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The lute lies rusted in its green case odor of pines is synthetic; sweeteners artificial; even salt!  our tongues crave something dif...

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

New Plan for the Summer

I decided I would do one major thing each month. For May, I've accomplished my goal, finishing an article. For June, I want to finish the revisions of this article that is giving me a bit of trouble. Now, however, instead of just doing that, I will also reconvert that article into a chapter on María Zambrano. I always mistake difficulty for time. In other words, I have a slightly more difficult task, so I think it is going to be very time-consuming. It is not. I've already made enough headway today to think that it will be just a matter of a few days. Of course, what makes a difficult task time consuming is that we avoid doing it. Aha, that's my stupid motivational insight of the day.

For July, instead of Claudio, I will tackle that major chapter on Lorca. July will be the freest month, since Julia will be at music camp. I will be going to Spain, but that is just for a week or so. That will count as my vacation from writing.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Schedule Every Hour

The advantage of scheduling every hour is that you get to see exactly where the time goes. It might seem excessively restrictive, but you can schedule leisure and relaxation too, schedule yourself in such a way that you are not working during a certain hour. You could schedule an hour for listening to music. I'm going to start doing this beginning Monday morning, since I've felt a little unmoored since the semester ended. I've gotten a lot done, but I'd like to be even more savvy about my use of time.

This is not just about getting more done, but about freeing time to do other things that you might enjoy doing. Scheduling seems to restrict time, but it actually frees it up quite a bit and eliminates guilt about not always working. This technique will also help you do things you've been forgetting to do, exercise and meditation if you're anything like me.

Hour-long blocks are useful, because they make for handy units of measurement in which a significant amount of music-listening or house-cleaning can be done. Whenever practical and possible, try to do something for at least an hour and avoid multitasking as much as you can when you first start using this technique.

It's Not About the Housework

The purpose of the experiment about how many household chores I could get done was not really about the housework. I wanted to see how much an hour of doing things like that amounted to. I know what an hour of reading is, 40-100 pages depending on what kind of reading it is. I know how many graduate papers I can read and comment in an hour (2-3). I didn't know how many things I could do around the house before the timer rang.

It's also about uni-tasking, the idea of just concentrating for one thing for an hour without doing anything else, with no distractions. Many significant things fit into one-hour segments. Excercise for an hour, that's plenty for a day. Spend an hour talking on the phone with someone--that's a significant conversation. It takes an hour to cook dinner if you are making something not too basic. You have 16-18 hours when you are not sleeping, so it ought to be possible to get a lot even in 4 or 5 of those hours, between exercise, work, etc...

Saturday, May 28, 2011


Collegiality is a sticky issue, because if two people don't see eye-to-eye, which of them is being uncollegial? A lot of us have intense, difficult personalities, might not be naturally easy people to get along with. When conflicts arise, it is hard to know who is to blame (for example, between two people who are both somewhat difficult.) There might also be legitimate differences in opinion / ideology that make things more difficult, or difficult work conditions. If the administration puts the squeeze on a department, some might react by siding with the administration, while others might legitimately resent them for that. I have friends in various departments who don't like other friends of mine, even when all parties concerned are dedicated professionals. I also don't know if I would be as good friends with certain people if I shared a working space with them.

The problem with using collegiality as a criterion for promotion is that the largest burden should fall on the senior colleagues. In other words, if a junior colleague is perceived as uncollegial, often that is in reaction against treatment by the senior colleagues. They shouldn't be able to mistreat the person and then turn around in call the same person uncollegial for fighting back. I remember that feeling that the senior colleagues are not on your side, and since I got tenure I've tried very hard not to be that guy. I am still in the position of judging the untenured people, and every one knows it, but usually if a senior colleague positive then junior people will not go out of their way to make enemies.

In short: the senior colleagues should set the tone. Some conflict should be expected; not everyone is going to like everyone else. You shouldn't take sides in other departments unless you have an extremely good sense of what's actually going on.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Summer Simplicity

All I have to do this summer in research is accomplish one major thing every month. May, it was the article I just turned in. June will be revisions on another article. July, a chapter on Claudio Rodríguez. In August, I want to finally get that chapter on Lorca done. For some reason, I've been avoiding that, mainly because there's a lot of pressure to make that chapter the most impressive, longest part of the book. Otherwise I can't call the book What Lorca Knew anymore. It would have to be "what Lorca and some other people knew."

None of these tasks I have to accomplish from scratch. What I need to do is finish things that I've started. Like most people, I'm better at starting than finishing.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Comp Studies (ii)

I found an excellent article by Nancy Sommers. "Revision Strategies of Student Writers and Experienced Adult Writers." (College Composition and Communication, Vol. 31, No. 4 (Dec., 1980), pp. 378-388). The way I found it was to look on JSTOR for the most cited and accessed article in this journal. I feel I am reinventing the wheel a bit here, because I'm sure everyone in this field already knows this article. But since most readers of this blog are not comp specialists, I thought I would share what I learned.

Student writers (freshmen, sophomores) saw revision (a word they didn't actually use) mostly in a thesaurus mode. It was a matter of replacing individual words with others and eliminating repetitions and redundancies. The also checked their writing for rule breaking, making sure there were no prepositions at the end of the sentences, things like that. They had been taught certain mechanical rules in high school and thought of good writing as the avoidance of mistakes.

In contrast, experienced adult writers (journalists, academics, etc...) saw their revision as a process of searching for their argument. They were much more active in revision, moving parts of the essay around, eliminating or merging paragraphs. The way these writers talked about their work was very similar to the way I think about my own writing and revision.

Obviously, the implication here is that student writers have to be taught to think of their work in these more sophisticated terms. That they don't automatically think of their writing and revision in this holistic way.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Old Work

I rarely read my old work. Even my very recent old work. Once it is published, I never want to see it again. One of the last thing I have to do in an article I am now writing is to find page references from a few of my own publications, and I have postponed that very simple task, simply because I don't like to look at my own published work. See my name in print? Yes, that's wonderful, but I never want to rest on past achievements or look my old mistakes in the face.

When I do read my old work, I am surprised that it still holds up fine. Even things I wrote 20 years ago seem great to me. I guess I am always afraid of finding something that is gong to embarrass me, even though that rarely happens. In some cases, I wonder how I could have been so intelligent when I was so ignorant. In other words, I know that I didn't know basic things back in the day, but the arguments are still valid and ingenious ones. I stand by them.

The Ku ScholarWorks has been useful, in that it has inspired me to look at some of my old work. I am particularly interested in authorial voice and style. When I look at what I wrote, I can have forgotten what I wrote, but generally I still recognize the self behind the words. It is still me, even if it is making arguments that I wouldn't make today. As I also discovered, I was not a bad writer, even though I think I have improved now. Sure, I can pick on myself on small details, but I had prose even then (20, 22 years ago.)

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

In Which I Clean the House

I didn't sleep very well last night, so I decided to give my article some breathing room today. I needed to do some domestic chores, but I felt lazy. So I decided to make a time-management game of it. I set the timer for 1 hour and tried to see how much I could get done.

I emptied the dishwasher, a task I had begun the night before. I put in the dirty dishes, wiped off the top of the kitchen counters. I got my clothes out of the dryer and put them away. Then I scrubbed two toilets, mopped two bathroom floors and the kitchen, plus the stairs leading to the basement. I vacuumed the one room in the house with carpet, changed two lightbulbs, one of which burned out while I was working. At this point I still had a lot of time left, so I put two new bills into my online bill payment and paid them. I cleaned off the glass coffee tables with windex. There was still time left so I took out the recycling, cleaned off the top of the ping-pong table and did some general straightening. The only major tasks I didn't get done were cleaning the rest of the bathroom counters and showers and mopping the hard-wood floors.

What did I learn? An hour is a long time for housework. Grouping tasks, like mopping everything at the same time, or cleaning the toilets all at once, makes things go faster. I had originally planned to clean one room a day while Akiko was in Spain, but I hadn't really done much yet. It would be better to spend one hour every other day and do as much as possible. The timer was a helpful, because without it I would have just done about 15 minutes and quit. I was actually looking for extra things to do at the end.

Monday, May 23, 2011

How to Choose a Major in College (ii)

Some additional pointers:

Avoid "contentless" majors like journalism, education, business. Instead of journalism, major in history and take courses on recent periods, or in religious studies. Get in-depth knowledge of the world on which you are going to be reporting.

Instead of business, try economics. Avoid business majors with a lot of group projects and not a lot of rigorous writing. Don't major generically in business; instead, try to figure out what industry you want to be associated with and gain concrete knowledge about that industry. If you want to show leadership, run for student senate or found an organization. That's more meaningful than some group project for a class.

A student I had wanted to do an internship with the educational writer Jonathan Kozol. There was no advertised position, but she decided that was what she needed to do. So she tried to contact him. At first there was no answer, so she kept trying, and eventually made contact with someone else who worked with Kozol, then with the man himself, and got her internship. With students like that, the actual major doesn't really matter; it's what you do with the major you have, and the opportunities you pursue. I'd hire this student (a history major) over a business major any day.

Mark Turner

Turner, the co-author of Clear and Simple as the Truth, a book I've been touting here, is also the co-author, with linguist George Lakoff, of another book that had a big impact on me, More Than Clear Reason: A Field Guide to Poetic Metaphor. The cognitive psychology base in Clear and Simple rarely comes out explicitly, but it is definitely present behind the scenes. I can find a few places where the authors draw explicitly on the cognitive theory of the mind. For example, when they point to sentences that are difficult to follow because they don't embody the normal patterns of thought. I'd like to ask Turner about this.

And yes, I've checked, it is the same guy.

What Makes for a Good Comment in a Graduate Course?

*Preparation. The student comes to class with an idea already formulated. Not always possible, because the discussion might not be going in that direction.

*Relevance. The comment relates directly to other things said; it is part of the conversation. The student doesn't always make the same comment about everything. Relevant, improvised comments are even better than prepared statements. You can also prepare to improvise.

*Thoughtfulness. The student might not say everything that occurs to him/her, but will self-censor to a certain extent. Too much, and he/she will never say anything. Not enough, and you have the glibness syndrome. We encourage glibness when we ask for participation but don't necessarily have a structure that produces good student response.

The classroom discussion is a collaborative enterprise. The best discussion is not one to which you could go back, listen to the tape, and judge everything to have been perfect. Rather, it is one in which students responded to one another, developed ideas suggested by others and by the profe. There will be digresssions and even irrelevancies. You would have to go back and edit it to make even the best discussion a well developed essay, but that's not really the point, is it? It should be more jam session than recording session

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Comp Studies

I also realize that I am largely ignorant of the field of rhetoric and composition studies. I realize that it is a legit field that has a lot to say about writing that I ought to be incorporating into this blog. If this were intelligent motivational tricks, I would have studied all that before even beginning it. I've read an issue or two of College English, and I haven't been impressed, but I'm keeping an open mind.

That being said, I think I would disagree with a lot of the positions taken in this field, which arose in English departments out of the need to theorize the teaching of composition in a way not necessarily dependent on that other function of English departments, the teaching of literature. My aim here is to teach writing in disciplines that take literature, and other forms of art, seriously, so I wouldn't exactly be crazy about the extra- if not anti-literary ethos of the field. I think the cognitive psychology grounding of Turner and Thomas's Clear and Simple will eventually make an end-run around Comp studies and make a lot it irrelevant anyway. We'll see.

How To Choose a Major in College

I read one of those useless summaries of what to major in in college on another site, and I thought I would give it a stab myself.

In the first place, most liberal arts majors are not vocational certificates. Before you choose a major, you should decide what it is you really want to do for a living, and then find out how the people who are currently exercising that profession arrived there. That seems a little better than first majoring in something, and then wondering what you are going to "do" with that major. It may turn out there are many paths to your chosen profession, so you can major in what you are really interested in intellectually and still have a career.

If there is a major that corresponds exactly to your chosen profession, then go for it. You probably don't need my advice in this case. Accounting, say. Beware of majoring in dying industries, though, like newspaper journalism. Actually, I wouldn't choose journalism at all, because to be a journalist you really need to know a lot about the world, not about the mechanics of journalistic form. Choose a more meaty major. By the same token, if you want to be a teacher, major in the subject matter that you will be teaching, not in "education." Just take the bare minimum of ed classes you need to be certified. That will make you more competitive in the best high schools. A school of social work has disadvantages. You might not get as broad an education, and the profession for which you are being trained is low-paying and prone to burn-out.

Beware of "generic" majors like "communications" and "international relations." I'm talking about majors that attract students that don't really know what they want to do, so they choose a major that sounds vaguely interesting and popular. There are a lot of communications majors, so what is going to make you stand out, if you chose the major because it sounded vaguely interesting? And everyone else did too? If you have a passion for sociology, go for it, but don't major in it because that's what your sorority sisters do.

Decide whether the major is going to be it, or whether you are going to get a master's or professional degree afterwards. If the BA is the terminal degree, you have to think sooner rather than later about employment. If you are going on with your studies, you can choose a liberal arts degree with a pragmatic benefit, like mathematics, a foreign language, philosophy, or English. Really good quantitative, writing, and reasoning skills, or bilingualism, are great to have, but they don't translate immediately into a job, in most cases. Nevertheless, those skills are what really make you valuable in the long run.

Ceteris paribus,* major in something that you will be very, very good at. It is probably better to be an exceptional student in a major where you will be at the top of your class, than to major in something where you will be a mediocre student, just because you think that it is the practical thing to do or because someone else tells you to. People really want to hire people who exude genuine confidence bred of competence in something specific, and opportunities are more likely to flow from excellence in something offbeat than from being one communications majors among dozens (not to pick on one field or anything).


Latin, for "all things being equal," ablative absolute. What can I say, I majored in Comparative LIterature.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

How to Write an Article in 5 Minutes

I haven't read all those books about how to do your dissertation in 15 minutes a day, or how to write an article in 12 weeks, or how to write a dissertation in 2 semesters. I suppose if this were intelligent motivational tricks then I would have first studied made a systematic study of all the literature on this topic before plunging in. Everything I write about here is derived from my own experience and from my application of principles I learned from Thomas Basbøll. At some point before doing SMT as a book I will read the competing books and see where my approach differs from theirs. I suspect I take a less reverential tone and have more intellectual substance. I don't know if other books talk about developing the scholarly base, for example.

I have read books about how to write prose, just not on how to manage an academic career.

I'm going to do this, but first let me do that...

The form of signposting that postpones one task for another is particularly irritating. I can see it in an oral presentation, but in writing it signals a lack of organization. You know what I'm talking about: "Before going into the question of x, it is first necessary to explain y."

Friday, May 20, 2011

If Writing Were Speech, We'd All Be Inarticulate

Just a thought. I can speak dozen of words a minute in more or less complete sentences. Even very fast writing is comparatively halting, hesitant, disfluent. Not because of the effort of writing or typing it, but because writing is something fundamentally different. Fast writers like Kerouac are actually better than the normal writer who can barely write anything with any coherence.

The other side of that is that we hold writing to a much higher standard, forgiving the disfluency of spontaneous speech. If we wrote as we spoke, then we would say, hey, why didn't he revise that? It looks like he just wrote down what he was thinking with no care put into the process.

Demystifying the Light Bulb

The lightbulb turns on when you get an idea (think of the comic strip image of the lightbulb in a bubble over the character's head.). For me, this happens maybe 10 or 15 times during two and a half hours of writing. Sometimes, the flashes are banal: "move this paragraph from here to there." Sometimes they are slightly more interesting, and sometimes they are really wonderful ideas (in my humble opinion). So it is the act of writing is what makes the flashes possible. I might occasionally get an idea later in the day, when I am not writing, but most of the inspiration comes during the process itself.

So by not writing, you are also not doing as much thinking.


Gerald Early points out that "critical thinking" is a redundancy. If it is not critical, it should not be called thinking.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

How I Wrote 4 Years Ago

WHAT DOES IT MEAN to be a modernist poet at the end of the twentieth century? Perhaps no poet more clearly embodies the ethos of “late modernism” than José Angel Valente, whose final book, Fragmentos de un libro futuro, was published after his death in the final year of the millennium. This book is not only posthumous but also designed to be posthumous. According to its front flap, “José Angel Valente concibió una suerte de obra poética ‘abierta’, un libro que—como la parábola cervantina de Ginés de Pasamonte o la novela de Proust—no acabaría sino con la desaparición misma del autor” ( José Angel Valente conceived of a sort of “open” poetic work, a book that, like the Cervantine parable of Ginés de Pasamonte or Proust’s novel, would not end until the author himself disappeared; my translation here and throughout). The book’s futurity, then, lies beyond the lifespan of the poet. Yet, in relation to the avant-garde movements of the earlier part of the twentieth century, Valente’s book is decidedly nostalgic rather than forward looking. Its predominant tone is elegiac. While steeped in the culture of modernity, it ultimately exemplifies an arrière-garde rather than an avant-garde spirit. Given Valente’s pre-eminent position within the canon of late twentieth-century Spanish poetry, an examination of his work during the last two decades of his life can also reveal the degree to which the modernist aesthetic has maintained its vitality in the contemporary period.

(Mayhew 2007)

A little verbose. It's not much different from how I write now, and I don't have the distance from it to give it a grade. A-?

How I Wrote 18 Years Ago

RAMÓN de Garciasol, reviewing Claudio Rodriguez's first book, Don de la ebriedad, praised the young poet for his rugged Castilian virility: "Claudio Rodríguez puede al verso, le gobierna con mano viril" (7). When I first came upon this quote several years ago, in the course of writing a dissertation on Rodriguez's poetry, I rejected it as an uncomprehending and inappropriate response to a highly complex work of metapoetry, an absurdly gratuitous intrusion of machismo into a context in which the author's gender was simply irrelevant. While rejecting Garciasol's blatant sexism, however, I was making a highly questionable assumption of my own: that Rodriguez's poetry somehow transcended gender. By dismissing out of hand the relevance of the poet's "virility," I was committing the familiar error of equating the masculine with the universal.

It should not be surprising to learn that Claudio Rodriguez writes as a man rather than as an impossibly genderless human subject. No one would claim otherwise; in fact, the point seems too obvious to be of any real significance. In what non-trivial sense, then, does Rodriguez's poetry reflect a particularly "masculine" vision? One approach to this question would be to identify masculinity with misogyny, canvassing the poet's work for sexist attitudes. Rodriguez does occasionally identify feminine figures with negative aspects of reality, especially deceptiveness ("Brujas a mediodía," 127-30). A related avenue of investigation is the poet's relation to his mother, a figure that appears in several poems from Conjuros and Alianza y Condena. A biographically minded critic could interpret these texts in light of the poet's problematical relation to his mother.

"Claudio Rodríguez and the Writing of the Masculine Body"

This is actually a bit better, in some respects, than the article from 2000, somehow livelier. The second paragraph is a little verbose, with "it should not be surprising that..." and "seems to obvious to be of any real significance" and "a related avenue of investigation..." There's the repetition of the word "mother" at the end of this paragraph too. The last two sentences should have really been one. I'll give myself a B here. I start off well, but fade in the second paragraph.

How I Wrote 11 Years Ago

THE majority of critical studies devoted to Francisco Brines insist upon the universality of his concerns. For Carlos Bousoño, the author of an important early study, Brines's poetry, while rooted in the particularity of his experience, ultimately transcends the merely personal, suppressing details that do not pertain to his more general themes: death, the passage of time, and the transitory nature of human existence. José Olivio Jiménez, likewise, speaks of "la indiscutible universalidad de su canto hondamente elegiaco, en el que, a un tiempo, el hombre se empeña en afirmar su débil realidad y la hermosura del mundo y de la vida " (Brines, Antología poética 8). Man and his existential problems are also crucial for North-American Hispanists like Andrew Debicki and Judith Nantell: "Francisco Brines ' Insistencias en Luzbel (1977) presents the reader with highly complex and often cryptic portraits of the modes of being displayed by man as he lives and works out his existence" (Nantell, "Modos de ser" 33). Whatever their differences, these critics share an underlying commitment to one of the fundamental tenets of humanist ideology: the universality of human experience. Thus Brines's poetry, in the eyes of its most influential interpreters, comes to epitomize the values of humanist existentialism.

From "Francisco Brines and the Humanist Closet," 2000.

I'd like to say I've improved substantially, but I don't find much to criticize here. I use the word "study" (studies) in the first two sentences. I would try to avoid that now. I don't like the word "important" very much. The phrase "whatever their differences" sounds a little vague to me as well. Did I mean that they were different because some were Spaniards and some Americans?

The rhetorical effect I was after was to cite particularly banal or over-general statements by other critics in order make my point, that critics should have approached him in more particularist, less general ways. At the same time, I was not overly disrespectful of these critics. Since I am arguing, in the rest of the article, for a homoerotic reading, I wanted to find a lot of quotes with the word "man" / "hombre." I'll give myself a B or B- here. It is clear and achieves the effect of hanging the other critics by their own rope, but it is not particularly elegant.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

End of Semester Blues

At the end of the semester people starting telling me how tired they were. It had been an exhausting semester. I agreed with them, but I ultimately felt that these conversations ended up having a negative effect on me. I kept telling myself how tired I was, how burnt out. I almost deliberately didn't do some writing I had planned to do, but it turned out that the effort of not working made me more tired than ever before. I wasn't not working and enjoying myself, just doing less during the same number of hours in the office.

So when you hear this kind of chatter, how busy, how tired we all are, beware of that insidious form of peer pressure. You can acknowledge that someone else's feelings about this are legitimate, but you don't have to buy into the mindset. Repeating to yourself over and over again, "I'm so tired" will tire you out even more quickly, because the language you use to describe your body will have an effect on it.

What Do You Do The Rest Of The Time?

Now that I've turned grades in, the rest of the summer I only really have to do about 1-3 hours of work a day on my articles and book project. Once I get the two articles done I will take weekends off and only do that amount of work on 5 days a week. On a few trips I am going to take, I won't do any work at all.

The rest of the time I will work on my scholarly base by reading other things outside my field, relax, and listen to music.

I can afford this very relaxed schedule because I am a full professor and have paid my dues, so to speak. My current project is going well so I don't feel i am behind at all on that. But here's the thing. That's what I've always tried to do. Work a brief period every day on scholarly projects. To the extent that I did not do so in the past, I suffered from it, whether I procrastinated or tried to work around the clock to meet a deadline. In other words, I would have been even more productive before if I had taken the "luxury" to do what I'm doing now, and I would have been much happier doing it. Unfortunately, I didn't have an older version of myself on hand to give me this advice.

Of Course

One of my stylistic tics is of course. This, for me, implies a certain intellectual attitude of: "Yes, sure I already know that, but let me tell you something else that is not self-evident." It is a metadiscursive sign of a certain kind of argument that I am favoring. There is nothing wrong, of course, with this style of arguing, but it is helpful to be aware of it, that that is what I am doing.

You can also smuggle in a question-begging assumption with an of course or needless to say.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Favorite Words

We all have words that we favor, that we rely on consciously or unconsciously or overuse. I notice myself using certain words too much sometimes. This gives me useful information about how I am thinking. Suppose it is nuance. In that case I am probably in a mode of thought where I am wanting to be especially attentive to nuance. Or the word attentive, or vicissitude or fraught. These words function as barometers of my attitude toward my subject matter.

Other words are merely stylistic tics. When I notice those overwhelming my prose, I do a word search in my document and change or eliminate them. I have have stylistic tics that are not words but constructions. "Not only... but also" is one example. You wouldn't want to write three paragraphs in a row with "not only... but also." Nothing wrong with the construction itself, but the reader doesn't want to think you are a one-trick pony.


To many words in -tion, fy, or, -ize can also give your prose a heavy feeling. Problematize, realize, actualize, reify, deify. You don't want too much rhyme or jingle, as the composition teachers used to call it (maybe still do).

Still More Classic Style

Clarissa, reviewing Laclau, writes this:
More often than not, it felt to me that Laclau was talking to people he considers to be deeply unintelligent and unaware of the most basic tenets of political theory. He does it in the kind of language, though, that would prevent these ignoramuses from following his line of reasoning.

This observation, from a very funny review, struck me because it describes the exact opposite of the stance of the "classic style" toward the reader. The classic writer assumes that the reader is competent and intelligent, more or less the equal of the writer herself. If not actually an equal yet, someone potentially so. Condescension is out. On the other hand, the classic writer never adopts a special language or jargon to speak only to the initiated. So Laclau's prose misses in both directions, both under- and over-estimating the reader. Here is the sample Clarissa uses to illustrate this:
The complexes which we call 'discursive or hegemonic formations', which articulate differential and equivalential logics, would be unintelligible without the affective component. . . We can conclude that any social whole results from an indissociable articulation between signifying and affective dimensions

Fields Change

Why does a field of study change? For example, we could say that something like the study of Mozart shouldn't really change, because Mozart himself doesn't. There can be new discoveries of manuscripts, but beyond that, why do we need to do research on something like that?

With scientific fields that progress in linear fashion, we can see easily that yesterday's genetics will be different from today's, but what about the Humantities. Don't we already have the Humanities? As people used to say, do we really need more interpretations of Milton or Cervantes?

In the Humanities, we have change without progress. In other words, we cannot necessarily say that we see things more clearly now than in the past. Yet we cannot remain content with past interpretations. Why is this the case? As Gadamer explained in Truth and Method, our relationship to the past is constantly shifting. 19th-century views of Shakespeare don't tell us what we want to know about Shakespeare any more.

It is very dangerous to have a literature professor who is not an active literary critic, because that person is not engaged in the process of thinking out new ways of approaching literature. Once the process stops, the reading of the work is ossified, inert.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Research and the College Professor

We want our college professors, even those who end up teaching in small liberal arts colleges, to have a PhD from a Research 1 Department. The PhD is a research degree, and a lot of what you have to do as a PhD students has nothing to do with undergraduate education or your future career. So why make people who just want to teach college jump through so many hoops? There have been suggestions that the PhD is too long and hard, etc...

The idea here is that Graduate Courses are not just courses on the subject matter, but courses taught by people who have done research on that subject matter, have first hand knowledge of it at a granular level. This means that the subject matter itself changes, is developed, would not be taught the same way twenty years later. So college professors, even if they are not active researchers themselves after the PhD, at least have up-to-date knowledge when they begin. They have been exposed to some really good minds.

Now really good SLACS like Oberlin also want their professors to continue to do research themselves. The teaching load there is almost equivalent to what it is at a research 1 University. So they want their undergraduate students, also, to be exposed to really good minds actively engaged in research. I'm sure if you have ever taught a course you've seen the difference between students who care whether you have an interesting mind, and those who don't.

If you see teaching as transmitting knowledge in a very basic way, then I guess research would not matter. As long as you knew a little more than the students, you would be fine. It wouldn't matter whether you had thought about the texts you are teaching in a new way in twenty years. For myself, I know things get stale after a while. I need to find myself new things to teach, new approaches to teaching, etc...

It's interesting that upper middle-class people want their kids to go to places where the professors do research. They wouldn't articulate it like that, necessarily, but they choose selective liberal arts colleges, Ivy leagues, or the best of the "flagship" state universities, if their kids can get in. If they thought only teaching mattered, then they might choose less highly ranked institutions where professors are actively discouraged from even thinking about research.


Transitions are tough. I am currently still trying to turn in my grades while I am living in my house (instead of my apartment in Kansas). The last few weeks I've been exhausted and not nearly as productive as my normal self. I failed to meet my goal in the writing group for three weeks in a row, being a horrible role model. The anxiety about coming back home for the summer was immense, because I was sure I had forotten a book I needed. It is also hard to live with two young women again (my wife and daughter) when I am used to living alone most of the week.

So for this week, I am going to try to do one, and only one significant thing each day. In fact, that is what I will do all summer. I will try to schedule a few week-long vacations too, when I will also refrain from reading all of your blogs as well as writing on my own.

Monday (today): Course proposal. [UPDATE: did that.]

Tueday (turn in final grades for undergraduate course).

Wed. Significant writing on "Was Lorca a Poetic Thinker?"

Thu. The same.

Fri. The same.

Sat. The same.

Sun. The Same.


I received an apology from the student in question. I believe it was sincere because there were no excuses offered and the student accepted full responsibility.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Plagiarism and the Distinctive Voice (ii)

I found a student plagiarizing yesterday. My first thought was that she was writing better than my grad students, my second thought, that she was writing better than me in Spanish... My third thought, that I should google a few combinations of words to find her source. It was classic copy and paste, with whole paragraphs lifted from a very well-known journal in my field.

Now I'm beginning to prefer the classic Spanish student prose. It's awful, but at least it is distinctively theirs.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Cleaning the Table

On Monday, a student in the Graduate Course noticed that the table in the Seminar Room in the Department was quite dirty. It probably hadn't been cleaned since we moved into the new wing of the building in 2007. We have our department meetings in there too, virtually all the Graduate courses, and some dissertation defenses. The room gets used a lot. So before class on Wed., I brought some lemon pledge from my office and some paper towels from the bathroom and cleaned that table. The students who were arriving began to help me, of course, they weren't going to watch me without pitching in, so when the student who had earlier noticed the condition of the table arrived a few minutes later, she said "They cleaned the table!" (Yes, they did.) The table will be relatively clean at the beginning of the Fall semester, because the room isn't much used in the Summer.

This is not a metaphor for something else, but just a suggestion that you can have a clean seminar-room table if you want.

Too Advanced? Too Basic?

A lot of my advice might seem too advanced for someone who just needs to be told not to use the passive voice as a default, not to be excessively wordy or unclear, like the incompetent reviewer of Tao Lin discussed yesterday. For a writer like that, I would even be tempted to recommend a handbook that is mostly misleading or wrong, like the infamous Strunk & White.

Or maybe at times my tips and tricks are too basic, like "Develop a schedule for your writing." Really stupid things that everyone should have figured out by now.

Actually, though, I don't draw a hard distinction between the basic and the advanced. It's all writing. It's all scholarship. It's all task management. Making refined, subtle distinctions is not fundamentally different than mastering the basics. Some things scholars have not mastered are really matters for Freshman composition.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011


Angry writing is often very ineffectual writing, when it focusses attention on the writer's emotion rather on the substance of the complaint. Oftentimes it is hard to tell why the person is even so angry, because the prose is saying, very loudly, I AM ANGRY. Needless to say, if you aren't outraged by many things every day, you aren't paying attention. Anger itself is legitimate, but what I am talking about here is the rhetorical power of calmness.

If you are having an argument with a very angry person, you can often get the upper hand simply by remaining calm. You are going to be in much more control of the situation than the angry person is, because you are in control of yourself and the other person isn't. You can easily make the angry person more angry, if you want, by pushing even more of his hot bottons, or you can use your calmness to de-escalate the situation. Of course, the angry person's anger makes her seem more powerful (and sometimes the angry person is actually more powerful), but your calmness can be even more potent.

So it is with prose debates. When I was a kid (a strange kid I guess) I would read outraged authors writing in to the New York Review of Books. Usually, the madder the author seemed, the easier it was for the original reviewer to compose the rebuttal: "Yes, I see that the author is very upset, but let's look calmly at what I said in my review...." It always seemed best to win on "the facts" than on emotion.

More bad prose

This is the typical bad prose one gets from a reviewer on the internet:
I think the worst element of reading this book was realizing that despite being a third person narrative, and despite the fact that this is an autobiography, Lin never uses either method of storytelling to let us into Sam’s mind. A flat character in a first person narrative would be unable to explain himself, but a third person narration could have analyzed Sam in some manner that makes him relevant. We never see why the hell Sam is a useless sack of crap and again, even if it is deliberate, it is a shitty way to tell a story. Of course, Lin could not use a third person narration to plunge Sam’s soul because he doesn’t have one. He’s just a ridiculous creature that eats stuff, exercises an empty ego and and periodically goes to jail and none of that is enough to justify telling a story.

Wordy ("...the worst element of reading this book was realizing that despite being....") Run-on sentences. Confusing. Is it a third-person narrative or is it not? What are the two methods of story-telling not used. If it is, in fact, a third-person narrative, then why isn't it? The writer confuses the verb "plunge" with "plumb." What the writer probably meant to say was something more like this:
The use of third-person narration in this ostensibly autobiographical novel is ineffective, especially since the story is not even focalized through the perspective of the unsympathetic protagonist, and the third person narrator refrains from interpreting the character's life. Thus the reader gains no insight into the motives behind Sam's seemingly meaningless existence, devoted to petty crime and the consumption of vegan smoothies.

I have nothing against obscenities, but used together with the fifth-grade style they bespeak immaturity. A little understatement would have been much more effective.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Table of Contents

The Table of Contents should tell a story. The title of each chapter should be rich in information without being cluttered. Now obviously those two imperatives are contradictory (potentially). A spare, uncluttered title might not have enough information, and adding information to it might make it cluttered. Where the table of contents is most important is on the grant proposal or book proposal, when you are approaching a funding agency or book publisher. In other words, when the book itself is not there.

Information is also somewhat at odds with cleverness, or with phrases that are suggestive but not informative. Many people use quotations as part of the title of a chapter, but this does not work as well if the meaning of the quote or phrase is not transparent without extra explanation.

I craft and recraft my table of contents constantly. Not just every title, individually, but the entire list. I want to make sure that each title is adequate, but also that the titles balance nicely with one another, without repeating the exact same format, and are equally informative.

Here is an old and new table of contents for more or less the same project:

Chapter 1: Modernity and its Discontents
Chapter 2: Spanish Modernism and the Paradoxes of Literary History
Chapter 3: Contemporary Spanish Poetry: Late Modernism and the Cutlural Logic of Anachronism
Chapter 4: Alternate Models: Machado, Jiménez, Cernuda
Chapter 5: Play and Theory of Lorca's Duende: Nation and Performance
Apocryphal Postscript
Appendix: Glossary of the Duende

1. The Grain of the Voice: Nation and Performance in Lorca’s “Juego y teoría del duende”
2. Jorge Guillén, Luis Cernuda, and the Vicissitudes of Spanish Modernism
3. María Zambrano and the Genealogy of Late Modernism
4. Fragments of a Late Modernity: Samuel Beckett and José Ángel Valente•*
5 Antonio Gamoneda and the Persistence of Memory
6. What Claudio Knew
7. The Spanish American Connection: Blanca Varela and Eduardo Milán
8. Poetry and Aphorism (From Antonio Machado to Luis Feria)
9. The Verse Paragraph (From Juan Ramón Jiménez to Olvido García Valdés)

I'm still not happy with the table of contents. #6 needs to be more information-rich.


If I write on one of my blogs, then these notes have to be at least comprehensible to someone else. I have to use complete sentences. Or at least coherent sentence fragments. When I open up a Word document and start to type, however, I often do not follow this rule of coherence and clarity. The blogs, then, have helped me to develop the ability to write spontaneously, rapidly, with some degree of lucidity. I even revise blog posts as a courtesy to my readers and not to embarrass myself. Really, though, I am helping myself by expressing my ideas with a minimal degree of competence. When I develop the capacity to do this when nobody else is going to see what I write, I will be doing myself a huge favor.

Why You Need Theory

This blog post about an article shows why you need a theory. You can't just assume a particular correlation and then interpret your data naively. without looking at interpretative contexts. In this case, what the authors of the study were missing is a generic marker of lyric poetry.

Here, theory does not mean any particular theory, but a way of looking at things with more of a consciousness of what interpretative framework you are going to use. Some really shoddy social science work just assumes a naive empiricism and has at it.

Sunday, May 8, 2011


I experienced some doubts about my book project yesterday. Is it going to be any good? Will anybody by interested? Isn't it too much like my next-to-the-last book all over again? Do I know enough about everything I'm writing about? Will I get it published?

So I had to analyze what was going on. First of all, doubts are normal. If you never have any doubts then there is something wrong, because you have no way of correcting and anticipating problems.

When I thought about these doubts, I realized that this book is very different from The Twilight of the Avant-Garde. There is very little overlap. I realized that some chapters would be more interesting than others, that I was doing some exciting things for myself as a writer. (My experiments with the classic style.) I also realized that a project that is further along can often seem less exciting.

I think the doubts were there to counterbalance the excessive enthusiasm I get sometimes, when I think I have written something very good. Right after i experience those doubts I suddenly got another really good idea. I was back to my manic self.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

I Have This Material I am Interested In, So Now What Theory Should I Use?

Here's a kind of funny question. Suppose one is interested in some specific set of materials. The music of Morton Feldman. The poetry of Federico García Lorca. Ancient Minoan archeology. How children learn their first language.

It cannot be a question of writing a left-hand column of theoretical approaches and a right hand column of research materials, and then just finding a good match. First of all, there will be a methodology already entrenched in a field. Archeologists already do things in a certain way. for example. Secondly, the kind of research problems one is interested in are inherent to the materials, in some sense. If the wrong theoretical questions are asked, then the original source interest of the materials can fade away.

If you haven't asked the theoretical questions yet, it is as though you hadn't thought about your materials as an intellectual. If you don't have a theoretical approach that is your own, that is part of your own intellectual identity, then you will just be applying a theory because a professor told you too. That is perfectly fine for a Graduate Seminar, because that is a purely academic exercise. It is harder as a professional scholar to use a theory you don't really believe in.


You can use theory as a heuristic, or as part of your intellectual identity. In the first case, you are not professing literal belief in the theory, but using it because you think it usefully illuminates the text. In the second case, there is more of an exisential commitment.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

More on Nuanced Theory

Here are some more suggestions about using theory.

(1) Don't always go for the cartoon version of the theory, the most common use. In other words, don't cite Benedict Anderson just to make the point that nations are "imagined communities." That Derrida "deconstructs Western logocentrism. That Foucault shows that knowledge is power. These are theoretical commonplaces, like the topoi of medieval/renaissance culture. (Carpe diem, or ut pictura poesis.) Instead, look for the theorist's arguments, the surprising things in their thought. Oftentimes the real substance of the theory does not correspond very much to the popular understanding. I've heard some versions of Judith Butler that are so simplistic that they are actually the opposite of Judith Butler. For example, if I hear someone say that Butler proves that gender is socially constructed, then I would say that this person has not understood anything, since that is a position taken in feminism before Butler. What she is saying, among other things, is that not only gender, but sex itself is socially constructed.

(2) As Andrew Shields said, read the theory as you would the literary text itself, with as fine a degree of scrutiny. The theory itself has be to read, interpreted, evaluated. What are its strong and weak points? What are the limits of its applicability?

(3) Make sure you know the theory well enough so that you could explain it in your own words, without using any of the specialized language of that theoretical school. When you write, make sure it's your voice we're hearing, not a mimicked theoretical voice.

(4) What are the nuances of the material that you are working on? How are these nuances preserved / lost in a particular kind of theoretical reading?

(5) Is the theory something you believe in, or a heuristic? Do you have the difference clearly in your mind? How would someone not already sympathetic to your approach respond?

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Theory of Nuance / Nuances of Theory

Nuance is the main thing. If my approach is nuanced, if my writing follows the contours of my nuanced ideas, then I will be happy. The application of theory can lead to unnuanced approaches for two reasons.

(1) Theory can act like a bulldozer, running over the analytical material and imposing a single view of it; or a hammer hitting nails ("If your only tool is a hammer, then everything starts to look like a nail"); theoretical jargon sometimes imposes a view of things and doesn't allow for nuanced prose.

(2) Sometimes the critic's understanding of the theory is not very nuanced in the first place. Is the critic relying on a "canned" version of Foucault, or the farmer's market version?


One approach to brainstorming is to make a numbered list of ideas. Simply list the ideas as they come to you and give them numbers in that order, without any attempt at organizing them. Here are some examples from my own work. I want to write about the composer Morton Feldman. I have no idea what I want to say, but I know that I have something to say.

Once you have a list of 20-30 ideas, then you can put them in some kind of order, grouping them thematically, arranging them in more logical sequences or by order of importance, discarding the redundant ones.

Of course, you could jot down ideas without the numbers, but the numbers help me to see them as discrete items rather than as a a chaotic mess. You are still allowing ideas to flow freely, but you are using a very simple technique to keep track of them. Some ideas will end up being major points, others very minor ones. Some will be discarded later, but none of this effort will be truly wasted.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Free Play of Ideas and the Disciplined Project

I enjoy the free play of thought, unconstrained by the discipline of a project that seems to narrow things down excessively. I also like the focus of a strong project that direct my attention at specific things. It is impossible to be interested in everything at the same time. What I really enjoy, then, is the free-play of ideas within a project, and the tension between developing an idea for its own sake and developing it within the framework of an argument. Many time I have developed an idea without any ulterior motive and it has ended up in a project. The disciplined project colonizes the rest of my ideas, cherry-picking the best ones and throwing away the others.

Cada loco con su tema

When I was writing my chapter on the verse paragraph last fall, that's all I was interested in. I was obsessed with prosody. When I was looking at materials for my chapter on the aphorism, I became an aphorism nut. I bought books on it, wrote many boring blog posts about this genre. It seemed, all of a sudden, that I had been obsessed with this my whole life. I remembered papers I had written as an undergraduate that my memory had let slip away. I have also had obsessive interests in translation theory, in jazz drumming, and many other things.

Cada loco con su tema is a Spanish proverb that means, more or less, that every crazy guy has his obsession, or that that obsessed people seem crazy. I have more than one "tema."


You need to stretch your mind from time to time, make it do things that it doesn't ordinarily do. What I do is listen to a podcast in Italian, or write a blog post in bad French, or read a paper about linguistics. Thinking, teaching, or writing about your own sub specialty does not count as stretching. Reading for pure entertainment is fine, but it is not the kind of stretching I am talking about. When you are stretching, you should feel slightly uncomfortable. Listening to familiar music is not stretching, but trying to follow along in the the score while you are listening is (if you are not a good musician.) When you are stretching, you should feel your mind-muscles going someplace where they are not used to going. It should feel like an actual stretch.

The purpose of the stretch is to remind yourself that what might come easy to you might be difficult for someone else; to increase and maintain mental agility; to have some fun; to learn something new and possibly to get some ideas that wouldn't have otherwise occurred to you.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Deliberate Writing

Have a reason for everything you do when you are writing. I don't mean that you have to be paralyzed with self-consciousness, but writing is highly charged with intentionality. You choose one word over another, you choose to change or not a change a sentence to avoid passive voice.

When you are learning to be deliberative, you will agonize over every sentence and move very slowly. Then, certain decisions will become habitual and won't require conscious decisions.


According to Thomas and Turner, there are three kinds of hedges that classic prose avoids:

(1) Hedges of process. Those are "hesitations and uncertainties that arise because one is in the middle of a thought" (38). I don't use those much myself. In written work, they seem artificial, because the reader assumes you have revised your prose.

(2) Hedges of liability. These are expressions like "as far as I have been able to determine." I don't think academic prose can do without such hedges completely. The careful academic writer must delineate the boundaries and limits of his or her knowledge. A possible way around this hedge is to limit the argument to assertions that one knows with more certainty.

(3) Hedges of worth. Arguments about the inherent value of studying a particular subject. "The classic writer spends no time justifying her project" (39). All my writing, however, betrays an anxiety about the value of what I am studying. While my argument is often implicit, I have to justify why it is an important subject to be writing about in the first place. What I need to do, then, is to make this justification even more implicit, even more inherent in my arguments. Just as the authors of this book, Thomas and Turner, argue for the classic style but never have to justify why it is important to consider the matter in the first place, so my argument on behalf of late modernism must take for granted that we want the richest possible poetics.

As I understand this book, Clear and Simple and the Truth, the authors are not saying that everyone should attempt to write in classic prose, but that every style has an ethos, a set of assumptions about the relationships between readers and writers, language, thought, and truth. They clearly lay out the assumptions of the "classic" model and contrast them with other possible styles. The classic style is a good foil, because it is so absolute and uncompromising, so elegant when it works well.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

A Link to a Post from the Past

This repost is for the Spanish Prof, who wonders how she can make the most of her sabbatical.

More Classic Style

It suddenly occurred to me yesterday why I wanted to use the "classic style" in a book about late modernism. This literary movement is very self-confident; it wants to occupy the cultural center without "hedges" about its own value. I want to write about it without having to justify its value. I wanted to make the strongest possible argument without questioning myself at every turn.


My attitude toward the reader is that I will offer the strongest arguments I can. The reader will be able to accept or reject these arguments, because they are clearly made. I doubt anyone will agree with every single thing I say, but I want to be as convincing as I can.


I've been obsessed with aphorisms lately, as you will know if you are also a reader of the other blog. The aphorism is a "classic" genre in the sense that it asserts its conclusions with no argument, no hedges. I am writing a chapter of the book about aphorisms, so I think the style, there, is going to be part of the argument.


Of course, my numerous departures from the classic style, whether intentional or unintentional, will mean that my stance will not be that absolute. I will have to justify these departures for myself.


The theory of language of classic style is that thought precedes language. Of course, this is the opposite theory that obtains in late modernism, where language comes first and thought afterwords. In other words, I am deliberately writing this book in classic prose, not in a modern, self-reflexive prose that imitates the poetry it explicates. I feel the need of a strong and clear separation between the object of my study and my own language. Classic prose is elegant, so it won't be the same kind of discordant feel as when a writer writes badly about good writing.


Should I announce in the preface that I am attempting to use this style, or simply use it? The second option is more "classic," but I also want my readers to know that I am making a conscious choice.