Some thoughts on length, or I like big books and short books

I wrote a long dissertation. Too long, really, and certainly longer than most of my committee wanted to read. From cover to cover, 499 pages of shaggy and at times repetitive research, but in a format endorsed by my advisor who was convinced that something short and with a clearer narrative arc (i.e. something more readable) would be received as too insubstantial to be a dissertation.

During my oral defense, which took place on a Monday morning less than 24-hours after I returned from a conference in Canada, I articulated a vision for revising this document into a book. In particular, I wanted to fold almost all of the disparate case studies (19, accounting for about 2/3 of the length) into the core narrative. Some monographs are very well suited to illuminating a topic through narrow investigations on facets of a phenomenon. My case studies, I thought, were uneven and not suited toward offering a broad portrait of a phenomenon because I wasn’t writing about a phenomenon. Instead, I was using a regional study to talk about the relationship between imperial systems in the eastern Aegean, and I thought that these themes were best shown by tracing the evolution over time. The only case studies I wanted to leave would be two synoptic chapters (I was wrong, I only needed one) and three short appendices.

The changes I proposed that Monday morning are almost identical to what I put in my book proposal, in which I explained that I wanted to reduce the word count from a 150,000-word dissertation to a 100,000-word book (inclusive of notes). Prompted by a recent Twitter discourse on book length and the fact that I am in the home stretch of preparing my manuscript for submission, I wanted to take a moment to reflect both on how I did and offer a few thoughts on book length.

As to my own book, I ran over my word count by a little over 10% and watching the word count creep upward as I transform my citations to Chicago style has added a steady drip of anxiety to the process. I am actually close if you exclude the bibliography (some people don’t; my estimated count did), and I was on target before one of the readers for the press—correctly—pointed out that one of the chapters needed to be split into two. Each full chapter is between 9,000 and 11,000 words, so while adding this chapter substantially improved the book, it also accounts for most of the extra length.

The excess length bothered me, a lot.

Books cost money, big books cost more money, and first-time authors are unproven commodities. Book length is, of course, genre and field specific, which makes general truisms hard to come by. Romance novels fall into a rather narrow band between maybe 50,000 and 90,000, while the average fantasy book might be 100,000, but Patrick Rothfuss’ first book, The Name of the Wind, was 250,000 (the sequel was 400,000). I had read online that 100,000 words was already stretching it for a first-time academic non-fiction author, so running over by more than 10% sparked all sorts of thoughts. Would I have to cut an entire chapter? Would I have to spend hours ruthlessly trimming every trace of conversational tone from the manuscript in order to meet the word count?? Who needs a bibliography, anyway???

The solution, of course, was to email my editor, who gave me welcome guidance: send it all and let the readers decide. The readers liked the manuscript as-is…and suggested a few more minor additions.

I have an obvious bias here, but I am pleased with the outcome. The excess may be a little indulgent, but it also means that I don’t have to cut an entire chapter.

The academic discourse I have seen on Twitter—and elsewhere anecdotally—is for shorter books, at least in the non-fiction sphere. I am sympathetic to this movement. To echo what Bill Caraher has said on his blog, there is often something indulgent about long books. I increasingly find myself less attracted to long non-fiction, particularly when there is a biographical subject involved. Frequently, these books are repetitive and exult in the minutiae of a topic at the expense of making an argument. I understand why these are appealing, whether because one wants to live their “dad” life to the fullest with a blow-by-blow account of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia or because a tabloid-esque tell-all about someone’s life gives glimpses into the workings of power in Johnson’s White House or Horatio Nelson’s scandalous affair with Emma, Lady Hamilton. But that is also a matter of genre. For academic books, by contrast, the argument is the point, so much so that during coursework it is common for graduate students to talk about how to “break” a book and synthesize the scope of the argument without reading more than a few pages (this has never been one of my strengths). In truth, staying current in a field requires reading a lot of books and each person only has so much time. Short, elegant books with a clear argument are a blessing to the reader who may feel that time invested in a 170- or 200-page book is better spent than the time given to a 700-page one.

However, I am actually agnostic on book length.

Big books have their place, usually in the form of a grand synthesis covering a big topic. (Caraher suggests that the length serves to add gravitas.) I don’t often find myself sitting down to read these cover to cover, though my advisor once told me to read Pierre Briant’s From Cyrus to Alexander with a bottle of wine. More frequently, these are books that I mine for information. I read them in drips and drabs, looking for a specific discussion or for a chapter that I can assign to my students. In the case of Peter Green’s Alexander to Actium, I use it as a textbook that the students read alongside primary sources and other supplementary material. In other words, I like these books as resources.

That said, I am in broad agreement with Caraher on Graeber and Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything. It found a lot of their points provocative in terms of how to understand the early history of humanity, but this was not a book written in a way that sections could be easily extracted. The Dawn of Everything grew out of conversations between the two scholars, and it read like that to me. It felt conversational, but with a tendency to wander around drawing broad connections that illuminated whatever theme they wanted to talk about at a given moment. I came away with a lot to think about in terms of how I teach the early history of humanity and some things to follow up on, but I also suspect I should revisit at least some of the chapters in advance of teaching my world history survey again and the book’s indulgent length does not fill me with a whole lot of desire to do so.

What I look for is for the length of a book to fit its topic. Problems arise in long books because the extra space is as likely to cause bloat as it is to actually be necessary, which, in turn, diminishes how useful I find those books. My book is not nearly as The Dawn of Everything and the scholars who reviewed it for the press thought that the length was appropriate to the topic. I just hope that the general audience agrees when it finally comes out.

Publishing While Contingent

Earlier this month at the annual SCS meeting I attended a roundtable on the future of academic publishing. The conversation ranged widely, from the relative lack of opportunities to receive comments on written work before it is published to discipline-specific series adjusting to meet interdisciplinary work to the need both to teach reviewers how to give useful reviews and teach young academics how to receive feedback productively.

I found the discussion stimulating. But I also kept coming back to what I thought was an elephant in the room.

The panelists had brought contingent faculty up in passing, talking about the systems for compensating the unpaid labor of reviewing that goes into academic publishing. Most journals simply don’t have the money to pay reviewers and one of the challenges facing the field at the moment is the diminishing pool of people who can provide feedback. The panelists were (rightly) wary of exploiting junior colleagues with limited resources by asking them to commit large amounts of time for which they cannot be paid. I appreciated this sentiment, but I was also thinking about how simply excluding this potential pool of reviewers also creates a two-tiered system that requires more and more out of a smaller and smaller set of people while leaving other people outside of potential opportunities that could be found by this sort of networking.

Now, reviewing is not a silver bullet. To this point in my career, I have had one opportunity to review a manuscript (I was paid a small sum to review a book manuscript for a book being rereleased and is due out this summer) and it did not magically open any doors for me. Rather, in this context, reviewing seemed to me to be a microcosm of a larger issue where if people in editorial positions (here I was particularly thinking of scholars who edit journals) routinely don’t incorporate people in contingent positions into these processes and networks of academic publishing even out of reasonable concerns over unpaid labor, will this in time lead to a comparable shrinkage of people who are offered opportunities to participate in edited volumes, curated collections, and the like?

I don’t have an answer. Asking for labor from people who receive no tangible benefit for doing it isn’t the answer, but neither is simply cutting them out of the process.

In truth, very few scholars intend to stay contingent. There are scholars who publish brilliant work while working outside of academia and there are those in secure positions. Being between those two poles is a temporary limbo with few of the opportunities of either—except that the current state of higher education has turned it into the new normal, and you can’t publish your way out of that. To my mind, this makes it even more imperative to at least invite contingent faculty members into these systems of academic publishing. Many might decline the invitation, but choosing not even to extend it simply reifies the divide between the haves and the have-nots.

Part of the solution, I think, has to be advocating for improved working conditions for all faculty. Not only would this add to the pool of people who would be able to contribute to these forms of academic labor, but it could also help open space for different types of academic writing since there is some truth to the idea that contingency offers a perverse freedom to one’s writing since you are not judged on the same standards and schedules as tenure-line faculty.

(I have maundered a bit on this topic in the past, most notably when considering what I would write if I stopped pursuing academic employment.)

I have been thinking about this panel again recently while working on the preface for my first book. A preface is supposed to tell the story of the book and offer some reflection on those people and institutions who helped you create the finished product. I have always had a strange affection for prefaces and usually at least skim them because this is where the formal academic tone drops and the person comes through, at least to an extent. I had fun with the acknowledgements and bio for my dissertation, mostly because nobody told me that I couldn’t, but I am finding this part of the book harder to write.

Many first books follow a common template in their acknowledgements:

This is a revised version of my dissertation. Revisions began at X post-doctoral fellowship [or visiting assistant professorship] and completed with the generous support of Y current, full time job that awarded me a research leave and paid for travel, etc, etc.

Not all of these steps are equal, of course. Most post-doctoral positions offer more support than most VAPs, but it is easy to thank either of them when they were a stepping-stone to a tenure-line position.

I am extremely grateful for the support of my colleagues at my current job, but an unvarnished recounting of the conditions that birthed this book would be quite a bit different. Revisions started during two years of a half-time position (no benefits) that provided a standard amount of research funding for the department that was enough to go to a conference each year, but too little for a major research trip and with too little pay to do much more than survive. Plenty of time to write and access to a library, but not much else. They continued during a year of cobbling together employment from different sources, teaching five or six courses at a time (no benefits, no research funds, little time to write). Then during the pandemic, which left me temporarily unemployed, followed by a semester where I taught five classes (four entirely new preps) at three institutions and another semester of four classes at two institutions (no research funds, limited library access, benefits from my partner’s job).

I also found a lot of this employment isolating in the sense that I was often teaching far outside my field and without colleagues in any meaningful sense. The internet helps bridge some of the geographic distance, of course, but it cannot replace physical contact, particularly when you are starting from the outside. Of course, I am hardly the first person to face this challenge. In the preface to his Conquest and Empire (1988), the historian Brian Bosworth wrote:

My obligations are few and many…I have been forced to work in geographical isolation, and my physical contacts with other scholars have been confined to brief periods of leave. That means that my writing is perhaps more personally oriented than it might have been, and I cannot make acknowledgements of direct assistance.

He then goes on to name a series of eminent historians who influenced his thinking and thanks his institution for their support.

I don’t want to put any of my past employers on blast. I took the one course from a local community college, for instance, because I thought that it might help land a full-time job teaching at a community college down the line, not because I expected that it would help me finish my book. At the same time, it has not been an easy road to get to this place. I did it because I wanted to write this book and I am proud of the work I have done, but I would be lying if I said it wouldn’t have been easier with more time and resources.

I am finding this a difficult thing to balance. I have people I want and need to thank, but I also don’t want to white-wash the experience of writing this book with some trite pablum about my tenuous academic employment. A discussion like this might lack for social grace, but at least it would be honest.

Writing Wrap 2021

Every year around this time I kick off a year-end series that starts with a wrap-up of everything that I published that year and sundry project updates. I never really know what to call this post, though, since I am not nearly prolific enough to focus just on publications that came out that year, as I have in past years (2020; 2018).

Once again this year I published very little, but I did take major steps toward a few different pieces:

  1. The manuscript for my first book, Accustomed to Obedience?: Classical Ionia and the Aegean World, 480–294 BCE, received positive feedback from reviewers at University of Michigan Press. I am now working to deliver the revised manuscript early next year. Gulp.
  2. I had an article on Ephesus in the fourth century BCE accepted for publication in Classical Quarterly, pending revisions that I submitted last week.
  3. A chapter I wrote for an edited collection on Athenian orators and the historical memory about the conquest of Samos in 366 BCE passed peer review and the volume The Orators and their Treatment of the Recent Past is moving toward publication with De Gruyter.

I like reviewing books, so I am disappointed that I did not do any this year—the few books I inquired about were already claimed—but I did publish or have a hand in publishing a few other things.

  1. Back in February, I published a piece in The Conversation on assessing and mitigating risk through the lens of ancient Greece. The thrust is that while the Greeks put great stock in divination, prophecy, and making appropriate sacrifices to the gods, none of those ritual actions should let people off the hook for taking adequate precaution. Rather, after taking both types of precaution you just have to accept that risk still exists.
  2. I also interviewed two people, Aven McMaster and Bonnie Rock-McCutcheon, for the Contingent Faculty series of blog posts on the SCS blog. Aven, in particular, highlighted how precarious a career in higher education can be, and I believe that the working conditions for contingent faculty are essential if fields like ancient history and classics are going to continue to exist except as elite antiquarian exercises. I was interviewed for the series in 2020 and wanted to carry the spirit of having difficult conversations forward into these posts. Both interviewees (as well as the two interviewed by my colleagues) spoke candidly about the myriad of challenges facing contingent faculty, and I am really proud of the work that we did to bring these conversations public this year.

Most of my academic work went toward my teaching this year, but I presented two papers at academic conferences. The first applied of post-colonial theory and specifically Third Space Theory to community identity in and around Ionia; the second offered a new interpretation of the so-called proskynesis affair during the reign of Alexander the Great, looking a synthesis between two recent approaches. I don’t have imminent publication plans for either, mostly because there are other things I need to finish first, but hope to come back to one or both next year.

Other projects are moving forward more slowly, but I hope to have big updates next year.

I have a complete list of my publications, with links to everything available online, here. If you are interested in reading any of my work and do not have access to it, contact me for a pdf or off-print.

On Revision

Most drafts contain wonderful things, and most drafts don’t show off those wonders effectively. Some drafts are dull. Some are poorly organized. Some aren’t sure who they’re written for. Some seem unclear about the distinction between dutiful summary and original insight. Some hope that writing pyrotechnics might dazzle or sheer bulk equate to authority.

An open secret: it’s OK to be scared by the responsibilities of writing and revising, at least sometimes. Many ideas fizzle, either because the writer can’t concentrate on them long enough to blow a spark into a flame, or because the idea itself doesn’t have the strength to become more than a hunch. So let’s work with the anxiety.

I started getting serious about writing in the course of writing my dissertation. This is not to say I paid no attention to the craft of writing before that point. I have been an avid reader most of my life, which has given me a decent ear for good prose, and I always aimed to produce good work, but I also generally distinguished between the history on the one side and the writing on the other. I spent hours in coffee shops polishing my MA thesis—I even got a compliment on the writing from one of my committee members for my trouble—but I was nevertheless committed to the idea that I was not a good writer. 

Sometime during the process of producing my dissertation, an unwieldy monstrosity that received no plaudits for style, I came to appreciate a closer connection between the historical research and the process of articulating the arguments. I started to read books on academic writing and started to integrate writing into how I teach history.

And yet, I never picked up a book by William Germano, one of the doyens in the field of academic writing whose From Dissertation to Book is a standard text for grad students looking to publish their first book. After reading his latest book, On Revision, I might have to return to that text even if I am nearly finished with the eponymous process.

On Revision is, in one sense, an entirely redundant book on writing. Any book in the genre worth its price will repeatedly point out to the reader that writing a bad first draft means that you now have a piece of text to improve. And yet, this can be a difficult lesson to learn. For this reason, Germano’s book represents an attempt at shifting the entire mindset: revision not as a necessary part of a larger process, but revision as the only part of writing that really matters. 

Germano establishes what he means by revision early on:

Correction is not revising. There’s no bigger misunderstanding about how writing gets to be better. Correcting is small, local, instant….It’s easy to confuse fixing errors with revising ideas and reconfiguring the shape of the text.

In the sense that I also aim to teach writing to my students, this was a welcome disambiguation. I often idly correct grammar and punctuation while grading papers because I do think these are important things for students to become aware of (and because I have this recurring fear that someone will review a book I write by just listing the myriad of typos), but I also point out that not all of my comments are created equal. Mechanical corrections are fine, but I am much more interested in how they revise their ideas and arguments. The question I keep coming back to is how to convey this necessary process to my students within the strictures of an academic calendar. On Revision can’t help me with the structural parts of my courses, but has given me food for thought in terms of how I articulate revision to my students.

On Revision opens with a short introduction and a chapter (“Good to Better”) that makes a case for revision generally and offers nine principles to get started. From there, Germano investigates four essential rules for revision that put those principles into action.

Germano’s first rule is simply to “know what you’ve got.” This might sound tediously banal, but in order to revise a piece of writing, you need to know what you are writing toward. This means carefully reading what you have written and taking stock of what it is you are trying to do with the piece.

In one of my classes this semester, I ran an activity where the students reviewed something I have been working on for a while now. I like the argument, but it has a fatal flaw as it is currently constructed: I don’t know what it is. This was a piece that started as a draft blog post before becoming a possible conference paper, and then an article that might work for a video game journal or a classical reception journal, before finally becoming a public-facing article. This circuitous route is in part because I don’t know what I have other than perhaps a point that missed its period of relevance. As I explained to my students, this means that I have a lot of revision ahead of me.

The second rule is looking for and highlighting your argument—or, as I tell my students, making it clear what you are trying to prove. I couldn’t help but laugh when Germano declared “A lot of academics…stop at simply indicating aboutness. “My book is about economic inequality.” That’s not an argument.”

I laughed because this is very similar to a mini-lesson on thesis statements that I gave to each of my classes this year after my first round of papers came back with a very five-paragraph type of non-thesis that restates the prompt with three sub-topics loosely related to the topic.

Stating the topic of an essay is easy. Articulating your argument compellingly and concisely is hard, if for no other reason than that it requires you to take ownership of what you are saying. Trust me, it took me forever to find a way to explain the argument of my dissertation (now book) project without rambling incoherently. Even now I only do so with any amount of success about 75% of the time and have only done it perfectly two or three times. I hope one of those is in the manuscript itself.

Germano’s third rule is about revising with an eye toward the architecture of a piece. That is, thinking about the order of the information and the internal coherence of the argument. Thinking in these terms, I have discovered that I have a particular affection ring structure within my work, often opening with some anecdote that illustrates the argument I am trying to make and that I can call back to in the conclusion.

Finally, Germano calls on his readers to attend to their audience. If you are asking readers to give you their time (and often money!), then they are going to expect your attention in return.

In each rule, Germano offers illustrative examples and, usually, helpful exercises to perform on your writing. My favorite, from the architecture of the piece, echoes a piece of advice I have been giving my students for years. He calls it “The Writing W” based on the constellation Casseiopeia or “The Wain.” The constellation has five stars that look loosely like a W. Following this path, the writer has something to do at each stop. First, write your opening move, then write the conclusion. Then you fill in the gaps between the two with everything you might need to support the argument and lead to the conclusion. Then you write the conclusion again, adjusting based on the evidence. Finally, re-write the opening paragraph.

I don’t teach comp, so my exercise is less formulaic, but it follows a similar principle: the introduction should be the last thing you write. It can also be the first, and I am certainly the sort of writer who likes working through an idea from the beginning to end except on exceptionally long pieces, but I preach to my students that the process of writing a paper will often change your ideas about your topic, so you should be prepared to adjust what you wrote accordingly.

On Revision is a hard book to write about succinctly. It is filled with principles, techniques, and encouragement and while I am hard-pressed to come up with anything that I didn’t already know or do, its virtue is in how it articulates this essential process. After one read-through, my copy is filled with post-it notes drawing my attention back to individual passages or ideas. and that alone speaks to its value. But, beyond that, Germano’s authorial voice is that of a compassionate mentor who wants to see your work become the best it can be. I might hate reading my own writing, but he is here to say:

It’s OK not to reread one’s work when it’s done done, but revision is the crucially important process by which you get your work to that point.

ΔΔΔ

I am way behind on my intended posts right now, but I have continued reading apace. Ruth Ozeki’s The Book of Form and Emptiness is as beautiful and traumatic as her A Tale for the Time Being, which is one of my all-time favorite novels, but maybe just a little bit behind in my personal estimation. I also recently finished Ayse Kulin’s The Last Train to Istanbul, which is based on real accounts of Turkish diplomats trying to save Jewish Turks (and non-Turks) from the Holocaust. I didn’t think it worked perfectly as a novel, but I want to know more about the history. I also read Brief Lives, the seventh installment in Neil Gaimon’s The Sandman, and am now reading the second volume in The Expanse series, Caliban’s War.

The best of intentions

I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.

Dave Barry, The Salmon of Doubt

I love setting goals.

Over the years I have come to realize that I work best when I have clear and articulated goals I can work toward. This doesn’t mean that I have to know what I am doing. Quite the contrary—I like situations where I need to work out my thoughts on paper or come up with a work around or react and adjust. I just like those situations with clearly defined parameters.

Goals set those guardrails.

My problem is that I tend to set too many goals, fail to achieve them, and then feel bad. In the SMART acronym, “achievable” has always been my issue and I have not managed to brush missed deadlines off with the breeziness of Dave Barry.

This is the long way of saying that after setting the modest #AcWriMo goal of a month-long metacognitive exercise, I promptly managed to miss two consecutive weekend reflections.

On the one hand, I have spent most of this month reflecting on why this time of academic calendar is so hard, mostly while buried under an avalanche of grading. I touched on this in my first #AcWriMo post, and it remains true. There is a finite amount of time and both writing and teaching take as much as you are willing to give. Anything I write here is extra; some months are easier than others.

On the other hand, my missed reflections also speak to modest success. I averaged nearly an hour of writing a day during the first week of November. In truth, I would have liked to write more, but an hour is my usual target: long enough to write or edit a chunk, but short enough that it doesn’t consume my entire day. And yet, that one hour also meant that I fell behind on grading such that I spent following week playing catch-up. Here I sit on the first day of the third week and I wrote for nearly an hour and was able to dedicate some time to moving other parts projects forward.

Several of my students told me today that their goal is simply to make it to break next week. I am sympathetic to this position. In the words of Giuseppe from The Great British Baking Show, “my objective for this week is to survive.”

Giuseppe: “My objective for this week is to survive.”

At the same time, I can’t help but hope I’ll find a little spark, something that will plant a burning thought that just has to get onto paper.

Selfish Writing

After what seems like ages of running into walls I have recently gotten good news about several of my writing projects, including about an article that had been stalled for more than a year after being summarily rejected and then falling victim to the malaise I felt when it looked like my academic career might be over. Now, this bits of positivity has not prompted an outpouring of words on these projects, but they have boosted my confidence, which, in turn, has made sitting down to write a little less taxing.

Time is the biggest impediment for me right now. Simply put, I just have a lot of demands on my time and my first semester teaching in a new institution has eaten up the vast majority of my time on campus. I have done a bit better protecting my writing time this week, but I accomplished this in part by spending an evening in front of my computer and with headphones on—to say nothing of coming at the expense of grading time.

This evening I attended a virtual lecture given by UCSB professor John Lee about his forthcoming book about John Wesley Gilbert, the first African American to attend the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (also the subject of next year’s Fordyce Mitchel Lectures at the University of Missouri). Toward the end of the talk someone asked him what he is working on next. Lee laughed and said that next up he was going work on being a good husband and father.

By that point in the talk the audience had already been treated to a child ready to play with dad, but the answer also reminded me of something that Bill Caraher has written several times while documenting his journey toward completing his academic monograph: writing is a selfish exercise.

Books require time and attention to cultivate from the germ of an idea to the final product. Where other types of writing might require a few days or weeks of attention before they see the light of day, an academic book often take years of sifting through research, thinking about issues, and stitching together ideas before even getting to the revision stage.

I happen to think in book length chunks and like this process well enough that I want to continue doing this regardless of where my career takes me. (Seriously: I lay awake consumed with anxiety last week because I only had three history books and one novel that I want to write after I finish the one I am working on right now.) And, yet, I cannot disagree that book-writing can be a deeply selfish pursuit.

It would be one thing if book-writing, specifically, was my job either because it meant securing tenure or because it constituted a significant amount to may paycheck. Right now, though, neither of those things is true and coming to grips with the possibility of changing career paths over the last several years dispelled the last vestiges of the hope that another publication would tip the scales in landing me a tenure-track position. My department supports me as a scholar, but I am employed as a teacher so writing remains something that I do on top of my contract. The difference is largely semantic in practice, but this semester has also made me keenly aware of those evenings when I tell my partner that I have to—i.e. want to—write. In effect this is me telling her that what I want to do with my evening after spending all day at work is to put on music and play with my thoughts rather than spend time with her. There are of course compromises. I almost never write in the evening if I can write earlier in the day, for instance, and I rarely write on the weekends, but these only go so far. The fact remains that I am writing my book(s) because I want to write the book(s).

#AcWriMo 2021

Through some dark magic that I don’t understand November begins on Monday, which means that it is once again time for #AcWriMo. Looking at my archives, I first came across the idea in 2012 (don’t read the post, it is awful) and have used it as a way to think about my writing every year since 2018.

Inspired by #NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) in which authors aim to write a short novel in a single month, #AcWriMo aims to fulfill similar objectives of setting goals, establishing writing habits, and building writing community for academic writers.

All of these are very appealing to me, but, even when I set goals like I did last year, I have not yet successfully participated. In truth, November just falls at a bad time in the academic calendar for establishing writing habits.

It starts at a point in the fall semester when my grading load has peaked, my pre-prep has been exhausted, and my energy has reached a critical low.

It ends with a holiday week when I either need to travel or just want to curl up and sleep.

Although I had hoped that the stability of a full-time job would give me more space to write, that has not yet been true. Last year my part-time schedule was particular conducive to my writing habits. I only taught in the afternoon, which meant that I could almost always afford to spend part of the morning at my computer even when I had course prep or grading. The several years before that were more hit-and-miss, but I could make time more often than not, particularly at the start of the pandemic.

I have found this semester harder.

One of the questions I ask the committee when I interview for academic jobs is whether there is a tradition of reading each other’s work in the department. This question is designed to further signal that I an active scholar, but it also allows me to gauge what sorts of support the department has for research and whether there is a healthy department culture.

When I interviewed for this position the chair of the committee, now my faculty mentor, laughed and asked who has time to write. The department members have research profiles and some publish a substantial amount, but his cynicism reflects how much time it takes to invest in teaching, mentorship, and meetings. Given that the sheer number of courses I am teaching is lower than in the past few years, I think I underestimated the time commitment the transition would take, particularly when considering that I am adjusting to the classes as they are taught here, planning for future semesters (a welcome change, if I’m being honest), and participating in programs for new faculty.

Even when I can leave my work in the office, I rarely have energy to write when I get home in the evening. Granted, this is not unusual for me. I discovered years ago that my best writing happens in the morning and I rarely try to write anything more substantial than a blog post at night because any investment won’t be worth the return. Better to spend that time with my partner.

(For similar reasons I try to monitor my exhaustion levels: I do a lot more doom-scrolling social media when I’m tired. I have been doing a lot of scrolling recently. The current state of the world isn’t helping, either.)

The truth is, I actually feel reasonably good about what I have managed to accomplish this semester, I have just also accumulated a not-insignificant number of writing commitments. I am in good shape for most them, provided that I can recover a writing routine soon, but I regret to say that for one of these commitments I have become the sort of academic I told myself I never would be. The order management monitor is blinking a furious red on that one. I think of the pieces I owe in terms of the monitors at McDonalds that track how long it takes to assemble outstanding orders, maybe because I spent several years after college working in the quick-service industry.

However, there is a simple, selfish reason why I want to use the coming weeks to re-establish regular writing habits. There are certain things I need to make sure that I feel balanced. Reading fiction is one, alongside exercising and baking bread. Writing has joined this list. As recently as three years ago, I hemmed and hawed about whether I enjoyed writing, but the answer at this point is clearly yes. Writing is the mental exercise that accompanies my daily physical workouts, so getting these exercises in only intermittently has take a toll on my emotional state.

I did such a poor job of meeting the ones I set last year that I am hesitant to set goals this year. Even by my low standards, it was a poor showing. I want to write a lot of pieces this month, but I also know that I have little sense of what is attainable and a bad habit of working on whatever catches my attention at a given moment. In other words, saying here that I am going to write a certain number of things this month will have little effect on whether or not I write them. As a result, I am trying something different this year.

My goal this month is to be more attentive to how I am spending my time so that I can use more of it to write. That’s it: a month-long meta-cognitive exercise. The only accountability I am assigning myself is a single post each weekend on writing. These posts might be anything on that topic, but I expect that they will be variations on a theme rather than simple recaps—if only because I would need to explain what I am working on for such a recap to be at all meaningful and I am often hesitant talk about works-in-progress in this space.

To be honest, I don’t know how this experiment will go. Possible outcomes range from tapping into a well of discipline that results in significant progress on academic projects and a flurry of posts here, to only being able to focus writing on more frivolous projects like the paper I shelved a while back uses Britney Spears songs as subheadings, to discovering that I simply can’t muster the energy to write despite my best intentions. The answer will likely change by the day, so the question will be whether I can stay on schedule with modest gains more days than not. Tune in next week to find out!

Why I Can’t Write: A Collection (of Excuses)

A few evenings ago my partner wandered into my office and saw that I was sitting at my computer writing a blog post. I have been writing less than I would like lately, but I had found myself starting to pace after dinner and figured that getting words out of my head might help put me at ease. I have written before that I find writing meditative, after all. But writing is also an anti-social behavior that means not spending time with her, so I asked if she minded if I ignored her for the next hour or so.

“Writing seems to be good for you,” she responded.

I spent that night writing, but also wanted to reflect on the reasons why I don’t write.


I have no strong feelings on an issue. This was always my issue when writing to a prompt in high school writing contests. This is different from not knowing how I feel about a topic: when I am interested in a topic I just need to start writing to find my voice (and my thesis). When I am not invested in a topic, writing feels like an exercise in pushing mushy peas around a plate until I’m dismissed. If I am not invested in what I’m writing, then why should I expect anyone to read it? And thus begins a circle.


On the other end of the spectrum, I struggle to write when I have too much to say. Sometimes this means that I am too invested in a particular topic, sometimes it means that I just have too many thoughts all jumbled together. The solution here is often either writing more as thought to card my thoughts like a jumble of wool or trimming the topic into manageable chunks, but sometimes I just have to let the topic go.


I haven’t read enough. In my academic writing, this is perhaps the biggest sticking point. Writing without having done enough reading is a futile exercise in my experience. This is not to say that I need to have read everything before starting to write, but I can’t write cold. I can vomit words on the page as a way of articulating my initial thoughts, but that writing is functionally meaningless. More often, I find myself staring at that accursed blinking cursor at a loss for where to begin.


The most common reason I haven’t done enough reading is that there are times, particularly during the semester, when I am busy. There is always something else that needs to be done, so I jealously defend my writing time. However, that is easier (if not easy) to do for long-term writing projects than for writing whimsical blog posts on the writing process or keeping a regular journaling habit.


When I get tired I get distractible, and when I get distracted I can’t write. I have developed numerous strategies to help me focus over the years—logging off social media, setting concrete blocks of writing time, writing in the morning, music and headphones, etc. —but they don’t always work. For instance, I have had a harder time convincing myself to get up early to write during the pandemic, but I also struggle to string together sentences in the evening after I finish teaching and have recently resolved to more seriously protect my weekends for rest with the idea that I will be able to better write (and teach) if I’m not exhausted.


I am worried someone else said it better. At basically all times, no matter what I am working on. One of the (not)joys of experiencing depression and anxiety is the perpetual fear that whatever I am writing is going to turn out to be a steaming pile of shit. (Pardon the language.) The specific fear changes—that my ideas are stupid, that my writing is bad, that someone else already said whatever I’m trying to say and did so much more brilliantly and insightfully.


Sometimes I don’t feel well. Among non-debilitating ailments, headaches are the worst because that is the body-part I am using—usually—when I write, but all manner of physical ailments interfere with the process. Hunger is another one. I can write on an empty stomach if it is first thing in the morning, but if my stomach starts to rumble I need to address that before I can focus enough to write.


Listing reasons why I can’t write has always struck me as though I’m aping Goldilocks or assuming an “artistic” temperament where I can only work when the conditions are just right. But I also believe that anyone who declares that they are able to write most of the time is showing their privilege. That is, the statement announces that their financial, emotional, and physical conditions are almost always in the right place to be able to write. They still have to address distraction and writing still takes discipline, but it is worth acknowledging that there are a myriad of reasons why someone isn’t able to write at a particular moment.

My hurdles are mild compared to those faced by a lot of people, but they are still hurdles. Acknowledging that is the first step toward overcoming them.

Summer Reset

I feel like the spring semester just ended, so when did it get to be mid-July?

(I submitted the grades nearly two months ago.)

Since then I have:

  1. submitted a book manuscript
  2. presented at two conferences
  3. worked revised/re-formatted an article
  4. moved
  5. read some (okay, ~20) books

I think I managed to get some rest in there, too, but it is hard to tell sometimes.

July is often a hard month for me and I am finding this one particularly difficult. I thrive on routines, but this time of year is basically the doldrums. I have almost no immediate external deadlines, and it is still too far from the start of the semester to trigger any sense of urgency about preparing for classes but also too far from the previous semester to coast on those rhythms. I usually like to take a week or two post semester to decompress before settling into a summer routine. This year I spent the first month of the summer staring down writing deadlines and then the second month moving, so I am just now settling in to think about how I want this summer to look.

The irony here is that I have actually had a productive summer already and the best thing I can do at this point is to make sure that I am rested for the start of the semester.

Rest is certainly on the docket for the next couple of months, but I also know from past experience that doing nothing usually feeds back into my anxiety and undermines that recovery. It is better for me to find a balance that includes some work, some exercise, some hobbies, and some downtime nearly every day.

To that end, a few goals for the remainder of the semester, by category:

Research and Writing

  1. Spend at least an hour every workday writing. What I am working toward:
    • Submit the revised article mentioned above. I put this one on the back-burner last year in order to work on my book manuscript after receiving a particularly harsh reader report, but it is on the cusp of being sent off again.
    • Convert the longer of the two conference papers into an article for an e-book the organizers want to publish of the proceedings.
    • Re-write the second conference paper to sharpen my argument.
    • Looking for a book to review this year
    • Slosh around in a playground I have been invited to participate in to see if I have anything to say.
    • Dust off some of the projects I put to the side when I thought I would be leaving this profession to see what still runs, setting in motion a more fully-developed research pipeline.
  2. Read at least a chapter every day from an academic book not strictly for research
    • My goal is to finish three (3) books by the start of the semester

Teaching Prep

  1. Obviously I need to prepare my syllabuses, but, also:
    • run each course through a backward course design process that I haven’t had the time to do properly in while adjuncting.
    • pre-design a number of the course activities I want to implement, particularly in my World History courses where I was inspired by a numismatics activity Lee Brice and Theo Kopestonsky presented about at this year’s Association of Ancient Historians meeting. The goal of these assignments would be to introduce students to a range of evidentiary material from the ancient world that give them the tools to think historically about the world around them (see backward course design).
  2. Usually I read a book on teaching each summer, but I suspect that will not happen this year, so:
    • Find 2-3 articles on teaching to read this summer
    • Update my pedagogy reading list
    • Identify a pedagogy book to read by the end of the year
  3. Work through the Athenaze textbook. Book 1 has 15 chapters, so if I do roughly a chapter each workday I should be able to finish before start of the semester. This project is not for immediate use, but I was taught using a different textbook and I want to be more familiar with the other options in case I am ever given the opportunity to teach Greek.

Exercise

  1. I am currently nursing a calf-strain, but I would like to get to where I can run 2 miles at a time by the end of August. My actual goal is a good deal further, but I have found that running is a humbling experience for me and I need to set ambitious, but reachable goals. Before this strain I could run between 1 and 1.5 miles at a time.
  2. Gradually expand my weight routine past what I am currently doing — i.e. past a lot of pushups, which is effective, but also pretty repetitive.

Hobbies

  1. Read six (6) more books before the start of the fall semester.
  2. Finish the main storyline in Ghosts of Tsushima and decide whether to pick up a new game or return to the mythic quests in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey.
  3. Maybe finally write about Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey and/or other hobbies
  4. Definitely write more here. However, my guiding principle for this space will remain whatever I feel like writing about that I don’t have an outlet for.
  5. Spend a little bit of time overhauling this site. I have a few overdue changes I want to make, including archiving an article that is no longer embargoed by the journal, updating my Commonplace Book, and making headway on the forever-incomplete teaching section.
  6. Make a point of sketching in my sketchbook once a week, perhaps looking online for lessons.

This is a long list of projects and goals given that the summer is already 2/3 over, but there is a lot of overlap between categories and only a few of these points actually have measurable targets. The rest are (a) things I have to complete anyway where working on them sooner will relieve stress later; (b) things I’m likely to be doing anyway; or (c) building or reinforcing habits that can continue after the start of the semester.

Now I think I’m ready for summer to begin.

I did this thing, it’s rubbish, but here it is. Let’s never talk about it again, okay?

I like blogging for a lot of reasons. In part, I use this space as an outlet for all sorts of topics that I would not otherwise get to write about — book reviews, pop culture discussions, thinking out-loud about teaching or academia or random historical tidbits. It also encourages me to write a lot, which I firmly believe is how one learns to write well. I also like how, at least on a personal blog, it can be done quickly. My process involves writing a piece, a quick editing pass, and then hammering the publish button. Sometimes, if I think the issue might receive a lot of blowback I will ask a trusted reader for feedback first.

This is how I have published more than 536,000 words on this site, some of them excellent, some of them bad, most of them just okay.

I also like the ephemerality of blogging. Certain posts routinely get traffic — my review of the novel Basti is perennially popular among what I assume are Indian students who had to read it for school, for instance, and apparently people liked my review of The Fifth Season — but most posts get all of their traffic within the first week of going up unless I do something to promote them later and, even then, that tends to be much lower than the initial burst. (Even a week is generous; I’m lucky to get three days.) These are the same trends that lead to concern about the future of blogs, but I like using the space to think through issues with the reassurance that I am not writing a κτῆμα ἐς αἰεὶ, a possession for all time, as Thucydides characterizes his history, but rather something of the moment with a slightly longer residue.

I cringe when I read my earliest posts, which I actually imported from an earlier iteration of this blog. I have considered purging them altogether on more than one occasion. They are very different from what I write about now and I don’t agree with everything I wrote back then, though these tend to be issues of historical interpretation rather than moral stances. What stops me from purging the record is two things: those posts almost never receive visitors and if someone were to look at what I wrote then and what I write now there is clear evidence of maturity as a writer and thinker.

Which brings me to the title of this post. It comes from a conversation I had with a friend a couple weeks back about the importance of self-promotion. I like writing things and putting them out into the world, but I also do very little by way of promotion and struggle to do it even in applications where it is absolutely essential. The line was hyperbolic, a play on managing expectations downward.

The single biggest factor behind my reticence to self-promote is that when I put something out into the world I immediately become anxious about how it will be received — no matter how proud I am of the work.

Some fear is normal. Academic reviews are frequently sharp, cutting pieces apart with analytical skills honed through years of training. I have done pretty well passing my scholarship through the peer-review process, but deeply negative reviews still hurt and so I get a flutter every time I send something out. What’s more, I also recognize that the peer-review process is imperfect such that even a piece that passes muster there can meet with a negative reception once it goes out into the public.

Other aspects of my anxiety is more idiosyncratic. Imposter syndrome, the feeling of being a fraud about to be exposed at any moment, is rampant in higher education and I am no exception.

I have struggled with feeling inadequate since my time as an undergraduate at Brandeis, where I was at the “best” school I applied to but surrounded by people saying that they should have been at Harvard. When I went to graduate school, I ended up at a lower-ranked institution because I was turned away from the better programs. Multiple times. The Shadow-CV movement ostensibly meant to de-stigmatize “failure” a few years back had the same effect because it made me feel like I was failing wrong. Just recently, the discourse around Princeton changing its requirements for the Classics major once again reignited these insecurities. I went on to receive a Ph.D. in ancient history, but my B.A. was “only” Classical Art and Archaeology and Ancient History and thus distinctly remember being informed by an otherwise very nice individual that I wasn’t a “real” Classics major.

Then there is an aspect of self-assessment. While I have become a significantly better writer than I once was, I still don’t consider myself a good writer. I like to think that I am a good historian, but others are better — stronger linguists, more creative researchers, more clever thinkers. Comparison is not a useful exercise, but I am perpetually in awe when I read the brilliant work of my colleagues and a little voice whispers that this thing is better than anything I can hope to do. I would like to keep the appreciation for other people’s work, but ditch the little voice.

One thing I have done well is produce. The same habits that led to a half a million words published here have helped me put out a steady stream of articles and reviews despite heavy teaching loads, limited institutional support, and contracts without an incentive to publish.

Self-promotion will probably never be my forte. I’m good for a tweet and blog post promoting my work and recently recorded what will be my first podcast talking about some of my research, but much beyond that my sense of reserve starts to kick in. What I need to remember is that there is a difference between promoting what one has done and promoting one’s own brilliance. The latter is self-indulgent vanity, but the former is normal, expected, and not incompatible with wanting to craft an academic persona based being a dedicated teacher, a generous and supportive mentor, a kind colleague, and, yes, a scholar.

I am proud of the work I have done and think that the pieces currently in the pipeline are better than what has already come out. There are a few pieces in the works, but the biggest one is this. A little over a week ago, I sent a complete manuscript to my editor for a book based on my dissertation. There is a long way to go yet, including another round of reader reports, copy-editing, indexing, and all of the little things that turn a manuscript into a book, but this also marked a major milestone in the project. The butterflies of anxiety immediately began to flutter, but I am immensely excited to be one step closer to seeing this project into the world.