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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, October 31, 2011

Becoming a Writer

Great post by Tanya on a similar theme. I do think you need to drink coffee to be a writer, but there could be exceptions.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Are My Standards Too High?

I wonder, after rejecting an article this morning (again), if my standards are just too high. I'm not saying I should accept everything, but I am getting a bit tired of being so much more exigent than most other people. It is very exhausting and frustrating to expect scholars to live up to my expectations. I dream of a Lorca criticism that is up to the standard of Lorca himself, that treats him seriously and with theoretical aplomb. Is this too much to ask? With Lorca I have a huge problem, since my standard is even higher and scholarship on Lorca, when it's bad, is very, very bad.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Role Models

I am just a guy who learned Spanish and became a Spanish professor. I wasn't born speaking Spanish, nor did I speak it growing up. I learned it in college and through study abroad, just like my own undergraduate students. I learned to write in English and in Spanish by writing. I gained knowledge of my field by studying it, like everyone else did. I am a realistic model for imitation, then. Not that you would want to imitate the worst aspects of my personality, of course!

Being a professor does not require extraordinary intelligence. You have to be on the studious side, of course, but once you reach a certain threshold you are fine. The rest is up to you. Your work ethic, your determination. Chances are, if you are professor you will notice that there are people dumber and smarter than you in your same profession. There will be range of people from "dumb as on ox, why is this person doing this in the first place," to absolutely brilliant. The dumb as on ox types are probably not even dumb in the literal sense, just ill-prepared or intellectually lazy.


The other way of thinking, however, is that it is very difficult to do what I've done. Although any idiot can get a PhD, many idiots fail to do so. I might look like the average more studious than average guy, but I am more intense and ambitious than most people even in the academic world. My father was an academic, so I absorbed those values at an early age. I had an 8 to 9 year advantage over people who became academically serious in the later years of college, for example.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Finding a Realistic Model

I believe you can learn to write by imitating models of writing. The first thing that good writers usually have in common is having read a lot (quantitatively), but also with a sense of discrimination, thinking about what makes writing effective along various dimensions (clarity, elegance, good organization, etc...)

Realistic models are those in the same language and genre in which you are working. I can learn about writing from reading Proust, but I am not writing in French. They should be relatively modern, from the early 20th-century on, say. Your prose is not going to sound like an essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson or like a sermon by John Donne. You also want a style that is not too oratorical, but that is not dead on the page either.

They should be models that solve the particular problems that you face. How to talk eloquently while analyzing poetry, without getting bogged down in literary criticism-ese. How to summarize the secondary literature without doing a "data dump." How to place voices in dialogue with one another without confusion.

A realistic model should give you hope. The academic writer whose work you are emulating is not a great genius of prose style, but someone who has self-consciously worked to achieve a level of elegance and clarity that is well within your reach too. Chances are the writer you are emulating learned from other models.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Seeing Yourself as a Writer

Tanya made an interesting observation in a comment to a recent post: many academics don't see themselves as writers. I see myself as a professor (teacher), an academic expert and researcher, but I also see myself as a writer. The genre in which I write are poetry, translation, and academic non-fiction prose, but I am a writer above all else. You can tell, many times, when an academic is writing out of that mind-set, as opposed to thinking of him or herself as "only" a psychologist, or a historian, or a geographer.

One way you know you are a writer is if you are reading other writers for the pure pleasure of style, if you take lessons from the great novelists and essayists of the language in which you are writing. I don't make a firm distinction between genres, although some models are "closer at hand."

Novelists are better models than poets, because they have to sit down for hours a day very regularly in order to produce their work. Poetry is also essential, though, because it is the genre with the least degree toleration for bad writing. You can't get away with anything in a poem.

Natural Talent?

A very eminent scholar, retired from my department and now teaching at UCLA, was in my office just now and was complimenting me on my natural talent for writing. It could be that some part of my talent, such as it is, is innate, but I think I learned to be a good writer of prose by carefully looking at the way in which poetry is put together. The language of poetry is visible, foregrounded. Once I could see that with a finely tuned perception, then I could transfer that ability to see language to prose, perceiving the language of prose (normally in the background) in its sharp contours. Then I could choose models that embodied the particular virtues I wanted to emulate.

Of course, some people can read poetry, and even learn to perceive its language accurately, and still write badly. There is, perhaps, a natural talent in figuring out how to acquire a learned talent. Prose, however, is very rarely a natural gift. It is just too artificial a thing.

Writing Workshop

I am doing a writing workshop for students in our doctoral program in a few weeks. The problem I'm having now is that I know too much and it is going to be hard to remain finite, since the workshop is only about an hour. When I gave such workshops in the past, it was before I began SMT, so it was much easier.

Here is a possible outline:

The basics are fundamental. What people do wrong in the dissertation is in making mistakes they should have learned to avoid in High School or the early part of college.

Management of time:
You will get it done if you have regular time to write. Your "prime time" (Tanya).

Management of space: Combine time with space for the double whammy. As Thomas writes:
I tell researchers to master the time and space of their writing. I tell them to think of the text they are writing as an object with 40 parts distributed across 8 five-paragraph sections. This is the space in which they work, and it is, importantly, an orderly space in which 40 discrete claims can be supported.

Management of tasks: break down a larger task into smaller components.

Model article / dissertation chapter. Find compelling models and follow them.

Avoid the "data dump." You are communicating a message, not proving that you know something.

Same Old

The same problems in writing that afflict college students afflict their professors too. Lack of clarity, overgenerality and vagueness, lack of original ideas, bad organization, inability to integrate more abstract principles with concrete examples. At what point should you learn these things? I would say the earlier the better...

Sunday, October 23, 2011


People, have a native speaker of English check over your prose. Even if you are a native speaker of English. For reasons I cannot disclose, I have had to read a lot of sentences recently about how "my project portrays the adumbrations of residences of ethical disport in the work of the the prize-winning author, XXX, who is a personal friend of mine." Maybe you are native speaker, but you somehow believe that to be Taken Seriously As An Academic, you have to write like that. You don't. Nobody is impressed by your pretentious verbiage and your meaningless concatenations of noun-phrases. Not only am I not impressed, but I think you should not even be a college professor. How can you be in the position of teaching students to express their ideas clearly if you cannot do it yourself?

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

I Take That Back

My article "Was Lorca a Poetic Thinker?" (published in Romance Quarterly, arrived in the mail today, so I guess that is technically the first one I've written that deliberately avoids over-deliberate signposting. It's nice that I have three articles (so far) appearing in 2011, so that my cv doesn't look pathetic for the calendar year. There should be a fourth one too in December.

I'm happy to publish in Romance Quarterly.. It is a venerable journal in my field and I like having published in as many good journals as possible. It's kind of a game I play with myself.


I was a reading some proofs of an article yesterday, one that you will soon be reading too if you would like since it will on line. It was one of the first in which I deliberately suppressed obvious "signposting" while still signaling the direction of the argument clearly in a more implicit way. I was very pleased with the writing in this article: enough time had passed so that I had not remembered the specific thought-processes that went into the prose composition, so I could judge it almost as another person. I did remember that I had purposefully ended a few sentences with a preposition and written others with a slightly more colloquial tone than I usually employ.

I did notice some metadiscursive makers that were not signposting per se, but served that function. In other words, I didn't use markers like "In the next section I will consider...." but I did use phrases like "in other words." I could have gone a little further even here, but I am still pleased with my progress. When you read it I would like you to tell me whether you would miss the signposting, or whether I could take the next step and eliminate even more meta-discourse.

There was also one very hideous-sounding sentence with two syntactically ambiguous adverbs sticking out like bony elbows. It's fine if there is only one, though of course other readers might find more they don't like.

What I really want to see is the editor's introduction to this issue of HIOL and the afterword, to see how other people construe my argument. That will be a more significant test.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

800 Posts

This is post #800. How am I doing?

Recent Work

Was Lorca a Poetic Thinker?

Ligeramente defraudado

I feel vaguely uneasy or lightly cheated when I publish something for which I have never received any substantial feedback. What I write is good, I will cop to that, but not that good. It's nice that people are putting their confidence in me, and all, but even if my work were twice as good I would still benefit from suggestions of some kind.

I guess this complaint will provoke envy rather than sympathy from scholars who are still having a hard time getting accepted at all. Not only do I get accepted and published, but some of my work is published exactly as I submit it, with only a few copy-editing changes, and by invitation at that, so I don't even have to decide where to send it in the first place. You don't need to feel sorry for me, but I would still like a little more comments on what I write.

Special Issue

I've been in several special issues of journals recently in which I have had access to my own article, electronically or through offprints, but not to the entire issue of which my article forms a part. In some cases, we don't have that particular journal in my library. I've already read my article, thank you very much, but I'd like to read those of the other collaborators.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

"I Don't Like Literary Criticism"

My colleague told me this the other day. My first response was "Well, then you chose the right profession." In other words, someone's who writes literary criticism, teaches others to write it, edits a journal of literary criticism, etc... My second reaction was something along the lines of "I, too, dislike it." (Marianne Moore). The obligation to got through novels and plays and what-not, analyzing them, when what we are really interested in, often, is elsewhere, leads to tedium. We all know that, if a book or article is not good, we can always say that the analyses are perceptive, even if they point out things in a routine way that just about any reader might notice. It's damning with faint praise (Alexander Pope). Really, I don't need even a prominent literary critic, like Helen Vendler, to point out things about a poem I wouldn't have noticed on my own. Even if (when) she is very good, the thrill is gone (B.B. King).

I'm not suggesting that we should be doing something other the literary criticism, but that we shouldn't hold on to patterns that just don't serve our needs any more.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Deceptively Easy or Deceptively Difficult?

See an interesting LL post here.


I tried out Pomodoro, a tomato-like application that is basically a timer for your computer desktop. It times work sessions in 25-minute increments (you can adjust to 30 or 35 too), then gives you a five-minute break. Today, in an 8-hour day on campus (8-4), I did 8 25-minute sessions and finished grading a set of compositions, finished reading a book ms. and writing a report on it, read over a chapter in a grammar book for class tomorrow, and read over part of a tenure file. Off the pomodoro clock, I also met with three students and had lunch with the Department chair, where we discussed some business. So I pretty much did a full day's work, without working on any of my own research! (That's great except for the last part.) I did some blog posts and surfed the web a bit, but otherwise was disciplined enough for a day I don't teach. I've cleared my desk of all but teaching and research tasks.

Pomodoro also keeps track of your work sessions. You can create different labels for tasks and chart your work like that. If you don't need productivity tools like that, by all means don't bother. I could do without it, but I find it fun to try. Any change can be motivating, so I can imagine that NOT using it after a while might be a good change as well.

Taking Scholarship Seriously

A prevalent attitude is that the quality of scholarship does not really matter. Just go through the motions, get your publications, be easy on the younger people, etc... Don't worry about how well it's written. "It's just a dissertation, not a book."

The problem is that when I am the reader for work like that, I get seriously pissed off. Two world views collide.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Pullum on the Passive (Again)

In case you missed all of Pullum's previous writing on the passive voice here is yet another piece.

It is fine to use the passive voice. That being said, a book manuscript I am reviewing right now contains far too much passive voice. The dumb prejudice against the passive will persist because some bad writers love using the passive voice as much as they can.