Archive for Work

Advice for Aspiring Academics: A Twitter Essay

TwitterI have long been wanting to write a general “advice” essay for aspiring academics — recent PhDs, graduate students, anyone pursuing (or considering pursuing) a career in academia. The problem is that my desire to mentor and to encourage always collides with my equally strong desire not to mislead people about how challenging (even bleak) a prospect this is. Somehow, tweeting the advice made it easier to write. Here it is.

For those who prefer to read something that is not a series of Tweets, here it is in a more typical format.

Yes, my advice for aspiring academics…

  1. Publish everything. Also: always be publishing. You should always have something in the pipeline (under consideration, forthcoming, etc.). Once it’s under consideration, you can list it on your CV. (Some list articles in progress on CV, but I only list books in progress. Both approaches are fine.)
  2. Believe in and doubt merit. Believe because it motivates you to produce, inspires you to keep going. But doubt because the vast number of Ph.Ds on the job market means that merit is not enough. Remember also that “merit” is subjective, masks privilege, and should not be trusted.
  3. Seize as many opportunities as you can, but also be selective. Pursue collaboration with others, conferences, placement in essay collections or special issue of journal — but only if these help you achieve larger scholarly and intellectual goals (such as, say, a book).
  4. Like academe itself, this advice is sometimes absurd, paradoxical, impossible. Recognize that.
  5. Take care of yourself. Exercise regularly. Sit with correct posture, etc. Do not sacrifice your health.
  6. Above all, pursue meaningful work. That is the best reason to stick with academe, despite the odds.
  7. Know also that you don’t have to stick with academe. Leaving is not failure. You’re smart and capable. You can do many things.

I will expand this into a proper essay.  But, at present… no time to offer more than this (admittedly flawed, hasty) summary.  There’s more advice on my blog, but, really, you should take a look at Robin Bernstein’s page of Advice for Grad Students and Other Academics. Lots of great resources there.

Leave a Comment

In Search of Lost Time: Further Reading

Time as infinite spiral

With thanks to all who have read and shared my “In Search of Lost Time” (an essay on why academics work so much, published in Inside Higher Ed today), here are a few links for further reading. Most of these were embedded in the original piece, but didn’t make the transition to the Inside Higher Ed website. I’m listing them in the order they appeared in my piece.

  • Kate Quick, “Hello, Class. Your Professor is on Food Stamps,” Huffington Post, 24 Jan. 2014. (I’d linked my claim “adjuncts are increasingly joining the ranks of the working poor” to this piece.)
  • Miya Tokumitsu, “In the Name of Love,” Jacobin Magazine, Jan. 2014. Excellent piece argues that the “Do What You Love” mantra “may be the most elegant anti-worker ideology around,” and notes that it’s particularly pervasive in academia.
  • Kate Bowles, “Beyond a Boundary,” Music for Deckchairs, 9 Dec. 2013. Really thoughtful essay makes the point that “we don’t yet understand this as behaviour that is harmful to others, not just to ourselves. We overwork like cyclists dope: because everyone does it, because it’s what you do to get by, because in the moment we argue to ourselves that it feels like health and freedom. But it isn’t.”
  • Stevie Smith, “Not waving but drowning” (1972). Repr. on Poets.org. In my essay, I quoted the title to this poem.
  • Dekka Aitkenhead, “Peter Higgs: I wouldn’t be productive enough for today’s academic system,” Guardian, 6 Dec. 2013. The Nobel Prize-winner observes that the imperative to publish constantly would disqualify him from contemporary academia. “Today I wouldn’t get an academic job. It’s as simple as that. I don’t think I would be regarded as productive enough,” he said. “It’s difficult to imagine how I would ever have enough peace and quiet in the present sort of climate to do what I did in 1964.”
  • Kate Bowles, “Irreplaceable Time,” Music for Deckchairs, 24 Nov. 2013. I didn’t link to this one, but it definitely influenced my thinking. Among the many great points Bowles makes is this: “If we have created a culture in which only those who are most single-minded about work are applauded, promoted and respected, we have made something whose capacity for harm is pervasive and long-term.” Go and read it.
  • Mark Slouka, “Quitting the Paint Factory” (Harper’s 2004). I was reading Slouka’s Essays from the Nick of Time: Reflections and Refutations (2010), and this piece — also not linked to in my original — was another influence. The whole collection of essays is great. I recommend it. (The link is to a — probably unauthorized — reblogged copy of Slouka’s essay.)
  • The tweet below appeared after I’d already sent in my essay to Inside Higher Ed, but it would have made a great epigraph to the piece.

More thoughtful comments on this subject (links added 4 Mar. 2014, thanks to Kate Bowles).

  • Ferdinand von Prondzynski, “Recognising hard work in higher education,” A University Blog, 3 Mar. 2014. “But honestly, in what other profession would you find anyone reading their work mail after midnight?”
  • Overworked TA, “The Underbelly of Putting Yourself Last: Mental Illness, Stress, and Substance Abuse,” Overworked TA, 3 Mar. 2014. “This culture of ‘do, do, do’ never stops.  And it starts in graduate school.”
  • Kate Bowles, “On impact,” Music for Deckchairs, 4 Mar. 2014. “We overwork because the current culture in universities is brutally and deliberately invested in shaming those who don’t compete effectively; as a correlative to this we are starting to value and promote to leadership roles people who really do believe in the dodgeball triumphalism of university rankings as a way of nurturing educational values and critical inquiry.”

Thanks again to all who have read and commented on my essay!

Image source: time as infinite spiral from Mom Biz Coach.

Comments (5)

This Job Can Kill You. Literally.

G.B. Trudeau, Doonesbury

As you likely already know, Margaret Mary Vojtko — an adjunct professor of French for 25 years — was found dead on her front lawn on September 1st. Facing mounting medical bills and lacking money to maintain or even heat her house, she died of a heart attack earlier that day.  As Daniel Kovalik writes, “Even during the best of times, when she was teaching three classes a semester and two during the summer, she was not even clearing $25,000 a year, and she received absolutely no health care benefits.”  His article, “Death of an adjunct,” has been widely shared across social media, been reprinted in the Huffington Post, and inspired stories in Inside Higher Ed, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and Gawker.

In some senses, her death was not preventable: she was 83 and fighting cancer. It’s likely that she would have died sooner rather than later.

But in other senses, her job killed her. And I’m not speaking figuratively. As Mr. Kovalik notes,

in the past year, her teaching load had been reduced by the university to one class a semester, which meant she was making well below $10,000 a year. With huge out-of-pocket bills from UPMC Mercy for her cancer treatment, Margaret Mary was left in abject penury. She could no longer keep her electricity on in her home, which became uninhabitable during the winter. She therefore took to working at an Eat’n Park at night and then trying to catch some sleep during the day at her office at Duquesne. When this was discovered by the university, the police were called in to eject her from her office. Still, despite her cancer and her poverty, she never missed a day of class.

Full Time Respect for Part Time Faculty!

Her job left her unable to meet her basic needs (heat, food, medicine). Furthermore, that level of stress has an adverse effect on a person’s health. People forced to cope with large levels of extreme stress — and poverty is definitely an extreme stress — have shorter life expectancies. A job that reduces you to poverty also hastens your demise.

I would not suggest that Duquesne University acted alone in killing Professor Vojtko, nor that all individuals at the university lacked sympathy for her. But the university is certainly an accomplice. While it claims to be a Catholic university, Duquesne has fought its adjuncts’ attempts to unionize, alleging that it deserved an exception on religious grounds; in contrast, Georgetown University, citing the Catholic church’s commitment to social justice, recognized its adjuncts’ union.

Duquesne has many accomplices. Its treatment of Professor Vojtko was cruel, but not unusual. Exploitation of adjunct labor has become the norm in academe. Faced with rising costs (and, in “state” schools, decreasing support from the state), colleges and universities consider adjuncts an “economic” solution to their staffing needs. They’re highly qualified cheap labor, and — as the number of tenure-track jobs decreases — there are more Ph.Ds. to choose from each year. It’s a buyer’s market. Duquesne only did what other universities and colleges have done. Indeed, at American universities, 73% of all instructors are non tenure-track (adjuncts or grad students).*

Adjuncts United!

Yes, some institutions treat adjuncts more humanely than others. Some provide health insurance and even retirement plans. Some. But, even under the best conditions, adjuncts are second-class citizens. And, yes, some make it on to the tenure track. But most do not.

Relying on adjuncts as the primary way to teach classes has become normal, but it’s not good for the adjuncts and it’s not good for higher education. Adjuncts owe no loyalty to the institution that employs them; so, at the beginning of term, heads of departments must scramble to find people to cover classes. That’s no way to run a university. As Professor Vojtko’s death makes all too clear, that’s also not a humane way to treat an educator — or anyone, for that matter.

G.B. Trudeau, Doonesbury

One reason that universities rely upon adjunct labor points to the third group responsible for killing Professor Vojtko: all those who mock academic labor, consider teaching a cushy job, argue that educators are lazy (as in the familiar misconception, you only teach a few classes and then you get summers off!). The concerted effort to refashion intellectual labor as a form of leisure diminishes sympathy for a hard-working group that has much to contribute. It deprives them of their humanity. It makes them easy targets. They become easy to neglect, easy to ignore, and easy to crush beneath the weight of indifference and poverty.

Certainly, teachers — at primary, secondary, and post-secondary levels — are not the only people who have been maligned in this way. Factory workers (especially unionized ones), policemen, firemen, all public-sector workers have all been criticized as somehow unworthy of the salary and benefits they receive.

I’ve been using the passive voice, failing to name just who is doing the maligning, because this is not merely the fault of one particular faction. Certainly, responsibility lies with pundits on the right who complain about “the takers” mooching off “the makers,” governors who slash education budgets while simultaneously giving tax breaks to the wealthy, and businesses pushing an “educational reform” because it serves their financial interests. But people on the left are also at fault. In an effort to reduce the cost of college (certainly a laudable goal), President Obama fails to address the single greatest contributing factor to the rising cost of tuition: decreasing state support requires universities to find money from other sources. This is not something that the privately funded Duquesne University (Professor Vojtko’s employer) faces, but the president’s move to hold colleges accountable without a comparable push to restore public funding simply perpetuates the myth that educators are too highly paid. This myth obscures the fact that many of us are not well paid at all.

G.B. Trudeau, Doonesbury

I spent three years as an adjunct. Those years (1997-2000) were not happy ones. I was often angry. Indeed, I am frankly surprised and grateful that I have friends from that period of my life: a bitter person isn’t fun to be around. Today, I am tenured, a full professor of English at Kansas State University (which receives 20% of its funding from the state). As an ex-adjunct, I find stories like Professor Vojtko’s especially troubling. Her path might have been my path. It wasn’t, but it has been and will be the path of many others. The exploitation of adjuncts has only increased since my days as an adjunct.

This brings me to the fourth and final group I would indict in the death of Professor Vojtko: me, and people like me. No, I did not create the conditions that foster the exploitation of adjuncts. Nor do I support those who think that college should be run like a business, and am frankly appalled by the efforts (by President Obama, and others) to apply a capitalist ethos to institutions that strive to serve the public good. And, sure, I’m sympathetic to adjuncts. But that’s not enough.

American Association of University ProfessorsThose of us who have attained even a modest amount of institutional power need to speak up. We need to support organizations fighting for adjunct rights — such as the American Association of University Professors. I have been intending to join this group for years, and only now — while writing this paragraph — did I actually join. Writing this essay and joining that group aren’t sufficient, I know. But it is at least a step in the right direction.

We need to stop exploiting adjuncts. It’s killing them. And it isn’t good for the rest of us, either.

__________

* Note and Correction (added 22 Sept. 2013, 5:40 pm): According to the study, the 73% includes full-time, non-tenure track faculty (15%), part-time/adjunct faculty (37%), and graduate employees (21%). Those first two groups are both adjunct: that is, “full-time, non-tenure track faculty” is the equivalent of adjunct. So, if we add these two together, then we get 52% adjunct, plus an additional 21% graduate students, for a total of 73%. A more recent study indicates that  non-tenure track faculty (adjuncts and graduate students) now comprise 76% of instructors at American colleges and universities.  The correction here is that my original post stated that “73% of all instructors are now adjuncts”; using the source I originally cited, the more precise way to state this is that “73% of all instructors are now non-tenure track (adjuncts and graduate students).”  So, when Chris pointed this out (comment no. 37, below), I made the change.

Resources (updated 18 Nov. 2013, 3:00 pm)

Image sources: “Adjunct Professors Petting the Short End of the Stick” (Politics 365, 4 June 2013),  “Precarcity Everywhere” (Disorder of Things, 1 Feb. 2012), American Association of University Professors.  The Doonesbury strips come from “Mathematicians and the Market” (GeoffDavis.net, 1997), but check out Doonesbury at Go! Comics for more of Trudeau’s work.

Comments (74)

Strike!

As American fast food workers strike for a living wage, it’s worth remembering that this struggle has a long history. It’s also worth teaching some of this history to children, so that they can learn about collective action, and fighting back against the powerful.  Julia Mickenberg and I collect some of these stories in the “Work” and “Organize” sections of our anthology, Tales for Little Rebels: A Collection of Radical Children’s Literature (2007), but there are many more such stories out there.  Michelle Markel and Melissa Sweet‘s Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1909 (2013) is one of those.

Michelle Markel and Melissa Sweet, Brave GirlA picture book published earlier this year, Brave Girl tells of newly arrived immigrant Clara Lemlich, who — as Markel’s text tells us — “knows in her bones what is right and what is wrong.”  When “no one will hire Clara’s father,” she gets a job as a garment worker to support her family, and quickly discovers what is wrong: companies hire immigrant girls to make clothing, paying them just a few dollars a month. Markel effectively dramatizes the cruel working conditions: “locked up in a factory,” she and the other young women are “stitching collars, sleeves, and cuffs as fast as they can. ‘Hurry up, hurry up,’ the bosses yell. The sunless room is stuffy from all the bodies crammed inside. There are two filthy toilets, on sink and three towels for three hundred girls to share.”  They’re also fined a half day’s pay for being a few minutes late, fined if they prick a finger and bleed on the cloth, and fired if that happens twice.  With just a few vivid details, Markel’s words and Sweet’s images gives us a sense of the oppressive, stifling working conditions.

“But Clara is uncrushable,” Markel tells us.  That’s one of the key messages of the book.  Clara is a fighter.  Hungry and exhausted, she goes to the library to learn, getting by on a few hours of sleep a night. When the men don’t think that the women are tough enough to join a union and strike, Clara (the book always calls her by her first name, perhaps to create greater intimacy between character and reader) leads them out on strike.  Police arrest her, hired thugs beat her: “They break six of her ribs, but they can’t break her spirit. It’s shatterproof.”

Another key message is that collective action creates change. At the book’s climax, Clara calls for a general strike, and in the winter of 1909 leads 20,000 garment workers out on a general strike.

Michelle Markel and Melissa Sweet, Brave Girl

The third important lesson young readers will take away here is that progress is hard-won and imperfect. The garment workers win the right to unionize, gaining better pay and a shorter workweek. However, getting there required them to walk the picket lines in the dead of winter, where they faced police brutality, backed by a legal system indifferent to their cause. In the end, though 339 dress manufacturers agreed to unions, the Triangle Waist Factory — where Clara herself worked — did not. Indeed, two years after this strike, the Triangle Waist Factory’s business practices (such as locking the workers in) killed 146 when a fire broke out in the building.

Amplified by Melissa Sweet’s watercolors and fabric-themed collages, Markel offers a history that should inspire a new generation of activists.  So, as you celebrate Labor Day today, remember the unions that made it possible.

Related posts on this blog:

Leave a Comment

Professors Get Summers Off; or, How I Spent My Summer Vacation

Being a college professor would be a great job! You do a little teaching, and get the summers off!

— frequently expressed misunderstanding

To be clear: being a professor is a great job. Since I elect not to teach during the summer, I can devote more — though not all — of my time to research and writing. But the main thing I get “off” during the summer is a paycheck. Kansas State University last paid me on May 24th, and my next check arrives on September 13th. (Classes begin tomorrow — Monday, August 26th.)

As part of my continuing efforts to dispel the surprisingly pervasive myth that academics lounge by the poolside all summer, here is how I spent my “summer vacation” this year.

Conferences. I gave two conference presentations, gave two invited talks, and co-chaired (and co-organized) one panel.  All were different, and but one all were new material.  So, I also wrote these.

  1. “Manifesto for a Comics-Children’s Literature Alliance” at the 40th Annual Children’s Literature Association Conference in Biloxi, Mississippi, on June 14th.
  2. “How, Where, and Why to Publish Your Book” (invited talk) at University of Winnipeg (Manitoba, Canada) on June 24th.  This was a longer and revised version of “How to Publish Your Book,” which I first gave on a professional development panel at a Children’s Literature Association conference some years ago.
  3. Crockett Johnson, Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955): cover“‘He came up thinking fast’; or, How does Crockett Johnson’s Harold and the Purple Crayon work?” (also invited) at the University of Winnipeg’s Visual/Verbal Texts Symposium on June 25th. This was a labor of love for me. It aims to be a tour de force close-reading of Harold and the Purple Crayon, revealing just how complex such an apparently “simple” book really is. I look forward to expanding it for publication.
  4. “Whiteness, Nostalgia, and Fantastic Flying Books: The Disappearance of Race in William Joyce” at the Biennial Conference of the International Research Society for Children’s Literature in Maastricht, Netherlands, on August 12th. This will form part of a book called Erasing Race in Children’s Literature.
  5. “Keywords for Children’s Literature: A Roundtable Discussion,” co-chaired with Lissa Paul, at the Biennial Conference of the International Research Society for Children’s Literature, on August 13th. As I note in my previous blog post, this panel was devoted to conceiving a second edition of Keywords for Children’s Literature (2011) — should sales of the current edition warrant — that better takes into account the broader, international world of children’s books.

Cost. I picked up maybe 40%-45% of the expenses for conferences. In addition to the three conferences where I presented (mentioned above), I also attended a fourth.  Here’s how it breaks down. (Dates include travel.)

  1. Children’s Literature Association Conference in Biloxi, Mississippi, June 12-16. Not covered by the university or sponsor of event. Kansas State University provides funds for less than one conference each year. So, at this point in the year, such conferences are always self-funded.
  2. Visual/Verbal Texts Symposium in Winnipeg, Manitoba, June 24-28. All expenses covered by organizers of event. Canada makes available far more public funds for the Humanities than the U.S. does, and the organizers won financial support for the conference.
  3. Comic-Con 2013Comic-Con in San Diego, California, July 17-22. As an Eisner nominee, I paid no registration fee. But the plane tickets, hotel, and food (except for the Eisner Awards banquet, which was covered) were all self-funded. For what I did and learned there, see my reports on Comic-Con 2013.
  4. Biennial Conference of the International Research Society for Children’s Literature in Maastricht, Netherlands, August 10-14.  Kansas State University has a fund to which one can apply (once a year) to fund international conferences. I got lucky this year, and over 90% of the expenses for this were covered! (I will this week submit my receipts for reimbursement.) For a report on the conference, see “Dutch Treat.”

Writing. I wrote two new essays, successfully expanded a third, and completed a failed revision on a fourth.  (What do I mean by “completed a failed revision”? I’ll explain in a moment.)  I also wrote — or, really, co-wrote — a fellowship proposal.

  1. “Children and Comics” was the sole piece connected to any of the conference presentations. It’s a radially recast “Manifesto for a Comics-Children’s Literature Alliance,” and will — if editors Bart Beatty and Charles Hatfield like it — appear in The Cambridge Companion to Comics next year.
  2. “Wild Things, I Think I Love You: Maurice Sendak, Ruth Krauss, and Childhood.” It would have helped if I’d paid attention to the email inviting me to contribute this piece to a special section on Sendak. I’d thought the journal asked for a 4000-word piece, and so I wrote nearly 6000 words with the aim of trimming it down to 4000. Then I checked the email, and learned that the request was in fact for a 1500-word piece. Oops. With the assistance of Karin and of editors at the journal, I managed to get it down under 2000 words. maurice Sendak: two Wild Things and Max
  3. “A Manifesto for Children’s Literature; or, Reading Harold as a Teen-Ager” is a revised and expanded version of the blog post by the same name. A journal’s editor read it and asked me to work up a longer version of it. I’ve really enjoyed working on it because it’s more autobiographical than what I usually write, and because it allows me to articulate more fully a vision of why children’s literature matters to people of all ages.
  4. Dr. Seuss, Cat in the Hat's hat“Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: Seuss and Race in the 1950s” continues to trudge along, though is currently stranded by the side of a lonely highway, hoping a tow truck shows up soon. (I’ve written previously about this ill-fated piece.) One reader asked for some revisions. I addressed those. No problem. The other reader said revise and resubmit, and that… has me stumped. On the one hand, I feel that the other reader may miss the point (which, of course, means I need to be clearer). On the other hand, I feel that I am missing the point and am hopelessly out of my depth. I’ve done all I can, and am now turning to others for assistance. Happily, a brilliant scholar and gifted writer has very kindly agreed to take a look and offer some guidance. (Not sure if that person would want to be named in this blog, but if you’re reading this, I’m grateful!  Dinner’s on me at ASA!)
  5. Marie Curie Fellowship. I frankly think I’m a long shot for this. But, Mick Gowar and Zoe Jaques kindly invited me to apply. Thanks to their efforts and the efforts of others at Anglia Ruskin University, it’s submitted. If I get it, it will help fund my sabbatical year and relocate me to England. Note to non-academics: Every seven years, we can apply for a sabbatical: you get either one semester at full pay or a full year at half pay. I’m going for the full year and trying to make up the difference.

Another note to non-academics reading this: I don’t think I get paid for any of the essays. I may receive compensation for the Cambridge Companion piece (I’ve yet to see that contract), but academic publications typically do not pay. At best, you get a copy of the publication.

Also, while I’m calling the above “writing,” there is of course also research involved. Most of this I did myself, though I also employed Shaun Baker to seek articles for me. And I consulted him and Mark Newgarden on the “Children and Comics” piece, since they know comics better than I do. Thanks, Mark and Shaun! And thanks to Michelle Martin and Erica Hateley for sharing unpublished work that I cited in the William Joyce paper. Indeed, thanks to everyone else who has offered ideas or assistance! (As I write these words, I reflect upon how much I’ve learned from others — and, while I strive to acknowledge that in each work, I am also aware that a list of credits would impede readers of this post.)

Ernie Bushmiller, Nancy

Teaching. I choose not teach in the summer, but I do have to plan future classes. Speaking of assistance, I’m grateful to the experts I’ve consulted with questions about the graduate-level African American Children’s Literature course I’m teaching in the Spring of 2014. This is the first time I’ll be teaching this. Some courses we teach because we’re experts; others we teach because we want to become experts. For me, this course is definitely the latter. So, thanks to Gerald Early, Michelle Martin, Kate Capshaw Smith, and Ebony Elizabeth Thomas for sharing their knowledge.

Kristin Cashore, GracelingThe Fall 2013 courses are both ones that I’ve taught before. I changed some of the books on the Literature for Adolescents class, adding: Kristin Cashore’s Graceling, Francisco X. Stork’s The Last Summer of the Death Warriors, and this year’s “K-State First Book,” Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One. The Harry Potter’s Library course remains roughly as it did the last time I taught it (2011). I say “roughly” because this time we’ll actually get to use Pottermore, which was still in beta in the fall of ’11.

Reviewing and editing manuscripts.  As editor for Routledge’s Children’s Literature and Culture series, I edited four books, reviewed two manuscripts, and responded to five book proposals. I also reviewed a manuscript for a children’s literature journal.

Only one committee meeting!  For an internal grant administered by Kansas State University.  I had to review the grant proposals beforehand, but still — only one meeting is unusual for an academic. I doubt any of my peers had just one committee meeting this summer.

Other writing.  There’s correspondence with editors, authors I’m editing, my agent (who is also a friend), friends, other scholars, students, former students, future students, and people who kindly invite me to come and give talks.  I wrote one letter of recommendation for a colleague applying for a fellowship.  And things I’m forgetting, I’m sure.

Barnaby, Volume 1Barnaby! In May, while visiting friends and family in New England (more on that in a moment), I visited the Ruth Krauss Papers at the University of Connecticut to seek scans of a bonus item we’ll include in Crockett Johnson‘s Barnaby Volume Five: 1950-1952 (Fantagraphics, 2017). In Cambridge, I  stopped by Harvard’s archives for some reconnaissance on strips for Barnaby Volume Two: 1944-1945 (coming from Fantagraphics next year). There were several email exchanges on this, and I’m still working to hunt down a few rogue strips. I edited one of the essays that will appear in Volume Two, talked to a journalist or two about Barnaby Volume One: 1942-1943 (published earlier this summer), and am currently in conversation about having a book party in October in NYC. There are other Barnaby-related developments that I’ll wait for Fantagraphics to announce.

Seuss TV. Also during that trip east, I taped an interview on Dr. Seuss with A&E Biography in NYC. I have no idea whether they’ll use the footage, but I had fun doing it.

headless blue musician, AmsterdamYes, I had fun. In May, I attended my twenty-fifth high-school reunion in Connecticut, and visited friends in New York City, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts. That was great. In August, I went hiking with family in Switzerland (en route to the conference in Maastricht). While there, I also played with my niece (the subject of the Emily’s Library series). We read stories, played with a jar of buttons, and with Matchbox cars. I pushed her on the swing, and she served me many imaginary breakfasts, warning me each time “Be careful. It’s hot.” I also spent time with Emily’s mommy and daddy, my mother, her second cousin, and my cousin.  In Amsterdam, I also got to hang out with him and his partner.  He (my cousin) and I became reacquainted last summer after a 29-year gap. My family is spread out across the globe, and as we age I appreciate more and more the remaining time we have together.

My friends are also spread out around the planet. Since many are also academics or connected to publishing (comics, children’s books), conferences are not only learning experiences but a chance to catch up with people I care about.

They are of course learning experiences (see previous post), as are all of my travels. I visit museums and bookshops, walk along trails and through city streets, listen to and talk with people. While I sit in planes and trains, I read books, I read book proposals, I edit books, I write emails, and I write whatever the next thing is — the talk, the essay, the book.

It’s a great job, being able to learn and share what you learn. I’m fortunate to have work from which I derive meaning. Heck, part of my job this year was going to Comic-Con. Sure, it wasn’t free — but still!  AND I traveled to five US states and three other countries.*

I love my job.

But I don’t get summers off.

___________________

*  One of those countries and one of those states were strictly personal, not business. But that’s still a fair bit of travel.

Related posts:

Comments (2)

Well, at least she published a sort-of correction

dunce cap by Emily KelleyAs you probably already know, Forbes‘ Susan Adams contributed to the professors-don’t-really-work myth in naming “University Professor” the “Least Stressful Job of 2013″ (Forbes, 3 Jan. 2013).  After learning that this is utter nonsense, Ms. Adams did at least have the decency to publish an “addendum,” in which she acknowledges that the survey on which she was reporting “didn’t measure things like hours worked and the stresses that come from trying to get papers published in a competitive environment or writing grants to fund research.”

That’s a start. But I want to refute this “oh, professors have it easy” myth once and for all.

I realize that’s a tall order.  The myth persists in popular culture, aided — in America, at least — by a public that views knowledge with suspicion.  So, I can document how many hours I work (as I did, here and here).  Others can do this sort of thing, too.  We can also speak up when we see alleged journalists spreading this nonsense.  But how much effect are we having?  And while we cannot spend our careers putting out the flames of ignorance each time they ignite, if we don’t do this… the fire spreads.

So, for instance, I’m ostensibly “on vacation” right now (because I’m not teaching), but it took me a few days to respond to this because I was in Boston, attending the Modern Language Association convention and at Harvard gathering materials for my next book.  In the days before the Spring 2013 term begins, I need to finish assembling an American Studies Association proposal, get my syllabi together, get my course packs together, revise an essay and send it out, write an abstract for a summer conference (abstract is due Jan. 15th), send an abstract for a conference at which I’m giving a talk (this is due today), do some Routledge editing (I edit Children’s Literature and Culture series), get plane tickets for the two invited talks I’m giving in March, write at least one of two grants, start working on the Afterword and Notes for Barnaby Vol. 2, and… that’s all I can remember right now.  But I’m sure there are items I’m forgetting.

While I doubt that this brief response will have any discernable effect on the general public’s level of knowledge about what professors do, responding seemed better than letting ignorance go unchecked. If there’s a better way to educate the public about academic labor, I’m open to suggestions.

Related content (on this blog):

Image source: Emily Kelley’s Dunce Cap.

Comments (3)

A Brief Inquiry Into the Paradoxes of Academic Achievement

Front cover by Chris Ware for: Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children's Literature (forthcoming from UP Mississippi, Sept. 2012)When I started writing what was then a biography of Crockett Johnson (back in the late 1990s), I thought: When I finish this, I really will have achieved something. Even as I wrote other books, I continued to think of the biography — which became a double biography of Johnson and Krauss — as The Big Achievement. Sure, Dr. Seuss: American Icon (my third book, published 2004) was OK, and, yes, the media attention it received was certainly flattering. But the biography would be the Truly Important Work.

So, you might (or might not) be asking: (1) Why make this distinction between the biography and my other work? (2) Do I still make this distinction? (3) And, now that the biography is published, does it feel as “Truly Important” as I thought it would?

1. Why make this distinction?

The degree of original research required far surpassed that needed for my other books. I interviewed over 80 people, investigated over three dozen archives and special collections, read everything written by or about Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss, and consulted additional hundreds of articles and books. I looked at birth certificates, marriage certificates, census data, property deeds, wills, century-old insurance company maps, and Johnson’s FBI file. If I hadn’t gathered (some of) this information, it would be lost forever. Coping with the mortality of one’s sources is a big challenge for the biographer. Maurice Sendak, Remy Charlip, Syd Hoff, Mischa Richter, Else Frank (Johnson’s sister), Mary Elting Folsom (author who knew Johnson in the 1930s), Gene Searchinger (filmmaker who knew them both), and so many others taught me much about Johnson and Krauss. They have since passed away. If I hadn’t recorded their stories, that information would be gone.

The biography has been more challenging than any other project I’ve tackled, bar none. As I’ve observed before (probably on this blog, and certainly in the talk I gave last month at the New York Public Library), a biography is a jigsaw puzzle, but this puzzle has no box, missing pieces, and no sense of how many pieces you’ll need. There are also the challenges of creating character, knowing which details to omit, and finding a narrative structure. Life has no narrative, but biography has to have a narrative. I have no training in creative writing, but — for this book — I had to try to think like a creative writer.

In sum, there are reasons that a biography takes so long to write….

2. Do I still make this distinction?

Dr. Seuss: American IconSort of. The distinction reflects a tendency to devalue the discipline in which I was trained — the sense that Dr. Seuss: American Icon, though it does draw on considerable original research, is ultimately “just interpreting texts.” In contrast, rigorous historical research, actually uncovering new information, is much more important work. But I say “sort of” because of course there are truly insightful ways of interpreting texts, illuminating formal strategies, transformative critical approaches — Robin Bernstein’s Racial Innocence is one such book. It’s a paradigm-shifter. As I’ve noted before, I don’t have the kind of mind that writes a paradigm-shifting book.

My strength is that I work hard. A biography plays to that particular strength — and perhaps this is one reason that it interests me. It interests me for other reasons, too (the “detective work” part, for example). But it is one intellectual arena where I can do something well: work really hard. Superior intelligence may elude me, but I can put in the hours! So, in some ways I still make the distinction (the amount of research, the box-less puzzle, etc.), but in other ways I do not.

3. Now that it’s published, does it feel like such a Big Achievement?

The response (mostly positive) has been a good feeling. In addition to nice reviews from Anita Silvey, Roger Sutton, Maria Tatar, Kirkus, and the Wall Street Journal, other Notable People Whose Work I Admire have been very complimentary. With apologies for the name-dropping, those people include Chris Ware (who also created the beautiful cover), Dan Clowes, Mark Newgarden, Paul Karasik, Lane Smith, Susan Hirschman, George Nicholson, and Michael Patrick Hearn. Given that Maurice Sendak even responded positively to an early, detail-clogged, incomplete draft, it is of course possible that these folks are simply being kind, and forgiving the book’s many infelicities (as I expect Maurice was). But I’m accepting their kind assessments as genuine because, well, it makes me happy to do so!

That said, as I’ve documented on this blog, the editing process was not entirely harmonious. Some cuts were good ones; others were not. My copy-editor was an historian by training; I needed a writer of fiction. My changes to her edits resulted in some errors, including (as one audience member pointed out at the NYPL last month) a typo in the first sentence. The press refused to change some errors I found in the page proofs (though it did change others). The paperback is priced not at $27, as I had originally been told it would be, but at $40 — this makes it harder to schedule signings because who buys a $40 paperback? These problems make me not want to think about the book at all.

I realize that I should let this go. Publishers introduce errors into manuscripts. Bureaucracies do not always function smoothly. Humans are prone to error, fatigue, and failures of judgment.

Fortunately, despite my irritations, the book does feel like an achievement. Given how long it took to write (I started in 1999), it is thus far my life’s work. It is a big deal.

But there is little time to dwell upon one’s achievements. There are new projects (such as The Complete Barnaby, volume 1 of which is due out early next year), tenure-and-promotion letters to write, letters of recommendation to write, (other people’s) book proposals to review and manuscript to edit, (my) conference abstracts to create and talks to write, planes to catch, meetings to attend, syllabi to revise, syllabi to invent, papers to grade, classes to teach, students to meet. Being an academic is a great job, the work is rewarding, and I feel privileged to do it — even though I rarely have the time to notice those rewards or recognize that privilege. It’s one of the paradoxes of being a professor.

Comments (5)

The Company Owns the Tools

Henry Vicar, The Company Owns the ToolsIt’s Labor Day.  Looking for a pro-labor novel for older children/young adults?  Thanks to Archive.org, you can download (for free) the full text of The Company Owns the Tools, a 1942 novel written by Henry Gregor Felsen (1916-1995) under the pseudonym Henry Vicar.

Here’s what Julia Mickenberg has to say about the book in her excellent Learning from the Left: Children’s Literature, the Cold War, and Radical Politics in the United States (Oxford UP, 2006), which (not incidentally) introduced me to this novel:

One of the few texts for children from this period that deals very explicitly with the conflict between capital and labor is Henry Gregor Felsen’s story for young adults The Company Owns the Tools (1942), which he wrote under the pseudonym Henry Vicar. In this story, an honest young mechanic from a small town in Iowa gets a job in Motor City (Detroit), building cars for the war effort. There he receives a humbling lesson in assembly-line mass production, quickly deciding that the only way to maintain any dignity in his work as an individual is to band together with the other workers, despite the company’s harassment of the union and its efforts to divide works along racial lines. The logic of the union is dictated by the logic of mass production, in which each individual unit is essentially the same as any other. As one of the men puts it: “They can do without any one of us, but they can’t do without all of us.” (Learning from the Left, pp. 102-103).

Or, if you prefer a harder sell, here’s what the interior flaps of the dust jacket have to say.  The front flap:

You’ll want a front seat at the gigantic struggle between Capital and Labor which young Hollis McEachron finds when he comes up from the country byroads face to face with Big Business — strikes, riots, company police, and union meetings.

If you are employed — if you are an employer — if you are just a spectator on the side lines watching this important development in the functioning of democracy — you’ll want to read this book!

Every man and woman in America today is vitally concerned with this question.  Treated as it is here, from a neutral and unbiased viewpoint, each side is focused in its true perspective.  Here are characters you will long remember, action you will not forget — a story which concerns you.

The back flap:

BORN on a farm, Henry Vicar, too, finally came to the city to live.  So it is not just from his extensive research that he writes the story of Hollis McEachron; it is partly from his own experience.  Mr. Vicar traveled widely in this country, Canada, and South America, gathering material and getting opinions from which to write this book.  Authoritative in its details, it is also well-balanced in its treatment of the whole problem of relationships between Capital and Labor.

Keenly interested in all of the social problems which affect the functioning of our system of government, Mr. Vicar has made a contribution in THE COMPANY OWNS THE TOOLS which will be appreciated by every thinking American, no matter what his position may be.  It is full of keen observations and good, hard-headed American straight thinking from start to finish.

During a research trip some years ago, I copied down both of those jacket-flap descriptions from the copy held by the Special Collections Research Center, E.S. Bird Library, Syracuse University.  Thanks to Kathleen Manwaring for bringing it out to show me!

Related Posts:

Source of image: the what what Tumblr.

Comments (2)

How Much Is Too Much?

Sarah Hobbs, "Untitled (Perfectionist)" (2002)Though I often attempt to dispense advice from this blog, I now have a question of my own. How much is too much?

There’s one request that I never turn down: when I am asked to write a letter on behalf of someone going up for tenure and/or promotion, I always say “yes.”  I don’t care how busy I am.  This sort of request is simply too important to decline.

However, I’ve just received the fourth request for such a letter, due in September.  I’ve already said “yes” to three (one for promotion to full, two for tenure) that are due this fall.  On top of that, this will be the busiest fall semester I’ve ever had.  Three different invited talks in three different countries (one of which is the U.S.), two conferences (one in Maryland, one in Puerto Rico).  I’m hoping for some publicity surrounding the publication of the Crockett Johnson-Ruth Krauss bio. and (a couple of months later) The Complete Barnaby Vol. 1.  Having just edited my first full manuscript for Routledge’s Children’s Literature and Culture Series, I discovered Monday that three more full manuscripts await my attention.  I’ve also started another book project, for which I’m working on a proposal & have a planned research trip (also this fall).  And, obviously, there will be teaching, committees, and many things I can’t right now recall — things that will announce their due dates unexpectedly, and too promptly.

So. It’s easier to turn down (for example) invitations to contribute to books, or to join this or that committee.  After all, rarely is anyone’s job is at stake there.  But is it ever OK to say “no” to a tenure-and-promotion request?  My general sense is “no,” & that I should just do it.  As I wrestle with my guilt and sense of obligation, I think about the other people have written such letters on my behalf & who continue to write for me.  And … I conclude that I should keep “paying it forward.”

Shouldn’t I?  What would you do?


Source of artwork, above: Sarah Hobbs’s “Untitled (Perfectionist)”   I found the photo on Mocoloco.  You can view more of Sarah Hobbs’s work on SolomonProjects.com and on her own website, where there’s a better print of the above.  Her Tumblr page is worth a look, also.

Comments (5)

Research, Writing, and Getting a Life

Edmund de Waal, The Hare with Amber EyesOne of the many pleasures of Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance (2010) is its evocation of the thrill of research. As he traces the history of his family’s netsuke (small Japanese ivory and wood carvings), de Waal describes great-great-great grandfather Charles Ephrussi’s art-collecting in nineteenth-century Paris as “‘vagabonding’ … done with real intensity”:

Vagabonding was his word. It sounds recreational rather than diligent or professional…. But it does get the pleasure of the searching right, the way you lose your sense of time when you are researching, are pulled on by whims as much as by intent. It makes me think of the rummaging that I am doing through his life as I track the netsuke, the noting of other people’s annotations in the margins. I vagabond in libraries, trace where he went and why. I follow the leads of whom he knew, whom he wrote about, whose pictures he bought. In Paris I go and stand outside his old offices in the rue Favart in the summer rain like some sad art-historical gumshoe and wait to see who comes out. (72-73)

That’s exactly right. Writing a biography — or, truly, intense research of any kind — is detective work. It’s extremely absorbing, getting a lead, following it to a new source, finding connections between lives and ideas. You are on a quest, and you must keep going until you finish!

New York Times Magazine, 15 April 2012But dedication to the quest also takes its toll. As Charles McGrath reports in today’s New York Times Magazine profile of master biographer Robert Caro, researching and writing the third volume of The Years of Lyndon Johnson had taken so long that Caro and his wife went broke. She sold their Long Island home, found them a cheaper apartment in the Bronx, and got a teaching job to help pay the bills. The biographer — obsessive, driven, seeking every last detail — often depends upon a patient, supportive spouse. It’s no coincidence that my forthcoming biography, Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature, is dedicated to Karin. Who else but one’s partner would put up with such fanatical devotion to a book?

This process recalls a line in a recent Times Higher Education piece on academics: “the idealised academic has no ties or responsibilities to limit their capacity to work.” This is equally true of the biographer. For both the professor and the biographer, there is no boundary between life and work. Your life is your work and your work is your life. Or, in the case of the biographer, your work is someone else’s life.

I’m not arguing that one’s work should be all-consuming, though I would note that Caro’s work on LBJ and Edmund de Waal’s absorbing family history are both excellent because each writer is so very thorough, obsessive, and meticulous — in both the research and the writing. McGrath notes that Caro and his editor Robert Gottlieb “argue about length, but they also argue about prose, even about punctuation.”  As Gottlieb says,

You know that insane old expression, “The quality of his defect is the defect of his quality,” or something like that? That’s really true of Bob [Caro]. What makes him such a genius of research and reliability is that everything is of exactly the same importance to him. The smallest thing is as consequential as the biggest. A semicolon matters as much as, I don’t know, whether Johnson was gay.

Beyond providing a helpful context for my own battles with Walter (my editor for the bio), this explains my own process to me. It’s not just about perfectionism. It’s about getting it right. And everything matters: Structure, word choice, punctuation, which detail gets retained and which one gets cut.

Caro had to cut 350,000 words from The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. He tells McGrath sadly, “There were things cut out of ‘The Power Broker’ that should not have been cut out,” and then shows him “his personal copy of the book, dog-eared and broken-backed, filled with underlining and corrections written in between the lines. Caro is a little like Balzac, who kept fussing over his books even after they were published.” It would be an understatement to say I can relate to that. Though I had to cut far fewer words from my biography of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss, there were things cut that should not have been cut. And I’ve seriously thought of marking up a published copy (due this September) to fix those omissions, or infelicitous changes in phrasing introduced during the copyediting (the copyeditor was unusually fond of passive voice). In looking at the proofs, I thought: Why did I allow the excision of Johnson’s favorite book, George and Weedon Grossmith’s The Diary of a Nobody?  My main reason was (and is) the fact that I can include it — and its satirical style’s influence on Johnson — in one of the afterwords for the 5-volume The Complete Barnaby. It’s hard to let this go, and I’m fortunate to have the luxury to hang on a bit longer. As de Waal writes near the end of his book, he has the feeling that he should “Just go home and leave these stories be. But leaving be is hard” (346).

Most of all, when reading Caro or de Waal, I think: my God, I wish I could write like them! I’m not in their league. Indeed, my league couldn’t find their league on a map. Describing the motorcade in Dallas on 22 November 1963, Caro writes,

Lyndon Johnson was far enough behind the Presidential limousine that the cheering for the Kennedys and the Connallys — for John Connally, some of it, for his onetime assistant, who had become his rival in Texas — was dying down by the time his car passed, and most of the faces in the crowd were still turned to follow the Presidential car as it drove away from them. So that, as Lyndon Johnson’s car made its slow way down the canyon, what lay ahead of him in that motorcade could, in a way, have been seen by someone observing his life as a foretaste of what might lie ahead if he remained Vice-President: five years of trailing behind another man, humiliated, almost ignored, and powerless.  The Vice-Presidency, “filled with trips . . . chauffeurs, men saluting, people clapping . . . in the end it is nothing,” as he later put it. (“The Transition,” The New Yorker, 2 Apr. 2012, 35-36)

Masterful.  I favor tighter sentences myself, but his epic style works well with his subject. We readers know that, in a few moments, President Kennedy will be assassinated; later that day, LBJ will become president. And Caro knows we know. So, he allows our knowledge to inform the scene, and instead focuses on creating Johnson’s (likely) experience at that moment — enduring the relative powerlessness of the Vice-Presidency.

De Waal writes lyrically and with great insight into what it means to be human. Early in the book, he observes, “Melancholy, I think, is a sort of default vagueness, a get-out clause, a smothering lack of focus. And this netsuke is a small, tough explosion of exactitude. It deserves this kind of exactitude in return” (16).  Later, he considers his great grandparents, in Vienna, in the early 19-teens.  The “more assimilated Jews [the great grandparents] worry about these newcomers,” he writes: “their speech and dress and customs are not aligned to the Bildung of the Viennese. There is anxiety that they will impede assimilation.” At the end of this paragraph, de Waal concludes, “Maybe, I think, this is anxiety from the recently arrived towards the very newly arrived.  They are still in transit” (188). Describing his grandmother’s decision to burn letters from her mother (in part, he suggests, because they may mention the great-grandmother’s lovers), de Waal confesses, “There is something about burning all of those letters that gives me pause: why should everything be made clear and brought into the light? Why keep things, archive your intimacies? … Just because you have it does not mean you have to pass it on. Losing things can sometimes gain a space in which to live” (347).

This is the big conundrum of the researcher. To throw out or to keep? I tend towards the latter. (If I throw it out, I might need it later.) But de Waal is right: being encumbered by research (books, articles, photocopies from archives, etc.) grants one little space to live. Further, the time required to sustain research affords little time to winnow out and throw out. It’s hard to manage your archives and move forward with the next project — to say nothing of grading, teaching, editing, committee work, or, say, having a life.

So we keep things. However, as Robin Bernstein observes in her Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights (2011), things are bearers of stories.  And, as de Waal notes, “It is not just that things carry stories with them. Stories are a kind of thing, too” (349).

They are. And they’ve been on my mind because — for any of my readers who may be in or near Manhattan Kansas next week — I’m giving a talk on this very subject, at 4pm, Tuesday, April 24, in the K-Sate Student Union’s Little Theatre.  The title is “Collaborating with the FBI, Reading Other People’s Mail and Taking Children’s Literature Seriously: Tales from Writing the Biography of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss.” Free and open to the public. My talk will run about half an hour. There’ll be lots of stories.

Comments (1)