Saturday, November 06, 2010


The manuscript is done. I send it out Monday.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Job Satisfaction

The other day, I read precisely two blog posts: Moria's, and Annie Em's. Moria's asks her readers, importantly and earnestly, what got them through graduate school and what keeps them going int the field despite the constant inferiority complex, while Annie Em posted the Xtranormal video "So you Want a PhD in the Humanities?" that most readers of this space will have already seen linked 57 times, and watched at least twice.

I understand all of the anxiety being floated about: the untenable economics of the labor market, the exploitation that that has engendered, the anxieties that people feel about constantly having to justify their work to family members and friends whose eyes cross before you even finish telling the title of your research project. It's not easy to be in the humanities at the moment.

But people seriously. Let's also not lose sight of the fact that it is GOOD to be in the humanities right now. Forgive me for the pollyannaish rhetoric here, but I love the fact that even though I do not live in a particularly desirable geographic region, that I have friends and colleagues and neighbors who understand and even make Foucault jokes at the bus stop. I love that I get to have serious, in depth conversations with students about the nature of time and the past in literature, about how drama and performance help us understand our very identity, how the language of advertising leaves us without a language of our own to describe our experiences of the real world (Virginia Woolf, Caryl Churchill, George Saunders, all this week).

Just today, I finished a revision of that last chapter to send to a colleague, I read a dissertation chapter on J.M. Coetzee for a supplemental job letter I'm writing for someone just going on to the job market, I read two other dissertation chapters on the politics of narrative space in the literature of the marvelous for a student who is preparing to defend in a month, and I am about to read an article by a colleague in history on 19th century American masculinity and aspirational class identity for an interdisciplinary writing group. I have worked HARD today, but that work has been amazing to do.

And that's the thing about this job. As I wrote over at Moria's, this job is great because at its core, I get to read books and talk about them all day long. I get to think hard, have ideas, discuss those ideas, share those ideas, write about those ideas, listen to feedback about my ideas, learn about other people's ideas, respond to other people writing their ideas, have drinks over ideas and dinner over ideas.

Yep. Tomorrow I'll begin grading a batch of moderately poor student essays, and I have five recommendation letters to write sooner or later, and advising to do in the advising office and a thousand other things that make this profession like virtually any other profession: annoying, boring, mind-numbing.

But I worked in offices, doing copy writing, answering phones, supporting business plans and mission statements that not only did I really not believe in, but working with a group of people most of whom were not even interested in the critical thinking that went into my reasons for even having a stance on a business plan or a mission statement other than "It's profitable."

This job? not profitable. The business plan? not really a world-beater, if the current trends in the corporatized university hold true. The mission? Not perfect, but really pretty damn good. Have ideas. Refine the ideas. Exchange the ideas. Teach the ideas.

So I'm going to take a minute and say that yes, there are all sorts of reasons that we should be reading our own profession critically right now. I hate that so many smart, rigorous, awesome people are out there struggling to find decent work in the field. But I hope they keep looking. And yes, I am bugged by the number of not-always-brilliant undergrads who want to find out how to be a professor. But if they see how much I love this job, how can I blame them? And yes, I know that in the scheme of things, I have a very good job, geographical location notwithstanding. But that only makes me want to fight harder so that more people can do this work and do it well.

So you want a PhD in the Humanities? I. Don't. Blame You.

Monday, October 25, 2010


Please indulge me for a bit, while I do a bit of counting:

The dissertation was about 70k words. I excised one of three sections from that to save for a later project, leaving me with about 50K words to work from.

Given that I completely rewrote the introduction from scratch, we're actually talking about 45K words that formed the basis for this project, when I began rewriting in earnest in Fall 2008, five years after I defended the project.

Since then, I've seriously revised much of that baseline, plus written another 50K words, few of which I could've written in 2003. I don't know what this says about the pressure to publish a dissertation as a book, but I can say that I needed those 5 years to rethink the central claims of the project, to let the ideas simmer, to teach them a few times and test them against skeptical undergraduate and graduate students, and to generally get comfortable with them.

After cleaning up the notes and doing a complete bibliography, the project with all of it is just under 100k words, and ends on page 316. When I defended, and my family felt impressed that I had written a book, a demurred. This, though, feels like a book. I started writing it as a dissertation 9 years ago, defended it 7 years ago, and barring a few more revisions, feel good about sending it out to a press only just now.

Friday, October 22, 2010

What I did last summer

I had hoped to write a post like this about 2 months ago, and I'm even jumping the gun a little in writing it now. But what I did last summer was...

Write a book.

I've been incommunicado these last few weeks because I was knee deep in midterms, service obligations and other teaching stuff. I was totally blocked on the last chapter, which had a bunch of messy notes and drafted conference papers, but not much of a central argument, let alone one that connected to the previous chapter, let alone the whole book.

But during a workshop of a previous chapter on Wednesday, something clicked. I worked all Wednesday evening on those revisions, and then jumped in yesterday morning--before class, between classes, after class, on the last chapter. Today at about 12:30, I saved a complete draft of the last chapter.

Now of course Willow will help with some edits and surface revisions. And the notes still need cleaning up, along with a complete works cited page. But this is stuff that requires little anxiety from me, and can be done in shorter sessions at the writing desk.

As of now, though, the final tally: I have a 268 page manuscript, exclusive of notes, which in the end, will probably add up to about 30 pages, depending on fonts and spacing. To put it another way, the body of the ms. is about 85k words, with another 10k for notes etc.

I'll be polishing up those pages to a shiny sheen over the next several days, but for now, a big sigh of relief, and after the children go to be tonight, maybe a big glass of wine.

Thursday, September 30, 2010


Never ever have I wanted more to go see a play that I will be unable to go see.

Monday, September 27, 2010

One chapter left

I have been a bit sick these past two weeks--nothing serious, just a cough that won't go away and occasionally keeps me up at night. But given that the cough had turned into a bacterial infection in the chest, my doctor urged me to take both the antibiotics and steroids that he had prescribed. I hate feeling like I'm coughing up a lung, so I'm now on day five of this course, with some, but not much improvement.

What this has to do with writing: perhaps you've been on prednisone. Perhaps you know that it can make you a bit...manic. Not usually the kind of manic that's good for writing, and whether this was that, I do not know. But over there on the right, you'll see sixteen new pages. In a day.

Willow will read them over the next few days, and point out the places in the argument where (very likely) I have skipped over two of three important pieces of information moving from pithy line to pithy line, but hey! it's drafted, and it's a conclusion, so it doesn't need to have quite the same level of analysis that the other chapters require.

So that leaves one chapter left, and not one that is particularly daunting. It does deal more substantially with race than other material I've written does, and I've never been particularly insightful on that topic. I have a senior colleague, however, who is very good on that subject, and so if I can have a draft completed by October 15, I can submit it for our faculty writing group.

In the meantime, I have a batch of response papers to grade, as well as a batch of quizzes, a dissertation chapter to read, and six recommendation letters to write for very bright and committed students who deserve really good thorough ones.

But tonight, perhaps I'll let my 16 pages stand as a good day's work.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Smell that burning?

It's the fire that just got lit under my ass.

I had been working on the notion that the end of the summer was a loosely set, self-imposed deadline that the press really didn't care one way or the other about. I mean, they've probably got a backlog of good work: why would a month or so matter to them at all?

Except for in my email last evening was a not from the acquisitions editor checking in on the status of the manuscript. I said end of October.

So there. Now it's been said. Now, I just have to write it.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Pat on the back

Look! right over there! on the right!-->

See that the writing progress meter has logged some more pages. Right now, I'm at 221 revised pages (although not all totally polished: I'm fudging the little clean-up things I have to do here and there).

I finished another chapter draft today. The last chapter was a delight to write: the argument was in my head, I wrote quickly and forcefully, and the ideas, while running against conventional wisdom, still add up.

This chapter, not so much. Twenty of its 42 pages were close-readings lifted from the dissertation, and in fact, they may be among the few pages that survive from the diss unscathed, for many of the other 50 pages of "drafted" material that I started with have actually been completely re-written. The problems were these:
  • These were close readings that didn't actually have a stand-alone argument that was separate from the previous chapter. They had a theme, a common thread, but no argument. They now have one, but not after fits and starts.
  • This would have to be the first piece of this writing push that has happened successfully while classes were in session.
So while my pace has slowed down from the summer a bit, it's still gone well. Because I work better with moderately large chunks of writing time, I've been going at about 5 pages a day, with really only one or two writing days a week. It's not ideal, but it's working. So while I'm not thrilled with the pace, I'm patting myself on the back that I have any pace at all.

The next chapter is not unlike the previous one, but the close readings in draft form are even more fragmentary, which means I'll be doing a lot of writing from the ground up. I need to give myself permission to let this chapter be a bit shorter than the others (I've estimated about 25 pages), so I can push through to the end of this draft.

I had initially aimed for the end of the summer, which I first interpreted as the beginning of the semester. That came and went, and now the end of the seasonal summer is nigh. I don't have a natural deadline for the remaining chapter and conclusion, but I'm now aiming for the end of October. Halloween and the twins' 7th birthday would go nicely with a completed book manuscript, don't you think? Keep your fingers crossed, 'cause the going gets tough here.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010


Not to worry, I'm not leaving anywhere. The goodbyes I've been thinking about lately are from the vantage point of those of us left behind.

Our department here at BRU has experienced, for no single reason, a bit of a mini-exodus, with three junior faculty leaving, and the announcement of a couple of other retirements and career-enhancing departures on the horizon in the next year. we're a pretty big department, but still, (at least) five full-time faculty from a state flagship English department is a lot, I think.

It's all the more a shock because things had been quite stable for several years, which suggests that the exodus was not rats-from-a-sinking-ship, but rather simply bad timing.

But the goodbyes themselves have been in some ways kind of devastating. Some of our very closest friends have suddenly up-and-gone, and others are going. The transience here is hard to swallow, because for me, my sense of place largely depends not on where I am, but with whom I am. Of course Willow is here, and the kids, and we already (like most academics) left behind our dearest friends when we left from grad school city. And if, someday, we decide to go elsewhere, we'll be leaving behind empty spots, spots in other people's daily lives.

When I was in undergrad, I worked summers at a restaurant. the friendships among the college age waitstaff there were fast and intense, and all dissolved at the end of the summer. The bartender there, Doug, was probably ten years older than we were, and was totally disinterested in these ephemeral connections. He regarded us all with a sort of grumpy disdain. And he wasn't shy about why: "why should I invest my time and energy in making friends with people who are only going to be here for three months?" He'd seen so many people come and go, that the real prospects of connecting with his co-workers was completely undermined.

Of course, it's not the same, at least in terms of degrees, but I am still heart-broken about some of these departures, and the prospect of others. Community in an academic context depends largely on the ability of a department or group or whatever to come to trust one another, and as little as I blame any single person for decisions that made perfect sense, I still mourn the little hits that our sense of community takes: both for their losses and for the small scars they leave behind.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Back in the Saddle

Lest you think that this blog permanently become a kind of "here's what I've been doing lately" space (which it has temporarily), fear not. A few things are going on with some bigger issues that have would otherwise provide so much material for writing, but alas, this blog is not nearly anonymous enough for me to discuss issues of such a sensitive nature while they are actually happening.

So instead: here's what I've been doing lately.

With the computer disaster, the beginning of the semester, a string of delightful guests, and the annual faculty report I had to compile, my writing hit a three-week snag. I finished up chapter 4, thus closing the gap and leaving me with five full chapters drafted. Willow is working on editing that chapter, and I hope in the next week to move those 30 drafted pages into the 30 revised pages column. In the meantime, onto chapter 6. In its earlier incarnation, that chapter was two close readings of plays that had been attached to chapter 5, but together with another play I did not write about, they represent a very specific phenomenon that in rethinking and reorganizing the project became worth breaking out into their own chapter. Today, I wrote an introductory framing section for that chapter, which is (I am happy to report) less risky than the last chapter, but still a new argument to make. I hope that on Friday, I can revise one of the two close reading sections so that I'll be on track to finish the chapter draft within the following week. This one, I hope, shouldn't be too, too hard.

In the meantime, classes have begun, and teaching this semester will have the potential to get dull if I don't work to keep myself engaged, and some tenure materials will need to be assembled, so while writing still remains a priority, I've got a lot to think about (in addition to all those things I cannot write about at the moment).

Saturday, August 14, 2010


Nice little bit of news arrived yesterday: my Spring 2009 article on Equus published in one of the stronger journals in my field, earned an honourable mention for outstanding essay.

The recognition is nice in an of itself, but it's also good affirmation that in a period in which I've been producing a great deal of writing, kind of in a vacuum, that my work is at least deserving of mention.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Draft Done

Commenting on my last post, Sisyphus congratulated me on the writing progress while turning a willful blind eye to the great data loss of 2010. Essentially, I think the good progress of this week has amounted to essentially the same thing:

La lalalalalalala The semester starts in 10 days? lalalalalalala my computer is in a shambles? lalalalalala my office is a wreck? lalalalala annual reports are due this month? lalalalala I CAN'T HEAR YOU!!!!

You know things aren't going well when you are writing academic prose as a way of avoiding everything else.

But if anything, it's paid off in the writing. Ten mostly new pages today (the two drafted pages were primarily outline, and only fragments of sentences remain from that), which adds up to about 22 new pages since Tuesday afternoon. If only I could write at that clip all the time!

I'm labeling the entire chapter "drafted," since the next stage is to get Willow to do her magical editing thing, where she simultaneously polishes up my prose while at the same time points out the places where my argument goes off the tracks.

And there is one place in this essay where the argument does go off the tracks. Whether that is forging brave new territory or simply running into a ditch I cannot say. Many of my readers down the road will say "ditch" but I'm sticking to my guns, for now. Those two pages felt like the most dangerous words I'd ever written, because they risk, I think violent disagreement. We'll see how it goes.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Back at it

Despite the technical difficulties and the lost data, I have noted the waning days of the summer break, and have returned with some urgency to the writing at hand. On the one hand, the demands of summer teaching had already ensured that I wouldn't be done with the draft of the book by August 23, the first day of classes here. On the other hand I had still hoped to be done with chapter 4 and onto the revisions of chapter 6, which would include the research I traveled to NYC for last week. I was making decent progress, only a day or two behind my revised timeline.

Though it was difficult yesterday to get back to it, I have made significant progress, drafting another 8 or 9 good pages in the last 24 hours. I am on track, I hope, to finish this draft of chapter 4 by tomorrow, and use the last week before classes to at least open up the document that is chapter 6 (chapter 5 is done).

While composing on Willow's netbook is hardly ideal, it has reduced the amount of internet procrastination that often attends my writing. So for now, I will point you to the updated tracker to the right, and then close up shop for the day.

Monday, August 09, 2010


That's the sound of the punch in the gut I felt when OIT told me that they wouldn't be able to retrieve any of that data: apparently, none of the retrieval machines would even recognize it as a drive.

Which means that I totally dodged a bullet by almost randomly deciding to back up many of my documents, and almost all of my most important documents, on Saturday night.

I can only imagine how I'd be feeling if I had not done that, because I would have lost: a year of teaching documentation mere weeks before my annual report was due, all of my work on my tenure file and annual report, and much of the writing I've done in the last year, including huge chunks of the book manuscript (see all that progress over there on the right?).

Frankly, I've been very cavalier about backing up, and this could have been a total disaster. Instead, this is only a minor disaster, and I've learned (I hope) a Very Important Lesson.

Sooo, internets? do you back up your files? anything systematic? simple? reliable? If enough of you give me good advice, I'll repost the findings.


Blogging will likely be light for a few days or even weeks. Sigh.

My laptop died. Specifically, "Internal hard disk drive not found."

It's not as bad as it could be, for a few reasons. First, it's the university's computer, so I am not responsible for the troubleshooting, rebuilding, and/or replacement that might be deemed necessary. In fact, the machine is already on its way to its destination (whatever that may be).

Second, Facebook saved my life. Saturday night, as I was shutting down for the evening, I opened a tab that was already on facebook, and noticed that someone on my feed posted the end of a long day recovering their data from a virus-infected computer. "hmmm," I thought. "I haven't backed up in ages, and I've written a LOT of new material in the last weeks." So I popped in my data key, and downloaded the contents of My Docs. And went to bed.

The next morning, when I awoke, the computer had tried to reboot, and failed. A clicking sound emanated from the hard-drive side of the machine, and the black screen of death (apparently worse than its blue cousin) taunted me. It was 6:30 and I was on baby duty while everyone else slept. Junebug was kind enough to let me check to make sure that the data on the key was ok, and it was, so my early morning panic was mitigated.

What I don't have backed up: A few somewhat important documents that were only on the desktop (my to do list/calendar, and the zero draft document for freewriting and brainstorming the book project), my large library of PDFs which had not been backed up recently, my email archives older than 6 months, and my iTunes, which is mostly still safe on my actual iPod. So the losses, if they are irretrievable, are not earth-shattering.

But the timing, with the book project running just a little behind schedule, the semester starting in two weeks, and my annual report due at the end of the month, could've been better. Today, which should've been a writing day, has been a day of sending the laptop off to OIT, of checking my files to see what I do have, and have lost, and of a belated freaking out, which is better now. I'm working on Willow's netbook, which is tiny and slow, but adequate, so I have some access, but I feel electronically homeless, or at least itinerant, for now, and that will mean that some of my goals are just going to have to change. We'll see how it goes.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Flying Solo

Long-time readers of this space surely know that I harbor an interest in performances of white masculinity (particularly middle class, hetero, white masculinity) in American culture, specifically how bourgeois men perform when they think they are being watched in specific ways.

So having posted about academic masculinities, and masculine performances in the gym and the locker room, I hadn't touched the subject here in a while, though I think about it constantly, as this is a campus that takes its particularly masculine (but sometimes female) mascot very seriously.

But wandering through airports for large chunks of the previous three days sparked an observation that I think is worth pondering a bit: Airports are the perfect place to observe bourgeois masculinity.

First off, airports are full of men traveling alone, often on business. There seem to be fewer women traveling on their own, and it seems that women more often have traveling companions. And for reasons I'll suggest a bit below, the women who do travel alone are frequently not responding in this particular way to these circumstances, because....

Men traveling alone have virtually nothing at stake in airports--that is, if we taken as a tenuous given that much of the way that white middle class hetero men style themselves for public is a play for, and display of, power. Posture, gait, vocal inflection, clothing, even facial expression, are all finely tuned mechanisms for negotiating social empowerment. But because men flying solo are surrounded by people they don't know, with virtually every logistical arrangement already in place, their behaviors mean almost nothing is at stake. Aside from making it onto the flight or not, the hours preceding boarding for the single man are virtually consequenceless, at least based on the kinds of micro-behaviors that we so carefully modulate otherwise.

And yet, at the same time, these men are completely out of context, which means that there are no other clues to their behaviors: the observer of such figures has nothing to go on except for the man himself, which means that the things we might observe about them individually, guess about them, hypothesize about them, can only be discerned from, well, the text itself. If there is a new critical cultural studies--the text and nothing but the text--this is the place for it.

One might imagine, then, that without context and without stakes, single men in airports exist in their pure, true state. With nothing to gain or lose, and no meaningful context with which to interact, men and their behaviors can teach us loads about a whole (quite powerful) swath of our culture, and presumably, about individual men as well.

What's interesting, though, is that if this is the case, if the single male traveler waiting at the gate has nothing impinging on his performance of masculinity, he, well, kind of stops performing. In short, outside of its cultural-rhetorical negotiations, masculinity stops functioning, and given these conditions, many men stop functioning in any meaningful way as well. This is not to say that there is no there there, that such men lack interiority (after all, I devised this theory in precisely these conditions). But rather, there's nothing for them to do. Look around the waiting area; so many of these guys look completely adrift. Tired, frequently, and uncomfortable largely, but with nothing to do but wait, their faces are largely blank, and their postures are largely slouching, limp.

We could read this a few ways: Robert Bly once might have said that this was clearly evidence that modern society had robbed men of their true natural habitat, and we need to go beat some drums. perhaps. I choose to read this as the absence of a kind of a priori masculinity that burns within the bodies and souls of individual men. More usefully, I think, this suggests the deeply mythical nature of the importance of the self-sufficient male subject as an ideal. For without social maneuvering and negotiation to engage in, airport guy (I probably should have named him earlier. Mitch, maybe), Mitch has nothing to do, no purpose.

But watch him as his cell phone rings, and a switch flips, and his whole posture changes. Cancel Mitch's flight, and the whole army of Mitches go into hyperdrive, with a range of tactics, approaches, strategies in play to find a new flight, to negotiate a better situation (mine was to wait out the loonies and then flatter and empathise with the harried attendant, who seemed to be nicer to me for my comparative kindness to him).

Why masculinity in particular? Because my sense is that while men in such situations are prone to seeing no function for themselves, women are largely conditioned to a) be more aware of themselves as objects of the gaze in such situations, in ways that men are not, and b) bored men with a sense of consequencelessness are dangerous. So while Mitch might really be letting his guard down, the female business traveler across the aisle must remain wary.

The point is, what Mitch at the airport tells me is that masculinity is more than anything a social code, precisely the opposite of the facade of solitary sufficiency that it seeks to project; that the behaviors of real men--especially in a white, hetero, bourgeois context--demonstrate not that men are islands, but that their very function exists in building better bridges.

Friday, August 06, 2010

What I did with my 36-hour research trip (that took 55 hours)

So on Wednesday morning, I hopped a flight to NYC for a brief research trip, mostly to look at the files that an Off-Broadway company kept on a play they had commissioned in the late 90s that has only very recently been published, and now will get the treatment in the book. In fact, I'm close enough to that part of the ms. revision (ch 6) that I hope to get all of this trip's fruits incorporated into the prose by the end of the month.

But the actual archive time was very brief: only about three hours. There wasn't too much of interest (though precisely what I needed), I was allowed to make photocopies, and they had me set up in the front lobby of their small admin offices, so I felt a bit intrusive (though they assured me I wasn't). At any rate, that left me enough time to do the following things (keeping in mind I was on a very tight budget and was lugging around my only bag w/ books and laptop the whole time).

Read two very different but wonderful novels: Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum's Ms. Hempel Chronicles which is very different from her amazing previous novel is still lovely and affecting, and which I polished off in its entirety on Wednesday; also, David Markson's Wittgenstein's Mistress, which like the other work of his I've read, This is not a Novel, is brilliantly cerebral, remarkably propulsive, and despite being barely narrative at all, still manages to tell an incredible, mysterious story.

Also: got lost behind Lincoln Center, sweated through two shirts, took a break from 95 degree heat in Central Park, took a lovely dinner with my friend Sue in the Village, lounged around the Columbia campus for a while, noticed how disproportionate were the hands and feet of The Thinker, looked for Fornes plays at the 66th St. Barnes and Noble, failed to enjoy several cab rides, and spent more time than I'd like in airports.

The last thing was an unwelcome cap on a nice little trip: Because it was so hot yesterday and I was so tired, I headed off to the airport at 3 for a 7:30 flight. It was air conditioned, it was free, and there was wi-fi (not free). Except that my flight was canceled. Fortunately, my friend Sue had room on her sofa for a visitor, and at 5:00 am, I woke up to try again, and finally made my way home (the extra airport time facilitating the completion of the Markson novel).

So, good trip, a little longer than expected. Lots of reading (two novels and multiple drafts of a play, plus a couple of academic articles and a bunch of supplementary materials), and some good research.

And remind me to do that post about men flying alone. A veritable sociological study there.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Making an intervention

My strength as a writer and as a theorist has typically been in the form of synthesis, bringing together ideas that haven't been considered together, or that have been previously regarded as incompatible. Indeed, the bulk of this book project has been work on the latter: considering alongside one another essentialist and constructivist notions of the individual subject on the feminist stage. That in itself is a critical intervention, but one that is characterized by an attempt at critical harmony rather than dissensus.

The current chapter, however, is one in which I am actively refuting a major critical commonplace, not just on the criticism of one text, but on how we read a whole body of texts. And this is a big one, too. When I presented an early version of this argument recently, the response was measured, and in conversation about the idea, one similarly early-career scholar said only, cryptically, "Oh...Bold." The insinuation there was, "Oh...mind-blowingly stupid and wrong-headed." On the other hand, the reader who reviewed the book proposal and sample chapters felt that this particular argument was "nothing short of brilliant" which is overstatement, I think, but good to hear.

At any rate, while I'm committed to this argument, and find it both logical, compelling, and important to make, I am made anxious about the argumentative strategy. Actually refuting "critical orthodoxies" and "post-structuralist dogma" feels, well, not my style. On the one hand, it feels rhetorically like the kind of thing that overconfident first-year grad students do with concepts they haven't entirely grasped, and so in that way, it feels brash. On the other, it feels like the thing that I should be doing, by making an actual intervention in the discussion, making a real, contestable argument rather than playing the critical peacemaker.

I imagine that in fact much of my writing career will be filling that critical peacemaker role--synthesis has always been my intellectual forte, and frankly, it's what I do in interpersonal relationships, too (ENFJ's are harmony seekers, so the Meyers-Briggs test says). But in this chapter, I'm doing things I haven't done well before: stake out a claim, refute the conventional wisdom, and make some noise.

And honestly, it's making me nervous.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


I know, I'm a bit of a one-note blog these days, in part because I'm often writing here as a "cool down" from other writing sessions--it's something of a rewards for writing, rather than a warm-up. Anyway, as you can see from the writing progress bar, pages are shifting from the unwritten italics count over to the red revised count. The key accomplishment is that I've completed a draft of chapter 3, which was, frankly, the most terrifying part of the whole process at summer's start. And now, that shift should continue in dramatic fashion over the next couple of days, as the 20 pages of drafted material in chapters 2 and 3 should be pounded out by next Monday.

Between now and then, and soon after, some other concerns will intervene. We're sending the twins on a weeklong vacation with my folks, which will on the one hand free up some time otherwise devoted to parenting, but will also require trips to and from the ancestral home to drop them off this Friday, and pick them up the following Saturday (any DC folks interested in getting together Friday night?). Then Junebug's beloved godmother is coming in for a visit, which will still allow for writing time, but also provides opportunities for distraction.

Also, I have a book review deadline on August 1, and a very short research trip to NYC on August 4 and 5, so my hope is to do all of those things, and come back to chapter 4 (if I haven't started it already) when I return. At that point it's only 2 more weeks until the semester starts, and so I hope to at least have chapter 4 drafted by then, with only Chapters 6, 7, and the conclusion to polish off in August and September. It wasn't my ideal schedule for the beginning of the summer, but I think it's still doable.

So yes. Writing! it goes.

Thursday, July 08, 2010


I have read, written and revised for two days in a row now, largely working on the chapter whose argument itself needed the most overhauling (Chapter 3, or Section1 chapter 2, depending on how you're counting). I at once feel pretty good about the work I'm doing, even as I cringe at some of the prose I wrote on the subject when I first drafted it. This chapter itself was written in the final throes of dissertation revision (7 years ago, now), and are at once naively composed and wildly out of date. Some of the central argument and most of the close readings remain valid, but damn, so of the phrases written there sound, frankly, like a 1975 consciousness-raising tract. Revision is indeed good.

Speaking of, I've drawn up a revision tracker over there on the right, which shows how much is revised and current, how much is drafted but needs revision, and how much I expect to draft from scratch. According to that, as of yesterday, I had about 105 pages of updated prose, another 75 that will need some kind of revision and polishing, and about 70 left to write from scratch for a goal of roughly 250 pages or 8000-9000 words. So watch me as I write, and I'll try to update that occasionally and at periodic intervals, post tallies at the bottom. Fingers crossed!

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Ready, Steady, Go!

Three processes resume today:

1) Writing: The summer course now done, grades submitted, and comments returned, the time has not come to write. After a tiny anxiety attack this morning (so distracted by it was I, that I sideswiped a mailbox after dropping off the kids. The mailbox is fine, but the side mirror on my car less so), I did some warm up writing on my tenure documents, and sat down with the book chapter du jour. Chapter 1.2 (or chapter 3, depending how you count) actually requires less work than I had imagined, mostly in the form of bulking up the theoretical grounding and stakes, and adding a major final section at the end to account for an extremely important new direction in both performance and in scholarship, that will make this section much more than a retread of existing scholarship or a retread of the dissertation chapter. This is significant work, to be sure, but less involved than, say, rebuilding the chapter from the ground up that I thought I'd have to do. Instead of writing a 35-page chapter with a handful of usable paragraphs, I've actually got to write 15 new pages to accompany the 25 I must revise and expand. Very doable. Moreover, I began the process of polishing up some of those older pages, and identifying a handful of sources to supplement the writing. I'll pick those up this afternoon on a trip to the library with Junebug.

2) Tenure: My external evaluators for tenure have been determined and confirmed, which means that today I am sending out the packet of my published work with a cover letter to frame it. Our department does not require the book for tenure, but in creating the narrative of my scholarly project, I have come to realize that the subject matter of the book forms a center to my work around which other material constellates. Since earlier articles published before I arrived do not count for my tenure case (something I understand is somewhat unique to this institution), but came from the dissertation-turned-book-project there appears to be a large absence that would otherwise tie my work together. I have tried to frame the existing publications within a narrative suggests that they cluster around this bigger project descried under future work, but I sure don't want evaluators to say, "well if only he had that book!" This is my only serious worry about the tenure process, and submitting these packets today (the other thing to do on my trip to campus with Junebug) is the great leap that the tenure process will entail for me. Everything else seems by comparison like bureaucracy.

3) Other great leaps into the unknown: Junebug took two very tiny, very tentative steps this weekend. He will walk all over the place either holding onto a single hand or cruising along the furniture, so full-on speed-walking is mere days away. I tremble. The coming weeks will be an adventure indeed.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Pleasure Reading

Oh, yes, that. It seems to me that after the intensity of two grad classes in the last six months, coupled with the writing onslaught that is coming, I should probably take up some pleasure reading. I've done very little in the last year, knocking off maybe four books that I can honestly say I read for my own personal interests, Angela Carter's The Magic Toyshop, Terry Galloway's memoir Mean Little deaf Queer, Salman Rushdie's The Enchantress of Florence, and Orhan Pamuk's My Name is Red. Despite that smallish number, I am pleased to say that I enjoyed them all immensely (though the Pamuk will stand out as a giant among giants in that list).

I've also been reading a good deal of short fiction. Willow's work keeps me engaged there, and the New Yorker's fiction issue has kept me well stocked for a few days. I quite liked Jonathan Safran Foer's short piece there, enjoyed Rivka Galchen's and Philipp Meyer's pieces, too. Last week's fiction from Nicole Krauss was beutiful, but ended on a bit of a baffling note, and I'm eager to read Sarah Shun-lien Bynum's story "The Erlking" in the issue that arrived today. Her novel Madeline is Sleeping is a pure unadulterated joy.

But for my birthday, I got a big ol' Barnes and Noble gift certificate, and purchased five books that I've been looking at for some time, reviews I've read, Amazon recommendations, etc. And then, last evening, I ran my fingers along my bookshelves to pull another dozen or so possibilities.

So here are several novels on the short(ish) list for next thing to read. Happy to take votes of confidence. There's no rhyme or reason to the order.
  • David Markson, Wittgenstein's Mistress
  • Zadie Smith, On Beauty
  • W.G. Sebald, Austerlitz
  • Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway (I know, can you believe it?)
  • David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas
  • Lev Grossman, The Magicians
  • Jeanette Winterson, The Stone Gods
  • Joshua Ferris, Then We Came to the End
  • Jesse Ball, The Way through Doors
  • Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire
  • Paul Auster, The New York Trilogy
  • Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49
  • Claire Messud, The Emperor's Children
  • J.M. Coetzee, Elizabeth Costello
  • Kathy Acker, Don Quixote
  • Don Delillo, Libra
  • Hanif Kureishi, The Buddha of Suburbia
  • Maxine Hong Kingston, The Woman Warrior
So obviously, some of these are Books I Should've Read By Now, but that might be a disincentive to choosing them as pleasure reading. Your thoughts welcome.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

New Look

So....The blog has been neglected for some time now, and so I thought, "Hey! Why not a new look to neglect?"

The projects are piling up right now, and I've got a lot of work to do to catch up. But several things are on pins and needles around here--spotty childcare, Willow with uncertain employment options, a tenure case to prepare for, and an ms. to finish, so I feel like this space might be useful again. So we'll see.

Monday, June 28, 2010


Summer session over, comments still left to put on grad papers from both this session and last semester (cringe), book to finish writing by end of summer. But right now my eyes burn from reading papers on the screen all day. But maybe soon I'll post more often.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Happy Birthday Junebug!

Happy birthday, my littlest one. It's been a very good year (and a week, since I'm late here).

But a picture from his first birthday, followed by historical precedent:

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Tenure: The early steps

So. It is time. I am beginning, in effect, my critical year.

Let me be clear here. My department, despite the many flaws of the larger institution, is a really good place to work (for those of us privileged to be on the tenure track, at least). The teaching load is a humane 2/3, and the minimum publication requirements for tenure are a very humane four major articles (there are more recommendations that surround that baseline, but still, that's the baseline.

By June now, I have begun the early steps of the tenure process.

Step One: Introducing Myself to the Committee
So that they could begin to choose evaluators, the committee that covers tenure and promotion required a brief paragraph from me to determine good matches. As my work is eclectic in subject matter and ecumenical in approach, and worse, constellates around a book project that will NOT be part of my tenure file, this was not an easy task. But there it is. Short story? I do modern drama. Longer story? I do modern drama and performance studies as it relates to gender studies, life writing, narratology, contemporary British literature, cultural studies and (occasionally) composition pedagogy.

Step Two: assembling the list of external evaluators.

So BRU doesn't offer an honorarium to evaluators, and because of some hitches in the way that our Evaluation Committee (EC) (which handles both annual evaluation and T&P) is constituted, we get a late start on collecting names of potential external evaluators. Which means, with nothing bu good will to offer in return, we call evaluators late in the game, after they've often already agreed to review sometimes multiple other cases. This means that the luxury of choosing a few really wonderful outside readers is mitigated by the likelihood that the most wonderful readers very well may decline the request.

So the process is this: The (EC) and I both submit lists of potential external evaluators. In the past and elsewhere, I've heard that each body gives 5-6 names, and the chair collates those lists, and after I vet them for any material conflicts of interest, gets them approved by the Dean. Once the list is approved, he calls down the lest to secure between 3-6 external evaluators of the case. Because of the likelihood that those requests might be denied, though, both I and the committee were asked to assemble much larger lists of possible readers (somewhere around 40-45 between the two lists). This means that the bottom of the list ends up with people much further afield from my work than I might like, and also that the list inevitably includes those few people on the list who, for whatever reason, don't like me, or my work, or my approach, or (relevantly) the fact that I'm a man doing feminist studies in performance.

But, as of the end of May, I understand that both lists were generated, collated, approved by the Dean, and that readers were secured.

Step three: Assemble packets for External evaluators.
This would seem straightforward, but there are two parts, and questions about each.
  • Part One: What to include. So obviously, I include the major articles, and the components of the edited collection that I wrote or co-wrote. But. Do I include the entire collection as evidence of the editing work? Do I include minor articles (10 pages or shorter?) Do I include reviews? Book reviews and/or performance reviews? Do I include multiple incarnations of radically different lengths of material published under the same title (ie short draft for online journal, expanded significantly for collection)? The book reviews gesture toward that empty center of my work that would otherwise be occupied by the book project in process. The performance review and minor article overlap very closely in subject matter and even primary argument. Current talley: iterations of same article yes, book reviews yes, minor article yes, performance review no.
  • Related question: An article has been accepted for a collection that has not yet found a publisher. I know I can't include it if it's not under contract, but do I a) hold off sending out the packet to see if a contract comes through? b) pull the article from the collection and roll the dice on a journal? c) just send out the packet without the article? I seem to have, by inaction, settled on c).
  • Part two: The framing letter. So I write a letter to tell my evaluators what they're reading. The big questions here are twofold: a) how to explain the collection which represents a significant portion of the page count they are reading, but is only tangentially connected to my stated field. b) how to explain the book project as the nucleus of my work thus far around which all the other pieces revolve as satellites, without looking like a slacker, or intellectually ADD.
So that's where I am now. Making copies of articles, drafting the letter (the chair is glancing over it as we speak), and fretting about the most unknown part of the process. Wish me luck.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Willow, now with more degrees!

In the bustle of the end of last semester and the beginning of the summer session, I neglected to post anything on Willow's completion of her MFA, which along with an MA in English, means that she's actually taken more coursework and defended more prose than I did. huzzah!

In tribute, I want to post links to a few of her publications, now available online, because they are teh awesome, and you should read them. Now. Even if you've read them before.

"WQED, Channel 13: Programming Guide"

"Jeannette Leaves her Recipes"

"Proof of a Wedding Photo, 1969"


Other publications in print-only include "Pas de Deux" (Madison Review, 1999), "Distance Driving (Fourth River, 2007), and "In Search of a Smaller Bar Scene" (Evansville Review, forthcoming). More is in the submissions till, so keep your eyes peeled!

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Ti-i-i-ime ain't on my side

I have begun to hit something of a rhythm in managing the summer grad class, which is turning out to be a really fun, interesting group of people on what is to me an immensely engaging topic. Who wouldn't have fun with two consecutive days on authorship?

(On a side note, I think that for many cultural-studies-trained folks narratological formalism seems archaic and a historical, but these discussions on the building blocks of story-making, with old questions like the place of authorial intent, are not useless to today's graduate students, and indeed continue to provide and effective vocabulary and critical framework for how texts carry cultural information.)

I have in fact hit enough of a rhythm that I am now dipping my toes back into the writing pond, finding that the waters aren't as chilly as I'd imagined they'd be. A paragraph of an old article on Tuesday night, some brainstorming notes on chapter 3 last night, and today who knows? The problem has been that these little bits of writing time have been stolen moments: 15 minutes here while Willow read the twins a bedtime story, 10 minutes there as I pulled over on the road, opened my laptop, typed in some ideas, and got back on my way to pick up Imperia from a playdate. No article, let along book manuscript will be successfully produced this way.

No matter I suppose, Summer Session I is over in three more weeks, after which a 6 week vista opens up for me to write, write, write, at which point I will have little choice but to do exactly that.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010


Junebug has recently learned to clap, which means that he claps at all sorts of things, but mostly himself. He also like being clapped for, and if I'm not clapping for him often enough, he'll reach over, grab my hands, and clap them for me. Too cute.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Summer Grad Class

You perhaps have seen references in the sparse previous posts about a summer graduate class that I'm teaching, one that is a lot of fun already, but is killing me. I've devised a way to make the reading more manageable to the students--by making half of the essays "supplementary" and then assigning 2 people to present the arguments of each one, I've cut the reading from 16-20 essays a week to 10-12. It's still a lot of reading for them, but they seem to be doing it. I however, am still reading 16-20 essays a week.

This has meant that I've had to put writing on the back burner, and will instead have to write like a fiend through July and August. In the interim, I'm going to try to clean up a few article drafts I have laying around, to perhaps get them out to readers in order to supplement my tenure file, which goes forward this fall.

Lesson learned? Teaching a summer grad class is a great deal of fun: laid back and focused at the same time. But I shouldn't ever count on doing anything else with that time.

Monday, May 24, 2010


If I had time for a full post right now, I'd write one on pruning--on trimming back what seems like fertile growth, but which stretches the root structure past capacity. I pruned some oregano and sage back (also, I wanted the herbs), and thinned out some dill this evening (while the twins finished their dinner), and thought, "boy, do I need to do this with my life."

Because I suspect if I pruned back the extra teaching, the extra trips to soccer practice, the friendly morning meetings over coffee, I wonder if a writing plant would flourish?

Tuesday, May 11, 2010


Mostly, the semester is done. So I can finally breathe easy.

I've got comments on grad papers, and a few lingering undergrad assignments, to write.
I've got two incompletes to expect work from.
I've got a dissertation draft to read.
I've got a summer session I course that begins in 6 days.
I've got a book project whose first deadline I just blithely blew off.
I've got a tenure file to begin assembling.
I've got an invitation to contribute an article to a very good journal outside of my field that I really should NOT agree to.
I've got a backlog of email.
I've got a nagging feeling that a shoe is going to drop.
I've got this sense that optimism will have to stop sufficing for actual labor, and that things like my herb garden and my Netflix account and sometimes even the kids' soccer practice are going to have to wait while I do these things, these things that I've said I'd do, that I need to do.
I've got to go.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Work update, week 1

So a lot has happened this week that has nothing to do with my writing: Willow had a birthday, defended her MFA thesis, and is at this moment interviewing for a job (while I watch the kids, who are playing happily in the background, so imagine the deafening burble of twins kindergartners and a baby who adores them). Also, I collected proposals from my grad students, who have really pulled it together this semester, and a batch of papers from the survey section.

BUT! in the last week I did do an intermediate revision on the Narrative paper, so at least i can say I left it good shape as I move back to the book. I sent a copy of that off to my advisor, who is most interested in this particular aspect of my work.

As for the remaining revisions to chapter 1.1, not so much. But the document is up on the desktop, and whenever I turn to writing (and reading, which includes both Butler and Foucault for this stage), this is the project. I'm hoping to finish a draft by Friday.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Onward and Upward

So I'm back from the Narrative Conference, which I find consistently stimulating, and where after five visits, I've finally settled into a groove with enough contacts and enough sense of my place in that particular field that I don't feel like a total conference loner. Of course, This one has given me another book idea, but that seems sufficiently separate from my regular research that it feels like the sort of thing that I can work on for the next several years by pecking out conference papers just for that conference, and slowly expanding and revising them into fuller chapters.

Meanwhile, back to the book at hand. My goal is to have a complete manuscript in the press' hands by the end of the summer. I am teaching a summer grad course (daily in the afternoons), but it is structured such that I can continue to get some writing done as I go. So here's what I have written already, and my target dates for revised chapters.

Intro: drafted and polished (check)
1.1: Drafted and under final revisions (by April 30)
1.2: About 20 pages of drafted material, another 15-20 of new material (by May 31)
1.3: About 12 pages drafted, another 15 (to 30, depending on using another text) (by June 30)
2.1: Drafted and polished (check)
2.2: About 20 pages drafted, with another 15-20 to draft or seriously revise (by July 15)
2.3: 15-20 pages drafted, in bad shape; another 10-15 to write (by August 7)
Epilogue: One drafted but it barely fits the project anymore. We'll see. (by September 1)

That's as much as 85 new pages through the summer, but the research on this and the background reading is all largely done. The issue really is just putting the butt in the chair and writing. Keep your fingers crossed!

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Writing news

After putting up a post about the difficulty of committing to writing, I promptly wrote nothing, on the blog or really anywhere, for weeks.

But an email that came in yesterday will change all that. To quote selectively:

Dear Horace,
Good news today--the outside reader has confirmed my instincts about your book project, calling it "a substantial, informative, and original piece of scholarship." How exciting! . . . I'll look forward to having the complete manuscript, when it's ready to send.
So if that doesn't inspire a commitment to writing, then, well, I might as well not be in this profession.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010


Over at ProfHacker, contributor Billie Hara has a post about ways that we might think about emotionally committing ourselves to write. And you know, I've tried those tactics: the everyday, the writing as an addiction, the rhythms of daily habit. For me, not to much. I've always been a writer who works in fits and starts: nothing for two, three months, and then an article in three weeks. If you count actual writing time, I wrote my dissertation in about four months. But those four months of writing happened over about two years.

And now, with three kids, one of them on a still-quite-unpredictable schedule, the other two home a lot for snow days, a three-prep courseload (including a new grad prep), and enough service obligations to fill in the gaps, and the fifteen-minutes-a-day approach isn't working, because many days I don't have even those fifteen minutes to spare.

When I am able to carve out time, they tend to be big swaths that require a good big of schedule juggling, and can't be counted on to be repeated at regular intervals. So those of you who don't of can't manage those regular writing schedules, how do you get your writing done? Every article has been different for me, sometimes working at night, sometimes finding a sweet spot in my semesterly schedule (not this semester!), sometimes using my summer really well. But rarely for more than a month at a time, and even more rarely two writing stretches in one semester/summer. Those spots are really productive, often producing anywhere from 25-65 polished ms pages. But then I'm shot for a while. I feel like I'm gearing up for another stretch here soon (not sure when, exactly), but I've got to find the time. So am I committed to writing? Yeah. But I'm committed to a lot of other things, too.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Lent, Spirituality, and Ethics

I mentioned last post that Willow and I were forgoing meat for this Lenten season, something that we felt was an environmentally responsible choice first, with other considerations following.

That is true for that specific set of choices, but I also feel like I want to note that the spiritual element (although I do dislike that word) is a real component. Over the last three or four years, Willow and I have been attending an Episcopal church here, in part for a kind of education for the children, but also for our own impulses.

For me, I've struggled with this choice mightily: I was raised in an increasingly fundamentalist/evangelical home, and after I left for college, spent about a decade drifting between agnosticism and atheism. Importantly, I think I still have not rejected those positions, but I've also stopped rejecting the Christian theology that I had been for so long. We started with this parish about three years ago, when close friends visited and wanted to attend an Episcopal church. I joined them, and since that time, we have tentatively but steadily become more involved.

Even so, I approach religion from a position of doubt, but one open to possibility. I still shudder at the language of sin, authority, and hierarchy, and yet embedded in much Christian theology is the set of ethical principals that I still, and have always, tried to hold close.

Estranging ethics from the language of sin and virtue is, as I am finding, no mean feat, and so you can imagine the semantic gymnastics required to negotiate a season such as Lent. And yet from the sermon today, i find myself meditating on--of all things--the seven deadly sins. Not as sins, per se, but as behaviors and practices that provide the language for a more proactively ethical life.

Wrath: That I might avoid looking at other people as obstacles to my own desires without first considering their needs.

Greed: That I might evaluate my worth and that of others on actions and not on markers of material wealth or privilege.

Sloth: That I might be motivate to work to better the lives of those most in need to mitigate suffering.

Pride: That I remember that I am not the center of any moral universe but (perhaps) my own, and that no one owes me that position of privilege.

Lust: That I remain as interested in my partner's pleasure as much as my own.

Envy: That I admire in others their talents and achievements without resenting them.

Gluttony: That I make the best use of my resources for the health of my body, my family, and my environment.

In general, I find that this set of principals is much easier for me to sign on to, even if (or perhaps because) it skews from ecclesiastical definitions of these ideas. What remains true within all of them, however, as an attempt to ethically engage those around me with as much consideration as possible, and to weigh the good of my family, my community, and the world as highly or even more highly than I weigh my own surplus pleasure.

I am not blind to all the ways that the discourse surrounding these 'sins' has been used for all kinds of social control and institutional empowerment, and so I am trying to be both very careful with how I imagine them (not all desire is lust; not all eating is gluttony, etc.), and how I talk about them, if at all. But if this is in fact a season for self reflection, then using the lens of ethics, the one that incites the fewest misgivings for me, seems the way to do it.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

On Malaise

The twins have been home from school for 12 of the last 13 days. The baby is on his second cold in the last month (though this one seems quite minor, but still). I am behind in almost every conceivable way. Willow is also behind, so the idea of one of us throwing another a lifeline feels impossible too. We are simply not set up to do full-time childcare for three and maintain full-time (or even part-time jobs.

So at the moment, I have a batch of undergraduate response papers to grade, all of the material for my grad class to prep for tomorrow (three plays by Pirandello), a stack of PhD applications to read, and on the horizon, another batch of response papers and two sets of midterms.

And at the moment, instead of doing any of these things, I am blogging. Sitting in front of the magic happy light box (which isn't at the moment, working wonders), listening to Junebug cry while somehow not managing to cry himself to sleep.

Paul Atreides, of Frank Herbert's Dune series, uses the mantra, "Fear is the mind killer," but frankly, I am not so much afraid of everything as simply buried and therefore rendered completely inert. And my mind is dead. I am unexcited by my objectively exciting classes, unwilling to crack the top of that stack of response papers, even blase about going up to soothe the baby (bad daddy).

If the sun doesn't come out soon (tomorrow is, after all, always a day away), I'm going to burst. If I have to wear my goddamn winter boots to walk to campus another day, I'm gonna scream. If it doesn't stop snowing soon so I can send the twins back to school, I'm going to curl up in a little ball and weep. None of which will help anything at all.

Ash Wednesday is the inauguration of Lent, a period of doing without. In Christian terms, it's a self-shriving to prepare for the grace of Easter, but on a broader, pan-spiritual level, it's seemingly related to the necessary practice of stretching the remaining provisions through the winter. Willow and I are responding to both terms this year by forgoing meat. It's an environmental decision first, with elements of finances and spirituality mixed in. And it's a test run for perhaps a more permanent solution down the road.

I wonder what the connection between these Lenten sacrifices and winter malaise might have to do with one another, and whether the discipline involved in going without might also be related to the discipline of muddling through.

For now though, the happy light box has finished its cycle, the baby has finally fallen asleep, and I think I'll read a play. We'll see whether the winter malaise has faded any by then.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Rethinking Grad School Advice

Thanks to T.E. I've just found Escape the Ivory Tower and its compelling post about our responsibilities for advising grad school in the humanities. This is an old topic around the blogosophere, with too many posts to list-and-link. It's also one I've been hesitant to join.

Part of the reason that I have been hesitant to join is that had I gotten this kind of reality check advice, I might not have pursued this path, one that I do find extraordinarily rewarding in a way that I personally cannot imagine experiencing in many other life paths. Yes, I'm in a fair amount of debt, and yes it took three tries on the job market to land a good TT job, but in many ways, the "life of the mind" is something I associate quite closely with the job and the way I work.

Still, the scenario gets worse and worse, and I am slowly coming to understand that the job market is significantly worse right now than it was even five years ago when I was last out. I really do wonder how to give advice, knowing that the advice that this line of thinking would have me give would have very likely led to a somewhat (or even extremely) less satisfying career and work/life exchange than I currently enjoy, and might therefore do the same for certain students whom I might advise.

Still, I'll be sending those students this link as a reality check, and would be interested to hear of other links (please do send them on) that I might compile.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Snow Days and Voluntary Classes

On Monday, we had the first declared snow day at this institution in eleven years, a combination of good fortune and sheer cussedness in the face of the moderate elements. But a new provost and fourteen-odd inches of snow kept us out yesterday. Today, we were back on, despite some lingering treacherous conditions.

Faculty had been urged to exercise consideration for students who might have a difficult commute, but I hate that particular judgment call. Nothing worse than getting an email from a student that they can't make it to campus, only to see them at the gym right after class. So on such days (when I can afford it on the syllabus) I take a different tack, and send an email to tell students that while I will be having class, I will not be taking attendance. I remind them of the value of the material, but the way I structure my syllabi, rarely is the material of any given day "must-know."

In effect, the day is a free absence, and the students who end up coming to class are the students who actually want to be there. No surprise, then, that the postmodernism class saw about 1/3 attendance, while the amazing survey from heaven saw 2/3 attendance (and many of those who missed were the less-engaged in this highly-engaged group).

But the ones who were there in the postmodern class ended up making it a banner day there. We were talking about Ashbery's "What is Poetry" and "Paradoxes and Oxymorons" both highly playful poems that play around with the way that language functions as pure sign. In fact, one student mentioned the ideas of Derrida (though she could not remember the name), which prompted a quick explanation of differance, in a 200-level class. As importantly, contemporary poetry is not my bag, so while I had a few bon mots to offer, I struggle through his poetry just as much as they do, and so the interpretation they arrived at as a class was ultimately more convincing (or at least more interesting, and maybe both) than the one I'd walked in with.

These were the last texts in a unit on textual play (Borges, Barth, Calvino, Stoppard, Ashbery), and we ended with a casual discussion of simply "what you thought of these texts taken as a group." The discussion ranged far and wide, and touched on nihilism, readerly vs. writerly texts, and the place of pain and anguish within formal play. And I suspect that this was due as in large part to who was not there as to who was not.

This is not so much a dig on those students who might be bringing the class down as it is a reminder of the intellectual joy that arises when you know that the people in the room want to be in the room.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010


Just before the semester began, I sent out a proposal to a single high-profile university press for my ongoing book project. I had been in conversation for a little over a year with the Sr. Acquisitions editor, who had made her name in the field by bringing my subfield to prominence. So our most recent contacts had been friendly and relaxed (indeed, at MLA, she hailed me down to show me a new book as I approached the table).

So the packet of materials I sent contained the proposal, a table of contents, a shorter abstract, and two sample chapters: the long introduction, and a later chapter.

She emailed today to confirm receipt, but also to say that she "admired my choice of artists," which in turn made her "realize how long it's been since we've [seen] a good book of this kind," and that she's sending it on to "others," presumably series editors or others in house. On the one hand, I hope that the enthusiasm that I read in this note is more than just professional courtesy. But on the other hand, without a complete manuscript, she probably isn't going to tip her hand too much.

This is the first basically unsolicited proposal I've made to a press. Others with book experience: what kind of early responses did you get, and how should one read this sort of thing?

Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Problem of Re-reading

I am not, by nature, a re-reader. Willow is, and many of my friends are. They are the sort of people who, when they have some free time, will pick up an old comfy favorite, and dig right in, sometimes cover-to-cover, sometimes just the good bits.

This is not the way I read. Partially because I read slowly, and partially because reading for pleasure for me can be so engrossing that I kind of shirk my other reading responsibilities, and partially because I'd rather just read something on my already towering to-be-read pile.

Unfortunately, this predilection away from re-reading is not particularly good for teaching, where not re-reading tends to leave you looking like a bit of a fool in front of the classroom, when you don't remember an incidental, but useful detail. For me, now in year five of my TT position, this really is starting to be an issue, because I'm re-teaching enough texts that I am having to go back for fourth and fifth readings--I know them well enough for this to be a little bit of drudgery, but not well enough to go without doing it.

I know, no one really enjoys re-reading for class: it's work, and it has a tendency to turn the thing we love into labor. But I think my particular problem with it also goes back to why I'm not a re-reader (two of those reasons, at least).

This week, I got a desk copy of Pale Fire in my box. I'm teaching it in a summer narrative theory course. I haven't read it yet, though I knew enough about it to know that it was going to be a good fit. And I've learned that if I want to keep up anything like a diet of new texts, I have to add them to my syllabi. Rarely do I teach a class in which I'm not reading something along with my students. So I've got Pale Fire on my pile.

That, and I took the kids to the bookstore today, to kill a little time on a frigid day where snowplay was impossible. They browsed the kids section, while I went off to look for something particular. I didn't find that text, but while poking around the fiction section, I ran across Orhan Pamuk's My Name is Red, something I've been salivating over for some time. Since I read Rushdie's The Enchantress of Florence this past winter break, I thought that since the Pamuk book covered some of the same historical and geographical territory, that now was a good time to grab it. (also...It was a lovely book that I already wanted and my will power was eroded by begging for Littlest Pet Shop sticker books). So I picked it up, and brought it home.

I walked in, and laid it on the table by the door, on top of Pale Fire and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, which I'm teaching this week (Also, Spanish Tragedy and Hamlet--in a different class--and Shelley and Keats). In terms of urgency, then, My Name is Red automatically goes to the bottom of the pile. This makes me actually resent R&G, which would seem preposterous, except that I've already read it twice and seen it once in the last 15 months, and should look over it again tonight, instead of tucking into bed with a new marvelous beautiful novel that I really just want to read. For the first time.

Friday, January 29, 2010

On Calvino

I mentioned in an earlier post that I'm teaching Italo Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveler to my undergraduate class on postmodern literature. I'm teaching it following a week of Borges stories, so it is at once a natural follow-up, and at the same time, overkill, especially for young (mostly female, in this section) readers raised on the funnel-cake-and-cotton-candy diet of Rowling, Meyers, and Sparks.

I didn't read it until I was an MA student, right after taking a narrative theory course that I loved. So the pump was primed, so to speak. And for someone who loves formal play, Calvino's novel is pure joy. The second person narration begins with a near-perfect mapping of narrated Reader and the flesh-and-blood reader, and slowly but inexorably spins into pure fictional world, ending up in the literary police state of Ataguitania. And then there is the series of ten novel beginnings the reader encounters, each one a pastiche of a literary style or even a particular author (I can pick out at least Kawabata and Marquez). Add to this winking references to perversions of the 1001 nights, ingeniously contructed mise-en-abymes (an author in the book imagines writing a book that looks exactly like the book we're reading), and some striking metaphors for reading-for-pleasure.

In fact, this last idea is the central argument for the novel: that pleasure is the one pure-and-true motive for picking up a novel. In fact, he ties reading to not only physical pleasure, but sexual pleasure throughout: sex becomes an ongoing metaphor for reading, and when it happens, reading becomes a metaphor for sex (a trope Jeannette Winterson improves upon in Written on the Body). This, of course, was the way in to the most successful lesson with this class so far. Since the Other Reader of the novel is also an ideal (and idealized reader) the frame story of the novel is something of a love plot between the Reader (you) and the Other Reader (Ludmilla), even as it is a quest narrative to find the end of one of the frame stories.

So the idea of reading for pleasure and sex for pleasure are conflated into the same plot, and of course, the novel ends (a full narrative after all) with "you" and Ludmilla married. yay, and all.

The thing is, this idealized plot is peppered all the way along with bad readers: Irnerio, the sexually ambiguous non-reader who only sees books for their value as beautiful objects; Professor Uzzi-Tuzii, the shriveled, dusty professor of a dead language who is caught up in grammar, syntax, and punctuation; the general of Ataguitania, who uses his control of access to books as a means to power; Cavedagna, the hurried little publisher who has lost the pleasure of books to the bustle of putting books together; and most disturbingly, Lotaria (a purposeful re-gendering of the Lothario, who is in it not for the love of it, but for the chase). Lotaria is Ludmilla's sister, and is as passionate about books as her sibling. But Lotaria is a ball-breaking, militant feminist, who reduces characters, settings and situations to "general concepts" (and a litany of academic jargon is inserted here). Later in the novel, she reduces writing down further, processing it electronically to garner word frequency, thereby deducing the major themes.

Now it's hardly coincidental that Calvino's book, which doesn't hold up too well to feminist scrutiny, chooses a feminist for his radical academic target. But add to this the fact that each of these bad readers is, in some ways made either sexually undesireable or sexually suspect, and the critique gets a little more vicious. The insinuation (and I might, under such a reading, be compelled to take this personally, as a somewhat sexually ambiguous, feminist, professor of literature) is that folks who read in these bad ways, are both undesireable as readers, and therefore ineligible for the pleasures of reading.

Well, harrumph.

The thing is, those students in my class, the ones who both identify as "pleasure readers"--they were the students who inevitably complained about the novel's frustrated beginnings: a string of coitus interruptus if you will. They complained that they were so frustrated with the stops and starts that had it not been for class, they'd have never finished the novel. Conversely, the students who enjoyed the novel found themselves mocked via the figures of Lotaria and Professor Uzzi-Tuzii.

I wonder whether, in much of today's reading climate, Calvino hasn't created a novel that can only (or mostly only) be loved by those it mocks, while it shuts out those readers it adulates. That is, I first read this novel for pleasure. and every time I've read it since, I derive a kind of pleasure in it. But I've also always seen my own reading practices mocked somehow.

But perhaps I am the audience. Perhaps Calvino is invoking the Lotarias and Uzzi-Tuzii's of the world, and reminding us that there is still pleasure to be had in books, not just politics, or even a livelihood. I'm not ready to renounce my politicized interpretive strategies or even my pickiness about grammar, but I do need to remind myself now and again that not every book needs to be the subject of my teaching and writing. Unfortunately, I've got enough of a backlog on that, that the pleasure reading will wait.

A Class is its Students

At the beginning of every semester, I tweak the syllabus, look at the roster, check the room out beforehand, and think about which lessons will still work and which need to be revisited, or created from scratch.

And despite all of that work, how well a class goes often depends not on that immaculate preparation but the ten or twenty-five, or forty people in the room. Take for example my later British Lit survey. In the past five years, I've taught roughly 11 sections of the class. I've had some really solid ones and one or two stinkers (and even those had bright spots). But I'll admit: even after switching up some themes and texts last fall, I'm still kinda bored with the class. Evals have been very good, but have sort of plateaued off, and the occasional negative or even constructive comments I get are of the damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don't variety (seriously, the two lowest aggregate scoring ones said, on one hand, "more open class discussion," and the other said, "more lecture"!). The point is, I feel like I've kind of maxed out my own personal reward from the class.

Until this semester. I expected the same-old-thing, but the 27 people in the room are totally rocking it out. I didn't need to do the whole "Crazy Ol' Blake" routine, and when I started up my riff on Wordsworth's sorta self-serving and kinda arrogant criteria for the poet (Really, you think your soul is more comprehensive than mine?), the students totally stepped up and defended the entire project--using evidence from the preface to the Lyrical Ballads. I mean, that's the ideal scenario, but it's never gotten even close to happen. These folks have ideas about texts, and the backbones to express and defend them. I'm totally in love with them.

Meanwhile, my course of postmodern lit (a gen-ed) is only in its second iteration. The first one started off fairly roughly, but ended up being a lot of fun. So I made some fairly substantial modifications to the beginning of the course, and was really excited to get back into it this semester. But after the very full first day of class, and I discover that most of my students think postmodern lit is written by Stephanie Meyers, Jodi Picoult, and Nicholas Sparks. I've been pulling all of my best tricks out of the bag in the first three weeks, and I'm dying here. I got a moderately good discussion out of the conflation of reading and sex in Italo Calvino's If on a winter's night..., but I had to resort to some pretty cheap tricks to do that.

So I thought I'd have one great class, and one just-ok class this semester, and so far that's turned out to be true. But with the actual classes flipped around.

This reminds me that students themselves have a responsibility for how classes proceed. My sense is that we often enforce this with participation grades and such, and there are a variety of lesson-planning strategies built around hedging against this fact (several usefully noted in a recent post at ProfHacker). But I also want us to think about how we can convey that responsibility to our students.

One way that I do it is that when I do midterm evals, I ask students to make a column for things I can control, but also things that they can control, and then suggest that some of those suggestions will become specific criteria for class participation. But this is still a bit more whip than carrot. If you're reading, and have other ideas, I'd love to hear them. Once we've exhausted our own tactics for livening up a classroom, how do we convey to student their responsibility for doing so?

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Grad Course: Metatheatre and Metadrama

In designing the graduate course I'm teaching this semester, I looked to the common themes of my favorite and most teachable plays, and the common theme is, almost invariably, texts that play formally and thematically with the boundaries between performance and reality. This is a theme that connects in an unexpected way with my research, on staged life-writing, and as a result, it's become a course in which the critical conversation is a fairly new topic of concerted study.

The curious thing is that this central idea is a fairly old one, with foundational books on the topic dating back to the 60s, but it's never been a particularly faddish scholarly line, which is to say that the history of metatheatrical criticism doesn't really feature a spike or a lull. The bad news about that is that the most ambitious students are not likely to find it professionally sexy on the front end, but since it's an MA level course (as opposed to a seminar), there are lots of ways in, in terms of the texts and the critical schools of thought that approach them.

The primary texts in the course could read like a (spotty) survey of (non-realistic drama, with a particular emphasis on the 20th c.:
  • Beckett, Krapp's Last Tape
  • Anonymous, Mankynde
  • Medwall, Fulgens and Lucres
  • Marlowe, Dr. Faustus
  • Thomas Kyd, The Spanish Tragedy
  • Shakespeare, The Tempest, Midsummer, Hamlet
  • Beaumont and Fletcher, The Knight of the Burning Pestle
  • Sheridan, The Critic
  • Villiers, The Rehearsal
  • Pirandello, Six Characters and the remainder of the theatre trilogy
  • Brecht, The Caucasian Chalk Circle
  • Genet, The Balcony
  • Weiss, Marat/Sade
  • Gambaro, Information for Foreigners
  • Handke, Offending the Audience
  • The Performance Group, Dionysus in 69
  • Stoppard, R&G, Travesties
  • Soyinka, Death and the King's Horseman
  • Walcott, Pantomime
  • Suzan-Lori Parks, Venus
  • Wertenbaker, Our Country's Good, Love of the Nightingale
  • Valdez, Zoot Suit
  • Churchill, Cloud 9
  • Schenkar, The Universal Wolf
Ultimately, my hope is to use the framework of metadrama to introduce these students to a wider range of drama than they've perhaps been exposed to, and to raise a number of other theoretical concerns through this basically formal lens. And finally, this frame is designed to get students to think about these plays as both literature and performance, a double lens with which scholars on both side of the disciplinary aisle struggle.

So far, the class has been pretty game, willing to read and think historically, theoretically, and in one case already, physically. We'll see how the rest of the semester progresses, and whether my five weeks before the 20th century material is a success.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Stretched Thin

It's been a rough week. Junebug's virus has turned out to be RSV which has turned into bronchiolitis, and may have even developed into a mild case of pneumonia. There's an ear infection in there, too. So since Friday, we've been to the doctor's office four times, and again tomorrow, all of which is the alternative to admitting him into the hospital. Through it all, he's been a total champ, and as he begins to feel better (despite the somewhat labored breathing, and hideous cough) he's been super smiley, which is all the sadder with his face slightly puffy from the inflamed sinuses and coated entirely in snot and tears.

So in between the temp-taking and the oral medicine administering (we're on our second anti-biotic now) and the diffuser with albuterol vapor and blah blah blah, Willow and I are both trying to keep our semesters from falling apart. Willow, teaching comp this semester, has been in conferences this week for first papers, while I've been trying to pull together materials for texts as diverse as--seriously--Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey," Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveler, and finally, the pairing of Marlowe's Dr. Faustus and Shakespeare's The Tempest.

I've been lucky so far with forgiving classes: while the postmodernism class has needed some pulling along (half of that class cites Stephanie Meyer, Jodi Picoult or Nicholas Sparks as a favorite author), the survey class has been totally rocking my world--today students asked questions like whether Wordworth's ideal poet's "more comprehensive soul" was innate or a learned quality, and whether the democratic impulses of his poetry actually translated into a readership that included the "common man" he so valorized. But still, I've got two Renaissance plays to prep for grad students on Thursday, and the insane Jan Svankmajer film version of Faust that I may want to screen some clips of to watch in class, and a set of quizzes to grade and a another set of worksheets on Borges to collate into one usable document and...

I'm on childcare duty tomorrow, with a Doctor's appointment at 11am.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

RBOC: Discombobulated edition

Too many things going on, and I used up all of my coherence in the last few posts, so...

  • Junebug's got a wicked virus: 103+ fever, snot coming out of his nose and eyes, coughing, ear infection, raspy little voice. The smiles (when they appear) are heartbreaking.
  • A death in the family (an uncle with whom I was once quite close, but who had withdrawn after a long series of illnesses) meant that all five of us had to pile into the car on Thursday for the services in Nearest City (about 90 minutes away). I canceled my two undergrad classes for the day, but couldn't in good conscience cancel the grad class that evening. Which meant that after a long drive with kids, a somewhat difficult funeral, and the long drive back with the kids, I arrived on campus (without ever having set foot inside the house) with about 45 minutes until class. I was underprepared, but a save from a colleague meant that the class went fairly well, despite the very very long day.
  • I'm not sure if it's a good thing, but Very Good Journal asked me to do a review (right up my alley) and then asked if there was anything else I'd like to review in the future, which gave me the opportunity to chalk up another text I've been itching to do. So two book reviews in the next year? Good exposure, I guess, and book's I'd read anyway, but still.
  • My favorite cashmere sweater (the one Willow bought for me to wear to on-campus interviews five+ years ago) has a little moth-hole in in, right on the chest. I'm not sure if I'm happy or sad that my my nicest dress-up sweater has become my comfiest around-the-house sweater.
  • The twins got Kindergarten report cards on Friday. They both did great. But nobody told me that kids report cards had such an effect on their parents. Pride to be sure on this batch, but methinks I'll need to check myself in the future that I don't bring my own demands, hopes, and aspirations to my responses to future report cards...
  • Whither writing? Nowhere lately, but I do know I've got a lot of it to do, esp. if I want to meet the deadline that I set for myself when I sent UPress my proposal last week. I I want to ever get to one of those public intellectual projects, I'll need to finish one of those straight-up intellectual projects first...
  • I realized this morning that while I like smoked salmon a lot, I always wish it were prosciutto.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

On the move

(And now for something completely different)

This is Junebug. You've seen him before, but maybe it's been awhile since you've seen just how cute he is. I know I'm biased. I think he's the cutest baby ever, but even when I look from as objective a perspective as I can muster, you've still gotta admit that he's, like, what? Top Ten cutest, at least.

He's crawling around now, which is terrifying, but also adds to his cuteness. His is not an up-on-all-fours crawl, but something a little more makeshift: left forearm forward for locomotion, right arm out for stability, right leg pushing off for more locomotion, left leg kicking up and down kind of pointlessly for added adorability, and nice little rhythm you can dance to.

Since I began this post, he's done two laps around our home library, stopping here at the desk to smile at me beatifically at least twice (he might not have completed the second lap otherwise, but those smiles are distracting.)

Anyway, since I can't be actually working on Chapter 3 while he's awake, or, for that matter, prepping my grad course (tomorrow night's topic: metatheatricality in late medieval drama (Mankynde and Fulgens and Lucres), I might as well issue this paean to his cuteness. Or play with him. Which reminds me...