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.

75 Luftballons

Every couple of weeks it seems something sets academic Twitter buzzing. Yesterday it was a well-established professor with a light (2–1) teaching load who shared three secrets to having put out 75 publications since 2005 and invited her readers to respond with which of her strategies were the hardest for them. I quote:

  1. I sleep 8 hours a night.
  2. I write for 1–2 hours every weekday
  3. I don’t get in my own way.

I don’t think that the author meant anything malicious by her tweet, but the self-congratulatory framing seemed tone-deaf at a time when a lot of people are struggling. Many academics I follow on Twitter pushed back, challenging her the privilege of such a small teaching load and secure employment, debating whether we ought to measure our academic worth by simple volume of publications—to say nothing of how disciplines count different publications—and still others cast side-eye at what exactly “not getting in one’s own way” means.

When I saw the tweet I mostly just felt tired.

I’m not going to rehash my CV here — I keep a public version on this site that I update every few months if anyone cares. Suffice it to say that since graduating four years ago I have published more than some people, but less than others, while also teaching a whole bunch of courses on part-time contracts at multiple schools.

I exercise daily, make sure to read outside of work (because it is something I enjoy), and try to sleep 8-hours a night. I’ve even had more success with the sleeping since the start fo the pandemic and have started actually taking one day entirely off each weekend!

(Okay, fine. Most weekends.)

I also write for about an hour almost every weekday. The exact time changes, but I try to carve out an hour or two, usually in the morning, where I turn off email and social media in order to just wrestle with words.

It wasn’t always like this. When I started tracking the time I spend writing a few years ago I was in a very different position than I am now. Fresh off my dissertation and only teaching one course a semester, I had time to write and wanted a way to keep myself accountable. As my teaching load snowballed, I found it harder to find time to write and the amount of time I gave my writing plummeted. About the same time, I discovered that I missed that time I spent writing in much the same way that I miss physical exercise when I go more than a couple of days without doing anything. My recent writing sessions have been motivated in part by the terror of several deadlines that just passed for projects I committed to delivering, but I also find peace in the daily practice separate from those commitments.

I want to do good research and to have it taken seriously, but I also can’t define my academic existence by my publication record. My post-PhD life has been defined by teaching positions, often without support for research or publication. I have continued to do both, but approaching them as a second job demands finding other measures of academic success. I can block off time for writing, but the fact that my teaching contracts demand a lot of the time I would otherwise dedicate to focused reading means that I haven’t had the brain space recently to fan the spark of an idea into fully-realized papers. At the moment this isn’t much of a problem given that I am in the final stages of completing projects, but it does mean that my research pipeline will (temporarily) run dry.

But guess what? I’m okay with this! I have jotted down notes for a couple of articles that I would like to dig into, to say nothing of ideas for three more book. None of these things are actually in a research pipeline right now so much as sitting on a shelf collecting dust. Inevitably some of these will never amount to anything, whether because I get distracted by other shiny objects (projects) or because I will take them down to find that the idea half-formed years ago just doesn’t work, but others will eventually enter into the pipe and emerge sometime down the line.

The reason I felt tired when I saw the original post is because I momentarily felt the pressure that comes with using the raw numbers of publications as a metric of academic success. I’m tired enough as it is, I don’t need any more pressure.

As I wrote above, I don’t think the author meant anything malicious by her comment — and may have believed she was trying to help contribute to some sort of self-help productivity discourse that operates in some sort of abstract space where the real world doesn’t apply. This discourse operates in a space of extreme privilege, but it also both responds to and reinforces an academic culture of publication where the goalposts are forever just out of reach. Whatever you demonstrate to be your pace becomes an expectation and however fast you publish you could have put out one more. After all, should we not always strive for maximum efficiency and ever greater production?

Of course we shouldn’t. Fast scholarship isn’t the same as good scholarship.

Now fast scholarship is not actually what the original tweeter called for, but by setting the volume of her publications as a the metric of success she has nevertheless implied that we ought to bow to the pressure to produce more and more quickly. I might be be able to reach 75 academic publications (including reviews), but I also may not ever publish 75 academic pieces in my career. Not only would either of these outcomes be fine with me, but it is also critical to resist the simple quantification of academic production.

Working in higher education has enough challenges already. Rather than focusing on someone’s prodigious output and trying to replicate their method, every discussion of academic productivity needs to start with sustainability, support, and the academic communities we want to create.

Publication Wrap 2020

I had a slow-ish publishing year in 2020, making this a second consecutive year of big plans and limited outcomes, but at least this year I had an excuse!

That is not to say that I didn’t have any progress; quite the opposite, in fact.

I had four short pieces come out this year. Two of these were book reviews:

  1. of Rosalind Thomas’ Polis Histories, which came out in CJ-Reviews online over the summer and was chosen to appear in the print version of the journal.
  2. of a recent translation of Jacqueline de Romilly’s Alcibiades, which came out in The New England Classical Journal this fall.

Two more were interview pieces:

  1. I talked about an inscription thanking immigrants to Athens for their service fighting against a tyrannical government in Athens for the Comfort Classics series run by Cora Beth Knowles.
  2. For the Society for Classical Studies blog I wrote about being a contingent faculty member in higher education and how the current situation is unsustainable.

I didn’t have any original research come out, but I did make headway on several projects. I effectively finished a chapter on the Athenian conquest of the island of Samos in 366 BCE for inclusion in a volume on the Athenian orators and their use of recent history and completed an article on fourth century Ephesus and its relationship to Alexander the Great for which I am looking for a home.

I also buried the lede to this post.

Back in October, I signed an advance contract with University of Michigan Press to publish a book tentatively titled Accustomed to Obedience?: Classical Ionia and the Aegean World, 480–294 BCE. This book is a heavily revised version of my dissertation so while I have quite a lot of work between now and when I’m supposed to submit the manuscript, let alone see the book come out, I am also very excited to have taken a very real step toward one of my professional ambitions.

For a full list of my publications, with links to everything available online, visit this page. If you are interested in reading any of my work and do not have access to it, please contact me.

AcWriMo 2020

I had a rough go of things last fall, taking on so much work that I was forced to give up my regular writing practice. And yet, reading about my struggles to stay on top of my teaching and job applications all while thinking that it might be my last year in higher education strikes me now as blissfully unaware of what was lurking just around the corner in 2020.

These past nine months have been an emotional rollercoaster that has tested my mental and physical endurance like never before. #AcWriMo also bridges the end of a fifteen week sprint of a semester that has stretched both me and my students to the breaking point.

And yet, I’m still writing. Not as much as I’d like, but more than I have any right to complain about under these conditions.

The reasons I’m writing more are varied, but rather simple. I’ve had some movement on a few projects such that I now have concrete deadlines. I objectively have less teaching this semester (and a smaller paycheck to prove it). The teaching I have is concentrated in the afternoons four days a week, which often leaves me time to write in the morning even when prep bleeds into that time. I’ve been better about jealously guarding my time such that I consciously schedule more breaks and thus have more energy to write. I also find writing meditative such that turning off anything with updates (email, news, social media) for the time I’m writing gives a nice reprieve from the fever pitch of, well, everything.

In this vein, I am setting for myself some AcWriMo goals that both reaffirm and expand on my annual writing goals, if not following the formula of setting specific and measurable projects to produce.

  1. One hour per work-day dedicated to academic writing projects, with workday defined as Monday through Friday. I hope to use this time to write, particularly once the semester ends, but this time can also be used for reading or researching, as Dr. Raul Pacheco-Vega suggested today on Twitter. My writing and research processes are already deeply intertwined, particularly at later stages where I’ll pause the writing to build up a note or clarify a paragraph.
  2. Four posts of substance (TM) for this site, one per week in November. In part this stems from a larger goal of writing here with more regularity, but also just to stretch my writing. I don’t exactly know yet what this goal will result in, but the first two topics I have in mind both develop a point or comment I made on Twitter and are related in some form or another to my various academic interests.

That’s it. Writing is a habit that begets more writing, so I’m keeping my goals modest in the hope that I can blow past the targets.

Academic Style

About a year and a half ago I was sitting in a meeting with a college administrator as part of a campus visit for a tenure track job. One of the people who had given me the campus tour immediately before the meeting had tipped me that he was a basketball player, so we chatted about that before turning to the more serious matters like teaching philosophies and the trajectory of the university. He wanted to talk about my research, of course, so I gave the elevator-pitch for my research project. Overall the meeting went well, though I did not get the job. At this point I would be hard pressed to recall much of it beyond broad impressions and the odd fact, but there is one exchange that I remember vividly.

At one point I responded to a question about who I saw as the audience for my research by saying that I am, in essence, writing for my younger self. I mostly remember this answer because it took my interlocutor aback and led to an exchange where we unpacked what I meant, namely that while I like having my writing contribute to scholarly debate and being read by professional historians and classicists, that is not who I see I see myself writing for when I am sitting down to write.

That is, my Platonic-ideal of audience is myself as an undergrad, a young student reading (some) academic articles simply because I liked history. Intelligent, interested, but by no means a specialist despite what a handful of my friends seemed to think. The articles I have published, as well as those that I am currently working on, are specific enough that they might lose any reader not already interested in ancient Greek history, but my goal, at minimum, is that any one who has had the equivalent of a survey course should be able to pick them up and follow along.

To my mind, the inapproachability of scholarship is more often an issue of writing than of ideas because of a perception that scholarship needs to be written in a certain way in order to be coded “academic” or “intelligent.” There is enough peacocking and posturing in higher education that this concern is not entirely unfounded, but it also realizes harmful stereotypes and gives the false impression that most academic research is inherently obscurantist. I am not here to trash nuanced, specific, and technical writing, which is simultaneously necessary at times and not what I am interested in writing.

I have found myself thinking back to this conversation a lot recently as I work on the book based on my dissertation even while sitting at a crossroads that may lead me away from academic life. At issue is how I want to write my book. I had a brief conversation in the fall 2018 with an eminent scholar about my revision plans, that I planned to revise with considerations given toward having a complete (narrative) arc, for the study, he was taken aback and asked why I would want to write something he considered “popular” history for my first book. His reaction was, I think, partly based on a misunderstanding about the nature of the changes I was proposing, but they also stemmed from genuine concern that if a first book were deemed insufficiently academic, it could hurt an academic career.

This scholar’s concern may be moot if my career in academia is indeed drawing to a close, but since I have other reasons for wanting to put this book into the world his words continue to echo. Without explicitly saying so, he implied that writing approachable history is a privilege afforded only to two groups: scholars with an unimpeachable reputation or people outside the academy. This attitude is hardly unique and I have made light of it by noting that every (male) historian of ancient Greece who reaches a certain eminence writes his biography of Alexander the Great.

And yet, when I think about the book(s) I want to write, I come back to same basic position that I expressed that afternoon in Southern California: that the audience I imagine I am writing for is myself as a student. I was not a normal undergraduate student—clearly, I defied all common sense and did a PhD in this stuff—but that figure serves as a stand-in for an intelligent audience who has not yet become completely immersed. I was an enthusiastic but not terribly sophisticated reader who loved a clearly written book that taught him something new. I have come a long way since then, but even now I can be intimidated by certain types of academic monographs if more because they present as more subtly and impressively academic than the books I want to write.

It is one thing to say in a book proposal—or blog post—that you intend your work to be accessible to any educated audience and quite another to put that into practice. I am not even sure that my writing succeeds as well as I would like, even as I find myself writing quite a lot. (While helping a friend craft a sensitive email recently, I calculated that I’ve written more than 750,000 words over the past decade.) This also isn’t the first time I’ve fretted in this space about authorial voice or the sorts of things I want to write, but in as much as I have projects I want to work on even as I prepare for a likely transition to another line of work these questions have taken on renewed significance.

Certain types of writing erects barriers audiences that ought to be invited in. What bothers me about using “popular” as a subtle dig at approachable history and hence at the work of anyone who wants to write approachable history is how it serves as a form of gatekeeping. That is, the implication that popular means a book stripped of its argument, research, and importance when that absolutely need not be the case. The critique isn’t even necessarily born out in practice except in marketing.

What Would I Write

I am in no way a poet, but a year or two back I jotted down a few lines on my phone. I have toyed with publishing this a few times since, pulling back because the words came from a place of frustration.

What would I write
If I didn’t care what they thought
What would I say
If I weren’t trying to stay in a game

Would it be unhinged poetry
Fiery rhetoric or
Tender prose

Public consumption
Private catharsis or
Shouts and whimpers left unheard

Would I grow
Fizzle or
Explode

Or just fade away

I have been thinking about these lines again as the spring 2020 semester drew to a close.

When I started going on the job market during graduate school, I had resolved that I would give the academic job market at least three cycles post-graduation. Without going into too many details, I knew that the odds of landing an ancient history were not good for anyone, regardless of where they received their degree, but figured that three years was enough time to build a bit of a publishing track record, teaching portfolio, and to polish my documents. My hope was that I would be able to secure something full-time and, preferably, multi-year that I could use as a springboard to a permanent job.

In a way I was not wrong. I published a couple of articles in 2018 and have several more pieces of scholarship finished for edited collections or ready to submit to journals, and am working on selling my first book, all while scraping together teaching jobs in four departments at two universities on a semester-by-semester basis. In the 2018/2019 cycle, I had four job interviews and was chosen for a campus visit. In 2019/2020, I had another four interviews and a campus visit before COVID-19 effectively cancelled the academic job market. Further, the same forces that caused the academic job market to crash have dramatically diminished my chances of teaching in the fall semester. At the end of the three job market cycles I gave myself, not only am I staring at a career transition during a global economic crisis for the second time in my adult life (I graduated from college in 2008), but also the short-term employment that I had been using as a bridge is unavailable.

However, this is not a post about employment. My partner has a contract for next year and I have savings that I can rely on while I figure out what comes next. I will line up in the lists against the windmills once more next year, but I am one of many people expecting a particularly spare cycle even by recent standards.

This past spring semester was exhausting even before the transition to distance-learning redoubled my workload. I was teaching five classes on topics that ranged from all of world history to the Vietnam war, so, while I have had larger numbers of students in a number of semesters, this was the largest range of courses I have ever taught. Usually I emerge from the semester exhausted and ready to rest for a week or two before I can turn my attention to my writing projects.

What I discovered this semester was a geyser of words bubbling just below the surface such that the past several weeks have marked one of my most productive writing stretches in almost a year. I am entering into a period of academic uncertainty with more writing projects on my plate than ever, more ideas for future projects than ever, and more enthusiasm for writing than ever. So much, in fact, that I opened a new document on whim last week and started free writing something that is half-forward, half-proposal about a topic I’ve been thinking about for maybe a decade and a half.

All of which brings me back to the lines I jotted down and quoted above. With the exceptions of this site, a private journal, and an intermittent epistolary habit with friends and family, everything I have written over quite a few years has been geared toward securing an academic job. That means peer-reviewed journal articles, reviews of the latest scholarly books, and working to publish my dissertation.

All of these publications function on a system where the academic employer, rather than the publisher, provides the bulk of both research funds and financial compensation. Publishers do incur costs, but journals function on prestige system for both authors and reviewers and the low print runs of academic books mean that authors don’t make much profit, even though both books and journal articles require significant time and energy investment.

If this marks the end of my run in higher education, which isn’t a certainty but does seem increasingly likely, then publishing research in academic outlets is little more than an exercise in nostalgia. I like research, but research takes time, and I am having a hard time envisioning doing that work without hope of compensation when I could—and should— be looking to write for a wider audience.

I have long approached academic publishing as a second job much as many commercial authors work two or more jobs. Other people might approach them as two parts of a single whole, but the nature of my academic contracts after graduate school have never included a research component. My primary employment was teaching. My second job was research and writing. My hope was that I could someday combine the two into a single paycheck, which, in turn, meant prioritizing a certain type of writing. This latest turn in my relationship to academia means changing these priorities.

I am going to finish the academic work already well-underway as a matter of pride. I can see publishing pieces other than book reviews in academic journals again someday in the future, but that prospect is contingent on secure employment in whatever form that ends up taking. In the meantime, the words are coming and it is just a matter of directing them in a productive direction.

#AcWri2019

Last year I wrote a handful of posts reflecting on my relationship with academic writing, using Scholarshape’s reflective #AcWri project. My writing was inconsistent this time last year, cycling through several rough weeks of writing followed by one good one, but I still maintained something that resembled a regular writing practice.

This semester, much to my great frustration, I had to give up my regular practice before the end of September.

Writing during the semester is always a challenge, and not being in a stable position only compounds the difficulty. In addition to the usual preparation and grading, both magnified by the financial pressure to take on a heavy teaching load, there is the anxiety of the job market, both for permanent jobs and for classes for the next semester.

Going into this semester I had resolved not to submit any abstracts this year. I quite like giving papers despite chronic struggles with anxiety, but preparing them takes time and time has been in short supply, so I had hoped to grant myself forgiveness in advance. FOMO (fear of missing out) is real, though, and I’ve sent myself into a neurotic spiral on at least two occasions, once while seeing updates from a conference and again from a reminder that a deadline for proposals is coming up next week for a conference I am almost certainly going to attend in the spring. But my situation this year is in flux: I lack institutional support for conference travel and there is a very real possibility that this will be my last year in academia, so for the time being I am resigned to collecting ideas and reminding myself that it is okay to rest.

For similar reasons, my writing has largely been stuck on the same topics for some time. My primary focus is still my book manuscript on Classical Ionia, which I described last year, but I have become increasingly interested in memory in ancient Greece and begun to dip my toe into a future project on bread and bread baking. The problem of course is that research and writing take mental energy that I have not had while also teaching five classes and applying for jobs.

On the other hand, I am almost done with job applications, I can taste the end of the semester, and I am practically aching to get back to my writing projects. Regardless of whether I continue to teach at a college level after this year, I have ambitions of continuing to write and want to at least finish the projects I have begun. I am not there yet and there will invariably be new difficulties––among them, interview season, figuring what happens next, holiday travel, and recurrences of depression and anxiety––I am close enough that I am looking forward to reestablishing a writing routine.

First Day Fragments

Last August I posted some assorted thoughts going into the new academic year. One post does not a tradition make, but I liked the reflective practice.

Going into my third year of teaching post-PhD, I have been reflecting on the mismatch between the stated learning objectives and the way many, though certainly not all, history courses are taught. Lower-level surveys particularly suffer because they often have higher enrollments as students are required to take them by outside forces that agree in a general about the importance of history, but have little idea what that actually entails.

The result is that the students are tossed into a lecture hall where they receive an information dump from a knowledgable person and (maybe) some time talking about primary sources. In a perfect world with a good lecturer, students who do the reading, and invested TAs, this system offers a way to scale up the mandate for students to learn some history.

But the world we live in is not perfect and these courses can resemble an information dump that students recall just long enough to take the exam.

There are a number of guides for how to improve the “dreaded survey course” that often boil down to “do less” so that the students can do more. This is good advice that I start the semester following and invariably end up clinging tighter and tighter to the sound of my own voice as the semester spirals beyond my ability to adequately manage a full discussion every day.

Nevertheless, I have be changing the format of my lectures to better model historical practice. For instance, I have begun thinking about my classes in terms of narratives and arguments, both in the big picture and in individual classes. The overall syllabus has a trajectory and each individual class has its own thesis. In the slideshow I will often include the thesis at the outset and then use subsequent slides to lay out the evidence for that thesis, taking the time to explore the consequences of this evidence as a class.

Thinking about the class in these terms also embeds a structure that both focuses the content to prevent sprawl and allows it to build on itself as the semester goes along. The further my classes are from my field of research, though, the harder it is to articulate these narratives ahead of time.

ΔΔΔ

Since around midsummer I have noticed a marked improvement in my mood, and even commented on it with regard to my writing. Since then, I have written a few #AcWri threads on Twitter about approaching writing as a discipline and a practice and equating it to physical workouts.

For years now I have been making sure to prioritize my physical wellbeing, using the basketball, running, lifting weights and other exercises to work out stress and stay healthy. My workouts change periodically (recently I’ve been working on flexibility with regular yoga routines), but I make a point of staying active even when the semesters get busy. This year I added mandatory downtime, resolving to take at least one day entirely away from work each weekend.

With this semester poised to be even busier than usual, I need protect time for writing for reasons that go beyond professional output. The hard part will be doing it in a way that preserves balance; simply adding one more obligation to my already full dance card is a recipe for burnout.

ΔΔΔ

I teach five courses this semester, two of which are entirely new and a third that is substantially overhauled from a summer course to a full semester. As a result, I teach everything from the first half* of the world history survey to colonial America, to a survey of American history after the Civil War, to two seminars on Classical Reception.

(The colloquialisms for these surveys are ludicrous. To call all of human history from the earliest civilizations through Columbus’ voyages “half” is patently absurd, even if it is half of the class time dedicated to the world history survey.)

This many classes, and particularly this many *new* classes, takes an enormous amount of time and energy, but they also provide me opportunities to indulge my interest in times and places I don’t usually work on. I may not be the best qualified person to teach every course going into it, but beyond knowing how to craft assignments, find readings, and help students develop their analytical skills, I hope that my own curiosity proves infectious.

ΔΔΔ

The weather in Missouri turned hot and humid just in time for classes to start. The heat index currently sits at 106 at the end of the first Monday of the semester, making it hard to believe that summer has ended. But time flies and I have a lot to do, so here we go.