Wednesday, January 28, 2015

From drafty to droopy to drowning, and more!

I'm holding in my hot little hands the first pile of student drafts of the semester! Before I even look at them, I know what I'll find:

The drafty draft: A paper so full of holes that the argument seems to have leaked out.

The droopy draft: Starts off strong but can't hold up the argument past the first page.


The drowning draft: The argument gasps for breath beneath a sea of not entirely relevant contextual information stretching all the way back to the dawn of time.

The non-draft draft: A thesis statement and a list of points, or just a page full of quotes that could be useful in an analytical essay.


The master of misdirection draft: Tosses pretty colored balls in the air to distract from the fact that it doesn't actually do what the assignment requires.

The changing horses in midstream draft: Lays out a clear road map but then--wait, what was I talking about?

The "Say It with Flowers" draft: Grabs obscure, flowery terms from the thesaurus without regard for whether the selected words are appropriate for the task.

The "Oops, I sent the wrong draft!" draft: Submitted by a student who thinks a professor will believe that he went to the effort to write two versions of the paper, only one of which is plagiarized.

The invisible draft: "I'm sure I submitted it. There must be something wrong with Moodle."

The "Carry on!" draft: Original work, well organized, nicely written, with just a few areas needing improvement.

I wish I had more of the final type, but alas, the odds are against it.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Why keep playing the academic publishing game?

Several times during my mega-massive writing weekend I asked myself: Why am I doing this? What could possibly make such an onerous task worthwhile? Why keep playing the academic publishing game when the rewards are so meager?

There are rewards, of course--a good teaching job, tenure, promotion to full professor--but after all those rewards are won, what then? Why keep presenting conference papers and writing articles with no tangible rewards dangling on the horizon? I'm a tenured full professor with nothing to prove; I'm not on the job market and my institution doesn't offer any sort of merit pay. The most I can hope for is a pat on the back from my department chair in my annual review. So why keep playing the game?

The main reason, I suppose, is that it's fun. I enjoy reading new things, researching new approaches, and contributing to the scholarly conversation. The time may come when I want to slow down my pace, but as long as playing the game gives me pleasure, I won't hang up my cleats.

Nevertheless, I do understand the frustrations of those who don't see the point in continuing to work so hard with few tangible rewards, and for that reason I would favor the implementation of some kind of merit pay that recognizes scholarly accomplishments. An institution that expects faculty at all ranks to teach a 4/4 load should not be surprised when research and publication take a back seat to teaching, but we can surely do more to encourage and reward scholarship beyond the promise of tenure and promotion.

But I'm not grumbling. I love to research and write about literature and I'll keep doing it regardless of the meager rewards. However, the next time I read some angry screed about all those stale, unproductive, outdated senior faculty members who haven't learned anything new since the Johnson administration, I may have to find someone to kick.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

A burst of writing: grueling but satisfying

In a massive burst of creative energy, this weekend I have revised a journal article, drafted the introduction to an article for an anthology, and written a brief formal analysis of a work of art for the art history class I'm taking. These grueling tasks provided three distinct types of pleasure.

First, the revision: as much as I hated to murder my darlings, I complied with the requests of the journal editors. I always worry about how much historical and critical context I should provide; I don't want the essay to get bogged down in a swamp of explanation, and I fear underestimating the intelligence of my readers. However, the editors wanted more so I gave them what they wanted. It was a painful experience but I'm satisfied with the result and relieved to be done with it. (I hope.)

Second, the introduction: the anthology essay is due in June but I read a book this week that provided the perfect setup for my analysis, so naturally I had to write it down before it fades into the quagmire of my swirling mind. Writing these two brief paragraphs gave me hope for the future of the project and made me happier than anything I've written all year. (Of course, the year is still young.)

Finally, the art history analysis: I really didn't need to do it since I'm auditing the class, and in fact the professor expressed some surprise when I mentioned that I was planning to write the paper. But writing the papers is the primary reason I'm taking the class! Of course I enjoy the lectures, readings, and class discussions on art and violence, and I really enjoy hearing what the students have to say about specific works of art; however, writing this paper forced me to look closely at a work of art and then look again and again, finding more detail and significance with each new viewing. This practice of looking delighted my senses and sent me to the page bubbling with ideas and insights. I don't know whether my analysis is any good, but the process of writing it was good for me and made me want to do more.

If I could write with this much discipline every weekend, I'd vastly improve my scholarly output; however, this level of production was possible only because I had no drafts to read, papers to grade, classes to prep, or committee meetings to organize. How many more weekends like this can I expect to experience? Not many. Certainly not enough.  

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Open wide, cupcake

Today I watched a man make tuna cupcakes while getting teeth drilled at the dentist's office.

Wait, scratch that. Let's start again:

Today, while getting my teeth drilled at the dentist's office, I watched a man make tuna cupcakes. On television, of course, and whoever invented the dentist-chair television ought to be sainted because what else are you going to do while getting teeth drilled or waiting for a new crown to be constructed or trying not to bite down on all the expensive equipment filling your mouth?

Since my dental work wiped out my lunch hour and left me with a mouth too numb to allow chewing, I decided to keep the television on the Food Network and enjoy a vicarious lunch while getting my teeth drilled. Now I don't have the Food Network (or any network) at home and thus had no conception that there could exist an entire series devoted to competitive cupcake-baking, but there it was, in living (sometimes garish) color: pineapple cupcakes, coconut cupcakes, German chocolate cupcakes with macadamia nut icing (!!), cupcakes topped with white chocolate seashells or fondant surfboards or caramelized chunks of Spam (!!!), and of course the infamous Ahi tuna cupcakes.

If anyone had told me that one day I would sit in the dentist's chair getting my teeth drilled while watching a man make tuna cupcakes, I would have scoffed. Today, though, the scoffing is over.

Now let the scarfing begin! Where can I find some cupcakes?

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Playing the academic publishing game

So I've been shopping around various versions of this particular analytical essay to academic journals, but it's long and it veers markedly from the usual treatment of the topic so it kept getting rejected--until today. I found the perfect journal for this piece, sent it off, waited a mere two months, and got a glowing response from the journal's editor: They love it. They need it. They want it--as long as I'm willing to make a few small changes recommended by the referees. (Yay!)

Except those changes require me to mangle my favorite parts of the essay. (Boo!)

But on the other hand, no one else is going to publish this thing as is so I'd better just swallow my pride, cripple my creativity, and conform to their expectations so I can see this work (finally!) in print. (Yay!)

Except they're on a short deadline so they need the revisions by the end of next week. (Boo!)

Fortunately, I don't have a whole lot going on this weekend so I can devote a chunk of time to revising (Yay!) as long as I don't need to relax or goof off or have, say, a social life (Boo!).

So that's how I'll be spending my weekend: sacrificing the best parts of my essay (Boo!) just so I can finally get it out there into the scholarly conversation (Yay!). But you'd better believe I'll be keeping a copy of the original version--just in case I can someday interest a publisher in a book on the topic. (Yay!)

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

When Homer meets Henry

This morning I tried to persuade a class to laugh at Homer's Odyssey and tomorrow I'll try to persuade another class to laugh at Henry James, but it ain't easy. One unfortunate effect  of their prior education is a tendency to see classic texts as forbidding fortresses of High Seriousness embracing obscure meanings and locking out any light, joy, or laughter. 

But seriously, folks: a big hairy one-eyed man-eating giant gets his eye poked out with a sharp stick and then flails about screaming "Nobody is killing me!"--and then Our Illustrious Hero describes how he escaped from the Cyclops by grabbing the belly of a ram and hugging it tight as it ambled out the door--and I'm not supposed to laugh?

And little Randolph Miller goes tearing about in an orderly European garden poking his long walking-stick into the trains of elegant ladies' dresses and then declares that his father is in a "better place" (meaning not heaven but Schenectady)--and I'm supposed to be so awed by the stately Jamesian prose that I'm expected to stifle my chuckles?

Come on, people--lighten up! Sure, Homer and Henry suffused their tales with serious questions about identity, fate, and the sources of suffering, but their writing gains strength by touching on the whole range of human experience and emotion. If we stand so in awe of these authors that we can't comprehend their lighter side, we're missing half of the meaning--and more than half of the fun.

Which makes me wonder: If Homer and Henry ever bump elbows in the authorial afterlife, how can either one get a word in edgewise?    

Monday, January 19, 2015

Wait, is it a circus or a train track?

I asked my colleague across the hall for a word--"Quick, what word am I thinking of?"--and he answered immediately: "Fart."

It wasn't the right answer but on the other hand maybe it was. I needed a laugh. I've been sitting at my desk trying to figure out how I can possibly be so swamped so early in such a great semester, with a (short) stack of papers to grade (already!) and a mass of meetings on and off all week, including some dental work but not, fortunately, jury duty. (I managed to sweet-talk my way out of jury duty calling the bailiff and moaning, politely, about my teeth.)

And so the circus begins: doing a little bit each day on a swirling mess of different projects and hoping it all adds up to something whole before the deadlines hit. My life is like that online train game: move the switches so the pink train gets to the pink station and then move them into an entirely different configuration to get the yellow train to the yellow station--but look out for the green train barreling down the tracks!

So far I'm doing it, one click at a time: prep class, teach class, write paper abstract, teach other class, order plane tickets for conference, prep other class, go to meeting, sweet-talk the bailiff, grade papers, prep another class--all the time keeping an eye out for whatever else comes barreling down the tracks. 

And if it's a fart, what can I do but laugh?