Saturday, August 27, 2016

An obsession in search of a medium

Downloading my blog is irksome, fascinating, and monotonous all at once: I've already hit 700 pages and am just at the halfway point.

It's an extraordinary thing, reading hundreds of thousands of your own more-or-less polished, more-or-less public words, all ruminating on basically the same set of topics over the years. As with my journals, I'm surprised both by how much I haven't changed--so many posts I'd forgotten about could have been written last week--and by how much I have.

But let's be honest: most of what's changed has to do with specific, discrete skills I've learned (I no longer fret over how to teach a certain kind of class or am puzzled by a particular professional conundrum) or with my having aged into different roles with students and colleagues alike. The existential stuff, the habits of thought, the kinds of things I'm interested in and worry about--those are all pretty consistent.

In some ways that's comforting: it's proof that I have a core self, an identity, or at least a set of obsessions that pass for a personality. But there are some continuities that are less comfortable, some obsessions I'm surprised to discover I haven't outgrown. Whatever narratives I may tell about myself these days, there are still some tattered personal myths I haven't fully replaced, whose ghostly presence is my only explanation for the disproportionate emotional reactions that certain tasks, conflicts, or ambitions elicit.

But the more interesting thoughts this process has stimulated aren't to do with me as a person, but rather with the kind of writing that this blog represents. Most of my older and original reasons for blogging no longer obtain--or the the needs they represent are ones now better met in other spaces. Facebook has absorbed probably 50% of what I used to blog about.

But I'm still blogging, even though most of my favorite bloggers and blog-readers have moved on to other media. Some are their hilarious, thoughtful, or political selves exclusively on Facebook and Twitter. Others occasionally write first-person essays or advice pieces for the Chronicle or IHE. Others do public writing for the LARB, The Atlantic online, institutional blogs, or print publications. Sometimes I think that if I were serious about writing nonacademic prose, that's what I'd be doing, too.

And yet, none of those seems the right fit for the writing I still feel compelled to do here. This blog isn't confessional, or a record of my daily minutiae. It isn't advice-oriented and doesn't (usually) pretend to great knowledge. I rarely talk about the details of my research or try to use my disciplinary training to talk about contemporary events or bring a neglected historical or literary artifact to public attention.

Rather, what continues to fascinate me, the kind of writing for which I've found no other outlet, is the project of understanding and describing the emotional and psychological realities of the profession as I experience it. What does it mean to be an academic at this cultural moment? Who are we? And what does it feel like to write, to experience rejection, to change jobs, to cathect onto particular mentors, colleagues, students?

I don't know for how long I'll continue to blog; it's melancholy being part of a dying or superseded medium when most of the party is happening elsewhere. But since there's no evidence to suggest that I outgrow my obsessions, I'm unlikely to stop until I find a better space in which to pursue them.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Watching the forest grow

Because we're cramming an entire summer's worth of travel into the four weeks before classes start--not really our idea! it's what happens when you have family on both coasts!--I've had little time to write, whether here or elsewhere. One of the few tasks I've managed has been starting the long and tedious process of downloading my eleven-plus years of blog posts into a Word document. Since CTRL-C / CTRL-V doesn't require a lot of brainpower, it's ideal for the 30 or 45 minutes I have free before dinner or while waiting in an airport lounge with screaming children and MSNBC blaring over my shoulder.

I haven't been reading the posts carefully, but I've been reading them. And as with my grad school journals, you'd better believe I Have Thoughts about it all. Without the time to elaborate on those thoughts, though, I'll leave you with this ten-year-old description of my strengths and weaknesses as a writer (specifically, the fact that I'm a better reviser than generator of ideas). It remains as true today as it was then:

I'm a craftsman, not an artist. I'm fine with that. But here's where the analogy breaks down: do we ask the master woodworker to go out and create wood? To grow the trees, harvest them, and make lumber before he gets down to making his fancy lintels or whatever? That's what I feel I'm doing when I start writing--growing the fucking trees. And it's usually about as much fun as watching the forest grow.

Monday, August 08, 2016

First jobs meme

Folks around the academic social media circuit have been doing the #firstsevenjobs meme, with interesting results. I've been reluctant to participate, since my list initially struck me as pretty boring, and I'm sensitive to the class-based critique that Kirsty Rolf and Sarah Werner have made: for so many academics, their early jobs look. . . well, a lot like what they do now.

But although all of my jobs qualify as white- or pink-collar, and several have some connection to what I do now, as I started toting them up in my head I realized that I was well past seven before I got to my teaching gigs. And they're all relatively substantive: things I did either full-time, or for multiple years, or both.

So herewith my list, with some annotations:

1. Babysitting - off and on for maybe four years (middle school and high school)

2. Page, local public library - part time for two years (high school)

3. Receptionist - full time for one summer (high school)

4. Page, rare books library - part time for two years (college work-study job)

5. Mail-room clerk, insurance company - full-time for one summer (college)

6. Acquisitions department intern, university press - full time for one summer; part time for two years (college work-study job)

7. Data entry, HMO - full time for one summer (college)

8. Legal assistant, two corporate law firms - full time for two years (post-college)

9. Editorial department intern, university press - part time for three years (grad school)

10. Legal temp, a third law firm - full time for one summer (grad school)

11. Editorial assistant, non-university academic press - part time for two years (grad school)

Looking at this list, a few things stand out. First, I've never worked in retail, in a restaurant, or really anything that might be considered service-industry. And with the possible exception of babysitting, I've never worked a job that was physical in any meaningful way (eight hours of data entry might be exhausting, but it's not mowing lawns, loading trucks, or working at a canning factory). But although I would never claim financial hardship--or working-class credentials--I worked for pay throughout college and grad school even while I was also TA-ing or teaching my own classes. I needed the money and I needed these jobs. I was also relatively adept at finding new ones.

And although libraries and publishing companies seem like obvious jobs for a bookish individual, they weren't really preparation for what I do now--or no more so than any other job (arguably, service-industry jobs are just as good a preparation for teaching, dealing with administrators, and the rest). The rare books library was a terrific environment. . . but most of what I did just required organizational skills and a high tolerance for repetitive tasks. Ditto for two of my three publishing jobs.

What having so many clerical jobs really did is prepare me for the significant chunk of a tenure-track job that grad school doesn't, which is to say the endless paperwork, bureaucracy, and administrivia. I do not miss deadlines, I run a good meeting, my paperwork is always in order, and I'm on top of all the details. I also know how to work with others and (especially!) how to value support staff: at my law firm jobs, I learned quickly that nothing got done without the secretaries and the folks in Word Processing and Duplication. Because I built good relationships with them, when I had an impossible rush job, it got done. This was not the case for the arrogant, the high-handed, or the yellers.

So I feel okay about my jobs. My work experience isn't that wide-ranging, and it doesn't look good on Twitter or lend itself to particularly colorful stories. But it gave me a sense of competence and mastery that eluded me for a long time in my studies. Even today, most of my self-worth comes from the tangible, practical parts of my job--meeting deadlines, designing a helpful rubric, knowing my colleagues consider me reliable--and those are things that, in one way or another, I learned or perfected through my nonacademic jobs.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

The London season

I'm halfway through a two-week trip to England, and as I make plans--or intend and then fail to make plans--with the dozens of friends who are also here for a few weeks, it occurs to me that academics live out a less-glamorous but equally peripatetic version of the lives of the wealthy of previous centuries.

Like the Englishmen and women who descended on London en masse for "the season" and then moved on to Bath or Brighton before returning to their country homes; like early-twentieth century Americans who were similarly assured of finding friends and neighbors when they decamped to Palm Beach in March; or the rich of many nations who were never more than a couple of degrees of separation from the other passengers on the luxury ocean-liners chugging back and forth across the Atlantic, so we wind up moving around the globe more or less in tandem with people more or less like ourselves.

Conferences, of course, are one version of this, and they too have a season (I've sometimes done three conferences in three cities in three months, seeing basically the same people at every stop), but taken individually they're most akin to the ocean-liner experience: you're thrown together with all these people you know--and almost no one you couldn't--in a confined space for a set number of days. Visiting archives or rare book libraries is another version: I never know exactly who I'm going to see, but I always run into a friend who turns out to be a long- or short-term fellow, or who's just in town for spring break. This past week, I ran into several people at the British Library whom I'd last seen at the Folger. I didn't know they'd be at either place, but it's not really a surprise. There's a circuit.

But for those of us who study the history or literature of Great Britain, London is a special case, as I'm sure Paris, Berlin, and Rome are for those in other fields. At this age and stage of my career, I assume that pretty much everyone I know will be in London every couple of years: for a conference, to work in the archives, or at the front or back end of travels elsewhere. And the academic calendar being what it is, those trips usually happen in June and July, so we're all here at the same time. These days I come an average of every other year, usually for 10-15 days, but I have friends whose research or personal lives require a full annual decampment and who settle in for two or three months every summer.

It's delightful, and nothing that I could have predicted twenty years ago, when as a college student I made my first trip to England. Even ten or twelve years ago, when as a grad student or first-year faculty member I scraped together enough cash for a plane ticket and a week in the UCL dorms to hit a conference or squeeze in five days at the BL, I saw myself as traveling to do my own thing, making a strategic strike, furthering my research or my career--not functioning as part of a larger community. Now, though, it feels natural, expected, tribal. I come both because I need to, and because my people are here.

But as that phrasing suggests, there's something insular about it, too--that we do what others of our class-loosely-defined also do, that we expect to know people wherever we go (because we go to the kinds of places that our kind of people go). As screwball comedies teach us, it's always possible that the handsome gentleman you met on the Queen Mary or at the Breakers is a grifter, but more likely than not he knows the aunt of your neighbor back in Philadelphia and she can vouch for whether he'd be a good match for your unmarried daughter or the pretty widow who dines at the captain's table. Even the new faces are already, in some sense, known.

Still. When the academic job market flings us so far asunder and we're perpetually trying to build up new networks--and bloom where we're planted and all that jazz--there's something comforting about having a tribe and having a center and being so easily fitted into the social order. Back home we need to connect to our communities in a larger and deeper way, and it takes time and effort. Here in the tribal bubble, it's easy.

Except I'm still not sure I'm getting invitations to the right balls.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

The cohort problem

We go through most events in life on the same time-table as our peers. Some of this is about biological development--what the human body and brain are capable of when--and some of it is about the way we're socialized, but we experience most major milestones at roughly the same time and in roughly the same sequence as our peers.

Because if we don't, we find new peers.

Finding new peers isn't about shunning those who aren't like us (though, okay: sometimes we do reject a particular life narrative), but about the fact that we depend upon others to help us understand and navigate our lives. We need the example and support of those who have made similar choices or have had similar bad or good luck. If you have kids early, you're going to need other parent-friends no matter how much you may cherish your old ones. And if you remain single or childless long past the majority of your peers, you're likewise going to need at least a few friends who can see the world through similar eyes.

Because it's not just about knowing people who have experienced the same thing (whatever that thing may be). It's about knowing people likely to have had the full range of emotions that go along with it: the fears, anxieties, and expectations; the way the rest of your life gets reshuffled and redefined around that event. Because just as there are things that people who have been bereaved can't talk about with people who haven't--no matter how well-intentioned--there are things that I can't say to my parent-friends about being childless, or to my single friends about being married, or my nonacademic friends about being an academic. Or rather: I can say some things about those topics, maybe even a lot, but I can't say everything, or expect the same level of immediate understanding, advice, or mutual interest that happens when I'm talking to someone who's been there and is equally as invested in figuring out What It All Means.

Grad school is an obvious example of a peer-group reshuffle: When I was twenty-five and twenty-eight and thirty, I felt as if I'd stepped off the conveyor belt that was delivering my college friends to their destinies: they were buying cars and houses and getting married and advancing in their careers when I didn't have so much as a cat (and the most expensive thing I owned was an aging laptop). But grad school gave me a new set of peers and a new narrative, a sense of what follows what, and people I could talk to about all of this--including our collective sense of having been left behind by adulthood.

But such shuffles aren't necessarily permanent. Indeed, the big discovery of my thirties and forties has that both "cohort" and "life stage" are less rigid than they'd seemed. In high school and even in college it's a big fucking deal to do anything even a year or two before or after everyone else. But now, at age 41, I'm in roughly the same place as most of my age peers--whether I met them in high school or college, grad school or after: most of us are married and with mortgages; most of us have had some career successes and some career failures; and most of us have suffered at least one major loss. Those things didn't all come at the same time or in the same sequence, but in their outlines our lives look more similar than different.

Because even if the parameters expand, age remains central to how we define our cohort. Not everyone who's forty is my professional peer (some entered graduate school much later or advanced much more rapidly than I), and my cohort includes people half a dozen years older or half a dozen years younger. But I still have a very real sense that my cohort encompasses people of roughly my age and roughly my professional stage, because the two intersect.

But the problem with bonding so strongly with those of our cohort is that the next life or career stage remains perpetually mysterious and difficult to imagine. This is why we sometimes reshuffle our peer groups--to find a narrative that fits better or has greater explanatory power--and it's the reason for many midlife or midcareer crises: not so much the inability to see what's next (at a certain point, we know the major likely moves) as the inability to know how we'll feel about or be able to live inside those events when they come.

Sometimes when I feel angsty about the future I have to remind myself that people have actually done this before. People I know! Whom I see at work or at conferences, some of whom I even know well enough to gossip and get drunk with. Nothing my peers and I are going through is completely new (though the conditions of the profession may have made certain things easier or harder). But I don't generally have deeper and more existential conversations with those I feel are in a cohort above mine; the sense that we're at different life stages and that such conversations couldn't possibly be reciprocal is hard for me to overcome.

Which isn’t to say that I don’t value knowing that my seniors have gone through whatever I'm currently confronting. In my early years in the profession I'd feel a sort of electric shock whenever someone a decade ahead of me would say something kind and off-hand--and I'd suddenly realize that, holy shit! She gets it. She was here. (And she survived.)

I hope I do the same with my juniors, but I also realize that I, too, am not exactly who they need. I may think I understand what they're going through, and maybe I even do (though the temptation of the senior party is always to assume that nothing's changed and that our experiences remain exactly relevant), but they're at earlier professional and life stages. What they need, most of all, is the support of their peers. And I'm not that.

Or at least not yet. Cohorts don't retain their boundaries; both our seniors and our juniors may someday be our peers.

And then, perhaps, all will be known.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Bludgeoned into meaning

Not so long ago, a scholar I admire asked where I was in my book project. I made a face and said something about its still being early days: I had two decent chapter drafts, one messy chapter draft, and one REALLY messy chapter draft. I paused, surprised. "So I guess it's about half drafted."

Put like that, it sounds like I'm well on my way. Put like that, I could have a complete draft in eighteen months.

Of course, I wrote the first draft of my first book (a/k/a "my dissertation") in three and a half years, and it still took another six or seven to revise. Drafts are drafts, no matter how tidy or how smoothly they read. At the moment, only one of my chapters has a big take-away; the others have local arguments and interesting bits sprinkled throughout, but they don't amount to a larger whole. And getting to that point will be neither easy nor speedy.

Still. I'm a better reviser than I am a writer, and having matter to work with, however shapeless and unformed, is always a comfort. The idea that I might have all the pieces, relatively soon, is itself exciting and an incentive to keep going.

If each of us has some underlying writerly neurosis, something that drives all our decompensatory behaviors (procrastination, avoidance, despair), mine is the fear of stalling out: not moving forward, not having ideas, literally not being able to fill the page. Even at this stage in my career, I'm never convinced that I have enough to fill a ten-page conference paper, much less a 20-page essay or a 40-page chapter. But once I've made length, pages swollen with my shapeless blather, the anxiety lifts. Experience tells me I can always take a formless mass and bludgeon it into meaning. I can always gut it out. Maybe it'll take longer than I want and parts will be excruciating, but I know I can do it.

I don't want to speak too soon, because I do, after all, only have drafts of four chapters, two of which have large passages of incoherence. I don't really know what my remaining two chapters are going to be about, beyond a gimmicky gambit or two. And I have other major writing deadlines that will take my focus away from the book. But I drafted two not-totally-shitty chapters this year by working with only intermittent focus and averaging only some 1,000 words a week. Shooting for a complete draft by the end of 2017 (and settling for 2018) seems reasonable.

More importantly, I'm starting to see Book Two as something other than an amorphous project in which I'll be flailing about for a decade. It may still take a decade, but a ten-year project with discrete stages and goals is a whole 'nother thing, a thing I can get my head around.

Gut. It. Out.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Hitting me where I live

The last time I checked my campus mail, I found a card-sized envelope of high-quality paper bearing the return address of an English department to which I have no meaningful connection. It turned out to be a thank-you note: the Director of Graduate Studies was writing about a former student of mine, someone for whom I'd written a recommendation letter and who will be starting their PhD program in the fall.

I don't know about you, but I've never received anything like this. And I was impressed: the point of the note, obviously, wasn't so much to thank me for past services as to build a relationship for the future. It was typed and lightly personalized (naming my student and a few specifics about what s/he would be doing), but most of it was well-written promotional material consisting of a quick overview of the intellectual and pedagogical training that students receive and the financial and other resources available to them. It concluded with the hope that I might recommend them to other students I thought would be a good match.

And I gotta say: that is one savvy DGS. I'd already felt good about the program and the fact that my student had landed well, but the note succeeded in generating a deeper and more personal kind of warmth. Its underlying message wasn't "Student X is awesome! We're so glad s/he is coming!" but "we bet you have more great students and we'd love to hear about them, too."

That hits me where I live. Though I've never felt any personal anxiety about being judged negatively based on the institutions where I teach--I have enough professional and social capital that I figure anyone who dismisses me based on assumptions about my institution isn't just a snob, but an actual idiot--I know that the credit people extend to me isn't always extended to my students.

It's rare for anyone to express their snobbery to my face, but I hear their dismissals clearly enough. When someone I know socially asks, "so what's it like, teaching at [institution]?" I hear all the local prejudices against public institutions, or commuter schools, or schools with a large minority population. And when they say, "You know, [school] has really come a long way in the past twenty years!" I hear, "but I still wouldn't send my kids there." It's different with professional acquaintances, but when they bitch about the incompetence of their own students or their disinterest in teaching certain kinds of classes, what I hear is that they don't value and wouldn't respect mine.

Sometimes, I'm sure, I'm being too thin-skinned and hearing judgments that aren't there. But I adore my students and I believe in them--and I hear the way they sometimes put themselves down for where they go to school. So I have a default defensiveness, a chip on my shoulder on their behalf. When I write a recommendation letter, then, I worry that my praise is being filtered or discounted. I imagine the admissions committee saying, in effect: sure, she says this student is phenomenal, but what's her point of comparison?

So when the DGS of a strong program asks me to send them more applicants, what I hear isn't just that the department was impressed by this one student, but that it believes, as I do, that talent is widely distributed and that some students who start out behind can make up for lost time, outstripping their more privileged peers. I hear that it trusts my judgment and would take future applicants seriously, even ones who might be a little rougher around the edges.

That note probably cost the department a buck-fifty in postage and paper, and maybe sixty seconds of the DGS's time. But damned if I won't be keeping them in mind for every future student whose grad school ambitions I believe in.

Saturday, June 25, 2016


It's been almost six weeks since the end of the school year and I still haven't recovered.

To be fair, there's been a lot going on. We moved the same weekend as graduation; immediately afterwards we had houseguests; immediately after that we went out of town. Since then, I've been out of town twice more. It's also been a rather tough year. Though the big picture has been great, the weekly and the monthly reality has been harder: multiple moves, a new job, a death in the family, constant travel.

Still, while acknowledging that there have been some external stressors, my exhaustion still seems disproportionate. It's late June, and all the hard stuff is past. I now have time. I'm back on a regular sleep and exercise schedule. But every task still feels overwhelming. For months I'd put off getting a new driver's license and transferring my car's title and registration because I just couldn't deal--and when I finally managed to block out two days to run back and forth between the DMV, the title office, and the state inspection facility, I then needed another couple of days afterwards to recover.

This doesn't strike me as normal. I mean, sure: bureaucracy sucks, and we've all felt our will to live leech out of us as we sit around waiting for the plumber to show up or spend hours driving from strip mall to strip mall on fourteen separate errands. But I feel enervated in a more profound and existential way these days. I love our new house, but just contemplating what still needs to be done wears me out. I've barely been able to make plans for any of the trips I've taken, even though there have been friends in each city that I've wanted to see. I feel behind in everything and eager to do nothing.

Is this middle age? Or am I actually the laziest person alive? (I know I'm not the busiest--most of my friends are working moms, so I'm not even a contender in the work/life sweepstakes.) I keep thinking that I'll recover with another good night's sleep, or after crossing a particularly troublesome task off the to-do list.

But it keeps. Not. Happening.

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

Give 'em hell, Hill


Ezra Klein has a terrific piece asking why it's been so hard for us to recognize that Hillary is actually a phenomenal politician--phenomenal because she's not great at retail politics. She's not a spell-binding speech-giver, or especially charismatic, but she keeps winning anyway.

His argument is that she's pursued a characteristically female strategy of working behind the scenes over the long term. Her detractors, he says, are right that she's an insider, with the support of "the establishment," but they're wrong about what this means or how she got that support:

She won the Democratic primary by spending years slowly, assiduously, building relationships with the entire Democratic Party. She relied on a more traditionally female approach to leadership: creating coalitions, finding common ground, and winning over allies. Today, 523 governors and members of Congress have endorsed Clinton; 13 have endorsed Sanders.

This work is a grind--it's not big speeches, it doesn't come with wide applause, and it requires an emotional toughness most human beings can't summon.

But Clinton is arguably better at that than anyone in American politics today. In 2000, she won a Senate seat that meant serving amidst Republicans who had destroyed her health care bill and sought to impeach her husband. And she kept her head down, found common ground, and won them over.

[. . . .]

And Clinton isn't just better--she's relentless. After losing to Barack Obama, she rebuilt those relationships, campaigning hard for him in the general, serving as his secretary of state, reaching out to longtime allies who had crushed her campaign by endorsing him over her.

This really sums up what I love about Hillary--not why I support her policies, which I do generally though not unreservedly, but why I have the kind of irrational love that supposedly no one feels for her. She reminds me of every female mentor I've ever had. She reminds me of all the women I know in business and academia and the arts who just keep plugging away, getting shit done, but who are rarely anointed "stars" even if they become partner, make tenure, write a best-selling novel.

And though I would never in a million years compare myself to Clinton--I don't have half, not a quarter of her toughness--I can't help but think that my previous post is partly about gender. I do know women who emerge from college or grad school fully poised and confident and (seemingly) without a doubt about their intellectual or scholarly authority. But I know fewer of them than I know men, and it's characteristically female to believe that one shouldn't yet do something--ask for a promotion, claim expertise--until she is really, REALLY sure that no one will doubt her credentials.

So yeah. I understand why people might not support Clinton. I understand why people might not like her. But I look at her and I see every talented, relentless, over-qualified woman who has, objectively speaking, achieved a lot, and who would never actually complain--but who still isn't considered as smart, promising, likeable as the charismatic male blowhard sitting next to her. Whose books don't get the same kind of reviews, who doesn't get invited onto the talk shows, who somehow (no one knows why!) just doesn't generate the same buzz or excitement.

Fuck. That. #ImWithHer

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

2 legit 2 quit

It's finally happened: most days, I mostly don't feel like a fraud!

Or to put it more positively: I feel, increasingly, like a legitimate Knower of Things.

I wouldn't say that this is the end of Impostor Syndrome, exactly; I'm still painfully aware of how clumsy my language skills are and how little I know about various things that are, technically, within my specialty (the Continental Renaissance! Most of the sixteenth century! Playwrights who aren't Shakespeare, Marlowe, or Jonson!). But I feel, finally, that I know enough about some things that all the stuff I don't know isn't totally discrediting.

This sense of legitimacy has been a long time coming. I submitted my dissertation eleven years ago and I've just finished my tenth year as tenured or tenure-line faculty. I've felt comfortable in the classroom for a very long while. But as a scholar I've tended to feel, at best, just minimally competent--in possession of exactly enough knowledge to write a given conference paper or article, without a datum to spare.

There are probably a couple of reasons it's taken so long. First, my first book covered 100 years and six authors (and focused almost entirely on noncanonical texts), so I really did know only a small slice about each of the authors/historical moments in which I was ostensibly an expert. And then, at just the point that I started to feel comfortable with my mastery of that material--as well as more canonical figures like Shakespeare--I started working on my second book, which immediately required lengthy detours into totally new areas (Patristics, the Middle Ages, liturgical history). So my sense of the shallowness and insufficiency of my learning is partly a side-effect of trying to be conversant in a lot of different things.

But some people emerge from grad school--heck, even from college--with a blithe confidence in their learning and the ability to speak glibly and persuasively about any manner of subjects. My own graduate program privileged both broad training and an easy, learned manner; the fact that I didn't have the latter (whether through introversion, modesty, or a slow brain) means I've always over-valued this kind of performance of intelligence. Doesn't it stand to reason that those who can speak learnedly are drawing on deeper reserves of learning than those who can't?

This past year, though, I've started to feel that my reserves are deeper than I thought. Say that a student asks an oddball or sidebar question--maybe it's a biographical or historical detail she saw in a footnote; maybe it's a big-picture question about the culture and its values. In the past, even when I knew a bit about the subject in question, I'd answer briefly and move on. These days I have to struggle not to share all the cool stuff I know about how early moderns read a particular biblical passage or what current scholarship thinks about some event in Milton's early life. Since such a digression usually isn't directly relevant to whatever we're doing in class, I rarely allow myself more than sixty seconds--but even sixty seconds of sharing freaky factoids reminds me of my own professors and how impressed I was by similar shows of seeming erudition.

And it's not just in the classroom: the conference Q&A feels less terrifying than it used to, and I find myself more frequently offering advice, asking questions, and generally presuming that I have something to contribute to my peers and seniors. Maybe this is the long-deferred payoff of learning a small-to-moderate amount about a shit-ton of things, or maybe it's the confidence that comes with middle age and having enough professional credibility that I figure there's a greater-than-even chance that people will take me seriously.

Whatever the cause, feeling legitimate is a great thing. But there's a downside: believing that you know stuff and that people want to hear about it dramatically raises your odds of turning into a pontificating, digressive bore.

So for now I'll stick to fascinating/boring people for just sixty seconds at a time.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Personality transplant

Changing jobs has made me think harder about a phenomenon I've long been curious about: the way departments (or academic divisions or entire institutions) develop distinct personalities.

That they have such personalities I take as a given, though both the recognition of a particular place's personality and any description of it are bound to be subjective and imperfect. For one thing, we all tend to read the networks to which we belong as normative.

It wasn't until a few years into my first job--after I'd made friends at other places and met their colleagues--that I began to see that, relative to those other departments, my own was more X or less Y, and that my colleagues, on the whole, tended to hold these values and not those. The exact descriptors aren't important, but I'm sure you can supply your own, both for places you've worked or places you know well. Some departments give off a general sense of being cynical, friendly, downtrodden, agreeable, competitive, scatterbrained, efficient, political, argumentative, optimistic, and so on.

But even once I'd started noticing that one department, say, seemed full of awkward introverts while another was cheery and gregarious, I understood this personality to be primarily about hiring (and secondarily about a process of acculturation that reinforced whatever the department's dominant traits might be): a friendly department might subtly preference candidates with certain signs of warmth and energy, and a place where everyone thought of herself as an up-and-comer might hire people who performed ambition in similar ways. And if enough people in a department embodied certain traits or shared certain values, those would get communicated more widely even to those who might not, in other contexts, really be that thing.

I still believe that's an important part of the story. But it's not the whole of it.

The thing is, a department's personality is dynamic and relational, formed by the way individual temperaments and communication styles collide and collaborate--and how they, together, respond to external circumstances. So, yes: you can get a sense of a place by meeting its individual members and noticing that they tend to be warm, or flaky, or self-important, or whatever. But its personality really emerges in its decision-making processes. How do things get done, and for what reasons, and by whom? Who has a voice, and what kind of assumptions and attitudes are on display?

The distinctiveness of those things is a lot harder to gain perspective on when you're living inside a place. I've written before about toxic departments and the way they remold a person's sense of self, but it's not just toxic workplaces that create their own reality. I suspect most departments do, just as most families do. And in the same way that it's easier to see the collective personality of your in-laws than it is to see what's unusual about your own family, it's easier to get a read on a department once you have a) a sense of what it means to be a member of a department, but b) some separation from the department in question.

So yeah: moving at midcareer makes some things extremely obvious. On the one hand, the personality of your new department is likely to be clearer than your old department's was--but at the same time, experiencing a new place inevitably brings the personality of the former into sharper focus.

But being plunked down into a place where the things you took to be normative suddenly aren't also suggests another explanation for how departments acquire personalities. It's not just about hiring, or even about how specific personalities interact with one another. It's about things that happened before you got there and that involved people you'll never meet. It might have to do with a department chair who retired a decade ago, or with a particular institutional crisis or success. Or it's about dynamics beyond the department: the stability of the upper administration; the political climate in your state.

And this raises the question of how long a particular personality persists. Let's say that a given set of attitudes and behaviors are the result of external circumstances, whether good or bad: an inspiring chair and lots of resources; an upper administration with a siege mentality. When those circumstances change, how quickly do the learned responses of a department change? As in a family, there's not a lot of turnover, and early habits can become ingrained. If the senior and mid-career faculty came up under a particular regime, they might still communicate their attitudes to those hired much later.

So who shapes a place's personality? All of us. None of us. But that doesn't mean we're off the hook.

Thursday, May 05, 2016

Knowing better

You know what's vexing about being mid-career at a new institution?

You already know everything, and you have all the impatience and world-weariness that come with being at mid-career--but no one else knows that you know everything! And you kinda don't! A new institution means rules and procedures that you don't fully understand (ranging from basic chain-of-command issues to the longer history of why things get done X way), not to mention unknown people and personalities, so when you see something that strikes you as problematic, it's hard to know when interjecting an opinion would bring some much-needed outside perspective. . . and when you should shut your damn mouth.

This is an even bigger problem if you're me, and have a fundamental conviction that your way of doing things is always the best, most reasonable, and most efficient one.

I mean, let's be honest: it probably is. But in order to convince people of that, you still have to understand the terms of debate, the personalities, and all the rest. And I don't know those things. So instead of seeming like the patient, reasonable one (another fundamental conviction that I hold about myself), I fear I come across as simultaneously intemperate and patronizing.

And sometimes I find myself at big, college-wide meetings where someone is being That Guy--perseverating, bloviating, whatever--and I look sideways at my neighbor, a total stranger, and he looks sideways at me, and we both exchange an omigod eyeroll and it feels all nice and familiar--and then suddenly I realize I have no idea what we're actually bonding over. Is it That Guy? Is my neighbor signalling that, holy hell, there's Fred being Fred again? Or is he rolling his eyes at the particular issue under discussion, which is a total non-starter that some idiot or other raises at every meeting?

I have no idea! I just have reflexive mid-career snark spilling out of me!

I suppose there are virtues, though. Being a midcareer newbie means you have certain kinds of cynicism, but lack others. I've been to enough meetings and met enough academics that I know all the types and behaviors--the irrelevant stand-taker who cares more about students (or adjuncts or, God help us, Palestine) than all the rest of you; the perseverator; the committee chair who can't keep to an agenda; the person obsessed with Robert's Rules of Order. Those things are pretty much the same from one place to the next. But when you don't know all the personalities and their backstories and prior conflicts, and you have no idea what proposals have been shot down before, you may have more optimism and a greater willingness to believe that things can be done differently.

Because, of course: you know better than everyone.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Another country

Since at least 9/11, scholars of the Renaissance and Reformation have drawn connections between the martyrological obsessions of the period we study and the one in which we now live. In fact, at this point, I rarely think about the possible similarities between the scaffold speeches of Marian martyrs or Elizabethan recusants, on the one hand, and jihadi videos on the other--or between Catholic exhortations to martyrdom during the Oath of Allegiance controversy and ISIS's recruitment materials. If this kind of grisly, exculpatory self-fashioning ever seemed anomalous to me, it hasn't for a long time.

But while researching at the Folger over spring break I came across a bit of religious polemic that evoked a scenario that did feel new to me, in an Early Modern context--but rather more familiar in our own. And that's a parent's fear that his child has come under the sway of a foreign religious fanatic.

John Niccols Pilgrimage (1581) opens as a dialogue between a father and his grown son, the latter languishing in an ecstasy of melancholy. The son, Trisander, declares that nothing can ease his grief but his father's permission to go abroad "for three or foure yeares space." His father is instantly alarmed, the more so by Trisander's vague reasons for his dolor. He has, he says, "a desire. . . to goe to strange Countries, to veiw those things which are not to be seene" in England, and to study foreign languages. His father replies that Trisander doesn't need to go abroad--he can learn languages at home! In fact, he'll hire private tutors for him! Indeed, whatever Trisander wants, his doting dad promises to give him: leisure to hunt and hawk? Done!

But Trisander demurs, describing the beauties of Italy and his longing to see that country in person. His father is even more suspicious: "You talke of Italie. . . as though you had bin there: but in Italie you were never... tell me therfore whom thou harde to prase Italie so much?" After Trisander identifies the man, his father keeps pressing him: was it just the one gentleman Trisander spoke to. . . ? And does Trisander happen to know his religion. . . ?

But at just the point where it seems that his father has identified the real reason behind Trisander's request, the work lurches into another mode. Trisander declares that the gentleman in question has professed his belief that the Pope is the antichrist, that salvation comes not by works, and that all of religion is contained in the scriptures. His father, now as satisfied as before he was suspicious, bestows "three hundreth pounds in gold" upon Trisander, swings into a long, Polonius-like lecture on how his son may best comport himself overseas, and hands him off to his mother. The rest of the work moves from dialogue to dialogue as Trisander bids his family adieu and ships out for the Continent; its chief purpose seems to be peddling the most shopworn of anti-Catholic polemic.

Still, for a moment there, at the beginning, the dialogue felt fresh and unpredictable. And for all its inelegance and lack of nuance--Nicholls's writing is as thudding as his religious politics--the opening scenario had, if not the ring of truth, then at least the ring of plausibility. If the confrontation between father and son weren't drawing upon real contemporary fears and anxieties, the rest of the polemic wouldn't work.

And that, I suppose, is why I read early modern prose: for the window it provides onto daily life and the lived experience of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It's not that nonfictional prose is a transparent medium or that it should be taken at face value (did early modern Protestants really believe that all priests were having sex either with each other or with the nuns they confessed? probably no more than we today believe our lawyer jokes), but it still gives us a rare kind of access to the culture.

Reading unfamiliar genres and encountering debates and topical references that may be half or even entirely obscure is to feel both the closeness and the irreducible strangeness of the past: on the one hand, here it is! a pamphlet that someone paid money for, held in his hand, maybe read aloud. On the other, what did it mean to him? Why did he buy it? And what the hell is it even about? High literature is easier to read, not least because it trails after it centuries of familiarization, but it lacks the same intimacy, that sense of being there in the moment with all its unknowns.

Because it's not really historical information that I want, even when I can get it. The work's introduction makes clear that it was written from the Tower and is (ostensibly) based on Nicholls's own experiences in the English Seminary at Rome, and the DNB fills out the portrait somewhat. But the work isn't better or more believable if you know that Nicholls traveled to Rome and "voluntarily surrendered himself to the Inquisition" at age twenty-two or twenty-three, or that he was a serial apostate. What I want--or rather, what I didn't know that I wanted until I had it--is the sense that parents, or some parents, worried over their childrens' possible apostacy, and what they were reading and who they were hanging out with, and whether they were more or less devout than their elders.

Possibly this is something I could have learned from a work of historiography. But it wouldn't have been as real, somehow, as encountering that paranoia first-hand, in this ephemeral, intemperate, and yet still somehow reticent text.

Sunday, April 03, 2016

Enemies are bad for business

For some time now I've been thinking about how we acquire or defuse professional enemies. I've been fortunate to have very few (that I know of!), but I also think I'm pretty good at avoiding the near-occasion of enmity. I can sometimes be thin-skinned about my work or peremptory about that of others--someone who believed in humoral theory would say I'm choleric, which means I'm overly prone to snark and snap judgments--but I've trained myself to slow down and walk back any initial negative assumptions. Everyone acts or speaks carelessly at times, and when in doubt I chalk up most weird academic behavior and seeming slights to social awkwardness.

Because: even if the slights are real, there's no benefit to holding onto them. We all need a wide and varied network and access to lots of different brains. Enemies are bad for business.

So I was surprised to learn that someone I'd met and liked, and whose work I found interesting, seemed to want to burn that bridge--that is, seemed to be on an aggressive crusade against some things I've written in order to clear space for their own work. That's a known phenomenon in the world, I guess, but it strikes me as very grad-student-y: I remember righteously lambasting prior scholars in my dissertation, as a way of helping myself to believe in my own ideas. . . but pretty much all of that dropped out by the final draft, and certainly before the thing became a book. Moreover, though I don't mind someone disliking my work, I actually don't see major points of conflict here. At most, I think our interests are complementary or adjacent--and in some ways I'm not even sure we're talking about the same thing.

Obviously, this behavior doesn't make the other person my "enemy," and it's not something I'd hold a grudge over. But it puzzles me that someone would take an antagonistic approach rather than a more temperate one. I've met plenty of people whose work overlaps with mine, but usually after half an hour of freaking out, I realize that we're not really doing the same thing, and we're certainly not in competition. In a best-case scenario, we're working in effective, if not literal, collaboration. I want to keep on good terms with those people.

And even when I think another critic is totally wrong, the stakes of that wrongness just aren't that high: we're not talking about getting a digit wrong on the nuclear codes. Generally, even if I disagree about a conclusion or a method, there's still interesting research or local observations I can praise and build on--or at a minimum I can say that the other person's work has drawn attention to a topic that I also believe deserves attention. And because our scholarly world is small and none of us is getting fame or glory out of doing this work, we learn to disagree in ways that preserve friendly, or at least cordial, social relations. (A swift "So-and-so's fine article on X nevertheless leaves Y startlingly unaddressed" is typical of the way this game gets played.)

So who knows what this is about. But it's a strange feeling, being someone else's straw man.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Historicist ≠ historian

I'm now more than halfway through my Folger seminar, and though, as noted, it's kicking my ass, it's also been terrific. This particular seminar skews young, with faculty accounting for only two of the ten participants (or, as I prefer to call them, "seminarians"), but it's an energetic and exciting group, well-balanced in terms of disciplinary background: five historians, four literature scholars, one philosopher. And even within those groups there's a lot of diversity: we range from the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries, working on different genres and kinds of documents, with a gender historian, an archivist, and a musicologist in the mix.

It's surprising how rarely I see the thought processes of people in different disciplines, even those in closely allied fields. I read a lot of historiography, but I read it in the service of my own work. This means that I focus on the bigger-picture stuff rather than dwelling on, say, how the data were collected or what the author's methods or assumptions might be. (And of course, any published work, to the extent that it foregrounds a narrative or an argument, at least partly obscures the process of its research. If you're not trained in the relevant field, it's easy not to think about how the sausage gets made.)

Now, this exposure doesn't mean that I'm going to start crunching the data in baptismal records or churchwardens' reports or whatever. I hope now, as I always have, that some of my work might be useful to historians, but even when I think I've made a minor historical discovery (as in this essay), it's always done in pursuit of a literary argument. And since I'm not writing for historians, I can't predict which parts they'll find interesting.

Still, having a better sense of how historians attack a particular problem and becoming more conversant in their disciplinary debates has been tremendously useful. And thinking harder about someone else's disciplinary norms has made me more conscious of my own--of what we mean by literary scholarship: how we mount arguments, what counts as evidence, and what the payoff should be.

As for the benefits of this seminar for my own work--well, I'm early enough in this book project that I can't yet fully ascertain how it will influence its shape, though I have faith that it will: most of the things we learn disappear soon afterwards, or seem to, with only the occasional fact or detail surfacing as needed. In reality, the process of learning continues, like a subterranean stream moving steadily beneath the surface. I have a hard time pinpointing what I "learned" in many of my graduate seminars beyond the specific texts I read or the papers I wrote. But they produced habits of thought, assumptions, value systems--what kind of things are worth looking at, what kind of questions are worth asking--that shape my scholarly method today.

It's a different experience, though, than the last faculty research seminar I participated in, which came toward the end of my first book project. In that case, when a particular discussion reoriented my thinking, I knew it as it was happening, and each time it felt like a bomb going off. This time I'm just accreting small revelations and minute changes to my thinking, which are like brief flashes of light at the edge of my field of vision. What do they signal? Are they important? Will they add up to something?

That's as time will try.