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Thursday, March 31, 2011

Bad Weeks

In the writer's group this week several members had "bad" weeks. They described their frustration, their various problems. The funny thing was that even these bad weeks were pretty good: everyone made some progress; one "bad week" involved an article being accepted. In another case, someone made progress on a writing progress, but less than what they had wanted to do.

With enough "bad weeks" like this, these writers will be extremely productive in the long run. Long term progress will take place over many weeks of varying quality, some bad, some mediocre, and some great. A bad week, then, is not even a bad thing. Nobody cares about how little you did during your worst two or three weeks of the year.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Where Did the Day Go? (4)

7:15. I get up and shower, shave today. I check my email. I put my clothes on and leave the apt.

8:15: I find myself in my office somehow with a double espresso in my hand. I write two letters of recommendation and work on the itinerary for the speaker.

9:05. I have been working hard on these things. I begin my blog post about where the day is going and how it went there. I try to think of some ideas for my 11 a.m. class. I realize I have to assign a paper topic today, so I write up that and xerox it. I sign a form that the chair wants me to sign nominating me for some university committee. I space out for a few minutes reading blogs. I still don't have any good ideas for my class.

10:10. I decide to open up my article an work on it for ten minutes. I'm not getting ideas for class anyway. I work until 10:45 on the article.

11:00-12:15. I teach my class.

12:20: I check my email. Eat lunch and talk to colleagues until about 1:15. Xerox some poems for my 3 p.m. class (to read for next Monday). I send a recommendation by fax. I look over what I have to teach today. A student comes in to talk to me. I'm told the fax didn't go through. We'll try again tomorrow.

2:30. I better concentrate on class prep now. I go to to get some coffee after reading for about 5 minutes.

3-4:20. I teach my other class.

4:20. I vegetate for a while. Check the flight status of the flight I'm meeting later. I eventually get so bored I open up my document and do a little more work on it. Curiously, the document has grown by 300 words today, even though I hardly felt I worked on it at all.

5:24. I just idly surf the net for a while.

5:40: I leave for the airport.

7:05: I pick up the speaker from the airport.

8:15: I bring the speaker to the hotel. We have dinner.

9:47. I am back at my apartment. I am not about to do any more work now.

11 p.m. Bedtime.

A busy and productive day. I managed to squeeze in some research between classes and miscellaneous tasks. There were dead times during the day, but really I was pretty busy for 13.5 hours.

Trying on a Style

Now that I have one article in the pipeline with no signposting, I feel ok about doing a bit more in the one I'm working on now. I'm going to temporarily relax and write in a slightly less "classic" style, just to see what that feels like again. There may not be a huge difference in the end, but I think it might be useful to "try on" another style in this new article. See how it fits me.

When you are struggling to write well at all, then it is hard to think about your stylistic options. You are trying to get to the one true style, or trying to make it so style is not an issue in the reception your work gets.


The secret to writing fast is to write a lot, even if it takes much more time at first. Speed can only come from a lot of very slow practice.


I am lucky that I can open a document of an article or chapter at any time and do five or ten minutes of work on it. Many writers tell themselves they need at least an hour, or at least an entire day, or five hours, or a week without interruption, in order to get work done. Some writers say they need the semester to be over and have the entire summer in front of them before they are able to work. Or they know that significant work will only happen during a sabbatical. The problem, then, is that they don't bother with shorter periods of time at all. Because they have in their minds a minimum period, they will never even see if they can get lucky too.

If you have a minimum like this in your mind, then re-examine it. If you need three hours, see if one hour is enough. If you need a month, try a week. If you need one hour, try twenty minutes. Just try it once as an experiment and see what happens. You may need to acquire the skill of being able to work for a shorter time, but it is a skill worth acquiring.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Where Did the Day Go? (3)

7 a.m.: Get up, shower, dress.

7:30: I am in the coffee shop reading Clark Coolidge as part of my 9000 books of poetry project.

8:30-:11:15. I am in my office. I work on the article I am supposed to be working on. I see a student for about 10 minutes. I make a phone call and leave a message. I write an email to another scholar with a very specific question. I get an email from someone how invited me to submit an article, with some comments on the article. I answer him. A colleague comes in to consult about something. I go back to the article between these other tasks. Altogether a productive two hours of writing jammed in amidst an hour of other tasks.

11:15: I close my document for the day. I pay my electric bill and look at some recommendations I have to write. Eat lunch. I read a chapter of El cuarto de atrás for tomorrow's class. The scholar I asked a question earlier in the morning responds by email. I read his response and thank him.

12:30: I read more Coolidge. Look again at the recommendations I have to write, making sure I have the addresses and deadlines handy.

1:30. Meeting with librarian about how to put all of my scholarship on line through KU's open access program.

2:20. Now I'm in my office. I email the librarian my cv so she can help me get my publications on line with open access. I blog a bit. Finish the Coolidge book and write a post about that. There are things I could be doing now, but it feels like my midafternoon lull.

3:00. I decide to read my students proposals (revisions). I go ahead and do that. There are two of them to read. Now it's 3:18.

3:19. Coffee break! I talk with the chair of the dept. about the lecture on Thursday, etc...

3:27. I'm back in the office. I send a few emails. Check in with the writer's group. Really, I don't have to do more work today. I can finish class prep in the morning and write those recommendations. A few more things come up in the email.

4:30-5:30. Therapy.

Back to my office to deal with some more email.

6:00. Phone call. Spouse is promoted to full professor! I go have dinner. Will I have energy afterwards to do something else academic? I'll have a drink with Barney at 7:30.

10:31: I'm back home now. I was with Barney at the bar until now, and we ran into Bob and Jessica too. I'll read James schuyler until bedtime.

11:00 p.m. I'm turning in now. Basically I figured out that the day is over at 3:30. If I can do more work after that, that's great, but my real work is from 8:30-12.


Some vandal broke into my computer and inserted some clumsy, inept prose into a document I had been working on. I know that I could not have written sentences that bad. Curiously, this person seemed to have had intimate access to my thoughts, since I recognize the ideas as my own. Maybe he thought he was doing me a favor by writing some rough notes for me to use later. "Menudo favor..."

Monday, March 28, 2011


Going another place and then coming back gives you perspective. I gave a section of my book as a lecture at CUNY on Friday. It was interesting because I could not count on my audience (or any particular member of my audience) knowing any particular thing about Lorca, Unamuno, Zambrano. I think the talk was fine; what response I did get was positive. But I realized I needed to engage with two audiences, those who already have a reason to care and those who are just showing up because they ought to. This principle applies to writing as well as to speaking.

Friday, March 25, 2011


Many of my most enjoyable moments are when I give talks, invited by kind colleagues, in places far from where I live. These are not exactly work, but not exactly vacation either. On my current trip to New York I am seeing friends, relaxing, and giving two talks. But doing no other academic work. Nice work if you can get it.

Someday i will take a real vacation

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Spend Some Time With Your To-Do List

Here's an exercise if you feel overwhelmed and behind.

Make a list of major deadlines.

Go to the office on a weekend or evening. Make a list of things you have to do. Now immediately just whittle away at it. Write that letter of wreckomendation or that course description. Order those textbooks for next semester. Fire off those emails.

Then, make a shorter list for Monday or whenever you'll be in the office next, and another list for things that can wait until the next working day after that. Make sure the lists include items relating to major deadlines.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Data Dump

A post on ¡Bemsha SWING! that might be more appropriate to SMT.

Friday, March 18, 2011


Isolate your project from everything else. Have a writing to-do list with only one thing: writing the thing you need to write. Figure out how to clear away other agenda items that are getting in the way.

Suppose you had a to-do list with 10 things.

(1) Grade papers.

(2) Go to the supermarket.

(3) Finish the article.

(4) Take a shower.

(5) Answer email.


It would be pretty easy to get everything done except for (3). You would have been busy all day, too. But being busy is not the same thing as being productive.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Writing Group

The writing group is going well at the other, private blog. We have about 10 members so it is pretty much full, though i will accept an 11th if someone else wants to join.

We basically identify five elements: the long-term project, the short term project, the weekly goal, whether last week's goal was accomplished, and if not, why not. It's very simple, but the simplicity is the trick of it, so to speak. A more complex system would not work as well because it would not be as clear. Basically, there is no place to hide.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Fees and Services

When I first started this blog my idea was that it would be a platform for my own private consulting business. I've added a page on this blog where i list my ridiculously low fees for these invaluable services, along with a list of things that I will not do. At this point I think I have enough credibility so that I can sell these services. Of course, the stupid is still available free of charge.


The scholarly base has to be maintained or it will wither away. How can you maintain your scholarly base?

*Do research. If you are always reading and writing, then the scholarly base will be constantly renewed.

*Teach new texts, new areas of investigation. I often times teach areas where I'm not the expert (yet). This forces me to learn new things. For undergraduates, it doesn't really matter whether you are a world-class expert in the material.

*Read outside your field and discipline. I was talking to someone in another department the other day, and he said "How come you know so much about X?" I don't a thing about it, really, but I knew enough to have an intelligent conversation about his area of specialization, which has nothing to do with my own. It's not even the same "school" in the university.

*Follow the "arts." Music, art, painting, cinema, architecture. If those aren't your primary field, you should still study them, because they provide different ways of thinking.

*Stretch your brain in other ways. Study a language you don't know quite as well.

*Talk to smart, interesting people. You get dumber when around dumb people and rise to a different level around smart people.

*Spend time just maintaining and expanding the base. Don't feel every minute of "research" has to be purposeful.

*Re-evaluate the base at significant junctures: after the PhD defense, after getting tenure or a new job.

*Help others develop their scholarly bases. Spread the wealth around, because it won't make you any poorer.

Where Did the Day Go? (2)

The idea here is to chronicle a day and see where the time escapes to. To see how much "dead time" there is in a typical work day.

Monday morning (March 14).

7-8. Got up. Showered and dressed. Check email. Made and drunk coffee. Cleared snow off car (WT?) and drove in to work.

8-9. Graded rewrites of papers. Why do students rewrite papers and not even address what was wrong in the first place? (WTF!). Xeroxed exam to give at 11. Wrote course description for Fall course on idioms and proverbs. (Checked what other course I'm teaching in the Fall. Ah, joy, advanced composition and grammar!) Checked itinerary of speaker coming on Thursday. Started this post.

What I'm learning so far is that the 8-9 a.m. hour can be very productive, despite the snow.

9-10. Saved Zambrano chapter and sent to myself as email attachment. Read a post on Thomas's blog "Research as Second Language." Began to read introduction to Ellas tienen la palabra for my afternoon seminar. Wrote email messages with feedback on two student presentations. No dead time yet though perhaps too much multi-tasking. Tweeted a proverb. Where is that student from Arkansas with the 9:30 appointment with me? (WTF? Maybe it's the snow.)

10-11. Continued to read for Graduate Course. Spoke briefly with my department chair. Read posts on Clarissa's blog. She links to my post on cultural capital! Took break for coffee (10:30-10:50).

11-12:20 Gave exam while continuing to read for Graduate Course and make some notes on revising article in chapter version. Also looked at Field Guide to Poetic Metaphor which will be useful for next Fall's course.

12:20-1. Ate lunch. Talked with Jake.

1-2. Checked in on the Wriing Group. Then some dead time randomly checking blogs. Then wrote some notes to myself on how to revise my Zambrano chapter and a blog post at my other blog on the 1930s. Read some more poems for the 3 p.m. course. A little more dead time to tweet some aphorisms. Another blog post on Lakoff and Turner's More than Cool Reason. Ordered a book from library. What I'm learning is I'm really efficient so I can do this quickly and then waste some more time inefficiently.

2-3. Checked in with the Stupid Motivational Writing Group. Had coffee with my departmental chair. Then some dead time. Then reading for class, with random thoughts about what I should say about gender, sex as identity, sex as desire.

3-4:20. Graduate Class.

4:20-5. Some decompression time after class. Checked in with writing group (good work, fellow writers!). Drove to Massage Envy.

5-6. Massage.

6-8:30 Drinks with friends and dinner.

8:30-9:15. Checked in with writing group, answered misc. emails that had accumulated since 4;30. Looked at little at my Zambrano chapter, deleting some extraneous material from it.

9:15-11. Tinkered around. Watched some netflicks videos without settling down on any. Took a shower. Listened to music.

11 bedtime.

Monday, March 14, 2011


I gave my undergraduate class the opportunity to rewrite their papers, but I was surprised when most of them merely corrected a few (but no all) of the things I had called their attention to. Whole sentences made it unchanged into the new version, even sentences that I had marked with a question mark. One student did not even get a better grade on the rewrite.

I guess I have to be explicit: when you rewrite a paper, you should make changes to every paragraph if not every sentence.

The same principle applies to a revise and resubmit. You should go beyond what the referee told you to do and use the opportunity to make the article better in other respects too.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Writing Group

If you are looking for the Writing Group it has moved to a top secret private location. You can still join (or rejoin) if you want, but you'll have to email me jmayhew ku.edu and I will make you a blog author at the new top secret private stupid motivational tricks writing group blog.

I will keep membership at 10 members or fewer just to keep things manageable.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Motivation and Irish

Suppose I wanted to learn Irish. I could probably do it. I have learned other languages. It is within the realm of possibility. I am sure that it is a beautiful language with interesting texts for me to discover. If this were my priority, I could do it.

But i will not learn irish. I will die without having even tried to. The one thing that is missing is motivation. Since this is about #552 on my list of things that would theoretically be good ideas to do, I will not do it.

What academics do can be extremely difficult. Writing a dissertation is sheer craziness, from the point of view of the average person on the street. Motivation is what makes it easy or difficult, since the number of people smart enough to get a PhD is 100x the number of people who really want it badly enough. What's more, we all know people not smart enough to get a PhD who actually have a PhD. In a way, you have to admire those people even more.

So what is motivation? Wanting it, not in the abstract, but wanting it so much you will do what it takes to get there. I want to wake up tomorrow speaking fluent Irish, but that's pretty meaningless.

Agenda (7)

Here is how one reader of the blog used some of my posts on this topic to define his own agenda.

Social Networks

My sccholarly / social network is quite extensive. It includes several overlapping groups.

*My own departmental colleagues.
*Colleagues in other departments in my university. Poet-friends in town who aren't academics or who teach at other Universities.
*American poets and specialists in American poetry.
*Poets and critics in Spain.
*Colleagues from other universities (Hispanists). Some in my own field, others in related fields. Former graduate students.
*Bloggers, people I went to Graduate school with, miscellaneous face-book friends...

A chain can be weakest at its weakest link, but a network like this is weakest where it doesn't matter much, at the periphery. Obviously not every person in my network is a close friend. I might be counted by someone else as part of that person's network, but also very much at the periphery in some cases.

Looking at this part of my scholarly base, I see some areas of weakness. For example, I should know more Hispanists in my own subfield than I do, or have them like me more than they might. I don't get to see my friends from Spain all that often. But I imagine other people's networks are similarly uneven in their distribution.

Intellectual exchanges can be very rewarding. The network is a part of the scholarly base that is easy to overlook. The base is not just what you know, but who you know. The point is not that I am constantly calling in favors, but that I can ask someone a question when i need to, or perhaps help out someone else.

Where Did The Day Go?

You might want to (once in a while) keep track of where the time went on a particular day. Just like with money, if you get $100 out of the ATM, you might wonder two days later why you have no money left in your wallet. You could figure out where you spent that hunnard bucks if you had a small notebook with you at all times and kept track of every cash purchase.

You might be surprised where that time went. You might have had an hour where you got a whole lot done, or another hour spent waiting around and not getting anything at all done. The 12 hour day might have been 9 hours, with some "dead time." There's nothing wrong with that, except that you might want to know. Once you know, you can figure out if you need to change anything in how you manage the flow of time during a particular day.

Writing Group (switching to private blog)

I'm switching the writers group to a private blog. I will invite each member to be an author of the blog, so please send me you email address to jmayhew@ku.edu. The blog is there already, but only authors will be able to read it.

The idea is that writers might not want their senior colleagues / dissertation advisors to see their private struggles with writing. Also, by giving other members of the group full posting privileges, I won't have to do that with SMT itself.

Writer as Lover

If they cancelled their dates with their lover as often as they cancel their dates with their self-as-author, how long would the relationship last?

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Working after Dinner

I try not to write after dinner, but if I have to, I make sure I take a long dinner hour, 5-7 say, and then write a predetermined length of time, like two hours from 7-9. I'd be very happy only writing in the morning, but I have a few mornings I know I am know are not going to work, so I am going back to the office after dinner tonight. I'm at a stage in my article where I have heavy books I need to enter into the bibliography, so I need to do that in one specific place.

More Critical Thinking

The problem is that thinking is embodied in disciplines. It's not a free-floating set of "skills" that are perfectly transferable between one field of study and another. A decontextualized set of abstract capabilities only gets us so far. You can see very smart people floundering when they are not in their element, not because they aren't smart (abstract skills) and not because they don't have enough information about the other discipline, but because they don't know how to articulate connections between the two.

Uninterested / Disinterested

I know the distinction has a complicated history that you could study on several Language Log posts, and that many people who know English very well use "disinterested" to mean "uninterested," but I don't. I would encourage you not to say or write disinterested when you mean uninterested. If you don't even know what I'm talking about, then you should find out. You should at least be well enough informed to know that many educated speakers still maintain that distinction.

Misery Sweepstakes

If you want to complain about how overworked or busy you are, that's fine. You can win the misery sweepstakes. But then what is it you are really winning? You need to be putting in a lot of hours in a competitive profession, but the way you win is by publishing more, not being more miserable.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Writers Group FAQ

Nobody has actually asked me a question, so these are not really Frequently Asked Questions.

1. Who can join?


2. How does it work?

You post a comment in the comment box once a week, following the very basic, easy-to-follow instructions.

3. What are the rules?

Follow the instructions or a reasonable approximation of them and don't be an asshole.

4. Do I have to post every week?


5. What is the role of the moderator.

I am the moderator and I post simple instructions every week. I might offer brief encouraging comments. I also post on my own progress.

6. Can I comment on someone else's comment?

Yes. The point is encouragement, so anything that is encouraging and non-judgmental is fine.

7. Can I contact you backchannel to ask your more questions?

Yes. jmayhew arroba ku.edu.

9. What is an arroba?

It is the Spanish word for the graphic sign @.

10. What are the benefits of the group?

If you set weekly goals and evaluate what you get done each week (and why you don't always meet those goals), you will improve your work habits and productivity.

11. Why couldn't I just do that on my own?

You could. The group creates a motivational incentive and an encouraging environment that some people might find useful.

12. Why be so "non-judgmental"? Why is that important?

My idea is that judgment just gets in the way. Feeling really bad about how little you get done doesn't really help, in my experience. It is a form of egotistical thinking. You can view the problems of writing instead as a set of pragmatic issues. What's helping you, what's holding you back? What is under your control? What is out of your control?

13. What do you know about any of this?

Not much. But I have had some success writing academically and also have had non-productive periods. I've made every mistake at one time or another, from procrastination to emotional self-sabotage. Some people seem to find my blog Stupid Motivational Tricks useful, so who am I to argue with them?

Monday, March 7, 2011

1st meeting of the Writers Group

This is how it is going to work. In the comment box below, each participant will tell us the following.

Who are you? (Field of study, current status, etc...)

What is your long term project. Book, dissertation, series of articles, etc...

What is your short term project? (Chapter, articles, book review)

What do you want to get done this week, before next Monday?

My basic philosophy is to distinguish clearly between external obstacles to writing and internal ones. We have considerable power over internal obstacles, so we can work on those. We have less power of external factors, so we can either work to change those or circumvent them, or some combination of the two.

Not having a lamp to read by is an external obstacle to scholarship. Not bothering to buy a lamp from office depot to solve this problem, however, is an internal obstacle. If we only have internal obstacles, we are in good shape, because those we can learn to control.

Rules of the Group:

1. Don't be judgmental of yourself or others. Don't disparage someone else's field, project, work ethic. A fine restaurant doesn't need a sign saying "don't spit on the floor," so I don't need to make rules saying not to racist, sexist, or generally an asshole. A lot goes without saying.

2. Be honest about yourself. If you didn't get done what you wanted to, just try to figure out why and see how the next week works out. See if you can do better. Report on your progress every week even if you got little done.

(The members, so far, are Jonathan, Clarissa, David, Jon, Franklin, and Brownen. If you want to join you can.)


I really dislike contentless critical thinking. In other words, the idea that critical thinking can be developed in a formalistic way, without reference to any particular content. It doesn't matter what you're discussing, only the forms of the argument.

My problem is that eventually this kind of contentlessness can only go so far. I do believe these skills are transferable from one sphere to another, but truly intellectual thought needs some meat or it will degenerate into low level college dorm bullshit. You have to know things.


I think people who disparage rote memorization in order to promote critical thinking are not very good at critical thinking themselves. I've memorized hundreds of poems, though I could only recite 50 for you on the spot. "Repetition is the mother of learning" (someone said) and doing something for the nth time helps you get ever deeper into the groove. Little babies and musicians know this.

The aim should be a kind of effortless manipulation of the material. You can only really think if you have something to think about. Suppose I'm dealing with a very complex set of relationships. It helps if I actually know the material so well that I don't have to look at every text again in order to formulate conclusions. We can't read an entire novel all at once, so adept scholars read it and remember it in very concrete detail.

Of course what students learn for a test they might forget the next day. What is remembered is what is meaningful, what actually forms a part of one's permanent mental habitus.

So what I hate is not rote memorization but people who use the word rote in a meaningless and unthinking way.

12 Hour Days

I have one of those 12.5 hour days.

8: Do prep work for a committee I'm on. Correct proofs for book review.

9-11: Office hours and prepare class. meet with prospective students.

11-12:15. Class

12:15. Lunch with Graduate Student who wants to discuss Graduate Education with me. [Oops, better postpone that till Wed.]

12:30-2:30. Committee meeting.

2:30-3. Meet with prospective Graduate Students.

3-4:20. Graduate Course.

4:30-5:15: I'll be reading your comments, members of the writer's group.

5:30. Dinner with visiting poet, Rachel Blau DuPlessis.

7:30-8:30. Poetry reading.

I'm not complaining, because most days are not like that and, really, I love my job more than several aspects of my life not related to my job.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Negative Article

The negative article is primarily one that takes issue with the positions of other scholars rather than putting forward its own perspective.

I was reading some articles by a friend of mine that I didn't agree with very much. The points of disagreement are multiple, and of some interest, but I don't feel I could write an article about this. Not because I would offend this person, but because it is hard to justify a mostly negative approach.

The problem with this kind of work is multiple:

(1) Critique is cheap. Graduate students, once they learn that texts are not sacred, enjoy being able to poke multiple holes in scholarly work. It can often be surprisingly easy to do, and can be loads of fun. The problem is missing the big picture. Yes, you can tell me five things wrong with The Anxiety of Influence, but can you tell me why it was an influential book in the first place? Can you tell me why we can't get past the concept even forty years later? Negativity can make you look immature.

(2) You are tying your own fortunes to a point of view opposite to your own, becoming dependent on someone else. Would you rather be René Girard or the guy who refuted René Girard?

(3) People are attracted to negativity but ultimately afraid of it. You can be provocative and get some attention, but many people will react with extreme negativity to your negativity. Even mildly critical views can offend others.

Nevertheless, a negative article can be justified in a few specific cases:

(1) The person you are criticizing is extremely significant in your field, but has had a negative impact. This is a tricky one, because you are speaking truth to power. If the figure you are attacking is very powerful, there could be repercussions. On the other hand, if you go after a minor figure, you will seem excessive.

(2) The entire consensus around a certain issue is mistaken. Here, you are challenging a consensus, but also offering a positive view that should replace it. The emphasis should still fall on the new paradigm, not just the one you are attacking. (Chomsky's famous demolition of Skinner is a good example of this. Although he destroyed Skinner's behavorial linguistics, the review didn't really convince the reader of what the alternative would be. it's still a good article, but you need to read other things by Chomsky to make sense of it.)

My most negative article was about some poets that I didn't care for. It's gotten me both friends and enemies. I wasn't criticizing other critics, but the poets themselves. I don't think it was a mistake, but it definitely had both positive and negative repercussions for me.

I had to be very careful with Andrew Debicki, who was a colleague and friend. I rarely agreed with anything he wrote, but often had to hedge my critiques much more than I would have liked to. I ended up writing a review that praised him on the surface, but which to any intelligent reader would be a rather serious critique. He usually pretended not to mind my obnoxiousness.

One model is Diacritics, which traditionally featured review-essays in which one major theorist tore down another. I wish there were a little more work like this, frankly. While grad-school style critique is cheap, it is also indispensable.

Stop When You're Ahead

When you are writing very well, with an excellent flow of ideas, but have been writing for about two hours, stop.

It might seem counterintuitive, but you gain several advantages. You left off on a good note, rather than stopping in frustration. You did not tire yourself out. The ideas you were working on will still be there the next day, and your subconscious mind will be working on them for the next 22 hours.

Friday, March 4, 2011

The Noisy Neighbor

My basic philosophy is to distinguish clearly between external obstacles to writing and internal ones. We have considerable power over internal obstacles, so we can work on those. We have less power of external factors, so we can either work to change those or circumvent them, or some combination of the two.

Not having a lamp to read by is an external obstacle to scholarship. Not bothering to buy a lamp from office depot to solve this problem, however, is an internal obstacle. A noisy neighbor is an external obstacle. He's too noisy; I cannot concentrate! Nevertheless, the attitude that as long as I Iive next to him, I'll never write a word, is an internal one. If we only have external obstacles, we are in good shape, because the internal ones we can learn to overcome.

If we attribute an internal obstacle to the outside world, then we are defeating ourselves. The world is not letting me be the scholar I want to be, so why try?

Now here's where this gets tricky. I don't want to ever suggest that an obstacle is not real or significant. I don't want to be insensitive to your teaching load or family obligations, your sensitivity to noise, your medical problems. The more significant the external factors are, the harder it will be to write. What this means, though, is that you will have to be even more rigorous about not letting any internal blocks get a hold of you. In other words, you will be in even less a position to blame anything on the noisy neighbor.

How to Revise An Article

I have some ideas about how to revise an article, from a different angle from those of Tanya. She has ten good suggestions arranged in a helpful order. Mine are oriented not toward making a rough draft into a final one (remember I don't believe in rough drafts), but rather turning an article you thought was finished into one that really is.

1. Get someone else to read it. Revision implies that you have a version that needs to be revised, that you've taken it as far as you can on your own. You could send it to a journal and use the referees' comments, or, if you are less confident you can have someone read it before sending it to a journal.

2. Put the article away for a while while someone is reading it for you. You cannot revise if you are still too close to the moment of composition. A revision is a rewriting from a certain distance.

3. Organize your reader's suggestions. Begin with the easiest ones to correct and get those out of the way. The formulate a plan to incorporate other reasonable suggestions that you agree with and think would strengthen the article. Make a list of substantive revisions you want to make and do them in order.

4. Now do a final reading of the article and change any sentence that catches your attention. You will be looking for any slight ambiguity, lack of clarity, infelicity. You have to pay close attention to your own reactions. Which sentences just bother you a little bit every single time you read them? You know that, without being horrid, they are not quite right yet. It doesn't matter if anyone else would object to them. If you don't like them, you should change them. If you aren't changing at least one sentence in each paragraph on average you are not really doing it right.

5. But at a certain point you have to let it go. If I really made every single sentence exactly the way I wanted it to be I would never actually finish anything.

The Faucet

If you can get to the point where writing is like a faucet you can turn on at will, you will be able to get a lot accomplished. What I mean by this is that you should be able to sit down, open up the document, and work on it with good results. The problem comes with not being able to even open up the document, or thinking that the writing has to be equally "flowing" every single time.

I actually have this capacity. I can turn on the faucet and work. If I am able to open the document on my computer and begin, I will be productive for a few hours no matter what.

Now the mistake people make is thinking that every writing session will be equally good, or that the bad ones don't count. I've covered this before on SMT, but I have new readers I didn't have a year ago. My theory is that that bad days and the good days average out to steady progress. You might have a day when you get an exceptional amount of writing done, others that are good but not exceptional, still others that are below average for yourself, and still others that are even more frustratingly slow. All you really need, though, is enough average or below average days. The great writing sessions are just one end of the bell curve, just like the very worst ones at the other end of the curve.

From this perspective, it is a mistake to say to yourself you shouldn't even bother turning on the faucet today, because you are a little tired / distracted / whatever and won't be able to write very well. What happens then is that one end of the bell curve consists of days when nothing was done at all. The writer also misses those days in which she might gain energy in the very act of writing. She is eliminating many of those "average" days that make up the bulk of a large writing project like a dissertation or book.

Teaching, service, even family life, can be draining in that you are giving your energy to other people. After a lot of that, you might be too exhausted to do research, which is extremely hard work. I am lucky that I find replenishment in writing. If I am too tired to write and write anyway, then I feel less tired afterwards.

Thursday, March 3, 2011


A question or two about titles:
What kind of a title for a research article do you think is the most effective: a creative one based on a cutesy pun or an interesting play on words OR a descriptive and straightforward but boring one?

What components should go into a good title for an article? How should it be different in case of a book?

There is no fundamental difference in titles between articles and books, but if you have a less than adequate title for the article, the consequences are not great. Most people publish between 1-3 books in their entire life, so you don't want a bad title there. A publisher will also make sure a title is "marketable." Think too about google searches and other ways people find information. You don't want to bury the subject of the book under a lot of verbiage.

Titles like "{In)seminating Modernity: ...." with parentheses or cutesy puns are not my own preference. They were overdone in the 80s and 90s and I think a lot of people are sick of them. The main function of the title is to tell you what the piece of writing is about, so I go for straight-forward and descriptive, but not dull or unwieldy. The second function is to give some idea of what the essay is actually going to say, so a too general title doesn't work. Brevity can be very effective, if you can get an extremely brief title that lets the reader know what the article is going to argue.

A really good pun can work, if it is really, really good. John Kronik had an article "Pascal's Parole," where he plays with the meaning of parole as judicial sentence and speech act. A pun that has been done to death like "cannon / canon" -- well, you get the idea.

Puns or phrases derived from proverbs, "eggcorns," "snowclones," or clichés can be acceptable. "It Was All Greek to Him: Byron and South Mediterrean Nationalism.' It kind of depends on the scholar's own sensibility. I personally wouldn't use that, but I invented this example so you never know.

Here are some of my recent titles:
"The Genealogy of Late Modernism in Spain: Unamuno, Lorca, Zambrano, and Valente."

“Was Lorca a Poetic Thinker?”

“What Lorca Knew: Teaching Receptivity.”

“De la luminosa opacidad de los signos: el texto visual de José-Miguel Ullán.”

“The Persistence of Memory: Antonio Gamoneda and the literary Institutions of Late Modernity.”

“Three Apologies for Poetry: Discourses of Literary Value in Contemporary Spain.”

Nothing too cute. I used the title of a Salvador Dalí painting, the title of a poem ("De la luminosa ..."), a reference to the idea of an "apology for poetry" like that of Sir Philip Sidney, and a play on a Henry James title (What Maisie Knew). To-the-point and descriptive does not always mean boring. I think "Was Lorca a Poetic Thinker" is provocative without being cute.

Not every title needs a colon. Once in a while, write a title that isn't purely formulaic: "Clever Phrase: What the Article is Really About."

Maniacally Motivational

I feel a bit manic today, so I will write several posts on topics suggested to me in the comments box. I reserve the right not to take any particular suggestion and to define the word "several" as loosely as I want.

Writer's Group

Anyone interested in a virtual writer's group? Every Monday evening, we will meet on line and talk about what each of us wants to do the following week and what we accomplished the previous week. If we didn't get done what we wanted to, why not? What was the obstacle? Was the obstacle preventable, correctable, will it be there next week? Is it a self-imposed obstacle or an external one?

There should be no guilt or bad feelings about not having gotten something done. For me, last week, for example, I can say that I didn't get written what I wanted. The obstacles were partly logistical and partly emotional. One problem was that I didn't define very clearly what I wanted to get done. I don't feel particularly bad that I didn't write as much. Rather, the information I have about why I didn't will help me for the next week.

A Paper Without Semi-Colons

I have never found a very good reason to use a semi-colon. I did a search for them in the paper I am writing now and eliminated all but those necessary for format reasons. There was only one. Since the two parts of the sentence separated by this obnoxious piece of punctuation are grammatically complete units, I separate them with a period. If they are so related that they are begging to be in the same sentence, I recast them to subordinate one to the other.

Gertrude Stein only used commas and periods. No questions marks, no exclamations points, no colons or semis. I need colons to introduce quotes. i would gladly get rid of those within my own sentences. Imagine a paper with no large intestines.

It might seem a bit arbitrary, but I feel that semi-colons make the page look too cluttered. it's an aesthetic decision. I feel that I can get away with it because I am not contravening any international treaties or grammatical rules.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Cultural Capital

Compared to students from Latin America, Spain, or other European countries, students trained as undergraduates in US universities don't seem to have a lot of cultural capital. They can be bright and enthusiastic when they get to graduate school, but the lack of general knowledge can be a handicap. It's interesting the recent book arguing students are not learning enough in college, Academically Adrift, only talks about levels of critical thinking, a sort of context-free ability to analyze an unfamiliar problem and write about it on the spot.

Cultural capital is just having enough general knowledge of history, music, art, intellectual history, philosophy, the basic outlines of various intellectual disciplines, etc... just to be able to hold your own in the academic environment. I imagine if Academically Adrift had measured that, the results would have also been poor.

The problem is that cultural capital is not "what you learn in school." If we go back to Pierre Bourdieu, the originator of this concept, we find that this kind of "capital" is linked to class position. The analogy is to financial capital. You might not have taken a class on art appreciation, but you still know art if you belong to a certain social class. You learn things by osmosis.

Americans are more auto-didacts. We earn our learning. The education we receive is rather poor in high school, and it is possible to drift through many universities without learning very much. The Spanish major does not really provide general knowledge of this sort: it can barely give students an adequate background in Spanish and Latin American Literature.

I'm not one of the professors who gets shocked when a graduate class does not know something I think every half-way educated person should now. I'm way beyond that point. What i want to know is how to help students who don't have cultural capital, because I don't see a really quick fix. It's not a skill, but a wide background that cannot be supplied in a few months.

Idea Exchange

I've done this exercise before for undergraduates. Now I will try it for graduates.

1) Professor brings in X2 ideas for papers (where X = number of students in the class). Hands them out two per student.

2) Students trade one of the ideas with someone else in the class. They can trade with anyone they want, but nobody is forced to accept a trade. They each bring home two ideas with them.

3) The next day of class, they bring in two ideas they have generated on their own. Once again, the trade their "second-best idea" with another student. Now each student has four ideas, two from the professor, one they've thought of themselves, and one they've traded for with another student.

4) Out of these four ideas, one will be crappy or uninteresting to that particular student. He will throw that one away.

5) Each student meets with the professor to discuss which of the remaining ideas she will choose. it may be the professor's idea, or his own, or that of another student. Then, of course, the student can modify the idea; it won't be set in stone.

The advantage of this method over just having every student choose her own idea for a paper? The student gets to see a lot of ideas, six to be exact, so the good topics will tend to rise to the top. A strong student with a good idea can still use that, since he only traded away his second best idea. A weaker student can use a good idea from someone else or see good examples of ideas.

These are not well-developed theses, but simply ideas to look at something specific and see what's there. The student still has to do the work of developing a good thesis. Here are the fourteen I came up with today:

1. El aforismo y la poesía. Un estudio del género aforístico en poetas como Juan Ramón Jiménez, Vicente Núñez, Luis Feria, Ángel Crespo, Jorge Riechmann. Conexiones entre la sentencia y los poemas líricos muy breves.

2. La elegía. Considerar la elegía como género literario, examinando obras de Lorca, Hernández, Valente, Isla Correyero... Diferencias y cambios en la tradición. ¿Cómo se ve la violencia del lado de la muerte?

3. El poema en prosa. ¿A qué temática se presta el género del poema en prosa? Una investigación en la poesía de Cernuda y Valente (u otros poetas).

4. La metáfora de la vanguardia. Sabiendo que la vangurdia es metáfora beligerante y militar, ¿cuál es la presencia de la violencia en la poesía vanguardista misma?

5. Crímenes. Se trata de un libro de la poeta Isla Correyero. Ahí vemos un tratamiento algo irónico del tema, desde la perspectiva, a veces, del criminal. La idea del trabajo sería hacer una lectura de este poemario.

6. El sacrificio. Tomando la idea del sacrificio ritual como válvula de escape (René Girard), examinar la poesía de Lorca. ¿Hasta qué punto es válida esta teoría con referencia a Lorca? ¿Se veía a sí mismo como víctima sacrificial?

7. Leopoldo María Panero y la locura. ¿Cuál es la conexión entre locura y sustancias como el alcohol? Examinar la obra poética de Panero bajo esta óptica.

8. Francisco Brines. ¿Cómo es la visión amorosa de la poesía de Brines? ¿Cómo se compara con la de Cernuda y Jaime Gil de Biedma?

9. Machado y los romances de cordel. Examinar las fuentes de Machado ("Tierras de Alvargonzález") en los romances violentos de los siglos XVIII y XIX. ¿Hay continuidad o discontinuidad?

10. La representación de la violencia. ¿Se puede "representar" la violencia a través del lenguaje? ¿Cuáles son las estrategias narrativas, metafóricas, poéticas para poner en palabras los actos violentos--o para no callarlas? Utilizar la obra de dos poetas.

11. ¿Las poetas reprentan la violencia de un modo distinto de los poetas? Utilizar el libro Devocionario de Ana Rossetti para hacer una comparación o un contraste con varios poetas masculinos.

12. Después de la violencia. ¿Se puede imaginar el fin de la violencia? En tal caso, ¿qué poetas tienen una visión de la paz que no requiere otros actos violentos previos?

13. Cristianismo y violencia. El cristianismo incorpora ciertas ideas sobre el sufrimiento, sacrificio, martirio, etc..., junto con justificaciones de conflictos bélicos (u oposición a ellos). Discutir la obra de dos poetas ("El cristo de Velásquez" de Unamuno, Lorca, Devocionario de Rossetti.)

14. El alcohol como metáfora de inspiración poética. ¿Es solo metáfora, o tiene una base literal también? Mirar la poesía de Li Po y Claudio Rodríguez.

They aren't all great ideas, but I was able to come up with them in about 45 minutes.

Agenda (7)

A post on Arcade about whether prospective Graduate Students should already have a "project" or agenda. My sense is that it is never too early too have your own personal project. It might change over time, but graduate school requires a fierce commitment. I'd rather see a commitment to something specific.

How to Grade Graduate Papers (ii)

Another way I've graded papers is to accept them as email attachments and then use the track change and comment features of MSW. This is a fast method for me, although I have to stare at the screen for a long time. I insert comments and suggestion throughout the paper and then when I am done I can write the longer global comment with the grade very quickly. After I make all the local comments I know exactly what to say about the paper as a whole.

I work fast, but I am very detailed. My students were amazed once when I returned their papers two days later, but with very extensive comments.

How to Grade Graduate Papers

The model of the Graduate Paper is the published journal article. A paper can get an A without being publishable, but a very, very good graduate student paper is, in fact, a publishable article--if it is good enough. Some young scholars publish some of their papers after they get their PhD. Someone close to me sent in a paper for a seminar to Hispanic Review and they accepted it on the spot. I'm not advocating publishing weaker papers that might come back to haunt you, just saying that there is no difference in genre between the seminar paper and the article.

So this confluence with the publishable article determines what we are looking for as Graduate-level professors. Correct MLA format, solid writing, a theoretical approach or perspective of some kind. One reason why a paper would get an A and not be publishable is if it were lacking in originality. It might be fine as an academic exercise but not contribute anything really notable to the field. The application of theory might be too mechanical.

So the graduate paper deserves extensive comments, like those of a peer-reviewed article. I just write about a single-spaced page outlining the strengths and weaknesses of the paper. Everything is fair game, from the format and prose-style to the substance of the argument. I'm looking for a strong, distinctive thesis backed up by some kind of convincing evidence. What I really want to see is a level of engagement that leads to some strong thinking: ideas that I would not have come up with myself. I don't really hold back in outlining the weaknesses. It is not really being "nice" to do this. I might exaggerate a bit on the strengths just to provide some encouragement, but I am the professor who is going to kick your ass on the final paper. Yes, I am that guy.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Titles for Idiots

Even very dumb posts with very general titles, like "mentoring" or "how to write an introduction" get tons of hits. My conclusion is that the more basic the information is, the more valuable it will be.

Style and Structure (update)

My Graduate Students seemed to welcome the Style and Structure exercise, in which they took apart a scholarly article from the formal point of view. They realized that the thesis could be on the 3rd page, that they might have had arbitrary rules in their head about how things have to be. Some realized that scholarly writing did not have to be full of jargon, that is could be written in fairly straightforward prose. This was a good exercise for a class of five rookies and two students a little more advanced.

Now I'm trying to think of the logical next step. My aim for this course is to develop the competence of the students in a few key areas. Analyzing poetry and writing critical prose about it at the graduate level. My first exercise was to take apart a poem by Miguel Hernández from a variety of angles, assigning a facet of the text to each student (prosody, rhetoric, genre, etc..).