Programming Update, June 2018

Summer 2018 has set in, making this a good time to update what is going on here. The spring semester concluded a few weeks ago and I promptly left on a whirlwind road trip that included Savannah, Washington DC, New York City and Vermont, before returning to a 94-degree day in Central Missouri. It was a good trip, but a busy one that left little time for reading, let alone writing.

I am resolved to spend time recuperating this summer after a busy semester that included some medical issues that were probably related to stress and/or anxiety. At the same time, though, I have been hired to teach a three-week World History course in June and am trying to submit a book proposal by the end of the summer. The proposal itself is essentially set, but I am still editing the accompanying sample chapters. (My current worry is that that the chapters are weaker than the proposal.) These are my two concrete projects, but I also have ambitions to rewrite my application materials, rethink the structure of my Greek history class, and work on some of my other academic projects—before considering any of my non-academic projects, including some work to expand and develop some of the pages on this site.

Suffice to say that I have my work cut out for me this summer. I will be writing here this summer as topics come up, much as I have in this past and hopefully without lengthy lulls. To that end, I have two book write-ups planned and will probably write about writing, historical topics, and other varia. This space remains adjacent to my professional identity, but not limited to it, more John Scalzi’s Whatever than Rebecca Futo Kennedy’s Classics at the Intersections or Joel Christensen’s Sententiae Antiquae. I admire people who run dedicated professional blogs and have found myself writing about professional issues with more regularity in the past few years, but still like to have a space to write about other topics.

College and Industry

LMS tech support, freelance construction contractor, camp counselor, grocery store cashier/stocker, quick service restaurant manager, QSR assistant manager, history/classics/political science tutor, adjunct instructor, teaching assistant, research assistant/editorial work, furniture mover, visiting assistant professor.

I think that is every job I’ve held since I was 18. Going back further, I could add data entry, housekeeping at a resort, and some other odds and ends. This is something that some people on academic Twitter have been posting in response to this Times Higher Education opinion piece. In short, the author declares that “Too many academics have spent most, if not all, their professional lives within universities,” and therefore:

  1. all potential professors should be required to undergo a year-long internship before they begin teaching.
  2. And all academics should be required to return to work in industry every three to five years as part of their professional development and career advancement.

My Twitter feed was abuzz with outrage at this article, I think for good reason. Scholars in the humanities reacted to the article online responded by pointing to their work experience and then, in so many words, asking what industry the author propose they take their rotations in. That said, I wanted to unpack some assumptions about higher education, because I also don’t disagree with the top level idea: that it is necessary to find ways to support and improve college education.

First, there are a set of assumptions in contemporary discourse about college, if not the article explicitly, about how being a professor is not “real work,” which encompasses several broad categories that all come back to the cult of amateurism surrounding college. I am obviously poaching my core idea here from the issue of whether college athletes ought to receive greater compensation for their labor, but this cult extends beyond NCAA rules about amateurism. There is a perpetual cycle of hand-wringing about how college students are spoiled and insulated from the “real world” that they will face after graduation, whether in the service of lamenting “kids these days” or the failures of higher education. And if college is not the “real world” for students who are set adrift in their “Odyssey Years” (as David Brooks called it in 2007), then it cannot be the “real world” for their professors, either.

About those professors. There is a persistent myth of overpaid and unfireable professors who are detached from the goings on of that mythical real world. Compounding this problem is that many, if not most, people with advanced degrees have made sacrifices for their field by spending years on meager stipends in graduate school. A common explanation for this is that their research amounts to a passion project. Even glossing over the fact that most professors, myself included, are contingent employees with limited benefits, most tenured professors are not overpaid, either for their level of education or their time. Professors are expected to be experts in their field, prepare, teach, and grade for classes, mentor students, perform world-class research in their field, develop outreach programs, and serve on institutional and professional committees, just as a baseline.

And yet there is also a bias that underlies this op-ed, namely that there is a distinction between “doers” and “teachers.” In the 2000 film “Finding Forrester” featuring Busta Rhymes, a gifted young writer (Rob Brown) is persecuted by his teacher (F. Murray Abraham) and is accused a plagiarizing the work of William Forrester (Sean Connery) until it is revealed that the teacher is a bigger failure as a writer. The argument, then, is that teachers are people who couldn’t hack it in their particular field. (The film makes no concession to the fact that most authors have a day job that may or may not involve writing.)

The author doesn’t go so far as to call professors failures, but she strongly suggests that there there is industry on the one hand and higher education on the other. “Professor” should not be a career, but a position that needs to be cycled through because it results in the professors being out of the loop. This model might be viable for some positions in some fields that rely on industry connections, but, at the same time, universities and colleges often work in tandem with industry in those fields already, with the schools providing cheap labor and resources. Where the model doesn’t work at all is in the humanities, where so much of the research is performed by scholars in higher education. In these cases, mandatory years off not only don’t improve the student education, but actively hurt it.

Higher education is an industry. It employs all sorts of people from maintenance staff to food service professionals to fundraisers and secretaries, but there are two groups without which it cannot exist: students and professors. Work as a professor is not manual labor and has its own schedule, but it is a form of modern white-collar employment.

Of course, the valorization of “real work” cuts both ways. There are plenty of examples of academics who simultaneously look down upon and feel nostalgia for labor that they would never do.

While we’re here, many students are employed, either by the university in the vicinity, and juggle those responsibilities alongside their coursework and professional development opportunities. College has its own set of rules and expectations, but thinking about it as something other than “the real world” is a lazy trope long past its expiration date.

Finally, a word about the point of education. The author concedes that “higher education is not all about career advancement,” but her basic thrust is nevertheless that disrupting the status quo for professors is the only way to ensure students “find their professional niche, alongside the robots.” Humanities and a liberal arts education that teach citizenship are given barely a sentence in the conclusion, without any recognition that these are disciplines that teach the sorts of analytical thinking and communication skills that perhaps most correlate to coexistence with an increasingly automated economy.

By all means, increase resources and opportunities for pedagogical training alongside research support, and find ways to ensure professors stay abreast of the latest developments in their field. As for the internship, there are already years of graduate school, so finding a way to work more pedagogical training into the curriculum ought to be doable. We should not excuse those professors who are oblivious to the difficulties facing students, but the rest of this proposal is a one-size-fits-all solution that frames the virtues of the liberal arts as incidental and therein lies the bigger problem.

A Metaphorical Wall

I like metaphors, sometimes. A metaphor can be a non-sequitur, overly-wrought, or otherwise distracting, but sometimes they are simply good to think with.

A few years ago, I got caught up comparing my academic progress to my basketball jump shot At the time my jump shot wasn’t falling and, at the same time my academic progress felt stuck in neutral Literally and figuratively, I couldn’t put the ball through the hoop. I thought about this connection every time I played basketball, particularly as practice began to pay off with my shot. Little by little, I worked on balance, grip, form, release point, as well as making each of these pieces work together and repeating the whole process the same way each time. My shot never became perfect, and never will, but I developed into one of the better shooters at my regular game. The obvious question was how this related to my academic progress, and I came to realize that, much like my shot, this progress consisted of multiple moving pieces that required a) harmonization and b) consistency. An imperfect metaphor, to be sure, and an academic career is more akin to a basketball game on a team where you are the star, but this comparison helped settle down some of my anxiety and uncertainty and gave me the sense that I knew how I could go about bringing the discrete pieces into a coherent whole.

I have been thinking about a different metaphor recently. Writing is constructive, in a fundamental way. Every piece of writing is building an edifice out of words and ideas in order to convey some piece of information, argument, or entertainment. The blocks consist of evidence and ideas, fused together by word choice and turns of phrase. Well-built, the edifice will be able to withstand weight, but if the walls are assembled in an incoherent manner, they will fall at the slightest touch.

Enter peer review. I’ve had a mixed history with this process, as a lot of people have. “REVIEWER 2” might as well be an academic boogeyman, a harsh, anonymous critic who exists to tear down articles everywhere. Reading criticism of one’s own work is often uncomfortable, and even careful and astute reviewers can come across as cruel judges shining a spotlight on inadequacies. And tone is just the tip of the iceberg, with stories of reviewers who don’t understand what the article is trying to do, whether out of obliviousness, willful ignorance, or lack of clarity on the part of the author, and submissions that go unacknowledged for years.

In the metaphor of the wall, peer-reviewers are fellow architects come to inspect the layout and construction. Some look at the wall as just that, finding the flaws and push it over to let the pieces fall where they may. There is really no way around the fact that those reviewers suck. But there are also inspectors who draw attention to weaknesses and contradictions, not to be mean, but because they want the edifice to withstand pressure. Instead of surveying the wreckage wondering where to even start again or whether to work on something else, the editing process involves pulling out braces and rearranging pieces to create the strongest final product.

I have had the good fortune to have had a fantastic experience with peer-review in all of my recent submissions, but that has only caused me to reflect further about this metaphor. My editing, it seems, involves inserting dowels, applying braces, and rearranging the blocks until they fit just right, not out of a sense of vanity, though I hope the final product looks nice, too, but so that it can withstand as much pressure as needed.

Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process – John McPhee

If you say you see things differently and describe your efforts positively, if you tell people that you “just love to write,” you may be delusional. How could anyone ever know that something is good before it exists?

What counts is a finished piece, and how you get there is idiosyncratic.

Over the past year I have developed an interest in books on writing, academic and otherwise. This is part pretension, part aspiration, and part curiosity as to how books, objects that I have spent my entire life around, come into being. It was around the time this started in 2017 that John McPhee’s Draft No. 4 came out, to general praise. McPhee is a longtime New Yorker staff writer and creative non-fiction teacher at Princeton, experiences which he distills into under two hundred pages of institutional and professional memoir and commentary on the writing process.

Draft No. 4 was born from eight previously published essays on the writing process, though one of its lessons is that there is a difference between articles that appear abridged in pages of a magazine and chapters that appear in a book. Piece by piece, McPhee works through the stages of writing from developing a topic to relationships with editors and publishers, and from the victories of publication to the weeks and months of painful gestation before the first draft is completed. The eponymous “Draft No. 4,” which McPhee describes as the fun part, is final pass where he plays with the choice of words and phrases. Along the way, he offers reflection on the characters at the New Yorker and Time magazine. Writing might be a solo endeavor, but publishing is not.

Each chapter is well-crafted, with a subtle humor and ample examples pulled from McPhee’s career, but the advice was not particularly novel. Writing is hard, copy-editors are your friend, it is better to use a common, concrete word rather than using a thesaurus to sound smart. This last is the sort of advice one would get from Orwell or Hemingway on writing, for instance, but McPhee makes his points not only as a long-time writer, but as someone who teaches writing. The result is masterful, a clever combination of direct explanation, artful example, and epideictic display piece.

My personal favorite chapter was the final chapter “Omission.” The primary lesson here is that while writing is fundamentally a generative process, it is more appropriately one of omission. Writing involves choice: of words most basically, but also subject, point of view, structure. Writing is not a universal medium designed to capture everything, and any attempt to do so will result in fetid muck.

Draft No. 4 is not for everyone, but anyone interested in writing or in some small insight into how the New Yorker works could do worse with this book.

ΔΔΔ

I read Draft No. 4 as a break from David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, which I am about 60% of the way through. I’m hoping to finish it soon because I’m excited about a lot of the other books currently sitting on my shelf.

Best* Posts of 2017

It is that time of year. Once again I want to highlight some of the favorite things I wrote this year (last year’s list). I will probably publish a few more posts before the end of the year, including starting my end of year reflection posts. These are not necessarily the best or the best-trafficked, but rather things I wrote that I look back on fondly and think are worth revisiting.

First, I wrote more about the ancient world than I have in past years. A few highlights:

Person and People: Herodotus

Mass Persuasion (Again)

Class Warfare in fifth century Ionia

Isocrates, on the importance of history and oratory

Herodotus on rejecting the expertise of physicians

More Political Wisdom from Ancient Greece

Isocrates, on Corrupt Politicians

Alternate Colors

The Fate of Oratory

Did Alexander the Great suffer from CTE?

Second, three posts about contemporary events:

Re-evaluating Antisemitism

Write to your Senator

Privilege and Deportation

Finally, two posts about books:

EQ in fantasy literature

A Review of Infinite Jest

Between this blog and my academic projects, 2017 was good year for my writing. I would still like to engage more with current events, but the problem with this goal is that it would require writing on demand which, at least in the past, has not been my strong suit.

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

Writing and Experience

When I find an author whose work I like, I tend to seek out everything I possibly can from that person. There are exceptions to this rule, particularly in genre fiction where I can be turned off by a particular premise, but working through an author’s catalogue is my general m/o. In part this habit is a way to hedge my bets that I will enjoy each new book I pick up now that I have basically stopped re-reading books, but it has also led to an observation: writers improve.

Trite, I know, but true. Some authors may hone their craft such that each book in a series is more precisely paced and formed as though from an assembly line, but in others the craft of writing is more finely-tuned.

My favorite example of this is in Hemingway’s novels. His earliest novels, The Sun Also Rises (1926) and A Farewell to Arms (1929) offer the classic examples of the spare prose style that is associated with him, but by To Have and Have Not (1937), For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940) and definitely Old Man and the Sea (1952), Hemingway had mellowed the harsher edges of his prose. From a technical standpoint, he had improved. Hemingway’s unfinished novels show similar improvement, even in their unfinished state.

More recently, I’m noticing a similar improvement in N.K. Jemisin’s novels, from her first novel, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (2010) to The Fifth Season (2015). The former is excellent, refreshing for many reasons, the latter is a pleasure to read, almost poetic in its presentation.

This observation is not meant as an endorsement or indictment of any particular book. There are plenty of experienced writerly ticks that drive me insane and first books that set an impossibly high bar, but, nevertheless, experience is an excellent teacher. Why mention it, then? Simply because it gives me hope that, given practice, my writing will continue to improve too.

(Re)visions and Assignments

Every student paper should be revised. More than once. In an ideal world, that is; in the real world there are problems of scale and deadlines.

Periodically I receive an request from a student to revise a paper in return for extra credit. In the past when teaching in surveys of American history with up to a hundred students at a time, I feel obliged to reject these requests. I would love it for students to revise their papers, but extra credit is not something I can extend to just one student in good conscience and there isn’t enough time in the semester to let every student do this unless it is built into the course. On the one hand, I feel bad about rejecting some of these requests since I am acutely aware of the challenges facing the current generation of college students; on the other hand, though, the requests are framed in terms of getting a higher grade, not in terms of education.

This disparity comes in part from the nature of these assignments. I suspect that nobody has looked at a survey-level essay on the changing conceptions of race in America from 1865 to 1925 as an opportunity to write a brilliant and incisive critique of race in America. Even if the author has a fiery passion for the topic, the prompt and supporting materials don’t lend themselves to it. The disparity also speaks volumes about how courses like this one are treated. They are a grade, not an opportunity to learn about American history or learn practical skills such as writing or rhetoric.

Returning to the nature of the assignments, one-off submission that return marked and assigned a grade lend themselves to thinking about the assignment in terms of the grade instead of in terms of process. I understand the counter argument that history classes are for teaching history and not for teaching writing, particularly in these large survey courses. And yet, history is fundamentally discursive.

This fashioning of history, along with how we remember history, is going to be a point of emphasis this fall when I teach a survey of archaic and classical Greek history. I am going to do this not only because of the recent and not-so-recent appropriations of antiquity for political agendas, but also because I hope that pushing people to think about these issues in a Greek context will make it possible to think about in our contemporary context.

I am also planning some opportunities for my students to revise their work, made possible in large part because of a smaller class size. As of right now the idea is to give an option for students to revise at least one of their assignments for a higher grade, as well as making that type of assignment recur once more later in the semester in order to maximize the benefit for the student. The plan is to have revisions take place in two phases, with the first being that they come meet with me to discuss the assignment, before then making revisions based on both the written comments and conversation. My hope is that in addition to setting assignments that push the students to write a decent amount, adding this (optional) revision stage will meet the students halfway toward thinking about assignments qua grades. That is, maximize the students’ opportunity to earn a higher grade while underscoring that writing (and thinking) is a process that doesn’t happen simply by vomiting words onto a page.

Authorial Voice

Confession time: my biggest challenge as a writer is voice. As in, how does one develop an authorial voice? What distinguishes voice? A second challenge is beginnings, though I suspect that the two are related. In both cases I can recognize both when I read them, but, despite writing for school my entire life, writing here for a decade, and having several publications, I struggle with both.

The issue of voice has been on my mind recently as I turn what little energy is left after the constant bombardment of radiation from the summer sun back to academic writing. On the docket are conference abstracts, articles, a book review, and turning my dissertation into a book manuscript.

If there was one overriding comment during my dissertation defense, it was that the project often lacked for authorial voice. As it was put at one point, there was an impressive quantity and quality of the bricks used in building the structure, but it was lacking voice that forms the mortar.

(A separate issue that contributed to the lack of mortar was the absence of a linear argument in my dissertation, which was partly a quirk in the construction of my project that I am giving a lot of thought to in these revision stages.)

There are features of my writing that I think distinguish it, most notably by an overwriting that I can never quite escape. I try, not often successfully, to write the way that I talk, with the primary difference being to iron out some of the grammatical inconsistencies. I would like to push myself in this direction somewhat further, though, since I am sometimes frustrated with pithy, succinct turns of phrase when in a verbal flow that I can only reproduce on the page in overwrought parody. As an aside, this is why I think that my academic writing is frequently improved when I am able to talk through problems in articulating my argument.

I also have a tendency to imitate the books I read; after all, you are what you read. (To a lesser extent, this could be extended to the words one hears by way of podcasts, etc.) Once, in high school, a friend told me that I “write like a historian” (he did not mean it as a compliment, necessarily), but you can see this tendency particularly when I do a pale mimicry of David Foster Wallace’s style in my blog posts. Usually, those come close on the heels when of my having read a lot of his work, but I also found myself reflecting on this issue while reading Glen Weldon’s The Caped Crusade, which has an impressively flamboyant voice. Imitation is going to be inevitable at some level, and I sometimes use it to experiment with different styles of non-fiction, but it is still something that I need to be wary of, particularly when it comes to extreme fluctuation.

Thinking about writing in these terms, of course, probably isn’t helping things. When I do, I get particularly self-conscious so I become paralyzed about posting on social media because every word in a piece of writing has to be perfect.

Some blog entries are hammered out in less than an hour and posted straightaway, either because the medium can tend toward the informal and unpolished or because it is for capturing a single, relatively complete thought. Others, including this one, are developed over the course of several days or weeks, being built, edited, compressed, and polished. In actual working time, these posts do not necessarily take much longer than ones written in a single sitting, but the extra time gives the ideas room to breath, at least in theory. Here, my reflection is that perhaps what I ought to be working on is revision, on the level of clause, sentence, paragraph, and chapter because while authorial voice is going to come first from the process of writing, it is honed and polished in these later stages of a writing project. Maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that I am better at editing for content than for style.

At some level, though, I already know what is going to happen. I am going to fret about voice, but never come to a resolution. Instead, I will simply keep writing until the issue of voice fades into the background. Maybe I will find something clearer and more robust, either in initial drafts or in edits, maybe I won’t, but the more important thing is that I will keep putting words on the page.

A broken record

I have spent most of the last month feeling downright foggy as I ran the gamut of teaching, revision, and paperwork in the final weeks of my graduate career. But this only partly explains my general silence. I am still working on putting thoughts in order about life, the universe, and everything, and in so doing am developing a newfound appreciation for the genre of “fragment” posts where the author tossing out snippets, thoughts, excerpts, and musings that are explicitly incomplete.

The more ominous issue is one I have had before, namely that I don’t want to sound like a broken record. I think this is why I like writing down reflections (or reviews) of books. It is a genre that allows for a little creativity and reflection, while providing a clear prompt and definite strictures. Increasingly, though, I find myself writing things that I get halfway through only to find them repetitive. Some I find are my own hobbyhorses generally, but also the current political climate has me feeling very much like the topics I think about are ever more limited. Others, though, come from a more debilitating premonition that whatever joke, insight, or observation that I am about to write here or on Twitter has already been said better, but that the extreme fragmentation online means that I have missed it. My fear, then, is that I will be but a pale shadow chasing after someone else’s moment or that I am making a mountain out of a fairly banal, commonly known truism.

At some level I know that I will turn a corner as I work into a new writing routine in the coming weeks, finding new tidbits in my research and teaching. More practically, though, the solution may be that if something is worth saying, it is probably worth saying more than once. Real-time maps of internet traffic are mesmerizing and drive home just how much is said online, so it is a fools errand to be ashamed of repetition. Give credit where it is due, and don’t infringe on people’s economic livelihood, but life is too short to give in to this sort of shame.