Tag Archives: Profession

Join the Red Pen Society: an argument for copy editing

Editing is the bane of my existence. It’s monotonous. It’s time consuming. It’s well, hard. Choosing what words and sentences to amend or even eliminate often feels like butchering your own children. But what happens when you are entrusted with someone else’s baby? Acting in an official editing position in any capacity, be it for a manuscript, article, or publication of any kind, is an honor and a privilege—albeit a terrifying one.

Maybe you are one of the lucky ones, and taking out a red pen or sitting with a large cup of coffee at your computer with thousands of words waiting for the guillotine of your keystroke is an exciting task, not a daunting one. Bless you. Despite my undergraduate degree in journalism and years spent as a school newspaper editor, I still struggle with copy editing. But I am trying to change. Continue reading Join the Red Pen Society: an argument for copy editing

Planning My First Brit Lit Survey

At my university, the opportunities to teach an upper-level course are present but few. After passing comprehensive exams, you can apply to teach a survey course corresponding to your area of specialty. The second-half of British literature is particularly hard to come by, and typically a PhD candidate gets to teach it once before graduating. This is my semester, and I am thrilled!

I have been teaching general education classes for six years. I can count the number of English majors I have taught on one hand. But now, I have two full classes of English majors or minors, who ask me questions like, “Percy Shelley? Any relation to Mary Shelley?” (Isn’t it crazy to remember a time when we didn’t know every intimate detail of the Shelleys’ marriage?).

I am two days in. And here’s what I can report so far: I love my job.
Continue reading Planning My First Brit Lit Survey

Last-Minute Gift Ideas for Academics (or what to get with your holiday Amazon giftcards)

My department has recently introduced these two books to the grad students through reading groups and classes. Both give great professionalization advice for various stages in the studying, working, and writing processes.

Semenza, Gregory Colón. Graduate Study for the 21st Century: How to Build an Academic Career in the Humanities. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

This is a book that practically anyone involved in graduate studies, from newly-accepted students to scholars about to defend their dissertations, would find an invaluable resource. As its introduction boasts, it’s geared towards students who have already made the decision to dedicate their time and energy to graduate school, studying with faculty in order to become faculty themselves, thereby bypassing any discussion of applying to grad school or whether or not grad school is for you. The first three chapters focus on providing insight into aspects of the graduate education we deal with every day but that are rarely taught in any official capacity: how to negotiate department politics, how to field questions and misconceptions from those who don’t understand academia, how to use the different stages of the process wisely instead of just getting by, and how to structure and organize your time. Though the advice is detailed and helpful, the tone of the book is in no way warm or sanguine: Semenza does not sugar-coat anything. He knows the job is tough, and the process of getting there is even tougher. He talks about problems we all know about: the highly-competitive job market, the numbers of grad students admitted versus jobs available, the hiring of adjuncts instead of full-time faculty. He also criticizes the structure of graduate school itself, placing a lot of responsibility on advisors and faculty, who, even with the very best of intentions, simply treat their grad students as they, themselves were treated in grad school, thereby perpetuating the system. He offers his book as an extra advisor to supplement their guidance.

Chapters four through eight discuss, in-depth, the different stages of graduate school—the graduate seminar, the seminar paper, teaching, exams, and the dissertation. Some of the advice is simplistic and may already be part of your academic practices, like note-taking and organizing folders, but other advice simply helps you make sense of what you’re doing and why. Though Semenza recommends not reading these chapters selectively, I read the exam chapter and the section on the dissertation proposal while studying and writing for each, before I read any of the other chapters, and I still found the advice helpful. The next three chapters cover activities we engage in throughout our graduate career: conferences, publishing, and service. Some of the advice in the seminar paper and publishing chapters I even found useful for teaching writing in my own classroom, something that I found with the Belcher book discussed below, as well. The appendix includes several “professional documents,” such as C.V.s, job letters, abstracts, syllabi, and other important formats to guide you through seeking publications, conference presentations, and jobs.

I do highly recommend this book for individual academics, but I think the way that my department handled it was particularly effective: we gathered the grad students and a few faculty who were interested and formed a reading group, where we discussed one or two chapters per session. As I said, the book does not ease up on the harsh reality of the academic state of the humanities, and the dooms-day tone, though completely realistic and necessary (and appreciated for the respect it gives academics), could easily send grad students already on the edge into a serious panic. Reading the book as a group allowed for conversations that quelled this kind of panic and allowed us to measure our own experiences against Semenza’s and to make the most of the tough-love approach. This could be a book to hold onto through grad school, graduation, and even when we (fingers crossed) have grad students of our own to advise.

 

Belcher, Wendy Laura. Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks: A Guide to Academic    Publishing Success. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc., 2009.  

Belcher’s book, on the other hand, offers a more optimistic “you-can-do-it” approach to one single aspect of being an academic, both for grad students and established scholars: publishing an article. This workbook-style text demarcates a chapter per week, giving you specific activities to do each day for a specified amount of time, ranging from half an hour to about two hours. For example, the chapter for week 5: Reviewing the Related Literature opens with this list of tasks:

Day 1, Read through the pages in the workbook, 60 minutes

Day 2, Evaluate your current citations, 60 minutes

Day 3, Identify and read related literature, 8 hours (this is very unusual)

Day 4, Evaluate the related literature, 60+ minutes

Day 5, Write or revise your related literature review, 120+ minutes

Theoretically, if you are able to stay on task for every day (only five days per week, so there is some flexibility), you should be able to complete and polish up an article and follow Belcher’s advice for choosing a journal and submitting your final draft. My department offered a one-credit class that followed this book like a syllabus, completing the tasks for each day and spending about half an hour per week workshopping one another’s work along the way. The book does seem to work best if you have a piece of work already in mind, like an old seminar paper or conference paper. There really isn’t a chapter that guides you through starting from scratch, which is obviously the most time-consuming stage of the process. For me, the most effective part of Belcher’s method is just setting time aside everyday to work on my article and sticking to a schedule (though, to be honest, there were many weeks were I was barely able to fit in an hour or two). Belcher is both adamant and realistic: she insists that you should be able to find at least fifteen minutes per day to work on your article, even if it’s just on the back of an envelope in an airport. In a section in which she addresses common obstacles to writing, she bluntly states that, “If you really are too busy to fit in fifteen minutes of writing a day, then this workbook cannot help you. I recommend that you plan, in the very near future, a weekend away from it all where you can really think about your life” (26). On the other hand, she begins many of the later chapter with the concession that it is very possible that you haven’t been putting in your time every day or every week and offers some (shaming) encouragement: if you haven’t been working, now is a good time to start—it’s never too late!

I think my fellow grad students would agree that this book is very helpful in just getting you to work and write every day towards one specific (and necessary) goal and that it provides some really solid writing advice and techniques. I personally found the chapter on structure the most helpful. Some smaller sections within the chapters, however, I suggest taking with a grain of salt at times to determine whether they are really helpful for you. Some of the anecdotes seem slightly unrealistic and out of context at times and may discourage rather than encourage, as I think happens in many of these academic advice books. Like Semenza’s book, Belcher’s book also seems to underestimate the extent to which academics make themselves visible electronically, through blogs, online journals, etc. Semenza mentions almost nothing about these venues, and Belcher treats them fairly condescendingly. Nevertheless, her book offers guidelines and tips that could also extend beyond article-writing to teaching and other types of writing, like the chapters on editing sentences and on presenting evidence. Also similar to the Semenza book, this text is another useful tool that I think is best read amongst a group of students and faculty in order to make the most of its advice through further discussion and personal experience.

You can access some of the forms and schedules, like this weekly schedule, at Wendy Laura Belcher’s website: http://www.wendybelcher.com/pages/WorkbookForms.htm

Back to School: Time to Learn

School season is here!  Many of us are returning to the classroom in the next few weeks.  Some already have.  Freshmen will start their first classes right out of high school.  College seniors are prepping for the working world.  Businesses cash in on the hype, as well, having “back to school” sales.  And it will become impossible to find an apartment.  For Americans, education starts in the fall.  The season runs until spring.

But those poles say very little about when we learn.  The larger epistemological questions I’m thinking of are, “when do we learn what we learn?” and “when do we know what we know?”  There are multiple adaptations to these question, for instance, when should we know what we know; how long should we take to learn what we learn; or even, when is it best to admit we don’t know?  These questions steer us away from those that focus exclusively on identification (“what do I know?”), and they are modifications of the epistemological standard, “how do I know what I know?”  I like thinking about “how” in terms of “when” and “how long” because it allows us to critique established and perhaps arbitrary temporal designations.  For instance, why do most students begin college at eighteen, or why does college lasts for four years?  For some, these designations feel like law.  For others, they were meant to be broken.

King James I, despite being the most powerful person in the country, still had more to learn, at least according to his most brightest servant, Francis Bacon.  If dedicating his The Advancement of Learning (1605) to the sovereign was not a big enough clue, mid-chapter Bacon nudges his audience by inserting an apostrophe to the chief, claiming that even kings need to strive for evermore learning.[i]   He warns his royal highness of learning’s various diseases (not to be confused with our contemporary “crises” of education).  One disease concerns knowing how to discern old, worthy information from new, transient information.  But Bacon also wants good kings and princes to know when modern thought has simply superseded the available knowledge of previous generations.  When knowledge loses its flavor, it must be thrown out and trampled on.  Perhaps most interesting is Bacon’s insistence that knowledge is at its most profound at the axiomatic stage—when it is confusing, disorganized, turbulent, and it can shoot in manifold directions.  The observation comes off in this context more as a suggestion.  You want to be a brilliant king, James?  Enter a re-birth: Write aphorisms!

Perhaps you can teach an old king new tricks, but according to Rousseau’s Emile (1762), education begins as soon as someone wraps the infant in a blanket.[ii]  The slightest imposition on the child’s temperature teaches the human body to rely on prosthetic implements rather than its natural resistance to inclement weather.  No blankets, caps, or swaddling (60).  Let the child’s body adapt to the cold air: “It has a powerful effect on these newborn bodies; it makes on them impressions which are never effaced” (59).  Exposure to air is its own kind of learning.  It is difficult to leave the child exposed when the nurse insists on its being “well-garroted.” The nurse must then be ordered to let the child be, because “where education begins with life, the child is at birth already a disciple, not of the governor, but of nature” (61).  So if you want to educate your children right, Rousseau says begin from day one, pick the right teacher, and just let the children play-ay-ay.

Organizing her book according to themes and not a chronological sequence like Rousseau’s, Mary Wollstonecraft’s Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1787) presents an arbitrary sequence in girls’ learning.[iii]  There seems to be no priority over when girls should learn about “Benevolence” or “Card Playing.”  Of course, that is with the exception of the main event, “Matrimony.”  In Austen’s novels, weddings appear at the beginning and the end; in Wollstonecraft they are dead center (chapter 11 out of 21). It is as if marriage engenders the gravity holding the rest of the woman’s life in order.  However, form is deceptive.  Wollstonecraft opines, “Early marriages are…a stop to improvement” (31).  If the girl has not already had a thorough education she will forgo it on account of how much work marriage requires.  And quite frankly, Wollstonecraft says, “many women…marry a man before they are twenty, whom they would have rejected some years after.”  If anything, Wollstonecraft’s organization, or brilliant lack thereof, says that learning can happen in isolated bursts and need not follow any necessary sequence.

I do not know if anyone would disagree in saying that learning is a productive process, but that we have these false notions with regards to “when” we learn results in some serious runoff.  While working on my teaching philosophy this spring, I kept pushing this idea of “learning as a mode of living.”  Part of this mode means doing what you always do but looking at one’s daily activity as a subject for thought.  Too often have I heard phrases like, “when I come home I just want to watch something I don’t have to think about.”  But it is not the object that requires no thinking; the viewer merely judges the object as a thing for which no thought is required.  What I do not understand is why as humans we are so impatient with things that waste our time, but so willing to dedicate our time to things we find so unworthy of our thoughts.  Anything can be a subject for thought.

Learning as a mode of living also means that learning does not end.  Learning does not end after class, when we arrive home; in some sense, learning does not sleep, or wait until we’ve had our coffee.  The body takes in information nonstop.  The question is what are we going to do with that information. The more conscious I have become of thought the more I realize that the brain produces an infinite quantity of images, movements, feelings, ideas, colors, memories and so on throughout the course of a day.  Part of the challenge is to resign to them.  Admit to the idea.  Give it room or space.  Record it in some way.  Then forget it.  They come back, anyway (who knows when?).  But now you have the first bit of an idea, and it is ready to shoot in another direction.  The trick is to admit that learning can happen anywhere and at anytime.

So in answer to the question, “when do we learn what we learn” or “know what we know,” there is no designated time for learning and knowing.  Knowing is not an identifiable position from which one can declare his or her knowledge.  Knowledge is stretchy, turbulent stuff like the time in which we declare it.  Stretch it far enough and suddenly we don’t know what we thought we did.  In the classroom then, it is perfectly acceptable that students feel confused about a subject matter, because when are they not confused?  Confusion ends only when we choose to cease thinking about an object, a world, or ourselves.  Confusion is the process of thinking; comfort is its absence.  Learn to be uncomfortable!  I tell my students that by the end of the term, they still might not understand some of the concepts we will have discussed.  Rather, like my high school English teacher, Mr. Weiss, used to say (I’ve tweaked the phrasing): we’re planting seeds in class and there is no way to know when they will sprout, bloom, dehisce, scatter, and so on.


[i] Bacon, Francis.  The Advancement of Learning.  Ed. Michael Kiernan.  Oxford: Clarendon, 2000.  Print.

[ii] Rousseau, Jean-Jacques.  Emile or On Education.  Trans. Allan Bloom.  New York: Basic Books, 1979.  Print.

[iii] Wollstonecraft, Mary.  The Works Of Mary Wollstonecraft.  Ed. Janet Todd and Marilyn Butler.  Vol. 4.  London: Pickering, 1989.  Print.

Reflections on NASSR 2012

I’m on the train, heading in the direction of Germany, with Lake Neuchâtel slipping by in gray-blue early morning light. The experience of “Romantic Prospects” has been saturated by landscape. From the window of our student housing accommodation each morning the Swiss Alps marched sharply around the lake, appearing to advance and retreat with the shimmering heat. Last night at the closing dinner, held at the picturesque house in which once Rousseau lived, rows of verdant grapevines crawl up steep slopes and crumbling stone-walls demarcate historical pathways. I watched swallows like scraps of silver wheel in flight.

I won’t pretend that this is a comprehensive overview of the conference because in actual fact it’s quite personal and particular. I attended many sessions, and I even chaired one for the first time. Of the sessions I attended, the conversations, debates and experiences I had, and the people I met, the very best part was prospective: thinking about a future filled with more conversation, debate, learning, language and poetry. A romantic prospect, to be sure.

Best represented at NASSR 2012 were the fields Digital Humanities, Book History, and German Romanticism, though it seemed the most popular sessions were DH and Book History. Beginning with the DH Workshop on the first day, the idea of books containing “data” (words) to be text-mined and topic-modeled took hold of many of our imaginations. The general mood about DH seemed both skeptical and intrigued, with many scholars having already implemented these fairly new (to the study of the humanities, anyway) technologies in their research.

DH also has major pedagogical implications. Using DH as a teaching tool, according to Neil Fraistat, “won’t be optional in the next 10-15 years.” Probably sooner, I’d say, as class blogs become more commonplace and Franco Moretti’s Graphs, Maps and Trees (required reading) has launched a generation of graduate students interested in “distant reading.”

The words “Book History” appeared in the title of three different sessions and the topic was a major theme in many more. From a special session organized by Alex Dick and Nicholas Halmi about “Textual Prospects: Poetry, Bibliography, and Book History,” to the “Prospects for Book History” panels 1 and 2, and evident in panels on Media Studies, “Varieties of the Novel,” and Genre Theory, the study of books as historical objects has truly permeated Romantic scholarship. Taken over, perhaps. I was interested to see how the broadening of the definition of “books” has lead to the inclusion of scrapbooks, collections of letters, keepsakes and “Books in Pieces” as Michael Macovski puts it, under the auspices of Book History. Thus the physical manipulation of books (with scissors, as Deirdre Lynch illustrated) played an important role in this conference, by providing insight into the Romantic-era readers, writers, and literary participants.

Books as nooks took center stage after Robert Darnton’s plenary lecture, “Blogging: Now and Then,” in which he illustrated the ways in which scraps of information embed themselves in the cracks and crannies opened up by communications technologies. Darnton described how printed information in the early modern and Romantic periods created places to organize their fragmentary materials—such as in the tell-all books about public figures’ private lives, in early newspapers, and in the scandalous dailies. You can read my live-blogging during the reactions and responses seminar to Darnton’s lecture HERE.

German Romanticism was also represented in multiple specific sessions. My own special research interest, the poetry of Friedrich Hölderlin, got more attention than is usual in North American conferences and in fact, the special session on Hölderlins Ströme (Hölderlin’s Rivers), organized by the Bernhard Böschenstein was completely German-language. I don’t know if non-English panels have been done before at NASSR, but it was a fitting addition to the conference’s Swiss iteration. In addition, on the panel I chaired, I very much enjoyed Elena Pnevmonidou’s paper on Hölderlin’s Hyperion and questions of language, landscape and the body.

Overall, the two academic experiences that stood out for me at NASSR 2012 were the “Romantic Media Studies” session and Thomas Pfau’s seminar “After Sentimentalism: Liberalism and the Discontents of Modern Autonomy.”

For “Romantic Media Studies,” Lauren Neefe from SUNY Stony Brook read her paper “General Indistressible: Towards a Theory of Romantic Epistolarity,” with charm, panache and sharp insight. Her paper was fascinating and her dissertation sounds even more so. Yohei Igarashi from Colgate University discussed DH pedagogies alongside ideas of Romantic perception in his timely presentation, and Celeste Langan brought an inspired reading of the efficacy of news reports in her paper “The Future of Propaganda.” This session stood out for me because it both recognized the materiality of books (in the broad sense described above) and treated texts as particular sites for close reading and critique. I found Lauren’s characterization of Coleridge’s letter to himself in the Biographica Literaria to be unique as well as creative of openings in which more questions, more avenues for investigation, and more texts to read and re-read arose. I have so many excitedly scribbled notes from that session.

Thomas Pfau’s special session was so necessary and deserves the highest praise. It was totally en point, the kind of session that is a call for change, a meta-analysis of the state not only of Romantic scholarship but of our most pressing current philosophical and political issues, and that makes a strong argument for more wide-ranging, philosophically-sophisticated and responsible. To complain of Romantic scholarship’s irrelevance to practical contemporary concerns is not to have read Pfau.

The sun is now past noon. We’ve already sped through the Black Forest and the landscape is flattening out, dotted with farms and polka-dot Austrian flower boxes. I’m left with a feeling of satisfaction and fatigue, as well as a deep gratitude for the conference organizers, Angela Esterhammer of the University of Zürich (soon to be of the University of Toronto) and Patrick Vincent of the University of Neuchâtel. Merci beaucoup, Vielen Dank, and thanks.

Scholarly Collaboration in the Humanities

Technology Makes It Simple

I think this post dovetails quite nicely off the previous one and its discussion of the Digital Humanities. We are all pursuing graduate study during a time of great transition and change. Technological advances have allowed scholars to broaden their scope. The term “distant reading” is gaining more and more traction as databases and new research tools allow us to map continuity and change more precisely over greater periods of time.

One of the opportunities that technology facilitates, however, has received slightly less attention: collaboration. I am currently working on a collaborative article with colleague of mine and thought it may be useful to share my experience with the NASSR community.

Last week I spent a considerable amount of time editing a draft version of the article. We have been having Google Docs parties on a regular basis for several weeks now. We are able to see the changes each of us makes as well as have a quick little chat alongside the document in a handy dandy side bar. As a bit of a technological dunce, this all amazes me.

In the past, scholars in the humanities have collaborated in order to examine longer periods of time. This is indeed true for myself. My colleague specializes in the long eighteenth – century and I am, of course, a card – carrying Romanticist. We have both made use of the databases and research tools available to us. Therefore, technology has broadened both of our individual scopes and in turn lead to a project that is very ambitious.

Spend Time With Someone Who Thinks Differently Than You

Over the course of my career, I have been accused of burrowing into texts; I love me some close – reading. Naturally, beginning to think of ways of entering scholarly discourse and writing a dissertation that A) is relevant B) engages numerous texts required some significant adjustments. I am still learning the best ways to combine my intense interest in individual texts with larger trends / questions / queries.

My esteemed colleague, coincidentally, thinks in broad and ambitious ways. He asks questions not in terms of texts or authors but tropes / genres / representation. Having regular conversations with such a thinker and being asked to use specific texts in order to talk about these larger categories has been immensely productive for me. Likewise, engaging with a fiercely intense close – reader has made my colleague more aware of certain nuances in literary works. Also, I am pleased to say, my dissertation has benefited greatly from my collaborative endeavors.

Collaboration Saves Time

With the demands that coursework, dissertation writing / research, teaching, reading groups, outside jobs, and crime – fighting make on our time, we Romanticists are left with little to spare. Oftentimes we turn to coursework essays or our dissertations for potential publications. This only makes sense: those documents say much about our interests and methodology. However, writing an article with someone else broadens those interests while also requiring a reasonable amount of time. Writing an article on the side may seem impossible to an individual. Writing an article with a colleague allows you to divide and conquer. Whether you find, like me, that those pesky and often contested period boundaries provide a convenient way to find a partner in arms or you grab someone inside your period with a different set of interests, collaboration allows you to enter the scholarly fray for half the anxiety.

Good For The Old C V

How many times have you claimed that you enjoy working with others? If you are like me, the answer is 27. A collaborative piece of writing allows potential employers to see that you not only like working with others, you actually have! What we do is by nature incredibly isolating. The group of authors we have chosen to focus on make that isolation seem oh so sexy and cool. However, Wordsworth and Coleridge worked together, Shelley “dosed” Byron with some Wordsworth, Blake “spoke to” Milton,  and even Keats had Joseph Severn. I am just saying, that without collaboration, Wordsworth would not be able to put Lyrical Ballads on his poetic C V.

Graduate Study: Abroad and at Home

Many of the top graduate programs in British Romanticism can be found in the United States. Some might find this strange: that, for many of us, our academic interests, geographically-speaking, lie so far from where we live, work, and study. Why, if we’re so invested in learning about the culture of another country, regardless of how far in the past it is, do we not all flock to the UK to study our Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Keats? The easy answer is that we don’t have to, especially as more and more unpublished and out-of-print manuscripts find their way to online archives and databases.  At the same time, for some scholars, a British education can provide benefits that studying at an American university cannot and vice versa. In this post, I will discuss some of the basic differences between the university systems in these two countries for prospective graduate students who may be considering options beyond their own country.

Drawing on my own experiences studying at the Masters level in both the US and the UK, my observations are, of course, limited to what I know of Lehigh University and the University of Stirling. There will be many exceptions to the systems in which I have participated, just as there are many variations on English or Literature degrees within the same country.  I know the structure of education in Cambridge and Oxford are fairly different from other universities, still deeply embedded in historical tradition.  However, these two universities aside, there are a few basic aspects that seem to consistently differentiate the British from the American experience of graduate (or postgraduate) education.

The US:

Though structures vary, PhD candidates typically take at least two or three semesters of coursework before taking the comprehensive exams, which cover two or three fields of specific study and include both written and oral components. These fields consist of areas in which the student wishes to write but also to teach. During this time, most American universities also require students to fulfill a language requirement in one or two languages in addition to English. Some programs also require a portfolio of writing before the exam process. After taking exams, the student develops a dissertation proposal, after which the student is classified as ABD (all but dissertation) and spends the rest of his or her time completing that dissertation. This typically lasts 2-4 years, bringing the total time spent at the PhD level to 4-6 years (in addition to the one or two years for the Masters degree). Give or take, anyway. Students generally support themselves by teaching one or two composition or literature classes per semester, usually at the introductory level.

The UK:

For the most part, postgraduate study in British universities is condensed in terms of time-commitment, placing more emphasis on writing and professional development than coursework and teaching. The Masters degree typically takes one full year: two semesters of coursework, and a Masters thesis (called the dissertation), which is produced by the end of the following summer. The PhD candidate, or research postgrad, then jumps right into thinking about a dissertation, and part of the application for admission includes a detailed dissertation (or thesis) proposal. The nice part of this, of course, is that there is no language requirement and no comprehensive exams (well, “nice”, depending on how you look at it), though there are similar hurtles throughout the writing process.  The program, then, encourages independent study right from day one. The first semester is spent mostly reading and revising ideas formulated in the proposal, and, at the end of the second semester, the student undertakes a transfer interview, during which he or she presents a piece of written work, including where that piece fits into the larger project, and an extensive literature review (similar in some ways to the comps reading list, from what I understand) that shows where the project will fit into the much larger field. After the transfer interview, the student typically spends an additional two-three years completing the thesis in order to present it to the examiners.  Students support themselves with some teaching, though these opportunities seem to be somewhat limited, depending on the university.

Obviously, there are very strong pros and cons to both of these systems.  In a practical sense, the British experience is much shorter and gets you out into the job market much quicker than the grueling American 7 years. At the same time, however, the practical thorn in all our sides, money, is much easier to come by in American universities, where undergraduates pay exorbitant tuition fees. In British universities, fees are reversed: undergraduates pay comparatively low fees, while postgraduate students pay tuition fees that are still relatively low for British and EU students, though funding opportunities seem less readily available. While full-tuition scholarships are not uncommon, extra stipends are much rarer.  For American students (non-EU), British tuition rates line up more closely to American rates and can be a challenge to cover without the safety net of teaching assistantships and university fellowships. This having been said, both countries have their strengths and weaknesses in particular fields, making the extra time or extra money spent in grad school worth considering.

Especially if you’re working in British literature, there can be obvious benefits to studying in the UK for archival and travel purposes: the ease of public transportation makes it easy to take a day trip to the Edinburgh Writer’s Museum, the Charles Dickens House, or the home of the Bronte sisters. For many of us, studying abroad as undergraduates has allowed us access to some of these places, but I think there is a lot to be said for importance of work environment. Who wouldn’t find writing a dissertation chapter about Northanger Abbey in a coffee shop in Bath a much more enjoyable experience, after all?

Personally, when I was deciding whether or not to return to the United States after completing an MLitt (Master of Letters) at a Scottish university, money ended up being the deciding factor, despite the fact that the UK is years ahead of the US in terms of Gothic Studies. Another consideration I had was a (perhaps masochistic) appreciation for the comprehensive exam process and the expertise it would help me achieve for teaching.  For scholars who plan to specialize more in research than teaching, however, the exams may not hold as much value, and sometimes it can be worth taking out loans if you think you can cover them later. It completely depends on the student and the student’s ultimate career goals.

If you’re currently looking into Masters and Doctoral programs, my advice is, don’t limit yourself to your own country! What works best for you may be found across the pond.

Helpful links:

http://www.prospects.ac.uk/postgraduate_study_1.htm

http://www.internationalstaff.ac.uk/education_in_the_uk.php

http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/postgraduates

Romanticism: Periodization and Teaching

A Professor working outside of the period that scholars have come to call Romantic recently said to me, “You identify as a Romanticist? Cool.” Yes, it is indeed cool. The language that he chose to use, however, raised several questions in my mind. Defining Romanticism is a difficult task that has been productively addressed by numerous scholars. For a current and thought provoking definition, here is Michael Ferber’s “Romanticism” from the aptly titled Romanticism: A Very Short Introduction.

“Romanticism was a European cultural movement, or set of kindred movements, which found in a symbolic and internalized romance plot a vehicle for exploring one’s self and its relationship to others and to nature, which privileged the imagination as a faculty higher and more inclusive than reason, which sought solace in or reconciliation with the natural world, which ‘detranscendentalized’ religion by taking God or the divine as inherent in nature or in the soul and replaced theological doctrine with metaphor and feeling, which honored poetry and all the arts as the highest human creations, and which rebelled against the established canons of neoclassical aesthetics and against both aristocratic and bourgeois social and political norms in favor of values more individual, inward, and emotional.”

This definition is indeed a very useful one. I encourage my compatriots to engage with, laud, and/or put pressure on this definition.

For the purpose of this post, I want to examine the two important implications that loom behind defining Romanticism. The debate over what Romanticism means has clear implications for those of us who “identify” as “Romanticists.” In other words, locating the definition of the era/period/movement/ -ism changes what it means when I assert with confidence that I am Romanticist. What is a Romanticist an expert in?

For those pursuing graduate degrees, there is a bizarre bifurcation taking place. In my own work, in conversations with colleagues, and in response to contemporary critics, I often put pressure on Romanticism and the Romantic. When I teach, however, Romanticism is something with clear temporal, aesthetic, and political boundaries. To what extent should our scholarly debates influence the manner in which we teach Romanticism? Do we not participate in the debate when we choose to teach Romanticism in a certain way?

In order to get the conversation started, I have included a few charts that I use to teach Romanticism. Are these images similar to / different from / at odds with the way you have taught Romanticism?

Romanticism Charts

 

The Speculative Turn and Studies in Romanticism

It might be fair to say where philosophy goes literary criticism follows, but the current destination is a little unclear.  Today’s graduate students of romanticism work with professors who rose up in academia when philosophical camps presented themselves in plain sight; one was either “influenced” by Derrida’s phenomenology, Foucault’s genealogies, Lacan’s brand of psychoanalysis, or some other wing of continental philosophy.  At this year’s MLA conference in Seattle I listened for hints of literary criticism’s current trajectory.  Mostly, I heard Fredric Jameson’s name but not so much in regards to a future direction.  However, peeking over the disciplinary line reveals a philosophical shift that has gained momentum in the last five years, commonly referred to as the “speculative turn.”

The speculative turn is a turn in the sense that the conversation has moved away from the linguistic one.  Speculative philosophy is generally metaphysical, systematic, and works outside the domain of the hard sciences.  The most recent emergence of speculative philosophy is interesting because of its investment in materialism and realism, and its engagement with the hard sciences.  Steering away from idealism (commonly associated with Kant and his successors), suggests that reality exists independent of human agency.  For many literature students, to declare one’s work materialist in 2012 will sound redundant, because materialist accounts of history in English departments have been prevalent for decades.  But that work was materialism without metaphysics, a discussion absent of the Absolute or the thing-in-itself, for better or worse.

What distinguishes the speculative turn is its posited problem, what Quentin Meillassoux calls “correlationism” (5).[i]  In short, correlationism is the insistence of the relationship between the concept of a thing and the thing itself, and it is this relationship that prohibits access to either.  Romanticists studying Kant and company know this story well; this “relationship” is what Kant refers to as the “transcendental schema,” a mediator between the object and the mind’s concept of that object (B 177, 181).[ii]  But, in Ray Brassier’s “Concepts and Objects,” included in the who’s who of continental materialism and realism, The Speculative Turn (2011), he says it is taken for granted that the “difference” or relationship between the thing and its concept is anything but conceptual (64).[iii]  To assume the difference is conceptual delimits the relationship to a strictly human imposition.

From the example of how one might interrogate a correlationist situation (Brassier uses George Berkeley to illustrate his point), it is clear that continental materialism and realism pursue further ways of engaging with the world without positioning the human as somehow detached or above the world engaged with.  Such an anti-anthropocentric line has been re-charged in late by Deleuze, especially in his critique of representation.  But if correlationism reinforces the linguistic turn’s abandonment, and hence the abandonment of representation, that does not necessarily mean “language is dead.”  The death of language holds especial concern for romanticists because English departments carry the burden of such a potential death.  Rather, the turn suggests that if an inquiry is to access anything immediately, to begin and end the investigation with language is to never even start.

So how does the speculative turn impact literary studies and studies in romanticism, in particular?  To be clear, philosophy and literary criticism are not the same.  There were many books of literary criticism from the 1980s and 90s “influenced” by deconstruction, but these books merely use a method in order to approach literary texts, which, initially, was not the method’s aim.  In some sense then, the new philosophical turn is quite remote from literary studies.  On the other hand, when the philosophy giant moves, its gravity impacts the academic milieu in general.  The fact that the speculative turn reasserts materialist and realist philosophy undoubtedly encourages a similar embrace in literary fields.  Especially for romantics, this re-emphasis is historically significant because Rousseau (our man!) largely marks the turn away from his hard-lined materialist predecessors.  But Rousseau is a signpost, not a gravestone.

The theories Rousseau sought to overturn did not die so much as criticism has preferred to focus on less thingly topics.  Materialist readings of romanticism have been lost for years, traded in for borderline idealist, dialectical ones. For instance, almost no critical reading of Wordsworth appears without citing the excellent and comprehensive Wordsworth’s Poetry by Geoffrey Hartman (1964), whose bibliography just so happens to dismiss W.H. Piper’s pantheistic materialist account of the romantic imagination, The Active Universe(1962).[iv] Current studies will not merely return to Piper’s history of ideas though.  Taking an object-oriented approach, coined by Graham Harman in his Tool-Being (2002), romantic studies might zero in on the object itself, independent of any relationship at all.[v]

In some sense, this “new” move is as much a return to the old as any new move is.  At the same time, it’s a return with a difference.  Derrida is back on the scene, but Martin Hägglund’s atheist Derrida.  Schelling has a starring role, but thanks to an increase in translations and Iain Hamilton Grant’s focus, the emphasis lands on Naturphilosophie.  In romantic studies, I suspect, given the recent emphasis on the more scientifically inclined Erasmus Darwin (e.g. Dahlia Porter’s work), a renewed interest in Newton and Locke will follow—hopefully, along with some “minor” figures that have gone overlooked.  In other words, if the speculative turn signals anything to us, it’s that we can do more.


[i] Meillassoux, Quentin.  After Finitude.  Trans. Ray Brassier.  London: Continuum, 2008. Print.

[ii] Kant, Immanuel.  Critique of Pure Reason.  Trans. Norman Kemp Smith.  New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1965.  Print.

[iii] Brassier, Ray.  “Concepts and Objects.”  The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism.  Eds.  Levi Bryant, Nick Srnicek, and Graham Harman.  Melbourne: re.press, 2011. Print.

[iv] I was pleased to see an endorsement—not a ringing one—of Piper in Paul Fry’s excellent, Wordsworth and the Poetry of What We Are (2009).

[v] Harman, Graham.  Tool-Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of the Object.  Chicago: Open Court, 2002. Print.

This Little Graddie Went to Market…

Preparing for and Navigating the Job Market: Roundtable from NASSR Conference, August 2011

If you were at the NASSR conference last month, and happened to attend the job-market roundtable organized by the NGSC, then this post will be old news…but we figured there are at least some of you who want to know all the good advice!  For all their wisdom, pragmatic counsel, and encouragement, special thanks again goes to all our panelists: Alan Bewell, Julie Carlson, Frances Ferguson, William Galperin, Jonathan Mulrooney, and Juan Sanchez.  To protect the innocent, I’ve detached their names from the information below; please note that these are MY interpretations of what was said, edited and rearranged for your convenience.  May they prove useful to all those currently preparing to go on the job market, and to all of us hoping to get there soon!

-Kelli

Choosing between a postdoc and the job market

The Postdoc offers certain advantages over the job market.  It is generally much easier to get than a tenure-track position.  However, there are many kinds of postdocs, and you might find yourself with a kind of postdoc that you don’t really want; some will help you more than others to prepare for jobs.  The best kinds of postdocs are the ones that allow you to do research and get out some publications (these are generally 2-3 year postdocs).

Postdocs are also more difficult to apply for than jobs.  The job letter can describe your research and experience very broadly and can be used on several applications; postdocs tend to have very specified requirements that often result in more time and effort invested; you have to write several very different applications, rather than one that can be tailored to many.  Second, postdocs often want you to describe a NEW project: they don’t want you to go and finish your book; they want you to work on producing something new.  This means you will be pitching two book ideas.  Of course, when you go into the job market, you CAN say that you used the postdoc to develop a second book project, and you will have something to show for it…and this puts you in a really great position.

With the postdoc market, you may have more success because host institutions are interested in you developing new ideas and projects however you want to.  In a job situation, you have to fit in to the department, and you will need to fit your projects to the departmental needs.

Format of the Job Letter and the Dissertation Abstract

These are THE TWO MOST IMPORTANT DOCUMENTS YOU WILL EVER PRODUCE IN YOUR CAREER!  They will absorb hours and hours of your time, but you should recognize that time as a worthwhile investment.  Nothing will affect your future prospects so much as these two documents.  There is a standard tripartite form in the job letter, and you should adhere to it.  You don’t want anything quirky or grandstanding.  The entire letter should NEVER, under any circumstances, be longer than two pages.

Part 1: Announce your application to the job, and make clear your suitability for the position advertised.  Show that you can operate from the center, rather than the periphery.  Show that you are aware of their needs, and indicate your suitability to meet those needs.

Part 2: Describe your dissertation.  This will naturally be the most difficult paragraph, and you should be prepared to make 8-10 revisions!

Part 3: Indicate your teaching experience.  Every school, whether they are a research university or a teaching university, will employ you as a teacher, and they want to know that you have experience and enthusiasm for it.  (see “Teaching,” below.)

To conclude, your last few sentences should declare your availability for an interview.

Getting Help and Guidance with the Letter, Abstract, and Interviews

The placement committee at your university can help a lot by giving practice interviews, mentoring, pairing a job candidate with a faculty member who is NOT on their committee (who can thus see with fresh eyes, like the people on hiring committees).  If you can arrange such a pairing, you should meet with this person on multiple occasions.  From a student’s perspective, this can be a very irritating experience, and may seem pointless, and it might feel infantilizing.  It’s alienating labor for everyone involved, but everyone needs to be cheerful and grateful for it… and it can make a HUGE difference!

When to go on the job market

When to go on the market depends on where you are with your dissertation.  For the most part, you should NOT go on the market unless you are done with your dissertation, or very nearly done.  If you are an exception to this, let your advisor tell you that you are!  You need to be at a point when you can talk about your work with confidence, both in the broadest terms, and in the 11-second elevator conversation.  It’s up to you to figure out whether you want to do a “trial year;” but recognize that this will take lots of time that can feel slightly arbitrary, and it might be a better use of your time to move forward with your dissertation.  It is indeed a useful exercise, but it is more useful at certain times than at others.  Be discriminate.

How to interview and give a job talk (at MLA, or a campus visit)

Interviews are formal moments, and you should dress up – but you should also be comfortable!  You should not be distracted by your clothing, and neither should others.  Poise is also important; sustain it as best you can through all events, but especially make sure you have at least 15-30 minutes alone before your talk to gather yourself and your thoughts.

Clarity and conciseness are your best friends. You must learn to articulate quickly and clearly what you are “about.”  Learn who you will be speaking to, what the format is, and what will be expected of you (your advisor can help you find these things out.)  Keep in mind that you will be talking to non-specialists in your field.  You don’t need to dilute yourself and open yourself up to super-broad questions you can’t handle, but you want to give the broadest possible range of your work and its relevance.  Show that you know the specifics, but that you can participate in the larger conversation.   Your originality is most apparent in the CLARITY with which you articulate your ideas, NOT that you are the first person ever to think about them.  Avoid vague sloppy verbs like “negotiate”, “through the lens of,” or “this is a moment where…”

The quality of your research will probably be much like that of other candidates.  In the interview, the committee will probably not ask you much about your dissertation itself; they will want to know how it fits in with the larger academic conversation, the limits of your project, etc.  Also, the committee won’t know anything you haven’t told them in your application letter, and in the interview they will want to know about your wider academic interests.

Have Fun!!  We all got into this profession because we enjoy it!  That’s not to say that you don’t act rigorously professional, but in an interview you should communicate not only what you know, but HOW you know!  The people who are interviewing you want you to succeed; you don’t have to convince them that you have the intellectual goods; they already think you do because they invited you!  You are a colleague.  Keep in mind that it is a conversation!  The more it becomes a conversation, the less it becomes an interrogation…you win!  If the committee is having fun, it will make a difference.  Be human.  Respond to questions as they occur, but keep it natural.  This isn’t Trivial Pursuit.  It’s okay to acknowledge when you don’t know something; keep in mind that such times are opportunities that demonstrate how you think about new ideas.  Don’t be afraid to risk some intellectual playfulness.  You can go out on a limb and have conversations, and be willing to stretch yourself.

It’s not always all about you.  There is a good chance that at least one person on the committee will be crazy, and not necessarily liked by their colleagues… there are dynamics going on, like when you go to Thanksgiving with your in-laws. J  Not everything that goes on between the people there has to do with you.

Both research and teaching are important.  Don’t assume too much about what a school wants, based on its reputation as a research institution or liberal arts college.  Always be prepared to talk about both your teaching and your research, and how they integrate.  This will serve you well no matter what kind of institution you apply to.

Teaching – It is SO important! 

Different universities may have different degrees of emphasis on research, but they ALL will emphasize teaching!  In order to get an interview, you do have to have a strong letter and strong research; that is,  teaching will not get you the interview.  However, once you GET the interview, your teaching experience will often get you the job.  Make teaching matter to you as a graduate student, and make sure you get experience with it.  Don’t treat it simply as a part-time side job that you put second to your research. Make sure someone writes a letter of reference that can say something about your teaching.  Invite a faculty advisor to observe you, so they can write with real knowledge.

Make teaching important to you in the interview.  YOU can bring it up!  Ask questions about teaching.  Take time to find out about the kinds of courses offered at the university.  Put together some sample syllabi, and be prepared (and excited) to talk about them.  When you are talking to the director of undergraduate studies, teaching will be particularly important.

At this point in your career, a teaching portfolio is not really necessary, but you may want to leave some samples of courses you have taught or would like to teach with the committee.  However, don’t make the mistake of giving the committee too many papers before or during the interview…. You want them looking at YOU, not at the six syllabi that you have constructed.  Try to focus on perhaps one course that you might teach, and talk about it.

How to demonstrate your teaching skills at a campus visit

The job talk will likely be your most important teaching moment.  Approach it like a teacher.  Imagine the talk like a seminar, in which a lot of ideas are discussed, and everyone feels they’ve been engaged in an important exploration.  Then, think of the Q&A as a class about your paper, with you as the teacher!  Keep in mind that many search committees are new to the process too, and they sometimes fumble.  So, YOU are the teacher.  Find ways to let them know the important things about you.  Take control in a diplomatic way to make it work; find creative ways to engage with difficult people.  You’re at the beginning of your career, and no committee is under the impression that you aren’t!  They are looking for potential, for how you organize your thoughts and think on your feet, and how much you respect the ideas of others, and yourself.

It sometimes happens that interviewers set up a sort of artificial class in which to observe you.  IF this happens, discuss interesting and relevant things, listen to and interact with students, and finish on time.

How to act once you might have an offer.

Don’t get ahead of yourself.  A job offer is just a gleam in the eye of a department and a candidate until an official letter arrives from the university.  Until then, sit tight and be patient; don’t start asking questions about employment benefits and all those details.  You can do that later.

Once you have your official offer (and if you have only one), you should feel free to ask for some time to deliberate.  This is the time to inquire about various policies, money issues, and to make it known that taking the job might complicate your family situation.  Through all the discussions, stay focused on the most important goal: a good situation over the long future.  Don’t compromise your future relationship with your colleagues by being a tough negotiator.

If you have more than one offer, you should inform the chairs of both departments, so they can talk to each other.

If you don’t get a job offer, makes notes about the process while your memory is fresh.  Review your experiences and your materials.  Take a little time to remind yourself that jobs are hard to come by, and that it may not be your fault…then read something fabulous to cheer yourself up. 🙂

Q&A:

How is the job situation in Romanticism particularly?

Sometimes, Romanticism can get swallowed up by scholars of 18th or 19th centuries… romanticism does seem still to be regarded as its own “thing,” and as a component of an expertise, it still has a lot of traction.  The field seems to have been quite agile in adapting itself to academic categories, without losing its identity.

Should Romanticists spin themselves for 18th-century or Victorian jobs?  And if so, how?

Most importantly, you should make your own intellectual center very clear and honest.  You can speculate out loud in your letter about ways that you might pedagogically fulfill the university’s needs, but don’t fake it.  Be yourself, and be honest.  If the university wants 100 years, that’s probably a teaching mandate, not a research mandate. They just want to know if you can teach stuff from a full century.  As long as your research is interesting and worthwhile, and you can teach about a century of stuff, you’ll probably be fine.

Do interviews really sometimes happen in hotel bedrooms at MLA? 

There are some regulations trying to be put in place, but you may have to be creatively professional.  Don’t underestimate search committees’ bad behavior; awkward things may happen!  Make sure that you have enough time between interviews, even if they are in the same hotel, or in the same city.  If you are late, the committee won’t adjust their whole schedule for you.

Some departments are shifting to phone interviews, skype interviews, or interviews that happen even before MLA?

For better or worse, MLA is losing its centrality and control over the hiring process, and this does make expectations much less clear.  The “rules” set up by the MLA are voluntary, and universities can choose whether to participate.  Videoconferencing offers many advantages: not everyone can go to the MLA, you can reach internationally much more easily, and whole committees can be present.  We are moving into an era in which this will be more and more common, and more important to think about.  Check into what videoconferencing  options are available to you, and learn how to use them!

For those interviews/offers that occur before MLA, you can ask for some time to consider, at least until after MLA.

Skype interviews and phone interviews present a different set of challenges from in-person interviews, and you should definitely practice for them.   Especially practice when to know you should STOP talking.  Practice pausing 30 seconds into a response, to watch/listen for cues that others might want to redirect or jump in.  Practice putting your thoughts in order, so that if you get cut off, you have communicated the important information!   In a phone interview, it might be good to talk explicitly about the process, and invite the interviewee to break in, or to expect pauses from you.   It might be good to call your own voice mail, and practice talking to a machine for a limited amount of time!

In Skype interviews, be aware of the background you set up in your screen shot…there are lots of possibilities, and you can give people insight into the kind of person you are (both good and bad).  This is risky, though, and a neutral environment is probably best.

Should we devote our greatest energies toward publishing, or toward finishing and polishing our dissertation?

There’s no question that having a well-placed article will speak well for you.   However, the main decision is based on a very careful and scrupulous reading of the writing sample that you send in.  The published article can be very powerful window-dressing, and it puts you into a different echelon of candidates…but your submitted writing sample will be most important.

If your dissertation project is under revision, and you think of it more as a manuscript than as a dissertation, how do you talk about it – as your book, or your dissertation?

Committees want to know how close you are to finishing; they don’t want to see that your project is continually evolving into nowhere.  Be specific about what parts are truly finished.  (Did you finish the dissertation, and now you are beginning the book manuscript?)  The committee might ask “what are your plans for your dissertation”?  You have two options; you can turn it into a book, or chop it up into 3-4 essays.    Once you graduate, your dissertation is finished and done.  If you’re at that stage, talk about your book project, not your dissertation.   Talking about the book project allows you to talk about the dissertation without actually saying it. Committees aren’t expecting you to have your book already accepted by a press, and even having a book may not always work to you advantage.  It is just one of many, many factors.  Just do the best you can to present yourself as honestly as possible.  Keep in mind that when a university hires someone to tenure-track, they’re imagining hiring you for 40 years.  The big picture is the most important.  Keep your perspective.

If you’ve been NOT getting hired for a long time, and you’ve been adjuncting for ever, is there a point when you should cut your losses and consider other careers?  Is there a point when you’re just going to look stale, compared to other candidates?

Because the job market is tough, you are not going to look stale as fast as perhaps in the past…but you should be honest with yourself, and decide what your own psychological stamina is up for.  It is tough, and you will need to look inside yourself and decide what’s right for you.  BUT, don’t make a quick decision and get down on yourself too easily; be realistic about the fact that it may take 2-3 years to find a tenure-track position.  Recognize that such delays don’t necessarily mean that your work is not up to par.  Stay focused on what matters, and what makes you happy about your work – the research, the teaching, etc.

What other sorts of academic jobs are available?  And if you get an “alternate” kind of academic job, does it hurt your chances of going back on the market for a job as a professor?

In some ways, it depends on what you’re doing.  Some “alternate” jobs are perfect fits for the particular professorship.  And it IS important to think about alternate jobs too.  We are multiply talented people, despite being very focused…and sometimes developing ourselves on other disciplines can make our minds more fluid and mobile in terms of how we envision ourselves.