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.