Monthly Archives: January 2012

The ups and downs of daily writing

My new year’s resolution for 2012 is to write something or take a photo every day (which, in all honesty, is a bit of a cheat; I’d love to reach a point where I do both daily). I’m setting out to do this for a number of reasons; for one thing, my current position is not one in which I generate much creative work, so I feel a significant lack (which was a big part of why I started this blog in the first place). I also know that engaging in creative work every day eliminates the fear of the blank page, and leads to better work simply by dint of volume. It’s highly likely that in a stack of a thousand photos, at least one of them will be great. In a stack of ten, it’s not so certain.

Sustained engagement in creative activity also makes the process more fluid. With photography, the more photos I take, the better my eye for detail, and the better my muscle memory for creating the perfect settings. With writing, my voice becomes clearer and less forced, and I find that I have more and more that I want to say. I finished my dissertation relatively quickly in part because I wrote every day, and I have had many conversations with students, colleagues, and friends (especially @ekfletch) about treating creative projects as work (rather than as mysterious flashes-of-genius that somehow flow through one’s passive fingers). Still, it’s not easy to do, especially when the goal is more nebulous than a dissertation and has no clear endpoint.

I now have at least three (four?) posts that I have started and not yet finished. I started each because I needed to write something, or because I had finished reading something and wanted to jot down a few thoughts about it, but I haven’t felt committed enough to them to really figure out what I want to say. The unfinished posts are unsettling to me: I like to finish what I start, and I don’t like letting projects linger untouched. What I suspect I need to learn now is which ideas are worth working on, and which ones to drop.

I just read this Wired post by Jonah Lehrer on how we identify our good ideas, and it was a helpful reminder that time away from the thing is one of the most useful tools for separating good work from garbage. It’s something I’ll try to keep in mind, maybe by allowing an extra day between finishing a post and hitting that “Publish” button.

Risk, innovation, tenure… and secret science

With SOPA protests gumming up the internet yesterday (and leaving me prone to distraction by websites like this one), my evening was free to try something new, so I headed to the Bell House to learn a little bit about the universe. Happily, my first trip to the Secret Science Club was a delight, even though I couldn’t get in the door. By the time I arrived, NYU cosmology professor David Hogg had already gathered an overcapacity crowd in the event space, so I figured I’d warm up a bit and have a drink before heading back home.

The premise of the event is simply great, and I love how much of a crowd it gathered.  People kept pouring in, packing the front lounge, all of them disappointed to have missed their chance to hear a free talk about astronomy. (The recent coverage in the Times couldn’t have hurt.) Actually, I love that it was so full that I couldn’t get in. When 8 p.m. hit and the talk began, I was even happier to find that the lounge had decided to broadcast the session into the bar area–so I could stay cozy on a sofa with my drink and still get my fix of black holes and red shift.

Despite all the mysterious talk of dark matter and neutrinos, the thing that stuck with me most (undoubtedly because I had already been thinking about it) is that our current academic system doesn’t really know how to reward good work on theories that don’t end up holding water. Hogg emphasized the importance of taking risks in order to do truly innovative work, and noted that many times such risk is at odds with the academic credentialing system. Incorrect theories don’t result in published papers, lines on CVs, or items for a tenure dossier. But without risks and innovative thinking, research will only progress by small increments, because incremental advancement is the safe way to garner professional rewards of publishing, tenure, and promotion.

I like to think that at their best, funders can help encourage innovation by cushioning the financial risk that accompanies professional risk, and also by providing a certain validation of the work being done. Still, what matters most in the academic system are academic credentials. As means of scholarly communication are changing and tenure dossiers are beginning to look different (for instance, the recent MLA convention featured a workshop on evaluating digital materials for tenure), I hope that we might be in a moment when the credentialing system is undergoing some changes and is therefore a bit more pliable than usual.

But it’s hard to know how exactly to fix the problem. What would a tenure and promotion system that fostered risk and innovation look like? How can universities incentivize inquiry and exploration that may not result in a provable theory? These are major questions relating to systems deeply embedded in university structure, so I don’t expect simple answers. Still, I find some hope in the fact that the question is being raised not only in academic circles by incredibly smart and thoughtful people, but also at a free science talk at an out-of-the-way Gowanus bar in a room filled with non-specialists who are thirsty to learn something new.

#Alt-ac: Moving toward a broader humanities community

I’m back home in New York after several exhilarating days at the MLA Convention in Seattle. Despite my background in the humanities (I completed a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature at the University of Colorado in 2010), I had never attended an MLA Convention until this year. The surprisingly positive experience that I had, plus the mere fact that I made the decision to go this year, suggest the deep and exciting changes that are taking place within the association and in the humanities community more broadly.

Two main topics contributed to the unique atmosphere of this year’s convention (and have already received a ton of attention): alternate academic careers (#alt-ac or #altac) and the digital humanities (#dh). (Note! While there are many areas of resonance and overlap, they are not the same thing.) Neither needs another triumphal account of how it will Save the Humanities; still, I came away with strong favorable impressions of the ways these two topics are affecting the broader conversation, and the people involved in each deserve accolades for the excellent work they’re doing. Though I’m kind of in an alt-ac profession myself, I’m a newcomer to the conversation and don’t pretend my comments can address the full spectrum of the work being done, the people involved, or the issues that have been or should be raised.

As a graduate student, I never attended an MLA Convention because I decided not to go on the academic job market; I didn’t see much use in going to the convention if not for interviews. After completing my degree, I let my membership lapse, because again, I didn’t perceive much value for an academic outsider within the MLA. The convention didn’t sound fun; I had heard tales of a stressful environment, riddled with the tension of people waiting for interviews or presentations, with a cutthroat mentality imbuing even the panel sessions as people viewed one another as competitors rather than colleagues. Plus, the thing is huge, which I thought would make it difficult to connect with people. I decided to risk it because I am deeply excited by the work being done by a number of individuals and organizations, including some recipients of Sloan grants.

What I found when I got to Seattle couldn’t have been further from the scene of tension and anonymity that I had anticipated. As I discussed with Kathi Berens at the end of the conference, I was impressed by the generous encouragement and cheerleading that went on. I heard many, many people credit the excellent work of others during panel presentations, showing a great willingness to highlight good work even if doing so didn’t directly benefit them. People were friendly and happy to introduce themselves, and nobody was particularly surprised by my description of my own work outside of the university (and at an organization largely focused on STEM at that). True, the people I was interacting with most were either on alt-ac tracks themselves or highly informed about the trends in the alt-ac world, so it was a somewhat skewed sample. Nonetheless, I was so pleased that I could jump in and share ideas with people as a colleague, even my email address no longer ends in .edu.

Much of the alt-ac conversation has already been well documented on Twitter (Brian Croxall’s storify gives a good sample), in blogs (Bethany Nowviskie‘s latest entries are great and link to many other useful sites), and in the Chronicle. William Pannapacker seemed to surprise himself, undergoing a sort of conversion experience with regard to alt-ac, digital humanities, and even Twitter; oddly, I can relate to his sense of unexpected elation. I have had enormous respect for the alt-ac and digital humanities communities for awhile, especially as I’ve come to engage with specific projects through my work at the Sloan Foundation, so it wasn’t surprising to me that I was enthusiastic about the work people were doing and discussing during the panels. Rather, what surprised me was the markedly positive tone that dominated many of the informal side conversations that I heard, as well as the Twitter backchannels on many sessions. (The way Twitter was used at the conference was amazing; my experience was deeply enriched by it.)

One transformative idea has really stuck with me, and it’s something I hope the MLA will consider. In his presentation called “Five Questions and Three Answers about Alt-Ac,” Brian Croxall proposed that the MLA shift its membership scope from those engaged in teaching languages and literatures, to those who have studied languages and literatures. I think this is a fabulous idea. Everybody knows the academic job market is a problem, and there are multiple ways that the issue can and (I think) should be addressed (including, importantly, better and different training for graduate students. As I mentioned in my previous post, I think that at least some of the frustration that current and recent grad students feel when facing the job market could be alleviated by improved networking opportunities that allow them to see paths that their peers have taken. Engaging a broader range of humanities scholars under the umbrella of the MLA could really help with that transparency.

Happily, I learned from Fiona Barnett that HASTAC is launching a group that will take a big step toward helping establish such a network. If the MLA could also explicitly broaden their member base so that people like me who are not employed by a university but who continue to feel compelled by and attached to current happenings in the humanities community, the variety of paths that scholars take would become much more apparent. It would be easier to maintain valuable and meaningful connections to people who share values, training, and sensibilities regardless of institutional affiliation, and the community could collectively help one another pointing toward (and developing new) resources applicable outside the narrow(ing) profession of professorship. Not insignificantly, the MLA could also gain dues-paying members this way, and would benefit from a breadth of perspectives that could strengthen its organizational health.

There are many questions that will need to be addressed for the alt-ac movement to continue to grow and thrive. For one thing, unemployment is high across all sectors right now, so alt-ac and digital humanities won’t provide a magic bullet that propels all of us into satisfying jobs; indeed, any job is hard to come by at the moment. Matt Gold (in “Whose Revolution? Toward a More Equitable Digital Humanities”) also pointed out that funding is already concentrating in the elite institutions. The people that are drawn toward alt-ac and digital humanities tend to be the kinds of people who like to get things done, though, so I am optimistic that questions will be raised and addressed in productive ways. The culture of humanities scholarship can start to change if the conversation about it shifts, and alt-ac is helping both to change the dialogue and to accomplish real work.

A great deal of movement is already happening naturally within the MLA community, and the MLA itself is doing a tremendous job in welcoming and encouraging such changes. The leadership of Russell Berman as evidenced in his outstanding address at the convention (excerpted here); Rosemary Feal’s deep and energetic engagement with the alt-ac and digital humanities communities (including an unbelievably active and engaging Twitter feed throughout was must have been an unbelievably busy few days), and Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s crystal clear and eloquent articulation of the issues facing scholarly communication are undoubtedly some of the big reasons that the MLA Convention felt the way that it did. I hope that the energy of these last few days is indicative of a catalytic moment that the association and the community will take advantage of. The timing is right, people are hungry, and a revitalization and expansion of how we understand the humanistic profession will benefit all of us, both inside the university and in the myriad other institutions that we call home.

On scapegoats, opportunities, and MLA occupation

This post is a little different from my usual book chatter, and it’s on a topic that matters a lot to me: the choices that humanities PhDs face once grad school is over. When I started writing the post, Occupy Wall Street was at its peak in New York, #mla12 chatter was revving up on Twitter, and a group of people tweeting under the @OccupyMLA handle and using the #omla hashtag had just begun causing a stir over the lack of tenure track jobs available to humanities PhD grads. As I’ve been mulling over my thoughts on the matter, the circumstances have shifted a bit, but I still want to post a few thoughts.

While the @OccupyMLA group generated a good deal of attention (even eliciting articles in the Chronicle and Inside Higher Ed), ultimately they badly misplayed what could have been a great opportunity to open up a productive dialogue about the state of the profession. Instead of thoughtful critique, the feed was full of scathing posts illogically directed at people in alternative academic professions (famously, “Stick your alt-ac advice squarely in your variorum”), weirdly personal revelations by and about members of the group, and toxic infighting as the members tried to determine the future of the account and the movement it was trying to launch. (Here’s a glimpse into the dialogue; see also this thoughtful rant from Bethany Nowviskie, which includes additional tweets and links to other resources.)

By now the @OccupyMLA account has crashed and burned in such spectacular ways that a number of people in the MLA community on Twitter became convinced that the account was fake (not unlike Rachel Maddow’s insistance that the only logical explanation for Herman Cain’s antics is that he must be a work of performance art). Legitimacy of the account aside, the problem with the @OccupyMLA storm wasn’t the premise; many, many people in the humanities community (myself included) recognize the fundamental problem that PhDs are trained almost exclusively for jobs as professors, but there aren’t enough of those jobs to go around. The problem, rather, was that the @OccupyMLA people were perpetuating the same narrow-minded focus that contributes to the problem in the first place, and they seemed to be looking for scapegoats instead of opportunities. (How else to explain the bizarre stance of seeing the alt-ac community as an enemy?)

Part of the problem with the @OccupyMLA group is the continued tunnel vision that sees only two options: either a PhD lands a tenure-track job (and therefore succeeds), or a PhD does not get a tenure track job and is relegated to the world of contingent labor as an adjunct (and therefore fails). They may allow for a long purgatory between the two, but as far as I can tell, that’s the gist of their worldview. They seem to think the only problem is a lack of tenure track jobs; they think they deserve a tenure track job by merit of having completed a PhD; and they think anyone who has a PhD and does not have a tenure track job is miserable.

They’re forgetting something hugely important: many PhDs who pursue careers outside of academia are happily earning good salaries and benefits in stable positions that provide all kinds of satisfaction, challenge, and growth. The discourse around @OccupyMLA continues a tired conversation that needs to change. As long as PhDs continue to buy into the notion that there is no measure of success for us outside of academia, the mentality will continue to feed back through departments and graduate students, who will continue preparing for tenure track jobs that they may not get and who will become bitter when they don’t know how to do anything else.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the fates of humanities PhDs who, for whatever reason, do not become a part of the academic machine of the tenure track. The most important thing to keep in mind, I think, is the widely varied nature of this group: there are many, many reasons people end up outside of the tenure track, and many, many other paths that they (we) pursue. Too often, however, people who leave the traditional path feel isolated, and have no real means of connecting to a true network of peers who have made similar professional decisions. There are so many people in this position–however, to my knowledge no good network exists to help us connect in a useful way. (I would *love* to see such a network develop, and I’d love to be a part of it!)

While certain individuals and organizations do provide useful and thoughtful perspectives on these issues (including many who will present at MLA this year), the overall tone of the conversation hasn’t changed, and it should. It could be incredibly useful to connect the @OccupyMLA folks (and the large, silent body of embittered PhDs that they represent) with the happy post/alt-academic crowd so that they can start hearing a voice that differs from the one from within the walls of the university.

Happily, in the wake of the @OccupyMLA thread I’m hearing much more constructive conversation on the same topic from a variety of voices (such as this one), and if nothing else, I’m relieved that the community recognized the problems with the @OccupyMLA and sought more reasonable counterparts to direct people towards. It’s going to take a big push to shift the momentum of the dialogue, but maybe the time is right for it to start changing. I know that many people have been working hard on this issue for a long time (Anthony Grafton at the AHA being one great example), but it’s far from enough.

I’ll be heading to the MLA convention in a couple days, and I’m curious to see how the dissatisfaction of the @OccupyMLA group manifests itself. I’m also excited to see the ways in which the MLA and individuals within the organization are working to improve the situation in various ways–whether by advocating for better and different training for grad students to prepare them for much more than the tenure track, or by presenting on other types of job searches and career options, or simply through informal conversations that validate alternative academic work rather than marginalize it. Not because the work needs external validation, but because grad students need to know that there’s so much else out there, and they need to know how to become a part of it.


*Addendum: For an excellent set of #alt-ac perspectives and resources, make sure to check out the #alt-academy project on MediaCommons, edited by Bethany Nowviskie.