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?