Monthly Archives: February 2011

What do we do when we teach American literature?

“Scholars considering how the field might be revised are not considering alternatives to America as the field’s subject; rather most revisionary hypotheses are offered as improvements in our understanding of America…. To the extent that American literature teaching is practiced for the ultimate aims of forming student character and producing better citizens it incorporates familiar nationalistic aims. The much touted revisionary Heath anthology of American literature, for example, is a passionately nationalistic, patriotic document. No matter how radical or revolutionary the teachers’ aims may be, and no matter how deeply teachers feel these aims, if they hope to produce better Americans, a better America, or even just a better understanding of the real America, then the supposedly suppressed or overturned Whig project continues in full force.”

-Nina Baym, Feminism and American Literary History, qtd. in Judith Fetterly and Marjorie Pryse, Writing Out of Place: Regionalism, Women, and American Literary Culture 216-217

Can the act of teaching American literature ever be anything other than fundamentally conservative? And what do we do when the most compelling dollars-to-donuts justification for the discipline of American literature, the kind that speaks to legislators and administrators, is, as Baym so aptly notes, a conception of American literary instruction as an essentially nationalist undertaking?

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Some historical perspective

As someone who studies late-nineteenth century American literature and the ways it interacts with political, social, and economic conditions of the day, I have a hard time understanding opposition to unions. I try, I do, and I realize that many people see unions as protecting mediocrity and closing ranks around incompetence. I also understand that, as with any institutionalized power structure, some people abuse the power the union provides them with. And the slow process of dealing with teachers in New York City’s reassignment centers makes it clear that union bureaucracy can be crippling.

But while we might question the efficacy and priorities of some unions, it’s hard to take issue with the concept itself. Hard, that is, if you enjoy your 40-hour, 5-day work week, paid overtime, workman’s compensation, and protection from being laid off at whim with no warning, severance pay, or justification. I’ll leave the history of labor in the twentieth century to someone else, but suffice it to say that working conditions at the end of the nineteenth were bleak. Reading account after account of horrific workplace accidents, factory shutdowns that left employees and their children dying of starvation or cold, young children sent to work to support their families, strikes broken by violence and intimidation, and parents working ten hours, six days a week for just a few dollars each week gives you a pretty good sense of what working conditions might be like without unions (and what working conditions are still like in many places around the world). And this same period saw extensive wealth-building among the nation’s richest citizens (in 1890, one percent of the citizens held seven-eighths of the wealth), growth and consolidation of corporations and monopolies, and the expansion of industrial capitalism, none of which did anything to improve working conditions for the seven-eighths of the population that held one-eighth of the wealth.

So when I hear the governor of Wisconsin threatening to call in the Wisconsin National Guard to quell protestors, it’s hard not to think about the Pullman Strike or even the Haymarket Riot. I get the sense that a lot of folks—those who aren’t steeped in this stuff every day—don’t realize the extent of the changes unions brought to American labor conditions. (Of course, there are also plenty of people who do, and the protestors in Wisconsin are getting support from a number of unexpected places.)

On organization

There’s not a lot I can say about organization software and methods that hasn’t been said many times over around the web, but in establishing and tweaking my own organization system one of the things I found most helpful was reading a number of different accounts of people’s organization systems, how they worked, and why the worked well for them. In that vein, here’s how I try to keep track of things.

I know a lot of people swear by David Allen’s Getting Things Done approach, and I’ve periodically considered giving it a try, but its always seemed a little more intense than I was really willing to commit to. At the same time, my Google tasks list was not cutting it. There was not good system for assigning priority, or for breaking down large tasks into smaller ones. “Write prospectus” is not a useful entry to have on my to-do list, but the million small tasks that make up that large one would overwhelm both the list and me.

There are several popular GTD software options (Lifehacker has a run-down here), particularly OmniFocus, but I found them either not customizable enough or, in the case of OmniFocus, too expensive and too daunting. I finally settled on Things, in large part because of this ProfHacker review. The review has a lot of great tips that I won’t repeat, except to say that I adopted the method for hacking conferences and CFP’s whole cloth and have found it exceptionally helpful.

Things lets you organize your to-do lists into areas (for me these include Teaching, Dissertation, Conferences, Home, etc.), and then organize those areas into subdivided projects (I set up a different project for each class I teach, for my prospectus and each chapter of my dissertation, for my writing group, and so on). You can select a due date and priority for each item in your to-do list, as well as assign it tags and include extended notes. You can also set up recurring tasks, a feature I use to remind myself to pick up the CSA box each week, as well as to respond to student comments every MWF morning. All of your tasks get organized into an easily-navigable inbox:

You can view tasks that are due today, or see upcoming tasks organized either by project or by due date. You can also view all the tasks in any given project or area. In addition, Cultured Code also sells a Things app for iPod/iPhone. This is key for me, because it lets me add tasks whenever I think of them. On the bus this morning, I remembered that I absolutely have to do laundry this weekend or else I will be teaching class on Monday in either a bridesmaid’s dress from two years ago or a pair of jeans that I’ve had since high school and a John Deere t-shirt. I pulled out my iPod and added laundry to my task list, significantly reducing the chance that I will forget about washing clothes until Sunday night.

Externalizing every single tiny thing I need to do helps keep my anxiety level down and lets me focus on whatever I’m working on at the minute, because I don’t have the constant nagging feeling that there’s something else I need to be doing. If it’s not on the list, I don’t need to worry about it. This is, I think, the major innovation of the GTD approach, and for certain personality types, it makes all the difference. The downside, of course, is that if I forget to add a task to the list, there’s a very strong chance it won’t get done. I’ve forgotten to take the trash to the curb two weeks in a row. But the slight decrease in short-term retention, which was never all that great in my case anyway, is well worth the peace of mind that comes with systematic externalization.

I’ve found that, like writing, an organization system is most productive when it’s habitual. It took some time to find a system that worked and integrate it into my daily workflow, but once I’d done that, I felt more comfortable committing to more responsibilities and was willing to step up and organize various groups and meetings without the worry that I’d fall behind or forget something important. In other words, I’m more confident in my ability to actually behave as a professional in a professional setting.

On process

At the beginning of this academic year, I set out to significantly revise my writing process and work habits. I’d been tinkering with my composition process for about a year, focusing on laying out the steps of my argument, the evidence, the organization, etc., before attending to the quality of the prose and the smoothness of the transitions—in other words, trying to follow the advice I give my own students and those I consult with in the writing center. After telling writer after writer not to get bogged down in word choice or mechanics until all the bigger-picture pieces were in place and all the necessary connections had been made, I finally gave it a try myself.

Around the same time, I started coming to terms with the fact that much of what I wrote would never go any farther than the text editor on my computer. That if, as I was telling my students, writing really is thinking, I needed to be doing a lot more writing, and I couldn’t expect all of it to find its way into a finished product. I was working my way out of the seminar-paper mentality in which everything I wrote needed to lead up to a paper to be turned in, otherwise I was wasting my time. I started piling up file after file of notes. I tried a few mind maps, and a few plain-text files, but I ultimately settled on a Scrivener document full of nested folders of notes. For a while it was just notes, but now it looks like this:

This new process was considerably more generative. Even better, I no longer had that constant nagging feeling that I’d had an important insight when pondering something on the bus or while falling asleep and then subsequently forgotten it. When I thought of something relevant, I wrote it down. (I also stopped thinking about my work when I was falling asleep, which did wonders for my sanity and general well-restedness.) But that still didn’t address the most important change I wanted to make to my writing process, the one piece of advice every writer will give you: Write every day. This advice takes many forms—Jerry Seinfeld’s don’t break the chain, making writing a habit, using your morning for writing. All variations on a theme: write every day.

I set the arbitrary goal of half an hour of writing a day and then proceeded to completely ignore it about as often as I followed through. Some days, I flip over to my text editor, read the first sentence of what I’m working on, and then go check if there’s any more email or if anything’s popped up on my RSS reader in the past thirty seconds. I do this over, and over, and over again. The half hour goal was intended to lower the stakes a bit—I didn’t need to produce a certain number of words or pages, or work on an actual draft of something, I just needed to write. Instead, it was just another thing I was avoiding in the morning.

I think part of the problem is that if I sit down and open up whatever I’m working on—usually some part of my prospectus draft—and just don’t have the fortitude to get started on it right yet, I often don’t have anything else to turn to. Part of me feels like I should be focusing all my energy on my prospectus draft all the time, which the more rational part of me realizes is a sure-fire recipe for burnout. So I’ve been brainstorming things I can do with my first half-hour of writing when I need to work my way up to the main event:

  • Work on a blog entry—this is one of the primary reasons I’m trying my hand at blogging.
  • Read back over something I’ve already written and free-write about it.
  • Skim through a book, chapter, or article I’m using and make notes about impressions, connections, usefulness, etc.
  • Identify a question or objection a reader might have and answer it.
  • Reflect on my writing process—how have I approached my writing recently? What’s been successful? What can I change?

I’m hoping to keep adding to this list until I have enough ideas to cover all the different forms of resistance and inertia that keep me from starting that first half-hour.

On writing, procrastination, and academic blogging

This blog is a response to several converging circumstances in my sometimes-harried graduate student existence. The first is that I have reached the stage in my graduate career where I need to become a writer. That is, I need to attain some level of discipline absent from the procrastinate-panic-produce-repeat cycle of the seminar paper but necessary to the sustained trek of the dissertation. I’ve been doing a lot of work to modify my writing habits over the past year, with some efforts more successful than others, but my inescapable conclusion is that I simply need to write more. However, there’s only so much I can add to my prospectus draft on any given day, and some days, it’s nothing at all. In other words, if I need to write more, I also need more to write.

The next circumstance spurring me towards blogging is this, which my personal experience heartily confirms. For the first few years of graduate school, I avoided taking on extra commitments or projects, certain that I barely had time to get my required work done. I got everything done, because I always get things done, but I kept feeling as if I were swimming against the current. Then I started teaching my own class and nearly drowned. But once I made it through that first awful semester, I realized what I should have known all along: I always get things done. My type-A neurotic self gets hives at the thought of not following through with a commitment. I was trying to limit my commitments in order to limit my anxiety, but it wasn’t helping. And fewer commitments meant I felt constantly unproductive, which only heightened the anxiety. Adding to my responsibilities over the past year has helped me establish and maintain a much more productive work schedule.

But that need to thoughtfully guard and schedule my time made me a bit wary of the world of academic blogging. It had the potential to be a time-suck. I follow just a few blogs, and even that takes time. What’s more, I wasn’t sure I had anything to add to the conversation. But I read Nate Kreuter’s post on why academics should blog this morning and realized he was talking sense. I do think the work we do in the humanities is relevant, just as I think my own work has its place in a wider conversation about American culture and intellectual history. But I can’t really make much of a case for that connection if I’m just shooting my mouth off with colleagues in a bar on Friday night. A sustained engagement with a broader conversation requires something a bit more formal, but also a more accessible than the classroom or academic journals.

And finally, though as Nate points out, it’s hard to make a case for blogging as scholarship, I think it can serve a necessary professionalizing function. Most of the writing I do as a graduate student is most immediately intended for audiences whom I know well and who know me—my advisor, my writing group, my students. But the really important stuff—fellowship applications, job letters, teaching statements—goes out to strangers. There’s considerable value in cultivating a consistent, comfortable, and authoritative professional voice, and it’s my hope that blogging can assist with that.

So here goes.