What Do Professors Do All Summer? Tuesday

It’s hard to imagine that this is even slightly interesting to read, but it does (at least) make visible the work that academics do in the summer.  Or this academic, at least.  If you’re just tuning in today, I should say that this week — and this week only — I’m keeping track of what I do during the summer.  And, if I may be frank (instead of Phil?), I’m glad it’s only for a week.  Although I think it a useful experiment to undertake, I dislike living in the panopticon.  I will not be doing this again.  Anyway.  Here’s what I did today.

12:00 – 12:30 am.  Posted yesterday’s chronicle of mundanity, responded to a few comments on Sunday’s post, wrote the above and began constructing this post.

12:30 – 1:30 am.  Did dishes, prepared for bed, read another chapter of Bechdel’s Are You My Mother?

7:45 – 8:05 am.  Breakfast.  Read email, checked into Facebook.

Anita Silvey's Children's Book-a-Day Almanac: blog logo8:05 – 8:15 am.  Checked Twitter.  Read this and this.  Regarding the latter: Anita Silvey’s Children’s Book-a-Day Almanac does a great public service, educating readers about children’s literature.  Regarding the former: efforts to censor & ban literature for children interests me.  In the case of Tintin in the Congo (the earlier link), the movement to censure derives from (what I read as) a progressive impulse.   The book does traffic in racial stereotypes.  It’s not a book I would give to a child.  Yet, nor would I be willing to ban it.  (I wrote a blog post on this subject a couple of years ago.)

8:15 – 9:20 am.  Finished a Routledge report that I started last night, and sent it in to Routledge.  And started on another Routledge report.

9:20 – 9:50 am.  Hat tip to Lori Sabian (via Facebook), which led me to this orchestra flash mob, playing Peer Gynt on the Copenhagen metro.

Things like this make me glad to be alive, glad that there are such people in the world.

In addition to checking into Facebook, also wrote one professional email, and listened to a very long automated speech to try to fix my Working Assets credit card: the new card’s three-digit security code doesn’t work on the USPS website, and so I’ve been unable to use the card.  (I haven’t tried it on other sites.)  Also burned a few CD mixes for friends.

9:50 – 10:00 am.  Prepared for a jog out to the car.  (It’s on campus, and Karin and I share a car.  Ordinarily, I would bike to the gym, but left hand still a bit wonky.  Bleah.)

10:00 – 11:10 am. Jogged to car, drove to gym, worked out at gym, drove back.  Really prefer cycling to gym.  It seems silly to drive somewhere for exercise.  Makes much more sense to bicycle there for exercise.

11:15 – 11:30 am.  Drank water.  Read some email.  Professional correspondence re: Oslo conference.  Nothing yet from Eric re: Barnaby.  Expecting a list of still-missing strips today.

11:30 am – 12:00 pm.  Shower, shave, dress.  Burned more mixes.

12:00 – 12:10 pm.  Read piece on Sendak from New York Magazine.  George (agent) sent it to me.  Wrote back to him.

12:10 – 12:30 pm.  Walked down to the Credit Union (money), and then on to Bluestem to meet friend & colleague Dan Hoyt for lunch.

Bluestem Bistro12:30 – 2:10 pm.  Lunch with Dan Hoyt.  Now, this is something that never (or almost never) happens during the school year.  Lunch out with a friend!  Highly unusual.  I work with a lot of great people, but we’re all usually too busy to spend much time with each other.  So, to all who wish to criticize academics for “goofing off” during the summer, feel free to use this long lunch as evidence.

2:10 – 2:30 pm.  Walked back home, read a few emails en route, and then wrote the preceding.

2:30 – 3:45 pm.  Reviewing for Routledge.  Also answered professional emails, including one re: recent scholarship on children’s lit and politics.

3:45 – 4:00 pm.  Guitar break.  Still have difficulty with E-string major barre chords, but left hand is recovering.  Played “Pretty in Pink,” “Chelsea Hotel No. 2,” “You Meet the Nicest People in Your Dreams.”  In case you don’t know that last one, here is Fats Waller’s rendition: You Meet the Nicest People in Your Dreams.  It’s one of my favorite songs, hence its inclusion on this jaunty mix from a month or so back.

4:00 – 5:35 pm.  Routledge, continued. Finished review of prospectus & chapters.  Also sent email to Eric re: Barnaby, and received reply with promise of that required info. would be forthcoming.

5:35 – 6:55 pm.  To Claflin Books to pick up some books I’d ordered.  (Whenever possible, I’m trying to buy from local bookshops, rather than Amazon.)  Other errands.  Also picked up Karin from campus.

6:55 – 7:05 pm.  Facebook.

7:05 – 8:20 pm.  During dinner prep, read more of Going Bovine to Karin.  Then, dinner with a Daily Show (from last week, & one that we hadn’t seen).  Washed dishes.

8:20 – 8:30 pm. Read email, wrote one (professional), and added New York Magazine piece on Sendak to links (at bottom of my tribute page).

8:30 – 8:50 pm. Printed some labels for & burned a few mixes. Will send these out tomorrow.

8:50 - 11:20 pm.  There’s more Routledge stuff to do, but I’m turning to something that I really want to complete this week.  Revising, expanding, restructuring an essay that theorizes the difference between comics and picture books.  It’s me at my most formalist, and it’s a question I’m very much invested in.  I’m doing a lot of restructuring, both within paragraphs (the version I gave at MLA had a more deductive structure, and the argument is clearer if I give it an inductive structure) and in the larger body of the piece (changing the order of paragraphs).  I’m also bringing in examples. For the conference-paper version, I simply showed the images up on the screen.  For this printed version, I will not be able to rely upon images. (If I can summon the energy to do so, I may seek rights for a few, but… certainly nowhere near as many as I used in the talk.)

11:20 pm – 12:00 am.  Checked into Facebook, and read Jon Scalzi’s excellent “Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is.”  It uses video games as a metaphor to explain privilege, and it does so brilliantly.  Hat tips to Jonathan Beecher Field and Laine Nooney.  At this point, I think we should also add that Paul Karasik’s Master Class in Comics Narrative looks fantastic.  Thanks to Bridgid Shannon, watched this recent piece, in which Maurice Sendak talks about Melville, Blake, comics, “the strangeness of childhood,” and why his favorite books (of his own) are all considered “inappropriate.”

Total work time: 7 hours, 25 minutes.

And… concluding with a song.  Was hoping for the Pogues’ “Tuesday Morning,” but couldn’t find a YouTube video I liked.  So, we’ll go with the classic Dropkick Murphys number, “Workers’ Song.”

If you found a day’s work in (my) academic life to be of little interest, then it’s hard to believe that you’d want to read any of these posts:


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What Do Professors Do All Summer? Monday

The week’s ongoing experiment in trying my readers’ (or “reader’s,” singular?) patience continues.  In a (possibly misguided) attempt to make academic labor visible, I’m documenting how I spend my days during this first week of summer, when academics are allegedly “on vacation.”  Here is day 3.

Monday, 14 May 2012.

12:00 – 1:55 am.  Caught and fixed a few typos in yesterday’s post.  Responded to some Facebook stuff.  Also responded to kind note from comics scholar extraordinaire, Prof. Charles Hatfield.  Whenever I have questions about comics, I always turn to Charles.  Washed some dishes, put others in dishwasher.  Prepared for bed, read another chapter of Bechdel’s Are You My Mother?

1:55 – 8:00 am.  Sleep.

8:00 – 8:31 am.  Rose, 50 jumping jacks, stretched.  Posted link to yesterday’s post on Twitter.  Checked into Facebook as well.

8:31 – 9:15 am.  Ran 4 miles.  In playground en route, included both upside-down push-ups (see Saturday for explanation) and chin-ups, without further injuring left hand.

9:15- 9:20 am.  Turned on sprinkler to encourage new grass.  Also removed some brush/weeds that I’d been meaning to remove.

9:20 – 9:50 am.  Inside.  Drank water.  Checked Twitter.  Gary Groth has posted an excerpt from his forthcoming (in The Comics Journal) interview with Maurice Sendak.  Must read this after finishing exercises.  His description of Maurice as “gregariously grumpy” is exactly right.  Wrote two professional emails, and one personal one (to my sister).

9:50 – 10:20 am.  Post-running exercises. Did abdominals, as per usual.  For the first time since injuring my left hand, experimented with push-ups.  The only way I can do them is to make a fist, and use my fists to hold me up — but the fists aren’t quite as resilient a structure as flat hands or hands holding onto weights. I could not do the usual number: muscles capable, but left hand starts to spasm (& so I stop).  Disappointing, but at least I’m doing these again.

10:20 – 10:50 am.  Breakfast!  Also responded to some people on Twitter.  Took a second look at the NYT‘s collection of artists’ tributes to Maurice Sendak.  Art Spiegelman, Tomi Ungerer, Marc Rosenthal, Bob Staake, others.  Here’s Spiegelman’s.  (Click for a larger image.)

Art Spiegelman's tribute to Maurice Sendak (May 2012)

And check out the others artists’ work on the Times‘ page, too.  Have added this and Michael Rosen’s tribute (hat tip to Susan Marie Swanson on Twitter) to collection of links at bottom of my tribute.

10:50 – 11:30 am.  More business correspondence, including following up with Eric Reynolds at Fantagraphics.  Having received updated meeting notes from Lori Cohoon, I also updated the Children’s Literature Association MLA liaison’s report & sent the new version into Kathy at ChLA.

11:30 – 11:35 am. Wrote back to my cousin, Caro.

11:35 – 11:50 am. More  business correspondence, including note to Jeff Smith’s assistant at Cartoon Books.  So great we’ll be able to use (in our article on Moby-Dick and Bone) pristine images from the artist himself.  Thanks, Kathleen!

11:50 am – 12:20 pm.  Shower (& shave & dress) at last!  (The problem of checking email before finishing exercises means that I also end up answering it before showering.)  Listening to Fake Natives’ Fake Natives.  Local band influenced by late 1970s / early 1980s new wave.  Good stuff.  Check out title track and “West Is Best” for starters.  After seeing them last Friday, I promised the lead singer that I’d send him a mix of Robyn Hitchcock — I think he’d like Hitchcock.  Need to do that.

12:20 – 12:40 pm. Business correspondence: good response from Eric at Fantagraphics. I’m finding out ways I can pitch in to help move The Complete Barnaby Vol. 1 more swiftly to press.

Dr. Seuss's Sleep Book (1962)12:40 – 1:20 pm. Lunch!  Also read another chapter of Bechdel’s Are You My Mother?… which extended my lunch for another 10 minutes or so.  I think the chapter “Mind” is where this book is really coming together for me — and not just because it makes extended use of the plexiglass dome in Dr. Seuss’s Sleep Book (!).  One of my tasks for this summer (I would like to say “for this week,” but let’s be realistic, shall we?) is posting a sampling of my Seuss students’ “Sighting Seuss” projects.  Really interesting work.

1:20 – 2:00 pm.  Barnaby-related correspondence.  Also, revised that ChLA-MLA liaison report yet again.  Oy.

2:00 – 2:30 pm.  Personal-professional correspondence.  Well, in truth, this one is more personal.  But Jules Walker Danielson (who runs the BEST picture book blog, Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast) is one of my children’s lit buddies.  And music buddies!  Speaking of, during this time period, also burned that Robyn Hitchcock mix for Dan (lead singer of Fake Natives).  Gotta burn Jules a mix, too.

2:30 – 2:35 pm.  Prepared to leave for campus to attend meeting.

2:35 – 2:50 pm.  Walked to campus.  Wish my left hand had recovered enough to work the bicycle’s brakes.

2:50 – 4:30 pm.  Arrived 10 minutes early so that I could get a seat.  Meeting: “Special Session of the Faculty Senate: Faculty and Unclassified Salaries. How Do We Align Salaries with 2025?”  Room was packed.  Excellent turn-out from faculty and staff.  At Kansas State University, we receive no cost-of-living raises, and only get merit raises when there’s money (last one was 5 years ago).  In January, we did get an across-the-board 2.5% raise — which President Schulz described as a de facto “cost-of-living raise.”  But that’s a one-time event.  In sum, the meeting was to address the long-term salary compression problems faced by those who work for the university — a side effect of the nationwide movement to privatize erstwhile public higher education.  (Kansas State University receives 23%-24% of its budget from the state.  The legislature and governor prefer an indirect tax on the students — in the form of tuition increases — to keep the university going.  Kansas favors tax breaks for businesses and the wealthy, and increasing the costs that everyone else has to pay.)  The meeting was worth attending, and our President is an effective administrator and communicator.  However, whether anything will come of this discussion remains to be seen.

4:30 – 4:45 pm.  Walked home.

4:45 – 5:30 pm.  Wrote the preceding, undertook more business correspondence (including Barnaby/Fantagraphics and invited talk in Missouri next spring), & sent off FINAL version of that liaison report.

5:30 – 5:50 pm.  Personal correspondence.  Quick note back to Jules Danielson, & note to my mother.

5:50 – 6:50 pm.  Routledge editorial work.  I have been meaning to get to this all day.  I became editor of Routledge’s Children’s Literature and Culture series last June, which is proving to be more time-consuming than I’d anticipated.  I think I was last caught up on these in… March.

6:50 – 7:15 pm. Read Going Bovine to Karin during dinner preparation.

7:15 – 8:25 pm.  Watched last night’s Mad Men: “Dark Shadows.”  Also read this and this.  I love learning about the research that Matthew Weiner & co. build into the episodes.  The New York Times piece that upsets Pete was a real article.  Oh, and if you enjoy the “Inside Mad Men” pieces, here’s the one for that episode (with, yes, spoilers).

8:25 – 8:35 pm.  Professional correspondence — which, like all such correspondence, is partially personal.

8:35 – 9:00 pm.  More Routledge work. Also snuck in a tiny bit of professional correspondence.

9:00 – 9:10 pm.  Added this Mo Willems piece to my Sendak links (at the bottom of this page).  Hat tip to Jules Danielson.  Also added this reminiscence from Alec Baldwin.

9:05 – 11:05 pm.  Routledge work, which is: reading sample chapters, proposals, & writing responses to same.

'Marche des Snobs,' sheet music cover (1924). 13 3/4x10 1/2 inches, 35x26 3/4 cm. J. Buyst, Brussels11:05 – 11:45 pm.  Checked into Facebook, read Libby Gruner’s Sendak tribute, which I’ve added to my Sendak links (bottom of this page).  I think it will take all of us children’s literature people quite a while to work through the loss. It’s so huge, so vast.  Immeasurable, really.  Also looked at these beautiful sheet music covers by René Magritte from the 1920s (HT to Bill Genereux).  Magritte is one of my favorite artists.  Never seen these before.

11:45 pm – 12:00 am.  More business correspondence, all Barnaby-related.  Some connected to volume 1, and some connected to volume 3.  (It’s a 5-volume series, & the goal is to publish 1 per year.)

Total work time: 7 hours, 45 min.  Main problem today was all of that email.  I predict a decline in email volume tomorrow, during which I will get up to date on Routledge stuff, and get cracking on this piece theorizing comics and picture books — needs to be restructured, developed, etc.

Concluding with a song.  Predictably, it’s New Order’s “Blue Monday” (1983).

If you found this tour through the mundane to be alarmingly bland, then I suspect you’ll want to avoid:

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What Do Professors Do All Summer? Sunday

Continuing what I started yesterday, I’m continuing this week’s chronicle of what a professor does in the summer. As noted, it’s an attempt to make visible the work that academics do when most people think we’re on holiday. So. If you found yesterday’s post dull and yet slogged through it anyway, then you’re in luck: today’s post will continue to be disappointingly mundane.

Sunday, 13 May 2012.

12:00 – 1:15 am. Tooled around a bit more on that mix, started dishwasher, washed dishes-that-don’t-go-in-dishwasher, checked in on Facebook, prepared for bed.  Read another chapter of Fun Home.

8:00 – 9:30 am.  Watched CBS Sunday Morning, in anticipation of seeing a tribute to Maurice Sendak.  The show did a brief piece on three people who died this week: Nicholas Katzenbach, Sendak, and Vidal Sassoon. Too brief, but they got Sendak right, noting that he didn’t uphold the romantic ideal of childhood.  I checked into Facebook & Twitter. I read Maria Nikolajeva’s family chronicle (part 1, part 2, part 3). I think these chronicles have a particular interest for me because my own family is diasporic: my immediate family lives in New England, Mexico, and Switzerland; extended family (cousins, aunts & uncles) in South Africa (mostly), England, California, and Australia (though, to be honest, I’ve long since fallen out of touch with the cousin in Australia). Richard Thompson, The Mighty AliceI read pieces on Maurice Sendak by Steven Heller and Shirley Hughes, and updated my links of Sendak tributes (at the bottom of my own reminiscence).  Read Anita Silvey’s piece on Kevin Henkes’ Lily’s Purple Plastic Purse. So glad she does this blog.  For Mother’s Day, posted (on my blog) a clip of Bruce Springsteen dancing with his 90-year-old mother (planned weeks ago, when I found the clip). Speaking of Mother’s Day, today’s Cul de Sac (a repeat from 2008) is great, as always. On list of books I need to get: The Mighty Alice, the latest Cul de Sac collection.

9:30 – 9:40 am. Read Sunday comics.

9:40 – 9:50 am.  Answered email (academic).  Found notes Lissa and I made (back in January) for our Oslo Keywords talk.

9:50 – 10:50 am. Actually wrote up and turned in my ChLA-MLA liaison report, thanks to Lori Cohoon’s meeting notes.  (Thanks, Lori!  And thanks to Jennifer Miskec, who sent them to me.)  Also, more email.  And spent a few minutes fiddling with that mix I mentioned last night.  And made plans to talk to Lissa re: Oslo Keywords talk this afternoon.  So, mostly but not entirely work during this period.

10:50 am – 12:00 pm.  Finished mix, burned it, made label. In the shower, I came up with a promotional idea for the bio of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss.  Have proposed this idea to press; we’ll see what they say.

12:00 – 12:30 pm. Wrote personal emails. Added another Sendak link to my reminiscence (at bottom of page).

12:30 – 1:35 pm. Lunch. Also caught up on the last 2 weeks’ worth of daily comics. The Kansas City Star runs 2 pages of comics, but I sometimes fall behind.  Usually, I catch up on the weekend, but last weekend was too busy, evidently.

1:35 – 2:05 pm. Nap.

Keywords for Children's Literature2:05 – 2:30 pm.  Spoke with Lissa Paul re: our Oslo Keywords talk, and friendly conversation, too.  My work conversations tend also to be conversations with friends — which makes it hard to separate work from non-work.

2:30 – 2:55 pm.  Wrote up description of our Oslo talk, and sent it to Lissa for review. Also responded to my sister re: visiting her (& Michel & my niece, Emily!) prior to that talk. I booked my ticket for a day later than she’d advised me to. (To arrive in Zurich on a Friday, one would need to lave Kansas on a Thursday. D’oh!) I seem highly accident-prone in booking international travel. I once arrived a day late to a conference in Japan because I forgot to factor in the fact that I would be crossing the International Date Line.

Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (Penguin edition)2:55 – 3:15 pm.  Spoke/typed via gmail chat with Jennifer Hughes. This was mostly friendly conversation, though we did talk a little bit about our article on Moby-Dick and Jeff Smith’s Bone. We finished revisions last weekend (it was accepted with revisions by The Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics), and have been waiting on permission from Jeff Smith.  That was granted (thanks, Jeff!), and now his assistant is preparing to send us the images we’re going to use — this will ensure that only the best quality images of his work appear in print.

3:15 – 6:00 pm.  Professional correspondence — though, here, too, these colleagues are also friends.  So, though it’s correspondence with more of a “business” purpose, it’s also friendly.  Also, in my capacity as ChLA-MLA liaison, sent in to the Children’s Lit Association’s Kathy Kiessling the ChLA MLA Call for Papers 2013, edition.  Reviewed copy-edited book review for South Atlantic Quarterly — it’s of Eric Tribunella’s Melancholia and Maturation, which is really good.  My review (which says that & more) will appear in SAR … well, I don’t know when.  Fall, perhaps?  Received Lissa’s comments on our description, and sent it off to Nina Christensen (one of the conference organizers).  I’ve never been to Norway before, and am looking forward to going.

6:00 – 6:50 pm.  Phone call to Mom.  Happy Mother’s Day to all you mothers out there!

6:50 – 7:00 pm.  Checked Facebook.

7:00 – 8:00 pm. With dinner, watched last week’s Mad Men: “Lady Lazarus.”  Also folded laundry and watched the extra “Inside Mad Men” bit (it comes with the iTunes subscription).

8:00 – 9:30 pm. Watched this week’s Sherlock: “The Hounds of Baskerville.”

9:30 - 10:45 pm.  Folded & put away laundry.  Finished weekly email to family that I started at around noon.  Called United to see if I could make my August flight a day earlier, in order fix my mistake.  I can.  Annoyed at myself for being an idiot (costs me a couple hundred bucks to make the change), but this is the better option — the trains I would have had to take instead would be comparably expensive.  Perhaps someday, I will learn how to use these travel websites.  (True, on that day, I could save myself further money by just hitching a ride on the nearest flying pig.)  Also read Tim Goodman’s analysis of the Mad Men “Lady Lazarus” episode.  And worked on this blog post.

10:45 – 11:25 pm.  Thinking about my graphic novel class in the fall, read Michael A. Chaney’s “Is There an African-American Graphic Novel?” in Stephen Tabachnick’s Teaching the Graphic Novel (2009). The only book I’ve read that might “qualify” is Mat Johnson and Warren Pleece’s Incognegro (2008). Chaney mentions four books I need to read before ordering my books for the fall: Ho Che Anderson’s King; Aaron McGruder, Reginald Hudlin, and Kyle Baker’s Birth of a Nation; Lance Tooks’ Narcissa; and Dwayne McDuffie and Robert L. Washington’s Static Shock.  The books by McGruder and Tooks are out of print.  King is in print, but only in hardcover.  The descriptions, on-line, look excellent.  This article also led me to Christian Davenport’s discussion of black superheroes.

Looked at some other essays in Tabachnick’s book.  Also emailed Charles Hatfield (who, incidentally. wrote the opening essay in Teaching the Graphic Novel) re: the essay-length version of my contribution to his “Why Comics Are and Are Not Picture Books” panel.  It’s on the docket for this week.

11:25 – 11:40 pm.  Answered some queries re: the Children’s Literature Program.  People want to know whether we have a doctorate or an on-line version.  We do not have either.  Usually, I answer these queries within 24 hours, but — since all were asking for something we cannot provide — I’m a bit tardier than usual.  One query was from a few days ago, but another was from April 26.  What happens is emails to which I can offer a helpful reply get priority; other, less urgent ones, get buried in my in box.  This is not an excellent system, I admit.

11:45 – 12:00 pm.  Logged into Facebook, answered professional email via Facebook — friend putting me in touch with possible book-promotion event this fall.  Need to follow up again with Fantagraphics: Until I have a definite date on The Complete Barnaby Vol. 1, it’s too early to schedule anything.  Really hope that they manage to bring this book out by September (they’d originally said June, but delays in finding strips have slowed the project down).  If this book and the bio. can come out more or less at the same time, then there are potential cross-promotional opportunities.  If they don’t, then there aren’t.  Also checked Twitter.  Watched this lovely short (3-minute) animated film:

Believe it or not, it’s a student project.  Hat tip to Rebecca Coffindaffer on Facebook.

Total work time: 5 hrs, 40 min.  Not the most productive Sunday I’ve ever had, but I’m OK with that.  It’s been a busy term.

In conclusion, here’s today’s musical number: the Monkees’ “Pleasant Valley Sunday” (1967, written by Carole King & Gerry Goffin):

If you found this exercise in educational exhibitionism to be unbearably tedious, then you’ll also want to miss:

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What Do Professors Do All Summer? Saturday Edition

For a week in February of 2011, I blogged exactly what I did each day — the goal being to show precisely how academics spend their time. Starting today, I’m beginning the summer edition of the same experiment. From today through Friday the 18th, I will publicly keep track of how I use my time as a Professor of English at Kansas State University… who is ostensibly on “summer vacation.”

My motive? Professors often hear, “How nice that you get summers off!” It is true that we do not teach in the summers — if we elect not to teach, and there are plenty who do teach.  One gets paid for teaching, and if you’ve received no raise in (for example) 5 years, then that’s a way to pick up “extra” money.  I elect not to teach, and instead continue the unpaid work of service and research.  I say “unpaid” because I do not receive a salary from the university in the summers. But I do other work.  And, since I gave my last final yesterday, today would be the first day of my summer.

Saturday, 12 May 2012.

Alison Bechdel, Are You My Mother?12:00 – 12:45 am.  Preparing for bed.  In bed, started reading Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother? (2012), which is great — and, incidentally, connected to my field (I teach and study children’s literature and comics/graphic novels).

12:45 – 8:00 am. Asleep. First time I’ve gotten over 7 hours of sleep since — well, since the previous weekend.  Night before, I only got 4 hours.  5, the night before that.

8:00 – 8:15 am.  Up, checking weather.  Light rain.  Run or not?  While dithering over that question, checked into Facebook.

8:15 – 8:30 am. 50 jumping jacks, pre-running stretches, dressed for running.

8:30 – 9:15 am.  Ran 4 miles (I’m not very fast), during which I also stopped at a playground for a set of what I call upside-down push-ups (keeping body in plank position, head facing up, do chin-ups on bar close to ground) and one set of chin-ups.  Especially pleased about the latter: it’s the first time I’ve been able to do them since injuring my left hand in a bicycling accident on the 1st of the month.  (I seemed to have pulled/bruised some muscles in the hand. It’s recovering, but slowly.)

9:15 – 9:30 am. Drank water, read email, wrote the preceding.

9:30 – 9:45 am.  Post-running exercises.  Restricted myself to abdominals. Since injuring left hand, have been avoiding the push-ups.  Think I might be able to manage them again, but am wary of exacerbating injury.  Decided to reintroduce them after Monday’s run.

9:45 – 10:00 am.  Breakfast!  Also read Gail Collins’ “The Anatomy of a Jokester” (found article via Facebook feed, HT to Toni Tadolini).  Though Mr. Romney changes his political positions with the shifting political winds, I think he may be telling the truth when he says he doesn’t remember bullying people in high school.  People on the receiving end of power remember acutely the injustices done to them; powerful people can more easily forget the injustices they inflict.  The bullied have longer memories than the bullies.

10:00 – 11:30 am.  Shower, shave, dress, recycling, lamp, talk.  To explain the last half of that, despite its population of over 50,000, Manhattan Kansas has neither municipal trash service nor recycling pick-up.  We (as do most residents) pay an independent company for trash pick-up, but take in the recycling ourselves.  “Lamp” = “took in lamp to be repaired,” and “talk” = “chatted with Karin, who had returned from graduation” (as Dept. Head, she is obliged to attend).

11:30 – 11:35 am.  Answered email (business).

11:35 am – 12:45 pm. I intended to finish grading my last finals yesterday (this final took place yesterday afternoon).  I did start grading them, but I instead got involved with other business (professional emails & my blog, mostly).  So, first task is to finish this last set of finals.

Libba Bray, Going Bovine12:45 – 1:40 pm. Brought in supplies (purchased by Karin), read to her from Libba Bray’s Going Bovine, which is just entering its “road trip” phase.  If you haven’t seen the trailer for this book, you should go and watch it.  With lunch, we caught up on the Colbert Report — Wednesday’s episode.

1:40 – 2:40 pm. Lissa Paul and I are invited speakers at a children’s literature conference in Oslo, late August.  I’ve been meaning to buy my plane tickets (for which the conference will reimburse me) since… February.  Assisted by Karin, I’ve got the tickets, which also includes a visit (prior to the talk) to my 1-year-old niece and her parents (in Basel, Switzerland).  Always a challenge plotting travel from Manhattan Kansas to, well, to anywhere.  Also contacted conference organizer with my travel, and tried to see if Lissa and I had made notes for a description of our talk (it’s on Keywords for Children’s Literature, which she and I co-edited).

2:40 – 3:00 pm.  Checked into Facebook, read about Gov. Brownback’s plans to bankrupt the state, allowing him to further cut funds to public schools and social services. Also read this great piece on a company that makes toys based on children’s drawings (hat tip to Brian Herrera).  Couldn’t find notes for talk, so dropped Lissa a line re the talk description.  Emailed my sister re above-mentioned travel plans.

3:00 – 5:20 pm.  Resumption of grading.  Music: Buddy Rich Quintet & Max Roach Quintet’s Rich vs. Roach (1959).  Those drums keep me awake and focused!  Also listened to a “Different Rhythms” mix-in-progress of drum-based music.  And finished grading.

5:20 – 5:40 pm.  Calculated final grades, entered final grades, checked them, and then submitted them for this.  (Turned in grades for other two classes on Thursday.)  Also helped Karin cart in the groceries.  So, excepting the odd complaint, that’s it for the term!  I’m hoping there are no complaints, but — since the gradebook is electronic — students have been this week kvetching about their grades, sending me emails.  Perhaps that’s gotten it out of their systems.  I don’t know.

5:40 – 6:10 pm.  Re-read some of Maurice Sendak‘s books: Where the Wild Things Are (1963), Hector Protector and As I Went Over the Water (1965), Alligators All Around (1962), What can you do with a shoe? (words by Beatrice Schenk de Regniers, 1955), How Little Lori Visited Times Square (words by Amos Vogel, 1963).  Recently, I decided that I should, over time, collect the Sendak books I didn’t have.  A couple of months back, I picked up a used copy of Marcel Aymé’s The Wonderful Farm (1951, though my copy is a 1994 reprint): that’s the first book he illustrated for Ursula Nordstrom, who would be his editor for so many of his greatest works.

During this period of time, I also responded to a professional email.

6:10 – 7:10 pm.  Read Karin Going Bovine during dinner prep.  Watched a Daily Show with dinner.

The Avengers (2012): Poster7:10 – 10:10 pm.  To the movie theatre for… The Avengers!  A clever adaptation.  Joss Whedon‘s script supplies ample wit, and his direction brings the action.  SPOILER ALERT: I want to read the death of the fan (Agent Phil Coulson, played by Clark Gregg) as a comment on the fans who’ve threatened to boycott The Avengers over Marvel and Stan Lee’s poor treatment of those who actually created the work.  You know: Kill the fans!  But I suspect I’m locating themes that Whedon didn’t weave into it.  The film was a great example of its genre.  I wouldn’t say that it fully overcame the limitations of the contemporary superhero film, but it did a fine job working within those confines.  Whedon understands the characters, their relationships, and gave Black Widow a real role in the film; she was an equal with the other Avengers.  Oh, and since I teach and write about comics, I could officially count this as “work”!  Ha!  Often, I think that the lack of a boundary between my professional life and personal life can be a problem.  In this instance, I’m actually quite delighted.

10:10 – 10:30 pm.  Wrote the preceding and watched the CBS Sunday Morning profile on Whedon.

10:30 – 11:15 pm. As liaison between the Children’s Literature Association and the Modern Language Association, I was asked to send in a report (to the former) this past Monday — the beginning of exam week, likely the busiest week of the term.  The other cause for my delay is that I no longer have time to execute my duties as well as I would like: I manage to get all essential stuff in on time (i.e., MLA deadlines are met), but I’m otherwise just too overwhelmed.  When I started in 2007, I could keep up.  Now, I find that impossible.  Unfortunately, my term as liaison doesn’t end until 2013.  BUT my larger point is: I worked on the report.  Tried and failed to locate my notes from the meeting; have contacted Executive Committee of MLA Children’s Lit Division, since they will have meeting notes.  I’ve asked if I can step down before 2013 (when my term ends), but I’ve been told that I cannot.

11:20 – 12:00 pm.  Wrote up some of the preceding (I’ve been keeping track all day).  Noodled around on a mix.  I make mixes for fun.  This one is a gift for a friend.  (Ain’t sayin’ who!)

Total work time: 6 hrs, 40 min.  I didn’t include The Avengers, but I did include ten minutes each time we read Going Bovine, and the re-reading of Sendak.  Thinking about and reading children’s literature (& culture) is my job.

For the previous “What Do Professors Do All Week?” experiment, I used a children’s book for each day of the week; this, time, I’ll include a song.  Here’s the Godfathers’ “Birth, School, Work, Death” (1986)

If you found this post tedious, then you certainly won’t enjoy:

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Research, Writing, and Getting a Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Pleasures of Displacement

planeI don’t enjoy flying, but I do like traveling. There is pleasure in being somewhere else, in experiencing a different city or country. All that is taken for granted in daily life cannot be taken for granted — and this is especially true when in another country, when the food, language, and culture differs in varying degrees from one’s own. Prior to dinner, the Swiss have apero, a kind of extended meal of hors d’ouvres. In a Japanese restaurant, shoes get left at near the doorway, and hands adjust to eating with chopsticks instead of a knife and fork.  But even in one’s own country, cities are not identical. Normal, Illinois (where I am flying from, as I write this) has three independent record stores on the same block, and a superlative used bookstore — with lots of children’s books — on the same block. And I ran along a trail I’ve never run along before.

When traveling, daily work does not vanish. The draft of the panel proposal must be edited and rewritten, via a series of email exchanges with a colleague at another university. The invited talk itself must be timed, polished, cut, honed, rehearsed.  Emails from students, colleagues, editors, and others require answers.

But all of this work happens out of context, in a different space — on a plane, in an airport, at the hotel lobby, in the back of the taxi, in the hotel room. Because it is happening in different locations, it acquires a slightly different flavor, even a greater sense of clarity.  This sharpness of perception may derive from the simple fact of being somewhere else: because they are unfamiliar, surroundings demand more attention, perhaps heightening attentiveness more generally. It may also derive from urgency: being a conference attendee or invited speaker creates a daily schedule that reorganizes time in ways that cannot always be anticipated.

I like that, though. And, since I’m almost always traveling for business, I enjoy the interchange of ideas — in the Q+A session of the talk, or the conversations over dinner, after the panel session, and so on.  During the past few days, talking with Jan Susina, his wife Jodie Slothower, their son Jacob, my former graduate student Elizabeth Williams (and other University of Illinois grad students, faculty, and families), I’ve learned about lots of books and articles I need to read: Theories of affect, collections of comics, young adult novels. Beyond that, there are ideas that lodge in my subconscious, emerging later, sometimes long after I’ve forgotten the source.  At some point, I’ll ask Jan to elaborate on the connections he sees between Paul Klee and Crockett Johnson.

Though academics work long hours (as I’ve documented elsewhere) for less compensation than we’d like, I feel privileged to have a job in which I get to learn, share what I’ve learned with other people, and learn from other people.

Combining these intellectual exchanges with the displacement of travel brings the experience of learning into focus, sustains a degree of clarity absent from my workaday life, prods me to keep moving forward into new areas.

And it’s especially nice when someone else picks up the cost! (I pay for most conference travel myself, but I’m coming back now from two invited talks, both of which were covered by the host institution.)  So, thanks to the University of Pittsburgh’s Department of English (especially Marah Gubar), and to Illinois State’s Department of English (especially Jan Susina and Roberta Trites), and to everyone who hosted, chatted, came to the talks or otherwise participated.  It’s been a great few days!  Until next time!

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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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Anxiety, Absent-Mindedness, and Lost Data

flash driveMy flash drive is missing, and I find myself unable to focus.  (I know some people call this device a “thumb drive” or a “memory stick.”  Please insert the term you prefer.  Thank you.)  In an effort to clear my head, I am writing this.

I put everything on that drive — class notes, quizzes, exams, manuscripts of books and articles, scans of images obtained on research trips, the occasional pdf of a boarding pass, playlists for mix CDs, a complete list of all books I own, a complete list of all CDs I own.  Every time I am in my office, I transfer the files from my home computer to my office computer.  I also do this the other way, transferring files from office computer to home computer.  The good news is that I’ve lost hardly any data.  The bad news is that I often leave the files on the drive after transferring copies to the other machine.  The drive holds many gigabytes of information, and thus itself serves as an additional back-up location.

On Sunday, I noticed it was missing.  On Monday, I checked my office.  It wasn’t there either.  That afternoon, a colleague said he saw precisely such a drive in the classroom where we both teach.  Ah!  I must have left it there on Thursday evening, after my last class, I thought.  I couldn’t pick up the drive then because there was a class using the room.  Well, I figured, I’ll just pick it up first thing next morning, before classes begin.  I’ve forgotten things in that classroom before, and they’ve always stayed there.  I once abandoned a DVD of Private SNAFU cartoons there for nearly a month before I realized it was missing.  Sure enough, it was still there, on top of the DVD player.  I’ve left flash drives behind before, too, always finding them waiting for me upon my return.  So, this morning, when I unlocked the door of the classroom (Eisenhower 021, for any Kansas State colleagues who may be reading this), I fully expected to find the drive there.  But there was no sign of any drive at all.

I’ve emailed everyone who teaches in the room: perhaps they picked it up, to bring it to Lost and Found or to see whose it was (my name is on many documents on the disc).  As yet, the drive remains missing, but I only sent the email two hours ago. And four colleagues have already responded to my query, three reporting seeing it there — so, it’s yet possible that the drive will turn up.

As I wait, I’m anxious… and am having a hard time concentrating on my other work.  Only now do I realize how careless I was with that information.  The manuscript of a biography that took me a decade to write is on that drive.  What if some malicious person posts it on the web?  Exams and quizzes are on that drive.  What if they all end up in some fraternity’s files?  Do I now need to scrap all past exams and quizzes?  I post a version of the class notes for my students — it’s a mix of what they said in class and what I prepared in advance.  I only have one copy of that, and it’s on the flash drive.  There are a couple of weeks’ worth of notes that I’ve yet to post.  If I don’t get the drive, the notes my students are expecting will be lost.

It’s also frustrating because I could have prevented this.  On Sunday night, when I realized the drive was missing, I should have come looking for it.  Had I done so, I’d likely have thought to check the classroom, gone there, unlocked it… and found the drive.  Another way I could have prevented this would be regularly purging the drive, deleting documents immediately after I’d backed them up on another machine.

I’m chronically absent-minded — part of this is due to having so much to do, my attention pulled in multiple directions. Part of it is simply disposition.  I’ve always been prone to forgetting.  Once, in college, I found myself exiting the dormitory… still carrying my towel.  I’d intended to hang it on the door before leaving the room, but instead had just kept walking.  That was funny — indeed, often my absent-mindedness is a source of amusement.

But it’s also a source of paranoia. Each night before bed, I make a “to do” list for the next day (or several days).  In addition to the obvious reason for this nightly ritual (i.e., wanting to get the items done), I also do it so that I can go to sleep.  If I don’t create such a list, then I can’t shut my mind off and I can’t sleep.  By transferring the worry about all that I have to do (and thus am likely to forget) onto a list, I can relax enough to sleep.

And now, I’ve just created another source of anxiety.  I do realize that this is very much a First-World Problem.  I only wish that the realization somehow made the problem less real.  So, fellow absent-minded professors (and other absent-minded friends), may you learn from my negative example!  Take better care of your data, lest you pull a Phil Nel and lose it all.  :-(

UPDATE, 6:55 pm, 9 Nov. 2011: DRIVE FOUND. Huzzah!  See fourth comment, below.

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“You’re going to want to relax. But you can’t.”

Moments after I finished my the oral portion of comprehensive exams, Professor Michael Kreyling (a member of my committee) turned to me and said, “You’re going to want to relax.  But you can’t.”  He then listed many reasons for not relaxing: I needed to write a dissertation proposal, start working on the dissertation itself, send out articles to journals, and so on.

In the decade and a half since then, I’ve often thought of those words.  The longer I’ve been in academia, the busier I’ve become.  Indeed, had you told me in graduate school that, in a single semester (this one), I would be giving two different invited talks, delivering one conference paper, writing another (for MLA in January), writing an afterword (for The Complete Barnaby vol. 1), posting twice weekly to a blog, editing a book series, writing two book reviews, heading up the children’s literature track of our M.A. program, serving on various committees, teaching a couple of classes, and that this would be a laughably incomplete list of my activities,… I’d have thought: Yeah, right.  No one can do that much in one semester.  (I would also have thought: What? Me? Employed as a professor? You must be joking.)

Life was not always this busy.

Once upon a time, I was — to put this generously — not very industrious. As a young person, formal education held little interest for me; indeed, I was at best an indifferent student.  I had interests, but they tended to fall outside of school curriculum: reading and writing stories, working out songs on my guitar, playing games on the computer.  Then, at about the age of 18, I applied myself, improved my grades, went on to college, and have been working hard ever since.

But, for many years, I still retained (and, in some measure, still retain) the perception of myself as lazy — or, at least, as having tendencies towards sloth.  Empirically, I realized that (as a brief look at my CV confirms) this notion is absurd. So, I’ve also had a competing perception of myself as at least somewhat accomplished in my field of endeavor.  These perceptions have competed with one another for years.  At present, the latter view is in the ascendant.

One motivation for taking on so much was to combat my secretly slothful nature. If I signed myself up for a lot of different projects (books, essays, invited talks, conference papers), I reasoned, then I’d have to rise to the challenge and get it done.  As Jim Infantino sings,

I’m addicted to stress — that’s the way that I get things done.

If I’m not under pressure, then I sleep too long,

And hang around like a bum.

I think I’m going nowhere and that makes me nervous.  (Jim’s Big Ego, noplace like Nowhere, 2000)

Though (contrary to the song) I don’t actually drink coffee, this “motivated by pressure” approach has proven quite a successful strategy — if a rather exhausting one.

These days, I’m not “addicted to stress.”  Indeed, I would welcome fewer tasks.  And yet… I have more to do than ever before.  Rarely do I get 6 hours a sleep per night (I function best on at least 7, although that hardly ever happens anymore).

Having said that, to complain about this predicament (especially in these dire economic times) would seem churlish in the extreme.  After all, I am an academic with a tenure-track job.  Heck, I’m an academic with tenure.  For any non-academics reading this, here’s a little context: 50% of students in doctoral programs drop out before earning the Ph.D.  Of those who do get the doctorate, job prospects within academe are few and shrinking.  Each year, the academy produces five times as many Ph.D.s in English as there are tenure-track jobs for Ph.D.s in English.  When I got my degree (1997), the stats were slightly better — annually, four times as many Ph.D.s as there were jobs for Ph.D.s.

Beyond having “beat the odds,” I also have an interesting job.  Let me say that again: I also have an interesting job.  Of the people fortunate enough to be employed, how many have jobs from which they derive meaning?  I don’t have the stats on this question, but I suspect the answer is: very few.  It’s a great privilege to have a job from which you gain more than a paycheck.  True, such intrinsic motivation is especially important when your last pay raise came in 2007.  (I’m told we’re getting one at the end of this year, though.  Here’s hoping!)  But my point is that being a professor is a really great job.  I get to learn stuff, and then share what I’ve learned — in the classroom, at conferences, in my books and articles, and even on this blog.  How awesome is that?  (Answer: very!)

Still, I also have the suspicion that might enjoy life more if I did not work 60+ hour weeks.  I often think of that New Yorker cartoon, where, with a hamster wheel in the background, one hamster says to the other: “I usually do two hours of cardio and then four more of cardio and then two more of cardio.”

Jason Polan, "I usually do two hours of cardio and then four more of cardio and then two more of cardio."

So, despite all that I love about my job, I sometimes want to ask: Will I ever get off the treadmill?  On the other hand, I do prefer my treadmill to the one in the cartoon.

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