Monday, June 28, 2010

Assigning monographs

I found Cathy Davidson's recent post (reprinted from ADE Bulletin 149 (2010): 53-60), "Research Is Teaching," perceptive and enlightening. Davidson explores discrepancies in our profession between stated and practiced values, e.g. for hiring and tenure.

One of the arguments she makes is that there is a bewildering discrepancy between how we say we value the academic monograph (foundation of our profession! gold standard for tenure!) and how we actually value them (won't buy them unless they're remaindered for $6 at Moe's, won't assign them). Cathy asks why this is:
We require a monograph for a scholars entry into the profession but do not respect the form enough to teach it in our classes. This imbalance is field-specific and almost singular. We are monographic fundamentalists in our theology but monographic agnostics in our religious observance. No wonder young professionals in our field are confused about the relation between teaching and research. Other fields teach what they prescribe. Historians teach the best new books in history in their undergraduate and graduate classrooms. They take as the subject of their courses not only the content about a given historical field but also the practice of writing professional history. So do anthropologists. Where do English students learn about the finest practices of writing professional, book-length literary criticism? Articles are not equivalent in form to a scholarly monograph. Or maybe they are. Consider the misalignment in the reverse direction. If course packs of articles constitute the gold standard of what we want to communicate to our students about the best practices of the profession of English, then why are we pretending there is something special about the monograph as a form so special that tenure and promotion depend on its production?

Good point. Cathy suggests making a conscious effort to assign monographs, which made sense to me up until I thought about my syllabus for this spring. "Oh no," I thought, "I can't assign a monograph. I teach undergrads!"

This is of course patently ridiculous. I read a number of academic monographs as an undergrad at a school that was culturally different from but certainly no better than the one at which I now teach. But somehow I'd gotten it into my head that I couldn't expect advanced English majors to read a whole book that wasn't a novel.

So now I'm wondering what made me think that, and whether others have the same feeling about whether they're allowed to assign monographs--whether it would be considered a prudent decision.

I mean, really, why the hell not, right?

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Thank you, I. A. Richards; this is hilarious.

(On evaluating poems; p. 19.)

Richards, I.A. Practical Criticism. 1929. New Brunswick, NJ: Transactions, 2009. Web. Google Books. 27 June 2010.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Once again, I should reiterate that I don't play piano and never have.

But at some point in high school I borrowed one of my mother's music books and learned to more or less plunk out Beethoven's "Für Elise," that old standby of piano pedagogy. (I was significantly less good at it than this seven-year-old.) I was pretty terrible at reading music for two hands then (I still am, but less so now) and, then as now, had no piano technique.

I've recently been trying to remember how to play it. Katherine doesn't seem to have the music in her house, and I don't want to play it so badly as to track it down in the music library. Instead I've been trying to remember, and it has been a lesson in the strangeness of memory.

So far all I can remember is the opening sequence and a little bit of the B section. I remember how the rest of it sounds, but not how to play it. I started with nothing; I couldn't remember a thing except for where to place my right hand for the first note. Slowly it comes back.

I don't at all remember how the music looks on the page; consequently I can't reconstruct any of the fingerings logically.

I also have no visual memory of where the right hand goes; it is necessary that I not look at my right hand. That memory is in the muscles.

Conversely, I must look at the left hand. The left hand does some hopping around, and when I learned the piece I didn't have the technique to memorize that kind of motion. I always looked at the left hand when I learned the piece, and I must look at the left hand to remember.

It's funny, because I didn't remember what my left hand was supposed to look like at first. I started to remember by making some jabs at the keyboard and listening, trying to remember the right sound and the right movements and, finally, the right visual cues. It's the visual cues that make playing the left hand a sure thing.

It's different with the right hand. Staring at it does nothing (and anyway I couldn't play the left-handed part while looking at my right hand). Sometimes I make a lot of mistakes and sometimes I don't. There's nothing solid for me to rely on to prevent mistakes. If there's music in front of me I can remind myself to be sure to play that accidental, or concentrate on the sequence I'm about to play. Without music, without any visual sense of where my fingers are supposed to go, I can only prevent mistakes one way: suspending intention and dwelling in a physical memory. I have to trust my frankly unreliable fingers to remember on my behalf.

What else do my fingers know that I don't? I ask this by touch-typing on a computer keyboard, of course.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Remember my exceptionally dimwitted local hummingbird? It recently hatched two tiny hummingbird chicks:

The house key in the corner is supposed to be for scale, but there are perspective problems that render it pretty useless. The loquat in the background is probably a better visual guide. Suffice it to say that these are small birds.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Thursday, June 17, 2010

I'd like to point everyone to Shitty First Drafts, a great writing and pedagogy blog, leavened with the occasional excellent feminist diatribe. The current post, "Towards a Discussion Pedagogy," thoughtfully points out that participating in class discussion is a skill that needs to be taught. Just go subscribe to her RSS feed, okay?

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

You can't appreciate my genius

Oh, you thought I was done with the posts on revision. Nay.

Today I'd like to reflect a little on feeling misunderstood.

I don't mean in a John Hughes way.

(Not this.)

I mean, of course, feeling like your writing has been misunderstood.

This post can be summarized in three words: get over it. But getting over it, as we all know, is hard to do.

Here's the thing: one way or another, your writing probably has been misunderstood. Nobody is more acutely aware of the slipperiness of language than literary critics. Reading is misreading, and writing is miswriting, and it is this inevitability against which we strive every day. I don't say this to dismiss the ideal of clarity--on the contrary. Rather, I want to emphasize just how hard we have to work to be clear, especially about difficult ideas. Being misunderstood is work. You worked hard to write something (unclearly), and a reader worked hard to misunderstand it. Rapprochement is achieved with pain.

That's okay, because that's how language works, and we like it that way. The things that make language infinitely misreadable are also the things that make it rich with possibility. Pure communication is a fantasy; an informatics model of communication doesn't apply when natural language is the medium for ideas, and no one has yet invented a philosophical language that is entirely unambiguous yet still as useful as natural language.

Moreover, the reason we have writing is that it allows us to have bigger thoughts than we can hold in our heads all at once. That means that your writing isn't just the mirror image of a clear and complete idea that once resided in your head (even if you think it did). The writing is your idea, insofar as it exists in the world.

When you craft that writing, you craft your idea. But that idea necessarily has holes--holes that you've always been filling in with the heuristics and narratives with which you've been living and thinking. When they read your work, your readers are filling those holes with other heuristics and other narratives. Enter misreading.

So now that we've been misread, in what does getting over it consist?

  1. Not taking it personally. Even if your argument has been misconstrued in the dumbest possible way, it's just not going to do anything for you, your relationship with your colleague, or your writing to take it as a personal insult. It's puzzling, true, when you get a comment like "but why didn't you ever address X?" when you spent five pages teasing out the nuances of X. All you can do is revisit those five pages and see if there's some way to clarify that those five pages are, in fact, addressing X. It may just be a matter of terminology, or of where you stick a topic sentence. Either something in the writing made it possible for that misinterpretation to occur or your reader just missed something. If you determine that it's the former, fix. And if it's the latter, forgive. Even smart people space out while reading sometimes.

  2. Finding ways to disallow certain misreadings, especially "near enemies" or "evil twins." Lisa Ruddick, borrowing a Buddhist term, calls the bad version of a good thing a "near enemy." Often this is a grossly dumbed-down version of a complex idea, or a loose association. For example, during the culture wars, deconstruction was often associated with "relativism," a hopelessly broad term that was usually extrapolated to mean moral relativism and The Downfall Of Civilization. It's probably not coincidental that Derrida wasn't known for his clarity, because the near enemy often has to be attacked directly. For example, a common misconception that I have to guard against in my own work is the assumption that "objective" is synonymous with "scientific," and that both are synonymous with "true." I can state explicitly in the first paragraph that scientificity and objectivity are not the same thing, and still get back comments riddled with the assumption that they are. That's totally maddening, but sometimes you have to remind readers more than once that you're using terms in a specific way. This can be a tedious task, or, alternatively, a very satisfying opportunity to rant about the distinction between objectivity and scientificity. After you've combed out the traces of anger and resentment, you'll probably have a pretty okay exposition of a premise that was underexplained in the first draft.

  3. Accepting that if you're fairly junior in your field, then you do not have license to channel Donna Haraway. You want your writing to be exactly as difficult as is necessary to embody your ideas. Even Derrida was capable of being very, very crisp. Difficult, oblique, or formally unusual writing should be a strategic choice, not the only kind of writing you can produce. If you're a junior scholar, you have to establish that you can follow the rules before you break them. If you feel that that sucks, well, a lot of things suck. Here's another way of putting it: we've all had the student (hopefully rarely) who challenged a grade because we "misunderstood" an essay that lacked an argument, citations, and punctuation. "You," the student has told us, "do not appreciate my personal style. Which means you hate me, and that is not fair. Give me an A." Do not be this student.

My point, friends, is that we are all misunderstood, so we must be so with joy.

Previous posts on responses to writing:

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Well, that was terrifying.

Last night the hummingbird that has unwisely nested right outside the kitchen door flew into the kitchen, with its wings frenetically buzzing, as hummingbird wings do. It kept jousting at the ceiling light and flying at windows and generally panicking, but failing to panic its way out a window. Twice it nearly gave me a heart attack by suddenly ceasing all movement, making me think it had managed to kill itself. Among the many notions I do not relish is that of a dead hummingbird in the kitchen. I finally got it outside by herding it with a broom until this tiny bird with its tiny, tiny bird brain decided to just perch on the broom, at which point I was able to actually carry it outside. And then I shut the windows.

Not cool, hummingbird.

The hummingbird where it belongs, in its stupidly placed nest in the loquat tree outside.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Good on the UC library and science faculty for proposing a boycott of Nature and affiliated journals. Nature Publishing Group wants to increase its rate by 400% in 2011, though well aware that the UC library has had its budget cut by $1.9 million. As the letter from Laine Farley et al. (which I highly recommend) astutely points out, Nature and its affiliated journals depend heavily on the research, reviewing, and editorial labor, all uncompensated, of UC faculty. As Barbara Hui writes, "[i]t's Fight Club soap."

Update: Jen Howard's Chronicle article.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

I really can't imagine wanting a dedicated e-reader to replace, say, books. Books are already kind of the perfect medium. But journal articles are another matter; I hate reading them on a computer screen but feel guilty for printing them out (or, rarely, photocopying them). I could really get behind a gadget that simply had JSTOR and Project Muse on it. It could be called "My Precious."

It would need to have Zotero, though.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Critical gestures like this are irritating to endure:
These tortured writhings are irritating to endure. But they constituted part of what Gertrude Stein had to experience in order to reach full subjectivity in her writing. (83-4)

Don't even get me started on the idea that Stein "gestat[ed]" her characters.

Bridgman, Richard. Gertrude Stein in Pieces. New York: Oxford UP, 1970. Print.

If wishes were hobbyhorses

This is the fifth (good grief) post in a series on the practice of responding to others' writing, which I've come to see as a core but relatively unsung element of the academic humanities.

For some reason I've chosen to dwell at length on the art of receiving feedback, which is, I believe, not entirely obvious. We've all taught courses in which we've laboriously commented drafts, only to get the final essays back and find that a good half of the students didn't do a damn thing to their essays. I have no illusions about the rampant snowflakery in this world, but I don't think it's entirely students' fault when they don't know what to do with a response to their writing. Receiving and using feedback is a practice that's partly intellectual and partly emotional. I try to prep my students to receive feedback using a pair of articles by Nancy Sommers (one co-written with Laura Saltz), which are pedagogically great in a number of ways (they're cited below), but which unfortunately don't really address the specifics of receiving feedback.

In my last post, I outlined some general things to do with feedback. Today I'd like to discuss a specific common feature of feedback, the hobbyhorse.

We've all encountered it. In fact, we've all inflicted it. For example, I have an incurable penchant for bringing up Luigi Galvani. I try to restrain myself, but somebody that awesome just can't be kept a secret. Yes, he is relevant to your chapter on the queer temporality of lolcats! He's relevant to everything! He matters, and I highly recommend that you rethink your account of temporality in light of his work. You know, his work on trying to re-animate dead frogs.

So you see what I mean by "hobbyhorses." You get a manuscript back, you're following along in the comments, and you realize that the reader has started harping on some really unlikely point, and it's something that reader talks about a lot. What, oh what to do?

In my last post, I exhorted one and all to distinguish between what it means and what to do. So I'll sort of do that now.

1. What does it mean?

  • Often, it means genuine engagement. We all have intellectual investments and influences--we wouldn't be scholars if we didn't. I was sort of kidding about Galvani earlier (only sort of kidding, as some of my less fortunate friends can attest), but I'm definitely going to think about any drafts I read in terms of ideas I know well, questions I'm interested in, whatever book I've just been reading. Always. In fact, that's why you want readers who are not you: so they will bring their investments and mental bibliographies to an encounter with your ideas. So when a reader rides a hobbyhorse, she or he is often genuinely interested in your work and is trying to relate it, in a substantial way, to ideas that she or he is actively invested in. Which is cool!

  • Occasionally, it means utter laziness. It's also possible that your reader hasn't read you carefully, and substituted greatest hits from her own personal Scholarship iTunes Playlist for what you were actually saying. There are uninvested readers who will tell you, every single time, that this is a fine draft but you need to devote more space to questions of aesthetics. It's regrettable, but it happens.

  • Sometimes, you asked for it. I wrote a few posts ago that responding to someone else's writing is a creative act. That's especially true when it comes to very unpolished or incipient work. Your reader is working hard to fill in conceptual gaps, detect the unstated assumptions, understand unstated implications, and generally make sense of something that's about fifty percent nonsense. The less clear and less developed a piece of writing is, the more likely hobbyhorses are. In fact, hobbyhorses are kind of necessary in those situations. If I don't know what you're saying, I have no choice but to think you are talking about some likely idea that I already know and understand.

2. What should I do?

As before, it's all about making the writing better. So you don't precisely need to know why the hobbyhorse has trotted in in order to know what to do with it. Even a hobbyhorse ridden in laziness can be useful. The question is: how much of this hobbyhorse was elicited by my writing, and how much of it is my reader's fevered obsessions? It's up to us as writers to figure out two things:

  • Is there really something to this seemingly zany connection? Roughly, we're asking here whether there's really something in your ideas that's related to the hobbyhorse. Depending on where you are in the writing process, even a truly weird connection could be worth fleshing out. Try honestly to evaluate the extent to which this is the case. Just give it some thought. You can't really know how carefully your reader read your work (I mean, you can have your suspicions, but that's something else). So it's best to take suggestions seriously and try to evaluate them on the merits, even if your reader does tell you you need to say more about Luigi Galvani every time. And if the hobbyhorse turns out to be relevant, then for goodness's sake, follow the reader's suggestions!

  • But if you've considered it carefully and determined, in a sober and fair manner, that this hobbyhorse is not helpful, you need to then ask: Have I written something that would make it likely for others to make this zany suggestion? Now we're asking if some superficial formal element of your writing is related to the hobbyhorse. It's possible that something in your writing genuinely warrants the wacky ideas your reader just brought in; it's also possible that it was something about your writing that you didn't intend. If you've considered the hobbyhorse suggestion and rejected it, then check to see if there's anything about your writing that's unclear or that wrongly gestures in the terrible, mistaken direction your reader took it. In my experience, using a specialized term to mean something unspecialized is a common culprit (e.g. using "duration" to mean "period of time," without the Bergsonian sense). Clarify the writing (which often means clarifying the argument) in a way that disallows the kinds of misunderstandings that could have led to the hobbyhorse suggestion.

It seems that responding to writing, and responding to responding to writing, is my own personal hobbyhorse these days. It's in good company with Galvani, though.

Sommers, Nancy. "Revision Strategies of Student Writers and Experienced Adult Writers." College Composition and Communication 31.4 (Dec. 1980): 378-88. JSTOR. Web. 1 June 2010.

--- and Laura Saltz. "The Novice as Expert: Writing the Freshman Year." College Composition and Communication 56.1 (Sept. 2004): 124-49. JSTOR. Web. 1 June 2010.

Previous posts on responses to writing:

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Receiving feedback on writing, part the second

Receiving feedback on writing is a tricky skill, and one that is crucial for our profession. But by and large, it isn't taught formally. Maybe it can't be; I've learned through years of receiving feedback of better or worse quality on my writing, and also through my experiences giving feedback to composition students and to peers.

Today I'll offer four general ideas about how to receive feedback. The main idea that runs through all four of them is as follows: the point of receiving feedback is to produce a better piece of writing. This is, it would seem, obvious, but it's so easy to get caught up in some freakish sense of duty that makes the feedback seem more important than the actual writing.

  • It's your writing. You do not have to take suggestions that stem from a misapprehension of what you're trying to do with the piece. (You should, of course, clarify your writing so that readers will no longer labor under the aforementioned misapprehension.) Suggestions are just that, and ultimately you're responsible for your work. Nobody understands what you're trying to accomplish the way you do. Take suggestions seriously, but in the end it's your call. That said...

  • Be practical. Ideally your readers all respect your vision and are offering sincere, thoughtful suggestions. But sadly, that isn't universally the case, and the academy, like everything else, is full of power dynamics on which you'll often be on the weaker end. Sometimes you just need to recognize an unreasonable demand for what it is, bend, and save your magnum opus for another day--a day after you've received tenure. If an anonymous peer reviewer demands X, unless it morally offends you, then for Pete's sake just do it. If your advisor thinks you need to talk about Erving Goffman in your chapter on Havelok and the hagiographic tradition and won't approve your dissertation until you do, screw integrity and find a way to work poor Goffman in. (You should have enough of a relationship with your advisor to judge whether she or he is likely to insist on such things; if you're early in the dissertation-writing stage then now's the time to test those boundaries. Also, if you're at that stage and you find that your advisor isn't respectful of your project's direction, then now's also the time to think about finding another one, or at least adding some other people to the committee.) Another way of saying this is: pick your battles.

  • Distinguish between what the feedback means and what you're going to do with it. Often feedback takes the form of observations: "in this section you give a review of literature"; "in this section you revise X's model of Y to account for Z." Sometimes those observations will strike you as wrong. What it means is that the reader hasn't understood what you were up to. But it won't help you or anybody to rant about the reader's failure to understand your writing. Instead, what you'll do with it is revise that section until it's clearer what you are doing. In general, it's tempting to think of feedback in terms of what it means the reader is thinking (about your writing! about you!). That's fine, but move beyond that reaction to turn what the reader is thinking into a concrete course of action.

  • Bracket or outright ignore any feedback that impedes your ability to work on the piece. I really mean this. Truly unserious feedback, or feedback that sends you into a paralyzing spiral of self-doubt, should be summarily chucked, or at least placed in a drawer until the wounds heal. The point of receiving feedback is to produce a better piece of writing. If a response to your writing paralyzes you or prevents you from working, then it defeats the purpose of receiving feedback in the first place. It may be that you're oversensitive, true--most people are when it comes to their writing. And certainly, you can and should try to develop some distance on your writing. But if, in this moment, the response you're looking at is making you fear to open the Word file at all, and maybe eye the Golden Gate Bridge a little too fondly, a ritual burning is not out of place. You're a writer. Do whatever it takes to improve your writing, and if that means coddling yourself emotionally just a little, then so be it. Here are some kinds of feedback I think it's okay to ignore:

    • Proofreading, on a draft meant for substantive revision. If you've asked for comments on a draft, a response that fixates entirely on typos and the odd awkward phrase is not a serious engagement. You will proofread your writing after you've revised it. This, you can set on fire. (Follow local safety laws!) Next time, give this reader explicit instructions for how to respond to your writing.

    • The avalanche. If there are just too many suggestions for a mortal human being to deal with, to the point that you're unable to even start in on revisions, just put the comments aside. I don't recommend setting these sorts of suggestions on fire, because they're probably substantive, if poorly organized. Just read through them once and put them away. You'll take the matter into your own hands and figure out how to revise, maybe returning to these comments when you have a better sense of where you're going to go. And next time, ask this reader to focus on one or two particular aspects of the piece.

    • Invective. Insults of any kind, whether directed at you or at your writing, are unprofessional and non-substantive. They won't help you revise. If possible, don't solicit comments from this reader again.

In a future post (oh, promises, promises!) I'll discuss some common specific elements of receiving feedback and how to deal with them: hobbyhorses; feeling misunderstood; turf-warring. I say this as if I'm some kind of expert, but really I'm just bumbling along here, so please do add suggestions in comments, fair readers.

(Special thanks to Hillary, Benjamin, and Lila for the cat photo.)

Previous posts on responses to writing: