That’s a lot of words; or, scholarly editing by the numbers

As I have mentioned here before, I have co-edited an anthology of medieval literary texts and am currently working on an offshoot of that anthology, a stand-alone edition of one of the major works associated with that body of texts. And I have reached a milestone in the work of that stand-alone edition: I have finished the main body of the text! Woo hoo! All I have left are some contextual documents to go in an appendix.

If you’ve ever had a modern edition of Shakespeare in your hands, what I did is similar to what Shakespeare editors do — especially for those plays only in the First Folio, since my play survives in only one manuscript text. The product is similar, too: a student-friendly text that presents the text in modern spelling, glosses obsolete or difficult words and phrases, adds stage directions where there are embedded cues in the dialogue, and provides historical or contextual information in footnotes for tricky bits, allusions, etc. I also wrote a general introduction. And since my play is a collection of shorter episodes, they each got their own headnote, too.

Anyway, I decided for some reason to quantify the work I’ve done on this edition. I thought it might be useful to have such numbers for future reference in our increasingly (and irritatingly) quantified world of reports and justifications. Plus people outside of the literary disciplines have NO idea what goes into an edition (and even some *inside* don’t), and students certainly don’t. So next time you’re using a scholarly or critical edition in your classroom, say something about the editor and the work of editing to your students.

So, here’s what I’ve been doing over the last three and half years to produce this edition, at least according to the Word word-count function and some judicious selection of text. I have produced:

  • 70,443 words of modernized-spelling Middle English words (modernized by me, word by word), their glosses, their explanatory footnotes, and their rubrics (speech headings, stage directions, etc.) for 20 individual plays that are part of a larger collection or cycle of plays. (They were perceived as one play in their day.)
    • The nerd in me wishes I could separate out categories for Middle English words I modernized, Latin and French I translated, glosses I added, and word count for the footnotes and the rubrics I added, but who has time for that?! This number comes from adding up the total word-counts of the complete, edited text without headnotes.
  • 10,400 words of original headnotes for individual plays in this cycle of plays
  • 5,757 words of original general introduction
  • plus revisions of 9 previously published plays and related documents (from the anthology that I co-edited)

In comparison, my first monograph was just under 90,000 words, including bibliography and notes. So in terms of sheer interaction with and creation of text, the two tasks are equivalent.

I’ve written about the issue of how to value/count scholarly editing before (somewhere on this blog, but I’ll be damned if I can find it now!), and this makes me think about that issue again. Why is it that at some of the fancier institutions, editions don’t count as much as “original” work?  (My department, I’m pleased to say, gives them the weight they deserve — at least they have so far.) Note that above I referred to my headnotes and introduction as original, because they are — that’s how *I* would teach/introduce the text to anyone new to it. Yes, that includes a kind of synthesis of the scholarship under-girding what I say, but doesn’t all of our work do that? And yeah, the truly original part is only just over 16,000 words (“only” — that’s a journal article and a half!), but the modernizing, glossing, and noting was also an act of close-reading and interpretation. Then there’s the sheer labor-intensiveness that goes into something that’s meant to be really useful to the field. And finally, editions probably bring our names — and therefore our departments’ and institutions’ names — into more notice by more people than our other scholarly work does.

In short: scholarly editions are a buttload of work. You’re welcome!

Barnes and Noble and their Nook Study: evil, incompetent, or both?

OK, so do you all remember the Saga of the E-Text Saga last year? Well, it’s grown epic this year. (There’s a dorky joke in there. Last year’s saga involved an actual Norse saga. This year’s version involves classical and medieval epics, among other genres.)

Here’s what’s going on. The ‘bots at the Barnes and Noble money-making factory have foisted 6 different e-texts on my students, only three (or three and a half — more, below) of which are actually the same edition and translation as the texts I actually ordered. For the moment, let’s leave aside the issue of whether or not I want e-texts at all, and whether or not an e-text is conducive to the kind of close study of texts we do in English. Of those three correct matches, two of them have hideous formatting issues — clearly no human editor was involved in putting together these electronic editions. One of them is a facing-page translation of Dante’s Inferno, which means that in the electronic version, the Italian and English is all mixed up. The other is Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in which the long verse lines get all broken up in random ways, and the table of contents is not navigable enough for someone who wants to assign selected parts, rather than read from beginning to end. (I think maybe the novel — and the way that “book” and “novel” are synonymous for so many people — is to blame for the assumption that one would read every book that way.)

Meanwhile, they associated two *different* translations of the Metamorphoses with the book I actually ordered, and, of course the cheaper one is the wrong translation. What the hell?! Of course any student who decides they’re going to get the e-text is going to go for the cheaper one! But it’s the wrong text, so then they’re going to have to buy the slightly more expensive one after all, and they’re out the original expense entirely, because e-texts are non-refundable. Argh.

And then there’s the random piece of crap edition of Twelfth Night that the ‘bots picked out for one of my other classes. It’s from a freely-available public domain edition, which means it’s some poorly edited 19th century edition, and it is, of course, utterly free of the apparatus that most students need for Shakespeare: glosses, notes, and introduction. And what really chaps my hide is that B&N is still charging $0.95 for it, despite having added no value to the text that a student could find for free on the web. (At least it’s not $6.00, like last year’s public-domain Saga of the Volsungs was.)

Listen up, Barnes and Noble! Different translations and different editions are DIFFERENT (disappointed professor is disappointed!), and those differences matter! Would you give a science student a 19th century book called Biology for their biology class? (Well, maybe you would.) Get someone to program your book-seeking ‘bots better or — and here’s a radical notion — hire real live people to review things!

Had I not just talked to a friendly and helpful staff person in the bookstore, who was able to remove the offending title from the web site, I’d be angrier about this. (Last year it took a call to corporate to get rid of the texts. This year, they’ve got things set up to give the local bookstore more control. Now if only the professor could have that control, please and thank you.) And I was even angrier earlier this summer when the ‘bots had assigned recommended reading to go with my books, which turned out to be yet more translations of the texts I’d assigned. Because yeah, apparently a Barnes and Noble ‘bot knows more about the best translations of Virgil than I do.  Grrrrrrrr.  But those recommended texts soon disappeared, and I’d like to think it’s because our awesome bookstore staff said, “Hey now, I don’t think corporate gets to recommend books for our professors’ classes.”  Maybe. Who knows what happened. Maybe it was just a glitch to begin with.

I could have just had all the e-texts removed from my courses — the bookstore staff person was willing to do that — but I decided I might try an experiment and let students order e-texts of one book in each of the courses with available ones — where it’s the correct translation/edition, of course. In the classical and medieval European lit class, I’m leaving the Nook edition of Allen Mandelbaum’s translation of The Aeneid, and in my introduction to literary study class, I’ll let them buy the electronic version of Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, if they so choose (no edition/translation problems with that text, of course!).  But, I’m going to tell students that if they use electronic editions, they must have a portable reader they can bring to class and must be responsible for knowing how to get to whatever part of the text I ask them to turn to.  I figure it would be good for me to have some concrete experience, good or ill, with students using electronic texts in class, especially if I’m going to make arguments about why they don’t work in a literature class. So this year will be a bit of a pedagogical experiment.

But I have a feeling most of our students, especially in these two classes, won’t get them, even though they’ll save a few bucks. First, most of my students are English majors, and they seriously fetishize printed books. Second, they know it’s hard to follow or take notes if you’ve got a different book than everyone else. And third, most of them *don’t* have tablets and smart phones and the like — our students are broke-ass people — and some of them don’t even have their own computers, so it would be all that much harder for them to get access to these e-texts.  That last point is one I really want to beat into the heads of all those futurists out there who keep claiming that e-texts are the salvation for the debt-riddled student. Yeah, well, the Mandelbaum Aeneid might be $4 cheaper in e-text than in new paperback, but not if you don’t have your own equipment on which to read it! Duh!

And finally, given that we’re in the incunabula stage of e-texts, I really shouldn’t have to take the time and money to vet all the e-texts the Barnes and Noble ‘bots pick out for me. Instead, if *I* want to assign an e-text, I should have to order it just like I would a print book. It’s my damn class, after all.


>Advice for a budding medievalist (in literary studies)

>Yes, I’m still here. Holiday travels and events, plus getting back into the swing of organizing my unstructured time, took a toll on my blogging. Also, I was trying to decide what to write about next and dithering over it until I got an e-mail today asking me to give advice to a first year undergraduate student at another institution who’s interested in medieval literature and in possibly pursuing graduate studies down the line. And I thought, “Wow, that would make a great blog post, especially since it’s medieval in content and I haven’t written a medieval-related post in awhile (which means that Jonathan Jarrett has probably taken me off of his blog roll or is about to!).”

So let me share a draft of what I might write to him when he writes to me (it was his professor who first contacted me on his behalf and the student hasn’t gotten in touch with me) and see what you think. Please feel free to add to or argue with what I say. And since it’s advice for a student at a very small college, where departments consist of 3-5 people and no classical languages are taught, perhaps in the comments we can also make suggestions for those students at bigger colleges and universities. (And note that in the letter I *gently* address the “whether you should go to graduate school at all” issue. He *is* only a freshling.) Also, if my tone is too condescending, please tell me! I’m not used to talking to first years about graduate school!

Edited to add: with some minor revisions, you could easily adapt this advice to apply to any English major. Do a few more revisions, and it could apply to any humanities major or any other liberal arts major. Feel free to use, adapt, and link!

So, here’s what I might write:

Dear Stu,

I’m so glad your professor put you in touch with me. I’m happy to answer your questions and give you some general advice about what to do to pursue your interests in medieval literature now and in the future. You’re already *way* ahead of the game by thinking about graduate school already as a first year student. I didn’t realize that I wanted to pursue a Ph.D. until I was already out of college, and I felt like I spent the first couple of years in graduate school catching up with what I didn’t know. So, in a way, the advice I’m giving you now is what I wish I had done myself as an undergraduate.

OK, first of all, you have three and a half years to explore: to find out what you love, what you’re good at, and who you want to be. Don’t be so focused on the goal of getting into graduate school to study medieval literature that you miss your chance to learn new things — things you might not even yet know you’ll love. You can get more advice like this about college in general and how to get most out of it from the book The Thinking Student’s Guide to College: 75 Tips for Getting a Better Education by Andrew Roberts (University Chicago Press). Not all of his advice will apply to you, since the author works at a big research university (Northwestern) and bases a lot of advice on what resources students at such big places have. For example, he says not to take too many courses with any single professor, but there are only 5 professors in your English department, so that can’t be helped. Also, he has an annoying habit of saying that most professors are more interested in their research than teaching. That’s definitely not true at your college, which is committed to undergraduate teaching, and it’s not even true of everyone at a research university like his. But most of his advice is excellent and equally applicable to you as it is to a Northwestern student.

But now, on to the more specific advice about your plans to pursue medieval literature. First of all, as an undergraduate, you shouldn’t narrow yourself too much beyond the major, and your major is English literature, not only medieval literature. Make your goal being the best *English* major you can be and you’ll actually be helping your chances of getting into a good graduate program. Admissions committees in Ph.D. programs don’t want to see someone so focused so early that they seem unwilling to learn or incapable of making connections across a wider literary history. As professors we often have to teach outside of our specialties in surveys and introductory classes, so the better educated you are in English studies more broadly (including English literature, American literature, comparative and world literature, and rhetoric and composition), the more flexible a scholar and teacher you’ll be. If your department offers a literary theory course, be sure to take that, as you’ll need it in graduate school, and it will give you the tools to think with as you study and write about literature now. Start thinking of yourself now as one who studies and thinks about literature and how it works, and not just someone who reads lots of literature. And to do that really well, it helps to think about how language works, so if take a history of the English language course if it’s offered. It also helps to have experience thinking about as many different genres and cultural and historical contexts as possible, so try to take a range of courses that teach you about as many periods and types of literature as possible, even ones you think you might not like. Even if you still want to be a medievalist, those other courses will help you think about how literature works, and therefore how medieval literature works, perhaps in contrast to how a novel or short story or modern play or contemporary poem works. Take the maximum credits you’re allowed in your major department, but don’t skimp on related fields: history, philosophy, art history, literature from other cultures and languages (more on languages in a minute), and theater (especially theater history). As you’re doing all this, get to know your professors, not just in class, but out of class in their office hours and any department events. The more they know you, your work, and your goals, the better their letters of recommendation will be for you. At a small college like yours, it’s really easy to know your professors and for them to know you — take advantage of that opportunity.

And as you get further in your major, start doing research and reading criticism about the works you’re writing about. Write research papers for as many classes as you can — ones that don’t just summarize what other critics have said, but that enter into conversations with them, argue with them, and get ideas from them (with all due credit, of course!). Ask your professors for advice on what to read, on how to do research (if there isn’t a course on research methods), and on how to write in conversation with the criticism you find as you progress in the major. (I recommend the book They Say / I Say as a good guide to writing research papers, and librarians are *great* human resources for helping you learn to do the research.) If your college or the English department offers you the chance to write an honors thesis, take it. Graduate school and a large part of being a professor is about doing research and writing original scholarship about literature — again, in conversation with other scholars — so the earlier you learn to think that way and to read what others have written, the better jump you’ll have on graduate school and being a scholar yourself. After all, one of the best ways to learn to do something is to imitate someone else doing it, and in reading and thinking about literary criticism, you can start using that criticism as models for your own writing.

While on your college’s web site, I saw that your department offers a summer study-abroad trip to England with the professor who teaches medieval and early modern literature in English. If you can afford it, go on this trip. You get course credit and a great experience all in one, and there’s nothing like being in the places you’ve only read about. Even if you’ve been to England before, being a student there is different from being a tourist, and includes opportunities you’ll only really get as a student.

Now, there isn’t time in four years to take every course ever offered, and you have other requirements and educational goals to meet, too (and you should aim to get that broad liberal arts education in the best sense — don’t skimp on the science and social science courses). So you should be choosy in some ways. Since you want to be a medievalist, choose courses in related fields most closely related to your interests. You’ll still get the benefit of breadth, since you’ll be learning how different disciplines have different goals and objects of study. If there aren’t enough specifically medieval offerings in history, art history, philosophy, etc., take courses on the ancient Greek and Roman worlds (especially Roman) and on the European Renaissance. Or find out what was going on in Asia and North America while Europe was in the Middle Ages.

And take as much of a foreign language or two as you can. Be serious about learning the language beyond the required two years. Unfortunately, your college doesn’t seem to offer Latin, so take French or German, or both. If you passed out of the language requirement, take another one anyway, or get better in the one you know. Most Ph.D. programs require proficiency in at least one foreign language, and sometimes two. For medievalists studying English literature, Latin, French, and German are the most useful, commonly-taught languages to know. There are intensive summer programs in Latin, if that’s an option for you now (Google the phrase “intensive Latin summer courses”); you could also leave that for later, once you’re in a graduate program.

And finally, start looking into graduate programs in your junior year. Most applications are due in December and January of the year before you plan to start. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with taking time off from school — I took three years — but if you want to go straight from college, you’ll really need to start getting applications ready over the summer and early fall of your senior year. While you’re doing all this, talk to your professors, especially the more recent graduates of Ph.D. programs — the ones with the title “Assistant Professor” — and ask them about what graduate school is like, where they went, what being a professor is like (especially beyond the classroom), and how they got their jobs. I’ll be honest: I don’t recommend graduate school for everyone. But you’re off to such an early start thinking about it, that if you start preparing now, even if you choose to go another route, you’ll still have given yourself a great and enjoyable education. If by this time two years from now, in your junior year, you’re still thinking about graduate school and no one has given you the “bad news” talk, get back in touch with me. And in the meantime, use the resources of your career center and learn about other career paths you might take. There are a lot of interesting careers out there you’ve never even heard of, as well as a lot of smart people in the world who love literature but who aren’t professors and have fulfilling lives. It’s good to have options.

And any time you want to ask me more advice — especially about graduate programs for budding medievalists — drop me a line. Best of luck and keep in touch!

>The best professional moments of 2009

>Since my last post had a little bit of the professorial gripe to it, and was also ridiculously long, I thought I’d counter that with a briefer post on what made me happy in my professional life in 2009. It’s still the first week of 2010, so I’m still allowed to do a 2009 retrospective, right?

In our annual reviews, we have to categorize all the work we’ve done in the previous academic/fiscal year (July 1 to June 30) in the three usual categories of what professors do all day: teaching, research, and service. So I thought I’d give you my three most gratifying moments or element of 2009 in the same three categories.

Service is technically the smallest part of my workload (20%), and I definitely don’t do as much as some people in the department. Most of my service work in 2009 was in three areas: serving on the committee that hired our most recent faculty member; serving on the department personnel committee; and being the director of graduate studies, which entails both service (administrative stuff) and teaching in the form of advising, and always poses problems for me when I’m trying to decide what part of my annual report to put its activities on. But this is my blog, so I’m counting my most gratifying moment as grad director in the service category. This year the associate chair proposed the idea to me of assigning one or two outstanding graduate student teachers to their own sophomore level literature course and we decided to do this through a competitive application process. So I was charged with drafting the application with the rest of the graduate committee. With their input, I put together an application that I think will not only give us a good way of assessing the proposed courses and the individual student’s potential for success with it, but that will also teach all of the students something about course design, teaching portfolios, and job applications (that was the model) and give them materials to use if they apply for community college jobs after the MA. So I was pleased with the end product. And most gratifying of all, so was the rest of the faculty, including the composition faculty, who were worried that it would seem like we were “rewarding” students with a literature class over composition. In other words, I seem to have pleased everyone. Yay me!

My most gratifying “moment” in my research was actually, technically, a series of moments, but I’m still counting it as one: that is, the three very positive reviews that my book received in 2009. Even more gratifying was the fact that they were by scholars in three slightly different fields of late medieval literature: one works largely on gender and vernacular devotional literature (including the genre that’s the subject of my book, but not exclusively); one works on literature and the social class that’s part of the subject of my book; and the last one works specifically in the genre that was the subject of my study. Once again, I seemed to have pleased everyone — or a range of someones, anyway.

I’ve actually saved the best for last, the most gratifying moment in my teaching. Oh sure, great reviews of one’s book are *extremely* gratifying, but I’m pretty sure that over the course of my career I’ll have more students than readers of my scholarship, so I’m going to rank teaching as the place where I could potentially have the most impact on the world, even though teaching and research are weighted the same in my workload – 40% each. The most gratifying moment in teaching was a small one, but it meant a great deal to me. Last spring I taught the “gateway” intro to literary study course for the major, which allows me to stretch myself and teach all sorts of cool texts beyond the medieval period, and I always make a point in such courses of including one or two relatively recent American works, or else my tendency might otherwise be to stick to British literature, medieval to Victorian. This year I ended the course with short stories, capped off with Annie Proulx’s “Brokeback Mountain,” as it originally appeared in The New Yorker. I’d never taught it or been taught it; I just decided to do it. We’d been talking a lot in class about the ways in which modern and post-modern fiction writers convey subjective points of view through narrative form, diction, imagery, and so forth, and that’s largely what we did with this story. And I’d also been showing clips of movie adaptations of a lot of the texts I taught to talk about film as interpretation, and to show the formal changes necessary, as a way of drawing attention to the formal elements of writing. Anyway, I did this with “Brokeback,” of course, showing the heartbreaking scene of Ennis visiting Jack’s parents and finding his own shirt hidden inside Jack’s in the closet. In doing so I think I indirectly steered us towards a discussion of the depiction of love rather than sex, of emotion rather than sexual desire. I didn’t plan it very consciously this way, but I think that’s what made the discussion so good. But it wasn’t the discussion that day that was so gratifying — though it was good and blissfully free of awkwardness. The moment came after class. One of my best students, who had taken a number of courses with me, came up to me and said that she didn’t expect to like “Brokeback Mountain,” and in fact, had expected to be offended by it because it conflicted with the way she was raised and with her religious beliefs. I was afraid that what was coming wasn’t a “but” or “however,” and braced myself, but I should have known better since this was a truly thoughtful and empathetic student. And indeed, she did say “but.” She said that and more, that despite what she expected, she found herself deeply and powerfully moved by the story. It’s really a compliment more to Annie Proulx than to me, but the student did thank me specifically for assigning the story and forcing her out of her comfort zone. I’m not really sure why this moment meant so much to me. Perhaps because it came from one of my “fans” who was simply telling me that she was still learning from me, even when it wasn’t medieval literature. Or maybe because at its heart, I think that’s what the value of a liberal arts college or university education in the traditional classroom is about: it’s about the encounter with others.

So what were your most gratifying moments of 2009?

>A weird syllabus?

>I’m way behind on book orders for next semester, in part because I’m doing the intro lit class for the first time in a number of years, and I wanted to change up my old syllabus in a major way, in part to fit the revised expectations and goals of the course, and in part because, well, things get boring if you don’t change things up.

I always think such courses make a little more sense to students and have less of that “cafeteria curriculum” feel if you stick to a theme, even a loose one. (Though too narrow a theme and it gets boring.) So this time around I’m going with “Death and Desire.” (Past themes include “Home Schooled” and “Freaks and Monsters.”) It’s going to be kind of a dark syllabus.

My choices for the lyric poetry and short fiction sections are pretty darn unsurprising, traditional, and canonical, and many of the works were ones that I read in high school. The students might have read some of them in high school, as well; however, these days high school have very different curricula and even if my students have had these works before, I’ve always been good at showing students new ways of reading and even enjoying the tried and true — new to them, anyway. Plus, learning that there are many ways to skin a cat, er, interpret a poem, is a basic but important lesson in literary studies. But when it comes to the narrative works on my syllabus, I got a little weird. Here’s what I’m doing:

Narrative poetry:
Marie de France, Yonec
Anon., Sir Orfeo

Twelfth Night
A Streetcar Named Desire (not in itself a weird choice, but paired with Twelfth Night? Maybe others do it — maybe it’s not as weird as I think)

The novel (here’s where I think I’m getting really weird):
Hardy, Tess of the D’Urbervilles
Ellroy, L. A. Confidential

What do you all think? Too dark? Will my students revolt after having to read Hardy and Ellroy back to back?

Also, I’m going to end with short stories — does anyone have any suggestions for a short story with some relation to the theme that has an upbeat ending with which I can end the course? I don’t want the students to be completely bummed out just as they’re doing evals!!

>From Dr. Virago’s e-mail in box

>Subject: From the view of a scientist

What a wonderful way to get paid to work. Ah that I hadn’t given up my Greek and Latin so early…


That’s all he wrote. I think he’s referring to my whole work, as a professor, and not any particular part of it described in a particular blog post (though I’m sure the recent pictures of Norwich give the impression that I’m always jet-setting around). I’m not even sure how he made it to my blog. So the precise “way” that it’s wonderful is a little ambiguous.

That said….yes. It *is* a wonderful way to get paid to work. And thank you, Mr. Scientist (I’ll keep you anonymous) for recognizing not only that it’s wonderful but that it’s work (and nice alliteration, btw). I don’t think you meant it in the way that some would when they think that professors only “work” when they’re in class and that we have cushy jobs. We work hard, but would that everyone could work like professors do, managing our time outside of class and meeting schedules, and for the most part setting our own agendas. Some of that autonomy might even be possible in many professions. Why is it, after all, that a lawyer working all day on writing a brief or preparing arguments has to be in the office? I remember many days in the law firm where I worked in which a given lawyer was in his or her office, but writing all day, with the door closed, and asking not to be disturbed. Why couldn’t they have stayed home and worked in their pajamas?

My computer science friends in the early 90s figured out ways to work out tele-commuting deals (in the days of dial-up!) with their places of employ and were predicting that’s where everyone was headed. Why hasn’t that come to pass? Why do we put such a premium on being in a place called an office to be productive? I call my room where I work at home an office, too, and I’m more productive there than in the office at school, in part because the one at school is 7×7 feet and doesn’t have enough room for all of my books. And yet, why do I feel guilt every time I answer the UPS guy’s knock in the middle of the day in my sweats?

Or maybe you weren’t just talking about the autonomy, about my ability to go to the doctor mid-day, for instance, and make up the work later, without having to ask for time off. That is, however, one of the greatest perks of this profession. It’s also one of the greatest burdens, because managing your own time can make you a crueler task-master than any boss. I knew this going in. One of the reasons why I took time off from school between my BA and PhD was because I’d felt like with school there was always work to be done, and I wanted to find out what it was like to have a job that I could leave at work. In the end I decided I preferred the one that’s always with me, that’s part of my identity, in part because I realized all professionals take work with them (the lawyers either stayed in the office late or took it home with them), so if I was going to be a professional and work 60+ hours a week, I wanted my time and space to be more elastic. I wanted to at least choose which 60 hours and where.

But Mr. Scientist’s comment about Greek and Latin suggests what he really envies is the intellectual life. (Oh, btw, if you’d wanted to be a medievalist, you don’t need the Greek. Another modern language would be better.) It’s not always as stimulating as one might think from the outside, especially when you’re the only person in your field in a department and your students are, of course, all completely new to it. But there’s excitement to that, too, because you get to see the texts and ideas and images and worlds you love intimately through new eyes. It’s like when you introduce your partner to your family for the first time and they all find him delightful and charming and you remember all over again why you fell in love with him. Even the moments of confusion and misunderstanding teach you things about the reading process, about how minds work, about teaching, about changing culture and attitudes. (For example, once upon a time students thought Pandarus was funny and many thought I was “reading too much into it” to see him as disturbing. Now I can’t get them to see the humor! Maybe one of these days I’ll get students to see that he’s *both* funny and disturbing.)

And this semester in particular I have a fabulously smart group of students in both classes. Oh. My. God. how they are blowing my mind! I ask questions that I think they’ll have to mull over and hash out and one of them will blow it out of the water in a single sentence. And then I have to think fast to come up with more, to push them farther so that the conversation doesn’t grind to a halt. And last night one of my students e-mailed me just to say — I kid you not — that he realized that the American rural regionalism “of a night,” as in “when I lie awake of a night,” is a hold-over of the genitive of time from Old English and early Middle English. Granted, he’s a linguistics major, but still. He e-mailed me just to say this because he’d had that moment of discovery and needed to share it. How awesome is that?!

And even when I spend all day trying to figure out a solution to a problem in something I’m writing — for instance, how to connect loosely related ideas A and B so that my reader doesn’t wonder, “Hey where did B come from and what happened to A?” — and feel like I’ve gotten nothing accomplished, it’s a pretty amazing thing to have spent the whole day thinking. (Remind me, by the way, to tell my students that sometimes I spend a whole day thinking about a single organizational problem in a single paper!)

So yes, it is a wonderful way to get paid to work. Thank you for reminding me of that. But I’m one of the lucky ones, and I fear a dying breed. I have job stability — again, would that everyone did; I don’t think I’m the only one who deserves it. I’m on the tenure track and, it seems (knock wood), will be tenured by the end of this year. For many people — a majority in the modern languages and literature — the work isn’t so wonderful. They knit together part-time jobs at multiple campus, often working without an office at all, running from one place to another, to teach all day long. And they make a pittance for doing so. They’re adjuncts and universities are relying more and more on them. It’s bad for them and it’s bad for students and it’s bad for the morale of the academic community as a whole. Let me give one example: my student who e-mailed me about genitives of time only started sending these kinds of excited e-mails this semester after having had me for a class last semester as well. Lots of other students have followed me from class to class as well. And while I think students should also experience many different teachers and ways of thinking — and not just major in Dr. Virago! — that continuity also gives me the chance to follow the development of a student and, if they need letters of recommendation for graduate school or work, to be able to say I really know this person as a thinker and responsible, serious person. With adjuncts, if a student has a fabulous professor, they usually don’t have that opportunity to follow them, either because they’re limited to teaching multiple sections of the same intro courses, or because they’re gone after a short time. And then what happens when the student needs a letter of recommendation? And that’s just one of the many problems with the exploitation of adjuncts — I haven’t even got started on what it does to the adjuncts themselves, or how it creates an egregious class system within the university. (At my own university, we don’t have adjuncts, but instead have full-time lecturers hired to teach, without being expected to produce research or do service. And while their working conditions are better than the “freeway flyers” who work at multiple universities — our lecturers teach a 4/4 load and are given offices and renewable, union-negotiated contracts — it creates the class system of which I speak.) That’s a whole other post in and of itself.

I write this to remind myself that while there’s much that is wonderful about the work for which I am paid, the system in which I work is flawed, and the access to those things that are wonderful about my position is limited. So I don’t want to take it for granted, especially on those days when I’d rather play online Scrabble than write. But I also want to help do my own small part about this once I have the job security that tenure brings by getting involved in the committees and councils and senates that have the ear of our administration. Because frankly, the benefits to students, the community, and the individual that come with tenure-track employment, especially in the humanities, are cheap by most measures. My salary finally just rose over $50,000 for the first time this year — that’s after 8 years of education at a top school for my field (where I also provided cheap labor as a TA) and 6 years of employment. For the amount that my university is paying for a new financial officer, in a newly created position, they could have hired 7 new assistant professors. Some financial planning, eh?

So Mr. Scientist, yes it is wonderful work. But it’s got its own problems. And I know your public-sector work does, too. Believe me, I do. (I Googled you to see where you work.) I’m not really writing this to school you really, but to remind myself not to get complacent, not to become one day one of those clueless full profs who has no clue what graduate student/assistant professor/adjunct life is like. And to remind myself to see the problems in my profession and figure out ways to help work towards the solutions.

>Making my tenure dossier narratives matter

>On some level, the narratives I have to write for my tenure narrative are merely hoops I have to jump through. But as I’m telling my graduate students in my research and methods course, there’s a way to make every hoop of this profession into something that matters — if not something that MATTERS on some grand scale, at least something that’s useful for preparing for a next step or stage that matters more, or at least for thinking about what does matter.

So I’m kind of happy that I’m practicing what I’m preaching and I’m pretty pleased with what I’m doing with my narratives. They have a recurring theme (how literary of me!), which is the value of the liberal arts, the humanities, the study of literature, and the study of the past (specifically the Middle Ages in my case, obviously). I’m sure I’m not saying anything particularly original, though I am trying to avoid cant and also trying to come up with concrete examples. But I think this is important for those people on the college and university level of the tenure process who might need to be reminded — or even taught — that there’s a value to what we do in the English department, and that there’s an audience for it as well, not just in our students and other scholars, but in the general public, too. Given that our president at one point wanted to make RBU into a science and technology focused university (though he seems to have backed off of that plan lately — maybe) and generally talks about education in instrumentalist, vocational terms (i.e., as training for a particular occupation or profession), I think the message I’m trying to send is still needed. I’m perfectly willing to make myself the poster-child for these causes.

>Help me fill a class day

>Having caught up on my sleep last night, and with the semester a mere three weeks away here, I spent today updating my syllabuses for my two fall courses. One of them, I’m happy to say, needed no changes other than dates. Lest you think that I’ve already become one of those moribund stereotypes of a lazy prof even before being tenured, I feel I have to say that the reason why I’m not changing this class a bit is because it worked and I don’t want to mess with it. Huzzah, a class that worked! Sure, I’ll retool individual lesson plans, but the big picture part doesn’t need messing with.

On the other hand, my research and methods class needed complete re-doing. Last time I had my colleagues come in to give state-of-the-field talks in their various fields, but I’m not sure that was useful for the students and I’m pretty sure it was a burden to my colleagues. My students and I might have debated which were the most useful/informative talks, but I think we’d all agree that the series was hit-and-miss, and when you’re a beginning grad student, it’s hard to take it all in anyway.

So this time I’m taking the class back — more work for me, alas — and spending much more time on the nitty gritty issues of research. I’ll do a blog post with more detail about what I’m doing — which I’ve been promising to do anyway — but first I need your help. I have one slot in my class schedule that needs filling and since it comes near the end of the course, and after we finish reading Gerald Graff’s Professing Literature, I’d like to do a day devoted to “The Future of Literary Studies.” I might turn to blogs like The Valve (just to give one example) for the content, but I’m wondering if you wise people of tha interwebs have other ideas, particularly articles (in print or online; conventional media or blogs) about the profession (including those of both the hand-wringing ilk and the optimistic kind) and its future. I’d prefer they be specific to English/American literary studies, but related humanities fields, or the humanities in general might also be useful.

Any ideas?