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Friday, November 30, 2012

A False Assumption

I assumed that lightning could only strike once. So my Lorca book was the result of an idea that only comes to a scholar once in a career, or usually not at all! After writing that book, I assumed that I would return to a series of solid but less interesting projects. I got lucky once, and I should be satisfied with that.

The combination of a canonical author that a lot of people cared about, and an idea to do something nobody had ever done before, brought me more attention than virtually all my previous work put together. I am not being at all immodest, but completely objective when I say that this book brought my career to a different level. I am basing this not on my own subjective feeling about this work, but on everything that has ensued since I came up with the idea: an NEH Fellowship, a book from Chicago, favorable reviews, promotion to full professor, the Higuchi award... Of course, I have my subjective feeling that I have done good work as well, but the past six years have been amazing for me by any measure.

But there was a problem. What is the motivation to do work that is not as interesting, to me, or to others, as Apocryphal Lorca?

When beginning my present project I did write to a group of scholars, friends in the field, about whether they would prefer that I write a book about Lorca or one with Lorca at the center, but including other poets. I know I wrote to Elena Delgado, Luis Martín-Estudillo, and Silvia Bermúdez, and maybe José María Rodríguez. Some thought that a book about more than one author would be better, and I was half way toward completing this book when I discovered that I needed to write a book only about Lorca. I should have been tipped off by the title, What Lorca Knew, but sometimes I can be needlessly dense.

So I had misinterpreted this light bulb going off in my head. It was not that I should write one interesting book and then go back to my dogmatic slumber, but that I should continue the project of which AL is only the first volume. Since making this discovery a few days ago, I have been on fire. Not coincidentally, I have had the highest number of hits on this blog this month since I began it. More than 6,400, when my previous high was 5,200 in March of this year.

The lesson here is "write the book you are meant to write, the book you prepared all your life to do." The one you really feel compelled to pursue. If you are doing that, then all you need is to be competent, to use what you learned in grad school, your scholarly base, and very elemental skills in time management that are not in the least complex or difficult to put into action.

What I wrote in the last three days

Would you read a book that started out like this?

Introduction: Lorca / modelo para armar

Apocryphal Lorca: Translation, Parody, Kitsch (2009) is “not a book about the Spanish poet and dramatist Federico García Lorca” but, rather, an exploration of Lorca’s problematic reception among poets in the US, including Jack Spicer, Robert Creeley, and Frank O’Hara (xi). In this sequel, What Lorca Knew: Lorquian Poetics for the Twenty-First Century, the subject is, once again, the poetic afterlife of one of the great poets of European modernism. In this case, I have written a book that is more directly about Lorca, but my focus remains on his lasting presence in literary culture. Instead of limiting my scope to American poetry, I have chosen a set of critical problems relating to his critical and poetic reception in his native Spain, and to the academic industry devoted to his work around the world.

Unlike many other books on Lorca, What Lorca Knew does not consist of interpretations or explications of individual plays or books of poetry. Precisely because other capable scholars and critics have dealt adequately with his major achievements, I do not think another volume of this type is the most urgent task at the present moment—at least not for a critic of my particular disposition. I have not put forward new interpretations of Romancero gitano or Bodas de sangre, works that have been studied in great detail by countless other scholars. Instead, I have examined various dimensions of his ongoing cultural legacy, with particular attention to the ways in which his poetry is re-imagined in “hermeneutical situations” of multiple kinds.

These situations are, in principle, endlessly varied, but I have chosen three main areas of concentration. My primary interest is in Lorca’s poetics, especially as they take shape in his lectures on Flamenco music, Spanish folklore, and the duende. My aim here is to treat Lorquian poetics as the self-conscious construction of a poet who knew what he was doing, rather than as an anti-intellectual and naïve genius. Having defined “what Lorca knew,” my second aim is to study the ongoing influence of Lorquian poetics in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, with particular attention to his influence on two rival schools of contemporary Spanish poetry, whose uses of Lorca are diametrically opposed. I also remain interested in the larger cultural uses of Lorquian poetics, both in Spain and in the United States. Thirdly, I am interested in the academic reception of Lorca in relation to this poetic and cultural legacy: my hermeneutic construction of Lorca’s self-conscious poetics requires that I, too, be self-conscious of my own position as an academic specialist in the field.

Together with Apocryphal Lorca, What Lorca Knew forms part of an ongoing larger project that I am calling Lorca / modelo para armar [Lorca / model to construct]. There may be additional volumes in this series as well. The title comes from a novel by Julio Cortázar, 62 / modelo para armar, which in turn is derived from Chapter 62 of Rayuela [Hopscotch]. The idea here, quite simply, is that an author like Federico García Lorca is a construction rather than a truth or essence to be discovered. This assertion should hardly be controversial, but it leads to some surprising conclusions. The hermeneutical enterprise does not lead to a better understanding of who Lorca “really was,” but to an open-ended exploration of what he might mean for us.

The hermeneutics of Hans-Georg Gadamer provides a way of understanding the ongoing legacy of a hyper-canonical figure like Lorca, who presents interpretative problems of dizzying complexity. Because Lorca has been the object of endless translation, transformation, and commentary, he...

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Literary Theory 101

A lot of my Lorca project is just Literary Theory 101. An author is an "author-function" (Foucault) not a biographical subject with a set of fixed "intentions." The speaker of the poem is not the biographical subject.

We construct a literary tradition retrospectively; it isn't handed to us as a given (Borges). The problem of translation is co-substantial with the problem of literature itself (Borges). Hermeneutics is historical and takes into account the linguisticality of language (Gadamer). Language is not an unproblematical mirror for representing reality (every literary theorist ever).

Gay identity is not fixed or essential, but constructed (every theorist since Foucault and Sedgwick).

These are things I have almost always known (or so it seems). Lorca studies is too often innocent of these basic principles. I can make a contribution simply by being competent in my understanding of these ideas, and just a little bit creative in seeing the implications that ensue.


Here is a free idea for you: explain the literary theory of Borges using the terms of Gadamerian hermeneutics. You can use "Kafka and His Precursors," "The Homeric Versions," and "Pierre Menard." You can take this idea free of charge and write your own essay. Just credit me with the original idea.

"A Scholar assumes that others might also be scholars"

I was exploring some material on one of my favorite academic blogs today. In an older post, Z / Profacero / Z writes:
This was a scholarly interaction, and it took place at a large state institution. Say anything you want about how this was a fifty year old man, flattered that a seventeen year old blonde who wasn’t even in his class, came to ask about his book. It was still a scholarly interaction on all sides. From it, I learned that a scholar will answer your questions seriously, no matter who you are. To put it a little differently, a scholar assumes that others might also be scholars.
I'm giving a little bit of context for this aphorism, because I wanted to show the experience out of which it arose, a visit by the blogger as college student to a professor's office. The entire series of posts is worth reading, since the theme is "what is a scholar?"

I make this assumption myself: others may also be scholars. They aren't necessarily so, but they may be. Any serious, sincerely asked question deserves a serious scholarly answer, whether the questioner is 17 or 85, an academic or a civilian. I answer questions by random strangers who email me all the time.

Teaching, I assume my students are scholars, or could be. By this I mean that they deserve the benefit of having a scholar as their teacher, someone, himself, involved in learning. At least for those four (or five or six) years of undergraduate education, the student is a researcher, a scholar.

The assumption can backfire when students, or even colleagues, do not see themselves this way. So the question, which I have been grappling with while reading and commenting on this other blog, is, what gets in the way of our being scholars? What blocks that energy, that identity?

A lot of what I blog about here is academia 101. In other words, things you should know by around the end of Freshman year in college, if not before. How to formulate a thesis / a critical problem. How to write a good term paper / article. The question that I need to consider, however, is why college professors become alienated from their scholarly identity?

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

In defense...

of idiocy. A nice title for a very reasonable article on the usefulness of outside letters in promotion cases.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012


I realize I don't know where else to send an article. There are very few in my field where I am interested in publishing right now. Probably I will choose Revista Hispánica Moderna, since I haven't published there since the '90s at least. I have been relying on invitations for so long I hardly know what it's like to submit an article cold. I have one almost ready to send out, so that's my project for tomorrow morning.

I feel I should risk rejection once in a while with an article.

Article Submitted

So I actually submitted an article this morning, having changed it from a chapter to article. I noticed it had some signposting in it, that I didn't feel like eliminating, so it is not completely "classic" in style. It also had some 1st person singular language. That's fine. If it is turned down for that it makes very little difference to my career. If it is accepted, then I will have an article written in that "voice."

Engagement / Estrangement

I have felt uneasy about my current project for a while. It has seemed too much a repetition of my book The Twilight of the Avant-Garde. The idea of retracing the genealogy of late modernism in Spain is fine, but too much "inside baseball" for me and my projected audience. Sure, I care about late modernism in Spain, but who else does? So I am now going to make the book What Lorca Knew about Lorca. What I really need to do is to follow up on Apocryphal Lorca, without repeating anything.

So I have the article I've already published that would have formed part of What Lorca Knew in its original form.

Lorca and Beckett
María Zambrano
Guillén / Cernuda

I also have at least three articles I can now publish without conflicting with the book:

Strange Islands: Late Modern Spanish Poetry and the Spanish American connection
Verse Paragraph
Valente and Late Modernism

What tipped the balance for me was a comment by Z's about being engaged in one's own research or estranged from a particular project. I realized I had really been engaged in my other Lorca book, like no other. I also realized that I represented myself as a Lorca scholar in public, that there was a principle of "dancing with the one who brung you" here.

I also feel uneasy about Valente. In some sense, it was Valente, not Lorca, who was the center of the other book. So I shouldn't write a book about Valente with Lorca, not him, in the title. Valente, whom I admire a great deal, is an inward-looking, "essentialist" poet, like Juan Ramón Jiménez. Lorca is a poet of fractured and Protean sensibility, not the self-contained modernist like JAV. Valente is too much the official poet of my particular "school."

I can really do anything I want in research, so I don't have to worry about scrapping a particular table of contents. If I get a Guggenheim, that's fine. I can still work on the book of the same title, even if the contents have shifted.

So the new book will consist of the following:

What Lorca Knew: [Informative Yet Clever Subtitle]

Chapter 1: Was Lorca a Poetic Thinker?
Chapter 2: The Grain of the Voice: “Play and Theory of the Duende”
Chapter 3: Postmodern Lorca: Motherwell, Strayhorn, García Montero
Chapter 4: Lorca and Contemporary Spanish Poetry: The Anatomy of Influence
Chapter 5: [How, in spite of everything, Lorca has not yet been fully "queered"]
Chapter 6: Lorca Studies: Agenda and Critique

Only one of these chapter is published, so the book will be substantially original. Only one chapter reprises material from AL.

So I will have enough extra articles to buy myself some time while I put together this book. Although I could go a year or two without publishing much I don't feel right about it. I won't be working on the book in Spanish Lorca / modelo para armar. Instead, I will have someone translate What Lorca Knew into Spanish.

Instead of being bummed about my project having shifted shape, I feel re-energized. I will be submitting unsolicited articles again--something I haven't done much of lately. I am ready to kick some [scholarly] ass, so watch out. Mayhew is back and never really went away.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Some Shakespeare for you

I was in the Biblioteca nacional the other day, and I came upon a ms. that I think might be a lost fragment of a play by a certain Elizabethan dramatist. This discovery must might make me even more famous. I'll just give you a small taste here:

Imprudentia: The scrimmage that hath late in me derived
Departure from this scurvy world, does now
Import the damage from the linnet curves
And smite the arrows of an errant staff.

Imelda: How now, my mistress? What strange tongue or lip
Hath entered into congress with thy fearful wit,
Once strutting on the boardwalks of the Strand?
I fear the weariness of watchful strife
And hearken stripteases of careless spoors.

Imprudentia: Fear not, my gentle servant. 'Tis the night
When spirits fall upon our sweet intelligence
And lift discretion to a dizzy cliff
Where hapless faeries stir their verdant broth
And listen often for a stringy writ.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Plagiarism Fallacies

Some fallacies used by defenders of plagiarism*:

ad hominem (against those accusing the plagiarist)
tu quoque (everyone does it anyway)
argument from the motivations of those pointing out the plagiarism (if what they say is true, it doesn't matter, because their motivations are tainted)
canards and red herrings, various kinds of question-begging
argument from authority (the plagiarist is a good guy / woman in other ways, a prestigious scholar, etc...)
confusion of copyright in the legal sense and the ethical code of scholarship
argument from the percentage of the total output affected (only 2,000 words in a 50,000 word book)
argument from sloppiness, the non-intentional nature of the offense
argument that the plagiarist is a smart person and thus didn't need to plagiarize; therefore s/he didn't
argument that a student would have had to do what the plagiarist did a few more times to be brought up on charges
argument that unattributed paraphrase is ok if you "change enough words"
argument that direct quotes without quotation marks are ok if the original author is cited a few paragraphs (or pages) away
argument that none of the people plagiarized has complained yet (!)
argument that we live in a digital age
argument that 8-year olds will grow up to be plagiarists because of wikipedia

*Adopted from my summary of defenses of Frank Fischer on a CHE comment board.

Update: One more: you are not in this particular field or subfield, you don't know enough about its mores, its secondary literature, to make an argument about plagiarism.

Plagiarism: Where's the Harm?

If plagiarism is theft, then it does matter whether the original author cares you've plagiarized her. As Thomas comments on this post, however, the damage of plagiarism is not to the original author (primarily) but to the reader and the institution of scholarship itself. We can see this easily in our classes. We punish plagiarism even though it does no damage to the original authors, who usually don't even know. If someone plagiarizes wikipedia, we don't care how wikipedia feels about it. If the author is deceased, or is cool with being plagiarized, we still call it plagiarism. If I write an article and sell it to you, and you publish it under your name, no theft has taken place, but it is still a breach of academic integrity, just the same. That is because the harm is to the reader.

Of course, plagiarism may involve intellectual property issues, and often does, but it is not primarily a matter of IP. I can plagiarize material in the public domain, that nobody owns. I can plagiarize material or no ostensible economic value, like the typical academic article, and I cannot make it right by paying the original author the price of a beer, even if the author agrees to this.

So plagiarism may be a form of theft in some cases, but that's not the main reason why it is wrong.


Similarly, the defense that the plagiarized paper is cited by the plagiarizer is not a legitimate defense. You often hear people say, "well, look, the paper is cited, so clearly no plagiarism has taken place, or wasn't intentional." If you don't attribute specific words and ideas to their rightful authors, it is plagiarism, even if you cite the authors a dozen times for other words or ideas. In fact, a large number of citations to another paper, combined with an even larger, but concealed debt, is especially pernicious.


You often hear people reluctant to care about plagiarism. To me, that is like not caring about scholarship itself. If it doesn't matter to you who said what when, then what are you doing in the business?

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Term Paper

The assault on higher education from within continues at the CHE. Luckily, this essay on "killing the term paper" is being trounced in the comments. Go there and join the discussion.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Happy Engagement vs. false positives

In a writing session of happy engagement, you are focused not on your ego (either negatively or positively)but on the work in front of you. We've already shown that seemingly "positive" ego can also be detrimental. Having a "strong ego" can mean two things: not worrying about the ego one way or the other, or having an exaggerated sense of self-worth that is, consequently, easily bruised. (The latter is really a form of weak ego, not a manifestation of a strong one!)

So the kind of inner monologue you will hear in a mood of happy engagement is more like this: "That paragraph is almost done, but something is missing at the end... Oh, I see, that last sentence needs to be the topic sentence of a paragraph of its own... How should I end that paragraph, then?... I need a better transition..."

It might help to realize that you don't need to worry about getting to a zone of perfect egolessness. That may never even happen. As long as your main focus is on the work rather than on your self, you can simply accept that you will still have distracting thoughts related to your adequacy or inadequacy. If you spend too much energy trying to banish those thoughts, you will be doubly distracted: "Gee, this egolessness is hard to achieve, I am horrible at this...I'll never get this right." Instead, you could imagine yourself saying: "Oh, I just had one of my 'underconfident' (or 'overconfident') moments... Not very helpful, so I will return to the business at hand."

It might also help to know that everyone has moments of self-doubt and / or overconfidence. The negative thought is not, itself, a sign that you are deeply flawed or doomed to failure. Thinking you are brilliant, by the same token, does not mean that you are. It is just a natural reaction when things are going well.

Believing in yourself is fine. Earnest exhortations to have a positive attitude, however, are not very useful, because a positive attitude cannot be willed into existence. If crippling negative thoughts are dominating your inner monologue, you cannot just replace them with a different, more positive sort of self talk. If you are in state that the ego is out of control, no amount of "writing advice" will really help. Instead, the remedy is to analyze the reasons behind the negativity. If you experienced "happy engagement" in the past, what was different about that time? Maybe there was no pressure for tenure? Maybe you had a better mentor at the time?

Monday, November 19, 2012


Almost all unpleasantness in research* is due to the interference of the ego voice in your head. Worrying about whether you are smart / talented / erudite enough. Whether you deserve (on some existential level) to be doing what you are doing. Any shortcoming in a sentence you just wrote, any frustration with a sentence that took you too long to write, becomes evidence of unworthiness. No wonder people suffer writing block and chronic procrastination. Who wants to be subjected to that inner voice every day!

If I see a flaw in something I wrote yesterday, I think to myself: "oh, I used the same word twice in the same sentence, let me change that." Not: what a bad writer I am, I should just give this up.

For some, the answer is to have a lot of positive ego, but the kind of positive ego that cannot withstand criticism is really just a weak ego. Suppose I sat down and said: "I am a great writer. Everything I do is gold." Then noticing something wrong, or, worse, having someone else point it out, would be devastating. It is easy to oscillate between exaggerated positive ego and humbling negative ego. Suppose I thought every article I sent out was flawless, and editors thought differently. Then I would have to deal with crushing blows to my self-esteem every time.

Of course, sometimes I do have pleasant thoughts while writing, like: that sentence sounds good, or, I am really smart, or, so-and-so is going to like this article, or, I am getting a lot done today, or, "not many people in my field could have done this." I don't really know how to repress those thoughts. I just acknowledge them and move on in quiet confidence.

*The rest of the unpleasantness is having other obligations that prevent you from doing it, or poor working conditions that impose too high a cost.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Critical Thinking Exercise

Here's another one. Gerald Crabtree, an idiot scientist from Stanford, has a paper in which he argues that human intelligence has declined from its peak. His argument, as I understand it, is two-fold:

--Intelligence is a matter of survival. As survival, of the not-getting-eaten-by-a-bear type, gets easier and easier, there is not as much natural selection (stupider people getting eaten) for intelligence.

--The rate of mutation, which can be calculated, means that harmful brain mutations have resulted in an overall decay of human intelligence, over thousands of years. With no way of selecting out those mutations, there is no counterbalancing force to maintain the original level of intelligence.

The critical thinking exercise is to poke holes in this argument, which I hope I have not stated too facetiously (right).

1. First of all, the conclusion seems a bit trivial if it does not state by how much, exactly, intelligence has fallen. In other words, the decline might be real, but so negligible that nothing really follows from it. Is it .001%? Or .01%? Then the variability of intelligence within the human race will basically negate its effects. In other words, the smartest people around today will still be as smart as anyone 6,000 years ago. It would have to be a fairly large effect to be significant in the least. How much of an effect would be necessary? I have no idea, but does Crabtree? Does he make any argument about that?

2. Is the ability to avoid bears what we mainly mean by "intelligence"? Presumably our closest genetic ancestors also developed ways of not getting eaten, with much less of what we mean by "intelligence" than we do. In fact, any ape living today is better than we are at wilderness survival. In other words, there seems to be an unexamined disconnect between definitions of intelligence. High-level cognitive abilities, like those involved in solving complex mathematical equations, are not necessary at all for basic survival. In fact, often the smart guy will be the first to be eaten by the bear.

3. Intelligence is not selected just by survival, but also, presumably, by sexual selection. That kind of selection is probably more in play in modern, technologically advanced societies.

4. Any mutation harmful enough to do real harm to the overall intelligence of the species might have been weeded out (selected against) by a variety of means in more recent times. For example, it might have been as hard to survive to reproductive age as a serf in Tsarist Russia than on the savannah. We could also argue more complex the society, the more cognitive ability comes into play for survival, since many cognitive abilities like abstract reasoning aren't even relevant to hunter-gatherer conditions.

5. The whole thesis lacks any kind of corroboration. For example, we know ancient civilizations did great things requiring prodigious brain power. We know that modern peoples from 1500 on have also done similar things. There is no decline in intelligence that has to be explained in some way. Without any kind of corroboration, the argument boils down to idle speculation. Idle, in the sense that the thinking does not get us anywhere, like a car with the engine on and idling. In this, it resembles the worst of evolutionary psychology, a field comprised by "just so stories."

6. The science behind the calculations of mutations is something I have not the expertise to question. Note, however, that this scientific evidence is mustered to support an argument that raises many other questions of interpretation.

Please, no comments about the decline of intelligence as manifested by "kids today" or reality shows. GC is not arguing that the results are visible or detectible in any way. In fact, he is hiding behind the weakness of his own claims.

Media coverage of this will be terrible, I predict. First of all, it will call forth declensionist narratives of human decline. Headlines like "Yes, we really are stupider, scientist discovers." But his actual argument is for a decline that can hardly be detected at all, over many millennia. He is not arguing for a decline that is palpable over the course of a few generations, but the media spin will all go in that direction.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Plagiarism as cross-contamination

You often hear people say, "It's not deliberate plagiarism, just carelessness." Actually, however, cross-contamination is a better metaphor for most cases of plagiarism than theft. The idea that plagiarism is stealing ideas or words is confusing for a lot of people, because theft is usually a deliberate act. "I didn't mean to do it" is not a legitimate excuse, and non-intentional plagiarism is still plagiarism. Imagine I got on a bike, thinking it was mine, and got home with it. Later I realize it is not mine. I didn't mean to steal the bike, but I still did something wrong.

[Of course, wholesale appropriation of others' ideas is theft, and is plagiarism.]

So the secret to avoiding plagiarism is not to be careless. It is a matter of higiene: keeping your words separate from those of others, meticulously keeping track of who said what / when / how.

I'm assuming most food poisoning occurs not because someone is trying to poison the food, but because of a lack of hygiene. You can have separate notebooks for quotes from other people and your own ideas, just like you might have separate chopping boards for vegetables and meat. You should never transcribe a quote into your document without quotation marks or indentations. Don't go back and format later, because you might not remember. You should have a protocol in place to protect your scholarly integrity.

Shopping is research / cooking is writing

Menu planning is deciding what you are going to cook. [deciding on the topic of your articles, the chapters of your book...]

Making the grocery list. This is looking at the menu and figuring out what you need to buy. [making a list of the materials you will need for the paper]

Shopping. Going to the store or stores and buying what is on your list. [Research!].

Mise en place. Having everything in place before you start cooking. [organizing your research materials; knowing where to find them when you are writing.]

Cooking. Preparing the actual meal. [writing the article or chapter.]

Plating. Putting the food on the plates in an aesthetically pleasing manner. [preparing the final version of the article].

Now it is possible to do these steps in different order, to go to the store without having a list or a menu, for example. It is possible to start cooking and then realize you don't have some ingredients. Then you turn off the stove and go back to the store. You might have no mise en place in place. But, in general, this is the logical order of doing things. If you are writing before you do research, then what you are writing will be more of a menu plan or a grocery list than an article based on what you already know. That is fine, you should have a list, but you should know that that is what you are doing. It makes no sense to do these steps in a different order. Shopping is research and cooking is writing. The student Z had who had not read the primary text should simply be slapped down.

One caveat: my own process is a good deal more fluid than that. The metaphor suggests a straightforward efficient way of doing things, but we know in practice that research is not always efficient, that it answers to a higher efficiency.


PS: Plagiarism is cross contamination, like getting raw chicken juice into the ingredients for a raw salad.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Tenure and Promotion Letters?

I have written exactly 15 tenure and promotion letters,including two for promotion to full professor. I have turned down a handful of requests as well, though usually I say yes. I cannot agree that the practice is idiotic. It is true that the vast majority of letters are positive: people are increasingly unwilling to write a negative one, so the problem for weaker candidates is to get enough letters. The Department chair might have to contact more people to get the six letters required. (It's six where I work; your mileage might vary.) People write insincere letters as well, though I am incapable of that. I once, and only once, wrote an absolutely negative letter. I should have checked first to see what the candidate had done, to save myself the trouble and feelings of guilt. I have been sincerely luke-warm on occasion. In other words, I have felt there is some merit to the case, not to be stated too strongly, and that I should write nothing to prevent the person from being promoted at a place where s/he was likely to remain a good fit.

The author of this CHE article seems to think that research can be evaluated in house. That might be true of his field (Finance) which has a quasi-official ranking of the three top-tier journals. You can simply count up the journal articles and see how many are in Journal 1, 2, and 3. My field is much more subjective. I could never evaluate someone doing Colonial Latin American Literature without knowing what people in that field thought about my colleague's research.

In cases I have seen over the years, negative letters turned out to be "right" in the long term. In other words, negative letters pointed to real problems in the research. Not always, of course. The problem is that, with letters skewing so positive, negative letters become comparatively richer in information. Because of a general unwillingness to go negative, we assume the naysayer is more sincere. The negative assessment stands out. I feel better about getting three rave review, two luke-warm assessments, and one pan. That gives me more information than six raves.

There are many things dysfunctional in academia, but I am not sure that the system of getting outside letters for t&p is one of them. Of course, I only speak from my own experience writing and reading such letters. I don't know what letters about my own case said.

Monday, November 12, 2012

The End of the Southern Strategy

Ok, this off topic for this blog. I hate politics, so I rarely blog about things like this, but here is my analysis.

Nixon devised the Southern Strategy. The idea was to use Civil Rights (supported by Kennedy and LBJ) as a wedge to make Southern Racist Democrats into Republicans. The Democratic "Solid South" became the Solidly Republican South we now see on Electoral College maps. The Republican party was so unpopular in the Old South that it practically did not exist.

This strategy worked for Nixon, Reagan, and the two Bushes. The Democrats could only win with Southern white candidates: Carter, Clinton, and Gore. (Well, Gore won the popular vote and lost the electoral college because of the most questionable SCOTUS decision of the century, Bush v. Gore.) Mass. democrats like Dukakis and Kerry lost during this same period.

McCain and Romney still won (most)of the old Confederacy and former slave states like Missouri, but Obama was the first non-Southerner to win the presidency for the Democratic since JFK. (I'm counting LBJ as Southerner since was a Texan.) Virginia and NC were swing states in 2008 and 12, joining Florida.

So the Southern Strategy no longer works: you can win almost the whole South, but that doesn't add up to 270, even if you throw in Kansas, the Dakotas, and Utah, states large in territory but without that many electoral college votes. The Obama coalition of Asian-Americans, Latinos, African-Americans, young people, single women, non-theistic, and highly educated people now outnumber the core of the Republican base: religious conservatives, Southern Whites, white men and married white women, the extremely wealthy, older people, and people without college degrees. (Of course, some people from all of these groups voted the "other way" from the majority in their demographic: I am speaking of trends, not absolutes. If 100% of women voted for one candidate that candidate would win easily if sh/e got only 45% of men.) As a result, Obama could be elected TWICE as the antithesis of everything the old Confederacy stood for.

I've seen people object to maps juxtaposing Civil-War era politics, or Jim Crow laws, with current-day electoral maps. I think these juxtapositions hold an important truth. The Deep South can stay as Republican as it wants, and Democrats can still hold on to the White House without White Southern candidates like Carter, Clinton, and Gore.

Mise en place (2)

In reality, I do not have a good "mise en place" for my own scholarly writing. I tend to just sit down and do it without worrying about whether I have everything ready to go. As a consequence, I have a lot of lacunae in my drafts that I have to fix later by going back and looking for references, quotes, etc... So my actual approach resembles that of Thomas more than what I recommended myself. Maybe I think that other people could not stand to do what I do, which is to master the subject so much that I can seem to fly by the seat of my pants. For example, my method of doing a peer review is to read the article one day, taking almost no notes, and then to write the review the next day, looking at the article only to find specific examples to quote or cite. I suspect most people would have to take notes, then work from those notes.

So I have a difficult time giving advice to people, because I am a different kind of writer than most. On the one hand, I feel that if I were really efficient and prepared, I would be an even more productive scholar. On the other hand, I can pretty much kick ass the way I am doing things now, so why change?

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Mise en place

In cooking, "mise en place" means having everything available and ready before you start. You never have to go look for something in the middle of your cooking. I recently learned this term and it makes a lot of sense. I am a very fast cook, rarely wasting time. The other day I cooked steak, grilled red peppers and asparagus, and a pasta dish with a carmelized onion, baby bella mushrooms, and red wine sauce. I timed myself and it took 36 minutes from washing my hands to putting it all on the plate for myself to eat. If I know where everything is before I start, if I spend a few minutes at the beginning getting my mise an place organized, then I am never interrupted. Nothing is burnt or undercooked. When I shop for a meal, I leave everything in the shopping bag in the fridge until I am ready to cook. Then I don't have to root around in the refrigerator for everything I need.

In scholarly writing "mise en place" means exactly the same thing. Every book or article you are going to cite should be on hand before you start your writing session. Some day I will be able to do this as efficiently as I cook. It's something for me to think about. I've always used the excuse that I live in two places. Once I move permanently away from St Louis, I will have no more excuses.


A facebook friend, not an academic, commented on the negativity of my "What I gave up to be an academic" post. I didn't see that as negative at all. I have a pretty good life and comfortably inhabit my academic identity. If anything, too comfortably. True, I did mention some things about myself that I do not do well, like administration and negotiating for salary, but that is just standard self-criticism. Of course, since we are already extremely self-critical in this profession, so I did not see those comments about myself as particularly negative.

This perspective (my friend's) is useful because it allows me to see how negative the culture is about itself. Someone like Clarissa who embraces almost every aspect of the job with gusto is more unusual. More of us are at odds with fundamental aspects of our working conditions or identities.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

How To Write An Article in 30 Days

Here's what you need:

ALL of your research materials in one place. Every book, article, that you are going to cite, collected in one place, whether it is an office, a bag that you will take to the coffee shop, or your bedroom. I am not nearly as well-organized as you are, so I usually don't have this all together, but I'm sure you will.

NEXT, you need an idea of how much you can write. Your article will be 7,000 words, and you can write 500 a day. That's 14 days. You have 30 days to get those 14 days of writing in. Take out the weekends, or days when you are too busy teaching, and you should still be able to find about 20 days in which to do that 14 days of writing, with a day or two at the end to shape the article into a final draft. I'm sure you have more self-discipline than I do, so it should be a piece of cake.

YOU will need a time of the day in which to write. For me, lately, it's been from about 7:50 to 10:30 a.m. I'm sure you get up even earlier than I do, so it should be easy for you.

THAT'S all you need, assuming that the article will be the results of research that you've already completed. To have a successful academic career, you need to do this at least twice a year. You won't be writing 12 articles / chapters a year, but "only" 2. Some years, I haven't even written two articles, but I'm sure you will.

Friday, November 9, 2012

What I Would Have Given Up By Not Being An Academic

What I don't like about the "what I gave up to be an academic" meme is the contrafactual nature of it. The idea that having what is potentially one of the best, most stable and interesting jobs in America involves only an act of renunciation of some better life.

Of course, I do not object to what anyone has said about his or her own experience. People do give up other things to pursue academia, and it may or may not have been worth it. Nothing is more gratifying than hearing the story of someone who wasn't suited to academia and left it and found happiness elsewhere. Well, what might be more gratifying is to hear about someone having a magical career within academia, accomplishing everything she wants to.

I think there is a structure of disappointment built into the very texture of academic life. In graduate school the future might seem to be a continuation of the seminar: a place for intellectual dialogue. Yet the reality of working conditions in the profession are never going to live up to that. Possibilities of intellectual dialogue often seem to dry up. Your colleagues might be dullards or actively hostile to the intellect. Department politics might suck the life out of you, as happened to me at Ohio State in my first job.

Because academia is supposed to be wonderful, but isn't usually, the disappointments are much harder to bear. We imagine a life where we have no expectations that our job will be interesting, but where the money is going to be abundant. That kind of fantasy is not one I'm interested in.

I do have advice for someone who is hanging on the edges and has little chance to make a career of it. Leave. Do something else if you are young enough. Don't be an adjunct more than three years. If you are getting none of the benefits of academia, but only the suffering, and are giving up a real life in order to do this, what is the point?

What I've Lost

To say what I've given up by being an academic goes against the grain for me. I can hardly imagine another way of life. Also, I hate the negativity in academic discourse. But, following the meme from Z, squadratomagico, Dame Eleanor Hull, and Clarissa, I will give it a try.

1. Obviously, my marriage failed [at least in part] because I could not live with my family. Although I love KU and Lawrence now, I would have never chosen to go there. I also have almost no mobility. There were zero jobs fitting my profile in the last MLA list. My only options are to become an administrator, whether at KU or somewhere else. But I am lousy at administration.

2. I don't know how much I would be making in another line of work. My salary is lousy, but other full professors in my department do not share that fate, so is that because I am academic, or because I am bad at salary negotiations? Or not assertive enough? In the wrong field? If I had the 100 thousand that seems standard for someone in my position at my kind of institution, I would be doing fine. I'll settle for 90. I guess the salary and the lack of the ability to live where I want are two sides of the same coin.

3. I wanted to be a poet. I am a critic instead. Did I give this up because I am academic, or because I found out that I am an extraordinary critic but only a very, very competent poet? Because I am more temperamentally suited to the kind of brain exercise that academic prose gives me? I have to take responsibility for my failure as a poet. I simply cannot stand the vulnerability of ego involved in defining myself that way.

In short, I cannot blame my woes on the fact that I am an academic. My marriage might have failed sooner if I lived with her the whole time, and that might have been a good thing. I might be making less money as a failed poet who is not a professor. My life is pretty good, over all, with a new relationship after my recent divorce.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Recommendation Request (How to ask for a recommendation II)

Here is an almost perfect request for a recommendation I received today. I would prefer a better salutation and sign-off, but aside from that it is perfect in tone and specifics. I know exactly what I have to do, exactly what the program involves. The letter does not take for granted that I will write the recommendation, but it gives me some very good reasons to do it. This student says my course was difficult, which is a great compliment to me.

Professor Mayhew,

Hello! I hope your semester is going well. This is XXX, you taught my Spanish XXX class during the XXX semester, and I am wondering if you are willing to be a reference for a program to which I am currently applying. The XXX Program is a great opportunity for me to receive GRE training and general graduate school preparation while working on a research project of my choice. The reason I am asking you to be my referral is that your class was one of the most difficult I have taken while at KU, but it was also one of the classes I have enjoyed the most. I love Spanish and Latin American literature, and I hope to go to graduate school and someday teach these subjects myself. I am supposed to find a professor who understands my interests in what I want to pursue in my post-graduate studies, and I hope I demonstrated my interest throughout that semester. I understand the last XXX semester was a long time ago, but if you be willing to be my reference, I would greatly appreciate it. You would not have to write any letter or fill out any forms, but the XXX program would contact you in the next one or two weeks for your referral.

Thanks for your time and consideration,


Wednesday, November 7, 2012

More on Berman

Making the doctorate shorter is fine, but the real solution is to offer fewer doctorates to adjust supply to demand. If there are not enough jobs for PhDs in English or German, having a shorter time-to-degree isn't going to do anything at all to address this problem. (There are too many attorneys, with a 3-year degree. Making attorneys study two years instead will do nothing to resolve this problem.) I am in a field where there are still jobs for PhDs, and our PhDs at Kansas finish in 5 or 6 years.

Having two kinds of doctorate degrees would just make one the "real" PhD and the other the inferior one. Nobody is fooled by a school administrator who has a DocEd. I don't consider somebody like that equivalent to me. We already have a degree for people who don't want a PhD. It is called an M.A.

If time to degree is the issue, then address THAT issue. You might only accept students who have adequate preparation, for example. Then there would be no time for remedial work in the Doctoral Program. A student wanting a PhD in Spanish whose Spanish is not very good? Too bad. A budding literary critic who hasn't read enough literature. Too bad. Some people like graduate school and want to hang around longer. You could kick them out faster. But

I finished my degree at age 28. I was barely old enough to be a scholar at all. Unless you are a whole lot smarter and more precocious than I was, I don't think it is so bad to be 32 and a recently graduated PhD. If I had finished in four years, at age 25, I would have been way too young to be a college professor.

Let's stop dumbing down our profession. Let's start the stopping by opposing the vile proposals of Berman and his ilk.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012


This guy is speaking at my university. Yikes. See here for my comments on his vile ideas.


The blogger who goes by the name of Profacero had an insight today that I think is useful. Every kind of learning is like foreign language learning: it must be practiced in short, regular daily sessions. Feast and famine does not work for any subject, any kind of consistent learning.

Monday, November 5, 2012

How To Use My Office Hours

So as a student, how can you make the most effective use of my office hours?

You can use your professor's office hours for several purposes, like asking for assistance on an assignment, requesting a letter of recommendation, or clarifying feedback on graded work. Arguing over a grade, or having the professor read an assignment not yet turned in to see if you are on the right track, are not the most effective activities.

So here are some tips:

1. Tell me you're coming and why. Of course, I am always there, but it helps to know in advance. Maybe I'm having a long line of students from my other course, the one you are not in. I can advise you about optimal times.

2. If you make an appointment,whether during regular hours or at other times, show up.

3.Have a clear purpose in mind. Be prepared. If you have a form for me to sign have it ready. Don't carry an uncovered cup of coke into my office.

4. Tell me the thesis of your paper, but don't ask me to proofread the first three pages. Ask me for clarification of a point from class, but don't ask me to repeat an entire day's worth of material that you missed.

5. You are forging part of your professional network by coming to see me. I might write you a recommendation in the future, after all. You are not wasting my time, because office hours and writing recommendations are a significant part of my job. I do want to know about your career aspirations and interests, because I need to know something about you if you need my help later on. So does your visit to my office further this aim? If you are complaining about a grade, or otherwise being a high maintenance student, you are not making a good impression on me. It is more impressive to day "How can I improve my performance" than to say, "Why did you give me a B- on this paper?"

Working on Scholarly Base in Spain

I am back from Spain. Was stranded by Hurricane Sandy and returned a few days later than planned, missing the awards ceremony on Friday, for my major research award. I did not do archival research in Spain. I simply attended to my scholarly base, by seeing Spanish poets and scholars, buying recent books in my field (almost all primary texts), seeing some art exhibits, hearing Spanish spoken on the streets. I feel I should be in Spain at least two weeks a year simply because contemporary Spain is the object of my study. It was interesting to see how close Catalonia is to independence, yet still so far.