Suck It Up. Enhance Production.

numbersA number of folks at MLA 2011 were kind enough to mention that they’ve found my “advice” postings useful.  In the hopes of continuing to help, here’s one more before I veer back to other blog topics (children’s literature, comics, biography, music, etc.).  Today’s topic is: how do you develop a robust CV quickly?

As noted in “Up from Adjuncthood,” this was a matter of some urgency: when I earned the Ph.D. in 1997, I had zero publications.  To escape terminal adjuncthood, I’d need to transform an anemic CV into a healthy one.  I found Michael Bérubé‘s CV on-line (a full version was on-line back then), and decided to emulate him.  I knew I was neither as smart nor as talented a writer as he, but (I reasoned) I could at least strive to be as productive.

It’s a simple calculus.  If you publish one article a year, then in five years you have five articles; two a year, then you have ten in the same period.  Similarly, if you can publish a book every five years, then in a decade, you’ll have two. I never literally followed this x-articles-per-year model. The idea was not to meet annual quotas. It was to think about the long term. If you maintain a steady rate of production, then, over time, publications add up.

And they have.

I’ve already blogged about How to Publish Your Book.  It occurs to me that I ought to write another post on How to Publish Your Articles.  Too often, I think, we academics take for granted that aspiring scholars already know the ins and outs of how academia works — forgetting that we had to learn this, too.  So…, I’ll do an Article-Publishing post soon.

Oh, and bonus points for anyone who guesses the song quoted in the post’s title.  Need a hint?  It’s included on Never Say Die: A Mix for Job-Seekers (posted back in September).

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How Did I Get Here? Part II: Into Professorland

In yesterday’s post, I skipped past the actual getting of the job.  (Oops.)  Today, I’ll talk about that.

Oh, but enough about me.  What do you think of me?

— old joke

4. To Market, to Market, to Get Me a Job

Chicago, where the 1999 MLA was heldIn 1999, I had three interviews.  The first was pleasant enough.  The second was unpleasant.  Indeed, if I’d already had a job, then halfway into that interview I would have said, “Based our conversation so far, I expect you’re looking for a different candidate.  Thanks very much for taking the time to meet me, and best of luck with your search.” Then I would have shook hands, offered thank-yous, and left. But I didn’t have a job.  So, I stuck it out, and — when I returned from the conference — wrote the obligatory thank-you note, even though there was no way I’d get a campus visit.

The third interview was a lot of fun. Before I explain why, I should also tell you how I prepared for all three interviews.  Since each hiring committee told me who would be on the interview team, I read the scholarship of each interviewer.  I should have spent more time on the websites looking at course offerings, but I did develop sample syllabi so that I could be prepared to answer questions like “What would you teach in a Children’s Literature course?” or “If you could teach your dream graduate seminar, what would it be on?” and so on.  In retrospect, I probably should have made copies of these syllabi to give to my interviewers, but the preparation enabled me to talk about these imaginary classes.  (I had neither taught nor formally studied Children’s Literature prior to my arrival at Kansas State.)  I also, of course, had the dissertation soundbite. I’d rehearsed answers to other possible questions — and, by rehearsed, I mean not only learned, but actually practiced speaking them out loud.  (Yes, acting is key to success!) Anyway, my point is that I went into each interview prepared.

So, if I was equally prepared for all interviews, then why was the third interview so much fun?  In this one, the interview team was prepared for me.  They’d read my writing sample closely, and asked informed questions that conveyed (what I took to be) genuine interest.  The interviewers clearly got along with each other.  Their comfort made for a comfortable interview experience.  They also knew what they were looking for in a children’s lit hire: I didn’t sense dissent or opposing “camps.”  Having since been through other interviews (on both sides), the best interviews are a like a good chat with smart people at a cocktail party.  You may have heard that comparison before.  Well, it’s true — only, of course, without the cocktails.

By the way, here’s one unanticipated question I remember from this third interview: “Which do you prefer — teaching, research, or service?”  I began my answer with: “Gosh, that’s a tough question.”  Then, I described merits of all three.  I knew that academia ranks research highest, and that my own personal preferences would rank both it and teaching ahead of service.  But admitting that would not have been the most persuasive thing to say.  In any case, we have do to all three, and I’m a team player: I expected to do all three. So, best to express my willingness to do all parts of the job.  Which I did.

A couple of weeks after the interview — or perhaps even sooner than that — the department head phoned me to set up the campus visit.

5. The Semi-Finals; or, the Campus Visit

Getting invited to campus is like making the semi-finals. You haven’t got the job, but you’re among the top two or three candidates.

Anderson Hall, Kansas State UniversityTo prepare, I visited the website, and read up on the place.  I also printed out a list of all the faculty members, and tried to familiarize myself with their names and specialties.  When I had downtime during the visit, I would make notes on the printout — what we talked about, anything that would help me remember the person’s name.  (I’m terrible with names!  I really have to work at learning them.)  And, the job talk.  I kept it to the length specified by the department head — 30 minutes.  (Note: if they don’t tell you the length, then ask them! You don’t want to run long or be too brief.)  I keyed up my script (the talk) to the images.  I rehearsed the talk until it felt fluent, and rehearsed answers to any other possible questions I thought I might face.

The campus visit was fun, if intense: as you might expect, you are “on” all the time.  And nearly all of your time is scheduled.  My hosts were friendly, personable, and — as the hiring committee was at the MLA interview — genuinely interested in me and my work.  When I left after three days (I think it was three), I was tired but pleased.  I didn’t know whether I’d get the job, but I felt that I’d put forth a solid effort, and sensed that, irrespective of the outcome of the search, I’d stay in touch with some of the people I met there.

A few weeks later, after the First Choice candidate turned the job down, they made me (Mr. Second Choice) an offer.  I accepted.

6. Tenure for Two

But this is not as simple as I’m making it out to be.  If you read yesterday’s post, you’ll remember that there’s also a spouse involved.  When we went to the College of Charleston, I was the trailing spouse.  If we were going to Kansas State University (which, as you’ve probably figured out by now, was the third interview and sole campus visit), we did not want to have a repeat of our experience at the College of Charleston.

We know now that we could have handled that situation differently. Although our College of Charleston English Department Chair expressed indifference to my professional situation, Karin (my spouse) and I might have negotiated at the time of her offer. After all, the worst answer you can get is “No,” and you might get something better.  Two years later, as I went on the market and received the campus interview, we should have been more proactive and told the department chair and dean.  Doing so would have given the College time to assemble a counter-offer, should it wish to retain us in the face of a campus visit becoming a job offer. However, we didn’t tell any of the higher-ups and so, when the Kansas offer came, the College was not prepared to make a counter-offer.  Having a counter-offer would have been useful for two reasons.  First, if Karin and I had wanted to stay in Charleston, a tenure-track job for me would have made that possible. (Though Charleston’s Confederate fetish is a bit disturbing, we had — and have — many friends there, and we were sorry to leave them.)  Second, having a counter-offer could have provided a bargaining chip to use with Kansas State — we might have been able to use it to get Karin immediately on the tenure-track, or we might have been able to use it to negotiate a higher salary for myself, and/or to negotiate other things.  If you’re in a situation where more than one institution wants you, then your market value rises and you’re in a position to bargain for more.

Though we didn’t know any of these strategies then, we were nonetheless determined to make the move to Kansas State a happier situation for both of us. In case the subject came up, I had brought a few copies of Karin’s CV with me on the campus visit. Officially, they’re not allowed to ask about spouses or partners, so you might need to listen for hints and opportunities. One morning over breakfast, the Department Head mentioned that he had just written an article on the need to take spousal needs into account, which I interpreted as a fairly broad hint (though it was also true; he had written the article).  I suspect that a Department Head in a slightly more remote location (such as Manhattan, Kansas) may be need to be more sensitive to such an issue, but — whatever the reason — he was sympathetic.  So, I gave him a copy of her CV, and spoke a little about her work. She subsequently provided a letter of interest, writing sample, and dossier for the department’s review.

When the offer came, we managed to get Karin hired as a Visiting Assistant Professor — non-tenure-track, but with the understanding that the Department would try to move her back onto the tenure track.  So that she had a backdoor, Karin negotiated a year’s leave of absence (instead of quitting) from the College of Charleston, and we moved to Manhattan, KS in July of 2000.  Karin made herself indispensable to the Department, becoming the Department’s Technology Coordinator.  This position didn’t officially exist, but Karin saw a need and stepped in to fill that need.  She also participated fully in the life of the Department, going to faculty meetings, serving on committees, and generally being a team player.  Of course, she kept teaching and publishing, too.  At the end of our first year, we set up a meeting with the Department Head to ask how we could get Karin back on the tenure track.  He advised both of us to go on the job market.  Meanwhile, the Department would do a national job search for 20th Century British Literature (Karin’s field, in which she has a sub-specialty in contemporary British literature, an area not otherwise covered in the Department).

Thus, Karin and I went on the market in the fall of 2001.  I had an MLA interview and a campus visit; Karin had two MLA interviews and two campus visits, one of which was Kansas State.  During visits, we mentioned the need for two tenure-track jobs as one reason for our seeking the position. When it was time for Karin’s campus visit at Kansas State, I did not see her talk (I was advised not to attend), and nor could I vote on her hire, but the Department judged her the best of the three candidates, and made her an offer.  Rather than wait for offers from the universities where we had other campus interviews (in hopes of using them as leverage), we decided to withdraw from those searches before they concluded.  Let me be clear: I was genuinely interested in that job, and Karin was interested in the other job as well.  If one had made an offer to both of us, we would have accepted.  But Kansas made the offer first, and we were happier here than I think we would have been at the other universities.  So, as of fall 2002, Karin was back on the tenure-track, and her work at Kansas State as a Visiting Assistant Professor would count towards her tenure portfolio.   She went up for tenure early and was promoted to Associate in 2006, and I was promoted the year earlier to Associate (and in 2008 to Full).  Since 2007, she has been Department Head.

7. Now, Class, What Have We Learned?

Some lessons that might be drawn from our experience: Be both proactive and strategic.  Also, in this field, you get to choose the lifestyle, but not the location.  Kansas was not our first choice of places to live, but it’s a good gig (2-3 teaching load) with great colleagues.  If you want to choose where you live, then you’re in the wrong profession.  Aim for quality of life rather than idyllic locale.

It’s been a busy decade.  The ambitious (pronounced “nutty”) publishing regimen and opportunism has helped my career.  Or, to put this another way, my quixotic attempt to play the part of a successful scholar has thus far succeeded.  Julius Erving in 1987At the same time, it’s also been a bit tiring. A few years ago, when reading Clyde Haberman’s “David Halberstam, 73, Reporter and Author, Dies” (New York Times, 24 April 2007), I was struck by this quotation: “There’s a great quote by Julius Erving that went, ‘Being a professional is doing the things you love to do, on the days you don’t feel like doing them.’” Halberstam’s paraphrase of the Julius Erving quotation sums up how I feel, most days.  I feel extraordinarily lucky to have this job, to be able to work on things that interest me: I mean, how many people can say that their daily work is meaningful?  Yet, at the same time, I could use a vacation.  Erving nicely sums up this feeling in his comment about doing what you love to do even when, some days, you’d rather be doing something else.

So, yes, it’s hard.  But so is becoming a surgeon, architect, artist, teacher, lawyer, novelist, or curator.  The reason is that these are not jobs.  They’re careers.  And careers are demanding.  But they can also be rewarding.  Given the relative lack of financial remuneration of this career, the rewards are the only reasons to pursue it.

More academic advice from Nine Kinds of Pie (this site):

Academic advice from Tenured Radical:

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How Did I Get Here? Part I: Up from Adjuncthood

MLA’s coming up later this week.  Can you bear to read yet another advice column?  If not, then you may want to skip the following personal narrative that, yep, includes some advice (well, inasmuch as my personal example may be instructive… which it may not be).

You may ask yourself: well, how did I get here?

— Talking Heads, “Once in a Lifetime,” Remain in Light (1980)

Here’s how I got from Adjuncthood to Professorland: Luck, hard work, and opportunism.  Not much to say about the “luck” component, but I can say plenty about the latter two. I spent two and a half years as an adjunct before I got an MLA interview. Why? No publications.

1. Don’t Get Mad.  Get Published.

A year after I got the Ph.D., my partner won a tenure-track position at the College of Charleston. So, we moved to Charleston. Asked whether there would be any professional opportunities for her spouse (me), the Chair of the College’s English Department said “No.”  So, I began that year (fall of 1998) teaching one section of Composition to the tune of $1850 for the term (no benefits, of course), and seeking gainful employment beyond academe.  I sent out applications, went for a couple of interviews, and even did some free-lance computer consulting.  A month into the term, an adjunct flaked out, leaving the Department with three sections of Composition suddenly in need of an instructor.  The Chair offered me the full semester’s salary for each section, if I would teach all three.  With a dwindling savings account and no other opportunities, I accepted, and began shouldering the 4-4 course load that I would maintain for the next two years.  I also decided that maybe I’d stick with academia.  I had one article forthcoming in Children’s Literature, but that was it.  I quickly realized that I’d be doomed to adjuncthood unless I published.  Also, working as an adjunct made me angry — angry at the exploitation, angry at the permanent second-class-citizen status.  I decided: let’s channel this anger into an enhanced rate of production. This was my Scarlett O’Hara moment. With God as my witness, I’ll never be an adjunct again! Well, words to that effect.

Deciding to publish my way out of adjuncthood, I said “yes” to every opportunity, figuring that once I’d committed to doing something I’d simply have to follow through and do it.  Articles, book reviews, encyclopedia entries, conference papers.  I began revising the dissertation as a book manuscript, and began laying the groundwork for another project — what was then going to be a Twayne series book about Crockett Johnson (when I learned that the Twayne imprint was defunct, it developed into a double biography of Johnson and Krauss). After I presented a conference paper, I would then revise, expand, and publish.  Indeed, I’ve maintained this practice: Every conference paper I’ve presented either has been published (in expanded form) as an article or chapter, or will be published.  In the past few years, I’ve had to curtail the practice of saying “yes” to every opportunity — otherwise, I’d have imploded.  But it was a successful strategy for turning my anemic CV into a healthier one.

When I was increasing my rate of production, I decided to market myself as both a twentieth-century / contemporary Americanist (the field in which I trained) and a Children’s Lit person.  I thought that trying to compete in both categories might increase my chances of success.  It did.  I never got any interviews as an Americanist, but at the 1999 MLA, I had three interviews — my first MLA interviews ever!  Two were for children’s lit and one was for teaching with technology.

2. Better Living Through Technology

Philip Nel's Homepage

Why technology?  During my underemployed months (before I had that 4-4 load), I developed my website.  I’d launched it the year before because I thought that learning to make a website would give me a useful skill.  Also, there were no websites devoted to Crockett Johnson.  And I wanted to write a paper for a Children’s Lit conference.  These three ideas prompted me to create a Crockett Johnson Homepage, in addition to my main website.  Work on the Crockett Johnson website in turn developed into a conference paper (1999), articles (2001, 2004), a reference entry (on Ruth Krauss, 2006), and a double biography (2012).  I came to realize that having a website is useful for both self-promotion and research. The Harold for whom Johnson’s purple-crayon-wielding character is named found me through the website, and helped me contact his mother (Johnson’s sister).  Indeed, I met Julia Mickenberg (my co-editor on Tales for Little Rebels) via my website — a friend of the Crockett Johnson Homepage directed her to me.  These days, you have blogs and social networking sites, too. But, whatever sort of presence you maintain, a web presence is useful. I later found out that my website was a factor in Kansas State’s decision to hire me: the first thing I did upon arriving (on the Department’s request) was to redesign the English Department website.  Fortunately, it has since undergone a much better redesign — tho’ I & my colleague Naomi Wood continue to maintain it, albeit less regularly than we ought. (This is part of the service component of our jobs.)

3. Opportunism

J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter Novels: A Reader's GuideIn early 2000 (about the time Kansas State made me an offer), Continuum Publishing asked Mark Osteen if he’d like to write a readers guide to Don DeLillo’s Underworld.  He wasn’t up for it, and so he recommended me… which led to Continuum asking me: would I like to write this book or were there any other contemporary novels (British or American) for which I’d like to write a readers guide?  I was feeling a bit DeLillo-d out at that point — having just written a reference entry and two articles on him.  But I said sure, I could write on Underworld, and, as for contemporary novels, what about Harry Potter?  I’d recently written a reference entry on the Harry Potter phenomenon, and was about to start a children’s lit job.  So, I said, I’d be happy to write two readers guides, one on Underworld and one on Potter.  David Barker (at Continuum) said sure, Harry Potter was a good idea, but he’d prefer to have one author per book in the series: So, which would I rather write, Potter or DeLillo?  The Avant-Garde and American Postmodernity: Small Incisive ShocksI chose Potter, which (published 2001) quickly became the best-selling volume in the Continuum Contemporaries series of Readers Guides — indeed, it paid the $3000 in permissions fees for the book that developed from my dissertation (The Avant-Garde and American Postmodernity: Small Incisive Shocks, UP Mississippi, 2002).  Choosing to write on Harry Potter wasn’t consciously opportunistic: I thought it would be fun, and I imagined that it might find an audience.  I had no idea that it would lead to so much media attention, or that it would even lead to my first invited talk, in 2003.

The two Seuss books represent a more calculated intersection between my own interests and a developing opportunism. Deciding that a book published on the 100th anniversary of Seuss’s birth might conceivably draw some media attention, I worked hard to finish the manuscript of Dr. Seuss: American Icon so that it could appear by early 2004.  (For more details on the Seuss books, please see “Fortunate Failures; or, How I Became a Scholar of Dr. Seuss” — the debut post on this very blog!)

I’ll continue this tomorrow with: the job interview itself, thoughts on dual-career hires, and links to other articles on career advice.  So, if this didn’t bore you to tears, then please tune in again, dear reader!

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Stephen Fry vs. Language Pedants

If you’ve not already seen Matt Rogers‘ brilliant kinetic typography video of Stephen Fry‘s critique of linguistic pedantry, then you’ll want to watch it.  And if you have already seen it, then you’ll want to watch it again.

Before my fellow teachers raise an objection to Stephen Fry’s injunction that writers be less constrained by rules, I think it important to note that Fry does acknowledge that there are times when greater formality is appropriate, even necessary.  As he puts it, “You slip into a suit for an interview, and you dress your language up, too.  You can wear what you like linguistically or sartorially when you’re at home or with friends, but most people accept the need to smarten up under some circumstances.”  The reason for doing so, as he says, is that “wildly original and excessively heterodox language” might, to an employer or an examiner, convey “the implication of not caring.”

Left implicit here is the related point that a writer needs to know the rules in order to break them.  Fry’s mastery of the rules is part of what makes his own bursts of heterodoxy and originality so effective.  The need to know the rules underwrites my own tendency — as a teacher — to enforce them, and sometimes to do so with perhaps greater strictness than Mr. Fry would recommend.  When I encounter a student who does know the rules well enough to break them, I do let the artful informality stand.  Indeed, one of the exams I graded last night had some rhetorical flourishes that conveyed the writer’s superior command of the rules.  Alas, many others conveyed confusion over such basics as the uses of an apostrophe.  But, in an exam situation, I’m less stringent than I am when grading a formal paper.  Time constraints prevent adequate proofreading.  So, while I may mark such an error, I’m highly unlikely to deduct points on an exam.  On a formal paper, however, these errors would certainly affect the student’s grade.

But I do love Fry’s argument for “verbal freshness,” in no small part because it embodies the principles that it advocates.  In his critique of the usage police, he asks of them, “Do they ever yoke impossible words together for the sound-sex of it?  Do they use language to seduce, charm, excite, please, affirm and tickle those they talk to?  Do they?  I doubt it.”  But Fry does, and more power to him.  Here’s to vibrant heterodoxy!

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Procrastigrading; or, How to Grade Efficiently

Woman climbing ladder to top of stack of papersNot That Kind of Doctor‘s delightful post on “The Five Stages of Grading” prompts me to share my own grading method: Procrastigrading.  While the word is a portmanteau of “procrastinating” and “grading,” I do not mean “put off grading indefinitely.”  Instead, give yourself a one-week deadline for each assignment (quizzes, exams, papers, anything), and begin grading on day 6.

I adopted this method over a decade ago, while working as an adjunct professor, with a 4-4 teaching load.  Here’s why.

  1. Grading devours all the time you give it.  You need to limit its diet.
  2. Grading stacks of comp papers (as I was at the time) can be a soul-crushing experience.  Why spread the agony over multiple days when you can ruin a single day instead?
  3. You have other important work to do.  Whether you’re a grad student or a professor (at any rank), you need to keep advancing that research agenda.  Time spent grading is time not spent publishing the articles and books that will get you (a) a job, (b) tenure, and (c) promoted.  Priorities!
  4. Teaching is also important work.  Time spent grading is time not spent reading or preparing for class.
  5. And thus… efficiency!  A one-week deadline & starting as close to the deadline as humanly possible means an extremely intense (and, possibly, grueling) grading experience.  But it prevents the grading monster from gobbling up too much time.  See also no. 2, above.
  6. I am now at the point where I literally cannot focus on grading unless there is a metaphorical gun to my head — that metaphorical gun is the deadline.  And, unless the deadline is imminent (i.e., tomorrow), then the metaphorical gun is too far away to be really threatening.  Really.  Prior to day 6, my attention simply will not remain on the grading.
  7. The week deadline is important not just because it provides a narrow window of grading but because recency in feedback better helps students to learn from their mistakes.  The longer it takes to return the work (with comments), the less pedagogically effective your comments are.  Ideally, you would turn the assignment back the next class (and I try to do this with quizzes).

True, this method does not always work perfectly.  Sometimes, it means I’m up until 2 a.m. the night before (morning before) class and then, after a few hours’ sleep, grading feverishly in the hours before class.  Sometimes, I miss my mark and end up returning the work in 9 days instead of 7 days.  But 97% of the time, I return work in 1 week or sooner.

I suspect that this method is not original to me.  And I admit that it’s an imperfect solution to the anguish of grading.  Indeed, one might argue that procrastigrading works better on the 2-3 teaching load that I now have rather than the 4-4 teaching load that I had when I started using it.  Whatever its limitations, one thing is certain: procrastigrading will help you move through those “Five Stages of Grading” much more swiftly.  You’ll skip Denial, have limited time for Anger, be too conscious of the ticking clock for much Bargaining, too busy to be Depressed, allowing you to spend most of your time on Acceptance/Resignation, a.k.a. Getting It Done.

man looking at stack of papers

Images from Dave Pear’s Blog and Save Pottstown!!

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On Friendship

On FriendshipIf you enjoy maxims or reflecting on how to sustain healthy friendships, then Timothy Billings’ translation of Matteo Ricci’s On Friendship: One Hundred Maxims for a Chinese Prince (Columbia UP, 2009) will appeal to you.  Written in 1595, the book helped Ricci — a native of Macerata, Italy — make friends and (as Billings says in his extensive and thorough introduction) “forge meaningful cultural connections between Europe and China.”  A Christian missionary living in China, Ricci composed the book in Chinese and, within a year of the book’s composition, friends and acquaintances began printing copies, quickly — as Billings writes — “turning it into the late Ming equivalent of a best seller.”

There are many quotable passages, but here are 10 of my favorites:

1. My friend is not an other, but half of myself, and thus a second me — I must therefore regard my friend as myself.

9. A friend who gives a gift to another friend and expects something in return has made no gift at all, but is no different from a trader in the marketplace.

17. Only the person to whom one can completely divulge and express one’s heart can become the truest of true friends.

19. Proper friends do not always agree with their friends, nor do they always disagree with their friends, but rather agree with them when they are reasonable and disagree with them when they are unreasonable. Direct speech is therefore the only responsibility of friendship.

26. The stability of a friendship is both tested and revealed by the instabilities of my life.

40. If one has many intimate friends, then one has no intimate friends.

50. Friends surpass family members in one point only: it is possible for family members not to love one another. But it is not so with friends. If one member of a family does not love another, the relation of kinship still remains. But unless there is love between friends, does the essential principle of friendship exist?

62. The honorable man makes friends with difficulty; the petty man makes friends with ease. What comes together with difficulty comes apart with difficulty; what comes together with ease comes apart with ease.

88. Trying to make friends with everyone is complicated. In the end, avoiding people’s hatred is enough.

95. In ancient times, there were two men walking together, one who was extremely rich, and one who was extremely poor.  Someone commented: “Those two have become very close friends.” Hearing this, Dou-fa-de (a famous sage of antiquity) retorted: “If that is indeed so, why is it that one of them is rich and the other poor?”

Lost and FoundSince children’s literature is a major theme of this blog, I’ll conclude by calling attention to some excellent children’s books about friendship.  You likely know Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad series (1970-1979) and James Marshall’s George and Martha series (1972-1988), and (for that matter) friendship is a major theme of children’s literature more generally — Winnie-the-Pooh, Harry Potter, and so on.  So I’ll restrict myself to a few picture books that may be slightly less well-known.

  • Jon Agee, Dmitri the Astronaut (1996).  Dmitri returns from the moon, but will anyone remember him?
  • Jon Agee, Terrific (2005). Sarcastic people can make friends, too.
  • Tim Egan, Metropolitan Cow (1996).  An earlier blog post details the brilliance of Mr. Egan’s work; why not read it?
  • Tim Egan, Roasted Peanuts (2006).  Again, yeah, that older blog post.
  • Kevin Henkes, Chester’s Way (1988).  Introduces Henkes’ best-known character, Lily (later of Purple Plastic Purse fame).
  • Oliver Jeffers, Lost and Found (2005).  Boy helps penguin find his way home, but where is home?
  • RainstormBarbara Lehman, Rainstorm (2007).  Beautifully illustrated wordless tale of a boy in a big house who finds a key, goes exploring, and is lonely no more.
  • Leo Lionni, Little Blue and Little Yellow (1959).  Lionni’s debut, created to entertain his two grandchildren, shows that all you need for a great picture book are: torn circles of colored paper, a keen sense of design, and a story to tell.
  • Leo Lionni, A Busy Year (1992). Friendship between two mice and a tree.
  • Chris Raschka, Yo! Yes? (1993).  Brilliantly told with minimal words and emotionally expressive pictures, two boys become friends.
  • Natalie Russell, Moon Rabbit (2009). In which Little Rabbit meets Brown Rabbit.
  • William Steig, Amos & Boris (1971).  Amos helps Boris; Boris helps Amos.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of picture books about friendship.  But, to me, the books on this list are not only about friendship but have come to feel like friends themselves.

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Never Say Die: A Mix for Job-Seekers

Never Say Die: A Job-Seeker's MixInspired by a tweet and then a blog post from Natalia Cecire, this mix is intended for those of you on the academic job-market — but I hope it provides some encouragement for anyone out there looking for work.

1) Respect ARETHA FRANKLIN (1967)

If this isn’t the greatest cover song of all time, I don’t know what is.  (Otis Redding wrote it, and recorded it first.)  Appears on the Queen of Soul’s Atlantic Records debut, I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, and on many compilations, including Aretha Franklin: 30 Greatest Hits.

2) Look At Me (I’m a Winner)! THE AQUABATS (2005)

“…you just can’t argue with that!”  From Charge!!

3) Movin’ On Up (theme to The Jeffersons) JA’NET DuBOIS & OREN WATERS (1975)

“…to a deluxe apartment in the sky!”

4) All Star SMASH MOUTH (1999)

In which the band proves that it would not be a one-hit wonder. From Astro Lounge.

5) Shining Star EARTH, WIND, & FIRE (1975)

“You’re a shining star / no matter who you are / Shining bright to see / what you can truly be.”  From the album That’s the Way of the World.

6) Where You Come From THE MIGHTY MIGHTY BOSSTONES (2000)

“… it’s more where you’re going, and knowing that the going might get strange.”  From Pay Attention, the group’s penultimate album (excluding the 2007 collection of odds & ends)

7) Plea from a Cat Named Virtue THE WEAKERTHANS (2003)

Is there a better song written from the point of view of a cat?  From Reconstruction Site.

8) Electrolux BICYCLE (1999)

“Suck it up, enhance production.”  This was on my job-seeking mix, back in 1999.  The mix — a cassette! — was titled Enhance Production.  To the best of my knowledge, Bicycle only released this self-titled debut album.

9) It’s Alright, Baby KOMEDA (1998)

“From patience and from pain, / The one who never ends will gain.”  Appears on What Makes It Go? (1998) and the Gilmore Girls soundtrack.

10) Finest Worksong (Mutual Drum Horn Mix) R.E.M. (1987)

“The time to rise has been engaged. / You’re better, best to rearrange.”  This version from Eponymous (1988), the IRS Records hits collection.  First appears on Document (1987).

11) Worker’s Song DROPKICK MURPHYS (2003)

“This one’s for the workers!”  From Blackout.

12) I Believe I Can Fly ME FIRST AND THE GIMME GIMMES (2003)

From Take a Break, the band‘s album of R&B covers.

13) Verb: That’s What’s Happening ZACHARY SANDERS (1974)

From Schoolhouse Rock, and (in the accompanying animated cartoon) featuring an African-American superhero, too!

14) You Can Make a Difference If You Try, Try, Try THE HAPPIEST GUYS IN THE WORLD (2002)

From the compilation Greasy Kid Stuff: Songs from Inside the Radio.

15) Don’t Give Up THE NOISETTES (2007)

From the album What’s the Time, Mr. Wolf?

16) Participation Prerequisite DJ FORMAT featuring ABDOMINAL (2005)

From one of the best hip-hop records of the Naughties, If You Can’t Join ‘Em… Beat ‘Em!

17) Float On MODEST MOUSE (2004)

“Don’t worry if things get a little bit heavy / We’ll all float on alright.”  From Good News for People Who Love Bad News.

18) Pressure Drop SPECIALS (1996)

A cover of Toots and the Maytals‘ 1970 classic.  Appears on Today’s Specials.

19) I Should Be Allowed to Think THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS (1994)

Launching the song with a line from Allen Ginsberg‘s “Howl” (1956), TMBG lets us know that they should be allowed to glue their poster, to shoot their mouths off, and to blurt the merest idea.  The song first appears on John Henry (1994), and again on Dial-A-Song: 20 Years of They Might Be Giants (1999).

20) Hurt Feelings FIGHT OF THE CONCHORDS (2009).

“Some people say that rappers are invincible.  We’re vincible.”

21) Someone Who’s Cool ODDS (1996)

“I’m the the coffee, not the sleep.”  From Nest.

22) I’m Not Down THE CLASH (1979)

From London Calling, which is one of my Desert Island Discs.

23) Pick Yourself Up FRED ASTAIRE (1936)

Astaire sings and dances to this in Swing Time (1936), the sixth of ten films he made with Ginger Rogers.  Here they are, watched by the reliably funny Eric Blore:

24) Nothing’severgonnastandinmyway (Again) WILCO (1999)

From Summer Teeth.

25) Never Say Die / When You’re Young THE BOUNCING SOULS (2009)

If I had three words of advice for anyone entering academia, those three words would be “Never say die.”  Seriously.  I know it sounds like a team cheer, but it’s true.  Gotta keep on fighting.

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How to Publish Your Book; or, The Little Manuscript That Could

Graduate schools don’t teach you how to get your book published.  This post represents my attempt to help.  I’ll focus on academic publishing, rather than commercial publishing.  One disclaimer: this is what has worked for me.  Results may vary.

1.  Do you need to have written the entire book before you seek a contract? No.  You need a book proposal, and a chapter — ideally, a chapter and the introduction.  On the basis of these materials, you can get either a contract or a request to send the complete manuscript when finished.  In the latter case, the press will ask: How far along is the manuscript or when can you send us a completed manuscript?  Invent a deadline for yourself, and respond: “I’m on schedule to complete the book by … October 1st.”  (Or something.)  Note: for a first book, the press may want a complete manuscript before sending a contract.  But the proposal and chapter can get their attention and get you some feedback.

2.  What do you put in a book proposal?

Dr. Seuss: American Icon

  1. Summary.  Brief but punchy description of your book’s scope, goals, and contribution.  Be bold.  Here’s one of mine: “Dr. Seuss, American Icon will establish Seuss’s importance as a subject for critical inquiry while revealing the ideological assumptions behind Seuss’s work.  Since his death in 1991, Seuss has ascended in cultural importance, but little has been written on the social significance of this fact.  Seuss has, in effect, become another Disney — a corporate enterprise, a marketing phenomenon, a symbol of U.S. culture — but his transition from children’s book author to American icon has never been fully explored.  Dr. Seuss, American Icon will be the definitive book on this subject.”  End quote.  Is that an overstatement?  Of course it is.  But I prefer to think of it as plausible hyperbole, supported by evidence (elsewhere in the proposal).  And it’s truly what I hoped to accomplish in the book — though whether I did accomplish it is a separate question.
  2. Table of Contents, followed by chapter descriptions — no more than a single paragraph for each chapter.  Be succinct.  Lead with your main idea.
  3. Length of book.  About 100,000 words might be the upper limit here.
  4. Markets.  Who will buy your book?  Is it for fellow scholars only?  In which fields?  (Since I mostly work in children’s literature, some possible fields I’d suggest are: Education, Children’s Literature, Cultural Studies, Childhood Studies.  All of the above?)  Can you imagine your book also being read beyond academia?  If so, say so.  Might your book be assigned in a class?  If so, which classes?  How widely are these classes taught?  To support your claim, you might use a search engine, and locate a few specific examples.
  5. Competition.  To what other books is your book comparable?  You might here indicate how your book differs from those books — what are you doing that these other books are not doing?  A sentence or two on each book will suffice.
  6. The Author.  Who are you?  What are your qualifications for writing this?  A paragraph or so is sufficient here.
  7. Deadline.  When will the manuscript be complete?
  8. Illustrations.  If illustrations, you might indicate availability of illustrations.

William Germano's Getting It PublishedFor the best advice on what to put in a book proposal, read William Germano’s Getting It Published (here’s an excerpt).  If you’re here because you’re turning your dissertation into a book, then you should also read Germano’s From Dissertation to Book (here’s an excerpt).  They’ll give you better advice than I can.

3.  Which publisher? Look at publishers’ lists and see where your book might best fit — you can do this on-line.  Start with the books in your “competition”: who published those?  Since I work on children’s literature, I can tell you that many presses publish children’s lit scholarship, among them: Oxford, Yale, Johns Hopkins, NYU, Duke, Iowa, Mississippi, Norton, Wiley-Blackwell, Ashgate, Routledge, and Continuum. Duke and Mississippi are interested in popular culture more than children’s lit (Mississippi specializes in comics in particular); NYU tends more towards childhood studies, and history. There are many other differences between presses: Oxford and Yale have more money than, say, Mississippi or Iowa.  Refereed presses carry more prestige than non-refereed ones, though a major trade press will usually carry as much prestige as any refereed one.  Full disclosure: I’ve published with Continuum (2 books), UP Mississippi (2 books, one of which is forthcoming), NYU Press (2 books, one of which is forthcoming), and Random House (1 book).  I’ve had great experiences with all of these publishers.

4.  Contact the Appropriate Editor.  Once you’ve decided on likely publishers, contact the editor in charge of your area – if you’re doing Children’s Lit, that’s likely the Humanities Editor or the Literature Editor.  You can find this on the publisher’s website.  If you’re going to MLA or ASA, set up an appointment with these editors in advance.  Write a cover email in which you briefly describe your book and explain why it might fit with their list; offer to send the proposal, and ask if the editor might be free to chat at MLA or ASA. That’s the best approach, but I’ve only done that for the most recent books.  What I used to do is simply arrive at MLA with half a dozen copies of my book proposal, and half a dozen copies of my CV.  I walked through the book exhibit, gauging which publishers might be a good fit ­— then, I introduced myself, and made a little sales pitch for my book (which I rehearsed in advance).

5.   Can you give a book proposal to more than one publisher at a time? Yes, you can.  A publisher will ask for exclusive rights to review a manuscript. Once the manuscript is under review at Publisher X, you may not turn around and send it to Publisher Y. You need to wait until Publisher X has delivered its verdict. That said, for the most recent contract (Keywords for Children’s Literature), several publishers asked for exclusive review of the proposal — that was unusual. Hadn’t happened to me before. From what I’ve  heard, such requests are becoming more common. Since we already had the proposal under review with several places, we had to say, politely, “no” and ask if a non-exclusive review would be possible. In all cases, the publisher agreed to give it a non-exclusive review.

6.  If favorable readers’ reports, respond politely to the content only.  So, you send your book proposal — along with a sample chapter or two — to a publisher.  If the readers’ reports are favorable, you’ll need to respond.  Readers’ suggestions range from excellent ideas that will help you make the project better … to less helpful ideas, reflecting, perhaps, the book the readers would like to see you write or, maybe, a misunderstanding about what your book intends to accomplish. Accept the helpful suggestions with gratitude, and respond graciously to the other ones — perhaps your proposal could have more clearly conveyed that your book intends to do X and Y?  You might then quote the relevant part of your proposal, offer a few more explanatory sentences, indicating that while the reader offers promising directions for further development, to fully advance the aims of your project you won’t be able to pursue all of those directions even though you especially like direction number 7 which you find very helpful in reframing Chapter 3.  My policy is to cede when I can and to hold my ground when I can, but always do it politely.  If a reader’s report has a hostile tone, respond only to the content and not to the tone.

7.   If unfavorable news,… never say die! What if that publisher doesn’t either send you a contract or ask to see your manuscript?  Well, keep trying.  Go to the next publisher on your list.  If you remember nothing else from this blog post, remember these three words: Never say die.

Minear's Dr. Seuss Goes to War8.  If your proposal can’t be a book, it can become an article or a chapter of a different book. It’s possible that your idea simply isn’t going to work as a book. Not all ideas become books.  This isn’t because there are good ideas and bad ideas, although there are good ideas and bad ideas.  This is because there are marketable ideas and un-marketable ideas.  If you have a good idea for a book, but you can’t sell it… then it’s not a book.  Maybe it becomes an article or part of another book. As I noted in this blog’s inaugural post, my first failed book idea was a collection of Dr. Seuss’s World War II cartoons.  Right when a publisher was ready to offer me a contract, I learned that the New Press would be publishing Richard Minear’s Dr. Seuss Goes to War.  So, I turned my introduction into an article, which I published in Mosaic in 2001, and which became Chapter 2 of Dr. Seuss: American Icon — that article and the book proposal secured the contract for that book.  A more recent failed book idea is for an Annotated Ferdinand; I gained the support of the Leaf family and the Lawson estate, but I couldn’t interest Viking or Norton.  So, I’ll be turning that proposal and sample annotations into an article.  And so on.  In other words, if it won’t work as a book, then put it to some other use.  This is simply another version of never say die.

Gubar's Artful Dodgers: Reconceiving the Golden Age of Children's Literature9. Reasons to keep trying.  Given the many obstacles, why should you pursue your dream of writing the book?  Two reasons.  In academia, writing a book means never having to explain yourself. You become (for example) Marah Gubar, author of Artful Dodgers: Reconceiving the Golden Age of Children’s Literature.  Second reason: in academe, publications are the coin of the realm, and we academics get to print our own money.  There’s pocket change — say, an encyclopedia entry or a book review.  Then there are moderately-sized bank notes — articles in refereed journals, essays in edited collections.  Finally, there are the Really Big Bank Notes — books.  The book increases your cultural capital more than any other kind of publication.  Now, I’m definitely not arguing that books should be so highly valued; some books should not be.  I am merely pointing out that they are highly valued.  And that’s a good reason to keep repeating to yourself, “I think I can, I think I can….” And it’s an excellent reason to make your Little Manuscript That Could… into the Little Book That Is.

Note: I presented a version of this at the Children’s Literature Association’s annual conference in Normal, Illinois, on June 12, 2008.  Several people have indicated that they found this information helpful.  So, I thought I would share it with a wider audience.

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The Art of PowerPoint: A User’s Guide

You’ve all seen the PowerPoint as slide show.  Or the PowerPoint as data dump, overloaded with text.  Or the PowerPoint as exactly what the person is saying, word-for-word.  These all give PowerPoint a bad name. They are all abuses of a medium capable of much more creative and nuanced expression.

I learned this from watching Scott McCloud give a talk.  If you’ve never seen McCloud give a talk, then you need to watch the 17-minute video below.  So, please go ahead.  I’ll wait.

McCloud does maximalist PowerPoints (though he actually uses Apple’s Keynote and not the Microsoft product).  Visually dense and carefully paced, McCloud’s images form the movie to his spoken narrative.  Think of a documentary film: it does not simply display the words.  It provides something complimentary which may or may not include text.  That’s what McCloud is doing here.

I suspect he’s learned from animation because in many of his sequences, he uses repetition with a difference.  That is, if slide 1 has picture A, slide 2 has picture A and picture B, slide 3 has picture A and picture B and picture C.  And so on.  When you click from 1 to 2, you appear to have added picture B.  When you click from 2 to 3, you appear to have added picture C.  But you haven’t: you’ve simply repeated the earlier image with a difference.

I don’t know if he achieves his results this way, but in my McCloudian PowerPoints I work backwards: I create the final image of the sequence first, and then make (say) eight copies.  Go back and remove items — 1 item from slide seven, 2 items from slide six, 3 items from slide five, and so on.  Then, when you run the sequence forward, you appear to be adding pieces that form a coherent whole in slide eight.  If you do it this backwards way, then you can more easily achieve a clean layout.  Here are three slides from my Annotated Cat presentation:

3 slides from Philip Nel's Annotated Cat PowerPoint

Though I tend to say that I learned everything I know about PowerPoint from Scott McCloud, that’s not entirely true.  When I’m working in the maximalist style (as I often do), he’s my muse.  But his style of PowerPoint is very dense, and very labor-intensive.  Either when I’m short on time or when I simply want to change the tempo, I’ll also do minimalist work.  I learned this style from Kathleen Fitzpatrick.  You simply take a key word or phrase and put it up on the screen, in a sans-serif font at about 44-points or so.  She favors black text on a white background.  I favor white text on black because I prefer black backgrounds generally. (With white backgrounds, you’re conscious that you’re looking at a big box projected on a screen; with black ones, the text and images float in space, with no box.)  But either style would work.  The key is to stick to just a few words.  No more than two or three, tops.

There’s much more to say about PowerPoint aesthetics.  For example, I favor clean transitions — usually a quick fade.  If a different transition will work, then I may use something more dramatic or silly.  But I don’t want the gadgetry to get in the way of what I have to say.  And that’s key — you want the PowerPoint to aid your narrative.  It might offer counterpoint (as Stephen Colbert does in the Colbert Report’s “The Word” segments).  It might offer a complimentary image or a contradictory one.  It might be a word or phrase of your written text.  But it should never, never simply repeat exactly what you’re saying.  PowerPoint is an artistic medium.  Use it well.

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Mash-up vs. Purple Crayon

This is not a post on bastard pop or remixed movie trailers.  Such a post would be fun to read, but this isn’t it.  At 13 years (if measured by my degree date) or 11 years (if measured by my first publications) into the business that is academia, I’m reflecting on what kind of work I do.  So, if you aren’t an academic, it’s highly likely that this will bore the pants off of you.  True, given that we’re having an exceptionally warm summer, you might want to be pants-less.  Surely, though, you could find a less wearisome way of becoming de-pants’d?  (Insert ribald joke here.  Thank you.)

Anyway.  Some scholars manage to shift the paradigm, changing the discussion.  Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point (2000) is a popular example; Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics (1993) is another.  In the field of literary studies, one could point to Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence (1973), Eric Lott’s Love and Theft (1993), or Shelley Fisher Fishkin’s Was Huck Black? (1993) — among many others.

And then you have people like me.  Some (much?) of my scholarship is the academic equivalent of the musical mash-up.  Instead of combining a song by Jay-Z with one by the Beatles, I make a similar move with ideas — placing a set of ideas in a different context, and coming up with something unusual.  Read Dr. Seuss through theories of the avant-garde and postmodern, and you — well, I — get “Dada Knows Best: Growing Up ‘Surreal’ with Dr. Seuss” (article, 1999; book chapter, 2002).  Write on Don DeLillo while teaching Introduction to Women’s Studies, and — voila! — “Amazons in the Underworld: Gender, the Body, and Power in the Novels of Don DeLillo” (article, 2001).  Where odd ideas collide, you’ll find me.

I admire people who have the paradigm-shifting ideas.  But I’m not one of those people.  Perhaps my tendency to pursue many projects simultaneously prevents the sort of reflection that leads to the Big Ideas.  Or maybe that my mind simply doesn’t work that way.  Likely, both are factors.

After getting my doctorate, I concluded that a rigorous publishing regimen was the only path out of adjuncthood and into a tenure-track job.  Kathleen Fitzpatrick, who earned her Ph.D. at the same time I earned mine (exactly one year later, in fact), did something different.  Instead of arriving at a conclusion, she asked a question: Why?  Why do we publish in academic journals and with academic presses that take years to print our work and that few non-academics read anyway?  Why not post our work on-line, via a blog?  While I toiled away within the publish-or-perish paradigm, she challenged the paradigm … and has begun to change it.  Thanks to her Planned Obsolescence blog, her many invited talks, and her forthcoming book (named for her blog), Kathleen is shifting the way that academics think about publishing.  My motto for the past decade has been: Enhance production!  Hers is something more like: Change the mode of production!

I intend the echo of Marx in that last sentence to evoke less his ideas, and more the boldness of his thinking.  As an untenured academic, Kathleen took a risk in questioning the system she aspired to join.  Wisely tempering that risk, she did (and does) also publish scholarship through traditional venues, of course — via academic presses, academic journals. Though I co-edited a collection of radical children’s literature, my own career path has been much more conservative. True, I have had a website since 1997, but — for the bulk of my scholarship — I have stuck almost exclusively to traditional modes of publishing.

If the mash-up is the controlling metaphor for my scholarship, then the purple crayon is the metaphor for hers. Instead of doing the usual thing and creating a story about a character, Crockett Johnson had the idea to make his character the author of his own story.  In doing so, he created a classic of children’s literature — Harold and the Purple Crayon — in which the title character draws a universe out of a single crayon.  His adventures get him into a few tight spots, but, keeping “his wits and his purple crayon,” Harold draws his way out … and into another six books.  So, hoping that you keep your wits and your purple crayon (or blog, or vlog, or insert other medium here), remember there’s more than one path to success.  Why not draw your own?

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