Monday, September 15, 2014

Job season round-up

Since the MLA's Job Information List went live last week--and since I apparently have nothing new or interesting to say just now--I thought I'd collect in one handy location my musings and bits of advice from years past:

Why you should stop freaking out already about whether a particular job has an inside candidate.

How to be competitive for a "middle-class job"--that is, the kind of place that values teaching and research about equally. (Somewhat related: ways of parsing the differences among institutions, beyond looking at teaching load.)

What not to sweat about the conference interview.

A peek (or two, or three) into how the job search feels to those inside a hiring department or committee.

And just for fun: why the job list still fascinates and unsettles me, every damn year, whether I'm applying or not.

*

Looking through the posts I've tagged as "The Academic Job Market," I see they provide less concrete advice than I'd thought. Other bloggers have covered a lot of this ground before (last year, Notorious Ph.D. wrote a series of posts about the component parts of the job search, and the year before, Bardiac did the same)--but if there are any topics my readership would like to see me tackle, leave a note in the comments and I'll see what I can do.

Good luck out there, kids. We're pulling for you.


Wednesday, September 10, 2014

PSA, maybe

So, that problem of needing access to scholarly databases to which your institution doesn't subscribe? I may have found a solution.

Register as a nondegree or nonmatriculated student at whichever local institution does subscribe. Obviously, not all universities permit students in this category--I imagine you can't be a nondegree student at Princeton--but plenty of places whose mission involves the surrounding community have programs that allow random citizens to take a class now and then on either a credit or audit basis. And in my experience at two institutions in two states (Cosimo's public R2 and now a private R1), all you have to do is fill out a quick web form, wait a day or two for approval, and then you get a student ID number and login.

And that gives you library web access.

Now, I can't promise that every institution would give you library access without your actually enrolling in a course--or that such access would last for longer than a semester or two--but in both the places where I've been a nondegree student, web access to everything was immediate, and not a function of being enrolled or paying one red cent.

I leave it to the enterprising among you to conduct further research.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Modeling

I spent my Friday night writing a model close-reading essay for my Milton students. This is the kind of thing I always think about doing, but almost never do--just because it's labor-intensive and annoying and because I spend enough time on class prep as it is.

Since virtually all my classes require some understanding of the terms and techniques of formal poetics, the close-reading essay is one of my staples. In Shakespeare I have my students close-read a speech in verse, and in my other classes I usually have them do a sonnet. Since my own college teachers did a piss-poor job of teaching poetics, I've spent a lot of time thinking about the basic toolkit students need to understand and analyze a poem. And I gotta say: I love doing it. Even after years of assigning some version of this essay, I'm still not tired of it.

But not being tired of it isn't the same thing as saying I've done everything possible to prepare my students for the task.

Sure, we do a lot of close-reading in class, and I try to be explicit about how our work might translate into a thesis or how we might organize all our observations into a coherent argument. And I've revised my assignment sheet a number of times to include a detailed breakdown of the whole process. But as for an actual model. . . eh. A couple of times I retyped one of my own undergraduate essays to share, and often I kicked myself for not having been foresighted enough to ask a student from a previous class whether I had permission to distribute copies of her paper. But I could never fathom finding the time to produce five relatively polished new pages of my own.

But this week I decided it was time. Maybe being on sabbatical last year left me with secret reserves of pedagogical energy, or maybe it's just that I've taught for long enough that the basics of class prep don't suck up as much time as they used to. In any case, I sat down and banged out a four-page close-reading of Sonnet 7 in a little under four hours. (I ask that my students' papers be 4-6 pages--and true to the undergraduate spirit, I decided there was no benefit to my doing more than the minimum.)

And you know what? It was fun. Maybe not the funnest thing I could have done on a Friday night, but it wasn't bad. I don't think it gave me any new insights into the assignment itself or how I might do things differently in the classroom, since I've been tinkering with those things for years. But it did produce one or two new thoughts about a poem I thought I knew upside-down--and there's ultimately no substitute for showing students how a thing is done, even when you believe that your instructions are perfectly aligned with both the process and the end product you desire.

Also? I won't have to do this again for years.

*

Readers, when have you gotten into the trenches and done an assignment alongside your students? Did it change your teaching or the nature of your assignment?

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Back to school x 3

x 1: Last week was the first week of classes at RU. Imagine all the usual chaos (and some delight).

x 2: Last week was also the first week of classes at my future employer. My email address has been added to the department's distribution list, so I've already been sent dozens of messages, including two or three requiring detailed replies. I guess it's good to have a year to get up to speed, but--TWICE the administrative email! TWO sets of institutional drama!

x 3: I was hoping to take an Italian class at the local R1. But they don't start classes until Wednesday. And the instructor has been flakey about getting back to me. And my registration code doesn't work. And I don't know where the classroom is, or how to get parking privileges--and if I have to waste one more afternoon navigating yet another institution's bureaucracy, I just may lose my shit.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Crowdfunding is what happens when real funding dries up

Crowdfunding is great. Except as a substitute for all the other ways that people used to make or raise money: through jobs, a living wage, a social safety net, or established charities and arts organizations.

A year or two ago, a fiftysomething INRU staff member who used to work in the English department mentioned on Facebook that he'd been laid off by the university after decades of employment. He was a deeply beloved figure, someone who knew every undergraduate and grad student by name; each May, his bulletin board was crowded with thank-you notes and photos of that year's be-gowned, be-capped graduates. When he mentioned his firing, dozens of people wrote on his wall to express outrage and sympathy.

I still see his posts in my feed occasionally, but if he said anything more about his employment situation, I hadn't noticed. Then, earlier this week, he shared a post by his wife. It turns out she was also a long-time university employee who'd been laid off the year before he was. She'd managed to find a part-time minimum-wage job, but he was still looking. She indicated that they'd been struggling but managing--until their landlord announced he was selling their home and they suddenly had to come up with several thousand dollars for a security deposit, first and last month's rent, and a moving van. Evidently embarrassed, she set up a crowd-funded account to see if they could raise the money.

They met their goal in a few days, mostly via lots of small gifts from former students and coworkers who apparently cherished their memories as much as I did mine.

Still, I've been distressed by this ever since. I'm glad to have been able to help, as I'm glad to have been able to donate to various friends and friends-of-friends when they wanted to mount an experimental play, or cover printing costs for a graphic novel, or provide winter-weather supplies for the homeless. I'm pleased to have a small stake in worthwhile projects, and at this point in my financial life it's easy enough to kick in $50 here and there.

But it only works, really, as a one-off: you can't keep tapping your entire social network in the way an established nonprofit can ask donors to commit to annual gifts or automatic monthly deductions. Or I suppose you can, but you'd probably see diminishing returns: the loose and diffuse friendships fostered by social media aren't built for it. There are plenty of people I haven't seen in 15 years whom I feel warmly toward--but not so warmly that I'd appreciate repeated attempts to leverage my affection into a cash donation.

That doesn't mean I don't care; it just means that each of us has limited means, and when push comes to shove it's usually our family members and closest friends who have most claim to our financial and emotional assistance. The awfulness of the crowdfunded emergency bailout is that it reminds us how insufficient both our resources and our goodwill are.

I hope my old friend and his wife will be okay from here on out, but what if they're not? What if there's another emergency--or what if nothing's an "emergency," but they simply can't get by any more? And what about all the other people I don't know, with fewer friends and family to call upon, but equivalent needs?

Monday, August 25, 2014

Writing when no one's reading

So about those journals. The first and most necessary surprise--necessary in the sense of allowing me to keep reading the damn things--is that they weren't nearly as cringe-inducing as I'd feared.

To be sure, there are lots of things I'm glad to have grown out of: endless fretting and insecurity, for one, and a species of boy-craziness I'd mostly forgotten about. I remembered mooning after various guys and obsessing over ones who didn't work out, but I did not remember commenting on the attractiveness of just about every man I met, or how many crushes-from-afar I apparently had. (Who's this cute Art & Architecture student I mention a dozen times? Or that barista I kept running into? Or the guy a friend dubbed "Taller Tom Cruise"? Not a clue.) I also forgot how sexually frank my journals were. Notional future children, I'm sorry for grossing you out.

But although I often wanted to tell Younger Flavia "snap out of it!" or "honey, he is not into you," that phase of my life is far enough away that I can regard my youthful silliness with more tolerance than I probably could have even five years ago.

What most interests me is the rich social world these journals conjure up. I'd forgotten just how enmeshed my life was with those of my friends--including friends who lived hundreds of miles away. My journals are full of references to two-hour phone calls or lengthy email exchanges or weekend visits, and I summarize in newsy detail all my friends' goings-ons: what they liked and hated about their jobs, their roommates, their significant others. I talk about which movies I saw with whom and what we said afterwards, and where we went and who we met up with--and why I really can't stand so-and-so's boyfriend. Young Flavia is often very funny, and good at characterizing people through a single quotation or brief anecdote that recalls them perfectly.

It's sad, in a way, how thoroughly that world has disappeared. In the endless catalogue I give of dance clubs and dive bars, coffee shops and restaurants, at least half are gone and another quarter I can't visualize or place geographically. More importantly, though I still have most of the friends I had then, we now have partners and kids and busy lives; I'm lucky to see or talk to many of them two or three times a year. Here they all are, though, living on the page not only in summary and paraphrase, but often in their own words: their insights, jokes and apt turns of phrase.

I'm also struck by how seriously my journals take the task of figuring myself out. Amidst all the mooning and insecurity, there's a lot of self-inquiry: why do I feel this way? What does this mean? Would I be happier doing something differently? I quote the things my friends say about me, turning over their assessments and agreeing or disagreeing, wondering if they're right. And I refer back, continually, to events that happened years earlier, sometimes consulting prior journals for reference.

Reading through several years at once makes growth more evident. Young Flavia's oscillations between madcap enthusiasm and weepy doubt become less extreme, and she's more inclined to be generous to others. I note with appreciation the friends who don't let me avoid difficult subjects or who make me admit when I'm mad at them--and I comment with pleasure when I succeed in raising a touchy issue myself.

There's a lot to miss about what I find in those journals. The close friendships and the apparently boundless free time are the most obvious, but I'm realizing that I also miss keeping a journal. Those notebooks didn't record everything, and towards the end they're especially spotty. But I'm sad, now, that the subsequent ten years have no comparable record. Reading about my early-grad-school lunacy reminded me of parts of the crushing grief of my big break-up seven years ago--but I have no record of the latter.

Naturally, I record bits and pieces of my life on social media and on this blog, and it has always been my goal to keep my blogging emotionally honest--not to paper over disappointments, anger, and frustration--but there's a lot that I can't say (whether due to professional discretion, personal discretion, or FERPA). For that matter, there's a lot I don't want to say in this format.

Indeed, in the era of social media and "don't say it if you don't want someone to see it," those journals feel vaguely illicit. I found myself grimacing occasionally at just how much I revealed about others' lives: their words, their actions, and my own occasionally nasty gossip or speculation. Though these notebooks exist in only a single hard copy, which no one else has access to, I've so internalized a sense of what I can't write about electronically that I almost can't believe I wrote such things at all.

I value my public writing, and I have no desire for it to be more rawly confessional. But I think I'm going to try keeping a journal again. The entries won't be as epic or as searching as they used to be, I'm sure--but I'm curious what I might have to say to myself when no one else is listening.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Getting out of grad school alive

I started grad school fifteen years ago next month, and the other night, as I was falling asleep, I had a vivid recollection of the apartment I lived in for my first four years and what falling asleep there had been like. It was a narrow studio, longer than it was deep, with my bed only a few yards from the front door. Under the door, even in the dark, a bright strip of light from the hallway shone in. Every second or third night I'd be unable to fall asleep, convinced that the framed poster that hung over the head of my bed was going to crash down in the middle of the night. So I'd take it down and hang it back up in the morning.

I've been trying to figure out what I've done in the past fifteen years, and finding the list wanting--professionally I'm perfectly on schedule, if that's the right word, but haven't done anything grand--but then I went back to the journals I kept in grad school. I kept a journal for a dozen years, from roughly ages 17 to 29, but haven't so much as laid hands or eyes on them in a decade. They lived in a sealed-up cardboard box, which I moved from place to place and then shoved in the back of a closet. Until now, I'd never had the nerve to re-read them. I knew what was in them, basically, and didn't want to revisit it.

But yesterday I did, and the experience was. . . surprising. I'll say more about that in another post, but reading the ones from my first two years of grad school make it clear that I was a lunatic. I remember with some clarity how depressed I was, and some of the reasons why, but that's not the same as reading entry after entry about walking home from class crying, about weeping at this party or that party, about my increasingly elaborate and paranoid social fears. No wonder I slept badly.

It's hard to believe how late I stayed up, how little I slept, and how much I drank. In retrospect it's clear that most of my friends were lunatics, too--even the ones who weren't literally alcoholics or addicted to drugs were in crazy, anguished places. My journals are full of worries about this friend who seems to have lost a quarter of her body weight, and that friend who's having an affair, or the other who's picking up strangers in bars. And I recount, drily, the story about this one falling over backwards in his chair or another passing out face-down on the table.

So though I was going to come up with a list of what I've done in the past fifteen years to make me feel accomplished and cheerful and whatnot (M.A.! Ph.D! Tenure-track job! Articles! Tenure! Book!), I have to say, I'm just glad we all survived.

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
Wrexham

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.

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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.