How I Write

My most recent on-again, off-again book (i.e. things I read out of a desire for professional development, but wouldn’t label as “fun” and don’t always have time for in the course of “work”) is Helen Sword’s Air & Light & Time & Space: how successful academics write (2017). The overriding theme of the book is that there is that there is no one right way to write. Instead, she creates a formula called B.A.S.E. from behavioral, artisanal, social, and emotional habits that serves as equal parts analytical took for talking about writing and self-assessment rubric. The details of your writing experience, Sword says, are less important than the shape and size of your BASE–with each category rated on a scale from 1 to 10–which forms the foundation for your “House of Writing.”

Inspired by the types of questions Sword asked her interview subjects and the BASE formula, I figured it could be useful to run diagnostics on how I write. This is a long post, so anyone not interested in writing process would be forgiven for skipping the rest.

Continue reading How I Write

Sometimes I hate peer-review

Publishing academic articles sometimes feels to me like a painful roast, where you polish and polish and polish before sending it into the ether and being told some weeks or months later all the ways in which your work sucks. I am being hyperbolic.

Publishing peer-reviewed articles is difficult. According to some more senior academics, it is one of the hardest jobs they have to do. At my current place in this labyrinth, I certainly agree with the assessment. Not only are the standards exacting and the reviewers charged with being tough, and the work is unpaid, yet necessary to even have the hope of achieving the academic-unicorn, a tenure-track professorship. Getting a positive review caused me to be overwhelmed not with joy, but relief; a rejection letter is a visceral gut-punch.

I have gotten two such rejections this summer, the uncovering the most recent this afternoon while clearing out my inbox after coming back from a trip. Both sets of reviewer comments have been harsh, but the process has been straightforward, prompt, and professional. I do not feel that the feedback is misguided other than perhaps one point where I disagree with the comments, but can probably articulate the point. In other words, I have no peer-review horror stories. I have only my own emotions.

Hate is a strong word, but most simply and directly encapsulates the pain, frustration, exhaustion and embarrassment that comes along with this sort of rejection letter. And then the niggling specter of doubt creeps in about my ability to really do this sort of work. Adding to this frustration is that both submissions this summer were parts of my dissertation. I am taking a small victory in that neither piece was rejected out of hand, but there is still the sting of having spent so much time on these submissions.

The addendum to this post is that I also have a deep appreciation for peer review and my interactions with the system this summer have been overwhelmingly helpful for where I can take these projects. The feedback has been harsh and the submissions found lacking for the journals I submitted to, but most readers have offered genuinely helpful, positive feedback, pointing out things in my submissions that would leave me embarrassed (or worse) if they were to appear in print.

I am despondent when I get this news. Certainly it doesn’t help my anxiety or my frustration, but, mostly, it just leaves me exhausted. The letter, as always, has me questioning what motivates me to put myself through the wringer yet again because I know that I will. It isn’t the euphoric high of an acceptance, because that leaves me nearly as tired. It isn’t just an academic career because I could do everything else right and never get the whiff of one of those. At the end of the day I am going to put myself out there again because I have something I want to say.

My 2015 – Using Words

The last of three 2015 reflection pieces I am going to post, this one using the ancient style called “prose” to offer some reflections and thoughts about 2015 and offer some “resolutions” for 2016.

I had my share of struggles in 2015, but they pale in comparison to the massive psychic wounds that openly wept in the US and the world. In general, the year was good to me as an individual. I was able to set a schedule that allowed me to lift weights on a regular basis in the mornings, play in a weekly frisbee league, and play pickup basketball three days a week and, as a result, I lost quite a bit of weight. The opportunities for social interaction decreased somewhat in 2015 for a variety of reasons, including that the friends with whom I was closest are all moved away from Columbia, but I took the opportunity to read more often and, as a result, I finished more books that were not part of my course of study than I have since beginning graduate school. Related, I wrote and published here, averaging more than a post per week–one of the highest rates since I started writing this blog when I was in college in 2008. No one post stands out to me as truly remarkable, but, in general, I am pretty satisfied with the overall quality of the posts.

These situations likely contributed to 2015 being a good year for my mental state, too. There were periods of depression, sadness, and anxiety, which are all natural for me, but there was no extended period where those feelings dominated my existence. Learning to let go of things beyond my control is a continual process for me, but I did better job last year than I usually do. I turn thirty in a month, so maybe this is a sign of becoming an adult, at last.

2015 for me was generally a year of simplification. In addition to the simple pleasures listed above and again learning to embrace the solitude, I cancelled my Netflix subscription and even gave some of my books I no longer wanted away to the local public library. The TV is probably next to go. I also spent more time baking breads, usually throwing together two or three different bakes every week. My signature recipe must be bagels, but I’ve also gotten good at making kaiser rolls, an enriched vienna bread, and croissants, along with other recipes that I make less frequently. I even invented my own recipe for an onion-cheddar-habanero bread that I made into a braided loaf. Toward the end of the year I started branching out with other bakes and made two cheesecakes, though my dessert portfolio remains more limited than my breads. Among my other culinary pursuits were making vodka sauce from scratch and infusing simple syrups, which I used to practice fashioning cocktails.

The inspiration for cocktails came from a bachelor party that took the groom to the Bacardi distillery in San Juan, Puerto Rico in February, and participated in a bartending tutorial. Other than to attend the party, I attended the wedding because I was the one in charge of the ceremony (as the stand-in officiant) for two of my closest friends. The trip was a bit of a whirlwind since, unlike some of the guests, we were unable to extend our stay in Puerto Rico past the weekend, but I enjoyed the experience nonetheless.

On the academic side, I won a dissertation fellowship for the 2015/16 academic year, had my first positive referee report on an article (which was accepted pending revisions), and completed/published two academic book reviews. I also travelled to Boulder to present a paper (which was well received) at a conference, and had papers accepted for upcoming conferences in Omaha and Williamsburg. Of course, my pet elephant in the room is my dissertation, of which I completed an entire first draft and have made strides in turning that sprawling work into a single cohesive thesis. I did not get quite as far as I had hoped, but I still like the project and see it as more important and relevant to big-picture issues than I did at the outset. It still feels like a bit of a chameleon when one asks what exactly it is I am trying to show, but I quite like that part.

There were a myriad of ways large and small that 2015 could have been better, but, in general, 2015 was successful for me. Now for some 2016 resolutions.

The eternal, nebulous, unquantifiable

  • Continue learning to let go of things that are beyond my control. Most things are.
  • Be more patient and charitable with people I know and tolerant of distraction (while working to limit them)
  • Smile more often.
  • Continue to exercise, maintain or improve health and fitness.

The concrete and quantifiable

  • Write more often, here, there, and beyond. Some specific (but not a complete) list of quantifiable goals:
    • Finish the dissertation
    • Write (1) short story and send it off to a literary magazine
    • Complete and send off (2) articles to academic journals
  • Keep up my non-academic reading, but broaden the horizons, meaning:
    • Read at least (52) nonacademic books [note: this includes Infinite Jest].
    • I read (4) books by women in 2015; in 2016 it should be more than (8).
    • I read (7) non-fiction books (not for academic purposes) in 2015; in 2016 that should be more than (10). [Note: I am cutting some slack on the rate increase because I find non-fiction to be harder to read for fun because I have to do so much of it for work]
  • Conquering the kitchen: learn how to make an actual cake from scratch.

October 2015 Reading Recap, as such

Back near the start of October I decided to challenge myself by reading Dostoevsky’s Demons, in part because I have yet to successfully grind through one of those long Russian novels, having abandoned Brothers Karamazov and War and Peace part way through. I have more trouble with Russian translations than with a lot of other languages, and will readily admit I sometimes struggle to keep tabs on who is doing what when there are multiple ways of addressing each character. These are me problems, but I was determined.

Then October happened. The job application process happened, and a whole slew of things I needed to do came up, and a small number of social events sucked what little time I had left. There have been days where wheedling away at a dissertation paragraph has taken the place of opening a book for twenty minutes. It is all rather exhausting and I only managed to get through about a third of Demons. I have not yet given up on it, though, at this point, I might not finish it for another month. I hope not, and if it comes to that I might race through something a little bit lighter before I finish this one.

Anyway, that was my fiction reading for the month of October. Such as it was.

College Athletics, Academics, and Student Success

There are a host of problems with the system of college athletics. For one thing, it is exploitative of the student athletes, even for those athletes who receive a full scholarship for the duration of their stay at the university.[1] For another, professors and aspirant professors (such as graduate students) grouse that the athletic budgets continue to rise while the academic budgets fall, so that top-tier universities have become sports conglomerates with an attached institution of higher education.[2] It is naive and simplistic to blame athletics for the tribulations of academia, though. And college athletics, whether it is a football game or march madness or some other sport, can be fun to watch.[3] It is also rewarding to watch students succeed in and out of the classroom both. For the students trying to become professional athletes the first measure of that success would be getting drafted and so it was cool to see a student succeed in last night’s NBA draft. Not in a “cool, I knew that person with national name recognition way,”[4] but in a v. public recognition of one student’s success way.

[1] According to the NCAA website, the percentage of student athletes on athletic scholarships in college are less than two percent. There are a number of documentaries, particularly in the ESPN 30 for 30 series, that deal with the issue of NCAA regulations and exploitation of student athletes and take all sorts of different perspectives about payments. “Pony Excess” examines the scandal at SMU in the 1980s and treats the situation as a dirty, out of control system of payments. On the other end of the spectrum, “The U” looks at the University of Miami scandals a decade later and the participants revel in the fact that they broke the rules because the system was unfair to them. Somewhere in between the two extremes falls “The Fab 5,” which looks at Michigan’s basketball program in the early nineties. While “The Fab 5” is at times hyperbolic about Duke and the monumental shifts in the landscape of basketball at that time, some of the more interesting elements are how it examines the relationship between athletics and profit for the university.

On a related note (although not about college athletics), I highly recommend the documentary “Ballplayer: Pelotero,” which examines the system by which Major League baseball recruits and signs players from the Dominican Republic. The system there is significantly more exploitative than even the NCAA is.

[2] There is truth to this statement, even though most sports don’t actually make money beyond attracting students. Using information for 2008 published by ESPN, I created a quick cross-section of some D1 institutions. With budgets sometimes well in excess of one hundred million dollars, eight of the nine institutions sampled ran a surplus, but once university subsidies are again taken out of the revenue, only three did so. Three of the schools operated with deficits of more than ten million dollars. The actual numbers, particularly for media revenue, have changed since 2008, but I suspect that it remains an exemplary sample overall.

I do not mean to declaim collegiate athletics or to self-righteously declare that that money would be better spent on academic scholarships, library books, humanities centers or hiring more tenure track professors, although all those would be in my own personal self-interest. Much of that money, including the money supplied by the university, may not exist without collegiate athletics. There are studies that convincingly demonstrate that successful sports programs bring in donations and increase the number of applications the university receives. Sports, more than academics at most universities, create a national brand and raise the profile of the university that can (even though it does not always) create a symbiotic relationship that bolsters both the athletic and academic programs. I should also note that the most noxious fact on the ESPN chart is that pay for coach often far exceeds the tuition expenses. In athletics, just as in academics…and in the rest of US society, it seems that there is a growing gap in benefits for upper level administrators and the workers. Of course, largely unlike many university presidents, the football coaches are actually critical for the success of the football programs, which leads back to the hope for the ideal symbiosis of athletics and academics.

[3] While the NCAA’s feel-good commercials about helping student athletes succeed in school and then in a career once their playing days are over seem rather phony,[3b] there is some truth to this. Most of the student athletes will not go on to be paid for playing the sports, either. There are also a myriad of other emotions teaching these students, from horror stories about runaway egos, to apathy, to the detachment experienced when national announcers praise a student for being such a vocal and active leader while that same student quietly goes about his business in the classroom. In my experience they are much like other students except longer, broader, lithe-r, and with more demands on their time.

[3b] Phony because like all major sporting organizations, the NCAA is basically a protection racket being run for money-making interests…and one that does more to provide a show of legitimacy than one with actual power over those interests. To wit: the NCAA office of enforcement has a v. limited budget and limited power to investigate or enforce rules. A recent report at Sports Illustrated revealed that the enforcement office itself was in disarray in large part because the president of the NCAA ignored internal reports about payments being made at the University of Miami and then acted shocked when the allegations were presented to them publicly. The V.P. of enforcement was then fired and others have stepped down. This evidently leaves a nominal staff of 60 enforcement personnel, with just two with investigators with experience in football or basketball cases. The enforcement office is still more than two grizzled old cops in a water closet conducting investigations, but there are 125 FBS football schools, more FCS, and hundreds of other sports teams across the country, so the office is heavily dependent on college enforcement offices to do the actual heavy lifting on rules enforcement. This may at times turn out to be a conflict of interest.

[4] Collegiate basketball players good enough to be drafted already had national name recognition.

Midnight Musings: Writing Issues

When I started writing this, it was 00:13.

I am generally tired. I am generally sore. I generally have other emotional issues that weigh on my mind. But these are not new issues for me. This semester has been harder, though. Each one seems to be.

Most of this semester has been translation, which I have more or less kept on top of. I certainly have issues when it comes to translating that can only be solved through practice, and practice is what I am doing. Some days are better than others, but I do at least a little bit each one.

No, the larger issue at hand is writing. I have a two-page response paper due each week, plus a fifteen page historiographical paper, and a ten page Latin paper, and a rewrite of my term paper from last semester as a conference paper. These make up a decent, but not an exceptional writing load this term. Once I add in my person obsession towards starting my thesis and a few other things, the load becomes heavier, but still very doable. The problem is that I have not been able to write.

The only thing I have been able to write with any consistency has been my personal journal, and even then it seems that half my entries begin with ‘and now I don’t know what to say…’ Basically I have had semester-long writer’s block. It may seem ironic, but I really do not know what else to say about this. And it is kind of a problem.