Sunday, December 14, 2014

What's a "good" press?

So far my book has received two reviews, neither in a scholarly journal. Luckily, they're both good. But though I won't start patting myself on the back until I've seen something positive in a field-specific journal, in some ways these two reviews may be a bigger deal. That's because one of the journals is Choice, a publication of the American Library Association, which makes recommendations to acquisitions librarians, and the other is the TLS, which is--well--the TLS. Both review only a selected number of academic titles and both reach an audience that isn't limited to in-field specialists.

Now, I have zero expectation that my book is going to be some kind of crossover hit; I was mildly surprised that the Choice reviewer deemed it accessible to undergraduates and that the TLS apparently thinks it might interest a general reader. But whether the book is actually interesting or accessible to those groups doesn't really matter, because they're not the ones who are going to be buying my book or talking about it.

Rather, in the weird, slow, indirect economy of academic publishing, attention in non-scholarly venues translates into attention within the scholarly community: if more academic librarians order it, then it's on more shelves waiting for more scholars to stumble across it; if the TLS reviews it, Renaissance scholars who might otherwise think my book sounds like a total snoozefest--and who might not even read a review in RQ--might notice that there's a chapter or two that's relevant to their own research.

The benefits of this kind of virtuous cycle are pretty obvious: more publicity means more sales, more sales means more publicity, and both keep my press happy and make them more likely to put the book out in paperback. What's less obvious, I think, is that getting good publicity is neither totally accidental nor solely attributable to my own awesomeness. It's one of the dividends of publishing with a good press.

So let's talk about the nitty-gritty of why it matters who you publish with. Everyone will tell you that you should publish with the best press you can, though what counts as "the best" depends on your discipline, your department, and how alarmingly your tenure clock is ticking. But the reasons people give for seeking out a better press sometimes sound like nothing more than name-brand snobbery: if you publish with Press A, people will think your book is more consequential simply because it's published by Press A.

And yeah, that's real thing in the world. Plenty of readers (and search committees, and tenure review boards) use the perceived prestige of a press as a lazy vetting mechanism, outsourcing decisions about a book's worth to whoever approved it for publication in the first place. However, a truly good press isn't just a designer label. A good press works hard to promote your book--and some mid-tier presses are better at this than the big 'uns.

Here are a few of the ways to gauge how hard a press works for its authors:

  1. The size of their print runs. Academic monographs (and edited collections) have laughably small print runs relative to trade books, since most of their sales are to libraries rather than individuals; the low end is about 200 or 250 and the high end is maybe 750. Still, that's a difference of 200%.

  2. The time and money they put into design. It's not rocket science, but a more attractive cover and (especially!) more reader-friendly page-design is more likely to attract readers.

  3. The price point. As with a handsome design, cheaper books are an easier sell.

  4. The publicity budget. How many review copies do they send out, and to what kind of journals? Do they submit books for consideration for prizes? At how many conferences does the press have a table?

If you're an aspiring academic author, you've probably thought about some of these things: you know which presses publish work you admire, which produce consistently attractive books, and which show up at the major conferences. You may also have asked friends and acquaintances about their experiences publishing with X or with Y. But other things are harder to get a feel for from the outside (or even from the inside: most authors don't know what their initial print run is, or how their press compares in terms of its marketing and publicity strategies). Here are a few ways to do it:

  1. WorldCat, which allows you to search for how many libraries hold a given title worldwide, is the easiest way to get a sense of how successful a book has been, how big its print run was, or how vigorously its press has promoted it. Find a bunch of books from a few different presses, all published 4-5 years ago, and then see how the different presses compare. You'll be surprised: some presses are consistently under 200, others around 500.

  2. Skim reviews and review journals to see which presses are best represented, especially in journals that don't do a lot of reviews or that are geared toward a general audience. This will give you a sense of which presses send out a lot of review copies or have a relationship with those publications. (You can also do this with individual titles--find a few books you think are equally strong, published around the same time, by different presses, and see how many reviews each got, and where.)

  3. Look at which presses win prizes in your subfield (not, like, the MLA first-book prize, but the smaller prizes). Over the past 10 or 15 years, are there presses that seem to clean up?

Bear in mind that there can be a lot of volatility in this kind of data: a book's topic matters; reviewer availability matters; big hits will skew your results; and more recent books are harder to get a handle on. The above strategies are no way to make a judgement about the worth of any individual title. But if you track enough titles by a few different presses, you'll start to get a sense of their business and marketing strategies.

(You can probably tell that I used to work in academic publishing by the strong sporting interest I retain in all its behind-the-scenes aspects.)

Finally, ask your published friends specific questions about how their books got marketed. I can tell you that when my press asked me where they should send review copies, I came up with a list of maybe twenty journals, including a few long shots. I thought that was pretty comprehensive. Their final list? Forty-seven.

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Readers who have published academic books: would you add anything for aspiring authors--things you'd wish you'd known about the publishing world, or about the strengths of different kinds of presses?

And readers who are seeking publishers: do you have questions for me or my readers?

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Burning my lesson plans

Apart from the grading, my semester is now over. It was a reasonably good one, but I'm left feeling vaguely disgruntled. This is my tenth year of full-time college teaching, and my ninth at RU. I'm not tired of my classes--I have enough opportunity to design new ones and find the old ones consistently interesting--but I think I'm tired of my teaching.

Most teachers have their go-to teaching strategies. Maybe you're the kind of person who has students work in groups, analyzing particular passages or concepts and then comparing and debating their findings. Maybe you have students free-write for five minutes at the start of class and then build discussion from there. Maybe you do a lot of collective close-reading. Maybe you draw elaborate charts on the board. Maybe you begin every class with a student presentation.

I've done almost all of those things, at one point or another, but there are some techniques that just feel right--for me, for the subject matter, for the size and level of the class--and that I rely on more heavily than others. Sometimes, at the end of a semester, I realize that 80% of my class meetings for a given course had roughly the same format. Sometimes my students even comment on it.

And I've found myself wondering: why do I teach the way I teach? Partly it's that Strategy X feels right and produces the kinds of results I value, but some of it is that I've gotten in the habit of teaching certain texts certain ways. Over the past decade I've hammered out sturdy, reliable lesson plans for the works I teach semester in and semester out. Sure, I adapt them when I'm teaching at different levels, but the methods are mostly the same. If I did group work on this part of a text in the past, then I do it the next time. If I did a collective brainstorming-and-mapping-out-major-ideas-on-the-board, then I do that again. If I usually work with scenes A, C, and F, then those are the one I focus on the next time I teach the play.

It makes sense to stick with what's worked in the past; it's hard-won knowledge, for one thing, and there aren't enough hours in the week to reinvent the wheel. Still, I'm feeling itchy and bored, wishing I could just burn all my lesson plans and start over with the energy, enthusiasm, and fear of ten years ago.

I won't; I can't. I have one class this spring that I am redesigning from the ground up (I taught it several years ago and it was Not Good), and that's where my energy needs to go. My other two classes are trusty warhorses. Until I can afford to replace them, I guess I have to keep sending them into the field.

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Readers, how do you deal with pedagogical burn-out--or how often do you revamp your classes or otherwise keep things interesting?

Sunday, November 30, 2014

The two-body problem affects more than two bodies

When we talk about the two-body problem, we talk, mostly, about that nuclear relationship and what it suffers as a result of two jobs in two locations: the time, expense, and hassle of commuting; the deferral of child-bearing (or the exponential explosion that is the three body problem); and the general emotional strain on the partnership.

What gets less discussed--I'd say never discussed, but I guess I haven't read every last thing on the internet--is the strain on all the other relationships to which either partner is a party. Since we've just concluded one major holiday and are fast approaching another, let's talk first about how a long-distance relationship complicates familial relationships.

Now, as long-distance relationships go, Cosimo and I have it pretty easy: we don't have kids, we're close enough to see each other every weekend, and both our families are happy, healthy, and financially stable. Still, we want to see each of our families at least twice and ideally three times a year, and since each lives a full day's journey away, there's no such thing as a weekend trip.

Many couples these days live far from either partner's family, and face logistical problems (or familial conflict) as a result. But when a couple lives apart at least half-time, the logistical and familial issues can be close to unworkable. If the couple doesn't even see each other often enough, it's hard to sacrifice their already-limited time together. If one or both partners are spending significant hours on the road or in airports just to maintain their relationship, they may resent the idea of spending even more time traveling. And if they have a primary home that one partner doesn't live in full time, it's hard to give up holiday or vacation time there.

Friendships present a similar problem. It should be easier to maintain independent friendships in a long-distance relationship--no need to make excuses for going out with the girls/guys; for seeing that friend your partner can't stand; or for seeing one-on-one that friend your partner would be hurt not to be seeing as well--but in practice friendships often get sacrificed: the partner who commutes has little enough time to attend to all his or her work obligations (and keep doctor's appointments and sit at home waiting for the cable guy) between packing and travel days, and both partners may be jealous of their weekend time together and socialize less than they otherwise might.

So far, the best solution we've come up with is to pile everyone in the same place as often as possible: each of the last four years, we've had an Autumn Weekend of the Parents, where both sets come to visit us (helps that our parents get along!), and we're devoted to the dinner party (such an efficient way to see multiple friends over multiple hours) and the occasional weekend get-away with a gaggle of our beloveds.

It's still not enough. It's never enough. (But better, I suppose, than the opposite problem.)

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Happy Thanksgiving!

There's snow on the ground. Someone is making pies in the kitchen. The Godfather is playing. Family came to us this year. AND WE'RE NOT TRAVELING ANYWHERE.

Hope yours is equally good!

Monday, November 24, 2014

The recursive clanking of memory

A few weeks ago, Daphne Merkin had an essay in the Sunday Times called "Making My Therapist Laugh." It's about finally letting go of the desire to entertain and amuse her therapist, but in reflecting on what therapy should provide the analysand, she hits on a longstanding interest of this blog:

therapy allows for. . . the repetitive nature of a person's inner life, the constant regurgitation of ancient grievances and conflicts. In ordinary, above-the-surface life, we're endlessly exhorted to move forward and not hang back, when the truth is that the psyche is not such an efficient piece of machinery and is marked by recursive clankings as much as anything else.

As my readers know, I don't believe in being "over" things. I don't believe in "moving on"--if by that we mean declaring ourselves to have been left unscarred, unmarked, or, in some facile way, "better off" now that a catastrophe has receded into the past. Nothing that has ever mattered to me is gone, and no crisis or shattering change is ever fully in the past (although my relationship to those people and events is often quite different after years of reflection, reframing, and reconsideration). Healing is not the same thing as never having been wounded.

Last week a close friend suffered a terrible loss. It's not my story to tell, so I won't tell it, but I was struck by how shell-shocked the rest of us seemed by the news, how continually on the verge of tears and in need of companionship and conversation. Yes, we all love our friend and were trying to figure out ways to help, but I think her loss also ripped a hole in our own sense of security, our narratives of healing and progress, reminding us of our own losses and the way that sorrow stops time and exists outside of it.

That's the central conflict: time is linear and craves resolution while our inner lives are brooding and recalcitrant, slow to heal and slow to change. Last week I was also teaching The Winter's Tale, which may be my favorite Shakespeare play. Like all the romances, it's an improbable fairy tale that somehow also manages to render loss and recovery with real emotional truth: the central character loses everything, believes he can reacquire it quickly--and then spends the next fifteen years in grief and self-recrimination. Eventually, he gets some of what he hoped for, but not on the terms he expected.

That's the kind of happy ending we actually get in life: not what we wanted, but even more dear when it comes. Recognizing it, though, requires remaining in touch with all we've lost and hoped for in the past.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Lake effect snow, explained

When the rest of the country hears the term "lake effect snow," I think they understand it to mean "if you live near a Great Lake, you get a shit-ton of snow for some, like, complicated meteorological reason." And then Buffalo gets a shit-ton of snow, and the national newscasters earnestly explain the science (cold mass of air moving over a warmer body of water, blah blah), and that seems to confirm it. Great Lakes = lots of snow.

But that's not the relevant fact about lake effect snow. Lake effect snow, as Cosimo says is "guerrilla snow." If most snowstorms advance like a conventional army, cutting a wide swath of destruction--worse in some places, to be sure, but leaving nothing in the region unaffected--lake effect snow comes out of nowhere and then vanishes into nowhere, targeting areas completely randomly and unpredictably.

The photos from Buffalo are jaw-dropping. But no one's showing you photos that illustrate that while some communities in or adjacent to Buffalo got several feet of snow, many of their immediate neighbors got just a few inches.

I live an hour east of Buffalo, and the portion of the Thruway that runs just 15 miles south of me has been closed for days. Reasonably enough, I've been fielding emails from family and friends wondering how many feet of snow we're under.

Let me show you (and bear in mind, this is four days' worth of accumulation):


For reference, this is Depew, less than an hour away:

(Photo credit: Derek Gee, The Buffalo News, via AP)

I'm grateful not to have been clobbered as Buffalo was, but the real menace of lake effect snow isn't the volume so much as the unpredictability. When you're driving somewhere, you can't get ahead of a storm or wait it out because you never know exactly where it's coming from.

This is what highway driving is like when you're in a region where "possible scattered lake effect storms" are predicted: dry as a bone, dry as a bone, dry as a bone, dry as a bone, WHITEOUT.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

In praise of half-assery

The good news: I haven't bailed on my Italian class yet.

The bad news: I continue to be doing a pretty half-assed job, since doing a full-assed job--assuming that's better than a half-assed one, which I guess depends on how you feel about asses--would require way more prep time than I have available. (My instructor is great, but I think she hasn't fully thought through the fact that, in a conversation-based class, the fewer students there are, the more homework we each have to do.)

But you know, whatever. So my presentation winds up being seven minutes rather than fifteen, and my PowerPoint is merely functional--and in rushing to get it done after a department meeting I didn't have time to double-check and correct the past participles of a few irregular verbs or think about which constructions might take the subjunctive. I'm still spending an average of 12 hours a week reading, writing, and speaking Italian.

Ta-Nehisi Coates's essay about what it feels like to haul oneself through language study as an adult and embrace one's own ineptitude captures some of what I'm feeling, though our experiences aren't exactly equivalent (on the one hand, Italian isn't my first foreign language; on the other, I'll probably never have the chance for the kind of immersive study he's done both in Paris and at Middlebury).

What's hardest for me is just letting myself be a crappy student, and being okay with it. As I've written before, it's not that I was a star student in college or grad school, but I desperately feared being a bad one. Appearing stupid, not being thought capable--those were among the most shameful things I could imagine.

Teaching has taught me a few things. One is that showing up actually does matter. And doing the work--even late, even badly--is better than not doing it. It means learning is still happening or at least has the potential to happen. (Officially, I don't accept papers later than about a week, but in practice I usually tell students to just turn in something: I can give them a 50 rather than a zero, and doing some version of the same assignment as everyone else means they're still in the game.)

Another is that the work I do or don't do isn't just about me: the classroom is a community that I'm either contributing to or abdicating responsibility for. When I failed to talk much in a particular college or grad school class, I felt self-conscious, but it never occurred to me that by not talking I was taking something away from others. Now, though--when I consider skipping Italian because I'm badly prepared and already running late--I realize that not only would I be cheating myself of the opportunity to learn something, but I'd also be cheating my classmates of the work I'd already done (and putting a huge burden on them to boot: one absent student out of four = 25% more airtime to fill!).

So, fine. I'm a crappy student right now because being a crappy student is all I have time to be. But being a crappy student is better than not being a student at all.

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Teaching academic prose

This semester, in my senior capstone, I've been having my students choose most of the scholarship we read. We spent a few weeks reading and collectively working through essays that I'd assigned, but then they were loosed upon the MLA database to find their own.

It's been working well--better than some of my past strategies for acquainting undergraduates with academic prose--and I'll be reprising it for future classes. Still, I've noticed something curious: 80% of the articles my students have chosen have come from the same journal. Since I gave them a list of 10 possible journals, the reliability of this one isn't an issue; it's a solid publication, if not the most high-powered. If you'd asked me to rank those ten journals, back in August, I'd have placed it at maybe #8 or #9.

Having now read a whole slew of recent articles from that journal, I can't say I'd change its ranking--but I do have a new appreciation for what it does well.

First, it publishes shorter pieces, on the order of 15 printed pages of text, not counting notes, and they're usually well-structured and tightly argued. (I suspect the relative brevity of its articles is part of what attracts my students to this journal.) Second, its articles are surprisingly good models for advanced undergraduate and M.A. students: they demonstrate mastery of existing criticism; familiarity with the author's larger body of work (and/or the work's genre and/or its time period); facility in close reading; the ability to apply a useful theoretical framework where called for. And they generally do all those things both efficiently and explicitly, with every movement clearly signposted.

Indeed, reading this group of articles made me reflect on how tough scholarly articles can be for undergraduates and even many M.A. students, and how quickly they get lost in the weeds: they just can't figure out why the author is suddenly spending 10 pages talking about some minor historical event or track the way she's positioning herself within an existing critical tradition. That's not necessarily the author's fault, or at least not in the kind of articles I usually select; it's just that scholars write for other specialists and assume lots of prior knowledge. And over the course of a longer essay the big-picture argument and how its component pieces fit together can be harder to see.

But although I liked a lot of things about the articles my students found, even the most interesting and persuasive usually came up short. The best way I can describe it is to say that they lacked the final "turn": the explanation for why all this matters in some bigger way. In several cases I could see quite clearly what that turn might be--the dots were all in place, waiting to be connected--but the author declined to do so.

From a pedagogical perspective this isn't a crushing weakness, since it's an opportunity to talk about what more an author might have done to improve an already good piece of writing. And in the future, I can open the semester with essays from this particular journal as a way of introducing my students to the kinds of moves that academic prose makes before progressing to more sophisticated examples.

But I admit I find it odd that this journal publishes work that is so good in so many ways while mostly failing to rise to the next level. Maybe it's about length--a short essay can do a lot of things well, but it's not usually the place for a big claim--or maybe it's about the journal's place in the food chain: it gets tidy little essays that the authors either never wished to be bigger or that they tried and failed to get published elsewhere.

It's nice knowing that there are venues that publish modest but reliably good work, and a useful reminder that not every contribution to scholarship needs to rock the foundations.

Still, in the future, I'm imposing some quotas.

Friday, October 31, 2014

This is just to say

Back in September, everyone was freaking the fuck out over the MLA Job List--so few jobs! OMG! Apocalypse!

At the time I said--on a million Facebook and Twitter threads--that it was too early to tell, that jobs post later now, that initially things looked equally bad last year, that the jobs that had appeared were good ones.

Now it's October 31st, and I gotta admit: at least in Early Modern, it is that bad. As of today there are thirty-two tenure-track jobs with pre-MLA deadlines (a number that includes a few jobs at the associate or full levels and a few jobs overseas). Each of the last three years, in descending order, the number of pre-MLA tenure-line openings was 47, 41, and 49. Those weren't good numbers, but the market appeared to have stabilized at "pretty fucking bleak."

But unless this year is a fluke or institutions are shifting toward spring listings, we might say, with Satan, "in the lowest deep a lower deep/Still threatning to devour me opens wide."

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Language and lit peeps: are you seeing similar things in your subfields?

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Flying on one engine

We've reached the point in the semester where everything is rapidly falling apart. Somehow I held it together through midterm, but it's been carnage since then. Most days it's a question of which disasters I'll avert and which I just have to let happen.

At the top of my disaster to-do list are grading and my Italian homework. But a few weeks ago I reached the point that I hit with any new obligation where I consider just cutting and running. Every Monday and Wednesday I toyed with the idea of skipping class, and then wondered whether I shouldn't drop the course entirely.

For as long as I can remember, that's been my first response to stress: a desire to shut down all nonessential operations. I fight this desire, usually, and usually it's worth it. Sooner or later things calm down and it's harder to start things back up than it is to keep them running. By now I know, too, that the point at which I'm tempted to abandon ship is often the point at which I'm starting to make real progress.

My students don't necessarily have that knowledge yet. Last week, on a day when my freshmen had a paper due (their second or their fourth, depending on how you count), six of my twenty-two students were absent. Most eventually contacted me and I gave extensions where I could, but the schedule for the next two weeks is punishing; there's no real way around it.

I feel for them. In recent weeks my Italian instructor has been doubling our homework; for some class meetings, I've spent four or five hours preparing. Last night (after teaching until 9.15 and getting home at 10) I managed to get through my homework in two hours--though whether that's because my comprehension is improving or because I was cutting corners, I don't know. Then today my instructor got sick and cancelled class. It's a brief reprieve, but I need it.

I can't eliminate any of my students' paper assignments, but I hope I can help them steer through this rough patch.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Back & better than ever

This semester, for the first time in a number of years, I put Merchant of Venice back on the syllabus for my Shakespeare class. Now, I love the play, but I'd taken it out for a bunch of pedagogical reasons that boiled down to my feeling I didn't have enough time to deal with all the issues it raised.

This time I moved it later in the syllabus and I decided I was going to give it three class periods instead of two. Those were both excellent ideas: for the first time, I can say my classes on that play rocked: there was close to 100% student involvement and I overheard a few students excitedly agreeing that this was their favorite play so far.

But as important as my course-design improvements surely were, I also think that I brought some new thing to the class myself.

First is simply freshness.

I almost literally cannot re-read every play every year (even beyond the fact that I often don't have the time to do so): my eye skips down the page; my mind disengages; I know the words so well I can't absorb what they mean. So I don't re-read every play every time I teach it, and I don't feel bad about that. Still, it's undeniable that reading something for the first time in a while means I usually teach it better. At a minimum, the time away means I'm more excited by the text. Usually, it also means I've had a few new thoughts about it.

Second is the fact that in the intervening years I've written an article on the play.

I've long since gotten over any sense of fraudulence as a teacher of Shakespeare: I know the period well; I've taught Shakespeare every semester for nine years; I've been attending to Shakespearean scholarship for nearly as long. But even though my teaching frequently draws upon books I've read or conference papers I've heard, there's a difference when the material is something I'm grappling with, too, or about which I have intellectual investments.

And since my research touched on exactly the things my students most wanted to know, the anxieties, discomforts, and presumptions they brought to the play didn't sideline the text. Not only do I now know rather a lot about Jews in early modern Europe, the various contradictory fantasies about Jews held by Renaissance Christians, and how scholars over the past 30 years have used that information to interpret the play--but I can distill that information efficiently so it fuels a real discussion about what Shakespeare wrote.

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And that, my friends, is why research isn't inimical to teaching. And why everyone needs a damn sabbatical now and again.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Ghouls, rated

Halloween season seems like the right time to reflect on how much I hate the supernatural, especially in its spooky and/or undead varieties.

Here's a handy guide, to help you remember:

Zombies: I will never, ever--not if I live to be 200 years old--watch a movie or read a book involving zombies. I lose brain cells every time someone uses the word "zombie" in a sentence.

Werewolves: Hard to imagine they could be interesting, but the possibility isn't zero.

Vampires: As much as I hate virtually everything that has been written and/or filmed about vampires, I remain hopeful that they could be interesting.

Witches (sorcerers, warlocks, etc.): interesting maybe one time out of twenty.

Ghosts: I'm more interested in ghosts than not.

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I think the message here is: I'm interested in human beings. The further one gets from the human, the less interested I am.

How do the rest of you feel about supernatural characters, narratives, or tropes?

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Academic jobs as arts jobs

Because I'm buried in essays and exams after spending my fall break cavorting in New England, I bring you someone else's thoughts on positioning oneself for an academic job. (Because hey: man and woman is one flesh, right?)

The most useful point, I think, is the central one: that these days tenure-track jobs are most analogous to arts jobs--which is to say, the odds of success are about as likely for recent PhDs as they are for aspiring actors, novelists, and concert pianists. That's not exactly a comforting comparison, but one that illuminates why the relationship between talent and success is so imperfect.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Tailoring the job letter

Another Graduate Student asked me to talk about my experience on a hiring committee, and especially about the degree to which a candidate should tailor her application materials to each institution.

Other committee members may feel differently, but I think it's absurd to expect first-round applicants to do a significant amount of tailoring. First, it's inhumane: an applicant has other demands on her time, and researching every department in depth, imagining their possible needs and desires, and reworking the already-difficult genre of the job letter 25 or 30 times is not only labor-intensive, but psychologically exhausting--insofar as it requires vividly imagining each place and how one might make a life there.

Second, it's almost certainly time wasted.

Here's the thing: your job letter is, simultaneously, the most important document you'll produce in your job search and a hard document with which to really distinguish yourself. I've read a few catastrophically bad letters from people who genuinely didn't know the conventions of the genre, and a slightly larger but still small number with enough errors or awkwardnesses that it was impossible to take the applicants seriously. But after weeding out the bad letters, the rest sat somewhere on a spectrum from adequate to quite nice; at that point, what mattered most was what the candidates had done and how well they fit our position--not whether their every paragraph was a thing of fire and music.

This, I hope, is good news: your letter just has to get the job done. You don't need to write the world's most eloquent, original letter (in fact, in this context, originality is a bad thing; if someone asks you for a sonnet, you will not be rewarded for your exciting new verse form). You do need to be clear, succinct, and aware of your audience, and your writing should not contain elementary errors. But the conventions are there for a reason: they allow a committee with hundreds of applications to size up each one swiftly, and on more or less the same terms.

Obviously, you shouldn't send exactly the same job letter to every institution, but it's most useful to think in terms of general types of schools. You'll want a few different sentences or even different paragraphs that you can swap in and out depending on a particular department's teaching expectations, and you might emend your wording slightly here and there for similar reasons (e.g., "I would be eager to join [such a distinguished faculty] [a department of committed teacher-scholars] [an institution so dedicated to student success]").

But that kind of semi-generic tailoring should cover most things.* Personally, all I want is evidence that the candidate has read the job ad and has a sense of the kind of school we are (e.g., if the ad mentions comp, your letter should not speak exclusively about the graduate and upper-division courses you're interested in designing). It's probably useful to spend 20 minutes on each hiring department's webpage to flesh out what the job ad tells you--but I wouldn't recommend more than that.

Here's what's definitely labor wasted: showing that you have a detailed knowledge of the ins and outs of our curriculum.

Every department has oddities in its curriculum and its requirements, and it's hard to master them from the outside; it can also be hard to tell, from looking at online course listings, which courses are weirdo one-offs, which are regarded by a particular faculty member as his exclusive property, or which are holdovers from a different era. You don't need to reference our existing course numbers or titles. Just say what kind of courses you've taught or are prepared to teach: surveys, comp, single-author courses A and B, topical courses C and D, and what upper-division or grad classes you might design in the future. With minor adjustments, those things translate into most curricula.

I also think it's generally wasted labor for your letter to name-check existing faculty unless they work in your immediate field or their scholarship really does seem to be in productive conversation with your own; it's worth having a sense of the general profile of any department to which you're applying, but listing a bunch of names is not necessary.

Statements of affinity are nice--that is, remarks about your connection to the region or your interest in the institution's mission ("as a first-generation college student..."; "as a long-time admirer of the Jesuit humanist model of education..."). For my part, I'd say those are agreeable statements to encounter, and I usually remembered them for candidates who got a convention or campus visit, but I don't think they prompted me to give an application a second look if it wasn't strong to begin with. That may be different at other institutions.

As for your vita, it shouldn't require tailoring. As long as it's clearly laid out and easy to read, the committee can find whatever they're looking for. (But seriously, make sure it's clearly laid out.) Think of your vita and your job letter as being in conversation with each other: one allows you to list everything you've ever done; the other gives you a chance to narrate, explain, and reflect on the highlights. Resist the temptation to let either do the other's job.

To sum up: a good letter and an attractive, readable vita are worth laboring over. But there's no need to reinvent them each time. A good letter is a flexible document that you can emend around the edges without--hopefully--driving yourself crazy.

*

Readers who have served on hiring committees: are my reactions idiosyncratic (or particular to the kind of institution I'm at), or do you generally agree?


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*I'm speaking throughout of the differences among four-year institutions, since those are the institutions I know; if I have readers who want to talk about the differences between application letters for four-year and two-year colleges, have at it in comments.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The sorrows of peer-review: now less sorrowful

At long and painful last, that article I wouldn't shut up about has been accepted. As I've mentioned, this is the most difficult experience I've had getting something published. Some of that is just the random luck of the draw, but there may also be specific reasons this was such a tough sell.

First, it's on Shakespeare, on a hyper-canonical play, and it deals with some touchy political material. This means, on the one hand, that there are more people in the world with investments in the material than is usually true for the texts I write about, which perhaps makes pushback more likely. On the other hand, since it isn't my primary area of specialization, it's possible that I initially framed my argument in ways that struck others as naive--or that were only aslant or adjacent to the important existing critical conversations.

I do think that earlier versions of my essay were worthwhile and publishable--and that a few of the objections I got were unreasonable, not to say batshit crazy--but my last round of revisions really did lead to a mini-breakthrough, allowing me to synthesize two strands of argumentation whose relationship I had never previously been able to articulate. And doing that led me to a major realization about the argument of my second book.

So though I'm on record as hating the cult of "it was all worth it" and "now I'm so much better off," what with their haste to deny the lived reality of suffering and suckitude, it's also hard to regret that things turned out this way. That, I guess, is a larger motto for this blog: insisting on the shittiness of the past doesn't mean wallowing in that past--or denying its utility. Sucky things can make you stronger (and lead to non-sucky things), but they still suck.

(That's why you read my blog, right? For these philosophical gems?)

Anyway, as reminder and reality check for Older Flavia, when she's agonizing over the long gestation period of some future project, I thought I'd detail the timeline of this one--an article of not even 10,000 words--from conception to acceptance.

Spring 2010
Notice a Thing
Run a quick MLA database search
See that someone Noticed my Thing 40 years ago and wrote a few paragraphs about it.
Boo: I'm not the first! But yay: no one's done anything interesting with it!

Fall 2010
Accepted to a relevant-sounding SAA seminar
Spend a week doing enough research to write a 500-word abstract

February 2011
Spend four weeks doing increasingly desperate research into increasingly esoteric fields
Cobble together 3,000 words for a speculative seminar paper

April 2011
Receive a lot of enthusiastic seminar feedback
Someone I know slightly buttonholes me and tells me to publish it immediately.
GAAAAAAH. Like hell.

February 2012
Admitted to a very different SAA seminar
Intend to do a ton of new research; instead just write a new introduction and conclusion.
Decide this framing opens up the topic more fruitfully

Summer 2012
Do my literary-critical due diligence
Email strangers begging for evidence of what I feeeeeel to be true
Spend six weeks writing
Submit resulting essay to a journal

Fall 2012
Receive two readers' reports: split decision
Journal requests a revise-and-resubmit

Winter 2012-13
Revise
Resubmit
Rejection

Spring 2013
Submit to a different journal

Summer 2013
Another split decision, but this time with a very encouraging editor
Revise lightly and resubmit

Fall 2013
Unhappy reader still unhappy
New third reader has useful and targeted suggestions
Ambiguous communication from editor suggests he wants another revise-and-resubmit

December 2013
Do a shit-ton of new historical research
Majorly restructure essay
Resubmit
Oops: turns out that ambiguous communication was a rejection!

January 2014
Decide new version suits a journal I hadn't considered before
Submit
Desk-reject within two weeks (guess I was wrong)

February 2014
Submit to a fourth journal

April 2014
Receive two exceptionally helpful reports
Find self--nevertheless--demoralized by another R&R

April, May & June 2014
Avoid working on essay
Weep whenever I think about it

July & August 2014
Revise with excruciating pain
Send revisions to a friend
Receive new & different set of ideas for revision
Weep some more
Realize two of his suggestions might solve my most intractable problem
Revise some more
Resubmit

September 2014
Acceptance!
. . . .
. . . .
. . . .
. . . .
Wait, that's it?

Astonishing how something can be such a relief, and so anticlimactic, at the same time.