Monday, May 23, 2011

Welcomes: Some thoughts on Academic Communities

It seems, for the time being at least, that the department bleeding is done. We've lost most of the people whom we were likely to lose, and those who remain (and let's be serious; it's a big department and a lot of us remain) are in the frankly enviable position of being able to look at all of the newly blank spaces on our departmental rolls, and think about possibilities, and potential.

The question I'm asking myself is, "At this moment and at this institution, what kind of department do I want to be a part of?"

Certainly I have many ambitions for this department, as a space for learning, primarily, but also as a space for living. And to me, both of those things are best convivially. Conviviality is a value we don't often speak of, but it's really high up there on my list. I love to eat and drink with friends, to have long talks about stuff over coffee, or sitting on a bench. A friend and colleague of mine and I took our kids on an outing yesterday, and the cumulative hours in the car talking over our relationship to cities, the difficulties of junior faculty at our institution, and how roles for women in academia were and weren't changing... these topics were as satisfying as the rest of the outing.

What does this have to do with the university? A lot, I think. At least to me. My understanding of the university is that it is a site for exchange, a place where ideas mingle because the idea-havers are mingling. Mingling itself is an important function, I think, and so a convivial atmosphere, in which we understand that working together is a kind of living together, for me fosters the best place for good teaching and great scholarship.

So this week, an incoming faculty member is arriving in town to look for houses, do some paperwork, etc. And I'm happy that we're hosting him and his spouse for a meal. I hope it's the first of many. Because the way to establish a convivial space, one in which we learn and think together begins with a simple but generous welcome. Any readers, then, on their way to new homes, new departments, let me wish you a department and an institution that welcomes you generously and convivially. I hope it becomes a good place to work, and through working, to live. As I hope this place will continue to be, even more so, for us here.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

A thought about blogging and literary studies

In her new book, The Uses and Abuses of Literature (Pantheon, 2011), which I'm reading to teach in my foundations course in the fall, Marjorie Garber writes:

"The best way for literary scholars to reinstate the study of literature, language, and culture as a key player among the academic humanities is to do what we do best, to engage in big questions of intellectual importance and to address them by using the tools of our trade, which include not only material culture but also theory, interpretation, linguistic analysis, and a close and passionate attention to the rich allusiveness, deep ambivalence, and powerful slipperiness that is language in action."

In some ways, this isn't either particularly groundbreaking, or really all that different from what most scholars I know are doing implicitly or explicitly. But there's something implied in here that I do think is something we've lost a sense of: what literature itself tells us about our own world. When I think about the academic blogs that I read , and write, for that matter, it occurs to me that few or even none of us regularly cites the literature we study when considering the big questions that we are often considering.

Why don't we do this, I wonder? Are we so steeped in the dogma of historical contingency that we cannot see the relevance of a Romantic, or Anglo-Saxon, or Modernist text to a contemporary issue? I know we want to avoid the Bartlett's Quotations approach to literature and the Big Questions, but certainly we can do better. This is how we renew our status as public intellectuals, and perhaps how we reinvigorate our apparently flagging discipline.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

What else is nice

I learned that although revisions on the book were requested, I have a standard contract, rather than a provisional one. Fewer hurdles to clear, and with an August 31 revision deadline, I'm really looking forward to finishing up this project with a little room to breathe.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011


The last few summers have been packed with stuff. Last summer fit in both a summer grad course and much of what turned out to be a large-scale re-write of the book. The summer before that we welcomed Junebug, and before that I was doing much of the work that brought the edited collection to press (while also, if I recall correctly, working out enough to lose 25 pounds).

The point is, I've made my summers count, with plenty of writing, and other sorts of work. This summer, with only a book review, and some manageable revisions to the book project. The kids will be around the house some, but largely we've got childcare for them lined up. So there will be time to work with, which is somethig I've rarely been able to say.

I found myself saying to someone the other day, in response to a query about my summer plans, that I though I just might read. That sounds like crazy talk, I know, from an English professor, but it just might work out. when it comes down to it, I'm trying to readjust my pace for this summer, see if I can slow down some. We'll see. We'll see.

Saturday, May 14, 2011


So Friday the 13th, in this case, turned out all right, at least as far as I can tell. It was the deadline for which final tenure decisions were mailed out, and since I've only heard positive decisions all the way up the line, I expect that the letter that will come in the mail will be good news. So in that way, Friday the 13th was lucky.

But it was also lucky in another way, because the editorial board for the press I've been working with has approved the offer of a contract for my book. This is gratifying for all the usual reasons, and a few extras. First off, since I was able to go up for tenure on the strength of articles and an edited collection, this book will actually count--some five years on--for full promotion. Secondly, this work doesn't just reflect the academic/ intellectual work of a decade, but also much of the theatre work I was lucky enough to be a part of for several years while I was in grad school. So one of many hat-tips to the fantastic women of The Theatre Conspiracy (now sadly defunct). I also feel lucky in another way, for as a man working in the field of feminist theatre and performance, I feel lucky to have been accepted to join perhaps the best published list on gender and performance, one that has produced nearly half of the texts most influential to my thinking. The acquisitions editor I've been working with brought dozens of fantastic feminist theatre scholars to press for the first time, and so to be even a blip in that now-long history feels very fortunate indeed.

I'm lucky in lots of other ways, too--I've got a wonderful and healthy family, a solid job, and a lot of advantages. So while my facebook wall has been blowing up with congratulations (relatively speaking, of course--it's not like I won a MacArthur or anything), I feel the need to deflect some of that to gratitude.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011


This is a word that I typically loathe. "Pretentious" is most often used to describe "something that seems intellectual and that I don't understand, and must therefore be bad." It's often used in conjunction with "elitist."

But the thing about the word "pretentious" is that is indicates pretense, or even pretending, that someone or something is pretending to be smarter, more intelligent, more sophisticated than they really are. If we take that specific sense of the word, then, pretentious is always at some level both completely true, and never true. If we limit our understanding of the word to works of art, in this case, a novel, ambitious texts are always aspiring to be something more than the author has already mastered, aspiring to achieve something with this text that the author has not achieved before. In this way, pretense is always built into art. But the other side of aspiring is not achieving such a goal--that the novel is trying to be intellectual, but never reaches those aspirations. And in this case, any text or artwork that visibly aspires to an ambitious goal is already accomplishing something more than the conventional. It may not accomplish it perfectly, but a text's very aspiration to accomplish more than convention asks its reader to reconsider the conventions themselves.

So a pretentious novel--typically one that is trying to be intellectual, or experimental, or artistically ambitious in some way, but failing--is to me a terrible label, because it both dishonors the ambition itself, even as it misrecognizes the way that an aesthetic of failure is itself sometimes an artistically valid process. That label also, typically, fails to acknowledge that the fault may be readerly.

And yet, I have just read a novel (I won't name names here) that nonetheless feels pretentious. In his infamous and oft misinterpreted essay "The Literature of Exhaustion," John Barth identifies to vectors for categorizing literature--something like artistic integrity and something like up-to-date technique. And for him, too much of what we've now come to call postmodern literature feels technically up-to-date, but artistically bankrupt. This novel feels something like that, but not entirely. There is, at its heart, an artistic project, one that seems to invoke Calvino and Barth and a kind of pure literary surrealism (anyone ever read Sedagh Hedayat's The Blind Owl?). But it is also precious in its deployment of about half of its tricks: character names feel intentionally contrived; instead of pages, paragraphs are numbered; a series of hand-drawings and one-inch black dots occasionally populate and punctuate the pages (the hand-drawings are at least functional--I cannot fathom the dots).

I recognize, to a point, that I may in fact not be getting it all--indeed, much of the novel has come into focus after letting it sink in for a day. But enough of it remains not only incomprehensible, but self-consciously and cleverly incomprehensible, that the novel itself seems to be pretending that it is more than it is, and in this case, it would be more, if there were less.

I am no minimalist--I take as first evidence of my hatred of James Wood's literary criticism that he derides Angela Carter and Salman Rushdie as the most "theatrical" of writers. But the excess here seems purposeless, and ultimately, pretentious.

I'm off to read some Appalachian fiction that I know is neither pretentious not pretense. I wonder how I'll feel about this last one after this next one.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Finishing up

OK, so last week's malaise has settled a bit, and I'm now looking to stretch out over the long weeks of the summer. Grades are in, and save a few essays that students who are still in town want comments on, I'm done for the spring semester.

Last summer I had a new grad course to prep and most of a book to write. This summer, I've got a book review due at the end of the month, and about 19 pages of revisions to write. If I'm diligent, I can get that done by June 1, and even if not, July 1 is plenty.

With what's left of the summer, we'll be doing a bit of traveling: I'm taking the twins to Ontario in late July, and the whole family is joining Willow's brother's family in DC for a week in mid-August (looking at you, Natalie!).

It's been a while since I've relaxed, even during breaks, and so perhaps one challenge I'll take on this summer is actually relaxing some, and recharging for the fall.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011


It's finals week in what has been an otherwise packed school year. Since last September I've completed my tenure file, a book project, and a sabbatical application, all of which, if not officially deemed successful, certainly look as if they're going to be. By next September, I'll be an Associate Professor with a book contract and a Spring sabbatical to look forward to. The future stretches out before me like a vast plain, arid and empty.

Eh, I overstate. But I am feeling a fair amount of ennui, of the "What's next?" variety, and part of it is that I just had one of those conversations. You know the sort. They begin with colleague of whom you are fond, ducking their head into the frame of your open door. "You have a minute?"

Early on in the conversation, you hear "I wanted to tell you this before anyone else did..." and already you know the direction this is taking: the congratulations, the we'll-miss-you's, the excited questions. And when your colleague-for-not-much-longer leaves the room, you feel, well, I felt left behind.

A couple of things are at work here. One, we have a bit of a departmental exodus in the past 2 years: between retirements, family emergencies, jobs in better locations, jobs at better schools, jobs closer to home, jobs that provide a better opportunity for spousal employment, we will have lost (if all of the present rumors persist) eight TT faculty in under two years. And who knows what other rumors I haven't heard. So part of my malaise about the departmental exodus is that very simply, a lot of my friends are leaving (indeed, some of my closest friends in the department have left or are going), and I am the sort of person who really depends on a large and warm community of friends and colleagues.

Two: While there's not a single reason for this exodus (in a department that had lost faculty only to retirement in the previous 4 years of my time here), it's not doing a very good job of making people want to stay. Certainly, each of these people has had reasons for going, and I'd be lying if I didn't say that I had plenty, too, some of which are quite pressing, actually. But in not one of those cases was the department/college/university sufficiently proactive to retain some of their best folks, or suffieciently willing to compete to keep those folks. We hired three TT folks this year, and already put in to hire three more next year, and who knows how many more after that? Those searches are expensive. Plus, the turnover in faculty creates any number of intangible but very real costs: to faculty morale, to the smooth transition of ongoing programs, to the sense that new things can be accomplished. An exodus like this is bound to have a chilling effect on the healthy life of a department. And I expect to remain living in this chilly department after the exodus is done.

Three: (paging Dr. Freud) I prefer to be the one who is leaving. Even more than most people, I thrive on novelty and change, and here, now, with the department rolls depleted, with those big professional hurdles cleared, I feel, perhaps overly morosely, like I'm looking on into a future of unremarkable sameness, a thinner kind of sameness. Of course that's not actually true, but being left behind certainly creates that sensation.

Lots of question marks for the future around here at BRU. Will new blood bring new life? Will the simmering issues that make retention an issue (including for me) be resolved or even addressed? Who can tell?

In other news, blogging's been sparse around here in part because I don't know if I'm really even a blogger any more. The blogosphere's changed, and I was never a loud voice here anyway. And maybe I've said my things to say.