Don't worry, the straitjacket of this title is metaphorical, not literal.
Work continues to go well. It's both fun and unnerving how much I'm enjoying my work and getting excited by it right now. (The trick will be to see if I can sustain this through the beginning of the semester and teaching, but we won't worry about that till it comes.)
Yesterday I was reading some (vaguely) theoretical stuff (theoretical by a historian's standards!) about class and social structure, and the idea for an article popped into my head. Well, this is an article that I've been thinking about writing for a long, long time - but suddenly I had a much clearer view of what the article would look like, how it would be structured, what I would say, and what I would need to look at it complete it. So I stopped reading and jotted down a couple of pages of outline.
This is where the straitjacket comes in: I'm referring to the straitjacket that is academic publishing convention. My current position requires a book for tenure. Technically, that's described as the usual expectation, not a hard and fast requirement, and I'm told that people in the humanities have received tenure with articles. But everyone in my department has earned tenure with a book, and it's acknowledged as the cleanest, simplest way to get tenure. And I have a book project, one that I think is a good project and will be a good book.
I also have the idea for abovesaid article, which isn't part of the book. I have two articles in various stages of completeness (I'm revising one this summer, the other is in a kind of limbo for various reasons) that don't relate to the book project. There are two sections of the book pretty much ready to go as articles (with a little revision). I feel torn thinking about these things, because pursuing any of these directions feels like it takes me away from what I need to be doing - THE BOOK.
Sometimes the idea of the book is overwhelming - not in the sense that I can't do it (though I worry about that sometimes), but in the sense that I'm stuck working on one thing for so long. It feels so huge, not in an impossible-to-do sense, but in a I'm-going-to-get-so-sick-of-this sense.
What's particularly frustrating is that while I think this can/will be a good project, in many ways I'm only writing a book because that's what the profession demands. I often think that the profession would be better served by me writing a series of good, focused articles that get out there more quickly than yet another dissertation-turned-monograph. Burnout also feels much less likely if I can move from one (smaller) project to another more regularly than the book would allow.
So part of me thinks: maybe I should try for tenure with articles. If I got out all the articles I've mentioned above, I'd have nine publications come tenure time. If I get the new ones in good journals (which I think is possible), that's got to be worth as much as finding some poor sap press to publish a book. Yeah, those are some big ifs, but they seem to fit my working/writing style better than the scale of a book.
And there's a principle behind it as well: why should a book be some arbitrary standard? Why not make a stand for the value of other forms of publication, rather than glutting the market with yet another monograph? Why not question the kinds of publishing standards that people have been criticizing for years?
I think I could make a good argument. And yesterday, in the midst of article-outlining, I was fired up with the idea that I would make this stand, argue on behalf of principle.
But I probably won't.
Because in the end, discretion wins out over valor. It's more important (to me, at least) that I get tenure than that I make a stand for an abstract principle - I can't have any long-lasting impact on the profession if I can't continue in it. In the end, practicality carries the day.
And I also think: what if my desire to write articles is just about being afraid of writing the book? What if my colleagues - my book-writing colleagues - looked down on me for not having a book? how would that affect my position here? Even if I got tenure with articles, what if I wanted to think about moving somewhere else in the future? Would the profession ever consider me a "full" member if I didn't write a book? (For instance, I know at least two journals that won't allow you to review books for them unless you've written a book yourself.) And would I really be a good a scholar, with as developed skills as my peer, if I don't write a book and they do? (Remember I'm talking about the humanities or other "book" fields - obviously there are lots of disciplines where books aren't practical or valuable forms of publication.)
It frustrates me that I have to consider all these issues rather than simply let the scholarship - my interests, the resources - dictate what's best to produce. I knew this, of course, going into the job. I knew - and know - that way too much of this job isn't about what's the best for scholarship. I know, too, that this complaint is entirely unoriginal, and that far better scholars than me have faced this in the past and will continue to face it in the future.
Unfortunately, that doesn't make the frustration go away.
Bought the book yesterday at Target;
began reading at 3:40 pm;
finished at 8:15 pm!
To be honest, I was slightly disappointed, but it's not like I regret reading the book or anything. What I find fascinating about book series (serieses? how does one pluralize that?) is how you get sucked into the world that the author has created, to the extent that you're willing to read dross just to see what happens next. Which is not meant to suggest that Book 6 qualifies as dross; the best examples I can give here are various sci-fi/fantasy series, like the David and Leigh Eddings books, the Xanth books (both of which I gave up on years ago), and Anne McCaffrey's Pern books (which I will still read, but refuse to spend money on any more, and really, I can't bring myself to read the ones her son has been involved with either). I guess sci-fi fantasy is especially prone to this because this is a genre in which the authors most explicitly create new and different worlds, but I suppose in another sense you could apply this even to something like Danielle Steel (because I refuse to believe that the world she describes in her books bears any resemblance to reality).
Oh, and this isn't very surprising, but in case anyone wanted to know:
(I'm way too chicken to be in Gryffindor!)
Today H and I went to one of the local coffeeshops to work (although this meant I didn't get started until after killing my morning for a very worthy and yet pointless and time-sucking event at school, and sitting around waiting for H to finish what he was doing at home... I like going out to do stuff with H, but coordinating two people leaving this apartment is way more complicated than one would think). And my working streak continues pretty well - I may even be developing what Joan Bolker calls a writing addiction, which I find pretty amazing. (The scary thing is that the last time I remember being this fired up about my work was during the dissertation, which is scary because of how long ago that was and how unexcited it implies I've been since then. But we won't worry about that now...)
Anyway, no matter how well the work is going, there are always those moments when one needs a little mental break...and today, during one of them, I started a draft of the acknowledgments to my (almost entirely not-yet-written) book. Have any of you out there done that - written the acknowledgments for your project before it's done? In grad school I came across the suggestion that dissertators try this - to boost morale, maybe? make the end feel closer? I did so then, and had fun doing it today - partly because it's actually really encouraging to take note of all the people who have had a hand in helping a project to fruition. It was both heart-warming and humbling, in a minor way.
Partly, however, this is fun because you can be kind of goofy and write all the silly acknowledgments that you might not actually put in the book. For instance, right now I feel seriously thankful that this coffeeshop exists, because getting away from my office/home and their distractions has helped me get back into my groove, and I want to thank the staff for keeping me supplied with iced beverages. I don't know if it'll end up in the official acknowledgments or not, but it's fun to try it out.
And this got me and H talking about what I guess you'd call the rhetoric of acknowledgments. I've noticed two clear approaches in dissertation acknowledgments: there are the people who thank anyone and everyone, at great length. They give multiple examples of their advisors' generosity and wisdom. They thank the staff at every single archive they ever visited, and people who gave them feedback in a grad seminar their first year of grad school, and their third cousin once removed, and, and, and... and go on for pages. While I love reading acknowledgments like this (they're wonderful for gleaning little tidbits of information about someone), my own followed the second, more minimal approach: you thank your committee, you thank a few select grad school friends, you thank your family, that's it, you're done, well under a page.
What's really great, however, are acknowledgments written by male academics - especially British ones - before, say, 1960. It's kind of a notorious secret that a lot of academic men had highly educated wives who "helped" them write these books - and when I say "helped," I mean they did all the work and their husbands, who had the academic affiliations, got their names on the books. (Okay, maybe this mostly happened in the nineteenth century...there were lots of antiquarians churning out editions of texts, and they didn't always do much of the work; there's one text I use which was edited in 18-something, then reissued in a "corrected" edition a few years later, because, the editor of the "correct" version said, they discovered so many errors in the original version. They asked the first editor what had gone wrong, and apparently he said that he entrusted the work to an undergraduate and the first few pages were so good that he didn't bother to check the rest.)
H and I have always joked about these men's acknowledgments of their wives' help, because they are so damn condescending: "And finally, thank you to the little woman, my devoted wife, my rod and staff, for all her dedicated assistance," blah blah blah. Today, when I told H I'd written some acknowledgments, he said, "Am in there?" and I said, "Well, not yet, because I didn't write them all, but of course you're going to be! You're going to be at the end!" And then we decided that it would be hysterical to write my own incredibly condescending thank-yous to H as the little man, to his invaluable support, etc. etc., as a spoof on the tradition.
And you know what? We couldn't come up with any. It just seemed impossible to come up with that particular brand of damning-with-faint-praise kind of thank-you when writing about a man. I mean, I'm sure it must be feasible, and it's just that our rhetorical skills were lacking, but it was an interesting conundrum.
What about you - what are the worst (or best, depending on your perspective) acknowledgments that you've ever seen?
H and I went out to the nifty breakfast joint again today (sadly, they are still out of cinnamon rolls), and on our way back, we took a short cut through what turned out to be a local university's frat house neighborhood.
On one front step, carefully posed and placed at equal intervals across the concrete slab, sat four naked Barbie dolls - two blonde, one brunette, and one redhead.
Clearly I have to start carrying my camera with me.
I love the scene that confronted me in the hallway at school a couple of minutes ago:
Some of my colleagues are moving offices around, in the process weeding out a slew of old books, which have been placed in cardboard boxes in the hall for anyone to take.
There is also construction/painting/maintenance stuff going on in the building.
When I walked out of the bathroom, I saw two maintenance guys poring over the books - one was sitting on a chair intently reading through one book he'd chosen, and the other was kneeling by the boxes going through everything with the utmost seriousness and interest.
Obviously there's no reason maintenance guys would be any less interested in history than anyone else, but it's not every day you see two big burly uniformed laborer guys in their 40s-50s searching through stacks of old history books, deaf to everything else around them.
It was just pretty cool.
Everyone has seen Tribble's asinine article by now (so I'm not even going to bother linking to it, because I'm lazy), and many, many people have chewed him up and spit him out (again, so many I'm not going to link, because of aforesaid laziness). But because I know that many of the folks I read out there share my ongoing frustration with the Chronicle's First Person columns in general,* I just wanted to make sure that people saw Evan Roberts's contribution to the debate over at Coffee Grounds: he offers the intriguing hypothesis that they're all just really written by the same person. They do all sound the same, don't they? Check it out!
*My old posts are showing up with wonky format. I have no idea why. Sorry.
ETA: Heard from my cousin in London and everyone in my family there is fine. Let me quote from her quintessentially English e-mail:
Hello - yes all fine thank you. All a bit grim in London yesterday and working from home today. I think it will be back to normal very quickly though with a little extra vigilance from people.
Watching the news yesterday, I kept seeing newscasters saying things like, "It brings back 9/11, all those memories," with the implication that "now London knows what it's like." I kept saying to the TV, "I imagine to Londoners it brings back all the bombs and attacks that they lived with for years before 9/11 ever came along - they already knew what it was like!" Stupid American lens on the world...
When I recently read B*'s post about her academic fears, I started thinking about my own, and I've come to the conclusion that I'm chickenshit.
There are two big things that scare me when I sit down to work. The first: that I'm a pathetic medievalist. The second: that I have nothing to say, at all, because I don't know anything. (Okay, they sound pretty similar, but there are some differences - bear with me.)
Medievalists are distinguished from many other kinds of historians by the additional skills they need to access their material - primarily languages and paleography, though you could include things like codicology and diplomatics, too. As the (non-medievalist) professor of a friend of mine reportedly put it, "Medievalists are historians who have actual skills." (And yes, I realize that non-medievalists need these skills too, but that's what this professor said.) I've had a number of conversations with students who express interest in studying medieval history at the graduate level that go like this:
"I want to go to grad school in medieval history!"
"That's great. Do you know Latin?"
"You have to know Latin??"
I should probably add that I never considered that becoming a medievalist demonstrated any kind of uber-skilled bravura on my part; I just liked medieval history best. But I have since encountered some Americanists who look on the kinds of things that medievalists have to learn to complete their doctorates with some degree of awe.
(You want to be in awe of anyone, go pick Asianists. Especially early Asianists. You want to learn Chinese, Turkish, and Persian? Now that's balls. But I digress.)
Whenever I run into anyone who seems impressed by the fact that I became a medievalist, I can't help but cringe. Because this is one of the central pillars of my own personal imposter syndrome: I'm not a real medievalist. Because my language and paleography skills are piss-poor.
Okay, I know they're not really piss-poor. I'm actually potentially very good at languages; I was thrilled on my recent trip to boot country to have my language skills praised by one of the eminent linguists on the trip (who speaks Arabic and doubtless reads Latin and Greek as well as a variety of other European languages. I think he must have been smoking crack to say this about me, but I was nonetheless thrilled). Whenever I spend time actually studying foreign languages, I do extremely well. But given that I've never spent more than two years on any given language, I'm pretty much limited to communicating in English.
Besides that, I cheat. A lot of the stuff I look at for my research is in the vernacular, and what isn't, is written in such incredibly formulaic language that it's just a question of working out the formulae. Plus it's late, bad, medieval Latin - they didn't know the language any better than I do. (Give me a Renaissance Latin treatise and I'm sunk.)
As for the paleography - yes, I've read and transcribed a whole bunch of medieval documents. But most of them were in the vernacular (see that whole vernacular thing above). Okay, some of them weren't. But I'd learned the hand from reading the vernacular. So that wasn't really hard. Plus, it was a nice neat tidy official hand. (Okay, some were less tidy than others. But still.) And yes, the paleography got easier and easier the more documents I worked through.
But I still don't really know paleography. If I really knew paleography, I'd be able to pick up any medieval document and read it, right? And translate it at sight? Right?
So I'm being a little unrealistic. Nonetheless, in my heart of hearts I'm convinced that this is what "real" medievalists can do - read any medieval hand in any language at a moment's notice. Because after all, that's what other kinds of historians respect us for, isn't it?
The reason I bring this all up is that right now one of my research tasks is to go through some rolls of microfilmed medieval documents. And I'm chickenshit - I can't bring myself to thread the rolls into the machine, let alone sit down to try to read the things. I've looked at them before - when I was doing dissertation research; I borrowed my advisor's copy of these films. And couldn't make heads or tails of them. Yeah, that was years ago (more than I'm willing to admit), and I'd read much less medieval handwriting and far fewer medieval documents then than I have now.
I'm just plain terrified that I won't be able to read them.
So that's my fear of being an inferior medievalist.
Now, I realize that there's nothing to do but forge ahead anyway. I will certainly be an inferior medievalist if I never go on to read another medieval document. And I know that even if I can't make much sense of the documents to begin with, I can learn how to deal with them, gradually. (A friend of mine's advisor taught scrupulous paleography seminars because on her first day at the archive, when they brought the document she'd ordered to her table, she literally couldn't tell which way was up. She's since written numerous award-winning books.) Just because my need for instant gratification causes me to panic if I don't conquer something RIGHT AWAY, doesn't mean that I will never figure it out. And my hope is that by blogging this, by articulating it, I will be able to get past it.
The fear that I don't know enough and that I don't have anything to say is another slightly complicated story, so I'll leave it for another post.