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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...

Monday, February 28, 2011


The audience for a scholarly article consists of:

(1) Readers academic but not specialized. The graduate student in the field who hasn't yet specialized in any subfield. The interested colleague.

(2) Specialized readers; scholars in this particular subfield.

The article should be understandable for (1) but also tell (2) something new. Of course, there are gradations between (1) and (2). I might be specialized in Spanish poetry but not a specialist on Machado. In that case, I would still want to understand the article and learn something new, so intermediate categories don't really change the situation.

My graduate students should be writing for the rest of the class, but they should also tell me, the specialist reader, something new. An undergraduate paper I graded today told me something new about a novel that I had read a dozen times. Originality is really not that difficult in literary criticism. You just has to look at the text anew, just really look and see what is there.

Imagine if your criterion were only (1): Provide basic information to interested students or non-specialists. The you would no longer be presenting original research.

If your criterion were only to teach a specialist something new, then you wouldn't have to worry about being understandable by a graduate student. Since potential readers occupy various rungs of the ladder, though, it doesn't seem like a good idea to address only those on the top rung. Also, if you aren't communicating your message well to the graduate students, it is very possible that you are failing to communicate even with the specialists, who also vary somewhat in the exact amount of expertise they might have on every point of interest.


It is often useful to formulate very simple instructions for something that, in theory, you already know how to do. This technique can help you to clarify what it is that you find difficult in some aspect of scholarship that should be easy but is not.

For example, I have problems keeping everything I need for a particular project in one place so I can find it. If I mastered that technique, then writing the article I'm trying to finish this week would be very easy. I wouldn't have to worry that one book was in my car, others in my apartment, and some others in my office. So I could write instructions on how to finish an article. First, assemble all of the materials in one place. Then, make a list of the parts of the article that need to be completed. Then, complete those parts. Fourth, send the article as an attachment to the guy.

Forbidden Words

I told my undergraduate class not to use the words interesante, diferente, importante, and cosa. Four words that they just had to do without. I wrote this in capital letter in English on the assignment sheet. JUST DO NOT USE ANY OF THESE WORDS. It might seem an arbitrary constraint, but it forces them to look for other, more varied vocabulary items rather than relying on the four favorite words of undergraduate Spanish students. The list is short on purpose: I wanted to concentrate on a few to begin with. I could have prohibited bueno, malo, personas, etc...

Of course, I got papers using these words in abundance. I guess I should have used caps, bold-face, and 16-point type for my warning, with some obscentiies thrown in.

Scholars should have forbidden words too. Problematize is a good one to start with.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

How to Grade Papers

You first need to block out some time. Somehow, papers do not grade themselves without some time devoted to them.

Get all the papers or tests you have to grade together, in one place. A folder or envelope helps.

You need a physical space in which to grade. It doesn't matter where, but papers need to graded in some specific place.

Some substances might come in handy. Caffeine or small amounts of alcohol. Some anger managements techniques might also be necessary.

I have bad handwriting and fast typing, so I type out my comments on the computer after correcting some grammar mistakes and putting some ?? and WTF and !! on them. (Usually I don't write WTF.) When I am done, I just insert page breaks between each student's comments and print the whole thing out, stapling or paper-clipping the sheet to the student's paper. That way I also have a computer file with all my comments and grades, so I can see what problems particular students have between one paper and the next.

Estimate how many papers you can do in an hour. For example, I could do one 20-page graduate paper in an hour, or 6 four-page undergraduate papers in the same time. Don't do the good ones first and save the bad for last. Rather, work more or less at random. Use the best ones to set the standard for what an A should be, and put papers in the order their rank, good to bad. Make sure a worse paper does not have a better grade.

I work one hour on, one hour off. So this evening, for example, I graded 6 paper between 7 and 8 p.m., then six more between 9 and 10. That leaves five more for the morning between 8 and 9.

I hate grading, but I also manage to be quick if I want to be.

If a student turns in a paper late, they do not get it back with the rest of the class, even if I have it graded already. I view the grading of a single batch of papers as a single task, and keep all the papers physically in one place until they are graded.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Ineffective (iii)

Some characteristics of a certain type of ineffective prose:

Abstraction. Often we don't know what the writer is talking about. There are abstract concepts, but nothing specific that we can put our finger on.

Self-Absorption. The writer seems more involved with herself than with the task of communicating, proud of her particular positions. A use of a lot of feel-good language masks the absence of justification.

Gratuitous melodrama or didacticism.. There is a sense of urgency or a call to action, but the writer cannot define what it is he really wants us to do.

A Poetry Blurb That Works

If I had to write a blurb for a book of poetry, it might go something like this:
A highschool dropout roams the beaches of Northern California, meeting a series of strangers who propose contests of strength and absurdly specific wagers: what pieces of detritus will the next wave carry away? He is in no position to refuse any suggestion offered to him. He understands the literal meaning of the words spoken to him but he will never understand the rules of the game.

Of course, that blurb will only work for a single book of poetry, one that, in fact, does not yet exist, though I may write it some day. Where you get into trouble is with blurbs that could be about any book of poetry: "The poet gazes at his navel and has some profound but whimsical thoughts, writing them up with flair and panache."

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Ineffective (ii)

Here's a press release I got twice yesterday in my email:
A recession has hit America at such an angle that everything has been called into question. The thoughtlessness of fin de siecle America has been replaced by mistrust, envy, and defensiveness. In this atmosphere, new imperatives emerge: to sort out wheat from chaff, gold from dross, truth from fiction. These imperatives are enacted in solitude, as the poet takes a scalpel to the body of his experiences. Blank's Title of Book is a vivid manifestation of a new, scrupulous American consciousness. It is the effort of a poet to elevate the carnal with intellect, and to create a memorable chiasmus between them. The frigidity of post-modern verse is replaced by a new romanticism, that is not romantic. That is the central endeavor here, and it is performed with panache.

I got quite angry about how bad this was. It makes the argument that a particular piece of writing, in the case a book of poetry, is a necessary gesture at the present historical moment, but it makes this argument so incompetently that we aren't convinced it's going to be a very effective book of poetry. I know, I should calm down, but let's look at what this paragraph is trying to say.

The attempt at historical contextualization at the beginning falls flat. Is it really true that thoughtlessness has been replaced with defensiveness? What does this really mean? isn't there pretty much the same amount of envy and mistrust as there always was? So the desperate imperative is to sort the wheat from the chaff. A resonant biblical metaphor, to be sure, but what does it really mean in this context? Here is comes off as a mere cliché, especially alongside of "gold from dross." The poet performs surgery on himself, presumably a metaphor for self-analysis, but how is that different from what any other poet might do? The romantic genius working in solitude is hardly a new conception of poetry. If there is an imperative, it would be nice to know what it actually is so we can do it.

I'm not sure what "elevate the carnal with intellect" and "create a memorable chiasmus between them" mean. I could parse these phrases in several ways, I know what the rhetorical figure of chiasmus is, but how could I be sure if I'm guessing right? The overgeneralization (the frigidity of post-modern verse) is objectionable to me. What poets are meant here? Isn't postmodernism of Ginsberg and O'Hara hyper-romantic? Lest we think that this new romanticism is romantic, the author sets us straight. But then what is it? "... the central endeavor, carried off with panache" is empty verbiage.

I count five passive verbs here in seven sentences: "has been called into question," "has been replaced," "are enacted," "is replaced," "is performed." I've defended the passive voice many times before, but in this case I won't because I don't think it is effective. (Not that the active verbs are any better here.)

The tone of this passage is filled with passionate intensity, as Yeats would say, but it is lacking in any concrete detail. What are this guy's poems even about? What kind of language do they use? Are they funny? Melodramatic? Self-deprecating? We don't actually know anything about them after reading this summary of their "central endeavor."


Here's an example of ineffective writing that I found by way of Clarissa's blog. She quoted it in order to criticize it and I will perform some more criticism of it.
Elevate Difference is a forum for thoughtful critique that aims to embody the myriad—and sometimes conflicting—viewpoints present in the struggle for political, social, and economic justice. Elevate Difference offers fluid and dynamic perspectives on various items and events that represent the rich differences found in progressive communities. Emerging from the desire to dismantle progressive movements that privilege assimilation to one school of thought over another, Elevate Difference intends to make the value of difference more visible. We seek to move beyond a facile tolerance of difference that eschews its merit in favor of focusing on common ground. We believe the ways we are dissimilar should be foregrounded, engaged, and deemed of equal worth. Elevate Difference provides a challenge to ourselves and to our readers, a reflection of our ideological paradigms, and a command to reframe our actions.

Lack of clarity: What does it mean to say that there is "a facile tolerance of difference that eschews its merits..." ? I am unclear about whether "focusing on common ground" is supposed to be good or bad. The stiff, unnatural vocabulary and syntax could easily be revised: simply read the passage aloud and change any phrases that you wouldn't actually say in a normal conversation. In other words, all of them.

Self-Congratulation: The tone is so relentlessly self-congratulatory that it makes me distrustful. All this feel-good language (thoughtful, myriad, rich, value, worth), but used in an overbearing and bossy way. I feel like I am church.

Ideological inconsistency. You cannot take a viewpoint that is wonderfully neutral (all differences are equally valuable) and yet so dogmatic in spirit: they propose to "dismantle" progressive movements that they don't agree with. A difference in and of itself cannot be valuable anyway. Something or someone is valuable for what it is, usually, not for what it's not. And, really, is being left-handed as significant a difference as being of another animal species? Is it really possible to place an equal value on all the ways people differ from one another? Is it valuable to a Nazi, simply because it is different from being a Quaker? Don't we have to consider each kind of difference into account on a case-by-case basis and decide how significant it is? People can create identity politics out of seemingly small differences and then demand that those differences be respected on the same footing. Is that what this passage is demanding? Could a gluten-allergy qualify as a significant difference? It's hard to know because of the turgid, self-congratulatory style.

Inattention to Audience. Who is this written for? Only for those already in the secret of the jargon of a certain academic in-group. Isn't the author of this statement introducing a barrier to certain kinds of difference by writing in this way? I mean the difference of being able to understand this sort of language or not, the difference between being attracted to or repulsed by preening, pretentious self-congratulation.


Conferences, in my field, lack prestige. Pretty much anyone who sends in an abstract can give a paper at many of these, even some graduate students who might not be wholly ready to present in a professional context. Conferences are great for networking, but you don't want to have a dozen conference papers with only two articles to show for your efforts. Not every conference paper needs to be an article, but you need to have close to a 1/1 ratio of papers to articles.

I don't think you need to give every single article you publish as a paper either. Don't let conferences be the engine driving your scholarship.

Because some conferences accept just about anyone, the audience has to suffer through many horribly bad papers. I couldn't believe my ears when I went to my first conference as a Graduate student. We had a segregated ession with four graduate students, and all the papers were excellent. Nobody attended, except the participants ourselves and the session moderator, a pompous, condescending asshole faculty member from the Institution hosting the event. He told us how we had a long way to go before we were mature scholars. The next day, when I went to a non-graduate student session, i was shocked to see two papers with pedestrian thematic criticism, of the type you might expect of a high-school student, or bare plot summaries. I was so naive that I assumed mature scholars would have nuanced, subtle approaches to literature.


If your field values conferences, then those will have more prestige. In linguistics, for example, papers are selected through a rigorous process. You need to know what the value of a conference is for your particular field.

Bird Droppings

"Bird dropping" publications are minor translations,* very short, undeveloped papers in out-of-the-way journals or conference proceedings, encyclopedia articles, interviews, or any other kind of publication that is not a well-developed article that you would be proud of. The problem is that a list of many such publications on a c.v. makes the c.v. look padded, especially in the absence of more substantive work. Imagine the effect on a reader of a c.v. that look like a list of 14 publications, but on closer examination yields only two pieces of any real substance.

Another mistake people make at early stages of their career is to list all their publications under a single category.

I've ended up with more items like this on my c.v. than I would have liked, but I also have a long list of refereed articles and book chapters on my c.v. before the category of "other publications" even comes up. Some of my minor publications are important to me, like a few things publisehd in Insula and Revista de Libros in Spain. I've also done many book reviews, before cutting back a few years ago. None of them is impressive per se, but they add up to something by sheer bulk.


*Obviously a translated book will be more impressive than a translation of an interview with Carlos Fuentes published in your Graduate School student journal.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

More Passive Wisdom from Pullum

here. His comments are closed, and for very good reasons.


Who can can spell synecdoche? I certainly can't. I just look up the word each time I need to use it. Spelling is trivial. Misspelling, on the other hand, is far from trivial. In other words, nobody cares after the third grade whether you can spell a word in a spelling contest. People only care if you don't spell something right. You don't look smart for spelling things right; you only look idiotic for not doing so.

A lot of other features of scholarly writing are like that: if you get them wrong they are distractions, but if you get them right, your paper just looks normal. You don't get extra credit for just doing basic things correctly.


If you are a student you might want to not

--spell the professor's name wrong.
--put a grammatical error in the title of your paper.
--use a word from the list of the words your professor told you never to use.
--get the name of the main character in the novel wrong.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Scholarly Journals in My Field

I was asked by another blogger to give a list of scholarly journals for the fields of 19th and 20th Century Peninsular Novel. It is important to identify significant journals in one's own field. We don't have a clear hierarchy of journals in my field, but these are the "big five," in my opinion, along with two more specialized outlets.


Revista de Estudios Hispánicos

This is one of the best journals for 19th century because the editor is a specialist in this field. The editorial board has Charnon-Deutsch, Delgado, Fernández Cifuentes, Haidt, Johnson, Labanyi, Pope, Resina, Sieburth. In other words, a lot of the best scholars in 18th and 19th century. I am on the editorial board myself, so I am biased.

Hispanic Review
MLN (Hispanic Issue)
Revista Hispánica Moderna

These three journals retain their prestige. Publishing there in any field is seen as a plum.

Revista Canadiense de Estudios Hispánicos

This journal is well-edited, with a rigorous editorial process generally speaking.


Now edited at Temple, it is a good journal that lacks the traditional prestige of HR or or REH.

Anales Galdosianos

Obviously this is a journal read by anyone interested in Galdós.

Reading for Style and Structure

Here's an exercise my graduate course is doing. I've written it in English just so I could share it with my readers on SMT:

Choose a scholarly article. The topic is not important. Examine the following elements:

Introduction. How does the author fulfill the tasks necessary for an introduction. (Introducing the topic, framing the critical problem, laying out the steps of the argument, presenting a coherent thesis.) Is the introduction proportional in length to the rest of the article?

Signposting. Is the "signposting" present in the article sufficient? Is the author too obvious in telling the reader where the article is going to go? Is the signposting obtrusive? Or could the article have used even more signposting? ("In the second half of the article, I will turn my attention to...").

Thesis. What is the thesis (main idea) of the article? Is it expressed in one or two sentences? Is it sufficiently specific? Is it the answer to a question that seems significant enough?

Body of the Article. How is the article organized? How do specific subsections and paragraphs support the larger claims of the article? Is it easy to follow the overall thread of the article from one paragraph to the next?

Evidence. What evidence for the varying claims does the article present? Does the evidence come through archival work? Through textual analysis? Through the conclusions of other scholars? What is the relative proportion of these elements?

Conclusion. How does the article end? Does the conclusion merely summarize the contents, or does it provide a wider perspective? Are you convinced of the main argument at the end of the article?

Style. What are the main strengths and weaknesses you find in the style of the article? Look at clarity and grace of expression. Is the writing concise or verbose? Is this a model you would follow in your own writing? Are there stylistic flaws that would have been easy to correct? Do you notice stylistic features that might have been different if the writer was using another language (Spanish vs. English.)? Does the writer use jargon? If so, do you think this is appropriate in this particular case?

Reflection. What else did you notice that does not fit into these categories? What else did you learn from doing this assignment? If you hadn't thought about reading an article in this way, how has your perspective changed? If you already had definite ideas about how to write an article or paper, how has this exercise confirmed or modified your basic approach?

Agenda (6)

Thomas does a good job here of defining his research agenda. Notice how it is very concrete and detailed: an exploration of the sense-making debate in Organizational Studies, as well as very broad in its implications: the epistemology of the social sciences.

In job interviews in academia there is always the "summarize your dissertation" question. Then the interviewers will typically ask about the next project beyond the dissertation. That is an opportunity to define your research agenda, because you will be able to make a connection between a specific dissertation topic and the larger agenda of which it forms part. If you can articulate the connection between a narrower topic and a broader agenda, you will be able to be very impressive.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Romantic Genius

If we conceive ourselves as romantic geniuses, we will be at the mercy of inspiration and angst. We might have pictures of a guy in a t-shirt with a manual typewriter, smoking furiously all night and tearing sheets of paper out of the typewriter in frustration. The romantic genius is stormy and temperamental, maybe drinks too much, and lives in an attic.

Most academics, even the smart ones, don't fit into that paradigm. Getting a PhD and becoming successful does not require genius. Obviously i know some very intelligent people in academia, but most people I know are fairly ordinary, above-average type of folks.

I Shot a Man in Reno...

To "beg the question" does not mean to raise the question, but refers, rather, to fallaciously circular reasoning or petitio principii. So if you use "beg the question" in a context where you might replace it with "raising the question," that is not technically correct.

To really beg a question you have to smuggle in the conclusion you want to prove into a seemingly innocuous premise.

I shot a man in Reno, just because he used the phrase "beg the question" wrong.

More Props

from Clarissa's Blog. There is an excellent tip in her post here. Formulate a very specific question you are addressing, and then a series of concrete answers. It sounds simplistic, but it works from elementary school to senior scholars. That's basically what I do: formulate a central question, and then go about making a series of claims that will answer it.

500 posts

This is post #500 of SMT. This blog has been of extraordinary benefit for my scholarly productivity, and possibly has helped yours along too. That's the idea.

The article I am writing now will the best I've ever done. I just spent two hours on it this morning and I feel the ideas taking shape. I was a little frustrated because I had to spend a few days just reading hundred of pages. I much prefer writing. This work, however, has paid off, because I wouldn't have been able to write without this research.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Widgets and Squidets

I made the point about teaching and research in some older posts about widgets and squidgets on Bemsha Swing.

"The Real Reason Research Doesn't Get Done"

The real reason research doesn't get done.

Almost everything else is easier.

Another Endorsement

Mark Scroggins endorses both my blog and that of my Kansas colleague Tanya: First things first: when it comes to writing tips, from the very basic hints as to how to get started up to how to organize one's work on a major book-length project, there's still no blog out there I've encountered to compare with Jonathan Mayhew's Stupid Motivational Tricks. However, if you're looking for something just a skoshe more basic, I've just stumbled on – well, Jonathan pointed me there – a über-clearly written and extremely sensible newish blog, Get a Life, PhD. This one strikes me as especially useful for grad student types; I wish it had been around when I was in that particular purgatory.

Don't Know Much About María Zambrano

Here's what I noticed from reading about 800 pages of scholarly writing about the philosopher María Zambrano. Some of it is readable and informative, and yet....

I have yet to see any writer taking issue with another, disagreeing with any previous scholar about any point large or small, even in a mild, respectful way. One writer referred to a particular concept as being controversial, but did not follow up on this point. The reader does not even find out who the players on either side of the controversy are!

None of the scholars takes issue with Zambrano herself, or sees any aspect of her work to be self-contradictory or problematic in any way. I was relieved when one writer confessed that a paragraph in Zambrano was confusing to him. Finallly!

Biographical and circumstantial research often takes the place of critical analysis. When these scholars analyze Zambrano's writing, they tend to quote and summarize what she says rather than truly scrutinizing it. When I read her work, certain ideas jump out of me as particularly worthy of remark, but these writers rarely get at the distinctiveness of her thought.

With a few exceptions, most scholars working in this area do not develop strong and distinctive (non-obvious) theses.

A complete absence of humor or wit!!

In more technical philosophical analysis, a pedantic dullness. In more poetic homages, an unbearable effusiveness.

The most useful article I've read is a straightforward compare-and-contrast between Zambrano, Ortega, Unamuno, and Zubiri. My colleague Roberta Johnson has interesting perspectives on Zambrano's relationship to feminism. Even though I don't agree with everything she says, her articles actually puts forward a distinctive perspective rather than simply redundantly reiterating a standard set of views. In fact, my disagreement was a sign that she was actually saying something.

I don't believe in controversy just for the sake of controversy, but the absence of critical debate is puzzling to me. I don't feel any productive tension in this body of critical literature, a sense that anything is at take in adopting one view (rather than another) of Zambrano. I don't even think Zambrano herself would have wanted to be treated with fawning, uncritical adulation. Resistance is the truer homage.

Am I being too harsh? I don't think so. I'm still learning a lot from my reading, and my frustrations are productive in leading me to my own views. The writers I am criticizing know more than me, so I have to still defer to their greater knowledge even if I think they should be doing a better job of it.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Get a Life, PhD

Here's another blog worth checking out by a colleague in another department where I teach. I met this blogger recently.


I went to a "mindfulness" group at the psychological clinic here. I don't know much about the topic yet, but it struck me that one definition would be using your own mind to your benefit rather than to your detriment. In other words, don't outthink yourself. Notice the thoughts and emotions you are having and allow them to pass through you without overstaying their welcome. I've always thought the best way of dealing with negative emotions is to pay no attention to them at all and hope they would go away, but I'm open to new approaches.

Teaching and Research

It's hard to know how to compare evaluations of teaching with those of research. Take the description of my blog, "Scholarly Writing and How to Get it Done." It wouldn't make sense to have a blog about "Class Preparation and How to Get it Done." You have to show up prepared for class, and the preparation is an inherent part of that. The students might feel a course is more or less effective than another one, but each course exists and was taught by its instructor.

I just turned in my annual review form for '10. I had three articles appearing in print, and one review. Two more were submitted and are in press, along with one book review. For last year's review (2009 calendar year), I had two books and some other publications. Another year I might have zero articles appearing, or only one. It's easy to see, therefore, why research almost always ends up being valued more. The difference between four courses in which I get 4.2 on a five point scale, or 3.8 on the same scale, is minimal, compared to the difference between publishing three articles and zero, or between two books and one book thousand-word book review.

Teaching, judged by a qualitative measure of student satisfaction, cannot possibly compete on an equal footing with research, judged by quantitative measures of production. (Especially since research is not judged by sheer quantity, but by quantity of work accepted and published in reputable places.) There is simply no symmetrical way of judging the two activities. The difference between an excellent researcher and a non-productive one is immense, whereas the difference between a great instructor and a pretty good one is relatively small.

So any institution that values research at all will put too much emphasis on it, simply by giving it a value at all, because differentials of effort and accomplishment will show up in research much more strongly.

To give teaching equal weight, by this logic, is to devalue research. The only way to give it equal weight it to count relatively small differences in student satisfaction more than huge differentials in research productivity. I might produce five or ten times more than a colleague, but that colleague will never teach 10 times better than I do.

Many people do not understand this. I saw someone commenting at the Chronicle of Higher Education that professors need to take courses in pedagogy. I don't know anyone in my university who cannot teach a course. I've observed many people teaching and taken many classes when I was a student. On the other hand, some people do have difficulty making a contribution to a field of knowledge. People who can do that successfully are those who deserve to be in jobs that expect research.

Adding a New Room to the House

A "new room in the house" is a tangible, easily definable addition to the scholarly base. For me, most recently, it involves acquiring a specialist's level of expertise of María Zambrano, a very interesting Spanish essayist, philosopher, influenced by Unamuno, with a fascinating trajectory as an intellectual. Once I get through reading all of the books in my university library by her and about her, I will have that room completed. It pays off to be a "completist" in some cases, because it is a lot easier to read everything than to try to figure out how much I need to read at a minimum just in order to write a little bit about her.

Lateral connections might follow. I would have to know about Zubiri, a philosopher who influenced her; to re-read the poetry of Emilio Prados, a poet she was close to. Those are other rooms I haven't built yet.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Agenda (5) and Scholarly Base

It strikes me that the scholarly agenda (overarching sense of the purpose of one's work) helps in the elaboration of the scholarly base: all the things necessary but not sufficient that support scholarship. The base is not just knowledge, but also access to materials, to other scholars; abilities, like writing prose or analyzing texts. The relation between the agenda and the base should go without saying, but a lot of things that go without saying need to be said over and over again.

Agenda (4)

Some welcome thoughts here about the research agenda from a scholar at a an earlier stage. I think formulating an idea of one's agenda as an advanced graduate student could be helpful, even if it ends up changing a bit later. Formulating an agenda is different from coming up with a dissertation topic. The topic is one piece of the agenda, not the entire enchilada. Of course, you can't work on the entire agenda at once.

I never wanted to be a specialist on a single author, someone who devotes an entire career to Milton or Twain, or even Lorca. The general tendency is for the agenda to expand over the years, to encompass more material.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011


A wedge works by virtue of its shape: a very sharp narrow edge on one side, developing immediately into a broader form. A wedge, metaphorically, then, is a seemingly small advantage that creates a disproportionately large effect. What is your wedge? it could be time management, prose style, or an ability to find the right questions to ask.

In my case, I have an immediate advantage because I have a habit of asking deeper questions of the text. Just being able to read well and develop interesting questions puts me ahead of critics who tend to summarize the text in more obvious ways.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011


My laboratory is my own mind. That is the problem with my discipline. The only escape is to compare my reactions to those produced in other minds. Luckily the medium of exchange is language, which permits intersubjective communication.

Agenda (3)

An agenda could also be an ulterior motive or hidden purpose, as when we say of someone: "I think she has a political agenda." In this sense, the agenda is not what I want to accomplish, but where I want the field to go, an ideological stance or bias.

In Spanish, the word agenda means a small appointment calendar or "planner." So the agenda is also what must be done during particular days, hours, and weeks. That's an interesting metonymy.

Agenda (2)

Think of your agenda as a large structure with different slots that can be filled with particular tasks, large and small. Some ideas will develop into more significant contributions to the agenda; others will be lost because they don't support the agenda, and as a consequence aren't supported by it.

You can think of your overall research agenda on the model of the hermeneutic circle. The agenda gives meaning to the individual parts of it (chapters or articles), and the individual parts of it modify the overall definition of the project. For example, I might write a chapter that ends up substantially modifying my conception of the entire book, forcing other chapters or ideas for chapters out.

This model is preferable to the idea of getting an idea for a single piece, and then trying to complete that piece. If you don't know what it's a piece of, it's harder to write.

Monday, February 14, 2011


Having knowledge of your subject matter at the granular level is necessary. Very detailed, fine-tuned distinctions and perceptions. Almost everyone can achieve this, too, given enough time. There's not one of my colleagues who doesn't have this kind of micro-expertise in their chosen subspecialty.

The trick, then, is to come up with significant claims arising from micro-expertise. This is what I've sometimes called "vertical integration," the integration of small details and larger interpretative frameworks. We've all known people who seem to know a lot but don't have much to say. Or people whose larger claims are grandiose, but who lack knowledge at the level of the capillaries. The most common difficulty is with linking up larger claims and the evidence for these claims, especially in an interpretive discipline such as mine, where the relationship between claims and their evidence is not transparently clear or given in advance.


Another concept related to vertical integration is the hermeneutic circle, with its oscillation between a global interpretation and the supporting details. For example, if my initial interpretation of a novel leans in a particular direction, then I will interpret a detail in the novel in a way supportive of that interpretation, but with perhaps a slight modification. Then I will return to other details and interpret those based on my revised concept, and so on. This is not a vicious circle of self-confirmation, since any detail can alter the original conception. As Gadamer argues, the hermeneutic circle is productive and self-correcting rather than merely "vicious."


Applying theory to the text is problematic when the text is not allowed to talk back, to modify the theory.


Agenda is the gerundive neuter plural of the verb agere. It means "what must be done." In English we treat is as a singular, rather than distinguishing between agendum and agenda. An agenda or research project is the overarching context of a scholar's profile. "Writing three articles" is not an agenda in the sense I mean: that's just a list of three things to do.

My research agenda is to better the state of poetry criticism in my field (modern, contemporary Peninsular literature) by relating it to larger intellectuals trends in intellectual and cultural history; to trace the genealogy of the late modern movement in contemporary Spain; to integrate the contribution of Lorca into modern Spanish poetry in a more convincing way.

I would have defined my agenda differently five years ago, or ten years ago, or fifteen, or twenty. Some parts have remained constant, but my interests have shifted. I've always had a clear sense of my agenda, however.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Inspiration, Where Art Thou?

This is an interesting post, because it show the typical writing process of someone who relies on inspiration. The writer begins by saying
So far, I'm having a bit of "writer's block". Although I do believe in suddenly having a great idea, and then transforming it into an article to send for publication,

I don't think it works like that. Having great idea, a little lightbulb flash, and then getting an article out of it. The writer's instincts are good, because he or she goes on to write:
I also think that it takes time and patience to develop a great idea, and that a little mandatory writing every week will do more good than writing non-stop until you finish that article.

S/he then goes on to describe an idea developed six months previously, that then fizzled out. The problem, as I remarked in a comment on this blog, is that the writer seems to be thinking in terms of individual articles resulting from isolated flashes of inspiration rather than an overarching research agenda. Without such an agenda, individual ideas have no framework to sustain them. This lack of a framework, together with a belief in "inspiration," is a sure-fire recipe for "writer's block."

My research agenda, for example, is explaining the development of late modernism in contemporary Spanish poetry and fusing together strands from intellectual and literary history through the work of authors who belong to both. It has several components and dimensions, some related to intellectual history, some to poetics, some to the work of specific poets or essayists. Some of the individual ideas I get in relation to this project might fizzle out and go nowhere. If I had to rely on one idea at a time, I would get very frustrated. If an idea didn't work, I would have to go back to work from scratch on another atomistically conceived idea. It would be easy to waste time, because an idea that went nowhere would have no interesting consequences if it weren't conceived as part of a research agenda.

Even poets work like that. Each of the poems in Lorca's Romancero gitano is not a lightbulb flash. Rather, he had the idea of fusing an elaborate neo-gongorine style with the anonymous ballad tradition and creating a series of gypsy characters. Working on that project, he came up with several secondary ideas based on previous snatches of folkloric and mythic material. He developed techniques that he used in several of the poems in the book. A dialogue (or interpellation) between the poetic narrator and the protagonist of the poem, for example, occurs in at least three poems. The flash of inspiration for Lorca might have been seeing that a technique he has already used once might work again in a different context.


I don't mean to be picking on this anonymous blogger, who I have reason to believe is an intelligent scholar and teacher. I simply saw that the reliance on inspiration led to predictable results. The blogger also mentions being rejected by a top-flight journal on the grounds that his or her work (sorry, I haven not determined a gender for this writer) is not groundbreaking. S/he says that s/he doesn't aspire to that, but to be good and solid. That's fine. I would still like this writer to be happier, less reliant on the whims of the muse.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Signposting Without Signposting (2)

The “late modernism” that developed in Spanish poetry during the final decades of the twentieth century—identified with José Ángel Valente, Antonio Gamoneda, and similar poets—is not a mere revival of historical modernism, but a highly selective revision of the cultural poetics of Spanish modernism as developed in the work of three figures: Miguel de Unamuno, María Zambrano, and Federico García Lorca. A complete intellectual genealogy of the late modernist movement would have to include several other precursors as well, from Heidegger to Machado, Cernuda, and Lezama Lima. Nevertheless, the particular strain of Spanish cultural exceptionalism inaugurated by Unamuno, with its exaltation of Saint John of the Cross, occupies a privileged place in the development of Spanish late modernism.

The importance of María Zambrano for Valente and numerous other contemporary poets and critics in the late modernist line is self-evident, since her name appears so frequently in connection with theirs. Unamuno and Lorca, in contrast, exert their influence in less direct and obvious ways. Unamuno’s influence is filtered through Zambrano’s further elaboration of his poetics of Spanish cultural identity. Lorca would not appear to form part of the lineage of late modernism at all, since this tradition emphasizes pensamiento (thought) and Lorca is still considered to be a naïve genius or poeta tonto. Yet Spanish late modernism also emphasizes forms of Spanish cultural exceptionalism and prelogical forms of intuition that are strongly reminiscent of Lorca’s duende. The author of “Juego y teoría del duende”casts a long shadow over the late modernist poetics of Valente and Gamoneda.

This is another attempt at the introduction to an article without explicit signposting. The rest of the article will consist of three main sections. One on Unamuno and Zambrano, the second on Zambrano and Valente, the third on Lorca and Valente, with a line thrown in about Gamoneda. So the intro (with some footnotes you aren't seeing here) does tell the reader what to expect, but without the type of language that says: "First, I will examine the influence of X on Y. Then I will return to Z." My idea is that as long as a reader is not lost, she will not complain about the absence of signs.


Invited contributions have some advantages, especially after tenure.

(1) Rejection is not as much of an issue. I've never been invited to submit something and then rejected.

(2) You can still get feedback, but you aren't necessarily anonymous so you can cite your own work freely.

(3) It is nice to be invited. It shows your work is valued, or at least you are on the short list of people invited in a particular sub-field.

(4) Invitations are usually for special issues of journals or books that are less random than non-special issues of journals. They are more likely to be read by specialists in your own field.

(5) The article is often published in a journal that is usually refereed. Thus it essentially counts as an article in a refereed journal. (Even if you put an asterisk beside it.)

(6) It provides a stimulus for writing an article, and external incentive.

There are some drawbacks too:

(1) If you aren't careful, you can relax your own internal standards. They won't reject you, after all, so you don't have to be quite as rigorous with yourself.

(2) The level of critique you get might not be as rigorous either. You might miss out on the opportunity to improve your work.

(3) You can easily begin allow other people determine your research agenda. (I could do little else but write articles in response to invitations, if I wanted to.) You can justify it to yourself: I would have written this anyway, right?

I have no idea how many articles I have written by invitation. I could look at my cv and tell you, I guess. I'd guess it is a lot, more than half of my total number of articles. I don't regret any in particular, though I might have taken more control of my destiny at times.


Invitations are the elephant in the room in any discussion of peer review. If a lot of articles are published through invitations, then peer review becomes much less attractive to senior scholars like myself. If I am reasonably confident that I can write a good article without the "help" of an anonymous reviewer, who may or may not help, then I can side-step the process almost completely by publishing almost exclusively by invitation. Then the only people having to subject themselves to peer review are junior scholars too new to the field to be invited a lot, and who need the stamp of approval of peer review for tenure.

I actually got a lot of invitations even before tenure, so my case was a mixture. I did go through the process of submitting and being accepted or rejected, but very quickly I also began to get invited too. I don't remember a long period of being an unknown.

Self Citation

I'm writing an article right this moment in which I have to cite my own previous publications... a lot. An awful lot. I can't help it. This paper simply draws on just about everything I have written in the last five years.

Usually, I avoid doing self-citation to an excessive degree. It doesn't seem very "classic." I don't see much alternative, however, since the alternative would be self-plagiarism.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Reading for Structure

It would be a good idea to read several articles just for their form. Read them without paying attention to what they are saying, only looking at how they are put together. To do this it would best to choose articles you aren't very interested in so that you wouldn't be distracted. Look at how the author backs up her claims, how he writes, what kind of signposting she feels the need to use. What his authorial persona is. You could even develop a rubric to judge the article by several measures.

Graduate students read scholarly articles, but they don't tend to read them formalistically as I'm suggesting. Maybe I'll try it myself since I'm recommending it to you.

Shape Shifting

I'm having problems with an article / chapter that keeps wanting to shift shapes on me. The same material could take several forms; I can include or leave out Lorca and/or Lezama Lima. It will have four lives:

A seminar paper (already given)
A talk at CUNY in March
An article for Modernist Cultures
A chapter in my book.

I've decided to write the article first (the most urgent) but write is as though it were also the chapter on Zambrano. The only difference will be some material on Lorca that's in the article but not the chapter. The talk in CUNY will be next.

My plan to write a chapter a month will be fulfilled, since I'll have the Zambrano chapter done at the same time as the article version of that. Then, in March, I can do a stealth attack on another chapter. Maybe Claudio Rodríguez?

Tuesday, February 8, 2011


The model for the graduate paper, turned in at the end of the semester, is the published scholarly article. Students need to have those models in front of them when they are working.

Ironically, the dissertation chapter, in its more bloated form, is not modeled after the scholarly article. It is longer, with too much undigested "research." Students often move backwards in the dissertation, then need to relearn the seminar-paper / article format again as Assistant Professors.


In your writing you are creating a mask. I've heard some anonymous / pseudonymous bloggers say that not signing their name allows them freedom to create a persona apart from their other identities. I've never felt that myself. Your persona should be an idealized, better version of your self. If you are peevish, reactive, ironic, or mean, by all means let some of that into your writing, but not too much. If you are generous, effusive, enthusiastic, don't repress that. If your style is peevish, pedantic, and mean-spirited, but you are not, then make those adjustments. If you emphasize pragmatism in your real life, and write abstractly, maybe there is something wrong.

Tenure Track

The tenure clock seems like a long time. Six years or seven. It's really not all that long, though. You have to adjust to the new condition of being an Assistant Professor, where the people judging your work are no longer your mentors, but your colleagues. They may or may not mentor you, but they do not have the same stake in your success as your dissertation advisor. If your dissertation is not already book-ready, you have to revise it, cannibalize it for articles, and/or start a new project. You've been in Graduate School a while, but you've never had to publish your work. Getting an A in the class does not mean your paper is a publishable article. Going to an ivy-league school does not mean you have been professionalized. You have to have made yourself a presence in your field, knowing people personally and gaining their respect. If grad school seemed hard, being an Asst. Professor is five times worse.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Dancing About Architecture

We've all heard that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. Yet writing about writing seems problematic in the opposite way. When reading essays about other essays I've come across a problem of insufficient critical distance. The essay merely summarizes the previous essay, adding very little else. I could then write summaries of those essays and call it a study of the critical reaction to the first essayist. Publishing my book, my study of the critical reaction, I could then read book reviews that summarized my summary of other people's summaries of the original essayist, some of whose work summarizes other thinkers.

Criticism of novels that summarizes the plot and discusses what happens to the characters as though they were real people runs into similar dead-ends. With poetry, we don't run into this problem. The critic of poetry always has to frame a critical problem.

I'd much prefer dancing about architecture. At least I would be able to keep the dancing logically separate from what it was about, the buildings.


This post from Bemsha Swing got 70 views in less than 24 hours. I'm not sure why. Nobody has commented on it or linked to it, as far as I can tell.


from "Unstable Euphony".

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Love and Identify with Your Own Writing

Yes, you should do that too, but only after you are really happy with it. You want your chosen writerly persona to be present in what you write, to represent you there. Your style is your own congresswoman in Washington, doing your bidding, your personal ambassador to Venezuela.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

It's Ok to Hate Your Writing

It's ok to hate your writing. Your writing is not you. One of the main reasons for hating one's own writing is the recognition that this writing (possibly) does not represent the persona that you want to be putting forward. Do you sound like a pretentious twit? That is not you. If you don't hate your writing you will never come to love and appreciate it either.

One way to develop this capacity is to read things you have written long ago. If you have forgotten the thoughts behind the words and only see the words themselves, you will be able to see your own writing as though someone else had written it. I've been able to that and to see how well (or how poorly) I have written in the past. Sometimes I wince, sometimes I am pleasantly surprised at how smart I used to be.

I can do this also with writing I produced yesterday. That is a good skill to develop.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Sustain and Decay

We've talked about the onset, or attack of a musical note. Another element to consider is its staying power. A piano note decays fast, so that a whole note held over four beats will be very much softer on beat four than on beat one (depending on the tempo, of course.) An organ whole note maintains its original volume over the four beats (more or less). A saxophone note might even get louder.

Morton Feldman wanted to get away from the excessive emphasis on articulation and attack, and the way that instruments became parodies or "stencils" of themselves. He tended to want his music played "as softly as possibly."

I'm not sure what this is a metaphor for. I'm sure it's a metaphor for something. Possibly prose itself. You have to know what kind of instrument you are playing. A steel drum or piano will have more repeated notes to compensate for the quick decay of sound. If you think of your instrument as woodwind or brass, your metaphor will be breath. If you are playing a string instrument while writing, you will need to work out the bowing.

Mimetic Criticism (ii)

I'm running into the problem of mimetic criticism in my readings for a chapter on María Zambrano. 90% of what I'm reading is an imitation of Zambrano's own flowery style used to summarize Zambrano's ideas. The critics have no distance at all from their object of study. They rarely if ever disagree with her or criticize any position she takes. I cannot say this criticism is wrong, inaccurate, but it doesn't tell me anything that I couldn't also get from Zambrano's own work, because the critical metalanguage is simply taken from Zambrano's own discursive practice.

I am not saying that criticism of Zambrano should be hostile or unsympathetic, but I'd like at least a smidgeon of resistance or ambivalence, some wedge of respectful disagreement.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Tasks for an Introduction

1) Introduce the topic. What is the subject matter being treated here? I like to do that in the very first sentence rather than starting out with a kind of vague generality that some undergraduates favor. "People have always fallen in love."

2) Provide necessary background information. When was the novel published? What other information is necessary to understand the argument?

3) Frame the debate by identifying a critical problem. Your approach to the topic differs from previous ones. You have to set forward a framework for the discussion of the topic. Theory enters here.

4) Put forward a thesis: a distinctive idea emerging from the way you have framed the problem.

5) Tell us what you will do in the paper.

You can use anywhere between 1 and 5 paragraphs to accomplish these tasks. (5) can be implicit if you want to avoid excessive signposts. The reader should know what the paper is going to do one way or another.

Once you get into paragraph 6 or 7 you might be putting into the introduction material that belongs more properly to the body of the paper. My first published article, in one of its earlier drafts, had a ten page introduction followed by a ten page body.

Introductions Everywhere

Every part of the book, the article, has a beginning. Each chapter, each subheading of a chapter, each paragraph. Even the conclusion has an introductory paragraph with an opening sentence. Every sentence has a first word.

Every musical note has an attack, or onset. Curiously, a large part of the identifying timbre of the note is determined by its attack, so that if you took away the onset by electronic editing, you would not longer be able to tell what instrument is playing. The articulation of a musical phrase consists of the way the attacks of individual notes are linked Staccato or legato? (or not linked). Is the trumpet-player double tonguing? Does the violinist lift her bow, or switch its direction, in the middle of the phrase? I notice how the violinists in the orchestra typically use the entire length of the bow, from top to bottom or bottom to top, keeping the bow on the strings with very little interruption.

So writing is a process of constantly beginning, then continuing something for a while, then beginning again. Fluency is continuity, flow, while articulateness is differentiation (hearing each note distinctly) within an ongoing flow. Short sentences in succession might feel articulate but choppy.

The other part of the musical notion is the sustain or decay. That might require another post.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

More on Mentoring

I cannot reveal identifying details about my experience as a mentor but I can talk in general terms. Let's just say it is a female scholar of Jonathan Edwards working in a University in the Pacific Northwest, but that it is not such a scholar because I have changed the details.

It turned out that what I needed to do was read articles by this person in draft form and make concrete suggestions about improving style and correcting problems in rhetorical presentation, adjusting the quantity of pathos, logos, and ethos (insofar as those are quantifiable entities).

The result was immediate improvement. The articles I edited got much better in subsequent drafts and the person I am mentoring was grateful.

The person's work is different from my own in almost every respect (field, approach, language, rhetorical stance). I know nothing substantive about the subject matter. This made no difference. I might have missed some problem, of course, that a specialist would have seen, but having no stake in the field made it very easy for me to identify any lack of clarity, verbosity, or rhetorical missteps. I have to feel confident that the writer knows his shit, and that my job is to talk about what a non-specialist reader would respond. Someone picking up a journal will not be a specialist in every subfield represented by that journal. I felt that I allowed the writer to bring out her own voice, one very different from my own. I felt completely free of prejudice, never once having to impose my own perspective.

I can work fast, reading an article at one sitting. I know what I think almost immediately, identifying problems without having to overthink. Mentoring is not time-consuming. I could read an article a week with no problem, no effect on my other activities.

Zambrano Sans Signposting

Here is an introductory paragraph with no signposting:
No other figure in Spanish intellectual history has been more influential in shaping the “late modernism” of the turn of the twenty-first century than the philosopher María Zambrano (1904-1991). Her attempt to heal the rift between poetic and philosophical thought in her first major work, Filosofía y poesía (1939), determined the direction taken by late modernists like José Ángel Valente and Antonio Gamoneda and by women poets like Chantal Maillard. Many of Zambrano’s most significant books appeared in the second half of the twentieth century (some after her death), resulting in an intense interest in her work.

Zambrano, then, is a major Spanish modernist writer who comes into her own at a much later date...

The trick will be to cast the paragraph in which I will explain what it is I'm doing with no signposting. Transitions are still allowed. I'm still allowed to put forward what I'm doing in the rest of the paper, just not to say "my argument is that..." or "This paper will have three sections. In the first one, I will..."

I'm using Thomas Bøsball's structure of 40 paragraphs, mapping them out beforehand as far as possible. I've speculated in the past that excessive signposting often creeps in to compensate for defects in organization. The reader will only miss signposting if she is confused about where the paper is headed or if she cannot make sense of the digressions.

I am also eliminating hedges. If I am extremely accurate in what I affirm, then I don't have to say "perhaps" or "arguably." Anyway, since I am the author, everything I write is my thought, my opinion, so to say "in my opinion" is to say something that goes without saying. I will use the first person singular only to refer to myself in a biographical sense, not to talk about myself as the authorial voice you are now hearing.

There may be nothing wrong with hedges and signposting. I want to move my own prose toward a more classic mode. That's where I'm at right now, but I can also imagine telling a student to learn how to signpost more effectively.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Busy-ness or Accomplishments? (II)

Being busy means being occupied or preoccupied. Business means other things are in the way of what we want to do. It is negocio, or the negation of otium or leisure. Scholarly writing is best conceived as a kind of leisure: the mind needs space in which to work. It cannot be pre-occupied by other matters.

So the ordinary guy in the street who complains that professors are lazy is correct. We put our energy into extra tasks to avoid the work that is not really work. Research is either so hard that we would do anything else to avoid it, or so easy and pleasurable that it produces guilt.

Jump Start

I decided to write a chapter a month. The first day of every month will be a jump start or stealth attack, in which I put a lot of effort into beginning. The momentum should carry me through.

Now I doubt that I will be able to sustain this pace for five straight months, but even if I write twice as slow I will still finish the book in 2011.

Naturally, since I am writing more, I am also blogging more.

Talking it out

In the Modernities Seminar the other day I gave my paper by simply talking it out. I had the printed paper in front of me, and read some quotes from it, but I did not read a paper aloud. I always feel stupid reading a paper to an audience when I feel I should be talking to them.

The process of talking allowed me to come up with a new conception of what I was doing, to synthesize material. I was articulate enough to put forward my ideas. The other attendees at the seminar then grilled me for an hour and a half. I responded to whatever was thrown at me.

In the graduate course I am teaching, a student gave a presentation on René Girard, then we talked about the ideas. I didn't lecture at all. At most, I gave longer-than-I-should have interventions.

In Unamuno's Niebla, a novel I am teaching in my other course, the main character goes around and asks questions of everyone he knows. What is love? How do you know if a man is really in love. He contrasts his opinions with those of everyone else. To teach the novel I also used a Socratic method.

The soliloquy, whether in Shakespeare or Unamuno, is still a dialogic form, a kind of self-questioning. What should I do? Unamuno is the author of every word in the novel, but he invents characters with differing perspectives in order to figure out what he thinks.

Writing is a form of staged dialogue. For example, I might use a series of quotations from other critics or from my primary sources. I might answer imaginary objections to my arguments. Someone else could respond to my arguments.