Tuesday, September 25, 2007

At the Chronicle: Confessions of a Journal Editor

Jeffrey J. Williams has an interesting essay at the Chronicle, "Confessions of a Journal Editor." It's behind the subscription wall, but here are a few of the flaws he mentions seeing all too frequently:

"Glossomania," or excessive citation. Yes, we know you've been to the library, or at least Google, but sometimes it's too much of a boring thing. Or more likely masking insecurity in a fog of citation. Or simply being lazy. . . .

Indirection. Some journal articles suffer from being excessively roundabout, taking longer to get to the point than Henry James. A common habit in literary articles is to start with a quotation or a description of a literary scene. Sometimes, as in Stephen Greenblatt's essays, that can be a brilliant device, but it is sorely overused and often a false start, the real point being on page 5. Or the main points are buried, in the middle of a paragraph on page 12. . . .

False difficulty. A common expression in the humanities is that an author "complicates" a topic. That is another academic habit of overcompensation, much like excessive citation. Shouldn't our goal be explanation rather than complication?

Of course not everything can be simple, and difficulty might go with the territory. But the reverse does not follow: A torturous explanation does not indicate difficult thought; it usually only indicates bad writing, its faux difficulty presuming its faux profundity. Think of Wittgenstein: He presents us with nubs that gnaw at us, but his sentences run clear. . . .

Lazy language.

Another glitch is announcing or narrating what you are doing, in phrases like "I would like to argue." Such meta-comments might aid in moments of physical intimacy but are usually unnecessary during an essay. Just argue it!

And then there are a slew of phrases that should henceforth be banned. "Always already" was once striking, but that was in 1972 and it's now a cliché. "Cutting edge" is a phrase that is anything but cutting edge. "Problematic" is just clunky, and actually what people probably mean is "troublesome" or "contradictory." . . .

What's interesting about this is that he actually puts into writing some of the moral absolutes that go unspoken in scholarly prose: to "complicate" something is always good, as in "unlike those poor fools who wrote about this so simplistically before." To accuse someone of "essentializing"--well, them's fightin' words.

I'm not necessarily crazy about "I would like to argue," but to me it does serve a useful purpose; in essays when it's used, usually the author is saying something like this: "I'm done with the introductory fluff and the obligatory citing of every article under the sun. Sit up, now, and pay attention; here comes my thesis." In that way, it can be a good signal to the reader, especially if the article is one that you're skimming to see if it's worth reading later.

I know, I know, we've heard some of this before--but being reminded of what to do, as Williams does, can't hurt.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Meme of Four

Sisyphus has tagged me, and since, like Horace, I am easily flattered, here it is, the Meme of Four (with a few changes, since I just don't have answers for them all):

4 Pieces of Clothing I wish I still owned (and/or that still fit):
1. tap shoes
2. a swirly dress that made me feel like Ginger Rogers, many pounds ago (I sense a theme here)
3. an all-weather jacket that I loaned someone and never got back
4. a 1940s-era thrift-store coat with shoulders that made me look like a linebacker--but a fabulous, Joan Crawford-style linebacker

4 names I've been called at one time or another:
(can't think of any; same for crushes)

4 professions I secretly want to try:
1. Lawyer
2. Benevolent Despot of the World, but I get to define "Benevolent"
3. Computer guru
4. Manuscripts librarian at a big research library

4 musicians I'd most want to go on a date with:
1-4. I can't do better than Sisyphus's response: "Well as long as it’s a magic meme I’d say either Jim Morrison or Jimi Hendrix, even though I think the date would end three days later with me waking up alone and hung over in a small roadside motel of Route 66 with the police pounding down the door. Terrifying, yet who can resist?"

4 foods I'd rather throw than eat:
1. lima beans
2. liver, pork chops, ham
3. pastries (cinnamon rolls, Danish, and all that stuff)
4. fried chicken

4 things I like to sniff:
1. fresh air in the morning. Really.
2. cinnamon rolls (I like the smell but not the taste)
3. coffee
4. lilacs

Friday, September 21, 2007


 I see a lot of deer these days during my walks, usually closer than this. Most of the time, they're grazing by the road staring at me, and I stare right back.
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Tuesday, September 18, 2007

MLA Job Information List: Do not want!

Flavia and Mel have recently had good posts about the MLA Job Information List, with Flavia talking about wondering what might be out there and Mel about the anxieties it raises even if you're tenured and happy.

I used to look at the JIL (and the Chronicle), and, such is the power of the feeling as though you're "cheating" on your current job, even after I had a job I liked and was tenured, I'd make sure the office was deserted before I checked out the paper version.

For the past couple of years, though, I haven't looked at it at all, unless our department had an ad in there or was in the process of writing one for a search. It's not like giving up Bloglines or something, either, where you have to stop yourself from looking; I just stopped and didn't look back. I don't miss it.

Does this mean that I no longer have goals I want to reach or things I want to accomplish? Of course not; it's just that the things I want to do (promotion, eventually; lots of research projects) don't have anything to do with what had become, for me, the huge time suck of dream job/anxiety that the JIL inspired.

Looking at the list can serve a lot of good purposes, and people want to move for all kinds of good reasons, but I'm talking about feeling compelled to consider this option every fall the way a lot of us do. What kind of profession is it that makes us think we aren't "successful" unless we're always anxiously searching for something better than what we have? Academics, that's what.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Reports R Us

It's a lovely day: the sun is shining, it's about 70 degrees, and there's a light breeze blowing. In short, it's a perfect day for sitting at my desk and catching up on all the report-, letter-, and memo-writing that I didn't have a chance to finish during the week.

If you're the chair of something (committee or whatever)or have simply been dragooned into writing the necessary stuff for an organization, it's hard not to have a feeling of futility as you churn out hundreds of words in the service of something that only a few people will ever read or care about while the materials for your research gaze down at you reproachfully from the shelf above your desk. (On the other hand, this presupposes that more than a couple people will ever read your research, but hey, a person can dream, right?)

I think I've gotten better at writing this stuff over the years, though part of it is probably that I'll never know or care whether an annual report got a glowing review or was tossed aside with a "she calls THAT a report?" comment. I take time with them, of course, as I do with the various recommendation letters for students and colleagues I've been writing lately, but most of the satisfaction in writing them consists in the act of crossing them off the list and seeing that page full of black lines where list items used to be.

Maybe that's why those hundreds of words spill out onto the paper so quickly, while a single paragraph of writing an article can take all day. That's why, if someone were to ask me (as no one ever will) whether I write quickly or slowly, my answer would be "both."

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Writing inspiration for a Saturday

From this week's New Yorker:

Kaufman began the novel after his most recent screenplay, which he undertook at the age of eighty-six, came to nothing. His alliance with McSweeney’s was a product of circumstance. “My literary agent, who was younger than me, had died suddenly, and I had nobody,” Kaufman said. He is now writing a second novel. “Years ago, I was working in Italy, and Charlie Chaplin and his family came from Switzerland,” he recalled. “We were at a beach north of Rome, and it was a very foggy day and the beach was lousy. At about three o’clock it cleared up, and Chaplin said, ‘I’m going back to the hotel. Unless I write every day, I don’t feel I deserve my dinner.’ That made an impression on me.”

From Michael Korda's Another Life: A Memoir of Other People:

Korda, an editor, had gone to visit the best-selling novelist R. L. Delderfield:
Delderfield apologized for keeping me waiting, but he always worked until four on the dot, he said. He believed it was important to treat writing like any other job and put in a good day's work. He was particularly happy to see me here today, he went on, because it was something of a red-letter day. In what way? I asked. Delderfield beamed. At exactly three o'clock this afternoon, he said, he had finished his new novel. . . . I nerved myself to ask, If Delderfield had finished a new novel at three what had he been doing from three to four? Ah, Delderfield said, just what he always did. As soon as he ripped the last page of the novel out of his typewriter, he put a fresh piece of paper in, typed page one, chapter one, and started a new novel. Time and tide, he said, in his soft countryman's voice, waited on no man.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Classroom multitasking

The other day, I came into class and had about five things to do at once before class could start: (1) set up the laptop and equipment (screen) so students could give presentations; (2) give out handouts; (3) get books and other materials out of my bag; (4) answer the questions of the nervous, hovering student who was about to do a presentation; (5) put information on the board. As I was doing all this, going from one to the other (writing on the board while the projector warmed up), another student, from his seat, started asking, "When are you going to collect our assignments that are due today?" "I have a plan," I said, and kept on writing, etc., to which another student stage-whispered to the first one, "and you're messing it up." They laughed.

Having that much go on in the minutes before class is a little unusual, but unless you're like a professor I once had who'd walk quietly into a room with his book, no notes, and launch immediately into a discussion of the day's reading without even a "Hello," there's some preliminary set up--staging?--before class can start: you have to get out the book, marker or chalk, notes, papers you intend to give back, and so on, and this takes a little time. Packing up takes a little time, too, because you want to clean the board and get out of there before the next class comes in.

The multitasking I like is the kind that occurs when students want to linger and talk about what we've just been saying in class or walk back to the building to keep the conversation going. The multitasking I'm lousy at, though, goes something like this: I'm frantically stuffing books, papers, computer, and the rest into a bag to get out of the classroom, and a student comes up and says, "I have to be absent on [a day a month away]; what will we be doing?" or "Can I meet with you on X day at X time?" or anything that involves something I have to remember. The same thing happens some times when I'm ready to start class and a student wants to come up and discuss some projected absence or an appointment.

Note to students: The pencil is my memory stick. If you don't see a pencil in my hand so that I can write down what you're telling me, the chances are good that I won't remember it.

Friday, September 07, 2007

College, Hollywood-style (pre-1950s)

As I was driving to work the other day, I started thinking about how professors' jobs and campus life generally were depicted in old Hollywood movies. Of course, there are more recent depictions: what about Ross from Friends, who held down a tenured position at NYU while having oodles of time to hang out at the coffee shop and got articles published without ever spending five minutes in writing them? The old ones, though, seemed to have a set of rules.

  1. College professors are poor, if by poor you mean having a beautiful old Victorian mansion and a maid. See The Male Animal for an example of this. Of course, in 1940s and 1950s movies, characters often yearn to get rid of that spacious Victorian heap with its 10' ceilings and move into a 3-bedroom split-level in the suburbs. In these movies, expect to hear a lot of talk about poor faculty salaries, even as the maid serves tea, and expect to think to yourself, "I wish I were poor like that."
  2. Football and other sports are the raison d'etre for a college. See Father Was a Fullback, etc. Sometimes pesky professors try to interfere with the big game by insisting that students do a little thing like pass an exam even in the face of the administration's and the trustees' insistence that beating State is much more important. Even the staid Mr. Belvedere gets into the act in Mr. Belvedere Goes to College, setting a high-jump record after he teaches sorority girls to behave like ladies. Night into Morning is the most realistic picture of all these. In that movie, Ray Milland is an English professor who actually spends some time grading blue books in between bouts of handling his personal life. He agonizes about giving an oral exam to a failing student who's needed for the big game but finally does so.
  3. There is a place for women on campus. Indeed there is, and a woman on campus is there mainly to provide a disturbing element: distracting the quarterback of the football team (Campus Confessions), or, if she's older, to be a Wise Dean or an Easily Shocked Spinster Librarian (and yes, I know this is a stereotype, but these movies trade on stereotypes).
  4. Faculty-student romances are common, and a good thing, too. It's a sorry heroine who can't get her professor to marry her, and a lot of professors are single heartthrobs (Van Johnson in Mother is a Freshman, Fredric March in The Wild Party) just to make this possible.

  5. Administrators generally quiver like Jello at any hint of displeasure from the trustees. The Male Animal isn't as funny a movie as it thinks it is, especially in its mandatory drunk scenes, but there is a surprisingly effective plot thread: Henry Fonda insists on his right to read selections from the letters of Bartolomeo Vanzetti (of Sacco and Vanzetti) to his class even if he'll be fired as a communist sympathizer for doing so. Joan Crawford likewise stands up against censorship in Goodbye, My Fancy (pictured above), lambasting her former lover and weak-willed college president Robert Young with a few pithy quotations from Walt Whitman.
Have I missed any college cliches? Are there any new variations?
[Edited to add: Kiita has a good post on this with a lot more (and a lot more recent) films at chasing the red balloon: The thing to determine conclusively is whether you are in a comedy or a tragedy..]

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Civil disobedience or passive aggression? You decide.

Someone who sends out the announcements for a related department always does so by attaching an enormous color .pdf poster and sending it with the message. No subject line. No text. You
a. open the message every time, wait patiently for the .pdf to unfold itself, fight off the "Update me now!" messages that happen EVERY time you open Acrobat, and think "Isn't it nice to know about this event."
b. delete the messages without reading them.

Monday, September 03, 2007

And that's why it is called Labor Day

. . . because that's the day when grad students start bombarding you with chapters, introductions, lists, and other things they've been working on all summer. I know how they feel: "There! That's off my desk now, and I can relax!" I also know how I feel: pleased that they've worked so hard, but a little . . . ambivalent about getting this stuff on the day that's an official day of rest. (I know: it's my fault for opening e-mail.)

. . . because the department chair is apparently having some really productive brainstorming sessions today about all the things we can do, meetings we can have, etc. this semester and is e-mailing us about them. Again: not her fault, but mine for opening the e-mail.

. . . because this is the day to wash, rinse, and wax (or non-wax, whatever the stuff is called) the floors in the house before the real beginning of the semester. I wonder if anyone else thinks this the whole way through such a process: "I'll bet that Famous Critic X never has to wash the floors."

. . . because the letters I didn't get written on Friday didn't write themselves over the weekend, and they have to go out tomorrow.

But it's also a day of fun: a six-mile walk (instead of the usual four miles), picking some strawberries and cherry tomatoes out of the garden, and some work that I've been wanting to do for a while.