Sunday, February 19, 2017


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

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

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

On being slow

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

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

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

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

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

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

If that's so, then what follows?

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

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

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

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


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

Saturday, January 14, 2017

For reference

In college I thought I had a lot of books, and it's true that I had more books in my dorm room than most people: I'd brought most of my personal library with me when I moved across the country. But what was really remarkable about my library was how many reference books I owned, a collection that continued to grow for years until suddenly it didn't.

I started college with The Oxford Companion to English Literature, Benét's Reader's Encyclopedia, at least two dictionaries of quotations and three dictionaries of etymology. I had atlases and almanacs and style manuals, not to mention the NYPL Desk Reference, which I consulted so often that my roommate would cry, "here comes the nipple!" whenever I took it from the shelf. Over the next four years I added to this collection. I discovered The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics at a used bookstore and figured I might need it. I bought Random House's Historical Dictionary of American Slang because I knew I'd need it.

At some point I became obsessed with the idea of getting the complete 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary--nevermind that I lived in studio apartments until I was past thirty. When I was working my law firm job I considered saving up $1,000 to buy it new. Once I started grad school I looked longingly at the used sets that would occasionally pop up in local bookstores. Eventually I compromised and bought a 20-year-old "compact" version--the kind with the magnifying glass--which I lugged home through the rain, more than a mile across town, so eager was I to have it in my possession.

And I used these books all the time. My first year of grad school one of my professors gave us a assignment that consisted of a long list of terms, titles, and names from the period, none of which we'd discussed, and set us loose to identify them and their relevance. This was in 1999. Google didn't exist, Wikipedia didn't exist, and I didn't have internet in my apartment anyway. I was able to sketch out at least preliminary identifications for some 70% of the entries from my reference books. (Most of the others I got from the library's Dictionary of National Biography, which I loved so much that I immediately wanted to buy my own set; alas, the cost was prohibitive.)

But at some point I stopped using many of these books. I had online access to the OED, which was faster and more current. I had Google and Wikipedia for when I wanted to know the population of St. Louis, or what year Charlemagne died, or why a quotation sounded so familiar. And I had real books--my growing scholarly library--for the more precise and detailed things I needed to know about the authors and texts in which I was slowly becoming an expert. During my past two moves I donated or discarded many of the reference books I once had, and the ones I've kept I don't use very often.

The exceptions are those books on subjects that my work touches on but that lie outside my field of immediate expertise. I no longer need The Oxford Companion to English Literature, but I sure do need their companions to the Bible and Classical literature. I need my encyclopedias of music and church history. Those are subjects in which I'm still a beginner (and often don't have better ideas about where to start when I need to brush up quick), but about which I need more than just fun factoids or whatever crap the internet might turn up.

But I guess it's not true that I have fewer reference books within my field than I used to; they're just different. Where once I prized encyclopedias and dictionaries and manuals, I now own concordances and variora, biographies and Complete Works. All the books in my campus office, all the books in my home office, indeed any book I wouldn't read at the beach or on the elliptical is, in some sense, a reference book.

But I still kinda want that 20-volume OED.

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Teachers shouldn't bury their students

The first thing I read this morning was an obituary for a student I last saw two weeks ago, at our final exam. He'd been in both my classes, and he was terrific: smart, lively, generous. I can't claim to have known him outside of class. But it turns out that's a pretty intimate way of knowing someone.

I know lots of things about my students' lives, though it's a collection of details rather than individual portraits. I know this one has a boyfriend deployed overseas, that one works nights at the casino, another has a sick parent. Even when I learn quite terrible things--a best friend's suicide, a sibling killed in a domestic violence dispute--they tend to come in isolation. I learn what I do because the student is both in crisis and trying to keep it together. So we work out how I can help on the scholastic end, but after ensuring that she has appropriate support, I don't get or ask for more details.

But you can know someone without knowing what we normally think of as "personal" information. When it comes to factual data, this is close to the sum of what I knew about my student: where he worked, where he started college, and the kinds of books he read in his spare time. I knew that he'd just gotten married and that he was in a band. Our one-on-one contact might have added up to sixty minutes. That's more personal contact than I have with some students, but it doesn't amount to intimacy.

On the other hand, over the course of three and half months I read more than 30 pages of his prose. We spent upwards of 80 classroom hours together--nevermind the hours I spent reading and thinking about his work outside of the classroom. In a limited but very real way, I know his mind, personality, and habits of thought. I could tell you about his intellectual obsessions and his writerly quirks. I've thought about his classroom presence: how he takes up space both physically and verbally. I know his laugh and I could recognize him by his gait when he was still far down the hall.

In this he isn't so exceptional. Not all students take up this much psychic real estate, but a surprising number do. Running through my mental attendance list, I can conjure up similar feelings of attachment and investment for at least half my students, maybe more.

We talk about how large teachers loom for students, the ways they imprint upon us and absorb our quirks, habits, and obsessions. But the arrow doesn't just go one way.

Rest in peace.

Sunday, January 01, 2017

New Year's Meme

New Year's Meme
(Tenth [!] in a series)

1. What did you do in 2015 that you'd never done before?
*Watched a family member die
*Participated in a semester-long research seminar at the Folger
*Bought a second house (sequentially, not concurrently)
*Resolved (maybe) to do some substantive nonacademic writing
*Fell off the blogging horse as I've never fallen before

2. Did anyone close to you give birth?
Yes. My oldest friend had her first (but births are slowing down now that I've hit 40).

3. Did anyone close to you die?
Yes. My mother-in-law.

4. What countries did you visit?

5. What would you like to have in 2017 that you lacked in 2016?
More time at home. In 2016 one or both of us was out of town for 30 weekends out of 52.

6. What was your biggest achievement of the year?
Very little of what I did in 2016 feels like "an achievement," but moving/painting/setting up the house took a lot of effort. So did flying back and forth to D.C. for a semester. So did grieving and supporting the bereaved.

7. What was your biggest failure?
Not finishing the Essay of Doom on time. That itself isn't the biggest deal in the world, but this has been a really tough writing slump psychologically. As my inability to write anything of substance here for two months indicates.

8. Did you suffer illness or injury?
Nope. I think I had exactly one full-blown cold. Which is remarkable, given the upheaval of this past year.

9. What was the best thing you bought?
This house.

10. Whose behavior merited celebration?
On the national level, Hillary Rodham Clinton. Especially post-election.

11. Whose behavior made you appalled and depressed?
Donald J. Trump.

12. Where did most of your money go?
On a household level: buying a 100-year-old house and the inevitable repairs, improvements, and new furnishings.

On a personal level: I sure wish I knew!

13. Compared to this time last year, are you: a) happier or sadder? b) thinner or fatter? c) richer or poorer?
a) Sadder. I'm feeling grim about the election, and the past 18 months have involved too many deaths.
b) A bit thinner, but not so's anyone would notice.
c) Poorer in terms of bank balance. About the same in terms of income.

14. What do you wish you'd done more of?
Entertained. We hosted Thanksgiving for our families and a department potluck, both of which were terrific--but I'd like to do much more of that.

15. What do you wish you'd done less of?
Grieved. Felt helpless.

16. What was the best book you read?
Helen McDonald's H Is for Hawk

17. What was your favorite film of the year?

18. What was your favorite album of the year?
Prince, 1999 (I will be listening to Prince until the day I die)

19. What was the best play you saw?
Best new play: Hamilton (Broadway)

Best revival: Love's Labor's Lost (Great Lakes)

20. What kept you sane?
Our house. I'm thrilled to be out of an apartment, for one--but holy shit do I love this house.

21. Tell us a valuable life lesson you learned in 2016.
We broke it, we bought it, and now it's up to us to fix it.

Friday, December 30, 2016

2016 turns around. Maybe.

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Merry Christmas from my psychomachia

Apologies for my absence of late, but my writing life has not been getting better.

Oh, I got an extension on that essay, and I scrapped 70% of my existing draft to refocus on the parts that seemed to have the most potential. It's the right move, but it still feels like performing surgery, on my own brain, without anesthesia. I have some theories about why this particular essay has been so hard, but difficulty writing one thing tends to affect my ability to write anything else (which does not bode well for the MLA paper that I have yet to write, but that's another story).

So I'm not dead, nor have I abandoned this blog; I just don't have the head-space for any writing other than the writing that's ruining my life.

But hey! I'm in California for Christmas, so at least there are tamales and margaritas to cheer me up. Hope it's well with you, too. I'll be back when I can.

Friday, December 09, 2016

I may never see seven a.m. again

My final 9 a.m. class met today, and you'll be sorry to hear that I missed my very last opportunity to be late.

Out of forty-three 9 a.m. classes, I was truly late only once (by six minutes, thanks to an epic traffic disaster) and overslept once (by half an hour) but still made it in time. Otherwise I think I was technically late one other time (by a minute). But I was in fear of being late ALL THE TIME. I was also grumpy all the time, though perhaps that's a native condition.

Next semester I'm teaching three classes, but I'm back to my preferred late-afternoon/evening schedule. Praise God.

[Still in despair about that essay, though I've been logging lots of writing/revising time. More when I'm less self-hating.]

Monday, November 28, 2016

Bail and row

I'm finally at the point in my essay where I could finish it in a week, if I could just find the time. This is the part of the writing process that I like the best, the only one where I'm so consumed by my work that I don't even want to click over to email and Facebook. It's not that this stage is easy, and I may still spend hours revising a single paragraph--but at this point something about the experience has shifted. You could say that I'm still bailing out the lifeboat, but no longer afraid of drowning.

The problem is that I can't bail fast enough when it's the last two weeks of the semester. Today I received 45 essays. Tomorrow I have an M.A. defense. And I'm behind in writing class observation reports for a couple of colleagues and reference letters for a couple of students applying to Ph.D. programs. I also haven't started reading the book or article manuscripts that I agreed to review and have been sitting on for weeks.

That doesn't make for an unusually burdensome last two weeks of the term; in fact, it's not impossible that I could find two hours a day to write, even in the midst of the above. But I'm at the point where I need more than two hours a day. For most of my writing process, two hours a day would be amazing; in fact, 80% of the time I probably can't write for more than three hours at a stretch. But now I'm at the place where I can, and where it feels not just possible, but necessary: the shoreline is in sight, and though the countervailing currents are strong, my adrenaline is pumping. I can bail and row simultaneously!

Or I could, if only someone weren't constantly borrowing both oar and bucket. Instead, I may get swept out to sea.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Teaching is political. Even when it's not.

It's been a week, and I'm still grappling not just with anxiety but actual grief at the outcome of the election. But if there's an upside--and it's my own special form of negative capability to exist simultaneously in optimism and despair--it's the sense of feeling responsible, in a new way, for the causes that I care about.

I've always donated to charities that protect the vulnerable. But like most people I know, this week has inspired me to give more--and to give it in the form of recurring monthly donations--to organizations ranging from the ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center to my local foodbank. And I've always taken an interest in state and local politics, but that interest has mostly taken the form of voting and occasionally-but-rarely calling or writing my elected representatives. Now I'm calling their offices about everything. Tomorrow I'm attending a community meeting with the new county prosecutor (a/k/a the guy who replaced the guy who was voted out over Tamir Rice). And you'd better believe I'll be looking to volunteer for the Democratic campaigns for governor and senator in 2018.

But my greatest contribution will probably always be at my job, because my classrooms are much more diverse than my social circle and I spend much more time with my students than I spend with my neighbors. My classes reflect "the real America," if by that we mean all classes but the top, with veterans sitting next to immigrants sitting next to kids who've barely been outside the city, much less the state.

Does the election mean I'll teach my students differently? No. But yes.

I never talk about politics in the classroom. That won't change. But I've already started to make small changes around the edges, making explicit statements in my syllabi and policy documents about nondiscrimination, valuing and welcoming diverse viewpoints, and that kind of thing. I spend a lot more time making myself available to students and being proactive when I sense something is going on that's affecting their schoolwork. (And then there are the damn stickers.)

I'm also more mindful about inclusion: if humanly possible, I include writers of color on the syllabus. If not, I include texts that at least engage with issues of race, nationality, gender, and class. That's not some multi-culti sop: it's a way to highlight a more complex view of the past than many students (heck, many Americans) are familiar with. They're surprised that Medieval and Renaissance Europeans knew about Islam, that Europeans traveled to the Middle East, that there were sub-Saharan Africans in London. They're interested to learn that homosexual acts were rarely punished in early modern England, or how class conflicts expressed themselves.

But these days I'm thinking about what more I can do, inside the classroom and out. Would a class on early modern encounters with Islam make enrollment? What can I do at the curricular or advisement level? What kind of outreach can we do into local schools and the community?

I don't know. Maybe it's just an excuse--retreating into work rather than increasing my engagement with the world--but for now it's what I've got and what I know how to do.

Saturday, November 05, 2016

Choosing the commuter school

From whatever age I first started thinking about colleges, I assumed that I would attend a residential one. That's what a real college was.

I don't know where I got this idea. My parents were first-generation college students, and though my mother did live in the dorms--she grew up in the middle of the desert, so residency was the only option--my father lived at home and commuted to the local Cal State. Almost none of my aunts and uncles had a traditional residential experience, either; when I was a child, some of them were either returning to college or still finishing up their long-deferred degrees.

Still, I imagine my parents' upward mobility had something to do with my assumptions, as did the larger milieu of my peers: I knew of people who lived at home while commuting to the U.W. (about a 30-minute drive, if traffic was good), but everyone I was friends with lived on or near campus. We all went away to college, even if "away" just meant across the bridge to Seattle.

The only person I remember explicitly touting the benefits of residential education was my beloved high school English teacher, who mentioned it in the context of the monomyth, or hero's journey. As I recall, while describing the importance of departure to the hero's growth and initiation, she mentioned that--ideally--college provided a modern equivalent, and that's why it was better to go away if one could: to get full separation from one's origins and focus exclusively on intellectual and personal growth.

I did my Ph.D. where I went to college, a place where "living off campus" was presented as undermining the very foundations of undergraduate life--even though it usually meant living a couple of blocks away, in a university-owned apartment building. But since getting my degree I've taught exclusively at public colleges and universities with plenty of commuter students; at my current job, they're the majority. And I love those students and the energy they bring: it turns out that just as I prefer living in a city, I enjoy teaching in one. Students don't show up to my classes in pyjamas; they're more likely to show up in a uniform or work clothes. They have a focus, drive, and sense of responsibility that's not quite the same as, but not really so different from, what I experienced with students at my more elite alma mater.

I like my job and I've never specifically wanted to teach at a more residential institution. Still, I guess a tiny corner of my brain has continued to assume that, on balance, a residential college experience was better for students. So over the years I've considered it good news when I learned that my employer was building more campus housing, or that a larger percentage of the student body was residential, or whatever.

Lately, though, I've been wondering. Because I see a lot of transfer students, I hear bits and pieces about why they transferred and where else they attended. And in recent years, I've had several students mention, specifically, how much they disliked living on campus at this or that big state university or small private college. Some criticize the party or sports culture, or a remote location; others describe the homogeneity of the student population, or the fact that their peers seemed lazy or bored or entitled. More than one student seemed surprised that no one seemed to work or even want a job.

And this is something that we kinda know about residential college life, but don't always acknowledge: the culture of a place can be toxic or just a bad fit, and when you're in an enclosed, self-contained space--whether it's a small liberal arts college or a big land-grant university--it can be hard to escape the local mores or to find your people. (I'm reminded of a recent book arguing that first-generation college students often have worse educational outcomes at moderately-selective schools than less-selective ones.) But I wonder whether it's not just that some residential colleges foster bad peer-group behavior or are a bad fit for particular students. To say that would still be to imply that, when done right, the residential experience is always better.

Increasingly, I'm not so sure. I'm beginning to suspect that there may be personality types that prefer a college experience that is enmeshed within a fuller, larger life. I'm struck, for example, by the number of students I have--and I mean traditionally college-aged students, without dependents--who not only work multiple jobs but are also double-majoring or carrying multiple minors and who say, cheerfully, that they prefer to be busy. If I'd only heard this once or twice, I'd have assumed that my students were just putting a good face on necessity; I've certainly seen students suffer when they have too many responsibilities or a work schedule that's out of their control. But after hearing it enough, and from students who are successful rather than struggling, I think it's worth taking them seriously.

My students have initiative in spades. Some of them are here because they wanted to get the hell out of a rural or suburban community; they moved downtown, found apartments and jobs, and got themselves enrolled--with varying degrees of parental involvement. At least two of my current students moved here alone from out of state. Even those living with their parents are often more independent than their peers at residential campuses: they have jobs, pay many of their own bills, and can navigate a major city, nevermind an exasperating institutional bureaucracy, on their own.

One can see all these things as compensatory benefits: as the upside of not being "able" not to work or not to live at home. But what if we saw them as goods in themselves? What if we saw commuter schools not as fallbacks, or as the best options under certain circumstances, but as actively attractive to a busy, energetic, can-do student population?

Most of us believe that our students are our institution's greatest asset. Maybe their choices tell us how we should value ourselves, too.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Writing as pure pleasure

One of the things that blogging provides me is reassurance that I can still craft a decent bit of prose, take pleasure in my writing, and see something through from start to finish.

I start to doubt this with my academic writing from time to time, especially when, as now, it's been a long time since I finished up a polished piece of writing: it's been two years since I last submitted a final draft of an article and longer since I sat down and wrote a new essay from start to reviewer-ready finish.

I've done plenty of writing since then, of course; in addition to bits and bobs for my edition, I've written two entirely new book chapters and some unrelated conference papers. But although all are coherent and satisfactory for what they are, they still reflect preliminary work. I can't say I'm proud of them. Their ideas are bolted together in ways that are basically functional and maybe technically up to code--but I wouldn't want a building inspector looking too closely at any of it.

As a result, I've been starting to worry that I've lost whatever style or elegance my writing used to have. Maybe, I fear, I've gotten better at the idea part of this game at the expense of the craft.

Hopefully this fear will be resolved once I finish the essay that has taken over my life these past two months (and which is due by the end of the semester!). But my writing personality being what it is and academia being what it is--a place of infinite deferral and where all projects seem endless--I don't expect any sense of relief to last long. Even if I'm tremendously pleased with this essay, there will always be another in which I'm mired for months or years.

A blog post, though, rarely takes me more than a few days. I fret over the sentence rhythms and the paragraphs, spending more time than I often should--but at the same time, I've got a life and other things to do, so the perfect never becomes the enemy of the good. It's writing as almost pure pleasure, and I need that as much now as I ever did.

Saturday, October 08, 2016

Asymmetrical relationships

I've always been interested in the emotional attachments we develop in this profession--attachments to people we know, people we don't know, and people we'll never know. For the most part I'm not talking about those we would identify as friends; professional friendships, like all friendships, may have their ups and downs and misunderstandings, but they're basically mutual: both people have roughly the same stakes in and understanding of the relationship.

The kind of attachments I'm interested in are the asymmetrical ones. Whatever your actual relationship to the person in question, the psychic real estate they occupy is disproportionate. Mentors, grad school professors, and dissertation directors are one obvious category, and in years past I've written a lot about those. Colleagues are another. I admit, to my chagrin, that I've been known to conjure up much more elaborate relationships--she hates me! he resents me! what if I accidentally offended her and we can never work together again?--than there is any evidence for in the phenomenal world.

But lately I've been thinking about the relationships we have not with our seniors or peers, but with those who are, in at least a limited or temporary sense, our juniors. I'm thinking about the people I've written fellowship or tenure letters for, or the awesome job candidates we didn't hire, or scholars whose work I've recommended for publication. Occasionally these are indeed friends, but the act of reading and thinking about someone else's work and qualifications is an intense and intimate thing, quite unlike the ordinary business of friendship.

There are people who have never met me whose careers I now follow with attention, as well as people who do know me but who probably have no idea how deeply I've thought about their work or how invested in their success I've become. The degree of my investment varies, ranging from sunny goodwill to a more aggressively sororal or maternal advocacy, but it always strikes me as a little peculiar and a little out of proportion. I don't know these people! But I believe in them.

And of course, feeling this intense attachment to people I don't really know has made me reflect on how others might feel about me. With rare exceptions, I don't know the names of any of the reviewers who have taken the time to give me detailed and encouraging feedback on my work--and though I do know the names of those who have written me job or fellowship or tenure letters, in those cases I don't have access to the letters themselves. So my experience of those relationships involves a certain amount of distance: I may feel grateful and indebted, but either I don't have a specific person to tie those feelings to or I don't have a clear sense of exactly what opinions and evaluations I'm feeling grateful for.

So I've never thought too hard about who might have what investments in me: I've imagined my referees as just doing their jobs in a dispassionate or dutiful way. But lately I've been wondering, and every once in a while my antennae will twitch: maybe someone I've always suspected was a reviewer on that essay of mine makes a point of introducing herself at a conference, or someone whose work I admire but have never met starts following me on Twitter. These might just be people who like other things I've written, or who've noticed that our social circles overlap (or who read my blog). But I wonder, sometimes: do we have another kind of relationship? Do I mean something to him or her that's not apparent?

It's disorienting and a little vertiginous to think about all the unacknowledged and asymmetrical relationships we might be a part of. But there's also something nice about it: I like the idea that one of the sustaining forces of the profession might be an invisible web made up of attachments like my own--investments to the work and careers of others that we don't cop to or talk about, but feel deeply all the same.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Collaborating with myself

So it seems I'm going back to the beginning. I've been asked to write an essay whose topic overlaps with the subject of my first book--and though I suppose I could hit 8,000 words by writing "see my book" 2,666 times, I've decided not to go that route. Instead, I've been re-reading notes I made in the earliest stages of my dissertation research, reconsidering texts I decided not to write about, and reopening debates I thought I'd slammed shut.

Sure, there's new stuff to consider: scholarship that's been done in the intervening years, primary texts that were never on my radar screen. But the easiest point of entry is through work I've already done (even if I don't remember it). I have a file folder of notes from the summer I spent reading through the rare books library almost at random, and a stack of books that I bought in the course of my research, filled with sticky flags and marginalia, but at this point never expected to open again.

Even the books I didn't buy are somehow finding me, as I noted on Twitter:

I know that we're never "done" with the subjects we write about and that the nature of scholarly publishing means we're only recognized as authorities on topics once we've moved on to new ones. But though I tend to think of my publications as external hard drives--off-site storage for everything I once knew or thought about a particular topic--that's not quite true. A fuller record emerges in the careful longhand notes I took on pages torn from legal pads, in the fights I pick in the margins of books, and in the queries that appear in ancient brainstorming documents that still live in my computer.

Encountering some of this is embarrassing. The margins of the dissertation that I last read in 2001 show me trying, desperately, to believe that the author hadn't said everything there was to say about a particular text. So "duh," "no it doesn't!" and "this can't be true" make regular appearances. I also take it upon myself to correct the author's typos.

But the majority of these encounters are pleasurable. I'm delighted to find I took detailed notes on things I no longer remember reading, and some underlined and starred passages that I'd forgotten strike me as so provocative or true that they're like a little hit of the old drug, jolting me with some of the same excitement I felt working on this material the first time around. (But minus the agony, tedium, and self-doubt; whether this means that the drug I was taking in grad school was purer and hence more dangerous, or cut with innumerable dubious substances, I leave you to decide.)

Chiefly, though, re-reading my notes helps me to see the questions I haven't settled and the issues I still want to explore. There's one fight I chose not to have that maybe I do want to have. There's a text I excluded that now feels compelling. Sometimes I think of my first book as a decade-long struggle to chisel out, ever more finely, ideas that were already there from the beginning. But going back to these notes reminds me that I haven't actually been thinking the same thoughts for fifteen years. Even if it's true that I chose the best ones, some of the scraps that I left on the floor aren't half bad.

This essay isn't going to be revolutionary, and neither will it come as a surprise to anyone who knows my book. But I'm more interested in extending that work than I thought I was. I'm also enjoying this opportunity to collaborate with my earlier self, the one who didn't yet know all the answers.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Compulsory affect

I'm not one for bumper stickers or slogans. As a child of the '80s I did once have a number of buttons festooning jacket and backpack, but they were never a means of aligning myself with this cause or that. In fact, the one bumper sticker I really wanted to put on the family automobile, circa 1992, was a vintage one reading "The Nation Needs Nixon." That probably tells you everything you need to know about how I felt then, and still do feel, about people who think their politics need to be legible to every person they meet.

For this reason, I tend to stay away from social media on days like today. The constant demand for--and policing of--expressions of joy, outrage, or mourning is my least favorite thing about Facebook and Twitter. I mean, yeah: I may be shocked and saddened about something that happened, but if all I have to say is "oh no" or "can't believe the news," how is that useful? And though I do re-post opinion pieces that I find interesting or well-expressed, I try to stay away from mere venting or emoting ("how can people take this seriously??" or "SO HAPPY about the Supreme Court decision!").

Partly it's that I wish to avoid banality, and partly it's that I don't want to be reducible to a position or a set of beliefs. But it's also that I'm uncomfortable with the idea that I might be seen as performing my politics in a self-congratulatory way or in order to get credit for thinking the right thoughts. Most of my friends know my politics, more or less, and most share them. It's neither interesting nor brave for me to declare on Facebook how personally outraged I am by Donald Trump's latest racist remarks.

This is a long way of saying that I never thought I'd be the kind of professor with little stickers on her office door identifying her as down with this cause or that group. But here we are: a couple of weeks ago I found myself adding to my collage of images--portraits of John Donne and Queen Elizabeth, snapshots of the Globe, and images of Renaissance tapestries--a rainbow flag with "safe space" written on it and a #blacklivesmatter decal.

Because if my support for members of the LGBT community and people of color is something I can take for granted among my peers--to such a degree that sporting a button or bumper sticker would strike me as asking for a pat on my straight, white, head--this is not the case with my students. Moreover, my students do not necessarily themselves belong to networks where those positions are taken for granted.

I'm not sure whether I'd display such decals if I taught at a lefty liberal arts college, but I don't. I teach at an urban university whose population is overwhelmingly first-generation, 27% of whom are minorities (a number that does not include our many students of Middle Eastern descent). Like Dean Dad's students, a lot of them don't have the time to be political. Most of them have never heard the term "trigger warning" or know what people mean when they talk about "preferred gender pronouns." This doesn't mean that they're tougher than other students--less likely to find certain kinds of content upsetting or to be questioning their gender or sexuality--just that they're not in a place where they regularly encounter those debates.

And while for some people my being a humanities professor makes my liberalism axiomatic, what my students probably see is a middle-aged, married white lady who teaches really old poems. Why would they assume that I have any interest in the experiences of racial minorities or any familiarity with queer or transgender people? In that context, it seems possible those stickers might signal something a few students would value knowing.

I'm still not sure how comfortable I feel about this, and I have some concerns about misinterpretation. But for now I'm going with it. I'm also going to try to feel more generous about those who relentlessly perform their politics on Facebook. After all, I don't know their motives or audience any more than they know mine.