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Other plagiarism arguments

People overly concerned with tracking down and denouncing plagiarism have defective characters.  They are small-minded, reactionary bullies....

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Talent, Effort, Drive

Talent is really unknowable. Is it how easy accomplishments come to you? In which case, the majority of very accomplished people who put a lot of effort into what they do are maybe not "talented," since their current "talent" was developed through years of hard work.

Effort, then, overwhelms talent. Talent is the sum-total of previous effort.

Drive, though is what really stands behind effort. Drive is wanting do it in a strong way. It is effort in pursuit of something very concrete. It is living and breathing your field.

So ask yourself a series of questions.

How talented am I? (What is the present state of my ability, after the years of work I have already put in?)

How much effort do I put into things? Am I content with the selected poems or do I need to check out the collected poems?

How driven am I to succeed?

Everyone I know prefers the slightly-above average student who works hard to the one who seems talented, in the abstract, but whose talent never quite coalesces. If things come easy to you it is easy to get a bit lazy.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Seinfeld Chain

For this technique you need a calendar and a red marker. Every day you work on your project put a red X on that day, in your calendar. Try to keep the chain going as long as possible. 8 days, 30 days, 100 days. If you break the chain by not working a particular day, just start again. Imagine Jerry Seinfeld's voice in your head saying "Don't break the chain!"

I used this technique to write Apocryphal Lorca. i worked from August 1 to Christmas without breaking the chain. Obviously I'm not a normal person, but this technique might work for you if you have a hard time with continuity of effort. Even a few months of chains of 5 or 8 days apiece will produce results beyond your wildest imaginings.

If you do break a chain, do it for only 1 or 2 days at a time. That way you can take days or weekends off but without losing continuity.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Kramer's dojo

On one particular episode of Seinfeld, Kramer joins a karate dojo. We learn that he is rising to the top and winning fights against all the other fighters in the dojo. He seems childishly proud of himself. It isn't until somewhat later in the episode when we are brought inside the karate studio and we see that all the other students there are all children. Finally, at the end of the episode, the children corner Kramer in the street to take their revenge.

You have to size up your competition. It does no good to prove points against obviously weak positions. If you are around dumb people you will play down to their level. If everyone you are in dialogue with is that inferior, then choose a different conversation.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Excellence in Editorial Work

I serve on the editorial board of Revista de Estudios Hispánicos. The Australian Research Council has recently rated this journal as an A+. Here is their definition of an A+ journal


[a]n A+ journal would typically be one of the best in its field or subfield in which to publish and would typically cover the entire field/subfield. Virtually all papers they publish will be of a very high quality. These are journals where most of the work is important (it will really shape the field) and where researchers boast about getting accepted. Acceptance rates would typically be low and the editorial board would be dominated by field leaders, including many from top institutions.


It gets even better. My wife, Akiko Tsuchiya , and one of her colleagues at Washington University edit this journal. I've published in it several times, under two previous editors and regularly review articles for them. It is very satisfying to give a critique of an article that leads to its improvement and eventual publication.

I can't publish in this journal myself any more, because my spouse edits it. Neither of us would be comfortable with me trying to submit my work there. I'm happy to work on the editorial board. While it would be nice to publish there, since it's the best journal in my field, my career has done fine.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Two Kinds of Projects

I think of my projects in two categories: the wild and interesting ones, and others that are solid and a bit dull. Apocryphal Lorca is the first, my other books the second. I'd like for the dull ones to be a little less dull, and to be a little more fearless about the other ones.

My dull project is Fragments of a Late Modernity. My fun project is What Lorca Knew.

To be able to write them, I might need a sabbatical and a serious Seinfeld chain.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Is Education Preparation?

I don't view education primarily as preparation for a later stage in life when education is over. It's easy to see it that way, but I see it more as something like a practice that should have no fixed end. For example, a musician takes lessons, but is already a musician from the time s/he's taking lessons. The professional should still take lessons from a more accomplished professional. The musician still practices even after sh/e has learned to play.

Children playing in the park are doing what they ought to be doing: playing. You could see playing as part of a necessary preparation for being an adult, part of the way the child develops. I'm sure play has a developmental role, but the child is not simply preparing to be a different sort of person, but being a child in the here and now.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Painting

I was painting the bathroom, and I remembered that big, open spaces of wall, with electric outlets, are the easiest to paint. Within a few a minutes I could cover most of the bigger areas, and the the bigger the space, the easier it was. Corners, edges, smaller spaces took up most of the time. Painting around obstacles like vents and outlets that had to be masking-taped.

So if you have to do large tasks like reading thousand-page novels, really such things can be done quite easily and efficiently. They will still take up time, but proportionally your work will go faster than in checking off a thousand small details.

***

My flaws in painting are the same as my flaws in scholarship. I want to plunge in before I've completed my research; I want to paint all the walls at once, jumping randomly from task to task; I am not meticulous enough; I under- or over-estimate how long something is going to take.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Inspiration

Being inspired is like having ideas come to to you from outside yourself, having almost too many ideas, more than you can use. Ever since I began this new project on receptivity I've been feeling extraordinarily receptive myself, developing ambitious lists of future projects. What seemed to be an article on this subject is now turning into a book.

Inspiration is the opposite of being burned out, closed off, constrained rather than freed-up.

The best way of becoming inspired is to simply work a lot. Inspiration comes during the process of work itself.

My new title is "What Claudio Knew: Teaching Receptivity."

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Argumentative Styles

We all know academic arguments come in different flavors. For example:

(1) X and Y have always been lumped into the same category, but actually Y has distinctive qualities that make it very different.

(2) People have claimed that Z is superior to A, but actually Z is just a subcategory of the larger category A.

(3) A particular quality (didacticism, sentimentalism, ornament) has often denigrated because it is associated with a particular group of people (women, people of the lower class, etc...). Therefore we should no longer denigrate this quality.

(4) A work that seems safe and conservative is actually subversive (or vice-versa: the power of a subversive work has been overrated, and a conservative ideology underlies it.

(5) The key to this literary work is the philosophical tradition of P. The author studied P as a young student in T. Previous critics have overlooked this, preferring to attribute his interest in Q to his training in U.

I could go on and on. It's not that any of these argumentative forms is inherently flawed, but I think we need to be a bit more self-conscious about them. An argument that takes a cliché form ready-made without an interesting twist will seem kind of lame. It also might be helpful to analyze your argument and see what it's type is.

Our graduate students sometimes come up with argument like

(6) This work is a feminist work that subverts the patriarchy.

Worse, sometimes they don't have an argument, only a description.

I think getting to know one's argumentative style is important. What kind of arguments do you favor? Do you always go after the same kind of point? I should actually try this with myself and see whether I have varied arguments or whether I'm pretty much stuck with a single style.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Titles

You've got to have a good title for everything you write. I'm working on a title now for an article. So far I have the first part: "What Lorca Knew: ... " I'm very pleased with that but I need a subtitle after the colon. Having my complete title be "What Lorca Knew" would be rather provocative, though. I might opt for that. Titles should be brief and informative, prosodically effective. The scholarly convention most in favor now is to have an evocative phrase, often time a quote, followed by an informative subtitle that tell you what it's really about. The title "What Lorca Knew" is brief and both evocative and informative... but not quite informative enough perhaps.

There's a problem with having too great a title and then having the subject matter revealed in the subtitle be too mundane.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Inchoate

I like the word inchoate because it combines the concept of something just begun and something unformed--unformed because just begun. I enjoy the feeling of things taking shape, changing from inchoate to "choate." I even enjoy it when the ideas are still just floating around with no defined shape.

Film Theory Assignment (answer)

Here's my de-allegorizing interpretation of Travis's music video "Writing to Reach You" as a story about the peer review process. Watch the video and read along.

The whole process is a "front stage" activity in Goffman's sense. Backstage, [0:04] you touch up the manuscript before submitting it, you put on your best face. Then you submit it [0:20], the manuscript is now in process.

[0:37] You get the answer back from the journal. The reviewers have some hard words [0:55] to say about your work. But it sort of hurts them [1:16] as much as it hurts you to hurl criticism at your manuscript. After reading their report you pick yourself up. You keep going.

[1:25] Though their own projects are stuck in their own way, your colleagues are waiting and willing to help. They offer you support and you submit the paper again.

[1:55] You receive the answer from the second round of reviews. A senior editor is now taking an active interest. [2:05] You feel like you have to run for cover, but [2:35] when the dust settles and the smoke clears you can see he was only taking one of your reviewers out of the equation [2:50].

Still, you sort of like that reviewer's style, and you try it out for few paragraphs in your next rewrite. You incorporate one of his ideas as a sort of scalp [2:53]. The other reviewer is not impressed [2:56]. Fortunately, you've developed a thick skin. You absorb the new criticism and cast off the more outrageous arrows [3:02]. That idea you took from the discarded reviewer's comments wasn't really you anyway [3:17].

You get ready to resubmit another version [3:21]. There's a brief moment of hesitation [3:29], but you do it anyway. When you get the letter saying your paper has been accepted it's like coming home. [3:35] Your colleagues and your peers are in the same room, so to speak. In fact, one of your anonymous reviewers reveals who she is and congratulates you [3:40]. She loves your paper now, and she's going to run with a few of your ideas. [3:43]

You're backstage again. [3:45] Your inside is outside.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Freedom

Producing very good work should feel like freeing oneself from arbitrary constraints, opening doors that you thought were closed to you. Think about the article you are writing now... then think of how you would really like to write it in an ideal world. What would be different? What is holding you back?

In my case I've often felt that I couldn't use everything I knew, that I was somehow constrained to use only the most academically acceptable part of my knowledge. Of course, you can never really use everything anyway, but I'm talking about being free to use 15% as opposed to 3%.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Degrees of Certainty

One Spanish composition textbook I taught from once had a section on degrees of certainty. Basically, the idea was that you could do any one of three things in any particular sentence: simply assert one's conclusions, assert them with a phrase like "sin duda" [without a doubt] that affirmed one's certainty, or assert them with a qualifier that implied some degree of doubt. The idea is to calibrate one's own relation to the subject matter by distinguishing between what needs to be reinforced as a certainty, what can simply be stated baldly as a fact, and what needs more qualification. There is a whole spectrum of rhetorical possibilities.

Now obviously I knew how to calibrate degrees of certainty before seeing this textbook, but I had never really sat down to analyze the phenomenon before. The purpose of this calibration, I believe, is to reassure the reader that you have thought about how you know what you know, to what degree or extent, how much you are putting yourself out on a limb.

One exercise might be to write a paragraph, interpreting a very difficult text, with no markers of degree of certainty at all. What's the problem? If it's a difficult text, then you can't really be sure of every aspect of your interpretation, so now add some qualifications. Ok, but there are some parts of the interpretation that are pretty solid, so add some anti-qualfiers here, like of course, or without a doubt. Leave some statements unmarked for degree of certainty: that's like the zero degree of something that can be asserted without rhetorical reinforcement.

Ironically, the strongest statements are those without any marker of certainty. It would sound odd to say, "Without a doubt, I am writing these words in 2010." The negation of doubt implies doubt in such a case. Why would anyone think differently?

Invitations

I got my 3rd invitation of the semester to write an article. My problem is I always want to say yes to all of these, but it's pretty much letting others dictate my rhythm of work.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Ambition

I've had a secret ambition for a while: to be the greatest ever reader of poetry.

Now, this is a kind of absurd ambition, obviously, because what would that even mean? How would you even know if you were such a thing? Even if it were possible to be such a thing, what makes me think that I could ever do that?

Yet there is a hidden purpose in this absurdity. First of all, much as I disagree with a lot of the criticism of Helen Vendler or Harold Bloom, it is obvious that they spend a lot of time reading with a deep sense of engagement with what they are reading. So the idea of emulating that--without even wanting to agree with anything in particular that they say, or even with their general approaches, is a worthy ambition.

Secondly, just to be able to define what it would mean to be a great reader is useful. A great reader would know at least a few languages well enough to have a deep engagement; would have a sense of historical depth (not read only poetry of the last 30 years, or even the last 100 years); a great ear for verse in at least a few languages; would have "gone to school" with many, many poets, reading them exhaustively and obsessively; would have a fairly wide-ranging set of tastes, in the plural: would not like, say, only a narrow tradition of poetry in a single language; would have read a great deal of translations of poetry, and have a keen sense of translation itself as an art-form; the great reader would also have some dislikes or areas where interest in not so strong, some fierce resistance even to poets that might seem unquestionably worthy of attention. A great reader would also be able to talk and write articulately about what has been read, would be a good judge of literary criticism... And so on...

You see the possibility that the concept of being a great reader can open up.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Audiovisual Professor

Almost all of what I want to teach lately has to do with the sound of literature (and the sound of music itself in the case of my jazz course.) When I'm bringing in a poem sung, chanted, or recited on my ipod, it's not to entertain the students or supplement THE TEXT, the *real* poem on the page, but to study that performance in its own right. It's the concept behind Charles Bernstein's Close Listening, a book I used when I co-taught my seminar on poetry and performance. I have tons of Spanish poetry read aloud or sung--hours of it.

In my jazz course we've heard Langston Hughes reading with Mingus, Creeley with Steve Swallow et al, Kerouac making his own verbal music.

What I've found though is that we don't yet have a very good vocabulary for talking about the performance of language. This is another example of where teaching is out ahead of research. Instead of viewing teaching as the presentation or communication of the results of research or already existing knowledge, I view it as something more tentative that is paving the path for future projects.

Usually the argument is that students need teachers that are up-to-date with their fields, so their teachers should either be active researchers or recent PhDs. That's a valid argument. I would argue, though, that students need teachers who are going to do research in the future. I won't really know exactly where my ideas about poetry and performance are going to lead for a few more years.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

I was awarded one of the grants which I was preparing in February. It will give me some money in the summer, when I am not paid. It's about the equivalent of 10 days pay, which is kind of paltry in some ways, but I can't really complain. By doing a few days of work I essentially increased my yearly salary by more than 1%.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Spring Break

I'm on spring break now. I will seem to be working hard on this blog but actually I wrote this post, and the ones preceding and following it, the week before the break and scheduled them to be published this week. There's a lesson here for scholarly productivity, which is that you can seem to be working hard next year by working hard this year. The publications you are working on now won't come out for a while, so you could stop working for a year and still seem very busy, as long as you had a lot in the pipeline. It would be a while before anyone noticed you weren't working any more.

Some publications take more than a year to come out: I have four articles coming on in 2010 but none was written this year--not all were even written in 09.

Conversely, you can have years where nothing comes out, even while you have been working furiously.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Learning By Teaching

I've never taught a course without learning something. The process of teaching forces you to articulate ideas in ways you wouldn't have thought of otherwise. From undergraduate grammar courses I've learned more Spanish grammar and syntax; I developed ideas for my Lorca book out of my translation course. A very basic introductory course on literary analysis led to some ideas about redundancy in poetic language. Teaching literary theory forces me to go back to texts I wouldn't have looked at in many years.

I think I learn more from teaching undergraduate courses, because I often teach things I don't know as well, with the confidence that I can still stay far ahead of my students. You really should learn more from grad students than undergraduates, but that is not always the case.

I imagine it would be different in hard sciences, where basic courses would not teach the professor anything.

Teaching fewer courses would theoretically allow more time for research, but I wouldn't want to teach all that much less than I do. Teaching helps to structure time, allows the research process to be less solitary. As long as I can get a year or a semester off once in a while, I'm fine.

So very soon I have to figure out a course for next fall. It's modern peninsular lit at the undergraduate level, and I can teach any topic I want. What I want to do is teach something I can be completely enthusiastic about, something that I can learn from teaching.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

More Geography

Mexican poetry, Peruvian poetry, Spanish poetry, Cuban poetry, is all written in the same language. If I gave an educated Spanish speaker a poem written by a Uruguayan, an Argentine, and a Spaniard, sh/e would not be able to identify the nationality of the authors, unless the poems happened to have geographical markers particular to a region or nation. Most poems have nothing of the sort. A lot of contemporary Spanish American poets view poetry written in the Spanish language as a single, unitary tradition.

On the other hand, Latin Americanists tend to specialize in nations and regions. You can be a Southern Cone specialist, a Carribeanist, an Andeanist, a Mexicanist. It makes sense to study particular clusters of poets geographically. And, of course, the division between Peninsular and Latin American studies is strong in the academy.

So we have two ways of dividing up the field: by language and genre, or by geography. With poetry it makes more sense to look at language and its particular traditions, in my opinion. This is borne out by the amount of transatlantic movement and influence, and intracontinental interchanges.

It occurs to me that one measure of this unity might be the number of scholars who write about both Spanish and Spanish American poetry. If I write about both, then I will myself be bolstering the argument for unity, by being one more example of this phenomenon.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Deep Reading

I prefer deep reading to close reading. Close reading can often involve a kind of finickiness about surface details, or sometimes the mechanical kind of textual analysis taught in schools. There really is not distance reading, but there is a superficial approach, one that doesn't take into account the tradition underlying the poem.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

How Do You know You Can Do It?

I lot of self-help type advice advocates a positive attitude, just thinking you can do something. But how do you really know you can do something? Maybe you can't and the advice to have a positive attitude, an empty optimism, will be next to useless.

So how do you know you can do scholarly writing?

In the first place, you might not have a realistic notion of how hard or easy it really is. If you think of it as easy, you might get into trouble by being overconfident. On the other hand, if you think of it as impossibly difficult, you'll never get anywhere.

It's something that a lot of people do, and it's not very difficult at the lowest levels. Publishing a graduate student seminar paper in a second line journal, for example, is not infrequent. On the other hand, rising to be one of the top scholars in your subfield is fairly difficult.

So it's a matter of breaking things down, reverse-engineering top articles in top journals to see how it's done; evaluating the state of a field to see who the best people are and how they got that way. In my case I could see that there were a lot of crappy to mediocre famous scholars in my field, so it was simply a question of putting in the work to do it better. I would automatically be at least among the top few simply by reading more and better and writing it up.

We've all known academics who aren't very smart. We've all met academics who are so intellgent that it hurts to even think about them. The thing is, you don't have to be in the latter category to achieve what you need to.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Geography

I'm sure other fields have comparable features, but one thing that strikes me about mine is that I must know vast swaths of material while at the same time paying attention to extremely minute detail about certain parts of this territory. I can't just know the overall map of the territory without knowing specific details. At the same time, I could study small areas of land forever and never get to a point where I had a grasp of the territory.

So I might want to read 9,000 books of poetry, but could also spend an hour or two with a single poem.

Film Theory Assignment

Here's a version of Jonathan's last post about "The Corridor". Watch the following music video and imagine it is an allegory about the peer review process, i.e., the process of getting a journal article published. I would be interested in hearing you tell this story "straight", i.e., translating the allegorical characters and events into people and actions familiar from the world of academic writing. I'll reveal my (i.e., the right) answer next week.

[Click here to read the answer.]


Travis / "Writing to Reach You"

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Corridor

Imagine a long corridor with doors on each side. Maybe it is so long that you have never gone all the way to the end of it--if it really does have an end. You are a frequent visitor to the corridor, as are many others. Some of the doors are always open, some are always closed. Some might be closed but unlocked. Usually you only go into one or two contiguous rooms on one side or the other of the corridor, through doors that you know will be unlocked.

Now supposed someone asks you why you don't go through a particular door. You say, "I am not interested in that room," or "I used to go there a lot, but I fell out of the habit," or "I'm not welcome there." Maybe, "I didn't really even know that room was there; sure, I saw the door, but I never thought about it." "I never went that far down the corridor before." "I'm going to thoroughly know everything about my favorite room before I even think about opening another door." Sometimes a door will appear where there was none before, or you might be in one room and find a secret passage-way to another without going back to the corridor.

Maybe you can think about what rooms you go into and the reasons why you don't go into others.

Opportunism

Some texts are read often but never really read. These might be texts that occur frequently in anthologies or reading lists: clearly there is a consensus they are important, but you might look through the bibliographies and find relatively few articles, or find that the articles about this particular set of texts do not consist of very close or deep readings. There are plenty of opportunities for very good work even on texts that are in plain sight. I've never found a really, really great reading of Lorca's duende leture, for example. Sure, everyone refers to it or quotes from it, but nobody has really taken apart its rhetoric, explained how all its allusions work with and against one another. So if this is true for one of the most famous texts of one of the most famous writers in my field, you can imagine that there are many other less frequently studied texts out there.

What I found with my Lorca book was that nobody had read Langston Hughes's translation with a critical eye at all. Nobody had done more than simply mention that Hughes had translated this book.

I get frustrated when graduate students want to do the same old thing, replicating other peoples' work, when there are much fresher research opportunities in plain sight. I'm seeing a lot of possibilities for things in Spanish American poetry that people have barely touched. Maybe I'm just better at seeing things than other people are, but a lot of these things are pretty obvious. I think they call it low hanging fruit.

***

Other times I get a semi-brilliant idea and give it to a student. By semi-brilliant I mean something that I know I could use to write a publishable article with no problem. I imagine what i would do with this material, and then I get a paper from the student that falls flat. This shows that it is not just taking the initiative to seize an opportunity, but also the capacity to see what's distinctive or interesting in the material. I still haven't learned the technique of teaching someone how to do that. I haven't solved the mystery of why other people are not like me.

Instant Expertise

We ask graduate students to write seminar papers in a variety of fields. Essentially, they have to learn enough in one semester to write a professional-level paper in whatever the topic of the seminar is. Ideally, this paper would be similar to one that might be published in a journal. Some students publish some of their seminar papers in second-line journals, in fact. The purpose of the seminar paper is to learn the process of becoming an expert in a particular field--even though the student will not really become an expert: 4 months is simply not long enough.

After grad school, we often just dig deeper into our own subspecialties. We become less adept at learning new subfields rapidly, well enough to write a seminar paper, but much better within our own niche. I was a very good undergraduate, but I would be very badly now at taking 5 courses in 5 unrelated subjects. I still have to know how to develop some limited degree of expertise in a short period of time. That skill never leaves you.

I'm getting a good feel for the field of Spanish American poetry now. Using what I already knew, and reading a few more secondary sources, looking at things a little more systematically, I'm maybe at 40% of where I want to be to write the book after next.

Mania

I'm somewhat manic about developing ideas and thinking up new projects. My ideas about what I can do are somewhat grandiose and unrealistic. Even knowing this about myself I still allow myself to think about impossible projects, because sometimes the more modest vision of the grandiose project is realistic. If I didn't daydream about the impossible, I wouldn't be able to accomplish the possible.

The Pedagogy of 2nd Best Ideas

I'm teaching an advanced undergraduate course. It is supposed to be a capstone to their experience as Spanish majors. The problem: many of them are not prepared to do research and writing at a high enough level. In principle, they should be able to do everything an English major can--but in Spanish, a language foreign to them. In practice, they fall short of this. It's difficult, because it's like Ginger Rogers said: she danced everything that Fred Astaire did, but walking backwards and wearing heels.

Today I am going to try something different. I came up with ideas for 14 research projects relevant to the course. I will hand out these today, one for each student. they will take a few minutes to look at the idea that they each received, then will compare their ideas with those of other students. They can make as many trades as they want, or, if they really like their original suggestion, they can stay with it.

On Thursday, they will come to class again, with two new ideas of their own plus the professor's idea they came home with on Tuesday. Now they will trade their 2nd best idea with that of another student. At this point they will have 3 ideas apiece: one from the professor (me), one of their own, and one from another student. They will rank those in order of preference, and discard the 3rd best idea, whether it's from the professor, themselves, or another student. They will go home and write a paper using one of the two best ideas.

Now this might not work. The worst case scenario is that they will all be working with my ideas or with one another's worst ideas, but I'm hoping the exercise of developing and trading ideas will be useful in its own right. If they fail to develop two good ideas, then nobody will want to trade their second best idea for one of their own.

I'm asking them to imagine that we are writing a book together: Pervivencia de la tradición. I am the editor and they are the contributors. This book will never exist except in my imagination, but it is something that I might use to share the results of my course with a colleague at another university, for example.

I am going to judge my teaching in this course not by my teaching evaluations--a measure of consumer satisfaction--but by the quality of the contributions to this imaginary book. In other words, by the concrete results I achieve at actually teaching the students to learn what they are supposed to be learning. I'm a full professor, and there are very small raises in the university anyway, so I can afford a set of poor evaluations if my idea bombs.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Mentor

I really need a mentor, an advisor who can give me good advice about how to advance my career. Unfortunately, I don't really have a mentor and have never had one. I've always had a few people who could help me or give me advice, but no one figure whom I would call a mentor. Now I'm in the position of having published more than anyone in my department. Maybe I'm just terminably unmentorable.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Blogging As Work

When I started my first blog in 2002, I saw it as extracurricular. Then, a funny thing happened: I began to use blogs for courses, beginning with a literary theory course in mid-decade. Now, almost all my courses have blogs and I require my students to post. I sometimes use the blogs directly in the classroom, projecting posts onto a screen rather than writing on the blackboard, or playing a youtube video that I've posted on the blog.

I now have this metablog, SMT, which you are now reading, dear reader, on how to get scholarly writing done, and I use several blogs, including this one, to sketch out ideas for books and articles. When I go to the office to work, I open up blogger and write posts for my courses or about my ongoing research. Anyone in the world with access to internet can see me at work, doing what I do. The amount and quality of work I do is almost completely transparent, there for anyone to see. The only thing that is not public is the classroom discussion itself. I don't post the final versions of my articles and books--or specifics of work in progress that might be plagiarized--but my university is implementing an open access policy so that any published article should be available to anyone.

Scholarship and teaching are both about the communication of ideas. In one case, to a particular set of students, in the other, to a community of scholars and a wider interested public. Anything that furthers this communication is desirable. Can there be too much transparency? What do you think?

Ideological Critique

How does my idea of receptivity, or being open to the great products of the human intelligence, relate to the notions of ideological critique? A dominant mode in my field over the past half-century or so says that we should not just accept literature as it is, but rather subject it to the most thorough critique for its ideological presuppositions. Its sexism, homophobia, racism, elitism, classism--its indifference to the ecosystem.

This critique can be performed at the level of the individual work, or at the level of literature itself as an institution. Either way, it sets up the literary critic, basically, as the adversary of the work. In the first case, almost no literary work, except one written in very recent times, will conform to the critic's own ideology. This is true not only of very blatant cases that are discussed over and over again, like The Merchant of Venice or Ezra Pound, but even of seemingly more innocuous works. Furthermore, if we see literature itself as ideologically questionable, the adversarial role becomes inherent to literary criticism, no matter what the particular work.

Of course, the converse of this mode is the search for literary works that can be championed for their ideological subversiveness, and the claims often made that a work that seems progressive really ain't, and that a work that seems conservative really is progressive--you know the drill.

Now I don't really oppose ideological critique per se:-- it might surprise you to know. My stance is that nothing in the critic's receptivity entails any abdication of any ethical responsibility. The critic will explore his or her resistance to the products of human intelligence, whether the source of resistance is aesthetic or political. Some of the best work will emerge where resistance is the strongest, in fact. I really believe in Kenneth Burke's notion of using everything you know.

Where I have the problem is in making ideological critique the main vehicle for expressing resistance--at the expense of receptivity. The adversarial relation shuts down a certain receptivity by seeing resistance, not as something to be struggled with, but as the goal.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Not How We Read But What We Read

Gerald Graff makes an argument in the 2008 or 2009 issue of Profession that it doesn't matter what we read so much as how we read: in other words, texts of little or no intrinsic value lend themselves just as well to formulating acceptable academic-style arguments as works of great literature. He develops a rather trivial argument about Vanna White's autobiography in order to prove his point. He does concede that trivial texts cannot serve the purpose of learning to make such arguments. In other words, literary critics can make sophisticated arguments about trivial texts because they have first learned to make sophisticated arguments about sophisticated texts.

Now anyone who knows how I think will predict that I will disagree strongly with Graff. The main point is not to make an argument that might count as acceptable to the academic community, but to transform our reactions to the best products of the human intelligence into meaningful arguments that actually contribute to the appreciation of these products. In other words, it's what we read, or listen to, or look at, that is fundamental. Almost any serious reception of a great work is worthy of being transformed into a scholarly argument. It doesn't matter *how* we read in this sense, as long as we follow the general principle of receptivity: being available for the work to make an impact on us. Works of art teach us how to receive them, so we don't really have to worry about how we read at all.

We do have to worry about how we construct our arguments about our reception in order to make them meaningful and convincing in the academic environment--or wherever they are received. In other words, we can't just appeal to the meaningfulness or our response. As scholars, it is our responsibility to articulate these things.

This is not an argument for studying or not studying any particular thing. The ethos of receptivity entails a potential openness to everything. It does mean, however, that the value of the work is in the response to the work itself--not in the trivial fact that you can develop an argument about a work while conceding no value at all to it. Otherwise, literary criticism is just an exercise in making arguments about anything, or nothing in particular.

This is the difference between cultural studies that views its products as shit, essentially, but argues that there is relevant information to be found in this shit (there is nothing wrong with this approach, except that it leaves the hierarchy between high culture and popular shit wholly intact; It's Hamlet or Vanna White) and the approach to popular culture that is actually receptive to the aesthetic value of popular culture.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Finitude, Part 2: Space

In Part 1, I asked you to reflect on when your writing will happen. Today, I want to talk about where. There is a really stupid sense in which this question needs to be answered: what door can you close and keep closed for two or three hours each day? Is there enough quiet there? Is there enough light? Is there a place to plug your computer in? But pause and think about that last question for a second. Maybe it's not even a computer you write on. Maybe all you need is a well-lit room and the paper you like, as Mordecai Richler said. The answer is personal, but it needs to be answered: where exactly are the words going to get written, i.e., in what room and onto what "page".

Your writing "space" can therefore be too open in two senses. First, you may have too vague an idea of where your body will be sitting when you are scheduled to write. You solve this problem by securing a quiet room in the house or relying on your colleagues to respect the closed door of your office. The second sense in which your space may be too open has to do with where in your text you will be working. You close this space with a good working outline of your writing project and by making some decisions about how big a project it is (a chapter, a book, a paper). You can carve this space up into sections, and further into pages, even words (a standard journal article is about thirty pages or 8000 words). You end with a two-part question: Which pages will you be filling out today and in which room will you be sitting? Don't expect to get any work done on a blank page in an open space.

Ideally, time divides not into days, hours, and minutes, but into tasks. (History is everything that happens.) And space really divides into facts, not things ("the world is everything that is the case," as Wittgenstein taught us), and claims, not pages and words. You should organize your work around tasks that articulate claims, not merely hours and days spent filling pages with words. But remembering that that is, in one sense, what you are doing, will help you appreciate your finitude. And this, if you'll pardon it, will allow you finish something.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Thomas's "10 steps to an argument" in practice

I thought I would see whether Thomas's "Ten Steps to an Argument" would work in practice. This is not how I usually work but I'm always open to trying new things. My notes on the process itself are in brackets.

T: The practice of literary criticism should be based on the principle of receptivity: an openness to the greatest products of the human intelligence; the problem of literary criticism, then, is how to translate the experience of this receptivity into acceptable scholarly arguments that do not betray it too much.

What I want my audience to do with this: I want them to be convinced that this way of framing the problem of scholarship in the humanities should supersede more conventional views. I want them to understand that this is already what they aspire to do, even if they don't know it yet.

Three sentences about why my audience is not able to do this:

(1) Paradigms for research in the humanities emphasize the application of grand theoretical schemes, not the receptivity of the reader.

(2) Moreover, an emphasis on the inherent value of the "raw material" in the humanities reminds too many people of an outmoded "Arnoldian" approach that takes for granted to value of the literary canon of "the best that has been thought and said."

(3) The main reason to anticipate resistance to my thesis, however, is that scholars in the Humanities are too eager to look for the political alibis in order to justify the importance of their work.

Step 4: write three sentences that state the background assumptions against which the sentence can be believed, agreed with, or understood
:

(13) The humanities are inherently devoted to the study of the products of human intelligence and culture; even arguments that oppose particular views of the canon (or the privilege enjoyed by particular canonical works), still take for granted the value of other kinds of cultural products.

(14) The advantage of the idea of receptivity is that it is not tied down to any particular view of what kind of works one should be receptive to, actually privileging receptiveness to work outside one's own zone of comfort.

(15) The ideal of receptiveness is thus sufficiently broad to outweigh the suspicions of Arnoldian elitism.

Step 5: write three sentences that state your direct evidence for T. Number them 7, 8, 9.

[Gee, I thought up my thesis with no supporting evidence at all; I'm going to have to scramble a bit here]

(7) The paradigm I am proposing is already at work in the most satisfying existing scholarship, which opens up "channels of reception" rather than shutting them down.

(8) We feel, intuitively, that the best scholars are finely attuned "receptors" rather than mere accumulators of information.

(9) The value of scholarship depends, logically, on some notion of being able to transform the raw materials of the humanities into convincing arguments.

Step 6: write three sentences that explain how someone whose mind looks like 1,2,3 would be convinced of 7, 8, 9. Number them 4, 5, 6.

[This step is freakin' hard!]

(4) Some scholars might not realize that there is even a better way of doing things; these should be exposed to the debate in the way I am framing it.

(5) Many scholars already probably distrust their own working paradigms but lack the perspective to transcend them; they need to hear an eloquent statement of what the real aim of work in the humanities ought to be so they can clarify their own aims.

(6) Even if some scholars are not convinced by my arguments here, they will be able to fine-tune their own practices by becoming more conscious of some underlying issues at stake.

Step 7: write three sentences that explain why someone who knows 7, 8, 9 will henceforth assume 13, 14, 15. Number them 10, 11, 12.

[Piece of cake; child's play; easy as pie. First I have to go back and look at 6 other sentences.]

(10) Since the principles I am proposing are already inherent in the best practices of scholars, there is no obstacle left standing in the way of the acceptance of my thesis.

(11) The only plausible obstacle would be the accusation of Arnoldian elitism, but the principle of receptivity is the polar opposite of this.

(12) The only thing they (Mayhew's principle of receptivity and Matthew Arnold) have in common is the assumption that there is some value to human culture that makes it worth studying.


Now we order the sentences like so and have an epiphany:

Paradigms for research in the humanities emphasize the application of grand theoretical schemes, not the receptivity of the reader. Moreover, an emphasis on the inherent value of the "raw material" in the humanities reminds too many people of an outmoded "Arnoldian" approach that takes for granted to value of the literary canon of "the best that has been thought and said." The main reason to anticipate resistance to my thesis, however, is that scholars in the Humanities are too eager to look for the political alibis in order to justify the importance of their work.

Some scholars might not realize that there is even a better way of doing things; these should be exposed to the debate in the way I am framing it. Many scholars already probably distrust their own working paradigms but lack the perspective to transcend them; they need to hear an eloquent statement of what the real aim of work in the humanities ought to be so they can clarify their own aims. Even if some scholars are not convinced by my arguments here, they will be able to fine-tune their own practices by becoming more conscious of some underlying issues at stake.

The paradigm I am proposing is already at work in the most satisfying existing scholarship, which opens up "channels of reception" rather than shutting them down. We feel, intuitively, that the best scholars are finely attuned "receptors" rather than mere accumulators of information. The value of scholarship depends, logically, on some notion of being able to transform the raw materials of the humanities into convincing arguments.

Since the principles I am proposing are already inherent in the best practices of scholars, there is no obstacle left standing in the way of the acceptance of my thesis. The only plausible obstacle would be the accusation of Arnoldian elitism, but the principle of receptivity is the polar opposite of this. The only thing they (Mayhew's principle of receptivity and Matthew Arnold) have in common is the assumption that there is some value to human culture that makes it worth studying.

The practice of literary criticism should be based on the principle of receptivity: an openness to the greatest products of the human intelligence; the problem of literary criticism, then, is how to translate the experience of this receptivity into acceptable scholarly arguments that do not betray it too much.


The humanities are inherenlty devoted to the study of the products of human intelligence and culture; even arguments that oppose particular views of the canon (or the privilege enjoyed by particular canonical works), still take for granted the value of other kinds of cultural products. The advantage of the idea of receptivity is that it is not tied down to any particular view of what kind of works one should be receptive to, actually privileging receptiveness to work outside one's own zone of comfort. The ideal of receptiveness is thus sufficiently broad to outweigh the suspicions of Arnoldian elitism.



That took me just over an hour and I would give myself about a C-. The sentences are not at all well-written; the argument is still weak, largely because of the lack of clarity in the prose itself and the fact that the sentences do not flow into each other. To really do this well would have taken probably four hours I don't have right now. The advantage I see with this method is that it forces you to make certain assumptions explicit, thinking very deliberately about how to get your audience from where it is to where you want it to be. The feeling of not knowing how to do this is very bracing.