The Meaning of Life; or, How to Avoid the Midlife Crisis

Kieran Setiya, "The Midlife Crisis" (2014)Why do successes sometimes feel like failures? As philosopher Kieran Setiya points out in a wise new essay, “Our achievements, whatever they are worth, are always numbered” (10). Each time we accomplish something, it’s done, finished, and we must move on to the next thing: “the completion of your project may constitute something of value, but it means that the project can no longer give purpose to your life” (12). And so, in “pursuing a goal, you are trying to exhaust your interaction with something good, as if you were trying to make friends for the sake of saying goodbye” (12).

What’s the solution? Key, Setiya argues, is to distinguish between telic and atelic activities:

  • Telic: “Almost anything we call a ‘project’ will be telic: buying a house, starting a family, earning a promotion, getting a job. These are all things one can finish or complete” (12).
  • Atelic: “not all activities are like this. Some do not aim at a point of termination or exhaustion: a final state in which they have been achieved and there is nothing more to do. For instance,… you can go for a walk with no particular destination. Going for a walk is an ‘atelic’ activity. The same is true of hanging out with friends or family, of studying philosophy, of living a decent life. You can stop doing these things and you eventually will, but you cannot complete them in the relevant sense…. they do not have a telic character” (12-13). So, “If you are going for a walk, hanging out with friends, studying philosophy, or living a decent life, you are not on the way to achieving your end. You are already there” (13).

This, however, does not mean that one should only invest in the atelic. The issue is where you derive value: locating the majority of life’s meaning in the telic will leave you unfulfilled, and often precipitates a midlife crisis. As Setiya writes, “it is at midlife that the telic character of one’s most cherished ends are liable to appear, as they are completed or prove impossible. One has the job one has worked for many years to get, the partner one hoped to meet, the family one meant to start — or one does not. Until this point, one may have had no reason to dwell on the exhaustion of one’s ambitions” (14).

To avoid or resolve the midlife crisis, yes, you can (as Setiya puts it), “invest… more deeply in atelic ends. Among the activities that matter most to you, the ones that give meaning to your life, must be activities that have no terminal point. Since they cannot be completed, your engagement with atelic ends will not exhaust or destroy them” (15).

But you can — and should — also continue pursuing telic activities. Just pursue them for their own sake instead of for the end product: “Instead of spending time with friends in order to complete a shared project […,] one pursues a common project in order to spend time with friends” (15). As Setiya advises, “Do not work only to solve this problem or discover that truth, as if the tasks you complete are all that matter; solve the problem or seek the truth in order to be at work” (15).

Setiya’s “The Midlife Crisis” appears in Philosophers’ Imprint 14.31 (Nov. 2014), pp. 1-18. Just follow the link. As you may have guessed from my summary, I highly recommend it.

Related posts (on this blog unless otherwise noted):

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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.

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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.

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Stylish Academic Writing

Helen Sword, Stylish Academic WritingNo, the title of this post is not an oxymoron. Academics can write with style. Some of us do. All of us should. In Stylish Academic Writing, Helen Sword offers advice for all who aspire to write with grace and economy. The book is smart, funny, and — even better — applicable beyond academe.

Many of us write the way our disciplines taught us to write, but, as Sword points out, there’s a good degree of variance within any given discipline. People don’t write articles all the same way. In every discipline, there’s room for creativity, space for departing from the formula. Writing bland, jargon-y prose is not the only way to get published. To quote Sword, “academic writing is a process of making intelligent choices, not following rigid rules” (30). That’s the key advice here. You can write well and get published in any discipline; the path to publication involves smart choices, not the strictures of jargon.

Here are six pieces of advice from her book:

  1. Open with something catchy: As Sword puts it, “recount an interesting story, ask a challenging question, dissect a problem” (8).
  2. Prefer active verbs to passive ones: no one likes sentences that erase human agency.
  3. As Richard Lanham famously asked, “Who’s kicking who?” That should be “Who’s kicking whom?,” but the point is sound: nouns and verbs form the backbone of a strong sentence. If your sentence construction obscures cause-and-effect, then rewrite it.
  4. Jargon for its own sake is lazy. Use it when it serves your purpose — as Sword notes, it’s a “highly efficient form of disciplinary shorthand” (117). That’s great. But don’t use it as a substitute for thought. Draw upon the insights of critical theory, philosophy, medicine, and any relevant discipline, but express those insights in clear, concrete prose.
  5. You don’t need to use long sentences all the time. Short ones are nice. Varying sentence lengths works well, too.
  6. Avoid extraneous words and phrases. As Sword writes, “Avoid using that more than once in a single sentence or about three times per paragraph, except in a parallel construction or for stylistic effect. Sentences that rely on subordinate clauses that in turn contain other clauses that introduce new ideas that distract from the main argument that the author is trying to make . . . well, you get the idea” (62).

From my earliest days as an academic, I’ve aspired to write clear sentences. So, in part, Sword’s book has (for me) affirmed what I’ve always tried to do. I know of course that (despite my efforts) I have written sentences that fall short of this goal.  For that matter, I know that I will never be as deft a stylist as Martha Nussbaum, Louis Menand, or Robin Bernstein (to name a few academics who are also graceful writers), but I also know I can be better.  Sword’s book can help us all be better.

This is why, since I started reading the book, I’ve been recommending it to my fellow academics.  (To give credit where it’s due, Robin Bernstein’s Facebook post of the video below alerted me to Sword’s work.)

The Humanities need scholars who can communicate well. Our professional lives and the futures of our disciplines depend upon our ability to convey our ideas with clarity and grace to legislators and to the general public. The Humanities are not a luxury. As Adam Gopnik wrote so eloquently earlier this week, “We need the humanities not because they will produce shrewder entrepreneurs or kinder C.E.O.s but because [...] they help us enjoy life more and endure it better. The reason we need the humanities is because we’re human.”

Stylish Academic Writing has renewed my commitment to writing well.  If more of us take Sword’s advice to heart, perhaps over time, we can help our governments renew their commitments to the Humanities, and to a way of living that puts human beings first — rather than putting first, say, corporate profits, easily quantifiable utility, expensive surveillance, or lethal technologies.  Perhaps.

Even if we fail, it will have been worth the effort.


Bonus: a video on zombie nouns.

Another bonus: some links.

  • Stylish Academic Writing: Harvard University Press’s page, featuring many links.
  • The Writer’s Diet Test: Sword’s automated feedback tool asks “Is your writing flabby or fit?” and invites you to “Enter a writing sample of 100 to 1000 words” and find out.

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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.

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The Joy of Index

Crockett Johnson, "How to write a book," illus. from Ruth Krauss's How to Make an EarthquakeOK, “Joy” might be the wrong word — unless we modify that title to “The Anticipatory Joy of Finishing the Index” or “The Joy of Finding a Great Index.”  Creating an index can be a mind-numbing slog, and creating it while checking proofs (as I am doing right now) doesn’t make it any more fun.  But the index is also the most important part of any book.  It’s one reason that I tend to create my indices myself.  Sure, you can hire an indexer.*  But who knows your book better than you do?

Many people will enter Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature (coming fall 2012) via the index. Sure, I like to flatter myself and imagine that people will read the book from cover to cover.  But many people won’t.  The index is there to guide them.

It’s also there to guide people who have read the book, and are trying to locate something they remember reading.  We’ve all done this: OK, I know the book mentions this, but where does it mention it?

So, my index is very detailed.  For the two central characters (Johnson and Krauss), I’ve even created sub-indices.  I’ve only indexed the manuscript up to page 202, but here’s what they look like right now:

Krauss, Ruth Ida:

aesthetics of, 28, 33, 148, 153, 155

athletics of, 12, 14, 25, 68, 154

anthropology and, 51-54, 58, 63-64, 66, 69, 71, 93-94

anti-racism of, 11, 52, 64, 66, 93-94, 102, 104, 120-121, 162, 182

artistic ability of, 29-31, 124

birth of, 9

celebrity of, 187-188

childhood of, 9-15, 25-27,

childlessness of, 97-98

childlike aspects retained by, 14

death of, 102

dogs owned by, 53, 191-192

education of, 12-15, 26-31

family background of, 9-10

fan mail received by,

finances of, 28, 31, 68, 72, 111, 116, 138-139, 166, 201

friendships of, 28

health of, 11, 13, 51, 143

jobs held by, 28, 31, 39

marriages of, 39-40, 58, 68

meets CJ, 54

as mentor, 7, 124, 179-180, 189, 202

music of, 14, 26-27

narcolepsy of, 58, 100

nicknames of, 25-26

phobias and anxieties of, 12, 99, 101, 159-160

physical appearance, 4, 54, 158

political beliefs of, 11, 52, 64, 69, 79, 88, 93-94, 102, 104, 111, 120-121, 199

pseudonyms used by, 39, 189, 200

psychoanalysis and, 159-160

rapport with children, 84, 97-98, 133, 140, 142, 148, 163

religious background of, 4, 10, 13, 42

residences of, 3, 9-10, 12-14, 28, 31, 38-40, 57, 59

and sex, 31, 158

sexism faced by, 15, 39, 58, 72, 104, 127, 181

as surrogate parent,

travels of, 40-42, 51-52, 95, 187, 202

Krauss, Ruth Ida, works of:

advertising, 111, 165, 193

alternate titles for, 80, 114, 122, 126, 144, 166, 180, 182, 189

anti-racist message in, 162

audience for, 66, 96, 142, 155, 162, 170, 181-183, 188, 194

awards and honors, 111

childhood influences on, 25, 121

children’s language in, 5-6, 26, 109, 117, 122, 126, 130-131, 142, 144, 148, 153-154, 188

creative process, 5-6, 13, 72, 82-85, 98-100, 103, 117, 122, 124, 126, 140, 144, 160, 169-171, 188

editor for, 115

fiction for adults, 39, 96

imagination in, 82, 89, 126, 131

as influence, 6, 165-166, 193

innovation in, 116-117, 122-123, 126-128, 137, 140, 142-143, 153-154, 190

moral themes in, 66-67, 69-70, 93-94, 111-112, 121, 126, 130, 137, 162, 199

plays,

poetry, 38-40, 110, 154, 170, 183, 189-191, 195, 197, 199-201

promotional efforts for, 72

revisions of, 82-85, 95-96

sales of, 80, 127, 130, 138, 166, 170

on stage,

on television,

in translation and foreign editions, 120, 176

unpublished, 69, 71, 90, 93-96, 99, 116, 162-163, 169-170

see also specific works.

Leisk, David Johnson (aka Crockett Johnson):

aesthetics of, 7, 17, 24, 33, 44, 49, 68, 72-73, 149, 177-178, 185-187

athletics of, 24, 33, 46

anti-racism of, 47, 54, 79, 88, 104, 119

artistic ability of, 19

birth of, 16

carpentry of, 102, 143

celebrity of, 72, 96, 187-188

childhood of, 16-24, 189

childlessness of, 98

death of,

dogs owned by, 17, 35, 53, 102-103, 156, 191-192

education of, 17, 23-24

family background of, 16-21

fan mail received by, 71, 129

finances of, 32, 34, 44, 72, 81, 92, 147, 157

health of, 59

humor of, 19, 103, 135, 158, 177

jobs held by, 32-34, 44

manner of speaking, 19

marriages of, 35, 50, 58, 68

and mathematics, 23, 73-75

meets RK, 54

as mentor, 7, 124, 158, 180, 202

nocturnal habits of, 67-68, 73, 101-102, 155

origins of name, 16, 19

physical appearance, 4, 33, 54, 57, 149, 158, 179

political beliefs of, 18, 34-37, 43-44, 46-50, 54-56, 58-59, 63, 66, 76-77, 79, 86-88, 95, 103, 106, 108-109, 113, 119, 161, 194, 197

pseudonyms used by, 19, 21, 23, 37

religious background of, 4, 19

residences of, 3, 16-18, 20, 32-33, 35, 38, 57, 59

and sailing, 17, 68, 80, 155, 176, 179

and smoking, 24, 67, 71

as surrogate parent, 143-144

travels of, 49, 95, 187, 202

and typography, 24, 32-33, 73, 88, 176

Leisk, David Johnson (aka Crockett Johnson), works of:

advertising, 32-33, 56, 71, 134-135, 178, 193, 197

alternate titles for, 180-181, 199

animation, 79

audience for, 62-65, 71, 74, 77-78, 180, 185-186, 189

awards and honors, 178

cartoons, 193

comics, 18-22, 35-37, 43, 46-49, 53-65, 67-68, 70-74, 77, 79-82, 86-87, 90-92, 103, 106, 108-109, 113-114, 128-129, 135-137

childhood influences on, 19, 149, 157, 189

creative process, 19, 60, 67-68, 82, 98, 103, 140, 169, 173, 189

editor for, 33-34, 44-45, 49-50

editor for RK’s work, 78, 88, 124

imagination in, 5, 21, 23-24, 46, 67, 114, 148-152, 169, 171, 184, 186

illustrations for others’ work, 47, 66, 72, 78, 88, 139-142, 158

as influence, 5, 7

innovation in, 73, 140, 142-143, 145, 160-162

inventions, 124, 129, 148-149, 155, 158, 180

mathematical theorems,

moral themes in, 35-37, 43, 53-56, 58-59, 66, 75-76, 79, 161, 175-176

paintings,

promotional efforts for, 71

revisions of, 145, 154-155

on radio, 81-82, 105

sales of, 5, 6, 130, 149, 164-165, 170, 180-181, 200

on stage, 79-81, 91-93, 95-96, 104-105

on television, 148

in translation and foreign editions, 156, 176

unpublished, 91, 140-141

see also specific works.

In addition to indexing the book all the way to the end, this index may yet change in other ways — some categories may get removed, and others may be added. But the above entries are one example of how I hope to make the book useful to others.  And the level of detail represented serve as an example of why authors — if they have the stamina — should create their own indices.


* For the record, Lissa Paul and I did hire an indexer for Keywords for Children’s Literature (2011). Jon Eben Field did a fine job.  But I did my own indices for Dr. Seuss: American Icon (2004) and The Avant-Garde and American Postmodernity: Small Incisive Shocks (2002).


An extraordinary number of posts on this blog relate to the writing of this biography.  I can’t imagine that all (or even most) of them will be of interest, but, for the heartier among you, here are most of them:

Posts tagged Crockett Johnson, Ruth Krauss, or Biography may also be of interest.

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Not a Good Fit

            “It has been a long trip,” said Milo, climbing onto the couch where the princesses sat; “but we would have been here much sooner if I hadn’t made so many mistakes. I’m afraid it’s all my fault.”

            “You must never feel badly about making mistakes,” explained Reason quietly, “as long as you take the trouble to learn from them. For you often learn more by being wrong for the right reasons than you do by being right for the wrong reasons.”

            “But there’s so much to learn,” he said with a thoughtful frown.

            “Yes, that’s true,” admitted Rhyme; “but it’s not just learning things that’s important. It’s learning what to do with what you learn and learning why you learn things at all that matters.”

— Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth (1961), p. 233

Sometimes, a press or a journal will tell you that what you’ve sent simply isn’t a “good fit.” Over a decade ago, American Literature turned down a piece on Crockett Johnson that I subsequently published in Children’s Literature 29 (2001) — the article that inspired my forthcoming biography of Johnson and Ruth Krauss. What does a “good fit” mean?  In that case, it meant that an American author of comics and of picture books did not qualify as American Literature (at least, not according to the journal’s editor).

Here is a slightly trickier case. Yesterday, eighteen and a half months after I submitted my essay “Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: Seuss and Race in the 1950s,” American Quarterly at last returned a verdict. Reject. The very helpful reader’s report recommends “revise and resubmit,” but the accompanying letter notes that the board “decided that your essay was not a good fit for American Quarterly.  This is primarily because we felt your argument needed clarification and further elaboration.”  Judging by both the report and the letter, “not a good fit” in this case means insufficient theorizing of how race is constructed — and I’d be the first to acknowledge that I’m not well versed in race theory. I did do some of that theoretical work in writing this piece, but I’m much better versed in Seuss and in children’s literature than I am in critical theory.  This is a new area for me. “Not a good fit” in this case also means (as the editor elaborates) that the argument could have been more effectively structured.

On that note, the reader’s report will be very useful to me as I further revise the essay.  To paraphrase Rhyme’s advice (in Juster’s novel), there’s much to do with what I’ve learned.  Indeed, I’m quite happy to be able to rewrite the essay without thinking “Oh, what if they like it in its original form?”  I turned in the piece a year and a half ago, and my own thinking has evolved considerably since then.  Even if the essay had been accepted, I was going to ask if I might make some revisions to it.

Any junior scholars reading this might wonder why I’ve let this essay languish at American Quarterly for so long. A big reason is that I have had the luxury to wait.  If I were earlier in my career, I would have certainly pulled this essay about a year ago, and sent it elsewhere. (As I note in an earlier blog post, it’s good to be proactive.) American Quarterly currently says that they require six to eight months simply to decide whether or not to send the essay out for review.  In my case, the journal took a year to decide to send the essay out for review — nearly exactly a year, in fact.  I submitted the essay on 31 Aug. 2010, and the editor sent it out for review on 25 Aug. 2011.  However, since American Quarterly is a good journal, since I’m a full professor, and since I have more than enough to keep me busy, I decided to wait it out. I followed up with the managing editor at regular intervals… and worked on the many other projects I’d committed myself to.

The final issue to address, then, is “If a journal deems your work ‘not a good fit,’ should you submit something else to same journal?”  The answer is “yes, if you write something that seems a better fit,” but otherwise “no.”  My answer to the question (regarding AQ) is “probably not” — but less for the unusually long delay (for which both editor and managing editor apologized) and more because I doubt that anything I’m doing will be “a good fit” for AQ. Of the sort of work I do, this piece seemed to me to be the best fit for AQ. It’s interdisciplinary, mixing history, close-reading, theory — though not well enough, evidently. But, as I’ve acknowledged before, as a scholar, I’m more hard worker than big thinker. That is, I’m persistent, I produce a fair amount, but I seem unable to write the sort of scholarship that changes the paradigm. I admire people who do that type of work, but acknowledge that I’m not one of them. So, if “best fit” (from my perspective) is “not a good fit” (from AQ’s perspective), then I’ll need to pursue other venues for my work.

And, happily, there are other venues. Generally speaking, I try to publish in both children’s literature journals and in ones that are not devoted to children’s literature. My reasons are many — seeking a broader audience for my own work, wanting to diversify, believing that one shouldn’t always talk to the same group of scholars, feeling that children’s literature scholarship should be more thoroughly integrated into academe, and so on. But, of course, some journals will be a better fit than others.

So, following the advice of Rhyme and Reason, what have I learned from this experience? (1) I’m grateful for the helpful feedback, and look forward to putting it to good use. (2) It’s useful to know that AQ is unlikely to be a good fit for me: I can turn towards (what I hope will be) more receptive venues instead. (3) Finally, it’s a cliché, but it’s also true: nothing ventured, nothing gained.  Onwards!

If you enjoyed this post, there’s at least a chance that these posts may also be of interest:

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Tenure Isn’t the Point

In the Chronicle of Higher Education this past Tuesday, Professor Kathryn D. Blanchard reports “wallowing in ‘post-tenure depression,’” a phenomenon she discovers is more common than one might think. What, she asks, “can account for the feelings of despair and apathy that follow this milestone, the pursuit of which causes us to invest not merely the years of teaching, scholarship, and—gods help us—committee work, but also years and years of postcollegiate education?”

Let’s get the obvious criticisms out of the way.  First, the whole essay screams first-world problem, something which its concluding paragraph acknowledges.  Second, given that, in the Humanities, each year the academy produces five times as many Ph.D.s as there are tenure-track jobs for Ph.D.s, the Chronicle’s decision to publish Professor Blanchard’s lament seems in questionable taste. Think of all the adjuncts seeking a tenure-track position, adjuncts whose work supports the privilege enjoyed by people like Professor Blanchard. There are thousands of highly qualified people who would love to have a tenure-track job — to say nothing of tenure itself.

And now, a more substantive critique. The point of an academic position is not tenure. Yes, of course, you should follow the guidelines of your institution, making sure that you do all that is required for tenure. Academics already know this, but to any non-academics reading this: if you don’t get tenure, you’re fired. The university usually employs you for another year, while you look for another job. So, Professor Blanchard was wise to have maintained a focus on that goal.

However, the reason for being in academia is to pursue interesting work. So, yes, do keep your eye on the “tenure” prize. But remember, also, that you’re in this for the long haul. Seek scholarly projects that sustain your interest. Volunteer for the service that best fits your disposition (and, conversely, try to avoid service that drives you up a tree). Find ways to keep your courses fresh and exciting: change the syllabus for each one you teach regularly, and invent new courses whenever you get a chance.

Getting tenure offers an opportunity to explore newer, perhaps riskier, academic endeavors. Those risks may be intellectual — pushing your own thinking further, undertaking a project that will take longer to complete. Those risks may be pedagogical — designing a new course that pushes you and your students in productive ways, but that may also take time away from your research. Those risks may be institutional — say, publishing with a popular press instead of a refereed / academic press (academe values the latter more than the former). Or seeking to reform the tenure system within your university.  Or writing a piece for the Chronicle in which you imply dissatisfaction with the “godforsaken place” where you teach.  (Professor Blanchard writes, “there are less-savory synonyms for the pleasant-sounding euphemism of ‘job security,’ such as ‘stuck’ or ‘trapped’ or ‘you’ll never get out of this godforsaken place!’”) Tenure grants you a degree of intellectual and professional freedom.

So, to any others who experience post-tenure depression: the cause seems (to this armchair psychologist) not to be tenure, but rather the elevation of tenure to Supreme Academic Achievement. Tenure is a major achievement, to be sure. But it’s only one stop along the way to … wherever your work leads you. For those of us fortunate to have tenure-track jobs, scholarship should be a journey, not a destination.

Colin Thompson, Bookshelf (see http://www.gelaskins.com/gallery/Colin_Thompson/Bookshelf)

Image source: Colin Thompson, “Bookshelf.”  Available via Gelaskins.

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If I Were a Middle-Class White Kid

Gene Marks’ instantly infamous “If I Were a Poor Black Kid” column (Forbes, 12 Dec. 2011) is a classic example of how privilege remains invisible to the privileged.  Though he acknowledges that he is “a middle aged white guy who comes from a middle class white background” and so “life was easier for” him, the rest of his column betrays too little of the awareness expressed by those early sentences. For instance, “If I was a poor black kid I’d use the free technology available to help me study” assumes that the kid in question would have access to this technology.  Even a claim as benign as “If you do poorly in school, particularly in a lousy school, you’re severely limiting the limited opportunities you have” overlooks the fact that it takes an unusual student to rise above the limitations of a “lousy school.” Sure, there are students who do this, but they’re the exception, not the rule.

Mr. Marks assumes that opportunity is equally distributed. While we might admire the personal optimism conveyed by a claim like “I believe that everyone in this country has a chance to succeed,” the article does not sufficiently acknowledge that some people — those with access to better schools, those who do not go to bed hungry, those with health care — have a much, much better chance of success.

I owe my own success to precisely that sort of privilege. Don’t misunderstand: I have worked hard, and I continue to work hard. But my success in life derives not just from my work ethic. It also comes from unearned privilege.

If I had stayed in public school, I’m not sure that I would have gone to college at all. On my first day of first grade, the teacher asked which of us could read. I was among those few who raised my hand — I’d been reading since I was 3 years old.  She gave us literate students a book to read. I finished it first, and raised my hand. “I’ve finished,” I said.  Her response: “Read it again.” I began to read it again. On my first day of school and subsequent ones, I learned that school was boring.

The author, at about age 11, reading The Hobbit

The result was that, though I still read for pleasure, I became a terrible student. I’d finish the worksheet first, and then devote my free time to amusing my classmates. I paid attention only when it suited me, trusting that I’d be able to master the material on my own. For a few years, this approach worked well. However, by the time I reached sixth and seventh grade, it was no longer working. My grades were slipping, and I began to slip behind.

And here’s where that unearned privilege saved me.

Just before I entered eighth grade, my mother got a job teaching at private schools —  first, Shore Country Day School (in Beverly, Mass.), and second, Choate Rosemary Hall (in Wallingford, Conn.). Her employment allowed my sister and me to attend both schools for free.  That’s right: in addition to receiving a salary (and on-campus housing in the case of Choate), her labor enabled her offspring to attend gratis. Had she lacked a college degree, had she lacked experience teaching and working with computers, I would not have had that opportunity.

She’s also a great example of how privilege — or its lack — gets compounded over time. She worked hard, overcoming both the diminished expectations accorded her gender, and discrimination from male bosses. But she also benefited from privilege.  As a white South African, she had access to educational opportunities that black South Africans did not.  I can say with certainty that if my mother were from the same country but of a different race, I would not be where I am today.  That’s unearned privilege.

Attending private schools made all the difference for me. Although I had peers in public school (a perfectly adequate public school) who did well and went on to college, I too easily succumbed to the prevailing attitude (among the students) that one should do as little as possible.  In private school, however, the prevailing attitude was that we all needed to work hard.  The work was challenging, and we had to rise to our teachers’ expectations.

That was just the nudge I needed. I didn’t become an “A” student overnight. Indeed, I had to do an extra year at Choate to pass the language requirement (there was no way I was going to make it through third-year Russian), and to get my grades up enough to get into college.  Aided by a semester abroad (in Valladolid, Spain), I did three years of Spanish in two years, improved my grades, and got accepted at a couple of good colleges.

At the University of Rochester, I became a model student, and graduated summa cum laude with a B.A. in both English and Psychology. But, here, too, privilege came to my aid. Having that excellent private-school education meant that I knew how to study. During my freshman year, many of my public-school friends were shocked by the amount of work. I wasn’t. The work may have been harder, but I knew what I had to do.

In calling attention to the role privilege has played in my own success, I do not mean to dismiss the role of a solid work ethic. Mr. Marks is correct to emphasize the importance of hard work. For most of college, I worked two jobs — one via Work/Study, and one as a Resident Advisor (which paid for room and half of board).  I say “most” because I became an R.A. my second year; indeed, I was one of two sophomore R.A.s that year.  (The others were all juniors and seniors.)  In addition to those jobs, I studied hard, spending long hours in the library.  I carried those work habits on to graduate school and into my career as an English professor.

However, I must point out that I was not working, say, 30-hour weeks in addition to doing schoolwork. The hours of the R.A. job varied, and the Work/Study job was, to the best of my recollection, about 8 hours a week, give or take. I have students now who work full-time, are the sole caregiver for their children, and are pursuing a B.A. That’s a much steeper hill to climb.

The problem in this country is not laziness. The problem is unacknowledged, unearned privilege.  It’s not that people lack industry; they lack opportunity. But the privileged — unconscious of the degree to which their own advantage has aided them — fail to see this, and so write well-intentioned, naïve articles like “If I Were a Poor Black Kid.” Mr. Marks means well, but his prescription for success would not have helped me.  And I was a middle-class white kid.

The photo is of me, at about age 11, reading The Hobbit.

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Advice from the Least Likely to Succeed

photo of Philip Nel, taken during his first year of graduate school (1992-1993)When I was a graduate student, I would have voted myself Least Likely to Succeed in Academe. I published nothing while in graduate school. I worked hard on my seminar papers, but none would work as an article — so, I didn’t send them out. I didn’t figure out how to write publishable literary criticism until I was working on the dissertation. For these (and other) reasons, I spent my first three post-Ph.D. years as an adjunct professor.1

So, 19 years after beginning graduate school here, it’s both gratifying and astonishing to be back at Vanderbilt as an invited speaker.  I’m both flattered and a little flustered.  I’m honored to be here and secretly surprised to be here.

In addition to talking a bit about our research (Karin on Harry Potter, me on Seuss), we’re also offering some reflections on our success in academe — professional advice, of a sort — to the current graduate students.  For the record, as a graduate student, I would also have voted myself Least Likely to Be in a Position to Offer Professional Advice.  When I look back on it, I’m mildly surprised that I made it to the Ph.D.

The title of our talk — “Accidental Experts: Strategy, Serendipity, and the Places You’ll Go!” — expresses quite succinctly the combination of chance and forethought, luck and pluck, accident and planning that has made my career possible. A failed book proposal ended up yielding two successful (different) books. Writing a chapter on Dr. Seuss in a dissertation that was not about children’s literature led to a career as a scholar of children’s literature.  Creating a website devoted to an author whose work I admired led to me to write a biography (due next fall!).2

If I could offer one piece of advice to current graduate students (in addition to the advice I’ve already offered), it would be this. If you’re serious about academe, if you really want to pursue this, then give it your best shot. It won’t be easy, it will at times be frustrating, and spare time will be hard to find.  But all careers are challenging. (That’s why they’re called careers, and not merely jobs.) To be able to do work from which you derive meaning, and to get paid for doing that work… is a real gift.  You’re unlikely ever to join the 1%, but you’ll be doing something worthwhile.  And that’s a good feeling.

Thanks to Vanderbilt’s Department of English for my doctoral education, and for inviting us both back here.  If you’ll be in Nashville, the talk is tomorrow (Friday) at 2:10 pm in Vanderbilt’s Buttrick Hall, room 309.


  1. Footnote for any non-academic reading this.  Adjunct professors receive low pay, and (usually) no benefits, no health insurance.  They’re not on the tenure-track and are unlikely to get on the tenure-track at the institution where they work.  Indeed, they typically are not guaranteed employment from semester to semester: if there are classes that lack instructors, they’re hired; otherwise, they’re out of luck.  Given that, each year, the academy produces five times as many Ph.D.s in English as there are jobs in English, adjuncts are all too abundant a resource.
  2. Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature, due in Fall 2012 from the University Press of Mississippi.

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