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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...

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Planning to Complete the Paper

Suppose you want to get a chapter or article written in the next two or three months--that's the situation I'm in. You can think about that in terms of hours at the computer it will take you to write it, or in terms of months. It might only take your 30 hours to complete it, so two months seems like an absurdly long time. 30 hours in 60 days! What could be easier? That's an average of half an hour per day. Yet most scholars take much longer to produce their work. Part of the problem is that there is too much time. In other words, it is hard to figure out where those 30 hours are going to come from, simply because they might come anywhere. 12 a.m. to 1 a.m. on Wed. Sat. and Sun., every other week, and 1-5 p.m. every Sat? That might get it done, as long as you realize the weekend you lose to house guests... The key is finitude.

That's why I've been keeping track of my work during each week. Months are too long for this kind of planning, but if every week you make significant progress, then there shouldn't be a chapter that takes more than a month or two.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Untricking Yourself

What Stupid Motivational Tricks really is about is untricking yourself. In other words, reversing the stupid ways you've tricked yourself into not getting things done by being so busy working at not working.

Friday, October 29, 2010


I've been on both sides of the interview process--more on the hiring side recently. The most important factor is to be able to show awareness of the other people in the room. For example, do you notice when you are boring people? When your answer has gone on too long? Are you just reeling off a spiel about your research or engaging in a conversation? If the interview lasts 30 minutes, what does giving a 10-minute answer to a question do for you? It takes up a third of the time and shows you to be a self-absorbed person. You need to answer informatively and briefly, and then take follow-up questions.


Don't suck up to the full professors in the hotel suite and ignore the junior faculty. Even the full professors will hold that against you. One job candidate once looked at me and said, 'You and [name of other full professor in the room] are so productive." The other professor quickly mentioned that the other two people in the room, more junior, were also publishing scholars. It was a very awkward moment for all concerned.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Best Time to Start the Next Chapter

is right after you finish the previous one. The same day if possible. Take advantage of that momentum. My daughter's music teacher said that right after an audition is a good time to do a lot of practicing. Why? Because you have peaked for that audition, so the practice will be in that higher zone and thus be more effective. With writing, you can take advantage of the fact that you were just now writing very well, in finished prose rather than in rough notes, in order to complete the last thing you wrote. Mentally, you will be riding that wave of elation rather than experiencing let-down.

I recently finished an article and two chapters, so I am beginning with chapter that has intimidated me in the past and that I have to conclude by February. If I finish this, I will be 5/8 done with the book, more or less.


If you want to take a short break of a day or two, then, don't do it between chapters, but in the middle of one of them.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Breaking It Up

I'm about three weeks ahead in writing these posts. I wish I could find a place to hide out from my ideas for a while. They keep coming at me. I have more than I know what to do with. I'm talking about ideas for posts here as well as ideas for my actual scholarly writing.


A large task can be broken up into several smaller ones. When I'm close to done with a piece I make a list of discrete tasks that have to be done. On the other hand, having too many small tasks can be overwhelming to, so in that case, I cluster them together and they seem easier that way. You can shift your perspective back and forth and make things a lot easier on yourself.

Finishing the article means doing tasks 1-10. Each is easy in itself, so you could do one very easy thing a day and finish the whole thing in 10 days! Rewrite the footnotes one day, tweak the concluding paragraph another, complete a short section on X another day. Once you start doing this, you can do 2 or 3 easy things a day.

But if your list is writing 10 emails, then group those into one task. "Answer email." Do those all at once.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Work Done Oct. 8-14

Once again: the rules are that I only list significant tasks of writing or major grading (entire sets of papers). I don't list teaching classes, writing emails, reading for class or other prep, or my regular blogging. If I had group like Thomas does where we could all talk about our progress for the week, that would be even better, but for now I have to content myself with doing it on the blog.

Fri. Oct. 8: Major progress on planning the writing of next few chapters. Worked on Chapter 4.

Sat. Oct. 9: Nothing. I really needed a day off.

Sun. Oct. 10: Nothing. I guess I needed two days off!

Mon. Oct. 11: Wrote two study guides and one exam / worked on Chapter 4 with significant progress. Had idea to organize "Working Group on Prosody and Versification" for the Spring and wrote up a brief proposal for that. I arranged a date for an outside speaker to come to the Hall Center. I guess those two days off paid off. I did this all in an 8 1/2 hour day too, and taught my two courses, and called it a day at 4:30. Then I read a big chunk of a novel I have to teach next week, after dinner.

Tues. Oct. 12: Wrote another exam. Significant progress on Chapter 4, eliminating one section and completing section on Blanca Varela. All before one p.m.

Wed. Oct. 13: Graded a set of papers. Class of 17 students, excluding papers turned in late or not at all.

Thur. Oct. 14: Finished chapter 4, except for a few references that will be coming in a book I ordered from amazon. Began to organize a new chapter.

Summary: Finished a chapter. Considering I finished one last week too, and an article at the end of last month, I'm doing pretty well. Basically I did the work I needed to for October in research. I think I'll rest on my laurels for a few days (if I can find them). I have 4 out of 8 chapters written for my next book project. Considering there were two days here I did not work very much, and that it was a heavy grading week, I'm pretty happy with myself.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Akiko's Book

Human Resources

Part of the scholarly base is your network of scholarly contacts, people who can give you advice about your research. Recently, I finished a chapter and sent it to someone I had been in correspondence with a few years ago. He responded with some comments 24 hours later. This person is a poet and linguist, and more specifically is one of the leading linguists specializing in the prosody of Spanish. What incredible luck. When I was writing Apocryphal Lorca I had access to Jack Spicer's biographer (Kevin Killian), to Kenneth Koch's editorial assistant (Jordan Davis), an expert on Creeley (Ben Friedlander). To several Lorquistas. Pretty much everyone was willing to help, whether they were people who happened to be my friends already, contacts I had cultivated over the years, or simply people I contacted out of the blue. The key is approaching people respectfully and asking intelligent questions. The consultant is not there to do your research for you, but to tell you if you are on the right track, or sometimes to save you from dumb errors of fact. You wouldn't use a leading scholar to be your copy-editor (unless you are close friends and read each other's work).

This seems remarkably easy, but the problem is that you have to have the confidence to contact people, and you have to be at a certain level already to know what the right questions are to ask. I wouldn't email a leading physicist to explain string theory to me. For certain dumber questions you can ask people in your own university you know.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Why Do Research After Tenure?

The common complaint is that if you give someone tenure, how do you make sure that the person continues to do research? Couldn't someone just show up to teach their courses and spend the rest of the time on the golf course?

Let's look at some of the factors that make this not happen very much.

(1) We do not play golf. *

(2) Tenure at a research university is a license to do research with nobody bothering you. To get that far, you have to like scholarship more than a little. You've invested a lot in developing your research to a certain point, and it takes a life of its own: you are invited to submit articles, to give talks.

(3) Your annual evaluations, raises, and eventual promotion to full professor depend on research. Your pride and place in the profession, your ego.

(4) I know people who don't publish a lot, but sometimes that's because they barely squeaked by for tenure. If you really look at the typical "dead wood" type, they were never much in the 1st place. Maybe they got tenure in a climate where the institution didn't demand very much. Maybe they have other talents aside from research and are excellent teachers, administrators, and not dead wood at all from that perspective. So tenure didn't make them stop publishing, just stop pretending to care.


*Yes, some academics play golf. That was a joke.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Arrímate a los buenos / Them that's got

Arrímate a los buenos, y serás uno de ellos.

Get next to the "good" people, and you will be one of them. There is a cynical and an idealistic reading of this traditional Spanish proverb. Generally, there is a whole class of proverbs like 'no con quien naces, sino con quien paces" that emphasize that an individual will be judged by the company he or she keeps. It's kind of a double-edged blade: you can overcome humble origins by associating yourself with a better class of people. On the other hand, the proverb warns that someone seen is good company is not necessarily what she seems.

Scholars will often be judged by their surroundings, where they work, where they got their degree, who their dissertation advisor was. An article in a prestigious journal looks good because it got accepted into that journal and is rubbing shoulders with a better class of article. Don't waste a great article on a lesser journal. Don't write books for the Twayne series.

There is an unfairness here, that of "accumulated advantage" or the "Matthew Effect" summarized by Billie Holiday: "Them that's got shall get, / them that's not shall lose / so the bible says / and it still is news." An already publishing scholar will get more research grants to continue, whereas someone who hasn't already "got" won't "get." On the other hand, there's an upward mobility principle inherentin "arrímate a los buenos." Once you get into a few good journals, you are part of "los buenos."


I went to Mediocre State School for undergraduate, then to Stanford for Grad School. The Stanford Spanish Department was not very good when I was there, but it didn't matter, because it had an impressive name and I was good: I had managed to get myself very good training at Mediocre State School and then worked independently, teaching myself what I had to learn. I was in Comp Lit to I didn't have to take courses in Spanish that I didn't want to. I was hurt by the lack of great courses there, but I also learned that I was responsible for my own education.


My Department now has very good pedagogy for Graduate Students. The only problem is that the students are sometimes more passive. If we taught them worse, they would have to work more independently.

Friday, October 22, 2010


For a while now I've been trying to find the relevance of sudoku for academic writing. It must have some relevance, right? It requires some concentration and thus might help with working memory; it could stave off senility in the aged or middle-aged. What I've come up with so far is that it forces you to look for what's not there. In other words, in a row, a column, a square, you have to see what number is missing, not what number is already there. Secondly, you have to think diagonally. Your aim is not to make a column of ones, but a pattern of ones or twos or threes where none of these repeat.

Look at a classroom of students. You see who's there. What's harder to do is to see who isn't in class, because there is no visible evidence of those students. You might look at a chair and say, who sits there, usually?

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Who Cares How Many Hours I Work?

According to the general public, a college professor works about 15 hours a week. Maybe 6 hours in the classroom and another nine preparing class and grading. Summers off, ample time between semesters...

According to the academic, the work-load is 50-60 hours a week. Research, committee work and other departmental obligations, peer review of articles...

I think both of those are wrong ways of looking at the problem.

Who cares how many hours an academic works?

40% of my effort is supposed to go to research. (Time, or effort? I'd say effort.) A good research year for someone in my field would be 2 articles and some measurable progress toward a larger project (book.) Or one article and even more progress. So a few Sundays ago, Oct. 3, I spent about an hour finishing the conclusion and introduction to a chapter. It shouldn't really matter whether I spend 1 or 6 hours on research on a given day. What matters is the task, not the time. If I am more efficient, so be it.

Teaching (teaching, preparing, grading), takes the time that it does. Service tasks take the time they do and I get them done very efficiently. What if I worked a ten hour week on a particular occasion (in the middle of the summer) and made a major breakthrough in my scholarship? Was I lazy that week? If someone asked you what you accomplished in a particular day, would you respond with a number of hours or with a list of things accomplished? Are you more impressed with someone with a long list of accomplishments or with a time-sheet showing a lot of hours put in at the office? If someone had an impressive list, you could pretty much ignore her time-sheet, right?

Academic life is increasingly cluttered. Academics take on huge commitments that aren't either teaching or research. Some of these activities are extremely valuable, so I'm not knocking those, especially if they contribute directly to these primary missions.


Of course, some people think scholarship in the Humanities is not worthwhile in the first place, but my contract says I am to do it and I intend to keep on with it.


Maintaining the scholarly base is itself a full-time job.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Work Done: Oct 1-7

I liked how it worked to keep track of tasks accomplished during the final part of Sept. Remember my theory that you could get a lot done by doing just one thing a day, if you actually have enough days of doing that?

Remember: "Writing is hard, but the hardest part of writing is the easiest part, which is sitting down to do it." Since most of my work is writing some way or the other, if I sit down to do something often enough then tasks will get done.

If you write every day, then you will write every year too. See how that works?

Fri. Oct. 1. Worked on "Verse Paragraph," Chapter 8 of my book. Wrote a solid first paragraph of the conclusion, and half of a second.

Oct. 2. Continued to work on this; conclusion and introduction done except for final paragraphs of each. Jiménez section done except for some missing references. I'm "smelling" the end of this chapter in a few weeks.

Oct. 3. Finished intro and conclusion to aforementioned chapter. That's the bread of the sandwich.

Oct. 4. Nothing much. Teaching and blogging, but I can't say I got one significant thing done.

Oct. 5. Wrote a confidential document of 250 words; did substantial work on "Verse Paragraph": finished footnotes, bibliography. I can really smell the end now.

Oct. 6. Finished "Verse Paragraph"! On a teaching day at that.

Oct. 7. Nothing! I did get some comments on my chapter finished the day before, though. That was wonderful. Thanks, Carlos! I gave a short talk in my dept. on Stupid Motivation and attended a dept. meeting.

So in seven days, I had 4 days with 1 thing accomplished, 1 day when I listed 2 tasks, and 2 days with nothing much done. In the bigger picture, I finished a chapter and wrote a short confidential personnel document.

See also this post.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

From Idea to Book

Here's the text of my brown-bag presentation:

I’d like to talk a little about my book, Apocryphal Lorca. I don’t want to talk about the intellectual content of the book itself, except insofar as it is relevant to the topic of my main topic: developing and completing a long-term research project. You might have read the blog post from the University of Chicago blog, which I sent to you earlier this week. There will be a quiz at the end of my presentation today.

In academia we are all smart people, so my theory is that the key is not outsmarting ourselves too much. What I mean by this is that the keys to “research productivity”—to use the NRC buzz-word—are not overly complicated. Good planning, time and task management, and attention to the basics of prose style are more significant than aspects of scholarship that seemingly require more intellectual firepower. This is the concept behind my blog on scholarly writing, “Stupid Motivational Tricks.” Smart people are really exceptionally good at rationalizing their procrastination, their inability to get writing done.

Developing the Project:

At the begining of 2006 I wrote out some ideas for some articles I could write during the coming year. I had twelve ideas. I knew I wouldn’t really write 12 articles, but I thought if I got a good start in January, writing one article a month, I might produce something of substance by the end of the year. My friend and co-blogger Thomas Basbøll, a poet and PhD working in the field of Organizational Studies, and an academic writing consultant from Denmark, says you should submit 6 times a year, including resubmits of articles. That’s what you might have to do to get 2-3 acceptances.

January went well: I wrote an article on Samuel Beckett and José Ángel Valente that was swiftly rejected by Hispanic Review and eventually published in Comparative Literature. In February I wrote an article that was rejected by Revista Canadiense de Estudios Hispánicos, and which I’ve never published. For March, I had the phrase “Apocryphal Lorca” written down. As I began to write this third article I realized that it wasn’t an article at all, but a book. In May I wrote a proposal for an NEH Fellowship, and I completed work on the book during the 2007-08 academic year.

Completing the Project:

I knew an editor at the University of Chicago Press because I had been a reviewer for several translations of Spanish poetry and had done good (or at least quick) work for him. I contacted him because I thought this might be a kind of break-out book that would not be interesting only to Hispanists. Having an advanced contract helped to motivate me.

To write the book, I used a very simple method called the “Seinfeld Chain,” invented by the comedian Jerry Seinfeld. What you do is to buy a calendar and a red sharpie. On every day you work on your project, write a number on that day of the calendar, 1,2,3,4... Try to keep the chain going as many days as possible. If you skip a day, you start again with 1,2,3... For example, I wrote every day between August 1, 2007 and Christmas Eve. That was one chain of over a hundred days. Then I only worked about 12 days in a row after that. That was my second chain. You have to imagine Seinfeld’s voice in your head saying “Don’t break the chain!.” The advantages of this method is that you can easily get into a consistent rhythm of writing. Even chains of seven or eight days might be more than what you would be writing normally—maybe two or three times a week? I never wrote for more than three hours a day. I found that if I wrote for one or two hours, I would still be quite fresh the next day.

Thomas’s method of writing is the “16 week challenge.” It takes advantage of the structure academic calendar (2 16-week semesters) and locates the writing process 5 days a week within one’s normal work schedule. That’s an excellent method too, but I find I need to do some writing over the weekends, holidays, and summers as well to balance out the dominance of teaching and service during the course of any given semester.

The Aftermath:

What made the Lorca project such an excellent one for me personally? Anytime you can develop an almost wholly original perspective on a canonical author, the results are likely to be golden. Many people claim to be interested in non-canonical authors, but try marketing a project on Antonio Gamoneda to a major US University Press. (Gamoneda is a canonical writer too, but not too many people know it yet.) Writing another book interpreting Lorca’s work did not seem worthwhile to me. For the purposes of this project, I didn’t really care about what Lorca’s work meant to me, or what it meant in and of itself in some New Critical Vacuum, but I cared a great deal about what it meant to other people. In addition, the topic allowed me to use a lot of what I knew but had not yet been able to put into my scholarship, and to take advantage of some of my expertise in translation theory and US poetry. Since the story of Lorca’s influence on US poetry is one of misunderstandings, the topic also allowed me to let loose my sense of humor. I wasn’t trying to make jokes, but some of the material just is funny.

I was actually able to connect two areas of the canon: Lorca and the poets associated with the Beat Generation and the New York School. I’ve written other books, but the University of Chicago Press would not be interested in them.
Not every topic is going to be as glamorous or marketable as this one, but I think there’s a lesson to be learned in choosing a good topic: literary criticism does not have to be dull. Not always. I’m interested in a lot of dull things too, like metrics, but I think you have to make some concessions to what other people are interested in.

I’ve sometimes felt like the experience of writing this book was like getting struck by lightning. I was incredibly lucky that a very good idea for a book happened to find me and that I was able to take advantage of it. I’m not denying the element of pure good luck, but let’s go back to 2006. My absurd plan of thinking of twelve ideas for articles at the begining of the year did not result in 12 articles, but in one article and one book. I was rejected a few times but I stuck with my plan. I had more than one idea that I wanted to develop, and the best of these ideas won out over the others In other words, I had done the preliminary work to put myself in a position to be able to get struck by lightning. I also had the work habits to get it done. The book seemed to write itself almost effortlessly because I had a mechanism in place, the stupidly simple “Seinfeld Chain.” Writing is hard work, but the hardest part is the easiest and stupidest: sitting down to do it regularly. I think very few people really like to write. Otherwise we would all have triple the number of publications. I do like to write, but even I have a hard time sitting down to do it without tricking myself into it.

The advantages I had—mostly being seriously interested in a lot of interesting things and being a half-way-decent writer of prose—were the product of years of work, showing that fortune favors the prepared mind and that it sometimes takes twenty years to become an overnight success.

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Department

I've been talking this whole time on this blog about an individual's personal research activities. The contradiction here is that we belong to departments, to teams, yet our research challenges and accomplishments pertain to us individually. It's always my work.

In the typical Research I institution, the faculty do not duplicate one another's interests. For example, we have, in Peninsular Literature in my department, one medievalist, two early modernists (one specializing in Jesuits, the inquisition, and narrative prose, the other on theater), one 19th century specialist (working on theater and illustrated periodicals), two 20th / 21st century scholars, myself (working on poetry and poetics, translation theory), and Jorge, who works on contemporary narrative, film, and culture. My colleagues are very smart people, and they are good to have around if I have questions to ask about their fields, but we don't really collaborate on research. My interests are closer to those of our specialist in Latin American poetry, with whom I've co-taught a course, but generally those who share my particular interests live thousands of miles away.

The NRC ratings of PhD programs came out recently and my department is ranked fairly high in some categories. We are definitely a top 20 Spanish department. But what does that mean if we are only the sum of individual achievements?


There might be other models. For example, you could organize a department as a team devoted to a particular area. To study Latin American poetry, you could have a department that just did that, with everyone stepping on one another's toes and jealous of one another's accomplishments. Hierarchies would be even stronger than in normal departments. Students who decided they weren't interested in that after all would be kind of stuck. Undergraduates wouldn't have a lot of course offerings.

In geographically more compact areas (not Kansas), you could have research groups linking members of several universities. With the internet, you can collaborate with far-flung scholars. I'm always looking for other models to get myself out of that purely individualistic mode.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Let-Down

After something gets accepted or I finish a major article or chapter, I feel... the let- down. The world doesn't shower you with praise. You don't walk on air. It's just another day at the office. I wish I could be more celebratory and avoid the inevitable anti-climax.

It's like on The Rockford files. The case is closed at the end of the episode, things brought to a resolution. But the next episode begins with a reversion to the mean. Other gangsters want Jim dead; the police are equally suspicious of him, even though every case he's been on has resulted in a huge arrest of some major mafia figures. You'd think they'd run out of mobsters after a while, but no. Rockford is equally unable to resist involvement in situations that will bring him grief. He still hasn't learned not to open the door of his trailer to men with guns, or not to trust pretty women with implausible stories.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Do Less, Write More

Doing less can be an important step to doing more. This blog is about being a college professor / scholar / researcher, but the same logic applied in being a college student--or in any other stage of academic life or non-academic work of an analogous type.

The overwork ethos actually leads people to accomplish less, because it clutters up their time with things that are not as significant. They might get the multi-tasking medal, but will they publish that next book?

The academic ethos is kind of funny that way. It rewards achievement, but is suspicious of it. You're almost supposed to be so busy that you can't do your own research. It actually feels strange to say that yes, I do have time to write my books.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Happiness Base*

You don't have to be happy to produce scholarly writing, and producing scholarly writing doesn't produce happiness either. I'm living proof of that. Feelings of dissatisfaction often come at times of professional success. I noticed some disturbing symptoms in myself recently so I made a list of things to work on immediately:

caffeine / alcohol

Regulating time spent on internet (randomly) and coffee use; having one beer or glass of wine with dinner (or none) instead of two; exercising daily and beginning short sessions of meditation; making sure I meet with friends more often and eat better food. All of these things are mostly within my control. I have that list on a piece of paper at my desk to remind myself.

These factors alone won't make me happy, but they might bolster the happiness base, which in turn contributes to the management of everyday life and the scholarly base. Severe unhappiness can make me unable to work or to enjoy the fruits of my work.


*The concept of the happiness base is from the poet Kenneth Koch, who attributes it to a friend of his whose name escapes me at the moment.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

A Chapter Talks To Me

and says "it's time to begin me now. Don't bother finishing anything else. I know you're a day from finishing that other chapter, but I'm what you need to be working on. I have ideas in me you never dreamed of in all your imagining."

And I have to resist that seductive call because I have to write what I'm writing now. The claims of future work have to be deferred to the right moment.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

You Can Contribute

You can contribute to SMT in a couple of ways.

(1) Become a "follower" if you are also a blogger. I like having a lot of followers. I have only 14 now even though on a bad day I get 50 page views.

(2) Ask a question to the prose doctor. I will answer if it is a legitimate question that I feel I can do justice to.

(3) Become a contributor. Although I am the dominant voice here quantitatively I have two other collaborators, Bob and Thomas. I'll gradually add a few more authors if I find someone else who I think would complement our collective perspectives.

(4) Comment in the comment box if you'd like.


I've introduced a few changes to the site. There are three new pages, About The Authors, Maxims, and The Plain Style. "Maxims" is a collection of pithy advice; "The Plain Style" is a manifesto of sorts. "About the Authors," of course, contains biographical sketches of the three contributors. I might add a few other pages if I think of what might be useful.


This blog is designed to serve a public function, even though it began as a way for me to keep my own research on track. If even one or two people derive benefit from it then I feel justified in spending a bit of time with it. I get new ideas for posts almost every day because I am almost always writing or evaluating someone else's writing.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Concluding Paragraph

The perpetual crisis of confidence in the Humanities coincides (not so coincidentally perhaps) with the dominance of the “hermeneutics of suspicion” and of the “argument for argument”—the idea that what we do in the Humanities can be reduced to the abstract and formulaic proceduralism that can be exercised in any context whatsoever, with no regard to the value of our raw materials. The inevitable reaction against these two developments has brought renewed attention to the principle I have identified here as “receptivity.” This is not a narrowing of the field or a return to a reactionary definition of the canon. In fact, receptivity entails an openness to every possible expression of human creativity and thus has the power to envigorate both our teaching and our scholarship.

Andrew Shields has been giving me a hard time about signposting--and with good reason. I thank him for that. I've been trying to write much more seamlessly. Here is my concluding paragraph. I simply conclude. The only signposting is the part I've italicized here. We know it's a conclusion because it's at the end, marked off by a few lines of blank space, and because of the conclusive tone. I don't need to write "as I have demonstrated here." Or, "in the first section of this article I showed that..."

Monday, October 11, 2010

Out of my Element

I feel very secure in certain situations but very much out of my element in others. I have to work once a month at a bingo parlor (don't even ask!). It is so foreign to my normal routine that it causes anxiety in me. I'm sure I'll get used to it, but it doesn't come at all naturally to me. The bingo place is also in a neighborhood I never go to. I feel very uneasy about going out of my normal territory.

The place is smoky. People who don't look very rich are throwing twenty dollars bills at you to buy pull-tab cards that give them a chance to win one dollar back. I spend six hours there.

This made me realize I am a very fearful person, very attached to certain ways of doing things and reluctant to move outside of a certain zone. There is nothing in this zone attractive to me either.

I'm not sure what this is a metaphor for... I'm sure it has something to do with scholarly writing. Maybe you'll tell me.

Sunday, October 10, 2010


Scholarship is inherently competitive. Resources are limited (jobs, fellowships). You don't want to write the 14th best book on William Carlos Williams. It barely seems worth it. You are competing for the attention of readers and for the secondary benefits that research brings--mostly the opportunity to do more of it!

Yet our communitarian values enter into conflict with this competitive spirit. We want to be encouraging of our students and helpful to our colleagues, even colleagues at other universities who are our implicit competitors. Many people also find the competitive ethos repellent, and it is hard to say that they are wrong. Scholarship is inherently collaborative: we build on insights of past scholars. No knowledge belongs to one person alone; no idea is private property, even the most original one.

This issue comes to a head with the Graduate Students. Really, my job with them is to kick their ass just to get them to the level where they will be "competitive" on the job market and be able to publish if they get the kind of job where they will be doing research. Even the people who shun competition, I hear them put down the work of scholars whose work is substandard. One dissertation student whose ass I kicked repeatedly (metaphorically speaking of course) produced a dissertation that turned out very nicely. I'm sure she hated me for most of the process too.


It's 10/10/10, so I thought I would schedule this post to be published as 10:10 a.m.

The Tomahawk is Mightier than the Sword

for Jake

I've been too busy lately to write the answer to the "film theory assignment" that I presented a few weeks ago. One of the things I've been busy doing is encouraging undergraduates and master's students to write, teaching them a few stupid motivational tricks, if you like. So I've had three opportunities now to present this film clip and "de-allegorize" it as being really about how to write the first draft of an academic paper. I think I've got a pretty good story worked out now and I'd like to see how it looks in writing. I've decided to organize it as a ten-step program. Like last time, you can watch the clip and read my interpretation below.

Comments are very welcome. I'm surprised at how well this clip works already, but I'm certainly going to be working on this idea some more.

Thoughts do not come to us like friends from afar, like welcome guests. Thoughts, real thoughts that is, which are always a palpable demand that we write, come into our lives like invading armies. Before we have been forced to think, our lives are quiet. Our ideas are with us in a familiar way, like beloved children or valued employees. We let them play sometimes and sometimes we try to improve them (we teach them what we know). Each of us is also ultimately an idea, an idea of ourselves, an "I", stable and serene. It is when we start thinking that the trouble starts.

(When I tell this story to students I make sure to tell them that the inconvenience of a "thought", in this sense, in the head of the scholar is nicely simulated by being given a school assignment. Though the pressure is internal in the case of the working scholar, the disruption is comparable.)

Step 1: Hold Back Your Ideas

A thought, when it is a serious thought, i.e., when it demands to be articulated in writing, is neither simple nor nebulous. It is a marshaling of particular forces against you (against an idea of yourself); it is itself a collection of ideas under the command of a far-off general (a much more general idea, and one that you will engage only by proxy in the particular case). The "general" has sent out a platoon of ideas, under the command of a lieutenant, to bring you into line. Their mission is to take one of your existing ideas, one of your familiar thoughts, prisoner. As this happens there is nothing you can do; the thought is simply too strong to resist.

But ideas are neither isolated from nor indifferent to each other. Nor are you (again, the idea of yourself as a scholar) indifferent to the ideas you have. Seeing one of them bound and taken away hurts you deeply. And it hurts your other ideas as well, who love the prisoner as you do. Sometimes ideas are rash and do not understand the predicament they are in. They think they are invincible (because you have held them in your arms with such conviction in the past) and they don't know how serious the invading thought is about its business. Disappointed in your inaction (which is really hard-won composure) an idea, then, may rush at the invading thoughts. This darling is immediately killed.

It was a "stupid" idea, not in its substance but in its impatience. It did not recognize its limits. Don't let this happen to your most cherished notions. When the thought arrives, let it take its prisoner. Stay calm. Hold your other ideas back.

Step 2: Gather Your Thoughts and Follow the Argument

It was not enough to take the prisoner. The thought now burns down your house and shoots your livestock and your pets. After it leaves, after you have said your last good-bye (to the latest but not the last darling you'll see killed in your career as a scholar), you must run back into this burning life (of the mind) and retrieve a few things (some guns, a tomahawk, that sort of thing). Then you must select from among your ideas the ones that are relevant (the ones that can shoot) and send the others off into hiding. You give them a back-up plan, somewhere they can go if this idea of yourself (this authorial persona) fails.

Since you know where the general is, you know where the disruptive thought is going. Though strong, it is a big and cumbersome organization. It moves slowly, if resolutely. You can run through the woods and prepare an ambush. You find a good place along the road to set it up. Then you bring your trusted (if frightened) ideas close and begin to outline the paper...

Step 3: Identify the Main Ideas (Officers)

The argument that has burned down your house is not just a collection of ideas; it is organized around some central themes or principles. What are those principles? They are easy to identify (by their uniforms and their horses) and will not be hard to hit. In a piece of academic writing there will always be a substantial amount of "general" claims, i.e., claims that are shared by most readers (and the writer) and which are "responsible", as it were, to the more specific, more empirical, claims you are making. Their "power" (up on their horse) depends on the obedience of those lesser facts "on the ground". Identify them first. Once you've got them, the rest will be much easier.

Step 4: Focus (i.e., Pray)

There should always be a moment of silence before you actually begin to write. "Lord make me fast and accurate," is a great prayer if you like that sort of thing. Ideally, you'll want to work through the 20 to 40 claims that your paper will make quite quickly but also with some precision. You should devote a half-hour to each paragraph on each run through. That is, it should take you 10 to 20 hours to hit each claim with a well-focused but roughly drafted paragraph. Then another 10 to 20 hours to work through each paragraph again. Speed and accuracy is not just for marksmen.

Step 5: Aim Small

For each major claim you need a nice, tightly-written, focused sentence that makes the claim but does not attempt to support it. Such a sentence will serve as the "key sentence" for each prose paragraph in the paper. You will be writing to such a sentence for 30 minutes at a time, producing about 6 sentences of argument (support) for it. So keep the claim small enough to make that task realistic: one claim, 6 sentences, 30 minutes.

Step 6: Miss Small

You can never know for sure whether you have hit the idea you are writing about completely and fully, though you'll develop a pretty good sense of whether you've hit it squarely by how it reacts. Be content with getting your shot off and then crouch down to reload. (If you look too long at the target to see if you really "got it", you'll get shot.) Aim, shoot, reload. There'll be time (hopefully) to go back and see what you've accomplished. In the moment, just do the best you can. If you're aiming small, trust also that you're missing small. You won't get anything out of obsessing about each paragraph as you go.

Step 7: Rescue Your Darling (or Kill It)

You can write probably about half your paragraphs very easily, from a distance as it were. (These include the officers, but also some of the easier ground troops, i.e., background claims about your topic and intellectual context.) But at some point you're going to have to put the gun down and get into some close-quarters writing. Here you will have greater difficulty focusing on one idea at time. It's messy at this range. But you must try to deal with each claim or idea individually. Sometimes you'll even get lucky and take out two ideas with one argument.

But then you face the climactic moment of extricating the prisoner (your idea, which was taken away from you by the thought the paper will try to express) from the immediate hold that some part of the argument has on it. There is a risk here that you'll kill your darling rather than the claim that holds it prisoner. Steady now.

Step 8: Deal With Objections

Even if you succeed, there'll be some loose ends to tie up. Don't let your success at step 7 get you to let your guard down. Here they come!

Step 9: For God's Sake, Stop!

Once you've gotten the last guy, stop. Hacking one last objection to pieces is unseemly after you have won the argument. It does, to be sure, leave a certain impression on the ideas that you originally brought with you. Your rage may be quite awesome. But as you are hacking away uselessly at an already dead issue, some only half-dead counter-argument may be escaping your attention. (That's actually what happens in the movie.)

Step 10: Go Home, Rest.

Saturday, October 9, 2010


Here's some advice about how to answer the cliché interview question about yourweaknesses.

One weakness is that I'm not so good with organizing events, conferences and meetings with several components and involving the cooperation of many people and institutions. I started to late last year trying to apply to direct an NEH seminar and I just couldn't get it together. The intellectual content of the course developed very easily, but not the logistical elements. I have organized events, but it isn't easy for me.

I had a serious weakness with time management in the past. Now I'm practically a time management genius!

As a scholar, I'm probably too "narrow" to compete for jobs that want someone wider-ranging. I like small problems rather than big sweeping ones. I'm not that good at promoting myself either, in convincing others that what I do is interesting. I am too introverted for some roles.

I am a horrible proof-reader. I just don't see mistakes. People have told me I'm dogmatic.

I am also prone to sloth, pride, envy, anger, greed, lust, and gluttony, not necessarily in that order.

That's just the beginning of my weaknesses, past and present. A weakness is just a *fact* about yourself that you ought to know and be able to deal with. That interview question seems hard, but I think the advice given in the link I've provided is sound. Just tell them how you worked on a particular weakness and improved, or what you are working on right now:

"I'm really working on my prose style. I am not at all satisfied with the way I write. I've had some articles accepted, and some journal editors have helped me see some improvements I could make by reducing jargon and writing more clearly."

"I'm a little bit manic and I tend to say yes to many requests for book reviews, tenure evaluations, and invited articles. In the past I've overcommitted myself and had trouble meeting deadlines. Now I've developed a more systematic approach and have learned to say more often, choosing only the requests where I can make the most difference."

Look, our jobs are multi-faceted. We are scholars, bureaucrats, teachers, writers, editors, evaluators, managers. I know a very few people who are very talented in all of those roles. Normally, however, any one individual is going to be better at some things than at others.

The Weekly Report

Every Monday, I meet with a group of researchers and then with a group of PhD students. The purpose of the meetings is to talk about our writing processes. Everyone makes a report that answers three questions:

  1. What/when did you plan to write last week?
  2. What/when did you actually write last week?
  3. What/when have you planned to write this week?
Each report ideally takes under five minutes to make. A weekly plan normally consists of zero to five writing sessions with one to three writing tasks. What you really did in each session is a cold fact, not a deep psychological question. Notice that none of the questions are about the future; they are not about what you will or intend to do. They are about a what you have done (or not), and what you have planned (or not).

After each report we spend a bit of time on the question of why last week didn't go as planned (or why it did) and what lessons from this experience have been carried into this week's plan. That sometimes gets a bit deeper, but the solution is normally one or another stupid trick. Plan more realistically. Start on time. Stop on time. Have a clearer idea of the claim(s) you are writing to. Shorten the sessions. Plan to start them a half-hour later. Etc.

It's good to do this in a social setting and, if done right, there's a good feeling in the room, a "tough love", if you will, that makes us better people. But a weekly report like this can also be useful if done alone. If you take the Sixteen Week Challenge, for example, resolve to make sixteen reports. It will help to keep you focused and make your planning more realistic as you proceed.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Work Done: Sept. 19-30

To attempt to put myself on the line and keep myself in line, I kept track of the work I completed during the last days of Sept. My theory was that if I got one significant thing done each day, I would be in good shape. I'm not including the teaching or preparation of classes, grading of short quizzes, answering emails, attending meetings, or blogging. Only definable tasks of some significance.

Sun. Sept 19. Completed reader's report for [name of journal redacted]
Mon. Sept. 20. Completed 500 word statement about [redacted for confidentiality]
Tues. Sept. 21. Graded complete set of papers for Spanish 453. (17 5-page papers.)
Wed. Sept. 22. Made serious progress on "receptivity" article. / Wrote course description for Spring Grad course (340 words). / applied for job at [redacted]
Thur. Sept. 23. Nothing!
Friday. Sept. 24. Course description for undergraduate course. / Completed bibliography for "receptivity" article. / Made progress on this article.
Sat. Sept. 25. More substantial progress. The thing is done except for a few bibliographical references that I have to go back to Kansas to get.
Sun. Sept. 26. Nothing!
Mon., Sept. 27. Turned in article!
Tues. Sept. 28. Nothing! Hangover from having turned in article.
Wed. Sept. 29. Wrote the text of a 'brown bag" presentation for Oct. 7.
Thurs. Sept. 30. Had a productive planning session, deciding what to do in coming months. Figured out how to finish the entire book by Aug. '11 if I really want to.

On a day I put done "nothing!" all that means that I didn't have a quantifiable and definable task of enough significance accomplished or completed, or, in the case of some weekend days, that I did absolutely nothing work-related. It's fine to have days like that. Knowing my own worst tendencies, though, I don't want to have too many days like that. A few days with 2 or 3 things done balanced out the 3 days of nothingness.

It's interesting that I conceive of work mostly as things that get written, whether it's comments on student papers (grading) or writing course descriptions. Meeting with a guy about a thing is also work, sometimes time-eating work, but I don't tend to put those things down. Interesting, too, that I don't list blogging as part of my work, even though it is writing and has a productive value.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Recalcitrant Chapter

Sometimes a chapter will say to me: "Look, Jonathan, I appreciate you including me in this book, but really, don't you think I belong in a different sort of book altogether, with more chapters just like me? Really, I represent the most important topic here, and need to be expanded to fill the entire book. Why, my left leg alone is worth 30 pages."

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Tasks vs. Time

Measuring work by time instead of by tasks accomplished is a major trap. It is relatively easy to see why this is so, but not so easy to correct the perception. After all, tasks do require time to be completed. More time spent productively will result in more work. The problem comes in the fact that nobody knows what an "hour's work" is supposed to look like. Is it a paragraph? A few random thoughts in one's head after having read something? A stack of papers graded? An hour-long seminar discussion? An hour's work could result in any one of these end-products. On the other hand, I do know what a paragraph looks like, an article, a book. I care about the product, not the process. Some hours are "better" than others.

If I could crack the nut of task management I wouldn't even need time management! Unless the key to task management is an especially savvy understanding of time itself?

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Best Laid Plans

I found this document on my computer:

"2006 article plan

1. Valente/Beckett. Sent to Hispanic Review January 10. * 2nd choice Comparative Literature.

2. Intravenus. Finished March 22, 2006. Sent to Revista Canadiense: March 24, 2006. [email] March 25, snail mail.

3. "Apocryphal Lorca"

4. Gamoneda's poetics. Finish by April 30.

5. Heriberto Yépez and Borges. Have ready by May 30.

6. June: Clark Coolidge?

7. July. Review article? Books on Spanish poetry.

8. August. Something for Revista de Libros?

9. September. Translation theory? Our theory doesn't match our practice. Machado.

10. October. polyrhythms?

11. November. Coral Bracho?

12. December. Formalism and historicity? Cultural studies."

I had planned to write an article every month in 2006. Number 1 worked: it was rejected by Hispanic Review but accepted by Comparative Literature, which I had as my 2nd choice. My article on Intravenus was rejected by another journal. I never published it in the end. #3 mushroomed into my book Apocryphal Lorca. Not much ever happened with 4-12, because Lorca took over the rest of 2006 and 07, although #4 might have worked its way into an article that finally came out in 2010. With some of these ideas, I don't even know any more what I was thinking. I do have a clear idea about #9, but have never sat down to write it. About #12 I have no idea at all, except that maybe it was about how literary formalism is more historicist than a cultural studies that fails to pay attention to form.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Do One Thing a Day

Ok. I know what you're going to say. I can't do just one thing a day, I have twenty or thirty things to do each day.

What I mean is this: COMPLETE AT LEAST ONE SIGNIFICANT TASK each working day. Let's break this down.

"complete": finish it OR make substantial progress (it it's a long-term task)

"at least one": not half of something.

"significant": A large chunk (significant) of an article, the writing of a syllabus, a complete revision of the cv., the grading of an entire set of papers, a peer review of an article...

"each": not every other working day, not every three or four days...

"working day": a day on which you are working, a day that counts toward your total number of working days.

Now this is going to be very hard, though it seems easy. You say you need to do twenty things a day, but you aren't currently doing that many truly significant tasks, right? I thought not. You're going to concentrate on bringing something to completion or doing a definable portion of a larger task. If you do at least that then you'll be set. Imagine a 5 day work week. Suppose in that week you've made significant progress on an article, you've graded an entire set of papers, you've written a letter of recommendation, you've read your colleague's tenure file... You've had a very productive week.

I'm wondering about whether task management or time management is the key. In other words, is time a distraction, when what we really want to do is get things done? More on that later.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

What Not To Do

Don't send an article to a journal and leave in sub-headings like "5.1, 5.2" etc... The reviewer is going to know that this is chapter 5 of your dissertation and you simply haven't bothered to change those headings. Ouch.

Don't use the passive voice as a simple default mode. It shouldn't be your automatic, unthought-out choice.

Don't save your worst writing for the key paragraph in which you are explaining what the article is about.

Don't call your own work "groundbreaking." (Well, you can do it if you are writing jacket-copy for your own book, but don't do it in the book itself.) It just doesn't sound good.


You can feel good. You can also feel well (being the opposite of sick, not the adverb form of good), but you can't feel badly or horribly. That's a hyper-correction. I winced when Donald Trump corrected Cindy Lauper and she accepted the hyper-correction of "I feel bad" to "I feel badly." At this point, though, the hypercorrection is itself a colloquialism accepted by many speakers of English, so I guess you can feel "badly" if you really want to.


Don't use the word thusly in formal writing. Thus is already an adverb and thusly is a jocular expression that only belongs in certain context. Well, I hate it even where it does belong.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

An Editor is Always Happy to Help

Twice in the last week I have helped to prevent a calamity from befalling a colleague. One colleague was irritated and the other was infuriated to receive my editorial help, though they each requested it. Both will come out "smelling like a rose" (to use an expression my Dad has always loved and that I now love, too).

In my last couple of years in book publishing back in the early 1990s, I spent more than half of my time, it seemed, addressing legal matters: Making sure that my authors weren't going to get the company I worked for, Prometheus Books Inc., sued for defamation, libel, invasion of privacy, copyright infringement, and the like. Although I did not become an editor so that I could act as an ersatz lawyer, I did enjoy the role, especially because I got to talk to a REAL lawyer, and a great one, Stefan Bauer-Mengelberg, a lot. Stefan provided his services for free, because he liked the books we published. He was a wonderful and brilliant and eclectic man, who reached the highest levels of accomplishment as a musical conductor and mathematician and teacher before starting his career in Law. I didn't know he'd been a conductor until I called him regarding a lawsuit one afternoon. Leonard Bernstein had died the day before, and for some reason I brought that up with Stefan. "I was his assistant conductor for a year," he said. "This sounds more impressive than it was. My main job was to have a cigarette lit and ready for Lenny when he came offstage."

Back to my point: Because of Stefan Bauer-Mengelberg, many of my authors *didn't* besmirch their reputations and *didn't* get their butts sued. To a person, they were unhappy receiving the help they received, because they believed they didn't need it. They all asked: What could go wrong?

A calamity is smaller than a comma when it's born, and I am indifferent to gratitude.

(cross-posted at basil.ca)


Here's a fascinating blog if you read French, about a set of plagiarism cases in a French university. "Copier-coller" I'm guessing means "copy and paste." There is a department in this university where dissertations are routinely copied word for word from other sources, with 100% or 80% of the content being plagiarized in the most most blatant way possible. This blog by a French professor is following the action. It's in his own department! Of course, they've threatened legal action against him, but the evidence is overwhelming in this type of plagiarism.

Friday, October 1, 2010


There's a rather insignificant poet from a certain [language redacted]-speaking country. If you want to translate or write about this poet, however, you can earn a chunk of change, through a foundation that awards $1,500 prizes to promote this poet. I'm assuming that the competition is not going to be stiff, because nobody is writing about this poet except a few who are presumably doing so, at least in part, in the hopes of cashing in.

Although this is all above board and perfectly legal, it corrupts the process by introducing an incentive that is out of all proportion to normal "rewards" for translating or writing. I've tried to swallow my natural inclination and do some translations just for the cash, but I just couldn't. The poems were not easy to translate but they weren't very good either. [Of course, I could be wrong; he could be a brilliant poet. But why do you have to pay people to work on a brilliant poet?] It wasn't my virtue that made me incorruptible, but my disgust. If the poems had been just a little better I would have done it. It would seem more honest to pay a translator a decent salary and publish the guy's poems in a vanity press.

So corruption in this larger sense occurs when incentives are artificially skewed. It doesn't take a lot to skew things. I was almost tempted by a mere fifteen-hundred dollars.


Of course there is no "natural" system of incentives in the first place. Students write dissertations on topics they think are marketable. They see there are more jobs in one subfield than in another. I get more attention from a book on Lorca than from a treatise on prosody, what am I going to do? If you see that only administrators in your university get paid an upper-middle class income, you put your name in for an administrative gig.