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I am posting this as a benchmark, not because I think I'm playing very well yet.  The idea would be post a video every month for a ye...

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Mentoring II

The first step in a mentoring relationship is to figure out what the expectations are on each side. What does the person being mentored expect from the mentor? How is the relationship going to work in concrete terms? How often will you meet? Does the person (I refuse to write "mentee") want you to read her work and offer commentary, or offer more general advice about navigating the profession? What are the goals, aside from the obvious, inevitable answer (getting tenure)?

The mentor needs to let the person know what to expect. For example, if I am a mentor to someone in a quite different specialty, I cannot offer specialized advice. Maybe I can read your stuff, but won't have time to read every article for style. Maybe I'll be there when you need me, but we don't talk formally every month. Some people consult their mentors about important decisions only, some want a daily rapport.

Monday, August 30, 2010


I've been assigned a junior faulty member to mentor. I won't be able to talk specifically about my work with this person on a public blog, but it should put to test my theories about producing scholarly writing. I know what works for me, but is my experience generalizable?

Mentoring is now an official deal: everyone has a mentor assigned to them. In the old days your mentor was just your PhD advisor or someone who took you under their wing informally. Now it's institutionalized, and that's probably a good thing.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Revival of Bemsha

I am bringing Bemsha Swing back to life, with a post a day. The difference between Stupid Motivational Tricks and Bemsha is that SMT will talk about the process of scholarly writing and BS will be the writing itself--inchoate fragments of my writing.

I'm going to do in Bemsha what I've been doing here: posting once a day at 1:00 a.m. and writing the posts in advance.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Mimetic Criticism

In my own field I often get irritated by a kind of mimetic criticism which consists in explaining the poet's work according to his or her own explicit poetics. Who wants to hear Wallace Stevens explicated in a kind of Stevensian idiolect? Or José Ángel Valente explained in terms of Valente's own theories? The author can essentially control his or her reception if sh/e develops a critical metalanguage and convinces critics to use it. The critical essay then will sound like a pastiche of the author's work. Boring.

This implies that criticism entails critical distance. You can be in sympathy with the author, but you can't be beholden to a scheme derived from the work itself. Otherwise, what good are you?

Friday, August 27, 2010

Reading outside Your Field

Here is a shocking story about an academic who hasn't read a scholarly book outside her specialty since 1995. You have to think laterally to have a decent scholarly base. Imagine if I'd never read a work of art history or musicology or anthropology or philosophy in 15 years! I hope I'm interpreting this story wrong, but I don't even see how you could even do your own research without consulting books outside your narrow specialty. How could that not lead to tunnel vision? Of course, someone working in that mode is likely to produce scholarship that isn't of interest to anyone else eitherm thus perpetuating the cycle.

While I don't exactly approve of such a lack of curiosity, I do have my own limits as well. I'm sure I could develop a long list of things I haven't been curious about in the past 15 years - even if I think of myself as someone who is extremely curious about a wide range of subjects.

My sense is that we are less interdisciplinary than we think we are, if such stories are at all typical. Certainly if I had read so narrowly I would never admit to it.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Practice of the Window

It's important to distinguish between Jonathan's theoretical "window" and what Tara Gray calls "big blocks of time". The former are openings in an otherwise structured writing schedule, while the latter are illusory expanses of time, always off in the future, when the things you aren't doing now will, you imagine, get done.

I work in highly structured periods of eight weeks at a time, grouped together before and after the fall break and before and after the Easter break. Those 32 weeks are really the basis of my productivity. But in January, June and August (July is normally vacation), I relax my planning and enjoy the freedom of not having very many pressing things to do. This does sometimes allow me to produce quite a lot of prose on certain projects, and this summer, just before going on vacation, and after coming back, I did manage to draft out a paper, letting it consume me during the course of whole days, sometimes nights as well.

But now I'm back on my schedule, working on the same paper one hour at a time, and it is this work, not the work done "in the window", that will make the paper publishable. So, keep the practical function of windows in mind. You don't want your house to be all windows. It's only in the context of a larger structure that a window serves a purpose.

Choosing a Topic

Choosing a really good research topic is crucially important. The topic itself determines the success of the project, in that if well-enough chosen, it will be something you can actually do, as well as being something that needs to be done. The trick is situating a topic between broad and narrow. A very specific topic can have broad implications, or simply be a narrow question that doesn't lead to anything else.

What have been my topics?

(1) The work of the most significant Spanish poet of the postwar period - Claudio Rodríguez- with an inadequate bibliography (at the time). Mine was the first book in English on Claudio Rodríguez. It still is the first book in English on him, in fact. It will always be that. With a single author project like this, you want to make sure it's not the 18th book on Virginia Woolf if it isn't super-original in approach.

(2) My second book was on linguistic self-consciousness, what we used to call metapoetry back in the day. It was a good topic because it was fashionable--but that also makes it a bad topic because it probably hasn't aged as well. A multi-author book, with some canonical authors. This is the book of mine owned by the most number of libraries. It had the first significant writing in English on Gamoneda, the greatest living Spanish poet.

(3) My third topic was masculinity and gay identity in Spanish poetry. I published a few articles on this topic but it never became a book. It was a good topic because there was all this great queer theory being done. It was a different sort of topic for me after the first two. The downside was that I never quite made it cohere as a book and have only five articles to show for it.

(4) My fourth research project of my career began with a negative response to the "poetry of experience" in Spain and tried to account for Spanish poetry between 1980-2000. It was good because it brought me some notoriety and fame in Spain, some friendships and some animosities. This is the work with which I've had the biggest impact. My only regret is that it takes attention away from other things I've done.

(5) My fifth topic was the presence of Lorca in US poetry. That was a really good topic, perfect for me personally. It allowed me to show off my chops in two poetic traditions. It was the gazillionth book on Lorca, but it was wholly original.

(6) My current project is What Lorca Knew. The drawback is that I haven't yet been able to define it in very simple terms. It's a good topic for me, but does anyone else have a reason to care? Is it too much a repetition of 2, 4, and 5? I'm going to take the attitude that the part will justify the whole. Even if it is never a book it should be 8 articles.

There are other aborted projects along the way. A book on Valente never took shape, though I've written five articles or book chapters on him.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Theory of the Window

A window is a space of time where you can get something significant done, a nice chunk of a project. Right before classes begin is a good window. You have to work on your syllabi but you're not yet in the teaching grind. My theory is that if you find enough windows, enough to supplement the everyday grind of writing, you will be ok.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010


I turn 50 years old today.

Monday, August 23, 2010


I don't have a good system yet for bibliography. What I'm doing is, once I finish a chapter, collating its bibliography into a master bibliography for the whole book. When I do this collation, I eliminate duplicate entries. Then, when the book is complete, I have to make sure each reference in each chapter is in the master list, that all references are unambiguous, etc... For example, I cannot say "Mayhew 12" when there are seven work by Mayhew in the bibliography. Page 12 of what work by Mayhew?

Problems come when I revise a chapter, and have to keep the bibliography up to date; when I eliminate a chapter and have to expunge references in the bibliography. Also, the longer the master bibliography, the harder it is to collate with a list of new entries. Maybe I should keep copies of individual bibliographies, for each chapter, for my own reference, rather than folding them into the cake batter?

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Ordering the Manuscript

I take a file folder on my MacBook Pro and put all the chapters of a book in progress into it. I keep them in order by beginning the title of each chapter with a number, like so:


That way the computer automatically keeps them in order. (I use 000 for the title page, table of contents, etc... so that chatper one can always be 001.) I can look at the ordered list and see the last time I worked on each chapter. The chapters switch order on me, as sometimes happens? I can rename the documents. Other documents in the folder that aren't actual chapters--article versions of parts of the book, for example--will not get numbers: the computer will list them afterwards so they won't clutter the list.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

One Thing I Learned on my Vacation

was that I didn't have to sit in front of the computer when I wasn't working. That lesson can carry over into everyday working life. Try to only use the computer to do what you have to do. No random surfing or facebook. Don't go into your office, turn on your computer for an hour, and avoid work during that time.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Reverie or Concentration?

Concentration connotes a tightening of the will; reverie, a loose state of mind where the mind is allowed to wander a bit. Reverie is a form of concentration without that too-purposeful tightening up. My best ideas arise out of reverie, not concentration.

Writing, unfortunately, is highly dependent on states of mind. That is kind of a curse, because having to be "in the mood" can eliminate 90% of times when you have a spare moment or a free afternoon to write. Moods can be triggered, however. The best way to enter a state conducive to writing is to begin writing. The right mood will kick in--or not--after you've started.

Another trick is to notice when it happens and try to reproduce that feeling artificially on another day by remembering what it was like.

Experiment with muscular tension. Try to write while keeping your arm and shoulder muscles as tight as possible, then loosen them until you feel them almost drooping. Try to find that sweet spot where there is no unnecessary tension.

In music, a reverie is "an instrumental piece suggesting a dreamy or musing state." Think Andrew Hill, or Claude Debussy. Certain passages from Wordsworth evoke that feeling too.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Sixteen Week Challenge

Starting on Monday, there are eight weeks until the fall break. After the break, there are then another eight weeks until Christmas. 16 weeks of 5 working days each is 80 days. If you imagine writing for three hours a day, that gives you 240 hours. 240 ideal hours in an ideal world, of course.

Each semester I issue my Sixteen Week Challenge to try to get researchers to think about how they might really spend those 240 ideal hours. To make their world a little more ideal, we might say.

Read more about the challenge HERE.

What does "most" mean?

At language log a few weeks ago some of us were commenting on the issue of what most means. This is a very common word that everyone uses in English, and the meaning does not seem that controversial, but some of us thought that it meant the same as "the majority," i.e., 50 percent + 1, whereas for others of us it meant a supermajority.

I am in the second category. I would find it strange to say "most Americans live East of the Rockies." For me, pragmatically, most expresses a generalization, not merely a statistical fact. I wouldn't say "Most people passed the exam" if 12 out of 20 did--and 8 failed it. Or "Most people are Asian," meaning that a bare majority of the population of the world lives there. Others commenting on the blog, though, were fine with that kind of expression. I'm not saying they are wrong, because in some contexts and dictionary definitions most = majority, but native speakers differ on how their intuitions about the word.

Writing with precision is difficult, if even a simple, common word can be that ambiguous. People will misunderstand your points even if you write with the greatest precision, so if you are less than precise, the results could be more disastrous.

We reach generalizing conclusions all the time in scholarship. We want to say that a certain fact is valid about a certain percentage of what we are talking about. Most can be used to fudge the issue, since it has the literal meaning of 51% but the connotation--at least for some of us--of an overwhelming majority (80-99).

Wednesday, August 18, 2010


Going through my uncompleted work I'll find phrases in brackets, like "[not the distinction between high and popular culture that interests me, but rather the difference between an approach centered on thinking and another centered on performance and lived experience]." This means that I've had an idea for what should go there but haven't bothered to write a complete sentence. I guess it would be easy enough to make it complete:
It is not the distinction between high and popular culture that interests me, but rather the difference between an approach centered on thinking and another centered on performance and lived experience.

[wipes sweat from brow]

I'd have to change a few more things to make it a good sentence: eliminate the inelegant repetition of "centered on," flesh it out a bit to make it less cryptic. What I mean is that I am not particularly concerned with breaking down the division between high and low in a way that has already happened in cultural studies, but pointing to a more subtle distinction.

Here is the context, the sentences that immediately precede this incomplete sentence:
Modern poetry is a serious tradition, requiring a criticism that rises to a certain intellectual level. At the same time, however, my interest in the performance of poetry has led me to view it as an art-form closely allied with music. This does not mean, of course, that the musical and performative aspects of the poetic art are not, also, intellectual in their own way. I would argue, however, that the critical tools needed to analyze, say, José Ángel Valente’s debt to the philosophy of Miguel de Unamuno and María Zambrano seem very different from those that come into play when looking at the Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen’s translation and musical adaptation of a poem by Federico García Lorca, in his song “Take This Waltz.”

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Fetish and Flow

You want to seek out those flow states of intense concentration, cultivate that ability in yourself. But you don't want to be so dependent on those states that you can't work unless you are in the flow. The flow can't be your fetish. The flow comes more from habitual action than from random, muse-like inspiration. On days when the flow is completely absent, there is still plenty to do: correct format and bibliography, read over completed drafts of other chapters.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Anticipatory Vacation

It was hard for me to concentrate in the week before my vacation. The "cycling through" technique was good because my attention was wandering anyway. I was already anticipating the vacation itself, putting myself in that mind frame.

By the same token, the final days of a vacation can be less restful, because of the anticipation of going back to work. I actually cut the vacation short and began working a few days earlier than planned, because I could not stand having so many pending tasks--a tenure case and a peer review of an article for a journal, my sabbatical application...

Sunday, August 15, 2010

What do you want to be known for?

Do you want to be known as X's disciple, or as the Y's teacher? Do you see yourself as a theorist, a critic, or a scholar? Are you mainly an expert on Joyce or Twain, or on Ireland or Sweden? Do you define yourself by period or by theoretical approach?

In my case, I don't want disciples, nor to be known for whom I worked with. I'd like to be thought of as someone who defined the terms of the debate in my field, someone who raised the standard for what excellent work is in my subfield, and made this subfield relevant to those for whom it would otherwise not be so important. I want to have a reputation both in Spain and in the US academy. I don't need to be a star; I'd rather be respected by a few people who know quality work.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Negative Criticism

I recently declined to do a tenure evaluation. The candidate involved had taken issue with me in his book, and I didn't want to do an evaluation that was mostly a debate surrounding particular issues of great importance to me. It didn't help that the person didn't cite my major article in which I take this position, using instead an older one. I also passed on an opportunity to write a book review of this same book. I could have pretty much demolished the book, but that would not have been very nice.

I recognized my own bias: I tend to think that scholars who agree with me are a little bit smarter than those who don't. Compensating for the bias, I would have had to write a glowing tenure letter saying how of course this scholar was correct in trying to refute me. I just didn't have it in me, though. I decided neither to help nor harm.


I also wrote a very scathing review of a book on Lorca in the last issue of Revista Hispánica Moderna. Here the ethical issue is improving the quality of the field by pointing out work that was not very good--in my opinion. The author of the book already has tenure, so I wasn't squashing anyone's career. I also had no bias, no stake in this particular debate.

I've done other scathing book reviews in the past. I've also been on the receiving end of a few negative reviews, and survived none the worse for wear. If I take a controversial position, I have to be expecting people to disagree with me.

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Unquiet Mind

My mind moves at a pretty intense rate; the restlessness was a problem during my vacation. I've found that jigsaw puzzles are a pretty good solution. The kind with about 1000 pieces are about right; they take several days to complete.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Cycling Through

Before my recent vacation I tried a technique of "cycling through" all 8 chapters of my book, looking at them and revising them /adding to them one by one. I could spend as much or as little time as I wanted on each chapter during any given day. I wanted to get all the project into my head at once before not thinking about it all for a while. Whether I was able to write very many words on any single chapter was secondary.

Normally, it isn't good to scatter and fragment one's attention like this.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Research Demands

I've heard some grumblings about the "research demands of tenure track jobs" and I just have to scratch my head. If research is meaningless to you, if you see it as a "demand," then maybe you should give your job to someone who knows that the reason you have a tenure track job is so you can do research. Maybe one of the other 199 people who applied for your job and is in a university less supportive of her research?

On the other hand, if you are expected to do a large amount of research and teach a heavy load, that is is a problem. If there is inadequate money to support your research travels, as is my case, that is a problem.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Unable to Draw

While I was trying to draw something the other day, or looking at some drawing materials, I thought to myself: you can't draw. You are lousy at it.

But then I thought, thinking of myself as someone unable to draw is part of my inability to draw. I don't mean that if I suddenly got a positive attitude I would automatically be able to draw, but that my clinging to my inadequacy was a way of excusing myself for not having patience to work at it. That's why students who advertise their inadequacy are so annoying. What they mean by saying they are not good at something is that they don't want to do anything that doesn't come easily to them. They are bad at languages because they don't automatically speak Spanish fluently when they first try. In other words, they are exactly like me, who did not speak Spanish fluently until I had studied and practiced for several years.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Distinctive Approach

I've always wanted to have a distinctive approach, not to do generic work that could have been done by anyone else. I never worried very much about following trends. I think that several trends have been born and died since I began work about 25 years ago, but that my work remains current--no more or less fashionable than it was when I started.

I hear a lot of complaints about having to read the umpteenth article on historical memory, post-trauma, or whatever the flavor of the month is.

Sunday, August 8, 2010


The sentence might have 25 words, the page, 300. An article is 6,000-8,000 words. The book is 80-100 thousand. If you wrote a sentence a day, you could finish a book every 11 years. That's pretty respectable, considering scholarly careers of 35 years where someone might have written 2-3 books. Writing a page a day gets you enough material for a book every year, which nobody ought to be writing.


When I look too closely at the word count, I produce wordier writing. I'm hoping the days I write 300 words, that those are 300 better words, than the days I write 700. On the other hand I live to force out a few extra hundred words at the end of my writing session.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Perfect Conditions

My wife claims that needing the perfect conditions to write is gendered-- that (at least some) men can work anywhere and not worry about it, whereas (most) women need ideal conditions before they can write. This might be the case, I don't really know, but then it would put men at a competitive advantage--given that less than ideal conditions are more frequent. On the other hand, if women optimize their working spaces more, then that would give them some edge. What do you think?

Friday, August 6, 2010

Coffee Shop

The coffee shop is a good space to write, a third office neither home nor university. My personal choice is to leave the computer behind and work with pen and ink, but sometimes I do bring the laptop. I like being away from the computer in a separate space.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Well actually it IS brain surgery

How hard could it be to produce excellent work in the humanities? After all, we just make it all up anyway, right? It's not brain surgery, it's not rocket science. Not the really hard stuff.

Here's the thing, though. It is pretty difficult. You have to have half-way decent erudition, the ability to write and organize your thoughts. You have to not only know things, but able to make a case for your particular way of framing what you know. With canonical material, you have to convince others that you have something new to say, but with non-canonical material you have to make a case for why the material is even worth studying. Someone deeply involved in a field of inquiry, trying to do work at the highest level, is performing 'brain surgery" or at least "mind surgery," trying to alter the minds of others.

The people you have to convince are people at least as smart as yourself: the best people in your field. They can be extraordinarily tough to convince.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Narcisissm and its Compensations

Sure, everyone hates other peoples'' narcissism. That's the easy part. In my case, a feeling that I had reached a certain level that others hadn't alienated me from others in my own field. I wrote some books reviews that made me some enemies. It made it very hard for me to relate to weaker graduate students, and even some stronger ones.

Recognizing my narcissist strain, I actively try to compensate for it.

(1) Just recognizing it in yourself is the first step. True narcissists wouldn't be worried about being narcissistic. That's a problem for other people. A kind of meta-consciousness is very helpful, because then you won't be one of those people lacking self-awareness.

(2) I try to write for an audience, not for myself. A really clear and engaging style is my ideal. I read my own work from the perspective of another person, as much as possible.

(3) I find that having a poetic work of my own, one that my ego is invested in, is very difficult. It almost demands a certain narcissism. So I don't take myself too seriously as a poet. I can write a poem as good as the next person, or probably better, but I don't have a sense of my work as a poet. If I took myself seriously as a poet, I'd be twice the narcissist than the one you already know and hate.

(4) I don't take enormous satisfaction from my political convictions. I view those as pretty much a given, not something that I can take pride in. So I don't have the political narcissism of the typical Humanities Professor.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

What's your metaphor?

What's your metaphor for your book? Is it a scale, where two things have to be balanced on either sides? Do you think in terms of surface and depth or in terms of "coverage" of a certain amount of territory? Is it a miscellany or a coherent whole? An atlas or a triptik? Does it have thread or a trajectory, is it a textile or a rocket? Is it a series of "slots" that can be filled with the appropriate content? A group of concentric or overlapping circies?

Each of these metaphors has its own implications. I am not recommending one over the other, but I (personally) spend a lot of time thinking in and about metaphors for what I am doing. They can be very useful for clarifying what it is you're attempting to accomplish. You'll probably find them shifting as you work. Some metaphors might be making it harder for you to do your work, so shifting to an easier one might be just the ticket.

You could also metaphorize your personal relation to your project. Is it a straitjacket, your best friend, the rock of Sisyphus? Is it a salt mine, a gold mine, or no kind of mine at all? Is it a crop you are cultivating or a game you are playing, a race you are running, a war you are waging? It could be a wild horse you are trying to tame.

Monday, August 2, 2010


When I wrote the first few paragraphs of "Musical Lorca," a chapter that I wasn't quite sure was going to work, I realized that it would be the most brilliant and inherently interesting chapter of the book, essentially the missing chapter from Apocryphal Lorca. Jonathan, you motherfucker, was all I could tell myself. You still have it. You can still do it better than anyone else in your field.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Having the Book in Your Head

Now I feel that the entire book is essentially there, in my head, and just needs to be written down. Writing will be essentially taking dictation.

Of course, this is illusory. The book will change shape several more times. I will come up with new ideas and the relation between existing ideas will shift. In this sense, my idea that I should be able to complete the book in a few days--and could given enough caffeine and research assistants--is inaccurate. The book needs that long germination process to be what it needs to be.

At the same time, having the book there, even in an illusory sense, is wonderfully comforting.