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.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Meeting minima

I've been reviewing more article manuscripts lately, which means I've been thinking harder about the intricacies of "fit."

We all know that some work just isn't right for a particular venue, though some instances of bad fit are easier to discern than others (no one, surely, would submit an essay on Ben Jonson to American Literature). I had one essay that I thought was a good fit for a particular journal that didn't even make it to peer review, and my book manuscript was summarily rejected by as many presses as were interested in it.

I was bad at predicting those outcomes, but I wasn't upset by them: I trust editors to know their audience and their market and to have a better feel for how my work aligns with their areas of strength. As an external reviewer, though, it's a little harder. There are some journals that I know intimately and where I have no difficulty discerning whether a submission fits--or, more to the point, where I know exactly the kind of suggestions for a conditional acceptance, or a revise-and-resubmit, that will help the essay pass muster. But other journals I just don't know as well. I may have a general sense that a given journal is, let's say, a B/B+ venue--perfectly credible, but not a brass-ring achievement--but what does that actually mean, in terms of the minimum standard for a given submission?

I consider argumentative and organizational clarity to be essential, no matter how modest or ambitious the claim, and every essay needs some degree of critical framing. But if the author is making only a small intervention, or is raising an interesting historical context without doing much with it--well, obviously that's not enough for a top-tier journal. But is it enough for Journal X?

Or to put it more finely: if I think the claim is a little lackluster and I push for more, am I doing a service--encouraging deeper thinking and helping to maintain high standards--or am I placing a burden on both author and journal--depriving, let's say, a grad student of a line on her vita that would materially help her on the job market and a journal that might be struggling for submissions of a basically solid if minor contribution?

In practice, a lot of this gets sorted out before an essay ever makes its way to an external reviewer: editors filter out the completely unacceptable; good advisors direct their students to journals they think are a reasonable match for their work; authors have a vested interest in knowing their venue and getting the fit right. I've never had an essay that I truly thought could have gone either way.

But I still worry about this each time I'm asked to read an essay by a journal that I don't have a good feel for, and I struggle to articulate exactly what should count as "good enough" for most journals in the big, broad middle.

Maybe, like obscenity, we just know it when we see it.

Wednesday, March 02, 2016

Promissory note

In case you're wondering where I've been:

1) death in the family

2) buying a house

3) getting my ass kicked by my Folger seminar

That's one week's readings. Double-sided.

So I've got lots to say but no time to say it. Soon, though. I hope.

Friday, February 19, 2016


As it turns out, there are still birthdays after forty.

But not to worry. Young Flavia's got it all under control.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Roads not taken

Although I'm a hopeless looker-backward and easily prone to nostalgia, I'm not much one for regret. Sure, I might regret that I said X or Y and hurt someone's feeling--I do regret that kind of thing, rather often--but I've never regretted a life choice and rarely even dwell on the alternate paths that once seemed open.

Lately, there have been a few exceptions.


Earlier this winter I spent a weekend working with a colleague in a city and a state I'd never visited. At some point over the weekend I remembered--suddenly, and with force--that I'd applied to the law school at the neighboring university. In fact, I was accepted, and even offered a scholarship to do a combined J.D. and M.A. in English. Both the law school and the English department are terrific, and at some point the joint degree had seemed like an elegant solution: I could continue my literary studies while also doing something more practical.

But it also hadn't felt like a real place to me. I'd thought that I could see myself in law school--I had other friends at other programs--but I hadn't gotten into the three or four more prestigious and more proximate programs I'd applied to. An M.A. at my alma mater, though; that I could visualize. And I figured law school would still be waiting if I wanted it. (And as it turns out, I didn't.)

I've never forgotten that I applied to law school, but I tend to think of my applications as a bit of unserious casting about: the kind of thing you do when you're twenty-three and don't have any better ideas. Being in the actual city of that actual university reminded me that I really might have gone. I usually forget the phone conversations I had with current students tasked with recruiting me, or the time spent debating the pros and cons with friends and family. Had I made a different choice (I thought, as we drove around), I could have had a whole relationship with this city, and a whole set of memories and friendships connected to it and the surrounding landscape. I could, even now, be a lawyer.

Or an ex-lawyer.


A university where I was once a finalist for a job has been going through a convulsive and seemingly unending series of scandals. My on-campus interview had been a mixed experience: it was clear that the institution was unhealthy and that the faculty felt alternately besieged and depressed, but everyone in the English department was lovely and the location was deeply attractive. I was trepidatious, but I would have taken the job.

I didn't get it, though. In mid-March I got an unexpected call from RU, which had not interviewed me at MLA, inviting me to do a phone interview, which was followed by a fly-out. RU was such a great fit that for years I'd been grateful I didn't get that earlier job. . . but again, it's not something I've spent much time thinking about.

The recent scandal, though, has made me feel just how near a miss that was. The stories in the press have featured shots of the campus, which have conjured up vivid sensory memories of walking around on a blustery January day, eating in the student union, and being escorted back and forth to interviews. None of the faculty being quoted are people I met, but reading their words made the names of those I did meet pop back into my head. And I saw anew how hangdog or anhedonic they seemed when discussing the place.

At the time, I'd figured I could write my way out if I wasn't happy. But knowing what I know now about my professional savvy in my first few years on the tenure track (and what I know about the job market), I'm skeptical that I would have.

After all, the person they hired instead of me is still there.


Maybe thinking about alternate paths is something one does more as one gets older, but it's also striking that neither of these is a positive vision, or even a misty "oh, what might have been!" Each is, to a different degree, a "holy shit! thank God I didn't do THAT."

And in neither case is the near-miss something on which I can congratulate myself: I just couldn't see myself at that law school, so I went with what felt like the easier option; I had a bad feeling about that job, but the decision not to take it wasn't mine.

Maybe that, too, is a sign of middle age: the grateful but somewhat abashed realization that dumb luck accounts for as much of our lives as reasoned decisions.

Sunday, February 07, 2016

No exchanges

At the gym the other day I read Jhumpa Lahiri's "Teach Yourself Italian," an essay about her decades' long obsession with Italian and her intermittent attempts to master it. Since I've been studying Italian for a few years myself--and periodically wondering how serious I am and what the next stage of my studies might be--Lahiri's essay had an obvious appeal. I also liked the way she used her struggles with Italian to reflect on her struggles with English, a language her own mother never mastered and that for Lahiri was always fraught with the possibility of failure.

And yet. . . the essay just wasn't very good. It gestured toward interesting ideas, but the language was flat and unsubtle. It didn't sound like Lahiri or like The New Yorker.

But since I had another 30 minutes on the elliptical machine, I kept reading. Lahiri narrated her move to Italy with her family and her decision to start keeping a journal in Italian. At first her writing was comically bad, but she found it freeing to write without regard for errors. Gradually, it got better. And then abruptly, in the middle of a paragraph, Lahiri declared, "If I mention that I'm writing in a new language these days, many people react negatively. In the United States, some advise me not to do it. They say they don't want to read me translated from a foreign tongue."

Wha--? An idea occurred to me. I glanced down to the end of the article: "translated, from the Italian, by Ann Goldstein."

So that's why its prose was so unlovely, so un-Lahiri.

And then I read this, and something pinged in my head:

I became a writer in English. And then, rather precipitously, I became a famous writer. I received a prize that I was sure I did not deserve, that seemed to me a mistake. Although it was an honor, I remained suspicious of it. I couldn't connect myself to that recognition, and yet it changed my life. Since then, I've been considered a successful author, so I've stopped feeling like an unknown, almost anonymous apprentice. All my writing comes from a place where I feel invisible, inaccessible. But a year after my first book was published I lost my anonymity.

By writing in Italian, I think I am escaping both my failures with regard to English and my success. Italian offers me a very different literary path. As a writer I can demolish myself, I can reconstruct myself. I can join words together and work on sentences without ever being considered an expert. I'm bound to fail when I write in Italian, but, unlike my sense of failure in the past, this doesn't torment or grieve me.

What this sounds like, to me, is a phenomenon I've been interested in for a while now: the gifted person who dismisses and downgrades her talents precisely because they seem to her so easy, or so undeserved--and then, surprisingly often, decides she might have equal success doing something else.

Think about the professional athlete who walks away from one sport to pick up another he hasn't played since high school. Or the singer who desperately wants to be an actor (or vice versa) and is perplexed when success doesn't follow. In some cases, the model-who-thinks-she-can-be-an-actor-can-be-a-singer may just be arrogantly self-confident, living inside a bubble of fame--but in other cases, the kind I'm interested in, the talented person really does have a conflicted relationship to his or her talent and believes that he or she would be happier, in some way, doing something else.

That's something I have real sympathy for. I'm not sure I have any remarkable talents myself, but I'm certainly better at some things than others (and not necessarily the things I would have chosen). I wish I were a good fiction writer, but I'm not. If I were to quit my job tomorrow and spend the next ten years working on a novel. . . well, I could do that, but there's no evidence to suggest I'd succeed. The fact that I'm a pretty good scholar with a pretty good prose style--and that I've been complimented on and rewarded for those things--does not mean I'd be equally valuable as some other kind of writer.

I believe in doing new things, and I'm all for self-exploration and self-expansion. If Italian has given Lahiri a way to write that doesn't trigger the kind of anxiety and self-doubt she felt in English, that's terrific, and I wish her well. But though she writes better Italian than I ever will, it's in English that she has a notable talent (and others rarely wish to finance our journeys of self-discovery). It's Lahiri's right to give that up and to move on to new things. But we admire--reward--pay for--the rarer skills.

"Gifts" are gifts precisely because they're not chosen.

Friday, January 29, 2016


Starting next Friday, I'll be traveling to D.C. every weekend to participate in a 10-week research seminar at the Folger Shakespeare Library. I was lucky to be admitted to the seminar; even luckier that my institution was willing to cover most of my costs; and luckiest that this is a semester where I can (probably, but we'll see) swing the time commitment.

I've had my eye on this seminar since it was first announced more than a year ago, and it's a good fit for my second book project. But I was also eager to participate for reasons that are maybe both more nebulous and more urgent than the exact topic of this exact seminar.

I am, you see, looking for New Things.

I've written before about the problem of maintaining a sense of momentum at midcareer. Most of us, I imagine, still get excited about new courses and new research projects, but after the mountainous landscape of one's early career, the vista that lies ahead--stretching into the next ten or twenty years--can seem pretty flat. That's not a bad thing, exactly, but I've always been the kind of person who needs a prize on which to keep her eyes.

So this seminar is a way of doing something new, of keeping things interesting. The last time I did something of this sort--an intensive week-long symposium that I referred to on-blog as The Institute for Advanced Flavia Studies--it turned out to be a pretty crucial bit of professional development. I gained a new conceptual framework for my first book and I made some terrific friends.

But I'm not looking for that, specifically. I'm just looking for something to throw myself into for a time--the kind of opportunity that seemed to grow on trees in graduate school but that has been harder to find (or to find the time for) since then. As unhappy as I was in grad school, I can't say I wasn't constantly doing New Things. I took courses just because they sounded interesting; signed up for summer language classes; went to speakers series organized around a particular theme; took week-long master classes in things like editorial theory and paleography. Many of these didn't start out as relevant to my work. . . but because my mind is obsessively centripetal, they tended to wind up that way.

So I've been monitoring the Folger's seminar listings for a while now, just as I've also been keeping tabs on what summer programs are being offered by the NEH and Rare Book School, and which language institutes have programs when, and where, and of what cost and duration.

I can't do everything. I don't even want to do everything. But I do need to do something, at least every couple of years. And this year, that something involves a roll-aboard suitcase, TSA pre-check, and getting up earlier, every Friday, than God himself intended.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Course design and creativity

After five frenzied days, I think I have both of my syllabi written.

Let's hope so, since classes start tomorrow.

All these years later, I'm still surprised by what intense, creative labor course design can be. Whenever I'm building one from scratch, I find myself convinced there must be some perfect, Platonic version out there--a combination of readings, a sequence of assignments--that will allow the topic to bloom forth, revealing its fullest meaning and potential. (And not finding that perfect form means the class will suck and fail and EVERYTHING WILL BE RUINED.)

It's delusional, I know--but sometimes, after spending a day writing and rewriting the two or three blurby little paragraphs that lay out the purpose and the big ideas of the class, I realize why I do it. Suddenly, there it is: the whole argument, the whole thing I believe, the theory I want to test that might help me make this class more than just "an exploration of X topic."

And that kind of revelation, whether or not it's connected to anything I've thought or written before, or anything I expect to write in the future, is the same high I get from writing, from research, from the kinds of discovery and meaning-making that happen when I'm alone in a little room all by myself.


Still, as creatively satisfying as course design is, I'm on guard against spending too much time on it; that's why I waited until Thursday, when we'd returned from our latest travels, to start working on my syllabi. Obviously, I'd already ordered the books, and I'd started thinking about the supplemental readings, but I was deliberately not letting my mind fully turn to the topic.

And it strikes me that deferring this work may be a version of "the power of procrastination" that Adam Grant writes about in this weekend's NYT. As Grant notes,

Our first ideas. . . are usually our most conventional. . . . When you procrastinate, you're more likely to let your mind wander. That gives you a better chance of stumbling onto the unusual and spotting unexpected patterns. Nearly a century ago, the psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik found that people had a better memory for incomplete tasks than for complete ones. When we finish a project, we file it away. But when it’s in limbo, it stays active in our minds.

According to Grant (and the research a former student of his has done on the subject), this can be taken too far--when you're really panicked or pressed for time, you're likely to grasp at straws and throw together anything that will work--but a certain amount of procrastination, and a certain amount of time pressure, really does stimulate creativity.

In my case, I wasn't actually procrastinating writing my syllabi. I just had other things to do first, and I'm enough of a monomaniac that I can't simultaneously develop a new class and focus on my own writing. My natural preference is to focus on just one thing at a time, and the more creative the labor involved, the harder I find it to switch between projects.

But in the real world, we can't focus on just one task at a time--and though I get overwhelmed easily, I also get grumpy and bored when I don't have enough going on. So I've taught myself to manage multiple projects by parceling out my time in portions large enough to feel I can achieve some degree of immersion: four uninterrupted hours; a day; a week. Here is where I work on A! And there is where I turn to B!

Because I have pots going on multiple burners throughout, I'd like to think that some of the benefits that Grant ascribes to procrastination still accrue: even while I was working on my Milton chapter or the textual notes for my edition, I knew syllabi-writing was on the horizon. And occasionally, when stuck on a sentence in my chapter, I'd take five minutes to sketch out the reading schedule for my senior capstone, or I'd toggle over to the internet to see if there was an online version of one of my supplemental texts. So a corner of my brain was still ticking.

Greater productively through procrastination. I'd said it before, and I'll say it again.

Friday, January 01, 2016

New Year's Meme

(Ninth in a series)

1. What did you do in 2015 that you'd never done before?
*Got a tattoo
*Sold a house
*Left a job I loved
*Watched a family member enter a final illness

2. Did anyone close to you give birth?
Yes: one friend had her first and another her second.

3. Did anyone close to you die?
This was a year for facing mortality. A grad school friend and a grad school professor both died, and (like last year) another friend lost an infant daughter. And the early months of 2016 will bring another death.

4. What countries did you visit?
Only Canada (a couple of times).

5. What would you like to have in 2016 that you lacked in 2015?
More leisure travel. Less death.

6. What was your biggest achievement of the year?
In terms of effort, selling our house and getting all our possessions in the same state, if not under the same roof (much of it is still in storage).

In terms of satisfaction, throwing ourselves into a new city and a new social scene. I'm surprised how many people I already know, and how optimistic I'm feeling about this place.

7. What was your biggest failure?
I could have been more patient and generous with various people whom I knew to be under stress. Actually, I could just be more patient and generous, full stop.

8. Did you suffer illness or injury?
Nothing serious.

9. What was the best thing you bought?
My mink coat. (Yes, I bought a mink coat. It's vintage, it's full-length, and it's ridiculous. And I'm wearing it evvvvvverywhere.)

10. Whose behavior merited celebration?
All of Cosimo's extended family.

11. Whose behavior made you appalled and depressed?
I think this blog is too public for me to specify!

12. Where did most of your money go?
Getting the house ready to sell and then moving drained our bank account. But most of my moving expenses were eventually reimbursed, and we made money on the sale, so all's well that ends well.

13. Compared to this time last year, are you: a) happier or sadder? b) thinner or fatter? c) richer or poorer?
a) About the same
b) All my clothes fit, so who's counting?
c) Richer: my new job came with a nice raise, and (for the moment) we don't have a mortgage

14. What do you wish you'd done more of?
Blogged, for one.

15. What do you wish you'd done less of?
Contemplated mortality.

16. What was the best book you read?
Either Richard Price's Lush Life or Giuseppe di Lampedusa's Il Gattopardo (in English, alas. Someday in Italian!)

17. What was your favorite film of the year?

18. What was your favorite album of the year?
Adele, 25

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

Best revival: Pericles (Stratford Festival)

20. What kept you sane?
Living with my spouse full time. Making progress on the book. Getting out & about in the city.

21. Tell us a valuable life lesson you learned in 2015.
I don't know about "lessons." But I know that I am not resigned.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Writing without a net

As I mentioned yesterday, my Milton chapter is getting out of control:

Based on what I have left to cover, I'd estimate this chapter will ultimately hit 30,000 words. For comparison, my entire first book was 92,000 words.

This is, frankly, never a problem I've had before. Though I know people who can sit down and produce 70 pages practically at a sitting, I usually have the opposite problem: I run short. When I'm writing to deadline, my first fear is always that I won't make length, that I won't have enough to say--and though that's never a problem in the end, I accrete text only slowly, cutting as I expand. (And I can cut like nobody's business, transforming a 50-page chapter into a 10-page conference paper in a matter of hours.)

So I'm not really sure what this means: that I'm traveling down too many scenic by-roads (which I'll eventually cut or spin off as separate articles)? That I'm going to have two really meaty and awesome chapters? Or that the project is becoming something other than what I thought it was--which is to say, an entire book on Milton?

Any of these things seems possible, but I really don't want to be writing a book on Milton right now. I've always assumed that I might write a Milton book someday, but this book's organizing principle collapses if I'm only looking at one writer. It's supposed to be Larger Historical Phenomenon, Broken Down into Some Subphenomena, in a Bunch of Writers. If it's a Milton-only book, it becomes, basically, One Subphenomenon in One Writer.

Sure, the topic could be reoriented to fit a Milton-only approach. . . but right now I think the only way to do that would involve abandoning the bigger questions that most animate me, the ones that made me want to write this book in the first place.

So I'm not sure what's happening here, or what I'm doing, or whether it won't all collapse into flames in the end.

This is the "fun" part, yes?

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Writing by appointment

It's surprising how much I'm still learning about my writing process, ten years past degree and sixteen years into my regular production of academic prose.

Through all those years, I've been a dedicated writer-at-home. I go through periods where I enjoy revising in coffee shops, and I can read and take notes almost anywhere, but I've never composed anything of any length outside of my own home (or a proxy for my own home, such as a boyfriend's apartment or my parents' house). Half my dissertation was written on the bed that amounted to the primary piece of furniture in my studio apartment.

So over the summer, when a friend mentioned that she'd found tandem-writing dates really helpful--afternoons where she met a colleague at a coffee shop to write together for a few hours--and asked whether I'd ever done that, I said no. It had never occurred to me that this was a thing that people did, and I couldn't see what it might add to my writing life.

Unlike my friend, I don't have small children, and I've never experienced the downsides of working at home that some people do. Sure, I can fall prey to procrastination and avoidance, but that doesn't seem affected by location; in fact, for me, getting out the door to a library or coffee shop is often a bigger hurdle than sitting down to write at home, and more subject to deferral (because I haven't yet eaten, or the place is closing soon, or it gets too crowded around this time, or hosts an open-mic night, or whatever).

And as the semester started, I was indeed writing very well at home--carving out a few afternoons a week and making steady progress. But it turned out that two of my local friends were doing the tandem-writing thing; both on leave and both trying to finish up their first books, they'd gotten into the habit of meeting once a week for five or six hours.

They invited me to join them, and I did, mostly to be sociable. We'd meet in the airy, calm library at the art museum, write for an hour or two, have lunch in the museum cafe, and then write for another two or three hours. It was a nice routine, and I was getting good work done--not always the solid five hours I'd intended, but usually at least three. I didn't consider the work I did there superior to the work I was doing at home, but I enjoyed both the location and the company.

But as the semester wore on, that thing happened that always happens, where suddenly I was no longer able to find time to write at home. Around the middle of October the grading started to pile up, as did the letters of recommendation--and then I had a conference or two to attend, not to mention committee work and life outside of work.

Still, most Wednesdays I managed to meet my friends to write at the museum. Sometimes it felt frivolous or irresponsible to block out a whole day for writing smack in the middle of a week of student conferences and essays and books I'd never taught before--but it was an appointment, so I kept it, and I kept writing.

Three to five hours of writing per week isn't an impressive amount, but I have to admit it's probably more than I've ever managed in the second half of a teaching semester. And doing any writing meant my head remained in the project. So when the fog of the semester finally lifted last week--grades submitted, Christmas cards out, house cleaned--it was easy to jump right back into the chapter. I hope to use winter break to get it in good enough shape that I can start drafting a new chapter in January.

Which I'll do, of course, with the aid of a weekly writing date.