapter. You can return to this one later.

I didn't like that advice. I'd been living inside that chapter for a long time, and I couldn't bear the idea of leaving it messy and half-formed, especially when it finally seemed to be getting somewhere. But I did as she said. And for whatever reason, my second chapter just came: it wound up being the longest and maybe the meatiest of my dissertation chapters, but the easiest of the four to write. My remaining chapters were still a frustrating, difficult slog, but neither was as hard as the first. The difference, I think, was that while I was still struggling with ideas, argument, and organization, once I'd written one good chapter, the form itself no longer felt like an obstacle. I'd made it my own.

The experience taught me that the point of writing a dissertation chapter is, on some level, to learn how to write a dissertation chapter. And you don't learn by tinkering endlessly with the same chapter--you learn by writing other chapters. The same is true for every literary form I can think of, from the tweet to the novel. (Most "first novels," after all, aren't the first novel the author wrote, but the first one she got published.) Reading a lot of works in a given genre is crucial, but you only learn how to inhabit a form by inhabiting it. Repeatedly.

But though I tell my students the kind of things I've just said here--that the point of writing a research paper is to learn how to write a research paper; that you can't master a form without first doing it badly--that doesn't mean I've fully learned my own lessons.

Recently, I was invited to write something on spec for a general-interest publication. It was a topic comfortably within my wheelhouse, for a publication I've subscribed to for years. I was excited by the opportunity and thought I could probably do a pretty good job. But I'm telling you: it was the hardest thing I've written in ages--maybe the hardest thing I've written since that first dissertation chapter. As with my dissertation, the problem was mostly one of form (or, more accurately, with negotiating the relationship between self and form). I didn't know who I was writing as, or to whom, or why. The editors were kind enough to read two significantly different versions of my essay over a couple of months, but in the end decided it wasn't the right fit for them.

That was disappointing, but still useful. Useful as a reminder that when I assign my M.A. students to write a 750-word book review, no matter how many they've read, most are not quite going to get it on the first go-round. Useful because though I frequently tell others that writing isn't magic, I'm prey to the same belief that, if I can't do something the first time, I probably don't have the ability to do it at all. And useful because now I guess I have something new to work on.

Saturday, June 07, 2014

Worse than the two-body problem is the two-home problem

We're in the midst of moving selves, cats, and a goodly number of our possessions from Punchline Rustbelt City to Other Rustbelt City. It's not a bad move, as moves go: we're keeping this apartment for next year, so it's just a matter of schlepping a couple of carloads and a vanload back to our house (and then unpacking everything we stored in the attic while the renters were there). And I'm dying to be back home for the summer.

But three of the last four summers have involved some kind of move, most of them logistically complicated ones: 2011 involved moving among four different residences, and last year it was three. In addition to the endless U-Haul and packing-tape drama, each move has involved new decisions about which items to consolidate in one location, to buy in duplicate, or to purge.

And in approximately twelve months we'll be moving again, for the most complicated, expensive, and stressful move of all. (Another three-corner move, but this time with a house to sell and another to buy--and an apartment, a storage unit, and infinite unknowns about timing and money.)

It's too exhausting even to contemplate. Time to pour some wine and watch the cats play with the bubble wrap.