Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Getting Unstuck

Much of my time lately has been spent figuring out ways to the writer's block that has been keeping me from working on my dissertation. I've tried free writing, writing in different genres, reading, free writing again, editing, reading ... but inevitably I come back to where I started. The ideas are coming much slower now that I'm trying to think of how the chapters will work together to form one argument. It's like my brain is moving in smaller and smaller circles that tighten around each other and choke off forward progress.

I had a brilliant week mid-September when I felt like I couldn't write enough, but now my well is dry and I'm struggling to get started again. Thankfully, this particular dry spell has happened at the same time that I'm teaching Jane Austen's Emma. I'm not writing on this particular book per se, but my fourth chapter, “Revising Sympathetic Silence: Jane Austen and the Domestic Novel," tackles themes that occur across Austen's oeuvre. I thought I would test out some of the ideas from my chapter on my students to see 1) if I could articulate them out loud, and 2) if they have any legs. 

I chose a section from the first volume. Emma has just left an evening gathering and is accidentally placed in a carriage with Mr. Elton without a chaperon. Mr. Elton, who has been drinking far too much, takes the opportunity to begin professing his undying love for her. Emma, thinking that his affection for her stems from his love of her friend, Harriet Smith, rejects him, and, mortified, stops speaking:
"It would be impossible to say what Emma felt on hearing this—which of all her unpleasant sensations was uppermost. She was too completely overpowered to be immediately able to reply: and two moments of silence being ample encouragement for Mr. Elton's sanguine state of mind, he tried to take her hand again, and joyously exclaimed—
'Charming Miss Woodhouse! allow me to interpret this interesting silence. It confesses that you have long understood me.'
'No, sir,' cried Emma, 'it confesses no such thing. So far from having long understood you, I have been in a most complete error with respect to your views, till this moment.'"
(Broadview edition, ed. Kristin Flieger Samuelian, p. 150).
We began working through this section by discussing the conditions in which this conversation occurs: how Mr. Elton is not bound to uphold social rules of propriety because no one is present who can contradict him; how Emma's protests go unheard because her voice is worth less than his; and what it means to truly "understand" someone. It's a fairly straightforward moment, full of awkwardness and the types of social anxiety that make Austen's novels so witty and enjoyable, but one that nevertheless touches on the themes and concerns of my dissertation.

I felt the conversation went fairly well until I tried to articulate more specifically why this scene is symptomatic of contemporary debates on female conduct and the particular ways Emma tries to resist Mr. Elton's advances given the ineffectiveness of the conversational tools available to her. I noticed that my students' eyes began to glaze at that point, and I knew I would lose them if we continued along that path. On further reflection, I think that if I provided the students with excerpts from conduct literature on female speech that shows how young women were expected to be not only courteous and delightful in conversation, but also bow to the expectations of fathers and husbands, they would have been better equipped to discuss why Mr. Elton takes it upon himself to "interpret this interesting silence" for Emma. Furthermore, I would have liked to utilize J. L. Austin's speech act theory to investigate why the power of refusal is denied Emma (i.e., she does not have a witness that can validate or substantiate her rejection, and is instead placed at the whimsy of Mr. Elton).

Though the pedagogical utility of my theories are still shaky and underdeveloped, the experiment helps me to better see what scaffolding I need in place for my ideas to work. Plus, we've got two more days of Emma, so I may try another tactic in the next few days that may be more effective.


As I mentioned in my last post, I am moving my Blog to its own website, hopefully this week. I'm not sure how this will turn out, but I'll let you know when to start updating your bookmarks/links. Stay tuned!

Thursday, September 5, 2013

The New Academic Job Market

Yesterday, our department held its annual meeting for the graduate students who are going on the job market. I've attended the meeting as an onlooker for the past few years to get a sense of what was in store, but this is the first year I've attended as one of the job seekers. I have nearly a complete draft of my dissertation, with revisions, rewritings, and the distillation of my argument into an introduction as my remaining writing tasks, so it's time to leave the nest.

For the past three years, the agenda has looked much the same: this is what a dossier looks like, here are some sources on how to draft a cover letter, don’t forget about the importance of your teaching statement, and whatever you do, DON’T PANIC. This last admonition typically has the opposite effect on me, which is probably the reason why I scramble to sign up for every professionalization opportunity the university offers even as I internalize the futility of it all. This year, I had the same stomach-dropping sensation as the agenda was passed around, but even as I tried not to vomit, a curious realization hit me. All of the people sitting at the table yesterday are going on the job market for the first time. The people who attended past meetings have defended and gotten jobs. Academic jobs. Good academic jobs.

As I worked to square this observation with stories told by my twitter feed—filled with panicked, cranky, dismissive, and pessimistic observations about the current situation in academia—I opened my ears to actually listen to what our job coordinator had to say. And to my delight, the agenda took a slightly different tenor than last year. The traditional ways of finding and applying for jobs are changing. The MLA JIL used to be the only source for academic employment opportunities. Now there are a plethora of sites, including Jobs in Higher Education, Academic Careers, and Women in Higher Education, not to mention various list-servs and the Chronicle of Higher Ed, that list jobs in a variety of fields. I don’t have to be limited to the 20 or so (extremely competitive) positions in Romanticism that will open this year because there are a number of opportunities I could pursue.

In addition, our meeting stressed the importance of being savvy while job searching. This year, every grad student on the job market will create a personal website since a professional online presence is almost a prerequisite for the top jobs. I’m happy I bit the bullet and created this blog three years ago, but this semester I’ll migrate it to its own domain, and will update it with writing samples and sample syllabi. I’ll also implement a blogging schedule soon, something I’ve resisted in the past that now seems practically mandatory—the only thing worse than a poorly designed website is a dormant one.

It’s a semester of change, but I’m excited about the challenges ahead. And for once, I’m not panicking.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Higher Ed Job Crisis: Just How Bad Is It?

In a recent blog post for Inside Higher Ed, Lee Skallerup Bessette chronicles her bleak job search over the past few years. She writes:
I’m still receiving rejection letters in the mail (and emails) ... The letter I received today (Monday) outlined that they had received over 500 applicants and conducted dozens of interviews.*
Dr. Skallerup notes the scanty job market in her field that grows increasingly smaller every year. Everyone (administrators, job seekers, search committees) agrees that we're in a tough spot. But recent attempts in Higher Ed blogs and commentaries to dismiss the problem by comparing the job search to a lottery or a game (as their recent "Play the Role of the Search Committee" feature illustrates) belittle job seekers, of which there are too many qualified individuals to collectively patronize them as overly ambitious or ill-suited to academia.

But why should we care? Certainly there are other, more pressing, issues such as the growing amount of student debt that need to be addressed. Yes—but the conversation about academia and money shouldn't be an either/or questions. We need teachers to train students, to give them the best quality education the university can offer them; but we can't do this effectively if our instructors are spending 3 to 5 years on the job market hoping that eventually they will "beat the odds."

What type of work are we looking for when we seek these positions—that is to say, professorships in the humanities? One simple definition could be an opportunity to teach college students at a competitive salary and to conduct our research in a supportive environment. By "supportive," I mean institutional access to libraries and other facilities, and a university that provides basic care such as health insurance and retirement plans for its employees (for that's what faculty are, even if they refuse to accept this label).

Whether this happens on the tenure track or no, there are things we need to set in place to make sure we are providing the best support for teachers. Livable wages and some measure of job security are a good place to start.

We need to work with our administrations to put these changes in place. We need to hold our administrations accountable when they change minimum degree requirements, or raise tuition so that students are forced to turn to MOOCs or community colleges in order to afford their degree. These proposals are not my own, and there are already people with bigger microphones than mine working on these issues.

Still, it troubles me that there is an entire generation of academics who are growing so dissatisfied with the system that they are abandoning it to the lowest bidder. We hear shouts of rage from every corner—so why aren't we making meaningful proposals? Ones from which all constituents of the university—students, faculty, and administrators—can benefit?

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Book Tourism—Researching my WIP

Over the past few weeks, I have started revising and rewriting my work-in-progress, a love story/conspiracy plot set during the 1928 Democratic National Convention, here in Houston. Much of the work involves restructuring my plot and getting rid of material that served as back story, but that doesn't need to take up real estate in the actual novel.

Last week, I headed to the microfilm room in the basement of Fondren to read past issues of the Houston Post and Houston Chronicle. Working on a historical novel presents its own challenges, but I love that when I get stuck, I can go to the records for that day to see what actually happened. If it rained on Monday, I can turn a leaky roof into a plot point. Extra tickets to the rodeo available? Send a character to retrieve them.

But what I really love about researching this novel are the random tidbits scattered throughout the archives. Newspapers in the 20s resembled sincere tabloids, lively and bizarre. On one day, the reporters couldn't get a statement from a son of a prominent official, so they reprinted his refusal, along with the reporter's commentary: "Mr. Blair is 21, and when a man is 21 he has a right to express his opinions as a man among men."

You can't make this stuff up.

Along with dozens of these little one-liners, I found a picture of a house that represented the "typical" "Colonial homes of moderate cost which have been constructed in River Oaks within recent months." For those of you who don't live in Houston, River Oaks is widely regarded as one of the most opulent, extravagant, and, yes, expensive areas to live in the city. It's also where my beat-up apartment is located, so I had to go see this house.

We plugged the address into our phones, and took a long walk last night. Most of the houses in that neighborhood are original, though some have been knocked down and replaced with even bigger mansions. But there it was—the house in the newspaper, almost 100 years old and still retaining to a large degree its original character. The trees in the front yard were massive; the house next door had an oak whose gnarled branches were supported by iron posts.

So much of the Houston of my novel has been torn down, replaced by highways or skyscrapers. It was amazing to see a part of it still thriving after all these years. We stood as long as we could, about twenty seconds, before the owners noticed us pointing and measuring with our hands and opened the blinds to look. We turned our tracks and headed home, my mind spinning with images of Gatsby-style cars and suits and cigarettes.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Live Tweeting—What is it? Why do it?

I've been recruited to live-tweet during the Millennial Medicine Symposium next Friday (held at Rice University at the BRC). Live-tweeting is more focused than regular tweeting in that it involves a group of people having a conversation around a certain topic searchable with hashtags. Over the past two or three years, academics increasingly have used live-tweeting during conferences, speaking events, and other site-specific gatherings to share knowledge and participate in debates. With university budgets cut year after year, we may not be able to attend as many conferences due to smaller travel budgets; live-tweeting helps engage scholars across the online community and to bring the ideas discussed at the conference to a larger audience.

Live-tweeting is also a great way to meet people, especially at larger conferences. I live-tweeted during MLA-Seattle and AWP-Boston and shared ideas with people sitting in the same panel (via Twitter). There were fewer people tweeting during the BWC-Albuquerque two weekends ago, but I similarly found people who share similar research interests.

If you've never live-tweeted, here's a round-up of links to help you get started. And feel free to join me (@AnnaSaikin) on Friday as we discuss what the future of medicine should be, and how we should get there—#MMed13

Live-Tweeting Best Practices — From Twitter Developers; gives basic overview and tips

Live-Tweeting: An Essential Top 10 Guide of Tips and How-tos —Covers basic tips and suggestions on how to make a successful live-tweeting session

12-step Guide on How to Live-Tweet an Event — Much like tips and how-tos, but covers before and after the event

5 Tips to Help You Live Tweet a Speech — Symposiums are different than conferences in that there are usually only one or two speakers during each block of time. How to live-tweet when you're listening to a more lengthy presentation

List of 10 Most Socially Awkward Examples of Live-Tweeting — Not all events were meant to be live-tweeted. Here are some examples of times when you should put the phone down.

If you have other suggestions, feel free to list them in the comments. See you there!

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Blogging through the Dissertation

Last month, the Chronicle of Higher Ed posted an essay on how blogging helped one grad student in the humanities finish his dissertation. The comment section is filled with both supportive and condescending remarks—some in the digital humanities praise bloggers for helping to share the work of academia outside the Ivory Tower, while others were more inclined to say "the lady doth protest too much."

Although the writer, Maxime Lariv√©, claims that the blog should be related to the student's research, to me his argument seems valid no matter what the subject of the blog. (No surprise there—the topics on this blog sway wildly from academia to creative writing to everything under the sun.) I have found that my biggest problem while writing the dissertation has not been the research or the arguments—though these have been plenty challenging. Rather, its keeping the momentum of writing moving forward, which, coincidentally, is also the advice my advisor gives me when we run into each other in the hallways. "Are you writing? Keep writing!"

The point of writing a dissertation—the first draft, at least—is to demonstrate that you have the chops to write a monograph-length work of original scholarship. But those 200-odd pages do not come naturally. Blogging, and the sense of community that comes with it, keeps you honest. When I'm writing here, I'm usually also writing there. If the well dries up, it's that much more difficult to sit down in the chair again.

For the record, I'm not the only one in my department blogging. When I first started blogging, a senior grad student (now an assistant prof at an East Coast university) kept a personal blog where she wrote about her personal life with a bit of research thrown in. Tim Morton, a faculty member at Rice, is a prolific blogger—he frequently liveblogs guest lecturers, and posts several times a day.

Though blogging might not be for everyone, I do think that it as some value, even if you can't turn it in to your committee. If it helps write the dissertation itself, I say, go for it.

Monday, March 4, 2013

VIDA Count, Redux

This morning, the 2012 VIDA count went live. For those that haven't heard of this organization, VIDA counts the number of book reviews, reviewers, and articles in various nationally distributed magazines written by men and women in order to quantify the gender disparity in publishing. The count is now in its third year, and this year's results are largely the same as last year's: in most publications, male contributors outnumber female contributors 2 to 1.

Various reasons for this disparity have been proposed—an implicit bias against female writers; fewer women submitting their work; fewer women who respond to solicitations. I think the answer is complex (as these things tend to be), and the roots of our current situation are deep. Though some publications have responded quickly and with intensity to this problem—including one of my favorite literary magazines, Tin House—most have ignored the call to change.

The count doesn't surprise me in the slightest, as disappointing as it is to an aspiring creative writer. The publishing climate in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century was much the same as our own: opinion makers denigrated female writers for publishing literature that was not as "important" as that written by men. Those women writers who were successful were considered to be morally loose and were subject to personal attacks. Women can be muses, but not active members of the literary community.

Of course, we all know this is hogwash. Popular (or public) opinion rarely reflects the actual operations on the ground. All the same, this is where we are, and we have a long way to go. All we can do is keep  submitting—getting our work in front of editors is the first step—and keep buying work from writers, both men and women, who we respect.

For those of you going to AWP conference in Boston, you can join the conversation during the VIDA panel: Saturday: 1:30 – 2:45 pm
Numbers Trouble: Editors and Writers Speak to VIDA’s Count (Jennine Cap√≥ Crucet, Don Bogen, Katha Pollitt, Stephen Corey, E.J. Graff) Room 208, Level 2: Panel S198.

And if you're going to AWP, let me know!